As my wife rushed to the woman draped over a bench at the movies, I stood holding my popcorn like a talisman. I watched. My wife called the manager and waited until the ambulance arrived as I just stood by, aware of my awkward flat-footedness. I like to think that I’ve built a life trying to help others. But in this situation, as my wife responded, I watched.
I have many meetings where clients talk about what they want to do, but feel like they can’t. They either don’t have enough money (sometimes true); they don’t have enough time (rarely true), or (most often) just don’t have the will to do something different. As I thought about my experience at the theater, I recalled some people I’ve known who in sometimes simple, but always meaningful ways, moved rather than watched.
I recently attended a funeral for a friend who died at 60 yet lived one of the fullest lives I have ever seen. He invested in his marriage, his children, his patients and his causes. He did volunteer work in places where he had been uncomfortable with U.S. policies and wanted to show people a different side of our citizenry. He used his time and sacrificed income. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t fix the entire problem — he could at least do something. My lesson taken from him is: Am I doing what I should? Am I standing for my beliefs or am I watching?
Another friend retired recently. He had served in multiple capacities over the years. He was a giver in his work — he mentored others, always did more than was expected of him, moved attention away from himself and gave credit to those who deserved it. He loved to create awards for co-workers as a way to show his gratitude. Hundreds attended his retirement party. He was hugely successful, and it stemmed from how he could appreciate and support others without feeling like it was taking away from his own accomplishments. My lesson from him is: am I doing enough to help others know their impact on me? Am I fully supporting others or am I watching?
A third friend built a nonprofit that, through the schools, serves hundreds of thousands of children. Starting from scratch, he grew an organization that has helped kids deal with the issues of bullying, respect, confidence and responsibility. While he certainly could have been successful in the corporate world, he chose a route of service that has been less financially rewarding but that has filled his life with people whose worlds he has changed. He is rich with his relationships. My lesson from him is: am I doing what I would be doing if I had no fear? Am I taking the time to use my resources — money, time, experience, energy — in ways that matter or am I watching?
In his book, “Give and Take,’’ Wharton professor Adam Grant asks: “Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?”
Are we givers, takers or matchers (those who keep track to make sure that they are receiving equally to what they give)?
Grant’s point? Over time, givers are the most successful in business. People tend to want to reciprocate; when they know that you are looking out for them they will generally want to do the same. Life often moves to reciprocity. But even if it doesn’t, are you worse off by being of service to others?
Spend your life wisely.
Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His Gains & Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.