Thursday, December 17, 2009

Some Ideas Whose Time Has Come (Again)

The other day the WSJ ran a story on a low-tech craze sweeping Silicon Valley—entrepreneurial evenings devoted to the board game “Settlers of Catan.”  Of course, in SV it’s called “live networking” (where we used to just call it “game night”), but it’s all the same thing: people moving off their keyboards and socializing in person.  How quaint.

That’s not the only oldie but goldie making a comeback as we round the bend into a new decade.  Look at what’s happening on TV.  The biggest hit, attracting 22 million viewers every week, is “NCIS.”   As the WSJ reports, it “barely has a fan Web site. . .its viewers seldom time-shift,” and they are anything but the “young, urban demographic” that advertisers craze.  But “’NCIS’ is proof that even if the economics of the business are in upheaval, large swathes of the audience still want traditional storytelling, righteous heroes, and reality that’s not offensively gritty.”  Producers even say they avoid parochial or offensive humor.  How quaint.

(What's next?  Do you suppose people will begin playing solitaire again with actual cards?)

How about this: AOL is once again independent. The company that introduced many of us to the Web was also, ten years ago, supposed to herald the new era of synergistic “old and new media” when it combined with Time Warner.  The result has been an unmitigated disaster with more than $100 billion in shareholder value lost.  Earlier this month the companies separated, both as smaller entities, mostly (in the case of AOL) behind the competition, or (in the case of Time, Fortune and People) trying to weather the advertising recession and movement of eyeballs to the Web.  Old media is once again old media and looking for ways to survive and grow.  New media is once again new media and battling for technological advantage.  How quaint.

An article by Alan Tonelson in the recent Harper's magazine suggests “old things new” in national economics far transcends even the AOL/Time Warner debacle.  Tonelson says the story our business and political leaders have been telling us for decades, that the alarming decline in the U.S. manufacturing sector was simply the ushering in of a spectacular new era of information technologies—well, that story turned out to be so wrong.

It seems that manufacturing, something we used to be good at, might be something we really should be good at again, and fast.  “Today,” Tonelson writes, “the idea of maintaining a genuine American prosperity without a vibrant manufacturing sector stands exposed as a fairy tale.”

“American business leaders are cooling their long infatuation with ‘post-industrialism,’” Tonelson adds.  “Manufacturing is suddenly all the rage.  After forty years of outsourcing and globalization, business leaders are beginning to understand that real, self-sustaining American recovery and prosperity require a manufacturing base that is not only highly productive and innovative but is a much larger share of gross domestic product.”

Americans building real stuff.  How quaint.

I could go on.  Remember the age of conglomerates in the 1960s, which all came to a screeching halt when we were warned (by In Search of Excellence) to “stick to the knitting” and by folks like Chris Zook to “profit from the core?”  Well, when the world’s largest, revered on-line bookseller expands into blenders and socks, it seems like a logical expansion from the core.  But cloud computing?  E-book hardware?   Or how about when the world’s largest search engine, the-greatest-company-built-on-algorithms-ever-devised-by-man decides to launch its own phone?  Algorithm. . .search. . .hardware.  Of course--a natural progression from the core.  Sounds like the 1960s to me.  Very quaint.   

And, how about the coming disaster in cloud computing, or so tech prognosticator Mark Andersen predicts.  With everyone, big and small, storing sensitive corporate, consumer and personal data “somewhere else, in somebody else’s server” (my simple definition of “the cloud”), the time is ripe for massive espionage, fraud and theft.   That’ll encourage lots of folks, big and small, to reconsider where they store their sensitive data.  Some may even keep it on a server in their company or home.  How quaint.

Finally, and unlike (I reported) last holiday season, Christmas tree sales are exploding.  This is a good sign for all retailers, and a good sign for the economy.  More spending.  More stuff under the tree.  The Ghost of Christmas Past.

Maybe someone will even buy me a board game, like “Settlers of Catan.”  One that I could play with real people, in person.  Live networking in my own home.

Old things new.  How quaint.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thinking About Thinking

One of the sub-industries that has developed in parallel with the growth of digitization and the Internet is one comprised of smart folks who are valiantly trying to divine what this assault of information is doing to our noggins.

If you are in your 70s, of course, you’ve been absorbing and adjusting to things like television and computers (plus civil rights, globalization and the sexual revolution) for decades--no small feat.  If you are in your 170s, there’s also been the telegraph and telephone, as well as the onslaught of print media (plus flight, the automobile, the corporation, a bunch of world wars and revolutions, and 25 different kinds of Coke, too). 

In fact, our brains have been under full-out, ever-shifting assault since at least the start of the Industrial Revolution.
A recent study makes the point:
Households in the United States consumed a mind-boggling total of 3.6 zettabytes of information and 10,845 trillion words in 2008.  That's a daily average of 33.8 gigabytes of information and 100,564 words per person.  Put another way, it's the equivalent of covering the continental United States and Alaska in a 7-foot-high stack of Dan Brown novels.
"We're all on information overload for good reason," said Roger Bohn, the study's lead author and a professor of management at UC San Diego.  "The amount we can assimilate is only a little bit more than what our ancestors could assimilate, but the amount that's available to us now is many orders of magnitude more," said Bohn, director of the school's Global Information Industry Center.
The UC San Diego researchers said the bulk of the bytes consumed came from three sources - nearly 54.6 percent from computer games, 34.7 percent through television and 9.8 percent from movies.  The average American receives information 11.8 hours of each day, or about 75 percent of the average time a person is awake, the report said. That compares to an average 4.3 hours per day based on a 1960 study.
Let’s emphasize Mr. Bohn’s observation: “The amount we can assimilate is only a little bit more than what our ancestors could assimilate, but the amount that’s available to us now is many orders of magnitude more.”  Therein likes the rub.  If we want to be productive, responsive and just plain healthy, it sounds as if our brains need to find new ways to cope.

All of which brings us back to the smart folks who are thinking about thinking. 

In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink takes perhaps the most extreme of positions, saying that the “keys to the kingdom are changing hands”—that the kind of person who dominated life in the last few decades—“computer programmers who crank code. . .MBAs who could crunch numbers”—are giving way to people with very different minds:  “Creator and emphathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.”

We’re moving, Mr. Pink tells us, from “an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.”

Mr. Pink then goes on to posit that, as the left hemisphere of the brain analyzes details, the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture.  So, you left-brained folks who scored high on the SAT, became CPAs and thought you had the world on a string—beware.  The right-brained folks are going to take over the world.

Between you and me, I don’t cotton much to Mr. Pink’s theory; if nothing else, it’s hard to find a time, at least since the Industrial Revolution, when the right-brain wasn’t at least pari passu with the left brain and an essential ingredient of success.  To make the case that we’re moving into some new Conceptual Age, when we’ve been living with the need for high concept for several centuries, rings hollow to me.  Still, A Whole New Mind is a fun book to read and not without its charms (or its disciples).

More nuanced and convincing in approach is Roger Martin’s thesis in The Opposable Mind which says that true leadership and genius derive from being able to hold two opposing ideas without succumbing to an either-or decision.

Integrative Thinking is what Dean (of the Rotman School at the University of Toronto) Martin calls this, and it’s “the ability to constructively face the tension of opposing models and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model.”

“The new model contains elements of the individual models but is superior to each.  This means that Integrative Thinkers are model creators, not model takers. Because of this, they are disproportionately able to come up with breakthrough ways of doing things.  They emerge as the admired and revered innovators.”

I like this concept.  It’s a better way of saying what I tried to suggest back in August when I wrote about the Great Imponderables.  There are simply issues that have no clear solution (or two diametrically-opposed, terrible solutions) which we are all expected to solve anyway, issues which great leaders find a way to answer while the rest of us remain stumped. 

There’s clearly a severe disadvantage in Dean Martin’s world to limiting use of the brain to one hemisphere or the other—that is, he doesn't call it Integrative Thinking for nothing.

A bonus in Martin’s book is his many good examples which focus on some of the great innovators in Canada, a pleasant change from the usual Silicon Valley crowd.

Another “thinking thesis” appeared recently in the Harvard Business ReviewCalled The Innovator’s DNA, the article summaries a six-year study to uncover the origins of creative business strategies in particularly innovative companies. 

Leaving aside the fact that the article doesn’t tell us how it defines or measures innovation, or how it rated and selected its examples (which truly are the usual Silicon Valley crowd), Innovator’s DNA still suggests a compelling theory that the most innovative CEOs focus more time than their peers on discovery activities.  These activities include associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking.

Of course, this is another blow to Daniel Pink’s “right-brain-in-ascendance” argument.   Discovery activities absolutely require that innovators engage both sides of their brain.  As Innovator's DNA, Roger Martin, and personal experience all suggest, if you plan to go to war each day, you simply cannot leave half your brain at home.

I would be remiss, too, if I didn’t throw into the mix a book I promised you (last October) that I would never, under any conditions, ever read: The Third Man Factor by John Geiger.  These are the stories of folks like Ernest Shackleton, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, who, when subject to intense stress or monotony, sensed the “presence” of a “third person” or unseen companion who accompanied them, inevitably guiding them to safety.

There’s even a story of a man who escaped the World Trade Tower having a similar experience—being led out by a guardian angel, as it were.

I had goose bumps reading the first part of the book, which I did with all the lights on and my wife close by.  But then—and guardian angel fans should cover their ears here—Geiger begins to explore what might really be happening.  The “third man” phenomenon, which can be recreated in the lab, may well be about “right-brain intrusions into the left hemisphere.”  Cool.  And, while this theory is disputed, there is an extension of this theory that says when the "Third Man" appears, and “seems to be actively assisting someone in need, it is, in fact, a case of someone looking after their own immediate needs.”

Double cool.  The left brain told Shackleton to put one foot in front of the other in the deep Antarctic snow, and the right brain gave him comfort that all would be well through creation of a warm, supportive presence.  It’s further proof that when you strap on your batteries in the morning to do battle, you had better be sure to have both halves of your brain fully-charged.

Finally, and perhaps the best proof that integrative, full-brain thinking has been an imperative for centuries, I stumbled onto a brief but powerful book by Brooke Hindle, a pioneering student in the history of technology (and one badly in need of a Wikipedia entry).  Written in 1981, Emulation and Invention is a discussion of technology in the early American Republic, and in particular, the impact that James Watt's steam engine had after its first public showing in 1776.

As we know, in the early eighteenth century, Americans were a thinly-dispersed people almost entirely engaged in agriculture—poor, dumb farmers scratching the soil with their hoes, just trying to eek out a living.  Yet, in short order, America would come to embrace and then lead the Industrial Revolution.

The reason, Hindle tells us, is that the stereotypical American farmer of the early nineteenth century was mostly myth.  One observer reported that “there is not a working boy of average ability in the New England States. . .who has not an idea of some mechanical invention or improvement. . .by which, in good time, he hopes to better his position, or rise to fortune and social distinction.”

Americans, Hindle says, (thanks to a near-universal elementary school education) “were generally literate and at home in arithmetic, some geometry, and trigonometry.”  Europeans also noted Americans’ remarkable mobility; they moved often from job to job, were able to adopt new processes, and were able to apply solutions across related industries.

Left-brained or right-brained?  Exactly: both.

In fact, the American farmer lived with machines of all sorts, “and a small group of mechanics and artisans worked daily with gears and gear trains, cams, ratchets, escapements, bearings, cylinders, pistons, valves and cocks—the basic elements of which the new machinery was constructed.  Moreover, the machinery the farmer knew—the seed drill, the turpentine and whiskey stills, the gristmills and sawmills, and the clock—were eminently comprehensible to all who worked with them.”

Another observer suggested an American might make “a horseshoe nail more slowly than his European grandfather. . .but he is thinking out a machine which will make it for him twice as well and a hundred times faster.”

In 1833, Michael Chevalier wrote that the American conformed “easily to new situations and circumstances; he is always ready to adopt new processes and implement, or to change his occupation.  He is a mechanic by nature.”  In fact, Americans moved frequently from job to job, even within a single establishment.  They never became expert at anything, Chevalier said, but had a breadth of understanding to apply solutions across related industries.
This combination of understanding how the gears work, and deciding how to create something new with the gears is called, I think, Integrative Thinking.  It’s called the Innovator’s DNA.  It's called prospering in a world that seems to change every day, and require solutions that didn't exist yesterday.

More than that, it’s history’s way of reminding us once again--despite our conceit--that we’re just not that different.  Modern times are not as fast-paced or unique, relative to the past, as we tell ourselves they are.  In fact, one could argue that Daniel Pink is essentially right but simply 225 years late: Our ancestors taught us at least as much about the value of using both sides of our brains to cope with a rapidly changing world as have any of the latest best-sellers on Amazon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Angst of Privacy

My friend Jerry sent a terrific blog posting from Jeff Jonas, who writes about “information management and privacy in the information age.”

Talk about a topic full of angst.  We inhabit a world in which we despise the fact that Google peers inside our personal email to target click ads, or decides its alright to post pictures on the Web of our backyard.  We hate it when government puts cameras up at intersections to catch folks running red lights, or when we plow snow for the state and are required to carry a GPS so our employer knows our whereabouts.  And the thought of having an RFID tag on a jar of baby food, so a retailer knows to offer us a discount on diapers, just creeps us out. 

I was at a Marketing meeting the other day when one of the really smart marketeers I know said something like, “Here, here and here is where we can drop a bunch of cookies on the customer and follow them around the web.”

We hate being watched, right?  Don't we?

Until, of course, we steal a bus or get into a fight after school and post our escapade on YouTube for all the world (and the police) to see, or get into our underwear and post the picture to MySpace.  If we can stay dressed, maybe we let LinkedIn and Trip-It inform our competitors which city we’re visiting this week, and which potential customers we linked-to, or maybe we just articulate our company strategy and go-to-market on our website, or perhaps we Twitter about what we’re putting in our coffee at Starbucks this morning, or maybe we just Facebook the details of our colonoscopy.

The theme seems to be this:  We don’t mind being unsparingly intimate and stupid with the rest of the world, so long as we have full control over when and how we embarrass ourselves.

Now, Jeff Jonas gives us something new to think about:
Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day.  Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not.  Got a Blackberry?  Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not.  If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using alocation-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters.  Using Wi-Fi?  It is accurate below10 meters.
The implications of this—especially for those of us who are rarely more than a few meters from our cellphone—is that we can map the spatial coordinates of our lives.  And our friends’ lives.  Our families could, theoretically, post a spatial map on our gravestones so that our ancestors could see where we spent our time before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Jonas continues:
The data reveals the number of co-workers that join you Thursdays after work for a beer, and roughly where you all go. It knows where these same co-workers call home, and just exactly what kind of neighborhood they come from (e.g., average income, average home price) … information certainly useful to attentive direct marketing folks.
Large space-time data sets combined with advanced analytics enable a degree of understanding, discovery, and prediction that may be hard for many people to fully appreciate. Better prediction means a more efficient enterprise and nifty consumer services.
And more angst.  Lots more.  What you thought was a smartphone turns out to be a Trojan Horse.
We have all been warned.  It’s going to be an interesting century.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Praise of Home Delivery

A long, long time ago when I was a kid, we had a milkman.  Johnny the Milkman. We’d spot him making a delivery and run down the street to meet his truck.  Johnny the Milkman had a great boxy vehicle without passenger seats, and with both sliding doors left open to catch the summer breeze.  Ironically, a huge block of ice melting in the middle of the truck’s floor was meant to keep the glass bottles of milk and cream cold.   

Johnny the Milkman, in the days before OSHA and seatbelts and common sense, would let us jump on board and dangle our arms and legs out the passenger door for a few stops, dragging our Keds on the road as we drove from house to house.  Then, to complete the nightmare for our mothers, he’d give us an ice pick and we’d chip off a handful of cold, crunchy microbes to chew on.

There's nothing like a seven-year-old with an ice pick, dangling his legs out of a moving truck, sucking on dirty ice.

Every house in the neighborhood had a metal, barely-insulated milk box on the back steps. (The cover could be removed and used for home plate when necessary.)  Our mothers would communicate with Johnny the Milkman by taping a note to the box saying “Only one quart of milk this week but two dozen eggs please.”

It was a low tech and fail-safe way to insure delivery.

Not only did we receive a weekly visit from Johnny the Milkman, but Mr. Stafford-the-Fish-Man would come every Friday.  His truck was full of fresh fish on ice.  And then, each week, we had a bakery truck visit as well. 

I loved the old home delivery business model.  Good people came to our house every week with good stuff.  It was part of the rhythm of growing up.  

But then reality struck.  A Cumberland Farms appeared down the street (imagine a store dedicated to selling milk!).  Moms started working to support their kids, all of whom decided they had to go to college.  Home delivery went the way of the drive-in movie (which morphed into the mall cinema) and the backyard (which morphed into the lawn).

If you had been sitting in a business strategy meeting in, say, 1975 or 1985, trying to argue for the re-emergence of the home delivery model, you would have been sent off to write the marketing plan for crystal radio sets.  But if you’d been arguing the point in 1995 or later, you might have raised hundreds of millions of dollars and lost it all.

It’s a funny thing about good ideas, though--it's hard to keep them down.  Because now, it seems, home delivery is making a comeback.

There’s a Peapod truck that prowls our streets, dropping off groceries.  There’s a Zoots truck that makes the dry cleaning run all over town.  Last week my windshield cracked and the replacement was done in our driveway.  Not bad.

Even the milkman is making a comeback.  The Wall Street Journal recently tried four milk delivery services including Manhattan Milk, launched in April 2008 and featuring happy Amish cows, no rBST, short delivery routes, and a return to those eco-friendly glass bottles.

Maybe Manhattan Milk will even let you drag your Keds down 5th Avenue.

Meanwhile, President Obama and his administration continue to closely watch Microsoft's Mobile Medicine Service, providing home visits by doctors aimed at “radical prevention.”  Having a doctor visit your home won’t take you back to the 1960s (like Johnny the Milkman)--it’ll take you back to the 1930s. 

See what I mean about keeping good ideas down?

In a world of high energy prices, more telecommuting, an emphasis on outsourcing, and perhaps even a growing movement to trade work for time--home delivery could be the thing of the future.  I'm keeping an eye out the front window and will let you know.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Drawing on Brilliance

If you’re looking for a very cool holiday gift for your boss or management team, one that will remind him or her--after all the spreadsheets and algorithms are put away--that there still really is an underlying beauty to business, check out Drawing on Brilliance.

Co-authors Randy Rabin and Jackie Bassett rescued original patent lithographs discarded by the US Patent Office--lithographs from folks like the Wright Brothers, Hedy Lamar (yes, the actress of MGM fame who also happened to co-invent frequency-hopping technology), Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Willis Carrier and hundreds of others never before seen.

I recently tracked down Jackie, who doubles as author and CEO of Sealed Speed, to get the scoop on the book.

How did this all come about?

My patent researcher told me how the US PTO had gone digital and threw thousands of original Teslas, Carriers, and Westinghouses in the trash. Then he told me he had rescued many of them.  As I looked through them, he shared some little known facts behind each invention.  I felt so inspired and so privileged to be able to see these drawings for myself, read the actual handwritten notes and study the patterns of success and failure behind each.  Few outside of the patent office had ever seen them.

They really are a total experience to hold, to view and to learn from. In my eyes, Randy was a hero for rescuing them but this is the age of open collaboration.  I told him we needed to share these with the rest of the world.  We needed to do a lot more research on the processes of innovation and to put together a book that would inspire everyone and anyone to do what each of these brave entrepreneurs had done – change the world in remarkable ways.

Was there any story or drawing that particularly struck you?

The Wright Brothers' was the most inspiring to me. They launched an entire industry and created millions of jobs. Ultimately they raised the standard of living for everyone around the world.

The more we researched what the Wright Brothers went through, from concept to commercial success, the more questions we had.  Exactly how did two uneducated bicycle shop repairmen from Ohio solve a problem that no one else could for centuries, from Da Vinci to Galileo?  Could the process they used be repeatable and used to solve other unsolvable problems? What are the real secrets to innovation success? Can we use these insights to raise the global standard of living with all of the problems in today’s economy?

Are you using this material to drive ideas in your own consulting?

Yes.  I work with CEOs who are looking to accelerate the growth of their companies. It seems in a world that is changing at the speed of the Internet many companies just get lost in the rapids of competing priorities.  Managing the volume and rate of change today is analogous to white water rafting.  You need an experienced guide. You’ll never have all of the data you think you need so you have to make some tough decisions. Then you have to rapidly capture the results and be ready to change again.

Remember, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Long before Twitter we had Gottlieb Daimler who showed us that we don’t compete on technology, we compete on business models and we leverage technology to deliver those business models.  We had W.H. Carrier who showed us how a well disciplined process of problem-solving can make the world a better place – we have a goal that has never changed.


So, have I solved your office holiday gift problem?  No more books about mice or cheese.  No more 7 habits or 10 rules or 5 platitudes.  Something special, and something you'll return to time and again for inspiration.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Value of Consistent Hard Work

The other day I listened to a New Yorker podcast, one featuring the magazine's cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff.  He spoke with Zachary Kanin, one of a very small stable of regular cartoonists.  

Kanin was discussing his typical work-week and mentioned that he draws ten to fifteen cartoons a week.  I might have guessed three, and perhaps five in a good week.  But Kanin churns out 10 to 15 new ones every week.  

He said it’s important to work at that pace because it’s the only way he really stopped doing other people’s cartoons, the only way he really found his own voice. 

It's yet another seemingly fun, carefree career—draw a little, lay in the sun, draw a little, have some wine before dinner-- that turns out to be really hard work.   Get up early and sweat it out, every day.  Consistent hard work.  The only way to get good and be good and stay good.  The only way to find your voice.

Later, in another podcast interview, I heard Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame) say he writes every day, 365 days a year, including Christmas Day.

One of the best examples of disciplined, consistent, hard work I have seen was Jeff Kennedy’s terrific effort, Drawing Flies.  Every single day in 2008 Jeff created and posted a fly, explaining:
"Part of the challenge is the discipline to accomplish this every day and the other is to expand my creativity and to help find my artistic voice. The sky is the limit on how the flies will be created. You may have wondered, 'why is he drawing flies?' My other hobby is fly fishing and fly tying. I also welcome the challenge of drawing the natural materials that are used in the flies. So hang on and enjoy the ride for the next 365 days!"
Jeff took this project seriously and worked hard at perfecting his technique.  It became a very pleasant ritual to get up every morning and check out his latest creation.  

Last Sunday our oldest daughter wrote about 1,200 words, the start of her efforts in this year’s National Novel Writing Month.  The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.  This is her third year and she is one-for-two, having completed all 50,000 words last year and falling just shy in her first try.  For her, this means writing every day, often late at night after extracurricular activities and homework is done.

This also means consistent hard work.  When I asked her why she was doing it she said, “Dad, I’m happy every day that I write.” 

This idea of really loving something but working at it hard enough every day that it’s a little bit painful is part of a ritual that talented, driven people all seem to understand and embrace.

That includes Haruki Murakami, who wrote about his efforts in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Murakami is brilliant at taking adversity and turning it to his advantage.  In this case, he was reflecting on how difficult it is for him to write novels.
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do.  Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work.  Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me.  I haven’t spotted any springs nearby.  I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity.  To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort.  Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole.
Like Kanin, Brown, and Kennedy, Murakami embraces the process, the consistent hard work, saying that when “naturals’ suddenly find their spring has run dry, they are in trouble.  But when he notices one water source is drying up, he can simply move on and chisel out the next hole from rock.

Certainly it helps to have talent.  And it's wonderful to find your passion.  But even then, if you want to be really good at something, it's all about consistent hard work.

Just get your hammer and chisel out and start pounding.

(First posted in November 2009 and updated modestly in April 2016.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tomorrow Our CFO Turns 40

This is how I knew he would be a great CFO:

Shortly after the hire, we had lunch at one of those Chinese restaurants that offers its food by the number.  So, a "#23" is egg foo young, fried rice and spare ribs.  Each meal is more food than three people could eat, and the kind of food many people would not eat at all.

Anyway, one of the cardinal rules at this place is "NO SUBSTITUTIONS."  The menu says "NO SUBSTITUTIONS" in about six places, all in red.  Bright red.  Big letters.  It might as well read "NUCLEAR WASTE."

Here comes the nice waitress.  I order a #15.  Our new CFO orders a #23 and then says to the waitress, "But I want to substitute chicken wings for ribs."

Just like that.  I thought the earth would open up and swallow us.

The waitress pauses, looks, pauses, looks.  Frowns.  Pauses.  And then says: "OK."

That's when I knew he would be a great CFO.  Through a half-dozen acquisitions, 40 quarters of growth, the design of compensation plans, and in battles with vendors and partners, he kept asking for substitutions when nobody else dared.

Today, that CFO is our COO.  Just another thing that comes from not being afraid to ask for substitutions.

Happy Birthday, Mike!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Running with Haruki Murakami on Columbus Day Weekend

Saturday morning, 6:30 a.m.—the single best moment of a long, holiday weekend.  There’s a light rain that looks like it’s moving off.  I throw on my sweats, drop my iPhone in a Glad plastic bag (a better exercise case than I can find in the Apple store), turn on a podcast of This American Life, and begin a long, hopefully intensive walk through the fall scenery of our little town. 

I’m walking (and riding) a lot more these days because, after years of running, I’ve been having trouble breathing.  It all started last winter when I caught a cold and flu that turned into walking pneumonia.  It’s much better now, but vestiges just seem to hang on.  I’ve chocked it up to getting old and tried to work around it.

Besides, walking is so much more pleasant than grinding out a run.

As for exercise entertainment--next to Bob Edwards’ Weekend--Ira Glass’s This American Life is my favorite companion.  I find good talk wards off pain and boredom better than music, even good music.  This particular edition of TAL is called “The Book That Changed Your Life,” and it is just hilarious.  The first segment, from playwright and screenwriter Alexa Junge (Sex in the City, West Wing, Big Love), tells about falling in love with playwright Moss Hart (husband of Kitty Carlisle, author of You Can’t Take It with You & My Fair Lady, and dead before Alexa was born) through his autobiography, and fashioning her early life after his.  It’s a hoot, especially when Alexa meets poor Kitty.

The second segment has 13-year-old David Sedaris finding a pornographic novel in the woods.  It would change his life, briefly and not for the better, and had me laughing out loud.

I mention this because last week my youngest brother sent me a book by Haruki MurakamiWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  I am embarrassed to say that, not only had I never read Murakami, I have never even heard of him.  (If you are as parochial as I, Wikipedia tell us Murakami “is the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize, is considered an important figure in postmodern literature, and The Guardian praised him as one of the "world's greatest living novelists.")

What I Talk About. . . can be read in an evening but is, in the vein of This American Life, a book that could very well change your life.  Essentially an essay about running—which Murakami has done lots of for more than a generation—and writing, effort and loss and success and coping, it is the kind of book that, as my brother wrote, you will finish reading and then want to re-read to discover all the things you missed.

So, there I was, walking along a quiet country road, listing to Ira Glass, thinking about Murakami.
One runner told of a mantra his older brother, also a runner, had taught him which he’s pondered ever since he began running. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running.
And there I was, walking.  Walking fast, but walking.  Thinking about Murakami.
Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.
Now I’m walking even faster.  Don’t want to be a baby, after all.  (One of the guys at work saw me out walking the other week and advised me, “Don’t hurt yourself.”  Ouch.)
It doesn’t matter what field you’re talking about—beating somebody else just doesn’t do it for me. I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself. . .In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.
It is now 40 minutes into my walk.  I’m laughing at David Sedaris, thinking about Haruki Marakami.  Thinking about what would happen if I run home.
When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger.
Now I’ve stopped.  It’s a cul-de-sac of quiet homes, and it’s still too early on a long weekend for sensible people to be awake.  What the heck.  Maybe I will run home.  Breathing is overrated.
I think this viewpoint applies as well to the job of the novelist. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.
20 minutes later—home.  Some of the old running kicked in.  Not so fast, but not so bad.  Maybe I’m still healing.
No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot. On days like that, I try to think of all kinds of plausible excuses to slough it off. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B company team. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!” Now that I look back on it I can see what a dumb question that was. I guess even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I suppose I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s caliber.
The truth is, I don’t know if this book by Haruki Marakumi will change my life.  I only know that it changed my Saturday morning.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Men are From Mars, Women are From Hallmark

I went card shopping today to find an anniversary card for a couple we've known for years.  It’s fair to say that there’s some pretty wretched stuff out there in the form of maudlin, raggedy, iambic pentameters stuffed into $5.00 cards.

It takes two special people,
To make a loving pair.
There’s a joy just being around you,
A feeling we love to share.


Because we can't call people without wings angels, we call them friends instead.

Does anyone you know really talk to their friends this way?

Consequently, I found myself in the Shoebox section of the Hallmark aisle.  Shoebox cards are clever, like the excellent anniversary card I almost bought that started “Your butt cheeks are sagging. . . ."

I do believe a Shoebox cocktail party would be a memorable one, with lampshades used in all kinds of unspeakable ways.

Of course, Hallmark and other card companies go through the same marketing discipline we all do, segmenting their customers into buying groups and then creating, in the case of Hallmark, “commoditized sentiment” that appeals to that group.  In David Ellis Dickerson’s new book, House of Cards, he details his years working for Hallmark—a kind of Dilbertesque box-canyon for a guy with a masters degree in fine arts.

Dickerson tells us that women represent nearly 90% of the card market, causing Hallmark to segment along themes such as “How Much You Mean,” and “Thinking of You.”

Care to guess the most popular theme for men? 

That's right.  It’s known as SELD, or “Seldom Say,” and is described by Dickerson as “I know I don’t say it very often, but for what it’s worth I love you and here’s a card.”

Ever bought one of those, gents?  Ever bought anything BUT one of those?

The anniversary card I finally purchased has the guy on the front singing MC Hammer’s song, “Da da da da, Can’t touch this.”  You open it up and the gal is replying, “For the last time, I don’t WANT to touch it.”

Made me laugh out loud. 

By the way, for you Marketing types: I can’t explain the numbers either.  There are roughly as many women as men in America.  That means there are roughly as many birthdays for women as for men, and an identical number of anniversaries.  So, how do men manage to purchase just 10% of all greeting cards? 

There is one plausible explanation: Women must be buying cards for themselves. 

All of which means men really are from Mars.  But women, we now know, must often just be coming back from the Hallmark store.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Focus Like an Entreprenuer: A Lesson from James K. Polk

My to-do list has 91 items. This is the result of a conscious effort in the last couple of months to reduce the list from about 150 items. Even now, if I knock off some of the wish-list stuff like “Climb Kilimanjaro"--the things that will happen on their own, or not--I’m down to maybe 75 items.

Some things are seasonal and appear as reminders once a year. So, they stay on the list but aren’t especially onerous. That gets me down to maybe 50.  I know, to a GTD disciple, 50 items is the subset of an uberlist—hardly a list at all. Still, 50 to-dos does seem like a lot.

Last summer I clipped a Peggy Noonan column, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs,” from the June 27/8 Wall Street Journal.  Advising President Obama, Noonan suggested that Clare Booth Luce had it right in 1962 when she told President Kennedy that “a great man is one sentence.”

“He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”

“He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.”

There’s no mistaking those.  Noonan went on to suggest that Obama was trying to do too much and, in the process, was missing “The Sentence.” (Her suggestion for Obama was: “He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror.”)

It all reminded me of the way Daniel Walker Howe portrayed President James Knox Polk in What Hath God Wrought. Now, there's a President you don’t think about every day--James K. Polk. But talk about focused and driven; he was a guy built for "The Sentence."

Upon being elected, Polk told his Secretary of the Navy that he would have "four great measures" of his administration: Settlement of Oregon with Britain, the acquisition of California, a reduction of the Tariff, and the permanent establishment of the Independent Treasury.

How did Polk do? Howe concludes, “Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the United States ever had.” He picked two big foreign policy and two big domestic goals, stayed focused, and achieved them in one term.  Then he retired.

Polk’s extraordinary focus reminds me of the trick an old boss taught me, way back before every pocket had a smartphone. He would take a 3-by-5 card at the start of each fiscal quarter and write down his 3-6 goals for the quarter. Then he would leave it in the corner of his desk where he could see it constantly, or carry it in his pocket when he was traveling.  Every morning and evening he'd review the list to gauge if what he was doing contributed to one of those goals; if not, he’d stop and, as he said, get back to work.  

There is a story told about a time-management consultant who visited the Pentagon to address a gathering of generals.  He asked them how they organized their days.  The one answer that stood out: "I write down everything I need to do that day, maybe 25 items.  Then I start at the bottom and cross them out until I have only the top three left.  Then I go to work." 

Leaders of all kinds require extraordinary focus to be successful.  I don't know if James K. Polk had a 3-by-5 card, but I'm guessing he didn't have a to-do list with 91 items, either.

Maybe a lesson for you.  Certainly a lesson for me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Small Things Considered: Broken Telephone Poles & Stuck Bolts

A Little Thing Close In

The power went out this Saturday morning, not an uncommon occurrence in our town during winter storms, but uncommon enough on a sunny fall morning. 

Loss of electricity for any length of time can be traumatic in a small town where fresh water comes from private wells. No electricity, no water. No drinking. No showers. Each toilet is good for precisely two flushes once the clock on the microwave oven begins flashing.

Right behind the water crisis, of course, is the FIOS and cable crisis, the wireless and web crisis, and the TV and microwave crisis. Followed, of course, by the can’t-see-at-night crisis.

I’m reminding you of things you already know because, as I went for my run that morning, I discovered two utility trucks and a policeman directing traffic around a snapped utility pole. Someone, somehow, on a sunny, dry morning--on a road marked at 35 miles per hour--managed to smack into the pole and turn the attached electronics and cables into a mid-air rat’s nest.

Utility poles are a 19th-century technology, designed originally to carry telegraph lines.  The average pole is made of Yellow Southern Pine and stands about 34 feet above the ground.  Whack them with one of our modern vehicles and they break like a toothpick. 

Said more poetically, when the 20th century runs into the 19th century, the 21st century suffers.

A Little Thing Far Out

Last week NASA reported that the Hubble Space telescope was sending back stunning images of exploding stars, stellar nurseries and colliding galaxies, thanks to its repair and refurbishment by astronauts in a series of tense spacewalks earlier this year. One image, of Planetary Nebula NGC 6302, shows what our universe will look like four billion years from now.

You may remember that work on the Hubble was almost scuttled when astronauts had a protracted struggle with a stuck bolt. It was the kind of thing that you or I might work on for an hour on a Saturday, give up, and go watch a football game. 

In this case, one little bolt stood in the way of activating the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which has now shown us what we might look like in 4 billion years.

In and Far

As I was running by the utility trucks and the police car, trying to think how this could possibly have happened, I pictured the guy passing me on the highway earlier this week, going about 95 miles per hour—texting. 

And the woman who didn’t see the green light (and got a chorus of honks) because she was applying her make-up in the rear view mirror. 

And then there was the person watching a movie on a laptop as she rolled through the tolls on the Maine Turnpike.

In a world of endless incoming and frantic multitasking, it's good to remember the upright telephone poles and freed bolts that keep our fragile world from falling apart.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Hear a Bass Drum--Honest!

In my sophomore year in high school we took a class called Political Ideology. It was taught by a terrific teacher, Orin Holmes, who announced on the first day of class that if we “played school” with him we would flunk.

Sometime within the first month we walked into class and found that Mr. Holmes had projected on a screen an ancient Greek building with impressive columns. He explained that the Greeks were experts in perspective and had, with this building, bowed the columns (fat in the middle, tapered at the ends) to create the illusion that they were perfectly straight.

“See,” Mr. Holmes explained, “how they are tapered to look straight?”

We all shook our heads, yes, of course, brilliant.

He then came around to the side of the class. “See the bow? See how it makes them look perfectly straight?”

Again, a great bobbing of heads. Those Greeks were brilliant.

Finally, he turned off the projector, clearly perturbed. “Does anyone see the problem?”

We all looked stunned. Problem? The Greeks. Columns. Perspective. Bowed. Straight. What problem?

Then Mr. Holmes said, “If I don’t teach you anything else this year, I want to teach you to think for yourself--to take an independent point of view. If I tell you something is straight, and it looks bowed, you should say something like, ‘Mr. Holmes. The Greeks blew it. They didn’t understand perspective all that well, cause they bowed the columns to make them look straight--and they look bowed. I see it with my own eyes.’”

We all hung our heads. We’d been busted playing school.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not Being the Big Dog: The Value of Psychic Income

A few Sundays ago I stumbled upon one of the morning interview programs which happened to feature the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and the Mayor of Newark (NJ), Cory Booker.

Booker is a young guy and former community activist and Councilman. Bloomberg is a generation older and well known as the billionaire founder of Bloomberg, LP., a financial software and services giant.

At one point, as the two mayors were being interviewed, Bloomberg began answering a question (about crime or drugs or handguns) by saying, “Of course, Mayor Booker has a harder job than I have.”

That might or might not be true--I don’t know enough to say. But the fact that Mayor Bloomberg recognized his younger peer in such a gracious way says more about Bloomberg than it does about the difficulties of their respective jobs.

Undoubtedly Michael Bloomberg wants to be a wildly successful mayor of New York. He’s driven, and I’m sure has a healthy ego and many of the trappings that go with it. But if he makes a mess of it all, he’s still worth $16 billion dollars and the founder of a hugely successful financial services empire.  You can’t take that away from him.

In other words, Bloomberg comes to the job as Mayor with not just wealth, but with all of his psychic income needs met. He’s already successful. He’s already made it. He appears comfortable with himself and his accomplishments.

He could have been the Big Dog in that television interview and he chose not to be; instead, he made the gracious gesture of promoting the young guy next to him.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Piece of Really Good Work

My great-grandfather, Richard Albert King, died about ten years before I was born. Everyone in my family who knew him personally is also now gone. So, the memory of my great-grandfather comes down to a few simple items.
I know from family stories that he was a kind and gentle person. I know my father, Richard, was named after him, and it was a good naming because my dad, too, was kind and gentle.

Sometime during the Depression, my great-grandfather was given a part-time job as sexton at his nearby Episcopal Church, more an act of kindness and dignity than financial gain. Its unintended consequence, however, was that mixed families of long-time Presbyterians and Lutherans became loyal Episcopalians, probably a better indication of how religion really works than a burning bush in the desert or a conversion on the road to Tarsus.

Finally, I know that every evening after dinner, my great-grandfather would retire to the cellar (and I mean cellar, not basement) to warm a pot of glue and cut and shape pieces of hardwood to make beautiful inlays. We have a chessboard and lamp from his labors. But the best example of all is an exquisite inlaid table that now resides in the corner of our dining room.

If everything I knew about my great-grandfather came down to this one item, I would see a patient, exacting craftsman with a flair for the creative; a “measure twice, cut once” guy; and someone who built things to last. All things very much worth aspiring to.

That table tells an important personal story and is what I call a piece of really good work.
When I was ten years old my parents bought a run-down house near Buzzards Bay and spent the next three decades turning it into a comfortable family cottage. We had outdoor hot water by the third year and an indoor shower a year or two after. But, almost the first thing my father decided he needed to do was replace the old, rotting foundation.
So, I spent the summer of my 11th year (along with my younger brother) crawling around under a two-story house, raising it inch-by-inch on jacks, learning how to mix concrete, and trying to avoid digging trenches. Today, I don’t pretend to know how to lift a house three inches and build a stone foundation under it, and I still occasionally dream (claustrophobically) about crawling around underneath, hoping not to see a snake. But, when my father lowered the house down on the new masonry, it was flat and plumb and square. A perfect landing.

From time to time over the last forty years I have driven by that cottage (long since sold), remember my father, and think: that foundation is a piece of really good work.

Today, I’m lucky to be on the Board of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (see here). It’s a group of accomplished and sometimes brilliant people (present company excepted) who come together around the powerful notion that family and history are things worth preserving and celebrating. Some of the Trustees with whom I have worked—David Kruger, Bob Bixby, Richard Benson, John Cabot and Alvy Ray Smith come immediately to mind—have not only had exceptional careers in business, but have written meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, almost monumental family genealogies. (See here for the NEHGS Online store.)

The kind of things you read in awe.

Their books are, each on its own, a piece of really good work, and something that punctuates all its author’s other accomplishments.

This all bubbled up not long ago while I was reading a Sunday New York Times article by Michael Wilson (“Where the Bodies Aren’t Buried”) about the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Established in 1838, Green-Wood is home to many famous New Yorkers, especially from the second half of the nineteenth century. Among the half-million residents of the cemetery’s nearly 500 acres, fashioned in the style of Mount Auburn in Cambridge, are Louis Comfort Tiffany, Henry Steinway (of piano fame), William “Boss” Tweed, James Merritt Ives (of “Currier and Ives”), Samuel F.B. Morse, DeWitt Clinton and Frank Morgan Wupperman (the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz).
In Wilson’s article about Green-Wood, however, we meet one of the cemetery’s living residents, Kestutis Demereckas, an engineer who moved from Lithuania to New York in 1989 and now serves as Green-Wood’s surveyor. Known as Kestas, Mr. Demereckas’ job these days is trying to find "dirt--a plain patch of earth long enough and wide enough in which to dig a fresh grave. An empty spot."
It seems Green-Wood is close to full after expanding for decades in all of the logical places. The cemetery, often three-deep in bodies, will have to close to new burials in the not-too-distant future. Before that happens, Kestas is trying to get as many people in as possible.

To do this, he consults surveys of the cemetery done in 1875 and 1895 by a surveyor named Lindsay Wells, Mr. Demereckas's predecessor at the job by more than a century. Wells' surveys are "veritable works of art, from the intricate inking of the roads and paths to the gentle swirls of cursive labeling of each clear rectangular lot. They are signed in neat script” and serve today as an essential key to the Green-Wood puzzle.

“I have incredible respect for this man, Lindsay Wells,” Mr. Demereckas said. “When I saw, first time, drawings, I was very impressed. I was jealous.”

Imagine Mr. Wells standing in the cemetery just ten years after the Civil War, working alone, making his careful drawings and being so exacting in his measurements that 134 years later in 2009 Mr. Demereckas could find a few square feet of open ground amidst 500 acres in which to bury a modern New Yorker. No audience, no applause, no fame; just Mr. Wells doing a job in the best way he knew how.

Those surveys, you would agree, are each a piece of really good work.
Indeed, Mr. Well's surveys, my friends' genealogies, my father's foundation and my great-grandfather's inlaid table are all the kind of really good work that can be inspirational as we head off to tackle a new project or a new day.

Early on in my first job out of college at the Chase Manhattan Bank, we were ushered into a two-day seminar on career planning. I remember distinctly that one of the exercises was to write our obituaries. That seems pretty morbid for a bunch of 22-year-olds, but the point was if we knew how we wanted to be remembered, we’d be encouraged to make some good choices in getting there.
I cannot remember what I wrote, but I suppose it would have been pretty standard 22-year-old stuff. If I were to try my hand at such an exercise today, however, I know a few things I might want to be remembered for (kind and gentle being, unfortunately, out of reach at this point). And among them I am certain of one thing: it would be good to leave behind at least one piece of really good work.