Mark Jacobs: The "Troublemaker" In Service
--Audrey Lin
7 minute read
Sep 20, 2012

It began with Yoo-Mi and a craigslist ad.

Yoo-Mi had seen a posting for a ServiceSpace (then Charityfocus) volunteer orientation. That afternoon, Mark dropped her off at the Sun Microsystems campus and booked it to the peninsula hills with his mountain bike. A hardcore sports guy, an afternoon in the outdoors always makes Mark come alive. That afternoon was no exception.

“I had had a fantastic day,” he recalls. “It was just perfect in every possible way.”

Yet, when he went back to pick Yoo-Mi up and drive back home, Mark realized that he had actually had the second-best day in the car. His partner, Yoo-Mi, was glowing from the ServiceSpace meeting.

“You’ve just got to meet these kids,” she kept saying, radiant with enthusiasm.

That was a Saturday in June 1999.

The next ServiceSpace meeting took place at their home in San Francisco, and Mark’s been around ever since.


On last Saturday’s Forest Call, Mark had us laughing straight through the hour, as he playfully shared his journey of service, views on garbage and atheism, and the memorable lessons along the way.

Volunteerism vs. Service: The Scales of Small

Around the time Mark encountered ServiceSpace, he was already an avid do-gooder. He regularly volunteered both formally and informally, teaching remedial math, tutoring at the Boys and Girls’ Club, leading neighborhood tree-plantings and organizing garbage pick-ups. On top of that, he lived in a converted warehouse and would often host musicians and artistic performances for the community in his own home. During the day, he was a talented lawyer who started his own firm and practically never lost a case.

When you think about it, Mark has done some pretty big things. Yet the majority of what he shared on the call focused on the power of small.

As someone who has both donned and shed conventional markers of success to seek out a life of greater purpose and service, Mark is often approached by others who wish to integrate more service into their lives.

He noticed that when he asks them what their passions are and what they’d like to do, he often receives big-vision answers, like curing cancer, bringing peace to the Middle East, or ending homelessness.

Once, Mark was talking with a friend in Bombay who goes running at a park every morning. She had asked him what she could do to make a difference, so Mark suggested:

“Tomorrow, you do a lap around the park, say goodbye to your friend and do one more lap around your park. Only this time, pick up all the trash that you see along the route.”

His friend replied, “No, that’s not what I want to do. I want to feed all the hungry kids in Bombay.”

A grand vision, no doubt. But, like all big visions, feeding all the hungry children in such a large city is no small task, and will require a lot of time and dedication. Mark recognized that people often become overwhelmed in their attempts to leap towards these lofty goals.

So, from his own similar experiences, he put out a different idea, “Start small. Start by picking up the trash where you walk.”
“I can’t do that because what will people think? And second of all, what good will it do?” was her reply.
Without missing a beat, Mark answered, “If one other person acts on it, you will have made a huge change in the world. If no one acts on it, and yet their hearts were gladdened by seeing you do it, you will have made a change in the world. And if nobody’s hearts were gladdened by it, but even one person stopped to think, ‘Gee, it’s kind of odd and crazy that this upper class woman is picking up trash in the park in Bombay with her own hands,’ you will have made a valuable change in the world. And it’s something that you can take through the day and feel good about. And it’s something you can build on in terms of your personal service… do what you can. Because there’s great power in the stuff that we can do.”

In true Mark Jacobs eloquence, he points out:

“The challenge in scaling small is that small doesn’t scale to big. Small scales to small times many… We don’t want small to scale to bigger, or even to big. We want small to scale to small times the whole world. Because if everybody’s out there doing little things, the big things kind of disappear.”

And start small, he does. Even during the call, he shines light on the strengths of his questioners.

Before Trishna has a chance to complete her question, Mark blurts, “I have an answer to that question! This question Trishna asks is a good one and here is the answer: Trishna is one of the most amazing people I have ever met, and absolutely one of the daily inspirations for me to serve. I met Trishna when she was about twelve. :) She was just graduated—or maybe not graduated yet from Berkeley—and already possessed one of the greatest organizational minds of anyone I have ever met…”

“Wait a minute, I was getting on the call to talk to you! How did you turn the tables?” Trishna laughs. :)

From High-Powered Lawyer to Disaster Relief

In the last few days of 2004, Mark was wrapping up his career as a lawyer and gearing up to deepen his service journey in India.

It was during those last days of December that the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. Though a lot of Mark and Yoo-Mi’s friends were in North India, one friend of Mark’s was based in South India at the time, so instead of flying north as he normally would, he and Yoo-Mi arrived in Madras on the first day of 2005. That same day, they ended up at the first NGO coordination meeting and met a man from Auroville who had a project that seemed perfectly suited for the two of them.

“The Tsunami washed us to Pondicherry. It was quite accidental. And there we fell in this amazing community of service folks,” Mark explains.

And he’s been serving in India ever since, in the realms of garbage, sanitation, and disaster relief, among many others.

The “Troublemaker”

Mark once said, "I'm kind of a troublemaker at heart. Every group needs an imp to keep their spirits high."

From his lighthearted tone, it’s easy to see that Mark is a jokester who puts you instantly at ease. He also is one who doesn’t give up very easily, even in the face of severe hardship.

Having jumped off cliffs, competed in downhill ski races, white water rafted, mountaineered, survived getting hit by a car while biking, and anything else extreme, Mark is no stranger to crutches, casts, and pain.

His own father once asked him, “Why do you do the crazy things you do? Why do you jump off cliffs? Why do you do this crazy stuff?”

Mark’s response was a metaphor for how he lives his life: “If I had perfect foresight—if I knew every moment of pain and inconvenience and suffering that I would enduring as a result of being a sports person—I would do it anyway. Because it’s worth it to me. Because the way of expressing myself is so much a part of who I am.”

But beyond self-expression, Mark really views his body as a vehicle for the human spirit. Not so much in a spiritual way (after all, the guy’s an atheist :), but in a way that makes you think: why not use what you have, while you have it? The risks we take while living make the journey all that much more meaningful and full.

“Our bodies are—they break,” he says casually. “But they mend themselves. Homeostasis is just about the coolest fact in all of science. If you understand that part of the entry fee—part of the payment for playing, is the injury—you think, “Well, that’s an okay trade-off.”

Lucky to be Alive

After all he’s been through, once could say that Mark is one lucky guy. But, as he points out, “It’s also a function of perspective.”

When Prakash asks him what he’s learning now, he responds, “I don’t know.”

At fifty, he feels the same as he did when he was in his forties, thirties, and twenties. Part of that could’ve been because he already smashed up his knees by the time he turned twenty. But on another level, his optimism is enough to keep him cruising through life’s peaks and valleys full of gusto!

“No lows are too low, and the days are so filled with highs that it doesn’t really mark time for me.”

His gung-ho spirit, constant intake of gratitude, and daily inspiration from the one and only Yoo-Mi Lee (“For those of you who don’t know her, you really ought to take the time”), Mark is a rich balance of childlike joy, extreme sports stuntman, and eloquent servant leader.

Our Saturday morning conversation was a beautiful reminder of all the possibilities that await us—all the good work to be done, small moments that surround us, risks we can cruise through, and the soundtrack of laughter waiting to follow us through the ride.

Thank you, Mark, for taking us along for the ride! 

Mark Jacobs lives with his partner, Yoo-Mi, and lives in Vancouver, Canada and Pondicherry, India. More of Mark's musings and insights, experiments in giving, and beyond can be read on his blog

Note: Due to technical difficulties experienced during the call, Mark holds no responsibility over the quality of his answers. :)


Posted by Audrey Lin on Sep 20, 2012

7 Past Reflections