Over my career I have been blessed by the many people have coached me, helped me, and given me a break here or there. In the vast majority of these cases, reciprocity is impossible because of our unsymmetrical positions and these angels have helped me out without any realistic expectation that I could return the favor. Of course, in such cases one works like hell to be worthy of the break, but for years I thought that was about all you could do other than say “Thank you!”
When my children began to enter the workforce, I learned a different perspective. One day my son came to me delighted but concerned that someone had given him a summer internship that would have been hard to justify by any optimistic expectations of his productivity. He would do his best, but the equation did not balance. What I told him was that there was in fact a way to balance the equation. Some day, if he is lucky and works hard, he will be in a position to give some other kid a break. Indeed, that is his obligation. He repays the one-sided investment someone makes in him today by doing his best, by saying thank you, and by himself remembering to invest in others somewhere down the road when he has the position or knowledge to make a difference. Pay it forward. Thus we repair the world.