By Mark S. Young

While this may have been a more apropos article for Chanukah, consider this a charge for each of us in our new year. Ask yourself, “What lights you up?” in your work and in your life. Isn’t it a better, more inspiring, more meaningful question than: “So what do you do?” or, “So where are you from?” or, “What kind of job are you looking for?”

I was recently networking at the Jewish Futures Conference in New York, one of about a dozen Jewish professional conferences and major gatherings I attend every year. Towards the end of the event I began chatting with a former graduate school classmate who introduced me to her colleague. This new acquaintance immediately began sharing that she was currently between roles and looking for a new full time job.

She went directly into the type of work for which she was considering applying, rattling off job titles, and prospective organizations. In doing so, I struggled to identify a clear direction and focus for her next step. So I stopped her in her tracks and I asked, “What lights you up?” She looked a bit bewildered, so I clarified: “What do you think about or are working on that really excites you? When do you feel the most jazzed about the work you are doing? What makes you jump out of bed in the morning because you can’t wait to start doing what you love to do?”

Before I had asked, “What lights you up?” I sensed from her a bit of anxiety and maybe a feeling of trepidation. I both imagine and can also personally relate that in these conversations one may not always be super thrilled to convey something to the effect of, “I am unemployed and I hope to get hired.”

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing that should require anyone to feel anxiety, embarrassment or shame when on the job hunt, though certainly many of us often do. We must recognize that people switch and search for jobs for a whole host of circumstances. As a result, it is easier, kinder and more productive if we invite others to talk in the future language of possibility and fulfilling one’s passions that is implied when we ask, “What lights you up?”

For those currently employed, we ought to be encouraging each other to share what in our professional work truly excites us. Let us not feel obliged to merely share our stump elevator speech about what our job is and go straight to what might be challenging us, as I have observed that many of us often have the tendency to do. “What lights you up?” invites us to share with pride and confidence why we are in this work, our proudest accomplishments, and our most audacious dreams.

Returning to my networking conversation, when I asked her “What lights you up?” her face began to beam, her intonation was more inviting and hopeful, and, frankly, it felt as if she was relieved that her narrative to me didn’t have to be so formulaic. She was relaxed and she began to speak with such enjoyment and love for what she was most passionate about.

I became more engaged as a result. While I hope to help any person I encounter in their Jewish professional job hunt, I became especially excited to do what I could to get her to her next professional adventure. Professional adventures are what our jobs, career, and calling, really are or ought to feel like, right? Our professional adventures should light us up inside, especially if we select to work both within the nonprofit sector and within a Jewish religious and cultural space whose missions and values revolve so much around promoting celebration and joy.

I am hopeful that she left our conversation feeling more positive about her situation, confident about her future, and more attuned to align her passions with her work. Ideally, her desire to help others can be the driver to achieving the highest level of one’s needs, self-actualization, and shouldn’t it be all of our aspirations to achieve self-actualization in the professional work environment.

Both Jewish tradition and the educational principle of appreciative inquiry compel us to focus more on the questions than the answers. We harness both in our leadership training institutes and through our research projects and publications at The Leadership Commons of the William Davidson School of JTS. To express curiosity and to ask smart probing questions are key characteristics of successful leadership. We ought to grab onto this as a collective secular new year’s resolution for 2018. In our Jewish community, among professionals and lay leaders, let’s ask the time to ask both one another and ourselves, “What lights you up?”

In doing so, we will build stronger relationships among ourselves, connect our passions to our work, and our work to the larger Jewish values that our work is guided by. We will forge stronger communication channels and relationships among each other, our employees and their managers, professionals and their lay leaders. The colleague who inspired me to start asking this question recently shared with me that she loves to ask this question to donors. The difference between “why do you give to our organization and ‘what lights you up?’ about the work we are doing is simply so different,” she said, and can lead to a more productive and exciting dialogue that benefits of the individual and the organization.

Together, we can create greater bonds and understanding between staff and their patrons, congregants and their learners, executives and their employees, organizations and their supporters, and it all starts with, “What lights you up?” Start 2018 with asking yourself that question, and then ask it to your peers, your managers and/or subordinates, and your partners in your work. Take notes and really actively listen. Practice the art of engaged listening where you are completely present and invested in their response. Then seek to find ways to support each of these colleagues in their passions and career pursuits.

“What lights you up?” is more then just a better way to ask, “So what do you do?” or “What job are you looking for?” It’s an opening to a new way of thinking about our work, how we communicate with each other, and how we identify and have a relationship with our respective passions. This can make our communities, our country, and our world a more thriving place for all whom we connect with.

“What lights you up?”

Mark S. Young is the managing director of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Mark is also the local groups chair and on the board of JPRO Network.

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