Once I heard that three things cause depression: loss, injustice and uncertainty. Being uncertain of life, or of your consciousness, is with no doubt scary enough to qualify, but finding out that life is at hand is game changing as not many things can be. Monday night I went out with my church’s medical van to provide minimally invasive medical treatment to London’s homeless. I am not a doctor myself and my knowledge of the human body is pretty much limited to the names of our body parts, but, nonetheless, I play a part on the team. While doctors are taking care of people inside the van, some friends and I are talking to the ones waiting to be seen. My task is to ‘build relationships’. C’mon, I don’t give any medicine, don’t influence in diagnosis, I don’t sign any papers, I don’t even drive the van; I just walk around and talk to people about random stuff. Who are we fooling? I don’t really produce very much. It can be regarded as social work, but while I am there, productive would not be the most suitable adjective to describe me. At least that is what I honestly thought. Until this Monday.
A homeless family of about nine people was being seen, one by one, at the medical van. First a daughter, then the mother, the mother’s boyfriend and then the uncle. The uncle was taking quite long. After some time the van’s door opened and the doctor called the mother over. We could see through the door opening that the uncle had a very sad face and was on the edge of crying. The mother went in, the mother came out, a daughter went in, the daughter came out, the family became agitated, small arguments erupted and were rapidly contained, everyone begun to light their cigarettes. It didn’t take long and the ambulance arrived. They took him to the hospital.
What happened? He was having a heart attack. He went to the van because of a blood circulation problem in his leg due to his excess of weight. While waiting, he commented he had been feeling some chest pains. We asked if he was feeling it at that moment. He said no. He was a man of few words. We spoke a little more until he was called inside the van. By the time he went inside, he already felt confident enough and opened up to the doctors. They checked him, called the ambulance, and saved his life.
He would not have been honest with the doctors had he not felt secure. Being homeless you learn you are on your own and you can trust no one. However, while waiting he met David, Peter, Ajay, Ken and me, the unproductive relationship building team. We spoke to him, listened to him, paid attention to what he said, we did our job, showed him what we are there for. We are there to help; we are there because we care. If it wasn’t for that he would probably be dead by now.
Then that raises the question: were we being productive while doing our social work, or was it just a beautiful casualty worth blogging about that happened while we were doing something to calm our conscience and stroke our ego building up an image of benevolence? I think productivity is the doing things that improve our life. We try to improve our life by working so we get more money and eventually more comfort; we read and study a lot so we are more knowledgeable and cultured; we exercise! No one wants to be fat or ill. Then we spend all this time doing all that so we can live better and have others live better too. It reminds me of my brother when he was very little. He wanted to kick the ball the hardest possible, so he took some distance. Then he took more distance. Then if he could only take a bit more distance, the kick would be even harder. He is already quite far but he is sure that if he gets a little farther it would make a difference. He spent so much energy trying to get more distance he practically forgot about the kick.
We are always doing stuff so we can live better. Very often we forget the living part. Brian had his life saved because he felt we placed value on him. That is something no one had done for him for a long time. He felt like living again. He felt alive, and that saved his life. And there I was, trying to be productive. I forgot Brian was not a number (the fourth, third, fifth person to go on the van). I forgot living is about people. I got distracted taking the distance and forgot about the kick. . Brian was finally living, right there with me, but I wasn’t living along.
“At your age they are graduated”. That gave me the chills at the moment. After finishing High School I spent a year doing absolutely nothing and then I left Brazil and studied Engineering for three years in Argentina, then I quit and started again from zero the following year, which is this one, here in England. I learnt a bit about music and learnt to play some three or four classical songs in the piano, just enough to impress an amateur. I learnt a bit of acoustic guitar and studied theology for two years before quitting. I learnt something of public speaking and some people even think I can sing. I read a bunch of books on many different subjects, from economics and philosophy to raising children and building self-confidence, but acquired deep knowledge on almost nothing. In the end, I am not graduated, I have no experience whatsoever in any job and I am not even specially great at anything. Until leaving Argentina, I was at least the son of someone in evidence, now I am just another immigrant trying not to run out of money.
But again, I am not even graduated yet. They have it all planned, and have also loads of discipline. Studying to be the best, always playing to win. They are the heads of society, leaders of the world, commanders of this era. They are the top 1%. Prepared from the crib, always eager for more. The new breakthrough is just some effort away. Everyone admires them and everyone wants to read their books. They are true leaders, opinion formers. And I am not even graduated yet. What have I got on them?
Well, I will tell you what makes me special too. My difference from other folks is that I have something very few people have in this world. Something that is getting harder and harder to find. Something so rare that, even at the top 1%, only a few can afford. I have enough.I’m happy with what I have got. Enough doesn’t mean I don’t want anything else, it means that the things I want in the future, I want them in the future. It makes no sense being sad in the present because I don’t have something I expect to have in the future.
If you go to the “About” page of this blog you will see the following quote from James Altucher:
“There are a lot of time travellers. People who live in the past, people who live in the future. But if you can live right now, then you can do anything.”
He is completely right. If you only think about the future, you are not living your life. Because you are never here, you spend every moment in somewhere else, and when you get to the place you are dreaming of right now you will already be dreaming of some other place. Then you never live, you are always trying to skip to the next scene.
I spent almost a year doing everything on my reach to see my girlfriend (who lived in a different country) again, then last week I got here. Saturday we went to the cinema. We were there, watching a movie, I was holding her hand. At that moment I was thinking “What comes next? what are we going to do next week? How to have a great valentines day next Thursday?”. Then I stopped. I stopped and realized that all I have waited and fought for for the last year was right there at my side. It was happening, was happening at that moment, that was the second I had waited for. But we are so used to focusing on what comes next that we miss what is happening right now.
Happiness is not having all you want, it is wanting what you have.
Those people at the top 1% of society at my age were certainly much better prepared than I am. I am not even graduated yet. But they were better prepared for what? Is the preparation I need for my life the same as they needed for theirs? And if it is, should I be sad because of that? Let me give you shocking statistics: 99% of society are not at the top 1%. 99% are not super special. you don’t have to stand out to be happy. You should try to be the best , but if you can’t what’s the use of being miserable because of that?
I am not half as qualified as many people around the world, and maybe I will never be, I don’t have millions at the bank, I don’t date a super model, I’m not famous and my hobbies aren’t extreme or super interesting. But I am amazed by the things I learn in my books, I am grateful for the money I get, enchanted by the songs I can play on the piano and completely convinced that the hottest super model out there ain’t got nothing on my girlfriend.
That’s the secret. Love people around you, be grateful for what you have, stop comparing to other people and have a terrible memory. Stop trying to have it all and start trying to make all you have enough.
I was in a Mathematical Analysis II class. My teacher, professor Luiz Fiorante, was by far the craziest teacher I ever had, and also the most intelligent one. I always thought I had a good mind, that somehow I was a bit smarter than everyone around me (later on I discovered that everyone thinks this way). But in his classes I felt just stupid. Sometimes he asked some questions to the class that were so simple I thought no one could ever answer it wrong, and then I did. Very often he got angry with the class, he said “No sean soretes!” (which means something like “Don’t be a piece of crap”). But not real angry, just enough to make people think a bit more before saying anything.
Once he was angry because someone used some concept wrongly, then he asked a question that absolutely blew my mind. Not because of the answer, but because in this moment a spark lit in my head. He asked: “Is an elephant greater than another elephant?”
Of course! He just cannot trick me with this one! There are elephants with different sizes and there is nothing he an say to change that!! I was thinking about everything he could possibly say, and when I was absolutely sure I said out loud: “Yes, there are”.
Fortunately enough he didn’t hear me. He answered to the class with a loud “NO!”. “Elephants cannot be compared, you cannot say an elephant is bigger than another elephant, just as you can’t say an elephant is bigger than a cat.”
Wait a minute! I don’t care where you studied or even if Archimedes himself appeared personified just for you and gave you such a revelation, but that is just wrong! Your reasoning is bad and you should feel bad about it!
Everything happened in just some seconds, but in my head I couldn’t conceive such thing. I was wondering what on earth he would say to make it up for what he had just stated. Then he continued: “things cannot be compared this way, the only things that can be compared like that are numbers. A number is greater than another number, not an elephant. The number that represents an elephant’s hight, or width, or length or volume can be greater than another elephant’s, but not the elephant himself. Does the opposition exist? (he was talking about opposition to the government of Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner) no! There are various groups of people who oppose the government, they are treated as the opposition…”. Then he went on with some other subjects.
This may look like something very simple, and somehow obvious. You could say “well, of course I was talking about numbers, if you asked me to show how bigger than another an elephant was I would grab the metric tape and compare their hight”. But the fact is that that was not what was said. When you said an elephant is bigger than the other you didn’t say what would be the criteria. So, given the broadness of your statement, you could be saying anything. Let’s remember that half a truth is a lie.
What fascinated me this day was that he was showing me something I had never seen before. He was teaching me to think differently. He was showing that there are a lot of things in our day to day world that we give for granted, so we don’t look at them. He showed that we can only create a real impact, a real change in something, if we look deeply into the roots of consents and prejudices that are constantly overlooked. Like the common agreement that we can say that an elephant is greater than another, even if we don’t clarify which attribute will be measured. He was teaching us to ask what no one else was asking.
There is an old story called “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. A long time ago, there was an empire whose emperor was very vain. One day, two foreign weavers arrived at the city and went to meet with the emperor. They said they could weave a tissue that was the most beautiful on earth, and that this tissue had some special properties. It could be seen neither by simpletons nor by people who were not fit for their offices. The vain emperor loved the idea and asked them to weave clothes for him with this splendid tissue. He gave them big sums of money to start weaving immediately. The thing is that the weavers were dodgers and the whole tissue story was a farce. In the due day the emperor went to see and try his new clothes, made of this magnificent tissue. When they showed it the emperor didn’t see anything, because they were showing nothing. Afraid of being a fool or unfit for his job, he asked the opinion of the officers of the crown that accompanied him. They too didn’t see a thing, but deep in their minds they were thinking “is it possible that I am a simpleton? Or that I am unfit for my officer?”. Consumed by fear of shame, both said the clothes were exquisite, that they had never seen anything more beautiful than that. Hearing the responses of his officers, the emperor pretended to see the clothes and asked to put it on. The weavers pretended to dress him and he pretended to love the tissue. Then he went to a procession trough the middle of his capital, wearing just the magic clothes. Everyone, afraid of the same shame, praised the emperor’s outfit. Suddenly a kid shouted “Daddy he is naked!”. The crowd began to whisper and then everyone noticed there was no clothe at all. The emperor decided to go on with the procession till the end and the dodgers escaped with the gold.
It’s undoubtedly a great story. The boy, probably because he was a child, had the courage to speak up and say what he thought, even though everybody else seemed to think otherwise. That’s the secret to surprise everyone anywhere you go. If you just say what no one else says, people will think you are different, that you have a great mind or that you are more clever than others. People do this because they probably think the same, but they are too insecure to say it.
My math teacher’s lesson was so important because in our day to day we don’t go out on the streets questioning everything. There may be things we disagree with but we don’t even notice because we are used to accept it. Its as if there were some kind of previously agreed upon rules by which we guide our behaviour, and we are so accustomed that when someone says he disagrees with some of them, we are perplexed. Not merely by the decision to disagree, which could be made by any of us, but by the fact that this person noticed this specific pattern of behaviour. Because in the end, you can never change something you are not aware of.
In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, the reason no one else said they didn’t see the tissue is that everyone is insecure.People like people who say things no one else says because they are so insecure they are dying to find someone who is confident, so he can pass the sense of security to them. That’s why you should have a clear goal. If you have a clear and easily understandable goal, which you show everybody and talk confidently about it, people will tend to help you, they will follow you.
Do you know when you are with your friends and then you say “where should we go?” and no one decides? Well, if you say “that’s the place, lets go!” they’ll all follow you. Even if they don’t agree too much. As human beings we still have animal tendencies, so, if you act like you are the leader of a group, they will believe you are.
Fortunately, I discovered that. At the same time I was presumptuous, thinking I was smarter than people around me, I was also deadly insecure. I always thought people would think I was an idiot. I learned to play well the piano and the guitar, I had good grades and older people often said “Oh, he is so smart”. But I still felt as if I was only good on these things, that outside of that I was a disaster. And it was true at some level. I always asked people’s help to do anything. I could do nothing on my own, I was always leaning on someone else, leaving the responsibility to them. So, people always acted like “Oh, he is so intelligent, but he can’t stay alone at home, he is too absent-minded”. That’s how I felt, absent-minded. People said it so much I totally believed it.
The absent-minded kid, although an excellent person, cannot be trusted with responsibility and should always be supervised. Being treated this way, I thought the value I had came only from the few things I did well. So, to me, as long as I impressed people I’d be ok. That was just bad. It made me jealous of people who had some talent or stood out in some way. This kind of thinking is absolutely destructive.
My parents have leader roles and with time I began to observe and learn. They taught me uncountable good things about leadership. In the end, if you want to be a leader you should act as one. But if you want to be a good leader, then you must see what led can’t. As leader you don’t have to be smarter than the people you deal with, that’s completely unnecessary. It’s enough if you can guide them well, and to guide them you have to see farther than they see, and that’s not intelligence. A young MBA can be much smarter than an illiterate old man, but experience gave the old man ability to see farther than the enthusiastic young guy. Now, you don’t have to learn through experience, that’s the slowest and most painful way to learn. You should learn by mentorship. Learning by experience is learning from your own mistakes, learning by mentorship is learning from someone else’s mistakes. The value of a mentor is incalculable, but a book will do too.
Learning about leadership took the jealousy out of me. There’s a book called “Leadership with purpose”, and it says that the highest level of leadership is the leader who creates leaders able to create more leaders. The leader is not jealous, he is happy when his led improve. Leaders help people getting better. they make them improve.
When you try to make people improve, you help people everywhere you go, doors start opening to you. There is a book called “Never Eat Alone”, where Keith Ferrazzi talks about the importance of networking. He explains that you build a contact network helping people. You help them, connect them, and when you see you’re creating value. And this value comes back to you later, when you need something you will probably know someone who is willing to help you.
You see, every book, film or idea is built upon an insight. An insight is nothing more than seeing what no one else had noticed before. Every great phrase or technique is nothing more than life being analysed with common sense but from a different outlook.
That day the math teacher was teaching us to be more like the boy in the emperor’s story. Because in the end, life is what we make out of it. You will be better off than anyone else if you learn to think for yourself. In the end your opinion is neither better nor worse than anyone’s, but at least is your’s, it’s sincere. While you don’t ask why aren’t life the way you want it to be, you will be fated to live it the way someone else thinks it should be.