Rains: A Life Worth Living
Last week my family was supposed to be on vacation. Instead, we got served up a big ol’ batch of COVID. So, instead of 10 members of my extended family going on vacation together, only three were able to go. Huge downer. My wife and I were on the no-go list. Instead of vacation we were stuck at home binge-watching all four seasons of a Survivor-type show hosted by Bear Grylls called The Island. We watched people each season battle near-starvation and hypothermia from our comfortable couch while snacking. Such is the world of entertainment in the 21st century!
One crucial takeaway that showed up each season was how the competitors had to prioritize things related to survival. They had to find a water source almost immediately. Next, they had to start a fire to purify their water and stay warm in case of a storm. Then, after a couple days, they desperately needed food to keep their energy up to build a shelter. Once a rudimentary shelter was in place, it was important to get their beds elevated to avoid sand fleas and other ground critters. After all the necessities were fully in place, they then could finally turn their attention to beautifying and organizing their living area, as well as deepening the sense of purpose and community among them.
Sounds like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, doesn’t it? Each level of the hierarchy is built on the one below it: physical needs on the bottom, then safety and security, then love and belonging, then esteem, culminating in self-actualization or the desire to be all one can be.
Regardless of whether we’re on a deserted island or not, if the vast majority of our needs are met, we can call that success. We’ve made it. We may not have the lifestyle we want but our basic needs are met. We are not wondering where our next meal is coming from and we have at least a handful of meaningful relationships. For the more ambitious among us, we might still feel that we have a lot of room to achieve but, really, we are not all that vulnerable to our most basic needs going unmet.
Now what? What does it mean to go from success to lasting significance?
First, we look outward, beyond ourselves. As John Maxwell says, “Success is when I add value to myself. Significance is when I add value to others.” Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s important to care for our needs and our family’s needs. There are only two types of people who say, “I’m not doing this for the money”: liars or people who already have plenty. Of course we’re working hard to earn a living! Of course we want to make money!
It’s kind of like when the flight attendant on the plane tells us, in the event of an emergency, to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before our children. It may seem counterintuitive, at first, to not care for our children, but making sure we have oxygen is the most important thing we can do at that moment. It’s not selfish. It’s critical so that we can care for our loved ones. The same is true with money. We care for our needs so that we can care better for others. We can’t give what we don’t have.
Second, and very much related to the first, is to be generous. My friend Brian is the leader of a large nonprofit and he often says, “You will never need to wonder if your life was meaningful if you’ve been generous to help truly vulnerable people.” Generosity answers one of the biggest questions most people ask over the course of their lives, especially near the end: Did my life matter? If you’ve been generous, especially to the most vulnerable, you can confidently say, “Yes, it did.” Generosity of time and resources ensures that we leave a legacy that will outlive ourselves.
Third, is play to your strengths. Strengths are not just those things at which we excel. They are also things that bring us joy and that we can keep improving over a lifetime. I encourage people to use StrengthsFinder. Figure out not only what you’re naturally good at, but also what you enjoy so much that you’ll want to keep doing it and keep improving over your whole lifetime. If you get into the habit of playing to your strengths, others around you will be inspired to play to theirs. I have a friend who says, “What the world really needs is men and women who are fully alive.” When we play to our strengths, we are “fully alive,” thriving and not just surviving!
Don’t fall into the trap of going for success or significance—you can have both. By focusing outward on others’ needs—being generous with your time, money and resources, and playing to your strengths—you will live into a life truly worth living. As poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Make it count!