subterranean self worth.

March 11, 2008


“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club

September 16, 2003.  Petiu George Ciorau had finished up his night shift at a grocery store and was returning home on the Toronto subway.  The part-time 22-year old was walking on the central platform, with his head down, when he saw an elderly woman stumble and fall onto the tracks.

As hundreds of other people looked on, Mr. Ciorau jumped down onto the tracks, lifted up the frail woman, stepped over the third rail – which carried 550 volts DC – and pressed her up against the outer wall.

The train came to a halt a meter and a half from them.

Without a second thought, Mr. Ciorau had risked his life to save another.

Hundreds looked on, but did nothing.  Businessmen, executives, entrepreneurs, professionals of all types, the “leaders of tomorrow” – go-getters, action-oriented Type-A individuals.  None of them did anything, with their self-preservationist attitudes, their custom-tailored suits, their BlackBerries, their café lattes – the shining stars of Canadian society through and through.

No, it took the actions of a young, part-time grocery store employee.  Mr. Ciorau said he didn’t even remember taking off his backpack.

A Toronto firefighter at the scene said he would recommend Mr. Ciorau be hired as a firefighter, and that he deserved the Order of Canada for his amazing act of bravery.

I thought about that story for some time.  I asked myself if I would have done the same thing in that situation.

A month later my wife and I were having Thanksgiving dinner with her family, and some family friends.  As usual, the post dinner conversation was lively, but one of the guests said something that took me aback.

The speaker, an old family friend and university professor, was dominating the conversation as usual and was telling us that, in his honest opinion, you had to have a Ph.D. or he wouldn’t even consider hiring you for any position in his department, because you weren’t worthy.

I could see the hurt in my brother-in-law’s eyes from across the room.  He is a proud man, a family man, the hardest working man I know, and no, he does not have a Ph.D.  He drives a truck for a living, and would give you the shirt off his back.

So I spoke up.  I openly disagreed with the speaker, and told him this story of bravery.  I went on to say that had all of us been in that situation, the only one of us who would have likely done anything was my brother-in-law, the truck driver.  Not me.  And certainly not a fat old university professor with a Ph.D.

Self worth should not be measured by education, or financial wealth, or social status.  It is a very personal thing, and it should be measured by our actions and attitudes towards others.

No one will remember how much money you had, the car you drove, the clothes you wore.  They will remember how you treated them in your daily interactions, personal and professional.

Kurt Vonnegut once asked his son, Mark, about life.  His son said to him, “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

It is what you do with what you have been given that makes you stand out.

Mr. Ciorau understood this, and acted accordingly.  To my knowledge, he has not received the Order of Canada to this day.

Inspired by the great dialogue in the comments following“Are You Charging What You’re Worth?” at Men with Pens, and by the actions of Petiu George Ciorau.


26 Responses to “subterranean self worth.”

  1. Tom Humes Says:

    Nice Site layout. Keep up the good work. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  2. Wonderful story, Brett. I like that quote from Vonnegut’s kid. It reminds me of a similar one from (I think) SF writer Ray Scalzi’s daughter: the purpose of life is to live.

    I don’t know that I would have the courage to jump onto the tracks like that save anyone. A disquieting thought.

  3. brettlegree Says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Michael. And I love that quote you left – very simple and to the point.

    Inspiration of this nature comes from many people. Another one I always remember is from John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

    I know exactly where you are coming from. That is why I have carried this story inside of me for years. I think about it often. I would hope that in the moment, I could be so bold.

  4. Great post – there’s a friend of mine who puts a huge emphasis on grades and feels insignificant when her grades aren’t perfect. I think that she would be inspired by this post 🙂

  5. brettlegree Says:

    @ Tom,

    Thank you very much for stopping in, and for your kindness. I really appreciate you taking the time to say hello, and apologies for not replying right away (spam filter… now I see what James Chartrand was saying over at Men with Pens)

    I’ll have a new design and be going to a hosted service shortly, so I hope that you will like the new design as much as this free one (I’m sure you will, the guys who did it for me should be very proud of their work, it is amazing and I can’t wait to put it out to the world).


  6. brettlegree Says:

    @ RLD,

    I am glad that you enjoyed it. I have thought of this story often, when I have had moments of self doubt.

    At the end of it all, how we treat one another is what really matters. Many of the most successful people in the world did not do very well at school. They figured out what they loved to do, and set out to do it.

    And, how does one measure success anyway? Money and stuff alone don’t do it for me.

    Thanks for stopping by to say hello.

  7. wendikelly Says:

    Great post. I agree with you 100%.
    As someone who was a high school drop out at 16 (who then went on to work my way back through school later) I have felt the sting of those who think the lack of a degree makes you morally and intellectually inferior.
    I believe they couldn’t be more wrong.

  8. brettlegree Says:

    @ wendikelly,

    Thank you for your kind words.

    You are 100 percent correct, as you know. No one need ever feel less than anyone else because of education, or financial status, or whatever.

    I have another short story about a person who I admire very much – my father. He never finished high school, yet he designed and built his own house. Something I could never imagine doing myself (or maybe I could, if I tried).

    I once asked a chemical engineering professor what kind of glue I should use to attach a piece of PVC plastic to a piece of ABS plastic. He said, “I don’t know, that’s not my specialty.”

    I asked my father a few days later, and he said, “Contact cement.”

    And he was right…

    Thanks again for stopping in today – I hope to see you around again.

  9. This is an inspiring story, and very well written too. People are remembered throughout history for all sorts of things, but the ones who are admired and beloved are those who risked themselves for the greater good. Your story illustrates that, and I’m really glad you decided to share it. In Canada, the U.S. (where I live), or anywhere else, we can never have enough reminders to be good to one another.

  10. brettlegree Says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Thank you for stopping in, and especially for paying me such a nice compliment. It means a lot to me to hear this from great writers such as yourself (I only discovered your blog recently and I’ve enjoyed reading your posts). I don’t think I said it when I commented on your page, I really like your theme, you did an awesome job on that.

    I have a couple of other, more personal stories of this nature that I will share in the future. One of the stories will become a book (it is in progress right now).

    We are surrounded by people like this, and we do not even know it sometimes. There needs to be a news channel composed solely of stories such as this one.

    Thank you again for your kind words today!

  11. I love your stories. That’s all I’ll say. And you’re welcome for the inspiration.

  12. brettlegree Says:

    James – thank you my friend, from my heart. I couldn’t have done it without you (and Harry), and thanks to you, it will get a lot better, very soon.

  13. Amy Derby Says:

    Nice post, Brett. It is so easy in this society to try to get our self worth from outside ourselves. But nothing fills that void, and nothing gives us worth, except for ourselves. I will have to read this again.

  14. brettlegree Says:

    Thank you Amy – I am glad that you enjoyed it, and I appreciate your support.

    I’ll have to get to work writing about the other two people I mentioned above. Because I know them personally, and they have helped to shape who I am, I owe it to them.

    Thanks again for taking the time to stop in and say hello.

  15. Hey Brett –

    I’ve been seeing your name around quite a bit and wanted to see what you’re all about. Happily surprised!

    Great site…very simple and beautiful. And this is a great first post to read as an introduction to you.

    Thanks for the story and a rare find!


  16. brettlegree Says:

    Hey Charlie,

    Thank you very much for your encouragement, and for stopping by – I’ve seen your work and am very impressed, so it is great to hear this from someone like yourself.

    I am happy that you enjoyed my story – I have many more to tell, and I hope that you will enjoy them as much.

    Thanks again for your time – Brett

  17. Very inspiring story that makes me all humble. I always said that I’d like to leave this world one day leaving a legacy behind.

    Whether I manage or not isn’t important right now, but what matters is true compassion and care for others and not the size of ones ego.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  18. brettlegree Says:

    Hi Monika,

    It was my pleasure to share this story, and one could say my destiny, since I chose this path. I am glad that you enjoyed it – your encouragement keeps me going!

    You have already left a legacy, with your writing. Your words at your blog have inspired me, and no doubt others as well, and that is something very special.

    Words and ideas are eternal seeds that we plant, for future generations to cultivate and harvest, then replant again for those who follow them.

  19. Jane Says:

    Wow Brett, that was really inspiring!
    I hadn’t heard about Mr Ciorau, it was amazing bravery.
    The inspiring part was where you stood up to the intellectual bully – friendship aside – and stated what really counts in life. Not a piece of paper, but what you actually *do* with the time you’re given on this planet.

  20. brettlegree Says:

    Thank you Jane! I appreciate what you said very much.

    The story of Mr. Ciorau has stayed with me all these years and I am sure I will carry it with me to my grave.

    Just writing this, and then re-reading it while interacting with everyone here, gives me energy and purpose – makes me want to stand up even more, to make a difference with my time.

    And as you said, that is what it is about.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  21. The Friar Says:

    Oh, don’t even get me started on PhD’s! Some can be almost normal, but at least 90% of them are arrogant, anti-social, self-centered KNOBS. (I speak from experience, I have a Piled-Higher’n Deeper Degree myself!)

    In one of my last few jobs, I helped supervise a bunch of blue-collar guys who had high-school degrees (I think you might know who I’m talking about…)

    And these lads were more honest and down-to-earth than all the faculty knobs and Department Heads I’ve ever had to deal with in academia.

    What we need is more truck drivers and grocery store clerks, and fewer PhDs.

  22. brettlegree Says:

    Good to see you out here, Friar! Of course, you are one of the few Ph.D.’s there that isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

    I’d hire that crew for a startup company any time, and I’m sure you would too. You know you’re getting a bunch of honest guys in that bunch who’d back you up to the end.

  23. Rudy Says:

    That’s a great story, Brett. I know someone who’s going through college in his late 20’s because his wife told him he needs it for career advancement. It’s sad that we have to measure people this way, but I suppose in this highly competitive world, ideals are a luxury. If you have to choose, choose the one with the most medals.

    It’s still inexcusable to look down on people because they don’t have a degree, money, fame, or good looks.

  24. brettlegree Says:

    Hi Rudy, thanks for stopping in today to say hello.

    Very true, in today’s world often times the ideals don’t pay the bills. It does make it a lot easier to look at yourself in the mirror though! And, who says you can’t have both.

    By the way, I had a quick peek at your blog – very nice layout, great theme and great content. I had run across the “Shockwave Traffic Jam” phenomena a little while ago and was going to mention it in my “butterfly effect” post, originally.

    Keep up the good work. I’ll stop in again at your place soon.

  25. Allison Says:

    This is an incredibly thought-provoking post. It makes me sad to realize that I probably wouldn’t do anything in that sort of situation either.

    I believe something similar to this happened in NY last year, where some guy had a seizure and someone, possibly a homeless person? (I don’t quite remember) saved him. Once again all the “successful” people didn’t do a thing.

    I also love how you stood up for your brother. Although I’m sure I have been guilty of this at some time or another, it really irks me when people say insensitive things like that, without thinking how it might affect their listeners. 😦

  26. brettlegree Says:

    Hi Allison – thank you very much for saying that, your words mean a lot to me.

    I think I remember that NY case, and a friend of mine recently sent me another newspaper clipping of something similar, and a video link.

    As I said above in response to one of the other comments, this is why the story has stuck with me. I’m not quite sure what I would have done – I like to think I would have tried to save this person. But one never knows until it happens.

    We are all guilty of looking down on others to some degree, I know I am and have done it in the past. And then every so often, you get a surprise.

    The gentleman who owns and operates the variety store in my neighbourhood is a chemical engineer, he is a very smart man and was once a powerful executive in South Korea. He decided that he did not want to do that anymore. I’m sure many people think he is just a guy at a variety store.

    I think I might actually write a short post about him someday. He followed his dream, and changed his life, and is very happy with his choice.

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