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.

Time’s passage – Tom Hussey

Tom Hussey old youngI found these Tom Hussey photographs arresting.   They are images of Alzheimer’s patients taken 50 years apart.

Perhaps it is because time’s clock is ticking, because the days are long and the years fly by, because the oldest of my three kids just went off for a month of sleepaway camp and, even though it’s still a long way off, his being out of the house for a few weeks reminds me and my wife that one day he will actually BE out of the house, moving on and living a whole life elsewhere, hopefully visiting us from time to time.  And, eventually, so will my other two kids, even our baby girl.

Inexorably, I will, if I’m lucky, continue to live life, experience joy and sorrow, and, I hope, continue to gain wisdom and perspective as I grow older.

All the while I will continue to look in the mirror each morning, and one day (no doubt sooner than I expect it) I will be surprised at the person I see in the reflection.  When that day comes I will talk to younger people and they will make the same mistake that I surely have made countless times: not understanding that I old was once young, vibrant, reckless, inexperienced, and brash.

American culture scores low marks in terms of respect for our elders, and I suspect it is because, in the absence of a strong set of norms around how to treat one another, as individuals we routinely forget the arc of the lives that others have lived.  Perhaps most of us lack the capacity to see a wizened, cracked face, or a body that moves more slowly than it once did, and see the full life that person has lived.

Yet if we’re lucky, time will pass for all of us and we will grow old.  Of course.  I sometimes wonder, though, if our inability to truly understand this simple fact is one of life’s biggest practical jokes.   I know that if we all felt how precious and fleeting our lives are we’d often act differently.

Seeing such vivid, beautiful images of time’s passage doesn’t make me fearful, but it does help me remember to live now, to experience the richness of life and love and family now, to be courageous in what I do now, because time really is flying, and my chance to make a difference is people’s lives is today, not tomorrow.

Scarcity and Abundance

It is so easy to experience what we feel we lack.

There’s never enough time or enough money.

We could do it if we just had a little more access, a little more support.

I’ll start my new business soon, I’m just not quite ready.

I’ll start blogging as soon as I come up with a few more ideas.

I’ll take that big leap once it becomes just a little clearer what the other side looks like.


Abundance comes when you start practicing abundance. It’s a decision, an attitude, a state of mind, and a practice.

I know I have to work on it each and every day. And it is work. But I keep at it.


A student at a nonprofit school of management told me that they are learning a lot about how to operate under conditions of scarcity – because that’s what the nonprofit sector is like.

The catch is that if you start with the notion of scarcity and how to cope with it, that’s your mindset.  Money is scarce, it’s a zero sum game, you see constraints all around you.   You’re being taught to operate within a broken system.

Let’s break this system (that includes the schools with this mindset).  Let’s reinforce in our students a mindset of abundance, of possibility, of agency.  And then let’s rip out all the classes and lectures about scarcity and replace them with lectures from the best fundraisers and executive directors and philanthropists we can find – so we can give students the tools to create these conditions of abundance.

You can’t trade favors

In the generosity economy, we are all taking steps to help one another.  We are open to possibilities, we work to create success for others, and we hope and expect that others will also open up to and support our own success.

“Trading favors” is entirely different.  It is: “Here’s what I’m doing for you now, and what are you going to do for me now or soon in return?”

In one case, you genuinely care about others’ success.  In the other case, what you get now and later is really all that matters; you’re just using creative tactics to get there.

In one case, there is an element of faith and trust, and a sense of abundance.  In the other case, you believe and act like what you have to offer is scarce, and that the only time to get what is coming to you is right now.

The difference is clear, and everyone can smell it a mile away.

Norms, tipping, generosity and scarcity

Buy a sandwich from the deli, or a hot dog from the guy on the street, and the rules of the game are clear.  You’re told a price, you pay cash, done.

Reroll the tape, but this time you pay with a credit or debit card.  Depending on the machine they’re using, there might be a spot for “TIP _______” and you find yourself wondering whether and how much to tip for that same sandwich.

When a friend emails you about a cause that’s dear to him, there a normal set of responses you have to that situation – nothing, something, it’s up to you, but the steps you take follow a well-worn path.  Same story if you’re, say, at a Wall Street firm and a colleague asks you to buy a table at the benefit where she’s being honored – the numbers are just bigger.

On and on we go, hurtling through life with shorthand response to situations, because that makes things so much easier, because it feels like the only sensible way to process everything that’s coming our way.

But, just to be clear about what’s going on here, that shorthand is a function of norms, previous practice and social expectations.  Scarcity and real economics have very little to do with how we act.

The fun part – a piece of Generosity Day – is turning these norms upside down to see what that feels like: a $20 tip on a $5 taxi ride; telling the hot dog vendor to keep the change; telling your waiter that you’ll also pay the bill for the couple sitting next to you; agreeing to help a person who emails you out of the blue even though you don’t feel like you have the time.

My bet is that breaking these norms feels totally outrageous, that your heart races a little when you do it.  That’s the feeling of acting differently.  Then, when the rush passes, your head has the chance to process how glib you often are with that extra $20, but right here and right now, at the hot dog stand, handing over a $20 bill for your $5 hot dog – and not getting the change back – feels ludicrous.  Let the introspection begin.

One reason to give this whole thing a try is as an exploration of the norms and limits you’ve set around your life and your actions.  They may be just right for you.  Or your generosity experiment might afford a glimpse into how you could behave differently all the time – whatever “differently” means to you.

Was it ever mine?

The experience of giving isn’t an objective one:  our relation to the money we give and the attitudes we bring to bear directly impact our own experience and on our practice.

So much collected teaching and wisdom about giving rests in the religious traditions, and I’m just beginning to explore what this ancient wisdom has to teach us about modern giving.

All the major faiths place great emphasis on giving – how could they not, as giving binds a community together, keeps it coherent, ensures a level of well-being for members of the community and stability for the whole community.  In the Jewish tradition, one gives the maaser (1/10th of one’s wealth and 1/10th of one’s income) as tzedakah; this translated into the Christian tradition of tithing.  Islam has a similar tradition of zakat, the laws of which are specified in the Qur’an.

In all of these traditions, giving is completing the circle in one’s relationship with God.  Our abundance is a reflection of the blessings we have been given, and when we give we are returning some of that abundance.

Whatever your faith (and even if you not religious) there is wisdom here.  If we are in a position to give, we have been blessed with good fortune.  We have the honor of being in a position to help another.

How different this notion is from a sense of scarcity, of needing to learn to let go each and every time we give.  I find this notion freeing.  We approach giving with the knowledge that what we are giving away was never ours; we approach giving with a sense of humility and with the knowledge that good fortune has played a role in our own good circumstances, and we are passing on a bit of that good fortune to another.