by Marc Huffnagle

Like most companies, Element 84 holds periodic performance reviews. In my eight years at Element 84 I’ve had some very good reviews, and a couple of not-so-great ones. Good or bad, though, they have always been fair.

One recurring theme that came up year after year was:  “[Marc needs to] be cognizant of both his verbal and non-verbal communication when frustrated. [He needs to] steer clear of venting frustrations.” That’s a nice way of saying that I wore my emotions on my sleeve. When I was angry or frustrated, everyone knew it.

This past weekend I was talking to a fellow firefighter about leadership. One thing she mentioned was that I do a good job of keeping my emotions in check, even in very difficult situations. I laughed because she didn’t know about the stack of old performance reviews that said otherwise. I was thinking about it later, though, and realized that she was right. “Needs to better handle frustration” has disappeared from my reviews. How did that happen?

When people think of “professional development,” they tend to think about taking classes, attending conferences, learning new technologies, and networking. Based on my experience, though, I believe that some of the best opportunities for professional development can be found outside of your profession.

In July 2015, I joined the South Media Fire Company, an all-volunteer fire company a couple of blocks from my house. After hundreds of hours of training, I became a certified firefighter. Since then, I’ve responded to about 600 incidents at all times of day and night. It’s been incredibly difficult, but also incredibly rewarding. I learn something new (and humbling) every single day.

When I first joined the fire company, I signed up to help maintain the trucks. It didn’t take long before I decided that I also wanted to be a firefighter. When they found out that I knew a couple things about computers, IT support was added to my list. Since then, I have been elected to the Board of Directors, served as Captain, led training, learned to drive the trucks, cut cars apart, and commanded numerous incidents. I’ve attended dozens of classes on everything from leadership to teaching to hydraulics. I’ve given live TV interviews. I’ve been involved in writing grant proposals and making decisions about building maintenance. Most importantly, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people from very diverse backgrounds.

Looking back, being involved with the fire company has helped me grow in many ways. I’m much less likely to get frustrated. I think that I’ve become more compassionate, and I am more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’ve had a lot of practice at making decisions under pressure. I’m more comfortable with teaching and public speaking. I’ve had a lot of practice working with people who are having a bad day.

To be clear, I still have a lot to learn. I’m not even claiming to be good at any of these areas. Just “better than I used to be.”

So how does this help you? Not everyone is going to become a firefighter. There are many other ways that you can get involved in your community, though, which I believe will help you become better at your day job.

Get involved in your child’s PTA, or help organize your local farmer’s market. Volunteer at the library. Help out at a nearby animal shelter. Take part in your local government. All of these will expose you to new people and provide you with challenges that you may not get during your 9-5. If there is a volunteer fire department near you, consider helping them out. Accounting, public relations, event organizing, project management, IT support, grant writing, and recruiting are just a few ways that you could contribute.

Getting involved in my community and taking on challenges completely unrelated to my day job has helped me grow both personally and professionally. I truly believe that the lessons I’ve learned at the firehouse have made me a better coworker, better employee, and (hopefully) a better person. While I still provide my reviewers with plenty of material for the “needs improvement” section, I would not be where I am today without getting involved in community organizations outside of work.