Saturday, March 21, 2009

Defining 'Service'

I don't know why i'm pontificating so much more recently, but was thinking about the concept of service recently.  I got the feeling that there isn't a common definition for what it is, so using this space as away to define what it means to me.


Two years ago George Bush told us that the best way to serve our country was to 'go shopping more.'  In fact, our entire economy is built upon the idea that acting in our own best interest is the easiest and best way to act for the good of all.  After all, buying trinkets helps the person selling it to you to maintain a livelihood.  I'm starting to understand why I have such a viscerally negative reaction upon hearing this.

I feel that the intention to provide value to another as primary driver of action is a prerequisite of service.  Greed, contrary to what Gordon Gekko may say, is not good.  This is so partially because of the cultural shift that occurs when a person stops thinking about everything in terms of narrow self-interest (although economists would inevitably disagree and reframe the very desire to be altruistic as masked self-interest).  I've been taught that this way of looking at things is called 'other-orientation' or 'enlightened self-interest' (instead of 'self-orientation').  In addition, behavioral economics says that our self-interest tends to be short-sighted (and non-rational in general) and so acting in that manner tends to create huge problems over the long haul (e.g. financial crisis, air/water/food quality, drug scares, etc).


The world is filled with people who will say that self-interest is the only way to keep people from being lazy.  I urge them to meet the folks tirelessly and anonymously working all over the world to bring better lives to people left behind by this system.  Other-orientation is a more powerful motivator than greed could ever be.


In this sense, going shopping can be an act of service to your nation, but it also may not.  Did my purchase help some dude buy a bigger yacht?  Perhaps it helped an oil baron continue to finance his pet projects?  Or maybe my purchase helped children get more access to books?  Intention counts.  Consumption in a vacuum is not service.


And this brings me to my point:  I feel that service is the mixture of the intention to be other-oriented combined with the desire to understand how best to be other-oriented.  It is a mindset, and it can exist at any time.  While buying food at the grocery store, while selling your services at the workplace, or while having a conversation at Starbucks. 


I am of course ridiculously far from this ideal, but having the intention when i wake up every day is something that I think is valuable in itself.

1 comment:

Guri Mehta said...

Hey Birju,

So much of our culture gets affected by these speeches delivered so eloquently by actors. It's nice to see more voices out there sharing the "other side." Great article!