Yesterday, I listened to someone trying to decide between opportunities after finishing college. In describing one opportunity, she said something along the lines of “If I don’t stay around to do that, I’m worried it won’t get done.”
In my mind, that took me back to a time shortly after I had finished college. It was the most frantic period of my life. I was working around 70 hours a week between a formal job and various commitments I had accumulated. I reached a point where I got an infection in my mouth that the doctor said was stress related. I ended up taking a retreat to evaluate all the different commitments I had made. My aunt suggested I listen to a message during my retreat. I don’t remember now who the speaker was, but the message was about overcommitted people and what often drives their motivations.
As I listened to the message, I knew I was over-committed, but all along I thought I was just trying to be responsible. In fact, the book StrengthsFinder 2.0 indicates that one of my strengths is responsibility. Here’s how that book describes this trait:
Your responsibility theme forces you to take psychological ownership for anything you commit to, and whether large or small, you feel emotionally bound to follow it to completion. Your good name depends on it. If for some reason you cannot deliver, you automatically start to look for ways to make it up to the other person. Apologies are not enough. Excuses and rationalizations are totally unacceptable. You will not quite be able to live with yourself until you have made restitution. This conscientiousness, this near obsession for doing things right, and your impeccable ethics, combine to create your reputation: utterly dependable.
Obviously, responsibility is a valuable trait to have, but it seemed to be pushing me into commitments that were hard to extricate myself from. I wish I had known at the time about how Tom Rath finishes the description of “Responsibility” in the StrengthsFinder 2.0 book:
When people come to you for help — and they soon will — you must be selective. Your willingness to volunteer may sometimes lead you to take on more than you should.
But there I was with all these commitments I had made and all I could think about was: if I don’t do these things, they won’t get done. The more I thought about it though, I realized that what I had perceived as noble responsibility was actually a bundle of pride, fear and a desire for approval that ended up compromising the quality of what I could contribute to those commitments.
A short time later, I resigned from my job and got out of nearly all my commitments (and then took off for graduate school). I still kind of wondered how things I was doing were going to get done without me around.I thought that again when my boss told me it would be almost impossible to replace me. But it wasn’t long before someone else was sitting at my desk with their name where mine used to be. And other people stepped up in all the other commitments I had. They didn’t do things the way I would have done then, but things got done without me.
And that was exactly the lesson I needed so that I could learn to make (and keep) commitments from a more healthy position.