Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Meaning of Life (the Real One, Not Monty Python)

I apologize in advance for this , for the possibility that you will find it maudlin or overblown. But isn't one of the defining features of an alert life in its third and terminal act, surely to look back, look forward, and to ask what this is all for? I have, and I continue to do so.
First Star has 50 teenage foster youth at UCLA, in one of our seven wildly successful Academies that span the four years of high school, designed to propel these students into college. Only half of American foster youth even graduate high school, and only 3 percent earn a Bachelor's Degree... but all our kids graduate from high school, over half go to a four year university, and a quarter go to a community college. Street hardened though most are, we try to teach them that it is OK for men to cry, and that from time to time they should allow life to give them the excuse.
There is a course I teach that creates this emotion often, and deeply. I call it "Random Acts Of Kindness and Pay it Forwards." For foster kids ages 14 to 18. For kids to whom life has dealt a raw deal. To youth, some with their toes sticking out the front of their shoes, who have been abused and neglected, to these innocent victims of life. I try to teach them that giving is the highest and noblest instinct of a human being, that it lifts us up, and that beyond anything else, it makes the world revolve every day.
I start by asking the class why, if Darwin was right, and if the world is a ruthless jungle where only the fittest survive, anyone would ever be kind. Why ever would a person pass a homeless man or woman sleeping on the sidewalk, and quietly slip a five dollar bill under their arm? Why do we feel moved to help those less fortunate, often anonymously and with zero personal benefit? We go on to define and discuss the Golden Rule, the sense of equity, of balance, of social and personal justice, that exists in the scriptures of every single religion of the 170 in the world.
And then we ask, "But is it only religious?" and we parse the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that in any closed system, whether it is an engine, a garden, a family, a city or a planet, if external energy is not applied, entropy drives the system over time to random chaos : the engine seizes up if you don't oil it, the garden is full of weeds, the family implodes, the city is over-run with crime, and life on the planet dies out.
Generosity, I discover is not initially discernible in the soul of every 14 year old foster youth. If you get raped, beaten, starved and ignored enough, your thoughts do not automatically go to "How can I help others around me?" But the instinct is there, and at the end of the first semester, we have a competition where the students compete to help others. It gets to the point where nobody can do anything for themselves... it becomes a funny, happy shared humane experience in communal self-support.
The second semester, we introduce a shocking concept. We tell each student that one of our donors has anonymously put up some money, and thus each of them now has the ability to give away $200. There are rules: you can't give it to yourself. A cannot give it to B and then B gives it back to A. It is supervised, tight and the ethics are pretty clear. It starts with as written proposal by each student. Many are remarkable explorations of what really matters in a life. Jimmy wrote, "I am adding ten dollars of my own, because that makes $210. It takes $70 at the Pound to stop them killing a stray dog. And I am going to save three dogs. Because the last time I was there, I looked into the eyes of a puppy that had been badly beaten and I saw my own eyes, because I was beaten too."
And our stubborn, wonderful Karl wrote "I'm giving $200 to this Academy, because after I was expelled, I was given a second chance and let back in, and nobody ever gave me a second chance before that." And we said no, that Karl had personal benefit from his proposal. It did not meet the rules. And so he rewrote it and said "The rules will not allow me to give the $200 to the UCLA First Star Academy. So I am giving it to the University of Rhode Island First Star Academy." And we send the check to URI, and the thirty students there each wrote Karl a thank you note. And by the way, Karl is our male Class President, and his ambition after earning his Bachelors is to become an officer in the Marines, and teach Kinesiology and Athletic Conditioning. Karl's Mom has been in a coma since she gave birth to him 17 years ago.
Three months ago, we had our Christmas Party on Westwood Boulevard in a donated swanky restaurant. Afterwards, our 50 kids, their Peer Counselors and the rest of us stood on the sidewalk and waited for the vans to return the students to their Placements. And the head waiter came out, and asked me, "What do you want us to do with all the cupcakes left over?" And I said, "Put them in boxes and give them to the kids to take home. And he did.
Five minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam, one of our most troubled students, walking away from the group. All on his own, he walked up to a homeless man sitting a hundred feet away on the sidewalk. He smiled at him, and gave him his box with the muffin. And then he walked back and never said a word to anyone. I was so overcome by emotion that I had to take a little walk of my own.
And that, my dears, is the closest I can get to telling you the Meaning of Life. And if not every life, then for sure mine. You raise your kids, by a miracle they turn out fine, you love your wife and friends, you do random acts of kindness, and then you die. That's the best deal we can get, and it's pretty wonderful.
Rabbi Maimonides wrote a thousand years ago about the human soul having three layers. Everybody has the first two. But not everyone has the top one, the N'Shuma, and in fact nobody owns a N'Shuma of their own. Instead , it is like a membership society. A club of those who give a damn about the world. A society of the enablers, the helpers, the people who try to heal the world and make life better. And Maimonides says that when two people who belong to the N'Shuma meet, they feel as though they have known each other for a thousand years. They say "Hineini. Here I am" and they help each other and share great opportunities to heal our world.
I think that's me, I think it is what I am called to do, and I do believe it is the Meaning of Life. Or at least, the meaning of my life. Hineini.
Peter Samuelson is the producer of 25 movies, including "Revenge of the Nerds", "Wilde", "Arlington Road" and "Tom & Viv". Over 30 years, he has conceived of and run five major non-profits:,,, and e:

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

“We have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go.” - Martin Luther King at Temple Isaiah, 1960

Peter SamuelsonOur two youngest children were Bar and Bat Mitzvot at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard, here in Los Angeles. The synagogue has been an important part of our family’s life for years. Imagine then my shock and delight to read in the Temple online newsletter that in 1960, Martin Luther King spoke from the same pulpit.  And that a dusty reel of tape was recently discovered, treated to enhance its audio quality, and that it now lives on as Dr. King’s gift of wisdom across 53 years.  He delivered a kind of State of the Union for civil rights in our sanctuary, a snapshot of progress and of the job still ahead for America. He was just 31 years old. You can hear his speech here. It takes a while to load…  I think the Temple Isaiah computer server was delivered by Noah in his Ark.  Hang in there; it’s worth it.

Dr. King starts talking at 13 m. 36 s., but his introduction by Rabbi Lewis before that also rises to the occasion. This was 1960, at the height of the grand alliance between progressive Jews and Blacks in our country, when the white folks who marched bravely into danger with Dr. King were disproportionately Jewish. Rabbi Lewis compares MLK to Moses, who led his people from the front, into the Red Sea… into waters which did not part until they were in it up to their necks. He points to Dr. King as the one man catalyst, the leader, the inspiration, who persevered to reach the tipping point towards justice in America. 

There are several startling revelations for me in Dr. King’s speech.  He seamlessly and completely places the U.S. civil rights struggle in the context of emancipation, liberation, justice and self-determination for all the colonial peoples in the world. He had recently returned from seeing the British Union Jack lowered in Ghana, and seen the flag of the brand new independent Ghana raised to replace it. And he had just met in India with Jawaharlal Nehru, that country’s first Prime Minister. Dr. King points out that it was an Amendment to the Indian Constitution that made the segregation of Untouchables illegal. Dr. King advocates forcefully for legislative change to deliver meaningful integration of the ballot box in America…  But the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were still years away. 

It is startling, with our African American President now in his second term, to realize in listening to Dr. King’s words, just how recently this would have seemed some lunatic dream of an improbable Utopia:
Fifty years ago or less than that, a year hardly passed that numerous Negroes were not lynched by some vicious mob. But lynchings have about ceased in the United States. Today there are still some isolated cases, but lynchings have about ceased. Fifty years ago, twenty five years ago, most of the southern States prevented Negroes from becoming registered voters, through several means, but one of them the Poll Tax.  And the Poll Tax has been eliminated now in all but four States. And there is great hope now that it will be eliminated in all of these States.  

It was a mere six years since the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that the Separate but Equal doctrine it had mandated  fifty eight years earlier in Plessy vs. Ferguson delivered no equality at all… it had instead instituted segregated inequality.
We have broken loose from the Egypt of slavery. We moved through the wilderness of separate but equal. And now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration. And suddenly there is hope that we will be able to enter this new and great land of integration. And so we have come a long, long way since 1896.  

But Dr. King was not nearly done. His frustration with the job unfinished nationally and internationally is palpable, and one senses he’d feel the same way today:
It is a fact that we have come a long, long way, but it is not the truth. You see, a fact is merely the absence of contradiction, but truth is the presence of coherence. Truth is the relatedness of facts. Not only have we come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go. If I stopped at this point, I would leave you the victims of a dangerous optimism. If I stopped here, I would leave you the victims of an illusion, wrapped in superficiality.  
Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council are on the march, and they are saying that they will never comply with the Supreme Court’s decision. We have a long, long way to go in the area of voter registration. For conniving methods are still being used to stop Negroes from voting. There are over five million Negro voters in the south, yet there are only 1,300,000 registered. Not only that, violence is a reality in many instances. Even though there are not as many lynchings, we find that individuals who are merely concerned and determined to have equal rights face physical violence. Court injustices stand supreme in so many southern  situations. Both Negro and white persons who dare to take a stand for freedom constantly face violence and abuse, persecution and arrest and bombings. Not only are individual homes bombed, but churches and synagogues and schools are being bombed. 

There are many remarkable parallels for 2013 amid Dr. King’s insights into the history of slavery in America.
We have the capacity of justifying the rightness of the wrong, and this is exactly what happened during the days of slavery. Many of the slave owners fell victim to the danger of … a too literalistic interpretation of the Bible. There is a danger that religion and the Bible, not properly interpreted, will be used as instruments to crystallize the status quo; and this happened.  

And we should ponder how things have changed, in the relative diligence of our three branches of government in driving progress in our United States today:
The leadership we should have from the Federal government has come mainly from the Judicial Branch. The Legislative and Executive Branches of the government have been all too apathetic and sometimes hypocritical in this area. And if the problem is to be solved, all branches of the government must work with bold and grim determination to implement the law of the land. 

Long before technology shrank the world, long before we were all connected by the Internet and our globalized economy, in our temple Dr. King spoke of an inescapable but fragile future where no one would last long as an island:
If we do not learn to live together as brothers in the world, we will all perish together as fools. For we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And whatever affects one nation or one individual directly affects all nations or individuals indirectly.   

Listening to the 1960 tape, it was clear to me that we are often blind to the sweeping arc of history, and our place in it. We focus on this year, next year, and maybe the one after that.  We forget Edmund Burke's “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Gratitude to Rabbi Gan for looking in a dusty box and giving new life to an old tape full of present wisdom:
This is the challenge of the hour. This problem will not be solved in America and will not be solved in the world until people of goodwill rise up, and people of great determination will take a stand, realizing that wherever there is hate, wherever there is a lack of brotherhood, wherever there is a lack of real community, chaos will ultimately set in. And so someone must come to the pulpit dissatisfied…   
Let us be maladjusted. It may be that through such maladjustment we may be able to move out from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of justice. And this will be the day when men everywhere will be able to join hands and sing a new song, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to come together and sing anew “ Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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Monday, January 07, 2013

He was the biggest man I'd ever met. General Schwarzkopf was so tall, and so wide, that standing in front of him I felt seriously small. I was like Jon Stewart when he greets, well, pretty much anybody.

I was in Tampa to persuade the General to become the Chairman of the Capital Campaign for Starbright World, the non-profit social network for seriously ill teenagers that Steven Spielberg, Kathy Kennedy and I had dreamed up a few weeks earlier. We knew that when children are seriously ill, their interaction with their peers goes away, and they feel isolated and depressed. And in the brave new tech world of the early 1990s, we imagined using the new-fangled Internet to build them a virtual clubhouse in cyberspace.

I had gone to meet Steven for the first time, to propose all this to him, in what was supposed to be a 20 minute meeting, and had emerged three hours later with a 'yes' and an astonishing personal pledge. I hid behind a tree in the Amblin parking lot and called my wife, Saryl, "I think I just met for hours with Steven Spielberg. I think he agreed to be Chairman, and I think he just donated two and a half million dollars to kick it off... But I think I may be hallucinating..." There was a long silence, and then my wife asked, "Should I come and pick you up? You don't sound safe to drive."

But there was a slight problem. What we needed was more like $50 million in high-tech everything. We needed hardware, and software, and dedicated T3 lines between pediatric hospitals, and, and, and... And worse, Steven was much more the inventor of our User Interface than the beggar for donations. And while I was happy to go around begging, the corporate CEO's who needed to be begged were much less interested in meeting me, as we now had Steven, and why wasn't he flying to meet them? Kathy, Lee Rosenberg, Steven and I decided we needed a man who was unstoppable. Someone who had led from the front through sheer willpower and clout. Perhaps, we imagined, someone who had recently won the Gulf War, liberated Kuwait and marched the armies of the free world to the gates of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad? Yes, we thought, General Schwarzkopf would be a great leader for our fundraising.

The problem was that none of us knew him, and we also didn't know anyone who knew him. I suggested our best course was to ask Steven to sign a letter. So he did. And here I was, two weeks later, sitting in front of the General in his office in a Tampa high-rise, as he towered above me from the other side of his epic-sized desk. Lying on the desk was the biggest gun I had ever seen -- a revolver for sure in shape, but about four times larger than any handgun I'd previously encountered. Innocently, I enquired whether it was for security, Saddam's assassins presumably still being a threat, as suggested by his special elevator, which trapped and vetted me before letting me out on the his floor. "No," said General Schwarzkopf, "The pistol is for dealing with journalists."

I launched into my pitch: this new social network would be revolutionary. Seriously ill teenagers in hospitals around the world would log-on, select an avatar (ET was reserved for Steven) and then walk it around one of our 3D 'worlds'... This was before the computer mouse, so really one 'walked' the avatar using the Up, Down, Left and Right keys... a zig zag trajectory in right angles, more an Etch-a-Sketch maneuver, but one that seemed to work in our prototypes. I explained that we were pulling experts into our meetings who would never otherwise meet or work together: directors, writers and programmers inventing this thing alongside pediatricians, psychiatrists, oncologists and hospital administrators. I explained that we were the generalists, standing in the middle of the experts and yanking them back to the center of our mission for seriously ill kids, when human nature made our experts tend to follow only what their own silo of expertise had taught them.

"Young man", asked General Schwarzkopf, "what do you know about the U.S. Army?" "Very little" I replied. "Well," he went on, "listen up! When you join the Army, you receive a rank... but you are also designated a Specialist: You are a rifleman, or a cook, a driver or a mechanic. And however much you are promoted over the years, you keep your Specialty. It's a pin on your shoulder. It's what you do for us."

Leaning over the gun from the other side of his desk, the General added, "And then there is that special day, if you are the best of the best -- If you are a leader, if you are the smartest -- when the U.S. Army makes you a General. And in the ceremony when you get your stars, they take away your Specialty, because you are no longer a Specialist, you are a leader. You are in charge. You are the general."

This was a jaw dropping moment for me. I realized for the very first time that there was a reason why they were called Generals -- they were the generalists who were needed to lead the specialists. And without them, the specialists would muck it up and everyone would get killed by the enemy. You had to have generalists to lead the experts, otherwise you'd veer off mission and lose your battles, your war and your lives. And with the rise of knowledge, the sheer mass of new stuff that needed knowing, we tended to focus on every aspect of deep and penetrating study except one, nurturing the leaders who needed to know a lot about everything, but most of all be specialists in leading.

This revelation from General Schwarzkopf did actually change my life; my epiphany was realizing that the skill-set of a film producer was precisely that: the generalist who keeps all the hundred specialists focused on mission, on strategy, on the goal: delivering an excellent product on time and on budget. And nobody else on set thinks that way. And yes, it is a skill that can be both taught and learned. I realized because of Norman that I could make a material difference in the world using those skills. The subsequent charities I founded, and also address hellaciously complicated issues, child abuse and neglect and homelessness, and they do need armies of specialists. But at the top, you have to lead, and leadership has to harness multiple specialists towards the driving core goals, and then keep them focused: Lead, follow, or get out of the way!

General Schwarzkopf signed up to become Capital Campaign Chairman of and we raised our $50 million in cash and in kind: Sprint, Intel, Knowledge Adventures, Vulcan and Coca Cola all saluted the Starbright flag when it was held aloft by General Schwarzkopf on behalf of our special children. I would sit next to him, as one by one, he told corporate CEO's, "Here's what we need you to do. Now." And they all said yes and did it. Now. Remarkable and inspiring. Leadership by the best.

When David Haspel had the genius idea that we create and publish a fairy tale book to benefit Starbright World, with each Chapter written by a different celebrity, it was Stormin' Norman who led the charge. In our book The Emperor's New Clothes, Steven wrote as The Honest Boy, Robin Williams as the Jester, Calvin Klein as the Emperor's Underpants... and General Schwarzkopf wrote, of course, as our General. And he vigorously barnstormed all over network television to get out the word. Harcourt paid a huge advance, and we raised over a million dollars for our seriously ill kids and their network.

And so it was in June of 1995 that Steven Spielberg, General Schwarzkopf and I pressed a big green button on stage at Digital World that turned on Starbright World for kids in hospital beds around the country. They moved their avatars, they saw each other in video conferences, they spoke, they made friends and found love, validation and comfort amid pain and fear. Our research showed that as their spirits soared, their T-Cell counts often rose as well, and so they did better physiologically. Starbright World has never been turned off since, and our closed, supervised and protected network now links teenagers who are critically, chronically or terminally ill across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain and the U.S. Starbright World operates 24/7 and is moderated by trained teams in the United States. When Los Angeles goes home, Mission Control passes to Sydney, Australia, who keep things safe through the night. Starbright World was, and remains today, the world's first fully interactive avatar and AV- based Social Network. When the three of us pressed that button in 1995, Mark Zuckerberg was eleven years old. Sorry, Mark.

Norman Schwarzkopf won a war for us, and he also won the peace. With initiatives like Starbright World, forever a part of Starlight Children's Foundation, he showed all of us the nature of true leadership, and exactly why and how it is crucial to fixing our world. I wish we had him in Washington today. I shall miss him very much: he taught me that really and truly, "A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to hold the hand of a child in need." I've been following in his very large footsteps ever since.

Peter Samuelson, Co-Founder, Starlight Children's Foundation

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We've Lived Through Much Worse. This Was It.

Every recession feels like the end of the world to those hurt by it. Sometimes the best thing a struggling society can do is to remember how it was able to get through a worse crisis. I came across this long-forgotten email (Thank you, Google Desktop!) In September 2001, I wrote this to two hundred friends around the world:

"On Tuesday morning 9/11/2001 I watched in horror out of my window at the Marriott Tyson's Corner, as a huge cloud of black smoke rose over the Pentagon in front of me. After watching hours of CNN, I wrote this email to the Board of my non-profit:

"FIRST STAR, some thoughts.....

Indeed we will go ahead and have our Board meeting, and our three other meetings after that. And we will do so stubbornly, with resolve, with renewed dedication to what we hold dear and with absolute determination to push forward with our whole vital First Star agenda. Because these recent atrocities reaffirm our belief that the margin between evil and good is thin indeed. That the line between civilization and chaos is fragile. That we every one of us have to pick up our civilization and carry it forward on our backs if necessary. That we must choose to be part of our social solutions lest we add to our challenges and problems. We have no middle choice; we either nurture our civilization, or like every other natural system, by the immutable laws of physics it will decay into chaos.

We are privileged to work for all our children in First Star, children whose needs are the apex, the summit, the quintessence of all that we prize and seek to nurture. Because kids are our future. They are our aspiration and our motivation to improve this civilization. They represent hope itself.

We shall not fail them.

Peter "

I wrote that, then drove to the First Star board meeting in Downtown DC, which began on time and was focused, sad, stubbornly productive and for me hugely moving. Since then I have driven across the United States in an Avis rental car from Washington DC to Los Angeles.... 2660 miles in 41 hours, sharing the driving with Richard Hull and Tyler Spring, and I am now back with my family. I opened my email to see that I had received 191 messages since Tuesday morning. So forgive this reply en masse to at least say thank you and that we are all safe.

These have been remarkable days. Days of Awe. I have seen hundreds of thousands of American flags, maybe millions, hanging from houses, tractors, truck stops, offices and a hayrick between Roanoke, Knoxville, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Barstow and San Bernardino. Every one of them at half mast. I saw a young girl all on her own waving a tiny home-made flag from an overpass in Arizona and all the cars and trucks sounded their horns and we saluted her and us and this country and its terrible but awakening tragedy.

And I spoke to friends, family and colleagues all around the world from my cell phone. I learned that on our film set in the village of Northleach in Gloucestershire, England, cast and crew stood shoulder to shoulder with extras and villagers for the European three minute silence and that you could hear a pin drop. And that people cried. And that in London at the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace they replaced God Save the Queen with The Star Spangled Banner. And the Queen cried and the Europeans thanked God their American cousins would now be part of the solution to a scourge they have lived with for years.

And I spoke to a friend who has lost friends in the Pentagon and to those dealing with expanding pools of grief from the New York murders.... two degrees of devastation; you either know a victim or someone else who does. And I heard in my Washington conversations already the Phoenix-like rising of that American genius, the resilience, the moral leadership, the stubborn fix-it-ness, the coming together of the world's greatest quarrelsome family yet again in face of common adversity. I found again over the cell-phone the absolute, stubborn American certainty that we shall overcome, the vital belief in our ability to change, to steer, to improve and to reach lofty goals that brought me to America twenty six years ago because I loved it and needed to be a part of it.

And I remembered Winston Churchill after Pearl Harbor: "Silly people -- and there were many, not only in enemy countries -- discounted the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. That now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before -- that the United States is like "a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate." Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful".

And in the Avis car in the dead of night on Interstate 40, I realized that Churchill was right. Here paradoxically amid carnage and devastation there was dignity, resolve, power and determination. Barely two days after the attacks, this Thursday lunchtime, Sherry Quirk, Debbie Sams and I of First Star sat with Rep. Loretta Sanchez in her Congressional office on legislation to better help abused and neglected children. Rep. Sanchez did not cancel the meeting. Our focus was on concrete ways to help kids, not on the devastation. With that steely-eyed American resolve, those fighting to improve a civilization do not flinch from the forces of chaos; they just push forward harder. And in a million ways like this, the outcomes of tragedy will be positive: out of the ashes of the World Trade Center will eventually come a better America and a better world. The sleeping giant has woken up.

Love to all.

Peter Samuelson

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Democracy with no Center is a Zero

On a day of tragedy and shared grief, when so many young adults remembered the parent they lost ten years ago and moved us to tears when they said so at Ground Zero, there was one bright, startling ray of hope that emerged from our communal sadness: faced with an evil shared enemy that would do us all down, we Americans failed to hate each other this day.

When I emigrated to America, I began a love affair still ongoing with this vast melting pot of ever-bubbling democracy in action, a gigantic stew of ideas and ideologies free to be spoken and heard, a cauldron of views, counter-views and counter-counter-views expressed widely, openly and with passion. It didn't seem to matter much who you were, where you were from or what you had to say… America gave you your 15 minutes and a microphone to throw ingredients into the ideas pot.

But every two years, through an election process that seemed less corrupt than most anywhere else, leaders were elected by a majority of those who bothered to vote. And the leaders would sit in Assemblies and Houses and Senates and they would discuss, conciliate, find the center and thus exert sensible leadership.

Then something horrible happened. The system broke. Like a gearbox with no oil, there was an awful gnashing noise and the whole noble democracy thing ground to a halt. And everyone got mad at each other and called each other idiots and swore they'd rather die than compromise with such a bunch of ignorant pedants as the other ones, who by the way said the same things about them.

Time for some home truths, time to take the cover off the gearbox and understand how this democracy thing actually works. Time to pour some lubrication around the cogs and start it back up pronto, before we lose the whole vehicle.

Firstly, can we please agree that no democracy can please all the people, all the time? Whether the election yields a 51 - 49 result, or a 60 - 40 outcome, there are almost as many people who didn't get their guy elected, as did. And how democracies have to work, the stage craft if you will, is that the elected leaders have to govern while remembering that damn near half the people disagree with them, don't want them and that those people also have to be factored into their decisions.

Our democracy is in peril not so much from external forces like a rising China and India, nasty terrorists and our declining position in the globally circular economy. No, I suggest the biggest threat to us is actually us: our inability to create a government that builds consensus and rules from the middle. So much yelling and name calling, so much polarized yammering, so many fighting words and pretty soon we are on a slippery slope down to dysfunctional government and paralyzed leadership. I think this is going on right now. And if you look in the mirror with me, you will see the cause: us, and those who encourage our worst instincts so that they can make an extra buck.

There is an equal and opposite extremism going on: don't inflict your own prejudices, fears and loathing… stand back and acknowledge that both extreme ends are nuts, selfish and destructive of a functional democracy: Far Right, meet Far Left, your partners in unhelpful polarizing paralysis. What is going on here? Are we really two countries, so that running the show through a single democratic system is as likely to succeed as herding cats? No, because look here, it has worked really, really well for a couple of centuries. Somehow, improbably and yet most often, the center was found and things progressed forwards in America. But not now. The oil of civilized discussion, the art of sane compromise has burned away in the heat of destructive rhetoric and sound bites.

Who did this terrible thing? Firstly, I blame extremist media on both sides for turning news into polemic, for selling extra advertising by blurring news into an entertainment not unlike the unreality of Reality Television shows, one that panders to the lowest common denominator of human interest, a desire to see people eviscerated and belittled. I blame those cable news shows that on both sides put forth some violently extreme talking head, and as counter-balancing opinion, another nut job who mostly agrees with them. Rah! Rah! let's call anyone who does not toe the same extreme line bad names and laugh at them. Let's call them bad Americans, traitors and worse. Let's make it almost impossible to find the middle. Let's bury the center in a pile of hot language, and the un-clever and superficial analysis of complex and important issues. Let's contribute to national consensus on crucial issues by blowing it up with glib sound bites and slick graphics. Let's demonize the other 49% and treat them as fools.

And I blame most but not all of our political leaders, who, faced with this polarizing media and the polarized voters it has created, fail to lead us back to the center and instead compete for votes based on being even more extreme than their opponent: "I'm a purer version of this lunatic and impractical extreme view than you are" they might as well be saying in the debates going on.

Human thought is not binary. Not all decisions on life and policy have to be reached from the same Republican or Democratic rule book. Why do I have to feel the same way on trade as a party, because I feel as they do on a social issue? Why do views on hugely personal social issues have to be lumped into the same arbitrary bucket as economic views? Why do views on social justice mean I have to view government as the most efficient way to get there? Why does everything have to be lumped into the same bucket, whether it fits or not? Beats me. We teach our children to think for themselves on a case by case basis, but we give enormous power to two parties to tell us how to think on the full range of unrelated issues. Why do we still have a la carte menus in restaurants? Why not, "Republicans, eat this hors d'oeuvre before this entree" and "Democrats, these desserts may only be eaten after these entrees"? What happened to each of us studying the issues, discussing them with peers, and reading divergent views before making up our minds? What happened to personal choice?

The worst enemies we've had to face in wars are the ones who don't give a damn, they just wanted to win and winning meant killing us and taking our treasure. And the worst of the worst are the ones who were or are willing to die to kill us, because they have been persuaded that some other life trumps this one anyway, that this is just a brief loss-leader in the cosmic reality. They are wrong, but they are tough enemies to beat, because they would rather die than lose. They would rather blow up the whole circus rather than negotiate a solution. And that is precisely what we are now seeing in Washington, in our State Capitals and on those cursed cable TV blood sport news programs.

Democracy is a rare and precious flower and it has allowed more progress for more people than any other system ever invented. But it is fragile. You can't yell too much. You can't demonize those who disagree with you. Like all human organisms, from a family to every company in the land, you have to practice the art of compromise. You have to find the best middle, with respect, appreciation and good will.

So this is a plea for equal time for the center: the poor, vilified middle that is actually the best solution to most human challenges when a huge diversity of views has to be served by a single policy outcome. And you journalists of the Fifth Estate, you unelected pontificators whose lapel microphones reach so many ears…. with your bully pulpit comes a responsibility to stand back, respect history and serve democracy. Rabble rousing may sell more ads, but it will never make your children proud, unless you have already brainwashed them too into knee-jerk extremists.

America is for all Americans. If 49% don't agree with you, listen to them and find the middle path please. Compromise is not an illness, it is a noble insight into how to lead our country out of its challenges. Let's try that now. We are the grownups in the room.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Robin Hood Effect

I spend a lot of time persuading people that selflessness can be selfish. Arguing self-interest in philanthropy may seem like an oxymoron, but in fact it is often the difference between success and failure in fundraising for those of us building non-profit organizations. From my two decades of experience, not only does the strategy clearly work, but in addition I suggest its ethics and morality can oftentimes be admirable and appropriate. Most of us feel the urge to do good deeds and support those less fortunate than ourselves based on our shared belief that we are "all in this thing together" and that the strong should support the weak. Quite often we learn this motivation as a core tenet of our religion or when we are taught a philosophy of life. Certainly, I have taught four children that civilization is fragile and that it is the responsibility of each and every member to improve it and to further build resilient and ambitious social structures to pass on to our children and through them to theirs.
But research shows us that there is also self-interest in helping those less fortunate. Ichiro Kawachi, in collaboration with the Social Environment Working Group of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, has demonstrated that the degree of income inequality in a society is related to the health status of that population. Greater income inequality is linked to lower life expectancy, higher mortality rates and worse self-rated health, for the wealthy as well as for the poor, at the U.S. state level. Higher mortality at the U.S. metropolitan level, as well as higher rates of obesity at the U.S. state level, is also linked to income inequality. This association may seem astonishing but it is statistically robust when corrected for differentials of age, race, sex and individual socio-economic characteristics. The bottom line is that affluent people live shorter and less healthy lives the more the people around them are poor.
Why exactly this demonstrable correlation exists is still subject to debate. One can imagine however that one's own health is jeopardized if the man making the salad in a restaurant has inadequate health care and thus a higher incidence of communicable disease. Having worked in several Third World countries where the gulf between rich and poor is gigantic, I can attest to the incremental stress among the affluent caused by protecting themselves... through high walls, armored cars and armed bodyguards, from the potential for theft, violence and dislike by those impoverished souls around them. And stress, as we know, shortens life.
One of most important areas where self-interest is an entirely appropriate motivation for philanthropy is in the brilliant sponsorships I have been able to encourage by Fortune 500 companies. There was a time many years ago when I would fly into the headquarters city of a major corporation. I would visit with the corporation's foundation staff and I would basically beg for their help in supporting one of my children's charities -- "You know that we do good work, you know that we're efficient and that seriously ill children need your help. You are yourself a parent... could you please see a way to making a donation to support these special kids in need?" When things went well I would receive a twenty-five thousand dollar donation for Starlight and be politely asked not to return for another year.
At a certain point, I realized that a worthy cause is capable of presenting a net gain to a major corporation. Put bluntly, a worthy cause can help sell their product or service. So I started visiting with the Executive Vice President for Marketing, rather than with the foundation division of each company. My pitch would be quite different, "In our recent national promotion with Colgate-Palmolive, Starlight demonstrated a twenty-five percent uplift in the brand's Nielsen Scantrack market share. We think we can similarly create a dramatic benefit for your own corporation which will also be very good for Starlight-Starbright's special children". The results were astonishing: instead of receiving twenty-five thousand dollars from the corporation's foundation we were suddenly receiving two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from a cause related marketing campaign. Some of these Starlight promotions have generated in excess of a million dollars each year. I am sure they also sold a great deal of product... and I say 'God bless America' in this regard... a perfect example of the corporation acting responsibly not only to society but also to its stockholders: a true win-win.
And what a wonderful thing to understand from research out of the University of Florida that a fifty cent donation to charity triggered by a consumer's purchase of a product or service generates more of an uplift in sales than a fifty cent discount coupon to the same consumer! This means that, generally speaking, consumers are more ready to help needy children than they are their own pocketbooks. It gives one hope for the future...
I still teach my kids that altruism is an ennobling part of character that enriches the giver as well as our whole civilization. I still teach them that any act, however small, by which we build society makes us part of the virtuous forces which heal the world and build a better life for our descendants. I still teach them that it is better to give a man a job than just to give him money, better to build a bridge then to swim the river, and a terrific thing to apply entrepreneurial skills in a non-profit, philanthropic direction.
But I also tell them that my Starlight, First Star and EDAR are the best possible opportunities to meet like-minded souls, brilliant people who have self-selected themselves as worthy citizen whose enthusiasm for life, children and the future will make great friendships blossom. I accurately tell them of the many marriages that have happened between thousands of brilliant volunteers who found a common bond in helping seriously ill kids. I tell them that this is how their Mom and Dad fell in love.
When I lecture in business schools I always tell the students that their career track or volunteer track in philanthropy will be about ten times faster than in an ordinary business for profit... the charities of America are so needy, so eager and so ready to embrace new ways of achieving their goals that generally speaking the rise of a smart and dedicated young person can be meteoric. People know in the meetings of my philanthropies that it is a dangerous thing to suggest a good idea... one immediately finds oneself the head of a taskforce charged with driving its study and implementation.
And for me personally, I laugh when someone talks to me as though I was some noble soul dedicating time and resources to non-profit causes. I know secretly in my heart that the greatest gift I've ever received was the realization that through good works I would make myself very, very happy. I constantly receive much more than I give.

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Leadership is not Just for Leaders!

I constantly bang away trying to persuade people that philanthropists can force new solutions to major challenges in our lives, in our children's lives, and in the direction of our society as a whole. I take great pleasure in discussing philanthropic plans over breakfast with a wide spectrum of business people, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and causes. I like to think the advice I give, based on my own experiences founding Starlight, First Star and EDAR, may have had some small strategic value and brought a rather large dose of encouragement to some splendid people.

One common thread in these invigorating conversations at Nate & Al's is that people are concerned that if they are not themselves expert, then they may lack the knowledge necessary to exert leadership in complex areas. "How," as one person asked me, "can I hope to effect change through investing my money in cancer research when I know nothing about cancer beyond what I've read in the newspaper?" The answer cuts directly to the core problem of many apparently insoluble challenges to our future health and happiness: there is simply so much knowledge that generalists fear to tread in areas full of experts, areas that cry out for direction, purpose, coordination and plain old-fashioned leadership.

King Henry VIII of Great Britain was not very clever at marriage, but as a king he was probably the last world leader who really did know as much about every subject relevant to running a country as his most knowledgeable experts. He could debate agriculture with his agronomists, military strategy with his generals, economics with his economists (such as they were!) and philosophy with his philosophers. He knew as much about the law as any lawyer and could lecture all comers on history. Was this because he was a highly intelligent man with a king-sized brain?

Far from it: the simple fact was that in the 16th century human knowledge was not yet very extensive. You actually could know just about all of it if you applied your mind. Those days are long gone. The exponential growth of knowledge since then has not resulted in a commensurate increase in the size of the human brain nor in our mental capacity. We are the same old computers trying to process vastly more complex rafts of knowledge and interrelationships of facts. So how have we coped?

We have responded to daunting amounts of knowledge by narrowing our fields of study and expertise. I recently had trouble with my left knee and was stunned by a conversation with the radiologist at the local university hospital. "Tell me" I asked, "how do knees rank against ankles: are they more or less interesting?" The radiologist replied, "I only do knees; I don't do ankles, elbows or any other part of the body. But I do knees from all across the country: the MRIs come in to me electronically, and I make recommendations... but I am the knee man and nothing else." I immediately had to check that yes, he did right as well as left knees. In business, in government and in science we have been forced to drill down very deep to reach the cutting edge of knowledge and expertise. To get there, we have been forced to yield our flanks: our view of the world is very, very narrow, and our experts see things only through the prism of their own vastly specialized knowledge.

This would be fine if the problems afflicting the world could be solved by applying a single area of knowledge. But this is far from true: as the specialists have become more specialized, the world has become more complex. How could one dare to state an opinion on the Middle East without a profound knowledge of history, comparative religion, agriculture, geography, warfare, and land sciences? How could one really begin to apply scarce resources "highest and best" in medical research without first knowing everything about the interrelated sciences that affect the human body?

But we do: we are a society run by specialists who do not personally possess broad knowledge anywhere near the cutting edge of the multiple areas that together comprise the challenges they seek to address. The needs of the large portions of mankind who slip through the cracks of our attention are daunting precisely because they require collaborations of the knowledgeable, which rarely take place. For good or for bad, such is the arrogance of leadership that our lack of knowledge rarely seems to hold back the firmness of our opinions. What, then, are we to do about this?

Firstly, I suggest that an intelligent generalist, especially one with the power to make significant philanthropic contributions, can drive measurable answers to intractable challenges. Secondly, a business entrepreneur who understands the intricate relationship between goal and process can add greatly to the leadership required to crack complex social and medical problems.

I remember some years ago engineering a meeting with General Norman Schwarzkopf. I flew to Tampa to persuade him to become Campaign Chairman of the Starbright World online network for seriously ill children. I was describing how Starbright brought together three different areas of expertise: pediatric medicine, high technology and the entertainment industry, and that we were always yanking the experts back into the middle, toward the goal we'd set for the Network. He stopped me abruptly. "What do you know about the United States Army?" he asked. "Absolutely nothing, sir," I replied. "Well, let me explain it," he went on. "When you join the Army you are not just given a rank, you are also given a specialty. You're a rifleman, a cook, a signalman... it doesn't matter how much you're promoted up the ranks: you always wear your specialty badge until the day they make you a General. And in the ceremony they take away your specialty badge, because you are no longer a specialist, you're a General, and you are now responsible for the overall goals of the military operation." I realized at that moment why focusing on goals in the Army had raised generalists to a position of supreme power. The Army realized that if they put a specialist in charge, they would always be pulled away from the goal and toward the special focus of that individual. Not only was generalism the origin of the word General, but it made absolute sense in a life-or-death battle situation to put in charge someone who could think about overall goals and purposes without getting bogged down in the lattice-work of supporting specialized thinking.

I am reminded of the story of the eminent architects who met in an expensive restaurant over lunch to discuss how on Earth they could retrofit an elevator into a particular old building where it was now required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. After an agonizing discussion of various solutions, none really workable, the young waiter leaned in and asked, "I apologize, but I have an idea where you could put the elevator." The architects were somewhat contemptuous but asked him to tell them where he, a mere server, might think of locating the elevator when they could not. "What if you put it up the outside of the building?" he asked. And they did.

When the financier Michael Milken was forced to address prostate cancer because of his own illness, he did not just inject money into the existing field of research. He redesigned the whole plan of attack. He applied those same intellectual skills he had developed in the bond market with considerable success to new challenges of research medicine, where dozens of highly specialized researchers had tried hard, but never previously worked together "highest and best."

As philanthropists we can do more than just give money to specialists: we can actually coach them to reassess their impact on their goals and readdress the goals themselves.

When we started First Star a dozen years ago, I had nothing but a vague idea that children's constitutional rights were lacking in the United States and that this directly resulted in our poor performance against the rest of the First World in addressing the needs of abused and neglected children. Over these 12 years we have brought together 500 world-class experts from the fields of child psychology, the judiciary, the legislative and executive branches of government, social work, medicine and law enforcement. On not a single occasion has one of these experts asked me why on Earth I think I can presume to exert leadership in a field of two dozen specialties, in none of which am I an expert. On the contrary, I am told all the time that what has been lacking in the past is leadership. That the solutions we have driven by colliding the different expertises together are self-evident, splendid and much to be desired. I take from this that the failure all along has been one of leadership and not one of knowledge.

When Valerie Sobel lost her child, she made lemonade out of lemons: she formed the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation to provide financial help to families below the poverty line in which the illness of a child is causing the single mother to lose her grip on financial sufficiency. Valerie Sobel has made a measurable difference in the lives of hundreds of afflicted families with a philanthropy she invented herself, by understanding a need and daring to address it. No amount of organizational training or specialized knowledge could have replaced her over-arching concern, compassion, intelligence and refusal to take "no" for an answer in creating her charity.

If you have been lucky enough to accumulate wealth, and/or if you are an entrepreneur in business, you have the power to change the world as you know it. Do not be held back by vague ideas that only a specialist with decades of training can drive solutions to difficult problems. Sometimes exactly what it takes is someone who can question old assumptions. That person can be you, and the world may be a better place if you dare to lead from the front.

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Lighting A Few Bright Candles...

What is the meaning of wealth? This is a question I have wrestled with intermittently for the last twenty-five years. At a certain point, if one is lucky, hard work creates what one needs to live comfortably. Continuous observation suggests that leaving vast sums of money to one's kids is to place a curse on their heads that will more likely challenge than nurture them. So what does one do with the rest?

Chaos Theory teaches us that all systems in the Universe if left unmanaged eventually decay into random nothingness. If that is true, then the quest for civilization is a never ending one: If we wish to bequeath something honorable, helpful and loving to our children's children's children we had better pay attention to the systems within our society which keep it afloat. Passive inactivity is a recipe for decay and atrophy. It really is not an option to sit on one's hands.

It seems to me that there are gigantic opportunities for people who thrive in business to apply the self-same skills to righting some of the wrongs around us. I have tried to focus through a self-invented "entrepreneurial philanthropy" on the grievous challenges of seriously ill children, of those kids who are abused and neglected, and of our urban homeless. It makes no sense to me that in this greatest civilization the world has ever put forth, we so often systematically marginalize our children and other people's children, even though they are our only future. The dark side of the "can do" of the American Dream is to try to fix things after they have broken rather than preventing them from breaking in the first place. For example, two-thirds of the adult males in our prisons were abused or neglected as children. Would it not make some sense to diminish this threat in the future? If self-esteem is so closely tied to living a productive life, should we not be trying to build it wherever we can in our society?

And if half of all foster children are homeless within two years of aging out of the system, wouldn't it be a lot less expensive to use college to get them into productive careers, rather than society paying for the rest of their lives? So why do only 2% of foster kids get a college education? Whose fault is that, and how do we fix it?

There is so much we can productively do by using our resources of intellect, entrepreneurship and a sense that anything is possible if one breaks it down into bite-sized chunks. And, yes, it sometimes takes money as well. Why, as another example, are we not building bridges to develop a strong, prosperous Islamic middle class, probably the only long-term solution to present upheaval in the world, awfulness that will otherwise confront our children for decades to come? And can we really not do better for homeless people sleeping rough amongst us than to give them the cardboard box our Sub-Zero came in?

Some of the most exciting things I have ever done have been through collaborations with like-minded people in philanthropy. An entrepreneur can helpfully exert his or her lateral thinking to serve the planet, not just to take from it. It's really no use to curse the gathering darkness -- much better to light a few bright candles I think.

There is a poem by Shelley called "Ozymandias" about a gigantic crumbled statue in the desert. Erected by a long-forgotten emperor, only the legs still stand. "Look upon my works, ye Mighty and despair!" reads the inscription. That's all that's left! As Theilard de Chardin wrote, "Now is the time to build the Earth." If we want our lives to amount to anything worth remembering, should we not pay attention to the true and lasting value of our legacy -- and have some wonderful excitement while doing so?

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Sunday, May 15, 2011


I was the first person ever in my whole family to go to college. My Dad left school at 14 because the family needed his pay check of $5 a week to buy more food. All of my life I've counted on my education to not only help me professionally, but introduce me to peers from university who are now spread around the planet in high positions of responsibility and in every walk of life. We help each other.

More than that, my Masters taught me to think, to process information, to develop a reasoned point of view, to not just adopt the first loud opinion I hear from some talking head on television. I treasure these skills. They made me who I am.

When I emigrated to the United States at the age of 23 I had $50 in my pocket and no return ticket. I made myself a career by meeting key people, finding out what they needed and telling them what I had to offer. I was then, and I remain now, passionate about the very big advantages of the United States compared to where I grew up, England. In the UK when I was 23, there was a widespread sense that young people should be seen and not hired… at least in any responsible position. A thousand year culture of indentured apprenticeship had created a communal raised eyebrow when any young person dared suggest they could do more than make coffee. They call it "Tall Poppy Syndrome" over there: if you stick your head up too high, it will be cut off. I was told in one job interview it would be unfair to older applicants if I were to be hired, even though I was also told I was the most qualified applicant and the only one who spoke the French needed where the job was located. Drove me crazy! Civil Rights for Youth anyone?

Over in the UK back then, it was very, very difficult to get a better job than your parent. Social rigidity and the class structure raised very few doctors whose fathers were plumbers.

But then I experienced America. Where they didn't just say The Land of Opportunity, they actually delivered it. Where the sons of plumbers and janitors ran gigantic companies and changed the world. A lot. And their method turned out to consist of a lot of really robust ladders, all called Education: If you were smart, if you worked hard, if you went to college, if you got a degree… you too could be a millionaire, make public policy, lead an army, steer an airliner, be a lawyer, cure cancer…. The sky was the limit, and it was your sky to fly. Because you were educated. Because you were American. Because you could be whatever you wanted to be. So there.

I bought the whole deal, raised my right hand… and I've continued to tear up every 4th. of July. I continue to say the Pledge of Allegiance and actually mean it. But now I look around and I see we are demolishing all the little education ladders, one rung at a time. Without the ladders, I fear we will have many plumbers but few who cure cancer. And that is a very bad and short-sighted thing to ponder, for each individual would-be ladder-climber, and for the fundamental future of our whole nation. It is where we are getting the basic value proposition of citizenship wrong: we are cancelling the leaders, architects and engineers of our future generations' success.

How can we fix this? Well, by not eviscerating the institutions we've already built, schools, colleges and universities that already proved their value millions of times with alumni making great contributions throughout society. It's the same as not eliminating fire-engines when you are short of money (your buildings will burn each other down) or eliminating police protection (your stuff will be stolen), or telling people we won't send the ambulance because there is no driver today (it could be your heart attack). The meat axe being taken to our schools and universities is somewhere beyond short-sighted and non-sighted: it is to despise, dismiss and leave our future as a nation in ruins. To apply Tea Party rhetoric to the currency of education, we are bankrupting the future to spend on other things in the present. And just like the National Debt, the national education deficit grows, feeds on itself and in the end becomes the unstoppable generational driver of mediocrity and a collapsed economy.

So hello out there all you who, like me, are deeply worried by the gadzillion dollar National Debt and the transparent political short-termism that seems to drive many of those men and women we sent to Washington to sort it out. Could we please acknowledge a few things in parallel? Can our minds even hold several thoughts at once? Debt bad. Balanced budget good. But also, life is choices: High quality rising generation good. Removing their education ladders very bad.

But look on the bright side as government takes the meat axe to education; while the rest of the world leaves us behind, we'll probably have great plumbing.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008


In today’s New York Times there is an article by John Schwartz in which he writes about the future as though we should all assume it is irredeemably screwed. He is nostalgic for the fifties and sixties, and for “….the future we imagined back when it was something to be hoped for rather than feared”. While Mr. Schwartz is entitled to his nihilism and low expectations, I personally think he is bonkers. And I say this because I’ve recently noticed that my 17 year old son Jeffrey has read the Internet.

It started as a dinner table joke. A year or so ago, I noticed that there appeared to be no topic that could be mentioned, certainly if it was anywhere in the sciences, where I knew more than Jeffrey. And I’m 56 and he’s 17. As I pride myself on having been alert, inquisitive and an addicted reader of everything in sight for at least 40 years, this seemed quite odd. So I’ve been studying Jeffrey like a kind of anthropologist and have reached the conclusion that Something Very Big is going on all of a sudden, and it is a seismic shift in culture and society that will soon give the lie to Mr. Schwartz’s negativity. In fact, I think it indicates that an unprecedented wave of progress and improvement will soon be upon us, led by young people like Jeffrey who right now are still teenagers.

OK, so he hasn’t actually read the entire Internet. He’s trying, but it is rather too big for even the autodidactic brainiac who is my son. But I’m telling you that, no kidding, since he was ten years old, this young man has spent around four hours a day, 365 days a year, reading the Internet. And interestingly, very little of this seems to have been distractive entertainment. No, it appears as though he’s been methodically reading just about everything he could access without a password in the widest possible aspects of all the applied sciences and beyond and through them in politics, sociology and generally The World We Live In. And I calculate he’s been reading the Internet so far for about ten thousand hours. I’m not kidding: do the math. And not only has he made that personal investment in the combined online output of two millennia of intellectual writing, but he has wired himself online into a substantial network of deep thinkers, including a bunch of PhD’s as well as abundant other young people who are also reading the knowledge base we call the Internet. And they are endlessly discussing seriously deep stuff online and often as a result face to face.

So what is going on here? Well, apparently, and only in the last decade, we have abolished geography as an impediment to learning. When I used to sit in the Cambridge University Library, which is a mandated Copyright Library that contains as a result pretty much every book you could ever want to read, I was still at a serious disadvantage in acquiring knowledge as against Jeffrey sitting in his teenager’s bedroom in West Los Angeles. First of all, I had to know what I was looking for, so there were few random serendipitous discoveries of tangential knowledge: The professor gave you a list, you went and found the books and you read them. Every so often, you’d use the bibliography in book A to go onwards under your own steam to book B, but mostly, you just read the suggested books to go deeper into your subject. And you pretty much had to start the book at the beginning and read it through to find the relevant stuff. Me, mostly I knew in advance what I wanted to find out, I found it, I read it and left the building.

Not Jeffrey. His reading of the Internet has a whole different methodology and it has little to do with school curricula, assigned reading and “How To Ace the ACT and SAT”. He takes care of those for sure, but he left them behind long ago as a sole basis for his reading. Instead, he has many advantages that I never had: He can word search. He can hyper-click. He can read ten things at a time in ten open windows. He can search the whole massive, aggregate chunk of human knowledge that exists on the Internet by concept and he can meet and discuss it as he sees fit, often with the author, often with others with common interest in the material. He is sitting in a virtual University Library, but with all the books open at once, and with the aisles full of interested parties in one seamless, endless seminar or teach-in, a kind of exogenous brain of all the knowledge of the world. And he's a Rising Senior in high school. Go figure.

I don’t think this has ever been possible before in the ten millennia of human intellectual development. And it makes me a pretty huge optimist as young people like Jeffrey grow up and start asserting themselves intellectually, in politics, as scientists, as thought-leaders and as citizens of the world. And I suspect they might even rescue us from the dysfunctions of old-style democracy.

Consider if you will, the mind of Henry the Eighth, king of Great Britain. Some five centuries ago, he was much more than a womanizer and beheader of inconvenient wives. He was very, very smart…. but that alone did not make him a great leader. The thing was that he knew pretty much everything a human being could know in that place, at that time. When he met with his military advisors, he knew as much as them about the art and science of warfare. When he met with agricultural experts, he was their match in knowing all about farming. His understanding of the weather was as good as anyone else’s he could consult. In fact, in the twenty separate and unrelated areas of knowledge important for a king to make a decision, important for him to be a great leader, he was a world expert, all on his own. He did not always get things right, leaders never do, but he had the huge advantage of being able to process all available resources of knowledge inside his own head, and on the fly. No need for a whole bunch of committee meetings for Henry.

Now think of a modern day leader. Let’s use Bill Clinton in the White House, not because of some other unfortunate similarities to Henry the Eighth, but because when we add in Al Gore as Vice-President, even President Clinton’s most ardent opponents should concede that the two of them together had Very Big Brains at work. They had the Rhodes Scholar intellect we want at work in the White House. But for good or bad, the world in which they operated was one heck of a lot more complicated than in Henry’s simpler age.

And why? Precisely because Henry was pretty much the last leader who could Know Everything Available. Since then, the database of human knowledge has grown exponentially every year…. call it the intellectual parallel to Moore’s Law…. but the poor old human brain has remained exactly the same size, operating at the same speed, with the same mental processes dealing with all the information. So that even the smartest among us until recently have had to go deeper and deeper in order to be an expert in anything at all. But importantly, in order to do so with those same-sized brains, we’ve had to go narrower and narrower. I was joking with the radiologist recently who analyzed the scans of my knee. “How are knees” I asked, “more or less interesting than elbows?” “Oh”, he replied “I don’t do elbows these days. I’m the knee man here”. I was relieved that he confirmed he did actually do both left and right knees, and I took some great comfort from the fact that he must be really good at knees if that’s all he did professionally.

The problem however is obvious: Life is Not Knees. And the colossal challenges that face our civilization are intrinsically multi-disciplinary. If the fixed size of the brain’s traditional capacity to learn has remained static, how can we ever hope to conquer those hellaciously complicated problems that involve twenty disciplines, all of whose experts are in intellectual silos: deep but very, very narrow? And especially when human nature makes grown-ups invariably believe their own silo is more important, more compelling, than all those other silos they little understand.

Well, corporations and governments have taken different stabs at that precise problem over time, with mixed success. Our President has a Cabinet of specialized leaders reporting to him or her. The hope is that they will each know more than the President about their own area of responsibility. In the case of a smart leadership, the Clinton / Gore way to lead was to convene world-class experts and attempt to make them cooperate. But the challenge is that N.I.H. stands for more in such a room than the National Institutes of Health. Though the experts are asked to leave their “Not Invented Here” attitudes at the door, human nature brings them into the room.

When Steven Spielberg and I founded The Starbright Foundation in 1990, we wanted a fearless Campaign Chairman, who would aggressively ask people for big donations to our then fledgling non-profit studio. Kathy Kennedy brilliantly suggest General Norman Schwarzkopf. So off I went to meet him in Tampa. There I was jawing on about how in Starbright we were generalists trying to make a wildly diverse bunch of specialist experts cooperate for the first time to create our special software for sick kids: writers, directors, artists, oncologists, hematologists, psychiatrists…. A set of experts who had never before encountered most of those other experts professionally. And I was saying that our job was to be the generalists in the middle, constantly yanking back the strategy which every expert seemed to want to yank left or right to serve their own narrow silo of expertise. We were the strategic drivers, they were the collaborating resources.

General Schwarzkopf interrupted me: “What do you know about the U.S. Army?” he asked. “Almost nothing” I answered. “Well” he said. “When you join the Army, we don’t just give you a rank. We also give you a Specialty: You are a rifleman or a cook or a driver or a signalman. And we give you a pin that says so. And it does not matter how much we promote you over the years; you still keep your Speciality”.

“Until one day, if you are a damn good leader, we may decide to make you a General. And in the ceremony when you get your Star, we take away your Specialty Pin…. Because you are no longer a Specialist. You are a General”.

I sat there stunned by the enormity of the revelation…. It had never occurred to me before that in an Army, the consequence of failure is death and injury and loss of your defined mission. So you’d better get your act together and put the generalist, the General in charge of the experts.

That’s all well and good, but how are our leaders in any area to possibly possess the necessary knowledge to tame the experts and lead them back to valuing their collaboration with other experts in support of the common mission? How exactly do we do that?

Well, with great difficulty I think! This is arguably now the biggest systemic challenge to the world and to Life As We know It: The leaders know a lot less about each relevant discipline than the experts they must keep in line. Oh dear! Is there hope, and if so, where?

Well, I think it is in Jeffrey Samuelson and, in this country at least, the eighty million other members of Jeff’s Generation Y, the Millennials all around us. It is not only that they are more pro-social, more engaged in their world than any generation in the last three, nor that they are more concerned and more viral in their relationships on and off line.

It dawns on me that the biggest advantage that these 15 to 30 year olds are going to have is that the inspired generalists among them will simply know a great deal more than any previous generation in the history of the human race. The technology of the Internet has granted them easy access to much of the Knowledge Of The World and a toolkit to explore it quickly, widely and deeply. By doing this, they will be empowering their brains to go much farther into the heady world of finding multi-disciplinary solutions for our vast multi-disciplinary challenges. A good brain is good at pattern recognition…. the arena to apply it was just multiplied by a billion billion pages of information. The mind boggles, and that’s a good thing.

So my hat is off to the Gen Y generalists, to our future thought leaders, the crackers of cancer, of Alzheimers, of Global Warming and who knows, of the tribalism, hatred, ignorance, hunger and poverty that afflict our planet every minute of every day.

And to Jeffrey and those like you, I salute you for your dedication to threading your way through all those screens of other people’s thoughts and research. And please also take the time to go sit on a hill every so often and just think about solutions using your unprecedented breadth of knowledge. Remember that Einstein, devoid of an Internet, said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”…. and to that add the thought that if your base of knowledge is exponentially larger, your thinking outside the box of the present, your invention of new solutions, new paradigms, the unprecedented path forward every which way, will truly be a wonder to behold. So please keep reading the Internet Jeff, and go even wider and deeper. I expect great things from you and your friends. And thank you for the ennobling burst of optimism you deliver about our future. The New York Times guy hasn’t met you, and he’s completely wrong. Si, se puede.
Peter Samuelson is a media executive, producer and pro-social entrepreneur who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and four children.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008


It was a priceless heirloom, passed down through the generations for well over two hundred years and for those more ancient Europeans, twice as long as that. It was once much more than the least-bad it has become…. for our grandparents democracy was fought over, won and re-won with the blood of millions, a bastion of protection against the forces of darkness, of anarchy, of totalitarianism and fascism. Our democracy was a simple idea entrenched with every far-sighted effort to make it permanent by wise owls long dead, who thought it likely more people would know better than less people, that the majority would tend to be more right than the few. That regular elections would constantly draw the leaders back in line with those who elected them. That election by the majority would ensure most people had nobody to blame but themselves and that would make them self-correcting. And we have reversed their oversights and prejudices in massive revisions over time to correct racism and sexism.

Then some time in the first few years of the twenty-first century, we accidentally dropped democracy on the floor and broke it. Time to get out the glue. We broke it resoundingly by the confluence of money, media, fear and the parallel death-throes of public education. These great evolutionary waves interacted, magnified each other and together they drove a jagged stake into the heart of democracy.

Which was the egg, which the chicken and does it even matter? The media run candidates for office on a treadmill of charisma, good looks, height and curb-appeal. Would FDR have a prayer of election today in a campaign inevitably featuring his wheelchair? Those soundbites the media require drive our candidates to few words to express complex issues. The superficial focus of the popular media drives attention to the candidates’ clothing, their haircuts, their media-friendliness, all in 15 second clips. So long as we make the delivery of news subject to the same lowest common denominator economic rules as television entertainment, the spiral in the integrity, accuracy and importance of its contents will be ever downwards. Just follow the money: Paris Hilton will always trump Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because she sells more Ragu Sauce.

Beyond that there is the mandatory purchase by candidates of television advertising: buy it in vast quantities or wither away. And with that advertising comes the primacy of the money: one candidate raises over one hundred million dollars in a year and six more are close behind. The money buys the advertising, so without bucketloads of money there can be no serious campaign. The democracy we created to do away with the rule of the rich and insensitive few has become a contest of who has or can raise the most advertising spend. And if a Michael Bloomberg simply took one fifth of his personal wealth, outspent the other candidates five-to-one and took the White House, would we really see democracy at work, democracy to be proud of? What is buying an election and what is buying it through buying the advertising?

And most of the money raised comes directly or indirectly from the special interests, from the companies who stand to benefit, from the new elite high-net-worth barons of this new Elizabethan court: if you need money in bucketloads, you prize the ones bearing the biggest buckets. In our selection of candidates, we have been driven away from the best ideas, the best leadership, the most honest….. and towards the best fundraisers.

Which then leads to our repetitively dysfunctional elections themselves, where relentless mass media combined with frequent polling have driven democracy into the awkward world of the evenly split electorate, the world of 50.1% trumping 49.9%. Is it coincidence or the collision of statistics with mass-media advertising that so many recent elections are won by the thinnest of margins, leaving almost exactly half the electorate dissatisfied? Could it be that we have now built perfect engines of attack and counter-attack? Might it be that the computerized Rovian brains running our candidates’ campaigns have created a circular eddy of analysis leading to counter-attack, of thrust leading to parry….. and if the pollsters and the Carvilles and the Roves are all using the same software and the same tactics, does the relentless calculus of mass media advertising not virtually guarantee a tie? Any movement away from the middle leads to an equal and opposite advertising barrage, precisely targeted to the shifting demographics of the support-base. That pushback then leads to yet another counterattack that exactly nullifies the shift. The new, equally split electorate sits on the Center Court at Wimbledon, but in this game of tennis all ball speeds and direction are computerized to exactly counter the computerized media balls lobbed from the other direction. If two Cray computers are programmed to use the same chess software, they will play to a tie. Welcome to the democratic election of leadership for the free world.

The logic of democracy is that more people will make better decisions than less. Flying in the face of this is the level of knowledge, of awareness, of shrewdness and of exposure to the world among those who vote. If two generations of low-ranking public education, disgracefully fallen behind that of so many other nations, has decimated the electorate’s alertness to the issues…. if the media drives people away from the thoughtful and towards the soundbite…. if so few Americans have ever left their country, so few own a passport, so few experience the neighbors down the road…. at what point does the dearth of the necessary building-blocks for sound choice by the electorate trump the hope that “more are more likely to choose right”? Do the people who advocate "sending the illegals home" really think there is any way to export 11 million people, even if they wanted to leave? Do the people who advocate "keeping jobs here" realise that then they will have to pay more for their toys than the price of labor in China will support?

Witness the crazed new dance of three zombies spiraling downwards with arms interlocked: fear, media and fascism. Scared people have always voted away from their fear: The Germans elected Hitler in reaction to the chaos around them. The terrorists have realized, like the Nazis before them, that the willingness to use violence, to kill, to maim, to scare the wife and kids, will cower all but the most stubborn opponent. And in our brave new world of continuous television news, diminished by those soundbites calibrated to every under-curious short attention span, fear sells very well indeed. Fear sells even better than the schadenfreude of our latest celebrity-fallen-from-grace story. And when more people watch the latest threat, the latest explosion, advertising revenue rises and our media report more profit. Such is free enterprise: never has asymmetrical warfare been more potent than in this new era of a populist media that ever craves the latest horror.

So how do we fix democracy, how do we find the right glue? How do we persuade the well-educated few, the uber-class, that mass public education of a world-challenging level is ultimately the preserver of their freedom too? And if public education is to remain under-funded and its recipients oftentimes under-curious and open to irrational persuasion (“Oh look, a Famous Actor appeared with a politician, so I’ll vote for him!”), how do we make an arabesque around it and bring critical thinking and a community of the global, the thoughtful and the curious to our voters? Well, how about if we use the same new media the forces of darkness are using successfully to run our democracy into the ground?

There is considerable evidence that our new breed of young people, children of the self-interested Baby Boomers, younger than the hedonistic Generation X, this new Millennial Generation is significantly more engaged in the world than any group since the Great Generation who battled Hitler and Hirohito. In preserving their own freedom and restoring that of others, those who came of age in the Second World War often became permanently socially engaged themselves. Every college applicant these days performs meaningful voluntary service; for half that habit sticks even when it is no longer self-interested. 85% of Millennials aged 15 to 25, will change brands if the new offering has a social benefit. And Gen Y’s young people are nothing if not media-fluent. They build community online, they read foreign news streams, they text, blog, date, discuss, activate and cross-pollinate with far less regard to geography than their parents. They are the only future we have and we should be glad, because with a little encouragement they will take over and build a new, more vibrant democracy. The Founding Fathers would want no less!

Social Networks already experiment with peer referral, with peer ratings and the systematic badging of expertise. Not Ebay itself, but Ebay’s users provide a sophisticated review of any potential buyer’s or seller’s business ethics, their history, a full codification of their reputation. Let us now develop an evolving set of competitive systems to rate our politicians, our leaders and for sure those young peers who voice public opinions. If an elected official lies repeatedly, why can we not codify that? And if a publisher of political and social opinion oftentimes and empirically ‘gets it wrong’, why can we not record that? Why can we rate restaurants but not leaders? Why do we have to rely on media susceptible to their own bias to remind us of the prior track records of those asking us to follow them? I hear you say, “But truth is in the eye of the beholder”…. Well firstly, no, it is not; a great deal of empirical truth can be measured independent of opinion. And secondly, OK, so first profile the seeker of truth, then supply a range of relevant opinions placing the target’s reputation in that context. Those online dating services look not only at the sought but also at the seeker before suggesting a match.

While we are at it, why can we not codify the media voices so that their reputation is not some vague and ill-defined sense buffeted by their own and their rivals’ media blasts? Why can GuideStar codify all the major non-profits in America but we can’t get our empirical measuring arms around the journalists any more than the politicians? Why do we assume it is good to be influenced by polls telling us what others think? Why should any prior polling rationally influence voters in an election? Why can’t we see track-records parsed the way we measure racehorses? Come on guys, where’s the algorithm? This is our civilization at stake here and we are not sheep. Where’s the beef?

Let’s encourage our young people to meet online the young people who are not like them. Let’s encourage the lowering of borders, of geography, of nation states, of religion and of fear: are we using our new media as well as we can to show that what unites young people across the world is more powerful than what divides them? Hats off to Nick Negroponte and his $130 dollar third-world wireless laptop computer: now let’s build the MySpaces and the Facebooks and the rest of the social networks to unite kids across the world, regardless of the hatreds and lack of understanding of their parents. We have the real-time translation capabilities: turn them on. And let's ensure please that the communities and the blogs and their buzz are inclusive and facing outwards.... what a terrible irony if all this new technology only creates narrow communities of those who are already alike and already agree! Let's use cheap, widely available technology to bridge the gap between rich and poor and between those who misunderstand or hate each other.... let's build wider links, not more techie silos grouping people into subsets of the ignorant and intolerant! Techology is powerful but totally dumb: it is our responsibility to use it properly.

And let’s go further. Remember Negroponte’s ‘Wired’ article a decade ago about the ‘Exogenous Brain’, the concept that many minds linked electronically could crack complex problems together, beyond the ability of any constituent part? Ant hills of complex, ever-evolving and self-correcting organic reasoning and knowledge applied to complex and intractable problems beyond the conquest of most any individual…. Well, hell, that was ten years ago…. where’s the software? We have Wikipedia and Wiki- this and that: compendiums of knowledge from many contributors on millions of subjects. But that’s what it is: facts neatly set down. No disrespect to facts of course, but where’s Wiki 2.0? Where is the Opinion Wiki, the Solutions Wiki? Where is the software that drives interlocking waves of thousands of agile minds towards solutions to the complex problems that face us every day? Please go invent it!

And let’s please, please focus on where our young people are getting their information. Let’s work to lower their reliance on the news-gathering and selection whims of three major conglomerates. How do we drive global, independent news to young American eyes and ears to create a wide sense of those neighbors down the road and how they see things? Sure, there is the Google News aggregator, but where is the easily accessible television? LinkTV aims to use its non-profit platform as an international aggregator of news and culture to open American eyes to The World Out There.... but as yet it is much too narrowly distributed. Diversity of information, culture and opinion is totally available from all over our planet: we need to translate and channel it much more widely to our young American Millennials.

Let’s consider mandatory voting, as is done successfully in Australia. If we want to live in a democracy, we should vote our franchise. And can we really not make online voting safe enough to use? We safely transfer trillions of dollars electronically every day, all around the world. Is secure online voting really beyond our reach? Why not run it in parallel to the traditional not-so-hot hanging chads until we see that it works better?

Let’s educate and encourage our Millennials to speak truth to power. It is not only because we have no Draft that there is so little mass protest of the Iraq War: it is also because our young people feel disengaged from the halls of their leaders and under-powered in stating their views: they do not generally believe anyone much is listening over there. So let us adapt and adopt the sophisticated social networking tools used to sell music and films and macramé and bring them to opinion and dissent and attitude. And let’s publicize those truths to power that are generated, not just drop them into some Senator’s unread email file for electronic shredding. And at least send a receipt!

Democracy is passing through a bleak and bumpy patch, buffeted by the strong adverse winds of money, fear and a bottom-feeding media…. But democracy is still the best hope we have for an aspirational future to support and nurture the most people to their best possible lives. We must use every tool in our new media and social arsenals to evolve and empower our American democracy beyond the thrall of the bombers, the self-interested elites and the totalitarian fear-mongers. We need to deliver a Democracy 2.0 based on education, knowledge, community empowerment and responsive leadership. We have the tools to build this new virtuous circle and we need to hurry to deliver them. We have the technology. Let’s turn it on.


Peter Samuelson ( is a motion picture and television producer, media executive and consultant and the founder of three non-profit philanthropies: The Starlight-Starbright Childrens Foundation (, the First Star Public Policy Initiative ( and EDAR ("Everyone Deserves A Roof" He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Saryl and four children.

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