I grew up in a mostly single-parent household outside Chicago with my dad and sister; my relationship with money as a child was that it felt scarce, for sure, but we didn’t talk about it. Maybe that’s why I’ve gone so much in the other direction with the stewardship classes I teach at our church. Now I talk to people about money all the time.
At Harvard, Professor Malcolm Salter gave us this advice in our last class together: “Live beneath your means.” At the time it struck me as an almost countercultural thing for a business school professor to say. But, in my case, it was also very practical: After I graduated, my husband and I would be living on one salary while he went to business school. When he graduated, we decided to continue to manage our money as if only one of us was working. I didn’t realize it then, but that decision gave us the space to give.
We became consistent givers, but something changed on a trip I took with our church to meet a child I’d sponsored in Tanzania. What struck me in the moment that I met Nganashe and her mother, Nasaru, is that there was no logical reason why I wasn’t in their shoes. We’re all familiar with the concept of the birth lottery—that where you are born is pure luck. That realization hit me even harder because I was born in Vietnam. My mother is Vietnamese and was 20 years old when she had me; my father was a military contractor. It’s still unexplainable why he decided to marry my mother and bring us back to the United States, because tens of thousands didn’t. That gave me an even more powerful reason to give with abundance. I felt I had to pay back this phenomenal, invaluable gift I’d received.
Even though I truly believe we were made to give, it is still a conscious choice, and the message you get from all around is that it’s not logical or rational. One of the questions that my husband and I constantly have to ask ourselves is, “What if we’ve reached the point where we have enough, and everything can be given away—everything?” For those of us who are upwardly mobile, that’s where the rubber meets the road—that’s where growth happens. It’s easy to say, “Yes, I’ll start giving when I get the next promotion or when I’m done paying for college.” But what if “when” is right now?
That’s why I feel like I have to practice generosity all the time, so when the windfall comes, I’m not tempted otherwise. It’s where I have room to grow, and where I hope I will always have room to grow.
Reprinted with permission of the Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin.