Still Composing a Life
After college, I read Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life. Even then I knew I wasn’t destined for a linear career trajectory. My parent’s hope for that smooth path died as soon as I came home from my second year of college and announced I was majoring in Religion. My first generation college graduate/accountant father was especially challenged by my choice. As a current mother of a college student, I am grateful for and in awe of their restraint when I made choices so divergent from what they had hoped for me.
Back to Mary Catherine, her affirmation that for women the rhythm of our lives would rarely, if ever, be linear has stayed with me to this day. As someone with a wide array of interests and curiosities I never had a well defined career goal. When I get in that awful place of comparison and give myself a hard time for coming up short, “Well look what being super focused and disciplined early on could have meant for me….blah blah blah,” Mary Catherine swoops in.
If your opinions and commitments appear to change from year to year or decade to decade, what are the more abstract underlying convictions that have held steady, that might never have become visible without the surface variation?
On my coaching website, I spent some time doing exactly what Mary Catherine says above. When I reflect on career choices, patterns emerge (thank you Strategic strength) that point to some key truths about who I am in the world and what kind of work, regardless of job title, enlivens me. Looking at what could be perceived as disparate experiences by some, I found numerous threads of commonality. It led to a reworking of how I understand and communicate my work history:
When I look at all of my various jobs over the years, the common thread is helping folks connect with the core of who they are. I loved being a teacher and campus minister for a small Catholic girls school. As an assistant chaplain at Bellevue Hospital, I practiced being present to a number of beautiful souls, many of whom had been disregarded by society. I have been in the nonprofit fundraising field for more than 20 years with a focus on raising money for causes close to my heart — healthcare for children and the poor, hospice, housing for the homeless, higher education, after school programs and services for the elderly. Most folks don’t think of fundraising as sacred work, but I do.
Fundraisers serve as storytellers of an organization — its history, its mission, and the people who give it life. Working with donors and building relationships often leads to conversations about meaning, legacy and core values they hold dear. It’s special work.
It’s about the relationships and the ways in which my “job” becomes a vehicle for connection. And in those connections I have the opportunity to invite folks to be more of who they are. For my high school students, it was affirming how they viewed their experiences and their larger questions of meaning. For a patient dying of AIDS in a hospital bed with no family, it was honoring her sacredness and reminding her that she matters and will continue to matter even once she is gone. For donors it can be listening to stories of how their parents, children or someone they loved once needed the help my organization provides and how grateful they remain for that help.
As a Coach rooted in Clifton Strengths, I appreciate how bringing Strengths to the conversation is liberating. By focusing on and celebrating “what is right about people,” the desire to compare ourselves to others or to some ideal image of ourselves if we could just “fix” what is “wrong” with us, begins to dissipate. And honoring the ways by which we have uniquely composed our lives can deepen our appreciation for what is right about us.
To learn more about Mary Catherine Bateson, Krista Tippet, of On Being, did a lovely interview you can read or listen to here.