Benefitting from Doing Good for Others

A quote from Marcus Aurelius that I keep returning to is “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?” The quote reminds me that I should focus on doing good work and not on being rewarded or praised for doing good work. Simply knowing that I am helping others and making a positive impact in the world should be enough to justify the effort put into a good deed. At the same time, however, I do want to be recognized for my hard work and ability. I am ultimately unable to escape the human side of me which evolved in small tribes over hundreds of thousands of years desires recognition and enhanced social status as a result of my good actions.

What is important to remember is that the recognition I seek and the praise I desire has nothing at all to do with the good actions that I may undertake. I am not able to control who sees me doing a good deed, and I am not able to control their mental state and the extent to which they will thank me or praise me for what I have done. The only control I have in this context is control over my decision to do a good deed or not. With this in mind, another quote from Marcus Aurelius shapes the way I think about the positive things I do, or sometimes avoid, and why I do them (or not!). In Meditations he writes, “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to they mind, and never stop [doing such good].”

Aurelius is not talking about altruism in the quote above but simply talking about the reality of doing things that help the general population and not just our individual selves. As a practical day-to-day example I often think about unloading the dishwasher at work. It is not part of my job duties to empty or organize the dishwasher, but I know that if I take an extra minute or two, then everyone will benefit from having dishes put away and having more space in the dishwasher for dirty dishes. It may be extra effort and something I think everyone should do (not just myself or the office manager), but everyone benefits from my couple of minutes of extra effort, including me. The reward and benefit that I get from emptying the dishwasher is the same as everyone else, regardless of whether I am thanked or not. A lack of help and participation in doing a public good does not diminish the benefit that society or even oneself receives, even if there is no direct reward from a third party.

Aurelius’s idea is what forms the core of public service and volunteering and his idea is what we need so that we can improve society today. When we focus on doing something good for the general interest, we are rewarded by helping others and improving some aspect of the world for everyone. It is incredibly tempting to only take action that benefits us directly as individuals, but looking beyond our self-interest and doing something that is in the general interest can have a much longer and much broader impact. This cannot be done if we don’t become aware of our actions and motivations, and if we don’t get past the idea that we must be rewarded and recognized when doing positive and beneficial things.
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Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.

Colorblind

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander is critical of our criminal justice system and the ways in which mass incarceration has impacted the lives of people of color throughout our country. Alexander argues that racial discrimination never truly faded away in our country after the end of the Civil War and after Jim Crow segregation. She points to disparities between white people and black people in regards to outcomes such as wealth accumulation, incarceration rates, and employment rates, arguing that institutions and systematic thought in our country have created a new form of racial discrimination that is as damaging as a racial caste system. However, this new racial caste system as described by Alexander is largely unnoticed in our country since outwardly racist displays of white superiority are scorned and an idea of colorblindness is emphasized. In her book she writes,

 

“The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today – i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters — has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.”

 

Our colorblind society is unable to see the dangers of racial disparities and inequities today. We see successful black people in entertainment, sports, and increasingly in politics and assume that racial barriers have been overcome and that we no longer live in a country defined by race and exploitation, but when we take a step back and look at the actual outcomes that people of color are likely to experience relative to white people, we can see that race still plays an important role in determining how society relates to individuals and how individuals experience their society. Because we all claim to be colorblind, and because we equate racism with individuals and their beliefs and actions, black people today cannot discuss racial resentment or discrimination. Their complaints against an unequal system fall on deaf ears, because no individual sees themselves as being guilty of racial bias, even if they operate within and support a system that was originally designed or unintentionally functions as a way to suppress minority populations and people of color.

 

Ultimately colorblindness leaves us in a position where we tell everyone that all people are equal on the surface, but then criticize some groups for not achieving the same level of success despite not having the same advantages and opportunities. We look at President Obama and see a black man who rose to the presidency by overcoming obstacles and assume that racial parity exists. When black people try to raise objections to the way that they are treated and when they try to point out the challenges that black people in this country have faced since our founding, their arguments are discredited by the same group that claims to be colorblind.

 

More than being neutral and meritorious, being colorblind means that we choose not to see the advantages white people have relative to black people. It means that we choose not to acknowledge the ways in which recent history limited the opportunities and possibilities for minority populations. Colorblindness also means that we ignore the realities that black people face in terms of systematic discrimination that dates back to times when discrimination was legal. Ultimately, it is a way to discredit claims of racial discrimination and the existence of disparate impacts from our policies and systems.

Pointing Out What is Wrong

America has laws to protect whistleblowers within corporations and within government because we understand how important it is to shine a light on the negativity and unfair practices of those with impure motives. When we turn this idea toward society, however, we suddenly become quite disdainful of those who acknowledge and speak out against the lack of racial progress, equality, and fairness within our nation. In a system of capitalism there are winners and losers, and the American system of capitalism has a history of creating winners at the absolute expense of other people. This is what happened with slavery and was maintained through legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination with Jim Crow laws. The protections we offer corporate and government whistleblowers disappear completely when the light is pointed toward market failures that advantage one group over another or when that light is pointed toward things that we associate with positive parts of our individual identities. My belief is that this relates back to our tribal nature as human beings. Pointing out the flaws of corporations and government is an attack against the other team and against someone else with more power, but observing the inequities in social systems that benefit us is a direct attack against our tribe and against who we are. Criticizing the system that has helped us be successful individually is criticizing us and taking away from what we did to become successful.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book, Between the World and Me, observes this phenomenon from the side of an African American living in a society that is in some ways divorced from reality in terms of opportunity, justice, and equity. He writes, “But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going and you find yourself inveighing against yourself.” The idea that Coats shares in this quote is that any observation of racial injustice is frowned upon in our society, and that the only approach to racial observation that is allowed is a criticism of black culture.

 

Arguments suggesting that society is not established or operating in a way that extends equity and justice toward minorities are forbidden by a pervasive sense that they are wrong or that they are simply an excuse for failure. Many of the arguments and tensions in society today are related to this idea. Most people are not outwardly racist but instead unintentionally discriminate against minorities by failing to see where inequities exist, and then by challenging observations of inequities and labeling them as excuses meant to protect lazy people who fail to overcome obstacles and make smart decisions. Moreover, if we accept that black and brown people have faced greater obstacles than we have, we admit that we have had advantages that were not extended to others. This puts our idea of personal responsibility at risk because it becomes clear that our success is not completely dependent on our own greatness, hard work, and smart decision-making, but was helped along by simply having the right skin color and benefitting from a society that discretely favors white people at the expense of minorities. Not only does this take away from our success, but it questions the level of success we have achieved, forcing us to ask if we should have become even more than we are given the advantages we have experienced. The threat that white people face when asking whether society has truly been just and equal for minorities is a threat against them, against their responsibility for their own success, and against their achievements.

 

Our country fails to give any legitimacy to those who call out our injustices or to the claims they make, and punishes individuals who make such claims. We offer protections for those who shine the light on corruption in business (if it is a business we dislike or are afraid of) and government, but those who call out the injustices of society are scorned. They are pushed back and told the problem is not with society, but with the individuals who are being discriminated against or who have failed to become successful in the eyes of society because this response is easier and preserves the image that white people want to have about themselves. If we want to move forward and reach a place where we are more equitable, white people need to be able to drop their ideas of personal responsibility and success. White people must drop  their ego and accept that their success, or image of success, is not truly connected with who they are as a person or individual. Only if we change our relationship with personal responsibility and success can we begin to see the importance and value of extending equity to minority groups and the value of honesty in our reflections on racial equality within our country.

Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.

Failure in School

Everyone knows it is important for children to be successful in school and to grow to be more thoughtful and successful later in life. One of the challenges with the current school model that Ta-Nehisi Coats points out in his book Between the World and Me is the way in which our education system is designed for a specific culture with specific expectations for specific students. Those who match the culture and who have the right support from parents and teachers find success, but those who don’t fit with the culture of the schools, who don’t have support from parents, and who don’t have safe environments are left behind. Our individualized culture, focused on self-reliance and self-responsibility often looks at schools as though they are an equalizing force, giving each student an equal opportunity to grow and succeed, but Coats views schools differently.

“The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him,” Coats wrote about the system he found him self in as a child. The great equalizing power of school, was an equalizing of blame, moving the responsibility for success or failure from society on to the individual. This meant that the child whose parents worked two or three jobs, the child whose parents dealt with substance abuse, and the child who had to walk home along dangerous streets was now on equal footing with the children in gated communities with parents who could afford to stay at home and pay for private tutors. In this model it is not the parents, not the society, and not the culture of the school that are responsible for whether kids learn and grow, but rather the children themselves who bear the responsibility of success in school.

When we criticize those who do not complete school and resign them to low paying jobs, poor housing, and exclude them from society, we are reducing their future based on factors they could not control growing up. For me it seems unreasonable to ask so much of a person at such a young age, to demand that they not make mistakes and demand that they become more than human before they are 18. For Coats, it was unreasonable to demand academic success from young children who lacked the support and guidance of parents, who had to learn in schools that  did not accept the culture of the child, and who have to navigate the tough social realities of concentrated poverty. The most challenging part of the system, as revealed by Coats, is the idea that school was a great equalizer, and that after someone failed in school, they could be forgotten by society.

Music, Fear, Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coats discussed growing up in America as a black man in his book Between the World and Me and two of the ideas he continually returned to were fear and not having control of ones body as a black man. Coats described the way that fear made its way into his daily life and manifested in the decisions he made, in the dangers of the places he went, and in the possibility of his future being taken away at any moment. By describing his understanding of the relationship between black people and police he described the possibility of other people using his body to control him. Combined, these forces shaped the culture around Coats as he grew up in ways both implicit and explicit. He never felt truly secure, and he never felt that there was anything physical that he had control over.

 

Born out of this culture, Coats explains, was music and attitudes that other people condemned. Describing his peers and their adaptations to these pressures Coats writes, “I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew,  the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrision and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.”

 

The rap music so frequently reviled by people outside of the black community, when put in context, becomes more than just music with violent and explicit lyrics. It becomes a response to a world that pushes black people to live in fear and to live without control of even their most basic possession, their body. When police go out of their way to stop black people, search their person and property for drugs, and beat or use deadly force at the slightest sign of danger the boastfulness and power inducing feeling of rap music and gangster culture becomes more understandable. We live in a world where very few people are outwardly racist and where most people understand the danger in racist thinking, but nevertheless, racism continues with us thanks to our tribal brain. It exists not in individuals and their actions, but in systems, processes, and policies that appear race neutral but impact different racial groups in different ways. Racism today does not express itself directly, but is supported indirectly by those advantaged groups who do not want to see the status quo change and who hold up merit and colorblindness as evidence of a lack of racism, despite clear disparate outcomes for racial and minority groups.

 

The moment we meet another person we make snap judgements about them, about who we think they are, about whether we think they are like us, and about whether we can trust them. Colin Wright in his book Considerations spends a lot of time looking at these implicit biases and encourages us to become aware of them, and to become aware of times when we are pushing others away from us or withdrawing from situations where we are surrounded by people we deem to be others. Without realizing it we have perpetuated racism through implicit bias and through stories of colorblindness. Studies show that our implicit bias is to see black people as larger and more threatening, and that we will be more likely to expect crime and violence from black people, even if we are well intentioned.

 

Seneca wrote that even the most self-sufficient man could not live without the society of man, but when that society thinks you are a criminal, threatens you, and takes control of your physical body, your existence can never be fulfilled. Coats throughout his book describes the way that black people have their future robbed from them because the society they depend on does not care about their success as much as their punishment and their restriction. None of us actively act to put black people down, to instill fear in the minds of black children, or to control the bodies of black people, but we still have organized ourselves and throughout history have disadvantaged black people in a way that limits the aid and acceptance that society provides. At the same time, we demand that we ourselves are judged on a merit basis and we view our own success as coming from entirely within. We do not see the way in which we rely on the society of man for our existence. Like someone riding a road bike, even with a wind to our back, we still feel wind in our face, making it seem as though we are being pushed back, despite the fact that a strong wind propels us forward. Recognizing and understanding our dependence on society and how our society pushes back against black people can help us understand the culture and attitudes of black people in America today.