We have some friends who are in a program called “safe parents”. The deal is that parents who are in crisis (drug addiction, abuse, etc.) can enter the program to get advice and resources to address their problems, while their children can stay with loving families temporarily (on average, around six weeks.)

It’s not an easy program, as my friends are the first to admit. They’re not adopted parents and have no real authority over the children. The children often have been neglected, are dealing with intense hurt or anger, and lash out in frequent and frustrating ways on the safe parents.

And yet they feel called to do this. They take the children to the zoo, or to the beach (a beach that the kids have literally never seen, even though they live only 2 miles away.) They endure the tantrums and help them grapple with their emotions, and bathe them in love.

Wasted salt

A few years ago Pew did a survey of 18-25 year olds and asked them what their two most important life goals were. 81% said being rich, 51% said being famous. Wealth and fame have the two pillars that drive what most people consider to be the formula for being “somebody.”

The startup crowd in many ways personifies the pursuit of these two goals. We’re all working insane hours, going to event after event after event, meeting after meeting after meeting, killing ourselves to reach these two objectives, hoping to get that big score so we can become a part of the club with the big exit and the founder’s shares and the speaking engagements and Twitter followers and Klout score that comes with it.

But the problem with living and breathing your work is that it deadens you. You become so obsessed with making something of yourself or your business that you develop blinders to world around you.

The idea of being a safe parent or volunteering at a senior center or raking your neighbor’s leaves or babysitting for the new parents down the hall so they can go on a date all seems like a distraction from your chief aim to hit it big. Actually, it would seem like a distraction, but we’e too busy for the thought of doing any of those things to even occur to us in the first place.

The work isn’t the problem, it’s the motive. The desire for money and fame makes small, private acts seem like a huge waste of time. A drop in the bucket. An unwelcome detour from the relentless pursuit of one’s rise to the top.

I’m certainly not immune. A few weeks ago my wife and I were asked to be mentors for engaged couples, and I seriously was waffling. If I’m honest, my first thought was probably something like “I can’t sit down over lunch each week to help young couples think through important issues that will have a huge impact on the success of their marriage. I’ve got a business to build.” Thankfully I have a wise wife to keep me in check.

We don’t exist for ourselves.

Jesus said that we’re to be the “salt of the earth,” a phrase I didn’t really understand until recently. Salt’s purpose is to enhance the flavor and enjoyment of other things. No one eats salt by itself.

If that’s true, it means that my talents and gifts and life are not ultimately for me. Their highest and best use is not to make me rich and healthy and happy. And the things I’m doing professionally, while awesome and worthwhile and fulfilling, will have been worthless if the end game is about me.

More often than I’d like to think, I’m wasted salt. Salt spent on glorifying myself instead of God. Salt spent trying to build myself up rather than trying to help others. Salt spent trying to make myself look good instead of getting my hands dirty to bring love and light to a world desperately needing it. Salt that works hard but for the wrong reasons, and often at the expense of more important things than my own notoriety or bank account.

Even though we have countless examples of people who pursued wealth and fame and didn’t find happiness, we’re convinced that it will be different when it’s us.

But salt used on itself is pointless.