March 5, 2013

Be grateful

In 2004, a stranger gave me $45,000. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t even ask for it. How did that happen?

Well, a few years before I had set a big, hairy, audacious goal of going to Harvard. Neither of my parents had gone to college, so the idea that a high school junior with a B average and no significant extracurriculars would get into Harvard seemed unrealistic at best.

With a lot of hard work and creative thinking, I finally got my acceptance letter. When I arrived in Cambridge, MA, I was so excited to be there and I got involved in everything. I became student council president, created and edited a popular school paper, hosted talent shows, became the official tour guide and was elected class marshall. However, I was also building up a mountain of debt.

Then, one day in the late spring of 2004, I walked down to my student mailbox and pulled out an envelope.

The letter began, “Dear Chris, I hope you do not think it presumptuous on my part, however I wanted to let you know that I have taken the liberty of providing for assistance toward your tuition and certain other living expenses.” When I brought the letter up to the Dean’s office I was told that an anonymous donor had just given me $45,000.

I was floored. Never in my life have I felt that emotion. It was a mixture of pride, fear, and embarrassment. Did they have the right person? How could I live up to these expectations? It was the best lesson in humility I’ve ever received. I’ve been given so much in my life and in that moment I realized that I owed the world to do something with it. I know it’s cliché to say, but a week doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my angel investor.

The novelist Thornton Wilder said it best, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

I urge you to think about all the people in your life who had made investments in you. Of time, money, love or just support. Be grateful for what you’ve been given and remember that the world needs your talents and passions.


Dr. Chris Cowan, MDiv is obsessed with creating elegant organizations. He’s currently in Washington, DC helping the government change the way it develops leaders; creating new integrative models of human transformation; and working a tribe of monks, executives, and plumbers on his beloved blog, Act.Learn.Lead.
Chris is also a meditator, weight-lifter, coffee-drinker, and amateur race car driver.