Spreading ideas and vanity metrics

Last week a guy I’ve never heard of on a blog I’ve never seen posted my Generosity Experiment video on his blog, generating a nice flurry of tweets from a bunch of folks.

My first reaction should have been: “Great!”

My first reaction actually was: “Great, but I wish he’d written the post with a link to my blog / Twitter handle, or a link to the video on TED.com to make it easier for people to find me.”

And so the question I must ask myself, again, is, “What business am I in here?” knowing full well that of course I’m in the spreading ideas business, which means that having additional blog subscribers and Twitter followers is gratifying but it’s just a means to an end.

One of my favorite concepts from the Eric Ries’ Lean Startup is the notion of vanity metrics.  These are numbers that startups parade around to impress their customers, their  venture investors, or (worst) themselves.  They are numbers that tell you almost nothing about whether the business is actually succeeding.  User growth or topline revenue numbers are great candidates for vanity metrics – as opposed to metrics like utilization rate of your fixed assets; total sales generated by your median salesperson versus a breakeven number; or number of months to cashflow positive for each new site that you open.

If you’re in the spreading ideas business then what you want to measure is how far, well, quickly, and to whom your ideas are spreading.  Seems tautological until you start thinking about, say, whether and why one might want to publish a book.  Being “published” used to be a clear divider between those could / could not spread ideas, but that dividing line is becoming a lot more permeable.  Yes, it still matters a lot today, but that’s fading fast.

If you take this notion seriously you can’t help but wonder what other vanity metrics are going to be outdated 10 years from now.  Serious candidates could include: your job title, the school you went to, working for a “blue chip” company, the average SAT score at your kid’s high school.

And core metrics that I bet are going to matter more and more: speed of integrating new information; engagement in self-directed learning; willingness to go to bat for things that matter; ability to be remarkable in situations that seem unremarkable; connecting with and delighting customers; putting your whole self into everything you create; working through and with uncertainty; adaptability; and self-knowledge.

Three email rules and the bcc courtesy

Bcc: (“blind carbon copy”) has been with us since the beginning of email (as in this great ARPA email standard from 1977).  Even before email (yes, there was such a time), written office memos would be sent to recipients without letting others know they were on formal copy.  While it’s difficult to uncover the original intent of the bcc: email field, consensus seems to be that it was created for mass emailings to large email recipient lists.

So, how do we use these fields today?

While email tips and tricks can seem like small potatoes, we’re all overwhelmed by our Inboxes and like it or no, email is integral to how we communicate and, consequently, to how we build relationships.

Sadly, people routinely miss the opportunity to be “good emailers” (psst have you signed the Email Charter?  If not, you should and be sure to sign up for their mailing list.), so I thought I’d share three simple email tips that feel like table stakes to me – plus a bcc: bonus for kicks:

  1. Have as few people as possible receive an email.  This is not the same as copying people to make sure no one gets offended.  Just like a good meeting, the best emails have exactly the number of people needed to make a decision – no more.  (and last time I checked, you almost never want seven people to make a decision).
  2. Use the subject line to communicate something.  People are generally terrible about this (e.g. email chains that go on for weeks titled “RE: question.”)  Write specific email Subject lines and don’t be afraid in your reply to re-title emails you receive (e.g. take that RE: question email and turn it into “June 5th breakfast details [Re: question].”)  Occasionally I’ll even dip into the convention-breaking practice of letting someone know that I’m emailing just them to help a note stand out from the crowd (e.g. “Pankaj – June 5 breakfast”).
  3. Differentiate between the To: and Cc: fields.  To me, the To: field means “I expect a reply from you” and Cc: means “I don’t expect a reply from you but you do need to know about this.”

So what do we do about bcc:, that murky backwater of email etiquette?

Recently I’d been evolving to the conclusion that bcc: should be avoided altogether.  It feels sneaky (by definition the recipient doesn’t know you’ve done it).  And even if you don’t care about that email moral high ground, there’s the practical risk of the bcc: recipient replying all, which is never a good thing.  So “secret” bcc: is off my list of good email practice.  If you need someone to see a note you can just forward it from your Sent mail.

Lately though I’ve started to observe a use of bcc: that increases email peace and harmony. It works like this.  Say a (small!) group of people is copied on an email introduction:

e.g. Christine is being introduced to Joaquim by Alejandro.

Alejandro writes an email to Christine and Joaquim, maybe others are copied for some reason.

Now, Christine and Joaquim both want Alejandro to know how much they appreciate the introduction AND to communicate that they’ve not dropped the ball.  So naturally they ‘Reply All’ on this note, which is all well and good until 17 emails go back and forth and poor, well-intentioned Alejandro (and maybe a score of other folks) is copied on this whole mess for weeks on end.

The new-and-improved way to handle this is for Christine to respond to the note like this:

 (moving Alejandro to bcc:)

Joaquim, it’s great to meet you.  How about we find a time next week to meet – maybe next Thursday morning?

Voila!  Alejandro is in the loop for this one step and is satisfied at his successful email introductory prowess, and as a bonus he’s off the hook when Joaquim inevitably replies that he’s going to be deep-sea diving off the coast of Papua New Guinea next Thursday so maybe he can talk to Christine when he’s back stateside.

(you get the idea)

Happy emailing.

10 (percent)

I’ve been finding a lot of power lately in 10% shifts in how I spend my time.  It’s an increment big enough to matter – an experiment big enough that you can learn something – but small enough that there’s no excuse but to start.

So, if you’re feeling stuck you could:

  • Work 10% more, or less
  • Sleep 10% more, or less
  • Turn your email off for 10% of your workday
  • Delete 10% of your emails, or reply to them with 10 words or less
  • Eat differently (veg, vegan, cro-magnon, all liquids, whatever) 10% of the time (aka one day a week…which I know is more like 15% but you get the idea)
  • Make 10% of your decisions in 10% of the time you normally take (and figure out if it makes a difference)
  • Etc.

Or if 10% doesn’t work you can try 10 days, e.g.:

  • 10 days of eating differently
  • Exercise for 10 days in a row
  • Sleep 8 hours a night for 10 straight days
  • Work 16 hour days 10 days in a row to ship a product
  • Write (and publish) a blog post for 10 days straight
  • Each day for 10 days, write down one thing you’re grateful for
  • Conduct a 10 day generosity experiment
  • For 10 days, apologize first
  • Etc.

Increasingly I’m feeling like long-term happiness results from our ability to evolve.  If that’s true, then discovering how to change is even more important than discovering what to change.

At least for me, all the big changes start small.   They start with an experiment that’s big enough to mean something but small enough that I can’t pretend it’s impossible.

What about you: do massive leaps work, or do you do better when you start small?

Your job, and leverage

If your life is one of service, then the one question to ask yourself when figuring out where you are and where you’re going is:

What role, what organization, what situation allows me to maximize the impact I’m having on others?

Most organizations find good people and ask little of them them.  Some organizations, sadly, even find great people and ask them to do mediocre work.

The best organizations take great people and help them be extraordinary.

It’s possible.

And the best part is that extraordinary feeds on itself.  Extraordinary creates more extraordinary.

Graduation – Dorothea Tanning

I came across this beautiful poem on the NYC Subway today.  Poignant words as we head into a graduation weekend.


He told us, with the years, you will come

to love the world.

And we sat there with our souls in our laps,

and comforted them.

Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Also made me think about this article that came out Tuesday in The Atlantic about how smart phones are turning our public spaces into private ones.  I’m experimenting with not looking at my iPhone in the elevator, just as a start.  Crazy that even that would be a challenge.

Generosity partnership

Yesterday I had the pleasure to spend a few hours at one of Seth Godin’s seminars.  If you believe in making a ruckus, if you’d benefit from a day of real conversation (and inspiration, and stories, and plenty of laughs) about why it’s up to you to make a ruckus, then you have to find a way to get one of these seminars.  The day will challenge you AND give you tons of tools to speed you on your way (plus great giveaways!).  It costs as little as $300 a person if you bring a group which is an amazing deal.

One guy I met there, who will soon be running a school, told me that he couldn’t get his old school to pay for the seminar (“they felt like the couldn’t quantify the value of it”).  So a trustee who is a fan of Seth’s sponsored him instead.  I love the notion of not being able to quantify the value of day that could accelerate someone’s journey to becoming a transformational leader.  Kind of a “it’s warmer in the summer than it is in the country” analysis.  (Value of becoming a transformational leader = more or less infinite, right?)


Seth did a session on nonprofit fundraising, which he led off with a riff that began “Fundraising is a generosity partnership for both people.”

Let’s pause get our heads around that for a minute.

A while ago I succeeded in creating a ruckus by writing a manifesto for nonprofit CEOs.  In it I argued that we have to reinvent fundraising, first and foremost by discarding the notion that what we do as fundraisers and nonprofit leaders doesn’t have value.  Of course it does, and when we realize that, when we really own that, we change everything – power dynamics, the sense of our own worth, our motivation and courage to get out there and tell our story, everything.

I still think this is all right, and nearly four years later I’ve also figured out that it’s not the whole story.

“Fundraising is a generosity partnership for both people.”

For both people?  That means we have the chance to be generous. Us.  The fundraisers  Wait, isn’t this about someone else giving?

If fundraising is a generosity partnership, that means we have something real to give, something of value.  That means it’s not just that we need the courage to get to the starting line and recognize that we’re doing something worth paying attention to.  We need to go a whole lot further and recognize the true value of what we are offering:  the chance to make a change in the world; the chance to be part of a group of like-minded people who won’t accept the status quo and who wake up every morning to fight for change; the chance to create meaning and healing and hope and possibility.

When you say it like that it becomes obvious that these things are worth the same or more than the philanthropist ends up giving – they have to be, or why would she give in the first place?  The philanthropists knows this, that’s why she cares and that’s why she gives.  We are the ones who forget it.

“Fundraising is a generosity partnership.”

So when you lack courage, when you’re hiding, when you’re doing everything but getting out there and telling your story, when you’re doing everything but building your tribe and raising the resources to do what you’re here to do, your mantra is:

I have something to give.  I have something to give.  I have something to give.

Something that’s really worth something.  Something that’s worth everything.

Your idea

At the start it’s just smoke, a wisp. It has no substance or form.

You can take it around to people for help shaping it, so you can better understand what it could be.

But the thing is, at the start it has no mass, and until it does it’s impossible for people to really do much of anything about it.  They can talk and you can talk, and that’s about it.

Mass gives it the ability to go places.  Mass means that with a push it can break through things.

Talk is fine, but the real work is giving your idea some mass.

Teach for India and Generosity Day

Every time Generosity Day comes full circle, I know I’m the lucky one.

So many actions, great and small, will go unregistered by all but those who take part in them, but every so often we get a glimpse of what the greater whole looks like and the power of a simple idea that spreads.  It grows, it evolves, it strengthens in the hands of others.

Recently, two teachers from Teach for India decided to bring Generosity Day into their classroom.  To see these kids talk about what generosity means to them is a lesson for all of us, and a real gift.

(if the video doesn’t appear below you can click here).

Prateek Kanwali and Sapna Shah are the Teach for India Fellows who partnered with the Acumen Fund India office to make this happen.  Their blog post has a lot to teach about education and how to create change for kids.  Just two of the many excerpts that struck me:

We joined the Teach for India movement because of our belief that education is the answer to a lot of the problems that plague our nation and the world at large….[and] we soon realized academic achievement alone will not be enough to change the life trajectory of our kids, that along with academic excellence they need grit.  The strength to overcome difficulties and challenges at every step, but also zest and optimism to face everything that life throws their way with a smile.  They will need gratitude to be thankful for what they have and empathy towards others.

The affirmation of this [generosity] experiment came in the form of a generous act by one of Prateek’s students Pooja Patel.  She spoke to him before school one day and asked if she could sit with Tusshar Gupta, one of her classmates who was struggling to meet his end of year goals.  She said, “Bhiyya (elder brother), if I can get good marks, he can also do it, please give me a chance to help him.”  From that day onwards for two months she relentlessly taught him before and after school hours and even went the extra mile by tutoring him at his house on weekends.  The result was unbelievable.  She showed the class that it was our collective responsibility to ensure everyone is on equal footing.

My thanks and gratitude to Prateek and Sapna from Teach for India and to Keya Madhvani at Acumen for showing us all this light.

Peter Drucker – Managing Oneself

A little while ago, a colleague of mine sent around Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself article from Harvard Business Review.  He described it as “something to read and re-read over time,” and having read the piece a few times now I’ve put it on my “reread this one annually” list.

The whole piece is about self-knowledge, probably the most important lever in sustained and longstanding professional and personal success.

From the opening, just to give you a flavor of both the content and Drucker’s direct, no-nonsense writing style:

History’s great achievers – a Napoleon, a da Vinci, a Mozart – have always managed themselves. That, in large measure, is what makes them great achievers. But they are rare exceptions, so unusual both in their talents and their accomplishments as to be considered outside the boundaries of ordinary human existence. Now, most of us, even those of us with modest endowments, will have to learn to manage ourselves. We will have to learn to develop ourselves. We will have to place ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution. And we will have to stay mentally alert and engaged during a 50-year working life, which means knowing how and when to change the work we do.

Most of the article covers, with incredible clarity, topics you might expect: how to know your strengths and build on them; understanding your weaknesses; the power of real and honest feedback; etc.

But then out of left field Drucker spends a good chunk of time saying that it’s crucial to know if you learn best by reading or listening (apparently General Eisenhower was a reader,  President Lyndon Johnson was a listener).  Huh?

This pretty much stumped me, both because I’d never thought about it before and because, after thinking about it some, I had no idea whether I was a reader or a listener.  I assumed that since I read a lot and write a lot that I have to be a reader.

It turns out that I was wrong.  Here’s how I figured it out.  A few months after first reading the article I found myself preparing for a big presentation and wanted to include a discussion of a newer Acumen Fund investment.  I’d read piles of pages about the investment and had tons of information, but I just wasn’t feeling comfortable.  Then I sat down for 30 minutes with someone on our team to discuss the investment and everything changed.  I felt the texture, I could grasp the nuances, it clicked.

Turns out I’m a listener.  I’m pretty sure that having figured this out will have a big impact over time.

One final gem from the article that just made me smile – the kind of thing you don’t expect from a management guru:

Manners – simple things like saying “please” and “thank you” and knowing a person’s name or asking after her family – enable two people to work together whether they like each other or not. Bright people, especially bright young people, often do not understand this. If analysis shows that someone’s brilliant work fails again and again as soon as cooperation from others is required, it probably indicates a lack of courtesy – that is, a lack of manners.

Hope you enjoy the full article (“Best of HBR”) as much as I did.

The London Meditation Project

After meeting at the DO Lectures, I was trading notes with Catherine Powell about her wonderful talk on the London Meditation Project, and she shared some wisdom that she kindly has agreed to let me share on this blog:

It is such a precious thing to be able to give, and we can all give something.

In the Buddhist tradition giving is one of the ‘Six Perfections,’ (we practice them a lot on the way towards perfection!) along with ethical conduct, patience/tolerance, energy and vigour, one-pointed concentration, and wisdom.

Giving is the first of the six.

If there is nothing else we can do (maybe we are distracted, angry, confused, struck down in any number of ways – whatever state we might be in) we can still always give something, and giving is the doorway to feeling better again as part of the world, whatever we can give – a cup of tea, some time, a material gift, the gift of the truth – even just throwing a stick for a playful dog… giving is such a massively healthy and healing thing.

We so need to feel and experience our connection with each other.

The London Meditation Project was created to help returning war veterans cope with their experiences.  They could be coping with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), they might have disabilities, or they could just looking for a safe space to share with other veterans.   It’s a powerful project and the kind of thing we should see more of to support returning soldiers.  Don’t take it from me, see this great post from a military wife who dragged her husband to one of Catherine’s sessions.

If you feel so moved, you can support soldiers here.  Better yet, since “meditation” and “military” usually aren’t in the same sentence, if you know folks in the military who might like this idea, let them know.

And thank you, Catherine, for your words of wisdom.