Doing Good or Looking Good

I have made this point before in this space but wanted to elaborate further today.  I often wonder (about others AND myself) if we truly want to do good in the world, or if our primary objective is to be seen by others as doing good independent of whether what we are doing is actually effecting real change.  It is only natural, as social creatures, to want people to see what we care about and to see that we care about it.  After all, it's what mobilizes more helpers and provides us with the encouragement and support we need to keep doing what we're doing.  But when are we guilty of taking our eyes off the prize and engaging in do-gooding simply to attract positive attention and feel good about ourselves?  Let me offer a few things that we can do to make sure that what we truly care about is not positive strokes for ourselves but positive change in the world.

1. Do something good when you know no one will see and you won't tell anyone.  To be sure, as noted above, there is something good about doing good out in public, where you can mobilize others and you yourself can be encouraged.  But every once in a while, do something good and keep it to yourself.  Examine how you feel.  Satisfied?  Affirmed?  Or empty?  If the latter, maybe too many of your eggs are in the basket of "I need people to see how righteous I am," and not enough are in the basket of "this matters to me no matter if I don't get any glory."

2. Learn from, listen to, and love others who are on the other side of an argument.  There is no shortage of easy punching bags that, depending on what circles we run in, we can score major brownie points by resisting, opposing, and vilifying them.  And, to be sure, sometimes doing good means calling out the other side for inhumanity or ignorance or idiocy.  But sometimes, personal attacks are a lazy and mean-spirited way of making ourselves feel good rather than actually contributing to doing good.  Again, sometimes engagement is not the right answer.  For example, I respect the many reasons offered by athletes who choose not to accept a visit to the White House.  But sometimes, opting out of interacting with those you oppose is the easy way out, borne of an expediency that seeks out pats on the back rather than doing the hard work of understanding an issue and its players better.

3. Play the long game.  Any real change is going to take time, maybe even longer than our lifetimes.  It takes humility to realize that people far greater than we are have spent themselves for many years and decades to make just a tiny dent in things, so we should not lose heart but nor should we expect immediate results.  It also takes focus, because we can't be spread thin and we can't sprint for a few months and expect real change to happen.  Which means we have to learn to extend grace to ourselves and others, to have seasons for self-care and to even stay on the sidelines and trust others to labor while we focus on the issues closest to our hearts.  Sound obvious, but how often have we burned with righteous anger when others don't care about our issues enough to act?  Ah, but they have their issues that they are saving their attention for, and we should let them.

4. Engage head and heart.  In some circles, all of the heat is through emotion.  In those places, learn to use your head.  In other circles, everything is an intellectual discussion.  In those places, show some emotion.  Again, sounds obvious, and yet oftentimes what happens is that we learn what gets us cheap applause and we play to the crowd rather than doing what is needed to make change.  Whether it is a reasoned argument or an impassioned screed, whatever is not celebrated but is needed, consider doing it.

In our socially media wired world, much our lives is lived in a highly curated way.  What an incredible opportunity to mobilize action and to give and receive support.  But also what an incredible temptation to focus on being seen doing good rather than, you know, just doing good.  Shout out to those faithful laborers who do their work outside of the limelight, who are respectful of those who oppose them, who play the long game, and who engage head and heart.


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Here's an excerpt from a book I recently read, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," by Charles Murray:

The secularization of Europe is yet another symptom. Europeans have broadly come to believe that humans are a collection of activated chemicals that, after a period of time, deactivate. If that’s the case, saying that the purpose of life is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible is a reasonable position. Indeed, taking any other position is ultimately irrational. 

The alternative to the Europe Syndrome is to say that your life can have transcendent meaning if it is spent doing important things—raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and a good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can. Providing the best possible framework for doing those things is what the American project is all about. When I say that the American project is in danger, that’s the nature of the loss I have in mind: the loss of the framework through which people can best pursue happiness.

The reasons we face the prospect of losing that heritage are many, but none are more important than the twin realities that I have tried to describe in the preceding chapters. On one side of the spectrum, a significant and growing portion of the American population is losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society. On the other side of the spectrum, the people who run the country are doing just fine. Their framework for pursuing happiness is relatively unaffected by the forces that are enfeebling family, community, vocation, and faith elsewhere in the society. In fact, they have become so isolated that they are often oblivious to the nature of the problems that exist elsewhere.


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Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone," by Satya Nadella:

He knew more than anyone that the company had to change, and he selflessly stepped out of his role as CEO to ensure the change happened in a deep way. As a consummate insider, I was being told to start anew, to refresh the browser and load a new page—the next page in Microsoft’s history. And so, my memo to the board called for a “renewal of Microsoft.” It would require embracing more ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence. This means humans will interact with experiences that span a multitude of devices and senses. All these experiences will be powered by intelligence in the cloud and also at the edge where data is being generated and interactions with people are taking place. But this renewal would only happen, I wrote, if we prioritized the organization’s culture and built confidence both inside and outside the company. It would be only too easy to continue to live off our past successes. We had been like kings, albeit now in a threatened kingdom. There were ways to cash-cow this business and drive short-term return, but I believed we could build long-term value by being true to our identity and innovating.

Steve kicked things off with a moving and encouraging speech. Bill spoke next, his dry sense of humor immediately present. Surveying the room, he feigned surprise at what a large market share Windows Phone enjoyed in this room. Then he got down to business. Bill succinctly captured the challenge and the opportunity that lay ahead. “Microsoft was founded based on a belief in the magic of software, and I’d say that opportunity ​today is stronger than it’s ever been. The magic of what we can do for people at work and at home with our software is totally in front of us. We’ve got some amazing strengths with the Windows platform, the things we’re doing in the cloud, with Office. And we’ve got some challenges. There are a lot of people out there on the cloud doing interesting things. There’s a lot of mobile activity, which we’ve got a slice of, but not as big a slice as we need to have.” Then he called me forward. 

When the applause subsided, I wasted no time in calling my colleagues and teammates to action. “Our industry does not respect tradition. What it respects is innovation. It’s our collective challenge to make Microsoft thrive in a mobile-first and a cloud-first world.” If there was any one theme I wanted to emphasize that day, it was that we must discover what would be lost in the world if Microsoft just disappeared. We had to answer for ourselves, what is the company about? Why do we exist? I told them it was time for us to rediscover our soul—what makes us unique. 

One of my favorite books is Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine about another tech company, Data General, in the 1970s. In it, Kidder teaches us that technology is nothing more than the collective soul of those who build it. The technology is fascinating, but even more fascinating is the profound obsession of its designers. And so what is soul in this context of a company? I don’t mean soul in a religious sense. It is the thing that comes most naturally. It is the inner voice. It’s what motivates and provides inner direction to apply your capability. What is the unique sensibility that we as a company have? For Microsoft that soul is about empowering people, and not just individuals, ​but also the institutions they build—enterprises like schools, hospitals, businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.

Because I’ve made culture change at Microsoft such a high priority, people often ask how it’s going. Well, I suppose my response is very Eastern: We’re making great progress, but we should never be done. It’s not a program with a start and end date. It’s a way of being. Frankly, I am wired that way. When I learn about a shortcoming, it’s a thrilling moment. The person who points it out has given me the gift of insight. It’s about questioning ourselves each day: Where are all the places today that I had a fixed mindset? Where did I have a growth mindset?

The son of an economist and as a business leader, I am hardwired ​to obsess about these problems. Are we growing economically? No. Are we growing equality? No. Do we need new technological breakthroughs to achieve these goals? Yes. Will new technologies create job displacement? Yes. And so how can we, therefore, solve for more inclusive growth? Finding the answer to this last question is perhaps the most pressing need of our times.


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Here are two excerpts from a book I recently read, "Astrophysics for People in a Hurry," by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

In our own solar system, for example, everything that is not the Sun adds up to less than one fifth of one percent of the Sun’s mass.

Every second of every day, 4.5 billion tons of fast-moving hydrogen nuclei are turned into energy as they slam together to make helium within the fifteen-million-degree core of the Sun. 

Helium is widely recognized as an over-the-counter, low-density gas that, when inhaled, temporarily increases the vibrational frequency of your windpipe and larynx, making you sound like Mickey Mouse. Helium is the second simplest and second most abundant element in the universe. Although a distant second to hydrogen in abundance, there’s fifty times more of it than all other elements in the universe combined. One of the pillars of big bang cosmology is the prediction that in every region of the cosmos, no less than about ten percent of all atoms are helium, manufactured in that percentage across the well-mixed primeval fireball that was the birth of our universe.


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Here's an excerpt from an article I recently read, "The Psychology of Money," from the Collaborative Fund:

Singer Rihanna nearly went broke after overspending and sued her financial advisor. The advisor responded: “Was it really necessary to tell her that if you spend money on things, you will end up with the things and not the money?”

You can laugh. But the truth is, yes, people need to be told that. When most people say they want to be a millionaire, what they really mean is “I want to spend a million dollars,” which is literally the opposite of being a millionaire. This is especially true for young people.

A key use of wealth is using it to control your time and providing you with options. Financial assets on a balance sheet offer that. But they come at the direct expense of showing people how much wealth you have with material stuff.


Hiding or Healing

I want to pick up on some musings from last month about the unique role Asian-Americans can play on issues of diversity in America.  Diversity in America, of course, has many facets to it.  But I don't think it's a controversial statement to say that the main stain in our collective history and therefore the area in which we need the most healing is the enslavement of Africans and the ensuing violence that has been visited upon black Americans and black communities since then.  It wasn't that long ago that white people owned black people as a matter of law, and even more recent that white people lynched black people with the support of society.

There are no easy answers to how to promote healing and equity in a nation whose history includes such deep wounds, and I do not pretend to know the best way forward.  But I do know there is no path to healing and equity that does not include acknowledgement of past sins and their present consequences and reverberations.

Which brings us to the state of Christianity in America, and the opportunity Asian-Americans have to promote healing and equity.  I have had the good fortune of being part of congregations that were relatively diverse, not just in racial and ethnic composition but in acknowledging a wide range of perspectives and in actively working to understand and to express and to heal and to reconcile.  That experience is squarely in the middle of most mainstream white churches whose coverage of past wounds is fairly superficial, and many black churches whose worship experience is deeply informed by a shared experience of oppression and deliverance.  This dichotomy parallels a lot of how we handle diversity in this country, which is that some folks may dabble in it but then find it tiresome and messy to stay in, while other folks consider the freedom to opt in and out of race issues a form of privilege that they and their loved ones aren't afforded.

So where will Asian-American Christians find themselves?  Our experience is diverse too, but here I am speaking to the subset of us who are fortunate enough to possess the socio-economic means and societal fluency to have choices as to where we will live, work, worship, and engage.  Will we slide into a comfortable version of the faith, which emphasizes personal morality and social respectability but hides from hard issues of past violence and present disparities?  Or will we choose to learn more about, empathize with, and even take upon ourselves the experience of oppression and pain that so many in this country live?  If we are privileged enough to be able to choose between the two, it matters for our soul what choice we make.  Let us consider the choices made by our God when He put on flesh and dwelt among us, in terms of the people He interacted with, who He broke bread with and healed, and who He rebuked and had confrontation with.  May that, as with all things, be our guide.


The Father Helps Us Cross the Finish Line

You're probably familiar with this image.  It is Derek Redmond, British 400-meter sprinter, in anguish as he injured his leg during his semi-final at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.  His father Jim was in attendance to watch his son race, and broke through multiple levels of security to console his son, and ultimately to help him cross the finish line.

I recently heard this story used as a sermon illustration, and it is a powerful one, of the Father coming alongside us when we are in pain to help us cross the finish line.  And that is probably the best sermon point that you can extract from this emotional and iconic moment.

But there's another facet of this story that I am holding in my heart.  Look at the anguish in the son's face.  He has trained all his life for this moment, only to have his dreams dashed in the blink of an eye.  What is so emotionally powerful about the father's act is not just that he helped his son, but that he did so at the moment of his son's greatest disappointment.

In life, we are not unlike the son, working and training and preparing for success in whatever we have set our hearts on.  Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail.  And sometimes, at the very brink of breakthrough, disaster will strike.  What I will hold in my heart about this story, about this image, is not just that our Heavenly Father helps us cross the finish line, but that He cares not that on our own we have fallen short of what we set out to do.  What matters to Him is not always that we win the gold; what matters to Him always is that we are on the track, and that with His loving help, we are crossing the finish line.