How A Life of Service Has Guided Me to True Happiness
*Adapted from my keynote speech to The National Honor Society
I take pride in being different. I take pride in standing out. I take pride in deviating from the norm. I take tremendous pride in allowing those whose days are normally overcast by gray clouds, to experience clear skies.
On September 20th, 2001, 9 days after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, I decided I wanted to set up a lemonade stand. I had just turned 7 years old, and at that age, I didn’t understand what was going on in the world, but it was obvious enough to tell that something was off, that people were off, and they needed help.
So, as any young entrepreneur would, I decided to set up a lemonade stand. But, I was never interested in starting the lemonade stand in order to make money for myself, that just never really appealed to me. Rather, my intention in starting the lemonade stand was twofold.
One, it was that so the people who stopped by, my family, my friends, my community members, could enjoy a cup of lemonade and put a smile on their faces, if only just for a moment.
Two, I wanted to start the lemonade stand because I wanted to give away all the money we made to the families affected by the 9/11 tragedy. My friends, our families, and I set up shop on the corner of Trescott and Straight Path right by Paumanok Elementary School in Dix Hills, New York, and we raised hundreds of dollars for 9/11 care and relief.
Service is IMPACT.
A few years later, I was a sixth grader at West Hollow Middle School. There was a student who had gone to elementary school with me. His name was Randy. Randy had learning and developmental disabilities, but you would never be able to tell from the smile that was always on Randy’s face.
Every day for lunch, my mom used to give me candy, honestly enough candy to feed my entire 12-person table. I used to get to my seat, take out my sandwich, and then do a dramatic pause as my friends eagerly awaited what kinds of treats they could snag. I would dump the bag out onto the table, and like a piñata had just been cracked open, all of the hands would go grabbing for the Hershey’s, Twix’s and Kit Kats that had hit the table.
On one particular day, I noticed there was a tootsie pop that had gone unclaimed. By the end of the period, still nobody had taken it, so being the guy at the table who never wanted to litter or leave any trash, I took the tootsie pop and headed to fifth period. On my way there, I saw a familiar smiling face galloping down the hallway. It was Randy.
Without hesitation, I gave Randy the tootsie pop, and I kid you not, it was like Happiness 2.0. I don’t even know how it was possible, but the smile on Randy’s face grew infinitely larger, he wrapped me up in his arms, and he thanked me dozens of times for giving him the tootsie pop.
The next day, I brought Randy another tootsie pop. And the next day. And the next day. And the next.
Every day for the rest of that year, every day until Randy left our school, I would bring Randy a tootsie pop, and he would react like it was the first lollipop he had ever seen. Like it was the greatest gift he had ever received.
I call these tootsie pop moments — moments that deliver so much joy to another person, they are truly on cloud nine.
Service is a tootsie pop moment.
Service is EUPHORIA.
Fast forward to my sophomore year at Northwestern University. It was the weekend of Dillo Day, the biggest party of the year where performers like Chance The Rapper and Charli XCX come to Evanston, Illinois and perform for students on the shores of Lake Michigan, right before we begin studying for final exams.
But, for me, I would not be celebrating that year. On the Friday before Dillo Day, my parents gave me a call and told me that my grandpa had succumbed to his long battle against Alzheimer’s. As I knew they would, my parents told me to stay at school, enjoy the party. They told me it’s what grandpa would have wanted. All I knew, was that it was not what I wanted.
I flew home the next day, and while giving a brief eulogy, I said that in some way, shape, or form, I was going to make a difference in the Alzheimer’s community, in honor of my grandpa’s legacy. This was a man who was patient. This was a man who was calm. This was a man who when he spoke, I made sure to listen.
Northwestern happens to have one of the best Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Centers in the world, so I worked with them to create an organization I called They Forget, We Remember, in order to provide support, education, volunteering efforts, and fundraising initiatives to promote awareness among Northwestern undergraduate students. In less than three months, we raised $43,000, reached tens of thousands of people, and everybody got a chance to hear about my wonderful grandpa David.
Service is LEGACY.
It had been a tremendously introspective weekend. I had just finished reading Mitch Albom’s The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, and an acquaintance had just passed away. I trekked to Alphabet City from Midtown to spend the day at a friend’s apartment, and after watching football, slow-roasting a pork shoulder, and talking nonsensical guy stuff on a Sunday evening, we began to speak about life. We began to speak about death. We began to speak about love.
I got in an Uber to head uptown, and I solemnly stared out the window at the East River. Normally, I am a positive, upbeat, and curious person, but after tonight’s discussion, I was eager to sit in the backseat, reflect, and let the thoughts simmer in my mind. However, my driver and I passed a dock with multiple boats, and the name of one boat jumped out at me. The boat was called Cloud Nine.
Without thinking of the state of silence I desired, I asked him the question,
“When have you felt like you were on Cloud Nine?”
He responded by talking about a childhood memory, his friends, his wife, his children, his grandchildren, his parents, his job, giving back to organizations in his home country who needed money more than he did.
He mentioned how some of these experiences may not have given him a Cloud Nine feeling had he made a different decision in the moment. It was clear to me after this discussion and after presenting this question to everyone I encountered for the next few days, that there were transformative life experiences, nine to be exact, we could all encounter to develop this Cloud Nine euphoria.
It was my mission to craft a story about a character who had the opportunity to live a Cloud Nine life but ultimately chose a different path. I created a narrative that juxtaposes these two separate lives, revealing just how critical each choice we make is to the person we ultimately become.
What I am doing with my life now is spreading the message of Cloud Nine. Through this book, through working with people 1–1, through telling stories, I am making it my mission to guide people to their cloud nine lives by discovering their true passions and purpose.
But, none of this would have happened had I not talked to my Uber driver. None of this would have happened had I not been genuinely interested in learning about him. None of this would have happened had I not been curious.
Service is CURIOSITY.
Curiosity. Euphoria. Impact. Legacy.
Continue asking questions.
Continue the pursuit to make other people happy.
Continue the efforts to be different and make a difference.
Continue adding value to others without expecting anything in return, and all will be remembered.
For more beautiful stories of love and happiness, head to https://www.journeytocloudnine.com/