11.26.2014

Thankfulness

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As a Christian, my sense of thankfulness comes from my relationship with God and my understanding that He has given me so much.  But you don't have to be a Christian to be thankful.  Neither do you have to be rich, healthy, or loved.  We are a spoiled people who seem to be ready to be cynical or mopey even amidst wealth, vitality, and comfort.  We ought to practice gratitude.  It doesn't need to be faked.  Tomorrow, when you fill yourself with turkey, consider yourself filled up with gratitude too.  Happy Thanksgiving to all. 

11.25.2014

Hubris

http://www3.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Sarah+Lacy+Travis+Kalanick+TechCrunch+Disrupt+McOWL3B3dshl.jpgSilicon Valley, where I'm from, is famous for its concentration of technology and innovation activity.  It is literally the envy of every region, including mine, that aspires to be a hub of entrepreneurship.

I could go on at length about what is the special sauce that is Silicon Valley, but one cause and/or effect of what makes Silicon Valley Silicon Valley is this notion that the world is out there to be changed radically.  The quintessential Silicon Valley aspires not only to billion dollar valuations but to creating something that will fundamentally shift how people live.  So products are no longer about the products themselves but about their transformative power on everyday life.  Facebook exists not to provide a social media platform but to radically make the entire world into a more open and connected place (my paraphrase of their official mission statement).

What is interesting about this kind of mindset is how it is now being applied to arenas outside business and technology.  The du jour thing for a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur to do now is to tackle new realms seen as allergic to innovation.  Whether in philanthropy, government, or education, tech titans are making a big splash in dollars, initiatives, and rhetoric.

I largely applaud the efforts and even the chutzpah behind them.  But let's be careful here.  Much of that awesome energy emanating from Silicon Valley borders on hubris.  It is natural to think that if you were wildly successful in one thing (say, forming and growing a software company), you can be successful at something else (say, reforming public education), even if you can't.  It is great to think you can change the world, but not if that renders you incapable of having humility and deference in your toolkit.

Even worse, it is a short step to assume that your lofty ends justify any means.  This is the point made recently about Uber by a British American Project colleague of mine, Lucy Marcus of Marcus Venture Consulting: "There's a sense that you can do whatever the heck you want for the sake of building your business."  The USA Today article in which Lucy is quoted underscores the hubristic culture that is Silicon Valley at its worst: brazen, misogynistic, and bullying.  (Uber's latest taunt was to threaten to obtain data on the travel info of a female reporter critical of them to prove a "particular and very specific claim" about her personal life.  That reporter, Sarah Lacy, is pictured above, with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.)

There is a lot to commend about Silicon Valley.  We have much to learn from its awesome ways.  But it too has much to learn, and I worry if it doesn't think it has anything to learn. 



11.24.2014

Lazy Linking, 140th in an Occasional Series

Stuff I liked lately on the Internets:
People wait in line to buy a pair of sneakers, the LeBron 11 What the Lebron, at a Foot Locker in Harlem, New York, on Sept. 13, 2014.

140.1 Michael Lewis: billionaires are a--holes bit.ly/1xvKr3b @tnr

140.2 The economics of the high end sneaker resale market 53eig.ht/1swvv2z @fivethirtyeight

140.3 Philly millennials are sticking it out in more and more neighborhood schools bit.ly/1xZK1TM @newsworks

140.4 America's obesity problem, explained in 21 visuals bit.ly/1wPOhBi @voxdotcom

140.5 Inner city Philly teens hacking their way to apps that solve social problems bit.ly/1xXRVw4 @nextcityorg


11.20.2014

Social Studies

http://blog.grdodge.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/greenline5-R.Kennedy.jpgRemember when we thought the Internet would render place meaningless?  It was once thought that if you could work from home, from a ski lodge, or from the middle of nowhere, people would scatter to the four corners and do their own thing.

Given the simultaneous rise of the knowledge economy, we now know the opposite has happened.  Brains seek out other brains, and humans are inherently social.  Which means that far from spreading out and being wherever we want to be, people are choosing to be together.  We are seeing a proliferation of co-working space in Philadelphia, city office space is doing far better than suburban office space, and regions that have robust mechanisms for encouraging formal and informal interactions among their top researchers are finding the most success when it comes to generating patents and securing venture money.

In my own life, I have enjoyed catching up with past colleagues, potential clients, and former students both in pre-planned meet-ups over coffee or lunch, or in serendipitous encounters on the street or in the bus.  Think of how hard this would be to do in the suburbs: a simple morning meet-up for juice and bagels would entail contending with traffic and parking twice, and you certainly wouldn't want to literally crash into an old friend while on I-95.

Just this month, I have had or will have 18 one-on-one meet-ups, and none of them involved more than a five-minute walk from my house or my office.  And, I have attended one "Junto" style group meeting and have been invited to two others that will take place next month.  I am better for all of these human interactions, both because the people I spend time with make me happy and because the greater interconnectedness leads to new ideas for my brain and new business for my firm. Who could've predicted this?


11.19.2014

We've Got Next

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Tonight I will be on a panel discussion co-sponsored by Next City, WURD, Al Dia, and Knight Foundation called "The University as Community."  You can register here

We've got a great group, representing Chicago/Cleveland/Philly, to talk about the ways universities engage in and partner with their host communities.  Living in University City, it's a topic I breathe in every day.  I hope you'll come out and join the discussion!

11.18.2014

Growth Strategy

http://www.sierranaturenotes.com/naturenotes/images/USAtNight1.gifI'm doubly lucky that I get to do so much work in Philadelphia.  First, it allows me to be involved in important and interesting things in my own city.  Second, I don't have to live the typical consultant's life of living out of a suitcase, which is nice, since I like to be able to walk my kids to school in the morning and sit down for dinner with my family in the evening.

There's always room for more work in Philadelphia; it is the fifth largest city in the US, after all.  But as we seek to grow at my firm, we're thinking some of that growth is going to come by doing more work outside of Philadelphia.  Which means more travel.

Thankfully, even as we are becoming more successful in getting out-of-town work, much of that work still allows for breakfast at home and tucking the kids into bed at night (or at least one of the two).  Think of what's within an easy day trip of Philly and back, and most without the need for a car, no less:

* The nation's political capital and one of the great power centers in the world (Washington DC)

* The nation's financial capital and one of the great money centers in the world (New York City)

* Four state capitals (Harrisburg, Trenton, Dover, Annapolis)

* Four other major financial/population/tourism centers (Baltimore, Newark, Wilmington, Atlantic City)

That's ten legit hubs of potential business for us!  To say nothing of dozens of second-tier places like Lancaster, Allentown, and Jersey City, all of which could represent work for us.  To be sure, we're seeking work far and wide (you may recall that we've done a bunch of stuff in the US Virgin Islands, for example, and we're looking at something in California right now).  But it's good to know that there's lots to do in Philly itself, and in numerous nearby cities that are just a train or short car ride away.

11.16.2014

Humbled

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In my circles, conservative evangelical Christianity is not only uncommon but abhorrent.  Secularism reigns in these parts, and the gracious openness offered to religious people and religious issues does not extend to followers of Jesus. 

Though I am myself "one of those," I did not grow up in the faith and so I feel I am in a better position to get outside of our box and think about this in more neutral terms.  It seems to me that people tend to think in one of two ways, neither of which rubs well against the Christian perspective.  One is that there is no need for atonement/redemption/salvation, because humans are OK.  The other is that there is such a need for atonement/redemption/salvation, but there are many ways to define and achieve it. 

It strikes me that most people should be able to understand that there are these two ways to think about human existence, and that there is also another approach that says there are limited ways to define and achieve atonement/redemption/salvation, of which some may believe that there is only really one way to do so.  Given that reasonable people disagree about small and big things all the time, it shouldn't surprise folks when they encounter people who come at this from all of those different angles.

The particular bile directed at Christians must come from somewhere, then, besides just something inherent to this kind of disagreement.  Here I must jump back into my Christian box because when I wasn't a Christian I was never hot against Christians for believing what they believed, so I have no special insight as to where the venom is coming from.

Back inside my Christian box, I think I can see what the problem is.  In our minds, we are the aggrieved, simply adhering to and speaking forth what we have learned from church and the Bible, and incredulous as to why so many people are so furious at us for what we believe to be the truth, and life-giving truth at that.

What we don't realize is how little we have translated our salvation experience into the kind of humble and deferent posture that ought to mark our interactions with the world as redeemed people of God.  We know in our heads that what we have been taught is that we are all broken and guilty and dead and hopeless, and that it is only by the saving work of Jesus that we are made whole again in God and with God.  And yet how we live so seldom conveys any such relief or gratitude or joy, but rather evokes a conceited and arrogant and dismissive posture to those around us.

Most of those around me have not likely had any contact with a truly humbled Christian person to know what it is really like to have your life changed by Jesus.  Indeed, many of those around me have had bad experiences with Christians, and have taken in all the hypocrisy between what they profess and how they actually live.  Why wouldn't you react harshly against a religion whose adherents act so condescendingly and self-righteously? 

While involved in a Christian group during college, I attended a number of training conferences on overseas Christian missions.  Through those events I was introduced to the concept of "syncretism," which basically means grafting parts of your home beliefs onto the Christian faith.  I admit that upon hearing examples of syncretism among new Christian converts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, I found them blatantly and obviously wrong.  Couldn't these new Christians see that what they were holding onto about their home cultures was clearly not of their new faith?

But it turns out I and other American Christians are similarly guilty.  We have metastasized our salvation story into something that resembles little of what we should look like if we have truly encountered Jesus.  We are far too dismissive of God's right to speak absolute truth into this world.  We are far too dismissive of just how far gone we are apart from divine resuscitation.  And, having been redeemed, we think far too highly of ourselves and far too condescendingly of others.  And finally, to top it all off, we've cocooned ourselves in a world of material comfort, somehow not only ignoring God's calls to radical anti-consumerism but patting ourselves on the back for deserving our fortune more than those around us.

Don't get me wrong: I love America.  I bleed red, white, and blue, tear up at the singing of the national anthem, and believe in the controversial notion of American exceptionalism.  We are the greatest nation human history has ever seen, we are the strongest country in the world, and we are most emphatically not on the decline and nor would it be good for the world if we were.

However.  America's DNA includes some dark strains.  We chafe against absolute authority.  We think that doing whatever we want to do and being whoever we want to be is literally our God-given right.  We think everything we have is by our own hard work.  We are used to getting our way, and to thinking that if we don't that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.  And we are not a humble people, when it comes to our own successes and when it comes to comparing ourselves against the failures of others.

That DNA has infiltrated most of us American Christians' way of life.  It is difficult to see it, admit it, or turn from it.  But until we do, we show nothing new to those around us.  Would that instead we realize how mighty is our God, how far we have fallen, how high He has lifted us up, and how little we have done to warrant such a rescue.  Then we might live joyful, simple, and humbled lives in the presence of others.  Then they might see that as good as happiness or advancement or possessions or comfort are, there is a life that is deeper and richer still.  Then we might speak of absolute truth and unexpected mercy in ways that do not put down others or elevate ourselves, but rather that give credit to Whom credit is truly due. 

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” - Luke 18:9-14