Doing Good Works

You’re on a ship, the weather turns stormy, and you see a fellow passenger fall overboard. Risking life and limb, you jump into the water, rescue the floundering soul, and get them back to safety. You are hailed as a hero – well done.

A philosopher teaching ethics would look at this scenario through two perspectives. A consequentialist lens would focus on the outcome, a saved life. Your action could be considered good. A deontological lens would focus on the rules and reasons for the action. Did you jump into the water for fame? For a reward? Or simple love of fellow humanity? Your motives would play a primary role in evaluating your aquatic adventure.

The distinctions are not just for the classroom. The question of how one makes a difference – especially if one has the privilege and the option of choice – is well worth asking as we lead our lives. If we ponder what constitutes a good life, there are an infinite number of paths and priorities. Make money? Make a mark? Opportunities abound for those fortunate enough to have health, education and support. What do we do and why do we do it? These are hard questions. A college education can help, but no one course or program lays claim to wisdom.Blue Sweater

Biographies and autobiographies can shed light on how others navigate the question. It isn’t necessarily why people write about themselves. However, if  you poke around a memoir, it is often possible to find questions of values and choice. The question of how to make a difference and how to be good is the key theme in Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater. Published in 2009, the book was a best-seller and is often found on college campuses today. It is a perennial choice for entering students’ first year reading.

Novogratz is an idealist. Certain that all humans are created equal, she has dedicated her life to making that a reality. Her goal after college was to make a positive mark on the world. As she looked for a job, her parents encouraged her to interview with a bank, even though she did not want to become a banker. Much to Novogratz surprise, she was hired by Chase Manhattan Bank. She worked with Chase for three years, traveling and learning as much about herself as the world. She decided to craft a career addressing global poverty. Novogratz made an impact working for a number of organizations, mostly in Africa. She was an early expert in structuring market tools to help people work their way out of poverty. Today she runs Acumen, a global venture fund that she founded. Acumen promotes entrepreneurial actions that help fight poverty.

The Blue Sweater chronicles Novogratz’s career, from private bank to consultant to global non-profit capitalist. She is candid about her strengths, her weaknesses, and the many mistakes that she made along the way. Mistakes are at the heart of the story. It is very much about a good person learning just how hard it is do good works. Extraordinarily difficult, in fact. Sometimes she is challenged connecting with the people she works with, sometimes it is the culture, and sometimes it is scope of the problem. She worked in Rwanda, for example, before the genocide, and luckily was out of the country when it took place. She returned and looked for old friends and colleagues. Novogratz knew that there were issues and problems, but she never considered that it could be turned into mass violence. One of the book’s great strengths is her honesty in recounting how she learns, tries, and often falls short. However, her overall history is one of tremendous success. Novogratz wants us to know that helping people learn how to help themselves is no easy task.

Novogratz is not drawn to abstract questions or emotions. Her line of inquiry is much more focused on what can be done, how it can be done, and what are the outcomes. Being good is not enough. While The Blue Sweater may be a little light on traditional drama, it is rich in examples and questions. It offers a compelling model for how another fashioned a good life by doing good works.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. Or maybe you were just tired of playing shuffleboard and thought it might be a diversion to jump into the water during a storm. Does it matter?

    Anyway I got a different interpretation of what Jacqueline was saying from this review: “The Blue Sweater is the inspiring story of a woman who left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it. It all started back home in Virginia, with the blue sweater, a gift that quickly became her prized possession―until the day she outgrew it and gave it away to Goodwill. Eleven years later in Africa, she spotted a young boy wearing that very sweater, with her name still on the tag inside. That the sweater had made its trek all the way to Rwanda was ample evidence, she thought, of how we are all connected, how our actions―and inaction―touch people every day across the globe, people we may never know or meet.”

    I get the impression of a person who wants to connect dots and looks for patterns where there might not be any.

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