President Harry Truman once remarked, “it is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Those words simply and eloquently address a problem that many of us struggle with. We crave recognition, admiration, and respect, yet we understand that so often those needs get in the way of so many good things that we otherwise could be doing. We realize the importance of acting altruistically and try to learn to do great things without seeking credit. For a time we are successful, then we slip back into our old habits and ways of thinking. Like so many ideals we believe in, it is far easier said than done.
What Tools Can We Use To Learn To Live By This Ideal?
There is a fascinating Mishnah in Pirkei Avos / Ethics Of The Fathers (2:2) that gave me a powerful insight into implementing this idea. “All who work for the community should exert themselves for the sake of Heaven, for then the merit of the community’s forefathers aids them, and their righteousness endures forever. Nevertheless, as for you, G-d will bestow upon (those who do toil for the community) as great a reward as if you had accomplished it on your own.” These are somewhat cryptic words, but a careful reading will reveal a vital lesson. Although we feel we deserve credit for our accomplishments and the selfless sacrifices we make for others, in a big-picture sense we need to understand that our ability to help others is only from God. Realizing this can help us spend a little less time patting ourselves on the back and a little more time appreciating our role and place in this world. God gives each of us mitzvahs to perform so that we can better ourselves; not because God needs our help taking care of the world. The individual or community that we are working to assist will be helped (or not helped) because of God’s decision based on the merits of the community as well as God's cosmic plan for the world. Our job is to do the mitzvah of kindness and exert ourselves in every way possible while understanding that our efforts will only be effective if the community merits their efficacy and God so desires. Yet, God will see our efforts and reward us richly for them because we are doing our mitzvah. Focusing on this paradigm can be super helpful to internalizing President Truman’s lesson. As much as we feel we deserve the credit for communal accomplishments that we have done, we didn’t really do it. The success or failure of our actions is out of our hands.
But What About My Need To Feel Valued?
The deepest feelings of value will not come from what others think of me, but from what I think of myself. The Talmud teaches us that every person should say to themselves “God would have created the entire universe for me alone.” We should all feel a huge sense of purpose and importance because of who we are internally, and the importance of the lifetime of personal growth and divine service that we are tasked with. So, to put a Torah spin on President Truman’s idea: “it is amazing what can be accomplished when you realize that everything is in the Almighty’s hands and that the Almighty is exceptionally proud of how hard you are working.”