David Gershon

David Gershon—Living the Possible

David Gershon has spent his lifetime achieving not only his dreams, but also supporting and inspiring millions of others to achieve theirs.David is the author of eleven books, including the 2009 award-winning Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. His other books include Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5000 Pounds, and Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, which has been translated into eight languages.

He is the founder and president of the Empowerment Institute, with his wife, Gail Straub, and co-director of its School for Transformative Social Change. For over thirty years, millions of participants have employed the principles of the Empowerment Programs. His clients have included large organizations, government agencies, and cities. The broad range of issues he addresses includes environmentally sustainable living and disaster-resilient communities.

Low Carbon Diet shows the reader how to reduce ones carbon footprint quickly and effectively. With Low Carbon Diet as the guidebook, David initiated Cool America, a movement to achieve carbon reduction with community and neighborhood-based Eco-Teams.

David and his wife, Gail Straub, were the initiators and organizers of one of the planet’s most remarkable events, The First Earth Run, where runners circled the globe with a torch, the universal symbol of hope and peace. The 86-day run began in the United Nations in 1986 with a sunrise ceremony by Native Americans. The First Earth Run included and brought together twenty-five million people in 62 countries, including 45 heads of state, during ceremonies celebrating the coming of runners, from country to country in a global relay. The millions of dollars raised went to their global partner, UNICEF.

David has taught worldwide and lectured at universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Duke. He was an advisor to the White House and the United Nations on both empowerment and sustainability issues. As an expert in large-system transformation and societal change, David continues to carry the torch as an inspirational living model for both vision and action.

PIM: You’ve been called a social architect, a master visionary, and a social change agent. How do you see yourself?

DG:  I view my life as an experiment. “Experiment” is the operative word. I ask defining questions that are open-ended, so it’s an ongoing adventure. I always felt was that I was a prototype, a social experiment. I feel like my life is an experiment of the possible.

PIM: Growing up, what influences did you have? Who positively impacted your life?

DG: My mother always encouraged me to have an open mind, to explore new ideas. It wasn’t so much that she was a visionary or that she had significant social consciousness, but more that she encouraged me to be an independent thinker. If one really is a free thinker, a person with an open mind, one tends to be curious, ask questions, one wants to learn and grow. If you are alive as a human being, one starts to ask questions—about yourself, about the world, about what is possible.

I have always been attracted to the question “What’s possible:” to the notion of possibility. That has always been my fascination in life. It really hasn’t been taking on the problems of the world or trying to make a difference as much as “What’s possible?”

So, once I ask that question, then I start to go down the path of trying to answer it.

I began to be attracted to the big questions: “What’s possible for my life?” “What’s possible for my world?” “What’s possible for the various sub-entities of my world: organizations, cities, communities, neighborhoods, for people who live in challenging environments—from the inner cities of the United States, to people in poverty in the developing world, to women who are disenfranchised?” “What would it look like to have it be better or different or changed?” These have always been such fascinating questions, that I have spent my life trying to answer them.

PIM: What started you on your journey of social consciousness?

DG: It’s not like I started with social consciousness. I think human beings feel empathy for one another. I think you can close that off, but it’s a natural instinct. So once you start to explore, you feel connected. You want to contribute. It’s not so much a moral imperative as much as it is a human imperative and that’s what I’ve been following. I’ve been on a quest to learn and grow and contribute my full talents.  And then I started discovering my talents which were around several things—the architecture of social change: how do you actually make change happen in society, how do you design such that you can produce outcomes, how do you do that within organizations, for personal development? How do you facilitate that—how do you create environments that are conducive to producing those outcomes?

While many people were in the arena of social change out of some either aspiration or anger or moral indignation, what I found myself looking at was how do you actually make the change happen. I was attracted to two things.

First, how do you really make change happen—like what does it really take at all levels to be successful no matter what kind of change you want to make to improve society. Because there are so many needs and so many aspects of society that need to change—almost every aspect.

Secondly, what are the leverage points? They’re all very carefully “screened,” if you will, to see where I can make the biggest impact, where the biggest needs are, and then designing a strategy that could actually work if gone to scale. This is a key principle in Social Change 2.0, which is how do you design a game changer? That is, how do you design something that, if fully received, can transform the current state to something that doesn’t exist and be brought to scale?

PIM: What are the top motivators to get people to change?

DG: Well, fundamentally, there is one. It is a vision that excites you and attracts you. I use the analogy of sunshine. If it is a sunny day, you want to go out in the sun and you want to enjoy how good it feels on your face and your body. The sun energizes and excites you. A vision is like that. It’s like the sun in your life. It’s something you want to go towards, it motivates you. The key to empowering someone who wants to make life changes is to help them shape a vision that is really compelling.

That comes out of a deep place that they can step into and own. That can be at an individual level, an organizational level, at a community level, or at a planetary level. A key part of Social Change 2.0 is getting people to want to move toward building a different experience for themselves in the world—versus—Social Change 1.0, which is forcing people to change because you passed a law and command and control and pay them to change. So if you get people to want to go to a new place because it is intrinsic, it pulls them, it compels them. Then you have a powerful force unleashed in society and the key is a compelling vision.

PIM: So, if a compelling vision is the top motivator, what is the process of achieving it?

DG: This is the how-to of moving a change process. We have a four-part Empowerment methodology with four fundamental elements, four questions, with a set of processes that goes along with each of these four questions. 

First question: Where am I now? Where am I now in my life at finding a meaningful way of, for example, expressing my desire to contribute to the world? What excites me? Where do I find passion right now? What gets me motivated, angry, touched? 

Second question: Where do I want to go? What’s my vision? What would I like it to look like? What kind of contribution would I like to make? Where do I feel like I could really make a difference? And you start to shape a vision with a series of questions to help articulate that.

Third question: What do I need to change to get there? This is the transformation piece. Now that I know what I want, what do I need to change? Do I need to get more knowledge? Do I need to get connected? To change some part of my personality that gets in the way when I try to join a group—do I become a difficult person to deal with? What do I need to do differently? Do I need to balance my life better? Change my strategy? Begin to start asking questions. A key tool for this step is to recognize limiting beliefs and to transform them.

Fourth question: What is my next place of growth or development? This is the growth step. I have to take responsibility for how I’m contributing to my issue—positively or negatively. I have to make changes in my life and that will influence the outcome that I want. We call that the growing edge—it’s not the same as my vision, but it’s the next step in moving my vision forward.

PIM: Being a visionary, or a dreamer is the first step. Many people don’t know what they want or how to figure out what they want. What is your technique for becoming a visionary or a dreamer? How do you find your dream?

DG: That comes back to the fundamental question of passion and interest. Which is how to help people accomplish what they want?

I was just on the phone with a very large multi-national company that wants to grow its talent so it can make their work achieve all of the best results they can achieve. So that’s their aspiration, they know what they want: a better organization and people operating at a higher level to help them be more successful in the marketplace. How do you do that? Or, I’d like to find a better job. Or, I’d like to find the right relationship. Or, I’d like to make my community a better place to live. Or, I’d like to have less crime where I live, or I’d like to deal with climate change.

People generally, if asked what would your life look like if it were working better for you, come up with answers. You can help them build more dynamic, compelling visions, and have them go to deeper places that touch deeper part of themselves.

But at the end of the day, the work of empowerment is to structure the process so that you can help them move through all of the steps on the journey to make that happen. And it’s that architecture, that structuring of the change process—whether it’s a personal change or an organizational change, or a societal change—that is where my work has been over the years.

I think we all, if given permission, know what we want. It’s the how. How do we actually help people make that happen? That’s been the focal point of my life—asking that question, answering it, and learning how to do it.

PIM: In the eco-teams, you talk about neighbors getting together and talking to each other. What a concept these days! What are the benefits beyond helping the environment, lowering the carbon footprint, etc. of these teams?

DG: These teams are amazing! They are a new kind of cultural models of how we need to live together as human beings. It is an interesting statement of our times that we don’t know the people who live in physical proximity of our homes, that the culture does not enable it, that we don’t know how to get there. We’ve lost such a foundational dimension of the human experience. Years ago, they were foundational to one’s life. Now, they’re peripheral.

So you get people to meet their neighbors and to feel connections and to feel rooted in place not just with the physical land, but also with the people who are in immediate proximity. People who live down the street, people whose cars you see driving, walk their dogs past your house, or whose kids ride their bike, that’s an amazing improvement in the quality of life.

We call it “Smart Block” vs. “Dumb Block.” If you think about it, if you know the people, you have a greater sense of security, of well being, you feel good that your children have some place to go if for any reason you weren’t able to be there, or if you needed help on something. So it’s an immensely powerful thing. And the eco-team process itself is also a way of people building community at a more intimate level. People are learning to work together to accomplish meaningful goals, learning how to engage in something that brings forward altruistic behavior, and learning how to cooperate with other people.

It’s so much larger than just trying to reduce our carbon footprint although that is such a powerful driver, because it’s so much the right thing to do and so much what we need to do. But the social dimension is equally significant in terms of what we need as a society to grow and improve.

PIM: How did you get from the Empowerment work to deciding to write Social Change 2.0?

DG: Well, I’ve been writing Social Change 2.0 for 30 years—I just didn’t know I was writing it. What I’ve been doing is having this great adventure trying to answer these questions that I come up with of what’s possible. It’s a very interesting occupational hazard of doing this empowerment work—because you keep asking these big questions like “What is your vision?” and “What does it look like?” You start asking them in more and more interesting areas like world peace and climate change and lifting the 80% of the world’s poorest out of poverty. You start asking every major question that exists on the planet. And you don’t take it on from what’s wrong and how to fix it, which starts to define what you do by how you define the problem. But you start by asking, “What’s possible? And how can we get there?” Then your outcomes are defined by your imagination.

If we want to talk about moving this new framework for thinking about how to reinvent the world, we must first recognize that we’ve invented the world unconsciously; we’ve created our lives unconsciously, with our unconscious beliefs and fears. The principles of empowerment are to create your life consciously, which means you have to be clear where you are and where you want to go.

That’s how we change the world: where are we now, where do we want to go? What do we need to change to get there, what’s our next growth step, well the process is the process of reinventing our world. And that’s how I would define Social Change 2.0, it’s that process, and it means taking it down to specifics: how do I reinvent my block, my community, the Gulf Coast, the planet, South Africa, or Afghanistan.

PIM: The imagination is so important to your life’s work. Say more about it.

DG: The imagination is such a rich, exciting, alluring dimension of our reality that you want to go there. And when you go there, your mind starts to open up to all kinds of interesting ideas, and connections. And then you try to put it together. If you have enough tenacity and the dream is compelling, if the issue is really intrinsically rooted so that it can pull you, it’s not an external driver, you have the staying power, not motivated out of some external driver like anger or fear, but a deeper motivation such as compassion, contribution, caring, love, service, then you stay with it.

There really is nothing that limits us from achieving the things that we want other than how we go about it. It’s not to say that these things happen instantly. There’s nothing on the planet we can’t change. We just have to figure it out—and think out of the box. And Social Change 2.0 is the out-of-the-box version of how we change the world.

PIM: You talk about being fearless, and taking risks, and not letting the world’s view influence you. You once said, if a lot of people are agreeing with you, then you need to change your vision.

DG: Yes, if people aren’t considering what I’m doing naïve, then I know I’m really not on the frontier. Because naïve is the definition for what people perceive as not part of the current reality system that they have defined as the realm of the possible. So unless you’re going to the realm of the impossible, that is to say, out of the realm of the current definition of what’s possible by that consensus view, then you’re not pioneering. Then you’re problem solving and there’s a role for that, but that’s not how we reinvent the world. And that’s the mantel, the mandate that I feel drawn to working with.

PIM: The First Earth Run was such a significant event. What did you learn from it?

DG: One of the principles that I learned from the First Earth Run is a story of the impossible becoming possible. There is also the idea of the metaphysical principle of expansion and contraction. The principle is like the pendulum: something will swing one way, and then it just naturally just starts to swing the other way. Nature abhors a vacuum. It immediately goes into that vacuum.

In the arena of society and the arena and of large societal movements and events, what was happening during the First Earth Run? There was so much fear and contraction, so much fear that we were going to have a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union that there was a powerful pull to expansion, to something outside of that fear. There was so much fear that people wanted to move towards something hopeful, something expansive, to move them out of that contractive state. You can’t just stay in that state. So we got pulled into that vacuum. Because we had a very powerful intervention and that’s one of the deeper principles of how world events work and how the global psyche works.

PIM: How do you define “positive impact?”

DG: Positive impact is transformative change in the world. It is something that changes the game. It moves something forward in new ways and reinvents the world. It specifically has people adopt the behaviors that society needs to help further its evolution. 

PIM: You worked in New York City post 9-11. What was that like and what was the long-term impact of that?

DG: That was another Social Change 2.0 intervention moment. It was the primary one that occurred because there was this tremendous fear state that emerged in New York City after 9-11. We just found ourselves, again, pulled into that vacuum. We were being asked to create a program that was about emergency preparedness or building disaster resilient communities. A disaster resilient community is a very different spin than the way people were holding themselves in this devastated, traumatized state. The name of the program was called “All Together Now,” so it was all about community, connection, and resiliency, and taking responsibility. We stepped in and created a transformative intervention, a Social Change 2.0 intervention.

The Empowerment Institute was hired to come in and build this program and take it throughout the city. Hillary Clinton backed it and got us a half million dollars to initially start the process. It was a well financed and had a lot of political will and capital invested in it. And people were ready for it. It was personally very exciting as a former New Yorker to really get out into the outer boroughs and really have a good sense of this wonderful, amazing city, and work with all of the community groups and city agencies. It was such a superb experience. I write a lot about that in the book.

From a Social Change 2.0 point of view, it was amazing, it was another one of the learning platforms that I had for studying this model, studying this social change strategy, studying all of the five design principles that I talk about work together of creating a game changer, learning how to empower people out of a compelling vision, to move forward “All Together Now.”

What also would happen is we were doing deep personal transformation work for the trauma that these New Yorkers had faced. By getting together with their neighbors, talking about it, finding the solution, processing this stuff, they were really able to do deep healing and really come out the other end with something practical—here’s how I can prepare for an emergency should such a thing ever happen again. And, by the way, I now know my neighbors so we can take care of each other.

I am doing a big project now in South Africa right now, and that’s the question we’re asking: What’s the blueprint for reinventing South Africa, post-reconciliation?  Those are the questions that get very different answers than “How do we get out of poverty or solve this problem or that?” One opens up the imagination, and one is defined by the problem.

PIM: You always say that empowerment starts and ends with your own personal empowerment. When you did the work in NYC, how did the Empowerment Institute bring that to New Yorkers?

DG: They got to take personal responsibility to create more resiliency in their lives. They were empowered to build disaster-resilient lifestyles. They met their neighbors in their buildings and on their blocks and create a greater sense of community. They were empowered to become a part of community and they transformed their whole way of working with 9-11 from fear to possibility.

Once you start to take responsibility to change what isn’t working to something that does work, you also have a foundational value that you’ve transformed from victim to responsible person.

PIM: If all empowerment is personal, what was your personal empowerment out of the 9-11 project?

DG: The bottom line for me was I was inspired by NYC, by a city that said “Yes!” to a trauma and came out the other side stronger, more whole, with greater self-esteem, pride.

It was one of the really special experiences of my life to have this 5-year immersion into literally the bowels, the heart and the soul of New York City at all of the levels that I was working, and also for someone who loves that city. I see us as human beings as so available to achieve greatness, to step into our nobility, we just have to be given the opportunities. And that was New York City residents’ opportunity and what we did was to just help New York City residents to help them exploit that opportunity and help them have a vehicle through which they could really achieve some of that.

PIM: What is your vision now?

DG: My vision is to create a movement of people who are reinventing the world— who are not defined by the problems, but are inspired by their imaginations. That’s what inspires me. That’s the heart, the soul of Social Change 2.0.

PIM: You’ve done so much. What is it from your lifetime that you’ve done so far that you are the most proud of?

DG: That’s a great empowerment question! I ask a similar question in the Empowerment Workshop. “What is your most meaningful creation or accomplishment?” Then comes the fine-tuning: inner or outer, ongoing or complete? I have a different version depending upon which way I answer that question. Probably with the interior is the place I would go first, and that is: the belief in possibility and the ability to invite others to believe in possibility. The ability based on my life’s experiences for them to believe in fact that the impossible might in fact be possible. So getting people to dream bigger dreams than they might normally otherwise dream.

In terms of the outer things, there are many—I feel truly just grateful to have had the opportunity to have all of these experiences. And I always think of it as, in service to what? The issue itself was a starting point, but then in service to what, how can this experience help others do other things that are that of order of magnitude. That’s where it starts to get interesting because the issues that we have in society are so big, any one thing that one does is a piece, but the challenges are so much bigger. And so, the big question is—how can they be models, templates, and inspirations, stories that others can then use to run with?

That’s what the Social Change 2.0 book is—a set of design principles and practices and techniques, but also I use a lot of stories that are inspirations. But what I found happening, people would read the book and say I’m so inspired not by your design principles, but by your life, and how you’ve led it. And I was taken aback by it. I thought the purpose was these design principles, but they hone in on me as a human being.

That was an interesting learning for me. It was about the modeling of a life. I’m proud that my life can be seen in that light.