How to help others without becoming helpless

In this post I’m going to share some things that are on my mind, based on my mood, given my current state of media consumption. Let me preface this by saying I just watched The Danish Girl, which was excellent, and I’ve been researching for my PhD thesis, which makes me feel both the brevity of life and the importance of doing meaningful things with mine.

From a young age I believed my purpose was to help others; I believed in the moral superiority of selflessness, and thought as a healthy and relatively well-off person of sound mind and body, I should help the less fortunate.

I’ve learned some things since then.

The first is, you cannot truly help others until you’ve made yourself happy. “Sacrificing” who you are or what you want, giving up your goals and dreams to help others, won’t help anyone. People need more joy and happiness. If you don’t feed your own soul, you won’t be able to inspire others.

The danger is, it’s easy to spend your whole life working for paychecks to buy more things to make yourself happy; vacations, cars, experiences, clothes. It’s easy to end up, month after month, with no money and no energy, even after working full-time.

Which means, whether you live for yourself, or you live for others, both can result negatively.

In The Danish Girl,  Lili Elbe kills off the public persona she’s been wearing all these years, because she can’t keep up the lie, even to please her wife; ultimately in her quest to become who she always was inside, she gives up everything – including her own life.

It’s tempting to think of that as selfish.

It isn’t.

Because everyone needs to be reminded that it’s never to late to change everything, and become the person we want to be. The world needs mentors, courageous heroes, trailblazers… most of us play it safe and take it easy, and disappear into a life of small pleasures and big sacrifices.

My PhD Thesis is about Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. According to Milton, “They who seek nothing but thir own just libertie, have always right to win it and to keep it, whenever they have power, be the voices never so numerous that oppose it” (Milton 1974 p. 455). The question of my thesis, is whether this statement applies to everyone, and if so, why have so many groups in the three centuries since faced persecution.

In other words, it’s a question of the right of each individual to choose his or her own path, and to fight for the right to live life on their own terms. If you grew up in a liberal western society, you probably already believe and accept some version of this. I’ll bet you’re even familiar with Napolean Hill’s brand of positive thinking: “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

But you probably didn’t know that Napoleon Hill also wrote a book about his conversations with the devil.

The devil explains to him that most people are drifters, and they are easy for him (the devil) to control. But a small minority of people are non-drifters.

The first sign of a non-drifter is this: He is always engaged in doing something definite, through some well-organized plan which is definite. He has a major goal in life toward which he is always working, and many minor goals, all of which lead toward his central scheme.

The tone of his voice, the quickness of his step, the sparkle in his eyes, the quickness of his decisions clearly mark him as a person who knows exactly what he wants and is determined to get it, no matter how long it may take or the price he must pay.

At first, the danger in contemporary society may seem to be that we have too few drifters.

Everyone these days has their own plans and dreams and goals, and is excited about them. In fact it can be seen as a kind of selfishness to persist in your own goals, as opposed to societal responsibilities. Everyone has a sparkle in their eye. This kind of “you can do whatever makes you happy” has become the defining and universal belief of our new age, liberal culture.

However it’s insidious (causing harm in a way that is gradual or not easily noticed), because it isn’t true in itself. There are two further points that are conveniently forgotten. The first comes from Milton:

They who seek nothing but thir own just libertie, have always right to win it and to keep it, whenever they have power, be the voices never so numerous that oppose it.

Firstly, they need to have the power; secondly, there may be others who oppose you. If you do not have power or it has been taken from you, and others have a vested interest to keep your liberty from you, you may need to fight to reclaim it.

In other words, just believing isn’t enough. Sometimes it takes effort. Hard work. Maybe even violence to get what you want. People expect achievement to be as easy as manifesting a million dollars in 24hours, and get frustrated by the amount of actual work and effort it takes; frustrated that nobody else is helping you; frustrated when things aren’t working out. This can make you bitter about your job, or life, or relationships, if you’re pining for a completely different experience. It can make you feel like “the universe is out to get you.”

Or, you may have an idea of what you want to do with your life and no idea how to make it profitable, how to make money with it. Luckily, the devil (through Napoleon Hill) gives this brilliant piece of advice:

“What brief message would you send to the typical drifter?”
“I would adminish him to wake up and give!”
“Give what?”
“Some form of service useful to as many people as possible.”

“So the non-drifter is supposed to give, is he?”
“Yes, if he expects to get! And he must give before he gets!

You must have, to give. You must give, to get.

If that sounds purposely confusing, it is.

If you show up in a third world country and try to help people with no food or money or knowledge or resources, just you, you’ll probably not help many people. You’ll probably become more  of a burden than help (after all, how are you going to feed yourself? Where will you sleep?)

You can give time, or knowledge, or resources, but you have to have something to give away. When you deplete what you have, you’ll need to start taking again: you’ll need support, from someone or something.

I learned this years ago… it’s one of the main shifts that led to my starting this blog. After years of being an artist and a writer, and asking others for support, and never having money to support myself, I realized I needed to focus more on giving. I started providing “some sort of service to as many people as possible.”

That led to stable income, which allowed me to invest more time and resources into helping others. Through my blogs, websites, books and videos, I’m increasingly helping more and more people.

The problem is, the larger my network of content grows, the more expensive it is to maintain. I probably spend between $500 to $1000 a month purely on maintenance fees for my blogs and websites.

I can make it back (and much more) by working, but working on other people’s projects no longer makes me happy. I’m grateful that I don’t have to go to a “real job” and I’m grateful I make much more than average, working only a few hours a day, but on top of that I have the constant pressure of maintaining all of my online communities and groups; I need to respond to emails and comments (some of which are negative); I need to police my Facebook groups; every day I basically dread checking my inbox, which leads to a day of procrastination and avoidance, instead of the easy and thrilling pursuit of something I’m passionate about.

I’m realizing this more recently as I’ve begun studying again. I LOVE reading books, compiling research, organizing arguments… I get the allure of the academic lifestyle, teaching a few hours a week in exchange for support to research your own projects. But nobody is supporting me in my research, I still need to support myself.

And truly, while everyone I think dreams of a life where they can just do what makes them happy, and never have to do anything they dislike, I don’t expect or desire for someone else to pick up my tab and support me.

I don’t expect life to be easy and effortless; but I am excited about reducing the amount of time I trade for money. Remember, to succeed in life, to be a non-drifter, is to provide “some form of service useful to as many people as possible.” In the past 5 years, I’ve learned to focus on forms of service that I can charge more for; I’ve learned to do them well enough to charge above average rates; I’ve built up a reputation for them so that I never have to look for clients. This means I can work far less and make far more.

But it isn’t enough; because it still takes me time to do it, and because I’m not serving “as many people as possible.” I want to serve more people, while giving up less of my time. Basically, I need a clone, who can continue doing the things I don’t want to do and help more people, while I focus on the things that make me happy.

For that reason I’m getting into courses, books and other forms of passive income; things that will allow me to step away from client work, projects that help one person at a time, and focus on bigger, more meaningful, more fulfilling projects that can impact, inspire and assist as many people as possible.

This transition is difficult for me, because I like people and I like helping people for free, and I like interacting and being available. But I can’t do all of that and still support myself enough to focus on new projects. I have to learn to say no and be unavailable.

At the same time, it’s not enough for me to just make enough to support myself. Since I have the ability to produce more income than necessary, I feel a responsibility to make profound contributions, not only to the communities I’m involved with, but also to individuals.

I’ve been lucky in my life to receive some truly life-changing gifts from strangers, and that’s a debt I plan to repay by treating a handful of strangers to extraordinary surprises. But I can only do this by keeping the coffers full: I need to waste less time, produce more value, set up systems that provide services to as many people as possible, and produce more income than necessary, so I can do remarkable things that benefit others in life changing ways.

This blog, Creativindie, has been focusing on solving small problems (like book cover design) but aimed at loftier accomplishments (publishing a book you’re proud of). Increasingly, I’ll start focusing on business: how to do what you love and make more money than you need. NOT so that you can simply enjoy your life, but so you can provide services to others, be generous with your time and money, share your laughter and smiles with the world, and be a force for good.

If that’s something that interests you, I hope you’ll follow along, and I hope I can support you on your journey.



  • TariAkpodiete Posted

    thank you, Derek.

  • Amy Wasp Posted

    “provide services to others, be generous with your time and money, share your laughter and smiles with the world, and be a force for good.” Has always been my goal. Thank you for reminding me to see the bigger pictures. I’m here for the journey.

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