Jun 17 2010

What Barefoot Running Can Teach Us About Leading a Happier Life

As some of you know, I was chosen to speak at Ignite DC #4 about my experiences with barefoot running, and the broader implications of the barefoot running movement.  Well, that event occurred last night, and I’d like to report that it was an amazing experience.

Thank you everyone at @igniteDC for organizing the event, and to everyone in attendance who so warmly welcomed me as the first speaker!  I was honored to have spoken alongside so many other great, inspiring presenters.

Check out the video:

Also, feel free to get a closer look at the barefoot running slides at Slideshare.

Throughout the night, many people asked me for more information about the subject of barefoot, or minimalist, running.  Below are some links for getting started:

  • Harvard University Skeletal Biology Lab – great, well-presented research about running mechanics, as well as videos comparing running in shoes to running barefoot
  • Barefoot Ted’s Google Group – community of barefoot/minimalist runners – a quick search in this group should provide the answer to any question about the subject you may have (and if not, go ahead and ask – they are friendly people that love talking about the subject)
  • Birthday Shoes – Community blog dedicated to the Vibram FiveFingers.  Lots of cool posts about people doing all sorts of fun activities in their VFFs, as well as news/general info about the “shoes” themselves

And to the broader point of the talk last night, that we should take some time to look at the world through more of a minimalist perspective, I’d like to invite any of you reading this post to share your experiences and/or ideas that you have related to the topic.  It’s a primary theme for this blog, and the company behind it, and we’d love to hear what you have to say!

Thanks again for a wonderful night!

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Jun 16 2010

“… as a means to an end”

In some ways, it was inevitable that the mission of Night Train Consulting would be to help others pursue novel business strategies and technology solutions “as a means to an end,” rather than as the end goals themselves; we are both analytical (read: a little geeky), with Jeff’s background deeply rooted in start-up technology and data mining, and Alan’s in sustainability strategy. When you put those two backgrounds together- and sprinkle on top a little Bob Dylan and a healthy dose of reading on topics like economics, psychology, mathematics, environmental science, well being and social capital- it became obvious that while there are many, many things an organization or an individual can choose to maximize, over and over again we find ourselves returning to the basic things we have valued since the beginning of time: genuine, meaningful social relationships with other people. Ergo, “Technology with Social Skills” was born.

This has very obviously been the case while working with certain organizations, such as nonprofits like Machik (whose main objective, in my opinion, is to optimize trust and social capital between key groups in and outside of Tibet), or the many social entrepreneurs we have come across at Ashoka. But we are now understanding that this is true of for-profit businesses as well.

This is the reason that one business professor I deeply respect at the University of Virginia, Brad Brown, recently dusted off an analytical tool he was first taught in business school years ago: linear programming. Professor Brown teaches undergraduate business students at UVA about sustainability, so the reason he is kick’n it old school again with linear programming is to ask the question (paraphrasing); are we leading students and businesses astray with the thinking that any “profit-maximizing business” can maximize economic, social, and environmental goals all at once? If you’re not familiar with linear programming, it boils down to this; to maximize any given system, you can have many constraints, but only one objective. He points to a rockstar of the NGO world- BRAC- which set off maximizing something as simple as calories per dollar, rigorously and scientifically monitoring, testing, and iterating all programs against that goal.  They went on to build the world’s largest and arguably most effective NGO, which earns 80% of its own revenue through for-profit businesses owned and run by the formerly-poor. I know there is plenty of conversation about this in the so-called “Impact Investing” community too, which refers to investing with an explicit social objective in mind. Can you maximize both economic and social objectives at the same time, or must you pick one?

When Jeff takes the stage tonight at Ignite D.C. and makes his D.C. debute in the performing arts, this theme will focus front-and-center in the form of a conversation about barefoot running and minimalism as a philosophy. Minimalism is basically about maximizing something, using your resources as lightly and efficiently as possible. The “something” you maximize can be anything, but when used as a philosophy for living your life, it seems to focus mainly on maximizing well-being relative to resources consumed (conveniently, the same basic formula behind the Happy Planet Index).

Tomorrow we will be recapping the evening and the various conversations we will be having in and around it today, and we will be asking you; what do you or your business maximize? If you think you are maximizing multiple things, how is that working out for you? Or, do you find yourself giving preference to one objective over others when the going gets rough? In a pinch, what is the one objective you will not sacrifice for the sake of any other objective?

We look forward to hearing from you.

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May 27 2010

VFFs – Not just a great wingman

Our secret is out.  Vibram Five Fingers are undoubtedly good conversation starters, and therefore undeniably great wingmen.

This made us think; by the law of large numbers alone, surely by now some boy and girl are very happy together, and would never have met if not for these curious anti-shoes.

But suppose the social value of these much feted shoes goes beyond the romantic.  What if Vibram Five Fingers are arguably making our communities stronger?

Social Capital refers to the number and strength of bonds between members of a community.  Higher overall levels of social capital in a community has been shown to be associated with everything from healthier to more productive communities (caveats aside about organized criminals or self-serving politicians also tending to have very large amounts of social capital).

Just for fun, here’s some rough mental math about the effect of Vibram Five Fingers on social capital:

  • A friendly source working in retail for a sports store in D.C. estimated that around 5 thousand Vibram Five Fingers have been sold by their establishment this year.  Let’s say that this number is half of the total VFFs that have been sold to D.C. residents this year, including other retailers and online purchases.  This means that there are now 100,000 mesh-wrapped toes on 10,000 runners darting around our nation’s capital.
  • Let’s say that on average these runners run 2 days a week (over last 3 warmer months).  Next, let’s assume (based on personal experience) that these runners average one random conversation with a stranger every other time they run (many times, it’s more).  On the whole that would mean that 120,000 conversations have happened between Vibram Five Finger wearers and perfect strangers this year, which would not have happened otherwise.
  • The next step is to determine what percentage of random conversations between strangers and Vibram Five Finger wearers on the street typically lead to an actual friendship (romantic or otherwise), the fundamental unit of social capital.  If we assumed that 1 in 100 interactions results in an invitation to join a running club, a discovery of a shared friend or coworker, a swapped phone number, etc., we could attribute 1,200+ new acquaintanceships to Vibram Five Fingers this year.  To take it a step further, if on average a person has 130 acquaintances, and 5-6 very close friends (personal experience), odds are that 5% of these 1,200 acquaintances may, in time, become close friends.  Therefore, we could attribute 60 or so new close friendships in Washington, D.C., this year, to Vibram Five Fingers.

This is all just-for-fun, psuedo-statistics, of course.  But it begs the question: If we could see this kind of an effect from random interactions prompted by shoes, what would the value be if we each said something kind to a stranger, or did something unexpected and helpful,  once a day?  Those clever boy scouts and their “do a good turn daily…”

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