Every time you send an email you’re asking someone to make a decision.

Open this now or later.

Prioritize it or put in the “I’ll get to it later” pile.  (And later never comes.)

When you write your spouse, your best friend, your boss, you write a subject line that will help them understand why you are writing, help them understand how important the message is (or isn’t), help communicate something.  The subject line is the second thing they see when your email arrives (the first thing they see is that you sent it).

If it goes without saying that you would never, ever, send one person an email with the same subject line each and every time, how can it be that I still get newsletters whose subject is the name of the newsletter, conference invites whose subject is the name of the conference, offers from companies with the company name as the subject in big capital letters?




Why oh why?

Just because you are writing something for an institution doesn’t mean you’re supposed to sound like an institution.  Please, sound like you.


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The Chana and the Dal

Occasionally I pick up a little Indian food in Grand Central Station on the way home from work.  These are always semi-rushed encounters of picking two veg entrees as part of a platter over rice (mysteriously, with a bit of iceberg lettuce on the side) crammed into a plastic takeout container.

Chana MasalaThe last time I was there I ordered Chana Masala (chickpeas in a tomato sauce) and Dal (yellow lentils).  As the owner was packing up my order at the register, he asked what had happened with my Dal.  While I had a nice portion of Chana, the Dal was a watery, soupy thing with barely a spoonful of lentils.  The owner gave my plate back to the server, haranguing him to give me a decent serving of Dal.  The guy gave me a bit more, still mostly too-thin broth, and it took one more exchange between the server and the owner before a decent pile of lentils ended up on my plate.

What the owner knows, but the server forgets, is where the transaction starts and ends.  To the server, I’m just another guy placing an order, one in a long line of people he’ll serve in a day.  The transaction starts when I make my order, and it ends when I shift down the line to pay.

What the owner realizes is that the transaction starts way before a customer arrive, beginning at the moment when she decides to pick this place out of the 50-odd places where she could grab a bite in Grand Central.  In this transaction, he’s up against the Shake Shack and Two Boots Pizza and Magnolia Bakery.  He’s also up against Golden Krust (Jamaican patties, right by the train track), Zaro’s Bakery, Chirping Chicken (best roast chicken in NY), and about 30 other places.

Winning the battle against all of that noise is really hard.  Which means that the moment the customer shows up is the big win.  The hard work has been done and now we have a one-to-one interaction where the only choice we have is to delight that customer – in this case with an extra five cents worth of Dal.

How often is our customer standing right there, smile on her face and money in her hand, saying “delight me”….and we miss?

We miss because we forget that whenever we have the choice between shouting louder to get more people to stop and delighting the people who are standing there in front of us, we must choose, every time, to delight.

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Extremist for Love

Monday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, an opportunity to celebrate the life and leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  One of the many great pieces he wrote was the Letter from a Birmingham JailKing wrote this piece in the margins of a newspaper and on scraps of paper while imprisoned for nonviolent protests on April 10th, 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama.

The letter is a response to a statement made by eight Alabama clergymen condemning the Montgomery protests, describing those leading the protests as outsiders and rabble-rousers, and positioning themselves as reasonable men wanting “honest and open negotiations of racial issues in our area.”  Most of all, these clergy argued that they “do not believe…that extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”

King’s letter is a clear, measured, but also deeply powerful response to these clergy.   His language, his eloquence, his clarity of thought and his refusal to compromise on issues of morality, rights and dignity inform the conversations we are having today about inequality and social justice.  King writes:

The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations.  He has to get them out.  So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides.  If his repressed emotions do not come out in these non-violent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence.  This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.  So I have not said to my people “get rid of your discontent.”  But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelized through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.  Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist.  I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually grained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love – “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice – “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ – “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist – “Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist – “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – “this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question Is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be.  Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?

We discuss this passage at length with the Acumen Fellows, pushing one another on what it means to be an “extremist for love” and asking one another if, where and when we are willing to be extremists for causes we believe in.

Are you an “extremist for love?”  Do you aspire to be one?

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Where blog posts really come from

One of the reasons I blog is so that I have a regular, disciplined practice of turning loosely-formed ideas into concrete, cogent, shareable posts.  Over and over again.  Until I get better at it.

Part of the power of repetition is getting to observe a process unfold repeatedly.  So, over the last 5-plus years of blogging (and of life), I’ve learned that most of the time my best ideas come through conversations.  When someone asks me a great, thorny, interesting question, and we engage in real dialogue about how to answer that question, I learn things.  This is a powerful piece of self-knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t possess.  It informs how I structure my time and how I think about the conversations I need to have, and the people I need to interact with, to learn, to push my own thinking and my own understanding of the world and of my work.

Rare, though, is to have a photograph of that moment.

The most popular post I wrote in November was How do I get a job in impact investing?, and after I wrote the post I saw this tweet from Josh McCann.  It’s a photo taken the moment I was asked by the Warton Social Venture club how to get a job in impact investing. I was stumped, but I winged it, and we talked, and together we figured it out.

How to get a job in impact investing

Where do your best ideas come from?  Alone, or in conversation?  After a lot of reading and study or on the spur of the moment?  With a pad of paper and a pencil, a whiteboard, with a cup of tea or cranking at your desk at work, constantly jumping back to your Facebook feed (probably not)?

We all struggle with managing our time the right way.  Knowing where we get our best ideas can help.  This is one of the big ideas in Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself, an article that’s worth rereading at least once a year.

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New Year’s Resolution

When I take time off in December and don’t travel I inevitably find my way back to the piano.  I played classical piano very seriously for about 20 years, so it’s part of me and part of who I am, even if I don’t make the time to practice most days.

If I had ever wanted to be a professional pianist, one of the things I would have had to have gotten better at was learning new pieces of music faster.  I never was much of a sight reader, and I allowed that summary of one of my weaknesses to define how I learned new music (slowly).

The advantage of returning to something intermittently is seeing it with fresh eyes.  This year, sitting down at the piano to learn one of my favorite pieces, Shubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D.960, I realized that while I’m not a great sight-reader, there’s also a next step where I’m falling down for no good reason: I let sections, measures, tricky bits, sit in a limbo of “I don’t quite play this right” for way too long, when a little bit of focused attention upfront would be the difference between taking 20 and 40 hours at the piano to learn a new piece.

So often our new year’s resolutions are about big new things that we are going to start: exercising again, cutting out sugar, sleeping more.  And sometimes those can create major shifts in our lives.

But more often than not I find it’s the minor shifts that end up sticking: if I say I want to sleep 7 ½ hours every night and keep it at that, I’ll fail miserably.  Life’s too busy, I have too many other obligations, and the binary nature of do/do not (“there is no try”) makes it too easy to write something off quickly as a failure.  But if I notice, say, how long it takes me to get from planning to get to sleep to sleeping, and then, by paying attention to that one new bit of information, if I make small tweaks where I can in my nightly routine, this might just be enough to have lasting impact.

When it comes to the shifts I want to make in my life, I haven’t had much luck with big sweeping changes, because the power, logic and momentum of the way I do things today doesn’t give way easily.  At the same time, like water to a stone, noticing old behaviors in new ways and then making small shifts has the power to reshape everything.

Happy New Year.

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7 words to increase your productivity

“What would help me the most is…”

Whether to a peer, a boss, a Board member, someone you are fundraising from or a friend, the act of clearly and specifically asking for help is transformative.

Of course it is easier to sit on the sidelines bemoaning the one thing that someone didn’t do.  This gives you a person to blame and it keeps you off the hook for taking the next step.

Or, you can take the much more powerful step of (figuring out and) asking for that one thing that would really make a difference.

And then you can get on with the important work of make the changes that only you can make.

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Personal, with an element of surprise

As I sat down at my desk at work to start the new year, I found two envelopes on my chair.

The first one was a big envelope, 11 x 14.  I opened it up to find a report with a full-color photo on the front, followed by more than 100 pages of text.  I immediately threw it in the trash.

The second one was a thin envelope with a Christmas card.  It looked like a lot of other “Season’s Greetings” cards I receive from nonprofits.  And then I opened it up and found a handwritten note from Olatunde Richardson, who just graduated from high school and is spending the year in Ecuador as a Global Citizen Year Fellow.  Olatunde works at the local Red Cross, he teaches English, art and music (he’s a budding musician), and his note definitely isn’t going into the trash.

Now, if I were part of the inner circle of the first nonprofit, the one that sent me the big report, the report might help me understand their work in more detail, might equip me to tell their story better…assuming I’m already 100% sold on them, 100% passionate about their work, 100% cerebral, and 100% willing to do the work of distilling all of that down into a story I can tell.

Unfortunately I’m none of those things and I suspect few are.

But something as remarkable as a kid taking the time to write me a personal note from Ecuador?  That’s just enough to tip the scales, to give me something worth sharing because it is personal and it totally surprised me.  So it invites me in.

The handwritten note works because it isn’t trying to do everything, it isn’t trying to answer every question I might have about Global Citizen Year (because it couldn’t, and nothing could).  It is trying to say thank you in a personal, memorable way, and it succeeds.

I know, I know – you have too many people you need to connect with, you could never do this for every single one.

Except if you could.  What if it wasn’t you writing the notes but instead the 50 people who care most about your organization, telling a personal story?

Nice to meet you, Olatunde.




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