In the 1980s, I was the main speaker in First Lady Nancy Reagan’s nationwide Just Say No positive-choices school program. While speaking to millions of teenagers in high schools in all fifty states, I became deeply involved in the suicide epidemic that was sweeping across North America, and conducted special programs to help communities in nine states deal with suicides. Plano, Texas, saw six suicides in one day, seven in one week. In Iowa, one hundred suicide attempts took place within thirty days at one high school; one girl died. Charlotte Ross, a national consultant on suicide, and I talked to families, counselors, school administrators, and health-care professionals, and interviewed each of the students who had attempted suicide. The students all explained that they wanted to give up on themselves and on life because they lacked committed relationships. I believe that love is a commitment. However, “I love you” is not the most powerful commitment. The most powerful words are “I need you.” These students told Ms. Ross and me that they knew they were liked and loved, but they didn’t believe they were needed. When we don’t feel that we are needed, why hang around? To illustrate, one of my friends got married. He asked me to write a song and sing it at his wedding. I said no. He reminded me of our friendship and that it would be cool for me to participate in his special day. He made me feel important. Everyone likes to feel important. I gave in and wrote the song. Later, my friend phoned to explain that the band had canceled, and he wanted me to prepare forty to fifty songs to play as the dinner entertainment. I said no. He countered with, “I need you.” Had he said, “I love you,” I would have responded, “I love you too; here is the number of a band.” I didn’t want to sing all night. I wanted to eat and socialize like everybody else.
But his needing me made me realize that I was good for something, that I really mattered and could make a significant contribution. I couldn’t turn him down. At the wedding reception, I sang the song that I had written. But before I could sing another tune, the band arrived; there had been a miscommunication. When I arrived at the reception, my friend needed me, and I would have waited tables, mopped the floor, and contributed in any way I could because I was needed. But when the band arrived, I was no longer needed.We can fool others, but we can’t fool ourselves. So I left the reception and went home. Are you needed? If not, why not? What are you going to do about it? In the corporate arena,when a sales champion or outstanding executive leaves to work for the competition, it’s usually not about money. There’s a good chance that person no longer feels needed, so he goes where he does feel needed. Outside attention and recognition don’t really motivate us, yet we emphasize them in our marriages, personal relationships, business contracts, and athletic endeavors. What we desperately desire is to be genuinely needed. We can’t afford to wait for someone to tell us or show us that we are needed. It may never happen.We could go for months without this crucial validation. So what do we do, quit, kill ourselves? Most definitely not. Why do we think that society has to give our lives meaning, purpose, and excitement? We bear responsibility to prove to ourselves that we are needed. If you don’t feel needed at work, participate more, volunteer, and get involved on committees and event-planning boards. If you don’t feel needed at home, participate more, get involved. If you don’t feel needed by your children, participate more, get involved in their world, volunteer in their schools, host their parties at your home, stay in touch, get involved in their friends’ lives. If you don’t feel needed in your neighborhood, vote, participate in nonprofits, give more than you take, and leave everything and everyone in better shape than you found them. Dan Clark is the CEO of an international high- performance consulting firm, a university professor, an award-winning athlete who fought his way back from a paralyzing injury, best-selling author, philanthropist, Gold Record songwriter/recording artist, in the National Speakers Hall of Fame, and Achievers North America and Achievers Europe have named Dan one of the Top Ten Speakers in the World. www.danclark.com Adapted from Art of Significance (Penguin, 2013).