05/01/2005

Reaching for Our Deep Gladness

by Ron Elsdon


According to Izzo and Withers (quoted in Values Shift, p.79), "When 1,000 working adults were asked whether they would rather earn high salaries or earn 'enough' doing work that makes the world a better place, 86% chose the latter." Is something wrong here? After all, isn't money the simple yardstick for success? Let's explore the myth of money: First, for each of us as individuals, and then for our organizations.

John D. Rockefeller - the richest man in the world at the time - when allegedly asked, "How much more money do you need?" is supposed to have replied, "Just a little more." Aptly demonstrating the observation that there is enough for our need but not for our greed. Rockefeller went on to observe that money had brought him no happiness. When asked how much Rockefeller had left behind after he died, his accountant dryly replied: "All of it."

The people Izzo and Withers surveyed reflect a commonly-held belief that money need be neither the end nor the measure of success. What does this mean in terms of our lives and our work?

Steven was the principal of an elementary school in an inner city district in the South. His school was in an impoverished neighborhood wracked by poverty and threatened by crime. And yet the school glowed. Students joyfully came each day, and for families this school was a center of their community, offering companionship, compassion and caring. This school of hope and life was fueled by Steven's deep sense of purpose and commitment. This commitment flowed to the staff, the children and the community. It was no surprise when Steven was recognized by his district for his passion and dedication to his work.

Betsy Brewer framed the question of why we work in the context of discovering three interior processes: Meaning (the what), being (the who), and doing (the how). She identified four work relationships people have to their external world:

  • A job: Work based on material rewards, a transaction.
  • An occupation: Work involving greater meaning, but dominated by doing.
  • A career: Work requiring personal initiative, but needing collective approval.
  • A vocation: An intrinsic calling, work directed in the service of a greater good.


I frequently ask career counseling clients where they wish to be in this continuum, and invariably they identify vocation or calling as their goal. This is the journey that Steven was traveling. Defining success, then, is a complex and highly individual process. It often involves movement from the need for seeking and receiving external approval, toward giving and expressing internal preferences. Frederick Buechner (in Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak", page 16) defines vocation so beautifully as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." It represents a wealth of untapped human potential. Indeed, in recent surveys, participants estimated that on average they were operating at only about 60% of full potential. We have so much more to give.

And what defines success for an organization? The answer to this question at the purely economic level is that success is an increase in monetary shareholder value. However, simply measuring shareholder value does not address the underlying purpose of nonprofit organizations; and there are other critical aspects in for-profit organizations to include.

Considering organizations in the broad social network, influencing the lives of employees, their communities, and the destinies of partner, customer and supplier organizations, we conclude that factors other than short-term shareholder value are also critically important. One pre-eminent factor is the social contribution of the organization, the extent to which the organization enhances the quality of life for those in its constituent communities. Indeed this social impact is the essence of the long-term contribution of the organization. Value creation in financial terms is simply a subset of this larger contribution.

The organization makes its larger contribution by being a key link between individuals and communities in which it operates. It is not surprising, having come to conclude that success for individuals is not just about money, that the same is true for organizations. Success in organizations becomes a complex tapestry, with the expression of human potential at its center. In weaving this tapestry let me suggest that we as career development professionals ask ourselves these questions:

  • What is the nature of the relationship among people in organizations? Is individual success in organizations based on the person's growing capabilities and accomplishments over time, or is it based only on short-term transactions?
  • How can environments be crafted that enable each person to reach his or her full potential?
  • How do we create maximum value in our organizations while respecting the needs of each person?
  • What is the appropriate role of the organization in supporting community well-being?
  • How is success defined, both individually and for the organization?
  • How can we ensure that our own life is an expression of who we are?

In asking and answering these questions we can fashion new perspectives that invigorate our communities, our organizations, and ourselves.




Ron Elsdon, Ph.D. is a founder of Elsdon Organizational Renewal and New Beginnings Career and College Guidance in Danville, California. He specializes in career and workforce development, providing individual coaching, career counseling, organizational consulting, public speaking, publishing and lecturing. Ron has many years of experience in the organizational world, has been an adjunct faculty member at several universities and is author of Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization (Praeger, 2003), from which elements of this article were extracted. Reach him at: www.elsdon.com.


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