Not long into the COVID-19 lockdown of April 2020, I attended a video-conference headlined by Dahni Jones, an entrepreneur and former NFL linebacker. Jones brought his trademark energy and smile to his presentation, and he left me with a singular thought: “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
I struggled with that provocation during the months that followed. Although it seemed like a nice soundbite – and it’s probably good advice, too – it didn’t seem realistic to me. As a “Young Adult Friend” (i.e., 18-45), I face the typical challenges of my generation. Jones’s advice seemed to ask too much. My generation faces a job market still wracked by the great recession; career and paycheck uncertainty; physical dangers in many jobs like healthcare and other essential services; children trying to adapt to an education system in chaos and a world in crisis. I could go on and on; but suffice it to say that it has often felt easier – a lot easier – to just count the days I survived than to try to find any personal growth in them.
Then something unexpected happened. In the midst of this crisis, I pushed myself further into Quaker communities. I started taking on new roles. Some roles I pursued immediately and voluntarily; others came to me slowly and unexpectedly. Through active participation in formal and informal Quaker endeavors, I found myself following leadings and becoming a better leader. By mid-summer, I realized that without trying, I was beginning to make the days count.
So now I offer my own provocation: This disruptive period presents the best possible time for Young Adult Friends (YAFs) to take on greater leadership in the Quaker world. I know how busy, stressed out, and “burnt out” many young adults are. But nevertheless, I have experienced how stepping in and stepping up can be restoring to a person’s spirit – and it offers the added benefit of helping ensure the vitality and promise of our wonderful Society of Friends.
Young Adult skills needed now: Between the health risks that older Friends face and the general pivot to technology-based worship in many Friends meetings, now is the perfect time for YAFs to step into greater leadership among Friends. Today’s young adults have been trained all their lives in a set of core skills that were less important in previous economies, but are vital today – including technology-based collaboration, working in remote teams, and prioritizing multiple uncertainties.
One of the easiest ways for YAFs to lead in Quaker contexts right now is to help with the setup of technology-based and blended worship. Facilitating Zoom meetings and helping our monthly meetings build continuity plans are critically important. Now that we are more than half a year into this technology experiment, many meetings have already set up remote worship. But that’s not to say that all Friends are equally comfortable and prepared to host, facilitate, and moderate online worship and committee meetings. Young Friends should not underestimate the ways that different levels of technological familiarity play out across different generations. This is an easy area for YAFs to step up and help.
Group-based learning and team-based employment have been the norms for Millennial and Gen-Z Friends. Continually working via cloud-based documents and sheets, email, text, and programs like Slack, collaboration is second nature to many of us. We’ve arrived at a moment when, increasingly, Elder Friends are recognizing the need to be flexible. We are starting to call into question the unspoken rules about how committees work. We are starting to consider how to change the ways we collaborate. These changes will be better if YAFs lead the transition, drawing on the skills we have cultivated throughout our education and work experience.
Moreover, beyond the practical contributions that YAFs can uniquely bring to Quaker communities, we also bring spiritual gifts that are uniquely suited to the present moment. The spiritual crises that have been exposed by the pandemic – isolation, existential threats, conflicting priorities – are all hallmarks of the more difficult aspects of Young Adult life. YAF voices are sorely needed in Quaker ministry and outreach, to help spread the message that Quaker experience and beliefs are poised to answer 21st Century spiritual questions.
Four-Way Wins: Responsibilities can be mistaken too easily for burdens. Instead, I have found – with some intentional planning and an eye toward “four-way wins” – new responsibilities can enhance all aspects of a person’s life.
One of my college professors, Stewart Friedman of the University of Pennsylvania, developed a life assessment framework as part of his “Total Leadership” program. I have found this framework helpful in reflecting on my allocations of time and attention. Friedman proposes that a life is lived in four dimensions: work, home, community, and self-care. A person can make choices that, in turn, can drive greater alignment among these dimensions and produce better results.
In the Quaker context, I have found that exercising greater involvement and leadership in my community (Quakers) has led to greater alignment and results in the other three dimensions of my life: work, home, and self-care.
Before the COVID crisis, I was definitely not operating with all of the dimensions of my life in anything close to alignment. I was overly focused on work; I was separated geographically from my community of friends (Quaker and otherwise); and I was neglecting self-care.
When pictured using Freidman’s assessment framework, my life looked something like this before COVID:
When I first considered this picture, I found it startling. Work was absorbing more than three times the energy and attention that I was giving to myself or my family and home life. Community was an afterthought. Perhaps more distressingly, there was essentially no overlap between any parts of my whole. My four dimensions were more in conflict than in unity – a recipe for pulling apart at the seams.
When the Health Department mandated that everyone in Santa Clara County “shelter in place,” I decided to volunteer my time and my employer’s Zoom account (with their permission) to host my meeting’s mid-week worship, because it was something I could do. That simple act had a profound effect on my COVID experience and, subsequently, on the overall alignment of my life.
Our midweek worship has blessed and enhanced every aspect of my life. I started by inviting Friends from my former meeting in New York to join us. To my surprise and blessing, many took up the offer. I was now seeing familiar faces together with new ones. Moreover, thanks to Western Friend posting the worship link on its website, I have made a new set of regular f/Friends from Sacramento, Chicago, and beyond. This little weekly worship has a profound meaning in my life.
That experience helped me see the blessings-in-disguise of quarantines. I now have weekly schedules packed with Zoom-based social gatherings, including a bible study group and a theater-watching group. It’s also led me into experimenting with other ways of staying in touch with friends and community. I spend an hour on the phone with a college friend each week while exercising outside (what the Total Leadership framework would call “a two-way win”!).
My intentional action (and unintentional leadership) with our mid-week worship probably had a role in my monthly meeting’s decision to ask me to step up in bigger and more meaningful ways. I now find myself clerking a committee. This has become an excellent forum for me to enhance skills for my job. When clerking a committee, I am forced to listen and to avoid the temptation to interject or “have an answer.” Instead, I am learning to support a group of people by listening, and I am totally free to get it wrong – Friends will correct me in their way! This has provided invaluable practice for me to get out of the “boss” bubble I live in at work and become a better model of leadership.
Today, after those changes, when I look at the four circles of my life, they appear quite different than they did several months ago:
In this new picture, I see that I still invest substantial time and energy into work, but now I am able to unplug at the end of the day and turn my attention to other dimensions. The role of community (Quaker and other) is substantially larger in my life now, and it helps anchor my self-care efforts (as in my telephone work-outs with my friend from college). My life is less about competing demands and more about drawing strength from one area to contribute to another. It’s not perfect, but I know the picture will always be changing, and I like the progress I see.
I also know my progress is grounded in community. I invite you to join me. Together we can use our days to make the days count. ~~~
If you want to try creating a picture of your own “four circles” of life, go to: TotalLeadership.org
David Tucker is a curious spirit, marketing strategist, and reluctant “millennial.” He holds membership at Scarsdale Friends Meeting (NYYM) and currently attends Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PacYM).
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