Friday, November 27, 2009

East vs West - what happens when you're both?


Above is a picture of Devdutt Pattanaik, a mythologist who studies how an individuals cultural mythology affects his/her interactions on a daily basis.


The talk he gives is highly engaging and I'd encourage anyone to watch it, however, I found myself with a different perspective while watching.  I am both the east and the west.  Comfortable in both, at home in none.  If you're reading this, chances are you are in a similar boat :)


I was born and raised in Chicago/Phoenix, and while I went to public school and learned what anyone kid would, I would come home everyday and would hear the stories of the east that Mr. Pattanaik highlighted.  In fact, I remember hearing the story of Ganesha when I was 5 or 6 - it was taught to me as a lesson of how important one's parents are and to what extent they command one's respect.  Then, I would go to school and be taught to question EVERYTHING - no sacred cows.  So what happens when people like ME grow up?


I have a full-time job as a consultant and I spend a large amount of my time 'trying to win the race' (somewhat like Alexander), yet do not fully believe in there being a race to win.  Hence, I come home, and somewhat like the gymnosophist, spend long days in meditation or service work, trying to focus on the intentions within that lead to the actions without.


There's a lot of us out there, and I believe our two co-existing perspectives are not necessarily at odds with each other.  Clearly on a superficial level it allows us to empathize / connect with folks in either world, but it's even helpful outside of this. 


For example, it is my belief in absolute ways of measurement that leads my interest in economic development.  If we can measure progress and track it meticulously, we can develop action plans to continue it forward to help others.  A more traditionally western point of view.  However, the familiarity with 'context' from the east tells me that no measured answer can be correct, and constant changes to the model would be required for optimal results.  It is a continual attempt to balance head and heart, without either of which which you can end up with well-meaning but ill-conceived solutions.  Furthermore, my eastern perspective makes me think of any action I take not necessarily as something to 'save the world'. but the equivalent of 'action meditation' - something to help me understand myself and my place in the universe.  It is my way of 'conquering the world' by 'giving it all up' :)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

An Angel in Queens

Jorge and his sister Luz with Shephali and I A couple months ago, Karmatube featured a video of Jorge Munoz, a bus driver from Queens who came home EVERY NIGHT to cook and feed 150 homeless people. Since then, he's been featured everywhere from USA Today to ABC News, etc. Yesterday, Shephali and I were able to tag along with Toan Lam, the founder of Go Inspire Go and the filmmaker who shared the story, as Jorge's family was surprised with a new stove, refrigerator, and microwave! Really inspiring stuff :)

Will leave it to the video to tell the full story when its released shortly :) but suffice it to say that everyone was very moved by what was happening. One of the things that really struck me about their family was the extreme level of service that was always on their mind. One crazy example: While we are helping cook the days food inside, I notice several younger folks helping us and they don't seem like immediate family. Turns out Jorge not only feeds folks on the streets, but he also takes young kids in while they get on their feet! They also get a lesson in service as they get to help with the daily cooking process :) I was so humbled to be in the presence of this family!

This is not to mention at all the story of Toan Lam, who is the reason we were able to experience this gift! Toan is a TV reporter for a major affiliate in SF who decides to stop reporting major media news and start documenting the truly inspiring. His non-profit is all about that goal, hope Karmatube gets a chance to deepen the relationship with him over time :)

If anyone wants to help the cause, just let me know, we'll make sure you're in touch!

Shephali and I with Toan

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What is 'adding value'?

I just realized I have no idea what that statement means even though it is pretty much the implicit force behind the business world. Every business activity is an attempt to 'add value' - from company mergers all the way down to a person showing up to work. here's the problem with it: it's calculated from a monetary perspective. the implicit question is 'how does what i'm doing make myself and others more rich?'

That seems all well and good at first glance, but lets play out an example: 2 housewives, each taking care of their own child. This is done for free (clearly) by both people and both are able to tend most appropriately to their own kids.

Now imagine a swap - each woman decides to take care of the other's children, and each receives the same rate of $20K/year from each other. According to the business world, everyone is richer under this scenario (GDP rises) and both women are adding tremendous 'value' compared to the other option.

There is something wrong with a system that applauds such a scenario. We see this again and again all over the world - sports players can act however they want as long as they perform ('add value') on the field and thus make everyone money, companies can treat the environment however they want as long as they create surplus value for their customers, etc.

My goal is to personally operate under a different idea of adding value - switch the question to 'how does what i'm doing make myself and others more happy?' The attempt to not correlate 'rich' with 'happy' means i'm more likely to smile, open doors for people, generally make life a more pleasant experience for myself and others even though none of those activities does a thing to bring more money into life.

cynics say 'but you don't know what makes others happy! you DO know what makes others rich' - if you don't know the path to the right answer and know the path to the wrong answer, does that mean you should choose the wrong answer?

is a smile 'adding value'? YES ... i'm going to start with that :)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Depleted attention


So i just started a new engagement at work.  It's pretty challenging adjusting to a new one and the first week is usually spent working pretty constantly trying to catch up with what's going on (especially when you're not familiar with industry / function).


This is all context for my behavior during this time - pretty meh if i do say so myself.  Not really thinking about anybody else, not really trying to be kind, helpful, generous, etc - just trying to get through the day.  My cousin has told me this could be because of my attention being depleted through being in a high stress situation.  Attention is apparently a muscle, and like all other muscles, can be built up and can be depleted. 


I notice this in myself all the time, i call it being frazzled :)  when my attention is depleted, the hair trigger approaches - smaller things set me off, I'm less able to keep the big picture in mind, less able to think about others.


Also good to know that meditation is a major BUILDER of attention (along with exercise, etc) - think I'll go sit!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The hidden costs of 'Consumption Philanthropy'



An amazing article from the Stanford Center for Social Innovation.  Small excerpt:


"I do my main charity work once a week—at the grocery store. Like some of you, this week I bought organic yogurt that not only is healthier for my family and the Earth, but also supports nonprofit environmental and educational organizations. I also picked up snack bars that promote peace (no kidding!) and salad dressing that funds various (unnamed) charities across the country. For all of this hard work, I rewarded myself with some Endangered Species Chocolate, which helps “support species, habitat, and humanity,” according to the company’s Web site. Delicious.


Consuming more will not solve today’s social and environmental problems. Indeed, consumption may very well create more of the kinds of problems that we had hoped philanthropy would fix. Relying on individual consumer choices, consumption philanthropy is unsuited to the scale or complexity of the problems it seeks to fix. Couched in market transactions, it neither acknowledges the voice of the transactions’ beneficiaries nor gives philanthropists the satisfaction of mindful virtuous action. And caught in the mechanisms of the market, it obscures the fact that the market caused many of the problems that philanthropy seeks to redress."


To some extent, this is why I love the idea of going to Central Park and handing out cookies / lemonade.  The point is not to actually give people anything material, but to enhance the feeling of connection and build a space in which to cultivate mindful selfless action.  We are all just random people, yet we are all clearly not.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I meditated with my team at work today

A Chinese parable: an old man set out to change the world. He found that he wasn’t making much progress, so he tried to change his country. This was also too difficult, so he tried to change his neighborhood. When he didn’t have success there, he tried to change his family. Even that was easier said than done, so he tried to change himself. Then an interesting thing happened. When he had changed himself, his family changed. And when his family changed, his neighborhood changed. When his neighborhood changed, his country changed. And when his country changed, the world changed.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

CharityFocus retreat

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Last weekend was our yearly CharityFocus coordinators retreat.  The people you see in the picture above are amazing teachers, I am blessed to be able to learn from them.


Wanted to share one element of the weekend that really resonated with me.  We started the weekend going around in a circle sharing a moment of gratitude for the service of others in our lives.  Everyone went around and gave beautiful anecdotes of how kind people had been to them in their life.  If only all our weeks could start in such a way...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Listening to the Dalai Lama


Today, Shephali and I were treated to an impromptu audience with the Dalai Lama (along with about 50 other folks) thanks to our wonderful friend Tashi.

His talk seemed totally extemporaneous and was about his gratitude to India for being such a wonderful host to his people over the past 50 years. A few of the interesting tidbits below.

He considers his mission in life two-fold: 1) espouse the values of compassionate, non-violent existence, and 2) advocate religious harmony through mutual respect. In both regards, he feels heavily influenced by values from Indian traditions (specifically, the concept of ahimsa, which he spoke on at length). In fact, he repeated referred to India as his 'guru' and and himself as a 'messenger.'

Towards the end he implored the group to actively engage in service work as a major key to help him on his mission. He ended with an interesting anecdote about the religious reciprocity between India and Tibet. Just as Buddha was from India, Lord Shiva (from the Hindu tradition) makes his home in Mount Kailash, which is located in Tibet. The two religions are quite interlinked.

The whole meeting was less than an hour long and seemed to fly by. It was awesome to hear him speak so lovingly of India.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My Favorite Karmatube videos

Karmatube is my favorite inspirational video website (on an unrelated note, I help run it lol).  It started as a wish to create a repository for inspirational video on the web, along with providing actions that a person could do right now if they were motivated by what they saw.


Over the course of the last couple years, the video list has ballooned to well over 300, and I thought I'd share my top 10 all-time favorites:


10) The one that started the website: The Free Hugs of Juan Mann.  A guy starts hugging people in a town and makes the world smile.


9) Ever eaten at a restaurant with no bill?  Seva Cafe does just that, with the twist being that your meal was paid for by someone before you, and you can pay this act of kindness forward however you wish.


8) What about me?  This monk makes a compelling statement about a shift in internal perspective being a major cause of happiness - 'when you're happy, i'm happy'


7) How can investing in the monetarily poor be a better way to reduce poverty than donating?  Watch Jacqueline Novogratz explain


6) The True Devotee is a favorite song of Gandhi and describes an example of a selfless individual (click link to view video)


5) I'm a total sap for heart-warming videos, and this one definitely qualifies.  A young girl starts singing the national anthem... then freezes.  Watch her experience what a 20,000 person safety net feels like


4) You've seen Jacqueline Novogratz change poverty through capitalism, now watch how Carrotmob uses similar principles to make it rain


3) One of the classics - Story of Stuff is a visual masterpiece taking the audience through the life cycle of consumables

2) Its all in your mind, watch the inside and watch the outside


And finally, my all-time favorite Karmatube video

1) Team Hoyt is quite possibly the biggest reminder of caring for your family that I've ever seen


So while that's it for now, here's hoping there's many more years of wonderful videos to add to the repository.  On that note, how's about one for the road? ;)


Friday, April 3, 2009

Why individual change is our only hope

I just watched this super interesting talk on TED about the future of war.  The gentleman ended his talk by saying 'is it our machines that are are wired for war, or is it us?'  Being who I am, I started reflecting on how this is related to service work :)


We already know that the pace of our collective existence is quickening.  Computing power is doubling every year, and is slated to be 1 BILLION times more powerful than now in only 25 years.  Even the pace of our biological evolution is speeding up to 100 times historical levels!


What does this all mean???  I've heard everything from the end of aging to virtual reality existence to space colonization.  Here's the implicit meaning I take from it: leverage.  Each human being on average is continually able to do more, of anything, as time goes on.  Not only that, but the amount of the increase is constantly increasing.  We're getting faster at a faster rate.


Well, this is great for building bridges, connecting people, and acquiring knowledge, but what happens when the motive is destruction?  There will be a time, in the not so distant future, that a regular person will have in their power the ability to annihilate millions - for the cost of a big screen.  Everyone will have their own personal 'little red button,' for lack of a better term.  Regulation can step in to some extent, but look around - we have a hard enough time regulating NOW, much less when it will be ONE BILLION times harder.


If regulation won't work than what will?  To me, the answer is individual change.  I have to change.  That anger that wells up inside when someone cuts me off on the road?  That's gotta go.  That visceral reaction that occurs when my ego is bruised?  Need to ditch it.  Time to replace that with a  stronger connection to all the people that come into my life and a deeper understanding of why those feelings arise in the first place.  This grassroots shift is our only hope, this so-called 'shift of consciousness', to slowly lead to the conditions required to keep US from killing OURSELVES.  I can't force anyone else to do it, I can't regulate it.  I can only start on the path myself and see what happens...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Defining 'Service'

I don't know why i'm pontificating so much more recently, but was thinking about the concept of service recently.  I got the feeling that there isn't a common definition for what it is, so using this space as away to define what it means to me.


Two years ago George Bush told us that the best way to serve our country was to 'go shopping more.'  In fact, our entire economy is built upon the idea that acting in our own best interest is the easiest and best way to act for the good of all.  After all, buying trinkets helps the person selling it to you to maintain a livelihood.  I'm starting to understand why I have such a viscerally negative reaction upon hearing this.

I feel that the intention to provide value to another as primary driver of action is a prerequisite of service.  Greed, contrary to what Gordon Gekko may say, is not good.  This is so partially because of the cultural shift that occurs when a person stops thinking about everything in terms of narrow self-interest (although economists would inevitably disagree and reframe the very desire to be altruistic as masked self-interest).  I've been taught that this way of looking at things is called 'other-orientation' or 'enlightened self-interest' (instead of 'self-orientation').  In addition, behavioral economics says that our self-interest tends to be short-sighted (and non-rational in general) and so acting in that manner tends to create huge problems over the long haul (e.g. financial crisis, air/water/food quality, drug scares, etc).


The world is filled with people who will say that self-interest is the only way to keep people from being lazy.  I urge them to meet the folks tirelessly and anonymously working all over the world to bring better lives to people left behind by this system.  Other-orientation is a more powerful motivator than greed could ever be.


In this sense, going shopping can be an act of service to your nation, but it also may not.  Did my purchase help some dude buy a bigger yacht?  Perhaps it helped an oil baron continue to finance his pet projects?  Or maybe my purchase helped children get more access to books?  Intention counts.  Consumption in a vacuum is not service.


And this brings me to my point:  I feel that service is the mixture of the intention to be other-oriented combined with the desire to understand how best to be other-oriented.  It is a mindset, and it can exist at any time.  While buying food at the grocery store, while selling your services at the workplace, or while having a conversation at Starbucks. 


I am of course ridiculously far from this ideal, but having the intention when i wake up every day is something that I think is valuable in itself.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why I use Smile Cards

Over the last couple years, I've really become a big proponent of Smile Cards, which are basically cards that track pay-it-forward acts of kindness.


They are wonderful in ways I cannot count.  Small, simple, humble, yet powerful.  They create ripples so that one act of kindness may or may not be the end of the chain.  But for all these reasons, the main reason why I use them is the subtle change in the way I think that has begun to occur. 


About a year ago I was riding in a plane reading a wonderful book my friend had given me.  As our flight landed I felt a tap on my shoulder.  It was an elderly gentleman who asked for my thoughts on the book.  Turned out he had heard about it and as curious to read it.  I gave him my thoughts (as I found the book to be quite interesting), but then a thought entered my mind.  Why not just GIVE him the book???  I was mostly done with it anyways, and at the time it wasn't even available in the US.  With that, I handed the book over.  Of course, he refused, but I made my best case.  After a bit of back and forth, the man accepted the book with tears in his eyes.  He told me he had a hard time understanding why I should do such a thing, but that he'd pay-it-forward somehow.


Now, in the grand scheme of things, this story means nothing.  I mean, it's me handing a book to someone else.  Anyone can do it.  BUT... that thought, the 'why not just give him the book?' thought, was very new to me.  For the past few months prior, I had been walking around with Smile Cards in my wallet.  What initially started as some nice cards to talk about at parties turned into a pile of kind acts that I HAD to unload.  And slowly, my mind started shifting.  Instead of looking at how I could manipulate situations to my benefit, my mind was always busy trying to think of ways I could make someone's day better.  The cards were an excuse to be a better person!  The very attempt to be better started shifting my mind.  All this leads me back to the day I handed over the book to the stranger.  It was awesome BECAUSE it was ordinary.  I had experienced a moment where I wanted to give out of habit, almost because that's the only way I knew how to handle that situation.  And the most amazing part?  After I handed him the book, the person jumping around and giddy for the rest of the day was ME.


Of course you don't NEED Smile Cards to start the shift in mindset to other-orientation, but its another tool to help in the process, and it's been very helpful to me...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why YOU should join Net Impact

I first heard of Net Impact while in business school.  The organization attempts to connect folks that want to use business to improve the world.  It is composed primarily of folks with advanced degrees and hold full-time jobs in industry.


The New York chapter of Net Impact (full disclosure: I'm on the steering committee) has a blog that's really informative in terms of information related to the relevant sectors and opportunities to get involved.


If you have a college degree and want to use your education to serve the community and connect with folks that want to do the same, I would highly recommend Net Impact. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Karma Kitchen opens up in DC!

Imagine a restaurant where there are no prices on the menu and where the check reads $0.00 with only this footnote: "Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. We hope you will pay-it-forward however you wish."


That's the tagline for Karma Kitchen, a concept that's been around for quite a while, but is being slowly repopularized by the gift economy culture.  Modeled after Karma Kitchen Berkeley, the one in DC is located in the heart of the city, and the opening weekend was a smash.  Shephali and I took the bus down to help with the festivities, and as usual, we received more than we could possibly give. 

I'm sure the CF blog will have something amazing up on it shortly, but from a personal perspective, it was quite a moving experience to turn a restaurant experience into a family experience. 
Many wonderful stories came out from the day, and we heard of multiple instances where people needed a couple reiterations to follow the concept.  The Kindness Table was overflowing with gifted items and the day ended with even more items anonymously gifted to future guests.

The night before the opening, a group of us were sitting around thinking about the spirit of KarmaKitchen, and I started thinking about how it broke down traditional economics, which is based on trade-offs.  When we operate in the gift-economy, we are effectively cutting the cord connecting happiness and personal gain.  Here's an example: if i volunteer at KarmaKitchen it would be a 4 hour activity.  an economist would look at this activity as a trade-off, that is, that I am doing this because this provides me more personal gain than any other activity i could do at that time.  Furthermore, if there was an option that was more compelling as far as personal return, I would do it.  So if the day I volunteered I had another opportunity that enabled me to make $1M, I would ditch Karma Kitchen and pocket the cash. 

However, the very act of volunteering at Karma Kitchen infuses the individual with other-orientation - we are not there for ourselves, or i should say we are trying to redefine 'self' to include more than our bodies/minds.  if volunteering teaches me to think less about how others can give to me and more about how i can give to others, that economic pricepoint at which i can be 'bought' to do something else, rises and rises and rises, until my thought is eventually, it cannot be done.  I look at Viral and Pavi, the founders of Karma Kitchen.  I don't think there is any amount of personal gain that would keep them from serving on Sundays. They have effectively cut the cord as there is no amount of gain, monetary or otherwise, that would keep them from serving.

While I am still in the early stages of the cord-cutting process, I'm so grateful that spaces like Karma Kitchen exist to provide both guests and volunteers with constant opportunities to decouple personal gain and happiness..

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Life at Manav Sadhna

This holiday season I had the good fortune of volunteering with Manav Sadhna, a non-profit serving the needs of a massive slum (>150K people) right outside the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India.

The people that work there everyday are basically the most inspiring people i've ever met. love and compassion flow on another level, and they provide family for the kids that have none. My time there was cursory at best, but even in that I was able to help open up a school for blind children from the Tekro (which is the name of the slum). There was a celebration with about 700 kids capped by some volunteers leading everyone to sing 'jingle bells' :)

The next day everyone left to spend some time at a center for people with leprosy. Amazing, inspiring, Mother Teresa-type work.

I also had the opportunity to wash dishes and brainstorm with Seva Cafe, another Manav Sadhna spinoff. What was most inspiring was how well done the operation was. The team was perfect in their execution, and it's a tribute to Sandeep, who runs the show there :) Hopefully looking forward to helping introduce some healthier fare there soon!

On new years eve, I was able to take part in the yearly 'compassion walk', where we made hundreds of sandwiches and then walked to 6 major places of worship (church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc) handing out the food to whoever looked hungry. We ended the night at Ram Roti, which is the local soup kitchen, and handed out some prepared food there as well as ate some dinner :)

Aside from all this was the learning experience of what Manav Sadhna does. There was the community center built from the ground up using the most innovative of methods, there was the dozens of experimental toilet designs used to bring sanitation to millions of people who had none, there was the sustainability-minded construction of ESI, a building that would give anything built by Bill McDonough a run for its money, and there was Gramshree, the store that sold beautiful artwork created by women from the Tekro freeing them from rag-picking. And at the center of it all is Jayesh bhai Patel and Viren bhai Joshi, who words cannot describe.

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Here is Jayesh bhai congratulating every child for finishing their meal. Grassroots change indeed.

more pictures here: