Self-centered service


 I’m tired of people whining about being unrecognized, unhappy, or unfulfilled. I’m unimpressed. Everything is all about themselves for these bellyaching blowhards, and that’s no coincidence. External recognition, gifts of happiness, and transcendent moments are rare. If you rely on others to provide them for you (because you’re just so deserving), you’ll certainly feel disappointed.

However, you can evoke your own recognition, happiness, and fulfillment. No, I’m not talking about patting yourself on the back, forcing a smile on your face, or taking comfort in at least having your health. I’m talking about choosing the other way to recognition, happiness, and fulfillment—the one that comes from service. Hold on, stop gagging, and hear me out a little. I promise to stay pragmatic and plain.

There are two ways to feel recognized: when others recognize you and when you feel good about doing the right thing. There are two ways to feel happy: when others make you happy and when you take pleasure in the happiness of others. There are two ways to feel fulfilled: when you’ve accomplished your goals and when you’ve helped others accomplish theirs. In each case, you can’t control the former, but you can control the latter. That’s why so many satisfied, happy, fulfilled individuals aren’t self-absorbed cynics—they are sensible servants.

Do the right thing

Why do people do the right thing? People are such chumps, right? They are so naïve, so gullible, and so easily taken. How many times have you seen people of integrity get trampled by “gamesmanship”? Those pathetic losers.

I’ve been doing the right thing and getting trampled by gamesmanship my whole life. Why don’t I ever wise up? Because I like to sleep at night. I like having no trouble keeping my story straight. I like not having to watch my back, because all the people I’ve treated fairly, decently, and honestly are watching it for me.

My integrity is my foundation. I reinforce it every day and recognize myself when I do. I feel good about who I am—no further recognition required (though it’s always welcome).

Eric Aside

I talk more about integrity in “More than open and honest” (chapter 8).

Happy wife, happy life

There’s an admittedly sexist saying among long-married men: “Happy wife, happy life.” Peeling away the sexism for a moment, there’s some truth to the saying. If you’re married, you can be happy by doing things together that you both enjoy, but that only goes so far. People have different tastes that change over time. Not every activity will make both of you happy, and settling for the least common denominator gets boring.

You can focus on yourself—doing things you love, while your spouse does the same—but that tends to drive you apart over time. However, if you choose to delight in making your spouse happy, you can both be happy for many years to come.

Unlike the sexist saying, the husband and the wife can both choose to make each other happy. If that leads to a stalemate, you can always take turns being the one spoiled.

The strategy of delighting in other people’s happiness generalizes to all social interactions—with your friends, your family, your manager, your team, and all those you engage with in your life. I know it sounds very selfless, but it’s actually quite selfish. I’m happy nearly all the time because I don’t depend on others to be nice to me. I’m just good to them, often they are pleased, and that makes me smile.

On the shoulders of giants

I’ve written about the myth of the individual innovator, as have many others. The truth is that we all stand on the shoulders of giants—the people who came before us whose work we build upon to create amazing new things. If you restrict your fulfillment to only your own achievements and inventions, prepare to be very patient and potentially disappointed.

However, if you gain fulfillment by helping others achieve their dreams, success is more likely and more frequent. Making others great by being a mentor, a teacher, or an active member of an effective team is extraordinarily fulfilling. Those who wonder why I write these columns haven’t seen the emails I receive. Okay, some aren’t that kind; however, many are as rewarding as my more individual achievements.

Life is good

You could read about all this selflessness and service to others and think, “Hey, what about me!” I get it. I love external recognition as much as anyone. I love being pampered, and I love solving problems and creating things on my own. Being selfless in the service of others doesn’t have to be a full-time gig.

However, if you want to feel recognized, happy, and fulfilled on a regular basis, no one is going to do that for you. Instead, focus yourself on serving others: Do the right thing, make others happy, and help them be successful. Yeah, folks might take advantage of you. Yeah, you might have to watch a sappy or silly movie. Yeah, you might not get all the credit. But you’re going to live a wonderful life—a life worth living. Be selfless in serving others—it’s the most self-serving thing you can do.

Comments (3)

  1. MSFT employee says:

    Being content with intrinsic motivation is a great feeling. However, that does not absolve organizations from creating a culture of recognition and reward. Often, calling someone out for doing good work means more to that person than a cash reward. My manager once asked me "how do [I] want to be rewarded?" The answers to that question change over time, but "being recognized publicly" has never fallen off the list.

  2. Kevin.K says:

    I like what Daniel Pink has to say about motivation in his book Drive: http://www.danpink.com/books/drive

  3. Anonymous says:

    I disagree with this statement: "There are two ways to feel happy: when others make you happy and when you take pleasure in the happiness of others."

    I would add: "When you make yourself happy by doing things you enjoy." There are things I do for myself that having nothing to do with other people - listening to music, making art purely for myself, and so forth. While I agree that including both of your items leads to more happiness than ignoring your latter item, I believe that all three are required.

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