Success vs. Fulfillment

I think it’s difficult to find real success unless you prioritize fulfillment.

Sure. You can get rich. Gain status. And win the praise of others. But if you’re unfulfilled, does it even matter?

When I think about my own life and how I’ve defined success over the years one thing seems constant – the goal posts always move.

Each achievement challenges further achievement. Incomes goals, career goals, status goal…you name it. Anytime I’ve been prioritized “success” over fulfillment, I’ve found it fleeting.

On the flip side, when I’ve prioritized fulfillment, I’ve found something altogether different to be true – an ability to be content without sacrificing future ambition.

A Personal Tale

When I graduated college I set a pretty ambitious goal for myself: double my income every year.

It was easy at first. Year one. Year two. Even year three. But as you can imagine it became more difficult in time. Through my first five years in the real world, I almost succeeded too. But then I discovered something I didn’t anticipate. More money did not make me happier.

As obvious as this might sound to you, it was actually difficult for me to understand. Because I had a wrong notion about success. I believed success was a function of keeping score.

That belief really led me astray for quite some time. It had me looking out into the world at what others were doing. Comparing myself. And then beating myself up over all that I had not yet accomplished by my age. Which honestly got pretty exhausting after awhile.

Two Steps Back, One Leap Forward

A few years back I left an awesome job at a company I loved. I’d been there awhile. I’d climbed the ranks. And I was making great money.

But something had gone missing. I’d lost the fire for my work.

For awhile I tried to rediscover it. I tried working harder. I tried working less. I tried journaling. I tried therapy. I tried changing up my schedule. I tried changing up what I was working on.

But the more I searched the less vigor I felt for my work.

After months of battling with this, I found a new outlet – an opportunity to go work on something entirely different. To leave behind one opportunity and pursue the next. A new challenge, if you will.

It scared me. But (thankfully) after some prodding from a friend, I made the leap.

I went from big fish in big pond to a small pond where status had no bearing. I took a +40% pay cut. I left a team where I’d been around longer than almost everybody to a team where I was very much the new guy. I went from a role where I knew exactly what it took to succeed to a role that I was larger learning everything on the fly.

And a surprising thing happened – I rediscovered my fire for my work.

Somehow my status and income had both declined but my happiness increased. Who knew, right?

How To Find Fulfilling Work

Roman Krznarick has an awesome book on this topic you should check out. It’s called How To Find Fulfilling Work.

In the book he highlights five dimensions of fulfilling work. Here they are:

  • Earning Money (Extrinsic)
  • Achieving Status (Extrinsic)
  • Making a Difference (Intrinsic)
  • Following Your Passions (Intrinsic)
  • Using Your Talents (Intrinsic)

Basically, we all have our own motives for doing what we do. Krznarick explains how some of those motives originate by watching people – see also mimetic desire. Krznarick called these extrinsic motives. These are the things we all usually think about when we define success – like money, titles, where we work, who we know, etc.

But in the stories Krznarick researched, in most cases, people who pursued extrinsic factors actually ended up less happy. They were missing something.

Krznarick argued that the motives that come from within – which he calls intrinsic factors – are actually the key to unlocking fulfillment in our work and lives.

He tells stories about people who left 6-figure consulting jobs to work in non-profits. Or left their high-status jobs to pursue their art. And a whole collection of other examples where people “traded down” (lower income and status) to become happier.

People became happier as the moved closer to roles that used their talents, made them feel like they were making a difference, and stuff they were passionate about. In most cases, they made less money and did less glamorous-sounding work (at least at first).

As surprising as it might sound, Krznarick’s theory suggests it’s actually not the money or status that makes us happy. Rather, it’s the stuff that makes us come alive that leads to real success – success from fulfillment.

Searching For Your Own Answers

It’s nothing new for people to be searching for answers. What’s the meaning of life? How can I be successful? How can I live a happy life?

Questions like this have challenged people centuries. Thankfully a lot of people have kept good notes. And there’s so much we can learn from exploring other people’s struggles on these same topics.

I’m very much still on my own journey of personal development. But I’ve found a lot of answers – and a ton more questions – by digging deep into how other people have approached questions like these in their own lives and careers.

Here are a few resources I’ve found useful throughout the years:

How to Find Fulfilling Work By Roman Krznarick

How Will You Measure Your Life? By Clayton Christensen

Outwitting the Devil By Napolean Hill

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World By René Girard

Start with Why By Simon Sinek

Do What You Are By Paul & Kelly Tieger & Barbara Barron

The War of Art By Steven Pressfield

You Don’t Need a Job – You Need Guts By Ash Ambirge

There are countless other good resources out there for exploring questions about success, happiness, fulfillment and the like. It’s a personal journey. And these are tough questions to wrestle with. But it’s worth it.

Cherish the Imperfections

Can you imagine how stale life would be if everything were perfect?

The first pancake off the skillet always cooks completely through and every kernel of popcorn in the bag all pops perfectly.

But what if all those subtle imperfections in the world around us disappeared?

Today I’m grateful for all the things in life that aren’t perfect.

For the squeaky wheels. The kid screaming in the movie theatre. The gridlock traffic.

All these things form the beautiful tapestry that is the background of our lives. They grant us opportunities to improve both ourselves and the world around us. Opportunities to become a better version of ourselves – by achieving greatness or by learning humility.

Imperfections shape us, and in some way may always serves as a sentimental reminder of how far we’ve come, and how much further yet we have to go.

 

Everyday Superpowers

A friend of mine once slept in his car for three months.

He moved across the country for a girl. A few months later, they broke up.

So he needed a new plan, fast.

He had just accepted a job that was a bit out of his league, and the thought of declining because he couldn’t afford the cost of living in the city embarrassed him.

Student loans and credit card debt had piled up – he didn’t have free cashflow to afford an apartment.

So he found a parking garage.

His first night, he woke up at 3:30 am in a cold sweat. He peeked out the window from his reclined seat to find a cop parked in the spot next to him. He knew if his cover was blown, he could be arrested. So he laid there – frozen.

In time, he planned his day to a tee. He set his alarm to avoid security guards. He got a gym membership so he could bathe. It forced him to show up to the office early and leave late.

Over the three months, he paid off over $15k of debt and developed a remarkable reputation among his co-workers. Not to mention he earned a great story.

When I think about his story, I’m inspired by the lengths he went to make his situation work. He drew a bad hand – and bluffed it into winning the pot.

He didn’t win the lottery or have a miracle fall out of the sky. But he leveraged his will as a superpower.

His story makes me wonder, maybe superpowers don’t have to be the stuff of myth. What if tough situations are opportunities to develop them.

 

*This post originally appeared in my weekly Crash Newsletter earlier today – where I share inspiration, and the week’s best content on careers, personal growth, and how to get ahead. If you’re interest in learning more, sign up here!

Exploring as Catharsis

Do you ever get the urge to explore something new? I do – often.

Something about venturing out into the unknown acts as a release. Even in the small detours – like a new route home from work, or a new path on an afternoon walk.

I think exposure to new environments expands our minds, even subtle changes. Disparities from routine offer fresh perspectives.

The explorations don’t have to be geographic, either. Consider a few modest changes with significant benefits:

  • Rearranging furniture
  • Swapping light bulbs with different hues
  • Working remotely or from a coffee shop, instead of the office
  • Using noise-cancelling headphones versus the usual ear buds (cough *Airpods* cough)
  • Changing up your playlist
  • Alternating to standing from sitting

All of these small steps give me a major release – not just in reduction of stress, but in a more significant way. New experiments yield new glimpses of joy. It’s almost like each new experience unlocks one more small secret to the universe.

Maybe it seems silly. But it works for me.

Against Monotony

We live in a great big world. How much of it have you experienced? I try to ask myself that from time to time. Especially when I find myself stuck in a routine that’s begun to produce diminishing returns.

A quick change of pace can go a long way. Major alterations go even further.

The real secret is not in changing for change’s sake – there is value to be had from routine – but in changing to expand your point of view.

If you’re like me, doing the same thing over and over again eventually leads to a wall that impedes progress. Mixing things up combats against that.

Experience the Orange

A decade or so ago at a leadership training seminar, the speaker gave everybody an orange. He set the clock for two minutes. The only instructions he gave were “to experience the orange.” For two minutes, everybody observantly peeled back the layers of the orange – intently cataloging every nuance.

Suddenly I held more than some orange table fruit.

Again, it seems silly. But I still remember it.

Sometimes approaching things in a new light, gives you an entire new perspective. If you’re down and out or feel like inspiration is lacking, maybe it’s time for your to experience the orange.

Go explore something new. Or go explore something familiar in a new light. There may be some new secret waiting for you to uncover it.

 

 

Don’t Be Precious

You’re cheating yourself if you’re waiting for the perfect conditions to do your best work.

You don’t need four monitors to work. Maybe they help. But you don’t need them.

You don’t need the fanciest outfit to go to the party.

You don’t need the sharpest sword to fight.

You don’t need the suit and tie to impress investors.

All of these things may “help” but really they distract from the core thing.

You.

You are what makes all those other things assets. Don’t let them get in the way of your best work.

If you can only reach two percent.

The success of your product, idea, business, or service has never been about the number of people you reach. It’s always about the amount of value you can feasibly provide to the people you do reach.

If you can reach only two percent you’ll be successful. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling. Two percent will make you a fortune.

Consider the global marketplace. It’s vast. 7.4 Billion people is an impossible market to reach. It’s unrealistic. You’ll never sell to everyone. And it doesn’t matter. Two percent is still a huge crowd. Exchange even one dollar of value with that crowd and you’re in like Flynn.

Say you can’t reach that many people. Say  you can’t create value for them all. Simple, don’t try to. Just increase your value offering. Up the ante to $10 of value created. Voila! You’re filthy rich, and made the world a better place by hundreds of millions of dollars.

You might say that’s simple, unrealistic computation. I don’t disagree. Figuring out one perfect equation would be immensely difficult. But you don’t need the perfect equation. In life, like algebra, there are plenty of ways to solve for x. You only need one of them. Just plan on showing your work.

The success of your product, idea, business, or service has never been about the number of people you reach. It’s always about the amount of value you can feasibly provide to the people you do reach.

Want a sure route to success? Don’t try to save the whole world. You’ll fail 100 percent of the time. Only throw life preservers to the drowning. For every person you can’t reach, increase your value offering to those you can.

It’s a simple as that. Now go do it.

 

Break Free From Your Nest.

“Step away from that edge, young bird!” The teacher’s stark, reprimanding voice sent me catapulting from my day dream. “You’ll fall to your death.”

“Step away from that edge, young bird!” The teacher’s stark, reprimanding voice sent me catapulting from my  day dream. “You’ll fall to your death.”

“Oh! But what if I fly?” I boldly replied.

“That’s nonsense. Get your head out of the clouds,” she said. “No one’s ever done it before. You weren’t made to fly. Now sit down, you’re disturbing the class.”

I challenged her. I was not about to give up so easily. “How do you know I won’t soar?”

“Sit down and shut up,” the teacher, not in the mood for a debate, exclaimed. “You’re putting ideas in the other students’ heads. Do you want them growing up believing myths?”

“What if staying nested is a myth?” I asked. Her lectures could not stifle my inspiration.

“Class, listen up,” she started in–the teacher did love an audience, “Let me make this explicity clear once and for all. You were not made to fly. The stories you’ve heard are simply tall tales passed down for ages. Make believe fables. There is no flying. If you leave the nest, there is only dying. Nest life is the best life. What lies beyond the edge of this kingdom is not suited for birds. One foot over the nest’s wall and you will plummet to the earth, meeting a most dissatisfying doom. You must stay here and learn. That is your only hope for survival.”

I could not take it anymore. No teacher would stifle my dreams.

“But I don’t want to survive! I want to glide! I want to feel the wind rushing beneath my wings, to sit atop clouds, to chase lightning bugs on the breeze, and to greet the morning sun with a song from the heights! I must fly! I just must!”

I ran to the edge and threw myself over, hearing gasps followed by an uproar. Then, only the violent rush of wind filling my sinuses and ears.

I hurtled downward picking up speed. Everything around me, a blur. “I might not make it!” The thought rushed to the forefront of my mind. “What if the teacher was right? What if I die?”

“NO!” A roar unlike anything ever produced from my lungs erupted. I don’t even know where it came from. The startling noise ushered from my beak caused me to flinch and toss my arms out beside me.

Everything slowed. I could see. Was I not to die after all?

“Wait a second…I’m flying!” I chirped as loudly as a young bird could chirp. Today was not my day to die. Today surely was my day to fly!

 


When a bird flees its nest for the first time, it has no backup plan. It doesn’t slink to the edge and assess how far away the ground might be. It doesn’t fall from the nest.

It jumps. It spreads its wings. It becomes what it was meant to be.

It flies.

You were meant for more than the safety of your nest.

Take flight today.

 

 

What You Can Do Today

What you do today will be solely your choice,

So go out there boldly, in your labor rejoice!

Worry not what the future may hold,
It’s present day that is yours to mold.

In the far off land of days yet to come,
You’ll arrive only by where you came from.

It matters not what tomorrow may bring,
Today alone can you change anything.

Future value does not yet exist,
Cherish today’s before it is missed.

Create what you can wherever you are,
Pack up your bags; it will take you quite far.

Though much of this life lies beyond your control,
Embrace the uncertain and create your own role.

What you do today will be solely your choice,
So go out there boldly, in your labor rejoice!

Unmarked Graves

Dismissing those traits is like committing an abortion. It’s like killing your best opportunities to change the world before they’re given a chance to breathe.

The most horrendous thing to me would be to die without having made a dent in the universe. To have led an insignificant life. I choose one that’s monumental…one that’s worth living.

You can live this way if you want. It’s no easy feat. But it’s not as difficult as everyone lets on either.

You’re uniquely equipped to change the world in a way no one else ever could. You were born possessing your own unique genetic makeup, personality, point of view, perspective, thoughts, and ideas.

Yet societal pressures emphasize assimilation and conformity. It’s no wonder many of us lead lives of “quiet desperation.” But you don’t have to.

When you adhere to these standards, you quash the best offerings you hold for transforming the world as it is into what it could be. These value offerings are the ones that can only come from the fullest expression of your unique traits. When you assimilate to this average of everyone else, you denounce your best abilities to live impactfully. It’s like watching the beautiful panorama of your life on a black and white television set instead of in high-definition color.

On the flip side, properly harnessing the unique traits inherent to your own personality increases your value to the world. It allows the fullest expression of yourself free reign to imagine and create. It’s this version of yourself that produces things entirely novel, authentic, and original which would never otherwise have been birthed the same way by anyone else. Dismissing those traits is like committing an abortion. It’s like killing your best opportunities to change the world before they’re given a chance to breathe.

This is why your individuality must be embraced and unleashed instead. If you’re going to make a mark on the world you can’t do the same things everyone else is doing.

Forgive the sweeping generalizations, but I highly doubt anyone wants to live unhappily, poverty-stricken, or oppressed. Deep down, just like you and me, everyone holds a desire and drive to improve their circumstances, to acquire a better hand of cards, a “pissed-off gene” that drives them each out of their caves to go hunt their own proverbial wooly mammoths or to carve wheels from stone. It’s a longing that everyone burns to fulfill, yet one that, if pursued, would look entirely different for each individual.

Given the chance to pursue this longing, whatever it may be, life might look a lot different for everyone. Consider how yours might differ. It might dramatically alter the course of the world. Or it might just dramatically alter your own world. It’s difficult to say how significant the impact could be. There’s not really a metric for measuring ‘what could have been.’

I see really only two options. Embrace your uniqueness or don’t. Live passionately or be normal. Unleash your individuality or imprison it.

Harnessing it to create the products and visions of your mind sends a ping out into the great big nothingness declaring, “I am up to the challenge. I will slay the dragon. I will scale Everest. I will live a life of meaning!” Refusing to heed this calling stifles that better version of yourself. It donates your best value offering for the world to the wind, blowing it away like chaff.

Don’t live that way. Choose to live with historical significance. Refuse to be buried in an unmarked grave.

How A Stranger Taught Me To Love My Neighbor.

At this she stopped cutting my hair altogether and I saw a tear stream down from one of her eyes. She took a deep breath and wiping it away said, “Young man, I think you were supposed to come into this shop today to get a haircut.”

Take-Home Message: Spread hope, not hate. Focusing on all the bad in the world can make you lose sight of the good in it.

Writer’s Note: This is based upon an actual conversation from Summer 2015. I have preserved the integrity of this to the best of my memory.


 

It was a normal day and I was headed to get a haircut. Since I was from out of town and driving around the city, I pulled up Yelp and searched for the nearest barber shop. The closest result showed up just a few blocks from where I was and it was on my way back home. So, I pulled in and walked up to the door.

Immediately after walking into the building, I began second-guessing my decision. In the barber’s chair sat a large Mexican man covered in tattoos, carrying on conversation loud enough for the whole building to participate. But there wasn’t anybody else but the hair dresser and me. Towering over this man was a large black woman working on a high and tight for the customer. She was humming a few bars of what she later told me was one of her favorite Billie Holiday tunes.

I thought I should leave. I pulled up Yelp again and refreshed my search for a haircut and found the nearest one almost 7 miles away. On a Friday afternoon around Atlanta, GA, 7 miles is a several-hour-long commitment, and for some reason I felt like I was being frozen in place. For some reason, I thought, I’m supposed to stay here.

So I gulped my preconceived prejudices down and waited. After a painful amount of time, the Mexican man stood up, politely thanked the woman, paid her, and headed for the door. A few paces before he exited, he flashed me a smile and asked, “How are you?” shattering my earlier notions that this was a dangerous man. “I’m fine, thanks,” I replied, disgraced by my stereotyping.

“You’re up next, Sweetie,” the warm, inviting voice of the hairdresser beckoned to me. “What can I do for you, today, young man?” she said politely awaiting my instructions. I told her how I liked it cut and she said, “Oh, that will look great on you.”

She asked me where I was from and how I made my way to her shop. She asked me what I did and how I had found my way from Oklahoma to Atlanta. I told her what I was doing in Georgia and how [at the time] I was about to go back to school. I was interested in studying law because I had a passion for helping people live more freely, I told her.

“I can already tell you’d be one of those good attorneys,” she said. “The world needs more of ‘em.” But she paused for a moment after that and seemed bothered. “I’ve had experiences with bad attorneys,” she said. “Someone I know (I think she said her nephew) got arrested for possession last year, and he’s been locked up ever since. They [the Public Defenders] didn’t really care about his case.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I told her–and I really was. I could tell that this was really troubling her.

“What do you think about marijuana?” she asked. “Do you think it should be illegal?”

A rare moment with a stranger had arrived for me. Here I was, simply wanting a haircut, and my prejudices had almost driven me out of this shop. But her kindness and sincerity had sent my smugness packing. “I don’t have a problem with it,” I told her. “In fact, I think it being illegal does a lot more harm than good.”

“Why is it that so many people don’t think that?” she asked.

“I couldn’t tell you for certain, ma’am,” I said, “But I think the world could be a lot better place if the government and law enforcement stopped interfering so much with people’s lives.”

At this she stopped cutting my hair altogether and I saw a tear stream down from one of her eyes. She took a deep breath and wiping it away said, “Young man, I think you were supposed to come into this shop today to get a haircut.”

“Thank you,” I told her. But I didn’t reveal to her that I had felt that strange sense of assurance earlier that I was where I was supposed to be.

“You know, I look around at the world and I see so much hatred,” she said. “It’s all black versus white and cops versus people and the news all riling everybody up. But here you are and here I am. I love you and I don’t even know you. I want the best for you and I just met you. I don’t think people hate each other as much as the media wants us to think,” she said. “But this ain’t anything new, Sweetie…”

When she said that, she sort of drifted off, her eyes got misty and she let out a couple of more tears. She had set the scissors down at this point and was looking directly at me.  “I’ve seen this story all my life,” she said, “People don’t naturally hate one another,” she said. “Their circumstances and the way the world treats them teaches them that. I want to share a story with you if you don’t mind,” she gestured to me.

“Of course!” I told her. I was intrigued by this point and had entirely forgotten I was even there for a hair cut. And then she began narrating a story that has forever changed me.

 

“I remember the day those men in black suits came rolling through our neighborhood,” she said. “I was only about five or six at the time, and my sister and me was out in the front yard playing when we saw this big, new, fancy car roll up to the house at the end of the street. That was back in the ‘60s, though, just a few years after Mr. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and we hadn’t ever seen a car like that before. Then these two men climbed out all dressed up, they had them a couple of black suits and white shirts, with the black tie on, looking all official and such. They just marched up to the first door and disappeared. My sister and I went running into the house hollering at Momma and Daddy telling them all about the sight we just saw. Then, one by one, them men just kept making their way down the block, one house at a time, until they got to ours. Momma and Daddy said we had to wait outside seein’ as we wasn’t old enough to talk business yet, so we did, and I tried peeking through the window the whole time. I never could make out what they was saying, but Momma and Daddy seemed a bit troubled by it.

Just a street over at the time was a huge lot surrounded by great big, tall fences. We never knew what was going on inside there, but we could hear the banging and hammering around the clock. All of us on my block kept guessing what it was that was going up, and whether or not we should be afraid of it, but the walls stayed up and the banging kept on a’ coming. Until one day, it stopped. The walls were torn down and behind them stood two great big, brand new towering buildings.

It wasn’t until Momma and Daddy told us we was moving that they explained what those gentlemen in the black suits months before had shown up to discuss. It became clear fast that the offer those men made wasn’t the best for everyone in our neighborhood, though. Momma and Daddy explained that those men were offering us one of the few spots in the shiny new apartment buildings. ‘The spots are going fast,’ they said to Momma and Daddy that day they came to our block, ‘So you’ll have to act now.’

We didn’t have a lot of money at the time, but we also didn’t have reliable electricity or indoor plumbing. In fact, almost everybody on our block still had an outhouse. So when me and Sissy walked into our new home that day, we couldn’t hold back the excitement. “Our very own toilet!” I remember yelling to my Momma. “And what’s this machine over by the wall?” I asked, as Daddy swooped me up in his arms and set me atop our very own washing machine unit. That was such a happy day.

After a few days, I started to notice that very few of the other Daddies from our neighborhood had come over with the families who had moved. I asked Momma about it and she told me to stop pestering and one day when I was older she might tell me.

Days passed and turned into months. Months into years. Until one day, I was watching the news in the apartment building, an older girl now, and I saw this fancy pants man get on the screen talking about all the homeless blacks that were causing problems with drugs and violence and vandalism. He talked about how the cops were roundin’ ‘em up for disturbing peace or something like that. Most of the problem, fancy pants said, was coming from over just a block or so where we used to live. The problem was, none of those houses that used to be there was standing any more.

Just a few months after we had moved out, some wrecking crews came in and tore down all the houses. They said it was the city who had bought all the property up preaching about eminent domain or the likes of some law. They said it would be better for the whole city and that they had built the apartments and offered them real cheap for all the former residents. They said the ones who didn’t take up the offer were lazy criminals and deserved to be snatched up by the law. Some of those men were my friends’ daddies.

So I mustered up the courage to ask Momma and Daddy again about what happened to the other Daddies and why they never moved over. They sat Sissy and me down and explained what they hadn’t told us about those men in the black suits who had come knockin’ on our door for all those years ago. They said they were making an offer to move to a better life.

Those men told my parents it was $39 per month rent to have running water and electricity in the new place they’d built for us.

Daddy had a job at the time, but he didn’t make very much money. He worked long hours and Momma stayed home with us kids. Back then we wasn’t old enough for school yet. But, Momma and Daddy told us, the new apartment buildings didn’t have room enough for all the members of all the families so if the men wanted to move in with the families it would be another $9 per month. Those men in the black suits told Momma and Daddy and all the other neighbors that day that it would be a lot cheaper and just fine by them if the men stayed in the houses where they lived. They’d be allowed to visit whenever they wanted, so long as they got a permit and left by 9 p.m. And they told them the men could come and live with the families one week out of every month, too, if they got the permission from the building. But there just wasn’t enough room to fit everybody.

And so that’s what happened. Most of the families moved over to the new buildings and the men stayed put figuring they could keep more food on the table for their families if they saved the extra money per month, Momma told me. The cost of renting the houses on our neighborhood wasn’t even that much at the time, so they could use the difference to help out. Most of the men in our neighborhood worked jobs like my Daddy, too, long hours for not a lot of money, so it didn’t really make a difference where they laid their heads at the end of the night. But not my Daddy. To him, it mattered, and he told us he wouldn’t let our family be separated even if it was going to make things tight with money.

But after we moved over, the worst thing happened to those other men. When the city came in and bought up the properties, they evicted all of the Daddies who were still living over there. And some of them came over to the apartment trying to work things out but they weren’t given permission by the building to move in with their families. Maximum capacity by order of the fire marshall they told ‘em. No more room for more people.

That’s when new men in black suits came to the apartment building. The marched up and down the hallways to the rooms with a clipboard and some pens. Daddy wasn’t home when they came by but Momma told us later the men were walking by explaining how families could get assistance to help with the bills if they needed to.

“Since a lot of families are facing hard times, we want to make it known that there are options,” those men told Mamma. “We can offer assistance on a monthly rate and even more depending on the number of mouths you have to feed.”

Momma knew Daddy wouldn’t like this, so she asked those men to leave. Mamma told me that it’s because a lot of the Daddies had been arrested by the police and were out of work and couldn’t pay their families’ bills anymore.

 

She broke character after this, lightly sobbing, and began to shake her head. “After they ripped those families apart and kicked the men out onto the streets, many of them lost their jobs,” she said. “My Daddy knew a lot of them. He told me that it was like they had lost their reasons to live, so a lot of them turned to alcohol and drugs to help them escape. And then it got a lot worse,” she said, shaking her head again.

“The laws around those times that were passed were really harsh, especially on marijuana and crack rock, on the poor man’s drugs,” she said. “They’d catch somebody one time and he’d go away for a decade or more, and nobody could do anything about it. They’d just keep yelling from the news about the ghetto and drug dealers, and how it wasn’t safe unless they were all rounded up.”

“So, that’s exactly what they did. They rounded up all those men that used to be Daddies and husbands, working long hour jobs to support their families, and they threw them behind bars. Meanwhile, they were running through the families whose husbands and daddies were being jailed and they’d get them fixed up on government assistance. They had pretty much replaced the role of the husband and father with the government over the course of several years. That’s not making society a safer place. That’s destroying it. And that’s how I feel almost every time I hear about new laws for making us safe or about gang violence or any of the white noise coming out of the TV, there’s usually a much bigger problem behind it somewhere else.

And it doesn’t look hopeful still today. With all the police killings and the rioting, it’s sadness and fear and hate every time you pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV. It’s bombing other countries and wars and arrests and politicians breaking promises. It’s people hurting people everywhere you look. But that’s not the way it has to be,” she said. “That’s not how we were supposed to treat each other. Loving one another is a choice, and it’s one I choose to make every day.”

She went silent after that. I was at a loss for words, but I wanted to give this stranger a hug.  After a few moments pause, she picked up the scissors and set to finish up on my haircut. When I finally found some words, all I could muster was to thank her for sharing her story. I was too choked up and taken aback to come up with anything worth adding.

“Mitchell,” she said, “I’m going to pray to Jesus for you tonight. I hope you get to help people like you said you wanted to. Thank you for listening to an old woman’s story. It was nice to meet you, and I hope the best for you.”

“Likewise,” I told her. “I think you were right that I was supposed to be here today. Thank you so much.”

I paid her for the haircut and left her the best tip I could afford, told her goodbye, and walked out in the warm Georgia air shaken up but somber. Her story pulled scales from my eyes about my attitude and how I look at the world. It wasn’t dismay that I found from her story, but hope. She didn’t have to share her story with me. She didn’t even have to be as kind as she was. She could have just done her job. Instead, this stranger taught me what it looks like in practice to love your neighbor, and how you don’t need a grand stage or billions of dollars to change the world. You just have to be willing to use your voice, and to see goodness where others see only bad.