A quote from Marcus Aurelius that I keep returning to is “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?” The quote reminds me that I should focus on doing good work and not on being rewarded or praised for doing good work. Simply knowing that I am helping others and making a positive impact in the world should be enough to justify the effort put into a good deed. At the same time, however, I do want to be recognized for my hard work and ability. I am ultimately unable to escape the human side of me which evolved in small tribes over hundreds of thousands of years desires recognition and enhanced social status as a result of my good actions.
What is important to remember is that the recognition I seek and the praise I desire has nothing at all to do with the good actions that I may undertake. I am not able to control who sees me doing a good deed, and I am not able to control their mental state and the extent to which they will thank me or praise me for what I have done. The only control I have in this context is control over my decision to do a good deed or not. With this in mind, another quote from Marcus Aurelius shapes the way I think about the positive things I do, or sometimes avoid, and why I do them (or not!). In Meditations he writes, “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to they mind, and never stop [doing such good].”
Aurelius is not talking about altruism in the quote above but simply talking about the reality of doing things that help the general population and not just our individual selves. As a practical day-to-day example I often think about unloading the dishwasher at work. It is not part of my job duties to empty or organize the dishwasher, but I know that if I take an extra minute or two, then everyone will benefit from having dishes put away and having more space in the dishwasher for dirty dishes. It may be extra effort and something I think everyone should do (not just myself or the office manager), but everyone benefits from my couple of minutes of extra effort, including me. The reward and benefit that I get from emptying the dishwasher is the same as everyone else, regardless of whether I am thanked or not. A lack of help and participation in doing a public good does not diminish the benefit that society or even oneself receives, even if there is no direct reward from a third party.
Aurelius’s idea is what forms the core of public service and volunteering and his idea is what we need so that we can improve society today. When we focus on doing something good for the general interest, we are rewarded by helping others and improving some aspect of the world for everyone. It is incredibly tempting to only take action that benefits us directly as individuals, but looking beyond our self-interest and doing something that is in the general interest can have a much longer and much broader impact. This cannot be done if we don’t become aware of our actions and motivations, and if we don’t get past the idea that we must be rewarded and recognized when doing positive and beneficial things.