An Accidental Lesson in Responsibility

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Michael Parrish DuDell Founder of race + vine, innovation chaser, marketing ninja, content connoisseur, Gen Y aficionado

Just days after my 14th birthday, I rolled up the sleeves of my youth and made a grand entrance into America's workforce. At an upscale bakery near my childhood home in Tampa, Florida stood an adolescent version of yours truly, apron-clad and grinning, perched carelessly behind a lengthy, oak-stained rectangular table, serving sticky samples of overpriced pastries to soccer moms on cell phones.

Originally procured as a fundraising campaign towards the purchase of my first car (and to satisfy a rather curious, natural-born tendency towards workaholism), it was at this part-time job where I discovered one of life's most important lessons and first uttered its familiar catchphrase: How can I help you?

Be careful how you say it. If thoughtlessly spoken this powerful expression can come across stale -- reminiscent of the disingenuous type of language found in the customer service training manual of any large corporation. To really understand the power of this expression -- and to avoid the naturally precious undertones -- one must place the emphasis on the last syllable. How can I help you?

In a culture that praises excess and idolizes greed, it seems that we've somehow lost our connection to what matters most. A survey done by the Nonprofit Finance Fund in March of this year concluded that "America's nonprofits ... are strained to the breaking point," and that out of the 1,100 nonprofits analyzed, "31% don't have enough operating cash in hand to cover more that one month of expenses, and another 31% have less than three months' worth." And yet in the last year over 4 million Snuggies have been sold, grossing more than $50 million in profits. Somehow this seems backwards.

While watching Michael Moore's latest film Capitalism: A Love Story I found myself yearning for an America I never knew. Ronald Reagan was years into his presidency when I was born and the make-money-or-die ethos had already kidnapped the country my parents and grandparents recall so vividly. In an era of Madoff-size scandals and Vice-Presidential candidates like Sarah Palin, one can't help but wonder if decency is lost forever.

The truth is the future of our society lies in the apathetic hands of my generation and the one below. And quite honestly that frightens me. Sure there are plenty of young people who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of a stronger society, but it just seems like there are so many more who are satisfied with staying home and watching The Hills. We twenty-somethings-and-under have been bred with a grandiose idea of entitlement that fosters laziness and encourages ignorance in the worst kind of ways. I suppose that's what happens when a group of people is never asked to truly sacrifice.

What I learned 12 years ago at that silly part-time job is that making something better for someone or something else is the greatest gift one can give ... and receive. And the very best part about this gift is that once it's given it never dies. Goodwill unites. Decency flourishes. Generosity inspires.

Because when all is said and done, isn't this living business supposed to be about improvement -- leaving the world a better, cleaner, more thoughtful place than when we arrived? Isn't the idea behind community that we watch out for everyone's best interest and not just our own?

Henry Ford once said, "To do more for the world than the world does for you -- that is success." In other words, the most savory part of this delicious condition we call humanity is only discovered when we show up, put on that metaphoric apron of service and genuinely ask, "How can I help you?"