On Confidence and Growth

“True self-confidence is “the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” Real self-confidence is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow.”

“What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?”

– Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck

 

Nairobi Terrorism and the Hierarchy of Trauma

Talking about evil is hard. It involves at least two paradoxes. Here’s the first. On the one hand, to denounce evil is an ethical act. It is to affirm our deepest values and to commit ourselves to preventing acts that dehumanize others. On the other hand, to denounce evil can be an unethical act. It is a way of demonizing; it is, precisely, to dehumanize another. Here’s the second paradox: On the one hand, we need to the concept of evil to philosophically and ethically distinguish acts that shock our consciences, acts that are not adequately encompassed by words like bad, wicked, or wrong. The concept of evil clarifies. On the other hand, the concept of evil confuses, prevents thinking. We imagine evil is other than human, beyond understanding, almost mystical. This lets us off the hook, lets us deny our own capacity for evil, and stops us from analyzing the very human, very common causes of it.

James Dawes: The Guts of Atrocity

I have never quite known what to react in the wake of tragedy. Saying too much almost feels too opinionated, and saying too little almost feels to insincere. I remember my first encounter five years ago with a personal tragedy and death was uncontrollable laughter. Apparently my ‘coping’ mechanism then, was to try to see the humorous side of the story. Highly inappropriate. But now, over the past week, I am finding no humor that can help me cope as I watch Kenya balance a growing sadness of a nation, the anger of their citizens and the anguish of loved ones as terrorists stormed an upscale mall in Nairobi claiming over 60 lives.

As emails, phone calls, texts and social media updates came pouring in, the irony is not lost on me on how tragedies happen everyday around the world and yet, why is it that this one just seems so much more real. As my emotions slide between the continuum of “why” and “shock”, a strange version of this Hierarchy of Trauma began to emerge. As I scroll through the news for updates on Nairobi on that day, and throughout the week, it dawned on me that hundreds of people die and are affected by conflicts around the world. In Pakistan, 81 people perished in a church suicide bombing. In Nigeria, over 500 perished in terrorist related violence in the north of the country, and the on-going Syria crisis has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Countries and communities that I can’t even comprehend who and where – are suffering. Yet, why my heart aches the most for my Nairobi home and only for a fleeting moment of empathy for the news in Pakistan.

And suddenly it struck me, trauma and grief isn’t a competition or a hierarchy. We each grieve for different losses, in our own way and in time. There is no trauma that is superior to, lesser, greater, less shocking, better covered, or any other comparative phrase, than the suffering of any individual or community. All we can do, is know that even if your experience does not have a chapter in other stories of conflict and trauma, it still a part of our story as humanity as a whole.

Thinking of you.

***

Selected pieces that provide different perspectives on the Nairobi incident:

1) Generosity of citizens in donations for the victims

2) NY Times on the Value of Suffering 

3) A Tribute to a Friend: Ravi

4) Aung San Suu Kyi: the Freedom from Fear

5) A beautiful piece in The Nation on forgiveness

6) Nanjala Nyabola in Al-Jazeera on Keeping the Nairobi incident in perspective 

7) An interview with author, James Dawes on his new book: Evil Men – a collection of dialogues with war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)

How are We Standing with the Poor?

“The more someone identifies with a profession or an “accomplishment” such as an award, the less human he will be (in the classical sense). In virtue ethics, the only “excellence” worth attaining is that of “being human”, with all what it entails (honor, courage, service, satisfaction of public & private duties, willingness to face death, etc.); “achievements” are reductions and alienations for lower forms of life.

IN ANCIENT ROME this was a privilege reserved for the patrician class. They were able to engage in professional activities without directly identifying with them: to write books, lead armies, farm land, or transact without being a writer, general, farmer, or merchant, but “a man (*vir* rather than *homo*) who” writes, commands, farms or transacts, as a side activity.

TODAY, as humanity got much, much richer, one would have thought that everyone would have access to the privilege. Instead, I only find it in minimum wage earners who just “make a living” and feel forced to separate their identity from their profession. The higher up in the social ladder, the more people derive their identity from their profession and “achievements”. – Nassim Taleb

When I was with Acumen Fund, we would ask ourselves: How are we standing with the poor? And quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if I even really knew what that meant. For the longest time, I thought it meant putting myself into another person’s perspective, trying to see the world through their eyes and “speak up” for those who didn’t have a voice. And then I came across this posting by Nassim Taleb, who separates out identity and accomplishment and really got me reevaluating my definition. It also made me realize how hard it was, as the higher up the social ladder you are, the harder it is to distinguish between identity and accomplishment, the harder it is to relate.

Standing with the poor is about looking beyond profession. Beyond awards and accomplishments. Beyond first impressions. Standing with the poor is a reminder to oneself to separate the way you look at yourself and others around you; between their accomplishments and identity. Standing with the poor is about understanding self-worth, regardless of what situation/career/social status you are in.

And at the end of the day, it all comes back to valuing human dignity.

Goodbye Vancouver, See you later New York, Hello Nairobi!

2012 has been my year of being in between stories.  A process that involves embracing uncertainty to explore possibility, constant iteration in future plans, packing and repacking my belongings into two luggages, moving between continents and trying to make some sense out the disorientating dance of the familiar and unfamiliar.

In the beginning of the year, I left my job with the intention of beginning a new adventure. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was especially hard as I had grown to deeply respect my company and had mentors at the firm that I still treasure to this day. But there was this nagging little voice inside of me that pushed to me to leap. To be bold and pursue my interests: one that thrives in the intersection of impact investing, design thinking and change.

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.” -Alan Keightley

There is a myth of consistency in life stories. People tend to expect a familiar story, a journey that they have heard before and unsurprisingly, we impose this ‘familiar story’ on ourselves. We fail to leap because we believe that our capacity to dream is in accordance to our inherited prejudice of what we have been told/come to expect. When faced with uncertainty, people tend to intuitively, move to find a solution quickly. They tend to rush down a path, usually towards familiarity, at the expense of the insight and engagement that uncertainty can bring. It is in these situations that I am slowly realizing that our courage and faith must be addressed to the dreams we have been afraid to dream, either because they are too difficult, or because it has been too breathtaking to even comprehend how they could possibly exist within our current constraints.

My journey for 2012, has brought me out of Vancouver, to New York, to Malaysia and now to Nairobi, Kenya where I am working everyday to not only “willing to challenge the status quo, but understand the world as it is and have the audacity and moral courage to build the world that could be” – Jacqueline Novogratz.

The work of embracing uncertainty requires the discipline and wisdom to make trade-offs, the best way we can. It is about knowing when to pick up your belongings and leave. When to fight and when to concede. When to listen and when to lead. When to be generous and when to be humble. When to hold your breath and when to breathe through it. When to be adventurous and when to be grounded.

It is these trade-offs, that forces a shift from uncertainty to possibility, from reality to abstract and back again: one of the most fundamental processes by which we unlock our imaginations and open our hearts to new insights. To understand our stories is to embrace uncertainty.

With that, I bid you farewell Vancouver, see you later New York and jambo Nairobi!

My Week’s Discoveries: Malaysia

So, I’ve been in South East Asia for the past three weeks, namely Malaysia and Singapore. The trip has been long time coming as I haven’t been back to my home country in over five years, and boy – am I ever glad I did. I have never been so inspired, humbled and proud of my fellow countrymen for the incredible work that they are doing in South East Asia. If you have the privilege to be involved with their organizations or have a coffee with these remarkable individuals, I assure you that it will be time well spent. Also, given that today is Independence day in Malaysia, thought it would be timely to share a few of my discoveries with you.

1) Malaysia Social Enterprise Alliance

This is a Malaysian organization for social enterprises and entrepreneurs with solutions to some of the most urgent social problems in Malaysia and globally. One of their more notable endeavors is ChangeWeekend, a 9-10 month program as a facilitative platform that would equip organizations with design thinking and developmental skills. Even more incredible is the driving force behind all of this is a wonderful lady, Ellynita Lamin, who has a heart of gold and is trailblazing her way in this part of the world. Don’t just take my word for it, check out what one of the local newspapers has to say about her work too!

2) Teach for Malaysia 

Teach for Malaysia (TFM) enlists Malaysia’s most promising leaders to improve education in Malaysia. It models after Teach for America, where it is a two-year, fellowship program where fellows are placed in local schools. Besides the fellowship, the team has not only enlisted an incredible amount of support from private and the Ministry of Education, but clear strategy and vision in how fellows can transform Malaysia’s education system from inside out. Change is on the horizon. This initiative is particularly close to home for me as I went through the public education system in Malaysia (yes, just like the adorable kids in the video!) and to get a glimpse of what TFM is up to, check out the video below.

3) Weekend: The Weekend Movement 

This is a community of people that is creating a weekend movement where they come together to build projects, create solutions and bring great ideas to life. So far, their weekends consist of Hack Weekend, Make Weekend and Change Weekend, and I’m sure it doesn’t stop there. The weekends are designed to kickstart innovation and new projects. If you ever are in Malaysia for a weekend that coincides with one of their workshops, definitely don’t hesitate to check it out!

4) Malaysia Design Archive 

This is a beautiful project combining design, history and preservation of culture. The project traces, maps and documents the development of graphic design in Malaysia to protect our visual history. Malaysia’s historical design influences are particularly fascinating as this is a meeting point and cultural crossing of the East and West – from ornate Islamic texts, to Chinese calligraphy and European engravings. As you browse the site, the graphics tell a wonderful story of Malaysia’s cultural transformation. I highly recommend you start here.

5) Other notable mentions:

  • SOLS 24/7: education program in Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, Malaysia and Thailand that has educated over 80,000 youth.
  • Gawad Kalinga: Building communities through tourism, social enterprise, disaster relief, reconstruction and development to end poverty.

Thanks to Ellyne, Shie Haur, Nicole, Tasnim and John for inspiring this post.

On What is Possible and Impossible

“When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing, know the rules and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not, and you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts are made by poeple who have not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, its easier to do. And because no nobody has done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.”

– Neil Gaiman, 2012 Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts

Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012 from The University of the Arts (Phl) on Vimeo.