I almost always think in “ands”, but with altruism and impact a choice (almost always) must be made.
I am not sure I have ever shared how much I love or was influenced in my values (for better and worse) by R A Heinlein and especially his quotes from Lazarus Long. I find a lot of truth in fiction.
For example, I think altruism is crock of shit. To quote Heinlein, “If tempted by something that feels “altruistic” examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then, if you still want to do it, wallow in it!”
And, I am going to lump external societal expectations in with altruism, as both are values where you sacrifice your own wants and needs for some higher purpose or someone/thing else.
Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect. But there is no reward at all for doing what other people expect of you, and to do so is not merely difficult, but impossible. It is easier to deal with a footpad than it is with the leech who wants “just a few minutes of your time, please–this won’t take long.” Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself¬ to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they quickly¬ snowball to the point where these parasites will use up 100 percent of your time–and squawk for more! So learn to say No–and to be rude about it when necessary. Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or to do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The termites will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you. (This rule does not mean that you must not do a favor for a friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is “expected” of you.)
I love R A Heinlein even if I have no idea what his “footpad” reference means. I volunteer my time, my money, when it suits me, for me. Sure this creates some benefit to those served by whatever group/cause I am supporting, but do not think for one minute that I am doing it solely for some selfless reason. And these days, I’m just as likely to un-volunteer myself from an initiative that does not fit me, as I am to volunteer for one that does.
Aside 1: And yes I know there are many scientists (Article on explaining Human Altruism or Book on Survival of the Nicest for example) who think that altruism has some survival advantage. Is this true or just pretty to think so? I have not yet dug into the data.
Aside 2: As with all rules, I fully acknowledge there are exceptions. I’m not religious but Mother Theresa certainly comes to mind; the new Pope Francis is making headlines almost daily for his extraordinary kind behavior. Note however that given their life choices, their genetic lines cannot/will not continue. But most people, even the most influential, such as Bill Gates and/or Warren Buffett, need to first amass wealth before figuring out how to deploy their charitable donations to create the most impact.
I am service driven to the core. (see e.g. my 2006 post on my values and life purpose) But even with that focus, I started to turn my thoughts and energy to IMPACT. How could I do more? Leave more behind.
In 2009, one of my mentors forwarded me an article entitled, “Psychic Benefits” of Nonprofit Work Are Overrated by Dan Pallotta. I share it with someone else several times a year when I’m asked to give my advice on MD vs. PhD vs. MBA or social venture vs. venture-backed business.
Some of my favorite quotes:
People often tell me that those who work for nonprofits should work for less because of the psychic benefits of being able to make a difference, work with the poor, and so on. The notion is a red herring.
Most nonprofits are small and starved for capital, preventing employees from fully capitalizing on their personal potential. Nearly every good idea is met with a dearth of resources, a prohibition on taking risk, or a broken donated computer. Whatever psychic benefit that theoretically might have accrued from putting those good ideas into action is outweighed by the grind of shoestring budgets and overstretched systems that is the reality.
Instead, consider the enormous psychic benefits that people in the for-profit world enjoy as philanthropists. It’s cheaper for the MBA to donate $100,000 a year to the hunger charity than to go work for it. On top of that, she gets a seat on the board of the hunger charity; indeed, probably chairs the board. She now gets to supervise the poor bastard who’s running the hunger charity. She gets to dictate his strategy and how he goes about executing it.
It’s short – go read it all: “Psychic Benefits” of Nonprofit Work Are Overrated
Impact. Who has more? The non-profit CEO or philanthropist? Who do you want to be?
I’m still straddling the disparate paths. It’s much easier to advocate (especially to someone just starting their career path) choosing a specific path than to make that decision.