Saturday, March 21, 2009

Defining 'Service'

I don't know why i'm pontificating so much more recently, but was thinking about the concept of service recently.  I got the feeling that there isn't a common definition for what it is, so using this space as away to define what it means to me.


Two years ago George Bush told us that the best way to serve our country was to 'go shopping more.'  In fact, our entire economy is built upon the idea that acting in our own best interest is the easiest and best way to act for the good of all.  After all, buying trinkets helps the person selling it to you to maintain a livelihood.  I'm starting to understand why I have such a viscerally negative reaction upon hearing this.

I feel that the intention to provide value to another as primary driver of action is a prerequisite of service.  Greed, contrary to what Gordon Gekko may say, is not good.  This is so partially because of the cultural shift that occurs when a person stops thinking about everything in terms of narrow self-interest (although economists would inevitably disagree and reframe the very desire to be altruistic as masked self-interest).  I've been taught that this way of looking at things is called 'other-orientation' or 'enlightened self-interest' (instead of 'self-orientation').  In addition, behavioral economics says that our self-interest tends to be short-sighted (and non-rational in general) and so acting in that manner tends to create huge problems over the long haul (e.g. financial crisis, air/water/food quality, drug scares, etc).


The world is filled with people who will say that self-interest is the only way to keep people from being lazy.  I urge them to meet the folks tirelessly and anonymously working all over the world to bring better lives to people left behind by this system.  Other-orientation is a more powerful motivator than greed could ever be.


In this sense, going shopping can be an act of service to your nation, but it also may not.  Did my purchase help some dude buy a bigger yacht?  Perhaps it helped an oil baron continue to finance his pet projects?  Or maybe my purchase helped children get more access to books?  Intention counts.  Consumption in a vacuum is not service.


And this brings me to my point:  I feel that service is the mixture of the intention to be other-oriented combined with the desire to understand how best to be other-oriented.  It is a mindset, and it can exist at any time.  While buying food at the grocery store, while selling your services at the workplace, or while having a conversation at Starbucks. 


I am of course ridiculously far from this ideal, but having the intention when i wake up every day is something that I think is valuable in itself.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why I use Smile Cards

Over the last couple years, I've really become a big proponent of Smile Cards, which are basically cards that track pay-it-forward acts of kindness.


They are wonderful in ways I cannot count.  Small, simple, humble, yet powerful.  They create ripples so that one act of kindness may or may not be the end of the chain.  But for all these reasons, the main reason why I use them is the subtle change in the way I think that has begun to occur. 


About a year ago I was riding in a plane reading a wonderful book my friend had given me.  As our flight landed I felt a tap on my shoulder.  It was an elderly gentleman who asked for my thoughts on the book.  Turned out he had heard about it and as curious to read it.  I gave him my thoughts (as I found the book to be quite interesting), but then a thought entered my mind.  Why not just GIVE him the book???  I was mostly done with it anyways, and at the time it wasn't even available in the US.  With that, I handed the book over.  Of course, he refused, but I made my best case.  After a bit of back and forth, the man accepted the book with tears in his eyes.  He told me he had a hard time understanding why I should do such a thing, but that he'd pay-it-forward somehow.


Now, in the grand scheme of things, this story means nothing.  I mean, it's me handing a book to someone else.  Anyone can do it.  BUT... that thought, the 'why not just give him the book?' thought, was very new to me.  For the past few months prior, I had been walking around with Smile Cards in my wallet.  What initially started as some nice cards to talk about at parties turned into a pile of kind acts that I HAD to unload.  And slowly, my mind started shifting.  Instead of looking at how I could manipulate situations to my benefit, my mind was always busy trying to think of ways I could make someone's day better.  The cards were an excuse to be a better person!  The very attempt to be better started shifting my mind.  All this leads me back to the day I handed over the book to the stranger.  It was awesome BECAUSE it was ordinary.  I had experienced a moment where I wanted to give out of habit, almost because that's the only way I knew how to handle that situation.  And the most amazing part?  After I handed him the book, the person jumping around and giddy for the rest of the day was ME.


Of course you don't NEED Smile Cards to start the shift in mindset to other-orientation, but its another tool to help in the process, and it's been very helpful to me...