Is Being Useful All There Is?

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Recently, a connection on LinkedIn posted an article entitled “In 4 Words, Will Smith Outlines the Secret to True Happiness in Life.”

I love Will Smith, so I read it.

Those four words alluded to in the title?

“Being useful to others.”

Smith talked about how he has been fortunate to experience the markers of success in his life.  In fact, he put it this way, “I’ve been to the top of money, I’ve had all the sex that I’ve ever wanted, I’ve had adoration.  I’ve been to the top of all those material-world mountains. [The] only thing that will satisfy … is that what you’re doing is useful.”

I immediately thought of two things. Maslow and that a wheelbarrow is useful.

I’ll begin with the first.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published his Hierarchy of Needs theory about human motivation. This 5-tiered model discussed our needs in the following areas: Physiological, Safety, Love & Belonging, Esteem and Self-Actualization.

The 5 levels are further categorized into 3 groups. Physiological & Safety fall under Basic Needs. According to Maslow, we focus on meeting these first. Next is Love & Belonging, as well as Esteem which are in the category of Psychological Needs. Finally, Self-Actualization is labeled under Self-Fulfillment Needs.

For Maslow, the concept of fulfillment comes from actualized growth and achieving (striving to achieve) one’s full potential.

According to Smith, this comes from being useful or otherwise put, being of service.

The point I would like to make, first, is that all needs must be met, as Maslow has stated it.  It’s not a question, as humans, of “if,” but “how.”

In other words, all needs are significant. It’s simply a question of what level we are focused on depending on where we are in our development.

For people like Smith, who have lived a life filled with opportunities to meet the first four needs on a pretty consistent and significant level, it can be a natural next step to reach the realization that being useful to and for others is what offers the experience of fulfillment.

Again, however, Self -Actualization is about growth and meeting one’s full potential. Being useful to others can be one part of this, but it is clearly not the whole story.

So, do we have to have wealth, fame and high levels of material success to get to the same level of realization that Smith has?

I would argue, no, and I also believe we do need to truly understand our inherent value and how this is valuable in the world to sustainably experience fulfillment. It really isn’t simply about “being useful.”

In my work, I talk with people all the time who speak of a focus on being helpful, there for others and wanting only to serve. They also talk about feeling depleted, unappreciated and in some cases, “used.”

When we look only at “usefulness” we will, often, place ourselves in any situation and circumstance that we determine needs what we have to give.

When we focus on being “valuable,” we measure the value add to the value of the situation – we want to give what we have (knowing what it’s worth), not just to give, but to add value … to make what we are giving to more valuable.

In order to do this, we also need the balance of give and receive.

Simon Sinek spoke to this point in a podcast (19:20-20:08) with Gary Vaynerchuk about “giving and getting” in company culture.

Sinek highlighted the importance of a balanced relationship between your “why” and a company’s “why.” He shared that what he looks for and asks a potential candidate is what do they want to give and what do they want to take from working with his organization.

He says if someone cannot answer this, he doesn’t hire them. He knows that down the line, if a person is not clear on what they have to give and what they need to receive, they will eventually get to the point where they are thinking they aren’t getting (or even able to give) what they want, and usually will blame the company or situational circumstances within the company, but will not look to themselves as the reason. “It always needs to be balanced,” says Sinek.

I believe what this speaks to, ultimately, is an understanding we all need to come to about what it takes for us to meet the needs we have.

If we focus, simply, on what we are giving and on being useful, then we can easily overlook what we need in order to fill up our own tanks. In other words, what do we need to have to continue to give, sustainably, and feel fulfilled doing so?