You get up every day and go to work because you’re expected to show up. You try to do your job well because you want, at the very least, not to get fired, and at best to get ahead in your career. Ideally, you care about what you’re doing and the people you’re working with and treat them with kindness and respect.
You get all kinds of reinforcements for good performance in your role—whether it’s positive feedback from a manager, a raise, a promotion, or a new job offer. And you might notice some fleeting signs that you’re motivating the people around you—maybe a “thanks for your help” here and a “couldn’t have done it without you” there.
But you never know how much you might inspire people in the long-run just by being great at your job and genuinely caring.
Karin Brulliard recently wrote an essay for The Washington Post about how her mother accidentally found out decades later how meaningful she’d been as a teacher to a particular student she’d taught in the 1960s.
Mary Jacobson hadn’t known that one of her seventh grade English students had gone on to become a spectacularly famous author. And she never realized how much early inspiration that student-turned-author, named Tamora Pierce (you might’ve heard of her), attributed to Jacobson.
Until the retired teacher heard an interview with Pierce on NPR that made her wonder if it might be that same little girl she’d taught, all grown up. As Brulliard and her parents did some research online and at the library, they found out. It was right there in the biography on her website:
The next year, as I was still scribbling my own stories, my English teacher (bless you, Mrs. Jacobsen!) introduced me to The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. I got hooked on fantasy, and then on science fiction, and both made their way into my stories.
And in the dedication in Pierce’s 1998 novel Daja’s Book, part of The Circle of Magic series:
To the teachers who shaped my life: Rosemary Gomes, Mary Jacobsen, Margaret Emelson, and David Bradley, Jr. A great teacher is above all other treasures.
Pierce may have been mistaken about the spelling of her old teacher’s name, but she was clear about the impact she’d had on her life and career trajectory, later telling Brulliard that Jacobson also encouraged her to keep writing beyond school assignments and to save everything. Jacobson went above and beyond—and that it made a huge difference.
Imagine how profound it would be for you to hear something like that about how your showing up, doing your job well, and just caring changed a person’s life. What if you approached your interactions with your co-workers with that mindset every day?
Take the time to help someone, go above and beyond what’s in your job description, or mentor an employee who doesn’t report to you. These probably won’t be the first things to come up during your next performance review, but people will remember the small and large acts of kindness you directed at them.
So make it a habit as much as you can. You could end up in Jacobson’s shoes a few years from now—finding out you changed someone’s life.
Photo of someone mentoring a younger colleague courtesy of monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author