Like a Match to our Fears

I spent some time over the holidays cleaning up several things on my blog. It has a spruced-up look and URL, it’s easier to subscribe, and I migrated subscribers to Feedblitz.

I mostly did this so it would be easier for you to share posts and for new readers to follow the blog (follow here).

One of the additional benefits is much better statistics: open rates, bounce rates, new subscribers, unsubscribes. Though “benefits” may not be the right word.

Ever since migrating, I have been getting a steady drip of emails letting me know about people unsubscribing from my blog.

At least that’s how it feels.

The truth is, I migrated a few thousand people and fewer than 20 have unsubscribed. But, like rubbernecking, I can’t seem to look away. The unsubscribes cry out, “Look at me! Think about what I mean! Contemplate why this person no longer wants to read!”

It’s hard to remember that Laura wrote me a nice note. So did Amy and Jamie. Arnie and Cornelius left comments on a recent post. And, and, and… If you listened to the conversation in my head, you’d think that all that good stuff never happened.

It’s a rule of thumb for the workplace and the classroom that people should hear four instances of positive reinforcement for every instance of corrective or negative feedback (though for marriages the ratio seems to be 5 to 1).

The question is, why? Why does the good stuff fade into the background and the negatives stand out in such stark relief?

The answer begins with noticing that it doesn’t happen everywhere: for things that we don’t care much about (“you’re terrible at ice skating!”), and for things that we’re deeply confident about, we’re mostly immune to this nonsense.

But in that wide area in the middle—the things that we care about, but where we’re not fully confident—we’re wide open to fear amplification.

Unfortunately, this “middle area” is really important. It encompasses all creative endeavors, since we are never fully confident our art. And it thrives in any area where we’re trying to grow, because, by definition, these are the areas in which we are both less skilled and less confident.

The fear waits like dry kindling ready to be set ablaze.

This kindling allows me to construct an amazing, elaborate tower of meaning around something as simple as one person in one place unsubscribing. It is the same thing that takes us, when we make a suggestion in a meeting that’s shot down, from the words we hear to, “he thinks I do terrible work, always. So he must think I’m terrible, always.”

As we interact with those around us, our job is to be especially deliberate about how we interact with colleagues–especially when we talk about their art and support their growth edges. Unless we work in organizations with cultures of consistently direct, tough feedback that people are accustomed to, we will stamp out personal growth if we trample, Godzilla-like, over areas where colleagues already are holding armfuls of doubt and fear.

And, for ourselves, we want to keep asking:

How much kindling are we carrying around? And is it really helping us?

Do we want to be the kinds of people who are ready to be set aflame, our fears blazing around us?

Do those flames make us more more connected? More powerful? More brave?

Do they make us more effective? More willing and able to do what needs to be done?

People will always carry matches, often unintentionally. Part of our job is to learn to douse all the fuel around ourselves so we’re not so easily taken off our game.

Oh, and I also changed my settings so I only get that unsubscribe email once a week.


I have nothing to say

Most of the time, most ideas worth writing about don’t show up fully formed at the precise moment we stare at a blank sheet of paper.

Indeed, if we expect all of our useful, original ideas to show up only after we settle into the chair, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of frustration.

The ideas come at other moments.  Our job is to remain curious and attentive, so that we stop for long enough to notice our glimpses of passionate insight, of outraged exasperation or of simple, concise observation.

When these moments occur, we must hold on to them for long enough to write down the feelings we have, the core of the insight, and a few scratches about how the argument will flow.

Once that’s done, the writing boils down to the relatively simpler act of putting words around the thoughts so others can see them too.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Blogging

I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past few months that start with people saying, “I really have been meaning to write or blog, but I just haven’t done it. Any advice on how to start and stick with it?”

Here are 12 things that I’ve learned since I started blogging in 2008:

  1. A structured time to write. Stephen King is famous for saying that step one in writing is to put your “butt in the chair.” Not glamorous, but true. 99% of my blog posts have been written on the train that I take home from work. And most of them come out very quickly – in 10-15 minutes. But I’ve discovered that when I don’t take the train, I don’t write blog posts. That’s when I write.
  2. Make a commitment. Commit to how much you’re going to publish / write / post. I’d suggest you aim high because you’ll probably do less than you intended (because that’s life). And “publish” because I think creating finished work (to your own standard) is important, because it lets you practice sharing complete thoughts that engage other people as readers.
  3. Set it up so someone is reading. I’ve been blogging for more than six years now and I’ve written nearly 1,000 posts. I absolutely, positively, would have given up after six months if I didn’t have readers. I’ve grown to feel that my readers and I have an unspoken contract: they commit to taking the time to read, think and (hopefully) act on the things I write that they find useful; I commit to keep on writing. And occasionally, they comment or reach out to say how a post has helped them or moved them or taught them something. That feels great. [If you’re writing for yourself or in a journal, this “someone” could be a colleague, a boss, a friend you respect, and you could commit to sharing 5 things you’ve written every month. My hunch is that if it’s just for you, you’re writing a personal journal, which is also important work but is something different.]
  4. Ignore your inner critic. We ALL think that everything we write isn’t good enough (not good enough for us, and definitely not good enough to have others read it). The irony is that the more you let yourself censor your own work, the less of your own work you’ll produce, and the less your work will improve.
  5. Remember that it’s much more important to write a lot than it is to write well. This is basically the same point as the prior point, written differently. When I was posting nearly every day, it helped me tremendously to know that if a post wasn’t good enough, I’d have another shot at it tomorrow. It’s helped me even more to go back to posts I’ve published and try to remember which ones I thought were the “good” and the “bad” ones.
  6. Remove the “am I saying something new?” filter. Because no, you’re not saying something completely new and that’s OK. The point is that it’s YOU saying it, and we care about what you think and how you make us feel when we interact with your idea and your emotions.
  7. Ignore the outer critic. Yes, sometime between here and there people you care a lot about will tell you to stop or to do things differently. Listen to them, contemplate what they say, but don’t commit to doing what they tell you to do. Any creative, self-expressive process is inherently delicate, a flame that’s easy to snuff out. Protect it.
  8. Keep it short. I’m highly partial to 200-500 word blog posts. Every time I write something longer than that it’s because I couldn’t make it shorter. Yes you might have a more technical or expository topic than I do, but by and large if you want people to interact with your ideas you need to present them as simply as possible, with as clear language as possible, in as few words as possible. Use this work to practice not hiding behind elaborate, obtuse language.
  9. Have a strong purpose, loosely held. Especially if you’re trying shift from being someone who doesn’t write to someone who does, I think it’s helpful to have a specific intention plus the freedom to write about what you want to write about. When I started this blog I thought it would just be about fundraising, but I didn’t have enough posts in me on that narrow topic, and the whole construct felt constraining. What I’ve found since then is that through the process of writing this blog I’ve figured out what this blog is about, and I think my readers get it too.
  10. Discomfort should happen. The reason you’re doing this is to grow. Growth comes through doing things you haven’t done before, aren’t comfortable doing, and aren’t good at today. If it feels hard, risky, or awkward, you’re doing the right things.
  11. Do it because it matters. There should be some deeper purpose, which isn’t the same as an external objective (as in, “this is how I’ll land a book deal” or “this will help me when I’m looking for my next job.”) I started blogging because I wanted to understand the job I was doing – fundraising – and what it meant, and could mean, to me and to the nonprofit sector. Over time that focus deepened into wanting to understand, in a much deeper way, people who give to charity, which led to an exploration of generosity, which in turn opened up a lot of avenues of further exploration. Ultimately, this blog has become a vehicle for understanding my own purpose and for sharing things that I’m learning or being challenged by along the way.
  12. Someday you won’t be able to live without it. My blogging continues to evolve, and its purpose and continues to shift. It changes as I do. But it is now part of who I am and what I do, and I hope never to lose that.

For all of you out there reading, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.

For all of you out there thinking about writing, I hope this helps.

[title apologies: Hakuri Murakami]

Stand out

I recently had the chance to review 30 resumes from job applicants from top business schools.  The level of accomplishment in this group is just astounding.  Best grades, best jobs, speak multiple languages, have done things like volunteering in Nepal before hopping to a top job at Bain or McKinsey or co-founding an Argentine startup or, yes, working at Goldman Sachs.  And all of them have hobbies like “member of the Olympic archery team” or “have climbed three of the Seven Summits.”

What amazed me, beyond how wildly accomplished this group was, was that one out of the 30 had an online presence of any significance.  One.

One person whose body of work was readily available to see and explore.  One person whose mind and thought process and passions were easy to investigate.  One person who had more than a LinkedIn or page.  One person who had a readily-available portfolio of work that gives real insight into who she is.

If this top .0001 percent in terms of accomplishment is missing this opportunity, that means big opportunity for you.  You have a huge opportunity to stand out even among (especially among?) this crowd.

That happens by putting yourself out there and showing the world your best thinking, your best ideas, your best work, in a public place that they can find and explore.  Or, more likely (since you’re just getting started), you’ll start by showing the world the work you can do today, with the knowledge that when you keep on doing it, in a few months or a few years down the road, it will be great work.

What better way could there be to stand out from the crowd?

Better yet, you’ll be amazed at how you learn and grow through the process of pushing your own thinking in this way.

1 to 100

There’s a perpetual mystique about blogging.  How do you do it?  Where do the ideas come from?  How do you find the time?  How do you keep it up?  The notion underlying the question is that sharing one’s thoughts regularly and publically about issues that matter (to you, and to your tribe) is something most of us don’t know how to do or to sustain.

1 to 100_curious georgeSo here’s some data:  In the last 18 months, I’ve written about 200 blog posts, which sounds pretty respectable.  It’s almost enough content to fill up a book.    By way of comparison, I’ve also written 18,574 emails (so sayeth Outlook – so those are just work emails).  Even as a reasonably frequent blogger, for each blog post I write I shoot out almost 100 emails.

In 18 months, I’ve written down and shared an idea, a thought, an opinion 18,574 times.  18,574 times I’ve had a point to make, and even though most of the time the point is short or simple, I have an enormous amount of daily practice in taking my ideas, writing them down, and sharing them with others whose opinion I hope to shape in some way.   My blogging pales in comparison to this, both in terms of volume and time required.  I’m sure it’s the same for you.

If you don’t want to blog (or micro-blog, or whatever) that’s fine, don’t blog. But don’t tell yourself that you don’t know how to do it, because you do.

And if you’re on the fence, maybe it’s time to stop telling yourself how this is something above or beyond you – because it isn’t – and just start.

You, online

Guess which online information about you affects peoples’ opinion of you?


Every last photo that pops up (sure, on your Facebook page, but also your Twitter feed and even the picture of you on Skype).  Each snippet is a little piece of you.

Yes we’d love to hear from you every day through your blog, which you can set up in about three minutes.  And yes it’s a good thing to have some personality.

If that feels like too much, why not put up a homepage (like Frank’s or James’)?  You could spend one day (one day!) doing this and making it better than 99% of what’s out there.  If a properly hosted page seems like too much, how about an profile.  And yes, you should be on LinkedIn too.

And since you have at least one friend who has a nice camera and likes to take pictures, ask her to take headshots of you on a simple white background and buy her dinner to thank her.  Heck, invite some friends over.  Best $50 you’ve ever spent (OK maybe more if drinks are involved).

You don’t have forever to stand out from the crowd, but right now it’s still pretty easy to distinguish yourself online.  What are you waiting for?


What I didn’t need to worry about

Last Saturday morning I had the chance to give the opening keynote address at Unite for Sight’s Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University.  The energy in this conference is just amazing, and my hat goes off to Jennifer Staple-Clark and her team who pull off a 2,000+ person conference every year with a full-time staff of just three people (that’s right, three).

The fun part for me was that nearly every part of my talk came from ideas I had developed on this blog.  The talk focused on innovation, where it comes from, and how to design and organize around it – with a particular focus on the structural elements in the nonprofit sector that orient us to extremely long cycle times and a massive “build” phase in the buld-measure-learn cycle.

Put another way, the focal point of the talk was the lean nonprofit, with context provided by the observation that my toothbrush was good enough and by the notion of the adjacent possible, themes I’ve explored in-depth in posts on this blog.

This served as an important reminder that one of the great benefits of blogging is the practice of taking ideas further and deeper, forcing me to mine my understanding of concepts that are influencing my thinking and to take the extra step of relating these ideas to my own work.  I literally don’t know where the ideas would come from if not for the discipline of writing this blog.

So thank you for showing up to read every day.  I couldn’t do it without you.

The one thing I shouldn’t have spent any energy on (though I certainly did): the size of the crowd.  The notion of speaking in front of a full house at New Haven’s Shubert Theater created a mantra of “2,000 people!” that I couldn’t keep from running through my head in the lead-up to my talk.  Of course the reality is that whether it’s 50 people or 2,000, it’s still my job to stand up there and share what I’m going to share, tell the stories I’m going to tell  – the size of the audience makes no difference whatsoever. (In fact, with the lighting I could barely see past the third row, so it’s as if the audience wasn’t even there in the first place.)

Just a lesson in how the mind tricks us into focusing attention on all the wrong stuff sometimes, especially when something is brand new and when fear seems like an appropriate response.

It never is.

Excited for 2012

Happy New Year.  I’m looking forward to 2012.  2011 was many things – exciting, turbulent, at times overwhelming – and I feel like we all need a little dust-settling as we roll up our sleeves and head into this new year.  It feels like it’s going to be a good one, even with all the uncertainty spinning around us.

I took a week off at the end of the year and the short break from regular blogging was a chance to think about why people read blogs and, as a corollary, how we blog.

There are a bunch of basic reasons people are reading your blog: to stay up to speed on their industry (or an industry they’d like to be part of); to find interesting content that they otherwise wouldn’t stumble across; to be entertained, to get useful tips of one sort or another.

But I think most folks want more than that, and if they don’t get it you’re going to lose them over time.  They want to hear your voice, hear what you have to say that only you can say.  Hear something that they wouldn’t hear anywhere else – something that inspires them, challenges them, pushes their thinking.  Something that sharpens their focus, or even changes their prism altogether.

Not a how-to book, a call to arms.

The thing is, I don’t know how to be inspiring every day, and you probably don’t either – even the notion of trying to do that seems like a fabulous way to create writers block (bloggers block?). But I do know how to show up every day, to say something that I think is relevant and about which I have a unique perspective.

And every so often, when everything goes right, something exceptional comes out.  I don’t know how or when and I’m not even sure I’ll always agree with my readers about what is or isn’t exceptional.  But I do know that the only way it can happen is if I keep on showing up – knowing that some days I connect, some days I miss, and once in a while something great happens.

So here’s to another year of swinging for the fences.  Thanks for taking this ride with me, and I wish you and yours a great 2012.

Your Blook

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of “things I wish stuff I use could do….”

Yesterday a friend turned me on to David Hieatt’s Do One Thing Well blog.  So I read a post, I like it, and I add David’s blog to my Google reader.

The problem is that I’m jumping in mid-stream.  David’s been writing great stuff for a long time.  He’s written a book’s worth of stuff (at least).  If I had the option, I’d like to download this blook (blog + book = blook) into an e-reader and use my reading time to curl up with David’s blog instead of my next book.

Of course this functionality exists today, kinda sorta.  I can have Google reader fetch all the posts David has ever written and I can read them from back to front, or I can use Reeder or some other iPad RSS app to see everything in a book-like fashion.  But that’s not what I’m looking for.

I want a button on every blog that downloads the full blog (or as much as the blog author wants, or I want) directly to my e-reader.  I want this button to be as simple and as standard as the RSS feed link.  And, in a perfect world, on the e-Reader side I’d like to be able to to create and rearrange virtual chapters by keyword (maybe that happens only once when I do the download, for simplicity).

David’s already written a blook.  I just wish it were easier for me to read it.

5 tough questions

Today is the second annual NextGen:Charity conference.  To commemorate the conference, Ari Teman, co-founder of the conference along with Jonah Halper, asked me to respond to five questions about innovation in the developing world, leadership, faith, blogging, and failure.  Here’s the interview (the link to yesterday’s Huffington Post article is here).

1. There’s a lot of talk about sharing our innovations with the 3rd world — let’s flip that around. What are some of the lessons the “developed world” can learn from the innovators you support (who have to operate on pennies a day)?

Extreme frugality, a relentless focus on customers, the ability to navigate complexity and take nothing for granted. In 2003, Acumen Fund connected with the visionary entrepreneur Amitabha Sadangi who realized that he could reverse-engineer drip irrigation systems originally developed in Israel and make them infinitely scalable and radically affordable to poor customers in India. Amitabha knew that poor farmers would need to see an extreme value proposition – the ability to test the system on 1/8th acre plots and to see payback in less than a year – and that even so the road would be long and hard to change farming practices. Eight years later, Global Easy Water Products has served more than 300,000 farmers, and Amitabha has a lot to teach entrepreneurs globally about creating the minimal viable product to meet the needs of customers for whom value per dollar is paramount and the willingness to take risk is limited. He’s also about the most persistent man you’ll ever meet.

2. The Acumen Fund has a prestigious Fellowship Program where you develop young talent and you also work with some amazing visionaries — what do you see as the key traits of a successful leader?

We expect the Acumen Fund Fellows to possess a unique combination of traits – operational excellence, financial acumen, and what we call moral imagination, the ability to see yourself in another, to walk a mile in her shoes. Each year we select 10 Fellows from a global pool of 700 applicants from 60 countries, and the Fellows are an amazing group from all walks of life. We’ve had people like Jocelyn Wyatt, who has created to bring design thinking and user-centered design to address problems of poverty; Jawad Aslam, who is now pioneering low-income housing for the poor in Pakistan through his company, AMC; or Suraj Sudhakar who, in addition to his day job, has thrown 40 TEDx’s across the slums of Nairobi. In addition to the incredible combination of skills these Fellows bring to the table, what differentiates them is a deep and abiding commitment to seeing the poor not as passive recipients of charity but individuals with hopes, aspiration, and dignity.

3. On your blog you frequently muse on various faiths’ approaches to giving. How does faith inform your leadership and charity work?

When I started blogging I thought I was going to write about philanthropy and social enterprise, but as I continued my exploration I kept on getting to more fundamental questions of service and giving. While I’m a huge believer in the need for innovation to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, there’s also a deep wisdom that all of the faiths have to offer – we just need to be willing to open up our ears and hearts to what they have to teach. Sometimes I worry that we might get too smart in how we approach solving problems and lose our rooting in this centuries-old wisdom. The notion that giving is part of the circle of life is central to all religions and cultures – it connects us to one another, strengthens community, and is an acknowledgment that if we are in a position to give, then we have ourselves been given a great gift.

4. You mentioned you blogged publicly about your Generosity Experiment to encourage yourself to follow-through. How else do you keep yourself motivated?

It’s incredibly easy to stay motivated when you feel like you’re making a difference – it’s when you’re trying to make a difference and failing that your energy drains away. I think we all crave a better world and the moment you get a taste of helping create that, you can never let it go. I sometimes joke that I never knew what I was getting in to when I started blogging, and it’s just as well – it helps to be a little naïve because if you’re not you’ll never jump in. Whether through the crazy, unexpected success of Generosity Day 2011 or when I watch one of the Acumen Fund investees reach its millionth customer served with a product that really improves people’s lives, I know I’m doing the right thing and that I need to keep working harder and smarter.

5. And the question we ask everyone: What’s your most spectacular failure?

Some of the big failures come from fear – like times when I didn’t have the courage to look someone in the eye and ask them to make a big funding commitment for fear they would say no. Really, though, I’m not sure how I feel about putting “spectacular” and “failure” together. The big, real big failures often aren’t the go-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory variety, they are when you wrong someone, disrespect someone, make someone feel small rather than raise them up – and just as often these are sins of omission rather than commission. Those are the ones that sting.

I promise if you blog daily you are going to fail often.  You have to decide in advance that you’re ready to fail – if anything it’s the commitment to being open to failure that frees you to ship, to push your ideas to the edge, to dream big. And that all sounds great but that doesn’t mean you won’t write posts that don’t hit the mark, because you will.

This idea that failure is rare is what really holds us back. We are perfect so rarely, and if we stick to our guns the rest of the time, we will learn so much less and share so much less than we have to offer.