Tavis and Maya

Tavis and MayaEvery year the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books continues to cement itself in my psyche as a major go-to event. Now the largest book fair in the United States, its bustling aisles fill the USC campus for two days with eager authors and insatiable readers. Each year I joyously look forward to attending, not just for the schedule of talks I plan to experience, but for the inevitable surprises I discover. This year’s surprise was an exceptionally powerful book talk on an open-air stage by Tavis Smiley about his lifetime of interaction with Maya Angelou.

Although I have not yet read Smiley’s new book, My Journey with Maya, my takeaway from the forty-five minutes my wife and I listened to him speak was profound enough to report here as a stand-alone inspiration. Smiley talked openly and honestly about how he personally crashed and burned after a failed election campaign for Los Angeles City Council following a gig on the staff of Mayor Tom Bradley. With a mountain of campaign debt crushing him, he was to be evicted from his apartment with no prospect of employment. A friend arranged a happenstance job for him to travel with Angelou on a brief trip to Africa as an assistant, mostly to carry luggage. That kicked off a lifelong friendship and dialogue between them where they didn’t always agree, but Smiley always found a way to learn.

I’m going to read the book and I hope you will as well, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here on all he said. What I want to share are the two most striking learnings from Angelou that Smiley encoded, largely because they have been stuck in my head and churning ever since we stood there in the sunshine listening to him. I have only seen Smiley a few times on television over the years, but standing in front of him, hearing his passion, listening to the heartfelt words that flowed from his inner being completely coherently without any notes or podium, I was moved completely by the sweat and memory that poured from his soul. The two ideas that Angelou planted for growth in his brain couldn’t have been more relevant to me than if I’d heard her say them to me herself. As far as I am concerned, I think I did hear her speak on both counts, channeled in full energy by his voice calling on hers:

“Baby, we find our path by walking it.”

“Sometimes rejection is redirection.”

If you think those are just broad, sweeping, generic statements of advice from the elevated dais, stop here and go read someone else’s reflection, or perhaps today’s stock market results. On the other hand, if you’re like me, copy those words onto a Post-it and put them in plain sight for the next decade or so. When Maya speaks, it’s a good idea to listen. Tavis did, and his life was reinvented.

I write a lot on this blog and in my books about resilience and reinvention, the lifeblood of innovation. When I heard Smiley put the notion of self-motivation in so few words from Angelou, I was heartened, invigorated, and inspired. She got it. He got it. I wish everyone could get it. And still, transferring the words of others into action is immensely difficult, filled with pain, buried in setbacks, and only on the most wondrous of occasions celebrated in brief victories.

Smiley was adrift after losing his election and identity in public service. He sat stunned and stared at the failed image of himself. He wanted desperately to reinvent, but had no idea how. He was frozen. Angelou saw through him to his core. “Baby, we find our path by walking it.” If it had been a Nike commercial saying “Just do it,” it couldn’t have been clearer advice: Just do something. Do anything that matters to you. Find thought in action, not in dire contemplation. Whatever you do is better than nothing, and it will inevitably lead somewhere. Sometimes I tell people to form a plan—a conceptual roadmap of any kind—not because you will follow the path from here to there, but because if you start with a map, you will go somewhere, and that has to be better than nowhere. You won’t connect the dots—the dots will connect themselves in ways you never could have imagined. Yes, you find your path by walking it. Get busy. The rest will be discovered when you least expect it.

Smiley was crushed because the electorate said no to him. He wanted to serve, but the voters said “no thanks.” Again Angelou saw motivation in the otherwise unfortunate result. “Sometimes rejection is redirection.” If the voting public did not wish to recognize Smiley as an elected official, was that the only way he could realize his dreams? Obviously not, because a few years later Angelou appeared as a guest on Smiley’s national PBS talk show. How about that? From apartment eviction to the interviewer’s chair in so little time you almost think he made the whole thing up. He didn’t. He listened. He accepted “no” as meaning “not now, not here.” Then he went another way, and his dreams were realized beyond all imagination. Can it happen to you? Yes, if you see the negative before you as motivation to go another way. That new way might be a million times more fulfilling than what you thought was your only way. We have no only way, just opportunity to be who we need to be in an as-yet undiscovered path.

Both of these precepts have been guiding lights in my own life, yet until I heard Tavis channel Maya in an unplanned walk by the stage where he happened to be speaking when I was on my way to another place, I wasn’t aware how much I shared with so many others there on the grass listening intently to every word. Maybe we are more similar than different. Maybe we all do share the same dreams of enrichment and fulfillment. Maybe if we all listen to each other a little more closely, we can help each other get from the stagnant to the unstoppable. To quote another dreamer, “Imagine.”

I sure do love the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I can’t wait until my walking path takes me back there next year for another dose of redirection. See you under the tents. I’ll be the guy taking copious notes, or maybe talking ideas if you start the conversation.

Funniest Screenplays of All Time

Drama MasksBack in 2012, the Writers Guild of America surveyed its membership to identify the Best Written TV Series of All Time and I used the occasion to share my own list. This year the WGA is doing the same for the 101 Funniest Screenplays, asking members to submit fifteen titles to collect the 101 most mentioned. Again, I am not only happy to oblige, I am happy to share my picks with all of you even before the definitive list is published!

Of course funny means different things to different people. Is it slapstick funny, quirky funny, shock value funny, social critique funny, outrageous, embarrassing, or simply impossible to describe? How can you compare so many different kinds of funny, and is the contest even worthwhile other than as a recommendation list? Many wonder if it’s the writing that’s funny, or the performances, or the directing and editing. For me, you have to give credit to the writer if the movie ranks as one of the funniest, no more who contributes. Of course as someone who types a lot of words to share with others, I’m clearly biased toward recognizing writers for their contributions no matter the collaboration. Call me old-fashioned about the important of the written word, but my sense remains that if it’s not on the page ready to be made funny, no one can come to work to make it more funny!

I reached out to my Facebook friends to see what they thought, and what you see below, not in any specific order, are my fifteen, followed by all others that were mentioned frequently or emphatically. Mel Brooks is a clear and recurring winner here, along with the mockumentary Christopher Guest ensemble, a healthy dose of Monty Python, and a rousing run by the Coen Brothers. There were definitely generational trends in the responses I collected, with any number of people on this or that side of political correctness and golden age vs. modern age vs. contemporary leanings. Like music and literature, comedy is very personal, and taste is an individual expression of who we are what makes us tick. There’s a wide net here, and it will always be open to argument, rebuttal, reform, and addition.

I somewhat arbitrarily capped the list below at sixty titles because, well, I guess I didn’t want it to go on forever. Some of the motion pictures named by my friends were less familiar, so I tried to stay with more mainstream and recognizable fare. That should leave plenty of room for surprises when the WGA list is published next winter, and also for any others might want to add. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed many of these:

1) Young Frankenstein

2) Blazing Saddles

3) Monty Python and the Holy Grail

4) Animal House

5) Airplane

6) This Is Spinal Tap

7) When Harry Met Sally

8) Arthur

9) A Fish Called Wanda

10) There’s Something About Mary

11) Trading Places

12) Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

13) Stripes

14) Dr. Strangelove

15) MASH

And then from my social media community…

16) Waiting for Guffman

17) Best in Show

18) Some Like It Hot

19) What’s Up Doc?

20) Duck Soup

21) A Night at the Opera

22) Flirting with Disaster

23) Raising Arizona

24) The Producers

25) Caddy Shack

26) Bridesmaids

27) Wedding Crashers

28) Fast Times at Ridgemont High

29) The Princess Bride

30) Shakespeare in Love

31) Caddy Shack

32) Monty Python’s Life of Brian

33) Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

34) The Jerk

35) O Brother, Where Art Thou?

36) The Big Lebowski

37) Rushmore

38) Napoleon Dynamite

39) Being John Malkovich

40) Annie Hall

41) Harold and Maude

42) My Cousin Vinny

43) My Favorite Year

44) Groundhog Day

45) Ghostbusters

46) Tootsie

47) The Hangover

48) National Lampoon’s Vacation

49) His Girl Friday

50) Office Space

51) The Naked Gun

52) The Forty Year Old Virgin

53) Dumb and Dumber

54) Tommy Boy

55) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

56) The Blues Brothers Movie

57) The Graduate

58) The Pink Panther

59) The Party

60) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

That’s a more than decent start, plenty of chuckles, guffaws, and belly laughs to go around. Remember, it all starts with the written word, or as many writers like to say: “You know that joke? Somebody wrote that!”

Please feel free to add any of your favorites in the comments below!

Do You Care?

I Don't CareHere are a few marvels of bad business practices I’ve experienced in the past month:

In the middle of a presentation pitching me for a strategic business services contract, the presenter nonchalantly said the words: “We don’t really need this business.” He didn’t get it.

I reviewed two proposals for a project: one a two-pager with one paragraph personalized and the balance consisting of the company’s credits; the other a five-pager all personalized around my project with a single paragraph at the end articulating the company’s vision. The five-pager won.

I received via snail mail a stock market overview newsletter from one of the largest financial services companies in the world. Inside was the business card of some guy I have never met. There was no note, no signed cover letter, not even a form letter. Does he think I’m going to read the newsletter, pick up the phone, call him, and move my portfolio to his firm so he can manage it? Straight into the shredder it went. Cost of printing and postage vaporized.

Our phone rings in the evening. Often. With no Caller ID recognizable on the little screen. Occasionally I pick it up. There’s a pause, handing off my call from the much-despised auto-dialer. Someone tells me he is a building contractor of some kind and he is going to be in my neighborhood tomorrow and can he stop by and offer me a free estimate on work around the house. No, you can’t have my address. You lost me at much despised auto-dialer.

Another contractor who was referred by a good friend actually came to the house, walked through the prospective project with us, took a copy of our site plans, and said she would get back to us with a proposal. A month later we hadn’t heard from her. My wife called and emailed, asking if she was still interested in the project. Still didn’t hear from her. The next email from my wife asked her to return the site plans. Coincidentally, we were subsequently asked for a reference on this contractor by another friend. You can surmise how that went.

What are the key takeaways here?

First, if you want a piece of business, care enough to go out and get it. If you don’t, don’t waste your time or mine.

Second, never confuse tonnage of time invested in vast outreach with proper, focused, caring effort. You can allot infinite hours to scouting the wild, but if your approach is lazy and lacking in detail, your results are likely to reflect your lack of innovation and thoughtful initiative.

Pitching is not perfunctory. Much like dating or interviewing for a job, it’s how you get to know someone before you decide if you want to pursue a more involved relationship. Don’t tell me in the Digital Age a sales call is somehow different from yesteryear. A sales call is still just that—it’s one of many steps in securing prosperous deal flow. It requires the art and science of selling. If you’re not going to bother preparing, being respectful, being responsive, or following through, just stay away. We’ll both be a lot happier—although you won’t have my business, my endorsement, or my goodwill.

Not a problem. You probably don’t care. But you should.

Here’s the thing: you may have enough business now, at this very moment, but you won’t always. No one does. What matters when you don’t have enough business is how wide your network has become—the glowing part of your network. You have no idea where one client can lead you, where one prospect can lead you, where one seemingly casual handshake can lead you. What you can know for sure is that a burned bridge leads nowhere, usually in perpetuity, and the swiftness with which a bridge can be burned forever pales in comparison to the time it takes to build a relationship.

Relationships are worth it. You need them. We all do.

Here’s the corollary: if you don’t have enough business right now, there are no real shortcuts to landing new work. You may think it’s a numbers game and you can just dial and smile, carpet bombing the business terrain with junk mail and door-knocking. What kind of clients do you think that is going to bring you? A crappy sales pitch that does lock in a piece of business is likely to land you a crappy piece of business. Think about who would respond to your unpolished approach. Now imagine their sophistication in carrying out the contract, paying their bill, and passing you along to another prospect. If a crappy pitch and a crappy client are the foundation of your business, I think you can fill in the blank with the adjective that best describes that business.

Imagine instead a well-researched approach to a narrower set of prospects. Imagine doing your homework, preparing a written, phone, or in-person pitch that speaks to your desire to do a job that will capture a client’s imagination. Imagine being sharp, creative, and personal in asking for the business. Imagine following through with a great job that exceeds customer expectations. Then imagine the reward of future business from that client (repeat business is the best of all, because your sales costs are so low), or the networking value that will come from future business you could otherwise never access. Is that what you want, or would you prefer to continue dialing and smiling—and generally soiling your name and reputation before you even get a chance to demonstrate what you can do?

When I get an email offer letter from Yosemite, they refer to my last visit and craft a well-priced offer that speaks to me as a person. We recently were referred to another contractor, who showed up on time and had already had a look at the yard so he had ideas to share immediately after we said hello. One of the national non-profits I support calls once a year just to thank me for my donations and ask if they can send me any information about upcoming programs, without requesting an incremental dime. A market research vendor recently reached out to me on LinkedIn and invited me to a conference that was relevant to one of my business interests, spent time with me at the conference, and is now at the top of my list when I might need his services.

None of this is very hard to understand, but it is immensely hard to do consistently, which is why it gives those who do it a competitive advantage. What they all have in common is one simple thing: they care about my business. They convince me that they want my business, not just any business. They don’t take it for granted. I’m not lost in a carpet bombing campaign. I want to respond. I want to be an evangelist for them.

Before you formulate your next pitch, before you pick up the phone, before you hit send on that email, before you waste the money on postage, ask yourself the one simple question that will make your sales pitch better: Do you care?

My Second Book

As noted by the title, tEE Coverhis post is meant to announce the forthcoming release of my second book, Endless Encores. It will be published by The Story Plant on September 22, 2015 in hardcover and as an eBook. Since that is still several months off and I have at times already mentioned the book is coming, let me come back to that in a moment.

I often get into the discussion of whether corporate mission statements matter.

I also wrestle with people on whether we are blowing hot air when we say we want to hire the very best talent we can.

Then there is the loaded question of whether bringing a true “change agent” into a company suggests an oxymoron.

The answer to all three of these questions for me is quite simple: It depends whether your answer is cursory or heartfelt, pat or authentic, expository or evangelistic.

You’re likely quite familiar with the expression Don’t Be Evil. It was the rallying cry of one of the most successful digital companies of our time in its offering prospectus. Here’s a tangent to that declaration I’d like to offer that can put to rest most questions around an empowering mission statement, talent that matters, and harnessing a change agent: Don’t Be Cynical. Today let’s call that DBC.

If you DBC when you speak to mission, you will find nothing more powerful to inspire people to do the best work of their careers. If you DBC when you speak to the impact of extraordinary talent, you will surround yourself with the real deal and reap the rewards. If you DBC when you identify a human change agent, you will open your doors to innovation and allow change to happen.

Fall back into corporate-speak on any of these borderline-highfalutin ideals, and you will suck all the life out of the room. No question. The spread between demoralization and inspiration is just that wide, but the line separating them is micropixel thin. Walk that line carefully. Fall to the wrong side of the balance beam and you lose; to the correct side, and you win.

That’s why I wrote Endless Encores.

What is cynical? Cynical is a poster in the lobby that reads “Our people are what we value most.” Then earnings are announced and miss expectations. Wall Street punishes your company’s stock. There is a layoff and a thousand people see that poster as they are walking out the door carrying boxes of work mementos.

What is DBC? DBC is the same lobby, same poster, but an announcement that because of a soft quarter, all senior management team members are deferring annual bonuses and taking a voluntary pay cut of 10% to cover the shortfall in earnings until the company regains growth momentum. No one walks out the door. The mementos stay on the desks. The boss holds a pizza party to reset the year’s goals. Everyone recommits to achieve growth together.

DBC can be extremely hard to master, mostly because we usually don’t set out to be cynical; we sadly roll ourselves into the muck tub. It’s great to say galvanizing words, but they inevitably have to be followed by felicity in our actions, and that’s when it becomes the greatest of all possible business challenges: to marry the power of intentions with the expectation of outcomes. Said another way: Can our delivered actions live up to our rousing words?

It’s not Utopian. It happens. It’s what matters. If you say it, mean it. If you mean it, do it.

Let’s make it harder. Can we do it consistently? Can we do it again and again? Can we have careers that span more than a single triumph, encompassing values that become us, delighting customers with outrageous excellence in good times and bad?

To invoke another catch phrase, Yes, We Can.

Speaking of catch phrases, if you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, or even if this is your first visit, you’ll note in the blog’s description the words “People, Products, Profits—in that order.” Those are the business words I have tried to live by these last three decades, part rallying cry, part personal philosophy, part sanity meter. If you’ve worked with me you’ve heard those words way too many times and possibly even begun to repeat them. When I’m called to look at a creative company and I don’t see those words at play, they flow freely from my lips. There’s a reason. They work.

This book is about those words. It’s about how to have a career that matters, how to infuse those around you with passion, how to love your customers, how to innovate and reinvent without fear of failure, and how to avoid the trap of the one-hit wonder. That’s a lot to cover in so few words, and yet, the book is not a very long one (those who might have been concerned another volume like This Is Rage was on the way can breathe easy). Strangely, the book took me just as long to write, because as my wise editor, Lou Aronica, warned me in advance, writing simply about immensely complex ideas of discipline is no small trick. If you want to get people fired up about something that can change their lives without sounding like a soapbox pundit, you have to pick every word carefully, and that takes time.

Why condense a life’s learning into a book and share it with people I may never meet? I want you to succeed, over and over, and I know you can. I want you to understand why it will make you more productive to embrace the notion of DBC. I want you to master this framework, become a mentor, and pass on your good fortune to others. I want People, Products, Profits to be the worst-kept secret on the planet. I want you to take this little business parable, the story of Daphne and Paul, read it all the way through, and then keep it near your desk when you need a hit of pure oxygen.

You can repeat. You should repeat.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Dodging the Great Hits Graveyard. I had been at a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert with my wife, sitting down front surrounded by fans who had come to hear the familiar tunes of their Christmas show. In the middle of the second set they stopped playing familiar tunes and introduced something completely new. There was an awkward pause, and it would have been easy to assume that the band had taken an immense risk and bit off a raw chunk of failure with the lost energy. Three years later, that song became the tent pole of a new album and tour, joyously celebrated by old fans as well as new. Somewhere in that window I knew I had to turn the fear of the new into a story of returning triumph, even if every triumph wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. That’s when I knew I had to write about DBC. That’s when I knew I had to write Endless Encores.

I hope you’ll follow some of my recurring themes in the months leading up to publication, and once you have the book in your hands, please let me hear from you. Missions matter. Talent matters. Change agents matter. Don’t Be Cynical. Surround yourself with People, Products, Profits—in that order. You too can have a shot at a lifetime of repeat success, letting the moments of failure become learning opportunities, not endpoints.

Come meet Daphne and Paul. If innovation and reinvention are in your sights, their story might be your story. You can pre-order a copy of Endless Encores so it is sent to you on publication date. Below is an excerpt to give a sense of where this tale wants to take you. See you on the winning side of the balance beam.

♫ ♫ ♫

“Do you like music?” asked Daphne. “Contemporary bands, classic rock, pop tunes from various times?”

“Sure, of course,” said Paul. “Who doesn’t have a favorite band or two?”

“Those bands that are your favorites—did they have one or two hits, or a pretty decent run over the years?”

“You mean like the Eagles? The Rolling Stones? The Beatles? Obviously they had a string of hits, sometimes one after another.”

“How hard do you think it was for them to keep trying to top themselves?” asked Daphne.

“Hard,” conveyed Paul. “Very, very hard. In my business, hardly anyone repeats.”

“More like the one-hit wonders on the pop charts from the sixties, seventies, and eighties,” noted Daphne. “‘My Sharona.’ ‘Tainted Love.’ ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’”

“You’re dating yourself a little,” chuckled Paul. “But yes, you nailed it. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I don’t want to be like Friendster or Pet Rocks or the Cabbage Patch Kids. I want to make lots of hits, like you said, an endless series of hits. I want to be that guy. How do you make hits time after time after time?”

“A lot of us ask ourselves that question,” shared Daphne. “I wish I could tell you the answer. What I can tell you is that luck is not such a bad thing. It’s okay to embrace it.”

“Yeah, but can you repeat it?” asked Paul. “Can you make it happen again and again, predict it, make it repeatable?”

“From my experience, I think the best you can do is increase your odds. To build a career that allows for Endless Encores, you can never stand on your laurels. You have to be innovating all the time, not just when the clock is ticking against you. You do a little crowd pleasing with what they know, then a little thought leading by showing them something new.”

“It would be difficult to think about Endless Encores with a limited repertoire,” noted Paul.

“The only sure path to a limited repertoire is not to push yourself beyond the familiar. Your range is only gated by your courage to pursue the unknown, despite the doubters who relish the false safety of narrowing your path. You risk, you stretch, you can’t know what’s going to stick. No matter how much you know the familiar will carry you, you navigate the balance of old and new, constantly committing to reinvention. Repeat success is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, knowing that luck will shine again, but never knowing when or how.”

Let’s Argue About Something

The way to read the title of this article is “Let’s Argue about Something,” with the emphasis on the final word—as opposed to Nothing.

But now for something completely different. Remember this bit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus:

MPFS ArgumentA: An argument is not the same as contradiction.

B: Well, it can be!

A: No, it can’t! An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition.

B: No, it isn’t!

A: Yes, it is! It isn’t just contradiction.

B: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position!

A: But it isn’t just saying, “No, it isn’t.”

B: Yes, it is!

A: No, it isn’t! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

B: No, it isn’t!

A: Yes, it is!

B: Not at all!

Excerpt from Argument Clinic, Copyright 1972 Python (Monty) Pictures. Here’s the full video clip on the official Monty Python YouTube Channel:

What’s my argument here? There are some things I am not going to argue about anymore.

I am not going to argue about whether global warming is real. It’s real, and it’s a problem we need to address. This is settled science. If you haven’t bought into the settlement, I am sorry for your inability to grasp facts.

I am not going to argue about basic vaccines and immunizations for preventable diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella. Unless your doctor specially tells you your child must opt out for a clear reason, I believe you have a moral obligation to your child and an ethical obligation to society to get this done as soon as practicable.

I am not going to argue about who has a right to marry whomever he or she may select (absent DNA concerns around family history). This is a civil right. Civil rights are inviolable.

I am not going to argue about evolution and natural selection. I am not going to argue about the age of the Earth or the number of years human beings have been inhabiting it. I am also not going to argue that the science here is incompatible with religion, because many of the distinguished scientists who have proven these case studies have been profoundly religious people who aligned their faith with their findings. I have. I believe you can, too. If you don’t, I am not going to argue the point. It, too, is settled.

Why no more argument from me here? Because there is no point. These are not arguments. We have data at more than sufficient scale to make the findings. Thus these become matters of contradiction. If we don’t agree, there is nothing you can say to me to get me to change my mind, and I know there is nothing I can say to you to change your mind. Remember, for a few centuries now we no longer debate whether the Earth is flat or the sun revolves around it—there was plenty enough data collected to make those arguments moot. Likewise on the other referenced topics. I am moving on.

Want to argue? Cool, then let’s focus on subjectivity.

I will argue with you about tax policy—who should pay and how much. That’s a great argument to have.

I will argue with you about allocation options within the federal budget—entitlements,  debt, defense, infrastructure, social programs—we can have a great debate about that! If it turns into an argument, maybe we’ll learn from each other as long as we both commit to 50% talking and 50% listening.

I will argue with you about which wars can be justified, and which wars can’t. Yes, I think that is subjective, and people do change their minds about this over time.

I will argue with you about whether there will ever be a band as magnificent and important as the Beatles, whether Beethoven is a better composer than Mozart, and whether I am missing the point entirely on Katy Perry.

Essentially I will argue with you about any subject where I think by investing the time, passion, and energy, at least one of us might come away with even a slightly altered point of view. If I can learn from you by hearing you construct a reasonable case, I am open to it. If you can learn from me by believing there is a possibility I could construct a reasonable case, I will share it with you. I will spend as long with you on the argument as we both deem it interesting. Should we continue to disagree at the conclusion, as long as you have not lambasted me with an ad hominem attack, I promise to respect your opinion, however wrong you may be. Yet if you sneak back into emotional ideology that is not grounded in reason or supported assessment, I won’t argue with you again. Lucky you.

Now the ground rules. I promise to read widely about subjects of interest and study them before I subject you to my argument. I expect that you will do the same. If you don’t read much or challenge your own thinking before you subject me to it, let’s not bother. We can only do each other some good if we do ourselves some good as well. That means preparation. That means readiness. That means a serious consideration of the point at hand. That means caring enough to study and be well versed on a topic before passionately expressing a strident point of view. It worked in college. It will work in the real world.

Don’t like the rules? No worries. We don’t have to argue at all. I know lots of people who like these rules. I learn from those people every day. They make me a better person because they care about ideas. I trust them to stretch my mind and to prompt me to reconsider anything that can be reconsidered.

No, they don’t.

Yes, they do.

Are you contradicting me or seeking an argument?

Let me know before we engage.

What Should You Study to Be More Valuable in the Workforce?

webucatorWith so much recent talk and public debate about education as our path to prosperity, I was asked recently by a career training program what I believed were some key areas of focus students should pursue to assure job readiness. While I hardly consider myself a subject matter expert in this complex arena, the question certainly got me thinking about what I am looking for when I hire or when I recommend people for open positions. Here are three items I hope are obvious, but unfortunately may not be obvious enough.

Critical Thinking: These two words are so overused and misunderstood they are becoming clichés even before they are broadly adopted in practice. When I advocate critical thinking, I am talking about the ability to apply abstraction to a real-world problem, wrestle with the alternatives and implications in abstraction, and then synthesize the relevant tangents to a firm set of hypotheses that can be tested against the original problem. Here’s an example: Suppose the sales on your company’s website are trending poorly after a period of hyper growth and you are tasked with attacking the problem. The first thing I want you to do is abstract the problem, noting all the possible reasons sales could be down from seasonality to price to competition to product selection—you name it, the variables are endless. Now I want you to challenge your own reasoning against every one of those possibilities as they might apply in other real-word scenarios that are similar to yet somewhat different from your own business, whether it’s storefront sales or online sales in a different industry segment. Next I want you to narrow the possibilities to a set of concepts you can test so you are not boiling the ocean for an answer. Then of course I want you to act, where acting means collecting data that proves or disproves your hypotheses so you can make a recommendation. Studying math, science, philosophy, or the arts can help you learn critical thinking, but I promise you when you enter the workplace, the number of people you find who are really good at this will always be too few. That’s an opportunity for you to shine!

Fast Iteration: Coming directly down the path from critical thinking is fast iteration. What this means is that after you abstract a problem, you don’t have an endless amount of time to serve up your practical solution—competition is always coming at you without pause. You may have heard the phrase, “fail fast, fail often.” This is a mantra of Silicon Valley culture, where failure is often encouraged if it results in learning that can be applied. Fast iteration means framing a rough solution for a problem, testing it in application, reading the data and interpreting it quickly, and then putting a new version of your solution to test that incorporates the results of your prior test. Sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as A/B testing or multivariate testing. This is a fancy way of saying take something that sort of works, make a change of one kind or another, send some of your customers to the original version and others to the new version and see which one performs better. Then take the knowledge of what performs better and repeat the cycle, with a champion version of the work being the best one you have and the challenger being one where changes are being made. This cycle continues endlessly, and the faster you can make changes and test new assumptions, the faster you will make continual progress. Want to know what you should learn from science labs like chemistry and physics? Learn this method of inquiry. It can help you sell shoes, put rockets into outer space, cure disease, or make better ice cream.

Results-Driven Teamwork: This one flows nicely from fast iteration. I don’t care if you are the smartest person in the room if you can’t work well with others. Even if you are the smartest person in the room, you still can’t get things done as quickly as a small team of people who are all reasonably smart. We used to time people playing a really difficult computer game that would take the average person about 40 hours to solve alone. Two people could solve it together in about 25 hours. Three people could solve it in about 10 hours. Four people could solve it in about 3 hours. Funny enough, adding more than four people created diminishing returns, which also brings its own learning. The point is there is exponential leverage in putting teams against projects to work together by exchanging ideas and challenging each other’s thinking to move at lightning speed past dead ends and serve up new ideas that can be vetted and recalculated with extraordinary results. Most complicated challenges in the workplace today are broken down and resolved by individuals sharing ideas and refining plans, not so much resolving design by committee as building consensus through collaboration. Software engineering is a good example of this, as libraries can be compiled from contributors all over the world, many of whom you might never meet in person. You can learn this skill participating in team sports, playing in an orchestra, performing in a play, or being on the debate team—anywhere you have to be great at what you are doing, but the whole result is beyond what you could do on your own. That’s today’s workplace, a collection of specialized talents interacting as an empowered collective.

Obviously this is not meant to be a comprehensive framework for anyone’s curriculum, but I think if you embrace concepts like these, you will put yourself on a path to being a lifelong learner. Make no mistake: If you want to be successful, learning only begins in school. What you most need to learn from formal instruction is how to continue your learning on the job and off the job. If you learn how to learn again and again, your core skills will never become obsolete because you will be continually replenishing them year after year. Remember also the intangible values and qualities you bring into the workforce are as or more important than your learned skills. Think resilience, perseverance, integrity, flexibility, openness, honesty, and a positive attitude. More than a prestigious diploma, what you need to take from school is the ability to think on your feet, work well with others, embrace nonstop change, and never consider your learning mission complete.

Everyday Innovation

You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. Becoming a startup CEO may not be your thing, but changing the world is always within your reach.

There is a frenzy of late among those longing to lead business startups, and that is exciting. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, and while the successful ones are rare, no one really knows who is going to be successful in advance. Naysayers will tell you what you can’t do, and only you can prove them wrong.

When we talk about innovation, that undoubtedly points to entrepreneurs, but I’d like to think it not exclusive to them. Innovation is a process where creativity is harnessed, often galvanized through the building of momentum and the sharing of a vision. Often a new project or the reinvention of a product type begins with very few people involved, perhaps only one. The idea is refined and vetted, resources are added, more people get onboard, a consensus around a feature set emerges, and eventually it comes to be owned by a team. If you’ve ever been a part of this kind of team, you know how invigorating the process can be.

A subset of this process is the highly competitive world of funded startup companies, and that is a different beast entirely. In a quite insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the trials and tribulations of Uber, Andy Kessler recently noted the sometimes seething nature of a startup CEO who makes it through the hurdle of significant investment in their ambitions to excavate a gold mine:

Hubris becomes an asset. Startup CEOs are always saying the goal is to “suck the oxygen out of the room” of their competitors. Success requires a certain bravado. That should be encouraged, but most entrepreneurs have no idea when to turn it off.

There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, embracing ambition, and wanting to do the impossible. Does the goal of that have to be the annihilation of those who currently populate a market segment? Maybe because it’s the holidays, I wonder how that thinking aligns with Give Peace a Chance, but I think you can change the world without an ethos of leveling good chunks of it.

It is important to our economy and financial well-being that new companies are constantly born, that creative destruction replaces old opportunities with new ones. It is also limiting to evaluate innovation on this metric alone. If the only creativity that receives our highest praise is the moonshot IPO or breathtaking acquisition multiple, perhaps we send a difficult message to our colleagues and children that commercial success is the most important success. Do we really believe that it is somehow less noble to be part of reinvention that is not about clubbing a competitor over the head and walking away with his or her bounty?

Innovator's DilemmaMuch has been written around the concept of disruption, where traditional ways of doing things are derailed in almost unbelievably short periods of time. We saw it happen with music and video, where digital media disrupted the business model of selling and renting physical media. We’re seeing it happen with the news business, most recently evidenced at The New Republic, where the economics of professional journalism are colliding with the realities of recovering its cost. Disruptors are a very real force as author Clayton Christensen so clearly taught us in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but is it an end unto itself? What if someone doesn’t want to be a war-declaring disruptor?

There are all kinds of ways to define admirable innovation. Truth be told, very few of us are going to draft a business plan and schlep from angel to venture to institutional investors with an all-or-nothing mentality. If that’s not you but you still feel a hunger to join the reinvention movement, here are seven concrete ways you can embrace innovation right now:

  1. Give Yourself a Stealth Performance Review: Secretly write down exactly how you think you are doing at work. Be as candid as possible. Conclude with a set of recommendations for improvement. Pick one. Do it.
  2. Ask Your Boss for a Problem: Walk in and say, “How can I take a burden off your back? Give me something on your to-do list that is important but you don’t have time to do. Let’s brainstorm it together.” Always remember that every problem is an opportunity.
  3. Clarify Your Brand Promise: If you don’t know what your company stands for, ask someone in senior management for some evangelism around your company’s brand. Then look at the work you are doing every day. Does it align with the brand promise? If not, what tweaks can you make to your daily tasks to bring you personally more in line with your company’s expressed mission?
  4. Help a Non-Profit: Find an organization near you whose values and mission you embrace. Contact someone there in a leadership capacity. Tell them you want to help and what skills you have to offer. Ask them what is on their plate that isn’t being addressed. Address it.
  5. Fix Your Personal Budget: Develop a formal income statement for yourself or your family. Write down all sources of revenue and expenses. Look for areas where money is leaking out that needn’t be. Plug the holes. Get your credit under control. If you have longer-term needs, create a formal plan for getting there.
  6. Get a Hobby: Right, you don’t have the time. Yet a hobby allows you to abstract so many of your daily thoughts and tie back that problem solving to your everyday responsibilities. Plant a garden, bake, follow a sports team, adopt a pet. Don’t think of it as a diversion, think of it as a commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement. Push yourself to approach it slightly differently from those already doing it.
  7. Coach a Friend: Look around your circle of acquaintances for someone who might be struggling a little. Offer to be a coach or mentor for the next six to twelve months. Ask nothing in return. I promise you the ideas that will emerge from your discussions will be as valuable to your personal growth as they are to the friend. Ideas and energy compound when shared. You may forget who is coaching whom.

Startups can be cool, but all innovation does not require a startup environment. Creativity is a process that leads to all kinds of new stuff, and it also exhausts dead ends around stuff not worth doing or not ready to be done. Instead of making a hollow new year’s resolution, pick a path to one of the above suggestions or come up with your own idea for reinventing the world around you. Everyday Innovation is there for the taking. Go make change happen, and I’ll see you at the starting gate!