Summary: Join us as Alex Counts discusses his journey of founding the Grameen Foundation and the principles of self-help and health management that helped him as he sought to change the world through his humanitarian efforts.
Bio: Alex is an educator, consultant to nonprofit organizations (through his company, AMC Consulting LLC) and a writer. He teaches at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and is an affiliated faculty of its Do Good Institute. He is also the founder and (for 18 years) President/CEO of Grameen Foundation and the author of “Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind”.
Shad: I’m here today with Alex Counts. Alex is a consultant, a writer, and an academic who teaches and spends time at the University of Maryland, and does a lot of great stuff helping to change the world. Just by way of introduction, before I introduce and have Alex talk, Alex and I go way back. I was Alex’s first intern at Grameen Foundation. Alex founded the Grameen Foundation. I remember sitting in a small office with boxes all over the place.
Alex: A fire hazard for sure
Shad : And we were working hard, we had to do a lot to get that thing going. I remember sometimes being that at 9 at night, just burning the midnight oil just trying to get this. And of course I only spent a summer there and we did a lot of cool stuff, but after, Alex stayed and built and incredible organization. So we’re here with Alex and I want to take a little moment to have Alex introduce himself and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in Grameen and microfinance and development in general.
Alex: Well those were amazing times when we started Grameen that summer and you and the two other interns that came with you, with the invitation of Jeff Davis, I’m not really sure if we would’ve gotten through that first year without it. We ended up becoming a $25 million non-profit raising $2 million a month for spreading microfinance around the world. But that first year it wasn’t sure whether we were going to make it to the second year and you helped us so thanks for having me back. So I went off to Cornell as a physics major from New York City, not much of a social conscience, and there were students, my fellow students, who were protesting very creatively against apart hide which was then the law of the land in South Africa which opened up my mind to the injustices in the world, the fact that you could do something about them, do something creative, do something that might really work. It set me off in my courses and personal study about what were the key issues facing mankind, and I thought poverty was an essential one and what was being done constructively and pragmatically to address it. That lead me to Mohammad Unis and in my junior year I wrote him a letter, very idealistic, somewhat grandiose, that I wanted to help him and join his team and he wrote me back and invited me which led to an extended apprenticeship living with him in Bangladesh for most of my 20’s and then when I would turn 30 that’s when we started Grameen Foundation with your help.
Shad: SInce that time, you’ve grown such an amazing organization, Mohammad Unis got the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and you’ve been involved in that whole movement. You’ve done a great service in this area, in sort of changing the world. You have a recent book on how to change the world without losing your mind and that’s a very important part because especially in economic development we see high levels of burnout, high levels of discouragement of people trying to work in this space but seeing very little done, or not seeing the results they wish they could see. How’d you think about writing this book and what is this book really about?
Alex: Well Im at a stage right now where for the last two years I’ve been trying to distill what I’ve done for the last 30 years of my career and give that to my students at the University of Maryland, give it to people I’m mentoring, give it to my consulting clients, nonprofits that higher me, and give to people who want to read my books and vlogs online and theres a lot of free content on my website, Alexcounts.com. And so I may want to jump into the seat of running and international non-profit, or even a local non-profit again but now I’m in the phase of harvesting my learnings and it takes a lot of blood sweat and tears to take an idea of how to improve the world and really operationalize it. It takes a lot of guts, a lot of resilience, a lot of hard work to bounce back from set backs. The thing that I learned, I was 3 years into my dream job, the one you were there at the very beginning, and I realized it started to come at a great personal cost. To a certain extent, the way I was wired at the time, that was acceptable, that was even part of a badge of honor. “Oh you got 4 hours of sleep last night, I got 3” or “You haven’t had dinner with your wife in 2 months, I haven’t in 3 months”, “my cholesterol is up, my weight is up, and” it was almost proof that you really cared and I just saw the fallacy in that way of thinking and I began to think that I want to change the world, I wanted to have my life be meaningful to the larger society, create public good rather than amass private wealth. However, It couldn’t come at the expense of my physical, mental, or spiritual health. Those things also needed to be moving in the upward direction and I wish I could tell you there is one trick, one technique, one idea that allowed me to do that but it was really hundreds of things that I tried, some worked and some didn’t. Some were quite obvious like a lot of physical exercise which I used to destress myself and reduce anxiety levels, and some less well known like having certain types of hobbies and things like that. The first thing is it became unacceptable for the work I was doing for the public good come at a private cost. And not so much private cost, like foregone salary, that’s kind of normal in the nonprofit world. That spiritual, soul sucking, if that was what some of my mentors subscribed to that was where I would part ways with them and end each year a little more whole than I started the year, in addition to whatever good I could do for the world.
Shad: It’s interesting, you mentioned some key aspects of making sure you’re doing good but also taking care of yourself so that you can continue to do good. Are there any key recommendations or key advice in terms of 1. How do you maintain that physical health, how do you maintain that mental health, how do you maintain that spiritual health, that spiritual connection in some way?
Alex: My book is chalked full of stories that I tell about my life. Just big and little ideas and techniques. I’ll tell you one thing. Sometimes especially when you are doing work to improve the world that is somewhat abstract and the impact is not that visible to you if it is in another country. One of the things I did I would have these, what I call a service meditation, and I began to do something that I should have done in my youth. I am walking down the street and I see a piece of garbage, actually I noticed here on BYU campus, there isn’t a lot, I would just pick it up and put it in the next garbage can.
Every street I would walk down I tried to be a little cleaner than before I walked down it. So it again, it’s like tangible to this abstract making the world good, but I was making that street feel good and created some sort of harmony with my personal behavior and my professional behavior. But also was tangible. The other thing I learned was I said that it was very important to me, each day to try to make someone else’s day. I felt that in addition to the impact it had n them, it actually improved my mindset. It reminded me of the impact that I can have on the world by having an impact on one person. It might just be the cashier at the grocery store, saying: “You did a really nice job cashing me out, I am going to write a letter to your manager.” They are like “Whoa, what did it take me to do that?” You go through life, you are focused and I began a process of writing.
This isn’t original to me, but I adopted an idea that I heard others writing a gratitude journal. So every day I try to write down ten things that I am grateful for. Some people write what they are grateful for from the previous day, I just write what are 10 things I am grateful for at this moment regardless of the timeframe. People have slightly different ways of doing that. One thing I learned is that my biggest thing that would trip me up professionally would be you can verify this for the time I had before this insight is that anxiety and where anxiety for some people paralyzes them, to me it does something quite different. For me, it erodes my ability to make good decisions, in my relationships, and my professional judgement. I realize that one of the things I did that reduced anxiety, didn’t eliminate it, was aerobic exercise. The thirty pounds that I was beginning to put on when you last saw me, I have taken it all of. I am back to basically my high school weight and I have been exercise aerobically 6 days a week for 15 years. It just became a habit, it was a habit born of, the best solution I knew to the issue of anxiety that would come up, and reduce it to a manageable level most of the time.
So those are the things. But the basic idea I had to get out of this mindset that non-profit work had to come out of that cost. It was even something to be proud of. Then, I just tried a bunch of stuff, some worked, some didn’t to get me in a lot more mental, physical, spiritual health. If I did it, I would keep doing it.
Shad: Fantastic! It seems that you are hitting one of the things we try to do with this podcast is to hit on research-based, evidence of how to improve lives from a global perspective and I am seeing three sort of key things, let me know if I am wrong. The first is this mindfulness, maybe this taking time to meditate and contemplate life and make sure you are having time to decompress and be there. The second is this you are saying: making a difference for individuals around you, especially if you are in development. You are trying to help the masses, large numbers.
We often assume that our real impact is on the number of people we impact. And that can be discouraging because it takes a long time to see great impact, but if you are taking time to impact individuals around you. Maybe, that checker, helping them out, or someone at work and paying them a complement and helping them understand, then you are seeing tangible good come in that process. You are staying connected to at least I am making some progress here. I am leaving this road a little cleaner than I found it. I am leaving this person better than I found them. The third one I would say that you hit on is this gratitude journal. I love that idea. There is quite a bit of research that shows keeping a gratitude journal, or just in many ways counting your blessings, from a BYU perspective that’s what we would call it, but being grateful, showing that gratitude for life and the things you are grateful for. Taking time to contemplate that really does make a big difference.
Alex: There was a moment where my life was just coming apart. When I just said, I need to try some new stuff. I drew from different faith traditions, different spiritual traditions, some of them were just my own mentors. Some things I just tried because it crossed my mind one day, but I felt it was very important. Mindfulness, one of the ways I exercise, especially in the warmer months, is I run and I now run 3 marathons, I will be running my 4th in this fall if my body holds up for it. For me, running, I never run with earphones, I never run with a partner, except if someone really wants to run with me. It is that kind of meditation, a mindfulness, paying attention to my breathing, the environment around me, the perspiration, all of that. And again it just allows me to go back into whatever I am trying to do to heal the world, and at the same time healing myself. There is kind of an integrity to that.
Also trying to do the little thing for the person or environment around you, one of the things about to work on the global scale, it changes large scale when it happens, slow as you mentioned. But also it’s not really visible to you often. So here I am sitting in Washington, raising money to expand micro-finance in India, I might go to India once a year. It’s abstract and there are ways to bridge that, but one of the ways to bridge is try to do something to help another human being. It might not be related to economic development, it just can tickle your imagination and help you imagine better the good that is you’re doing that is out of your line of sight, because it is 10,000 miles away.
Well, Alex this is fantastic. I just want to let our listeners know where they can find this book.
Alex Counts: The book is “Changing the World Without Losing your Mind: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship.” It’s available on Amazon, bookstores, and Barnes and Noble, but the easiest place to get it is on Amazon. A lot of free content that is related is on Alexcounts.com. then my new book which is coming out, which is kind of a distillation of the lessons, but without all of the stories, a simpler presentation you might say coming out next month. It is called, “When in Doubt, Ask for More.” One of my lessons around fundraising. “When in Doubt, Ask for more and 213 other lessons for mission-driven leaders.”
Shad: Fantastic! Alright, that’s great. We’ll look for that book coming out soon and thanks Alex for your time.
Alex Counts: Thanks so much, it’s been a pleasure.