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Competence, Balance, and Impact

A friend emailed me, confirming my order for a facial cleanser that she sells as part of a direct marketing company (think Mary Kay). She then remarked that she has much more energy for this work, where she runs her own show and watches the profit and loss statements carefully, than her 9-5 corporate job. In her words,

“It’s late at night and I"m having fun working on my business when a few hours ago, I dragged myself out of my office at 5pm exhausted.”

This is a woman who is a professional in a large high-tech company. She is in a role that requires competence, intellect, and knowledge of corporate politics to survive. She is not a drone on the factory floor. She confesses that a decade ago, she worked 16 hours day without a second thought and now, it’s hard to put in 8 hours.

Here’s how I responded in email:

“What comes to mind is that you can see the impact of your efforts more readily with your side business. And I think we all yearn for impact, especially as we get older. When I was younger, it was about being competent. Now, I still want to be competent at what I do. But that’s not enough. It has to have impact.

And it may also be that like me, you are an entrepreneur at heart. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy running my own show until I left the corporate world. I make a lot less now but there’s a real satisfaction in knowing that I generated every penny that comes through the door.”

This exchange got me thinking. In my twenties, it was all about competence. In my thirties, what I focused on was balance. (Having babies tends to do that to you, real quick.) Now in my forties, I yearn for impact.

My guess is that this evolution is typical of my generation. I’m at the tail end of the Baby Boomers, with a birth year of 1961. I described this evolution to another woman in her forties and she immediately resonated with it.

Could it be that the Gen X and Gen Y workers are more apt to go straight for balance and impact? Indeed, this may be a source of friction in today’s workplaces. My friend commented on this point.

“A lot of the balance that I get from corporate America (e.g. flexibility) has been gained through showing competence. My boss knows I can do the work therefore, if I leave for a few hours to read at my kids school no prob…I call this sweat equity.”

Still another friend remarked that her niece in her early twenties was berating her older co-workers for not having balance in their lives and making time for fitness. It’s unclear whether this young ‘un is considered competent by her boss.

No matter how you get there, impact seems to be what most people want in the end. Impact is intertwined with meaning. In order to perceive that I’m having an impact, I must assign meaning as well. It’s part and parcel of impact. And meaning is defined by me, not by anyone else.

As a young engineer, my work had meaning because I knew I had done my engineering work well, with confidence. But the impact of my work was dubious. Projects got canceled more than once and I moved on to the next hot thing in the company. Meaning is necessary but not sufficient to having impact.

The question I ask myself now is, “What impact do I have on others?” It matters that I performed well. It matters even more that I gave to others in a positive way. I measure impact by the number of people who are affected by my work, as well as the depth to which people are touched/transformed/inspired/changed. In other words, breadth and depth.

And where does balance fit in? After all, balance is fleeting. No one “achieves” balance and puts it under a glass case, forever to be admired. I am always working at balance, and the world is constantly shifting either into balance or out of balance for me. It’s as if I am on my tippy toes, trying to find the right way to cross the narrow beam. With time and practice, it doesn’t feel so scary. I know what corrective movements to make with the rest of my body. But it still requires me to be aware and to proactively make adjustments to remain on the beam. Or fall off.

Without balance, impact turns to burnout. It is by nurturing myself that I can have an impact over time. Balance and impact are in a delicate dance.

Competence, balance, impact. Where are you on your journey?

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