Saturday, March 27, 2010

There Are No "Supposed-To"s, and other thoughts on how to live

(image from R'eyes on flickr)

I love meeting people in transition: graduating students, travelers, career switchers. It is such a tense moment of life, crawling with uncertainty, opportunity, and risk - there is no better time for the type of conversation that shapes lives.

Here is what I like to tell people going through such transitions, and what I like to tell myself as I navigate the ceaseless transition of living.

First, there is no such thing as 'supposed to.' There is no predetermined path through life that we must divine; no secret map to fulfillment that, if missed, will leave us floundering. We have a profound freedom as human beings to assess the options presented to us, and to choose those we believe are best. Are we going to make mistakes and have false starts and change our minds? Of course! But what greater joy than to chart one's own course, and what better map than our own constantly developing sense of purpose?

Second, as Westerners we face a challenge almost entirely unique in human history - an over-abundance of options. The typical college graduate is halted not by a lack of opportunity, but by a wave of it. Not that we all have our choice of highly-paid positions, but we can pursue almost any field or profession or interest we like, in almost any country in the world! And the kicker is, we never know which option is best. We can't. We don't get a trial run. The best we can do is apply all the experience and knowledge and sage advice that we have access to and dive in, and be ready to learn along the way.

Third, once you've chosen your pursuit, there are three principles to bring to it in order to maximize it. One, Commitment. Every successful pursuit I have seen has come from a deep commitment to that pursuit. If it's not worth committing to, don't do it. If it's worth doing, commit. Two, Enthusiasm. Get excited and enjoy the ride! If you can't have a little fun at it, it's probably not for you. Three, Flexibility. This is the balance to Commitment. Remember, you didn't get a practice run, and you made a decision with incomplete information. Don't let one decision shape the rest of your life if you don't want it to. Always be ready to learn and course-correct.

Fourth, failure is always an option. I've heard it said that if you want more success, increase your failure rate. I've personally set out on a good number of failed adventures, and learned a ton along the way. Of the several projects I currently have going, most will likely fail. And that's fine! The point of it is the journey and the things you learn and the people you meet along the way. And if the end of a particular path is failure, that does not erase one experience or conversation or relationship you had in getting there.

Fifth, have a little whimsy. My friend Bob first introduced me to whimsy, and the idea is simple: just do some stuff. Have an idea? Do it, see what happens, don't worry so much about the outcome. And when I looked at the people that I most admired I found that they all seemed to have some whimsy in them. They weren't the ones sitting back doing cost-benefit analyses of each new idea, they were out doing stuff, with commitment, enthusiasm and flexibility, not bound by the outcome of each experiment, but enjoying every bit of the journey along the way.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

!deation Conference

Great ideas are the first small step towards making a difference; execution is the journey. Or as Thomas Edison famously put it, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

That's why my friend Charles is launching the !deation Conference this April. His vision is a gathering of innovators and practitioners coming together to envision and execute new ideas. And the first conference is focused on the humanitarian non-profit world.

He's queuing a great line-up of speakers including Scott Harrison, Ben Keesey, and Jake Harriman, and just as importantly for this venue is the network of folks in the audience. Charles brings together a community of people who are out to change the world, and when they get together in the same space, sparks fly.

Check out the conference website and connect with Charles on twitter. Drop my name or jamestravels in the referral box when you register and I might see you there.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Decade of Reinvention

Welcome to the future. That's what I think to myself every time I remember that it's 2010. There was so much Y2K buildup 10 years ago that it didn't seem strange when we made the jump to 2000, but I remember thinking even then that 2010 was impossibly distant, shrouded in sci-fi mystery. And now here we are. In the future.

As I look ahead to the next 10 years I can't help but think that this is a perfect time to take everything we've learned, all the paydirt of scientific progress and globalization and the communications revolution and put it to work building the world that we want to live in. So I've christened the new decade for myself as the "Decade of Reinvention." And you are welcome to join me.

Read the Decade of Reinvention anthem on Plywood People.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Economics of Fast Food

How people hurt themselves
in their own self-interest

The classical free market economics story runs like this:

Premise A: People only act in their self-interest.
Premise B: People often eat fast food.
Therefore: Fast food is often in people's self-interest.

And there are situations when fast food is in a person's self-interest. But eating it daily for lunch is not one of them. Nor is continuing to eat it after it has contributed to a person's obesity. But still people eat it. And eat it. And eat it. Why?

The answer, I believe, can be summarized in a single-word revision to Premise A above: "People only act in their own felt self-interest." The implication is clear - people are sometimes wrong about what is good for them.

A reasonable assessment of the decision to eat or not eat fast food at any given time might look something like this.

Pros: It's cheap, it's fast, it tastes good, it fills you up.
Cons: It lacks many key nutrients, it causes a dangerous glycemic response, it leads to obesity and it's associated illnesses, it increases the risk of diabetes, it leads to inflated costs in the healthcare system, it contributes to the homogenization of the food industry.

Looking at this list, you might again question why people eat fast food at all. I'll offer two reasons.

First, this list only includes conscious, rational decision points, while subconscious, extra-rational decision factors are also at play. In this case, two subconscious factors weight heavily on the positive side.
  1. Instinctual Desires: our bodies evolved to crave fat and sugar, since they are calorie-dense and rare in nature, but they are abundant at McDonald's - two patties worth of one and a super-sized cup of the other.
  2. Marketing Impressions: advertising seeks to associate images or feelings with certain brands or products, and fast food has benefited as much from advertising as any industry. When we step up to that counter, we're not just buying a burger; we're buying a feeling that was seeded there by months of careful marketing.

Second, the Pros in the list are immediate, meaning that if I decide to eat fast food I quickly experience each of the pros - the cheapness, the quickness, the taste, the fullness - while the cons are not immediate. I don't feel the lack of nutrients right away, I don't even know what the glycemic response does feel like, and all the other ones either won't affect me for a while, or contribute to some larger problem that one meal can hardly affect one way or the other.

Our brains are not geared for long-term thinking. As best I can see it, on average we can consider about one year in advance, and after that things start to lose definition rapidly. And moreover, when we are only a small part of a much larger problem we tend to minimalize and rationalize our part in the problem. So it's okay if I take this extra long shower or use paper plates instead of flatware or buy fast food instead of cook, because in the scheme of things my choices don't mean much. But of course these problems will only be solved when each of us makes the decision to change.

In the case of fast food our natural subconscious tendencies outweigh our reason. Fast food is rarely in our self-interest, but the immediacy of the benefits, the food's appeal to our instinctual desires, and the feelings that stuck from marketing campaigns often overcome the negatives, which, though numerous, rational, and weighty, are minimalized by their lack of immediacy. So instead of doing what is in our rational self-interest, we order a combo meal.

This is where economics needs to grow the most. The model of human decision making typically employed in economic models is to a mind what a stick figure is to a man. Only as economists learn to account for this more conflicted, nuanced version of humanity will economics reach it's predictive potential.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Welcome to the choicemob

1 - Buy from Better World Books on December 7th: Click the choicemob button above to go to Better World Books. Order a book or a gift card, get free, carbon-offset shipping, and smile. (If you'd like your purchase to support Invisible Children specifically, use this link.)

2 - Spread the Word: Post something like the status below in Facebook/Twitter/AIM, whathaveyou.
I just bought a gift from Better World Books as part of the choicemob. You're invited to do the same.
Post about choicemob on your blog (sample post here), and use either this custom link or this code for the button you see above so we can track our effectiveness.
<a href=""><img src="" /></a>
Change your profile pics to the picture below (click for full size).

Everyone who helps share and pings the choicemob fan page or twitter or tumblr will be eligible for a giveaway of custom recycled choicemob gift bags by Emily Grace Goodrich.

3 - If you're giving Better World Books as a gift, let the recipient know:

Print out this card and include it with your gift (links to PDF):

Use this stencil to make choicemob gift bags. Print it on thick paper (or paste it on posterboard) cut it out, and spay it onto a bag - paper, plastic, cloth, whatever you like. Make sure to let it dry before giving it away. (click for full-size jpg, 10in width, 300 dpi)

4 - Start brainstorming the next choicemob: Chocolates for Valentine's Day? Sandals for Spring? Green top hats for St. Patty's Day? Share your ideas on our facebook page.

This is a great beginning.


Friday, December 04, 2009

How Choicemob will Change the Market

The goal of the choicemob is to make it profitable for companies to practice Fairness, Compassion, and Respect for the Earth. Here’s why:

1 - The first priority of business is to make a profit. This focus on profit has pulled billions of people out of poverty and given much of the world unprecedented standards of living. But…

2 - Profit drove many businesses to bad practices. Over the last 50 years businesses flew all over the world looking to cut costs with the cheapest labor and raw materials in order to increase profits. Sometimes this led to abuses like child labor, deforestation, and conflict minerals. And we consumers didn’t ask many questions. We just enjoyed the cheap stuff and the rising stock prices. Anyone can tell you that this is unethical, and now that global business has gone from a $1 trillion game to a $61 trillion game over that same fifty years, we can see it’s also unsustainable.

3 - Only profit will convince the business world to embrace social values. Making money is still top priority for business. So if we want business to do good we have to make doing good profitable. Luckily this is way easier than it sounds. As a business owner, let me tell you: Consumers are powerful. If you buy something from me, I’ll keep making it the same way. If you don’t buy it, I’ll try something new. And if you buy from someone else instead of me, I’ll start doing what they’re doing. It’s that simple.

So if we aim our collective buying power at companies that uphold our common values: Fairness, Compassion, and Respect for the Earth, we can change the market. By supporting their bottom line and shouting all over about how great their social values are, we’ll draw the envy of other businesses. They’ll see that we’re serious about our values, and they’ll start to change to earn our business.

And when business changes, the world changes. This coming Monday we choicemob Better World Books. Let’s show the world that we mean business.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

An invitation to the choicemob

Business is changing the world, right now, every day, more dramatically than ever. Our industrialized, globalized, informationalized economy has offered billions a ladder out of poverty and improved livelihoods around the world. But it simultaneously exploits our planet and our fellow men at unprecedented levels. And it doesn't have to.

Business is the most radically adaptive form of organization, constantly testing the marketplace and shifting to accommodate. If we speak our values loudly enough business will listen and adapt. But we must speak in the language of the market - money and attention.

That's why I'm starting the choicemob. It's a simple idea: A community of people committed to improving the way that business operates by supporting companies that uphold our common values: Fairness, Compassion, and Respect for the Earth.

By driving sales and attention for these companies we will improve their bottom line and draw the envy of their competitors. We will help make social value the next disruptive force in the marketplace.

The first choicemob starts in a week in support of Better World Books. Check them out - they're an amazing company. We need as many people as possible to buy gifts from and write articles, posts, statuses about Better World Books - hundreds of people, thousands of people - the more the better.

If you agree that business should reflect our common values - Fairness, Compassion, and Respect for the Earth - please join the choicemob and invite your friends.

choicemob Statement of Purpose:

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Meet Mama Esther

The past couple years I've been working on a fair trade, socially proactive business called Acholi Beads. Esther was one of our first partners in Uganda, and has done incredible things to pull her family out of poverty. This is her story:

Mama Esther - A Video Portrait from James Pearson on Vimeo.

For more info, visit

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Post Crisis Consumer

Business Will Change the World, chapter 4: If you won't buy it...

Business is the most powerful force shaping our lives, so this chapter asks: How do we guide business to do more good and less harm?

I believe that this question is one of the great callings of our moment in history. If we can aim the unprecedented power of global business in the direction of progress, and I believe we can, then we might not only avert a number of potential crises, we will also make enormous improvements in the lives of billions of people.

So, how do we do it? First the general principle, then the strategy:

If we don't buy it, they won't make it. And if we do buy it, everyone will try to make it. Business is that simple.

When you purchase a product you fund the entire supply chain that got that product to you, from mining, drilling and logging, through design and manufacturing, to transport, wholesale and retail. You give the CEO his allowance.

And so that very same CEO and his counterparts in companies all over the world spend billions of dollars trying to figure out what you and your friends want, hoping to make the types of things you will buy. So if we come together and send a clear message that we will only buy products that uphold our values, companies will fall over themselves to make them! And the clearest message you can send to a company starts with a dollar sign.

Telling a company that we don't like their labor practices but continuing to buy their shoes sends a clear message: "We want your shoes regardless; don't worry about it." And likewise, telling a company that we love their commitment to the environment while not buying their dish soap does nothing to pay salaries and keep the lights on; it tells them that we don't care. Money is the language that business listens for in the market, and it's the language that we must use in order to be effective in guiding business.

So the lesson is simple. Continually shift your purchases towards the more ethically and environmentally sound companies and products, reinforcing their good practices and drawing their competitors into that space.

Of course, if only you and I do this it won't make a difference. We need masses. This is where the principle must be breathed into a powerful strategy for success. I believe that any effective strategy here is going to have three components: stories, leaders, and tools.

Stories: If you're reading this you likely understand the importance of guiding business to do better, but many people don't. They don't feel a connection with or responsibility for the history of the products they buy - the people and environments that are affected both positively and negatively. We need great storytellers to capture and relate the fascinating, emotional, human stories behind our products, in all their immeasurable buoyancy and desperate tragedy. Films must be made, books written, songs sung, until millions realize the huge opportunity and responsibility that we have to improve our world.

Leaders: This is going to be a big, controversial, chaotic movement, and I believe it will grow exponentially over the next 5 years. We need passionate, self-assured, single-minded leaders to stand up and guide this growing community towards effective action. The great principle of their leadership will be partnership with business, finding and supporting the great businesses and encouraging the others to catch up. This focus on progress will give hope and energy to the movement, and financial incentive for businesses to listen.

Tools: Right now it costs people a lot of time and effort to find businesses and products that uphold their values. But it doesn't have to. The technology exists to make this as easy as pulling out your cellphone and scanning a barcode. I've been working on a project called WikiChoice to do just that, and there are different projects around the globe with similar aims. We need the best minds, the most talented programmers, the most visionary technologists to devote their focus to these tools. The right tool is going to change the world. Can you build it?

Right now, and while you sleep tonight, and tomorrow and every day and night thereafter, businesses all over the world are going to be building the future of this planet. You have power in that process. We all do. And now is the moment in history when our influence on business is most critical. Business is changing the world more boldly than ever before, and it needs our values to guide it towards progress. If we rise to that challenge we will turn the most powerful force in the world to the work of our common values: fairness, compassion, and respect for the earth. Let's do it together.

[I'm working on one of the starting points for this movement. Check back soon for more info.]