Friday, 11 February 2011

Some Thoughts on Goodwill

I woke up to one of the crappiest days I've had in recent times. The past week had been a mess - assignments that piled up, presentations due next week, the thesis to take care of, and other obligations I had to see to. The past three days saw me notching a total of about ten hours of sleep only, and when this happens I get an outbreak of sinus that usually lasts the whole day. The feeling of tiredness and a sneezy, leaky nose is one of the most miserable feelings ever, especially when there's a whole day ahead of you from 11am to 10.30pm consisting of studies to run/participate in, meetings and classes to attend, and teaching assistantships to conduct (of course this is nothing compared to enduring starvation or a lifetime of poverty, but... you get the drift).

I don't really know how to put this, but let me try. In my experience so far I think it is really rare to observe genuine goodwill in our modern day and age. Perhaps it is because our results-oriented societal character makes us think of efficiency all the time. Or maybe we are reluctant to help others because we are afraid, either of not getting immediate returns for our goodwill, or that we will be taken advantage of. People want bang for their buck, and are impatient to get it. People think of "there's no such thing as a free lunch" a lot more than "a little goodwill goes a long way."

I'm certainly not trying to impose or insist on any particular way of doing things here, but what I hope to do is to present a case where what goes around does comes around, even if we may not immediately see it. Goodness begets goodness, and so does evil, in the long run.

How so in my case? I think I've always done my quiet little part for the people who matter to me - nothing more and nothing less. I'm not saying this because I'm consciously doing this in some warped self-interested manner everyday; I'm simply reflecting on it as it happened. And "people who matter to me" are very loosely defined. When my help is asked for - explicitly or implicitly - I seldom see reason not to give it. When people see what I do in research as an undergraduate and perhaps garner some interest in the possibility of going to graduate school, I'm glad to help and give information and my personal heartfelt take on the matter. When I see an elderly person on the train, I give up my seat; absolutely no questions asked. I wouldn't dare entertain the possibly of contemplating my act (often resorted to when people start thinking of costs and benefits), not that I had to. When I do work for others, either because I'm commercially contracted to do so or because I just want to help, I do the work because I want to give them what I can offer. This spans from designing logos, drawing caricatures, running studies, editing a coursemate's essay, taking care of the administration of a class, whatever. It doesn't matter. Do it well, do it good, do it for the fact that you desire to give of yourself first, and then for its external benefits - such as remuneration - second. That's a personal philosophy of sorts to me.

So as I slogged through today with a leaking nose and uncomparable drowsiness from lack of sleep, I was relishing the close of the day at 10.30pm with my negotiation class, for which I was a teaching assistant in. It had been a hectic term, and finally the course was ending - today was the last class before the final examination. I was absolutely taken aback and very pleasantly surprised when the Professor summed up his lesson, changed tack and said, "and finally, we have a very important person to thank today - our TA." He invited me down to the front and handed me some envelopes which I later opened after the class to reveal $100 worth of book vouchers.

Cynics and skeptics may say whatever they wish (my parents took their potshots when I told them, saying, "Oh, maybe he got the vouchers for free, and he could've just afforded them easily anyway"), but at the end of the day those vouchers were of value to a poor student like me. However, more than that, it indicated that there was some degree of recognition of the work I had put in. Cynics can debate the degree of recognition all day long, but to me the fact that the recognition was there shows that the cycle was complete. What goes around comes around, goodwill begets goodwill.

It made a case that my Professor described in class more salient. He recalled a time back in the 1990s when he visited China with his wife. When he checked into his hotel, a street chauffeur approached him and offered him chauffeur services for $50, whereby the Professor and his wife would be brought anywhere they wanted to go the whole day for that price. It wasn't a bad proposition, so the Professor took it up.

The next day, the chauffeur showed up and abruptly changed the terms of their deal. He said it will now cost $60. The Professor was taken aback - how tactical was this move! The Professor had no alternative - in fact, the alternative would be to endure his wife's distress, as she hated to negotiate. So he agreed to the chauffeur's terms, and the chauffeur got the $60 he pushed for.

My Professor then said that the cruel joke here was that the Chinese chauffeur had no clue what he had lost out on. My Professor, being a typical American-Israeli, would have spent the day traveling with his wife for $50, and tipped the chauffeur with an additional $50 for a job well done. But because the calculative chauffeur chose to approach the relationship in such a competitive manner, all bets were off on generosity and giving.

Perhaps it's not the Chinese chauffeur's fault for trying to rip off a traveling Westerner. But the point is that how we choose to conduct our relations with others can and will go a long way. We can choose to either go at it with goodwill or be calculative. What do you lose when you give? I don't know about most others, but for me I think in most cases it's usually very little. I think it often takes a rather competitive and calculative nature to sweat the small losses and perceive some painful cost in every little thing he/she does for others, and in a society where such a nature dictates the norms of social interaction, we stand so much more to lose.

My Professor's little gesture of acknowledgement reinforces my firm belief that if we hold on to being genuine and sanguine about our dealings with others rather than ulterior motives, some day we will get our just desserts.

P.S. It always amazes me how tokens are so much more effective in demonstrating reciprocity than cold, hard cash. Already, gift vouchers are probably the least remote cash items - we certainly find it harder to think of a gift of fruits, a watch or a dress in monetary terms, than a $50 book voucher. Yet, simply because the $50 gift voucher isn't a $50 bill (which would ironically allow me more freedom to choose what I want to buy - Homo Economicus would prefer the $50 bill) I'm still able to perceive it as a gift rather than a payment. This would allow me to remain very much in the realm of social norms, marked by reciprocity and closeness, rather than market norms, marked by transactional relations and coldness.


JMunk said...

Well said bro. Anyways what US graduate schools are you applying for? Stanford?

Seems like you have a whole lot on your hands at the moment, my suggestion is to tackle the smaller issues first, since completing them often gives you the much needed drive to handle the tougher issues like your term-paper etc. Good luck bro.

Jose said...

im still thinking about it, and im leaving my options to hk, us, or even smu. i think it's more important to choose your prof than the university.

yeah im working on it right now, thanks dude. still got go to school? haha

JM said...

I recently went back to take the mid-terms. Anyways are you guys going to baroque next mon? I'm gonna make a trip there after my shipping business class at 10plus.

Yash J Roy said...

So inspirational bro,this post just re lifted my mood.

Jose said...

Hi Yash, I'm really glad to know this post did!