In a career that experienced many enigmatic ups and downs over the past 20 years, I had numerous discussions with my parents, friends, contemporaries, leaders (and yes, even my spouse); about what should be considered doing too much, just enough, not enough, or too little?
When I began high school, my parents recognized fairly early on that I had good survival instincts and was quite responsible; so I was not given excessive hand holding regarding dating, forming relationships, etc. In fact, other than the mandatory parochial message in school, I never had to sit through the "birds and the bees talk" either. Generally my parents and extended family had a more pragmatic approach than an idealistic one. Rather than stating, “It is best to wait until you’re married!” their general advice was; “You do anything that stupid, you’re on your own, I’m not taking care of him/her/them for you!” By the time I began college, I had pretty much eliminated (or at least tentatively alleviated) those concerns. I had convinced my family that I was pragmatic and conscientious overall, so they generally were not onerous or oppressive.
I started working at the age of 16 and 4 days, and I worked as an intern for three years in undergrad. As I went on to get my masters at a good university; I continued interning for an ad agency, three publications, and a PR firm and was a student member of three professional organizations while studying and completing my thesis. So after checking all the boxes (in triplicate), I innocently went up to at the professional starting line where I got on my mark, got set, and started sprinting into the rat race to get my career rolling.
By my thirties, I had been working hard and diligently toward an upward trajectory on a solid career path. I successfully adapted to a job market that was declining in the early nineties, and overcame multiple areas where my academic background became less relevant due to downsizing of markets, changing technologies, etc. and on multiple occasions, I went back and learned new skills. In early 2002, after being laid off from a job and having very little success for months, I made a conscious calculation to would work harder and gain experience by doing everything possible to professionally develop even if it were unpaid. To become more agile in my communications career, I chose to volunteer in roles that would maintain my resume and keep my portfolio current. This seemed logical after I had been in that role a few months, I discussed it with my family.
I was a bit alarmed when their advice sounded more to me like what I expected during adolescence. Their point of view was actually disapproving. With over a decade of experience, they considered my working pro bono being metaphorically comparable to doing "it" on the first date with someone. They did not see how it would increase my odds of getting any potential employment or career advancement from volunteering. Their logic: "Why would they buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?"
Although discouraging, (even depressing); I fought this philosophy with all my heart. On some level, it felt like a question of integrity; or that I needed to hope that there was some value in actually doing something without expectation and without any assumption that it could have any long term positive result. So I decided while feeling very self-righteous; (and frankly, because I simply do not idle well); during a slightly tight and underemployed period in my career, I decided to volunteer full-time.
I have received amazing satisfaction in helping others. I have been able to assist people so devastated that they were on the brink of truly giving up. Others were traumatically devastated and/or incredibly damaged physically, spiritually, mentally (or all of the above). I can currently think of multiple people who through simple acts of kindness were helped and affected in a healing and improving way. For each of these occasions, that was and is more than enough reward.
When my career took off again, I continued to volunteer for multiple organizations and on multiple projects on my own and with my employer. The ones in support of my employer(s) seemed to have value at least on the surface. There appeared to be positive outcomes for each employer and some of these actions even seemed to have great impact on our community. There was always a caveat however. It was extremely rare to receive any appreciation and acknowledgement from managers or leaders for those efforts. Let me be clear, I even received specific blow-back from the same people who received accolades themselves from leadership for the volunteer work I did. Some of my political capital may actually have been devalued by them because I was too generous with my time and/or effort which in their eyes made me appear to be an insecure chump (or simply a gullible idiot).
Sometimes in life (and in a career); a time comes to have a personal epiphany and simply make a conscious philosophical choice; one that may or may not work; so this year, I did. I decided that positive gain and the overall improvement of the world is simply worth it. Even if a company or an organization’s leadership are truly dismissive and even condescending to those who give for the sake of giving; it is still worth it overall. I am confident that as I lead more and more projects, people and organizations in the future; I will continue to succeed in helping my clients, companies and contemporaries grow to appreciate their own people and each of their proactive efforts to improve themselves through helping others. If I succeed, perhaps more voluntary proactive efforts will come about resulting in more of us experiencing the amazing satisfaction that comes from helping others. But frankly; who cares if I don’t overtly succeed. It honestly only takes one individual to change the world for better or for worse. In fact, my overall regrets involve things I neglected to do far more than anything I’ve done. So, since I already gave away millions of gallons of metaphoric milk for free at this point, what’s a few million more going to hurt?