Living in Impossible Times

Sep 6, 2004

At Frank Lloyd Wright's legendary Gummage auditorium (aka the "wedding cake" building), I got a chance to address an animated audience from around the country, after receiving North South Foundation's "Role Model" award.

Think of impossible as one circle. Think of love and service as another circle. Each one by themselves is incomplete. Put them side by side and you have infinity -- a cycle of virtue that knows no bounds.

You see, history has been made by people who can do the impossible. But humanity has progressed only by those who are in touch with the infinite. Hitlers of the world have made to our history books, but it takes Gandhis of the world to transform lives.

Following the talk, Janet Napolitano -- Arizona's governor -- was herself quite moved and urged me to consider politics for bringing positive social change. While politicans skillfully compromise, it is the sages who unconditionally surrender ... I want to be a sage, when I grow up. :) Below is a somewhat edited transcript of the talk.

Living in Impossible Times
Gummage Auditorium, Phoenix
Sep 4th, 2004

Namaste -- in India when we meet and greet, we say namaste. Ram Dass described its meaning like this: I honor the place in you, where the entire universe resides. I honor the place of you of love, of light, of truth. I honor that place in you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.

In the plane ride here, I had a book in my hand that one of my friends had heavily recommended -- the power of impossible thinking. The first chapter opened with one of the most remarkable facts I've encountered in the last year:

In May 1954, on an Oxford track, Bannister shattered this barrier, running the mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Two months later, in Finland, Bannister's "miracle mile" was again broken by Australian rival John Landy, who achieved a time of 3 minutes 56 seconds. Within three years, 16 other runners had also broken this record.

So what happened in 1954? Everybody started taking steroids? Sudden growth spurt in human evolution? No. We broke through our mental barriers. Once someone breaks through, everyone thinks they can do it. And they indeed do.

Today, 50 years later, we still live in impossible times. If someone would've told me 20 years ago that the chief rival for a $500 billion company -- Microsoft -- is a loose knit group of software engineers, with no central office, working for free on a product called Linux, I would've said impossible. If someone would've told me the Encylopedia Brittanica on my Uncle's shelf is quickly becoming a thing of the past in face of Wikipedia -- an online encylopedia that anyone can add to, update and access anytime - I would've said impossible. If I would've learned that Yahoo paid a billion dollar a company like Geocities that had no real product, no innovation and practically zero revenue, I would've said impossible! If, twenty years ago, someone told me that MIT would start an OpenCourseWare project to give away all lectures, homeworks, solutions, readers, and even videos of all their lectures ... for free, I would've said impossible.

Yet impossible is possible. Seth Godin, a corporate commentator, has an interesting breakdown; he say the eighteenth century was about farming, 19th century was about factories and this new millennium is about ideas. And with ideas, there's an interesting paradox: the more you give away, the more it's worth. Even ten years ago, if someone told me that that business model of the new millinium is to give it way, I would've said impossible.

But here we are. Impossible is possible.

My life, personally, has had impossible written all over it.

Five years ago, in the height of the dot-com era, when a few of us friends started an organization to put an end to our rampant greed, people said it would be impossible to get Silicon Valley people to give freely. Today there are 5000 volunteers. When we said that we wouldn't ask anyone for money, we wouldn't have a paid staff, we wouldn't have a central office, people said it was impossible. Yet here we are. When I quit my job to live a simple life of service, those same people laughed and wondered if I had a sneaky business plan underneath it. I obviously didn't. When we took over a dot-com and made everything available for free, they thought we had lost our minds; three months later, we had doubled all their numbers. A couple years ago, when the founder of Sony Ent. TV openly offered help, I said, "Instead of venture capital, CharityFocus relies on inspiration capital! We want you to volunteer." Founder of Sony Ent. TV to volunteer? Impossible, even I thought. Today he's one of the most active volunteers of CharityFocus.

To make impossible possible is awe...some -- full of awe and then some! When you realize this power, it'll blow you away.

But you see, that's not enough. The question then becomes -- what do you do with that power? Surely, you can become rich, powerful and famous. Surely, you can go bunjee jumping, sky diving and be a participant in Fear Factor. But so what?

What we need is a four-letter word. I don't know if I'm allowed to say it without all you cringing. But I'm gonna say it anyhow: love. What we need to do is awaken that power of love. That's the biggest impossibility of our times. Somewhere along the way, our brains neurons got wired up wrong and we started thinking, believing that it's impossible to give unconditionally.

Think of impossible as one circle. Think of love and service as another circle. Each one by themselves is incomplete. Put them side by side and you have infinity -- a cycle of virtue that knows no bounds.

You see, history has been made by people who can do the impossible. But humanity has progressed only by those who are in touch with the infinite. Hitlers of the world have made to our history books, but it takes Gandhi of the world to transform lives.

Gandhi, when he was instructing compassion workers at the Dandi March -- where people stood in lines to get pulverized by the British army -- said this: don't just get hit; look at the man hitting you, look him in the eye with love, and preach a silent sermon. Preach that the love in me is far stronger than the negativity with which you strike. Oppose not the man, for he is divine, but oppose his actions, for they are confused when it harms another being. And know that love will always prevail over hatred, that wherever there is injustice, there will always be forces working for justice, wherever there is weakness, strength will be always be found. And all this from a guy who boldly said -- my life is my message.

Now, when I hear about leaders like Gandhi, I get riled up and start wondering how cool it would be to be with a man like Gandhi. But I quickly realized that that was just my ego talking. The only time to be alive is now. The cosmic clock only shows one time -- now. The triumph of love over negativity can happen in your daily life, if you really want it. It can happen in the classroom, when you support that one guy everyone is picking on. It can happen on the work life, when you put your personal ambitions aside to work together as a team. It can happen at your home, when you are willing to see the common humanity between you and your neighbor. It can happen on the street, when you smile genuinely at a stranger.

People think you need to have things before you give. But I want to give you a new definition of service today. Service doesn't start when you have something to give but rather when you have nothing left to take. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. fearlessly said, "Everyone can be great because everyone can serve." Every single person, no matter how old or young, how rich or poor, how smart or dumb. Everyone can serve and until you have found a way to serve, you will not be happy.

Look at the world around you. As I opened up the door of my hotel room, I saw the cover story of today's Arizona Republic - "Unspeakable horror in Russia." 300 children were killed as gunmen opened fire. And that's just today. Every minute, scores of children are dying of hunger, AIDS epidemic is spreading through entire continents, we are running out of natural resources like water, wars are being fought in parts of the world that we don't even know. There is so much to do, so many problems.

But here's the punchline: none of the "possible" solutions are working. It's time for the impossible. It's time to come alive. It's time for love, for service, for unleashing the power of infinity. And it all starts with one person - the person sitting in your seat. Howard Thurman once said, "Don't ask so much what the world needs. Go out and do what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs most are people who have come alive!"

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."