Part 2 | Digging in the bush: A conversation with Peter Hutchinson

If you’ve made it to part two of my interview with Peter Hutchinson, you’ve discovered this isn’t an Oprah-like special on the former Bush Foundation president’s resignation. (If you missed part one and feel even slightly inclined, by all means check it out.) Maybe he’ll grant that interview someday—if there is something more to tell—but for part two of our discussion, we delved into greatness and its meaning for nonprofits and a Gen X/Y-coined phrase—work/life balance.

There’s this notion of greatness that kept coming up in your post. In the nonprofit environment where many of us are working with very limited budgets and capacity, the focus tends to be on getting it to be good enough to get it out the door. How does greatness fit into that, or is being good enough, good enough?

Good enough is never good enough. The difference between good enough and great is pretty significant. There’s something in the aesthetic of greatness that appeals to our souls. There’s this spiritual and aesthetic piece about everything we do. So in my mind there’s absolutely no reason with a limited budget that it can’t be great or fantastic even.

Just because you’re in a nonprofit doesn’t mean that you can’t do fabulous work. Nonprofit is not a statement of aspiration or a condemnation. It can be as brilliant as it can be, and in my mind should always be brilliant because the work is too important to be good enough. Greatness doesn’t mean the richest or the most perfect. It means in that realm—whatever the realm is—the best that there is. Be great at what you do. When that becomes the ethic or aesthetic, the whole organization rises up, and whatever that organization touches rises with it.

When I was a school superintendent, I used to go around everywhere. There was a guy at one of the schools that was definitely one of the best custodians in the school district. The kids in that school went out of their way to keep the school clean because they loved the guy that was in charge of keeping the school clean. This guy was just fabulous, and he went on to be a second grade teacher—really interesting guy. He was so good at what he did that he actually engaged the rest of that school community in his work, and made the whole place cleaner and brighter. We know the difference between good and great. Great is better.

Sometimes you get to a particular age and feel you should be doing this particular thing because this is the track you’ve set for yourself—this is what you went to school for. You might not be great at it, but you’ve spent the last umpteenth years on it. Now you’re finding out this is not what you want to do. How do you wrap your head around that?

It’s frightening. I’ve been fired several times. For reasons other than my own, I was forced out the door. What happens is you get to look around and see things you couldn’t have seen when you were inside. Being fired is a great gift because it throws you off the track, and forces you to ask questions. And maybe you don’t find it this time, but at least you’ve thought about it. And what happens the time after that is now you can think about it again.

Some people get there the first time, and some people like me, it takes them a little longer. That’s okay. Don’t get caught up because you haven’t figured it out, and don’t think what you’re doing today is the only choice you’re going to have. Life is really long. You’ll have a million choices.

Should greatness come at the sacrifice of work/life balance? Do you even believe there should be such a thing as work/life balance—especially when you’re a 30-something professional?

Like I said before, there is only one life so work/life balance isn’t something that you get to put off. You have to be thinking about it all the time. You may decide to alter it from time-to-time—making more work part of your life or vice versa. You’ve got to keep asking yourself where I’m getting my joy from.

The stuff I’ve been allowed to do, I’ve actually never thought of it as work. It’s what I love. If work is what you do to support your life—which is true for many people—I would hope you find work that is so compatible with your life that it doesn’t feel like you’re always making a choice. There’s just too many damn people that are one person at work and another person at home. That’s hard work. It’s hard to turn that switch.

I get it. You’ve got to pay your bills. You’ve got to take care of your kids. You’ve got to worry about your student loans. But if work is just a burden, that’s a huge price to pay.

As I think about my own life, I’m clearly at a better balance today: more joy and fulfillment. When I was young, I had all of those burdens. I had to make enough money to support my family. My dad died when I was young, and I was determined no matter when it was that I died—and you notice that I didn’t die—my family would be safe and secure. I worked like a madman, but now I know I could have done that differently and it still would have worked out okay. I have some regrets about that.

I figured I was going to die at 47. I never talked to anyone about this because I thought this was so uniquely my challenge. I didn’t even talk to my wife about it until I turned 48. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do because I’d done what I was supposed to do. And that was another one of these examples of saying that work is done. I can do other work now. That’s liberating.

The core struggle for all of us is to figure out how to give our souls the chance to be who they wish to be—a chance to flourish. Part of it is taking care of business so that you’re safe and secure, and part of it is putting yourself in a position where your soul gets the kind of nourishment that it needs to grow. I think those who learn that when they’re young are in a much better position than those of us that learn it later. But no matter when you learn it—because you will learn it—know that you can’t take it with you.

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