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4 words from Robert Reich that changed my life

You could have heard a phone vibrate. But all I heard was my heart pounding against my chest. The blood pumping through my body felt so amplified it hurt. The auditorium was packed with over 700 students, and we were all stunned into silence. On the podium Robert Reich stood not even 5 feet tall, but at that moment, he was a giant.

I graduated from college just 3 months ago. My friends and I knew what the world was saying about us. We were bombarded day by day with news, either about how screwed or how inadequate we were. We’re graduating into the worst economy since the Great Depression, we’re entitled and uncommitted and we’re not ready for adulthood … we’re the “lost generation”. It felt like we’ve been written off by everyone.

I had two responses to this whole thing:

  1. Apathy. I wanted to run away. Everything good about life was on the path that led farthest away from the world as possible. Up until a year ago, my highest aspiration was to own a kick-ass burrito truck in Hawaii.
  2. Anger. What caused this mess? How did everything get so bad? Something is wrong. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Whose fault is it?

My questions weren’t nuanced or sophisticated but it did lead me to take “Wealth and Poverty”, a flagship class taught by Robert Reich in UC Berkeley. Robert Reich is a political economist who dedicated his career to the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. He served under three separate Presidential administrations, including Secretary of Labor under President Clinton.

With years of experience, Robert Reich had the clearest view of the causes and effects of issues relating to inequality. The picture he painted hurt. The economic collapse that resulted in the Great Recession was decades in the making. Technological advancement and globalization increased our options as consumers, but we lost our power and ideals as citizens along the way. We got better deals and bigger and shinier stuff but we lost steady jobs, political voice, communities, and we’re about to lose a functioning democracy.

Robert Reich had an amazing ability to look at the entire system and connect all the dots between interconnected issues, instead of blaming any one dot. This revealed a painful truth: we created the mess we’re in. All of us, together. Choices that were rational for the individual slowly built a broken society where the top 1% have 40% of the total wealth.

Clarity sucked. But it was also a blessing, because knowing that this jumbled mess was slowly built by people over time, gave me the confidence that we can fix it, too. Robert Reich showed us that it doesn’t have to be this way.

So by the time it was his last lecture there was a feeling of anticipation in the air. I wanted to know, “Now what?”

Reich recast it in a different question:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

He made this very clear: leaders are necessary for social change to happen. Leaders who can help people do the hard work of making positive change. Because it is going to be hard. This is a system that’s been built over more than three decades. We haven’t known any other way of doing things for a long, long time. To succeed, we have to help ourselves overcome our own denial, apathy, cynicism and tendency to find scapegoats.

Our generation is in the spotlight. Are we up to the challenge? A lot of people don’t think so. Like I said in the beginning, I only have to look at the newspaper to find mountains of data and statistics towering against recent graduates.

But Robert Reich carved something in my mind and my heart that day. It was the final moment … we were all waiting for Robert Reich to close out his final lecture. Everyone was holding their breath, like someone sucked the air out of the room.

He was talking about his life, and how he dedicated it to helping people by tackling the issues of widening inequality, shrinking middle class and corruption of our democracy. And in his mind, he failed. But he still has hope. He said,

“The reason I got out of public policy, the reason I started teaching this course is because…”

“I believe in you.”

Silence. Such simple words, yet nothing cut deeper in my life. All voices of doubt, apathy and anger faded away. Empty. This is what a paradigm shift must feel like.

Robert Reich viscerally experienced the enormity of the challenges we face today, but he never let it diminish the faith he had in all of us. Those four words, spoken with such conviction and filled with such hope, instilled something powerful in me.

It gave me the courage to stop running away from the world, and instead give it all I’ve got. It made me dig deeper into my human potential, and believe in the potential of my friends and everyone I shared this world with. It gave me the conviction to declare my radicalness.

I walked out of class that day and the horizon was infinitely bigger.

Our challenge is nothing less than to believe in a stronger world. We never asked for this, we were born into it. But the world believes in all of us too. We might not see it now, but somewhere deep down inside we all know there’s a better future, somewhere out there. We just have to awaken it.

We’re going to imagine what human prosperity really looks like – a society centered around love, grit, passion, deep understanding and meaningful connections – and then go build it.

I’m going to leave you with the final lecture slide that Robert Reich left us with that day:

 

Your One Wild and Precious Life …

[You fill in]

 

 

P.S. This post definitely doesn’t do Robert Reich’s course justice. To find out more about how the rise of capitalism and decline in democracy is affecting all of us, read his book and check out his tumblr.

Update: Get a first look at “Inequality for All“, a documentary featuring Robert Reich that covers the same issues that were discussed during the course. Releasing September 27 in theaters.

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