What’s sacred about you?

Here’s the one thing I can’t stop thinking about after writing yesterday’s post: what’s sacred about me?

Meaning, Jonathan Haidt’s research tells us that to understand people and how they make decisions, you have to understand what they hold sacred.  Around these sacred beliefs, there’s a halo of willful ignorance, one that few facts can penetrate and, if they do, these facts fail to dislodge the core belief.

It must be the case that this applies to self-image, that there are things I fundamentally believe about myself (that you believe about yourself) that blind me (you) to the facts.

The capacity for change comes from the willingness to observe the things that are most dear in my self-image and expose them.  Most obviously, Jonathan challenges me to look at the notion that I’m an open-minded person by asking me how much I understand the perspective of people whose core beliefs differ fundamentally from my own.  More broadly, we all walk around with notions of who we are, namely…

I am:

[   ] good

[   ] bad

at public speaking; writing; analysis; closing a sale; inspiring others; leading a team; coming up with new ideas; getting things over the finish line; fundraising; meeting new people; taking risks.

For example if you’d asked me when I was 23 what job I would never, ever want to or be able to do successfully I would have said “any kind of sales job.”  Whoops.

There are only two ways to break this cycle.  The best way is to decide not to listen to the stories you tell yourself and to start doing things that contradict your most sacred beliefs about who you are and what you’re best and worst at.  Then supercharge your efforts by creating a culture of honest and open feedback (a la Open 360) – a work environment in which people who know you and who deeply care about your success and that of your organization actually sit down and tell you what we’re best at.

I promise, you’re your worst critic.   In the act of trying, buttressed by feedback from invested and caring colleagues, you’ll show this critic who’s boss.

Sacredness and motivated ignorance

I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Haidt, author of the new best-selling book (#6 on the NYTimes Bestseller list) The Righteous Mind, speak about his work.  Jonathan is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, he gave a great TED talk in 2008 on moral psychology and a few weeks ago he gave another great TED talk on transcendence.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for the publication of The Righteous Mind.  As chronicled in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a significant part of the book focuses on why the political left and the political right in the United States don’t understand each other.  Given the unprecedented divides in U.S. politics today and the run-up to the presidential elections, The Righteous Mind is a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering everything from the Tea Party to the environmental movement to Occupy Wall Street.

Two of the underpinnings of Jonathan’s work – also explored by other authors – have already changed the way I understand the world.  The first is that reason follows intuition.   This means that we make decisions and form opinions with our intuitive minds, and then use our power to reason to support our intuitive decisions.  In Jonathan’s words, the intuitive (or emotional) dog wags the rational tail.   This is why we find it so incomprehensible that people with different moral outlooks don’t “just respond to the facts.”  We think that people look at facts to make decisions, when in fact they make decisions and then look for facts that support those decisions.

(and “people” isn’t everyone else, it’s you too.  That’s the really important part.)

The second big insight for me is around the notion of sacredness.  Jonathan argues that to begin to really understand people, you have to understand what is sacred to them.  The left and the right in the U.S. (on social issues) hold very different things sacred, and if you, in Jonathan’s words, “follow the sacredness” you’ll have a whole new window into how people process information and form their opinions.  So, as Jonathan described it, the right in the U.S. holds moral order, marriage and faith sacred; the left currently consider the environment and issues around race and social justice sacred.   In both cases, Jonathan argued that sacredness creates “motivated ignorance.”  In Jonathan’s words, “when sacredness conflicts with truth, truth gets thrown under the bus.”

This helps explain to an exasperated liberal why conservatives “just don’t get it” about global warming just as it explains to an exasperated conservative why liberals “just don’t get” having religiously-affiliated hospitals institutions pay for contraceptives for their members is morally abhorrent.

Needless to say, I’m better at seeing one side of this exasperation than the other.  And that’s exactly the point.  A lot of my blogging and my work begins with a deep belief in and respect for others and the power of empathy.  I’d also like to think of myself as an open-minded person.  But Jonathan’s work forces me to ask myself whether I create the space to really understand and appreciate what is sacred to other people whose morality differs fundamentally from my own.

It helps me understand why people won’t look at the same convincing, powerful facts that I will and just change their opinions.

It helps us all understand why we all have so much trouble understanding one another, why this country is so divided and why it seems to be getting worse, not better.

Jonathan’s request of us all in this 2008 TED talk is that we embrace moral humility, that we step out of the “moral matrix” that limits us to seeing and respecting people who share our morality and our values.  It is a challenging notion, and an important one, one that turns my world upside-down…in a good way.

What do you do in the face of a “no”?

A “no” can mean a lot of things.

It can mean that you’re wrong or that you’re right.

It can mean you’re way off course or completely on track.

It can mean that you’re threatening or that you’re misguided.

It can mean that you need to try harder and it can mean that it’s time to give up.

It can mean that you asked too soon or too late, that your story had no mojo or that you happened to ask on the wrong day.

A “no” by virtue of being a “no” tells you very little.  A “no” is deeply subject to interpretation.  Its “no-ness” is not inherently meaningful.

But knowing what a “no” does to you – now that could be valuable.  If no’s makes you slow down, shy away, and question yourself, that’s something you want to know.  If no’s save you from wasting time but you often forget to listen, you want to know that too.  If no’s cause you to push harder and to want to prove others wrong…yup, knowing that is important too.

Does a “no” attract you or repel you?  Does it have gravitational force or refractive powers?  Does it stop you in your tracks or add fuel to the fire?

What do you know about how you react to a “no”?

TED and introverts part 2: Structures or Incentives

Commenting on my post last week about TED and how introverts can work the room, Joey Katona asked what incentives TED creates to get people to socialize and network.

The answer is: none.

What they create are structures that facilitate social interaction – everything from the composition of the attendees, the physical space, the food provided, the agenda, everything.

Let me give a concrete counter-example of another conference with equally impressive attendees.  The amount of socializing that occurred (especially between people who didn’t already know each other) was very low, and it was because of the physical space: traditional hotel ballrooms in a giant hotel.

The vastness of the “not in the conference hall” space resulted in people naturally dispersing at every break; there weren’t many chairs or food in the hallway so it wasn’t easy to find a comfortable way to talk; the amount of unprogrammed time was limited; and on and on.

We are naturally social creatures whose behavior is hugely influenced by our physical environment.

If you want to create spontaneous and productive socialization at a conference, the first step is to actually decide that doing this is one of your goals.  That means that you spend as much time and energy thinking about the “non-programmed” time as you do about the program (the speakers, the official program, everything that your conference appears to be about).

By way of example, some of the zillions of structures that TED puts in place to make socializing more likely:

  • Significant non-programmed time for socialization
  • Numerous places to get food during breaks, so that groups sizes are manageable and you don’t wait too long for food (but you talk a bit while you’re waiting on line)
  • At least 12 “social spaces” designed for sitting and talking….
  • ….with simulcast of the main stage event so that you can keep on talking if you’re having a great conversation
  • Lots of nooks and crannies to explore, sponsored by various companies, where you’re likely to find someone else interested in something you’re interested in (even if that’s paddleball)
  • Giant name tags with pictures, your name, and three things to “talk to me about…”
  • An out-of-this-world, curated audience, resulting in huge positive feedback every time you meet someone new – because folks are so amazing
  • Etc.

Your conference doesn’t have the resources that TED does, but that doesn’t matter.  The moment you decide that getting people to talk to each other is important you’ll start seeing things differently.  Then it’s up to you to have fun with the physical environment, how you use time, the food you serve, the music you play, what you do with the lights….everything really.

You won’t get it right the first time but have 10 attendees you love and care about and 10 young people on your staff spend the whole conference watching how people do and don’t interact, what spaces and what time blocs worked and didn’t, and debrief that after the conference.  You’ll be amazed what you discover.

The impact-to-scale ratio

Every so often, I cannot help but comment from afar on corporate social responsibility (CSR).  I worked in this area for IBM and GE before coming to Acumen, and I greatly appreciate what it takes to get big companies to do things differently – to incorporate a broader set of stakeholders and to think in terms of longer time horizons when making decisions.  I also know how hard it is to move the needle on this stuff (e.g. Nike).

With this potential for impact, as a general rule I’m always amazed at what companies can get away with talking about and not talking about in public forums.

Simply put, should it be OK for a company to talk about a single program or initiative if that program / initiative is tiny relative to the scope of the entire organization?

I don’t think it should be, but time and again I’ve heard CEOs of companies with $50 billion to $100 billion in revenues give major speeches about $20 million programs (that’s 0.2% of revenues!).  Not once, but often.  And the programs are used as proof points for statements about how the company conducts its business globally.  It would be no less absurd for a CEO to talk about one call center or to talk about its smallest division in its smallest market – which of course would never happen.

There should be some minimum threshold of impact to scale before any CEO is allowed to talk about anything of this nature.

The reason we care about how corporations behave is because of their size and scope.  So: Apple’s supply chain matters a lot, what Apple does in and around Cupertino is good to know but essentially irrelevant.  Pepsi’s Refresh program is a wonderfully innovative form of corporate philanthropy coupled with crowdsourcing, but their opportunity for real global impact starts and ends with what they are and aren’t doing about obesity and  diabetes.  When Wal-Mart puts its weight behind fluorescent bulbs it matters.  If BP were to shift a major portion of its business away from fossil fuels the world would care, but Deepwater made it pretty clear that they are not “beyond petroleum.”

I’ve argued before that we can do much better than “more than nothing” when talking about the role of corporations in building a better world, and when you get Fortune 50 CEOs in a closed room to talk about the world and the future it’s clear that all of the top companies care deeply about these issues and see them as core to their long-term success.

But somehow we keep on falling into this trap of talking about nice, ancillary philanthropic endeavors as if the person on the stage is running a medium-sized nonprofit and not a multi-billion dollar, global institution.

We can do so much better.

The demise of social currency

In the late 90s, when moving back from Madrid to the U.S., my wife and I took time in the weeks prior to our departure to say goodbye to our friends at the pastry shop, the butcher, the cheese vendor and the fruit shop – our friends at the miniscule, fabulous fruit shop, Tomad Mucha Fruta, gave us one of the aprons they use at the shop as a parting gift.

We’d spent hours with each of these people, whether in line talking to the butcher and to a gaggle of old ladies debating the best cut for making a stew; at the cheese shop where we’d never have to remember the name of that wonderful piece of cheese he’d sold us last week; and at the fruit shop when spring came around and, for three short weeks, strawberries were everywhere.

In places where these stories are common, social currency is at play.  You are known and trusted and each individual transaction is small compared to the whole.

Increasingly, this is no longer necessary or common – all in the name of progress.  Need proof?  Once, every vendor commonly extended a little bit of credit to customers; everyone handed out an extra orange or a sliver of manchego to a customer who was also a friend.

Today it’s “Cash or credit sir?”

The old way wasn’t better, but something has also been lost in translation.  When commerce is everywhere, down to the smallest detail and interaction, relationships of trust – where the trust actually means something in terms of how people act – are harder to come by.

Are we better off?  We’re definitely more efficient.  We’re also probably reinforcing an unhealthy, unnatural level of isolation as we walk through the world.

What I wish

I wish the world could look at images of beauty and resilience and feel compelled to act.

I wish people would see photographs by Nuru photographers, photos that capture the spirit and challenges of the life of the poor in the developing world, and share these photos, these stories, more than 70 million times. Not out of pity, but out of joy.

I wish that, at my local Starbucks at 6:30 on Saturday morning, instead of seeing Kony2012 posters in the window I’d see one of these beautiful photographs from Lagos, Nigeria; from Nairobi, Kenya; from Chennai or from Bhopal in India.

The Nuru project curates breathtaking images from around the world, shares them with the public and uses the proceeds to help nonprofits.  Their first partnership was with Acumen Fund, and together with +acumen chapters, they have helped us raise more than $150,000.

The pictures tell a different story – one of connectedness, one of shared possibility, one of dignity.

I know this blog post and the Nuru site won’t get seen hundreds of millions of times.  But if you love photography, maybe you will check out the site and buy a print for a dear friend.  Maybe you will email the one photography buff you know and let them know about it.  Maybe you’ll spread the word on Facebook and on Twitter about this “this gr8 stuff u hve 2 see NOW!!!”

Let’s start spreading a different story.

Take a cue from the gym

I used to have a 45 minute (or longer) drive to work, and NPR saved my life.  90 minutes of intelligent programming a day made the drive almost bearable.

So it was with some nostalgia that I listened last week to the WNYC spring fundraiser, to an interview with Mark Bittman and an offer to get his new cookbook for free if you donated “$180, or became a sustaining member for just $15 a month.”

I can’t figure out why you’d focus on $180.  $15 a month is the pitch.

Think about your gym membership which, in New York, will run you about $100 a month.  There’s a reason why New York Sports Club doesn’t advertise that you can join for “just $1,400 a year.”  It’s the same reason that I never think about the fact that having two iPhones costs me and my wife nearly $2,000 a year, that DirecTV costs about $600 a year…and on and on.

Take a cue from the gym – pitch monthly recurring donations every time.

The risk of being a bull

Time is the scarcest of all professional resources, yet we never seem to get enough of it.  A recent conversation with a friend and advisor helped me understand that one of my greatest professional strengths and joys might be exacerbating my time problem.

Earlier in my career, success was doing the right thing in a challenging situation.  Then later on success becam: me, my team, or my organization doing the right thing.

As my span of responsibility has grown, I cannot do everything and I can’t be – and shouldn’t be – involved in every step from here to there.  Obvious enough.  So, outside of work that’s on my plate, I focus my energies on helping those around me solve problems.  I love doing this and I’m generally pretty good at it, which makes it both is intellectually and emotionally rewarding.  I get to problem-solve (fun!) and help a colleague (fun! fun!).  Bingo!

The helpful but very sobering insight is that my enjoyment and capacity at this kind of problem-solving might not be the right end-game.  Because it is so rewarding and because the outcomes are (often) positive – both practically and emotionally – have I created a learned response and, like the proverbial bull seeing a waving red cloth, do I, when presented with a situation in which I might be helpful, just jump in and help?

Why might this be a bad thing?

The suggestion was that consistently helping to solve a set of problems keeps me in the business (forever) of being involved in helping solve those sorts of problems – without ever asking the question: what sort of problems do I want, in the long run, to be in the business of solving?  For example, it could be that I always want to have a role to play in key hiring decisions or important strategic choices, but is there another set of situations that other people are better equipped and better positioned to resolve in the long term?

If so, when I’m presented with a cool, fun, challenging and interesting situation, the first question I should ask myself isn’t “what should we do here?” but rather “is this the kind of problem I should be in the business of helping solve in the long term?”  If it is, great.  If not, how would I act differently?

Whenever I’m looking for advice about a tough situation, working through the solution with a respected colleague teaches me something.  But that process of osmosis could be accelerated by a much more explicit, meta-conversation about how I’m engaging with the problem and how my more experienced colleague is coming up with different and better approaches and solutions to that same problem.

That’s the conversation I suspect I need to be having more often.

Harder, requiring different muscles, and, toughest of all, forcing me to look at all that great short-term feedback I’m getting and say: this thing that I love doing might just be part of the reason I have too little time on my hands.

How Many Ways Can We Be Generous in a Single Day?

Note: this post first appeared on the Huffington Post.  A lot of you know the background, but many have asked how this year’s Generosity Day compared to 2011, so I wanted to share that.  Thank you for making it happen!

That was the question we posed to the world as part of an effort to re-boot Valentine’s Day as Generosity Day. The premise was simple: Could we transform a day that’s been weighted down by overpriced flowers and boxes of candy into one known for active, purposeful generosity to all?

The idea for Generosity Day was hatched last year, after I conversation I had with Katya Andresen at Network for Good about my “Generosity Experiment” — a month in which I said “yes” to absolutely ever request for help.

The idea was simple enough, but changing my standard response from “no” to “yes” wasn’t. Each time I gave to a homeless man or a musician on the street, each time I got a coffee or ate out and I tipped outrageously, each opportunity to help a colleague or greet someone I’d passed every day but didn’t know — these were all opportunities to reassess how I walk through the world, to reevaluate what had become normal behavior of being too rushed, too closed off, too much in my own head to fully see everyone around me.

It was transformative and I wanted others to have that same experience, even if just for a day. Generosity Day 2011 was born out of this very simple idea: Could we get the world to say “yes” for a day? Amazingly, with less than 72 hours of lead time and no budget, we did, so we knew we were on to something and decided to do it again in 2012 to make it even bigger and better.

The day surpassed all expectations, as people all over the world participated and shared their stories. The word spread on social media, where we counted more than 5,000 tweets seen by millions of people, hundreds of articles and blog posts (too many to count), three amazing organizations made videos on their own dime that were seen more than 40,000 times in one day (here, here and here), and Kevin Bacon even tweeted and took an awesome photo to help spread the word. None of this would have been possible without the spontaneous partnership of organizations like Network for Good, Global Giving, the Case Foundation, Kiva, the Gates Foundation, See3 Communications, the Jubilee Project and amazing bloggers like Beth Kanter, Brene Brown, Kelly Wallace, and, of course, Katya Andresen.

More exciting still, thanks to our friends at Causes we were able to create the Generosity Day Causes site, both so people could learn about Generosity Day and so they could share their own generosity stories.

One person shared that she approached an elderly woman on the street and gave her a rose, only to be told that this the first Valentine’s Day flower she’d ever received. Another woman finally had coffee with someone she’d long thought could a new friend — and she was right. A third person told an 80-year-old woman how beautiful she was and the woman shed a tear, saying that no one had told that to her that in years.

Much more than any statistics about the word spreading far and wide, it is these actions that made Generosity Day real, these actions that created innumerable moments of joy. We heard stories of anonymous acts of kindness, outrageous over-tipping and heartfelt thank you notes. We heard about people paying strangers’ tolls on the parkway, folks passing out croissants to the morning-rush crowd, and loads of people who spent the day or the night volunteering. We heard from people who were donating money, and those who were donating blood. We heard from so many people who made the day better for others and experienced the joy of generosity themselves.

These are the actions that rippled through people’s lives, these are the ways that people created new expectations and a renewed sense of possibility — about how they can act, how others might act towards them, and what, collectively, could happen if we all were more purposefully generous each day.

You too can be part of this movement, today or any day. All it takes is the decision to say “yes.”