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Cullen Shwartz: “The world’s not fair, but a person can be”

This pandemic has only further laid bare problems we were already facing, and how solving these problems isn’t just good for the world but good for every individual member of society: the need to improve health care systems, provide paid sick leave for all, ensure workers’ health and safety are protected while on the job, […]

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This pandemic has only further laid bare problems we were already facing, and how solving these problems isn’t just good for the world but good for every individual member of society: the need to improve health care systems, provide paid sick leave for all, ensure workers’ health and safety are protected while on the job, that a strong social safety net exists for people who lose their jobs, and that we need drastic improvement on issues like racial and economic inequality (for example, the significantly higher death rates from Covid-19 among people of color as compared to whites and among poor compared to rich, or how unemployment has disproportionately impacted the poor, people of color, and those with less formal education are really incredible — although I guess at the same time those shouldn’t really be that surprising, and that’s the worst part). I would’ve hoped this all would lead to more belief in science and trust in experts. I’m not sure how we’re faring on that one (we can place a lot of blame on Donald Trump for that — he had to make even this a divisive political issue?)


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cullen Schwarz. Cullen is founder and “Chief of Good Thoughts” for DoneGood, the site where you can instantly shop with hundreds of brands that all do good for people and the planet — companies that pay fair wages, use highly eco-friendly practices, invest in communities, and make the world better in many other ways. Forbes called DoneGood “The Amazon for Social Good.”

A native Michigander and recovering politico formerly serving as a senior communications advisor to members of Congress and in the Obama Administration, Cullen says he quit that career to start DoneGood because he believes the world’s most powerful force for change is the dollars we all spend — that, and so he could stop wearing suits every day. Cullen was a philosophy major and tries to live by the teachings of Camus, de Beauvoir, and The Dude. He currently lives in Denver, CO where he likes to snowboard and hike, and also enjoy all the “city stuff” too — shows, plays, nightlife, etc. When he retires he says he plans to “move to the jungle to write books.”

We chose Cullen as one of our heroes because at the outset of the pandemic, DoneGood committed half of all its revenue to Project CURE to provide medical supplies to first responders. The company also helped some of the clothing brands they work with who had transitioned to face mask production to sell those masks without taking DoneGood’s normal commission on sales. But along with his work during the pandemic, he was also chosen for the good work DoneGood does all the time, which is only more important at times like these.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in a little town in Northern Michigan (Elk Rapids, MI). The population of about 2,500. It was a gorgeous, pristine, beautiful place. But there wasn’t much to do after 9 p.m… So in high school, we’d go camping a lot — which was code for drinking in the woods, haha. Still, that meant we spent a lot of time in nature. And because the area’s economy relied on its natural resources and beauty (agriculture and tourism are the top industries), there’s a real conservationist attitude across the political spectrum throughout the region. That may have influenced me to care about the natural environment from a young age.

I was one of those kids that got good grades and was nice to the teachers but would still go out drinking or pull off into an orchard to smoke a little weed. Was always a little bit of a troublemaker. But they say a lot of entrepreneurs are.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Ironically, given current events, one of my favorite books is The Plague by Camus. It’s set in the 1940s on a small French island off the coast of Algeria. Bubonic plague breaks out; the island is shut down so no one can come to or leave the island. The book examines how people react when confronted with a world where there is death and suffering all around them — and of course, we all are always confronted with such a world. The island is a compressed, exaggerated microcosm of the world we all face every day. The island is life on earth.

Facing such circumstances, some attempt to flee the island (a metaphor for suicide). Some go mad. Some seek simply to remain at peace until the plague consumes them.

But others attempt to fight the plague and to heal others. They band together to create makeshift medical crews who aid the sick and ease human suffering. They are not celebrated. They are not heroes. They are just doing that which must be done. Fighting rather than laying down. It’s a losing battle — there will still be death and suffering. But whether they “win” the fight or not is not the point. The point is to let it be known throughout the universe that suffering will not consume humanity without a fight. The point is the fight. And they will “win” at easing some people’s pain in the process.

One of these characters seeks true moral perfection. But one major lesson in the book is that the point ought not to try to “become a saint.” Instead, the most important thing is to “be a healer.” Reading those words created a major shift in my thinking that really meant a lot to me and has stayed with me ever since.

Another great moment in the book — in discussing the plague (again with the plague a symbol of all human suffering), a character says something like, “We all have the plague — the trick is to just not breathe in each other’s faces.” We all have the ability to aid in the fight against suffering, and we all have the ability to inflict additional suffering. In a world already full of pain, we all either choose to stand on the side of humanity, or on the side of the plague. At the very least, we must try not to breathe suffering onto others. And damn if I don’t think about this line every time I see someone post on social media about how they’re refusing to wear a mask! It’s the literal manifestation of Camus’ metaphor urging us not to breathe suffering and death onto each other.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

So many great quotes out there. But one quote I really like is, “The world’s not fair, but a person can be.” Maybe self-absorbed, ’cause (as far as I know) I made that quote up, haha. I’ve been saying that since I was young — I told my mom “That’s not fair;” she said, as parents often do, “Well, the world’s not fair.” I said, “Yeah but you could be if you wanted to.” At the time I was just happy to have a good retort to my mom. But since then, I’ve felt that really does sort of boil it all down for me. The world in its “natural” state is governed by cold unfeeling laws of natural selection, predator and prey, the acquisition of greater prosperity and power at all costs. But humans have the ability to create a world governed in a more enlightened and just way, to make the world fairer if we want to.

Another favorite, one not coined by me, is from Simone de Beauvoir. I’m paraphrasing but it’s something like: “The question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is an absurd question. The question is ‘Do you want to keep on living, and if so under what circumstances?’”

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I never really did like that term. I like The Plague precisely because it does not lavish praise on the heroes like most books and movies. In fact, Camus explicitly says the main characters in the book are not heroes. They’re just doing what ought to be done if one values humanity.

I also love the discussion of heroism in the Big Lebowski: “Sometimes there’s a man. I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? Sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about The Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man… well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there, and that’s The Dude.” The Dude is a hero not for actions traditionally deemed heroic, but because he’s “Takin’ it easy for all us sinners.

I guess if I had to list a definition, I’d say: a hero is someone who does what ought to be done, and only because those things ought to be done.

Coincidentally I something along these lines just a couple of days ago that I think gets at the same thing: A hero is someone who puts their shopping carts back in the cart corral. I love that.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Oh… I don’t know man. I guess I’d pretty much let my answers above carry this one. I never much liked the term hero. Sorry if that’s a cop-out.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

Geez, good question… I mean, what drives humans to do anything? It’s a bit absurd to do anything at all, isn’t it? We all die. Some seem driven to be remembered after they die, but there’s really no point to being remembered after you’re dead since you won’t enjoy it: either you just don’t exist at all anymore, or you’ll be in some other-dimensional-after-life where I’m sure you’ll have a lot cooler things on your mind.

And yet, humans do things anyway. We choose to live. We choose to have interests and care deeply and love and fight for things, and often fight on behalf of others. I think at the end of the day we do it all without any real reason or justification. And I think that’s beautiful. It’s empowering. We can’t produce an equation that can prove we ought to be doing what we’re doing. And yet, we do things. An artist can’t prove she should’ve painted what she painted, or that she should have painted anything at all. She just paints because she can and because she wants to, and she doesn’t need a justification to do it. She has the power to create. And has the power to decide if what she created is beautiful. We all have the same power in everything we do. Every choice we make is a brushstroke on the canvas that is our lives.

In taking any action, in caring about anything, we stand up and say, “Yeah I care about things, and I don’t need justification, I can’t prove what I’m doing is right, but I’m creating a life anyway.” It’s something amazing that wells up and spills out from inside humans and leads us to live life anyway, and in doing so often working and fighting alongside others to try to leave the world better than it was presented to us.

I love this part in The Matrix, the main villain talking to the main character:

Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although… only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why?! Why do you persist?!

Neo: Because I choose to.

That’s pretty much it, I think. I love that.

Or whatever I don’t know, maybe another answer could be that it’s biology; we’re social creatures and somehow natural selection has favored those of our ancestors who worked together on each other’s behalf (although if altruism is evolutionary programming, some of us do seem to be programmed far differently from others).

Or maybe we all do recognize deep down there is one objective truth — suffering is bad. And if we work together, we can ease each other’s pains.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

Gosh, did we “take heroic action…”. We just felt like we wanted to do something. Anything. We just wanted to be part of the solution, somehow. We just felt like at times like this, that’s what needs to be done.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Boy, I really struggle with this word, don’t I? Haha. Well, based on my answers, it might be clear to some that I’m really into 20th Century Existentialism. So Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvois, I’d probably list them as heroes.

Honestly, all the people who quit their careers to start social enterprises, those who are proving that businesses can be successful and still do good for people and the planet — companies that empower workers, pay good wages, use eco-friendly practices, invest in communities — they’re all heroes to me. We started DoneGood because we wanted to help more people find and shop with those kinds of businesses.

And really, I believe people everywhere who are doing that which must be done to aid other people and reduce human suffering are heroes. I really believe that if anything is heroic, it’s dedicating one’s life to that.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

Well, I think things are more saddening than frightening really. Seeing people who seem to choose not to band together, and in fact seem determined to make things worse and take actions that help increase the suffering of others, that makes me sad. It’s hard enough fighting against an unfeeling, uncaring virus, and the other harsh elements of the natural world. But when human traitors seem to be fighting on the other side, against other humans, inflicting pain on others, that’s just sad.

I see that in things like not wearing a mask. But more broadly, it occurs when people are oppressing, exploiting, annihilating others… It’s just like man, c’mon guys. You don’t even have to do that much to help but do you really have to fight AGAINST humanity? Don’t you see you’re increasing human pain, don’t you care about that? Can’t you just give it a rest (or as The Dude puts it: “Can you just take it easy, man?”). Do you really need more money? More power. For what? And is it really that much of a hassle to wear a mask? Sigh.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain why?

Do we really need hope to act? I hope not. The fight is worth fighting for its own sake, even if we might never “win.” But yeah, I know, hope helps!

I think that the world, on the whole, has just gotten so much better over the years. It may not always seem that way. These days all the worst occurrences and outrages from around the world are instantly beamed to our faces. But I really challenge anyone to really think about whether they would want to live in any other time. Last century, war broke out in Europe as countries aimed to take over other countries. For almost all of human history, that’s just the way things were; war was the state of things; one nation or tribe conquering another was just accepted as a fact of life. Now, increasingly, humanity does not accept that is the world we must live in. We have eradicated many terrible diseases. Overall, we live in more sanitary conditions. We are better educated. I believe we are collectively more enlightened. The world is still a mess and we have so much work to do — but by all measures from health to hunger to economic equality and human rights, over the centuries the world has gotten so much better than our barbaric past.

I just think that if you really look at how far humanity has come, just a basic look at the evidence, it’s unquestionably true that what Dr. King said, that the moral arc of the world is long but bends toward justice, is correct. Although it is up to us to grab on that arc and keep pulling on it to ensure it stays that way!

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

The indomitability of the human spirit is inspiring. The way so many people come together in times of crisis is always inspiring.

The way some other people seem determined to work against the people trying to heal the world is disappointing.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

I think maybe it’s reinforced how I’ve seen society instead. People have so much capacity for good and do so much to help others, and we have so much capacity to be uncaring or even monstrous. Biologists say chimpanzees are an amazing species in that they can exhibit so much cooperation and kindness, and also so much brutality, toward other members of their own species. They’re our closest biological relatives.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

It is always the hope that crises, especially ones like this that affect the world over, will help inspire people to feel more connected with each other and more determined to work together.

This pandemic has only further laid bare problems we were already facing, and how solving these problems isn’t just good for the world but good for every individual member of society: the need to improve health care systems, provide paid sick leave for all, ensure workers’ health and safety are protected while on the job, that a strong social safety net exists for people who lose their jobs, and that we need drastic improvement on issues like racial and economic inequality (for example, the significantly higher death rates from Covid-19 among people of color as compared to whites and among poor compared to rich, or how unemployment has disproportionately impacted the poor, people of color, and those with less formal education are really incredible — although I guess at the same time those shouldn’t really be that surprising, and that’s the worst part).

I would’ve hoped this all would lead to more belief in science and trust in experts. I’m not sure how we’re faring on that one (we can place a lot of blame on Donald Trump for that — he had to make even this a divisive political issue?)

I also know that from now on I’m going to make sure to get my flu shot every year because I know understand that the flu shot isn’t just to protect me, it’s to help stop the spread of flu which then saves lives among vulnerable populations every year. That never really dawned on me before. There should be a better communications campaign around that.

I also hope being able to get to-go cocktails from restaurants and bars remains too.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Geez. Am I… I guess I’m trying. Why should they try? I don’t know, what else do you want to do with your time on earth? It’ll be over in a second. Every choice we make is a brushstroke on the canvas that is our lives — when you’re on your death bed and look back upon your painting, what do you want to see there? What do you think is beautiful? That’s the reason to do anything. Trying to ease suffering seems like a pretty centerpiece for a painting to me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ha ok, this is hypothetical, so I’m pretending to be a person of great influence? Sounds good, I’ll play along, haha.

Well, I think the most important movement of our time is the one we’re trying to help support through our company, DoneGood. That’s why we quit our careers to do this of all things.

We started DoneGood believe that the dollars we all spend are the world’s most powerful force for change. Americans gave a total of 400 billion dollars to charity last year, but we all spent 325 times more than that buying stuff. If even a fraction of that spending can also reduce poverty, fight climate change, make the world better, the impact is HUGE.

We believe the shift away from the 20th Century, Milton Friedman philosophy that a business’s sole purpose should be to maximize profit at all costs, and instead shift to a paradigm where we expect businesses to be moral actors in the world, will be the most impactful ideological shift of our time. Mission-driven social enterprises operating ethically and sustainably are leaders of the “business-as-a-force-for-good” movement driving us toward that change. They’re heroes. We hope that DoneGood can help harness the power of consumer spending to provide greater fuel for that movement.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oh, man. A couple of categories:

Political:

You gotta put Barack Obama up there… I worked in his administration as a political appointee, but you know, that’s hundreds or maybe thousands of people, so we never grabbed lunch just the two of us!

AOC is awesome, I’d love to talk with her.

I’ve seen Bernie working around the Senate but never had a real conversation with him.

Our line of work:

There are so many amazing women leading the ethical fashion movement. I could list even more, but some I’d love to meet are Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher, Lola Young,Livia Firth, Vivienne Westwood.

Woody Harrelson put out a video a few years about how the people’s purchasing power is an incredible force for change, right in line with our philosophy. Plus he just seems like he’d be a pretty fun dude to party with.

As far as major corporations go, Unilever has been better than most in terms of its own corporate social responsibility and in acquiring social enterprises while maintaining those enterprises’ social missions (e.g., Ben and Jerry’s). I’d love to talk business with Unilever CEO Alan Jope.

The Arts:

Ween is my favorite band. They’re better than The Beatles. They’re as prolific and have as wide a range, but their songs are more artistic, weirder, funnier, more touching, and I think just all-around better.

I love the Coen brothers’ movies (I’d take either one).

All the authors I want to meet are dead. I should read more contemporary books!

How can our readers follow you online?

Our site: donegood.co

Instagram:@donegoodteam

Facebook: facebook.com/donegoodteam

Twitter: @donegoodteam

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

This was probably the most interesting interview I’ve ever done. I might’ve struggled with the premise of some of the questions and the use of the word “hero” so much, but I really appreciate you not asking all the same questions that everyone else does! Haha. Thanks for having me.


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