The Founding Father We’d Do Well to Find Once Again

Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

“Thomas Paine Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations” by Craig Nelson

Thomas Paine and Roger Williams are the two founding fathers whose work is most often forgotten yet remains among the most consequential today.  My belief was strengthened upon reading Craig Nelson’s excellent 2006 biography, Thomas Paine:  Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations.

Paine, born in England and truly a citizen of the Enlightenment world, wrote three of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, topped only by the Bible.  His Common Sense has long been recognized as a key work in changing the hearts and minds of the people of the United Colonies into citizens of what Paine was the first to characterize as the United States.  Similarly, his Rights of Man helped shape the French Revolution and — although it would take more than a century — inspire constitutional reform in Great Britain and foreshadow Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Age of Reason, a forceful call against organized religion, finds Paine sticking to his Enlightenment and deist values even at the expense of his public reputation. Paine’s mind was clearly a force of nature, and Nelson characterizes him as “the Enlightenment Mercury who sparked political common cause between men who worked for a living and empowered aristocrats across all three nations.”

One of Nelson’s great accomplishments is to explain Enlightenment thinking and values in a way which places Paine and his work in a well-constructed context.  Paine certainly has his flaws as a person, but he is more easily understood when placed within the value system that drove so many of the leading philosophers and political leaders of the late eighteenth century. Nelson’s other important accomplishment is to showcase Paine’s incredible relevance today.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine’s famous opening to The American Crisis, written in the winter of 1776, resonates today as much as it did when Washington’s small army was fighting for its life at Trenton and Princeton. Nelson certainly recognizes the challenge when he notes that the coalition that controls America today repudiates much of Paine in following the John Adams—Alexander Hamilton, ruling class of the rich, style of government.  “While Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson would be crestfallen that the modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy—multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors—Adams and Hamilton would be just as shocked to learn that their admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue.”

In his Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, author Lewis H Lapham includes the essay The World in Time which makes this point even more forcefully.  Lapham turns to Paine and doesn’t find himself

“in the presence of a marble portrait bust,” but meets instead a man “writing in what he knew to be ‘the undisguised language of the historical truth.’ To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in words simple enough to be readily understood.”

Instead of addressing the rich, as do many of the other Founding Fathers, Paine “talks to ship chandlers and master mechanics, and in place of a learned treatise he substitutes the telling phrase and the memorable aphorism—’Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.'”

Thomas Paine, in both Nelson and Lapham’s rendering, has “remained in the attic of oblivion” due to the publication of The Age of Reason and the subsequent attacks—over the next two hundred years—that placed him clearly outside this country’s obsession with religion.  Lapham notes that “Paine’s plain and forthright speaking is out of tune with our own contemporary political discourse, which for the most part is the gift for saying nothing.”

As we struggle through constitutional crises, we would do well to find one of our most important founding fathers.  Paine’s writing might be the tonic to point us back towards democracy.

More to come…

DJB

Cynicism vs. Hope

Call Them by Their True Name

“Call Them by Their True Name” by Rebecca Solnit

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays)Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head.

“Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.”

Change and progress require hard work, and cynics often want to avoid the responsibility of that work. They have a “relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world which generally offers neither.”  Change and progress also require hope, and as I’ve written before, “hope demands things that despair does not.” Hope is risky. But hope is also in love with success.

When you hear news that affects you, what is your first reaction? Does your mind move to cynical inevitabilities, or to hopeful possibilities?  Do you act upon “bad data and worse analysis” to reach your conclusion? As Solnit says in her book The Faraway Nearby, “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”  Life isn’t easy, but as Stephen Covey has written, we have the ability and freedom as humans to respond. “External forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.”

“It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility,” says Covey.  However, “proactive people work on the things they can do something about.” In the same vein Robert Glazer speaks of improving our emotional capacity. “Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.”

Nats Rainbow

Nothing says hope better than a rainbow at a baseball stadium

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, think about your response and consider choosing the proactive option of learning. Of possibilities. Of hope.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

My 2018 Year-End Reading List

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m sharing this list of the books I read over the past twelve months.  Since returning from sabbatical early in 2016, I committed to reading more, and to seek out a wider range of works beyond my normal histories and biographies. Here are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I began the year with a work of fiction. In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever. It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.  A powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  Early in the year I returned to reread this wonderful memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia. Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds a richer love for music.

Grant by Ron Chernow.  One of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact, Chernow has  worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this impressive biography of U.S. Grant.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  The release of a new movie of this timeless classic led me to pick up my cherished, signed-by-the-author copy, and reread once again the story that has captivated children and adults alike since its release.

Wanderlust:  A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.  I reread this book in the late winter after a friend mentioned that she wanted to read something by Solnit, the wonderful historian and essayist.  As often happens, I discovered so much more upon a second reading.

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  An important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.

How Democracies Die

“How Democracies Die”

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  The research over twenty years by these two Harvard professors shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments. This accessible book is highly recommended, and should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.  Given what we are facing as a country, this is my choice for book of the year.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by this best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobal.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world. Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed.

The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  Two classics that I read (or reread in the case of TGOW) while taking a summer vacation in Pacific Grove and Monterey, California.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth.  Imagine hearing the phrase “You know, you’re no genius” your entire life and then, years later, being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—in recognition for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology. That happened to Angela Duckworth, and this book summarizes her years of study.

In the Shadow of Statues:  A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu.  This memoir by the former mayor of New Orleans hit home for me on both a personal and professional level.  As Mayor Landrieu notes early in this book on his personal journey to confront the true story behind Confederate monuments, “The statues were not honoring history or heroes.  They were created as political weapons, part of an effort to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

What Truth Sounds Like:  RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson.  This powerful book takes us back to a meeting between Robert Kennedy, James Baldwin, and others in the 1960s, and brings the conversation forward to our bitter racial struggles of the 21st century.

Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams.  A short but enlightening read about how technology is designed to capture our attention, and what you can do about it—by a former Google strategist turned Oxford philosopher.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.  I ended the year by returning to one of my favorite authors.  The first of the two works of Solnit’s I read in December “explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination.”

Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit. I ended the year with yet another powerful collection of essays from one of America’s most insightful writers.  “Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, ‘with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.’”

I hope you’ll find one or two things to pique your interest among these wonderful books.  My 2019 list will begin with Craig Nelson’s 2006 biography of Thomas Paine, who I rank along with Roger Williams as one of the two most intriguing, yet often forgotten and totally misunderstood, founding fathers.

Happy reading!

More to come…

DJB

Measure What We Value

We measure a great deal in the modern office environment, and the nonprofit world is no different.  Finding the right measurement to capture what is truly important, however, takes time and thought.  Profit for a business is easy to track, but in the mission-driven world of nonprofits the right outcomes can be hard to quantify.

I was thinking of this while wrapping up James Williams’ Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention EconomyIn looking for ways to set boundaries for attention-grabbing technology, Williams turns to measurement as one key.  He begins by noting, that “Our goal in advancing measurement should be to measure what we value, rather than valuing what we already measure.”

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

How do we, both as individuals and as staff members of a large organization, do this work?  How do we measure what we value?  Williams has a suggestion on the organizational or corporate scale:  measure the mission.  If we “operationalize in metrics the company’s mission statement or purpose for existing, which is something nearly every company has but which hardly any company actually measures,” Williams suggests we can begin to measure what we value.

 That strikes me as an important step toward understanding what organizations should measure, and how we are succeeding in reaching “what we want to want.”  As individuals, we can also think about what we measure in terms of our personal missions and callings.  Being a little obsessive, I personally track 11 measurements each day for personal growth. (Yes, you can sigh now.) I know of others who have even longer lists.  As I pondered this while reading Williams’ book, it dawned on me that perhaps I should consider whether I measure what I value (or simply value what I already measure…like weight gain or loss).  You may have similar responses.

Williams ends his book with a call that we—as individuals and as a society—can reclaim our time and our souls if we understand what we value.

“As the mythologian Joseph Campbell said, ‘The modern hero deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul.’ This is true at both individual and collective levels.

In order to rise to this challenge, we have to lean into experiences of awe and wonder. . . .We have to demand that these forces to which our attention is now subject start standing out of our light. This means rejecting the present regime of attentional serfdom.  It means rejecting the idea that we are powerless, that our angry impulses must control us, that our suffering must define us, or that we ought to wallow in guilt for having let things get this bad.  It means rejecting novelty for novelty’s sake and disruption for disruption’s sake.  It means rejecting lethargy, fatalism, and narratives of us versus them.  It means using our transgressions to advance the good.  This is not utopianism.  This is imagination.  And as anyone with the slightest bit of imagination knows, ‘imaginary’ is not the opposite of ‘real.’”

I love the challenge in that last paragraph and the truth of that last sentence.  Let’s use our imaginations and focus on what we value.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Boundaries

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

Understanding the reality you face is often the first step toward personal and organizational growth.

Consider the oft-heard complaint about our lack of time in this period of ubiquitous technology.   While most of us think of this as the “Information Age,” the reality may be that it would be better characterized as the Age of Attention.  In an age of information abundance, the scare resource is attention.  Technology companies make money when they monopolize our time.  Netflix’s CEO has made this clear in noting that the company “is competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep, etc.”

Let that last one sink in a bit…your sleep is seen as a competitor by Netflix.  If you had any idea that technology companies were looking out for your best interests, this should dissuade you of that notion.

I’m currently reading Stand Out of Our Light, a book written by a former Google strategist turned Oxford-trained philosopher.  James Williams’ career arc was enough to get me to buy the book, but I was equally intrigued to read his take on how “technologies compete to capture and exploit our attention, rather than supporting the true goals we have for our lives.”  From endless games of solitaire to never-ending clickbait to Facebook news feeds to YouTube recommendations that entice us to watch just one more video…we’ve all seen how digital technology eats up our time by capturing more and more of our attention.

Williams believes that the goals of technology companies don’t match our best interests (individually and as citizens), making it imperative that we set our own boundaries.  He quotes the German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “Who will be great, must be able to limit himself.”  Williams is focused on the capacities that enable us to “want what we want to want,” capacities such as “reflection, memory, prediction, leisure, reasoning, and goal-setting.” We have to apply boundaries in order to “channel our activities toward our higher goals.”

Smart Phones

Smart Phones: Competing for Your Attention

While technology could help us deal with these challenges, that’s not the way of life in our current age.  As  you reflect on that, realize that,

“…notifications or addictive mobile apps may fill up those little moments in the day during which a person might have otherwise reflected on their goals and priorities.  Users check their phones an average of 150 times per day (and touch them over 2,600 times per day), so that would add up to a lot of potential reflection going unrealized.”

There is much we can do in response, and the book looks at steps we should take individually and collectively.  I decided some time ago not to use notifications with my technology, believing that leaving on the email notification feature is like letting the post office rush in and drop a letter on your desk every time you receive an email or text.  Start with the mindset that your email in-box – and essentially all technology – should be for your use, and then work from there.  Such a perspective may help you see the reality a bit more clearly and spend more time on what you want to want.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Perseverance and Passion

Grit

“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth

If you are like me, you may have been told “You know, you’re no genius” at some point in your life.  During her childhood, Angela Duckworth heard that phrase over and over again from her father.  Years later when she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—she was able to savor the irony of being told that she wasn’t smart enough, and yet being recognized on an international stage for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology.  Duckworth was compassionate enough not to lord this over her father.  But she did write a book based on her studies which makes the case that for those who have a calling, who challenge themselves every day, who get back up when they are knocked down, perseverance and passion matter more than talent.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion is the 2016 book that resulted from Duckworth’s life and studies.  The fundamental insight that guides her research is “Our potential is one thing.  What we do with it is quite another.”  Early in the book she recounts the time she left a job at the high-powered consulting firm McKinsey to teach seventh grade math in the inner city.  There Duckworth came to see that we are all distracted by talent.  She was naturally attracted to those students who were “quick studies” and seemed to have the intellect and skills to succeed.  But as marking periods went by, these were not necessarily the successful students.  Duckworth became interested not in what made people smart, but what was needed to be successful in life.

What she found is that people who are successful over time have a passion.  A calling.  It may take time for that passion to evolve, and they may explore several pathways before landing on the one that sticks.  But having an inner compass, the “thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be” is critical to success.  And then you have to persevere, in the face of the inevitable failures, to reach your goals.  Duckworth notes:  “Enthusiasm is common.  Endurance is rare.”

There’s a lot to unpack in Duckworth’s book, including how experts practice differently from others, with a deliberative focus.  They make it a habit, with daily rituals.  Or how pessimists have permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity that “turn minor complications into major catastrophes.”  Hope and modeling a growth mindset, it turns out, are keys to perseverance.  Duckworth looks at how to grow grit from the inside out, ways to build an organizational culture that focuses on perseverance and passion, and parenting for grit.

Skyscape at Villa Panza

What is your calling?

Basketball coaching legend John Wooden captured the need for both perseverance and passion when he said:  “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”  One of my favorite stories in the book is from another sports coach who, as a philosophy and English major, has a special appreciation for the power of words.  Each year he has his team memorize three different literary quotes, handpicked to communicate a different core value.  The first team value is “We don’t whine.”  The corresponding quote, courtesy of playwright George Bernard Shaw:

“The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Duckworth challenges us to cultivate our interests.  Develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice.  Connect our work to a purpose beyond ourselves. And learn to hope when all seems lost.

That seems like smart—perhaps even genius-like—advice to me.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Would You Rather Be the Ornithologist or the Bird?

As our recent board meeting came to a close, I’ve reflected on how we communicate at these times to trustees, colleagues, stakeholders, donors, long-time acquaintances, and new friends.  Over the course of four days, we provide written updates, make formal presentations, discuss our goals, share experiences, and—at our best—turn those opportunities for communication into meaningful, insightful stories.

Carmine Gallo notes that prominent neuroscientists “confirm what we’ve known for centuries: The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in narrative, we talk in narrative and—most important for leadership—people recall and retain information more effectively when it’s presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.”

To be effective, stories must connect on a human, emotional level.  Sometimes that requires that we break out of the “rules” to find the right point of connection. Writer Colum McCann in Letters to a Young Writer, notes that while grammar is important in writing, it isn’t the be-all and end-all when we try to communicate.  There’s more we have to get across than just grammatical structure.

“Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it.  This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come.  In the end it’s the language itself—the shimmyshine of it—that matters so much more than the manners the grammar police want to put upon it.”

I like the thought of the “shimmyshine” of the language serving a larger purpose.  In the same essay, McCann notes that, “On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings.  And the question is:  Would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?”

In written or spoken words—in telling our stories—let’s strive to be the bird.

Songbird (credit: Science Daily)

Songbird (credit: Science Daily)

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB