I am a busy person. I'm an attorney, a blogger, a children's book author, a writing consultant, an entrepreneur, and a regular volunteer at my church. Having moved to Los Angeles from the east coast recently, I often wake up to hundreds of texts and emails. Like many of you, I'm constantly on the go. When I do have free time, I fill it with lunches, brunches, and social activities.
I recently started a storytelling company called the Auditory Museum. We believe in the power of shared experiences. As part of our mission, we're committed to using personal stories as a vehicle for social change. Last week, I flew back to the east coast for a friend's wedding. After the wedding, I had a few hours to kill before my red-eye flight back home. Like any good entrepreneur, I decided to sit in the hotel lobby at midnight with my laptop and get some work done.
While crafting an email about the importance of storytelling, I was interrupted by a gentleman who was curious as to what I was working on. He smiled at me and asked me what I was doing. Annoyed that I had lost my train of thought, I gave him a fake smile and explained that I was "working." I then went back to crafting my email. "We live in a culture of moments and milestones..."
Unsatisfied with my icy response to his question, the overly inquisitive gentleman sat down next to me in the hotel lobby. "Why are you working at midnight? What do you do? Where are you from? What's your story?" Now, at this point, the irony was not lost on me. I was so consumed with my task that I had prioritized sending a non-pressing email over the opportunity to engage in conversation.
I closed my laptop and smiled. I told the gentleman about my company, my passion for storytelling, and my desire to create social change through the sharing of personal experiences. He began to tell me his life story. He talked to me about his children. We talked about how his father had never been a part of his life growing up, and how that had lead to insecurities he was now forced to deal with in his relationship with his own children. He told me about his career aspirations, and his experience growing up in a poor, all-black neighborhood. One hour later, he thanked me for my time, wished me luck with all of my endeavors, and walked away.
That night I learned a very valuable lesson. We live in a generation obsessed with self - self improvement, self help, self development, etc. Even in our most philanthropic moments, we look for opportunities to put ourselves in the center of the experience. It's become cool to go on service trips, do lots of self-reflecting, and post Facebook statuses about how the experience has changed our lives.
I don't think there's anything "wrong" with focusing on ourselves. In fact, it's arguably necessary for personal growth. However, self obsession is socially and politically destructive. Having gone on missions trips, I can attest to the fact that serving is definitely life changing. But when we begin to prioritize our own self-growth over creating social change, we loose sight of the bigger picture. The inability to care about people and issues that don't directly affect us has contributed to the extremely hostile, polarized political climate in the U.S. that has defined much of the last decade.
Today, I challenge all of you to identify ways in which you can shift the focus from yourself to someone else in various areas of your life. Pay close attention to the moments and milestones in your life that present opportunities for you to personally invest in other people. Trying to create better eating habits for yourself? Cook a health conscious meal for a friend. Having a good day? Try taking off your headphones during your evening commute on the train, and spark a conversation with the person sitting next to you. If you can't muster up enough courage to talk to people, smile at people. Did you know that smiling is contagious, and scientifically proven to reduce stress and improve health?
If you want to make the world a better place, stop obsessing over yourself. Ironically, in focusing on others, you may find that the greatest sense of self-fulfillment follows altruistic behavior. Instead of obsessing over our lives, our goals, and our busy schedules as we work toward burnout, we can often find the answer to life's greatest problems outside of ourselves, in human connection.