In Which I Advise a Young Baby
My friend, free software activist, Ciaran McHale and his wife, Bianca, recently had a baby--the gorgeous Toby. And they did something completely cool, which was to ask friends concerned with social justice to write letters to Toby, which they would publish in a book.
The book Letters to Toby is out, and you can read it here.
It's full of inspiration and insight, so check it out! By the way, Ciaran compiled it using his program, Canthology, which anyone interested in producing anthologies should check out.
Below is my letter to Toby, which I hope you enjoy.
Greetings from Boston, MA, and welcome to the world! Your parents have asked me to write a letter to you on the momentous occasion of your birth.
I don’t know your father very well, but he is a very special person to me. After my first book, The Lifelong Activist, was published, he wrote to me saying that he liked it and also included a detailed list of grammatical and other errors he had spotted to help me with my second edition. It was a generous gift of his time. And when I published my second book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, your father was the very first person to order it— just a few moments after I sent out the announcement! True, he was on British time, and thus had a head start on the Americans who were still asleep. But it was still a very meaningful and encouraging thing he did.
So I know your father to be very intelligent and caring. And although I don’t know your mother at all, I’m sure she is an equally special person. And this project they came up with of having friends write you a letter may be the most wonderful way possible to welcome any child into the world. Already so many people know you and care about you!
I think it’s appropriate that I share with you some of the important things I’ve learned during my own years on the planet. I have had a pretty diverse career, with some ups and some downs, and my personal life has also had its ups and downs. However, I find myself, at age 53, in a very satisfying place. In particular, my professional life is very gratifying. I help people overcome procrastination, underproductivity and underperformance. It is a relatively unusual specialty, and a very important one, and I am very good at it. It is also immensely illuminating.
The most important thing I have learned is that underproductivity or underachievement always have a cause (or causes), and the cause is always valid. Always. 100%. No exceptions. Sooner or later, you will be underproductive or will otherwise disappoint yourself—it happens to all of us. An important key to being happy, effective, and successful is that, when that happens, you not waste time bashing yourself or putting yourself down. Just work on characterizing and resolving the root problems, and things will clear up probably more quickly than you can imagine.
Try not to do this important work alone, but in the company of smart and compassionate friends, family and other supporters. And be there for them, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because helping others is the best way to foster your own growth and healing.
Beyond that, the two values that I most commend to you are generosity and compassion.
Generosity feels wonderful, and of course it does wonderful things for others. In my life I’ve given away lots of free advice and help, and lots of money to individuals and causes. I’ve also given away my home (to foster children and foster animals), and a kidney. (Your Dad suggested that I send my article on that experience as this letter, but I trust in the enduring power of the Internet— as well as your own inquisitiveness — and believe that, when you’re ready to read the article, it will be out there and you’ll be able to find it easily.) I’ve also given away lots of love. Often that love was returned, but sometimes it wasn’t, which was painful. But as Billy Joel sings in The Longest Time, “I have been a fool for lesser things.” I believe it is always worth taking a chance for love.
I see people who are not generous and their lives seem, to me, to be cramped and constrained. They’re always weighing and measuring—- money, time, favors, feelings—- and they’re also always hoarding (the same). The result may be relatively comfortable and safe, and possibly even happy to a degree, but they are capable of so much more—- and in many cases they know it and are bitter.
As for compassion… the Greek philosopher Philo of Alexandria famously said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” And Graham Greene, in one of his novels, says that everyone is less happy than he or she seems. The biggest impact you can have is to be compassionate on as wide a scale as possible—- and I beg you not to forget the non-human animals in your efforts. Unfortunately, we are all victimized by the reality that we must compete for scarce resources and otherwise live at each other’s expense. In light of all that, I believe humanity’s greatest achievements will be veganism and the related ethics of ahimsa (doing no harm) and nonviolence. I urge you to explore all of these and adopt them as your personal credo.
Also, in your life, demand generosity and compassion from those around you, and never settle for anything less.
It’s an amazing thing your Dad did, to generously and compassionately put in time to help me improve my books when he didn’t know me at all. It was also incredible of your parents to ask me to participate in this most meaningful event in their lives. As a result of their generosity and compassion, I feel a connection with you right now. It may be that, as you grow up, you will want to reach out to me. I urge you to do so, because I will be here for you.
Yours in peace, love, and freedom,