You don’t have to go out of your way to make a difference in someone else’s life. There are people you pass right now who you could impact if you are willing to take a bit of a risk. Just ask actor and activist Hill Harper.
When he began to notice young guys hanging around on the same street corner all the time as he drove by, he knew “there had to be a better use for their time.” Wanting to connect with them in some way but not sure how to go about it, he was reminded of the books he had read that had been a help to him—”like mentoring on paper.”
Harper began to keep some of those books behind the seat in his car, and if he saw someone just standing on the corner, he’d stop and get out. “You had to approach them right,” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘Hey, what’s up? I just want to give you a book.’”
Often their initial reaction would be to tell him they didn’t need a Bible. “It’s not the Bible,” he would say to them. “I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness.” Then he would give them a copy of The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, or Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, or maybe Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
“I would tell them that there were lessons in those books they could apply to their lives,” he says. “That there were better things to do with their time than to stand on that corner, doing whatever they were doing.”
He had a comeback to any objections they might have. “If you’re going to tell me the reason you’re here is just to make money,” he would say, “I can show you 2,000 different ways to make significantly more money with less time that don’t potentially require a complete downside of you losing all your options.”
“The more options you have, the better. We need to learn that more in our community and then help people build their optionality.”
Over time, handing out those books planted the seed in Harper’s head that he should write his own because none of the ones he had were quite right for the young men he was giving them to. “They were good, but they didn’t speak to them,” he says. “That book didn’t exist.” So he wrote his widely acclaimed 2007 Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny.
“I would tell them that I wrote it for them,” he says of his street corner encounters. If they asked whether they had to pay for it, he would tell them no. “I’m not selling you the book,” he would explain. “I’m giving it to you. There are lessons in this book. If you apply them to your life, there are better things for your life than standing on this corner.”
It was all about giving them options—even while knowing nine out of 10 wouldn’t take the baton they were being offered—because of his conviction options are the most valuable thing you can have in life.
“What’s the number one thing that happens to you in prison?” Harper asks. “They take away your options about when you eat, when you go to the bathroom, when you sleep, when you get to go out. That’s a massive penalty. And the reverse is true too—the more options you have, the better. We need to learn that more in our community and then help people build their optionality. That’s why I am so passionate about education. It is one of the foundational elements for building a great life.”
Now, that doesn’t have to mean going to Harvard or Brown, as he did. “You can find education online. Do your own research and read up and study and challenge yourself to be a better critical thinker.” Harper points to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. He dropped out of Harvard, and now he’s one of the richest men in the world, with one of the most powerful companies in the world. “So, clearly, you don’t need a college degree. He learned something, though: he knows how to code.”
If you can’t afford it, Harper advises you don’t go to some expensive private school and run up a bunch of debt. “There are so many good local community colleges where you can take a class for $250, $500. Or go online. You can cobble together your own educational program.”
He tells of someone who came to him and said they wanted to go to the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school but couldn’t afford to because it would cost them in the region of $60,000. He told them wanting to be a great chef was fine, but how about apprenticing instead? They could give their services away for free for two years, maybe work a side job. Meanwhile, they would be learning, and hopefully they could develop a relationship with a top chef and then come out with zero debt.
“If you can afford the Cordon Bleu school, by all means go, but if you have to get into $60,000 of debt when your first job coming out of there will be a line cook making $16 an hour, that’s not the right bar,” he says.
Education is simply a tool. It does not guarantee success… but just like building a house, you need a foundation.HILL HARPER
Having said that, Harper himself went into significant debt for his two Harvard graduate degrees: six figures. “I looked at graduates from Harvard programs and what their future earnings are, and I made a calculus to invest in myself that it was worth it for me to go into that level of debt,” he explains. “And it was a good calculus” he says of the cost-benefit analysis.
“However, those two Harvard degrees and my undergraduate degree from Brown don’t speak to anything that I do as my profession, for how I pay my bills,” acknowledges the longtime CSI: NY actor who has been a fixture on television dramas for almost 20 years. “I do a job for which you do not even need a high school diploma! Yet I love what I do, acting. I love entertainment. And I truly believe that I would not have met the long-term career success I’ve had but for my educational foundation.
“Education is simply a tool. It does not guarantee success. It doesn’t guarantee happiness. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but just like building a house, you need a foundation.”
Harper believes we’re taught the wrong thing about education. “We’re told that you should study something so you can do something else,” he says. “To me, that premise begins to negate the idea that you don’t have the capacity to be the master of many things. There’s that old saying about don’t be a jack-of-all-trades, and I disagree with it.”
Look at the greatest people in history and the greatest people living today, he says. “They are all masters of many things. That’s what creates their greatness.” So his advice is to lean into learning as much about as many different things as possible and then use your creative and entrepreneurial energies to make connections that can open up new opportunities.
“Having options is more valuable than being an expert in one little slice,” he says. “Because if the bottom falls out or if a pandemic happens and something switches, then if you’re all in in one little slice, then you can lose everything.”
A favorite analogy is an NBA player. Harper salutes the dedication needed to devote oneself to developing one skill, becoming “extremely creative and beautiful with a ball.” Yet, on average, five years after retirement, 60% of them file for bankruptcy, he notes. “What if they developed a skill set and optionality to become money managers while they’re making money?”
Harper believes “we need to start expecting more of each other because we rise to the level of expectations placed upon us.” He remembers how his Uncle Carter pulled him to the side when he was a little kid and told him, “You better take care of those studies.” Harper was always scared of him, but his uncle would ask about Harper’s studies and how he was doing every time they met. “He was attempting to hold me accountable.”
Harper recalls one of the faculty in his time at Brown, Martin Martel. The prof pulled him aside one day and asked when he would stop taking advantage of his race? Harper was shocked, but Martel went on, he remembers:
“You’re skating. You’re the smartest student I’ve ever had, but you’re just putting in stuff just to get the A. You’re doing the minimum. When are you going to start operating at your potential? When are you going to lean in to be great and be the best and do things exemplary and go beyond everything—every assignment. Every day, more research, better writing, more editing, more rewriting, going beyond the assignment and looking at the footnotes of the assignment, reading that article and then looking at the footnotes of that article and reading that article.
“I can tell when someone just reads the assignment because they reference stuff in the assignment, but I can also tell when people go deeper because they use the crumbs that lead you deeper. As a Black person, people are not even going to expect what you can deliver, so you’re going to be good because you’re smarter than they are, and they don’t expect that. But if you just ride on that level, you are never going to be great.”
Though Martel has since passed, his words live on. “I’ll never forget what he said because he changed my life,” Harper says. “He raised the bar for me.”
In addition to encouraging others to step up, Harper says it’s also important to let people of color know there are bona fide, really rewarding careers in medicine. “Because the number of Black men who are physicians is atrociously small,” explains the star of The Good Doctor, drawing from his experience participating in a recent documentary called Black Men in White Coats.
“Systemic racism runs through health care, as well as individual providers. We are treated differently in terms of care; there are numerous studies that show that we are under-prescribed pain medication, for instance, because of bias against pain management. As if we somehow are either prone to be addicts or we are Herculean in our ability to withstand pain,” he says.
“We are also underdiagnosed in terms of how we are treated, in terms of how many tests are run on us when we present a problem that’s not clearly and acutely diagnosable. All of these things have negative health outcomes. Look at the infant mortality rate with Black women or our incidences around cancer.”
A cancer survivor himself, Harper learned a lot more about cancer treatment and care after being appointed to President Obama’s cancer panel, making recommendations to the White House.
His advice: “If you notice something’s a little not right, don’t play through it. Go get checked, and then ask the doctor questions. And if something is still not feeling right, get checked again and ask more questions. That’s how we start taking care of our individual health: Don’t take no for an answer and keep getting checked.”
More diversity and people of color in medicine, in general, are crucial, he insists. “I seek out a doctor of color just because I know that there is bias in the system,” he says. “So I want my doctor to be Black because I want to make sure I’m taking all the variables out, and they are going to order every test.
“We also need to make sure that we’re taking care of our health on the front side. There’s so much information about healthy habits and eating properly, as well as exercise and all of the things that can be preventative, that we don’t talk about enough in our community. We know that eating fried foods on a regular basis is not the way to go, but the problem is many of us live in these food deserts. So those of us that are entrepreneurs have to ask, ‘Can we open up fresh produce stores in these neighborhoods?’ There’s an area in Detroit that is a food desert where I am trying to be an activist and help raise money and capital to open up things there.”
The vast majority of fears we carry are lies that we’ve been told by somebody else who wants to keep us stuck.
Harper questions how important that kind of broader social change really is to everyone. “Are we willing to invest in these types of things? All of these companies that announced a hundred million dollars, Black this and Black that, where is that money? Because I haven’t seen a Black fresh produce store open yet.”
The $2.4 trillion allocations the federal government made in the middle of the pandemic, with the stock market at all-time highs: where is that money now, he wants to know? “In the stock market. And what percentage of Black people own stocks in those companies? A very low percentage. So, where did that money go? It went to make somebody else rich.”
That happened “under all of our watches,” he notes. “So let’s be really clear about what’s going on. We need to be activists in the community, and we need to get funding and capital flowing in the community. We need to be our own reparations because that $2.4 trillion is not coming. We need to do it for ourselves.”
Most people don’t want to run for office because they’re afraid to lose, he observes. They’re afraid to be embarrassed; they’re afraid to be vulnerable: If you don’t win, everybody knows. “That’s about ego and fear, rather than about wanting to fundamentally see something shift and change,” says Harper.
“Fear dictates so much of our lives. FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. The vast majority of fears we carry are lies that we’ve been told by somebody else who wants to keep us stuck. It’s all about having the courage to step out, to be vulnerable.”
Harper cites Tay Anderson, a member of the Denver School Board, with whom he spoke on a panel. Aged 21 and responsible for a multibillion-dollar school system, Anderson “gets death threats daily because he stepped out and said, ‘This school system didn’t serve me, so I am running.’ And he won.”
More people need the same kind of attitude, Harper comments, “that type of grit, that type of courage to step in the public arena and go.” It’s about taking some kind of a risk—like stopping on a street corner and offering someone a free book that might change their life.