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?).

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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]

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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

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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

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A New Epistemology of Solving Complex Problems

I’m in India, spending the week with the Acumen team and with the Acumen India Fellows for their fourth seminar. Last night, at the end of the first day of seminar, we were joined by Vijay Mahajan, one of the most esteemed social sector leaders in India. Vijay is the founder of Pradan, which he ran from 1983 to 1993, and was then the founder of BASIX which grew to be one of the largest microfinance organizations in India prior to the microfinance crash in 2010.

Vijay is a truth-teller, who speaks plainly and without adornment about his experiences. Our conversation was an intimate one – just us (20 India Fellows, me, Jacqui Papineau and Bavidra Mohan, together with Vijay and his colleague, documentary film-maker Girish Godbole), with Bavidra interviewing Vijay before an open Q&A.

Upon hearing Bavidra’s first question, around lessons about leadership, Vijay paused and thought hard for what must have been 20 seconds before responding. Just watching such an esteemed individual, who must have been asked a similar question hundreds of times, really stop and think before giving an honest answer was a display of humility and respect for our group that itself spoke volumes.

From that moment on, everyone in the room was silently hanging on Vijay’s every word, with most scribbling furious notes of Vijay’s pithy insights. My single biggest takeaway stemmed from a comment Vijay made early on in the discussion, when he said:

Anything that could be solved with single variable maximization was solved in the 20th century…we need to create a new epistemology of complex problems for the 21st century.

I’ve always felt that impact investing and social enterprise are something brand new. If this work is going to realize its true potential, we are going to need to think about two-variable approaches – or, better stated, leadership that embraces opposable mind thinking and sees potential where others see only contradiction.

I must admit, until last night I had not aspired to creating a “new epistemology” but I think Vijay is on to something. Ultimately we need a strong theoretical and analytical grounding to explain what it would mean to take truly new approaches to solving centuries-old problems, problems that are based as much on caste, social exclusion, geographic marginalization, and politics as they are on simple microeconomics. And, as Vijay reminded us, such a theoretical underpinning is not entirely new. Indeed, in 1956 economist Herbert Simon developed the notion of “satisficing” rather than “maximizing” behavior as being a more accurate description of how individuals and firm managers behave. Perhaps we need more satisficing firms of we are to solve this new batch of problems.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it strikes me that Vijay’s statement summarizes the core fault line within impact investing and social enterprise: is impact investing just about extending the market, a chance to extent single-variable (profit) maximization to areas where it hasn’t yet reached? Or is single-minded profit maximization (versus profit achievement), as a binding constraint, anathema to the real task of tackling social issues?

There’s no doubt that there is work to be done on both sides of this fault line. It is an overstatement to say that all single variable maximization problems were solved in the 20th century, and there are huge emerging swaths of the population – hundreds of millions of people – who are optimally situated to benefit from the extension of 20th century approaches to them. However, I believe that impact investing will fall far short of its potential if it limits itself to this approach (indeed, isn’t it just “investing” to find businesses that fit age-old criteria and invest to help them grow)? What I am seeing after nearly eight years doing this work is that that, outside of narrow verticals (e.g. financial services on mobile platforms), the social sector leaders who are working to reach marginalized populations do not act as if single-variable maximization is enough.

By the way, it bears mention (lest anyone jump to conclusions) that just because one agrees that a narrow profit-maximization mindset is not enough does not predetermine anything about what business models need to look like, what form an organization should take (for-profit, non-profit, or some other form), or even about financial returns. Rather, this is a conversation around what sort of problem one believes one is working on, and an assessment up-front of whether the tools that we created in the 20th century are up to the task of tackling the problems of the 21st century.

Vijay’s closing thought, with which I heartily agree, was that “we cannot build great theory if we keep on reporting practice wrong.” Our challenge, from the outset, is to have the audacity to imagine the world as it could be, and the humility to share the real lessons of what it takes to create large-scale social change. Vijay certainly shared his real lessons with us, and I know that I and the Acumen India Fellows will follow his lead in continuing to take problems head-on, and honestly share what we are learning with other practitioners, so we can all build a better future.

(And maybe, just maybe, we will eventually find a way to develop a PhD 21st in the Epistemology of Solving Complex Social Problems…)

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Strong ideas, loosely held

One of the best pieces of advice I got about five years ago was that I should have “strong ideas, loosely held.”

The feedback I was getting was on the “loosely held” part. At the time people experienced me as having “strong ideas, strongly held.” I think I’ve made some good progress on that.

Five years hence, as I come back to the central paradox inherent in this notion, I’m understanding that the suggestion isn’t to have any less conviction around my ideas. Indeed nearly all of the time we need more conviction, more passion, greater commitment, and greater follow-through.

The real point here is that the passion we have for our own ideas must be coupled with a core, deep-seeded belief that most ideas, most of the time, get better when they interact with, and are changed by, other ideas.

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Why I (like everyone) gave to ALS while on vacation

A friend and colleague asked me.

It was personal and I didn’t want to let him down.

It was (a little bit of) a challenge to how macho and bold I could be.

It was public.

Turning something like this down, given who I am and my values, would be just a little bit shameful.

Everyone was doing it.

It was fun.

I could talk to my kids about it and get them involved in it.

It was easy and quick to do.

I could share it with friends in a way that felt totally positive – without putting them out. In fact, many friends said “Thank you! I was hoping to be challenged.”

It incorporated video, and allowed me, in 30 seconds, to create a video I was happy to post and that I knew would be entertaining (no edits, no storyboards, no nothing).

Did I mention how fun it was?

That’s a pretty good list to choose from for how you fundraise. I’m positive you won’t hit all of these, but if you’re hitting none of them then you’re pushing a rope uphill.

And the really tricky bits that I can’t stop thinking about are:

I did give to ALS, but most people won’t. That’s totally fine as long as what you create is huge.

The specifics of the organization I was giving to, and the cause, didn’t matter. This would have worked for any cause.

I talked to my kids about ice water not about ALS.

Pretty quickly my head starts to swirl about ends and means, whether (some? all?) philanthropy should be fun and what is lost when it is fun (and what doesn’t happen when it’s not).

When giving is more like eating dessert than it’s like eating your vegetables, is that a problem? Certainly not, today, for the folks suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

(and for those keeping track, the ALS Association has now raised nearly $100 million from 3 million donors…versus about $23 million last year).

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