What you do matters. Even if you haven’t yet received the fame or recognition that so many people aspire to, that doesn’t mean your work isn’t important. All too often we belittle what we do because we aren’t sure of what purpose it serves in the greater scheme of things.
I thought of this in reading an obituary of a remarkable woman, Jane Fawcett, a decoder who worked during World War II at Bletchley Park behind the scenes (like everyone there, pretty much) in trying to figure out secret messages the Germans were sending to each other. Her work led to the sinking of Germany’s powerful battleship, the Bismarck. What she did was what countless other people did in secret during that difficult time to help turn the tide of the war. Her contributions remained unknown for many years – so her brilliance as a decoder went unrecognized.
That isn’t to say she didn’t have a career entirely hidden. Following the war, she trained as a singer and performed as an opera singer and recitalist. She also worked on behalf of preserving historical buildings. She was, despite her secret wartime work, no shy little flower.
But she chose to work unknown for the greater good. She had heard of a position at Bletchley Circle, where a lot of smart and upper-class women were recruited to help do the tasks given them. As the Times writes, “They performed a variety of tasks assisting the mostly male chess geniuses, linguists, mathematicians and rogue intellectuals struggling to unscramble German military communications written in the devilishly complex disguise generated by so-called Enigma machines.”
Because she had learned German – her mother had sent her to a sort of finishing school in Switzerland before calling her back home to have her society coming-out – she was able to decipher the decoded messages to check if they were actually in real German. One day she came upon one that identified where the dangerous Bismarck battleship would be. It was torpedoed and sunk.
What struck me most about this remarkable woman’s remarkable life was how she worked both behind the scenes and before the public, and how she suppressed what was an evident wish to be known – as I mentioned, she became an opera singer – with a greater wish to work on behalf of something greater than herself.
Much of the work I do on behalf of clients is to help them become better known – through finding their voice, focusing and strengthening their message, and sending that message to the world. One of the strongest drives we have is to become known in some way.
But perhaps an equally important drive is to do work that means something. Jane Fawcett had to know that her work mattered, even if she wouldn’t be recognized for her contributions for quite some time after she’d done that work. I think if we all work on the understanding that we do matters in the long run, we’ll think less of immediate gratification or recognition and more of doing something that leads to substantial results.[rps]