Last year, a few months into my new role of Admissions Associate at my old boarding school, I realized that I was feeling totally disconnected from the study body. There I was, surrounded by hundreds of teenagers, yet my job in administration provided no direct interaction with any them. Paradoxically, I was getting to know the many students from around the world who would be entering the following year, through reading their applications, conducting Skype interviews, and hosting them for campus visits, but that didn’t help me with the current students. I wanted to be able to wave to kids walking down the hallway because we had built real relationships and knew each other’s names, but that was far from my reality.
Maybe candy could lure them into my office? I thought pathetically. Nah, too juvenile (and borderline creepy).
During that period last year, I was also feeling that I wished I could bring more of my personal interests to my role and workplace. I wanted more of me to shine through the façade of my business attire and job title.
So, I made a list of the things I’m interested in or have experience with:
MEDITATION! That was the ticket.
I decided that I would start a meditation group because:
- I certainly could have benefited from such a thing when I was in high school, feeling the constant pressure to achieve academic excellence and top university acceptances.
- It would force me to continue to expand my own practice, which would definitely be a plus.
- It was unlike anything the school was currently offering, so it filled a legitimate gap in services.
- I would get to connect in a personal way with many more students.
I was psyched!
I asked one of the female house directors if I could make a presentation during her nightly house meeting to share my idea and gauge interest. Despite introducing myself nervously to the 60 teenage girls, I ultimately had 30 girls express interest. I walked away feeling delighted and confident about moving forward.
As the first session grew closer, I was so nervous that I actually typed up a full script of exactly what I wanted to say. Overkill? Perhaps. But I wanted to instruct them as professionally as possible to ensure that they didn't deem me a complete fraud. I mean I’ve meditated a fair amount, and have read a ton about its benefits, but by no means would I consider myself a teacher or expert.
But then I remembered the words my Dad had repeated to me over the years when referring to his speaking engagements to high-level executives around North America: “You don’t need to know everything, you just need to know more about what you are speaking on than the people you’re talking to.”
To be honest, this sounded a little bit deceptive at first. But then upon reflection, I realized what he was talking about was relative knowledge—that even my semi-regular personal experience with meditation put me miles ahead of these girls. Even my relatively modest experience was way ahead of girls who had never even been introduced to such a fundamental meditation concept as keeping attention on your breath can be an effective way to stay focused in the present moment.
There were eight participants my first day, which I thought was an acceptable number. At the end of our 30 minutes together, they gave enthusiastic feedback and seemed likely to return the next week.
In fact, after that first session, the already-small number dropped significantly. It ended up being three diehards who stuck with me consistently, with the occasional other girl showing up from time-to-time.
I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
I was disappointed because I put a great deal of effort into activity preparation each week, committed to introducing them to as much variety of techniques as possible.
I was disappointed because I yearned to make many more connections with students, and that clearly wasn’t going to happen.
I was disappointed because I wanted more girls to experience firsthand the benefits of meditation in their stressful lives.
By the usual standards of workshop facilitation and public speaking where numbers count, I was a failure. We typically gauge the success of such things by the number of participants in attendance, regardless of how engaged they are or how impacted they are by the experience. We actually feel badly for presenters speaking to nearly empty rooms.
It’s awkward. We pity them.
And now there I was, lumped into the category of lame failures. GREAT!
But before allowing too many weeks go by feeling down about this, I made a complete overhaul of my thinking: I realized that we will never truly be able to know what is going on beneath the surface of people's lives, and therefore we will never be able to fully understand the impact we are having on them. This reality is a frustrating one at times, but it is just the way it is. What we can know for certain is how it feels to be suddenly and powerfully inspired to take on a new project or walk a different path. This feeling can appear to have come out of nowhere, with no real logic to it, but it just feels right. That's how I felt about my group, and therefore I chose to believe that greater powers in the universe were involved and nudging me along for a purpose I couldn't yet identify, but was important.
Perhaps there was a girl in that house who was struggling silently with anxiety and it was our 30 minutes together each Wednesday that gave her a brief break from that debilitating feeling and showed her that she was still capable of feeling happy. If that was the case, whether a room of 50 girls or two girls, it didn’t matter, as long as that one particular girl was there. And I needed to trust that she was.
So I chose to focus on the feeling of fulfillment that I received every time the impact of my time with the girls was obvious on their faces, or when I heard their words of gratitude and reflections about how relaxed and grounded they felt. I often walked away feeling elated because I knew that my soul had just wanted to be in service, and there I was doing exactly that. The less than jam-packed room had become insignificant.
At some point, we need to be at peace with knowing that we have given our best, and then let go of all expectations for any specific outcomes. ALL of them.
I knew that I had exhausted all ideas for getting more people there, short of physically dragging them out of their rooms, and that just wouldn't do. Thus, I chose to ignore the negative voice harping in my ear that my group was a failure, that I looked like an embarrassment, and that I should cancel it.
Due to this change in perspective, I was able to end the year feeling like my group had been a success. It felt deeply satisfying to have been of service with my time and my love. I felt proud to have dared to try something new in the context of a traditional school climate where nothing like this had been attempted before.
What about you? Can I challenge you to do some thinking about your own knowledge, skills, and passions, and come up with ways that you could start sharing your talents or learning for the betterment of those around you? Even on a modest scale? Too often we fear taking action, we fear putting ourselves out there, because we feel that we haven’t completely mastered a subject area or skill yet.
How often do we let our own sense of inadequacy—especially when we compare ourselves to others—sabotage our genuine impulse to help?
Don’t let this be you.
Find a pocket of need, and start sharing your gifts and energy (even if there is still a lot you would like to learn).
And remember: You are not a failure if the room isn’t full! You are not stupid. You should not give up. There are a million reasons why people haven’t shown up, and they likely have nothing to do with you. Got it?
People will recognize your sincerity and commitment. And who knows what beautiful and meaningful next step will unfold as a result of your willingness to step out of your comfort zone?
In fact, murmurings of my meditation group found their way to the powers that be at my school and I earned a bit of reputation as being a champion for student health and wellness. So this year, when I had the idea of magnifying what I was doing in my meditation group into one of the mandatory arts and activities in which all students must participate (which would include activities like yoga, gratitude journals, massage, and vision boards), the Headmaster approved it instantly!
This means I’m actually getting PAID to spend two afternoons a week doing the things I love most and I’d be doing anyway in my free time, all the while making a difference in the lives of 12 awesome girls who are desperate for a reprieve from their hyper-scheduled demanding days, and are finally relaxed and at peace in the space I’ve been able to create for them. I also even get a budget to do things like bring in diverse guest presenters like aura readers and sound healers, and buy materials to make lavender eye pillows and mala beads!
It’s the best, and I know for a fact that I wouldn't be here today had I not stuck it out rather unglamorously with my original small group, keeping faith in its value.
Major highlight: The other day parents of one of my "Healthy Bodies Happy Minds" girls approached me gushing with appreciation and positive remarks about everything I was doing with their daughter. That alone totally made my week! And then the mother went on to say, in all seriousness, “You are changing our daughter’s life.” And I could tell she truly meant it.
Does it get any better than that?!
That one comment from a grateful mother was worth the whole year of planning, effort, and time. How privileged I feel to be in a position to be making that kind of impact, and to see that it has come simply through being authentic and following my joy. It's possible after all!
So one last thing before you go: Please promise me that after you’ve followed my urge to start contributing to your own communities in unique and beautiful ways (I know you all will!), be open to embracing a new definition of success.
Bigger is not necessarily better.
Lives may be changing in ways unbeknownst to you as a result of your love and offerings—even if they don’t explicitly come out to tell you so (like the girl in my group).
Be at peace with this.
Simply enjoy the quiet satisfaction that comes from doing something of meaning and of service that comes from a place of love within you. And lastly, may you choose to believe that those who are meant to come in contact with you will find their way there.