I listen to NPR in the morning as I get ready for work. There is a regular feature on that show called "This I Believe" in which listeners get to read essays they have written about something they believe in. I have debated writing one, but I have had some difficulty in limiting myself to a single essay. There are too many things in which I believe strongly. In the past few weeks, the idea has been percolating in my head and I have found a good candidate.
It is actually three closely related concepts:
Doing what you believe in, choose the difficult right over the easy wrong and always do your best.
Former pro football player Pat Tillman is in the news again these days. After the 2001-2002 football season, Mr. Tillman turned down a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the US Army. The 9/11 attacks had a powerful impact on him and he felt compelled to join the military to fight for our country and against terrorism. Mr. Tillman and his brother Kevin (a pro baseball player) became members of the Army's 2nd Ranger Battalion. He participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and was re-deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, where he was killed by friendly fire during an ambush after his battalion was split into two units.
Not long after Mr. Tillman joined the Army, people commented that he was crazy for giving up all that money to make very little money in the military. Except that it's not about the money. It's about what he believed in. Mr. Tillman decided that he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life than to play football on Sundays. So he put his football career on hold while he became a Ranger. Unfortunately, he didn't survive his second tour to the Middle East.
People talk about what they believe in, but they rarely give up much of anything to do anything in support of it, much less give up several million dollars. Heck, Americans can't manage to give up overeating in order to become healthier and reduce their risk of heart disease, cancer and stroke. It's one thing to talk the talk, it's another to walk the walk.
I have not made anywhere near the financial sacrifice that Mr. Tillman has made and I certainly haven't died for my job and am unlikely to do so. However, I decided years ago that I wanted to work in public health and be a public servant. I could, with my degree, make six figures working for a pharmaceutical or insurance company, in a job that would be little more than data analysis day in and day out. It would be highly unlikely that my job would result in any sort of impact on the lives of anybody in any noticeable way. Instead, I work for a state health department and hope to work for the Centers for Disease Control eventually, if not elsewhere in the federal government. I investigate disease outbreaks, make recommendations for curtailing them, and participate in regional and statewide disaster training. I still do quite a bit of data analysis, but I actually am able to see the impact that my job has on other people. It's not quite as direct an impact as when I worked as an EMT, but it's still there.
I believe in public service, not as some great and noble task, but because it's something I can do to make a difference and something that I'm capable of doing. I may not be able to do everything, but as long as I can do *something*, I feel compelled to do that little bit. Right now my life feels a bit incomplete as I don't have a volunteer gig. I got used to working with the Champaign PD one day a week. Ideally a new volunteer job would occur after work or on weekends, but that would be ok. I certainly wouldn't be interested in giving up every Saturday, but a few hours a couple of times a month would be doable.
Always do your best. Whatever you do, if it's worth doing at all, it's worth doing to the best of your ability. Why just do a half-assed job? Why not do a job you're proud of, even if it's just folding your clothes, waxing your car or stapling together documents? Why save your best effort only for the "big" things? Why not practice doing things well all the time? Raise the bar on what is considered "normal" performance. This doesn't seem to be rocket science, but I have discovered that I am unusual in this respect. I am absolutely unable to do less than 100% at anything I do. I have tried to do a rush job on various work-related tasks, but I always end up re-doing it before I turn it in because it's sub-standard. I have had co-workers who believe that "good enough" is sufficient and "mediocre" is absolutely ok. I can't understand that. Yes, it takes more effort to do something well, but if doing it well once means not doing it over a second time, isn't that worth the effort? Certainly a higher quality job might actually end up being reflected on a performance review at work. More importantly, it might result in greater personal satisfaction with a job well done. Perhaps I'm a bit odd, but I feel a whole lot better about doing a good job than about doing a mediocre job.
The third part is to choose the difficult right over the easy wrong. Figure out what you believe in, then make choices that reflect those beliefs. It is easy to go along with a group and do something you aren't comfortable with. It is difficult in the face of peer pressure or group dynamics to do what you think is right. However, I believe that it is important to not compromise your personal beliefs or ethics to follow the group or to belong or to avoid making the effort of upholding those beliefs. Yes, this can annoy people around you and may lead to some conflict. I look at it as an opportunity to educate them about beliefs, concepts or ideas they may not have thought about or even realized existed. And if the conflict persists and the people around you can't respect that you have beliefs different from theirs, perhaps it's time to find new people to hang around with.