For your holiday enjoyment, here’s a story about how focus on getting what we want sometimes gets in the way of getting what we want.

International business team showing unity with their hands together

Bear with me now. This is a story about my thirteen-year-old son, Levi, and middle school sports. But I think it’s also a story with big implications for how you approach career development.

Levi loves sports from his Adidas beanie to his Nike socks. He’s no Michael Jordan, but he oozes with joy and energy whenever he’s on the field/court/floor.

But this volleyball season, a miscommunication with his coach, a rough game, and some conflicts with teammates left him feeling snubbed and overlooked.

For weeks, Levi couldn’t shake his funk. His play suffered, and I watched from the bleachers as he moped around the court, flat-footed and straight-faced.

I don’t like to be an overprotective helicopter mom, but this time I seriously contemplated sending a quick email or orchestrating a casual chat with his coach. I could just give her a heads-up on Levi’s struggles, and she could use that intel however she chose. That wouldn’t be too overbearing, would it?

But one day as I drove Levi to yet another practice, he began to complain about the long hours and hard work. The coach doesn’t like me. So-and-so gets played more. It was all so unlike my boy who usually loves nothing better than hours and hours of practice.

Suddenly my maternal empathy dried up and I decided to get real. “The problem is,” I told him, “that you’re not really giving it your all.”

With that, the solution to the problem came into focus for me. “What would happen if for the next few games, you just concentrated on what you were putting into the game and not what you were getting out of it?

“What if you gave all your energy, all your effort, just left it all on the floor, and didn’t think at all about scoring points or making serves or getting high-fives? What would happen?”

I challenged Levi to abandon all his concerns about outcomes—justified or not—and instead focus just on putting in.

Well, the result was like something straight out of the volleyball remake of Rudy. In the very next game, the starting players were struggling. As our team fell further and further behind, the coach subbed out the starting players and put in Levi. Within minutes, Levi and his teammates had pulled ahead.

In the next match, the usual starters went back in, but again struggled. Again, Levi and his teammates were subbed in, made a few glorious digs and spikes, and turned the score around to win the game.

I’m not gonna lie, that win felt good.

But I was even more thrilled about the lesson it provided. How often in life do we get stuck obsessing over what we should be getting? We want compliments, promotions, recognition, pay raises, perks, notice, respect. And how often does this obsession get in the way of successful, productive relationships?

Of course, it’s right to expect respect and even to promote our workplace accomplishments. And of course, one-way relationships where one party gives and the other gets are toxic. But overfocus on what we get can poison the well.

It sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to promote our interest is to forget about our interest and focus on what we contribute.

…More energy and enthusiasm for the task at hand.

…More motivation to support and uplift coworkers.

…Greater drive to solve problems rather than complain about them.

…Greater generosity to recognize and laud the accomplishments of others.

…More initiative to tackle what’s undone.

…Greater willingness to accept responsibility for problems or shortfalls.

This type of put-in, giving attitude has a tendency to dissolve roadblocks and lead us to the outcomes we were seeking all along.

This holiday season, try extending the spirit of giving to your relationships, both professional and personal. What have you been holding back? What can you put in?