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forgetting about problems and investing in others.jpg

The picture at the top of this article may be tough to decipher at first. It’s 120 black backpacks laid out in a hotel ballroom. But it’s how we got all those backpacks that I want to talk about today.

Last month, we were running a corporate retreat for a large regional banking company and, as part of the experience, we had them take a couple of hours to invest in homeless families through their local rescue mission. We put all the retreat attendees in the hotel ballroom with tables placed around the room.  And on the tables were assorted personal care items for local homeless families.  Each attendee got a backpack (or two) and then travelled around the ballroom, stopping at the various tables to fill the pack with personal care items (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.).


It was amazing to see!  The room was almost silent as people moved around the room. It had this feeling of reverence -- you could tell something essential and profound was happening. At one table, attendees stopped to write personal notes to the families receiving their backpack. And the things they wrote were so beautiful and expressed genuine care for the people receiving the pack. Attendees then walked around the hotel while wearing the pack they had just assembled. After walking around for a while, they placed the pack back in the ballroom with the others. It was such a profound experience for all involved.


Now someone might respond, “That’s all well and good. I’m glad everyone feels good about what they did, but what does that have to do with growth in our work? As far as I can see, they’re out the time they spent on putting together the care packs, plus the lost opportunity for that time where they could have made sales, plus the money spent on the care packs themselves.”


But here’s the deal.  It turns out that investing in others has all kinds of positive benefits for our work:

  1. People that take time out to help others actually report having more discretionary time and doing better work.  Did the people in the study I linked magically create a time machine? Nope, but the experience of putting their own to-do lists and priorities on hold for a while actually streamlined their lists and clarified their priorities. Thus, they ended up getting more important work (versus busy work) done and experiencing a big shift how satisfied they were with their work.
  2. Investing in others improves our ability to gauge our own effectiveness.  When you commit to helping someone else with their needs, you have to develop an acuity for measuring whether your efforts with them are having the desired result. If it’s mentoring someone, you have to learn how and if your mentoring is helping (and then change your approach accordingly). If it’s taking care of someone who’s sick, you have to learn what they actually need and how they will best receive your attention.  And both of those skills are massively important to business growth.
  3. People who invest in others report feeling a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with life. This is research we’ve informally replicated in a few of our workshops.  We’ll take the workshop group and divide them into 3 groups. Group 1 will write a short essay about the last time they spent time or money on another person.  Group 2 writes a short essay about the last time they spent time or money on themselves. And group 3 writes about what they ate for breakfast (control group).  Without fail, when we survey the groups after the writing exercise, those who wrote about the last time they helped someone else report a higher score of satisfaction and well-being with their life.  And the effect is so strong, they didn’t have to do anything — they just had to remember the last time they did!  The impact on the individual and team is even stronger when they actually engage in activities where they help others. Now, for those of you with a bent toward Human Resources, retention and career advancement, could you see any benefit to having a staff that experiences a stronger sense of satisfaction and well-being? I can.

So, when I’m working with a client, and they have some issue that’s got them all tied-up in knots, I ask them, “Have you tried forgetting about your problem for a little bit and investing in someone else?” 


Now, admittedly, there’s a paradox to all of this: You can’t do it for all the reasons I listed above. If you give to others only so you can get those positive benefits I listed, you effectively rob the experience of its growing properties. You have to invest in others because it shapes the world you want to live in and speaks to your core identity as an individual or company. It’s only when you let go of what you get out of giving to others that the positive change can take place. It’s kind of related to what Stephen Covey was talking about with Character vs. Personality ethics. If the rationale for investing in others just stays on the surface and doesn’t connect to core identity (either as a company or individual), it won’t last. That’s the risk part of investing in others: you don’t know how (or when) it will pay off.


But it will pay off. Those 120 black backpacks are doing good things for some struggling families — even as they grow the work of the people who took the time and risk to put them together.


Do you have an experience of investing in someone else?  What was that like? What did you learn from that? Feel free to share in comments section…