When you do something that is meaningful, a magical thing happens. You feel deeply content. But sometimes it’s a tough decision to get there.
At thirteen Thomas Block knew his destiny. It was to lead the family business H&R Block.
Founded by his father, H&R Block is a global financial services firm with tens of thousands of employees. They were big shoes to fill.
Everything went to plan. For over 16 years, he worked through the ranks of the organisation. Finally, at 40, he succeeded his father as CEO and achieved his lifelong goal of running the company.
But as he sat in his spacious office in Kansas City, he knew something fundamental was missing in his life.
His wife Mary said he was having a midlife crisis. But although it felt like an easy label, it didn’t reflect the build up of little concerns and doubts over several years.
He slept badly and his dilemma began affecting his family life. He read self-help books, got fit but nothing changed. Mary feared for his mental health.
He felt trapped, unsatisfied and isolated, with little social life outside work. He needed to change but didn’t know where to look.
He remembered two almost insignificant experiences that gave him great personal satisfaction. One as a college student when he taught a semester of French to elementary school kids. The other, early in his career at H&R Block, when he taught a tax preparation class.
Teaching became an option that excited him. Especially when he saw a need and challenge in the public inner-city schools in Kansas City, where academic achievement was poor.
It was a frightening and painful idea. If he went down this path, it killed a corporate career and the destiny that had shaped his identity since he was a young boy.
He took time off for a lot of hard questioning and finally made his decision.
“I decided to follow a higher calling: teaching math to inner city kids…the bottom line for me was intensely personal. I wanted to leave my own kind of legacy… I wanted my one and only life to make a bigger difference….”
After only 3 years as CEO he quit.
He started again from scratch, learning how to teach. It was not an easy journey. But the experiences of teaching had such a profound effect, he wrote a book.
“Happiness and usefulness. I can think of no more fitting goals in this short life. And I now know that achieving them is possible.”
Be honest. You have done things in the past that were a waste of time. That doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy it, work hard or deliver. It just means what you achieved didn’t meet an important need. It mightn’t have been practical, relevant or serve a worthwhile purpose. What a shame, such a waste. Make sure you don’t repeat that mistake now when you think about your future.
This happens because when we think about reinvention, we first focus on ourselves. We start with what we know and what we want. It’s human nature.
Only then do we ask, ‘Who will it benefit?’, ‘Who will it affect?’
Both are important to sustain endeavours over time.
Then you will find:
That’s what happened to Thomas Block.
Zookeepers love what they do.
Most people think it’s about being around the animals. But surprisingly, there is little time for that. Preparing piles of raw meat and vegetables, cleaning dishes, sweeping floors, removing trash and tonnes of excrement take up most of the day. It’s long hours working outdoors in all kinds of weather. It offers a minimum wage, has risks of serious illness, injuries and death.
Yet there is little turnover in the jobs and a long queue of applicants for the few available vacancies.
Why? Because it’s more than keeping the animals fed and healthy. It’s about protecting animals for future generations. Educating people about animals creates a community of passionate people concerned for their survival.
Zookeepers are happy to do difficult and unpleasant tasks (elephants drop about 150 pounds of mature a day), because it matters.
You should find something that matters that much to you.
This seems straightforward, but it’s not easy. It will take longer to find, but you’ll build a legacy you are proud of.
So how do we do this?
Ask tough questions.
Anything that solves a problem or meets a need is a benefit. To answer this question, you need to do your research and find evidence. It has to be more than a hunch.
Its longevity will determine the legacy months or years ahead. Ensure it is not just addressing an immediate, short-term urgency.
Knowledge transfer is powerful. That alone can be a great legacy. Seek ways to share and educate. It’s one of the greatest gifts you offer.
We are self-focused creatures. We are drawn to things that meet our needs or solve our problems. If people offer help, money or time, (not just words of support), it’s valuable to them.
It doesn’t matter how relevant it is. There is no point starting it, if you don’t have the drive, commitment and dedication to keep at it every day.
Sometimes little incremental improvements make a big difference. Too often we focus on the big leaps. Keep asking how you can make a difference in little steps.
This may not be your life’s work. But it will stop you doing other things. Imagine the future where you look back at today. Will you be proud you chose this?
If you get clear answers to two or more of these – go for it. If not, it isn’t worth the effort. It’s as simple as that.