There we were, souls and bodies packed into a Texas church on the last night of our lives. Packed into a room just like this, but with creaky wooden pews draped in worn-down red fabric, with an organ to my left and a choir at my back and a baptism pool built into the wall behind them. A room like this, nonetheless. With the same great feelings of suspense, the same deep hopes for salvation, the same sweat in the palms and the same people in the back not paying attention.
This was December 31, 1999, the night of the Second Coming of Christ, and the end of the world as I knew it. I had turned 12 that year and had reached the age of accountability. And once I stopped complaining about how unfair it was that Jesus would return as soon as I had to be accountable for all that I had done, I figured I had better get my house in order very quickly.
So I went to church as often as I could. I listened for silence as anxiously as one might listen for noise, trying to be sure that the Lord hadn't pulled a fast one on me and decided to come back early.
And just in case he did, I built a backup plan, by reading the "Left Behind" books that were all the rage at the time. And I found in their pages that if I was not taken in the rapture at midnight, I had another shot. All I had to do was avoid taking the mark of the beast, fight off demons, plagues and the Antichrist himself. It would be hard —
but I knew I could do it.
But planning time was over now. It was 11:50pm. We had 10 minutes left, and my pastor called us out of the pews and down to the altar because he wanted to be praying when midnight struck. So every faction of the congregation took its place. The choir stayed in the choir stand, the deacons and their wives — or the Baptist Bourgeoisie as I like to call them —
took first position in front of the altar. You see, in America, even the Second Coming of Christ has a VIP section.
And right behind the Baptist Bourgeoisie were the elderly — these men and women whose young backs had been bent under hot suns in the cotton fields of East Texas, and whose skin seemed to be burnt a creaseless noble brown, just like the clay of East Texas, and whose hopes and dreams for what life might become outside of East Texas had sometimes been bent and broken even further than their backs.
Yes, these men and women were the stars of the show for me. They had waited their whole lives for this moment, just as their medieval predecessors had longed for the end of the world, and just as my grandmother waited for the Oprah Winfrey Show to come on Channel 8 every day at 4 o'clock. And as she made her way to the altar, I snuck right in behind her, because I knew for sure that my grandmother was going to heaven. And I thought that if I held on to her hand during this prayer, I might go right on with her.
So I held on and I closed my eyes to listen, to wait. And the prayers got louder. And the shouts of response to the call of the prayer went up higher even still. And the organ rolled on in to add the dirge. And the heat came on to add to the sweat. And my hand gripped firmer, so I wouldn't be the one left in the field. My eyes clenched tighter so I wouldn't see the wheat being separated from the chaff. And then a voice rang out above us: "Amen."
It was over. I looked at the clock. It was after midnight. I looked at the elder believers whose savior had not come, who were too proud to show any signs of disappointment, who had believed too much and for too long to start doubting now. But I was upset on their behalf. They had been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, and I had gone right along with them. I had prayed their prayers, I had yielded not to temptation as best I could. I had dipped my head not once, but twice in that snot-inducing baptism pool. I had believed. Now what?
I got home just in time to turn on the television and watch Peter Jennings announce the new millennium as it rolled in around the world. It struck me that it would have been strange anyway, for Jesus to come back again and again based on the different time zones.
And this made me feel even more ridiculous — hurt, really. But there on that night, I did not stop believing. I just believed a new thing: that it was possible not to believe. It was possible the answers I had were wrong, that the questions themselves were wrong. And now, where there was once a mountain of certitude, there was, running right down to its foundation, a spring of doubt, a spring that promised rivers.
I can trace the whole drama of my life back to that night in that church when my savior did not come for me; when the thing I believed most certainly turned out to be, if not a lie, then not quite the truth. And even though most of you prepared for Y2K in a very different way, I'm convinced that you are here because some part of you has done the same thing that I have done since the dawn of this new century, since my mother left and my father stayed away and my Lord refused to come. And I held out my hand, reaching for something to believe in.
I held on when I arrived at Yale at 18, with the faith that my journey from Oak Cliff, Texas was a chance to leave behind all the challenges I had known, the broken dreams and broken bodies I had seen. But when I found myself back home one winter break, with my face planted in the floor, my hands tied behind my back and a burglar's gun pressed to my head, I knew that even the best education couldn't save me.
I held on when I showed up at Lehman Brothers as an intern in 2008.
So hopeful —
that I called home to inform my family that we'd never be poor again.
But as I witnessed this temple of finance come crashing down before my eyes, I knew that even the best job couldn't save me.
I held on when I showed up in Washington DC as a young staffer, who had heard a voice call out from Illinois, saying, "It's been a long time coming, but in this election, change has come to America." But as the Congress ground to a halt and the country ripped at the seams and hope and change began to feel like a cruel joke, I knew that even the political second coming could not save me.
I had knelt faithfully at the altar of the American Dream, praying to the gods of my time of success, and money, and power. But over and over again, midnight struck, and I opened my eyes to see that all of these gods were dead.
And from that graveyard, I began the search once more, not because I was brave, but because I knew that I would either believe or I would die.
So I took a pilgrimage to yet another mecca, Harvard Business School —
this time, knowing that I could not simply accept the salvation that it claimed to offer. No, I knew there'd be more work to do.
The work began in the dark corner of a crowded party, in the late night of an early, miserable Cambridge winter, when three friends and I asked a question that young folks searching for something real have asked for a very long time: "What if we took a road trip?"
We didn't know where'd we go or how we'd get there, but we knew we had to do it. Because all our lives we yearned, as Jack Kerouac wrote, to "sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere," and go find out what everybody was doing all over the country. So even though there were other voices who said that the risk was too great and the proof too thin, we went on anyhow.
We went on 8,000 miles across America in the summer of 2013, through the cow pastures of Montana, through the desolation of Detroit, through the swamps of New Orleans, where we found and worked with men and women who were building small businesses that made purpose their bottom line. And having been trained at the West Point of capitalism, this struck us as a revolutionary idea.
And this idea spread, growing into a nonprofit called MBAs Across America, a movement that landed me here on this stage today. It spread because we found a great hunger in our generation for purpose, for meaning. It spread because we found countless entrepreneurs in the nooks and crannies of America who were creating jobs and changing lives and who needed a little help.
But if I'm being honest, it also spread because I fought to spread it. There was no length to which I would not go to preach this gospel, to get more people to believe that we could bind the wounds of a broken country, one social business at a time. But it was this journey of evangelism that led me to the rather different gospel that I've come to share with you today.
It began one evening almost a year ago at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, at a gala for alumni of Harvard Business School. Under a full-size replica of a whale, I sat with the titans of our time as they celebrated their peers and their good deeds. There was pride in a room where net worth and assets under management surpassed half a trillion dollars. We looked over all that we had made, and it was good.
But it just so happened, two days later, I had to travel up the road to Harlem, where I found myself sitting in an urban farm that had once been a vacant lot, listening to a man named Tony tell me of the kids that showed up there every day. All of them lived below the poverty line. Many of them carried all of their belongings in a backpack to avoid losing them in a homeless shelter. Some of them came to Tony's program, called Harlem Grown, to get the only meal they had each day. Tony told me that he started Harlem Grown with money from his pension, after 20 years as a cab driver. He told me that he didn't give himself a salary, because despite success, the program struggled for resources. He told me that he would take any help that he could get. And I was there as that help.
But as I left Tony, I felt the sting and salt of tears welling up in my eyes. I felt the weight of revelation that I could sit in one room on one night, where a few hundred people had half a trillion dollars, and another room, two days later, just 50 blocks up the road, where a man was going without a salary to get a child her only meal of the day.
And it wasn't the glaring inequality that made me want to cry, it wasn't the thought of hungry, homeless kids, it wasn't rage toward the one percent or pity toward the 99. No, I was disturbed because I had finally realized that I was the dialysis for a country that needed a kidney transplant. I realized that my story stood in for all those who were expected to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, even if they didn't have any boots; that my organization stood in for all the structural, systemic help that never went to Harlem or Appalachia or the Lower 9th Ward; that my voice stood in for all those voices that seemed too unlearned, too unwashed, too unaccommodated.
And the shame of that, that shame washed over me like the shame of sitting in front of the television, watching Peter Jennings announce the new millennium again and again and again. I had been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled. But this time, the false savior was me.
You see, I've come a long way from that altar on the night I thought the world would end, from a world where people spoke in tongues and saw suffering as a necessary act of God and took a text to be infallible truth. Yes, I've come so far that I'm right back where I started.
Because it simply is not true to say that we live in an age of disbelief — no, we believe today just as much as any time that came before. Some of us may believe in the prophecy of Brené Brown or Tony Robbins. We may believe in the bible of The New Yorker or the Harvard Business Review. We may believe most deeply when we worship right here at the church of TED, but we desperately want to believe, we need to believe. We speak in the tongues of charismatic leaders that promise to solve all our problems. We see suffering as a necessary act of the capitalism that is our god, we take the text of technological progress to be infallible truth. And we hardly realize the human price we pay when we fail to question one brick, because we fear it might shake our whole foundation.
But if you are disturbed by the unconscionable things that we have come to accept, then it must be questioning time. So I have not a gospel of disruption or innovation or a triple bottom line. I do not have a gospel of faith to share with you today, in fact. I have and I offer a gospel of doubt. The gospel of doubt does not ask that you stop believing, it asks that you believe a new thing: that it is possible not to believe. It is possible the answers we have are wrong, it is possible the questions themselves are wrong. Yes, the gospel of doubt means that it is possible that we, on this stage, in this room, are wrong. Because it raises the question, "Why?" With all the power that we hold in our hands, why are people still suffering so bad?
This doubt leads me to share that we are putting my organization, MBAs Across America, out of business. We have shed our staff and closed our doors and we will share our model freely with anyone who sees their power to do this work without waiting for our permission. This doubt compels me to renounce the role of savior that some have placed on me, because our time is too short and our odds are too long to wait for second comings, when the truth is that there will be no miracles here.
And this doubt, it fuels me, it gives me hope that when our troubles overwhelm us, when the paths laid out for us seem to lead to our demise, when our healers bring no comfort to our wounds, it will not be our blind faith — no, it will be our humble doubt that shines a little light into the darkness of our lives and of our world and lets us raise our voice to whisper or to shout or to say simply, very simply, "There must be another way."