If you’ve ever watched a group of toddlers playing together, you might have noticed that each of them is wrestling with one of the most fundamental of tensions – self and other. Namely, the desire to meet my needs while also attending to the needs of others. In the mind of the toddler, the question is: How do I get to play with the toys and also share them with the other kids? No toddler gets this exactly right at first. Some hog the toys and have trouble making friends. Others give up their toys too easily and have difficulty standing up for themselves. But eventually, children begin to learn how to integrate this basic polarity. Healthy, well-adjusted adults manage to meet their needs and attend to the needs of those with whom they are in relationship.
I’ve been thinking about this paradox lately. And I’ve begun to notice that I still have an underlying preference for self. Despite my efforts to be generous and kind, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that the primary, subconscious question I am most often asking is: What’s in it for me? I believe this is true for most people, even those considered to be the most thoughtful and caring.
Last week, I had a presentation that I had to deliver to a large group. I was anxious about it as I hadn’t had much time to prepare given how busy I’ve been. As the date of the event approached, I began to notice that my concerns were all coming from a focus on self. I was preoccupied with looking good and performing well. I was afraid of not being at my best. I was worried that I had taken on too much and that this wasn’t going to be a good use of my time. These were all understandable and legitimate concerns. But I realized they were all about me. I had completely missed the fact that this was an opportunity to impact the lives of about a hundred people, not to mention the tens of thousands of people in the organizations they serve. When I began to shift from focusing on self to focusing on the group I was going to present to, I started to ask a fundamentally different set of questions. How can I serve? How can I impact the lives of these people? How can we have fun together? In an instant, my whole mood transformed. The presentation became a privileged opportunity to give and to contribute. Nothing had changed about the event. But something huge had shifted in me. When we move from self to other, a new world is disclosed. We stop playing not to lose and start playing to win. (By the way, the presentation was a home run.)
Take a look at your week ahead right now. What are you dreading or anxious about? What if you shifted your focus from self to other and asked a different question? What would be possible?