President Obama has eloquently called us all to service. But let’s face it—there are millions of Americans who are reeling and in no mood to add responsibilities on top of what is already on their backs. In the words of University of Chicago Professor Marvin Zonis, “It will be impossible to understand the world in 2009 without understanding three fundamental psychological processes now at work: Humiliation, Anxiety, and Mistrust.”
I’m a former business leader, not a shrink, but it’s clear even to me that one of the best medicines for these feelings is not to turn inward—but rather the opposite. At a time when so many things are beyond our control, it can be remarkably helpful to take actions that remind us that we have the ability to make a difference in our own lives and those of others.
Let me offer just a few, quiet decisions we can make that can add up to significant change when multiplied by 300 million citizens.
Be more productive in your job, whether your organization asks you to or not. Don’t let your job description or union rules restrict you from lending an extra hand. In Muskegon, MI, the lead server at a family-owned pancake restaurant recently asked her colleagues if they would be willing to work a shift for no salary (tips only) to help out the owner, who was struggling and had more than once dipped into his own pockets to meet payroll. Every one of the 31 servers, busboys, dishwashers, cashiers, and hostesses said yes.
If you’re a CEO, lead by example and share the pain. If your company is struggling, take a salary cut or forego a bonus—and don’t buffer your action with perks. And if you are CEO of a small- or mid-sized business, consider putting a small portion of your compensation into a pool that could fund services for families who lost their jobs. I did this in the mid-1990s, and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
Give something to help meet the growing needs in our communities. You don’t have to be a big donor to have an impact. I recently heard a story about a woman in Seattle who uses her passion for coupon collecting to get great deals on personal-care items like toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and razors and then brings these items every week to a homeless shelter in her community.
If you can’t give money, give something of yourself. A good friend of ours has been a long-time advocate for using chess to help children learn. Recently, on top of his day job as a teacher, he began offering a chess program at libraries in the evenings and on the weekends. He targets young people in tough circumstances similar to the ones he lived as a child.
Write your own journal about the ways your actions have an impact on others. Doing so will help make you accountable to yourself. I call my journal, which I recently started, my “GB Log,”—G for “good” and B for “bad.” Every day, I note what “good” things I did for my family and others, even small actions such as returning a call from someone looking for advice or a connection. And then I note the opportunities I missed—that is, where I failed as a dad, husband, family member, friend, or professional.
Do what you can to honor and support the men and women of the Armed Forces. Here’s a creative example: In 2005, two young sisters in Virginia, Rachel (10) and Kelsi (8), came up with the idea of creating a national treasure hunt to raise money to help the families of service members. With their parents, they launched ThanksUSA, which has now awarded 1750 scholarships to spouses and children of active-duty U.S. military service personnel. And remember: just saying thanks when you see a service member at the grocery store or at a ballgame means a great deal.
My little list barely scratches the surface. What quiet decisions have you made or witnessed that affect others in a positive way? How have you or others dug a little deeper or gone beyond the call of duty?
Doing more for country and community, nation and neighbor is the right thing to do. It’s also a powerful way for each of us to combat the anxiety of our times.
Mario Morino, a former software entrepreneur, is the chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, based in Washington, DC.