A quote from Marcus Aurelius that I keep returning to is “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?” The quote reminds me that I should focus on doing good work and not on being rewarded or praised for doing good work. Simply knowing that I am helping others and making a positive impact in the world should be enough to justify the effort put into a good deed. At the same time, however, I do want to be recognized for my hard work and ability. I am ultimately unable to escape the human side of me which evolved in small tribes over hundreds of thousands of years desires recognition and enhanced social status as a result of my good actions.
What is important to remember is that the recognition I seek and the praise I desire has nothing at all to do with the good actions that I may undertake. I am not able to control who sees me doing a good deed, and I am not able to control their mental state and the extent to which they will thank me or praise me for what I have done. The only control I have in this context is control over my decision to do a good deed or not. With this in mind, another quote from Marcus Aurelius shapes the way I think about the positive things I do, or sometimes avoid, and why I do them (or not!). In Meditations he writes, “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to they mind, and never stop [doing such good].”
Aurelius is not talking about altruism in the quote above but simply talking about the reality of doing things that help the general population and not just our individual selves. As a practical day-to-day example I often think about unloading the dishwasher at work. It is not part of my job duties to empty or organize the dishwasher, but I know that if I take an extra minute or two, then everyone will benefit from having dishes put away and having more space in the dishwasher for dirty dishes. It may be extra effort and something I think everyone should do (not just myself or the office manager), but everyone benefits from my couple of minutes of extra effort, including me. The reward and benefit that I get from emptying the dishwasher is the same as everyone else, regardless of whether I am thanked or not. A lack of help and participation in doing a public good does not diminish the benefit that society or even oneself receives, even if there is no direct reward from a third party.
Aurelius’s idea is what forms the core of public service and volunteering and his idea is what we need so that we can improve society today. When we focus on doing something good for the general interest, we are rewarded by helping others and improving some aspect of the world for everyone. It is incredibly tempting to only take action that benefits us directly as individuals, but looking beyond our self-interest and doing something that is in the general interest can have a much longer and much broader impact. This cannot be done if we don’t become aware of our actions and motivations, and if we don’t get past the idea that we must be rewarded and recognized when doing positive and beneficial things.
Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .
This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.
Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”
When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.
Vera Countess von Lehndorff wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her letter she discusses goals, ambitions, talents, and our journey. She encourages us to have courageous goals, but she also brings in a bit of self awareness with out goal setting. “You want to be the greatest? You want to just feed your ego? That’s not so great.” This quote is her response to lofty goals and visions of success.
When I read over this quote I think about the goals that I have had throughout life, and how many of them are less about me, and are in one way or another more about fulfilling other people’s expectations and looking impressive. These types of goals promise us a land where we will feel high and mighty because we will gain the respect and admiration of others as a result of our greatness. However, these goals may not always be aligned with our true purpose or talents, and pursuing them relentlessly could cost us our peace of mind, happiness, and relationships.
For me, building habits of self awareness and learning how to look inwards to examine my goals has helped me understand where my goals originated. When I began to examine my goals I found I pursued some because society had determined that they were lofty and valuable. When I return to von Lehndorff’s quote I can see the ways in which pushing towards goals that simply feed an ego are more damaging than positive for the individual and the world. Losing sight of other people to pursue a goal that will build your ego will direct you to a place where people may be impressed by your title or your material possessions, but you may risk jeopardizing true friendships along the way. If you set out on a goal that only serves your ego, you also risk missing the chance to provide something meaningful and unique to the world. I am currently reading The Go-Giver by Bob Berg, and Berg would agree with this point of view. He would argue that you can provide value and find success by chasing goals that only serve yourself, but that in order to reach a level of stratospheric success you must focus more on the value you provide to others. This means that you must forget about your own ego and find goals that serve others as much as yourself.
Ultimately, I believe the problem with chasing a goal fueled by ego is the likelihood that you will burn out. You run the chance of pushing yourself into situations that serve your ego rather than your purpose, and you miss out on actively working towards goals that excite you and fuel a passion. In the end, aiming for greatness takes you away from happiness because your ego is built by your accomplishments and outside recognition. If you abandon ego and learn to operate without requiring the praise and admiration of others, you can find a level of greatness where you understand that you are great independently of outside recognition and ego serving applause.