Worry about Who You Will BE, Not What You Will DO

Don’t worry so much about what you will DO.

Worry about who you will BE.

This wisdom was shared with me, according to my rather fuzzy recollection, by a professor in my doctorate program. But it was a classmate of mine who really reminded me of the words regularly.

In my early thirties, my professional path was unclear. Because I had an opportunity to earn a master’s while working at a university, I had a good bit of education, but very little actual experience in public education. My experience as a journalist had been important and eye-opening to me, but I worried that it was somehow “lost time” now that I had switched fields. I felt like I owed others an explanation for why my path to education wasn’t more direct.

Then, I had the chance to earn a doctorate – while I was working part-time and staying home with my two children, who were toddlers at the time. I worried a LOT about what going part-time might mean and whether I would really be able to transition back to the career I wanted. (I could, in case you were wondering. The worrying was unnecessary. Worrying tends to work that way, it seems.)

I also spent an absurd amount of time trying to make my doctorate make sense – to justify it in my mind, even though no one in my life was really demanding an explanation at all. I wanted it to make financial sense, and I worried about what it might look like if I never “reached the full potential” the degree and accompanying title represented.

My friend and doctoral classmate – a passionate, quirky middle school teacher with no aspirations of ever “moving up” into administration, reminded me of this advice often, and his reminders resonated with me.

My friend Bill taught me to worry more about who I wanted to BE, instead of just focusing on my next professional move. Bill was a master at BEING. We could all stand to learn from him, I suspect.

Unfortunately, that friend died suddenly a few days ago. And tonight, we had a simple online memorial service to honor his life. A small group of us (there were only 18 in our cohort) shared what Bill meant to us. We talked about his passion for teaching, for learning and for life. We found ourselves smiling as we recalled how much he enjoyed cooking and snazzy hats. And coffee shops. And asking questions just for the sake of finding answers – of seeking truth.

As we talked, I realized anew how far I have come in the last 15 years or so, thanks in part to the advice of both my friend and my professor.

These days, I am honestly not worried about what title I hold. I don’t feel any need to justify anything – my degrees, my professional path, the ways I have and have not “reached my full potential.” Instead, I see clearly who I want to BE – a person who inspires and challenges others – a person who MATTERS, not because of a title but because of how I treat other people. I want to use my talents to make a difference.

I want to be a person who leaves my community better than I found it. A person who does a better and better job of showing up for others when they need me. As cliche as it sounds, this is what I want – to love well and to live well. I want to be a person who takes the time to really listen, and who helps others to be their best possible version of themselves.

I especially want to be there for those who need me most – my husband, my children, my friends, my colleagues. I also want to be a person who remembers those who I have lost and does all I can to honor their memories. To me, this is an increasingly important part of life, and one I take seriously. Remembering the people who are important to us is essential to our humanity, somehow – even in a pandemic, where the remembering and rituals can feel difficult.

I once felt strongly about what I wanted people to call me.

A leading keynote speaker.

A best-selling author and journalist.

A superintendent.

I still have professional dreams, of course. And I plan to keep right on chasing them, in whatever form that takes. But now I care most about who I AM – not what I DO.

Thanks for all the reminders, Bill. You managed to BE one of the very best.

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