Kart #7

This past weekend I was the chaperone for my son and 24 of his friends for a go kart racing birthday party. The boys raced in groups of eight for the first hour or so, and then a few of them started to drop out or take breaks, so I raised my hand to jump in to one of the groups.

After I finished my race, an old friend who was on sidelines laughed as he chided me, “Wow, you really crushed those 13 year olds!”

It’s true, my competitive instincts had mingled with the smell of gasoline and the purring of the kart’s 25hp engine, and I’d driven to win. And win I did.

As I was bantering with my son and his buddies about my old man driving skills, a few of them quipped that Kart #7, which I had raced, was “much faster than all the other karts.”

(That may be, I thought, but that doesn’t explain why I kept lapping them. I’m just a much more experienced and better driver).

Near the end of the party, the last race rolled around and there was one empty kart left. By that point, my son, the birthday boy, had switched to Kart #7. As I buckled myself into another kart, I smiled at him jokingly and said, “Now you’ll see that it’s all about my driving skills!”

It’s true, I did win race #2. By a little bit. In the first race I’d finished nearly two laps to each one of theirs, while in the second race I might have passed everyone once.

But if you’d asked me after Race 1, I would have said that most of my success was due of my driving skill, and that Kart #7 might be a tiny bit faster. What I learned after Race #2 was that most of the difference was because Kart #7 was a lot faster, and I’m a tiny bit of a better driver than a bunch of 13 year olds.

I can’t help but wonder the extent to which many of the differences in the ways we see the world result from misattribution of the credit we deserve for our own successes. It’s nearly impossible not to overestimate the roles our intelligence, hard work and skill play in the results we achieve: a success happens, we were smart and tough and hard-working…so it must be that the primary cause of that success were our smarts, our toughness and our hard work.

The truth is that the veil of our own privilege is one of the the hardest veils to remove. Privilege is not something we can see all at once, and sometimes I wonder if we ever have enough perspective to see it fully.

Harder still, once we spot it, is to figure out what to do with it: the world neither needs us to apologize for all that we have been given nor to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Rather our job is to see ourselves – and others – as fully as we can, and then to use all our abilities and good luck and the gifts we have been given to make manifest the better, more just world in which we so deeply believe.


So often we toil away for months or even years to hit the markers for success we’ve laid out for ourselves. 

Often when we arrive we end up disappointed. We had focused so much on the toiling and the achieving without ever having figured out, in the first place, the “why” behind it all. 

What would have happened if, at the outset, we had imagined what exactly we’d do – who we’d be and what steps we’d take next –  when we hit those markers. What would have napped if we’d pre-imagined our success, been sure that we could pull it off, and planned from there?

Better yet, what would have happened if we hadn’t been so quick to accept anyone else’s markers?

Driving at Night

I remember a conversation I had last year with one of Acumen’s East Africa Fellows.  We were talking about the faith it takes to walk an unknown path.  He shared that his father used to tell him, “You can only see a little ways in front of you when you’re driving in a car on a road in the dark of night, but that allows you to see far enough to eventually find your way to town.”

Much of what the world needs us to do is to walk untrodden paths. This requires more than just courage in the darkness.  While we only need to see a bit in front of us to travel far, it’s also true that we could have the brightest lights in the world and, if we have no idea where “town” is, we’ll never get there.

How do we balance knowing and not knowing? How do we avoid getting paralyzed – by trying to plan out every unknowable step along the way – while making sure we have a sense of our destination?

Part of the answer is imagining success.

Meaning, while we can only plan our next set of actions (as far as our lights can see), we can force ourselves to imagine what we will do when that step works out. And the next step. And the one after that.

Imagining this path of success helps me avoid becoming overwhelmed by a really nasty, thorny task that’s standing right in front of me.  It’s easy to say “let’s just get this part right, and we’ll figure out the rest if this bit works,” but that’s a big mistake.

Instead, walk all the way down that path of things going the way you hope they will, so that you can have the important and difficult conversation that starts with, “Then what?”  As in:

  • “We will succeed in getting key players in the organization to make the tough choices that they’ve been resisting.” “Then what?”
  • “Response rates on our new mobile phone survey will be high, and we’ll get new data that will be relevant to our driving repeat sales.” “Then what?”
  • “The big article that we’ve just submitted will get approved by the editor.” “Then what?”

Force yourself to figure out what happens when things go right, so that when they do you’ve got the next three steps lined up and you can step on the gas.  Otherwise, tomorrow’s victory will be a brief one.


This is a photo of a water fountain at JFK airport that shows how many plastic bottles have been saved by that fountain.

Elkay EZH2

Just like that, I’m part of something. It makes meaning of my (tiny) piece of the puzzle, and helps me feel like I am making a difference.

Funny how much effort we spend shouting at people asking them to give, and how rarely we tell them what we accomplished, together.

Terrified of success

It’s worth reflecting why we systematically under-prepare for things: big speeches, job interviews, presentations to the Board of Directors, asking for a raise.

We’ve heard all the talk about not losing spontaneity, about being in the moment.  Phooey.  All the best jazz musicians – professional improvisers – practice like crazy.

If there is foundational work that you (systematically) don’t do when the stakes are high, that is fear speaking.  Fear of spending time today looking the thing that scares you right in the eye.  Fear of putting in the time now, because when we put in that time we’re making an emotional commitment to a successful outcome.  Fear that if we try our hardest and then fail, we have no excuse – whereas if we wing it, we always have an out.

It’s surprising, ironic and a little sad: we under-invest in our own success not because we’re afraid of failing, but because we’re terrified that we might succeed.

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POSTSCRIPT to yesterday’s post: I was half right (or, if you prefer, half wrong), as Dean Karlan posted the results of his experiment on the Freakanomics blog.  The results are that prior donors who’d given less than $100 to Freedom from Hunger gave 0.9 percentage points LESS when presented with more facts/data; those who’d given  $100 or more gave 3.54 percentage points more.  So more facts made some donors give more, and some give less.  Dean shares an interesting observation in the post: “Freedom from Hunger is known amongst its supporters and those in the microfinance world as being more focused on using evidence and research to guide their programs.”  So these donors might be some of the most likely to be interested in evidence, and it still was a coin flip on whether more data resulted in more or fewer donations.