Nipun Mehta on The Radical Power of Humility

I was deeply moved by Nipun Mehta’s talk from last week, The Radical Power of Humility. Nipun has been leading a life of radical generosity for a few years now, and as I’ve watched his writing unfold over these years the wisdom he is accumulating is palpable.

Nipun begins:

Today I’d like to surface an unpopular virtue, one that’s fallen out of favor in a time of selfies and relentless status updates. The virtue of humility. We live in an era that believes it can no longer afford to be humble.

The power in Nipun’s talk comes through the stories of people he meets in his travels, and others who have walked this path before him – a nameless boy in a village in rural India who tells the story of a sparrow trying to hold up the sky; two Buddhist monks, Rev. Heng Sure and Heng Chau, who walked 900 miles up the California coast bowing their heads to the ground every three feet; the 96-year-old Suffi saint Dada Vaswani who speaks to Nipun about the power of being small, simple nobodies. And then Nipun slams you over the head with facts that put the rising tide of our collective narcissism in stark relief: according to the Google database of 5.2 million books published from 1960 to 2008, “individualistic words increasingly overshadowed communal ones. The usage of ‘kindness’ and ‘helpfulness’ dropped by 56%, even as ‘modesty’ and ‘humbleness’ dropped by 52%.” Ouch.

Nipun’s talk flips the notion of humility on its head, challenging us to recognize that in becoming small, in becoming humble, we become powerful and great. He reminds us of the words of Sikh guru Arjan Dev who offered this credo to his warriors: “Humility is my mace; becoming the dust of everybody’s feet is my sword. No evil can withstand that.”

In a world obsessed by power, in a world where even philanthropy (the act of giving!) is so often infused with perverse power dynamics – whether between the philanthropist and the receiving charity, or between the charity and the beneficiary – Nipun’s is a radical voice. And while the humble man does not need, or want, to be celebrated, the trait of humility need more advocates and more practitioners. It should not be rare hear someone extol the virtues of bearing witness, of expressing gratitude, of making ourselves smaller so we can really, truly shine a light on others.

We underestimate how what we do affects those around us.  Indeed, there’s a growing body of research showing the power our behavior has on others. As Nipun reminds us, happiness spreads virally, through personal networks, and so does obesity, cancer, and even divorce rates. We are apparently 2.5 times as likely to get divorced if we have divorced friends!

We should see these facts as a radical call to action. How do we make change? We start with ourselves. Through our attitudes, our own practice of humility, our own daily ritual of appreciation and generosity, we can see others, lift them up, and, in the process, transform them.

I hope you are as touched by Nipun’s words as I was, and that Nipun’s practice inspires you as it has inspired me.  Thank you Nipun, as always, for your words of inspiration.

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Razoo tweets and Ira Glass

On Monday I noticed a tweet from the nonprofit fundraising site Razoo, quoting a blog post of mine from 2012.


It was the elegant graphic they’d created from my blog post that made me do a little jig.   The bonus was when I scrolled I saw that the other folks they’d quoted recently: Roald Dahl, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mr. Rogers. That’s a group I’ll always be happy to be a part of!


What’s the Razoo team doing here? Finding a few choice phrases and sharing them, simply and elegantly. Easy enough for anyone to do, really.

This got me thinking that part of the reason we don’t create and share enough of our own work is that we set the bar way too high. Our job isn’t to be brilliant every day and to say something that’s never been said by anyone anywhere ever. I’ll say that again: our job is not to say something that’s never been said by anyone anywhere ever. If that were our job, almost everyone would produce nothing.

Our job is, quite simply, to give something of value to a like-minded community. Tiny observations, drips of inspiration, curated content about something we are passionate and have a point of view about…these all count. It is in the act of giving, consistently, to that community that our voice gets stronger. And as our voice gets stronger, so does that community.

Ira Glass nails this point perfectly in this NPR video interview. What’s particularly great, which I only heard because I’m writing this blog post, is that at minute three he plays a tape of a broadcast he did eight years into his job at NPR, and explains why it is  terrible.  Just terrible execution of a good story idea.  Eight years in, and Ira Glass, future winner of the Edward R. Murrow award, wasn’t any good.  If you care at all about building your capacity as a communicator, listen to minutes 3-5 which include Ira’s one-sentence take on what the story really was.

Here are Ira’s words of wisdom on doing creative work (and here’s a video that brings Ira’s words to life):

All of us who get into creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like, there’s a gap…That for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.   But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, y’know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point they quit….

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline…Because it’s only by going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

Go out there and create something.

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The easiest thing to do

The easiest way to make some understand how valuable they are and the difference they make is by praising them.

Not empty words, not loose compliments. Actual, specific, context-relevant praise that they will value.

Ah, “that they will value.” Indeed.

To do this we must go back a few steps, to figure out not only the work they do and where they shine, but also how they see themselves and the sort of reinforcement that is important to them.

This requires recognition, from the outset, that what’s important to each person differs in fundamental ways. It means being both attentive and curious, and being consistently outside of your own head and its internal chatter. And it means always being on the lookout for moments when people shine, and being quick to reinforce the great things that they do.

So, yes, that moment of giving the praise is a simple one. But there’s a discipline and a practice of all the steps leading up to that moment.


Posted in Gratitude | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Twenty Two Oh Five

Yesterday night at bedtime, my son handed me this envelope.


Earlier this year I visited with his Fifth Grade class and had a 90 minute discussion about Acumen. If you ever want to figure out how to explain what you do simply and clearly, I strongly recommend talking to a group of 5th graders. You’ll have to boil everything down to its essence in a great way.

I was blown away by how sophisticated and prepared the kids were: having 5th graders in a nice suburb of New York City ask me how things are going with the rice gassifiers that Husk Power Systems runs in Bihar gave me a lot of hope for the world.

What I didn’t know, until last night, was that a few of my son’s classmates took it upon themselves to raise money for Acumen as a thank you. They self-organized and went around to other classes in the school, talking about Acumen and asking kids to bring in bottles they would return for the 5 cent deposits.

So the $22.05 represents 441 bottles that 5th graders collected and returned because they wanted to help people they’ve never met who have less than they do.

The feeling I had upon receiving this envelope reminded of one of the most powerful impacts that fundraising can have on you. When someone you trust and respect shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, and agrees to give you their hard-earned money to support the work you do…well, I find that moment always motivates me to do the work harder and better, to do right by them and to earn the trust that they are placing in me and in my team.

To know the work that these kids went through – learning about Acumen, courageously going up to their friends and asking them to bring bottles from home, having those kids then go home and explain the same story to their parents – makes me want to work twice as hard and twice as smart.

I hope this story inspires you as much as it’s inspired me.

What would be fabulous is if more kids choose to do a similar project – to collect and turn in 441 bottles to support Acumen or another cause of their choice.

If they want to, let me know how I can help.


Posted in Generosity | Tagged , , | 3 Comments


Last week, my wonderful four-year-old daughter had minor surgery to have her adenoids removed.  In the hospital she heard lots of encouraging words from Mommy and Daddy and from the doctors and nurses. The surgery went really well and she was a champion through it all.

The following morning, as I walked into the kitchen she looked up at me with a big smile and said, “Daddy, I was really brave when I went to the hospital.”

“Yes, sweetheart,” I said, smiling back,“you were.”

“Daddy,” she continued, looking me straight in the eyes. “What does brave mean?”

What a sweetheart, and how wonderful it is to be a child where the world is full of questions to be asked.

In this moment she reminded me how often grown-ups will listen to the words we say and keep quiet if they don’t understand what we really mean.

It’s our job, not theirs, to fix this.

Posted in adenoids, brave, communications, surprise | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Myth of the Responsible Consumer

My friend Nancy Giordano has a wonderful newsletter called Cultural Acupuncture in which she explores many topics, mostly centered around the future of the modern, responsible corporation. You might like to receive it too.

Nancy and I got to talking this week about a theme in most writing about corporate responsibility that drives me bonkers – it’s about how much consumers care about the responsible behavior of companies they interact with.

So, for example, Cone Communications’ most recent Corporate Social Responsibility report claims thatnine-in-10 consumers [sic] expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues…[and] Eighty-four percent of consumers globally say they seek out responsible products whenever possible.”

Yeah, uh huh, that’s exactly how people decide what to buy and not to buy.

Can we please, please put these sorts of nonsense statements behind us? Consumers say one set of things. They do another set of things. What they say and do are not mutually exclusive. But the amount of overlap, when the question being asked reflects directly on how morally a customer behaves, had better be taken with a heap of salt.

Statements like this one – which are everywhere – paint a picture of a much more engaged and active consumer than the one who’s really out there. Most consumers don’t dig deep. Most consumers aren’t willing to go out of their way. Most consumers don’t actually switch nearly as much as you’d expect. Most consumers don’t want to bother with all of this. And most consumers certainly don’t make “ethical” purchases most of the time.

Stating that they do suggests that we’re much further along than we actually are in building an economy in which the true costs of what we consume is taken in to account.  We are at the very beginning.

Think about the question that leads to this “data” about 84% of consumers seeking out responsible products “whenever possible.”  It is something like:

How often do you seek out responsible products when shopping?

  1. Never
  2. Occasionally
  3. Sometimes
  4. Often
  5. Whenever Possible

To me, this question essentially equivalent to:

Are you a total jerk?

  1. Whenever Possible
  2. Often
  3. Sometimes
  4. Occasionally
  5. Never

OK, end of rant.

Posted in corporate social responsibility | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Trying right

It might be my long-ago past as a wrestler, but I’m a big believer in effort. The willingness and ability to try hard for a sustained period of time makes a huge difference in what we can accomplish.

But sometimes it’s not enough. Yes, people care about the effort, but if it doesn’t deliver what they need then they can end up frustrated.

For example, in terms of working with teams, I find the Situational Leadership framework, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, hugely helpful.  It serves as a simple but powerful framing for how different team members need different things depending on the task they are doing and their skill at executing against that task. (Ian does a nice job explaining situational leadership in some detail, and if you want to go deep, go here or here.)


Situational leadership_two graphicsThe framework describes the different roles you can play in interacting with a colleague (or a team) – from Directing to Coaching to Supporting to Delegating – depending on how committed to and competent they are at completing a given task.  (The graphic on the right is the classic visual for Situational Leadership; the one on the left focuses particularly on how willingness and ability map to different intervention styles).

It’s a simple framework but it takes a lot to apply it: you’ve got to diagnose the elements that make up a task; map your diagnosis onto an assessment of another person’s skills and motivation for accomplishing the elements of that task; intervene successfully to provide support based on that diagnosis; and adjust along the way for both how well/poorly you diagnosed both the task and your colleague, and how well/poorly you succeeded in your intervention.

My point isn’t about the situational leadership framework (though if you’ve never used it I recommend it highly), it’s about the leverage comes from the right diagnosis of each situation. This is the continual work of figuring out what’s needed at this moment in this situation with this person.

Yes, we should try hard, but the question becomes: where to direct that effort? More often than not, the right starting point is to listen, think about, and reflect on what another person needs to succeed in a given situation.

There’s a selflessness to this orientation, as we move from an internal focus (“I’m thinking about how I am going to act”) to an external one (“what is this situation, who is this person relative to this situation, what do I know about their wants and needs in this type of situation?”).

In this reorientation, we start the work of shifting from trying hard to trying right.

Posted in Coaching | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment