Want to Save the World? First Save Yourself. The key to helping others is the order: First focus on building your career, then, if you're successful, you'll have plenty to give back.

By Steve Tobak

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


"In the event of the loss of cabin pressure … if you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person."

Let me ask you a personal question. Do you support some sort of cause or movement, even though you're still struggling and can probably use a little support – OK, maybe more than a little support – yourself? Be honest now. I bet a lot of you reluctantly said, "Well, yeah."

Here's the thing. However noble the cause, unless you're totally committed to a nonprofit career, you should quit thinking about helping others and focus on getting your own act together. If you don't, you're never going to do anyone any good, least of all yourself.

Look, there's a very good reason why nobody hires homeless people to run companies. Don't laugh. If they could do the job and all they asked in return was a roof over their heads and three square meals a day, believe me, boards would hire them all day long. Hell, they'd be fighting over them.

That's not happening because homeless people are not capable. They can't even take care of themselves, hold down a job, maintain a residence, pay the bills, and meet their commitments. How in the world are they going to take care of a whole company full of jobs, expenses, creditors, and customers?

Think that's a silly example? It's not. Ever been to a job interview? Half the questions are to determine if you're a good fit for the job. The other half are to find out if you have the basic bases covered, like whether you actually have the wherewithal and work ethic to actually show up every day and stick with it.

Related: Want Big Things Out of Life? Expect Big Things of Yourself.

That's why preflight announcements always say, "In the event of the loss of cabin pressure … if you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person." If you don't save yourself first, you're not going to be saving anyone else.

Make no mistake, you have to do it in the right order. The order does matter. It's actually the only thing that matters. Which is why they take the time to say it before every single blessed flight.

That's enough for the demand side of the equation. Let's talk about the supply side. Have you ever thought to ask yourself why? I mean, why are you so motivated to help others when you haven't even managed to build a solid career that can support you and your family? The answer may surprise you.

Don't look at me. I'm not saying I have the answer. After all, I don't know you from a hole in the wall. I have no idea what motivates you. I'm merely suggesting you should take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why you think it makes sense to try to help others when you should be laser focused on helping yourself.

I'll tell you what I will do, though. I will venture a guess based on what I know about a big cultural trend. This is Generation Me. A lot of people, particularly young people, want attention. Actually, they need attention. They need to feel special. And since they don't really have a purpose in life, they seek constant ego reinforcement to make them feel good about themselves.

Related: Want to Be Successful? Be the Best at What You Do.

In other words, a cause is just another type of selfie. It's sort of sad, really.

Here's another angle on that. Social entrepreneurship is a pretty big deal these days, right? And up-and-comers look at successful entrepreneurs who invest a lot of time and money in that sort of thing – Bill Gates, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and venture capitalists William Draper and John Doerr – and think, That's it. I'll be a social entrepreneur like them. How cool is that?

Again, the only problem is the order. They have cause and effect backwards. The only reason those executives and business leaders have a pot to piss in, let alone loads of time and billions of dollars to give, is because they first spent decades focused entirely on building their careers, their businesses, and their companies. Then they gave back.

This is simple, folks. It's the order that matters. First focus on yourself, your career, your business. If you're successful, then you'll have plenty to give back. The great irony is, if you put the cart before the horse and try to save others before you save yourself, then you'll never make a real difference in the world. That's the truth.

Related: The Only Good Reason to Start a Business in 2016

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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