When I enter a bookstore or scroll through Amazon, I immediately beeline to the “Self-Help” section. Telling myself that I always have room to grow, books on “Time Managment”, “Decluttering”, and “Productivity” draw me in. Yet, in real life, the times I’ve felt most fulfilled are when I’ve helped others in my life. Whether that be writing something helpful on the blog, tutoring students, or supporting my friends on their fitness commitments, I’ve reframed my life to trade asking How can I help myself? to How can I help others?.
Trade asking How can I help myself? to How can I help others?
I put myself first to serve others
There seem to be two groups of people in modern society: 1) The Me-Generation, who celebrate individualism and personal success, and 2) Social critics who roll their eyes when they read paragraphs filled with “I"s. Those who praise individualism champion personal development and non-stop personal enhancement, while those in the second camp yearn for more societal collectivism. Both camps have valid points, but in life, I prefer to tread a middle-ground.
Whether I make big decisions, handle difficult conversations, or prioritise my tasks, I heavily rely on my personal preferences and abilities. These self-oriented goals nevertheless help me in my mission: seeing those around me thrive and get better. A great example is when I spent time teaching my mom how to ride a bike. This problem rings a bell to many first-generation immigrants. My mom and dad taught me how to ride a bicycle, yet they had no clue how to pedal. So when my mom approached me to learn, we made a pact to practice riding every day. After many falls, wrong turns, and sudden brakes, I cheered her on as my mom progressed.
The critical point in this story is that to help my mom, I needed to learn how to bike first. This brings me to my point: to be of use, and genuinely support those around us to thrive, we need to put ourselves first. This can be in any field. Learning a new language lacks value unless we use it to help others understand what we say. Reading books for the sake of reading may help us improve our vocabulary, but there’s vast value in sharing our reading insights with others.
Intersecting Business and Service
Service-oriented missions can drive businesses to innovate in new directions. People seem to have this false dichotomy: We think making a profit is entirely selfish, while time spent volunteering is praiseworthy. Yet there are tangible examples of businesses serving others, improving their lives, while still making a profit.
One great example is the course content I helped develop as a TA in my Artificial Intelligence workshops. While TA’ing, I made an income, yet I also derived joy while flexing my creative muscles to design original course content. One of my favourite podcasts is How I Built This. The show features savvy social entrepreneurs who’ve mastered service and business. One of my favourites is a company started by the physician, Dr Iman Abuzeid called Incredible Health. She built a company to help hospitals effectively employ nurses, a resource I wish my mother had when she spent almost two years searching for a job as a fresh Nursing School graduate.
This business, along with countless others, has a definitive socially-oriented mission, but they also know how to profit.
Writing as a Form of Service
In one of my prior posts, I talk about how writing helps me to unpack my thoughts and strategize around my life. As I’ve grown, I also appreciate writing now as a form of service. For instance, during the Summer, I worked with a team of computer science students to publish a paper on Deep Learning.
We worked on the project as a component of Stanford’s CS231n course, and as our situation was unique (we were working remotely throughout everything), we decided to draft a blog post for the course’s website. After a couple of weeks writing, the class’s online course notes feature our blog post for other students to learn from our experience.
Working on that project taught me how writing is an essential part of service. There’s actually a great quote from the great Arabic poet, Abu Ishaq Al-Ilbiri, (see an analysis here):
يزيدُ بِكَثرةِ الإنفاقِ مِنهُ | و يَنفُقُ إنَّ بِهِ كفَّا شَدَتا
It (knowledge) increaseses the more you spend it | And decreases if you hold on to it [stingily]
When we spend from our knowledge, for example, by preserving it through writing, its impact grows exponentially. When we hide our insights, we tend to forget them, and their potential decays.
Overall, I’ve exchanged asking “How can I improve?” to “How can I improve to help others?”. This cognitive reframing has increased my ability to (as stated by Steve Jobs) “put a dent in the universe”. So, as I continue to visit bookstores, I hope to see some changes: Just as there’s an entire isle on “Self Help”, I look forward grabbing a book from the section called “Helping Others”.