Sarabande: What’s one plus one?

Here’s an excerpt of Handel’s Sarabande, which you may have heard on its own or as part of the soundtrack for Deer Hunter, American Horror Story, 21 Grams, or more than 100 other movies and TV shows.

My son has been learning this on the piano, and as you might be able to tell from all the markings, we’ve spent a lot of time together trying to get these three measures right.

What’s tricky about this piece is that it has three separate voices but the pianist has only two hands. (If you’re not a musician, don’t panic, this is easy: the notes on the top staff with the stems pointing up are the top voice; the ones on the top staff with the stems pointing down are the middle voice; and the ones on the bottom staff are the bottom voice. So in this section you need to play, and think about, two voices in your right hand).

Watching him take this on is a sometimes-sobering reflection on how learning really happens.

The way you pick apart a piece like this is to work on one hand, or one voice, alone; then work on the other voice or hand alone; and then put it all together.

So, right hand first, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

Then left hand, over and over again until it is easy and natural.

And then, voila! Both hands together.

What drives my son insane is that it just doesn’t work like this. Not even close.

There “voila” doesn’t happen because when you put both hands together, things usually fall apart. All the old habits and wrong notes and fingerings that don’t quite work – the ones that are ingrained at a deeper level of (muscle) memory – come roaring back in the face of the complexity of trying to put all of the pieces together.

And so, it’s back to the drawing board. To each hand alone. To putting hands together in tiny increments until those hold together. To putting bigger and bigger pieces together, and having those fall apart too. And then, bit by bit, it sticks, you can play the whole thing.

And then you sleep on it, you come back the next day, and it’s fallen apart. Again. Only this time the putting back together happens more quickly, more naturally.

And then one day, you arrive.

What we’re experiencing is that the act of putting together more than one new behavior isn’t a 1+1 = 2 process. It’s a 1+1 = 1 process, over and over and over again until, if you stick with it, if you don’t get too discouraged, if you’re willing not to abandon ship, 1+1 = 4.

More often than not, it’s not the learning of new things that we find hard, it’s the work of not giving up. We are often unwilling to slog through that awful period in the middle, that part where we know what we’re trying to do, we’ve done a bunch of work, and the new behaviors don’t hold together. We often have little reason to believe, in the midst of not getting there yet, that we are actually on the right path, that this is what the work looks like, that real growth and progress are never linear and that new skills are fragile things that crumble, at first, when exposed to the light.

Until they don’t. Until they become a part of us. Until they become natural and we just show up and play, beautifully.

 

 

Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.

Reps

Way (way) back when, when I was a high school wrestler, I used to lift weights. This was old school stuff. I spent most of my training time off-season at the local Y surrounded by barbells, dumbbells, and big metal plates, not the wooshing white, ergonomically advanced machines of today.

In my senior year of high school, the guy I trained with, who could bench press well over 300 pounds, changed our routine. Every other day, instead of a regular weight-lifting session, we’d do a pushup workout. In each set, you’d do as many pushups as you could, until your muscles failed. The trick was, instead of counting normally (1-2-3-4-5-6) you’d count in a pyramid:

1

1-2

1-2-3

1-2-3-4

And so on

The only other rule was that if you gave up before finishing a number you had to redo that number (meaning, if you were trying to get to 15 but you stopped at 10, when your next set started you had to repeat number 15).

The entire workout was to go up to 20 and back, and try to do it in as few sets as possible.

For those of you doing the math, you’ll quickly see that all we were doing was 400 pushups. So why all the rigmarole, and why, week in and week out, would we keep on doing the pyramid instead of counting our way up to 50, 60, or (on a good day) 70 pushups per set?

It’s because even that counting trick was powerful. Each milestone felt achievable. The structure made it hard to how big the whole was. Doing 400 pushups? Wow, that’s a lot. But just doing a first set counting from 1 to 10? That doesn’t seem that bad, now does it (even though it is 55 pushups)?

The work we are all doing requires walking long, hard roads. Long as in years, maybe decades. And hard because we’re taking on the gnarly, unsolved problems in the world.

Part of the way we do that is through deep exploration of and connection to purpose. We must turn on a light inside of us, through a deep investigation of our own “why,” and we must keep that flame burning by revisiting that why time and again.

But we can’t be revisiting all the time, and certainly not every day.

Because most days what the world needs from us is work, not reflection. And what our work needs from us is that we show up, that we see where we need to go today, that we do that work with skill, focus, energy, and with full and hopeful conviction, so that we move the ball forward a bit.

That next achievable, daily milestone is a very valuable thing. It takes the cross-hairs off of the big gigantic goal, moving it to our peripheral vision – still in sight, but not quite clear enough to overwhelm. We can set the milestones so we have to stretch some, because getting to pushup 15 when you feel like you can only do 10, is possible.

Over time, the daily work of doing a little more than we thought possible adds up to weeks, months and years of amazing, surprising progress. It’s always been that the act of showing up today, workman-like, and moving forward as much as we can is actually a great way to do big, important and great things over time.

No windup

I do four kinds of exercise: play squash, run, swim, and do yoga. A more accurate portrayal is that I mostly play squash, and do the other three every so often. This week, though, because of the warmer weather, earlier sunrise, and jetlag, I’ve run four times in 8 days.

One of the things that’s beautiful about running is that there’s almost no windup and wind-down: no place to drive to, no plan to make, no excess anything on either side. In 45 minutes set aside for a run, 40 of those minutes are spent running. Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and go.

Early yesterday morning, tired and cranky, I was wondering why I had dragged myself out of bed to run two days in a row. I had finished tying my shoes and I was standing at my back door looking for some way to stall (what I would have given for a fifteen minute drive to the gym!) It felt like there was a physical barrier I had to push through to get myself up and out the door. I walked out of my house, walked onto the street, kept walking for one more block, started the music on my phone, and finally had no choice but to start jogging slowly.

Similarly, earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves with only 35 minutes at the end of a long day in which to get some important work done. Neither of us seemed up for it and I almost suggested we not bother. We chatted and stalled for a little, and we nearly got pulled into email on our open laptops. But then we began.

In both cases – the run and the 30 minute conversation that should have taken two hours – it was easy to be fooled that I needed more windup, more buffer, more something between me and the work.

Then I get out there and reconfirm what I seem to need to relearn each and every time: that the windup is nothing more than stalling; and that the correlation between how I feel beforehand and how the work goes is nearly zero.

4AM Calls

Yesterday, I had the chance to catch up with the inimitable Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali, Acumen Pakistan Fellows and co-founders of Markhor. For those of you who don’t know, Markhor is startup that is crafting some of the world’s most beautiful men’s shoes, reviving a waning craft in Pakistan and making a major splash globally.

Markhor ran by far the most successful Kickstarter campaign out of Pakistan, raising more than $107,000, and Sidra and Waqas are now part of the select few high-potential startups in Y-Combinator – an unlikely turn for a shoe company in the midst of a bunch of tech startups.

Markhor_craftsmen

So, what do we have to learn from a pair that has their sights set on building a $1 billion-plus company selling luxury, made-in-Pakistan shoes to the world? A lot about a lot of things, but I was struck in particular by some lessons about tenacity and humility.

I asked them what they’ve learned at Y-Combinator so far, and Sidra shared, “one of the great things about the program are the mentors. How it works is that, if you set up time with a mentor, you get 20 minutes, no more. And when you meet with a mentor, they ask you three questions: ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘What are you doing next week?’ and ‘How can I help?’ You have to be ready! And what I like about that is that it communicates that their time is valuable, and that your time is valuable.”

Waqas took the point further as we started to talk about how to teach people how to use networks well. “You know, when I reach out to someone, whether a mentor or someone else I’m trying to connect with, you have to know how to write that email in a way that is clear and respectful and gets to the point. And you have to know how to handle that communication. Especially if I’m in Pakistan, I know that I might have to be available at 4AM to take a phone call. And I am.  Sidra and I will be taking 4AM phone calls for years to come. That’s OK.”

For me this connected back to Tuesday’s post about the power of humility. What I hear Waqas and Sidra saying is that, as they are reaching out to the far edges of their networks, they have to do that with a certain posture. If someone is willing to take a bet by giving  their time to help, it’s Waqas and Sidra’s job as to mirror that respect back – in this case by accommodating that person’s schedule at crazy hours. Their power in this moment comes from putting their ego aside, choosing not to frame that interaction as one with lots of power dynamics, and simply doing what it takes to make the connection they are trying to make – in this case by being ready to jump calls at 4AM, again and again.

The equation is flipped because, in taking this stance, Sidra and Waqas are essentially unstoppable. No behavior, whether a rejection or a slow reply or someone asking them to twist themselves into knots to meet their timing, can stop their forward trajectory.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur running a startup, a leader of a nonprofit, or a fundraiser of any stripe, the biggest trap is to allow each interaction to become a measurement of your worth, to take it all far too personally. What Waqas and Sidra model is the power of an unshakable commitment to mission: when the goal becomes our purpose, when we exist to achieve that goal, then we do what we have to in service of that mission – no questions asked.

Every great company has a story, and Markhor’s is a beautiful one that’s still being written. It is a different story coming out of Pakistan, it is the craftsmanship of Pakistani artisans, and it is some really beautiful shoes. It’s also an unfolding story of two amazing entrepreneurs who dream big and back up every dream with a willingness to show up and work harder and smarter every day.

In reflecting on where they are in their journey, Waqas shared, with a twinkle in his eye: “In our first month, we sold seven pairs of shoes. And we lost money on each pair we sold! Now we are selling thirteen pairs a day. And that number keeps going up.”

That’s what overnight success really look like.

[bonus: the best riff ever about 4AM]

The Long Haul

“I’ve just heard about a great new ______ that will solve the ______ problem!”

And so goes the optimistic, well-intentioned refrain. The blanks can be straws or a well or a hospital on a boat or a cheap rugged laptop or or or….it doesn’t matter, because the trope is the same: there’s a thing that someone has invented (usually in the West) and it will finally solve such-and-such problem for good. (And, implied, it will be quick and easy!)

I’m torn about how to react to this. There’s a version of this story that I find hugely energizing, and another that feels like a modern, techno-optimistic belittling of a faraway problem, one that creates a caricature of the problem and of the people living with it…and this is never a good thing.

On the plus side, I deeply, emphatically believe that one of the biggest opportunities in the world is to get our best and brightest minds focusing on solving the most important problems of our generation. I don’t need a toothbrush that might deliver caffeine, or “mega” and “mini” sized M&Ms (thanks Tim), or a razor with 22 blades.

But just because we (sometimes) turn our attention to the big problems in the world doesn’t mean we will flip a switch and easily solve them. That great idea may be great, but after it’s made into a great product, that product will still have to be manufactured, it will have to get through customs, it will have to survive contact with customers and distribution and dealer margins and fraud and theft and warranties and repairs…usually all of this far away from reliable sources of power, good roads, good anything that makes things easier to pull off. That’s a long-term play.

The notion that any big, thorny problem will “just” be solved by a better gizmo not only runs the risk of pouring resources into the wrong initiatives, it also belittles the problem and, in so doing, belittles the people who are struggling to live without access to safe water, to affordable, reliable power, or to decent, affordable schools.

Yes, we are desperate for breakthroughs, the kinds that leverage technology platforms to deliver better information and banking services, or ones that capitalize on and accelerate declining cost curves for solar to engineer all sorts of products in new and better ways – ways that cut the costs by 100-fold while not sacrificing quality.

But achieving these sorts of breakthroughs gets us to the starting line, not to the finish line, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either naïve or is angling for a fast buck.

Getting whatever that miraculous invention is to a few billion people is always going to be a long road, one with twists and turns and endless surprising pitfalls along the way. Navigating this road will take grit and determination and perseverance beyond the capacity of most people. Indeed, this is the “sacred trust” of leadership that Chinua Achebe speaks about so eloquently, it’s what we must look for in all leaders who are making real change in the world.

The problems they are working on are not insurmountable. Not by a long shot. But there are also no quick fixes.

Indeed, everyone I know who is changing the world is in the long-haul business.

Individual and Institutional Fundraising

Over the past six months, a greater proportion of the fundraising I’ve been doing has been institutional rather than individual. By “institutional” I mean fundraising from people who have been charged with donating somebody else’s money – whether or not it’s a formal, recognized institution (e.g. a large private foundation, a corporation, etc.).

In both individual and institutional fundraising, there’s a strategic element and a people element. The strategic conversations are around goals and outcomes and what success looks like. The people element is around what motivates a person to take action – the story and the emotional elements that move people to act, as well as the interpersonal dynamics that are always at play.

The one thing that is missing from these institutional conversations, which easy to miss if you’ve not experienced it directly, is a deep, personal element. In my experience, real, substantive conversations about real, substantive philanthropy nearly always get personal: they touch on motivations, hopes and fears, aspirations, and legacy.

These conversations require something different from the person doing the fundraising: a comfort getting into that murky space where they, too, are more open, honest, and vulnerable than would ever be expected in a purely professional context.

My hunch is that the reason most people don’t wade deep into individual, big-ticket fundraising is either because they don’t understand how deeply personal these conversations have to be, or they are unwilling or unsuccessful at going there. This means that if you have the courage to take that leap, along with openness to do the real work that this leap requires – to learn about yourself, to understand your own motivations for doing this work, to help people talk about their own purpose – you’ll soon be part of a very small group of people willing to take it to another level. This path is a heavy lift, a long walk that requires emotional labor and has the potential for a serious personal and professional payoff.

Of course your other option is to sit safely at a desk replying to yet another formal request for proposal, hoping that your program will be the one out of 1,000 that’s picked out of the pile.

This is one of the greatest blend-in or stand-out opportunities in the nonprofit sector.