My Third Book: From Nothing

Writers by affliction are an idiosyncratic lot. Other than a willingness to spend an enormous amount of time alone and a preternatural love of language construction, we don’t have all that much in common. We write about different things, from the historic lives of dead people to the ponderous calculations of romance that could never live up to its description. Some of us have enviable discipline in reserving hours for our craft day in and day out. Others are beasts of procrastination who binge occasionally in overnight typing sessions while devoting daylight hours to cleaning out pencil-stuffed drawers and ceiling fan lint. An author on tour may enjoy speaking publicly, while another cowers at facing readership in the form of human flesh.

We may share a passion for literary achievement, but we are in few ways the same. One bit of sameness has occurred to me exactly three times, each when I’ve finished one of my novels. When the final copy-edit has put the book to bed and readied it for your consumption, I’ve invariably asked myself the same simple question:

“Why did I do that?”

The existential query is unavoidable. Why does a writer remain dedicated to the challenge of completing a book? I am guessing I am not alone in that meditation. It is impossible to think that most of my colleagues and the legions of our predecessors have not asked themselves the same thing. It’s a heck of an endeavor, for most not particularly lucrative. It disarms the writer to a battalion of transparent critics, and the incomplete satisfaction is resolved only in the reborn commitment to attempt it yet again.

So I ask you, as you are likely to ask me: Why bother?

To say that we are without choice in the matter may sound glib, but I am afraid that is the only reasonable answer I can muster. We do it because we can’t not do it. We do it because there is something inside of us that needs to ferment and emerge, to escape the confines of a sole mind and become part of a shared consciousness. If we could avoid or redirect this need many of us would, but we cannot, and so we sit, ruminate, draft, and revise. Somehow the new book becomes complete and we are ready to share it, with the best of intentions. For me, happily that time is now, and I hope the new work resonates with some of you the way its voice called out to me.

I am glad it is done. I am honored to share it with you.

It has been a fragile three years in the making. It was delayed partly by life’s interruptions and partly by my need to pick each word at least a dozen times. I may not have the discipline to write in predetermined sections of each day, but I do have the discipline to embrace each of my sentences before I toss them to you. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s time-consuming. It’s exhausting. I know of no other way to do it with pride.

From Nothing. That’s the title, and sort of where it came from — out of nowhere, yet grounded in a collection of moments I have known or expanded in scope. Should you choose to read it, you’ll discover in more detail why I called it that.

It’s the story of why a life becomes a story, how that story is guided concretely and through alchemy, and why some stories are better than others, even if they didn’t set out to be something more than assembled emotions wrapped around an evocative philosophy.

Weird stuff, huh? The problem remains that it’s difficult for an originator to talk about the plot and characters in a book without giving away any spoilers or making light of one’s own intentions. Allow me instead to dance around a few of the book’s themes.

Technology: Yes, it’s me again, come to take you inside the empirical land where I earn most of my living. This is the universe of creative destruction, where bad things have to happen to otherwise good people for progress to have its way with all of us. At the same time, bad people have a way of making these spoils the treasury of their own private club, and the best most of us can hope to do is stay out of the way of the greedy stampede when it targets our cubicle. Change comes with ugly intervention and nasty byproducts. We then quickly abandon the carnage, cash in whatever chips are left on the table, and reinvent ourselves in our evolving world.

Bar Music: I hope you like piercing lyrics and backbeat as much as I do. Sound is at the heart of this novel. We’re still digesting the baby boom, the soundtrack of our lives, the guitar-hero worship that came and went as fast as any other craze but lingers in the possibility of ephemeral ambition. I spend a lot of time thinking about music, and in this tale I devote a lot of pages to unwrapping composition. The songs connect the dots, even when the dots don’t want to be connected and would rather fade into the Milky Way. I have my favorites and they may not be yours, but our immersion in star-quality memories holds us together. That makes for songs that matter.

Redemption: This book has been a strangely spiritual journey for me, more unmasking than I have attempted previously and certainly more uncomfortable than I intended. The protagonist, Victor Selo, has a troubled life that he finds ways to overcome on the surface, yet he can neither come to terms with success nor adequately interpret loss. He makes a lot of mistakes, stumbles through a litany of lifetime accidents, and where he learns from some misdoings, the ultimate assessment of moral right and material wrong forever confounds and eludes him. Theology and philosophy are a tight couplet in our curious canon. I know I have done no better a job of answering the unanswerable than any before me, but perhaps I can open a different door for you to the unquenchable struggle.

So there you have it, a new book is born and with my deepest hope on its way to your hearts. Reserve a copy, read it when time allows, and let me know where we are and aren’t on the same page. With any luck I’ll be back again in a few years with another adventurous yarn, asking myself why I once again committed to the improbable. Much of that will always be up to you, more than you will likely ever know.

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Publication date is June 12, 2018. If you would like to review an advance reading copy please contact my publisher, The Story Plant, or via email: thestoryplant@thestoryplant.com.

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A Brief Excerpt from Track 2

When Victor awoke it was dark. He looked around and the parking lot was filled. He recognized a third of the cars from the office parking lot. Full Stack Max’s mustard yellow minivan, dents on three sides. Code Machine Clarence’s jacked up Escalade with the shotgun bucket seat usually toting that new kid, QA Juan. Admin Darcy’s prized lime green Prius gleaming under security lights as if she had driven through the car wash on the way there. The familiarity was comforting. At least some of them had come. He was head to toe in perspiration but relieved in the dashboard’s digital transmission that it was after 7:30. People inside would be singing. There would be friendly faces. Inside Providence it would be safe.

Victor had slept in the car almost six hours. That was odd. He really was drained, more than he had thought. As he mustered the courage to open the car door, a tap came on the half-open window. The face beyond the glass was unfamiliar to him.

“You okay?” It was the voice of a man perhaps a decade older than him. Victor looked at the stranger, his plain grey T-shirt, blue-black lumberjack flannel overshirt, vintage khakis, stubble beard, untrimmed mustache and mutton chops. It was a programmer look, but Victor knew all the programmers at Global Harmonics and they were the only programmers who came to Providence. Who was this guy?

“I’m fine,” replied Victor, not yet finding the energy to move.

“Come on inside, you look like you could use a drink,” said Mean Master Muttonchops.

“Yeah, I’m coming. Do I know you?”

“You don’t. My name is Thomas Katem. I’m an investment banker.” He handed Victor his business card through the open window slot. “You’re Victor Selo, right?”

Victor eyed the card for familiarity and put it in his damp chest pocket. “Have we met before?”

“It’s possible, the circles we travel overlap. Unfortunately your meeting at Global Harmonics was over before I got there. Late to the slaughter, the way I heard it.”

“Your loss, we put on a good show. You don’t dress like an investment banker.”

“It’s afterhours. I carry a change in the car. Doesn’t everyone around here?”

“You think I need to clean up before we go in?”

“Nah, come on, I’ll buy you a drink. I’ll bet you have friends inside.”

“We’ll find out.” Victor opened the door and got out of the car. Strangely, the asphalt felt comforting under his feet.

As Victor walked through the doors beside Katem, Providence was in full swing. In all the day’s drama, he had forgotten this was Friday, Live Band Karaoke Night. A warm fall weekend was getting under way. Tonight people wouldn’t sing with a machine, they would front a cover band. It was what made Fridays special, particularly for anyone who had abandoned a long-ago dream.

At the mic was possibly the worst Elvis impersonator of all time, a grey ponytailer doing his best to belt out “Viva Las Vegas” with more stage drama than musicality. He wasn’t an awful singer, he could work his way through a tune with credible intonation. He just didn’t sound anything like the King. He didn’t look like him either, beyond the tattered white sequined jumpsuit. Elvis recognized Victor from across the room and raised the mic stand to him as he entered. Victor waved briefly, then crossed toward the bar with Katem a half step behind. Elvis found the segue to a low pitch baritone interpretation of “Love Me Tender.”

“You know Elvis?” asked Katem.

“His name is Johnny Olano. He lives for this. Friday is his day. Three Elvis tunes, five shots of tequila, and he never goes home alone.”

“He must be seventy, maybe seventy-five,” observed Katem. “How does he pull off that trick?”

“Welcome to Providence.” Victor motioned the bartender with two fingers and was handed a pair of Coronas. Few of his colleagues in the bar were making eye contact with him. A few nodded slightly his way, but his usual warm embrace wasn’t to be found.

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The Little We See

I discovered the NBC television series This Is Us in summer reruns this year and I have become obsessed with it. If you enjoyed shows like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, you’ll not only recognize the tone and structure in This Is Us, you’ll see familiar names pop up in the directing credits. It probably won’t surprise you that what has most attracted me to this show is the writing, both the quality of dialogue within episodes and the structural connections between episodes. Series creator Dan Fogelman has framed a milestone achievement in word-to-screen translation.

If you are a student of fiction you know that narrative has the highest emotional impact when story and character are revealed on equal footing, one reinforcing the other. Whether you attempt the craft professionally or as an avocation, you know how immensely difficult this is to do, particularly consistently. Characters matter more when the story advances as a result of their arcs. The depth of characters is more fully rendered when plot points drive their change. It’s enormously challenging. Try it sometime. Or you can just watch This Is Us.

I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers surrounding this show in case you decide to binge on it after reading this post. At its core it is the story of three people born on the same day circa 1980 (the year I graduated from high school, go figure). The storyline follows them from infancy to adulthood with all of the many tangents in their lives around family, friends, loved ones lost and found, career highs and lows, and personal discoveries. The emotional complexity of the characters is what makes it powerful, yet surprise twists in their interwoven journeys jump out all the time, making it the kind of serial that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.

What consistently blows my mind in this show is how character development is revealed in snippets that link forward and back in time, particularly replaying events with increased detail layered into the unveiling of previously hidden moments. It is these hidden moments that led me to write about the show. What continually strikes me as gripping drama is how little we know about any one character or event at any moment in time, and how adding onto the storyline sheds light on the “why” of every moment. I think about this in life every day as I encounter people, not so much in what I do see but in the stark reality of how little I see.

“The little we see” is the mystery of real-life human drama. Someone could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks with a thin smile, but she may have just come from the hospital visiting someone in critical condition. Someone could run into you on the freeway wildly distracted, when an hour ago he was turned down in his marriage proposal. The person next to you in a bar watching a baseball game might be ordering the beer that sends him tumbling off the wagon. We barely know what we see. We usually have little idea why it is happening, what meaning or consequence it may have, or what life fork in the road it may represent. Good storytelling fills in the blanks. Compounding life events don’t snap together as Lego blocks nearly that solidly.

Returning to my obsessions, in my early writing career when I was learning the craft and reading much more than I was writing, I found myself consumed with the question of what happens to characters when we don’t see them. I spent a lot of time immersed in stage-play texts and repeatedly asked myself purposefully unanswerable questions. What are these characters thinking and doing when they are offstage? What were they doing before the play began? What will they be doing after the final curtain? Certainly writers have to think about these things, but the time-limiting constraint that they never can fill in all the blanks is what can elevate a story from entertainment to a more lasting form of art. The elements of a character’s life that are left open-ended are the entry point where the reader’s imagination can come alive. It is in that synthesis that a work becomes both personalized and shared.

Why might this matter to you even if you aren’t particularly enamored with fiction? Perhaps you are like me and find yourself wondering throughout the day about the backstories and masked details in the lives of the people who walk into and out of your contact each day. When you are in a meeting and the presenter is struggling, what was he doing an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, a year ago? When you hear a co-worker arguing on the phone in the hallway about something that sounds personal and know that you are about to review a business plan together, will that person be paying enough attention to make good decisions and what will happen to resolve the argument by the time you meet again tomorrow? When a co-worker’s child visits your office, what does she see and how will it possibly affect her future decisions about her career?

All of this fascinates me both as a writer and a businessperson, because the long and winding roads of our lives are filled with invisible forks where we choose a path and don’t necessarily know at the time that the decision was of immense consequence. I will be writing more about these invisible forks soon because I think the resonance of our decision-making becomes more consequential when we pay attention to the impact it has on those around us. We can never chart our own fate entirely, but we can think now and again about what might be going on offstage as well as onstage before we act.

One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me in business was that unless you are in the room where a decision is made, you will never know why that decision was made. My trepidation has gone further, because too often I have been in that room and I still don’t know why many decisions are made. To me that signals what happened in the other room where I wasn’t present and didn’t even know there was a meeting, or what happened in someone’s living room that morning, or what might be happening in some hotel conference room that night. We see what we see and it’s never enough. We see too little, yet we still have to make decisions.

The little we see is a subset of any story. Think about it that way and you might make different choices when you are in the scene. Onstage or off, the story is part public, part private, part secret, part personal, and always conflicted. That is what makes a great television series like This Is Us. What it says about our lives and our business dealings is something else entirely.

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Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com

Let’s Ask Dad

GMP DadsThis year at The Good Men Project, we have committed to a number of strategic initiatives developed to better engage our community. Original video programming where our distinct voice can be well-expressed continues to be a key focus for our creative team.

Our latest shoot which I helped produce got me thinking there’s a reason some things change while others stay the same. Our increased use of video may be new, but at its heart, it’s just another tool for telling the stories we so love to share. Many of those stories this month are about dads, not surprisingly with Father’s Day on the horizon.

We interviewed seven dads across a spectrum of different backgrounds. They were different ages, their children were different ages, some had one child, some had several. They came from different backgrounds, different income levels, different commitments to faith, and different hopes for the future. What they had in common was profound love for their children, deep reflection on the impact of their own fathers on their lives, humble concern about wanting to make consistently good choices for their children, and hope that their children would grow up resilient and caring in a world with unnerving obstacles at every stage of life.

As I sat in the studio and got to know each of these fine men through their detailed answers to our deceptively simple questions, I was struck by the commonality in their integrity, candor, introspection, and keen insights into the forever moments of parenting. Any single moment of a child’s development might or might not become a memory, but the memories each of these individuals recalled with resonance were as different as they were as human beings.

One father struggled to explain where a very young child’s grandparents “went” when their lives had come to an end. Another father lamented how the sad sarcasm his child learned to express was a direct result of the same sarcasm he wished he never expressed to that child in moments of exhaustion. Yet another wished that he could provide more material comforts to his children, yet hoped his child understood how hard he worked for what they did have.

There were so many emotions expressed in such a short time during the course of our interviews, I wondered how the clichés of men retreating to the silence of their insecurities ever became so widespread. The dads we met wanted to talk, wanted to share, wanted to explore, and most of all wanted to be the best dads they could ever be. They wanted to exchange ideas, hear what each other had to say, learn from each other, and find community in the complexity of fatherhood where definitive textbooks don’t exist and the future impact of their choices is as abstract as the roadmap that brought them to the present.

When you get a dose of honesty that concentrated and expressed with unlimited pathos, the mirror of your own life reflects vividly and without filter. We see ourselves in each other’s eyes, and we learn many of our lessons in seeing our own successes and setbacks in the similar acts of our peers.

It is very much our mission at The Good Men Project to further the conversation no one else is having, and while video in this form might be historical artifact, when placed in a give-and-take context it very much can inspire dialogue. That’s what we set out to do with this bit of storytelling, not just record the stories of those talking, but lay the groundwork for others to react to these truthful moments as starting points in diving into their own personal histories.

Dad relationships are complex, we all know that. One way to start making sense of the father-child bond is to listen carefully to expressions we might not otherwise hear, think about our own answers and actions, and then see where the conversation takes us. Empathy can be a strong force in course correction. Celebration can be an even stronger force in replacing strident self-critique with simple moments of approval and acknowledgment.

Fathers are not simple entities, there is no reason to pretend they are. We all may not have one active in our lives, but if we do, there’s no time like the present to celebrate the dialogue we can still enjoy. If that is not an option, then listening and sharing with others might be another path to awareness and bonding. Mistakes are plentiful, but forever moments matter more.

Enjoy the videos. Enjoy the conversation. It only works if this is a starting point, not an archive. Let us hear from you. Let your children hear from you. Listen to their prying questions and find their hearts in your heartfelt answers.

We’ll be adding more video to this page and our YouTube channel on an ongoing basis, so check back frequently as the story unfolds. The more we add, the better the conversation — but only if you become a part of it.

And hey, an extraordinarily Happy Father’s Day to our entire community from everyone at The Good Men Project!

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Here are the questions we asked in the interviews. Just click on the questions to launch the video answers.

How has the word “love” changed now that you are a dad?

Are your children more like you or more like their mom?

What’s the best advice your father ever gave you?

How would you describe your dad in a sentence or two?

What advice would you give to new dads?

In your family what are dad tasks and what are mom tasks?

What was expected and unexpected about fatherhood?

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

TSO in the Front Row

TSO1

Christmas time
And the moment’s just beginning
From last night
When we’d wished upon a star

If our kindness
This day is just pretending
If we pretend long enough
Never giving up
It just might be who we are

  • From “Promises to Keep” by Paul O’Neill & Robert Kinkel

It’s getting late. Or early. Depends on where you are. Music of the Night.

I’m just back from my almost annual two-and-a-half hours with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was different this year. For the first time ever my wife and I sat in the front row. I didn’t pay any special price and TSO does not sell VIP packages. We just got lucky ordering the millisecond tickets went on sale to fans. Incredibly lucky. Staggeringly lucky. Not an ordinary occurrence for yours truly.

Last night’s show at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California was as good as any and every show we’ve seen TSO perform since we began following them around the turn of the Millennium. The difference was the intensity of, well, being in the front row. I’ve been going to rock concerts like this for over forty years now, and the few times I’ve found my way to the front row, there is nothing like it. When there is nothing between you and the musicians but a wee bit of inner space, you connect. It’s indescribable. It’s metaphysical. It’s what rock and roll is meant to be, the lines between audience and performers erased. You feel the experience in a different way. There is a pure intensity that sinks through your sensory inputs and temporarily commands possession of your emotional framework. Ideas become visceral. Passion becomes tangible. You wish it could last forever. At least I do.

Then reality returns. It has to return, so you can take the music with you and do something with it. Inspiration is a spark, not an engine. If you find a way for the spark to ignite, you carry the torch with a reason and do something with it. Moments like hanging in the front row keep me young, but my work is still my work. Part of that is sharing this stuff with you, to bring us together in the service of something productive, something that matters.

Seconds before the show began, in the dim light of pre-set, music director Al Pitrelli walked to center stage in the shadows. I was about ten feet from him. Pitrelli is a musician of such amazing talent I am humbled watching his fingers navigate the fret board at speeds I can barely imagine, let alone emulate. I looked at Pitrelli and made eye contact. I gave him the aviator’s thumbs up. He looked back at me and put his hand over his heart, a Roman Centurion salute of sorts, but kinder and more heartfelt as he often does when connecting with someone in the audience. In that moment I felt simultaneously like we had just met in person yet were old friends. I guess both of those readings are true. It is the illusion of knowingness that allows art to work. Ancient philosophers worried about the dangers of such false impressions. Old rock and rollers like me call it keeping the backbeat.

I have never met Al Pitrelli, or TSO founder/impresario Paul O’Neill, or anyone in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, despite the fact that they inspired me to write my second book, Endless Encores. I talk about the band in the book’s Preface, how brave they are to try out new material on every tour to keep moving forward, while still giving their fans the show they expect. They just give us more, music we don’t know is coming, and that lets us grow together rather than lock into a fixed expectation of the ordinary. Maybe someday I’ll get to meet these guys—who knows, what were the chances I’d end up in the front row of their show at retail?

What do I really want to share in this predawn realtime post, something I rarely do but at the moment feel compelled to publish unpolished? Is it to convince you that TSO offers a level of practiced musicianship, vibrant stagecraft, theatrical innovation, and storytelling significance that is much too rare in pop entertainment? Possibly. Is it simply to capture the moment for myself of front row showtime as a slice of life? I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. Yet here’s the real deal: Go back to the top of this post and have another look at the lyrics I excerpted.

There is a through line here. It is the holiday season, a time of pause, a time of reflection. In the ultimate irony, the venue where TSO played last night was not too far from San Bernardino, where violent tragedy again struck our nation only days ago. Families all around us are in pain. What we need to embrace is that every kind act in response to those in need is an act that restores humanity to humanity. Music, stories, and unforgettable performances can be our road back to the goodness that gives our life purpose. When art is a conduit that reminds us to act as we internalize, we are brought together toward a path that anticipates healing. We learn from the evocative, and we advance on the hard work that must be done to make sense of our brief time together.

TSO carries into my heart a sense of hope. It ties the holidays to a call of service, and it ties the years together in a continuum of incomplete measure. Sitting in the front row made it feel more real, more direct, more personal, and oh yes, more intense. We have a tremendous amount of work to do together and not much time to have an impact. Listen to the lyrics, feel the music, embrace the integration. Then do something with it.

Celebrate the holidays by doing something that really matters. And don’t forget to turn up the volume. I’ll see you in the front row, the cheap seats, or anywhere else we can make a real difference. Think hope, then make it happen.
TSO6

Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on Profits

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about Profits.

♫ ♫ ♫

There was a modest rumble in the room. A flight had been called. It was not Daphne and Paul’s flight to Los Angeles, but both were heartened by the rustling of computer bags and rollaboards around them as fellow passengers-in-waiting began ambling to the door. It had been a long night, but now it appeared the delay would not go on forever, nor the conversation.

“We have hope,” proclaimed Paul. “We’re going to get out of here.”

“Hope is the strength that keeps us going,” said Daphne, watching people around her happily begin to leave the airport lounge. Since their flight wasn’t leaving, she had no reason to follow them, but she knew her remaining time with Paul would be limited.

“When you set out to determine strategy, how do you think about building the business so it keeps growing?” continued Paul. “No sane executive wants to lead a company into the Dead Brand Graveyard, yet so many end up there. Suppose they have the best people and the best products. How do they get their head around a business model that is going to both work now and expand into the future?”

“That’s the greatest enigma of all,” answered Daphne. “You have to think about recurring revenue alongside new revenue. Some transactions have to be there without your prodding, so you can add new transactions on top of them. If you’re going to spend money to acquire new customers, you have to balance that with what you’re spending to retain the ones you have. If all you do is spend to acquire new business, your margins will be perpetually squeezed. No fun, I assure you.”

“My boss says that all the time,” agreed Paul. “If every year you start the P&L from zero, it’s virtually impossible to grow. You have to know there is some business already on its way from your catalogue of products, and on top of that you add new product introductions.”

“Smart guy, your boss,” said Daphne. “He gets the mix a lot of us miss. Maybe he was at the same Paul McCartney concert I attended.”

“The same boss who isn’t going to can me for this lackluster sequel?”

“Yes, that clever fellow. Let me ask you something about that catalogue of products, the base of recurring revenue. Do you cannibalize your own markets before the competition does it for you?”

“Well, we don’t put out the same videogames, so it’s not exactly possible,” said Paul. “But if you’re asking do we sometimes leave one out there longer than we should to extract the last bit of profit from it, yeah, we do that sometimes.”

“How does it make you feel?”

“Queasy”

“Me, too,” winced Daphne. “I think we all do it to some extent, but the key to all of this is balance. Yes, you need a base of recurring revenue, but if you don’t give your customers something new and exciting before your competitors do, they will sweep your customers into their camp. You have to study and manage the ratios of evergreen and introductory endeavors at work in all your sales channels. Remember, constraints on distribution are low, choices are high.”

“It’s staggeringly hard to find the stamina to pull a product from the shelf when it’s still selling,” said Paul. “R&D costs are ridiculously high. We need all the sales we can muster for contribution margin to make sense.”

“One of the hardest choices in business is to pull a product while it’s still moving. Again, what we are talking about is strategy. Of course you don’t want to leave more money on the table than you should, but you’ll often find you need to leave some. If you don’t do it, your competitors will happily obviate your offerings. That can be the end of one brand and the birth of a new one that is no longer yours.”

♫ ♫ ♫

Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.

“Focus relentlessly on the extraordinary.” Pub Day

Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on Products

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about Products.

♫ ♫ ♫

Paul’s phone dinged. It was the text alarm. He was afraid to look, but he knew the Band-Aid had to be ripped off in one pull. He turned over the handset so they could both see it at the same time. The text read: “We’ll talk when you get back.”

“I’m not off the hook,” grumbled Paul. “Not even a little.”

“Did you expect you would be with a simple text?” asked Daphne. “He’s your boss, not your father. How much did your company invest in the sequel?”

“Millions. We’re not going to lose all of it. We may not lose any of it. We just aren’t going to make the kind of money we made on the original. Sequels in my business are supposed to do better than the originals as the brand and market expand. Everything we do can’t be a winner.”

“Would you let Randy or Helen off the hot seat for mediocre performance with just a text?”

“No, of course not,” said Paul. “I would remind them that there is no growth without risk, that we have to be willing to try things and fail, but when we fail we have to learn. It’s not failure if it’s learning, but there has to be learning. You have to capture that learning and harness it.”

“I suppose he’ll say something to the same effect,” said Daphne. “Of course, I’ve never met him, so you never know. He could mop the floor with you to make him feel better.”

“Thanks, I feel so much more chipper,” grimaced Paul.

“You should,” said Daphne. “Think about the opposite spectrum. Suppose you weren’t willing to risk failure and learn. Suppose you devoted all your energy to protecting the status quo. Think of a company that isn’t around anymore that tried that trick.”

“Kodak comes to mind,” said Paul. “I read somewhere that they developed the first digital camera in 1975, but kept it off the market because they were afraid of what it might do to their traditional film processing business.”

“Polaroid missed the shift to digital as well,” replied Daphne. “They didn’t have to stick with mechanical, self-developing prints. That was a choice.”

“It’s amazing how bad the blunders can be,” continued Paul. “Borders Books, Circuit City, Tower Records—they’re gone forever. With all the customers they had, the vast resources, all that talent and cash in the bank, these days they’re just names, empty shells. Businesses become nostalgia.”

“Tombstones, actually, all in the Dead Brand Graveyard,” said Daphne. “No Endless Encores there. The list goes on and on: Palm, Zenith, Blockbuster, CompUSA, Wang Laboratories—all once beloved brands, all now decaying tales of yesteryear. Now think of the once great brands about to fail, the ones you know will soon evaporate. What is their idea of risk?”

“Way too conservative,” answered Paul. “They’re afraid to take risks because they’re afraid of failing, when in fact they’re already failing by refusing to dance a little closer to the edge.”

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Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.

Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on People

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about People.

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It was getting late in the evening, and as yet there was no additional update on the flight departures. At this point Paul was sort of hoping it would go that way. To leave this conversation unfinished was not something that held much appeal.

“What don’t I know that I wish I knew?” asked Paul, knowing that didn’t exactly come out right. “We put everything into this new game, everything we had to give, but the end result isn’t flourishing.”

“Seems like we’re making quick progress with that wall,” prodded Daphne. “The truth is, you already know everything you need to know. All I can do is perhaps get you to rethink it in a different context. Take me through the project from the beginning.”

“The good one or the follow-up?” asked Paul.

“Why would I want to retrace the path of mediocrity?” replied Daphne. “The good one, the big winner—where did you begin with the original Ethereal Gaze?”

“We started with a pitch. We’d been kicking around this concept for a few years, the idea of an enormous war game, galactic in scope, but without a lot of weapons—without any bullets, or tactical bombs, or spleens exploding, any of the normal shooter stuff that was leaping off the shelf. We said we’d try to do it with clever ideas of strategy, mind-blowing graphics, a full symphonic soundtrack, and characters that made you believe they were real.”

“Sounds visionary, heck of an agenda for a library of program code,” lauded Daphne. “You even went against the grain and tried to build something that wasn’t a proven big seller. But tell me, and I sort of asked you this before but it is worth repeating, who is we?”

“We, the team,” answered Paul. “The core design group, the people I see every day who completely know this stuff, who come up with the ideas that make it happen.”

“Cool, got it, then let me ask you, which came first, the concept, or the talent to create it?”

“Why do I think this is another trick question?” asked Paul.

“The last time you thought I asked you a trick question it wasn’t, so go with your instinct. Which comes first, the idea, or those who offer the idea? This is a key starting point, kind of like the chicken and egg thing, only we’re going to solve it.”

“You can’t have an idea without someone expressing it,” said Paul, hoping he hadn’t said something too obvious.

“There you have it, bulls-eye,” declared Daphne. “Not just someone expressing it, someone with the ability and training to express it, and then be able to deliver on it. A team or an individual, it doesn’t matter, the foundation is the same. Let’s talk a little about talent.”

“I’ll try to keep up with you,” remarked Paul. “You have a lot of big ideas.”

“Too many people I’ve encountered over the years in business think it’s solely the big idea that matters,” continued Daphne. “Don’t get me wrong, big ideas are critical to success. You need spectacular concepts when you envision new products and services you want to bring to market. We’ll talk about that shortly. But before you can even think about creating, marketing, distributing, and selling anything of value, you have to have the right people in place to get the job done. Desperate leaders spend too much time worrying first about output. Long-term leaders spend the majority of their time thinking about talent.”

“I don’t know about that,” replied Paul. “I live in a world where customers need to be hugely excited, almost frothing at the mouth, standing in line overnight outside the store, waiting for the product to release before it’s even on the shelf.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, in one way or another, we all do,” countered Daphne. “Great ideas can be thrilling, but they don’t make payroll. Ideas get the ball rolling, but they are overrated. We worry too much about those who would steal them. Getting a product to market that embodies a great idea is what matters, and that is extraordinarily difficult. Products don’t build themselves.”

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Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.