This post is adapted from a talk I gave at TEDxJNJ in February 2014.
My dad and my uncle were both firefighters in the same town. I remember being a little girl, and only vaguely understanding what it was my dad did. As I grew older and better understood the danger he willingly faced every time he went to work, it shaped the way I thought about why people do what they do. People like me sit at a desk all day and talk and type, while other people risk their lives at work. Why?
To find out the answer, I asked over 150 firefighters to tell me stories about their work. Specifically, I asked, “Tell me about a time when you loved your work,” and “Tell me about a time when you hated your work.” I deliberately chose those strong words because I wanted to get at the core of what made the work experience meaningful for these firefighters, and I didn’t want to bias them toward the socially desirable answers.
When I looked at the stories, I found one theme ran through almost all of them: Relationships.
The times that firefighters loved their work were times that they felt connected to other people. Many times, those connections were with the people they served; with community-members facing great crisis. Firefighters told beautiful stories about the fulfilment and peace they felt after saving a child from danger or minimizing the damage to a family’s home. The connections were also very often with other firefighters. The firefighters saw themselves as a team, working together toward a common goal, with the responsibility to keep each other safe along the way. Consider this story, about the tight connection two firefighters felt after knocking down a fire together:
After we were outside cooling off and drinking some water we just looked at each other and laughed. I’m not sure what we were laughing at, but he commented on how fun it was to work together with someone that you ‘just click’ with. Few words are needed, we just knew what the other was going to do. It was a great feeling of a job well done; it’s a very satisfying feeling after working at a good fire, but there was more to it at that fire. We were so in tune with each other, worked together so well and had a lot of fun doing our job.
So, imagine: if relationships, these high quality connections, can motivate ordinary people to incredible bravery to help others, what else could they motivate? If you had the power of high quality connections behind you, how could you be a better version of yourself? Would you create a masterpiece? Be a better friend, family member, community member? Would you be healthier, happier? Live longer?
The research suggests that you could do all of the above. People who have high quality connections with others are healthier, in terms of both chronic and acute diseases. They live longer. They’re generally happier. They experience less stress and burnout at work, which means they also have a better chance to be successful at their jobs. High quality relationships have an awesome effect on the people who get to be part of them.
So if relationships have such incredible powers, how do we magnify them? Social networking, perhaps? If social networking keeps growing the way it has, it should become pretty easy for everyone to virtually surround themselves with loving, supportive friends and reap all the benefits.
This might mean I could create a high quality connections “surround sound” effect using my favorite social networking tools. Then I can access anyone I want from my roster of relationships when I need to, whether it’s venting with my coworker after a rough meeting or bonding with my best friend over a big life event.
Unfortunately, the data suggest that social networking isn’t really surrounding us with high quality connections. At least, we’re not seeing the benefits we would expect if it were. We’re not healthier. We’re not happier. We’re not living longer. In fact, the United States has higher mortality rates than other industrialized nations even as we remain one of the most technologically wired—and some of our highest mortality rates come from violence, which is NOT a symptom of a high quality connection.
Why are the benefits of high quality connections eluding us when we have so many tools to connect to each other? Because the missing ingredient was never a tool at all. It had to do with the quality of the connection itself, that “high quality” piece.
Not all connections are created equal.
A high quality connection has give-and-take, both of which are critically important. If you are just giving—perhaps by always providing the response to someone else’s update without offering your own story for their response—you don’t experience the full benefit of a connection. Likewise if you are offering your own perspective without seeing a response from others. This feels like performing for an empty room.
A real connection also reflects understanding of who we are as people. It makes us feel valued and individual. The other person sees us for who we are and responds to that on a very personal level. In some way, a real connection gets at the core of who we are. There is a genuineness, a warmth, a meaning beyond the content of the conversation.
Consider this story that one firefighter told, in which we can see him connect meaningfully both with a person he has rescued and with his wife:
I remember one time when several years ago I worked a working fire . . . I found a woman sleeping, her bedroom fully charged with smoke. I woke her and assisted her outside to safety, and returned to my duties, never giving it a second thought.
The next evening, my wife and I were at a function seated at a table with people we knew and a few we didn’t. All of a sudden, this woman says to me, “You’re a fireman, aren’t you?” When I said I was, she stated, “You rescued me last night.” Stunned, I said “How could you recognize me in the dark and me in all my gear and mask?” She said, “You put your mask on me, and I’ll never forget you.” Well, let me say I felt proud, but nothing compared to the look on my wife’s face, especially since I never tell her about my fires (because she worries).
I’ve always loved my job, look forward to going to work, and feel great pride in what I do, but this minor incident made me swell with pride.
One thing I think is especially notable about this story is that the exchange between the firefighter and the woman is brief, but deeply meaningful to the firefighter. You can see in their connection that each has given something to the relationship, and taken something away. The connection also illuminates the firefighter’s character to his wife, who does not normally know the details of his work life. Imagine having this kind of a connection in your life—a person who brings out the best in you and helps you share that with someone else.
I didn’t tell you before what type of stories the firefighters told about hating their work. I thought their negative stories would be about the absence of meaningful connections, but I was wrong. The stories about hating work were actually also about relationships. Difficult or broken relationships. People in the community who repeatedly put firefighters in danger by making the same mistakes, over and over again. Times when firefighters couldn’t pull off the rescue, and had to deliver bad news to a family and witness and share the pain of loss. And perhaps most devastating, times when there was a rift in the team, when politics or personality got in between firefighters and made them feel at odds with one another. The times when firefighters really felt pain because of their jobs were the times when they felt the divide between the way their connections were and the way they wanted connections to be. But when those connections were in place, it gave them the resilience to get through some truly horrible moments.
Consider this story from a firefighter, who tried to rescue a child but wasn’t able to. He accompanied the child into the emergency room but the child died, and the firefighter left the hospital. He says,
When I got outside and saw my partner, I lost it. We both had a good cry together. My chief showed up and offered some great non-judgmental support . . .Another ambulance pulled up with a friend of mine on board, and as I relayed the story, she started to cry with me . . . We had a debriefing later that day and as other people heard about the story, they let go of some of their stories. It was bonding with your fellow human being at its best.
By any account, this was a terrible, stressful, and depleting moment at work. But because of the high quality connections this firefighter had with his team, he was able not only to survive it but to draw strength and comfort. Imagine having that on your next bad day.
So, no, we don’t have a way to surround ourselves with high quality connections and concentrate the goodness of them. But we do, via tools like social networking, have the ability to amplify our reach and have those true nurturing connections across distances and with greater numbers of people than we could otherwise. So let’s make those efforts to have a true connection—that we give of ourselves genuinely, that we receive from others what they want to give us, and that we start to become those healthier, happier versions of ourselves.
Imagine a world in which we focus not as much on the quantity of relationships, but on the quality of them. Where we stop thinking that more is better, and start realizing that better is better.