Maslow Got It Wrong: What I Learned From Feeding the Homeless On My Birthday

I want to tell you that dedicating my birthday to helping the homeless was a deeply satisfying experience, and that I know I’m a good person.
But that would be a lie.
The reality? It was a complicated experience, one that reminded me of the sheer beauty and the sheer darkness found within all people.
It was my 30th birthday. Normally I’d pick a restaurant, invite my friends, and pretend to put up a fight when they picked up the tab. In the moment, it feels great to be surrounded by people who are spending their time and money on me. But I’ve had enough experiences like that to know that the satisfaction is fleeting. More of a sugar-high than anything else.
Looking back, my 20s were about exploration. I want my 30s to be more about supporting other people. I want to be an obvious force for good and a source of love.
So for my 30th, I asked my friends to join me in doing something unusual. On the morning of my birthday we met at my place and spent an hour making healthy, filling lunches and writing notes for hungry people on the street.
After that we wandered around Denver for three hours passing out food. I was surprised by a lot of what happened that afternoon.

Here’s What Stood Out

1) Want to be selfless? Start by being selfish. I wrote about my plans for my birthday on Facebook (more on that in a moment). A friend sent me a message saying that she admired how selfless I was being. While I appreciate the sentiment, she misread the situation. I was actually being selfish.
Going into it, I suspected that helping other people would provide a deeper sense of satisfaction than a $30 wood plank salmon.
I was right. Helping others was more satisfying than a dinner out. I benefitted.
And I was also being strategic. Much of my 20s were spent traveling the world and building my business. Through it all, I learned that relationships are a greater sources of happiness and meaning than work and adventure. Part of the reason I chose to spend my birthday serving others is because I believe that the more I give to the world, the more the world will give to me.
So it’s tempting to position myself as a do-gooder, but I’m not. I’m selfish. I’ve just figured out that helping other people provides more happiness and satisfaction than low-grade pleasure.
2) Maslow may have gotten it wrong. The most impactful moment of the day came when we met Spike and offered him some food. At first, Spike seemed confused that anyone cared about him and his needs. He told us that he had been living on the street for 20 years.
He asked what we were doing. When we explained that we were trying to improve a few people’s day, he teared up and asked what he could do for us. He offered us cigarettes and the few trinkets he had.
If Maslow is correct, the food should have meant more to Spike than the connection. And while there is an upper limit to how long a human can go without food, I suspect the pain of being ignored by almost everyone is greater than the pain of being hungry (which is the result of being ignored anyways).
My experience with Spike was a sharp reminder of an obvious truth: what we all crave is connection, love, and a quiet sense of mattering outside of ourselves.
Disclosure: I do not know with 100% certainty that Spike teared up when we spent time with him. He was wearing sunglasses. While most of the people involved believed he teared up one person thought that he was just confused and that we misread the situation.
3) Rogue rebels do not solve systemic problems. Homelessness is a complicated problem. It’s symptomatic of problems at the political and economic levels of our culture, and exacerbated by marketing, health care, and the mental illnesses of the affluent who chronically hoard far more than they give.
All of my heart wishes that there were simple solutions to obvious injustices like homelessness. But there aren’t. Ending homelessness requires massive audacity, time, compassion, strategy, luck, and the courage to be hated for doing what’s clearly right.
Phrased more bluntly, truly helping the least fortunate among us takes balls. Even more than balls, it takes a fucking heart that’s alive and well and unafraid. Those are rare these days….
Does it help to give back in the ways that you can? Yes, absolutely. I fault people who don’t. But unfortunately, my friends and I spending a day doing what feels right, probably did not make any enduring impact on anyone’s life (except perhaps our own).
To truly tackle systemic problems, you need to change the system. While you are busy changing the system, it’s still important to provide direct service, as a sort of triage before and during the operation.
4) The mere act of giving back is not intrinsically satisfying. This is what surprised me the most. I expected to end the day feeling deeply satisfied, maybe even proud of myself.
In reality, I felt a combination of tired, content, stressed and frustrated. I was much happier than I would have been if I did the whole dinner thing, but that feeling of, “Holy shit Jason, you’re a good guy!” that never came.
Instead I was reminded of a quiet truth about giving back: it’s most meaningful when you give your gift to the world as fully as possible. Anything less is still good, but not as satisfying.
Personally, I have the time, money, and experience to do far more than pass out lunches. So do you. I wasn’t even brushing against my potential for impact. I suspect that if I were truly sharing my gift with the world that I would feel that deep sense of satisfaction. Right now I’m working towards giving more of my gift and myself to the world. This project was a solid first step.
5) Talking about taking action is common. Taking action is rare. Taking action and telling the world is power.
Earlier, I mentioned that I wrote a post on Facebook about this project. Because of that post, friends from around the world wrote to say that they were going to do something similar with their birthday. One said she was going to do something similar with her bachelorette party.
During the event itself, seven people spent a few hours passing out lunches to nearly 30 people. That’s pretty good. After the event, over a dozen people had committed to doing something similar.
My personal impact: 30 meals, give or take.
The impact of the ripple effect that came from sharing my truth: several hundred meals.
If my friends share their experience, they’ll activate some of their friends, and our collective impact will be thousands of meals.
That’s pretty cool.
Oh, and in case it’s not obvious: one of the big reasons I’ve written this article is because I want you to steal this idea. If you do, I’d love to hear about it.
6) People are afraid to confront reality. I mentioned that seven people were involved with this project. That’s pretty cool and I’m grateful for everyone who came. However, if I had a normal birthday party, or asked people to volunteer with me at an animal shelter, more people would have come.
Homelessness is a painful issue. When you talk to a homeless person, you’re forced to confront a lot about yourself that you’re probably not comfortable with. To name a few:

  • You could do more to help if you really wanted to, but you choose not to
  • You are willing to ignore another human who is clearly suffering and in pain
  • The problems in your life aren’t nearly as dramatic as they seem
  • Addiction, abuse, gentrification, mental illness, etc are extremely real, extremely important, and extremely difficult to solve

And I get that. Each time I make eye contact with a homeless person, decline their request to buy them a hot meal, or lie about not having any spare change I confront all of that in myself.
But here’s the thing: it’s important to confront the parts of yourself you’d rather avoid. Failing to confront the uglier parts of your truth, is a lazy form of lying about who you are. Lying closes you off to love and happiness. Honesty opens you up and increases your power. Even though it can be unpleasant, it’s far better to dwell in reality.
Ultimately, I was reminded of what the world really needs…
This experience reminded me of what the world really needs, which is quite simple. It needs you.
Sometimes you can give a few bucks or a lunch to someone less fortunate. Awesome.
Sometimes you’ll hop on a jet to comfort a mourning friend, or provide direct service. Awesome.
Sometimes you’ll give your deepest gift as vulnerably, honestly, and passionately as you can. Awesome.
Sometimes, you’ll be working to keep your head above water and you wont be able to give anything to anyone else. Awesome. The more you serve yourself, the more you’ll be equipped to serve others.
The trick is to start where you are. For me, that was giving food to the homeless. As small actions become a bit easier, I’ll scale up. I hope you do too. Keep nudging yourself outside of your comfort zone. As you do this, the world will become a better place because of you.
For more on giving, check out our recent interview with social entrepreneur Mark Brand on the podcast.
And check out Jason’s previous article on our blog, “Finding Your Deep Gifts in a Shallow World.”
author_shot (1)Jason Connell is a speaker and writer who teaches confidence, self-love, and self-compassion. He’s worked with everyone from Senior members of the Obama administration and professional athletes to middle school students and emerging entrepreneurs. He shares his thoughts on life, authenticity, and power at:
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