Father, help me see
Things for what they are
Not always a mirror
Constatnly reflecting me
Father, help me know
When there are lies
Especially my own
That in me thickly grow
When I was formulating our values at Bridge, I gave myself some criteria. They had to be very simple. Nothing fancy and pretentious. They had to be well-defined. People these days no longer know the meanings of words. Like is as good love, nice is as good as right, and loud and reactionary is as good as radical. (They’re not by the way. But that’s another topic.) Our values had to be easy to memorize, so they had to be short. And they had to represent not just our corporate face but the kind of person, the kind of man and woman, I want Bridge to be full of. Our values had to be lived-out. After a lot of trial and error, I narrowed our values to three words: Understanding, Diligence, and Empowerment. I want to share more on the thinking behind why I chose the word Understanding, because I find that many well-meaning people lack this, particularly in the Philippines, for it is the context I find myself in.. We are incredibly nice and sociable, and we care deeply, but have our feelings led to sustainable and sustained widespread good?
Personally, I have been very active in helping others, and have built-in regular contributions of time, money, and energy, to help build opportunities, help the poor, help the disenfranchised, and challenge ideas I think are destructive. But I can’t (and won’t) brag that ALL my actions combined merit me to think that I’m doing my part. I’m not. The proof of this is the poverty, the poverty of soul, the poverty of mind, the poverty of spirit, and the physical poverty, that is widespread around me. If I was doing enough, then I would be able to see significant elimination of these “poverties”. But I don’t see significant improvement, or maybe haven’t yet, so I question my contributions, I question my methods, and I question my ideas, that I may serve better and achieve more results. Results need to be specific and measurable, and for me, Jesus gave us a nice model for proof of result, the proof He Himself offered when He explained His ministry was legitimate: the sick healed (and not just their bodies), the poor fed (and not just their stomachs), the blind see (and not just their eyes), and the divided restored (and not just politically).
When I look at my contributions towards these results, the data shows I have more to do, more to give, and more to figure out, that I may be of actual use to such a beautiful reason to be alive.
What I don’t think is a productive use of my time is to constantly comment without my own results, thinking I’m a thought leader, thinking my active involvement in my chosen cause makes me better than others who are active elsewhere or not active at all. As far as I’m concerned, despite all my efforts, my results are really not that much greater than many others. Who am I to think that my opinions are greater than theirs when my results don’t show superiority? I am lying to myself. So I am not only proud, I am deluded. My pride is based on my own myth of myself. I can give whatever excuse I want for my lack of results, not having money, not having connections, not knowing where to start, being too busy, having family problems, and a bunch of other things, but if the data doesn’t show significant sick healed, poor fed, blind seeing, and restoration, I simply do not have results to make me, or anything I say, credible.
Again, by results, I’m not talking about my activities, which anyone who knows me will say are plenty, but the actual outcome of sick healed, poor fed, blind seeing, and the divided restored. My wife, Yasmin, and I have been thinking about this, and this has led us to review our involvements and approaches. I’m hopeful that the contributions we’ll be making in the next 10 years will surpass all our previous years combined.
Why am I confident that our coming efforts will lead better results? It’s not because we’re “good”. We actually like to be “bad”. Haha! Just kidding. Yasmin is going to kill me for that one. Seriously, it’s because we allow ourselves to be corrected. To be corrected means we allow ourselves to be first confronted with the truth, with principle, with data, NOT opinion. Then we allow ourselves to be compared to the truth, to the principle, to the data, again NOT the opinion. And finally, we allow ourselves to be corrected by the truth, by the principle, by the data, again NOT the opinion.
We don’t insist that the Earth is flat when it’s proven that it is round. Neither do we insist that our opinions count, when they do not count nearly as much, as certain actions that lead to the measurable results. And if you think these are too high standards to expect of the average person, than you degrade the average person’s responsibilities and the average person’s potential. The truth is, we are all average people. Where we differ is in the level of responsibility we take up AND in the level of impact we effect. All parents have a responsibility to take care of their kids, but not all kids will enjoy thriving childhoods. This shows us that knowing our responsibility is not enough. We actually have to get good at fulfilling them, or else, those who rely on us, or those who could benefit from us, will receive less than those who rely and benefit from others. That’s simple logic.
This is why we need to move from a “Here is how I feel about this” discourse to a “Here is the wise path we should take.” To do this, we need Understanding, and that’s what this post is about.
Understanding for us at Bridge is defined with two words: Empathy + Wisdom. I expect everyone in our company to cultivate the ability to understand people, understand situations, to know what’s going on, to feel what’s going on, but also, not to stop with feeling or intellectual knowledge, but to respond to these people and situations with wisdom and right actions. Empathy is a popular word right now, but what most people think is empathy is really sympathy. Real empathy doesn’t just concern itself with the emotion of the person but the context as well. Thinking empathy is only an (or even primarily) an emotional response can lead to wrong decisions. For example, feeling bad for someone who might fail a test, and might get kicked-out because of it, may convince us to help them cheat because we want to help them. This is feeling for someone without responding with wisdom. A wiser decision would consider the wider picture than just the emotion of the moment, because it also takes into account the greater implications of the moment. Does passing an exam by cheating really help a person? No. It fact, it probably does the opposite. By not combining empathy with wisdom we end up making worse a situation that we meant to improve.
How do we know if we’re truly improving a situation? Again, let us let the defined and measurable results we mentioned earlier guide us. If our efforts don’t lead to effective and sustainable results, then we haven’t figure things out yet, and there’s a chance we’re not helping as much as we think we are, and there’s also a chance that we’re not helping at all, or worse, holding others back.
In my limited experience, I think understanding comes from being able to See Clearly and Knowing Truthfully. Seeing Clearly means being able to look at things for what they really are, not for how our bias sees them. I can easily admit my bias because they’re so obvious, but it’s harder for me to admit that many times my biases and inclinations tinge my view. For example, there are people I don’t respect at all, and because I don’t, I sometimes have a hard time seeing them for who they really are: a person whom Jesus died for. Due to my tinged seeing, I now see a distortion of what I am supposed to see. The other thing that affects wisdom is Knowing Truthfully. Using my example earlier, when I put more emphasis on my biased opinion that a person isn’t respectable, I actually fail to respect the greater truth that all humans, even humans I don’t respect, have an ontological dignity. Knowing truthfully, allows me to respond not according to my bias (which would cause me to disrespect the person), but according to non-biased, principle-based, dispassionate truth: all people are valuable, all people have an ontological dignity. I must at all times, even in tricky cases of confronting the evil in people, afford them the maximum dignity the situation allows.
When we don’t see clearly nor know truthfully we will be prone to jumping to conclusions, commenting on things we really have no understanding on, fail to assess our own selves honestly, and all the while, think we’re better than others.
Here are some examples from my own network (online and off) of opinions that lack understanding:
– Someone commenting that she wishes there was no money so that there wouldn’t be any poor people.
Money is amoral. It is neither bad or good. It’s a tool. Even if there was no money, there would still be people who have and people who have not. Why? Because of both greed and laziness, and both have existed even before currency. There’s sympathy for the poor but no wisdom on how to help them. One great effect of having a more convenient means of exchange is the amount of options in the market. Without money, we’d have to barter for everything. The barber will only be able to eat when there’s someone who needs a haircut.
– The split between die-hard followers of different political parties, so quick to point out the mistakes of the other side, so quick to defend their own hero, so sensitive to criticism, yet so useless to their own circles and communities. Our public officials are supposed to be public servants, not public celebrities. Is it possible that our heroes make mistakes? Um… yes. And it’s likely. And it’s inevitable. Why then are we sensitive to our hero being criticized? Shouldn’t the people be working together to hold public officials accountable instead of taking political sides? And how did a person who barely contributes to anyone beyond his or her own immediate family be credible in knowing what it takes to serve a whole country? I think that if people simply donated 1 Peso for every word they used to criticize others into the university education of others, they would help way more than all the griping and commenting. Again, empathy for those suffering unjustly, but really no wisdom on how to solve it.
– Sharing and falling in love with “unlimited leaves at work” or “doing only what you love” or falling hook, line, and sinker for the latest cool work trends. I find, at least among the people I know, there is a direct link between sharing a lot of feel-good articles, inspiring quotes, and lacking originality and brilliance. If there’s anything history teaches us about truly brilliant people, people who stand out, is that they’re not doing what the crowd is doing. In fact, many times, they’re doing the opposite. They’re not regressing to the mean. They don’t think along average lines so don’t become average people. They’re not seeking the safety nets average people are seeking. Instead they’re seeking a standard, a seemingly impossible standard. They’re not seeing the comforts of average people. They passionately pursue a vision in their heads, many times, a vision only they can see. This is why I prefer biographies to most of the new literature on success. They don’t give you feel good formulas. They don’t give you stuff like “late people become more successful” or “messy people are more creative” or “open office structures are better than cubicles” or “why it’s important to have free food”, or any of the other popular ideas today. What do the lives of great men and women tell you? They tell you be courageous, be resilient, be diligent, be disciplined, be committed, be adaptable, and whole list of timeless virtues. They tell you virtues not formulas, and they show you the beauty of living out those virtues as well as the pain when we fail in these virtues. I’m glad the great men and women of history didn’t follow today’s popular advice. We wouldn’t have the car, the airplane, or the computer, neither would we have Universal Suffrage, independence, and education. Don’t fall in love with the latest and greatest, shiny new idea. Fall in love with virtue.
I could go on with examples of just simple mindedness. So many comments reveal a lack of understanding. The problem isn’t the commenting. The problem is the ignorance. Commenting while ignorant reveals a greater ignorance: we’re ignorant of our ignorance.
This is why, I constantly drive this practice into our people: Before you react, understand. Before you weigh-in on a topic, take time to understand the whole picture, to look at as many angles as possible. If you don’t, you’re not really acting intelligently – you’re reacting.
– Before complaining about your workload, understand what output you need to achieve, then understand how much time you’ll need, but more than that, understand new ways to automate your workflow, get people to help you, and improve efficiency. Don’t react. Understand then act.
– Before commenting on the economy, understand economics. This sounds so obvious but based on my friends’ Facebook posts, it’s not. Read Adam Smith. Read Karl Marx. Read Keynes. Read the Economist. Read your economics 101 text books. That won’t get you likes, and it won’t push any agenda further. It will make you wise on the topic. Don’t react. Understand then act.
– Before criticizing others, understand their positions, and try to understand where they’re coming from. You probably won’t agree anyway, but at least you broadened your view. At least you’re more informed of positions others than yours. Don’t react. Understand then act.
It’s sad that many of today’s leaders are poor examples of what it means to be teachable. They’re reactors (a nuclear reactor came into mind when I typed that). It seems the default response these days is to be defensive, to say others don’t understand, or to bring up the faults of others to discredit them. We call others judgmental, stupid, idiots, insensitive, or mean, simply because we don’t like the lesson or don’t like the teacher. And we insist. We insist on our positions, positions already proven wrong, or already proven false, because we live in a world where we can’t show we’re ever wrong, even if we really are.
This is dangerous, because I find that the biggest threat to myself, my family, and the companies I manage is… drumroll… me. My pride has hurt my wife more than anyone else’s pride. My mistakes have cost us more than the mistakes of others. But if I humble myself, if I allow myself to be taught, to learn, not just from books, not just from friends, but also from mistakes, from criticism, and from embarrassing situations, and if I allow the data, not my opinion, improve my decisions I will not only grow wisdom, but will strengthen in character.
Things can only improve for us if we’re teachable. Maybe, instead of saying “You’re an idiot” or “You don’t understand” we should say, “Help me understand your perspective. Maybe there’s something I can learn”. And, from my experience, there always is.
To see clearly and to know truly, and to respond to life wisely, this is understanding. None of us will ever see everything nor know everything, that is why being teachable, not pretending to be great, not being defensive, makes more sense. Knowing that we don’t know much is one of the most honest things we can admit. The beauty is, if we follow this up with teachability, we ending knowing more.