What Have You Contributed to Me Lately?

In his latest New York Times column, David Brooks reflects on the difference between what we tell college graduates about how to choose their course in life and the reality of how they make their decisions. These young men and women are “sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears,” writes Brooks. “Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”

[EXPAND More]For many of us, though, that’s not in keeping with how we actually make our choices. “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life,” Brooks says. “They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.” A young woman who “finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined” would qualify as an example of this. “This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.”

That word – contribution – was a crucial one to Peter Drucker. “The question is not: ‘What do I want to contribute?’” Drucker wrote in Management Challenges for the 21st Century. “It is not: ‘What am I told to contribute?’ It is: ‘What should I contribute?’”

Like Brooks, Drucker considered many aspects of the baby-boomer worldview formed in the ’60s to be misguided. “People were told that ‘to do one’s own thing’ was the way to contribute,” Drucker noted. “This was, for instance, what the ‘student rebellion’ of 1968 believed. . . . To ‘do one’s own thing’ is, however, 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.”

But, alas, Drucker didn’t see enough of that going on in most organizations. “Direction of the knowledge worker toward contribution—rather than toward effort alone—is . . . rarely even attempted,” Drucker lamented in The Changing World of the Executive. “But unless knowledge workers are made . . . to review, appraise and judge their contributions, they will not direct themselves toward contribution. And they will also feel dissatisfied, nonachieving and altogether alienated.”

Does your workplace have an ethos of “contribution” among its employees? Is it helpful to productivity and morale? [/EXPAND]