Thursday, May 9, 2013

What the world owes you


What, did I stutter?

That's right, the rest of the world doesn't owe you a blessed thing just because you exist.

I know this statement will dismay some of you. Maybe you were raised in a household where your parental units always made sure things went smoothly for you, and you haven't had to lift a finger for yourself. Conversely, maybe you were raised in a household where you had nothing and you watched other people get whatever they wanted served up on a silver platter, and you didn't understand why they had all the opportunities you didn't. Either way, you may have developed the belief that society should now take responsibility for you and provide for all your needs.


See, here's the thing: the rest of the world doesn't give two flying toots about your needs. Most other people are too busy taking care of themselves and others in their care to bother their heads about you and your notions of what you deserve. Yes, you may find a few people who are willing to extend themselves to help you in short bursts of charitable giving -- but expecting a total stranger to care for you indefinitely when you are healthy, able-bodied, of relatively sound mind, and otherwise capable of doing it for yourself, is the dictionary definition of chutzpah.

You may think -- and you'd be correct -- that you are a unique human being, different from anyone who has ever come before or will ever come again, and that this quality makes you special. But this isn't reason enough for the world to owe you anything, any more than the world owes a thing to all those other billions of special snowflakes existing alongside you. What makes your needs more important than the needs of some unique and irreplaceable peasant in China or India? (By the way, "because I'm me and they're not" doesn't cut it as an argument.)

So, if the world doesn't care about your needs, how do you make your way through it? Well, if you want to be valued and successful in this world you must discover and offer people something they want -- in other words, figure out how to do or make something useful, entertaining, or both.

Figuring out how to do this usually takes a while, and requires hands-on experience. You have to start somewhere to get this experience, and that's why there are unpaid internships and minimum-wage jobs. If you're like most people, you'll start working at one of these, and you will hate it. Such jobs are designed to do two things: 1) teach you that a strong work ethic is essential to future success and 2) strongly motivate you to get the hell out of this sucky dead-end job and into a career better suited to your specific talents.

What do I mean by a strong work ethic? I mean more than just showing up on time and getting stuff done, although if you do only these two things you'll be better off than 75% of your co-workers. I also mean maintaining a clean and well-kept appearance, regardless of the nature of your job. I mean being honest and trustworthy. I mean looking for ways to make the job easier, better and/or more productive while working within given rules. And I also mean finding reasons to be grateful for the opportunities your job provides. (Really. Even the suckiest dead-end job can teach you valuable life skills -- including how to avoid sucky dead-end jobs in future. Think of it as a school where they pay you tuition to attend.) If you can master these attitudes and behaviors, you won't be stuck working jobs you hate for very long.

Some people discover their particular talents in college. Others get them through the vagaries of life experience. Still others seem to sit around waiting for a magical talent to come along and knock them on their cans. (Hint: this rarely works.) Regardless of when it happens, the best way to discover your talents is to try various experiences. You'll never know whether you were meant to be the world's premiere yodeling bongo drummer if you've never learned how to yodel or play the bongos. If neither of these turns out to be your talent (and for the sake of everyone's ears, let's hope they're not), shrug and try something else. You're out to discover!

Assuming you keep trying, you will eventually find something for which you have a little spark of genius. (Woot.) Of course, one spark alone isn't going to carry you through life. Hone it, feed it, grow it, improve on it. Take classes, practice and experiment. (Think I was born writing snarky advice? Au contraire! I had to work at becoming this obnoxious.) As you do, be on the lookout for ways to merge your particular genius with making a living. Yes, of course you're going to exploit your talent -- why wouldn't you? Money is a representation of your life energy, so from a common-sense standpoint you might as well be making it from the thing(s) you do best.

Once you're making a living from the thing you were born to do, you will find you're a great deal happier, more satisfied with life and less anxious than you were when you were constantly tugging at the hems of an ill-fitting job. And if you do well enough that you're making more money than necessary to cover your needs and some of your wants (remember, by nature humans are little wanting machines, so you can't have everything), it's time to consider your answer to the Ultimate Boss Fight question of life: How am I going to leave this place better than I found it?

There's more than one way to answer this question. The Gateses are bringing the medical miracle of disease vaccination to the rest of the world. Paul Newman started a summer camp for seriously ill children. John D. Rockefeller founded a university. If you believe in God, you may see financial success as a kind of divine message -- as though God is reaching out His hand to you and saying, "Good for you. Now, how'd you like to help bless other people?" Andrew Carnegie called this message "the Gospel of Wealth." He believed in the importance of literacy for everyone, and chose to give away his fortune to establish thousands of American libraries.

By naming wealthy and well-known philanthropists, I'm not suggesting you must be Uncle Pennybags before you can improve the world. Priests, nuns, monks and others who have taken vows of poverty have been able to improve the world in dramatic ways, simply by contributing their time in service to others. If you have a mere $1 to spare after working out your spending plan, you can put that smidgen of cash toward something -- even if it's just a can of vegetables to take to your local food bank. And if you have as little as an hour of free time, countless charitable organizations would love to have you volunteer.

No, the world doesn't owe you a thing. But if you first learn to take care of yourself and then reach out to help care for others, the world will be forever in your debt. Not a bad fate, if you ask me.

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