This piece started as a comment on the bailout plan. But then I saw that just about everything I wanted to say was being said by others, an embarrassing number of whom were better versed on the subject than I.
Yesterday I gave a speech to 500 high school kids in Seattle. The 20 minute speech was about service and selflessness, about working hard and taking risks to solve public problems. I told those kids that they would add meaning to their own lives by making life better for others.
I hit a chord with that speech. Those kids leaned forward in their chairs. They listened. Afterwards they cheered.
Driving home, I realized that what I’d just told those teenagers was what was missing in the national debate on the bailout. No offense to this country’s leadership, but some things are just true at any age. How did we get into this mess except by the near-absence of a concept of working for the common good?
What needs to change in America is not the just the policies and rules. Leaving it there is sticking on a band-aid. What needs to change is us.
I wish I could give this speech on the floor of the Stock Exchange and in Congress. Those people need to hear it more than the kids do. Here it is. Send it to a politician or financier or CEO that you know:
Speech by John Graham
Ask yourself this question: What do I care about? Family? Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Religious faith? Good grades? Making the team? Earning people’s respect? Perhaps it’s something you can buy?
This is not a dumb question or a trick question. In fact, it could be the most important question you ever ask. Because in asking what you care about you’re really asking: what’s meaningful to me? What are my priorities? You’re really asking, “Who am I?”
And there’s nothing more important to ask yourself than that.
That’s true for you and me; it’s true for everybody. Wise people have been telling us for thousands of years that there’s no deeper human need and no more powerful wish than to do things that we know are meaningful to us. We all want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that what we’re doing counts, that we're not just on this planet to take up space.
And there’s a great deal of pleasure in doing things that you know are really meaningful. Look to your own experiences—your activities at school, activities out of school, your relationships with other people. Isn’t it true that the more meaning you find in these things, the happier and more alive you feel? You may work hard and there may be obstacles you have to overcome, but there's also an energy, a sense of fun and excitement. You do your best work on things that you care about, that are meaningful to you. That’s also when you’re inspiring to other people, and they're attracted to join you, to help you, to follow your lead.
Do you know what I’m talking about?
Look at the adults in your life. Think of the ones that seem to really care about what they’re doing. They’re upbeat and inspiring. They talk about their lives and their work with an excitement that makes you think, “I hope I feel that way about something when I’m that age.”
If meaning is that important, then let’s ask where meaning comes from.
I grew up in Tacoma. When I was your age, I was pretty sure what made my life meaningful. It was adventure, and the bigger and the riskier the better. I shipped out on a freighter when I was seventeen. I crossed the Pacific Ocean and spent a summer in the Far East with a bunch of seamen, in wild, colorful places that sure didn’t look anything like Tacoma. A few years later I was part of a team that made the first direct ascent of the north wall of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, a climb so dangerous that it’s never been repeated. At 22, I hitchhiked around the world, alone, through places like Iraq and Afghanistan.