Have personality

Saw this great sign yesterday morning at Fairway Supermarket in Pelham.  Fairway is the best combination of high quality and affordable food at any supermarket anywhere (they also make Zabar’s-quality lox, pickled herring, and olives, among other things).  Fairway’s original supermarket has been in business on Upper Wast Side of NY since the 1930s, and in 2007 they started an expansion blitz that has taken them to Harlem, Red Hook, even Stamford, CT.

This sign made me laugh out loud, and it reinforced the notion that it’s always better to have a personality.  Personality has a point of view.  Personality has a voice.  Personality will piss some people off but will make your rabid fans even more rabid-y and fan-y.

If you’re going to have personality, do it every time.  Every sign, every email you send out, every blog post, every quick reminder.  We’re not talking stand up comedy here, but if you write more like you talk and less like you think you’re supposed to write, you’re heading in the right direction.

It finally happened

Cranking through my inbox for a few hours doesn’t feel like real work.

Satisfying? Yes.

A relief?  Yes.

But not real work.

Pretty sure this is a good sign.

20-80-100 and Adjacent Possibility

Katya and I were comparing notes last week about our blogs and the experience of blogging.

One of the biggest impacts blogging has had on me is that it forces me to develop thoughts that would normally remain 20% developed (in the form of casual observation) and form them into blog posts, which are about 80% fleshed out.  (Katya and I both agreed that we’d leave the 100% development of ideas to professional journalists like Ellen McGirt at Fast Company…there’s something nice about the leeway blogging gives you not to be perfect, and in fact I think it’s just this leeway that gives space for creativity.)

Think about the impact, over years, of systematically taking ideas that are partially developed and developing them fully.  Think about what you learn over time, both at the level of the individual idea – because the act of writing takes you places you didn’t know you’d go – and over time, from repeating this action every day.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From – I’ll review it fully when I’m finished, as it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.  The foundational idea in the book is that great ideas are formed in the “adjacent possible” space, the space that’s right at the edge of understanding of a particular problem you’re working to solve.  Breakthrough insights typically come from the reassembly and reconfiguration of existing ideas that are right at the edge of what you know and what you don’t know.

This feels 100% right to me.  Generosity Day, for example, grew out of my Generosity Experiment more than a year ago, coupled with the experience of helping create Search for the Obvious at Acumen Fund (really the brainchild of James Wu), along with the ongoing hunch I’d carried around for 14 months (and explored occasionally in other blog posts) that there was something bigger that could and should come of my personal exploration of generosity.  Generosity Day was sitting in my adjacent possible space, and it took the panel at Social Media Week and the ensuing discussion with the other panelists to crystallize the “aha!” moment – that we were three days away from Generosity Day 2011, we just didn’t know it.

And if that’s right, then what serious bloggers do every day is expand – inch by inch, bit by bit – their own space of adjacent possibility.

Measure more than distance and speed

A few months ago I started running again after a decade-long hiatusVibram’s five-finger shoes have made my knee pain a thing of the past.  But I’m still working my way back towards running, and it’s slow going (maybe I’m just going slow).

In my first 15 years of running (I started when I was 12), running was all about suffering.  I occasionally had easy, effortless runs, but the general rule was to push harder and go faster to “get the most” out of the run.  I’d say 80% of the time I spent running I was hoping it would end, and that was kind of the point.

Back then I would have loved all the technology that’s available now.  I have iMapMyRun on my iPhone, and it’s pretty incredible: free software that runs off of my music player (imagine if my Walkman had this!) that uses GPS to track where I am, places it on a map, and tells me how far I’ve run, how long I’ve run, the elevation I’ve covered.  It’s kind of magical.

It’s so cool, but I’ve had to force myself to stop using it.

iMapMyRun is perfect for the kind of runner I used to want to be: wanting to know my pace, know how today’s run compared with yesterday’s, know how far I ran this week down to a tenth of a mile.  But I stopped using it.

Why?  Because you get what you measure.  And knowing that all that information was being recorded was making me care more about the numbers at the end of the run than the run itself.

My goal on yesterday’s run was to have as much of the run as possible be enjoyable, and I don’t get that when my per-mile time is being tracked.  I don’t get joy by knowing my pace.  In fact it detracts from what I’m trying to do.

Measuring is fine, just make sure the things you’re tracking are the things you want the most of.  If iMapMyRun could tell me how much of my run I spent relaxed, smiling, dropping my shoulders, taking easy strides, and not worrying about the next hill, then it would be the software for me.

(Oh, and this post isn’t just about running).

Which skills are you practicing?

Maybe today, right now, you’re in a prestigious job (or one that promises to be).  It challenges you but it really isn’t your life’s work.

What do you do?  It’s especially hard to get out, because the pay is probably good, the whole undertaking is well-recognized by friends, peers, and family, and you’re continuing to grow and learn.

So you say to yourself: there’s no real risk in staying put.  I’ll be just as qualified (more qualified) to get that job I really want a few years from now as I am today.

But there is a risk, and it comes from confusing the ability to get the next job and the ability to do the next job.

To get really good at something requires very specific skills.  Selling isn’t the same thing as marketing isn’t the same thing as investing isn’t the same thing as advising isn’t the same thing as building a team isn’t the same thing as really understanding what happens when your suppliers give you crappy payment terms and you run out of cash.

So the risk is this: putting off (for years, maybe) starting to become really good at that thing you’re meant to be doing.

Sure this is fine, but what are you waiting for?

The problem with being a naysayer

The problem is that even when you’re right, it’s coming from the person who always dissents, so people will listen to you less.

It’s that you’re usually advocating holding off, holding back, or not starting.

It’s that, in fact, things usually are not right in the first place, but they get right once they’re in motion, not when they’re stuck on the drawing board.

But the worst part is that it keeps you safe.  You don’t experience the fear of maybe failing.  You don’t discover that things that are less planned, less orchestrated, less thought through sometimes work spectacularly.  You don’t learn when it’s time to say “hold on” and when it’s time to go.  Both have their moments.

(And of course no one thinks of themselves as being a naysayer, they’re just offering constructive criticism…)

Nonprofit v. For Profit

I had the chance last night to moderate a Feast Debate (#FeastOnGood) on non-profit vs. for-profit models.  Ruti Wajnberg and Jorge Vega did a great job orchestrating the evening, and it was a pleasure to host a conversation between Jo Opot, Global VP of Business Development at TerraCycle (and former Executive Director of StartingBloc) and Kate MacKenzie, Director of Policy and Government Relations at City Harvest.

With 120+ people packed into the beautiful Salt Space on West 27th Street, we set out to debate which model – nonprofit or for-profit – is better for pursuing social change (and once we quickly agreed that the answer was “it depends,” to dig into the strengths and weaknesses of each model across the very practical dimensions of fundraising, culture, revenues, getting and keeping great people, etc.)

I started the conversation by polling the audience, and of course my first question was how many people had heard of Generosity Day (couldn’t resist).  At least one third of the attendees raised their hands.  Sample bias aside, the idea that a third of people engaged in social change heard about Generosity Day and changed the way they acted for a day (and, I bet, for a long time after) just blew me away.

Then we got down to business, and I asked a bunch of questions of the audience around the biases we all carry around about nonprofit and for-profit models: with which is it easier to attract great talent; to partner; to raise money; to get things done; to create a great culture?

As Jo and Kate spoke, and as the Q&A with the audience unfolded, I increasingly realized the power our stock answers to these questions hold over us: nonprofits, the conventional wisdom goes, struggle to get “less dependent on – and beholden to – donor funding;”  we can’t compete with the corporate sector for great talent; for profits are built to scale more rapidly; and on and on and on.

All generalities hold a kernel of truth: there’s no doubt that the 501(c)3 structure creates limitations and that there are certain things (like giving employees equity) that only for-profits can-do.  But most of the perverse actions we take (as nonprofits and for profits) are not taken because of structures that keep us from behaving differently.

Take Sean Stannard-Stockton’s great post from yesterday about government crowding out philanthropy, he relates a story George Overholser tells about the need for creating an equity structure for nonprofits:

George used to be a venture capitalist and work with a venture philanthropy organization. He relates a story about how in the morning he presided over a meeting where the venture philanthropy group made a large grant to a nonprofit. Everyone was very excited and it was high fives all around with the nonprofit executives leading the cheers. The excited executive director happily pointed out that the grant met their entire fundraising budget for the year and so now they could focus on their programs.

That afternoon, George presided over a meeting where the venture capital group made a large investment in a for-profit. Again it was high fives and excitement, except this time only the venture capitalists were cheering. Looking over at the for-profit executive team, George noticed they all seemed nervous. When he asked what was wrong, the CEO said, “well, now that we have the growth capital, the pressure is on to generate revenue!”

To the nonprofit executive director, it didn’t matter if the venture philanthropy donors called their grant an “investment”. The only accounting treatment for money coming into a nonprofit is revenue. But for the for-profit, the venture capital money really was an investment. It would be booked as equity, not as revenue, and from here on out their success in generating revenue would be measured against the amount of equity they had deployed to build their business.

Sure, this is perverse behavior, but even in this stark example, there’s nothing structural keeping the nonprofit leadership from deciding to treat the large grant they just got as long-term capital, and to continue to aim for their revenue goal for the year.  Yes this might be a harder story to explain to funders (“why do you have so much cash in the bank?”), yes it would be better to have a better way to account for this within 501(c)3 reporting requirements.  But just because all of that is not in place doesn’t mean we can’t act differently.

I was surprised how much I ended up defending what was possible as a non-profit, since that wasn’t my plan going in and I don’t necessarily think being a nonprofit is the answer for most social mission organizations.  But so often “we’re a nonprofit so we can’t…” (raise a lot of money quickly, hire great people, not be beholden to grantmakers who want to impose their agenda on us, be ruthlessly accountable in everything we do) is simply a cop-out for our own bad behavior, limited thinking, and poor execution.