Bill Clinton says that when he was President he carried in his pocket a list of things his government had accomplished. Whenever the pressure got too much, when self-doubt would creep in, when critics would take aim at his policies and the failures of his administration, Clinton would take out his list of accomplishments and feel a sense of satisfaction.
All of us wonder if our work leaves any residue of difference, if at the end of the day we have successfully moved the ball down the field (pardon the sports metaphor). I think part of what makes us feel insecure about our work, our time on this earth, is a deep feeling that perhaps nothing we’ve done has made a difference to anybody.
Only at our funerals does the legacy of our lives seem to be affirmed. And we are not there to hear it. I think this is a different problem than self-esteem. There can be too much affirmation, a feeling we need constant re-enforcement to be happy. What I am referring to here is less about helping feel more affirmed and more a feeling that what we do has made our world a better place.
Clinton’s strategy, the list, is a way of reminding ourselves we have something to feel good about and further, it reminds us there is more work to do. If I can see what I have done I can also see what I can do. I am motived to lean in to further work if I feel what I have already done has made some difference.
We all tend to underestimate the impact of our lives. There are family members we’ve supported, work that has given people access to needed services, relationships where love has been made real at critical times, community efforts we have helped succeed. And what I think we miss is less the details of the “success” and more the reason we got involved in the first place. I may have gone to work for 30 years and helped my business meet its targets but underneath there is something my business does that the public needs, my part in that process needs to be named. So for instance my father was an accountant for the Province of Nova Scotia. His job was to make sure all of the hospitals got their fair share of tax payer money to provide health care for Nova Scotians. Dad would meet all the CEO’s of every NS hospital and assess needs, advise the government, and evaluate the results. One way to look at his work would be to say my Dad went to work every day and made sure all reports and forms were properly filled in, on time. Another way to look at Dad’s 35 years would be to say he helped ensure that Nova Scotians living in various parts of our province, including very remote parts, received the care they needed. That would be a helpful reminder.
If you took out an index card and listed what you felt you had done that made the world, your community, your family and friends, better, healthier, more just, what would be on that list? Without going into great detail, just hitting the main points, and connecting the work to the purpose behind the work, what would you say?