During my recent Think Days, I hit upon an intriguing idea. In fact, I found it so compelling that I’m trying it out as a sort of governing philosophy for effective living. I know that sounds pretty heavy, but hear me out. Here’s the idea:
Whenever possible, leave things better than you found them.
This is a powerfully simple concept that we’re all familiar with. We might even put it into practice occasionally (like when we’re cleaning up our overnight campsite and we pick up a few of the previous campers’ beer cans in addition to our own). But I’m talking about using this idea to guide everything from long-term career planning to moment-to-moment conduct. I’ve been trying this out for the last week—which isn’t very long, I’ll admit—and my experience thus far has been that it makes life both more interesting and more enjoyable.
Leaving things better than you found them can be applied in nearly any context and on multiple time scales. Here are some ideas, big and small, for putting this philosophy into practice:
- At the grocery store, take a moment to ask the checker how his day is going.
- Leave the waitress a larger tip than necessary.
- Write a thank-you note to someone who’s recently helped you.
- At work, strive to improve the culture of your company and your department. When you leave your current job, try to leave a better climate for your replacement than the one in place when you started.
- At home, make a habit of picking up and putting away out-of-place items every time you move from room to room (as the parent of a toddler, I have plenty of opportunities for this).
- After drying your hands in a public restroom, use the paper towel to wipe a few spots off the mirror.
- Pick up trash on your daily walking route (my favorite so far).
While some of these suggestions seem almost trivial, they’re representative of something larger: an attitude of eager helpfulness. Adopting such an attitude shifts our focus from ourselves to helping others. And as someone who spends quite a bit of time wrapped up in his own head, I can confirm that serving others isn’t just more fulfilling, it’s a lot more fun.