Competition or Contribution? – What Question Drives You?

In The Art of Possibility, Boston Symphony Conductor Benjamin Zander tells about his family table growing up. He was the youngest of four with two older brothers and an older sister. At dinner time every evening, they would sit around the table, with the parents in the places of authority at the ends and the kids in the middle. Ben’s dad begin the conversation by addressing the oldest boy, “What did you do today?”

Ben’s brother would describe, at some length all that he had accomplished that day. Ben understood that “What did you do today?” meant “What did you achieve today? How did you bring glory and honor to the family? How were you successful?”
Then Ben’s father would ask the second in line, his other brother, “What did you do today?” and he would relate all his accomplishments. Then his sister. Then Ben. Ben felt that compared to his older siblings, he accomplished little. No matter what he had achieved, one of his siblings had done it before and done it better. Ben saw each day as a two-sided coin, success on one side and failure on the other, achievement on one side and disappointment on the other. There was no glory he could bring which the family hadn’t seen before.

As an adult looking back on his childhood, he realized that his family dinner table with the nightly tabulation of daily scores was simply a competitive game between brothers and sister, between his family and the world. Even though it seemed like the ultimate measurement of his worth, or lack of worth, it was simply a game. Once he realized it was not real but a game, he transcended it. He realized the he could choose his own way in the world, how he lived, and the table environment he wanted to give to his children. He chose not to imitate the scoring and seating of the broader culture, but instead to choose differently.

Zander chose to create a different table for his family with a different set of rules and a different central question. Instead of asking “What did you do today?” or “How did you compete today?” Zander asked his family, “What did you contribute today?”, “What did you give?”, “How did you make someone’s day better?”

As a symphonic conductor, Zander realized that it wasn’t just who got first chair in each section that made for a great symphony but instead art comes from having each member of the orchestra contribute. For his family, the guideline was the same. His role as parent was to help his children learn what they had to contribute, to see themselves as people with something to offer, something the world needs.

We all have something to contribute, and it is those contributions which the world needs from us. As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”