Eight years ago this week, I "celebrated" my return to Chicago after living in St. Louis, Missouri for several years. (I don't remember the exact date, to be quite honest - it's been a bit of a blur). However, in reflecting back on that time in terms of my own nonprofit career, I remember a powerful piece of wisdom - a kind of zen-flavored proverb - which was the best advice I ever received.
Some years before, I served on the board of Metropolis St. Louis as its Leadership chair, providing volunteer board/leadership development for young professionals. Part of that was overseeing the Metropolis Forum, then funded by the Danforth Foundation, which put on trainings and events. One of these - focused on time management - was held at the St. Louis Fire House. (Yes, I know this is a Chicago Now blog; I'm getting to the point shortly). As I sat in attendance with the Forum's director (a former co-worker), we were both surprised to hear the presenter make this statement as a way of thinking about time management:
"You can have anything you want; you just can't have everything you want".
At the time, I was adjusting to life working as a substance abuse prevention specialist, eventually leading to running a clean air program in a very dysfunctional work environment. Combining that with my activities on various boards, I was a bit stressed. Hearing advice which suggested that I needed to set priorities and allocate time appropriately (as per the presenter's suggestions) served as a wake-up call. It meant that despite the often hectic, improvisational nature of nonprofit work, I needed to determine what was important to me short-term and long-term...
...meaning moving back to Chicago after my father's passing and my mother's impending transplant. When I returned, I wanted the status quo of my previous life: a good job in tobacco prevention, a lively social life....but it didn't happen that quickly. In fact, it mean compromises, hard work, and being willing to make choices. (Knowing that I could have anything, but not everything, meant knowing where to put my emphasis). In time, I had a slightly different lifestyle: working for a startup marketing firm, getting involved with Net Tuesday to keep my hand in social change, and working towards building a life similar to my previous one.
It's easy to focus on achieving all of our goals: for nonprofits, fulfulling its mission in every aspect of life; for social entrepreneurs and social ventures, unlimited business growth with unlimited impact. But knowing we can have anything - but not everything - empowers us to make better choices, to achieve more ambitious goals, to not limit ourselves. It provides a well-needed sense of perspective - in my own life, it has meant making the choice to launch my own marketing consultancy, knowing I can reach for lofty goals, but that I must focus on those which are most important to me. (It's also meant that I have eschewed the "plugged in" life - work should complement, and not replace, my "regular life". I have also learned that in dealing with the expectations of others, I have to strike a balance between accepting those aspects over which I have no influence....and understanding that not everyone can share my personal mission, but that sharing a common mission helps drive our acceptance of others.
Like many other social change agents, I have lofty ideals and grand ambitions. But long ago, back in a fire station in St. Louis, I received great advice about learning how to set priorities, scale my ambitions, and most importantly, achieve a kind of zen balance in my life. I'm hoping that this message is one that can resonate with others.
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