Professional life is often driven by a short-term perspective. I sometimes try to stretch the horizons of my MBA students by asking some provocative questions. “Do you know anything about the character of your great, great grandparents? Did they do anything that is worthy of note? Is there any story about how they lived that you can use to inspire your children? What will your moral legacy be for your great, great grandchildren? How will their lives be different because you lived? What are you doing now to shape their lives? What stories will they tell their children about you? Of all the things you have done in your life, what are the three stories you would want them to know? What kinds of future stories are you going to create? How will your most important stories be recorded and handed down? Will anyone want to read them? Will you be relevant in a hundred years?
Relevance means importance or significance. We often equate it with fortune and visibility. There is another perspective. Recently I listened to a speaker who said, “There is nothing more difficult than speaking at the funeral of an irrelevant person.” She explained that an irrelevant person is someone who has no moral legacy. She said there are resume strengths and there are character strengths. Resume strengths may make you visible but character strengths make you relevant regardless of your visibility. In a similar vein, David Brooks (NYT, 5/11/15) wrote:
It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
I think the separation of eulogy virtues and resume virtues is fine. Yet I also believe that when they are brought together good things happen at work and in life.
I met with a woman who holds what many people would see as a low level job. She is an administrative assistant. Knowing what role she plays, a stranger might conclude that she is an irrelevant person in the organization. Yet over the past years she has often gone outside her job description to help people. When she became aware of the concepts and tools associated with positive organizational scholarship she noted that her peers, at the bottom of the organization, were is deep need of such concepts. She began to organize and teach workshops for her peers in the business school. Soon she was doing workshops across the university.
At one point the bureaucracy reacted to this “positive deviance.” They told her to stay within her job description. People at high levels rallied around her and created organizationally legitimate paths for her to continue.
In a recent visit she told me of a need she was discerning among her peers and we explored how she could develop and teach a new topic. She was excited. As she left, I watched her walk down the hall. At one point she jumped and clicked her heels together. This marvelous woman is building an external career because she is always building her internal character. She is a “positive deviant” and truly relevant human being. Everywhere she goes the organization grows more positive.
How do I create a legacy of relevance?
Who is a positive deviant who animates my organization?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?