Monday, June 18, 2012

Damn Lies, Stats, and Global Confusion

During five months I lived in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite experiences was reading and discussing how statistics get twisted by diplomats, politicians, and more. A great article which I still have in my file cabinet is "The Truth but not the Whole Truth" by Peter Carlson. The subtitle? "In political Washington, statistics are weapons of war. That's why they get manipulated and massaged and twisted until any connection to reality is strictly coincidental."

With globalization and the increase of Internet tools such as Twitter, there are now more statistics available. This overload of information makes it even more difficult to find "truth" about issues. For example, I enjoyed this great blog from last week by the lead researcher for Oxfam about a confusing statistic on women and girls in poverty.

And here's the thing. Misused or inaccurate stats, especially in humanitarian efforts, can lead to serious consequences like not understanding where the real needs are and, thus, deaths of the most underserved.

I continue to monitor self-curated media like Twitter and occasionally find some gems. And even when I'm reading respected publications like The Economist or the Stanford Innovation Review, I still have to keep my skeptic hat on. Independent thinking, confirming facts through triangulation or cross-references, and asking questions beyond surface issues are still essential.

But I suspect that knowing what to ask is largely a product of having diverse life experiences, recognizing ambiguity and complexity in the world, and awareness of both extremes of any argument. Not easy work and very time consuming, but worthwhile.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Naps and Commencement Speeches

I delivered my first commencement speech on Saturday. It was a good experience...and I don't think anyone took a nap. During research for the speech, I listened to a great NPR interview with an experienced speech writer. It was comforting to remember that you're talking to a captive audience.

But I didn't want to be forgettable. However, it's difficult to avoid. You have to either be great (my YouTube research pointed repeatedly to Steve Jobs' 2005 speech) or horrible (lots of fingers pointing at actor Richard Jones in 2011). Few people remember their high school or university graduation speaker. I don't! Do you?

Anyway, I was surprised as I drafted the speech. At first, I couldn't think of anything really important to share with these high school graduates from a private school I attended years ago. Later, I was overwhelmed with how many pieces of advice I wanted to give them in 15 minutes! I settled on three personal stories that illustrated the points below, but would be interested: What would you tell graduates today? What do you wish you would have been told when you graduated? What are you glad that you DIDN'T know?

And yes, despite my efforts, there were a few yawns in the crowd. I suspect I connected more with the graduates' families than the graduates themselves. But at least nobody (?!) napped.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

1. Ask great questions. This helps us get beyond selfishness, can transform lives (ours, others), helps us deal with disappointment or heartache in a messy world. As a person who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus (in my opinion, this is different than being a "Christian"), I like that he asked tons of great questions.

2. Take the harder path. This helps with decision making, often leads toward helping the most vulnerable, allows us to conquer fear (even though we may still feel afraid). Many religious people or institutions have a deservedly bad rap. But Jesus was clear that it's not about getting a ticket to heaven and becoming judgmental about everyone else. It is about right relationships and changing the world for better -- but, of course, helping your neighbor (or even enemy) is not easy.

3. Focus on strengths and vocation, not career. Strengths are innate patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior (not skills or knowledge). We often spend disproportionate time or energy improving weak areas. And a vocation or "calling" could include many careers. Figure out your design.