February 3, 2020
Follow along with the interview below;
We’re here to talk about Tom’s latest book that’s coming out February 4, 2020; Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to The World. Tom, you’ve been studying what makes people successful, engaged and happy at work for decades. So, this book is about how all of us can reorient our efforts towards making the most substantive contribution possible over a lifetime. It’s really a book about a whole new way to think about our life’s work. Why was this book so important for you to write?
There are two parts to that question; one is that at a kind of broad societal level, I think we need to build much better and stronger and very different relationships with our work than what most people have on average today. I think most work is actually bad for our health and wellbeing on average. And it can be a huge catalyst for having better health and wellbeing and creating a lot more meaning in society. So, I think there’s a big mismatch there at a kind of macro-economic level that we can talk about more. But what really got me started on this book in particular, which some readers who have been familiar with my work in the past may know, but when I was 16 years old, I was diagnosed with a very rare genetic disorder that essentially shuts off one of the body’s most powerful tumour suppressor genes.
And as a product of that, since I was about 16 years old, I’ve battled cancer in my eye, my kidneys, my pancreas, most recently in my spine – that’s been the most difficult. And so because of this, doctors told me when I was 16, they thought I might live to 35 or 40, roughly. And so, I’ve essentially spent the last 25 plus years trying to build as much life as I could, with the time I thought I had left. And part of that journey was the realization that I may not get to be around forever, none of us do. But the things that I contribute to the growth and development of even one other person do get to live on. So, in recent years what I’ve realized is that we spend so much time on ourselves and personality and the like, but in the end, life’s really a lot more about what you put into it, not what you get out of it. And so, I’ve been trying to find ways, real practical steps, that anyone can take to kind of build their lives and careers around contribution instead of looking inward as much as we often do.
I think you mentioned this in the book too, that when we’re facing our mortality, we tend to turn to things that are more meaningful for us. Things that have a greater purpose. Can you tell us more about that?
Yeah, I think what happens is even when teens face real extreme life circumstances, life-threatening challenges and the like, they’re more likely to emerge stronger and gain resilience. One of the things I learned when I was young and dealing with a big challenge like that is a lot of what other people have invested in relationships with us and what we invest in our relationships with our closest friends and family members. Because that essentially creates a buffer where when you do face these big challenges in life, it’s a lot easier to work your way through it and sometimes even come out of it a little bit stronger where you have a clear focus on how you want to make a difference in the world and not just work through all the stuff flying at you in a given day, which is frankly a lot easier with everything there is to distract us today.
Now, another thing you say in your book, while your talents are nature’s best building blocks, they serve the world best when your efforts are directed outward, not inward.
How we are hardwired to be other-directed or pro-social?
I think a part of the challenge that I see in the modern workplace and also in the self-development field and in literature and books and so forth is that there’s a natural inclination to look inward when we think about growth and development. A lot of people have done good work on how you learn more about your personality. There’s quite a bit of conversation about how people can follow their passions and find their purpose and well, all of those can be helpful inputs in a big journey. I’m not sure that those are the right places to start because if I’m anchoring my efforts around pursuing my passion, that essentially assumes that me and the things I’m passionate about, are at the center of a universe and everything else should kind of circle around and fall in line with that. When in reality, what happens when most of us enter the work world is that we need to figure out how we can leverage our unique talents. What do we enjoy doing? How do we want to contribute with the big needs of the world and the job market and what do people get paid to do out there today? What I’ve learned as a part of my most recent research and the process of working on this book and website is that starting with where you can make the greatest contribution may be a better anchor then beginning with your own personality and passion in mind.
Then, you’re really of service to the world.
I know a lot of people who are not happy because they don’t really feel a sense of purpose or meaning at work. And they feel like they have to quit their jobs, completely change their career and go in a new direction. But you have lots of suggestions of how people could make that shift in their current role. Can you share some of those ideas with us?
Sure. One of my really good friends and past years’ mentors was a guy named Shane Lopez who was one of the world’s leading experts on hope. He passed away a couple of years ago, but right before he passed away, he was working on a book and shared some ideas with me about it and he summarized it by saying great jobs are made, not found. He was describing a lot of the great research there is about essentially crafting the job you have into one that you love. And I think there’s so much work that a lot of us need to continue to do there because as you mentioned, we have the disposition to say, I’m not happy in this job.
I just need a whole new job, a whole new organization, maybe I even need to move, when in reality, in many cases we don’t give our current jobs or our current companies the time and effort to see if it can be something much greater than what we’d originally imagined. And you know, the most common mistake I see is people walk into a job and kind of take this ‘what does the company need from me’ approach? And they end up looking at what other people do in the same role, who have the same expectations or outcomes. And they think that they need to do it the same way, when in reality, most organizations and most line-level managers that I’ve spent time with, they would love for their people to find individualized ways, maybe with different hours, maybe with different techniques, maybe with different processes, almost always with a different attitude and a different personality to achieve the same outcome metrics.
And if one person who’s new to a job can get something done in an entirely different way, with different hours, with a different technique, then more power to them. I think one thing is to try and individualize how you do your job to the outcomes. Another thing is to step back and say at least once a day, how can you connect your efforts with the meaningful contribution it makes to at least one other person? If you’re in food service, can you watch somebody enjoying a meal and smiling or telling someone they like the food you prepared because that motivates you to keep moving? I don’t think we do anywhere near enough of that in the modern workplace today and we need to create kind of self-fulfilling feedback loops so we can see the positive influence of our job. One of the reasons I wrote this most recent book, was that I was just continually inspired by one of my favourite lines from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?”.
I may sound like a big, broad existential question, but I’ve tried to ask myself that question almost every day for the last few years. And I think that question in itself is a great way to anchor your work each morning to say, what are you going to do for others today? And when you begin with that important work, you find that it pushes a lot of the things that are urgent but not really important to the side burner. And in reality, if I invest an hour or two in my daughter’s development and growth this evening, that will count. It will matter and it will continue to grow on.
It anchors things outward. A lot of what I’ve learned for some of the best research in positive psychology and behavioural economics and the like is the more you can anchor your energy, your efforts in your work outward, toward the influence they have on other people, the better you feel about it, the more you can do for others. You become less self-focused and self-absorbed. It’s nowhere near as stressful when you anchor your day around what you’re doing for other people instead of worrying about your own neuroses and needs. Like a lot of us do.
Now what I’m really excited about is that this is not just a book. There’s a whole new system that’s being introduced. There’s an online inventory and there are resources for people who want to get deeper on knowing about their unique contributing style and it’s called Contribify. Can you tell us a little bit more about the inventory and about some of the resources?
My broader aim with this project and the book is just one piece of three or four pieces to help people start a bigger conversation around contribution in their teams and their families. We’ve included a couple of codes with each copy of the book for people to go through Contribify inventory and profile as many times as they’d like. Each time they join a new team or when they start a new job, whatever it might be. And the purpose of that is to give people kind of a one-page baseball card or profile that is a much more human and personal version of who they are to share with another person than a resume or a LinkedIn profile or a job description, which when I stepped back with a group of leaders a couple of years ago, I mean you couldn’t invent something more sterile and impersonal and clinical than a typical resume if you tried to.
I think we’ve got to try and build systems that bring humanity back into the work so that inventory asks people about what the big roles they play in life are. So, for me, that’s being a dad, it’s being a husband and then research and writing are the next priorities and it asks each person about their most influential life experiences, or their miles as we call it. Both positive and negative.
What are the experiences you’ve been through that have really shaped you?
Those serve as good discussion points when you’re joining a new team and you can get to know each other quickly around that. And then we ask people about how they would best describe their strengths in three words. Each person goes through a series of about 50 questions that help them to prioritize how they want to contribute to a given team. The purpose of that is to be used as a tool for groups to say if we’re all gathering together to work on a given product or service, how do we make sure that our efforts are complementing one another and we have clear expectations about how each of us wants to pitch in so we can be more effective for other people?
I really liked my profile when I got it and I thought it was hugely helpful and I think it reminded me about why I do the work I do. But it allowed me a much deeper understanding of the real fulfillment that I get from my work and some of these greater questions can really anchor you in your day. I was really grateful and when I take a look at my miles, I can see those pivotal moments, those truly life-changing experiences and how they’ve shaped what I’m doing today. I think it’s going to be a great tool for people to use and a great tool for organizations to use. One of the things that you said in the book is that in fact, research has shown that many organizations are in fact demonstrably bad, your health and wellbeing. So, I think this is going to be a great way that organizations can shift that and, and contribute more to people’s wellbeing.
I hope it is. And I also would add that I’ve spent the last 5 to 10 years of my career trying to get organizations to invest more in, to care about their worker’s wellbeing, essentially. And it’s because of all the short-term metrics and tasks that organizations are held accountable for. It’s a very difficult uphill climb at a company-wide level and some of the problems, at least in the States, is that it’s tied to a lot of the health and wellness programs that are a part of benefits systems and insurance carriers and the like. But it’s been difficult to get that conversation elevated to the level of employee engagement, employee experience in the like. So I think one challenge for each of us as individuals and as workers in the economy, in addition to being leaders, is that we need to take responsibility ourselves for saying, once you’ve found a job that can pay the bills and put shelter over your head and pay for food and the like, it’s, I think each of us needs to take responsibility and say, I need to make sure that my work is good for my wellbeing.
I’m a better family member because of that. I’m a better friend because of it and that it’s doing something that makes a positive contribution to society and no one’s going to have all of that as soon as they enter the work world. But over time I think you can kind of string the arc of a career so that you have more and more of that at an individual level.
ABOUT CONTRIBIFY [http://contribify.com/ ]:
Contribify will guide you in building an ongoing portfolio of your most formative experiences and the roles you play, as well as identifying where you can make your greatest contributions. This information will enable you to hone your work into something that is more successful and satisfying with each passing year. This book and the new website are designed to match who you are with what you can contribute to any effort, group, or team. The tools on the website are designed to help you gain a better understanding of who you are — for the sake of doing more for other people.