The show

Every talk, every event, every time you bring people together, you are really speaking to just a handful of people. This is your real audience, the people you are addressing, the ones you hope will be changed by that experience.

I think of it visually, imagining a camera looking down at the group – a crowd of people at an event, at a talk, a meeting of a Board of Directors. As the camera pulls up, the entire audience is in black-and-white, except for the few people that matter the most, the people the event is really for – I see them in 1080p HD Technicolor.

The show, ultimately, is for them.

With this kind of clarity, you can organize your narrative, the examples you use, the language you choose, the entire experience (including who they interact with) just for them.

You truth must still come out, your story must still resonate broadly, but if this show doesn’t have a clear purpose of “who will do what differently if we hit our mark” then it’s just entertainment.

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The problem with big numbers

The problem is that they’re big, and that they’re numbers.

Our brains are not capable of thinking about “1,000 people” in a real way, let alone 10,000 or 100,000 or more.  We don’t know how take something amazing, or tragic, that happened to one family and multiply it by 10,000.

Emotions, whether joy, fear, or disgust, don’t amplify that way. We just hear a number.

And that fundamental limitation too often insulates us from reality and from action.

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Confessions of a Barefoot Runner

I’ve been a proselytizer for Vibram barefoot shoes for the last five years.

My barefoot story began in 2010: after more than a decade of not being able to run thanks to an old nagging knee injury, I put on a pair of barefoot shoes and I was able to run again. It was magic.

Since then, I’ve told anyone and everyone who would listen about my new shoe orthodoxy: how heel striking is the root of all injury, how our natural gait is disrupted by cushy shoes, how we were born to run.

I still believe all this.

Nevertheless, a month ago, thanks to a new, nasty case of tendonitis (aka tennis elbow) in my right arm, I had to stop playing squash and tennis. So, in search of aerobic exercise, I’ve started running more. Three weeks ago, the pound of the pavement in my increased mileage in my Vibrams started to aggravate my right Achilles tendon – a potential injury that’s even trickier to heal than the nagging pain in my right arm.

So, reluctantly and feeling like a traitor to the cause, I bought a pair of 2014 Nike Free Flyknit 4.0s and started running with them. Yes, it’s felt awkward to have an actual shoe on my foot. Yes it’s messed with my stride a bit. But the honest truth is that my right heel feels better, my knee is also still fine, and I no longer feel on the verge of injury.

While I do feel like a traitor to the cause, the reality is that running barefoot has taught me a lot: about how my foot hits the ground; about body positioning; about cadence (goal is 180 strides per minute). Barefoot running taught me to run in a way that works for my body, and the new shoes wouldn’t have worked for my knee had it not been for the six years of running barefoot. No, I haven’t given up on the Vibrams, but they are no longer the only answer for me.

So often this is the cycle we go through: a period of orthodoxy, vehemence, and learning. And then, sometimes, we choose to – or are forced to – reflect and adapt again, letting go of that very orthodoxy that has been our truth and our conviction for so long.

And I’ll admit that at times I hope that someday I’ll just arrive: I’ll find my truths and be done with the hard work of continuing to have to change and grow. I can hope, but I’ll be let down.

It’s our passion, commitment, and evolution that puts us in a different place, preparing us for the next cycle of loss and letting go that, ultimately, will allow us to get to the next level.

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The missing Do button

It’s easier than ever to discover great new ideas. But I wonder how much better we’re getting at taking meaningful action based on the whirlwind of new ideas we’re now able to find.

How often do we receive a link to a great thought piece, read it (view it), get all jazzed up and then (wait for it…) forward it to a friend or tweet it?

Not good enough.

It’s great to share with others, but I wonder if, in taking that tiny action, we are giving ourselves the emotional satisfaction of having done something when, really, we’ve done nothing?

In the most obvious cases, this is about Like-ing a powerful video about a faraway tragedy.

But the pattern is the same if I see surprisingly good storytelling from USAID, or a fabulously clear, actionable piece about defining your brand, and all I do is share them.

What’s the action I’m committing to? What am I going to do differently as the result of coming across work that should change my thinking and my behavior? If all I do is share, the implication, at best, is that I’m hoping that someone else is more willing to act on something than I am.

Maybe we need a little help.

I fantasize about a Do button at the bottom of every article and viral video. Maybe this button links to a condensed Ship It book by Seth Godin and generates an email (or Evernote, or Google doc, or it gets pulled into Slack) describing exactly what I am going to do with this new thinking, with who, by when. The button helps us shift from “hey, this is interesting” to “this is what we’re going to do.”

To get us started, anyone out there seen a Do button that I’ve missed? Or want to make one?

And, if you like this idea, please DON’T just forward this blog post along.

Share this post, and any like it, with a commitment: think back to that one best idea you came across last week and write down what you’re going to do about it. As in (feel free to copy/paste/edit):

Hey Marcus,

Sasha Dichter’s blog post today got me thinking about that article I shared with you last week. We really need to change the way we run our team meetings, and my proposal is ________, which I want us to try at our meeting next week. As a next step, I’m going to….

(Bonus: commit to figuring out what your Do button is going to look like so that the next time a big idea rocks your world, you’ll take the steps to implement that idea to change your world for the better.)

The bottom line is that we are letting ourselves off the hook, and, in so doing, we’re not doing right by the people whose thinking we so deeply respect.  The truth is, these people aren’t interested in being a little bit famous; they’re interested in making something happen.  The best way to honor them is through the actions you take.

Posted in Change | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

A Means, not an End

There’s construction going on in the hotel by my office, and union members are outside protesting the use of non-union labor. There’s was giant inflatable rat on 9th avenue and now two guys have been passing out fliers with a headline that talks about “desecration of the American way of life.” Powerful stuff.

Sadly, the guys passing out the fliers didn’t show the same passion as the words in the flier. Far from it.

In fact, here’s one of the guys who was handing out the fliers. (And no, he didn’t just glance at his phone for a second.)

A means not an end

Sure, he’s just a bored guy on the street early one morning, but it felt like a metaphor to me.

I worry sometimes that the online tools at our fingertips are so powerful and so engaging that, even when we use them in support of our cause, they can become an end in and of themselves. That the quest for members, followers, likes and retweets massages away the blood, sweat and tears that brought us here.

The moment we trade in our conviction, our outrage, and our commitment is the moment we’re just standing on the corner looking at our phone…just like everyone else.


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Anand Giridharadas – The Thriving World, the Wilting World, and You

If you’re ready to ask yourself the real, hard questions – and if you want to arm yourself with the language to speak truth to power – I strongly recommend you watch the keynote speech Anand Giridharadas gave at the The Aspen Institute last week.

If you don’t know Anand, he is a journalist and author, most recently of The True American, the amazing story of a Bangladeshi immigrant, Raisuddin Bhuiyan, who was shot in the face by a white Texan, nearly died, and then fought to keep his shooter from getting the death penalty.

Anand’s talk pushes all of us to move beyond accepting change that comes from the system and, in so doing, preserves the system. He asks us to ask ourselves, and those around us, whether generosity is enough or if what we seek is justice. And, if it is justice we seek, how much are we willing to do and how much are we willing to give up to get it?

Here’s an excerpt that gets to the heart of Anand’s talk, the full transcript of the talk, and the video is below.

…we are at risk of confusing generosity towards those victims with justice for those victims. Generosity is a win-win. Justice, often, is not.

The winners of our age don’t enjoy the idea that some of them might actually have to lose, to sacrifice, for justice to be done. In Aspen you don’t hear a lot of ideas involving the privileged and powerful actually being in the wrong, and needing to surrender their status and position for the sake of justice. We talk a lot here about giving more. We don’t talk about taking less. We talk a lot here about what we should be doing more of. We don’t talk about what we should be doing less of.

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Driving at Night

I remember a conversation I had last year with one of Acumen’s East Africa Fellows.  We were talking about the faith it takes to walk an unknown path.  He shared that his father used to tell him, “You can only see a little ways in front of you when you’re driving in a car on a road in the dark of night, but that allows you to see far enough to eventually find your way to town.”

Much of what the world needs us to do is to walk untrodden paths. This requires more than just courage in the darkness.  While we only need to see a bit in front of us to travel far, it’s also true that we could have the brightest lights in the world and, if we have no idea where “town” is, we’ll never get there.

How do we balance knowing and not knowing? How do we avoid getting paralyzed – by trying to plan out every unknowable step along the way – while making sure we have a sense of our destination?

Part of the answer is imagining success.

Meaning, while we can only plan our next set of actions (as far as our lights can see), we can force ourselves to imagine what we will do when that step works out. And the next step. And the one after that.

Imagining this path of success helps me avoid becoming overwhelmed by a really nasty, thorny task that’s standing right in front of me.  It’s easy to say “let’s just get this part right, and we’ll figure out the rest if this bit works,” but that’s a big mistake.

Instead, walk all the way down that path of things going the way you hope they will, so that you can have the important and difficult conversation that starts with, “Then what?”  As in:

  • “We will succeed in getting key players in the organization to make the tough choices that they’ve been resisting.” “Then what?”
  • “Response rates on our new mobile phone survey will be high, and we’ll get new data that will be relevant to our driving repeat sales.” “Then what?”
  • “The big article that we’ve just submitted will get approved by the editor.” “Then what?”

Force yourself to figure out what happens when things go right, so that when they do you’ve got the next three steps lined up and you can step on the gas.  Otherwise, tomorrow’s victory will be a brief one.

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