Sunday, April 25, 2010

Eliminating Poverty

One day when Muhammad Yunas visited Jobra, a small India village, he watched Sufia Begum, a 21-year-old villager craft a beautiful bamboo stool. She was poor, uneducated and had calloused fingers. He could not have guessed that seeing her would set in motion a cascade of events that would eventually change his life and the life of literally millions of people like Sufia who were entrenched in poverty.

Yunas asked Begum how much she earned. She told him that she borrowed 9 cents from the middle man and that after he collected his profit, she earned 2 cents a stool.

“My God,” Yunas thought, “for 9 cents she has become a slave.” Despite the beauty of her work, the fine craftsmanship, and the time she put into it, she had nothing to show for her work but calloused fingers and low esteem.

The next day Yunas and his students surveyed 43 villagers and discovered that they owed a grand sum of $27. Yunas said he could not take it anymore. He lifted the money before the villagers and told them they could liberate themselves. They could buy their own materials, cut out the middle man and pay him back whenever they could afford to. They all did and that moment launched a business concept that would lead Yunas, years later, to a Nobel prize.

Yunas founded the Grameen Bank and has since lent nearly $6 billion to 6 million Bangladeshis. Known as microcredit financing, small investors worldwide lend small sums of money to help a poor villager buy a goat whose milk they can sell to help sustain themselves and their families or to purchase a flock of hens whose eggs bring in money.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate poverty.

The Nobel Prize Committee said, "Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. " Microcredit helps.

This is how it works. The bank gives out small loans averaging around $200. Recipients are grouped together with four others and first two loans are handed out. Once a loan is repaid another in the group receives their loan. This encourages responsibility and 99% of the loans are repaid. This concept has spread and spurned development well beyond Bangladesh. In fact, the results have been staggering.

One man made the decisive difference when, in a moment of compassion, he shared his meager resources and helped changed the life course not only of himself, but also a group of struggling strangers. I wonder what moment of compassion lies ahead for us and whether we will have the wherewithal to follow through. I'm glad Muhammad Yunas did and so are millions of others whose lives and dignity have been restored through his efforts.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I have been thinking lately about genius, the kind that one in a million posses. How do we discover and cultivate that? Can we? Or is it strictly inherited?

Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that it takes a minimum of 10,000 practice hours to rise to the elite level. On the other hand, you have autistic savants who may discover their genius in a day. I am fascinated with both camps, the plodders who perfect their skill over time, and the uninitiated who unveil their talent in an instant. One group shows most of us how it’s done, while the other just amazes us in drop-jaw fashion.

German researchers back Gladwell's view. They studied violin players for decades and discovered that the elite practiced for more than 10,000 hours. The very fine but not quite elite accumulated, on average, around 4,000 hours during the same time frame. In other words, the finest players inevitably practiced way more than everyone else. Hard work consistently won the day.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, two programmers who's skills are legendary, had the good fortune of going to a private school that offered computer programming way before just about anyone else. They also both lived near a university and practiced programming there, sometimes waking up at 3 in the morning and sneaking out of the house to program for several hours. By the time they dropped out of college, they, like the elite violin players, had put in their 10,000 hours.

These plodders seem to possess more than anything else the passion and drive to practice, practice, practice until they develop extraordinary skills. These aren’t folks who just show up half-heartedly or who burn both ends of the candle before quickly burning out. This group works until their genius is crafted and showcased. In fact, this group’s genius is their ability to generate consistent effort over a long time period that, ultimately, generates amazing results. Their genius, in other words, lies within and drives them to ultimately produce something extraordinary.

The second group, in contrast, has their genius, it seems, bestowed upon them. At four years old, the blind and autistic Derek Paravicini heard a piano and lunged toward it, and after he shoved the little girl from the stool who had been plucking out a sweet melody, he began hitting the keys with his fists, fingers, elbows, feet, forehead and nose. Without so much as a lesson, this impaired toddler banged out a remarkable version of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Years later, this young man, who cannot count to ten or even tie his shoe, can remember every piece of music he has ever heard, and can play it perfectly, uniquely and with great feeling.

Like Derek Paravicini, Daniel Tammet’s gift came to him and revealed itself when he was four. Daniel discovered numbers and his ability to calculate almost anything mathematical. He says he sees sparks going off in his head every time he sees a huge calculation and as the sparks take shape and crystallize he sees the solution. Ask him what 37 x 37 x 37 x 37 is and he will tell you. He sees pi as a landscape of shapes that mesmerize and inspire him. He loves it so much he learned and recited, without a single errot, the first 22,500 digits.

These folks are truly gifted. Their gift comes, not from choice and effort, but from something that has chosen them. This genius suggests to the rest of us that there may be something amazing within us, something innate, something inexplicable. Like Harry Potter who took a hit from Voldemort and survived, these geniuses cannot explain why or how they do what they do. It just comes to them. It just is. These remarkable folks are unwitting recipients who bear their gift as testaments to nature’s power and favoritism. Maybe not so ironically, these folks are often bestowed with an equal measure of disability. Nature seems to announce, in these cases, that one must pay for the given gift, not in dollars but in physical and mental misfortune. Balance achieved.

Whichever way genius appears, whether over time with much effort or instantly like a lightening strike, I, for one, am inspired by its mark. I appreciate its wonder and relish its product. Now, if only we can learn to discover and produce that genius within each of us, our world would be a wonderful world indeed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

How to Find Happiness

What if our true nature, our most authentic self, were blissfully happy? What if all those times we've been upset, down or agitated were just the result of mental constructs that we invented and accepted as real?

(photo by D. Sharon Pruitt)

And furthermore, what if we could adjust our thinking so that when we felt tense or upset we could change our story so that we felt really good again? This is what Dr. Srikumar Rao suggests in his new book, Are You Ready to Succeed?

It sounds like this could be a fun game. Think about it. Every time life throws you a curve, you swing in a more effective way. By effective, I mean in a way that creates less irritation and more joy. Your boss tells you he needs you to fly out to the West coast tomorrow and ease a crises. Your mind leaps into a frenzy of thoughts. You think about the preparation you’ll need to do while packing a tight suitcase all evening. You think about the cramped airplane, the lonely hotel, and, of course, the tension you’re likely to face when you confront the crises. You worry you will fail.

So what might Dr. Rao suggest?

He will probably tell you to come up with an alternate reality--one that you can believe. He’s not big into positive thinking, in part, because, he says, if you do not believe the platitudes you are telling yourself, then you are wasting your time saying them. In other words, he wouldn’t suggest you tell yourself that the trip will be a blast and that you will come back feeling energized because all that would be too unbelievable to you. What he might suggest, instead, is that you think about the trip as a challenge. Though it may not excite you, it could be a good chance to learn something new about how to better serve a customer. This, in turn, could be good for your career. If you begin to feel better as you apply the new thinking to the situation, then you, he says, are on your way to finding more peace and lasting happiness.

Martin Seligman, researcher and author on finding happiness suggests, ironically, that happiness comes not from inventing alternate stories as much as from minimizing the damage of a perceived negative event. Happy, well-adjusted people seem to have a knack for taking a universally stressful event and minimizing it. How do they specifically do that? According to Seligman, in one of three ways.

1. Happy people do not take whatever happens personally. They do not blame themselves. Stuff happens to all of us. Accidents happen. So do mistakes and events sometimes spiral out of our control. The pessimist says, “It’s my fault.” Not the optimist.

2. Happy people do not make an event pervasive. It does not have to effect every area of an optimist’s life. The spouse may leave or the stock market plunge. So what, they think. This is just one small facet of an otherwise happy life. The event is minimized. The pessimist, on the other hand, dwells on the event much more and thinks about it effecting every part of their life.

3. The optimist realizes the negative event is not permanent. It will all be over one day. Or as my father has been fond of saying for decades, “This too shall pass.” So far, he has never been wrong.

Just think about it for a moment. What if we had this amazing place inside us--full of joy--barricaded off by our own erroneous or at least ineffective thinking? And what if we could unleash some of that joy just by adjusting the stories we tell ourselves, by minimizing the worst parts, so that the joy inside us could bubble up instead of the toxic thoughts? Rao says, if we are willing to try this, we would, over time, find ourselves happier and more aligned with who we really are. That’s not bad. In fact, it might even change your life.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mayor Hazel McCallion

Where will you be when you're 88? Sleeping in the rocker on the front porch? Most hit their late 50's thinking hard about retirement, you know, travel, fishing, lazy days sitting in the park, grand kids and bananas. Not Hazel McCallion. That's Mayor Hazel McCallion to the rest of us. Hazel was elected over 30 years ago and continues to be elected by her constituency in Mississauga by the ever so close margin lately of 92%. 92% of her city's voters want her re-elected.

Did I mention she is 88, and that you are far more likely to spot her on a frozen lake swatting hockey pucks and knocking them in for goals than rocking and peeling bananas on some wrap-around attached to a brick nursing home?

I hope you'll feel a little inspired like I did when you watch this video about the Canadian mayor whose city is not only debt free but has money stocked away for economic downturns. Isn't that a novel concept! I'm ready to start a campaign for her presidency but I'm afraid the Mississauga people will skin my hide if I did, and well, citizenship could be a problem too.

That aside, Hazel proves that you're never too old to make a difference or to wake up, strap on some skates and take off down the ice with a hockey stick and a healthy desire to achieve some goals.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Inspiring Others

Have you seen the joy some people bring to their work? Years ago a young man in a New Jersey gas station cleaned my car windows with such vibrant energy that watching him lifted my spirits the rest of the day. A toll booth collector once greeted me with so much enthusiasm I wondered if he were a family member. Then, at my kid’s high school, the student athletes there greeted the introduction of a beloved custodial worker with such enthusiasm that I thought the standing ovation would not end. My son’s girl friend then, a 7-time state track champion, called him one of the most admired people in her life.

Some people just shine. It doesn't matter to them whether or not they excelled in school or graduated from college. They don't seem to care if they are rich or powerful or even attractive. They just positively impact people every day. These are ordinary folks who have extraordinary souls. They light the lives of nearly everyone around them and do it by exerting their own unique genius, their individual creativity, and their warmth is palpable. They inspire others.

Don’t you just love people like that? Wouldn't it be cool to be one of them? So what’s holding you back?

Brendan Foster inspired his town to stuff the food trucks, seven of them, and to contribute $95,000 to the local food bank, as his last dying wish. Just 11-years old, Brendan saw his wish fulfilled before he died of leukemia in 2008. He made an impact despite his troubles. If Brendan can, so can you.

Sometimes I wonder what I can do, whether or not I am capable of making a difference and then I think about Johnny, a grocery store bagger with Downs Syndrome, who inspires me anew. For it’s the caring people, the passionate ones, the ones who create a little extra in other’s lives who make this world the extraordinary place it is.

Gaining Perspective On Our Problems

Years ago I watched a middle school cross country runner limp along in last place. As she approached I saw she was sobbing. When she got close enough, I called her over and asked her what was wrong. She wiped her tears and between sniffles said that she was embarrassed and upset that she was in last place. She had let down her parents, her coach and her teammates. What’s more, she was in so much pain she did not think she could finish the race.

I believe we all have felt something like this at one time or another in our lives. We have all felt that we have disappointed someone and have grieved over it. We have all had times so difficult we wondered if we could continue. I know I have. When I looked into this little girl’s eyes I glimpsed the depth of her sadness and wanted to help.

Fortunately, I knew something she didn’t know. I knew it really didn’t matter whether she came in first place or last in a middle school cross country meet. I knew it mattered more that she was there building character by giving her best. I knew that this was just one tiny event in a lifetime of attempts and that sometimes she would not succeed that way she wanted to. Failures, just like successes teach us a lot about ourselves. That’s life. What I didn’t know was how to make that point to her quickly, succinctly, without speaking platitudes that most kids don’t want to hear anyway.

So I told her to look at the giant oak trees that surrounded the course. I said these trees had been here for one hundred years and that they would still be standing a hundred years from now, whether she came in first or last place. The oak trees did not care what place she came in. She could run if she wanted to, or she could stop running. All is as it should be.

I don’t think she expected that from a lone spectator just observing from the sidelines. Almost instantly, after glancing around her she wiped her face, took a deep breath, dropped her chin and finished the race in last place but no longer sobbing. She had overcome her tiny view, and in my book had gained more that day than the winner did.

How many times have we got caught up in our tiny problems? They felt so big at the time, but in the big view were really rather small. When you think of the earth from the view of outer space and see how small it looks, our problems seem minuscule by comparison. To go a step further, we are just one planet among billions in one galaxy of millions and that each of us is just one being on our own tiny planet. What's more, we live in a speck of time that has spanned eons. Somehow it puts our “big” problems into perspective. They are all tiny. Not without meaning to us, but small, really small in this life system that surrounds and supports us.

So next time you face a “really big problem” take a moment to think that whether you solve it or not, the oceans will still be here, the sun will still shine and the millions of galaxy’s will stretch on beyond what any of us can really comprehend. Once you gain that perspective, you may find your problem not only inconsequential, but entirely solvable as well.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Doing the Best You Could

Jack Rutledge remembers what Alabama's Coach Bryant said to his football players in an effort to draw out the best in each and every one of them prior to beating their opponent on the last play of a hard fought game.

Face Fear and Do It Anyway

Eleanor Roosevelt once said,“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

What is it you think you cannot do? What is it that you have dreamed of but feel incapable of accomplishing? What is it that seems just beyond your reach but may be worth reaching for?

Most of us, if we are totally honest with ourselves, can answer that question. In fact, the difference between living a life of vitality versus one of apathy may come down to this; Are you pursuing the impossible? I don’t mean trying to slam through brick walls just because they are there. I mean are you pursuing something just beyond your reach that you value, that feels meaningful to you, that makes a valued contribution? If not, then your life is unexciting, and dare I be so blunt, dull.

Jeremy Russie, 36, could relate. He was a college English teacher pursuing a PhD and soon realized he was bored. He had been an army paratrooper a few years earlier and missed the adrenalin rush. He wanted to do something that excited him, something that plucked his interest and challenged his talents. He dropped out of the PhD program and leapt into an 18-month registered nurses degree. Soon after he was hired to work in a pediatric cardiac unit. He has been happy ever since.

All of us need to be challenged and challenges come from two places: within or without. They come in one of two ways: voluntarily or involuntarily. To create a vital life, one filled with vigor and joy, you must voluntarily elicit something important, something daring from within. Challenges may be thrust on you, of course, but if you do not come to terms with it internally, if you do not make it your own and face it your own way, then it does not count. It may strengthen your soul, but it will not fill you with the enlivening energy you need to live a vital life.

So do not wait for something to drop in your lap. Don’t expect your dreams to materialize out of thin air. Why? Because part of building your mental health means proactively creating your life. You ought to choose it. We all need to flex our initiative muscles--to face the fear and do it anyway.

So here’s the fun part. What is it you need to do, regardless of the fear level? Is it a career switch? Maybe you want to serve your community or volunteer somewhere. Do you want to go on a trip overseas, somewhere you’ve never been before? Maybe you want to go back to school and it fills you with terror? Maybe you need to patch up a relationship and shake every time you pick up the phone to apologize. Whatever it is, you gain courage by facing the horror and surviving it. You build strength by looking at your doubts and doing the impossible anyway. You lay the groundwork for meeting future success by pressing on today. Don Miguel Ruiz said that “our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive--the risk to be alive and to express what we really are.”

Choosing to face what we think we cannot do, but must do, means expressing who we are despite the fear, despite the doubt and despite the time and work required to see it through. In doing that, if we are bold enough to do so, we ignite our lives and express who we really are; and that’s a risk worth taking.

Nature's Force In Me

Just as the powerful Niagra Falls has a right to roar in wonder
So do I
Just as the sky-popping Andes have the right to stand with majestic force
So do I
Just as the massive hurricanes have the right to flex their strength
So do I
Just as the peregrine falcon has the right to dive full-force toward a single-minded goal
So do I
Just as the Colorado river has the right to bust over rocks and to pour its powerful, pulsating rapids toward a basin of peace
So do I
Just as the wildebeest of Africa have the right to gather their herd and to stampede in an instinctual frenzy away from fear and apathy
So do I
Just as the brilliant sun has the right to radiate rapturous light for all who see
So do I

I have the inherent right to radiate my light, to beat MY drum and to sing MY song, “Here AM I--Majestic like the Andes, Decisive like the Falcon, and Brilliant like the Sun… Here am I -- a power to reckon with, a force of nature, my true nature

For I am this, a power of a power, whose force expresses itself uninhibited in all the universe

And since IT expresses in all forms, in all wisdom, and with all power…

Then as an expression of THAT



Saturday, April 3, 2010

Re-channel Your Excuses

We all have reasons for failing. Naturally, we blame our past. Our parents failed us. Our schools ruined us. Our friends betrayed us. We are the product of our environment or our genes. In short, it's not our fault. Pretty convenient, huh?

Yet, what if this instant we dropped all our reasons, our excuses, and just lived as if everything we did or did not do was our choice? What if we decided that, despite everything that ever happened to us, we were ultimately responsible for it?

Aren't we?

I'm not suggesting that the past cannot be a strong influence. It can be. It is. However, what if we lived excuse free? What if we believed that ultimately we alone shaped our decisions? What if we believed that and lived that? How would our life change?

I challenge you to stop yourself the moment you limit yourself with a reason why you didn't do something, or why you did do something you should not have done. Just accept resonsibilty and correct it. Live your life passionately focused on doing whatever it is you believe is most important. Accomplish that excuse free and see what happens.

That's what Daniel Beaty encourages in this intense and powerful recitation about making a difference despite one's past.