Moments of Clarity

I just finished another trip around the sun (they seem to come annually for some reason), and to the extent it was a bit of a numerical milestone, it certainly got me thinking about things that matter.

I like living in this world, despite all its faults. When I am immersed in places like Yosemite Valley and looking up at Half Dome, I have less desire than ever to partake in meta. Learning how to navigate in this reality has never lost its appeal to me. Being an avatar in a virtual world has almost no appeal to me.

I find it deeply troubling that regardless of how technology has accelerated global interdependence, ruthless despots continue to pursue egomaniacal, territorial wars of vast destruction like we are seeing in Ukraine. I find it more troubling that in the 21st century, more humanitarian societies remain largely clueless about how to circumvent crises without accelerating conflict. I love our democracy, our nation, and the limitless opportunity this generational child of immigrants continues to experience, but the divisive politics of rhetoric and hyperbole leave me sleepless most nights and concerned about the reemergence of authoritarian populism.

I like our U.S. currency and monetary system. It is not flawless, but I understand it and trust it enough to park my assets in its floating value. I don’t have an interest in cryptocurrency, particularly those that began as jokes and trade in wide ranges on speculation. I am intrigued by blockchain technology and see its potential in future accounting systems, but I don’t think that has to be tied to flavor-of-the-day money brands. Similarly, I have no plans to purchase NFTs. Maybe if people like me sit out the NFT market, the price will be lower for others who see value here. Consider it our invisible gift to you.

I like trading equities on fundamentals. I like owning shares in companies that either generate earnings or are on a path to generate earnings. I want to understand traditional ratios and multiples that determine the price of stocks. I don’t care if a company has sextupled in current market value because “everyone” is buying it. I want to buy it at fair market value where I understand the valuation.

I also like companies that create products and services with a business model I understand, where technology is not just disruptive but improves process, where customer experience is highly valued, and where there is a path to future reinvention. I like leadership teams who are never satisfied with themselves. I don’t care if an IPO is oversubscribed because of hype if there is not a clear value proposition that is explicitly articulated. I am okay to miss out.

I believe in talent more than I ever have, that great things can happen when high-caliber people are assembled to address a meaningful and elusive task, but I have a very high bar when I think about what constitutes high-caliber talent. Part of my expectation in building a team has to do with a demonstrable track record of success, not just an energetic expression of possibility. Much has been written on the war for talent, and sometimes it is real, but excessive bidding wars to fill open positions in a company are not specifically nurturing or championing talent. Real talent in my mind is rare, precious, usually humble, collaborative, collegial, and views career trajectory over the long haul while building lasting relationships and selflessly mentoring others.

I think people need to read more. This has nothing to do with the fact that I work for a company that sells books (well, maybe it does). Reading helps develop minds. This cannot be substituted with truncated, silly videos, brief unpunctuated texts, misguided tweets, or pithy sound bites forwarded out of context. Reading is a gift, language can be a conduit of compassion, stories often reveal empathy, and books are forever our treasures.

I think excellence in the arts is exceptionally hard to achieve, and too often we confuse celebrity with extraordinary craftsmanship. Super-hero movies are fine for those who want to watch them, but the fact that they generate piles of money doesn’t increase my interest. If someone aspires to be a TikTok star that’s their choice, but that is not in the same class as being a brilliant playwright, painter, or musician.

I think climate change can never get enough attention, income inequality is a corrosive catastrophe we have no idea how to mitigate, and the ravages of woke mandates are shutting down dialogue rather than improving it.

I think working in a workplace rather than at home all the time is critical to collaboration, communication, and leadership development. I think in-person meetings when well planned improve human connection and help augment trust. I think phone calls should be returned politely and promptly.

I am feeling increasingly old-fashioned as I get older, largely because I have spent my life in technology and seen what helps us and what distracts us. I love innovation, I admire visionary change, I adore the notion of a Carousel of Progress. I’m also a lifelong skeptic and a fierce utilizer of a nose for bad-smelling dross. There are things I believe we can improve, things we can’t, and things that sound like we can even when we haven’t a real clue how. An idea pitched is not an idea proven. An idea proven can often be as subjective as it is objective.

And finally, to the extent anyone cares, as a result of the recently settled MLB lockout, I am okay with the universal designated hitter.

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Photo: The Author on His Birthday 

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The Root Word of Contemporary Is Temporary

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

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

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

”The root word of contemporary is temporary.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t stop caring. Never stop caring.

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

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

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

“This time is different.”

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

Yet some things are not different.

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

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

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

The root word of contemporary is temporary.

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Image: Pixabay


Don’t Look Up

I don’t often write about movies. The last few times were out of concern and offense.

That’s not the case this time. Don’t Look Up is an honorable accomplishment, brilliant in aspiration if not execution.

Bob Lefsetz may have summarized it best:

“Don’t judge the movie as a movie. Judge it as a cultural exposé.”

It’s not a great movie. It is an important movie.

It’s not a laugh-out-loud funny movie. It is a twisted, masterful mirror making it a profound movie.

It’s leafy green vegetables dipped lightly in ranch dressing, not a snack without compromise, but still good for you.

Most of the movies we see released these days are either popcorn tentpoles with superheroes meant to fill actual theaters, or esoteric art pieces that win awards but stream largely in obscurity.

What happened to issue-based, mainstream entertainment movies like The China Syndrome, Erin Brockovich, or Midnight Express? The bottom line finance culture running the studios couldn’t possibly come to terms with those kinds of bets today. Throw in a platform of satire, dark humor, or caustic irony like Dr. Strangelove or Network and the chance those movies get backed today approaches nil.

Today we would call greenlighting medium to high budget films like those a bad business decision, and we would probably be right. Yet there was a time not long ago when many of us experienced these releases as popular culture events. Perhaps the most important thing these flicks accomplished was to inspire conversation.

We might like or dislike the stories. We might accept or reject the message hurled at our psyches. We might enjoy or be bored to tears by the characters. We could agree or disagree with the premise. It was the very act of talking about them that made them worthwhile as events even when art and science failed.

I miss those discussions and debates a lot. They made me think about things differently, They opened my mind to different points of view. They helped me get to know people better, both interacting with strangers and close colleagues.

It doesn’t happen much anymore. Show business has changed too dramatically. The distribution landscape is too fragile. The stakes are too high to take these kinds of chances and wildly big swings. The entire approach seems of a bygone era.

Don’t Look Up took me back to that bygone era.

It’s a gutsy picture. It steps up to the plate and takes some bold, big swings,

What’s my idea of a bold, big swing?

How about a world-ending comet headed for the earth as a metaphor for apocalyptic climate change? That’s hardly a whiff.

How about Ariana Grande satirizing herself as an indictment of vacuous celebrity influencers? That’s a power at-bat.

How about the collective sensory assault of TikTok diluting an otherwise complex idea down to its own reductionist dismissal of gravitas? That’s taking a crack at a tough pitch.

Most of all, how about giving away the punchline in the title? How do we make something go away if we don’t want to believe it? Just don’t acknowledge it.

It’s that simple, and pardon the spoiler but it’s coming in this sentence… If you don’t believe a fiery killer projectile is headed for our planet and about to wipe out all life as we know it, just don’t look at it.

If you can’t see it, it’s not there.

If you wish to deny the imminence of a crisis, all you have to do is deny the possibility that it is coming.

Journalists certainly don’t matter, they are subjective. Scientists might matter even less, they are products of their bias. What you find on the internet that supports your point of view is all that matters. Belief is not empirical. All belief sets are valid points of view.

To put all that in a mainstream movie, think somehow it will be funny over two hours, pay a bunch of expensive movie stars to show up, and think this makes good business sense—there’s something wacky in that logic.

I wish I had laughed more throughout the movie. I wish some of it had been more subtle. I wonder how it will age when people watch it three or four decades from now. I am skeptical it will have the same dire resonance that I am attempting to express here regardless of its flaws.

Then I think back to the unforgettable dialogue of Peter Finch as Howard Beale that has been ringing in my head since my youth: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I think about the decades of conversations I’ve had with people about those words and how much they’ve done to impact my interpretation of the weight of social issues still tearing at the fabric of modern living.

I think about how blessed we are that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky crafted those words and director Sidney Lumet got this movie to the screen for generations to ingest, discuss and debate.

I think about how long it’s been since I’ve had a satisfying conversation about an unequaled topic of global consequence triggered by a work of fiction.

The recent words ring solidly in mind: Don’t Look Up.

It’s anything but a perfect movie. It could be a lot more polished and funnier. Still, I think more people need to see it. And ingest it. And talk about it both with those who agree and disagree with its premise.

Thank you, Adam McKay. I think you’ve done something brave, needed, and important.

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Image: Pixabay

Separately and Together

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

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

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

Separately we study in quiet;

Together we validate the suppositions of that study.

Separately we examine the data collected from our experiments;

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

Separately we read from the infinite library available to us;

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

Separately we meditate and pause to block out compounding noise;

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

Separately we examine our values and define a personal mission;

Together we align our interests and develop a shared vision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separately we contemplate the complex nature of right and wrong;

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Pixabay