To ask, “What is my contribution?” means moving from knowledge to action.
The question is not, “What do I want to contribute?”
It is not, “What am I told to contribute?”
It is, “What should I contribute?”
This is a new question in human history.
Traditionally, the task was given.
It was given either by the work itself—as was the task of the peasant or the artisan.
Or it was given by a master or a mistress, as was the task of the domestic servant.
And, until very recently, it was taken for granted that most people were subordinates who did as they were told.
The advent of the knowledge worker is changing this, and fast.
Knowledge workers will have to learn to address the question, “What should my contribution be?”
“Odd as it seems, you will achieve the greatest results in business and career if you drop the word ‘achievement’ from your vocabulary.
Replace it with ‘contribution.’”
Only then should they ask, “Does this fit my strengths?
Is this what I want to do?”
And, “Do I find this rewarding and stimulating”
The best example of this I know of is the way Harry Truman repositioned himself when he became president of the United States, upon the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the end of World War II.
Truman had been picked for the vice presidency because he was totally concerned with domestic issues.
For it was then generally believed that with the end of the war—and the end was clearly in sight—the United States would return to an almost exclusive concern with domestic affairs.
Truman had never shown the slightest interest in foreign affairs, knew nothing about them, and was kept in total ignorance of them.
He was still totally focused on domestic affairs when, within a few weeks after his ascendancy, he went to the Potsdam Conference after Germany surrendered.
There he sat for a week, with Winston Churchill on one side and Joseph Stalin on the other, and realized, to his horror, that foreign affairs would dominate, but also that he knew absolutely nothing about them.
He came back from Potsdam convinced that he had to give up what he wanted to do and instead had to concentrate on what he had to do, that is, concentrate on foreign affairs.
He immediately put himself into school with General George Marshall and Dean Acheson as his tutors.
Within in a few months, he was a master of foreign affairs, and he, rather than Churchill or Stalin, created the postwar world—with his policy of containing Communism and pushing it back from Iran and Greece; with the Marshall Plan that rescued Western Europe; with the decision to rebuild Japan; and finally, with the call for worldwide economic development.
By contrast, Lyndon Johnson lost both the Vietnam War and his domestic policies because he clung to “What do I want to do?” instead of asking himself “What should my contribution be?”
Johnson, like Truman, had been entirely focused on domestic affairs.
He, too, came into the presidency wanting to complete what the New Deal had left unfinished.
He very soon realized that the Vietnam War was what he had to concentrate on.
But he could not give up what he wanted his contribution to be.
He splintered himself between the Vietnam War and domestic reforms—and he lost both.
One more question has to be asked to decide “What should I contribute?”—“Where and how can I have results that make a difference?”
The answer to this question has to balance a number of things.
Results should be hard to achieve.
They should require “stretching,” to use the present buzzword.
But they should be within reach.
To aim at results that cannot be achieved—or can be achieved only under the most unlikely circumstances—is not being “ambitious.”
It is being foolish.
At the same time, results should he meaningful.
They should make a difference.
And they should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable.
Here is one example from a nonprofit institution.
A newly appointed hospital administrator asked himself the question, “What should my contribution be?”
The hospital was big and highly prestigious.
But it had been coasting on its reputation for thirty years and had become mediocre.
The new hospital administrator decided that his contribution should be to establish a standard of excellence in one important area within two years.
And so he decided to concentrate on turning around the Emergency Room and the Trauma Center—both big, visible, and sloppy.
The new hospital administrator thought through what to demand of an Emergency Room, and how to measure its performance.
He decided that every patient who came into the Emergency Room had to be seen by a qualified nurse within sixty seconds.
Within twelve months that hospital’s Emergency Room had become a model for the entire United States.
And its turnaround also showed that there can be standards, discipline, and measurements in a hospital—and within another two years, the whole hospital had been transformed.
The decision that answers “What should my contribution be?” thus balances three elements.
First comes the question, “What does the situation require?”
Then comes the question, “How could I make the greatest contribution with my strengths, my way of performing, my values, to what needs to be done?”
Finally, there is the question, “What results have to be achieved to make a difference?”
This then leads to the action conclusions:
what to do,
where to start,
how to start,
what goals and deadlines to set.
Throughout history, few people had any choices.
The task was imposed on them either by nature or by a master.
And so in large measure was the way in which they were supposed to perform the task.
But so also were the expected results—they were given.
To “do one’s own thing” is not freedom.
It is license.
It does not have results.
It does not contribute.
But to start out with the question, “What should I contribute? gives freedom.
It gives freedom because it gives responsibility.