The main course

I stopped eating meat almost four years ago, primarily for health reasons after reading The China Study, and cut out most dairy too. I do eat a bit of fish, for the vitamin B12 (and because it keeps me sane), and I still eat things that have butter in them/on them, because that makes me happy.

I’ve noticed over these past few years that, in the US at least, there are more and more veg-friendly options out there. Salad shops, soup shops, and also food from around the world that is delicious and not made with meat.

Where I still feel vegetarians are misunderstood is that, because it can be such a strange concept not to eat meat, many people assume that vegetarians go to the other extreme: that being vegetarian means that I eat side dishes all day long, food that’s more spare and has less flavor than meat-eaters would find satisfying. In fact, I have no interest in steamed broccoli with no salt or olive oil, nor do I like salads and raw, cold food much more than most people.

Great, complex, fully satisfying vegetarian main dishes are still hard to find, so when I come across them I’m quick to go back for more. The other day I had a vegan mushroom ramen from Mokbar that was every bit as ramen-y, rich, and delicious as I hoped it would be, and I was pretty amazed that they could create that much depth of flavor without any pork shoulder in the broth. That got me thinking about my top-top list of most delicious vegetarian dishes that erase any remaining longing for meaty goodness:

  • Squash rice from the Fat Hen in Johns Island, South Carolina (just had this last month for the first time. Amazing)
  • The Warm Farro & Fried Egg Salad from Red Hat Bistro in Irvington, NY (which may have disappeared from their menu, which would be a shame)
  • Tofu Bahn Mi sandwich from CoBa, on 17th St and 9th Avenue
  • Eggplant Sabich from Taim Falafel, 45 Spring Street, New York
  • Black bean burger from Smashburger (far and away the best veg hamburger I’ve ever had)
  • Lentil pie from the Tuck Shop in Chelsea Market
  • Vegetarian chili recipe from Cooks Illustrated (umami-full flavors that win over the meat-eaters)
  • Pumpkin Curry from Ariana Kebab House on 52nd Street and 9th Avenue

This list omits Indian restaurants, as I don’t have a favorite, and gets me thinking about great veg dishes at Thai restaurants.

What about you? What would you add to this list of great main course vegetarian dishes?

Posted in The China Study | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

No Soup for You

I was having a light-hearted disagreement with a colleague about the loyalty card programs of the lunch places across the street from Acumen – the cards where you get 10 punches / stamps and get a free lunch. Some of them, like Chelsea Thai, allow you to combine different cards, so if you don’t always have your card with you, you can still get a stamp and combine cards. Others, like Hale & Hearty Soup, have a strict policy: no combining of cards.

The disagreement was whether there’s a meaningful difference between the two.

I discovered the intricacies of the Hale & Hearty stamp card policy a few years back when I showed up with two soup cards, one with 6 stamps and one with 4. Those two cards represented a good deal of concerted soup-eating effort on my part. Proudly, at the front of the line, I presented my two cards only to be told that the policy was “No combining cards.”

No (free) soup for me.

To be clear, I could get a free soup when I presented ONE business-card-sized piece of card stock with 10 little ink stamps on it, but not two separate cards adding up to 10.

From that moment, I stopped collecting Hale & Hearty Soup stamps.

Now, one could easily (and convincingly) argue that it’s not too much to ask that I keep track of that one card. That’s probably true. But I wonder about the culture of an organization that enforces that kind of rule, one where employees cannot make a call to say “yes” to a customer who is showing up and vouching for their own loyalty to your store.

Dov Seidman, author of How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), conducted a survey of 5,000 managers and executives in the US, to understand their values and behaviors. From that survey, he grouped companies into three categories:

Companies in the first group, called “blind obedience,” rely on coercion, formal authority, policing, and top-down command-and-control leadership. The second group, “informed acquiescence” organizations, have clear-cut rules and policies, well-established procedures, and performance-based rewards and punishments — the standards of high-quality 20th-century management. The third group, organizations with “self-governance,” are the most farsighted organizations, best positioned to thrive in an interdependent world. People at all levels of the company are trusted to act on their own initiative and to collaboratively innovate; a shared purpose and common values guide employee and company behavior.

I’d pretty much forgotten about my Hale & Hearty frustrations until last month when, on my way to India, I had a short, groggy layover in London’s Heathrow airport. I found my way to a Pret a Manger, my new favorite London destination, and began searching in vain, amongst the throng of coffee-starved travelers, for oatmeal (“porridge”). I waved and gesticulated a few times to the cashier, asking her where to find it, and she kept on pointing me to the same spot. Then, finally, she stepped out from behind the register, looked for herself, and realized that they were fresh out of porridge.

Immediately upon returning to the counter, she not only apologized to me, she offered me a latte on the house! Her decision was so quick and made with so little hesitation that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was bending the rules or whether, even in such a big chain the front-line employee is given the freedom to delight a customer.

It turns out that this is how Pret works, that their philosophy is all about team and front-line employees and about delighting their customers. Which would be quaint if Pret were a mom n’ pop shop, but in fact it is majority-owned by a private equity firm, it has more than 350 stores, nearly $1 billion in revenues, and it’s growing like gangbusters.

Maybe, just maybe, the follow-all-the-rules-or-you’ll-get-fired approach to management is starting to show its colors as the un-enlightened, underperforming approach it seems to be.   Because while there’s no doubt that most people would rather work somewhere where their job is to make other people happy, we’re starting to see more and more (and more) examples of how the by-the-numbers approaches are revealed for what they truly are: races to the bottom.

Posted in Generosity | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Most of your meetings will be better if you…

Have a purpose.

State a purpose.

Execute on that purpose.

 

This means you know what success looks like for you, and you actually say it out loud to the person you’re meeting with. For example:

“I want to make sure we cover these three topics.”

“I wanted to connect because I really want to understand ________ from your perspective.”

“I’m hoping that by the end of this meeting we will finalize the partnership we’ve been discussing for the past six weeks, and that your company will commit to $1M of funding towards that partnership.”

I’m surprised how rare it is to hear people actually articulate their goals for a meeting.  Especially fundraisers.  Doing so doesn’t make you pushy, it makes you clear and effective.

 

Posted in fundraising | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

15 ways you can reach me

Today a friend apologized to me for not seeing a Skype text I’d sent him last week (no problem). This got me thinking about the incoming communication tools that I have, all the ways people can reach me.

  1. Work email address (Outlook)
  2. Personal email address (Gmail)
  3. Blog email address (Gmail)
  4. Blog comments (WordPress)
  5. Spam/shopping email address (Yahoo)
  6. iPhone text
  7. WhatsApp (including a few groups)
  8. Twitter (DMs, RTs and mentions)
  9. Skype calls + texts [oh, and I’m testing Viber]
  10. Facebook (and I don’t use the messenger app)
  11. LinkedIn messages
  12. Work phone + voicemail
  13. Cellphone + voicemail
  14. Home phone + voicemail
  15. [Local cell phone while traveling abroad]

Fifteen different communications tools, and I’m not that active on any of the social media platforms. Nor does this make any reference to my going out and seeking news, updates and information (blog RSS feed, Twitter feed, Facebook feed, LinkedIn Feed, etc.).

This feels like an insane list. I guess Facebook and Google want to consolidate everything for me so I’m not jumping between platforms, but I don’t trust either enough to have that feel like a good solution.

Is this just the way it is, or am I missing something?

I’m curious: how many ways can you be reached?

(p.s. Eric Schmidt wrote a piece for Time about email, which includes the maxim “Clean out your inbox constantly.” I totally disagree. Where do we draw the line in terms of our incoming communications streams, and when are we supposed to do real thinking and work if we’re triaging 15 (20? 30?) feeds all day long?).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

What I Talk About When I Talk About Blogging

I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past few months that start with people saying, “I really have been meaning to write or blog, but I just haven’t done it. Any advice on how to start and stick with it?”

Here are 12 things that I’ve learned since I started blogging in 2008:

  1. A structured time to write. Stephen King is famous for saying that step one in writing is to put your “butt in the chair.” Not glamorous, but true. 99% of my blog posts have been written on the train that I take home from work. And most of them come out very quickly – in 10-15 minutes. But I’ve discovered that when I don’t take the train, I don’t write blog posts. That’s when I write.
  2. Make a commitment. Commit to how much you’re going to publish / write / post. I’d suggest you aim high because you’ll probably do less than you intended (because that’s life). And “publish” because I think creating finished work (to your own standard) is important, because it lets you practice sharing complete thoughts that engage other people as readers.
  3. Set it up so someone is reading. I’ve been blogging for more than six years now and I’ve written nearly 1,000 posts. I absolutely, positively, would have given up after six months if I didn’t have readers. I’ve grown to feel that my readers and I have an unspoken contract: they commit to taking the time to read, think and (hopefully) act on the things I write that they find useful; I commit to keep on writing. And occasionally, they comment or reach out to say how a post has helped them or moved them or taught them something. That feels great. [If you’re writing for yourself or in a journal, this “someone” could be a colleague, a boss, a friend you respect, and you could commit to sharing 5 things you’ve written every month. My hunch is that if it’s just for you, you’re writing a personal journal, which is also important work but is something different.]
  4. Ignore your inner critic. We ALL think that everything we write isn’t good enough (not good enough for us, and definitely not good enough to have others read it). The irony is that the more you let yourself censor your own work, the less of your own work you’ll produce, and the less your work will improve.
  5. Remember that it’s much more important to write a lot than it is to write well. This is basically the same point as the prior point, written differently. When I was posting nearly every day, it helped me tremendously to know that if a post wasn’t good enough, I’d have another shot at it tomorrow. It’s helped me even more to go back to posts I’ve published and try to remember which ones I thought were the “good” and the “bad” ones.
  6. Remove the “am I saying something new?” filter. Because no, you’re not saying something completely new and that’s OK. The point is that it’s YOU saying it, and we care about what you think and how you make us feel when we interact with your idea and your emotions.
  7. Ignore the outer critic. Yes, sometime between here and there people you care a lot about will tell you to stop or to do things differently. Listen to them, contemplate what they say, but don’t commit to doing what they tell you to do. Any creative, self-expressive process is inherently delicate, a flame that’s easy to snuff out. Protect it.
  8. Keep it short. I’m highly partial to 200-500 word blog posts. Every time I write something longer than that it’s because I couldn’t make it shorter. Yes you might have a more technical or expository topic than I do, but by and large if you want people to interact with your ideas you need to present them as simply as possible, with as clear language as possible, in as few words as possible. Use this work to practice not hiding behind elaborate, obtuse language.
  9. Have a strong purpose, loosely held. Especially if you’re trying shift from being someone who doesn’t write to someone who does, I think it’s helpful to have a specific intention plus the freedom to write about what you want to write about. When I started this blog I thought it would just be about fundraising, but I didn’t have enough posts in me on that narrow topic, and the whole construct felt constraining. What I’ve found since then is that through the process of writing this blog I’ve figured out what this blog is about, and I think my readers get it too.
  10. Discomfort should happen. The reason you’re doing this is to grow. Growth comes through doing things you haven’t done before, aren’t comfortable doing, and aren’t good at today. If it feels hard, risky, or awkward, you’re doing the right things.
  11. Do it because it matters. There should be some deeper purpose, which isn’t the same as an external objective (as in, “this is how I’ll land a book deal” or “this will help me when I’m looking for my next job.”) I started blogging because I wanted to understand the job I was doing – fundraising – and what it meant, and could mean, to me and to the nonprofit sector. Over time that focus deepened into wanting to understand, in a much deeper way, people who give to charity, which led to an exploration of generosity, which in turn opened up a lot of avenues of further exploration. Ultimately, this blog has become a vehicle for understanding my own purpose and for sharing things that I’m learning or being challenged by along the way.
  12. Someday you won’t be able to live without it. My blogging continues to evolve, and its purpose and continues to shift. It changes as I do. But it is now part of who I am and what I do, and I hope never to lose that.

For all of you out there reading, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.

For all of you out there thinking about writing, I hope this helps.

[title apologies: Hakuri Murakami]

Posted in Blogs | Tagged , , , , , | 87 Comments

Beauty and grit – from Lahore with love

Waqas Ali keeps telling me that he sleeps.  I’m not sure I believe him.

The last time I saw him was in late June in a coffee shop in Lahore.  We sat down at midnight, and it was clear that his day was just getting started. The Ghana-Germany World Cup game was being projected on a 15 foot screen in the background, but there’s no risk in being distracted when Waqas starts talking.  His energy is infectious.

Waqas and I first met two years ago. He was the young, quiet, skinny kid in a group of six applicants that were part of the final selection for the Acumen Pakistan Fellows.

Well, quiet until he started talking…

We asked each applicant to tell their story and share how they’d heard about Acumen and the Fellowship. Waqas, who is from a humble background, and who seemed a bit shy until he got going, told us that he wasn’t doing well in college but he did spend a lot of time in the library. He ended up making his way to a corner of the library where there were old copies of the Harvard Business Review, which he started pouring over every day, and he eventually found his way to Seth Godin’s blog and to Acumen. He told us about his dreams, interspersing bits about bringing dignity and opportunity back to his village and talking about what he felt he had to learn from Mark Zuckerberg. I remember thinking that he was either a crazy dreamer or that he was going to change the world.

Fast forward two years and I know now that Waqas is much much more than a dreamer. I’m one of many people who has had the chance to watch Waqas and his partner Sidra push through barrier after barrier in their crazy, beautiful dream to build a global-quality, ultra-premium shoe company using the skills of local Pakistani craftsmen. I’ve had just a tiny glimpse of the challenges they have had to overcome, and it’s been a long long road just to get to today.

As Waqas has told me many times before, there’s just nothing harder to get right than shoes. Sizes, leather, tanning, fitting, craftsmanship, brand, shipping…..  They’re getting it right, and then some.

Yesterday Waqas and Sidra’s company, Markhor, launched their Kickstarter campaign. In 22 hours they hit their $15,000 goal. I have a feeling the momentum is just starting to build.

I got my hands on a pair of Markor’s new shoes earlier this week. These are some of the most beautiful shoes I’ve ever seen. I don’t have much of a shoe vocabulary but “buttery” comes to mind when describing the quality of the leather and “immaculate” is how the whole shoe feels. They are exactly as beautiful as these pictures.

Markhor shoes

Of course there’s a lot more to this story than beautiful shoes. There are the artisans who Waqas and his team patiently invest in – not just working with them and providing them with the potential for a brighter future but treating them as family, and helping them through personal hardships. There’s a story of bootstrapping entrepreneurship in its truest, most raw farm. There’s a different story coming out of Pakistan. And there’s the chance to get in early on something that’s going to be big – like if you’d bought some of the first pairs of Tom’s shoes before everyone else was doing it.  Unique gifts are hard to find these days, and this is one of them.

Check out the Markhor Kickstarter campaign to get your hands on a pair of very special shoes, and to be part of a very special story.

Markhor shoes_video

Posted in Acumen | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What I Deserve

I live in a wealthy community in a wealthy country. I had, and have, a stable, supportive family and access to world-class education. I am male and I am white.

Last week, as part of my time with the Acumen India Fellows, I spent some time 135km outside of Hyderabad, in the villages surrounding the town of Kosge.  We were there to understand the issue of marginalization of rural women, and to do so we spent time in villages, with women’s self-help groups, visiting schools and talking with NGOs and the police force and with doctors in public hospitals.

We split up into four groups, and as luck would have it I ended up in the village that seemed completely stuck, where little progress was being made, and where it felt like there was little hope for improvement.

A village where every single woman said that she is beaten by her husband.

A village whose women, when asked what a woman should do if she is regularly being beaten by her husband, responded, “be patient.”

A village where payment of dowrys is on the rise, and where dowry deaths still occur.

A village where girls often get married when they are 12 or 13 years old, and where it is hard to figure out if that is as terrible as it seems or if, in fact, betrothal protects a young girl from sexual predators.

A village whose public hospital, 4km away, has exactly one young doctor, in her 20s, who is on call 24/7, and no additional nursing or medical staff we could identify, working in a hospital whose annual budget, according to the doctor, was less than $2,000 a year.

Returning home from this trip, on the way back from JFK airport, I was talking to my driver who was originally from Guyana. He described life in his country simply, “If you are born rich, you will die richer. If you are born poor, no matter how smart you are and how hard you work, there’s no chance for you, you will always be poor.”

Yes, it’s true, I have the choice, each and every day, of how to live my life, of how hard to work, of what opportunities to pursue, what risks to take, and what my attitude is going to be. I have agency and to some extent I reap what I sow.

But the fundamental point is that I live in a place and a time, and I was born in a place and a time, where my actions yield results. And for far too many people, including the women we spent hours sharing stories with, talking about hardships and often laughing through the discomfort of it all, every force in the world is undermining their ability to realize even some small fraction of their human potential.

It’s so easy to hide from the realities of the world, how cruel and unfair it still is for so many people. And while it is natural to insulate ourselves from these harsh, cruel, ugly realities, it strikes me that we cross a line – the line between self-preservation and delusion – when we start telling ourselves that we deserve the lives we have.

We don’t.

We have the lives that we have, we played some small part in creating them, and it is our choice, every day, to do what seems right to us with the gifts we have been given, however big or small.

Compilation

Posted in Dignity | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments