As a child, I grew up with the notion that I wanted to do great things. That my mark on the world would be significant. By that goal alone, the past 12 months have been the most fulfilling period of my life. A few months ago, I woke up one Saturday morning and stepped into the shower. I spent the next 20 minutes crying uncontrollably. No matter how hard I tried, it would not stop. Everything seemed to be going so well, but all I could feel was loss. Why? Though I was making my mark on the world, I’d forgotten about the mark I was making on those around me.
This week, my grandfather would have celebrated his 90th birthday. From my own interactions with him and the countless stories I have been told, he embodied everything in the word “great.” As a young man in his home country of Malaysia, he excelled in his studies, but he left school before his final year to work and support his family, handing over his salary to his mother every month. At the age of 22, he won the local lottery, worth $5,555. He took the entire winnings and gave it to his family. This was the equivalent of 31 years of his salary at the time. My grandfather was not the perfect human being, but overwhelming messages of support and love can only mean one thing. When he passed away late last year, this was a man who had left his mark on the world.
When people talk about my grandfather, they rarely mention his many achievements. They don’t talk about his successful businesses, the school for underprivileged children that he established, or the fact that he founded the Red Cross society in his hometown. Though his achievements read like a never-ending reel of credits at the end of a film, they don’t define his legacy.
My grandfather will be most remembered for the way he made others feel. He gave time and attention to every person who crossed his path, regardless of their age, wealth or race. It’s hard to imagine that his attention to other people was ever determined by the question, “What can this person do for me?”
The late Maya Angelou once said:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Her words are relevant for every single one of us, but her message might well have been tailored to humanitarian workers. The dilemma that each of us must face is this: is your legacy what you achieve in your work life, or how you impact those around you? The former is not the same as the latter.
Once you invest your energy into a cause, it’s impossible for it not to occupy your entire being. The cause becomes you. For me, my own work has become exactly that. It’s more than a job to me – it’s everything about who I am. It’s fulfilling that somewhat vague childhood notion of leaving a mark behind. Yet, with every gain in my work life, parts of me slipped away. I felt less joy over social events than I’d ever felt before. I forgot important details about friends’ lives. I lost track of birthdays and important events. I even forgot to ask the simple question: “Is everything okay with you?”
I cried in the shower because I had experienced loss. I had forgotten that no matter what it is I want to achieve, being human means being the best I can be to those around me. Nothing else matters more.
People are often surprised just how unfriendly and unhelpful humanitarian workers can be. I used to feel anger at people who, despite being incredibly good at their work, were unable to be cordial or friendly. Now I try to feel empathy. I try to imagine what they might be going through.
How do you break the cycle? There’s no simple formula, but there are some common sense ideas. I noticed the signs of burnout early. I started to work out what it was that I needed to perform well, and I prioritized them. I started to perform random acts of kindness, particularly if there was no way the person was able to repay me. I started to listen, truly listen, to what people were saying.
I started to introduce deliberate moments of emptiness into my life. Rather than waking up in the morning and immediately checking my work emails, I made myself a cup of tea and stared out the window for a few minutes. Instead of obsessing over what I had to do tomorrow just before going to bed, I wrote them down on a list, and then spent at least two minutes thinking about everything I was grateful for that day.
I often wonder what went through my grandfather’s mind when he was alive. Did he ever feel overwhelmed by his work? Did he ever battle with the concept of work-life balance? Or did it just come naturally? Either way, as humanitarian workers striving to leave the world in a better place, one lesson he taught me should always stick. It doesn’t matter what you say or what you do, what matters is how you make people feel.