Ember Featured by Darling Magazine

The good people at Darling Magazine published an article on Ember this weekend. Below is an excerpt. Read the rest on the Darling site.

When you hear “African refugee woman living in extreme poverty,” you probably don’t picture a woman who has big dreams for herself and her family. I certainly didn’t.

But for the last four years I’ve worked closely with a small group of Ugandan women who lived that story. My company Ember Arts partners with 28 Ugandan women to create beautiful handmade jewelry. All of these women fled their homes to save themselves and their families from a civil war. And all of them survived a depth of poverty that I didn’t even know existed until I left the US.

I’ve learned that not only do they have big dreams, they get after them.

Ugandan women working in the Acholi Quarters rock quarry.
Before partnering with Ember, the Ugandan women we partner with crushed rocks into gravel for $1 per day in this rock quarry.

When I first met the women who would become our partners I saw my relationship to them as a sort of math problem. Their needs exceeded their resources. If I could help them balance that equation, all would be well.

But then we started to become friends. I heard their stories. I got to know their kids. I started to hear their hopes and dreams for the future.

Agnes wanted to finish her education, Jackie wanted to start her own salon, Esther wanted to build a house in the same village that she once fled at the ends of rebel bayonets. All of them wanted to send their kids to good schools and see them achieve the sort of success that would transform their families and communities.

This was more than just math.

Read the rest over at Darling Magazine.

Visionary vs. Vision


[photo from michael_tischer]

Not everyone is a visionary, but everyone has vision.

A visionary, in the usual sense, envisions something huge and impactful, something that is an astounding leap from anything that came before it. Making that vision real takes enormous focus and dedication, and often enormous sacrifices in other parts of life. I’m struck by a passage in “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a book about visionary doctor Paul Farmer, that highlights his shortcomings as a husband and father. His wholehearted pursuit of a beautiful vision left him with little time for family.

Not everyone is going to have the capacity or desire to be a visionary. But everyone has vision.

Having vision on the usual scale looks a lot like setting goals. In fact, it looks exactly like that. You envision something you want to accomplish, and you set about doing it. Even something as simple as making dinner benefits from our vision.

The great challenge of having vision is achieving clarity. Seeing the details of something that has not yet happened is difficult. But I’ve learned that it’s an important challenge to attempt. Clarity of vision will enliven many parts of your life, from tonight’s dinner to the impact you’d like to have on the world.

In smaller tasks, like dinner, clarity is often achieved by creative and emotional labor, envisioning something a certain way and then committing yourself to that vision. But in larger goals, like your life’s impact, clarity is harder to come by.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to seek clarity in the larger picture is by trying things. Choose a pursuit that promotes your deeper values and dive into it wholeheartedly.

For the most part you’ll find that you were right, that this pursuit satisfies and enlivens you in many ways. But inevitably there will be parts of it that rankle you, little friction points where you can feel that this is not the end point of your journey. So learn from those, and then try your next, better idea.

Ironically, when we lack clarity, trying things doesn’t feel like an option. After all, we’re not clear on what things we want to try. But in my experience doing things is the best way to figure out what it is you want to do.

Over time, by process of elimination and refinement, you’re vision will become clearer, you will be more satisfied with your life, and your impact on the world will grow and become more personal. This process is the work of a lifetime. And I can hardly think of a better way to live.


Everything is a Hack


photo from Alex on flickr

When I was younger the world looked like a network of incontrovertible systems: the Education System, the Banking System, the Motor Vehicles System, the Restaurant System, even the Movie Rental System. It seemed like all you had to do was work these systems properly, and you would be rewarded with a happy and successful life.

So after graduating from college I expected that, having completed the Education System, I would quickly be plugged into some other lucrative System, like the Banking one.

But it didn’t happen. And even more disconcertingly, the closer I looked at these systems the less they looked like big, incontrovertible systems at all, and the more they looked like a bunch of people just figuring things out, hacking things together until they worked.

The systems, I realized, weren’t systems at all. They were just particularly successful hacks that many people came to rely on.

Everything is a hack. When this first dawned on me it made the world seem terribly complex and fragile. But then I saw the great opportunity of it. These systems aren’t incontrovertible laws of society, they’re just our best ideas so far, our most successful hacks.

So if I can come up with such a hack, I can build into the world the sorts of systems I’d like to see. We are not bound by the systems of today, but rather the world relies upon us to come up with the hacks that will create a better tomorrow.

[Cross-posted on Charles Lee's Blog]

Seven Billion Dreamers

Somewhere in the world today a baby is born and unknowingly pushes the population ticker to 7,000,000,000.

Seven billion people. Seven billion dreamers.

It is humanity’s unique blessing to envision things that never were and by our work to make them real. We are a species of dreamers.

And whether we are born in American suburbs or Ugandan villages we dream of the same things. We dream of finding love, finding a calling, finding success. We dream of good lives for our families. We dream of a world where more people, where all people, have the liberty and resources to pursue their dreams.

Our dreams unite us.

The Evolution of Good Ideas


artwork from Barabeke on flickr

Evolution works because it’s not afraid of its children dying. It’s constantly trying new ideas and new combinations of ideas, and a lot of them are really bad. For example, I have asthma and bad eyesight. Thanks evolution.

But evolution doesn’t care. And because its willing to throw so many failed ideas out into the world for testing, it comes up with a lot of good ones as well. Like the brain. Like those little hairs in your ears that keep you from falling over. Like the nuchal ligament on the base of your skull that keeps your head from flopping around when you run (just learned about that today).

Our own idea-making is an evolutionary process as well. But most of the time we hamstring it by holding back most of our ideas, waiting until we find one we’re almost certain will succeed. We’re afraid of our children dying, and maybe even more afraid of how it will reflect on us if they do.

But 2 billion years of R&D tells us that, when it comes to ideas, the more you try, the better. So release a few more into the world for testing. See what happens.

Powerless, Senseless Kindness

Our friends over at Plywood were kind enough to publish a piece I wrote about one of the quotes that inspired the Ember Arts ethos. Here’s an excerpt:

Life is not given special treatment on our planet. Life struggles. The elements wear down life far more quickly than they do a stone.

But against what often seem terrible odds, life persists. Mothers have babies and teach them to be good. Babies grow and try to make a difference. People find each other and commit to love each other for life. Communities gather to encourage and support and build safety nets for one another. People care for each other.

Somewhere deep in this human thing is a drive to care, a realization that alone before this universe we will perish, but together, somehow, we will persist.

To read the rest, go here.

Soccer, Noise, and Steve Jobs

Yesterday I sat in a crowded bar with about 200 Ugandans (and a handful of Kenyans) and watched a big soccer match between Uganda and Kenya on television. The experience of being there with all those people was great, but my experience of the game itself was awful. I could barely follow the action.

There were vuvzelas and whistles blowing, a busted television, horrible ads splashed across the action, and the TV cameras were so lo-res that you could hardly see the ball.

The two teams were playing only a few miles away, but between them and me were so many layers of noise that I missed much of what was happening on the field. (I don’t mean noise in the auditory sense (though that was definitely part of it), but in the signal-vs-noise sense, noise meaning anything that degrades the information being sent.)

It made me wonder, how many layers of noise come between me and Ember’s customers?

It won’t surprise you that I thought about Steve Jobs, about how he controlled the noise between himself and Apple’s customers. He was a legendary perfectionist and notorious micro-manager, ensuring that his vision came through in Apple’s products. And he built an online and physical retail empire, giving customers direct, noiseless access to that vision.

He even responded with legendary regularity to customer emails. Jobs built a company that stripped noise out wherever possible so that he could broadcast his message loud and clear. I’d like to transmit the Ember message with as much clarity.

Steven Pressfield and Resistance

“On the field of the self stand a knight and a dragon.
You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon.”
-Steven Pressfield 

Art comes in a million forms. It’s the book you want to write, the meaningful words you want to say to your spouse, the healthy diet you want to start. But why are we sitting around wanting these things rather than doing them? What is stopping us?

That’s the question that Steven Pressfield answers in his books ‘The War of Art‘ and ‘Do The Work.’ And his answer is: Resistance.

If you have ever tried to do something creative, or something that would benefit other people, or something that would make your a healthier or better person, you have felt Resistance. Resistance, according to Pressfield, is what tells us that we’re not good enough, that we are going to fail, that we’ll blow it, that we don’t actually want these good things anyway.

Some critics of Pressfield’s books have called them simplistic, trite, cliched, and overly and amorphously spiritual. According to my readings, this is all true. And yet the power of these books remains. If anything it grows.

The simplicity of Pressfield’s diagnosis of the problem, taking all the various fears and forces that keep us from creating and bundling them up in the term Resistance, allows us to see our task as manageable, to see our enemy as singular and defeatable. And his prescription is equally simple: acknowledge the Resistance that you feel, call it what it is, and then sit down and do your work anyway.

‘The War of Art’ introduces us to Resistance, and to the work of becoming a “pro,” someone who pushes through Resistance day in and day out and gets work done. In ‘Do The Work’ Pressfield acknowledges that many people get mired in Resistance even before starting a project. So he lays out a dead simple framework for quickly planning and starting your project, whether it’s a book or a symphony or a workout routine. And it works.

At Ember we support people in pursuing and realizing their Good Dreams. Pressfield’s books are some of the best in the world at helping you overcome the various faces of Resistance and get to work on your best dreams.

If you find yourself stuck or procrastinating or second guessing yourself on your goals (don’t feel alone, we all do it every day), pick up one or both of these books, read them, and then get to work.

The War of Art: Paperback, Kindle
Do The Work: Hardcover, Kindle

Dream Update: Mama Esther

Ember Arts: Esther Dream Update

Our Ugandan partner Esther is a comedian, an entrepreneur, and a dreamer. She cares for nine children, has cultivated six different sources of income, and has countless nicknames. When we asked her for three dreams she’d like to accomplish in her life, this is what she told us:

1 – To send her children to college
2 – To build her family a home in her ancestral village
3 – To buy and drive her own car

This year, thanks to her partnership with Ember, she has made some amazing progress. Here’s an update:

1 – This year her eldest son started studying at a local university, and she has several kids making their way through high school and primary.
2 – She has laid the foundation of a 12-room house in her village (including bedrooms, sitting rooms, kitchen, etc.) and has already built the brick walls up to window-level.
3 – The car, she says, will have to wait until after the house is finished and she gets a handle on university tuition. But you can bet she’ll do it.

Esther has a dream, and through her partnership with Ember Arts, she aims to achieve it. Below is a poster celebrating Esther. Click on it to download the hi-res printable file.

(Our deep thanks to Caava Design for creating this poster for free, so that we can offer it freely to our supporters! Follow Caava on Facebook.)

The Ethics of a Dream

Dream Good Dreams
(click thru for wallpaper sized image)

It was business ethics that taught me the importance of a dream.

I was on a plane to Uganda and I was thinking deeply about my ethical responsibilities as a business owner. Specifically my responsibilities to the Ugandan women I call partners.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This line came back to me as the foundational ethical statement. But how, I wondered, do I actually love myself?

We’ve all asked ourselves this question, but it struck me that I didn’t really know the answer. I mean, I brush my own teeth and feed myself and earn my own paycheck. But is that it? Is that all it means to love myself?

I tried to take a larger view, to ask what preference I naturally give myself that I don’t naturally give other people. And this is what I came up with: Every morning when I wake up, after brushing my teeth, I go out and try to make my own dreams come true.

This, I realized, is how I truly love myself. And so this is my ethical responsibility: to support my neighbors as they pursue their dreams, just as I pursue mine.

To me, this was a deeply revolutionary thought, that people’s dreams were ethically important. And as I thought further I realized that maybe they are more than just important. Maybe they are primary.

My ethical responsibility is to support other people in pursuing their dreams, and their ethical responsibility is to support still more people in pursuing their dreams. So opening opportunities for dreaming and pursuing those dreams is an ethical mandate.

For many years I have tried to define what Good with a capital G is. I’ve tried to figure out if there is some universal way for humanity to talk about how we should and shouldn’t act. This is the closest I’ve come:

Giving more people the chance to dream and pursue their dreams is Good.

A Good Dream then is a dream that, when realized, ensures people the liberty and resources to pursue their dreams. And those people ought to be encouraged to dream Good Dreams as well. In other words, a Good Dream makes it more likely that other Good Dreams will be realized.

This idea has profoundly shaped my life and work. I encourage you too, dream Good Dreams, and love your neighbor as yourself.