The quantum mechanics of intentions (Part 2)

I’ve been thinking more about my post from last week, trying to figure out why I found myself questioning the value of good intentions. As my friend Greta rightly pointed out on Twitter,

“I believe that our intentions, objectives, or ‘passionate purposes’ make all the difference, Sasha. They guide us internally and have a lasting effect on all those with whom we connect.”

That’s right.

So how to resolve the tension between good intentions that mean little to the person whose life isn’t any better, and knowing in our gut that that if we are serious about making the world a better place then we must take our intentions seriously?

Where I’ve landed up is:

Intentions, if you just take a snapshot, might not matter much.

At a moment in time, the fidelity of that intention, from its genesis in the person deploying capital to the lived experience of the person served by that organization, is not necessarily that high. Intention can get lost in an impact investment just like it can get lost in a game of telephone, an ad campaign or, dare I say, a blog post.

However intention is powerful, maybe even unstoppable, when observed through the lens of time.

True intentions, strong intentions, deeply-held intentions cause those holding them to focus deeply on an outcome.

That focus results in curiosity.

That curiosity results in inquiry.

That inquiry results in examination of what’s really happening all the way down the line.

That examination leads to dissatisfaction if results are not being delivered. It leads to a rise in expectations and a drive to find better answers.

When it comes to creating social impact, that intention may in fact be the only thing that leads to an improvement cycle – because external forces driving to better results are weak (poor feedback loops in terms of the data that typically comes back; huge power imbalance between those providing capital and those, hopefully, benefiting from it).

Intention, then, is the engine of our own cycle of improvement. As builders of new solutions, new companies, new NGOs, new investment funds that are trying to push the frontiers of social change, of business, of markets, of inclusive economies, our intentions are what push us to be dissatisfied with “better than before.” They fuel us through the dips and the bumps and help us turn around when we hit dead ends. Our intentions, held by us and shared by those around us, give us the strength to keep on building.

The quantum mechanics of intentions

Think about a Spotify playlist for a minute (or whatever music service you use).

Today it’s easy for a computer to put together a list of songs on a common theme or genre, and it’s just as easy to have that same computer create a playlist that weaves together a few different themes. Once you’ve got that – voila – you have a playlist that’s indistinguishable from one made for you by a friend.

What I can’t help but wonder is: what, specifically, is the difference between the two playlists – the one made by a machine and the one made with thought, care and intention? What role does the intention play when I listen to the music?

Is that intention real? Is it tangible? Does it have a weight and a meaning? Or is my experience listening to the music, potentially insulated from that intention, all that matters?

Of course, hard-to-experience intentions are everywhere, not just in playlists but in works of art, say, or even hidden within the work of an impact investor.

I bring this up because, lately, as impact investing veers towards the mainstream, it’s become common for some investors to wake up and say, “look at the impact my investments created! I’m an impact investor and I didn’t even know it!” And then it’s just as common for those whose cup runneth over with intention to say, “Not so fast…without intention you cannot be an impact investor.”

Who is right?

To be clear, intention alone is not enough. It needs to be coupled with material, measurable impact to mean something.

But, taking a half a step back, are we able to articulate why, exactly, intention matters?

The end customer of an intervention is likely to be oblivious to the intention (of the investor) that led to that experience. Doesn’t she simply experience – like the person listening to the next next song on a playlist – what she experiences? And if she doesn’t care about intention, why do we?

Here are some thoughts, meant to open not to close a conversation.

Intention might matter because you could learn about it later. When I discover from my friend why she put two songs together, or when I hear the story of a particular song’s meaning to her, that discovery creates meaning and connection between us. But this one falls apart in the absence of a real relationship between the two parties involved, so I don’t think it’s useful for the broader conversation.

Intention might matter because it influences current and future behavior. To argue this, you’d be saying that the fact that, in this case, the customer doesn’t experience intention doesn’t matter. What matters is that the person deploying capital (or running an NGO or a social enterprise) has a purpose guiding her actions. We believe that having purpose oriented towards positive change is likely, in the medium- and long-term, to result in more decisions and actions that create positive change (and less harm) than being agnostic or skeptical of making positive change. Similarly, the existence of this purpose could influence how durable the experienced impact is: if the going gets tough (profits down), we believe the person with intent will stick it out longer.

Intention might matter because it influences others. A person with intent inspires others to have a similar intent. A person with intent might cause those lacking intent to question why they don’t have it. It might also rally others to the cause.

Intention might matter in and of itself, in a way that is neither instrumental nor quantifiable. It just exists out there in the world in ways that are positive and worthwhile. Juju is a good thing, the light in me touches the light in you.

I find it surprising that I struggle to make a longer list, and hope that you have more to add (here, on social media, in an email to me, wherever).

The conclusion I’ve come to for now is that I’d always prefer that someone have intent than not. But at the same time I won’t go so far as to say that intent is a necessary ingredient to creating massive positive social change.

What do you think? Does intent matter? Where, why and how much? It is the roots of the tree, or one of many ingredients in a big stew: seemingly important, but not necessarily required?

Atoms Shoes – Cloud Walking

My most astute, long-time readers will recall that I’ve shared in the past the amazing story of Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, the Pakistani co-founders of Markhor (originally Hometown) and now co-founders of Atoms. Waqas and Sidra are living the long, hard road to overnight success.

They’ve already pulled off a number of firsts: the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever run out of Pakistan, the first social enterprise to get into Y-Combinator.

And now, after having put on my first pair of Atoms, I think they just might have created a whole new category of shoes.

To be clear, I don’t have a particularly well-developed shoe or fashion vocabulary, nor am I young or hip enough to do a proper unboxing, so you’ll have to cut me a little slack here.

The short version of the story is: I put the Atoms on this morning, and I don’t want to take them off. Not tonight, not tomorrow. I just want to keep wearing them because they feel so darn good. And I’m already getting compliments on them.

They are a wild combination of just firm enough to feel like real shoes, just flexible enough to give me feel of the ground, and they have what I can only describe as a “squishy” feel under my feet that makes me feel like I’m being pampered. I have wide feet and most shoes are uncomfortable, but these are luxurious. I also love the mesh top, the same that my beloved, travel-essential and worn-down Nike Free 4.0 Flyknits have.

And, as an unexpected bonus, the shoes come in quarter sizes. Plus, when you buy them, you can mix and match each individual shoe to get a perfect fit–they send you multiple pairs and you keep the two (one left, one right) that fit best. If you’re one of the many people whose feet aren’t the same size, or if you’re fit-challenged for any other reason, this makes a big difference. Plus, since Allbirds only come in whole sizes, this could convert a lot of people.

And don’t take my word for it, here’s what TechCrunch has to say:

Step aside, Allbirds. Atoms come in quarter-sizes you can mix-and-match. Emerging from stealth today in a TechCrunch exclusive, this shoe startup’s obsession with satisfaction allowed it to replace my Nikes. I’ve spent the last two months wearing Atoms every day. They’re the first sneaker classy-looking enough for semi-formal occasions, but that I can comfortably walk or even hike in for hours.

I guess this all explains why more than 4,000 people have signed up to be on the Atoms waitlist before the public launch. You might want to sign up too.

Atoms Shoes

Fundraising Parable

A fundraiser asks for advice about how to get more access to the institutions who give money to her sector.

The conversation that ensues is about seeing this work not as a series of transactions, but about building real relationships, about making connection, about building a network that you value and feed, that you give to first rather than ask for things.

This conversation runs long. The fundraiser takes copious notes, nods a lot, seems excited.

And then you never hear from her again.

Generosity Thresholds

It’s understood in manufacturing that to be sure you hit a certain standard, your production quality needs to exceed that standard by the amount of the variability of your process.

This means that for processes with high degrees of variability, you need to be way above the standard, so that even when things get messy you’re still staying above the standard. For illustrative purposes, a typical control chart.

In assembly-line manufacturing, the goal is to exceed the standard and to decrease variability, since quality delivered beyond the spec is wasted resource.

I’ve been thinking about how this thinking applies to us as human beings, given how variable we are by nature. It’s true that part of our own deep work – in terms of groundedness, mindfulness, good habits for sleep, food, relationships and health – is to become less variable despite all the vagaries of day to day life.

At the same time, we are (and I certainly am) still, by our very nature, more variable than any manufacturing process. Variability—in our mood, attitude, hopefulness, tolerance, optimism, to name a few—is what makes us human.

And yet there are standards we must hit in terms of how we show up in the world: a minimum threshold for treating everyone with respect, staying fully present, always seeing the best in those around us, being patient, raising others up, being generous of spirit….

And all of this not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because, for any of these core behaviors, that one time we fail to meet the mark on something so fundamental can, like one bad meal at a restaurant, destroy trust that’s taken years to build.

The only solution I see is to show up with an over-abundance of all the behaviors that matter. We show up with, and practice, excessive respect, presence, patience, raising others up, being generous of spirit and seeing the best of those around us. So that we are sure that, each and every moment of every day, we are above the emotional line.

This extra generosity, kindness, respect, patience, and care are the opposite of the “wasted” resource when we over-deliver on manufacturing quality—indeed they replicate and ripple out in positive ways that are impossible to imagine or quantify.

Plus, living above and beyond in how we show up to others is self-reinforcing. Over time, we  continually and effortlessly keep raising the bar.

The Forever Problem

On the days I’m really sleep deprived everything seems impossible. White space is useless. My patience is low. I overreact.

And if I’m having a week or weeks with something that is physically wrong–an illness or an injury–my “impossible” stories get amplified. Especially in the case of illness, “What if I feel this way forever?” is a crushing thought that can spiral.

And then, if I’m lucky, I get better. Enough sleep or adjustment or medication or healing makes an ailment go away. My new “now” is replenished with possibility.

It’s the most human of reactions to over-attribute to our present “now.” We’re so confused about how time, and it’s passage, works that “now” often feels like forever.

So when we’re dealing with an unresolved problem, when we’re making sense of the “no way” that we thought would be a “sure!”, when a key decision maker is a long way from agreeing with our position, when ten potential investors all turned us down in a row…

…we jump, without noticing, to forever.

“What if this ‘no’ is forever? What if I will always be told ‘no’!?”

You won’t be.

You’ve just been told “no” now.

With some combination of good fortune, new information, different tactics, and the simple passage of time, forever things will shift.

Tomorrow’s now won’t be the same as today’s.

Words are Branches, Thoughts are Roots

My face has always been pretty easy to read. Indeed, my wife occasionally tells me that she doesn’t like how I’ve reacted to something, to which I’ll reply, “but I didn’t even say anything!”

“Ah, but you were thinking it.”

Possibly.

We all have versions of this, the non-verbal cues that we communicate irrespective of what we do or don’t say.

The question then arises: when we discover that we’re not showing up how we’d like to the people around us, when we learn that their experience of our non-verbal, energetic responses to them aren’t what we thought they were, what do we do?

Maybe, we think, we should change the words that we say.

Do we feel timid? We can say something confident.

Are we often quick to contradict? We can stay quiet for longer.

Have we been finding a colleague frustrating? We can complement him.

Do we secretly know that we’re not up to this new stretch assignment? We can talk the talk.

All of that is a start, certainly. In fact, often it works to behave our way into new attitudes, not the other way around.

But we can also fall into a root/branch trap here, and never claw our way out. When this happens, we let ourselves off the hook of digging into the underlying thoughts that are what’s really going on.

Where that fear comes from.

That judgement.

The avoidance of a courageous conversation with that colleague.

The skills you believe you don’t have that you so desperately need.

To create real and lasting change in how others experience us, we must begin by observing, with intent and curiosity, where our root thoughts come from. We must bravely drag them out into daylight and see them for what they are.

Then, slowly, slowly, we start chopping away at the roots of our habitual responses.

Without doing this work, we end up hand-waving in defense of the words we said (or the micro-expression that flashed across our face), instead of acknowledging the work we still have to do on the underlying thoughts racing through our minds.

Speaking of which, we’re turning the page to yet another low point in American politics. It seems like soon we will all be discussing whether the President of the United States said the n-word, and then surely, if he did, watching smokescreen discussions of why “it’s just a word” and how we are all overreacting.

Let’s not forget that the real conversation isn’t about the word, it’s about the thoughts that lead to it.

The real conversation is the unspoken truth of the ugly, hateful, dehumanizing root thoughts that give rise to those words, roots that are indefensible and immoral.

 

New Best Friend

Imagine, if you will, that your best friend talked to you the way you (silently) talk to yourself in your most self-critical moments.

Imagine if she had a tendency to look away from your many gifts, your beauty, all of the things that you do with grace, ease and aplomb.

Imagine if she habitually homed in on each little flaw, whether of mind or body, and devoted most of her attention to that instead.

Imagine if she was as quick as you are to focus on shortcomings; if she were as articulate as you are about why you shouldn’t believe you can do this; if she droned on, for hours and hours (and hours!), while you lay there sleepless, about all the reasons why this next important thing might not work.

I’d hope that, pretty quickly, you’d get a new best friend.

Kaizen Basking

Rowers talk about how, when the whole crew is in sync, the boat somehow lifts a few inches out of the water and magically seems to glide.

That moment is the payoff from the accumulated effort of years of training, focus and discipline, the prerequisites to that moment of synchronicity.

This can happen in our day-to-day as well. We put in analytical, emotional and financial effort to make something work just right, but still it’s not quite there yet.

And then we see something new. It’s something that had been there all along, hidden in plain sight. Then things just click, and something that was almost-there is suddenly there. What a great feeling that is.

Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. It’s based on the principle that we never arrive because we are always on the journey.

We are.

But, thankfully, we sometimes get to experience those moments of discontinuous leaps, where something comes together and we perform at another level.

Don’t forget to bask in those moments before resuming your journey.

Ken Ravizza, Tiny Toilets, and 167 Baseball Bats

Ken Ravizza-Steve Green, Chicago Cubs_NYTimes
Ken Ravizza in the Chicago Cubs dugout. Photo copyright Steve Green/Chicago Cubs via The New York Times.

Ken Ravizza, who brought the practice of sports psychology to professional baseball, recently passed away at the age of 70. Ravizza began this work four decades ago at a time when talk of a “sports psychologist” would cause chuckles in the locker room. Today, thanks to in no small part to Ravizza and others he worked with and influenced, nearly every Major League baseball team has a director of “mental conditioning,” and players are increasingly evaluated on six skills: running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average, hitting for power, and psychological resilience. Ravizza’s last job was as an assistant to Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon in the years the Cubs won the World Series.

What did Ravizza do that was so special?

According to Chad Bohling, the first sports psychologist hired by the Yankees, “Ravizza was skilled at taking generic concepts in psychology and applying them to high-level athletes in a manner in which they could understand.”

Put another way, Ravizza’s gift was not as an inventor of new psychological concepts, nor was he necessarily on the cutting edge of psychology itself. Rather, he was a teacher and a translator, taking the best that field had to offer and bringing it to a new audience to help them perform at a higher level. Ravizza knew how to make simple but profound concepts, like “forget your last mistake” and “stay in the moment,” tangible, sticky, and therefore impactful to the players.

Two Ken Ravizza vignettes:

In 2004, when working with a slumping Cal State Fullerton team, Ravizza gave each player a tiny toilet small enough to fit in their gloves to remind them to flush away anything that was in the past and let it go.

During spring training of 2015, what would become the Cubs’ championship season, he, according to the New York Times, gathered the full team on the field “where he had lined up 162 baseballs, plus about a dozen more, and separated them with seven bats.”

The objects represented the number of games the Cubs would play over the course of the season, including the playoffs, and the bats divided them by months.

The message?

‘How long the season is, yet how individual it is and how each game means something’ said Adam Warren, a Yankees reliever who spent the first half of that season with the Cubs. ‘For an athlete, it’s easy to say ‘forget about that’ or ‘focus on the next pitch’ or ‘one game at a time.’ But if you have something visually that you can see that symbolizes that and resonates, it’s going to stay with you as opposed to something you hear and then forget about two minutes later.’

What a perfect summary of our jobs as creators, authors and sense-makers in our fields (let alone as managers, coaches, and leadership trainers), and a great antidote to the ever-pervasive “I have nothing new to say.”

What Ken Ravizza models is that, to be impactful, we needn’t be in the business of inventing brand new ideas that no one has ever thought of.

Rather, our job is to take our dedication to something we believe is important—for example, the mental game in baseball—and became highly skilled at selecting the most important concepts, ideas and insights that we have access to and to translate them in ways that players (our tribe) can hear them.

I’m reminded of one of my first full-time jobs, working at IBM to partner with U.S. public school districts to support their adoption of new technologies. Every time I and my IBM colleagues showed up to speak to school administrators, one of the first questions we were consistently asked was, “are any of you educators?” Why?  Because they wanted to know, “are you one of us?” Or, more specifically, “are you close enough to being one of us that I should believe that you understand our context, and believe your application of these ideas to our reality?” Because if not, then I’m going to tune you out.

With this lens, we see what are two most important jobs are as creators, neither of which is “creating absolutely brand new things.” Instead, we must:

Become “one of us” to the tribes to whom we are speaking, a practice of self-authorization that grows out of the way we show up, how consistently we show up, and the clarity and generosity with which we share our articulation of the ideas we believe need to be translated to this audience. Most important is, like Ravizza, speaking in a language this tribe can hear—the first indicator of whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’—and using a form of communication that is meaningful to them.

Effectively tell stories, like the one with the 162 baseballs and the 7 bats, in a way that can be heard and remembered. This is what allows lessons to penetrate the psyche of those to whom we are speaking. We can choose to use physical objects—tiny toilets, baseballs and bats—or vivid, concrete stories. But no matter what the medium, our job is to speak in ways that engage, in ways that are easily remembered and repeated, so that our audience can tell themselves and others those stories again and again, long after we are gone. Our job is to leave behind, in the form of these memorable stories, tiny mementos of our message.

This view is a chance to free ourselves from the terror of the blank page—whether a page we are trying to fill with a blog post, an article, a video draft, a speech, or our story garden for a training session—by reminding ourselves that the question we have been asked to answer is not “how do I say something that no one could find if they Googled these ideas after the fact,” but rather, “what, of all that I have been exposed to, are the most important ideas, concepts and frameworks that I can understand, process and translate to generously support the people to whom I am speaking.”

New ideas are a dime a dozen.

Ideas that land in a way that people can hear, remember, digest, practice, and internalize…those ones are priceless.