Uphill, Downhill

As you walk along that journey of 1,000 miles, each step you take will be roughly two feet long. Thus the whole journey will take roughly 2,640,000 steps. If you take 26,400 steps and cover ten miles each weekday and take every weekend off, your journey will take 20 weeks. If you start on Groundhog Day and persevere in this schedule, you will reach your destination on June 21. You will go from the dead of winter to the first day of summer.

Along the way, of course, the scenery will change – not just every day, but every hour, and sometimes every few minutes. And a change of scenery can trigger a change of mind and a change of course, testing your commitment and your perseverance. Ascending a hill, you mostly see what’s at the top of the hill; as soon as you reach the top, however, you see for miles ahead what is over that hill. On the way up, you may be telling yourself that it’s been all uphill so far (i.e difficult), but will soon be all downhill (i.e. easy). The view from the top of the hill can be inspiring and challenging by opening our eyes to whole new vistas.

But not always. If we thought the Emerald City of Oz was on the other side of that hill but it turns out to be the Garbage Dump of Swampy County – well, what do we do then? The phrase “all downhill from here” takes on a whole new meaning. We talk a lot about being inspired and challenged to climb the hills we encounter in our lives, but we often avoid talking about the anticlimax of being “over the hill.”

Even if we find the new view just over the hill to be revolting or disgusting, we often keep on keeping on, driven not by commitment and perseverance but by confusion or faith in some misguided ideology. Or we may give up and head back down the hill we just climbed. If we’re smart, however, we will consult a reliable compass, cook up a course correction, and head for the hills on the left or the right. That may mean finding a whole new path or blazing a whole new trail.

Changing your mind and changing your course can mean pioneering. It can sometimes lead to changing the world. Don’t forget Saul of Tarsus changing his name to Paul on his way to Damascus in the first century. Don’t forget Honest Abe Lincoln changing his mind about containing slavery and announcing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Don’t forget Don Christ changing career and becoming an entrepreneur in 1955. (Sorry about that last one: Don Christ was my Pop, whose career as a jazz musician ran out of gas when Elvis Presley popped up.)

This isn’t really a story, but if it were, the moral of the story might be that the scenery on the journey often changes our minds as we move forward, then left, then right, and sometimes backward, but ultimately usually forward again. We learn as we go, and we are able to keep going only if we are able to keep learning. Perseverance is good; stubbornness is not good. Flexibility is good; aimlessness is not good.

It often seems like life is just one hill after another. And if we’re traveling with other people, which we almost always are, that complicates the journey quite a bit. But that’s a moral for another story.

Our Elevator Pitch

The following presentation constitutes an “elevator pitch” for Our Better Angels, a qualified nonprofit subsidiary of the Wisconsin Leadership Institute. This elevator ride begins in the lobby of the Empire State building and goes up 102 stories to the observation tower. At every tenth floor, the elevator stops for fifteen seconds to let off and take on passengers. You can get off the elevator whenever you wish. If you read at an average rate, the whole trip will take you less than four minutes.

Empire State Bldg

In the Lobby: The basics. The mission of Our Better Angels (OBA) is educational and philanthropic. We model, promote, and celebrate courage, compassion, continuous learning, and community service for aspiring leaders in all walks of life. We oppose the toxic myth that human behavior is becoming more violent and more depraved – a myth bolstered by some segments of popular culture, where stories of violent depravity generate huge profits, and by some extreme political groups who appeal to partisan fear and anger for political gain. We are guided by many models, the most immediate of which was the Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014, wherein many individuals challenged their friends, neighbors, and family members to support the battle against ALS. OBA reflects the verifiable research-based insights of the Positive Psychology movement, which emerged in the 1990s. In the most general terms, Our Better Angels aims to help others help others. We simply ask others to help us help others help others.

At the Tenth Story: What we do and how we do it.

  • Our Better Angels sustains a membership community to help others help others by supporting schools, colleges, libraries, service clubs, youth groups, animal shelters, environmental groups, faith communities, and Good Causes of all sorts. We depend on their credibility, their integrity, and their trusting relationships to nurture the OBA Community. Individual members are invited to adopt Good Causes to support in addition to the Better Angels Community itself.
  • OBA spreads stories of courage, compassion, continuous learning, and community service. We encourage members of the OBA Community to share their own Angel Stories, Angel Ideas, and expressions of Thanks and Hooray.
  • We support our Good Causes through a perpetual, reciprocal, worldwide crowd funding process through our website, our You Tube channel, other social media, Google Nonprofit advertising, and special projects.
  • We maintain a monthly newsletter (The Herald Angel) and a Speakers Circle to spread Angel Stories and Angel Ideas to audiences on line and in person.
  • We produce educational materials about effective leadership skills and values and market them to schools, service organizations, libraries, and other relevant audiences.
  • In order to fund our activities, we rely on several sources of income:
    • Annual membership dues ($20 – for organizations and many individuals, almost nothing).
    • Gifts, grants, and donations that match membership dues and fund our educational mission.
    • Sponsorships and Partnerships with organizational Good Causes and good corporate citizens.
    • Special events and activities in collaboration with our Good Causes, Sponsors, and Partners.
    • Sale of educational materials and Angel-themed products.

At the Twentieth Story: How you can help us help others.

  • Join the Better Angels Community for just $20 per year.
  • Spread the word, especially to organizational Good Causes. In return, we support your efforts to support your Good Cause and OBA itself by providing materials and instructions about how to spread the word effectively. The “network effect” of social media, including word of mouth, can multiply your ability to reach out to potential Good Causes many times over.

At the Thirtieth Story: How you benefit from membership in the Better Angels Community

  • We promise that all OBA members will experience a healthy sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging within OBA’s global improvement movement.
  • We promise that all OBA members will experience an occasional squirt of oxytocin, a brain chemical that promotes positive, trusting relationships.
  • OBA members receive our monthly Herald Angel online newsletter, which recounts Angel Stories, Angel Ideas, Angel Video, and useful research from the world of Positive Psychology.
  • OBA members can share their own Angel Stories, Angel Ideas, and expressions of Thanks and Hooray on our website, our You Tube channel, and our social media.
  • OBA members receive significant discounts on OBA’s educational materials and Angel products.

At the Fortieth Story: How your Good Causes benefit from the Better Angels Community.

  • Good Causes you choose from our roster of current participants and new ones that you adopt enjoy financial support from everyone who joins their own Angel Community. For example, your high-school alma mater can adopt lots of alumni, students, parents, and local supporters and receive a share of their annual dues. Those members can then adopt other new members and choose additional Good Causes as well; the OBA perpetual, reciprocal, worldwide crowd-funding plan allows you and your Good Causes to earn income from a variety of other Good Causes in the “bonding and bridging effect,” a special case of the basic economic principle of the “network effect.”
  • All OBA Good Causes are eligible to benefit from OBA’s Google Nonprofit advertising program.
  • All OBA Good Causes will be celebrated on OBA’s website, social media, and You Tube channel.
  • If you’ve read this far and are still interested, then you are ready for:

The Rest of the Stories: The intellectual and spiritual genesis of Our Better Angels. Our Better Angels takes its name from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Hoping to prevent a civil war over the profound moral crisis of slavery, Lincoln ended that address with an impassioned plea: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. . . . The mystic chords of memory . . . will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched . . . by the better angels of our nature.”

Between 1861 and the creation of Our Better Angels seven score and fourteen years later, the human community witnessed massive upheavals in technology and culture, both positive and negative. Shortly after the Second World War, the newborn United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Marshall McLuhan declared planet earth a global village, third-world nations subjugated during centuries of European domination gained independence, and social scientists began studying the human potential for generosity, creativity, and altruism. Since the middle of the 20th century, the nonprofit sector of the world’s economy has grown faster than the for-profit market sector or the government sector. As the third millennium drew near, a “fourth sector” of the economy emerged among business enterprises (“benefit corporations”), which act like mission-driven nonprofit organizations. Meanwhile, psychologists turned to the study of emotional intelligence and launched the field of Positive Psychology in books like Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, Positivity, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

A tipping point came in 2011 with Steven Pinker’s monumental study of the human struggle to emerge from barbarism to global knowledge-based civilization. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker marshaled an array of evidence 24,000 miles wide and 10,000 years deep, demolishing the popular but cynical media-fed myth that people are getting more violent and more depraved. Pinker’s analysis traced transforming factors over several millennia, including written laws enforced by governments, trade and commerce requiring cooperation across geographic boundaries, religious institutions bolstering moral reciprocity (in various Golden Rules), widespread literacy, democratic forms of social organization, the escalator of reason, the widening circle of empathy, and the growing impact of women in public life.

Metaphorically, this elevator pitch has now taken you to the top of the Empire State Building. Enjoy the view as you contemplate the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt the power of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Be True to Your School

Our Better Angels is devoted to education and philanthropy. We aim to help young people understand the mission and functions of nonprofit organizations, charities, and Good Causes of all sorts in our global village. We also aim to help them develop their leadership skills and values in the service of nonprofits, charities, and Good Causes.

Thus we encourage young people and not-so-young people to support the schools and colleges in their own communities and around the world by joining the Better Angels Community, choosing their school or their alma mater as their designated Good Cause, and then inviting at least two other members to join the Better Angels Community. Meanwhile, OBA will support this process through its social media, You Tube clips, Speakers’ Circle, and other channels. And our perpetual reciprocal worldwide crowd-funding system will match the first-year dues of all new members. In other words, when our new Angels pay it forward, we pay them back.

The 2010 census and the US Chamber of Commerce note that the US includes 98,000 public schools, 1,400 four-year colleges, at least 50 million primary and secondary students, at least 100 million high-school graduates, and at least 50 million college graduates. There are also 4,300 universities around the world. Our Better Angels is an infant organization right now, but we want to reach out to all those schools, all those colleges, and all those potential Angels. If we can grow the Better Angels Community to just one percent of one percent of that total population by 2020, we will be off to a good start. If you join, you can help us help others help others.

And we have a theme song for all of this: Be True to Your School



Me, Us, and Everybody

At birth, we are all tiny, ignorant, and helpless. If we’re lucky, we grow, we learn, and we gain independence. If we are really lucky and work hard, we grow stronger, gain wisdom, and live long enough to make a difference in the world.

Universal human experience and piles of psychological research indicate that the unfolding of the life cycle from infancy through childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age typically involves passages through several stages. Abraham Maslow described the stages of human need, from survival to security to belonging to ego expression to integrity and meaning. Several students of moral development have traced the journey from total absorption with self to concern for immediate reference groups like family and tribe to universal empathy and compassion for all people, all animals, and the planetary natural environment. At Our Better Angels, we just call these stages Me, Us, and Everybody.

Our Better Angels tries to reflect those natural stages of human development and respond to the human needs for individual satisfaction, tribal-national welfare, and universal compassion. We do that by supporting, promoting, and celebrating good people, good works, and good causes of all sorts. We build bridges linking all our Good Causes in a global network of perpetual and reciprocal crowd funding.

Thanks to our affiliation with the Wisconsin Leadership Institute, Our Better Angels is also devoted to developing effective and ethical leadership skills and values for the long-term future. Thus we especially welcome young people who want to develop their skills and values while learning about the nature and functions of philanthropy in the global economy. We call them Herald Angels and we help them help us help others through social media, educational video, Speakers’ Circle presentations, and special events.








Entertaining Angels


(This blog post is adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Congregational Church of Ripon on September 4, 2016. The title is taken from Hebrews 13:2 – “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” You can also listen to the sermon itself here.)

Today’s scripture reading recognizes that we are often skittish about strangers. Don’t they look a little different? Isn’t their complexion a little odd? Don’t they dress a little funny? And what’s with those hairdos? Can’t they pronounce words correctly? Maybe they speak a whole different language – so how are we supposed to know what they’re really saying behind our backs? Or even right in front of us? Lots of people say they practice weird religious rituals.

OK, settle down. The verse from Hebrews doesn’t suggest any of that. It urges us to look beyond the strangeness of strangers. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

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Bonding and Bridging

In his 2000 widely influential study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam studied social capital – resources that build and support positive social interactions within a community. He compared two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging.

Bonding social capital is generated by Good Causes – schools, faith communities, service clubs, even bowling leagues – by attracting people who bond with each other and with the purposes of the organization. Such Good Causes, however, also build bridges to other Good Causes to sustain a ripple effect of good works among a wider and wider community of good people doing good things together.

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Better Angels Educational Materials

Video programs in the Leadership Skills and Values series:

Moral Values and Effective Leadership investigates the links between moral and ethical behavior and effective leadership. It examines the ways in which individuals make moral and ethical decisions and argues that empathy is the most important aspect of moral and ethical leadership. (45:00)

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Service: The Heart of Leadership traces the essential links between effective leadership behavior and devotion to serving a larger cause. It stresses the importance of Robert Greenleaf’s notion of servant leadership and applies its central insights to seven contemporary examples. (25:00) Watch the teaser below.

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What Leaders Need to Know summarizes information about the nature of effective leadership behavior in all environments and provides insights about balancing successful goal achievement with the need to maintain productive relationships within any group. It addresses the six primary contingencies affecting any leadership process: individual leader character, follower characteristics, group goals and tasks, available resources, group size and structure, and pressures of the surrounding environment. (36:00)

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Personal Mastery for Effective Leadership: You Are Your Own Best Teacher is built on the insight that leaders in all walks of life must learn to manage their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors before they can hope to lead other people effectively. It identifies the major obstacles to personal mastery and outlines several basic disciplines for developing the habits that make for individual effectiveness, especially in leadership roles. (40:00)

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The Communication Cycle at Work traces the basic processes of communication in all forms: from a sender, through a message channel, to a receiver, in an environment of feedback and noise. It provides basic distinctions between the major networks of communication: intrapersonal, interpersonal, small-group, public address, organizational, and mass media. It focuses on the nature and functions of nonverbal cues and listening behavior as keys to effective leadership and group goal achievement. (40:00)

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Working Together: Keys to Collaborative Leadership addresses the advantages of and challenges to effective collaborative leadership under a variety of circumstances. Among the most dangerous internal obstacles to effective collaborative leadership are ignorance, fear, anger, groupthink, ideology, and short-term thinking. Conversely, for effective collaborative leadership, we need courage, self-control, rational thinking, long-term perspective, open communication, and reliable knowledge. (38:00)

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The Power of Vision at Work addresses the capacity of the most effective and far-reaching leaders – sometimes called “visionaries” – not only to see clearly what is going on around them, but also to see what should be going on even when it’s not. It summarizes the processes of forming inspiring visions and offers suggestions for developing commitment to productive visions within groups. (39:00)


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The Courage to Lead: Putting Fear in Its Place notes that courage is a primary and necessary virtue for effective behavior in all walks of life in all times and places, and leaders generally require extra doses of courage, since they must speak up and take responsibility for results when others fail to do so. This program notes that courage is not the absence of fear but the recognition that something else is more important than fear. And for leaders, the most critical form of courage is moral courage, the recognition that the welfare of others is more important than one’s own personal safety. (38:00)

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Interpersonal Communication at Work addresses the strengths and limitations of interpersonal communication, which is direct communication between just two people. Interpersonal communication can be the most open, honest and trustworthy form of communication, but it can also be susceptible to manipulation. It offers the advantages of immediate feedback and rich nonverbal cues. This program provides practical tips for effective interpersonal communication. (38:00)

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Religion, Politics, Church, and State considers both the functional and dysfunctional aspects of religious and political institutions worldwide. Though all the world’s religious and political systems are founded on legitimate moral values, they are all subject to the distortions and corruptions of power, authority, and ideology, which all too often lead to injustice and even fatal violence. Dr. Smith outlines ways we can honor the legitimate functions of religion and politics while maintaining the integrity and security of all citizens. (45:16)

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Trust, Motivation, and Engagement at Work looks first at causes and symptoms of dissatisfaction and disengagement at work. It identifies trust as a key factor in productive and satisfying work relationships, and outlines the hallmarks of leadership that generate trust, commitment, and engagement within a team. In today’s complex, high-tech world, leaders must go well beyond simple compliance to galvanize the highest levels of motivation to keep workers, followers, and colleagues motivated. (39:00)

Thinking Together: Effective Decision-Making in Groups investigates the promise and the pitfalls of group decision-making and group productivity in general. It outlines the reasons why small groups can frequently make better decisions than individuals; identifies complexity, competition, and distraction as primary obstacles to effective meetings; and summarizes three proven strategies to prepare for effective decision-making in groups: dialogue, the six-hats method, and the world café experience. (40:00)

Effective Leadership Styles investigates the nature of personal style in leadership roles, starting with the recognition that style is always the outward expression of character and personality. In a leadership role, styles reflect the demands of task completion, goal achievement, and relationship pressures within a group. The standard academic approach identifies three distinct leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez faire. This program summarizes three additional approaches to development of effective leadership styles which have proven worthy for more than two generations. (38:00)

Ethics and the Media: The Problem of Bias addresses the challenges of providing useful news and information for a democratic society. The program features a panel of journalists and academics, and its primary focus is on problems of real or perceived bias driven by politics, culture, ideology, gender, age, profession, and other factors. (55:00)

Ethics and the Environment: The Power of Green features environmental activist and CEO of the Future 500 Bill Shireman discussing collaborative strategies to integrate corporate interests with the long-term goals of the environmental movement. He summarizes the transforming concept of the triple bottom line balancing economic value with social and environmental concerns and concludes with three success stories in which seemingly intractable problems were solved through collaborative leadership. (54:00)

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Ethics and the Environment: The Re-Use Movement: A Sustainable Business Concept features Nicole Roost presenting the case for recycling, repurposing, and reusing materials of all sorts, not only as a way to protect the natural environment, but also as a viable and profitable business strategy. Roost is one of the founders of the Saving Grace Salvage Company, a successful business that relies entirely on profitable strategies for recycling, repurposing, and reusing a wide variety of items. (47:00)

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Leadership Lessons Learned at Starbucks: It’s Not About the Coffee showcases Howard Behar, former CEO of Starbucks, summarizing the key values that drove not only his own success as a business executive but also the success of Starbucks as a company. In Behar’s inspiring and amusing stories, the importance of valuing people over profits emerges as a key to long-term effectiveness, as opposed to short-term payoffs. He also notes the primary leadership lesson that he learned as a young and rising manager: to “wear one hat” rather than switching metaphorical hats or personas to impress others. (53:00)

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Making and Keeping Peace: The Basics of Peace Studies addresses the fundamentals of peace studies, including the impact of early childhood experience, the roles of corporal punishment and competitive games, and the relationships between individual behavior and cultural expectations. His presentation addresses the potential for violence within the individual, between two individuals, within small groups, and in larger collectives like organizations and communities. (50:00)

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An Introduction to Strategic Planning examines the key steps for developing habits and systems for creating effective strategic plans. Illustrations include a variety of nonprofit organizations presented by organizational consultant Frank Martinelli. (53:00)

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Programs About Saving Endangered Species

Saving the Ghost Birds: Whooping Cranes and Their Human Partners is the inspiring story of the Whooping Crane Recovery Project, told in narrative, first-person interviews, and stunning film footage. (55:00)

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Humans of the Sea: Killer Whales and the People Who Watch Them explores the unique and occasionally eerie connection between people and a clan of killer whales living near the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Featuring footage from “the best place in the world to watch killer whales from land,” prominent scientists, boat captains, and everyday folk reveal research discoveries, stories of close encounters, and the special challenges facing this beloved group of killer whales. (55:00)

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Winning, Losing, and Working Together

Some say competition, even more than love, makes the world go round.

Business leaders frequently trumpet the virtues of competition and seek the secrets of competitiveness. Competition drives reality TV, where winners may be treated not just like survivors but like idols. (By definition, of course, an idol is a false god.) A popular film recently featured a competition between Batman and Superman – two superheroes who have historically been committed to the welfare of the human community, suddenly turned into self-serving rivals.

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Connecting Dots

Our Better Angels was created by connecting several disparate dots:

The Leadership Education Movement: In 1978, publication of James McGregor Burns’s monumental study, Leadership, launched a global movement based on the recognition that leadership skills and values are learned rather than genetically inherited and that leadership behavior is ultimately a reciprocal, democratic process subject to the consent of the governed, not just the whims of the powerful.

The Philanthropic Boom: For decades, nonprofit activity has been growing faster than business and faster than government. Nonprofit activity provides goods and services that business can’t provide but which don’t qualify for government support because they don’t benefit society in general. People choose to donate money and time to nonprofit organizations because of what they stand for, and they don’t get any material rewards in return. As the general population of advanced societies has enjoyed longer life spans, better health, and increased wealth, more and more people are experiencing the need for a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives – thus the philanthropic boom.

The Internet: Thanks to digital media technologies, every human being on earth can now communicate directly in real time with any other human being on earth. The Internet, the World Wide Web, and a variety of social media now connect us in a truly global village. The Internet has expanded the philanthropic boom through a variety of crowd-funding and cause-marketing initiatives. Our Better Angels will attempt to create new ways to access and leverage the Internet to help everybody help everybody.

Microfunding: The ability to transform small amounts of money into significant economic and social improvements has been demonstrated by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their microloan programs. They made very small loans, mostly to impoverished women, to support small-scale entrepreneurial activities. At Our Better Angels, we believe that building a community on small amounts of annual dues from many members is a better deal than catering to a small number of large donors with big bank accounts. Furthermore, we believe that the impact of Big Money in our political, social, and spiritual realms has become toxic. We will accept large-ish donations from generous donors, but we won’t seek them proactively and we will use them largely to support other Good Causes.

The Ice Bucket Challenge: In 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised millions of dollars for ALS research from personal challenges issued by individuals to other individuals they knew. Our Better Angels was born by asking “what if there were an on-going organization that encouraged generous individuals to invite other generous individuals to support Good Causes of their own choosing rather than just one Good Cause in one entertaining spurt of generosity?” Our Better Angels aspires to be such an organization and to raise significant income for Good Causes of all sorts, identified and supported by our member Angels. We won’t ask anyone to dump anything on their heads, but we will transform the Ice Bucket metaphor into the “Ice Bucket List” metaphor. We are less interested in bucket lists of things people want to have or do or achieve for themselves, and much more interested in Good Causes that people want to support before they kick the metaphorical bucket.

Steven Johnson talks about where ideas like these come from in the following video clip.