1,000

This is my 1,000th post on this blog.

Now, I’m not a big believer in milestones. 1,000 isn’t different in any real way from 998 or 1,002, so why make a big deal of it?

On the other hand, one cannot be a purist about these things, and few would argue that there’s no difference between 1,000 and, say, 662.  And not quitting at 662 mattered.

To start, I hope that those 338 additional posts were useful to you. I hope that they’ve helped you to believe in yourself a bit more, to learn something you didn’t know, or to take a risk that you might not have had the courage to take, all so that you could serve others better.

Those 338 additional posts have also changed me. Most important, each time I think, “this might not work” I have 1,000 published blog posts that tell me to keep at it. I have proof of 1,000 times I didn’t give up, 1,000 times I thought something wasn’t good enough and I hit “publish” anyway, 1,000 times a blank page laughed at me and I laughed back.

Getting from there to here wasn’t a given. Yet for every time I wavered, for every doubt that cropped up, I saw someone raise their hand and share a post with a friend, or reach out to me to say, “this helped me, thank you,” or I glimpsed someone doing something with more bravery, care, and love. And, through those actions, the circle of gift-giving continued.

In trying to make sense of it all, I’m reminded of the fabulous meta-graduation speech given last week by Adam Grant, author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B, at Utah State University. In the speech, Adam analyzed other graduation speeches, pinpointed their themes and gaps, and gave his own insights that honored and expanded upon what he found.

His advice to graduates centers on the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who believed that we acquire virtues by practicing them, but that virtues should not be lived at the extremes: we should be generous, but not so much that we end up having nothing left to give; we should be studious, but not so much that we miss out on building genuine relationships with others; we should be proud of our work, but not so much that we always place it above the work of others.

Adam ends his speech with a story of his early self-described failures as a public speaker, doing so to challenge the advice (given in more than half of all graduation speeches!) to “be true to yourself.” Adam wisely takes issue with this advice, arguing that we must learn to distinguish between being true to our authentic selves today and being true to the authentic self we might someday become.

In Adam’s words:

When I was in grad school, a friend asked me to give a guest lecture for her class. I was terrified of public speaking, but I wanted to be helpful, so I agreed. I figured it would be a good learning opportunity, so after the class I handed out feedback forms asking how I could improve. It was brutal. One student wrote that I was so nervous I was causing the whole class to physically shake in their seats.

My authentic self was not a fan of public speaking. But I started volunteering to give more guest lectures, knowing it was the only way to get better. I wasn’t being true to myself, I was being true to the self I wanted to become.

This blog has been an effort to be true to the self that I want to become. Like all projects of this type, it is a forever-unfinished process of unfolding, of evolving, of learning and adjusting and shifting and renewing of commitment.

My thanks go out to all of you for reading, sharing, challenging yourselves, and doing the important work that you do.

My promise, for the next thousand posts, is to keep on being a tree falling in a forest. What keeps me going is that you keep on showing up to hear it land.

Aristotelian virtues

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending two days with Acumen’s class of 2014 Global Fellows.  These Fellows, a group of truly outstanding individuals from around the world who are committed to social change in the developing world, spend two months with Acumen training in New York before working for nine months with Acumen’s companies in India, Pakistan, East and West Africa.  While at their placements, they do things like run the sesame business for Gulu, a company serving more than 40,000 smallholder farmers in post-conflict Northern Uganda; or helping d.Light expand its solar lighting business in Nigeria.

One of the foundational elements of the Fellows’ training is the Good Society readings.  Based on the work of the Aspen Institute, the goal of these sessions is to give Acumen Fellows – who have committed to a life of social change work – the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the moral and philosophical traditions that they are a part of.  Questions like: what is your view of human nature? How do you feel about tradeoffs between equality and efficiency?  How do we build a good and just society?

These are heavy readings, and the Fellows did amazing work grappling with the likes of Hobbes and Rousseau, and Plato.  They had heated discussions about the worldviews of Aung San Suu Kyi and Lee Kuan Yew, building upon a deep conversation of the impact and value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written just after World War II.  They dissected the masterful use of rhetoric and the display of moral imagination in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by far one the most inspiring pieces of writing I’ve ever studied.

Near the end of the two days, we took up a discussion on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a piece I had never read.  As I waded through the difficult, mostly obtuse 2,000-year-old writing, I came across a passage that summarizes more clearly than I could one of the main underpinnings of my worldview:

The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well.  For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

–          Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 1

What Aristotle understood, two millennia, ago is that it is the actions we take that define and build our character, not the other way around.  This is the reason for a sustained practice of generosity, of humility, of audacity.  This is why being kind in small ways opens our hearts to others in big ways, why taking care to be our best selves in each interaction can transform us over a period of months and years.  It is why reflection around our core values combined with deliberate cultivation of behaviors and habits that we cherish can lead to profound change.

“We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”  Indeed we do, and it through deliberate practice that we become the people we aspire to be.  And while it may be the case that our greatest heroes were born different from the rest of us, it may also be that they started practicing just or brave or temperate acts early on, and stuck with it for a lifetime.

You can too.