There are, very very broadly speaking, two types of good things you can do in the world. You can provide a material benefit to someone, or you can make someone feel good. They aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But ultimately those are the two outcomes you’re going for if you’re trying to do good in the world.
You can solve someone’s medical problem. You can build something for them. You can create financial opportunity for them. And so on – useful things. Everything from mowing someone’s lawn to saving them from a heart attack is useful. But usefulness does not have to be the only thing we judge by – in fact, to do so is a hollow measure.
We should also strive to make others happier. A kind word or a pleasant song carry very little in the way of usefulness per se, yet they bring tremendous value to a life. My two youngest children are pretty useless in terms of material benefit (though of course they’re a huge investment in future utility, as evidenced by the chores being performed already by my oldest), but all of my kids bring me so much joy it’s hard to describe.
You can see this dynamic playing out in micro versions everywhere. Go into any workplace with more than a few dozen employees and you’re likely to be able to find at least one who has their job not because they’re good at it, but because everyone enjoys working with them. People who slip through the performance evaluation cracks quarter after quarter because they’re kind, funny, pleasant, and endearing. The reverse is also true – sometimes you see someone in a workplace who’s a real jerk, but they don’t get fired because they’re an incredible performer at their profession. Both of those scenarios have limits at the extremes, but the general pattern pervades: you have to at least be one or the other.
As much as possible you should strive for both, of course. You should try to be useful and you should try to be pleasant. But there are lots of reasons that people might find it difficult to be useful. It happens. What amazes me is how often people who have trouble being useful also quickly default to becoming jerks.
People put a lot of their self-value into their own self-perception of usefulness. It’s natural, and I get it. And when that self-perception wanes because they feel like they aren’t being useful in whatever context matters to them, they get defensive and lash out. That’s also natural, and I also get it. But they shouldn’t. Being kind matters so much more than being useful. And you can always be kind.