Create something that serves others.
Years ago, my dad asked me a question while we were working on the landscaping at our home. The work was hard but monotonous enough to not prevent us from having a good discussion. My dad went for something deep.
“What do you think will make you happy when you’re older?”
I suspect he was trying to help me figure out what I wanted to do. I was a teenager, so, of course, I had no idea. I don’t remember how I answered. A few ideas crossed my mind — have money, a family, be successful.”
My dad believed that money may make you comfortable, or popular. But it won’t make you happy.
“Money will never make you happy. But something else will. No matter what you do, you have to serve other people. You can do it through your work, or your family, or something else. But that is the only way to be happy.”
He told me about how he ran his dental practice. His goal was not to make money. His main goal was to serve his patients by helping them become healthy and happy with their smiles. If he does that, then the money will follow. But more importantly, he would be happy.
I completely agree that serving others is part of the formula for happiness.
But over the years, I have learned that there is another thing I need to do.
The First Requirement: Serve
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”
— Albert Schweitzer
As a teenager, I remember not knowing what it meant to “serve others”. Essentially, it means putting other people’s needs first. It is like the old Zig Ziglar quote: you can have anything you want if you just help enough other people get what they want.
My dad served as a great example of how to serve in a professional setting.
- His entire dental practice was based on serving his patients.
- New patients start with a 90 minute meeting to start the process.
- My dad would first interview the patient by asking about the patient’s health goals.
- Then he developed a plan with the patient for the patient to become healthy, by meeting the goals that they discussed together.
- This approach is different from starting with the attitude that I need to make money, and then determining how to work on the patient to benefit me.
- The odd part is, the more he started with a patient’s needs and desires first, the more patients referred him to others, and the more money he actually made.
I learned this same lesson during my time in sales. Most people don’t like people who sell and they don’t like being sold. Yet I learned that the best salesperson starts with the mindset that the customer needs to be served. I love working with a good salesperson — one who first spends time asking me what I need and want, and then proposes solutions.
How do you recognize this type of salesperson? It’s easy. They listen. And here’s a sign of the best ones: if they can’t solve your problem, they recommend a competitor who is a better fit.
I love working with people who aim to serve first. They just seem happier, right?
The Second Requirement: Create
“Great talent finds happiness in execution.”
After years of living with my dad’s advice — serve others — I felt the need to add to his single requirement.
For me, I needed something more.
So what did I need?
I love the illustration that starts with imagining a glass of water. If you put your finger in the water, the water is displaced. But as soon as you pull your finger out, the water fills in the space — and it looks like your finger was never there.
The same can be true about our lives.
We live for a period, and then when we pass, no one can tell that we even lived.
My solution — and the addition to my father’s rule — allows us to leave something in the glass that makes it unmistakable: I was here.
My solution is this: create something.
Most of us yearn to create. It is different for everyone.
- For some, it is a business.
- Others want a family.
- Or pieces of writing.
- Or art.
- Or stories.
- Or a charity.
- Or a legacy.
- Or a name.
- Or a reputation.
Creation allows us to give something to others that comes from deep inside of us.
I have learned, slowly, that my own happiness is certainly linked to how much I serve others, but also intimately linked to whether I am creating something that is useful to others.
Think about the great creations of ancient civilizations that still fascinate people. Certain works of art inspire.
- The pyramids of Giza
- The Eiffel Tower
- The rock carvings at Petra
- The works of Shakespeare
- Our favorite movies
But there are other creations that add to our happiness.
I have four children. And I come from a family of four children. Families who love each other and stay together are incredible. They can bring so much joy to life.
A successful business can affect a community long after the founder is gone. A reputation or legacy can have the same effect.
The act of creation can bring joy and happiness.
But there is more to it than that.
The Perfect Synergy
“Enduring happiness comes only through helping others find it.”
— Napoleon Hill
When I attended film school in New York, I met filmmakers who had spent years creating a single film. Excitedly, each one told me about the film. And in some cases, I had the opportunity to watch the film.
One man spent twenty years of his life making his movie. It was shot on film, so we had to borrow a projector and a screening room to watch.
The film was technically well-done. I was impressed by the cinematography. Maybe one day I could create something that technically sound.
But the film was missing something. It did not have a message. The story was depressing and cynical of the world we live in. In short, the film seemed to only prop up the filmmaker’s ego and pride — it did not do much else.
The film did not aim to serve anyone. Something was created but something was missing. I knew that this was not the type of film that I wanted to make. This was not the type of story that I wanted to tell. And it was certainly not the type of work I wanted to do for 20 years with no pay, working 20 hour days, with no breaks.
What was missing? It was my dad’s message: serve others.
What Does It Mean to Live?
I have added to my dad’s formula for happiness: (1) serve others, and (2) create something.
But, the perfect synergy for happiness, for me, is this: create something that serves others
Even the great director Akira Kurosawa crafted a story about this near-universal desire to create. In the movie Ikiru, a man discovers that he has stomach cancer and will die soon.
Kurosawa’s Ikiru opens showing a group of women walking into City Hall in a Japanese city, practically begging someone in the government to help them. There is sewage in a neighborhood, and their children cannot play in the dangerous area.
The women are paraded from department to department, with no one willing to help. The women are trapped and become frustrated by the bureaucracy.
And somewhere in the middle of the bureaucracy, is the main character, Kanji Watanabe.
Watanabe worked in local government, and felt as if his life had been wasted. He worked full-time but never felt as he had lived. Watanabe faces his own death by considering all of the mistakes that he made — and also all of the opportunities that he had.
For the first half of the film, Watanabe searches for some way to make up for his lost time. He tries strong drinks, entertainment, and games. None of it satisfies. He tries to reconcile with his own son. Again, nothing works.
Finally, Watanabe meets a young woman who worked with him. She needs the man to sign her resignation papers. The man sees something in her that he does not have: life. He takes every moment he can to spend with her to figure out why she has enthusiasm and joy.
Why does this woman seem so different than him? After several meetings, Watanabe asks the woman for help — he has a deep desire to give his life some purpose in his final days.
She answers him…
Woman: What help am I?
Watanabe: You — just to look at you makes me feel better. It warms this — this … heart of mine. And you’re so kind to me. No; that’s not it. You’re so young, so healthy. No; that’s not it either… You’re so full of life. And me… I’m jealous of that. If I could be like you for just one day before I died. I won’t be able to die unless I can do that. I want to do “something”. Only you can show me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how. Maybe you don’t know either, but, please… if you can… show me how to be like you!
He asks how he can live like her.
She slowly pulls out a mechanical bunny. Her new job is assembling these toys for children.
Woman: “I feel like I’m making friends with every baby in Japan. Why don’t you try making something too?”
Watanabe: What could I possibly make at that office?
But right after he asks the question, he has a realization. There is something he can create.
Kurosawa’s film brilliantly shows, in retrospect and memory, how the last days of Watanabe’s life was to not only remove the sewage problem shown at the beginning of the film, but turn the area of the city into a park for the very children who were harmed. He uses his knowledge of the workings of city hall to cut through the bureaucracy and complacency shown at the beginning of the film. He opposes gangsters, intimidators, and even the mayor and his office. His purpose is clear and his vision is undeterred.
In essence, his own life only had meaning when he created something — for others. He was not alive until he could use of his life for something outside of and bigger than himself. The film makes clear that the only thing that kept Watanabe alive was his desire to finish the park project.
And on the night that the park was completed, Watanabe passed away. His mission accomplished and his creation complete, he could surrender his body to the cancer.
Fittingly, the English translation of Ikiru is “to live.”
There is a formula for happiness. Do these two things: (1) serve others, and (2) create something.
May we all live this way.