Turning Down the Strawberries

My three-year-old daughter has a funny way of turning down food. “No thanks,” she says, when presented with strawberries, which for reasons no one knows she’s decided she does not eat. “I’ll have them later.”

Most of the time, when we say we will do something “later” it means one of two things:

  1. This isn’t important enough for me to do at all, I’m just not willing to tell you that directly; OR
  2. Before doing this I need to check with three people so I don’t have to make the decision alone.

Yes, you might have a system in place to organize your work, so that “later” actually means “I will do this at 3pm” but when “later” is vague and loose, it is a quiet, subtle way to practice taking yourself off the hook, even for small things. And this sort of habit builds up until it becomes how we orient ourselves in the face of things that are ours to do.

It is so rarely the case that we need to you play smaller and ask for permission more.

Yes, consult when you need real input from people who will make your thinking better, but please don’t ask around in search of a lukewarm “no.”

If you find yourself snowed in by Juno today, then today might be the perfect time to practice starting to say “yes” and “now” and “this is up to me” more often.

Pass the strawberries, please.

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Egg whites, scrambled eggs, and egg shells

I’m seeing eggs everywhere this week.

Seth Godin’s amazing new book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn – which you can still order and share here – has a great parable about his 8 egg white omelet. It is a story about the slippery slope of compromise and the taste of fresh herbs, and his omelet is fabulous enough to convince a skeptical food critic that there is, in fact, such a thing as a “delicious egg white omelet.”

Then I came across this video about how to make a scrambled egg without breaking the shell.

And Tim Ferris has a video that was seen more than six million times (six million!!) about how to peel an egg without really peeling it. The video is completely unremarkable and downright boring until 0:50 in, when Tim blows on the egg and it jumps out of its shell.

That one-second moment, and its contrast with how dull and under-produced the video is, encapsulates what makes stories and videos spread: a tiny instant of “wow” that gets someone to share it with a friend with a “you gotta see this” message.

If we can create “wow” around peeling an egg, surely we can create it around the important work that we do.

The first step is to stop sanding off the edges; the big leap is figuring out out how to create a moment that shows that the impossible is, indeed, possible.

Tim Ferris_egg

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Subway Portrait

“Excuse me, m’am, may I draw your picture?” he says, white pad on his lap, fingers stained with charcoal.

“Pardon me?” says the woman sitting across from him on the subway, looking confused and a bit taken aback.

“Your picture…is it alright with you if I draw your picture?” he reiterates.

“Uh…sure.”

And then, as his hands glide across the page, his patter begins, not interrupting the drawing, which has to be complete in the two minutes before the last stop.

“This is what I do,” he says, “I draw pictures of people. Portraits. Been doing this for years, I’ve drawn 800 portraits of New Yorkers so far.”

She takes the bait: “All in one day?” she asks. Her guard is dropping just a little bit.

“No m’am, that would be impossible. Anyone who tells you they’ve drawn 800 portraits in one day, they’re lying to you. No, I’ve drawn 800 portraits since I started, and that’s why I can draw them so fast, because I’ve done it so many times. I’m an artist, you see, an artist. Don’t you like how that looks?” (he holds up the already – amazingly – half-finished sketch, which has gone from a few lines to, instantly, a pair of eyes, an outline of a mouth, a bit of expression, in about one minute).

She smiles, recognizing her likeness, the shape of her face, the crinkles around the outside of her almond-shaped eyes.

“See I knew that would make you smile! Now I can get that smile in the picture… Now I’m gonna give this portrait to you, that’s what I do, I’m gonna give it to you either way….Lots of people like these portraits, they hang them up, in their offices usually…And a lot of them pay me for them, even though I give them to ‘em either way, a lot of people pay me $10, or sometimes even $20…

(almost to himself) “Yeah, I try to get 10 people in a day to pay me $10 each, that’s what I try to do. Last guy I did this for he handed me a $10 bill, yes he did. And don’t tell me I’m not an artist, see? Artists make people smile and that’s what I’m doing here, I’m making something that will make people smile.”

Just a few more seconds for the finishing touches, and:

“So here you go, beautiful, here’s your portrait I hope you like it.” he says, handing it to her.

And she does.

And she pays $10.

 

In review: to create a situation where someone gives or buys, you must first create joy, a story, connection, a thing of beauty.

And in situations, like philanthropy, or busking, where it’s not clear what something is worth, it’s your job to tell them, to frame it for them, to say: this is what people who are happy and feeling a sense of connection in this moment typically pay. This is what the last 10 people did.

“I’m going to give this to you either way, but you gotta know that everyone else before you who liked their portrait gave $10 or $20 and hung the portrait in their office.”

Sure, she could decide not to pay, but if she does pay, you can bet it’s not going to be $1, which is what most people on the subway get when they ask for money.

His starting point was a $1 portrait. The story about the portrait, and the story about what people who like portraits pay, that’s what’s worth the other $9.

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Impact: The Future is Now (Take 2)

Something strange happened with the embedded YouTube video in my last post for email subscribers.

Until I figure that out, here it is again:

impact future is now

 

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Impact: The Future Is Now

One of my greatest points of pride from 2014 is how far we have come at Acumen in how we think about and measure impact. So much of the talk in impact investing feels stalled on the question of whether to measure impact, and we’ve spent almost no time or energy, as a sector, on the HOW of measuring impact. I believe if we get this how right, we can measure impact in a way that makes sense for entrepreneurs and brings us real and real-time insight into customers and how we are meeting their needs.

In this talk at Acumen’s Partner Gathering from November, I share my thoughts on how we can break through the logjam in measuring impact by changing our perspective about about what impact measurement really is (hint: it’s about customer insights) and by using new tools and techniques (hint #2: mobile phones, call centers) to gather data.

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Bryan Stevenson – Proximity

The other day, I had the honor and privilege to hear Bryan Stevenson speak in a small group setting. Bryan is a lawyer and a fighter for justice and racial equality, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative who has a list of accolades and awards too long to tackle properly.

Among other things, his TED talk, which has been viewed more than two million times, apparently got the “longest and loudest standing ovation in TED history”; he’s recently written a book that I’ve just bought called Just Mercy (it has a 4.9 out of 5 star rating on Amazon); he will be arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court in March about mandatory sentencing; and he has received the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU’s) highest honor, the National Medal of Liberty.

In addition to being a true fighter for rights and justice, someone who is living on the front lines every day, Bryan is one of the most compelling, articulate, and inspiring speakers I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Bryan is an orator, someone who weaves together structure and narrative, deep intellect and cutting analysis, all shared through poignant and often heart-wrenching stories. The man is a gift to the world.

Bryan talked about four things that need to happen to create social change:

  1. Proximity.
    Simple as it sounds, Bryan argues that the first thing we have to do to fight injustice is to get proximate to injustice, to show up and see things with our own eyes. When we see what Bryan sees (or whatever other issue we choose to see), we will, in Bryan’s estimation, have no choice but to act. As important, Bryan reminds us, the only solutions that work are the ones that are developed when one has an up-close view of a problem.
  2. Changing the narrative. This was a specific point that Bryan was making about the narrative of racial injustice in the US – What is really going on, Brain asks us, when, say, a 14 year old black boy lashes out and throws a book at a teacher? Is the solution to incarcerate that child or to ask what happens to a child who has lived for 14 years surrounded by violence? – but I believe this point is universal. For nearly all issues there’s an unspoken but powerful story that fortifies the status quo.
  3. Keep hopeful. We give up on issues that we believe are hopeless, wrongs that we tell ourselves simply cannot be righted. In Bryan’s words, “injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.”
  4. Do uncomfortable things. (Bryan admitted, each of his four steps gets harder and harder.) What I heard here is Bryan saying out loud that we simply cannot make real and lasting change if we stay comfortable. Whether it is the people who led or joined the civil rights movement (or any other movement that created large-scale change), each and every person made a decision at a critical juncture that they were willing to be uncomfortable and put themselves on the line.

All of these points deserve to be printed and pasted up on our walls as daily reminders of the work we have to do.

And when I take a big step back, what strikes me is that one of the most pernicious and unseen problems of our runaway economic inequality is the reduction in proximity. While it is easier than ever to feel that the world is more global than ever, more connected than ever, in reality it is easier than ever to separate: to see only the news we’ve told Google we like to read, to get updates only from Facebook friends, to live in houses and neighborhoods and go to hotels (whether here or 5,000 miles away) that are only for “people like us…,” to tell ourselves a story of connection and globalization and democratization of information when really we walk around surrounded by bubbles that we refuse to pop, insulating ourselves from anything really, truly foreign.

I don’t have a lot of hope that the momentum towards greater economic inequality will lessen any time soon, but one of the things that Bryan’s talk made me wonder is whether we would have more leverage in creating change if we worked directly on this question of proximity, and on creating productive pathways to action that, together with that proximity, help people start doing useful work more quickly.

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Bhava Yoga, then and now

Over the holidays, I went with my family up to Okemo, Vermont for four days of skiing. It was a little icy for the first few days, but we had a great trip.

As an experiment in family travel management, we decided to break up the drive with a quick overnight stop in Brattleboro, VT. One of our great parenting discoveries is that any hotel with a pool and free waffles for breakfast is, according to the kids, “totally awesome,” so we stay at a lot of Hampton Inns on family vacations.

Weeks after we’d made this plan, my wife reminded me that Peter Rizzo, a master yoga teacher whose classes we used to take on the Lower East Side of New York City, had moved his studio to Brattleboro a number of years ago. Could we arrange things so that one or both of us could take a class with Peter during our 18 hours in Brattleboro?

Somehow, it worked out. Last Sunday we left New York around 1:30pm and managed to pull into Brattleboro at 4:50pm, ten minutes before Peter’s 5pm class. My wife spilled out of the car and went up to Peter’s two-hour class while I took the kids to the (tiny, cold) pool at the Hampton Inn. That class was so great that I then took Peter’s 9am class the next morning.

Peter is an exceptional yoga teacher on a number of levels. Yes, he’s technically amazing, but what really matters is that he keeps you calm and helps you get to a non-striving place, with great reminders like (after putting you into a crazy poze) “just by looking at how far you do or don’t get into hanumanasana (full split) I could tell nothing at all about how advanced your yoga practice is. In fact, I can tell you from my personal experience that there’s no relationship between how close my head gets to my shin and how enlightened I am.”

Indeed.

Time works in funny ways, and when my wife and I spoke to Peter that Sunday evening after the 5pm class, he remembered that we used to go to Bhava Yoga when it was on East 13th street. We said it was “a while ago,” and he said, “Yes, that was 11 years ago.” Where did the time go?

Though our interaction with Peter was fleeting, there was something special in that moment of reconnection. Peter gave each of us the gift of a deep, grounding, inspiring yoga class, and a glimpse of the community he has created. There was also something pensive and reflective – and perhaps even a flicker of pride – in Peter’s eyes as he contemplated the 11 years since we’d last seen him, the logistics we must have managed to make the class happen (the drive, the kids). What I hope he understood was that, even though we’d taken no more than 30 classes with him so many years ago, he was a part of our lives and he had made a lasting impact on us. I hope that, in seeing us, we helped him realize how many other people there are out there in the world, some of whom he hasn’t seen for a decade or more, who he’s also impacted in profound ways.

I think this is how it is for all of us: we hear back only a fraction of the ways that we have touched people, moved them, inspired them, and lifted them up when they were down. But that impact is out there, it is real, and it is our living legacy.

One of the easiest gifts to give is to find the opportunities to remind people how important they have been to us, and to thank them for it.

Here’s wishing you a great start to your year in 2015.

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