The Styrofoam Cup: Reflections from Leaders Eat Last

Last week, I was at home while my students ran an event on campus.  I had spent a significant amount of time dedicated to my marketing committee, both in and outside of work hours, discussing with them how to promote this event through social media.  After the event ended, I noticed that social media was silent: they had forgotten to make their posts, a simple task that I had invested my time and energy into ensuring would happen.  I took matters into my own hands and made the posts myself, typing furiously on my bed at 10pm.  My frustration mounted, my chest tightened, and I spent the next day venting to anyone who would listen.  I became all-consumed with my work and my event.

Shortly after the Social Media Crisis of 2014, I was in the process of live-tweeting my current read, Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.  I came across a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who spoke at a large conference.  The former Under Secretary revealed that the previous year, when he was still in office, was flown to the conference in business class, escorted to his hotel room, and treated to a cup of coffee in a ceramic mug.  When he no longer held the position, he flew to the conference in coach, drove himself to the hotel, and poured himself coffee into a styrofoam cup.  Then came the part of the story that just jumped off the page and slapped me in the face.

“‘It occurs to me,’ he continued, ‘the ceramic cup they gave me last year…it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a styrofoam cup. This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,’ he offered. ‘All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which you eventually will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a styrofoam cup.”

At work, I’ve been called a “woman on a mission”, so mired in details that I’ve missed out on meaningful moments with students.  I’ve neglected doctor’s appointments, given myself anxiety (see above chest pains), and snapped at countless friends/family members over my job, and for what?  The former Under Secretary is right: whether we want to admit it or not, we are all replaceable.  We all deserve styrofoam cups.  I spend countless hours dwelling on the all-important community service event (granted, community service can have a great impact on students, as all of our work can have) without even regarding my own health or happiness.  Not only that, but I do my students a disservice as I toil away on tasks they could learn, generating a catering order or drafting a reflection workshop.

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As a student affairs professional, my goal is for my students to do amazing things for Community Service at Rutgers, not me.  It’s not my work and my event.  It’s their work, and they should celebrate their successes and analyze their failures (with my support).  My students are the ones who should be in the spotlight, giving amazing Ignite-style talks at conferences, being quoted in the campus newspaper, and drinking from their ceramic mugs.  It’s their precious and exploratory four years to pave their way into a career, not mine.

As one of my great friends put it, “If we’re doing our jobs right, no one will even know we are there.”  I tend to agree.  I’m shifting the spotlight over to them.  After all, I am only in the background watching them shine, drinking from a styrofoam cup.