Miserable & magical: for paradoxical times

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NIPUN MEHTA addresses students on what they can do to bring change in their generation.

So, graduation day is here and this once-in-a-lifetime milestone moment has arrived. In the words of Taylor Swift, I can tell how you’re feeling: “happy, free, confused, and lonely, miserable and magical at the same time.” Who would’ve thought we’d be quoting words of wisdom from Taylor Swift at your commencement!

Today, I’m here with some good news and bad news. I’ll give you the good first.

You might be surprised to hear this, but you are about to step out into a world that’s in good shape — in fact the best shape that that it’s ever been in. The average person has never been better fed than today. Infant mortality has never been lower; on average we’re leading longer, healthier lives. Child labor, illiteracy and unsafe water have ceased to be global norms. Democracy is in, as slavery is disappearing. People don’t have to work as hard to just survive. A bicycle in 1895 used to cost 260 working hours, today we’ve gotten that number down to 7.2.

So, things are progressing. But I’m afraid that’s not the full story. You’ll want to brace yourselves, because this is the bad news part.

This week, Time Magazine’s cover story labeled you guys as the ‘Me, Me, Me’ generation; the week before, the New York Times reported that the suicide rate for Gen X went up by 30% in the last decade, and 50% for the boomer generation. We’ve just learned that atmospheric carbon levels surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. Our honeybee colonies are collapsing, thereby threatening the future of our food supply. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What we are handing over to you is a world full of inspiring realities coupled with incredibly daunting ones. In other words: miserable and magical isn’t just a pop-song lyric, it’s the paradox that you are inheriting from us.

What we are handing over to you
is a world full of inspiring realities
coupled with incredibly daunting ones.
In other words: miserable and magical isn’t just a pop-song lyric,
it’s the paradox that you are inheriting from us.

So, what do you do with that? I’m going to be honest – I don’t really know. I do know this, though, that at the core of all of today’s most pressing challenges is one fundamental issue:

We have become profoundly disconnected.

Rather ironic, considering that we live in an era where Facebook has spawned 150 billion ‘connections’, as we collectively shell out 4.5 billion likes on status updates, every single day. Yet, a growing body of science is showing what we already feel, deep in our gut, that we’re more isolated than ever before. The average American adult reports having just one real friend that they can count on. Just one. And for the first time in 30 years, mental health disabilities such as ADHD outrank physical ones among American children.

Somehow we’ve allowed our relationship to gadgets and things to overtake our real-world ties.

We’ve forgotten how to rescue each other.

Yet, deep inside we all still have that capacity. We know we have it because we saw it at Sandy Hook, in the brave teachers who gave up their lives to save their students. We saw it during the Boston Marathon when runners completed the race and kept running to the nearest blood bank. We saw it in Oklahoma when a waiter at a fast food chain decided to donate all his tips to the tornado relief efforts and triggered a chain of generosity.

So we know that we can tap into our inner goodness when crisis strikes. But can we do it on a run-of-the-mill Monday?

That’s the question in front of you. Will you step up to rebuild a culture of trust, empathy and compassion? Our crisis of disconnection needs a renaissance of authentic friendship.

We need you to upgrade us from Me-Me- Me to We-We-We.

Reflecting on my own journey, there have been three keys that helped me return to a place of connection. I’d like to share those with you today, in the hope that perhaps it might support your journey.


In the movie Wall Street, which originally came out well before you guys were born, there’s a character named Gordon Gekko whose credo in life reads: greed is good. When I was about your age, Silicon Valley was in the seductive grip of the dot-com boom. It was a time when it was easy to believe that greed was good. But a small group of us had a different hypothesis:

Maybe greed is good, but generosity is better.

We tested that hypothesis. When I started ServiceSpace, our first project was to build websites for non-profits at no charge. We ended up building and gifting away thousands of sites, but that wasn’t our main goal. Our real purpose was to practice generosity.

In the early days, the media was pretty sure we had a hidden agenda. “We’re doing this just to practice giving with no strings attached,” we said.

The few who actually believed us didn’t think we could sustain it. The thing is, we did. A decade later, when our work started attracting millions of viewers, entrepreneurs told us that we were crazy to not slap on ads or try to monetize our services. The thing is, we didn’t. We probably were a bit crazy. And when we started Karma Kitchen, people really thought, “No way!” It was a restaurant where your check always read zero, with this note: “Your meal is paid for by someone before you, and now it’s your chance to pay it forward.” The thing is, 25,000 meals later, the chain continues in several cities around the globe.

People consistently underestimate generosity, but human beings are simply wired to give.

In one study at Harvard, scientists surprised a couple of hundred volunteers with an unexpected monetary reward and gave them the choice of keeping it or giving it away. The only catch was that they had to make the decision spontaneously. Lo and behold, the majority chose to give away the money! Greed, it turns out, is a calculated after thought. Our natural instinct is, and always has been, to give.

When you take economics in college, you will learn that all of economics is rooted in the assumption that people aim to maximize self-interest. I hope you don’t just take that for granted. I hope you challenge it. Consider the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr and Mother Teresa who have rocked the history of our planet with the exact opposite assumption, with the belief in the goodness of our human nature.

That’s the question in front of you.
Will you step up to rebuild  a culture of trust,
empathy and compassion? Our crisis of disconnection
needs a renaissance of authentic friendship.


Or consider Ruby Bridges.

Six-year-old Ruby was the first African American girl to go to an all-white school on Novenber 14, 1960. All the teachers refused to teach her, except for Mrs Henry. Ruby received constant death threats and, on the way to class every day, people would line up to shout and throw things. Mrs Henry instructed Ruby not to speak to anyone, as she crossed the jeering crowds every day.

One day, she saw Ruby saying something, so she said, “Ruby, I told you not to speak to anyone.” “No, Mrs Henry, I didn’t say anything to them.” “Ruby, I saw you talking. I saw your lips moving.” “Oh, I was just praying. I was praying for them,” Ruby responded. Then she recited her prayer: “Please God, try to forgive these people. Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing.” A six year old! Wishing well for those who were wishing her harm. How generous is that? And what does it say about the power of the human heart?

Our capacity to love is a currency that never runs out.

May each of you tap into that generous ocean and discover every day, what it means to give.


When we give, we think we are helping others. That’s true, but we are also helping ourselves. With any act of unconditional service, no matter how small, our biochemistry changes, our mind quietens, and we feel a sense of gratefulness. This inner transformation fundamentally shifts the direction of our lives.

Very quickly, kindness shifts from being an activity to a way of life.

When we give, we receive many times over. Or, as the Dalai Lama once put it, “Be selfish, be generous.” It is in giving that we receive.

When we think of generosity, we typically think of it as a zero sum game. If I give you a dollar, that’s one less dollar for me. The inner world, though, operates with an entirely different set of rules. The boundaries aren’t so easy to decipher.  Your state of being inherently affects my state of being. This isn’t feel-good talk. It’s actual science. Research shows that, in close proximity, when people feel connected, their individual heartbeats actually start to synchronize, even with zero physical contact.  In neuroscience, the discovery of mirror neurons has shown us that we literally do feel each other’s pain and joy.

If you only focus on the externals, you’ll live your life
in the deadening pursuit of power and products.
But if you stay in touch with your inner truth, you will come
alive with joy, purpose, and gratitude.
You will tap into
the law of abundance.

And joy is definitely not a zero sum game. The law of abundance says that if I give you a smile, that’s not one less smile for me.

The more I smile, the more I do smile.  The more I love, the more love I have to give. So, when you give externally, you receive internally. How do the two compare? That’s a question only you can answer for yourself, and that answer will keep changing as your awareness deepens.

Yet this much is clear: if you only focus on the externals, you’ll live your life in the deadening pursuit of power and products. But if you stay in touch with your inner truth, you will come alive with joy, purpose, and gratitude. You will tap into the law of abundance.

May you discover that to be truly selfish, you must be generous. In giving, may you fully experience what it means to receive.


Our biggest problem with giving and receiving is that we try and track it. And when we do that, we lose the beat.

The best dancers are never singularly focused on the mechanics of their movements. They know how to let go, tune into the rhythm and synchronize with their partners. It’s like that with giving too.  It’s a futile exercise to track who is getting what.  We just have to dance. Take one of my friends for example, a very successful entrepreneur.

Along his journey, he realized that it’s not enough, as the cliche goes, to find your gifts. Gifts are actually meant to be given.

In his daily life, he started cultivating some beautiful practices of generosity. For instance, every time he walked into a fancy restaurant, he told the waiter to find the couple most madly in love. “Put their tab on my bill, and tell them a stranger paid for their meal, with the hope that they pay it forward somewhere, somehow,” he would say.  Being a fan of Batman, he took his anonymity seriously: “If anyone finds out it was me, the deal is off.” Many restaurants and waiters knew him for this. As a food connoisseur, some of his favorite places were also quite pricey.

On one such day, he walked into a nice restaurant and did his usual drill. The person serving him obliged, however, this time, the waiter came back with a counter request: “Sir, I know you like to be anonymous, but when I told that couple about the tab being covered, the woman started sobbing. In fact, it’s been ten minutes and she’s still tearing up. I think it would make her feel better if you were to just introduce yourself, just this once.”

Seeing this, he agreed to break his own cardinal rule and walked over to introduce himself.
“M’aam, I was only trying to make your day. If it has brought up something, I’m so sorry.”

The woman excitedly said, “Oh no, not at all. You’ve just made my year, maybe my life. My husband and I, well, we work at a small non-profit with physically challenged kids, and we have been saving up all year to have this meal here. It is our one year marriage anniversary today.” After a pause, she continued, “We always serve others in small ways, but to receive a kind act like this on our special day, well, it’s just an overwhelming testimonial that what goes around comes around.  It renews our faith in humanity. Thank you.  Thank you so much.”  All of them were in tears.  They kept in touch, he joined their board and they are friends to this day.

Now, in that scenario, who was the giver? Who was the receiver? And more importantly, does it even matter? Dancing tells us to stop keeping track.

Sometimes you’re giving and sometimes you’re receiving, but it doesn’t really matter because the real reward of that give and take doesn’t lie in the value of what’s being exchanged. The real reward lies in what flows between us – our connection.


So, my dear friends, there you have it. The bad news is that we’re in the middle of a crisis of disconnection, and the good news is that each and every one of you has the capacity to repair the web – to give, to receive and to dance.

Sometime last year, I treated a homeless woman to something she really wanted, ice cream. We walked into a nearby 7-11, she got her ice cream and I paid for it.

Along the way, though, we had a great 3-minute chat about generosity and, as we were leaving the store, she said something remarkable: “I’d like to buy you something. Can I buy you something?” She emptied her pockets and held up a nickel. The cashier looked on, as we all share a beautiful, awkward, empathy-filled moment of silence. Then, I heard my voice responding, “That’s so kind of you. I would be delighted to receive your offering. What if we pay-it-forward by tipping this kind cashier who has just helped us?”   Her face broke into a huge smile. “Good idea,” she said, while dropping the nickel into the tip jar.

No matter what we have, or don’t have, we can all give. The good news is that generosity is not a luxury sport.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr said it best, when he said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” You only need a heart full of grace, generated by love.

May you all find greatness in service to life. May you all give, receive, and never, ever stop dancing.

Excerpts from a commencement address delivered at The Harker School, May 2013. Republished with permission from DailyGood.org, a platform and newsletter service that seeks to amplify inspiring stories from around the world.

Address by NIPUN MEHTA



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