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“…In practically every human being, and certainly in almost every newborn baby, there is an active will towards health, an impulse towards growth, or towards actualization.” – Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs theorizes the order in which humans need to have our basic needs met, before we can reach our full potential. Physiological needs are at the base of the pyramid, followed by safety, love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization.

It makes sense. When you’re hungry, it is hard for a book to change your life. When you don’t have safety or shelter, it’s hard to imagine growing and learning. But, as we achieve success and start taking care of those basic needs, we have more time and capacity to wonder why we’re here.

A lot of the leaders and executives that I encounter at Vistage have reached this point where they can begin to question their true potential. Without a strong sense of what is important to us, and why, we just “go through the day.” The people who struggle the most are those who don’t have a clear path or direction. When we have a sense of purpose, of why we are here, we can do much more than go through the day.

Find Something Greater

One of the biggest motivators for people is to contribute to something greater than them. Stop thinking about what you’re getting out of life, but rather what you’re putting in. Short-term satisfaction is easy: I can get a new car, a new house, a new “anything”; yet, the thing that gives us the most pleasure is contributing. People are almost always happiest and most fulfilled when we are helping others. It is our reason for existence. We get by giving.

Zig Ziglar, author, salesman, and motivational speaker, once said, “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

We typically think about giving in terms of volunteering or donating to charities. That’s great, but as business owners, we have the opportunity every day to give. We’re building wealth for our families and ourselves; we also provide jobs, innovation and useful service.

Look at Bill Gates, for instance. His ideas grew into a company that employs tens of thousands of people around the world. Imagine how many lives he has made better through technology, how many things became possible for the first time. When he stepped away from the business, he gave in an entirely different way. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to make a difference. I, as a Rotary member, have experienced this as their Foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help Rotary eradicate polio throughout the world. From the mid-80’s to now, we have reduced the number of countries with polio from 129 to 3, at the time of this writing. Everyone involved has made a HUGE difference!

Find Your True Passion

Pledging to donate half of your fortune to charity is admirable – but not something most of us are in the position to do. Our contributions are very personal; we do, quite simply, what we can. Sir Ken Robinson relates a great story about a young man, who was a firefighter. He asked how long he’d been a fireman. “Always. I’ve always been a fireman.”

The fireman told Robinson of a teacher who thought that he was wasting his life and potential in that vocation; that he would be better off doing something “professional.” The firefighter didn’t listen, fortunately – for that teacher, in particular. “Six months ago, I saved [the teacher’s] life…He was in a car wreck, and I pulled him out, gave him CPR, and I saved his wife’s life as well…I think he thinks better of me now.”

The firefighter had a passion for this type of work, for helping people. It was his way to contribute. When it comes down to it, we all have a way to contribute that is unique and true to us. When we have climbed up the pyramid high enough, we realize that it’s not about our needs – but our contribution. We can start to figure out how and where we want to make that difference.

That discovery, for most of us, takes a lot of time. How do we find out what our passion is? How does that contribute to society? Why am I doing what I’m doing? For what purpose? The answers are worth looking for. They’re they key to reaping your greatest successes – and true happiness.