Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. And today is a really, really special day because I’m interviewing two of my personal heroes.
You know, if you’ve ever looked around and you’ve seen the inequality, the injustice, the poverty in the world and you felt helpless or overwhelmed like what can one person do to make a difference, you are gonna love today’s show. With scrupulous research and on the ground reporting, my guests today investigate the art and science of giving and share the compelling and inspiring truth of how real people are creating world change and how each one of us can make a difference.
Husband and wife duo Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn combine journalism and activism in their unique brand of reporting centered on human rights and advocacy. They’ve co authored three previous books: “Half the Sky,” “Thunder from the East,” and “China Wakes.” They were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square movement and received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for lifetime achievement in 2009.
An op ed columnist for the New York Times since 2001, Nicholas Kristof was previously Bureau Chief in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo. He won his second Pulitzer in 2006 for what the judges called his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on the genocide in Darfur.
Sheryl Wudunn, the first Asian American reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize, is a business executive, lecturer, and best selling author. She worked at the Times as a business editor and foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing and now works in banking. As world renowned human rights activists, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn give a voice to the voiceless. Their fourth book, “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities,” is available now.
Nick and Sheryl, thank you so much for coming on MarieTV.
We’re so happy to be here.
We’re delighted to be here.
So, ok. You’re my personal heroes, which I said before. I am a huge fan. I first got introduced to your work from Half the Sky, which I told everyone about, we even had an episode on it, and I know A Path Appears. When I heard this was coming out I literally jumped up and down. And I, you know, found your press person, I said we need to have them on the show. This book is even more adventurous in scope than some things that you’ve done before. And I know that many of us can look around the world, whether it’s domestically here at home or we look across to the developing world, and it can feel like, “Wow, there’s a lot…”
It’s overwhelming. But I loved one thing that you wrote. You said, “We sometimes paralyze ourselves with the conviction that global problems are hopeless. But, in fact, this should be a remarkably hopeful time to be alive.” So in light of everything that you’ve seen, why is this a hopeful time?
Well, first of all, I wanna site the title because the “A Path Appears” really speaks to that. It was written actually 100 years ago by Lu Xun, who probably was living in a very hopeful time as well, though there was a lot of turmoil. But he basically said that hope is like a path in the countryside. At first there is nothing. As more people walk back and forth, a path appears. So it’s about solutions for change, it’s about making a difference and how to have a meaningful life. So that’s what we wrote “A Path Appears” for. And it’s really a way to sort through, to find the right path so that you can make a difference.
You know, I think sometimes we in journalism make the mistake of focusing so much on all the problems in the world, we leave people with the impression that everything is so screwed up that people just kind of give up. And the truth is that I’ve seen that progress and that’s what gives me hope. And I think that a clear lesson is that one can make a difference. The… one of the things that shocked me the most on my first trip to Africa was blindness. And you see so many people with going blind from trachoma, for example, which is an excruciating way to go blind, and then there’s also a 40 dollar operation, which I saw a woman who was blind, two of her children have died of malnutrition because she can’t take care of them. She goes through this 40 dollar operation and she can see again. And it is, I mean, that’s not depressing, that is inspiring what 40 dollars can accomplish. And that’s what we kinda wanted to convey in “A Path Appears,” that anybody, you know, you may not be able to solve the global problem of blindness, but you can solve the problem of blindness for one individual, and for that person it is transformative.
That was one of the things I loved about this book is how much focus you put on evidence-based strategies and really looking at the research what’s out there. What’s working, what’s not, and really how do we get the most bang for our giving back buck. Because I think they can feel overwhelming, not only the scope of the problems but how many possible solutions there are. And then one of the things that was surprising and fascinating for me was about the focus on early childhood. Can we talk a little bit about that?
Well, first of all, I think that it is clear that inequality is growing, particularly in this country as well as, you know, the divide in the world. So, you know, a lot of the focus recently has been on oh my goodness, is this a bigger problem or not? And we’re saying, wait a second. It is a bigger problem and it also is a problem even if it’s big or small. And what we have come up with is, look, we don’t want government transfers, we’re not arguing for subsidies. We’re arguing for spreading opportunity. That is the best way to address the growing inequality problem. And so spreading opportunity, what does that mean? Well, that means starting at a really, really young age, and that means starting when, you know, the baby is one or two, or three. Even in utero. You can start giving that child an opportunity because right now a lot of the kids who are born are starting way behind the start line. They don’t even have a fighting chance, and that’s why early childhood intervention is extremely important. If you look at our education system here in the US in particular, actually it starts kicking in at age 5 with kindergarten and then actually it steadily goes up and by college we’re… there’s a lot more money going into college. But if you look at the way the brain develops, it starts really the capacity for change starts in utero and then one, two, three it starts declining. The brain is the most… has the most plasticity when the baby is an infant. The growth in the brain architecture, the foundation for the brain, is being built from in the first thousand days of life. And then that window starts to close just as the society is putting more money into education. So we’ve got it kinda backwards.
I just… this is so smart. It’s something that is not publicized enough and if someone is considering where should I put these dollars that I want to focus on a particular…. on helping others, it’s just… it’s genius. So I really… I loved that. The other thing that I found really fascinating was the connection between poverty and clinical depression. And I know Nick, I follow your columns all the time and I know any time that you write about helping the poor sometimes there’s some pushback like, “Ok, that money is gonna go to cigarettes,” or, “That money is gonna go to alcohol.” And, you know, one thing that you wrote is, “Interventions that create hope such as micro saving schemes, entrepreneurship training, all of this can shatter that cycle and that learned helplessness can be unlearned.” I thought the story about Kennedy and Jessica was amazing.
You know, one of the hard things to talk about in poverty is that there really are self destructive behaviors, and this is a real part of poverty, you know, that people… it’s not only low incomes but it’s what sometimes happens to money when it does come in. And the impact on kids, for example. And yet too often… so on the one hand this is a real issue that we have to address. On the other hand, it’s not enough to kinda point fingers and there are reasons for it. This is part of the cycle of poverty, that people because they feel hopeless then they engage in self destructive behaviors, which then lead their children to be more likely to pursue similar paths. And how do you break that cycle? Well, one way turns out to be precisely to give people hope, to give people a sense that there can be a different outcome. And there’s now just abundant evidence on this from various interventions, from brain science that… that that is kinda… that hope, you know, it seems this very warm and fuzzy thing, but it… there’s good, careful metrics that document the degree to which it can be transformative. And so you mentioned Kennedy and Jessica. They’re just some of our favorite people. Kennedy grew up in a slum in Kenya and he was homeless as a small child, never got a formal education, but was just a really smart kid. Got help from various other people, so taught himself how to read, and he decided as a young man that what his slum needed was hope above all. And so he started an organization called Shining Hope for Communities and is trying to help women and girls in the community and others. And a young woman from the US, from Colorado, named Jessica Posner was interning out there and helping them with their street theatre, she and Kennedy fell in love, married, she helped Kennedy, who had never been to school at all, go to, here in the US, to graduate from college at Wesleyan, and he was the student speaker at his graduation. And they’ve now run… they’re running this amazing organization, Shining Hope. They’re starting a girls school in this slum where 86% of the girls were at US grade level or better even though English is their third language. You know, and it’s… he says, and it feels to me true, that what they’ve really brought is this sense of hope and that hope can be transformative. And that I think maybe that’s one way of how we need to think about cycles of poverty and how to break them.
Another inspiring story that I did not expect was the story about Restore Leadership Academy in Uganda and these beautiful, beautiful boys and the students who actually donate money to a charity in the US. Tell us about that one.
It’s actually quite interesting how it developed because, of course, the Restore Academy was set up to really help these very poor people, poor kids in Africa. And, you know, they never expected these kids to actually take hold of an issue and say, “Wait a second, we want to do something.” So what these kids decided as they were thinking about what they could do as their own contribution to help society, they said, “Well, let’s actually try and help some of these poor sons who just have no fathers in Oregon.” Because a lot of the kids were child soldiers and so their fathers had gone off to war and they never were raised with fathers. And so they understood what the pain was of growing up with a single mom and, you know, obviously in a really… their life was really a war-torn life. And so they said well, you know, they didn’t raise that… they raised for them, it was 28 dollars to start out with. 28 dollars. But we want to give this to help some of the boys in Portland, Oregon who don’t have fathers and who are… have lost their way. And at first the organization in Oregon said, “Oh my goodness. We can’t take money from… from kids. Poor orphans in Uganda. We can’t do that.” And, actually, there was a lot of back and forth because the Oregon organization didn’t want to take the money. And finally they said, the reason why these kids wanna give the money is because they wanna help. They feel compassion for you folks and they really want to… they really want to play a role in this. And so finally the organization took it and, you know, and they developed… they’ve developed kind of a pen pal relationship and it has worked out.
And it’s one of the things that Sheryl and I saw so often that, you know, at the end of the day, helping people is harder than it looks. And our efforts to help other people have a somewhat mixed record, but they have this almost perfect record of helping ourselves.
I… I thought it was so genius because the boys in Uganda were like, “We’re not victims. These are our friends. We have friends over in the United States and we want to help our friends.” And even just that simple framework of other human beings are my friends and I want to help them, it was really empowering. I just love that you included that story. It was just absolutely inspiring. I started to get fired up as the book starts to shift into, you know, ways that charity can do a better job. Right? And one of the things that I loved was when you started talking about the fact that humanitarians tend to flinch at marketing. They think it’s slimy, it’s sleazy, it’s not something that we should do. But the truth is, we should invest in marketing these life and death situations at least as much as we’re marketing toothpaste. I’d love to hear your perspective on this.
Well, definitely marketing is critical. If you don’t market your cause, then how can anybody hear about the cause in order to help address the challenges that you’re trying to strive for? And I think that requires a shift in attitudes by donors because donors say, “I want this ten dollars,” or whatever it is, “a thousand dollars that I’m donating, I want it to go to that poor girl in Niger. But I don’t want any of my money going to marketing.” And that’s a problem that charities have tended to be donor driven but, in fact, what they really do need is a better marketing of their cause so they can get more donors to donate. And that’s really important and I think right now there’s some people who recognize that but others who don’t and by and large most donors don’t recognize that. And so it’s kind of a tug of war. But I think what we try to argue in “A Path Appears” is that not only do you need better marketing techniques, you actually need to allocate dollars, significant dollars, into marketing. And you obviously aren’t… you’re not gonna get it right the first time. You’re not gonna get it right the second time. But you do need to experiment. And most people say, “Oh, well, let’s just use social media. It’s cheap, it’s free.” Well, you know, that’s not the only way. I mean, marketing is much more complex than just a few tweets and, you know, a few Facebook posts. You really need to develop a strategy, you need to spend time, know who your audience is, know who your donor base is that you want to expand. So I do think that that’s really important. And the other thing we also write about, which is very interesting, is there’s been research done on how do you actually invoke, how do you… how do you inspire people to give? And it turns out… Paul Slavic is a brilliant researcher. He’s been looking at what makes people compassionate, what makes them want to give. And, you know, it used to be that charities would give you a bunch of statistics. They would say, “Oh, gosh. There’s 8 million people who are starving in Africa. You’ve got to give some money.” That does nothing. But if you put a picture of Rokia there, just one picture, and she’s starving, you’ll get a flood of donations. If you add one more, if you add Rokia’s brother into the picture, two people into the picture, donations will drop by two. And the reason is that a donor wants to feel as though they’re making a difference and if they think that their money is gonna go to one person, they think they can make a difference. If it’s gonna go to two, four, six, they don’t feel as though they’re gonna make enough of a difference. And so that’s really interesting psychology that we learned.
Yeah, and it’s all business and marketing stuff. This is the stuff that I live and breathe and talk about and often times when I’m talking with small business owners or people that are interested in just getting a business off the ground, sometimes they’re even like, “Oh, marketing. It’s slimy.” So this is so fascinating and I just applaud you and I was cheering up and down that you included this in the book because it’s so important.
Well, there tends to be this view within the humanitarian world that, you know, we’re doing God’s work and, you know, we don’t have to worry about being in business. Well, it’s so much more important if you’re in the business of saving lives that you spend money effectively, that you have metrics to monitor how you’re doing, that you market effectively, that you operate in a savvy, modern way. You know, if you’re selling Coca Cola, then I don’t really care whether you’re efficient or not. If you’re saving lives, it’s so much more important and I think that the humanitarian world can do a better job there.
Yeah, absolutely. And I love… you also made the point that in the for-profit world, taking risks is something that’s always encouraged. I mean, everything that we do on MarieTV, it’s like we’re encouraging people to if you have this idea, their stream, let’s make it happen. If you fail, if something you put out there doesn’t work, it’s ok. Let’s learn from it and let’s pivot and let’s try again. And we do need more of that in the nonprofit world. I know you talked about several different initiatives everybody thought was gonna work and they didn’t. And… but that’s ok.
Yeah, you learn from mistakes, but… and like in Silicon Valley, people almost boast of their mistakes. In the humanitarian world when you make a mistake then you have to kind of cover it up because then donors will, you know, stop giving. And so it’s not just a problem of the A groups, it’s really a problem of our psychology of how we think about giving. And maybe we should think about it in a more businesslike way and we should be thinking more like an investment rather than just as this nice charitable thing we do on the side.
There are some groups that are beginning to change. So, for instance, Engineers without Borders, they now will write about on their website some of the things that have failed and how they can improve. I mean, basically the idea is to learn from… to learn lessons from your mistakes and not just boast about your mistakes. And Charity:Water also did a great job. You know, Scott Harrison, who runs Charity:Water, really learned a lot. I mean, he once made the huge mistake. He poured a whole bunch of money, went to videotape, you know, the putting up of a rig and it totally failed. He was horrified, he was embarrassed, but he said, “You know what? I just gotta tell my donors, you know, this is… I mean,” in fact he realized that it showed them how hard it is to put up a rig like this and that we’re still gonna try. And so he realized that there was a great benefit into telling… being fully transparent to his donor base about, “Yeah, you know, I won’t always be 100%, you know, successful. And you gotta live with the shakes, but I’m gonna do my best.” And I think that’s really what we expect… what we can expect. And you also want invention. Invention comes out of mistakes.
Absolutely. You know, you talk about that we have a chance to incorporate giving into our daily lives and you wrote, you know, “We tend to be skeptical that a modest sum can make a difference, yet one of the clearest lessons in our long journey is that it’s indeed possible to have an impact with a modest sum.” So I know that many people can say, “Oh, it’s wonderful, you know, if you can make a thousand dollar or even a hundred dollar donation. I don’t have that. What can I possibly do?” So you guys have discovered that not even a sum of money, but just an action can make a difference.
Yeah. You know, we talk about some incredibly modest investment, 50 cents you can deworm a child in the developing world. That child is then gonna be more likely to go to school, will be less anemic, will be less sick, and, you know, we deworm our pets and Americans spend far more money on that. 50 cents to deworm a child and transform that child’s life prospects, we can afford that. We can volunteer on organizations like websites like iMentor and help somebody to give them a hand. And even just outside of, you know, formal kind of charity, just in daily life. One of our favorite stories from the book is of an African American boy who was growing up in Arkansas, really troubled difficult kid. He made his school librarian cry and he, he was in the school library one day and there was a novel with kind of a risque cover, a woman who wasn’t wearing too much on it, at least by 1957 standards, and so he stole the book. And he loved it and he thought, “Wow, maybe reading is better than I thought.” He returned it and then there was another book by the same author there and he stole that too. And he did this four times. And it… he became a reader as a result. He ended up going to college, to law school, his name is Ali Neil. He became a civil rights leader, the first prosecutor and judge in the area who was African American. And so he was sort of a hero at high school reunions and one time he confessed to the school librarian that he had stolen these books from the school library. And the librarian, Mrs. Grady, said that she had seen him steal that first book and she had known that the reason he was stealing it, because he was a tough kid and would be embarrassed checking out a book because tough kids don’t read books. And so she had not confronted him, she’d let him steal it, and then that weekend she’d driven 70 miles to Memphis and with her own money had bought a book by the same author to put it in that spot in case when he returned it, in case it would fire him up. And then she did that 3 more times. And she changed his life and took a risk on this troubled kid who we would not ordinarily maybe take a risk on and had this amazing impact. So, you know, it doesn’t always work, but surely it’s worth taking that kind of risk on people around us. And every now and then when it pans out, it is transformational.
You guys are simply incredible human beings. I just want to publicly thank you for the work that you do in the world, that you continue to put out into the world. I said this before, but this is just… every human being on the planet needs to read this book. That’s truly what I believe. And I am so, so honored to have you here. Is there anything as we wrap up that you wanna close with today?
Well I, first of all, wanna give credit to all of the people on the front lines who are working in the refugee camps, who are actually working, you know, in country, in the field, dedicating their lives. Those are the real people who are actually, you know, in the field coming up with new inventions as to what works, what doesn’t work, and we all rely on them. I mean, we’re sort of the scribblers on that part of it, but we really think that they are so dedicated, determined, and we’re very grateful for those kind of people. And also the experts who are coming up with these new research strategies to really drill down on what works and what doesn’t. So we’re very grateful to all of them.
And I guess just maybe 2 messages to your wonderful audience out there. You know, one is that I think there are a lot of people who’d like to make a difference but it’s just kinda scary and overwhelming. They don’t know where to start. And so, you know, there are a million places to start and there’s no one solution, there’s no one silver bullet. There’s a thousand silver buckshot. And, you know, we outlined many of those. And the other thing is that it truly is self empowering as well. And just as those Ugandan schoolkids found it enormously helpful for themselves, even though they had nothing, to give of what little they had, so for us if we can find a place in our lives to give back to some degree then this… I think we all crave a certain amount of meaning in our life, a connection with other people, and this is it. A connection to a cause larger than ourselves, I think, creates a real satisfaction and empowerment in our own lives.
Thank you both so much for being here today. I wish you all the luck in the world and I can’t wait to support the documentary that will be following up the book, which, everybody, you’ve got to read the book now so that you can get involved with the doc when it comes out in the new year. Thank you again.
Thank you so much.
Thank you very much.
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