Aristotelian virtues

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending two days with Acumen’s class of 2014 Global Fellows.  These Fellows, a group of truly outstanding individuals from around the world who are committed to social change in the developing world, spend two months with Acumen training in New York before working for nine months with Acumen’s companies in India, Pakistan, East and West Africa.  While at their placements, they do things like run the sesame business for Gulu, a company serving more than 40,000 smallholder farmers in post-conflict Northern Uganda; or helping d.Light expand its solar lighting business in Nigeria.

One of the foundational elements of the Fellows’ training is the Good Society readings.  Based on the work of the Aspen Institute, the goal of these sessions is to give Acumen Fellows – who have committed to a life of social change work – the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the moral and philosophical traditions that they are a part of.  Questions like: what is your view of human nature? How do you feel about tradeoffs between equality and efficiency?  How do we build a good and just society?

These are heavy readings, and the Fellows did amazing work grappling with the likes of Hobbes and Rousseau, and Plato.  They had heated discussions about the worldviews of Aung San Suu Kyi and Lee Kuan Yew, building upon a deep conversation of the impact and value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written just after World War II.  They dissected the masterful use of rhetoric and the display of moral imagination in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by far one the most inspiring pieces of writing I’ve ever studied.

Near the end of the two days, we took up a discussion on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a piece I had never read.  As I waded through the difficult, mostly obtuse 2,000-year-old writing, I came across a passage that summarizes more clearly than I could one of the main underpinnings of my worldview:

The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well.  For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

–          Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 1

What Aristotle understood, two millennia, ago is that it is the actions we take that define and build our character, not the other way around.  This is the reason for a sustained practice of generosity, of humility, of audacity.  This is why being kind in small ways opens our hearts to others in big ways, why taking care to be our best selves in each interaction can transform us over a period of months and years.  It is why reflection around our core values combined with deliberate cultivation of behaviors and habits that we cherish can lead to profound change.

“We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”  Indeed we do, and it through deliberate practice that we become the people we aspire to be.  And while it may be the case that our greatest heroes were born different from the rest of us, it may also be that they started practicing just or brave or temperate acts early on, and stuck with it for a lifetime.

You can too.

Out loud

What if you committed, for a little while, to verbalize the great ideas that pop into your head?  The important, risky (-seeming) ideas that represent what’s really on your mind.  The ones that you don’t say because they’re a bit too real, too honest, too to the point.

There are few skills more important than being able to say the right thing at the right time in the right way to shift a whole conversation.

One-on-one conversations, group conversations, high-stakes and low-stakes conversations, all are susceptible to that kernel of truth and insight that breaks them wide open.

The entire business school case method is geared, ultimately, towards teaching this skill.   For two years you sit with 85 incredibly bright people, and the class is orchestrated by a Professor who, if she’s good, is looking for just one thing: getting students to learn how to integrate the case content and the points made by other classmates, pulling those threads and her own observations together to get to real insight, all in a way that move the discussion forward.

You can save yourself $200,000 and two years at a top business school by starting, today, to say your great, good and OK ideas out loud.  The best place to start?  Not necessarily the ideas you think are the best ones.  Start with the ideas you’re afraid to say out loud, the ones that make your heart beat a little faster.  Fear is a great indicator of how real they are and how much truth they contain.

It’s true that saying these things in a way that they are actually heard is itself an art.  But you’ll never practice that art if your most important ideas are kept under lock and key.

Generosity Q&A

Edna Rienzi, one of the amazing Generosity Day volunteers, asked to me to do a short Q&A about generosity and Generosity Day (below).  She also shares her own beautiful, honest story in her blog post about her own exploration of generosity – and how learning about vulnerability from Brene Brown helped her understand the fear that she experienced with her own generosity experiment, and helped her reengage with generosity in a new way.

I’m so looking forward to reading all the generosity stories that get shared between now and February 14th.

Q: Generosity is…

Opening your heart, being courageous, creating connection, living a life of service.

Q: What is something you know now about generosity that you didn’t know before your generosity experiment?

A lot. Honestly I’d never given any proper thought to generosity before my generosity experiment and I never thought of it being particularly important. That is, I always admired generous action but I never understood how foundational generosity could be in our relationships, how it is the foundation of all philanthropy and social change work, how all the major religious traditions have generosity as a core foundational pillar, etc.

I find that we walk through the world deciding what to notice. So before I had kids, I never really noticed kids. And once I became a father I saw strollers everywhere! It’s been the same with generosity. Once I started paying attention to generosity, I started seeing it everywhere.

Q: Did your generosity experiment change your behavior in any lasting ways?

It did, but it really was the first steps down the path. I’d love to say that I’m radically altered, but I think change takes time. I’m naturally a highly analytical person, and I think that mindset can create separation. I see people who don’t have to overcome this like I do and I really admire them. That said, like everything in life it is a practice, and by creating a different intention and by creating space for a new orientation, I have seen changes big and small. I’m keeping at it.

Q: In your blog, you wrote that you believed that Generosity Day struck a chord with people because everyone is hungering for more connection and more meaning. What do you think makes connection and meaning more difficult to attain in today’s society?

At least in the West right now, we’re all so hyper-connected, hyper-busy. We’re running around with our heads buried in our devices and our inboxes overflowing. So on one hand we’re more in touch than ever, but it also feels to me like we’ve created so much separation. It’s so easy to tune out the world around us these days, and in some sense I feel like in doing so we’re denying our basic humanity.

Q: How do you respond to critics who say that it is irrational to give just because someone asks? Some, for example, would argue that it’s a more effective use of your money to donate to a homeless shelter than to give to someone begging on the street.

Of course it’s irrational to give just because someone asks! I don’t think giving starts with rationality, I think it starts with expressing a purpose, acknowledging abundance, and confronting the terrifying notion that you (the giver) and the person who receives your gift are not so different from one another.

What I think confused some people about my generosity experiment was that they might have understood me to be saying that everyone should give to everyone always. I don’t believe that. But I also believe that if you never pick up your head when someone asks for help, if you never actually see the person right in front of you with their hand out…well then you’ve lost a tiny piece of your humanity.

I see a lot of parallels between my generosity experiment and my yoga practice (which was pretty regular up until last year when my third child was born!) So much of yoga is about teaching yourself, through repetition, to unlearn patters of thought and reaction that you’ve taught yourself over decades. So while it’s not actually important to be able to contort your body into some strange position and not panic, it’s really important to learn how to be in stressful situations and stay grounded. The yoga poses are practice for real life. Similarly, I wanted to create a new pattern, to cut directly against the grain of saying “No” every time someone asked for a handout—just to see what a habit of “yes” would feel like and how it might change me. So far I’ve been happy with the results.

Q: Are there any requests for help that you would refuse even on Generosity Day?  

Sure—ones that seemed ugly or self-serving or intentionally against the spirit of the day.

Q: Does romance fit into your vision of Generosity Day or does that get lost in the “reboot”?  (One of my daughters, by the way, accused me of being the Valentine Grinch when I explained Generosity Day to her!)

My wife and I still celebrate Valentine’s Day—in fact, if anything, I’ve been more comfortable with Valentine’s Day than she has over the years! I finally understood what she was saying when we had one of our most romantic dinners early on a Saturday afternoon right before she drove me to JFK airport for a trip to Kenya. I’m a real romantic, but I do agree with my wife that saying, “OK, tonight we’re going to have a special memorable evening!!” can raise the stakes too much, and that the most romantic moments are often the unexpected ones.

Q: What do you hope Generosity Day accomplishes this year? And in the next 10 years?

I’ve had this dream that we could actually shift Valentine’s Day and create broader traditions of love and giving on this day. There’s no reason that can’t happen—I think it would be a relief to people (well, maybe not to Hallmark and Godiva, but to lots of folks).

This year, we’re really focusing on people engaging in generous action—in addition to spreading the word. Because the day won’t really stick with you if you don’t behave differently.

I promise, if you engage in just one act of radical generosity this February 14th, you’ll remember it for years to come!

How introverts can work the room

I just got back from the TED conference, which always pushes my thinking and my sense of possibility.  One of the many exceptional things about TED is that it is organized to create ample opportunities for attendees to spend time together in substantive conversation.  This is a lot of the reason that people keep showing up every year (after all, the talks are going to be available online), and while nothing can compare to the supercharged power of TED talks to reach literally millions of people in a heartbeat, I’m sure just as much remarkable stuff happens due to conversations that happen at the conference.

So what do you do when presented with a 90 minute break at TED?  How do you actually meet remarkable people?

Susan Cain’s great TED talk on introverts at this year’s TED (it’s already online and has been seem more than a half million times) reminds us that the correlation between intelligence/insight/skill/leadership and the willingness to introduce yourself to total strangers is, according to her, zero.  But I also know that a lot of introverts manage to talk to a lot of people at TED.

How?

(Full disclosure: I consider myself mostly extroverted with some introvert lurking in the wings – I err to the side of extrovert, especially when among people I know well, but when faced with the choice between a cocktail party of people I’ve never met and curling up with a good book….well, the book is looking pretty nice.)

Here’s my visualization of what it feels like at the start of a 90 minute break at TED.  I’m the red dot, the black dots are people, and the blue circles around people are their “gravitational pull” – namely, people I know best / who know me best (whether or not we intend to have a conversation) have a larger gravitational field, meaning I’m more likely to start up a conversation with them – and they are with me – with little effort or social risk.

Put another way, absent a clear plan you’re most likely to spend all your time with the people you know best / who know you best – unless you’re a strong introvert, in which case you’ll be hiding in a corner.

To explain the graphic, my options are:

  1. Walk over to folks who I know a little bit
  2. Walk over to someone I know pretty well
  3. Walk over to a close colleague or friend
  4. Go get some food and likely strike up a conversation with someone on line
  5. Walk up to a group of total strangers and introduce myself
  6. Hide in a corner (aka “stare at my iPhone”)

If you’re an introvert or if these sorts of situations are scary, this schematic might be useful because it presents a lot of options that are less terrifying than introducing yourself to total strangers (option 5).  While that is a great skill to cultivate, of the six options presented here it is clearly the most difficult to pull off and the one you’re likely to avoid completely.  Similarly, path 3 (head straight towards/get pulled towards someone you know really well) is something to be conscious about – no doubt you are being social and folks you know will introduce you to folks they know, but it’s an approach that’s bound to limit your opportunity to meet new, interesting people: if you do just this, you’ll probably spend nearly all of your time with the 5 people you know best.

So if your goal is to meet at least some new people and you’re not a big extrovert, paths 1, 2 and 4 all present themselves as viable options, with a dash of path 3 every now and again as long as you’re being deliberate about it.

(And once you do start up a conversation with people you don’t know well, spend your energy asking them questions and actually listening to their answers.  You don’t have to instantly say something brilliant nor should you spend all your mental cycles worrying about what to say next. Really listen.)

Finally, absent from the diagram (hard to represent visually) is another great option: planning in advance who you want to meet with and making a point of meeting them, either opportunistically or by reaching out before the conference.

If you do find big crowds with lots of expected mingling to be terrifying but something you’d like to improve on, experiment with some of the easier paths, working your way up in terms of “degree of difficulty.”  With success, your fears will abate and the idea of walking up to a total stranger will eventually seem like something you can pull off (hint: they don’t bite).

Generosity experiment

On the subway today, a man was asking for donations so he could buy food, sandwiches, deodorant, even hand sanitizer to give for free to homeless people.  He had lived on the street two decades ago, he said, and now does this part time to give back, in addition to a part time job he holds.

I have absolutely no idea if this is true, but I was skeptical. I, along with everyone else in my car, got off the train without giving him any money.  Right after I got off the train I knew I had done the wrong thing.  It just didn’t feel right.

Most of the time I don’t give to people on the street. It seems to make sense, rationally, not to give most of of the time — and instead to give to great organizations that are doing things for the homeless. Perhaps, but it’s easy to take this too far. 

Giving is an act of self-expression, and generosity is a practice. Each time I decide not to give, I’m reinforcing a way of acting – one that’s critical and analytical and judgmental.

You may not be like this at all.  You may consistently act from the heart first and not the head.  Good for you.  More often than not, I don’t, though it’s something I’m working to change.

So I’ve been thinking that I need to try a generosity experiment: for a period of time, when I’m asked to give, to say yes.  To everything.  To emails and people on the street and friends raising money.  Everyone.  I think it will be good practice.

What do people think?  Does this make sense? [sic]

P.S. More on this topic from the Freakonomics blog, where Barbara Ehrenreich is very clear that you always give to someone on the street who directly asks you. 

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