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 

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

Getting Better


The Beatles sang it. Now I feel it.

I’m not saying things are great. For many they are not. I’m not even saying good. I’m saying better. It’s qualitative. It’s relative. It’s palpable. It’s real.

I don’t care if Trump wasn’t convicted. If 43 U.S. senators want to live with the shame of turning a blind eye to a lying, seditious, self-serving megalomaniac, that’s their lifelong curse. It’s not survival politics as much as it is inescapable shame. The badge of cowardice doesn’t wash off. No bleach will eradicate it.

That cynical, boisterous voice is gone from the White House bully pulpit. That alone makes me feel better.

His Twitter account has been silenced. That’s even better. That’s a real punishment, where we are protected from harm. Not quite a penitentiary, but a fitting alternative sentence, particularly in his mind.

If he tours again on hyperbolic rhetoric or creates his own “alternate facts” media network, he’s sectioned off. We can ignore him. If his followers want to adore him they can have that space in obscurity.

Our new president is sane. Joe Biden is thoughtful. He reads, listens, and takes advice from subject matter experts. He reconsiders his positions. He is immersed in dialogue, not monologue.

He’s reversing the damage. Climate change. Environmental justice. Immigration and border normalization. Broader access to healthcare. Global wellness as a shared concern.

Economic compassion. Sustainable job creation. Sensible credit and finance policies. Respect for our allies. Clear, coherent, calm lines with our adversaries.

Cabinet secretaries are taking shape with gravitas, conviction, relevant experience, and an emphasis on character. They will likely serve without unnecessary drama and ridiculous turnover.

Mostly the voice of government is quieter. The tone is softer. It is moving into the background so we can focus again on our lives, our businesses, our daily routines, short-term and long-term planning.

Science is science again. Facts are facts again. Fake news is fake news again.

Journalism is not the enemy of the people. Hard questions are the safeguard of our democracy.

The notion of any potential sympathy for white supremacy or xenophobia has been erased from the office of the president. To the extent there was any ambiguity around tolerance for racist acting out, it is clear that it will be prosecuted.

Those who participated in the violent January 6 insurrection are being indicted, tried, and convicted. Aside from their cheerleader-in-chief, they will be sentenced and go to prison.

Unity is an inspiring ideal on the table. It is noble to challenge the nation to come together and address our problems. It is a lofty ambition. If the choice has to be between unity and sanity, I’ll take sanity.

Covid-19 vaccines are moving into the mainstream. By midyear, we should have one if we want it. This human suffering and loss of life will end.

Optimism. Pragmatism. Confidence.

Empathy. Humility. Decency.

Trust in words. Belief in promises. Not perfect, but directionally agreed as aspirational.

Blood pressure is down, at least mine. Cortisol levels are decreasing.

Most of all, we are rediscovering honesty. The blatant, unending lies have got to go.

We still have an insurmountable way to go on income inequality, civil rights, Black Lives Matter, hunger, homelessness, all of the endless maladies that divide us. If we can admit that with candor, we can commit to priorities of positive consequence.

We are regaining freedom. We are regaining quality of life. We may be inching forward, but we are off our knees.

The republic has survived. It was a close call. If I ever did, I will never again take democracy for granted.

We are slowly, deliberately healing. That’s what needs to happen. That is progress. That’s what it means to get better.

We are getting better. I absolutely believe we will get even better

Getting so much better all the time.

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Photo: Beatles Complete (1976)

Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.

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Image: Pixabay