Meaning through service

Could you name three of the Nobel prize winners of the last year?

Not long ago, many men found life’s meaning in providing their families with food, shelter and clothing. It was perceived a very fulfilling task to “do your work” disciplined and without complaint, such that your family could eat and your children could go to school.

Because it is now so common to have your basic needs covered – and often much more – most young women and men do not feel fulfilled by merely “earning a living”. We are looking for something more – we want our lives to be meaningful. In conversations with friends, many have expressed the wish or desire “to have an impact in the world”. This leads many young people to pursue paths where they could one-day run foundations, build software that “reaches millions” or become CEO’s of large corporations. I think this “long-term meaning” is insufficient to bring true fulfillment.


Now, can you name three people who have made a big difference in your life?

If you are like me, you will have difficulty to recall the names of Nobel prize winners – people who made an impact in the world. Fame and “impact” are short-lived, because the world is transient. No one should have difficulty to name the people who made a difference in their lives.

Every day we have the opportunity to give meaning to our lives by helping the people directly around us. We can be helpful through simple actions: visiting your grandmother with groceries, spending a few hours mentoring kids, assisting a friend in preparation for an important meeting. A lot of meaning is found, however, in these small activities. I am not advocating that we give up our quest to provide meaning on a “large scale”, but I urge you to realize that at least as much of a difference can be made in the way you live your life from day to day.

This post was inspired by two readings: Clayton Christensen’s blog on belonging and believing, and Albert Schweitzer’s “Essential Writings”.

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