Is It All About You?
Every semester I’d follow the same ritual. Holding my breath, I’d carry the large manilla envelopes from the faculty room and seek a quiet place. With great anxiety, I’d read my SOTES (Student Opinion Teaching Evaluation) results from the previous semester. This student feedback is supposed to help me “improve” my teaching methods. Written anonymously, students are given carte blanche to say whatever they want about their professors—much like the online Ratemyprofessors.com. (SOTES are akin to the old method of writing anonymous messages on the bathroom wall.) Students often wrote about my personality and my looks—my hair, clothes, shoes, body—nothing was off-limits. (One student even approvingly and crudely evaluated my backside.) Talk about feeling vulnerable! Teaching college is up there with running for political office; the trolls come with the territory. Some students did manage to comment on my actual teaching ability. Positive comments made my heart sing. When mean and profanity-laced comments invaded the chorus, my singing heart croaked. It took me 15 years, but…I’ve finally stopped croaking. In fact, I’ve learned to be ok with being called every profanity ever invented. Even better, criticism of any kind—from anyone—no longer derails me.
Because it’s not about me–at least not in the larger context. I know. I sound horribly pompous and in denial. But when we invert this statement in the context of receiving compliments and praise, we can see humility and meekness materialize. The first line of pastor Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, says, “It’s not about you.” What a simple and profound observation! This book helped me to recognize my What about me? mentality. Still, I was a slow learner. Time and again, I prayed for divine help to become a more “perfect” teacher; a more perfect leader. My prayer became formulaic:
“Help me, Lord, to please my students, so they’ll follow me and my instructions.” (In other words, Lord, please make me popular, so I won’t have to struggle with students.”)
His reply, “It’s not about you, Julie.”
“How can that be, God? Of course it’s about me. My students expect me to teach and lead them.” (In other words, Lord, please make me emotionally comfortable.)
It’s not about you.
“I’m trying the best I know how to be. I just can’t please every single student.” (In other words, teach me how to please everyone, Lord. That way, I won’t have anxiety.)
It’s not about you.
“But I want them to like me. I want their respect. I want absolutely perfectly positive SOTES. I know I can achieve this through divine intervention.” (In other words, protect me, Lord, from all negativity and critical people.)
It’s not about you.
“But, how can it NOT be about me? It’s my job to lead these students. It’s my job to teach them. It’s my job to be their exemplar. I promise I’ll be a good role model. Just help me, please.” (In other words, silence my critics, Lord.)
It’s not about you.
“But, my desires toward my students are righteous. Make me an instrument; just help me, so they won’t find fault.” (In other words, I’m not strong enough to handle criticism and negativity, Lord. I want life to be neat and tidy. I want to be forever liked and admired by others.)
It’s not about you.
“But what about me? Don’t I count for something? What about me? Boo-hoo. Whaa.” (In other words, it’s all about me, Lord.
It’s not about you.
It’s not about you.
Like I said, I’m a slow learner. (This is one of the reasons why God led me to a career in academia; teaching kids is one thing. Teaching adults means exponentially more criticism.) My good friend and colleague repeatedly tried to console me by saying, “Julie, the troll students who say mean things—their comments aren’t about you. It’s about them.” I could feel the Spirit as she spoke, and eventually, I finally understood. By now, I’m hoping my readers realize this post has little to do with teaching college students. This “What about me?” mindset affects all of us—no matter who we are or what we do. Don’t get me wrong. God helps us to help others as we teach and lead by example. Still, setting a Christ-like example is not really about me. And it’s not about you. It’s about Him.
When at last I understood this, my fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, and pride no longer distorted my purpose or well-being. My self-perception, my need to please—even my life’s mission completely changed. When I stopped asking, “What about me?” I got out of my own way. I stopped tripping myself up. I stopped letting others decide how I’d feel. I stopped trying to drive my own life. I let go and let God take over. Best of all: I learned to be content regardless of circumstance or others’ perception of me.
True Discipleship and Leadership Do Not Seek the Spotlight
Shrill, angry, and obnoxious voices seem to get all the attention nowadays. Today’s culture encourages and often celebrates leaders who are narcissists; their leadership style is all about self-aggrandizement. Because society worships notoriety and fame, leadership and success are often equated with attaining the spotlight and keeping it. There are hucksters and anarchists who—under the banner of civil rights, humanitarianism, or whatever—bleat day and night in efforts to foster contention—to get attention. Furthermore, we are taught to trust our own instincts and listen to our own gut or inner voice. It’s all about the individual; it’s all about “me.”
Of course, Christ’s model for leading and teaching is the antithesis of self. There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-interest, but as we know, true discipleship requires transcending the self. The Lord describes self-centered aggrandizement as a form of “unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121) and we’re all guilty of it to some degree (whether we serve in the home, in the Church, or in the community). Surely, most, if not all of us, have experienced or served with individuals who have used attention-seeking behaviors or seem to have an “all about me” attitude while serving. And, If we’re really honest, we can acknowledge our own self-centered tendencies. The primitive Church suffered from this malady, and Joseph Smith had to deal with a few ego-centric Church leaders. Again, we all have self-interest, so I’m not here to chastise or condemn. Self-awareness, however, helps refine and redefine what’s driving us as we serve. Pastor Rick Warren’s book contains a chapter called, “What Drives Your Life?” These motivating factors are also forms of self-aggrandizement or self-centeredness:
Many people are driven by guilt. They spend their entire lives running from regrets and hiding their shame. Guilt-driven people are manipulated by memories. Their past controls their future. We are products of our past but don’t have to be driven by it.
Many people are driven by resentment and anger. They hold on to hurts and never get over them. Instead of releasing their pain through forgiveness, they rehearse it over and over in their minds.
Many people are driven by fear. Their fears may be a result of a traumatic experience, unrealistic expectations, growing up in a high-control home, etc. Fear-driven people often miss great opportunities because they’re afraid to venture out. Instead, they play it safe, avoiding risks. It’s a self-imposed prison that keeps us from becoming what God intends for us to be.
Many people are driven by materialism. Their desire to acquire becomes the whole goal of their lives. It’s based on the misconception that having more will make us happier, more important, and more secure. Self-worth and net-worth are all the same.
Many people are driven by the need for approval. They allow the expectations of parents or spouses or children or teachers or friends to control their lives. Many adults are still trying to earn the approval of unpleasable parents. Being controlled by the opinion of others is a guaranteed way to miss God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters” (pp. 29-30).
Surely, to become true disciples of Jesus Christ we need to get over ourselves! President Ezra Taft Benson discussed this idea and how people respond to effective leadership. These hallmarks include:
- A humble spirit
- Spiritual inspiration and strength. (As a student at BYU, I attended a devotion featuring President Benson. I’ll never forget his line: “Make sure you’re receiving inspiration, not sinspiration.”)
- Inquiry into the scriptures
- Unity of mind and heart
- Love and expressions of confidence to whom you serve (Teaching From the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, 2014)
Pastor Warren offers his own criteria for “thinking like a servant”—or in other words, thinking like a Christ-like leader:
Servants think more about others than themselves. This is true humility: not thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less. You can’t be a servant if you’re full of yourself. Unfortunately, a lot of our service is self-serving. We serve to get others to like us, to be admired, or to achieve our own goals. That is manipulation, not ministry. Real servants don’t try to use God for their purposes. They let God use them for His purposes (p. 266).
Servants think like stewards, not owners. Money has the greatest potential to replace God in your life (p. 267).
Servants think about their work, not what others are doing. They don’t compare, criticize, or compete with other servants or ministers. Competition between God’s servants is illogical. Our goal is to make God look good, not ourselves (p. 268).
Servants base their identity in Christ. Insecure people are always worrying about how they appear to others. They fear exposure to their weaknesses and hide beneath layers of protective pride and pretensions. The more insecure you are, the more you will want people to serve you, and the more you will need their approval. Servants find status symbols unnecessary, and they don’t measure their worth by their achievements (p. 269).
When Discipleship and Leadership Hurt
I’ll end this post with an experience I had a while back. I serve in our stake Relief Society presidency, and I’ve become good friends with the president, Lynda. She had been experiencing difficulty with someone we worked with and asked me to pray with her about it. A few days later, while attending a Sunday ward Relief Society lesson together (on Lorenzo Snow’s talk, “Church Leadership and Selfless Service”), we both received inspiration in the same moment. The Relief Society instructor read the following story:
Shortly before the end of his mission in England, Elder Snow wrote a letter about an experience he had with another branch leader in the area. He described this leader as having ‘no external faults.’ The man was ‘ambitious in promoting the cause’ and had the ability to ensure ‘that everyone [was] in his place, and doing his duty.’ He was diligent, ‘laboring in the work himself more industriously than they all.’ But despite this man’s outward appearances of faithfulness, the branch consistently had problems that seemed to center on him. Elder Snow tried for some time to identify the source of the problems, and he gently rebuked the branch members for not supporting their leader. Then he began to wonder if the leader ‘may possibly possess some secret, internal working spirit that he [was] not aware of, that [did] not manifest itself openly’ but that led somehow to the difficulties in the branch. Elder Snow recounted:
‘I accordingly prayed that the Lord would give me a spirit of discernment in the case. My prayer was answered; I found the brother possessed of a kind of half-hidden, concealed spirit of self-exaltation which had a suppressed wish to have the honor of it himself; if the appointment was not attended to, he would chasten the delinquent, not because the work of the Lord was in any degree frustrated or that the brother was baptized by a brother, his heart rejoiced not so much because the persons were brought into the covenant but because it was done under his superintendency, secretly wishing no person under his charge to obtain much honor unless his own name were brought into connection.’
Elder Snow observed that if a member of the branch succeeded in a task but did not follow the leader’s counsel in every particular, the leader had ‘a spirit of envy…lurking underneath of an expressed approbation. This spirit was concealed; its fruits were not openly manifest, but would be if not checked; it was an inherent working evil that would eventually destroy his usefulness. It brought upon him unnecessary trouble in conducting the affairs of his charge. Anxious to promote the cause of God, but always in such a way that his own hand might be plainly seen in all things. Ambitious to give good instructions but careful to put his whole name in full length at the bottom of them.
Elder Snow also warned that many people ‘who sincerely believe themselves entirely devoid of this spirit of exaltation, would on close examination of their motives which inspire them in their conduct, discover to their surprise that this spirit was urging them forward to perform many of their movements’ (p. 215).
Upon hearing this story, Lynda and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement. The Lord had just given us a tender mercy in the form of our own “spirit of discernment” by using an example of a man who paralleled this individual with whom we served. Yes, this person we served with had been called of God—even though this individual had a tendency to make the calling too much about the self and self-performance. This answer to our prayer didn’t completely solve our problem. However, Lynda and I knew that God was aware of us and our heartfelt desires. As a result, we felt comforted. Not only that, we resolved not to make the same mistake with the sisters we served.
Here’s to adherence to the Holy Spirit,