Last week, George Saunders’ convocation speech to Syracuse University graduates went viral. He didn’t espouse the usual advice (e.g. follow your dreams), instead he focused on an often overlooked trait in the business world: kindness. I’ve been musing about his wise words for the past few days and decided to share some of my thoughts.
George Saunders gave a wonderful convocation speech to the graduates of Syracuse University
Sometimes it’s hard to be kind. It’s hard to endure the shallow insights of an egotistical corporate PowerPoint-bullshit-artist and not tell him to go rehabilitate his soul. Being conscientious isn’t usually compatible with having corporate ambitions. Obviously not every corporate employee lacks a soul; some of the most conscientious people I know work for corporations. What is disturbing though, is that being kind, honest, generous, fair, and introspective may win you love from peers, but won’t lead you to the executive suites. It seems those rungs on the corporate ladder are mostly rewarded to the servile, arrogant, narcissistic, abrasive, selfish, manipulative, and/or shallow characters. Now you may ask, where does competence come into play? Well, it depends on the goal you are competent at achieving.
If the corporations’ goal is to create profit for profit’s sake, then how an employee helps meet that goal is not that important. Who cares if Bob is known for berating and backstabbing his coworkers? Do the clients love him? Yes. Will the clients give us more business because of Bob? Well, yes. Are we getting richer because of Bob? Yes. Well then, he’s staying! There are those who may argue, “Well, without profits people will have no jobs, be forced to live on the streets, and have to sell their organs to help pay their light bills!” I guess that scenario could happen, so Bob should just keep being a jerk—or more accurately a charitable jerk.
Here’s something to consider, we have a limited amount of moments on earth, why not try being kinder now? Yes profits are essential for jobs, but can a little be sacrificed for the sake of integrity and compassion? Most of us wouldn’t want our wrath to be the last experience someone endured moments before death; nor would we want to experience someone’s wrath right before dying.
By the way, I’m writing this primarily to my present and future self, but I think lessons are more powerful when shared. I’m certainly not a role model for kindness. I’ve said hurtful things in moments of anger and exhaustion, or during that wonderfully hormonal time of the month. I’ve also felt very guilty about saying hurtful things and I’ve decided to hold myself more accountable. I’m learning how to take preventive measures, how to measure the consequences of my words before releasing them.
More and more I am believing in the power of kindness. When I was younger I endured frequent bouts of depression stemming from internalizing traumas. I used to blame some of my abrasive behaviors on those traumas. But we’ve all experienced various degrees of pain and it doesn’t justify being mean. I’ve often rationalized that I was only rude to bullies, but honestly I was sometimes short with loved ones. Yet my loved ones still forgave me and were still kind to me. It was their compassion that rescued me from despair.
Several days ago I reconnected with a professor who wrote to me that she cried when she reviewed a Christmas card I made for her ten years ago. I didn’t remember the card and asked her to email me a copy. I was curious to read the voice of my 20-year-old self. After reading it, I realized the archival quality of kind gestures. I discovered that a simple card, made in a moment of gratefulness, would still be moving someone’s heart ten years later. Try to be kind today.
The front and back of a handmade Christmas card I gave my professor in 2002. Apparently I was into quotes back then too!
The inside of a handmade Christmas card I gave my professor in 2002. Apparently I was into quotes back then too!
Apparently, I wrote her a poem too. Oh the poetic days of my early twenties 🙂
It’s cool to see that even back then I was into textiles inspired by biology.