The 3 things you absolutely must do before signing up to volunteer overseas

I had the honor recently of speaking on a webinar for potential Atlas Corps fellows interested in the one-year program that I served with in Colombia, which placed me to work at the national headquarters of a Spanish NGO fighting child exploitation. I’d suggest that succeeding overseas is all about what happens before you go. Here are three things you most do before you sign up for a program like this:

1. Know yourself, your motivations, and your trade-offs

Living overseas for months or years is a powerful and all-consuming experience. So, why do you want to do it? What specifically to you hope to gain from the experience, and what are you sacrificing to make it happen? What kind of personal strengths and resources will help you deal with the challenges? And what is the ideal program for you, in terms of location, length, job description, and formal and informal support systems?

In my case, I had worked a few years in international development and was clear that I wanted to gain professional, high-responsibility experience working at a well-structured international NGO. Given this was my first longer-term work overseas, I wanted to maximize my chances of success by choosing a location where I would be able to function as easily as possible culturally and language-wise (Latin America) and intellectually and socially (for which a major urban capital was an unusual, but excellent, fit for me.)  Most importantly, I had reached a point in my career and personal life where I was clear on what I was looking for, and was ready to leave my own country and my conventional career path. There is no perfect time to go, but I waited for the time when the benefits outweighed the costs and had I found a program that was a better fit than the ones I had looked at before (or than the ones I had been qualified for earlier in my career.)

2. Know the program and how it will work for you

Opportunities to live and work internationally do not follow a one-size-fits-all model: they are designed around specific goals and assumptions about what you as an expat are supposed to give and receive, and the structure is designed around those goals. Look at how these goals and structure compare with your own needs. Also look more specifically at the placements available–each program has a different process for matching you with the location and job description, and some are more specific than others in making the match.  What kind of job, living situation, and support structure is the program offering you? What kind of financial support is the program offering? Can you imagine yourself being truly happy in the program?

Just one example of the differences in program structure (out of many important issues) is how communal or independent volunteers are in their lives and work. Is the program based on you living independently in a small community and connecting deeply with the local people (as in the Peace Corps)? Or is it structured around living and working in more of a team environment (such as in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps?) Atlas Service Corps (in both its Colombia and U.S. programs), falls in some ways halfway between these two poles, in that volunteers are placed individually at a variety of host organizations, but multiple fellows usually live in the same cities.

3. Put your house in order for living abroad

Preparing to leave your regular life–without destroying it in the process–is an essential foundation for success overseas. And you can start preparing now, regardless of whether  you’ve committed to go overseas. It can be a headache, but it can also be a surprisingly freeing experience: if you’ve always dreamed of having a more streamlined and disciplined life, the looming departure and transition to a lower-paid or unpaid job overseas can be both stressful and an excellent motivation. You need to prepare yourself in terms of your money, your stuff, and your relationships. You also need to prepare yourself emotionally to let go of parts of your life, and at the same time, you can start looking forward to how your current sense of stability can transition into a new kind of stability as you settle in overseas.

In my case, I realized that I suddenly had a powerful new reason to read up on good habits and transform the mediocre financial habits I had fallen into while working in a well-paid job in my own country. I sold my car, my guitar, and most other extra things I owned, paid off my credit card, and figured out what adjustments were possible for my student loan payments. In addition, I worked out where I would have my mail sent in the U.S., set up a U.S. phone number I could be reached at via Skype, and double-checked with my family members about how my absence might affect them.

Regardless of what stage you are at in considering an overseas service program, you can get started now in understanding yourself, your program options, and the preparations you will need. Regardless of whether you go now, later, or at all, looking at the possibilities and how you relate to them will help you to grow personally and professionally.

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Don’t be 100% wrong about the 80-20 rule

Let me warn you, this is a dense post, so don’t worry if  it’s a little heavy for you–the point of it is to help those people who are very conceptual thinkers to not make dumb mistakes based on very conceptual thinking.

The 80-2o Rule, or Pareto Principle, is one of those beautifully  simple patterns that occur throughout nature, economics, and business, not to mention having a permanent place in generations of advice books like Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour WorkweekIt’s remarkably consistent how the principle appears in life, and it can be very useful in making simple decisions such as focusing most of your time on the ten or twenty percent of things you do on the job, which bring in eighty or ninety percent of your results.

But the danger is confusing the surface “is” of the rule with the underlying factors determining the “ought” of how to respond to it.

The surface-level fact of the 80-20 Rule–that a small minority of elements or variables cause a large majority of the effects–shouldn’t be confused with actually knowing why that minority is so important, much less with knowing the “ought” of what response is needed. I realized this recently in reading about research on illegal guns. Because a small fraction of gun shops in the U.S. account for the vast majority of guns that ultimately end up in the hands of criminals, many people who follow this political debate (myself included) have assumed this means there is something uniquely broken, and therefore easy to fix, about how those particular shops do business.  But the research discussed in a recent Slate article suggests that maybe this 80-2o type of relationship (or in this case, 57.4%-1.2%, to be precise) is actually more a byproduct of a wider Pareto relationship–as is universal in many industries, a few shops do the majority of the selling, and that larger volume drives the high volume that goes to criminals from those shops.

In other words, it’s possible the “problem shops” could be identical to the non-problem shops in everything they do, except for the number of customers coming through  the door. (Of course, there are still some differences in the numbers, and public policy being what it is, it’s probably even more complicated than that).

So, given the 80-20 rule is so helpful for making decisions, how do you avoid making these kinds of errors about it in your own life? The main thing is to look for root causes. Take, for example, the classic business advice, as interpreted by Ferriss, to focus on the 20 percent of customers who bring in 80 percent of your revenue, while “firing” the 20 percent of customers who give 80 percent of the complaints and problems. Most of the time this is excellent advice, and reflects the value of seeking a fit between you and the people you spend time around. But what if the largest complainers, in terms of the absolute number of annoying emails in your inbox, are also the largest earners, and the complaints reflect this volume? Maybe the people or things most bugging you are, percentage-wise, not giving you that many complaints per dollar or per number of things you’re doing for them. Or worse, maybe you just haven’t figured out how to deal with the volume yet, and you’re giving your biggest customers even worse service than the smaller ones.

In any case, before running from “problem” people and projects, you should consider whether they’re really giving you that much grief, compared to the value they are bringing you, and look for how to fix the underlying drivers of the problem. And the same goes for really understanding why the “few best” are the “few best,” and looking for more places that can happen, rather than treating that success as static trait of those people it’s already happening for.

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The pie supremacy: 5 lifehacking lessons from my accidental bake-off domination

Let me be clear: my first year in grad school, I had all kinds of aspirations, but I didn’t set out  to become the young male intern who won the office bake-off with a microwave recipe from the Internet.

I wasn’t much of a baker, and I didn’t expect for the judges to pick my pie over the creations of senior managers and their wives with decades of cooking experience, who in some cases had worked for hours perfecting multiple dessert entries. Everyone was shocked, including me.

The victory was beginners’ luck, I’m the first to admit that. But even then,the question remains,  what made this win even remotely possible?

Well, winning was just the final link in a chain of mostly unplanned events and inspirations.

Five lessons:

Pie1. Hang out with people who nudge you beyond  your usual skills and aspirations. None of this pie thing would have happened if I hadn’t signed up for a series of rotating potluck dinners designed to network together people from my church. Being around some people who were more established in their lives and kitchens challenged me to not always be the guy who just showed up with a generic bottle of wine.

2. Be lazy about the basics so you’ll have time to be creative where it counts. Back in college, I went to a workshop about the power of using just enough prefab ingredients (like shredded cheese) to free up time to make the rest from scratch. So, with the next potluck coming up fast, I took a wild guess and googled “best no-bake dessert.” I settled on a chocolate cheesecake recipe from which amounted mostly to dumping a mixture of sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, and cream cheese into a prefab pie shell. It was a decent-tasting pie, but I didn’t like the mushy texture.

3. Let intuition and inspiration re-purpose your boring habits. My years as a busy, single international development worker gave me two basic cooking skills: chopping stuff into bite-sized pieces (mostly for stir-fry and salads), and running a microwave without making a mess.  I had gotten interested in fresh ingredients again after hearing one of my online business mentors interview a raw-foods restraunteur who viewed his style of cooking simply as using a cutting board and knife to blend flavors and textures. I decided on a whim to chop up some fresh strawberries to top my first pie to balance out the texture, and headed to the potluck.

4. Keep tinkering ’til it’s awesome. When I made my second pie (this time for the office bake-off), I still didn’t have much of a plan. I decided to try adding more fruit–what amounted to a  carefully-layered chopped berry salad–on top of the pie, cutting up the blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries into shapes and sizes that would easily blend flavors and add a crunchy texture. At last, the topping provided the perfect counterweight to the goop-y and monotonous cheesecake filling underneath. And it was that finely-tuned balance that I think took it from lazy Internet recipe to winner.

5. Use one-time discoveries to get everyday results. As strange as it still feels for a microwave chef, I really like having the option to show up anytime at a food-related event with something homemade, in under an hour, that people so far always like and even gush about. And that ease came from letting the pie develop from what was easy for me instead of trying to be complicated. That simplicity came from the original process of tinkering with limited resources  (a process French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and innovation researchers Raghu Garud and Peter Karnøe,  call “bricolage“). Because I started with basic resources and skills I could easily access without overloading myself, the next pie will be even easier than the last.

Frankly, I have my doubts about the self-satisfied “lifehacking” frame of reference. But I felt pretty good about myself with what happened. And maybe this kind of creativity can happen again in a more planned way.

(There’s also a lemon cheesecake version of the recipe that works the same). Either way, I recommend getting a small package each of raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and/or blueberries, and cutting them up and putting them on top after the pie has chilled at least partially. Variety is more important than quantity).

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A 2013 connected to what matters

After taking some time off from Anchors and Bridges projects to complete the  most intensive (and not coincidentally, penultimate), semester of my MBA/MA graduate program, for which I was working with three different consulting clients simultaneously, I am happy to be back for 2013 refreshed and ready to make a difference.

Stay tuned for a number of new opportunities. I’m especially excited to offer a series of free workshops, to help you make 2013 the year you have been waiting for (or whatever else it needs to be for you). I will announce the details as soon as I have them scheduled. The first one will build on the popular “look back to look forward” seminar I gave last year, to help out some people who have already been telling me they are having a hard time with their (possibly a little bit) over-ambitious new year’s resolutions.

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Seven (other) habits I learned from Stephen Covey

I was sorry to hear about the passing of Stephen R. Covey, and the news  made me reflect on how his ideas changed my life. As useful as his main ideas, products, and services are, how he taught his ideas was just as influential on me as what he taught. Seven (other) habits stood out for me in his life:

Stephen Covey

Photo Credit: Stephen Covey. Derivative work: Hekurui. Wikimedia Commons

1. Humbly yet confidently teach others’ ideas: I was surprised by how much Covey regarded himself simply as a teacher of principles discovered by others. Certainly he was a professor at heart, and his books and products draw extensively on sources ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Viktor Frankl to Aristotle (or at least the Will Durant paraphrase of him). Yet in his popular works,  he avoided dialectical debate and lit. review and spoke with authority, not like teachers of the law or ivory-tower academics. Covey knew that truth is only useful when it is acted upon, and he made his sources firm points in his own call to action.

2. Package complexity in digestible ways: Even while addressing inexhaustibly rich topics such as human purpose, interpersonal relationships, time management,  and lifelong legacy, Covey kept it simple. The entire message of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can be summed up in a one-page chart that connects together small bundles of one- to five-word habits. What can be digested is what will nourish, and so form is function.

3.  Share the lessons of your own journey and mistakes: Unusually for a university professor, Covey admitted quite readily that he crammed his way through college as an undergrad, forcing him to make up for lost time and relearn material as a grad student. He used this to illustrate principles like “The Law of the Farm,” showing the unbreakable relationship between work and results.

4.  Seek wisdom in communities of family, faith, and business: Covey’s work, and particularly his relentless call for a return to a “character ethic” rather than a “personality ethic” seem to have come about because of the kinds of people he shared his life with. He became who he was because of the connection he shared with the people around him–his family, his Mormon faith community, and the business and academic leaders he not only worked with, but got active feedback and success stories from.

5.  Build bridges between your personal perspective and more universal experiences: Covey’s ideas are very clearly the work of a male American business professor with a specific set of humanistic and Mormon philosophical leanings and life experiences. But out of this background, he very self-consciously tailored a message that was understandable and useful to people from a wide range of religious, philosophical, and national backgrounds. Whether you agree or disagree with the particular personal path and definition of success that Covey lived by, the important thing is that he made both things understandable enough to debate and act on.

6. Pass on your legacy through family and friends: Even as founder of an information-age empire that mass-produces and markets its products, Covey seems to have placed a high value on relationships both in his work and his personal life. He especially valued his nine children and 52 grandchildren, and some of his sons, including his namesake, Stephen M.R. Covey, are following in his father’s footsteps as authors and speakers.

7. Pass on your legacy through institutions: When I think of Covey’s teaching, I think first of people, yet these people are effective because they work within organizations equipped by, or created by, Covey–people like the college academic adviser whose seminars first introduced me to Covey’s ideas, and the excellent FranklinCovey trainer (who had worked directly with Covey in the past) who led the personal leadership seminar I took in DC a few years ago.  Through institutions that supported the work of these ordinary people, Covey’s larger-than-life  ideas passed again from being the seeming brainchild of a lone guru to being a body of shared wisdom,  spread purposefully through his company and other institutions influenced by his work (not to mention the many other writers like Tim Ferriss who have built on Covey’s principles).

Creating a company was a multiplier for Covey’s personal insights–not only has the company created the infrastructure to sell ideas, but his staff around the world have applied their own knowledge and intuition to interpreting the meaning of FranklinCovey‘s principles in different cultures,  business contexts, and all six major world religions (as reflected in this unpolished but insightful podcast interview (part 2 here) with Covey from a few years ago). “By doing that, you get your translations correct,” Covey said.

On the importance of institutionalizing values and training others, Covey said, “You don’t want to make people dependent upon you and impressed by you. You want them to be impressed by the quality of these principles, that they, too, can leave a legacy that goes beyond themselves.” 

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First day at the Intercultural Management Institute conference

I’ve had a good time so far at the first day of the 2012 Intercultural Management Institute conference. As I tweeted about a bit at @samhedlund, the sessions have been quite informative and practical, with topics ranging from “Multinational Best Practices for Managing Across Cultures” to sessions on global coaching and cultural style switching.

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest spoke on her  new book, Top Secret America, and discussed how security-conscious  insularity in the U.S. intelligence community may have been one of the factors keeping it from predicting the Arab Spring, while journalists who had the opportunity to spend more time interacting with all facets of the Arab world, like Dana Priest, were more prescient (in her opinion).

Tomorrow I’m working on deciding between  a session about communication on Facebook,  one on “Meaning and Spirituality in Resilience Across Cultures,” and many other fascinating topics.

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Sign up for my free workshop: Have a Great 2012 by Learning from 2011

As promised, I’ll be giving a phone workshop next Thursday, January 26th, starting at 9:00 PM EST (UTC-5).

In this workshop, I’ll explain a simple process that can help you use what happened in 2011 as a foundation for getting the results you want in 2012–professionally, personally, or in any other area that matters to you.

Whether you love, hate, or are extremely bored by “personal development,” “goals,” and other standard ways of trying to change your life and get results, I think this will challenge what you’re used to, and help you make things work out better this year.

Update: it was a great event. Sign up for my newsletter to find out about upcoming events like this one.

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Yes, there is a middle class in America (and a lot of other tribes too)

The recent decision of Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum to challenge the term “middle class” reminded me of this very funny PBS documentary I saw in a marketing class about the multi-layered nature of class, status, and privilege in America.

One of the key points in the film is that the choices we make define our class. What choices are you making, and what cultural tribes are you trying to join, leave, or connect with? What do you gain and what do you sacrifice in your pursuit of belonging?
Read More »

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Moving ahead by looking back: A great way to start the new year

I hope you’re having a good start to the new year.

Today in DC, a bit of snow is giving a fresh new look to the landscape. I’m increasingly learning the value of new beginnings, and at the same time the value of getting perspective from the past. I’m currently putting together a seminar I’ll be giving sometime soon about how to get a clear perspective on your life last year that can be your foundation for having an even better year in 2012. Check back soon for the date and time.

It’s not just for personal growth geeks–in fact, I hope it will make some of those kinds of people uncomfortable by challenging their assumptions and crutches. If it succeeds at that, then it will also succeed in being useful to you if you hate goals, visions, new year’s resolutions, and all that kind of baggage that you may have tried before but you would rather forget. I want to help people get a fresh start this year, and that includes ditching whatever doesn’t work for you and finding fresh ways of getting where you want to be in life.

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The original Santa: Less toy fairy, more social-justice philanthropist

I recently enjoyed the documentary Becoming Santawhich follows a middle-aged Los Angeles man who has been sad around Christmas ever since his “Christmas-fanatic” mother died. Hoping to regain the Christmas spirit, he decides to bleach his beard, get expert training, and become a professional Santa for one season. Journeying into the world of professional Santas, the film paints a surprisingly heartwarming picture of  people the protagonist describes as having been given permission to “lie to children.” I was surprised how strongly many of them believe in the spirit of Santa Claus and see it as a way to serve their community.

While the film gave me a fresh appreciation for the love and wonder expressed even in the midst of, and by means of, my culture’s very commercial and secular version of Christmas, it also pointed back to the history and legends surrounding the original “Santa Claus,” Saint Nicholas, the 4th Century Bishop of Myra, who is believed to have been orphaned but have inherited a large fortune which he liked to share anonymously with those in need.

The story of Saint Nicholas just wouldn’t work well as a children’s cartoon:

No one today is telling their kids, “Santa Claus is coming to town! Santa is magical, he throws gold through the window in the middle of the night to poor girls so they don’t have to become prostitutes!” That would be shocking, and probably not very age-appropriate.

But that is one of the most prominent stories about Saint Nicholas. He wasn’t some kind of Northern European parental watchdog waiting to reward good boys and girls with their chosen toys, and leave coal in the stockings of the bad ones (surprising, perhaps,  given he was a Church official). He instead was first remembered as someone who used the abundance he had (and reputedly his miraculous spiritual gifts) to give poor children joy, and to rescue girls from lives of prostitution or servitude, and to help famished communities survive, and (in a particularly grisly story) to bring butchered children back to life before they could be cannibalized by the hungry.

The original legends come from a time when matters of life and death, survival and starvation, were certainly more stark and obvious in the Western world than they are today. But the thing that stands out most is that Nicholas is remembered as using his wealth to bring justice and joy to those most in need, rather than just rewarding the “good” children with expensive toys.

I see the spirit of Santa in the hard-working, red-suited men for whom the film gave me fresh appreciation. But I see it even more so in those who help those who are starving, or in need, or enslaved. Perhaps most of all those who help those who aren’t  usually seen by society as “good boys and girls,” like the sex trafficking and bonded labor victims given new opportunities by my friends at places like the Protect Project,  IJM, and the Nomi Network, and the children and families given increased opportunities by organizations like World Vision, Global Humanitaria, and  Save the Children.

Becoming Santa

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