6 minutes read – That morning, like most of my mornings, I opened my eyes and looked at the sky through the window. Beams of light were shining on my bed, and I knew it was time to wake up. I usually open my eyes to the question: “What gives meaning to this fresh day of my life—what will makes sense of me?” My answer fuels me throughout the day.
This day was different. Morning introspection turned into heaviness and grief. I recalled that there was a pandemic out there, an experience new to most human beings on this planet! I felt tense but maintained my normal breathing. After all, this disease takes breaths away, right!? Now, what would give meaning to this day?
Beyond all the news about the economic recession, lockdowns, mortality rates, and of course, conspiracy theories, I have been interested in scientific reporting. Also, I am curious about how people are experiencing this unprecedented change in their lives. As a change practitioner, I love to see how people are adapting and adopting to new environments. Personally, I focus on the bright side of this story. The Earth is breathing even more, the gift of life is now more appreciated, the ordinary is now precious, and unity and connectedness are blossoming around the world. This day was different.
I didn’t want to get too philosophical at the beginning of the day, so I ignored this feeling. I pulled myself together, did my morning routines, and began to work. It should have been a great day of working from home with a great leader and a great team. I love what I do, and I enjoy working with my virtual team. However, the good news and bad news of the day made no difference. My feeling was still there.
I came across an article in HBR called That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief circulating on social media. It is an interview with David Kessler, who is the world’s foremost expert on grief. He co-authored the article with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is known for the five stages of grief that inspired “the Change Curve.” I felt what Kessler calls anticipatory grief, which is the “feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain, and usually, it centers on death.” My discomfort was not just grief and fear of the unknown and losing control; it was something more.
In the evening, after I finished my work, I felt the void inside me again. My morning question came back to me: Given all the people who are really making a difference, how can I contribute and make sense of myself while having the luxury of working from home? It was a question of “meaningfulness.” My answer came to me after a deep contemplation: appreciate my small contributions.
While the entire world applauds our healthcare community, there is also praise for the lower-profile jobs that we generally overlook or take for granted. Janitors, garbage collectors, grocery workers, couriers, etc. who are now our first lines of defense and make our lives better. The world is paying attention and honoring those who some view as insignificant or trivial. As I found myself yearning to see myself as a contributor and desperately seeking meaningfulness, I began to pay attention to my little self.
Here are the steps I am taking to appreciate my small contributions:
Don’t miss the big picture. We grow up obsessed with being different, outstanding, big, heard and noticed. What is so important and yet so easy to forget is we are an essential part of a bigger whole. Anything big and significant is a cumulation of small parts that may appear to be insignificant on their own. Since science is now more appreciated than before (right?!), I will draw on it to explain what I mean by the big picture and small parts.
Human-interaction is a large complex system composed of many parts and pieces that connect with each other. These systems are complex because of the dependencies, relationships, and interactions between their parts are nonlinear, emergent, spontaneous, and adaptative to change.
Every individual is a part of our system. The interaction of the individual parts creates synergistic patterns. As N. Arthur Coulter states in his book, Human Synergetics:
Synergy involves the working together of the parts of any complex system; and each person is not only an individual, but a part of the various groups and organizations to which s/he belongs, and to society as a whole. In the synergic mode, a human being acts naturally so as not only to achieve their own goals, but also, whenever feasible, to promote the goals of others, with least impedance to anyone. The Golden Rule – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – becomes not a moral commandment to be obeyed, but a natural and logical consequence of their mode of being, as natural as breathing, sleeping, etc.
Simply put, the behavior of the smallest part of the system might affect the behavior of another part of the entire system. So,remember that we are a significant part of a large system on Earth. We might not be on the first line of defense during this pandemic, but we can add value and positively support change. Our behavior and small contributions during a working day at home in front of our computer help can shape the future of our planet.
Let’s zoom in.
Create a list of your small contributions. Write down all of your tasks and contributions during your daily work and connections with your family and community. Every one is meaningful.
Do not fall into the trap of big and significant. Contributions are not necessarily something substantial and tangible. In complex systems, each part and piece have both tangible and intangible influences on the system; something like managing your stress and boredom or addressing some of your fundamental human questions matter. These days, there are all sorts of jokes and advice on the benefits of staying at home, doing nothing, and saving the world. They matter.
The essential intangible contribution is empathizing with others. Many of us could not understand how some jobs could be lifesavers until this extreme situation. We could not see the wage gaps and inequalities. We could not see the need for unity and collaboration beyond all our differences. More than anytime, we understand how human behavior around the world are similar and universal. We can see each other through each other.
Now, let’s zoom out a bit.
Trace your contributions. See how your small actions can end up influencing the bigger system—the system includes your family, your community, city, country, and planet Earth. Even a few hand-picked choices in your list can make you happy and fulfilled.
Celebrate your small contributions. Acknowledge them, reward yourself, share them with your team and encourage others to share and celebrate theirs. Get fascinated by your ordinary self.
Expand your small contributions a bit each day. Progress is growth. As Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, the authors of The Power of Small Wins state, “of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
You also can exercise the steps above within your teams and organization. Remember, adapting to change leads to meaningfulness, which is making sense of yourself and your small contributions within the environment you are in. According to David Kessler, the sixth stage of grief is “meaning.” As we are all experiencing discomfort today, as we appreciate every single breath, as we are missing the routine normal life that we sometimes complain about, let’s appreciate our contributions. As we are taking our hats off for the healthcare and other contributor workforces, let’s remember that meaning and adoption to change happens through everyone’s small steps.
Let me finish with Adam Grant‘s statement here:
When we are lonely, we feel invisible. One of the most powerful ways to fight it is to help others feel seen.
I hope I helped you a bit feeling seen by yourself. We are all in this together. We are all making sense of our little selves in our big world together.
Now tell me please: How do you feel today?
This is post #4 of the “Human Side 4.0™” series. See beginning of the series here.