“What good have I done today?”

This past week, I had the opportunity to be inspired by a leader who has quite a life journey. Dr. Mamie Parker visited Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment to speak to and activate the next generation of leaders to, in her words, “power up.”

Dr. Mamie Parker Photo: NPR.org

Dr. Mamie Parker
Photo credit: NPR

Dr. Parker’s life began in Arkansas as the daughter of a sharecropper and the youngest of 11 children. She approached opportunities with an open mind, finding ways to connect her passions (such as fishing) to her career, which led her to becoming the first African American and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Regional Director of the 13 Northeastern states.

She started the lecture by sharing with us a practice that her and her late husband engaged in each night. Before going to bed, they asked each other: “What good have I done today?” This stuck with me. It is important, as she noted, that it isn’t about what good she had personally experienced. The question is to prompt a continual reminder that we are in this world to serve and support others; and each day we have the opportunity to do that.

That requires us to visualize the end, another guiding principle Dr. Parker’s mother instilled in her. Dr. Parker was struggling to catch a fish one day out in the bayou near their home. Her mother told her to see the fish on the end of the reel in her mind. Lo and behold, Dr. Parker caught that fish. But this lesson was more about catching one fish: it’s about ensuring that we have a clear understanding of what we want. Once we have a picture of what we’re trying to achieve, it is much easier to accomplish it. Yes, we have to see it to believe it.

What happens when fear gets in the way? Dr. Parker noted that fear is nothing more than False Evidence Appearing Real. Fear is often borne from our own insecurities and misgivings. Our emotions lead us down dark paths of worry, often conflicting with our true realities. Having that visual of what the end should look like can eradicate that false evidence.

The final takeaway Dr. Parker shared that struck me was avoiding the four cancers of life: criticizing; complaining; negatively competing; and negatively comparing. This isn’t a mandate to remain rosy and positive all of the time. It’s a warning to avoid falling into these pit traps that most often hurt the person bearing them the most.

Personally, I am guilty of negatively comparing me to my peers in both professional and personal settings. I want to be able to lift as much as the person I’m working out next to. I want to be as creative as other communications folks. Each time I negatively compare myself to someone else, what does that do to me inside? It makes me feel weaker and less powerful. How can I be my best person each day with these habits? I can’t. And I won’t be able to answer the question: “what good have I done today?”

How will you do good in the world today? How about tomorrow? Moving beyond F.E.A.R. is a good start. Eliminating those four cancers is another. Practicing radical collaboration and compassionate leadership is the next step. If you have a chance to see Dr. Mamie Parker speak, I highly recommend it. For now, enjoy some of her story for yourself here.