1,000

This is my 1,000th post on this blog.

Now, I’m not a big believer in milestones. 1,000 isn’t different in any real way from 998 or 1,002, so why make a big deal of it?

On the other hand, one cannot be a purist about these things, and few would argue that there’s no difference between 1,000 and, say, 662.  And not quitting at 662 mattered.

To start, I hope that those 338 additional posts were useful to you. I hope that they’ve helped you to believe in yourself a bit more, to learn something you didn’t know, or to take a risk that you might not have had the courage to take, all so that you could serve others better.

Those 338 additional posts have also changed me. Most important, each time I think, “this might not work” I have 1,000 published blog posts that tell me to keep at it. I have proof of 1,000 times I didn’t give up, 1,000 times I thought something wasn’t good enough and I hit “publish” anyway, 1,000 times a blank page laughed at me and I laughed back.

Getting from there to here wasn’t a given. Yet for every time I wavered, for every doubt that cropped up, I saw someone raise their hand and share a post with a friend, or reach out to me to say, “this helped me, thank you,” or I glimpsed someone doing something with more bravery, care, and love. And, through those actions, the circle of gift-giving continued.

In trying to make sense of it all, I’m reminded of the fabulous meta-graduation speech given last week by Adam Grant, author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B, at Utah State University. In the speech, Adam analyzed other graduation speeches, pinpointed their themes and gaps, and gave his own insights that honored and expanded upon what he found.

His advice to graduates centers on the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who believed that we acquire virtues by practicing them, but that virtues should not be lived at the extremes: we should be generous, but not so much that we end up having nothing left to give; we should be studious, but not so much that we miss out on building genuine relationships with others; we should be proud of our work, but not so much that we always place it above the work of others.

Adam ends his speech with a story of his early self-described failures as a public speaker, doing so to challenge the advice (given in more than half of all graduation speeches!) to “be true to yourself.” Adam wisely takes issue with this advice, arguing that we must learn to distinguish between being true to our authentic selves today and being true to the authentic self we might someday become.

In Adam’s words:

When I was in grad school, a friend asked me to give a guest lecture for her class. I was terrified of public speaking, but I wanted to be helpful, so I agreed. I figured it would be a good learning opportunity, so after the class I handed out feedback forms asking how I could improve. It was brutal. One student wrote that I was so nervous I was causing the whole class to physically shake in their seats.

My authentic self was not a fan of public speaking. But I started volunteering to give more guest lectures, knowing it was the only way to get better. I wasn’t being true to myself, I was being true to the self I wanted to become.

This blog has been an effort to be true to the self that I want to become. Like all projects of this type, it is a forever-unfinished process of unfolding, of evolving, of learning and adjusting and shifting and renewing of commitment.

My thanks go out to all of you for reading, sharing, challenging yourselves, and doing the important work that you do.

My promise, for the next thousand posts, is to keep on being a tree falling in a forest. What keeps me going is that you keep on showing up to hear it land.

One week later

What a difference a week makes.

I for one have experienced much more sadness than I’d ever have expected these last seven days, in addition to anger, confusion, self-reflection, and some dread.

So what has helped, and what has not?

The first moment I woke up from the post-election haze that had settled over me was on Thursday night. I was sitting on the floor with my two older kids, playing a card game as we usually do before bed, and one of them made a joke, then the other, and pretty quickly we ended up rolling with laughter, tears streaming down our faces. That moment snapped me back to the present, to things that are good in the world, to feelings of pure joy, silliness and love that broke through the wall of numbness that had started to form.

Since then I’ve been paying attention to what feels useful, to what is helping me to move forward.

What has helped the most is engaging in the actions I fear might be threatened, actions big and small that demonstrate tolerance, generosity and inclusion.

What has helped is reaching out to people who seem closer to the front lines, and asking them how, tangibly, I can help.

What has helped are people around me who have shown strength more quickly than I have, who have stood up immediately to show their willingness to live their values, to stand up for what they believe in, to be human embodiments of the basic goodness that feels like it is under attack.

What has helped is starting, slowly, to minimize my own social media rubbernecking, and to ask myself: what information am I seeking, and what am I going to do with that information once I have it? Will it inform how I donate? How I volunteer? What I create or get involved in to fight for the things that I believe in?

Because it’s never been clearer that the new today that we are living in demands actions, not hand-wringing, and that we don’t get to be appalled or disappointed or outraged if we’re not going to do something about those feelings.

I should also add that now more than ever I think it’s important to be both vigilant and specific. Vigilant about fighting for values I hold dear, and specific in my concerns, worries, and what I hope to protect. Lots of what seems to have gone wrong are the vague generalities each side throws at each other, broad statements full of the word “they” that stand in the way of real dialogue. And I’m seeing more clearly that everyone, including people I strongly agree with, finds it comfortable to talk about “they.”

A week later, I’m still struggling to make sense of it all.  But in the world we’ve found ourselves in, one that is as unpredictable as ours has just proven itself to be, one in which so many people are hurting enough and angry enough and feel forgotten enough that they feel like this man, and the people he surrounds himself with, are the best option available to them…that’s a world in which we get a limited amount of time to “figure out what’s going on,” because what this world needs is our concrete actions.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to work in an organization that represents and is fighting for values that are important to you, in whatever form, then the best place to start is there: redouble your efforts in that context, where you already have relationships, reputation, expertise and understanding, while also searching for, and committing to, taking action on a wider stage.

How to Respond to Tragedy: On the Front Lines of Hope

We’ve just witnessed the largest mass shooting in US history.

I wish this fact made me feel like the worst of this is behind us. But it doesn’t.

On days like today it is hard to feel like the world is getting safer and less violent, but that’s what the numbers tell us. If we are in fact riding a wave pulling us towards peace and prosperity, there’s also an undertow that we must fight against. Whether it’s U.S. citizens like Omar Mateen pledging allegiance to ISIS to justify mass murder, or simply the daily drumbeat of tragic gun deaths that go unnoticed — on an average day in the U.S., 91 people are killed with guns — the cocktail of fear, ignorance, hatred, bias and easy access to firearms is a deadly one.

Omar Mateen’s hateful, senseless killing reminds us what’s at stake. It reminds us of the push and pull between freedom and security, the tug between hope and fear, the real fight over what the future will hold.

Each of you reading is this is, in some way, engaged in this fight. You are working to support others and improve their lives. You are giving to organizations that are sources of light in today’s darkness. You have committed yourselves to a world in which hatred and senseless violence will never be the norm.

Our only choice, in the midst of grief, is to recommit ourselves to this work: perhaps not to work harder, but to take it all a bit more personally. When we put ourselves on the line a bit more, when we take just a bit more risk — personally, professionally, emotionally, spiritually — we push the boundaries of the change we are making in the world, and in so doing we inspire others to greater heights.

Yesterday morning a colleague reminded the Acumen team of the wisdom of one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. The backdrop of her celebrated memoir about writing, Bird by Bird, were words of her father to her then 10-year-old brother

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Our only choice, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task — like the task of pushing against a wall of vitriol and fear — is to start.

Here’s to the work you are doing to create light in the darkness.

And here’s to the memory of those who never should have been slain.

The Hardest Thing

It isn’t figuring out how to solve the problem,

or deciding what approach will work best.

It isn’t sussing out what tactics to use,

or who will be your partners and your competitors.

It’s not figuring out product-market fit,

and it isn’t even hammering out how you’re going to convince skeptics of your story.

The hardest thing is figuring out what’s really important to you.

The things you want to work for.

The things that are worth sustained energy and sacrifice.

It’s the act of clearing away the dross, of quieting the voices that are the noise, not signal, streaming through your head.

The moment you state your goal is the moment you can’t hide from it.

It’s the moment you have to stop pretending that you don’t know exactly what it is that you are here to do.

Fazle Abed and Thulsi Ravilla – Learning at the Feet of the Masters

The other night I had the chance to witness a remarkable conversation between two of the true pillars of our space: Dr. Fazle Abed and Thulsi Ravilla.

Dr. Fazle Abed is the founder of BRAC, a Bangladeshi organization that began with a focus on microfinance and has expanded organically in a massive way, now employing 130,000 people with a budget of more than $700 million. In addition to being one of the world’s largest microfinance organizations serving tens of millions, BRAC has provides livelihoods, maternal care, and nutrition, including now growing and providing 80% of the improved rice seed and 30% of the improved maize seed in Bangladesh.

Thulsi Ravilla is the President of Aravind Eye Hospital, the first truly scaled social enterprise outside of the microfinance space. Aravind has performed more than three million eye surgeries, two-thirds of which are to patients who do not pay. Its doctors perform 2,000 eye surgeries a year compared to 120 in the United States. They are the world’s largest manufacturer of intraocular lenses, selling these lenses for $3 versus the $200 they used to pay to buy them. And 15% of all ophthalmologists in India have been trained by Aravind.

Abed and Thulsi were being interviewed by Acumen’s founder and CEO (and my boss) Jacqueline Novogratz, as part of Acumen’s annual Advisory meeting – Abed serves on our Advisory Council and Thulsi on our Board of Directors.

I didn’t have a notebook for the conversation, so will share impressions of what really stuck in my mind and not the blow-by-blow:

  • This has been a life’s work for both of these men. They have each been at it for 40+ years in Abed’s case and 30+ years in Thulsi’s case. While it’s possible that the new funding mechanisms we have created around impact investing could accelerate this path today, it’s also completely clear that this is what a life’s work looks like, and there’s no way we will create massive, lasting and sustainable change in 5 or 7 years time, no matter how we finance it. This is about building enduring institutions.
  • Both share a relentless focus on poor customers. These men, and their organizations, know deeply and inviolably who they are serving. Poor customers (most of whom are women in BRAC’s case). That customer is known and fixed, and they have built the culture and logic of their organizations in answer to the question: what will it take to serve this customer in the most efficient, most dignified, most impactful way possible? And how can we build a sustainable organization so we can be here for decades to serve that customer?
  • A notion of service. Abed had been working at Shell and had been part of the Bangladeshi independence movement (in its separation from Pakistan) when he founded BRAC. To fund it, he liquidated all of his assets including selling his home. When asked in the conversation if this was hard to do he said, simply, “After you have been a freedom fighter, after you have witnessed life and death, these sorts of questions become less important. I had a home which I sold. I thought, ‘What is this change that will happen if I live in another home? It is still a home with four walls.’ The sacrifices I had to make were not that big.”
  • Building culture globally. Whenever talk came to culture, both men became especially focused and clear, as if they were about to utter their most serious and important truths, the wisdom that comes after decades of work. “The systems are easy to build and to transfer, and they do build efficiency,” said Thulsi. “But the culture is what makes the system work. It is the interaction of the culture and the systems that make our work possible.” Thulsi said that 90% of Aravind’s hiring is about culture and fit, literally asking questions like how much the bus fare was to the interview to get underneath what kind of person the interviewee is. If you’re hiring someone to do a job for a few years, perhaps the yield on short-term skills is higher, but to hear Thulsi describe it, it’s all about the culture. Some of the most interesting conversation was about how you build culture at scale, and while I didn’t leave the discussion with a clear “how to guide”, I was left with a renewed sense of clarity that for any scaled organization, culture is the most important thing to get right and that it requires constant investment and renewal.   This in addition to building the systems and other institutional underpinnings that allow for efficiency.
  • With time, persistence and endurance, anything is possible. Both of these organizations have moved into adjacencies that are far from obvious at the outset: Aravind as a major supplier of intraocular lenses – because they were a big expense line they wanted to address – and BRAC a huge supplier of seeds – because, in Abed’s telling, he discovered a group of 300,000 women whose repayment rates were relatively low, and rather than change policies or squeeze them he went to investigate and discovered that they were using low-quality vegetable seeds whose yields were low. So BRAC started manufacturing its own seed. While I am sure both organizations tried lots of new things that didn’t work out, it’s also clear that when these organizations got their core right they were strong enough to take on new business lines that, at first glance, would seem to be far afield.
  • Need versus demand. The recent Monitor/Delloitt follow-up report to Blueprint to Scale talks about “push” versus “pull” products, a point that Thulsi made using different words. “Need” in his definition is clinically defined – reduced or no sight – but even though Aravind offered free surgeries, many people with need would not show up. What they learned was that if they could go to the village – using telemedicine (which an Acumen grant 12 years ago helped facilitate) and other technology – they would, within 24 months, have treated 100% of their target market and 90% of those would follow through on recommendations from Aravind (to get glasses, to have surgery with Aravind, or go to a specialist hospital).
  • Scale. When asked about the importance of scale both men found the question almost trivial – the need is big, the solutions have to be big, we have no choice in the matter.
  • Urgency. When asked about whether he would have liked to have gone faster, Abed said “absolutely.” “A child,” he said, “can get stunted from malnutrition as early as age 6, at which point that child has reduced prospects for life.” Abed said he is always in a rush because the clock is ticking for that boy and for everyone like him, so we must always move with a real sense of urgency.

These are just the big pieces that stuck with me from a conversation that could have gone on for many more hours with everyone on the edge of their seats.   We were sitting at the feet of the masters, getting pearl after pearl of wisdom, hard-earned in a life’s work.

Just as the conversation was wrapping up, Abed jumped in to close. He told the story of Mahatma Ghandi, who interrupted a conversation by saying, “Excuse me, I have to go. My people are going over there and I have to follow them, for I am their leader.”

Indeed, what picture of leadership could be more powerful, or more relevant for today, than this?

Two ways to ask for help

Business schools and career centers have taught the wrong lesson: when trying to get noticed (for a job, an informational interview, etc.) send an email (those used to be called “cover letters”) that succinctly tells your story, touts your credentials and all the amazing things you have done.

The reason it’s poor advice is because for a job or an organization that’s special enough to deserve you, you won’t standing out from the crowd based just on what you’ve done and what’s on your resume.   There are too many great and accomplished people out there sending too many emails that look more or less like yours, so you can no longer distinguish yourself by a record of accomplishment.  You distinguish yourself by how much you care (and I don’t mean caring about getting that interview, I mean caring about doing something of value, of giving more than receiving); and you might distinguish yourself by work that you’ve done that we can see, feel and touch.

Your opportunity is to put effort into helping the person you want to connect with – offer them something of interest, something relevant to their work, an article they might not have found that they’d like to read, and explain why it connects to what they’re doing.  Create something that might help them meet their goals.  Share an insight, an actual insight, that they’ll want to hear.  Reciprocal exchange has a long history, and it doesn’t work because I am obliged to do something for you, it works because you showed that you care enough to do something of value to me, and I want to return that favor.

The reason people don’t do this is because it requires shifting the time/effort asymmetry away from the person asking for help.  In 30 minutes you could send a reasonably similar email to 30 people asking for 30 minutes of their time.  But it might take you four hours to do something remarkable to get one meeting with one person.  The worst part is that you might do all that work and still not get the meeting.

And that’s exactly why doing that work makes you stand out from the crowd.

Two runs

I just got back from vacation, which, when I’m not running after our three little kids, affords some time to exercise regularly.  I’m still running with my “barefoot” Vibram shoes (which I love, and which are the reason I’m back running after a 10 year hiatus), though infrequently enough that doing three runs in a week felt like a major milestone.

Trying to overcome my natural tendency to overdo it, my first two runs were identical and not too strenuous: 3.5 miles first thing in the morning on very flat terrain.

But of course the runs weren’t identical.

The first run was a first run after a few weeks off.  I felt sluggish, plodding.  For the first mile I was running into what felt like 15 mph headwinds, listening to a beautiful late Schubert piano Sonata which is great for inspiration but doesn’t seem to get the legs churning.  On the last mile of the run a new blister started burning and I slowed down a lot.  It was, overall, the kind of run you’re glad you did once it’s done.

Two days later, things felt totally different.  I felt light, felt like I was moving, I was listening to a “running mix” that always gets me moving faster.  I kept on picking up the pace through the whole run.  It felt great.

Thanks to the wonders of a new iPhone app called Strava, I was able to see how different the two runs really were.  The first one took 27:57 (an 8:08 minute mile).  The second took 26:41 (a 7:46 mile).

Yup, the difference between plodding / struggling /limping to the finish and “flying” was a minute and 13 seconds.

Sure, this could be a reflection of me as a runner, but it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves.

Our highs and lows aren’t so different from each other: we’re not as great as we think we are on our great days, nor nearly as terrible as we feel like we are on the bad days.  But the difference between showing up and staying home?  That one is monumental.

Showing up, fully, and giving full effort is what counts.

And going a lot easier on yourself on the days that feel like the bad ones.