“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” – Albert Einstein

A Lifetime of Service: Developing Selflessness Through the Ages

In our lifetime, we can cultivate a sense of service that evolves over time. We are influenced and become influencers. Whether it comes from our nature or nurture, selflessness plays a major role throughout the course of our lives.

For example, in Sikhism, the cornerstone principle involves a sense of Sarbat da bhalla. This means that we strive to work for the “common good of all.” Acts of lovingkindness in the Jewish faith are known as Tikkun Olam, or kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. Even researchers have been trying to understand our pre-disposed level of choosing to be generous.

It’s clear that there are many perspectives on how selfless service plays a major role in our daily lives. So let’s explore a few developmental stages of life and how we can learn to be selfless.

Elementary School: Responsible Actions (5-10 years)

Children at this age are learning how to be responsible citizens. They are taking in their society’s ideas around empathy, respect and how to be kind. They make connections with people of all ages in such ways, and begin to experience these qualities with each other. They may get involved in youth groups, after school programs with mentors, or the Scouts, all of which offer a buffet of values to choose from. They learn how to work with feelings of anger, shame and guilt from adults and others around them. Taking out the trash or donating food to homeless shelters is a kind of character education that teaches children to be compassionate, fair and responsible.


  • For an elementary school student, Kids Care Clubs — offers opportunities to work with others in service projects for the community.
  • Kid World Citizen has over 35 service learning projects for kids.
  • One Warm Coat is a non-profit organization that organizes people to provide warm coats for everyone. They provide tools and resources for creating a coat drive for schools, individuals, businesses and companies.  
  • Inspiring children to do good is Food Drive Kids. They offer grants to help them begin grassroots projects.

Children Learn What They Live
by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Middle School: Exploring Leadership (11-13)

Children at this stage are learning how to improve their communities with more autonomy. This takes a level of leadership, problem-solving and time management that they may not have experienced before. They may be curious about how the local government works or agencies that help with social services. Middle-schoolers are interested in teamwork, how to set personal and group goals, and how to motivate others around them. In order to prepare them to be young adults, middle school children may start to coordinate on-campus groups themselves or committees within their community and take action as a leader.


  • See how to equip, mobilize and inspire children with generationOn Service Clubs. They help to organize service clubs, youth groups and organizations, and school leadership programs.
  • Get a few more ideas for activities and service learning ideas with Kid Activities.
  • For developing compassion and stewardship with the earth, animals and people, see what Compassionate Kids has to offer.
  • Also look for opportunities with Youth Service America and American Red Cross which offer middle school children information on how they can volunteer.

Teenagers: Innovative Thinking (14-18)

Change is a difficult concept for children and young adults to cope with. The world around them begins to move at a much more rapid pace in high school, with relationships, family dynamics and higher education on the horizon. Yet as they attain an ability to respond to change in themselves, communities and the world, they also begin to understand innovative ways to work with complex issues. This may take shape in the form of service-learning projects that push them out of their comfort zones. They are more actualized, engaged citizens who are reflecting on their childhood values and how they inform the moral dilemmas they will face as a teenager.



“Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” – Rumi

Adult behavior sets an example and directly influences children and others around them. When adults are able to understand how their emotions affect others, it can be a powerful source of inspiration for younger generations. It can also go the other, unfortunate way. When releasing an attachment to a situation with a feeling of anger, adults reconcile with the fact that others may be suffering as well, and that some people may be suffering in silence. A selfless adult understands the myriad of feelings and influences they have on their children, community, parents and themselves. They are able to share their goodwill and allow others the space to forget what they worried about. Being selfless involves loving yourself as well. The path of selflessness for an adult involves understanding any unresolved conflict, pain, and suffering and healing them. You are then able to forge a deeper connection with yourself, have more energy throughout the day, be more aware of your surroundings, to love yourself, and to create a more sustainable connection with others.


  • Explore the Conscious Leadership Group’s 15 Commitments. And locate yourself as a leader in your community, your family and within yourself.
  • Read a few sections of the Book of Life, a gathering of articles from the minds who established the School of Life.


“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Siddhartha Guatama Buddha

Buddhists teach the concept of Anicca, or impermanence. That is, our existence is hinged on fragility. We are transitory in nature. So why are we so surprised that our lives change so quickly? In the end, why is it not acceptable to selfishly fear death?

Our lives can be experienced as change on two levels of impermanence. We change in a gross manner, or over long periods of time. And we also change in subtle ways, which may be in shifting of emotion in the mind to smaller, invisible changes in the body over the course of a second. We don’t tend to focus on the subtle changes. We want to live forever. We often obsess over the day to day shifts, like death of a loved one or the ruin of a city.

It’s important, not only in our elder years, but over the course of a lifetime, that we remember to acknowledge our impermanence. In the subtle ways, just as how the colors change quietly and softly across the sky at sunset. In our nature, we are like plants that grow older and older. From the seed they get older, and eventually decay back into the ground. There is beauty in the impermanence. Leaves change colors in the fall. Seasons bring cold winds from the west. When you look at a river, look at the flow of water and see how life finishes just as quickly. We see these external elements change in subtle ways, but never reflect on the subtle shifts in our own nature. Be aware of these moments. Remind yourself that fear and worry have no place in this. And teach the notion of impermanence to younger generations so they may see their lives in all their subtleties. That is the ultimate selfless act.


Altruism 101 and 201

Having young people focus on the things for which they’re grateful can also be a springboard for figuring out how they want to give back. As young people focus on their blessings, and maybe even reach out to the people who have taken an interest in them and helped them along the way, they tend to start thinking about ways in which they can give back and help others.

It’s important to share your own purpose in life, too. Moral exemplars are great, but sometimes you try to give them the story of Gandhi or Mother Teresa, and they just go “blech.” It’s totally overwhelming. But when you hear from a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a neighbor, or a friend, “Here is what gives my life purpose or meaning,” that can seem much more amenable, proximal, and doable.

We want young people to start searching, but we need to be careful of closure. We don’t want them to decide too early what they want to accomplish without having considered other potential ideas. It’s not our goal to help someone to figure out their purpose in life by 11.

It is possible that during adolescence and emerging adulthood, individuals are not as concerned with having a ‘means’ to achieve their goals, but rather are focused more on the mere identification of these goals. While meaning is an important component of purpose, it does not capture the other oriented aspect of the purpose construct. Clearly we believe that the differences around purpose, hope, and life satisfaction are significantly influenced by what our culture says is acceptable and expected at different life stages.

For example, during adolescence and emerging adulthood, young people may benefit most from being encouraged to search for purpose as this will help them achieve a sense of satisfaction with their lives. Adults, however, need to have identified a purpose in order to achieve that same sense of satisfaction. Therefore, the ideal time to actively engage with individuals around the issue of purpose may be during late childhood or early adolescence. Supports designed to help young people discover inspiring life purposes and to determine how to work toward them should be offered throughout adolescence and emerging adulthood. The results of this study do not necessarily suggest that finding purpose after emerging adulthood is impossible, but they do conclude that the subjective experience of searching for purpose after this point is likely to be an uncomfortable one.

Of course, many worthy pursuits in life are uncomfortable. That does not mean they are not worthwhile. However, it does suggest that fostering purpose at a later stage of life may be more challenging than doing so at an earlier stage.

Source: Kendall Cotton Bronk

A lifetime of service can bring meaning and possibility to our lives and others. In the next section, we’ll begin to explore different ways people have been of service to the world. And you’ll begin to understand how your meaningful life can be of service to others.