Make Your Contribution Greater Than Your Reward

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman

In the book, The 10 Laws Of Lifetime Growth, authors Dan Sullivan and Catherine Nomura share their ideas, captured in 10 “laws” or principles, for continued growth, self-development, flourishing, and a lifetime of contribution and service. The 10 laws of lifetime growth that Sullivan and Nomura present are:

1. Always make your future bigger than your past.
2. Always make your learning greater than your experience.
3. Always make your contribution bigger than your reward.
4. Always make your performance greater than your applause.
5. Always make your gratitude greater than your success.
7. Always make your enjoyment greater than your effort.
8. Always make your confidence greater than your comfort.
9. Always make your purpose greater than your money.
10. Always make your questions bigger than your answers.

In this article, we are considering law # 3: “Always make your contribution bigger than your reward.”

Here are my top 5 ideas from this principle:

1) Don’t fixate on the rewards.
2) Focus on making greater and greater contributions – the rewards will follow.
3) Look for ways to add value for more and more people.
4) Growth comes from contribution.
5) Take a no-entitlement position.

Don’t fixate on the rewards.

“Increased contribution to others is essential for lifetime growth. As you become more successful, numerous rewards will come your way: greater income, praise, recognition, reputation, status, capabilities, resources, and opportunities. These are all desirable things, but they can be growth stoppers. They may tempt you to become fixated on just the rewards, rather than focus on making still greater contributions.”

How many of us have hit a plateau, or found a spot in the center of our comfort zone, where our rewards are OK (even great) so we have stopped making real contributions? This situation can be a real growth-stopper. And it is insidious – we can get so focused on the rewards that we lose sight of the contribution we could make. When you get down to it, isn’t our contribution the one thing we can actually control? We don’t really control the rewards — they are a result of the contribution we make.

Focus on your contributions – the rewards will follow.

“The one way to guarantee that rewards will continually increase is to not think too much about them. Instead, continue making an even more significant contribution – by helping others to eliminate their dangers, capture their opportunities, and maximize their strengths. Greater rewards will automatically result from this, and your future will continue to be filled with increasingly rewarding ways to contribute.”

I am reminded of an illustration I heard many years ago from Earl Nightingale. A man sat in front of a cold stove and said, “Give me heat, then I’ll put in some wood.” Of course, it doesn’t work that way at all – you have to put in the wood before you get the heat. The more wood you pile in, the hotter the fire and the quicker you’ll get the reward – heat. You can’t put in wood one time and expect the heat to last forever. You have to periodically stoke the fire to keep producing heat just as you must continuously grow your contribution to reap the rewards – including the reward of lifetime growth.

Add value for more and more people.

“Always focus on creating new kinds of value for larger numbers of people, and you will ensure that your contribution is always greater than your reward.”

“Don’t ask what the world needs,” said Howard Thurman, an influential African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. “Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” What activities, ideas, causes, or movements are you committed to? How can you become more involved? How could you make a bigger contribution?

Consider your career and what you do to earn a living. How could you be of better service to more people? In Authentic Happiness, Dr. Martin Seligman tells of being in the hospital room of a dear friend who was lying in a coma. As he struggled with the situation, he watched an orderly come in, remove the bedpan, and then begin to study the pictures on the wall. As Seligman watched, the orderly removed some prints from a bag and began replacing some of the pictures and straightening others.

“May I ask what you are doing?” he asked the orderly.

“I’m an orderly,” the man replied. “But each week I bring in new pictures to replace the ones that are hanging here. You see, I’m responsible for the health of all these patients and I want to be sure that, when they wake up, they see beautiful things.” [Seligman, 167 – 168]

Being an orderly was his job, what he did for pay, but it was also his calling, what he did to contribute to a better world.

Here are some qualities of a calling:

* A job is something you do to get paid, a calling is something you would do whether you got paid or not.
* A career is 9 – 5. A calling is 24 / 7.
* A job is what you do. A calling is who you are.
* A calling is what you have to give – the intersection where your gifts, skills, and strengths meet one of the world’s needs.

Do you have a job, a career, or a calling? How could you shift toward answering your calling? That is when you begin making major contributions, adding value to the people you serve.

Growth comes from contribution.

“Making a contribution for its own sake solidifies and expands your relationship with the outside world. It is through this relationship that your continual growth will be funded and supported. If you’re not making a contribution to others, it’s easy to get caught up in your own thoughts and go around in circles. By focusing on contributing and letting the rewards take care of themselves, you anchor yourself in the real world. Through the insight and feedback you get from others, you grow your understanding of how to create greater and greater value.”

When you shift your focus from what you’re getting to what you’re giving, you open the door for increased growth and self-development. The Universe rewards action and this reward often comes as feedback for ways to improve our actions and our performance. The surest way to cut yourself off from the feedback you need if you want to be of more service and make a continuously growing contribution is to be arrogant and egotistical, believing you are self-sufficient and don’t need the input of other people. The antidote to this attitude is humility and gratitude.

Take a no-entitlement position.

“When you believe that you need to create value first in order to receive any reward, you will automatically be more focused on contribution. Most of us are susceptible to thinking that we deserve things once in awhile. It’s a conditioned response that has been built into our thinking because there are so many messages around us reinforcing the idea that we are entitled to things. Often, these messages come from people or organizations that want to manipulate us in some way or co-opt us into their agendas. A No-Entitlement Attitude keeps you free of these other agendas and focused on your contribution.”

Consider the Law of the Farm: “Do not be deceived: . . . whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” Galatians 6:7 (ESV) This natural law has been articulated by thinkers through the ages. “You reap what you sow.” “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” “Every decision has a consequence.” “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” When we fall into the trap of thinking we can reap the reward without putting in the effort, without making a contribution, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment.

The Law of the Farm is a natural law that applies to all of us, all the time. “It is impossible for us to break the law,” said Charleton Heston as Moses in the movie “The 10 Commandments”. “We can only break ourselves against the law.” Remember the man sitting in front of the cold stove, then pile on the wood of making the best contribution you can. You have control over the cause (your contribution), not the effect (the rewards).

You came here with a purpose. And you have a combination of talents, innate abilities, and inclinations that are totally unique. No one living today or who has ever lived, has your same abilities. If you don’t make the contributions only you can make, that part won’t get done. No one else can do it. Oh, but if you do what you came to do, you leave the world a “bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition”, and you make your contribution greater than your reward. That is living the Excelerated Life!

Excelerated accomplishment — achieving meaningful objectives — is one step in creating your Excelerated life, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.


About the book:

Dan Sullivan is the founder of The Strategic Coach (1988) where he and his partner, Babs Smith, coach, consult with, and help entrepreneurs with strategic planning. Catherine Nomura is the Communications Director at The Strategic Coach and the author of several books, including Unique Ability: Creating The Life You Want.


Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002

Sullivan, Dan and Catherine Nomura. The Laws of Lifetime Growth: Always Make Your Future Bigger than Your Past. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2007


Lifetime Growth

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