Contribution: the key to authenticity, engagement, & meaning
June 23, 2015
When I wrote the first edition of Presentation Zen back in 2007, I said that presentations are better when they are prepared and delivered in the spirit of truly wanting to make a difference and a belief in the power of sharing ideas. The secret to this spirit or approach is contribution. This is a key part of Presentation Zen. It's not about showing off. It's not about impressing. It's not about winning (or losing). I quoted the incredible Benjamin Zander who said this when speaking to a group of remarkably talented young musicians:
“This is the moment — this is the most important moment right now. Which is: We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”
— Benjamin Zander
Contribution is key. This is what I always say. I harp on it constantly. It's the fundamental element to effective communication, collaboration, and learning. We would not have come as far as we have as a species if every time we learned something new we kept it to ourselves. Collective learning is what we are all about. When we inquire, explore, and discover, we want to share it. If not with the world, then at least with our in-group. When you share it—that is, when you explain what you learned through narrative—you reinforce your own understanding. When you share it you understand it even more deeply than before. But contribution is more than that, it just may be the secret to living a meaningful life as well.
It's a simple idea. Contribution is voluntary. It's not something that can be forced. Contribution is not about being a hero or becoming famous or receiving awards or impressing others. The world is filled with people who have ticked every one of those boxes but still feels empty. On the other hand, doing something that matters and allows us to make a small contribution day in and day out will give us meaning. It could be as simple as a sincere compliment that makes someone's day. Or working hard on a project that benefits the team. Or a student completing a presentation that actually engaged the audience and taught them something important.
Being a contributor...more important than being a hero
I began thinking about this again after I stumbled upon a wonderful 60 Minutes (Australia) interview with Robert Plant. The reporter asked the legendary rock star if his aim was to become famous back in the day. Plant replied that it was not really about wanting to become famous. "I don't think fame was the term for it," Plant said. "We were part of a huge youth movement that was going to change the world."
"So it was the right time for LED Zeppelin," the reporter asked. "It was the right time for us all," Plant said. And this is the line that resonates the most. This is the takeaway line:
"Being a contributor in any form was way more important than being a hero."
— Robert Plant
It does not matter what your job is or what your dreams are. It matters not if your goals are big or small. It does not matter if you are the best at what you do or are just starting out. In the moment it only matters that you are fully present and sharing, or teaching, or collaborating in the spirit of contribution. This is the key to making a difference, no matter how small, day in and day out. Sure, the world still needs heroes. But every day when we get out of bed in the morning and face the challenges ahead, it may just be more important, as Plant says, that we be a contributor in any form rather than be a hero.