What are you doing for others? Answering life’s great question (review)

kid signKids in our neighbourhood know who’s answering life’s great question.

Grown-ups working in hospitals and grocery stores, delivering mail and driving garbage trucks are getting shout-outs on homemade signs that kids are taping in windows and staking on front lawns.

They’re giving thanks to all the essential workers who are putting their lives on the line to get us through the pandemic. As these workers make meaningful contributions, the rest of us may want to make time for some self-reflection while we self-isolate and ride out the storm.

We can start with what Martin Luther King Jr. called life’s most persistent and urgent question – what are we doing for others?

Tom Rath says our answer is how we’ll create a life of contribution and find a deeper purpose beyond earning a paycheque.

life's great question“Life is not what you get out of it,” says Rath, researcher and author of Life’s Great Question. “It’s what you put back in.  All the talent, motivation and hard work in the world will not be valued or remembered if it does not help another human being.”

Daily demands and constant distractions make it easy to avoid thinking about how we could do more to serve our teams, families and communities.

“This is a consequential mistake,” says Rath. “Tomorrow is gone in an instant, another month rolls by, and eventually you have missed years, and then decades, of opportunity to make meaningful and substantive contributions.”

There’s a growing body of research that shows how selflessly serving others is in our best self-interest. Knowing that we’re making meaningful contributions improves our performance at work and boosts our physical health and mental wellbeing.

“I believe we all inherently know this – which makes the gap between what we’re currently contributing and what we have the ability to contribute all the more frustrating.”

Rather than following our passions and pursuing our own joy, Rath says we should instead focus on putting our skills and strengths to work in making the greatest possible contribution to others.

To figure out how best to invest our strengths, he’s identified 12 contributions grouped under themes of creating, relating and operating. A free online assessment will identify the top three contributions that best fit your strengths and meet the needs of others (you get the access code when you buy the book).

“You create meaning when your motivators, abilities and purpose meet to serve the world,” says Rath. “Knowing the first two things about yourself is important yet that is only half of the essential supply-and-demand equation. And all the self-awareness in the world can quickly go to waste if you fail to keep learning what the world needs from you and how you can best serve others.”

If there’s any upside to the pandemic, it may come from the sign-making kids who’ve learned from essential workers that putting purpose ahead of paycheques and leading lives of contribution is how we find the answer to life’s great question.

This review first ran in the April 17 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.


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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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