Did you ever ask yourself the question, “How did I end up here?”

This was the topic for my recent TEDx talk, which is transcribed below. Whether you watch or read it, the important exercise is to reflect on this simple question. Your own answers could be the keys to unlocking a life filled with more gratitude and compassion.

Recently, I asked my seven-year-old daughter “How do you think Daddy ended up here in his life with three beautiful daughters, a loving wife, all living in a great town with nice things.” She waxed poetically and said, “I don’t know Daddy, aren’t you just supposed to be tucking to me in right now?”

While that’s funny, this is a question that I’ve taken quite seriously throughout my life.

You see when you start out in life at the bottom rung of the ladder and you now find yourself near the top you ask yourself “How did I end up here?”

Or when no one in your family ever went to college and now you teach at one you ask yourself “How did I end up here?”

Or when you were a child who used to hide under your bed for fear of who might be come into your room and now you confidently share your life story you ask yourself, “How did I end up here?”

In many ways I think this could be the most important question we could ask ourselves both personally and as a society.

The simple answer we often give is two familiar words…hard work.

My mom was a bartender in a poor Boston town and she worked hard to give us a better life.

I worked hard in school and got into college and worked hard there and got a job in New York and worked hard there and then started my own company — where I worked hard. The next thing you know here I am living the American dream in a lovely town with three beautiful children, a loving wife and nice things. It’s the classic Horatio Alger, pull yourself up from your bootstraps, Americans dream narrative.

But if that’s the case then, then why have I over the course of my life felt so angry and so guilty?

Angry because I would look at other people who seem to have had it so much easier and guilty because I knew too many people who were left behind. People in towns where I lived who didn’t have the same kind of outcomes, I’ve had.

So this question nagged at me. Because I understood that hard work could not be the sole answer. Yes I did work hard and hard work can make the American dream possible but it doesn’t always make it probable. Because I know that I did not work any harder than my mom who worked late shifts as a bartender. I didn’t work any harder than my brother who worked 30 years on the factory line of Harley Davidson. I didn’t work any harder than my sister who drives 18-wheelers across the country despite the fact that she has lupus which brings her great pain.

I didn’t work any harder than friends who have had tough lives and fewer opportunities. Some ended up in jail, others dead.

So what is the answer beyond hard work?

I’ve been studying this question for the last several years. I’ve been fortunate to go around the country and hear from thousands of Americans about their dreams and challenges. I’ve studied the science about what contributes to social mobility and perhaps most importantly, the psychology about how we think about it.

Three pieces of research stand out.

  1. There are the facts of our lives and the stories we remember about our lives. And the remembered self trumps the lived self.
  2. There are the headwinds in our lives that hold us back and the tailwinds that push us forward. We remember the headwinds more.
  3. There is our individual effort and other external factors that play a role in our lives. We fundamentally believe that hard work is more important and can help us overcome anything.

When I thought about this research in the context of my own life, I began to construct a more complete version of my story. One that was truer to the facts of my life. One that recognized the many tailwinds pushing me forward. One that acknowledged the places, programs, events and people beyond my own work that helped explain more fully how I ended up here.

So in that vein, here in my TEDx talk I broke the fundamental rule of PowerPoint slide that says no more than six words on a slide. This slide is probably closer to six hundred words. But while rules for simplicity may work for slides, that same principle shouldn’t apply to how we see our lives.

Because the reality is if you take any one of these names or places out I’m not here today.

If it weren’t for John MacKinnon, the MacKinnon Clan doesn’t come from Scotland through Nova Scotia to Boston, I’m not here.

If my mom, Daytona, doesn’t act as a buffer to protect me from some of the awfulness that was in our surroundings I’m not here.

If my childhood nickname, the Little Professor, didn’t set the expectation the college was possible, I’m not here.

If Joan Ganz Cooney doesn’t start Sesame Street then I’m starting kindergarten behind and I’m not here.

If teachers, like Jack Downs, don’t take me under their wing, I’m not here.

Of course, as you may have noticed, I am white male — which we know comes with certain advantages. If I were another gender or race, am I still here?

If Claiborne Pell doesn’t legislate Pell Grants, I can’t afford to go to college and I’m not here.

If two Iraqi brothers in England don’t start an advertising agency, I don’t get my first job and I don’t meet my wife.

So not only am I not here, but neither are my three little girls.

Each word on this slide and probably hundreds more is an integral part of my story. Take away one, you take away all.

The simple act of writing this down was profound, but you may be asking yourself, “so what?”

Personally the anger and the guilt I mentioned earlier — They’re gone and have been replaced with gratitude and compassion and most importantly a desire to be a name on someone else’s page.

Professionally. I’ve seen the power of of reflection in providing opportunities for others.

I’ve seen that when a CEO reflects on their own work experience, she increases the wages for her employees. Or when a correction officer reflects on his own experience in foster care he goes from abusing the prisoners that are in his care to protecting them. Or when a politician reflects on his own shame growing up poor, he goes on to drive legislation that starts the war on poverty.

The reality is that when you see your life’s journey in a more complete way, you never see the journey’s of others in the same way either.

Now compare this to where we are today debates about inequality, grit, privilege, empathy

These are all important ideas worthy of discussion. But they are too often divisive and externally focused. Take empathy, which is often defined as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

What if instead, we challenged each other to put ourselves in our own shoes first?

I know this is a little strange but I actually want you to stop reading right now and look at your own shoes. Look closely, and think of all of the steps you’ve ever taken.

I want you to imagine who was there when you took your first steps.

I want you to think about when you stumbled — who picked you up?

Who made your steps to your graduation, first job, meeting that someone special, possible?

It may seem like in some of these cases you walked alone, but think harder.

The purpose of my TEDx talk was to simply share my story in the hopes that it might a prompt for each of us to consider the question “How did I end up here?”

If you do, you will never see your life or the lives of people around you the same again.

Imagine the prompt is there blinking, just waiting for you to fill it in.