One Person

I remind myself that if this post can create a change for just one person, then it’s a good post and a good day.

One person, not hundreds or thousands or millions.

An individual who experiences a small shift and does something different because of it. Someone, somewhere, who takes words and ideas and turns them into positive action.

That shift doesn’t appear in the stats, the likes or the shares.

Those numbers measure something else, and maybe that something matters a bit, but it is poorly correlated with the thing I’d really like to measure: the number of people who are more hopeful today, more committed, more empowered to make a change they seek to make. The number of people who take one more step towards their mission to create positive change.

The measure of success is you and what you do.

Ain’t no stat for that, so why do I keep on checking the numbers?

And why do you?

Lightning (Almost) Never Strikes

New York Lotto Poker Scratch OffI’m sitting outside on a beautiful, sunny, early summer day eating my lunch on a bench in New York City.

Across from me, a guy is frantically scratching off Lotto cards: he buys four, tears the perforation, stacks the cards, and, one by one, scratches them off.

He loses.

He gets up, walks back to the newsstand, buys and scratches off another four.

He loses.

He gets up a third time, buys and scratches off another four. He gets up, walks back to the stand with one of the cards, and trades it for a new one—he won a new card.

He scratches that one off.

He loses.

To watch his intensity in scratching off these cards is to see the story he’s telling himself: each time, there’s a chance (however small) that he’ll hit it big.

That is true.

What’s also true is what happens in practice: he spends money, he scratches, he loses. He spends money, he scratches, he loses.

This behavior leads to that result.

Scratching off Lotto cards is yet another form of hoping that lightning strikes us.

It also comes in the many ways we play small, keep our heads down, and hope that someone will notice us or pick us:

When we don’t invest in relationships because we’d prefer to “just do our work” and hope to be seen.

When we define our role in terms of the tasks we’ve mastered, without expanding our own orbit.

When we’re unwilling to make any tough decisions that put us on the hook.

When we give ourselves lots of emotional outs, so that we never care enough to say “I made this, I’m proud of it, I hope you are too.”

Yes, it is mathematically possible that continuing to do the old things will lead to a spectacular, positive, different outcome.

But if this behavior has, so far, led to that (disappointing) outcome over and over and over again, it might be time to take a step back and consider: how much of how I’m showing up is a form of wishing that lighting will strike one day?

Want to Change? Then Commit 4 Days a Week

Four days a week is what we need to commit to something if we really want to grow.

Twice a week is enough for maintenance.

Three days a week is enough for improvement.

But four days a week creates transformative change.

It doesn’t matter what sort growth you’re working on–you might want to improve your sales, singing, soccer, swimming, saxophone or salsa dancing. Perhaps you’re working on tambourine, thoughtfulness, tact, tenacity, tap dancing or Telugu.

Give it four days a week and change will happen.

Also, while it goes without saying that 0 times a week gets you nowhere, be especially wary of once a week—it may be the most dangerous cadence of all if we care about improvement. At once a week, we feel like we’re doing something regularly, but we never change. It’s perfect fodder for the “I’ll never be good at this” story we like to tell ourselves.

We will be good at this, one day.

And 4 is the magic number to get us there.

GIIN 2019 Impact Investor Survey

The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) has just published its survey of the impact investing market. Each year at this time, I head straight for a chart that’s been, until now, buried in the back.

It’s the chart that talks about impact performance for the estimated $502 billion of impact investing assets. In my view, it’s the most important chart in the report: since “impact” investing exists to create impact, we should care most about whether we’re pulling that off.

Unfortunately, data on impact performance is hard to come by in this report. The only chart that speaks to it directly, the one that I flip to immediately, doesn’t have performance data. Instead, it asks impact investors to self-report their performance relative to their own expectations. It’s a start.

Our Performance, Relative to Expectations

So, how do we think we’re doing? Pretty great, it turns out.

This year, 98% of the impact investors who responded to the survey said their impact performance was in line with or exceeded their expectations. Put another way, just 5 of the 266 impact investors surveyed were brave enough to say that they were under-performing on impact (or, maybe only five have clear enough impact goals and data to make it possible to under-perform).

How to make sense of this? Mathew Weatherly-White proposed on Twitter that perhaps the sector is exclusively doing place-based impact investing in Lake Wobegon (which would lead to the next question: would our version of Garrison Keillor’s famous closing line be, “Well, that’s the news from Impact Investing, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the funds’ impact performance is above average.”)

What happened in 2019 that makes us feel we’re doing so exceptionally well? Nothing much, it turns out, as this is not a new development. In fact, the numbers in this chart have been essentially unchanged over the last three years. Here’s a composite chart based on the data in the 2017 to 2019 GIIN reports:

GIIN 2019 impact performance

Perhaps this is our sector’s version of “too big to fail”–if you’re a self-styled impact investor, you cannot, by definition, fail at meeting expectations for impact. This isn’t for cynical reasons: most impact investors don’t yet have transparent, concrete targets around the impact their capital is meant to create; they don’t have benchmarks of impact performance; and they don’t feel they have a useful, repeatable way to measure that impact in a way that works for them and their investees.

Our Opportunity

While these results could be seen as discouraging, there’s an opportunity here as well. The GIIN, for one, describes their own rising expectations of impact investors in the opening of the report: “Growth [of dollars invested] without impact is pointless…[we believe] impact investors should have specific impact intentions; consider evidence and impact data in the design of their investment strategies; [and] manage their impact performance.”

I’d underline the phrase “manage their impact performance” and add to it “and set and share impact targets and performance for their funds.”

Setting targets, and managing to those targets, isn’t an end in itself. It’s a beginning.

The act of setting goals, and then taking them seriously, is a leverage point that is hiding in plain sight. It has the potential to jump-start a meaningful cycle of learning and improvement. We all know that there’s no way for performance to reach its full potential without knowing what excellence means, without having a bar to strive for. Nor can we improve without useful data—the kind of data that tells us both how we’re doing today and how much separates us from the best performers in our field.

How do we get from here to there?

With something as important as “impact”–the conditions of people’s lives, the fate of our ecosystems and the planet –we cannot miss our opportunity to become great at what we do.

Becoming great at anything feels daunting at the outset, but, as always, our only job is to start at the beginning: by taking one small step, and then taking the next one.

In this case, we starts by setting real targets, taking them seriously, and doing what we can to gather meaningful data about how we’re doing relative to our goals. If we do this with intention and follow through with integrity, then, bit by bit, we will get better. Once we choose to walk this path, we will discover that our small steps take us far: in a year, and then in five years, and then in 10, we’ll be at a different level in our capacity to invest to create positive change, just as we are experts, today, at deploying capital.

This need not be burdensome, heavy or expensive. The best way to start is by going directly to the source—for example, if you’re making investments designed to help people, then talk to those people. Better yet, do it in a way that is respectful, fast, and light touch, one that gives comparable performance results for impact, just like we have for financial results.

Let’s aim higher, not because we have to, but because we can.

 

[PS if you’re wondering what this looks like in practice, our recent 60 Decibels whitepaper might help].

Dupe and Mask

I came across this idea on the TED blog. It’s a concrete solution to the universal problem of writing slides with way too many words on them, and then reading them.

First, a quick review of presentation tips.

To start, never read your slides, ever. Everyone in your audience can read, so why are you reading for them? Reading your slides is the best way to get people to disengage, and it also disempowers you as the speaker—you want us to pay attention to you and to what you say, and you don’t want to fight it out with your slides.

Second, if you’re giving (versus sending) a presentation, limit yourself to six words per slide. Yes, six. If this idea is new to you, check out Seth’s famous post on Really Bad Powerpoint. I know you’re telling yourself this is impossible, that there’s no way you could write a whole presentation with six words per slide (and great images). But it isn’t: one idea per slide, described by a great image with up to six words, is possible and powerful. Give it a shot.

And finally, if you’re putting more than six words on a slide, and you’re not going to read them, what do you do? Here’s where the dupe and mask comes in. The example on the TED blog is of a busy webpage in which the presenter wants to focus in on just one thing – views of this talk, in this example.

 

 

 

 

 

You could do this for any busy slide, and it’s a visual reminder to only present one idea per slide. Even if you don’t literally gray out 90% of the slide in your presentation, dupe and mask is a preparation tool to figure out the one idea this slide is here to communicate. Plus, it’s a great way to remember not to meander around, jumping from circle to circle, and fall back into the trap of sort-of-reading it.

A final suggestion is to keep things moving. Limit yourself to 20 seconds per slide. I just made that number up. It might be 25, or 30. It’s not two minutes though, unless you’re telling us a story (in which case you have all the time in the world). By keeping your internal clock attuned to how long you’ve spent on this one idea, you’re more likely to keep your audience with you by maintaining forward momentum.

What this all boils down to is this: your presentation is about the ideas you’re here to share. Whatever visual aids you bring as support should accentuate and illustrate, but they are not the story. You are the storyteller, and we’re hear to hear what you have to say.

The What, the How and the How Long of Mastery

One of the reasons we don’t acquire new skills in the way we’d like is because, ironically, we take on too much.

It goes like this. We decide one day that we’re motivated to learn something new. Armed with a vague and imprecise understanding of the new skill we’d like to develop, we engage in an (often haphazard) mimicry of that vision. Then, after trying for a bit and seeing few tangible signs of progress, we give up, falling back on a familiar internal chorus of “change is hard” and “I’m never going to be good at this.”

That’s patently untrue. You could be great at this with a different approach.

One way to rewire our ability to learn and grow comes through a clearer understanding of the What, the How and the How Long of mastery:

What to focus on.

How that focus will manifest.

How Long it will take to master the skill.

What to Focus On?

“What” is a massive point of leverage. The most important “what to focus on” rule is to stick to very small things. These are the types of things that, lacking the skill we aim to acquire, we can still learn and master.

This feels counter-intuitive, because we’ve been wired to think about big changes and big skills. Naturally, we fight against the notion of committing to something small, believing it won’t add up to anything. Yet we take for granted that the flawless abilities of any master—musicians, athletes, writers, public speakers—are comprised of thousands of micro-skills brought together seamlessly. Why would it be any different for great people managers, great listeners, great analysts?

The truth is, the only way we learn is with tiny, incremental changes in small things, coupled with enough follow-through to have these small changes accumulate over time. The specific small things we focus on will depend on the skill we aim to master, but a good rule of thumb is to find the foundational skills that have the most connection to the other pieces of the puzzle and go from there.

How to Focus?

The “How” of successful skill acquisition is marked by consistency, concentration and presence.

Consistency is the most important: each and every day, in very small doses, is a far more powerful approach to transformation than once a week on Saturdays for two hours.

This can seem obvious, but we rarely sign up for 15 minutes a day for 30 days straight. We think “that’s not enough time to (write a book, learn to swim better, become more creative),” when, in reality, this sort of daily commitment is transformational.

We should spend these 15 minutes with full concentration and presence, sweeping away both obvious external distractions and the more pernicious internal (mental) ones that hurt us more.

We do this by cultivating the skill of deep mental focus, learning to redirect our attention, every time it gets pulled away, to the task at hand.  In this act of re-direction, we can remind ourselves to maintain an attitude of curiosity and good humor, rather than one of self-criticism. Think of it like a moving meditation, and gently bring your wandering mind back to the micro-skill you are working on.

How Long?

“How Long” is the doozy.

BKS Iyengar Photo Credit: Jack Cuneo Yoga

Early on in my yoga practice there was a pose I simply couldn’t do, called Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana: standing up, you grab your big toe of one foot, lift your leg and straighten it in front of your hip.

It was the second year of my yoga practice, and, in the midst of a yoga retreat in which, thanks to 4+ hours a day of practice, I could nearly do the pose, I quietly predicted that I would be able to do that pose in another year’s time.

That was 18 years ago, and I still haven’t pulled it off. While some of this mis-estimation was a failure of the right kind of commitment on my part, mostly I grossly underestimated how much further I had to walk on that journey.

“How long” is the silent killer of improvement: the gap between our expected and actual progress creates a cycle of self-criticism, reinforcing our original, fixed story of ourselves. “This is impossible, for me,” is untrue, but it taunts us daily as we soak in small failures.

Each of us needs to find our own way to banish this demon, but it helps to remember that these things truly take time (18 years!!), and to remind ourselves that the journey is the whole point.

With this in mind, today, we commit again. We find our 15 minutes. We focus on the one thing we’ve committed to. We remember that working on this one thing, today, is the only way to be sure that we are moving forward.

Stay the course.

 

Announcing the Launch of 60 Decibels

I have exciting news to share.

Today marks the start of a next chapter for me professionally: I’m launching a new social enterprise, called 60 Decibels, that I’ve co-founded with Tom Adams. Our goal is to reboot social impact measurement, to make it useful for people who are doing the work of building social businesses and NGOs. We want to help them serve customers better and, in so doing, create more social impact.

Our thesis is simple: understanding social impact should be based on listening directly to people.

60 Decibels will take forward the Lean Data approach, which was first built at Acumen to solve our own impact measurement challenge and has already been used by more than 200 non-profits and social businesses in 34 countries.

Imagine if we truly held ourselves accountable to the people that impact capital and philanthropy are meant to help, by systematically including their voices in how we assess impact.

(And, for those of you who don’t work in this sector, it’s worth articulating the counter-factual: yes, it’s true, today, when we ‘measure’ impact in impact investing, most of the time we don’t actually talk to the people whose lives we aim to improve. Crazy, huh?).

My belief is that if we can get this right, we have the potential to make a massive shift in the world.

Everywhere, the cracks in capitalism are being exposed. That’s leading to backlash against “plutocrats,” it’s creating waves of populism, and it’s generating calls, in some circles, for a new model of capitalism: one that creates wealth without being so extractive, one that balances the needs of shareholders, customers, suppliers, employees, and the planet.

But how are we going to put the needs of customers, suppliers, employees and the planet on more equal footing?

Our bet, with 60 Decibels, is that it starts with voice: that by listening better, and by amplifying voices that are currently left at the margins, we can create a system that’s more in balance.

The in’s and out’s of how I think we get from here to there is a longer conversation. (You can get a sneak peek here at the 60 Decibels website, where we’ve written a white paper that’s equal parts manifesto and social impact data). The short version is that 60 Decibels helps companies that are in the business of creating social change listen to their customers. We leverage the power of technology and mobile phones to make it easy to listen to anyone, anywhere, and hear from them about their lived experience. And we move fast, getting results in weeks (not months or years), because that’s the only way we’ll be relevant to the people doing the real work.

So, if you’re in the business of social change and have found social impact measurement to be challenging, burdensome, complex, or frustrating, let me know, maybe we can help.

And, if you’re wondering, 60 Decibels is the volume of human conversation.

So far, it’s been a lot of fun, it’s really challenging, and we’re just getting started. We have a team of 30 amazing people in the US, UK, Kenya and India and we’re working with customers all over the world.

And, in terms of this blog, I’ll still be here every week sharing what’s on my mind. I expect that, gradually, the content of the posts I write will shift slightly. That’s nothing new—it’s been happening since I started blogging in 2008, as my bullseye has moved from fundraising and sales, to generosity, to leadership and the work we all need to do to be grounded, effective agents of change.

A closing thought: in many ways, this blog is a chance for me to think out loud about the issues I find most important, most challenging and most meaningful. That exploration is an important part of my own evolution and growth. To the extent that I’m ready to take on this next challenge, that is due in no small part to what I’ve been able to figure out, week in and week out, through the dialogue that unfolds here on this blog.

None of that would be possible without you showing up and continuing to read and respond. So thank you.

Here’s to the next chapter. Thanks for continuing this journey with me.

Left Handed

I tweaked my arm last week, enough that it hurt to straighten it.

I spent a few days being left-handed: opening drawers, brushing my teeth, closing the zipper on my bag and my jacket.

It was a reminder of how we, repeatedly and unconsciously, favor things that are a little bit easier, that make us a little more comfortable.

Each of these micro-choices deepens the grooves we’ve carved for ourselves, reinforcing what comes naturally and erecting a slightly larger barrier that keeps us from strengthening a weakness.

Right-handedness is also: the food we eat, the TV we ‘need’ to watch, the social media that’s become part of our lives, the way we react to emotionally challenging situations.

Where do Blog Posts Come From?

I’m always curious how others come up with blog post, so I figured I’d share my approach after 11 years of blogging.

Being a writer of any sort means paying attention, and blogging has kept me on a constant, quiet lookout for moments of insight: a topic I find myself or my team struggling through, a conversation or article that touches on a bigger theme.

These sorts of moments happen unpredictably in all sorts of places. When they do, I jot them down. If I’m in front of my laptop, I’ll write a headline or a few sentences in Word. More likely, I use my phone to send myself a short email with the blog title in the subject line and a few notes. These emails are sketchy at best, and they’re occasionally frustratingly indecipherable. But they often are enough to go on as long as I get back to them quickly.

I go back to these sketches of ideas on the train to or from work. I dedicate 10-15 minutes to the first draft of each post. If things are going well, that’s enough time for a decent rough draft. Or, I discover that the idea isn’t a post after all, and I let it go.

I save these as drafts on my laptop, and at any given moment I have 10-20 drafts at various stages of doneness. I label them as drafts so they’re easy to find, and I’ll return to them from time to time. All of this happens in Microsoft Word.

The morning before my publish deadline, I read through near-finished drafts and find a post that feels right at that moment. This is a time of polishing. I cut as many unnecessary words as possible, especially qualifiers. I push for specificity in my language and try to breathe life into the points I’m making (not “trying to make,” which I just edited out) with specific examples. Ideally, I proofread, though I should do a better job of that by reading the whole post out loud.

Letting posts sit, as drafts, for a few days or weeks is the biggest change I’ve made to my approach since I started blogging. I made the shift when I shifted to fewer posts (1-2 / week) than I used to publish (3-4 /week). I’ve no doubt that posts are stronger thanks to this change, but ideally I wouldn’t have traded quantity for quality.

Nearly everything I’m describing happens on the train I take to and from work. I do my best writing first thing in the morning, usually at the beginning of the week when my head is clear. I mostly edit at night.

Having a place—the train—where I do the writing helps: whether it’s sitting in the same chair or the same train, putting yourself in the same location to write seems required for almost all writers. As Stephen King famously said, “This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. Or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.” Exactly.

My last step is to put the posts into WordPress, do a final reread and make last tweaks, and I hit the ‘Schedule’ button.

The best part is, eleven years and more than 1,100 posts in, when I hit that ‘Schedule’ button I still have absolutely no ideas which posts will have a big impact and which ones won’t. That’s all part of the process, one that’s equal parts faith and commitment.

(As a bonus, if you’re specifically interested in becoming a blogger, this post has helped a lot of people: What I Talk About When I Talk About Blogging.)

Bringing Joy to our Jobs

I’ve written before about Total Immersion swimming. While it’s taught me a good deal about swimming, the bigger lessons are the Kaizen-based mindset that form its foundation.

Kaizen, a Japanese word that describes the idea of continues improvement, is an attitude we can apply to anything in life. For me, Kaizen is a mindset that is equal parts curiosity, self-reflection, self-knowledge, high standards, patience, and discipline.

To illustrate the thinking, here’s an excerpt from a Total Immersion blog post by TI founder, the late Terry Laughlin, that I got a few weeks ago. Swimming is, of course, just a placeholder:

Expect improvement. Most adult swimmers have become resigned to swimming year after year with little to show for it. A T.I. Swimmer’s goal should be Kaizen (continuous improvement) Swimming. Because swimming offers limitless opportunities for solving the UHSP (Universal Human Swimming Problem) and increasing self-awareness, you could continue gaining in Mastery for decades. I still make exciting advances every year, and still sense almost limitless possibilities for further improvement. The refinements I’m making are fairly subtle, but my capacity for fine distinctions in position and timing has increased steadily. My current focus is on greater relaxation, especially when swimming faster.

There’s so much to grab onto in this short excerpt:

  • The mindset of expecting improvement, rather than resignation to being stuck. It’s all too common in the workforce to resign oneself to no longer improving. Not only is this a depressing thought, it’s an enormous waste of talent and potential.
  • The notion of increasing self-awareness. I’ve found that self-awareness builds on itself. The more genuine curiosity and humility we hold, the more we discover.
  • “Gaining in Mastery for decades.” Imagine continuing to work on mastery, in something as deceptively simple as recreational swimming, for decades. Imagine applying this same mindset to other skills we hope to develop in life: listening, learning to apologize, being courageous, connecting with people, writing, public speaking, presence…
  • “Limitless possibilities for further improvement.” Terry sees learning at a micro-level, the tiny subtle improvements, as joyful. So often we think of learning and growth as painful, something we must endure, because it can be uncomfortable. Terry knows that learning often feels like struggle. The question is, what would it take for us to convert that struggle into joy?