I am just the salt in the dish / by Michael Sloyer

“I am just the salt in the dish.”

Given salt’s generally low position on the totem poll of food preparation, when speaking in metaphorical terms, this is a real statement of humility. It is a statement of humility down playing our own importance in any specified process in deference to the larger goal or some greater good. It can be loosely translated as, “It’s not about me” or less succinctly as, “It’s not about me. I am involved in the process, and I help the process to run more smoothly, more efficiently, or make it better in some other way. But, ultimately, the mission is more important than any of my individual needs.”

Especially in situations involving public service, education, and philanthropy, this statement can be easy to preach, but hard to live by. In fact, no matter how much we know “it’s not about us” it still somehow feels about us. After all, we are the protagonists in the narratives of our lives. We are the center of our own world constructs, and no matter how hard we try, we end up relating just about everything we observe and do back to us.

As an example, I recently facilitated a workshop with the goal of helping participants to explore their own and their team members’ personality types in order to build trust, self-awareness, and compassion among the team members. In preparing for the workshop, I tried to repeat the mantra, “I am just the salt in the dish.” (hat tip: Rasanath and Hari Prasad). I knew the content would make a real difference in the lives of the people who would be attending, so in reality, it should have been all about them. But as I prepared, it didn’t feel all about them. I felt such intense pressure to deliver the perfect workshop that the purity and value of the work itself became a bit lost in the shuffle. My preparation, therefore, was less about how I could best serve the needs of the participants, and more about how I could deliver a shiny performance. And it was stressful. Because whenever a thought crept into my mind about how I could possibly slip up or when I might forget to mention a certain concept in a pre-scripted way that I had worked so hard to come up with, I got hit with a wave of anxiety. Instead of keeping the big picture in mind and feeling excited and grateful for the opportunity to positively affect the lives of people that I care about, I was worrying about what everyone would think of me. I shamefully concede that it became “all about me.”

This whole thing is a bit of a catch 22. It is a catch 22 because, at least for the time being, while I am still my mortal and flawed self, I might be more motivated by the external validation and feelings of personal satisfaction I get when I deliver a successful workshop, than I do by the actual improvements in the lives of the participants. And, in this case, these motivations caused me to work really hard to deliver a great experience for the participants. Because…if I am going to be salt in the dish, I am going to be the best possible salt in the dish I can be. By making the workshop about me first, and the mission second, I did effectively serve others.

The problem with my attitude is multi-fold. First of all, although we may be “effectively” serving others, we are not “optimally” serving others. To optimally serve others, the needs of the others need to be taken into account. So going back to the workshop example, in preparing, I should have thought more about the learning styles of this particular group of people. I should have thought more about what content they might have been able to relate to the most, and about how they would have most effectively been able to retain that content. Even if that meant interrupting the rhythm of my shiny workshop to periodically to review content from earlier in the session, if that is what would have benefitted participants the most, then that is what I should have done.

Another problem with my attitude is that it is neither sustainable, nor will it produce consistent results. We may not always get the external validation from others that we desire or someone else may play a more central role in achieving the mission. Even though the greater good is being served, our motivation may wane or it could hinder collaboration. In the long run, this will leave everyone worse off.

And finally, if it becomes about us, we may eventually lose sight of the original mission we were intending to serve in the first place. We may deliver a lesson (in the case of education), enact a policy (in the case of govt/public service), or make a contribution (in the case of philanthropy) that serves our own purpose and the mission’s purpose. However, even if we can’t see it at the time we are doing it, if we put our own purpose first, the mission’s purpose will be sacrificed in one way or another. We may distracted by things like fame, money, power, and validation, and we may forget what it was like when we first got that super tasty hit of inspiration that caused us to dedicate a part of our lives to whatever it is that we are doing. We may still be operating under the pretense of the mission, but since it is just a pretense, we could actually end up doing more harm than good.

So what is the solution?

Well, not that I am particularly skillful in making things “not about me,” but I think the key here is to be clear about what the mission actually is and to have a consistent dialogue and debate about whether we are staying true to the mission. Working together with a group of people that are also dedicated to the mission and feel accountability to that mission can go a long way in keeping us on track. And finally, if you are like me and need a constant reminder, a little yellow sticky note on your desk with the phrase, “I am just the salt in the dish,” doesn’t hurt either.