Why Ta-Nehesi Coates Won’t Call His Father “Billy”

A video of Ta-Nahesi Coats has been spreading like crazy online. In it, Coates responds to a question from a white woman in the audience who asks whether white people should be able to sing along to rap lyrics that contain the N-word.

For once, the Internet has it right. Coates’ answer is a masterful example of how to use narrative to address a difficult topic and to help others understand an uncomfortable truth. At a time when, as a society, we are caught in echo chambers and building up thicker walls that separate us, and when the preferred mode of response seems to be anger, vitriol and accusation, our opportunity as change-makers is to learn from Coates to become more skillful in talking in ways that others can hear.

What I notice about Coates’ response begins at the energetic level: one can imagine him feeling frustration, or exhaustion, or even anger, at hearing this question (again) from a well-intentioned white woman, but no negative feeling comes out. His demeanor conveys thoughtfulness and reflection, and, rather than put the audience on the defensive, he draws them in with accessible, sometimes humorous stories.

And not just any stories: he is making a deliberate point that “words don’t have meaning without context,” that this context is one of relationship, and that one’s right to use a particular word with another person starts with one’s relationship to that person.

Of course, he doesn’t say it that way. Instead, he starts by talking about his wife calling him “honey” and how it would be unacceptable for another woman to call him that if they were walking down the street. The audience laughs.

He goes on to describe how, when he was young and he would go see his family in Philadelphia, his family members would call his father, William Paul Coates, “Billy.” But “no one in Baltimore calls my Dad Billy, and..

…if I had referred to my Dad as Billy that probably would have been a problem. That’s because the relationship between myself and my Dad is not the same as the relationship between my Dad and his mother and his sisters who he grew up with. We understand that.

Indeed we do. It’s easy enough, and safe enough, to understand that there are certain ways we can and cannot address our parents. With this straightforward example, Coates invites us to step in at the shallow end of the pool.

Then he ups the ante a bit, both in terms of tension and humor, by saying, in furthering the point:

My wife, with her girlfriends, will use the word ‘bitch.’ (Pause) I do not join in! I don’t do that. And more importantly, I don’t have a desire to do that. You understand?

Indeed. With the story as foundation, and with the disarming humor of Coates saying that calling his wife “bitch” would not go well for him, we start to see the broader point.

With these two stories—told with all the humor and narrative and seduction of stories—Coates helps the listener experience that language and its usage sits within the context of relationship; that, if you do not have a certain kind of relationship with a person or a group, then it is not OK for you to use that groups’ language; and that it is normal for groups to appropriate potentially offensive language and use it in an ironic way. He has shared all these points in ways that are both approachable and repeatable, so that those who are ultimately persuaded by his argument are armed to persuade the next person with these same, simple stories.

With all of this scaffolding masterfully put into place, Coates then gets to the heart of the issue, and says, in no uncertain terms, that white people are not in relation to black people in a way that allows them to use the N-word. And he goes a step further to say, essentially (my paraphrase): and I think this is an instructive thing for white people to experience, because American society has taught white people that they can, essentially, say and do anything, and that it is the job of those around them to shift to accommodate that sense of entitlement and privilege. And, experiencing a time when you cannot, as a white person, use a particular word, is a great chance to feel what the everyday reality of everyone else feels like in this country.

No punches pulled here, but if you’re going to disagree with this hard-hitting truth, then you have to find your way to explain why Coates should be able to call his father Billy and his wife “bitch,” and that’s a heck of a hard argument to have make in any sort of objective way.

I hope you enjoy and share the video, and that you find space to work this sort of narrative dexterity into your own practice. To change minds, we need to meet people where they are, we need to ensure that they feel heard and respected, and we need arm them with the tools to see a different set of first principles in a way that doesn’t cause shame or separation. This is the opposite of creating a win/lose setup where to acknowledge my point of view, you need to discard your views and values, and essentially admit your own stupidity.

Much easier to accept is: “thank you. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Enjoy the video.

It’s Easy When the End is Near

For those of you who meditate, you’ll have noticed that it’s easy at the beginning and at the end. 

If I open my eyes and discover I only have one minute left before the timer goes off, I am SO Zen for that last minute. 

What this teaches us is that our challenge, often, isn’t that we don’t know how to do the actions we’d like to do. 

Our challenge is how easily we get distracted, how often we lose sight of our purpose or intention, how hard it is to stay grounded when we get triggered by someone’s words or actions. 

This means that the most important difference between the hacker and the expert isn’t the expert’s greater skill or technique, it is that the expert is able to practice her art regardless of the chaos and challenges of her surroundings. 

If Only the Shades of Grey were Brighter

I knew I was pressing my luck.

I had flown in or out of LaGuardia Airport three times in four days, and I uttered the phrase, “I’ve had pretty good luck with flights this week.”

And so it follows that, for flight number four, two days later on a Sunday afternoon, I sat with my family of five on the tarmac for three hours only to ultimately return to the gate. A few hours after that, the flight was canceled.

I’d assumed that when American cancels your flight, or, in our case, five of your flights, they give a voucher for a meal or a hotel. Apparently not since “the flight was canceled due to air traffic control and not because of something the airline did or because of severe weather.”

(But the pilot told us 10 different times that air traffic control wouldn’t let us take off due to a “low ceiling in New York.” Isn’t that bad weather? But I digress.)

By my math, the overnight delay cost our family about $500: two $104 hotel rooms at the ALoft, one (terrible) dinner for five at that hotel, breakfast at the airport, an extra night of parking my car at LaGuardia, an extra night of care for our dogs, and a taxi from JFK to LaGuardia since our flight home landed at JFK.

What struck me about the experience was that this is how things work in today’s hyper-transactional economy: each step along the way is optimized by an app offering information (flight status, re-booking) and discounts (hotels, meals), and the sum of all of those micro-transactions is an experience that dehumanizes both the customer and the service provider:

The flight attendant is frustrated because she has no information or control, and the passengers are upset.

The gate agent is powerless. He just got assigned to the gate. He has no information and no discretion, and it feels terrible to give angry passengers nothing.

The airline has no obligations. It’s all spelled out in the fine print.

The one lone woman working at the hotel front desk has such a narrow job that she transfers the call three times to the van pickup and, when it goes to voicemail, she has no recourse.

The bartender has a big smile and pours a nice cold beer, but when we order a full meal off the bar menu he looks terrified. It turns out that the “grilled cheese with tomato soup” at the ALoft Raleigh-Durham is a microwaved hamburger bun with some semi-melted cheese and Cambell’s soup, all served lukewarm—because he has no chef, no pan, no stove, nothing. We’d ordered four of them.

While our 24 hours delay with a family of five was tiring and expensive, what I noticed most was how much it cried out for an ounce of humanity. The economy we’ve built optimizes so much for efficiency that there’s no space for human agency. Every step is a tiny transaction in which both people standing across from each other—service provider and service recipient—are powerless. It’s dehumanizing by a thousand cuts.

Well, not always.

On the bookends of this trip, I got to spend some time talking to Lily. Lily works at The Parking Spot at LaGuardia airport.

I first called Lily on Friday afternoon when The Parking Spot website told me that they were full, and I couldn’t park there. I called to see if this was true or if I could just show up, and Lily confirmed that I could only reserve over the website: “If it says we’re full, you can’t park here.”

So I asked her for advice, since LaGuardia is under construction and every place was full. We talked a bit more then Lily paused and asked what time I would arrive. “Three o’clock,” I told her.

“Come on over, ask for me, I’ll get you a spot.”

When I arrived, Lily and I both discovered that we knew each other a little. About a year ago, my wife and I were leaving from / arriving to LaGuardia on the same day. The best way for us to make it work was for my wife to pick up the car that I’d parked a few hours prior—without a car key, without the ticket, and with a different last name. Randomly, I had chosen The Parking Spot and ended up explaining this long-winded plan to Lily. She was great. I think she thought it was funny. She helped. My wife got the car. Lily acted like a human being.

The same thing happened with Lily this past Friday when I called, and on Monday the five of us rolled in, exhausted after a 24 hour delay. She laughed. She cracked jokes. She put everyone at ease, not because she has to but because she obviously finds joy in being helpful, saying hello, being human. And, to state the obvious, where do you think we’re parking the next time we fly out of LaGuardia?

The infinite, micro-losses we’ve created in today’s hyper-efficient world are epitomized in how remarkable Lily’s behavior is: in making every transaction smoother and a little bit cheaper we disempower everyone, and no one misses what’s been lost until it’s too late. Care, kindness and humanity now feel like luxury goods.

There is, however, a silver lining: it’s easier than ever, against this backdrop, to have the smallest actions stand out as exceptional. You can do this from the front lines. You can do this in how you build your company culture.

It’s easier than ever to be noticed, to have a bright splash of color be seen in an increasingly monochromatic economy.

Uncorrelated Impact Understanding

Not long ago, I was speaking to a group of sophisticated impact investors from across the spectrum: everything from fully liquid, market-beating financial return expectations to market builders focused on creating social impact who are open to a broader range of financial returns.

The focus of my talk was Acumen’s work on Lean Data, which is our industry-leading approach to gathering customer data at scale. We’re cracking the nut on using technology to give voice to tens of thousands of customers in ways that allow companies to serve them better. I believe that this will, over time, help the sector as a whole deploy more capital to more opportunities that have more social impact. It’s exciting.

But before digging in to the details of Lean Data, I started the talk with an assertion:

The seriousness with which you work to understand impact should be uncorrelated with your expectations around financial return.

I actually said this twice, because we’re so used to talking about correlations (positive or negative) between social impact and financial returns that I wanted to be very clear what I was, and was not, talking about.

My point is, if you say you are in the business of creating impact, then, irrespective of the instrument you use, the financial returns you expect, and the risk you’re willing to take, you’ve got to be serious about understanding impact.

Interestingly, I heard some resistance on this point. The resistance mostly took the form of “I know impact when I see it” or, “why would I waste time on this, it will just distract me from doing the real work?”

I believe there are some cases in which we really understand impact, but I believe those are the exception. Indeed we are so quick to say “we know enough” in a world in which we know shockingly little.

For example, take the $800 billion spent annually by the U.S. government. Peter Orszag, and Jim Nussle, who successively ran the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, write in Moneyball for Government that “Less than one dollar out of every $100 the federal government spends is backed by even the most basic evidence that money is being spent wisely.”

Less than $8 billion of the $800 billion spent annually by the U.S. government is backed “by even the most basic evidence?” Wow. Color me unpersuaded by the argument that we generally know enough.

I think what’s really going on is that we:

Overestimate how much we know

Overestimate the cost of getting great data – because approaches that came before Lean Data typically cost 100x as much

Create an artificial distinction between “creating customer value” and “creating social impact”

Assume that, no matter what anyone says, this is about marketing and dealing with funders, not about learning

Underestimate the value of what we can learn.

On top of this, I worry that we say too lightly that we’re in the business of creating social change, or we assume that this “caring about impact” stuff should be left to the folks who are on the frontiers of solving tough, challenging problems in innovative ways.

The truth is, we are quick to celebrate and advocate for more money walking through the “I (also) want to create social impact” door and then get awfully timid talking about whether that impact is getting created or, more broadly, how much we understand about the connection between the investment, the intervention and the impact it creates.

Caring about impact doesn’t mean you don’t understand how to make money. It doesn’t mean you’re not a serious investor. It doesn’t mean that you’re giving something up.

It’s simply saying: this is who I am, this is what I do. I’m in the business of creating massive positive change in the world. And I know how to do that better than anyone.

You can say all of those things and not blink for a second when someone asks you what your financial returns are going to be.

If we are in the business of change, then we have to be in the business of understanding how change happens.

Painting Stars

Last week, ragged coming off a long flight and feeling unprepared for a talk I needed to give that evening, I decided go for a run.

Mind you, this is not the kind of thing I’d normally do. My working days are, lately, chopped into 30 minute increments. I look on curiously to my fellow airplane passengers who actually watch movies on the flight as I crack open my laptop. And I’m a big believer that the best way to show respect to your audience and their time is to prepare properly for a talk.

But on this day, I was feeling both tired and under the weather. I couldn’t seem to kick a nagging headache. And, given the time change, I had at least another 10 hours left before calling it a night. It’s not that I really wanted to go for the run either, but it seemed like it would help me kick the headache and I then could get back to work.

You probably can see the punchline coming: there was no trade between the run and the time alone in a cramped hotel room prepping for the talk, because the talk came together on the run itself.

We’ve all seen this happen before, but we tend to dismiss it as the exception rather than the rule. But it turns out that there’s a whole field of creative thought that advocates for parallel creative pursuits as a way to keep creativity flowing. Einstein called this “combinatory play,” and he is famous for having come up with most of his breakthroughs while playing the violin.

Image by Lee White

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, calls combinatory play “the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.” She tells the story of Australian writer and poet Clive James who, after a spectacular failure of a play he’d written, got completely stuck creatively for weeks and weeks. Then, one day, one of his daughters asked if he would spruce up her run-down second-hand bicycle, which James agreed to do, painting his girls’ bikes vivid red, the seat posters like barbers’ poles, and,

When the paint dried, he began to add hundreds of tiny silver and gold stars – a field of exquisitely detailed constellations – all over the bicycles…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighborhood, who asked if Mr. James might please paint stars on her bicycle too. He did it…When he was done, another child showed up, and another, and another…And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area.

And, lo and behold, somewhere in the midst of painting all of those stars, James figured out that he did want to write again. He got unstuck.

I do, at times, take “a break” – writing a blog post or going for a run or playing the piano – when I feel stuck. But I’d never considered that to be more than a respite, I’d never thought of creativity as something to be actively fed and cultivated.

If anything, it had always seemed that the only way to defeat stuck-ness was with sweat and brute force. Who’d have thought that there’s such a think of intentionally tilling my own creative soil?

It turns out it’s both.

It turns out that having some places where we are unabashedly doing things that bring us joy and allow us to self-express is an integral part to living a creative life—whatever that means to you.

It turns out that we all need small and big moments of painting stars in our lives.

New Tricks

On a run this past weekend, I turn the corner and see an old chocolate Labrador plodding its way down the street. It has a pronounced limp, it is moving slowly, it looks like maybe the walk is too much for it. It seems like it is suffering.

As I come up alongside the dog, I see something different.

Though its body clearly isn’t cooperating, its tail is wagging, its mouth is open a bit, it looks, as much as any dog can, like it is smiling. I see its owner up the street with two other, younger, dogs, patiently waiting and enjoying this family morning ritual.

Looking at the sun shining on this old friend on a quiet early fall morning, I witness its joyful spirit trapped within a body that isn’t keeping up any more. But her spirit is undeterred. Her spirit shows up in a slowly wagging tail and a spark on the inside, even as her hip aches and her body creaks forward.

We get so caught up in our limitations, big and small, that we can think that they are us.

These limitations can be physical, like a bad hip or a nagging cold. They might be our attitudes and behaviors, like when we give in to fears or get stuck in bad patterns. Or they can be external forces that are weighing us down.

Let’s not wait for things to get so bad, though, before we allow ourselves to see and rediscover the joy that lies within us. We have the chance, today, to experience a sunny morning. We have the chance, today, to be bathed in the love of a patient smile, or even the slowly wagging tail of a close friend.

If we can’t feel it inside of us, then we have the chance to surround ourselves with more people and more moments that bring it out in us, who help us turn up the fuel source on our internal light, beauty, and joy.

We always have time for that.

Catch Acumen at SOCAP 2017

The Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP) has become one of the largest social impact investing conferences globally. I’m excited to join an all-star lineup from the Acumen extended family at this year’s event, which starts today. I’ll be speaking on two panels, one about the “how” of listening to customers as you build a social enterprise, and one on building out a secondary market for impact investing.

If you’re at the conference, or following the livestream, here are some panels you might want to check out.

Flying Blind: No Way to Build a Social Enterprise

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 10:45-11:45am

  • Sasha Dichter, Chief Innovation Officer, Acumen
  • Ann Mei Chang, former CIO at USAID
  • Maryana Iskander, CEO Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator
  • Lindsay Louie, Program Officer, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Online Education For Changemakers: Breakthroughs on the Horizon

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 1:15-2:15pm

  • Jo-Ann Tan, Lead Architect, +Acumen, Acumen
  • Miriam Chaum, Director, Strategy & Analytics, Philanthropy University

 

 

The Front Line: How Millennials are Shaping Solutions to Tackle Climate Change
Wednesday Oct. 11, 3:45-4:45pm

  • Steph Speirs, Co-Founder and CEO, Solstice, Acumen Fellow
  • Clementine Chambon, CTO/Co-founder, Oorja Dev’p Solutions
  • Gator Halpern, Founder, Coral Vita
  • Christine Su, CEO, PastureMap
  • Neil Yoah, Portfolio Manager, Climate Change Echoing Green

Making the Law Work for Social Entrepreneurs

Thursday Oct. 12, 11am-12pm

  • Steph Speirs, Co-Founder and CEO, Solstice, Acumen Fellow
  • Shannen Naegel, Of Counsel, Morrison & Foerster
  • Min Pease, Director, Impact Investing, Echoing Green
  • Kyle Westaway, Managing Partner, Westaway

Is Impact Investing Ready for a Secondary Market?

Thursday Oct. 12, 12:15-1:15p

  • Sasha Dichter, Chief Innovation Officer, Acumen
  • Laurie Spengler, President & CEO, Enclude
  • Debra Schwartz, Managing Director, Impact Investments, MacArthur Foundation

How Can Income Sharing Become the Future of Financing for Education?

Thursday, Oct. 12, 12:15-1:15pm

  • Stuart Davidson, MD at Labrador Ventures, Chair of Acumen Investment Committee
  • Mario Ferro, CEO, Wedu, Acumen Fellow
  • Morgan Simon, MD at Candide Group
  • Felipe Vergara, Co-Founder & CEO, Lumni

SDGs and Financing Universal Energy Access: Is Impact Investing Too Hot, Too Cold, or Just Right?

Thursday, Oct. 12, 12:15-1:15pm

  • Leslie Labruto, Global Energy Lead, Acumen
  • Ajaita Shah, CEO, Frontier Markets, Acumen Investee
  • Mateen Abdul, CoFounder, Grassroots Energy Inc.
  • Thane Kreiner, ED, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship
  • Marc van den Berg, Partner, DBL

Vodafone Americas Mobile Fast Pitch

Thursday Oct. 12, 5:15-6:15pm

  • Saad Ahmad, CEO, Nizam Bijli, Acumen Investee
  • Derene Allen, Executive Director, Ignite Institute
  • Alexandra Bernadotte, Founder & CEO, Beyond 12
  • Ashley King-Bischof, CEO and Cofounder, Markit Opportunity
  • Arturo Noriega, Founder & Executive Director, Centro Community Partners
  • Naldo Peliks, COO, Centro Community Partners
  • Neil Shah, CEO, Concrn
  • June Sugiyama, Director, Vodafone, Americas Foundation
  • Albert Tai, CEO and Co-Founder, Hypercare
  • Zeluis Teixeira, COO Annona
  • Ondrej Zapletal, Executive Director, Ceska sporitelna Foundation