Monday, September 21, 2015

needs, wants, and good intentions

"Nothing bad has ever happened on a road paved with good intentions!" - a quote from a show I watched recently

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions." - aphorism

Recently I blogged about the importance of obtaining permission to serve. Today I wanted to talk about something related--needs, and wants, and good intentions that backfire.

Image here.
My family has always been very service-oriented... at least in our own minds. We do a lot to help people--or at least, we think we do.

When a well-meant service project backfired, my mom came to me and asked: what do we do to help now?

And I suddenly had this moment of clarity: we should do nothing. Sometimes charity is tough love.


For years I'd sent some friends all my birthday and Christmas money, and virtually all my disposable income, because I understood that they were in financial need. Did it help them? Maybe in the short term, but it ended up making them feel entitled to my personal wealth ("wealth") and belongings. I learned the hard way that sometimes giving money to people in financial straits is really not a service at all.

Same goes with food and shelter. Sometimes feeding, clothing, and sheltering people blesses their lives and makes them grateful. Sometimes it ends up making people, again, entitled.

In my post on permission, I talked about the idea of unwanted service. Having been the recipient of unwanted "service" for years, it never occurred to me that I could be participating in the same thing. Isn't there a difference between someone "serving" by "reorganizing" your kid's toys, versus giving someone a nice meal when you know they have trouble affording food?

In my head, I was being uselessly "served" because no one needs organized toys and the "organization" was not just unneeded, it was unwanted. In my head, I was serving usefully because people do need to eat.

But it turns out the picture is more complex than that. Part of it goes back to marketing psychology.

How many life-sustaining needs are on this list?
Image here.
Needs, Wants, and the Human Mind

You can't market to people's needs.

Yes, people need this and that--they need to take better care of their bodies, they need to get out of debt, and so on. But people don't care about what they need as much as they care about what they want. Are you more likely to buy an information product with a slogan of "Get a Six-Pack Fast!" or "Eat Food With More Nutrition!" People might need to eat more nutritionally-dense food, but they are unlikely to pay for a service that markets itself that way. What they actually want is a hot body with six-pack abs.

In business, you need to focus on giving people what they want. Their actual needs are just not as important to them. Or rather, perhaps it's really that people are just plain not the best at deciphering the difference between what is a need and what is a want. But regardless, people respond most to their own desires,--even more so than to their own needs.

That's why if you are selling weight loss materials, it's smarter to focus on making people look better than on making them healthier. Most people know they need to be healthier, but in real life many people are more motivated by increasing their sex appeal than by saving their health.

This is why service based on needs can backfire so easily: People might need this or that, but if it's not in alignment with what they want, the "service" provided will backfire. The people being "served" will not be grateful (and might even be offended) and the people providing the "service" will be hurt and confused. Service cannot be determined only by our perception of people's "needs;" people don't care about their needs nearly as much as they care about their wants. If a service meets a need but conflicts in any way with what a person wants, it will not be perceived as service.

We all know what we NEED, but that doesn't always match
up with what we WANT. Wants win. Image here
In my article on obtaining permission, I used the analogy of my "broken" fence: I'd taken apart the fence around my garden to amend the soil. A friend saw that my fence "needed" fixing and took it upon herself to kindly fix it for me. It was a sweet gesture but emphatically not what I wanted or needed for my garden. That "service" was not a service at all--except to the extent that "it's the thought that counts."

But I think most of us would rather have our service count, rather than merely our good intentions.

God gets it

I have always found it fascinating that when lecturing us on service, God makes it clear that service is to be determined by both needs and wants.

Here is a link to a topical guide search of "needs" and "wants." Examine the following (emphasis mine):

Doctrine and Covenants 82:1717 And you are to be equal, or in other words, you are to have equal claims on the properties, for the benefit of managing the concerns of your stewardships, every man according to his wants and his needs, inasmuch as his wants are just— 
Mosiah 18:2929 And this he said unto them, having been commanded of God; and they did walk uprightly before God, imparting to one another both temporally and spiritually according to their needs and their wants
Doctrine and Covenants 51:33 Wherefore, let my servant Edward Partridge, and those whom he has chosen, in whom I am well pleased, appoint unto this people their portions, every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs
Doctrine and Covenants 42:3333 And again, if there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support after this first consecration, which is a residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those who have not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants.
For a long time that really bothered me--as I think it can bother anyone who has a clear understanding of the difference between needs and wants. In my head I guess I was thinking of, you know, the situation where you get people who take advantage of the system based on their wants, rather than limiting their requests to their actual needs.

Image here.
But now I see these concepts in a different light. God knows everything and so of course He knows that people value what they want more than what they need. Part of the gospel, according to these scriptures, anyway, is developing the wisdom to serve people in that light: taking into consideration not just obvious needs but the desires of people's hearts. If a "service" doesn't match a person's wants, it's just. Not. Service.


The practical application of all of this goes back to my post on obtaining permission to serve. It's the idea that "observe, then serve" is fundamentally incorrect unless it takes into account the served person's desires for service. The Golden Rule is good--but the Platinum Rule might be even better.

Image here.


Good intentions are not enough. It is unwise to think of yourself as giving service if the people you are serving do not agree. Service needs to be based not just on people's needs, but on their wants, too.

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