Good Society in India

I’m in India this week, and today I had the pleasure, and challenge, of facilitating a selection of “Good Society” readings with the Acumen India Fellows.

The opportunity to take a step back and be reminded of the words and deeds of the great thinkers and activists throughout history is a rare one, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite excerpts from these readings.

While these excerpts lose some of their richness when taken out of context, I hope they serve to remind you, as they do me, of the great thinkers we have in our corner as we work to build a future of greater rights and dignity for all.

 

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (link)

“Preamble. Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

“Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”

 

Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963) by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (link)

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

“I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

 

The Republic, (390 BC) Plato (link)

“He who is to be a really good and noble guardian of the State will require to unite in himself philosophy and sprit and swiftness and strength.”

 

The Social Contract (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau (link)

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

“The problem [in creating the Social Contract] is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before… [To do so] Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

 

Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen (link)

“The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do – the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve. But this relation is neither exclusive (since there are significant influences on our lives other than wealth) nor uniform (since the impact of wealth on our lives varies with other influences.”

“Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live.”

 

The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics (1988), Chinua Achebe (link)

“Leadership is a sacred trust, like the priesthood in civilized, humane religions. No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly, because it demands qualities of mind and discipline of body and will far beyond the need of the ordinary citizen. Anybody who offers himself or herself or is offered to society for leadership must be aware of the unusually high demands of the role and should, if any doubt whatsoever, firmly refuse the prompting.”

 

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Your Point of View

If you’ve made the decision to put your own stories – blogs, videos, articles, poetry, spoken word, email campaigns, multimedia, whatever – into the world, there are two different kinds of gaps you can fill.

You can be on the lookout for untold stories and uncover them, becoming, over time, great at picking stories worth telling, the kind of information you’re able to uncover and the narrative that brings us along, engages us, and, hopefully, pushes us to act. This is what Serial was all about (except for the action bit).

Or, you can decide that the project you’re actually engaged in is to share your own point of view.  In this kind of project, you still tell stories but these stories serve as springboards to explore, elaborate upon and illustrate your point of view.

In both cases your job is to engage us, to connect with us, and, yes, to seduce us just a little bit. In both cases, we expect you to hone your craft. In both cases, you have the power to change us.

But because it’s so easy to underestimate ourselves, because we so often convince ourselves we have nothing to say, because we imagine that someday (someday!) we will have wisdom to share…we wait.

Because the act of deciding we have something to say feels a little too proud (“who am I to think that I can….?”), a little too exposed (“what if try and it turns out I don’t actually have anything worth saying?!”), a little too much like it’s the kind of things other people do (“they’re just good at that sort of thing…”), we put off starting. And we put it off some more. And some more. Until we prove to ourselves that we were right all along – we really don’t have a point of view worth sharing.

But that’s just not true. The dirty little secret is that the only way to become, tomorrow or the next day or maybe 10 years from now, someone who has something to say is to start to share our truth today.

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Resilience in the Face of Tragedy?

I’ve always found it off the mark – in places like Pakistan or Israel or anywhere there is repeated violence as part of civilian life – to laud the “resilience” of everyday people in continuing to live their lives in the face of tragedies.

The day before yesterday, on Tuesday night at 6:20pm, seven people died when an MTA commuter train slammed into a Mercedes SUV that was inexplicably stopped on the train tracks, even though the guard gates were down. The woman driving the car, Ellen Brody, was killed as were five passengers in the front car of the train.

The accident happened on the train line I take every day, around the time I usually ride home, about five miles north of where I get off the train.

Yesterday, thirteen hours after the accident, I trudged to my train stop to go to work. People are mostly silent on the platform on winter mornings, and it was as quiet as ever. Eerily, though no one was saying anything, about 2/3rds of the people who usually wait for the first car of the train weren’t standing in their everyday spots.

Once on the train, I talked with some of the passengers around me about what had happened.  Mostly, though, people were quiet, reading their papers or their books, maybe shaken on the inside, but having what appeared to be a normal morning.

When I got to Grand Central Station, the only indication that anything had happened was this announcement on the train’s schedule board. No acknowledgment of what had happened, no words of condolences or solidarity with the victims.

 

MTA_Valhalla_flip

Even when things are this close to home, we can block them out and avoid the proximity. I’d been shaken by this tragedy, but it took this description in a New York Times article to make my stomach clench up and allow me to see myself in that front car of the train.

One witness, Chris Gross, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” said that he had been watching a Mel Brooks movie in the front car when suddenly the train was jolted.

“People started falling over each other,” he said. He was tossed into the aisle and saw flames, and he heard a man in front of him screaming.

“I turned over and looked,” Mr. Gross said. The man in front of him “lost his leg below his knee.”

In the chaos, he said, a man who had burns on his hands managed to pull the emergency latch so they could escape.

The man with the burns, Mr. Gross said, plunged his hands in the snow, hoping for some relief.

Today, on the train home, the same group of guys is playing bridge like they do every day in this car. As they wrap up their game, they talk about the twist in the road, what happened with the driver of the Jeep, how such a thing could have happened. But the conversations are clipped, and there aren’t many of them. People might be thinking about the victim’s families, or feeling especially grateful for good health, safety, and the chance to hug their kids tonight.

But resilient? No, I’m not feeling or seeing resiliance. I feel shaken and a little bit numb, like going on with my day and my life was at best a neutral choice, not a display of courage.

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Lean Data Goes Deeper

One of the most interesting questions we’re grappling with right now on the Impact team at Acumen is how to develop a more robust, rigorous, and transparent form of quantifying the social value our companies create. While I don’t believe we will ever fully understand all the social value created – and while there will always be room for debate and interpretation – I do think today we have the tools to get a lot closer to customers and hear how they value products.

And if we can figure this out in a clear and compelling enough way, I believe that would open the door to creating a true marketplace for social impact.

What we’ve learned with our Lean Data Initiative is that we can, thanks to the prevalence of mobile phones and other enabling technologies, now quickly and easily gather data directly from our customers in ways that drive insights for us and our companies – everything from customer loyalty metrics to poverty levels of who is being reached to customer satisfaction.

What we’ve been kicking around – and where I’d love your help – is the best approach to quantifying self-reported value.

Meaning, after a customer has purchased a product (a solar light, safe drinking water, an improved seed) and experienced the benefit, what are the best, most reliable ways to ask her how much she values that product? Because she is the one who is living it, accruing benefit from it, she is best placed to explain what it’s worth to her.

We’ve been having fabulous conversations on our team, conversations that get back to the basics about things like consumer surplus and why demand curves slope down; conjoint/discreet choice analysis to get to revealed preferences; and things as simple as asking how much, having experienced a product, someone would have been willing to pay for it.

To clarify the kinds of things we’re thinking about and where I’d love your thoughts:

  • How to best phrase questions that help Acumen’s customers accurately articulate the value they get from a product or service
  • Whether there’s a best way to ask “how much would you have paid” after people have a product to understand how much they value it
  • Prize-based, conjoint approaches where we give a subset of folks $100 to spend on one of a few bundles of goods / services, to understand real rank-order preferences

I’d appreciate ideas for approaches that might help us get the answers we’re looking for. Suggestions welcome in the comments or please just email me directly.

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CEO of me

Each person we meet in a professional setting sees two things: the person we are and the role we play. Often, that role casts a long shadow, as people are quick to look for shortcuts in figuring out who they’re talking to and what that person brings to the table.

When my business card said, for five years, that I was head of fundraising at Acumen, I felt like my first job in every meeting was to convey to someone that I wasn’t “just the” fundraiser (indeed every great fundraiser I know says that they “aren’t a traditional fundraiser.”) There was and is a lot of baggage associated with being a fundraiser – many philanthropists would tell me that they experienced many fundraisers as seeing them as nothing more than big wallets waiting to be cracked, which itself tells you something about how we all tend to caricature people. Indeed it was always a sign that things were going well when someone would say to me, often with a hint of hesitation, “Uh, so, how did you get into fundraising anyway?”

The pernicious, less obvious constraints are those we place on ourselves. We let a narrow definition of a role or a title create boundaries around the way we see ourselves, how we walk in the world, and impact we dare to have.

To be clear, in any organization our first job is to do the job that our organization hired us to do – indeed, if we don’t do that with excellence, professionalism and precision then we haven’t paid the table stakes for a broader conversation.

At the same time, we are often the ones who box ourselves in, waiting for someone’s OK to even begin to think bigger in anything but the most private ways.

What would happen if you sent yourself an email signed:

Sincerely,

Your name

CEO of me

The best part is when, somewhere down the line, the bigger, more audacious, more impactful version of how you play the role helps you, and others, reconsider how they mistakenly categorized the role in the first place.

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Turning Down the Strawberries

My three-year-old daughter has a funny way of turning down food. “No thanks,” she says, when presented with strawberries, which for reasons no one knows she’s decided she does not eat. “I’ll have them later.”

Most of the time, when we say we will do something “later” it means one of two things:

  1. This isn’t important enough for me to do at all, I’m just not willing to tell you that directly; OR
  2. Before doing this I need to check with three people so I don’t have to make the decision alone.

Yes, you might have a system in place to organize your work, so that “later” actually means “I will do this at 3pm” but when “later” is vague and loose, it is a quiet, subtle way to practice taking yourself off the hook, even for small things. And this sort of habit builds up until it becomes how we orient ourselves in the face of things that are ours to do.

It is so rarely the case that we need to you play smaller and ask for permission more.

Yes, consult when you need real input from people who will make your thinking better, but please don’t ask around in search of a lukewarm “no.”

If you find yourself snowed in by Juno today, then today might be the perfect time to practice starting to say “yes” and “now” and “this is up to me” more often.

Pass the strawberries, please.

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Egg whites, scrambled eggs, and egg shells

I’m seeing eggs everywhere this week.

Seth Godin’s amazing new book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn – which you can still order and share here – has a great parable about his 8 egg white omelet. It is a story about the slippery slope of compromise and the taste of fresh herbs, and his omelet is fabulous enough to convince a skeptical food critic that there is, in fact, such a thing as a “delicious egg white omelet.”

Then I came across this video about how to make a scrambled egg without breaking the shell.

And Tim Ferris has a video that was seen more than six million times (six million!!) about how to peel an egg without really peeling it. The video is completely unremarkable and downright boring until 0:50 in, when Tim blows on the egg and it jumps out of its shell.

That one-second moment, and its contrast with how dull and under-produced the video is, encapsulates what makes stories and videos spread: a tiny instant of “wow” that gets someone to share it with a friend with a “you gotta see this” message.

If we can create “wow” around peeling an egg, surely we can create it around the important work that we do.

The first step is to stop sanding off the edges; the big leap is figuring out out how to create a moment that shows that the impossible is, indeed, possible.

Tim Ferris_egg

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