Seek meaning, service in life

June 10th, 2009 by Admin

From The Washington Times, Wed., May 20, 2009

As millions of American students graduate from high schools and colleges in cap-and-gown ceremonies both solemn and festive this spring, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on their prospects for successful living and working. Of course, those entering the working world are doing so at a time of great uncertainty and financial distress, with tight employment and credit markets.

It’s possible, though, that the recession could be a fleeting concern compared to a more personal and lasting challenge they face: finding their moorings amid a sea of choices in a culture that sends them profoundly mixed messages. Decades ago, the life and career paths of the young largely were spelled out in advance, but today’s youth must forge their own path. That can be liberating and unnerving for young people without much basis for making such vital decisions.

Graduation speakers across the land already are dispensing lessons learned and wisdom earned. What have we learned in recent decades about how to live – about how to lead productive, successful, rewarding and fulfilling lives?

Fortunately, a lot.

Not long ago, a sea change swept through the field of psychology, flipping the focus from debilitating conditions and diseases (i.e., what makes people suffer) to happiness and success (i.e., what makes people thrive). The emergent “positive psychology,” led by such luminaries as Martin Seligman (author of “Authentic Happiness”) and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (author of “Flow”), resonates not only with new research on youth and adult development, but also with surveys of key factors leading to success in life (from books such as “Success Built to Last”) and studies of people in their twilight years reflecting on how they lived. It also gibes with ancient ideas of happiness dating back to Aristotle and his concept of “eudaimonia,” or a full flourishing of self through excellence and virtue.

One could synthesize this convergence of research and thinking with two key words: meaning and service. That is, find ways to have meaningful connections with and make significant contributions to others. Meaning and service.

Fortunately, there is evidence that the rising generations get this. Countless surveys have indicated they are civic- and service-minded, and that many are not only “life shoppers” – searching for a lifestyle that suits them – but seekers of meaning and connection as well as success and wealth.

Take, for example, two high school seniors who recently received AXA Achievement scholarships: Joshua Wortzel and Brittany Bergquist. Mr. Wortzel started the Garden of Giving, which grows and donates organic produce to local homeless shelters via a solar-powered greenhouse located at a Pennsylvania retirement home, with 20 students and 10 senior citizens running it. The project fosters intergenerational connections while serving homeless people and cultivating environmental stewardship in the community.

Ms. Bergquist started Cell Phones for Soldiers with her brother, Robbie, when they were 13 and 12, respectively. To date, they have raised almost $2 million and distributed more than 500,000 prepaid calling cards to soldiers overseas. The project started when they were getting ready for school one morning and saw a TV report about an Army Reservist in Iraq who unknowingly racked up a cell phone bill of more than $7,600. Outraged, they ran upstairs, drained their piggy banks, hit up their friends at school for donations, and got to work. (continued…)

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Rewards of service plentiful

January 6th, 2009 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

When she was 10, Inez Russell learned a lesson from her grandmother about service: “You just help people who need help.”

Simple as that.

Through the years, Inez became a wife, mother, businesswoman, Sunday school teacher and grandmother. As she volunteered in various capacities, she kept wondering, “What if this could be my job?”

Read the rest of this Washington Times blog here.

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Classic Mistakes

December 16th, 2008 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek

Here we offer three blogs we penned for, one on how entrepreneurship has some pitfalls that budding entrepreneurs should guard against, another on why entrepreneurs should pay special attention to creating their organizational culture, and the other on how entrepreneurs should go about recognizing opportunities in the marketplace.

“Classic Mistakes, Part 1: The Over-the-Top Entrepreneur,”, August 29, 2008.

We’ve all seen data on the high failure rate for new enterprises. But it’s not always external factors that doom an enterprise. Sometimes it’s the entrepreneur him or herself. With this in mind, we will focus our blog entries on avoiding classic entrepreneurial mistakes—highlighted by revealing stories and real-world examples. Through it, we will tease out the lessons of entrepreneurial excellence.

The essential traits of an entrepreneur—ambition, optimism, feistiness, confidence, independence, tolerance for risk—have potential downsides that can undermine success. As such, knowing what to avoid is essential.
Based on our research and hard-earned experiences, we offer up the following shortlist of classic pitfalls that sabotage many entrepreneurs.

To view the entire blog, click here.

“Classic Mistakes, Part 2: Ignoring Your Company’s Culture,”, September 3, 2008.

For an entrepreneur consumed with the countless tasks of start-up, it can be tempting to ignore culture–to allow, in other words, the new enterprise to organically develop its own culture without deliberate attention. But that can be a big mistake. Developing a culture of engagement and excellence, while notoriously difficult, is critical for organizational performance in the long run.

Entrepreneurs are not immune from the war for talent that has been raging in our economy for decades. Today’s leading organizations make bold investments to attract, develop, and retain the best and brightest, recognizing the link between culture and talent–and how they drive performance.

To view the entire blog, click here.

“Classic Mistakes, Part 3: Opportunity Recognition,”, September 10, 2008.

A defining characteristic of entrepreneurship is opportunity recognition. The successful entrepreneur is constantly alert, looking for new ideas, trends, and opportunities to do things better or differently. But how much is art versus science?
Though there is a natural flow to this that sometimes clicks on its own, there is also a process that can help entrepreneurs recognize, assess, and exploit opportunities. This begins with awakening to possibility, and it helps to adopt what has been called a “beginner’s mind.”

To view the entire blog, click here.

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Relationships, relevance & rigor matched with life as art

December 12th, 2008 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek

Below are two columns we wrote for the Washington Times, one on how a D.C. Catholic school for girls is achieving incredible things, and the other on how a paralegal professional from Oklahoma fell in love with yoga and created a studio, clothing line, book, and foundation for girls in the process.

“Raising Courageous Women,” The Washington Times, October 8, 2008.

Driving down Suitland Parkway in Anacostia, one comes across an unexpected jewel just off the Stanton Road exit. There, inspiration is waiting, tucked away in a neighborhood better known for tragic news than good news. One of the District’s most visionary projects sits in a gleaming glass-and-steel building with the letters THEARC stamped across the entrance.

Opened in 2005, the Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus is a 110,000-square-foot facility built on 16.5 acres in Ward 8. It’s is home to 10 nonprofit agencies ranging from Covenant House Washington to the Washington Ballet to the Children’s Health Project of DC, run by the Children’s National Medical Center.

To view the entire blog, click here.

“Yoga Cultivates Community,” Washington Times, September 24, 2008.

In her 20s, Kimberly Wilson found herself at the convergence of two big social trends.

The first? Social isolation. The first nationally representative survey on this topic in two decades, conducted by Duke University researchers, found a significant trend toward increasing social isolation between 1985 and 2004, likely caused by such factors as an increase in time spent at work and the geographic scattering of family members.

The second? The rise of yoga as a cultural phenomenon. The practice has been growing like wildfire. Americans annually spend an estimated $5.7 billion on yoga classes and products, with 15.8 million people practicing yoga, according to the latest “Yoga in America” study.

To view the entire blog, click here.

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Childhood dreams come true & transforming from CEO to educator

December 10th, 2008 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek

Below are two columns we wrote for the Washington Times, one on how a social entrepreneur we interviewed for our book turned his childhood dreams into an enterprising anti-hunger initiative in our nation’s capital, and the other on how the CEO of H&R Block turned in his corner office for a chance to teach middle schoolers in the inner city—and found fulfillment in the process.

“Making the Impossible Possible,” Washington Times, July 30, 2008.

After watching Casablanca when he was 12, Robert Egger dreamed of owning “the greatest nightclub in the world.” He explains: “I wanted to be an agent of change for something profoundly huge and big and good, and I was going to use showbiz to get it.”

After high school, he pursued the dream by working in D.C.-area nightclubs and music venues, but life had other plans. While Mr. Egger was volunteering with a Georgetown church that was delivering food bought from Safeway to the homeless, he saw an opportunity: feeding the homeless with excess food from restaurants while also training the recipients for restaurant and catering jobs. For him, it was a “beautiful circle.”

To view the entire blog, click here.

“From Corner Office to Classroom,” Washington Times, October 22, 2008.

Former H&R Block Chief Executive Officer Thomas Bloch details his journey from the corner office to a Kansas City classroom in his new book, “Stand for the Best: What I Learned After Leaving My Job as CEO of H&R Block to Become a Teacher and Founder of an Inner-City Charter School.”

The contrast is striking. H&R Block generates $4.4 billion in revenue annually through its nationwide network of about 13,000 company-owned and franchised offices. The company has served more than 400 million clients since 1955.
Mr. Bloch’s current organization, University Academy, a college preparatory public charter school, enrolls about 1,000 students – about 93 percent of whom qualify for the federal school lunch program, a common proxy for poverty – in kindergarten through grade 12 and has a budget of less than $10 million.

To view the entire blog, click here.

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Three Ways to Beat Burnout

December 2nd, 2008 by Admin

Burnout is widespread today–especially among high-achievers. One could say it’s an epidemic in the modern workplace. (See the stats table at the bottom of this post for details.)

How do we slay this burnout beast? There are three primary weapons at our disposal, but first we need to understand exactly what it is we’re up against.

Read the rest of this Harvard Business Online blog here.

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18 Minutes

June 18th, 2008 by cgergen

18 minutes to give the talk of your life.  Go.  This is the challenge that speakers at the annual TED conference take on.  But these aren’t just your average speakers.  These are some of the most creative, path-breaking, life entrepreneurs on the planet ranging from Jane Goodall  to Bono to Stephen Hawking .  Started in 1984, the TED conference aspired to bring together leading thinkers from the three worlds of technology, entertainment, and design.  Today, the annual gathering attracts over 1,000 attendees to Long Beach, California who sign up well over a year in advance.  The format is relatively simple: over four days 50 people are invited to give their 18 minute talk.  


At TED’s main website one can check out over 200 of these talks under the theme of “ideas worth spreading.”  There are dozens worth watching but among my favorites are Amy Tan’s reflection on creativity and the powerful personal journey of Bill Strickland  rising up from inner-city Pittsburgh to create the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, one of the most successful and innovativejob placement programs in the country.  A reader of our blog also alerted us to Jill Taylor’s fascinating story.  A brain scientist who had a front row audience to her own stroke, Taylor lived to tell about it and is now driving her work in highly creative directions due to the enhanced activity of her right brain.


Let us know which ones are your favorites.  The only caution is that this is an addictive resource.  Though it may just be the inspiration to craft your own 18 minute story…

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Reducing the Cost of Entry

April 28th, 2008 by cgergen

There is never a better time to be a life entrepreneur.  Every day there is a new idea or article sparking this conviction.  Right now, for example, I’m sitting on a train to NYC and just read an article in Fast Company about the company Ning.  The cover story  outlines Ning’s “viral expansion loop” business model.  Essentially, it has created a platform that allows users to create their own mini social networks and then invite other users to join.  Deeply passionate about your local minor league baseball team and want to connect with others who share this passion?  Then create your own site using Ning.  Ning monetizes this growth by placing very targeted ads on each of the newly created sites (called Ning nets).  And grow it has.  As of this reading, the company is reporting more than 230,000 Ning nets – up from 60,000 a year ago.


Viral expansion is not new – just think about free email provider Hotmail which exploded to 30 million users in just 30 months.  But what makes Ning notable (besides being co-founded by Marc Andreesen from Netscape fame), is that this concept accelerates our ability to build highly personalized platforms based on our interests and passions.  Importantly, it also DRAMATICALLY reduces our cost of entry.


Have a dream of starting a charter school in your community?  Want to gauge interest in a new public school by other members in your community?  Want to connect with others who have done the same?  Rather than sketching out the idea in a static document and then reaching out piece-meal to neighbors through email and flyers – you can now build a site dedicated to this concept and then invite others to join.  They, in turn, can invite others to join the conversation and a community is born.  Rather than being restricted to your immediate network of friends – the viral nature of this concept allows you to rapidly create a diverse network of people who become invested in the idea and want to help it succeed.  The positive network effect is born and what started as a distant dream can quickly become a reachable reality.


Sites like Ning can’t provide you a clear sense of who you are and where you want to go – the foundation of the entrepreneurial life path.  But once you start figuring this out and waking up to the vast amount of opportunities on the horizon, there has never been a better time to create a shared vision of an exciting new future and making it happen.

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Creating an Extraordinary Career Path

April 21st, 2008 by gvanourek

Lately we’ve been giving talks to students on college campuses.  The question arises: what does life entrepreneurship offer students as they plot their career paths?

Let’s start with the common traps that students fall into as they set out on their first jobs.  First, they walk a path that others have chosen.  Whether it’s to obtain their parents’ approval, gain the acceptance or admiration of their peers, or please a mentor, they set valiantly off on someone else’s career path and only later come to realize that it may not be right for them.  Sometimes years or decades down the road, they stop and wonder: How did I get here?  Why did I choose this path? 

Second, they stick with the first path they came upon.  They commit too soon.  They start telling all their family and friends about their respectable decision for a career path and then all of a sudden, they’re locked.  According to the late Peter Drucker, “The probability that the first choice you make is right for you is roughly one in a million.  If you decide that your first choice was the right one, chances are you are just plain lazy.”  Yet, some people dutifully continue marching down that path. 

Why is that?  To begin with, the switching costs are high.  We earn salary increases and promotions.  We develop expertise and a network.  We are needed in our roles and appreciated for our contributions.  Most importantly, we adopt the persona of our work, with our whole identity sometimes subsumed by what we happen to be doing (even if it’s the wrong thing).  

Third, we postpone happiness.  The common view one generation back was that work was something you did until around age 65, or earlier if you’re lucky, and then you retire and enjoy life.  So we sacrifice today to obtain happiness tomorrow.  Or we just take this brutal job today with these brutal hours “for our family” with the comforting notion that it’s only temporary and that we’ll pay our dues now and start doing what we want in five years, or ten, or…. The problem is that we get into the habit of postponing happiness and those glory days never appear.

These are common traps, but what to do about them?  What is needed is a psychological holding environment for career experimentation and change, recognizing that our path is likely to be winding and cutting ourselves a break for not having all the answers out of the gates. 

Sure we must choose wisely—and for the right reasons.  But when you’re twenty and in college and lacking much professional experience (if you have any at all), that’s hard to do.  So let’s posit that most of us won’t hit the jackpot and figure it all out right up front.  And that our career path—and life path—will be winding.  One of the themes we heard from the people we interviewed—all successful business and social entrepreneurs or leaders—was that their path made more sense looking back than it did looking forward.  Many were surprised by where their path took them.  None ended up in the exact position he or she envisioned way back when. 

That argues for building flexibility into our planning and thinking.  That’s what I mean by the right psychological holding environment.  We need to make decisions based on an elegant combination of what our head dictates makes sense and what our heart reveals to feel right.  Most important, I think, is the latter.  We need to evaluate with brutal honesty how things are working out—after giving it a fair shake—and listen to our gut without having overcommitted by adopting that work persona and subsuming our identity to the current job or our current role.  Does this feel right?  Am I leveraging my strengths and deploying my passions? Am I making meaningful contributions?  Through an iterative process of action and reflection—with a heavy dose of searching conversations with loved ones, friends, and mentors—we can begin to find our direction in life, the wide swath on the horizon that we can steer toward and feel like we are on a true path. 

Second, we must “own” our career path.  That begins with planning with our whole lives in mind, as Aristotle urged us to do, and discovering our core identity: What are our values?  What do we want in our relationships?  What will our legacy be?  News flash: career planning = life planning = career planning = life planning.  Our work and life must be integrated pursuits, grounded in a solid core identity that fits with who we really are and what direction we want to head with our lives—a choice that is ours to make (or delegate or duck). 

Owning it also means “managing up,” if we happen to have a boss, and specifying clearly what we’re hoping to do and learn, as well as remaining “switched on” to opportunities for advancement and growth.  That also means evaluating and tweaking our career path in an ongoing process.

If we are contemplating a career change, sometimes we fall victim to the assumption that we can think it through perfectly.  New research is indicating that we should instead “craft experiments,” taking action in small ways to gain valuable exposure to fields of interest before jumping in head-first.  When we’re ready, though, we must be willing to jump off the train we’re on in order to find a truer path.

Sometimes plotting an extraordinary career path means allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.  Allowing ourselves to not have all the answers.  To go down a path and discover that it was a road to nowhere.  To take risks and be unconventional.  To listen to our inner muse.  It’s more art than science.  It’s a messy process.  But the price of not getting our hands dirty this way is too often a life of regret, a career path that’s respectable but not remarkable, productive but not true.  Which will you choose?

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