Founder stories don’t really matter
Posted on April 20, 2012 at 6:25 am
As an entry for the Day Without Dignity 2012, I was sent a typical White in Shining Armor founder story. Someone that had left their good job to volunteer in Africa and ended up starting their own nonprofit at great expense to themselves. We’ve all heard stories similar to this before.
But here’s the thing, the personal journey of the founder doesn’t
matter guarantee good aid.
A compelling founder story, such as Greg Mortenson’s, doesn’t mean that the nonprofit is successful or even moderately helpful. A boring founder story doesn’t mean that the nonprofit is floundering or failing. There is no correlation between the compellingness of a founder story and the competency of their nonprofit. And yet we keep focusing on them.
A Reflection on “Three Cups of Tea”
Inevitably I am asked, “When did you have the moment of inspiration for Solar Sister?” Every interview, every grant application, every conversation leads to the same breathless anticipation that I will reveal the secret moment of inspiration. There is such a palpable desire for an origination story, an epic tale of good versus evil, a lost soul finding redemption or a single moment of inspiration. The Eureka!
Sir Herald Evans wrote about “The Eureka Myth” for the Harvard Business Review back in 2005, “Innovation, cast as the triumph of human imagination, may be the most romantic discipline in business. And the eureka moment, that epiphany of total clarity in which a breakthrough invention or discovery occurs, is the most romantic aspect of innovation. In fact, the eureka moment still looms so large in the folklore of business that it overshadows the historically far more important matter of how an invention reaches the marketplace as a practical innovation. As companies turn their sights anew to top-line growth, it is time to see the eureka moment—indeed the whole gestalt of “breakthrough thinking”—for what it is: largely a myth.”
Real solutions to real problems don’t happen that way. They don’t just pop out like the Greek goddess Athena leaping from Zeus’s head, fully grown and armed. If there is a “Eureka!” moment, it is the result of long hours of deliberate consideration, of study and preparation and open-ended learning, of trying and failing and trying again. True innovation is more likely to result from Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours” than from a single moment of inspiration.
I once told an interviewer that there was no ‘moment’. I told her that Solar Sister evolved over time in response to market conditions. I told her that my involvement in Africa is the result of a long and not very straight path. She said point blank, “Well, that’s no good. We’ll have to think of something else.” I fully appreciate a good tale, and believe that the best way to connect to people is through story. But I worry when the desire for story as entertainment, when the need for a ‘hook’ becomes so necessary in order to connect people to important issues facing humanity that we are willing to throw over the staid truth for a more interesting, sexier version.
I am thinking of this today as I read about 60 Minutes upcoming expose of Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea”. According to 60 Minutes, Mortenson’s origination story is fabricated. In a brief rebuttal posted on the Central Asia Institute website, Mortenson defends himself, but his comments do not exactly inspire confidence. 60 Minutes goes on to talk about financial and program discrepancies which are damning if true. It will be a shame for all the work that Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute has accomplished and all it could accomplish if Mortenson is discredited.
Mortenson’s work to build schools is inspiration enough without the getting-lost-bonding-with-the-locals bit. But I can imagine that perhaps he submitted a first draft with a somewhat more mundane version of the origins of his work, and his editor said to him point blank, “Well, that’s no good. We’ll have to think of something else.”
According to Sir Harold, even Thomas Edison crafted a Eureka story, “Admittedly, the eureka myth is seductive. Thomas Edison, who usually stressed that invention was the easy bit, forgot his own 1%-inspiration-to-99%-perspiration rule in describing to a newspaper reporter how the incandescent light bulb came to him as a gift from the gods. The reporter wrote: ‘Sitting one night in his laboratory, Edison began abstractedly rolling between his fingers a piece of compressed lampblack mixed with tar for use in his telephone….His thoughts continued far away, his fingers meanwhile mechanically rolling over the little piece of tarred lampblack until it had become a slender filament.’ In fact, Edison’s laboratory notebooks suggest that he had considered carbon early on but discarded it in favor of platinum because carbon burned up too quickly. It was a new prospect—evacuating most of the air from the bulb—that induced Edison to return to carbon.” Despite Edison mythologizing the origin story, we benefit today from his invention.
I hope that the allegations about Greg Mortenson prove to be false, and that the work we have all been inspired by is not just a lie. I believe that Mortenson’s CAI has accomplished much in creating awareness about the need for education in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially for the girl-children of that region who have not had a place on the world’s agenda. Like Icarus, Mortenson may be punished for flying too high, but I hope that his work survives the fall.
Guides by Good Intentions are Not Enough