“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” –Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
A few weeks ago, I delivered a TEDx talk at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, USA. In a meet and greet after the event, I began chatting with a student so full of passion he was on the verge of exploding. I listened as he went on about his aspirations to see the world, to find meaningful work, and of the type of social impact he hoped to make.
I commended him, because quite honestly, his aspirations were far holier than mine at his age. As a young buck, my sights were set on graduating university, landing a well-paying job, and looking forward to the next boxes I’d check off — which, of course, was before calling bullshit on living life strictly by the boxes.
Then the student said one thing in particular that startled me:
“Eventually I want to adopt and raise a child from somewhere, like China. I want to see the direct impact of helping someone.”
First, I applauded him for wanting to do something so selfless. But more than that, for knowing he wanted to do such a thing with such a certainty.
But what startled me was how he defined helping someone. He had a very specific idea of what it meant to help people: helping people involved the specific action of adopting a child. And this act of helping someone was something that occurred someday in the future.
I Want to Help People!
Strangely enough, the student’s comment reminded me of an Escape Evening event I attended in 2012, long before I joined the team to help build The Escape School. I was at the tail end of my sabbatical-fueled seven month European wandering, and decided to pass through London on my way back to the States. Beside me were corporate professionals who felt lost in their meaningless jobs and wanted to do something more purposeful with their time (if you’ve attended one of our recent events you’ll notice not much has changed!)
The facilitator that night, career coach Phil Bolton, asked people what they wanted to do instead — no, what they really wanted to do — if money or other earthly obstacles were no object.
Some of the answers in the room sounded like:
- “I’m a Senior Consultant at ABC firm, but I want to do volunteer work in West Africa.”
- “I’m a Lawyer and my job is shit. I want to give back. Maybe start a social enterprise.”
- “I’m a Investment Banker, but I really want to work for a non-profit.”
- “I’m a Marketing Director at XYZ corporation, but I want to do something to help people.”
In other words, most people replied with a variation of “I want to help people.” And almost everyone equated “helping people” to working at a non-profit, flying across the globe to volunteer their time, or starting a social business.
These answers were refreshing. And luckily, helping people through social enterprises still holds the heaviest subset of opportunities available at Escape the City. The answers reflected an idea I wanted to believe in — that deep down, at the end of the long and winding tunnel of existence, most of us have an urge to give ourselves to others. We want to pay it forward. We want to help people. We want to give back to humanity in some way.
Which reminded me of horrific scenes found inside a Nazi concentration camp.
Thoughts from a Nazi Death Camp
Austrian psychiatrist and professor Viktor Frankl endured years of unspeakable horror in Nazi death camps. Upon reflecting on his experience in his 1959 tome Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl grew to believe that man’s primary motivational force is his search for meaning. And that meaning, he believed, was always found looking outside of oneself:
“…The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system…being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
In light of Frankl’s revelations, those answers chanting “I want to help people” made perfect sense. For those of us looking for more purpose and meaning in our lives, specifically in our work and careers, we know deep down that the quickest way to finding that purpose is to live for something outside of ourselves — to work toward something much bigger than just us, for a reason much larger than our own tiny individual existence.
But at the same time, those “I want to help people” answers bothered me. In a similar way that the Lafayette student’s aspiration to one day adopt a child caused me to pause.
Maybe it was my weird perspective as a corporate consultant who had just spent half a year in hostels, hitchhiker gatherings, and Serbian slavas. Maybe it was having been the recipient of the rawest kinds of kindness as a stranger in strange lands. Maybe it was because I thought I could feel the pulse of humanity in a way I had never felt before. Maybe these answers bothered me because they challenged the very definitions of Giving and Helping People I had grown to believe in over those previous several months.
Like a steaming hot plate of sarma, a burning question entered my head:
Is “Helping People” Really Dependent on us Quitting Our Jobs?
Which, I admit, is an odd thought coming from someone who would soon be quitting his job. And maybe even smug given that my journey was not centered at all around about volunteerism or helping people in need. If I’m honest about it, my trip was more about selfish self-discovery than selfless service.
But one thing I grew to appreciate through that trip was the simple concept of intentional kindness. Kindness that was shown to me and kindness I had the opportunity to show, in every new moment, in every new city and new country, on the most basic levels of human interaction.
The real reason these answers bothered me was because I grew to understand the fallacy in placing The Destination on such a romantic pedestal, in travel and in life.
Much like deferring your real life for retirement or “saving sex for your old age,” as Warren Buffett so aptly put it, placing the things that are important to us in some unforeseen and non-guaranteed day in the future poses “the most serious risk of all:”
“…the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” —Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle.
Could the same be applied to Helping People? To Giving?
What if we didn’t have to wait until we quit our jobs to help people?
What if “Helping People” is not some far away destination, but rather, a mindset?
What if “helping” the people right in front of us, simply treating one another with respect and kindness, had more of a rippling impact than the grand notions of “helping people” in some far off metaphorical destination in our brains? What if helping people through basic, everyday interactions today is far superior to helping people someday?
Someday Disease & The Deferred Life Plan
“‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.” —Tim Ferriss
By placing “helping people” as an event that takes place in some unforeseen day in the future, we risk contracting “Someday Disease.” Which is kind of like living according to the Deferred Life Plan.
The Deferred Life Plan is concept conceived in Randy Komisar’s The Monk and the Riddle. There are two steps in life according to this plan.
- Step One: Do what you have to do. Then, eventually…
- Step Two: Do what you want to do.
This concept implies that we spend our life working hard doing something uninspiring so we can retire one day and then devote our time to our passion. The problem is that life’s timeline is unknown. We may never reach one day.
In Komisar’s words:
“The Deferred Life Plan also dictates that we divorce who we are and what we care about from what we do in that first step…we hope and suppose that when we get [to the second step], we will be able to resurrect our passions on our own terms. If we get there.”
This was how I used to view my dream of long-term travel. I thought that one day the stars would align in a way in which the opportunity would present itself on a silver platter. When I realized I needed to create the opportunity and forge the silver platter — a platonic shift occurred within me. I stopped deferring and I started living.
The same, I believe, goes with giving and helping people. It’s possible that meaning and purpose in our lives may not arrive the moment we land in West Africa; it’s possible it won’t smack us in the face as soon as we start working at a non-profit. Meaning and purpose may be found there. But perhaps they can also be found when we recognize the opportunity to help the very people staring us in the face each day.
What Helping People Is and What It Isn’t
By limiting the scope of “helping people” to a far away destination like a two-year stint in the Peace Corps or the daunting task of creating the next charity: water, we’re missing out on the daily opportunities to help people.
Helping People isn’t an event that takes place in the future. It’s something that can occur right now.
Helping People doesn’t start when you quit your job. It starts when you wake up.
Helping People isn’t a destination. It’s a way of life.
Sometimes, the secret sauce to helping people is the human something we can offer to each other in every interaction. It’s found when we treat one another as fellow struggling and suffering human beings, regardless of whether that struggling exists on the lowest level of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or at the top.
Helping People is genuinely caring about the person you’re talking to.
Helping People is asking a foreigner about their life, their culture, and their language.
Helping People is complimenting someone who did something you admire.
Helping People is thanking someone when they compliment you.
Helping People is cherishing the beautiful people in your life with genuine acts of sneakiness.
“To get the most success out of life have no agenda other than to give whatever you can in the present moment. A smile, a laugh, a quarter, a helping hand, an introduction or just your listening ear is more powerful than you can imagine.” –Jackson Kiddard
You don’t need to leave your job to start adding purpose to your life (although it may help — sometimes we do just need to sell our shit, pack a bag, and hit the road.)
But if we look at Giving and Helping People like far off foreign destinations, we’ll probably be disappointed and we’ll likely fall short. At best, we get there one day. At worst, we never get there.
It doesn’t mean we don’t aspire to build enterprises with huge social impact, or start working with those non-profits we admire. But by equating “helping people” solely to encompass these grand gestures, I think we’re missing the point.
Helping People isn’t destination. It’s a mindset.
If you know that one day, someday, you want to help people; you want to give back; you want to make a difference; you want to make people happy.
Then maybe that someday can start today.
What does “Helping People” mean to you?
This post originally appeared at The Escape School as “One Day I Want to Escape and Help People. Where Do I Start?”