TEDx Compassion: Pull Model in Action

Jun 17, 2011

A couple of years ago, one of my friends really wanted me to speak at TED so he offered me a six thousand dollar ticket to check it out.  I couldn't justify that kind of an entrance fee, :) so I declined while explaining: "There's no rush.  It'll happen if and when the time ripens." 
Instead of pushing for an outcome, if you wait for the organic pull, I've found that the value generation takes an entirely unique trajectory.  You arrive in a web of interconnections and become a catalyst for far deeper engagement.
Though not the main TED event, last weekend I spoke at TEDx Compassion at the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond.  Close to 700 people attending in person, live-webcast online, simultaneous translation via sign language, four concurrent graphic recorders taking visual notes, a stellar roster of speakers and performances.  The whole production, spearheaded by Prospect Sierra, was a year in the making and well organized.  
But from an internal perspective, it didn't feel like a big deal -- it just felt natural. That natural-ness is courtesy of the pull-model and allows the the focus to be on the things that matter -- ripples.

Like most of our invitations, this one was via a good friend -- Jason Marsh. As a co-creator of the conference, and a participant in the last CF retreat and various CF projects, Jason requested our participation.  The 8 hour event, which initially featured Greg Mortenson, felt like a compassion bonanza -- and I asked 'em if they had considered opening up some scholarships.  Very generously, Dacher Keltner and Wendy Brawer shared some of their own tickets to setup a gift flow and asked us to let it ripple out.  We sent out a note to local Karma Kitchen volunteers and lots of people wrote back about why they wanted to attend, like Susi:

I've always wanted to change the world. I was always that girl who took the extra step to make sure everyone is happy, and a great day for me is volunteering at the hospital, complimenting everyone I see, giving out smiles and hugs, and most importantly, listening to people. [...] I want to help everyone. I want to change the world. And more than anything, I want to meet other people and be inspired by those who ARE changing the world.
In fact, way more people wrote in than we had tickets for -- so we gave them away to folks who were *not* all that connected to CharityFocus. Spread the love. :)  Soon, though, Lachmin signed up to volunteer, connected with one of the organizers and found out that they needed more volunteers ... and another dozen CF'ers signed up to serve.  A bunch more bought tickets too.  We had also recommended a few local leaders, like Megan at Mindful Schools and Randy at Project Happiness.  And then there were the folks who end up knowing about us through our work.  Just like that, a posse emerged before the event even started.
The night before, while the speakers were going through the rehearsal, Guri spent a couple hours at the only coffee shop in the neighbhorhood.  When I later went to pay for her tab, the waiter happily says: "Ah, don't even worry about it."  Really?!?  We hadn't even talked about gift-economy but I promised to pay-it-forward. :)
Before watching Buck -- a touching movie about a horse trainer -- I ran into Ashok Gadgil.  "CharityFocus?  Of course, I know CharityFocus."  This is the inventor whose work has touched millions of lives; most recently, he invented a cooking stove for women in Darfur, without which they were being severely abused on their long walks to get firewood.  Very inspiring work.  "Mark and Yoo-mi went with me on my first trip to Darfur.  It was too dangerous for my wife to go, but they were willing.  So I know all about CharityFocus," he said with a very big smile. :)
Like that, there were connections everywhere.  Years ago, I remember Nancy Rivard telling me about her friend Nancy McGirr -- one fine day, she quit her war-time photography job, bought a bunch of disposable cameras and headed to the shanti-towns of South America without a plan.  She ended up publishing a book of those kids' photos called 'Out of the Dump' and continues to work there, decades later.   Similarly, Shabnam Agarwal was a friend of Neil Patel.  She is big on the importance of failure in education -- "Why do we think that falling off a bike is a natural part of learning to ride but failing in Math is not?"  Many CF'ers had told me about how Roots of Empathy uses babies to battle bullying, and it was a pleasure to meet Mary Gordon as well.
Per organizer requests, Smile Cards and Decks were in abundant supply, but the coordinators manning the book-table couldn't make sense of it. :) Are they brochure-ware marketing material or do they have a price?  Sometimes our culture isn't sure how to process genuine gifts.  For us, though, no problem, since we just equipped most of our posse with a personalized stack and the distributed revolution went on. :)
In the lunch line, I was next to Howard -- every Monday, he does some gardening and gives out flowers to hospital patients.  I told him about one of Madhu's stories of a fellow in India who received such a flower when his wife was in critical condition and then decided to pay-it-forward every single day, for more than 30 years.  Hank and I spoke about doing gift-economy flowers locally. :)  Since the line at the Taco Truck was too long, I had to leave before getting my food; but before I did, I had the chance to gift my lunch coupon to him and another woman standing next to us. :)
My speaking slot was at the end of the day.  I've been asked to speak to large audiences before -- but this was one of the shorter talks I had given, so I had to practice speaking in haikus. :)  As my Dad said (who was watching the live-stream at home), I started off slow but then got into my groove. :)  Let's see how it is when the video comes out.  Leah made this beautiful "Dharma Comic" after the talk:
The gift-economy idea resonated with many folks.  Right as I finished the talk, a woman came up to me and said, "I travelled all the way Montreal, Canada, to be here -- and if the only talk I had heard was yours, it would've been worth it."  We chatted for a few minutes, and I started telling her stories of the CF'ers around us.  Pancho was on deck, as was Edwin.  Sure enough, the next day, she came to Karma Kitchen with Edwin and connected with Pancho (she now hopes to interview him and his roommates for their Casa de Paz work in East Oakland).  Another woman came upto me, hugged me, and said, "I'm from Australia, and just want to say that I subscribe to all your email newsletters and I love all that you guys stand for!"  The event curator, the indefatigable Kathryn Lee, later wrote, "When I ask people about the talks that moved them, everyone includes yours!"  Glad it served the purpose for some.
As I was leaving, two college youth yelled from a distance: "We'll see you at Karma Kitchen!" Incidentally, I happened to be volunteering at Karma Kitchen the next day.  Couple dozen folks did show up.  One was 10-year-old Shimari who paid forward ten bucks of her car-cleaning money; her mother also took a stack of Smile Cards to spread in Barcelona, where they are traveling this month.   The camera-woman who recorded the event came -- because of her conversation with Susan Louie, who was volunteering at the event.  And those college kids, they came too. :)
I got a bunch of nice notes from friends and family that night.  One of them was from Barbara who said she admired the work of one of the speakers, Dan Siegel, and would love to see him speak on a Wednesday.   Dan was one of the speakers who had thanked me afterwards, so I dropped him a note with Barbara's idea.  Wednesday isn't exactly a draw for busy people, because it doesn't have much material value to offer, but Dan writes back right away.  Those college kids, they were his sons.  They were sitting in the first row at the event, loved the idea of gift economy, and had even come to Karma Kitchen.  Sure enough, Dan will be speaking at a Wednesday during his next trip to the bay-area and potentially syndicating content for DailyGood.  Barbara was elated. :)
I just looked at the RSVP list for this Wednesday, and lo and behold, James Doty had signed up to attend.  He now runs the Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford.  At the event, he had shared a powerful story about his challenging early life, going on to lead major technology companies and then ultimately, giving away *all* his stock in a major company he had helped build, just "to liberate myself."
All of this is just as of today.  With so many CF'ers there to spread their webs of compassions in so many directions, it is easy imagine that the ripples will continue to unfold in umpteen directions.  Its a movement that simply can't be stopped since its not driven by external incentives nor is it centralized.  Such events could be an opportunity to broadcast; and the tech savvy might embrace social media to deepen some of that engagement, but still, a ton of value is lost.  To truly catch (and multiply) that inner and outer potential, it's all about decentralizing, broadening and distributing -- receive a kind act at the coffee shop and pay-it-forward at the lunch line; gift tickets to folks like Susi to broaden the circle; divert attention to grassroots people in the posse like Pancho; engage in the ripples at Karma Kitchen in a way that's even more generative.
When the collective does this for a dozen years over hundreds of events, it is no surprise to see why the pull-model expresses itself so elegantly in the CharityFocus ecosystem.

Update, July 17th: the video of the talk!

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

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