What Should I Do? A Multicultural Answer

February 10, 2010

I am currently teaching a new course at Montana State University called Leadership Foundations. Thirty students ranging from 18 to over 40 are exploring together what it means to be a leader while learning some core skills.  As part of the course, each student must devote 10 non-class hours to some type of volunteer activity where he or she can practice leadership.

One of these students, while struggling to get those service learning hours accomplished, asked, “How do I know what projects are worth my time or which ones I should give up on?” She added, “Just how much energy do you put into something that looks like it is going to fail?”

Considering these questions, I recalled two others that guide my decisions on where to devote my time. When I am wrestling with what to do or not to do, I like to ask myself:

  1. If I were really brave, what would I try?
  2. Would I do this even if it might fail and others might reject me?

Reframed these questions could also be:

  1. What would I do if I knew I would succeed?
  2. What would I do anyway; no matter the final result?

The first question asks me to rise to my highest and best while the second makes sure I am doing something for the right reasons. My ego loves success and to have everyone love me; so, sometimes I can be drawn to a project if it might make me look good or bring some adoration – that’s seductive stuff! But, I am really at my best when I contribute happily regardless of what might be the ultimate outcome.

Steve Jobs, we learned in an earlier post, asks himself in the mirror each morning, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?” It seems that Jobs incorporates my two questions into one. I believe he is asking, is it bold enough, fun enough, substantive enough or right enough to be doing?

My friend David Baum taught me a similar centering technique derived from the Jewish tradition. He subscribes to an ancient proverb that says you should always keep one piece of paper in each of your front pockets. On one write, “I am part of the Divine,” and on the other scribble, “I am nothing but dust.” The wisdom comes, David reminds me, in knowing which to pull out of your pocket to guide your actions during your day.

Your appropriate next step in Buddhism is often called “right action.” In Hinduism it is referred to as “selfless service.” In both traditions we are counseled to be brave enough to get involved in life, and at the same time not to get attached to our desired results. To answer the inquiring Leadership Foundation student, these philosophies would say if the project will succeed or fail should not drive your decision. Instead the question should become, is it worth doing, would your involvement be of value to you, and to the world?

I am drawn to people who have clarity around right action. Today I was reading aboutthirteen indigenous grandmothers who have been gathering twice a year around the world to find ways to care for our future generations. In closing, I invite you to watchGrandma Bernadette as she describes why she has chosen to be part of the 13 and devote her time to their efforts.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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