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Sunday, January 3, 2016

What is the best way to do good?

It is that time of year where we reflect to do better.  What is the best way(s) to do good? Do we improve the lot of humanity through intentional selfless action or indirectly, perhaps by generating sufficient wealth and then directing that wealth to selfless projects. In the former category one might see Mother Teresa, who attended to the sick and destitute. She dedicated her life to serving the poor, but it is not clear whether she raised anyone from poverty. Her apparent selflessness was only possible because she raised millions of dollars from those who had previously generated wealth.

In contrast, think of Bill Gates. Bill Gates did not start out as a philanthropist. He started out as an  entrepreneur. Only later in his life did he redirect his efforts, only after making billions developing and selling software. His positive impact on the world began well before he retired from Microsoft and began to dole on money via the Gates Foundation. There are many other examples of people who produced a legacy of positive impact on humanity, first by generated huge wealth by implementing a successful business that met human needs (Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Robert Woodruff) followed by the creation of Foundations which keep on giving.

I think the best way to make an impact is to commit yourself to work hard in the service of others early in your life. Aspiring to leisure and self indulgence is no way to make the world a better place.
As David Landis wrote in his book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (pp 523-524)":
...What counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity. To people haunted by misery and hunger, that may add up to selfish indifference. But at the bottom, no empowerment is so effective as self empowerment.
 Some of this may sound like a collection of clichés - sort of lesion one used to learn at home and in school when parents and teachers thought they had a mission to rear and elevate their children. Today, we condescend to such veracities, dismiss them as platitudes. But why should wisdom be obsolete? To be sure, we are living in a dessert age. We want things to be sweet; too many of us work to live and live to be happy. Nothing wrong with that; it just does not promote high productivity. You want high productivity? Then you should live to work and get happiness as a by-product.
Not easy. The people who live to work are a small and fortunate elite. But it is an elite open to newcomers, self selected, the kind of people  who accentuate the positive.
In addition, listen to what markets tell you and commit yourself to what the world values in a tangible way. Do first what others value in a tangible way. That way you can also generate wealth which serves multiple purposes. While few of us can ever expect to be as wealthy as Bill Gates, we can aspire to be sufficiently wealthy to where we can empower ourselves to be of value to others and create a sufficient buffer that we can take care of our real needs.

Money and wealth are not an end in themselves. However, they are essential to lift people out of poverty. We cannot rail against poverty and wealth simultaneously. Similarly, we should not get hung up on "things" but we also need to be mindful that humans are physical beings with physical needs and in the absence of "things", life can be brutish and short.

Think about your resolutions for the New Year. Which ones are targeted toward self improvement, leaving only you better off or feeling better about yourself and which ones will benefit others.

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