The whole without a map thing is not (just) a metaphor

A couple of weeks ago, I was running a familiar four mile loop and decided I was feeling good enough that I’d extend the run.  Rather than take the final right turn a half mile from the “end” of the run, I kept going.  A half mile later, on an unfamiliar street not knowing exactly where I was or where I was going, I lost all my mojo.  My stride shortened, I felt the spring go out of my step, everything started to tighten up.

Was I actually, all of a sudden, so much more tired?

No, I was just off my map:  the calculus of where I was relative to where I had to go had stopped processing; I literally didn’t know if I was heading north or east; and I couldn’t tell if each step was taking me closer to or further from my destination.

I wasn’t tired, I was just disoriented.  And once I realized that, realized that the simple act of feeling lost had gotten into my head, not my legs or lungs, I exhaled and things felt better (though not completely back to normal).

There’s a lot of great advice out there that we find so appealing but we stop short of actually taking the advice – because it would be silly, wouldn’t it, to actually go all the way.  So we read and believe that success today comes the moment you recognize that there is no map, no path someone has charted out for you to follow.  And we think that’s a nice idea but do we actually, literally, practice what it feels like to be somewhere without a map, do we observe how we react to this situation and learn how to apply that reflection to our lives?

We read about radical email strategies that could save us hours a day (whether Leo Babuta’s email ninja tricks which include limiting all responses to 5 sentences or less, or experiments like ‘no email Friday,’ recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal) and we nod but then we just tweak things around the edges.

Someone suggests that we could shorten our meetings and change our meeting culture by having all meetings standing up or only holding meetings to support a decision that’s already been made and we think it’s a nice idea that wouldn’t really work for us and our company culture.

Maybe, just maybe, these ideas aren’t metaphors.  Maybe they are actual, real ideas.  And maybe nothing would go wrong if we actually tried them, for real, for a little while before rejecting them out of hand.

Go ahead, go for a walk or run this weekend without a map and see how it feels.

There is nothing romantic about an empty farm

On a run this past weekend in Mississippi, I ran over the levee and past some dilapidated farming homes that had been abandoned after this springs’ floods.  I was struck by the nobility of the structures and the spirit of farming, and I caught myself thinking nostalgic thoughts about farm life and all that it represents.

But these were not quaint relics, they’re not there to remind anyone of our past – they are, or were, someone’s livelihood that had, again, let them down thanks to climate change, increasing farm productivity and a changing global economy.  What was once a thriving rural community on the banks of the Mississippi River has seen agricultural incomes decline, the Air Force base go away, and a downtown that’s been hollowed out into a living ghost town.  It may be that there’s a brighter future in sight, but it’s hard to see the path that lead from here to there.

This isn’t a new story.  Nor did I think it was a particularly instructive story for our current economic woes…at least I didn’t until I read a new piece by Nobel Prize-winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz in this month’s Vanity Fair titled “The Book of Jobs.”  In it Stiglitz argues that while everyone notices the banking system parallels between the current economic downturn and the Great Depression, Stiglitz’s own analysis, together with Bruce Greenwald, tells a different story.

While the financial sector, specifically poor monetary policy (a monetary tightening by the Fed just when there should have been a loosening) pushed the American economy from recession to full-blown depression in 1929, this analysis masks what was really going on: the fundamental shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, one in which the rising productivity of the agricultural sector caused supplies to balloon, prices to plummet, and real incomes (and towns) to decline beyond repair.  So too today, Stiglitz argues, during our Long Slump: while it looks like we are having a financial crisis, what we really are experiencing is a tectonic shift in our economy from manufacturing to services.  Huge increases in productivity, coupled with globalization, are causing a decline in income and jobs in the US.

If Stiglitz is right, then the medicine we’ve applied (tons of free money to the banks, with no strings attached) is all wrong.  No amount of monetary tinkering will get you out of this kind of crisis; instead, like in the wake of the Great Depression, one needs a huge fiscal stimulus (read: huge government spending) to get out of this sort of mess.  Back then it was, ironically, World War II.  What will it be this time around?

Whether this is precisely the right analysis isn’t what’s on my mind.  Rather, what worries me is that the chance that we’re going to find and execute the right policy seems preposterously low.  Whereas in the 1930s we simply didn’t know enough in terms of monetary policy to respond appropriately, today each and every issue is so politicized that it feels almost naïve to think that we’ll turn to apolitical experts who just plain know more (about the economy, the environment) than everyone else. No one is seen as smart enough or neutral enough to be fully above the fray (remember when the chair of the Fed was someone everyone liked?).

How do we get to a point where certain issues are important enough that they become nonpartisan? It happens when we weave them into the fabric of our identities rather than leave them at the periphery in the realm of ideological debate.  It happens when we create new narratives that transcend ideologies or, worse, when issues become so dire that we have no choice but to act together.  I hope we get our act together before then.

Vegetarian mini-rant

I became an almost-vegan about a year ago after reading The China Study.  I gave giving up meat and dairy a try for 30 days, and I discovered to my surprise that I felt so much better all around that I needed to keep at it.

So I’ve been a not-so-strict vegan for the better part of a year now, eating a little fish and a bit of cheese every now and again, still trying to find my way.  I’ve lost weight, I feel better, my cholesterol has dropped, and I’m enjoying myself.

The mini-rant is about salads.

Somehow the moment you say you’re not eating meat people thrust a salad at you.  Not an eggplant or mushrooms or broccoli or pulses or grains or rice or pasta or rutabaga.  A salad.  A big pile of lettuce with some oil and vinegar on it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like salads, I eat plenty of them, I just don’t eat any more of them now than I did before I started this crazy food experiment.

I know it’s all very well-intentioned and done with love, but there’s gotta be more to this than salad.  Please!

3 Thoughts on Generosity

The guys over at asked me to write one of their inaugural posts on generosity.  They describe the site as “An Outlet For Renegade Thinkers focused on introducing innovative and adventurous individuals taking intentional steps toward positive change.”

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Before December 2009 I’d barely given more than a passing thought to generosity.  This despite the fact that my work at Acumen Fund is all about fighting global poverty and that, as a nonprofit, we’re supported by donations.  That fact that I spent a lot of time asking others to be more generous and to connect to a higher sense of purpose wasn’t causing me to reflect on how generous I was (or wasn’t).  If anything, I felt I’d “given at the office” by virtue of what I’ve chosen to do with my life.  It took an experience of not giving to someone who asked for help to send me back to the generosity drawing board, and I’ve been thinking about generosity every since.  Starting that day, I conducted a month-long generosity experiment to see what it felt like to say “yes” for 30 days to every request for help; and later, together with a few friends, I helped create Generosity Day on February 14th, 2011 as a reboot of Valentine’s Day.  Here’s what I’ve begun to understand:

Generosity is first and foremost about human connection

When someone asks you for help, the first decision you make is whether to stand tall in the face of that request and that person.   When we don’t stand tall it’s often because our heads, our infinite ability to analyze and rationalize, our fear that we someday might be in a position of real need all scream at us to run and hide.  What could be more terrifying, more honest, or more simple than seeing that someone standing right in front of is in need and that we are in a position to help?  What could be more powerful than choosing to act?  Generosity starts with this basic acknowledgment of our shared humanity.  It honors the fabric that binds us to each other.  It recognizes that that the person asking me for help is just as human as I am.

Generosity is generative

Generosity begets generosity, which means that our power to act and to create a shift in the world is unbounded.  We know that when someone discovers a few extra quarters in a vending machine they are much more likely to be generous to the next person – to pick up papers that someone has dropped or to help them solve a problem.  There literally is a multiplier effect of generous action: one generous act begets another.  Our opportunity, then, is to create a shift not in one or two actions but instead in the place that generosity holds in our self-image and, ultimately, in how we walk through the world.  This is why we started Generosity Day in 2011 and why we’re doing it again on February 14th, 2012 – to create huge ripples throughout the world, to show people what’s possible.

Generosity alone is not enough

Generosity is nothing more and nothing less than the foundation upon which we build. We won’t solve the big problems of the world just by opening our hearts.  That is a dangerous dream, because the stakes are much too high.  Yet without generosity too many doors are closed, too much judgment creeps in.  Without generosity empathy is not given a space in which to grow and we experience the terrible misfortune of undervaluing the gifts we have been given.  In so doing we run the risk of forgetting that each of us has something important to offer in creating solutions big and small.

To me, generosity is an active orientation towards the world and all its messiness.  It is a refusal to walk by, to shut down, to pretend that if we just keep our heads down everything will turn out OK.  It won’t, at least not without all of us.

What you do, how you got here, what you think

I’m constantly amazed, when hearing people formally present their ideas, by the balance of where they spend their time.

It’s immeasurably safer to catalogue your credentials, your track record, and the path that brought us to today.  Unfortunately, we can look nearly all of that up that pretty easily nowadays.

What we’re hoping you’ll do is to lay it bare by sharing your thoughts about the road ahead.  We don’t expect them to be right, we just expect them to be honest so that we can start a real conversation.

The open 360

I recently participated in a powerful, surprising, and very positive experience of open communication and feedback.  The idea was simple and a bit terrifying: bring a team together and have, one-by-one, an in-person, open 360-degree feedback conversation about each member of the team.

Meaning: sitting in a room with 5 of my colleagues, they went one-by-one describing how we work together, what it’s like to work for me, examples of my strengths and their wishes for how I could grow as a professional.  We then went on to the next person.

Going in, it felt scary.  Most people are nervous both giving and receiving feedback; doing so publicly feels (at first blush) either like a way to turn the intensity up to a breaking point OR to run the risk of having the whole experience be so watered-down as to not be of much value to anyone.

It had neither of these pitfalls.  A little skeptical going in, I found it motivating, supportive, constructive, and reinforcing of the team.  As one person in our group said, describing the experience, “We all wear who we are on our foreheads, but we never create a space to really talk about this with each other.”  Indeed, in nearly all cases the feedback about each person was honest, clear, and very consistent.

Having done this once, my guess is that this needs to be done in the right way to work.  Here are guidelines we used, which I found very effective:

  • The goal is to give clear supportive and constructive feedback to each member of the team
  • We picked one person at a time to whom to give feedback
  • Each of the five people giving feedback had four minutes in which to give feedback (we used a timer and allowed ourselves to go over a little but not a lot)
  • Feedback consisted of:
  • Context of one’s working relationship with the person
  • General assessment of the person’s working style and performance, with at least two positive statements and specific examples.
  • At least one piece of developmental advice, phrased as, “My wish for you is….”
  • Once the full group has given feedback, the person receiving feedback is invited to ask questions, comment, etc. and have a short (10 minutes or less) discussion

With our group of six, it took about a half hour to give feedback to each person, plus time for discussion.  So this is definitely a serious time commitment, and we broke it up into three sessions (with the most senior person in the team going first) so we’d have the emotional energy to get through the whole process.

The most surprising thing, to me, was the expression of a shared commitment to each others’ success.  Person after person describing your strengths and where you shine is incredibly affirming – and it’s something we do too rarely.  The “my wish for you” framing of developmental advice steered everyone clear of comments like “it’s bad when you do this because….” and created a sense of support and collective ownership of the wishes, while at the same time providing clarity about ways each of us could take steps to realize our full potential.  I also suspect that going through this process as a group cracked the door open to more open conversations that will happen much more naturally and will flow much more easily now that we’ve gotten this experience under our belts.

This process may not be for everyone and may not work in all groups.  You’d need a starting foundation of support and constructive conversation, and you’ll need, I suspect, at least one member of the group who is good at making these sorts of conversations successful and productive and who can model the kind of conversation you’re looking to have.

But if you’re even a little bit curious I’d encourage you to take the leap.  As I said, going in I had a lot of doubts and I found the experience to break through a lot of the junk that keeps us from real and open dialogue; and it was about 100 times more real than the much more formal, constrained process I’m used to seeing as part of typical year-end performance reviews.

Give it a go, and let us know how it went.

The deadline opportunity

Deadlines force focus, can create superhuman results, can help people who have been dithering decide to act.

They are, in short, incredible opportunities.

Your leadership challenge is to see deadlines coming and plan for them appropriately, get the groundwork and underpinnings and infrastructure in place well in advance so that you can use them to your and your customers’ advantage.

So, for example, since you know deadlines are going to help you close a sale, you work backwards from the deadline, you have all your prep work in place, and then you make the deadline part of the pitch long before it arrives.  This way you use the deadline to your and your client’s advantage, to help them move from good intention to action.

A good deadline is a terrible thing to waste.