Be More Mensch

6 min read

Aspire to be a mensch. Be afraid to die until you've won at least a few small victories for humanity.

I was surprised when I migrated my blog and was looking over posts I'd written over the years to find I'd never actually written about one of my core goal principles every year: be more mensch.

Guy Kawasaki's 2006 post How to be a Mensch articulated something I'd always felt but never translated well into words. It ended up informing a lot of my thinking about the type of person I wanted to be and legacy I want to leave, both in my life and in the lives and places I touch.

A mensch is Yiddish (slang in the sense it's used here) for a stand-up person. Someone with character, dignity, a sense of what is right and responsible, as well as the agency to act on those things. We can all be mensches (yes, ladies, even you). We should all strive to be.

The tenets are pretty simple:

  1. Help people who cannot help you.
    A mensch helps people who cannot ever return the favor. He doesn’t care if the recipient is rich, famous, or powerful. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help rich, famous, or powerful people (indeed, they may need the most help), but you shouldn’t help only rich, famous, and powerful people.

  2. Help without the expectation of return.
    A mensch helps people without the expectation of return–at least in this life. What’s the payoff? Not that there has to be a payoff, but the payoff is the pure satisfaction of helping others. Nothing more, nothing less.

  3. Help many people.
    Menschdom is a numbers game: you should help many people, so you don’t hide your generosity under a bushel. (Of course, not even a mensch can help everyone. To try to do so would mean failing to help anyone.)

  4. Do the right thing the right way.
    A mensch always does the right thing the right way. She would never cop an attitude like, “We’re not as bad as Enron.” There is a bright, clear line between right and wrong, and a mensch never crosses that line.

  5. Pay back society.
    A mensch realizes that he’s blessed. For example, entrepreneurs are blessed with vision and passion plus the ability to recruit, raise money, and change the world. These blessings come with the obligation to pay back society. The baseline is that we owe something to society–we’re not a doing a favor by paying back society.

Why? Because the night is dark and full or terrors? Because basic human decency kind of demands that if you can, you should? Sure, there's a lot of reasons but ultimately, I found the idea of menschdom a much more compelling reason for doing things than simply a self-interested profit motive. And, for some reason, I found this particular post a more active and engaging description than general admonitions to "do good" or for altruism altruism (and wildly more ambitious than simple "do no harm" advice.). It sets a higher bar than success models popularized by profit and narcissism. Boring, shallow, superficial models of success (imho). Be something more if you can. And yes, I do realise not everyone in life has these options, which is all the more reason for those who do to do so.

Fundamentally though, it allowed me to balance and reconcile activity and altruism in a more direct, personal, impactful way at a time when I was trying to be a better person through grand gestures that I'm not entirely sure were as effective or enduring as I'd like to think (though I am very proud of some of the things I did during that time.). As Kawasaki mentions in the post, you can't buy (or, I'd argue, sacrifice) your way into heaven in his scenario; you get there on points. It resonated. It's made me focus a lot more on the longer term and what I'm building both for myself and people whose lives I touch.

The key takeaway here is I think there are a numerous ways people can be more of a mensch in their daily lives. You don't have to be a billionaire making grand gestures of crafting immortality or putting us on Mars. Menschdom has many paths. Be an amazing aunt or uncle, do volunteer work, be a fantastic boss who genuinely gives a crap about your peoples' lives, be an open source contributor, start your own personal genius grants, help your friends and random strangers in need, and just generally try to be a more decent human being that's polite and gracious to everyone whose lives you intersect. All these, for me... exhibit menschosity.

I think people are innately wired to do things for people. Reciprocity is virtually a genetic prerogative. Much like good food is yummy, and exercise makes you feel awesome, active, personal altruism satisfies at a deep, primordial level.

And signing up for those group charity things at work are necessary, but not sufficient. It's a start, sure. Bravo. But, menschdom is about agency and being an active force, creating opportunities and awesomeness rather than waiting for them to happen to you. I guarantee you there are things around you and in your personal network waiting to have a little bit of force exerted on them that will make all the difference in lives.

(And I guarantee you, there will be times you may even feel unappreciated, even taken advantage of, even if you do do things without expectation of reciprocity or thanks. But, the fundamental precept here is that is not about you, that is about the other person. You're being a mensch. You just need to shake it off, and move onto the next mensch-like thing to do.)

As an operating philosophy I'm also advocating that not only does being mensch do better things for the world, but it'll make you feel better about yourself and what you do with your time. Plant trees under whose shade you possibly can't sit.

Be something more if you can. Be a mensch.