My Dad made a major commitment to my twin sister and me when he promised to be there for our first day of school.
He worked in Sao Paulo, Brazil and only came back home to Milan, Italy, twice a year, in August and at Christmas. So the big day finally came, but when we woke up that morning our Dad wasn’t home.
We were crushed, but despite our disappointment, we still felt excited to start school. Well, the first day flew by, and when the final bell rang, my Dad was waiting for us at the school gates.
I was overjoyed to see him, and jumped into his arms along with my sister. On the way home, we bombarded him with our stories: what we’d done at school, the names of our new classmates, the teacher, the blackboard with all the colored chalk, the map of Italy on the wall.
And our stories continued at home too, during lunch with the family. When the meal was over, my Dad looked me in the eye and said: “Paolo, starting tomorrow, don’t talk about what you did, but ask yourself what have you learned, if you helped other people and if you love what you’re doing, because nothing else matters.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye again, as if I were an adult, and stood up. A few hours later he caught a plane back to Brazil. He had kept his promise, three days of travels for 6 hours with us.
Of all the millions of words I’ve heard and read over the years, those words from my Dad, spoken on October 1st, 1969, influenced my life more than any others. What did I learn from what he said that day?
I learned not to think about the right answers if I hadn’t figured out the right questions. Do I love what I’m doing? Am I learning something? Am I helping someone? Nothing else matters.
Here is how to apply these questions to your professional life.
Question one: have I learned something new?
200 years ago, life expectancy was approximately 40. It has increased by 2 years per decade since then. By 2060, life expectancy will be close to 100. What are the implications, for us and for our societies?
We need to move from a life divided into three phases – “get a diploma, work, retire” – to one where we are unstoppable learning machines. Do you really believe that your current set of skills and knowledge will be sufficient to see you through to the end of your professional life?
Most of us would like to be a learning machine. But how do you actually make it happen? Here are a couple of suggestions.
- Be curious
If you think of Leonardo da Vinci, what word comes to mind? Painter? Scientist? Writer? Inventor? Architect? He was all of these: as the embodiment of the term “Renaissance man”, he roamed between disciplines, avoiding the kind of excessive specialization that stops us being able to think and understand the amazing complexity around us.
When was the last time you did something for the first time?
Learning is therefore not something that happens uniquely at university, at school, or at a professional course in your company. What we do in our spare time can provide lessons to energize our working lives.
You coached an amateur sport team? You started to learn how to manage a team. You tutored students? You learned how to motivate people. You sold something, whether putting a piece of furniture on eBay or by doing an odd job for cash?
You grasped the psychology of buyers. You took on an advisory role in local politics or volunteered in a campaign you believe in? Then you understood the complexity and dynamics of a group. You took visitors around a museum or showed them the sights of your city? Well, you learned how to capture people’s attention.
You worked as a bartender? Kudos, you mastered a formidable skill: managing difficult (in this case, drunken) clients. You were a babysitter? Well, you fostered a sense of responsibility. In other words, many seemingly trivial jobs can still form key elements in your work experience. Personally I have learned more about poverty by volunteering in a homeless center than in reading any report.
- Learn from people
Let’s reflect on this simple point: every person you meet in your life knows more about a given subject than you do. Therefore we can learn from everyone, and mostly from the best teachers in the world: children.
I got a wonderful lesson when my daughter Sadika was only four years old. I was working and she came to give me a kiss. “Not now, I am busy working,” I told her. She looked at me in disbelief and told me: “Dad, never ever again refuse a kiss from someone who loves you!”
- Redefine what is failure
Let’s play a short game: let’s redefine the word FAIL. May I suggest “First Attempts in Learning”? I have a serious problem in accepting that the opposite of success is failure.
On the contrary, I believe that a key element of success is failure, provided that we learn from it. Over the course of our lives, we collect many successful failures. We all learn by making these mistakes.
Think about when we learned to walk, or helped our children to walk when they fell on the floor. Did we think that they had failed, or that they were learning? We are genetically built to pull ourselves back up each and every time we falter. As Nelson Mandela once said: “ I never lose, I either win or learn”
Question 2: are you helping others?
Let me introduce Sabine Choucair, from Lebanon. I met her in a conference full of important people with titles like CEO, president, or chairman. Her title: clown. So, I went to listen to her story, as it takes courage to be a clown.
With a group of wonderful people she spent weeks in Lesbos, a small island in Greece, welcoming refugees from Syria. All she wanted to do was quite simply to give them few seconds of joy and human connection. What has this got to do with success, you might ask. This part is therefore for the more pragmatic of you.
Who are the most successful people: the givers, the takers or the matchers? The takers want something from you, the matchers wait for reciprocity while the givers want to help you and give something to you, such as their time, energy, contacts, knowledge, feedback or just advice.
This question goes to the heart of the way we engage with the people around us. What do you think is the correct answer: the givers, the takers, or the matchers? The correct answer to this question is “the givers,” as long they understand the difference between pleasing others and helping others. This was the conclusion of the psychologist Adam Grant’s book, “Give and Take.”
Please consider this. Helping others gets you hired. Networking is not about calling someone when you need them but investing time, energy and respect in relationships. Who gets the most job offers? Candidates who, in addition to being qualified, have built positive relationships based on trust, integrity and reputation. It is not about writing an elegant CV, it is about nurturing meaningful relationships.
Question three: Do you love what you do?
I realized what my father’s advice really meant when, many years later, I read a quote from Mark Twain:
“The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
The questions my Dad asked therefore run deeper. It’s not only about finding things that you love, but about finding your purpose. Why are you here, doing what you’re doing, right now? What do you stand for?
Let me therefore describe the second most important day of my like. After graduation, I worked in investment banking and then the World Bank. During the first six months at the World Bank, I thought I had made the worst mistake of my life. I had given up bonuses, stock options and a nice company car. And to top it all, when I moved to Washington, my girlfriend dumped me as I was boarding the plane.
After a miserable few months, I went on my first mission in 1996, to a remote village in West Cameroon. The driver, George, took me to visit an agricultural project; after many kilometers on dirt and dusty roads, he stopped in front of a well and told me that, before it was built, his mother had to walk 6 kilometers to go to the river to collect water with a small bucket.
Then the World Bank, along with the UN, built the well, which was only few hundred meters from the village where he lived, so his life changed. George wanted to thank me, even if I personally had nothing to do with the well, and took me to his village. I met his mother; we embraced for a long moment, she was a woman with an astonishing dignity. I realized later that in this forgotten village, I had experienced the second most important day of my life.
It took me back to the questions my father had asked, 48 years ago. Do you love what you do, are you helping others, are you learning? My Dad has given me the gift of 3 powerful questions that have been in my heart since then. This has been my compass of success.
Even if you forget these three questions, hang on to one simple point: never ever refuse a kiss from somebody who loves you.
- Paolo Gallo
Over the last 30 years, Paolo Gallo has been Chief Human Resources Officer at the World Economic Forum in Geneva; Chief Learning Officer at The World Bank in Washington DC; and Director of Human Resources at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development in London.