While putting together our latest issue of Mindful Matter, I was given the opportunity to talk with Tony Tjan, the CEO and Managing Partner of Cue Ball. Introduced by one of Holstee's founders, Fabian, I'd heard Tony's name come up many times in past conversations revolving around influential and inspiring people in Fabian's circle. He informed me that Tony's experience, in both work and life, would be perfectly aligned with this month's theme of Generosity. Given that Tony takes an active part in his own firm, serves on the boards of several other prominent companies, blogs for the Harvard Business Review and has been named one of the World Economic Forum's Global Leaders for Tomorrow, taking the time to discuss what generosity means to him only goes to show that he's putting this concept into active practice.
When asked how he aims to give of himself and employ generosity in his day to day life, Tony first explained what he believes is the meaning of true generosity: "First and foremost, it has to do with the ability to have compassion and empathy for others. It is an active form of having the capacity for empathy." He expressed that it is choosing selflessness, a process that typically has to happen over time, and that in choosing to care less for ourselves and more for others, we are allowing for the possibility for true empathy. "To see yourself," Tony said, "completely through the spirit, feelings, eyes, body, soul of another person. Empathy is the groundwork. With empathy, you are given the opportunity for generosity."
Still, Tony was clear that he doesn't believe we should only act on our sympathies. While that may factor in to our decisions to do good, he emphasized the many opportunities we have to do small acts of kindness whenever possible. "I think there's a daily spirit of generosity that you can have which is just understanding that so much of life is about having some level of care for others. That can be as simple as trying to make one person smile each day."
"With empathy, you are given the opportunity for generosity."
So how do we get there? When asked what helped contribute to his sense of empathy and, in turn, giving spirit, Tony was humbly quick to assure that he didn't believe himself to be the best example of a generous person. "I think there are several people out there who could give much better answers. I think there's many times that I lack humility and have self-interest. There are many people who have done far more." Tony also immediately credited his upbringing and hometown in Newfoundland to have contributed to the person he has become today. "I think it's impossible to disassociate experience, history and upbringing. I think contextual circumstances matter." When describing the people of his hometown as the fitting idiom "salt of the earth", he further explained that there was and is a very open sense of community there, of respect for the land and sea, consideration for others and sense of belonging: "There's less cynicism, less self-interest of just chasing reward." He acknowledged much of Newfoundland's local charm to its rich history and strong familial bonds. "I grew up in a place where you still went to a neighbor to borrow some eggs, to borrow some butter, to borrow some milk." I admit that Tony's description of his childhood made me a little wistful; I've lived in the same building for two years and don't even know the names of my neighbors. How far have we come from those close-knit circumstances to only end up, where? In a disconnected, disassociated false version of reality? Tony's memories of living among naturally generous people make it seem much easier, much more accessible, much more available to be open and well-meaning and kind. While he said that we can all glean influence from the Mandelas and Mother Teresas of the world, could there also be something to holding the door for a stranger, waving someone in during rush hour traffic, or just saying hello? Are these acts in and of themselves generous?
"That's the beauty of life and humanity, those moments."
Tony explained that he also believed that practicing empathy goes hand in hand with a strong sense of self-awareness. "So with that," Tony asked, "then there's the question: how do you become more self-aware?" Coming from his own journey, Tony credits embracing experience and believes in the power of journaling. He stated that writing down what you say then creates the opportunity for you to follow through, create a plan and take action: "The ultimate state of self-awareness is when you reach a state of self-congruence. Where you actually do as you say, and what you say is what you think, what you think is what you feel. And understanding what you feel is who you are."
"I've been very, very fortunate," Tony said, "to be around very good people." He recalled a very personal moment of struggle when his brother was diagnosed with cancer at the very young age of twenty-one. "I looked around and saw the outpouring and outreach of many people. Some knew me well, so knew me less well. And you tend to get a sense of people's character, of people's generosity, at these moments of truth." He even recounted a colleague who cared enough to pause a very intense negotiation to fly both Tony and himself out to visit with his brother and show him support and encouragement from both family and strangers. It was so amazing to hear Tony recall this very private moment of generosity from a man he barely knew: "I don't know him very well. I know him in a business context. But I think that example of a spirit of generosity has reminded me several times that we have to act in those moments where we can. That's the beauty of life and humanity, those moments."
"Ultimately," Tony said, "the only way we can be better in ourselves and make things something somewhat better in the world is through the care of others and taking action on that in some way, just as a way of living, as a mindset. And to really have that self-awareness, that empathy, is to have the spirit of generosity."
Tony Tjan is the CEO and Managing Partner of Cue Ball. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife, Laura, and their three children.