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New Year’s Contributions

As each calendar year ends, most of us scramble to list areas of our lives we’re failing in and set about resolving to address those failures. We look within at these times. What am I dissatisfied with? My appearance? Relationships? My career or lack thereof? How can I fix these? The gym? Better communication? A new job? 

The result of this period of assessment is a list of resolutions. Invariably it’s an unrealistic list. We try to “fix” too many things too quickly. Resolving to hit the gym six times a week from a standing (or lying) start will soon fall flat, whereas doing one push-up a day is sustainable in the beginning and can be steadily built upon.

Aside from advising starting small with resolutions to make their achievement more likely in the long-term, I’d like to offer an alternative to the whole process. Instead of looking within as the year prepares to increment by one, lift your head up and look around you. Instead of focussing on yourself to the point of obsession, focus on someone else. Ask yourself how you can be more helpful to others this upcoming year. 

Yes, you can change the world by changing yourself, but there are different ways to do that. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, a benevolent act isn’t to the detriment of your own self-interest. Quite the opposite in fact:

“Have I done something for the common good? Then I share in the benefits.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.4

But with so many people needing help, so many worthy causes, how do we choose what to contribute to?

Here are some thoughts that may help with that decision:

  • Doing any good is better than doing no good. 
  • Find the cause that has meaning for you and make a start, however small.
  • Everything out there needs help, so don’t get baited into “my cause can beat up your cause” arguments with no right answer.
  • Seeking to further your career to earn more money for charitable causes can be a good option if you want to contribute funds rather than time. This practice is called earning to give.
  • If, at the end of each day, you can provide a non-”no-one” answer to the question “Who have I helped today?” you’ll sleep easier.

It sounds counter intuitive but placing your focus outside yourself can be the key to finding contentment and meaning within yourself. As a new year approaches and you prepare to reset your mindset, don’t forget to forget yourself:

“The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

But what if you’ve thought long and hard and still can’t commit to a specific cause? The answer to that is simply to adjust your attitude. Adopt what Tim Ferriss calls a “service attitude”:

“Service isn’t limited to saving lives or the environment. It can also improve life. If you are a musician and put a smile on the faces of thousands or millions, I view that as service. If you are a mentor and change the life of one child for the better, the world has been improved. Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives. Service is an attitude.”

That might mean helping your elderly neighbour with their groceries, carrying out an anonymous act of kindness, or simply offering someone an ear to listen to their troubles. Whatever it is, do your best and don’t get hung up on the outcome. If you’ve helped someone today, you’ve done your job:

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.1

Don’t take on too much straight away or you risk losing motivation and giving up very quickly. Build up steadily as the year progresses. Then look back on the good you’ve done, and forward to doing more.

Start small – on January 1st, do one push up.