Linking Life Goals and Service

There is a central career question that we all must grapple with:  “What do you care more about — doing something or being someone?”  – a mentor

We should all have life goals – personal and professional goals that we aim to achieve over the course of some period of time.  The most important reason to craft life goals is to provide meaning and direction to our lives.   And, of course having goals also helps answer the perfunctory, “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question during your next interview!

Yes, life goals are important.  But, if you only have the goals, without first answering an important question, you may be missing something.  What’s the question?  A simple but powerful one:   “How do I do best serve others?”

When we set life goals without the forethought of our service, it can quickly and sadly become too much about us:

  • What financial rewards we want to achieve.
  • What title or position we want to occupy.
  • What size house we want to own, etc.

But when we focus first and regularly on a different question – the question of “how do I best serve others?”  we reframe our work, our relationships, our lives, and our successes.  And if we steadily implement answers to this question which are creative, meaningful, and meet the needs of others, all of our other more self-focused goals (such as the bulleted ones above) will be exceeded or become much less important to us.

Especially in the non-profit arena in which we work, we should regularly be thinking about this question of serving others.  We have chosen the education, healthcare, or social non-profit fields to serve.  But even leaders in the “self-first” for-profit world understand the importance of answering this question.  If you think about successful business leaders you will undoubtedly find that they have answered this service question for themselves.

For instance, Mark Zuckerberg, a founder and the CEO of Facebook, didn’t start out with a goal to a become multi-billionaire.  Facebook was started to provide people with more connectivity to other important people in their lives.  “To help people understand what was going on in their world a little better,” as Zuckerman has stated.   In other words to provide a service to others.

Howard Schultz wasn’t interested in simply selling coffee when he bought the small Starbuck’s company in 1987. Instead, he wanted to provide people with an experience. The much-written about 3rd place – a public square of sorts between home and work where people congregate, interact, enjoy each other’s company and a well-made coffee drink.  He focused on serving.

And I’m sure you can think of countless other examples.  They are everywhere.

There is an old saying about leadership:  “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”  Focus first on meaningfully meeting the needs of others.

In my research on college presidents, I found that leaders who focus primarily on advancing themselves and their careers did neither – they flame-out and their careers are derailed.  Truly successful leaders focus on and find great meaning in the advancement and promotion of those around them.  Additionally, they find the accomplishments of their institutions as fulfilling if not moreso than their personal successes.  They also find long-term tenures because they focus first on serving others.

When we think first about our service, we rightly move away from our more self-oriented disposition.    And when we make sure our goals are in alignment with our answers to “how do I best serve others?” we are closer to achieving true and lasting success – no matter how you define it.


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