February 9, 2012 by Tony Schwartz
Why are you here? It’s arguably life’s most important question, but is it one you ask yourself?
I recognize it’s a question some people might view as self-indulgent, while others would see it primarily through a religious lens. But is there any part of an answer we could all agree on?
I’ve found a very simple one for myself, and it’s provided me in recent years with an increasingly powerful sense of clarity, inspiration and even joy. It’s this: I’m here to add more value to the world than I’m using up.
I use up resources every day — the gas I burn driving my car, the heat and electricity for my house and office, the food I eat. So how do I put more back into the world than I take out?
I spent the first 45 years of my life accruing value — trying to earn enough money to feel financially secure, sufficient success to feel respected, and enough relationships to feel safe and loved. I’m not especially proud of that, but I also know that some of my motivation was practical and human. Some of it, sadly, was compulsive.
To the extent that I felt I didn’t have enough, I didn’t imagine I had a choice about how to live my life. I was operating from a sense of deficit and I felt relentless hunger to fill that void, both financially and emotionally.
I was externally successful, as a journalist, but I didn’t feel particularly good about the work I was doing. Eventually, and fortunately, I finally hit a wall — a point at which I was so unhappy with my life that the desire to do something I deeply believed in eclipsed the fear of starting over in a completely new career.
Today, I resonate deeply with the parable of the faithful servant, from Luke 12:48, which ends this way: “To whom much is given, of him much will be expected.”
I have yet to meet any person who gets lasting satisfaction from earning way beyond what he needs. Accumulating more and more eventually, and invariably, delivers back less and less. It’s literally self-defeating.
I had the benefit of a comfortable upbringing, a great education, parents who modeled hard work and serving others, and people who believed in me along the way, even when I didn’t always believe in myself. I stood on the shoulders of many people, including ones who enjoyed far less good fortune than I did.
I believe in the law of reciprocity. Much was given to me. The reason I’m here, now, is to give back.
For more than a decade, I’ve had the amazing experience of waking up every morning excited to get to work. Partly, it’s that I have the freedom to do what I do best and enjoy most, and to keep getting better at it. Beyond that, it’s that I get to use my talents in the service of helping people build better lives and decrease their suffering.
The advantage I have is that I run my own business. What if you work at a job that doesn’t allow you to do what you do best and enjoy most, and that isn’t intrinsically inspiring?
At a company I frequently visit, there is a woman who works at the entrance and hands out the tickets for valet parking. She’s worked at her job for years. When I pulled up a couple of days ago, it was freezing outside, and she was all bundled up. Even so, when I got out of the car she greeted me effusively, as she always does.
She called me “Sweetheart,” she gave me a huge smile, and her energy lifted me up. As I was walking into the building, I heard her do the same thing for the next driver, and she sounded just as heartfelt.
This is a woman knows who she is, and why she’s here. She adds value in the world. She doesn’t for a moment let the limits of her job stand in her way.
I’m inspired by her. She reminds me that knowing why you’re here, and who you want to be, isn’t a part-time job. The challenge is to live out what you stand for, intentionally, in every moment.
I fall short, frequently. Who doesn’t? When that happens, my goal is to notice, as quickly as I can, to take responsibility for whatever I’ve done, and to make amends. I know why I’m here.