This week I went to two events that got me thinking about this question. Akasa Innovation invited Professor Donnie Maclurcan, Executive Director of the Post Growth Institute to talk about The Rise of Not for Profit Enterprise and Impact Hub Islington hosted a Brainy Brunch on shifting from a ‘me’ centred society to a ‘we’ one – from self-interest to common good.
The dominant view in our Western culture, education system, economic system, philosophy and to some extent science, is that as individuals we have the greatest benefit to society when we act in our self(ish) interest. Economic self-interest makes us want to work hard so that we get more reward and in doing so we generate wealth for the collective. Competition makes us achieve more, according to this paradigm.
But as Professor Maclurcan pointed out, this approach is leading (or has led) us to financial and ecological collapse. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater, the rate of species extinction, carbon emissions and resource use has never been higher and continues to grow. Increasingly we are being forced to question the way we organise and incentivise our society.
He put forward the idea that purpose-driven, rather than profit-driven business is a big part of the answer. An increasing number of social enterprises and not-for-profit businesses are springing up that view money as a tool for social or environmental benefit rather than the end goal. They tend to perform better and have a more positive impact on society than for-profit businesses, he argued.
At Brainy Brunch we discussed how, contrary to the narrative of our Western culture, it is actually more in our self-interest to put serving others as our main purpose, than serving ourselves. If we live and work in a way that acknowledges that we are all inter-connected and not separate, we are likely to feel happier and more fulfilled.
That is not to say that we need to sacrifice our own needs and desires. Far from it. You best serve others when you are feeling inspired by and connected with you work and you’re using your own unique talents and skills.
The idea is summed up well by the words of Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
You also need to be mentally, physically and emotionally strong to help others. If you exhaust yourself or fall ill, it doesn’t help anyone.
In my mind this connects meditation, which is sometimes seen as something you do chiefly to help yourself, with the greater good. The aim of meditation isn’t to find inner-peace so that you can sit in a cave in Tibet with a big smile on your face, but rather to build up your inner-strength in order to serve the world to the best of your abilities.