Thursday, May 20, 2010

Finding Joy and Power

This past weekend I found Joy and Power. Turns out that they were already within me. I actually even "knew" this at an intellectual level. But despite knowing that they were inside me, I still usually struggled to access them. I have a wonderful life, yet was most often not experiencing the joy that seemed appropriate for my experience. Also, although I know that I have a lot of valuable skills that can make a difference at Appropedia, I also know that at some level I have been holding myself back. I could never experience that in the moment, only in hindsight. And I could see how that tied in very closely with my reluctance to embrace leadership.

So I signed up for my Hoffman Leadership Quadrinity II (LQ2) weekend, hopeful that I would be able to track down the barriers and get rid of them. (I took the HQP in May of 2008.) But I had no clear handle on either problem. Well, no worries. The weekend began at 9am on Friday. Before 10am, my teacher had magically connected me to my barrier to experiencing Power. Knocked me for a loop. By noon on Saturday, I had tapped into my barrier to Joy.

As part of my (assigned) pre-weekend visioning work, I realized that I wanted to have more contact with the natural water in my environment. "Wow", I thought, "this is new." So while I was there at the Hoffman site (near St Helena, CA), I took several walks down the middle of the creek that runs through the campus. I sang my way through several of the exercises that had been more challenging during my HQP. I came home Sunday night joyful and ready to lead. And every day since I returned, I have taken a few minutes to go to the natural water in my environment, and have experienced the joy of contact with it. I have been singing more, and listening to music more. My wife says I'm quite different, more like the man she married. That guy seemed to fade away over the last 7 years since our son was born.

I'm very excited about bringing this new perspective to my work with Appropedia. Indeed, I was right in the middle of a blog post there when I realized I need to write this one first :-). If you have any interest in a conversation (or possibly updates down the road) about my experience, please leave a comment.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Lessons from a taxi ride

After my visit to Togo as part of, I crossed from Lome back in to Ghana at the border town of Aflao on January 7th. The officials were watching the swearing in of the new Ghana vice-president while they stamped my passport. I'm not sure they even looked at me :-).

I walked on into Aflao, and as a white man was immediately approached and offered a ride into Accra, about 3 hours away. For 50,000 CFE (Togolese currency, worth about $100), I could ride alone in luxury in a small (by US standards) Toyoto SUV. I declined and accepted the next offer to share a ride with 3 other passengers (and a driver) in Toyota Corolla. Price: 9 Ghana cedis (about $7.50) for a seat in back. Save a bunch of money, and get a real experience of the country, similar to Obama writing in "The Audacity of Hope" about the difference between flying across the country in a private jet versus driving.

During the ride we alternately drove 80MPH on the open road, then slowly (because of speed bumps and all our weight) through small roadside towns and villages, windows rolled down for some breeze in the 90F / 90% humidity weather. In the towns, we saw small crowds at shop fronts, gathered around TV sets (which we could hear but not see), watching more of the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration, including the acceptance speech by new president Atta-Mills. Dr Atta-Mills is in the NDC party, which won over the incumbent NPP party which had ruled for 8 years (having ousted the NDC party it had held office for 8 years).

There was palpable relief at this resolution of the election. Background: The first round of the election had occurred on December 7th. No candidate had taken a majority of the votes cast, and so a run-off election was held on December 28th. The election was very close, and one region withheld its results, drawing attention to itself, and keeping the election results unresolved until Saturday, Jan 3rd. I was in Sierra Leone at that time (as part of Village Hope), with a Jan 4 flight to Ghana scheduled. There was quite a sense of tension, and rumors that the border to Togo (which I needed to cross) was closed. The tension was confirmed by my connection, James MacCarthy (pictured, center, at Chez Afrique in Accra, with friend James Kiessi, wife Stella and son Jose Rafael), who said there was much concern about a possible civil war due to a strong regional / tribal identification between the two parties. James did not believe that the elections had been "free and fair", even though the incumbent stepped down from power (unlike, say, Zimbabwe). Even though James had supported the losing candidate, he was very pleased with the ultimate outcome. Very interesting. I don't often hear that combination in the US!

Back to the taxi ride... We had to stop at several police checkpoints while the driver hopped out and opened the trunk to show the police we were not carrying drugs or other contraband (not sure what). About halfway through the 3 hour ride, we arrived at a Customs checkpoint. This was different. As the car came to a stop, there was some conversation in the front seat that I didn't quite follow. A Customs officer approached the passenger side, and said something about looking at passports. It seemed he glanced at something from the woman in the seat in front of me, as I dug out my passport. He looked over my passport very carefully (brand new for this trip, so nothing much to look at), then waved us on. Only after we were back up on the highway did I learn that the woman in front had handed some money to the Customs officer (which he pocketed), despite the driver telling her to wait. She had been confused... Wasn't that they normal process, that you give the man some money? The savvy driver explained: although the Customs agents typically take a little money, it's actually illegal for them to do so, and the driver did not believe he would push for it in the presence of a white man. Since the agent said nothing to the other black passengers, the driver was probably right that the woman could have saved her money.

A bit later in this taxi ride, while passing through some rather scruffy villages along the road, I used my US-based international phone to send an email to a friend. The phone worked fine for both voice and data in Ghana, as Verizon had said it would (I must say that I am dreading the next bill). It did not work in Togo; although cell phones are ubiquitous there (at least in town, if not in villages), Verizon apparently does not have a partner there, though they did have a partner in Sierra Leone.

So, in this taxi ride I witnessed the peaceful transition of power along side some lingering signs of corruption. Used my mobile data connection for a casual note while passing local farmers walking along the side of the road with baskets of bananas and other wares balanced on their heads. What did I learn? Like many of life's more important lessons, I can't capture these lessons in simple terms. And maybe that's the main lesson. The nations I visited in West Africa are undergoing complex transformations. They are poor, but are also advancing rapidly. They have some human rights issues, but are also capable of progress in governance. They have some histories of recent violence, but other than the threats of pickpockets in towns and snakes in villages, I never felt in danger.

West Africa, keep up your good work. At this rate, you'll be part of the mainstream and on the bumpy path toward prosperity.

More thoughts on this trip are in this Appropedia blog post.

Many thanks to James MacCarthy and James Kiessi for their help while I was Ghana! Neither of you knew anything about me before last Saturday, but you adjusted your lives to chaperone me. Your help was invaluable!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Another 3 great books

I've just read "True Enough" by Farhad Manjoo, an extremely enlightening and yet disturbing book.  What's disturbing is captured in the subtitle: "Learning to Love In A Post-Fact Society".  

On a related note, I'm about halfway through "Ethics for the Real World" by Ron Howard and Clinton Korver (full disclosure: Clint is a friend of mine), and it is a very useful book, providing motivation and help in developing your personal code of ethics.  I'm glad I've read these books in close proximity, since I will now incorporate some appoach to truth into my code of ethics.  That's harder than it seems like it should be.

The third interesting book is "This I Believe", a collection of essays that you can hear on NPR.   This inspiring and sometimes amusing collection motivates me to write down what I believe.  Gee, maybe those would be good blog posts.  Or maybe not, but I may post them anyway for my own benefit!

BTW: There is now available for purchase "This I Believe 2".  Have to order that soon... or perhaps after I've written my own.

All three of these books are excellent for expanding thought and reassessing our own perspectives.  Enjoy.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Two Good Men

I just listened to the end of John McCain's RNC acceptance speech.  I've liked him for a long time, though not so much recently.  Tonight he sounded just a bit more like the "old McCain."  But there a few times where he said something that was inspiring, but contradicted either his own policies, or my views.

He said "think of something larger than yourself."  I'm game.  I'm on three nonprofit boards, have a day job, and a family.  So, um, why do we want to continue to give a free pass to the top 1%?  Aren't they supposed to "think of something larger than themselves"? Death tax?  If you die with less than about $2M, you don't have to pay any tax.  That covers most folks.  And you can't take it with you...  But although McCain spoke of equal opportunity, he wants to pass every penny of those millions to the middle-aged heirs who either already know how to take care of themselves, or somehow never learned how and so depend on getting more than the 60+% that would survive the estate tax.  This is the so-called Paris Hilton Benefit Act.  McCain also talked about freedom and equality for all, but opposes marriage for some people.

He also said something like this: "I've fought for my country, and I will fight every day of my life."  I think he's telling the truth.  But that's not me.  I want to WORK for my country, and for people not in my country.  I don't think it's always about fighting.

Just as I tuned in, McCain was talking about being blessed by early adversity that taught him to think beyond himself.  Now, he was the son of an admiral, so he had some privilege, but unlike his pal W, he made real sacrifices.  So I can see how John was both privileged, and at the same time, signed up for sacrifice well before being shot down over Vietnam.

That does not mean that his opponent, Barack Obama, has had it easy.  Barack was born in 1961, when the US had 50 states, in the newly minted state of Hawaii, but before many of the Civil Rights acts were passed.  My stepfather was Hawaiian born of mixed race.  I don't believe mixed raced children had an easy time in the US in the 60's, or in particular in Hawaii.  Barack Obama is much younger than McCain, but he even so, he was born at a time when his parents' marriage would not have been recognized in Virginia.

Barack Obama talks a bit about his past.  John McCain talks about his.  Both of them had their struggles.  Both of them talk about change.  One of them really represents change for me, and if he is elected, it will represent dramatic progress for this country.

Only in this time, when the standing president has an approval rating in the cellar, that our nation could realistically choose its first African-American president over another good man, a good man who just happens to espouse nearly identical policies to the standing president.  I suppose that we can, at least, thank George W Bush for creating a context for this historic opportunity.  It now depends on Americans to make the choice.  For the most part, the same Americans who chose Mr Bush over Mr Kerry four years ago.

Interestingly, it is not entirely the same America.  A few Americans who voted in 2004 have passed away, or lost the ability to vote.  A few other Americans have gained the right to vote.  Most of those younger voters are likely to vote for Obama.  (I should provide a link, but this is left as an exercise for the interested reader.)

Y'know... the race seems fairly close.  If it were not for the 4 year shift in the voter roles, McCain must might pull out a win, despite supporting the lion's share of unpopular policies.  That is the nature of things.  Each generation brings change.  The old guard resists, but change is unavoidable.

Two good men.  Two Americans.  Both have experienced adversity.  Both want the best for this country.  One will be chosen to lead.  

Friday, March 14, 2008

Next time you get the flu... Celebrate!

I woke up one morning a few days ago. Right away it's clear: something's wrong. Throat's a little sore. Aw, no! Did I shout last night? No, that's not it. Well, bummer, I've got a cold. Blame it on the kid in preschool.

Then I start to move. Urg. Achy ache. Yeah. "Flu-like symptoms." Joy of joys. Man, there's so much to do. Heck, I can put the patio furniture together next weekend. But will I miss work? How bad will it be if that Appropedia work waits for a couple days?

I take a couple of over the counter pills with water, put the glass on the night stand. Right next to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Half of a Yellow Sun" that was recommended by my buddy at Kepler's. I think for a minute about what it's like to get the flu for the other half of the world's population.

Okay, so, I'm going to feel pretty lousy for another few minutes until those pills kick in. Then I'll move a little slow for a day or two. I won't go hungry. If I call in sick for a couple days, I won't lose my job. My wife and son won't starve. Also, I know it's the flu. I mean, I know it's not TB or typhoid or a hundred other diseases that just don't happen here because we've got a pretty thorough public health program.


Am I a lucky sucker or what?! I've got the one of the rich countries of the world!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Microfinance vs Subprime lending

Yep, I'm back. Yep, bin bizzy. Nuff sed. (Well, prob'ly I'll share some fun bits in future posts.)

Many topics have been churning through my head as really good blog topics. This topic broke through the threshold first, mostly because I wrote the core of it for another purpose and figured, hey, it's all about leverage.

A few weeks back I enrolled in an online certificate program with Colorado State. My first course was Microfinance and the Role of Women in Development. I read Muhammad Yunus' must-read book, "Banker to the Poor" as part of the assigned content. I just finished and submitted the last assignment, which was to define a microfinance program for a particular area. I chose Haiti as my target area. I have no connection to Haiti other than having read about it in both (also must-reads) "Mountains Beyond Mountains" (Tracy Kidder), and "Collapse" (Jared Diamond). It just seemed like a good target. Somewhere in the mental processing involved in my assignment, the connection to the subprime situation came to my mind, so I wrote an "afterword" to my assignment. Read on...if you dare!

I want to comment on the contrast between the micro-finance programs delivered in the developing world, and the "subprime mortgage" situation in the US (which has been all over the news in the US, and probably fairly prominent in the financial news elsewhere in the developing world, as repercussions from the subprime crisis echo through the various stock and bond markets).

My comment is that there is similarity in that in both cases there is the idea of lending to people who historically did not have access to credit. Also, interest rates are typically higher for subprime borrowers than for "prime" borrowers, just as they are higher for micro-borrowers. Similarities seem to end there. Differences are that, while microfinance focuses on increasing economic productivity, subprime lending was for housing (which at least in the US is not likely to boost productivity). Lending to subprime borrowers is not done in "groups". It is very difficult to restructure the subprime loans (often that is why subprime borrowers default, because they are unable to refinance). Lenders do not maintain relationships with the subprime borrowers. The way loans are typically handled in the US, the loans themselves are "sold" to a third party who has no direct connection to the borrowers. Other big differences are that the subprime loans are secured (which effectively makes it possible for banks to leave the door open for defaults), that the terms of the loans are long, and the payment period not so frequent (monthly instead of 2 or 4 times per month) so that trouble is not spotted as quickly.

I don't know if the subprime lending concept or movement was inspired by the success of micro-finance, but if so, it's clear that there is so wide a gap between the real world versions of these programs that it's not appropriate to predict success of one from the success of the other. Also, given the legal/political/cultural differences between the US and the developing world, it's not at all clear that micro-finance ideas are workable today in the US. Yunus seems to acknolwedge this in his book as well.

Okay, well it wasn't really that big a dare. I guess a bigger dare is to myself: dare ya to post again within a week!

Ooh! Now that's a dare!

[Afterword to this post:
After I wrote this post, I moseyed back through adding hyperlinks. Adding the hyperlink to the Wikipedia article on Microfinance was illuminating. Seems like I might have read that article as part of my class, but nope. The criticisms are informative, and yet my sense is that many microfinance programs are beneficial in the "do-more-good-than-harm" sense.]

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Unintended consequences

Several events lately have gotten me thinking about Unintended Consequences. I'm thinking that the world needs a good popular book helping to elucidate the concepts behind unintended consequences. I'm thinking it should be written by either Bill Bryson or Jared Diamond. Maybe we could use two books, since these guys have really different styles.

We see examples of this all the time. The Wikipedia link above has several. The most striking examples are the ones where the unintended consequences are nearly the opposite of the intended consequences. Often what happens is that the intended consequence is a short term outcome, but the long term consequences are the reverse. These results frequently show up in situations where the factors involved are just a bit more complex than we give them credit for.

On example that keeps popping up in my consciousness is labor policies in some western European countries. They pass laws meant to protect the working class, essentially making it very hard to dump an employee, either fairly or unfairly. This probably reduces the anxiety of workers, but in the long haul investors quickly figure out that there's a lot more risk in building up a workforce in these countries, and so the investment dollars go elsewhere and fewer new companies are started in these "labor protecting" countries than might have occurred otherwise. Unemployment tends to rise. This does not seem to be good for the working class in the long term.

A separate notion is the potential reduction in productivity caused by a work force that doesn't worry much about how well it is performing. BTW: I'm something of a liberal, but nevertheless respect that market-based economies, when they are working, do a better job of making use of peoples natural tendencies to respond to incentives. And, of course, conservative policies are not exempt from unintended consequences. Recent US foreign policy was intended to make Americans feel safer, but it has arguably achieved the opposite.

Another example is a story (this should have a reference, but I can't find it right now...anybody know it) about archaeologists paying a small "bounty" for fossil fragments brought in by locals. This seems like a really cool idea, right? The archaeologists get to enlist a bunch of help in their work, plus the locals get some extra money! What could be better?! Except that there was no distinction made about the size of the fragments, and so some clever locals realized that they could get more bounty by breaking the fossils in pieces. Youch. That seems pretty counter to the desired outcome.

A very simple example doesn't even involve people (well, mostly). On cold or rainy nights, we occasionally choose to contribute a bit to global climate change by using our fireplace. (Okay, even without using the fireplace, our natural-gas-burning furnace still contributes.) But while a lovely crackling blaze in the fireplace does a fair job warming the family room, it actually makes the rest of the house colder. Say what? You must be imagining it! How can a fire make something colder? It can do it by impacting other responsive elements in the larger system.

You see, the thermostat for the furnace is located in the family room. The fire warms the family room, and the thermostat does not signal the furnace to start up. But the fire really only warms the family room, while the furnace would warm the whole house. The other rooms truly do get colder. This simple demonstration of the problems that can arise when twiddling a small piece of a larger complex system (that is, a system that includes various responsive elements).

In the other cases as well, it's the unanticipated changes by responsive elements that lead to the unintended outcome. Investors change their behavior, locals game the system, etc.

Now, one potential unintended consequence of getting too caught up in unintended consequences is that policy decisions might get stuck in analysis paralysis. That can sometimes be worse than implementing a flawed policy. Instead, be alert to the ways in which the larger system might shift but have a slight bias toward action. Stir in a dollop of responsiveness on the policy side as well. But keep the deep analysis running in the background. Otherwise you may have a recipe for a series of incremental policy twiddles and responses, that give you a random walk through human behavior without achieving any desired outcomes.

Tell me your examples of unintended consequences. Good examples help us to understand how these things work, and so perhaps we can avoid bad outcomes a little more successfully in the future.