To Get Ahead, Give a Lot

03/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I was on a kayaking expedition in Madagascar at the end of 2008. Before heading out into the wilds to kayak, we were in the capital city of Antananarivo and watching the news about the financial markets collapsing around the world, and of course at home in America. I remember calculating how much money I was losing based on the falling markets and having a distinct sinking feeling. The only silver lining I could find was that I was as far away from the mess as possible. The next morning we packed our things and headed out to spend two weeks challenging ourselves on never-before kayaked class V and VI rapids of the Betsiboka River with hopes that, when we returned, things would be better.

By about day 10 on the river we had become well-acquainted with our porters (25 of them), or at least as acquainted as we could be given the fact that our Malagasy was non-existent. In the evenings they asked us questions in broken English about our new president and told us how excited they were. They asked what it was like living in America. We told them that, at the moment, times were tough with the failing economy. Were we naive? Yup. Our head porter Joe, told us just how "tough" times could be. He was orphaned as a young child and left to die. He was cared for by other young orphans, slept under awnings and got his food from the overflowing dumpsters around the city. At 12, Joe was taken into a local orphanage and the head-man taught him trade skills that led to his first job. From there he was able to work his way into his current position of "guide" for a local adventure tourism company. Joe does "well" now; he makes 20 dollars a month and in a country where minimum wage is 7 dollars per month. That ain't bad. While all of this was amazing, the part that really knocked the wind out of me was when he very proudly told us that he gives 10 of those dollars back to the orphanage so that, "other orphans can be as fortunate as (him)." My sinking feeling suddenly disappeared.

Joe taught me a very valuable lesson. He taught me that everyone, no matter what they don't have, does have something to give. There are no excuses. If a man who makes 20 dollars a month can find it in himself to give 10 of that back to people who have zero, we can all find something to give, even if it's not money. There's someone out there who has it worse and you're their salvation. And funny enough, they're also yours...

10 years ago, in the midst of my professional kayaking career, I started First Descents, an organization that provides free outdoor adventure programs for young adults (18-39 years old) with cancer. We chose this demographic for several reasons. First of all, it's the fastest growing demographic of cancer with the lowest cure rates. Last year in the US alone, 70,000 young adults were diagnosed. It's also arguably the hardest time in a person's life to hear "you have cancer." At these ages, you're usually in debt from college, just trying to start a job or family or networking socially to meet new people. You're at the beginning of your adult life with new independence. Cancer puts a hold on all of these things. You often move back in with your parents, lose your self confidence, identity and feel lost and alone. That's where First Descents comes in. A week of challenge in the mountains with other people who have lived through what you live through restores so much of what cancer took.

The FD experience is free and is that way because so many people donate to the cause. Many people these days experience this same "sinking feeling" when they turn on CNN or CNBC in the morning and realize that much of their wealth just disappeared. They don't give because they can, but because they have to. Like Joe, they recognize that the only way for them to "get back in the black" is to give more. Give to people who need it a hell of a lot more than they do. The wealth that is gained by giving far surpasses any amount of dollar signs and replenishes your "soul" account. So, if you're looking for a good investment in the midst of this financial storm, start by looking within. Find out what it is that you have and can give to someone in need. I can promise you that it will bring a sense of wealth to your life that even a miraculous financial recovery couldn't do.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." --Dalai Lama