Your Gift

Before my grandpa passed away in late November 2009, I asked him how I can make a difference in the world.

My grandpa was an engineer in his early career, employed at Grumman in New York, where he designed and engineered weapons to kill the most enemies for the smallest cost. Halfway through his life he realized the implications of his work, so he moved most of his family, including my dad, to Afghanistan, where he was an engineering administrative officer at Kabul University. After a few years in Afghanistan he returned to the US, settling in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he earned his masters degree in public health administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He stayed at UNC teaching public health for almost 20 years, retiring to be a guardian ad-litem. He spent 20 years in retirement as a legal guardian for mistreated children, volunteering until he physically couldn’t. He died at the age of 83 from prostate cancer.

I hoped my grandpa could answer my question, and, to be honest, I was disappointed when he couldn’t. Here was a very wise man that had been an engineer (like me), traveled the world, raised a family, and settled into a teaching and public service role, where he bettered the lives of unlucky children. I thought he’d have the answer to how we can make a difference in this world. But despite his inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to answer my question, I believe I found an answer while attending his memorial service.

The service had an open mic, colleagues, students, and family members sharing inspiring stories about my grandpa, stories I had never heard, acts of kindness I never realized my grandpa had done. I don’t remember the specifics of the stories shared, but I vividly remember the epiphany I had. To make a difference in this world we need to help others in a way that makes us happy.

Prior to my grandpa’s memorial service I believed to make a difference one needed to devote their life to public service, like my grandpa, Paul Farmer in Haiti, Mother Teresa, or Mohandas Gandhi.  Sadly, I never thought I’d be happy completely devoting myself to others.  Of course the vision seems noble and good, but I couldn’t see myself leaving the software industry.

For a year I’ve thought about my question to my grandpa, about why he couldn’t answer my question.  I believe he couldn’t answer my question because there are an infinite number of answers.  We all live different lives, pursue different passions, and find interest and joy in difference practices.

I believe you can make a difference in this world by showing compassion, patience, and kindness to everyone around you in a way that fits with your own life.  Be kind and helpful to your coworkers.  Listen to people when they’re in need.  Help others when you can.  And most importantly, be introspective and proactive, constantly challenging yourself to make a difference in others’ lives.  Think to yourself how you’ve helped someone today, and how you can help even more tomorrow.  You don’t need to devote your life to those in need, but you can always help, show kindness, and bring compassion.  You will make an impact on the world, and everyone around you will be grateful for the gift you’ve bestowed on them.  And you’ll be happier.

  • Brian Harris

    Thanks buddy!

  • Jon Zuanich

    ” constantly challenging yourself to make a difference in others’ lives.”
    I don’t necessarily believe that you need to challenge yourself. I feel like this could condone being pushy, and perhaps sticking your foot in some places it doesn’t belong. However, I do believe that one of the best ways to make a difference is to be an example. Stay positive, open, listen, and occasionally give back.

  • You’ve interpreted my statement in a way I didn’t foresee. By being so helpful that you’re annoying is no longer being helpful. So I suppose be helpful within reason :).

  • Jsalvatier

    I’d like to offer some advice. This post deals with the topic “What should I do in life?”. This question really has two parts: 1) “What do I want in life?” 2) “What will give me the most of that?”.

    For many people, the answer to 1) is something like “I want to a) live as good a life as possible and b) when I can help others a lot without costing myself very much, I want to help them.”

    The answer to 2) is a little trickier. There are lots of ways that seem like they might accomplish this, but upon a little reflection, they don’t do a good job. “Devoting your life to public service” can accomplish a decent amount of b) but does so by sacrificing a lot of a), and thus doesn’t satisfy the constraint that we want to do b) only when it can be accomplished without sacrificing a lot of a).

    In order to work on b) we want to look for the most efficient possible way of helping people. In modern times, when we want to find the most efficient possible way of doing something we usually try to find an organization who specializes in doing that thing and give them money to do that thing, and try hard to make sure we got the very best organization. When I want to find the most efficient possible way of making a nice house, I go try to find the very best house building organization and I give them some money to build me a house. The same goes for helping others, when I want to help others, I go find the organization who is the very best at helping others and I give them some money.

    It turns out that selecting the best organization to help people is no trivial task. Charities in general have a very very wide range of effectiveness: many do little good, some do a moderate amount of good and a couple do a tremendous amount of good. If you don’t have a very good way of finding (I cannot stress how difficult this is enough) those charities which do a tremendous amount of good, you’re most likely going to get a charity who does a moderate amount of good or worse; even most well reputed charities fall into this category.

    Here’s the part where I try to sell you on something: There happens to be a single organization who focuses its energy on finding the very very best charities, those that do tremendous good. It’s called GiveWell ( I know of no other organization who tries to do this.

    For reference purposes, they estimate that their most highly recommended charity can save a person’s life for about $1000. GiveWell is not tied to the charities they evaluate, they are an independent organization.

    So now when you ask “how can I help people”, you have an answer, you can go to GiveWell and find out the most effective way to help people and do that. When you consider an alternative, you must ask “is this really better than the best charity GiveWell has found?”.

    Sorry if this was preachy; this topic is near and dear to my heart. I’m not affiliated with GiveWell in any way except that I use them to make my charity decisions. If you’d like to talk about this with me, IM or call me.

  • Carol Rosseland

    I think your Grandpa knew enough about how big the world is and how great are the problems here on earth, that he might not ask that question, nor would he feel he had an answer to it. But his example was to do whatever he could, wherever he was, to be of service to those who are unable to help themselves… I do think he would be pleased to know that you recognize the value of giving whatever you can. I think you are on the right track, and I am glad to hear it!

  • Thanks, Carol. Glad another family member approves :).

  • John, thanks for your thoughts here. I’ve always shunned away from charities because I know a lot of them are inefficient. However, I’ve heard of GiveWell and read their blog. There’s also a service called Jume ( that is similar.

    One advantage to being in public service is that saving a life isn’t a dollar amount, instead it’s an effort, at least in some basic cases. Sure, medicines, equipment, and travel are needed, but still, I think my argument has some weight.

    Anyway, you’ve filled a hole in my post having to do with charities. Thanks for that. And no, you’re not preachy :).

  • Grandma Loddy38

    Alex – Yes, I agree with Carol – you are on the right track. Your note brought me to tears – I’m so glad Grandpa had such an influence on you.
    Love, Grandma

  • I’m glad you enjoyed this, Grandma. And I’m grateful to have learned so much from Grandpa! Love you, too.

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