March 7, 2017

Give Without Worry

Creative commons photo by Jeremy Brooks

A few years ago, I had a bit of an epiphany about panhandling that changed how I handled the situation. Before I tell you what it was, allow me to describe how I got there.

(Note: This post has been updated in May 2017 below.)

I always struggled with what to do. I've walked with someone to a restaurant and bought him soup. I've handed people money. And all too often, I would avoid the person's gaze, pretend not to hear, and keep walking. This always bothered me. I live in a city, and where there are a lot of people, you see more of every kind of person. I frequently encounter someone asking for money or food. Somehow, just ignoring another human being felt wrong.

I decided I had enough with trying to determine what to do on a case by case basis. One day, I decided to try something new. I would give something to anyone who asked. I could afford it. I am very fortunate. I am well off enough to do something, however small, for every single person I came across who asked me to help. So I did.

I have to say, my life changed after that. I never felt guilty about not helping, because I always did. I never worried about how the person was going to use that money, I just wanted to be kind and generous to others without strings. I actually had kind interactions with people I used to ignore. Almost without fail, the person is truly appreciative. Occasionally, someone is not, but I chalk that up to that person's own reality that day. I'm not going to punish the nine out of ten people who are genuinely grateful for the one who's own reality made him or her gruff and unappreciative. Besides, if I were in a position where I felt the need to ask strangers on the street for help, money, or food, I can't imagine how hard that would be and how I would act.

I shared my findings with others. Sadly, I found that almost everyone I talked to disagreed with my approach. They all had reasons why I was not actually helping that person. How that person was going to use it in a way that would maintain their situation rather than improve it. More often than not, they were either going to use it for alcohol or drugs, or they didn't really need it and were somehow making good money swindling people playing off their guilt. Only one person I shared it with decided to try it, too. Later he told me he found the same joy I did in this approach.

Then one day, someone close to me who was a healthcare worker scolded me for handing money to people. She said she witnessed first hand what happens to people who get money from strangers, coming to hospitals repeatedly. I strongly reconsidered my approach. Was I actually making things worse? I valued this person's opinion, and felt maybe I was deceiving myself.

Creative Commons photo by Republic of Korea

Then I read this editorial in the New York Times about Pope Francis and his recommended approach to panhandling. Give without worry. I urge you to read this article:
Give them the money, and don’t worry about it...The pope's startlingly simple...scripturally sound...the pope said that giving something to someone in need is “always right.” 
He even had advice for those who suggest the person will just use it for bad things:
If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.
Finally, he also validated something I found to be true in my approach as well, about interacting with the person:
He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands. The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own.
In these difficult times, when fear of others is being stoked, where there's increasing worldwide sentiment to focus inward and separate from one another, I find the words of Pope Francis compassionate, desperately needed, and consistent with what I have found to be true. When so much feels out of our control, and it's easy to feel hopeless about what role we as individuals can take to make the world a better place, what better way to start than in such a personal, human way?

UPDATE May 26, 2017:

Since posting this, I have taken to heart what Pope Francis said in particular about the human connection:

"He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands. The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own."

I have tried to do this at every encounter, and he's right - what a difference. That handshake changes the dynamic from an awkward solicitation to a conversation between fellow human beings.

Today, I met a woman and her daughter selling candy while I was eating my lunch at a table in the park. She said they had lost everything - her job, house, car - and were living in a shelter, but she was trying to climb her way back the right way. After we talked, I stood up, shook her hand, and wished her well. She was overcome. She said she was honored that I would shake her hand and that it meant a lot to her.

This was only one of several stories like it I could share. Like the warm exchange I had with a man and his son - he also had lost his job in Texas and came to Atlanta to try to find something new.

A handshake. A name. A few seconds of conversation. Simple, yet powerful. My life is richer for it. I highly recommend it.

January 21, 2017

Reality Is Not What It Seems

Every so often, I read something that really strikes a chord with me. Today it was an article in The Guardian about author and scientist Carlo Rovelli called "Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli review – physics versus certainty."

Carlo Rovelli
There is so much in the article worthy of further discussion:

  • How his book "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" has sold a million copies worldwide (even outselling "Fifty Shades Of Grey" in his native Italy!) placing it on par with Stephen Hawkins "A Brief History of Time" in terms of scientific book successes.
  • How in his new book "Reality Is Not What It Seems" he seeks to bridge the divide between the two cultures of science and the arts: “Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated,” adding: “they are two tools to open our eyes to the complexity and beauty of the world.”

What caught my attention in particular, however, were two quotes from Mr. Rovelli that I believe both reflect genuine wisdom and are of particular importance for us all to embrace in a time of such technological, economic, and political change:
"The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty,"
"Only by keeping in mind that our beliefs may turn out to be wrong is it possible to free ourselves from wrong ideas."
As 2016 came to a close, I spent time reflecting on the populist uprising in my country and around the world. I thought about the reasons people pointed to for this insurgence such as globalization and immigration, and how little attention was paid to the technological change - machine learning, artificial intelligence, internet of things, etc. that has brought about self-driving vehicles, manufacturing automation, drone delivery and warfare - underpinning this unrest. However, mostly I thought about my own beliefs and how they were being challenged.

The older I got, the more I felt I had figured things out. I've seen a lot, and felt I had pretty good ideas about how the world worked. I felt I had some corner on the market about which beliefs were accurate and which ones were a load of garbage. This included beliefs about religion, freedoms and rights, discrimination, science, and terrorism, and what we should think and do about each. I found myself discounting the people who similarly felt they had it figured out, too, but their beliefs differed from mine. I had become mired in certainty.

So in 2017, I resolved to not be biased against those who believe differently than I do. I started to question my own firmly held beliefs, to put myself into other people's realities and try to understand their perspectives. Media and the internet have made it possible for us to listen only to people who believe exactly the way we do, and it has polarized us. I realized that I was biased against the same people I thought were being biased against people like me. I was discounting people who believed differently than I did.

And that is why this article struck such a chord with me. I am a person of science; I embrace the pursuit of knowledge through the scientific method. In my work, I am relentlessly data driven. I test out theories, and I'm often surprised by the results. Also, what works in one place doesn't necessarily work elsewhere. I embrace uncertainty in my work. But in other areas, I had allowed myself to get sucked into certainty in my beliefs. Thank you, Mr. Rovelli, for reminding me to have a "radical distrust in certainty," and to always remember that my "beliefs may turn out to be wrong."

November 20, 2016

Constellation's Connected Enterprise 2016 Recap

The Digital Marketing Panel - R. "Ray Wang, Sunder Sarangan, me, and Michelle Killebrew
This was my first time at the Constellation Research annual conference - Connected Enterprise 2016. I originally met R "Ray" Wang earlier this year at an Adobe Symposium where we were both speaking, and was immediately taken by his energy and enthusiasm. When he reached out to me to speak at this event, I was happy to oblige. From the information online about the event, it looked like it would be a good experience.

Well that turned out to be quite an understatement. Connected Enterprise 2016 did everything right: incredible speakers and attendees, not just great thinkers but great doers; a terrific format; and plenty of networking with leaders from so many industries. Did I mention the location was spectacular?

The Ritz Carlton

Half Moon Bay, San Francisco

To give you a flavor for the event, here are just some of the highlights:


I learned about Teamability from the Gabriel Institute. Based in physics and systems theory, you learn what roles you naturally play on a team. According to my results, I'm a Curator. If you'd like to find out more about this and other roles you can check out these resources at The Gabriel Institute.

I saw a panel of leaders across industries - media, automotive, and healthcare - all discuss how they are using the Internet of Things (IoT) to drive a better customer experience.

Dan Heath, co-author of such great books as "Switch" and "Made to Stick" spoke, and shared some amazing insights. One that stood out to me was shaping the path - making the right behavior the path of least resistance. The simple example he shared was in a restaurant where they found customers would often throw away their reusable trays. So they made the hole on the trash can too small to fit the tray, and the problem was solved. Simple, ingenious. Shape the path.

Dan Heath
We discussed Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and that the skills workers in the 2020s will need are reasoning and thinking. Any job with repeatable tasks and lots of data will be replaced.

Mike Bonifer shared so much insight about storytelling, which was of particular interest to me as a marketer and songwriter. To demonstrate how many possible ways you can tell a simple story, he asked how many ways can you combine 6 eight-peg Legos? The answer is over 600 billion ways - 658,869,076,800 to be exact. That's a lot of possibilities for telling a story.

Mike Bonifer
I heard a fantastic panel about the digital transformation of higher education. Phil Komarny Chief Digital Officer at the University of Texas explained how they were piloting sharing student transcripts using blockchain - making it easier for the student to share the transcript when they needed to securely, simply, and cheaply. What's great about the conference, is that I also got to eat dinner and talk one on one with Patrick McGrath and Vala Afshar on previous nights.

Patrick McGrath, Vala Afshar, Phil Komarny, and Terri Griffith

I could go on about so many more interesting speakers and panels, but I'm going to just highlight a few more. One of my favorites was this mind bending talk from the CIO of the FCC, Dr. David Bray

Dr. David Bray
Dr. Bray is a man who can single-handedly renew your faith in government - although he would caution you about using that term; he prefers public service. I got to spend some time with him during the conference, and was almost able to connect during a recent trip to Washington, DC. A kind and brilliant man, I look forward to the next time we are able to connect.

Dr. David Bray and me
I also got to hang out with Vala Afshar, Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce. It turns out our backgrounds were very similar; I can only hope my future may look as bright as his present! I suspect will look back on the day I met Vala Afshar as a game changer. 

Vala Afshar and me
Another highlight was meeting Mei Lin Fung known as the mother of CRM. Her career is filled with firsts and ambitious goals including social innovation, transforming healthcare, and the people centered internet. What a pleasure to meet this wonderful human being.

Mei Lin Fung and me

During the big keynote speech, I felt like I was in the presence of royalty, and I sat next to two of them for dinner. This panel included David A. Bray, Mei Lin Fung, Vint Cerf - one of the "fathers of the internet" and Doc Searls - journalist, blogger, author.

Vint Cerf, Doc Searls, Mei Lin Fung, and David Bray
On the final day of the conference, we were treated to author Whitney Johnson, with her new book "Disrupt Yourself."

And last but not least, I got to speak on the Digital Marketing panel. Here is the "graphic recording" of our panel created by Image Think. 

So that's my recap of Constellations Research's Connected Enterprise 2016. I truly hope this can become an annual event for me.