I am a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation where I manage a portfolio of grants that use transparency, participation and accountability interventions to improve governance. I previously worked in similar positions at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Omidyar Network. I also worked for five years at Global Voices and consulted for two years at Open Society Foundations. I graduated from UCSD with a degree in political science, and also studied at the SANN Research Institute in Nepal, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, University of the West Indies in Barbados, and Mira Costa College in Cardiff by the Sea.
I was born in Seattle, grew up in Ohio and Southern California, spent most of my 20s living out of a suitcase, the first four years of my 30s living in Mexico City, and have since returned to the US with my wife, Iris, and our dog, Coco. What follows is the long version.
I like mashing up New York City cynicism with San Francisco solutionism.
I’m interested in the capacity of knowledge and narrative to shape the behaviors of groups and individuals. If there is a single word for this, it is probably communication. However, all too often communication implies speaking, but not listening, reflecting, and incorporating those reflections to change how we live our lives. Another word, admittedly, is propaganda, our ability to get others to do what we want. I am more interested in the power of knowledge and stories to convince us to aspire to become “the better angels of our nature” — more empathetic to the needs and desires of others.
My interest in knowledge and communication has drawn me to a number of projects, most of which are related to participatory media and participatory governance. I tried to make sense of it all with a messy Venn Diagram:
A number of assumptions help guide my daily decisions, but I (very nerdily) revisit and question a list of my assumptions at the end of each year. I believe, for example, that prosperity and dignity are more important than equality for the sake of equality. I believe that power corrupts, and must be held in check by accountability; the powerful should account for their actions to the powerless. I believe that rights are responsibilities. The right to life is the responsibility to not kill; the right to work is also the responsibility to work. I believe that those who have inherited wealth and power have also inherited responsibilities to the less fortunate. I believe that liberalism and conservatism are complementary forces that lead to necessary debates about what should change and what should remain the same. I believe that criticism is a first step, but that it is ultimately more rewarding to be constructive than critical. I believe we are mostly egotistical creatures, concerned with our own self-advancement, but that we can reduce our egotism by asking questions, listening deeply to what others tell us, and by striving to understand a situation from another’s perspective. I believe our character is the sum of our genetic inheritance and our personal experience. I believe we are not conscious of the why that lies beneath 95% of our actions, and that one of the purposes of life is to become more conscious of the roots of our behavior.
Here’s another assumption: meaningful work is the basis of a meaningful life. But that doesn’t mean that leisure is not important, or that work should dominate our lives. My problem is that I have more pastimes and pursuits than time to pursue them. I firmly believe that life is too short to be busy, and yet, sadly, I still complain at least once a week that I am too busy.
Here’s a list of some of those pastimes and why I enjoy them:
- Cycling — I dream of a future in which all of our travel is split between airplanes, trains, and bicycles. For urban cycling, I have a Brompton folding bike that accompanies me on most trips. For group rides, I mix it up between The Noon Ride, Rapha, Fusion, and Roasters. I dream of cycling across the country. Any country. I use Strava to track my rides.
- Reading — I love what Proust described as “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude” and what Sacks called “the special intercourse of writers and readers.” I am cautious of anyone who spends more time writing and speaking than reading and listening. I read for the thrill of realization: peeling back the rind of ignorance page by page. I also enjoy fiction and its capacity to instill empathy for characters that are one part reality, one part possibility. I don’t buy the argument that the novel is in decline. My favorite writers — Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dave Eggers — are all contemporary. I am also fond of Milan Kundera, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, JM Coetzee, and Roberto Bolaño. I try to review books that I read on GoodReads.
- Running — Running clears my mind. If I am feeling anxious, or if I can’t concentrate on my work, then going for a swim or run is usually the best remedy. During about half of my runs I listen to audio books or podcasts, during the other half I listen to music — usually hip-hop or electronic. I have run a number of half marathons and one full marathon (in Carlsbad). At some point I’d like to run the Big Sur Marathon.
- Coffee — Of all the world’s drugs, coffee is my favorite. Sadly, I abuse coffee to stay awake and increase productivity more than I enjoy it as an occasional social and solitary ritual. I have worked in about a dozen independent coffee shops. I love the characters that coffee shops attract, the public sphere they create. I completely buy the argument that the Enlightenment was the natural consequence of Europe switching from beer and gin to coffee.
- Hiking, mountaineering, trekking, sauntering — if I have a clear destination in mind, then it doesn’t count. I enjoy walking for the sake of walking , whether it is in the city, forest, or on the side of a mountain. I have found that my best thoughts come to me while I am walking, and many of my most meaningful conversations have also occurred on walks. Increasingly I try to schedule meetings as walks. My longest walk lasted 30 days in Nepal, and it felt plenty long, though I still dream of longer walks across the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachia Trail, Camino de Santiago, and the Tea Horse Road in Yunnan, China.
- Music — Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that music was his only evidence of god. I couldn’t agree more. I can think of no evolutionary reason for the way that music makes me feel. If I find the right song or album at the right time, it can completely alter my mood, just like a drug. And Sunday mornings are always reserved for reggae. Except for when they’re reserved for bluegrass. You can see some of the music I listen to at Last.fm.
- Photography — Photography used to be a passion, first developing black and white prints in the dark room and later with a Canon 7D digital SLR. I tried to get back into it by purchasing a 5D Mark II, which was stolen from my car the week after I bought it. These days I still share the occasional photograph on Instagram.
- Meditation/Mindfulness — Meditation is still a relatively recent pursuit. I started in 2014 after reading Jon Kabat Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. Most days I mediate for 20 – 45 minutes. I spend the majority of my days in “evaluative mode,” constantly reflecting and critiquing. Mindfulness is a way for me to escape judgement and just experience the sensory world.
- Writing — I mean writing as a craft, as a pleasure derived from process. I enjoy the pen and paper in the same way that a ceramist enjoys the potter’s wheel and a chef appreciates a good knife. I savor the slowness of writing, the challenge of expressing an idea clearly and evocatively. I believe that clear writing comes from clear thinking. “Wordsmith” is a great compliment. Unfortunately, most of my writing over the past few years has blurred between what I am passionate about and what I am paid to do. My writing has suffered as a result. These days, I mostly draft humorless memos, but I have several outlines for books — both fiction and nonfiction — that I hope to eventually write. I am in awe of sweeping, ambitious novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Milan Kundera’s The Joke.
- Travel/exploration — I spent the majority of my 20s living out of my suitcase. I traveled to (and occasionally lived in) over 70 countries. It was exhilarating and exhausting. The experience of new cultures and geographies awakens the senses. It gives us insight into what is common and unique across cultures and individuals. It is also extremely tiring. At the end of 2009, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to spend more time exploring the details of a single city. A year later I moved to Mexico City where I remained from 2010 – 2014. Some of my travels are listed here.
What all these activities have in common is that they require time. The more they are rushed, the less they are enjoyed. And the more there is to enjoy, the less time there is to enjoy it. The great paradox of choice. What the above hobbies do not capture is the importance of community, family, love, and friendships. Once everything else is stripped away, what is most important to me is to love, to be loved, to never stop learning, and to become wise through reflection.