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

Baby steps

We’re sometimes confounded by the big changes we want to make.

We get a glimpse of the person we hope to become, or a new behavior we hope to engage in, and nearly immediately find ourselves frustrated that we’ve not suddenly mastered that new set of actions. This isn’t how we change.

Real, honest, deep change starts small and builds, with steps like:

I will observe my reactions.

I will understand what triggers me.

I will watch the group.

I will experiment with new ways to respond.

I will be more observant about how people react to the things I do, and about how I react to the things they do.

Step by small step is the only way we get to bigger things like “I will stay grounded in stressful situations,” or “I will be more effective at confronting aggressive people.”

We owe ourselves the space to start small, figure out the component parts of the change we want to make, and then be deliberate and persistent. Our job is to go easy on ourselves along the way, while also not letting ourselves off the hook of continued progress.

Looking backwards the changes will look like leaps, but often they’re the accumulation of lots and lots of baby steps.

 

Stocking up on Humility

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was last week. It is followed by the ten Days of Awe, a time for reflection and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I always thought it was a particularly Jewish approach to things, to have the biggest day of celebration followed almost immediately by the Day of Atonement, as if to say, “be happy, but not too happy….”

As I was sitting in temple during the Rosh Hashanah service, I found myself reflecting on conversations I’ve had with Jewish friends in the past few weeks about Judaism as an identity and culture versus Judaism as a religion. These friends spoke proudly of their Jewish identity, while also expressing skepticism of the role that Jewish religious practice plays, or should play, as a core part of that identity.

It turns out that these friends represent a broader trend: according to a 2015 Pew study, while the Jewish population as a whole is stable, it is also thinning out in the middle: there’s growth in highly observant Orthodox Jews and growth in people who consider themselves Jewish but who are non-religious.

This got me thinking about whether we can fully untangle Jewish (or other religions’) identity from the religious practice of Judaism. What role do the prayers themselves, and the act of going to temple, play in my own sense of identity, as a Jew and as a human being?

I don’t have any simple answers. What I know is that I personally have contradictory experiences when I go to temple: each individual moment, and each individual prayer, don’t make complete sense to me, but overall I get a feeling of warmth, of belonging, of reflection, of community, and of meaning-making that feel foundational to who I am and how I show up in the world.

What struck me in particular this year was that going to services is a great way to stock up on humility.

Whatever your belief in a specific divine presence, there is wonder and awe and beauty in the world that is much bigger than any one of us. The words of nearly every prayer are successive reminders that there are much bigger forces at work than me, a single small human being. Whether that “something bigger” is a divine presence, the laws of nature, or simply the millions of years of life on this planet that came before I showed up, the prayers are a heck of a reminder for all of us not to get too big for our britches, not to think too highly of our own lives, and not to give ourselves too much credit for our roles in the things we have accomplished. They are also a reminder of wisdom passed down through the generations: about right and wrong, about asking for forgiveness, about remembering to bow our heads to forces bigger than us.

Whether we need religious practice itself to remind us of these things is a separate question. But it cannot be a bad thing, for all of us who care about our ongoing development as leaders, to have ritualized, sacred practices through which we are reminded to be humble.

What to Make of the Wizard of Oz

We all know by now that there was really no wizard, even if he did keep Oz in thrall for quite a while. He was just a man behind a curtain with a bunch of gadgets, some flame-throwers, and a microphone.

Yet, in the last scene of The Wizard of Oz, he does, indeed, perform some magic.

The scene begins with Scarecrow demanding, “But what about the heart that you promised Tin Man, and the courage you promised Cowardly Lion?!” The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion then chime in, in unison, “and Scarecrow’s brain!”

Without missing a beat, the Wizard proceeds to produce three totems: a diploma conferring an honorary degree of ThD (Doctor of Thinkology) for the Scarecrow from the ‘Universitatus Commitiatum E Pluribus Unum;” a Triple Cross medal from the “Legion of Courage” for the Cowardly Lion; and a heart-shaped clock for the Tin Man.

Upon receiving his piece of paper, the Scarecrow recites the Pythagorean Theorem from memory. Upon being pinned with his medal, the Lion, miraculously, feels brave. The Tin Man’s ticking heart makes him believe in his capacity to love.

What happened in that moment of official conferral in which an object and a story from a “wizard” made them each believe in something that was within them all along?

More confusing still, what do we make of the Wizard who gave them trinkets that transformed the stories they told themselves about themselves, and which, therefore, transformed how they showed up in the world?  Is he a pure charlatan or, as he claims, “a very good man, just a very bad wizard.”

And, before we get too far down the path of asking whether placeboes really work, let’s remind ourselves that every degree or fellowship or job title is nothing more or less than conferring of an official title and set of expectations, and these things are no more or less real than Scarecrow’s fake degree.

Sure, some of these things – degrees from prestigious schools, time spent working at blue chip firms – do communicate that we’ve gone through rigorous selection criteria, been exposed to certain curricula or training, been socialized in a particular way, and jumped through other sorts of hoops. But it is far too easy to get lulled into the belief that each rung up the ladder of life requires us to be picked by someone else. While it’s true that each prestigious marker that we collect opens certain doors, it’s a siren’s song to be tricked into believing that it is someone else’s job to decide when you are worth praise, recognition, and the right to lead.

I’ve known too many amazing people in the social sector who need “just one more” degree, fellowship, or job in a fancy mainstream firm, after which they’ll finally have everything they need to make the difference they hope to make in the world.

The truth is that the opportunities for you to lead are too many and too urgent, the gatekeepers often don’t know what to look for, and what makes the most difference is that terrifying moment when you realize that the important stuff doesn’t come after you get your next medal, piece of paper or ticking heart: it’s already there inside of you.

Crazy Idea List

It’s so tempting to strive for that empty To Do list, to dream of those moments when you’ll have only a few items left on the list and then tick them off.

But those moments only come if you’ve got a certain kind of To Do list, one with concrete, discrete, easily quantifiable and achievable tasks, all of which you’re sure you will start and finish.

That kind of list is fine, but what do you do with the thoughts that have a different character altogether: the thoughts that grab you in a quiet moment, on a walk or in the shower or groggily in the middle of the night; the thoughts that arrive funky and murky and blurry, the ones that need time to gestate and evolve before you can even see them clearly enough to know if they’re worth time and energy?

These thoughts need a home too, because if you don’t capture them somewhere – while they’re still just a glimpse of what could be – then you won’t get to hold onto them while they develop.

And then you’ll be sitting there, looking around and wondering, “where does everyone else get those great, breakthrough ideas” without remembering that you have them too, you’ve just never gotten into the habit of capturing and cultivating them.

Drop the Rope

The person you want to give a piece of your mind.

The argument you want to win.

The “I told you so” that you’ve been molding and honing until it’s perfectly crafted.

All of these responses are infused with an emotional energy that isn’t going to help.

The first step is to drop the rope.

Not because you are indifferent, but because you care. You care a lot. And whatever this thing is that you have to speak your truth about, it’s not the kind of thing that will have a right, a wrong, a winner and a loser. 

Not if it’s ultimately going to get where you’re so yearning to go.