Save a Life, Do Great Work, & Buy a Book: Tracking Wonder Interviews Michael Bungay Stanier

 In Innovation, Science, Work Flow

I have big dreams and desires for being part of a cause that reaches far, far beyond the needs of myself, my loved ones, and even of the people with whom I work. But I still wonder how and when I will get there and what that cause is.  Do you fidget with this selfless activist itch the way I do?

How would you respond when or if you realized you were not acting on your principles of social justice? Would you think to write a book? Would you think that buying a book might be a start?

Meet Michael Bungay Stanier, who had that very realization last January 2011.

Michael Bungay Stanier, always looking up

Michael Bungay Stanier is a rare combination of humility, intelligence, creative innovation, and genuine warmth.  At least that’s my experience. As President of the smart creativity consulting firm Box of Crayons and author of Do More Great Work, Michael already has made a difference in the lives of thousands of people who yearn to do work that matters. (Plus, he likes Nicholson Baker’s novella A Box of Matches, which in my view puts him at the top of Wonder Trackers.)

But showing the world’s top million people how to do their own great work while leading a comfortable life just didn’t feel complete to this Oxford grad of philosophy who values social justice. So what did he do? He wrote, edited, “choreographed” a brilliant book project.

A book that saves lives.

That’s right. A book that saves lives. And the book – End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save Lives – comes out today. It has remarkable tips by some of our time’s brightest thinkers in innovation, education, and great work, including lawyer-turned thought leader Dan Pink (A Whole New Mind; Drive), science journalist & thinker Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide; Proust Was a Neuroscientist), professor-turned-education thought leader Sir Ken Robinson (The Element), corporate prisoner rescuee Pam Slim (Escape from Cubicle Nation), engineer-turned-innovative thinker Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence), and many more. For a full list of contributors, visit the new site endmalariaday.com.

So what’s the connection among these great thinkers and ending malaria? What does the brilliant New York-based organization No More Malaria have to do with the drive for excellence? That’s just one of the head-scratching questions I had for Michael when we spoke last week by phone.

Hint: Virtually no one is profiting from this project except the people who matter -the children and adults stricken with malaria.

If you want my more complete take on the book’s concept and why I think it’s so innovative, check out my article today at Psychology Today/Tracking Wonder. Read or listen to the interview below for more insights into the distinctions between a book concept versus book content, how you can save a life for $20, the challenges of staying true to your principles and following through on funding a philanthropic project, and much more.

Listen to the podcast version of the interview.


00:00      Two levels of doing great work: the book’s content AND the book’s concept?
03:10       The devastation of malaria and what we can do about it
05:44       Walking the talk: the journey to do great work consistent with key principles
07:58       How End Malaria hooked up with Seth Godin’s The Domino Project
11:14        The importance of letting an idea ripen
11:43        The nag of the comfortable life & the need to do great work beyond comfort
15:07        How a project keeps perspective fresh
16:56        The big picture of great work in our times

Transcript:

Jeffrey:  Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me about your latest project, your book End Malaria. I appreciate your being here.

Michael: A pleasure. I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for having me, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Here at Tracking Wonder we’re interested in surprise. And I have to say that I know as Michael Bungay Stanier, President of this really smart creativity consulting firm Box of Crayons, and then I knew you in the context of doing great work. So, first, I was surprised to learn that you were writing a book called End Malaria. Then I was even more surprised to learn that the book is not really about malaria.

Michael: Right.

Jeffrey:  So, could you tell us about the book’s content and the book’s concept.

Michael: Sure. It’s a weird name for a book. It’s a particularly weird name for a book that’s about improving focus, productivity, and improving a sense of impact and meaning in the work you do. But here’s the thing, Jeffrey. The title of the book has more to do with the impact the book will have rather than the content in the book.

And I’ll tell you what I mean by that. Inside the book are essays by 62 really great authors, names people have heard of. Authors like Tom Peters, Brene Brown, and David Allan and Gary Vaynerchuk and Sally Hogshead. I mean, a really interesting range of people. And they’re all writing loosely around the topic of how do they do more great work, great work being that work that has meaning, that has impact, that matters.

But the real magic of this book, Jeffrey, is that $20 of every book sold goes to Malaria No More – to buy a mosquito net and help them with their life-saving work in Africa. So if you’re buying the Kindle version, it’s 100% goes to Malaria No More. If you’re buying the hard, print version, it’s I think $25, so 80% goes to Malaria No More.

So, basically, you can take my word for it: The stuff in the book is fantastic, but really you’re going to buy this book because it’s your chance to be a good person, to do a philanthropic work and save a life. That’s really what the book’s about.

Jeffrey:  That’s really smart. So now I get it. The list of contributors is impressive. Steve Johnson, who wrote Where Great Ideas Come From. Tony Schwartz, whom I heard speak at the 99% Conference.

Michael: Yep, he was great there.

Jeffrey: So, all of these people are providing the content of doing really great work.

Michael: Yep.

 Jeffrey: But we the readers also get to participate in doing great work. Is that right?

Michael: Well, exactly. I mean, I would love people to be doing great work on these two levels. One is, finding their own path and doing their own great work, and the other is helping me doing my great work, which is channeling a shed load of money to Malaria No More.

Jeffrey: Tell us a little more about Malaria No More. I’m guessing many people aren’t familiar with the organization, and you’re actually, I think, going to bring malaria back into the international conversation.

Michael: You know, malaria is one of the diseases that is plaguing our globe, and particularly in Africa. The U N has it as one of its key targets along with HIV-AIDS. So, it’s really a crucial issue. And here’s a statistic that I think will shock people. Every 45 seconds a child dies of malaria.

Jeffrey: That’s pretty unfathomable.

Michael: It totally is, especially for those of us who live a comfortable, safe, healthy lives, say, in Western Europe or Northern America or wherever you might be.

Jeffrey: Who get annoyed with a mosquito or something.

Michael: Right. So with Malaria No More, their mission is to eradicate malaria in Africa by 2015. So, that’s a really bold, ambitious goal. You eliminate malaria through a number of different ways. Mosquito nets is a really powerful tool. And I chose malaria because a mosquito net only costs $10. It’s like the cheapest unit for global change. So, I thought that’s a powerful way to make a difference fast.

But $20 [from every book sold] goes to Malaria No More. So, that’s enough for a mosquito net, and the other money goes to some of the other life-saving work they do. And they do that through trying to disrupt the breeding cycle of the mosquito, through education process, through all sorts of means, but they’ve got a really bold mission, and this book’s going to help do just that.

Jeffrey: That’s remarkable. You know, this whole approach to [writing] a book and to buying a book is different. I like it when someone like you comes along and shakes up my preconceptions of what writing a book is supposed to be about. You know, it’s not a solitary enterprise. It’s more collaborative that pulls in all of these contributors and pulls in Malaria No More. You’re more like this choreographer-activist.

Michael: That’s a good way to put it.

Jeffrey: Was this your idea, was this Seth Godin’s and The Domino Project’s idea, was it some combination of the two?

Michael: Yeah, it was my idea. Basically, my other book Do More Great Work came out about 18 months ago. And shortly after it came and I had recovered from that whole process of launching a book and obsessively tracking it on Amazon to see if it was going to sell anything, all of that stuff.

So in the book itself I encourage people to define a great work project for themselves. So, once I have a sense of what matters to them, what’s the project that you can put your time and attention into that will actually allow you do great work rather than kind of whittle away your day doing good work – the kind of everyday, ordinary, important but forgettable stuff that fills up most of our time. So, I thought, okay, if I’m asking people to have a great work project, I need to have a great work project myself so I don’t appear totally hypocritical.

Jeffrey: Right.

Michael: So I basically sat down at a coffee shop, and I said, So, what have I got? What assets do I have? And I ahd a few. I had this passion around great work and belief that there’s something important to say about that. I had some experience in publishing books and getting them out there and having them be moderately successful. Also because I had been interviewing people for a podcast series I do called The Great Work Interviews, I actually had connections. I mean, not strong connections but at least weak connections, with quite a lot of people, so I went, yeah, there’s quite a lot of people I could tap up. And I’m also bloody-minded. I tend to assume that it’s only a ‘no’ when someone says, “Michael, leave me alone. The answer is ‘no.’” So I thought here’s a chance that I can kind of enroll people.

So, I took all of that, I took what my friend Ann calls my “Messiah Complex” – when you’re trying to save the world – and I thought, what can I do with all of this? And somehow Malaria No More – or malaria became the focus, because mosquito nets only cost $10.

And that became the seeds for this project, which has ended up kind of 18 months later with where we are now with this book coming out.

Jeffrey: So, did you propose this to Seth and The Domino Project?

Michael: Well, I actually didn’t. What I did was I started it. So I started down the path. I got off to a flying start. I approached a few people I had a slightly better relationship. People like Chris Allan, Chris Brogan to do something for me, and before I knew it I had 10 or 15 pretty good essays. And I thought, this is going to be awesome. It’s all coming together rather nicely. But suddenly I came into a road block, a really big road block. I couldn’t make the money work. Even though Workman, who had published Do More Great Work, had said they would print the first 10,000 copies for free, so they would cover the cost of that for that, which is an amazing gesture –

Jeffrey: Yes.

Michael: I couldn’t figure how to extract the money from the system fast enough, and how to track the sales from the system fast enough that I would actually get money to whoever I chose to be the charity to receive this, and I basically went, “I give up” because I just couldn’t make it work. I mean, anybody with any experience in the publishing world knows that the money kind of moves slowly.

Jeffrey: That’s right, yes.

Michael: I mean, if you’re an author, you typically get your money 3-6 or to 9 months after the book has been sold.

Jeffrey: And you get it in little portions.

Michael: And you get it in little portions. Typically f you’re an author, you’re going to earn somewhere between 7 and 10% of the cover price of the book. So, I thought, okay, how do I get enough money from this, and how do I get the money out of it. Do I self-publish it? I thought maybe if I self-published it and sold it through Amazon, I could price it so that I could take my big cut from that, but that was proving impossible. There is no phone number for amazon.com. They want you to be a web-based browser, so pitching this idea, impossible. So I was like, “Bugger.” I can’t get it done. 12 months ago I was bit despondent because I had this great start and then it all went kind of to hell.

But then come January when Seth Godin announced The Domino Project and this partnership with Amazon and this re-imagined business model for what it would be to publish, suddenly it looked like this was a potential partner that would solve this whole money issue that would cut through the Gordian Knot in a single blow. So basically after the Domino Project had got rolling, I pitched the idea to Seth, and because I already some essays in the bag, I had some credibility, he went, “Okay, I think we can make this run,” and we’ve been running ever since.

Jeffrey: That’s really brilliant. Thanks so much for that. I think that’s an invaluable account for many people who are writers or who have really great book ideas. And Seth and others are really opening up the alternatives and options for us.

Michael: The other thing to hear is that sometimes you have to wait for a little bit of time for the time to be ripe for your idea, sometimes there’s a ripening period. Sometimes that means you put your manuscript in the drawer and you come back to it and you see it with fresh eyes, there’s something about that as well. But sometimes it’s like the universe has to shift a little bit to be ready for whatever you have to offer.

Jeffrey: That’s right. So, I wanted to go back to that coffee shop moment because I’ve been looking at activists like Ric O’Barry and some others who suddenly became activists in one way or another because they had some moment when their sense of reality or truth got shaken up a bit, and they suddenly felt compelled to take action in the name of justice, fairness – these sort of matters that are much larger than their own needs. Sort of like what I would call a deep wonder moment. Was there a moment like that for you in relation to malaria and your desire and passion to end malaria?

Michael: Honestly, not really. What was there was a nagging feeling that I got a little comfortable, and I got a little safe in the work I was doing. You know, I earn most of my money by going into big companies and training and speaking and teaching in big companies. And I live a lovely life as a result of that, and I’m very passionate about the work I do to support and serve people in companies and organizations. And I’m not serving the bottom billion, I’m serving the top billion. I’m not even serving the top billion; I’m serving the top hundred million in the world. And I had always had through the university [Oxford] and the like I always had the sense of, like, I’m a proponent, I’m an act-, I do stuff for social justice.

And I was just kind of looking at my life and going I’m not doing a whole lot for social justice at the moment. I mean, I tithe a little bit of the money I earn to organizations. I do little bits and pieces, but I thought, isn’t there a bigger step? So, actually at the start of this year, 2011, I set myself a goal to raise $100,000 for a non-profit organization. The first thing I did on January 1, I did the polar bear dip up in Toronto. That’s where guys are swimming in Lake Ontario even though it’s a gazillion degrees below zero.

Jeffrey: I remember that.

Michael: And that was freezing. And we raised $5-6,000 for doing that. And that was pretty great. But this piece was the next step for that.

And actually with this book, truth be told, I’m hoping we raise more than a million dollars. Secretly, I’m hoping we raise $2 million. I hope we sell 100,000 copies, and we raise $20 a copy. That’s $2 million. That’s 100,000 mosquito nets. That’s a lot of lives saved.

Jeffrey: That’s really ambitious, and I think you have a good shot at it. You know, I appreciate your honesty regarding, too, in being open in terms of your comfort zone and what ultimately led you to this project. It wasn’t necessarily some defining moment necessarily that involves malaria.

But I’m curious in this whole process of this putting this project together and working with these different people, if it’s kept your perspective fresh on the nature of humanity. Is there anything that’s changed your perspective on malaria or on who we are as human beings as a result of this project?

Michael: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I feel like I know more about malaria, and I know more about it at a more personal level. And I still truthfully have no idea what  really means to have malaria as a constant threat. But for instance one of the great things we hope will help make the book a great success is we’ve created a little trailer. It’s a minute long. You can see it at the end of the website endmalariaday.com. It’s wonderful. It’s designed by a guy called Robert Cobway who has designed many of those little movies we’ve designed and animated in the past.

Jeffrey: I love those.

Michael: His dad died of malaria.

Jeffrey: Oh, my gosh. What a connection.

Michael: Yes. It’s one of those things that once you start in the space you start finding people whose lives have been influenced. You know, a number of people who I’ve approached to write and help promote the book, they’ve said, “Of course, and here’s my personal connection to malaria.” So for me there’s a greater sense of just what a devastating disease malaria can be.

And it’s also been just amazing how many people have been willing to help. If you have

a clear goal and a clear project and a clear request, people , I think, say “yes” more often than they say “no.”

Jeffrey: That leads me to one of my last thoughts and questions, which is about the big picture of great work. You’ve been doing these marvelous podcasts with people who do great work, and now you’ve put this project together. Could you comment on if there are signs of the times that we live now in an era when more and more people are genuinely engaged in meaningful work that goes beyond their own personal gratification. Do you that as indicative of our times or not?

Michael: I have a feeling I would be a little like Marcus Buckingham. And you know, Marcus Buckingham’s big piece is around. ‘Play to your strengths. Don’t try and fix your weaknesses. But figure out what you’re really good at, and do that.’ And he’s been banging that drum for a decade, at least, and it’s a good drum to bang. And he did a study about how many people feel that their workplace actually allow them to play to their strengths, and after a decade’s work he saw the number rise by one percent, from 33% to 34% or something depressing like that.

I think it was Alvin Toffler who said, “The future’s here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” I think great work is here; it’s just unevenly distributed. So, I think there are people who are hungry for this. There’s much talk of the new generations and their work life, coming up and being intolerant about work that doesn’t have some meaning and doesn’t have some impact.

I also think that the very nature of organizational life tends to squeeze out opportunities for great work. So to hold the space to do great work if you work in a company or an organization takes courage and focus and resilience to be able to do that because the momentum is always back to the status quo, to the more familiar good work.

So, I think the answer is “maybe.”

Jeffrey: Yeah. Well, I think that raises a whole other set of questions for us to discuss in the future. “Great work is here but it’s unevenly distributed” raises a whole other matter about class and so forth.

Michael: Yes.

Jeffrey: Well, congratulations, by the way, on your new[ly designed] website boxofcrayons.biz. It really is elegant. I see many of my favorite parts such as Robert Cobway’s videos. But I can get around more easily. And I’ve peaked at the website endmalariaday.com. Are those the two sites to visit to learn more about you, your work, and this project End Malaria?

Michael: Yeah. Box of Crayons – thank you for asking – is the website for me. Lots of free stuff and a description of the products and the programs that we offer the world.

But if you were to pick just one website to visit the website you want to visit is endmalariaday.com because that’s where you’ll learn about the book, you’ll see some of the great contributors, some of the excerpts from some of their essays.

But really I hope you’ll be inspired to be good person, be a philanthropist, save a life. Trust me that this book is a really good book that you’ll find useful. But know even more importantly that your action is one that is an act saving a life not just serving their own life.

Jeffrey: I love that. I love that 80% can go to that goodness.

Michael: Yes, and 100% of the Kindle version.

Jeffrey: Fantastic. Michael, thanks so much. You’re a real inspiration for the rest of us who are tracking wonder and meaning.  I wish you and the project and the best.

Michael: Jeffrey, you supporting this idea means a great deal to me. So thank you for your support and encouragement as well.

Jeffrey: Absolutely. Stay in touch.

Michael: Indeed.

Three things you can do right now:
1. Buy a book.
2. Visit endmalariaday.com and malarianomore.com.
3. Spread the word to three more people today. Forward or Tweet this post.

Drop in the Hut:
What do you think about Michael’s project? Have questions for him? How are you engaged in great work that benefits others and is aligned with your core principles? How do you work with the tension between your greatest aspirations to serve others and the reality of your daily life?

See you in the woods,
Jeffrey
TRACKING WONDER changing the way creativity happens in the studio, on campus, in the workplace – & in the mind
Visit me at my Tracking Wonder blog at PsychologyToday.
Buy a copy of The Journey from the Center to the Page.

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