The best way to help people is to help people

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When I was a little kid, my school had us “adopt” an elderly penpal from a nursing home. I still remember her name to this day: Frances. She taught me that the “e” in Frances stands for “her” and that an “I” in Francis stands for “him.” I recall my delight about getting to meet her. I was too young to understand how lonely she must have been, but we became fast friends, and it led to me having a new penpal my age from Alaska. Unfortunately we lost touch. 

As I got older, I had to do a community service project for my Bar Mitzvah. Former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie was a local legend and had created a foundation in his son’s name to find a cure for autism. We had a family friend whose daughter was deeply affected by autism, so I decided to raise money for this cause. I would go door to door trying to raise funds for autism. Again, I didn’t know much about it, but this gave me an itch that giving back to others was actually kind of fun.

I grew up in an upper middle class family in what is considered one of the nicest towns in Massachusetts. The irony is that I did not realize I was “privileged” until an embarrassingly late time – probably well after I graduated from college. I think that was the case for a few reasons. First and foremost, if you grow up in a wealthy town, and you are surrounded by wealthy people, you don’t really see yourself as being particularly well off in relative terms. In fact, I was one of the only Jewish kids in my town, and so for a long time I felt the opposite, that I was different and perhaps lesser than some of my peers. Most of them celebrated Christmas except me. 

This trend continued when I went to a private all-boys high school. While this was where I first saw that there were students from tougher backgrounds than mine, I also saw just as many students who seemed way better off. The same was true when I got to Princeton. I know I was a little naive, but the last and most important reason is that my parents were so humble and always taught me to be the same. They did not drive luxury vehicles or wear designer clothes. They obviously provided a ton for me, but they also went out of their way to not do the types of things that other peoples’ parents might do, like buy them a fancy gadget, or pay for me to go on a spring break trip. I was explicitly taught that I was no better or worse than anyone else and that I would have to earn my way to anything I wanted.

As I have gotten older and become more aware of my relative privilege, I’ve been more and more intentional about leveraging it to do what I can to help others. The motto at my high school was “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” Anyone who has read my book knows that my “why” is to fulfill this motto, and that is because the feeling of giving to others has always satisfied me more than anything I could possibly do for myself. That’s even why I enjoy writing so much: I treat it as an ability to impact others in a positive way through the written word.

This blog is not to tout myself up as some superhero, because I’m not. Like anyone else, I’ve been selfish at times. I’ve had opportunities to do more and ended up doing less. I could probably donate more to charity some years. Our human nature is what it is, and I am trying my best. But the point of the blog isn’t to talk about me or the things I do. It’s to talk about the change in our culture which seems to reward doing nothing and then acting as if it is actually much more than doing something. Let me explain.

In a past company, I remember that disturbing events in the realm of social justice – particularly against Black Americans – led us to have a company-wide town hall, which led to us developing focus groups on how we would combat systemic racism. Some of my coworkers suggested that from that point forward, we should only hire black people. Notwithstanding that such a policy is illegal, I suggested that this policy was racist and that I opposed it. This led to some fiery discussions in which I more or less appeared to be lacking awareness of the moment. Regardless of whether or not one believes it is possible to be racist against white people (I think you can be racist against anyone, but whatever), a policy that places one ethnic group over all others is deterministically racist against non-white groups like Hispanics and Asians.

Anyway, I bring this story up because I ended up joining multiple mentorship programs that help under-represented individuals to break into my field of work (tech sales) and I have been involved in those programs for quite some time. Everyone else who fought me about the issue in my company, however, ended up doing nothing of the sort despite a pledge that we would all participate. It seemed to me at that time that they gained some social clout amongst themselves for standing up to me, the big bad bully who did not want us to get sued, while I wound up being the only person to actually represent the company in a meaningful (outward-facing!) way helping people who might not have had access to the same opportunities as others.

For what it’s worth, that experience has remained quite powerful for me. I learned through mentorship that you actually have a disproportionate effect on someone’s life. What I mean by that is that you can do what is perceived as “very little” by yourself but it actually means “quite a lot” to that other person. Specifically, I’ve been able to make introductions for mentees that result in them landing jobs. The introductions? They take me two seconds. The jobs? They change lives. Why wouldn’t someone be interested in this?

Meanwhile, my social media feed is littered with people who tout slogans or brag about attending protests. It’s kind of like that saying, “If a tree falls down in the forest but no one is around to hear it, did it really make a sound?” The 2022 version is, “If you perform some act of social justice but don’t share it on Facebook and Instagram, did it really happen?” Somehow we have been led to believe that blocking traffic during rush hour for the sake of the climate doesn’t in fact infuriate the people trying to get to work, or that showing up to synagogues to harass Jews about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians doesn’t in fact make those people resolute that they are the actual victims. 

I dare say that if you care so passionately about social justice, you might actually get off your ass and spend the time to do something greater than signaling to the world what your values are. It seems difficult for people to grasp this idea, but simply expressing your support for a cause and beating people over the head with it actually (quite often) has the adverse effect of making people even more staunchly opposed to your ideas than they were before. I’m no saint in this. I’ve been getting worked up about all the recent anti-Semitism going on and I am struggling to find ways to express myself in a way that would actually change the minds of the people who matter most. But it certainly is not to tell them they are bigots. The best way to make my point might be to join (or volunteer my time to) an organization that helps with Jewish representations in the media, or helps to assist families who are fleeing Europe at the most alarming rates since the Holocaust due to rising anti-Semitism. 

Nowhere is this more true than in today’s woke corporatism. In what world can Nike – which leverages slave labor for its products and is deeply in bed with China, which has literal concentration camps full of Uighur Muslims – be the “good guy” in the corporate world? As Vivek Ramaswamy talks about endlessly in his fantastic book “Woke, Inc.,” how many people are aware that the “Fearless Girl” statue in Wall Street – affixed to promote feminism – was put in place by State Street Global Advisors amidst a lawsuit from its female employees over wage discrimination? Do we all remember when the NBA silenced (and admonished!) anyone who supported the Hong Kong protests against China? This is the same league which is arguably the most socially aware of any US professional sports league, and it makes you wonder, how much do they care about money and how much do they actually care about the welfare of innocent, struggling people?

The sad reality is that we the consumer have come to accept this without little pushback. We don’t boycott any of these brands for leveraging wokeness against us. We boycott them whenever they do something to piss us off. First it was the Goya bean guy for being a Trump supporter, now it’s Balenciaga for promoting child porn. Whatever it is, it’s never the fact that they are actively lying to our faces for the sake of grabbing our dollars.

When did we all become so spineless and unaware of what is going on around us? When did performativity trump doing? I fear that my generation and the one proceeding it have become so entitled with the access to absolutely everything that we have at our fingertips. When an Uber is running 2 minutes behind, we huff and order a new one. When Twitter wants us to pay for a blue checkmark, Whoopi Goldberg leaves the platform because of white supremacy or something. You can even find your future spouse online now.
I think this has all created laziness in our culture. As long as people act like they are doing something, they are doing something. What matters is perception. It’s probably the same reason why teenage girls are committing suicide at the highest rates in human history. When everyone you see is using an Instagram filter, you start to feel inadequate about yourself. Perception trumps reality in this world. And doing stuff is pretty hard when you can just put a black square on Instagram instead, or a blue one – depending on the topic du jour.

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