Urban Farming a Fertile Idea

November 4th, 2009 by Admin

Originally posted by The Washington Times on Wednesday, November 4, 2009.

By Christopher Gergen and Aaaron K. Chatterji


Across our city landscapes, an age-old idea is redefining community development. From Detroit to Durham, N.C., the concept of “urban farming” is becoming common among urban planners and social entrepreneurs. The goal of urban farming initiatives is to take vacant plots of land in underused parts of our cities and convert them into productive farms. (Read More…)

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Properly set goals aid success

January 15th, 2009 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

Now that we’re into 2009, it’s a good time to assess how we’re doing on all those New Year’s resolutions. So, how are they coming?

That bad, eh? Just like last year — and the year before? According to a 2002 study, 75 percent of resolutions are maintained past the first week, but the stick-to-it rate drops to 46 percent after six months. Why do so many of us struggle with this?

Most people assume the problem is willpower. What most people miss is the process of setting effective goals.

Read the rest of this Washington Times blog here.

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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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Infusing Service into Our Work, or the Case of the Singing Orderly

January 2nd, 2009 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

Talking about whistling while you work. Lindon Beckford, who works in the patient transport department at a Boston hospital, takes that adage to a new level. Not satisfied with schlepping gurneys from room to room, this native Jamaican has turned the hospital into his own personal concert hall: he strolls from ward to ward singing–from Kenny Rogers to Jamaican reggae, R&B, and gospel. He infuses the hospital hallways with soulful melodies to bring a touch of grace to people in their hour of need.

His goal, according to an NPR report, is to make the medical center a happier place for the people under his care–every day. That, he says, gives his job a greater purpose than simply transporting people in wheelchairs and stretchers.

Read the rest of this Harvard Business blog here.

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Human capital concerns stifled by shifts in volunteerism and culture building

December 30th, 2008 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

As a final installation of our blog series catching readers up on our recent writing, we offer two more pieces that we wrote for the Washington Times – both dealing with important human capital concerns.  The first addresses the opportunities to harness the full potential of “volunteer capital” and highlights two organizations that have created national models for realizing the full potential of volunteers in highly creative ways.  The second shares the story of a remarkable shoe company that turns culture building and leadership development on its head – and offers a lesson to other organizations looking to recruit, develop, and retain the best and brightest.

“More Than Licking Envelopes,” Washington Times, June 7, 2008.

Two years ago, Nick Cotter retired as a senior executive at Exxon Mobil. Before retirement, he had managed activities in nearly 200 countries. Yet when he volunteered for a local nonprofit, his role was restricted to sorting food and “lugging boxes around.”

Confident he had the energy and experience to have a greater impact on those in need, Mr. Cotter started exploring other ways to help. He got tapped into Greater DC Cares, an organization that coordinates volunteering and business philanthropy in the District.

With the organization’s guidance and support, Mr. Cotter came up with a game plan to develop a set of governance workshops for area nonprofits, drawing on his years in the for-profit sector. Based on a successful pilot program last year, he is scaling up the program through a network of fellow executive volunteers who serve as management coaches and mentors to local nonprofit leaders.

Alas, stories like Mr. Cotter’s are too few and far between.

To view the entire blog, click here.

“Zappos Culture Sows Spirit,” Washington Times, July 16, 2008.

In today’s challenging economy, business and social entrepreneurs are becoming reacquainted with the importance of “culture,” of addressing the spirit of the place and not just the numbers. Developing a culture of excellence and engagement is notoriously difficult – yet critical for organizational performance.

One jaw-dropping example – with salient lessons for organizations across the sectors – comes from Zappos.com, the leading online shoe retailer. There, all new corporate employees receive four weeks of customer loyalty training – answering phones in the call center – before starting their actual job, whatever that may be.

After the training, they are offered $2,000 to leave the company – no questions asked. This “quit now” bonus, which started at $100, is designed to ensure employees are there for the right reasons. About 97 percent of trainees decline what the company calls “the Offer.”

To view the entire blog, click here.

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Fitness center develops into much more

December 20th, 2008 by Admin

by Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek

Imagine this: a place dedicated to the enhancement of the individual. A place where people are challenged to set personal goals and a community has been established to help them pursue those dreams – free from judgment by others and reinforced by mutual respect. Sounds pretty good, right? It is.

For a lucky community of young people in the San Francisco Bay Area, this place is a reality they can enjoy every day. Starting it out of his home in the late 1970s, Gary Riekes created the Riekes Center for Human Enhancement to build self-esteem in young people through a strength-and-fitness academy. Woven into the model was an emphasis on providing outlets for personal expression through the creative arts and a set of values that reinforced teamwork, confidence-building, goal-setting and lifetime wellness, regardless of skills or background.

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 Inc.com, 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,” Inc.com, 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,” Inc.com, 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,”
Inc.com, 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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The ‘pay as you can’ cafe

December 6th, 2008 by Admin

This holiday season, many are thinking of those who are less fortunate. Taking that sentiment several steps further, Brad and Libby Birky of Denver have created a nonprofit restaurant called SAME (So All May Eat) Cafe with a “pay as you can” pricing model.

Yes, you read that correctly. Instead of standard menu-based pricing, a donation box is set in the corner, and people are expected to pay what they can. Those who can’t afford to pay are asked to help with manual labor: washing dishes, mopping the floor and the like. Those who can afford it often pay a bit more to contribute to the social mission.

Read the rest of this Washington Times blog here.

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A Dilemma for Our Time

June 24th, 2008 by gvanourek

My reading of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, happened to coincide with the birth of my daughter Anya.  The timing was propitious.  What better time to contemplate life’s meaning and mystery than during the emergence of new life, a moment of indescribable wonder and awe? 

I found A New Earth to be a thoughtful synthesis of spiritual, religious, and philosophical teachings from the ages—from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Taoism to transcendentalism and existentialism, even drawing upon psychology and science.  The book is one part spiritual manifesto and one part social commentary (though much better at the former), touching on not only God and immortality but also childhood, parenthood, television, the media, the environment, emotion, addiction, and more.  Tolle takes us on an expansive journey with the ancients and the moderns, from Lao Tzu, Siddhartha, and the Oracle of Delphi to Milan Kundera, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking. 

He explains that the central problem of our existence is the human ego.  Of course, this claim is not new.  According to Tolle, we fritter away far too much of our lives on superficial matters and concerns (looks, possessions, wealth, status), falling unknowingly into traps set by our ego.  Essentially, we lose ourselves in our mind—in the world of things, thoughts, and forms.  We play a role in work and life whose drama is all about feeding the insatiable needs of that ego, inflating itself at the detriment of others.  He writes, “The ego creates separation, and separation causes suffering,” essentially creating a “background of unhappiness in our lives.”  This has become the primary source of individual and collective dysfunction in the world, from individuals to nation-states and civilizations.  The essential problem is that the ego takes us away from Being, from being present in the endless moment of life in an enlightened state of consciousness.

For Tolle, spiritual transformation is not some distant abstraction requiring decades of worship or piety.  Rather, it is readily accessible to all who are willing to quiet the incessant stream of thinking and worry, who learn to be still and present in the moment—and open to the unfolding of Being.  I find in this a deep and abiding humility—the universal yearning to be connected to the universe, surely a calling higher than our wish to feel important or to be viewed as extraordinary.

Part of the wisdom here is the simplicity of intentionality: Am I doing what I am doing now for its own sake, or am I actually feeding my ego?  [Tolle writes, “You are present when what you are doing is not primarily a means to an end (money, prestige, wanting) but fulfilling in itself, when there is joy and aliveness in what you do.”]

This book raises a central, vexing dilemma for our time: how to reconcile the modern world we live in with all its complexities and demands with the timeless spiritual realm?  Indeed, how to live?  Tolle writes that “spiritual truth is diametrically opposed to the values of our contemporary culture and the way it conditions people to behave…. The collective disease of humanity is that people are so engrossed in what happens, so hypnotized by the world of fluctuating forms, so absorbed in the content of their lives, they have forgotten the essence, that which is beyond content, beyond form, beyond thought.  They are so consumed by time that they have forgotten eternity, which is their origin, their home, their destiny.”

He goes on: “Make sure your vision or goal is not an inflated image of yourself and therefore a concealed form of ego, such as wanting to become a movie star, a famous writer, or a wealthy entrepreneur.  Also make sure your goal is not focused on having this or that, such as a mansion by the sea, your own company, or ten million dollars in the bank…. Instead… see yourself inspiring countless people with your work and enriching their lives.  Feel how that activity enriches or deepens not only your life but that of countless others.”

It is evident that we have largely embraced the material realm of time, stress, pressure, ego, worry, and hyper-activity to the profound detriment of our spiritual health.  But the spiritual message of “making peace with the present moment,” of “not minding what happens,” and of nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment does elicit moral and practical dilemmas when we consider the problem of injustice, suffering, and evil in this world.  Tolle does talk about “right action” aligned with the universe’s deeper truths, but is the approach too passive?  Does it ask for too much acceptance?  How to account for the fact that great and good deeds have been accomplished through striving, through righteous indignation that takes suffering and injustice head on?  Is making peace with the present moment enough, or is there more to our inner transformation?

A New Earth makes the case that joy comes not from what we do but from a state of being.  While there is great wisdom in that, I wonder if the truth isn’t closer to a dynamic and mysterious dance between doing and being, where the two harmoniously infuse each other with both joy and meaning.




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