I wrote earlier about the three ways we live our lives. The first is we live to work. This is like my friend who has a “successful” business but ends up working in it all the time. While he may appear successful from the outside, in my book, he isn’t. The second is we work to live, which sounds reasonable. We make a living so we can pay off our bills and save some. While that makes sense, is it enough? It hardly gives you a reason to get out of bed every morning.
I’ve found the third option, which is living a life in service of others to make a difference in their lives. It’s both personally fulfilling and meaningful in terms of contributing to a greater cause. I’m convinced it’s the only way to live that gives real meaning to our lives and makes it worthwhile for us (and for those we serve) for the short time we find ourselves on this planet.
I’m reminded of a quote by N. Eldon Tanner:
Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.
Before we delve deeper into what it means to live a life of service, let’s talk about what it’s not.
Some of us mistakenly think living a life of service involves suffering or sacrifice (although these words are often used interchangeably, they mean different things), but serving others has little to do with these words. Service isn’t a sacrifice for those who are serving others — it’s only a sacrifice for those who view it from the outside. Although, a life of service can require struggle, it’s this struggle that brings us together.
Here’s an example: one of my spiritual advisors is a non-religious monk. She found her life’s calling in joining an organization that inspires people to live a more fulfilling life by living in soul consciousness. In order to be with this organization full-time, she left her parents a few years ago. While she continues to visit them in her hometown from time to time, she found a higher purpose through her work with this organization, whose vision resonated with her. She chose to live this life out of her own will. She doesn’t consider it a sacrifice (or suffering), but rather a life of joy and service to others.
Service and success don’t have to be mutually exclusive. How many of us say to ourselves we will make money now and do good towards the end of our lives after accomplishing XYZ? But we don’t have to wait until later to do good. We can do both right now. We should.
Living a life of service doesn’t have to be charitable. Sure, you can donate money or volunteer time for a good cause, but that’s not what we are talking about here. We can use our work (or business) as a way to live a life of service. It means the main goal isn’t to make money, which is only a means to doing work that matters. It’s simply fuel to sustain our cause. The irony is, when we use our work as a way to advance our cause, we are more successful because of it, not less. We are more successful because of it, not despite it.
Last, but not least, living a life of service doesn’t mean we spend most of our time working. Serving others through our work shouldn’t come at the cost of ourselves and our relationships. We need to help ourselves first before we can (choose to) help others.
The world conditions us to desire money, power, and fame. It can be addictive and easy to lose ourselves in its mindless pursuit. When you have some of it, you want more of it, but it’s not truly what you want. It’s not what feeds the soul. And yet, the challenge in life is to live a life of purpose. That means giving some of it up in order to do good for others. Sometimes, it means choosing to get paid less so you can contribute more.
Living a life of service isn’t about self-service but rather it has to benefit others. In fact, living a selfish life is an unhappy life. True fulfillment will never come from enriching ourselves but by making a difference in others’ lives. Besides, life is about subtraction, and not accumulation.
Here’s the thing, there is nothing to achieve in life. There is nowhere to arrive at. That thing we are looking to achieve or arrive at is always a mirage — a moving target. Life is not a race where you compete with others. You don’t get a prize at the end. Those of us who are lucky will realize this sooner in our lives rather than later. The unlucky ones will regret it later, but it’s too late by then.
Living a life of service is about waking up every day to be our best and to do our best (in that order). There is no greater success in the world than rightful living. In the end, all that matters is how we showed up every day for others. Loyal father, beloved son, caring friend, etc. Everything else will fade away.
We want to live a life of value in the lives of others. We want to be valued in the lives of others. True fulfillment comes from helping others, not ourselves. True success is about contribution — what you are doing for others.
Gandhi has said:
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
Above all, living a life of service means leaving the world better than you found it. To give back more to the world than you take from it.
Leaders, including Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr., have truly lived a life of service and inspired others along the way. They stood up for a cause they believed in and found others who believed what they believed. Those who were inspired by them showed up for themselves.
In order to truly live a life of service, we have to know the dream. We have to know the thing we’re going towards, so then we can take steps to get there. We have to have a vision, but it doesn’t have to be uniquely ours. We can find someone else’s vision that resonates with us and dedicate our lives to it. While we may not realize our vision in our lifetime, we can inspire others along the way and pass the torch to them, so they can advance our cause long after we are gone.
Living a life of service requires playing the long game. We must not allow ourselves to be trapped by the allure of the short-term rewards. While the latter might feel good in that instance, that feeling is fleeting at best.
Living a life of service requires making a choice. It might mean choosing to get paid less but to contribute more. It doesn’t mean you don’t make money. You absolutely do, but it’s a means to advancing your cause and not an end in and of itself, which is a pointless pursuit anyway.
Find an area that you’re passionate about. Find an area that speaks to you and you can make a difference in and that which brings you joy, sense of purpose, and fulfillment. We need to look outside of ourselves. One way to do that is to find something that makes us mad, which can inspire us to change the status quo.
We can’t live a life of service without learning to give. Here’s what I wrote:
As Buddha has said, when we light a lamp for someone else, it also brightens our path. You can also think of a tree that gives others shade without undermining itself. Or how a candle can light many other candles without diminishing its own light. There is always more to give.
If you do any service-oriented work, such as doctors or lawyers, please do justice to it. Do what’s best for your patients and clients rather than finding ways to enrich yourself. Ironically, when we take care of others, we do better in every which way, plus we inspire loyalty from others in the long run.
There are some who claim to be “servant leaders” or espouse practicing “servant leadership,” but adding the word, “servant” to leadership is redundant. To lead is to serve others and to serve is to lead others.
We can all live a life of service, be it to our loved ones, or the communities we serve outside of our immediate families.
Parenthood is about serving the children. It means loving them unconditionally. That requires accepting them for who they are rather than complaining about who they are not. Sometimes it means showing some tough love, but that’s because you love them and you want them to grow. In other words, we do what’s best for them (not us).
Children can also lead a life of service. I have a couple of older cousins in their mid-50s who are siblings. They have devoted their life to serving their parents, who were ill for the last many years until they passed away. They thought of their parents as God. They remained unmarried because they figured it would take them away from serving their parents in their old age. Even then, they never thought of it as a sacrifice. They were more than happy to do it. They would do it again if given the opportunity. This isn’t to say all children should remain single to serve their parents, but it does mean serving others in a way that resonates with us.
Here’s how I am leading a life of service. My vision is to live in a world where we act with intention, play to our strengths, and live modestly as a life ambition. I’ve dedicated my life to advancing this cause. I’m looking for as many people as possible to help me bring this vision to life. While I alone won’t be able to make this happen in my lifetime, I can inspire others along the way so they can further this cause long after I’m gone.
Life is only meant to be lived in service of others. The only thing that matters is what are we doing for others. Living a life of service gives meaning to our lives. We are inspired to wake up every day to live our Why. True fulfillment will never come from enriching ourselves. Besides, there is nothing to achieve in life. All that matters is we show up to be our best every day, play to our strengths to make a difference in others’ lives, and inspire others through our actions. It’s only when we look back at our lives and see in hindsight how we lived a life of service, we will be truly fulfilled. Nothing else will come close.