Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Cinderella Story – If the shoe fits

Long ago in the Ancient land of Egypt were the green water of the Nile River flows into the blue water of the Mediterranean Sea lived a young maiden named Rhodopis, she born in Greece but was kidnapped by pirates and carried down into Egypt where she was sold into slavery. Her owner turned out to be a kind old man who spent most of his time under a tree sleeping. Because of this he never saw how the other girls in the house, all servant girls, taunted and teased her because she looked differently from them. Their hair was straight and black while hers was golden and curly. They had brown eyes and she had green. Their skin had the glow of Copper, but she had pale skin that burned easily in the sun causing them to call her Rosy Rhodopis. They also made her work hard shouting at her all day, "Go to the river and wash the clothes," "Mend my robe," "Chase the geese from the garden, "Bake the bread."

Now she had no friends only the animals. She had trained the birds to eat from her hand, a monkey to sit on her shoulder, and the old hippopotamus would slide up on the bank out of the mud to be closer to her. At the end of the day if she wasn't too tired she would go down to the river to be with her animal friends and if she had any energy left from the hard day's work she would dance and sing for them.

One evening as she was dancing, twirling around lighter than air with her feet barely touching the ground, the old man woke from his sleep and watched as she danced. He admired her dancing and felt that one so talented should not be without shoes. He ordered her a special pair of slippers. The shoes were gilded with rose-red gold and the soles were leather. Now the servant girls really disliked her for they were jealous of her beautiful slippers.

Word arrived that the Pharaoh was holding court in Memphis and all in the kingdom were invited. Oh how she wanted to go with the servant girls. For she knew there would be dancing, singing, and lots of wonderful food. As the servant girls prepared to leave in their finest clothes they turned to her and gave her more chores to do before they returned. They poled their raft away leaving a sad girl on the bank.

As she began to wash the clothes in the river she sang a sad little song--"wash the linen, weed the garden, grind the grain." The hippopotamus grew tired of this little song and splashed back into the river. The splashing of the water wet her slippers. She quickly grabbed them up, wiped it off and placed them in the sun to dry. As she was continuing with her chores the sky darkened and as she looked up she saw a falcon sweep down, snatch one of her slippers, and fly away. Rhodopis was in awe for she knew it was Horus who had taken her shoe. Rhodopis now with only one slipper put it away in her tunic.

Now the Pharaoh, Ahmose 1, Pharaoh of upper and lower Egypt was sitting on his throne looking out over the people and feeling very bored. He much preferred to be riding across the desert in his chariot. Suddenly the falcon swooped down and dropped the rose-red golden slipper in his lap. Surprised but knowing this was a sign from Horus he sent out a decree that all maidens in Egypt must try on the slipper, and the owner of the slipper would be his queen. By the time the servant girls arrived the celebrations had ended and the Pharaoh had left by chariot in search of the owner of the golden slipper.

After searching on land and not finding the owner he called for his barge and began to travel the Nile pulling into every landing so maidens could try on the slipper. As the barge rounded the bend in front of the home of Rhodopis all heard the sounds of the gong, the trumpets blaring, and saw the purple silk sails. The servant girls ran to the landing to try on the shoe while she hid in the rushes. When the servant girls saw the shoe they recognized it as Rhodopis's slipper but they said nothing and still tried to force their feet into the slipper. The Pharaoh spied her hiding in the rushes and asked her to try on the slipper. She slid her tiny foot into the slipper and then pulled the other from her tunic. The Pharaoh pronounced that she would be his queen. The servant girls cried out that she was a slave and not even Egyptian. The Pharaoh responded with "She is the most Egyptian of all...for her eyes are as green as the Nile, her hair as feathery as papyrus, and her skin the pink of a lotus flower."

From Strabo 64 BCE – 24 CE

I was intrigued in the past few weeks by three encounters with ‘due diligence’. In one instance, the examination was directed at me; in one, the diligence was directed at a particular transaction upon which our team is working; and, yet a third where diligence was directed at the organization I lead. In each of these cases, I found myself amazed at the degree to which we’ve grown accustomed, as a society, to the assumption of mistrust. However, I’m equally perplexed by how we’ll ‘trust’ unknown ‘independent’ parties with whom we have no connection to confirm or deny the veracity of a fact or opinion giving no regard to their character.

In the personal due diligence, a firm was hired to inquire about my character and my background – academic, professional, and personal. The contracted firm was filled with former law enforcement and intelligence types who are accustomed to background checks. Not surprisingly, given their penchant for intrigue, they found artifacts of information on websites – many of which I monitor – and then sought to contact people with whom I interacted at events across the world. What I found most fascinating was the degree to which the artifacts collected and the persons solicited for opinions reflected a very narrow spectrum of my life – a life which, had I been asked, would have been more completely understood by asking me directly for a list of friend and foe – fan and detractor. Ignoring the subject of diligence and following a standard operating procedure for background checks, the contracted firm touched an insignificant amount of my life and, as a result, drew conclusions on an anemic set of observations. And somebody paid good money for that.

In the case of the transaction, a group elected to send some of their team to visit to explore a potential business relationship. The team was assembled in haste with limited knowledge of what we do as an organization and with even less knowledge about the environment in which the contemplated transaction existed. As I observed the delegates confront the unusual nature of our operation and the opportunity, I mused about what precise value was being served by having strangers in a strange context observe phenomenon for which they had no context. Could they really provide discernment or insight into anything that went on? Would anyone conclude that they ‘understood’ the opportunity based on the experience?

And in the third instance, a government entity with several decades of experience in being abused and mislead by countless business, NGO, and multi-lateral entities, decided to do ‘due diligence’ on our firm. Having worked for months with this entity and having performed countless services for them in business practices which they report never having experienced before, they elected to demand a ‘due diligence’ checklist prior to consummating a business for which they stand to benefit greatly. Ironically, the questions that they asked are questions that are drawn from convention. Ironically, the questions that they wanted answered have NO bearing whatsoever on the transaction. Yet, as if compelled by some unseen hand, they needed their diligence questions answered before they could move forward. In this instance, the true tragedy is that there is no person associated with the entity who would actually have the business or financial experience to understand the materials requested but, somehow, the knowledge that documents were exchanged would comfort those who have already experienced a transformative engagement – one that they simple can’t believe is possible.

In each of these three cases, I was entertained, in a Greek tragic sense of theater, in the delusion which is passed off as diligence. And central to the failings of each of the three exercises is a fundamental human assumption which is patently false. You see, when you ask a question, you are already making the assumption that: a) you know what you should ask; and b) you’d recognize the substantive answer or data when you saw it. These two assumptions are the height of hubris and are the proximate cause for most flawed decisions. If you want to know about a person, the only way you can truly understand or gain confidence in them is to actually interact with them and observe their behavior in a representative set of circumstances. By assuming that the right people to ask about me are people that show up in media, for example, the diligence firm gained no insight into how I interact with interns who build houses with me in Honduras or Mexico. By assuming that they knew how to judge a business opportunity, the transaction team relied on inferential projections of legal and business conditions familiar in their ecosystem but entirely foreign to the opportunity at hand. And by assuming that an enterprise is merely the sum of its shareholder communication, a government failed to trust its own experience of performance.

Every business and social undertaking in which I engage is done using insight and methodology which is unconventional. Whether it was establishing intangible asset collateral enhancement in the 90s or whether it’s optimizing international trade imbalances to realign national economic engagement, if you are working with me or with the organizations I lead, you’re not experiencing convention. That’s a given. So why in the world would you seek to understand something which you know defies convention with conventional questions? The reason you can’t find what motivates me is not because I’m not motivated. It’s because I’m motivated by values which you may not recognize. The reason why we find untraditional opportunities for business creation is because we look at the world through intangible asset lenses – lenses we’ve yet to meet any other organization who can use or even comprehend. The reason why we’ll work with governments for years without monetary consideration is because we believe in building ecosystems in which business can develop – not in taking resources from those who we know to be deficient in the capacity to fully and transparently engage.

“How can we make sure that our leadership can speak to the right people in the government?” I was asked by a diligent assistant of a business executive.

At once I felt compassion and grief. My impulse was to answer the only way I know how. In truth, the answer would be, “Have your leadership sit down with us for a few days and learn how we build trust. Then, have them go on a trip with us and experience our engagement methodologies as apprentices so that they can have mastery of skills built on experience.” However, what was being sought was a short answer. “Talk to this person.” “Address this topic”. And, yes, in expediency, you may get an outcome that you recognize as satisfactory but you’ll never get the full taste of what would be possible if you don’t change You – the questioner – to recognize that life’s answers are lived and experienced – they’re not on a two dimensional piece of paper.

Which leads me to the fascination of the story at the beginning of this post – in its modern incarnation – Cinderella. What I find fascinating about this story is the fact that, in truth, the story is more about the epistemology of inquiry than it is about a rags-to-riches transformation. You see, in every incarnation, the protagonist is beautiful. She was not made beautiful by looking like the others. In every version, she is a hard worker who overcomes adversity in ways that build envy and derision. And in every version, convention loses as there’s only one foot that fits the shoe. Anyone who has shopped for shoes with a woman knows that the idea that there’s only one shoe for one woman’s foot knows the delusion in the story. Women, of all people, can muster the illusion of things fitting better than men can ever do (O.J. Simpson notwithstanding). No, the point is that true transformation can only be achieved when the mode of inquiry opens up to an unconsidered possibility. And that, my friends, is a fairy tale that needs to be retold again.


  1. Dave, thank you for sharing your experiences with us. As an act of gratitude, I'd like to share the following story:

    I was leaving a Brother's house in Coney Island, NY on Saturday morning, hoping to catch my Dad at Penn Station before he left work. When, as if it had materialized from thin air, a gold car stops abruptly, and emits a single honk. Perplexed, I offer my help thinking: "someone is probably lost, and I have GPS on my smartphone, so I can always help to navigate."

    I lean into the car to find Dora, an older legal secretary from Philadelphia, trembling from fear and confusion. Her Brother John is on the phone trying to help her get back to the Belt Parkway, so that she can make her way to his apartment near Union Square. "Here, you talk to him," she says as she hands me the phone, hoping her Brother can explain just how lost she is.

    John suggests "putting her on the Belt, and that she'll figure it out from there." I agree to help and also offer to ride with her to Manhattan, as I'm headed there too.”

    Much to my surprise, Dora consults with her Brother and offers me a ride into the City, but just to the East Village, where I live. "Where ever you're going, she'll drop you off," John said. Mustering the strength to hide my excitement with grace, I accepted Dora's offer and sat down in the passenger seat. And off we went, on the ride of my life.

    Through the Belt Parkway's meandering path along the Brooklyn coastline, she and I talked about almost everything. She found out that my grandmother lives a few blocks from her old neighborhood. I found out that her husband was an artist. She told me that driving in New York is really stressful, especially if you're from Philadelphia. And I told her that I aim to improve the way our legal system treats schizophrenics. And that's when I could hear the tears welling in her eyes.

    She explained that her "ex-husband," who is actually her dead husband, was in and out of mental institutions his entire life. She explained that eventually, pharmacological treatments and quick stints in a psych ward were a routine. That lack of care for patients as humans, and the tendency to merely describe symptoms rather than explain them, caused her husband so much pain that he ended his own life. She explained that, in some way, she was glad her husband wasn't around to simply suffer.

  2. Then, we arrived at my block. I called John to inform him, and offered to stay with his Sister until she arrived safely at his address. I really didn't want her to get lost. "Thank you so much, you're doing a good deed," John replied. Truthfully, I was also happy to get a ride into the City. As we drove West, I learned more about Dora's family. It turns out that she was coming to meet her Brother for solidarity; one of his daughters had recently taken her own life because of an eating disorder.

    Finally, we arrived at John's apartment building and I stepped out of the car to shake his hand and go onward. "You did a good deed today," he reminded me, and slipped some dollars into my pocket. As my grandmother had taught me, I refused it, but John was insistent. "Don't worry, it's not a lot," he said as he squeezed my hand again. Hungry and in a rush, I said goodbye to John and Dora and walked back East.

    I enjoyed the sunshine of my good feeling as I strolled home, with ample time before having to meet my Dad. Along the way, I saw a man with a sign for $18 for a new sleeping bag. I reached into my pocket and pulled out John's reward. It was a $20 bill. I couldn't possibly keep any of this money, as this man simply needed it more than me. I continued back to my apartment, grabbed an overnight bag, and left.

    Through this experience, and through this blog, I've learned that I always have time to make the right choices. I met my Dad at Penn Station with minutes to spare before our train left the station. We spent the next hour talking and laughing: two guys enjoying each other's company. The day simply took on new meaning when I decided to help someone find their way home.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave