I’ve stumbled upon the secret of fulfillment.

I know – that seems like a big claim – but as an Ombuds, I’ve observed that people all have the same basic human needs that drive us, and that when we can get these needs met at a high level, we have fulfillment.

Think of a celebrity that seems to “have it all.”   They have financial abundance, receive “special” treatment and have millions of adoring fans.  How many of us have said, “If only that were me…?” Yet, how many celebrities wreck their lives by abusing drugs, wasting their money, or pushing away others because there appears to be something missing? My belief is that despite some of the core needs being met - financial security, social connectivity, etc. - there is one need that goes unfulfilled: the need to contribute. (By the way, this does not mean that sometimes there is not a deeper underlying physiological condition such as depression that someone may be struggling with). What I’m describing is the age-old question of how do we find meaning in the things we do – and, in turn, life?

Let me share a story that may help explain. A long time ago a man was walking through a village. He encountered three stonecutters chipping away at stones. He went separately to each stonecutter and asked the same question, “What are you doing?” The first stonecutter said, “What, are you blind? I’m cutting stone.” The stonecutter pointed out how he was miserable, tired and wasting his life away so that the architect of the project could get all the glory. The second stonecutter replied, “I’m putting food on the table for my family.” He too pointed out how he was tired but he did not say he was wasting his life away. Instead, he was grateful for the job. When the traveler asked the third stonecutter, dirty and weary as the other stonecutters, the traveler said with a gleam in his eye, “I’m building a monument.” The stonecutter went on to explain that there was an architect with a brilliant vision and though his own work as a stonecutter was tiresome, he too embraced that vision. He explained that the project would take decades to complete and he, most likely, would never see its completion. But what drove him, was the insight that his children, and his children’s children, would one day walk by this monument and know that he, a stonecutter, helped built it.

Interesting isn’t it? Same activity, same question, but different meaning. Isn’t it true that the reality we experience is created by the meaning we give it? And isn’t that meaning shaped by the questions we ask ourselves? In the story above, the answers were different but only because each stonecutter was answering the question within the context of the meaning they had already given the situation. If the question had been more empowering, such as “How is your work contributing to this village?” then most likely all the answers would have reflected that focus. 

In science you may heard of something called the Observer Effect and how the actual state of existence of something being observed depends in part on how we choose to observe it.  I’m no scientist, so forgive me if I’m way off base, but it seems to make sense that how we choose to relate to events that happen in our lives shapes our experience of it. 

To contribute means to live for a greater cause than ourselves. This dedication motivates us to be more and to give more. Service to someone or something will drive people to do incredible things and achieve fulfillment because our eye is always on the bigger (whatever that is for you) picture. It is our motto of Ut Prosim – That I May Serve.

A great example of contribution in action is Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon professor who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Shortly after his diagnosis he began sharing with students a message that plain and simple – to take every moment and enjoy it.  His “last lecture,” as it soon became known, became an internet sensation and a best-selling book.  When you make the chance Google his name and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Although the book inspired millions and got him on Oprah, Randy was quoted as saying he only cared about the “first three copies” of that book. You see, Randy knew he was not going to see his three young kids grow up, so “The Last Lecture” was his way of giving his children the lessons he had learned about life. For him that became his greatest gift and contribution and so in his last dying months, he was a human being that was completely fulfilled. Randy might not have been a stonecutter in the traditional sense but like the third stonecutter in the story above, he was leaving a legacy that he knew his children would appreciate – even if he wasn’t around to see it.

To find fulfillment here are some questions we can ask ourselves:

  • What is something bigger than myself that I can believe in?
  • What will drive me to give of my skills, energy, money and/or time?
  • If my days in this world were soon coming to an end, how could I have the most positive impact on others?
  • What do I want my legacy to be?

Only you know what the right answer is. I encourage you to find something that you can contribute to. And, like Randy Pausch in his last moments in this world, to give richly.