Cut away what you do not need to do

Michelangelo would see a block of marble and say that all he had to do was cut away what was not needed to release the statue within.

Reaching your goals is just as much about what you DON’T do as what you do.  You can convince yourself that you need to….check your personal email every 30 minutes; log onto the newspaper to scan headlines; watch an hour of TV every night to unwind.

The thing is, you don’t.  And if you cut out all the little things that you’d convinced yourself you need to do, you’ll discover a lot more time to do the things you have to or want to do.

Here’s a clue: if you have a gap in the day, what do you do?  Do you reflexively open up a browser, scan your email?  Instead of that, why not tackle the list of things YOU (not someone else who emailed you) have decided is a priority?

Until I started blogging, I never would have imagined I had time to blog.  Now I do.  Something had to give to make that possible.

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Smile in the face of Madoff

It’s really struck me in a new way this week how serious this financial crisis is. Maybe it’s just the other shoe dropping on this new reality; or maybe it’s because, on top of everything , the former chairman of the NASDAQ, Bernard Madoff,  is accused of $50B out-and-out fraud in a Ponzi scheme of epic proportions. Despicable.

Where do we go from here? How about to some words of wisdom to start the weekend from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics:

The Virtues we get by first performing single acts of working…men come to be builders, for instance, by building; harp-players, by playing on the harp: exactly so, by doing just actions we come to be just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave.

Translation: we become virtuous by acting with virtue; kind by acting with kindness; generous through acts of generosity.  Not the other way around.

Or, to take another turn at the same thought, from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own hear and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Right now the world needs a whole lot of improving, and things will likely get worse before they get better.  So the question is: what can you put out into the world to get us there a little more quickly?

How about some extra kindness, virtue, and generosity?

Really, now is a great time to surprise people you love and people you don’t even know with small acts of kindness.  People all over are hurting, and they’ll really appreciate it.

And you will heal yourself in the process.

What’s the tag cloud for your life?

What I love about the tag cloud for this blog (on the right) is that it really reflects what this blog is about – and, as a result, serves as a visual summary of what I’ve found interesting and blog-worthy.

The big words in my site-tag-cloud1tag cloud are “storytelling,” “communications,” “philanthropy,” and “raising capital” but there’s also space for “4 in the morning,” “empathy,” “listening,” and “Moth Smoke.”  That sounds about right – a few focus areas for the blog, and the prerogative to jump around to other topics I find interesting.

So here’s the question: what would the tag cloud for your life look like?

What are the big words and what are the little ones?

What’s on the list that you’d like to see grow or shrink?

What’s missing that you’d like to see?

What I like about this idea is that it gives space for all of the different hats we wear throughout the day, and allows us to think about how we spend our time and what shifts we might make in our lives.

The nice thing is, something doesn’t have to be big to be on the list.  So you don’t have to have “exercise” or “tango dancing” or “speaking up for myself” be big to have them be part of your life.  You just need to start somewhere.

And once you get started, you might be surprised to see what grows and what fades away.

(By the way, you could take this post literally if you like: go into Microsoft Word, brainstorm a list of words that describe how you spend your day, then play with the fonts to figure out what’s big and what’s small in your life.  Voila, a tag cloud for your life.  Redo this every 6 months and revisit the old ones to see if you’re heading where you want to go.

Or, more publicly, you could create a blog that JUST has tags for each daily post.  Instant tag cloud.  And you don’t even have to write real posts if you don’t want to – just a chance to figure out how you’re spending your time.)

How much is too much?

I was just thumbing through a catalogue on my kitchen table, one

$198 cashmere sweater from Best & Co.
$198 cashmere sweater from Best & Co.

which offered the opportunity to buy $98 corduroys and $198 cashmere sweaters for my 4-year old.

Outside of the proof that marketers don’t yet know everything about us — the catalogue definitely arrived in the wrong house — it got me thinking: how much is “too much” when it comes to consumption?   As a friend of mine once described about religiosity, it’s common to think that everyone less religious than you has no values or spirituality, and everyone more religious is some sort of kook.  Which may be why I let myself off the hook for buying at Whole Foods or for the occasional tin of Stonewall Kitchen Pancake Mix (yum!) as an occasional luxury, but decide that $100+ for kids cords is borderline offensive.

I’m not arguing for a society without luxury — in fact, luxury goods played an important role in consumption over the past decade and in some ways drove the U.S. economy (let alone being things of beauty).  I’m more curious about how any society tramits a system of values that determine what to consume, what to save, and what to give away.  Religion is probably a good starting point, inasmuch as it emphasizes community, piety, charity, and giving.  Leading by example is likely another, which is why Bill Gates and Warren Buffett should be praised both for giving AND for showing the world what is expected of people with great wealth.

This question will only become more important as more wealth is created in the Middle East, India, China, and other emerging nations.  Is there anything that can be done that can strengthen and reinforce the impetus to give and support those in needs?  And how big a role should breakthrough non-profits play in setting an example of what can be done with philanthropic dollars?

Even Fiji Water can be green?

On my commute to work, while I was digging up information for my previous post on the oil we’re burning to make bottled water, I saw this ad for Fiji water, the #2 selling premium water in the U.S. Fiji seems to be the poster child for ridiculous when it comes to bottled water and the environment. The plastic bottles are made in China, the water comes from Fiji, and I get to buy one at Balducci’s in Manhattan for $2 a bottle.

According to Pablo Päster at Triple Pundit, it takes 7 times the amount of water in the Fiji water bottle to bring you the bottle, along with .9 liters of petroleum. Yet Fiji’s advertising is asking you to go to to learn how environmentally conscious they are. Hmmm.

(If you’re interested in hearing Fiji’s side of the story, here’s an interview in U.S. news & World Report with Fiji’s Thomas Mooney, Sr Vice President for Sustainable Growth. His arguments about water replacing soda and their positive impact on the Fijian economy are both interesting, but a little beside the point on the environmental questions).

When I switched from the train to the subway, I found myself face-to-face with an Allstate ad that boasted about an Allstate employee who volunteers in schools. It just so happens that I’m an Allstate customer in the midst of filing a claim for a small flood in my kitchen, and what I care about is how and whether they will pay my claim; the fact that I have to dial “1” four times and then dial an extension to speak to a human being; and the fact that the person who cheerfully sold me my claim and wants to keep me as a customer has no formal role in deciding how I’m being treated. The point is that the Allstate employees’ volunteerism is irrelevant to me as a customer, and presumably irrelevant to someone choosing an insurance provider.

Yet this kind of “greenwashing” and publicizing a company’s good deeds is amazingly prevalent. I used to work in corporate citizenship at two Fortune 100 companies and got to interact with lots of other companies, and my experience is that some progress is being made but that the messaging is really getting ahead of changes in practices.

What amazes me most is that someone at Allstate (or Fiji) convinced someone to run these ads (I’m sure it had something to do with ‘brand attributes’). I guess any story will capture the imagination of a few customers, but when the story you’re telling is either opposed to (Fiji) or unrelated to (Allstate) what you do, it’s hard to imagine that this story is going to have much of an impact on anybody.

What do you practice?

Finally over my cold, I did sleep past 4 in the morning last night, helped by a late night out the night before. But I’m in the habit of waking up at 6:20am, usually 7 days a week, thanks to my kids, early risers that they are. (I do miss the occasional chance to sleep until noon).

Habits are interesting things. The New York Times recently ran an article about Dr. Val Curtis, an anthropologist living in Burkina Faso who is currently the director of the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Dr. Curtis has enlisted the help of the some of the world’s leading consumer product companies in an effort to double the rate of hand-washing in Ghana. If this can be achieved, it could significantly decrease transmission rates of diarrhea and other fatal disease caused by poor hygiene. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the same companies that have taught us to need blister packs of gum, branded detergent, and Swiffers could apply these same techniques to teach people habits that save lives? And where do we draw the line if, along the way, this results in pushing a particular brand of hand soap, maybe one that costs a little more than another option?

A lot of how we go through our days is about habits. By repeating certain actions — drinking a morning coffee, brushing our teeth, smoking cigarettes, or checking a Blackberry — we condition ourselves to do and expect certain things. I think this is why making real personal change can be so difficult.

On the other hand, think about the power of simply practicing a new behavior. What if you wanted to get better at being kinder or listening more? Why not start by practicing, by the simple act of repetition? Start small. Say ‘good morning’ to the person you see in the lobby every morning where you work. Spend two weeks turning off the TV at 9pm. Make a point of looking people in the eye when they talk to you.

We are the way we go through the world. What behaviors are you practicing?