We all know John F. Kennedy’s most famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
This isn’t just advice for being a good citizen. Paraphrased, it’s excellent career advice: “Ask not what the world can offer you—ask what you can offer the world.”1
This idea is a great guiding principle when considering larger career moves, but in this post, let’s consider its usefulness as a day-to-day philosophy.
Giving vs. receiving
Most of us, myself included, tend to focus on ourselves by default.
“What do I need? How can this situation benefit me?”, we wonder, laboring under the misconception that we’ll be better off if we receive as much as possible. We’re not trying to be calculating and Machiavellian, but our default posture is usually one of self-concern. We think we’ll be happier receiving: attention, help, and credit.
But we human beings are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy, and the equation is the other way around: we’re happier giving these things to others. Giving isn’t just more blessed; it really is more fun. And just to top things off, giving often ends up helping us, too. The reason is simple:
Most people, when helped, look for a way to return the favor.
Now, we do have to apply common sense. As Adam Grant notes in Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, we can give too freely, such that we have no time or energy to get our own work done. Just as it’s possible to become a self-obsessed narcissist, it’s possible to become a doormat, never looking out for oneself. A little self-interest is definitely healthy.
But smart giving is a winning strategy. Here’s my favorite quote on this subject (courtesy of the late, great Zig Ziglar):
“If you help enough other people get what they want, you can have everything you want.”
At the end of the (work)day, we’re all better off when we seek to give.