I absolutely LOVE this post, Mediocrity Starts with ME (humor) by Vu Le on Blue Avocado, a fantastic online magazine for the nonprofit sector. Although the post is six months old, I think it will (unfortunately) be one of those timeless posts that will always ring true. Through his witty and dry sense of humor, Vu asks us to take a breath, take a look around, and… take a nap. Chill out for a minute!
As nonprofit staffers, we are fully committed to the missions of the organizations we work for. We are working tirelessly to make the world a better place for our clients and our peers. We work long hours and pour our heart and soul into our work. All that is great – until we burn out. Vu poignantly and emphatically encourages us to give ourselves a break. Although we all strive for perfection in our jobs, doing our best is and should be good enough. We can’t all be the Jane of all trades to everyone – and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be. Calm down and know that you, doing your best, is enough! You are a nonprofit unicorn!
To quote Vu:
The Nonprofit Unicorn’s Mantra
“I am a nonprofit unicorn.
I try each day to make the world better.
I am good at some stuff, and I suck at some stuff, and that’s OK.
There’s way more crap than I can possibly do on any given day.
On some days I am more productive than on other days, and that’s OK.
I know sometimes there are things that I certainly could have done better.
I know that I can’t make everyone happy or spend as much time as I could on everyone.
I know there’s a bunch of crap I don’t know.
Sometimes I make mistakes, and that’s OK.
I will try my best to learn and to improve, but I’ll also give myself a break.
I will be as thoughtful and understanding with myself as I am with my clients and with my coworkers.
I am an awesome and sexy nonprofit unicorn.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself!
My friend Melissa and I are going to be the keynote speakers at a benefit dinner on Sunday and our adrenaline is pumping! There are so many directions we could go with our talk, so many messages we want to portray. As the founders of a university student organization, we’ll have a whole bunch of eyes and ears ready to take in what we have to say on Sunday.
As I was thinking about what we could do for our speech, I tried to think about the best speeches I have ever seen – the ones that have made me laugh, made me cry, or really resonated with me and struck me to my core. I recognized a pattern: all of the speakers were authentic. They didn’t all speak the most eloquently or come from the same background. They knew the core message they wanted to portray and they went there, without apology. Melissa and I went off that concept and are sharing moments and stories from our childhood and our time together, in the hopes that our speech will be a little bit more of a conversation.
Thinking about this also made me realize the importance that staying authentic has in so many other ways and places. In the workplace, with friends, and even at home, being yourself will give you the most confidence and happiness in the end. It might be uncomfortable to always be completely open and honest and yourself (especially at work, with your boss), but let me tell you from experience that it’s worth it. Because you might actually get what you need. And even if you don’t, you know you tried your absolute best and can move on.
I just finished reading I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) by Brene Brown and I couldn’t help but think about the ways we should translate Brene’s ideas into the nonprofit sector. The book’s core is about shame – the ways it effects people, how it manifests in one’s actions, and how we can better address it as a society. Shame is not an easy topic to talk about, but that just proves how important it is.
In the nonprofit sector, emotions run high and resilience can become tough. We are all working our hardest to do the best work we can, and sometimes, we can let our frustration get the best of us and lash out on others. This is a defense mechanism – in our minds, by shaming someone else we are somehow lifting ourselves – but something that we should all pay closer attention to. A little bit of compassion can go a long way in the workplace, and will ultimately allow us all to do our best work in a supportive environment.
Brene’s work is very interesting and I encourage you to take a look and consider how shame plays a role in your life. Because the more self aware we are, the better work we can do.
Today marks four years that I’ve had this blog and let me tell you, my third year was definitely my hardest so far. As you may remember, I received my Masters in Nonprofit Administration in December 2013, right before my blog turned three. I was inspired and ready to tackle some important issues about nonprofit sector effectiveness. And then… life happened. I got wrapped up in the day to day happenings of being a Donor Relations Manager at a very busy nonprofit and almost all of my thought about nonprofit efficiencies switched to wondering how I could stay sane at my job. Then… things clicked.
I realized that while I still had passion and interest in sector-wide issues, the issues I was dealing with on a daily basis weren’t as pretty, and were just as important (or even more important) to talk about. As nonprofit employees, we have a very unique set of challenges and issues to deal with. In years one and two of this blog, I focused more on posting about that. Year three, as I hoped to continue my journey into academia related to the nonprofit sector, unfortunately fell short. But I want to make a renewed commitment to come back to this blog and talk about the nitty gritty of handling yourself as a nonprofit employee. How can we all work hard, thrive, and still go home with some energy? I’m still learning myself, but I hope I can start some dialogue here to get us on the path to some shared ideas.
So, thanks for being patient with me. In year four I hope to tackle some important issues that we all deal with, and bring to light some not-so-pretty subjects. That’s the only way we’ll all get through this journey alive, and at the end of the day, we all hope we get out better than alive! We hope to get out thriving!
P.S. I updated my layout, headshot, About Me blurb, and About Me page – what do you think?
I’m currently participating in a six week series on Metta, or loving-kindness meditation. Lately we’ve been focusing on self-love and last week we reviewed the very important concept of forgiving yourself.
This is such an important thing to remember in the workplace too. As Millennials in the nonprofit sector, we have a trend to be too hard on ourselves. We know the good we want to do in the world and the potential our energy, skills, and insight brings to the table. We want to change the world and we know we can.
So when we slip up, we get very frustrated and mad at ourselves. We worry about how it looks to our colleagues – looking like we don’t know what we’re doing might be the worst thing we can imagine. Our professional reputation is extremely important to us. We feel it dictates our entire future. It defines us.
The truth is, everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are what make us human and teach us how to deal with issues as they come up. Getting through a slip up can cause you to learn so much and be a better person. It can teach you resilience and professionalism. It can teach you how to be a better employee and a better manager.
So, this is a call that we must forgive ourselves. Forgive ourselves for any mistakes we have made at work. Ten years from now, none of this will matter. Will it matter ten months from now? Ten days from now? Likely not. Forgive yourself and let go of the past. It will liberate you to move forward with your work in a brand new way. Don’t worry: you’re still changing the world.
Like most Millennial nonprofit employees, I have always been a dedicated, hard worker, even working in the trenches. I’ve put my head down and charged through the work. I’ve voiced my opinion in forums where I was allowed, mostly in department meetings, but unless I got my manager on my side, my point of view never really seemed to have much pull on an organizational level.
I always craved that seat at the decision-making table, the chance to speak my mind, and to make change in my organization. In short, I wanted power. I assumed that with power came great responsibility, which came with stress, discomfort, and difficulty.
Yesterday I came across this post entitled Powerful People Are Happy. The concept is that along with power comes the ability to be authentic. You are in control of things and you can be your true self. And that, in turn, makes you happy.
I get that. But I wonder if we might be able to translate that lesson to the rest of us who aren’t directors. We should consider the way that us lower level staffers can maintain control and power in our own programs. Even something as “small” as the donor database – something that you manage, that is yours, and that you have power over. I hope that will allow you to be authentic and allow you some happiness, too.
Working in a nonprofit is hard work. As much as we can pay attention to how to be happy at work, we should. Read through the article, but be creative about how you think about power, and think about how you can apply it to your role, no matter whether you’re working in strategy or in data entry.
As our world becomes more and more fast paced, the role of stress in our lives is increasing. We are expected to get better results, faster, and more easily. This expectation carries over into the nonprofit sector. Funders, donors, and clients are expecting quality services to be readily available, effective, and easy to use. Nonprofit employees would want nothing less, and have similar lofty expectations and goals for their own work and themselves. They are passionate about their work and the people they serve, so naturally they want to deliver their services in the most efficient way possible and help as many people as they can. They work hard to achieve success and they take a lot of pride in their work. Unfortunately, when expectations get out of control, there’s a very bad consequence: stress.
I recently took a course in Nonprofit Human Resource Management for my Masters in Nonprofit Administration program at University of San Francisco and did my final paper on the ways that Human Resources departments can address the problem of the role of stress in the lives of nonprofit employees. I first administered an informal survey (to my delight, I received 158 responses!), and the paper reviews some of my very interesting findings from this.
At the end of the paper there’s an addendum that is a short takeaway for Human Resources departments to take.
I wanted to share this paper and addendum on this blog because I see you all, my readers, as my community, supporters, and champions of the sector. You have seen that this is a topic I care deeply about, not just for my personal sanity but also for the health and sustainability of the nonprofit sector. We need to address this problem!
Click here to see my paper, and please let me know if anything great comes of it!
I recently came across this article about a stress study done recently that produced an interesting finding: higher level employees are less stressed than lower level employees. This finding jives with what I found when I did a study on the role of stress in the lives of nonprofit employees. My data was self reported, unlike the article’s data which measured biological symptoms of stress, but nevertheless, the outcomes were similar – entry level employees were some of the most stressed out ones.
This sounds counter-intuitive at first. One might assume that with more responsibility comes more expectation, more to do and more stress. The study actually came to the conclusion that with a higher amount of control – something that higher level employees enjoy – the level of stress decreases. This is a great argument for the power of empowering lower level employees and instilling in others a sense of responsibility and ownership in their projects.
I have another idea. I’m not saying I’ve proven this in any sort of research project, but it’s just my postulation. We know that stress is most often self-imposed. I’d like to argue that higher level employees have more life experience and more awareness about how to manage stress. They have tools in their toolbelt and can identify when things are getting sticky.
Not to mention the concept that Millennials – the group that is entering the workforce right now at entry level positions – is made up of overachievers, perfectionists, and ambitious workers. We put very high expectations on ourselves, and that is manifesting in stress. And that needs to stop now!
I encourage you to be proactive about managing your stress, no matter where you fall on the food chain. I thought this article was interesting because it’s causing us all to think differently about what stress is and the role it has in the workforce and in our lives. It’s turned our traditional definition of stress on its head. And since stress is such an abstract thing that should really be paid attention to and analyzed, that’s just where it should be.
Like most things I write about on this blog, responsibility is a double edged sword. At face value, it’s a great trait – it proves you have the expertise, knowledge, and experience to manage projects. I’m definitely one of those people who strives to have more and more responsibility, even if I’m in a low level position. There’s something thrilling knowing you have total ownership of a project – that you did all the research, planning, and follow through for everything. You know every component inside out, and you can vouch for the project, no matter what.
Although it can be fun to have responsibility, it can also be exhausting. If anything’s wrong, your reputation is on the line. You have to take into account everyone’s opinions in your decisions, and answer to them when things don’t go their way. And you have to do the work! Responsibility can be very difficult.
It’s been tough for me to learn this, but I believe I have – responsibility is not something I need to go after all the time. Especially working in a nonprofit, the more responsibility you volunteer for, the more you’ll have. And it won’t necessarily reflect in your title or your pay. Before you know it, you’ll be working on very complex projects from start to end and won’t have anything to show for it. Of course, you are gaining experience, which is priceless. But honestly, I’m at the point where experience just won’t cut it. If I’m going to take responsibility for something, I need to be compensated for that.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, and I’m happy to help in any way I can. But I’m learning the lesson that I can’t kill myself working when I don’t have a higher title or higher pay. It just isn’t worth it. All I can do is what I was hired to do, and do it the best I can. And go home at night knowing that I won’t have to answer all the critics the next day.
On Sunday I participated in an all day silent mindfulness meditation retreat. I’ve been doing a weekly mindfulness class for six weeks now, and this was part of that program (I wrote a little more about mindfulness in this post). Each week we’ve learned a different form of practicing mindfulness meditation, whether through mindful eating, yoga, the body scan, or sitting with awareness. The class, and learning about mindfulness in general, has opened my eyes to what being present is, and how living in the moment can truly help bring everything in balance. It’s really helped me with my stress management.
Before the retreat, I was very curious about how the day would go. We were instructed not to speak or even make any eye contact for six hours. The facilitator guided us through the day, giving us a suggested schedule to follow. The longest we had ever practiced in class was for 30 minutes. I couldn’t imagine participating in mindful meditation from 9:30 – 3:30 on my precious Sunday!
Well I did it, and it actually wasn’t too difficult. I was worried that my overactive mind would be running the whole time and I was scared of the idea that I would be trapped with my thoughts. Actually, over the course of this class, I have trained my mind to be a little less overactive and a little more intentional. The point of mindfulness is not to clear your thoughts, it’s about the ability to see them as temporary and impermanent. So you can move on to the next. And nothing feels like a crisis.
My biggest lesson? That I probably could have achieved the same feeling that I got from six hours of practice during a thirty minute stint. I think that’s a good lesson for most things in life as well, and a great reflection on why perfectionism is never necessary. You can do your best at work and still be a stellar employee. You can prepare for a presentation for two hours instead of six hours and still knock it out of the park. You can have a glass of wine, a piece of chocolate, or a cookie without going overboard. Balance with moderation is the key.
Perhaps that is the secret to a happy life. Not always doing more, carpe diem, living out loud. In fact, it’s doing less – more mindfully.