Years ago, I was having dinner with one of my daughters at a local restaurant and we got to talking about the classes she was taking at her high school. Even when I was a student – and your own experience is no doubt the same – I was struck by the enormous variation in teacher quality at every level of my education. And so as we were talking about her own teachers, I asked: “What do you think makes your best teachers great? What separates the great teachers you’ve had from the other ones?”
She immediately answered it – in a way that someone answers a question they’ve already thought a lot about – and it was an answer I’ll never forget. When I asked her what made her best teachers great, she immediately said “they want to be there”.
They want to be there.
This tells us those teachers are bringing their passion and energy to the classroom. Their
customers and fellow employees students could immediately tell that these teachers weren’t mailing it in, and these same customers and fellow employees students were infected by the teachers’ passion.
Most of us have lost someone close to us (bear with me during this sudden transition). When that happens, we grieve and reflect upon how short even a long life can seem to be. We also recognize that our own time is limited.
Unless you’re a saint – and if you are I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog – you probably remember some time in your past when you told a white lie (at least it seemed white at the time), but then found yourself having to talk your way around it later (more lies). Eventually you find yourself in a bit of a jam. I experienced this more than a few times when I was a kid, and fortunately I learned my lesson: the first lie is the biggest one.
I was thinking about this recently when I watched The Wizard of Lies, the HBO movie about infamous ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, starring Robert DeNiro. Richard Dreyfuss also starred as Madoff in an earlier miniseries. I thought both versions were excellent.
The Madoff story is amazing in how badly people got fleeced – $65 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”). But at the same time the key elements of the story are boring and predictable. Madoff didn’t set out to fleece investors of that sum. In the DeNiro version, Madoff explains to his flabbergasted family that he always thought he could make it back up and catch up to the lies. But he never did, the market tanked in 2008 causing people to liquidate the assets (they thought) they had, and the rest is history.
As I write this I am eating a bowl of lentil soup, which reminds me of a story. Let me set the stage….
It’s winter of 1991, and I’m in Kuwait City. As you recall, this is when coalition forces entered Kuwait City as part of a multinational effort to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from the city – aka “Desert Storm”. Although few US forces actually entered into the city itself, there were some unique US troops running around the city during/after the short ground war. I was in Civil Affairs – the part of the Army that is a liaison between local civilians and governments. Our much cooler colleagues from Special Forces served as liaisons between our military and the local military elements on the ground.
I was part of “Task Force Freedom“, a small task force set up to work through the complex – and impossible to anticipate – challenges that arose during the operation. As the ground war quickly came to an end, our mission turned to getting Kuwait City on the road to recovery.
Our immediate concerns related to basics like security, sanitation and food distribution. The previous months of Iraqi occupation of Kuwait City had been hard on some city residents, so in the early days, along with our other missions, we were in the city making sure large trucks filled with food were distributed to neighborhoods as requested by the Kuwaiti government.
I’m in a Mastermind group. You might think that a Mastermind group is comprised of villains who are hatching fiendish plans of world domination, or even superheroes planning to thwart them, but you would be wrong. In fact, it’s much cooler than that.
Mastermind groups have been around for a long time, and are small groups of peers who come together to hold each other accountable toward their respective objectives and help members solve problems.
Recently, our group has been discussing and (imperfectly) practicing the concepts found in the book The 12 Week Year – a concept where annual objectives are tossed out the window in favor of 12 week objectives. I’ll be writing more about this concept in a later blog post.
There’s more to the 12 week year than compressed time horizons. I won’t cover it all here, but obviously recommend you check it out. However let’s focus on just one aspect from the book, and what I like and don’t like about this powerful quote:
If you read my About Me page, you will see that it ends with this: “Finally, I am an optimist. It’s an exciting time to be alive”.
I thought that now would be the perfect time to revisit optimism – not just as a way of viewing external events and avoiding despair, but as a way to impact events. Let’s start with three well-known characters: Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet.
Last week, the Gates Foundation released their annual letter. Since Warren Buffet gave the bulk of his wealth – $30B or so – to the Gates Foundation in 2006, Bill and Melinda addressed this year’s letter directly to Warren. I recommend you read through the letter in its entirety.
In one part of the letter they touch upon why they remain optimistic about many of the major health challenges facing the world. This optimism runs contrary to rampant pessimism. For instance the statistic below:
Bill puts it well here:
“One of my favorite books is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. It shows how violence has dropped dramatically over time. That’s startling news to people, because they tend to think things are not improving as much as they are. Actually, in significant ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been. Global poverty is going down, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.”
Optimism (and pessimism) perpetuates itself. While the political world has become practiced in leveraging fear, that approach doesn’t work as well in the private sector, where leaders create outcomes based upon the shared belief and passion of their teams.
Which leads me to a related point: the importance of active optimism, or “applied hope”. Before I get into the provenance of this phrase, let me drop one last (telling) quote from the Gates letter, this line specifically from Melinda:
If you’re reading this, then you successfully made it through Thanksgiving without being killed by a family member during an emotional discussion about the recent presidential election. Congratulations! For those of you who attended a big Thanksgiving banquet where everyone voted the same way, then you either enjoyed a triumphant dinner with a generous helping of vindication to go along with your pie, or you participated in an emotionally draining group rage where fury and angst edged out “thankfulness”.
This election, more than any I can remember, has created deep emotional divisions. But as George Costanza brilliantly pointed out in a Seinfeld episode, “we’re living in a SOCIETY!” And as members of a society, we need to work together.
But that’s easier said than done when you’re annoyed (ok – really annoyed) about people who proudly wear the political colors of the opposing team. In fact, a related issue comes up in business quite a lot, where partners can bad-mouth the other party so much that the partnership exists only as a business contract, but not as an actual partnership.
And so you find yourself at a dinner table or in a conference room with people who you’re annoyed with before they speak. What are you to do?
The key is to establish the “human moment” apart from the subject that creates the divisions (work/politics/religion/whatever).
Let me share a current event example, and then provide an approach I learned a while ago that has come in handy for me a number of times.
First of all, what formal group of people have demonstrated themselves to be in such a state of permanent conflict that they can’t seem to get anything done? If you guessed “Congress”, then you’re on the right track. One of the troubling facts of American political life is the increasing numbers of Democrats and Republicans who view the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being”.
So it was with great interest that I read in a recent version of Fortune’s daily Power Sheet, written by Geoff Colvin, this story:
One of the more common held beliefs that has become widely held in the past few decades is the power of visualization. There is much to be said for this. Professional athletes spend princely sums on sports psychologists who help them prepare for peak performance through visualization. One of the things that separates us from the animals is our ability to imagine an outcome. Creation is a two part act: all great creative results are preceded by imagination and the visualization of the outcome.
But like so many things in life, the best path forward lies in moderation. There was a time when the concept of visualization would have been met with derision. I doubt any of the captains of industry who played roles in Charles Dickens’ novels would have been the sorts to engage in visualization (“Bah! Humbug”).
On the other hand, visualization without execution is simply daydreaming – something all of us are guilty of from time to time. But I recently read something that struck a nerve on this topic, and I wanted to share it with you. It talks about how too much visualization can sap our focus by tricking us into thinking we’ve accomplished something.
I recently finished the outstanding book Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday. Ryan is a young man who has traveled to higher heights and sunk to some lower lows than many of us ever will experience. Like the brilliant The Road to Character by David Brooks, a book I’ve written about earlier, Holiday’s book is about us confronting our insufferable weaknesses and learning how to recognize the pernicious effects our ego can play in our lapses and failures.
Here is the relevant passage as it relates to the downside of over-visualization (bold font is my emphasis):
I was driving recently and happened to catch a rebroadcast of an episode of A Prairie Home Companion – Garrison Keillor’s incomparable radio program that somehow always stayed both respectful of the past yet – while a radio show – also relevant for today’s listener. During this episode, he recited a poem that was running through the mind of one of his characters during his “The News from Lake Wobegon” segment:
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done, but he with a smile replied
That maybe he couldn’t, but he would be one who wouldn’t say so ‘til he tried
So he buckled right in, with a bit of a grin, ‘til his screwdriver touched a live wire
And he let out a cry, and rose to the sky, and joined the Lord’s heavenly choir
The people who spoke for the eulogy, spoke of duty and ambition
They spoke well of the dead and nobody said
“Why didn’t he call an electrician?”
Garrison went on to capture something I believe in: each of us do a couple things really well, and “for everything else we should hire”. But he points out that this is a city person’s view of work – the theory of specialization.
A farmer’s view of work, on the other hand, is very different. Farmers are generalists – they can handle anything that comes their way. Work is redemptive for them. “You might be really messed up, and do weird things, but you could redeem yourself” through work and the ability to handle crops, equipment and challenges of all sorts.
We live in the economic times of specialization. We are told – and I believe this – that it is better to do a few things really well than several things in mediocre fashion.
And yet, this doesn’t mean we cannot be well-rounded.
So deepen your appreciation of something from the arts. Read history. In your non-work world, develop something that reflects this fact: we are human beings, not human doings.
The exclamation in the title – Reee-jected! – was what my friends and I would yell at each other when one of us, while defending a shot on the basketball court, got “all ball” and denied the shot. When you’re a mediocre basketball player of modest height, the feeling of rejecting a shot borders on euphoria. But real rejection – the kind that all of us have experienced – is no fun at all. But if we get our mind right, we can overcome and prosper in the face of rejection.
Everyone gets rejected. It’s amazing to read rejection letters like the one above. It reminds you that rejection is part of the journey. My favorite line from the rejection letter to U2? “We wish you luck with your future career”. Thanks!
I have written about Cal Newport’s important book Deep Work. I’m a subscriber to Cal’s blog, where he writes about ways to cultivate the habits necessary to ditch the electronic distractions of our age and focus on sustained concentration. One of Cal’s chief recommendations is to dump social media for a period of time (optimally, forever).
In a recent blog post, Cal shared some great (and comic) insights from Aziz Ansari from his interview on the Freakonomics podcast (something I also subscribe and listen to). Here is an interesting thought experiment from Aziz – who is definitely a deep work kind of guy – about why he doesn’t have social media apps on his phone:
“Like, here’s a test, OK. Take, like, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. OK if someone every morning was like, I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it. Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”