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.

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.

Fazle Abed and Thulsi Ravilla – Learning at the Feet of the Masters

The other night I had the chance to witness a remarkable conversation between two of the true pillars of our space: Dr. Fazle Abed and Thulsi Ravilla.

Dr. Fazle Abed is the founder of BRAC, a Bangladeshi organization that began with a focus on microfinance and has expanded organically in a massive way, now employing 130,000 people with a budget of more than $700 million. In addition to being one of the world’s largest microfinance organizations serving tens of millions, BRAC has provides livelihoods, maternal care, and nutrition, including now growing and providing 80% of the improved rice seed and 30% of the improved maize seed in Bangladesh.

Thulsi Ravilla is the President of Aravind Eye Hospital, the first truly scaled social enterprise outside of the microfinance space. Aravind has performed more than three million eye surgeries, two-thirds of which are to patients who do not pay. Its doctors perform 2,000 eye surgeries a year compared to 120 in the United States. They are the world’s largest manufacturer of intraocular lenses, selling these lenses for $3 versus the $200 they used to pay to buy them. And 15% of all ophthalmologists in India have been trained by Aravind.

Abed and Thulsi were being interviewed by Acumen’s founder and CEO (and my boss) Jacqueline Novogratz, as part of Acumen’s annual Advisory meeting – Abed serves on our Advisory Council and Thulsi on our Board of Directors.

I didn’t have a notebook for the conversation, so will share impressions of what really stuck in my mind and not the blow-by-blow:

  • This has been a life’s work for both of these men. They have each been at it for 40+ years in Abed’s case and 30+ years in Thulsi’s case. While it’s possible that the new funding mechanisms we have created around impact investing could accelerate this path today, it’s also completely clear that this is what a life’s work looks like, and there’s no way we will create massive, lasting and sustainable change in 5 or 7 years time, no matter how we finance it. This is about building enduring institutions.
  • Both share a relentless focus on poor customers. These men, and their organizations, know deeply and inviolably who they are serving. Poor customers (most of whom are women in BRAC’s case). That customer is known and fixed, and they have built the culture and logic of their organizations in answer to the question: what will it take to serve this customer in the most efficient, most dignified, most impactful way possible? And how can we build a sustainable organization so we can be here for decades to serve that customer?
  • A notion of service. Abed had been working at Shell and had been part of the Bangladeshi independence movement (in its separation from Pakistan) when he founded BRAC. To fund it, he liquidated all of his assets including selling his home. When asked in the conversation if this was hard to do he said, simply, “After you have been a freedom fighter, after you have witnessed life and death, these sorts of questions become less important. I had a home which I sold. I thought, ‘What is this change that will happen if I live in another home? It is still a home with four walls.’ The sacrifices I had to make were not that big.”
  • Building culture globally. Whenever talk came to culture, both men became especially focused and clear, as if they were about to utter their most serious and important truths, the wisdom that comes after decades of work. “The systems are easy to build and to transfer, and they do build efficiency,” said Thulsi. “But the culture is what makes the system work. It is the interaction of the culture and the systems that make our work possible.” Thulsi said that 90% of Aravind’s hiring is about culture and fit, literally asking questions like how much the bus fare was to the interview to get underneath what kind of person the interviewee is. If you’re hiring someone to do a job for a few years, perhaps the yield on short-term skills is higher, but to hear Thulsi describe it, it’s all about the culture. Some of the most interesting conversation was about how you build culture at scale, and while I didn’t leave the discussion with a clear “how to guide”, I was left with a renewed sense of clarity that for any scaled organization, culture is the most important thing to get right and that it requires constant investment and renewal.   This in addition to building the systems and other institutional underpinnings that allow for efficiency.
  • With time, persistence and endurance, anything is possible. Both of these organizations have moved into adjacencies that are far from obvious at the outset: Aravind as a major supplier of intraocular lenses – because they were a big expense line they wanted to address – and BRAC a huge supplier of seeds – because, in Abed’s telling, he discovered a group of 300,000 women whose repayment rates were relatively low, and rather than change policies or squeeze them he went to investigate and discovered that they were using low-quality vegetable seeds whose yields were low. So BRAC started manufacturing its own seed. While I am sure both organizations tried lots of new things that didn’t work out, it’s also clear that when these organizations got their core right they were strong enough to take on new business lines that, at first glance, would seem to be far afield.
  • Need versus demand. The recent Monitor/Delloitt follow-up report to Blueprint to Scale talks about “push” versus “pull” products, a point that Thulsi made using different words. “Need” in his definition is clinically defined – reduced or no sight – but even though Aravind offered free surgeries, many people with need would not show up. What they learned was that if they could go to the village – using telemedicine (which an Acumen grant 12 years ago helped facilitate) and other technology – they would, within 24 months, have treated 100% of their target market and 90% of those would follow through on recommendations from Aravind (to get glasses, to have surgery with Aravind, or go to a specialist hospital).
  • Scale. When asked about the importance of scale both men found the question almost trivial – the need is big, the solutions have to be big, we have no choice in the matter.
  • Urgency. When asked about whether he would have liked to have gone faster, Abed said “absolutely.” “A child,” he said, “can get stunted from malnutrition as early as age 6, at which point that child has reduced prospects for life.” Abed said he is always in a rush because the clock is ticking for that boy and for everyone like him, so we must always move with a real sense of urgency.

These are just the big pieces that stuck with me from a conversation that could have gone on for many more hours with everyone on the edge of their seats.   We were sitting at the feet of the masters, getting pearl after pearl of wisdom, hard-earned in a life’s work.

Just as the conversation was wrapping up, Abed jumped in to close. He told the story of Mahatma Ghandi, who interrupted a conversation by saying, “Excuse me, I have to go. My people are going over there and I have to follow them, for I am their leader.”

Indeed, what picture of leadership could be more powerful, or more relevant for today, than this?

Attaining excellence

Continuing on the theme from last week’s post from Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families, I also appreciated the book’s inquiry into how we attain excellence.

American families are obsessed with having their kids play organized sports, so Feiler took to investigating where great athletes come from.  He turned to research by psychologist Benjamin Bloom who, in the 1980’s, analyzed the trajectories of world-class performers in six different areas, “concert pianists, Olympic swimmers, sculptors, tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists.”

Bloom’s results, documented in Developing Talent in Young People, are surprising:

The child who ‘made it’ was not always the one who was considered to be the most ‘talented.’  Many parents said another one of their children had more ‘natural ability.’  So what distinguished the high achiever from the underachieving sibling?  ‘A willingness to work and a desire to excel,’ Bloom wrote.  The most common words used were persistence, determination, and eagerness.

While I’m not specifically interested in what makes star athletes, I’m hugely interested in people reaching their full potential, and Bloom’s observations ring true.  Time and again, the people I meet who are exceptional are the ones who have decided that they are going to be great at something.

Recently I heard Maria Popova, the now-famous Brain Pickings blogger, describe her path from college to where she is today.  Maria hated college but discovered that she loved discovery, she loved self-directed learning.  And so she started exploring and writing about what she was learning and sharing it on a blog.  It was hard work, it sounded pretty lonely, and it didn’t pay anything.  For four full years Maria gutted things out, barely getting by, and doing her work.  In just one telling illustration, Maria decided she needed to take a computer course to learn how to code for her own blog.  The only problem was that she was broke.  So Maria chose to eat beans and tuna for weeks to save up the money she needed for one HTML course.  And that was just one step on her long journey to becoming Maria Popova.  One of a thousand decisions she made to do the work she needed to do.  Maria didn’t spend four lonely years waiting to get discovered, she spent four years honing her craft to become someone worth discovering.

In some ways Maria’s story is familiar: the heroic figure who toils in obscurity for years and then breaks through.  But there’s a danger in this heroic narrative.  It insulates us from the story, it allows us to trick ourselves into thinking that because we are not heroes, because we’re doing what we’re doing and not what they did (*gasp* because we JUST have a job) that we don’t have the potential to transform or the right to be great.

Part of the problem, I think, is that when you have a job you see all the signposts of title and official job responsibility and, yes, how much you are paid.   The concreteness of those external markers supersedes the much more important personal reckoning of discovering who we are and where we are in our own development.  Instead, we play by the rules of whatever system we are in, and in the process we create a numbing separation from the work we do.  We make an uneven exchange of “persistence, determination and eagerness” for doing what needs to be done to get the kinds of rewards bestowed by the system we are in.  And then we get frustrated because the system doesn’t give us what we really want AND we aren’t growing the way we hoped we would grow.

One way to break the cycle is to wake up to the fact that we have greatness inside of us and to find the joy in creating what we are meant to create in this world – even if today we are creating just a small part of it.  The simple act of caring and making personal investment transforms the quality of everything we do, big and small.  Suddenly we put ourselves into the things we create, and we create them as part of a broader undertaking of daring and learning and failing and picking ourselves up again.  The ultimate power of this broader undertaking, this broader narrative, is that we begin for the first time to see that our own growth happens in long cycles.  We trade in “where am I going to be 12 months from now (job, title, etc.)” for “what’s the real work I need to do now to be a transformed person in five or 7 or 10 years’ time?”

Reflecting on my own growth and development, I know that if I can make just one real, substantive change in how I work each year then I’ve had a transformational year.  Think, then, of the shape of the arc that gets me from where I am today to where I need to be.

Of course it is hard to see, looking forward, that we will only become who we are going to become in the long run, and that in fact we have the time we need to get there.  The easily quantified, externally-recognizable stepping stones to get from here to come at the pace they are going to come.  But there’s no escaping the real work we need to do to become the person we are meant to be.

Persistence, determination, and eagerness.

Why am I not more…

A long time ago, I decided to take some time off from school to go live in Spain.  I dutifully bought a copy of “Spanish in 15 Minutes a Day” and had worked my way through the first chapter when I found myself on a bus in Boston, returning from a school where I volunteered once a week.

Two guys sitting a few rows behind me having a conversation in Spanish.  I strained to understand, and quickly became frustrated that I could barely catch two words of what they were saying.

This of course made no sense at all.  I hadn’t (yet) actually done the work of learning to speak Spanish, I’d just decided that I was going to learn the language, yet there I was beating myself up for not understanding these guys.

It’s tempting when we find ourselves in new situations – new countries, new jobs, among a new peer set or just at a cocktail party or a conference where we don’t feel comfortable – to beat ourselves up for not being more…something (connected, outgoing, fluent, knowledgeable of local customs).  It’s tempting to forget that we are who we are – nothing more, nothing less.

The point of the new situation is that it’s new, that we don’t yet have what it takes to be the best at this new thing – and that’s why we’re there.  The only positive response to that feeling of discomfort, of inadequacy, is to decide to put in the time it takes to get better.

Sin eso, nunca aprendemos a hacerlo mejor.