David Milch Pens a Curtain Call

It’s called Life’s Work. It’s anything but a simple title, as only to be expected from its incomparable author, David Milch. It’s not so much a play on words as it is an enunciation of intent, a spiritual aspiration. Yeah, let’s start there and see where it takes us. The rabbi is in.

There is a profound sadness that winds its way through these pages. Alzheimer’s is laying claim to David’s current challenge, and it permeates his thought process in this troubling memoir. He is assisted in committing the recallable memories to paper by his family, and even where confusion follows his path like a sine curve, it’s not just Alzheimer’s that elicits sorrow. It’s the entire path of intermittent regrets. If words are to make us feel, his words again succeed.

I hadn’t seen David in a very long time when I attended his book launch. I asked him if he remembered me. “Of course,” he said, “do either of us owe the other money?” I was 99% sure it was a joke, but just in case I assured him we did not.

In the broadest sense of its definition, rabbi means teacher. In the workplace, it means more than that. If you get one, your life is going to change. You might just be finding a path to Life’s Work.

When you’re a young writer, if you’re smart you seek teachers. They don’t teach you how to write. They teach you how difficult it is to write. They instill in you taste, fortitude, inhuman patience, proper doubt, and resilience.

The feedback is anything but pleasant. It’s not for the faint of heart. You learn that bad first drafts are a fact of process. They are necessary, but largely need to be deleted.

David Milch taught me these things, mostly by demonstrating them, but sometimes from the breakfast lectern. He taught me that subjecting others to unpolished work was amateur, lazy, and unfair. If you choose to tell stories, you must learn to craft them in ways that don’t waste an audience’s time or take advantage of their goodwill.

You learn discipline, like an athlete. You do it every day, again and again. The rabbi keeps you honest. Character comes first, then reveals plot, but plot is only a device to enhance the arc of character development. We think we love story, but what we really love are characters.

David taught me those characters are guests in people’s homes. Audiences will let them in on expectation, but will only keep them there if they grow. When a show dies, it’s not because you have run out of story; it’s because the characters have no more headroom to interpret and flourish.

Feedback becomes lifeblood. Then one day you’re on your own. When the teacher is no more, your filter is established to shield you from embarrassment. The work must pass your own sniff test as it would be blessed from further refinement by the teacher.

In this memoir, David writes of the mind’s decay. He didn’t ask for this denouement, but his choices are few. He accepts the path as inescapable. He turns to notions of faith that evaded him in his younger years, when his temperament was not tamable. I remember that David. That was the rabbi who first said to me: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

He wrote unforgettable, award-winning episodes of Hill Street Blues. He created the groundbreaking television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood. He left the craft of episodic television writing better than he found it. That is an understatement.

He battled substance abuse and gambling addiction, both almost crushing his existence. He raised a caring family and found his way back to their love. Surviving his demons to nurture love was a monumental achievement.

I came to David because my viewing experience of Hill Street Blues was TV that tore at the soul. I didn’t know that was possible, particularly because it broke for commercial every 12 minutes or so. David came to think of it as bourgeois. That’s a word you don’t often hear outside of college.

He wanted to go deeper, extract honesty from language despite the limitations imposed by presumed broadcast standards. Rules for David were goalposts that needed to be moved with concerted wit whenever a network executive forgot to interfere. All forms of writing are bound by some form of convention, but he wanted those boundaries to be in service to creativity, not obstacles to authentic expression.

He never stopped being a teacher. He saw the gift in his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, and paid it forward. He helped the careers of endless writers who learned from his example the poetic revelations in pure, gritty, messy, conflicted reality.

For many years I never believed I would achieve David’s standard. My aesthetic was too unformed, too quick to quip, too impatient to let a character breathe if it killed a laugh or shocking turn. I became despondent with my own attempts at composition. I worried words would fail me when I needed them most.

Yet I never gave up. The rabbi made that an untenable notion. Work was essential. Rewriting was essential. Craft was essential. I was on my own as David was. Every writer is alone. It takes a lifetime to learn that. The rabbi if abrupt saves you half your life denying this truth and readying you for being alone, determined, indefatigable.

A mentor is a subject matter master. A mentor is not meant to be kind in the present, only in the long arc of life. We learn this too late. The critique of the master is only meant to become self-critique in perpetuity. Like I said, apprenticeship is not for the faint of heart.

There is gravitas in the audacity of writing, absurdity in committing to an endeavor that consistently leaves you empty and unnaturally separates writer from the written. David understands that in a rabbinical sense. His ability to articulate the nature of output is simultaneously divine and existential. A brief, revealing excerpt early in the memoir captures the essence of that reduction:

There’s something about literature—poetry and prose, but particularly poetry—which disinfects the efforts of being. The effort itself is cleansing. It neutralizes what’s profane about the process, and just leaves the result.

If writing becomes your essence, the idea of not writing is about the same as the idea of not breathing. Neither is feasible. Both are equally necessary.

At the end of the reading, supplemented by famous friends sharing passages for reasons of pragmatism, David took the microphone. “Thank you so much for being here. I love you all. God bless you.”

I had never heard him say words like that. His arc had come with an unpredictable resolution. Story and character were again united in natural resonance.

The rabbi placed a small ribbon between chapters and closed the book. His eyes were clear and telling. Here ends the lesson.

_______________

Photo: The Author at Diesel Bookstore

Advertisement

The Difficult and the Daunting

You may have heard recently that Amazon is pulling back a bit on hiring and warehouse space. With all their vast resources in strategic planning, the executive team there overshot on leasing square feet their forecasts no longer support. I suspect they will manage through this just fine in the long run with little impact on earnings, but it is a powerful reminder of how difficult it is to predict future business both when you’re in an up-market and a down one.

We all get this wrong now and again. It’s normal and usually navigable. The problems come when balancing present challenges heavily compromises a company’s future, or betting only on the future sours a company’s current performance to the point where no one cares about the future.

I am often humbled by the nagging paradox of making tough business decisions every day at the relentless pace of 24x7x365. Running a company in response to everyday circumstances in the present will always be difficult, Running a company for an opaque future will always be daunting.

We have to do both well to accomplish our current goals and set the table for the next generation of growth prospects. Favor either the present or the future too heavily and the question becomes whether you want to lose now or later. While that’s not an option any leader wants to consider, if we don’t see the delicacy in how one affects the other, our intentions can be undermined by our outcomes.

We often hear about the pressures of being a public company, how corporate leaders make choices to focus on quarterly earnings from which they financially benefit immediately over building strong companies for the long haul. I do think this happens at some companies where short-term stock performance can dramatically impact executive compensation. Too often those companies fall prey to what Clayton Christensen famously has called The Innovator’s Dilemma and allow their long-established norms of success to be fully disrupted by more nimble competitors.

There’s a more ironic take on this notion, where equity markets sometimes forgive emerging companies for failing to produce earnings at all in the near term in the hope that someday they will have gained so much market share that they will prove invincible. This all-or-nothing strategy has paid off handsomely for companies like Amazon that didn’t produce earnings for years, reinvested heavily in their growth, and today reap the benefits of that bet. Sadly, this example has been exploited by too many newly public companies that don’t even consider near-term profitability a goal, allowing lazy business models to overshadow unfounded optimism that someday their customers will reward them with enviable positions.

A company that bets only on the future, never becomes economically successful, and runs out of cash can be train-wrecked just as decisively as a once successful company that fails to address The Innovator’s Dilemma. If the executives steering either of those failures happen to be selling shares along the way to a company’s demise, a feast of lawyers will follow.

Inflation and rising interest rates make the cost of doing business higher for everyone. We painstakingly decide how much of these costs we pass along to customers and how much we absorb. The benefit of preserving current operating margins is always tempting, but the rewards of long-term customer loyalty and lifetime value speak for themselves. How do we decipher the balance between current and future financial results? Data will often shine a light on the path, but there are no conclusive textbooks with clear answers to these calculations.

It truly is hard to run a company both for today and tomorrow. We have to consider the staff sizes we need, the leases we’ll require, the stability of our supply chains, price elasticity, and the promise of our brands. We also carefully must watch cash flow, our balance sheets, compensation, incentives, technology advancements, and investments in future product cycles. What works today may or may not work tomorrow. It is seldom that what works perfectly in one set of conditions works just as well in another.

There are no perfect answers, but the fluidity of making a decision now for its short and long-term impact usually weighs heavily on those who wrestle with the impossible crystal ball.

Covid-19 has been a good reminder of how difficult and daunting decisions can be. We were all blind during Covid and it was easy to misread fluctuating data. No leader had substantial experience with stay-at-home working conditions. No one knew how long the pandemic would last, how it would impact supply and demand, or how it would impact investor sentiment. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, most of what we thought going into Covid proved to be wrong, and most of our assumptions about how employees, customers, and investors would behave post-Covid have been equally wrong.

If you want to be humbled, try making decisions that address the unknown with this level of frequency. You’ll likely realize you’re wrong more than you’re right, but the less tangible skill we develop is how to rethink and react quickly when we discover we are wrong. That’s why the rewards for creating a company that is “built to last” are immense, but the odds of lasting fifty years are long.

When it comes time to decide short or long, know you have to do both, and do your best you to keep dialogue and debate flowing among diverse opinions. The decisions we make have an impact we might be able to see today, but unless you know someone who has a gift the world has never seen, we are almost always speculating on the impact a year or more from today. Sometimes it’s decades before we find out if we were right or wrong.

We choose to sign up for the difficult and the daunting. The longer I do this, the more humbling it is.

_______________

Photo: Pixabay

The Root Word of Contemporary Is Temporary

Sometimes I wonder if the advancing of age and a leaning toward old-fashioned values are a hindrance to relevancy in our contemporary workplace. Then I remember who taught me the most about workplace navigation in the early years of my professional career. It was bosses and colleagues advancing in age and leaning toward old-fashioned values.

I don’t think a bit of traditional thinking about the nature of workplace relationships is incompatible with rapid innovation, agile thinking, evolving workplace paradigms, and aspiring to more meaningful jobs. I think a bit of grounding is precisely what the doctor ordered. We all can learn from each other if we choose to listen.

One of the simplest and most striking plain language aphorisms I learned from a writing teacher many decades ago has never failed to inform my internal litmus test of change management. His name was J.D. McClatchy and he was a renowned poet. To my knowledge, he had no interest in business, but these words he taught me about writing have guided much of my business thinking:

”The root word of contemporary is temporary.”

Why is this gnawing away at me this particular moment? I am seeing a lot of individuals make terrible decisions in real-time that I am reasonably certain they will regret. They are trading the tangible present for a fragile future, often believing their choices are well-considered when they are unintentionally impulsive.

Much has been written of late about the Great Resignation. There is no doubt that Covid madness has wreaked havoc on our psyches. It is likely we will never see our lives the same way again after two rollercoaster years of public policy and uneven human isolation.

Ostensibly as a result, we see people quitting their jobs in record numbers to explore new paths. If handled elegantly, the liberation of a life change can be an enormous expression of creativity and empowerment. I’ve personally done it no fewer than four times in four decades with no regrets.

What’s my secret weapon for not burning bridges to embers? I’ve hung onto some of those old-fashioned values I learned early in my career.

Do what you want, when you want, where you want, and how you want at your own peril. Do it with a bit of finesse, and the mentors who helped get you this far may hang on with your journey quietly in the background for the rest of your ride.

It’s always perfectly fine to change jobs if you’re doing it for reasons that make sense to you, but you’re best served to do it admirably with serious planning, polite accommodation, and decent respect.

How egregious can we get in justifying some of our more lamentable choices? Here are some behaviors I’ve observed of late that I don’t think will serve people well.

A presumed job candidate schedules an interview with a potential employer and simply does not show up for the meeting—no email, no call, just a cold no-show.

A disgruntled employee walks off the job in the middle of a shift, unannounced, without explanation, and never shows up again; not coming back from lunch or break is a slightly less dramatic version of this bizarre concoction.

An even more disgruntled employee takes the extraordinary risk of in-person rage quitting, often accompanied by a cacophony of phrases best not repeated in a mainstream publication.

Someone with direct access to a company’s customers elects to ignore or dismiss the inquiry or encounter of an unsatisfied customer, perhaps with equal drama that leads to rage quitting while soiling a company’s brand.

An individual spontaneously rejects the well-intentioned constructive feedback from a manager’s review, and rather than discuss it with improvement in mind, ceremoniously destroys the relationship with someone who cares about them.

Once-attentive teammates emotionally check out, dial in the least possible effort for as long as they can hide it, and wait for someone in authority to notice.

That’s a quick collection of less than proud moments, don’t you think?

What’s the common lesson in talking yourself out of those behaviors and actions?

Don’t stop caring. Never stop caring.

To my good fortune, I’ve also been observing a steady base of colleagues, co-workers, and friends who aren’t drawn to the opportunism of fickle times. They cared about their jobs and the customers they have been honored to serve in the past. They care equally or more so now. Circumstances may be in flux, but their values are constant. They maintain a North Star of personal expectation. They make promises and keep them without excuse or compromise because that matters to them.

If you haven’t already lived through multiple recessions, it is a certainty that you will. Our economy is cyclical almost by design. Sometimes jobs are plentiful and you have your choice. Sometimes they are scarce and you take what you can get to provide for yourself and your family. Sometimes your skills are in high demand. Just when you think your expert knowledge is unequaled, it can become wildly obviated.

There are four very scary words that pop up every few years that I caution you to approach with skepticism:

“This time is different.”

Of course things are different. We live in a high-stakes world of volatile change. That is the blessing and curse of igniting technologies. It is the very stuff of innovation and unlimited opportunity.

Yet some things are not different.

Integrity. Honesty. Trust. Commitment. Dedication. Dependability. Sacrifice. Selflessness. Caring. Grit.

You can easily convince yourself these are simply old-fashioned words, empty crossword puzzle entries that no longer matter in a world assuring you that personalization and independent reward are all that should matter. If your long-term reputation comes second to your immediate needs, you have made a choice that carries untoward risk.

I’d caution you before that cement hardens to remember what my writing teacher taught me:

The root word of contemporary is temporary.

_______________

Image: Pixabay


Separately and Together

With the holidays upon us and two extraordinarily difficult years behind us, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of long periods of isolation many of us have experienced. Curiously it’s not all bad, because I think we have learned to appreciate the time we have alone as well as with others.

Balance offers us a framework for interpreting our thoughts and actions in a dynamic set of circumstances we can neither predict nor control. Resilience is all about never ceding optimism to defeat, but all of us have a breaking point where too much uncertainty creates doubt in our sense of self and others. I think we need both individual and shared strength to be at our best, and holding onto hope that we can overcome doubt is very much an exercise we pursue separately and together.

As we ready ourselves for another year of daunting and exhausting challenges, here are a few perspectives I’m attempting to balance to better navigate the always unpredictable social landscape:

Separately we study in quiet;

Together we validate the suppositions of that study.

Separately we examine the data collected from our experiments;

Together we wrestle that data into a platform of possible directions.

Separately we read from the infinite library available to us;

Together we exchange ideas about those writings that inspire us to rethink our interpretations.

Separately we meditate and pause to block out compounding noise;

Together we find common ground in agreeing on what is noise and what is dialogue.

Separately we examine our values and define a personal mission;

Together we align our interests and develop a shared vision.

Separately we have control over our time to address personal distractions as they emerge;

Together we temporarily eliminate those distractions to focus on our vibrant interactions.

Separately we find comfort and reassurance in our chosen tribes of like opinions;

Together we break down the unnecessary barriers that fuel divisiveness and obstruction.

Separately we know truth in the privacy of our minds unless we are lazy in inquiry or choose to deny known facts;

Together we openly acknowledge honesty regardless of its inconvenience in recognizing the integrity of objectivity.

Separately we contemplate the complex nature of right and wrong;

Together we form bonds that drive behavioral norms around right and wrong.

Separately we embrace evaluation of our psychological motivations and inescapable biases;

Together we embrace diversity and bring necessary change to the marketplace of ideas.

There is little question in my mind that we need time separately to develop a clear-minded sense of self, purpose, and identity;

There is even less question in my mind that we must regroup together at regular intervals to build dependable teams, functioning communities, and enduring friendships.

_______________

Photo: Pixabay