Scott Harrison | Give up Your Birthday (Episode 470)

Scott Harrison (@scottharrison) has convinced more than 20,000 people to give up their birthday presents to raise money for people who need access to clean, safe water in developing countries. And in only nine years, charity: water has raised more than $200M from one million supporters. But his goals are far more ambitious…

The Cheat Sheet:

  • While most Americans take access to clean water for granted, 663 million people (nearly 1 in 10 people in the world) live without it.
  • Without clean water, people suffer from countless health problems (like diseases, parasites, and tumors), a lack of education (especially teenage girls who have to take a week off of school every month for lack of washrooms), and a lack of income (especially women who have to spend hours every day traveling to gather it).
  • On a soul-searching trip to Africa, ex-club promoter Scott Harrison started charity: water to help bring clean water to these suffering millions — because he witnessed firsthand what happened to people without it.
  • A six-year-old named Lory gave up his birthday presents one year, asking family and friends to donate $6 each, instead, to help build clean water projects. He raised $2,386. How much could you raise?
  • How did Scott start charity: water from his friend’s couch while $30,000 in debt?
  • And so much more…

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For a decade, Scott Harrison was a club promoter in Manhattan who lived a life of pampered decadence. When an epiphany made him realize he was the worst person he knew, he decided to give up his vices and do something that would have a fulfilling, meaningful impact on the world. On a humanitarian trip to Africa, Scott witnessed how bad life was for people who didn’t have access to clean water; charity: water was born with the goal to provide safe sources of water to everyone.

On episode 470 of The Art of Charm, we talk to Scott about how he’s able to funnel 100% of donations to those who need it most, how he gets celebrities and tech moguls to travel with him and give up their birthdays for charity, how he reinvented himself at age 30 to do something that actually matters, and how you can do the same.

More About This Show

Scott Harrison will tell you he recovered from a morally questionable decade as the prodigal son to found charity: water — a foundation that’s making dramatic strides in providing clean water to developing areas of the world. But his background as a selfless caregiver didn’t spontaneously bloom from nowhere. Scott has his parents — and how they coped with the gas company’s installation of a faulty furnace that left his mother debilitated from carbon monoxide poisoning — to thank.

At four years of age, Scott saw his mom suddenly slip from the role of a healthy superhero who could do anything for her family into a fragile shell at the mercy of virtually everything in her immediate environment. As the homemaker who stayed indoors the most, her immune system had become ravaged by prolonged exposure to the furnace’s leaking carbon monoxide. One day, she just collapsed; she was never the same again.

“She just became allergic to basically anything normal,” says Scott. “Anything chemical — from car fumes to soap to perfume to the ink in books — would make her sick. She was connected to oxygen; she would wear charcoal masks. If I wanted to see my mom, for a period of years I would have to go outside, stand 50 feet away from her, and make sure that the wind was blowing off of her to me and not vice versa.”

Any family might be forgiven — perhaps even expected — to disintegrate in the wake of such a tragedy. At the very least, no one would accuse such a family of abusing the legal system with a frivolous lawsuit against the gas company responsible for the tragedy. But Scott’s family went a different way and persevered in spite of it all.

“My parents were non-denominational Christians and they really lived it. They decided not to sue the gas company because they didn’t want to become bitter and they raised me with great values — with high morals. My dad is an amazing guy; he stuck by my mom. There was a decade where they weren’t even sleeping in the same room. She slept in this tile bathroom covered in tinfoil and an army cot that had been washed 30 times in baking soda. It was bizarre.”

When asked if he feels his parents made the right call in not suing the gas company for its negligence that resulted in his mother’s disability, his answer only seems surprising if you think of him as the debauched, party-all-night club promoter he once was and not the good church kid he was raised to be.

“My dad always had health care and, yeah, could they have five or 10 million dollars sitting in the bank? Maybe. My parents would have just given that money away. They live very modestly; they give away more than their interest on retirement. So I had great role models.”

Still, Scott did go through a rebellious (and, he’ll acknowledge, cliche) phase — perhaps as a reaction to only knowing what it was to put others first. The lessons learned in his youth would endure and return him to a life of purpose, but he had to get a taste of what it was like to live selfishly first. At 18, he left home for the big city. He grew his hair, joined a band (which promptly broke up), and became a nightclub promoter where he was basically getting paid to drink every night. To some, it might seem like a dream come true, but a decade of banal conversations shouted over DJ sets wrapped up with more-than-casual substance abuse made his goal to become “The King of New York” seem like a pretty hollow calling.

It took a particularly decadent trip to Uruguay to make Scott realize he was giving chase to something that would never be caught; no idle pleasure available in such a life of nonstop hedonism would ever be enough to truly satisfy him. When he returned to New York, he resolved to change his life. Soon, he found himself in a rental car with a Bible in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other, headed toward destination unknown. By the time he got to an Internet cafe in Maine, he swore to spend the next year of his life in service to help the poor — as a sort of penance to atone for the 10 years he’d “pissed away selfishly.”

Scott soon discovered this atonement wouldn’t be attained as easily as convincing New York City nightclub denizens to spend money on expensive booze. In applying to an endless lineup of humanitarian organizations, he found that none of them seemed to need him as much as he needed them. Finally, one agreed to let him tag along if he paid $500 a month for the privilege. Not long after, he boarded a hospital ship on a mission to help impoverished people on the west coast of Africa who were in need of medical attention. His job as a photojournalist was to document the medical conditions they would discover and the treatments that would be administered.

Upon arrival at a football stadium in Liberia that was being used to screen hopeful patients, Scott found a scene that made him weep.

“I know that we have about 1,500 surgery slots to fill over a two-day patient screening,” says Scott. “I turn the corner and I see this swarm of people; there are over 5,000 people that had come. I just wept. I literally broke…realizing these people had come, sick, and with hope, and [the majority] would be turned away. Some of them had actually walked for more than a month…from neighboring countries hearing that there were doctors that might be able to treat their conditions. It was incredibly difficult. We saw people with leprosy. We saw people with massive facial tumors the size of volleyballs. We saw people with flesh-eating disease. With cleft lips. With cleft faces. With cleft palates.”

To get through the pain of knowing they couldn’t help everyone, Scott found the best way to cope was to focus on the people they were helping. Being there to witness the reaction of someone who had been blind for 10 years suddenly being able to see again thanks to cataract removal surgery made it worthwhile. But the real turning point in Scott’s journey came when he befriended a boy named Alfred, who would have suffocated to death by the tumor growing on his face in a matter of months if the doctors from Scott’s ship hadn’t been able to remove it.

“I wound up driving him a couple hours out of the city…and watching this incredible celebration in his village,” says Scott. “A child, written off for dead, returned home with a new face — a new lease on life.” This was 10 years ago, and the two have stayed in touch. Alfred is now a plumber who makes his rounds on a motorcycle that Scott and his wife recently helped him get. But Scott is all too aware of how Alfred would have died long ago were it not for the kindness of charitable doctors giving up their vacations to volunteer on hospital ships.

What Scott also discovered was that many of the diseases these doctors were treating could be traced to the filthy water supplies that millions of people are forced to rely on every day in developing countries. Often polluted and teeming with parasites and a smorgasbord of nasty diseases, it’s not uncommon for such water to be accessed only by hours of travel.

“Right now there are people walking eight hours every day for dirty water simply because of where they’re born,” says Scott. “I was born in a middle-class family in Philadelphia; I’ve never had dirty water in my entire life. My son is growing up in a one-bedroom in downtown Manhattan; he’s never going to drink dirty water simply because of the privilege he was born into. So if we can use that privilege that we didn’t do anything to deserve to help others out of extreme poverty, I think it’s a real blessing. It shouldn’t be a burden — I think it’s an amazing thing that we get to do every day.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm to learn how Scott started charity: water to help bring clean water to people in need, what charity: water has accomplished in nearly a decade of action, what charity: water seeks to accomplish in the decades ahead, and how you can give up your birthday for a year (or more) to immediately make a real difference in the lives of real people around the world. We also recommend watching Scott’s keynote at 2013 InBound — it’s powerful stuff.

THANKS, SCOTT HARRISON!

Resources from this episode:

Give up Your Birthday
charity: water
InBound 2013 Scott Harrison Keynote
Charity Startup: Scott Harrison’s Mission to Solve Africa’s Water Problem (Wired UK)
Scott & Vik Harrison (The Great Discontent)
A Save-the-World Field Trip for Millionaire Tech Moguls (The New York Times)
The Art of Charm bootcamps

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AJ Harbinger - author of 1126 posts on The Art of Charm

AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality. Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.

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