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As I see it, your best long-term outlet for making a meaningful contribution to the world is your career. Yes, you can contribute by donating money and volunteering on the side, but that’s not as efficient as being able to give through the work you do each day. Most of the time when I see people overly concerned about giving money and volunteering, it’s because they don’t feel they’re contributing enough through their work, so there’s a bit of guilt connected to the money they receive.
We humans have a strong drive to contribute, to make some kind of positive difference in the world, and when that desire isn’t being sufficiently expressed through our work, we either feel empty or we look for other outlets to express it.
If something is important enough to you that you feel the urge to donate your money or time to it, I think it’s best to try to express that form of giving through your career, not just as something you do on the side. If you enjoy your volunteering and charitable activities more than your career, it means your career is in serious need of an upgrade. In my opinion your career should be your best outlet for giving.
For example, when I was running my games business, I really enjoyed helping people grow both personally and professionally. But this was only something I did on the side, not as part of my job. I would write free articles and share ideas in forums and newsgroups. I also served as an officer for a couple years in the Association of Shareware Professionals. This was all unpaid volunteer work, sometimes requiring many extra hours. Overall I found it very rewarding.
After a while I noticed I was deriving more fulfillment from this volunteering on the side than from my primary career as a game developer. I still enjoyed game development, and I loved the creative challenge of my work, but I was torn between helping people grow vs. publishing games to entertain them. I began to question whether the career path I started 10 years earlier still made sense in the long run. I was forced to admit that for me it did not.
As you may already know, in 2004 I made the decision to change careers from game development to personal development and launched StevePavlina.com. I still enjoy helping people outside my career, such as by participating in Toastmasters and the NSA, but now I find that the volunteering I do on the side is usually less fulfilling than my normal day-to-day work. I still donate money to charity each month, but it doesn’t feel as good as finding ways to reinvest in my primary work. If I donate money to a charity, I never really know what they’ll do with it. But if I spend a little money to… say… add discussion forums to this site, I can see the results unfolding right in front of me, and I can know whether it’s contributing anything of value.
Sometimes I actually think about my work more as volunteering than as a career. At least that’s how it often feels. I prefer investing my time and money into this outlet, since I’m doing the very work I’d want to support through volunteering and/or charitable giving anyway. How do you feel about this choice?
Instead of this career/contribution model:
Do work -> Earn money -> Give money/time to worthy causes
I prefer this model:
Do worthy work -> Earn money -> Reinvest money into increasing one’s capacity to do even more worthy work
“Worthy” is of course in the eye of the beholder, so it’s up to you to decide what that means to you.
If you’re going to invest so much of your precious life into your career, make sure that career is worthy of you. Look at your work and ask, “Is this really who I am?” Even if the answer is no, please know that there is a “yes” waiting for you. You deserve much better than to spend the bulk of your time doing something that doesn’t fulfill you.
When you’re doing work that fulfills you, you’ll care about doing a good job. And when you care, you’ll become really good at what you do. And that makes it relatively easy to generate a sustainable income from your work.