How to Happy Executive Helps Children Read

Ten years ago, John Wood was a successful Microsoft executive working in Beijing when a trek through the Himalayas changed his life. Wood was invited to a local school in Nepal, and when he saw the anemic facilities – particularly the meager library supplies – he decided to use his resources to improve the lives of children in the developing world. Wood quit his job at Microsoft and founded Room to Read in 1999. The organization has since opened 442 schools and more than 5,000 bilingual libraries in eight countries in Asia and Africa. Based in San Francisco, it has fundraising chapters in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Here, Wood discusses how helping others has helped him find happiness.

Q: Are you happy? Why are you happy?

A: Yes, very. Because I wake up every morning knowing that I am doing is EXACTLY what I want to do.

Q: You quit your executive job at Microsoft to start a non-profit that brings schools, libraries, and other educational opportunities to kids in impoverished regions. What impact has that had on your personal happiness?

A: I loved working at Microsoft, but at the end of the day the main thing I was doing was making rich people richer. Everyone holding the stock from 1991 (when I joined) until 1999 (when I quit to start Room to Read) had done extremely well financially. In the meantime, I saw so many children across the developing world who did not have schools or libraries, and it just seemed wrong to me. Ever since I embraced this destiny – of bringing the lifelong gift of education to at least 10 million children in the most resource-deprived parts of the world – I have been much happier. Challenged, yes. Poorer myself, for sure. But definitely happier!

Q: Do you sometimes feel defeated when you see just how much development work there is to be done?

A: No. I am a glass half full kind of guy. There is so much exciting work being done in development right now. The Gates Foundation has declared war on malaria. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health are opening hospitals across Rwanda. Room to Read is going to bring schools and libraries to 10 million children. Being depressed does not do anyone any good. We have to take action instead. I always say that the best type of people in the world today are “action-oriented optimists.”

Q: How do overcome sadness, despair or black moods when they creep in?

A: I don’t let them. I am too busy to be depressed. And if I ever have doubts, I simply book a ticket to go to a Room to Read country like Cambodia or South Africa or Nepal to watch new libraries and schools being opened. This results in a feeling of happiness that lasts for months.

Q: How do you reconcile your comparatively privileged lifestyle with the way the kids you help live? Are you ever tempted to just give away all of the things you have?

A: No. I don’t have any Gandhi-esque desire to live my life in poverty. The kids I serve need for me to be sustainable in my role as CEO of Room to Read, and my hope is to do this work for the next 20 to 30 years. In order to do this, I (and all of my employees) need to have a baseline level of lifestyle.

Q: Do you think it’s essential to help other people and serve a purpose in order to be happy and live the most fulfilling life possible?

A: I am sure that many other forms of happiness are possible. Some people are happy collecting yachts and not giving money away. I don’t begrudge them that happiness, but I do wish they could be convinced to be less self-centered with their wealth.

Q: Do you think people with money and/or privilege have a social responsibility to give to others?

A: Yes, though I don’t like the word “give”. I think that people should “invest” in projects that help people to help themselves – in areas like education and micro-finance.

Q: What do you get from your current work that you didn’t get from your previous work?

A: Poorer (joking). Seriously, every day I have this incredibly positive feeling that Room to Read is changing the lives of millions of kids by providing them with access to new schools, libraries, books and scholarships. Our office walls are covered in HUGE photos of eager young students with smiles on their faces as they read books. That’s a feeling I could have never gotten in a corporate setting.

Q: Why will education make a key difference in the lives of people in underdeveloped areas? What is it about this issue that struck a personal chord for you?

A: Education is the best proven long-term ticket out of poverty. I would dare to predict that 95% of the people reading this are better off than their grandparents, and that education played a role in their advancement. That advancement could be in terms of finances, health, gender equality, or many other areas. You can look at 200+ countries on earth and see a direct link between education and GNP, family health, etc. With education, there is a chance to break the cycle of poverty. Without it, the fight against poverty takes place with one or both hands tied behind the back. We can do better than this.

Q: Do you have a happiness role model? Someone who changed your way of thinking?

A: Well, the Dalai Lama is this guy who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and yet is still always smiling and happy. I wish I could be more like him, but in reality I still honk at people when they accelerate too slowly out of the red light, so I guess I had better work on that Buddhist thing. Also, Jimmy Carter. Here is a man who had the most powerful job in the world, and yet he managed to do even more good for the world with the second act of his adult life. He’s a huge inspiration to me, and by studying him I realized that I could certainly have “life after Microsoft.”

Q: What have your learned from the people your organization works with?

A: That parents are the same everywhere in the world – they want their children to have a better life than they have had. And that almost always comes down to education.

Q: What are your top tips for living the best possible life?

A: It’s really hard to answer that question without having it sound like a cliché. But here goes anyway…I think the most important thing is to only do things about which you’re passionate. There are literally millions of options out there for the average person in our society, so to pick something about which you don’t have passion, and to spend half your waking hours doing it, seems like a really bad deal.

Q: Is being happy the most important thing? Sum up your life philosophy.

A: Health is probably most important. It’s hard to be happy if you’re in bad health. But if you have that, then yes, I’d say happiness is most important.

My life philosophy [in] four words: Have fun; serve others.