Which way to Newark?

I was walking up 6th Avenue around 26th street last night, talking to a friend on my cellphone.  A guy pulled over in a black SUV, rolled down the window and called out, “Hey, excuse me, can you tell me, how do I get to Newark airport from here?!”

“Hey,” I interrupted my friend on the phone in mid-sentence.  “A guy just pulled over and asked me directions to Newark.  I’m 26th and 6th.  The Holland Tunnel, right?”

“Right.” he said.  “I think he can drive straight down 6th and he’ll see the entrance at Canal Street.”

I told the driver, “Go down about two kilometers,” (he seemed European), “at around Canal street you’ll see signs for the Holland Tunnel.  Take the tunnel and follow the signs for Newark.”

“Thanks a lot,” he said, with a smile on his face.  “Straight on and to the Holland Tunnel, right?”

“Yes,” I said, turning back away to return to my phone call as the guy started to roll up the window.

“Excuse me, sir!” the driver shouted again, “Can I ask you another question?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“You see, I have to catch an 11:20 flight back to Italy. I was here for Fashion Week and I’m just going back.  I’m a designer and I was working these past two weeks at the shows and now I’m heading home.  So I know this might sound a little crazy but I’ve got all I can carry – you know, free stuff that you get at the shows, Valentino and Armani – and if I take it home I have to pay tax on everything I bring back.  $1,200 in tax, and I don’t need the stuff, I’ve got too much.  I wanted to give this away to someone because it seems crazy for me to bring it back home, and you seem like a nice guy.  Really, normally I wouldn’t do this, but are you interested in a suit or a jacket?”

“Hang on one sec,” I said to my friend.  “This is getting a little weird.  I’ll call you back,” and I hung up.

The driver backs the black car in front of the fire hydrant where I’m standing, and steps out onto the curb.  He’s dressed in black from head to toe, in casual but elegant clothes.  He opens up the back door, and the car is spotless and has a few designer bags on the floor and on the leather back seat.  “Here, let me show you these coats,” he says, “What size are you?”

He pulls back the wrapper, hands moving expertly up and down the lapels.  The whole thing is very casual.

“You know, this coat retails for $2,000, and this one for $1,800, and I’ve got a Valentino suit here.  I don’t even want to make any real money on these – I normally wouldn’t even do this,” he says, pulling a small stack of $20 bills out of his pocket, “I don’t need the money.  I just figured I don’t need these and you seem like a nice and helpful guy.  And if I could pay just for my rental car I figure we both come out ahead,” he says, showing me his $800 rental receipt from Budget Rent a Car.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

You can see where this is going, right?  It seems obvious in retrospect, but the delivery was good in this small-scale scam.  Fortunately I picked up on enough signals (the suggestion that I could go to an ATM to get some cash) that I eventually walked away.  But I’d been pulled in enough to hear the story, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a rube.

Why did this guy get my attention?

My guard was down because he had engaged me as a helper, brought me in to help solve a problem he had (getting to Newark).  So from the outset I’m feeling pretty good about myself.  I’m the Good Samaritan who disproves the New Yorker stereotype.

Then, almost casually, he presents an opportunity.  But he doesn’t really care that much either way.  He doesn’t need the money.  And, as the story unfolds, I get just enough concrete facts to make the story hang together: touching the coats and seeing their designer labels; his Italian passport, his ticket to Italy, his receipt from Budget Rent a Car.  The car is spotless, and has some designer bags in it.  And every time I started to doubt him he was more open and acted more like someone who would never do this, someone who was totally honest and just found himself in a stupid situation, with a bunch of designer clothes he didn’t need that would cost him $1,200 to take home.

My point is, if this guy could get even five minutes of my attention it’s because he knew how to weave a good yarn.  Storytellers are everywhere, and they spend a lot of time perfecting their craft.  Stories themselves are not good or bad.  They’re just a tool.

This guy reminded me that everything you do is part of your story.  How you dress, how you speak, how you shake someone’s hand, what your office looks like, where you meet someone for lunch, the thank you note you write, your email signature, your credentials, your photograph on Twitter, even your name.  These are all processed in real time and filed away by your audience.  They serve as shorthand for your listener, a way to understand who you are and decide about the credibility of what you’re saying.

Once you start thinking hard about stories, you see them everywhere.  Our brains are wired to find them engaging, so it’s easy to get drawn in to almost any story (Reread the first half of this post.  It’s not great writing.  It just says, “He did this, then he did this, then he did this,” and that simple sequence can keep you engaged for quite a while.)

Compare this to how we tend to speak and write about ourselves (especially in the nonprofit sector).  Think about the last presentation you gave, the last meeting you had, the last time a friend asked you what your organization does.

Did your second or your third sentence start with the words, “For example?”  If not, it’s time to start thinking harder about your story.

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What would Alice do?

Today was a day for me to spend some time with my family, so I’m short a post.  But reflecting on Barack Obama’s speech on Monday night reminded me of the open-ended hope so many felt when he was elected on November 4, 2008. Somehow it feels like we’ve fallen back down to earth, beaten down by month after month of grim economic news.

Here is a letter from Alice Walker to President Obama, written on November 5, 2008.  This was on my mind at the start of Monday night’s speech as Barack Obama so genuinely acknowledged Michele Obama.  My hope that theirs is a true partnership and that they have refuge in each other, even in the midst of the overwhelming challenges and pressures they – and we – are facing.

If you don’t start with and preserve love in your own home and your own life, where do you turn for strength?

Nov. 5, 2008

Dear Brother Obama,

You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, North America is a different place. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.

I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. And so on. One gathers that your family is large. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of almost everyone.

I would further advise you not to take on other people’s enemies. Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain
religious or racial devotion. We must learn actually not to have enemies, but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely. However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.

A good model of how to “work with the enemy” internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

In Peace and Joy,
Alice Walker

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A touch of genius

By all reports, one of the most celebrated talks at this year’s TED conference was by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love.  Elizabeth starts with a compelling question she gets asked a lot lately, “Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that?  Aren’t you afraid you’re going keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anyone in the world cares about…at all….ever again?!”

Her answer is at times whimsical, at times profound, and I won’t try to do it justice except to summarize that she goes back to ancient Greece to revive the idea of daemons, external manifestations of genius or creativity that are outside and separate from us, who grab or touch us at some times and for some unknowable reasons.

Elizabeth Gilbert says that this construct gives her  some solace.  She (and we) can toil away all we want, but we don’t actually control when genius will visit us or our work.

This takes some of the pressure off, but implicit in what she’s saying is that you absolutely have to do the toiling.  That part isn’t optional, it’s necessary.  It just happens not to be sufficient.

More important still, it seems to me, you have to toil at the right things.  The daemon (genius) of a great book – or a great performance, a great presentation, a great pitch, a great product – by definition will only visit the person who is toiling away and putting their heart and soul into what they are creating.

With so much upheaval in the world right now, and so many tools at your disposal, now’s a good time to ask yourself: if I keep toiling at this and everything goes great, where will I be in 5 or 10 years time?

Enjoy the talk.

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How we say ‘thanks’

Though I’m not plugged in to popular culture, I do try to catch the Oscars.  Like the Superbowl and the Olympics, it is a chance for the whole world to tune in and dream of a simpler world full of villains, heroes and movie stars.  The Oscars on Sunday night felt appropriately subdued, reminiscent of old-world Hollywood – complete with Hugh Jackman’s impressive retinue of song-and-dance numbers.

They tried something new this year.  In the major categories, Oscar winners from years past come on stage together to announce the 2008 nominees.  (Tony award winning actor Sarah Jones tweeted (@jonesarah) during the show “A bit disoriented by the multi-presenter format, it’s kind of like the ghosts of oscars past. Can’t decide whether I like.”)

I felt the same way at first, until the Best Actress award.  The five previous winners came on stage, a group of powerhouses:  Sophia Lauren, Halle Berry, Shirley MacLaine, Marion Cotillard, and Nicole Kidman.

The defining moment was when Shirley MacLaine spoke with genuine warmth and respect to Anne Hathaway, praising not only Hathaway’s work this past year in Rachael Getting Married but reflecting that she’ll be a star for years to come.  Hathaway was visibly moved, with tears welling up in her eyes.

Lately I’ve been involved in the selection process for a few sought-after positions – not quite Oscar-like in their desirability, but hundreds of applicants for a handful of spots (most recently the Acumen Fund Fellows Program).  What strikes me is that we (all, collectively) may be reasonably good at whittling down an applicant pool to, say, the top 10%, but when you only have spots for the “top” 1% or so, there’s no fair, totally objective answer to “who is best?”

Which is why I liked what they did at the Oscars this year.  There was real, honest thanks and acknowledgment offered to the nominees, and I suspect that Anne Hathaway’s night was a lot different than it would have been with a different format — one of film’s all-time greats sung her praises, to her and to the world.

Too often in life, the winners (who get the award, the job, the acceptance letter) win and the almost-winners get polite declines.  Can’t we do better?  Can’t we find ways to acknowledge and honor all the people who were really great and who put themselves out there…and can we go a step further to create communities that allow these outstanding people to connect with and support one another?

Giving thanks is a dying art.  In a world with more communication than ever, we have dwindling amounts of personal connection.  People are thirsty for genuine interaction that starts with candor, respect, and honest words of thanks.

How can we best begin?

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Ask and ask again

Ira Glass, host of the NPR show This American Life, has a new twist on getting people to give to NPR.  As part of NPR’s funding drive, Ira is calling people on the phone and having them “turn in” family members who don’t give to NPR, despite being devoted listeners.  I heard Ira call up a woman who said her parents “subjected” her to NPR for years when she was growing up (now she’s a fan).  On the radio, the daughter gets the mother to the phone and says, “Mom, I’ve got Ira Glass on the phone and he wants to know why, after so many years, you haven’t given to NPR?”   It’s the light, respectful version of the phone tap.

(For a laugh, here’s the audio of Ira’s calls to Megan, Paul, and Kathleen from January 21, 2009.)

I used to spend 8 hours a week driving to and from work – a horrible waste of time, but I did get to listen a lot of NPR.  The pledge drive always was painful, but I admit that it sometimes took being asked more than once for me to remember to give.  And I fell for all the tricks – 2x and 3x matches; give a certain amount and get a copy of The Silver Spoon cookbook, you name it. I guess I and the rest of the listeners got what we deserved – it took that much ear-pounding to get us to give.

What I like most about the pledge drives is that the hosts of shows I listened to every day would get on the radio and say, “If you liked this show, if you listened to it all year long and if it made a difference in your life, you should support us financially.”  No qualms, no apologies.

I do think there are better ways to raise money, but it is helpful to be reminded that we often have to ask more than once to get someone to make a financial commitment (especially the first time).

A parting thought: I wonder if the NPR hosts themselves dread this or are proud to ask for money?

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Would you rather work for change?

Sooner or later, you have to choose.  Are you going to work for change or just complain?

Funny thing is, once you start working for change, you usually don’t have much time left to complain.  There’s just so darn much to do.

I’ve already been overwhelmed with the response, interest and support for the job I’m looking to fill.  It’s humbling and inspiring to see how many people are working for change, in so many different ways – especially considering that the world and the economy are supposedly blowing up.   It gives me great cause for hope.

Enjoy the cartoon, and enjoy the weekend.

Credit: Toothpaste For Dinner

Credit: Toothpaste For Dinner

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I’m feeling twoverwhelmed.  It’s not Twitter’s fault – it’s just another tool.  But I did get on Twitter this week.  The Twitter roar (“you don’t use Twitter?”)* was getting deafening, and I know enough about myself to know that the only way I can learn something is to use it.  (I finally got a handle on Squidoo this week too).

I’m not ready to commit to tweeting just yet – at least for now.  This blog and my day job are more than enough for now.  But how can I pass up the opportunity to follow the latest musings of Nicholas Kristof, Sarah Jones, Chris Anderson, and Evan Williams, to name a few?  It’s a window into what’s top of mind for some pretty amazing people.

But wait, let’s take a step back.  Evan Williams, Twitter’s founder, recently tweeted, “Contemplating new email strategies. Current practice (responding to most of them) not scaling. Interested in doing other stuff.”

Of course Evan doesn’t just care about his Inbox, it’s one of many streams of incoming information / communication he’s managing.

If conquering your email inbox was the “can we be productive in a wired world” question of 2002, things have gotten exponentially more complicated.  (If you want to be surprised by how exponentially, this video gives you all you need to know).

My A-list (stuff I truly want to stay on top of) looks something like: all my email, “must read” blogs in my RSS feed, articles and reports that are forwarded along by colleagues and friends, and now maybe Twitter.

What about the B-list: “contender” blogs in my RSS feed, magazines I subscribe to, the NY Times, Facebook….oh, and don’t forget all the absurdly amazing TED talks that are out there free to the world.  Like Bill Gates talking about what he’s doing to save the world.  And there’s always the Guardian’s 100 greatest works of fiction of all time, which has been nagging at me for some time.

And then there’s the C list, divided between stuff I haven’t spent any time on and stuff I, regrettably, don’t seem to have any time for: Digg, Reddit, YouTube, etc, but also Huffpo, CNN.com and the Economist.

And have I mentioned that I have a full time job?  And a family?

Pratically speaking, there’s always been an infinite amount of content out there.  But the ease of getting truly fabulous, up-to-the minute content delivered right to my laptop is categorically different than the world of even 5 years ago, before the explosion of user-generated content and social networks.

It’s suddenly realistic to expect that every day, in the 30-60 minutes I have to read up on things, I’ll discover something amazing.

This is my (and your) new curriculum – which is different from “the news.”

I can get really smart about just about anything now.  So I have to choose from whom I want to learn: Greg Mankiw (great economist), Seth Godin (brilliant marketer), Mark Bittman (fabulous chef), Google (organizer of the world’s information), or Michael Sandel (to take his Harvard course on moral and political philosophy – at home!). Or I could forget all that and just take free drum lessons online from a pro.  You get the idea.

Multiply that by a few decades, and I end up a whole lot smarter about some things, but not about everything.  It’s impossible to keep up with everything.

This forces hard choices, not only for me, but for content producers who are trying to find ways to make money in this new world.

Oh, and here’s the kicker: this is all going mainstream, and 10-year-olds today who are growing up on Facebook and with iTunes won’t have any vestiges or nostalgia about the daily paper being delivered at their doorstep every morning and of mom and dad reading that paper over breakfast.

If you don’t figure out how to succeed in today’s world – personally, as a consumer of all this information; and as a content producer / business / nonprofit / you name it – you’re going to end up as quaint and finished as some soon-to-be-defunct weekly news magazines.


* For the tiny sliver of you who are die-hard Marx Brothers fans, the line that comes to mind is “You no gotta’ a Breeder’s Guide?!” uttered by Chico Marx to Groucho Marx in a Day at the Races.

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