By Scott London — June 15, 2010
It’s remarkable how quickly organizations seize on words like “innovative” and “entrepreneurial” to describe efforts that are anything but.
It’s remarkable how quickly organizations seize on words like “innovative” and “entrepreneurial” to describe efforts that are anything but.
Yesterday I witnessed the emergence of a monarch butterfly in my backyard. It was a stirring experience. A month ago, I had noticed several caterpillars gorging themselves on a milkweed plant in our garden. After fattening up and devouring every last leaf of the plant, the caterpillars all disappeared. Later I found that one of them had made its way to the top of a vine alongside our kitchen window. After about a day or two, it attached itself to a branch of the vine, turned upside down, and began a monthlong metamorphosis.
I didn’t see the caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, but the following morning I found it hanging on the vine. The bright green pupa was cleverly disguised and hard to spot among the green leaves.
Three and a half weeks went by without any activity. Finally, I noticed that the chrysalis began to shift from a bright green to a dark brown color. I could make out the faint pattern of monarch wings through the skin.
In a matter of a few hours, the pupa became transparent as the insect began to separate itself from the skin.
The wings were now clearly visible through the delicate husk.
In less than two hours, the chrysalis had become virtually transparent.
Suddenly it cracked open.
In a matter of seconds, the creature began to ease out of the enclosure.
The butterfly unfurled as it descended out of the chrysalis.
The camera data on these photos shows that the exposures were taken mere seconds apart. The emergence took less than a minute.
Here the butterfly reaches it’s legs out of the pupa, grabs on, and in one swift movement eases itself completely into the open.
The wings were soft, wet and rumpled. It took a few minutes for them fully straighten out.
Here the newborn butterfly spent several minutes testing its equipment: moving its wings and curling and uncurling its proboscis, or antannae.
As the wings slowly straightened out, the butterfly made its way up to the branch of the vine.
Here the full splendor of the new female monarch was on display. It stayed in the same position, motionless, overnight. Later the next morning it finally took its first flight, fluttering off to a nearby rose bush.
The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly took 28 days.
The traditional media have not always been kind to Twitter. Last year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd confessed, with her customary grandiloquence, that she would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over her and red ants eat out her eyes than open a Twitter account.
In a commentary in the Washington Post titled “The Tedium is the Message,” Jeanne McManus asked: “Is it just me or isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think that if I’m scrambling an egg, you’ll want to know about it?” Sorry, she said, “I don’t want to hear about how you got a bad case of athlete’s foot or learn the details of your knee being drained.”
Fair enough. As a blogging platform, one limited to posts of just 140 characters, it’s true that Twitter is sometimes shallow, often self-referential, and occasionally outright narcissistic. It’s obsessed with celebrities, rife with rumors and half-truths, and prone to hype and hysteria. So the critics have a point.
But what the old-world commentators and traditional news media have generally missed about the Twitter phenomenon is that it represents something rather remarkable — a real-time, truly interactive global source of bite-sized information. As a medium, Twitter has given us an altogether new way to disseminate, share, and interact with information.
I joined Twitter exactly two years ago. I was hardly an early adopter, and I’ve never been a heavy user. Yet I’ve come to love the platform.
I’m as guilty as the next person of tweeting about the banalities of daily life. Just a few days I go, I posted this:
Sooner or later we all break down and tweet about what we ate for breakfast. Here goes. Today I had an amazing omelette with ratatouille.
Okay, I’m not proud of that one. I’ve also been given to reposting misattributed quotes, like this one:
“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain … and most fools do.”
— Dale Carnegie
That line was actually penned by Benjamin Franklin, not Dale Carnegie. I should have checked the source before posting.
And on more than a few occasions I’ve posted broken links, left out essential quotation marks, and changed people’s words around to make them fit.
Despite these faux pas, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of Twitter and have often marveled at how powerful it can be. Here are five things I love about it.
1. Tracking news in real time
First, it’s an unparalleled medium for keeping your ear to the ground on just about any subject. As a journalist, Twitter has become my secret weapon for quickly learning about the latest developments on a wide range of fronts. Saving searches as RSS feeds, for example, is a way to easily track changes in fields you care about.
For example, I use Twitter to keep tabs of who might be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize each year. The Twitter search “Nobel Peace” http often generates better results than a Google web or news search by giving me actual links to webpages that contain the words “Nobel Peace.” And it does so in real-time.
2. Bypassing the gatekeepers
Second, it’s a powerful way to quickly share important news and information. We know from the countless news stories that have broken thanks to Twitter — from protests in Tehran to irregularities in the Ukrainian presidential election to the famous photo of US Airways flight #1549 floating in the Hudson River — that it can be a lifeline for people, especially those who may be silenced or oppressed, or who find themselves in some type of emergency.
3. Giving and getting instant feedback
Third, it’s an extraordinary way of sending and receiving instant feedback. One of the most powerful uses of Twitter, I’ve found, is as a means of monitoring reactions to ongoing events. Take the presidential debates during the 2008 elections, for example. There was no place better than Twitter to turn for instant analysis of what was being said. The same was true for the Academy Awards. Even the recent TED conference in Long Beach was made that much more interesting by scanning people’s immediate reactions on Twitter.
But public events are not the only way to post and read feedback. Even in smaller settings — academic conferences, say, or film festivals — Twitter can be a great way for groups to communicate with one another. It’s the go-to source for, say, posting follow-up questions, correcting factual errors, or reporting on last-minute schedule changes.
4. Keeping people posted
Fourth, it’s an efficient way of keeping friends and contacts up-to-date. When a wildfire broke out in the hills above Santa Barbara, where I live, I was inundated with calls and e-mails from people concerned about our safety. I found that Twitter was the most efficient way of keeping everybody informed and up-to-date.
I know others who have done the same when they are about to undergo surgical procedures, travel to remote or dangerous places, or take part in some special event where it’s simply not practical to send out individual e-mails or text messages. Many people prefer tweets to Facebook status updates, myself included, though more and more people now link the two so that both accounts are updated simultaneously.
5. Edifying, provoking and inspiring
Finally — and here I have to confess to a personal bias for information that edifes and inspires — I find Twitter a great source for sharing thought-provoking quotes, valuable observations, and little gems of wisdom. Of the 700-plus people that I follow, about two dozen or so constantly impress me with their brilliance, insight, wit, and amusing way with words. I consider some of them to be bona fide poets, others masters of the quotidian aperçu or the wise aphorism. I never like to miss a single tweet of theirs, even though I sometimes go for a whole day or more without logging in to Twitter. And just as I like to read a beautifully-crafted tweet, I love the challenge of parsing my own — especially if it means crystallizing some insight or rendering an observation into a succinct line of prose. In that sense, the satisfactions of Twitter are not unlike those of a crossword puzzle or a good game of Scrabble.
I recently read that Twitter is continuing to add 300,000 new accounts per day. The number is misleading. While there are no doubt a few late arrivals, many of the newcomers are marketers trying to use Twitter to turn a profit. But as the platform continues to grow and evolve, I believe more and more people will come to recognize that the real value of Twitter lies not in its commercial applications, but rather as a means of sharing information, engaging in dialogue, and creating new knowledge together.
Over the past two years, I’ve posted over 1,200 tweets. Here’s a baker’s dozen:
Google the word “change” and the first result is a link to the White House. How dreary, “change” has become a euphemism for the status quo.
I don’t believe in paying your dues, but sometimes it’s the only way to overcome self-doubt or a lingering belief that you’re a charlatan.
Someone once called me a social critic. I hate that term. I want to be known by what I praise and celebrate, not what I review and critique.
Truth is kind, but rarely gentle.
We cling to our point of view as if everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence. Like fall and winter, they come and go.
If I were given the chance to live my life over, I’d repeat the same mistakes, only sooner.
It’s not enough to be merely intelligent. Many intelligent people are aimless and discontent. We’ve got to be intelligent and inspired.
I’ve always been a bit suspicious of spiritual people who lack a sense of humor.
Creativity is not about inventing new ideas so much as violating the boundaries between those ideas and concepts we already take for granted.
People often talk about “overcoming” or “conquering” their problems. But I think it’s truer to say we outgrow them.
A book worth writing: “How To Be a Friend and Stop Trying to Influence People”
I used to think I could get by on smarts alone. It was a blow to discover how wrong I was…. And to find I wasn’t that smart to begin with.
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters you read on Twitter.
You can follow me me on Twitter at twitter.com/scottlondon
A decade ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with Laura Huxley, widow of the great British novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley. I spent several afternoons at her house in the Hollywood Hills.
We discussed her life with Aldous, her charity work on behalf of children, her frustrations with traditional psychotherapy, and, not least, her thoughts on death — a subject she said was impossible to avoid at her age (she was in her late 80s at the time). The conversations were eventually edited and broadcast on the radio.
As I was about to leave on the final day of our talks, she read me a short verse from Rabindranath Tagore. I was touched by it and scribbled it down on a small piece of paper. I tucked the note into my pocket and promptly forgot about it.
That was ten years ago. Today I rediscovered the scrap of paper in an old box. It was like finding a forgotten jewel.
Tagore’s lines are elegant in their simplicity, yet profound in their meaning. For Laura, they were words to live by.
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold, service was joy.
“Nonprofit.” It’s a curious word. It doesn’t tell us what it is, but it tells us what it’s not.
Given that the term has come to define a vast sector of American society — one that encompasses more than 1.5 million organizations and accounts for some 10 percent of the nation’s GDP — it would seem we could come up with a better phrase, or at least one that’s more descriptive.
The trouble is that many of the ideas put forward as an alternative simply miss the mark. Take, for example, the “voluntary sector.” The word accurately describes the activities of many charities, yes, but these organizations represent just a fraction of the total number of nonprofits in the U.S. And besides, the word implies that all those who work in the for-profit sector somehow do so involuntarily.
Other examples include the “third sector” and the “independent sector.” Hildy Gottlieb, director of the Community-Driven Institute, has made a compelling case for the term “community-benefit sector.” In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Dan Pallotta pitched the term “humanity sector.” And in an article some months ago in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Suzanne Perry suggested the “delta” sector.
Part of the reason we’re stuck with the term “nonprofit,” I believe, is because the field is so conceptually ambiguous. Much of what falls under the rubric of the nonprofit sector does not actually involve social service, community benefit, or even doing good. There are many nonprofits that are advocacy-driven, faith-based, or politically motivated, even though their tax-exempt status would suggest they are serving the public interest in some way.
In the academic literature, the field is often described as “civil society” or “the public sphere,” suggesting a kind of middle ground between public and private, between government and the free market. I realize that these terms encompass more than just nonprofit organizations (including, as they do, churches, neighborhood associations, book clubs, and the like). But they get closer, I think, to the real sphere of activity we’re talking about here.
These terms also avoid the unhelpful do-gooder connotations of terms like “the community benefit sector” and “the humanity sector.”
I prefer the term “civic sector,” or what the organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public refers to as “the citizen sector.” Both of these terms put ordinary people — citizens — at the center of the equation (as distinct from business and government). And as I see it, that’s really what this burgeoning sector is all about: the role of ordinary individuals, people like you and me, in inspiring new solutions, creating change, and making a real impact.
In his much-discussed new book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block makes a point of not trying to define a healthy and well-functioning community. The idea isn’t to create a visionary ideal for people to try to live up to, he says. Rather, it’s to encourage a shift in our way of thinking about community so we can bring about the qualities of an authentic sense of belonging. That, after all, is what community is really about.
Block’s approach sets this book apart from so many other works in the genre which try to map “best practices” or enumerate the essential features of a robust community. He understands that creating and sustaining a sense of belonging is fundamentally about the experience of community, not about it’s formal structures and mechanisms.
According to Block, the first and most pressing challenge is to transform people’s sense of isolation and self-interest into an experience of connectedness and caring for the whole. Creating that transformation requires a shift from seeing problems that need to be solved in the community to seeing possibilities that can be lived into. He writes at some length about “our love of problems,” saying that they run deeper than simply the joy of being right or escaping responsibility.
The problem is that we harbor a deeply ingrained belief that defining, analyzing, and studying problems is the way to make a better world. But what few of us realize, Block says, is that this notion — that life is a set of problems to be solved — “may actually limit any chance of the future being different from the past. The interest we have in problems is so intense that at some point we take our identity from those problems. Without them, it seems like we would not know who we are as a community. Many of the strongest advocates for change would lose their sense of identity if the change they desired ever occurred.”
Block says that the key task for leaders in bringing about this shift is to create structures for authentic engagement. This means 1) creating a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity, accountability, and commitment; 2) initiating and convening conversations that shift people’s experience, which occurs through the way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engage them; and 3) listening and paying attention.
Block is especially adamant about convening conversations in small-group settings. The small group is “the unit of transformation,” he says, because it creates a sense of intimacy. “The intimacy makes the process personal. It provides the structure where people overcome isolation and where the experience of belonging is created.”
Once the groups are brought together in a space that is conducive to genuine dialogue, it’s important to ask the right questions. Some examples include: What’s the commitment you hold that brought you into this room? What’s the crossroads you face at this stage of the game? And, what’s your contribution to the very thing you complain about? These questions, Block says, have the capacity to move something forward. By exploring them we become more accountable, more committed, more vulnerable; and when we voice our answers to one another, we grow more intimate and connected.
While this is an eminently practical book, one full of hands-on strategies for transforming groups, organizations, and communities at large, it’s not a handbook. It’s really about how those of us who care about building and strengthening communities think about that challenge — the basic assumptions and conceptual models we bring to it. Community: The Structure of Belonging says, in effect, don’t worry too much about formal structures and mechanisms of community and consider instead what it would mean to create change from the inside out — the sort rooted in an authentic sense of connectedness and belonging.
Some thirty years ago, historian and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns introduced the concept of “transformative leadership.” It was a powerful idea, one that continues to shape how I think about great leaders — in politics, certainly, but also in organizations, in communities, and even in small and informal groups. Burns observed that most leaders approach followers with an eye toward exchanging one thing for another — a swap of goods for money, for example, or a trading of votes between candidate and citizen. He called these leaders “transactional.” But there was a more complex and at the same time more powerful kind of leader that was “transformative,” he said. These individuals engage the full person of the follower and strive to satisfy some higher need on his or her part. The result of transformative leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation, one that converts followers into leaders and often convert leaders into moral agents. At its best, Burns observed, transformative leadership advances the common good while at the same time appealing to the highest good of both leaders and followers.
Here is an excerpt from Burns’s 1978 book, Leadership:
Transforming leadership … occurs when one or more persons engage with each other in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality…. Their purposes, which might have started out as separate but related, as in the case of transactional leadership, become fused. Power bases are linked not as counterweights but as mutual support for common purpose.
Various names are used for such leadership, some of them derisory: elevating, mobilizing, inspiring, exalting, uplifting, preaching, exhorting, evangelizing. The relationship can be moralistic, of course. But transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.
Perhaps the best modern example is Gandhi, who aroused and elevated the hopes and demands of millions of Indians and whose life and personality were enhanced in the process. Transcending leadership is dynamic leadership in the sense that the leaders throw themselves into a relationship with followers who will feel “elevated” by it and often become more active themselves, thereby creating new cadres of leaders. Transcending leadership is leadership engagé. Naked power-wielding can be neither transactional nor transforming; only leadership can be. [...]
Woodrow Wilson called for leaders who, by boldly interpreting the nation’s conscience, could lift a people out of their everyday selves. That people can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership.
For more, please see my book review of James MacGregor Burns’s Leadership.
I’m here in Oslo covering President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. His acceptance speech earlier today at Oslo City Hall was forceful, eloquent, and beautifully crafted. But, as I noted in an interview with NRK (Norwegian Radio and Television) after the lecture, I was dismayed by the address. Here’s a translation of the story:
SOUNDS LIKE SOMETHING BUSH MIGHT HAVE SAID
The American journalist Scott London was disappointed with Obama’s acceptance speech
By Amund Aune Nilsen
American commentators described President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech earlier today as contemplative and philosophical, Norwegian political leaders said it lacked vision but was grounded and pragmatic, while other opinion leaders here in Norway reacted favorably to the address.
But not everyone responded with the same enthusiasm.
“I’m disappointed,” American journalist Scott London told NRK. London is best known for his work on American public radio and has attended numerous Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies since 2001, as both journalist and invited guest.
“Obama is a great orator,” London said, “and he tends to use his speeches to raise difficult questions, to muster courage, to suggest possibilities. At their best, they challenge our assumptions while at the same time moving and inspiring us.”
London cited Obama’s speeches in Cairo and Prague as examples.
“But that’s not what we got today. Much of today’s speech was given to explaining, perhaps even justifying, why war is sometimes necessary.”
“Why would he do that on the occasion of winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Why would he offer such a sober defense of war? What would bring him to say ‘make no mistake: evil does exist in the world’ — a statement that sounds like something George Bush might have said?”
According to London, the answer is that the lecture was calculated to address Obama’s critics, to lower the public’s expectations, and to assure people that’s he’s a realist — not, like many laureates before him, a mere idealist.
The speech “will help to dispel some of the criticism he’s been getting at home in recent months,” London said. “But it will also disppoint some of his supporters.”
He went on to say that Obama has managed to make the most of his visit to Oslo, in part by avoiding the usual news conferences and public appearances. Obama did not meet the press prior to the award ceremony and has only fielded a couple of questions from journalists while in Oslo, following his meeting with prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.
“Briefings with the media are time-consuming and potentially risky,” London said, “since they allow the questions being asked, rather than the answers given in response, to frame the story.”
“By not giving any interviews, he’s using his Nobel lecture, not comments made to the press, to create the headlines,” he added. “With little else to report on, most news organizations will focus on the content of the speech instead.”
London referred to a news story by the Associated Press’s Ben Feller. Obama decided to stay in Oslo for only about 24 hours and skip the traditional second day of festivities, the article said. “This miffed some in Norway but reflects a White House that sees little value in extra pictures of the president, his poll numbers dropping at home, taking an overseas victory lap while thousands of U.S. troops prepare to go off to war and millions of Americans remain jobless.”
When asked about Norwegians’ handling of the event and whether they have been too uncritical and naive in connection with the award ceremony, London said he had not found that to be true.
His only comment was that the award ceremony was still unnecessarily formal, in spite of the committee’s efforts to bring a little showbiz to the proceedings in recent years. “It’s still embarrassingly stiff and formal,” said the journalist, “and having President Obama here makes that especially obvious.”
Read the article in the original Norwegian: Høres ut som noe Bush kunne ha sagt
I was also interviewed for some other recent stories:
“Art in an Ephemeral Age” is the theme of the Institute of Art and Ideas’ annual Art Festival at Hay in England, and among the many highlights this year is a look at Burning Man, perhaps the world’s preeminent gathering of ephemeral artists. Several discussion forums will tackle the subject of temporal art and performance artist Sarah Appleby will offer her own inimitable take on Burning Man.
Although I’m not able to attend the event, I was invited to exhibit some of my Burning Man photographs at the Globe, a converted church in Hay on Wye, which serves as the festival’s primary venue. The exhibit features over two dozen of my photos covering the last five years of the Burning Man festival. The show runs from November 13-28. More details here.
Today I read a remarkable passage from Nigerian novelist Ben Okri. It touches on the fate of great ideas and how the world tends to marginalize “true believers” and drive them down the path of disillusionment and defeat. The quote is from Okri’s book In Arcadia:
If you believe in something your very belief renders you unqualified to do it. Your earnestness will come across. Your passion will show. Your enthusiasm will make everyone nervous. And your naïveté will irritate. Which means that you will become suspect. Which means you will be prone to disillusionment. Which means that you will not be able to sustain your belief in the face of all the piranha fish which nibble away at your idea and your faith, till only the skeleton of your dream remains. Which means that you have to become a fanatic, a fool, a joke, an embarrassment. The world — which is to say the powers that be — would listen to your ardent ideas with a stiff smile on its face, then put up impossible obstacles, watch you finally give up your cherished idea, having mangled it beyond recognition, and after you slope away in profound discouragement it will take up your idea, dust it down, give it a new spin, and hand it over to someone who doesn’t believe in it at all.
“Be anything you like,” Thomas Merton once said, “be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.”
I love this quote. It’s a reminder to slow down and reexamine what we’re doing.
The fierce drive to accomplish something and make a name for ourselves too often takes us down the wrong path. In the end, the qualities we’re looking for are those that go with being free of worldly success.
Ultimately, the aim must be to become indifferent to what people think of us — to become immune to applause and unmoved by criticism. There is integrity in that.
The goal must be to be present with what we’re doing — so present that we do it gracefully, effortlessly. There is great joy in that.
Success, when it does come, tends to be relatively short-lived in any case. That means that we’re all thrown back on ourselves sooner or later. When that day arrives we have no choice but to find something more lasting to pin our hopes to.
And that, I believe, is what Merton was saying.
Incidentally, he became very successful himself. But he understood what few of us, in our quest for worldly recognition, realize — that celebrity, when freed of the trappings of ego, is simply another path of service.