The Ride Home

August 2012

image_6In the 1989 Steve Martin film, Parenthood, Grandma (Helen Shaw) uses the roller-coaster as a metaphor: “…that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited and so thrilled all together. Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around… nothing… I like the roller-coaster. You get more out of it.”

So you made the commitment to join a non-profit board/volunteer committee/ community project. Someone likely caught you at a generous moment, set the hook, got you started, and you are well into the process. Now the wheels are starting to fall off the roller-coaster. Challenges are mounting, your blood pressure is rising. You say to yourself, “Remind me again, why did I agree to do this?”

Isn’t it inevitable? In so many projects, after the forming comes the storming and then the questioning. Even when you can name a dozen good reasons why you joined this particular cause, you are now having serious doubts.

“Everything can look like a failure in the middle”, says Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. And, from Richard Brown, captain of the schooner America, to Prince Albert of England, 1851, “No one would ever have crossed the ocean if he could have gotten off the ship in a storm.”

Abandon ship, or stay the course? Read on.

Random thoughts on the ride to the meeting: “Why did I sign up to be on this non-profit board/committee/you name it? I have way too much work to do. I’m over committed. This ______ is in the middle of another disaster, and I just don’t have the time or the energy for all that’s on my plate now.”

And on the ride home…. “This organization really does need me, and I guess I need what it gives to me. I think we can get through this challenge. I’m tired, a bit frazzled, but I’m still feeling optimistic and emotionally connected to both the cause and the people. When all is said and done, I’m glad I chose to do this. This work matters.”

Does this sound vaguely familiar? Could this be you, frustrated and impatient before the meeting, more at peace afterwards (not just relieved that it is over)? Two years ago Charlie Maxwell, CEO of Meristem, a Multifamily Office, shared this insight with me: “Why not think about the ride home during the ride in to those meetings?”

At the time, I was groping for a strategy for coping with the “messy middle” of a project I had committed to. I decided to try Charlie’s suggestion, and remembered his words on the way in to a particularly challenging meeting. Speeding along in my car, just ten minutes from the start of the meeting, I imagined, and I felt, the ride home.

At the stoplight I closed my eyes and started looking into the faces of each member of the group. Soon I was smiling. We were thanking each other for what we had just accomplished, for the generosity, for the commitment. I was amazed at how good I felt on that ride in, and the next. When the meeting began, my blood pressure was lower, my optimism and patience higher.

I hope this bit of advice can help you hang in there when you face a similar challenge. The next time you find yourself cursing your way to that volunteer engagement, think about the ride home. It may seem simplistic, and it won’t work all the time, but it is worth a try if you are pulling your hair out and need to see with different eyes.

Community service of all kinds is good for the spirit, good for the soul, good for making connections, good for finding purpose and contribution both when you are gainfully employed and when you are not (most of my clients are executives in transition, and I always encourage volunteerism).

How do you keep the seat belt tight during your volunteer roller-coaster rides? If you would like to offer your reaction/suggestions, here is the link to this blog: