London Life Coach Hans Schumann explains how helping others will benefit you
People often become defensive or agitated when I tell them that I do not believe in altruism. It challenges a moral idealism that we grew up with and that many of us hold dear, particularly in religious communities.
By altruism I mean the romanticised ideal of acting solely out of concern for the wellbeing of others with disregard for one’s own needs. We idolise the saints or heroes who devote their lives to serving others without expecting anything in return or having any ulterior motive. We believe that we should emulate those people who sacrifice themselves for others and we may feel guilty when our own intentions towards others are not as pure.
Helping others is indeed an important part of humanity but in my opinion as a life coach pure altruism is neither realistic nor healthy. It can even be detrimental to the people we are aiming to help if we put someone else’s needs constantly before our own. However, there is a constructive, resourceful and sustainable approach to helping others that honours the values and true motivation of the ‘helper’.
Let’s have a look at how it works: :
Understand and make peace with your true motivation.
I believe that we are only ever motivated by what is important to us and if we help others, it is always because we perceive a value to us in taking the relevant action.
This value to us can take many forms: It could be that helping others makes us feel good or less guilty. It can give us purpose and help us grow personally. Maybe we believe that God, or the universe, will pay us back somehow or that we will become a better person. Sometimes we help others because we find it too hard to watch the misery around us, or because we do not want to have to deal with the fallout from a situation that could escalate if we did not intervene. And, let’s be honest, sometimes we just love the way that helping others makes us look good.
There are lots of reasons why we may decide to help another person, and they are all okay because what counts is the output. I believe we should accept and understand the self-serving aspect of our wish to help – not only because it is human and natural, but also because if we can understand and enhance the benefit to ourselves, we can make our service to others more focused, more sustainable and more skilful.
Pure altruism is unsustainable and can be counterproductive
If we neglect our own needs and interests in a seemingly altruistic relationship, we are in danger of harming our own wellbeing or depleting our resources to the extent that we are no longer able to serve the ones that we intended to help. I see this frequently in life coaching clients who have a high value on helping others.
Let’s look at two examples:
The burnt out father
A coaching client of mine was struggling to balance the demands of his business, marriage and kids. Family and business were most important to him so he chose to devote all his time and energy to those areas in his life. Whatever he did though, he felt that his efforts were just not good enough. The needs of those around him seemed endless. He was craving some “me” time, for example going to the gym or meeting friends, but felt guilty satisfying his own needs because of his overdeveloped sense of responsibility to the people who depended on him.
When he came to me, he had been neglecting his own needs for several years. He was burnt out, suffered from health issues and was on anti-depressants. It did not take long for my client to understand that his strategy of devoting all his time and energy to others was not sustainable, and neither was it in the best interests of either his business or his family.
How effective could he really be as an overworked and stressed father and business owner? How much love and support could he give to his family when he was also resenting the burden they placed on him? And how much use would he be if he eventually burned out and collapsed?
When I reflected his situation back to my client, he understood that he would be able to give much more support to his family and work colleagues if he took better care of his own needs – for example, by taking regular time out alone, meditating, exercising and having fun with friends.
The broke healer
Another example that I come across a lot is that of people in the spiritual or personal development industry who feel that they should not charge for their services, or at least charge very little. Whilst this sounds like a noble attitude, it’s again not sustainable or resourceful.
Let’s say you are a healer. Imagine how much more energised and effective you could be if you did not have to worry about your finances and maintained clear boundaries with your clients. How many more people could you reach if you made sure you received a fair exchange for your services from those who can pay for it?
The money could be used for marketing, for training others, for holding larger events or employing staff to expand your operation. The larger the operation, the more pro-bono services you would be able to provide alongside your commercial services.
It’s like the instruction in the safety briefing on airplanes: put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then help others.
Find out how serving others can enrich your life
If you value the principles of altruism and service to others, but don’t want to fall into the trap of burnout or financial stress, it can be helpful to seek out a win-win approach to service others that is as beneficial to you as it is to those you are helping. This is not as difficult as it sounds. Let’s look at two examples:
Reciprocal benefits at Volunteering Matters
Laura Doughty is the Director of External Affairs at the charity Volunteering Matters. Her organisation offers volunteering opportunities in projects supporting disabled, older people and young people as well as families who may be vulnerable or at risk of social isolation. From her work, Laura understands that volunteers get as much out of the experience as the individuals and communities they help. Volunteering increases their pride in themselves; they learn new skills and feel part of something bigger.
Volunteering Matters approaches all opportunities as having reciprocal benefit for the volunteer and the so-called beneficiary. Laura explains: “Because many of our opportunities are focused on delivering high-impact social action, volunteering by tackling some of the most difficult challenges faced by individuals and their communities means that the skills that the volunteers develop are also life-changing. I believe that the motivation comes from wanting to give something back, which is a real motivation – but the fact remains you couldn’t make this positive change and impact on others without developing yourself.”
Mutual exchange at the Life Safari
Having worked for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across the world for a number of years, Olivia Munoru found herself becoming increasingly frustrated by the sector’s often patronising “helper approach”. She observed how traditional development interventions, whereby charities or experts attempt to solve problems for others, often resulted in “dependency syndrome” for the so-called “beneficiary” communities. More and more, she saw how this kind of help was ineffective as it did not build up the self-confidence, self-belief and social cohesion required for long-lasting, meaningful development.
From this realisation, Olivia created a vision to facilitate a mutual exchange of support and experience between citizens of developed countries and members of strong communities in poor countries, focusing particularly on communities with a track record of taking action for themselves. She created “The Life Safari”, an extraordinary travel experience which places the volunteer at the heart of a rural community in Kenya. [Update December 2021: Unfortunately, the Life Safari is no longer running]
Attendees of the Life Safari spend a week working with the local facilitation team, exchanging ideas, knowledge and experience to explore and enhance their skills for harnessing human potential. Each traveller lives with a local family, experiencing daily life in the village and living without the comforts we tend to take for granted back home. They get reconnected to values that we are at risk of losing here in the West: the beauty of community spirit, generosity and gratitude; the appreciation of simple things; and the incredible resourcefulness and capacity that we have as humans to help ourselves. Meanwhile the communities they visited earned an income and were given a global stage from which to share their strengths and inspire others. As one recent returnee commented:
“Being a part of the first ever Life Safari experience has enriched my life beyond all expectation… [It] brought me back to the fundamentals of human nature and all that we are capable of. It confirmed to me that to be human is to create – to discover solutions to our challenges through utilising our own inner resources and collaborating with others for the benefit of the whole.” (Emma Baker, London)
These two examples show the value of replacing a one-sided altruistic approach with a mutual exchange of services. Volunteers at Volunteering Matters and on the Life Safari have life-changing experiences, learning and growing in partnership with those they serve.
I believe that serving with a win-win approach is much more effective than adopting the position of a gracious benefactor who sacrifices his or her own needs for others. Just think about this: the more we gain from helping others, the more resourceful, energetic and motivated we will be to continue helping. This makes our efforts sustainable and more effective.
Enhance your capacity to help others through your career
You don’t have to volunteer for a charity to help others. Anyone can undertake to be kinder and more caring in their daily work and almost any job can be approached in a spirit of service and compassion.
I tell my career coaching clients that the holy grail of a successful career is one that creates a perfect balance between your needs and the positive impact on the people you serve, either directly in your own business or through the organisation you work for. When we strike this balance, we begin to love what we do.
And when we do what we love doing and experience how our work benefits others, we gain that sense of satisfaction that drives us to do more of it. We are intrinsically motivated to perform and add value. That’s what I call a dream job. The more you love it, the better you become at it. The better you become at it, the more people want what you offer and the more they are willing to pay. The more they want and appreciate what you do, the more you enjoy it. The more they pay you, the more people you can serve.
Apart from helping others within your career, this virtuous circle leads you to a position where, at the top of your game, you are also far more likely to have the energy and financial freedom to assist those in greater need – through pro-bono offerings, through volunteering and through larger philanthropic projects.
So have a look at your life. Where are you not yet experiencing a fair exchange of services? Do you already maintain win-win relationships?
Are you ready for some “selfish altruism”? How about starting by exploring what you really want in life. You can download my Free Life Planner here.