The slow walk off a cliff

Last month I was in the Strand bookstore and bought two books by Haruki Makamuri, What I Talk about When I Talk About Running and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.  When I got to the register, I was surprised how strange it felt to physically buy a book in this digital age.

A few weeks later I was in Hudson News at the San Francisco Airport.  There with the other best-selling books was Michael Lewis’ The Big Short which I’d seen in probably 30 other store windows and thought about buying.  I figured with a long flight ahead and the knowledge that my laptop would die before I got to New York, I may as well pony up for the book.

But it cost $27.95 in hardcover.

Though I’d only read ONE book on my wife’s Kindle and I don’t own an iPad, suddenly I felt my iPhone burning a hole in my pocket.  I looked The Big Short up on the two free apps I have on my iPhone (iBooks and the Kindle app), and it was available in both places for about $10.  And on top of that I had the realization that NOT owning the printed hardcopy of this big, bulky book was a plus….along with the prospect of saving 2/3rd off the cover price.

So I downloaded it.

One of the toughest nuts to crack is figuring out which trends, which behaviors that seem so engrained actually have the ability to turn on a dime.  Think iPhones in a Blackberry world; Google search in the days of Yahoo; ebooks today; money transfer through phones in Kenya; texting; wearing seatbelts; smoking; digital photography…

The examples that move fastest are all digital, but wholescale transformation happens all around us.  Reading primarily printed books (or printed anything) is going to seem quaint in 10 years’ time.  And how long, do you think, before every book comes with a free ebook download?  Before you feel like you’re missing out when you read a magazine, because you can’t click on the photos?  Our kids will hear you talk about this stuff the way I heard my parents talk about black and white TV.

The ultimate opportunity for leverage is to spot or create things that slowly, quietly, unexpectedly, have the potential to go from “that’s crazy” to “how did we live without it” on a dime.  And most of the hard work happens during the “that’s crazy” part of the curve, which requires more than vision – it requires mettle.

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Feeling a little tired and sore after getting a yellow fever and typhoid  shot for an upcoming trip, I stopped off at a local NYC deli and ordered a fresh carrot juice.  The woman who fed carrots into the industrial-strength juicer was kind and friendly, and she even put a bit of fresh orange juice in for taste.  And then she handed it to me and said it cost $6.55.

I don’t think she liked my reaction.  I actually said “you’re kidding, right?!”  But she wasn’t.  And I did pay.

Later that same day I bought lunch from another place, a delicious tuna melt with tomato on a fresh Portuguese roll.  It too cost $6.55.

One price felt right to me, another one felt stratospheric.  Which one was the right one?

It could be that it was both.  The crazy carrot juice price reminded me that there’s a place for outlandish pricing – for $6,000 conference fees and charging $1,000 a ticket for a half day seminar and for setting a high minimum donation amount to be on a nonprofit Board.  Just know why you’re doing it and don’t be surprised when some people grumble – the grumbling might just be an indicator that you’ve set the price high enough.

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Real Heroes

The other day I was talking to a guy who, among many pursuits, is heavily involved in an inner-city charter school.  He said that his dream is to build, around the school and in the neighborhood, a Heroes Project so that the kids have real, local role models of folks they can look up to, folks who are not athletes or rock stars, since almost no one ends up as a professional athlete or a rock star.  (Any takers to make that happen? Let me know.)

And then today someone told me about Julio Diaz’s story on NPR’s StoryCorps.  Julio got mugged at knife-point coming off the subway in New York, and it turned into a story with a very surprising, very inspiring ending.

I hope someone starts the Heroes Project, and if they do I officially nominate Julio as the first hero.

Click on the image to hear the story – it’s less than 2 minutes long, and I promise it will make your day.

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Do you understand the words…

Listening is probably the most important and least developed skill for creating strong relationships and connecting with people.

I’m reminded of the great moment in the movie Rush Hour, in which Chris Tucker’s character shouts at Jackie Chan, “Do you UNDERSTAND the WORDS that are coming out of my MOUTH???!!!” (it’s funnier when he says it), because we often fail to do just that.

The stage is set before the meeting, when you decide, out loud or quietly, to care or not to care about what the person you’re meeting has to say.  How much you (pre)judge will have a huge impact on your head space as you go into the meeting.  Just think of the attitude you adopt when sitting down for a conversation with a mentor versus when you sit down with a cranky customer who, you feel, complains all the time.  Night and day, for most of us, in terms of how much real listening we do.

And then in the meeting itself, it starts with actually hearing the words that are coming out of the person’s mouth.  What mostly gets in the way here is:

  1. Thinking about the last thing the person said, instead of what they’re saying right now
  2. Thinking about the last thing YOU said, and how you could have said it differently
  3. Dreaming up the next clever thing you’re going to say
  4. Just plain being distracted

For inspiration, remember one of the most basic techniques for remembering names when you meet someone new.  When someone introduces themselves to you, you repeat their name back to them a few times.  “Hi Celeste, it’s very nice to meet you Celeste.”

You not necessarily going to repeat back what people are saying (though it’s amazing how often it is appropriate to say, “So what I’m hearing you say is…..”), but you can bring that same level of attention to what the person is saying.  Plus, the simple act of deciding, no matter how awkward it feels, to pay more attention will (a)Probably force you over time to get into the habit; and (b)Make the person feel like she’s being heard.

(by the way, this all applies equally well in job interviews, in first meetings, in conversations with work colleagues, with your spouse, with your children.  It’s a universal skill.)

So before your next meeting, think about Rush Hour.  Because having a smile on your face doesn’t hurt either…and think, “Yes, I UNDERSTAND the WORDS that are coming out of your MOUTH!!”

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Changing a Dinosaur’s Mind

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the “inefficient” nonprofit marketplace that asked two questions: whether the nonprofit marketplace is any more inefficient than other markets (mutual funds, cosmetics); and whether improving the quality of information available about nonprofits will have a significant effect on the efficiency with which capital is allocated in the sector.

This post led to a great conversation with an active philanthropist and nonprofit Board member I’ve gotten to know who, it just so happens, is an investor herself and knows lots of active, successful investors.

Her observations, and the resulting questions, are the right ones.

She observes that people around her who are overwhelmingly deliberate about how they manage their investment capital are, in her words, quite often not deliberate at all about how they manage their philanthropic capital.  Put another way, the majority of capital deployed for investment is deployed with the intention of maximizing financial return (whether or not that in fact happens due to systematic biases, crummy products, etc.), and it’s not clear that the majority of funding that she observes going into nonprofits even has the intention of maximizing social impact.

This brings me back to the great post by Renata Rafferty on Dinosaur Philanthropy from the Tactical Philanthropy Blog.  Renata writes:

Those of “us” on the “cutting edge” of philanthropy…tend to navel gaze, looking ever more deeply into how our groovy new ways of thinking about philanthropy are….well, groovy.

On-the-ground reality in everyday communities, however, is more about gala slippers on the ground than eco-friendly boots on the ground.  I live in an extraordinarily wealthy community, where millions change hands between individuals and families….and influence plays a HUGE role in where the money goes – but the influence has little to do with a real understanding or examination of community needs, community assets, and who is doing fine and deserving work…

Sometimes I feel like one of the few left on the dock watching the philanthropy boat sail away, leaving behind the well-intentioned, kind, caring, wealthy people who are so generous with their giving, but who just aren’t part of the “cool crowd.”

This all brings me back to my hope that we’ll right-size our expectations and the promises we make as we charge ahead (rightly) with efforts to improve the availability of information about the effectiveness of different charities.  This is important, necessary work that will lay the foundation for how we think about and understand charities in the future.  AND at the same time it is completely possible that the direct impact of this work on Renata’s “dinosaur philanthropists” (an intentionally provocative name to be sure) is that of a tree falling in the forest that no one is around to hear.

What I think we need also need are strategies that look hard at where most of the philanthropic (especially individual) philanthropic money is, how giving decisions for this money is made, and from there to think about actions that are likely to have direct impact on THIS crowd.

Put another way, solving the data transparency problem is absolutely important, but it’s kind of like giving a screwdriver to an investment banker – it’s not the tool she uses to do her work.

Swagger Wagon – just for fun

Mostly, this just made me laugh out loud.  A handful of you – who happen to be the exact people Toyota wants to buy the Sienna – will laugh out loud too, and the rest of you may not which is OK too (or maybe you will since the video has more than 5 million views and counting…).

Think about how well Toyota has to know who their customer is to make this.  Not just demographics but mindset and self-image and shared experiences and values. This is the perfect story that matches that worldview.

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Rocky roads are…rocky

Say you need to make a big change.

If that’s the case (and it isn’t always the case, but sometimes it is) then what?  Once you know you need to make a major change, once you decide that what you’ve been doing isn’t enough to get you where you need to go, do you assume that the road to get there is going to be as smooth as the one you’ve been on?

It’s somewhere you haven’t gone before, right?  That makes it unexplored territory.

Rocky roads are bumpy, uncomfortable to ride on, and they have no road signs.  So things might be a little unpleasant along the way.  You’ll crash into each other some.  And all of a sudden it’s up to you, not the road, to figure out after the first few miles if you’re going in the right direction or if, in fact, you’ve veered off the path and are headed in the wrong direction.

But turning around because the road is rocky – because the new behaviors and tactics feel uncomfortable or awkward; because it doesn’t work right the first time; because it’s not the way you’re used to doing things – that’s a non-starter.  Because that will get you back on the path you were on, and you’ve already seen where that leads – it’s not the right destination, right?

It’s not always better to veer off course, but when you decide to do it, be prepared for the bumpy right, tell people what to expect going in, and commit to staying on the path (even if you change tactics along the way) for long enough to figure out if you are in fact heading in the right direction.

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The work of blogging

The days I’m not ready to write, the days I don’t feel like I have something to say, the days that I have to burn the midnight oil, the days I have to scramble….those are the days I’m doing the work.

What is the work, exactly?  Many things, but partly it is earning the right to have the days when lightening strikes, the days full of great leaps forward, the days it comes easy.

This is how it is with everything: we do the hard work in between the peaks, we toil along, even when it isn’t pretty.  And when we get to the top, the view sure is beautiful, all the more so when you can share it with people that matter (all of you)

So thank you for helping me do the work.  I’m positive I wouldn’t do it without you.

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Circles of humanity

Want to persuade, make a connection, motivate someone to DO something?

Dive as deep towards the center of your humanity as possible, and share that.

Like so many other things, this is the opposite of what we’re taught in professional schools (business, law, policy) and their professional counterparts (McKinsey), where they drum into us how to get good at staying in the outer two circles.

At a minimum, tell stories. But change happens when you share your dreams and your love.

They call it “HEARTS and minds” for a reason.

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The other day my six-year-old son talked me into an impromptu weekend trip to Grand Central Station.  The ultimate destination was (obviously) the new Lego store at Rockefeller Center (it’s fabulous) but we made the requisite stop at the MTA NYC Transit Museum/Shop at Grand Central.

My son’s three-year long obsession with trains has recently abated, but the Train Museum is still a favorite stop, even if visiting now has just the slightest tinge of nostalgia.

It’s as much store as museum, but on the way out my son tugged at my sleeve and pointed at the glass donation box they have set up by the door.

“Should we leave them some money?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“This place is great, and we want it to be here forever, don’t we?”

Sometimes the answers are just that simple.

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