Podcast Episode: Finding and Developing Good Ideas • Dr. Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change


What would you do with $800,000 that came with no strings attached? This actually happens to about two dozen MacArthur Fellows every year.

Or better yet, a grant of $100 million, like MacArthur gave away in its 100 and Change program? It sounds exhilarating, but what if getting the money depended on you having a good idea for how to use it?

Dr. Cecilia Conrad's work is finding and developing good ideas, formerly as the Managing Director of the MacArthur Fellowships, and now as the CEO of Lever for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In these roles, she's led the effort to: find and support the most creative people in the US, fund and support the organizations making big impacts on the world, and change how big philanthropy is done today.

In this episode we'll learn Dr. Conrad's insights from the secret selectors of MacArthur fellows, what it's like being one of the few Black women in Economics, and what it was like growing up in Dallas during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Most of all, we'll learn about the how to find and develop the overlooked great ideas that waiting to be discovered.

About Our Guest

Cecilia A. Conrad, Ph.D. is Senior Advisor, Collaborative Philanthropy and MacArthur Fellows and CEO of Lever for Change.

Dr. Conrad was formerly a Managing Director at the MacArthur Foundation, where she led the Fellows program and steered the cross-Foundation team that created MacArthur’s 100&Change—an athematic, open call competition that periodically makes a single $100 million grant to help solve a critical problem of our time. She continues to manage the 100&Change competition.

Before joining the Foundation in January 2013, Conrad had a distinguished career as both a professor and an administrator at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She held the Stedman Sumner Chair in Economics and is currently a Professor of Economics, Emerita. She served as Associate Dean of the College (2004-2007), as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College (2009-2012), and as Acting President (Fall 2012). From 2007-2009, she was interim Vice President and Dean of the Faculty at Scripps College.

Before joining the faculty at Pomona College, Dr. Conrad served on the faculties of Barnard College and Duke University. She was also an economist at the Federal Trade Commission and a visiting scholar at The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Dr. Conrad received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College and her Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University.

Useful Links

The MacArthur Fellowship Program

The Lever for Change Foundation

The 100 & Change program

Dr. Conrad explains the MacArthur Fellows program at MIT (YouTube)

Wikipedia's list of all MacArthur Fellows

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[00:00:00] Aaron - Interview: And listening to the MIT talk that you gave, this is from about four years ago. There's a YouTube video

[00:00:05] Dr. Conrad: Oh, about the Fellows program?

[00:00:06] Aaron - Interview: About the fellows program. I was like, that is so cool.

[00:00:10] Dr. Conrad: Well, it sounds like you have had jobs nearly as cool as mine. Not as cool because mine is the coolest in the world. But it sounds like yours comes close.

[00:00:19] Aaron - Narration: Hi I, Aaron Miller. And this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode six, Finding and Growing Good Ideas. This episode of How To Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.

[00:00:43] How to Help is still a small podcast, and so I hope you'll take a moment to give us a rating with Apple Podcasts or to share an episode on social media with your friends. I can't tell you how much it means to us. It really is the best way for this podcast to grow. If you're right now hearing your first episode of the show, I hope that by the end you want to give us a glowing review. Thank you for listening.

[00:01:08] Imagine waking up on a typical morning. You get yourself some breakfast, you shower, and get ready for your day. If you have kids, you maybe get them off to school. These days you might be working from home, so you start to settle in and get to work. You notice that earlier while you were in the shower, someone called your cell phone from a number that you don't recognize, and they didn't leave a message.

[00:01:38] You don't think anything of it. But now the same number is calling you again. You ignore it, knowing that it's probably a telemarketer or something like that. Your phone also notes that the call is coming from a Chicago area code. You wonder, "Do I know anyone in Chicago?" This time though, they call you back right away.

[00:01:59] With a sigh you answer, half expecting a recorded voice to tell you that you've been selected for a free weekend getaway at a new development of timeshare condos or something like that. Instead, a woman with an irrepressibly cheerful voice introduces herself.

[00:02:18] "My name is Cecilia Conrad, and I'm the Managing Director of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Program. I'm happy to tell you that you've been selected as a MacArthur Fellow."

[00:02:31] She goes on to explain that this fellowship is in recognition of your remarkably creative work and that it comes with an award of $800,000, paid out quarterly over the next five years. There are no strings attached, not even an obligation to report back on how you'd use the money.

[00:02:49] They will, however, include your name, photo, and bio in their annual announcement of MacArthur Fellows, basically telling the world that they consider you one of the most intelligent and creative people working in the United States. You'll be joining a list of famous names like: the musician, Lynn Manuel Miranda; the psychologist, Angela Duckworth; the author, Ibram X Kendi; and Tim Burners Lee, who invented the World Wide Web.

[00:03:21] Aaron - Interview: As the director of the fellowship program, you had the unique responsibility of calling fellows to notify them that they had been awarded this amazing and life changing fellowship. Can you kind of describe the moment of that phone call and do you have any favorite stories about what that was like?

[00:03:37] Dr. Conrad: It's the best part. It's really exciting. It's our whole team now participates in it. So when I came in as a director, tradition was the director would make the call and our team would kind of sit around the table and we would all listen in. After a couple years of doing that, I started inviting other team members to be the ones who made the call.

[00:03:53] As I said before, fellows are almost always surprised. Sometimes we've asked, you know, "Are you someplace where you can have a confidential conversation?" That's usually our second sentence, and the fellow will say, "Oh, I'm on. I'm driving on the highway." "Well, would you please get off the highway and park before we tell you what we're going to have to tell?"

[00:04:12] There's a famous story. My predecessor knew someone had just had a baby and they said, "Are you holding your new baby? Please put the baby down." As a way of making sure that they don't really lose it.

[00:04:21] There's sometimes the reactions fall into stunned silence. So much so that you have to ask, "Are you still there? Are you okay?" There's the ones who are convinced that we are a joke. One musician kept saying, "Is this Joe? Or "Joe, or, this is a terrible joke to play on me." Kept going on and on about that. There's tears. There's a sort of, you know, hysteria and then these moments of sanity. One of our fellows was excited and exclaiming and just really, you know, overjoyed and then all of a sudden in a completely calm voice said, "I think I'm going to buy a new dress."

[00:04:57] So, those kinds of things are just, it's, it's fun.

[00:05:02] Aaron - Narration: The experiences just described happen to around two dozen people every year. The professions include everything from mathematicians to musicians, from poets to physicians. This year's crop includes an ornithologist, a criminologist, and an astrodynamicist. As diverse as they all are in profession and life experience, they all have certain things in common.

[00:05:28] Dr. Conrad: They are generally really humble people. And so many of them just are, are taken aback and they start to question why them. So when we describe for them the process, the fact that this is not coming from us per se, picking them, we're guiding a process and it's really a statement from their colleagues, from their field that they are viewed as someone who's exceptionally creative, that kind of helps them start to grapple with no, they haven't made a mistake. Although, they tell me they still think that even years later that we made a mistake. I don't think we have.

[00:06:05] Aaron - Narration: My guest today is Dr. Cecilia Conrad. She's a Stanford trained economist, the former managing director of the MacArthur Fellowship Program, and current CEO of MacArthur's Lever for Change Foundation. In addition to decades of experience in higher education and philanthropy, she's become an expert and learning how to find and cultivate good ideas.

[00:06:30] Finding those ideas is no easy task. Many refer to these fellowships as genius grants, but the Foundation isn't looking for genius per se. What they're trying to find is exceptional creativity. There are patterns to how this emerges, common experiences that cultivate good ideas.

[00:06:51] Dr. Conrad: Yes, we're looking for exceptional creativity. So I call it the Big C creativity. And what we've observed is that it sometimes emerges from people who've had almost some sort of dislocation experience. They might be people who have switched between one discipline and another, and are in the new discipline and they see something and it recalls something that they'd seen before. And they make this connection that nobody else thought about.

[00:07:19] So it's frequently about drawing connections that are unexpected. It could be that they are someone who has moved from one country to another and brings a different kind of lens or perspective to how you see a problem and what possible solutions there might be to it.

[00:07:35] There are people who are testing boundaries and also are willing to, to possibly fail. And I think that's, that's one of the areas that we really hope that the fellowship gives people some freedom to do. So what we do when we pick a fellow is we say, "All right, here's an unrestricted award and you can do whatever you want and we're not going to ask you to report back."

[00:07:55] Many of them do, even without us asking. But the hope is that some of what they do just may not turn out that well. And that's okay. You should have some freedom to do that.

[00:08:04] So we're looking for people who are striving to make the world better. And better, here, I'll say is including making the world happier, or making the world aesthetically more beautiful, all of those things would, would fall under this category of creativity.

[00:08:20] Aaron - Narration: We're going to learn more about Dr. Conrad later in the episode, but first I want us to explore more deeply how the MacArthur Foundation finds and chooses its fellows. It's here that I'll say that there's no point in aspiring to a MacArthur Fellowship. While the foundation is very open about the process, it maintains strict secrecy about the participants and the potential fellows whom it's considering.

[00:08:46] Dr. Conrad: THe selection committee is secret. Your membership on it is secret. We ask people who nominate to keep it a secret. We ask people who we ask to evaluate to keep it a secret. What's really amazing to me about the program is how thoroughly people keep the secret. There are people who haven't, but most of the time when we call a fellow and tell them that they have been named a MacArthur Fellow, they are really surprised they have not had that information leaked to them.

[00:09:13] So it, it, I think, is a measure of the respect people have for the program. It would also be a little cruel to tell people, you know, they're looking at you because then they'd be waiting every time we'd made an announcement. So I'm hoping people recognize that and that helps them keep the secret.

[00:09:27] Aaron - Narration: Why be so secret about it? What does the foundation accomplish by keeping quiet about the candidates?

[00:09:34] Dr. Conrad: We have all the secretiveness because we really want people to think about taking some risk. We're looking for people who have shown examples of exceptional creativity and have the potential for more in the future. And that means we want them to take risk, and that means that they may not be doing whatever is considered the mainstream or the cannon.

[00:09:54] They may be challenging the cannon in the field there that they're in. We find that people are much more willing to kind of acknowledge that, "Hey, this is a really new, exciting idea," when they're doing it in confidence.

[00:10:06] Aaron - Narration: And how do you find the most creative people in such a wide range of fields?

[00:10:12] Dr. Conrad: It, it's, it's an exciting program to be part of because we, as the, the staff always have to push ourselves because people are sometimes working in spaces we don't know anything about, and we have to understand what constitutes creativity in this particular space.

[00:10:28] Aaron - Narration: So how are people nominated? It turns out the foundation has built one of the most robust and impressive listening systems in the world. It gets constant feedback and direction from a network of secret nominators who live across the country and work in all kinds of industries.

[00:10:47] Dr. Conrad: Yeah, the nomination process is an important part of our process.

[00:10:51] So we each month try to identify a new group of people to invite to nominate. And nominators can nominate as many as they want. Many nominate one. Many tell us they don't have an idea at the moment. So that also happens.

[00:11:05] We try to find people who we think are at the nodes of networks who are in a position to be able to see what's new and exciting that's happening. We try to do that across all domains and fields. We try to do it across geographies. That's sometimes a little more difficult because just because you go to one geography doesn't mean the nominator is going to nominate from that geography. But, but that's something we're really mindful of because in the end, we want to construct a class that really captures the breadth of creativity in the United States.

[00:11:36] So we ask a new group every month as the nomination invitation stays open for a particular period of time. We churn that group in order to constantly make sure that we are finding who else is out there that we've missed. So we have a, a staff member who's just dedicated to trying to find the next nominators to invite.

[00:11:55] It's kind of a fun part of the process because we're out and about. We're attending conferences. We're watching. You know, one of the things that's been nice about the Covid world, that there's more content on the Internet, so we don't even have to go places and can kind of lurk in conferences and workshops to find people who we might want to invite as nominators.

[00:12:11] But that is the critical first step, is getting a diverse and broad group of nominators who give us names. Then after we've gotten those names, we reach out to people adjacent to the nominee. Further away from the nominee in a field that might use some of the nominees work.

[00:12:27] Aaron - Narration: This is obviously an exhaustive process. It's that way because their purpose isn't just a spot high achievers who have already done their great work. The goal instead is to find the next great creative geniuses.

[00:12:42] Dr. Conrad: We try to construct a file that really you can think of as having concentric circles really close in, really far out to get assessments of creativity.

[00:12:51] The thing we have to really push people on is that this is not a Nobel Prize, right? We're not looking for lifetime achievement. And sometimes it's hard because there are people we've missed that I look and go, "Gosh, they should have been a fellow way back when."

[00:13:05] We're looking ideally for people who are just like...if you think about a parabola and you're just reaching the top, or I guess I said parabola, that's my math background. You think about a hill, and we're tell not quite at the top of the hill. That's what we want. We want somebody just at the top of the hill and where maybe the Fellowship can accelerate what's going to happen next.

[00:13:23] Aaron - Narration: In addition to a network of nominators, the foundation also has a highly secretive selection committee, the members of which come from a wide range of backgrounds. It's in this role that Dr. Conrad first started working with the MacArthur Foundation. I have to say, it sounds like one of the most interesting jobs that a person could have.

[00:13:43] Dr. Conrad: Before each meeting, there's a big box that comes about a month before the meeting. And it's a box of materials. No, it's no longer a box. Now we send you a list for you to order your own electronic versions, but we used to send a box and, and that box would have stuff on opera, something on, you know, advanced analytical geometry. So you would be reading all this material, so you would learn from that process.

[00:14:07] But I think if you had the experience of being a critical reader and a critical thinker, when you read those evaluation letters, you can kind of start to understand what are they saying about what is--that's what you're looking for--what is the creativity in this work and how does it fit into the world in general?

[00:14:21] So that is a skill set they help you develop through the the committee work. It's like being in a really amazing seminar.

[00:14:28] Aaron - Interview: I love it. I have to say, after I heard you kind of describe that in another interview, the, I thought to myself, I get that people aspire to be MacArthur fellows, even though there's no way really to aspire to that because of how nomination works, but I just thought, man, the cool job is being on the selection committee.

[00:14:45] Dr. Conrad: You're right.

[00:14:48] Aaron - Interview: If I was given the choice, like if the two were sitting in front of me and it was just like, pick the one you want, Aaron, I would pick the selection committee a hundred times out of a hundred. It sounds so cool.

[00:14:56] Dr. Conrad: It's true, and one of the fun things is when I was on the secret selection committee, I sometimes tell people, I think this is how I ended up in the dean role, because I would be talking to fellow faculty at Pomona--and let's face economists don't have the reputation for being, what's the word I want?

[00:15:11] Well, you know, we're sometimes called the dismal.

[00:15:14] Aaron - Interview: The dismal science.

[00:15:15] Dr. Conrad: Dismal science. So people were always like a little taken aback walking with a colleague. And we were talking about this playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, and, and actually the, the play I was talking about has just had a revival on Broadway called Topdog/Underdog. I brought this play up with this English professor who I knew was interested in this type of work. She was so stunned. "You've heard of her, like, oh my gosh, who are you? How have you heard of her?" It was great.

[00:15:41] And then another time I was walking to school with a physicist and I said to him, "You know what I'm trying to understand, I'm trying to understand what is this quantum computing business?" And he, he was looking... again, it really can make you just expand your horizons, probably more so than anything or time since when you were in college and you're learning stuff for the first time, and except in this case you're not going to have to pass an exam.

[00:16:01] Aaron - Narration: The kind of fellows who have been chosen over the years has shifted. Over time, the award has become a lens into what seems to matter most. For example, there were no computational virologists chosen in the 1981 inaugural class of fellows, but there was one last year, Dr. Trevor Bradford.

[00:16:21] Dr. Conrad: We always are paying attention to all the different dimensions one can look at in terms of the class. So we might adjust how many nominators we ask from what space based on where the classes have been. But in terms of topic areas, that process, that system itself organically adjusts, because if exciting creativity is happening in a particular space, we're going to get more nominations from that. If people have top of mind, and we can kind of see this in the pool of nominations that come in, that when we had Covid, we saw a lot more nominations about public health than about fighting viral diseases.

[00:16:58] When there's an issue around racial equity, we see more nominations come in in that space, so there's a way in which, relying on, essentially a kind of form of a participatory process. We're relying on people out there in the world to tell us where, or at least in the US to tell us where the creativity is happening.

[00:17:17] We're going to be responsive, even without consciously being responsive. So we don't start out and say, we want to give a nominee in who's strengthening democracy. I'll just use that as an example. We don't start out with that at all, but sometimes that will show up based on what kinds of nominations come in.

[00:17:35] Aaron - Interview: When you look at fellows, when you look at what makes them amazing, when you look at what makes them grant-worthy, when you look at what they've done after they've received their fellowships and what they've been able to accomplish because of the freedom that it provides, you know, what lessons can all of us take from the life experiences of these fellows?

[00:17:52] Dr. Conrad: So I'll go back to something I said earlier about the fact that I've noticed that this creativity tends to happen at the intersteces of things, right? And what I find is that sometimes we are, particularly when we're first starting out, we think that paths have to be linear. And that's not typically where the big creativity is emerging.

[00:18:13] It's emerging from, from non-linear paths. I remember one fellow who is now a neuroscientist, who was, I think an English literature major until close to senior year, and they had to fulfill a distribution requirement, and took this course, which later led to neurosciences as her field. So we should be open to those opportunities and try them.

[00:18:34] It's, it's not always possible. We all have to balance risk that we may have other responsibilities that may limit our ability to take risk. But, but when it's possible, I think it's important to take that, cause that's frequently, even if it doesn't leave you to being a MacArthur fellow, I think that's where people find their passions and their vocations as opposed to their careers.

[00:18:53] So one of the things that I think more of us, and I, I tell myself that, and I sort of did it when I left academia for this, that it's important to open that space for ourselves.

[00:19:04] Aaron - Narration: This advice to try new things and to take some risks is advice that Dr. Conrad has lived by herself. Let's take some time to get to know her better and her background.

[00:19:15] She was raised in Dallas, Texas during the height of the Civil Rights movement.

[00:19:20] Aaron - Interview: You had parents who were really active in advocating for Civil Rights, and I was wondering if you could maybe share some of your memories from that time growing up?

[00:19:27] Dr. Conrad: Yes, certainly. My parents are interesting. My mother grew up in Illinois and so was relatively new to the South when we moved there in 1955.

[00:19:35] My father was from Louisiana and the reason why we came to Dallas was that he was a surgeon, but hospitals in Louisiana wouldn't allow him access to practice his surgery. And the Catholic hospital in Dallas had decided just the year before to open up privileges for Black physicians. So that's what brought them to Dallas.

[00:19:56] But it's also important because one of the things my father explained to me was that neither one of them were really dependent on the private businesses or the white sort of power structure within the city for their income. And my father said that meant that they had some independence that they could exercise that other people in our community couldn't and felt that it was their responsibility to take a leadership role because they had that freedom, that independence.

[00:20:24] So early on, it was just, participating and going to rallies and being parts of conversations and watching my mother sit in at a bus station dressed to the nines in, in the suit--she was a great seamstress--the suit she had made for herself with matching handbag and shoes. And I remember looking at it thinking, I wasn't sure that if they did serve her, she would eat the food, but we never got to that point.

[00:20:47] But just being conscious of that is something that was part of what our family did. It was part of who we were.

[00:20:53] My father ended up running for our school board in Dallas. This would've been when I was in around junior high. He ran. For office. It was, he was the first black elected in a citywide election in Dallas, and that had to take place through a runoff. But that experience itself was eye-opening because of the mobilization work that my mother really led. And also just the kinds of phone calls we would get and the encounters with people who were not pleased about the idea of an African-American being on the school board.

[00:21:26] So that's kind of the family legacy sort of taught me that I, I had to figure out a career where I was going to be contributing to my community, to making the world a better place. And that's kind of how I ended up in economics.

[00:21:39] Aaron - Narration: If you're not familiar with the field, you might not know that the great majority of economists are white men. This meant entering a field that made her background and perspective quite unique.

[00:21:50] Dr. Conrad: I'm going to confess to you that my initial thought was, was I wanted to be an engineer. I was very good in math. It was, I loved math and it was, it was clear I was good in math. And I had this interest in public policy, what we now call social justice issues.

[00:22:04] And, but I, I thought I wanted to be an engineer. But I, I had a family friend who was an engineer for one of the oil companies who sort of dissuaded me. He said, well, and I'm sure he, he meant this in the best way. He said, well, it's hard enough to be a woman in engineering or to be a black in engineering, but to be a black woman in engineering would be just really, really difficult. He just didn't think the time was right and somehow that got a little bit into my psyche. B

[00:22:32] ut around this time--and really now we're talking 1968 and all of the things were happening kept me glued to the news--but one of the things that we probably don't remember is when they were negotiating one of the Brenton Woods's International Monetary Agreement. That was my first encounter with people who were called economists. I thought, what is this? This is something I don't know anything about. I started to understand that it was about issues such as economic growth, but also the distribution of income and wealth.

[00:22:58] But I didn't know any economists, and that probably helped because no one told me that there weren't any women and there weren't very many blacks and that, in fact, it's probably worse than engineering. I didn't really discover that until really after college, because I went to Wellesley where I was lucky enough to to, you know, have this amazing economics department where there were, my fellow students, were all women and many of the faculty were. And no one ever breathed that this wasn't a possible career path for us.

[00:23:25] So it wasn't until graduate school when I founded myself as one of two people, one of two women, and one of two black students in my entering class, that it hit me that it was going to be lonely.

[00:23:35] Aaron - Narration: Dr. Conrad earned her PhD in economics from Stanford University and began teaching at Duke, followed then by a career mostly in small liberal arts colleges. Her research started in a mainstream topic regulation, but her passions and interests eventually led her to break ground in overlooked issues like race and gender.

[00:23:57] Dr. Conrad: It took me a bit of time to give myself permission to focus in on the topics that were really near and dear to my heart, that could go back to the early days of what prompted me to be interested in economics, the economic status of the black community, issues of poverty and, and issues of gender.

[00:24:15] And those, initially, I, I sort of stayed clear of them and so my early work was more in the area of regulatory economics. But even when I was working on those, the model, the underlying modeling I was thinking of in terms of possible applications to understanding how labor markets work and, and how imperfect information can affect what outcomes turn out.

[00:24:36] I, eventually I ended up becoming and editing a special volume of Feminist Economics called "Race, Gender, Color, and Caste" that was about Intersectionality, a concept that was being developed in sociology and some other spaces and sort of transferring. What, how does that help us think about how the economics, how economics works, how labor markets work, how households work, which was an area that we were starting to think a bit about.

[00:25:03] I got interested in affirmative action really as an outgrowth of my interest in regulatory economics because you can think of affirmative action, particularly the affirmative action that was mandated as part of federal contracting as a form of regulation. And understanding what the arguments for were for that regulation and how it worked, kind of something else that attracted my attention, where I saw the parallels.

[00:25:26] Eventually, I got involved in the discussion about affirmative action in higher ed. I was asked to, to do some analysis of what the impact of Prop 209 might be. This was very early before, you know, around the time when it was being debated and after there had been a a special resolution limiting race is a consideration in UC admissions.

[00:25:48] So it was a great opportunity to kind of stand back as an economist and ask really the allocation decision. We always think of economics as studying how scarce resources get allocated among competing uses, right? One of the resource allocations decisions is if I'm going to allocate spaces from a public perspective, where is the greatest benefit yielded and, and that's the kind of approach I try to take to think about that issue, which of course is now going to be back again.

[00:26:14] Aaron - Narration: Dr. Conrad's interest in overlooked research questions isn't the only thing that reflects the spirit of the MacArthur Fellowship grants. She also has a love for teaching and seeing students develop into better versions of themselves, not unlike how the foundation is supporting fellows to help them flourish.

[00:26:32] Dr. Conrad: I discovered that I loved teaching. I've spent some time reflecting on what I love the most.

[00:26:37] First, I have to acknowledge that I like talking. I like being in front of people. I'm a bit of a performer, but I don't really have any acting talent or standup comedy talent. But you can be just sort of humorous and sort of good at acting and really succeed in a classroom if you have the energy and the passion for it. So that, that was one thing I realized.

[00:26:56] Aaron - Interview: Sort of humorous is I think how my students would describe me.

[00:27:00] Dr. Conrad: Sometimes, you know, painfully humorous, perhaps. So I love that. I loved the sense, I loved watching people expand their thinking.

[00:27:10] One of the things I always love to do is in my intro class, the beginning, I take a sort of little survey about people's attitudes about things, and certainly one of the ones that stands in mind was around the time that NAFTA was being debated. And many of the students who would consider themselves sort of progressive were very much, you know, anti-free trade. But it's a far more complex thing than a simple yes or no on free trade, particularly if you think about it from the perspectives of all the, you know, different people, the farmer, the customer, the consumer, the everybody that's involved.

[00:27:40] And so by the end of the semester, I really felt excited if I found that students had much more complex ideas about free trade then they started the semester. And that kind of watching that evolution of thought just really felt powerful to me.

[00:27:54] I also just love, it turns out, I get aof joy vicariously from other people's success. So that was the other thing that I really enjoy about the energy you get from having people who have completely new perspectives, who are seeing the world differently from you, who ask different questions, who get upset about things that you've forgotten to get upset about because you've just kind of suppressed them for so long. That's just amazing kind of experience. So I loved it. I loved it very much.

[00:28:22] Aaron - Narration: Dr. Conrad gained a great deal of operational expertise by serving in academic administrative roles. These are often thankless positions in universities, but necessary ones to make an institution run smoothly.

[00:28:37] Dr. Conrad: I moved into academic administration first because it was an opportunity to increase my pay while my son was going to college. That's what started it. We had a rotating associate dean kind of role where you could rotate in and you'd do it for a few years and then you would rotate out.

[00:28:53] But once I got in there though, I realized that this was a different level of doing some of the things I really enjoyed about teaching. Partly I also, I was in charge of the student faculty undergraduate research program, so there was that opportunity there to support students and to see them thrive.

[00:29:09] But also to support young, particularly the younger faculty, the opportunity to kind of help younger faculty find their way, get their research program started, work on their teaching, help to create the infrastructure to support them. That turned out to be really gratifying.

[00:29:24] So I started to think, Hmm, maybe this administration is not the dark side after all. And that's what led me into becoming eventually the dean at Scripps as an interim. And then coming back to pomona.

[00:29:35] Aaron - Narration: None of this work directly predicts a career move to leading the MacArthur Fellows program. How did she end up making that leap into philanthropy? After being invited to serve on the Secret Selection Committee for a few years, the time came to make a bigger jump.

[00:29:52] Dr. Conrad: I came to this moment where I realized that I loved my work in academia. I loved Pomona. I was Chief Academic Officer. That's a very stressful job if you want to do it well, and if you want to do it in a way that relies on consensus building and engaging people and not become sort of some kind of top down manager, which is not somebody I am.

[00:30:13] So I started thinking, I'm not going to want to do this forever. What should I think about next? And I could have gone back to the faculty, because I was a tenured member of the faculty. I thought, I'm not so sure that's good for the institution to have me sitting around like, you know, back there, even if I was quiet, when there's a new dean in place. So I wasn't so sure that was a good idea.

[00:30:36] I interviewed for some college presidencies and realized that that was taking me a little bit too far away from what I really loved. I loved the problem solving. I loved the sort of one-on-one work with faculty and with students, and so I sort of moved away from that idea as well. I started to think about foundations and partly because I knew someone who was a, had moved from being a chief academic officer to joining a foundation, and had talked with them the excitement that they enjoyed about it. So, so that was great.

[00:31:03] And I thought, I've got some time, you know, down the road I'll do this. And I, I got a phone call about this opportunity at MacArthur to run the MacArthur Fellows Program. Iconic program. It was sort of a dream job because I had, and I'm allowed to say this now, I had been a member of the secret selection committee past, so I knew about the job.

[00:31:26] The person who called me, had called me almost a year before about this position, and at that time I wasn't really even remotely thinking about leaving academia. She had asked for suggestions and I'd given her suggestions. So it's a year later, she calls again and I say, "Oh. Yeah. You know, Let me give you some more names. I, I'm, I'm a little surprised it's such a hard position to fill. It's kind of a shame because it would be a dream job for me, but I'm certain I'm not the kind of person you're looking for."

[00:31:55] And her response was, "Well, I don't know, maybe you are the kind of person that we're looking for, just as an aside."

[00:32:01] I have a history of not catching on when people are asking me if I'm interested in a job. The same thing happened when I left Barnard and went to Pomona. I missed that that's what they were asking for at least three calls before they had to just come out and say it. So I was missing this, this message that maybe I should apply.

[00:32:18] And I recognized that in some ways this particular opportunity, it captured everything I loved about what I was doing. And then more, plus, you weren't having to tell people "No," really, because you only call people and tell them "Yes." You don't, they don't know if you were looking at them and, and, and they weren't selected. So I thought, ah, you know, this job doesn't come open that often. I'm going to have to to do that. So I ended up flying out for an interview.

[00:32:41] It was an interview I did not think had gone well. And I was on the train here going out on the blue line out to O'Hare and I got a phone call from the search consultant saying, "Oh, they love you." So it was this kind of amazing moment where I really had to make a decision there that I had thought was hypothetical and off into the future, but it felt as if this was the moment to make a change.

[00:33:04] I think I had been at that, at largely liberal arts colleges I spent--my first job was at Duke, but after that, all small liberal arts colleges--for 30 years. I had seen just about every job, maybe even done almost every job there except do admissions.

[00:33:22] I felt very comfortable and highly knowledgeable, and maybe too knowledgeable. Maybe I was getting to a place where I thought I knew everything, and that's a dangerous place I think, for anyone to be if you want to kinda keep your brain operating and alive. So I decided to make that leap and we moved out to Chicago in the middle of a January.

[00:33:42] Aaron - Interview: Oh, that's rough timing.

[00:33:44] Dr. Conrad: From southern California. Just, just to make that clear. We packed up our car and it was somewhere in between when we got out and looked at each other, my husband and I, and said, we're moving to winter.

[00:33:57] Aaron - Narration: Let's take a break here for a word from our sponsor.

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[00:34:56] Dr. Conrad has recently moved on to a new endeavor running the Lever for Change Foundation as its CEO. This is a new MacArthur initiative to innovate how foundations find and select grant recipients that are trying to solve the world's thorniest problems. This all began with a creative funding experiment called 100 and Change, where MacArthur awarded a hundred million dollars to a cause chosen by the applicants rather than by the foundation itself.

[00:35:26] Dr. Conrad: It's sort of interesting because I, I was still relatively new in the field of philanthropy and that naivete I think ended up with me working on and helping to create this new project. Because I didn't really, and this is where I go back to sometimes creativity comes because you are sort of bringing something from someplace else and don't realize the rules in your field or discipline might say, oh no, you can't do that.

[00:35:48] Our president at the time, Julia Stasch, wanted to, as an acknowledgement of the foundation's humility, find an area where we would invest a substantial amount of resources equivalent to what we might do in a big bet of one of our programs to solve a problem, to address a problem that was not something we had chosen.

[00:36:06] We were making decisions about where we were going to focus our attention. She wanted to open this up to voices outside the foundation. So she posed that as the problem. And we had a small group internally that created this 100 and Change, which was a large scale competition or challenge, open call. It was open to anyone in the world, any team in the world. They had to be non-profits or for, it had to be an organization. And basically we said, "Tell us what you would do at a hundred million."

[00:36:32] We didn't constrain the problem or the type of solution. We just invited submissions and they, they were ultimately going to be evaluated by an external panel. So we were taking that participatory approach from fellows and bringing that over. The big distinction is that this process was entirely transparent as compared to fellows. Partly because we felt that transparency would really help communicate openness, that this wasn't some rigged system, that everyone would be able to see what the rules were, see who the panelists were, who would evaluate.

[00:37:02] So that was the idea behind it. We did 100 and Change. We've done it twice now.

[00:37:08] Aaron - Narration: The first 100 and change award went to the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee, in a joint effort to help the early childhood development of refugee children in the wake of the Syrian crisis. The result is an Arabic version of Sesame Street with customized characters and content, fit to the lives and children who watch it. To date, over 5 million children in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq have watched the show. An impact study in Jordan revealed that 92% of caregivers felt that their children learned and used the emotional regulation tools taught by the show to help them manage toxic stress.

[00:37:50] Dr. Conrad: After the first 100 and Change, we started getting phone calls, and the phone calls were coming from other donor, who were saying, essentially, this whole idea of doing a big open call is something we don't feel like we can do humanely because we want to be able to respond to people who submit--and with our 100 and Change, everyone got some kind of feedback from us on their application-- we want to do that. It just seems really difficult, but we really want to know what's out there that we are not seeing will you share?

[00:38:20] So we were willing to share our data and we did that and we started sharing our data. And from sharing the data, we started seeing more money flowing to projects that had not been the grant recipient for MacArthur projects that were in our top 200 or more recently, our top 100.

[00:38:34] We started seeing funding flowing to them. So we saw this opportunity and that's how we ended up creating Lever for Change, is that ,what if we worked with funders who were particularly--and most of them are interested in specific topics, they're not as open as a hundred and change. So you work with a funder who say is interested in durable futures for refugees. Launch and run one of these open calls and we identify a group of top projects, again, advised by external panels of experts, people in the field, and then the donor picks what they want to fund, and then we get those projects in front of other donors. And what if we do that over and over again? What could happen?

[00:39:14] And so that's what Lever for Change became. And I'll just take a moment to brag because it's still kind of new. So we're excited. You know, two weeks ago we announced that we had helped to drive $1 billion through 11 challenges. And what for me is exciting is that over half of that funding is coming from this work we're doing what I call the secondary market. The work we're doing with the projects, getting them in front of other donors. We've vetted these projects, the teams have put together amazing ideas. They're ready. So donors who are looking to make some big grants, we've got opportunities. And so that's just really, you can see that's invigorating for me. I love it.

[00:39:50] Aaron - Interview: And what I love about this approach is this is much more outward focused and engaging. "What are the needs? And let's figure this out together," rather than saying, "We're going to sit quietly in these offices and then if you hear back from us." Hopefully it's with good news.

[00:40:04] Dr. Conrad: Yeah, it's important to open the door because there's so many organizations out there, so many people out there who aren't part of the insider network and may not get seen otherwise or heard. It's one of the eye opening things for me when I left academia and moved into philanthropy was to realize how many, how many times I probably wasted time on a grant application.

[00:40:24] Aaron - Interview: Yeah.

[00:40:25] Dr. Conrad: Not recognizing that it really wasn't going to be competitive because I didn't know the program officer didn't know that I was supposed to know the program officer.

[00:40:35] Aaron - Narration: Lever for Change is upending some decades old limiting patterns that are found in philanthropy today. It's far more open and collaborative than what you find in most foundations. It's also setting much higher standards for measuring the impact of the work that it funds. Most philanthropy still today doesn't actually go towards programs that have demonstrated impact for good. Lever for Change and MacArthur require that impact measurement be present in all of their work.

[00:41:06] Dr. Conrad: So we look at several different metrics of impact, first for ourselves and then also for the organizations. In every one of our challenges, we ask the organizations to define for us what it is they're going to define as impact and how they're going to track and measure it. And every one of the challenges the organizations have budgeted for having a third-party kind of evaluator work with them on doing that.

[00:41:28] We embrace and, and you know, some people might yank my economics credentials for doing this, but we embrace a variety of, of forms of data. But we are really looking for a kind of feedback loop, because you're trying to understand whether you're actually having the impact that you want to have and, and, and what are some of the things that are you doing that are generating that impact, particularly when you're trying to scale impact?

[00:41:51] Our impulse, and I used to do this when I was a a professor or when I was in an academic administrator, your impulse is to throw everything you can at the problem because the problem is so important and critical and you want to solve. But you also have to understand that in the end, scaling is frequently going to be under resource constraints. So you need to figure out what it is that you did that actually made the difference.

[00:42:13] And so I think when we frame thinking about that kind of activity in those ways, it helps organizations who want to do understand the importance of also kind of assessing as they're doing. So that's one of the things we try to do.

[00:42:27] I'll say we also though, have comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. And I think that's the other part, because not all impact is going to necessarily show up right away. You may have to wait a long time to see the long term consequences of this early childhood intervention, right, in the Syrian refugee region.

[00:42:44] So you have to ask yourself, are you willing to rely on maybe some short term indicators? Are you willing to, in some sense, take a little bit of a leap of faith in order to potentially address something that is a critically important issue and problem. So there's a bit of also embracing the fact that we may not always be able to, to put a number or a specific thing on impact for quite some time.

[00:43:06] Aaron - Interview: So what are some of the lessons that you've been learning, that you think other large funders should know, with Lever For Change? You're trying new things and you're learning new lessons. What are some of the takeaways that you wish all big funders were keeping in mind?

[00:43:18] Dr. Conrad: So I think the first, it's a labor intensive process to have an open, open call. But I think creating some space periodically where you're doing that, where you're really conscious of the need to find out what you don't know, what you can't see would be number one.

[00:43:33] Number two is that we are modeling, and I think there's generally a move in the field transfer of agency from the funder to the organizations. In our challenges, we pose kind of a big question. What are you going to do to reduce racial inequity? We don't say, "Here we're looking for an organization that is doing workforce training for, for technology skills in order to reduce racial equity."

[00:44:01] We're leaving the organizations free to tell us how they would approach this particular issue or our problem. So we are transferring agency and, and organizations tell us this is like liberating. So I'd say transferring agency to the organizations in the field who are doing the work would be another big piece to this.

[00:44:21] information sharing, and this is becoming more of a thing in philanthropy, but I think there was a way in which each foundation kind guarded the information about, you know, what organizations had they considered for funding. And now there is a, a move of foundations collaborating with each other, sharing information. Because if you've got a great project and you just didn't have enough budget for that project, why not see if we can't get other funders involved, why not bring other people to the table?

[00:44:48] Aaron - Interview: In fact, the Bold Solutions Network is a good example of this.

[00:44:51] Dr. Conrad: That's our goal. So every time we run a challenge, we take the best ideas. We have them available in a publicly searchable database, the Bold Solutions Network. They're pre-vetted, they're ready to go. We ask them, what would you do with less amounts of money? So a funder can look and see. But even beyond that, we have a database of all the submissions from all of our challenges, which is well over 5,000 projects now.

[00:45:12] And if a funder comes to us and says, "I want to fund something big in Wichita Falls, Texas," we can go through our database and tell them, "Here are the things we've gotten from Wichita Falls, Texas." And we're willing to do that. We're really trying to make sure that these projects get seen and potentially get funded.

[00:45:30] Aaron - Narration: As you know, if you've heard my other episodes, I like to have my guests reflect on their lives, their work, and the lessons that they've learned. I asked Dr. Conrad to share about the people who have shaped her path, and how we can all get better at finding and developing new ideas.

[00:45:47] Aaron - Interview: Who are the other people that have shaped your passions and interests and career path? And we talked about your parents before, but you know, are there any other people that come to mind that sort of played a key role in where you've come to?

[00:45:58] Dr. Conrad: Oh, I have just been extraordinarily lucky. So one is my godmother. My godmother was a woman named Mabel Curtis in St. Louis. I was born in, in St. Louis, Missouri. Mabel Curtis had this extraordinary life. She spent some time working with the League of Nations, so she was somebody who just had this global perspective. She was also a lover of the arts. She started a community art center there. So she gave me this kind of view of a world and model of how you can exist in the world. That was important to me.

[00:46:30] My aunt, my father's sister was a math teacher, so you know, women in math was, you know, in our family genes. And, and she went over on a trip in the Holy Land, as she wrote op-eds in the newspaper constantly. These are all people who showed a kind of model for me of being an active participant in society, of being an active citizen.

[00:46:51] And there were many, I mean, I could, I can name many, many others in that kind of universe of the family. I have a great uncle, actually, I have several uncles who were Tuskegee airmen. But one of my great uncles who just recently passed away was Charles McGee, who was named a brigadier general just a few years ago and passed away at 102 last year. So that was somebody else who I just saw. Here's a path, here's someone who had this amazing set of ethics and patriotism and work hard kind of model.

[00:47:21] So I was surrounded by a lot of people like that. I was an only child and so I got dragged places a lot. I would get to be places maybe I, I maybe people would think wasn't appropriate, but I got to listen in on a lot of conversations and it was great.

[00:47:33] Aaron - Narration: As a kind of like a, a closing thought, how do we get better at learning how to spot good ideas?

[00:47:39] Dr. Conrad: Ah, wow. That's a great question. My thought is, you were asking it was, well then I should be rich, shouldn't I? I mean, I should, you should have been doing this in investing. I have been investing, but not in things that are going to yield a market return.

[00:47:55] So the part of it is a kind of listening. I try to listen hard. I think this is a skill I developed in the classroom because sometimes you'll ask a question and a student will answer it. And if it's not exactly what you were expecting, you might have a tendency to just say, okay, this student doesn't know what they're talking about. They're wrong. But I rarely find that an answer is completely wrong, that usually the student has spotted something and is thinking about the problem in a way that's different from the way you originally framed it.

[00:48:27] But maybe sometimes you want people who don't think like economist to look at an economics problem because they'll see some piece of it that you wouldn't have spotted and that could lead to new ideas.

[00:48:37] So I think it, it's the listening and also, expecting that the perspective that someone is bringing has value to it, and so that you're understanding what the kernel of the new idea is. What is the way that they're thinking about something that's different? I think that is a critical piece for me. I've worked with people where sometimes they'll raise an issue and everybody in the room is like, what is that person talking about? And I will be doing that too. But later on, about an hour later, I go "Ah. I see what they were trying to say."

[00:49:07] And just kind of being open to that fact that there's good ideas that can emerge from everywhere.

[00:49:13] Aaron - Narration: It almost sounds silly to say it because it's so simple, but the key to finding and developing good ideas is to be an excellent listener. If you reflect on what we've learned about Dr. Conrad and the MacArthur Foundation, you'll see that they've turned listening closely into a science. The intensive process for choosing MacArthur Fellows demonstrates this, as do the innovative approaches to the 100 and Change program and the Lever for Change Foundation.

[00:49:43] But finding good ideas also means listening to the people who might otherwise be ignored. We've built entire systems around making sure that some people are not heard, so that others can get all the attention. But when you're in the business of finding and developing good ideas like Dr. Conrad and MacArthur are, you can't just listen to the voices that everyone else is hearing. Like Dr. Suess' Horton the elephant, you have to have ears for the quiet, amazing voices who can change the way you see the world.

[00:50:18] Abundant thanks to Dr. Cecillia Conrad. I hope you got a sense of what an intelligent, warm, and interesting person she is. She has the energy and clarity of someone who's doing the job she was meant to do. I'm grateful that she took the time to share her life and her insights with us. You can learn more about her work using the links in her show notes, and by visiting leverforhange.org and macfound.org.

[00:50:43] In the next episode, we'll be listening to the delightful and fascinating Ashish Gadnis. He's a serial entrepreneur who came from poverty in India to someone who has built and sold multiple successful ventures. He's currently the CEO and co-founder of BanQu, a company dedicated to adding transparency to the products you buy every day by using blockchain technology in our supply chains. Imagine being able to know who grew the fruit that you're eating or what's actually happening to the bottle you put in the recycling bin. These are the kinds of problems BanQu is tackling, and it will be a fascinating episode.

[00:51:22] If you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It helps us immensely in reaching more listeners. And if you have a favorite episode, will you share it on social media? It means a lot to us.

[00:51:36] If you want to stay up to date with the podcast and my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter, where I share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives how-to-help.com.

[00:51:52] This episode was written and recorded by me. Our production team for this season has included Ty Bingham yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes our audio. Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and discount code in our show notes.

[00:52:11] Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller, and this has been How to Help.

Podcast Episode: You Deserve Ethical Government • Walter Shaub, senior ethics fellow at POGO • s02e05


No matter what political ideology we have, we all agree that we deserve ethical government. But, trust in government in the US and around the world is at historic lows. Much of this falling trust comes from seeing political officials use their power to enrich themselves at the cost of the public good.

In this episode, Walter Shaub—a leading voice—helps us understand why ethics in government is worth fighting for. He also shares his fascinating experiences doing just that, along with issues at the forefront today. Shaub is one of my personal heroes, and I'm excited for you to hear why I admire him so much.

About Our Guest

Walter Shaub is a government ethics expert and one of the most important voices advocating for integrity and accountability in government. He leads the Government Ethics Initiative for the Project on Government Oversight.

Before joining POGO, Shaub served in key roles with other nonprofit watchdogs, government agencies and private sector employers. He served for four years as the Senate-confirmed Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE). While in that role, he was a member of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) and CIGIE’s Integrity Committee. Shaub served at OGE for a total of nearly 14 years as a staff attorney, a supervisory attorney, Deputy General Counsel and, finally, Director. Before that, he served in the General Counsel offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Outside government, he also worked for the law firm of Shaw, Bransford, Veilleux & Roth, P.C., and as a CNN contributor.

Shaub is the winner of multiple awards and recognitions. He's also written opinion pieces for a variety of publications, including the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, the LA Times, and other publications. Shaub is licensed as an attorney in both the District of Columbia and Virginia. He earned his J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law and his B.A. in history from James Madison University.

Useful Links

Follow Walter Shaub on Twitter: https://twitter.com/waltshaub

The Project on Government Oversight: https://www.pogo.org/

Shaub's podcast, The Continuous Action: https://www.pogo.org/series-collections/the-continuous-action

The US Office of Government Ethics: https://www.oge.gov/

Alarming trends in trust of government:  https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/

A New York Times report on Congressional conflicts of interests: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/09/13/us/politics/congress-stock-trading-investigation.html

Pleasant Pictures Music

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.


[00:00:00] Aaron - Interview: Honestly, if, if somebody had asked me 10 years ago if I thought a government ethics expert would have nearly 700,000 followers, I think, on Twitter, I would've laughed at them.

[00:00:12] Walter Shaub: Yeah. I will say that I'm still surprised that I had that many because it did stop growing abruptly the first time I criticized Biden. Apparently some of the followers just really were in it for the Trump- bashing and not for objective ethics analysis. I think the ones who have stayed have embraced the idea, "Let's start caring about government ethics." And so it's kind of fun because I feel like there was a, a self-selecting purge for a couple years and a replacement of people who just truly care about this stuff.

And so now I don't get abused on Twitter every day because the ones who hate me are gone...

[00:00:53] Aaron - Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode five: You Deserve Ethical Government. This episode of How To Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.

Before we begin this episode, I'd like to ask for your help. Listeners like you are the most powerful people in helping a podcast to grow, and that happens in two ways. First, the most effective thing you can do is to share an episode with a friend or on social media. The second thing is to leave a podcast review with Apple Podcasts. The best part is both these steps cost you nothing but a few minutes of your time. So thank you for helping the podcast to grow.

Nestled in the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy, you'll find the city of Siena. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was governed under the burden of factions and fraud. But then it enjoyed a period of remarkable peace and prosperity that lasted for 80 years, ending in 1355.

The heart of this prosperity was found in the medieval town hall called the Palazzo Publico. It still stands today and houses frescos, huge paintings on its walls that are around 700 years-old. These frescos are unique because they were commissioned by the government instead of the Church, and therefore are mostly secular instead of religious, like the vast majority of art at the time.

The most famous artwork there is a set of frescos by the artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Together, these paintings of his are called "The Allegory of Good and Bad Government." They're filled with symbolic imagery. On the east and north walls, you can see the panels called "The Effects of Good Government," where people are dancing, trading with each other, and traveling in safety and peace.

Sitting on a seat of judgment, you find the city ruler. Above him float symbols of wisdom and justice, and at his feet two children are playing. On the west wall you see a fresco called "The Effects of Bad Government," which ironically has been badly damaged with time.

It depicts a desolate, decaying city and a countryside beset with drought and war. Its ruler is the tyrant with horns on his head and fangs protruding from his grimacing mouth. Above him, figures representing avarice, pride, and vainglory. At his feet, a female figure of justice tied up and held captive.

These frescos adorn the council room where the nine elected officials of the city would carry out their business. It was a reminder to them, and a promise to the citizens of Siena, that a wise, just government ensures their prosperity and peace. These rulers were meant to demonstrate virtues like justice and humility, and to avoid the vices that surrounded the tyrant. Those vices are frenzy, divisiveness, war, cruelty, treason, and fraud.

When these images were painted by Lorenzetti, Siena was a flourishing and happy republic, one of the most prominent cities of Europe thanks to its commerce and art. But eventually, over the following 200 years, the city fell prey to factions and power struggles by the wealthy merchants and rulers. The nine were deposed. Siena lost in war to the rival government of Florence, never again to reach its former glory. It fell to every vice warned of by Lorenzetti.

[00:04:46] Walter Shaub: The hardest thing to do is persuade people in positions of authority that ethics isn't a nice overlay to have on top of what they do, but actually fundamental to what they do and to their success.

[00:04:58] Aaron - Narration: If my guest today was an artist, he would be Lorenzetti reincarnated. His name is Walter Shaub, and he's the Senior Ethics Fellow with the Project on Government Oversight and former Director of the Office of Government Ethics, the Federal agency charged with ensuring ethical decision making throughout the Executive branch.

In this role, he was the highest ranking ethics officer in the entire Federal government. He also runs the podcast on democracy and government ethics called The Continuous Action.

Shaub is a personal hero of mine. But I want to warn you about this episode as we begin. If you are a staunchly political, Democrat or Republican, you're likely to get uncomfortable as you listen. Shaub is going to call out, by name, a wide range of prominent politicians for their ethical lapses. And he also offers praise where deserved. Just know that he's an equal opportunity critic, who is focused on what it takes to have a government we can trust.

[00:06:00] Aaron - Interview: I think one of the things I've admired most about you as I follow you is that partisanship really doesn't define what you do, even as others try to paint you as partisan.

[00:06:10] Walter Shaub: Right. They've done it a little less now that I've been sort of critical of the Biden administration, now all of a sudden I seem to be Fox News's BFF. But it's never been driven for partisanship for me. You know, I, I worked in the Office of Government Ethics, and worked closely with the White House in both the Bush and Obama administrations. And I was ultimately a political appointee under Obama, but I had equally good working relationships with both the Bush and Obama White House because I felt the goal that I have, letting the people choose the policy through through elections, is only achieved if there isn't corruption, if people aren't self-serving. And so focusing on these sort of support functions and process functions to make sure that the government isn't tainted by conflicts of interest or misuse of position, I always figured no matter who's in power that's going. To benefit America, and so that's what I cared about and it's what I still care about now that I'm out of government.

[00:07:16] Aaron - Narration: Shaub left government in a way that was unprecedented. He's the only Director of Government Ethics to ever resign since the role was created by Congress, and he did it for honorable reasons. This is a story to come later, though. These days, he works for the project on government oversight, or POGO for short. POGO is one of the most important public service organizations you've maybe never heard of.

[00:07:43] Walter Shaub: So I'm with the Project on Government Oversight right now, and it's an organization I just absolutely adore.

When I was in government, you know, we'd get letters occasionally from good government groups expressing concerns about one thing or another, and I'd often forward the letter on to an inspector general at an agency to see if they wanted to investigate something or pass it on to agency officials. But I really didn't have a lot of power to do anything.

But if I got a call from the Project on Government Oversight, it was all hands on deck. We would want to meet with them, we would want to solve the concern quickly because they made us nervous. I decided when I left government, I wanted to go to the place that made people nervous.

[00:08:24] Aaron - Interview: Yeah.

[00:08:24] Walter Shaub: Because they were serious about their work and, and still are, and are not partisan. They're focused on issues rather than parties. And those issues range from government ethics to government spending, which are related in the sense of accountability. For instance, the government not hiring contractors with histories of fraud or corruption. So all of this still points in the direction of aligning the government's functions with whatever policies the government has decided to approve after the people have chosen their leaders.

There's also a division that focuses on Constitutional rights and their work can be wide ranging from focusing on Death in Custody Reporting Act, where the government's not doing a good job, tracking who's getting killed in custody, to the detention of children detained at at the border and mistreated. The organization doesn't focus on immigration policy, but they do focus on the violation of basic rights. And so it's a fairly wide ranging focus, but it all points toward the government serving the people and tries to stay mostly neutral on policies because that's for the people that decide in elections.

[00:09:42] Aaron - Narration: Both with OGE and at Pogo, Shaub's work has included the efforts of Inspectors General. Here's a bit on what they do, and how they operate.

[00:09:52] Walter Shaub: An inspector general is in the large departments a statutorily created position, in the small agencies they've just created it on their own. And these individuals are supposed to be outside the management chain of command, and they conduct independent investigations and audits.

So they really are the eyes and ears of the people inside the agency looking for fraud, waste, abuse, corruption, to make sure the government is effectively using its energies in a way that's aligned with the people's interests and all pointing in that same direction. That work has, just goes straight to the heart of everything I care about.

[00:10:34] Aaron - Interview: How was it that you ended up choosing a career in government ethics? Because that's not an area that you sort of like, you know, you don't go to the career counselor and the career counselor says, "Oh, you're destined for government ethics." So how did you find your way into this as a profession?

[00:10:48] Walter Shaub: This is a topic that came up from time to time at the Office of Government Ethics, where I worked in government more often than you'd think. Because we'd look around at our fellow staff and some of us were sort of lovable oddballs, and we were all odd in our own individual ways, and we wondered what did we have in common? How did we all get there?

I think to a person, with maybe one exception, none of us went into our adult years thinking we were going to get into government ethics or any kind of ethics. We all had in common a love of public service and a desire to go serve the country. And so we went into government, and then you make a series of choices as different assignments come up. I always aimed for a wider variety to sort of sample everything, and I just viewed it as putting another tool in the tool belt.

And I think to a person, all of these individuals working there had made a series of career choices and a series of volunteering for assignments that led them to wind up applying to either work in an agency's ethics office or at the Office of Government Ethics, which is sort of the centralized office for, for the Executive branch's ethics program. So it's interesting because it's a self-selecting group that tends to veer toward that over time. And the only exception I ever met was one of the employees there who had been a philosophy major, who just had it in his heart that that's what he wanted to go do, but he was the unique exception to the role.

[00:12:21] Aaron - Interview: So what is it about this work that's so compelling for you and so fulfilling?

[00:12:25] Walter Shaub: You know, I truly felt that it went to the heart of the government's mission. You know, I've worked in a variety of different settings in the government, helping veterans, helping the Food and Drug Administration, helping Health and Human Services, and ultimately the Office of Government Ethics. And I, for a while was in the private sector representing Federal employees, especially law enforcement agents and managers.

In every case, again, there's a common theme of individuals who are driven by a love of public service, but for that public service to be effective, it has to be aligned. It has to all be pointing towards the public's interest.

[00:13:11] Aaron - Narration: One of the recurring themes in this episode will be public cynicism about government. You might have been listening to Shaub just now and thought that he sounded naive. If you believe that every government employee is just a partisan hack, you should know, that just doesn't reflect reality.

[00:13:29] Walter Shaub: You know, the government is an amazingly nonpartisan place to work, contrary to, I think, what, what some big voices in the country would sell. I think that by and large, I have never been a place where people were so unwilling to talk about politics. And every time I ventured into the private sector or the nonprofit sector, it was a culture shock because in the government when new people come in and they aren't steeped in the culture and they start talking about politics, somebody more senior pulls them aside and tells them, We just don't do that here. And, and that's true in just about every single Federal government agency.

[00:14:12] Aaron - Narration: A healthy government requires more than just a civil service that avoids partisanship. Government also carries immense power, and as Lord Acton famously, "Power tends to corrupt an absolute power corrupts absolutely." This is where ethics in government is so essential. We need a system of assurances that serve as a check on those who wield government power.

[00:14:38] Walter Shaub: But it's also true that aside from operating in a nonpartisan fashion, you also have to operate in a selfless fashion. And if there are people there with conflicts of interest, they have financial investments that will be benefited or harmed by the work that they're doing, then even if they're the best person in the world who would never let that influence their decision making, the public has no ability to have confidence that those financial interests are not tainting their work. And I think for the public, there's a right not only to have honest representatives and government serving your interest, but also to have them show you that they're putting your interests first.

And I think those dual responsibilities can only be served by a strong ethics program that's transparent and strict. They'll often say, "Well, I would never be corrupted by a fancy cocktail party. There isn't a glass of champagne and a and a little shrimp on a stick that's going to corrupt me."

Well, the problem is it's an appearance rule more than anything, because the public needs to have confidence that you are not out there being influenced by those little gifts. And I think what these individuals often miss is that a lot of these gifts, the gift itself isn't even the threat. It's that it's designed in a way where you're spending time with the gift giver and so you're invited to some lobbying firm's party and you spend four hours there. You can be sure somebody has been specifically assigned to bend your ear the whole time you're there.

And of course that's at the most innocent extreme. At the far end of the extreme, you have the Navy brass, top Navy admirals and officials were being bribed by a guy named Leonard Francis, who the admirals dubbed Fat Leonard because he was a big guy who was bribing them with prostitutes, with drugs, with parties, and with cash. And he made tens of millions of dollars off of corrupt contracts that they steered his way. By the way, they unfortunately all got slaps on the wrist.

And so that's why I, I was drawn to this because I love the idea of making sure that those services the government's supposed to be providing are pointed in your direction as the public. And we could disagree on politics and different administrations are going to have different priorities or different answers. One may favor the environment and the other may favor trade overseas or something. And so there are shifts there, but we'd like to make sure that those policy choices are the only thing that varies.

[00:17:23] Aaron - Interview: It definitely feels like public trust in government is at an all time low. And so what, what happens if we lose this? I mean, what happens if we lose that trust in government And what are the things that an average citizen can do to restore it?

[00:17:36] Walter Shaub: So I, I think that both of those questions get at the same issue. I think that goes straight to the heart of why Congress needs to ban its members from trading stocks. All of these kinds of things erode public trust in government.

Now, in reality, we're so polarized that it's going to be hard to ever get fully restored to levels that we were at before because the two sides are always going to be suspicious of things the other side does. And and so that's always going to influence people's trust of government. And so there will always be a certain percentage that's dissatisfied with it and maybe that's a good thing in a democracy, because you never want the people in charge to be too comfortable. But we are at such abyssal lows that something has to be done.

[00:18:28] Aaron - Narration: I want to dwell on this point that Shaub is making here. The tangled mess of how we see government has blinded many of us from seeing and understanding the ethical failings of government officials.

We'll always be divided over politics for issues like immigration or abortion, but there's no reason that any of us should want officials who improperly enrich themselves or abuse power for personal gain.

If we allow the champions of our policies to be corrupt as a reward for their loyalty, if we ignore their ethical failings, we erode the very foundations of our democracy. Our cynicism makes us into our own worst enemy.

[00:19:12] Walter Shaub: And you know, we're operating in a larger context, I think, where democracy is in jeopardy, it may be so overwhelming that there isn't much you can do to restore confidence in government until you feel safe that democracy is not going to go by the way you side.

But you can't ignore those other things because I they add fuel to it. I think people's despair over not being able to have confidence in government either makes them more vulnerable to questioning the usefulness of democracy or makes them wonder if it's worth fighting to defend it, even if they are on the side of believing in democracy.

And I think objectively some of these things are just wrong. And so it can't be bad for public morale to address things that are just wrong.

[00:20:07] Aaron - Narration: One of the issues we're going to discuss quite a bit is Congressional stock trading. As it stands now, members of Congress are allowed to buy and sell shares of individual companies, all while having unique information and power that might affect the value of those shares. Basically, members of Congress can and do get away with insider trading.

This year there was a unique surge of effort to stop this practice, but it was derailed. You see, this is an issue that has both parties divided internally. Some Democrats and Republicans want to ban Congressional stock trades, while others want to protect it.

But the public is overwhelmingly in favor of a ban. The problem is that the party leaders in Congress are the ones who oppose this ban and they're getting their way.

[00:20:55] Walter Shaub: I want to try to avoid painting either side into a corner, but sometimes these days, I feel some of the biggest opponents of reigning in Congressional stock trading were people who are very comfortable complaining about Donald Trump's conflicts of interest.

I don't think you'll find anybody in this country who was more concerned about Donald Trump's conflicts of interest than I was. I stood up and gave a speech on January 11th, 2017, the day he announced that he wasn't going to be divesting and had all those phony files full of what were probably blank pieces of paper and talking about his fake blind trust, and I criticized it and urged him to divest.

And I assumed that I was signing the death warrant for my career. I figured I'd be fired on January 20th at 12:01 and I figured that I'd be unemployable for a while. I still had student loans, didn't have much in the way of savings. But, it was a risk worth taking because having a President with conflicts of interests would kill the government ethics program, or at least put it into suspended animation for four years.

So I think that context for what I'm going to say next is important to understand how I actually put it on the line to oppose that guy. But it is the same thing when members of Congress have numerous stocks.

And let's be clear that their spouse's interests are identical to theirs. The conflict of interest law that applies to 2.1 million Federal civilian employees treats their own interests the same as their spouses'. Because, first of all, even in a court proceeding marital communications are privileged and you could never get at that. Second of all, we just have no way of knowing anyways what anybody says to their spouse.

And it's not just one side. You've got Tommy Tuberville, the Republican in the Senate, who is up there as one of the biggest stock traders in Congress.

And so that has to have an effect on public confidence. The New York Times and several other publications have run lists of conflicts of interest by showing what members held and what they voted on.

And I found a video of one senator complaining to the Secretary defense about him reducing the number of aircraft in our arsenal, while she held Lockheed Martin's stock. And of course Lockheed Martin makes many of the planes that we fly, and so reducing the arsenal could lower the value of her stock. And she didn't break any laws, but the public had no way of knowing that she had stock in Lockheed Martin while she's pressing the Defense Secretary about a budget request that would cut the number of aircraft in our arsenal.

There are several members who are fighting for a congressional stock band. You have people across the political spectrum too. You have people does a far right as Matt Gaetz and as far left as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and you have people in the center like Abigail Spanberger, and these people are supporting the Congressional stock ban.

And I'd say the leaders of that effort are, are probably Spanberger, Jayapal, Warren, and Ossoff, two in the Senate two in the House. And Warren and Spanberger have numerous Republican co-sponsors for the bills they've introduced.

And so I think there are people who care about this stuff in government and it's just that in Congress it takes a mass, overwhelming majority. You gotta have 60 people in the Senate to get anything done. And if you have a Leader who likes stock trading, she's going to be an obstacle in the House.

[00:24:46] Aaron - Narration: To make Lord Acton's point, listen to this crazy story about the husband of a presidential nominee for a prominent political appointment. One of Shaub's former roles was to help nominees and their spouses comply with ethics requirements prior to their service.

[00:25:01] Walter Shaub: And I had one ridiculous spouse of a presidential nominee one year. This, this cracked us up.

You know, when I was in the government, I helped presidential nominees eliminate their conflicts of interest. We'd review their financial disclosure reports and have them sign ethics agreements. And one of them had all these investments that they had to get rid of. And they were like, "Well, what am I going to do with that?"

And I, and we were talking to the spouse and we said, "Look, you could put them in mutual funds." And those are exempt from the conflict of interest law. They're diversified, so they don't create a conflict of interest.

And he said back to me, in this nasally voice, "Mutual funds are for suckers in the middle class."

And we had to hit mute on the speaker phone because we all almost fell out of our chairs laughing. It was like a cartoon villain talking to us.

So we're not telling them they have to take cash and put it under a mattress and, and have somebody guard it with a shotgun so that their life savings don't get robbed while they're at work. We're talking about moving them out of individual stocks into mutual funds, which is what, you know, most people in the country who invest do anyways.

And banning members of Congress is the low-hanging fruit. Somebody said to me the other day that this is just the least of our problems. And I said, "Well, what you're saying to me is that the people we sent to Washington can't even solve the least of our problems, because this one's a no brainer and it's easy."

[00:26:25] Aaron - Narration: Again, and I need to stress this, ethical government is and should be a bipartisan issue. In fact, it should be the most basic requirement we have for the people we elect and appoint at all levels. If you think your side is doing everything right, then you are not paying attention. The answer is not to just elect the other party. We have to elect the ethical people within those parties.

[00:26:51] Walter Shaub: While I think, and here I'll filibuster a little bit, while I think that the Trump administration was a calamitous ethics failure, I think the Biden administration came in with the low standards of being better than Trump. And that is a really sad state of affairs because they don't feel like we're even back to the level that we were prior to the election.

I've often said, I think Biden's view of ethics is very Clintonian in its outlook, in that you bring in the lawyers and you find out exactly where the line is, and then you bring out an electron microscope and you get as close to the finest point of the line that you can. And that's where you go, and you hope you don't fall over a little bit.

You put a milk lobbyist in charge of the USDA . You have the staff of SKDK, the influence pedaling firm run by Anita Hill, rotating through the White House on a high-speed spin cycle through that rotating door. You're giving waivers to government officials for massive percentages of their interests. And hiring shadow lobbyists. We have a shadow lobbyist running the State Department.

And so I feel like there's plenty of reason for people to be frustrated. I think it's understandable and I think we can do way better. But it's just disappointing. So I don't mean to draw false equivalencies. There's no comparison between the current administration, or really any administration, and the corrupt Trump administration, but I still think we deserve a lot better than we're getting right now. And I think that's why people feel disheartened.

[00:28:35] Aaron - Narration: Before you lose hope, you should know that Shaub, who's seen it all, has not lost hope. Part of the reason is that the great majority of people working in government are acting ethically every day. There's a bulwark of good people in civil service who stand in the way of those who would shred ethical standards.

[00:28:57] Walter Shaub: If we put them on a scale and put all of the people who are concerning me on one side and all the others who are not concerning me on the other, I think the scale would weigh heavily in favor of those who are not a concern.

I also think the irony of Trump referring to the "Deep State" as he put it to refer to the civil service, I actually think we do have two levels of ethics in government. I think the career civil servants are subject to incredibly high standards and have an incredibly strong culture of ethics and patriotism.

You know, you don't have to pay a bribe when you go to get your passport like you do in some countries. You don't have to worry that your veterans benefits are going to be delayed because the person sitting across from you at that table knows how you voted and doesn't approve of that. And you don't have to worry that your airline is going to circle the airport for three hours because the White House has told air traffic controllers to slow down the airline run by the guy who criticized the President.

These are things that don't happen because the career civil service is just focused on serving you. And I, I just love that population so much and I love the culture. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule in any workforce of 2.1 million employees, but I don't think you'll find as a whole a more patriotic or dedicated workforce anywhere.

You know, even during the Trump administration, there were still good people, even at political levels. When I left government, he wound up nominating and the Senate confirmed a director of the Office of Government Ethics named Emery Rounds, who I think the world of, and he's a Trump appointee. But I sincerely hope the current administration nominates him for another five year term when his time is up, because he's doing a terrific job with the limited tools that he has.

I think people have to remember that. I guess for as long as we don't have tanks driving down the street, there's a lot that's still going right.

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So with a strong culture of ethics in the civil service, the problem is at the political level with elected officials and political appointees. The biggest issue here is that they're in charge of our government and only voters are in charge of them.

In fact, this is by design through our Constitution. If we were to install ethical enforcers over our politicians, those people would wield an influence that might backfire against the very purpose of having them. Instead, we voters are meant to be the ethical enforcers. It's up to us to boot out the dishonest and self-serving politicians who cross the line.

And sadly, we don't do that enough. As a result, Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court police themselves, and they often do it poorly. The US Supreme Court doesn't even have a code of ethics for the nine justices.

Self-policing does not work well, and over recent years it has been getting worse, because voters are more concerned about their side winning than they are about electing good people. And so Congress and the Presidency get away with ineffective measures that only give the appearance of ethical standards. Consider the STOCK Act, which was passed 10 years ago and requires members of Congress to report the shares that they buy and sell.

[00:33:20] Aaron - Interview: The STOCK Act is a good example of this. I mean, this has been in the law now for over a decade, and it is annually violated by members of Congress with no consequence. But the problem, but there, there's an interesting even Constitutional question here. How do you establish oversight at the highest levels at all three, in all three branches from Congress to the Executive, to the US Supreme Court? How do you establish ethics oversight?

[00:33:46] Walter Shaub: So that's a conundrum that really came into clear focus during the four years of the Trump administration. What do you do if the person at the top doesn't want to do anything about this? And I think the problem predates him by far.

I, it's fair to say as probably in many other areas of life, it's much harder to hold powerful people accountable than powerless people. And in the executive branch every year the Office of Government Ethics publishes a prosecution survey full of data that they get from the Department of Justice of people who have been prosecuted or sued for civil monetary penalties for violating government ethics laws. And with one exception this year, I think it's been about 15 years since any political appointee made the list. I'm not sure. I guess David Fabian at GSA was a political appointee, but it is extremely rare that they pursue a political appointee. It's just a $200 fine and they can't even bring themselves to impose that fine.

I mean, they passed a law that gave them... first of all, they passed a law that exempted themselves from the conflict of interest law. Then they passed a law that requires disclosure, but imposes a super light penalty, like a parking ticket for not filing a timely periodic transaction report to show that you just bought some stock. And then they can't even bring themselves to assess that late fee. So yes, it's, it's absolutely disheartening and unfortunately the system kind of breaks down at the top.

The laws are extremely easy to enforce at the career level because often the Department of Justice will actually decline prosecuting someone because it was clearly an offense, but they didn't profit from it, so just fire the person. But getting fired from a Federal job and losing your chance to earn a pension and losing your health insurance and losing your salary, and maybe you live in a region where the Federal government's the only employer, or maybe you live in a city, but it's a real bad mark on your resume that you just got fired from this Federal agency. So you're going to have trouble finding any employment. That's a pretty serious penalty, and the threat of that consequence keeps people in line, but there's no similar threat at the political level.

And so I do think we need more enforcement. And I have a counterintuitive sense that the way to get more enforcement is to stop grandstanding with speeches about how we should have more criminal penalties and instead have really severe civil penalties. Because I think DOJ would be more likely to seek civil penalties than it is to seek criminal penalties.

And so for instance, imagine if you failed to disclose that you bought a stock. Okay, Now you forfeit it. What if that stock was like $900,000 worth of stock? You're going to have a pretty significant incentive to disclose it. And in fact, your incentive to disclose it will be proportional to the threat it poses to the integrity of your services, because the bigger the asset, the more you stand to lose if you had to forfeit it for not disclosing it.

[00:37:12] Aaron - Narration: For much of his career job was a non-political civil servant. That all changed when he was nominated by President Obama to lead the Office of Government Ethics. This put Shaub through the highly fraught confirmation process in the Senate. And even though he had helped many nominees navigate these choppy waters, it was still an unpleasant ride for him.

[00:37:32] Walter Shaub: So my job in the Office of Government Ethics, prior to being nominated for a position, had been working with Presidential nominees for Senate-confirmed positions without ever knowing I was going to become one.

And I had a front seat to what a miserable process that was, and they all hated it, and they all complained, and the paperwork is extensive. You know, they had to fill out a financial disclosure, which takes a lot of time because the rules are so complex. And unlike the security clearance form where you disclose it and then they try to prove something and it's a lie. We assumed that you were going to get your disclosure wrong, so there was a whole process built around working with you to flesh it out.

But then there was also the Senate questionnaire and you know, the, each committee has its own set of questions. There was an effort about 12, 10 years ago to try to get them all to adopt the same set of questions and they, they reacted as though you were, you were trying to steal their power away from them. And then if you were in any way controversial, well, they may throw in a hundred other questions that have to be massaged and answered carefully.

Then there's the background check, which, in the case of a confirmed position, necessitates the FBI coming out to your house and interviewing you, which by the way is just scary on its face. I mean, even if you've done nothing wrong, it's, it's very intimidating to have an FBI agent there asking you all kinds of questions.

In some cases, again, for controversial nominees or positions, there's member-level meetings with the Senator. And then there's a hearing, which can either be a cake walk or it can be brutal. Uh, and then there are follow up questions for the record. And what often happens is your hearing gets postponed and postponed and postponed, and then you get a vote, if you're lucky, uh, and then you can start in the job .

So these folks were always exhausted and frustrated and it was, it took some real skill dealing with them.

But even knowing all that and having seen all of that, I would say running through, it felt like going through a gauntlet and it was absolutely miserable. And I was a noncontroversial career level, you know, career government official candidate as opposed to somebody with a history of, you know, showing up on cable news and, and railing against some cause or another

So it's, it's not an easy ride. It's, it's not pleasant.

[00:40:00] Aaron - Narration: Shaub was approved by the Senate for a five year term, but he ended up not staying in his office for the full five years. That's because following the election of President Trump, the executive branch stopped complying with many of the ethics policies and practices that had been in place for decades.

The sharp disagreements between Shaub's office and the White House escalated to the point that Shaub's only option was to resign, the first and only time a Director of Government Ethics has ever done that. The full context of what happened here is so fascinating and important.

[00:40:36] Aaron - Interview: The other moment I wanted to discuss was when you decided to resign, which was an unprecedented decision as a director of OGE.

[00:40:47] Walter Shaub: Boy, that was unpleasant. And I will say it took like a couple years for the eye twitch to stop. At, at the peak I had a double eye twitch, one in each eye, and it just made me feel like I looked like a lunatic. I don't think others could see it, but I could certainly feel it. And the insomnia was brutal.

But you know, just to give you a little context, we worked with both the Clinton and Trump campaign before the election to prepare them because there's so much to know about the nominee process that I just described, and so much work we have to do with them and so much opportunity for it to go wrong.

And there's a group called the Partnership for Public Service that runs basically like a training academy for both sides. And actually Clinton and Trump people were sitting in a room together, playing nicely in the sandbox with experts from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations teaching them about how to stand up a government, because we all shared in common a belief that the country is very vulnerable during a transition. That's when an enemy could attack or a market could crash or a natural disaster could hit, and if you don't have leadership positions filled that could slow or hamper the response. And so it's really important, even if you disagree with a candidate, to get a lot of those positions, at least key ones, filled quickly so the nation isn't basically unarmed against disaster.

Unfortunately, and, and I worked well with both of them and liked actually the people on those transition teams, and I wished them both good luck on election day in a nonpartisan way, saying, "You know, however it comes out, I, I hope things go well for you personally, and I look forward to working with whichever one of you wins. And if I don't see the other again, I, you know, it's been nice working with you."

The next day I reached out to the Trump people to congratulate them and schedule our first meetings and they had to postpone it because there was some uncertainty. And then they disappeared, and they had all been fired.

After that they had no transition team and no one who had gone through the five months of training for how to do a successful transition. And they just were clueless and didn't know what they were doing and everything was just an absolute mess. And we could have a whole episode just talking about those 73 days between the election and the inauguration. Sufficed to say, it was a bumpy ride from the start.

And as I said, when I spoke out about Trump not getting rid of his conflicts of interest, I assumed that was the end for me. It wasn't, for a variety of reasons, including that the then head of the House oversight Committee came after me and botched his effort so badly that I suspected scared the White House, that there could be repercussions.

So anyways, it, it was difficult. And as we worked with their nominees, I would see members of the staff coming out in the hall just rubbing their foreheads, saying, "Why does everything have to be so hard?"

And ultimately there were these battles. And it really came to a head in May, when I suspected there were lots of secret ethics waivers in the White House, and so I decided to do a data call for all waivers of ethics waivers that had been issued in the past year, which would've been eight months of Obama-era waivers and four months of Trump waivers. So I thought that seemed fair, and in fact, we wound up digging in on a couple waivers that the Obama administration had failed to share with us. So we were even-handed in pursuing it.

But the Trump administration basically told us they were not going to release those, and so I wrote them a letter and it was quite hot. And I cc'ed Chuck Grassley and referenced a letter Chuck Grassley had sent about the importance of transparency and waivers when Obama was President. And that got him interested. And apparently I'm told by others that he went looking into it and that sort of forced the administration's hand.

And so they came around to release them and then when they finally released them, all the metadata on them and the lack of signatures on them suggested they were ginned up afterwards in order to do this release. Which leaves me wondering if the secret to the secret waivers is that there were no secret waivers, there were just violations that they then papered over with retroactive waivers, uh, which is not a thing that exists.

And all, at that point, things got really tense. And Trump, at one point during that was in Saudi Arabia with the famous incident with the glowing orb and the sword dance. And we got word that a call had been placed to him from the White House. I assumed it was probably asking for permission to fire me, and I thought, "Well, bring it on."

But they didn't, and I went into the summer. But what they did was cut off all communication. And the problem is I had to review their financial disclosure reports and sign off on them, and we weren't getting basic answers about their holdings, about their duties, and we just couldn't evaluate them.

And I thought, "I think this is checkmate, because if I refuse to certify any of them, I'm going to look partisan because surely some of them don't have conflicts of interest, maybe even most of them. But if I do certify them all, some of them probably have conflicts of interest and I'm just going to be window dressing for corruption."

So I had a choice between looking partisan or being a window dressing for corruption. And at the same time, I was starting to worry about the future for my staff and for the agency.

And so to make a long story a bit longer, I had asked myself pretty much every single day, because it was a brutal winter and spring, three questions: I asked, "Can I still perform the mission or, or can I still accomplish the mission? Can I accomplish it ethically and moral? And can I tell the truth?"

And I thought when the answer to any of those three questions is no, it's time to quit. And I still felt I could tell the truth. So that one I checked off. I still felt that I could do what I was doing ethically and morally. But I didn't feel I could accomplish the mission because I was stuck on how do you certify or not certify these reports?

And I decided that I could have more impact on the outside, speaking freely. There was so much I couldn't say. I wasn't, I was forbidden by law to interact directly with Congress on my own initiative, and so I quit and wound up finding a bigger platform after I left and probably became a bigger thorn in his side once I was out of government than when I was in government.

But it was the most painful decision I ever had to make because I had intended to spend my entire career in the government and loved what I was doing, but just felt I had no choice left but to blow it all up. And so I did.

And I will say, you know, it led to about four years of misery and a year of sort of recovery. And only now am I feeling really good. So you make a choice like that, you pay some consequences.

[00:47:57] Aaron - Narration: My friend and co-author, Bill O'Rourke, likes to say that everyone faces at least two quitting decisions in their life, where they have to decide if they can stay in their job and still maintain their integrity. I can't imagine having to live through a quitting decision, though, like the one that Shaub faced. This decision brought a tragic end to a decades long career in civil service, where Shaub was an ethics champion. And as you heard from him, Shaub faced all kinds of difficult challenges as a result.

But it didn't wipe away his successes from all those years, and I asked him to reflect on those.

[00:48:35] Walter Shaub: I think inside government, the thing that I'm most proud of looking back now is the four years that I spent as director of the Office of Government Ethics before Trump, because we really took sort of a sleepy agency and made it into a very efficient machine. And it would get kind of bureaucratic explaining it, but sufficed to say that we became more effective and faster at our review of financial disclosure reports and ethics, creation of ethics agreements. We got much more vigorous in conducting training for the 4,000 ethics officials in the government, and auditing the ethics programs of 135 or so Federal agencies, and that just felt really good.

It was an amazing staff, and watching them reach their potential as we streamlined and standardized things and got rid of what didn't matter and focused on what did I think, I'll probably always look back on that as the highlight of my accomplishments. On the outside, it's much harder because you don't have the power, you don't have the resources, and you don't have the law and the facts and the inside knowledge on your side.

But I'm incredibly proud of the work that POGO does and thinks that it's just truly highly effective, amazing organization. And so I think my pride now after being in government comes more from being part of the Project on Government Oversight than anything I've done individually.

[00:50:14] Aaron - Interview: What was the missed opportunity that you most regret?

[00:50:17] Walter Shaub: That's tough. I mean, I certainly have regrets, but in terms of missed opportunities, you know, I think one missed opportunity was finding a way to get the public interested in government ethics before Trump. We certainly tried and it feels a little funny to call it a missed opportunity, because the truth is, I don't know how I would've done it even now, like going back.

I, and so maybe somebody who's much better at marketing and much smarter at engaging the public will find a way to do that if our world ever calms down and people want to go back to sleep and not pay attention to government ethics. My recommendation would be something that my former chief of staff at OGE told me from day one, which is find a way to get the public to care about this, and I don't know that I succeeded.

I mean, it, they certainly started caring once it became a clash with Trump, but I felt like we were out on a street corner waving signs in the air saying "We exist." And I look at a place like the New York Conflict of Interest Board and their web, their, their Twitter account at least, is just hilarious and engaging and good-spirited. I just feel like that organization has figured out how to reach the public.

So I, I think maybe it's more a case of regret than lost opportunities. I regret that I wasn't good enough at figuring out how to engage the public and get them interested, but I can't fully call it a lost opportunity, because if I had the chance to do it again, I still don't know how I would do it.

[00:51:50] Aaron - Interview: I relate to that feeling, by the way, as an ethics professor. So...

[00:51:53] Walter Shaub: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:51:56] Aaron - Narration: As I mentioned at the start, Walter Shaub is one of my heroes. I have so much admiration for people who do the right thing in the face of daunting consequences. There's a reason that bravery features in all of our stories, these are the kinds of people we should honor and emulate.

But what makes Shaub especially inspiring is that he did all of this as a public servant. He exemplifies the kind of character, the care and self-sacrifice, that government service is all about.

[00:52:28] Aaron - Interview: So my last question, and I ask this on behalf of my students, you know, who are heading into careers of public service. You have a very unique perspective on public service, based on your experiences and your expertise. What advice do you have for the people that are aspiring to work as public servants?

[00:52:45] Walter Shaub: You know, I would encourage young people to go into government. I think it's an absolutely wonderful career. I think that the feeling of going to work, feeling like you're working for the good guys, or at least the common good, even if you don't always feel like the folks you report to are good guys, truly is a wonderful feeling.

It's, it's a level of fulfillment that I think makes up, double-fold, for the lower salary. And I truly view public service as serving your country the way I think some in the military view going into the military. Now, obviously it doesn't come with the same risk. So, so those are heroes. But nevertheless, it's, it's truly about serving your country and you can feel good about that every day.

And I think even in times when you have a leader who doesn't seem to respect the civil service and doesn't seem to view democracy as a bedrock common-ground that if we don't have, we don't even really have America, at least early in your career, you'll be far enough down that there will be layers between you and them, and the layers don't change. I mean, there are multiple layers of career Federal employee leadership before you reach the political level. And that's just going to stay that way because there are 2.1 million civilian Federal employees, and I'm not sure if that includes the Postal Service. So it might be closer to 3 million if you count them, and only 4,000 political appointees.

And so you'll be insulated in the, the earlier years of your career, and then later in your career you'll have more choices. So I wouldn't let that deter you.

But I do think sending good people into government right now is an investment in the defense of democracy. Because democracy can only survive if you have a government that respects democracy and cares about democracy, and ultimately by the time you reach a level of significant influence in the government, hopefully a lot of your peers have come with you and you'll be a formidable force to reckon with for anybody who wants to break the law or, or steer us away from democracy. If you are in there staying true to the law and the legal requirements and carrying out crucial functions to keep our society afloat, I think that there isn't a higher calling you could answer to for most of us.

[00:55:19] Aaron - Narration: In Lorenzetti's "Allegory of good and Bad Government," while the tyrant is surrounded by the six vices that I mentioned, the wise and just ruler is surrounded by figures representing six virtues. They are: Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnaminity, Temperance, and Justice.

At the bottom of that fresco are written these words, "The holy virtue Justice, where she rules, induces to unity the many souls of citizens. And they gathered together for such a purpose make the common good their Lord. And he, in order to govern his state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the virtues who sit around him."

We deserve virtuous government. We deserve ethical government. But it's up to us to ensure that we have it. We common citizens have to use our voices and our votes to choose ethical leaders. And we have to exercise the self-restraint to turn away those who promises victory at the cost of virtue. In the end, we get the government, we choose, so to flourish, we need to choose well.

I'm incredibly grateful to Walter Shaub for accepting my invitation for this interview and offering his time, passion, and wisdom to help us all understand these things better. If you want to support his work, visit the Project on Government Oversight at pogo.org, where you can also find his podcast, The Continuous Action. Season two will be released in the coming months, and we've linked to all of these things in the show notes.

In the next episode, we'll have a chance to hear from Dr. Cecilia Conrad. She's a Stanford-trained economist, CEO of the Lever for Change Foundation and former managing director of the MacArthur Fellowship Grants. This is the grant program that's famous for selecting two dozen geniuses each year in a broad array of fields, from mathematics to music to medicine. Dr. Conrad will share her career path as an economist woman of color, as well as her unique expertise in spotting genius and in accelerating solutions with impact.

If you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It really helps us to reach more listeners. And if you have a favorite episode, will you share it with a friend or on social media? It means a lot to us.

If you want to stay up to date with the podcast and my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email NNewsletter where I share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at how-to-help.com.

This episode was written and recorded by me. Our production team for this episode included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes all of our audio. Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.

Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller, and this has been How to Help.

Podcast Episode: Overcoming Paralysis • Dr. Dale Hull, Executive Director of Neuroworx • s02e04

Please take a moment to give us a review. Apple Podcasts is a great place to do that. Click here, then scroll down and choose "Write a Review." Thank you!


Over 5 million people in the US live with paralysis, caused by injury, stroke, or disease. Recovery is incredibly hard because nerve damage is difficult and sometimes impossible to heal. Moreover, our medical and insurance systems are inadequate, designed to help people live with their injuries rather than heal from them.

A pioneering therapy clinic called Neuroworx is leading the way into life-changing treatment for people with paralysis. In this episode, we'll learn from Dr. Dale Hull, an OBGYN doctor who became suddenly paralyzed more than 20 years ago. Now, not only can he walk again, but he and his co-founder Jan Black have aided thousands of patients to live happier and more active lives.

About Our Guest

Dale is the cofounder and Executive Director of Neuroworx. He graduated from the University of Utah School of Medicine in 1985. Following graduation, he completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah Medical Center. He practiced general obstetrics and gynecology for ten years in the south portion of the Salt Lake metropolitan area.

In 1999, he suffered a spinal-cord injury that resulted in paralysis from the neck down. This life-altering event, which prevented him from returning to active practice, required Dr. Hull to devote approximately three years to his rehabilitation. He joined his therapist in forming a non-profit organization and opening Neuroworx in 2004.

During 2002, Dale had the opportunity to be an Olympic torchbearer for the Salt Lake Winter Olympics. In 2009, he completed an underwater marathon in the Neuroworx pool to commemorate the ten-year mark of his injury. He returned to school and in 2012, completed a Master’s of Public Administration degree from the Romney Institute of BYU. Dr. Hull is married and has four sons.

Useful Links

Neuroworx: https://www.neuroworx.org/

News coverage of Dr. Hull's work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NIGMtMJbiE

Dr. Hull's Tedx Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgfT0OyASrU

Pleasant Pictures Music

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.


[00:00:00] Aaron: That's an awesome story. I would not have expected the Twinkie to MD path. Love it.

That's so great.

[00:00:08] Dr. Hull: Yeah. My, my grandkids love to hear that story.

[00:00:10] Aaron: Yeah. They might prefer you we're making Twinkies still .

[00:00:14] Dr. Hull: Oh, totally. When I tell, when I tell the story, they're not impressed I'm a doctor. They're like, "You made Twinkies? Like, you're a, like, you're a cool grandpa."

[00:00:22] Aaron: That's hilarious. I love that.

[00:00:27] Aaron - Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How To Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode four: Overcoming Paralysis. This episode of How To Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.

Before we begin this episode, I have just a quick word of thanks to all of you who listen. I'm lucky enough to have an audience full of natural helpers, and you're all so kind. Thank you for your encouraging words about the podcast and also for taking the time to share it, and to leave reviews. If you want to help this podcast grow and reach more listeners, sharing on social media and leaving reviews with Apple Podcasts are the two most effective ways to help. So thank you.

I have a slight tremor in my right hand, although I can't pin down exactly what caused it. I'm pretty sure it came from a day when I was tearing out some old kitchen cabinets and I strained something related to what's called my brachial nerve. I've had some physical therapy for it, and that's helped. But even now, 11 years later, if I overuse my right arm, I can feel it get weaker and the tremor gets more prominent.

The human nervous system is an amazing thing. I definitely take it for granted, even when considering my tremor. Our brain and spinal cord do so much more than just getting our body parts to move. They help us sense hot and cold, regulate our breathing, feel pain and pressure, and even know simple things like where our hands are in any moment and what they're doing without us having to look.

The nervous system is also incredibly fragile and hard to repair. When nerves are injured, some damage can be permanent, despite our body's natural ability to heal. And a nervous system injury can be sudden and dramatic, from something as simple as taking a hard fall. A spinal cord injury is usually life changing.

This episode is about those among us who have had dramatic changes to their bodies and their lives because of nerve damage caused by accident, stroke, or disease. More than that, though, it's about the remarkable journey they undertake to heal and adapt.

[00:02:52] Dr. Hull: The work that we've been doing over the last 18 years, we've kind of landed on a phrase that we call the remarkable journey. That every one of these individuals who have these catastrophic injuries embark on this remarkable journey of recovery that is so unique, and so daunting, and circuitous in certain ways, and so individual that, that it really is, it's just remarkable.

[00:03:25] Aaron - Narration: Also in this episode, we're going to learn about a pioneering clinic called Neuroworx, where patients are getting care that would otherwise be impossible for them. We'll learn about the clinicians who are daily crafting better lives.

[00:03:39] Dr. Hull: Currently we have a staff of of 26. We do physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy for adults and children with spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, spinal bifida, and similar conditions.

The analogy that I try and paint for visitors to our clinic is, if I brought you into a woodworking shop, I would show you the tablesaw, the drill press, the sander, et cetera, and you would say, "Oh yeah, those are the tools." But then I would introduce you to the craftsman who takes the block of wood to create the masterpiece using the tools that are in the workshop.

Our therapists are the artisans and they have the insight and the skill and the creativity. And they, they take these individuals who are the raw materials, so to speak, and they're going to craft them, using the tools in the best manner possible.

[00:04:37] Aaron - Narration: Our guide for this episode and my guest and friend is Dr. Dale Hull. He's the co-founder of Neuroworx and a trained medical doctor. Together with Jan Black, who's the clinical director and a physical therapist, the two have helped thousands of people regain power and hope and strength, after those things are taken away.

I need to tell you this at the outset, though, Dr.. Hull's expertise in healing broken bodies comes from something much deeper than just his medical training. He actually started out as an OBGYN, not a neurologist. But over 20 years ago, his life was suddenly and completely changed by a traumatic spinal cord injury.

[00:05:25] Dr. Hull: Generally speaking, things were going very well. I mean, after 10 years I felt like I was good at what I did, and I had a very supportive wife, a nice house, had four sons who were growing up and they were healthy. And other than being very, very busy, yeah, life, life was good.

[00:05:46] Aaron: So can we talk about the accident? I know this is a story you've told many times over, but the people listening won't have heard it before.

[00:05:54] Dr. Hull: So on July 19th, beautiful summer evening, 1999, I had come home from work a little bit later and the family had already eaten and kind of were doing their thing. And I grabbed a quick bite to eat and went out into the backyard on the trampoline just to relax a little bit. And I had grown up with trampolines in my town where we'd grown up.

And on this particular evening, I was doing some front flips and back flips, but it wasn't anything I wasn't accustomed to doing. And on a particular back flip, as I hit the takeoff, the plan was to do a laid out back flip. So, you know, that involves, as you, as you get in the air, you're kind of stalled out and then you arch and then bring it around.

And at the peak of my jump, I realized I didn't have enough rotational momentum to complete the flip, and I was going to be in a very precarious situation. So I thought to myself, "Okay, I better reach back and see if I can catch myself with my hands."

And I'm still blown away by how quickly our brains can work at times because no sooner than I had that thought than Christopher Reeve's horseback riding accident went through my brain.

[00:07:05] Aaron: Oh wow.

[00:07:05] Dr. Hull: For those who may not be familiar, he was on a jumping horse and the horse stopped short. He went over the front, and his head hit the ground and sustained a spinal cord injury at the very highest level.

And I figured if I wasn't successful, I may have a similar accident, only in reverse, similar injury. So I, I did the only thing I had left to think about and I tried to twist, I tried to throw one of my legs over, but ran out of hang time, landed on the mat in such a way that my chin was on my chest with my body straight up in the air. Heard and felt a pop and everything went completely numb, just like throwing a switch. I bounced on the trampoline and came to rest on my stomach because of the, of when I tried to throw my leg over. And immediately upon ending up that way, I knew exactly what had happened. I knew I had a spinal cord injury.

I knew I was a quadriplegic. I knew life was over. In, in every way I could think of. My head came to rest in the opening where the springs were missing on my trampoline, which was my first great blessing because it kept everything in perfect alignment so it wouldn't have caused any more damage. But I was looking underneath the trampoline, and I can still see the dirt and smell the weeds and, and the first words out of my mouth were, "Oh God, no. Not this."

And the reason that I said that was I thought it was really unfair, that I was getting dealt something I wasn't, I wasn't at all prepared for.

So I think one of the first things I learned about this, and I've learned so many things as I've gone through this whole episode of this whole journey, is we're all going to have problems. That's, that's not the secret. I think the most difficult problems we're going to have are things that are not on the list.

[00:09:02] Aaron: Hmm.

[00:09:02] Dr. Hull: Things that you're totally unprepared for, that show up on a normal Thursday afternoon and, and you suddenly have to come to grips with it. And so I just thought it was unfair that it was giving me something that I, I mean, I didn't know where to start. I had no idea.

[00:09:20] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:09:20] Dr. Hull: Like really, really? You're going to make me a quadriplegic, like serious. Come on.

[00:09:27] Aaron - Narration: I know that story is a lot to take in right here at the start of the episode. It's hard to really understand anything like that happening to us or to someone we love. But did you notice how Dr. Hull, and because we're friends I'm also going to call him Dale, did you notice how already Dale has some potent wisdom to share?

I've long been excited about this episode because of who Dale is and what we can learn from him. To get to know him better, here's how we ended up in medicine. If you're still trying to figure out what you want to do for your career, you'll find this story to be very relatable.

[00:10:07] Dr. Hull: I was in college and I had been a predental major ever since I was junior high. I, I thought I'm going to be a dentist. I had a brother who was an orthodontist and a brother-in-law who's a dentist. And so I thought, "Oh, you know, that'll be great. I can do that." And kinda went through my schooling.

And now I'm a, a junior in college and I was supposed to go spend a half a day with a, with a dentist. So I dutifully showed up at his office and I sat in the chair next to him and he was doing a crown prep, uh, on this particular person. And I was watching. No more than 15 minutes into this whole thing. I said, "There is no way that I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing this." And I stood up and said, "Thank you very much. See ya."

And he kind of looked at me and said, "Okay..."

[00:11:01] Aaron: Oh, that's so funny.

[00:11:02] Dr. Hull: And, and I'm assuming that he maybe thought I was getting queasy or whatever. But I, but I walked out of the room and never looked back. But then the problem was I didn't quite know what I was going to do at that point.

My home, where I grew up was underneath the landing pattern for the airport, and so I'd always wanted to fly. Eventually, I, I went out and got a pilot's license and said, "Oh, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to be a pilot." And at the time, I was working at Hostess, at the Hostess Bakery making Twinkies for a living. My wife was still in college and I'd come home and say, "Guess what I did for the world today? I made a hundred thousand Twinkies."

I worked with a lot of really good people. They were hard workers. I mean, it's, it's much harder work than you think. But I also realized that they were just working for a paycheck, and that was the second point in my life where I said I, I can't just work for a paycheck.

Well, I had actually, by this time, I had actually applied to law school and I got accepted as an alternate. Thank goodness I never got in, because I, I don't, I don't think I'd be happy as an attorney.

But in the course of all this, my wife and I witnessed a car accident right in front of us and we were kind of the first responders. And I felt so helpless at this scene that I turned around and enrolled in an emergency medical technician course from the state and got my EMT certification and said, "Okay, I really think medicine is what I want to do." But by then I was out of school and really didn't have a pathway forward.

I'll tell you an interesting story about this whole thing is I was sitting at my desk one day, my wife was at work, and I was a little bit down in the dumbs, contemplating, "Okay, what? What's my life going to be like? What am I going to do?" And I was just doodling on a piece of paper. And as I doodled, I was signing my name, just practicing signing my name. And at one point I signed my name. And then after my name, I wrote the two initials, "MD."

And I sat and looked at that. And quite honestly, Aaron, I said to myself, "There is no freaking way that that's ever going to happen." Because it just seemed like I, there wasn't, there was not a path forward right?

Long story short is a friend of mine who was a professor called me a short time later and said, "Hey, what are you doing in life?"

And I said, "Making Twinkies."

And he said, "I need a graduate assistant in physiology. Do you want to come down?"

And I said, "Sure."

And so I went down and started a graduate program. And that opened the door for me to apply to medical school. And then, then I, I was accepted to the University of Utah Medical School, and off, off, I went.

And, and to bring the, the stories all the way full circle, there were days when I was a practicing physician, really busy writing orders, and I would get down to the bottom of the order sheet and I would sign my name,

There were a couple of those days that I actually paused when I made those two initials at the end of my name, because it was that realization that it had, it had actually happened.

[00:14:38] Aaron - Narration: That sense of gratitude and accomplishment is something I hope everyone can find. There are few things more satisfying than having work that uses your gifts to help other people. This is what Dale had to leave behind because of his injury.

In fact, if you've listened to my first episode in season one, I spoke with Professor Jeff Thompson about how people find their calling. Dr. Hull's story was one that Jeff shared as an example. But Jeff didn't talk about delivering babies. He spoke about what was to come next for Dale.

[00:15:15] Dr. Hull: The day I was injured was the day I delivered my last baby. Uh, well, last baby as a non-injured person. I actually ended up delivering two other babies, but those are whole other different stories. That was after I was injured. But the last baby I delivered was a couple whose physician got ill. And she was ready to deliver at any time and came in to see me that day and, and, uh, just happened that she was, you know, in a situation where she was ready to go.

And so took her over to Labor and delivery and we got her delivered. And I've remained with, with that family. In fact, they live in Minnesota and last year actually stopped by and I got to, to revisit with husband and wife as well as the child.

[00:16:00] Aaron - Narration: Most people who experience a traumatic injury like Dr. Hull, don't fully understand the significance until much later.

With years of medical training and practice under his belt, Dale immediately knew what had happened on that evening when he was hurt. By the way, you may hear some background noise in this clip. Those are clinicians and kids at the clinic, some of whom are patients.

[00:16:26] Aaron: So it, this has never occurred to me having heard your story before, but it did just now. Your reaction to this would've been much more informed in the moment. A typical person who has no medical training, when they found themselves in that situation, there'd be so much uncertainty swirling around not knowing what was really going on. But it sounds like you had a full appreciation of what this meant, where most people wouldn't.

[00:16:50] Dr. Hull: Yeah, unfortunately I did. I did.

In fact, in one of the funny prescient moments while I was laying there, I actually knew for whatever reason that I would be the show and tell spinal cord injury for Dr. James Swenson's, second year medical student lecture of the following year, which I was.

[00:17:12] Aaron: Wow.

[00:17:13] Dr. Hull: Because I remembered as when I was a second year student watching a paralyzed gymnast come in as the show and tell for spinal cord injury. And it was just, it was just an odd thought that crossed to my head at that moment of, "Oh, great, now I'm going to be, I'm going to be Dr. Swenson's show and tell."

[00:17:33] Aaron: Wow.

[00:17:34] Dr. Hull: And, and so, yeah, I, I knew exactly what had happened and I, I had my wife call my colleagues at the hospital and say, Okay, you know, this is what's happened. And I knew how bad the accident was. I mean, I had no motor, no sensory below the level of the top of my shoulders. I mean, it was, it was, it was bad. Yeah. You know, and, and my wife, she, she said, "I realized when it was bad when I walked in the emergency room and your partner walked out of the X-ray room crying," after he saw my x-ray.

And I have to hand it to my wife because she was thrown into this very complicated medical situation and, and there were times when she had to make decisions for me, you know, once I was sedated and I was in the ICU, and, and that was really tough. That was really tough on her. I mean, she, she had no understanding and yet she was trying to absorb what she was being told.

And it gives me a greater appreciation because we see that all the time. What I describe it as is families are washed over by a tsunami of medical information that is so overwhelming that it, it makes the injury that much more complicated. Yeah, because they don't know what they don't know yet. They're expected to be making these decisions and trying to understand what's happening.

It would be like taking me and, and dropping me in the middle of China and having people telling me Chinese and asking me to make big decisions. It, it's just so overwhelming and, and imposing that it's, it's very, very difficult.

[00:19:17] Aaron - Narration: The time quickly came that Dale was discharged from the hospital and he and his family had to fully face what it meant to live with this injury potentially forever. The experience of coming home to a completely different life than you imagine for yourself is overwhelming.

[00:19:33] Dr. Hull: Sometimes days seem like they last forever and sometimes things just fly by just because of the nature of the situation. There was a lot of pressure on me, a lot of pressure on my wife, my family, and you, you go through the stages of grieving. And in my particular case, obviously it's very difficult because I blame myself. You, you know, I replayed my accident over and over and over again and, and I felt like that I had quote unquote, done this to my wife and my family, right?

And there's a lot of guilt that goes with that and, and I, I mean, I'm very honest about it. Did I think about suicide? Yes, absolutely. Now with retrospect and after having seen so many people go through this, I honestly, I'm not afraid when people go there or talk about it, because I actually think it's part of that recovery process. You explore all those things and there are dark days, and then as progress is made you, you have those days where you're just absolutely gleeful and grateful for little things. You know, the slightest movement, the slightest sensation. Those things become tremendous motivators to keep going.

[00:20:52] Aaron - Narration: Dale's amazing recovery is thanks to Jan Black, his physical therapist. She helped to make progress that others had predicted to be impossible, but working with her required extra time and resources that typical insurance benefits don't cover. Right now, our system is primarily designed to help dramatically injured people live with their injuries instead of healing from them.

[00:21:17] Dr. Hull: So at seven months after my accident, I met an extraordinary physical therapist that I think that's the first thing. I had, I had become very frustrated with therapy as an outpatient. I was getting it at home. Yet insurance restrictions are so, um, significant that the therapist only have time to really get you ready to live with your disability. And I, by that time, I'd had a lot of neurological recovery. I wanted them to change me. I didn't want them to change more door handles, which is really all they had time to do.

So that was a, a marked frustration for me. And then I realized that there was a limitation on the number of visits, et cetera, et cetera. So seven months I met this extraordinary physical therapist, Jam Black, who I finally realized had the talent, the ability, the wherewithal to make a difference. And so that motivated me to figure out a way to get my insurance company to pay more for me to pay her directly to, to get more therapy. And that culminated with me working with Jan for about two years, two and a half years, almost on a a five day a week basis, several hours a day trying to maximize my recovery.

[00:22:32] Aaron - Narration: Dale's recovery was remarkable. Less than three years after the accident that made him a quadriplegic, he could walk again. In fact, Dale without assistance, carried the Olympic torch during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. That's a story we're going to hear later in the episode. After having made so much progress, Dale and Jan realized that what he had was something that many, many other people needed.

[00:23:01] Dr. Hull: At that point, I was still partially paralyzed and couldn't go back to work. So then I had to figure out, okay, so now what do I do? I, I mean, I'd had all this recovery, I'd had all this blessings, but I can't, I can't be at OBGYN again. Well, along the way, you can imagine, I had met other individuals with spinal cord injuries and paralysis, and they started to say, "Well, why can't I have what you have?"

And they wanted what I had, they deserved what I had. They needed what I, what I was getting, and I couldn't say, "Well, come on over to the house." That was pretty awkward. So Jan and I started to talk about, is there something we can do? There seems to be a need in the community.

We eventually put our thoughts on paper. We, we actually wrote a business plan. We said, if we're going to do this, we've got to eliminate financial barriers. So we created the nonprofit. Which makes me laugh now because I, I know your work is in nonprofits and, and we, we always joke that we have a physical therapist and a partially paralyzed gynecologist trying to run a nonprofit organization. It's just like, holy smoke. It's confidence is what you have before you know what you're doing.

[00:24:15] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:24:16] Dr. Hull: And, and so we said, "Okay, we're going to try and we're going to try and make a difference. We're going to try and create a different paradigm that people can get what they need. Not what can be billed for." And so that was the basis of wanting to do something different and trying to meet the needs of these other individuals.

So in 2004, we, we rented a thousand square foot room that was mostly empty and there were about a dozen individuals who followed Jan over, and Jan was our only therapist and I was a volunteer administrator and, and we said, "We're a spinal cord injury recovery center." And we, we said, "Go."

And, uh, quite honestly it was a dumb idea. I mean, really because of, I mean it was a terrible business model. But what we've realized, it's this great people model and, and it, you know, it's been working for 18 years

[00:25:09] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:25:10] Dr. Hull: Through the enormous generosity of, you know, many, many people who have, who've believed in our work.

[00:25:17] Aaron - Narration: This glosses over many years of hard work, full of setbacks and surprises, but today, Neuroworx is a massive clinic fitted with state of the art rehabilitation tools and equipment. They have aquatic therapy pools, driving simulators, VR headsets, weights and braces of all kinds, a dedicated children's play and therapy park, and even a robotic ambulation device that retrains a person's legs to remember the complex movements that make walking possible.

All of these resources have improved the lives of thousands of people.

[00:25:52] Dr. Hull: I'd say we're probably getting close to 4,000 different individuals from 28 different states and four different countries. Most of them obviously are from the Intermountain West, but you know, we had a young girl from Morocco, we had a young man from South Africa. We've had people from Canada, from Mexico, and then other, other states who come out. We have an apartment that we, we let them stay in for very low cost.

And yeah, so it's, it's been an amazing, amazing journey and especially to see where we are now compared to where we started.

[00:26:26] Aaron - Narration: The facilities with equipment like this aren't all that someone needs after a traumatic brain or spinal cord injury. The psychological pain of this experience needs treatment too. Thanks to generous donors, Neuroworx also offers that kind of therapy as well.

[00:26:43] Dr. Hull: We've really focused on our idea of giving people what they need and then we've added some programs that we think are are additive and very important adjunctively for people.

For example, we wrote a grant a year ago and got a clinical psychology program funded. So we now have three different clinical psychologists who see our patients. Patients don't have to go to a different place. They can actually do it right here on site. They can do it through telehealth, they can do it in person. There's, there's group sessions.

And we've visualized how important that psychological piece is because, quite honestly, the physical paralysis is the easy part. Because these individuals are paralyzed mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, financially, in all other ways, and nobody really kind of helps you through that, especially after you go home from the hospital.

I mean, everything really happens on the outpatient side now because length of hospital stays are so, are so short. So our focus is really on not only the physical aspect of paralysis, but how do we help people transition back to a high quality of life? How do we help them solve their problems vocationally, psychologically, spiritually, in, in all other ways?

So we've, we've tried to connect with great community partners, of which there's some amazing groups in Utah for adaptive sports, adaptive recreation. We have great vocational rehab. All of those things become an important part of, of that remarkable journey of finding a, finding a place where you feel like you can kind of still be a, a very productive person, not only for your family, but in society.

[00:28:29] Aaron - Narration: I know I've been making Neuroworx sound like a miraculous place, and in many ways it is. But it's important to recognize that patients who go in there don't usually leave being completely healed. Even Dale still carries many of the symptoms of his original injury, and the progress that the patients make is often slow and comes only through exhausting effort.

[00:28:52] Dr. Hull: There have been occasions where we've been accused of creating false hope because if you ask anybody who walks in our doors, "What's your goal?" Almost a hundred percent of people say to walk, which makes sense because we're bipedal hominids. I mean that's how we're defined right in, in the world as we walk, right?

And, and that is kind of the holy grail of paralysis. And, but we know, we know that there's a lesion based limit and we are not going to... there are some people who do walk, but we also know that not everybody's going to walk physically. But if we make their spirits walk, we've done a tremendous thing to help them launch toward being productive and, and in many cases, happy people.

[00:29:43] Aaron: I think this is a very hard condition for people to relate to if they haven't experienced it firsthand, either on their own or through a loved one. And so what are some of the mistakes that people tend to make when they interact with people who, who live with paralysis?

[00:29:59] Dr. Hull: Yeah, that's a, that's a really great question. And in fact, it's very appropriate at this point in time because one of the things that you may hear, or if you haven't heard about it already, is there's a bit of a social movement called ableism. Ableism is this concept that, you know, the the world really was created for able people.

For example, stairs. I mean, stairs are there because people can walk up the stairs, right?

[00:30:26] Aaron: Right.

But if you're in a chair, you should still have the same opportunity to go to the second floor. Yet the world wasn't created by that.

Now, let me tell you to do it this way because I think this probably illustrates it in the best. I had a friend of mine when I was still in my wheelchair, came up to me and he said, "Hey, can I ask you something?" He said, "How should I speak to someone in a wheelchair?"

And I said, "Well, that's really easy. How do you speak to someone who's not in a wheelchair?" And I and I, and the point I was trying to make,

The biggest compliment that we can pay to people is we don't see the disability, we don't see the chair, we don't see that part of it. What we see as a person. Because I think what happens, and this is kind of the concept of ableism is, is once you put a label on someone that changes your behavior, your interactions, totally. But if you just see a person, no matter what, then you interact with that person and that allows that freedom to just say, "No, this is just a person."

Now they have to do things differently, and what am I doing to help accommodate that and how can I help them reach their goals? Because they have to do it differently. It doesn't mean that they're different. It means that they have to do things differently than I do them. There are, there are a few people out there who are a little bit militant about it. But yet I think the concept is really a good one that, that we're all basically people, and if you think about the aging of America, everybody's headed for some sort of disability in one shape or or another.

[00:32:11] Aaron - Narration: I asked Dale to tell me more about common misconceptions that people have about neurological injuries.

[00:32:18] Dr. Hull: I think the biggest hurdle or the biggest thing that people don't quite understand-- and whether or not it's a spinal cord injury or a brain injury or a stroke is with neurological injuries-- no two injuries are the same, and no two recoveries are ever the same.

And the reason that that is important is generally speaking, when friends or even family members show up, they all want a prognosis. They all want to say, "So is Joe going to walk again?" And the the difficult part is there isn't a textbook, an imaging device, a scientist, a physician. There is no predictive value of any of those things. We can't predict where someone's going to be because they're all unique and you actually just have to go. The proof is in the doing. That's really a concept that is not well understood.

The second part of that is most of us, and I will admit that even when I was a practicing physician, if I saw someone in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injuries in my mind I would say, "Oh, that's too bad they can't walk." But never gave any thought to loss of sensation, loss of bowel function, loss of bladder function, loss of sexuality, loss of the sense of touch, and even with high spinal cord injuries like myself, temperature regulation. People like me, we don't sweat and we don't shiver, and so we have to be very careful about our ambient temperature because we just don't regulate it like we used to.

There are so many quality of life issues that it's hard to wrap your head around. There was a couple of surveys done at separate times where they, they took people who had been paralyzed from a spinal cord injury at least 10 years, and one of the questions they asked is, "If we could give you the ability to walk or give you bladder function, which would you choose?" 85% of the respondents said Bladder function. No question.

And so when you think about if you are paralyzed in your wheelchair, yet you're having to cath yourself four to six times a day and you're worried about accidents, that is a huge quality of life issue. And I think those, those are the kind of things that I think surprises most of the people who, who have these injuries, right?

But certainly it's a big surprise to their family who have to take care of them. The friends show up and kind of come in and visit. They, they really have no concept of what that's like.

[00:35:09] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:35:09] Dr. Hull: You know what the, the, those little things of life that really become big things.

[00:35:15] Aaron - Narration: Neuroworx does far more than just treat patients who come through their doors. They're also constantly fighting to improve systemic failures that slow down or prevent healing. Our insurance and medical systems here in the US simply don't offer enough of the time and resources that traumatic injury patients need.

[00:35:34] Aaron: What are the systemic problems that need changing to better help people with paralysis?

[00:35:40] Dr. Hull: So, so two big problems. Number one is the length of hospital stays have significantly shortened. They're, they're about 70% shorter than they were 30 years ago. So 30 years ago, if you would've had a spinal cord injury, you would've been in the hospital for at least a hundred days on. Currently that average is 27 days.

So people are being discharged from the hospital so early that the, that the inpatient rehab really is only focused on getting them home and getting them ready to go home. So the burden has now shifted to the outpatient side.

Well, there's two big problems. Number one is they're not, they're not specialized centers for neurological rehab. Be, because it's not a money making concept. And number two, the insurance does not discriminate based on the acuity of the situation. Meaning, Aaron, if you blew out your ACL and had to have ACL surgery and you would get the same number of of outpatient physical therapy visits as if you got in a car accident and had a spinal cord injury and became a quadriplegic. There's no difference in the, in the number of visits that you would get. Most people get 20 to 30 visits for an entire calendar year, and then they're done. So the, the obstacle is access to care, access to specialized care, and then the financial barriers that prevent access, even if that specialized care is, is available.

Yeah. So, so those, those three things combined to make it. Overwhelmingly difficult for people to find any sort of progress. We're aware of people in other states that literally get discharged from the hospital and get maybe four outpatient visits. They're provided with a wheelchair and that's it.

They're, it's, "Here's your wheelchair. Have a nice life." And there's so much more. Even if you are confined to a chair for your mobility, learning how to transfer, learning how, what you do when you fall out, learning how to, you know, do pressure release. I mean, there's, there's just a myriad of things that have to be looked at and taken care of.

[00:37:53] Aaron - Narration: So, how is Neuroworx different? Well, it's in the time and care that they can offer their patients.

[00:37:59] Dr. Hull: It takes an enormous amount of creativity and, and a, a very dedicated type of person who can create a treatment plan for each individual. That's why it's so labor intensive and that's why it takes so long is. You know, each one of these people are, uh, you know, one of a kind. Right? And, and so it, it's just very labor intensive.

And I will say it's a labor of love because our clinicians are just so dedicated to what they do, that they're, they're incredible. And the people that we meet, the, the patients that come through are, are just incredible people. They're the most grateful, the most hardworking, resilient. They're, and I just think it's a privilege that we have a chance to associate with them.

[00:38:51] Aaron - Narration: Let's take a break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Earlier in the episode, I promised I would share Dale's story about carrying the Olympic torch. I don't think there's a moment in this episode that better captures the amazing person known as Dr. Dale Hull. If you need some motivation or just a reason to feel happy, you are going to love this story.

[00:40:09] Dr. Hull: So I was injured in 99. Fast forward to 2001, you know, I'm still working with Jan, and I had gotten to the point where I was walking with two arm crutches, if you know what those are. And I, I developed some better hand and finger function.

But at that point in, in time, I had, I had gotten to that point by setting incremental goals. You know, I'd, I'd make a goal and then I'd say, "Okay, well, so what's the next incremental goal?" And so I'd reached that point where I needed a new goal, again, 2001. And so I, I realized that the organizing committee for the 2002 winner Olympics here in Salt Lake City, they're going to allow ordinary citizens to carry the Olympic torch.

And I said, "Huh, there's a good goal." And I said to Jan, "You know what I, I want to be a torch bearer."

Now you have to keep in mind, my hands are still partially numb, right?

[00:41:06] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:41:07] Dr. Hull: Especially my right hand. If I don't keep thinking about what I'm holding in my right hand, it just drops. It just falls through.

And so Jan looked at me and she said, "Well, you realize you can, you know you, you got to carry a three and a half pound Olympic torch and it's going to be with gloves on in the cold. I mean, you really think you can do that, right?"

And then I said, "Yeah, and I don't want any assisted device. I don't want to be in a wheelchair. I don't want the cane or crutch, I just want to walk on my own. In fact, if I can, I want to run."

And of course she looked at me like, "Are you hypoxic? Or what is the problem?"

And so it really became an important goal for me. Well, in order to be an Olympic torch bearer, you had to be nominated. So I nominated myself and then I started a little campaign where I had everybody I knew nominate me. So I kind of ran for office, so to speak.

And so I get this letter from the Olympic Committee in July of, of 2000 and it says, "Yes, you've been selected as a torch bearer. You will carry the torch in February of 2002." And if you know anything about the, the, the torch of 2002, you know went all over the US. It took several months for it to make, make its way to Salt Lake. And so I knew I would be toward the end, which was great for me because I had six months to prepare.

So my goal became Jan's goal, became our goal, and we started to work toward that. That whole idea of can I carry the Olympic torch without any assisted device and do it on my own?

So I, I started to, to collect the information, I knew I'd had to walk two tenths of a mile, and I knew that the torch was three and a half pounds. So I got one of my son's baseball bats and I hooked an ankle weight to it to duplicate the weight.

[00:42:51] Aaron: Wow.

[00:42:51] Dr. Hull: And then I would go to a high school track on a regular basis two or three times a week, and I would walk once around the track, which if, if, you know, that's a quarter of a mile. And, and so I would practice walking and then I would hold the bat and then I would try and change hands, you know, see what it would be like to change hands. And then as it started to get colder, I started to wear gloves.

And then a friend of mine, in fact, it's a woman named Heather Simonson, who was a reporter for one of the TV stations who had interviewed me. She had carried the the torch in Texas. And she said, "Hey, do you want to borrow my torch to prepare?"

And I said, "Absolutely." And so I, I had her real torch to practice with. And so when it came my time, which was February the last day of the Olympic relay, when the torch was heading toward the University of Utah Stadium, I had my opportunity to be the, the Olympic torch bearer. And, and I was able to do it without a cane or crutch or, you know, with my own hands in the cold with gloves on.

And I didn't drop the torch. In fact, I, I always tease that if I had my choice, I'd rather light my hair on fire than be the guy who drops the Olympic torch on tv. Right? So, yeah. And, and then to make the whole thing more amazing as I was surrounded by hundreds of people, hundreds of friends, former patients who came to just see me carry the torch.

And, and, and then the, the Disney Hollywood end of that was I ended up passing the Olympic flame to Karl Malone of, of the Utah Jazz fame.

[00:44:25] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:44:25] Dr. Hull: Hall of Fame basketball player, which was totally unknown to me until that day. So this, this moment when I'm, when I'm passing the Olympic flame to Karl, I describe as my George Bailey all that's "A Wonderful Life" moment because all of those people were there surrounding me with pure joy, just for me.

[00:44:47] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:44:47] Dr. Hull: And it, it, I mean, it was just surreal. I mean, there's just no way to describe what, what that was like. You know, the, the ability to be the, the torch bearer of the Sacred Flame and then having all those people in support. And it's, it's really kind of a hollywoodish type movie scene, you know.

[00:45:10] Aaron - Narration: With two decades of treating patients at Neuroworx, stories like Dale's could fill a whole season's worth of podcast episodes. In truth, there are thousands of these stories, because each patient who comes there accomplishes so much. But here's a favorite story of Dale's about a young dancer who went on to become a local celebrity and inspiration.

[00:45:33] Dr. Hull: So Meg Johnson was a young 20 something year old dancer, beautiful girl, was down in southern Utah with her boyfriend. And they were out in the red rocks, jumping rock to rock, just having a good time. And Meg became visually disoriented, thought she was jumping to the next rock, and actually ended up jumping out into space and fell 30 feet. Ended up with a broken femur, broken wrist, and worst of all, a neck and a spinal cord injury, leaving her a quadripalegic.

And that was obviously tremendously difficult for her. And she eventually, after she left the hospital, began to do her outpatient therapy with us at Neuroworx. And still had a beautiful spirit, but was very discouraged and distressed because, you know, her life as a dancer was done and, and trying to figure out what to do from there.

Well, about a year and a half after her accident, Meg discovered that there's actually a Miss Wheelchair America pageant, and she decided I'm going to enter the Miss Wheelchair America pageant. She called them up and tried to enter and they said, "Well, where do you live?" "Well, I live in Utah." They said, "Well, we're sorry you cannot enter the national pageant because you have to be a state winner first. And Utah doesn't have a pageant. Sorry."

So most of us at this point in time would probably give up. Not Meg. Meg immediately gets on eBay, she finds a used tiara and she orders it. It comes, she inboxes it. She takes this tiara, puts it on her head, picks up the phone, calls back Miss Wheelchair America and says, "Hi, I'm Meg Johnson. I'm Miss Wheelchair Utah." She, she literally crowned herself.

They, they let her enter the pageant and they were so impressed that they said, "We'll give you the charter to go back and start the the Utah pageant". Which she did, and at one point in time, the Utah pageant actually was the largest pageant in the nation based on audience and participants.

She doesn't do the Miss Utah pageant anymore, but she does what's called the Princess Pageant, where she focuses on little girls who are in wheelchairs. And she absolutely spoils them for two days and brings them in, and she has these college-aged girls dress up as all the princesses, like Belle and yeah, Snow White and everything. And, and these college-aged girls just spoil these little girls with makeup and they do their hair, they get dinner, and they get to be together. If they, if they have talent, they get to perform. So it's not really a competition. It's more of a celebration for these little girls and it literally changes their lives.

And, and Meg's gone on to be A really successful motivational speaker. She has her own YouTube channel. So the way I, the way I paint this is, this is literally the power of one.

[00:48:41] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:48:42] Dr. Hull: How one person can change so many lives for the good. So she's, she's literally one of my favorite stories. I mean, it just makes me laugh every time I think about her ordering to eat a tiara, you know, it's just like, "Who would do that?"

[00:49:06] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:49:07] Dr. Hull: Well, if you know Meg, once you meet Meg, you say, "Oh yeah, Meg would do that."

[00:49:12] Aaron: I love it.

[00:49:14] Aaron - Narration: Dale also told me another story about a teenage boy named Hank. He was a downhill skiing phenom on his way to making the US Olympic team. Because of a car crash, Hank had to start all over due to spinal cord and brain injuries. In the early days, he struggled not only to walk, but also to remember how to do even basic math. Now, Hank has multiple university degrees and is a physical therapist himself.

Stories like this reflect the vision that Dale and Jen have had all along. I asked him to share his vision of what comes next for Neuroworx.

[00:49:50] Aaron: What do you hope this work that you're doing looks like 10 years from now?

[00:49:54] Dr. Hull: I, I think the, the biggest thing that I'm working toward, and Jan and I hope is again, that we overcome that access to care. That, that there are more specialty clinics available, that the, the therapies is readily available and we hope that we made a difference in eliminating those barriers to care, particularly the financial barriers to care.

We did some legislative things here in Utah where we, we were able to create a, a fund that will help the citizens, Utah, get the care they need. We've shown that the return on investment is anywhere between five to one, to nine to one based on the the dollars that the state invests. So I think what we hope that at some point in time we can convince the payers and those individuals who have control over the financial barriers, that that really is a pay forward. That if you give us a little bit of money up front, we're going to save money on the long run, and we're going to make people who are more independent, have better health, have a better quality of life, and are more likely to return to work and school into an abundant life. If, if we can make that happen, then I'll, I'll feel like I can die a happy man in that regard.

[00:51:17] Aaron - Narration: Here now at the end, I have truly saved the best for last. This insight and wisdom from Dale went straight into my heart. Never having experienced anything like what Dale has, I wondered if he ever felt regret for his injury. I can think of so many things that I regret. But none of them changed my life as dramatically as that summer evening in 1999 did for him.

Does he sometimes think of what his life would be like but for that night. How does he think about it all these years later?

[00:51:52] Dr. Hull: I haven't spent an enormous amount of time thinking about what my life would've been like had it not happened. But here's what I will say and I've, I've said it many, many times and it always surprised me.

But you know, this journey that I've been on and the adversity that I've been through has been so rich in its learning and the things that I've acquired and the depth and the insight, that if God or Buddha or Bill Gates could stand right next to me right now, and say, "I'm going to touch you, and when I touch you, you're going to be made whole again, but you'll have to forget everything you've learned."

I would say, "Don't touch me," which always surprises me, because I miss my body every day. I miss being me, but yet I couldn't go back, because of, of the experiences and who I am and what I've been given because of that.

[00:53:13] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:53:16] Dr. Hull: So I don't really think about the what if, because the other, the other side of it is so... amazing.

[00:53:27] Aaron - Narration: All of us, due to setbacks, big and small, sometimes unexpectedly find ourselves stuck. Even if there's no real comparison with being physically paralyzed, we might still feel trapped or imprisoned by a sudden departure from the life we expected. We may not see a way forward because of how hard and painful our circumstances have become.

To fight against our setbacks, to defy and overcome them like Dale has and thousands of others, makes us into new people. Our victories, when hard won, become precious to us because of how they shape and mold us. And those who help us regain our freedom and find new selves, become our angels, our heroes, and our friends.

Like Dr. Hull, we will find ourselves on the other side amazed and full of gratitude.

I want to thank Dr. Dale Hull for taking the time to share his inspiring stories and wise insights with us. I feel so lucky to know him. And Neuroworx relies heavily on the generosity of donors to make their services possible. If you want to help them in their work, consider making a donation. You can find a link to their website in the show notes for this episode.

I'm also very excited for you to hear our next episode, an interview with Walter Shaub. He's the former director of the US Office of Government Ethics and one of the most important voices demanding integrity from the people who run our country. Shaub has succeeded in offending people from across the political spectrum. He's also funny, kind, and fascinating to talk to. I'm confident you're going to love this episode.

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If you want to stay up to date with the podcast and my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter, where I share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at how-to-help.com.

This episode was written and recorded by me. Our production team included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes our audio. Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club, and if you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.

Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller, and this has been How to Help.

Podcast Episode: Purpose Beyond Profit • Jim Parke, CEO of Otter Products • s02e03

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What does it look like when a company has a purpose beyond profit? Rather than focusing on merely making money, Otter Products—the world's leading maker of mobile device protection—has a higher purpose: "We grow to give."

In this episode, I talk with the CEO of Otter Products, Jim Parke. Join us to hear his amazing stories and learn about what happens when a company believes business should be a force for good in the world.

About Our Guest

Jim Parke is the President and CEO of Otter Products, the world's leading manufacturer of mobile device protection. He has extensive experience in corporate structure and finance, as well as experience developing and mentoring start-up and early stage companies. Prior to Otter Products, Jim was an estate and tax attorney. He earned his JD at Gonzaga University, and his LLM in tax from NYU.

Useful Links

Otter Products Corporate Site: https://otterproducts.com/

Otter Box and Lifeproof products: https://www.otterbox.com/

The OtterCares Foundation: https://ottercares.org/

More about Servant Leadership: https://www.cio.com/article/303848/what-is-servant-leadership-a-philosophy-for-people-first-leadership.html

Pleasant Pictures Music

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[00:00:00] Jim: And that's one of my personal missions is to, to prove that, to show that to the world, that business can make a difference for good.

[00:00:07] Aaron: I think if I had asked anybody, if they would ever hear a tax lawyer say that , they would've said "no way."

[00:00:17] Jim: Yeah. Well, I try to be a reformed tax lawyer, not practicing anymore. But, you know, I, I'm a human being before I'm a lawyer and before I'm a CEO and at some point I'm not gonna be a CEO anymore. Right? And I hope that my value doesn't come from my title. I hope that my contribution to the world isn't related to what I, you know, what I get paid to do. I hope it's from how I treat people. And I hope it's from the difference in the impact that I make. My hope is that the day that I retire and I don't have this lofty title anymore, that I'm not worthless in the world, that my contribution stands regardless of what's on my business card.

[00:00:58] Aaron - Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller. And this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode three, Purpose beyond Profit.

This episode of How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.

Earlier this year on June 16th, a Thursday, the United States' largest maker of phone cases closed its doors. If you have a case for your smartphone, as most people do, there's a really good chance that this company made the one that you own.

The company is Otter Products, and the closure wasn't what it sounds like. You see, this isn't a story about the latest corporate casualty. To the contrary, this is a profitable, vibrant company.

[00:01:51] Jim: So Otter Products is, you know, a global company. We've got offices and employees in 28 different countries. We're best known for our brand of mobile accessories, the Otter Box brand as well as the LifeProof brand.

So in the US, we have, depending on the time of year, between 40 and 45% market share, and we're distributed in all the major carriers' US retail stores. I mean, there's 40,000 points of distribution within the US alone where you can buy our products, not to mention online as well. You know, we have even a larger presence in Canada, really high market share in some countries like Ireland and the UK and Germany and Israel and Australia and market share not quite as high in South America or Africa or Eastern Europe.

[00:02:41] Aaron - Narration: A company with this kind of reach employs a lot of people. And these people didn't show up to work on June 16th.

[00:02:49] Jim: So Otter is a company of about 1200 employees. We have contract manufacturing that we do all over the world. And through that, we provide jobs for tens of thousands more that are not direct employees, but work for our contract manufacturers.

[00:03:04] Aaron - Narration: So what happened on June 16th? It was actually the same thing that had happened a year earlier. And again, the year before that. In fact, this was the sixth year in a row that Otter Products picked a regular day of work and told everyone not to come in. It wasn't a holiday. Everyone was still expected to work, just not for Otter Products that day.

[00:03:28] Jim: Our corporate mission is one of the things that's really unique about us. It's four really simple words: "We Grow to Give." And what that means is growth is important. It's part of who we are, but there's a reason for that growth. And that reason is we want to give back. We want to make the world a better place.

[00:03:46] Aaron - Narration: The nearly 1200 Otter employees were out serving in their local areas. Everyone was still paid by Otter, but paid to help 53 different community organizations around the world. It was a day of giving back, the kind that many employers hold on an annual basis. And many employers then stop there. Otter Products, however, does more.

[00:04:10] Jim: We start by giving back to our employees. We give back in terms of profit sharing on a monthly basis. We give back in terms of volunteer time off and actually wanting them to go out and, and like they're expected to go out and use time to volunteer that we pay them for. But we found that people are just better human beings and they're happier and they're more productive when they are living a fuller, richer life.

And we have all the regular benefits that you would think of. But we're trying to look for ways that we can do things that would uniquely help our employees, to teach them and help them to grow in their careers.

[00:04:48] Aaron - Narration: And they don't stop with their employees either like a much smaller group of companies here in the US, Otter also dedicates a large chunk of their profits, 10%, to charitable purposes.

[00:04:59] Jim: On a monthly basis, 10% of all of our profit goes to charitable causes throughout the world. And that involves a lot of things. Like humanitarian programs, it involves education. But that's something that all of our employees know about that they're excited about, that they feel a sense of pride and enthusiasm for. And it's a, a great reminder to them that when they come to work, it's not just about making money. It's about making the world a better place.

[00:05:29] Aaron - Narration: My guess for this episode is Jim Parke. He's the CEO of Otter Products and the former CEO of its parent company, Blue Ocean Enterprises. He's going to show us what it means for a company to operate for a purpose beyond profit. And I hope as you listen, you can imagine what things would be like if all companies worked in a similar way. To begin, let's take a moment to get to know Jim Parke a little better.

[00:05:55] Jim: By training, I'm a lawyer and, and the worst kind, a tax lawyer. I figured if I'm going to get an education and, and put some time in, I need to do something that's going to put me in a good spot for the future. And everybody always says death and taxes aren't going away. Being a business attorney with a focus on estate tax seemed like a really good recession proof way to make a career.

And I started working with clients all over the country. One of my clients ended up being the, the family that owns Blue Ocean and Otter Box.

[00:06:23] Aaron - Narration: That family is the Richardsons, Curt and Nancy. Otter Products was started in the nineties after Curt wanted, and couldn't find, a waterproof gear box to his liking. So he designed one in his garage. Otter quickly grew under his leadership. And then just over 10 years ago, he decided it was time to step down. Jim had been working for Curt as the chief legal counsel for just a short time.

[00:06:48] Jim: After working with them for a couple of years, they asked me to leave my practice and become their chief legal officer. So I moved my family to Fort Collins, Colorado, from Denver, about an hour away and started working with them.

And I'd been doing that for about a year when the owner of the company said, "Hey, I'm tired. It's time for me to retire." And my immediate thought was, "Oh my goodness. I just moved my family. I left my legal practice to come work for this guy. And now he is gonna retire."

[00:07:15] Aaron - Narration: Worried about how it might be reporting to a new CEO, Jim was shocked when Curt Richardson told him that he was planning to name Jim as his replacement.

[00:07:27] Jim: And I, I turned to him and I said, "As your attorney, I have to tell you that is just a really bad idea. I've never been to business school. I've never run anything in my life. Being a lawyer is great because all I have to do is make suggestions, but I'm never responsible for whatever decision you make."

And he looked at me kind of funny and he said, "You know, I think you're the right person." And, and he's a person of faith and I'm a person of faith. And he said, "Why don't you go home and pray about it, talk to your wife and we'll touch base again next week." And I said, okay.

And as the meeting ended, I was walking across the street to my office and I called my wife and I said, "Oh my goodness. I think he just had a stroke. He asked me to be the CEO." And my wonderful, angelic wife that we've been married for 20 years now, she laughed out loud and said, "Oh my goodness, that would never work. Can you imagine that?"

And as I was talking to my wife, I, I noticed that there was another call coming through and I looked down and it was the owner of the company. And so I asked my wife to hold for a second and I switched over to that call and he said, "Hey, I just talked to my wife about it. She loves the idea. We're going to make an announcement this afternoon. I gotta go. Bye." and hung up. And so, within a matter of 10 minutes, I went from living my dream job of being a chief legal officer of a great, innovative company to all of a sudden being a, a CEO that I had never wanted to be, never intended to be. And then that puts you in kind of one of those situations where you say, "Can I really do this? Like, is there anything in my past or my experience or my skill set, that's prepared me for this?"

And I think we all go through moments like that, every once in a while, where opportunity stands and opens the door for us and, and says, "Come on in." And we have to ask ourselves the question, "Are we gonna do this?"

[00:09:15] Aaron - Narration: This was a moment of deep reflection for Jim, and laced with self doubt. He was young, just barely into his thirties. On top of that, he had very little business experience other than his legal background. Being a CEO of an entire family of companies, that included the country's largest maker of device protection, wasn't the kind of job you take on a whim

[00:09:38] Jim: In business, everybody's heard of this thing called the Peter Principle, which is you rise to the level of your incompetence. And that little voice in the back of my mind was screaming pretty loudly at me saying you've got a really good thing. You've, you've reached exactly where you want to be in your career. Are you really gonna do this? Are you really gonna take this next step?

Self doubt is the, the companion of everybody, right?

[00:10:00] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:10:00] Jim: I don't know anybody that can escape that all the time, but man, this was one of those times that I really had to stop and think and, and in honesty, get on my knees and, and do some praying and talk to my wife and talk to my dad and say, can I, can I do this?

And ultimately, at 31 years old, I became the CEO of Blue Ocean Enterprises, which was managing assets and companies all over the world. And yeah, I've had to do a lot of studying and a lot of learning to, to make up for the time that I didn't have to prepare on the front end.

[00:10:34] Aaron: Wow. Yeah. What amazing and unique experience. And actually, I think a lot of people, underappreciate what they're capable of and sometimes it just has to be a moment of crisis that helps them realize that.

[00:10:46] Jim: Yeah. And you know, sometimes crisis and opportunity look a lot alike, right? Sometimes the things that we are most terrified of are also the biggest opportunities. Oftentimes it's in the moment that you can't distinguish between opportunity, crisis, and adversity. Some of those things can only be distinguished through the rear view mirror.

[00:11:05] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:11:05] Jim: And, and this was a panic moment for me, but it's also one of the biggest opportunities I ever received.

[00:11:11] Aaron: You said this wasn't something that you had deliberately prepared for, but did you find there were experiences you'd had up to that moment that did prepare you, maybe in ways you didn't realize?

[00:11:22] Jim: The interesting thing is, is I stopped to think what tools do I have that could make me successful here? I, I had confidence in a few things. I knew that I could learn. I knew that if I was humble enough to ask the right questions and not pretend like I had all the answers, there were people around that that could help me.

I also knew that I had a good kind of strong center that had come from my family in terms of, I knew what was right and wrong or, or I knew how to find what was right and wrong. And I, I think that's what they were really looking for when they asked me to step into that role, is they trusted me and they knew that I would do what was right for them and for their, for the employees of the different companies.

[00:12:02] Aaron: So I think some people might define what you're describing as discernment. They were hiring you for good discernment. Where did this ability, to sort of observe and see things clearly enough to know what was a good idea and a bad idea, where did that come from for you?

[00:12:19] Jim: So I, I grew up in Ogden, Utah. And my dad was kind of a big fish in a small pond. In our town, he was a member of the school board. He was on the city council. He was a religious leader. It, it seemed like everywhere we went, everybody knew him. Like, we'd go to the store and five people would stop and talk to him. And they were people that I'd never seen before, but it was apparent that he had made a difference in their lives.

And you could just see the gratitude on their faces by the way that they interacted with him. And by the way, my dad was not a wealthy man. I mean, my parents had 10 kids. And at the height of his career, my dad was making $32,000 a year.

[00:12:56] Aaron: Wow.

[00:12:56] Jim: This was not something where he was in these positions because he was wealthy and powerful. This was because he was good and, and that goodness kind of showed through. And it became a, a great example for me, that doing the right thing, even if it's not always the profitable thing in the moment, builds you into the type of person that you want to be. And that's how I want to live my life. That's who I want to be like.

My faith has also played a, a big role in that. I hope to get better at discernment. I hope to get better at decision-making, but at the same time, I'm really grateful for the experiences that have helped me to, to get where I am.

And I've had the privilege of being around a lot of really influential people during my career. One of the attorneys that I worked with in my first job was just an amazing person, dedicated to giving back, dedicated to make a difference for other people. And it's important to have mentors. It's important to have heroes, because that's where you can have an example of who it is that you want to be and how you want to pattern your life and try and be that for other people too.

[00:13:57] Aaron - Narration: So let's learn more about the company Jim leads. We'll start with something that you don't find in many offices, something inspired by the animal behind their name.

[00:14:07] Jim: We have in the lobby of our headquarters, there's a slide that goes from the second floor down to the first floor. Every time somebody comes to visit that's one of the talking points. I think I've had four US senators go down that slide. I had a previous governor of Colorado go down the slide, with a full glass of beer and he didn't spill any of it. But yeah, Otter, we, we try to be a fun environment. If you've ever watched otters in nature, they're fun playful animals. I mean, you can sit and watch them for hours and they're just entertaining.

And one of the really interesting things is when they sleep, they tend to lock arms together to keep themselves from floating away from each other. And there's a community aspect that we, we love in that symbolism there.

[00:14:48] Aaron - Narration: In addition to a fun and connected culture, there's also a no jerks policy. It's a minimum requirement to not be a jerk before you're even considered in the hiring process.

[00:15:00] Jim: My personal motto is I don't want to work with jerks. And so on the front end, before anybody gets hired, before they even get an interview, they go through what we call a cultural interview, which is somebody from our human resources department just sitting down with them and trying to figure out what type of person they are.

We don't want jerks within our company. If you get stuck in an airport lobby with somebody for a few hours, you want to be able to stand being around them. And so trying to find people that are going to do the small, simple things of treating other people well, of being kind, being considerate, being polite and respectful, that weeds out a lot of really rough things that could happen later on.

[00:15:42] Aaron - Narration: Beyond just having a no jerks policy, Otter Products focuses on a leadership model called Servant Leadership. This was popularized by Robert Greenleaf back in the 1970s. Servant Leadership emphasizes the responsibility to help others grow and develop, rather than focusing on our own success. Multiple studies show that this approach leads to more engaged and creative employees.

[00:16:07] Jim: At Otter, we talk about this idea of servant leadership, which is treating other people the way that we want to be treated, kind of a golden rule thing. More than that, the person at the top of the hierarchy should really be at the bottom. It's kind of an inverted pyramid type of structure where it's not everybody else's job to make me successful. It's my job to make them successful.

And it makes for a really good talking point. Putting that into action, though, is, is really complicated. But it, it changes the culture of an organization when people know that they can really trust their leaders.

And Curt Richardson who's the, the owner of this company is one of the best examples I've seen of this. A phenomenally talented and wealthy individual who treats everybody with respect. And everybody knows that he cares about them, like on a personal, individual level. And that gives him so much runway as a leader to do things that he would never otherwise be able to accomplish. People tend to follow what they respect and, and if you live your life so that people respect you, you can get a lot of things done.

[00:17:13] Aaron: If everybody's focusing on treating each other with kindness, serving each other, there might be people who argue, "Well, that just leaves room for low performers to keep going. They're never getting criticized. They're never getting called to task. They're never being held to a higher standard." What would you say to somebody who is cynical about the culture that that creates, as it relates to performance?

[00:17:35] Jim: Yeah. Well, I'll give you an analogy that I used within our company all the time. If I'm walking around with spinach in my teeth, I don't want people to be kind and pretend like it's not there. I want somebody to care about me enough to say, "Hey Jim, you've got something in your teeth," right? We all have spinach in our teeth, behaviorally. There's things that all of us do that get in the way of our performance, that get in the way of our leadership.

And if we really care about somebody, like really care about somebody, we're not gonna just let those things pass. We're gonna talk to 'em about it. We're gonna be the one person that is willing to bring those things up and, and have a level of accountability, both for the people that we work with as peers, as well as those above us, as well as those that we may be managing.

But if you, if you really care about people, you're not gonna let them get by with low performance, but you're gonna coach 'em with, with love, with concern, and you're gonna do it in a way that motivates, rather than shames.

[00:18:31] Aaron - Narration: I asked Jim about dealing with poor performance because the research on Servant Leadership indicates that this is a potential weakness. The approach, when done well, requires a lot more time and attention that managers sometimes give to their employees. Jim finds that he needs to address this feedback issue directly in training.

[00:18:52] Jim: I do a training and it's called our servant leadership training. But everybody goes through this, not just leaders. And I start by going around the room and asking every single person, tell me about a leader who's made the biggest difference in your life. I would say about 80% of the people will list either a teacher, their mother, or their first boss. But when you ask them why, it's never because they told them how pretty they were, or how smart they were, but they were the people that were willing to help them see something bigger in themselves and give them the feedback to allow them to become what they have the potential to be.

And if you really stop and think about it, who in your life has made the biggest impact on you from a leadership perspective, it's probably not the person that just gave you hugs and told you how wonderful you were every day. It's the person that cared about you enough to help you grow and become what you have the potential to be.

[00:19:48] Aaron - Narration: Feedback doesn't always work though. If you're practicing Servant Leadership, what about when you need to let people go? I asked Jim to describe that process at Otter.

[00:19:58] Jim: We're looking at two things. We're looking first at how they live our values. And second how it is that they do their job. If we find somebody that's really good at doing the job and really poor at living our values, this is not the right company for them. They can be a high performer in any company in the world, but they're not gonna fit in here. And having that tough conversation with people is, is not an easy thing, but it's a base level expectation of our leaders.

On the other hand, if we find somebody that's really good at living our values, there's a lot we can do to teach them and train them. And oftentimes what we find is they are a high performer. They just may be in the wrong seat. That doesn't always translate super well into very small companies where you have a limited number of seats, but in a bigger company, man, if you've got somebody that's really living your values and is passionate and, and loves the company and wants to win, there's usually a place for them to contribute in a meaningful, positive way.

And one of the things that I always ask of my people is if you're gonna be let go, that should never be a surprise. If that's a surprise to the person being let go, then we have broken down in a massive way, somewhere along the chain. There should be consistent feedback going to that person from the moment that any challenges arise.

Feedback needs to be kind. It needs to be compassionate, but it also needs to be timely. And when I say kind and compassionate, I'm not talking about love, like hugs and rainbows. I'm talking about honesty in a way that motivates and allows people to, to perform well.

[00:21:28] Aaron - Narration: You'll notice that Jim repeatedly mentions the Otter Products values. Here's what they are: the Golden Rule, passion, innovation, integrity, and giving back.

Now, when you hear that list, you might have rolled your eyes and thought, "Got it. The exact same values I would see on the webpage of any other company." And it's true that most companies have "values," but at the end of the day you would never know it based on how people there behave.

I complain about this exact problem all the time. Values described on a webpage might as well be values you keep locked in a safe if you don't deliberately use them to make decisions. That's one of the things that makes Otter different than most companies.

[00:22:16] Jim: And then our values are so important to us. Every company has a handbook and every handbook has this page that says, these are our core values. And I bet you, if you were to interview your listeners, the vast majority of them, if you said, "I'll give you a thousand dollars, if you can name your company's core values right now," you would pay out almost nothing. In most companies, it's just a page in the handbook.

[00:22:41] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:22:41] Jim: But at Otter, we, we try and make it real. They're on the wall in every conference room. They're posted all over the building. And we talk about 'em in just about every company meeting. But the values can't be the thing that tie you together unless people know what they are and, and have an understanding of how you actually live them as a company.

[00:22:59] Aaron - Narration: Like I mentioned, their first value is the Golden Rule. Jim finds that he can use it widely, and people of all different backgrounds and beliefs latch onto it.

[00:23:08] Jim: Another one is the Golden Rule. And that's one that we, we talk about a lot. But how you treat other people matters and people have from time to time criticized this, because that has a little bit of a religious connotation. But the reality is it has a connotation in every major world religion. And it has a strong secular meaning as well. I think the vast majority of my executive team has no religious affiliation at all, but the Golden Rule or the idea behind it, is something we can all get behind and say, "This is how we're going to treat each other when we're at work."

[00:23:41] Aaron - Narration: One of the recent moments that put this value to the test was COVID. Global supply chains were disrupted and so many people lost their jobs. How did Otter live its values in the middle of a worldwide pandemic?

[00:23:55] Jim: We've just come out of this or, or hopefully are coming out of this pandemic right? And it's, it's been a really complicated thing. And, and for the first six months, it had a major impact on our business. We do a lot of our manufacturing all over the world and not being able to get the product that we needed and, and even when we did get it, having almost all of our retail locations closed throughout the world meant that we didn't have a lot of revenue and we had no profitability for a significant amount of time.

And what do you do in a situation like that? Well, a, a typical company's gonna say, okay, let's cut expenses. Who's first on the chopping block. And one of the first things that they go to is layoffs, right?

[00:24:36] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:24:37] Jim: And I, and I'm not saying that layoffs are bad or immoral, but I am saying that there's an obligation that I think we have from a moral perspective to say, "Is that the first option?" And, and that's one of the things that we did with our company is say, "How can we weather this storm and keep everybody? Like, is there a way that we can do this?"

And that meant cutting a lot of other things that maybe were near and dear to our hearts, but not quite as important as the people that were near and dear to our hearts. And asking the leaders at the company to take significant pay cuts so that the people at the bottom could get extra pay to accommodate for some of the additional risks that they were taking.

That's what I mean, when I say kind of an inverted pyramid. When there's pain to be felt, it needs to be, felt the most at the top in a way that protects the people that are on the front lines.

[00:25:25] Aaron: How did that work out? I mean, that is very uncommon, sadly, in the business world for that to be how the decision is made to allocate resources. How has that worked out for you guys?

[00:25:37] Jim: Tremendous. I mean, we've been able to make it through the entire pandemic. Not only did we not have a single layoff, didn't lose a single employee to anything like that. We're at a point where everybody's back to their full pay and, and we've actually found a way to grow through this experience.

And we've got our employees that know that we care about them. Like they, they know and they understand that we want to make money. We want to be profitable, of course we do. We're in business. But at the end of the day, there's a reason for that.

[00:26:06] Aaron - Narration: This is where you'll hear a CEO say things that you don't expect a CEO to really believe. Most chief executives will say that there's a higher purpose to the business, but in most cases it's just lip service. Jim, for his part, is a true believer in the power of capitalism to do something more.

[00:26:27] Jim: And I, I'm a really firm believer that capitalism is not an evil thing. Everything can run to excess, but if you do capitalism, right, if you do business right, it can be a force for good in the world. And that's one of my personal missions is to, to prove that, to show that to the world that business can make a difference.

[00:26:48] Aaron: I think if I had asked anybody, if they would ever hear a tax lawyer say that, they would've said "No way."

[00:26:57] Jim: Yeah. Well, I, I, I try to be a reformed tax lawyer, not practicing anymore. But you know, I, I'm a human being before I'm a lawyer and before I'm a CEO, and at some point I'm not gonna be a CEO anymore, right? And I hope that my value doesn't come from my title. I hope that my contribution to the world isn't related to what I, you know, what I get paid to do. I hope it's from how I treat people. And I hope it's from the difference and the impact that I make. And, you know, my, my hope is that the day that I retire and I don't have this lofty title anymore, that I'm not worthless in the world, that, you know, my contribution stands regardless of what's on my business card.

[00:27:39] Aaron - Narration: Jim Parke does benefit from an important advantage. His company is privately owned. That is to say, he doesn't have to respond to a wide range of shareholders, including big institutional ones that have the sole priority of financial returns. Faced with intense shareholder complaints, Jim might not have been able to adopt a similar COVID response. Now that said, investor preferences are shifting, especially among individual investors. More and more want to be sure that they invest in companies that reflect good values. There's every indication that this trend is accelerating and companies like Otter Products are showing the way.

Now let's take a break here for a word from our sponsor.

Leading an ethical career can sometimes feel like navigating through a wilderness full of pitfalls and other dangers. Having good intentions isn't enough. What you need are ethical skills. The Business Ethics Field Guide leads you through the trickiest of ethical challenges.

Based on extensive research involving hundreds of dilemmas faced at work and written by authors with decades of experience, the book guides you through the 13 most common ethical dilemmas that people face. It gives you the expertise and tools you need to navigate them safely. But more than just keeping you safe, it also trains you to be an ethical leader that others can follow with trust and confidence. You can find The Business Ethics Field Guide at Amazon, Apple books, Audible, and at meritleadership.com.

Research shows that one of the risks of Servant Leadership is that when a servant leader shows poor ethics, the negative impact is even greater than under standard leadership models. This happens because unethical behavior makes a leader appear inauthentic and, therefore, even less trustworthy. If you know your boss is in it for himself, then bad ethics don't seem that out of place. But if your boss tells you that you come first, you'll see right through him when his behavior betrays that. At Otter Products integrity is a core value, and there's abundant evidence that they do their best to live this value.

[00:29:58] Jim: Integrity, depending on who you are and what family you came from, it can mean so many different things. And so the definition we put on it is doing the right thing when no one's watching. And there's always this, well, what is the right thing? My answer is almost always, whatever your kindergarten self would've said is probably the right thing. In most cases, your gut knows what the right thing is. It doesn't take a philosophy professor to tell you what that right thing is.

[00:30:26] Aaron - Narration: So how do people at Otter actually behave when it comes to the value of integrity? Jim shared a fantastic example that illustrates how to encourage and reward people for showing ethical courage. I love this story.

[00:30:42] Jim: One of the things that I have seen is that there are a lot of examples of bad behavior in the world. And it's very rare that somebody gets called out for good behavior, that we make a big deal about that. And that's one of the things that we try and do, and we try and do very publicly and frequently.

And let me give you just an example of that. I mentioned that we do contract manufacturing all over the world, and sometimes the standard of ethics is not quite what we expect. We had a, a situation in China where we found out that one of our contract manufacturers was employing some workers that they shouldn't have been employing, that probably weren't old enough to be working. We said there's no way we're doing this. We cut ties with that factory. Stopped working with them.

And they decided to send a delegation of people to meet with us, to tell us that it was all a mistake, it was a misunderstanding. And they came in and they brought a box of cookies for each person in the meeting. Now we don't usually accept gifts, but a small box of cookies seemed like it would be okay.

So, well, when our director of supply chain got home and opened that box of cookies, not only were there cookies, but there was $10,000 of crisp, hundred dollars bills in this box. Now think about that for just a second. Like what could you do with $10,000 and, and nobody's ever gonna know about that by the way, because the people that are bribing you are never gonna tell anybody. You never have to tell anybody. It's kind of free money. And all that costs you is your integrity, right?

Well, in, in this instance, this person had the integrity that we, we try and hire for, and he called us up and he said, "What do I do? Oh my goodness. I opened this box. There's all this money in it. I didn't even eat the cookies. What should I do here?"

[00:32:28] Aaron: He didn't even eat the cookies.

[00:32:32] Jim: He was, he was panicked, right? But I know this individual and they're a person that can be trusted. And we went through a process of returning this failed bribe, which by the way is not as easy as you might think.

But this is a pretty remarkable example, and we wanted to tell this story in a powerful way. And so we brought this person up on stage, and I've got 1200 people in the room, and I, I tell this story and then we have a, a special award that we made for this person to give to him. And then also a check that after taxes would yield $10,100 that we presented to him in front of the entire company.

And the reason is we wanted to send a really clear and specific message that A) doing the right thing matters. B) it's, what's gonna get you recognized and it it's, what's gonna get you ahead at our company, and C) over the long term, doing the right thing is always gonna be the more profitable thing. It's gonna make a bigger difference for you.

Now that employee's gone through a whole bunch of promotions, seen a ton of bonuses since then. I would make the case that they could have kept that $10,000 and missed out on the opportunity and they would, for the rest of their life every time they looked in the mirror, had this big chunk of regret.

[00:33:52] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:33:52] Jim: Not wanting to know who they really were. And instead choosing to do this right thing, the person has made far more money and advanced much further in their career, because I know that I can trust them, then they ever would've been able to had they kept that money.

[00:34:06] Aaron - Narration: Here's another story to serve as an example. Someone who worked in facility management was doing maintenance in Jim's office. One evening, he looked down at a paper on Jim's desk and found private salary information for a number of other people at the company. He paused to read it, knowing that this was probably something he wouldn't normally have access to. Listen to how this employee handled what he had seen.

[00:34:30] Jim: But I had left a, a paper on my desk that showed some salaries for some individuals, and he had picked that paper up and he'd looked at it, set it back down, and left. But that bothered him so much that he had taken the time to look at that and to expose himself to information that he shouldn't have had, that the first thing that next morning he was waiting outside of my office to tell me, with the expectation that he was gonna be fired.

[00:34:58] Aaron: Wow.

[00:35:00] Jim: Wow. That guy is my hero. Like, that's the kind of person I want to be, the kind of person that has so much integrity. I can't even countenance the idea of, of making the wrong decision and, and just pretending like it didn't happen. That guy's been promoted so many times since that experience and he's working in his dream job.

Now, none of that would've happened had he not listened to that little voice inside that says "Man, you made a mistake now it's the time to fix it." And, and he did that and it's, it's literally changed the course of his career.

[00:35:35] Aaron - Narration: I really don't love it when people describe ethics as simply a matter of that little voice inside. While I do believe that listening to your gut is important, not all ethical dilemmas are easy. In fact, many of them are thorny and confusing and sometimes overwhelming. So I pressed Jim to share a time that he found himself unsure about the right way to act.

[00:35:58] Aaron: What are the really complex or thorny issues that you've had to wrestle with in the past, the ones where the kindergarten-you didn't know the right thing to do, at least right away?

[00:36:10] Jim: Yeah. A few years back, we were in the process of buying a business. And as we were negotiating this, I came to an agreement with the CEO of the other company and we shook hands. And then it's up to the, the lawyers to like paper the deal and, and make sure that it all reflects the agreement.

Yeah. Well, my legal counsel came to me and said, "Hey, I've got a problem. The other attorneys on the other side made a mistake in the document. And it's gonna make it so that we don't have to pay about a million dollars to the other side."

And you think about it for a second, there's a chance there that I can save a million dollars, right? It's not the right thing to do, but you could rationalize your way into saying, "Well, they're the ones that made the mistake. It's on them, right?"

[00:36:53] Aaron: Yeah.

[00:36:53] Jim: That's not the way that we do business. And so I, I talked to our attorney and said, "You need to go back and ask them to fix this." He did. And then he came back to me a little bit later and he said, "Hey, their attorneys, aren't gonna fix it. They're embarrassed about the mistake. And don't want to go back to their client and tell him that they made a mistake. So they're just gonna let it ride the way it is."

So like, what do you do there? Like you're, you're trying to do the right thing. You're refusing to take unfair advantage of somebody. And they're just making it really, really, really difficult.

So I had to call up the CEO of this other company and say, "Hey, I've enjoyed being around you. This has been a great conversation, but we're not gonna be able to consummate this deal because I'm not going to put my name on a document that doesn't reflect our handshake. And so unless you can tell me that this is the new agreement, I'm not gonna sign this document and the whole thing's gonna walk away."

And when I explained to him why the documents didn't reflect what was there, he he wasn't super happy with his attorneys. But man, sometimes doing the right thing isn't easy. And we almost lost out on a, a great opportunity there because we refused to take advantage of somebody else.

Now I've talked to several people about this and the response has always been, "Why didn't you just sign it and pay the money anyway?" I don't want to be in a position where there's even the appearance that I'm trying to take unfair advantage of somebody else. What I have at the end of my career is my name, right? My integrity. And one of the most important things for me is that when I look in the mirror that I'm happy with what I see. And I'm not talking about male pattern baldness here. I'm talking about really looking at myself and saying I'm comfortable with who I am. I've got five kids and they look at me like I'm their hero. They deserve to have a dad that makes the right decision. I wouldn't expect them to do any less. So why should I hold myself to a lower standard than them?

[00:38:49] Aaron - Narration: The last value that Otter Products lists is "giving back." In fact, they would say this is their purpose beyond profit. Like their other core values giving back is one that they live very deliberately through their philanthropy. But listen to how it also became real in a unique chance to come to the rescue of an entire island nation.

[00:39:13] Aaron: A lot of the good we do in the world is strategic, but some of it is just unplanned because we're in the right place at the right time. Can you share some experiences that you've had that relate to both of those, where the giving you've done is strategic, you planned on it, and then also the good you did was just because the right thing happened at the right time.

[00:39:31] Jim: Some of the strategic giving that we do is like feeding programs in disadvantaged countries. It's working with school districts in the areas of the world where we have employees to make sure that they have the technology that they need. And we put a lot of money, a portion of every case that people purchase goes towards those things.

But then there's this extra profit that on a monthly basis we donate to charity. I haven't told this story other than just in a few smaller speaking engagements, but it is one that makes me proud of the company and the people that I work with and work for.

We have a lot of employees in the Caribbean, and in 2017 in the fall, there were a series of hurricanes that went through and just decimated much of the Caribbean. And there were also similar storms or that some of the same storms ended up hitting Texas and Florida. And so everybody's attention in the US was focused on the devastation here. And nobody was really thinking about some of these small islands.

Well, there was a particular island of about 20,000 people. Usually during that time of year, there could be another 10,000 of tourists on the island. We had a good number of employees and every single one of our employees lost their home in this storm. And it was a couple of days before we could get in touch with them.

And finally, one of them was able to find a satellite phone and call us up. And they said, basically, "Not only have we all lost our homes, the government isn't functioning anymore. There's no internet, there's no cell service. We're running out of drinking, water. There's riots. Nobody has food." And they painted a really dark picture of what was going on there.

And we decided that we were in a position where we could act. We had a good number of boats that most of them were destroyed, but we had one boat down there that was kind of a larger passenger ferry boat that didn't get destroyed in the storm. And we thought we can use that boat to get relief supplies to this island and the closest place that hadn't yet been hit was Puerto Rico.

And so we decided that we were going to send money to Puerto Rico, buy supplies, and shuttle them over to this other island. We, over the course of several weeks, spent several million dollars getting as much food and supplies as we could from Puerto Rico to shuttle over to this other island. And for a period of about two weeks, we were the only relief supplies that 20,000 plus people had.

[00:42:00] Aaron: Wow.

[00:42:00] Jim: Then the storm comes along and hits Puerto Rico. And we all remember that and what happened there in the devastation that occurred there.

[00:42:09] Aaron - Narration: One of the most miraculous parts of this story is that a local church in Puerto Rico was partnering with them, and had been warehousing supplies for the company while they waited to be shipped over.

Then when the next hurricane hit Puerto Rico, the company already had a church full of supplies in place and ready to help with the next disaster. It's important to note that I knew about this story and encouraged him to share it in our interview. He probably wouldn't have mentioned it otherwise.

[00:42:39] Jim: This is one of those things where we never put out a press release saying we're doing this. Matter of fact, we've gone out of our way not to really tell this story.

But I think there's a lesson here for business, which is business can make a real difference in the world. If you're doing it responsibly, if you pay attention to this age-old Maxim that where much is given much is expected--we've been given a lot and we have an opportunity to make and do a lot of good in the world. And I'm just so proud to work for a company that cares enough to do that, that cares enough to realize that people and profits are not interchangeable, that we need to prioritize the wellbeing of people and make a difference where we can.

[00:43:28] Aaron - Narration: It's now been over a decade that Jim has been leading Otter Products, doing a job that he never even wanted. I asked him to reflect on his experience.

[00:43:38] Aaron: When you think back on when you were young and where you are now, what do you think the young-you would be saying? I imagine that the young-you growing up in Ogden and in a family of 10 kids didn't see this coming.

[00:43:53] Jim: Not at all. I read a John Grisham novel when I was in fifth grade, but thought, man, it would be fun to be an attorney because I thought it was all like intrigue and espionage. And nobody had ever told me that that was a bad idea. And so I didn't actually ever meet an attorney until I was 21, but ended up going to law school and that's what I thought I wanted to be is just be a really good lawyer.

So I think the younger me would look at what I'm doing right now and say, "Wow, that sounds cool. But why are you not practicing law? LIke that that's been our dream forever." And the truth is some days I ask myself that same question, so...

[00:44:31] Aaron - Narration: You know from my other episodes that I like to ask my guests to give advice, especially to the next generation like the students that I teach at my university. Jim's advice focused on how we have to be deliberate in becoming the person that we want to be, especially when it comes to our integrity.

[00:44:49] Aaron: What advice do you have for people that want to do good with their career in business? There are a lot of pressures that make that hard. I have a lot of students actually that are in this exact situation. They want to go into business. They're drawn to it because it fits their passions and skills, but they want it to do it in a way that that does good in the world. What advice do you have for them?

[00:45:08] Jim: You know, there, there's a lot of advice that I could go through there. I think the first is decide now what kind of person you want to be, and then choose your business career in a way that allows you to be that person.

So often people coming out of college, just take whatever job that they can get. And for a lot of people, based on the school they went to or how the economy's doing at the time, that's really the only option that they have. But then they get shoehorned into positions where they start making really small moral compromises. And pretty soon they're looking back and, and saying, "I never thought that I would get to this spot where I am."

Nobody starts a job saying "I want to be fired." Everybody wants to do the right thing, but people just start making these small little compromises. And the best advice I could give there is resist the urge to rationalize. Your gut instinct 95% of the time will get you to the right answer. And if you think that this is one of those other five, make sure you're talking to somebody else that you trust because of their ethics to get their take on the situation. If you do that, you'll get it right the vast majority of the time. And if you make a mistake own up to it and fix it. That's a really powerful combination. And the idea of living without regrets is a pretty amazing thing.

It's a really amazing thing.

[00:46:25] Aaron - Narration: When we stop to think more deeply about business, the idea that profit should be the end goal is obvious nonsense. Because what is profit for? All of us have a purpose beyond profit. It might be an entirely selfish one, or it might be an entirely generous one. For the vast majority of people, I suspect that it's somewhere in between.

But if we lose sight of the purpose and forget what the money is for, then a focus on profit alone distorts our decisions in all kinds of ways. It turns money into a way to keep score, something that money wasn't designed to and that squanders its potential.

That's the genius in a corporate motto like the one at Otter Products. "We grow to give" reminds everyone there to consider the purpose behind being the world's leader in mobile device protection. We're all drawn to think about why we should do the things we do. Growing to give is a purpose that's worth getting behind.

I want to thank Jim Parke for his time, experience, and wisdom. If you're interested in learning more about the company he leads, visit otterproducts.com. You'll find the motto "We grow to give" right there in the middle of the homepage.

In our next episode, we'll be talking to Dr. Dale Hull. 23 years ago, he delivered his last baby as a doctor but he didn't know that it would be his last. Because of an accident, he was paralyzed entirely from the neck down. These days, not only can he walk again but he's helping thousands of other patients regain their ability to move and live their lives. Dr. Hull is going to tell us about the challenges, systemic and personal, that people with paralysis have to overcome. And how it can get better.

Be sure to subscribe in your podcast app of choice so you can hear that and all past and future episodes.

If you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It really helps us to reach more listeners. And if you want to stay up to date with the podcast and my other work, you can also subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter, where I share ideas about how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at how-to-help.com.

Our production team for this episode included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also mixes all of our audio. Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. And if you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.

Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller and this has been How to Help.

Good Deeds and Broken Systems

Among the many pathological features of social media, there’s an argument that happens whenever we celebrate a generous act. Here’s a recent example that I found in 30 seconds of searching Twitter.

Fred Tabares is a middle-school art teacher who teaches in an area where many of his students can’t afford supplies. “Mister T,” as he’s known, also works weekends as a dish washer at a local restaurant, and he used what he earned there to help buy art supplies for his over 400 students. A heroic and lovely act that’s worthy of praise.

One publication framed the story this way:

Basically on cue, another tells Mister T’s story with this:

Both tweets are true, by the way, but they tell very different stories. (Even though the underlying article is word-for-word identical!) The odds are pretty good that your thoughts about it lined up with one of these two perspectives. We're inclined to either praise good deeds or denounce broken systems. Together, though, they reveal a truth about how help is needed, how it’s provided, and what you should do about it.

Systemic vs. Ministered Help

All the help that happens in the world generally happens in one of two ways:

1. Systemic Help. We have policies, funding, programs, or the like to address a persistent need. For examples, think of things like safety nets, scholarships, blood drives, and banking rules.

2. Ministered Help. Not meant in a religious sense, ministered help is given when one person attends to the needs of another. For this kind of help, think of rides to the airport, rent covered, study groups, and shoulders to cry on.

Much of the help that happens in the world reflects both kinds, like with a case worker helping a family through unemployment. The system hires the case worker, and then the case worker provides the help in a ministered way to the family.

But, much of the help in the world is one OR the other. Consider regulations that reduce pollution, for example. Individual people might implement technology to reduce pollution from a specific coal plant, but no one is custom delivering the cleaner air for any of us to breathe. There is no ministration in such rules, but they can reduce air pollution that kills a shocking number of people each year.

Humanity Needs Both Kinds of Help

You might be in the camp that bristles at stories like this one about Mister T. Imagine if, instead of having to work a dishwashing job so his students can make art, he had a district-provided budget. School teachers already are paid too little, so Mister T’s sacrifice exposes an injustice.

But it’s impossible for systemic help to address every possible need. That’s because every system has gaps, unintended oversights that leave people neglected. For example, I could set up a hotline to help people through their breakups (and charge less than my competition), but most people facing a breakup either wouldn't know about it or would prefer to talk to a friend.

In fact, systemic help is sometimes less efficient and effective than ministered help. People who see a need when it appears are often best positioned to make things better. This is why someone who has a financial setback is more likely to turn to friends and family before they turn to safety net programs, even ones that are well-run. (Here's a fascinating breakdown of how Americans give and receive financial help.) Getting help from those close to us is just faster and easier.

But ministered help doesn’t scale like systems. We can’t reasonably expect there to be enough teachers like Mister T to provide art supplies by moonlighting. In fact, the tough conditions that teachers face persistently gets us fewer of them than we need. To consider more examples, not everyone who struggles financially can call their parents, or who contemplates suicide can call a friend, or who breathes smoggy air can escape what they’re inhaling.

What We Can Do About It

For humanity to flourish, we will always need both kinds of help, systemic and ministered. Knowing that, what can we do about it?

First, here’s what NOT to do. Don’t shunt people like Mister T to the side and condescendingly tweet, “That’s generous, but it should never have been needed in the first place! The people running that school district should be ashamed.” Don’t attack the people honoring Mister T for his abundant generosity or sharing what he did. And then don’t scroll on past the story, never lifting a finger even giving those kids or Mister T another thought.

Instead, here’s how to get better at both kinds of help:

1. For systemic help, first realize that the problems are complex. They’re big and heavy and need lots of people pushing. Go find the people who are already doing that well to help them push. Then, as you help the experts, learn more about the problem so you become an expert too. You’ll also need to get good at organizing things, telling compelling stories, and being patient with setbacks.

2. For ministered help, celebrate and be inspired by the good examples. Get to know the people around you by spending time with them. Take good care of yourself and those close to you so that you're better positioned to help others. As you do these things, opportunities will come. Act when they appear.

Finally, don't let indignation feel like a solution. Our social media anger is no more than debris washed along in the flood.

As for Mister T, what an amazing act of love and dedication. The attention it brought has inspired others, including a $10,000 donation to pay for his students’ art supplies. The more people we can get who act like him, the better.

Things to Read/Watch/Hear

How effective altruism went from a niche movement to a billion-dollar force

Effective Altruism has been in the news lately thanks to Will McAskill's new book, What We Owe the Future. If you're curious to learn more about EA, this article gives a brief history and good assessment of what it's all about today.

The Best Way to Win a Negotiation, According to a Harvard Business Professor

I normally roll my eyes at the negotiation advice you can find on YouTube, because it's often just superstitious posturing. But this video has excellent, research-backed advice, along with an exceptional moral insight at the end. Worth the watch.

How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel

An abundance of money comes with real psychological emotional risks, including reduced empathy, clouded moral judgment, and addiction. A good summary of research on the topic.

Promotional Stuff

If you haven't yet listened to my podcast episode with Dr. Naa Vanderpuye-Donton, then you're missing out on a chance to listen to a uniquely incredible person. One of my listeners had this to say about the episode:

If you have never listened to a podcast before, do NOT let this one be your first. You'll be ruined for other podcasts thinking they all are of this caliber.  
If you have been jaded by the noise of podcasters out there, this will give you hope that quality podcasts still exist.

😊 Here are some highlights I shared on Twitter, if you want to get a sense of why this episode is worth the listen.

Podcast Episode: HIV in Ghana, Hardship and Hope • Dr. Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye-Donton • s02e02


For over 20 years, Dr. Naa and her husband Eddie have led efforts to care for people with HIV and AIDS in Ghana. During that time, their clinic has treated more than 15,000 patients and their foundation has reached millions of Ghanaians to reduce the spread of the disease and the stigma faced by those who have it.

In this episode, we’ll learn about Dr. Naa’s journey from her childhood in rural Ghana to becoming a Dutch-trained medical doctor treating patients with nowhere else to turn. She’ll also share one of the best falling-in-love stories you’ve ever heard. Dr. Naa is an unstoppable force for healing and encouragement and this interview with inspire you with hope and confidence in the face of difficult challenges.

About Our Guest

Dr. Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye-Donton is the CEO of the West Africa AIDS Foundation and Medical Director of the International Health Care Clinic in Ghana. She’s also the author of the book, Hardship and Hope: Dr. Naa's Love Affair with Persons Living with HIV and AIDS.

Dr. Naa earned her MD from Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, with additional studies in tropical diseases at The School of Public Health in Utrecht. Together with her husband, Eddie Donton, the two have worked tirelessly to treat and improve the lives of people with HIV and AIDS throughout Ghana.

Useful Links

Dr. Naa’s book

West Africa AIDS Foundation programs and services

IHCC Ghana

The Wli Waterfalls

A video interview with Dr. Naa on The Standpoint

About Merit Leadership

To learn more about how you can develop ethical skills that turn peril into opportunity, visit http://meritleadership.com

Pleasant Pictures Music

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.


[00:00:00] Dr. Naa: And he just kept on going and going and going, you know. And I was like, won't this man ever stop? And then I remember after almost about an hour on the phone, he hanged up and then within five minutes, he called back again. And then I was like, "Oh, did you forget something?" He was like, "I think I forgot to say goodnight."

And I was like, "oh, okay, well, good night," because it was quite late. And I was like, what a strange person this man is.

[00:00:27] Narration - Aaron: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with meaning, integrity, and impact. This is season two, episode two: "HIV in Ghana, Hardship and Hope."

This episode of How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The Business Ethics Field Guide.

In Ghana, West Africa, there's a stunning series of waterfalls called the Wli falls. It's actually the tallest waterfall in that part of the continent, 80 meters high or over 260 feet from top to bottom. You'll find it in what's called the Volta region, which is a beautiful mountainous area in that part of the country.

The 45-minute hike to the falls takes you over foot bridges and between the thickly forested slopes of the Agumatsa Wildlife Sanctuary. It's a hot, but beautiful hike, and eventually you can hear the roar of the falls grow. When the huge waterfall finally comes into view, you immediately feel the thick, humid air replaced by a fresh, cool, constant breeze.

All along the cliff walls, high overhead hundreds of fruit bats, dangle from the rocks and vegetation that they call home. There's a large pool at the base and that's where the timid will wade in. But the courageous will go all the way to the falls and step under them. It's intimidating for sure, because you've never felt that much water crashing down on you all at once. But it's also invigorating, a word that means being filled with strength and energy.

I don't know how long the falls have been there, but I imagine it's been thousands of years and will be for many thousands more. In the local language of Ewe, the name of the falls means "Allow me to flow." When you see them in person, it's hard to imagine anything stopping them.

It's not far from this amazing place that another unstoppable life giving force was born. Her name is Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye-Donton, or as most people call her Dr. Naa.

[00:02:41] Dr. Naa: But there are more, there are more names to my name. There are more names behind those names, too. So my name is actually Desiree Delilah Marieka Elsie, which Marieka Elsie is they are Dutch names, Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye. Those are the names that appear in my passport, but then I also have a Ghanaian name, which is Akosua, and Akosua means I was born on a Sunday. And there is also an attachment to the Akosua. It's Akosua Vii and the Vii is from the Volta region where I was born. And the Vii means very little.

And according to my mother, when, when I was, when I was born, I was so small, the people in the Volta region gave me that name. And then obviously after my marriage, I added Donton to my last name. So now I'm Vanderpuye-Donton. So it has become a very long name.

[00:03:29] Narration - Aaron: Dr. Naa is the CEO of the West Africa AIDS Foundation, called WAAF for short, and also co-leads the International Health Care Clinic that's paired with it. She's the author of the book, Hardship and Hope, a memoir about her love affair with persons living with HIV and AIDS. For the last 20 years, she and her husband, Eddie Donton, have championed the cause of people with HIV, and together with their staff have saved countless lives. Dr. Naa is my guest for this episode and her story is going to amaze you.

[00:04:06] Dr. Naa: People say, "Dr. Naa, how did you end up coming here?" And I was like, well, I have to go very far to start the process, you know, of how I ended up with WAAF.

[00:04:15] Narration - Aaron: Throughout this episode, we're going to learn how she went from her birth and upbringing in rural Ghana to becoming a Dutch trained medical doctor. Along the way, we're also going to learn all about the current state of HIV treatment in West Africa, the struggles of those who are trying to help, and what lessons all of us can learn from this unstoppable force of a person. To get started, I want to give you some brief context about HIV in Ghana, where around 350,000 people live with the virus. And contrary to common misconceptions. HIV is no longer the death sentence that it once was.

[00:04:54] Dr. Naa: Now, if I compare HIV to when we started, there's so much we know about how this virus replicates in the human body. And that's why actually they've been able to come out with the antiretroviral medicines that are able to ensure that somebody who is HIV positive and takes the medication can attain viral suppression, where if you go looking for the virus, you are not able to find it.

And once you're not able to find it, it's very difficult for the person to pass it onto another person, even, you know, through unprotected sexual contact, through mother to child. And these are all the things that today we are able to, to address.

[00:05:37] Narration - Aaron: Antiretroviral medicines, or ARVs for short, are a highly effective way to suppress the virus from becoming rampant enough to damage the immune system and turn into AIDS, a disease that leaves a person so vulnerable to other illnesses that even a common cold can cause death. With massive support from the UN, NGOs, and government agencies, ARVs are now in abundant supply such that, in most of the world, anyone with HIV can stay on the medications and never experience the threat of AIDS. ARVs help hIV patients live long happy lives and even have children of their own.

[00:06:17] Dr. Naa: In Ghana for instance, you know, most people who are in what we call a discordant couple, so where one is HIV positive and one is not, if they have a child wish, they go the natural way because we don't have all the sophisticated, you know, methods like IVFs and all of those things. It's way too expensive. It has become possible because the one in the relationship who is HIV positive should be on, on the antiretrovirals because we know how the, the HIV works in the system. We know how to combat it. And so the person is having viral suppression, even if they have unprotected sex because there is a child wish, the chance of the positive one infecting the negative one is literally zero. And when they get pregnant, if it is the woman who is HIV positive and is now carrying a pregnancy, again because of the same medications that ensure viral suppression, the mother is not going to pass it through to the unborn child during pregnancy and will not pass it to the child also during delivery.

So a lot has changed when it comes to, to HIV. It is no more that when you get it, it's a death sentence. You will die if you don't go on treatment, you know, but the medicines are accessible and they do a great job. And once you take them correctly, look after yourself holistically, side effects are very minimum.

And these days, even we have combined tablets where you end up just taking one tablet a day. So, so much has changed.

[00:07:47] Narration - Aaron: It's only been in the last two decades that ARVs have made living with HIV possible. For the 30 to 40 years before then, getting HIV was devastating. It wasn't a question of if it would kill you, but when.

Dr. Naa grew up in Ghana during the seventies and early eighties, when HIV and AIDS spread until it rampaged across Africa, though it never directly impacted her or her family. We're going to return soon to the work that WAAF does to battle HIV, but let's first learn more about how Dr. Naa came to be doing this work at all.

Her upbringing was typical for other kids in Ghana during the time, except for her parents.

[00:08:30] Dr. Naa: So my mother is from the Netherlands. Her dad was a pure Dutch and her mom was half German and half Dutch. And the story about my mom is that she actually left Ghana at a very young age because she had a very difficult youth.

She was an only child. And it looks like her mom, that's my grandmother, had some very interesting impression about Africa. We don't really know how she got that. Whether she used to read fiction stories about Africa or what we don't really know, but at some point in time she got so fascinated by Africa that it happened that my dad, who is a Ghanaian, had an opportunity to go to the Netherlands to further his education. He, he studied animal husbandry and it so happened that the facility where he was schooling, my grandmother was doing some work there. And so she got in touch with my dad. The story goes that she kept on pushing my mother that, you know, you need to go to Africa because this gentleman looked like a, a good man, he would be a good husband for you. you know. So cutting a long story short at the end of the day, it was my grandmother who literally sent my mother to Africa. And so my mom, she comes to a country at the age of 16 and never traveled before, even within the Netherlands, and then has to go on a flight and come to Africa.

And so obviously they get married and it takes a while, thankfully, before they get their first child, which is me born in 1971.

[00:10:03] Narration - Aaron: Shortly after she was born, Naa's family moved from the Volta region to Northern Ghana, a mostly rural part of the country. They lived modestly and not did what most kids did then: fetching water, helping with chores, and ,which is still common in much of the country, she would walk a long distance to school every day. The trip took around 40 minutes each way, but because of her dad, school was never something she would miss. His personal experiences with getting an education meant that his four daughters would be well-schooled.

[00:10:38] Dr. Naa: My dad, he was very well educated. The story goes that he wanted to actually be a medical doctor. And from what I know, he got admission into one of the universities in, in the United States, way back. He had a full scholarship. There was quite a bit of jealousy amongst his siblings, and so this letter was hidden.

By the time he got it, the time had elapsed. And so obviously that opportunity was gone, but then, you know, very furious, my dad had said that one day he would find his way either to the United States or to Europe, and he was going to marry a white woman and he was going to bring the woman back to Ghana. So it looks like this was his mission. That's what I think.

And it sort of worked out. He found himself in the Netherlands and that's how my mother and my father met, got married. I have three siblings. I ended up being a medical doctor. The one after me ended up being a dentist, the third one ended up being a nurse, and then the last one ended up being a lawyer.

I think my dad had been through quite a bit of, uh, you know, difficulties in bringing himself up where education is concerned. He never had the support of his, his parents, not his siblings. So when he had children of his own, he kept on saying to us, you know, from a very young age, "Education is all you need. And I will make sure my kids get the education they need." And we all had to be very, very disciplined when it got to going to school. And not just even in attendance, but he expected us to excel in terms of our performance in school.

[00:12:08] Narration - Aaron: Where her father instilled hard work and discipline, Naa's mother exemplified kindness.

[00:12:14] Dr. Naa: Coming to a country where she literally had to learn everything about the, you know, the, the culture, the language, you know, I think that all of those things really humbled her. And so she always remained this very kindhearted woman and, you know, always willing to support in any way she can. Even though she will tell you, "There's not much I can do, but whatever I can do for you, I will do." And she's always remained that way.

[00:12:41] Narration - Aaron: All through these early years of learning, from the very beginning, Naa had set her sights on becoming a medical doctor, even though she can't remember exactly why. Perhaps it was just her destiny. The one thing that was clear is nothing was going to stop her.

[00:12:59] Dr. Naa: As to why I had decided at age two that I wanted to be a medical doctor, I have no clue. But that's what my mom says. Because my dad, like I said, he was working with the animal husbandry, my mom was more of a homemaker, you know, she was just home and managing the house. So no idea where this, you know, wanting to be a doctor came from, but that's what I wanted to be ever since I could remember.

And so I followed my dream and eventually made it come true.

[00:13:29] Narration - Aaron: Making that dream come true proved to be far more difficult than she could ever imagine. It was during her teenage years, after her family had moved to the capital of Accra, that Naa's life was unexpectedly turned upside down. She was completely uprooted from her childhood home during what they thought would be a short trip to the Netherlands.

[00:13:50] Dr. Naa: My mom and my dad, just like every married couple there are some ups and downs, and so at some point he had reached his retirement age. We were living in a house that had been given to us by the government because of the work that my dad was doing. So now coming on retirement, it means that we would have to look for another place. And I know it was an issue because we didn't know where we were going to go. My dad was the breadwinner and what he was making with his work with the government was very minimal. So not a whole lot of savings had been done.

So I know that was very stressful on my mother. That was when she decided she needed a break and she wanted to go to the Netherlands for, you know, just for a little break. And that's when my dad, he passed away whilst we were away.

[00:14:36] Narration - Aaron: Naa's father died from a simple case of appendicitis that was treated just too late. It was a completely avoidable tragedy that left Naa's mother no choice but to stay in the Netherlands where she and her daughters could get the help they needed from family and friends. All of a sudden, Naa was facing life and school in a place that was almost totally foreign to her.

[00:14:59] Dr. Naa: My mother had never intended for us to go back to the Netherlands. She had never really prepared us for anything like that in terms of, you know, the language. None of us spoke Dutch. She never spoke Dutch to us. We had been to the Netherlands I think like twice, but I couldn't even remember because we were very little at the time. So you find yourself, you are there, your father has passed away, you know, this is where you most likely are going to have to continue with the rest of your life. So it was very hard. You don't speak the language. You, you are leaving your friends behind Ghana. You are leaving your school. Yeah, it was, it was hard dealing with all of those.

[00:15:37] Narration - Aaron: For someone who had always excelled in school, this new challenge was overwhelming. Naa was placed two grades back from where she had expected to be. And now had to figure out how to learn math, science, and everything else in a completely new language.

[00:15:52] Dr. Naa: And we ended up in a school with kids that speak only Dutch, barely any English. The only time we spoke English was when we had English lessons, which we loved. At least I loved very much because at least I could understand something, you know. But then for the rest, you are in a classroom where, when the teacher is speaking you, you don't know what she's saying. You look at the books and you don't know what it is that they're saying.

So I would have to be taken out of the classroom, and most of the time the teachers will assign one or two of the students to work with us. And we would literally have to start learning things around us, just word-by-word. So maybe like a tree, they will tell us it's "boom" in Dutch, you know, or they would say car will be "auto", or they would say house, would be "huis". You know, we had to literally learn everything. It was very frustrating.

[00:16:40] Narration - Aaron: Now being so far behind in a place where she was accustomed to excellence, Naa's self-confidence was shaken. But the persistence in school that she had learned from the beginning never left.

[00:16:53] Dr. Naa: And so my mother, she got us, a private teacher where after school we would come home and we would have to go there every single day, just to be able to try to quickly, you know, get a little bit of a hold on the Dutch language. And we were always making mistakes. So because of that, it really made me become a little bit timid. I wouldn't be able to express myself. And that also had quite a bit of an impact on me. I wasn't able to move through life the way I wanted, because I wasn't having control over the Dutch language.

[00:17:24] Aaron: How do you, in that situation, how do you end up in medical school? I mean, it seems like you have all of these challenges stacked on top of you. It would be reasonable for somebody to assume that it would be impossible to end up in medical school after all of that.

[00:17:39] Dr. Naa: Exactly. And to be honest, at some point, I thought my dream was over, but I didn't want to allow it to be over. I was like, I have to be a medical doctor. That is what I want to be. And so I kept my focus and I kept pushing and I kept studying and I kept doing all I could to, to have some control over this language. And I was like, well, the good thing was because we had been set back in years, I think two years I went back, a lot of the things, once you figured it out, it was quite easy.

So like for math, for instance, I had no problems. I could do math, no problems, because I, I was way ahead. And then, you know, with English, obviously, no problems. So I was like, well, do the best you can. And so that's what I did. And eventually I think my lowest score was Dutch. Dutch I didn't score too well, but I scored a passing mark and so I moved to the next level.

And then on the next level, I started getting comfortable and I said to my mom, "I wanna, I wanna skip one class." So my mom was, "Are you sure you can do this?" And I was like, "Yeah, I can." I mean, my marks are quite good. It's just a Dutch language that keeps me from moving faster, but I know I can do it. So my mom had gone to seek advice from the teachers and, you know, most of them had said, "If it wasn't for the Dutch language, we will say, go ahead."

But about 90% of them had said 50-50 with about 10% saying absolutely not. You know, , but I said to my mother, "No way. I'm going to do this. And I, I will take the risk and I'll take the, the consequences of whatever happens." And so lo and behold, they made me do it.

So now I was kind of like just one year back compared to my student colleagues in Ghana. And I had to work very hard. It was hard, but I was very determined and I passed. I mean, I, I didn't fail. I passed . Yeah. And I passed relatively good too. And then there I was, "Okay. Now I wanna go to medical school."

[00:19:31] Narration - Aaron: Because of the lottery-style system in the Netherlands, Naa wasn't accepted to medical school until her second attempt. But after she missed out the first time, true to form, she enrolled in health science classes so that she could keep up with the material that she was missing in medical school. This helped her graduate more quickly when she finally did enroll.

And upon graduating from medical school, she had to decide what to do next. And that was her first chance to return to her childhood home, but this time as a doctor.

[00:20:01] Dr. Naa: When I was in my last year, I said to myself, "Okay, now I'm almost there, but now am I really sure now I want to go back to Ghana? It's been a while. I wanna go back and see how things are working there as a medical person."

And so I opted for an internship in a hospital in the Eastern part of Ghana, I was there for almost six months in my last year of medical school and I loved it. I just loved it. I mean, they, they posted me to a very remote area at that time. This was in 1997, no electricity. So I ended up doing a Cesarian section with, you know, with lanterns. And delivering babies, you know, normally with, with, well, also with lanterns. And you know, and so many things that we did there. And I was like, yes, this is, this is really what I wanna do. This is where help is needed. I need finish and come back here.

[00:20:59] Narration - Aaron: Returning to Ghana to practice medicine turned out to be a longer and unexpected road. Her first goal was to get more experience in a range of medical issues, including tropical medicine, pediatrics, and even some surgery. That time lasted another four years in the Netherlands post medical school, but she was getting vital training.

It was then that her mother unwittingly put into motion, the steps that would change Dr. Naa's life in every way possible.

[00:21:28] Dr. Naa: We had settled now in the Netherlands, but all four girls were now out of the house. So my mother was like, "I think I want to go back to Ghana." Because my mother had become more of a Ghanaian. You know, she came when she was 16, she had lived all her life here. And she literally, I mean, if my mother is speaking to you, you think you are speaking to a Ghanaian woman. It's only when you see her that you see a white lady. She loves Ghana so much.

So she had said to me, "You know, I just, I'm just not happy here. I wanna go back. You girls are all okay. Now I wanna go back to Ghana." And so that's where she meets Eddie for the very first time.

[00:22:03] Narration - Aaron: Eddie is Eddie Donton, founder of the West Africa AIDS Foundation and the International Health Care Clinic. I need to tell you about Eddie. I wanted to have him be a part of this episode as well because he is an amazing human being, but because of work demands we weren't able to schedule the time.

I'll start by telling you about Eddie through Naa's words. This is an excerpt from her book:

"Certain characteristics seem to come to mind when people describe Eddie. When he enters a room, his presence pervades the space and beckons for attention. He is a lean man, well dressed and articulate. When he speaks, he talks with a purposeful and deliberate manner. Eddie is direct and unyielding to obstacles."

This was the man that Naa's mother soon came to meet after returning to Ghana. It was the result of a chance encounter involving some Akita dogs that needed breeding. Eddie happened to own the same breed as Naa's mom and, never missing the chance to get to know someone, Eddie quickly struck up a conversation

[00:23:08] Dr. Naa: And Eddie, he talks a lot. He talks, he's a talkative. So he starts talking to my mother, you know, doesn't know my mother from anywhere, but starts talking. He's running this clinic, which is supposed to help HIV people. And he just started it, but it's more difficult than he thought difficult getting doctors.

So then when he mentions doctors, then my mother, you know, it raises her eyebrow. She's like, "Oh, you know, my eldest, she's a doctor." And so Eddie gets interested and he's like, "Really? Is she here?" Then my mother's like, "No, she's still in the Netherlands. That's where she studied. But she is planning to come to Ghana."

Eddie gets very interested. He's like, "Really?" So then my mother says, "Yeah, I should put the two of you in touch."

[00:23:53] Narration - Aaron: With Naa's number in hand, Eddie wasted no time.

[00:23:57] Dr. Naa: So that's how I finally get in touch with Eddie. My mother gives Eddie my contact details in the Netherlands, and then she calls me and says, "You wouldn't believe this. I met this interesting man. He speaks a lot. I don't really know, but he says he used to live in California. He mentioned something about HIV and he's running a clinic. And he's looking for doctors. So you should talk to him. So I've given him your number. He might call you." That was it.

I remember very well the first time Eddie gave me a call. I picked up the phone and he was like, "Oh, my name is Eddie. I got your contact details from your mother." And I said, "Yeah, my mother mentioned this to me. So yeah, I was expecting your call actually."

And then he started on the very first day talking a whole lot about this HIV and the NGO he has started, and how difficult it is but the need is so great. People don't have access to their care they need. People are dying of AIDS. And literally the facility he opened up is more like a dumping site. And so now he wants to know, am I really coming to Ghana to work?

And I said, "Yeah, I'm coming. That's my plan. But I don't know anything about HIV." That's what I told him. "I, I don't know anything about infectious diseases, HIV. I've never done this stuff, so I'm not really sure, but I would be interested, you know, to come and take a look when I'm in Ghana the next time." And he was like, "Oh yeah, that, that would be fantastic."

And he just kept on going and going and going, you know, and I was like, "Won't this man ever stop?" And then I remember after almost about an hour on the phone, he hanged up and then within five minutes, he called back again. And then I was like, "Oh, did you forget something?" He was like, "I, I think I forgot to say goodnight." And I was like, "Oh, okay, well, goodnight." Because it was quite late.

And I was like, what a strange person, this man is. That's what I thought to myself. And I was like, okay. And then the interesting thing is that ever since that very first phone call from Eddie, he would call like once a week. It was kind of like he was afraid I wouldn't come to Ghana. And he was bent on getting me to work at, at WAAF and IHCC. That's the impression I got. So he would call like once a week. "Oh, I'm just checking on you. You know, do you have a date when you are coming to Ghana?" And that sort of thing. "Are you still considering coming to take a look at my place?" "Oh yeah. I will come. Definitely. I will come. I will come check it out."

Eventually the calls became more frequent. So when I go to work and I come home, I'll see blinking. I put it on. It's Eddie, you know, he's left messages. Almost every day there are messages. I'm like, "Oh, this guy."

[00:26:33] Narration - Aaron: After nine months of calls, Naa finally made a trip to Ghana. All of those conversations had left Naa excited, but also a little anxious, to finally see Eddie in person.

[00:26:45] Dr. Naa: I guess, because we had already been speaking like almost every day, there was some connection already between the two of us. But just on phone. But in a way I was like, I really need to see this man face to face. So if he would come to the airport, actually I would like this.

So I landed at the airport. I'm going to the belt to get my bag. And then all of a sudden, I just get the feeling that somebody is watching me. And so I look up and then I see this man. He has found his way all the way into the, where, where we take our luggage.

And he's just suddenly looking at me and I'm like, that's Eddie. Cause he had showed me a picture. So I looked at him and then he is looking at me and then he waved and then I waved. And so I walk to him and I said, "You are Eddie." And he was like, "Yes." Then he just hugged me. and I'm like, "Whoa!"

[00:27:34] Narration - Aaron: Naa stayed with her mom, but made multiple trips to the clinic that Eddie had started at the time. There were no ARVs available. So the clinic was almost exclusively a hospice where AIDS patients would go to die.

[00:27:49] Dr. Naa: He had this concept of the hospice. So there were full blown AIDS people, people were literally on their deathbed, no families. And even if families were there, they were outside of the facility, afraid to go in. Such high levels of stigma. You could see questions on the eyes of people. As I was working there, I didn't see any sort of coordinated care. I kept asking questions, "Who is responsible? Who are the doctors here who work for them?" He said he had doctors who come in, but they go. The nurses too were not doing their jobs very well. It was a mess.

And I was like, "Oh my goodness, how can I ever work in a place like this?" First of all, you know, my knowledge about HIV is not a whole lot. And I wouldn't know how to do this, but I was very interested. I was like, "They need so much help. I need to try and do something to help these people."

[00:28:40] Narration - Aaron: At this point, we should learn more about why HIV continues to be untreated in Ghana and the rest of Africa. The UN goal for Ghana and other countries is to have 90% of HIV patients to be getting effective ARV treatment. Right now in Ghana, that number is less than 20%. The principle issue is stigma. Most people there have inaccurate understandings of the disease and they're deeply entrenched.

[00:29:09] Dr. Naa: What we really have had to deal with is people in Ghana having this idea that if you are HIV positive, they think it's a, it's a curse. You know, it's, it's something that has been put on you by some dead person, you know, that had something to do with you or had some grudges with you. It's a supernatural type of thing, and that has caused you to, to have HIV.

That's very predominant in Ghana. The other thing is the ones where people think that everybody who has HIV must be a promiscuous person. It means that you've been going about having sex with multiple people, even if you are married. And it means that you've been doing something. And I think that is what has been, you know, fueling the stigma, because obviously if you are married person and you are HIV positive, how did you get it? You, you must have gone to do something behind your husband or your wife's back. That's how they perceive it to be.

And then also the misconceptions about how you can get it in terms of, you know, casual contacts. You know, if you eat with somebody who has it, you definitely will get it. So that also fuels the stigma.

[00:30:17] Narration - Aaron: The result of stigma in Ghana means that people with HIV still often don't get the treatment that they need. There's a deep fear of being ostracized. In fact, a UN study of Ghanaians from 2014 asked, "Would you buy fresh vegetables from a shopkeeper or vendor if you knew that this person had HIV?" Over 60% of the respondents said no, even though there's no health risk in this situation.

This is where WAAF comes. Its mission is to raise awareness around HIV issues and educate people on how the disease works and spreads. At the beginning though, without adequate funding and access to ARVs, Eddie's clinic was just serving AIDS patients at the end of their life.

But Eddie was already an expert in end-of-life treatment. Before coming back to Ghana--he'd been born there, but lived in the us--Eddie ran a large and very profitable group of hospices in Southern California. His career had started in finance, but in 1994 his son, the older of his two kids, passed away from sickle cell disease. It was a shattering time that also proved overwhelming to his marriage.

The whole experience brought Eddie face-to-face with end of life care and how desperately it needed to improve for patients and families. Just one year after his son's death, he opened his first hospice in Riverside. This was before widespread availability of ARVs anywhere, including America. And so Eddie's hospice ended up with an influx of AIDS patients.

In addition to being an administrator, he also kept himself directly involved in providing care. Over the coming years, he opened more hospices nearby. Then in 1998, Eddie returned to Ghana for the funeral of a longtime friend. This visit opened his eyes to the desperate need of hospice care in that country.

After extensive research and meeting with health professionals, he opened the International Health Care Clinic in a place called Roman Ridge, followed by the West Africa AIDS Foundation one year later. This decision changed his life forever after.

Running the new clinic, along with the hospices back in California, was overwhelming. It also drained his personal finances. So at a time when most people would've given up, Eddie determined that the only way for this to work was to fully commit. So he stayed in Ghana for good.

It wasn't long after this that Naa came into his life. They grew closer during her visit there, but the big moment came when Eddie had the idea to take Naa on a surprise hunting trip. That morning Eddie was scheduled to give a radio interview and invited Naa to come along. And what happened next is one of the craziest stories I know of how two people fell in love.

[00:33:14] Dr. Naa: So the two of us drove to the radio station and he went into, you know, the recording room. He gave a wonderful talk about HIV and I just listened to it. And I was very impressed. I was like, wow, he knows what he's doing.

So after the program, I thought, "Oh, he's gonna take me back to my mother." But then on the way he says, "Oh, I'm taking you somewhere special." "Like really? Where are we going?" He says, "Oh, somewhere special. I can't tell you now." And I said, "Oh." Then he says, "Yeah, but you know, this is in the bushes somewhere."

I was like, "Oh, I don't think this is safe." Then he was like, "Oh no. I mean, I wouldn't do anything that is not safe with you." I was like, "Okay. But let's just truly make it safe."

We end up picking up this gentleman. I saw he was holding a gun and I was like, huh, what is this all about? And he says, "We are going hunting." And I'm like, "No, no, I don't. I've never hunted before. I don't know anything about guns. I don't even like the fact that people shoot their animals." I was like, well, I'm here. I mean, what can I do? I'm already here. You know, he drives myself and his friend way deep into the bushes and I'm like, "Where are we?" He says, "Oh, we come here all the time." I'm like, "Okay, I'm relying on the both of you."

So then we get out of the car. You know, we get into a very thick part of the bushes. And now he says, "This is the area where the antelopes and you know, other game, they come out. But we have to be very still." So we are standing there about 10, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. I don't see any animal.

And then, you know, his friend starts to move a little bit away. I'm like, "Where is he going?" And then Eddie says, "He's going to the other parts. These animals, they come all over the place."

And so now it's just Eddie and myself, and I'm so tired. It's late in the afternoon and we've been up all day. And so I'm sitting there, I'm looking around under the thick bushes. I'm like, "I don't hear anything. Are you sure these animals are coming?" He's like, "Be still. Be still."

So we are still, and then all of a sudden from nowhere, I hear this gunshot boom. And then I turn and I look at him. I look at his boot. I said, "Did you shoot your foot?" And then after like two, three seconds, it records in his head. Then he's like "I shot my foot!" And I'm like, "You shot your foot!"

So I get up. I run to him. The gun falls on the ground. He starts to fall to the ground. And I look at this boot and I see this huge hole in the boot. I'm like, this is not good. And I take off the boot and he has blown his toes off, the two toes.

[00:35:39] Aaron: Oh my gosh.

[00:35:40] Dr. Naa: And I'm like, now you have it done. In the meantime, there comes his friend shouting, "Did you shoot something?" And I'm like, "Yeah, his foot! You know, can you come quickly? We need to get him out of here."

He was screaming now because he was feeling the pain now. And I was like, I need to stop the bleeding. So I tied the t-shirt around. And I'm like, "We gotta get out of here as fast as we can." So the friend comes and takes Eddie on his back. We finally get to the vehicle, we put him in there and we are like "Quick! We need to get to the nearest hospital."

And that's when the whole ordeal started.

[00:36:17] Narration - Aaron: It really was an ordeal. After two days of visiting hospitals, they finally met with surgeons trained in these sorts of injuries. But with one look, the doctors immediately recommended amputation. Worried that he'd never play tennis again, Eddie refused and they left.

Dr. Naa was his last best hope.

[00:36:38] Dr. Naa: He says, "I'm not going back there. You need to take care of this food for me." And I'm like, uh oh. So I said, "Okay, I will do the best I can." So right there in his little apartment behind the WAAF and IHCC, I would go there every day. I would go there to clean it for him. And it was, it was such a huge wound and, oh, it was so bad.

But then my time came, because I wasn't done with everything I was doing in the Netherlands. I wasn't in Ghana full-time at that time. I'd come for just a period to see his facility and, you know, go back. And then if I was willing to come and work with WAAF, I would go and, you know, finish things up and, and, and come back.

So I had to go back because I was working and I told him, I said, "My time is up." And he was like, "You can't go. You are, you have to, you have to help save my foot."

[00:37:27] Narration - Aaron: Naa decided to extend her stay for two weeks. Every day, multiple times a day now would clean and dress his wound to fight off infection. Steadily Eddie's foot began to heal. Then the time came that Naa really did have to leave.

[00:37:45] Dr. Naa: He seemed to be tolerating it quite. He was even able to drive me to the airport. I said to him, I said, "No, you can't drive me to the airport." He says, "No, my car is, is an automatic car. I will use my other foot. I should be fine. Just bandage it very well for me. And I will, you know, I will manage."

But in the meantime, you know, it's just being close to Eddie this much, catering for his foot, and it had really drawn us very close together. So when he dropped me at the airport, I, I didn't really wanna go, I didn't wanna leave him in this state, but at the same time I knew I had to go. There were things I had to finish.

Oh, it was horrible. I, I remember crying and I don't know why I was crying. You know, I was crying. I was like, "I can't leave this man this way!" And I was miserable. The whole flight back to the Netherlands.

But then what I did when I got back, I quickly got in touch with one of the surgeons at the hospital where I had worked. And I said, "Listen, this is a situation I have with a very good friend. And he, you know, he had this gunshot wound. We've done all we could, but I want to see if, if, if we bring him to the Netherlands. If you can take a look and see what you recommend." And he was like, "Sure, as long as he can come, I will take a look."

So I arranged and Eddie flew to the Netherlands. The surgeon took a look and he says, "Well, whatever you guys were doing, you know, it looks like it's been very good. Just keep on doing this. The wound will heal. We don't need any further surgery. He should be able to walk. He should be able to play he, his tennis. He should be able to have a full recovery."

So Eddie was very happy. So he says, "Okay then instead of going back to Ghana, I'll stay for a while in the Netherlands." So he was with me and I guess that's really what brought us even closer together. And it moved from just being ordinary friendship to something else.

And so I said to him, "You know, just, just give me some little time to wrap up things in the Netherlands and then I'm gonna come and I'm gonna work with you. And we are gonna make this thing work."

We did our little small ceremony, uh, of getting married and everything. And then shortly after that is when I found out that I was pregnant. And so I was like, okay, you know, maybe let me just have my child. And then it would be around the time that I wrap up things. And then I, I will just move to Ghana.

[00:40:01] Narration - Aaron: I adore this story. It's the kind of love story that really makes you believe that some people were meant to be together. And in this case, it wasn't just for the happiness of Naa and Eddie, the kind you'd see in a fairytale. Their combined efforts as a couple have literally saved countless lives. And building WAAF wasn't just some happily ever after either. It was a mountain of hard work. More on that after the break.

But before we go to break, and if you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. And also tell your friends about the show. Those two things are the best way for us to reach more listeners. Now for a word from our sponsor.

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Dr. Naa and Eddie now have four kids of their own: three boys and a girl. That, all will building up WAAF and the clinic basically from scratch. As you can imagine, it has been challenging.

[00:41:57] Aaron: How have you been able to balance your family and the work that you do that you both do that is so demanding?

[00:42:04] Dr. Naa: Yeah, it's been very tough and I will say tougher for me as a mother. Because from day one, I have actually been working as a frontline medical doctor looking after mainly HIV positive clients, but also people who come that are not HIV. So basically running the clinic, having to do, you know, both clinical work and administration.

And then on top of that, having to cater for your family and your children, it, it hasn't been easy. And, you know, and, and also for the fact that the kids have, well, I don't why we planned it like that, but they are all two years apart. And it was quite stressful on me.

And not just even in terms of the everyday work, but also emotionally, because you deal as a medical doctor with all types of people, including children. And I have had instances where it, it hasn't gone well with infants, you know, children, babies. And then you, you see that, and then you, you think of your own and you are like, "Wow. You know, what, how would you feel if it were your own?"

Especially one time when I had, when I had to go and pronounce like a young girl. I think she was about maybe seven or six and she had died actually on the way. So when I got there, the child was already dead. But then, you know, something like this just requires you doing quite a bit of paperwork and calling family and, you know, kind of like being there for the family.

And, and then I just looked at again and I was like, "Wow, six years old. This is like my, like my son, you know, what would I do if I were the mother, I wouldn't be able to take this." So you just take it as a mother, you just feel it so badly and then you go back, your kids are there and then you are like, "Oh, this is just not fair!"

It's, it's very difficult. Trying to just separate the two.

[00:43:50] Narration - Aaron: Of course, Dr. Naa and Eddie don't do this work alone. It's also been the work of an incredible staff at their clinic and nonprofit. In her book, Naa goes out of her way to tell all kinds of stories about the faithful staff that have helped realize this vision.

These are incredible people. You remember earlier when we talked about the stigma faced by HIV patients? Well, the same stigma attaches to anyone who works or lives with people who have HIV.

[00:44:21] Dr. Naa: No, it's not just with those who are having HIV it's with anybody who is somehow connected to patients living with HIV. So, which means that people like myself and my staff. We were all known to be HIV positive, just because of the fact that we worked there. And so we would be denied access. The men to go to have a, the barber, give them a haircut. They said, "No, because we know you are coming from that place. And all of you, there is too much HIV. We don't want anything to do with that."

And so many other examples. Staff used to go to buy, like, sodas. They'll be denied it because they said, "Don't come and let people see you holding our bottles. Because if they see you holding our bottles, they think all our bottles are contaminated with HIV. So don't come here."

So it's been, it is been very hard. Not that to say it bothers me. I, I don't really mind that people think I'm HIV positive , but I know it has affected some staff. Their children are being laughed at at school that, you know, "Your mother is HIV positive." Only for the fact that she works, you know, in a facility that caters for people living with HIV.

[00:45:25] Aaron: Why do your staff keep coming? Why do they keep working for you despite all that?

[00:45:30] Dr. Naa: You know, that's a great question. And most of my staff, especially those at the clinic, are staff that have been with us for the longest. I mean, if anybody has left, it has been maybe because they had a very unique situation. But most of the staff are the ones that have been with us all this time.

And I, I just think we have come to build a strong team at the clinic. We all work together when it comes to HIV and we support ourselves 100%. We take care of ourselves. Let me put it like that, because it is not easy. We get stigmatized. We get looked down upon. We deal with very difficult situations. Sometimes, you know, not just the direct medical care we give to people, but the psychosocial, which is, which is really the toughest part. What we go and see in people's homes, what people come and tell us. And how we have to deal in trying to save a couple's relationship, just because one has HIV and one doesn't have.

And ,you know, mothers who have found out that they're HIV positive and want to get pregnant and are so afraid. Young girls who have found out that they are positive and think that's the end of their life. Because in Ghana, you know, a young girl, at some point you need to get married. You need to have children. They come to us. What should we do?

We are constantly dealing with.Very, you know, intimate issues and a lot of psychosocial problems. So it's very important that we take care of ourselves. And I think as a team, we really do. We look out for one another and I think that is really what has kept us going all these years.

I am very open. I make sure they know I really appreciate them. Where they don't perform, I tell them. But where they do perform, I commend them. When they do great things, I make sure they know about it. And I think that is what has really kept them going, you know? And they say good things about me too, so, which is good.

[00:47:25] Narration - Aaron: I could make an entire series of episodes just about Dr. Naa, Eddie, and their experiences building WAAF. Instead, I strongly encourage you to read her book, Hardship and Hope. You'll find a link to it in the show notes, but here's Dr. Naa summarizing what those early years were like.

[00:47:44] Dr. Naa: The little we had, we would pay the staff, you know, and we would be last. And many a time we would end up not having any money to pay ourselves. But then it's amazing how we were able to, to, to just, you know, carry on. But there was no way you could call this a salary or even an allowance. Gradually we started getting some funding in the beginning. It was also not anything to write home about.

And so it continued for a very long time that way. We must have been getting some help from somewhere to push us through that. You know, you don't realize it is there. But it takes you through, you know. And it's amazing now. Some new staff that have joined WAAF, because of projects that have come on board. I just look at them and I'm like, "You don't know what we have been through!" You know, because now everything is so much easier. Everything is budgeted for. I'm like, "Are you for real?"

[00:48:38] Narration - Aaron: The work of the foundation and clinic has grown dramatically. They no longer provide end-of-life care because these days they can treat patients with ARVs. After 20 years, they do more and they reach more people than ever before.

[00:48:53] Dr. Naa: Oh today in total, we have almost 50 staff now.

[00:48:57] Aaron: Wow.

[00:48:57] Dr. Naa: Yeah. Between the two, yes. And it's amazing because we started maybe with about six, I think, and now we've, we've grown to be about almost 50. And then we have lots and lots of volunteers, peer educators, case managers, paralegal.

[00:49:14] Narration - Aaron: There is still a risk of donor funding dropping. Much of their support comes from international agencies and that resource is at risk, especially after COVID. But the need to combat HIV stigma and to treat patients continues.

[00:49:29] Dr. Naa: And I think that is where sometimes we are a little bit afraid still because we know donor funding is dwindling. There are so many other areas that need help. Look at COVID. You know, and so we know that gradually it is beginning to drop. So that's one challenge.

The other thing is there is still quite some level of stigma. It's unfortunately, leading to still quite a number of people ended up having full blown AIDS, which I feel with accessibility to ARVs, we shouldn't be seeing that much anymore of AIDS patients. Yeah. But we are!

[00:50:01] Narration - Aaron: If this is inspiring you and you want to jump into help. I asked Dr. Naa how to get involved.

[00:50:07] Dr. Naa: Because we talk about HIV and then we talk about all the things that come with it, people tend to think that if, if you wanted to help us, you have to be a medical person. Absolutely not! It's a whole organization we are running. And, and then, and then of course we have the clinic.

Yes, it is more public health, but there is so much that comes to play. You know, we are always looking for anybody who could help us in marketing. If there's anybody who is a business minded person, they could help us. Because like I said earlier, you know, donor funding is dwindling and we need to find a way to sustain ourselves and hIV is not going to go away tomorrow. You know, it's, it is here to stay. And so we need to keep going on.

We look out for people to help us in the area of publicity, people to help us in the area of communication. How do we use social media, for instance, to, to promote health education? Anybody, you know, anybody. You, you don't necessarily have to have a health background. Once you come here, you will find something that you can do that will contribute immensely to, to the work that is going on.

[00:51:15] Narration - Aaron: We have just a little time left, so I wanted to ask Dr. Naa some deeper questions about death, hope, and how to make a difference.

She shared a story with me from years ago when a teenage boy came into the clinic because of an eye infection. It turned out to be cancer, and it also turned out he had AIDS due to an HIV infection he'd carried since birth. The cancer ended up spreading to his jaw, neck and shoulder. Dr. Naa spent years treating him almost daily, cleaning his wounds, until finally he passed away.

Both Dr. Naa and Eddie have seen enough death to cover a dozen lifetimes.

[00:52:00] Aaron: What are some of the lessons you've learned about death that have been surprising to you, or lessons that you, you would want other people to know?

[00:52:08] Dr. Naa: Yeah, that's interesting. The thing is, you know, because I think I have seen so many people die and like you rightly said that, you know, my own family, it has made me think about death. I have actually been holding people's hand when they passed. And then I, I say to myself, I look at them and I'm like "A minute ago you were here now, where are you? What has happened?"

I haven't found the answer. I just don't know what happens when we die. Sometimes I say to myself, I think we just cease to exist. Sometimes I say to myself, "Is that really it?" And I try not to think about it because I say to myself, if I think about it any deeper, I will just drive myself crazy because, you know, the answer wouldn't come to me.

But what I have learned, and I think just because of having witnessed people like going through the process, is that I feel when people finally die, there's peace. That's what I think. Regardless of whatever it is that you were going through, there is peace. And I know it is sad for those of us who lose a loved one, but I think because I feel they are at peace, after we go through the morning process, getting to understand that we will not see this person again here, you know, on earth, we should be satisfied that.

They are at peace. That that's how I, that's how I feel it, you know? And that's what keeps me going.

[00:53:32] Aaron: What brings you joy when the work is especially hard? What is it that helps you find joy and happiness in spite of the hard things?

[00:53:39] Dr. Naa: I, I really believe just knowing that I have been able to be a part of making someone's life meaningful. I think that is really what keeps me going and in the past, especially when we didn't have lots and lots of like easy access to treatment, and people were really suffering, and families would give up on people. But you go to the extreme, even though, you know, you don't have the power to, to make somebody well. You feel you have to do what is in your power, you know, to, to be able to contribute.

And then you, you are able eventually to save some and then you get the feedback from them. "Oh, Dr. Naa, we thank you so much. We know we can't do much for you, but your reward is, your reward is in heaven." That's what they always tell me, you know, and then, and I'm like, "Well, well, thank you, you know, thank you."

And I'm just so glad that I've been able to make somebody have a meaningful life. And even when people have lost loved ones that were in my care, but then they come back and say, "Doctor Naa, we just wanna thank you and your team. We saw how much you did for them. We appreciate you so much." That alone, just the appreciation that they know you did what you can.

You can't perform miracles, but you go to the extreme to do what it is that you can to help someone. I think that is what really gives me motivation to carry on. Because there's always hope! And so don't let that hope slip away. Do what you can to keep the hope. Even if somebody dies, again they, they are at peace. The loved ones that are left behind appreciate the fact that, you know, you did all you could to help.

I think that is really what keeps not just me, but my whole staff, going

[00:55:20] Aaron: A lot of my listeners are people who want to make a difference in the world in whatever ways that they're, they're trying to do that.

[00:55:26] Dr. Naa: Yes.

[00:55:26] Aaron: What advice do you have for someone with ambition to tackle the world's big problems?

[00:55:32] Dr. Naa: Oh, well, I think, you know, the world is a very hard place and thankfully we have good people.

But despite that, your goodness will always have challenges. And I think you shouldn't let these challenges sit in your way. I think every little contribution a good person makes in this world, it counts toward something. And we all bring our little goodness. And that is what makes most part of the world, even though it's challenging, still have quite a level of goodness.

So I will just say, if you have anything to do, don't think it is too small. Every small bit adds up in whatever way. So please go ahead and do it. And if you face challenges, let the challenges be the ones that will even make you stronger. Get up and rather move on with it, and you will make a difference.

[00:56:22] Narration - Aaron: I think by now you understand why I started by telling you about that amazing waterfall. That unstoppable, invigorating force from her birthplace is the best image I can think of to describe Dr. Naa Ashiley Vanderpuye-Donton.

I want to share with you an excerpt from Dr. Naa's book. Near the end. She writes this:

"I will admit that I am mentally, emotionally and physically drained, but I will not say that I am burned out. I continue to hope that things will get better...My clients motivate me with their kindness and optimism...My key to happiness is to appreciate what you have now and to not worry about what you do not. Have material items are not what make one happy...It has been a privilege to work in the field of HIV and Ghana, and I am extremely grateful for the person I have become through this work."

I hope you've been inspired like I have by knowing Dr. Naa and Eddie. I'm so deeply grateful that she took the time for this interview. Their story is one that I want the whole world to know. If you want to help them in their work, visit waafweb.org. You can also find a link in the show notes for this episode.

In the next episode, I'll be talking with a person who might have actually made the phone case that you're using right now. His name is Jim Parke and he's the CEO of Otter Products, the global leader in mobile device protection. And while mobile phone cases will come up, the real topic of our conversation is how to build a company with a higher purpose. You're going to be amazed at how the right perspective on business can turn any company into a force for good. Be sure to subscribe in your podcast app of choice. You can hear that, and all of our past and future episodes.

If you enjoy How to Help, please, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It really helps us to reach more listeners.

And if you want to stay up to date with a podcast and my other work, subscribe to the How to Help email newsletter, where I share ideas about how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at how-to-help.com.

Our production team for this episode included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who also edits and mixes our audio.

Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes. And finally, as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller and this has been How to Help.

Podcast Episode: Home • Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International • s02e01

Everyone needs and deserves a home. It’s our place to be safe, healthy, and loved. In this episode, we’ll learn from Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International and author of the book, Our Better Angels. Jonathan will teach us about the critical failures that are keeping people from having a safe and decent place to live, as well as the solutions that work.

We'll also learn about Jonathan's winding career path to CEO of Habitat, one that took him through investment banking, real estate, retail leadership, church management, and even a stint as the head coach of the Olympic men's rowing team for South Korea. Jonathan will share how he eventually found his professional home at Habitat.

About Our Guest

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, a global Christian housing organization that has helped more than 39 million people construct, rehabilitate, or preserve their homes. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and Stanford University, Jonathan has been leading Habitat since 2005 and was named the most influential nonprofit leader in America in 2017 by The NonProfit Times. He is the author of Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life and the World. Jonathan and his wife, Ashley, have three children and live in Atlanta.

Useful Links

Jonathan’s bio

Jonathan’s book, Our Better Angels

Habitat for Humanity’s programs and services

A short biography of Clarence Jordan

A short biography of Rep. Millicent Fenwick

About Merit Leadership

To learn more about how you can develop ethical skills that turn peril into opportunity, visit http://meritleadership.com.

Pleasant Pictures Music

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Jonathan Reckford: And then to my enormous surprise, they said, "We see all this rowing in your background." I'd been a competitive rower. "And we just, we qualified because we're the host country and we just fired our rowing coach. Would you help coach our rowing team?" and, and I said, no, I'm completely unqualified. You know, they kept coming back and saying, "We really want you to consider this."

So I actually left Goldman early, went to the US rowing coaching college. The coaches, US coaches were very generous and not very scared of the Koreans. And so I ended up living in the Korean training camp with all the coaches and athletes for that year.

[00:00:30] Aaron-Narration: Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life and career with more meaning, integrity and impact. This is Season Two, Episode One: Home.

Before we begin a quick programming note, How to Help is shifting to a monthly podcast. Each season will still consist of 12 episodes, but new episodes will now come out throughout the year, rather than in one big bunch like they did last season. We hope you subscribe in your favorite podcast app so you can get every new episode.

Growing up, I lived in 12 different houses. That puts me well above the average, which is less than half that according to a study by the MacArthur Foundation. Neither of my parents were in the military, so that's not why we moved a lot. But our family's story of job changes and divorce is far from unique.

And I technically shouldn't have used the word "houses." Eight of those places were what most people would call a house, but two were condos, one was a townhouse, and one was actually a cabin. For the curious, the cabin was in West Yellowstone, Montana, while the rest were scattered around other parts of Montana, Colorado, Idaho, and Southern California.

But all of them were home, if longer for some places than others. I feel fond feelings for all of these homes, partly because each one offered its own unique experience. One of them was in the hills of San Diego County, for example, where in the undeveloped places, my brothers and I would explore by jumping from one massive rock to the next, never having to touch the ground. In another, this one in Montana, we would run around the house at night barefoot in the snow, and then rush inside to warm our feet at the red brick fireplace.

I could go on with stories like these, just as anyone could—as you could— about Christmas mornings, favorite hiding places, and neighborhood games of kick the can with kids I'd only know for about three months because our stay in that house was so short.

Most importantly, even though we moved a lot, I always had a home. Over half a million Americans are homeless right now, and around 20% of those are children. More than 13 million Americans have experienced homelessness, at some point. My dad was one of them. He slept on California beaches, not long before he landed a new job that actually made us pretty wealthy for a few years. The number of people who have been homeless rises to 26 million if you include people who have doubled up with another family as a result of losing a home.

This episode, isn't about homelessness per se, but about the fundamental human need for home. It is, I think, one of the truly universal traits of every person's experience, whether in abundance or in absence. The idea of home spans all of our stories, poems, and songs. It's where all of us can feel that we really belong.

My guest today is Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, and author of the book, Our Better Angels. Most famous perhaps as the favorite charity of US President Jimmy Carter, you probably think of Habitat as the group that uses volunteers to build homes for people. They do that here in the US and around the world, but they also do so much more. I hope you enjoy learning about their global efforts to build a world where everyone has a decent place to live.

You're also going to enjoy hearing Jonathan's personal story and his career path that ultimately led him to his professional home at Habitat. So let's get started with this beautiful little story about why Jonathan loves his work.

[00:04:20] Jonathan Reckford: If you think about, you know, 1.8 billion people needing housing, you can get discouraged. But I think what sort of keeps me going, I think that's true for so many, is when it becomes personal, when you see the impact that safe and affordable housing has on a family. And I think about just a, a tiny story. I was coming back from the airport. My plane was delayed, it was midnight, and I was going to be back at the airport at 6:30 in the morning. And I was having a little pity party. And I'm, you know, pulling out of the parking lot, and the parking at attendant sees my Habitat logo on my jacket and "Are you part of Habitat?" I said, "Yes, I am." And he said, "Well let me tell you, I bought my house 12 years ago and it changed my life and my kids are doing well."

And we caused a traffic jam as I got to hear his story. And it's just that reminder that, you know, we get to be part of something that really is transformational. And that I think, you know, gives you the, the fuel to keep going even when there's certainly plenty of challenges in, in trying to make our mission come to life.

[00:05:16] Aaron-Narration: You might have noticed that the parking attendant in Jonathan's story said he bought his house through Habitat. This gives me a chance to clarify a common misconception about their work Habitat doesn't give people homes, but rather offers them an affordable way to purchase a home by having them earn what they call "sweat equity." The aspiring homeowners contribute in a variety of ways that can include working on site to help build their own house, helping build other houses, feeding volunteers, or staffing Habitat's, retail stores. More on those stores in a minute. In the end, they end up purchasing the house with a mortgage, which they pay just like anybody else.

[00:05:56] Aaron-Interview: This is also part of what's innovative about the model, right? Is this, isn't just sort of the way most people think of public housing. This is a path to ownership that involves investment, not just of time, but also of a purchase from the people that are, that are eventually moving into these homes. Why is that the approach? What is it that makes this the model that has worked for so long for Habitat?

[00:06:19] Jonathan Reckford: I think deep in the foundation, as I talked about where it started, those principles have really held true. Now our tactics have, have changed dramatically over time, but the basic idea was the idea of partnership and the belief that there is dignity in that partnership. And that in some ways, one of those founding sentences was no one can live in dignity until everyone lives in dignity. But that idea of partnership housing means we have three core criteria:

First that they are too low income to be able to get a traditional bank loan. So we're trying to serve a group that, that are not served by the market. Second, that they're willing to partner. And for us, that means the willingness to put in what we call "sweat equity,' where they put in hundreds of hours of literally helping build their home and their neighbor's homes, but also taking classes in financial management and home maintenance. So that they're really well prepared and have clean credit by the time they close on their home.

And then third that they are able and willing to pay an affordable, no- profit mortgage that then we recycle those funds back in the same community. So as those families make their payments, they're not only earning their equity, but then they're actually creating the opportunities for other families to have their chance.

And I think part of that has been why, even in the, the worst part of the housing recession 12 years ago, when in some markets, foreclosure rates across all income bands went up to 10, 15, even 20%. Habitat foreclosures went up to about 2%, even though we are sub, subprime lenders. But it's that preparation and sense of community and partnership that I think has made the model so powerful.

[00:07:46] Aaron-Narration: There's an elegance to this model that's now proven itself over and over. By having people earn their way into their homes, and then recycling the returns back into communities, Habitat stretches its impact to reach even more people. It's an idea that Jonathan calls leveraged philanthropy.

[00:08:06] Jonathan Reckford: It's very powerful. I talk about it as leveraged philanthropy. And we have an extra element, um, called our Habitat for Humanity ReStores. That's a chain now of over a thousand retail stores, primarily in the US and Canada, but also in Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Northern Ireland, and a few other places. And, uh, and those are home product recycling stores where we take used products, anything that can be taken out of a house and, and salvaged and resold. And that's now over a 500 million dollar business that generates last year I think about 150 million in net revenue for our affiliates that again can go back into home building. So, the combination of those mortgage proceeds and the store profits plus philanthropy then allows us to really amplify our mission.

[00:08:48] Aaron-Interview: We have a ReStore near us and we love it.

[00:08:50] Jonathan Reckford: Oh good.

[00:08:51] Aaron-Interview: We, in fact, when we were renovating our home, we made many trips to ReStore . And one of my favorite parts about the ReStore model is not just the, the economic benefit, um, that it produces for local chapters, but also the environmental impact that it has. I mean, this is all stuff that are you know, perfectly good building supplies that would otherwise go to landfills.

Absolutely. No, it's, it's a wonderful kind of triple bottom line because we've kept hundreds of thousands of tons of materials out of landfills, uh, year by year. And, and, uh, so it really is a nice way to do good.

[00:09:21] Aaron-Narration: If you haven't been to a local ReStore, definitely go there before a big box retailer for your next home improvement project. While ReStore may not always have what you need, they often do. At the ReStore near me, I've bought light fixtures, paint, supplies, tools. All of this is perfectly good stuff that would be sitting in a landfill instead.

The Habitat home buying program and retail stores are remarkable for their efficiency, leveraged philanthropy as Jonathan calls it.

So here's the thing: the Habitat model is famous for communities of volunteers or in other words, novices coming out to build homes. Rather than only hiring experienced building crews, Habitat deliberately invites volunteers to help in the construction. This kind of thing flies in the face of efficiency. Economically speaking, we get far more bang for our buck when people specialize in their professions. There's just no way that a group of people working in banks, car dealerships, restaurants, or heaven forbid, universities are going to build a house more efficiently than a team of pros. Trust me, you don't want professors in charge of building your house. This sounds like the kind of strategy that would make any economist or business person roll their eyes.

[00:10:39] Aaron-Interview: If you wanted to build a house efficiently, you wouldn't assemble a bunch of random strangers. You'd find professionals who are skilled at it. Can you talk about why it is that you rely so heavily on volunteers?

[00:10:49] Jonathan Reckford: We think in ways it goes back to the very roots of Habitat where it started in south Georgia and then in, in West Africa with people coming together in a community model to help , originally share cropping farmers, move out of shacks into simple, decent homes. The pastor who came up with the idea of Habitat was named Clarence Jordan, and he had started an interracial farm in 1942. And you can imagine that was ahead of its time and not very popular. And in the sixties, the farm had been bombed and boycotted and harassed and, and was really struggling.

And he pulled a group of people together. And wrote this incredibly prophetic letter that really was, again, way ahead of its time, laying out an idea of impact investing called the Fund for Humanity. And that eventually became Habitat for Humanity. And what he said, and I think it was so brilliant is,

"What the poor need is not charity, but capital. Not case workers, but coworkers. And what the rich need is a wise, honorable, and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance."

And he had a view that everyone has something to give, and everyone has something to gain, when they work together. And I think that ethos, that it's a partnership, we don't build four families, we build with families. And that experience of building relationship and community is so powerful and so missing in society today. And so for us, the volunteer piece is not critical from a construction strategy, but it's a core part of our mission from a social change strategy. And to some extent, if we don't create relationship, we can't change hearts. And then it's very hard to overcome NIMBY or to create the policy changes that we need to really enable everyone to have decent housing.

And so, so we see volunteering as a critical component, but much more in terms of the way that we change society's hearts than than to specifically be builders .

[00:12:33] Aaron-Narration: In that same letter jonathan just quoted Clarence Jordan also said this,

"We fiercely compete with one another as if we were enemies, not brothers. We only want to kill human beings for whom Christ died. Our cities provide us anonymity, not community. Instead of partners, we are aliens and strangers. Greed consumes us and self-interest separates us and confines us to our own group."

Jordan continued, "We must have a new spirit, a spirit of partnership with one another." He wrote that letter in 1968, though it would be easy to think that Clarence Jordan wrote it for today. Prophetic indeed.

And so while it might not be the most efficient way to build a home, bringing people together in an act of service is meant to build something more.

[00:13:28] Jonathan Reckford: And one of the observations I've had, and that I've loved about Habitat, is that actually going out and serving together is one of the best ways to build relationships and have difficult conversations. And so I have built with blacks and whites in South Africa, with Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, with Christians and Muslims in Egypt, with Hindus and Muslims in India. And it's not so, it's not so funny anymore, I've even built with Democrats and Republicans together. So it shows that even the greatest barriers can be, can be crossed.

But we have become economically divided. And I actually would suggest that one of the largest divides today is an economic divide. And then there's a racial component embedded in that.

One of the programs I love that COVID has forced us to suspend temporarily is our global village program where volunteers go overseas. And again, that's not because it's a good way to build houses, but I have seen just transformation happen when somebody spends a week or two weeks in a community with families and builds relationships.

And I'm very clear when I lead a team of volunteers that we're there to learn and build relationships. And we have a responsibility to take what we've learned and then go do something meaningful about it. They don't really need us there to help build the house. So we'll work hard while we're there. But it really is the, the building experience as a vehicle for relationship building. And, and in a way that's a relatively small part of our total work, but it's a really important part to me.

Some of our scaling work is much more about making markets work better so the families across the world can actually improve their own housing. And that's where we've moved from the thousands to the millions in terms of impact. But I love that more direct and personal and relational aspect of our traditional work. And we always want to have that element and I would actually argue that's needed more than ever right now in this, uh, highly polarized time.

[00:15:10] Aaron-Narration: You might have been surprised to hear that community home building is a small part of what Habitat does. The reason for that is scalability. It's simply impossible for Habitat volunteers to build enough homes for the people who need them. That's because, as Jonathan noted, markets need to work better in major parts of America and around the world. Affordable housing is a problem driven by disparities in wealth, not politics. The wealthy of all political persuasions push for housing policies that price people out of their own communities.

NIMBY, an acronym that stands for "not in my backyard," describes the pervasive opposition to higher density and more affordable housing, including opposition to the people who would live in it.

[00:15:56] Jonathan Reckford: I grew up in a college town. And I talk about that all the time, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When I grew up, everybody who worked at the university could live in Chapel Hill.

Now you, you forward 50 years later, 40 years later, and only the wealthiest faculty, you know, in the med school or the business school can, can afford to live in town. Forget service workers, junior faculty can't afford to live in town. And so what used to be a mixed income town has really become an economically divided town. And people are having to commute in from far away.

And this issue is a bipartisan issue. Sadly, otherwise goodhearted people when it comes to welcoming or creating mixed income communities become less so. And NIMBY, "not in my backyard" in, in, California, it's BANANA, "build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything."

By making it extremely expensive to build or very difficult to build, and the way things are zoned, it really has exacerbated this challenge of supply. And if you think about college towns, they have an extra piece in which four students can actually afford to pay way, way more rent than a family can afford to pay.

So what happens then is students squeeze out rental housing from families. And again, people get pushed further and further out. So we have to build more. It doesn't mean we have to build more everywhere. But we've gotta build more somewhere.

And mixed income doesn't mean every street has to be mixed income. But we think about schools. What we know in the inequality data to be overwhelmingly true is that low income children who grow up in mixed income communities still have quite good social mobility. The American dream really holds. Low income children who grow up in concentrated poverty have almost zero social mobility. It takes a minor miracle for change.

So the data is clear. It's really about the heart change. And maybe it circles back to sort of the, the that Habitat's volunteer work is less a construction strategy than a social change strategy.

If we can change that perspective from "those people" to "Wait a minute. Shouldn't the person taking care of my child in daycare, be able to live in our community. Shouldn't my pastor be able to live in our community. Shouldn't the person taking care of my mom. Shouldn't be that police woman who is protecting our neighborhood. Shouldn't all these people actually be able to live in the same community with us?" And if we want to do that, at least around transit in logical places, we've got to increase density.

[00:18:07] Aaron-Narration: I saw this very issue play out in my own city. We're a college town too, housing tens of thousands of students. There's immense demand for what little affordable housing there is such that we even fell below a state mandated minimum. The city council considered loosening zoning rules to allow more houses to rent out accessory apartments, what are called additional dwelling units or ADUs.

And residents came out in force against the idea. One resident said he moved a Provo for the nice neighborhoods and didn't want to live in a quote "student ghetto." Of course, focusing on students alone, ignores all of the other people in our community who need affordable housing. By trying to squeeze out students, we squeeze out all the other people jonathan mentioned.

In answer to an email that I wrote supporting the zoning change, a city council member replied to say how discouraging the opposition had been. In the end, the council capitulated and our community continues to have one of the highest housing inflation rates in the country.

Some version of this story is probably playing out where you live, too. Around the world, housing pressures are only going to get worse.

[00:19:23] Aaron-Interview: As we talk about the challenges of Habitat, what are the most urgent ones you're thinking about and worrying about now?

[00:19:29] Jonathan Reckford: Well, sadly COVID has become a crisis on top of a crisis. So in many ways we had a housing crisis globally before COVID, and COVID has both revealed and exacerbated that. And so even before COVID, for instance, in the United States, you had 18 million families spending over half their income on renter housing. And, and you think then you have to make unacceptable choices about what you don't spend in terms of education and health and food and energy.

And so, so we already had so many people struggling with affordability, and then COVID really exacerbated this divide, where for people with housing and with assets and knowledge jobs, COVID was a health crisis, but economically actually has been a positive thing. The markets have skied, asset prices have exploded.

Now, if you're in the service economy or the lower income tiers in our society without assets, it's just furthered the gap because now you can't possibly afford it. We've seen housing prices growing at the fastest increase in history in our high income countries around the world. And so affordability has become even further out of reach.

And then in low and moderate income countries around the world, housing hasn't gone up as much, but incomes have gone down. So in both con-, really all our contexts now we've seen affordability get worse. And, and that's the urgency.

[00:20:45] Aaron-Narration: It's here that I want to share another story. The only time I ever saw my dad become truly overwhelmed was because of a house. He worked in commercial real estate for much of his life, and that was a boom and bust business. Our family was in the throes of another bust and the expensive house that we were in became financially impossible for us.

I was in high school at the time, and I can still remember vividly walking into my parents' bedroom to find my dad sobbing. I'd never seen him like that before and never did again since. He had just gotten news that the bank was foreclosing on our house. I was still young and naive enough that I didn't fully appreciate the moment, but I understand it now.

These days, my family and I are lucky enough to live in a house and community that we love. And we've been here for almost nine years. It's the longest I've ever lived in one place. I'm overwhelmed at the thought of bearing the weight of that same moment that my dad did. It breaks my heart every time I think back on it.

These problems persist and get worse because many people are blessed enough to never have this kind of experience. People in power statistically are more likely to have come from good housing. So they have a harder time appreciating the urgency of its absence.

[00:22:11] Jonathan Reckford: The other challenge, I think, on the "why" is that most people in positions of power and influence grew up in good housing, which is of course self-fulfilling. So I think it's not always visceral in the same way that education and health is. We all experience good health or poor health. We experience education. Many, many people have never experienced poor housing. It's it's making visible that invisible problem for people who've never known what it is not to have good.

[00:22:36] Aaron-Narration: This lack of understanding is a practical failing, not just a moral one. Decent housing is among the most high impact ways to improve the life of a family. If you find yourself wanting to help people and feel overwhelmed at where to start, housing is a great place to get involved.

[00:22:54] Aaron-Interview: There are a lot of different ways to help people. What is it that makes helping them get into home so unique compared to all the other ways that we can help?

[00:23:02] Jonathan Reckford: It's such an important question. And we realize sometimes we jump right by the why and get to the, the how and the what. And, and I would say, of course, there are so many important causes and we've been guilty sometimes as other nonprofits have of saying, well, if we just solve education, everything will be great. If we just solve health, everything will be great. If we just solve income everything will be great. Housing is not the only need, but what I would argue is in many ways, it's a prerequisite for all the other things we want.

So we know it's so deeply correlated. If you have good stable and healthy housing, then the health benefits for a child are significant and measurably better. If they are healthy, then they do better in school. If they do better in school, they have a better chance of getting income and being able to support themselves. So there's a whole parade. If you pull housing out of that equation, the chances of a child staying healthy and doing well in school plummet.

And so what we know is, is in many ways, it's a, it's a core piece of the foundation. But we also know that you need all those elements for a healthy community. And so increasingly we want to make sure not only that we build good, healthy houses that are affordable, but we build them in healthy communities where a child can grow, as we say, into all the God intends for her life or his life. And so it is certainly not sufficient, but, but if we don't deal with housing, we won't achieve everything else we're trying to do.

[00:24:18] Aaron-Narration: This is a good time to tell you about the range of programs that Habitat and its affiliates operate to improve housing in communities. In addition to home construction, they help improve housing for senior citizens so they can age in place. They respond to disasters with emergency housing. And they provide financial education to prospective home buyers. All of their efforts are being driven by research backed insights and to what creates measurable improvements to living conditions.

For example, their neighborhood revitalization program is based on a quality of life framework that measures the needs in a community so they can target the improvements that make the biggest difference. There's a spirit of innovation at Habitat that keeps them looking for new ideas.

[00:25:04] Aaron-Interview: What have you not tried yet at Habitat that you want to try or that you think needs doing.

[00:25:10] Jonathan Reckford: Yeah, I think one of the areas, this was fun because we're doing a lot of experimentation around what we call market development, one of the areas I think we have under invested in our new ways of building, especially in the, in the high income context. So if you think about the way a house is built in the US, it doesn't look that different than a house being built 50 years ago.

And you think about all the innovation. And so I think we need to do more. We've done lots of tests. So we actually just built our first 3D printed house in Phoenix. And we've had all sorts of net zero and different kinds of houses. But I think, you know, there are chances to scale with modular, which is, I think misperceived and, and we, where houses could be built in areas that don't have a lot of volunteers, but have a lot of need and the volunteers and families could finish the houses, but you would leverage the skilled labor and be able to build much faster with modular partners.

I think these partnerships, we, I'd love to see more of where private builders are building communities and invite Habitat in and have a Habitat component of a bigger community, just as Habitat sometimes is developing larger subdivisions and inviting private developers in.

But, you know, can we both model and participate? In creating mixed income, but I do think new, new building techniques. We're equity owner with our shelter venture fund in the first 3D printed house company in India. And they just built their first houses. And I do think finding new sustainable ways to build faster and, and less expensively is a key part of the future.

[00:26:32] Aaron-Interview: When you think of 10 years from now with Habitat, what do you hope to see? I mean, there's so much, you're doing so much yet to be done. What do you hope the next 10 years?

[00:26:42] Jonathan Reckford: I think for me, it's, it's expanding on and living into the strategic direction we've already started, which would be not to build our way out of the need. And, and in some ways the, the huge pivot for us at Habitat was moving from how many houses can we build, which was a great goal to, "What would it take to meaningfully reduce the housing deficit and every geography that we serve?" And to do that forces a more systematic approach to, to lowering barriers.

So what I'm really consumed with now is how do we lower the barriers so that markets work for low income families, whether they're in Cambodia or in Atlanta? And we're trying to address all of those with our market development work and our center for innovation and shelter. And we become a global leader in housing finance.

Now the US, I would say the market is broken. It's not, you know, it's not able to build housing that's affordable for a huge swath of our population. So when I think of Habitat 10 years from now, my hope is we would be the most influential housing organization in the world, measured not so much in how much we have built, though I hope we'll build a massive number of houses, but measured in the fact that we can actually see housing deficits going down and the supply of housing meaningfully increasing for families in all the, the countries that we.

[00:27:55] Aaron-Narration: Think of all the ways that our homes can be better, they could be more efficient, more comfortable, more resilient over time. They could be easier to finance or could adapt better to the needs of families as they change from one year to the next. Working and schooling from home during COVID revealed a whole host of challenges in the places where we live. When we consider how essential a home is to our wellbeing, it makes sense to put more creativity into making homes a place where we can flourish.

And for that to happen, we need more people to have decent homes. Habitat for Humanity isn't the only organization working on this problem, but they are tackling the housing issues faced by those who are at the greatest risk.

If this is something that motivates you too, you can learn more about the impact and meaning of their work in Jonathan's book, Our Better Angels. It's full of beautiful and motivating stories from Habitats programs around the world. And if you're ready to jump in to help, visit Habitat.org to learn more.

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Here in the second half of this episode, we have a chance to learn about the path that led Jonathan Reckford to becoming CEO of Habitat. Like all of our stories, his story begins at home. We'll begin with the legacy of his remarkable grandmother, milicent Fenwick. Representative Fenwick was a member of Congress from 1975 to 1983, representing New Jersey, where she championed causes like civil rights and prison reform. Legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite called her the conscience of Congress.

[00:30:34] Jonathan Reckford: You know, she had, in some ways, a storybook life in some ways, a really hard life. And as I got older, thinking about how awful it was, her parents were on the Lucitania when it was torpedoed by the Germans. And she lost her mom at a young age. She, you know, never finished high school because she went to Europe, which was exciting. And she was actually very well educated.

But then had a terrible marriage at a time where divorce was scandalous and had didn't have a high school diploma, so she couldn't get a job. Started doing copywriting and modeling and ended up being the war editor for Vogue magazine.

And then went into public life at quite an advanced age and started in the state legislature in New Jersey and led the civil rights commission for the state of New Jersey for 14 years, starting in 1958.

[00:31:16] Aaron-Narration: Jonathan's grandmother was a critical influence for the way he thought of his place in the world. Listen to how she shaped who he is.

[00:31:24] Jonathan Reckford: I was actually just reading one of her books and it's remarkable how her calls to action from the 1960s are still relevant today. And she had a huge passion for justice and the her life verse from, from scripture that she would quote to me almost every time I saw her was from Micah 6:8. She said, "He has shown you, man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." And those were her, her marching orders. And, and slowly that's become a, a life verse for me as well.

And then she would ask the grandchildren what we were gonna do to be useful. And her idea of the good life is we're supposed to be useful. And I found her fascinating. Originally I was gonna go into politics because I thought she was so cool. And she was such a fighter for human and civil rights. And I really respected that.

And she was not your conventional grandmother. She, uh, it was funny. She was stubborn. She smoked cigarettes and, and got emphysema. Her doctor said she couldn't smoke cigarettes anymore, so she smoked a pipe, which was a little unusual. She was this elegant, patrician woman, and who cared so much about poverty issues.

And Gary Trudeau met her and then created a character in the comic strip dunes bay about her. So she got a lot of notoriety around that, but Walter Cronkite called her the Conscience of Congress. And she just had this kind of iron view of what was right and wrong and, and fought for that.

And so I. I absorbed a lot and I just found her fascinating. And now it was a little scary, you know, she expected 10 year olds to, you know, wear coat and tie to dinner and sit up straight and hold your fork properly and, and be able to discuss food problems in Sub-Saharan Africa, which, you know, I found both fascinating and terrifying, but, but really interesting.

And so I was, you know, very blessed to have that relationship and, and, and that really did, I think, plant the seeds for me, certainly along with my parents, around wanting to have a life of service, though I certainly didn't know what that was gonna look like.

[00:33:20] Aaron-Narration: Jonathan's parents also helped him see how his life wasn't just for himself. Serving others pervaded their family and home life.

[00:33:29] Jonathan Reckford: My father was a classics professor and my mom stayed home to raise our large family, but was actually a, had lot of personal courage and, and was one of the first people associated with university to be arrested for picketing restaurants in the, in the desegregation times. Our family had always supported women's prisons, which desperately needed reform in the, in the fifties and sixties and, and had really worked towards justice issues.

[00:33:53] Aaron-Narration: So how did this young man, raised to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly, find his way to Habitat? You'd be excused for thinking it was a straight line, but it wasn't even close to that. It's a fascinating winding path that he walked upon leaving home.

[00:34:11] Jonathan Reckford: I was gonna go to law school and then go into politics. And I came to the shocking realization, my senior in college that I actually didn't really wanna be a lawyer. I just thought that's what you did to go into politics. And so I had to come up with another plan. And with, you know, embarrassing hubris went up to wall street and told them I would learn finance fast and they could teach other people how to communicate, despite having never taken a business class. And, and I was an English PolySci major. And then I suffered mightily for that for a couple of years at Goldman Sachs. But it was a great education and I learned a huge amount. This was the early eighties and a and a boom time. And one of the things I learned too is I probably wasn't cut out to be an investment banker.

And, and I think that was a life lesson in the sense that when I looked around, I was a competitive, ambitious person. And I realized if I competed in the wrong arena, I wasn't gonna end up with the kind of life I was looking for. To win at Goldman Sachs in that era, I couldn't lead the kind of life I had imagined living because I was working all the time and that had squeezed out faith and, and service and, and all the other things that were important.

But the first big inflection point for me was, rather than going straight to grad school, I went off to Korea . I was very blessed to get a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to work for a year in, in Asia. And Korea was gonna host the Olympics. I loved sports, ended up negotiating a job. I got to work on the first international Korean equity offering from a Korean company and went over to Korea with Goldman. They didn't know I was a junior slave.

And I set up a marketing job with the Olympic organizing committee for the '88 games. And I was so excited. And then to my enormous surprise, they said, "We see all this rowing in your background." And I'd been a competitive rower. "And we just, we qualify because we're the host country and we just fired our rowing coach. Would you help coach our rowing team?"

And I said, no, I'm completely unqualified. Even though they kept coming back and saying, we really want you to consider this. So I actually left Goldman early, went to the US rowing coaching colleges. The US coaches were very generous and not very scared of the Koreans.

And so I ended up living in the Korean training camp with all the coaches and athletes for that year. And it could not have been a more complete departure from anything that was familiar. And that was such an important year of learning about the world. I got to travel a lot after the year of work across Asia, it expanded my kind of view of the world dramatically. And I also really grew in my faith. And, and so that was a, a really transformational year.

[00:36:30] Aaron-Narration: This year abroad was a chance for Jonathan to reset his perspective on the world and to learn an important lesson on how his career could grow. If you're still trying to figure out how to find the work where you belong, what he says next is excellent advice.

[00:36:47] Jonathan Reckford: I think, and it expanded my vision of the world. Certainly, you know, back then now the world is so much smaller, but you know, Asia was so far away, so exotic, so different and it, you know, traveling across the region and, and then going deep in one country was so, so deeply impactful.

And it's funny. I found— which is certainly another life lesson— that I focused more on learning and growth than sort of advancing my career. And it's easier to say now looking back, but whenever I was really focused on advancing my career, my career would stall. When I was really focused on achieving something interesting and trying to get something done, my career would accelerate.

[00:37:24] Aaron-Narration: So when Jonathan came back to the US, he went on for an MBA, choosing Stanford because it had a program for nonprofit leadership. And again, you might think that this is what sent him to Habitat, but he still had more exploring to do.

[00:37:38] Jonathan Reckford: That started a series of unexpected jobs. And my career never made sense. My dad had kind of gotten one job for three years and then one for 43 years, that was more my image of a career. And I kept losing my jobs very quickly, but I worked for Marriot and then got laid off just after being promoted. When, when the S&L crisis hit Marriott got in serious financial trouble. And then that led to getting to go to Disney, which was a company I'd always found fascinating and interesting and worked on new businesses for the real estate arm of Disney.

And just when we were starting our family, and, and I was debating sort of what would make sense from a career in Disney, particularly not wanting to move to California. I was recruited to Circuit City stores. And, you know, they are dead now, which is such a cautionary tale, but back then they were one of the top retailers in the country.

And they had just started CarMax. And I thought it was fascinating that they were gonna disrupt the car business. And I had the chance to go to be head of strategy and communications for Circuit City city. And we took CarMax public.

And then I was recruited to be president of another dead retailer. So all my business credibility is now shot, but it was president of stores for a company called Musicland, which back then was the largest specialty retailer music and movies. And, and then Best Buy bought Musicland.

And I thought, wow, I actually had stayed in the private sector way longer than I'd ever planned. So I stayed for a year to help with the acquisition and then did what I advise everybody not to do and rejected without a plan other than I wanted, maybe it was time to go to go serve.

[00:39:06] Aaron-Narration: None of this sounds like what you'd expect to find in a nonprofit leader, but the truth is that now more than ever, our careers can follow a whole series of unexpected twists and turns. All along the way, Jonathan benefited from having a strong launching point: a decent home.

What came next was, again, unexpected and unconventional. After reaching impressive heights of career success, Jonathan turned down an offer at Best Buy and stayed home. Instead of taking a new job, he took a break.

[00:39:40] Jonathan Reckford: I would say that that period right after I left Best Buy was the next big inflection point. And I think sometimes I've described it as, you know, learning from the white spaces. Because the resume is all the, is all the, the stuff everybody recognizes, but sometimes so much of that growth is in, what's not, you know, not on the resume. And what happened is I left Best Buy with an unusually tough non-compete, where essentially I could not make any money for, for 18 months.

And with my wife's blessing, after a little time off, went on an international mission trip to rural India. And I'd always wanted to do something like that. It was very tough with a young family and, and a very busy job. And so in this case I went with a group of pastors and served just for a couple of weeks in central India.

And God just broke my heart all over again around social justice issues. And, and we were serving alongside the Bunge. And, and those of you who are aware of the caste system in India, even though it's not supposed to be enforced anymore, it's still very real. And the Bunge are literally sort of the bottom of the bottom of the of the caste system, where they're only allowed to hand clean latrines and clean up dead animals. And they are not even allowed to live in community. And about when we were there, this was 20 plus years ago, about half the kids were dying before their 13th birthday from the conditions they were living in.

And it just, it just shattered me. And I came back from that trip, and with that, saw what relatively small interventions could do to fundamentally change the course for these children.

[00:41:10] Aaron-Narration: A heartbroken open gave Jonathan a chance to finally head in the direction that would become his professional home. He could feel something called a divine irritation. Following that itch though was a longer, more challenging path than he thought.

[00:41:28] Jonathan Reckford: The pastor Clarence Jordan had a phrase I like. He called it a divine irritation. You know, that there are, there are times in life where you see things that upset you. And we have lots of that in our society. And the response is "That's terrible. Somebody ought to do something about that." And they, they change the channel. And I think that that idea of a divine irritation or, or spark is that you have that same reaction and the response, "I'm gonna do something about it." And you get off the couch and you get out into the community, decide you're gonna do something to help make it better.

So that was a little bit of my, you know, divine irritation moment. And I came back and turned down a couple of really good business jobs right away, because I had a plan, you know, with God and we had a deal. And I got to the finals of a couple of nonprofit jobs. And in both cases I was one of the finalists, but didn't get it.

And they hired somebody, uh, who had already run a nonprofit, which was eminently reasonable. And then suddenly for the first time in my life, all the doors closed and I, and suddenly I was interviewing and not getting things. I hadn't really had to actively look for a job since the beginning of my career. And it was such an important growth opportunity.

And this is actually pretty embarrassing to admit, but if I'm really honest and I probably wouldn't have known this at the time, my deal was, "God, I'll do anything you want as long as it meets my social geographic financial ego gratification, another long list of criteria"

And in a way it was a wonderful time for my family. I coached every team. I was the dad on all the field trips. I, you know, I was, I was doing a ton of volunteer work at my church and in the community. And so it was very rich on the one side and it was also tough on my ego because too much of my identity was probably caught up in my career. Yeah. And that dragged on, I had planned on six months sabbatical, which suddenly became a year, became 18 months.

And then to my surprise, I'd had an advocation of coaching and helping pastors with leadership and helping grow churches. My career had been about growing businesses. My volunteer work had been about growing churches and my local church asked if I would essentially be the COO or executive pastor of the church, so the senior pastor could really focus on being the spiritual leader and not manage all the ministry teams. And everyone I trusted career advice said, don't do this. This is career suicide. And Ashley and I really had, you know, prayed about it and had a strong sense of conviction that this is what we should do.

And, and again, this is one of those stories that works in the rear view mirror: right after I decided that, I got a call from one of the big search firms, you know, about work running an internet retailer. And I remember taking a deep breath and saying, gosh, that sounds amazing. I'm gonna go work for my local church.

And I thought I "Well you know, I'm off the market." And, and I have, I have exited the market forever.

[00:43:59] Aaron-Narration: You know what's coming next. After finally settling into a role in his community where he was doing work that scratched the divine irritation, that's when Habitat came calling. Just not for him, at least as far as they knew.

[00:44:14] Jonathan Reckford: And two years later, I was happily working at the church and the same partner called up and said, "Jonathan, do you know anybody who'd be interested in Habitat for Humanity?" And if I could have named one job that, that actually checked every one of that unreasonable list of criteria, it would've been Habitat.

And I just remember asking, "Does it have to be somebody famous?" Assuming, I thought like everyone, president Carter runs Habitat and why is he stepping down? And, and that they would pick somebody like him.

[00:44:41] Aaron-Narration: So Jonathan told his friend that he wanted the job and he threw his hat into the ring. From consideration from among the many qualified candidates, the board chose him. And after years of exploring, and at times wandering, Jonathan finally found his professional home.

[00:44:59] Jonathan Reckford: I think for me, Habitat was that perfect merge of vocation and avocation and has been, you know, endlessly complex, but also incredibly rewarding. And so it, you know, it was probably the first time in my career I could honestly say there's nothing else I want to do, which, which wouldn't have been true for any of those earlier steps. But I could also look back and see how all those, particularly, including the church and that time off were important parts of being ready or prepared to, to walk into Habitat.

[00:45:26] Aaron-Interview: Why is this your professional home after all those years of, of wandering?

[00:45:31] Jonathan Reckford: Well, you know, I was a little bit flip, but I remember the board said, "You've changed jobs, an awful lot. Are you gonna stay?" And my comment back was, "No. You know, as soon as poverty housing is done, I'm outta here." Well, we, we are not winning yet.

But also Habitat keeps changing and I find, you know, it's incredibly complex at the heart. I'd been a volunteer and a donor to Habitat before joining, but it is a mission I fully believe in. President Carter says so beautifully, you know, it's the best way he knows to put his personal faith into action in a very tangible way. I, I could get bored easily and Habitat has never been boring to say the least.

I think I found something that really matters. And you know, at some point I'll need to get outta the way so the next leader can take it forward. But so far it has been, it's really been a challenging, but joyful experience. And, and I love getting to be a part of it.

[00:46:19] Aaron-Interview: What advice do you have for people who have impact as a goal for themselves in the way that they spend their lives, whether it's professionally or personally, especially when you think of people who are at the early stage of their careers? I work with a lot of students who want a life of meaning, not just a life of professional success. What advice would you have for people like them?

[00:46:38] Jonathan Reckford: You know, I, I actually still love talking to students because I was so grateful that people took me seriously as a student. And, and I, I always make time to do that.

The first lesson actually goes to my own experience, which is "Who before What." I think people get so focused on what, and I, I really encourage young people to think hard about character and their core values because those core values create the boundary lines and that that's how you navigate the storms. We're all gonna have storms. And so I'm a huge fan of "Who before What."

And then second, the best advice I got when I was a young unformed ambitious business school student was from John Gardner, who was one of my heroes. And he retired from this incredible career, starting Independent Sector, serving a bunch of presidents, and he, and he taught at Stanford for a couple years at the end of his career.

I took a leadership seminar with him and he said, which I was so surprised at the time as a 24, 25 year old said, "It doesn't matter what you do in your twenties. Just think of twenties as continuing education and try as much as you can and learn as much as you can. And you'll eventually figure out what you're really supposed to do." And that was actually helpful in the sense that it took the pressure off to have the perfect first job.

And this sort of idea, that any misstep along the way is gonna mean your whole career is not gonna turn out the way it's supposed to. And I think that even more, that's true now, I think more careers will look like my kind of career where you're doing diagonal, and lateral and, and creative moves, versus sort of a traditional, straight upward trajectory. And I actually think the world needs more multi-sector leaders. You know, when you're young is the, is the, the least risky time to try to follow your heart a little bit.

And the other one I would advise is get international experience. So even if you spend your whole career in the US, and we're a global world, and I think the, the ability to work across boundaries and across cultures is, is so fundamentally important.

[00:48:23] Aaron-Narration: It's time to bring this episode to a close. And we'll do it with this insight from Jonathan. Thinking about his work and about his path to get there, left me pondering more deeply what the idea of home really means. So I asked him.

[00:48:40] Aaron-Interview: When you think of home as a concept, as a principle, as a value, what, what, what has it meant to you?

[00:48:46] Jonathan Reckford: I grew up, you know, in a safe, you know, home for me. Except for a sabbatical year, when my dad was in England, I grew up and lived in one house all the way, you know, from, from childhood through college. And I took that for granted there. And that meant I had a place to come back to. I had identity. In Arabic actually, the word for home, "bayt," ties to much more than four walls in a roof. It really is that sense of identity. And I think for people, home means you can go out into the world because you can be launched, because you have that foundation and you have that core identity from which you can go and explore and take risks.

As we talked about the practical side, it means better health and better education and better prospects and earning potential. But I think at a deeper level, home is that foundation for family, and community, and security that allows us to venture out. Because you know you can come home. And it is something we should never take for granted and something we believe everyone should be able to experience.

[00:49:45] Aaron-Narration: Being a person means being drawn to home. As much as we love to explore the world and discover new places, all of us find deep connection in having a special place to sleep, eat, and be with those that we love. Home means having a place to belong.

And even though growing up I moved more times than most people do in a lifetime, and I know this is true because I checked, that feeling of where I belong never went away. All of those places feel in some way like home, even if I never see them again. They were places where I was safe, and comfortable, and loved. Everyone deserves a place like this.

Many, thanks to Jonathan Reckford for giving me his time and sharing his personal story and the work of Habitat for Humanity.

I'm also grateful for the Habitat communications team, especially Erika Boyce, for assisting with our conversation and helping me learn more about their work. If you enjoyed How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive review in your podcast app. It really helps us reach more listeners. Also be sure to subscribe so you can get our new episodes automatically.

Next time, I'll have a conversation with Dr. Naa Ashley Vanderpuye-Donton, author of the book, Hardship and Hope. For the last 20 years, she's run the West Africa AIDS Foundation and the International Health Care Clinic in Accra, Ghana, along with its founder, Eddie Donton. The two have been tireless advocates and caregivers for people with HIV, and yet have done it with an abundance of hope. Dr. Naa is also delightful, and you're gonna love my conversation with her.

To stay up to date with How to Help, subscribe to my email newsletter, where I share ideas for how to have more meaning in your life and in your work. You can subscribe or read the archives at how-to-help.com.

Our production team for this episode included Ty Bingham, yours truly, and Joseph Sandholtz, who did the editing and the music.

Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club. If you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link and a discount code in our show notes.

Finally as always, thank you so much for listening. I'm Aaron Miller and this has been How to Help.

Help Is Everywhere

Seeing it saves us from despair.

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness."          —Howard Zinn

Why don't we know more about Cinderella's fairy godmother? We don't even know her name.

It's strange. Here's a supernatural being that has, for reasons and time unknown, kept watch over a poor, mistreated stepdaughter. And despite all of her power, Whats-Her-Name never intervenes until she can come to Cinderella's rescue just before the ball. What exactly is going on here?

Or what about the old man who helps Link in the classic Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda? "It's dangerous to go alone," he tells the unarmed boy. And then he hands him a sword. "Take this." Why in the world is this unnamed senior citizen living in a cave and handing out weapons to minors?

Most people haven't the faintest idea of where Yoda came from, or why he's a Jedi Master. When he first appeared on movie screens in 1980, audiences just accepted the strange little alien, as-is.

I could go on.

In every version of the Monomyth—Joseph Campbell's distillation of the Hero's Journey—there is always (always!) a helper. The protagonist finds themselves alone, stretched beyond their capacity. They've left the comforts of home to undertake a great quest, only to end up out of options, strength, and faith. All hope is lost, darkness closes in…and then comes the helper.

We're all so familiar with this moment of the story that it comes to us as second-nature. As tense as those moments are, we don't give up even when the hero does. "Help is coming!" our hearts cry out. Sometimes it's the mysterious, Fairy Godmother getting Cinderella to the ball. Or it might instead be the faithful friend, like Samwise Gamgee carrying Frodo Baggins to the top of Mount Doom. Or the dying Uncle Ben giving Peter Parker the jewel of wisdom that he needs to become Spider-Man.

The helper is so common that we take them for granted. This is why you've never puzzled at the fairy godmother or wondered why Yoda is a Jedi Master. Whoever the helper might be, we're sure that in the darkest of moments Help Is Coming.

But why are we so sure?

Photo by Niels Smeets / Unsplash

Perhaps this confidence naturally comes from the fact that every story we're told sets this expectation. The tales drill it into us. We have no reason to expect anything else.

But why do we believe the stories? I think it's because of experience. I think we have intuitively learned that help is everywhere.

This may be a hard idea to accept with a world drenched in suffering. Every day:

With all these times that it didn't come, how can we still believe that Help Is Coming? It's because help is everywhere.

Help is common all over the world.

Just like suffering, helping is universal to the human experience. Despite all the evil in the world, consider:

We so naturally fix our gaze on suffering that we miss the reality that help is everywhere.

Here in the US in 2020, around 83 million Americans each volunteered an average of 52 hours to a local nonprofit. Americans also donated over $471 billion to charity that year. This was all, by the way, in the midst of the global pandemic.

Helping is a global phenomenon. According to a UN estimate, the amount of volunteer helping that happens around the world is roughly equivalent to 109 million full-time workers. If volunteer helpers were a country, they would be the fifth largest workforce in the world.

Photo by Joel Muniz / Unsplash`

Help is everywhere. Or in other words, we are all helpers.

For example, it is almost certainly the case that someone counts on you regularly. Your family members trust that you'll be there when they need you. Friends call you to spend time with them. Even strangers that stopped you to ask directions knew that someone would point them in the right direction.

This kind of daily, mundane help is like sunshine that makes a healthy society grow. We open the door for a stranger, put in a good word for a job applicant, and console a friend in a breakup. You've probably been helped in moments like these. But it's important to remember that you've also been the helper.

In other words—to one degree or another—you've been someone’s fairy godmother.

We can give even more and even better help.

Imagine a world without help, where none of us could be counted on. One where help isn't ever coming. Help is the only thing keeping worse things at bay.

All of this is to say: helping each other is the only way out of what's terrible in the world, and the only way of protecting what's good. And because we do live in a world still mired in too much suffering, it’s clear that we need more help.

So a critical question remains: How do we become better helpers?

The articles to appear over the coming months will be answering this question. I hope you'll find them helpful.

Please share this article with those who might enjoy it. In that way, I could really use your help.

Things to Read, Watch, or Hear

Read/Hear: Consequential Strangers

While those closest to our heart are synonymous with home, consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger.

An exerpt from the book by Melinda Blau and Karen L. Fingerman. This will change the way you see the brief encounters you have with the people around you.

Watch: Motivation in Hard Times

Four minutes from author John Green sharing why love is the best motivator.

Hear: Giving It Away

In this episode of his podcast, People I (Mostly) Admire, economist/author Steven Leavitt interviews John Arnold, billionaire and co-founder of one of the most generous private foundations in the world. Arnold describes with clarity why it's hard to give away billions of dollars effectively and why he and his wife won't give up trying.

Promotional Stuff

Two exciting things to share:

  1. I have a new website! It's a cleaner, faster experience and I'm quite happy with it so far.
  2. Season 2 of the How to Help Podcast is launching on Monday evening. My first interview of this season is with Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International. Jonathan is an amazingly thoughtful, kind, and interesting person with a fascinating career path. It's an episode about finding  a home, for ourselves and for everyone. I hope you love it!

Bonus Episode • Tyler Shultz Reflects on the Elizabeth Holmes Trial and Verdict

On January 4 , Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and CEO of the blood testing company Theranos, was found guilty of defrauding her investors. Listen to Tyler Shultz—one of the principle whistleblowers—reflect on the trial and verdict, sharing a perspective that only he can.

About Our Guest

Tyler Shultz graduated from Stanford with a Biology degree and entered the national scene when he blew the whistle at Theranos. He was also a source for a series of Wall Street Journal articles exposing Theranos’ dubious blood-testing practices. Information Tyler provided was used in the recent trial finding Elizabeth Holmes guilty of defrauding investors.

Useful Links

Pleasant Pictures Music

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.


To get help developing ethical skills in your organization, visit meritleadership.com.

The Path to Conscience

We're all coming to a better understanding

Less than 20 years ago, state governments were allowed to execute someone who was mentally disabled. It was only 16 years ago that states could legally execute someone who committed a crime as a child. And just 11 years ago, children as young as 13 or 14 could be sentenced to life in prison—or in other words, death in prison—even if their crime didn't involve killing someone. All of these sentences today are illegal under the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution because they are considered cruel and unusual.

Cruel and Unusual. Consider how remarkable it is that these practices were so recently acceptable, most likely during your lifetime, and are now considered so beyond the pale that they violate the sacred Constitution of the United States. How does something like this happen?

Certainly, the moral character of executing a child hasn't changed, just by virtue of the US Supreme Court's order. These judgments were always cruel, if sadly not unusual. It is that our understanding of them has changed. In the case of executing children, a mountain of science has revealed that a person's brain isn't fully developed until well into legal adulthood. The Court relied on these insights to make its decision, acknowledging the deep injustice of imposing the ultimate penalty on someone without full mental capacity. For hundreds, this realization came too late.

In a recent episode of the podcast, Revisionist History, the host Malcom Gladwell used a phrase that stood out to me: "The path to conscience." He expressed it this way:

What my younger self did not understand is that there is no perfect and easy path to conscience. Sometimes it's circuitous and full of unfortunate detours. And maybe what we owe each other is faith and patience, because some of us will take longer than others to figure out where our conscience lies.

None of us—not one—is a perfect moral judge. Our research into the typical ethical dilemmas that people face revealed over and over again that good people make bad choices. It was evident in the hundreds of examples we reviewed that everyone is at different points on their path to conscience.

This isn't to say that there should be no consequences for bad choices. But when we impose consequences as a society, we have a responsibility to make our judgments just—and we face the constant risk of moral error in our zeal for justice. We, as a people, are on a path to conscience, too.

Whatever we do, we need more humility to recognize that our particular journey on the path to conscience is always, at best, incomplete with many miles to go. We have so much to learn about what is truly good. And such humility coaxes out of us more patience and grace for others as they walk their own paths. It's not that they, or we, deserve grace; it's that we all desperately need it.

Things to Read

Mad Men. Furious Women.

A frustrating but essential read that illustrates how differently women are treated in the workplace, from compensation to harassment.

The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds

Remember the social media freakout about mysterious seeds from China? The best explanation, a brushing scam, is far less nefarious than feared.

Sackler Family Banned from Naming Buildings

The notorious billionaires behind the OxyContin crisis have been banned by a legal settlement from getting naming rights in exchange for their donations.

Impact Highlight

There are currently around 4,500 children being held in adult prisons in the US. Compared to those in juvenile detention, these underage prisoners are nine times as likely to commit suicide. In every case, states have the capacity to hold these child prisoners in better conditions, but their sentences demand they be treated as though they were adults.

Made famous by the book Just Mercy and its author, Bryan Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative works to reform the criminal justice system by challenging unjust, cruel, and inequitable treatment. Their work has led directly to legal changes in how children are treated by courts, including the sentencing reform I described above. A donation to EJIsupports their staff and creates more capacity for them to meet the overwhelming needs referred to them every day.

Promotional Stuff

Would you be willing to share a story about a time that someone helped you or a time that you helped someone else?

I'm testing a survey instrument as part of a study on helping experiences, and could use your help. If you have a few moments, complete our survey. Thank you!

Don't Wait to Be Asked

Your true potential for helping needs you to act.

Last week, a friend and neighbor told me about her experience trying to help a stranger at her door, a woman who showed all the symptoms of drug addiction. She was hard to understand, seemed unsure of what kind of help she wanted, and clearly needed more help than my friend was capable of giving. Another neighbor got involved, but in the end this woman just wandered off alone.

None of that prevented my friend from feeling like she’d somehow fallen short. It never feels good to be asked for help that we can’t really give. This is a common mismatch, between the help needed and the abilities of the helper. But asking is the predominant way for help to happen, in everything from daily needs to rescuing Holocaust victims.

Most of us give or help in a way that I describe as opportunistic. That doesn’t mean we help to benefit ourselves, but rather that we wait to help until we’re asked. It’s how most donations to charity happen, for example. The majority of people don’t give after doing research into the best organizations for their dollars. Instead, they give to the charities that ask, whether it’s at work, home, school, or church. It’s opportunistic giving.

This is obviously inefficient because the charities that are best at asking often have less or little impact. (This is true for many causes, like human trafficking, for example.) Ideally, we’d all do our research and pick the best causes. That’s a newsletter topic I’d be happy to cover if I hear from you that I should write it.

But waiting to be asked also means that your talents go wasted. It’s odd, when you think about it, that we so often wait to be asked for help. We don’t do that with our careers; we go search for the best fit to our skills. Yet for some reason we don’t make the most of our unique abilities to help.

How do you best share your skilled help? Here are some ideas:

  1. If you know someone who sees a lot of requests for help, like a minister or a social worker, let them know how your talents can be put to use.
  2. Volunteer for an organization that needs what you’re good at doing.
  3. Look for a common need and develop new skills that can be useful.

It will always be true that there’s good help and bad help in the world. And we’ll always need asking to make sure that help is found. There will always be opportunistic giving. But cultivating better help takes deliberate effort on our part. We can’t wait around to be asked.

Things to Read

Why Richard Branson’s Flight Matters

This article makes the best case that I think can be made for billionaires spending their wealth on space flight. I’m still not persuaded that the opportunity cost is worth it.

How and Why to Do a Life Audit

In the spirit of today’s article about deliberate instead of opportunistic giving, here’s a really cool exercise for making the most of your gifts and interests. I look forward to giving this a try.

Anger Makes You Vulnerable to Misinformation

“Participants in the anger condition tended to be more confident in the accuracy of their memories. But among those participants, increased confidence was associated with decreased accuracy.”

Impact Highlight

Human trafficking in North America happens frequently in places like truck stops, restaurants, motels, rest stops, and other places where most visitors are there just temporarily. Hotlines see tens of thousands of cases each year, but many more cases go unreported.

One group uniquely positioned to spot and report trafficking are truck drivers. Truckers Against Trafficking trains truckers on how to spot, report, and prevent trafficking using best practices. Their efforts increased the number of hotline calls by truckers from 3 to almost 3,000. Over 1 million truckers, bus drivers, and other transportation workers have now been trained.

Promotional Stuff

If you want to improve yourself and could choose only one trait to begin, you should start with humility. It's called the "mother of all virtues" because it opens the door to all kinds of personal development. But humility is also sorely misunderstood. It isn't just an internal attitude about ourselves, but an outward set of behaviors that people can observe. It's also essential to effective leadership.

This is the last episode of the How to Help Podcast—Season 1, and it’s excellent (if I may say so myself). My good friend, Prof. Brad Owens, is an expert in humility. He's done award-winning research on humility in leaders and has shown that leadership humility is key to getting better engagement, more creativity, and higher functioning teams. Prof. Owens talks about the specific ingredients of humility that you can practice and encourage in others.

How to Help Podcast • Humility • Prof. Brad Owens

Podcast Episode: Humility • Prof. Brad Owens • s01e12

If you want to improve yourself and could choose only one trait to begin, you should start with humility. It’s called the “mother of all virtues” because it opens the door to all kinds of personal development. But humility is also sorely misunderstood. It isn’t just an internal attitude about ourselves, but an outward set of behaviors that people can observe. It’s also essential to effective leadership.

This episode, we’ll be taught by humility expert, Prof. Brad Owens. He’s done award-winning research on humility in leaders and has shown that leadership humility is key to getting better engagement, more creativity, and higher functioning teams. Prof. Owens will teach us about the specific ingredients of humility that you can practice and encourage in others.

About Our Guest

Brad Owens (PhD, University of Washington) is a Professor of Business Ethics in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. His research has been published in the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Organization Science, Personnel Psychology, Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Journal of Business Ethics, and Public Administration Review. Under the general umbrella of Positive Organizational Scholarship, his research focuses on the impact of leader humility on individuals and teams, ethical leadership, and relational energy. Brad’s teaching interests include business ethics, organizational behavior, and leadership.

Useful Links

Prof. Owens’ Bio Page

“Motivation to Lead: A Meta-Analysis and Distal-Proximal Model of Motivation and Leadership.”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Volume 105, Pages 331-354, 2020

“How Does Leader Humility Influence Team Performance? Exploring the Mechanisms of Contagion and Collective Promotion Focus”, Academy of Management Journal, Volume 59, Pages 1088-1111, 2016

“Initiating and Utilizing Shared Leadership in Teams: The Role of Leader Humility, Team Proactive Personality, and Team Performance Capability”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Volume 120, 2016

Kant and the Ethics of Humility Jeanine Greenberg argues that we can indeed speak of Aristotelian-style, but still deeply Kantian, virtuous character traits. She proposes moving from focus on action to focus on a person, not leaving the former behind but instead taking it up within a larger, more satisfying Kantian moral theory.

Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society is a book based on why learning is important to creativity and leading.

Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue

In the Heart of the World Mother Teresa shares principles of selflessness, forgiveness, compassion, and spiritual Strength.

About Merit Leadership

To learn more about how you can develop ethical skills that turn peril into opportunity, visit http://meritleadership.com

Pleasant Pictures Music

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.

Podcast Episode: History of Innovation • Dr. Anton Howes • S01E11

We are surrounded by the fruits of human creativity and innovation. This capacity to improve our world has done immeasurable good. But where does innovation come from and how do we get more of it?

Looking back to one of the most potent periods of world history, my guest this week—Dr. Anton Howes—guides us through the lessons we can learn from the British Industrial Revolution and how those lessons reveal the nature of innovation today. His concept of an “improving mentality” cuts across all of our everyday experiences, and shows us how we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

About Our Guest

Dr. Anton Howes is head of innovation research at The Entrepreneurs Network, a UK-based think tank focused on encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. He is also historian-in-residence at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, having written its latest history. Previously, he was also lecturer in Economic History at King’s College London, and before that a post-doctoral research associate at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. He received my PhD in Political Economy from King’s College London in 2016.

Dr. Howes’ first book—Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation—is out now from Princeton University Press. It tells the story of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce – essentially, Britain’s national improvement agency, in any and every way imaginable.

Useful Links

Dr. Howe’s website: https://antonhowes.com

His book: Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation

His Newsletter: https://antonhowes.substack.com

The Royal Society of Arts: https://www.thersa.org

About Merit Leadership

To learn more about how to develop ethical skills in your organization, visit http://meritleadership.com

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An Ugly Reflection

What your enemies reveal about you

Mirrors are a paradox. They show you an exact opposite of yourself, while at the same time presenting something that is your perfect similitude. You in every way, but the inverse of you.

In a similar way, I’m coming to see enemies as mirrors. The people I choose as my enemies—and I do believe that I’m the one choosing them—reveal my own contours and features just like a reflection does. I think of them as opposite to me, but they reflect back so much about who I am and what I value.

Thinking of our enemies as our opposites, we might take pride in the comparison. If they’re godless, that makes us God-loving. If they’re cruel, that makes us kind. If they’re foolish, that makes us wise. But does this description match the reflection?

If our enemies are judgmental, are we then fair-minded? If they’re quick to offense, are we magnanimous? Hardly. And what’s worse, we might reflect opposition to whatever is good in them. If I set myself against people who love their families, who help their neighbors, and who trust their friends, what does that say about me?

The prickly truth is that you can know a person almost intimately if you discover their enemies. Consider just how reliable that measure is. “Who are your enemies?” would be the ultimate get-to-know-you question for parties and dating apps if it weren’t so miserable to ask.

Last, the enemies we choose don’t make us good any more than a mirror makes us beautiful. It takes more for me to become a good person than just deciding whom I oppose. If our enmity holds our attention, like Narcissus staring at his reflection, then we’re trapped by our own self-regard. It’s sad that we all know someone imprisoned in enmity.

Has anyone ever found real happiness in a mirror? I might have done a few times after a good haircut (back when I had much hair). But there’s nothing there in the mirror that’s real enough to obsess over. If I look away from enemies/myself, I discover whole world of joyful people that I might be lucky enough to call friends.

Things to Read

Joy Generator

NPR's delightful Joy Generator is a great way to spend a few minutes on the Internet. Guaranteed to flight the blahs and cultivate some joy.

Americans, Can You Answer These Questions?

US citizenship tests used to be written and administered by individual judges. They weren't easy. How would you have done?

What Deadlines Do to Lifetimes

"We might be asking too much of individuals by heralding time constraints—one of the most potent currencies capitalism has for perpetuating itself—as moral guides."

Impact Highlight

US veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan wrestle with huge personal costs for their service. Around half of them struggle with one or more of the following: traumatic brain injury, PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or anger management. Considering the 2.7 million that have served, the consequences have been massive.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America works to provide the veterans of this generation with critical services. Currently serving over 450,000 members, the IAVA has a range of programs including advocacy, VA reform, and education. Their new Quick Reaction Force responds to the most urgent needs of veterans, like eviction or mental health crises, helping to avert disasters for thousands of service members and their families.

Promotional Stuff

We are surrounded by the fruits of human creativity and innovation. This capacity to improve our world has done immeasurable good. But where does innovation come from and how do we get more of it?

Looking back to one of the most potent periods of world history, my guest this week—Dr. Anton Howes—guides us through the lessons we can learn from the British Industrial Revolution and how those lessons reveal the nature of innovation today. His concept of an "improving mentality" cuts across all of our everyday experiences, and shows us how we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

How to Help Podcast • History of Innovation • Dr. Anton Howes

Podcast Episode: Impact Investing • Geoff Woolley • S01E10

How do we get more money for those who need it? Charity only accounts for less than 1% of all the money globally, and has stayed consistently flat over time. We need more ways to help people prosper.

Impact investing is a rapidly growing approach that uses capital markets to solve social problems. My guest this week, Geoff Woolley, is a pioneering impact investor with experience growing social impact companies around the world. He’ll change the way you think about traditional investing and about the good that business can do.

About Our Guest:

Geoff has been involved in impact investing and microfinance since he joined Unitus Labs as a board member in 2001. During his time as Unitus Lab’s Capital Markets Chair, he was instrumental in the launch of Unitus Equity Fund, the first commercially focused microfinance equity investment fund, and Unitus Capital, the first investment bank focused on serving microfinance institutions and social enterprises throughout Asia.

As co-founder and current board chair, Geoff launched the largest and most successful student-led venture fund in the United States—the $18.5 million University Venture Fund—and the University Impact Fund, which partners university students with top-tier impact investing firms, social enterprises, developmental finance institutions, and philanthropic foundations for real-time impact investing projects and investments. Geoff has been active in private equity investing for over 25 years, founding two successful venture funds in the United States and Europe. He pioneered the concept of venture debt and has invested in over 400 companies in his career.

Useful Links:

Unitas Capital facilitates access to capital for the business to scale, innovate, and deliver deep social and environmental impact.

Epic Ventures is an investment company working with driven entrepreneurs to build successful and lasting companies.

Patamar Capital We are a leading venture capital firm focused on South and Southeast Asia’s mass market.

Muhammad Yunus His objective was to help poor people escape from poverty by providing loans on terms suitable to them and by teaching them a few sound financial principles so they could help themselves.

Merit leadership.com Help your team make good decisions in tough moments. With flexible delivery options, and customized versions for Health Care, Law Enforcement, Military, Cyber Security, and more—it’s easier than ever to help people make good decisions.

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The Improving Mentality

We find what we’re looking for. This is a consistently under-appreciated truth, one that applies to so many of life’s circumstances. I admit that some searches take longer than others, but our minds are like unrelenting bloodhounds. They have a powerful ability to find evidence, insights, or ideas once they’re trained on a goal. Whatever we’re intent on seeing—the good or the bad in anything or anyone—we’ll be sure that, in the end, it’s all we see.

Hence the need to train our minds to look for the right kinds of things. Here’s one approach that’s worth your while. Historian Anton Howes (upcoming guest of the How to Help Podcast) shares a fascinating discovery about the British Industrial Revolution. It turns out that all the inventors during that time, thousands of them, had a high likelihood of having been connected to other inventors. These innovators were not toiling away in isolation towards their Eureka! moment. Instead, they were rubbing shoulders and sharing ideas.

In the process they shared something more, something Dr. Howes calls “the improving mentality.” I love this concept. It’s the perspective that something can always be made better, even if in some small way. An improving mentality is a universal perspective for innovators. And its illumination spills into every dusty corner of life, revealing small tweaks or momentous inventions that are sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Since my interview with Dr. Howes—publishing on July 5—I’ve thought often of the improving mentality. There are so many moments of our daily routine that have room for some new, better way. It’s an eye-opening perspective, one that we ought to spread as much as we can. In the spirit of that, Dr. Howes and a coauthor have recently proposed a new chivalric order, just for innovators. (An idea I would love to copy here in the U.S.)

I’ll have other insights by Dr. Howes to share in future newsletters, but in the meantime I’ll close with this question:

What’s something in your everyday that could be improved with a better way of thinking?

Things to Read

Ethics, AI, and Our Future

Fascinating report on the contours of AI Ethics from Pew Research: "Experts doubt ethical AI design will be broadly adopted as the norm within the next decade"

Building a More Honest Internet

This article made me uncomfortable for two reasons. One, it's scary how much of the Web is so dishonest. Two, the ideas for building a more honest Web can be just as scary.

Circles of Friendship

Here's a useful and interesting way to think about your relationships. We're not good at being everything to everyone, but maybe we don't really need to be. There’s much we can do close by.

Impact Highlight

Blockchain—the digital ledger technology behind cryptocurrencies like BitCoin—has many more uses than making sudden millionaires. One such use is in supply chains of the products we buy every day. From the time a farmer plants a seed to the moment you throw away food packaging for its trip to the dump, there are critical decisions made by thousands of people.

BanQu is using blockchain technology to track supply chains so we can have more equitable outcomes for all involved. By creating more transparency at every step, producers can get more efficiency and will have more accountability to their customers and their environments. BanQu was recently included in the Circulars Accelerator, hosted by the World Economic Forum.

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Does everyone have a right to a job they love?

This is a hard question to answer because if we should all have work that we love, then humanity is falling far short of this responsibility. This week on the How to Help Podcast, my guest is Dr. Andrea Veltman, philosopher and author of Meaningful Work. Her book was one of the most thought-provoking books I read in the last year, and I found our conversation to be uniquely enlightening.

I promise this episode will change the way you think about your work.

How to Help Podcast • Meaningful Work • Prof. Andrea Veltman

Podcast Episode: Meaningful Work • Prof. Andrea Veltman • S01E09

People spend most of their waking hours working. It’s no wonder that we want to enjoy our work, but that can be complicated. The world is full of dangerous or difficult jobs with low pay. How does meaningful work fit ethically in such a world?

In this episode, we’ll learn from Dr. Andrea Veltman, an expert in the philosophy of work. Together, we’ll confront questions that are guaranteed to make you think differently about your job (and everyone else’s too).

About Our Guest:

Dr. Andrea Veltman is a professor of philosophy at James Madison University, where she teaches courses in ethics and political philosophy. She specializes, among other things, in the philosophy of work and wrote the book Meaningful Work, one of my favorite reads of the past year.

Useful Links:

Meaningful Work- examines the importance of work in human well-being, addressing several related philosophical questions about work and arguing on the whole that meaningful work is central in human flourishing. Work impacts flourishing not only in developing and exercising human capabilities but also in instilling and reflecting virtues such as honor, pride, dignity,

“Universal Basic Income and the Good of Work” in The Future of Work, Technology and a Basic Income, edited by Michael Cholbi and Michael Weber (Routledge, 2020), pp. 131-150.

“What Makes Work Meaningful?” in The Philosophers’ Magazine 81:2 (2018): 78 – 83.

“Is Meaningful Work Available to All People?” in Philosophy and Social Criticism, Volume 41: Number 7 (2015).

Autonomy, Oppression and Gender (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

How to Help podcast episode Finding your calling Jeff Thompson Do you feel like you have a calling in life? Is there something when you wake up each day that you feel you are meant to do? If you don’t feel like you do, this episode will help you find what you’re missing.

About Merit Leadership

If you want help developing the ethical skills of your organization and its people, learn how Merit Leadership can help at http://meritleadership.com.

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Helping Practice

Helping is a skill that improves over time

Here’s a thought about practice.

Who do you know that is especially good at helping others? I mean the person who seems to always know the right thing to say or do. Their timing is always uncanny and they have a special knack for seeing what’s really going on. Right now I’m thinking of a neighbor who fits this description.

I’ve become convinced that these expert helpers only get there one way: by practice. A desire and intention to help are part of it, for sure, but these experts also learn by experience. They’ve learned the kind of help that makes a difference. Practice enhances any skill, so of course that would be true for helping, too.

How can you become a better helper through practice? Maybe it’s by focusing on a kind of help that fits your gifts, like listening or creative problem-solving. You might practice noticing more to see how others around you could use a helping hand. You could learn more about a particular challenge that people face, like shyness or anxiety.

There’s also a comfort that comes with thinking of becoming a better helper through practice. It means we can all improve, no matter how useless we feel right now. Our failure to effectively help those we love doesn’t mean we’re failures; it just means we need more practice.

It’s become clear to me that help is a skill that improves with practice and time.

Things to Read

The Rise of Shareholder Politics

The idea that shareholders only want profits just isn’t true anymore. A nice explanation of how they expect more from the companies they own.

Against Car Supremacy

While we get enamored with electric cars in the US, much of the rest of the world is reducing their reliance on cars altogether. Micromobility is the future.

Tuskegee and the Health of Black Men

I’ve taught about the tragic Tuskegee syphilis experiment for years in my ethics class. Its impact is still seen today, decades later.

Impact Highlight

Agriculture is the primary occupation for the the world’s poorest, so improving the livelihood of farmers is especially high impact. This is true in Bhutan, as well.

Mountain Hazelnuts provides full-service support to Bhutanese farmers, helping them grow, harvest, process, and sell hazelnuts into international markets. As a for-profit venture, they’ve doubled the income of over 15,000 households and have employed over 1,000 people. They also use environmentally sustainable growing and processing practices.

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Who is your ethical hero?

One of mine is my co-author, Bill O’Rourke. He had a long and fruitful career at one of the largest aluminum manufacturers in the world, filling multiple executive roles like VP of environment, health and safety, head of procurement, CIO, and President of Alcoa Russia. Through all of it, he personally encountered just about every ethical dilemma you could imagine and consistently made the right choice.

In this week’s episode of the How to Help Podcast, Bill is going to coach us through one of the most common dilemmas that people face: you see something wrong and feel like you should intervene, but doing so is risky. Listen and learn from someone who is a fountain of good advice.

How to Help Podcast • Episode 8 • Intervention

Podcast Episode: Intervention • Bill O’Rourke • S01E08

Sometimes it’s hard to be the hero. According to research, this is one of the most common dilemmas that people face. Bill O’Rourke will guide us through what intervention looks like and how to stand up to those we work with and know. Notice the skills Bill uses, things like gathering the facts, seeking perspective from others, acting confidently, and setting the tone as a leader.

About Our Guest:

Bill O’Rourke spent the majority of his career at Alcoa, Inc. a global aluminum manufacturing company. After Bill retired from Alcoa he continued to serve on the Board of the Alcoa Foundation and teach values at Alcoa’s Executive Leadership Program. He joined Alcoa as a Patent Attorney in 1975 and held a number of leadership positions including Corporate Patent Counsel, Vice President of Global Business Services (Financial Services, HR Services, Aircraft Operations, etc.), Chief Information Officer, Vice President of Procurement, Corporate Auditor, and Assistant General Counsel. From 2005 to 2008 Bill was the President of Alcoa-Russia. Bill was the Vice President, Environment, Health & Safety, and Sustainability three times under three CEOs at Alcoa.

Bill lectures on Business Ethics, Corporate Compliance, and Safety at a number of companies and hospitals around the World, at Rotary Clubs, and at many universities including the University of Pittsburgh, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona State, Florida, Illinois, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard Medical School, Northwestern, Chatham, San Jose, Viterbo, Benedictine, Marquette, Notre Dame, Gonzaga, Virginia Tech, the University of Dayton and Duquesne University.

Bill is a co-author of The Business Ethics Field Guide.

Useful Links:

The Business Ethics Field Guide

Power of Ethics Ethics: Creating an ethical organization in a hostile environment- Russia- Bill O’Rourke’s experiences

YouTube Seek True North: Stories on Leadership and Ethics-Bill O’Rourke

WSJ Story of the Alcoa Plant Manager

About Merit Leadership

To learn more about our products and services, visit http://meritleadership.com

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A Letter from a Billionaire

Warren Buffett's halfway there.

Warren Buffett—famous billionaire and cofounder of The Giving Pledge—released a new letter last week announcing that he is halfway to his promise of giving away 99% of his wealth before he dies. As is typically the case for him, Buffett used the moment to share his perspective on broader issues. While the entire letter is worth reading, I’ll highlight a few passages.

He emphasized how easy giving should be for the wealthy, a message he’ll undoubtedly promote for as long as he can.

The easiest deed in the world is to give away money that will never be of any real use to you or your family. The giving is painless and may well lead to a better life for both you and your children.

He also duly praised the stewards of our charitable contributions, along with every else who gives their more meager donations or more substantial time to help those around them. His humility here is apt. As rich as he is, if he gave all his wealth away at once it wouldn’t be more than a quarter of what Americans give altogether in a single year. All of our small donations add up.

Those who give their love and time in order to directly help others – perhaps adding a monetary gift that requires them to give up the purchase of something meaningful for their own use – are the heroes of philanthropy. America has millions of such givers.
These people receive no recognition whether they mentor the young, assist the elderly or devote precious hours to community betterment. They do not have buildings named after them, but they silently make those establishments – schools, hospitals, churches, libraries, whatever – work smoothly to benefit those who have received the short straws in life.

Last, I appreciate his optimism and how he recognizes the multiple institutions we need for a flourishing society.

I’m optimistic. Though naysayers abound – as they have throughout my life – America’s best days most certainly lie ahead. What’s happened here since 1776 has not been a historical fluke.

Philanthropy will continue to pair human talent with financial resources. So, too, will business and government. Each force has its particular strengths and weaknesses. Combined, they will make the world a better place – a much better place – for future generations.

Warren Buffett’s generosity will be rightly remembered as historic. And still, it won’t be enough. For as much good they’re positioned to do—a massive amount of good—the world’s billionaires can’t save us. Only we can do that.

Things to Read - Our World in Data Edition      

This week I want to feature some articles from Our World in Data. It's an incredible source of information and perspective on the world's most pressing issues.

Why is life expectancy in the US lower than in other rich countries?

Too many reasons, but also opportunities for change.

Technology Change and Exponential Progress

It boggles the mind when you consider how much faster and cheaper it is to do certain things.

Why do we need to know about progress in the world's large problems?

It matters how far we've come. Read the numbers.

Impact Highlight

Many of the barriers to the world's poor are found in the financial system itself. In wealthy nations, we take for granted banking, insurance, and other services that are hard to access or nonexistent for low-income people.

Grameen Foundation USA accelerates innovative approaches for access to financial services. Their programs span a wide range of financial issues for the poor, including targeted solutions for small farmers and women. They've been recognized by, among others, The Gates Foundation as a high-impact innovator in this space.

(Fun fact: While in law school, I spent a summer working as a legal intern at Grameen Foundation. It was a transformative experience for me.)

Promotional Stuff

Can you imagine what would happen if Warren Buffett was a social impact investor?

Warren Buffett clearly doesn't consider himself much of an expert on solving social problems, and I appreciate his humility. But what if he used his investments themselves, and not just his wealth, to do more good in the world?

My podcast guest this week, Geoff Woolley, is a pioneering impact investor and an expert in marrying capital markets with social good. He'll help you see that we have so many ways of changing old approaches for the better.

How to Help Podcast • Impact Investing • Geoff Wolley

How to Change for Good

Improvement that sticks

For the How to Help newsletter, I like using titles that have multiple meanings. It's true this week, too. Did you read this as "Change for Good" meaning permanently, or "Change for Good" meaning improvement? It's important to think about both.

Most of our efforts to help others are stuck in the short-term. We make a one-time donation. We listen to a friend who's weighed down. We drive someone to the airport. There's nothing wrong with these efforts. The short-term help matters. Momentary relief matters.

But change is a long-term thing. It takes a long time to stick. It needs persistent effort. And it means that we see farther down the road than just a few steps ahead.

To that end, I have another excellent book to recommend, a new one by Wharton professor Katy Milkman. The book is called How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Prof. Milkman co-directs the UPenn Behavior Change for Good Initiative, along with Angela Duckworth, the well-known author of Grit.

I won’t recite much of the book’s contents, other than to highlight a clear and compelling theme that runs throughout: intentions are not enough to lead to lasting change. I know this isn’t a groundbreaking observation. After all, every one of us has intended to establish a new good habit or break a bad one, only to be stymied by our own stubborn patterns. In fact, I wrote about this before in a previous post, Quitter’s Day.

Changing, as people, requires the right environment, practices, connections with others. Prof. Milkman does an expert job surveying the current best science on sustainable change and lays it out in an exceptionally clear and useful way. (She also uses an approach and structure that I wish most nonfiction books used.)

I now consider How to Change required reading for anyone who wants to help people. I can't wait to put it to work.

Things to Read

Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle

A decade old, but new to me. The more globalized the country, the more likely people are to expand their circle of care.

Individualism Predicts More Generosity, not Less

Research results and a NYT Op-Ed from Abigail Marsh, my podcast guest from How to Help ep.2 - The Neuroscience of Altruism.

Cynicism ≠ Intelligence

Another study, this one showing that while cynical people are generally viewed as being more intelligent, they actually score lower on cognitive tests.

Impact Highlight

The strongest predictor for graduating high school is regular attendance. While this seems obvious, absenteeism persists because students lack the support they need to keep showing up.

Kinvolved engages entire communities in reducing school absenteeism by using a smartphone app, text messaging, and human connections to get kids attending school consistently. Their software and services have been shown to increase graduation rates by 11%, and the positive effects are especially pronounced among English Language Learners. Read more about the impact in their 2020 Impact Report.

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Are you as creative as you want to be?

Only 1/3 of adults consider themselves to be "very" creative. This is a tragedy! Everyone is creative in some way or another. I'm not an artist, but I've learned I can see new products, programs, or ventures before they exist. There's a way you're especially creative, too.

But creativity is a skill that needs nurturing. In this week's episode of the How to Help Podcast, you'll learn how to expand and explore your creativity and our guide will be Andrew Maxfield—composer, entrepreneur, and idea factory. He's the most deliberately creative person I know and an excellent teacher. Give it a listen!

How to Help Podcast • Creativity • Andrew Maxfield

Podcast Episode: Creativity • Andrew Maxfield • S01E07

You have a superpower, the ability to imagine completely different circumstances than what reality provides. Take a moment to look around; just about everything you see came from the fruits of someone’s creativity. You have the same power, even if you don’t think you do.

In this episode, you’ll learn how to expand and explore your creativity and our guide will be Andrew Maxfield—composer, entrepreneur, and idea factory. He’s the most deliberately creative person I know and an excellent teacher.

About Our Guest:

Andrew studied music at Brigham Young University, where he was valedictorian and where he occasionally teaches. He has pursued advanced studies in counterpoint and harmony at the EAMA–Nadia Boulanger Institute in Paris, France, graduate composition studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and doctoral studies at the University of Bristol (UK). His primary teachers include Philip Lasser (Juilliard), John Pickard, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Marti Epstein, and he has also studied with Aaron Jay Kernis and Steven Sametz through the ACDA Choral Composers Forum. He also holds an MBA in Arts Administration from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Andrew lives with his wife Liz Davis Maxfield—a professional cellist, expert in Irish traditional music, and rock climber—and their two handsome, high-octane boys (plus a hyper puppy) just downhill from Sundance in Provo, Utah.

Below are some of Andrew’s recent commissions, accomplishments, and those playing his music.

The compositions of ANDREW MAXFIELD—hailed as “rhythmically vital … superbly judged … [and] tender” by Fanfare Magazine—have been performed throughout the U.S. and Europe. A recent winner of the King’s Singer’s New Music Prize (Jury Special Commendation), Andrew has been a Composer Fellow of the National Collegiate Choral Organization and Composer-in-Residence for Newburyport Choral Society. Recent commissions include choral works for the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, Hillsdale College, and Salem Hills High School; an orchestral adaptation of the Caldecott honor book, They All Saw A Cat, for the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts in New York City; and a concert-length score for SALT Contemporary Dance, showcased at Lincoln Center. His album, Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music, was released by Tantara Records and his “well-crafted, approachable” works (Dr. George Case, The Boston Cecilia) are published by Walton, Santa Barbara, and Yalecrest. Ensembles which have performed Andrew’s music recently include USC Thornton Chamber Singers, Emporia Symphony Orchestra, Carroll University Symphonic Band and Choir, Wingate University Singers, Utah Philharmonic, The Piedmont Singers, University of Pennsylvania Chamber Choir, and Choral Arts Initiative.

Useful Links:

Andrew’s website

The Door Virtually performed by Nightingale Vocal Ensemble. “The Door” is the final piece in trUSt: A Collaboration with Andrew Maxfield. April 19, 2021

The Singing Bowl Virtually performed by Nightingale Vocal Ensemble. “The Singing Bowl” is the third piece in trUSt: A Collaboration with Andrew Maxfield. April 16, 2021

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David Galenson

Wendell Berry He was born August 5, 1934, in Henry County, Kentucky where he now lives on a farm. The New York Times has called Berry the “prophet of rural America.”

Danny Myer Always be collecting dots.

Stephen Covey Sharpen the saw.

Pleasant Pictures Music:

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.

Saving Lives, One at a Time

Why Paul Grüninger Couldn't Say No

In the years leading up to World War II, Switzerland saw waves of Jews come to them in order to escape the Nazi regime. Despite a long tradition of welcoming those fleeing persecution, concerns about rising anti-Semitism prompted authorities to forbid any more Jews from entering the country. Local police captains were instructed to deport any Jews, returning them to the border where they entered.

A strong culture of obedience and structure ensured widespread compliance—except with the police commander in St. Gallen, a man named Paul Grüninger. He was admired and respected by the citizens of his town, with a reputation of being an excellent police commander. This is why it came as such a surprise when in 1939 he was arrested for backdating and otherwise forging visas for thousands of Jews, allowing them to remain in Switzerland instead of being deported.

Grüninger lost his job and was jailed and fined. He was also falsely rumored to have rescued these Jews in exchange for money and sexual favors. His reputation ruined, Paul Grüninger struggled to make a living for the rest of his life. Even well after WWII and the evils of the Nazi regime were widely known, the Swiss government resisted multiple efforts to restore his honor. He died a controversial figure.

Why did he do all of this? Or perhaps more importantly, why didn’t the other police commanders do the same as Grüninger? In the book Beautiful Souls, the author Eyal Press noted from his research a fascinating but important distinction in their process. Most police commanders delegated the visa processing of incoming Jews to subordinates. Grüninger, instead, met with each one. Press argues that this was the key difference. The commander of St. Gallen saw each person and each family personally. He saw them as individual people, not as a mere policy to be enforced.

In total, he rescued 3,600 Jews, but he rescued them one-by-one.

Grüninger was interviewed on national television a year before his death. When asked why he did what he did, he replied:

My conscience told me that I could not and may not send them back. And also my human sense of duty demanded that I keep them here.

And after years of suffering ignominy for his heroic defiance, he also said that he would do it all over again.

Things to Read

What City Trees Can Do

What if I told you that city trees can temper heatwaves, reduce flooding, scrub pollution, improve health, and reduce crime? Fascinating Twitter thread.

How to Ask Useful Questions

Asking useful questions is a critical part of problem-solving and essential to professional development. Excellent advice for an underdeveloped skill.

Does Getting Promoted Alter Your Moral Compass?

Promotions can get us to look past or even support unethical behavior that we would normally resist.

Impact Highlight

In countries like Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, and elsewhere, groups of people have been abused, oppressed, or killed en mass in spite of modern governing structures and international pressure. The end of conflicts doesn't necessarily bring peace, either, because the consequences last for generations unless justice and healing come as well.

Celebrating its 20th year, the International Center for Transitional Justice helps restore peace to countries that have endured massive human rights abuses under repression and in conflict. They have worked in over 40 countries around the world, addressing violations and rebuilding trust in civic institutions.

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"People who were not lacking in capability, but lacking an opportunity"

Artisans in the developing world have incredible, valuable skills, but limited access to global markets. From jewelry to baskets, and pottery to blankets, Melissa Sevy creates opportunities for artisans to flourish, providing jobs, fair pay work, and dignity. But it hasn't been easy. Along the way she faced difficulty, hardship, and brick walls. Yet, her resilient nature overcomes and helped her to be there to strengthen others.

She's my guest in this week's episode of the How to Help Podcast. Click here to listen.

How to Help Podcast • Resilience • Melissa Sevy

Podcast Episode: Resilience • Melissa Sevy • S01E06

“People who were not lacking in capability, but lacking an opportunity”

Artisans in the developing world have incredible, valuable skills, but limited access to global markets. From jewelry to baskets, and pottery to blankets, Melissa Sevy creates opportunities for artisans to flourish, providing jobs, fair pay work, and dignity. But it hasn’t been easy. Along the way she faced difficulty, hardship, and brick walls. Yet, her resilient nature overcomes and helped her to be there to strengthen others.

About Our Guest:

Melissa Sevy specializes in helping artisans in the developing world gain access to global markets. She is the founder and Executive Director of Mabira Collective (formerly Musana), a nonprofit working with jewelry artisans in Uganda.

She also is the Co-founder of Fair Kind a for-profit social venture. Fair Kind is a social enterprise that sources handmade products from artisan groups around the world for corporate clients.

Her newest company is Ethik Collective, platform that enables companies to source ethical handmade goods and materials from artisans around the world.

Useful Links:

Melissa Sevy is on Twiter.

Fair Kind supports local artisans and creates a positive impact. You can buy their beautiful products directly.

Mabira Collective creates a sustainable solution based in love and breaking the cycle of dependency by helping women develop as jewelry artisans and entrepreneurs.

Ethik offers ethical sourcing of all things handmade

Grit shares that achievement is found through focused persistence called grit.

Resilience Research Center has collaborated with local, national, and international institutions for more than 15 years to carry out innovative research that explores pathways to resilience across cultures.

About Merit Leadership

Our Business Ethics classroom in a Box focuses on developing future leaders by developing ethical skills and tools in an easy-to-use course. Providing lesson plans, exercises, and assessments that help people succeed where good intentions fall short.

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What Good Companies Can Do

Helping can be hard, expensive, slow, and right.

Last week, Apple announced a major new set of innovative software features that are absolutely incredible. Undoubtedly, they took many hundreds of hours of work and likely cost a huge sum of money in research and development. The new features set an industry standard that other companies will struggle to copy quickly.

And these are software features that you are likely to never use.

The software updates, detailed in this press release, are all accessibility improvements. For example, watch the remarkable video on something called AssistiveTouch, designed for Apple Watch users that can't use the touchscreen. And for blind users, iPhones and iPads can now describe what's in a picture, using machine learning algorithms to identify what's in the scene. The list of new features is quite long worth the read. It's inspiring.

Most people are surprised to learn that corporate philanthropy makes up just 5% of annual charitable giving. I’m a consistent critic of it not because of the amount, but because most company giving done as an afterthought by undertrained staff prioritizing image over impact. What’s worse, it completely ignores the power of collective effort embedded in every corporation.

Companies are fundamentally groups of people in collaboration. In that way, they wield tremendous power. I love what Apple has done with its accessibility efforts, because it teaches a lesson about how good is done. Helping others is often unprofitable, hard, and slow. Certainly that description applies to all of what Apple just announced. These features took creative, persistent thinking to overcome failures in expensive ways. The odds are quite high that Apple loses money on all of this effort.

So why do they do it? Here's what Sarah Herrlinger, Apple's head of global accessibility, had to say in an interview last year:

“It’s fundamentally about culture. From the beginning Apple has always believed accessibility is a human right and this core value is still evident in everything we design today.”

This is exactly the kind of corporate-speak you'd expect any company to say, but outside observers have documented Apple's long-term dedication to making their products work for everyone they can, despite their abilities. It's long been a place where they put their energy, not just their money. While Apple certainly has other major issues to confront, like its business in China, but on accessibility they’ve consistently led the way.

We’re entering an era where more and more companies are focusing their efforts into solving big problems. All of that collective effort is sure to bear fruit. It’s exciting to think about what other advances companies will yet produce to help those who need it most.

Things to Read

Renewable Energy Is Suddenly Startlingly Cheap

Solar and wind capacity have grown so much that they can currently supply more energy on a smaller footprint than fossil fuels.

Live a life worth living

A touching letter from a mother whose fatal diagnosis meant she had to leave behind her two young daughters. Words of deep wisdom.

Crazy New Ideas

“Having new ideas is a lonely business. Only those who've tried it know how lonely. These people need your help.“ (I loved this.)

Impact Highlight

The UN Global Compact is a voluntary collection of global companies who have committed to sustainable, responsible business and contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Member companies uphold ten principles focused on human rights, fair labor practices, environmental sustainability, and anti-corruption. Members include over 12,000 signatories in 160+ countries.

For an example, watch this video illustrating the approach Hilton (the hotel company) has taken to help reach the SDGs. The Global Compact Library is a resource for companies wanting to improve their impact.

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Chaplain George Youstra is a six-foot-eight former Green Beret, a retired Air Force Colonel, a former advisor to eight four-star generals, and one of the friendliest people you’ll ever get a chance to meet. He’s also my guest on this week’s episode of the How to Help Podcast. I guarantee the episode will be uplifting and interesting.

How to Help Podcast - Ep. 5 Character, Service, and Sacrifice

Podcast Episode: Character, Service, and Sacrifice • Chaplain George Youstra • S01E05

What does a career look like when its very purpose is to embody character, service, and sacrifice? It looks exactly like the career of military chaplains. Chaplains play a critical role that touch every aspect of military service, from battlefield counseling to advising the highest levels of command. Being a good chaplain means being an influence for good, building relationships of trust, and continually focusing on others. These are abilities that all of us could use ourselves. Chaplain George Youstra will be our instructor.

About our Guest:

Chaplain George Youstra (Col. ret.) led a distinguished 38-year military career. He most recently served as Command Chaplain for the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  Prior to that, he served as the Joint Staff Chaplain and command chaplain to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also advised the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, one of the eight four-star generals he served. Chaplain Youstra, a former Green Beret, is also an ordained minister for the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches.

Useful Links:

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World, BY: William McRaven

Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, By: William McRaven

It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, By: Colin Powell

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, By: Eric Metaxas

The Servant as Leader, By: Robert Greenleaf

Special Forces Ethics Field Guide: KSL interviews authors Brad Agle and Aaron Miller about their experience consulting the US Special Forces.

Retirement Ceremony for Chaplin George Youstra

About Merit Leadership

At Merit Leadership, we teach ethics as a skill. With innovative training and consulting programs, we can help your organization turn Peril into Opportunity. To learn more, visit http://MeritLeadership.com.

Pleasant Pictures Music:

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Finding Meaning in Who You Are

Why it matters that we don't confuse having meaning and being happy

I suspect most of us would consider a happy life to be a meaningful life, and a meaningful life a happy one, but this is not necessarily the case. This week I want to share the insights from a 2013 paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology. The authors (Roy Baumeister and colleagues) studied how people viewed the things in their life that made them happy as compared to the things that gave them a sense of meaning.

Meaning and happiness do overlap quite a bit, so where they differ is fascinating. For example, most issues related to money affect our happiness but not our sense of meaning. In fact, money scarcity has twenty times the impact on happiness than it does on meaning. Most of us just don’t find money to give us a sense of purpose in life.

The same pattern holds for other things like good or bad health, positive or negative emotions, and whether or not life is easy or hard for us. These directly affect our happiness but have no substantial effect on how meaningful we find our lives.

In relationships, the differences are even more interesting. Both happiness and meaning are deeply connected to the people in our lives, but they differ dramatically in the direction of those connections. The researchers found that happiness mostly correlates with the benefits we receive from our relationships, while meaning correlates with the benefits we offer to the other people in our lives. In fact, when controlling for meaningfulness, helping others actually has a negative affect on happiness. But when we find meaning in helping others, it increases our happiness.

The study explored many other connections, but the larger theme is this: the things we consider meaningful tend to connect best with the way we see ourselves. Identity and meaning are deeply related. A keen sense of self—and choices that align with it—are the things that help us feel like we are living a meaningful life. It’s not selfishness, though, that gives us meaning; quite the opposite, according to the research. Meaning comes from finding the way our selves fit in with the people and the world around us.

The authors conclude with this insight:

Although it is hard to dispute the appeal of happiness, recent work has begun to suggest downsides of valuing and pursuing happiness…Clearly happiness is not all that people seek, and indeed, the meaningful but unhappy life is in some ways more admirable than the happy but meaningless one.

How can you discover more meaning by finding how you fit with the people and the world around you?

Things to Read

A perfect little metaphor

We care about helping people, but often don't trust the people we help. Here's a comic about how that gets in the way.

Can science make us better people?

Your ethics are influenced by a lot more than your character. We need to understand this better.

How Facebook Got Addicted to Spreading Misinformation

It's not news that Facebook made systems that got out of control. But what if they knew it was happening and did nothing?

Impact Highlight

Our health isn't just about access to medical care, but also about access to healthy surroundings. For more than two decades, Health Leads has been targeting inequity in the US Healthcare system by improving the living conditions that drive health. They focus especially on racial inequity, a problem that's well documented.

Responding to current needs, the Health Leads Vaccine Equity Cooperative addresses both vaccine hesitancy and government planning gaps to ensure that minority communities are getting vaccinated at the same rates as the general population.

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Theranos was one of the largest corporate frauds of the last decade, and Tyler Shultz was a whistleblower at the center of what brought it all down. He's my guest on this week's episode of the How to Help Podcast.

You really don't want to miss this episode. His story is riveting, and you'll be fascinated by what a down-to-earth and humble person Tyler is.

How to Help Podcast Episode 4 - Tyler Shultz

Podcast Episode: Blowing the Whistle • Tyler Shultz • S01E04

“The real trade secret was that there was no secret.”

Elizebeth Holmes—Founder of Theranos—raised billions of dollars in startup capital. The entire company failed to produce a functioning technology, putting customer’s lives in danger and defrauding investors.

Tyler Schultz recounts his harrowing experience as a young graduate working in one of the Theranos labs. Insisting on doing the right thing, he blew the whistle on one of the biggest corporate frauds of all time. Along the way, he teaches us key lessons about having an ethical career and living an ethical life.

About Our Guest:

Tyler Shultz is the CEO of Flux Biosciences, a biotech firm. He graduated from Stanford with a Biology degree and entered the national scene when he blew the whistle at Theranos. Tyler complained to the public health regulators in New York and was a source for a series of Wall Street Journal articles exposing Theranos’ dubious blood-testing practices. Owing to his role in exposing the fraud.

Useful Links:

Thicker than Water is Tyler’s Audible Original where he tells his story, first-hand. There’s no better way to get his unique perspective on all that happened.

Bad Blood, this book features Tyler Schultz and the Theranos scandal. Penned by John Carreyrou, the original author of the Wall Street Journal articles,

“The Inventor” Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary

Flux Biosciences, Inc., Shultz is the CEO and Co-Founder of a bay-area start-up that aims to bring medical grade diagnostics into the homes of consumers.

Forbes name Tyler as “30 under 30” Health Care 2017 list.

CNN highlights tech ethics venture Ethics in Entrepreneurship

Wallstreet journal “Theranos Whistleblower Shook the Company – and His Family.”

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When Help is Unwanted

The hardest problems to solve are usually the ones we want to keep.

I’ve been laying the groundwork for a new project collecting “helping experiences.” Our hope is that we can start to better understand the multitude of ways we try to help one another. Helping is in our nature, but there’s still so much about helping that we don’t understand.

One common feature of helping experiences is that they’re often imbalanced. Givers and receivers of help typically see things very differently. For example, you’ve probably had the experience where someone’s kindness was monumental to you, and yet they probably don’t even remember the help they gave. This is just one of the ways the experience differs so much for those involved.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching imbalance is when the person offering help is rebuffed by the person who really needs it. Parents perhaps feel this most keenly. In Episode 2 of the How to Help Podcast, Dr. Marsh shared in our interview that kids who have been diagnosed with psychopathy are extremely difficult to help because they are incapable of seeing their own failings. She said:

I've worked with teenagers who have been thrown out of multiple schools and their parents were afraid of them. They didn't have any friends and they'd been in detention many times. The question we've asked all the kids we work with is how would you rate yourself overall on a scale from one to 10. [These kids] would routinely answer…at a 10 or at 11.
Not that they don't have any good traits, because they all do. They all have lots of good traits, but things are not going well. And the problem is, if somebody doesn't feel that room for
improvement in themselves, then they will not be motivated to do any therapy to change themselves.

It doesn’t take a psychopathy diagnosis for any of use to refuse help, whether it’s out of pride, anger, or even just the desire to not be a burden. The result is still the same. We repeatedly run up against this one truth: the hardest problems to solve are usually the ones we want to keep.

But if we’re the ones wanting to help, and our help is rebuffed? What can we do then? I find great comfort in these lovely words by Norman Maclean, from his novella A River Runs Through It and Other Stories:

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.

Things to Read

The power of conformity: How good people do evil things

This is a nice overview of the ways that conformity leads us into ethical failures, including a summary of Solomon Asch’s research.

How to Buy Happiness

Arthur Brooks has been writing a weekly column for The Atlantic called “How to Build a Life.” The articles have all been research-grounded and thought-provoking.

Are We Automating Racism?

This YouTube video from Vox takes a fascinating, if troubling, look at how biases are inadvertently created from the algorithms running much of the Web.

Impact Highlight

APOPO is one of those organizations that’s developed a mind-boggling innovation, the kind of accomplishment that seems too unlikely to be true. Using trained rats (and dogs), APOPO safely sweeps minefields in former conflict zones by relying on the amazing sense of smell of their animal companions. You read that right: landmine-sniffing rats.

As if that wasn’t enough, the heroRATs have also been trained to identify undiagnosed tuberculosis. Since APOPO’s founding over 20 years ago, they’ve cleared more than 106,000 landmines and prevented an estimated 90,000 cases of tuberculosis infection, saving thousands of lives in the process.

Promotional Stuff

The How to Help Podcast is live and ready to go. I hope you’ll take a moment to listen, subscribe, rate, and share. Here are links to the first three episodes.

Episode 1 - Finding Your Calling - Prof. Jeff Thompson (Listen Here)

Episode 2 - Neuroscience of Altruism - Dr. Abigail Marsh (Listen Here)

Episode 3 - Hope - David Williams (Listen Here)

How to Help Podcast - Available Now!

The Podcast Is Live!

Episodes 1, 2, and 3 of the How to Help Podcast are available now in your favorite podcast player. If you're already a podcast listener, click the button below to subscribe and start listening right away.

Please consider sharing the podcast on your social media. (If we get enough listeners in the first week, it helps draw the attention of people who write the recommended playlists.) I pasted a link below, or you can use the Share button in your podcast player.

Last, if you're new to podcasts I have instructions below for you too. :)

Please be sure to listen, rate, and subscribe. Thank you for your help in spreading the word!


How to Help Podcast: Listen and Subscribe


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New to Podcasts?

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Apple Podcasts

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You can listen to the podcast using Google Podcasts either in your web browser or the Google Podcasts app. This link will take you there, where you can listen, rate, and subscribe:

Google Podcasts

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If you are a Spotify user, this link will take you there where you can listen, rate, and subscribe:

Spotify Podcasts

Podcast Episode: Hope • David Williams • S01E03

If we look, we can see missing hope in all kinds of places. Some parents lack hope because their child struggles with chronic illness, some families don’t even know if they can buy groceries next week, and some don’t even have a home. Throughout his career, David Williams has become an expert in giving people hope, and he’ll share what he’s learned so that all of us can be better at building hope in others and ourselves.

About Our Guest

David Williams has served as the Executive Director of the Houston Food Bank, COO of Habitat for Humanity, CEO of the national Make-A-Wish Foundation, and CEO of GenesisWorks. He currently works as CEO for Shelters to Shutters, a national organization addressing homelessness through the real estate industry.

Useful Links

A minute with David Williams: David Williams discusses what it takes to deliver inspiration to families with children faced with illness.

What Melts Your Butter is David Williams TEDx Talk about Hope.

GenesysWorks: GenesysWorks provides pathways to career success for high school students in underserved communities through skills training, meaningful work experiences, and impactful relationships. Our program consists of 8 weeks of technical and professional skills training, a paid year-long corporate internship, college and career coaching, and alumni support to and through college.

Batkid Make-A-Wish: It all began with a new superhero who rallied the entire world as he confronted evildoers in San Francisco. Today Batkid is a symbol of everything that is right and good with the world.

Houston Food Bank: Founded in 1982, the Houston Food Bank is a certified member of Feeding America, the nation’s food bank network, with a four-star rating from Charity Navigator. We distribute fresh produce, meat and nonperishables and prepare nutritious hot meals for kids in our state-of-the-art Keegan Kitchen.

National Make-A-Wish: An Interview With Make-A-Wish President &CEO David Williams.

Shelters to Shutters: We seek to change the trajectory of those experiencing homelessness in our country by providing two critical components- housing and employment.

Charles Snyder developed a psychological framework for hope, using ideas like pathways-thinking and agency-thinking.

About Merit Leadership

Learn more about Merit Leadership and its offerings at:


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Podcast Episode: Neuroscience of Altruism • Dr. Abigail Marsh • S01E02

What makes some people more generous than others? And when it comes to altruism, how do we get more of it? In this episode, we learn about how altruism works in the brain, and the clues are surprisingly found in how psychopaths experience fear. Neuroscientist and professor Abigail Marsh will tell us what she’s learned about altruism and the human brain.

About Our Guest

Abigail Marsh is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University. She received her BA in Psychology from Dartmouth College in 1999 and her PhD in Social Psychology at Harvard University in 2004. Before Georgetown, she conducted post-doctoral work at the NIMH from 2004-2008. Her areas of expertise include social and affective neuroscience, particularly understanding emotional processes like empathy and how they relate to altruism, aggression, and psychopathy.

Useful Links

Her book: The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Psychopaths, Altruists, and Everyone In-Between

Published by Dr. Marsh in 2017 “What is responsible for the extremes of generosity and cruelty humans are capable of? By putting psychopathic children and extreme altruists in an fMRI, acclaimed psychologist Abigail Marsh found that the answer lies in how our brain responds to others’ fear. While the brain’s amygdala makes most of us hardwired for good, its variations can explain heroic and psychopathic behavior.”

TED Talk: Abigail Marsh asks an essential question in her TED talk: If humans are evil, Why do we sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to help others even at a cost to ourselves?

Google Scholar: Has over 8500 citations from Abigail Marsh.

Twitter: Follow Dr. Marsh @aa_Marsh

Other Resources

Matthieu Ricard: Points out that empathy on its own can lead to fatigue and burnout.

Michael Krauss: Research shows that increased wealth can actually reduce empathy and altruism.

David DeSteno: People who’ve experienced significant trauma or natural disasters themselves benefit from self-efficacy, which gives them the confidence to know what to do in a situation they are familiar with.

More about Merit Leadership

Business Ethics Field Guide: The ability to clarify individual and organizational values and to find a way forward when these values conflict. This book will help you develop those skills and apply them in your organization to become a better leader.

Classroom In Box: Do you teach ethics? Whether it’s in a university, school, company, or agency you know how difficult it can be. Merit Leadership has compiled decades of award-winning experience teaching ethics and created lesson plans, videos, exercises, and assignments all in an online resource that’s easy to use.

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Podcast Episode: Finding Your Calling • Prof. Jeff Thompson • S01E01

Do you feel like you have a calling in life? Is there something when you wake up each day that you feel you are meant to do? If you don’t feel like you do, this episode will help you find what you’re missing. We’ll learn from Prof. Jeff Thompson, a professor of management and expert in calling.

About Our Guest

Jeff Thompson is a professor at the BYU Marriott School of business and the George Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics. Jeff Thompson is someone who thrives in the study of finding your calling, and he loves to ask questions like what makes a job a calling? And how do we find our calling?

Useful Links

Dr. Thompson’s book The Zookeeper’s Secret: Finding Your Calling is a great read.

Jeff Thompson also has a Google Scholar full of resources that will create a more meaningful work experience.

Dr. Hull company Neuroworx came from tragedy and is inspiring people every day.

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Where to Find Your Calling

Hidden Lessons from a Younger You

Most kids like to collect stuff, but they usually collect normal things like Pokémon cards or interesting rocks. When I was a kid, I collected entirely useless facts. My family teased me for starting every few sentences with the phrase, “Did you know…” I still remember this one:

“Did you know that Americans eat an average of eight pounds of pickles per year?” (35 years later, this is still true by the way.)

When we were imagining our jobs as adults, everyone in my family predicted that I would be a professor. And I even considered it seriously for a semester of college, only to decide on law school and a legal career. The path didn’t seem like a good fit for me. But after an unexpected set of twists and turns, I’ve now been a professor for 15 years.

Why am I telling this story? Next week, the How to Help Podcast launches, and my first guest is a fellow professor, Dr. Jeff Thompson. He’s an expert in calling and how people find purpose and satisfaction in their work.

Here’s one of the tips he’s going to offer. If you are trying to figure out your calling in life, look to your childhood. What were you naturally drawn to?

And don’t think just about topics like dinosaurs, ballet, math, or soccer. Think about the way you enjoyed spending your time, or the role you played in your group of friends, or what people trusted you to do for them. Most people have natural talents and interests that can be traced back to their childhood years. One of mine was a fascination with knowledge and an instinct to share it.

Jeff is convinced from his research that all of us have gifts that we can offer the world. If you’re still not sure what yours might be or if you’ll ever find it, take confidence in knowing that an expert in calling believes in you and what you can do to help others.

What are some of your childhood talents or gifts that you could put to work today?

Things to Read

Toms abandons one-for-one model

Last month, Tom’s Shoes abandoned their famous Buy-One-Give-One model. Instead, they’ll be donating one-third of their profits to grassroots organizations.

How mRNA Technology Could Change the World

The same technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has the potential to treat other diseases like cancer or HIV.

“Natural capital” accounting method might give nature an economic voice

A new approach to valuing nature comes with benefits and pitfalls.

Impact Highlight

Middle school is a natural time for kids to wonder about the jobs they'll have as adults, but it's also a time when many kids lose confidence in their future. Spark is a career- and self-discovery program that helps middle-schoolers explore work opportunities with the help of mentor companies. Over 10,000 students in the Spark program have become more engaged at school, become more confident, and better honed social and emotional skills.

Promotional Stuff

Honesty is hard, and for some reason we hesitate to admit it. Last week, I wrote a piece for Public Square Magazine to commemorate National Honesty Day. The key to being more honest isn’t just the truth, it’s relationships. Here’s a snippet from the article:

How we think of others makes practical honesty so much clearer. We like to say, for example, that someone who lies has a “shaky,” “loose,” or “relaxed” relationship with the truth. But the more precise accusation is that their relationship with others needs to be stronger. They undervalue the people to whom they owe the truth.

National Honesty Day, by Aaron Miller

Introducing How to Help

A newsletter and podcast all about impact

I started writing Good at Work last year as a way to create something that I wanted to read, a resource about how to do more good and how to be a better person. Most self-improvement resources tell us to look inward to become happier, healthier, or more productive (and I don’t begrudge that to anyone). But focusing on ourselves only takes us so far. We all want more meaning, and that comes from improving the world around us. Good at Work was a way to bring that into focus.

So today I’m excited to announce what’s next. How to Help is for everyone who wants a life and career with more meaning, virtue, and impact. The weekly newsletter will continue, even if this week’s is mostly an announcement. You’ll also notice that it has a new format that includes links to interesting articles. Each issue will still highlight a high-impact group from around the world.

My other big announcement is the launch of Season 1 of the How to Help Podcast on the evening of May 10. I spent the last year collecting interviews with a dozen fascinating people about topics all related to having a bigger impact on the world. Here’s the trailer, along with the full list of topics and guests:

How to Help Podcast - Season 1 Trailer

I can’t even tell you how excited I am for you to hear every episode. You’ll learn about how to find your calling, how to cultivate hope, how to be more creative, and how to find your courage. I talk with a neuroscientist who studies altruism, a philosopher of work, and a whistleblower at Theranos who risked everything to reveal the truth. You can even subscribe right now in your favorite podcast app. Just search for “How to Help” or use one of the following links:

Apple Podcasts Google PodcastsSpotify Podcasts

A new podcast needs a coordinated effort to reach a wide audience, so I hope you don’t mind if I recruit your help spreading the word. More on that next week.

For all of you reading and sharing, thank you so much. I’m incredibly excited about what’s coming next and I hope you’ll keep reading and keep sharing. I promise to do my very best to make it worthwhile. Regular newsletters resume next week!

Things to Read

Oxford Malaria vaccine proves highly effective in Burkina Faso trial

Malaria has killed more people in the history of the humankind than just about any other disease. A vaccine for it will change the world. (The Guardian)

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.

We don’t like to admit the role that luck plays in our success, but a computer model indicates that chance makes the biggest difference. (MIT Technology Review)

Why I find longtermism hard, and what keeps me motivated

Thinking long-term is one of the more important things we can do, yet also one of the hardest. Some useful, practical advice to keep your eye on the future. (80,000 Hours)

Impact Highlight

When kids in the US are turned over to the foster care system, they often get separated from their siblings. This added trauma has consequences on emotional wellbeing that last well into adulthood. Finding ways to help siblings stay connected produces long-term benefits.

Camp to Belong is a network of member camps that bring foster-care siblings together for summer programs so they can reinforce their connections, celebrate life events, and make memories together. Multiple studies show that kids who participate are both more resilient and more hopeful for their future. Camps are currently held in 11 US states and Australia.

Other Stuff

This is going to be the place I share other things I want to bring to your attention. This week it’s just something delightful.

The Toaster Showdown

Podcast Trailer • Season 1

Season 1 of How to Help launches on May 10th! Be sure to subscribe to get episodes automatically.

Here’s the list of topics and guests coming this season:

Not My Thing

Why I stopped believing in bad taste.

note: This will be the last edition of Good at Work, but not the end of my weekly newsletters. Beginning next week, I’ll be launching a new name and updated format, along with other exciting news.

As a teenager, I very consistently made fun of people who like country music. For a long stretch, I also had disdain for people who preferred Windows computers. Getting teased for these things was part of being friends with me.

Fast forward to today, and I still don’t listen to country music—though I now quite like bluegrass—and I still don’t use a Windows computer. What’s changed is how I think of the people who do.

Of the many ways we divide ourselves as people, I think the most petty and pointless way is in how we judge each other’s taste. The instinct for it still creeps into my brain, but I try to spot it for what it is—enjoyment in looking down on others.

I’ve learned that people see far more than I do in their favorite music, hobby, tool, or distraction. When someone puts their time, attention, and identity into something, it’s because they see beauty or meaning there. Their appreciation of it, if I asked them to explain, would be fuller and deeper than I give them credit for.

It’s not that there’s no such thing as good taste. There is, but it’s not measured by how someone’s preferences match my own. Instead, I find it in creativity and judgment that lead to improvement. People who make things easier to use, understand, or enjoy have a skill I envy (and try to emulate). They have good taste.

I do still struggle to respect expensive tastes, the kind that involve more money than many people see in their lifetimes. I also think interests that celebrate cruelty are wrong. But these are moral questions, not preferences, and my time on these is better spent looking inward.

What’s on your “bad taste” list? Could a little curiosity lead you to more respect and understanding? There may be new beauty and meaning there, hiding in the people before you.

(If you want some practice, go listen to the Enthusiast podcast It had a short run, but opens your eyes to passions of all kinds.)

Seeing Good at Work

Here’s a well designed solution with amazing impact. The wrong conditions, like air quality or temperature, can have massive consequences for health in much of the world. And what’s worse, these conditions can go undetected until it’s too late.

NexLeaf Analytics builds inexpensive, connected sensors to measure environmental conditions for improved health. Their sensors track the temperature of vaccine storage, air quality from cookstoves, and the functionality of critical medical equipment. The technology provides real-time warnings and reports so that people can make immediate changes as needed. Their data analytics also reveal improved practices to help keep people healthy. NexLeaf’s work has been impactful enough to draw financial support from Google and Qualcomm.

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Keep an eye out for next week’s announcements!

Empathy Is Messy

Rethinking the trait we all want more of

Some questions to consider:

For spring break this year, I tackled the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom, a moral psychologist at Yale. It’s an engaging and enlightening book, one that I highly recommend as a way to broaden your thinking about how to help others. (As I write this, the Kindle version is available free to Prime members.)

Bloom’s central argument is that empathy—which he basically defines as feeling the emotions that others feel—is a messy, misguided tool for making the world a better place. While it has some benefit in helping us to appreciate the perspectives of others, it also comes with a great deal of drawbacks that we overlook.

One such failing is empathic overload. Some people feel the suffering of others especially keenly, and it’s often to their detriment. Some men but especially women, for example, engage in unmitigated communion, an unhealthy focus on the needs of others to the exclusion of self. Research shows that unmitigated communion leads to poor mental and physical health. Another problem with too much empathy: nurses who measure highly in affective empathy are more likely to experience compassion fatigue, which makes them less effective in giving care.

Adding to the criticism, empathy biases us unjustly. Bloom describes a “spotlight effect” from empathy, which causes us to focus on the needs of one person and ignore others who are equally or even more needy. To illustrate, he points to a Daniel Batson study where participants were given an opportunity to move a girl with a medical condition higher on the waiting list for treatment. Those who felt more empathy for the girl were more likely to help her jump the line, even though the list was described as prioritizing those who needed treatment the most. Increased empathy, in this case, led to an unjust outcome.

Finally, empathy frequently leads us to aggression and violence. This same argument surfaces in Rutger Bregman’s excellent book Human Kind, which I wrote about in a previous newsletter issue. Empathy sends people to fight, even to war, because we feel so strongly for those we’re defending.

And compassion isn’t the same thing as empathy, by Bloom’s definition. (And I agree with him.) In fact, one study involving Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and neuroscientist whom I’ve also written about before, showed that the brain behaves differently when experiencing compassion than it does when experiencing empathy. It uses different neural components and generates less fatigue and distress. It feels true to me that love and empathy are different from each other. Bloom adroitly clarifies:

It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness. Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists. Empathy makes good people better, then, because kind people don’t like suffering, and empathy makes this suffering salient.

I’m still processing the arguments against empathy, and I’m less willing than Bloom to say we’d be better off without it. But I agree that a world run by emotional mirroring is a bad idea. Our emotions are important but fickle guides to decision-making. I’m convinced that helping people effectively requires all of our faculties. Just imagining how others feel doesn’t tell me what to do next, even if it can at least get me started.

Seeing Good at Work

Mental health issues continue to carry stigma or face neglect around the world. In Nepal, Koshish helps raise awareness for mental health throughout the country and offers programs to help people return to independent living despite their conditions.

These programs include peer groups, emergency support, and a national radio broadcast to educate even remote communities. I encourage you to review the dozens of success stories to see how their work helps.

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If you’re on Twitter, follow me there.

Business Is Mostly Cooperation

Competition is just part of the story

Aaron Miller

I’ve taught business ethics now for 14 years, and I’m surprised over and over by just how disproportionately business students value competition. To be sure, they’re not dummies. They know they’re headed into a competitive market that will demand value from them. But what they often fail to see is that their ability to cooperate will determine their success far more than their ability to compete.

If this sounds strange, consider your typical workday. Look at where the vast majority of your time and money are spent.

Every day you work at your job, you trust that your employer will pay you and they trust that you will do the work you’re hired to do. You and your coworkers rely on the same trust in each other, counting on each other to reach your goals. Fundamentally, these are cooperative activities, not competitive ones.

“That’s just teamwork,” you might reply. But cooperation extends well beyond teams. Retailers cooperate with manufacturers. Customers cooperate with sellers. If you track the time and money spent by companies, you quickly see that companies are essentially massive cooperative endeavors.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Even innovation, which competition encourages, is a primarily cooperative endeavor. The myth of the lone inventor belies the reality of teams of co-innovators. And innovation isn’t constrained to teams within companies. Today, supply chains have dozens of participants that all contribute to new technologies becoming possible.

What does all this mean? It means that a free market rewards cooperation. The individuals and companies who succeed tend to excel in how they get along with others to pursue shared goals.

Competition mostly just creates incentives. Cooperation is what actually creates value.

Seeing Good at Work

Financial insecurity keeps women trapped in abusive relationships. FreeFromprovides domestic abuse survivors with training, legal resources, and small grants to help them establish financial independence. Their programs are comprehensive, ranging from individual solutions to advocating policy change. Their work was recently highlighted in the New York Times.

Their model scales by training service providers in their curriculum, so that more women can get the needed financial skills. Meanwhile, their grant program, Safety Fund, was just started last year and has already distributed micro-grants to over 1,100 survivors.

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My new podcast launches in just a couple of weeks! This first season is 12 episodes with people who will teach you all about having more impact and meaning in your work and life.

Speaking of cooperation, all the experts say that a coordinated launch—where people listen, rate, and subscribe all together—boosts a new podcast more than anything else. I hope I can count on you to help out. You’ll be hearing more from me soon.

And can I just say, this first season is going to be really great. 😁

The Dangers of Philanthropy

Last week, we looked at the important role that philanthropy plays in a vibrant economy. It recycles wealth, creating new opportunity. But philanthropy’s economic power is only part of the story.

Massive philanthropy, after all, comes from massive wealth—and the power that comes with it frequently scares the public. Even back in Rockefeller’s days, the country aligned itself against his effort to create a foundation. That distrust of wealth continues today. Philanthropic villains still get regular coverage, like the Koch brothers by the left, and for the right, George Soros.

In his book, Just Giving, Stanford sociology professor Rob Reich makes a case that large-scale philanthropy poses a risk to democracy itself. Are the concerns justified? Perhaps.

There are two dangers we need to see more clearly.

Perpetual and Unaccountable

Andrew Carnegie famously noted in The Gospel of Wealth, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” illustrating that wealth locked away is wealth put to waste. Yet today, most private foundations spend an average just above 5% of their total assets. Because their investment returns are consistently higher than their grant making, this spending level allows them to survive in perpetuity at the cost of accomplishing far less. Perhaps Carnegie might have called a foundation that never even dies similarly disgraceful.

How does foundation frugality affect democracy? As Reich points out, private foundations also lack a great deal of accountability. Certainly they must act within the boundaries set by the tax code, but they don’t have any other market mechanisms to ensure the beneficial use of their resources. Companies of equivalent size have customers to hold them to account. A private foundation has no customers, nor any stakeholders other than the ones they choose for themselves.

And like wealth generally in the US, foundation wealth is concentrating to a smaller number of foundations. So as foundations continue to aggregate wealth and the power that comes with it, they wield even greater power over issues of public policy, like education, crime, and the environment. A community with fewer resources than a large foundation might find itself with little recourse other than hoping for benevolence and wisdom from a board of directors.

Professionalized Decay

Another philanthropy expert and critic, Bill Schambra, has noted that professional philanthropy, the kind characterized by the largest foundations, comes with a poisoned promise: The public need only provide their support, and the professionals can do the rest.

The danger here is that democracy is rooted in people feeling empowered to solve their own problems. I’m tempted to quote at length from a compelling speech Schambra gave on the subject, but I will cut to the chase. After describing the messy, but essential nature of communities crafting solutions, Schambra says:

Furthermore, and more important, by employing experts to undertake the tasks of democratic government, we’ve relieved citizens of the need to engage with each other and to work out their differences in their own messy and amateurish ways.

That can only spell the end of democratic self-governance.

So the other democratic danger in big philanthropy is to our self-efficacy, which we lose by handing our problems over to the experts. Certainly we should involve them and listen to them, but we should be putting our own hands and minds to work on these problems, not just the ones offered—as helpful as they are—by Bill and Melinda Gates.

What can be done about these dangers? Schambra’s advice resonates here:

There is nothing quite like seeing citizens coming into the first realization of their own agency, and living into their ability to control their own lives.

American civil society has over the centuries been the arena within which everyday citizens come to realize their own democratic agency, no matter how marginal, neglected, or oppressed they may otherwise have been in this imperfect democracy of ours.

It is no one else’s job to solve the problems around us. We can turn to others for help, but it’s our own work to do.

Seeing Good at Work

Turning traditional philanthropy on its head, The Philanthropic Ventures Foundation empowers communities through innovative grants that are designed to be small, simple, and fast. The founder, Bill Somerville, pioneered this “grassroots philanthropy” (also the title of his book) by simply taking faxed, one-page applications from teachers looking to better serve their students.

If you want to learn more about their work, I encourage you to watch this fantastic TEDx talk by Somerville. It’s one of my favorites.

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That talk by Bill Somerville was delivered at TEDxBYU. This year’s event is entirely online, with incredible speakers filmed in remarkable locations. It runs tonight and tomorrow night, so be sure to get tickets right away. Find out more at:


Why Philanthropy Matters

The secret superpower of a thriving economy

Have you ever wondered why the United States—and specifically Silicon Valley—became the epicenter of the Information Age? Why of all places did this become the home to Google, Intel, HP, Apple, Facebook, and so many others?

I’m sure you have some ideas, but I doubt philanthropy is one of them. And so I strongly recommend you read Why Philanthropy Matters by Zoltan Acs. It’s one of my favorite books. Acs makes the compelling case that philanthropy is the secret superpower of American capitalism.

As for Silicon Valley, the pivotal moment of its destiny takes us back to 1885. Leland and Jane Stanford became incredibly wealthy from Leland’s ownership in multiple railroad companies. (He presided over the famous Golden Spike ceremony that joined the east and west segments of the Transcontinental Railroad.) Their wealth reached a peak of around $50 million, or $1.3 billion in today’s dollars, even if it was earned in the same questionable ways as the other robber barons of his time.

But in 1884, the couple’s only son died from typhoid fever at just 15 years-old. It was in their heartbreak that they made a decision that reverberated for decades to come. Declaring that “the children of California shall be our children,” Leland and Jane dedicated nearly half their wealth and over 8,000 acres to found Stanford University.

In the US, we’re accustomed to seeing huge philanthropic gifts like this, but they are hardly the norm in world history. In fact, the US economy is remarkably unique this way: marked by entrepreneurs of middling origins (Leland’s father was a farmer and Jane’s a merchant) who go on to incredible wealth and then historically large philanthropy. From Carnegie’s libraries to Gates’ health and education funding, this has been a distinctive feature of the American economy.

Nearly every major tech company today—along with their jobs, wealth, and products—traces its origin in whole or in part to that single philanthropic act by the Stanfords. Hewlett and Packard attended there, as did the Google founders, Page and Brin. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to contemplate all of the doctors, researchers, educators, and other professionals who started there.

This story can be told over and over with other schools, too, and extends well beyond the elite universities to state schools, HBCUs, and even community colleges that have opened more doors to opportunity than we can count. Although there are legitimate criticisms of education philanthropy, there’s little doubt that its impact on the whole has been immense.

And this is just one area among many that philanthropy in the US has fueled over the years. Professor Acs makes the case difficult to refute. Libraries, community centers, hospitals, and parks all enjoy philanthropic funding along with tax dollars. But for a history of massive philanthropy, the United States today would be a fraction of its size and vibrancy. And our future will likely depend on it in just the same way, a point that Acs notes with concern.

(Next week we’ll look at the other side of this issue, and the argument that modern philanthropy could threaten the very things that make the US healthy and strong.)

Seeing Good at Work

The more opportunity we can create for everyone, the better off we all are. WeThrive works with low-income youth in grades 7–10 to train them in entrepreneurship and leadership, setting them up with life skills that lead to better futures for themselves and their communities. The program scales by training teachers and administrators in the curriculum.

Beginning with a pilot in 2010, WeThrive has since grown to reach over 2,000 kids per year in cities across the US. The students who participate get experience starting real businesses earning real money. 81% of kids who participate continue with their ventures after completing the program.

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50 Words for Snow

Problems differ more than we say

Winter’s nearing its end, and many parts of the US are getting what might be their last snowstorms. You’ve probably heard that the Inuit have 50 different words for “snow.” As you might guess, though, the truth is more complicated than that.

First, it depends on which language you mean. According to the Alaskan Native Languages Archive, there are two main language groups in this part of the world. One is the Aleut language, otherwise known as Unangan. The other branch is Inuit-Yupik, which has about a dozen varieties still in use today.

Even if you just pick one of those languages, counting the words for snow still gets messy. It depends on what you mean by “word”. You see, these languages have many root words that mean snow, but then they add on extensions to get more specific about the kind of snow involved.

For example, the word qanik means “fallen snow”. But if we add to it, we can get the word qanittak, which means “freshly fallen snow”. This is a simple example, but we can go much further. We could use the word sitilluqaaq for example, which means “a recently formed hard drift of snow after a storm”. “50 words for snow” doesn’t even get us started.

The nature of the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan languages is that you can craft such a vast variety of “words” for snow that we’d never find an end to them. We need a different way of thinking about language itself to get started in the right direction.

This all relates to another quirk in the way we talk about the problems facing the world. We call food insecurity “a problem.” The same goes for human trafficking, illiteracy, and any number of other challenges. Each one is “a problem.” But this language doesn’t reflect reality.

For example, we call access to clean water a “problem,” as though everyone without clean water is in the same situation. But getting clean water to people in Malawi, Darfur, Dhaka, or Flint requires very different solutions. Most notably, the solutions that worked in one place, like Flint, wouldn’t work in any of these other places.

“Problem” lacks nuance and context, and so then does our understanding of things like clean water, human trafficking, illiteracy, an so on. What we could really use is a language like Inuit, where we have a word like “clean-water-for-people-with-dilapidated-municipal-water-systems-in-urban-US-settings”. Or, “clean-water-for-people-where-water-sources-are-targeted-in-armed-conflict.” Absent the language for it, we at least need the clearer thinking that language like this provides.

What problems are you lumping together? How are they different in a way that matters?

(Edit: The previous version of this article used the word “Eskimo” to collectively refer to these languages because the sources I relied on did the same. But a kind reader helped me learn that this term is unacceptable because of its colonial origin. The native people of the region prefer the terms from their own languages, such as “Inuit.”)

Seeing Good at Work

Inuit communities over hundreds of years developed complex expertise that’s enabled them to live in extreme environments. Climate change has made their home one of the fastest-changing parts of the planet, threatening the survival of the Inuit way of life. To make matters worse, Inuit children are one of the fastest growing demographics in Canada yet have the fewest educational resources.

Shelly Elverum is bridging the Inuit and Western worlds through collaborative scientific research projects in a model called ScIQ, where the local youth take key roles in research design and data collection. This gives them an opportunity to grow academically while promoting and preserving centuries of traditional knowledge. Ikaarvik, a leading ScIQ program, has received funding from a wide range of environmental research groups.

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The topic this week is a perfect chance to introduce you to The Ballard Brief, a publication that specializes in just the kind of nuance that’s needed to better understand social problems. Published by BYU’s Ballard Center for Social Impact, The Ballard Brief offers short, but thorough briefings on a wide variety of social issues.

In each briefing, you’ll find explanations about problems around the world and current and emerging practices that we’re using today to try and solve these problems. Each briefing is rigorously researched and offers additional resources where you can learn more. Its library of topics is growing quickly.

Two Kinds of Courage

The bravery of Allan McDonald

The morning of January 28, 1986, NASA proceeded through the final launch checklist for the Challenger space shuttle. Only a handful of people fully appreciated the disaster that loomed.

This was the third time they had scheduled the launch that week, the prior launches having been scrapped for unflattering reasons. (The first delay was for predicted bad weather that never materialized and the second for a failed hatch mechanism.) The pressure to launch on the third try was intense. NASA struggled with the perception that it wasted taxpayer funds, and the White House wanted to feature the shuttle in President Reagan’s State of the Union address. So when a coldfront bringing record low temperatures to Florida settled in the night before, NASA called all of its suppliers to ensure that a below-freezing launch would be safe.

The infamous conversation between NASA and Morton Thiokol, maker of the shuttle booster rockets, is rehearsed in ethics classes around the world. The executives overruled their engineers by approving the launch and sealed the tragic fate of the seven Challenger crew members before they ever entered the shuttle.

Allan McDonald—who passed away on Saturday—was one of the good guys. He was Thiokol’s representative in Florida, and was fully aware of the dangers being overlooked. His role in the Challenger story demonstrated the two kinds of ethical courage that everyone needs at some point:

  1. Momentous Courage. This is the courage that movie scenes are made of, the kind that comes in a single moment of decision. Prior to launch, all of the key NASA suppliers had on-site representatives there to give the green light. McDonald refused. It was disruptive and embarrassing to his employer, who instead signed off via fax from a company executive. That one act could easily have cost McDonald his career. He later called it the best decision he ever made.
  2. Enduring Courage. Less dramatic but just as important, enduring courage is the kind that persists in the face of resistance. Twelve days after the disaster, McDonald found himself at the commission hearing investigating the disaster. From the audience, he stood up to contradict a Thiokol engineer’s testimony. McDonald ended up giving his own evidence that ensured huge consequences for his employer, and thus to many friends and loved ones who also worked there. He was demoted for blowing the whistle until members of Congress threatened to ban Thiokol from future contracts.

Professor Mark Maier of Chapman University worked extensively with Allan McDonald in the years that followed. Here’s what he had to say about McDonald:

“There are two ways in which his actions were heroic. One was on the night before the launch, refusing to sign off on the launch authorization and continuing to argue against it. And then afterwards in the aftermath, exposing the cover-up that NASA was engaged in.”

All of us will eventually need both kinds of courage, the momentous and the enduring, to make the right thing happen. We can be grateful for Allan McDonald’s example to show us the way.

(You can read all about McDonald’s experience in his book, Truth, Lies, and O-Rings.)

Seeing Good at Work

STEM fields are still dominated by men, here in the US and around the world. McKinsey released this 2018 report, identifying potential solutions through philanthropy and CSR. There is plenty to do. Girls in Tech works with partners around the globe to get more girls on the path to STEM careers.

One of their partners, Chicas en Tecnología, operates in Argentina and has established over 100 programs in schools around the country. Its founder, Melina Masnatta, was made an Ashoka fellow in 2018.

Finally, a shout-out to my incredibly intelligent niece Isabel, who is a student at Caltech and just the kind of woman we need more of in STEM careers. 😁

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Our ethics training company, Merit Leadership, offers free monthly webinars. One of them is today (March 9) at 10am MT. The speaker, Bill O’Rourke, is a former Alcoa executive and my coauthor on The Business Ethics Field Guide. Visit our events page to see this and upcoming webinars as they are posted.

How to Be Resilient

Helping Others Makes Us Stronger

A lot of science shows that we benefit substantially by helping others. Giving help, even in small acts, reduces stress and anxiety. It makes us more creative in solving our own problems. And multiple studies show that helping makes us more resilient in difficult circumstances.

Strong relationships are one of the secrets in all of this. As I noted in a previous newsletter (Giving Is Glue), the act of giving increases our sense of responsibility for others instead of relieving it. This, in turn, deepens the relationships that make us more resilient.

Why do our relationships have this effect? It appears to be thanks to a whole host of factors. One of them is changing our perspective. People who love us, for example, can reduce rumination—the way we dwell on bad experiences or outcomes.

The added perspective we get in helping and connecting with others is critical. According to Dr. Michael Ungar, professor at the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University:

“Resilience is as much about what we have as what we think.”

Helping changes our thoughts—in real and measurable ways—about our own circumstances. It doesn’t make our problems go away, but it does make them seem much more manageable.

How has helping someone made you see things with a better perspective?

Seeing Good at Work

Hands down, one of the highest impact things we can do is educate girls. Not only are they better off, but heir families end up with higher incomes and improved health, while the benefits resonate throughout generations.

Educate Girls operates in India with community volunteers who rally community members to get more girls attending and staying in school. The community model has proven to be more sustainable and makes the local schools better. Since their founding, they have enrolled over 750,000 girls that weren’t attending school.

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Our ethics work with US Special Operations Forces was recently covered by KSL News. You can watch and read to learn more about the Ethics Field Guide we developed for them. If you’d like to learn about our ethics trainings and programs, visit MeritLeadership.com.

Work as Ministry

Wisdom from a chaplain

What do you know about military chaplains? Maybe your mind goes to Father Mulcahey on M.A.S.H. If so, then you need to meet my friend Chaplain George Youstra. Instead of the meek, goofy chaplain you saw on TV, imagine a 6’8” former Green Beret with a booming voice and a disarming kindness. He has a way of immediately making friends with you. It’s an uncommon feeling to trust someone so quickly that could completely dismantle you if needed.

Today was Chaplain Youstra’s retirement ceremony after 38 years serving in the military—first as an Army special operator, then as an Air Force chaplain. During his career, he advised eight different four-star generals, including General Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, and General Dunford, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Chaplain Youstra retired as Command Chaplain of SOCOM, the central command for units like the Navy Seals and Delta Force.

Those accomplishments are incredible, but what everyone loves about Chaplain Youstra isn’t his resumé. It’s the way he’s ministered to them. It was the late night he spent counseling a struggling couple, or the long days in the military hospital in Afghanistan, or the 386 hours he rode in F-16s—which he hated—to get fighter pilots to trust him. Chaplain Youstra wore himself out helping people.

And here’s what he taught us in his retirement ceremony: Every job is a ministry. No matter what your occupation, there are people you can help. You can listen, and comfort, and give confidence. He told us we can all be someone’s chaplain.

And I believe him. I hope you do, too. Who can you minister to?

Seeing Good at Work

Peace engineering is a new field of international diplomacy and development that applies engineering principles and research methods to restoring peace in regions torn apart by conflict. The work is pioneered by groups like the Peace Engineering Consortium.

If you’re interested in hearing more, you can watch this webinar by General Breedlove and Dr. Joseph Hughes that will be held on March 2.

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I know I keep teasing the upcoming podcast, but it really is going to be worth your time. Chaplain Youstra is going to be one of my guests. We’ll learn all about what chaplains do, and how their work can be an example for the rest of us. I can’t wait for you to hear it.

The Unearned Comfort of Good Intentions

Why having your “heart in the right place” isn’t a compliment

I love the following quote by Monsignor Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest, philosopher, and social critic. He had been asked to speak at the 1968 Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects, a program that sent college-aged volunteers to work in rural Mexico. Imagine a crowd of hundreds of bright-eyed Americans and Canadians ready to help.

This is what he told them:

If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.

It’s worth reading the entire speech, which is still somewhat famous in development circles. It reflects a hard truth we so often hesitate to face. Our intentions, no matter how noble or pure, shouldn’t shield us from criticism.

Yet for some reason we think it’s enough to have our “heart in the right place.” Notice that this phrase always means that you failed. No one who ever successfully solved a problem was complimented for having their heart in the right place.

Intentions don’t solve problems, solutions do. And solutions are usually hard-won. They require mastery of a problem, repeated trial and error, humility, and empathy. And solutions almost always require participation from everyone involved. They aren’t something we can simply bestow.

Who are the people you’re trying to help and how would they want you to change what you’re doing?

Seeing Good at Work

Started by Fermin Reygadas, who grew up up in Baja California and Chihuahua, Cantaro Azul provides access to clean water for 140 schools and over 60,000 people in rural Mexico. It uses a combination of accessible technology, systemic solutions, and education programs to help improve the health of the people it helps.

They now operate throughout Mexico to help bring sustainable clean water solutions to the communities that need it most.

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If you are new Good at Work, take a look at the archives. You might find a thought that can help you the the good work you hope to do.

Hope Is Medicine

How hope helps

The idea of Make-A-Wish is simple and heartwarming. If you’re not familiar with what they do, they grant wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. The most popular wishes are to go to Disney World or to meet a celebrity.

Here’s something you may not know: these wishes bring medical benefits.

About five years ago, a group of Israeli researchers conducted a randomized control trial studying the health and psychological well-being of sixty-six children, ages 5–12, who were undergoing cancer treatment. About half of the children were granted a wish from Make-A-Wish Israel.

Children who were granted a wish were psychologically and physically healthier than the other children. The researchers noted:

The findings indicated that the children who received the wish-fulfillment intervention had higher levels of hope regarding their future, increased positive emotions and health-related quality of life, and a better psychological profile manifested by lower levels of depression, anxiety, and psychological symptomatology.

This study was just one of a dozen reviewed in a 2018 meta analysis published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. That analysis found that the majority of these studies revealed that wish-type experiences improved the psychological and even physical health of the children.

Even skeptics of the Make-A-Wish model have had to soften their views after another study revealed that the cost of a wish is offset by the money saved from reduced hospital visits.

All of this research emphasizes the hope that a wish provides. It appears to be the anticipation of the wish experience, coupled with the autonomy to choose it, that has the restorative effect.

David Williams, the former CEO of the national Make-A-Wish Foundation in the US has seen the healing effect of hope over and over again. He told me this in an interview last year:

It’s now part of the treatment protocol. Medicine is seeing the value of a wish experience. The wish experience is actually doing something that medicine alone can’t do. We know that we can make ourselves sick with worry and anxiety and all those kinds of things. We know that impacts our health negatively. We just have a harder time believing [this works] when it’s from a positive standpoint.

Is there someone in your life that could use this healing effect? How could you help them find something more to hope for?

Seeing Good at Work

The cost of a wish experience is relatively high in the US (over $10k), and that’s even with a heavy reliance on volunteers. But Make-A-Wish also operates through international affiliates, in countries like Columbia, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Wishes in these countries are usually less expensive.

If you are interested in supporting a wish, and want to get more bang for your donated buck, consider supporting an international Make-A-Wish affiliate.

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The quote above with David Williams is part of the upcoming podcast we’re launching soon. I hope you’ll listen and share. If you want to make sure you get notified when it comes out, subscribe to this newsletter. I’ll be announcing the release date and other details here.

A Never Failing Spring in the Desert

Appreciating the impact of libraries

I am fascinated by high impact innovations in history that we now take for granted. There was a time when these things didn’t exist, and were even inconceivable. Gradually, they become commonplace enough that we no longer consider them special.

Today, one of those under appreciated innovations is the public library. As late as 1875 in the US, there was only about one library for every 200,000 people. Today, there is a public library for every 20,000 people—with a population ten times larger, that equals a hundred-fold increase in library access.

It was in the period from 1880 to 1920 that the number of libraries exploded, thanks essentially to the wealth of one person, Andrew Carnegie. His philanthropy funded 2,509 libraries which cost, in today’s dollars, over $1.8 billion. His generosity created a historic amount of public good.

How much good? Too much to even measure adequately. A whopping 91% of American households have used their public library. The primary beneficiaries of libraries tend to be children and retirees, but multiple studies also show they have an outsized impact for many others, like job-seekers who use the library in their job hunt. Dozens of studies show that libraries lead to smarter, healthier, and more connected communities.

Carnegie had this to say about libraries:

A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.

And this:

There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.

One wonders what single, large investment today could have a similar impact a hundred years from now. What underdeveloped idea now will be taken for granted in 2121?

PS – Be sure to read this amazing illustrated story about libraries in America, including their importance in black communities.

Seeing Good at Work

As common as libraries are today, there are still places where their impact is needed. Libraries Without Borders has worked in marginalized communities, like refugee camps, in 50 countries. They provide access to books, digital resources, and trained facilitators.

Their principal activity is deploying IDEAS Boxes, pop-up and portable packages that extend library services anywhere in the world. Kids who had access to an IDEAS Box showed better academic performance. Impact research also shows that IDEAS Boxes aid in peace-building for communities in conflict.

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I am beyond excited to tell you that Season One of the Good at Work podcast is coming soon. Here’s are some of the guests and topics:

When the time comes to launch, I’ll be inviting your help to spread the word!

Quitter's Day

It’s time to carry on what you started

Strava, the makers of a popular running and cycling app, have a special name for January 19th. They call it “Quitter’s Day.” After analyzing over 800 million user workouts, they identified this day as the day that people are most likely to give up on their fitness goals.

You might remember that on January 5th, I sent out a newsletter encouraging us all to build something this year. And I heard back from you about the projects you started. It was a fun and hopeful week.

Then we had an insurrection at the US Capitol. During a pandemic.

I wouldn’t blame you if the news consumed your time and attention. It did for me, too. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by seeing such reckless anger. These have been hard days here in the US, and thank goodness they weren’t even worse. The peaceful Inauguration Day felt more precious than any inauguration had before.

Well, we’ve just passed January 19th. If there was ever a year where “Quitter’s Day” packed its biggest punch, this is the one.

But remember why you decided to build something. Remember how it felt to be excited by it and how what you’re building could help someone else. Imagine what it will be like to see it finished. It’s time to pick it up again and figure out what comes next. You’ll be glad you did and others will be, too.

Let’s get back to it.

Seeing Good at Work

In many urban slums, working parents lack reliable options for their preschool-aged children. Tiny Totos, a for-profit social enterprise, helps informal daycare workers in Nairobi, Kenya to develop sustainable businesses that provide affordable, reliable care for these kids.

The daycares that Tiny Totos trains and supports see their profits quadruple as a result of this help. Meanwhile the kids benefit from education programs and meals, leading to improved childhood development across multiple measures.

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I’ll be giving another webinar on Feb. 9 about how improving ethical skills in your organization will improve everything else. If you’re interested in watching, you can sign up here.

And, as always, please share Good at Work with someone who might enjoy it.

What Limits Can Do

How constraints can make more possible

You may not think you’d enjoy a 25-minute video of someone solving a Sudoku puzzle, but that’s only because you haven’t seen this one that went viral last year. If you don’t have time to watch all of it now, just skip the first two minutes, then watch a bit to get the gist of it:

I love this video. Notice how rules that seemed so limiting are what made that puzzle possible. Every game you’ve ever played had rules. We tend to think of the ways that rules constrain us, but it’s the rules that make a game fun. Imagine how boring it would be to play a version of charades where you can talk, or even just tell your team what to guess. The constraints of a game are what make it a game.

Constraints do even more for us, like boost our creativity. A multitude of studies shows how the right limitations help teams focus better on goals and try ideas they wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Going one step further, consider your personal standards and values. What would you never do, and what do you strive to always do? Not all rules, constraints, and values are worthy, but the right ones enable us to do far more than we could do without them. Just think of what integrity, honesty, accountability, and caring for others makes possible for you.

Because we honor him this week, here’s an insight from Dr. King on how power constrained and guided by love helps us do more.

Now, we got to get this thing right. Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.

“Where Do We Go From Here?” delivered on August 16, 1967

What standards, rules, constraints, and values can you set for yourself to help you do more?

Seeing Good at Work

Building a just society in the United States requires us to better understand where systemic injustice is happening. In our legal system, criminal sentencing around the country continues to be wildly inconsistent and racially biased.

Measures for Justice collects criminal justice data on hundreds of counties in twenty states throughout the US. Their work is shining a clear light on unequal treatment and has inspired multiple states to adopt more transparent data collection on their court systems, so that inequities can be better identified and addressed.

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If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me there, too. I might not be the best account you follow on Twitter, but I also promise not to be the worst. 😁

Just Words

Why our words matter

It’s a depressing possibility that you read “Just Words” to mean “only words” or “merely words.” That isn’t what this phrase has to mean.

The events at the Capitol last week were a tragedy and a disgrace. History teaches us that the surest way to ruin a country is to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. Everyone who tried to stand in the way of democracy needs to be held accountable, both politically and, where needed, legally.

Reckless and dishonest words got us to this point. Somehow we’re arguing whether or not someone’s words matter, but the idea that they wouldn’t simply doesn’t make sense. Isn’t it plain and obvious nonsense to even use words to say that someone’s words don’t matter?

Words always matter. We can argue about how they matter. But there’s no question about why words matter.

Words we speak or write don’t just reflect our thoughts, they harden them. They drag our thoughts out of the ether and make them firm, real. A spoken thought is easier to believe, whether or not it’s true. When Nixon said “I am not a crook,” is there any doubt that he and many others believed it?

And action always follows belief. This is why our words are a road we choose to walk, including what’s at the end of it. If you choose cruel words, you’re on a cruel path. Lawless words are a lawless path. Where do you think it leads you? You don’t choose a better road unless you use better words.

Relationships are kindled or killed with words. We use them to bring people closer. But in the heat of a moment we can say the wrong thing, and I don’t agree with the idea that we can take words back. We can’t take them back anymore than we can take a breath back. But words can be forgiven, and they can seek forgiveness.

The truth has no vessel other than words, and the same goes for lies. Our Constitution, for example, preserves indelible truths while talk radio radiates dishonesty. Over history, words—lying ones—have wreaked havoc on people. Consider QAnon believers or Proud Boys and the lies that are damaging their families, work, and communities. Lying words have made a pandemic-struck world sicker than it might have been. These are not “just words.”

And the words our leaders say multiply all of these things. What is leadership without words? A leader can’t take credit for inspiring people and then avoid condemnation for inflaming or misleading them.

Words always matter. So we need accountability for them. We need right, fair, and true words. We don’t need “just” words. We need just words.

Seeing Good at Work

Democracy thrives on engaged citizens, but the institutions that engage are us atrophying. Citizen University uses the template of faith gatherings to bring citizens together to bond through their common purpose as members of a community. The gatherings foster civic culture and relationships.

Their Civic Saturdays are held in 30 different cities throughout the country and their Civic Collaboratory draws hundreds of civic leaders. Eric Liu, the Citizen University founder, was just awarded an Ashoka Fellowship last year.

Build Something

A Pep Talk for 2021

This year you can build something great.

This isn’t metaphorical, along the lines of building “a year you can be proud of.” I mean making something that didn’t exist before, something you can point at when you’re done, something you will be proud to have made.

If you don’t think of yourself as a builder of things, that’s only true because you’re not building anything. Start and you’ll change who you are.

This year you can build something great because there’s a problem you can see better than anyone else or a need you feel more keenly. You have good ideas to try, and just need to get started.

You might build a program or a process to help everyone at work. You might write something beautiful or perform it. You might discover something new for people who need it. You might make something just for your family or friends, but it will matter to them.

If you need some inspiration, just look around you. Your home, your work, your passions, and your community are full of things that didn’t exist until someone built them. Those people started with just a problem to solve and an idea for solving it.

You’re going to build something great, and then you can move on to the next thing you want to build.

So get going.

(If you want even more ideas, I love this article by Marc Andreeson: It’s Time to Build.)

Seeing Good at Work

In most of the world when natural disasters—like earthquakes and hurricanes—strike a community, the most dangerous threat is a person’s home. This is because they aren’t built to withstand the pressures needed to keep people safe.

Build Change was started in 2004 to create housing and other buildings that keep people safe in storms and earthquakes. Their work in education, training, and direct aid has led to over 50,000 safer buildings for more than 250,000 people in a dozen countries.

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This is article number 20 in Good at Work. If you missed any articles, you can go to the archive.


A resolution for better ideas

Physically speaking, we are constantly becoming new people. Our stomach lining replaces itself every five days. None of the skin cells we have now will be there in four weeks. We’ll have a completely new liver in a year or two. Even our bones will replace every cell in them after 7–10 years.

So with all this new material, why don’t we feel like new people? It’s probably because of the most stubborn part of who we are: our thoughts and ideas.

One of my favorite reads this year was an old book called Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner. Published in 1964, it’s something of a mix between social commentary and philosophy, and surprisingly relevant still. The core idea is that a healthy person, and a healthy society, is constantly going through a process of self-renewal.

New Year’s is a potent time for self-renewal, and yet for some reason we mostly use it to just make resolutions about eating better or exercising more. There’s nothing wrong with those or other aspirations, but perhaps they don’t stick because we keep thinking and believing the same things.

As you consider the coming year, maybe give time to how you can improve your thinking in 2021. After all, there’s no truth we believe that can’t be refined. There’s no thought about others that can’t use more grace. There’s no idea about ourselves that can’t be improved.

We still all have so much to learn. And improving the way we think is a way that we improve ourselves.

What thoughts and ideas do you have that you can improve?

Seeing Good at Work

Every kid needs good teachers. After pioneering the Teach for America program in the United States, Wendy Kopp founded Teach for All. Since 2007, they’ve built a global network of partners who recruit young professionals to teach in underserved schools in their home countries.

The approach works especially well because kids and communities are all unique, so local perspectives and solutions are much more likely to get better outcomes. For example, placing top university graduates in Chile into underserved schools improved math and reading scores, as well as the kids’ self-esteem and self-efficacy.

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I would love to hear from you what good work you’ve set out as a goal for 2021. If you’re willing to share, please tell me all about it.

You Share What You Love

A lesson from tax law and chocolate

When I was in law school, I took Corporate and Partnerships Tax. It surprised me by becoming a favorite class, in large part thanks to the professor.

Prof. Neeleman wielded a superhuman understanding of the tax code, the kind that you couldn’t stump with even the most obscure question. He’d respond not only with the answer, but would cite the Treasury Regulation section just as easily as you can say your phone number.

He was also incredibly kind.

Near the end of the semester, my study group went to Prof. Neeleman’s office to ask some questions we had for the final exam. He welcomed all six of us warmly. But before we could ask our first question, he took an ornate basket from a shelf and started to pass it around. Inside were some very expensive chocolates that he wanted to share. They were a gift from a student in thanks for some tax advice he’d give . (Based on the chocolates, it had clearly been valuable advice.)

As we all thanked him, he said it was nothing then made an off-hand comment, one that I doubt he even remembers saying. But it overflowed with so much wisdom that I have never forgotten it.

“You share what you love.”

This is a truth as universal to the human experience as you’ll ever find. Prof. Neeleman loved chocolate, so he shared it with us. But that same rule applies to whatever we love most.

Love baseball most? You delight in taking someone to a game. Love cooking most? It’s not the same if you’re the only one to eat it. The list goes on. If you love it, you share it.

And like most truth, it’s a damning one, too. Love yourself the most? Then you’re all you ever want to talk about.

The only things that come from the heart are the things that were there to begin with. It’s our job to make sure that whatever we put in our hearts is worth sharing.

What’s something you love that you can you share with someone else this week?

Seeing Good at Work

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, one of the most effective ways to improve the circumstances of the very poor is to simply give them money. Research into direct cash transfers regularly shows that families spend the money on things that improve health, education, and future income. They don’t increase spending on tobacco, alcohol, or other temptation goods.

GiveDirectly is one of the top charities in the world making direct cash transfers. They have given over $300 million to more than 600,000 people in the developing world. Moreover, they come recommended by top charity evaluators for their transparency, good governance, and impact.

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I don’t have anything to ask of you this week. I hope you all enjoy a safe and lovely holiday season.

The Future of Work Will Be Measured by Impact

Looking for work with purpose

For the past few days I’ve been editing a podcast interview I did with Prof. Andrea Veltman, who teaches philosophy at James Madison University. Her book, Meaningful Work, is a philosophical treatment of work. Thorough and thought-provoking, it was one of my favorite reads this year.

What work means to us is changing rapidly, perhaps faster than ever in history. While we still need work to make a living, more people than ever can pursue work as a calling. Instead of salary, the future of work will be measured by things like meaning, virtue, and impact.

We’re already most of the way there. For example, one study found that a staggering 9 in 10 employees surveyed would accept lower pay if they had work with more meaning. There’s also an impression that this desire for meaning is especially pronounced for younger workers, but research shows that older workers may be more cause-oriented than younger people at the start of their careers.

What’s behind this momentum? Perhaps it’s that we see better than ever what our work means to the world around us. Connectivity gives us context and reasons to contemplate our place in a human family with abundant needs. Is there any wonder that we’d want our work—where we spend the bulk of our waking hours—to do some good?

A job doesn’t sprout purpose overnight, though. If you are hunting for more meaning at work, here are three ways to start:

If you make meaning at work a practice instead of a mere desire, more opportunities will find you. Before long, you’ll be blazing the trail for others, too.

What can you do this week to add impact to your work?

Finding Good at Work

If you’re ready to dive into finding work with impact, I strongly recommend 80,000 Hours, a program at the Centre for Effective Altruism in Oxford, England. The idea in the name is that you have 80,000 hours of work in your life. Their goal is to help you make that time as impactful as you can.

I recommend starting with their Key Ideas. I also enjoyed their book, which you can get in digital form for free.

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I’m always interested in good ideas for topics to address or organizations to highlight. If you have something to share, please send me a message.

Swiss Army Knife Thinking

The flaws in thinking solution-first

When it comes to helping, we automatically think of solutions. Is there anything more basic to helping than that? Right now, the person that helps me is the one who can get me to stop grinding my teeth at night, or that can make me crave junk food less, or that can fix email (a tortuous system we impose on each other).

In other words, we think of helping as making problems go away.

But look at the bias that underlies this kind of thinking. Problems aren’t to be understood, just eliminated. What is the point, after all, of deeply understanding something that’s meant to go away? That goal, disposing of problems, gives us a bias for solutions. Thinking about solutions just makes sense, and feels a lot more exciting to boot.

Have you ever owned a Swiss Army knife? Those little devices are brimming with solutions. There’s a doodad for just about any situation. The one I own (purchased in my 20’s) has the typical pair of knife blades and a can opener. But it also has a Phillips-head screwdriver, three different flathead screwdrivers, a pair of scissors, a pair of pliers, a serrated saw, a file, a hook, a ballpoint pen, a corkscrew, tweezers (now missing), a watch (long dead), a magnifying glass, two other tools defying description, and a fish scaler.

I bought my Swiss Army knife not simply because it might be useful. I remember at the time feeling like I would use it to conquer the world.

But if you own one, you know the thorny truth about a Swiss Army knife: it’s mostly just a big empty promise in an awkward little tool. I, for example, have never once scaled a fish, let alone scaled one with my Swiss Army knife. Perhaps the most delightful absurdity is the tiny three-inch ruler etched into the side of my fish scaler, handy for measuring the three-inch-or-smaller fish I may someday catch. (Yes, I know I can measure the fish in sections. But c’mon.)

So why the appeal? Why do people buy Swiss Army knives? It’s because we love solutions. We love them so much, we’re willing to overlook their weaknesses, and how inapt they can be for any given problem. For any given problem, there is always a better solution than a Swiss Army knife.

The truth is that if I was serious about scaling fish, I would take much more seriously the problem of fish scales. I would learn how they work, what makes them hard to remove, what differences there are between different kinds of fish, and why the scales need to be removed anyway. If I was serious about scaling a fish, these are things I should know before I even thought of what kind of tool would do the job.

Unfortunately, when we encounter problems our minds turn first to the solutions we have on hand; let’s call that Swiss-Army-Knife thinking. We do this rather than understanding the problem first, knowing it well enough to discover the tools we really need.

Here are a few examples of Swiss-Army-Knife thinking:

In each of these examples, the solution is more enticing than actually understanding the problem. And so the solution—every time—falls short to everyone’s disappointment.

When you encounter new problems this week, resist the urge to reach for anything resembling a Swiss Army knife. Instead, take some time to ask questions and understand the problem first. Then figure out the right tool for the job.

Seeing Good at Work

One of the best organizations for providing access to clean water is also one that looks deeply at problems. Water for People has thus far provided clean water to more than 3.6 million people, an amazing feat. But even more impressive, Water for People only works on water programs that can be owned and maintained by local organizations so that they never again need outside assistance. This is critical, as many parts of the world are littered with broken-down water equipment that was installed then forgotten by aid groups.

Water for People also actively measures their impact, and provides constant up-to-date access to their data through the Everyone Forever tracker. (“Everyone Forever” is their mission when it comes to clean water.) They estimate that a $10 donation results on $107.45 in benefits to the communities they serve.

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This week, I’d like to tell you about University Impact, a nonprofit that provides paid internships and fellowships to students who then conduct due diligence for seed-stage impact investments and provide consulting services for impact startups. (I’m on the board and investment committee for UI.)

We’ve recently launched a new product for donors that use Donor Advised Funds (DAFs), something we call the Triple DAF. A DAF managed by UI not only offers competitive management terms, but also brings three big advantages:

  1. You can use your DAF to both donate and invest in startups with high social impact.
  2. You get customized recommendations for your donor priorities, highlighting some of the most innovative solutions out there.
  3. Your support helps train students in the best practices of impact assessment and investment due diligence.

If you are interested in connecting or would like to move a DAF to University Impact, please reach out to me or visit: www.uitripledaf.org.

Three Fascinating Things About Vaccines

The most life-saving invention in medical history

We’re on the cusp of a Covid-19 vaccine rolling out to the public, even if in limited supply at first. As we reflect on how essential this accomplishment will be for the world and how many lives will be saved, consider also the following fascinating and inspiring facts about vaccines.

1. Women and immigrants have played a critical role in the development of vaccines

In a Bloomberg column this week, economist Tyler Cowen drew attention to the critical work done by Dr. Katalin Karikó, who was born in Hungary before she moved to the United States. Her tireless work on mRNA-based vaccination made possible the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that will be among the very first available. This innovation is partly responsible for the speed at which the researchers moved from design to testing.

Karikó isn’t the only woman or immigrant involved, as Cowen notes. Nor is this pattern uncommon for vaccines in history. Women and immigrants have repeatedly been pivotal to vaccine development. The polio vaccine, for example, would likely have been delayed for years if not for the work of Dr. Isabel Morgan. She led the team that showed how a killed virus, not only a weakened one, could produce an immune response. In fact, historians have argued that Dr. Morgan could have arrived at a vaccine before Jonas Salk had she not left her research to care for her disabled stepson.

2. A malaria vaccine will be historic, and it’s just around the corner.

Malaria currently kills over 400,000 people per year, the majority of them children under 5. Inventing a vaccine requires almost completely new science because the disease is caused by a parasite. Unlike with a virus, getting sick with a parasite often doesn’t grant immunity in the future. This means the basic process of a vaccine needs to work differently. In fact, no parasite vaccine is commercially available today.

The same team at Oxford testing a Covid-19 vaccine is also now entering final human trials for a malaria vaccine. Should they prove successful, it could be ready for full-scale production by 2024. Vaccines for other rampant parasites—like hookworm and schistosomiasis—are also on the horizon.

3. We can’t measure how many lives vaccines have saved, but it’s surely many millions per year.

There is no way to reliably calculate how many lives vaccines have saved, but there is every reason to think that vaccines are the most live-saving invention in medicine, if not in all history. Perhaps only modern sanitation and clean drinking water could take credit for saving more lives.

The smallpox vaccine alone probably prevented a current death rate of five million people per year. We owe a great deal to all who have made vaccines possible and available throughout the world.

Seeing Good at Work

Malaria isn’t defeated yet, but one of the best groups working to prevent it is the Against Malaria Foundation. They provide long-lasting, treated bed nets, which randomized control trials have shown to reduce malaria infections in children.

GiveWell, a sophisticated rater of charity effectiveness, recommends them as a top charity. Just $5 provides a net to a family.

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I hope these weekly messages have been interesting and uplifting. Please consider sharing Good at Work with others.

How Gratitude Helps

Practicing gratitude boosts care for others

Over the last three decades, research into gratitude has established two important insights:

  1. Gratitude is something we can do deliberately; it’s a practice not just a feeling that comes and goes.
  2. The practice of gratitude has clear and direct benefits for a person’s wellbeing. Practicing gratitude directly leads to increased happiness, resilience, and all kinds of other positive outcomes.

Despite all of this, we might be tempted to look cynically at practiced gratitude, especially when we live in a world with too much suffering and injustice. Gratitude can feel like a naive distraction from the difficult work of solving real problems. It also can feel like little more than an expression of privilege that many people do not enjoy.

But more recent research is showing that gratitude makes things better for others, not just for the grateful people.

Gratitude enhances our empathy and compassion

A 2018 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing evaluated patterns of gratitude, empathy, and compassion in over 200 respondents. The authors found that “those who are more grateful tend to have greater empathy and compassion toward others.” These results reaffirmed previous research showing that gratitude predicts prosocial behavior, forgiveness, a sense of meaning, and empathy.

Expressing gratitude increases helping behavior in others

Adam Grant and Francesca Gino revealed in their 2010 paper that showing gratitude to others—in this case with a thank-you note—increased the likelihood that the recipients would offer help to the person who wrote the note. But even more interesting, it also increased the chances that the recipient would help others as well. These results held up outside of the lab in two different field experiments. People who are thanked are more likely to feel social validation and want to help others in return.

Two practices that help

So how do we make this happen in ourselves and others? Here are two simple, research-backed practices that consistently produce gratitude and its benefits:

  1. Every day, recite three good things you are grateful for. This can be in a moment of meditation or prayer, in a journal, or in conversation with someone else. (I do this as part of a daily journal practice and it works for me.) Even just a few weeks of this practice has repeatedly shown significant results.
  2. Write more thank-you notes. Research has shown that we consistently underestimate the positive benefits that come from expressing gratitude and we overestimate the awkwardness of doing so. And thank-you notes have a measurable benefit to the sender, too, not just the recipient.

So the next time you feel an urge to dismiss gratitude as naive or privileged, remember that it helps you better help others. If you don’t want to practice gratitude for yourself, do it to help someone else.

Seeing Good at Work

This week instead of highlighting an organization, I simply want to draw attention to the good work in the sacrifices so many are making during the Covid-19 pandemic. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to healthcare professionals, researchers, and front-line workers for their tireless efforts.

Photo by Nicholas Bartos on Unsplash

As we head into the holiday season we won’t have the same opportunities to be with our loved ones. But doing our part by following health guidelines is the best way for us to show gratitude to the people that are keeping us alive and well and leading us out of this struggle.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Kidneys for Strangers

Comparing remarkable generosity with the mundane

I’ve spent the last year recording twelve interviews for a first season of a podcast I’ll be launching. (It’s called Good at Work, just like this newsletter.) One of those interviews is with Dr. Abigail Marsh. She’s a neuroscience and psychology professor at Georgetown University, TED speaker, and author of The Fear Factor. Her research is about the neuroscience of altruism.

Altruism is hard to study. Almost everyone is generous to some degree. How do you identify an altruist and what makes them clearly different from everyone else?

Dr. Marsh and her colleagues had the inspired idea to study people who have donated kidneys to strangers. This is called a non-directed kidney donation, and around 300 Americans do it every year. Dr. Marsh calls these people “extreme altruists.”

I don’t want to revisit her findings here, but I encourage you to watch her TED talk, embedded below. Needless to say, it’s fascinating. But I do want to highlight one important idea. She notes that many of these donors feel like they are no better than their kidney recipients. They don’t see themselves as special compared to others.

Dr. Marsh calls these people “extreme” altruists because of how uncommon it is to make a non-directed kidney donation. But I think that, taken the wrong way, the word “extreme” distracts us from an important truth.

These unique kidney donors give up an organ to a stranger—which is no small thing—but they don’t regularly cook for those kidney recipients. They don’t wake up in the middle of the night to calm them after a nightmare. They don’t invest many thousands of dollars in their welfare over multiple decades. They don’t worry about them constantly.

Parents do all of these things for their children. But the altruism of parenting is not uncommon and therefore not “extreme.” The same goes for the care we give in all of our closest connections. We go to incredible lengths to help the people we love the most. In fact, these relationships involve far more than a kidney, and would include that, too, if the need arose.

Why the difference? Unlike nondirected kidney donors, parents don’t merely think: my kids are the same as me. Instead they think: they are part of me. That formulation—making someone else part of who we are—is the most powerful motive for altruism that we can find. Just look at all that it gets us to do.

The most common and mundane altruism we experience is likely the strongest love out there, and it’s nice to stop and admire it.

Here’s Dr. Marsh’s wonderful TED talk.

Seeing Good at Work

We tend to think of organ donations domestically, but the need spans the globe. Part of the challenge is getting more people to declare themselves as kidney donors for after they’ve died. The MOHAN Foundation has tackled the issue in India with extensive advocacy programs to overcome religious and cultural stigmas against organ donation.

Since 1997, they have built a network of 2.5 million donors, saving 4,500 lives.

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As I mentioned, I am working on a podcast about having a life and career of meaning, virtue, and impact. I don’t have anything to ask now, but when it launches I hope you will be willing to share it with other people. More to come.

Lessons from Chess Masters

How far our expertise goes (not very)

I’m fascinated by the game of chess, even if I’m not a good player. It’s immensely complex. A given turn might have up to 218 possible moves down to zero, where the game ends in checkmate or stalemate. This means that the number of possible games in chess—or combinations of different moves—is about 10^123, a number 1 with 123 zeros behind it. Defying intuition, chess has more possible games than there are atoms in the known universe. (There are “only” about 10^80 atoms.)

Players with a Master rating, as defined by the US Chess Federation, have an incredible grasp of this complexity. The famous psychologist Herb Simon found that if you stop a game mid-play, and show the board to an average person for five seconds, they can only remember the positions of about 15% of the pieces. A master can look at the same board for five seconds and remember where 80% of the pieces go. A huge difference thanks to their expertise.

Here’s an example of the kind of board Simon used.

But what if the pieces aren’t positioned as the result of a game? What if they are just randomly placed, in a board like this one?

Amazingly, chess Masters go back to remembering the random-placement board just as poorly as the average person. The reason is because a Master’s expertise comes from practice learning positions that result from a game, not from simply having a good memory. In fact, all expertise follows this pattern.

And expertise, it turns out, has very low portability. Researchers call this transfer. Near transfer works for some kinds of expertise, but far transfer doesn’t even really exist. Science consistently shows that even being extremely good at something doesn’t make you good at very many other things, chess included.

One kind of expertise we all have is in the lives we live. We’re very good at all kinds of things like our work, hobbies, or passions. We know the important people in our lives better than anyone else knows them. All of this makes us unique experts. If someone else showed up to live your day, they would have a very hard time doing it as well as you.

Here’s the other side of that coin: you probably couldn’t live someone else’s life as well as them. Whatever opinion we have of their choices, to some degree we’re trying to get away with far transfer. To use the chess example, their game feels the same because we have the same set of pieces on the same kind of board, but the truth is that their game—with all of its complexity and history—looks very different from our own.

Where we can use our expertise is to empathize in the game itself. We know what it’s like to have a plan fall apart, or to have a move catch us by surprise. We’ve sometimes had to sacrifice a piece to make room for our next move. We can relate to the feeling of winning and of losing. These are experiences we all can share.

Is there someone in your life who needs your empathy more than your expertise?

Seeing Good at Work

It’s Veteran’s Day in the US is this week, and I wanted to highlight a group with a huge positive impact for veterans and their families. Veterans of Foreign Wars provides direct aid, claim assistance, and other support to hundreds of thousands of former service members.

In 2019, the group helped 108,000 veterans submit new benefits claims. Impact Matters estimated that a $40 donation to VFW increases disability benefits to a veteran by $10,000.

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Is there an area of impact that you’d like to see highlighted in a future article? Drop me a message and tell me what you’d like to see.

A Hundred Instances

We have always done and can always do more than vote

My newly adult son voted on Saturday. We’re lucky to live in a vote-by-mail state, so he had plenty of time to review his ballot before filling it out. It was really gratifying to see him study the different issues and candidates. Over the last couple of weeks, he would report back to my wife and me about something new he’d learned, like about the proposed amendment to strike slavery from the state constitution. (Yes, it’s 2020. I’m grateful to live in a time when that will pass in a landslide.)

I say he voted on Saturday because that was when we deposited our ballots at a dropbox that was only seven minutes from my house. What a blessing it is to vote so conveniently.

Representative government is such an amazing thing. It’s still so new to humanity when you look across time. Being able to choose our leaders really does put us in a privileged position relative to history.

Still, this election is especially soiled by angry partisanship. But when you wipe away the grime of rancor, dishonesty, and hypocrisy, the pearl still shines. What’s precious about it runs deep: our society is much more than voting, even if right now it’s all you see wherever you look.

Alexis de Tocqueville, when traveling through the United States way back in 1831, reported this to his French audience:

I must say that have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another. (Book 2, Democracy in America)

I think de Tocqueville could report the same if he travelled the United States today. Despite bitter divisions that look like chasms, you’d still find volunteers, families, and neighbors everywhere you look. We can help each other through our politics, and in so many more ways besides. The President, after all, isn’t going to comfort your friend after a hard day, but you will.

Immediately after the above, de Tocqueville then said:

The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that [they live] in society.

Whatever happens and whoever wins, it isn’t the end of who we are and what each of us can do. Feeling powerless when you lose is normal, but false. Feeling powerful when you win is normal, but misplaced. Voting is just one small, if essential, part of our power to do good in the world.

Seeing Good at Work

As we head into the holiday season in the US, food banks play a critical role in hundreds of communities. They have been especially important with the spike in unemployment brought on by Covid-19.

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I’ve decided to launch an Instagram account to make Good at Work easier to share. You can follow it here:


The Power of the Second Mile

Walking with generosity

During Covid, our family has gotten into a habit of going for walks each evening. We don’t go far, usually just a mile. Sometimes we have to drag our boys out of the house for it. Most of the time they cheerfully join us, but when they don’t we make them come anyway.

Our walks have been good for them, and for our whole family. We talk more, about all kinds of topics. We appreciate good weather and pretty sunsets. We connect when we walk our mile together.

It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s fun to imagine getting to the spot where we turn around (the white mailbox) only to have one of them suggest we keep going. I wonder if they’ve even considered it. My wife and I would be delighted.

“Going the extra mile” has come to mean exceeding expectations, but the phrase is rooted in the New Testament where Jesus counsels his listeners to respond differently to their enemies:

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. (Matthew 5:41, KJV)

Back then, a Roman soldier could compel someone to act as a porter or courier. Though legal, it was widely seen as an unjust demand. Jesus recommended going an extra mile in spite of the injustice of the first one. His second-mile advice is coupled with the also famous counsel to turn the other cheek.

We want, as Jesus noted, to take an eye for an eye. But there’s unique power in being more generous to our enemies than they deserve. Not every injustice needs retribution. And if this seems naive, consider how generosity dominates our closest relationships. Imagine, for example, eye-for-an-eye parenting! If parents responded in kind to their kids, the world would be ruined. Some injustices just need a generous reply.

But I think there’s even more magic to the second mile. It keeps us with our enemies. It gives us time with them. I imagine the put-upon local chatting away at the Roman Centurion, connecting as a real person rather than an object of convenience. It’s a form of resistance, really, but against the inhumanity instead of the enemy.

So how far do we go? Jesus didn’t tell his followers to walk forever. He rebuked plenty of people who deserved it. We need not completely give in to rough treatment. But at least give one extra mile, or one other cheek. Try generosity first.

Seeing Good at Work

Violence against women is still far too common throughout the world, including India. Much of it is driven by social norms that give women low status. Breakthrough changes these norms by targeting schools, work, and social media to help men and boys see violence against women and girls as a problem for everyone.

Their training and media campaigns have reached millions of people. Men and boys who have had Breakthrough training are twice as likely to intervene when they encounter women being sexually harassed or threatened with violence.

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Making Ourselves Kinder

We are who we think we are

I’ve had an experience recently where a decision I thought was too daunting suddenly became exciting. The only thing that changed was my thinking about it. I’m now practically giddy about a thing that used to scare me.

In his remarkable book Altruism, Buddhist monk and neuroscientist Mattieu Ricard digs deep into the idea of how we can develop more compassion for others. He points to multiple studies that show how training our minds to care for others—through meditation, prayer, or other forms of regular reflection—turns into significant improvements in our ability to feel and show compassion.

Research shows that some form of compassionate meditation has made people: better able to detect facial expressions, less likely to discriminate against people of color or the homeless, more likely to offer their seat to a stranger, less likely to experience feelings of anger, and more likely to feel joy, kindness, gratitude, hope, and enthusiasm.

Rooted in all of this is the idea that we can change ourselves by changing our thinking. I love how he explains it:

One of the tragedies of our time seems to be considerably underestimating the ability for transformation of the human mind, given that our character traits are perceived as relatively stable. It is not so common for angry people to become patient, tormented people to find inner peace, or pretentious people to become humble. It is undeniable, however, that some individuals do change, and the change that takes place in them shows that it is not at all an impossible thing. Our character traits last as long as we do nothing to improve them and we leave our attitudes and automatisms alone, or else let them be reinforced with time. But it is a mistake to believe they are fixed in place permanently.

We constantly try to improve the external conditions of our lives, and in the end it’s our mind that experiences the world and that translates this perception as happiness or suffering. If we transform our way of apprehending things, we automatically transform the quality of our life. And this change is possible.

We can become more of who we want to be if we’ll just practice the thinking that makes us that way. What better thoughts can you practice this week?

If you’d like to try compassionate meditation, here’s a lovely video where Matthieu Ricard leads a brief session. I promise that it will instantly improve your day.

Seeing Good at Work

For helping kids develop empathy, Ashoka offers their Start Empathy campaign. The program provides resources for teachers, parents, and youth to foster more compassion in schools and communities.

The research-driven practices of Start Empathy can help kids better handle conflict, understand people who are different than them, and find creative solutions to the problems they encounter. You can find more about the resources they offer and their Changemaker Schools program at StartEmpathy.org.

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Would you consider sharing Good at Work with a friend this week? There is a world full of people who want to do good every day, and my goal is to help more of them do it. I’d be grateful if you spread the word. 🙂

How to Vote with Integrity

Voting in America is an ethical dilemma

Try as we might, we can’t live a life free of ethical dilemmas. We all have a range of values that matter to us. Dilemmas happen when those values come into conflict with each other.

For many Americans, the next big dilemma they face will be when they vote. Because of our two-party system, we have few candidates to choose from for each office. And if you are like the vast majority of Americans, you don’t fully agree with any candidate. Personally, I’ve never once voted for a candidate who represented all of my values.

The challenge is this: if integrity means holding consistently to our values, how can we maintain our integrity and vote for someone who fails to align with all that matters to us?

You’ll face this dilemma no matter how you vote. Here are some things to do so you vote with more integrity.

1. Don’t vote single-issue.

Balancing competing values is hard, and that’s why we look for just one value to come out on top. It’s good to keep things simple, right? Well, when we vote single-issue, the moral math remains complicated even if we try to paint over it. Whether we turn our sole focus to the economy, abortion, gun rights, or the environment, we’re not making a more ethical choice, we’re making a false one.

The reality of choosing in a dilemma is that some things we value will be placed lower than others. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend that those lower values cease to exist. Nor should we find excuses to minimize them. We know how complex life can be, and we manage it accordingly. We can vote for complex reasons, too.

Our single-issue vote turns into our moral failing when it becomes a hall pass for any shameful things our candidate might do. To say, “Well at least they…” is to give them your permission for something you know is wrong. It hurts your integrity.

We don’t live single-issue lives. We shouldn’t vote that way, either.

2. Do more than vote, especially if your candidate wins.

We have just one vote, and it won’t be cast for a flawless public servant. But to acknowledge where our candidate fails feels like admitting our choice was a failure, too. So to feel better about ourselves, we turn our vote into a loyalty pledge.

A candidate doesn’t earn your silence just because they earned your vote. If your candidate wins, hold them accountable for what they do wrong. It’s not hypocritical. In reality, it’s the only way to maintain your integrity.

Also, voting isn’t the only thing we can or should do as citizens. We have a wide range of citizen powers at our disposal, from phone calls to protests to ballot initiatives. We are duty bound to use them for good no matter who is in office. Turning a blind eye to our politicians’ failures just means we are half-blind to our own values.

3. Hold all the candidates to the same standards.

This last one is very hard for most people, me included. When our opponents do wrong, we’re there to pounce. When our team does wrong, we’re silent. The difference isn’t the behavior, it’s the tribe.

Our hypocrisy here reveals the painful reality: we don’t value integrity, virtue, or honesty as much as we think we do. Instead, we value a punch that lands. If our side is the only thing that matters to us, good principles are merely weapons instead of standards. It’s hard to see ourselves as partisans first.

I’ve hesitated to publish this article precisely because of that reason. My worry is that people will share what I’ve written as a way to shame others, accusing the other side—even friends and family!—for lacking integrity. Sadly, politics is a vast minefield of ethical dilemmas. We ought to be guides and medics for each other as we navigate through together.

Seeing Good at Work

We’ve become accustomed to digital technology as a source of conflict. Build Up is turning it into a solution. Working around the globe, Build Up uses deep research and innovative social media to foster peace in places like Lebanon, Syria, Myanmar, and Ukraine.

Build Up also offers free online courses to peacebuilders who need help magnifying their efforts with digital tools. Its ultimate goal is to reduce the polarization that is threatening our societies. To learn more, I encourage you to start with their latest annual report (PDF).

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I’ve mentioned this before, but I will be giving a free webinar next week on how Ethics Is a Skill. If you’re interested in learning how to better manage the ethical dilemmas in your professional life, click here to sign up.

Patient Urgency

Thinking about change

For this edition, here’s a little theory about how things change.

Individual Change Is Gradual

For individuals, changes come by gradual improvements in skill, habit, and character. Dramatic shifts are rare, and when they do happen they are usually unsustainable for us. Considering how much of our thinking and decision-making is automatic—the great majority—it makes sense that individual change is gradual. We can all become better people, but usually it happens by degrees over time.

Social Change Is Sudden

At the level of society, change rarely happens gradually. In many cases, it doesn’t happen at all for many years. But when it does come, change comes suddenly. That’s because social change happens when institutions change, through laws (Brown v. Board of Education), policies (LGBTQ service in the military), programs (Social Security), leadership (US Presidents), or technology (TikTok). And social change tends to be sudden even though the ingredients of social change can take years to develop.

Patient Urgency

Individual change and social change have at least some things in common. Neither comes quickly. They both require patience and urgency.

This means:

  1. To help people (and ourselves) change, we are willing to do it by degrees. We keep at it and enjoy small daily victories.
  2. To help society change, we persist as credible advocates with a plan, persuading minds one at a time and being ready to show the way when the moment comes.

And it means not quitting, even when it feels like change is slow or nonexistent. We can trust that change for the better is always possible.

What change are you looking for and what can you do each day to help make it happen?

Seeing Good at Work

An inspiring example of change at a social and individual level, Oakland’s Operation Ceasefire reduces gun violence through life coaching and data analysis. One study directly ties it to a 32% reduction in homicides. But the program took over a decade and three different attempts to finally stick.

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Now that I have a couple of months of the newsletter under my belt, I would be incredibly grateful for your feedback. If you have ideas, criticism, or resources to share with me, please reach out.

Better Than You Think

What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?


The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, has convinced generations of school kids that we’re all basically selfish and wild. Humanity constantly teeters on the edge of chaos. In the end, we’re all either predators or prey. This, of course, is a big heap of nonsense.

How do we know that Golding got it wrong? Because there actually was a group of boys who were marooned on a remote island in the Pacific, for over a year, and they were amazing to each other.

Lately I’ve been reading Humankind, by Rutger Bregman. He’s a Dutch historian who hunted down an incredible story of the real Lord of the Flies. In 1965, six teenage boys in Tonga were so bored at school that they decided to steal a boat and sail to Fiji. Being teenagers, all they brought for the 500 mile voyage were some coconuts, a gas burner, and a couple of sacks of bananas. The youngest, 13, was recruited because he was the only one who knew how to steer a boat.

A storm caught them asleep the first night, breaking their rudder and ripping away their sail. After eight days of drifting, they spotted a tiny, rocky island. It became their home for the next 15 months.

Did they descend into cruelty and chaos? Of course not. They survived through cooperation and kindness. The boys developed a roster of duties, worked in pairs, and even tended a flame they kept going for a year. One of them broke a leg, and the others cared for him until it was fully healed. When they were finally rescued, the doctor who examined them found them in peak health.

If it’s a surprising story, that’s only because we are bombarded with the idea that people are basically evil. And for some reason, in spite of ceaseless evidence to the contrary, we believe it. People around the world—every day—are helpful, kind, forgiving, and patient. Bregman’s book makes the convincing case that we are fundamentally good. (It’s also well written and engaging. I highly recommend it.)

Believing the worst in others just brings out the worst in ourselves. Can you spend the week looking for good in people, especially the ones you like the least?

Seeing Good at Work

At a time when political rancor can drag us down, I thought it would be good to draw attention to the research of More in Common. Their study on the Perception Gap in the US shows, among other things, that:

  1. Fewer people hold extreme political views than we think.
  2. The more immersed you are in political news, the less accurately you understand the other side.
  3. The less you understand the other side, the more likely you are to call them “brainwashed, hateful, and racist.”

You can even take the quiz for yourself and see how well you can predict the views of your political opponents. It’s quick, and well worth your time.

Take the Perception Gap quiz

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My friends and I at Merit Leadership are working to develop more ethical leaders around the world. If you’d like to keep an eye on our work, please follow us on LinkedIn.

What Are You Broadcasting?

The signal we send all-day, everyday

How well does your reputation serve you? Thinking about this should be part of your personal and professional development. We may not realize it, but our daily life is like a radio station and everyone around us is tuning in. They are listening for reasons to trust us.

A reputation for being untrustworthy usually costs us in ways we never even see, because people look elsewhere when they have opportunities to share. It’s not something we’ll hear from people (who enjoys telling someone they can’t be trusted?), but the cost to us is real.

The message we transmit comes, in part, from our actions. Do we do what we said we would do? Are we kind? Are we patient? Do we take criticism well?

But a lot of the radio signal we broadcast comes from our words, too. It’s in the way we talk about things like integrity, respect, and accountability. These moments are often small enough that we don’t even notice them. Have you been annoyed at the inconvenience of someone doing the right thing? Did you use an excuse like “What they don’t know won’t hurt them”? Be careful: these little moments can send a loud message.

What signal are you sending out? When it comes to our trustworthiness, we generally broadcast one of three messages:

  1. Integrity. People can think of times we spoke up about doing the right thing. They remember a time we paid the price to treat someone else fairly. Because of this, they expect us to treat them fairly, too.
  2. Cynicism. People can remember a time we cut corners. They felt uncomfortable because we made an excuse for bad behavior. They heard us talk about someone else unkindly, wondering if we talk about them the same way.
  3. Silence. People genuinely cannot remember a time we made a hard choice. When someone else was suggesting a sketchy idea, we never spoke up. They don’t know much about our integrity, because we never paid the price to protect it.

Notice that #2 and #3 do the same damage to trust. We have to be proactive in our integrity. It’s not something people will assume in our favor.

What can we do to broadcast more integrity, especially in the little moments? It matters because people are always tuning in.

Seeing Good at Work

Because bad news dominates the media, broadcasting good into the world is a choice, not just something that will happen on its own. The Solutions Journalism Network identifies news stories that describe solutions to the world’s problems instead of just talking about the problems themselves.

Their Solutions Story Tracker just crossed 10,000 stories. You can search their database for good news of all kinds. Also consider following them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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You’ll be hearing me say this a lot, but the most common misconception about ethics is that it’s just a matter of character. The truth is that good people make ethical mistakes all the time, because it’s more than character. Ethics is a skill.

If you’re enjoying Good at Work, please share it with someone. If you’re new, I’d love it if you subscribed.

How Enemies Become Friends

Small moments of grace have power

I’ve been thinking lately about how amazing reconciliation is. I have a hard time appreciating it in the heat of conflict, but there’s always hope for making my enemy into a friend. Here’s evidence of how that works.

Ann Atwater was a black civil rights activist in Durham, North Carolina and a fierce advocate. Her granddaughter described her, saying “If something didn’t seem right, she was going to speak up for it. She really wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.”

C.P. Ellis, on the other hand, was a grand exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan who, in 1971, was determined to derail a school desegregation effort in Durham. He was chosen by fellow white supremacists to co-chair a 10-day community meeting, called a charrette, about the conflict. The other co-chair was Ann Atwater. The two already knew and despised each other.

Ellis came to the first meeting with a machine gun in the trunk of his car, while Atwater came carrying a Bible. (In a previous, heated encounter, she’d pulled a knife on him to make her point.) It wasn’t until after three days of contentious meetings that a small moment of grace broke down the walls between them.

A church choir was performing for the group, and Ellis was struggling to clap with the tempo. Atwater reached over and grabbed his hands to help him along, an act of kindness that softened his heart. This opened the door to a conversation, where they learned that both of them had children who were being bullied by classmates. The shared experience helped them see each other differently.

That’s when the walls came down between them and they began working together. The committee successfully adopted a set of school integration proposals that had seemed impossible at the start. Atwater and Ellis became lifelong friends. C.P. also publicly renounced his KKK membership and went on to a life of promoting civil rights and workers’ rights. Atwater spoke at his funeral in 2005. She passed away in 2016.

Reconciliation is almost always preceded by mercy. The question for us: Is there a small moment of grace we can offer in our conflicts? We may not realize what it could mean to turn an enemy into a friend.

(If you want to learn more about Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, start with this beautiful NPR segment following Eliss’ death. There’s also a book about the two called Best of Enemies, and a movie by the same name.)

Seeing Good at Work

Restorative Justice is a criminal reform movement that brings victims and perpetrators together to find forgiveness and reconciliation. With enough resources and participation, the process substantially reduces two huge justice problems: high incarceration rates and victim exclusion/dissatisfaction with punishments. Victims typically find the restorative justice process far more satisfying than the criminal justice system.

This story in Slate is a great place to learn more about the movement and its history and challenges. To dig even deeper, I recommend the Restorative Justice Library, an online resource at the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation.

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Giving Is Glue

Why a gift works so well on the giver

You’re probably familiar with the famous Harvard Study of Adult Development, known generally as the Happiness Study. Its most powerful conclusion: the key to a long, healthy, happy life is warm relationships.

So how do we develop these relationships? Being a giving person might be the best strategy. Altruism, for example, is something we strongly prefer in potential mates for long-term intimacy. But why does giving make for relationships that last? The answer is in what giving does to the giver.

Think about the relationship between a newborn and her parents. It’s almost entirely one-sided. Parents will sacrifice sleep, clean up vomit, change endless diapers, and endure being screamed at by a tiny human who gives almost nothing in return. (It’s a miracle my four kids survived.) Why do parents do it?

The reason is because caring for someone else generates love for them. We usually think of love as the motive for a selfless act, ignoring how it is just as often the result of one. Our attachments often come from our generosity, not the other way around.

This even works with strangers. Consider the pan-handler you donate to versus the one you pass by. If you gave a few bucks, you’re likely to think of that person all day, wondering about their life. If you walked by, you’re likely not to think of them ever again.

Giving is glue. And not just because it makes us feel indebted as receivers. We’re far too capable of ingratitude for that to be enough. Instead, our generosity binds us as givers to the recipients of our kindness. Giving is a way that we attach ourselves to others; it enhances our feelings of commitment instead of relieving them.

Can we give too much? Of course. But in a time when self-care gets more attention than care for others, it’s worth pushing back against the idea that giving too much is the bigger risk. Paraphrasing a good friend of mine, our relationships are more likely to rust out than to wear out. Giving is a powerful way to keep our connections vibrant and healthy.

Is there someone you need a deeper connection with? What can you give them so you feel more committed?

(For more on the Harvard Happiness study, here’s a fascinating TED talk.)

Seeing Good at Work

When it comes to making deep, lasting connections, I deeply admire SOS Children’s Villages. They adopt orphaned or abandoned children and raise them in family-like communities in 136 countries around the world, having helped raise more than four million kids.

Each of these village communities—556 of them worldwide—has homes with up to 10 kids of varying ages and are run by “moms” and “aunties” whose own children are grown and moved out. To work as a mom at SOS, you have to be willing to make a decade-long commitment so that the children can benefit from a stable relationship while they grow up.

SOS also helps the kids from cradle to career, well into their adult years, with college support and mentoring. Their work also includes extensive programs to strengthen families in the surrounding communities. It’s an incredible model that I’ve seen first-hand in Ghana, and one of my favorite global organizations working with children.

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As always, I hope you will share Good at Work with a friend. That’s the most effective way for others to learn about it, and it means the world to me if I wrote something that you want to share.

The Problem with "Problem"

There was historic news last week in the work to eradicate Polio. Africa was declared free from any remaining wild virus, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and the Kick Polio Out campaign started by President Nelson Mandela in 1996. That year, there were over 75,000 African children across the continent who had been paralyzed by Polio. Now there are none.

You may recall that a vaccine for Polio has been available since 1955 thanks to the team led by Jonas Salk. How could it be possible that, after 40 years, 1,000 children worldwide were still being paralyzed by the disease? When a cure costs pennies and only requires swallowing two drops of a liquid, how could Polio still survive?

We have a funny way of describing the world’s problems. We call Polio “a problem.” The same goes for human trafficking, illiteracy, and any number of other challenges. Each one is “a problem.”But this language doesn’t reflect reality.

For a child in northern Nigeria—the last bastion of Polio in Africa—an infection is the result of many problems: lack of medical infrastructure, armed conflict, lack of education, and remote living conditions, to name a few. But calling Polio “a problem” implies that there is “a solution.” Eradicating Polio for just one child means solving a tangled mess of wicked problems.

And the effort to solve them worked. The ongoing program has been a joint effort of the WHO, CDC, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, Rotary International, and many others. It’s involved billions of dollars and literally millions of volunteers. It required innovations in GPS-mapping, public messaging, disease monitoring, and even a reinvention of the vaccine in 2009.

Solving these problems is never going to come down to a single invention—like a Polio vaccine—but that doesn’t mean we can’t solve them. It just takes a lot of us working on them.

Is there “a problem” where you can help by solving just one of the many tricky problems it contains?

(If you want to learn more about all the problems needing to be solved in eradicating Polio, I recommend this fascinating TED talk by Bruce Aylward.)

Seeing Good at Work

As Covid-19 still spreads around the world, we don’t yet know the full effect on poorer countries, like in Africa. VillageReach, a last-mile medical provider, has responded with its COVID 411 program to provide training to over 100,000 health care workers in multiple countries.

They’ve also launched a Covid-19 Action Fund to provide PPE to front-line health care workers in Africa.

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Because the Good at Work newsletter is just starting out, the most important thing I can ask is for you to share it. If you think someone you know will enjoy reading it, please take the time to send this their way. And thank you for reading!

Potential and Color Polaroids

Before you dismiss your own potential or someone else’s, consider this: The man who invented instant color photography for Polaroid was a college dropout who worked at a gas station.

In 1935, Howard Rogers left Harvard because his father had lost his job and Howard felt that he “wasn’t getting enough out of college to want to work [his] way through.” So he got work pumping gas for $25/week.

That’s when he was connected with Edwin Land—the founder of Polaroid—who hired him after a single interview over ice cream sodas. Rogers saw working for Land as “a chance to learn some science and solve some problems.” Incidentally, the new job dropped his income to just $10/week. But Rogers loved it and quickly became a key figure in the company.

Following the eventual introduction of black and white Polaroid photography, Rogers asked Land if he could tackle the next step: instant color. From then, it was 15 years before the first Polaroid color film was sold. Describing the unique challenges they were encountering with the science, Land once said, “I was going to say failure, but the beauty of science, of course, is that one never fails, one only moves on to the next experiment.”

Perhaps we could cultivate a similar optimism about ourselves and others. Who is the Howard Rogers you’re overlooking?

(The details and quotations above come from the excellent book, Insisting On the Impossible, by Victor K. McElheny.)

Seeing Good at Work

An organization that sees potential where others overlook it is GenesysWorks, a social venture that helps teens from low-income backgrounds develop successful careers through skills training, internships, and college/career coaching.

Thousands of kids around the United States have benefitted, landing well-paid jobs at some of the biggest companies in the country. A Columbia University study estimates that $1 invested in GenesysWorks generates over $13 of economic return for its participants.

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I have a lot in the works that I’m very excited to share in the weeks and months to come. For now, I’ll just ask that you pass this newsletter on to someone else if you found it worth your time.