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Aspen Institute – Part II

July 25, 2010

The Aspen Ideas Festival II – The Good Guys

In my last museletter, I quoted speakers on the dark side of the Ideas Festival spectrum. I saved the brighter side for this chapter. Two things gave me hope: a notable absence of normally omnipresent American Hubris and Heroism – there was an abundant crop of bold people willing to speak the obvious but previously unspeakable truth, and Social Entrepreneurs.

The people who impressed most were the king of philanthrocapitalism, a truly remarkable Social Entrepreneur who became a #1 New York Times best selling author, a pioneering educator, and a way-out-front journalist. All four are innovators, fascinating people plowing new ground for good. Here is my hero list:

Bill Gates – Seemed such a natural easy-to-talk-to person in an interview with Walter Issacson. Linda said, “Look, he doesn’t even comb his hair.”

Gates has a remarkable gift for getting to the very heart of multiple initiatives and driving relentlessly toward action solutions with measurable results. That is the difference between a policy wonk and an entrepreneur. He is playing with his own chips. Gates invented Microsoft from scratch and he is re-inventing philanthropy from scratch. Here is what I heard Gates say as he outlined how the U.S. could still lead in the world (paraphrased):

  • Out of control medical costs are dominating state and federal budgets making fewer funds available for education. The access to education for the middle class is just rapidly going away. That is a trade-off because of very, very high medical costs. We have got to reexamine our funding priorities.

  • The very best teachers are fifty times better than the worst.

  • There is a 100% correlation between test scores and the answers to two questions asked of students:
    • Question 1: Does your teacher use time well?
    • Question 2: When you are confused, does your teacher help you out?

      So simple! So elegant!

  • Gates pointed toward high performance charter schools that are spreading best practice. He said best practice is the answer. Ninety percent of students in the best schools are college capable.

  • In healthcare, we have three times as many specialists as Europe. We need more primary care look-at-the-whole-body physicians.

  • In philanthropy, Gates and Warren Buffett are challenging wealthy people to sign a “Giving Pledge” to give half of their net worth to philanthropy in their lifetimes and/or in their wills. Linda and I would be happy to sign. I feel like at this point in time that we are “renting” the net worth that our First Half produced. We give more than we spend, and when we both are in heaven with Ross the remainder goes to God’s purposes.

Gates was followed by a perfect example of his principles. Geoffrey Canada has been President and CEO of Harlem’s Children Zone for twenty years. His project covers one hundred blocks in Harlem and aims to serve more than 10,000 children with a comprehensive range of services by 2011. His basic idea is even simpler than Gates’: “No child will fail.” He will not give up on students. Canada instantly gives up on (fires) teachers who blame the kids’ domestic and economic circumstances for failure. Another way of saying what he does is “whatever it takes.” Canada is on a bunch of educational and advisory boards. 60 Minutes did a story not long ago.

Greg Mortenson

The night Linda and I went to a packed hotel ballroom to hear Greg speak, he asked how many people had read his best seller, Three Cups Of Tea. Almost every hand in the room went up. In 1993, Greg tried to climb K2 in honor of his younger sister, but when another member of his group got sick they turned around and Greg became lost in the mountains of Pakistan. He wandered into a poor village, where the village chief and his people took him in. Moved by their kindness, he promised to return and build a school for the children. Over the next decade, Mortenson built more than sixty schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has endured death threats, a kidnapping and more to dedicate his life to building literacy and peace especially for young girls who previously received no education. There are now nine million kids in schools and 2.5 million of them are girls. Mortenson is a remarkable testimony to what one dedicated Social Entrepreneur can accomplish. Mortenson’s relationship as tutor to General Petraeus, Mullen and McChrystal was the subject of a NYT front-page article on Sunday, July 18. Mortonson helps translate the theory of counter insurgency into tribal realities on the ground. The three generals all got Mortenson’s book from their wives.

David Brooks, my favorite NYT columnist, did a very brave thing. He said in the beginning it might be a total failure because people never read talks at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Essentially a political columnist, Brooks has lately come to the conclusion that we are not primarily a product of our conscious decision making. Ninety percent of communication is not verbal. Love and attachment make a colossal difference. He did this by way of reading a touching story. Everybody in the audience understood that Brooks was going into a highly personal area that wasn’t often spoken of at the Ideas Festival. It was a brave thing for a columnist to do. Brooks received a standing ovation. He went for the heart and he succeeded.

Change of subject: A brief reflection on last chapter’s topic

A Truly Astonishing Quote from the Wall Street Journal:

Apparently I am not the only one to be concerned about America’s continuing fiscal crisis. In my cable TV days, I felt the most brilliant Cable TV operator was John Malone. He was always three steps ahead of events. Here is what John Malone said at the end of an interview with Wall Street Journal (July 12, 2010, page B8).

WSJ: What are the biggest risks for Liberty (his company) right now?

Malone: I think the biggest concern I have for the next year or two would be … the macro conditions. … Is America going to make it? … It is pretty hard, if the country doesn’t make it, do any of us make it?

WSJ: What are you doing to protect against the weak American economy?

Malone: Well, my wife, who is very concerned about these things, moved all her personal cash to Australia and Canada. She wants to have a place to go if things blow up here. …

We have a retreat that’s right on the Quebec border. We own 18 miles on the border, so we can cross. Anytime we want to we can get away.

It would probably be illegal but we could go. Actually our snowmobile trail goes right on the border.”

Personal Footnote: To my Ideas Festival I Chapter. I vividly remember a dinner I had during the 1990’s with Peter Drucker. He said, “What we had in the 30’s was a healthy society sitting on a sick economy. What we have now is a sick society sitting on a healthy economy (the 90’s).

My question now: “What do you do when you have a sick society sitting on a sick economy?” Oh, how I miss Peter’s wisdom in these turbulent times.

So What about You?


  1. Are you frightened or encouraged?
  2. Would you sign the “Giving Pledge?”
  3. Think of a life-changing Social Entrepreneur.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 10:20 AM

    1. Are you frightened or encouraged?
    ENCOURAGED. Fear produces nothing good. As a Christ follower, I am encouraged that what lies beyond this country and this planet is ultimate good. The great benefit of being encouraged when our nation is trembling is the example we set and the curiosity it brings to others. What a time to bring others into what really matters – an eternity in heaven.
    2. Would you sign the “Giving Pledge?” woowee that is a a toughie. As one who lives alone on a non-profit salary and no assets to speak of, I am challenged by the 50. Certainly something to try for.
    3.Think of a life-changing Social Entrepreneur
    JESUS – one who came from above to live below where Kingdoms are associated with wealth and power. He brought Hope to the Hopeless and if that isn’t social engineering, nothing is.
    My favorite non-believer social entrepreneur is Tim Ferriss. Imagine if more people could construct their work week to 4 hours and do good with the rest of their time. Imagine if Christians could pour that time into building the Kingdom.

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