No Excuse, Sir/Ma’am ☑

On R-Day, my first day as a “new cadet” at West Point, back in the summer of 1987, I was taught my four responses. These four responses were to be the only acceptable answers to questions upperclass cadets might ask me for my entire plebe year. I remember somebody much bigger than me in a very stern voice showing me my four responses and giving me the opportunity to recite them from memory until I got it right.

And I still remember them 32+ years later: 

Yes, sir/ma’am.

No, sir/ma’am. 

Sir/ma’am, I do not understand.

No excuse, sir!


Perhaps not surprisingly, for something so seemingly simple, under the duress of R-Day it took me a couple tries to get it right! Since I wasn’t taking selfies on R-day back in 1987, I’ve included a stock photo below that pretty much captures the gist of my first year of college. 


Thus began my plebe year – an extraordinary context based on the premise that you can’t be a leader until you’re a good follower first. And one in which just about every aspect of your behavior and character receive copious amounts of feedback, to put it in the most positive terms. 


Physical hazing wasn’t allowed but verbal hazing was the norm, and the smallest mistake or poor decision was noticed by somebody. This gave me lots of opportunities to unlearn the habit of making excuses. Here’s what it would look like:

Upperclass Cadet: ”Cadet Kanis, your shoes look like a dog literally took a shit on them. Did you shine them with a Hershey Bar?  I guess you’re just too good to shine your shoes anymore, huh? You’re better than the rest of us now, right?”  (yelling at me, and inch away from my face, with bad breath, too).


Me: **has a reasonable explanation and attempts to offer it ** 


Upperclass Cadet:  “NO EXCUSE, SIR, right Kanis? NO EXCUSE, SIR” ** continues hazing me but now it’s no longer about my failure to shine my shoes but about my attempt to make an excuse


Here’s the thing that’s totally bananas – you’d think I’d figure it out pretty quickly, right? ** JUST SAY NO EXCUSE, Sir!!! ** but I couldn’t make myself do it!! Becuase I had an excuse. It took me a solid 6 to 8 months of my plebe year and plenty of unnecessary suffering to get out of the habit of offering excuses


For the record I also had a really difficult time “removing that smirk from my face.” Military bearing took a tremendous amount of effort for me and even now I have nothing resembling a poker face! If I think something is funny, I am gonna laugh! But that’s a story for another day. 


What would your life be like if you spent zero energy justifying your own behavior or trying to explain to someone how they misunderstood you? I’m not saying don’t apologize and commit to doing better going forward, especially if you’ve caused harm. But I am saying it might be more efficient if nothing else for you to dispense with the habit of making excuses once and for all. 


Next time you find yourself wanting to defend your behavior, try “no excuse” on for size and see what happens. You just might free yourself up from a whole lot of wasted energy so you can get on with the important work of making the world a better place.


What Percentage of Time Are You Contributing from Your Genius? 💡💡💡

I hope you had a restful holiday and that your 2020 is off to a great start. I received a lot of interest from people in accessing our New Years Eve reflection questions. The original link was to a draft page – sorry – so I’m added them here again just in case. My wife, Christine, and I answered them as is our custom and as usual, doing so yielded plenty of insights for us to bring forward into the new year. 

Two of the things I am most excited about in the year ahead is I will be publishing my first book (!!) by the summer and we’ll be rolling out a brand new, shorter, less expensive workshop in the fall. I’ve gotten crystal clear that I want to support people who are working to make the world a better place in being happy, loving their work, and doing the most good possible. The new book and workshop were designed with exactly that in mind. More on both soon! 

Speaking of being happy and loving your work, I wanted to share a tool that I developed many years ago to help me reckon with how I was choosing to spend my time as the Director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign for Community Solutions, the “Genius Tracker.” 

Once again, I was at a workshop led by Katie Hendricks when she asked us this question: “What percent of your time are you willing to commit to spending in your genius?” By genius she meant things where I lose track of time, I’m really really good at it, so good, in fact, that it doesn’t even feel like “work.” For a much deeper dive into this concept, I recommend her husband, Gay Hendricks’ books, The Big Leap and the Joy of Genius.

When Katie asked me that question, I realized I had no idea what my baseline genius was. So being well-versed in continuous quality improvement, I decided to go about getting that baseline data. I created the genius tracker as a spreadsheet and kept it as an open tab on my laptop for four weeks. I recorded every single thing I did, how long it took, and whether or not I experienced myself in my zone of genius, excellence (which is you’re good at it, but it still feels like “work”), my competence, or my incompetence.

After a month of tracking, I realized that I was spending about 43% of my time in my genius. I used what I had learned to proactively change some agreements with my colleagues that resulted in me – and several others, too – being able to contribute from a much greater percentage of our genius. 

I thought it might be a nice gift to share the Genius Tracker with you so you can get some baseline data for yourself and start your new year off right. Please let me know if you use it and what percentage you discover. In the coming weeks I plan to answer your questions about how you can spend more time in your genius so please circle back!


p.s. If somebody sent you this email, sign-up here to receive weekly inspiration and practical pointers on leading large-scale change.  

The January 2020 Skid Row School is FULL 

The only  Skid Row School for Large-Scale Change in 2020 will be January 28th – 31st in Pomona, CA on the CAL POLY campus is full. If you’d like to get on the waiting list, please email Selena at

Work as a team to design your plan for the next iteration of scale. Address any hidden group dynamics that might hold you back. Leave with a plan to scale in hand. We will offer this again in 2021 and will also be rolling out a new workshop that maps to the book we’ll be releasing later next year!

Unleashing Social Change Podcast Season 2 is Out!

Each week we will release a new episode but four interviews with amazing change leaders are already up on itunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Check these out:

Jake Maguire from Community Solutions on what happened after the 100k Homes Campaign ended.  If you stick around til the very end you will get to hear him tell me a hilarious story that cracks me up to this day.

Chris Chatmon from Kingmakers of Oakland on transforming schools to work for black and brown boys.

Bruce Nilles from the Rocky Mountain Institute on climate change as an equity issue and why your natural gas appliances are no good.

Peter O’Driscoll from the Equitable Food Initiative about how they’ve worked with the entire food production cycle to get healthy produce and fair wages for everyone. 

Find Out More

Bye-bye 2019, Bring it on, 2020! 🎉🎉🎉

I’m hoping this finds you in the midst of a luxurious holiday, enjoying some down-time with loved ones.

Wherever you are, I have a few cool things I want to share with you.

1. Every New Years Eve since 2000, I have asked myself these same personal vision questions. The nutty thing is that just about everything that I’ve journaled about has become real in my life – one thing in particular became real 19 years later this year! Previously I’ve only shared this with our fellows but it’s so powerful that I want to share it with you, too.

2. Selena Liu Raphael, our Operations Manager, was interviewed for this Pregnantish Podcast about being a single mother by choice and her process in choosing a sperm donor. I cried happy tears twice while listening to her story and wanted to give you this chance to know this amazing person who does so much to make the Billions Institute hum and sparkle.

3. In case you missed it, episodes of Season 2 of our podcast, Unleashing Social Change, are available now – with more being released each week. Here are the top 3 most downloaded in 2019.

Dan Heath: A Primer on Behavior Change
Angele Davenport: Grounding Your Work in Racial & Social Justice
Dr. Kate Hurley: How Two Veterinarians Launched a Movement That has Saved Over 2 Million Cats from Unnecessary Euthanization

January 1st marks the five year anniversary of the Billions Institute so Happy New Year and Happy Anniversary to Us!! And to you, too! I feel so proud of what we’ve created together so far, and so excited for what’s to come! 


p.s. If somebody sent you this email, sign-up here to receive weekly inspiration and practical pointers on leading large-scale change.

Last Day to Register for the only Skid Row School in 2020 is Dec 31st! 

The next (and only!)  Skid Row School for Large-Scale Change in 2020 will be January 28th – 31st, 2020 in Pomona, CA on the CAL POLY campus. Work as a team to design your plan for the next iteration of scale. Address any hidden group dynamics that might hold you back. Leave with a plan to scale in hand. We will offer this again in 2021 and will also be rolling out a new workshop that maps to the book we’ll be releasing later next year!

Anti-Racism for White People: 

My amazing wife, Christine Margiotta, is launching version 2.0 of her year-long course, Anti-Racism for White People: Walking the Walk. This virtual course creates a deeply reflective and action-oriented community to explore how to be agents of interpersonal, organizational, and systemic change in service of racial justice.

This course is open to anyone regardless of location or affiliation with SVP and it is FREE  (though donations are graciously accepted).

I took it last year, will be taking it again next year, and I know I am biased but it is really good.

Please note that while this course is again focused on growing the community of white people engaged in the work of racial justice, they welcome and deeply appreciate folks of color who are interested in partnering with white people on this journey. 

On Building a Bigger Corral 🐎🐐🐓🐕🐖🐂

In the summer of 2011, I found myself in a workshop with the Hendricks Institute in Ventura, California. This workshop changed the course of my life and I want to share one of the brightest gems with you. 

What brought me to the workshop was that I wanted to fix my relationship with my then girfriend, Christine. We had been together for just over a year and predictably, shit had gotten real. We were caught in a cycle of blame, criticism, and power struggles. Therapy had been no help to us – at least not the therapist we had chosen at the time. This workshop with Dr. Kathlyn Hendricks was a last ditch effort to recussitate our relationship. 

The final day of the workshop, we mustered up the courage to approach Dr. Hendricks during a break. With tears streaming down both our cheeks, we told her that we were afraid that we were just too different to be compatible. Katie, as we now know her, registered our concern, put her hands on our shoulders like a coach in a huddle, and reassured us with these words: “You two clearly love one another. You just need to build a bigger corral.” 

We wiped away the tears, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and got to work on building that bigger corral. Fast forward to today, we’re living happily ever after, married with two beautiful children and a  cat named Sneakers. In fact, Katie herself officiated our wedding the following year. 

As many of us are heading into the Thanksgiving break with various configurations of relatives who put the fun in dysfunction, I thought it might be helpful to pay it forward by sharing Katie’s words of wisdom with you. 

How can you build a bigger corral for yourself – the wiggle room to be your most authentic self – and how can you extend that graciousness to others, too? 

Lemme know how it goes! 

Meanwhile, if you’re bracing for heated debates about religion and politics, two of my favorite podcasts from our first season of Unleashing Social Change might be worth a listen (or re-listen) as you make your way to wherever you’re going: 

Andrew Hanauer Director of the One America Movement talks about overcoming polarization.  

Cheryl Graeve, National Organizer for the National Institute for Civil Discourse talks about bridging any divide. 

And just in case, here is a helpful resource that my wife, Christine, shared with us last week in her Anti-Racism for White People course (now enrolling for 2020): 

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle’s “How to Talk to Your Family about Racism on Thanksgiving.”


What’s your “work costume?” 🎃

I just got back from giving a keynote address to the fabulous Missouri and Illinois Community Behavioral Health Conference in St. Louis. They asked me to stay afterwards and do a session, which I was so happy to do. I hadn’t planned anything ahead of time – I just thought a few people would have some questions after the keynote, we’d bang those out, and they could go to a more interesting session. 




The breakout room was literally packed! And I am a huge fan of interactive, experiential learning so I had to figure out something fast! 


I asked about a half-dozen people in the room what they thought this session was going to be, figuring that might inform my decision with what to do with all these people who’ve come to see me! 


Folks popcorned out a wide variety of things they wanted to explore so I decided on the spot to introduce them to a key framework we use as the basis for our two-year fellowship. Basically taking any leadership issue or challenge and exploring how you are showing up in relationship to it. The gist of it is this: 

  1. Are you noticing everything that wants and needs to be noticed? 

  2. Are you allowing yourself to experience fully your own body wisdom by tuning into your sensations and emotions? 

  3. Are you expressing yourself unarguably and in a way that can be heard? 

  4. And are you taking action in an aligned way on the things that matter to you most? 


I’ve found that again and again – anytime there’s a glitch in my own attempts to make ripples of positive change in the world – something has gone awry in one of those four areas. 


So we did a live case study with an incredibly brave and generous volunteer who is endeavoring heroically to navigate what seems to be a rigid and confining bureaucratic system that’s shaping how behavioral health services are delivered. 


In our live coaching interaction, she said something that I think is SO common – so widespread – that we almost take it for granted. Something so common that I want to bring it up here and see if we might loosen this up a little bit for all of us. 


She said something along the lines of, “are you asking that question of me, or me in my role?” 


And I realized immediately that she experienced daylight between who she is – her essence – and who she believes she has to be to do her job. That they’re not one and the same.

I looked out to the audience – who by the way was captivated by this brave woman’s willingness to learn in public – it really is so interesting when people are willing to do this – I have such mad respect for this woman, and I asked the crowd, “does anybody else feel this way? Like you have to put on a work costume when you go to work and that you can’t be yourself?” And a whole sea of heads bobbed up and down in agreement. 


Yup. We put on our work costumes. 


Just in time for Halloween…




Ok my dear friends. Organazations are set up to grant people responsibility as in, “this is yours to do or see to it that it gets done,” and authority as in, “this is how much authority you have to execute your responsibility.” And often there are mis-matches between responsibility and authority, usually where you have too much responsibility and not enough authority to see to it that it gets done. Which leaves us to leverage our good looks and personality and I speak from experience – that only gets me so far! But that’s it – just responsibility and authority. Anything else is made up. And since it’s made up – we can make up something different. 


What are the ways that you feel like you cannot be yourself in your work? Go ahead and name them right now. 


I know from my own experience that for 9 years I served in the military before the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ so I chose to conceal my sexual orientation Every. Single. Day. And it was soul crushing. It’s terrible not to be your true self at work. I get it. And it’s not ok. It’s not sustainable. 


Once you’re clear on the ways that you fit yourself into a work costume, here are some questions to consider: Are you sure you can’t be true to yourself? What’s the worst that would happen? Is there something you would say that you don’t believe you are permitted to say in your role? What would you say if you could? Is there something you would do that you don’t believe you can do in your role? What would you do? 


Even if you don’t say or do those things, at the very least take a minute and be honest with yourself about what those things are. That’s a start.


Maybe this Halloween season you could find one part of your true self that you’ve been holding back – one authentic communication or action – and just as a small test – see what would happen if you allowed yourself to say/do that one thing (assuming it’s legal, ethical and moral! Don’t get carried away, folks!) 


Here’s what I believe in my heart: the work to transform the world is done by real people being true to themselves, taking responsibility for what matters to them, one ripple effect of authentic communication or aligned action at a time. Being true to our roles won’t save the world. Being true to ourselves might. 


What’s the worst that could happen? 


Bonus points for anyone who sends me pictures of themselves in actual Halloween costumes! That’s me, my wife, and our kids as the “Daniel Tiger Family” last year. Happy Halloween and cheers to liberating yourselves from constraining roles just a little bit this week.