Heroic Acts of Service

Originally published here for the Institute of Organizational Mindfulness.

Periods of great difficulty are always a great time to reflect on what service means to us and the ideas we may have accumulated about it that may need to be revisited.

I’m thinking back to an inspiring discussion I recently had with restaurant-owner Albert Bitton as I gaze at a picture of him reading the menu to the exhausted and hungry medical workers of yet another overcrowded New York hospital. He is presenting another charitable delivery nourishing and delicious high-end Israeli food cooked by his New York restaurant, using his skills and passion to provide them with something that they so desperately need, but couldn’t experience even if they had time: the comfort and joy of true hospitality. This is deeply moving, but could also tempt the average service professional to think, “Now, that’s service. I wish I did something valuable like that in my work.”

Obligation Mentality Reveals The Simple Mindset Difference Between “Heroic” Acts of Service & Simple Routine Ones

Why does this seem truly heroic to them and yet the routine service work they had done back when their jobs were available felt meaningless? There are many ways to break this “importance conditioning“, but one of the most revealing and unexpected is the simple notion of obligation.

  • Both roles are the result of a sense of obligation.

  • Albert’s is an inside-out sense: “I feel a deep need to help.” No one’s forcing him, no one’s asking him. He’s just doing what he feels he must.

  • Most other service professionals have an outside-in sense of obligation: “I am forced (by some reason out there somewhere) to do this job.”

What must be understood is that both examples have complete freedom to choose. The miserable one just believes that they can’t. Even if you need a job for survival, you’ve still freely chosen your means of surviving. And this sense of obligation is usually just a way out of truly examining your options and taking ownership of your decisions.

Question Your Thinking To Shift Your Service-Disrupting Mentalities

Any time you feel trapped in a role that isn’t fulfilling, ask yourself this:

  • “How would I serve if it was completely up to me?”

  • “What thoughts arise that makes me believe that this is not my decision?”

One thing that contaminates our ability to connect and thrive in our service role is this false belief in obligation. It gives our power away to some formless outside force. Albert chose not to feel like he was at the mercy of outside forces and saw the power he had to channel his strengths and capabilities into uplifting people that really need it.

We experience the true potential of a role when we realize that we always have the freedom to keep doing it or choosing another one that is a better (or more relevant) outlet of our capabilities. We don’t need to choose any traditionally heroic role in order to experience this potential – we just need to own whatever it is we choose.