Three Cups of Tea

Apparently, a lot of people have read Three Cups of Tea, the book about Greg Mortenson’s work building schools in rural, mountainous Pakistan. Many have written reviews, and some have disputed his details (though not the broader story).

The normal reaction is to be amazed and inspired by the tenacity and success of this unusual character. And I don’t want to downplay that too much. But I look at the story from the perspective of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers; Carol Dweck’s Mindset; and Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick (among other important books).

From those perspectives, here is a very unusual American who is most comfortable living with and working to help rural, mountainous tribes halfway across the world. It is no great mystery why he is good at that; Mortenson grew up in a foreign country with both parents dedicating their working lives to charity projects. He served in the army, learning to cope with discomfort and yet more foreign cultures and situations. He went to nursing school, learning to listen and care for patients. And finally, he spent many years practicing rock climbing and mountaineering, learning to survive in that sparse, rugged landscape. When he stumbles into Haji Ali’s village, he finally, miraculously, finds himself at home.

From that perspective, here is the story of a man who desperately, tenaciously tries to find a way to return to what he is most comfortable with. Psychologically, he is not unusual. What’s unusual is his exotic set of skills.

It’s easy for us to read this story and think about how hard it would be to leave home, live in medieval conditions for months, and organize the building of schools in hostile political and geographical terrain. But that is because we, unlike Mortenson, do not have extensive training doing charity work in primitive and hostile environments, and we do not feel at home in foreign countries.

From this perspective, I think the most interesting (and entertaining) aspects of the story are what he is not good at.

First, fundraising. He writes five hundred letters to celebrities he has never met. Later, he gives slideshow after slideshow all across the country to audiences essentially at random. He certainly understands tenacity; that’s how you win at rock climbing. But the way you win at fundraising is through connections and the media. The only significant money Mortenson ever received was accidental. A friend with connections to the mountaineering society writes an article for their newsletter, which is noticed by a wealthy ex-climber. Later, soon after 9/11, a journalist friend passes the story to a leading magazine, whose editors for the first time figure out how to describe the charity in a way that sticks: “books, not bombs.” Their cover story finally generates widespread donations. In all, Mortenson wastes years of time doing poorly thought out fundraising that has a minuscule probability of success. He read countless books on southeast asian culture and politics, but no books on effective fundraising. He should have responded to his failure by learning more or asking for help. He worked hard, where he should have worked smart.

Second, delegating. Here, Mortenson gradually improves over the course of the story. He delegates tasks that he is obviously not prepared for, such as driving, bargaining, and translating. But he only stops micromanaging the construction of the schools after Haji Ali (his most trusted mentor) walks him up a mountain and forces him to relent. And throughout the story he continues to insist on personally overseeing all of the projects that the organization undertakes. The board eventually convinces Mortenson to hire a few assistants for donor relations, website, etc., but he never hires another person to do the core work of overseeing the charity projects. In other words, he is ineffective at scaling the organization beyond what is essentially a one-man show. Again, this is not surprising, given that Mortenson has no training or experience in management. But he does not study management nor hire managers to make up for this shortcoming. Instead, he keeps the organization small.

If Mortenson’s true goal was to serve as many needy communities as possible in the rural Himalaya, he would be expanding the organization by training new generations of staff and volunteers to do the same work that he does, and he would be hiring fundraising and publicity experts to spread the word and apply much-needed political pressure.

But that’s not his goal. His goal is the same as all of us. To find our way home.

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