The Thrive Questionnaire//

A Social Entrepreneur on His Continued Curiosity

'I find it very, very hard to stop reading in the evening. I can’t resist even though I do feel the consequences.'

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Bill Drayton: Open the blinds and enjoy the sky, the river, the trees, the flood plain where Washington has been built as a whole. (I live at the top of an apartment building that has east and south and west views that is located on top of the same hill as Arlington National Cemetery.) It’s always different and the day starts both rooted and with a long view.

TG: What gives you energy?
BD: Everything. I mean that answer seriously. If it weren’t for the opportunity cost of not doing something else, is there anything that is not marvelous and a miracle? (However, suffering physical torture or being hurtful are, respectively, probably and certainly exceptions.) Let me try to give you some thoughts that may be a bit more actionable/useful. I am blessed to be in the Ashoka global community with thousands of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. These are great entrepreneurs who cause major pattern change (three-quarters have changed the pattern in their field nationally within five years of launch and over half national policies). And, from deep within, they are committed to the good of all and therefore their work is as well. Being surrounded by such Fellows and staff and other partner colleagues of the same caliber and deep ethical fiber is an extraordinary source of energy. If someone is changing the world, they can’t possibly be cynical. There is one thing that is as powerful — and that’s the young people (in their teens) we work with who have had a dream, built a team, and changed their school or community. They have their power for life. I find this literally goosebump thrilling. Imagine what the world will be like when we make sure that this is an experience that every young person has! (This is the central Ashoka goal!) Third, I love backpacking and wilderness. Every September, I go backpacking for three weeks. This September was along the Continental Divide in Colorado. And last year in the eastern or high Sierra Nevada. We are wonderfully increasingly parts of one brain-like human organism. We therefore naturally share its one cut across time and other necessary coordinating conventions. This time in the wilderness draws me fully into a very different universe. One is pulled in by the beauty, by the need to understand this different world for hundreds of decisions, by one’s body’s delight after the first few days of odd complaints, and then by seeing thousands of lives in a small tarn and then the many, many stars of the Milky Way as it brilliantly passes overhead and is reflected in the water. These three weeks allow and enable one to see the world much, much more fully. And to see the patterns moving across time. It’s a much bigger version of what we do during sleep.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
BD: From as early as I can remember, and certainly by elementary school, I was and am fascinated by how human society works. Whereas I couldn’t imagine why I was being tortured by math and Latin, I still have an almost photographic memory of certain history and geography texts. And I love starting and building things. In elementary school, it was a newspaper that grew and grew. This was disruptive, but my parents and school principal were amazingly supportive.Not surprisingly, all my life I have been seeking to understand how the world works and where it’s going and I’ve done so by entrepreneuring and/or intrapreneuring — by far the best way of mapping and learning! As a result, very much aided by history, it is easy to see where the major historic opportunities lie and how to go after them. And now that we stand in the midst of the turning point years when the everything-changing and therefore of necessity “everyone a changemaker” world is here, my colleagues and I have this quite extraordinary opportunity to help engineer the biggest change in the structure of human society ever. And the change leading to a world where everyone is a powerful giver and has the consequent life satisfactions and health previously denied so many. 

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
BD: Gandhi by Susan and Lloyd Rudolph. This little book provides a psychological history of Gandhi that allows one to understand who he was and therefore much more clearly the power that he unleashed that has brought down and is bringing down all of the inequities. Once one truly understands that power and how to bring it to bear, one can truly serve in a very different and more powerful, effective way.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
BD: I have it turned off most of the time because I can’t abide the idea of it interrupting a conversation I’m having with someone or, for that matter, with myself. At night, it is turned off and, every other day, charging.

TG: How do you deal with email?
BD: The office prints out what it thinks I should read. I find blocks of time and read and then dictate or occasionally scribble responses. Most of the outgoing email is “direct and unedited”, i.e., never seen by me again. This leads to the occasional misimpression, but it saves a lot of time.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
BD: Decide what would be most useful at the time — reviewing and getting some of the outgoing correspondence out, knocking one or two names off the to-call list, or walking down the hallway to visit with a person or group.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
BD: I don’t remember a time when I felt “burnt-out”. I love everything that I am doing and I am surrounded by wonderful people (even though I can get angry for about five or ten minutes occasionally). However, I fear that I am not measuring up to your sleep advice. I’ve always been a night owl by temperament, and I find it very, very hard to stop reading in the evening. I can’t resist even though I do feel the consequences.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
BD: Decades ago, USAID blocked a fine organization I chaired from making essential strategic changes. I left. Some years later, the organization died, a real loss. That experience is one of a dozen reasons why Ashoka does not take government funding.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
BD: “Being polite is not a matter of rules; it’s understanding and being thoughtful about others.” My father

Bill Drayton is a social entrepreneur with a long record of founding organizations and public service. As the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, Bill Drayton has pioneered the field of social entrepreneurship, growing a global association of over 3,900 leading social entrepreneurs who work together to create an ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ world. Ashoka Fellows bring big systems-change to the world’s most urgent social challenges. Over half have changed national policy within five years of launch.

As a student, he founded organizations ranging from Yale Legislative Services to Harvard’s Ashoka Table, an inter-disciplinary weekly forum in the social sciences. After graduation from Harvard, he received an M.A. from Balliol College in Oxford University. In 1970, he graduated from Yale Law School. He worked at McKinsey & Company for ten years and taught at Stanford Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. While serving the Carter Administration as Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, he launched many reforms including emissions trading, a fundamental change in regulation that is now the basis of much global as well as US regulatory law, including in fields beyond the environment.

Bill launched Ashoka in 1980; in 1984, he used the stipend he received when elected a MacArthur Fellow to devote himself fully to Ashoka. Bill is Ashoka’s Chief Executive Officer. He also chairs Ashoka’s Youth Venture, Community Greens, and Get America Working! Bill has won numerous awards and honors throughout his career. He has been selected one of America’s Best Leaders by US News & World Report and Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. In 2011, Drayton won Spain’s prestigious Prince of Asturias Award, commonly described as Spain’s Nobel, for his work promoting social entrepreneurship. The prize foundation described him as a “driving force behind the figure of social entrepreneurs, men and women who undertake innovative initiatives for the common good.” Other awards include Honorary Doctorates from Yale, NYU and more; the Yale Law School’s highest alumni honor; the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Achievement Award International; the National Academy of Public Administration National Public Service Award; and the Harvard Kennedy School Richard E. Neustadt Award for Public Policy.

He is a member of among others, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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