What matters?

I don’t have much time for a blog these days, in the throes of grad school. But this quarter, I’m taking a class called Finding Your VoiceIt’s about becoming a better speaker by being more authentic. Today in class, we were asked to give speeches about what we value. We were asked, “What value is so important to you that you’d teach it to your own children?” This is a transcript of my speech in response to that prompt. 

I help people…

fight…

over money.

…or at least that’s what I used to say before grad school, when someone would ask me what I did for a living.

I was a forensic accountant. And for years, my job was to investigate financial misdeeds. I followed money, and I quantified the financial impact of some terrible human behaviors.

As you might imagine, I accumulated some war stories from this work. One day, for instance, I sat at the table with a woman, her husband, and their attorneys, and we discussed how the husband had spent more than $2 million on hiring escorts over the course of the last 3 years of their marriage. And I will never forget the day when I sat down with an elderly couple and their son—a grown man, maybe 45 years old—who had embezzled more than $600 thousand from the company his parents had started.

In business school, we talk about accounting as if it’s all just debits and credits—boring, impersonal stuff. But for me, it’s much more personal. In my career, forensic accounting was a window into humanity. As a career, it galvanized my sense of what really matters in life.

I’ll be honest: I probably worked in that field longer than a healthy, well-adjusted person would have wanted. But I think I did it because I had become obsessed with it.

I would go home at night and I’d think about the pain I had seen in my clients’ faces. I would picture a mother sitting across the table from her son, wondering how he could see her pain and feel nothing.

I wanted to know: Why?

Why could people do these terrible things to one another? What drives a son to steal from the same parents who taught him how to ride a bike? From the same company that essentially put him through college? And most importantly, what separated him from all the good men I knew?

I hoped that if I did it long enough, I’d discover the secret ingredient, the thing that connects all the war stories. If I knew what it was, maybe I would never marry the wrong person, or work for a company that would exploit me.

It turns out, there is a common theme, a thread that connects all the war stories. And it’s so simple, it’s just one word. When I tell it to you, you’ll probably think, “Yeah, of course. OK.” It’s hard to imagine that we could ever miss it, but humans tend to overlook this thing.

So what is the secret?

It’s just compassion.

Compassion!

It has nothing to do with money! And I’m an accountant, telling you that.

The connection was the distinct lack of compassion among perpetrators. People had hurt those who loved them and trusted them. There were people who could look in the faces of those they’d hurt and feel nothing. They had no compassion.

I realized that in every story, my clients hadn’t come to ask for help because of the money. They’d come because they wanted answers. They were hurt. They wanted to know why. Why does the boy you taught to ride a bike turn into the man who steals money from you? And why doesn’t he flinch when you sit across the table from him and cry? Why?

As an accountant, I couldn’t answer why, but I could answer how. And at least that’s an answer to something. At least it’s better than “I don’t know.”

When I reflect on those experiences, I know now that the value I’d impart to the next generation is compassion. I’d want children to practice compassion themselves and to seek it out in others.

But compassion is more than just a value of mine. I really believe that it’s a prescription for a better life, better relationships, better companies—maybe even a better world.

If you want a successful company, partner with someone who cares about how it feels to be an employee. Choose compassion.

If you want to live in a country you’re proud of, a place where you feel safe, elect a leader who cares about how it feels to be told that your child has been killed in combat. Choose compassion.

And if you want a marriage that stands a chance, choose the person who cannot stand to see you suffer. Choose the person who cannot stand to see anyone suffer.  Choose compassion.

Last summer, I was reminded of the power of a little compassion to transform a situation, on a long flight over the Atlantic. The cabin was chilly that night. A flight attendant was pushing a drink cart down the aisle, offering beverages to the passengers. People kept complaining about the temperature, and asking the flight attendant for coffee and tea, but she wasn’t serving it. No one was paying attention, though.

Over and over again, the flight attendant would say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do hot beverages right now, but I can bring you a blanket after the drink service.” I must have heard her say this five, maybe 10 times.

She kept repeating herself, always with a smile, always as if she hadn’t just said the exact same thing. “I’m so sorry – I can’t do hot beverages right now….”

Finally she reached the last row in her section. A man leaned out and said, “We’ll have two gin and tonics… And can you heat those up?”

The flight attendant started laughing. She said, “Oh… you….” as she poured the drinks. She handed them to the man and said, “Your drinks are on me today, buddy.” And then she pushed the cart away.

I settled into my seat, sipping my gin and tonic. It was my boyfriend who had ordered it. I sipped my drink and congratulated myself, because I had chosen the guy who made the flight attendant laugh.

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