I belong to a local food co-op, and for the privilege of buying really good food at reasonable prices, all members have to work there once a month. Although I usually whine about it before I actually head over there to do my evening shift, once I’m working, I often find it feels like the most useful thing I’ve done all day. Given that I have a “serious” day job as a lawyer for a human rights organization, that might sound odd. But honestly, stocking fresh apples or bunches of kale can feel a lot more real and productive than responding to e-mails, drafting press statements or monitoring Congressional or judicial hearings.
“As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell,” was Senator Tom Cotton’s memorable remark at the last Congressional hearing I watched, which focused on the fate of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, half of whom are already cleared for release. Sadly, no amount of outrage I or anyone else expressed was going to change that he and many people in this country feel that way.
Maybe it’s the cold (or the new Republican Congress) that’s gotten me feeling defeatist about my advocacy work lately – it’s dipped below zero lately with the windchill factor here in Brooklyn – but I’ve been wondering a lot about what it means to be useful. I remember a yoga teacher once telling a class I was in that her purpose in life was “to be of service.” That’s stuck with me.
Of course, many people share that goal, and there’s lots of social science supporting the idea that helping others supports our own happiness. But that still leaves the huge challenge of figuring out how each of us can best do that. Where does our unique combination of talents, skills, interests and circumstances lead? Where and how can each of us be most useful?
The answers are different for everyone, and may keep changing over the course of our lives, but here are five things to consider as guidelines.
- Helping shouldn’t make you miserable.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to go down a path you thought would provide a real service that you then find you can’t stand. When I started out as a lawyer, for example, I was thrilled to get a job with a child welfare advocacy organization. We brought huge class-action cases representing hundreds of thousands of kids at risk of abuse and neglect around the country. What could be more noble? In reality, I spent most of my time in an office sifting through documents and regurgitating the same legal arguments over and over. I was miserable. It took me time, though, to realize that it’s okay to leave a “good” job that does “good” work if it makes you feel lousy.
- Your calling doesn’t land you in the poorhouse.
Some people can afford to do low-paying work that provides a service; others can’t. Taking a job that doesn’t pay you enough to support yourself and your family, if you need to do that, isn’t going to help anyone in the long run. Do work that not only provides a service to others but will sustain you as well.
- Your work allows you to take care of yourself.
In addition to providing others a service and you an income, your work needs to allow you the time and flexibility to take care of yourself. I see some people work so hard that between their job and their family responsibilities they end up neglecting their own physical and mental health. When you neglect yourself, you end up neglecting those around you. You can’t offer the best of yourself if you haven’t nurtured yourself in the process. In the long run, this is critical to providing a true service to anyone.
- You encounter a sense of flow, effortlessness or timelessness in your work.
The state of “flow” is achieved when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The point is that you’re so engaged in what you’re doing that you’ve stopped thinking about yourself, and stopped worrying about the past or the future. You’re just in the moment, doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like “work” anymore, it’s just being. These are precious moments. I get them sometimes when I’m writing, or really connecting with a coaching client. Providing a service to others should provide you at least some moments when you’re totally engaged in that way – whether with another person, an action or a creation. Without that, it will be hard to sustain your commitment.
- You feel good about yourself at the end of the day.
This is key. A job may sound important when you describe it at a cocktail party, but when you look back at what you’ve done after a day’s work, how do you feel? Do you feel like you accomplished something, helped someone, participated in an important effort, or otherwise added something to the world around you? Or do you feel like you’ve just wasted your time? Pay attention to that. Providing a real service should feel like you’re providing a service. It may not (and probably won’t be) fun or fulfilling every minute, but after you’ve spent a chunk of time on it, you should feel like you’ve done and contributed something of value. If you don’t, think about that – and consider when you do.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, just a few things to pay attention to. And it doesn’t mean you have to immediately quit your job if your work doesn’t meet these standards. But it does suggest you may want to ask yourself what’s really important to you, and how does your life now support those things? How can it better support them?
And if you have any other guidelines you’d like to add to this list, please do! That’s what comments are for.