Today I finish my service year as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a (sightly) paid position at a literacy non-profit here in Charleston, SC. The idea of the AmeriCorps VISTA program is to take service-minded folks and put them where they are most needed - in the poorest communities of the country, a sort of domestic Peace Corps if you will. The program promises those in service a challenge - and it delivered. Aside from the practical challenge of a long commute (1.5 hours each way), and the strategic challenges of trying to break the systems of poverty one struggling reader at a time, this job challenged in a much more profound and personal way - it humbled me.
Over the past year I’ve been assigned tasks that I haven’t done in a decade - stuffing envelopes, making copies, dropping off supplies. I describe my duties to my military friends as “LCpl work.” I didn’t mind the nug work, sometimes even welcomed it, I understood that major projects fail or succeed in those details. Still, I’ll admit, every once in a while I would think to myself, “I have a freaking PhD, what am I doing cutting another 100 sheets of paper?” or I would bristle when my 20 something supervisor encouraged me to sign up for her “How to do your taxes” workshop.
It was especially pronounced when I returned from drill weekends - going from boss to subordinate overnight. I specifically remember a phone call from a major supporter in which they somewhat curtly instructed me to help unload a car. I was in the middle of something and instinctively put my hand up to say “Wait 1,” like I do with my Marines, when I realized that I was in a different position in this hierarchy. I was in the back of the pack for this group run.
It was then when I realized that for my entire adult life, I have been a boss. Sure I’ve always had a boss, an XO or CO, but I’ve also always had a shop or domain in which I have control over the daily routines of not only myself, but my subordinates as well. I think, for the most part, the men and women I’ve been in charge of would give my leadership skills positive reviews, but I have to confess that I have forgotten what it’s like to be a subordinate or junior and that undoubtedly led to a lack of humility that I likely needed replenished.
While running has continually humbled me, often when I need it the most, I’ve been missing the specific brand of humility that comes with filling a lower position in an hierarchy. Running can’t give that because by its nature, running is a flattened hierarchy.
It’s not unheard of for football teams to go undefeated for a season, but rarely does a runner win every race. Golf pros play on the best groomed courses, while professional marathoners run the exact same course as the guy or gal who comes in dead last. I’m likely never going to play basketball with Michael Jordan, but I’ve run a race with Meb, technically I raced him. (He won).
Sure there are “better” runners than others - but what does that even mean? How do you rank and file runners? Speed? Endurance? Number of races run? Won? One of the first lessons I learned in running was that in 99.9% of the races I’ll ever run, someone will beat me. It’s all relative. In that way running breeds both confidence and humility. The two not only balance each other, but amplify each other. True confidence breeds humility, because it strips away the need for external validation. Being confident in yourself, at its core, and is a way of saying “I’m enough,” and when you know you’re enough, you can slog through the miles, wade through the mundane details of whatever work you’re doing, because your worth isn’t tied to your job title or finishing time. Don’t get me wrong, I love competition, and achievement, and being recognized for hard work, but I’m more and more sure that hard work happens at all levels. Your last place or current rung of the corporate ladder doesn’t make your any more or less valuable as a human being.
As tough as this job was, as there were certainly times I thought I was minutes away from quitting, I’m a better boss and better person for it. To celebrate I’m going to pack away the office supplies and lace up the tennis shoes to see what else South Carolina can teach me about its people and my own humility and growth.