A week

It hasn’t been a great winter for running for me.  Between the cold snowy weather, late sunrises and general busyness, I’ve just not gotten out there that often.

That didn’t stop me from deciding, this past weekend, to take my one free daylight hour and head out for a 7 mile, very hilly run in 25°F weather.  Brilliant, I know.  Usually I feel like most of the effort is in just getting out there, and after I start things get easier.  This time, between the cold and the brutal hills (I think there was maybe 1 mile of true flat road on this run), I spent the better part of an entire run talking myself into finishing the run.

Even in that context, one moment stood out.  The last mile of this run is practically straight uphill, and steep, and I was at the base of the steepest part of that incline.  I had psyched myself up by convincing myself that this section of the last hill was short and steep, and the strategy had been working as I trudged along with my head down.  Then, reflexively, I looked up to discover that the hill was about three times as long as I’d pretended it was.

At that moment I had an overwhelming urge to stop.

The interesting part is that being out of breath or feeling a huge burn in my legs didn’t demotivate me, but seeing how far I still had to go did.

And so, switching gears, I wonder: how do we really go about making changes in our lives? (Alternately: why do New Years resolutions fail?).

I’d propose that the thing that holds us back is that “looking up” moment, when you see how big the hill you want to scale is and decide that it’s just too darn big, too hard, too much, so you don’t start.

Despite being a believer in big audacious goals, when it comes to the hard work of personal transformation, I’m most successful when I start small.  If I want to cut out eating sugar, if I want to meditate daily or be more generous or ignore my inbox for an hour a day or give myself more whitespace for reflection, I’d much rather set myself a clear one-week goal and start on it today.

You can do anything for a week, easily.  And by committing to just a week, you don’t have to engage in the meaningless anticipation of what this undertaking will mean for you – because, let’s be honest, until you do it (whatever IT is) you really don’t know what IT feels like.  The powerful part is that a week is long enough to start getting used to a new habit: it’s long enough to change how salty your think food should taste (try it, it’s true).  It’s long enough to discover whether mornings or evenings work better for you for _______ [YOUR NEW ACTIVITY]; long enough to discover why, really, it’s hard not to check your smartphone right when you wake up or right when you go to bed or every time you step into an elevator.

Just one week.

Don’t allow the sight of the big hill keep you from starting to run.  Give it a week, start today, and see how you actually feel when you behave differently.  Then decide how big this is going to be for you.

Goldilocks giving

When it finally comes time to ask someone to make a philanthropic donation, how much should you as for – a little, too much, or just right?

“Too little” is never right.  If anything, “too little” is a polite way for someone to say “no.”

“Just right” in my experience also isn’t the answer.

Why?  Because we need to ask the most of everyone if we are going to accomplish great things together.  To be our best we all stretch, we reach just a bit too far, we dream audacious dreams because before something can happen we have to imagine that it just might be possible.  So too with giving.  It should be a stretch, should feel a little outlandish and a bit impossible.  At that moment of connection and excitement and commitment, people will go a bit further if you ask them – and even if they don’t no one gets hurt along the way.  We’re all grown-ups here.

This is particularly important because of how people tend to approach renewals of their giving.  While occasionally someone who gives at a low amount relative their other charitable work will jump to a significantly higher level, those sorts of shifts are rare.  Which means that if things work out well, the giving conversation you are having about this year is setting the bar for giving for next year and the year after that and…

In this case, “too hot” is better than “just right.”

What do you do in the face of a “no”?

A “no” can mean a lot of things.

It can mean that you’re wrong or that you’re right.

It can mean you’re way off course or completely on track.

It can mean that you’re threatening or that you’re misguided.

It can mean that you need to try harder and it can mean that it’s time to give up.

It can mean that you asked too soon or too late, that your story had no mojo or that you happened to ask on the wrong day.

A “no” by virtue of being a “no” tells you very little.  A “no” is deeply subject to interpretation.  Its “no-ness” is not inherently meaningful.

But knowing what a “no” does to you – now that could be valuable.  If no’s makes you slow down, shy away, and question yourself, that’s something you want to know.  If no’s save you from wasting time but you often forget to listen, you want to know that too.  If no’s cause you to push harder and to want to prove others wrong…yup, knowing that is important too.

Does a “no” attract you or repel you?  Does it have gravitational force or refractive powers?  Does it stop you in your tracks or add fuel to the fire?

What do you know about how you react to a “no”?

I know it’s here somewhere

My wife likes to needle me for (according to her) not being good at looking for things.  Needless to say, I disagree.

(Admittedly, I did recently speak to a senior marketer at Proctor and Gamble who told me that P&G has done studies in homes in which they move one or two items in the pantry, and women crush men in their ability to figure out what was moved….something about how men and women’s memories about of spatial relations are fundamentally different.)

I didn’t help my case when, the other day, I failed to find the little needle for the bike pump, so I could inflate a soccer ball.  This tiny needle floats around our house, usually in the “junk drawer” that’s full of pens, keys, stickers, and other small household overflow items.  I rifled through the drawer twice and convinced myself if wasn’t there.

My wife came downstairs, opened the drawer, and pulled the darn thing out in about two seconds.

Friendly marital banter aside, here’s what I’ve begun to understand: we look in a different ways when we’re sure something is there.  And this isn’t just about keys and pens and tomato sauce.

It goes something like this: if you’re not sure something is there, you’re looking in order to 1) Confirm/refute your hypothesis that the thing is there AND 2) Find the thing.  Conversely, if you’re sure something is there, you’re just working #2, on finding the thing.  Evidence along the way that indicates that it’s not there is summarily ignored.

This applied to all proverbial needles in haystacks, to problems big and small.  Knowing the answer is out there – you just have to find it – is a completely different undertaking than looking around, not sure if the answer is out there in the first place.  If you do the latter, you’re likely to throw in the towel far too soon, and you’re also likely to look in the wrong places. If you’re sure the answer is out there, you hang on to that conviction doggedly.

This is why looking tentatively is so problematic; why high-paid consultants often end up confirming what we already knew and discourage us from pushing boundaries into the unknown; it’s why great entrepreneurs distinguish themselves.

The chorus of naysayers loves to jeer that a better way isn’t out there.  And they win when we give up, because it confirms their own fears and the status quo that they love so much.

The thing is, a better way IS out there. And you’re going to find it if you look hard enough.

The weathermen are always wrong

They’re not, actually.*  For most days when no one is paying attention they’re usually right.

The thing is, we only pay attention when the stakes are high (“BIG STORM COMING!!” or when we’re planning for a vacation) and then when the forecast is wrong we remember that, hang on to it, and share stories about that day we prepped for the storm, canceled a meeting, stayed home from work…and the storm didn’t come.

Sure, sensationalist weathermen competing for viewer eyeballs play into this, so it’s fun to have them be the scapegoats.  But that’s not the point. The point is that people may talk louder about your failures than they do about your successes; or, worse, the naysayers speak up first and loudest, just when you’re getting going.  That’s the risk in showing up every day and putting yourself out there.

Don’t let the fact that the critics talk  – sometimes loudly – become an excuse for you not to show up in the first place.

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*NOTE:  here’s the chart (original analysis here) on the accuracy of weather forecasts.  If forecasts were 100% accurate, the solid blue line would lie directly on top of the dashed line.  Pretty accurate, actually.

Three levels of belief

I had a great conversation last week with someone starting a new nonprofit who is aiming to raise $100,000 next year.

We ended up talking a lot about how to get started on this seemingly audacious fundraising goal.  Interestingly, we didn’t spend much time on the obvious  stuff – is the organization’s story compelling? what does success look like? what is the elevator pitch?   Instead, we focused on whether it is important for her to believe in the fundraising ask and the $100,000 goal.

Put another way, as the founder and fundraiser-in-chief, how important is it to believe in the story at all three of these levels: mission; fundraising ask; fundraising goal?

My answer: it’s essential.

Think of it diagramed out like this:


The trap that many nonprofits fall in to is to come at this diagram from the left, meaning you (the founder) feel:

  • A deep belief about the programmatic work
  • A lesser belief in the ask you’re making of the person you’re sitting across from
  • And vague indifference about the fundraising goal – it’s a number you’re working towards, but the quality of your conviction about this is at another level entirely.

But of course your (potential) donor is, most likely, coming at this from the right:

  • The thing that is most real to her is the funding she might or might not put into your organization (literally thousands or tens of thousands of dollars of her money…what could be more real than that?)
  • Whether she’ll be part of the broader group of funders needed to make this work possible (no one wants to be the only one)
  • And the thing that’s least real to her (at the start of your conversation at least) is the programmatic work you’re doing

The most successful fundraising conversations break down all of these barriers and (unintended) habits: the successful fundraiser successfully shares the story in a way that makes the programmatic work as real to the potential funder as it is to her; she also literally sits in the shoes of the potential funder to understand and decide together if providing philanthropic support will meet the funder’s goals.

And the successful funder puts herself in the shoes of the organization and makes every effort to understand what it needs most; and she takes steps – financial and otherwise – to help the organization reach its goals.

A deep belief, a deep conviction in the programmatic work, the ask you’re making, and the overall goal?  They’re table stakes.  Without that, you can’t start down the path.

Gumption and conviction

Some interview questions to get at the important stuff:

“What grounds you?”

“What are you best at?”

“Tell me about at time you changed someone’s mind.”

“At your core, what makes you tick?”

“What does generosity mean to you?”

Degrees and smarts are nice, but they’re almost easy to come by.   Being the kind of person who drives and leads (no matter what your job title) is much more compelling.