This past year I spent time thinking through my core personal values. I wanted to come up with five to seven characteristics that are most important to me – words I would want to be said about me by others. If you’ve never done this before, I highly recommend it. However, let me forewarn you: it’s surprisingly difficult to narrow it down to just a few words (I wound up settling on six).

One of the words I identified was helpfulness. I want to be helpful, and I want to be known for my helpfulness. At my funeral, I would love for people to say I was a help to them. However, before I go any further, I need to define what this means to me. Often the first image that pops into mind when people hear the word, “helpful,” is some young kid helping an elderly person across the street. It can evoke a picture of a meek, passive, quiet, or behind-the-scenes type of person. Those aren’t bad qualities or images. But, that’s not exactly what I mean when I say I want to be helpful.

How To Be Helpful

Here’s how I define my helpfulness core value: I would rather be influential than impressive, and I work hard to use any expertise I’ve been given to benefit others in an applicable, inspirational, and relatable way.

I base this definition on my experience with people who have been helpful to me. There are those in my life, both from people I know personally and others whom I interact with through their writing, speaking, or teaching, who have particularly inspired me. You have a list of people who have been helpful to you too. I want to emulate those people because they’ve figured out how to make a difference.

I think there are certain decisions helpful people make that help them be helpful (and I write that at the risk of using the word “help” way too many times). What is it that they know or do that makes an impact? Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Helpful People Might Look Less Impressive

Helpful people are willing to look less impressive in order to be more influential.

Let me be perfectly honest: I want people to be impressed with me. Deep down it’s probably because of insecurities I have. As a result, it’s easy for me to do things with the goal of looking impressive, where I use big words, highlight fancy concepts, or reference things that the “average” person doesn’t know.

Am I the only one that does this? Just checking.

The problem is that trying to be impressive is on the polar opposite side of trying to be helpful. If our main goal is for people to walk out of a room and say, “Wow, that guy is so smart!” or, “Dang, I could never do what that lady does,” then we succeeded with being impressive. But were we helpful? Probably not.

Helpful people are okay with looking less impressive if it means being more influential.

Impressiveness requires being perceived as a level above everyone else. Helpfulness means coming alongside people. If our main goal is to be impressive, it’s hard to be helpful.

Now, to be clear, helpful people are actually impressive in what they do. But, it’s not their first (or even main) goal. In fact, helpful people are okay with looking less impressive if it means being more influential. Funny enough, they’re often criticized by people in their field who claim they lack “depth.”

I would rather be influential than impressive. But, because this doesn’t come naturally for me, I have to constantly do an ego check and ask myself if something I’m doing is primarily about me or about helping others.

So, motivation is important. But, actually being helpful is a skill that takes hard work to develop. And that leads to the second big discovery.

Helpful People Make Things Easy to Understand

Helpful people work hard to make “the hard” easy to understand.

We often think what takes the most work is becoming an expert. But truthfully, we are all experts somewhere. “Expert” isn’t restricted to scientists and philosophers. Some of us are expert cooks. Others are experts at video games or movies or music or sports or whatever. If we’re passionate about something, it’s not long before we’ll become an expert at it.

The challenge comes in transferring that passion to someone else (teachers, can I get an “amen”?). That isn’t easy. When something comes naturally to us, we often forget that it feels foreign to everyone else.

Truly helpful people work hard to take difficult concepts and boil them down to the most critical components. As Albert Einstein famously said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”

On top of making concepts easy to digest, helpful people do something even harder: help people care. They ask why someone would care to know what they know.

I work for a church as a pastor, which means I want to help people. Being a minister means ministering to people. But, as I’ve looked back on sermons I’ve given or material I’ve written, I wonder if I’ve actually done that. Have I done the hard work to understand the fears, goals, challenges, and dreams of the people I want to impact? Sadly and far too often, I think I’ve made it more about me than about them.

So, something that has helped me stay focused on being helpful is to run anything I produce through a few filters. Here are three of them that might help you too.

  • APPLICABLE: Does this really matter to most people? Can people apply this to everyday life? Does this feel too abstract or too complex?
  • INSPIRATIONAL: Does this encourage people to go where they want to go? Is there anything that feels shameful, guilt-induced, or discouraging (if so, start over!)? Do I give tangible steps on how to move forward?
  • RELATABLE: Do I understand the fears or challenges others are facing? Am I sharing my honest struggles as a fellow journeyer? Can I relate what I know to what others would want to know?

Hopefully, that’s helpful to you. And I know you, like me, want to be more helpful to others this year. That’s what changes the world. I think we can all agree there are plenty of impressive people in the world, and certainly a lot who are trying to look impressive. But, let’s not settle for being impressive. Let’s focus on being influential. It’s hard work, but totally worth it too.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash
If you're looking for ways to make your workplace (or the world) better, here's some advice. Eric Torrence shares ideas about how to be helpful.