Selfishness in Service: A Paradox

I moved to Texas at the beginning of 2013 to start my first full-time job post-college. After a 6-month paid internship directly after graduation (THREE CHEERS FOR THAT!), the stress of the unknown had ended. And with three cross-country moves in less than one year under my belt, I could finally think about settling. Yikes.

As the chaos of another move and starting a new job subsided, it hit me: I was thoroughly sick of myself. With no family in the area and no children or pets to take care of, my only true responsibilities were to stay on top of: rent, bills, groceries, laundry, and…well, that’s about it. So. Hip hop class? I was there. Spontaneous concert? Check. Chocolate chip pancakes for dinner three nights out of the week? Clearly. But all of this fun was for my benefit. And after a while, the self-centeredness was becoming unfulfilling. A sense of guilt had started as well. This can’t be it, I knew.

The pull to help other people, to feel connected and part of a community, would be my resolve. Volunteering. HOWEVER, I would approach it differently than I had ever approached volunteering before. Previously, I was forced to volunteer. I did not choose where or who I volunteered with. I had no personal connection or investment. So how much was I actually benefiting those I was serving…or myself?

I knew that if my volunteering were to come from my heart, all of us involved could reap exponential benefits. So how does one go about this? Here was my process:

  1. What are my talents? And what do I enjoy doing? Key word: PASSIONS. For me, I was blessed with the gift of being able to write. It’s become my career, but it is still a passion outside of the job. I have a blog and I journal every day. This combination of talent and passion led me to decide I would like to integrate writing into service. I wanted to help others express themselves through writing; creatively. A writing club! Yes. In my previous volunteer ventures I didn’t have personal investment, and I didn’t form any relationships. I knew that this time around, I wanted ALL of those things. I had to then formulate a goal. I needed a mission statement to propose to a volunteer organization.
  2. Who do I want to serve and connect with? I’ve never liked babies much. Or little kids. (YES, I HAVE A SOUL.) But I had it in my mind that I wanted to interact with school-aged kids, and kids who can actually write. I had my heart set on high schoolers, but the need wasn’t there when I reached out to the organization Communities in Schools.
  3. When can I actually dedicate time, and how much time? My work schedule is 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. I had to think carefully about when I could actually dedicate myself–consistently. Taking a serious look at my schedule and other activities was part of this. If it was going to be during school hours, it would have to be during my lunch hour. Luckily I was able to make it work.

This dissection might seem too serious for something extracurricular, but in my mind, I wanted my volunteering to not only be beneficial, but intentional… especially if I would be working with kids. I would be held accountable, looked up to, and relied on to be there every week. I wanted to be a consistent person in their lives.

These formulaic questions that went into my decision to volunteer did spring from selfishness, but the outcome has been far from that. By being selective about what would work for me first, I was able to establish a manageable and meaningful volunteer opportunity.

It has been life-changing, not just for me, but to the group of 4th and 5th grade girls I meet with weekly. My heart, like the Grinch’s, has grown three times its size. I am so grateful.


Teneshia Jackson Warner is an award-winning multicultural marketing expert, purpose-driven entrepreneur and author. She is the founder, CEO and Chief Creative Officer of EGAMI Group, a leading multicultural marketing and communications firm in Manhattan with clients such as Procter & Gamble, Target, Verizon Wireless, My Black is Beautiful, U.S. Army, Hennessy, Major League Baseball and Toyota.

In 2013, Teneshia founded The Dream Project Symposium, an annual empowerment conference that helps thousands of entrepreneurs, creatives and career Dreamers plan and achieve their goals. Based on concepts from The Dream Project, Teneshia’s new book, The Big Stretch: 90 Days to Expand Your Dreams, Crush Your Goals, and Create Your Own Success (McGraw-Hill Education, November 22, 2019), is a fully customizable self-evaluation and empowerment program for jumpstarting a new business, career or big idea.

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