The Power of Similarities and Differences

Greetings. In the two years since “The Necessity of Strangers” was published, I have been struck by the willingness of audiences around the U.S. and the world to embrace a simple and (I believe) important idea…

That our similarities are the glue that should bring us together, and our differences are the raw materials that should enable us to learn, grow, innovate, and do remarkable things.

But recent news, and the responses of some politicians to it, suggests that we still struggle to value and appreciate people who are different than us. People with different religions. People of different colors. People from different parts of the world. People of different generations. People with difference sexual orientations. People with different knowledge and training. People who look at the world, or at least some important aspect of it, with different understanding. Even though almost all of them wake up each day with same hopes, dreams, and fears that we have.

We seem programmed to hone in on differences as though they are way more essential or predictive of someone’s worth than our similarities.

But what if we were to focus on the essence of what makes others who they are? People who care deeply about family and community. People who are working hard to create a better life for their children and themselves. People who desire to make a positive difference and live lives of meaning. People who find joy in simple and important things. People who believe in finding the goodness in others. People who believe in a god (or gods) that is (are) just. The overwhelming majority of people who are a lot like us when we dare to be at our best.

So I was struck by the following video that our daughter Carly shared today titled “Meet a Muslim.” A video that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. A video that is really about all of us and what is possible if we choose to look at others based first on what we have in common.

It turns out the biggest challenge facing all of our companies, organizations, and societies is not a lack of knowledge or expertise. It is a lack of openness to other people, their ideas, and their humanity. And a lack of appreciation for the necessity of strangers and the power of what we can accomplish together when we dare to think differently.

Cheers!

Notes From Malaysia

Greetings. Back from Malaysia just in time for the latest big DC snowstorm. Quite a contrast with the nearly consistent 92 degree temperatures for eleven straight days in Kuala Lumpur. And just like the weather, I went on my first visit to “KL” with a sense that many things would be very different from home only to discover a lot of very interesting similarities. I guess this shouldn’t be a big surprise. After all, people are people and we have a lot more in common with the residents of a Muslim and developing country halfway around the world than most of us ever choose to imagine.

So here are a few impressions from my trip to Malaysia with more ideas (and hopefully a few insights) to follow. And given that I am a geographer by training, I will begin with an old map to give you a bit of context for its location in southeast Asia…

Malaysia Map

KL is a very modern and fast-growing city which means that the roads are great but the traffic is crazy. To give you a sense of the pace of growth, think about this… In 2010 the city had a population of about 4.5 million people. Today the number is roughly 7.5 million. And the projection for 2020 is over 10.0 million. And it seems everyone (or practically everyone) in KL has a car or a motorcycle that they drive really quickly on increasingly congested roads. Their cars of choice are Protons and Peroduas, especially the nearly ubiquitous and modestly adorable Myvi, which are manufactured in Malaysia and not subject to the high taxes imposed on imported vehicles. Not that there aren’t a lot of Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, minivans, and occasional Bentleys and Ferraris on the road, but local cars are everywhere. And for those of us who think that traffic in Washington, L.A., New York, Chicago, or San Francisco is impossible, KL’s complex network of highways, toll roads, and daring motorcyclists all driving on the wrong side of the road is a sight to behold.

Malaysia Myvi 3

Walking is not the most popular way to get around even though it is typically much faster than being in a car. Granted, it is very hot and humid in KL and the weather can change from sunny to pouring rain in a matter of moments. But almost every time I asked someone for walking directions I was quickly asked if I “really wanted to walk there.” “Oh, I think it’s only about a mile away” I would reply. “Exactly. Wouldn’t you prefer to take a taxi?” And when I asked the concierge at my hotel for the best walking directions to the National Museum (a distance of about four miles), he shared that he had never known anyone who had walked there citing the distance, heat, and the danger of crossing several major roads in a place where pedestrians don’t exactly have the right of way. It is also interesting to note that people in KL seem to walk very slowly.

There are about a zillion shopping malls in KL and almost everyone loves going to them. Okay, there aren’t really a “zillion” shopping malls, but there are more shopping malls in KL than any other place I have visited and they are very popular. And they even include pyramids and concert halls. I’m not sure if most of the locals actually go to the malls to buy things, given that the nicest ones are filled with very expensive designer stores, but they certainly enjoy the experience of looking in all of the stores, being in air conditioning, and walking slowly.

The food in Malaysia is absolutely delicious…assuming you enjoy Asian food. Malaysia, and KL in particular, is a real melting pot of many cultures with the three biggest groups being Malay, Chinese, and Indian. As a result it is easy to find great Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian food along with some delightful fusions among them. My favorite dish, recommended by many of the locals, was fish head curry…an addictive blend of fish heads, eggplant, okra, peppers, tamarind, laksa leaves, sugar, mint, and a bunch of other stuff that was awesome on blue rice. But I also enjoyed other wonderful coconut-based curries, chapatis filled with the most amazing cauliflower, spinach, cabbage, chickpeas, beans, and lentils, dim sum, Cantonese specialties, and lots of spicy and not-so spicy noodle dishes. And while I found the local food to be remarkable, I must also share that McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbuck’s, Subway, and especially KFC are super popular with Malaysians who seem to have a real passion for fast food and fried chicken.

Malaysia Fish Head Curry

People are really friendly. Not in a super outgoing way, but I consistently found that people in KL were courteous and eager to be helpful whenever I approached them. And most were quite curious about me, where I came from, and why I was there. Granted, I have almost always found that people are nice when we are nice to them. But that should be obvious to anyone who travels far from home. And while most people in Malaysia speak English, even folks who didn’t speak English were glad to help. On one of my many walks through the city I happened to get lost or should I say very lost…which is something that is difficult for a man, and especially a man trained as a geographer to admit. (If I have an excuse, or rather an explanation, it is that I kept discovering fascinating places that took me farther from my destination and my map). In any event, I found myself in a place that very few tourists have ever found themselves in only to be aided by a very kind shopkeeper who motioned me to his car in a crowded back alley and eagerly drove me several miles across town to my intended destination.

Malaysia Friendly

You can actually get a fish massage. You can also get a blind massage and a “super blind” massage. But I will have to try those on my next visit. Though my 15-minute foot massage, done in a pool filled with overly-enthusiastic fish, was definitely a unique and ticklish experience. I will spare you the pictures here as some readers might already be “grossed out” by the fish head curry, but feel free to email if you would like to see the video.

Malaysia Street Scene

I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the privilege of travel. And by the chance to see the similarities and differences in people who live around the corner and around the world. As I have come to understand more clearly all the time, our similarities are the glue that connects us and our differences are the raw materials that allow us to stretch, grow, and innovate together.

Cheers!

Getting Beyond Stereotypes

Greetings.  Let me start this post with the following joke:

What did the Black guy, the Latino guy and the Asian guy all have in common? 

Believe it or not, they all liked cantaloupe.

Probably not what you expected.  Because all of us have been conditioned to think about people in terms of the stereotypes–both good and bad–that we hold.  And these stereotypes tend to come out at parties, picnics, bars, other social events and even at the office when we think it's okay to be funny at someone else's expense.    

Which is probably why I find this joke, or anti-joke, and others like it to be so very helpful in thinking about people, innovation, collaboration, leadership, learning, the customer experience and the real keys to business and personal success.  And I also find it to be more than slightly funny.

Too often we are quick to pass judgment about other people based on their cultural backgrounds, personality types, jobs or roles, training, politics and a host of other things that make them "different" from us and unlikely to be the perfect colleagues, collaborators, bosses, business partners and potential customers we hope for. And if they happen to be strangers we are likely to place even greater emphasis on these stereotypes as instant deal-breakers that keep us from engaging them and gaining their perspectives and insights.

Even though we are all very similar.  Similar enough to connect as humans if given the chance.  And different enough, if also given the chance, to add real value in stretching our thinking about the best ways to solve pressing problems or create new opportunities.  But not different because of our stereotypes.  Different because of the unique richness of who we are and how and what we think.

So just as we should cast a wider net in our search for ideas, we should also cast a wider net in our openness to connecting in meaningful ways with a broader circle of people–in our own workplaces and beyond.

Cantaloupe-vitamin-c-lg 

We win in business and in life when we get beyond stereotypes.  And when we allow our unremarkable similarities to open the door to our remarkable differences.

Cheers!  And if you'll excuse me, I think I'll have a slice of cantaloupe.

Tasting the Differences

Greetings.  We learn a lot from our differences and that's one of the things that makes traveling fun and valuable.  Sure we use our similarities to connect and build an initial bond, but differences give us room to grow as we discover new things about other people, places, and our own potential.  And now that we've been in Sweden a few days some of the big and little differences are striking.  If you followed the national healthcare debate in the U.S. you'll recall that opponents of a new approach often cited Sweden as a model of "socialism" where everyone had access to care but very few had any choice about who would provide their care and when it would be provided.  As you might imagine, the contrast in approaches is significant but clearly more complex and important–with Swedes being much more focused on health than healthcare.  But that's is a longer discussion about culture, economic systems, and our shared need for innovation that I'll reserve for a later post.

Today I'd like to talk a bit about food, which is an important part of any trip.  And I should preface my thoughts with a note that we spend most of our time in Sweden in a small fishing village on the west coast about halfway between Gothenburg and Oslo, Norway.  So you can imagine that fish is central to the local economy and our diet.  And it's also brought out the genius in everyday people and some of the region's finest chefs.  Take mackerel for example, a real staple of the area's cuisine.  It can be fried, grilled, smoked, marinated, pickled, or used in a soup, casserole, pie, or souffle.  And, thanks to the magic of travel, we know that it also makes some incredible sushi especially when the sea is at your doorstep.  Or shrimp which are also plentiful and popular here in this corner of the North Sea.  Not the jumbo shrimp (one of my favorite oxymorons) we see at home, but a smaller version boiled in salt water right on the ship and purchased in one kilogram bags to peel and eat as quickly as possible.  Shrimp are also popular in sandwiches, soups, pies, pates, summer salads, mayonaise-based spreads, and an amazing creation called "rak ost" or "shrimp cheese" which comes in a tube and can be squeezed onto any type of bread or cracker.  It's fun, portable, and if you can get past the notion of pureed shrimp that you can keep in your pocket it's almost a perfect snack.  As you might imagine the winter here is long.  So while the fresh fish is amazing, generations have out of necessity used their ingenuity to figure ways to preserve fish and broaden their dietary pallet. 

A few other notes.  First, there's no such thing as "decaf" coffee here in Sweden.  The Swedes just can't understand why anyone would want or need to take the caffeine out of this essential beverage.  Coffee is meant to be strong, tasty, abundant, and well caffeinated.  And, there's no such thing as nonfat milk.  The closest you get is 0.5% milk which is mighty tasty.   There's also a unique twist on pizza where the most interesting variations also celebrate the bounty of the sea.  My personal favorite includes shrimp, mussels, crayfish, asparagus, and a touch of garlic sauce.  Not your typical toppings in New York, Chicago, or Rome.  But a delicious twist on one of the world's favorite foods.  And while McDonald's and other fast food chains are expanding across the country, Swedish fast food is often found and a local kiosk (pronounced "shaw-sk") and while the menu includes burgers and fries, it also includes a large hot dog or "korv" with or without a bun and smothered with mashed potatoes.

But enough about food as I'm getting a bit hungry to try something new…

Pizza

We win in business and in life when we challenge ourselves to taste the differences around us.  And when we combine our genius with the genius of others.

Cheers and have a delectably innovative week ahead!