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.

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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 lifetime of highly personal 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 Lonner and Paul Beckett, 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.”

On a Mission or Just Staying Awake

One of the themes I explore in my forthcoming debut novel, This is Rage, is the notion of motivation.  This is a subject I hold dear, and one I focus on a great deal in the executive coaching workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli.

mission-statement-vs-vision-statementIf all a mission statement is meant to do is fill a half page in your human resources handbook, it is probably not worth the time to write it down.  One of my former teachers and board members used to say he had a vision of all the great mission statements in the world collected in a single volume, and there could be no possible better bedtime sleeping remedy than trying to force oneself through those pages with one’s eyelids open.  Again I agree, if a mission is just a string of words — Buzzword Bingo without a juicy prize — it will not motivate, but let’s consider a few potential examples of applying a personal leadership mission in attempting to inspire a team.

Here are three choices I offer participants in the workshop, all of which we’ve heard in some variation, from the absurdly failing to the boldly aspirational:

Choice 1:

To make this department much more efficient and profitable!

Choice 2:

To overcome market forces and prevail over our competition!

Choice 3:

To provide my team with the support and resources they need, to the very best of my ability, to collaborate and do the very best work of their careers.

My response to Choice 1:

Not gonna inspire, management by fear is so not cool.

My response to Choice 2:

You’re starting to get my attention, through an occasional yawn.

My response to Choice 3:

I’d build you a log cabin in the arctic if you asked me.

Call me an optimist; people like to be inspired.  It’s not a sleight of hand.  Real leadership means rallying people around a cause, to subordinate their own personal quirks to the shared agenda adopted.  The leader’s job is to create the environment for sharing.

Is it the business leader’s job to make her or his department more efficient and profitable?  Do we really need to ask?  It goes without saying, so don’t seek glory in the obvious.  Is it the business leader’s job to respond to market forces and win market share from the competition?  Once more I ask, where’s the question?  Any answer to this presupposes a complete lack of faith in the common sense of why we are employed by our company and not another.  Is it the business leader’s job to rally, help, support, test, and muster the collective wisdom of those assembled to form a team and work together?  That should be just as obvious, but try saying it aloud and look at the surprised gazing around you.  That’s what people want to hear.  Uttering the manifesto is the first step toward building trust and accomplishing the impossible.  True, it’s just the first step, and trust is easily shattered when actions upend words.  Yet it’s an important step, and it does fire up hearts and minds much in advance of a spreadsheet.

It also connotes vulnerability — to the very best of my ability — which again is all in fact you can ever do.  Not proclaiming more makes you human, perhaps a form of life other people are more willing to follow.  Be honest, not only about what you can do, but in admitting that you are not de facto possessive of superpowers.  Try it out, it just might give you superpowers.

In my novel, a few clever and powerful people are trying to make a whole lot of money.  That is not a bad thing, until they forget that how you make the money is the difference between taking along a deserving set of others and leaving almost all of them behind.  Most of the people in the story just want to do their jobs, to find a way to love their jobs, to shake off the demoralization that has come from the illogical separation between task and income.  When a job is a paycheck, you don’t need a mission statement or real leadership, you just keep your head low and get through the day.  When a job is about something more, it’s still a paycheck — we all need a paycheck — but the purpose of the work is a much more substantial driver, creating better outcomes and better paydays.  Improved business comes from more engaged employees, and getting those employees engaged is a soft skill that in the hands of a master can conquer most obstacles.  That’s when work is fun, when we believe in something, when we believe in the leaders and their values and their rallying cries and we choose to be a part of innovation’s path.

The promise of the start-up is to build something new with heartfelt values at its core, and in closely held companies at modest scale it is much easier for founders to maintain the kind of personal mission and creative culture that reflects this entrepreneurial DNA.  When an exceptional start-up enters a period of hyper growth, hands on sustenance of idealized culture becomes considerably more difficult.  Should the start-up go public, it too easily can take on the shape and form of the goliaths it sought not to be, and then the challenge of maintaining a mission grounded in shared values is often put on trial.  The disconnect between what was innocently envisioned and what inertia morphs can be terribly upsetting to the grasping loyals, who hold their idealism in longing, hoping at length for the pledge to retake honest meaning.

Still it is important to remember than the personal leadership mission can endure.  Indeed it might be less than a grand corporate mission statement, but I believe conviction is almost always within a business leader’s reach at all levels of an organization.  Committing to a personal leadership mission is a choice — a brave choice with its own risk — and while rare, a good one in the spirit of Choice 3 has a decent shot at creating significantly more employee engagement and long-term value than the other two slug lines.  It’s all a matter of executive style, setting a tone for the broadest possible positive, tangible outcomes.

It is too easy to check out, and once people check out, try getting them to check back in.  As my story compounds, an awful lot of people check out — because they don’t feel valued, because they don’t feel inspired, because they see what they do each day as separate and divorced from the actual process that creates income for the business and value for the shareholders.  Tie those pieces back together and real innovation comes a good deal more naturally.

Leadership is not so much a word as a behavior, a walking example of what it means to be intertwined with the enterprise.  It does begin with words, words that are grounded, words that do something.  Choose those words carefully, lead by example, motivate by inclusion, dole out support without reservation.

You want to keep things humming, make it a little less comfortable and a little more complicated — for yourself, not those you guide.  In the book, I take you to the extremes of this world view, heroic and cowardly and all that binds the spectrum.  The words did not come easily to me, but I committed myself to resilience and found them over time.  You can, too.

About This Book of Mine

Pre-Order on AmazonI have mentioned now and again that I have been working on a novel for a few years.  It’s time to share a few more details.

First of all the title: This Is Rage.  You will discover why I called it that if you read the sample excerpt on my teaser site and other fine channels we will be utilizing in the coming months, like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, where you can currently place your pre-order that will be shipped when the book is officially released on October 8, 2013.  Shameless, I know, but I am officially in the pull marketing business effective immediately.

There are two protagonists in the story, who are also both antagonists, at least to each other.  They are each hero and villain in the broader context of economic turmoil, which they aspire to improve, but not surprisingly mess up on high-octane, mostly by accident.  Kimo Balthazer is a disgraced radio talk show host, who seeks redemption in the obtuse netherworld of internet webcasting.  Daniel Steyer is a venture capitalist at the top of his game, looking to go out huge with the deal of a lifetime, but market forces have other plans.  That’s not the order in which you will meet them, and you’ll find out why.  At the outset they don’t know each other exists.  They don’t even know each other’s world exists.  But they soon do.  And they don’t like each other.  At all.

I am going to do the right thing and not toss out any spoilers, but I can say that you will spend some time in Silicon Valley, some time in Los Angeles, and some time in Washington D.C.  You will be introduced to the world of Investors, Bankers, and Operators, the three points of an ever-forming triangle that comes with its own hierarchy, rule set, chaos, and politics.  You will also meet a curious politician with a tangential agenda, a conflicted movie studio boss, the co-founders of one of the most successful tech-start-ups ever, and a pair of would-be entrepreneurs turned criminals whose interpretation of thinking different is not quite what their families had in mind.  You will be invited into board meetings and venture partner meetings.  You will hear the voice of Kimo in your head.  You will see what happens when ego and presumption run amok, and the notion of control spirals into hyper normalcy, where random boo-boos add up big time, and the consequences are strangely real and familiar.

My key influence for this book is Tom Wolfe, whose first novel Bonfire of the Vanities blew my mind in ways that still shake me to the core.  I didn’t know what a bond trader was the first two years I was in college.  Then I saw a bunch of guys my age lining up in blue suits to be interviewed to become one.  They went to Wall Street and became extraordinarily wealthy selling paper promises to their clients.  Then came the broad implosion of junk debt.  Michael Lewis, whom I also tremendously admire, made his debut as an author writing about this phenomenon.  I saw the impact on my friends, I saw the impact on New York, and I felt the impact on our economy.  What I admire to this day about Wolfe’s work was how he wove storytelling through the observational narrative, migrating the educational lesson to character development, and burying the polemic in a moral tale for the ages.  I was studying theater at the time, without notion of how I might fit into the business world, or even if I could make a living given what I valued.

A quarter century later we seem to have forgotten the fall of the junk bond kings.  The miracle of Silicon Valley has replaced the lustre of Wall Street and the allure of Hollywood.  I have played my whole career in this fantastic environment of innovation, the arranged marriage of technology and media brokered by the matchmaker financiers, and the output had been invigorating.  We have created jobs, opportunities, and a good deal of wealth — but not for everyone.  In the same way that Wolfe and his New Journalism looked beyond the restaurants and clubs and luxury high-rise suites, I have seen the scary trailing the good.  Where there is big money there are big personalities, and where there is a win-lose battle fought daily, often those who lose are the secondary foils who play by the rules without insight into the eccentric ecosystem.

That is the story I wanted to tell.  That’s why I wrote a business novel instead of a non-fiction set of adages.  This was something I needed to do, part of the continuum of my journey.  I started my career in storytelling, then helped bring storytelling into computer games, then found my way into profit and loss, and now I come full circle.  I needed a way to bring these elements together, to find a synthesis of my passions, which include the theatrical, the financial, the philosophical, the hope of justice, and a touch of dark humor (hopefully more than a touch!).

In the coming months I will tell you more about the publishing journey, but I cannot conclude this project announcement without a sincere thank you to my brilliant editor, Lou Aronica, under whose independent imprint The Story Plant my book is being published.  Lou is a Mensch in every sense of the word (Google it if that’s unfamiliar to you).  He has been a steadfast believer in This is Rage since we met each other last year on Twitter.  It’s not just the notes that he gives me, it’s the way he communicates his viewpoint that makes me want to rewrite a fourth time when he is only asking for the third.  I think Lou, a bestselling author himself, is at the forefront of New Publishing in the same way Wolfe wanted New Journalism to embrace the opportunities of Creative Destruction as a positive force for change.  Wherever this journey takes us, I am delighted to be paddling alongside a friend on this whitewater river of 21st century digital publishing — with a paperback to boot.

So that’s the introductory story of my novel.  It’s my first, I hope not my last, and I welcome you to come along and share the journey with us.  It’s for you, and it’s about you.  I hope to entertain, and maybe share an idea or two as the whitewater rises.

This is Rage.

Comfortably Numb, Stupidly Unashamed

I have been agonizing for weeks whether to write about Rielle Hunter.  The notion of a single additional millisecond consumed by the public on this media danse macabre peels the skin from my typing fingers.  Still I need to share a few words, less about what’s happened, more about how troubled I am with our inability to look away from the body.

Rielle Hunter is not a celebrity, except that she is.  She had a sexual relationship with a married man.  She got pregnant.  She chose to have a baby.  In all sanity, it ends there.  Give the child the slimmest chance at a sane life.  Be with the child’s father, don’t be with the child’s father, just go away quietly and be a good mom.  How hard is that?

Apparently it’s hard because there’s money at stake.  As fate would have it, the father of her child was once a party primary candidate for President of the United States, and then the ticket’s Vice Presidential candidate in a national election.  How about that.  His wife happened to have cancer at the time of both the election and the affair.  Now she has passed away.  He happened to try to hide the affair from his wife and may have crossed a few lines in doing so, enough to get him hauled into court and tried, although not convicted.  Okay, it has to end there.  Give the child a shot at any kind of normal life.  Preserve any fragment of dignity left for mom and dad.  Separate your private life from public spectacle, at least so the public does not have to disgrace itself.

Nope, there’s real money at stake.  She cannot help herself, she is cashing in.  We are letting her cash in.  She didn’t take her fifteen minutes of fame, we are giving it to her.  We cannot seem to help ourselves any more than she can.

I am not reading the book.  I am not watching the television interviews.  Ms. Hunter has nothing important to say, not a word of value will cross her lips.  Yet I can’t miss her, she’s everywhere.  Why does anyone care?  Why do we feed Piers Morgan’s hunger for this flavor of anesthesia by subscribing to it?

It’s supply and demand, free-market capitalism, 100% free speech, no law against it.  Nope, don’t want to regulate it.  Nope, don’t want to restrict it.  Completely agree.

It’s still icky.

Criticize me if you wish for condemning a book I have not read, but if this is a book, we have forgotten what it means to read.  There are an infinite number of interesting topics to ponder and curious events to discuss — the mending of our nation’s polarization, Europe’s seesaw economic outlook, interest rate fixing scandals, Wall Street arbitrage incinerating millions of dollars on derivative trades, heartening private sector innovation at wondrous new companies like SpaceX, lower gas prices for summer, a new Aaron Sorkin show on HBO, and a new novel by Kurt Andersen.

In 1992 Roger Waters produced his last solo album called Amused to Death, inspired by Neil Postman’s 1985 landmark book about the grinding impact of media on our critical thinking abilities.  It was dark, even for Roger, and it didn’t do too well.  It was about a monkey watching TV, just changing the channels on the TV, over and over, through an invasion of our planet by other-worldly creatures observing our demise, until the apocalyptic concluding refrain, “This species has amused itself to death.”  Both Postman’s book and Waters’ album preceded the commercial internet, and their observations were anything but unique.  But when I saw Rielle Hunter on her book cover staring at me from a display shelf, suggesting there could be any reason for me to buy and read her transcribed words, all I could hear was that refrain: This Species Has Amused Itself to Death.

Well, we’re still here, so not yet, right?  We can pay attention to more important things if we want, no shortage of free will to be entertained.  We all have our own ideas about what’s relevant.  News.  Politics.  Music.  Family.  Sports.  Pets.  Who’s to judge?  Does it matter that Entertainment Tonight fills a full hour following every 23 with fluff we used to dismiss as tabloid?  Is there any way that hour could be better used, perhaps to learn the name of a local candidate running for State Assembly or why Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice?  Maybe not, but it’s bugging me, mostly because I once campaigned for John Edwards and believed he could have been a decent Vice President and/or President of the United States.  Now I feel ashamed — ashamed that I was ever on this bandwagon, ashamed that I was duped by lies, ashamed that he denied a child he fathered and can’t take that back, ashamed that we are still paying attention to the mother of that child.  I don’t like the way this feels, and I want it somehow, at some level, to stop.  That’s my problem.

This one notches beyond tabloid, because the clever maestro Ms. Hunter has made an active choice to compose opportunistically despite the requisite price.  She is fully aware of the stakes, the trade, the auction, and the orchestrated bait.  Still this compromise of judgment is not Rielle Hunter’s problem.  It’s not John Edwards’ problem.  This is our problem.  I am picking on them to make a point, an egregious case that is emblematic of serial apathy.  If we can’t help ourselves and just keep gobbling up this gunk,  then in an amiable daze we hand wealth to those who least deserve it, financial reward for nothing earned, nourishing amusement an abandoned aspiration.  Our thoughts turn to mush, and there we sit on the cold floor tile, trapped again in a Waters’ refrain, banging our hearts against The Wall until we are Comfortably Numb.

This species can do so much better than that.  Really, we can.

Do Books Matter Less?

Book TreasureThe pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was an early observer of the ever occurring change in our universe.  About the same time in the 5th Century BC, Parmenides pondered the notion of permanence, what we could presume in nature to be essential.  Between the two of them, we have a thesis and antithesis that have yet to reveal a synthesis beyond argument some 2500 years later.  We see change all around us in almost unfathomable complexity, while we wonder what we can hold onto as firm.  For me, it’s a good problem to have, as contemplation of the unsettled forces us to chew harder and argue better.

Then there are books.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece with the header “Books That Are Never Done Being Written,” Nicholas Carr contemplates the far-ranging impact of digital distribution on long-established but fluid notions of traditional publishing:

An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

The realization that books are no more permanent than this year’s understanding of medical treatment is hardly shocking.  The very paradigm of printing on paper and binding a work has throughout its history adopted the notion of editions and revisions.  Where would the school textbook industry be without an excuse to update a classroom volume rather than allow you to feel comfortable buying a dog-eared half price two-year old version?  If we only needed one unabridged edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, think of how many academic preface summaries we would have been denied annotating discovered corrections in the core text.

Yet in the worlds of literature and even political theory, we do seem to maintain an expectation that the version we read of Charles Dickens or John Stuart Mill is largely the same as the draft the author called final.  “A Tale of Two Cities” even when presented in its initial serialization was eventually finished, as was the essay “On Liberty,” and when we buy a copy of one of these today either in paperback or download, we do believe in the authenticity of replication representing if not a fully steady state, a pretty firm slice of life.  That is helpful not only in getting us all on the same page for discussion and critique, it offers us grounding in history and social evolution, the ceaseless churn emerging from deliberately placed bricks in the wall.

I have a hard time thinking today is much different, and no matter the short attention span theater that victimizes so much of our patience, my sense is our books have never been more important — no matter the brevity of their life-cycle, no matter their imposed truncation or expansion, no matter their delivery format or storage means on wood shelf or cloud server.  Our books will change as they must, but their timeliness and meditation as collective might be the primary permanence we retain, even if it is more spiritual and metaphorical than natural or physical.  The means of delivering the book does not define the book, it is largely irrelevant, itself a timely convenience worthy of disruption.  The material of delivery is subordinated to the material of substance, it is the content that matters, not the media.  The Platonic form is the ideal, and that cannot be taken from us by technology.

However we acknowledge its consumption mechanism, the book as ideal is a bridge among scattered coordinates.  We learn to read an organized set of drawn thoughts to see what is meant by change, and those who have the gift and discipline to construct a book add to the global library of permanence by carrying the torch that challenges all that came before.  Historic observation is clear and consistent: the buildings decay, the land can be conquered and utilized anew after wars and governments are gone, but the ideas underlying arts remain for examination.  The composed book is the codification of the idea however it is presented, that does not change.

My amazing wife, who is also an amazing teacher, enters her classroom on the first day with a simple statement:

“Our books are our treasures.”

Her specialty is English as a Second Language, and whether she is teaching adults or children, this mantra is always the same.  Books are precious.  If you look around our house, you might see why this is our chorus.  Books are everywhere.  That is what we want to be surrounded by.  We also have a Kindle and an iPad.  They are filled with books as well.

Another recent story in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the price of e-books was sometimes dropping below the price of “real” books which I guess means paper books, but to me, one is no less real than the other.  The broader question remaining is whether the great majority of people should still find the time for long-form written expression in a world cluttered with half-baked tidbit social media posts like this one.  The answer has to be yes, because if we are going to allow character count to trump in-depth inquiry, we condemn our more severe concerns to being adequately addressed by less than substantial narrative.  Our pace of change is only becoming more frantic, and the hope for some form of understandable permanence all the more desirable in addressing unending anxieties.  Committed writing and reading gets us a good deal of the way there, because the acts of reading and writing might be one of the few forms of permanence we can share.

I say this as someone who just spent the better part of a year writing my first book, which is now in first draft and undergoing edit.  I haven’t talked much about the book, and won’t until we get closer to publication, but let me just say that whether anyone reads it or it sells a single copy, it will remain one of my proudest achievements.  Right now it is a long book.  It will get shorter to accommodate marketing concerns, but hopefully it will still be a substantial book.  I couldn’t have said all I needed to say in a blog post or I would have.  Believe me, I would have!

In our world of constant and increasing hyper flux, books can be thought of as a noble but flawed exercise in establishing some sense of the enduring.  Now that digital publishing allows current authors easy access to further disturbing permanence, any foothold in establishing the concrete may remain even more illusive, but the stepping-stones of thought that bridge us from there to here can certainly maintain significance if we view thought as continuum, a timeline.  In that regard, as a roadmap or even a set of breadcrumbs, books for me have never been more relevant, nor the mission of authors any less permanent.  Some books are good and some are bad, some certainly more ephemeral than others, but the connectivity of books is ongoing.  Apps or facings, that is as it should be, as long as I can read.

A Great Teacher is a Gift for a Lifetime

Valerie Haas: Classically Remembered
by Ken Goldstein
Iolani School Bulletin, Fall 2010

Valerie Haas was a Master Teacher.  She was serious about her work, serious about her students, serious about the classics and their relevancy to our lives. She cared immensely about excellence, precision, continuity, and character. She was guarded, yes, but she was equally multidimensional. There was a lot to her, and if you wanted to know what that was, asking would have been a poor strategy. It was her job to teach, it was our job to learn, but it was everyone’s job to listen and care. If you got that, you got extra credit. And your life was richer for the epilogue.

Context is a variable of interpretation that is not terribly well understood or appreciated. To understand context is to put translation on par with circumstance. Surely even the most stubborn and uninterested recruits can be taught to decline a noun, but can they be taught to understand why otherwise rote memorization might one day save their curricula vitae? The simple answer is you can likely learn anything you want to learn, but the truth is, you must commit to deciphering the context of a subject or you are right back to recitation. A good teacher knows this, and lets you decide how to ascribe context to drill. A great teacher knows when you get it, and withholds just enough satisfaction that you are forced to bring reference to bear.

Just how good was Valerie Haas at this near brutal form of inspiration? My sense is that the football and basketball coaches quietly studied her classroom, but would never tell the tale. Let’s see, you have a roomful of 13 year olds who always raise their hands, enunciate clearly when called upon, share perfect tempo in choral reading, and don’t even bother to step into the classroom if late without an automatic side trip for a tardy slip. The rules are clear. And the scores? Fiftysomething years of gold, sliver, and bronze medals in national competitions, not a year missed without a student celebrated on a global scale with the words “Iolani” and “Hawaii” attached to their accolades. And remember, we are talking Latin.

But back to context. If you dared utter the words “dead language” in her second floor classroom, you were not going to have a good semester. Then again, if you asked her why it still made sense to study Latin in the late twentieth century, you would be readily introduced – for that matter metaphysically welcomed – to purposeful dialogue. Fully a third of all lessons and class discussions focused on etymology – what are the root words in English that we can track to their origins. If you wanted to survive the redlined grammatical assassination of an English or History paper, you were coming to a knife fight with a polished saber – provided of course you had mastered Latin sentence structure. If you thought poetry was tough, Cummings and Whitman had nothing on Ovid or Virgil. Connections from then to later became clear in no less than the texts of Caesar (Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est…”) while we also learned how Cicero laid much of the pipe necessary for Shakespeare to mold history into drama (Cicero even secured himself a bit part from The Bard). And once you’ve chewed through the back beat underlying dactylic hexameter, forever more the iambic pentameter of Elizabethan rhythm proves less surreal, more accessible, staggeringly fluid.

So she taught us Latin to make it easier for us to learn everything else?  Well, I suppose I would call that a byproduct, but not quite context.  Imagine for a moment the very notion of teaching Latin to 7th and 8th graders (and the lucky brave who went beyond) in the middle of the Pacific, in an emerging modern city welcoming refugees of the Vietnam airlift. Consider the local political climate of a proudly proclaimed melting pot seeking reconciliation of perspective within its own Polynesian heritage, and planted there an “old school” transitioning from didactic monologue and homilies on original sin to encouraged discussion and embrace of God’s absolute love – no personal computers yet, but the times they really were a changing. Consider the notion of order, structure, and the fundamental task of college readiness for students who knew they had been signed up without escape clause for a college preparatory contract not even knowing a wee bit what was in the deal. Consider on the radio The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Doors – all highly encouraging of mythic enlightenment, but nowhere including reference to the accusative or case. Now get up and teach Latin, and still turn out thinking honor students. The case for context is no longer shared; it is the teacher’s problem.

Or is it?  Did we really think fear alone – fear of challenge, fear of rigor – was trepidation enough to keep us in tow, let alone rope a dope with the arriving digital age? That was not my observation, intimidation was a style of schooling that lost purpose as expected reasoning replaced mandated conformity, as the daunting essay test really did demand a well supported opinion, and voices were meant to be expressive, not muted in programmed restraint. Could a traditionalist make that switch? She didn’t need to, because she was there from day one.  She never changed because her style was crafted in permanence – stepping in the same river was moot, the forms defined all. It was we who changed, she was the catalyst. The context was the contemporary, though as I later learned many times over, the root of contemporary is temporary. Valerie Haas was of The Day, every day – and it worked.

Am I telling you she was a rebel? Well, if insisting that heels still slam to the floor when other teachers are starting to let students wear their hair over their ears, then I suppose yes, she was a rebel in holding onto tradition. Not surprisingly that was hardly her aim.Her aim was purely to help us understand that the roots of all change rest warily in the past, and in order to effectively bring change one must digest and dissect the past. It is noble to bring reform, but sensible reform is virtually impossible without complete retrospection and intelligent cataloging. We embrace the classics for their beauty and resonance, for their structure and significance, but all creative destruction begins with that which we choose to change. To change an idea, a school, a society – to make the present better – is to embrace the legacies of the before not as perfect, but as accurate in the time of their origin, their context.  The great scientist and the great artist have this in common, before they dismiss the failings of misinformation they fully walk in the realm of the masters. You cannot bring change if you have no empathy for that which you are trying to change. So you study. And you study hard.  For long periods of time. And then when you see what is wrong you also see what is right, whether then or now, in order to come to terms with consequence. And it is the role of a Master Teacher to pass along this truism from generation to generation, whether the static around it is comprised of AM radio or digital streaming, it just does not matter.

The great mentors teach us to learn, and context is the documentary where and when of change, not the more glamorous and speculative why or how. The where and when are learned in our lessons, the why and how are exercises in creativity introduced through event and circumstance. Context remains a priori, the root of perspective, preamble to change. Context is truth serum, inescapable in argument, disarmingly complex, a detective story often without hero, yet always the set up, the amplification, the table setting for the menu to be.  Valerie Haas understood that every hour she was in the classroom, every minute of study hall, even in the fragments of hallway chatter, which I promise you she enjoyed more than she let on. She was studying you, because she wanted you to be ready to be better, to be courageous and take on necessary action. She would help you if you wanted help, she would drill you if you were up to the task, but mostly, she wanted all of us to make the world better by understanding language, poetics, chronology, and discipline. She knew we were just kids, and that we would grow to become adults, and perhaps when we stumbled on a word misused we would know how to find its real meaning. And then do something with it, something creative, something that mattered.

Valerie Haas was that good. We owe her our respect for a lifetime of context. Carpe diem, wrote Horace. At thy call we gather. Godspeed, Miss Haas.

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For the original online version, please click-through the following link and scroll down to the bottom of the page:

A Latin Teacher: Classically Remembered

Time is the best teacher of all.  It causes us to rethink what we got wrong.  A teacher can offer perspective we never could have understood when it was offered.  If we are lucky, we live long enough to learn to rethink what was given.

National Latin Exam