This week, I confronted one of my last and greatest personal foes. While I celebrate my capacity to have remarkable tolerance in settings where people are interested in a transformative experience around economics, global economic engagement, and the innovation that I’ve worked to manifest in countless communities around the world, I have a trigger that sets me off. And this week, that trigger was sprung by a friend. My response was far from friendly. After experiencing amazing engagements with highly diverse communities ranging from Pacific Island landowners to global capital market titans in New York, and seeing unprecedented responses from them all, I was innocently asked, “So how do you get paid for doing all this?”
Had I taken a moment to reflect on the question and the evidenced character of the inquirer, I would have understood that the question was not a literal one but rather a question of enablement. Had I heard in the question, “How do you align resources to make these things possible and what motivates you to persist in what you’re doing?” I would have been more graceful. Neither reflection nor intent kicked in and I followed my impulse to an emotionally charged, unconstructive response.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to coordinate a series of investigations into treacherous acts of public officials ranging from corrupt contracting all the way to covert financing of publicly labeled “terrorist” organizations. Following a briefing in Washington D.C., a senior member of the U.S. military approached me and said, “Do you realize that you’re pissing off very powerful interests? You can’t seriously think what you’re doing is worth dying for!” My response perplexed him even more when he found out that there was no compensation for my work or my testimony. “What on earth would possess you to do this?” he muttered as he walked away.
I have founded a number of for profit and not-for-profit endeavors in the last 20 years. During that time, I count among my greatest satisfactions the reward that comes from knowing that the livelihoods of thousands have benefited directly from compensation derived from efforts I’ve launched. I am delighted that investors in my activities have uniformly been rewarded with multiples far in excess of any market returns. I am continuously in amazement with the numerous communities and cultures throughout the world that have become a part of my life experience and the people in each place that have directly contributed to the person I’ve become. However, in that time, the animating and motivating impulse for every endeavor – regardless of scale, mission, or consequence – has come from a clarity of purpose, not from an aspiration of a return.
Despite growing up in a non-traditional Christian family which sought differentiation from mainstream religion, I was exposed to thousands of purveyors of dogma promoting present suffering for an “eternal reward” with carefully manipulated messages that preyed on impulses of humanity to coerce adherence. I am certain that my volcanic fury triggered by the how-do-you-get-paid question emanates from a deep seated, conscious choice to manifest a life that can be animated by purpose, not reward. Listening to clergy across the globe who barter present compliance to their notion of truth at pain of damnation or to a illusory reward of eternal bliss was one of the earliest lies I could see through and watching millions enslaved by the same across time and space has done little to assuage my wrath for the oppression such impulses justify. Confronted with the prevalence of memes which presuppose that humans are little more than Pavlovian primates, I find myself increasing my resolve to manifest endeavors built on energy accretive fusion rather than on scarcity-animated exchanges.
While I, by no means, wish to imply that there is no beneficial purpose in the utility of a monetary system, I have become convinced that the cavalier isolationism created in a society animated by money as incentive and scorecard has sufficient toxicity to humanity that alternatives are not optional but rather they’re necessary for us to address what we see as intractable in our social and moral challenges. Neither the Presidents of the United States nor of China can be justified in their elocution around poverty elimination when their respective countries are endorsing horrific exploitation of communities across the globe to sate the energy and metals lust inextricably mandated by a scorecard measured in monetary wealth. While the Presidents dined in the opulence of a State Dinner in Washington D.C., ExxonMobil was building liquid natural gas extraction facilities in Papua New Guinea surrounded by razor wire so that landowners could not benefit from the opulent indulgence required to incent expats to live in a “hostile” place. While they dined, banks and investors in their respective countries rolled in excessive benefits derived from mineral and energy deals where local governments were willfully mislead into leveraging national treasuries to buy equity in shell corporations with the explicit intent of denying benefit via lawfully mandated royalty payments and ultimately bankrupting countries for even greater future exploitation.
And somewhere along the line, we, the People, stand by in passive indifference paralyzed by the belief that there are too many impediments for us to take on such entrenched injustices. However, somewhere in the cancer of our belief system, we actually rationalize that we are “entitled” to living in excess because we’re the ones “taking risk” or “developing countries”. In short, the cyanide leaching into rivers, the reckless death of a miner drilling a geothermal vent for electrical generation, the 4 year old child killed by chemical toxin in Papua, all can be justified costs because they’re just part of the process of us getting our reward for our version of development. When our incentive, reward, or compensation system in our personal space is reduced to an inanimate singular dimension of value – money – than we have little quarter to critique the macro system injustice that is just doing “us” at scale. After all, ExxonMobil is working to maximize profits to shareholders because they want to be paid. If, along the way, a few Pacific Islanders have to die through carelessness or direct violence, neither the company nor the shareholders will be bothered.
Transformative human interactions have a long history of an absence of compensation. The young Australian soldier who just received the Victoria Cross did not rush across enemy lines hoping that he would earn a medal. A mother nursing a child doesn’t calculate whether the child will turn out to be a good kid or not when she offers her breast. A teacher doesn’t sit with a struggling student after class because there’s a bonus for extra effort.
Getting paid. Worth dying for. What’s in it for me?
How about another view? My friend Anil was sitting with me in a cab in New Delhi one afternoon when we came to a stop at the light. Pulling up beside us on the right was a Rolls Royce limousine complete with a white gloved driver and dapper businessman in the back seat. I was taking in this scene when my attention was drawn to my left where a man sat begging on the curb. The man had lost both legs and part of an arm to a disease that was well on its way to working on what was left of his flesh.
I turned to Anil and said, “How do you live in a place where you’re constantly confronted with such harsh contrasts?”
He smiled and explained, “You just proved there is a God. You know, if you interviewed everyone who passed this intersection you would find that you may be the only person who actually saw both the wealthy man and the beggar. However you saw them both. God, you see, only allows you to see what you can do something about and you, David, are a person who can deal with the poverty of both men.”
I looked at him, perplexed. I discerned the poverty in the beggar in an instant.
He continued, “The tragedy, my dear friend, is that you had compassion for the beggar but you had no compassion for the man in the limousine. Imagine what must be broken in a person who, constantly exposed to the plight of humanity, finds it necessary to isolate himself like that. And you had no compassion for him.”
There were millennia of wisdom in Anil’s observation. Much wisdom that I needed was given on the wings of a beggar and a businessman. But the moment that sticks with me the most was the line about God only allowing you to see that which you can do something about. While I may take issue with the cosmology in his remark, I have found resonance with the spirit therein. Which brings me to the point. A purpose-animated existence does not ask, “How do I get paid?” Rather it commences in responding to an animating impulse and then asking the question, “How can I provision and sustain the thing that I know I need to do?”
And, at the expense of my thoughtless response to a friend this week, I have found a tool that I’ll use and that I’m inspired to share. In short, I desire to animate my listening to the questions of others and decipher them through the lens of Integral Accounting. For in that process, what I’ll hear is the genuine question arising from a desire to share a transformative experience rather than judging a reward based reductionism which has been a scourge to humanity. Along the way I may find a path towards greater tolerance myself and that, would be great compensation.