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The Citizen

Nicholas Kristof Encourages Harvard Students to Make a Difference

Redesign Your Cause: Nicholas D. KristofAt the invitation of Harvard President Drew Faust, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times recently visited campus to welcome incoming students to the University. Mr. Kristof is a graduate of Harvard College and now sits on the university’s Board of Overseers.  In advance of his conversation to incoming students, The HKS Citizen had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Kristof and discuss his visit, his newly-released book, and advice for “Asking What You Can Do” with your career.

The Citizen: “In your upcoming book, A Path Appears, is about making a difference in the world.

Kristof:  “And that’s exactly what Kennedy School is all about.”

The Citizen:  “Exactly. Exactly. So there’s a natural overlap with the subject matter of your upcoming book and some potential advice for both our students, who are going to be seeking jobs in the upcoming future. I was wondering if you had any practical advice on what they can do to maximize their time here to help them as they think about how to make a difference in the world.

Kristof: “I must say Kennedy School students and faculty alike probably can give me lots of advice as this is a topic they know an awful lot about.

I think that the whole idea of kind of using a more analytical framework and evidenced-based policies to try to make a difference is an approach that is becoming more in vogue and that’s obviously something the Kennedy School has been focused on for decades.

I think that one bit of advice, it’s incredibly important not just to have the evidence and to know what will work, but also to communicate it. That marketing, I think, gets short shrift among policy wonks. People flinch at  marketing as if that’s what only a company like coca-cola does, but it is so much more important to market solutions to poverty or solutions to crime than it is to market a soft drink. That would be one bit of advice.

The other bit of advice—that I don’t think that Kennedy school students need— is that I have sometimes heard the theory among students generally is that the first third of your life you should devote to study, the next third to making money, and the final third to giving back. I think if you do that, you are depriving yourself of the just incredible enriching wonderment of giving back and that there’s a tremendous satisfaction and even some selfish pleasure in trying to make a difference.  If you try to hold off until the last third of your life, you miss so much of the game.

But, again, that’s something Kennedy School students are basically doing already. They’re at the Kennedy School because they want making a difference to be part of their lives.”

The Citizen:  “In that same vein, one of the arguments you make in your book is about going out on your own and starting your own organizations versus joining an existing organization and making an impact or a difference that way. Can you talk more about that and about the proliferation of small organizations?”

Kristof:  I am a huge fan, and I have always been a huge fan of social entrepreneurship. They bring a real savvy to the field, but, on the other hand one can’t help but look out and see this incredible profusion of tiny organizations  that often fade away after a few years when the founder loses interest or  moves on. You don’t get the economies of scale in the social sector that you get in business. There’s very little M&A in the social sector.

I tend to think that the social sector should be a little bit like the restaurant scene. You want to have some mass chains and economies of scale with some tiny individual restaurants and some little garage start-ups. Right now we have a situation where it is more cool to start your own venture and to call yourself President and Founder of X. That’s fabulous, but would not overdo that  so that we ignore the real benefits of economies of scale and working for more professional organizations with more proven business models or other benefits.

The Citizen:  One of the other arguments in your book was about some of the challenges in doing this work, especially about keeping a sense of optimism even though times are difficult. When setting out to make a difference, the world presents no blueprints nor is the work easy.  Can you talk about some of the strategies to overcome challenges when things get hard?

Kristof:  Yeah, that is certainty true. One of the things you learn especially in the field is that everything is more complicated than it seems. Brilliant plans put together in Cambridge kind of fall apart in rural Liberia, and all kinds of unanticipated obstacles emerge.   Healing people is just a lot harder than it looks.

Having said that, I also think we in the news media and also the humanitarian world tend to exaggerate the challenges or, at least, put too much of a focus on the challenges. We in the news business are writing about planes that crash, not planes that take off. Humanitarian organizations are trying to raise money, and they talking about the needs. This can all leave the public with the misimpression that everything is going downhill; when in fact globally there have been enormous improvements in global health and in global poverty.

I have seen these improvements just in my career. When I first began to backpack around Africa: leprosy was wide spread, river blindedness was wide spread, and illiteracy was enormously wide spread. Now we can say for the first time in history a majority of the world’s adults are literate. Globally, approximately 51% of the world was literate in 1950. Now over 80% of people worldwide are literate. It makes an enormous difference when most adults are literate, and many even have cell phones and other ways of communicating. So, I really see the arc of progress, but it is also a reminder that there are an awful lot of people in that this progress is not yet reaching.

The Citizen:  You’d mentioned that marketing about making a difference was critically important. I understand that you are planning a PBS series to go along with your upcoming book, A Path Appears.  Could you comment about your own marketing processes in how you communicate the story of making a difference?

In both the book and in your columns, you use a variety of quantitative and qualitative stories. Very recently, you told the story of baby Jessica to discuss the problem of fetal alcohol effects. How do you put together and present evidence to effectively communicate these stories?

Kristof:  After Darfur, I kind of had a crisis of confidence. I was writing about Darfur in 2004 and thought I wasn’t really reaching the public.

Meanwhile, that year there was a red tail hawk that was kicked out of its building near Central Park in Manhattan. This red tail hawk that was now homeless, and New York was all up in arms trying to help this hawk. There was a huge outrage. I began to wonder – how is it that I can’t generate the same amount of outrage over hundreds of thousands of people being killed and raped as the outpouring of feelings about this hawk.

This led me to try to look at some of the work by social psychologists and neuroscientists about what generates empathy. It turns out to be partly about story-telling, individual stories, and, at least partly, about emotion. If you ask people to do mathematics problems before telling them about a need, they are less generous. It’s as if exercising or using rational parts of the brain suppresses our empathy. Another thing that’s important is some kind of arc of hope, some sense that there is a problem but you can make it better a difference. If it’s just presented as your own problem, then people tune out.

So with those lessons in mind, we wrote A Path Appears to stay: yes, there are enormous problems and here are the stories that illuminate the problems and make them come to life; here is how they can be made better; and here is the impact you can have.

The Citizen: One of the things that you focus on in A Path Appears is the word “opportunity.” It seems that a one of the things the PBS series will be doing is making that story of “opportunity” real to people and explore what “opportunity” really means. Is this fair to say?

Kristof: I sometimes wonder if we liberals don’t talk too much about “inequality,” which is more of a liberal word  and not enough about “opportunity,” which is one that tends to resonate as much among liberals as much as conservatives.

I mean there is disagreement about how much we should be concerned about inequality of outcomes, but there is a broad consensus that there should be concern about inequality of opportunity.  I saw a poll that showed 97% of Americans agree that they are concerned about inequality of opportunity. It’s hard to get 97% of Americans to agree on anything!. That was a real remarkable notion, and so if we are trying to build change, that word opportunity is a good one to try to build consensus for certain changes of policy like early interventions or whatever the issue may be.

The Citizen:  That seemed to be one of the major focus areas of one of your recent columns about early childhood interventions.”

Kristof : “Yes.  Correct. Opportunity can be a powerful word.”

The Citizen:  And then my last question, I know you are here on campus today to speak at a university welcome  event at the invitation of President Faust. Could you talk about your upcoming event?

Kristof:   Traditionally, the University’s president has welcomed the students at the beginning of the year. This time, the thought was that it would be more engaging to have a conversation. So, I have been asking and tweeting people about what I should ask President Faust, and I have some questions of my own.  I will also be taking some questions from the audience or from people who email questions in as well.      So, it should be a good hour long conversation. It’s an experiment.

The Citizen: If I read it right, you are coming back to Cambridge on October 1st?

Kristof:  Yes, that’s right.