The First Commandment for How to Live a More Useful and Happier Life

Bill Abbate

If you are young, would you take advice from a highly successful person? What if he was the longest-serving president of Harvard and the one who transformed it into a preeminent American Research University? He would have a great deal of credibility, wouldn't he?

While he wrote the following more than a century ago, it applies today as much as ever. Let's see if we can unearth some of the meaning behind his words.

"If I had the opportunity to say a final word to all the young people of America, it would be this: Don't think too much about yourself. Try to cultivate the habit of thinking of others; this will reward you. Selfishness always brings its own revenge. It cannot be escaped. Be unselfish. That is the first and final commandment for those who would be useful and happy in their usefulness." Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926)

The first thing of note in Eliot's words is:

"Don't think too much about yourself."

Today's world is hyper-focused on the individual. Much of what people learn today centers on themselves and what they can get from life. Sometimes at the expense of others! Even our government has gotten into supporting such selfishness with numerous handouts that negatively affect people's lives, often removing their very dignity.

Many of us are so focused on what we can get we forget about what we are becoming in the process. What we get can even affect how we view value others in life. This leads us to Eliot's next words:

"Try to cultivate the habit of thinking of others; this will reward you."

When we learn to put others first, we not only humanize them, we humanize ourselves. Too often in today's society, with social media becoming so pervasive, we label, categorize, separate, look down on, and alienate people. We base these things on their looks, their words, how they act, and what they post or do not post online.

The endless judgments made are destructive, creating more bias, prejudice, and intolerance in society. Instead of social media bringing us closer together, it often divides.

This division does not have to be but will continue so long as people selfishly think only about themselves. For those who do consider others, rewards will come into their lives in many ways. The most important of these rewards are more and closer relationships.

"Selfishness always brings its own revenge. It cannot be escaped."

You will find out who your real friends are when things go wrong. You can bet those selfish, inward-focused, self-serving people will not offer their help! They will hang you out to dry, as the old saying goes. Or is it leave you high and dry? Well, you get the picture! You can bet those who are selfish will get their due, whether now or much later. It will come back to them somehow, without fail!

Eliot sums up his words eloquently by stating:

"Be unselfish. That is the first and final commandment for those who would be useful and happy in their usefulness."

This is similar to the Golden Rule in the Bible. When you treat others the way you wish to be treated, Everything in life improves. The great thing is it not only improves for them but for you as well! You each reap the benefit of fair and equitable treatment. You develop trust, which can turn into a good relationship or friendship. Considering life exists because of relationships, and does not exist without them, what could be better than that?

Final thoughts

I wholeheartedly agree with Eliot. If I could leave a final word to a young person, it would be just as he clearly stated. By the way, young to me is anyone under 50! Yes, I may be older, but I was young once too!

I am fortunate to have lived many years following Eliot's words. I can honestly say firsthand, his advice is sound and will lead you to a more useful life, and you will find more happiness in your usefulness!

Why not heed his advice and make his final word your first commandment outside of the Bible? You won't regret it!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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