To honor LGBTQ+ Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, I’d like to share with you this excerpt from my new book, Live Each Day: A Surprisingly Simple Guide to Happiness.
In early 1992, my biggest goal was to get accepted into a top business school. But it was going to be very hard. I had good grades as an undergrad, but the University of Iowa was not considered an elite school. My work experience could be labelled as “adventuresome,” “bohemian,” or just plain “weird”: English teacher in Germany. Business journalist in Madrid. Struggling phone sales guy in the Bay Area. For me to have any chance at all of getting into a top MBA program, I had to play my hand as well as I could.
Zane, a friend of mine, told me that business school admissions offices looked favorably on people who had a record of community or volunteer work. Maybe this shows you’re a nice person. Or it’s a great way to develop your leadership skills. Or, perhaps, you even learn how to be around people less fortunate or privileged than you.
After considerable searching, I chose to volunteer Sundays on the hotline of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. The HIV/AIDS crisis was raging at the time and had decimated a horrifically large part of the gay community worldwide. Gay, straight — or any variation in between — millions of people had died from the disease. And millions more were going to.
Although I’m straight, I had some very close friends who were gay, and I was doing this out of solidarity with them. At least one, Gary, had already died of the disease.
I may have volunteered with very self-serving intentions, but I was soon caught up in the importance of the work. Because I spoke Spanish, I was trained in Spanish with the Latino volunteers. But when I showed up for my first shift on a Sunday morning, there were really no calls into the Spanish language hotline. Instead, I soon started taking the calls in English, which came in at a steady pace.
“How does a person get AIDS?”
“Where can I get tested for HIV?”
“I just had sex with someone last night. I’m not sure if what I did was risky or not. Can I ask you?”
“I’m a heroin addict. Can I get AIDS from sharing syringes?”
“How can I practice safe sex?”
“My boyfriend just died of AIDS. I feel like killing myself.”
This was a very different way to spend Sundays than watching pro football. Fortunately, the S.F. AIDS Foundation’s training was excellent. It helped me develop my skills in listening nonjudgmentally. I got quite used to talking with strangers about semen, blood, condoms, dental dams, penetration, death, hospitals, T-cell counts, Kaposi’s sarcoma … and love.
I was forced to be in the moment, trying to help callers in whatever way they needed. Meeting them wherever they were intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Some calls took 45 seconds. My longest call lasted 3 hours, as one heartbroken man recounted the romance, illness, and loss of his loved one. We were crying together.
But the hotline was not all tears, either. I quickly learned that if you gave yourself permission to cry, you could also give yourself permission to laugh.
And laugh we did. I met amazing people through my volunteer work on the 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Sunday shift: Richard, a retired high school teacher who was part of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 1960s. He was gay and had been fighting for equal rights his entire life. There was Ray, a middle-aged executive at Wells Fargo Bank. There was Sangeeta, a young India-born engineer who happened to be a lesbian. There was Russell, who was sweet and feminine, enjoying his life in the big city. There was our hotline shift leader, James, who died of AIDS during the course of my time at the hotline.
Oddly, I don’t really recall the specific reasons why any of them volunteered. We didn’t really talk about it. In a way, it was so obvious that lives were on the line and this work needed to be done. It’s sort of like asking, “Why are you pouring water on that burning building?”
When it came time to write my applications to Stanford and Northwestern, I was not shy about describing my experience at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. And yet, perhaps appropriately, my volunteer experience did make me a better leader: I did have a better understanding of people — especially those I would not have come into contact with otherwise. I did sense others’ suffering more acutely. And I learned that in some small way, I could make a positive difference in a community.
Northwestern did not accept my application to their business school. But Stanford did.
This is an excerpt from my new bestselling book, Live Each Day: A Surprisingly Simple Guide to Happiness.
- Wisdom@Work author Chip Conley calls it “an ambitious achievement.”
- Project Happiness founder Randy Taran says it’s “a wake-up call to living your life to the absolute fullest. This book shows you how.”
- And venture capitalist Heidi Roizen writes “Live Each Day is an action-provoking, life-changing vehicle.”