Do You Contribute to the Awesomeness or Do You Just Talk About It?
Approximate Read Time: 10 minutes
There are two types of people in this world:
Those who, when they see the trash can overflowing, simply smash their trash on top of the pile.
And, there are those who take out the trash.
Always take out the trash
I received this advice from a strength coach many years ago. It immediately made me think of all the times I’d done that exact thing- smash the next piece of trash on top of an already over-stuffed trash can, sometimes to the point that the lid could no longer close. I’m sure you can think of countless times that you have done something similar.
Cramming our trash into an overflowing bin is to assume that someone else will take care of it or that you will get to it later. Whether you live with parents, roommates, or alone, allowing the trash to pile up builds a habit of avoidance and abdication of responsibility.
In presenting the Take Out the Trash Principle, this coach was talking about so much more than simple chores. Choosing not to take out the trash the very moment that you see the need may seem innocuous, but in doing so you pass up a vital opportunity.
Taking Out the Trash is not about the trash itself, it is about meeting a need the moment that it arises. It is about taking responsibility for the world around you. It is about recognizing the role you play and seizing the opportunity to contribute.
Taking Out the Trash is adopting a sense of duty.
What Exactly Are Your Rights?
In the modern world, we are obsessed with our rights. Western democracy, from its very outset, was based on the idea of “unalienable” rights. The US Constitution and other similar founding documents are essentially just enumerations of these rights. Most current political discussions are debates about determining just what our rights are and how best to grant them. One side seems to want to grant as many rights as possible, while the other side seems hell-bent on seeing anything not specifically laid out in the Constitution as impeding on their rights. Both sides have merit. They each need to remember that their compatriots across the aisle came to their views with compassion and that healthy debate is the only means by which we move forward.
Both viewpoints focus far too heavily on rights. Rights comes in two forms, positive and negative rights. A positive right grant someone something, while a negative right ensures that he/she is protected from certain injustices or oppressions. Positive rights give, while negative rights protect. Our system is a carefully constructed set of both positive and negative rights. Things like freedom of speech and freedom of the press are negative rights. They protect individuals and press institutions from being limited in their expression (as long as they do not threaten or incite violence). The rights to education and healthcare are positive rights, granting these services, but at a cost. That is the critical distinction, positive rights must take from somewhere to be able to grant the right somewhere else. Think of Robin Hood taking from the rich to give to the poor. This is not all bad. In the US, we agree to pay taxes in exchange for public roads and public education. The government’s job, boiled down to its simplest form, is to protect the negative rights laid out in the founding document, and host an ongoing debate over which positive rights to grant and how best to provide them.
I just needed to make all of that clear in order to say: get over your rights. Yes, they grant you the opportunities and freedoms that you enjoy on a daily basis. Yes, the system of positive rights will evolve with culture and society. But, let go of your attachment to your rights. They are a human invention after all. A pretty clever one, yes, but a very recent invention nonetheless.
Rights and Duties
A much more healthy disposition to adopt is for your duties and responsibilities. These are an innate human instinct rather than a recent human invention. In a tribal setting, all people had a sense that they were a vital piece of the group and that their contribution, in whatever form it came, was essential to make the group thrive.
When we focus on our rights, even the protection of our negative rights, we come to feel entitled and expectant. While our rights create the beautiful freedoms that we enjoy, we cannot have a system of rights without a sense of duty.
The reciprocal ideas to rights are duty and responsibility. We cannot have a system where we are all entitled to take and receive from the collective without a sense of duty and contribution to the collective good. Rather than constantly thinking of what you expect, deserve, or receive, focus on what you can contribute. This simple shift in disposition serves you in two profound ways.
First, you will do more good in the world. When you look for ways to contribute, you will always find them. Being of service does not have to mean huge commitments of time, energy, or money. It can be as simple as taking out the trash when you see the need or as profound as volunteering and mentoring. It is not about what you actually do, but about how you see the world and your role in it. It is about recognizing that you are a part of something so much greater than yourself (be that your country, your neighborhood, or the global community) and that you have the capacity to make it a better place.
This can feel a bit silly and woo-woo. We all just need to, like, spread our love and make the world a better place, man.
This isn’t necessarily a message for peace and love. It is incredibly practical and natural for humans. You have it in your nature to be community-oriented. For nearly all of human history, we lived in small bands where it was possible to know and care about everyone else. All people had an innate sense of contribution and service because it was required for survival. It is only with the growth of modern society and communities far too large to know every member, that we need the idea of rights to prevent oppression. With large-scale society comes the possibility for the anonymity required to cheat the system or commit crimes. Our ancestral past was not a utopia and there must have been plenty of disagreements and fights, but you can bet that there was no inflated welfare state, Ponzi schemes, or organized crime. Without anonymity you cannot get away with trampling on those around you. We invented rights to preserve this spirit and apply it across a larger scale. You simply need to tap into your natural inclination for contribution and service.
Despite the obvious benefit of creating more positive change in the world, a shift toward a sense of duty and service is not all about the people and environment around you. It is about you. The second huge shift that happens when you adopt a sense of responsibility is entirely personal.
You will stop looking for ways in which you have been wronged or slighted. You will break an inclination toward victimhood. You will take on responsibility for your own well-being. And, you will feel a sense of duty to make your community a wonderful place to live rather than simply reaping the benefits of what is already wonderful about it.
In the United States, many people love to repeat that, “This is the best country in the world.” Even those who do not live in the US, seem convinced that historically, we are living in the best time. Regardless, if either of these are true, when is the last time that you did anything to contribute to these facts? Do you simply espouse this exceptionalism and expect all the benefits that come with it? Or, do you take part in making it true? It was a sense of responsibility and duty that made the US great and the modern world so free. Do not rest on these laurels, continue the tradition that made it so in the first place.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” We have all heard this quote from JFK so much so that it has become cliche. Yet, no other sentiment captures this idea so perfectly. This quote is not a call for military service or some other grand sacrifice, but a call for a sense of duty. JFK was asking that we all adopt a sense of duty, that we all search for ways to contribute to the strength of our community rather than fixating on how deserving or entitled we feel for its benefits. He was asking us to look for ways to take out the trash.
Irish playwright and political activist, George Bernard Shaw said this another way: “A gentleman is one who puts more into the world than he takes out.”
When we orient ourselves to put more good into the world than we receive, we entirely shift our perspective on happiness and fulfillment. You can always be useful and you can always say something nice.
A Sense of Duty and Call to Action
Adopting a sense of duty helps you to serve the world. But, most importantly, it allows you to take responsibility for your own life. It is from this key shift that all other personal growth springs. We cannot expect to improve ourselves and our lives without a sense of personal responsibility. Inherent in this sense of duty, are two profound realizations. First, your problems are yours to solve. Second, you have the ability to solve your own problems.
In other words, you should believe that you are capable of solving your problems and feel eager to take them on. This does not mean that you will never need help. Asking for assistance when you need it is part of the humility required for growth. A sense of duty is not perfection or always being a hero. It is simply doing what you can, when you can, with what you have available. It is always opting to take out the trash.
At IHD, we are big on values. We know that the path towards the most fulfilling and productive existence comes from defining your values and living according to them. However, we are also big on action. Values are not only found through reading books or articles like this one. We do not become better people by sitting in our armchairs to ponder the virtues of a good life. Even for me, writing this article is only the tiny first piece of defining my values.
Shane wrote recently about the two-way relationship between action and values. Our values are like the computer code that defines our operating system, receiving all inputs and determining all outputs. Values define our actions. However, this relationship goes both directions. Our actions, behaviors, and experiences can be transformative. A day of volunteering or witnessing a tragic accident can rearrange our values forever. Continually going to the gym can create and strengthen values for health, fitness, hard work, and dedication. Our actions can define and affirm our values which, in turn, defines future actions.
This is where we find the true value of the Take Out the Trash principle. Sure, it is great that the trash gets taken out, but most importantly, you begin to see yourself as the person who takes it out. When we take on our problems without complaint or victimhood we begin to see ourselves as capable and strong. This belief, then, makes us more capable and strong. When we look for ways to contribute, we begin to see ourselves an integral part of our community and as the type of person who affects positive change in the world. Adopting a sense of duty is just as much about your self-image and growth as it about whatever particular duties you take on.
Get Over Your Rights and Just Take Out the Trash
Universal human rights are a beautiful invention. This idea and the protections that they guarantee have allowed us to build the free and prosperous society that we all enjoy. But as a culture, we have grown obsessed with our rights. It has become not only acceptable but celebrated to call out any behavior that might be construed as oppressive or offensive. We have come to value the positive right of comfort and safe spaces so much so that we have become willing to trample universal basic freedoms like speech and expression. This trend completely undermines the spirit of our rights.
Rights were invented to eliminate as many obstacles to personal freedom as possible. They were not meant to give or grant us anything, only to remove as many obstructions as possible from the path forward. Rights were invented in parallel with a sense of duty. Our early founding thinkers understood that the idea of rights is only possible when everyone feels a sense of obligation and duty to the collective good. Rights are not meant to hold your hand or coddle you. They are meant to support your desire to stand tall with a sense of duty to yourself and your community.
Taking on a sense of duty and responsibility for all areas of your life is not only the best path forward for you as an individual. It is not just the best way to contribute to the world around you. It is also the best way to honor the original spirit of your rights.
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