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.
Senator Cory Booker in his book, United, focuses on the connections that we as American’s all share, and how that should impact the way we think about the world. We must rely on each other and we must be responsible to each other if we are going to live in the same country and exist with a shared future. Booker was the mayor of Newark, New Jersey and wrote about the hope that he has always maintained for the city despite the displeasure that many people felt toward Newark.
“What others scorned, Newarkers defended. Where other saw fault, Newarkers described possibilities. Where others tore down, they sought to elevate. I was taken with this spirit. It spoke to ideas I had about America and our need to see one another for who we are, fellow citizens with interwoven destinies.”
Booker has a more positive outlook than most, and part of it is because he focuses on the possibilities he sees around him and the possibilities of the people he meets. So frequently when we look at where we live and who we interact with, rather than seeing potential and rather than helping elevate the positive aspects of others, we focus on the negative and try to find fault in others. Booker was mayor of Newark during the recession, and he would have had no shortage of things to complain about, but by doing so, he would have ignored the potential of the city and forgone dreams of better futures.
I think it is important that we try to think of other people as fellow citizens before we think of them as anything else. Creating a habit of seeing another person as a fellow citizen may help us overcome the snap judgements and implicit biases that we develop and often allow to operate just below the surface of our consciousness. By seeing what we share with others and how interwoven our lives are, we can see how much we depend on society and how much society depends on us. Focusing constantly on what is below the surface, how we are reacting to another, and on our shared citizenship helps us see that by connecting deeply, we can raise up ourselves and others.
It is easy to put ourselves first, but doing so risk the alienation of others. Thinking about how another feels and will react before we think of ourselves allows us to see that our actions can improve the lives of another person. Rather than being scornful of others, we should get closer to them in an attempt to improve their day in any small measure. Rather than finding fault with another and tearing them down for their mistakes, we should fold those reflections into our own lives to ensure that we avoid the same mistakes. We are all united, and it up to us to put the world on our back and carry forth positivity and a spirit of togetherness.
One of the last chapters in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is titled, “Something Bigger Than Yourself” and Holiday starts the chapter with a quote from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal—and to attend to his own soul.” Holiday continues by sharing the story of an American prisoner of war who brought unity to a POW camp and continued to serve for the men under his rank in the camp who were all enduring incredible torture and suffering. By focusing on others, and not himself, the prisoner of war in Holiday’s story was able to better the lives of all, and to make survival an option for everyone during the most challenging point in their lives.
The story from Holiday and the quote from Percy work together to show that we can find incredible meaning and joy in our lives when we begin to shift our focus away from ourselves and back toward others. There is no perfect balance of how much one should do for themselves and how much one should do for others, but focusing solely on yourself and seeking to only improve your life or the world for your purpose will leave you in an empty existence. Your home may be full of things, but your connections with the world around you will always be lacking.
I don’t approach the idea in a spiritual sense, but our time on earth is so short that there is always something bigger than ourselves that we can strive for. Our own happiness is meaningless in the sea of suffering and challenge around us, but we have the ability to begin to change the tides of struggle that wash against not only us, but of many of those that we encounter.
When we begin to live life thinking of what we can do to make the world a better place for those around us, we can find purpose and meaning anywhere that we are. We can recognize that the timeline of the earth and human civilization will outlast us, meaning that there will be something greater than us that goes beyond our lifetime. Anything positive that we can do now, will have a lasting impact on those around us and will hopefully outlive us. We do not have to worry about how large our good actions are, we only need to worry that we complete those actions. The small scale of positive actions should not dismay us, for we would never get started if we thought that our positivity must change everything in the world.
In his book The Go Giver Bob Berg tells a story that relates back to positive ideas about business and the sales side of business. It is often hard to picture positive things coming from a work and business environment, especially when companies and executives are portrayed as greedy and selfish. In his book, Berg lays out a better platform for looking at and understanding business contexts. He talks about the importance of developing relationships of trust within our professional lives, and acting with integrity as a genuinely nice person to others. His cornerstone idea rests with treating other people well, and providing more in value than you receive in payment. In other words, Berg is focused on giving more than asking and taking. Hi book explores how the idea of giving can lead one to become very successful, especially at points where we need to rely on others for assistance.
Throughout his book he dives into multiple themes and ideas, and one idea that resonated with me was his thoughts on perspective. Berg writes, “See the world as a dog-eat-dog place and you’ll always find a bigger dog looking at you as if you’re his next meal. Go looking for the best in people, and you’ll be amazed at how much talent, ingenuity, empathy and good you will find.” What Berg is identifying her is the importance of what we are focusing on and trying to perceive. Our perspective can be limited to only the negative aspects of any place that we are at, which will only lead to the continued flood of negative thoughts and perceptions. Berg continues, “Ultimately, the world treats you more or less the way you expect to be treated.” He is showing us how confirmation bias can affect our workplace, and how disastrous it can be if we are not aware of the thoughts that we build.
What Berg explains in his two quotes is the idea of perspective and expectations shaping our experiences. Our presumptions and prejudices will change the way we interact with others, which will be noticeable to them, and in the end our attitude will shape the way we are treated by those with whom we interact. A negative mindset will prevent us from connecting with those around us or in our community and will lead to others having negative thoughts about us. In his book, Berg explains that a positive perspective can help us become successful because it changes the expectations we have about our work, and allows us to reach for new possibilities.
I decided to purchase Richard Wiseman’s book, 59 Seconds
, after I listened to him have a conversation on one of my favorite podcasts, Smart People Podcast
. On the show Wiseman discussed luck and neuroscience, and I was fascinated throughout the entire episode. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to buy one of Wiseman’s books, especially since there was a piece of advice from the show that I was able to implement immediately. Wiseman talked about creating a “luck diary” to increase your awareness and focus on the lucky and positive parts of your life, and he discussed the benefits that could come with the increased awareness and positivity. Once I dove into 59 Seconds
I came across a section about gratitude, and I saw a more in depth explanation of the importance of my small luck diary.
Regarding a study on gratitude Wiseman wrote, “those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier – and they even exercised more.” The idea of the study was to ask people to journal for a few minutes each week on various topics. One group wrote about things that annoyed them, another group journaled about events and things that happened in the day, and the third group reflected on things they were grateful for. The human brain learns to adapt to its environment and to stop noticing the things that are always around. Wiseman argues that this loss of conscious awareness occurs even with our own happiness leaving us without a sense of appreciation for the opportunities, luck, and positive events around us as they begin to feel common place and normal. Journaling about luck brings those positive moments back to the forefront of our minds, and helps us remember and be aware of the positives.
I don’t know that my luck journal has made me happier, healthier, or helped me exercise more, but I do enjoy the reflective nature of the process. I enjoy sitting on my bed each night and thinking about what I am grateful for or what lucky things happened during my day. Often times I had forgotten about how much went on in my day until I finally sit down and focus to remember each little event that I could describe as a lucky moment. I enjoy remembering the luck and the positive moments, but I also enjoy working my memory and sifting through all that happened in a day.
James Harmon published his book, Take My Advice, as a collection of letters written to him by creative artists, writers, and philosophers. Some of the letters are very short, lasting only a page or two, and some of the letters are full essays. Joe-Peter Witkin is one artist and photographer who supplied a short page-long letter for Harmon’s book. His letter is all about perspective and interpretation, “Your life is the life of the world.” Witkin uses this quote to explain that we get to choose how we want to see the world and assign meaning to the events that occur around us. Witkin continues, “If your life is of love, the world will love. Anything less and the world will continue to bleed.”
I truly believe that we all have something inside us that urges us to be the best version of ourselves possible, and pushes us to do positive things each day. Each small positive action on its own may be meaningless, but I like to view each small positive action as a tiny grain of sand being added to the good side of a giant balance beam. The more positive acts that we put into the world, the more sand piles up on the good side, and when everyone begins to adopt this focus we pile on the positivity to outweigh the negativity.
The quote from Witkin shows that we can choose how we want to react to the world, but also how we want the world to react to us. When we begin to see good things in other people as opposed to the negative, then we change how we act towards others which in turn causes others to act more positively towards us. When we adopt a softer and more compassionate view of reality, that reality will then begin to reward us by providing us with new opportunities and positive events. Richard Wiseman in his book, 59 Seconds, would agree with Witkin, and he would push people a level further. Rather than just deciding that one would like to see the world more positively, Wiseman would return to scientific research to encourage everyone to journal about the positive events in their life, or to write about what they enjoy in other people, their job, or their city. This process forces the individual to process the good things and to truly evaluate their situation which drives the meaning to a new level in their mind. When we turn to journaling we truly shape our mind to become more positive as we learn to avoid fixating on the negativity.
I will end this post with the anecdote that Witkin used to end his letter, “Recently, I heard a story of two men who worked carrying stones. One of the men was asked what he was doing. He replied, “I carry stones.” When asked the same question, the other replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Spiritual leader Ram Dass wrote a letter to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice, and in his letter he quoted Mahatma Gandhi by saying, “What you do may seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Dass continued on adding his own idea about Gandhi’s quote, “It is important for yourself, as well as for the balances in the world.” This quote resonates with me because it is very easy to feel like a small, isolated, and powerless individual in such a large and complex world. However, approaching the world from the standpoint of this quote, all action seems to have meaning, even if it is small and nearly unnoticeable.
This blog may go unnoticed and it may often feel insignificant for me. However, when I take the approach laid out by Dass, I see that the blog serves a higher purpose than attracting attention or representing me. The blog gives me a chance to reflect about important ideas and work over my thoughts. It helps me return to ideas that I had come across in reading, and as my mind reprocesses ideas I gain a greater mastery of those ideas. Dass would argue that these little steps help me fortify my mind in what ever direction I happen to read and study, which in the end establishes my position on the universal balance beam of understanding vs. ignorance for whatever it is I write.
I think a metaphor that can apply to what Dass is explaining using Gandhi’s quote would be the image of a hanging balance scale. If we compare positivity and negativity, in a broad sense we can imagine the scale has one bucket on each side, and each side is being filled with sand. Every act of kindness in the world becomes one grain of sand dropped into the bucket on the left, and each act of negativity becomes one grain of sand dropped on the right. Our actions of holding a door open for someone, picking up a soda can off the street, or becoming more self aware of our actions towards others will build up the sand pile on the left, and increase the amount of positivity being weighed on our balance scale. However, if we assume that every action is meaningless and allow ourselves to disregard negative activity because the action feels insignificant, we inadvertently pile more sand onto the negative scale. Off hand comments, lazy acts of pollution, and a disregard for the feelings of others are all tiny grains of negative sand that build up and depress the world with negativity.
Thinking about working towards a positive tilt in the universal balance of good and evil gives our lives and actions a new meaning. Rather than focusing on how small our actions seem to be, we can think of whether or not our actions add value to those around us or the universe in general. If it is unclear how our actions add value, then we can at least ask if our actions become a grain of sand on the positive or negative side of our balance. These tiny actions can add up, and help us create a life that leans towards positivity, or whatever attribute we seek.