Foreword by Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker
“A beautiful, timely book that will guide you as you find your way to make a difference in the world.”
You don’t have to be a billionaire philanthropist, give up your day job, or wait for retirement to make a difference in the world. You can start now.
We all want to make the world a better place, but with busy, demanding lives, most of us struggle with the where, when, and how. Dr. Jordan Kassalow, founder of VisionSpring, the groundbreaking venture that has restored eyesight and hope to millions of people across the globe, has the answers: here, now, and in your own way. Sharing his personal story of integrating real-world responsibilities with his desire to make a difference, Jordan offers you a practical way forward, custom-made for your unique talents and circumstances, to take you from thought to action.
The soulful and pragmatic approach in this remarkable book will help you see with your heart and use your head to invest in your highest goals—while still earning a paycheck, being there for those you love, and enjoying life. To dare to matter, today.
“An essential reminder that the greatest challenges of any age are no match for the good will, love, passion, and potential that abides in all human beings. I hope this superb book will inspire its readers to follow in Jordan’s footsteps in making a difference for all.”
—Madeleine K. Albright, former Secretary of State
“Dare to Matter should be required reading for anyone who dreams of making a difference. The book shines with hard-earned wisdom embedded in spiritual ground and girded with practical advice. You will be inspired, enlivened and possibly, forever changed in all good ways.”
—Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO, Acumen and author of The Blue Sweater
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About the Author
Jordan Kassalow is a partner at a thriving optometry practice in New York City and the Founder of VisionSpring, an award-winning social business that has distributed more than 6 million pairs of eyeglasses to underserved people who live in the developing world and need nothing more than a simple pair of eyeglasses to see. VisionSpring has earned international recognition from the World Bank, the Aspen Institute, the World Economic Forum, Duke University and many others Jordan is also the co-Founder of the EYElliance, a multi-sector coalition that drives the global strategy to increase access to eyeglasses. Jordan was also the Founder of the Global Health Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations where he is a life member. For more information on VisionSpring and EYElliance, please visit visionspring.org or EYElliance.org.
Jennifer Krause is a rabbi and the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time. Her writing and commentary have been featured in publications such as Newsweek, The New York Times, and O, the Oprah Magazine. Dubbed “one of NYC's Hippest Rabbis,” Jennifer served as the High Holidays rabbi at Manhattan's 92Y, the first woman to hold that post in 92Y's 145-year history. Jennifer is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.
Read an Excerpt
Dare to Matter
We are all something, but none of us is everything.
— BLAISE PASCAL
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Do you remember when you first heard this question? How old were you? Who asked? How did you respond?
From the moment we're old enough to carry on basic polysyllabic conversations, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is the go-to icebreaker topic when grown-ups talk to kids. Chances are that before you could read, count to ten, or tie your shoelaces, people wanted to know what you wanted to be — meaning, what you wanted to do for a living.
I was in the second grade the first time I recall being asked the question, and I replied in the remarkably unremarkable way lots of kids do at that age. What did I want to be when I grew up? That was easy: a fireman. Firemen had everything you could possibly want in a job: a cool car with flashing lights and sirens, which you could drive as fast as you wanted; cool gadgets; cool uniforms; and you got to be a hero.
But as time marched on and I started to understand what firemen really had to do to earn the cool gear and hero status, I came to the sober realization that I didn't have what it would take to be a first responder. I also had embraced the fact that rocketing to earth from a distant planet, having first been endowed with special powers or being bitten by a radioactive spider, weren't things just anyone could do if they worked really hard and believed in themselves. With that, Superman and Spiderman were also off the table — my childhood dream no match for every kid's kryptonite: reality.
With high school came a more achievable career goal. What did I want to be when I grew up? A photographer for National Geographic. While I had no way of knowing for sure how solid my prospects in that field would be, at the very least I was optimistic that it was better suited to my talents and interests. And given the right training, determination, and commitment, success was within reach.
For a lucky few, the first "What do you want to be when you grow up?" answer never changes. There are people in the world who say they want to be a firefighter and who actually grow up to be a firefighter. Or a doctor. Or a chef. Or a Supreme Court justice. But for the rest of us, the answer changes and changes and changes again. And in this era when we've traded one-job-for-life gold watch retirements for second and third acts, the changes don't necessarily end in early adulthood.
The vast majority of us mere mortals do reach some turning point in our growing-up process when our circumstances and abilities insinuate themselves into our earliest childhood "What do you want to be when you grow up?" dreams. That watershed moment when what may have been an adorable answer at seven, if gone unchanged at seventeen, instead inspires sideways glances and furrowed brows in the adults who ask (parents in particular).
I think my son, Jonas, summed it up best when he addressed our synagogue community at his bar mitzvah. Gazing from the pulpit at the assembled group of friends, family, and synagogue goers — some Jewish, some of other or no religious backgrounds, Jonas said, "For those of you who are unfamiliar with this ritual, a bar mitzvah is the day in a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy's life when he realizes that he has a far better chance of owning an NBA team than playing for one."
Jonas got a big laugh, and not just because his observation was funny, but also because it was true. His words resonated with every person in that sanctuary who had ever shed a childhood dream for a grown-up truth: you can't be everything, but eventually you have to be something.
Yet when the time comes, how do you know what that something is?
Go West, Young Man?
If we're facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking. If it takes a year, or sixty years, or five lifetimes, as long as we're heading towards light, that's all that matters.
— JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
When the time came for me to choose something, I was twenty-three and fresh out of college. "What do you want to be?" dogged me everywhere I went. Figuring it out was my central preoccupation and deep wellspring of anxiety — anxiety that was not helped by the fact that I was the only one of my friends who didn't have a plan. I was obsessed with choosing the right direction in my life; or as I thought of it, with whether to head east or go west.
As detailed by philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his essay, "Walking," the bible of my youth, east and west aren't points on a map, but polar opposite states of being.
West is the future, while east is the past.
West is stepping boldly into the wild unknown without looking back, while east is retracing your steps to get back home.
West is setting up camp in the middle of nowhere; east is pitching a tent in your own backyard.
As someone who'd been hiking and mountain climbing since my early teens, far more at home in the great outdoors than I ever was in a classroom, whenever I read "Walking," I felt like Thoreau was speaking directly to me. But with college graduation in the rearview mirror and no strong sense of what I wanted to do with my future, a borderline manic manifesto dedicated to an existence unspoiled by commitments and basic social conventions wasn't going to cut it. I needed a plan.
It wasn't that I was completely lost. A few months before graduation, I'd been accepted to the New England College of Optometry (NECO). As the son of an optometrist, the operating assumption was that once I earned my doctor of optometry degree I would go to work for my dad in his practice.
I loved and respected my father, but the thought of being an optometrist didn't inspire me at all. It was retracing my footsteps, working just miles from the suburban New York home of my childhood, in the office I'd visited countless times on trips to the city with my dad. This was my east.
My west, on the other hand, was more in line with my passion for nature, travel, and adventure: spending a year climbing in Tibet, possibly followed by graduate school to become a tundra biologist, was the best idea I'd conjured in the way of a go-forward strategy.
Technically I'd already chosen west. I'd notified NECO that I wanted to defer admission and my plans for Tibet were partially underway. Yet while I'd made the decision, I hadn't made peace with it.
So when I set out on a two-month celebratory postgraduation trek through Alaska with my good friends, Rob and Mike, I carried a load of gear on my back and the NECO acceptance letter in my pocket.
To get to the starting point of our trek, we drove 210 miles on the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks, parked our '78 Dodge Omni on the side of the road near the base of Sukakpak Mountain, and unloaded our monster packs. As we began our journey, I prayed that eight weeks in the most spellbinding wilderness in the country would bring me clarity.
As we took our first steps into the Gates of the Arctic National Park, an odd, yet familiar, combination of electricity and absolute peace guided me through nature's captivating antechamber. Venturing into the territory, sprawling west to east across northern Alaska all the way into the Canadian Yukon, was like collapsing onto a bed made for ten Goliaths. The guys and I were well trained to check in with a park ranger prior to heading into the wilderness, a practice that seemed all the more crucial given the enormity of the terrain.
With that, our first stop was a ranger station just outside Fairbanks, the very last one on the map, yet still hundreds of miles south of our destination. We spread out our map to share our planned route, pointing to some landmarks to help explain. It was quite challenging because almost nothing had a label or a name.
When we'd finished our presentation, the ranger looked up from the map and asked, "Why are you boys here anyway?"
We replied that we were exercising best practices and checking in before heading out for safety's sake. He laughed.
"Gentlemen," the ranger said, "we've got eight-and-a-half million acres of park and two rangers cover it. Appreciate the visit, but I'd be lying if I didn't say once you're out there you're on your own."
Rather than making us think twice about pressing on, the ominous sendoff made us more excited than ever. Clutching the barren map, we lit out like a band of explorers, and took great pride and pleasure in naming every new place we found along the way.
If I could have willed time to stand still, I would have wandered in the wilderness forever. For most of my young adult life, beginning in high school, the way Thoreau described it on the page was the way I felt on unmarked paths in untamed spaces. "Life consists with wildness," he wrote. "The most alive is the wildest." In the wildness I found comfort and confidence; in the wildness I was the most myself, the most alive. But I knew I could only seek refuge in the outdoors for so long.
Sitting at the edge of the water one afternoon at what we'd decided to call Cat Food Creek, I pulled the NECO acceptance letter out of my pocket and read it one more time even though I already knew its contents by heart.
I thought of my parents and all of the privileges and opportunities — more than most people get in a lifetime — that their hard work had afforded me, including a solid education, and now the offer of a guaranteed livelihood waiting for me on the other side of an advanced degree. If it wasn't for my dad and mom, I wouldn't even have had the freedom to ruminate about my future.
My thoughts then turned to a life spent day in and day out in dark, windowless exam rooms, with NECO as the gateway to that future — a vision I found terrifying. But the vision of one day being a person who could give the people I loved everything that my parents had given me and my sisters did inspire me. Holding that vision in my mind's eye, seeing optometry as the work I could do to help make that vision a reality, let in a little bit of light.
Dust in the Wind
When the soul asks, "What are you doing here?" its answer should be, "What needs to be done."
In the midst of a long trek somewhere above the Arctic Circle, the bright blue skies were graying fast. We still had a long way to go to stay on course for the day, but the weather made it clear that a change of plans was in order. Not long after we set up camp under a curious double rainbow, it started raining sideways and didn't let up. Rob, Mike, and I were trapped in a soaking wet tent, stuck in a frustrating waiting game for days.
After being cooped up and playing every card game we could think of for what seemed like forever, going into the pouring rain seemed like a far better deal than sitting around playing even one more hand.
The moment I stepped outside, the rain felt like a million tiny switchblades slashing my face, but I kept moving forward, slowly and not always surely making my way up, until I'd summited a nearby mountain with one of the most awesome views I've ever seen. Soaring mountains with bald gray caps sitting atop colossal pedestals of spring-green tundra stretched out before me for as far as my eyes could see. But standing there amid all that beauty, barely managing to stay on my feet in the wind and rain, I felt more anger than awe.
It felt like the wilderness was conspiring against me — from being stalled in that tent entirely at nature's whim to the soaring mountains surrounding me, making the one I'd just scaled look like a pile of rocks. It was as if the universe were saying, "Don't you see now that you are nothing? Surrender to insignificance!"
I call this my "dust in the wind" moment because I remember hearing the Kansas song on a loop in my head. Yes, it's true that nothing lasts forever, yet at that moment, something inside me felt like it would break if I completely surrendered to how small I was in the grand scheme of things. I had to believe that I was alive for a reason, even though this great big world was here long before I entered it and would be here long after I died.
With that, I shouted, "I will matter!" from the mountaintop and made a pact with myself that I would be someone who made a difference in the life of the world with the life that I'd been given. Although I shouted these words with great conviction, truth be told, I had no idea how I would make this bold proclamation a reality. What I did know was that whether I climbed mountains in the Himalayas or subway stairs in Manhattan, the focal point of my life and the hallmark of my success would be inexorably linked to my ability to live for something more than myself.
In the freezing rain in the middle of nowhere, I discovered a kind of wildness I never knew existed, and a new kind of dream for my life that remained totally consistent with the world according to Thoreau when he declared:
The wildest dreams of wild men, even, are not the less true, though they may not recommend themselves to the sense which is most common among [people] today. ... One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life.
Daring to make my life matter, despite the fact that I had no idea how I would do it, became my new wilderness.
As the weather calmed, I came down the mountain with a different kind of focus and a quiet confidence I'd never experienced before. I felt that I'd uncovered my true answer to that nagging question. What did I want to be? A photographer? Possibly. An optometrist? Could be. A tundra biologist? Maybe. A person who mattered? Yes!
Being and Mattering
All people born into this world represent something new,
something that never existed before, something original and unique. ... The foremost task of all people is the actualization of their unique, unprecedented and never-recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something another person, be it even the greatest, has already achieved.
— MARTIN BUBER
When I talk about daring to matter, about making our lives matter, I'm not saying that each and every one of us doesn't already count. Regardless of who we are, where we're born, the color of our skin, our gender, or our circumstances, every human being is equal in value.
A passage in the Talmud emphasizes the intrinsic value of every created being by stating that God intentionally made each of us a descendent of Adam so that all people would understand that a whole world can come into being through one person. The text relates that because of this, all of us are obligated to consider how profoundly consequential the very fact of our existence and our actions can be, so much so that every individual should say, "The world was created for me."
With this sacred lineage in mind, no one person is better than another, more essential, or more precious. This wondrous admixture of sameness and uniqueness is the essence of our being from the moment we first draw breath until the day we die. Our inestimable worth remains with us throughout the course of our lives simply because we have been created human.
The main difference between being and mattering is whether we actively participate in the ongoing work of creation by owning our uniqueness — understanding what it truly means to say, "The world was created for me." It means becoming aware that something we and only we possess has been implanted within each and every one of us that will never be replicated in any other human being who lives after we die. It's first connecting with the idea that our individual life could be so important to the life of the world that what we do — or what we don't do — can change everything.
My "dust in the wind" moment was the first time in my life when I awakened to the potential I had to make my time on this earth mean something. It was the first moment in my life that I said, in my own words, "The world was created for me." It was the first time I realized that being is a given, but being a person who matters is a choice.
The Jewish sages of old offered many ways to explain how we can be created the same and yet also distinguish ourselves from one another through action. They say, "In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person." Perhaps the best-known version of this teaching uses the Yiddish word mensch, which also just means "person." But when you say someone is a mensch, what you're really saying is that someone is a person who does good.
But how can you tell a regular person from a mensch? As someone who rides the subway pretty much every day, I think of it this way: a person has a seat on a crowded train, and when an elderly man boards, the regular person first looks around to see if someone else is about to give up his seat. A mensch is the person who doesn't look around to see if someone else is about to stand up, but instead is the first one to stand.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dare To Matter"
Copyright © 2019 Jordan Kassalow and Jennifer Krause.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Neil Blumenthal xi
Chapter 1 Dare to Matter 9
Chapter 2 Meet Your Miracle Halfway 33
Chapter 3 How Much Land Do You Need? 59
Chapter 4 Be Spontaneous 87
Chapter 5 Discover the Need That Needs You Most 111
Chapter 6 Dream in the Light 135
Chapter 7 Put the Change in Change-Maker 165
Chapter 8 Practice Dying 189
Chapter 9 Follow Your Thread 219
Chapter 10 Love Your Days 249