Human beings have a need to be useful, for our lives to mean something and not just be time spent existing and surviving. Being useful is an innate human drive – we’re social animals that thrive on collaboration and cooperation. We see someone who needs help or a situation that requires a solution, and we feel the urge to jump in and do something. And when we give into this urge, we often feel good about ourselves and strengthen our connection to those around us.
However, it’s easy to feel useless, powerless and unable to help. We ignore or undervalue our skills and talents, feel reluctant to offer help because we don’t want to appear foolish or become over-committed, and we hesitate because we don’t feel empowered to take the initiative. We pass up opportunities to be useful and helpful because of social constraints or fear of getting involved. In return, this withdrawal creates a sense of worthlessness, disconnection and isolation. We feel alone, afraid and helpless.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Approaching life with a mindset of preparation and personal empowerment, and with the intention to be useful or helpful whenever possible can significantly increase the human connection and meaning in your life.
Here are some tips for being useful and helping others that will prepare you to face any situation, from the most minor to the truly important.
1. Don’t try to help if what’s needed is clearly beyond your abilities. If someone’s trying to lift something that is far too heavy for you or needs help with something outside of your skill set, trying to help could be counterproductive and even unsafe. But there are always ways to make yourself useful, perhaps by offering to find other help or by finding an easier way to accomplish the task.
2. Empower yourself. You don’t have to be given “social permission” to step up and take initiative. Just because you don’t have seniority or expertise doesn’t mean you can’t be useful, and just because you don’t have credentials or social status doesn’t mean you can’t be as effective a leader as anyone else. Too often, we hang back because we lack some official capacity or social standing that automatically establishes our power in the eyes of others (and ourselves). But in reality, we all have something to bring to the table, and a willingness to help and a desire to learn go a long way toward closing any experiential gaps.
3. Build your “usefulness” portfolio. Take classes in things that interest you. Learn new skills and build upon existing talents. Commit to being well read and well informed. That way, when the opportunity arises you’re more likely to able to help. Also, take some time to really take stock of your experiences, your education and your connections. You may find that you have a lot more to offer than you thought you did.
4. Be prepared. Keep first aid and emergency kits in your car and home. Have a disaster kit ready at home in case of emergencies. (http://www.redcross.org/services/disaster/0,1082,0_217_,00.html) Keep as fit and healthy as you can within your ability. Don’t dress for summer in the winter, or for pleasant weather during a storm, just because you intend to be indoors all day. Things happen, plans change. Being prepared to handle what comes your way means that you can be a part of the solution, rather than becoming part of the problem.
5. Do what’s right, not what’s popular. Sometimes, stepping up to the plate means stepping outside of social norms or accepted behavior. Recognizing and respecting the humanity in others, regardless of their current situation or standing, is often difficult and sometimes actively discouraged, as is taking a stand for something that is currently unpopular. But standing up for others who can’t stand up for themselves, and doing what you know to be right even if it goes against the desires of everyone around you is the true measure of human integrity.
6. The first step is often the hardest. Raising your hand, taking that first step, making that initial commitment is often the most difficult part of being useful. You worry about what you’re getting yourself into, and whether or not you’re up to the task. Are you wasting your time or everyone else’s by joining in? In almost every case, however, once you’ve crossed that line and made that commitment you’ll find that not only are you able to help, but also that doing so adds immeasurably to your life rather than subtracting time and energy from it.
7. Be a mentor. After a while, you’ll get to a point where being useful and helping others becomes second nature, just another part of your life. That’s the time to reach out and help others who are just getting started. Whether it’s new volunteers, a new hire or even a family member, sharing your experiences and discoveries and coaching them through their own can go a long way toward making them feel useful and needed, and helps them go from hesitant and unsure to empowered and confident in record time.