Casey Gerald: When Beliefs Fail Us, How Do We Move Forward? Over the course of his life, many of Casey Gerald's core beliefs have failed him. He says he's learned that clear-eyed doubt can sometimes be better than belief.
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When Beliefs Fail Us, How Do We Move Forward?

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When Beliefs Fail Us, How Do We Move Forward?

When Beliefs Fail Us, How Do We Move Forward?

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  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So as Tim was saying, trial and error and experimentation - those are the kinds of failures you can recover from with time. But Casey Gerald's interested in a different kind of failure, the deeply personal kind, the kind of failure that forces you to ask yourself some really big questions.

CASEY GERALD: Have I been courageous enough to live? Have I been courageous enough to be honest?

RAZ: Casey says the answers to these questions kind of make him feel like a failure.

GERALD: Certainly I do.

RAZ: Which might sound strange because on paper, he has accomplished a lot. He grew up really poor. He was an orphan for most of his childhood, but he made it to Yale and then Harvard Business School. He got jobs on Wall Street and then in Washington. And he even started his own nonprofit group.

If you were just to write down like the timeline of your life, I don't know if anybody would be able to see the failure in those things.

GERALD: (Laughter) Oh, you know, I think about the resume virtues of the narrative of my life, and I think if we look at those as the measure of success of failure, then we've kind of missed the point because I think that a lot of folks, myself included, who can be on paper very successful and be completely dead.

RAZ: Casey's story is about what happens when you chase success and achieve it only to find out it doesn't feel like success at all. And it's a story that began one night when Casey was 12 years old. He was sitting in a pew at his mainly black Baptist church in East Texas waiting for the Messiah to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GERALD: There we were...

RAZ: He picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GERALD: ...Souls and bodies packed into a Texas church on the last night of our lives, December 31, 1999, the night of the second coming of Christ and the end of the world as I knew it. 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...

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: ...Took first position in front of the altar. You see, in America, even the second coming of Christ has a VIP section.

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: 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 hopes and dreams for what life might become outside of east Texas has sometimes been bent and broken even further than their backs. Yes, these men and women, they had waited their whole lives for this moment, 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 I might go right on with her. So I held on and I closed my eyes, and the prayers got louder, and the organ rolled on in to add to 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. And 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.

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. And it struck me that it would've been strange anyway for Jesus to come back again and again based on the different time zones.

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: And this made me feel even more ridiculous.

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: Hurt really. I can trace the whole drama of my life back to that night in that church when my savior did not come for me. 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.

But when I found myself with my face planted in the floor 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...

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: ...So hopeful that...

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: ...That I called home to inform my family that we'd never be poor again.

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: 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, D.C., as a young staffer who had heard a voice call out from Illinois saying 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 these gods were dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Wow. I mean, as you were reaching from, like, one kind of temple to the next, what were you searching for? I mean, what was the thing that was calling you?

GERALD: I think in many ways what called me was I wanted to matter, and I think that's a pretty fundamental thing. I wanted to not be the sort of throwaway kid that didn't have parents, didn't have any money, you know, I mean, I wanted to be somebody I suppose. And I looked externally for, you know, if there was a manual, how to be somebody in America 101 (laughter) you know? And I had no idea how to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Casey Gerald will continue his story after the break, more ideas about success and failure in just a minute. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about learning from failure and how to think differently about what happens when you don't succeed. And we've been hearing the story of Casey Gerald, who did succeed a lot. He went to Yale and Harvard, worked on Wall Street and in Washington. But all of this was somehow unfulfilling. Casey he felt like he was just chasing the success and the money and the power. So he decided to start a group to get MBA students to spend their summers helping other people with small social enterprises. And finally, Casey felt like he had a sense of purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GERALD: There was no length to which I would not go to preach this gospel, to get more people to believe we could bind the wounds of a broken country one social business at a time.

RAZ: And then one night all of that was put into question. Casey picks up the story on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GERALD: 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. There was pride in a room where net worth and assets under management surpassed past half a trillion dollars. We looked over all that we have made, and it was good.

(LAUGHTER)

GERALD: 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, 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 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. 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 1 percent or pity toward the 99. I was disturbed because I finally realized that I was the dialysis for a country that needed a kidney transplant.

I realized that my story stood in for all of those who were expected to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, even if they didn't have any boots. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: In that moment, Casey realized something, that he'd come so far from that small church in East Texas. But somehow, he was right back where he started. So he left the organization he founded, MBAs across America. You know, listening to the journey that you describe, I mean, it's almost like you had to experience those things to begin to understand what it is that you really care about.

GERALD: Yes, I did. And I've been thinking a lot about Dr. King's mountaintop speech. You know, and I thought about the part where he says, you know, I've been to the mountaintop, looked over into the promised land, you know? And I look at my life, and I say in some ways, yeah, I've been to the mountaintop. I looked over into the promised land, and that ain't it.

We got - we've got to imagine a promised land that is not where you go and you tell some kid in my neighborhood accomplish something like Yale and Harvard, go and be a Wall Street investment banker, go and, you know, speak at TED - go and do all these things because then you will be saved. And I'm most deeply grateful that, you know, 30 years almost into this journey I can say been to the mountain top, looked in the Promised Land. That's not it. Find that promised land that is there for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GERALD: 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. So I have not a gospel of disruption or innovation or a triple bottom line. 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. Yes, the gospel of doubt means that it is possible that we are wrong.

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, 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 there must be another way. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Casey Gerald, he's working on a memoir about his life. You can watch his entire talk at ted.com.

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