Every Hope is Worth Saving

It’s been a rough year.

I’m not sure what to make of 2017. What we’ve seen this year on the public stage is unlike anything I can remember. We hear casual conversation about whether our elected officials and senior federal employees colluded with Russia to soil our national election. We observe mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas, now so common we barely discuss it a week later and don’t even bother utilizing it to foster a conversation on common-sense gun control. We watch the parade of famous men from all walks of life falling from prominence when confronted with their ghastly predatory behavior. We experience nature’s record storms devastating the southeastern mainland United States and Puerto Rico as we strip down the EPA, deny climate change, and fail to provide adequate resources to those fighting to rebuild their lives.

Maybe for you this was just another year. For me it was something different. I can’t get my feet to walk solidly on a path below me. My legs are too shaky. The ground is unfirm.

Despite the turmoil, the holidays have arrived. It is the season of wishes. Here are a few I am guessing many of us share:

Don’t you wish the President of the United States was a man of grace, wisdom, and compassion whom our children could admire, instead of cementing this image of awfulness in their brains for the rest of their lives?

Don’t you wish Harvey Weinstein had been called out decades ago so that dozens of women could have been spared his lurid, violent, inexcusable acts of supremacy and self-importance?

Don’t you wish the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team comprised of child champions had been spared the physical and psychological abuse of their team doctor posing as their protector?

Don’t you wish that our absolute defense of the First Amendment wasn’t being utilized by racists unashamed to wear swastikas in public and proclaim a new day for Nazi ideology?

Don’t you wish that a tax cut for the wealthy was not broadly accepted as an apologia for the reprehensible inattention to human needs our Congress trades for the financial support that keeps them in office?

Enough already, right? I told you that for me this wasn’t just another year. This was more than enduring tone-deaf leaders who won’t lead. This wasn’t a year solely to rant. This was a year that tested my belief in fairness. This was a year that took me on an inward journey where I questioned the ability to maintain my values in a world that too often and too easily openly rejects them. This was a year where I wondered if justice was more than an eloquent ideal, and whether healing was possible in a nation that can no longer find common ground in a path forward that invokes a shared understanding of our founding principles.

And so I go looking for a hope.

Because it’s the holiday season, I am also listening to a lot of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This music is an annual tradition in our home. Last weekend my wife and I attended the TSO concert in Southern California as we do every year around this time.

The shows are fun. They are energizing. No matter how many times we hear the same songs played live under laser beams and surges of flames, the story of hope rekindles my childlike sense of wonder and optimism. In particular of late, these lyrics keep hitting me with profound motivation:

Let it go!
Let it go!
This old world that I know
For soon everything will be changing
In a single glance
Where it all enchants
And every hope is worth saving

Paul O’Neill, the visionary who created TSO, died this past year. Yes, we lost him, too, but he left behind words like this that matter to a lot of people. At this year’s concert, music director Al Pitrelli noted in honoring his former boss that Paul used to say, “Individually we are finite, together we are infinite.”

I’m buying into that. Every hope is worth saving. We cannot give up hope. We’ve had presidents who have talked about that, in metaphor and aspiration. We can lampoon the storybook notion all we want, cynical survivalists that we are, or we can be childlike and share in the embrace of vital idealism.

In my last book, my wife picked this line as her favorite, spoken by Daphne, the wise mentor and guiding light of experience:

“Hope is the strength that keeps us going.”

I’m going to try to continue that theme in my writing this year. I can always find snippets in songs that inspire me, but maybe we can find some resets hidden in the hard events surrounding us.

Throughout the darkest hours in Puerto Rico, there were quiet acts of selflessness where local individuals stood in ten-hour lines for fuel, foregoing their own ration for an elderly friend. When we see goodness in action, we are reminded that grabbing for oneself has none of the power of building together.

I recently saw a TV news story where a judge in Minnesota met repeatedly with a pregnant young heroin addict until she assured him she would get clean and become the mother he believed she could be. He could have gone by the book and sent her away, but instead he invested the time to work with her. Today the mother has a healthy son, and the son has a healthy mother.

The national (and hopefully global) awareness of men exploiting women in the workplace is likely to instill new norms of decency in our interactions. If nothing else, the immediate fear of losing everything should shut down a lot of the oppressive behavior that morosely became too common. Deterrent is a good start. Choosing to live by example is where we need to go.

Even more than the season of wishes, this is the season of hope. We can grab firmly onto any teetering branch that is reachable and attempt to repair it, or we can walk away from the broken bough and give up against overwhelming odds of measurable impact. Those are difficult words to write without sounding preachy. It is a more difficult promise to make and keep to oneself.

We arrive at the end of this year in an awkward place. In my heart I want to move along and tackle new turf, but at the moment I feel stuck. I know I am not alone. We need to get unstuck together.

Together we are infinite.

_______________________

Lyrics Excerpt from “Christmas Dreams” by Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Image: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, Tran-Siberian Orchestra

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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

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.”

16 New Things I’m Thankful For (2013 Edition)

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, it’s time again to take a step back from our daily grind and consider the rejuvenating goodness that dots the landscape all around us.  Last year I kicked off my own blogging tradition with a post that featured 16 Things I’m Thankful For.  Here in reasonably simplicity that speaks without much preamble is my itemized, non-prioritized, yet still incomplete version for this year:

1) I can stop saying someday I am going to write a book.  I did that.  Many of you have been exceptionally gracious in your embrace of it.  The reviews are heartening, and the emails I am getting from people telling me they chuckled, teared up, or are living through similar challenges tell me the words are starting to meander to outer circles.  To share these words is pure fulfillment.

2) Health care is going to be accessible to a lot more people who desperately need it.  Yes, the ACA website was botched and Obamacare v1.0 is not exactly what the doctor ordered, but we have started on a long overdue journey of empathy and caring that is befitting of our prosperity.  In a decade the launch will be no more than a footnoted glitch, and wellness will be broadly understood as a civil right.

3) U.S. armed forces previously on combat duty are largely out of Iraq and have not fired a shot in Syria.  Hopefully we are turning the corner.  Give Peace a Chance.

4) Our new little rescue pooch (Kole) is teaching our senior bigger dog (Ellie) a lot of new tricks.  I have the pictures to prove it.  Dogs are good for each other, and good for the soul.  I learn a lot from these mutts, and they don’t much complain when I read dialogue to them.

5) I have not opened a bad bottle of Rioja this year, and not paid more than $20 retail for the privilege.  The values in Spanish wines remain astounding.

6) My amazing wife continues to change the world by bringing English language skills to college students studying in the U.S. from abroad who love her for it.  She is so good at what she does, it is humbling.

7) The Dodgers made it to the NLCS and got as close to the World Series as they have in 25 years.  Wait ’til next year.

8) Good Men Project is at record traffic levels and building a tremendous community.  Our CEO, Lisa Hickey, is heroic.  Our team of editors, staff writers, and independent contributors is tackling complex issues with equal parts gravitas and good humor.  Next year we focus on video, mobile, and subscriptions in addition to new categories, better sponsorships, and broader syndication.

9) Thrift Books is growing, growing, growing.  Our new President, Mike Ward, is 100% focused on People, Products, Profits, in that order.  All three are really good.  We are blessed, we are expanding, and we are green!

10) The feedback I receive from our CTI Executive Coaching students gives me reason to smile ongoing.  They are taking the message of People, Products, Profits into corporations all over the world, helping executives perform better with a grounded human approach that unlocks creativity and makes innovation happen.  Teaching this workshop has been a rare opportunity.  Hearing back from our coaches in the field reminds me that business can always be made better and more sane.

11) The FDA just banned trans fats.  We won’t miss them, not even a little bit.  Fewer heart attacks, longer lives, healthier families.

12) Trans-Siberian Orchestra returns this year to Southern California.  My wife and I missed the last two holiday tours (although we did see Night Castle live) and we are going the day after Thanksgiving.  #TSOtime

13) Our Celebrating Children event at Dodger Stadium raised over $150,000 to help support the kids and families we serve.  Click on the image at the bottom of this post for a little video that tells Hector’s Story and you’ll get an idea why this work matters as much as it does.  And hey, we got to meet Dodger Great Maury Wills, who was on hand to share stories of Chavez Ravine past.

14) I am working on my next writing project with one of the most talented editor/publishers a fellow could ever hope to welcome into his life.  And the project after that.  And the one after that.  So hey, go buy the one that’s out there so I can come tour your neighborhood on his nickel guilt free.

15) Two of my close friends beat nasty forms of cancer this year.  They were brave, resilient, noble in their struggle, and triumphant.  They taught me a lot, more than I could have imagined.  Raise a glass of Rioja, you earned it!

16) I’m not hungry.  I’m not thirsty.  I’m not sick.  I have a comfortable place to live, plenty of clothes to wear, time to read and share ideas.  I wish everyone on earth could type those words.  The basics are still too much a rarity.  We would all do well to remember that before we utter the words, “I want…”

Happy Thanksgiving 2013, whether you share the holiday in the United States or somewhere else in the world in spirit.  Celebrate the joys that are yours.  Earn Each Moment.

Hector

Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.

Are We Thankful Enough?

The following is an edited version of a note I sent to my staff a few years ago.  I started to draft a new version, but then remembered how similar this was in theme:

Each year about this time I like to take a few minutes to share some of my gratitude with colleagues. Given the industry in which we work, it is sometimes hard to separate our business interests in the holiday season from our own more personal sense of human enrichment, but let me try. True enough, the holidays can be seen through the eyes of materialism, and indeed given our dependence and expectations on retail behavior this time of year, it is too easy to allow oneself to “Get Scrooged” without seeing some of the more enlightened generosity that is all around us. Forgive me, Shelley and I attended the annual tour of Trans-Siberian Orchestra this week, so I am in a highly festive and particularly reflective frame of mind. The work we do for our customers and each other is much more than a feeding of the virtual cash register for tabulation by the National Retail Federation. The work we do has meaning because we have chosen to share this time together and infuse it with meaning. It is there if you want to see it, and it is always there for me in each of your own creative contributions and team celebrations.

Let me start with the basics, I am thankful for all of the wonderful people around me each day. As I always say, I have good days and bad days but I never have boring days. The work we do is interesting because the people we share it with are universally interesting. Each day I see your passion expand, your thinking blossom, your communication flourish, and your expectations of yourselves and each other rise to new heights. This isn’t just invigorating for me, it is sustenance. There is reason to come to work each day as long as there is purpose in the day’s activity, and sometimes that purpose is simply rooted in the ability to learn something new. I can honestly share with you that I learn something new from the imagination that surrounds us each day, and I have no sense that has likelihood of disappointing me anytime soon.

I am thankful for the good fortune of being alive at this precise moment in history. To truly appreciate and understand the power of the Internet is to have lived without it for so many years before. I used to say this about the personal computer, that to discover it as an artist’s palette was for me not a continuation of history, but a reinvention of history. Just as many of our parents were born into a world without television, the advancement in democracy of being able to see news from around the world each day was almost a miracle, as was radio before that, and widely available print before that. To be alive today at the inception of the digital age is to me a gift as well as an invitation to have a profound impact on establishing a set of norms that are as evolutionary as they are unknown. Our younger kids see texting and mobile communications and even social networking as quite ordinary, if you were here before them, my sense is you share my awe in the privilege of codifying the extraordinary.

This takes me to my third thank you for the year, appreciation for being able to have even the smallest impact on reaching out to change our world. Our technology has impact, our creativity is unbounded, and our business relationships are honest and crafted around the principle of win-win-win: a win for us is a win for our partners and a win for our customers. You may not always get to work in a culture that embraces notions of empowerment, I certainly have had my own ups and downs over the years in various places I have worked. Yet more than that, we get do fun things like embrace Make-A-Wish kids, give thousands of prize dollars away to families who need it, offer great discounts to families who might not get by without them, help people make the world slightly greener by encouraging them not to drive somewhere if they can shop at home. We also save moms time, lots of time, time that can be better spent with their families enjoying more moments than they might otherwise spend away from home on errands and chores. No, it’s not the work of Mother Theresa, but it is very positive and uplifting, especially when you read all those comments each day from people saying they “love” what we do for them. That’s a powerful word, and each morning I read it in our customer comments, I know we are doing something right.

So I wonder, are we thankful enough? Can we make Thanksgiving something more than a time to power-eat and start charging up our credit cards on the big sales days that follow?  As we enjoy two days away from the office, what is it that we can reflect on that keeps us coming to the office? Thanks for our incomes – I am sure there are varying levels of satisfaction there, but to have a regular income is still unfortunately rare in world of six billion people. Thanks for the people who sit next to us, or in front of us, or in the next room over – again, I am sure there are some around us whom you like more than others, but then again, I am confident that every one of us is within talking distance of at least one or two people we really appreciate, and as I said, don’t take that as a given, it will not always be the case. Encouragement to pursue excellence – OK, I know there are cynics out there who say this is just work-speak, but I promise you it is not, we have created an environment where we expect you to do your best and create work that makes you immensely proud, you’d be missing an important moment if you didn’t embrace and enjoy that, a lot of places it really is just work-speak. And finally, memories and future foundations – the accomplishments we enjoy, the education we give and receive from each other, the stories we are creating to enjoy at a later date, all of that is worth a moment of meditation; time escapes us in precious illusion, and though you are likely to forget this project or that deadline in the years out, if you look around you and thank your colleagues from time to time for even the smallest favor, you just might be making history, as that could become a moment you will share for years to come.

Freedom is such a difficult concept to appreciate because most of us have always known it, it is in the fabric of our society. Yet again, look around, is it the norm or a gift we can cherish? As we keep the women and men who serve us in uniform at the top of our thoughts this time of year, perhaps we can also reflect on just what it means to have the lives that we do, where we can pursue career aspirations and friendships and family and creative contributions to our world all at the same time. As I type these words, it all seems like a pretty big deal to me. I wouldn’t take it for granted. To be thankful is to truly enjoy all that we have, and as I look around our company, I see that we all have so much. I am never sure that I can personally be thankful enough.

I hope you are all enjoying this special time of year, it comes with a lot of work stress and family stress and Scrooge-Stress! Yet the journey is the reward, so let’s do our best to enjoy it and share it and where it makes sense, be thankful. You’d be surprised, it really can be a magical world when you look for the magic in each of the people around you. I see it, so very clearly!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Originally published: 11/22/07

Let’s Be Careful Out There

The private reaction I received to last week’s post on career opportunities was quite overwhelming.  I expected to get a few calls asking for similar consultations from people I know trying to decide between this or that gig, and I did, but the breadth of emotion I received in reaction to the first paragraph — the seemingly unmovable 9% national unemployment factor — reinforced for me just how far this epidemic has reached.  A few years ago, I remember hearing about how many of my college classmates could not afford to attend our 25th reunion.  That was eye-opening and unsettling.  This is much worse.

Look around you.  The impact is everywhere.  People need jobs.  People need opportunity.  People need leadership.  People need purpose.  They are wondering if anyone is listening.  I don’t mean running for office, I mean listening.  Caring.  Responding.  It is hard to see much evidence that any response is on par with the outcry.

For the past few years since the recession began, it would seem many people have been suffering if not in silence, then at least maintaining a difficult quiet.  Of late that pain has become manifest in anger.  The anger we are seeing expressed by Occupy Wall Street is one form of reaction, but there are others all around us.  If you are not personally impacted, just listen to the dialogue around you.  Listen, really listen.  You may be surprised at what you hear, and who is saying it.

Compassion is a noble reflection that we celebrate usually in the final few months of each year during the annual holiday season.  Regardless of our various faiths, public messages of Peace on Earth become evident in everything from retail sales displays to city street decorations.  Then shortly after the Rose Bowl, we take down all the signs with all those slogans and catch phrases and get back to normalcy with the new year.  Can we afford to do that this year, with all of the requests for outreach we are hearing from friends and acquaintances?  I wonder if this time maybe it’s different.

Each holiday season I look forward to a touring rock band known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra that puts on a theatrical spectacle with a tremendous amount of meaning captured for me best in the following few lines from a song called Old City Bar:

If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last
By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask

I usually post these lyrics around the holidays, but I thought I’d get an early start so the sentiment does not get lost in the year-end noise.  We need compassion now and year round.  Some people are going to ask you for help.  Others are not going to feel as comfortable asking, so maybe you can offer it without the ask.  As I discovered in the response to my post last week, sometimes it’s as easy as being a good listener to someone who has lost hope, having chased down every opportunity they can and not found work.  For others you can make a phone call or two, or help edit their resume, or simply remind them that they are good at what they do and these are extraordinary times.  Just returning a phone call can be a very big deal.  The point is that your compassion will go a long way right now, further and deeper than you can comprehend.  Remember Pay It Forward?  It’s always a good time as Steve Jobs would say to make a brand deposit.  Now is an especially good time, never better.  Someday you too will need a withdrawal.

There’s one more thing on my mind this week besides reminding us all to be compassionate, to help where we can, and to not let the message of the holidays flicker out when the crowds leave the Rose Bowl.  There remains a good deal of misunderstanding on all sides of the equation as to whom we can blame for our problems, the catastrophic impact of hyperbole and invective, how simplistic notions of corrective strategies can be naive, and whether justice is a shared ideal that can be broadly and fairly enacted.  When you combine the complexity of all that anxiety with the pain and anger that seems to be spiraling, you have a very bad brew.  The potential for rotten things to happen — events that cannot be reversed, stalemates that cannot be reconciled, words that cannot be taken back, violence that will be regretted — becomes a turbine gaining momentum, suddenly with its own inertia.

Certainly we all want change for the better, regardless of whether we agree on the definition of better.  What we can agree on is certain definitions of harm — physical harm to individuals, extended harm to the economy, permanent harm to our democracy.  Business enterprise is not all wrong, investment is what drives opportunity; there are no jobs without investment, and there will be no investment without risk and return, that is the backbone of free enterprise and prosperity.  A nonviolent protest against unfairness is not wrong, there is a message in the expression of pain and anger we need to hear; every one of us plays a role in this economy as a consumer, that voice cannot be taken away, and that voice says people want to work.  Real trouble begins when an impasse cannot be bridged because too many people decide that it cannot be bridged.  The path through that impasse is ours to negotiate, one at a time, with each other.  It is the very compassion of one person helping one person that gets the wheels moving again.  We don’t have to wait for a grand proclamation of resolution to express humility.  To not do so is to let a fire burn that we needn’t allow consume all that we have built together.

People always wonder if they can make a difference, if any individual can make a difference.  The answer is yes, one individual can make a difference to another individual, and that can become a movement.  The opposite choice is to allow the stalemate to divide us.  That seems like a dangerous choice.

On the groundbreaking 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues, a police drama set in an extremely troubled and decayed metropolis, the avuncular Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played until his own premature passing by Michael Conrad) would conclude roll call each week with the words, “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”  I think for the foreseeable future that is very good advice.