9 lessons from Breaking Bad we can apply to nonprofit work

Breaking-Bad-season-5-1080x1920Hi everyone. Thanks to the long weekend, I was able to completely catch up with Breaking Bad. We were in the midst of Season 3 when the baby was born, so we had to stop, a decision I’ll regret for the rest of my life. But this weekend, while the baby was sleeping, we binge-watched the rest of the episodes, and they were totally awesome. Breaking Bad is about a high-school chemistry teacher named Walter White who is facing cancer. Wanting to leave his family with something after he’s gone, he ends up making meth with one of his former students, Jesse. Walter gradually rises up the ranks to become a total bad-ass in the insanely scary underground world of drug cartels. Not only is this a riveting show, with wonderful acting and complex human emotions, but there are tons of lessons we in the nonprofit field can glean.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the show or are not caught up at all, stop reading this right now and do something else, such as read this NWB post “How to Schedule a Meeting Without Being Punched in the Pancreas.” Or go watch the show. It is that good. I mean, I have an infant, and that hasn’t stopped me from watching this show and others].

Lesson 1: Change can be good. Walter’s cancer triggers his existential/midlife crisis, forcing him to reevaluate his entire life and what he has been doing with it. We in nonprofits tend to like settling into routines. But maybe, once in a while, it’s good to shake things up and make us some meth, yeah! OK, maybe not make meth, exactly, but, you know, do something different, like plan an annual luncheon instead of an annual dinner. Or have happy hour meetings at 10am instead of 5pm.

Lesson 2: Risks pay off. One of the most awesome scenes in the show is when Walter uses his knowledge of chemistry to threaten a drug king pin, Tuco, who had beat up Jesse (using a bag of cash, ironically). Walter carries these explosive crystals right smack into Tuco’s lair, threatening to blow up the entire place, including himself. The risk paid off, as they began a long and rewarding partnership that only ended up with a few people getting killed. We nonprofits need to learn to take more risks. Sure, sometimes, probably most of the time, we’ll probably get beat up by a bag stuffed with cash, but once in a while, it might work. So yeah, open that side business as an earned-income strategy.

Lesson 3: Pick your partners carefully. It turns out Tuco is a complete psychopath with a penchant for beating the crap out of people, including his own goons. Later, Walter and Jesse have to try to kill him. Now, if they had spent some time vetting him first, they might not have collaborated with him in the first place. This is a good lesson for us in nonprofit to learn: Choose partner organizations carefully, or else one party is inevitably going to try to poison the other with ricin.

Lesson 4: Never settle for less than the highest quality. Walter rises up through the ranks because his meth is 99% pure, unlike the rest of the meth out there, which are usually only 60 or 70% pure, mixed with baking soda or sawdust or whatever and might give you, like, terrible hallucinations or syphilis or something. We nonprofit organizations should always strive to ensure that our programs and services are as high quality as Walter’s meth.

Lesson 5: Use the right tools. At one point, Walter and Jesse have to dispose of a body. Jesse is sent to pick up some specific plastic containers so they could dissolve the body with acid. He picks up the wrong kind, and Walter is angry, saying the plastic needs to be a certain type, or else the acid would just eat right through it. Jesse, being an idiot at this point, decides to dissolve the body in his bathtub on the second floor while Walter is away, and the acid just eats right through the tub, making a terrible mess in the hallway. Lesson for us nonprofit folks: Whether it is the right donor database or copy machine or file backup system, use the right tool.

Lesson 6: Keep ego in check. Walter is brilliant in chemistry, but is oftentimes a complete idiot when it comes to real life. As his fake name, “Heisenberg,” gains notoriety, his ego gets bigger and bigger. The Drug Enforcement Agency, where his brother-in-law Hank works, finally discovers the body of someone they think is Heisenberg. This body is actually Walter’s lab assistant, Gale. Hank, over dinner, is saying how Gale is a genius and that he is definitely Heisenberg, case closed. Walter, being a moron, and drunk, blurts out that he thinks Gale is not a genius and that Heisenberg is a genius and he is probably still out there, triggering Hank to search even harder. Lesson for nonprofit folks: No matter how talented or experienced we are at being an ED or Development Director or Operations Manager or Board member or Program Coordinator or whatever, we should keep our egos in check in order to get even better.

Lesson 7: Be indispensable. Several times in the show, Walt is able to save his and Jesse’s life because only the two of them know how to make meth of that high a caliber. At another point, Gus Fring, their very professional and totally evil boss, walks out right into the middle of a sniper attack from a rival cartel, daring the sniper to fire at him. He knew that he is too valuable for their enemies to shoot down. Lesson for us to learn: Our nonprofits and its programs are more sustainable if they are absolutely vital to the community and people understand this. So we should ensure programs are excellent, and our communications to funders and to the rest of the community are constant. (Of course, once someone else understood how to make meth that was 99% pure, Walter and Jesse had to kill him to retain their indispensableness, but that’s a lesson for another day).

Lesson 8: Balance work and family. As Walter gains notoriety, his family suffers. He is never around, or he shows up naked in a convenience store with fake amnesia. He misses the birth of his daughter because he chooses instead to go drop off his meth to a distributor for money. Obviously this is a great lesson for all of us in the field, who tend to work too much and have poor work-life balance. No matter what we do, whether it’s making the world better or making crystal meth to sell to junkies, family is important.

Lesson 9: Understand what your goals and line in the sand are. As Walter White gets deeper and deeper into the business, he loses sight of his original goal, which was to provide for his family. The lines he is willing to cross also change. Now he is fixated on building an empire, even at the expense of his family, and this once-innocent chemistry teacher is willing to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and kill to build that empire. For us nonprofit folks, a regular refresher on the mission and vision of our organization is a good idea, and also what our values are, to ensure that we are actually making the world better, and not just building a nonprofit empire for its own sake.

There are more lessons to learn from this awesome show, but I’m exhausted. Future posts will discuss those lessons, as well as ones learned from The Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

Letter to my newborn son, in case I die early

Hi everyone. I have been thinking of my son and what would happen if for some reason I die early. I don’t plan to, but who the heck knows what Fate has in store. Having a kid, and running a nonprofit, makes you think about your own mortality a lot. So I wrote him a letter. I am posting it here so that it doesn’t get lost. If Fate doesn’t want me around, please make sure the baby gets this some time.

Moon-fullDear Son,

By the time you read this letter, I am probably no longer around, and you’ll probably have a hover board and a flying car. That would be awesome. No, not the part where I’m no longer around, but the part about the hover board. If time machines have been invented, please bring me back a hover board.

Your mother and I have had you for two months now. I still remember when we were waiting for you to arrive, anxious to meet you. One day you had the hiccups, and I rested my hand on your mom’s stomach and could feel you jolting every few seconds. Despite all the ultrasound pictures we had of you, you had always seemed distant to me, like a baby unicorn, cute but mythical. But with every jolt of your tiny body, it became clearer and clearer to me that you were real, and that you would be here soon, and that I would get to hold you and sing to you and watch you grow, and maybe use you as an excuse to avoid many, many evening meetings in my nonprofit work.

The past two months have been more difficult and wonderful than I could imagine. I stare at your hands and feet and can’t believe how tiny they are. We have been sleep deprived and exhausted and smelling like spit-up and hand sanitizer, but there are moments—when you smile or talk or fall asleep on our chest or shoulders—when your mother and I just stare at you and selfishly wish for you to remain this small forever. The other day, when you were soundly sleeping, you started laughing, and I wondered what you were dreaming about.

You’ve been appearing in my dreams a lot, probably because I’m thinking about you all the time now. You were about one, and I was holding you, and you got distracted and started squiggling around and tried to climb down the bed. You were too small and the bed was too high and you were afraid to let yourself drop the four terrifying inches down to the floor. You looked up at me with your big liquid eyes, and at that moment, like any good father would, I ignored your plight and frantically tried to find my phone to take a picture of you.

Not all the dreams are as happy. Recently I dreamt I had a terminal illness and only a week left to live. I was sad, one because I would not get to continue watching Game of Thrones, a great television series that I hope you will get to enjoy when you’re old enough, like 30. And two, because I would only have a week left to get to know you. In my dream, I sat down and started to write a letter to you listing out some important life lessons I wanted to teach you, hoping that you would read it one day and know that your father thought of you and loved you more than Game of Thrones, more than the Walking Dead or Arrested Development, more than his own heartbeats, which he needs to watch his favorite shows. Yes, your father sometimes refers to himself in the third person; all fathers must refer to themselves in the third person when they’re writing these types of letters to their children. You’ll understand one day when you have your own little ones.

I woke up from that terrible dream and was happy that I had more than one week left to live. But then I thought of how ephemeral life is. Any of us can go at any time. I should write you a letter any way, just in case. This is supposed to be a private letter to you, and that’s why it’s so long, but your mother and I have poor record-keeping skills, so I am hoping one of my friends on my nonprofitwithballs.com blog will be able to pass this on to you should anything happen to me.

My son, these below are the lessons that I want to pass down to you. These lessons are not original. I’ve learned them from many people, especially in my work in nonprofit, which has some of the coolest people ever, in case you ever decide to go into this field. Through experience and sometimes painful failures, I have found them to be helpful to live by. Depending on when you read this letter, they may not even apply to you at all. I hope you will read this from time to time, and maybe it may make better sense at different points in your life. Read once a while and let these principles guide you to a long and meaningful life that I wish for you:

Never judge anyone for anything ever. Unless you are in the same context, with the same upbringing, the same genes, the same brain structure, unless every atom of your existence is the same as theirs, you have no basis to judge most people. Try not to judge anyone. Even people who create stupid commercials, like those Subway commercials with the annoying adults with kids’ voices, what the hell were they thinking? Also, people who don’t know how to correctly use “literally.” They say ridiculous things like “that meeting literally made my head explode.” It’s easy to judge them, but try not to, since it doesn’t make you any happier in the long run.

Always assume the best intentions in people. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Some people will prove to be unpleasant to deal with and you will encounter many, many people that you will just want to punch in the mouth, but most people are good, and we all have bad days. Don’t burden yourself too much being angry at people and thinking they intentionally mean to hurt you. Most people are also just trying to make it through the day, to get home to their family and a cold drink and their favorite TV show, so if they cut you off in traffic or bumped into you on the sidewalk, they probably didn’t mean it.

Find beauty and humor in the world around you. Sure, it’s really crappy sometimes, with bad things happening to good people all the time. But like Don Quixote said, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? To surrender dreams, this may be madness…Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.” This is one of your father’s favorite quotes, and I hope that you will always try to see life as it should be.

Never think you are above anyone. No matter how successful you are, a major part of your success is the context of your existence. You are born to us, including a very cool dad, in this country, and we are lucky to have so many rights and privileges, but you could have been born elsewhere under different circumstances, and your fate may have been completely different. Be thankful, and never look down on anyone.

Never think that you are beneath anyone. By the same measure, never think that you are beneath anyone. It is normal for you to go through a period where you see others being more successful than you, and you may feel like crap when you compare yourself to them, especially when your family is all like “why aren’t YOU a successful real estate investor like your brother or a doctor like that Nguyen kid?” Use others’ success to motivate you, but again, everyone’s circumstances are different, so comparisons are often meaningless. Be thankful, work hard for what you believe in, and don’t waste time with self-pity.

It is not talent or genius that leads to success, but hard work and perseverance. 95% of the time, those who have C+ talents but A+ perseverance will always be more successful than those who have A+ talents but C+ perseverance. Pursue your dreams, pursue them hard. You will face countless rejection and failure and naysayers who naysay things like “Vu, a teeth lacquer-tattoo business is a bad idea,” but keep trying, because the road to success is littered with geniuses who give up.

Follow your life’s passion, but give back to your community. While you pursue your dreams, don’t forget that you belong to a community, a society. You will never achieve happiness, even if you achieve your dreams, unless you contribute back to the world in some way. Volunteer. Donate. Join a nonprofit board. Help your friends when they’re moving.

Always keep your word. Few things build respect as quickly and consistently as when you do what you say you’ll do. Not just for the big stuff, but also for the small things, like when you say, “I’ll send you that recipe” or “we should get coffee, I’ll email you to arrange a time” or “I’ll drop by your office with Season 6 of Burn Notice.” We have too many let’s-get-coffee’s that never lead anywhere. Your word is your promise. Never promise anything that you do not plan to follow up on.

Acknowledge people. Everyone has an important story that you can learn from. Try to learn people’s names and their hopes and dreams. You may forget, and that’s understandable, but try to really “see” the people around you: your family, friends, co-workers, teachers, bosses, but also your mail carrier, neighbors, waiters, grocery baggers, bus drivers, etc. Be genuine and present when you talk to anyone, no matter if you will encounter them again in your life or not.

Don’t be restricted by labels: The world is complicated, and we are tempted to categorize ourselves and others: Democrats, Republicans; Male, Female; Gay, Straight; Orange juice with pulp, orange juice without pulp. But the world and you are much more complex and interesting than that. Try not to label others, and apply labels to yourself only if you find them helpful. Otherwise, explore the awesomeness of life and existence and do what makes your life meaningful, as long as you don’t hurt others.

Never be too certain of anything: Life is full of uncertainty, and reality is weird and unpredictable, and that’s what makes it both terrifying and interesting. If you become too certain of anything, you may close yourself to the possibilities that may exist. Keep an open mind; listen to others’ perspectives. Otherwise you become that annoying know-it-all that no one really wants to hang out with.

The right things to do are usually the hardest: For example, getting up to go to work, apologizing to someone you wronged, calling up your parents and asking how they are when you just want to go partying with your friends in college, not taking that fifth glass of red wine at an annual fundraising dinner. Try to always stand up for what you believe in, and always do the right thing, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if people dislike you, even if they think you’re an idiot. It is always better to be an idiot who did the right thing.

One person can make a difference: Never listen to anyone who tries to convince you that the things that you are trying to do is too big and that you are just one person. It always starts with one person, who through courage and perseverance inspires another person, who inspires another, and so on. That is the only way things happen. Always do the right thing, even if you are the only person doing it.

You can get a lot of things done if you don’t mind who takes the credit: I know very few people whose life goal is “to get a lot of credit for doing something.” The people you should get to know are those whose goals are to achieve something, to change the world for the better somehow. The argument over who gets the credit can oftentimes be distracting or even destructive. Fame and approval should be a bonus, or the tools for achieving your goal, not the goal itself. This can be a hard lesson to absorb, but I’ve learned it works well when everyone buys into it…Of course, there’s a limit to this, so if anyone continually steals your credit and it distracts you from your goal, don’t hesitate to kick ass.

Never forget your family and heritage. Our family has gone through a lot—several wars, countless heartbreaks. Your paternal grandfather was sent to reeducation camp. Your paternal grandmother pedaled her bicycle for 30 miles each day to sell grains and feed your aunts and uncles and me. I’m sorry that you never got to meet her, as she would have loved you more than you can know. They, and your mother’s side of the family, have gone through things that you and I can only imagine. These things, and our families’ tireless perseverance, led to me and to your mother and to you. For whatever reason, you are born to us. Learn where you come from, and as much as you can keep and pass down your heritage. You will go through some times when you are frustrated at your family. It’s OK. You can love people, and not like them from time to time. But just remember that no one loves you more than your family.

Be generous with yourself and others. You will make mistakes, and so will others. Your father has broken many of these rules that he has written down here in this letter to you, and likely he will do so again in the future. He has screwed up lots of times. You will also screw up from time to time. Learn from your mistakes, and forgive yourself. Try your best to be a good person. Don’t expect perfection in yourself or others.

Appreciate the little things, the small moments, in life. Finally, the last lesson I want to make sure to pass down to you, is also one of the most important: Don’t take the details for granted. The little things, that’s what life is made of. I was visiting Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee)’s grave, and this was carved on it:

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” (Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky)

I have known of this lesson, but only in the last couple of months having held you and gotten to know you and getting spit up on by you, that I really understood it. I have learned this lesson from you. I have learned that time does not stand still. I start thinking of how many more times I will get to hold you and read to you and swaddle you and rock you to sleep on my shoulder and place you gently down in the baby swing. Soon you will be walking and talking and going to kindergarten and getting your first job and going to high school and entering college and experiencing your first heartbreak, hopefully in that order.

I am writing this to you on my first Father’s Day, and you are only two months old, but if you are reading this, then you are already much older. We may have already gotten into arguments about how dangerous hover boards are. You may have already run away from home once or twice and stowed-away on a shuttle to the moon colony or something. You may already have been embarrassed multiple times by your dad showing up in his beat-up hydro-powered car to pick you up from your underground school, spouting some stuff about social justice and cultural competency.

I do not know how many more Father’s Days we will have together. If Fate is kind, it will give us our afternoons, and the twenty or so times where we can watch the full moon rise. I would like that very much. And hopefully I will be there when you have your first little one. If Fate is not so kind, if my life is cut short for any reason, I want you to know that your father has had a good life so far, made much more complete now that he has held you and listened to you laugh in your sleep, and that he loves you more than he ever thought he could love anything.

Dad

Having a baby vs. planning an annual event, which is scarier?

(This is not my baby. This is a cute Google Image baby.)
(This is not my baby. This is a cute Google Image baby.)

In less than three weeks, my son will be born, and I’ll be a father for the first time. I am very nervous about being a father. Terrified, really. But not nearly as terrified as I am of our annual dinner, which is coming up shortly after the baby is born.

Annual events are some of the most terrifying things we nonprofit people deal with. According to statistics I’ve Googled and/or made up, they are responsible for 77% of nervous breakdowns experienced by nonprofit staff and board members (Endless useless meetings and co-workers who leave their dishes in the sink for days make up the other 5% and 18%, respectively).

I started talking to other ED’s, and while all of them agree that special events are scary—with a couple of ED’s hyperventilating at the words “special events” and had to breathe into a paper bag while the rest of us chant “general operating, general operating” over and over to calm them down—some say that having a baby is scarier.

So, let us examine this as objectively as we can in order to determine which is scarier, having a baby, or planning an annual fundraising event. We will base our analysis on several dimensions: Fragility, Dependency, Time, Ickiness, Effort, Community Perception, and Cuteness.

Fragility: Babies are fragile, being all tiny and stuff. They are helpless, especially in the beginning, during their larval conical-head stage. Annual events are also fragile, held in check usually by one event planner with an increasingly twitchy eye who at any moment might strangle the rest of the planning committee, causing the whole thing to implode. Still, no one says, “It’s as easy as taking candy from a hyper-caffeinated special event planner.” In terms of scariness, the edge goes to babies on this dimension.

Dependency: Babies depend on us for everything. Meanwhile, we depend on the annual dinner for unrestricted funds, usually to plug up major gaps in the budget. Still, if for some reason my wife and I are not here, we have a good network of relatives to ensure our baby is well taken care of. If the annual dinner does not go well, though, we may have to lay off staff, cut down on health insurance, and use one-ply toilet paper. Annual event clearly wins this one.

Time: Annual events take six months to a year to plan, with an additional six months to acknowledge all the donors and do the accounting and recover from the fist-fights and nervous breakdowns. Babies take 18 years to raise to adulthood, and then an additional 7 to 10 years for them to “find themselves” and become independent. Babies win this one.

Ickiness: Babies tend to throw up and do worse things to you. You have to change their diapers. No one at an annual event throws up on anyone, except that one dinner in 2009, when an Executive Director had way too much pinot noir after not eating much food because there was nothing vegan. Edge: babies.

Effort: Babies take up all of a couple’s energy, with the constant feeding, bathing, entertaining, teaching, guarding from danger. They keep parents up at night. Annual events take up a whole bunch of people’s energy, with courting sponsors, table captains, volunteers, arranging decorations, making a moving video, organizing a program, arranging tables strategically, auctions, silent auctions, raffles, registration, dealing with registration issues, dealing with crappy audio, cleaning up, thanking people, accounting. It keeps a whole bunch of people up at night. Edge: annual event.

Community perception: People are evolutionarily programmed to like babies. People with babies receive residual good will. Annual events can bring good will to an organization, but if a whole bunch of things go wrong, or maybe one  thing, such as the ED’s slurring during his speech and ranting about wombats,  because of a couple glasses of wine, they can screw an organization’s image and destroy relationships and lead to the board’s imposing an unfair two-drink limit on staff. Edge: annual events.

All right, so that’s 3 for babies, 3 for annual events. It’s a tie, and the final dimension is Cuteness.  While there are some donors who are adorable (especially if they raise their paddle at the right level and have that sparkle in their eye), the general consensus is that babies are cuter. If babies are cute, it means they are not scary, so annual events wins this dimension in terms of scariness.

Based on my thorough scientific analysis, it is conclusive: Babies are terrifying, but at least they’re cuddly, which is more than we can say for annual events. However, the combination of having a baby at the same time as an annual event is the most terrifying of all possible realities, so if anyone needs me, I’ll be under my cubicle desk in the fetal position with a case of pinot noir until May or June.