It Is Never About What You Have But About What You Do With What You Have.

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Publication date:

September 28, 2021

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As we all know from playing card games, winning is not only about the cards you hold but also about how you play those you do hold. One can easily squander a good hand. More importantly, the joy,  respect, and admiration one experiences and receives never come from holding all the aces but from playing a questionable hand remarkably well. This is also very much the case in all of our lives.

In life, It is not really about what you have but much more about what you do with what you have. We all know people who had little if anything, but they achieved much more than what most of us would have considered possible. That is why my heroes and heroines in life are normal people who made what little they had count in extraordinary ways. And when they did, they did not seek the limelight; they kept their heads low but let their hearts and spirit soar.

Taking a step back, it seems that many of us just want to hold more and better cards. This singular focus on collecting reflects an archaic hunter-gatherer mindset, and makes those who do it the modern-day equivalent of cavemen. They live in the belief, as young children typically do, that winning is inherent in the cards you hold; i.e., if you got all the aces, you have already won! We all know from card games that this is a fallacy. More importantly, and regrettably, they mistakingly believe that happiness resides in what you have, and not in what you do with what you have.

For me, it has always mattered much more what one does with what one has than what one has. If you hold all the aces, what pleasure is there in winning? Pleasure, satisfaction, and contentment come from winning with a questionable hand. The game of life is playing the cards you are dealt in a meaningful and impactful way. It is not at all about looking for and accumulating good cards and holding on to them. Unfortunately, many do just that and crave for recognition by putting their cards face up on the table and, not to be forgotten, with all the cameras and spotlights turned on when they do.

My own thinking on this was shaped by reflecting on my dad’s life when he passed away a few years ago. He did not have an easy life. At his funeral, I made that point by stating to the congregation that life dealt him very few good cards, but that he played those few very well. Whenever life threw my dad a lifebuoy, it got yanked away from him: he became an orphan at a very young age, lost his only sibling in the devastation of WWII, lost the love of his live – my mom – prematurely, and never got to see many of his grandchildren because of failing eyesight. Any of these setbacks would devastate many of us, but my dad never gave in and he never gave up. Me and my siblings got everything he could afford, and many things he barely could.

Because it is never really about what you have but what you do with what you have, I have never been much impressed by titles, money, fame, etc. “So you went to Harvard. Great! Now show me what you can do with what you learned there”, is my motto. When I used to recruit faculty, I always told them that I could care less about what they studied or where they went to school; what counted in my books was what they could and would do with it. Furthermore, if you went to Harvard, you had an opportunity many could only dream of, and that privilege comes with the responsibility to actually do something meaningful with it.

Titles, awards, degrees, wealth, fame, etc. provide unique platforms to do things which those who do not have them could not do. What interests me is what those who achieved them actually do with the privileges contained in them. Unfortunately, many see their achievements as a right of passage into a life only they and others with the same privileges deserve. They do not see achievements as opportunities but as entitlements. Instead of seeing their humanity grow with their achievements, we see it shrink as they selfishly withdraw into the earned privileges. Holding the aces, they forgot the deck they came from.

I was recently reminded of the sense of obligation that comes with such achievements. A former colleague of mine had gotten promoted to full professor with tenure, not a easy feat at any respectable university. She was understandably delighted with this achievement, and I congratulated her for it. But I added a bit of perspective:  an achievement like this is just a first step on a new road. I told her that the well-deserved achievement gave her a new and bigger platform and that I was looking forward to what she was going to do with that.

We have every right to celebrate our achievements and bask in their glory, but they also come with an obligation. Not everyone is endowed with the capabilities you have and/or had the access needed to develop those capabilities. Such  privileges come with the obligation to do something with what you have achieved. Those achievements give you a voice, a platform, an audience, and you should make them count for the many others who were/are less fortunate.

We often refer to the haves and the have nots. From a human perspective, that is terrible and uninspiring dichotomy. We all have something. My dad never had money, a title, an office, or even a school diploma. But he had hope and the understanding that education mattered. He made sure that all of his children had access to the education he never had, no matter what llife threw at him. Despite his “have not” status – or perhaps just because of it, all his children joined the “haves” and are now trying hard to live up to the inspiration his journey left behind.

My dad is a hero, not just because he was my dad, but because of the way he played the few cards life had dealt him. He played them so others could hold a better hand and play an even more impactful game. A meaningful life inherently has a multiplier effect, and those who live it out of the spotlight are my heroes and heroines.

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