This article was originally posted on LatLong.

The sun was slowly climbing the early morning sky as I roared down the A29 on the back of a motorcycle. The morning was hot and we had been on the road for about three hours.

The roads were in a state of disrepair after decades of civil war. Between the monsoons and mortars, many parts of the highway were seemingly missing. Twisted metal from blown out vehicles littered the side of the road, remnants. We did our best to navigate, avoiding craters left from bombs that had landed in the region.

Two of my traveling companions became anxious and attempted to escape the box I was holding them in. Carrying a box full of rambunctious puppies would have been difficult while walking down a street – let alone while riding a motorcycle. I started playing a perverse game of whack-a-mole. One hand was dedicated to gripping the box against my body. My other hand split its time between pushing the puppies back into the box and hanging on to the motorcycle as we careened down the highway.

This lasted for over an hour.

The road smoothed out as we approached a military checkpoint. My friends and I tensed up; news stories of the military’s atrocities floated to the top of my mind. We creeped to a halt at the checkpoint and half of our caravan was directed to the queue for locals.

My legs were shaking – I’m not sure if it was five hours on a motorcycle or fear of the soldiers. I was called up from the queue and approached grasping the box of puppies with one hand and my navy blue passport with the other.

The soldier inspected my entry visa and muttered some gruff words in a foreign tongue. We locked eyes and he asked me why I was travelling North. I inhaled slowly; humid air filled my nostrils. I explained that I had to get these puppies to my friend’s parents. I dropped the box down to the ground and opened it slowly. I stood holding two puppies as he cracked a huge smile.

Soon a large crowd of men clad in camouflage surrounded the puppies. They were laughing and teasing the dogs. The tension had evaporated.

A few minutes later we were on our way to the North, only five more hours to go.

8.676573, 80.636473

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Best business practices from Ancient Greece

Socrates never claimed to be an expert in anything; instead he claimed to be just a man who was trying to understand the world around him. When he encountered someone making a bold claim he would respond with a simple question — he wanted to reduce their element to its plainest form. This method of distilling complex thought into the simplest form has become known as the Socratic method. At its core, its really just a form of conversation where two people work together to arrive at the truth. He understood that it was not enough to have his students memorize facts about the world, instead he led them to arrive at the the truth by having his students question and distill complex problems.

Law schools are noted for their use of the socratic method. Countless Hollywood movies have portrayed first year law students terrified of the professor calling their name, and this vision of socratic dialogue as a tool for inquisition and public humiliation has pervaded popular thought.

This negative perception of Socratic reasoning seems to have taken hold in popular culture. People are often uncomfortable with extended questioning of the merits of their decisions. The lizard brain kicks in, we become defensive. We become afraid, vanity inhibits our rationality. Admitting the faults in our reasoning is hard to do when we’re not accustomed to it — we are attached to our ideas precisely because they are our ideas.

Stop for a moment, I want you to be completely honest with yourself. Answer one question— are you transparent with your coworkers? Your employees? Your customers?

If you aren’t, why is that? Many excuses come to mind, I’m sure, but are they really valid? The reality is this: if you pushed to find the purpose and truth of things you would probably do better work. It’s as simple as that.

This was originally posted on Medium. To read the entire post click here

Facade

September 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

photo by PlanPhilly

photo by PlanPhilly

According to Merriam-Webster, a facade is:
the front of a building; also any face of a building given special architectural treatment
a false, superficial, or artificial appearance or effect

The French word façade originated in the mid 17th century, meaning face of a building. It is a derivation of the Italian word facciata (front of the building) and the Latin word facies (face). According to the etymology of the word, it took about 200 years for the ulterior (sarcastic) connotation to take root.

In colloquial parlance, facade has negative connotations. It seems to imply that you’re hiding something beneath a flawless exterior. My guess is that this negative connotation took root after the great depression.

The next time you’re walking through an American city, try to pick out the banks built before 1929, they’re usually characterized by grand facades. In the era before FDIC insurance, how would you judge the stability of a bank? According to architect Albert Kahn, banks were designed due to “the psychology of the average business man. [The building] should … reflect the prosperity of the business carried on within and should inspire confidence in the general public” (source).

What better way to judge the financial stability of a bank than by the amount of money they could waste spend on a building. The more ornate the building, the safer the institution; this became apart of the story of their business. Consumers felt reassured walking into the marble covered lobby of a bank. The prosperity – realized or otherwise – was apart of the story that depositors told themselves.

In the digital era it’s easier (and cheaper) than ever to put up a facade. This facade dictates how your consumers will interact with you, how they will view themselves. The lower cost of digital facades means that not having a polished site is more expensive than ever. Your facade is a large part of your legitimacy in the digital era. Most end users have no idea if your site is build off of a wordpress framework or if its custom coded, but they can tell you if they trust your look and feel.

Its important to build a facade that you can deliver on, unlike the banking system of 1929.

What online businesses do you trust the most? Add your thoughts below

Lessons from Seth

August 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

After ten days of silent meditation, I powered up my iPhone to check my email, the first message was from Seth Godin – telling me I was picked for his short summer internship. An intense feeling of happiness shot through my body, and I had to read the email a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly:

Hey Sean…

I don’t need to wait until tomorrow–even though I got more than 3,500 applications and sat through more than 800 videos, putting you on the shortlist was an obvious choice.
The hard part for me was narrowing down that short list of extraordinary people to a manageable cadre of superstars, visionaries and shippers who could wrangle this project into submission.
I’ve never even come close to having a team like this on hand to build something cool.
Write back and tell me you’re in, so I can publish the final team. Your commitment to your work, to your art, means the world to me, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to work with you.
Yep, you’re in.
Let me know for sure, and I’ll send you more details over the weekend.
Here we go!
Seth

Two weeks in Seth’s office, surrounded by 17 extraordinary individuals, were amazing. We sprinted through the internship, working tirelessly to create art, to create something that matters. I suspect this internship will be a highlight of my professional career for decades to come.

Some of my biggest takeaways from Seth’s internship were:

What do you want to Fight for?

Having a clear vision helps you to execute. I want to make the world a better place is a good goal, but where do you start? I want to provide clean drinking water to those in need is a much narrower goal, and you could start by donating your birthday to charity: water. Clear and concise thought leads to actionable items.

Axes

Axes Help you Think

Framing your argument is crucial. Posing open, ambiguous questions to a table full of people leads inconclusive discussions. Framed discussions, where people are given a choice of A or B, help to solidify the direction of your project. Those high level, intellectual debates can be incredibly useful as you begin to form your thoughts – they just don’t help you move forward.

Ship It

Ship It

You can have the best idea in the world, but its meaningless unless you execute it. Set a deadline, be realistic about your goals and expectations, and send your project out into the world. Before you do, define what success is to you. Thinking and researching are useful to a certain point – make sure you ship your project. It’s hard to put yourself out there, you become vulnerable and open to criticism, but shipping is the only way to create, to build. Celebrate your shipping.

Fail Fast, Fail Small

Get feedback early and often. Work with trusted colleagues to help you refine your vision. Its a lot better to crush a project early on than to work on it for months and have nothing to ship. Small, quick failure is a good thing. It teaches you a lot. Its hard to open yourself up to failure, but its necessary to fail if you want to create something valuable.

It’s better to fail on a project after a few hours than spend months working on something in the dark.

Polish Matters

While you want to ship a project quickly, the polish really does matter. Seth is a master at marketing, just look at any of his books. Polish is what gets people talking, what really surprises and delights them. When Seth published the Purple Cow he didn’t just send the first people who bought them a book. When the book arrived at your office it was put on your desk in a purple milk carton – imagine the watercooler conversations. (You can read Seth’s marketing plan for the Purple Cow here).

Writing a great book might have been enough to make the Purple Cow a bestseller; by delivering it in a clever and unique way Seth guaranteed his success.

Software is a Lever

Software can help you to amplify your vision and connect with your audience is a deeper, more meaningful way. Can is an important word in this context, if your software isn’t elegant and intuitive it will be a distraction. Most people don’t notice good software, but they notice when software doesn’t work well.

Paired Programing

According to wikipedia, paired programming is:

an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator,[1] reviews each line of code as it is typed in.

Coming from a nontechnical background, I was completely unfamiliar with this style of working until Seth suggested I give it a try when I was stuck on a project. Sitting with someone looking over my shoulder, as I refined my project, forced me not just to work quickly but to work thoughtfully. Every sentence I wrote was questioned: was it necessary, could it be phrased better, would it achieve what we wanted it to? In the end it produced a great product quicker than I could have on my own.

Thrash and Push Back

Having a room full of people critique and tweak your idea can be intimidating. Putting your ideas and vision out there is tough. Your ideas become open to thrashing and push back. It is important to remember that you aren’t being challenged, just your ideas. Pishing back against other people’s ideas will force you to refine your vision – and improve it.

Critical Path

The Critical Path Method (CPM) is a project management tool that maps out what needs to be completed to finish a project. CPM contributed to the success of the Manhattan Project by helping to manage tasks. If, for example, the enrichment of uranium took 18 months, and all the other components of the atomic bomb could be finished in 17 months, then uranium enrichment would be the critical path. Regardless of how quickly you built the bomb casing, it wouldn’t be finished until the uranium was enriched.

When you’re working on the critical path, don’t deviate from your project because it will slow down the entire team. And when someone else is on the path, stay out of their way.

For different perspectives on the internship, check out Seth’s, Grant’s or Barrett’s posts.

Sprint

August 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

I like to run, but I love to sprint. In 2011 I trained for my first half marathon without ever running more than five miles at once, I focused on sprint training – I finished in 1:57.

Sprinting makes you faster. Sprinting makes you leaner. Sprinting increases your stamina.

If you sprint every day you’ll injure yourself. Sprints are intense, and your body can’t handle it every day. After sprinting your muscles need rest to heal. You’ve ripped them to shreds and the rest will give them a chance to heal, a chance to grow.

The two weeks I spent interning with Seth Godin were a sprint. We pushed ourselves to work hard and to fail fast. The pace was not sustainable, but sustainability wasn’t the point of this exercise. The point of this exercise was to push ourselves close to our breaking point, to build something awesome. The point of this exercise was to make ourselves (mentally) faster and leaner.

The final push is always the hardest, but it leads to the most growth. We’ve ended our sprint, and I’m taking some time to rest and reflect.

 

Cultural diplomacy – the attempt by a government to win the hearts and minds of foreign nationals – has a long tradition in the history of the world. Akin to an early form of globalization, cultural diplomacy served as a tool of statecraft for ancient civilizations of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Through exchanging ideas, technology and individuals these societies built relations that enabled them to develop and evolve their agriculture, artistry, trade, and diplomacy. Ancient Egypt had the custom of bringing young aristocrats from conquered enemies to Egypt, where they were immersed in Egyptian society and returned to their home with favorable views of the Pharaoh.

Alexander the Great realized that he could not sustain his empire through military might alone. With this vision he built the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the largest in the world at the time and a site of scholarly exchanges. The library was built upon Greek culture and learning, and facilitated the spread of Greco philosophy. Greek cities were famously employed poets and philosophers to go abroad as ambassadors.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offered the first example of modern state efforts to promote culture and education beyond borders. France, because of the Jesuits, exported high quality education to North America, China, and India. The Jesuits’ educational expertise was deployed in tandem with France’s colonization, diplomatic, military, and trade efforts.

Through their international education exchanges, Jesuits gained access to highly guarded cultural sites. Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, was the first Westerner allowed into China’s Forbidden City. He invited to be an advisor to the Imperial Court, and was given this honor due to his contributions to Chinese academia with his conversion of European scientific texts into Chinese. For Ricci, as well as for students today, the importance of academic exchange cannot be overstated.

Like the French, America’s first source of cultural diplomacy was rooted in religion. During the nineteenth century the American Christian missionary movement sought to spread the gospel abroad. This involved imparting Western knowledge with an emphasis on self- reliance at many schools and universities abroad. They founded some of the first universities modeled after the American higher education system abroad: Robert College in Constantinople in 1863, the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, and Peking University in 1989. Peking University (Beijing Daxue 北京大学) is generally regarded as the Harvard (or Oxford) of China.

Many Christian missionaries sponsored converts to obtain higher education in America. One notable example was Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. Wing returned to China after graduating from Yale and convinced the Chinese government to send 120 young Chinese men to the U.S. for undergraduate studies.

As international exchange gained traction in America, the international peace movement of the early 1900’s promoted the ideal that mutual understanding could be achieved through educational travel. Under this worldview, foreign education played an integral part in ending all wars. Students and lecturers would serve as ambassadors and return home with a deeper understanding other nations.

In this context, Andrew Carnegie created his namesake Endowment for International Peace with a $10 million donation in 1910. His vision was to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization”. One of the main pillars of the foundation was the Division of Intercourse and Education, which sought to promote international understanding and cooperation.

World War I hampered Carnegie’s efforts to end all wars. However, the war brought about American government involvement in cultural activities abroad. President Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in 1917 to build support for the U.S. to enter and participate in the war. The CPI is noted for its work in Europe and South America. It coordinated with US Embassies to open reading rooms for US-based journalism; it also organized speaking tours for Americans. Through the Fulbright program these activities continue today.

After World War I the Institute of International Education (IIE) was founded to promote greater understanding between nations and foster lasting peace through international education exchanges. During the 1920s IIE organized student, faculty and teacher exchanges between Americans and Europeans. Stephen Duggan, IIE’s president at the time, persuaded the U.S. government to create a new category of nonimmigrant student visas, bypassing post-war quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1921. By the mid 1920s IIE was administering international fellowships on behalf of the American, Czechoslovak, French, German, and Hungarian governments. Duggan put forth proposals to bring foreign students to the U.S. as a form of foreign aid and a way to promote long-term relations between countries. He asserted, “If ever there were a time when America’s aid was necessary to help sustain higher education in Europe, and in the interest of reconstruction and of the intellectual life, to bring selected students to this country, it is now.” These efforts prompted the State Department to organize a meeting on the topic of educational exchanges in 1936, which ultimately gave birth to US government cultural diplomacy.

With the 1941 entrance of the U.S. into World War II, the State Department moved most cultural diplomacy efforts into the private sector. IIE was granted responsibility to manage the US-sponsored student exchange programs in Latin America. In 1944 the Secretary of State created a new position, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Affairs. This position marked a monumental shift in government policy towards cultural exchanges, as the government began to embrace these programs more fully.

The end of the war, international educational exchange had become a priority of the U.S. government. The Fulbright Program, America’s premier cultural diplomacy program, owes its creation to the efforts of Senator William Fulbright. He is “responsible for the largest and most significant movement of scholars across the earth since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.”

The Fulbright is America’s premier international fellowship. In your application essay, you need to include discuss why your research furthers the Fulbright program’s goals of fostering international communication and cultural learning. To better understand the program’s goals, it is useful to know the history of the Fulbright program and educational exchange as a whole.

For more Fulbright application tips download my guide.

Fulbright Skills

July 14, 2013 — 2 Comments

I received a lot of questions about the Fulbright when I decided to take the grant, many friends and family wanted to know what this would do for me, how would it help you I couldn’t answer those questions when I took the grant, but after months of living in Sri Lanka I have a sense of how the Fulbright has benefited my life.

The Fulbright has done a lot for me, in terms of personal development. Through the Fulbright I’ve become:

  • more open and honest in my communications
  • able to think outside of my life experiences
  • better at helping students learn and understand their strengths

I’m not positive how these skills will help me in my future, but I’m confident that the past nine months of living in working in Trincomalee will help me in my future endeavors. In his recent commencement speech, Dick Costolo spoke about his life and how he never could have put together the pieces going forward. When he reflects on his computer science degree and his time spent performing standup comedy, it seems obvious that he went on to become the CEO of Twitter. When Steve Jobs gave his commencement speech he cited a typography class as one of the classes that most influenced him – the class was not apart of his undergraduate curriculum. It’s easy to connect the dots when you’ve reached the finish line. It is not easy to see the dots when you’re still finding you way.

 

“We need students who can learn how to learn, who can discover how to push themselves…”
-Seth Godin
“Thank goodness I never went to school. It would have rubbed off some of the originality”
-Beatrix Potter

These quotes greeted my business English students at the Trinco Jesuit Academy, and they kicked off a discussion about what factors lead to quality education.

Over the course of the following weeks my students watched TED talks, read news articles, and debated the merits of different approaches to education. They then crafted letters to the Ministry of Education, expressing their ideas on how to improve Sri Lanka’s education system.

As a final class project, each student had to choose a part of their letter to record on video, these were then put together into one cohesive video.

I’m grateful for the Jesuit Academy of Trincomalee for letting me come up with creative lesson plans. My students could have worked out of a textbook for the month we worked on this, but instead they were forced to develop their own ideas. This project worked on critical thinking, public speaking, and writing skills. It also forced my students to address problems in their community.

Bureaucracy

June 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

For several months now I have been working with the Tsunami Animal-People Alliance to try and coordinate a dog vaccination and sterilization clinic in Trincomalee. I first got in contact with the NGO after a fellow Fulbrighter told me about the work they were doing around the island, that was in the beginning of February.

On March 22 I had a meeting with the Trincomalee District Secretariat (D.S.) to receive approval for to conduct a clicic in October. Over the course of the clinic it is expected that 300 dogs will be sterilized and vaccinated. The D.S. approved the project, pending the approval of the relevant government stakeholders – namely the Government Agent (G.A.) (who works for the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development) and the local veterinarian  I met with the G.A. on the 20th of April.

Its May 8th now, and I’ve received word from the G.A. that the project is approved, pending approval from the Ministry of Health. Two weeks later, I received the final approval and the project is set to commence in October.

The bureaucracy here is frustrating, and it seems that no government official wants to take responsibility for a project. Each official I went to for approval gave it conditionally; it seemed like they were afraid to take responsibility for the plan.

Things move at a frustratingly slow pace; if you keep on people and maintain persistence, its possible to make progress.

 

I was sitting on a verandah, sipping on a cup of coffee, overlooking the main road of Kandy. At the table next to me was a group of girls, pouring through their Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, trying to figure out their next stop along their tour. We started chatting and the asked a curious, but common, question, “how can we get to know the real Sri Lanka?” I’ve been asked this question on several occasions; and I think most travelers seek to get away from the toursits traps and get to know the true essence of a country (at least for a few hours…).

The benefits are incredibly apparent: a true culture experience that enables you to understand someone with a different set of life experiences. Well its surprisingly easy to do this: get out of sterile, isolating situations; throw out that guide book, and make yourself get out and actually talk to people.

It might sound simple, but just speaking to people can really alter the course of your trip. I don’t understand tourists who go around with headphones in listening to music. Riding on buses across Sri Lanka has been one of the best most interesting parts of my time here. When you’re sitting next to someone on a six hour bus ride, there is a lot of time to learn about the country from your travel companion, if you have headphones in the entire way you’ve just lost this entire opportunity. Talking to people on buses has led me to better understand Sri Lanka and its history. I’ve been shocked by what people have shared with me on a public bus, stories of war, survival, and new beginnings.

The Fulbright has been one of the best learning experience of my life, thus far. The past six months of living and working in Sri Lanka have pushed me to be a better communicator and a more open person. This experience has changed me, probably in more ways than I’m cognizant of. As a caucasian male born to a middle class family in New Jersey, I don’t exactly have a lot in common with the son of a Sri Lankan fisherman who has spent the last decade of his life running from war. Despite the differences between our worldview and experiences, I try my best to understand his outlooks. When I first came to Sri Lanka this was incredibly difficult to relate with people here. Sitting in someone’s living room and listening to their stories of life and death can evoke a range or emotions, and I often found myself falling silent – unsure of how to respond. After time I learned to understand and empathize with the hardships people have faced; I became comfortable enough to ask questions and engage in conversations.

If you want to be a better communicator, start by listening.