Obligation

I have often written that all of Chinese culture is built on a foundation of personal connections and the obligations that flow from them. What it took me much longer to learn, however, is that the reverse is true as well. Connection flows from obligation. And that truth, I now believe, is more important than the first.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist (1908-1970) best known for identifying the Hierarchy of Human Needs. It essentially argues that we must fulfill four fundamental needs before we can even think about realizing our true potential or finding fulfillment in life, which he called self-actualization. (It’s what we all yearn for – Why am I here?)

The first two steps in the hierarchy cover the obvious – food, water, shelter, and a sense of safety. The third step, however, isn’t so obvious and is, without a doubt, often overlooked. I personally believe it is the single most important ingredient to all of the loneliness, angst, and general malaise that sucks the joy from much of the Western population today. (Have you been watching the US presidential election, or the European immigration crisis, or the rise of whatever extremist group lately?)

I recently published a fictional book that dealt with the topic. It’s called Now You Are Lisa, currently available in paperback on Amazon and soon in a Kindle version.

The book, however, is not the focus of the post. The book is only the catalyst.

Americans, in general, consider themselves friendly and outgoing. And most are. They greet strangers on the street. They hold the door. They smile at cute children and pat friendly looking dogs on the head.

Professional Americans are great at networking. Many members of LinkedIn have hundreds of connections on file. The same with YouTube and Twitter.

We are not very good, however, at connection. And we’re even worse at developing the sense of obligation that should flow from real connection. And that’s because our sense of connection is superficial, not obligatory.

When I left my first employer after 18 years, I had risen to president and a member of the board of directors. And when I left I did so voluntarily, but with nothing but praise for the company, and the company was doing well. Of a board of 10-12 at the time, one called me to wish me good luck and thank me for my contribution.

When I left my last company after 20 years, 11 of which I spent on the board of directors and nine as a senior executive of the company, nobody called or even e-mailed. After I experienced a small, but potentially serious, health problem, only one bothered to write.

When I wrote two novels while still employed I gave many, many free copies to colleagues and professional ‘connections’ in the US, asking only that they take a minute to write a review on Amazon since reviews are critical to sales in that model. One did. And he was Dutch.

So, it reads like self-pity, I know. It isn’t. I have long stopped defining myself by my job. You should too.

But let me ask you this: When was the last time you took time out of your schedule to do something for someone else that would provide you absolutely no personal benefit in return? And don’t answer spontaneously. Thank about it.

There are many, many exceptions, of course. And those are the good people we should all emulate.

And here’s why I write this now. The Chinese, for the most part, are an exception. They understand the value of obligation and the sense of connection it provides. I’ve been getting it backward. Their society is not built on connection; it’s built on obligation and the connection flows from there.

I left my Chinese employer nine months ago. And I still hear from colleagues, many of who have since left the company, who just want to see how I’m doing and to wish me well. And, without fail, to thank me for what they perceive I did to help them grow in their careers. (Little do they know that they helped me far more than I helped them.)

Just this past week I heard from two more – nine months after I left. These aren’t people who reported directly to me or with whom I had any kind of social relationship outside of work. One left the company before I did.

We never talk business. They aren’t calling to complain or commiserate. They are calling at a strictly personal level. They would lose face if they talked about work. They talk about me – the person.

As Americans, we tend to think of obligation as a burden. ‘I don’t want to go to this dinner but I’m obligated. It’s a client…or the boss…or someone who can help my career.’ The very word implies something we must do rather than something we want to do.

The Chinese, however, don’t look at it that way. They see obligation as an opportunity; an opportunity to enhance their connection to the people and world around them and to thus advance one more rung on Maslow’s ladder.

In organizations there is lots of talk about servant leadership. (Although it is seldom practiced in reality.) I think that’s a misnomer. It should be called obligation leadership. If we, as leaders, feel a sense of true obligation to those we are asked to lead, they, in turn, will find the satisfaction of connection. And then Katie bar the doors. They will perform like even they didn’t think possible.

Obligation. It really is a win-win. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel. And how ‘lucky’ you get in every aspect of your life.

Here’s the official description of Now You Are Lisa, by Gary Moreau:

After a long career filled with triumphant successes and devastating failures, American businessman Adam Bertrand is well accustomed to the ups and downs of life. Still, several years after starting a new life in the thriving, modern city of Beijing, China, nothing could have prepared him for the disaster that awaits him.

Now, his wife and daughters are gone—his health, ravaged by a growing alcohol addiction. With no job and no sense of purpose, Adam flounders in a sea of loneliness and despair, desperate to fix the pieces of his broken existence. But through the unexpected power of human connection, a simple touch, he suddenly begins to rediscover exactly what he was missing all along.

Now You Are Lisa follows one man’s journey as he awakens to the presence of others around him, after a lifetime of being driven by achievement and success. Inspired by the example of a poor Chinese widow who crosses his path, Adam begins to discover the truth behind a life well lived—and the incredible strength that emerges when we manage to overcome the obstacles that life throws our way.

Here’s the link on Amazon: Now You Are Lisa

Contact: understandingchina@yahoo.com

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