Walking a Mile…

Easy to say that we sometimes walk a mile in others’ shoes.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we rarely take on that full mile, it’s often just a short leg.

And, even though we mostly just dip in, do we ever find ourselves saying, “Ah yes, things from this perspective look exactly as I expected them to.”

It’s OK, we cannot help but be protagonists for what and how we see things and for our own lived experience.

But we can notice how, time and again, it is only one perspective.

We can notice how it is nearly impossible to overdo understanding other points of view.

And we can remember that the only tickets that consistently get us from here to there are listening with deep curiosity, and having strong opinions that we hold loosely.

The identity monologue

I had the misfortune of being floored by a minor, but extremely unpleasant, illness for about 10 days earlier this month.

Nothing like an abrupt change in circumstance to give a bit of perspective.

What I noticed, especially because the illness came on so fast (and showed little sign of getting better for a little while) was how an abrupt change in how I spent my time totally flipped my perspective.  Home-bound, practically quarantined, counting the minutes (because I was absolutely miserable) for 72 hours (= 4,500 minutes!), I felt powerless, and time shifted for me.   My life is often regimented and tightly structured, nearly down to the minute, which is my way of trying to be productive and fully engaged and present on multiple fronts.  Going from optimizing my commute and my Inbox and meetings down to the last minute to watching a two-hour movie and then another, waiting for time to pass and watching the clock not move, left me feeling miserable, unproductive and, temporarily, powerless.

It reminded me of a day I spent over the winter, an exercise called “everyday barriers” that all Acumen staff participate in.  It’s something the Acumen Fellows undertake as part of their training.  Like our Fellows, each Acumen New York staff member came to work and then left everything in the office except for $5 in cash and a round trip Metrocard.  We were to spend the day in New York City and come back with suggestions for how to improve public services.  It’s an exercise in what we call “moral imagination,” cultivating the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and to see problems from a new perspective.

Having talked to Acumen Fellows who had participated in this activity in the past, I recalled profound stories of connection, as well Fellows gaining a much deeper understanding of the challenges of being a poor person in New York City.  I recall a Fellow telling a story of a woman who walked everywhere with a giant box filled with papers – they were all of her identification, phone bills, records, etc. because the woman had gotten sick of getting to the front of a long line only to be told that she didn’t have the right paperwork.  Fellows experienced what was and was not working well in the provision of New York city public services, and the day served as a jumping off point for discussions about identity, empathy, and social change.

To me the most surprising part of the exercise came right at the beginning.  After about an hour of walking, feeling pretty relaxed, I started to feel a bit hungry and thirsty, and it hit me that it was 9:30am and I had 8 hours to spend in the city on a cold day with nowhere to go and almost no money in my pocket.   While part of my plan was to go to new neighborhoods, suddenly the very familiar parts of the city started to feel different.   The glass windows of a coffee shop or a high-end clothing store felt like they had “keep out” signs flashing at me with my empty pockets, big parka and heavy boots.  The transformation in my experience of something as simple as walking down the street in an upscale neighborhood was profound and shocking.  How could a shift happen so quickly?  I bought an apple for 50 cents and trudged on, making my way to a church (where the music was uplifting), a homeless shelter (for lunch), and then taking a massive trek (that turned out to be a wild goose chase) to an employment center in Queens, with a lot of time in the NYC subway noticing how everyone except for me was in an iPod / newspaper / book bubble.  Time passed differently, and most of New York City felt like it was for someone other than me.

How can the experience of self shift so quickly?  The troubling notion is that we have a silent but persistent “identity monologue” going through our heads, an active but unconscious process of defining and reiterating our own identity.   (I guess the Buddhists would call this “ego.”)  The humbling part is that the constant process of self-(re)definition actively colors my sense of self and how I interact with the world, and what’s surprising is how fragile and mutable it is.  Just think of what it felt like to lose power in Hurricane Sandy (or whatever natural disaster is closer to home for you).

The positive side of this realization is around mutability.  As quickly as my outlook darkened when I got sick, it started to improve three days later once I got out of bed, and within a week I was mostly back to normal.

I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been stuck, where a situation, or where I was living, or a crummy job was sucking the energy out of me, and where it felt like there was something fundamental and permanent about my situation.  Making changes at moments like that can seem like too tall a hill to climb, partly because of the story we are telling ourselves about ourselves feels big, real and permanent.

It is none of these things.

And it is wildly freeing to know that even one small change in our circumstance can begin to change our whole outlook; and that changing your circumstances can change your outlook and perspective (not the other way around).

No irrational action

I used to dismiss what looked like irrational action.  I’d watch people’s behaviors and, when things didn’t make sense to me, I’d let it go.

“Sometimes people do things that just don’t make sense” was a safe refrain.  Maybe they didn’t have enough information or do the right analysis or sometimes actions just don’t make sense.  My overly-rational mind would see irrational action and deduce that the person had failed to analyze something properly, understand its implications, or explain themselves clearly.

Talk about a misdiagnosis.

People only do things that make sense (to them), and while I know we all make errors of judgment and analysis, these days anytime I have a “that just doesn’t make sense” reaction a little alarm bell goes off.

By way of analogy, I only recently figured out that getting really nervous about a new idea or a project – and feeling like maybe I should just drop it – is a great indicator that I’m on to something really important (nervousness = my lizard brain resisting me doing something significant and worthwhile).

Similarly, every time someone does or says something really irrational that’s a great moment to pay extra attention, to try to figure out what’s really going on – not rationally, on an emotional level.

These are great sensors to have on in fundraising situations, because it is so difficult (and slightly taboo) to talk about why and how real fundraising decisions are made.  You spend time in a long cultivation, building to what seems like a strong, jointly-developed funding opportunity, and at the last minute something veers completely off-course.

There’s no such thing as irrational action.

When I see an “irrational” response, I know that I’m the one whose information about, understanding of, and diagnosis of a situation is not (yet) on the mark.

It’s a great time to pay extra, not less, attention.  It’s a great time to listen more.

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

I can’t believe it took me until now to watch Chimamanda Adichie’s profound TED talk about the danger of a single story.  A friend shared it with me the day before I discovered that it’s one of the twenty most-viewed TED talks of all time.

This weekend (especially if you’re celebrating Independence Day), give yourself a gift and put aside 18 minutes to watch this.  The talk defines the power of story to subjugate, the heart of stereotypes held by everyone – even well-meaning, kind people – and how they limit all of us.  It is at times profound, wise, humorous, and hopeful. 

And if you’re as moved as I was, you’ll quickly get a sample of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun on your Kindle, start reading, and not be able to put it down.  Enjoy.

Philanthropic milkshake mistakes

Thanks to a reminder from Katya on her Nonprofit Marketing Blog, I finally went ahead and bought Clay Shirky’s most recent book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity and a Connected Age, which is about the digital age, the demise of TV, generosity, and the rise of interactive and user-generated content (among other things).

Clay tells an instructive story at the start of the book, one that got me thinking that most conversations about philanthropy leave out the central question – what problem does giving the gift solve for the donor?

Once upon a time, Clay recounts, McDonald’s wanted to improve sales of milkshakes, so they hired a handful of researchers.  Most of the researchers went out and asked customers what they wanted more or less of in the milkshake (sweetness, flavor, temperature, containers, etc) – which sounds like a good, customer-centric and solution-centric approach, right?  Wrong.

One of the researchers, Gerald Berstell, did something different.   Gerald “chose to ignore the shakes themselves and study the customers instead…

He sat in a McDonalds for eighteen hours one day, observing who bought milkshakes and at what time.  One surprising discovery was that many milkshakes were purchased early in the day…the buyers were always alone, they rarely bought anything besides a shake, and they never consumed the shakes in the store.

Berstell’s insight (explained in this Harvard Business Review article, by Clay Christensen, Scott Anthony, Gerald Berstell, and Denise Nitterhouse) was to ignore the milkshake as a product and instead ask, “What job is a customer hiring that milkshake to do at eight A.M.?”  And so Berstell understood the milkshake for what it really was: a portable, slow-to consume, not-too-messy breakfast – a core insight that all of the other researchers missed entirely.

When we discuss sales strategies – philanthropic or otherwise – we inevitably focus on the milkshake: is our story compelling, clear, memorable, and sticky?  Does it resonate with the worldview of our customer?  What tactics are we using for outreach, referrals, etc?

All good questions, but if we stop here we’re making a milkshake mistake.  We have to ask: what job is the customer hiring this philanthropic gift to do (in their lives)?

Being an effective philanthropic fundraiser is challenging for a host of reasons, not least of which because there’s no obvious product that’s being sold, so it’s so easy to forget about (or underplay) the fact that giving is serving a very real, very tangible purpose for the donor.

A good test to see if you’re paying enough attention to this: if you think everyone is giving for the same reason and/or if you think the reason they’re giving is because they believe in your mission then you haven’t dug deep enough.

Clay tells an instructive story at the start of the book, one that got me thinking that most conversations about philanthropy leave out the central question – what problem does giving the gift solve for the donor?

Once upon a time, Clay recounts, McDonalds wanted to improve sales of milkshakes, so they hired a handful of researchers.  Most of the researchers went out and asked customers what they wanted more or less of in the milkshake (sweetness, flavor, temperature, containers, etc) – which sounds like a good, customer-centric and solution-centric approach, right?  Wrong.