A few years ago New York Times writer David Brooks wrote an article during the graduation season that really struck a chord with me. The article lamented the annual ritual of American colleges sending another class of graduates into the world that hardly sets them up for success – a tough job market, slow growth, all under a dark thundercloud of suffocating federal debt.

Despite tough economic conditions, an even more insidious sendoff does little to help set graduates up for future success. This includes the continuous stream of graduation speeches that encourage graduates to “follow your dreams, polish your strengths, embrace your passions, march to the beat of your own drummer, and remember you’re behind the wheel in driving the success of your career.”

The title of Brooks’s column was “It’s not about you.” Brooks suggests that the purpose of life is not to find yourself, but to lose yourself. He warns that the mantra of expressive individualism misleads on nearly every front. It most certainly may give way to three big distractions in a young person’s journey to success.

The root of the big distractions is a focus on “me rather than we” and includes building your resume as well as an unhealthy preoccupation with WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). What this seemingly innocent focus on self seems to overlook is the fact that most people who are truly engaged, leaders who are consistently effective, and companies that are the role models of success actually spend most of their time focused on things bigger than themselves.

In the words of Bill Taylor, the cofounder of Fast Company, the more executives, entrepreneurs, and talented individuals I get to know, the more I become convinced that true happiness and genuine success do not come from finding yourself, but in losing yourself: “Losing yourself in a company you can believe in, a cause that you are prepared to fight for, and a commitment to a problem that has defied a solution.”

Brooks provides some of the best advice when he suggests “most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life, they look outside and find a problem which summons their life.” The simple message is to be less interested in you, and more interested in the world around you. Most successful leaders, teams, and individuals spend time on things bigger than themselves, their willingness to struggle, and the legacy that they hope to leave. How well you answer this question can be helpful in deciding if you are focused on me versus we: “What is it that you want to create in the world around you (problem or possibility) that does not currently exist, that you are willing to endure personal sacrifice to bring to life?”

December 26, 2008


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