Matt Harding’s caveman brain

You’re probably one of the 20 million people who have seen Matt Harding’s video online.  You know, the one with the guy doing a goofy dance all over the world…

Sure, it’s silly.  But it’s also hopeful and inspirational, transcendence masquerading as simplicity.

Matt was recently featured on NPR’s This I Believe.  Here’s how he described the project:

I made a video of myself dancing terribly in exotic locations. I put it on my web site. Some friends started passing it around, and soon millions of people had watched it. I was offered sponsorship to continue my accidental vocation, and since then I’ve made two more videos that include 70 countries on all seven continents. A lot of people wanted to dance along with me, so I started inviting them to join in everywhere I went, from Toronto to Tokyo to Timbuktu.

Something about what Matt did captured people’s imaginations, made them laugh and smile and think.

The images are inane but beautiful:  Matt dancing on an sunset-tinged desert dune in Lancelin, Australia; on a desolate beach covered with busy red crabs on Christmas Island; in a sea of red tulips in Lisse in the Netherlands.  Through all the quick cuts, you have one constant: a young man who knows he’s doing something that is a little bit absurd, but at the same time joyous, exuberant and playful.

And then the story grows.  The crowds rush in.  In the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, exuberant Spaniards bound in and start to dance, fresh from a soccer game.  A gaggle of kids in Antseranana, Madagascar flash easy smiles while they dance.  More quick cuts of more people pouring in, from Brisbane to Dublin to Buenos Aires to Istanbul to Fiji…

You can say we are all one human race until you’re blue in the face.  Or you can see our common humanity all around the world in Matt’s Riverdance-meets-high-school-prom dance odyssey.

Reflecting on his world dancing tour, Matt observes that his (and everyone’s) “caveman” brain isn’t wired to handle all of this.  “My brain was designed to inhabit a fairly small social network of maybe a few dozen other primates-a tribe.”  He continues:

And yet here I am in a world of over six billion people, all of whom are now inextricably linked together. I don’t need to travel to influence lives on the other side of the globe. All I have to do is buy a cup of coffee or a tank of gas. My tribe has grown into a single, impossibly vast social network, whether I like it or not. The problem, I believe, isn’t that the world has changed, it’s that my primitive caveman brain hasn’t.

I am fantastic at seeing differences. Everybody is…. When I dance with people, it makes those differences seem smaller.

This is the modern-day challenge.  Whether it’s Al Gore on climate change; Tom Friedman on a world that is Hot, Flat and Crowded; China’s Premier Wen Jiabao on the safety of U.S. Treasury Bonds; or Jacqueline Novogratz telling her Blue Sweater story, we’re all saying the same thing:  that we have to rewire our brains to understand that our tribe has gone global.  That our actions and inaction truly do affect people we may never know or see, in a way they never have before.  And that we have an opportunity that we’ve never had before to make change on a global scale.

Our job is to keep on telling these stories, until our caveman (and cavewoman) brains catch up to this new reality.  Because I truly believe that we all would behave differently if we knew in every fiber of our being that we’re all, each and everyone of us, mostly the same.  And that there’s a lot we all can do to make the world better for all of us.

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The catch

To thank someone in a way that touches and moves them, you have to feel real gratitude.

To be outstanding at customer service, you have to want to make your customers love your product (not just be “satisfied”).

To have employees who consistently make the right decisions, they have to care about the brand, the company, and its success.

Faking it only gets you so far. 

To give yourself over totally to something, you have to care.

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Let’s trade in these old stories

Roll the tape from my childhood TV screen: image of a 4 year old Ethiopian girl, ribs visible, distended belly, flies on her face, and a voice over, “For just 50 cents a day, you can feed this child.”

This story is  emotional, concrete, personal…and effective.  It accomplished its goal (getting people to donate).  But the aid did not get to the root of Ethiopia’s problems.   And the image of the poor, suffering, African child who needs to be saved is tremendously destructive.

This story, and its many cousins (the emotional appeal, focused on pity) were in vogue in the 1980s, and they got people to dig into their pockets to donate to international charities.  They also did a lot of harm.  They dehumanized people, creating an us/them mentality.  They fed on and into a  power imbalance.  They created distance rather than connection.   All of this in the service of getting someone to do something good.

The good news is that this storyline is mostly dead.  But there’s a newer version of this story that’s still pervasive, and it’s more subtle.  It’s the “here is what you’re buying with your money” story.  “For $10 you can buy a bednet that will save a life.”  “For $120 you can buy a goat that will feed a family.”  “For $5,000 you can dig a well that will provide safe drinking water.”

Here’s what worries me.  It is true that you can buy and deliver one bednet, one goat, or dig one well for $10, $120, or $5,000.  And as a donor you absolutely want to know that your money is being used well, and a concrete connection reinforces that feeling.

But just because the one story is true doesn’t mean it remains true when you play the same reel 1,000 times.  When you want to dig thousands of wells or provide livestock to millions of families, don’t things get a whole lot more complicated?  And, by the way, who came up with the technology to create that mosquito net?  Who is funding innovation to create the next, better solution?

We need better stories, ones that recognize that we are all interconnected.  Ones that put dignity and creativity and innovation at the center.  And ones that give space to create complex solutions to complex problems – while still giving people a sense that they are part of the solution.

I think part of the answer comes in replacing the somewhat misleading concreteness with membership and inclusion.  Your $15 is helping solve this problem.  And better yet, here are a bunch of other people who are also interested in being part of this same solution.

Let’s share our stories, why we care, what we hope to see accomplished, and what else we are doing to make the world a better place.

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I want to help

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about offers to help / volunteer in the nonprofit sector, and I think these cut both ways more than most people realize.

On the one hand, I laud President Obama’s call to service and I am encouraged by the fact that one of the results of the economic downturn has been an upsurge of interest in volunteering in the nonprofit sector.  At the same time, in some cases there’s an undercurrent of expectation that work in the nonprofit sector is somehow easier, simpler, and more straightforward than work in the for-profit sector.  Hence the oft-repeated refrain, “I want to take the skills I’ve learned in the for-profit sector and apply them in a new way.”

If the nonprofit sector is meant to be a main driving force – in partnership with with government and the public sector – to address the unsolved problems of poverty, healthcare, education, malnutrition….well, that sounds like a pretty tall order requiring some seriously high-order skills.

Experienced philanthropists and experienced nonprofits know that the best kind of giving is a two-way street, where both the donor and the nonprofit get and give something of real value out of the relationship.  Volunteering can be the same way, but at times “I want to help” really means, “I want to help in the way that I want to help.”  To me it’s like the difference between a grant and a grant that ties a nonprofit into knots.  They both might look the same at first, but they take you down very different paths.

I don’t think a big change is required, just a small shift.

“I want to help” is such a show of generosity.  “I want to help…so please tell me what you really need” can open the door to an entirely new conversation.

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Jacqueline Novogratz on Charlie Rose tonight

Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Fund CEO and author of The Blue Sweater, is going to be on Charlie Rose tonight at 11pm (here’s the replay). We just learned about this…thought it was going to be next week.

So if you want to hear the story behind The Blue Sweater, now’s the time to tune in! She’s also on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC tomorrow morning at 10:40am Eastern Time.

You can track all of these sorts of things here.

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When you have to nail it

I used to commute by car to work, which reinforced my deep-seated loathing of being stuck in traffic.  Never mind the fact that most traffic is caused by things that seem like they shouldn’t cause a slowdown (rubbernecking).   I find it unbelievable that, with all the technology out there, we don’t consistently get traffic information to drivers in some way (GPS systems, cellphones, digital radio, you name it).  It would be hugely efficient in terms of time and gas saved, and it would make drivers unbelievably happy if we could get this right.

Which is why I want to love Google maps.  It’s free, it’s on my phone, it has traffic information.  I’ll show those car companies who’s boss!!

Or will I?

In my experience, Google maps is plagued by both false positives (it says there’s traffic and their isn’t) and false negatives (it says there isn’t traffic and there is).

If I’m honest with myself, “plagued” might mean the 20% of the time that I notice, but these misses either cause me unnecessarily to leave the highway for local roads or to stay on course only to be stuck in 90 minutes of traffic.  As far as I’m concerned this renders the product completely useless.

Google has a long tradition of beta testing products that aren’t quite done, and it most cases this works.  Even Gmail is still in beta, officially. There are a lot of products where “mostly good enough” is OK.  This isn’t one of them.

You need to know when being quick and getting it mostly right is good enough – and when it’s not.  I’d be quick and mostly right with my blog not with my website.  Quick and mostly right with email but not with a phone call.  Quick and mostly right on a panel discussion but not for a radio interview.  And never quick and mostly right when applying for a job.

So be quick most of the time, but know how to recognize the times that you either nail it or blow it.

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I’m beginning to wonder

If blogging is “here is what I think.”

Is Twitter “here is what I think is interesting?”

Very different, both influential.

(Food for thought: why is it so much easier to get Twitter followers than blog subscribers? Does it feel like a smaller commitment to follow someone on Twitter? Does that mean that in the endgame Twitter wins?)

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