Crazy Idea List

It’s so tempting to strive for that empty To Do list, to dream of those moments when you’ll have only a few items left on the list and then tick them off.

But those moments only come if you’ve got a certain kind of To Do list, one with concrete, discrete, easily quantifiable and achievable tasks, all of which you’re sure you will start and finish.

That kind of list is fine, but what do you do with the thoughts that have a different character altogether: the thoughts that grab you in a quiet moment, on a walk or in the shower or groggily in the middle of the night; the thoughts that arrive funky and murky and blurry, the ones that need time to gestate and evolve before you can even see them clearly enough to know if they’re worth time and energy?

These thoughts need a home too, because if you don’t capture them somewhere – while they’re still just a glimpse of what could be – then you won’t get to hold onto them while they develop.

And then you’ll be sitting there, looking around and wondering, “where does everyone else get those great, breakthrough ideas” without remembering that you have them too, you’ve just never gotten into the habit of capturing and cultivating them.

Drop the Rope

The person you want to give a piece of your mind.

The argument you want to win.

The “I told you so” that you’ve been molding and honing until it’s perfectly crafted.

All of these responses are infused with an emotional energy that isn’t going to help.

The first step is to drop the rope.

Not because you are indifferent, but because you care. You care a lot. And whatever this thing is that you have to speak your truth about, it’s not the kind of thing that will have a right, a wrong, a winner and a loser. 

Not if it’s ultimately going to get where you’re so yearning to go. 

What is Fellowship?

I’ve spent the last two weeks in India and Uganda with the current class of Acumen Fellows (applications for the class of 2018 just opened). It is a profound experience to do deep work with our Fellows: no matter where they come from, they are dedicated to a life of social change; they are well-positioned to create that change; and they are in the midst of a deliberate journey to grow as leaders in service of that change.

The foundational design element of the Acumen Fellowship is the cohort experience. While we introduce many powerful leadership tools, frameworks, mindsets and approaches in our Fellows programs – anchored around Authentic Voice, Adaptive Leadership, Good Society readings, Managing Polarities and Systems Thinking – we know that the impact that we can have in 25 days of time together is necessarily bounded. The real learning happens outside of the room, between the time Fellows are together in session over the course of a year and, most importantly, in the long years after they first come together, as they continue to grow as leaders as they do their work.

This is why we believe that the most important aspect of our program is, in fact, “fellowship.” Fellowship, to me, is the weaving together of relationships, common purpose, shared expectations, aligned values, mutual investment, trust, and individual and group accountability to push and support one another. No matter what content elements we introduce and what discussions we have with our Fellows, part of what is happening in every conversation and every moment of silence in the room is an investment in strengthening the Fellows cohort, an investment in fellowship.

As part of this week’s Good Society discussion with our East Africa Fellows, in which we read some of the great thinkers and leaders from throughout history (including Hobbes, Amartya Sen, Martin Luther King, Ibn Khaldun, Amin Maalouf, Eduardo Galeano, Chinua Achebe, and Nelson Mandela), we waded through the first few chapters of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (which I find to be one of the most challenging of all the readings that we do). The foundational question Rousseau asks is in The Social Contract is: what makes authority legitimate? Rousseau’s answer to this question is the Social Compact.

He describes the Social Compact, somewhat obtusely, as:

The total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others….

Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

OK, maybe it’s really obtuse.

What Rousseau is saying is that we create a social compact when every individual (in a group or in a society) gives himself over to every other individual in equal measure, and, in so doing, the rights each person yields to others are the same as the rights she gains.

For example, in fellowship. For example, when 20 people fully give themselves over to each other, creating mutual bonds of trust and accountability.

In so doing, they create something that is stronger and greater than the whole.

In so doing, they are, paradoxically, more free.

These are the cohorts we are building,

As part of our discussion of Rousseau, we explored what kind of social compact this cohort of East Africa Fellows is making with each other, and what steps they have taken to strengthen this compact.

In service of this exploration, I asked the Fellows to reflect on actions that other Fellows have taken that have supported them in challenging moments. In response, one Fellow told a simple, profound story of wanting to learn to ride a horse, and how terrified she was to get into the saddle. She was with another Fellow at the time, and he gave her words of encouragement and support that helped her muster the courage to get on the horse. But he didn’t stop there. As her horse started walking, this Fellow walked alongside her. He kept on walking, matching the horse stride for stride, staying physically present with her as she faced this challenge.

I can’t get that image out of my head: I see one person up on a horse, conquering a fear, and another calmly walking next to her, accompanying her on her journey.

The beauty and power of fellowship is this invitation, willingness and capacity to accompany one another. It happens for our Fellows when the whole group is together in the room while we are in session. It happens individually and in groups outside of the room and between sessions. And, in our best moments, it happens even when Fellows cannot be physically present for each other, as each Fellow grows to realize that they are accompanied by all of their fellow Fellows everywhere they go.

With this realization, the have more strength to take the leadership steps that lie before them, they have more willingness to make hard decisions, they have more fortification to keep walking the path because they know that they do not walk alone.

Here’s to fellowship, and here’s to the brave, powerful, committed people creating it each and every day.

The Sunscreen Effect

As an adult, I’ve finally learned to put on sunscreen regularly. I lather some on every morning before heading to work, I apply it liberally before heading out to the pool, heck, I even wear sun shirts.

But reapplying after a few hours, or after a run or a swim? I’m not so good at that. Once I’m all wet, or sandy, or both, it just feels like a chore, and I tell myself that the first coat was good enough and waterproof enough.

So it goes with ideas as well.

We have an initial exposure to a new idea, so we diligently engage with it. It helps us in some way, changes our perspective or gives us some new tactics, and we feel good.

The initial impact is important, but where deep, more fundamental change comes from is re-exposure and re-application. Even rereading that same idea at a different moment will allow you to interact with it from a new perspective and have it affect you in a new way.

This has implications for how we interact with ideas that feel new and important, and it also impacts our approach to spreading ideas: it’s not necessary, or helpful, to say something new each and every time, because your audience needs to hear something lots of times and lots of ways for a new and important idea to really seep in.

Like, say, this gem from Seth Godin, which I’ve heard a hundred times in a hundred ways, and I still need to be reminded of it a hundred more times:

I don’t blog every day because I have a good idea.

I have a good idea because I blog every day.

Or the wisdom I heard from Thulsiraj Ravilla yesterday while speaking to him about the importance of values to the Aravind Eye Care System, which has given sight to millions, and that I got to visit for the first time last week in Madurai, India:

Values mean nothing if individuals do not put them into practice through their actions.

There are truths we have all been exposed to, things that we know to be real and important, that we let ourselves dabble with and then dropped before they could really impact us.

It’s time to reapply.

The Discipline of Self-Restoration

The work we do requires more of us. Not just running faster, or even running smarter, but the ability to go deeper.

True social change work, work through which we apply ourselves fully in service of others, requires us to show up differently. It requires us to do deep work on our selves – the work of self-reflection that leads to self-knowledge that ultimately results in a progressively deeper exploration of purpose.

This exploration is not a solitary activity. For real understanding of self to emerge, we must conduct this exploration in partnership with others – so we can better understand them, and the world as they see it, and, through these conversations and relationships, more clearly see and understand our selves in relation to them and to their world.

All of this work, this emotional labor, requires us to go deep to the places where we unearth empathy, connection, meaning, values, loyalties and losses.  This is the guts of the work we aim to do.

Our starting point is our willingness to take emotional risks: the risk of being authentic, the risk of standing up for what we believe in, the risk of speaking truth to power, the risk of admitting our own shortfalls and limitations, the risk of being courageous, the risk of being brave, the risk of persevering, and the risk of being humble.  Ultimately, these all add up to choosing to take the risk of caring deeply about something, of putting ourselves on the line for that thing, and of knowing that we might or might not succeed in achieving a thing that is truly important.

It can be daunting to see what this work requires of us, to contemplate the limbs we have to be willing to walk out on. But it is intuitively clear why we must do it: how can we change the systems that preserve the status quo if we don’t fully understand them, and ourselves?

Yet, even as we muster our courage, there is an important piece of work that often remains invisible to us. This is the work we will need to do to sustain our practice of emotional labor: the work of self-restoration; the work of sharpening, cleaning and oiling the blade, time and time again, so that we can wake up again tomorrow and cut down the next tree.

This is a discipline like any other, the discipline of self-restoration.

For each person this discipline will look different. It might be sleep. It might be meals with friends. It might be regular conversations with someone who has known us for a lifetime. It could be quiet talks with a loved one. It might be journaling, or walking, or sitting. It might be exercise, or mediation, or yoga. But it is something regular, a consistent practice that keeps us grounded, one that refills our tank so that we have the strength to go out the next day.

Burnout in the social change world is common, and while this partly occurs because the road is both long and hard, another cause is that we don’t prepare ourselves for the emotional labor this work will require of us, and, once we come across it, we don’t build in the disciplines that will allow us to consistently reground, reset, and reignite the flame inside of us.

The discipline of waking up when the alarm sounds for our morning run.

The discipline of sitting on a meditation cushion and not in front of the TV.

The discipline of shutting the computer off and having dinner at home with your family.

The discipline of reading some poetry alone before bed, and not your twitter feed.

This discipline of a regular practice of expressing gratitude.

The discipline of good sleep hygiene.

The discipline of prayer, of reflection, of reconnecting with our spiritual selves.

The thing about disciplines is that they are not always fun, or easy, or immediately gratifying. Yet when we make space for them, when we ritualize them and build them into the fabric of our lives, the payoff is a practice that restores our capacity to do the brave, hard, meaningful work we all aim to do.

It’s not what you do that matters

It’s the benefit it provides.

It’s time to stop talking about activities, effort, or money spent.

People buy results.

(Also, sorry about the massive typos in yesterday’s post. Here’s a corrected version if you wanted to share it.)

More what?

Read or attend any report or gathering in impact investing and you’ll be told that the impact investing market is growing fast. At last week’s Global Steering Group on Impact Investing Summit, for example, we heard a lot about the market reaching a “tipping point.”

How do we know whether or not this is a good thing?

We cannot answer that question by counting dollars, or by tracking how many philanthropists, foundations, and banks talk about the impact investing funds they are deploying and the impact they intend to have.

All that tells us is about changes in language and norms for product packaging.

The only “mores” that matter are more capital going to more initiatives and companies that make more of a positive difference in more peoples’ lives.

Until we are tracking that accurately, we have no way to know that we are making progress, or even if we are headed in the right direction.