The timeless antidote to tough times

November 24, 2020

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi.

Most of us have heard the expression, “May you live in interesting times.” Even JFK used it in a famous speech. It is sometimes referred to as the Chinese Curse, but it is one of the most misattributed references ever. According to my research, it is certainly not native to the Chinese language or culture and it was not likely meant to imply catastrophe. Turbulence for sure, but not catastrophe.

In any case, these are interesting and turbulent times. There’s the pandemic, of course. Unemployment is still high. The economy is precarious. International relations and travel are strained. Then there’s the election and its aftermath. Wildfires and hurricanes. Social and racial inequity and injustice. Jeez.

If you have mustered the courage lately to turn on the news or to read anything about these big issues, you have seen a lot of maps: pandemic maps, electoral maps, catastrophic weather maps. Big maps turning colors that we may not like or that represent imminent threat. Millions of lives and households and businesses abstracted into colors. But, in these abstractions, I am constantly reminded of the wisdom of the Polish American scientist and philosopher, Alfred Korzybski, when he remarked that “the map is not the territory.” In this phrase, we find the perspective we need. A big map is an abstraction from something or a reaction to it. It is not the thing itself. To jump right to it, our individual work can help with big challenges. We can do this. We just have to change our plans and change our perspective. It’s about adopting a spirit of service at the local level.   

A few years ago when I was serving as global chairman of YPO, a leadership community of extraordinary CEOs focused on doing good in the world by growing themselves, their businesses and their communities, I had a chance to spend some private time with Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations. He was an incredibly articulate and calm presence who led the U.N. during a time of difficult, polarizing global issues like apartheid and peace in the Middle East. I asked him, “How did you deal with such large, complex issues? He said, “McKeel, the mistake most people make when taking on global challenges is that they focus too much on the top levels of leadership. Most real transformation begins at a very local level, with individuals taking small but definitive actions.”

That’s a brilliant observation. As individuals, we tend to think we are spectators to the grand dramas of our time. But we are not in the audience at all, we are center stage with the spotlight on us. We are main characters, and what we do matters.

The election is a perfect example. Contentious, yes, but then all elections are (we have short memories for this). What stood out for me is that nearly 150 million Americans voted, the highest total in 50 years. If you voted, you had your say not only on the next president of the United States but on your next senator or representative. That’s a big deal. You also chose who will run your state, county, town, even your local animal control office. That’s acting local. That’s being of service. That’s doing something about the problems of the day. You deserve credit for that.

As individuals, we can’t by ourselves “fix” political strife, COVID, unemployment or any of the other aforementioned difficulties. But we can do our part. We can vote without drama and support those who do not agree with us. We can take care of ourselves and those around us. We can wear masks. We can feed the poor and the ill. Maybe most importantly, we can remind those around us to simply take a deep breath. Fear is the enemy of perspective, and the truth is that we’ll get through today’s troubles, particularly if we all lend a hand.

We live in an individualistic society, which is great. But in the end, what makes the world worthwhile is being of use to our fellow human beings. Our service can begin today.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re feeling stressed out by these interesting times.