[An edited version of this interview first appeared in Parabola Magazine — in volume 34 number 4, Winter 2009, “The Way Ahead”]
Nipun Mehta was born in Ahmedabad, India in 1975. When he was twelve, his family moved to Santa Clara, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.
I met Mehta in 2007. Having heard several amazing stories about him from Paul Van Slambrouck, retired editor of the Christian Science Monitor, I asked for an introduction. The three of us met one afternoon at a taqueria in Berkeley. In no time I felt a close connection with this very personable man. I was completely unprepared, however, when after about twenty minutes of animated conversation, he leaned across the table and asked, “How can I serve you, Richard?”
Ten years ago, Nipun, who was then working at Sun Microsystems, and three friends decided to offer an act of pure giving as an experiment. They ended up building a web site for a homeless shelter. Since then, not only have over 6000 web sites been built for non-profit organizations at no charge, but a loose knit organization has taken shape-servicespace.org [formerly CharityFocjus.org] which has given rise to several new organizations: KindSpring.org, DailyGood.org, KarmaTube.org, iJourney, Awakin, PledgePage, CF Sites, Karma Kitchen, ProPoor.org and a few others. Several thousand Servicespace volunteers now stretch across the globe and the organization continues to evolve while operating on an annual budget of only $25,000.
At the time of this interview, Nipun had just returned from England, where he spoke at the London Business School. We met at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, which is not far from the simple apartment where he lives with his wife, Guri, one of the original group who volunteered at the homeless shelter. At Nipun’s suggestion, before speaking we meditated for a half hour in the beautiful still space as sunlight streamed through the windows.
Sitting there quietly, I realized how grateful I felt to have met Nipun, not only because of his own remarkable spirit, but because through him I’ve seen there are countless young people with a deep wish, in Gandhi’s words, to be the change they wish to see.
Richard Whittaker: Growing up in India and in the city of Gandhi’s ashram, did you absorb the Gandhi story?
Nipun Mehta: Not the Gandhi story as such, but the culture of giving. Acts of kindness are almost a part of everyday life there. For example, when we celebrate birthdays, I would take chocolates to school and give them to my classmates. On occasions of goodness, occasions of happiness, you give to other people. You do get some gifts too, but it starts with giving.
RW: How did you end up going to UC Berkeley? Is that the school you wanted to go to?
NM: It was happenstance, actually. It was time to apply for college and I thought, oh, Berkeley sounds good. And actually it was the only school I applied to.
RW: And you graduated with a dual degree: philosophy and computer science, right?
RW: What drew you to philosophy?
NM: Ever since I was a kid, I would always ask these questions of life. What’s the purpose of this whole charade? What happens after you die? What is the motive for action? Often, I didn’t find the answers I was looking for, so I would start investigating. Seventeen was a turning point of sorts in my life, when my spiritual search came into the foreground. Till then, I would pray every day. For instance, there is this one Mantra (Gayatri Mantra) that is supposed to be very holy and I would recite it 108 times every day. And I read a lot of scriptures from all kinds of traditions. But on my 17th birthday, I stopped everything and started questioning. I was just an inquisitive kind of a person so I figured I needed to know.
RW: You were searching.
NM: Yes. I was a seeker and I still am. So for this part of me that was always asking questions of life, philosophy sounded like a good major. And I also loved computers. It was fascinating that you could tell this thing what to do and it would do it! It was kind of a neat little toy. So I did Computer Science. I joke now that I’m a recovering philosopher-and a recovering computer scientist. [laughs]
RW: The university classes in philosophy were ultimately disappointing in some way?
NM: Yes. I was not interested in reading a book about swimming. I wanted to go into the ocean and feel the water and all the subtle nuances of what it meant to have the real experience. I remember I did a six page paper on “Can we really say that the sun rises in the East?” That’s intellectually entertaining for a bit, but that wasn’t where my interest was.
RW: When you were seventeen, you said that was an important year for you. Were you already at UC?
NM: I think I was a junior in college. It’s a bit complicated. I graduated from high school a little early because I wanted to play tennis. I’d already played the top spot in high school for three years and I wanted to play in a more competitive level to improve my game. So I went to a junior college instead of playing my last year at high school. That whole social scene, the tennis scene, and my internal drive for pushing myself really created the conditions for some deep change. In that year, I ended up taking more than 65 units, which qualifies you to be a junior, and I was playing on the demanding tennis team! One semester, I actually had 40 units when a full-time load was considered 12 units. I was in this space where I wanted to learn and just to go all out. So by the time I went to Berkeley, I was a junior, technically.
RW: So one year in Junior College?
NM: Technically, it was three semesters. There’s never any straight answers in my life. After the initial stint, I later dropped out of Berkeley and went back to Junior College to play one more semester. So I really did three semesters, but not all together. Tennis was the driving force for all those decisions.
That whole year, in retrospect, I felt like I was really discovering my boundaries and also my inner calling. The intensity of the spiritual quest had always been in the background and I think that was the year that it flipped into the foreground.
RW: I remember you talking once before about how your tennis coach had an important role there.
NM: He did. Jeff Nelson. He was just a good human being. He was also a jujitsu master, a tennis coach and an ardent Christian. And even a mystic of sorts. But if you put all those identities aside, he was just a good human being. He went to Stanford and I went to Berkeley, so we always had this joking rivalry, even if we were just playing ping pong. We would try to get the best out of each other and try to get the best out of ourselves. Somehow we had this deep bond. He’d always tell us that even if the other person is cheating, you never compromise your ethics. He was big on sportsmanship. Even if you lose, look the guy in the eye and congratulate him. And he was very big on effort-you had to put in 110%. In many subtle ways, he showed me the power of right effort. Not just working hard to win, but working hard in a way that there is an authenticity to every part of the process. I don’t know if I would have framed it that way then, because a part of me wanted to win and succeed, but I now see all the subtle lessons I learned from him. I’m so grateful that our paths intersected under the excuse of tennis!
RW: You have a brief biographical note on the web site about yourself including some “Frequently asked questions” One of them is what do you think most about? Part of your answer was, “I think a lot about death.” Would you talk a little about that?
NM: My mom would joke around and she’d say, “Every time we meet, Nipun, death has to come up at least once.”
RW: Say more about that.
NM: When my wife and I got married, we wrote up seven vows. One of them was about embracing death. Some people wondered why anyone would want to talk about death on their wedding day? But it’s a part of life. Ultimately, death is happening at every moment. So part of my inquiry, initially, was just to understand this. Everyone dies. We know that.
When you’re young, you’re connected to your parents in a very deep way and you’re afraid. Oh my God. They’re going to die. Then what will I do? There’s this insecurity. Then, over time you grow up and that insecurity goes to, Oh, this is me. Nipun is going to die. There is this deep inquiry around it. Most of the time, we just cover it up to deal with later. But I was very curious about it. I saw it everywhere. I saw things birthing and dying.
Over time, I came to see that real strength comes from understanding both sides of the circle. Birth and death. Not to shy away from one, but really to see what is going on. Death is not such a bad thing, although I’m sure a deep part of me is still afraid of it.
I think that not being afraid of an end is, at its root, what allows you to really experience the present. You are not afraid. You don’t go into this delusion that things are permanent. If you are, then when things break down, you’re afraid and it shatters everything in your life, and you carry that wound with you through everything else that you do.
Instead of that, there is the embracing of impermanence. It’s kind of like surfing the waves in the ocean. Good or bad waves, you’re enjoying it. That’s a source of deep strength. Death is not a romantic way to talk about impermanence, but this arising and passing away of all things is a source of strength, for me.
RW: I’ve had more than one person observe that you’re not burdened so much by some of the fears that drive most people. Do you feel you’re relatively free of fears?
NM: [laughs] “Relatively” is probably the key word there. I have a lot of fear. I’m sure if a gunman were to come in here right now, ideally I’d like to wish him compassion, but I don’t know if I’d do that.
RW: You wouldn’t say you’re free from fear, then.
RW: Or anger?
NM: Definitely not! [big laugh] I’m very much an everyday Joe. I have tons of weaknesses. I fall down all the time. But I take resolve to stand up. I fall down a hundred times, but I want to stand up a hundred and one times. That’s really my strength and my effort.
And I learned that, in a way, through tennis. I wasn’t a gifted athlete. So I had to work ten times as hard. Others would have better gifts and, in the face of that, how do you keep going? A lot of us say, “I’m not gifted, so I’m just going to give up.” But to have that tenacity to endure is a big thing. And it really comes in handy in life and, particularly, in your spiritual path. So I’ve got plenty of fears and weaknesses, but I do try to stare them down.
RW: Do people say sometimes, you’re talking about service and not being attached to money. That’s easy for you. You come from a place of some kind of privilege. It would be different if you were struggling. Have you heard this sort of challenge?
NM: All the time [laughs].
RW: What do you say to that?
NM: The struggle comes from not knowing what is enough. You know, the IRS would classify me as “poor” so it’s one thing to have material advantages, but real privilege is in knowing that you have enough. It’s a privilege, but not really-because anyone can have that.
You know, there’s this myth that you need to have things before you can give. I always say that service doesn’t start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take. There’s a subtle difference. It’s about renouncing your desire, your want. As soon as you let that go, then whatever you do is an act of service.
Our consumer culture perpetuates this myth that you need to have before you can give. Climb to the top of the ladder and then you can give. Some of the most generous people I know are not the millionaires and billionaires of the world, but the poorest people on the planet. And I’ve stayed with some of them. I’ve stayed in slums. I have stayed on the streets. Those guys on the streets, we think, “Oh, they have nothing. How can they be generous?” They are often the most generous.
My first time back in India, my friend from kindergarten was taking me around on his newly found motorcycle and he was, of course, speeding and my American stomach was already edgy with all the food. So as he’s hitting all the potholes, and pretty soon I start throwing up.
Here we were, these teenagers in a messy situation and none of us know what to do. Just then, an old man on a bicycle stops and takes out something from his bag. It’s a lemon. He cuts it in half and he offers it to me. No words. It’s just implied-suck on this and you’ll be fine. And then he takes off. Just like that. That’s generosity. He gives half of what he has in that moment. Maybe he needed it for the evening dinner, but instead he stopped for an unknown person on the street, shared his lemon and walked off without saying a word. That’s service.
RW: Now I think you told me that sometime after you’d been working at Sun Microsystems and saw that making money was not going to be a problem, that you looked at your own future and asked what was really worth doing. Am I getting this right?
NM: The realization, early on, was not pro or anti-money. It was more that I didn’t want money to be my master. Things, money — all the stuff that money can buy — I didn’t want that to be a guiding principle in my life. So if you don’t go that consuming route, that gathering and accumulation route, what other options do you have? There’s the other option to let go and to give, to renounce in some sense. Could that lead to happiness? I didn’t know. So I just decided to experiment and find out.
RW: When did you start these experiments, would you say?
NM: In my teen years. When I had small amounts of money, I’d give it away, and I was just so happy doing that.
RW: Give me an example.
NM: There were many. One time I gave $500 bucks to a bunch of my friends. This must have been shortly after getting my first job. I thought it would be so great if people redefined their relationship to money with this extra pile of goodness that had unexpectedly arrived at their doorsteps. Could you hold that extra something with the greatest intention that you have inside you? Because a lot of times people’s best intentions are covered up. They say, if I had this, then I would do it. Well, here’s a surprise. What are you going to do?
RW: So you gifted this money with a challenge?
NM: In a way, it was implicit. It was an invitation to manifest their best intentions.
RW: Did you say that explicitly?
NM: I did. I said, “You have no excuses now. You can manifest your greatest intentions, so here you go!” [laughs]. But of course, there were no strings attached or anything. And then, after this we started this thing we called The Donation Club. Everyone would put in five, ten, twenty bucks every month. We would select three non-profit organizations to give to every month. These were small amounts just to learn a new way of relating to money.
I always had this sort of irreverent attitude towards money, which a lot of people don’t understand. Even my parents found it difficult to understand. It’s just not the gold standard for me. I find it to be very one dimensional versus, say, a blessing, which is so multi-dimensional.
RW: When did your experiments with money begin?
NM: I don’t think it was experiments in money so much. I think it was experiments in giving. Money is the first thing you “acquire”, you know, as you mature and get a job. It’s the first thing that you think you have. You can build it up and start worrying about your 401k or you can say I want to use this as an experiment to explore the nature of who I am.
RW: Experiments in giving. Did you try any experiments in getting?
NM: I did. That’s the default path, right? Getting to a good college. You go to Berkeley. Oh, you’re smart. Or playing tennis. Oh, you’re cool. Being part of the in-crowd. That’s all part of this relentless getting. I was good at it too! [laughs]
RW: When did you read Gandhi’s Experiments in Truth?
NM: I still haven’t read it! [laughs] It’s funny because I’ve spoken on panels with some of the leading Gandhian scholars in the world and I haven’t even read Gandhi. But I sense with all these great sages and saints and teachers, they’re never telling you to follow what they’re talking about. They’re actually just being. They want you to find the source of their being. But, as a consolation prize, there are their words.
With Gandhi, I feel like I really understand the spirit of his message. I can’t explain it, but there’s a deep connection to the spirit with which Gandhi did his actions. I just remembered recently that in seventh grade I went to the library and I decided I was going to write a biography of Gandhi. It wasn’t like I had read him or any of that. I just picked a subject to fill my spare time, and I would go to the library and pick up these books on Gandhi. I started filling notebooks with tidbits that I’d read. You know, I was going to write a biography on Gandhi because the world needed to know! [big smile] I don’t know where that came from. But that’s my Gandhi story.
RW: I know you’re a great believer in stories, in the power of stories, right?
NM: Big time! If someone asks me what do you stand for in life, I wouldn’t know what to say. But if they ask, can you tell me a story that made you come alive, “Oh, yeah! This is what happened today!” You could be behind a podium and give lectures as an expert, or you could go up to a fellow human being and share stories with your neighbor. Stories really help get past this speaker-listener complex. When you’re engaged in conversation, there’s this level playing field and you share anecdotes that come from your own experience. That, to me, is so much more authentic and real. I enjoy listening to stories and I enjoy telling stories. I like that way of learning.
RW: Well let’s go from stories to looking at the world. Is there anything that gives you hope for the future?
NM: Impermanence gives me great hope for the future. [laughs] Nothing is permanent and that’s the source of my strength and hope and optimism. There is a lot of suffering in the world. You know it’s not going to be there forever. Conditions are constantly changing. I’m not the one to be pessimistic. I feel hopeful and happy.
Still, I feel for the suffering in the world. There’s a lot that is not right in the world. But I think that each form of suffering invites us to learn its lesson. The important thing is not to run away from the suffering, but to look at it in a way such that you can embrace the lesson.
RW: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that, that impermanence gives you hope. Can you say more about that?
NM: We lose hope when we encounter suffering that’s never going to end. This is a hopeless situation! When you come to the realization that no situation is eternal, is going to stay the same, then no matter how bad a situation you’re in, it will change. That’s a sign of hope.
Then you look at the flip side: having a fear of losing the good. There’s always that subtle fear whenever we’re deeply enjoying something, “Oh, this is going to go away.” You know from your experience that everything does go away. That fear doesn’t allow you to experience the good things really joyfully. If you are not clinging and embrace the moment, you can start to give it a hundred and ten percent. That’s a sign of hope.
RW: The capacity to not cling. That’s not just automatically ours. I mean, sure, I agree. Clinging to fear is a problem. So what’s the antidote?
NM: There are two ways I personally address that. One is by understanding the nature of clinging. And I do that through meditation. The second is to actually flip your habit pattern. I do that by giving, by service, by small acts. So any time you’re still, you can see reality as it is. That gives you insight. Any time you practice the smallest act of service, even if it’s only holding a door for somebody, but with full heart — may I be of use to this person — that giving changes the deep habit of my mind of everything being me-centered. In that brief moment, there is this other-centeredness. That other-centeredness kind of relaxes the patterns of the ego. Over time, all of those small acts, those small moments, lead to a different state of being where, ultimately, presumably, it just becomes effortless. It becomes who you are. So for me, the two pillars of my life are meditation and service.
RW: This might be a good time to turn to CharityFocus.org. In 1999 you and three friends formed CharityFocus?
NM: We didn’t really form CharityFocus. CharityFocus formed itself [laughs]. In the realm of experiments with giving, I started after getting my first formal job. Before that you don’t feel free to do something radical that you might want to try. You’re still a student and have to fit into all the expectations society places on you. So in my late teens is when I started doing some of these experiments.
RW: This is when you got a job at Sun Microsystems?
NM: Right. The first thing I started with was money. After giving money, the second stage was, I want to give more, and what more could I give? That’s when I started giving time. I would volunteer.
RW: What moved you to want to give more? Do you know what that was?
NM: It felt right. It felt completely wholesome. You felt completely connected, even though the person you were giving to, might not know that you were even giving to them. Many times, I’d just give anonymously. There was such a joy to that. Some metamorphosis was happening inside me and a part of me recognized that. It said, “This is a pattern that you want to amplify.” So what does that mean? I only had a finite amount of money. So I thought, I have to find other ways. That’s when I realized, well, I’ve got time and that’s when I started helping out. I have this tendency of going all out, so if I’m going to do something, it had to be hardcore.
RW: What does that mean to you — it had to be hardcore?
NM: I wanted to do something that nobody else was willing to do. It’s kind of a childish thing, but I love challenges. So at eighteen, I signed up to volunteer at a hospice. I actually signed up before, but they said, you have to be at least eighteen. So I waited. They said, “Are you sure? We don’t have too many eighteen year olds who sign up to be volunteers with people who are dying.”
I said I wanted to do it. Death fascinated me anyway. And volunteering with dying folks, I got a real insight into people’s state of mind as they were dying. After you’ve put in two years at the hospice, you go to Sun Mircrosystems and the HR rep says, “Please tell us what percentage of your income you’d like to allocate for your 401k- that you will cash in after you’re sixty-five.” And I’m thinking sixty-five?! I was just with these people who died. What guarantee do I have that I’m even going to be around for another forty-five years? So CharityFocus emerged in this continuum of giving money, then time and then giving myself.
RW: So when you started giving your time, how was that for you?
NM: It went much deeper than giving money. It was deeply fulfilling. I was delivering value in a dimension that was different from material things. I realized that the process was transforming me, too. I was getting a lot more value than I was even delivering. There was this generative value creation happening. And I’m thinking, wait a second! Nobody taught me this at school!
Everyone says, it’s money that you give. Well, first of all, people say if you have money, go and spend it! It’s only second that they say if you have extra, go and give it. It’s a one-dimensional thing.
Giving my time, I was tapping into something else and I recognized that — “Wow! There’s something here!” It was just right. All the bones in your body are saying, “Right on!” I’m resonating. Everything is dancing inside.
RW: Then at some point you began canvassing your colleagues at Sun Micro to see if they wanted to join you.
NM: I had an attraction to frictionless service, in a way. So I never, quite said, everybody should go out and do it. I think that’s how it was perceived in the media: here’s this young kid who started this organization trying to change Silicon Valley. But I was really just trying to change myself.
Then sometimes you benefit so much from some small act that you have to go and share it with the people around you. Your cup of gratitude just overflows! It’s like, “Richard, you’ve really got to try this!”
RW: So the energy just overflowed and you had to share that.
NM: Yeah, that was the whole thing. Like I said, there was this value that was being generated. I felt like I was tapping into a gold mine! I didn’t even know what it was. I still don’t know what it is! It’s amazing!
RW: Your first action with friends from Sun Micro was — what happened?
NM: I said, this giving thing is really worth trying. Let’s just give, no strings attached! So four of us went to a homeless shelter. In fact before that, I’d heard of this monastery and I figured that most monks are good people, seeking truth, serving others without wanting anything in return. I said, let’s go to a monastery. So we went to a monastery, knocked on the door and asked, “What can we do?” Service salesmen… [laughs].
RW: Which monastery did you go to?
NM: Berkeley Buddhist Monastery! Right here. When I went to school here, I’d meditated here because sometimes they’d have the Buddha Hall open for sitting. Now here’s an interesting thing. When I was working at Sun, one of my friends and I would go monastery hopping every Thursday. I thought this should be part of our lives. So we would leave work early on Thursdays and go to the Berkeley Monastery for the five o’clock sit, then the Vedanta Center at six o’clock. Another friend of ours was always having meditation sits and so we would go to her house after that, too. It was a beautiful thing. And couple years later, we knocked on their door to be of service. We didn’t actually end up doing a project there. Our first project was at the homeless shelter, where we ended up building them a web site.
RW: Since then, it’s been about ten years and a lot has happened. How often are you invited to go and speak to groups? Once a week?
NM: These days, it might be that often. See, the thing is, I operate in this gift economy way. So there’s no real filter other than relationships. If a friend of a friend says, come and share some stories, I say, okay, sure.
RW: You’re very much at ease in front of people and people love to hear you talk. I love to hear you talk! [laughter] So what are some of the interesting places you’ve spoken at?
NM: I spoke at the World Youth Conference in Switzerland when I was young [laughs]. I’ve spoken at small gatherings in a village in India. I’ve spoken at major conferences in the U.S. from Bioneers to Green Festival to Association for Global New Thought Conference. And at the same time, I shared stories in family rooms of people. Just next week, I’ll be speaking to several thousand people at a couple of Indian conventions. And I’ll speak to high school assemblies. You name it. Everyone wants to hear stories of kindness. [laughs] Last week, I was even at London Business School.
RW: You’ve spoken at a lot of business schools, right?
NM: Yes. It’s very interesting. I’ve never pitched myself anywhere. Not once. And when folks invite me, I just talk about something that is so basic. It’s just like, yeah, we should be kind. And I just share stories. So there is nothing deep or profound that I’m saying, but it’s amazing how people light up at this mere invitation to be kind in a small way. What’s really fascinating is the broad range of audiences from churches and temples to business schools and venture capitalists to youth conferences and senior centers. Everybody, in all walks of life, wants to be this kind of a change.
And it’s so simple! Everyone can do it! It’s amazing to me that we live in a time where it’s not obvious. Somehow we have forgotten that.
RW: I have the impression that you’re pretty up to date in the business world and the technological, communications, networking world. You don’t speak much about your own computer knowledge. I gather you know quite a bit. You program, write code, write software programs. You can do all that, right?
NM: Yes. That was my training.
RW: In fact, Neil Patel [a CharityFocus tech volunteer] said something to the effect that you had created a software program that, later on, was similar to what Facebook came up with.
NM: I’m capable of doing that.
RW: Did you write any code this morning?
NM: [laughs] I did! It’s like this hidden thing! I just tell people I do small acts of kindness, but then there’s the plumbing you have to do behind the scenes.
RW: How much time, on average, do you spend during a day writing code?
NM: It’s not on a day-to-day basis, but I’d say about a third of my time goes into doing technology. I’m a technologist. And about a third goes into relationships. Probably a third goes into cultivating my own inner journey-meditation and small acts of service and things like that. Technology is a big part of what I do.
RW: Things are changing and developing so fast today. How do you feel about that?
NM: I think it’s a double-edged sword. Twitter, for instance. Everything has to be shrunk into a hundred and forty characters. Even with Google, everything becomes very computational. You look at a piece of art and what is your response to that art? How do you Google that response? You can’t easily do that. As we start to reduce everything into binary — one and zero, right and wrong, true and false — I think there’s a danger of losing a lot of value that we have the capacity to experience.
On the other hand, technology is amazing. It has connected us with so many people in so many ways. The way I look at technology is that it really accelerates serendipity. It’s a tool that allows us to tap into synergistic connections that previously were not possible. We can take a knife and kill somebody with it or you can chop vegetables and serve someone food. So how are you going to use the tool? We have to cultivate wisdom to find that answer.
We can use these tools to manufacture designs that amplify patterns of good behavior. If we’re just creating technologies and designs to make the end user a better and better consumer, that’s problematic. That’s only going to make things worse, down the road. What we really have to have is a fundamental base of values from which we approach these tools and technologies.
RW: A fundamental base of values.
NM: We have to have a fundamental base of values, and we have to be connected to it at an experiential, be-the-change level.
RW: That’s so important, isn’t it?
NM: That’s really crucial. That’s why I love people like Mr. Rogers. When he got an Emmy and had the attention of the whole world, he says, “I’d like to take this prime time to take a moment of silence. Please be grateful for your neighbors and loved ones.” And he did an entire minute of silence. Imagine that! That nourishing silence, nourishing acts of kindness. A lot of nourishing things can’t be easily quantified but they’re still very important.
RW: How can the fast-acting, quick-hitting Internet support this other thing that has to run deep? Do you see some way that there can be any relationship?
NM: How can the Internet help us cultivate values?
RW: Yes. The Internet is quick. I feel good for two minutes and then I’m on to the next thing. But as you said, wisdom is something that’s deep. So is there simply a disconnect between these things? Or is there some way that this Internet instant gratification can lead to something deeper?
NM: This quick fix disease is not going to be solved by the Internet. The Internet only exacerbates that problem. I got an email the other day from a bunch of business school students asking, “Is there an iPhone application for meditation? I mean, “Just stop using the iPhone!” It’s funny.
Ultimately, the Internet is just information. We can use that information to gain insight. How can we give access to the long tail of information that doesn’t have a business model around it, isn’t interested in commoditizing that information, not trying to monetize the attention of those people who are consuming that information? At the moment, the Internet is a platform that allows us to share information very freely. How can we give voice to information that leads to insight? I don’t think the speed of it has anything to do with the platform itself. The speed thing ties into something much deeper, this want of more and more and more and more. That’s a much more fundamental problem than the Internet.
RW: I listened to a TED talk by Clay Shirky. He asked, is the Internet, information age bringing about a real revolution? The printing press brought about 200 years of chaos, he said. A real revolution always brings about chaos, he said, and then he paused… “for fifty years,” he says. What do you think of that?
NM: I think all revolution does bring chaos. And chaos is really an invitation to deepen our awareness. When we deepen our awareness, all of a sudden, we can see order in that chaos. So chaos is a stepping stone to the next level of order.
RW: Do you think we’re now in that?
NM: I think we are in that. We have no choice. Look at the amount of disjoint suffering that we have in the world. It’s a terrible tragedy. The Internet in some ways is creating some of chaos that will crumple the old paradigms and for a while we’ll be confused. But over time, we’ll look back in retrospect and see that we arrived at a place of much deeper coherence.
RW: Are there any new developments that have appeared in the last few years that particularly interest you? Like CharityFocus seems to be a new form of an organization.
NM: I think one of the biggest meta-level things that has happened is that we’ve started to organize without organizations. It used to be that there was this overhead needed to organize. That overhead, because of the nature of the Internet, is no longer there. If you and I want to go to a movie, we negotiate it and figure it out. If there are twenty of us it becomes more complex. Make that a thousand, and it becomes a real problem. That’s why we have these top-down hierarchies, to get a handle on all the input. When you have these hierarchies, though, you lose out on a lot of the fringe value in the interest of getting to a movie and getting stuff done in the short term. You don’t have the capacity to contain everyone’s inputs. The reason is that it takes a lot of resources to deal with all that, and so there is this transaction cost.
Well, the Internet dramatically cuts down that transaction cost. As a result, you’re seeing value in places where there is no business model. You’re seeing forms of organizing with no centralized office, without a centralized boss or leader. That is amazing! That means, that if you and I care to do something of value, we can do it. For example, Daily Good. A few of us said, there’s not enough good news in the world. So let’s send out a little good news every day. We’ll do the research, find these things in the corners of the world and send out one piece of good news every day.
That now is going out to over 100,000 people every day. There’s no overhead. We’ve never solicited anything. We’re not even interested in having this be branded. So how is it possible to create this without any overhead? That used to baffle people. Just like Wikipedia. In the last year there have been over 100 million hours volunteered online-just on Wikipedia. One hundred million hours! That’s just completely untapped surplus.
So we have all these small areas of surplus that have never been tapped into. Now we’re learning to tap into that because of the Internet. And we’re learning how to organize all of this and aggregate these small pieces without any significant overhead because of the Internet.
Still, that’s not enough. What you need to do is to envelope all of these in a constructive set of values that benefits all. That is something that is always going to be an issue no matter what tool manifests itself.
RW: Over thirty years ago E.F. Schumacher [Small Is Beautiful] wrote about “Technology With a Human Face.” He said a human is a being with a brain and hands and a person is happiest when both the brain and the hands are engaged in creative, meaningful work. He doesn’t even get into questions of the heart. He figured that for people with jobs, only a tiny percentage of their time, on average, approached anything like that. Meaningful work with the hands has mostly evaporated in the west, this ancient function that is very gratifying. Have you ever thought about this at all?
NM: I have. We’re so linked to our sensations. When we do stuff with our hands there is sort of a primal connection to those sensations that sometimes can be abstracted if we’re just in our heads. I think there is a need to connect at a very physical level. Farming, for example. That’s something that all sages were really fond of. They would go out and dig, just to connect with the land. It’s not always about using your hands, even. It’s using your hands to connect with nature — nature within yourself and nature outside of yourself. I think Schumacher is right. But we’ve really lost the opportunities. I mean, if I want to farm, it’s so difficult now. I can’t even afford a backyard.
RW: You could say, yes, by definition, we’re connected with sensation, but I’m inclined to think that mostly we’re not because we are in our heads so much. So I agree. It’s an interesting example that the sages all loved farming and digging in the earth. Almost everybody intuitively understands that working in a garden is therapeutic.
NM: It’s like, you could watch a sunset, feel the sand between your toes on the beach or go to sunset.com and watch a photo. One of our biggest problems is that we tend to become very reductionist. Experience is so multi-faceted. On the beach watching a sunset, you feel the wind. You hear the ocean. You feel the sand. You see this amazing landscape. You can’t just show a photo of that sunset. That abstraction just reduces things. Over time, we’ve become so reductionist, that we’ve lost a lot of the value that can’t be measured by the tools we have. So not working with the hands and not being connected with sensations, is a source of dissatisfaction for us.
RW: That leads to another thought. It’s been said that we are shaped by our technology. There was a time that the question could not have even been conceived, “Can a machine be intelligent?” A certain amount of technology had to exist before the thought could arise. But that question was posed maybe eighty years ago. The Turing test exists. I don’t know if a machine has ever passed it. Do you know that test?
RW: But now, I know there’s a great deal of fantasy around the prospects for machine/flesh hybridization. It is imagined that we can build and put machine functions into ourselves that will even make us close to immortal, fantasies of human/cyborg life. There are even companies devoted to this. In general, do you have any thoughts about this kind of thinking?
NM: I think this is all part of reductionist thinking about our human capacity. Here is what we do and a machine can do it faster. But there are so many subtle realms of even the most basic human act. If we just look at it on the surface, we can say that it can be done by machines. But this is a very simple, superficial form of intelligence that we’re trying to map onto a machine. Why is there so much energy devoted to such thinking and such experiments? A large part of it is because we have lost our own connection to these subtle realms of value. Because we are not connected to them, we think they don’t even exist. So we start zooming into more and more superficial forms of value. Let’s just have robots. And if you treat people just as machines, you reduce them to that.
But there is subtler experience of life. You visit your best friend and his mom serves a meal prepared out of love. She’s doing the same mechanical stuff, but there’s something intangibly powerful that you’re really tasting and experiencing and getting satisfaction from. If we had those experiences, we might then go to our labs and say, “Wait a second, there’s more to this.”
That connection with the intangible, in some sense, is crucial. Perhaps the reason we’re having so much dialogue around these kinds of ideas for the future of humanity has to do with having severed these connections.
RW: Yes. Let’s talk about the gift economy. Maybe you could tell the story of Smile Cards.
NM: That’s a great story in so many ways. None of the CharityFocus projects are ever planned. They emerge. A few of us were sitting around a coffee table in Chicago talking about pranks-my cousin and I and a few other people. We started asking why do people do pranks? We came up with a bunch of incentives: it’s challenging, it’s creative, it’s collaborative. We went through a whole list of motivations for what, at the end of the day, is essentially destructive.
So we said, how about we reframe this? We leave all these motivations in, but we make pranks constructive. What if you just blew somebody away with kindness? You know someone who is going through a rough period … everybody can send flowers, send cookies, send thank you cards, send chocolates. Just flood them with goodness! And they wouldn’t even know who did it.
My cousin started to get really excited. Someone said, you know what would be great? Whenever we do one of these small acts, instead of them wondering who this was and being spooked out by it, what if we left a little card that said, “This is an experiment in anonymous kindness. You’ve been tagged. You don’t know who did this so you can’t pay back. But you can pay forward.” So we decided to do this.
RW: I know that some people said, Nipun, you’re crazy. This will never work. No way.
NM: Exactly! And as soon as people say “No way!” that’s when I know it’s a good project! [laughs]
RW: And when you went to Kinko’s to print up the first batch of smile cards…
NM: The guy asks, “What is this?” When I explained it, he was so blown away he said, “I’ve got employee discounts and I’m not going to charge you for this.” So this guy did the first smile-card act before we could even start!
The reason everybody said it was crazy was because we said, we’re going to give away the cards for free. Anybody can download the cards and print them locally or they can request them online and we’ll ship them at no cost. How would we cover the costs? We don’t solicit anything, as one of the three CharityFocus principles mandates. But we didn’t care. We’re just going to ship them as a pure gift, from an anonymous address, from a site that itself was anonymous. People really thought the whole thing was crazy — naive and unsustainable. They said that it’s never going to scale.
You know, we used to send them out from “Smile Cards, One Compassion Way, Mother Earth” — until the post office caught on [laughs]. So then we got a PO Box address. It was all kind of ridiculous – and fun. People thought this can’t work. Everybody will ask for cards and if we don’t ask for donations, who is going to pay? So we thought, okay, if we only print a thousand smile cards and go home after that, it’s fine-that’s a thousand extra acts of kindness.
What actually happened was that people would receive these and a certain percentage of them would wonder, “Who took the trouble to get an envelope, print these cards, stuff them in, send them to me from an anonymous address, from an anonymous web site, just for the love of it, just to spread goodness in the world?” And they felt, “Wow, my cup of gratitude is overflowing! I’m moved and I need to offer something.” And we started getting these donations. We didn’t really expect them to come in. We never really had a plan. We simply said, “Look, it’s a good thing to do, so let’s do it and we’ll deal with future when we get there.” [laughs]
Ultimately, we found that if you trust people and you truly deliver value and you don’t ask for anything in return, there will be those who will gift your sustenance, in that sense. So today, there are a million smile cards in the world.
NM: Literally. There are actually more than a million smile cards floating around in the world because tons more have been downloaded and printed and we don’t even know about those.
Then there are Smile Groups where people come together to write stories about how they were touched by a Smile Card or touched by doing an act of kindness themselves and leaving a Smile Card. We literally have thousands and thousands of these stories. And we gift those, too! If Chicken Soup for the Soul wants those stories, we say, here you go. And indeed, they’ve taken a whole bunch of them. All kinds of magazines ask to reprint these and we say you can take them, no charge whatsoever. Just don’t copyright it. Leave these in the public domain.
RW: Each Smile Card that’s used is a marker for an act of kindness. If it’s in someone’s pocket, it may not have been used yet, but it’s already probably changed a person’s state a little. They’re kind of looking for a way to use it.
NM: Exactly! Even if they never actually use it, that shift in the lens of a person is powerful. People often tell me that we’ll get more donations if we tell people how much this costs us. We’re resistant to doing that because what you offer shouldn’t be related to the cost of it. The value is really dependent on you. What’s the value of a Smile Card that you never really use, but still shifts your attention? There’s a lot of value there, but it’s not easily quantifiable. And we don’t want to quantify it.
RW: So when you do a random act of kindness, that’s a gift. That’s a little example of the gift economy. How do you describe this idea of a gift economy?
NM: Because the gift-economy has so many realms of value that it counts on, it’s very hard to define. We were asked by a dictionary recently to define “gift economy.” I think it was the Dictionary of Ethics and Values.
RW: Did they come to CharityFocus or to you?
NM: In this case, they came to me, because it was through a friend. They asked, “Would you and your colleagues define gift economy?” Their whole thing is that if we want to shift to a new paradigm, we need a new vocabulary.
RW: This is very challenging.
NM: Very challenging. Words really limit us to a certain domain and that’s why we use metaphors and stories.
RW: There’s this big difficulty with the word “free” for instance. Gift economy and you say, “It’s free.”
NM: It’s not free. Gift economy, in this sense, is this idea that you give freely, without any strings attached. The person who receives it carries this gift forward. And over time, as enough people carry this forward, this sort of sacred reciprocity takes care of everyone’s needs. So what goes around, eventually comes back around to me. It’s not that I give to this person and he’s going to do something back for me. There is just this trust. You give and make somebody’s day and they go out and do the same for somebody else and in your time of need, somebody will come and do this for you.
RW: The idea of the gift economy being for everybody’s benefit is that goods are circulating freely. They’re not being hoarded and taken out of circulation.
NM: The gift economy says that it is in the circulation of gifts that value is generated. Not in accumulating it in your bank locker. If you have something of value, put it in motion. That will create more ripples. Karma Kitchen is really an easy example for people to understand. You go to this restaurant and your check at the end of the meal says zero. It says, your meal was paid for by somebody who came before you and it’s a gift. If you’d like to pay it forward, leave something in the envelope to pay it forward for somebody after you. And it works. We’ve been running it for quite some time in various cities.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but in Indonesia where there is a lot of corruption, they started these “honesty cafes”-essentially gift economy cafes. They have 7400 honesty cafes across Indonesia! They want young people to come in and figure out how much they pay. They say, “We want to trust them. We want them to figure out the whole value proposition.” And as they do this, it will in turn create a culture that is rooted in values. It isn’t using the gift economy or pay it forward, but it’s the same thing with these honesty cafes. So it’s turning out to be an antidote to corruption in Indonesia.
RW: That’s amazing and very encouraging to hear about. As you said earlier, you’ve found yourself speaking in front of all kinds of people. And you found a resonance in all kinds of populations towards this idea of kindness, generosity, service. Do you have any sense of the size of the population that’s moved by these values? Or any sense of the readiness in the world to embrace this kind of service?
NM: I think it’s one hundred percent. I think everybody understands gift economy. They may not call it that, but I think everybody gets it. We all start with a gift, nine months of complete nurturing. Every single person is gifted their life by their mother. So we get it. We see it in nature. A mango tree doesn’t need to have its fruit copyrighted. [laughs] We have examples around us all the time, but we’re just blind to them.
In times where we’re so blind to all the gifts coming our way, we need to make this explicit, just as a tool. I think we’re living in those times. That’s how I think these conditions are coming together and why we have “gift-economy” and these kinds of phrases coming into prominence. And we have tools like the Internet and platforms that allow you to manifest those very long tail, niche ideas.
RW: Not everybody who reads that term “long-tail” will know what that means.
NM: Niche ideas. Long tail idea is one that doesn’t have a lot of dominant paradigm acceptance.
RW: In your article Tao of CharityFocus, I ran across this — that what needs to be done is the dis-intermediation of social acts themselves. What did you mean there?
NM: The example we gave there is how in a corporation, you’ll have a secretary, but in CharityFocus you’ll have somebody who will pick up the call, somebody else will log the call, somebody else will respond to the call, somebody else will follow up. You really begin to distribute the tasks. So instead of five people working 40 hours a week, we have 40 volunteers contributing 5 hours a week.
Before the Internet, it was very hard to coherently aggregate all those small pieces, but now the Internet allows this. Think of it in terms of fundraising. If you go to professional fundraisers and give them a choice between getting one dollar from a million people and a million dollars from one person, they’re going to pick the million from one person. You don’t have to deal with all the paperwork, the thank you’s and the whole spiel. But imagine the social capital of a million people giving a dollar! There is something very powerful there.
RW: Social capital. That’s a term I learned from you, really. Can you describe what that is?
NM: It’s really the relationships that embed your existence. In the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam talks about how in the U.S. everybody used to bowl in leagues. Now they all bowl alone. That’s a loss of social capital. When you run out of milk and go to your neighbor’s house to ask for some, that’s social capital. When your friend dog sits for you or picks you up from the airport, that’s social capital.
RW: Social capital is a reservoir of the good will of others, then. Something like that?
NM: That’s a nice way to put it. When you selflessly give to somebody it creates a deep relationship, and that reservoir of connections is what I think of as social capital. Of course, social scientists wouldn’t put this value judgment of giving or goodwill on it, but I consider that to be very important. If a relationship is give-and-take kind of a barter mindset, to me, it’s not really relationship.
So, what can we do with social capital? We’ve never had a platform that allowed us to do anything that could be measured with social capital. But what is Facebook? It’s all social capital. And it’s worth over ten billion dollars. Now everyone is talking about this networked economy and what social capital can lead to.
RW: There’s a constant struggle that must be required because isn’t there always the relentless movement to convert such things to the end of monetary gain?
NM: I totally agree. Every tool that you have can be used in all kinds of ways. The dominant paradigm is “I want to create something of value so I can sell more advertising.”
RW: So how does one counter this?
NM: By good people coming together and standing up and saying, “I want to be the change.” I’m going to support you just because you’re a fellow human being and someone else comes and supports me in the same way. That gift-economy starts with you and I. This is what revolutions are made of.
RW: Well, I know you. You know me. I learn that you’re for real, directly. But when this person-to-person connection is abstracted, all I see is print or all I see is the computer screen, how is trust developed? You don’t want to trust something that isn’t trustworthy.
NM: Right. There’s no context to frame whether or not it’s trustworthy, particularly in the kind of community we now live in. What we can do, on a personal level, is these small acts of trust that ultimately will create the field for deeper change. At a systemic level, we have to bring all these small pieces together, which the Internet is really capable of doing. And at an even more meta-level, on a societal level, what we need to do is birth what I call “generosity entrepreneurs.” Those are people who have an entrepreneurial mindset of creating something new, but they are doing it in the spirit of the gift economy.
So having no context for trust is a problem, but that’s where manifestations like Karma Kitchen can help. It’s a place where you can discover, “Oh, wait. That’s a part of myself I never exercised!” We need to have more of these structures, and amplify these patterns of positive deviance.
The way I look at it, there are three kinds of capital — Intellectual quotient, IQ, which we know plenty of; then there’s EQ, emotional quotient, which science has been getting to know in recent years; but there’s a third, often underlooked quotient, which is compassion quotient, CQ. That’s nowhere in sight.
We have think tanks in the world. They say, “Richard, you’re a really smart person. We’ll give you food, shelter, clothing, office space. You just do whatever you want to.” There are many think tanks that do just that.
What about love tanks? What about experiments in generosity? What about people who will say, I just want to give for the love of it? Why are those people working in the lowest rungs of our institutions? “Oh, nice guy.” But that’s about it. We just don’t know how to capitalize on that compassion quotient and we ought to learn that sooner rather than later. This is what I see “generosity entrepreneurs” doing.
RW: Have you talked with anyone about this?
NM: I have talked with some friends about this, yes indeed. I do think we need a laboratory of compassion. When the time is right, it will germinate. The way I go about things is not to say, here is a proposal. Here’s how you do it. I have an implicit faith in the self-organizing ways of the universe, that whenever it is time for this kind of a love-tank to be birthed, for a cadre of generosity entrepreneurs to bring out this gift economy in its full majesty, then something will happen. Someone’s cup somewhere will overflow and it will have just the right ingredients to create this kind of a movement.
I certainly hold that vision of a gift economy. In some sense, I am myself an example of a generosity entrepreneur. But it’s not something that the mainstream economy understands so easily. I’ve had to makeshift a survival plan and struggle to find patches that cover up the gaps. It ultimately happened, and it’s still happening. And it will continue to change its forms, but I now want to use my merits to make it easier for that next twenty-three-year-old Nipun who wants to quit his job in the spirit of service, to just be able to do that and to be able to manifest goodness in the world. In a way, my main motivation is just to share my merits. I don’t know how it will manifest or if it will at all, but it’s deeply satisfying even just to attempt that.