January 20, 2009

I believe people want to be of service. As the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz once said, “The nectar of life is sweet only when shared with others.” You may not buy my hypothesis when you think of others whom appear very self-centered, but I believe that this comes not from their desire, but their ability to give. I am suspicious that a key component in the ability to serve is tied to what I like to call the Bucket Theory.

 Derived from a common cross-cultural belief, we can think of each of us containing an internal water bucket. When it is full, this “water” can be used to nurture, give life to new projects or to brighten another’s day. The water is the good stuff that we give to the world.

 Yet, giving empties the bucket. Ask a new mother about her internal reserves to get a sense of how giving drains us. Tough times also empty the bucket. When my own needs become greater, for example recovering from the loss of a loved one, I’m going to going to be dipping the ladle in my own bucket much more often just to survive.

 When there is nothing in the bucket, there is nothing left to give.  If my can is dry, it’s hard to be a helpful employee, wife, mother or friend. If I am really parched, I may be coming after your bucket too! At an extreme in this state, we become like vampires sucking the life out of our victims.  It is thus critical as parents, leaders and coworkers that we keep our own internal reservoirs in tact. Yet, how is that done? 

We fill our buckets through physical, emotional, creative and intellectual sustenance or activities that feed our bodies, our hearts and minds. These are usually fun, bring us joy or make us ultimately feel better – they “fill” us! It is not the activity, but how it makes you feel. We are not looking for a short term pleasure hit like escaping into a television show or eating ice cream…feels good for a half an hour but then leaves us in the same drained state.  We are looking for activities that are truly good for us. Activities might include:


  • Healthy food
  • Sustainable exercise
  • Sleep


  • Fun times with friends and family
  • Silence
  • Time in nature


  • Favorite artistic activities
  • Inspirational reading or film


  • An interesting class
  • Thought-provoking book
  • Engaging discussion

Gallup researcher Tom Rath suggests in How Full Is Your Bucket? 

 it is positive remarks received at work and home that can fill our bucket. Regardless, what sustains each of us will be unique.  Visiting with friends can be fun, nurturing or at times stressful. Exercise can be energizing or terribly draining. In general, when filling the bucket we want to include activities that replenish rather than require an outflow.

And so, some questions to consider:

  • What sustains you?
  • Are you including sustaining activities each day?
  • How are you providing sustenance to your physical, emotional, creative and intellectual nature?
Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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