Why Tom Wolfe Matters

What more can I add to the multitude of tributes to literary legend Tom Wolfe? Certainly nothing unique, but given the inspiration he has provided me, it would seem irresponsible not to add a few personal notes.

Wolfe is one of my favorite authors of all time. He was a writer who changed my life. I never met him, but I always felt like I knew him. Now I will miss him, but the library of his life’s work will forever be near me.

It was his invention of New Journalism that changed the way we heard and told stories. He crafted a new set of norms meant to break all the rules that desperately needed to be broken. The storyteller belonged in the story, fact or fiction, a hard break from the false mandates of objective absolutes. He proved by example that a writer and his story are inseparable, no matter the subject matter. His biting critiques of hypocrisy are funny, eye-opening, and actionable. His characters are equally outrageous and believable. The unique style and consistent unpredictability of his prose are seldom short of stunning.

When I first read his 1989 manifesto in Harper’s, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” I knew the coming shift in literature was more than cosmetic. Allow me to borrow a passage from that essay on how the call to relevant storytelling so lit up my life with hope and gravitas:

By the early 1960s, the notion of the death of the realistic novel had caught on among young American writers with the force of revelation. This was an extraordinary turnabout. It had been only yesterday, in the 1930s, that the big realistic novel, with its broad social sweep, had put American literature up on the world stage for the first time. In 1930 Sinclair Lewis, a realistic novelist who used reporting techniques as thorough as Zola’s, became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, he called on his fellow writers to give America “a literature worthy of her vastness,” and, indeed, four of the next five Americans to win the Nobel Prize in literature—Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck—were realistic novelists.

Wolfe reminded us of our American legacy and tradition in creating words that matter. To combine that public statement of reborn intent with a social novel as demonstrative as The Bonfire of the Vanities would have itself constituted a life achievement, but he was just getting started. Ironically, this was years after he wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff in his relative youth. Whether the narrative was reported, invented, or a combination of both, his voice exploded from every page he published and lifted us to reconsider the controlling norms crowding every corner of our lives.

He was already in the club when he dusted off the house rules. To be fair, it was less of an edit about purpose than it was a bold restatement of the rules of engagement. These were the kind of “new rules” that deeply appealed to young writers like me who weren’t sure if it was still okay to address the injustice of our surroundings with purely accessible plots and characters.

Could an author be both mainstream and thoughtful, both entertaining and aspirational? Wolfe told us yes, showed us how, and begged us to beat him at the game. Eleven years after Bonfire he proved he could tackle the social novel in different geography with A Man in Full, bringing realism and nuance to an equally vibrant cast of characters in the financial machinations of Atlanta. Again he beckoned all comers to rise to a more demanding creative standard. We couldn’t beat him, but we sure could take out pen and pad and play along as if the contest were open for anyone brave enough to enter.

What did I learn most from this erudite iconoclast?

Current events become history. Tell even the simplest stories with flair. What you chronicle for the present becomes a time capsule that can be unwrapped in ten years or a hundred. Reporting on contemporary events is a noble calling, but framing them within multiple prisms of context transforms ordinary happenings into perpetual discussions of culture and significance.

Story and storyteller are inseparable. Voice is alive whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction. To pretend otherwise, that there is somehow an ideal objectivist viewpoint, is to deny the reality of the music in your head and the muse speaking through you. Acknowledge it, confess it, embrace it.

Style is content. What you write and how you write it are also inseparable. So many of us studied his eclectic, eccentric style of phrasing to adopt his craftsmanship and tone. If you want to use nonsense syntax to land a point, to hell with copyeditors, be a writer, accentuate at will and rise to the iconic. Like this, from Bonfire: “On Wall Street he and a few others – how many? – three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? – had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe.”

How big a deal was Tom Wolfe? I can’t identify a single reductive adjective. Enormous is a good start. Unique is another. I’d toss in galvanizing as well. His writing changed the entire playing field for a churning generation. He showed us how words become possibility. Yes, he was that big a deal.

Important works of literary fiction that are fully absorbing may not be in the same demand today as they were a generation ago when readers of another time learned to love words as life inspirations. When we remember Tom Wolfe as author and provocateur, we remember what is possible when we demand as much of our artists as they demand of themselves.

Words matter. Stories matter. Storytellers matter.

Tom Wolfe matters.

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Photo: TomWolfe.com

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.

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.