I recall one conversation with a coworker that left an impression on me. Alex (not his real name) was complaining loudly and brazenly for anyone to hear.
“If the company is flying me all the way to Australia, the least they can do is make it a first-class ticket.”
Alex was scheduled to teach a class to a group of Australian engineers, but apparently the logistics for this outing weren’t what he had expected.
“They should allow accommodations that are amenable to the way I live my personal life,” he asserted.
Surprised by this, I asked, “Do you regularly fly first class?”
With a mischievous grin, he responded, “No, but they don’t know that.”
I recall another occasion – this occurring far, far away from a corporate headquarters – in a rural Tanzanian village classroom. Ninety students were squeezed into the space. Despite the hundred plus degree temperature there was no relief from the oppressive heat in that crowded room. Instead of desks, the students sat at shared tables. Some students were even forced to share a chair as there just weren’t enough to accommodate all the bodies. As I turned away from my students and began walking back towards the chalkboard, I was momentarily distracted by a movement overhead. I glanced up in time to see a large rat running along the ceiling beam directly over my head. I prayed it kept its balance. And I considered with awe my students who were grateful to be here. All of these students who wanted so badly to learn that they were willing share a chair with their neighbor in a stuffy, rat-harboring classroom in hopes of an education.
Sometimes when my vanity begins to get the best of me and I’m starting to self-aggrandize, I ask myself a simple question: “Do I want to be like Alex or like my students?” Am I going to allow myself to just feed my ego? To work the system and make demands? To require others to satisfy my indulgences and whims? Or will I choose the path of my students? To appreciate the opportunities as they are presented. To extract fulfillment and meaning, even during difficult circumstances, and be grateful for the opportunity to better myself.
Admittedly, some days I succeed and some days I fail. Sometimes I act like my students and other days I default into being Alex. Perhaps almost as important as making the right decision on how to behave is realizing the fact that this is a choice. Each of us is the product of a million small decisions made every single day. I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to experience life in very different circumstances, as the distinctions in attitudes and values become glaringly obvious when taken to the extremes. My experience of teaching high school math as a Peace Corps Volunteer left its mark such that it impacted the way I delivered classes to engineers as a corporate trainer. And as I sit here writing these words and pondering their impact on my life, I can’t help but think this type of grateful reflection is something my students would do. And so, I know this small decision is the right way to move forward.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.