What Harvey Can Teach Us About ROI, Benchmarks and Metrics for Investing When Tragedy Strikes

What Harvey Can Teach Us About ROI, Benchmarks and Metrics for Investing When Tragedy Strikes

The callous use of a common phrase in someone else’s blog on Tuesday shocked me.

The writer used the common acronym “ROI”.  But he couched it as “Relief on Investment” in describing how to choose a charity to support victims of Tropical Storm Harvey, which has just devastated south Texas.  My anger flared.

How the hell did we just equate relief of people’s suffering with an investment philosophy?  Yes, money matters.  But is it what matters most?

Let me invite you into a discussion about how you invest when tragedy strikes, and how my client Dave is learning something from it that’s transforming his job search.

***

Watching the news and social media feeds coming out of Houston, many of us are alternating between pangs of grief, guilt and gratitude.  Gratitude that we are watching from a distance, safely ensconced in our dry homes with our children and belongings surrounding us.  Grief as we witness the suffering of those being plucked from the still roiling waters, their faces contorted with pain and loss and confusion.  And guilt as we try to discern how we can help.

The good news is this – we WANT to help.  Our hearts break as we watch others suffer.  We feel helpless and wonder how we can best help.  Should we send money? Dry socks? Food items?

The urge to help arises spontaneously.  Thank goodness.  We are wired for empathy.  What’s more, it actually benefits us when we help.  Recent studies in epigenetics indicate that helping behaviors actually improve immunity and that we can pass on that enhanced immunity to our descendants.  What? How great is that? Helping someone can help you AND your as-yet-unborn-grandkids?  Looks like it.

Read on to see how the metrics you select affect your returns as you invest.

***

My client, Dave, told me during a recent call that he’s exhausted from his months-long job search.  He admitted he is losing hope and is becoming dispirited by how often people “forget” the promises they’ve made to him.  The person who told him “I’ll call you back later” and never does.  The acquaintance who promised to make an introduction to a connection, and never seems to respond to his email nudges.  He’s growing increasingly angry and feels invisible and forgotten as the days and weeks march past, without an offer, and a sense that people are beginning to avoid his calls.  He told me, “I’m someone who’s used to getting shit done, and I’m fed up with having nothing to show for my effort day after day!”

I’ve suggested to Dave several times that he commit to an act of service each day.  A way to connect with others to offset the sense of invisibility, disconnection and purposelessness – both his and theirs.  He’s an investor by profession, I suggested he revisit the question of what capital he is investing right now.  A way to reset the metrics by which he evaluates his returns and whether he achieved something each day.

Repeatedly, he tells me he’s too busy, too focused on what he needs to do to help himself, too something.

In a recent call, I asked him if he was aware of the irony of his situation.

“What do you mean?” he responded.

I told him I thought it was ironic that he was so frustrated that no one would lend a hand to him, that they all seemed so busy, self-absorbed and unwilling to extend themselves to him while he was in need.  That no one was investing any energy or attention in him.  Yet, he was directly refusing to look for ways to be helpful (to invest himself) in simple, easy ways to anyone else – insisting that he only had time to do things that he was certain would result in a direct personal benefit for himself.  I suspect that Dave stopped investing in his friendships, his community, his health and his spouse long ago – using his bank account as the primary (perhaps sole) portfolio in which he tracked his investments or returns.

He accused me of “not getting it” – reminding me that he had to focus all of his energy and effort on his own job search.  He reiterated that he couldn’t afford to put anyone else’s needs before his own.

I remained silent on the line.  He said, indignantly, “You must think I’m a jerk.”  Then a little softer, “Really, I’m not, I just have to stay focused here.”

I gently reminded him that the simple acts of service I had suggested to him, over our many calls, were things that would not impact his ability to look for a job.  Things like:

1. Making eye contact with a stranger on his commute – allowing someone else who felt “invisible” to feel seen.

2. Offering a smile of understanding and encouragement to a father dealing with a child in the midst of a tantrum at the grocery store – that moment of “Hey Buddy, hang in there, it gets better.”

3. Asking the name of the man who refills his water glass at dinner, making eye contact, and thanking him by name – an act of acknowledgement of someone else’s act of service which benefited him in the moment.

Still he resisted my suggestions.  I nudged him a little harder.

“Dave, you tell me that every day your sense of disappointment grows, that you see nothing to prove that all your effort that day mattered.  Don’t you think other people experience the SAME sense of disappointment, frustration, invisibility – that SAME sense that they worked hard all day at something while feeling that no one else appreciated their efforts?  Why are you so adamant in your refusal to offer to someone else the very proof of their humanity, presence and worth?”

He had no answer for me.  I chose not to remind him of the fact that I had been doing these calls with him for free since the beginning of the year.  Me, reaching out to him every couple of weeks, just to see how his search was coming along, offering encouragement, listening to his experience and pain, offering alternately what I thought he needed most (my ear, my shoulder or my mouth), never asking him for anything in return.  At the end of every call, he sounded calmer, more able to endure the often-long-and-frustrating process of finding a job.  He usually told me, “Denise, I feel so much better after our calls.  Thank you for doing this for me.  It helps.”

The truth is this.  I learned a long time ago that, on my own worst days, the investment I make in helping someone else is what can lighten my own load and lead to greater returns than simply those I log in Quicken.  Together, through simple acts of kindness, we shine light on the path for each other.

We’ll come back to Dave’s story in a minute.

***

Last night, I overheard two women sitting behind me in a restaurant here in Scottsdale discussing what they could do to temporarily foster animals who were separated from their owners in the Houston flooding.  The couple at the next table joined in and said they would help and also had an extra bedroom they could offer to a family who had been displaced.  In twenty minutes, ten tables joined together to create a small symphony of open-hearted goodness directed toward people they didn’t know, but could tell were suffering.

When I joined the chorus of voices, I suggested we consider doing all of that for the people we saw hurting in Texas AND here in our own community.  There was a pause as people uneasily looked into each other’s faces.  I could tell they wondered whether offering to help in one instance obligated them to help in other instances, too.  There was a moment of fear.  Would we be asked to do too much if we actually started helping here – where the people had faces we couldn’t as easily turn away from later?  It, oddly, seemed easier to simply be moved in the moment by the nameless faces we saw in anguish on the media.  We all knew that once the nameless/faceless in our own communities had names and faces, it would be harder to ignore their needs.  To pretend we didn’t see them.  Seeing people and then ignoring their needs challenges our sense that we are good and caring people.

I told the other diners, the truth is that we have resources enough to do both – help the people of Houston and help our own neighbors.  And so do you.

We were people of unusual privilege at that moment – eating dinner in an upscale Scottsdale restaurant on a weekday evening.  Before you get all defensive and guarded up, thinking you’ll have to take in a homeless man off the streets just because you feel compelled to send money to Harvey’s victims, take a breath and keep reading – that’s not what I’m suggesting (although you may end up there on your own).

***

The returns from helping others happen both in the moment and long term.

We experienced it following 9/11.  Do you remember how the common impact of tragedy shocked us out of our self-centeredness and brought us to the support and relief of our neighbors and strangers on the street?

Small, gentle acts that eased our own sense of panic that the world was suddenly out of control and which restored our common humanity.  Knowing we weren’t alone helped to restore the sense of resilience, to ease the immediate strain.  These small (and great) acts were happening in the midst of crusty, gritty Manhattan and in communities across our country and around the world.  Several years ago, in The Netherlands, my European peers at a conference each told me precisely where they were the moment they heard about the terror attacks in New York, more than a decade earlier.  Their faces shone with a humble beauty as they told stories of helping neighbors or displaced American travelers, just so they could feel like they were doing something.  Each of them said it made them fell less helpless and more hopeful.  The reward was tangible, even years later.

Many of us experience that same sense of helplessness and have reached out to the people closest to us in acts of localized kindness as we’ve witnessed tragedies across the globe – the tsunamis, earthquakes, terror bombings.  We change our Facebook profile pictures to show our solidarity with victims of distant tragedies, we open our wallets to aid organizations.  We even travel across the country to cheer for Batman as he transforms an ordinary city into Gotham City to fulfill a final wish for a cancer-stricken child.

We can transform that same care into regular acts of humanity and kindness to the strangers right around us – those who have recently lost a job, or have a parent with dementia, a difficult child throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, or trying to hide tears from a great disappointment in their marriage.  Opportunities to invest small bits of ourselves abound and offer returns that far exceed the monetary ones we train our professional eyes upon – all doable without compromising our abilities to excel at our work.

Evidence shows that giving and receiving support brings down the cortisol response – the one that is triggered in the wake of trauma – both that which happens to you directly and that which you witness vicariously (er, by seeing it blasted on the news and through social media).  It’s the same cortisol response that you experience when you’re stressed about money or the deadline at work or whether you’re going to be late picking your kid up from daycare.  But, it turns out that simple acts of kindness – both given and received – can also help lower that cortisol response and restore your sense of ease and safety in the world, allowing you to return to your regular rhythm and productivity.  It also is transforming your genes and those of your descendants.  Guess what? It’s actually good for you, your family and your business for you to be kind.

Ever notice how you feel better when you have helped someone?  It’s called the Helper’s High, an endorphin boost. Guess what else? That benefit extends in both directions – both the helper and the recipient get the boost of endorphins and the drop in cortisol.

While making a donation gives you a little blip of it, actually engaging in the act of helping another living being gives you and them more of it.  We needn’t wait until there is a disaster to help.  That small action, smiling at the parent of a mid-tantrum toddler, keeps YOU from getting more stressed out and improves the likelihood the parent will be able to make a good decision in that moment and later on at work.

***

Finally, back to Dave… He’s actually a good guy, he just got caught up in using the wrong benchmarks of success.  Of course, money matters and it’s important.  But, as Harvey helps us see, when tragedy strikes, the metrics that matter are the ones that reflect where we regularly invest ourselves.

I think Dave’s getting it.  Helping others helps his self-esteem and that improves his interactions with potential employers and networking partners, enhancing their likelihood to help him.  It’s a feedback loop.  But, like many of us, when we’ve been knocked down, Dave could use a little help restoring his belief in the goodness of the world, just like the people in Houston right now.

So, I’m asking you – my readers – would you be willing to help Dave?  Or, perhaps, you’ll turn your abundant spirit of kindness toward your own local version of Dave and drop me a little note about it.

It’s inspiring to see the stories unfold before us on the television and social media … the owner of a furniture store who opened his doors so those who had been displaced by flood waters could sleep on the mattresses and couches; the restaurant owners who started cooking and serving the food they had on hand, without worrying about getting paid; the man who wept when he was given a pair of ill-fitting but dry socks; one stranger hugging another, perhaps whispering “You’re not alone, I’m with you”, as they silently rock each other amid the rubble.

Kindness is what matters and it’s always there, ready to be shared.

Small investment, big return.  When you benchmark your ROI against it every day, you’ll find it heralds a success greater than any other you might have thought you were chasing.