3 Steps to Being a Better Person

Hint: do good because “someone really should,” (…and you’re someone).

While former House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D, SC) may be better known for the similarities between his political background and the backstory of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (a show Rep. Clyburn hasn’t seen due at least in part to his unfamiliarity with the workings of Netflix: “I understand you can watch back-to-back episodes,” says the 74-year-old Congressman, quite correctly), I remember him for something entirely different.

Many years ago, the Clyburn campaign ran a tv ad (at least, I think they did; I can’t find it now) in which he told the story of why he decided to go into politics.  He talked about driving to town on the dirt roads of rural South Carolina in his granddad’s pickup truck.  The two came upon a fallen tree limb that lay across the road.

“That looks dangerous, Granddad,” says young Jim to his grandfather, “someone really should move it.”

At this point, Clyburn’s grandfather pulls the truck over to the side of the road and says, “Well, Jimmy…you’re ‘somebody.’”  And thus begins for James Enos Clyburn a lifetime of public service, of working to clear the proverbial (and literal) path of fallen tree limbs.

Most of us are not (and will never be) moved to a life of public service by one critical incident.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a few lessons from the Jim Clyburn’s of the world about how to do a little more good while we’re here.

Step 1. Quit Cold Turkey: stop asking if it’s worth your time.  

Because when it comes to anything purely altruistic, the answer will almost always be “no.”  Overly packed schedules and Google’s refusal to drop Glass in favor of something really useful, like adding more hours to the day, mean we’re constantly struggling to decide what’s worth our time and what’s not.  Most things on the list have some direct connection to our life obligations: work, family, health, netflix.  This leaves very little room for anything that doesn’t directly address one of those categories.  So, start by asking a different question to begin with.

Step 2. Gut Check Yourself: is it something that should be done?

We have very strong internal barometers for things we think other people should or shouldn’t do: Don’t date that guy; he’s a close-talker.  This app makes me tap two times too many; someone should fix that.  The light at this intersection doesn’t make any sense; why don’t they fix it?  

We live in a world of armchair psychology, Monday morning quarterbacking, and backseat driving.  But we rarely consider that we ourselves are the “someone” or the “they” in the equation.  Philosophers (like Kant) and theologians have decried this logical fallacy for centuries.  In his final speech, Dr Martin Luther King Jr recounts the biblical Parable of the Good Samaritan and leaves us with the provocation:  “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help, what will happen to [him]?’ That’s the question.”   Indeed, if “someone” should move the tree limb out of the road, consider the possibility that you might just be that “someone.”

Step 3.  Test the Tipping Point: would you be inspired to hear the story?

Busy schedules and competing priorities often banish truly worthy endeavors to the part of our mind that stores the “I just can’t”s and the “not right now”s.  But every once in a while, we are forced to stop and acknowledge the awe inspired by those who choose the “I just can’t not” option.

Take these Guerilla Public Servants for example.  It’s hard to look at these time-intensive acts of service and not go, “…Damn.”  Maybe it’s with a pang of guilty recognition that these are things you’d never even think to do, much less take the time, energy and (often) artistic inclination to enact.  Maybe not.

Either way, these actions make for cool stories.  And, while we can debate the merits of an act of goodness done for the sake of the story it leaves behind, we’ve already agreed that time is at a premium here.

So let’s throw out the “humble bragging is bad” argument for now and instead focus on the aggregate amount of Good we can create when we spot something that “someone” really “should” do, and remember old Granddad Clyburn’s observation: Well, Jim, you’re someone.