Compassion, Empathy, Entitlement, and Reward.

I’m writing this post from 30,000 feet in the air, sitting here with all of the comforts in the world, while just a fabric curtain and one row back there are three men all larger  than me, one almost twice my size squeezed into a single row with their shoulders touching and their legs scrambling for a bit of room.  At least they’re in the front row, which usually has a bit more legroom but with the sacrifice of not being able to put your toes under the seat in front of you. 

My biggest problem right now is that the seat in front of me is so far away that I had to unbuckle my seat belt, and lean way over in order to reach the magazine in front of me. As I type this, I just noticed there’s a massage button on my console and am now getting my back electronically kneaded while I type. 

How in the world is this article about compassion you may be wondering? Keep reading to find out if I'm just an asshole or if i'm onto something. 

Just an hour ago as I'm writing this, I was limping my way through the airport with my left foot in a cast. For the past week I’ve been constantly reminded how fortunate we are to have our health, to be able to move around freely, think and speak with ease. I’ve also noticed how nice it is when others notice you are struggling and offer you a helping hand. But even more than that, I realized that in all situations above, we have a choice.

We can choose to be angry and ask “Why me” when we get injured or are dealt unfavorable hands in life. 

We can choose to help others and be compassionate and make the world a slightly better place or to ignore them.

We can also just give in when things get too overwhelming or tough and just hope we get other’s sympathy and feel entitled to it.

We can also redirect our anger and unhappiness at other people who have nothing to do with our situations at work or at home.

Empathy vs. Entitlement:

On my next flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, I was posed with the question again, would like you assistance to your gate. 

Being in a cast, the check in counter automatically asked if I wanted a wheelchair and no one would have looked down on me for taking it. But even though I knew it would be easier for me to take advantage of the free service I knew that I didn't really need it. I had saw that they had moving escalators inside the airport and that I had three hours to get to the gate so I wasn't in any time rush. So even though I knew by being assisted I could skip to the front of the lines in security, and be wheeled around instead of walking, I chose to say no and do it myself. 

At that moment I knew that was a choice, and many people would feel entitled to get the special service and entitled to the extra treatment. Sometimes people are angry at life, other times people just get lazy. I thought about the situation and at first thought, maybe the airport should charge for the service, even if it was only a small amount. It made logical sense because the service isn't really free, they are paying extra staff, buying equipment and adding it to ticket costs, and by charging even $5-$10 it would discourage people who didn't really need a wheelchair to pass it up.

However, then compassion comes into play and I'm reminded that some people who really are in bad situations and absolutely need the assistance don't have the extra income to pay. 

On the flip side, even being in a cast for 1 week, I started feeling entitled to certain things, started feeling bad for myself, and started getting really lazy, not just because it hurt to walk, but it just took ten times the effort it would take normally. I can see how easy it would be for someone to get comfortable, lazy and obese. 

It was difficult for me to get in and out of the bathtub to wash myself, but not knowing if I was going to be in a cast for 2 weeks or 6 months, I didn't want my muscles to atrophy so I did one legged squats with my other foot to build up strength, and push ups every night. I made sure to only do them before bed as during the day I would need my strength to get around, pull myself up, and not fall. But 10 minutes before bed, I would do whatever I could to build my strength and stay in shape so I could live without assistance. I also changed my diet to be less inflammatory and cut out all carbs, sugar and alcohol. I knew sitting around eating pizza and drinking beer would make me feel better about myself psychologically but having less body weight would put less pressure on my leg, and eating healthy would help my body heal faster. 

Larissa thought I was crazy seeing me doing one legged squats and told me that she was happy to help me get around for as long as I needed her, but I wanted to be able to help myself, and I think this is the mindset that makes me an Entrepreneur. I think when it comes down to it, it comes down to personal responsibility. We should be compassionate to all people as we never know what mountains they are climbing in their personal lives, but at the same time, they themselves are in control of how they respond to their situation. It's all a choice. 

Beggars and Homelessness: 

In South Africa and in my hometown of San Francisco there are a lot of beggars on the street. A big part of me wants to show compassion for them and buy them some food, give them some money or otherwise help. But the logical side of me also knows that when we give to beggars on the street, in the big picture, it makes things worse for them in the long run as well as adds to the homeless problem in the city, which in turn causes an entire host of problems including safety issues.  The only things giving to beggars accomplishes is making you, the giver feel good about yourself for doing something nice. The long term downsides outweigh the short term effects of whatever you gave them. 

To the beggar, if nothing else you give them a reason to come try their luck again the next day. There's also the argument that you may also be supporting the beggar's drug or alcohol habit. As hard as it is to just look away from other people’s suffering, I remind myself that when I give, it should be to a cause that helps prevents these problems in the first place or at least helps people get out of situations if they really want to leave.

Whenever I see mother's with children, or men with dogs, my heart crushes and I want to help. But by giving, you are making the child or animal an asset. This blog post isn't about homelessness and if if should give or not, but here's an article on Huff Post if you want to know more. 

What's the Difference between Compassion and Empathy?

This is a subject I had a lot of time on the plane to think about. What's the difference between Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion and when is each one important?

I had to look up the definitions, but here they are. 

Sympathy –

feeling sorry for another person's pain

Sympathy is feeling sorry for another’s hurtful situation or pain. There is some emotional distance with sympathy  you're not experiencing the pain for yourself but saying or thinking “Isn’t it sad that this person is having a bad time”

Empathy – 

walking in another person's shoes

Empathy takes things a little deeper as it is the ability to experience for yourself some of the pain or hurt that the other person is experiencing. It is an acknowledgement of our shared experience as humans and recognition that we all feel grief and loss and pain and fear. Even if you haven't experienced exactly the same trauma as the person who is suffering you can still imagine how they must be feeling in their situation. 

Compassion – 

putting love in action

Compassion is to translating those feelings of empathy into action and doing something about it, even if it's just doing something to make them feel better. 

Taking Action:

Thinking we're better than the homeless guy we see on the street or showing them pity are both bad, as we never know if that could have been us with another roll of the dice in life.

When it comes down to it we had the very same chance of being born where and when we were, as growing up as a poor kid in the Congo. 

However I also know that 100% of homeless people either have a deeper underlying issue such as drug or alcohol addiction that needs to be addressed, or they have made a series of choices that have put them in the situation they are in today. The reason why I know I would never be homeless is because if I was ever in a situation where I lost my job, couldn't pay rent, etc, I would have enough positive relationships with friends, family, coworkers, etc that I would have a place to stay for a month or two while I worked my ass off to get back on my feet.

I would cook and clean, make sure I wasn't a nuisance, and show gratitude every single day. I would wake up at 6am and leave the house before anyone woke up, then spend my day at the public library, not bother my hosts. I would give whatever little money I earned towards helping my hosts with their bills or I would offer to buy groceries. 

Even if I didn't know a single person, I would go to the local church and ask if I could clean toilets in exchange for a place to sleep and a mailing address. 

The fact is, homeless people on the street aren't willing to do any of the above, or at least weren't willing until it was too late and they've burned all of their bridges. This is why I have no sympathy for beggars. 

Showing sympathy doesn't help anyone and only makes you feel bad. Misdirected compassion doesn't help the situation either. 

That being said one of my goals for 2016 is to be more compassionate towards people and their situations, as we really have no idea what's going on in people's lives, even if they seem happy and well put together from the outside.

I'm also going to remind myself to donate to charities that fix root causes of problems and not just ones that patch up problems after the fact as I don't just want to look the other way. I want people to have a place to go, if things start spiraling out of control.  

The reason why I donate to classrooms, after school programs, and mental health programs, is because we can prevent 100 people from becoming homeless in the first place, instead of feeding 10 people who are already in a bad situation. Obviously this is a very personal matter, and doesn't really have anything to do with travel, being a digital nomad, or business, but I wanted to share this as it was heavy on my heart. 

Personally I donate to DonorsChoose to support local classrooms, as well as Charity: Water because it's such a basic human need, but would love to hear what other high impact charities you know of. 

Regardless of where you donate, just make sure you check them out on GuideStar or another site like Charity Navigator to make sure the money you are giving is going to a good cause and not just going towards giving sweets and Bibles to African kids who really need mosquito nets, clean water and a way to improve their situation. 

I hope that it opens up a reminder that no matter how bad we have it sometimes, there are people out there that have it much worse, and we're lucky to be in the situations we are. The harder I work, the more money I make, the more I can give back. That's just another reason why I continue to do what I do, and I hope it inspires some others to do the same.

P.S. I wrote this article on the plane a few days ago and have since then been fortunate enough to have my cast taken off since then.

I am really fortunate that it was just a small muscle tear in my calf and it wasn't a complete rupture. Big thanks to everyone who has been supportive in my recovery. Keep an eye out for a blog post about the importance of functional exercise soon. Or check out this PDF or this book.

Warm Regards,


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Post a Comment

  1. Interesting post.

    I've given to beggars a few times in the past week and this post has got me thinking about why I did it.

    My thinking at the time was "their life looks pretty crappy, here's a quid, go and buy a sandwich" but maybe it was just to make myself feel better and I was just encouraging them to keep on begging?

    I think mental illness plays a big part in how people end up where they are. Mental illness can be a slow burn that sees people get distanced from their family and the people they know until they end up on the streets, unable to seek help for their mental illness and get back on track. By that point, its hard to turn to friends and ask for a place to stay while they go and work at the public library during the day. Maybe they never even learned to read at school?

    I know people often don't wake up one day and find themselves homeless or obese or in some other bad situation and that they made a quite a few bad decisions along the way, but I think maybe you are being a little bit harsh in some of your points ;-)

    Hope the leg is getting better!


  2. Hey Joe,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. I think the goal of this article was just to start us all thinking, as it's something we normally just pass without a second thought. You're probably right, I might be a bit too harsh as things can get out of control quickly for people without them realizing.

    But I'm also a big believer in helping causes that give people real help if they want it. And i'm a big believer in people taking personal responsibility.

  3. Johnny,

    This is a great post. It is clear, to the point, and honest.

    While living in Vancouver Boom and I really struggled, we didn't have a social network of friends to fall back on as we were new to town, and in Boom's case, new to Canada. I was a full-time university student who worked part time, and was raising my daughter. Boom was learning English while working full time in a variety of manual labour jobs. It was hard, but we didn't give up. Now Boom is fluent in English and has a great resume. I graduated with good grades and minimal student debt from the University of British Columbia, and our daughter is a happy, healthy, well adjusted 5 year old. During this time it was very frustrating for me to see all of the people on the streets, especially in a city like Vancouver that has so much money, and a lot of social programs.

    With that being said, I acknowledge the fact that I had a decent education growing up and a stable family life. Even though my family didn't have a lot money growing up, dinner was on the table every night at 5pm and my dad had stable employment with benefits so we lived fairly stress free. This stability was a huge foundation for my adult life.

    Boom and I run our gym with the same mentality. We don't give to the kids, but instead provide a safe environment for them that facilitates empowerment, employment, self control, and discipline. The kids are not forced to come and train, and are definitely not forced to fight. It remains their choice. We try our best to give them all equal opportunity, but sadly some are just better than others and will make more money fighting. For those that don't make the cut, we have work programs at the gym so the kids can make a little extra spending money. What is most important for us over, isn't the kids making money but teaching and practicing life skills that they can carry on into adulthood. Most of the kids at our gym do not have stable homes, parents gone working, aging grandparents doing the bare minimum, and the constant stress of not having enough food at the gym. So, in short, we provide stability.

    I think donating to charities like the ones you have listed are a good step as they are preventative. This is something I would like to see more of in Western society; school systems, after school programs, and even health care that specifically focus on preventative measures to keep kids safe and healthy.

    And I would also like to encourage people to make a difference by doing volunteer work. If you can't spare the cash, like many off us, there is always a few hours a week that you can spare to really make a difference.

    I really enjoyed reading this! You work really hard, thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    1. Hey Frances thanks so so much for sharing your story. I'm so glad that you and Boom pushed through, never gave up and are now helping poor Thai kids by giving them a place to go and opportunity. But you hit it on the head, the most valuable thing we can give a child in need is stability.

      I just signed up as a monthly donor to your gym. I think what ya'll are doing there is such a gift.

      Thanks for making a huge difference in this world.

  4. Hey Johnny,

    I agree with a lot of what you explored, however I think it's crucial to avoid being reductionist when it comes to homeless people. It's great that if you were ever to end up in a dire position you would have the the work ethic and determination to get yourself out of that position. But you really need to think deeper into the underlying reasons why you have these personality traits and other homeless may not.

    What are the reasons why some homeless people aren't willing to do the things you mentioned?

    I assume for the most part you've constantly been supported and loved throughout your upbringing, and most importantly been educated with the value of hard work. Excuse my bluntness, but imagine that you grew up in a broken home with drug addicted parents, were abused physically and psychologically throughout your whole childhood, were never shown love or the value of education and hard work. You certainly wouldn't have the same mindset as you do now, and you would be predisposed to not hard working ideology that would be able to get you out of an impoverished situation.

    I, like yourself, am confident that I would be able to work myself out of homelessness, but I'm fully aware that it would be largely due to the love, education, and support that I've been fortunate enough to have throughout my life.

    This isn't to say that you should show more gratitude for your situation because I know that you're grateful, it's just to say that it's very easy to label homeless people as 'lazy' and not willing to work, and therefore you shouldn't have sympathy. More often than not, such people have been subjected to neglect and abuse, and personally as a human I feel one should be sympathetic to anyone that has unfairly been mistreated and marginalised.

    1. Hey Fred, thanks so much for the well thought out response. You're absolutely right about our upbringing and childhood having a huge impact.

      I think what you just said reminds us how important it is to have either programs, services, schools, or education to help children grow up in safe, supportive situations so we can prevent them from becoming homeless and being in terrible situations when they are adults.

      I understand the need to have compassion for others as we never know what hurdles they had to climb in life or how fucked up their past has been, but I don't' think feeling bad or having sympathy solves the problem. Maybe it's me being too logical and not humane enough but I'd really like to focus my emotion and energy on how to help either get people out of bad situations, or more importantly to me, how to help prevent people from getting in those situations in the first place.

  5. Johnny, Fred is right. Don't be too judgemental about the poor or less priviledged, As entrepreneurs, we tend to have this can-do it attitude which makes us masters of our destiny but we forget that there were preconditions for that:love, encouragement, education and an environment that unlocked our human potential. If you have those gifts and advantages, it costs nothing to be compassionate. Sometimes i am a bit detached from the condition of the poorest, but never judgemental.

    1. Hey really good point, and I'm also trying to be less attached and not judgemental. I still don't think being sympathetic helps anyone including the less fortunate. So if you or anyone reading this knows of any programs, charities or organizations that help give people, especially young people the tools such as love, encouragement, education, and environment I'd love to support that instead of just accepting and understanding the poor and less privileged.

      I'd love to volunteer at something like the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America program and actually make a difference instead of just feeling bad for others.


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