Early in my work, my enthusiasm and charisma opened so many doors and drew the support of so many people. I received positive feedback from people I admired. I wasn't afraid to take risks and seize opportunities. And for years, I felt like I was winning all the time. But there was an aspect of my personality that threatened to limit my potential and derail me in the area of impact.
When I first started this journey, I wanted to help people, but my motives were wrong. The things I was accomplishing fed my pride and my ego. I didn't want to share my secrets or strategies with anyone else. I wanted to be first. I had the vision and the ability to attract people to myself and my cause, and I had the work ethic. By my pursuit of success tainted my motives. I was in it for myself more than for others.
Now I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with achieving goals, charting progress, or tapping into natural competitiveness, I do think it's wrong to be self-centered. And that's what I was.
But you can't really have a life that matters if it's all about you and what you can accomplish. Success is all about what you can do for yourself. Significance is all about what you can do for others.
As John Holmes said, "it is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, consists of others." Significance and selfishness don't go together. So what you need to do to create impact is the same for everyone: you must add value to others. How you do that is as unique as you are. It begins with knowing your why, but it continues with your unique gifts, and values, and opportunities, and experiences.
Self-centeredness is the root of virtually every problem: personally, professionally, globally. And whether we like to admit it or not, it's a problem that all of us have. If you're tempted to think it's not an issue for you, let me ask you this: when you look at a photo that you are in, who do you look for first? You look for yourself. And so do I. We all look for ourselves before we look at others. If the image of us looks good, we say "what a great picture!" It doesn't matter who else might have had their eyes closed, their mouths opened, or their heads turned. Our opinion is based on how good we look.
So, what's wrong with being self-centered?
Self-centered people don't create communities that endure. Selfishly believing that we're not our brothers' keeper is not sustainable. If we want to achieve impact, we need to act intentionally, look beyond ourselves, and put others first. It won't cure our self-centeredness, but it will help us shift our mindset. People of significance value people, and see the potential significance in each person. Publisher Malcom Ford put it best when he said, "People who matter most are aware that everyone else does too."
As a young achiever, I had a very self-centered life. I had a me-first attitude that showed up in every area of my life. But in 2006 I went to Africa for the first time. And for the first time, I was in a place where I was stripped of every title and accolade I had previously used to define me. None of those things meant anything there. No one there cared about valedictorians or homecoming queens or ivy league colleges. All of my "successes" didn't mean anything to them. And at that point, I was forced to ask myself who I was outside of those things. Or who I could be to these people that would make any difference in their lives. And that began a journey of change. I had to be intentional about putting relationships first; about putting people first. As a leader you have to think about others, and what they need. For the first time, I became more preoccupied by thinking of how to help others improve than how to improve my own position. And that's when the real impact began.
When you care about others, and give them what they need, you not only make them a part of your purpose, but you also make a difference in the world.
Strive for significance.