Life's Great Question - Tom Rath

Life's Great Question - Tom Rath

Video Book Summary

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Book Summary Notes 

Life's Great Question

“Knowing who you are—and who you are not—is essential. But it is only the starting point."

"All the talent, motivation, and hard work in the world will not be valued or remembered if it does not help another human being."

"Real growth is the product of following your contributions more than your passions. Simply asking, ‘What can I contribute?’ leads to a better path and result than starting with yourself. This applies far beyond the realm of careers."

"A growing body of evidence suggests that the single greatest driver of both achievement and wellbeing is understanding how your daily efforts enhance the lives of others."

"Knowing that we’re making meaningful contributions to others’ lives leads not only to improved work outcomes but also to enhanced health and wellbeing. Even small acts of generosity trigger changes in our brains that make us happier. With each prosocial act at work, energy is created that measurably benefits ‘the giver, the receiver, and the whole organization.’"

"Think about that. Work can actually improve your health and wellbeing every day. Work can also be about doing something each day that improves your relationship with your family and friends. I believe that we all inherently know this—which makes the gap between what we’re currently contributing and what we have the ability to contribute all the more frustrating.”

“What can I contribute?”

Tom tells us to start with this question in mind..

When we're deciding what to pour our energies into, starting with 'what can I contribute?' leads to best outcomes.

Contributing to others makes us happier, more successful and more resilient. 

Work can improve your wellbeing and health?

When we're focusing on the people we're helping more than our own desires yes. 

Recently I listened to a talk with Michael Singer about The Untethered Soul at Work.

First he shows us that everything we desire and fear is created by imprints left on our mind.

Those desires and fears are not really 'us' they are simply reactions to past experiences. 

This is the whole premise of The Untethered Soul and I really recommend you check it out. 

Then he shows us how often we think work is something we 'have to do' but not something that is progressing our spiritual life. 

Often we see this, we think the most spiritual and enlightened people are the ones teaching meditation, therapy or philosophy.

But what Michael (and Tom) are pointing out is that any job can be a spiritual training ground. 

When we view our lives in that context the ultimate apex of the spiritual training ground is service.  

In other words "what can I contribute?"

This is a lifelong journey!

The mind is a powerful thing, and often our own ego desires and fears drive us for years without us knowing. 

But I think Tom's point is a great way to cut through the noise here.  

Find what you can contribute to others, not for yourself but for them.  

And by answering that question everyday you'll be re-aligning yourself to the path of the Self vs the ego.


“I mention this personal background for two reasons." 

"The first is that my condition gave me a sense of urgency to make the best use of my time, which proved to be deeply meaningful and rewarding. I want to help you foster a similar sense of urgency."

"None of us truly knows how much more time we have. After living more than 25 years since my diagnosis, on what some see as borrowed time, I’ve learned that time is more valuable when you can see your mortality on the horizon. Recent research found that kids who battle cancer somehow emerge stronger when compared to peers who have not faced a similar challenge."

"In particular, when people after the age of 12 battle cancer and survive, they are more likely to experience what scientists call post-traumatic growth."

"Why does this occur? A review of 18 studies suggests that the prospect of death leads to greater appreciation of life, more rapid formulation of values, more thought about the meaning of life, and stronger social connections. As I have learned from experience, when you consider how short life can be, you create more meaning in the world."

"Initially, I did not think I would live as long as I have. Now, I do not believe it is in anyone’s best interest to live like they have forever. When you view your time as finite, you build more life into each day.”

What would you do if you knew you were going to die?

Tom shares with us that he's lived with a rare disorder that made him unlikely to live a long life.

  • Someone in his life actually said to him 'we didn't expect you to live this long' at a reunion. 
  • Contrast that with all Tom has done in his life: multiple bestselling books, senior research scientist for a cancer research organization and two degrees from top American universities. 

What motivates Tom tom to be so prolific? 

  • One of the reasons is obviously the one he's pointing out here.  
  • By being intimately connected with the end, Tom knows there is a deadline (and he thought it was closer for him than the general public).  
  • In the book he even shares studies of this being the case!  But not just that, there is a lot more to this than getting more work done.

How can we use this in our own lives?

  • The Stoics were big proponents of meditating on our own mortality.  
  • Momento Mori: remember you must die.
  • Learn more about the exercises they use inside the Stoic playlist on this channel. 


“The idea that we should have one defined purpose is inadequate; that is a grand but impractical take on what we can expect from our work." 

"And most discussion about purpose tends to downplay the actual value of the work people are currently doing. It almost suggests that if we really want to feel a sense of purpose in life, we have to either find a new job or look beyond work to engage in more meaningful ways to spend our time."

"In every job, there are opportunities to have a positive influence on the wellbeing of other people. Most of us are doing far more for others than we fully appreciate. We also have many opportunities to optimize the contributions we’re making and align them with what we find most fulfilling.”

Do you need a new job?

This is a trap I have fallen into a lot in my life..

  • Whenever I get to a certain place in my business or career I get this bug in my ear saying 'this isn't it'. 
  • That part of my subconscious mind tells me I need to find another job, something with more 'purpose' (as if it even knew what that meant). 
  • Really what that bug is telling me is 'I'm unhappy' which has nothing to do with my job!

A better question to ask?

  • How can I contribute?
  • Change your careers 'purpose' from being to make you happy to being to make others lives better.  (Which just so happens to make us happy). 

What does this look like?

  • It doesn't need to be HUGE to be meaningful!
  • Anything you're doing can make the lives of others a little better.  
  • Sure a project to make everything easier for people, make people more comfortable or help them when their struggling is great. 
  • But smiling more, expressing gratitude or actually connecting with who you're already helping are small wins with big payoffs.


“You can begin by connecting your daily efforts to the way they contribute to specific people’s lives—connecting what you do with who your work serves." 

"There are now countless examples of how connecting your work to the meaning it creates for specific people leads to better results, as well as to more enjoyment in and satisfaction from one’s work."

"In food service, for example, when a cook or someone preparing food can literally see the people they serve, it increases that customer’s satisfaction with the meal by 10%. If the cook and customer can both see one another, satisfaction with meal quality goes up 17% and service is 13% faster. You see a similar result across other professions."

"When lifeguards read stories of people’s lives being saved, they are more vigilant on the job. When telephone-based fund-raisers hear from the beneficiaries of their work, they are more motivated and raise far more funds for their cause."

"In a Harvard study, field workers who harvested tomatoes watched videos of the way their contribution helped colleagues in the factory another step down the supply chain. In comparison to a control group, the workers who watched this short video experienced a 7% increase in productivity, as measured by tons of tomatoes harvested per hour."

"Even when the only people you serve are internal customers or colleagues, connecting the work you do with the direct contribution it makes has tangible benefits."

"My takeaway from all this research is that people experience a far greater sense of belonging and more sustainable wellbeing when they connect their efforts in the moment with a larger influence on others.”

Life gets better when you're in service of others!

The good news?  Most of us already are. 

  • The society we currently live in means most of us need to provide value for others. 
  • That's how we get paid, put roofs over our heads and food on the table. 

The bad news?  You're probably disconnected.

  • Most businesses focus on the numbers, profit, loss and time. 
  • Instead of the real people they helped, the lives they've touched and the impact they've had. 

What can we do?

  • Spend more time, thinking about the people you help.  
  • Talk with them, listen to them and interview them to get an appreciation (for yourself) and your company. 
  • Then share!  If you work in a business with more than one person, share the stories you know.

Secret Weapon

“Make undivided attention your secret weapon at work and life."  

"Be the one who does not have a smartphone out and who genuinely listens to every word when someone needs it."

"Simply doing this for 20 minutes is more of an investment in another person than you might realize.”

Tom gives us '12 contributions' in the book..

These are things we can do to help ourselves find meaning.

  • Each of those contributions has practical tips on things we can do to increase that meaning. 
  • All of the tips are great!  I recommend you pick up this book and check them out. 

But this one might just be the best!

  • Potentially because it's speaking to me on a deep and personal level. 
  • Something I haven't been good at recently is giving undivided attention. 

Why is it so hard?

  • We're more distracted than ever!  Watching our technology when we could be connecting. 
  • For me, this is a great spiritual practice of detaching and meeting someone I'm speaking with exactly where they are. 
  • 20 Minutes can not only change their lives, but yours as well. 


“Help people see how optimizing their physical energy levels is the key to having fun and achieving greater wellbeing each moment, each day." 

"The more they prioritize sleep and the better their food choices in the morning, the more active they are likely to be throughout the day, and this creates upward spirals of better health and wellbeing.”

One core theme in all the books we read?


  • No one knows this better than Tom. 
  • We talked about his condition at the beginning of this summary, a big part of dealing with that is managing energy. 

How do we go about gaining more energy?

Well Tom has a whole book on this I'm sure we'll review one day "Eat Move Sleep" but here is a preview.

“Think about a few health choices you could make that would offer you an immediate return. Would a brief morning run pick up your mood for the rest of the day? If you went to sleep 30 minutes earlier, would you have a bit more energy when you need it midday? See if you can draw a few direct connections between the choices you make and your energy that same day.”

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