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.

I’m sorry

You might have noticed that apologies don’t need to happen just once.

The first time, the words can catch in your throat. You might sound a bit defensive, even reluctant, a bit like the little kid who looks at the ground, mumbling almost unintelligibly as his parent nudges him forward to say “sorry.” What’s going on is either that you don’t fully believe your own words, or you sense that the person you’re speaking to isn’t totally ready to hear you.

The second time you apologize, you’ve gotten past the noise in your head (“I’m not the only one who did something wrong!”) and the self-congratulations (“I’m such a martyr”) and started to get in touch with real feelings. As these feelings of remorse start to be visible, you begin to build an emotional bridge between you and another person.

And the third time, well, the third time you are fully grounded in the truth of the wrong you’ve done, the hurt you’ve inflicted, the unnecessary slight, and you can match those feelings to the words you say and to how you say them. When that comes out, you can truly apologize and begin to set things right.

Of course there’s nothing special about apologies. This is the way it goes with any communication that has real, challenging emotional content, including expressions of humility, gratitude, requests for help, even communicating the joy and hopeful enthusiasm you have for a job you want, joy that is often buried beneath layers of seemingly-appropriate responses.

There are no shortcuts to expressing your emotional truth. There’s just the progressive work of discovering it, and then having the courage to reveal it.


Hey Trump, we are all immigrants

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!

So read the timeless words of poet Emma Lazarus, immortalized in a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

But in 1880, six years before the Statue of Liberty was completed, the US enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act which officially banned Chinese from entering the U.S. The Act was not repealed until 1943.

I guess 2015 is the new 1880.

Acknowledging the latest vitriol from Donald Trump feels like shining a spotlight on a circus barker. For a while—I hate to admit it—I indulged in thinking of Trump as an entertaining and harmless sideshow. Not any more.

Trump’s latest call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is an abomination and an insult, not just to Muslims but to all of us, to our country, and to  what it stands for. While it’s encouraging that Trump’s nonsense has been disavowed by nearly all major public figures, including most of the Republican Presidential candidates, Trump’s poll numbers remain firm as his supporters jeer more loudly, fanning the flames of ignorance and hatred.

In interviews, Trump’s supporters say “they” a lot, as in “they, Muslims, present a threat.” I wonder when Americans forgot that each and every one of us was, not so long ago, a “they.”

I was a “they” in 1947.

On Thanksgiving Day 1947, my grandparents arrived in San Francisco from China, having fled the Nazis in the early 1940s. They and more than 100,000 Jewish refugees entered the United States thanks to changes in immigration policy under President Harry Truman. In December 1945 the Truman Directive gave U.S. Visa preference to displaced persons.

This was a big change. Throughout World War II, the United States had refused to open its borders to Jewish refugees, turning its back on one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Fear and xenophobia reigned at home while soldiers fought for freedom and democracy abroad: Japanese were put in internment camps, and the rights of Germans and Italians were severely curtailed.

Lejb and Chaja Dichter (who later became Leon and Lucy Dichter), my grandparents, were two of these refugees. They arrived in San Francisco on a boat from Shanghai after six years of running for their lives: from Poland, to Lithuania, to Japan, and finally to Shanghai. They arrived with their two year old son, my father Misha, in tow, having buried their first child in the Shanghai ghetto. They quickly built a life for themselves in this country.

At my desk, I have a printout of a document that records my grandparents’ arrival as refugees in Kobe, Japan in 1941. It reminds me that life is tenuous. It reminds me that I am here thanks to the risks that people I will never meet were willing to take to shelter and protect my grandparents as they fled the Nazis.

Leon and Lucy_passenger manifest

It is in no small part because of those people that I do the work that I do: because when I see my own children’s bright and smiling faces, when I see what a light they are in the world, I am thankful. And I hope that I can do my own small part to save even just two more lives, to pay forward the infinite kindnesses that were done for my family just 70 years ago.

Mine is one of hundreds of millions of immigrant stories that end happily in the United States.

There is no separating immigrants from the United States. There is no “we” that exists separate from the “they” who have just arrived.

We are all immigrants. It is who we are. It is what makes this country great.


Leon and Lucy

The easiest thing to do

The easiest way to make some understand how valuable they are and the difference they make is by praising them.

Not empty words, not loose compliments. Actual, specific, context-relevant praise that they will value.

Ah, “that they will value.” Indeed.

To do this we must go back a few steps, to figure out not only the work they do and where they shine, but also how they see themselves and the sort of reinforcement that is important to them.

This requires recognition, from the outset, that what’s important to each person differs in fundamental ways. It means being both attentive and curious, and being consistently outside of your own head and its internal chatter. And it means always being on the lookout for moments when people shine, and being quick to reinforce the great things that they do.

So, yes, that moment of giving the praise is a simple one. But there’s a discipline and a practice of all the steps leading up to that moment.


Bhava Yoga, then and now

Over the holidays, I went with my family up to Okemo, Vermont for four days of skiing. It was a little icy for the first few days, but we had a great trip.

As an experiment in family travel management, we decided to break up the drive with a quick overnight stop in Brattleboro, VT. One of our great parenting discoveries is that any hotel with a pool and free waffles for breakfast is, according to the kids, “totally awesome,” so we stay at a lot of Hampton Inns on family vacations.

Weeks after we’d made this plan, my wife reminded me that Peter Rizzo, a master yoga teacher whose classes we used to take on the Lower East Side of New York City, had moved his studio to Brattleboro a number of years ago. Could we arrange things so that one or both of us could take a class with Peter during our 18 hours in Brattleboro?

Somehow, it worked out. Last Sunday we left New York around 1:30pm and managed to pull into Brattleboro at 4:50pm, ten minutes before Peter’s 5pm class. My wife spilled out of the car and went up to Peter’s two-hour class while I took the kids to the (tiny, cold) pool at the Hampton Inn. That class was so great that I then took Peter’s 9am class the next morning.

Peter is an exceptional yoga teacher on a number of levels. Yes, he’s technically amazing, but what really matters is that he keeps you calm and helps you get to a non-striving place, with great reminders like (after putting you into a crazy poze) “just by looking at how far you do or don’t get into hanumanasana (full split) I could tell nothing at all about how advanced your yoga practice is. In fact, I can tell you from my personal experience that there’s no relationship between how close my head gets to my shin and how enlightened I am.”


Time works in funny ways, and when my wife and I spoke to Peter that Sunday evening after the 5pm class, he remembered that we used to go to Bhava Yoga when it was on East 13th street. We said it was “a while ago,” and he said, “Yes, that was 11 years ago.” Where did the time go?

Though our interaction with Peter was fleeting, there was something special in that moment of reconnection. Peter gave each of us the gift of a deep, grounding, inspiring yoga class, and a glimpse of the community he has created. There was also something pensive and reflective – and perhaps even a flicker of pride – in Peter’s eyes as he contemplated the 11 years since we’d last seen him, the logistics we must have managed to make the class happen (the drive, the kids). What I hope he understood was that, even though we’d taken no more than 30 classes with him so many years ago, he was a part of our lives and he had made a lasting impact on us. I hope that, in seeing us, we helped him realize how many other people there are out there in the world, some of whom he hasn’t seen for a decade or more, who he’s also impacted in profound ways.

I think this is how it is for all of us: we hear back only a fraction of the ways that we have touched people, moved them, inspired them, and lifted them up when they were down. But that impact is out there, it is real, and it is our living legacy.

One of the easiest gifts to give is to find the opportunities to remind people how important they have been to us, and to thank them for it.

Here’s wishing you a great start to your year in 2015.

Another Hero I’ve Never Met

I recently had a powerful conversation with a friend about humility and arrogance.  We talked about the danger and allure of arrogance, how blinding it is and how much it keeps us from seeing each other’s humanity.

“Sometimes,” my friend shared, in a moment of deep candor and vulnerability, “even when I’m actively not being arrogant, I wonder if I’m being arrogant.”

I think we all know what she means – how easy it is to value our own strengths, how easy it is to take credit for our own successes, how easy it is to create separation, to be blind to the gifts of others, to forget that who we are and what we have is thanks to others.

Here’s how I was reminded of the wisdom of her words.

On my way into work yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about Tatsuo Osako, a man I’d never heard of, a man who is a hero to me…

Before getting to Mr. Osako, a bit of background.  I am the grandson of refugees, Holocaust survivors who escaped the Nazis in 1940 thanks to Chiune Sugihara, a Japanase vice consul in Kovno, Lithuania.

In 1940, Mr. Sugihara, defying his superiors, issued transit visas to more than 6,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Lithuania. These visas allowed these Jews, including my grandparents, to escape Lithuania and go by train to Vladivostok, Russia, and then to Japan by boat, saving them from the concentration camps.

The story of Mr. Sugihara is part of my family history.  My grandfather told this story to us countless times when we were kids, and long ago I read the 1979 book The Fugu Plan by  Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, that documents this history.

Mr. Sugihara didn’t act alone.  Someone needed to escort these thousands of Jewish refugees on the boat trips from Russia to Japan and ensure them safe passage.  And that brings us back to Tatsuo Osako.   He was not a diplomat, he was an employee of the Japan National Tourism Organization.  Yet he spent nine months from 1940 to 1941 serving as this escort on boats going back and forth between Russia and Japan, a civilian playing a diplomat’s role because there was no diplomat to do the job.


Tatsuo Osako with a passenger on a ship

Sadly, I’ve never met Mr. Osako, my newly-discovered hero who died in 2003.  But, thanks that article, I not only learned about Mr. Osako, I learned, while barreling towards Grand Central Station, that the author of the book about Mr. Osako, Akira Kitade, was going to be in Grand Central Station as part of an exposition that day by the Japanese Tourism Organization.  Turning my day upside-down, I made my way to Vanderbilt Hall and found my way to Mr. Kitade, a quiet man in his early 70s in a black shirt and a trim tweed jacket.  Many years after the War, Mr. Kitade worked for Mr. Osako at the Japanese Tourism Organization, and though Mr. Osako never spoke about his part in helping these 6,000 Jews escape, Mr. Kitade eventually learned about Mr. Osako’s story and decided to write a book about it.

Making my way past the velvet ropes to the back of Vanderbilt Hall, I found Mr. Kitade and introduced myself.  I shared my story and he shared his.  Our conversation was kind, open, and also tentative thanks to language barriers.  I bought a copy of his book, still only in Japanese, and we talked about his hope that Stephen Spielberg will someday make a movie about Mr. Sugihara, the “Japanese Schindler.”


Akira Kitade with the scrapbook of Tatsuo Osako. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

I also met Chikako Ichihara, the woman in charge of the Japan Tourist Board exhibition.  Though she was swirling in the rush of last-minute preparations for this expo that she’s spent a year developing, she stopped and made a few minutes to talk.  I found myself overcome with emotion, as was she, as I related my family history and shared my gratitude for her choice to include the history of Mr. Sugihara and Mr. Osako in the expo.   She shared some details I didn’t know about the Japanese government’s policies and about the heroics of so many everyday people who chose to take a stand and do something they knew was right. As we closed our conversation, she shared that her father had come from the same village as Mr. Sugihara, the man who wrote the visas that saved thousands of lives.

What a morning.  What a reminder, impossible to ignore, that so many people I’ve never met are part of who I am, that there are so many ghosts of everyday heroes who have paved the path for me.

We all have these stories in our lives, known or unknown to us.  They too often are lost in the blur of the everyday, allowing us to create a too-narrow narrative about who we are and what it took for us to arrive at today, at this place, at this life.

We are who we think we are, and we are also so much more thanks to the incalculable efforts of so many heroes, past and present, to whom we owe our gratitude.

Anatomy of a thank you note

We are all emailing and messaging each other a zillion times a day, yet people seem to be writing fewer thank you notes than ever.  In a professional setting, there’s no good reason not to write a short, substantive email* thank you note within 24 hours of an important meeting.

I suspect that people don’t send these for two reasons:

  1. Lack of discipline in choosing to write the note every time; and
  2. Lack of confidence than one can write a note that will productively add to the relationship.

On the discipline point, well, that’s up to you.  But I’d suggest that not writing the note is akin to skipping an at-bat in a baseball game, intentionally double faulting once in a tight tennis match, or taking one fewer penalty shots at the end of a tied soccer game.

On the content of the note, writing a great note is an art, and like all art it takes years of work and lots of practice to master your craft.  But writing a good note is not hard.  A good note goes something like:

Dear Samantha,

Thank you for meeting with me.  I left our meeting feeling [ADVERB] because [SOMETHING POSITIVE THAT HAPPENED IN THE MEETING.]  In fact, our discussion of [SPECIFIC THING WE DISCUSSED] really made me think about [SUBSTANTIVE NEW THOUGHT OR REFLECTION YOU’VE HAD SINCE THE MEETING.]  As a result, I really hope that we can [DESCRIPTION OF WHAT THE FUTURE MIGHT HOLD IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS RELATIONSHIPS.]


Thank you again for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.



On the one hand, this looks like a MAD LIBs, paint-by-numbers undertaking.  But of course it isn’t because first you have to distill:

  • The emotional content of the meeting
  • One specific highlight that is meaningful to both participants
  • How the meeting affected your thinking
  • What you are hoping to build together
  • Agreed-upon next steps
  • What you will do to contribute to the relationship, with no expectation of specific return

The heavy lift is this level of reflection.  It’s the work that illustrates that you want to build something beyond a simple transaction.  Reflecting in this way gives you and your counterpart a glimpse of what you could build together and, in doing so, you go way beyond gratitude.

The note itself, though, is short and sweet, and there’s no excuse for not writing it.  Indeed, the faster you build towards fifty pounds of clay here the better.




* I have recently come off the fence on my internal debate email versus handwritten notes.  For personal invitations (dinner parties, gifts, etc.) handwritten is still the way to go, but in a professional setting, time passes too fast these days to wait three or four days for a handwritten note to be delivered.