As a child growing up in Nigeria, the youngest of 5 siblings my mother would each Sunday cook a pot of chicken stew to eat with rice. The smallest piece of chicken in the pot – the wing or at times the feet or the neck would be reserved for me. The bigger pieces like the breast and the drumsticks went to my siblings, in order of their seniority. If I even once wrinkled my nose or did not say thank you with a smile, she would gently chastise me – “be content and face your plate Yetunde! There is someone out there who has less than you!” At the sound of those words, I would feel tightness in my chest and the words would choke in my throat as I squeezed them out through gritted teeth – “thank you! “
I promised myself that when I grew up, had enough money and lived on my own, I would cook a big pot of chicken stew with only the breast, thighs and drumsticks in it and all for me. Only me!
That was then. As I reflect on my life today, I notice myself looking over the fence of comparison to see what others have that I don’t. However, when I look to my left and to my right, I notice I’m not the only one. Standing along side me are many friends old and new, all looking over their own fences of comparison. All of us looking out on to a field that holds those things material and non-material that are strived for e.g. the bigger job, car, salary, better figure, more engaging personality, the VIP ticket to the CEO’s inner circle or the boss’s special confidence sharing unit etc. -all those assets that the imagination can conjure up with eager assistance from one’s inner critic.
It took a trip to Ethiopia to remind me of the importance of contentment and a focus on my own purpose and life’s journey. I had the honour of visiting Ethiopia in 2014. During this visit, I visited the home of one of the most impressive women I have met to date. Her home was 100 yards from a rubbish dump and the size of a small room slightly bigger than a broom cupboard. She lived with her four children, the youngest of them named Bethlehem. The rubbish dump provided a source of food and income, as she made sure that she was one of the first to the dump after the lorries had deposited their rubbish to maximise her chances of finding scrap metal she could clean up and resell. In spite of her humble context, she made me feel like a queen. I felt envy as she demonstrated a pride in serving the freshly brewed coffee and popcorn she had made especially for us. As she responded to questions we asked her about her life, her eyes widened and her voice quickened. This was a woman content with her lot.
I reflected on the flight home. It is not from material possessions that we draw contentment. Nor is it from the coveted role at the top of an organisation’s hierarchy. Instead contentment comes from a knowing in my heart, my physical being, the just “knowing” that what is meant for me in life will not pass by me. It comes from knowing that by focusing on my own path whilst wishing others well on their own paths.
When you translate this to the world of work, it is important for a leader to ensure that his or her focus and that of his or her people is on their own paths and the destination of their business with the only side of the fence looked upon being the side of the fence on which the competitive landscape lies. Doing this along side colleagues across the business and working in collaboration with them without the risk of behavioural one-upmanship no matter how strongly disguised will contribute to a culture in which everyone regardless of their status or the size of their pay check is allowed to be content with who they are as people.