Friday, July 29, 2011

Enabling the Dreams of Others

For voracious readers out there, the title of this post is a reference to the book The Last Lectureby the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch. It is an amazing book -- made more so as it was written from the perspective of a person dying of cancer. After reading the book, I really wish I had met Randy before he passed away (though you can see his lecture here). But this will not be a book review; instead, I am borrowing from Randy to elaborate the ideas in the chapter of his book of the same name ("Part IV: Enabling the Dreams of Others").

I believe that the element of "kindness" has become increasingly rarer in the society we live in. As discussed previously, our society has become enamored with the trappings of wealth and power. Money has been transformed from a medium facilitating exchange of goods to a means of validating our self-worth and, to make matters worse, in measuring ourselves to our peers. This preoccupation with money has led us to become selfish individuals who look at the world as a zero-sum game: the giving to others lessens what we have. I know of this attitude very well, because I am guilty of it.

When I see homeless individuals on the street corner, my immediate reaction is to avoid them or, if that is not possible, ignore them. Sometimes I do give them spare change, but the resulting feeling is the same -- being slightly disgusted with myself at this perceived coldness. I can rationalize all I want about the reasons for my actions: (1) homeless people are lazy, (2) they'll just use whatever I give them to buy alcohol or drugs, (3) it will give them false hope, and (4) whatever I give will only provide marginal benefits. But when I reflect upon my actions, the (damning) conclusion I see is an obvious lack of kindness toward others. Whatever happened to empathy and compassion that the Bible talks about? I would be a hypocrite to not admit that I am a lesser Christian for not following through on the teachings in the scripture.

Self-deprecation aside, the truth is that in our daily interactions, there are always opportunities to be kind to others. Whether this is tipping the nice cashier or holding the door for the person behind you, there are daily instances of these episodes by which we can be kind to someone else. This "other" person could be a complete stranger but when someone is in need, their affiliation/relationship with you should not matter. I wouldn't be wrong to argue that as kindness is identical to altruism (yes there are nuanced differences), our actions should be labeled as such if there were ulterior motives. For example, if you hold open a door because you are romantically interested in the person behind you, you aren't really being kind, are you?

Yet we are going to take this a step further, to the realm of hopes and dreams. Superficially, this is always desiring to help others when you are in the position of doing so. For example, if someone is looking for employment in your company, you can contact the hiring manager and/or refer this individual. Sometimes companies offer bonuses for successful referrals -- so it's a win-win situation. Or you can start by agreeing to become someone's professional reference, or writing a positive letter of recommendation. The basic rule of thumb is this: if you are ever have the power to do something, you should put it to good use. Outside of career employment, you can introduce potential lovers to one another or just offer help when someone needs it. The foundation is desiring to become an enabler for another -- even if the path they chose eventually diverges from their original intention. We are to offer help, not to judge.

At the heart of it, enabling the dreams of others takes an attitude of helping others and applies it to younger generations. It's about being an inspiration, a model figure that eventually inspires others to do the same. In The Last Lecture, Pausch uses the example of a former student "Tommy" who offers Pausch's students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the studios of LucasArts (of Star War renown). He reasons that Tommy did it in gratitude for how Pausch helped guide and inspire him while he was a student -- that Pausch "enabled" his dream. On a practical level, it's about being involved in the local community or in your family to help younger siblings. One should never underestimate the potential of even the softest touch of kindness.

[I think eventually I will be posting something more focused on Pausch's book. It's a truly amazing book that offers many wise anecdotes.]

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