As children, we are often asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. I used to answer this question based on the occupations I thought would make the biggest difference in the world. My typical responses were based on the archetypical hero’s I watched on TV at the time, such as a fire-fighter, teacher, policeman, or forest ranger. Back then (I will not say how far back), making a difference in the world seemed within grasp.
As I grew older, a healthy dose of societal conditioning and financial reality slapped me in the face and my answer to “what I wanted to be” changed from those altruistic careers to what I thought I needed to survive. The “Hierarchic of Needs” theory defined by the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow could not have been more accurate. Maslow’s theory states that there is a predictable hierarchy of needs, and we do not move to the next level until the previous need has been met. So here I am, a college student hovering between the two lower-level physiological and safety and security needs. All I thought about was finding a job that would allow me to pay back my student loans, get my own apartment, and purchase my own used car. This thinking led to a degree in Economics followed by an entry level job in sales and eventually an MBA. As a young professional with a growing family, the immediate priorities were to not fall behind on my bills, save for retirement, dress to impress, and survive the demands of corporate America. After graduating with a degree in Economics, these priorities were my focus for about 15 years, and I felt very satisfied.
As my career and family continued to grow, I felt by all accounts I had “made it”. Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked and shifted like I could not imagine. In 2006, I was promoted to a Global Customer Development Director. This position would allow me to travel outside of the U.S. and as a perk, fly business class. I could not wait to get started and even scheduled my first trip to London, England! Before I could travel internationally, the first order of business was to have a routine medical exam. Long story short, as part of this exam, I was diagnosed with an early stage of Prostate Cancer. When my Urologist called to give me the news, he ended the conversation with, “you need a few tests to see if the cancer has spread and it will take a week to get the results back”. That week in waiting turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life and one of tremendous insight. As I waited for the results to come in, I re-visited the question posed to me as a child “what do I want to be when I grow up?”. At first, I began to question if my life benefited anyone except me. While we were doing well financially and my career was growing, I realized that I missed out on a lot of family moments, connections with friends, and that I worked harder to “fit-in” corporate America. I will never forget thinking that regardless of the results, the cancer had spread, and, in this case, it spread to my soul.
It was then that I had what Organizational Psychologist and Author, Dr. Tasha Eurich calls “Insight”. This insight launched the most amazing journey of self-awareness and re-defining what I want to be when I grow up. In her book Insight, Dr. Eurich describes Insight as “the aha moments in our self-awareness journey”. The “aha” moment for me was realizing that while I was successful in terms of material possession and status within corporate America, I was not fully present in my personal relationships and not helping others grow in their careers. This insight led me to go beyond the question of “what do I want to be when I grow up?” to “what do I want to be remembered for?”.
The thought of “legacy” entered my mind in a significant way for the first time. Fortunately, the test results showed no spread of cancer, and I was successfully treated. At this point, I am considered cured of Prostate cancer. Even though the medical concern vanished, the question of what I want to be remembered for was still very much top of mind. I started to reflect on the unique strengths and value that I feel I could provide to help make a positive difference in the world. The answer then became noticeably clear, I want to be remembered for being present in my relationships and showing how compassion and corporate America could co-exist. This became what I now call my legacy statement. As Bill Murray says in the 1991 movie What about Bob, take “baby steps” and that is exactly what I did while keeping my legacy in clear vision. I first put my legacy statement in a place where I would see it every day…my bathroom mirror. I then set small goals of turning away from my laptop when I was on a phone call and applying to be a mentor at my organization. It was these small moments that provided meaning and joy to by daily work and confirmed that I was on the right track. I then began working with a life-coach to help define my core values. Having core values helped serve as boundaries that kept me focused on the bigger picture and my destination. This same life-coach introduced me to the concept of Emotional Intelligence, and we began to do work on mindfulness, awareness, emotional regulation, and communication style.
Years later, I retired from the corporate world and began teaching at the university level. It was there that I began to mentor a college graduate and noticed that my mentee was facing the same barriers I faced early on in my career. As we worked through the barriers, using the principles of EQ with a focus on compassion and empathy in the workplace, it hit both of us that many others could benefit from this style of mentoring. We decided to create a course called “Emotional Intelligence for Professionals” and developed the mantra of “Building Mindful Leaders”. This course is helping to fulfill the vision that I had as a child….to make a difference in the world. On behalf of my former mentee and now co-instructor, Liz Fifield, we invite you to share your legacy and the steps you are taking or planning to take to fulfill your vision. In other words, what is it that you want to be remembered for?
Andy Parks is the Kuolt Professor of Business and a DEI Faculty Fellow at Central Washington University. He is also the co-creator and co-instructor of the Emotional Intelligence for Professionals course. In addition to the full EQ4PROS course, Andy also frequently provides mini workshops focused on EQ and DEI concepts. His mission is to help “Build Mindful Leaders”.