You probably hear talk about creativity from time to time. If you're anything like me, you may have thought, "Creativity is great, but I really don't have time for that right now." Much like meditation, which is really just exercise for the mind, creativity is just something we put on the back burner since we don't see its value in our short-term-focused, busy lives. It recently occurred to me, though, that creativity is actually our soul's expression of our true selves. And "creativity" not just in a sense of what you might be thinking (art, music, painting, etc.). It can come in many, many ways - building new programs in a non-profit from scratch, designing a logo template for a graphic design client, or coming up with an ad slogan for a marketing client. Sharing an idea in an innovative way or creating a lesson plan for a history class. Some of us can be creative in our current jobs, and some of us need to leave our jobs if they are taking too much energy away from our true creative expressions.
I just was at a rehearsal for Pecha Kucha (PK) night (What is Pecha Kucha you may ask? It's a venue to express creative projects, personal journeys, etc. with photo slides- with 20 seconds per slide for 20 slides). Chris (my husband) and I were selected (thank goodness we BOTH were, right?) to present at the next PK night. It will be our first time really baring our souls in public with our personal journeys and it has been an incredibly enlightening process (and come check it out if you are intrigued!).
Originally, I had planned to share my ideas for injecting soul back into the workplace. But as I started the application process, I found myself focusing on my time studying abroad In Senegal, and how that experience changed my life. And as I shared this in the PK practice tonight, I started choking up completely unexpectedly when talking about the kindness that my Senegalese friends showed me. Despite having next to nothing, they showed me such hospitality and generosity (insisting I eat first and preparing incredible feasts when sharing a meal, for example), and NEVER ONCE asking for anything in return.
After I spoke, the PK Board and audience gave some feedback... they noticed how much my Senegal experience affected me, and suggested that I expand on that storyline. They were interested in how I had hoped to "pay forward" the generosity of my Senegalese friends by going into the non-profit field. So here is more of that story:
After I returned from Senegal, I worked in social services on and off for almost 15 years. For a while, I felt like I was making a difference, and I felt good about doing it. But over time, I started giving so much of my energy away, too much of it to the point that it was affecting me in a negative way. To me, this shows that something is wrong with our system of caring for others (a.k.a. the social service system). It is broken. It is the height of tragic irony that social service workers feel so drained, and sometime even resentful, of their jobs and the people they are helping. Do we lose some of our desire for unsolicited goodness just by virtue of getting PAID (and thereby maybe even EXPECTED through our job descriptions) to do good for others? Kindness should come spontaneously, not by force.
My Senegalese friends did not feel depleted, they did not feel sapped of energy. Is it because they had choice in the matter? Or what is simply just their custom that was so ingrained into their culture and who they are as individuals? And it just felt good to treat others as you'd want to be treated?
Regardless of what it is, we can learn from the example of the Senegalese. Goodness simply for the sake of goodness. Does it mean we shouldn't try to get paid for what we do? (Many volunteers help others as well.. and there is something amazing about these people in this same vein...) But there is something else there. I believe that it may be this: we need to show more gratitude and care for the people, the employees, doing this noble work - so much more than we do. And it doesn't take much. Simply THANKING them EVERY CHANCE WE GET, to start. For they give so much of themselves, and for not a lot of pay. Let's not make their lives even harder by imposing arbitrary rules or flexing our muscles as a supervisor in a hierarchical chain of command. Something happens to some people (not everyone, but many) as they rise in power and position... they start to lose touch. The seduction of power and money starts to have more of an influence. It seeps in slowly over time... and is very hard to combat.
It may also be that many non-profits now are trying so hard to prove that they are actually changing people's lives. This is well and good, but many agencies do this by mimicking the worst of the corporate world (endless hierarchies, rows of cubicles, bureaucratic red tape, rigid supervisory chains, and top-down decision-making). And that is a mistake. And even if you can prove that you're changing lives in this way, is it worth it if costs the agency its soul?
We can work on changing our thinking in these environments/workplaces if we choose to stay, or we can just leave. I hope that there can be change made so people WANT to stay. And I hope that if you work in one of these incredible jobs that you can find a way to make some of these positive changes from within. But not if it's at the cost of your wellbeing, your health and your happiness.
Let's just hope that enough of us out there get tired of how it is (especially in non-profits these days), and take some bold action. Don't be afraid of getting fired. Chances are the leadership in your agency KNOWS there is a problem but have no idea how to fix it. And if they do know there is a problem and still refuse to fix it, well then, find a new job (or go to the Board!). I know some of you courageous people are out there (I'm going to do a workshop at one such workplace tomorrow) working to make positive change in this field. I commend this executive director for being bold enough to take this step toward caring for her employees' wellbeing. Let's all learn from her courageous example and change this broken system.