Money, the value of a human, and what it means to apply empathy at scale

I made a lot of money last year.

I don’t have any of it, but I made it.

A significant amount went to the staggering cost of living in San Francisco for close to a year.

Another large chunk went to friends and family for various reasons – art and music projects, trips to see relatives, etc – in other words, I gave it to people who were engaged in growing their careers / passions, their families, and their hearts.

I also tipped more frequently / in higher amounts than I ever have, gave money to charitable orgs, and regularly bought food and other items for folks living on the street (most of the time I do these things quietly and quickly – there’s a more nuanced point about why, which I’ll get to later).

Then, about a month ago, I was laid off. While it wasn’t my favorite moment of the year, it certainly wasn’t the worst either.

Losing a job will definitely make you consider what growth, personal and collective, is about
Losing a job will definitely make you consider what growth, personal and collective, is about

As I write this, I’m helping bootstrap a journalism startup from $0, have a bank account in the low hundreds, and am scratching together freelance writing & content planning/strategy to make my bills.

Oddly, I’m fairly comfortable with the situation – something that surprises even me at times.

Other people are often confused by my lack of concern with money. A while back I had what I thought was a casual conversation with a co-worker about salary, only to find out later that s/he felt that it was more a competitive than curious thing to talk about. It turned out ok – but it forced me to explain why, compared to most people, I just don’t care much for money.

This is hard for most people to understand, particularly older generations who’ve grown up with a completely different mindset about what money is for (financial stability/consistency), but there’s a reason why I think this way, and it’s not just about poor money management (although I’ll cop to some of that when I was younger).

*Tangent: to any future employers reading – this doesn’t mean you can underpay me. I know what I’m worth and I’m a fair but fierce negotiator, maybe even more so because I care deeply about the places my money goes and not just what I can buy with it.

Growing up without money

My attitude towards money has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up dirt poor.

Until my last couple of years in high school, my family was at or near the federally established poverty line for a family of five.

For the first 8 years of my life my parents made $12,000 – $14,000 in total income each year. This was the mid and late 80s, so there’s some inflation involved, but that’s still a tiny amount of money, particularly when you live in Hawaii.

When we moved to Albuquerque (where I’ve been for most of the last 23 years) it wasn’t much different. Food stamps, housing assistance, and trying to figure out whether to pay the utility bills or buy toilet paper / other household necessities was the norm.

Sidenote: if you find yourself in the enviable position of picking up commodity food on a regular basis, always remember that cans of pork are the absolute last resort.

Don’t ask about the juices.  Image credit: pinsonpics.com
Don’t ask about the juices.
               Image credit: pinsonpics.com

But being poor isn’t just about buying things, or not buying them.

It’s also about access – literally and figuratively.

One of the things that growing up extremely poor teaches you is that racism, classism, sexism, and other -isms are about both direct and indirect barriers, as evidenced by the troubling ways that girls and women are conditioned to think about themselves, and boys, too.

The less direct but just as powerful barriers have to do with how humans see each other, and how we decide what we’re worth, individually and collectively.

It’s about unspoken but powerful phrases like “girls don’t do that” and “all of the [race/religion/sexual orientation] people I know are [generic adjective here].”

“A common external misperception is that girls don’t like technology, gaming, robotics and things of that nature; this perception isn’t from the girls themselves, but from others. This stereotype is reinforced on the web and in personal interactions, and is totally false.”

– Kimberly Bryant, Founder, Black Girls Code

While we are certainly hardwired to be predisposed towards some traits, characteristics, and ways of being, there’s at least as much nurture as nature involved in forming the average human.

This means that whether it’s done malignantly or not, telling people what they are worth / what they should be doing is a way of drawing a line in the sand – saying, you have the value I attribute to you…when what we should be doing is seeing people for who they are and loving / appreciating / valuing them for that. If they are still figuring out the answers (and aren’t we all), then our job is to ask questions that help them get there.

Like, “what could this [job/relationship/house] look like?”

Or, “if none of the things you thought were true in your life and you could imagine it any way you wanted, what would that be like?”

The value of any given human

I’ll tell you another thing about that big chunk of money that I made last year: I wasn’t worth that much.

*To my last boss if she happens to read this: I was definitely worth that much.

To be clear, what I mean is that no one human is worth a specific dollar amount because we can’t actually measure something like that.

We may be able to say that someone saved a business or organization that much money, or generated that much revenue, but we can’t actually say that someone’s life is worth that much – something that’s implied consciously and unconsciously on a regular basis.

For my part, I felt like some people making more money than me did less, and vice versa, too (that’s within San Francisco tech companies, generally speaking. I don’t know what any of my co-workers at that job made – my impression is that the company was fairly generous across the board in terms of salaries).

But that’s a curious thing about humans – we affix specific, measurable dollar amounts to others’ lives all the time.

For example, the $13,100 poverty line for a family of five in 1987 is a number that is supposed to indicate the level of income at which people can comfortably pay their bills, and live without extreme levels of stress.

But each family represented by that number also has a history of stories, ideas, and struggle, and I can tell you from experience that extreme stress, uncertainty, and fear were all parts of the equation. What saved me, I think, is that both of my parents (and my mom in particular) made up for it by fostering in her three children a sense of access to, and belief in, exploration and imagination. We may not have had much, but our parents didn’t limit us either.

Over time I’ve learned that besides the basics (food, water, shelter) money often warps our head / heart and gives us a false perception of the value of each human.

*Some of this is a matter of privilege, too. I am white, and male, and caught some breaks – particularly when it came to education, where I received a full scholarship to a solid prep school for the 3 years before college.  

Empathy at scale

This all leads to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – since my last post here in fact.

It was triggered by a tweet I saw back in April:

compassion twitterVia @SMHoenig

I started considering experience – specifically, how what we do and don’t do both shape our ability to be compassionate.

One thing I’ve learned from working in the startup / tech ecosystem is that execution is critical. Thinking about something can only go so far, you have to act on it in order to get information and experience you can use.

In tech culture this is called GSD, or Get Shit Done, and while it’s mostly applied to rapid and high volume growth situations in a product environment, it also has implications for how we think about empathy at scale.

Louis CK illustrates this nicely in a bit on how he considers (but ends up not) giving up his first class airplane seat to a uniformed member of the military.

If you haven’t seen it, the whole special is insightful and hilarious…but for this bit skip to 13 min 12 sec

The point is, you can’t think your way into being a better person any more than you can think your way into building a product or company: you also have to act.

I believe that helping people quietly and humbly because you care about the exchange itself will give you information you can’t get otherwise.

Information about how and why you might want to believe that no one should ever go hungry.

About what pain feels like, and having the courage to acknowledge when someone else is experiencing it.

About what it means to be a better human, and help others to do the same.

Whether you’re buying an umbrella for someone stuck out in the rain, giving job advice to someone just starting their career, or simply acknowledging someone’s pain in a difficult situation, you won’t know what it means or how it feels until you actually do it.

And that’s how you start applying empathy at scale.

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10 thoughts on “Money, the value of a human, and what it means to apply empathy at scale”

  1. Lovely lovely post, Joe. I struggle a bit with this, too- having stepped away from a much more lucrative corporate package to work for an educational non-profit, and the smaller $ value attributed to me. Our discussions of late have touched on this- to work a job you don’t believe in for good cash, or feed the soul and not necessarily the bank account…

    This line really resonated- ” or simply acknowledging someone’s pain in a difficult situation.” What was probably the most upsetting for me throughout my divorce was that most people wouldn’t even acknowledge it. They either avoided me or stayed at the level of casual chit chat. My whole universe ended, all they needed to say was “I’m sorry you have to deal with this” or “that must be really tough” or, in the colloquial, “that sucks” and they didn’t, couldn’t. Since going through that, I am much better now about reaching out, acknowledging that others are in pain rather than ignoring it. Something, of course, that you do well, sir.

    1. Y’know, the acknowledgement thing is big for me too. I think that’s a principle that resonates across all relationships – whether it’s more formal like working somewhere or being a customer of a co, all the way out to personal growth, developing one’s heart, etc…

      I’ve always felt that one of the most important things we can do for each other is acknowledge the absurdity / terror / joy that comes with being human. Most of the time that’s enough, and we are enough (as Erika Napoletano nicely demonstrates in her post, linked above near the end of the section about growing up without money).

      1. Ahh I meant to touch on that point, too – my house burnt down when I was 8. We’ve always been ‘well-off” as far as that goes. Yet we lost ALL of our possessions in one shot, but all 6 of us and the dog survived. That taught all of us really valuable lessons about the true value of humans over possessions.

      2. This really resonated w me:

        “I’ve always felt that one of the most important things we can do for each other is acknowledge the absurdity / terror / joy that comes with being human.”

        I struggle constantly to hide/modify/numb any discernable feelings of being disappointed, hurt, scared….etc as it makes me feel not good enough. Today was one of those days, actually….. which is why I loooooovce Rebecca for putting this link on facebook. The timing was perfect, at least for me.

        I give freely of myself, am frequently imperfect, love pretty damn hard, forgive easily (or not, it depends, really) and often feel uncertain. For some reason, the positives are always sources of pride, the negatives encourage shame – but are they not all the same in the end?

        Thank you for this.

      3. Hey Jody, glad to know it was of use – I’ve experienced a lot of “this is how it was supposed to be” in my life and I think we’re all better served by looking deeply into our humanity and not away from it.

  2. Its one thing that bugged me about SF… the zeros on peoples paycheck contrasted with the homeless people on the street. People wouldn’t give to the homeless unless there was some mechanism in place to make it ‘scale’ or efficient or accountable. Everyone wants to pull a Bill Gates, become philanthropic when there is nothing left to spend money on. Ironically, there is no better way to increase the value of the $20 you were going to spend on Uber than to give it to someone who places a radically higher value on it.

    1. That last thing you said, that’s right on. SF is both a utopian and dystopian city… creative talent and access to capital in mass amounts, but access to humanity and empathy are vastly undervalued, something that has implications for sustainable growth in the medium and long term.

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