And then it hit me. This moment of absolute emptiness in the face of complete richness. A feeling of having everything yet nothing at all.
It was this past Tuesday. I was on the East Coast for Thanksgiving week, taking some time off from California for a rendezvous with the secret love of my life, New York City. This city is one of these rare things in life that you don’t know how much you missed until you are back. I feel the same about going to the movies or standing on my snowboard.
My friends and I were supposed to grab dinner that night — lots of guy talk was ahead of us. We headed to this Japanese corner restaurant in Chelsea, a place packed with chic people from a range of affluent backgrounds. After a 40-minute wait we got a table for three — with a great view over the crowd that was tastefully savoring small pieces of sushi. It had been over 10 months since the last time we were together, so a feeling of joy was dominating both us and our food order decisions — unimpressed by the prices, we ordered whatever our hearts desired: from truffled tuna to the most exquisite sushi rolls. Our many orders were arriving one after the other. But instead of indulging into my food and feeling carefree, my mind started shooting a series of guilt-questions at me.
What did I do to deserve sitting here? Of all the people in this world, why me? Where's the catch? Why are some healthy while others die suddenly? Why are some sitting inside while others are out in the cold? Why can some afford food that others couldn’t even dream of?
The reason why we have religions, is because these are all attempts to make sense of the world. Sense of the things that happen to us. The good things and the bad things. “Sense making” is in our nature. Our curiosity leads us to wanting to understand what we see and what we feel. And that’s exactly what hit me in that moment. An attempt to make sense of my situation. To fathom life.
If you make more than $34,000 after taxes, you belong to the 1% of this world (source). Let that sink in for a moment. It takes just $34,000 to put you among the top 1 percentile of this world’s population of 7.x billion people – quite staggering. So why is it that some people have things that others don’t have? How can this inequality gap be explained? What in this world decides over the circumstances to which our lives and opportunities will be subject to?
While I feel extremely fortunate for all the opportunities I have in my life, I can’t stop trying to make sense of the why. Sometimes it’s a side thought that accompanies my day to day. Other times, it’s a moment of pure intensity – a punch hitting me right in the face. This moment of simultaneous richness and emptiness. Acknowledging the beauty of life is both propelling and daunting. And the more I have come to appreciate it, the more I have felt guilt and intimidation for this runway of opportunities ahead of me.
I haven’t managed to make sense of this entirely, but in attempting to do so, there is this one thing I tell myself over and over again: "With opportunity comes responsibility.” The few who have opportunities at hand, also have the responsibility to use them. To maximize them. Not only to benefit themselves, but to benefit society in general and others in particular. What incredible discredit would it be if you had opportunities that others don’t, but then didn't make use of them? As my fitness trainer texted me the other day
"I believe that to the person who has been gifted much, much will be required in return." – Coach Kenny
When I say opportunities, then I mean a wide range of things: If I have the opportunity to make new experiences, I have the responsibility to do so. If I have the opportunity to travel to new places, then I should. If I can afford higher education and think it’s aligned with what I want to do, I better be pursuing it. If I have been fancying something and have the money to buy it, then why not? If I have time and friends in need, there shouldn’t be anything keeping me from helping them. If I have stories to share and means to do so, I should if it might be of interest to others.
“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” — Dr. Maya Angelou
Far too many people don’t have the means. Many others though, have the means but don't make use of them because of laziness, ignorance, or selfishness. So if you have the means, you also have the obligation to use them. Just for fun? No! There is a bigger picture to understand. If you are someone with opportunities, you should use these opportunities to find your calling – to align yourself with what you are supposed to be doing in your life. Pursuing these opportunities is exactly what will help us identify what that calling is.
Traveling to new places, pursuing education, helping others, buying something you have been desiring – maximizing these opportunities and exposing yourself to the richness of life out there will only help you better understand yourself and what you are really great at. And once you understand that calling of yours – when you are truly aligned with the purpose of your existential being on this world – you will be best positioned to create value for this world that you are part of. For the other X% that do not have the opportunities that you have.
I think it’s incomplete to measure someone’s service to society only by how much money they donate or how many sandwiches they hand out to the homeless. While sharing your wealth and “getting your hands dirty” is certainly part of how everyone is supposed to give back, I think there is more to that. Part of our service to society will also lie in the simple act of pursuing the single one thing we are meant to be doing in our lives. The one thing we enjoy most – what we are best at. Once we are aligned with that purpose, magic will happen. Magic for us and for everyone else.
Many people talk about changing the world. A noble idea that I absolutely support and certainly aspire to myself. But only a few will have an impact comparable to how Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi or Steve Jobs impacted the world. But is that the only way to make this world a better place? No. You can already have impact by taking what you are most passionate about and dedicating it to the world you are part of.
If your calling is interior design, then you are contributing to society by designing spaces that help people feel comfortable and creative. If your calling is photography, then you are inspiring others with the way how you portray the world. If you are a musician, then you are delighting others far out in the world with the music you are creating. And if you are into fitness, you can let others be part of that health journey and inspire them to eat better. People used to criticize Steve Jobs for his lack of philanthropy (at least it wasn’t publicly known). But he pursued his true passion and calling. And in doing so, he served society much more than any of us ever will.
If the top 1% of this world pursued their true calling, would we get rid of all suffering in this world in no time? Probably not, but then again, who knows? If we had more people maximizing the opportunities around them, we would have more people contributing to society than we have now. And that would be much more valuable than having people ignore and thus waste the opportunities given to them. In the words of Robert Kennedy
"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation." — Robert Kennedy
In summary, I have come to believe that there is a certain meaning behind the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities among us humans. Talent is distributed equally, but opportunities are not. The ones with talent and opportunities have the responsibility, if not even obligation, to maximize those opportunities. But not just for fun, but to identify what their true calling is in life. Once they identified that purpose, they are best positioned to contribute to all the other people in this world who weren’t given these opportunities in the first place. By aligning themselves with that calling, they become a channel of positive force. Identifying our passions and pursuing the things we are most successful at, is our best shot to pay back the price of having those opportunities in the first place.