About a year and a half ago I made a decision that changed my life, both professionally and personally. I made a decision to “do work that matters”; and more specifically, to ONLY “do work that matters”. That is a pretty fuzzy concept and people close to me did not hesitate to let me know.
A good friend with a shrewd business sense who has a high-level position in corporate Calgary put the screws to me by saying, “That’s all well and good, but how do you plan to get ‘work that matters’? Shouldn’t you really define what that means before you decide that you are going to do that and only that? Besides, you are an entrepreneur. Sometimes you have to do work that pays the bills.”
I knew that for too long, I had done work that pays the bills. Modesty aside, I have a fair number of employable skills, including office skills, technical skills and writing and editing skills. I have also spent almost two decades teaching and facilitating. Then there is the research work… But something shifted. I felt compelled to stop focussing on the skills I have, and start focussing on the values I hold.
I also knew she was right about defining what “work that matters” means. So I asked myself, “What matters?” Here is my answer:
- Doing work that relates specifically to education, leadership, community and literacy.
- Working with others to create transformative change for the better.
- Building capacity in others, helping them grow and realize their potential.
- Using a strength-based, asset-based approach in all my work.
- Working with like-minded, highly capable people who share similar values.
The last one turned out to be the most important. Not long after I declared that doing strength-based work matters deeply to me, I was asked to do a project focussed on a Needs Assessment. That is really a fancy term for, “Help us figure out what we need.” The idea is that after the needs have been identified, that you can go about meeting the needs.
A strength-based approach says, “Let’s start by assessing what we already have. Let’s start with the question, what is working well?”
This kind of thinking turns everything on its head. When you insist on examining what is already working well and conducting an inventory all your assets, the result is strangely powerful. The conversation shifts away from what is lacking, what is wrong, what problems there are to be fixed and how terrible things are, to a conversation deeply rooted in strength, resilience and hope.
I started having conversations with friends and colleagues about using strength-based approaches at work, at home and in just about any situation. At first, the conversations were difficult and awkward. I felt like people thought I was naive and out of touch with the real work. I kept reading and educating myself on the notion of asset-based approaches to work, community, leadership and education.
I started partnering with others who were interested in doing similar kinds of work. We began looking at Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for projects that we thought were a precise fit with both our technical skills and our values, in terms of using a strength-based approach to our work.
I can’t give exact details yet because we have not signed the contract yet, but I got word this week that I will get to lead a team of consultants on a major project that fits with all the values that I outlined just over a year ago. The work is amazing. The people we will get to work with are visionaries. The possibility for change is high.
We have all the technical skills we need to do the job. That was not enough though. What ultimately landed us the contract was our clear emphasis on our values. We put a stake in the ground and said, “This is who we are and what we stand for!” Every single one of the values I outlined above come into play for this project.
I think I have finally figured out that a combination of excellent technical skills, solid experience and unapologetic declaration of values is really what allows a person to love the work they do… and do work that matters.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.