Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I read extensively about Africa and the circumstances that many of the nations on that continent are facing politically, economically, and socially. Recently I heard an NPR story covering integrated schools in South Africa where students don't feel safe because of ever-rising racial tensions. In the New York Times I've been following the campaign of Morgan Tsvangirai, the man who dared to challenge President Mugabe, and then dropped out due to the threat of violence. Yesterday I was reading a story in Sierra Magazine about Ethiopia's optimism, a story chronicling the long-overdue arrival of contraceptives that are allowing women and girls to take more control of their lives.
The one topic I don't hear much about in relation to Africa is science. Yes, in a roundabout way the topic is addressed via food shortages or medical relief work. Science education isn't touched. With great excitement I learned about a program initially sponsored through TED, NextEinstein. Neil Turok, a brilliant cosmologist and education advocate, was honored with the TED Prize, and thus was able to use TED's incredible network to announce his one wish for the world and receive support to bring that wish to life. “My wish is that you help us unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein.” Essentially he is saying that Africa must solve Africa's problems if those solutions are to have longevity.
In 2003, Turok, who was born in South Africa, founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Muizenberg, a postgraduate educational center supporting the development of mathematics and science across the African continent. The website http://www.nexteinstein.org/ was just launched about a month ago and the movement is looking for help in the form of donations, media talent, creative business consultants, educators, and infrastructure.
This effort is about helping entire nations lift themselves up and propel themselves forward. African nations have been down-trodden for too long, dependent on aid that is always too slow to arrive and never substantial enough. Neil Turok is building a program for Africans to help other Africans. There is more to those nations than disease and war and social ills, contrary to so much of what our national media covers. It is a continent rich with possibility and talent and heritage. Now the question is how to mine that potential so that the outcome is even more elaborate than Turok's dream. To lend a hand, visit the TED Prize website.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Jon Fine's article in this week's issue of Business Week discusses a new news provider, Daylife. As a devoted fan of the news and someone who believes that the plethora of new media channels can help to reinvent traditional media, I am intrigued by Daylife's business model.
Daylife is a news aggregator that splits revenue with news sources based on the link and not on the destination page. Big deal - I can just set up a bunch of Google alerts on topics that interest me and get a nice stack of emails with daily news stories and blog posts on the subject, right? Yes, I could do that. Or, I can just set up Google reader and collect my information that way. Yep, that's an option.
Here's the trouble: I love Google, but its alert search is far from all-encompassing and it makes no effort to relate one story to another, save for a common keyword. With Daylife, ordinary people like me can build highly-tailored news sites on any topic of interest, or variety of topics,and post them up on my own website. Essentially, I make my own little newspaper, and Daylife scours the enormous world of news on-line to get me the content and package it up for me in a neat format. This customizable feature is set to roll-out some time this summer.
To be sure, there is tension that exists between traditional media and this constantly morphing world of digital information. Today we get news from a variety of sources as it happens. It has never been easier to be informed on events that happen around the world. And this fact has created a world of complexity and information overload beyond our wildest imagination. While Daylife may not be a quick-fix or even a complete solution, it's a start toward simplification and efficiency. In this case, even a modest improvement packs a punch.
With the current state of the economy, every news cast, newspaper, magazine, and radio station has been offering a nightly segment on making our money go further by cutting expenses, shifting our investments, and finding places with bargains. Money experts like Jean Chatzky and Suze Orman are encouraging us to live within or below our means, pay down bad debt, and save, save, save. While a lot of these tips are very helpful, they are just that - suggestions and tips. I haven't seen a consistent, customizable framework to help us cope with specific, difficult challenges we're facing on so many fronts. Until yesterday.
I've been a loyal subscriber to Real Simple Magazine for several years. I look forward to its arrival each month and it's one of the few publications I read cover to cover every time. This month, their resident motivator, Gail Blanke, wrote a column entitled "How to Thrive in Tough Times." I expected another set of high quality tips and hints on personal cost cutting. What I found instead was much more valuable.
A personal and executive coach, Gail offered exactly the kind of framework I have been looking for when evaluating a challenge and formulating a way to overcome it. A fun five-step process takes us through naming and evaluating the challenge, considering possibilities, and then taking action.
Step 1 involves naming the problem in a discrete way and then asking, "can we do anything about our situation to quickly make the problem disappear?" If no, proceed to step 2. Gail's example in the article talks about a family who can't afford to take vacation this year because of the tough economy.
Step 2 we consider all of the things we're missing out on or losing as a result of the problem. This can be an emotional coming to terms so take your time going through this step, face each fear and loss head-on, and then keep going.
Step 3 now that we have faced what we're losing, consider a new possibility. This can be the most difficult step because we now have to let go of what we are losing and imagine a new reality. Eventually, the family Gail was working with formulated the big idea of having a vacation at home.
Step 4 now the fun begins. It's time for imagining impossible things in the hope that we can make some of them possible. This is a free-for-all brainstorm. No idea is a bad idea in step 3 - get it all out there without considering limitations. This is your license to get completely carried away. The family in Gail's example came up with ideas like taking Latin dance lessons together, cooking classes, and visiting all of the local museums in town.
Step 5 leads us on the path to reflection. We put the best of the ideas from step 4 into action, and put our best foot forward in making them a reality. No half-hearted efforts here. And then carefully consider how this new found possibility is different and even better than the opportunity we had to miss out on in these tough times. Step 5 will be a work in progress for some time, and it may teach us that while the hard times are tough to initially confront, they end up creating the circumstances for which we are most grateful.
I hope this framework helps us all consider new realities that we must create in order to move forward, even in the toughest of times. It's valid for personal matters, as well as professional, and can be used by anyone regardless of circumstances. It has enough structure to serve as a gentle guide and enough flexibility to make it valid in a myriad of situations. It can be used by individuals, families, and companies. Many thanks to Gail and Real Simple for finally offering up a tool that we'll be able to use for many years to come.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
At the BlogHer Conference, I heard Kerry Miller speak about her inspiration for her blog, PassiveAggressiveNotes.com. She was on a terrible date, explaining the passive aggressive notes her roommates would leave one another on post-its. She joked that she should put them on a blog, and she did, and the rest is history. It's now become a very popular site with hundreds of people logging in every day. Even a bad date can have a good outcome, even if it's not the good outcome you were hoping for.
Which is how I consoled myself last night after a date that might be described as one of the worst dates ever. I rarely dish about dating on this site, though this story had some usefulness eventually. To give you a taste of what transpired - after regaling me with his ability to find a bargain, his side business scalping concert tickets on Ebay, and his knowledge of five French vocabulary words, he then managed to use curse words relating to the human anatomy and phrases like "wow, the youngsters here are enthusiastic." (We were at a rock concert - note to self, rock concerts are not a good venue for a first date.) The date ended with me getting so sick to my stomach and dizzy from all of the smoking in the audience that I had to go outside, get some fresh air, and in the process dropped my ticket, banning me from re-entry. Thankfully, I had written down his cell phone number so I sent him a text to let him know I was grabbing a cab home. The Universe saved me by snatching that ticket from my pocket.
So what good could come out of this night that I wished I had stayed home and watched the Food Network? Two things: I know now that my mother was right - when dating, using the decade rule is best. In general, it's very hard to romantically relate to someone who is 10 years older or younger than me. There of course are exceptions like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. But by and large, I believe my mother on this one. The other terrific thing to come out of this unfortunate date is a new on-line tool that my date told me about. It's the one he's used to learn his five French words. Don't hold that against the site.
www.livemocha.com is a language learning site that doubles as a social network The lessons go at your selected pace, and it's free. So long as you're motivated to put in the time, you can build your own classroom across the world to help you learn or re-learn a language, and you can help others in the process. While the language of love was clearly eluding me last night, there's now renewed hope for brushing up on my Spanish! Que bueno!
Friday, June 20, 2008
I have been working on a few projects that require one simple thing: simplicity. While we crave it, work for it, buy all kinds of books and gadgets that claim to be able to make our lives simple, simplicity often alludes us. Recently, I sat with a team member to craft a memo. She kept adding, and adding, and ADDING to it. Finally I said, "Stop. Turn away from the computer. Tell me what you want to say." She could articulate her ideas well when speaking to me and the moment she sat at the computer, she hid behind an excess of words.
I found a quote later that day that gets at the very essence of good writing, and solid editing. "The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. ~ Hans Hofmann." And that's it in a nutshell - that is the motivation of every writer, and every editor, in one succinct sentence. To get to the diamond, you need to polish it, and that means removing the unnecessary layers.
It's easy to understand why we think simplicity should be simple. It's not - it's an art that must be practiced. It can be painful. Simplicity is work. We are complex creatures - emotions, biases, past experience, and a deep need to be understood all stand in our way. The work of an editor is to clear the path. To soothe emotions and biases, while preserving and honoring history and the ability for us to influence and affect one another.
As a quick guide, I do the following four things when I feel simplicity getting away from me:
1.) I audibly articulate the nugget of truth I am trying to convey. And then I write it down verbatim. I start from there.
2.) I eliminate every word I can without losing the sentiment I want to convey. This can mean many different types of rework: from restructuring a sentence to finding a descriptive word that can speak for a number of smaller words.
3.) I step away from the writing, even just for a few minutes. Sometimes to get out of the hairball in our writing, we have to physically step away from it.
4.) I only write when I am crystal clear about my motivation for writing, the channel I am writing for (print, blog, brochure, presentation, etc.), and the audience I am trying to reach. This is the framework on which we hang every word.
Wishing you simplicity and good editing, in writing and in life!
Graphic above found at http://www.simpledorm.com/images/simple.gif
Thursday, June 19, 2008
During a slow week at work I have been hunting around for projects that add value and help out a colleague who may be drowning. My friend, Kate, needed help drafting planograms, drawings that layout where each type of product goes in a specific area of the store. I got several dozen blank layouts, on paper, and spent the day with a pencil in hand, putting together pieces of the puzzle.
I got lost in the work, forgetting to eat lunch, not watching the clock. After many long hours in front of my computer, putting pencil to paper was a welcome change. And I considered how long it's been since I actually scribbled anything of value on paper - aside from my shopping and to-do lists. My life has become decidedly digital.
This realization gave me great hope. As many gadgets and gizmos and electronics invade our lives, there still is nothing like the feeling, the experience, of working with our hands - whether it's drawing, painting, sculpting, even gardening and cooking. I was so happy to be disconnected from my computer, to be lost in a world where it was just me, my creativity, and a few guidelines from Kate. That simplicity was comforting, and I felt like it was an honest and useful day of work. What more could I ask for?
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
My friend reveres that CEO as the greatest leader he has ever worked with. "See look what he built - the company can't survive if he's gone! That's the mark of a great leader," he said to me. I'm not so sure. After my recent conversation, I am left wondering what it says about a leader if their company's success is driven by their presence. We all want to be wanted, and needed, and all want to feel that special sense that comes with being irreplaceable. Being irreplaceable creates a lot of burden, and ultimately negatively effects the lives of the people who work for that CEO in a profound way.
At the very least, cultivating that idea of being irreplaceable is irresponsible. The truth is that none of us will live forever, no matter how much we exercise, or how well we eat, or how often we monitor our health. And with job switching being so commonplace in today's economy, on average each of us will change jobs almost 10 times in our lifetime. If a company falls apart due to one person's departure, it means that leader didn't create an active succession plan, and maybe the vision he or she inspired was not sustainable, and therefore not successful in the long-term.
I think about my recent trip out to LA to visit with Disney. Walt Disney died in 1967, a very young man, from lung cancer. From the time of his diagnosis, he had a year to live. And so much more he wanted to do. Even as he was building a company on imagination and achieving the impossible, a company that bore his name, he was also building something much more valuable - a company that could live on without him because of the brilliant and creative people he had the foresight to surround himself with. He passed the torch to a very capable group of people, who brought in even more capable people, to allow for continued growth decades later. To me, leaving a legacy that lasts in your absence if the greatest mark of successful leadership.
The photo above can be found at http://darkstar.holtz.com/hct/ee/images/uploads/hk-ceo.jpg
Monday, June 16, 2008
JK Rowling's Commencement speech - The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
Friday, June 13, 2008
I read the news flash of Tim Russert's passing with the same shock as others. "What?" I said out loud, despite the fact that I was alone in my apartment. I have previously written about my addiction to the news. I'll give up chocolate and ice cream before I'll give up the news. And Tim Russert has been a part of my news watching for as long as I can remember.
I never met him, never even saw him in a rare celebrity sighting during my years in Washington, D.C., though I felt like I knew him very well. Whenever a primary or election or press conference was happening, I was eager to watch how he would crunch the numbers and determine a politician's answers to his tough and fair questions. I believed every one of his predictions without hesitation, and appreciated his honesty in the often less-than-honest industry of politics.
I am deeply effected by his passing for more reasons than just missing his political commentary. I admired him for how he relished his work with the gusto than many people reserve for their personal hobbies and interests. And it set me to thinking about what career I want to make my life's work. What path do I take that I will love as much as Tim Russert loved his? To find that path seems the best way to honor his contribution to our society.
It's seems unfair that he would be taken so suddenly, right before a holiday that celebrates one of his favorite roles, father, and on the eve of possibly the most historic election in our country's history. We've relied on him for so long to steer us through the complexities of the political world and now we'll need to navigate on our own.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
I walked around all day yesterday trying to figure out what was so special about June 11th. And finally, in Columbus Circle, it hit me - I moved back to NYC exactly one year ago. I drove up to NYC with my car full of worldly possessions - very little in fact since I had sold nearly everything I owned before leaving school. I had a relatively clean slate, save for my friends and family. It felt freeing to completely release the life I had known in Virginia just 24 hours earlier, to return to a place that felt like home and yet had so many new experiences to offer.
One year later I am gainfully employed, spending time with my friends, many of whom have known me for a number of years during different phases of my life, writing every day, and living in my favorite neighborhood in New York. My family is an hour and a half away - an easy train ride. I have a new niece. There's a rhythm to my days, and to my life. I kind of feel like June 11th is my adopted birthday - it's the day I became more of who I am. On June 11th, I felt like I became an artist, a writer, again.
My first year back in NYC isn't what I expected. It's filled with many people whom I didn't know when I arrived, and those who I saw only a few times a year for many years. Now I take my mom to brunch in the city, I go to dinner with Lisa and Dan and Steve and Brooke and Rob. Friends like Amy and Trevin and Anne and Alex and Kelly come to visit. I go to see Ken during a free weekend. And many friends have moved back after being away for so long, just like me. Somehow, by magic I think, a life came together for me that I never even knew was here. And all the while, I think it was waiting for me to get back home.
In this next year back in NY, I'm working to get my writing out to the world a bit more and I'm trying to find my professional niche. I'm working on meeting Mr. Wonderful, and I'm getting back into shape with my yoga, running, and weight training. (I've fallen off the wagon in both regards lately.) I'm taking a comedy writing class to improve my writing as much as to increase the amount of laughter in my life. And I'm recommitting to make sure that I honor my time as my most valuable asset.
It feels good to be home.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
I can't believe it - I am actually going to have to watch the Tony Awards this year. My friend, Trevin, who has every Tony show since the dawn of time on video in pristine condition, will be thrilled that I am finally joining him in watching the broadcast. Now the show is guaranteed at least two television viewers.
Despite the fact that I love theatre and used to make my living in company management for Broadway shows and national tours, I have never liked the Tony Awards. I blame that on the fact that there is rarely a surprise award and that the critics seem to run everything. It has none of the elegance found at the Oscars and none of the fun found at shows like the CMAs. And despite the fact that the industry is built around live entertainment, the staging is awful for a televised audience, through no fault of the Broadway companies that put so much effort into the performances.
However, I am so enjoying the Cubby Bernstein webisodes at http://www.cubbybernstein.com that I am routing for Xanadu to deliver on its promise of "Yes it can". And therefore, I need to watch to see what happens, and because I want to see what the Xanadu producers have in store for Tony night.
There's something decidedly unique and inspiring about a little show that the public and critics laughed at when first announced, and has now been open a year, coming from behind and taking the top prize. Instead of the usual Broadway materials, actors, and producers who win over and over again, more for their reputations built on achievement from shows gone by rather than their current work, it's refreshing to see a whole new crew take on an industry that is in desperate need of reinvention.
Just announced, Patti LuPone and Cynthia Nixon will give Cubby a hand on the latest YouTube webisodes to promote the show. See the full announcement at: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/118490.html. (Thanks to my friend Dan for sending this link to me.) Nathan Lane also recently made an appearance. My only regret is I didn't get to purchase a Cub-cake to support the company, and I missed my chance to meet Cubby at the promo event. Even if the show doesn't win the Tony, the producers have breathed life into the stale Broadway marketing business. And in that cause, Xanadu moved from “Yes it can” to “Yes it has”. Congratulations Cubby, you did it!
A year after graduating with our MBAs, some of my friends are at that one year mark when they're trying to decide whether or not to move forward in their current jobs. They're confronting some disappointments - a few have a different boss than they started with a year ago, a few have been shuffled into completely different responsibilities, and a few realize that they fell hook, line, and sinker for all that wining and dining companies did during recruiting season.
This last group I don't feel quite so bad for. If you couldn't see that wining and dining for what it really was, then you needed to learn the lesson the hard way. The two former groups I have enormous sympathy for. They signed up for a specific journey, to do what they truly wanted to do, and they spent a long time considering many different factors that are the ingredients to happiness. And then without warning, the picture changed and all of a sudden they ended up doing something they don't really like at all, despite their best efforts.
Disappointment is tough to deal with. Doing something about that disappointment it tougher. A heart to heart with yourself or the person causing the disappointment can help. Some times the differences can be resolved and you can get what you want by taking action. So while summoning the courage to be honest can be a Herculean task, if in the end you are happier, it's worth the effort.
The true difficulty comes into play when you make ever effort to get what you want, realize your situation is not going to improve, and then you either have to tough it out, unhappy, or walk. And there's often no right answer in this instance that is immediately apparent. Unhappiness makes it tough to get up in the morning, and it pervades every facet of your life. Walking away into the unknown is sometimes not even possible, or at the very least it's frightening. Sometimes it is easier to deal with the devil we know rather than the one we don't.
I put my best foot forward to get what I want. I have the hard conversations. I take a lot of time (and I am lucky that I have the luxury of time) to reflect and consider my happiness. I am patient for a considerable amount of time. For reasons that are too long to list here, I am obsessive about being happy - I just cannot imagine being content for a moment in another state. When I'm in a funk I'll do what it takes, even if it's uncomfortable, to get back to happy. When it comes to getting what you want, having non-negotiables helps.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
I have started reading Twlya Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. A celebrated choreographer, I am struck by her honesty and candor as she describes her deeply personal commitment to the art of dance while also revealing a very personal side of herself that she often protects from public opinion.
The book reads like part memoir and part workbook. It’s useful for people who want to jumpstart their creative nature, and for those who are still searching for the activity that sparks their long-buried sense of creativity. Tharp has clearly done her homework on a number of celebrated artists, getting under the hood and finding out what makes them tick.
Tharp is also unafraid to deny some long held public “truths” about creativity. My favorite example is Mozart. While we honor him as a boy genius that basically came out of the womb composing symphonies, Tharp reveals that with his father’s strong guidance Mozart developed his natural talent for music through obsessive study and practice. His dedication to music was at the very least equal to his innate gift. So while we often tell ourselves that we can’t draw, or have two left feet, or can’t read music, in truth our creative ability in a discipline is largely a matter of choice.
To be sure, we are all inclined toward certain disciplines. Tharp isn’t denying that. What she wants to emphasize is that creative mastery can only become just that through habitual practice and commitment.
My friend, Dan, recently did some work with Bebe Neuwirth. She is a strong supporter of dance and dancers. In a recent speech, she recounted the many times she’s been approached by fans that have said to her, “I’d give anything to dance like you.” And every time this happens, she thinks, “Actually, dancers do give everything to dance like they do.” Tharp would agree, and she’d encourage all of us to find that creative pursuit that so inspires us that its practice is a welcome habit.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
After the articles in the New York Times yesterday and today regarding an all-time high in the increase of month-over-month unemployment, I am thanking my lucky stars that I have a good job. I also feel for my friends who are just graduating from school with large loans and a smaller number of job prospects than graduates had just one year ago. And I think of my friends who want to move on from where they are, and are frustrated with the lack of openings to move to.
In my career, I have changed jobs fairly often, mostly because the industries I was in demanded it. In theatre and in nonprofit, you often have to move on to move up. I recently met two people with the completely opposite type of resume. One has been at his job for 8 years and the other for 24 years. In years past, that kind of dedication would be relished by companies. Today, many companies wonder why anyone would stay one place for so long, and they wonder why I have changed jobs as often as I have. It seems that we are in a time when all career moves, regardless of tenure at a company must be justified.
What if we could turn the paradigm of job hunting on its head? What if we, and possible employers, looked at every employee as their own CEO of their own brand, “Me, Inc.” and evaluated what all of those “Me, Inc.”s could do for the company? My friend and mentor, Richard, is a perfect example of this kind of outlook. His personal brand promise is that he realigns companies, or specific departments within companies, especially those that are in turmoil, and gets them going in the right direction again. Once finished with the alignment, he leaves a competent team in place and moves on. He doesn’t enjoy keeping the boat going on course once it knows its destination. He prefers the messy of business of turning it around rather than maintaining smooth sailing.
What if we could all do that – what if we could drop into an organization, do work that plays to our strengths and what we enjoy, and then pass it on to someone for the next step necessary, and the step that that next person happens to be good at and enjoys? Why does it need to be about stick-to-it-iveness? Why can’t it be about doing what we love, in the areas in which we are talented, for as long as that lasts? ‘d like to believe that the answer is that we can, and should do that, and eventually the working world will catch on.
The photo above can be found at http://www.logoblog.org/wp-images/logo-branding.jpg
Monday, June 2, 2008
Joshua Klein is a Principle at frogDesign, an incredible design and idea house based in New York City. I read their blog, frogBlog, religiously and everyday find new ideas and POV that give me new perspective. Klein recently spoke at TED about crow and corvid behavior, his unusual passion for the last 10 years.
Klein explains that we seem intent on a handful of things when it comes to wildlife. We are very concerned with endangered species, particularly those that are endangered because of human destruction of habitat and hunting of the animals. On the flip side, we show disdain for those animals who have learned how to thrive in spite of a human desire to crush their species - rats and cockroaches are examples.
The most remarkable specimen of a species that seems to thrive on human existence are crows. They always live within a 5km of humans, on every continent except Antarctica. Like chimpanzees, crows use tools, reason, and logic, and then teach these skills to their young and flock. They have memories, particularly of physical human descriptions, better than most humans. They have trained themselves o understand human systems like traffic lights, and then use these systems to their own benefit. They adapt to challenges quickly and can even be taught to use vending machines. Unbelievable you say? Watch the video. You'll be blown away.
Great observations, Josh Klein. So what? Who cares if crows are smarter than we give them credit for? What can crows do for us? Klein is asking these profound questions and he's wondering how crows and humans can form symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationships. It turns out that crows could be trained to do a lot for us, if only we apply a snippet of creativity. Collect trash? Participate in search and rescue? Salvage valuable items from a landfill? After all, crows have proven one thing to us that we cannot refute - they thrive on human interaction and they aren't going away from us any time soon. And as long as they're here and willing to be a part of human society, then we might as well make them as useful as possible.
The photo above can be found here.
Take a peek at Josh's website: http://www.wireless.is/