The Sunscreen Effect

As an adult, I’ve finally learned to put on sunscreen regularly. I lather some on every morning before heading to work, I apply it liberally before heading out to the pool, heck, I even wear sun shirts.

But reapplying after a few hours, or after a run or a swim? I’m not so good at that. Once I’m all wet, or sandy, or both, it just feels like a chore, and I tell myself that the first coat was good enough and waterproof enough.

So it goes with ideas as well.

We have an initial exposure to a new idea, so we diligently engage with it. It helps us in some way, changes our perspective or gives us some new tactics, and we feel good.

The initial impact is important, but where deep, more fundamental change comes from is re-exposure and re-application. Even rereading that same idea at a different moment will allow you to interact with it from a new perspective and have it affect you in a new way.

This has implications for how we interact with ideas that feel new and important, and it also impacts our approach to spreading ideas: it’s not necessary, or helpful, to say something new each and every time, because your audience needs to hear something lots of times and lots of ways for a new and important idea to really seep in.

Like, say, this gem from Seth Godin, which I’ve heard a hundred times in a hundred ways, and I still need to be reminded of it a hundred more times:

I don’t blog every day because I have a good idea.

I have a good idea because I blog every day.

Or the wisdom I heard from Thulsiraj Ravilla yesterday while speaking to him about the importance of values to the Aravind Eye Care System, which has given sight to millions, and that I got to visit for the first time last week in Madurai, India:

Values mean nothing if individuals do not put them into practice through their actions.

There are truths we have all been exposed to, things that we know to be real and important, that we let ourselves dabble with and then dropped before they could really impact us.

It’s time to reapply.

Diagnosis, Effort, and Capability

My six-year old daughter was moving nicely through her 7-minute piano practice session the other day when we opened up the music to a piece called Toy Soldiers. This piece breaks new ground for her by having not one but two Gs in it (up until that point she’d only played between the A and F around Middle C).

She instantly burst into tears, poor thing. “It’s too hard, I can’t do it!”

Needless to say she absolutely can do it, and did do it almost immediately after she calmed down. But even after that, this piece is still resolutely in the “too hard” category in her mind.

It’s more obvious when it’s a six-year-old who’s decided she can’t play a G, but we all do this: decide that we have some sort of limitation of our own capability when really what we’ve gotten wrong is the diagnosis.

Diagnosis of how big the problem is.

Diagnosis of what it will take to overcome it.

And most of all, mis-diagnosis of the fact that what’s keeping us from doing it is the decision that we can’t do it.

Diagnosis is our fundamental leverage point, on problems big and small. It’s the step we rush through too quickly when we think we have the solution, the step we get wrong when we’re comfortable with the way things are, and the step that is the beginning of the breakthrough when we allow ourselves the space to see clearly.

After good diagnosis comes effort, and it’s true that that bit can be hard: sustained effort, emotional effort, these things require both commitment and endurance.

But capability? The actual lack of capacity to do something? That is almost never the real problem.


Always be sniffing for clues that you are doing real and important work.

A nice cocktail to look out for is the mixture of fear that “this might be a total waste of time” mingling with moments (minutes, maybe hours) flying by because you are totally engrossed in something.

This fear you’re feeling comes because there aren’t clear external markers for what you’re working on, or because some people you trust are telling you that this won’t work, or because you can sense that you’re further out on a limb than you ever have been before.

When this sort of nagging doubt comes together with a project that completely engrosses you, one that sometimes grabs you and won’t let go because you’re so in sync with the work…that’s a great time to keep going for it.

That kind of synchronicity doesn’t come along often, and the fear and doubt you’re feeling is the worry that you might do something big and important.

You might. Which means that when you pull it off, you won’t be able to walk away from it.

That’s scary too. But it’s just this kind of work that we need from you.

People don’t change their minds

I feel like I need to write “People don’t change their minds, they change how they feel,” 100 times on the chalkboard, like Charlie Brown, in the hopes that it will someday fully sink in.

Yes, I’ve heard different versions of this point repeated time and again, by everyone from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow to storytelling gurus Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

The metaphor is: think of the human mind as composed of an elephant and a rider. Elephants are people’s emotional and instinctive reactions, the rider is our rational brain. Guess who wins when they disagree? Per Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard:

Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.

The irony is that reading this alone, by definition, won’t make me, or you, believe it. Until your elephant experiences this in a way it understands, it’s just an idea floating out there like any other, one that won’t change your behavior.

Our inability to live this truth plays out in elections (“don’t they understand he’ll make a terrible President?!”), in fundraising pitches (“I’ll show them the facts and they’ll understand how important this is”) and everywhere in between. We think storytelling and emotional connection is a nice way to start and end a pitch, a cute way to open and close, and forget that these moments are the pitch. The connection to people’s emotional and intuitive selves are the things that direct and point the elephant in one direction or another, while the facts and analysis we present are used by our audience to justify a decision they’ve already made.

Let me try it again:

Bonus: the single best piece I’ve read on this topic, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitation of reason from February’s New Yorker.

The Third Plate and the Future of Impact Investing

Our food system is broken. While we have solved the problem of how to produce lots of calories for a low direct cost, this same food system has resulted in an obesity epidemic; it is why nearly 10% of the U.S. population has Type 2 diabetes; and, most recently, it likely is playing a role in the huge spike in colon cancer for people in their 30s and 40s.

What do we do about it?

I recently read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. Dan is a famous chef, the co-owner of the acclaimed restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The book’s title is Dan’s answer to the question, “what will the typical American dinner plate look like in 35 years?”

In response, Dan sketched three plates to show the evolution he imagines: the first plate, from the 1960s, had a large, corn-fed steak with a small side of industrial farmed vegetables; the second, from today, had a farm-to-table organic grass-fed steak with a side of organic heirloom carrots; and the third, futuristic plate, had a “steak” made of carrots garnished with a sauce made from leftover beef trimmings.

Dan’s point, with this third plate, is that the current high-end, farm-to-table, farmers’ market approach to food is a luxurious niche that doesn’t address the core issues of the food system: while the foods themselves may be natural and healthy, they are, in Dan’s words, “often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow,” and, by definition, they work at the edges of the system as a whole.

(Cue: impact investing theme music)

The Third Plate is Dan’s exploration of a better solution, a deep dive into whether the carrot-made steak really was the future of food, and what it would take to get there. The book recounts his exploration of Soil, Land, Sea and Seed – the book’s four sections – and what the future of each of these food categories might be.

Like all good narratives, this one is told through people. Each of the book’s many protagonists – whether Klaas Martens, a farmer in upstate New York, Miguel Medialdea, a Spanish biologist, Steve Jones, a seed breeder at Washington State University, or many others – are all rebels of sorts who reach the unavoidable conclusion that whether you’re growing a stalk of wheat, raising an acorn-fed pig, or cultivating the world’s most delicious fish, the only way to produce truly outstanding food is to create food that is in harmony with a broader food system.

Take Miguel Medialdea, the Spanish biologist who raises a bass so delicious that the first one Dan Barber tastes, which, unfortunately, was overcooked, is described thus:

The fish was incredible. Even overcooked and tough – even D.O.A. (“dead on arrival”), as line cooks like to say when a fillet has seen too much heat – it made my mouth water. It was so richly flavored, you’d be forgiven for comparing it to a slowly cooked shoulder of lamb or a braised beef short rib. I’d never known bass could be so delicious.

How does Miguel Medialdea’s Venta de la Palma produce such a bass? It’s a complex system of interplay between salt and fresh water, an 80,000 acre fish farm which feels like a loosely managed system in which Miguel has set up the major pieces, nudges things here and there, and then lets the system do most of the work.

I won’t attempt to describe all of the inner workings of Venta de la Palma – Dan does it better. But I was struck by a moment in Dan’s conversation with Miguel at the end of another meal, in which Dan tries to uncover the secret of what could make a bass so delicious. Was it the scale of the property, which meant no overcrowding and, therefore, almost no disease or parasites? Was it the intricate canal system, which provides a natural filtration system against pollution?

To try to make sense of it all, Dan casually asks Miguel how long it takes for one of his bass to mature.

‘Thirty months,’ Miguel muttered, seemingly to no one in particular.

‘Thirty months!’ I said. ‘It takes two and a half years to raise…a bass?’

‘Yes, that’s the average, which is more than twice the aquaculture average.’

I asked how the company could make money.

‘So far there’s profit, enough to keep us working at an optimum, not a maximum.’

This was the kind of answer Miguel, and Klaas, and Steve Jones kept on giving: that one of the fundamental constraints that had to shift in order to operate a healthy food system is a move from maximum profit to optimum profit. They propose that the only way to create the world’s best food is by creating and maintain a system in balance, and each one of them concludes that such a system is not one that is optimized for extracting every last bit of value that they, personally, can squeeze out of it.

To illustrate the point, at another juncture in this conversation, Dan is shocked by the 30,000-strong flamingo population on the farm. Since these flamingos eat 20% of the farm’s fish and fish eggs, wasn’t their presence a bad thing?

Miguel shook his head slowly, with the same calm acceptance shown in the face of losing half of his goose eggs to hawks.

“‘We’re farming extensively, not intensively,’ he said. ‘This is the ecological network. The flamingos eat the shrimp, the shrimp eat the phytoplankton. So the pinker the bellies, the better the system.’ The quality of the relationships matters more than the quantity of the catch.”

If Miguel’s job is to optimize the overall health of the system, then key indicators of success are the data, like the pinkness of flamingos’ bellies, that tell you about systemic health. Profit may result from this system, but the system is not engineered primarily to create profit.

What a fantastical notion, that profit might be a result and not the goal.

The parallels to our economic system are, I hope, obvious. When I compare the dialogue within impact investing with the conversations happening in the food system, I’m struck by how much we, in impact investing, have so far failed to have a rich, nuanced conversation about where profits fit in the new system we say we aim to create. In my experience, all conversations about profits – or returns – in impact investing quickly devolve into discussion of the financial return a given investment or strategy produces, with both sides losing when they debate the “right” level of return without a broader conversation about whether this return is a result of or the ultimate purpose of the investment.

The much deeper conversation we need to have is around whether to be a successful impact investor, or to be a successful player in an ecosystem funded by impact investments, one needs to have the willingness and the capacity to optimize for the health of the system, and not just one of its outputs (profits, or returns). Meet any of the colorful characters in Dan’s book and you come across rebellious tinkerers who bristle at the status quo at every turn, because they’ve learned, through a life’s worth of experience, that the traditional food system is broken.

Do we have a similarly clear point of view about whether the mainstream capitalist system works or is broken? Do we believe, as we watch everyone from Bain Capital to TPG to the Ford Foundation commit billions of dollars to impact investing, that we can create the kind of deep change we know the world needs if we are unwilling to confront this question head on? Are social entrepreneurs and impact investors the equivalent of food revolutionaries who see that we have no choice but to upend the whole system, or are we hangers-on to the edges of mainstream capitalism, excited to build out our small terrariums without ever questioning the bigger ecosystem?

My belief is that our breakthroughs will only come once we start saying out loud that our ultimate goal is to build a global economic system that is extensive, not intensive. And then, once we recognize that such systems can be built, to ask ourselves what it would take to move that from niche to mainstream.

My belief is that to get from here to there, we need more folks who are willing to think like Miguel. These are people who can deconstruct and reconstruct a food system (or any other system) and, in so doing, can reprioritize the factors they’ve been told to optimize. These are people who are willing to walk the long, hard, stupid road from nowhere to somewhere. These are people who won’t stop tinkering and experimenting and learning and failing and doing it all over again…until, one day, they can consistently produce an output that is better than anything that’s come before it and that enriches the health of all the players in that system.

It’s OK for us to acknowledge that we don’t yet know the right indicators of systemic health, as long as we say that we’re willing to put ourselves on the line to create them.

We start by asking: what is our equivalent of the pinkness of flamingo bellies?

Two roads

When you write, when you speak publicly, there are two roads you can walk.

On the first road, your goal is to get people to believe you, to agree with what you’re saying, to consider you smart, credible, maybe even funny. On this road you communicate expertise and mastery. You amaze them with your technique and your wit. There’s a lot of entertainment value.

“She was such a great speaker, wasn’t she? I just felt so good after hearing her talk!”

On the second road, the only barometer for success is how much you mobilize them to act. This road is about showing a gap in the world that is unacceptable, maybe even a bit ugly, and helping them to see that they are the ones who can fill it. This talk creates passion, it ignites emotions, and, most important, it creates tension and discomfort that are only resolved through action.

Their reaction isn’t about how great you were, it’s about what they now have to do.

Which one are you going for?

The Easiest Money I’ve Ever Given Away

The easiest money I’ve ever given away was the day after my wallet was returned to me, untouched and full of cash.

Having done the mental work of literally imagining living without that money, it was easy to see the request to give money away as a simple reminder: “Ah, yes, this money isn’t mine after all.”

The practice of giving is just that, a practice. And like any practice, it is in the act of doing that the behavior becomes normal, expected, and part of our lives – not the other way around. The practice of giving is how we pound away at the mold of who we are. We exert effort and willpower until the very material of our selves begins to yield and take on a new shape.

Part of that reshaping manifests in a new story we tell ourselves, a story about how to think about our wealth and our skills and our possessions and the choices we can make about how to deploy all of them – maybe, just maybe – to reshape the world into the better image we dare to imagine.

Over time, we also discover that, in the act of starting to show up differently in the world, the world starts to show up differently in us. In the act of trying to shape the world in a new way, the world sneaks up on us and starts to reshape us too. If we are very lucky, both of those transformations will be for the better.

Today Acumen is celebrating its fifteen-year anniversary, and in a couple of months I will hit my 10-year anniversary at Acumen. Looking back, it’s easy be misled by the small, nearly imperceptible daily changes we have made in the world and that the world has made on us. But looked at from the vantage point of a decade, or a decade and half, it’s obvious that the changes are both profound and lasting.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this time, it’s that the only way to become the kinds of people who show up, who hammer away and who do the work is by showing up, hammering away, and doing the work. It also helps tremendously to have people who are willing to show up alongside you, people who are willing to pour their best selves into a shared vision about what is possible.

To all the people who have been willing to show up alongside me, and to all the people who have shaped me in ways that I hope you know (but I bet you don’t know fully): thank you.