Being Important v. Doing Important Work

JCHS Debaters 1982
JCHS 1982: Salina South Debate Tourney

A few days ago, a friend posted a picture of our 1982 JCHS debate squad following a successful tournament weekend. In the photo, we are gathered around a few trophies. Our expressions range from glee to terror to indifference. I am the terrified one.

At 15, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I had to offer or who to become. The future was not secure.

I felt I must become someone important to make good over the scowling and derision I’d known.

Fast forward a few years and I am in a similar beginning. These days terror has been replaced with semi-anxious discovering. Calmed only by a new realization: I no longer wish to Be Important. Rather, I want to Do Important Work. To live well in community.

This brings me no closer to answer “what’s next?”. It does break the chain of Trumpian fanaticism to be seen, admired, and applauded. Freedom to include “contributing to community” and “preserving environment” as Important Work has made all the difference.

Is it more important to lead a Fortune 500 company than to lead and serve a family? Do tasks of great and witty reporting outweigh the work of home and serving unseen people in hard places?

What makes work…what makes people “great”?

Again, great wealth and notoriety do not a great person make.

Great talent and trophies fail to guarantee a grand and happy life in the same way grinding poverty does not dictate despair.

We all know – and likely have succumbed at times to act as – people who desperately want to be important. Known by inserting themselves, diminishing others, and jockeying for position in ways which would make Machiavelli blush, these folks reveal their weaknesses quickly. Self-aggrandizing and posturing eventually play out badly. Trust me. No need to scrabble for significance.

Let’s think a minute.
Who are the people who encourage and equip us?
What stations in life have they achieved?
What actions – tasks completed – foster strength, love, joy, hope, giggling, and community?

I’m a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, Adalai Stevenson, and Betty. If either happened to mosey by, I’d fangirl like a nerd at Comicon. No doubt.

Each are known by their work for a greater good over their own singular benefit. They have given much, at times been overlooked, and still significantly impacted their culture.

Their greatness is not measured in one grand sweeping gesture, but in their everyday ordinary decisions. They treat(ed) people with respect, dream(ed) big, and “get the work done.”

Abraham Lincoln’s important work is well known from the Emancipation Proclamation, to devotion to his family, and creating the enduring USDA. He was fallible and yet humble. Brilliant and largely uncredentialed. His work-over-time opened the gates for all Americans to enjoy Constitutional rights. He did not toot his own horn.

You may not know much of Adlai Stevenson, once Governor of Illinois, presidential candidate, and United Nations Ambassador. He was also known for wearing shoes with holes…as a presidential candidate no less.  Yet Adlai Stevenson has been described as “the voice of a reasonable, civilized… America” by historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. No small task in turbulent times.

Fewer know, Betty. She will hate this outing of her awesomeness, but here goes: Betty is brilliant. She is kind. She is strategic, welcoming, and focused. She gets things done. She neither toots her own horn nor shies from small tasks. She is like a rampart: fortifying an organization and community. She reminds me to live well, do good, and not wait for applause. Betty does important entrepreneurial and people-work everyday.

Our life is so short.
And uncertain.
We have one history-over-time to cultivate relationships and a body-of-work.

Will we be known for our reign of terrible self-importance or for the wealth of important work done over time?

It takes derring do to live for others.
Any scowling simpleton can live for him/herself.

Let’s be brave. Let’s do the important work whether it is within our Fortune 500s or in the quietness of listening to an old forgotten person sing. This good life requires all of our derring do.

Movie recommendation: Eddie the Eagle. You get Hugh Jackman and a feel-good story of a far-sighted Brit who’s chutzpah and derring do had him ski-jumping in the 1988 Olympics. (“Can he pull off the impossible?”)


3 thoughts on “Being Important v. Doing Important Work

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