It’s Not About You: Success is Better Based on Service Than Happiness

aparna bole

The combination of photo cards and social media make the holidays a time for our friends’ and families’ highlight reels to be writ large. Everywhere we turn, we encounter Instagrammed engagement scenes, tableaux of sparkly 2016 glasses and champagne flutes, and Christmas letters enumerating accomplishments.

Facebook tells us that our friends are feeling “blessed.” We read about the many things our loved ones are grateful for: “sunsets,” “wonderful children,” “treasured friends,” “exciting new professional endeavors.”

While it can be a joy to experience the joys of others, there has been much said about the fact that our highlight reels can get out of hand. There is something essentially self-centered about the approval seeking and blessing counting that we now do very publicly.

When reflecting about resolutions for the New Year, and the exercise of setting personal goals, I can’t help thinking about excessive introspection as an extension of this self-centeredness.

When I’ve been coached about setting goals, this process is often described in terms of personal soul-searching, “getting to know” or “finding” myself, and focusing on where I want to be some number of years in the future.

I have a hard time buying in to this “me”-centered approach to goal setting – it doesn’t inspire me, it feels viscerally wrong, and worst of all, it can be paralyzing. What are the next steps I need to take to achieve this ideal state I’ve articulated in my five-year plan, and what if I get it wrong?

In fact, the process of articulating this ideal state is itself intimidating. Have I covered all my bases? Have I accurately described my vision of success for personal, professional, and spiritual aspects of my life? I feel tired just thinking about it.

I’d like to propose a more outwardly-focused approach to setting goals. Questions that are helpful in this framework include ones like: Who needs my help? What are my obligations to others? What cause can I serve most effectively?

I’m a pediatrician; I work in a setting that serves socioeconomically disadvantaged communities and am active in environmental health advocacy. Focusing on service in setting my own goals is deeply woven into the fabric of my chosen profession, but I am hopeful that this perspective about defining goals based on advancing a cause, advocating for justice, and adhering to duty resonates with others across a diversity of professional and personal backgrounds.

In many cultures, including my South Indian family’s, the concept of duty underpins our values. On the other hand, duty and obligation can seem like constraints in an American psychology rooted in individualism and the pursuit of happiness.

Duty to others is actually a very liberating value when it comes to setting personal goals. Instead of grappling with abstract concepts of my ideal self and the daunting prospect of designing a five-year plan, it feels much clearer to me to consider my duties to others. I have obligations to honor and care for my parents, raise my children, partner my spouse, and support my friends and family. I believe I, and others with the capacity, also have a duty to address injustice and apply our abilities and resources in service of others, especially those less fortunate, and in service of causes greater than ourselves.

I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t be personally ambitious – I am, myself. In my own experience, using this framework of duty, obligation, activism, and advocacy to set my personal and professional goals has led to success in my career and personal life, in ways that I could not have anticipated in any five- or ten-year plan.

My career has been guided by the cause of environmental stewardship as a social justice and public health issue. When I have remained faithful to that cause, I’ve been able to align my energies and skills most effectively, gain professional satisfaction, and attain recognition in my field. Perversely, it’s by thinking about duty and service, and not at all about becoming my best self, that my best self has been revealed – I think this has also helped me to be a better parent, partner, family member, and friend.

It’s a legitimate concern that a complete focus on advocacy, activism, and concern for injustice can also be paralyzing, especially in these troubled times. As I write this, I’m in my home in Cleveland, Ohio, where we just learned that the officers who killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, the African American boy who was playing with a toy gun by himself outside of one of our neighborhood rec centers when he was shot by police, will not be indicted. Institutional racism, institutional dysfunction in our police department and government, and institutional unfairness in our justice system all conspired to create this monumental tragedy and injustice. With such mountains to climb, when struggling steps forward are swept back with such apparently casual power, it’s easy to despair, and question whether our service has value.

I was reminded recently by a wise friend of this oft-quoted commentary on Micah 6:8 from Perkei Avot:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

What sensible, clear advice this is. To me, thinking about pursuing my happiness or following my dreams is confusing, and actually burdensome. Perhaps counterintuitively, it is a relief to think instead: How can I do the most good, now? What wrong can I help to right? Who or what needs most what I have the capacity to offer? These questions are clear, and have answers that are actionable.

By using these questions as our starting point for setting goals and defining success, we can not only lift up others, but do better for ourselves than mere happiness. We can earn instead deep satisfaction, lasting fulfillment, and transcendent joy.

One thought on “It’s Not About You: Success is Better Based on Service Than Happiness

  1. THank you for this perspective – I especially keep re-reading this line: “it’s by thinking about duty and service, and not at all about becoming my best self, that my best self has been revealed.” — I will carry that with me as I start this new year.

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