John Maxwell on Leadership

Moving from Survival Mode to Significance


What drives you when you get up in the morning?

Most people settle into one of three areas: survival, success, or significance. If you’re like many people, you may be struggling just to keep your head above water. You’re in survival mode. Whether because of circumstances, setbacks, or poor choices, you have to put a tremendous amount of effort into just making it day to day.

If you’re working hard to make life better for yourself and your family, then I applaud you. Keep working.

But once you’ve gotten to a place of stability, then what? What will you live for? Will you serve yourself or others? Will you put all of your energy into success, in trying to get farther ahead than others? Or will you work toward significance? Will you try to make a difference by helping others get ahead?

At this point, most people fresh out of survival mode believe they should focus on success before tapping into significance.

But here’s the thing…

Much of my career as a speaker and writer has focused on helping people who've already achieved a level of success to find true meaning in their lives. For some that’s a fairly smooth transition. For others it’s not. Many people I interact with have gotten to a place where they’ve reached some of their financial goals—or surpassed them—and they thought it would bring some kind of fulfillment.

They discover that they’re still not satisfied. And in some cases, they are actually less fulfilled than when they started their journey. They went into their journey thinking, “If I get more for me, I’ll be happier.” They thought it would bring them satisfaction and fulfillment, yet their lives feel hollow.

Many people tie their significance to social position, their title, their net worth or bank balance, the car they drive, their prestigious address, the man or woman on their arm, or some other status symbol. Their mentality is, “If I do enough and have enough, even if I am self-centered, it will bring fulfillment.” The problem is that self-centeredness and fulfillment cannot peacefully co-exist. They’re incompatible.

Sometimes people struggling with this issue are uncertain about what to do. Often, they grapple with the idea of making a career change in their forties or fifties. When I encounter someone in this situation, I ask:

“Do you really want to switch careers, or do you want to switch to a life that matters?”

The problem usually isn’t the job or career. When people are self-centered, they can make external changes, and they won’t be any happier in their next career. No matter where they go, there they are.

Instead, they need to shift to significance by putting other people first. Their thinking needs to change from What’s in it for me? to What can I do for others?  Until that change occurs, happiness, fulfillment, and significance will always be out of their reach.

That doesn’t mean success is bad. The reality is that many people must achieve a certain amount of success before they’re ready for significance. They need to have found themselves, achieved something, and made themselves valuable before they have something to give to others.

I saw this in my brother, Larry. By the time he was 40 years old he had already made enough money that he would never have to work another day in his life.

He once told me that his temptation was to quit working, but he knew that wouldn’t make him happy. “So now I work for another reason,” he told me. “I don’t work for another home. I don’t work for more money. All of the work I do now is going to allow me to give money away. I now work for a great cause—I work to help other people.”

There’s an important lesson here. Larry understood that he didn’t need to leave his sweet spot in order to help others. He shouldn’t give up the thing he was best at, which was making money, so that he could do something else that didn’t suit him, like becoming a missionary. He continued to use his talents, but for a better purpose. His money would work for him and become a river of influence to positively impact other people.  That is true intentional living and true significance. He is living a life that matters.

Please share with me in the comments where you think your sweet spot is – the area where you can best live intentionally and help others. You can also practice intentional living with my 7-Day Experiment.

Thank you for sharing your story with me. Your story is significant.


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