Creating a Culture of Service

07/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

One of the hardest questions to answer when it comes to the world around us is, "What do you care about?" Do I care about my career, my reputation, the economy, buying a new album or trying to eat healthier? Probably all of them, and I still do, to be honest. But, that question means something different now.

Since I became the Managing Editor at Causecast in early March, I've participated in a silent march through Santa Monica to protest child slavery in Uganda, raised money for NextAid and Project Angel Food, and have even attempted to go vegetarian (confession: I had a slice of pepperoni pizza for lunch). It's a particularly apropos time for me to work at Causecast, considering the White House's United We Serve initiative, launching on June 22. Suddenly, after only a few months of trying to connect the culture of giving to the American people, President Obama has gone ahead and done it for us. Well, part of it, anyway.

He wants everyone (you, me, your nephew David, my Uncle Randall...everyone) to make public service a way of life, starting with this summer. It takes a little bit of thinking to realize how remarkable and brave the United We Serve initiative really is. If I may step back and look at our current culture for a moment...

The United States has been the most successful nation of the last 100 years primarily because of streamlined capitalist innovation. Our car companies, fast food restaurants and Hollywood films thrived precisely because of the potential of personal gain. The executives in these industries figured out how to make products fast, cheap and that worked moderately well. Henry Ford, Ray Kroc and Louis B. Mayer did not excel in their positions because they cared necessarily about advancing American prosperity. They did it to make themselves very rich, and they were very good at it.

Jump forward to 2009, our economy is attempting to pull itself up from the ashes, and thousands of people are losing their homes, going hungry, and having trouble keeping their family afloat. Instead of saying what George W. Bush did after 9/11 (Go shopping! Buy stuff!) our president has told us to help one another, to devote some of our free time, scarce as it may be, to making life a little bit easier for someone else. This idea, quite unapologetically, antagonizes American culture to its very core. I'm not saying Americans are more selfish and cynical than anyone else, only that we have lived and thrived our entire lives seeking out only what will benefit us and our immediate surroundings. A generation obsessed with earning "stuff" as a status symbol is suddenly being instructed to give, and not just to friends and neighbors, but to those whom they may never meet. Requesting this amount of self-distance from Americans in 2009 is, quite frankly, revolutionary.

I say all this non-judgmentally. As much as any of my peers, I have been transfixed with my own accomplishments, or lack thereof. In the years since I graduated from college, I've struggled to carve out my own niche among the movers and shakers in Los Angeles. Intimidated by the admired, the wealthy and the powerful, I've preferred jobs that allowed me to sit at a computer and write, all the while thinking I should have tried harder to be Colbert or Spielberg. My obsession with my own accomplishments is expected and encouraged in this country. I'm not saying it shouldn't be. But, let's look at what this summer could mean to America if we do what President Obama urges and dedicate a piece of our lives to service.

The current U.S. population is about 307 million. Let's do an unscientific estimation and say that the 24.5% of Americans under 18 and the 12.6% over 65 will not be putting in significant service hours. That still leaves us with 193 million people. Let's round up and say about 200 million Americans are healthy enough to give of themselves this summer. If each of those people gave just two hours a week (less than the amount of time it takes to watch your average Judd Apatow film!) we would have a total of 4.8 billion hours of public service this summer. Even a quarter of these hours would be enough time to...

Build 200,000 homes with Habitat for Humanity (280 million hours)
Spend a week tutoring each of the 14 million children below the poverty line (98 million hours)
Spend the entire month of July feeding, clothing, and teaching the 3.5 million homeless people in America. (868 million hours)
Allow every single volunteer to write a letter to their representative, urging them to support Invisible Children in their quest to end child slavery in Uganda. (96.5 million hours)

Americans pride themselves on a genuine spirit of magnanimity. I believe this spirit exists in all of us, independent of political agenda, religion or cause. We can give our time to others without sacrificing our own ambitions. We can make ourselves the people we dreamed about and make our country and our world a better place. We can take the time to help others and not be concerned that it will take away from our personal goals.

The America of the future will be greatly different from the America of the 20th century, but we will still thrive, perhaps not as dominantly in the economic sphere, but as a beacon of hope and humanity.

Though I still wish to be a comedian, a filmmaker or an author, I realize that a sincere "Thank you," a hug, or even an emoticon-filled e-mail, can be as fulfilling as reveling in one's own career accomplishments. As a selfish, conceited and indulgent person, I'm accepting Obama's challenge.