The Invisible Crown

Not long ago, I had the chance to speak to a friend who is facing a major health challenge in their nuclear family.

The bravery that they are showing is astonishing, a reminder that courage isn’t a thing anyone would choose; it is simply what required in the face of unspeakable challenges.

As we chatted, this friend shared some hard-earned wisdom: “Getting older really sucks, but it’s also a million times better than the alternative.”

When I was in my 20s, my cousin, who is very religious, would remind me that most of us walk through the world wearing an invisible crown: it is the crown of good health and good fortune, and most days we fail to see it.

We forget it is there, forget how beautiful it is, forget how lucky we are to have it on.

Until it’s gone.

Of course, our normal, day-to-day challenges are very real. Life throws us all sorts of curveballs, and it’s natural to ride ups and downs of the emotional roller coaster.

But we can also build in some moments in every day to consciously appreciate all the good things—to see our own crowns.

Doing this regularly—having a practice of gratitude and appreciation—is one of the best ways to stay grounded, happy, and healthy.

The Flip from Gratitude to Taking it for Granted

Amazing, isn’t it, how when we pine for something, we feel a sense of longing and need so deeply.

Feeling the absence of some thing, we imagine what it would be like to have it. We picture all that we would do, and how grateful we would feel, if it came to pass…please!

And then it does.

How long does it take us to flip the switch? Once our mini-prayers are answered, how much time passes before we move on to the next thing? How long before we start taking that desperately-important-thing for granted?

Most of the time we move on too fast, falling into the trap of quickly switching off our gratitude.

Imagine if we stopped—really stopped—to notice.

We would be constantly overwhelmed with gratitude, not just for the new things that we discover are missing for us today, but for the wonder of this next breath, for the chance to see a sky this particular shade of blue, for the sight of a loved one’s smile and bright eyes.

Gratitude is one of our most important, foundational practices.

A simple, powerful meditation you can try is to sit, breathe and contemplate the things for which you feel grateful. Imagine and visualize your heart opening, and it does.

If don’t have a meditation practice, have no fear. Gratitude is there for you at any moment.

All you need to do is stop a bit more often to notice things around you, and then allow yourself to direct your conscious attention to your feelings of gratitude before they slip away.

We certainly don’t need big things to feel grateful.

But when even the big things we so desperately want don’t sustain our sense of gratitude, it’s time to pause, notice and reset.

Hey Trump, we are all immigrants

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!

So read the timeless words of poet Emma Lazarus, immortalized in a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

But in 1880, six years before the Statue of Liberty was completed, the US enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act which officially banned Chinese from entering the U.S. The Act was not repealed until 1943.

I guess 2015 is the new 1880.

Acknowledging the latest vitriol from Donald Trump feels like shining a spotlight on a circus barker. For a while—I hate to admit it—I indulged in thinking of Trump as an entertaining and harmless sideshow. Not any more.

Trump’s latest call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is an abomination and an insult, not just to Muslims but to all of us, to our country, and to  what it stands for. While it’s encouraging that Trump’s nonsense has been disavowed by nearly all major public figures, including most of the Republican Presidential candidates, Trump’s poll numbers remain firm as his supporters jeer more loudly, fanning the flames of ignorance and hatred.

In interviews, Trump’s supporters say “they” a lot, as in “they, Muslims, present a threat.” I wonder when Americans forgot that each and every one of us was, not so long ago, a “they.”

I was a “they” in 1947.

On Thanksgiving Day 1947, my grandparents arrived in San Francisco from China, having fled the Nazis in the early 1940s. They and more than 100,000 Jewish refugees entered the United States thanks to changes in immigration policy under President Harry Truman. In December 1945 the Truman Directive gave U.S. Visa preference to displaced persons.

This was a big change. Throughout World War II, the United States had refused to open its borders to Jewish refugees, turning its back on one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Fear and xenophobia reigned at home while soldiers fought for freedom and democracy abroad: Japanese were put in internment camps, and the rights of Germans and Italians were severely curtailed.

Lejb and Chaja Dichter (who later became Leon and Lucy Dichter), my grandparents, were two of these refugees. They arrived in San Francisco on a boat from Shanghai after six years of running for their lives: from Poland, to Lithuania, to Japan, and finally to Shanghai. They arrived with their two year old son, my father Misha, in tow, having buried their first child in the Shanghai ghetto. They quickly built a life for themselves in this country.

At my desk, I have a printout of a document that records my grandparents’ arrival as refugees in Kobe, Japan in 1941. It reminds me that life is tenuous. It reminds me that I am here thanks to the risks that people I will never meet were willing to take to shelter and protect my grandparents as they fled the Nazis.

Leon and Lucy_passenger manifest

It is in no small part because of those people that I do the work that I do: because when I see my own children’s bright and smiling faces, when I see what a light they are in the world, I am thankful. And I hope that I can do my own small part to save even just two more lives, to pay forward the infinite kindnesses that were done for my family just 70 years ago.

Mine is one of hundreds of millions of immigrant stories that end happily in the United States.

There is no separating immigrants from the United States. There is no “we” that exists separate from the “they” who have just arrived.

We are all immigrants. It is who we are. It is what makes this country great.


Leon and Lucy

The easiest thing to do

The easiest way to make some understand how valuable they are and the difference they make is by praising them.

Not empty words, not loose compliments. Actual, specific, context-relevant praise that they will value.

Ah, “that they will value.” Indeed.

To do this we must go back a few steps, to figure out not only the work they do and where they shine, but also how they see themselves and the sort of reinforcement that is important to them.

This requires recognition, from the outset, that what’s important to each person differs in fundamental ways. It means being both attentive and curious, and being consistently outside of your own head and its internal chatter. And it means always being on the lookout for moments when people shine, and being quick to reinforce the great things that they do.

So, yes, that moment of giving the praise is a simple one. But there’s a discipline and a practice of all the steps leading up to that moment.


Anatomy of a thank you note

We are all emailing and messaging each other a zillion times a day, yet people seem to be writing fewer thank you notes than ever.  In a professional setting, there’s no good reason not to write a short, substantive email* thank you note within 24 hours of an important meeting.

I suspect that people don’t send these for two reasons:

  1. Lack of discipline in choosing to write the note every time; and
  2. Lack of confidence than one can write a note that will productively add to the relationship.

On the discipline point, well, that’s up to you.  But I’d suggest that not writing the note is akin to skipping an at-bat in a baseball game, intentionally double faulting once in a tight tennis match, or taking one fewer penalty shots at the end of a tied soccer game.

On the content of the note, writing a great note is an art, and like all art it takes years of work and lots of practice to master your craft.  But writing a good note is not hard.  A good note goes something like:

Dear Samantha,

Thank you for meeting with me.  I left our meeting feeling [ADVERB] because [SOMETHING POSITIVE THAT HAPPENED IN THE MEETING.]  In fact, our discussion of [SPECIFIC THING WE DISCUSSED] really made me think about [SUBSTANTIVE NEW THOUGHT OR REFLECTION YOU’VE HAD SINCE THE MEETING.]  As a result, I really hope that we can [DESCRIPTION OF WHAT THE FUTURE MIGHT HOLD IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS RELATIONSHIPS.]


Thank you again for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.



On the one hand, this looks like a MAD LIBs, paint-by-numbers undertaking.  But of course it isn’t because first you have to distill:

  • The emotional content of the meeting
  • One specific highlight that is meaningful to both participants
  • How the meeting affected your thinking
  • What you are hoping to build together
  • Agreed-upon next steps
  • What you will do to contribute to the relationship, with no expectation of specific return

The heavy lift is this level of reflection.  It’s the work that illustrates that you want to build something beyond a simple transaction.  Reflecting in this way gives you and your counterpart a glimpse of what you could build together and, in doing so, you go way beyond gratitude.

The note itself, though, is short and sweet, and there’s no excuse for not writing it.  Indeed, the faster you build towards fifty pounds of clay here the better.




* I have recently come off the fence on my internal debate email versus handwritten notes.  For personal invitations (dinner parties, gifts, etc.) handwritten is still the way to go, but in a professional setting, time passes too fast these days to wait three or four days for a handwritten note to be delivered.

One moment

There’s a chance, in each passing interaction with someone, to say “thank you.”

Not a “thank you for this thing you’ve just done” (gotten me a coffee, given me my ticket to board this flight) said automatically.  Rather, a chance to look someone squarely in the eye and acknowledge in a deeper way that you see that person, that they see you, and that we have a shared humanity in this crazy world we live in.

“Thank you.”


As I sprinted into the subway car, I noticed a woman on the platform stop, reach down, and pick a smartphone up from the ground.  She started waving it, saying loudly, “Someone dropped this phone!”

Just as the subway doors were about to close, she leaned in and handed the phone to a passenger standing next to me.  A third guy says, “I think it belongs to him,” gesturing to a man in a blue overcoat who was walking through a door to the next car.  A few gestures, a few shouts, and we get this guy’s attention.  The man standing next to me hands him his phone.

“Thanks,” he says, with a nod, and then turns away, nonplussed, as if dropping his phone on the platform and having it pass through three sets of hands while he walks away, oblivious, is just a normal occurrence.  As if people instantly dropping everything to help him isn’t worth more than a little acknowledgment.

And it occurred to me: it’s not that we don’t get touched by angels from time to time.  It’s just that we fail to notice.


I got power back in my home yesterday.  We lost power 10 days ago due to hurricane Sandy.  Ten days.

There was a practical element to my not blogging during this time – not just no wifi access in the evenings to upload posts, but each step and turn of my life just took that much more time, effort and energy without basic infrastructure in place.

10 days without power was starting to take a toll on me and on my whole family.  What was a bit fun, a bit silly, a bit romantic became a plodding reality without a clear end in sight.  And suddenly our days required so much more effort, time, energy just to keep everything moving forward.

We are lucky.  We had a comfortable place to go while my home had no power and temperatures dropped to freezing.  My three kids had a warm place to sleep and safe water to drink.  Lines were long but we were able to get gas for our car so the kids could get to school.  But even so it was that much more work just to go about living our lives.

The core work of Acumen, where I work, is to support companies that provide basic goods and services – healthcare, water, housing, sanitation, education, and, yes, energy – to the half of the world’s population that hasn’t yet benefited from the global wealth creation and economic transformation that started in the 1850s.

The crazy thing to me is the idea that this work would be anything but mainstream.  As a society and a world we have the capacity and the wealth and the know-how to build the underlying infrastructure that unleashes limitless human potential, energy, creativity.  Think of all the people out there not blogging, not sharing, not contributing as they could to the world because every last ounce of energy must go into just getting by.

For just a week, New York and the whole eastern seaboard got to experience how every aspect of our lives are enabled by this infrastructure.  We got to ask ourselves how resilient we would be if we lost this cushion.  A spotlight was shone on all of the invisible things that make our lives possible.

Maybe, just maybe, this experience will help us to understand a bit more all the gifts that we have been given.  Maybe it will help us recognize the mad lottery that we have won that allows us to take these things for granted.  Maybe, once the dust has settled, once we’re warm and safe and dry but before we have fully gotten back into the rhythm of our days, it will push us to create more space for service in our lives.

So and so, such and such

This is how it usually goes.

The pitch:

Dear So and So,

I’ve been working incredibly hard on _____ and I think we are at the cusp of a breakthrough.  My new venture is going to __________ and __________ and _______ in way that would transform ________ and enable ________ in a spectacular fashion.  It would mean so much to me if you would ________ and ___________ and ________, and also, if you could, please could you introduce me to ________ and _______ as well.


The reply:

Dear Such and Such,

Great to hear from you. Exciting work that you’re doing.  I think I can help with _________ and _________.  And you might consider reading _______, going to _______, talking to ______.


The thanks:

So and so, thanks a lot.  Will do.

–          Such and such.

Which is to say, we throw our whole mind, body and soul into the big pitch, into getting attention, into demanding what WE want, and then we throw it all away without expressing thanks and appreciation with the same amount of energy.  It’s not even 80/20 most of the time, it’s 90/10 or worse.

This isn’t just about crazy cold calls/emails out of the blue.  Time and time again, we under-invest in thanks and appreciation, forgetting that this relationship business isn’t a one-shot deal.  Not even close.

We have to be tough on ourselves and really ask whether we’re putting our needs ahead of our customers’ needs.  It’s so easy to do, and it is such a fatal mistake.

Moms matter

Happy (almost) Mothers Day!  (If you haven’t got your plans in place to celebrate Mom, you’d better get moving.  And sharing this video with your mom will be a great way to start.)

Search for the Obvious, a microsite run by Acumen (where I work) has just announced the winner of its latest challenge: Moms MatterThis is the winning video, and I challenge you to watch without shedding a tear and without instantly forwarding it on to mom.

The great news is that it’s going be featured on the YouTube homepage for Mother’s Day, so it’s pretty much guaranteed to be seen a million times.  (All the more reason to watch it now, first.  If it’s not showing up in your RSS reader click here.)

The Moms Matter challenge had winners in five categories:

–          Best Video: A World Without Moms

–          Best Tweets: #1, #2, and #3

–          Best Print Ad: Mothers Shape Identity

–          Best Essay: Putting Ourselves in the Problem: Thoughts from Ghana

–          Best Guerrilla Marketing Idea: Strollers

I’m awed by the quality of work this community produces, humbled by the grace and skill with which James Wu curates Search for the Obvious, and also thankful for my own mom and all the moms out there who make life make sense for all of us.

To quote the winning Tweet by @JasonBurke524: More than 1,000 mothers each day give their life while giving life.  8/10 deaths could be easily prevented. Pls RT!