Beware of another kind of deficit

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

— Mother Teresa

In the last number of months we have heard repeated concerns expressed about the federal budget deficit in our country and the impact it will have on generations to come.

While this is a serious, legitimate concern, there has been something disturbing for me about the nature of these conversations. I had not been able to put my finger on it until watching the documentary “I AM,” a movie written and directed by renowned Hollywood director Tom Shadyac. (“Liar Liar,” “Patch Adams” and “Ace Ventura”).

In 2007, Tom sustained a life-threatening head injury in a bicycle accident that left him wondering what was really important in this life. After his fast track success and the rapid accumulation of wealth, Tom was on a quest to answer two questions: “What’s wrong with our world?” and “What can we do about it?”

With a four-member film crew, Tom visited a number of teachers, authors, poets, scientists and religious leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and Robert Zinn. He was on search to discover the fundamental endemic problem that causes all other problems, while he “simultaneously reflected on his own life choices of excess, greed and eventual healing.”

Deficits beyond dollars

When leaders and politicians talk about the deficit, they talk about it as though there is only one deficit that our children and grandchildren will inherit from our generation. “The deficit” is commonly understood as the $15 trillion debt. Clearly, this is a serious issue and we need to find a way to bridge our political differences in order to reconcile this burden for generations to come.

However, this is not the only deficit that we are passing on to our children.

This generation has created deficit beliefs that will cripple our children and our grandchildren. We have groomed the next generation to believe that: wealth equals happiness; that competition trumps cooperation; that a company is more important than a citizen, and that we are somehow better than, and separate from other forms of life. These beliefs were at the heart of Tom Shadyac’s answer to the question: “What’s wrong with our world?”

How will we reconcile these beliefs with the reality of the research that suggests that close community relationships; supporting others; compassion and cooperation are experiences that make us happy? How will we reconcile these beliefs with research that informs us that we are not separate beings, that all of life is connected?

In 2005, Roko Belic was surprised by a New York Times report indicating that the standard of living in the United States was the highest in the world, and yet we ranked 23rd on a list of the happiest countries in the world. In his quest to understand the reasons why people are happy, he, like Tom Shadyac, captured his findings in a documentary film titled: “HAPPY.”

Visiting 14 countries in four years, including India, Africa, Brazil, Denmark, China, Scotland and Japan, Belic interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life including a poor rickshaw puller in India, an aging Brazilian surfer and the Dalai Lama. Belic was surprised to discover that even in dire circumstances people were able to experience happiness. As an example, the Cajun Blanchard family of Louisiana, featured in his film, “poor in material wealth, found joy in family feasts of shellfish, which they acquired and shared.”

Lessons learned

The federal budget deficit in this country is a serious issue. So is the poverty of spirit that comes as a result of financial wealth without a sense of meaning and purpose. We often hear this dilemma expressed from leaders who have achieved great success. They have accumulated significant wealth, but at the end of their careers ask: “Is this all there is?”

As we look to reconcile the financial deficit, we also have an opportunity to adjust our belief deficits. Both will impact generations to come. I am not suggesting an either or approach; rather both. We know that financial stability creates opportunities that would not otherwise be there. However, do we dare ask the question, “When is enough, enough?” or “What is my responsibility for others in our community?”

I am reminded of the words of Prah David, a Buddhist monk who often tells us that “We are all brothers and sisters…(and here is the punch line!)…like it or not!” If we know that happiness is rooted in our ability to act with compassion, what keeps us from acting with compassion? What keeps us from teaching our children that success is not only about what we can accumulate for ourselves, but what we can do for others?

We have an extraordinary opportunity at this moment in time. We have research that informs us about what makes us happy; we have data that supports what “is wrong with the world.” Are we willing to take on the mantle of leadership? To look beyond our own needs and invite a collective conversation about what we can do together to advance the wellbeing of all? Are we willing to reduce the belief deficits as well as the financial deficit for generations to come?

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in emotional intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit

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