Lessons after the game

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My high school basketball coach was short at 5’ 5”.  About 45-years old, with a brush-cut head, and a solidness around the waist from, he said, daily sit-ups. He had a spring in his step and steel posts masquerading as forearms. He sank series of jumpers from 30 feet away and also toughed it out under the boards during our scrimmages. He was fair-minded and laughed easily. His biggest strength though was that he possessed a strategic and tactical mind that could capture in a glance the entire arrangement of players and movement on the basketball court. That beautiful complexity of mind was constantly exercised during games and, with even more precision, during our punishing practices. It was always one or two, maybe three, steps ahead of our feeble minds and our comprehension of the plays unfolding on the court.

He also loved cigars. He’d light one up in our dressing room after games and we’d squint through fog as he drew on the chalk board a few key plays he felt we had failed to execute well that night or that we had excelled at, whichever he felt could be more instrumental in determining the outcome for the next game. We were having a stellar year so most of the drawing he did in that room was of a few badly executed plays.

I think he knew he was creating memories for us of lessons learned in that room.

  • Pay attention when someone speaks
  • Listen to understand
  • Be honest
  • Explain your point of view with calmness and clarity
  • Accept criticism
  • Be gracious when speaking of rivals
  • Be grateful, proud, and modest when praised
  • If the team was successful that night, enjoy the moment and work on repeating it

I would add “Don’t smoke cigars” but then it wouldn’t fit nicely with what I see above is a list of lessons we took with us into the various careers we chose to pursue.

 

 

The best coaching is sublime coaching

 

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I came of age in the ’70s during a time of nuclear proliferation, the tail-end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, hyper-inflation that hit 20%, high unemployment in the double-digits, Soap (the TV show), drug culture, Three Mile Island, Johnny Rotten, and Watergate. These were just a few of the anxieties of my parents’ generation but they were nothing but noise to my friends and I. What we cared about were girls and sports.

All that other stuff, we optimistically figured, would get sorted out by people in some distant place and since girls were mysteriously beyond our abilities to comprehend or approach we latched on to sports as something to obsess about. It’s why we became such experts at analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of various teams and leagues, both professional and college in both the US and in Canada, and why we dissected games on the following day. (Thankfully, for our future partners in life, most of us eventually grew up and developed more balanced pursuits) How else could we spend our time back then? Yes, school was important to us and we worked at it sufficiently well to smoothly sail through. But school was simply a vehicle that provided a way to put into action the fantasies of our minds, fantasies that our idols of the sports world ignited there. Being on our school’s sports teams was our way of conjoining ourselves with the larger world. And, although we didn’t realize or appreciate it at the time, we benefited from good coaching. We just did what they said and tried to perform to their expectations. What we lived for though was the excitement of the games, the crowds, the noise, the pressure. It wasn’t until later, after college, that I really understood that the coach is the most critical element of the team.

Here’s what I learned from a couple of the coaches I had back then.

They:

  • conducted all their most important work in the days before the game, considering ways to leverage the individual strengths of each player by designing or choosing plays to accentuate during the game
  • forced us to practice, and practice, and get fitter, and fitter, and fitter….each and every (bloody) week. They say a near death experience makes you appreciate life and nothing in my life has brought me closer to that than running agility drills for 60 minutes.
  • supported the team during the game but never sought the spotlight for themselves. They stayed on the sidelines and never showed up the refs. If they had a beef they would, with composure, trot over and express their opinion. By preserving the dignity of the officials they played a long game that worked out better in the end.
  • protected the team by looking ahead at the schedule and planning a strategy for getting over and around obstacles. They were students of the game and students of strategy. They knew their players and they wanted to know the opposing ones as well.
  • screamed and yelled in the privacy of the dressing room but never called out any team member in public. Déclassé and disrespectful, otherwise.
  • always took the time to congratulate meaningful performance that made a positive difference to the outcome of the game. In the dressing room, in front of the team, called out the person by name, described what they did well, and why the performance mattered.
  • always privately consoled someone suffering from anguish about some performance glitch that had an equal but negative effect (I once missed two free throws with no time left in the championship game of a basketball tournament, a game in which we were down by one…. arghh, it still hurts to replay it in my mind)

Since I joined the business world I’ve had exactly one boss who reminds me of those coaches of my youth. One boss out of countless bosses spread over a 36 year career. Don’t you think that as business leaders we should all aspire to be the kind of leader who reminds our team members of the best coach they’ve ever had? Maybe though the secret to good coaching is that it probably isn’t found in a book. More likely it’s found in a person’s character and inner fortitude.

I’ll close by saying this. He wasn’t my coach but John Wooden made a large imprint on me by superbly and sublimely coaching the UCLA Bruins basketball team in the early 70s. His players (Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Marcus Johnson) inspired and awed me but it was Wooden’s style, intelligence, respectfulness, and grace that impressed me most of all.

Build the team of today and tomorrow

 

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What do you do during the week you’re not attending your company’s user conference?

Catch up on reading?

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Exercise?

Ali

Hang with the dog?

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Yes, yes, and yes.

I wasn’t in attendance at this week’s Oracle’s Modern Marketing Experience (MME) conference in Las Vegas (long story) but I was still busy researching, writing, and having conversations with people like any other week. I also made the time to watch the live-stream of the MME keynote sessions from 3124 kilometers (or 1941 miles) away. This post will not be a summary of the event so change the channel if that’s what you expected. Instead, I want to pull out a couple of threads from those keynotes and weave them into a theme I’ve been discussing in recent posts.

Still with me? Okay, let’s see how this goes.

First, Steve Krause, Group VP of Product Management for Oracle Marketing Cloud (OMC), shared how the company is introducing artificial intelligence (AI) into the OMC platform. It’s exciting news but hardly surprising. Oracle is not alone in pursuing AI as a tool to augment its solutions and to improve the experience it delivers to customers. AI is seeing an industry explosion of investment and in growth in the sheer number of ideas for its application. In commercial business alone AI is taking on greater relevance because it is seen as an accelerant for future growth as is explained in this report  by Accenture. The flip-side of AI’s promise of more intelligent and responsive products is that it will improve internal efficiency too. Transformation in multiple dimensions that benefits customers and employees. How? By offering up exponential opportunities to innovate through the leveraging of new ideas that result from AI. It can be difficult to imagine the unknown but simply put, that’s what we have with AI in the business world. We’re seeing it in its infancy and the unknown of artificial intelligence will become known and in the process create new roles and new paths to solutions that we haven’t yet imagined. And through all that will be a requirement for the right kind of attitude (people) on the team.

That idea of having the right people on the team is something my boss, Catherine Blackmore, picked up on in her inspirational talk (I think she called it, What is your superman?) on day 3 of the conference.  She was speaking directly to marketers in the audience but her role as Global VP of Customer Success, and as one of the most prominent Customer Success thought leaders around, means she was also speaking to her own team and the Customer Success industry at large.

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“Build the team of today and tomorrow”. Build the team with people who embrace openness, innovation, partnering, and collaboration. Her talk and those characteristics she called out are interestingly supported by research for two specific generational groups.

Nielsen Norman Group researched the topic of millennials as digital natives. In the report you will see uncanny resemblance of the characteristics they list of millennials and the attributes that Catherine called out in her talk. Also, this was interesting too… “Many Millennials were in grade school or college when Google first rose to popularity, and it was a critical influence in setting the level of simplicity and directness that Millennials have come to expect from interfaces. They don’t care if (for example) your enterprise application has significantly more complex features to consider. When interfaces fail to live up to those unrealistic standards of simplicity, Millennials rarely blame themselves — unlike older users. Millennials are quick to criticize the interface, its organization, or its designers.” 

That is the indigenous (i.e. naturally occurring) behavior/attitude of a digital native.

And it calls to mind something I said in a recent interview with the online magazine, Chaos and Rocket Fuel. In the interview I said, “Here’s something to think about: if you ask a young millennial what the word “digital” means, more often than not you will be met with a blank stare. All they know is digital. So much so that they don’t even call it that.”

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While the millennial cohort has largely been absorbed into the workforce and is applying its own unconscious biases just as every generation has done before them, the next generation (Gen Z) is the one that will truly wipe things clean making business look and behave completely differently than it does today. Sorry Boomers, we’re almost through.

An article by Pew Research called, digital natives are born global citizens, elaborates on the characteristics of Generation Z. It’s the generation that follows Millennials and was born (approx) around the year 2000. They aren’t ready for the workforce just yet but soon they will be. If you really want to go deep on this topic, download the PDF from that Pew site and discover some interesting bits of information. It may disturb some preconceived notions you have of young people the world over. One stat that jumped out for me is this one:

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It jumped out not because it surprised me that young people are tight with technology. Everyone can see that. Why it jumped out is because of the faith they have that technology is so consequential to the hopefulness of their future. It’s sweet and it should cause us (older generations) to pause in contemplation. Young people are not misguided to believe that technology can be a force of good. Let’s make sure we deliver on our part of the bargain. Let’s be open, let’s embrace change, let’s innovate, and let’s do it together.

 

 

 

 

Blockchain and my dad

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My father first taught me about the physics that underpins a chain. He was no craftsman but he could manage his way around most small projects involving hammers, saws, and screwdrivers. Because of our humble situation though, he ended up having my brother and I do all larger home repairs with him, everything except repairing the roof of the house two stories above the ground. But that was only because he didn’t want to buy a 28-foot ladder. One time he had us loop one end of a large 30-foot chain around the car trailer hitch and loop the other end around the corner post of our old dilapidated garage that he wanted pulled down and demolished. It was before demolition permits were required and before anyone had awareness of the need for safety glasses or even steel toe boots. It was that kind of time and no one blinked an eye that two boys in shorts and running shoes were given the task to climb all over a crumbling garage. But one thing my dad did for safety reasons is explain how chains work. We were about 13 and 14 years old at the time and despite the fact we knew everything there was to know about the world we still paid attention as he explained that the health of each link is critical to the overall strength of the chain. One weak link compromises the whole and so with decapitation on our minds we checked each link for the smallest evidence of weakness. Since we didn’t possess an electron microscope we had to put a bit of faith in dumb luck too. Cutting to the chase, the chain was sound, the garage collapsed when the car gently pulled the chain that pulled the post, my mother didn’t speak to my father for a day or so, the neighbors were unhappy with the dust, our two younger sisters cheered from the porch, my father saved a few bucks, and my brother and I lived another day. Lessons learned? Motion, force, energy… you know, physics. Oh, and teamwork of the links-in-a-chain kind.

Baffled as to what this has to do with business? Maybe this will help.  I was reminded of that long-ago story when I read this article from MIT Sloan about how Blockchain technology will transform how businesses are organized and managed. The message of the piece… that the strength of a chain, with verifiable and trust-worthy links, and the fact that each link is dependent on the other, is a perfect analog for how business processes can be improved. Think of the links as your current internal organizations (Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, etc.)  They can be connected to provide a more seamless and reliable process flow and experience for the customer. In short, they can be made to improve your business.

The Blockchain value proposition dovetails nicely with a message I conveyed in this recent talk at Totango’s Customer Success Summit 2017. In that talk I made a statement that businesses need to re-imagine their processes so that the customer is represented horizontally rather than be dealt with in the conventional vertical organizational fashion that exists today and has existed for a hundred years or so. Why change? Because the customer is not efficiently served via the conventional approach, and you’re losing business as a result. The experience the customer has is disjointed, being touched as they are by different people from different teams with different agendas, and the overall messaging they receive and the impression they have of your brand is often incoherent, at best.

Today’s organizations (Marketing, Sales, Customer, Success) hobble themselves with too many barriers that prevent them from collecting and sharing critical customer-relevant data, or from holding each other accountable for the delivery of some aspect of the customer’s experience, and from having visibility into whether the customer is achieving the outcomes they expected, and hoped for, when they purchased the solution in the first place. My colleague, Chloe Basterfield, touches on this from a marketing challenge perspective in this blog post.

Even before Blockchain invades the business world, smart executives can begin to build that horizontal flow with the organizations they have now. Encourage the breaking down of silos by organizing the leaders and rallying their teams and missions around the need to improve the process through which the customer is dealt with by your company. Conceptualize the flow as linked tasks that together form a rolling chain that pulls the customer smoothly through their journey with your firm.

You too can do this without safety glasses and steel toe boots.

A Pattern Language

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My wife gave me a book way back in the late 1980s when she realized I had a strong interest in buildings and architecture. A blog I wrote for Eloqua back in 2012 called, The Thoreau Guide to Marketing Automation, touches on that particular, and amateur, passion of mine. As an aside, the blog post was re-branded when Oracle acquired the company and soon after that event came erasure of my authorship. 🙂

The book, written in 1977, is called, A Pattern Language. It discusses societies’ building of their physical structures and the impact that collective and independent decisions have on fundamental needs of the human psyche. It was, and apparently still is, considered a bit of a bible by people who look at the bigger picture of how the most people-oriented communities function and are organically built, of how design and choice of construction materials can promote healthy minds, bodies, and relationships. The relevance for this post is that A Pattern Language was influenced by the then-emerging language to describe computer programming and design. One of the authors, Christopher Alexander, said, “A pattern language has the structure of a network. It’s an idea that comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.” In other words, the best ideas are community-generated, and even though that might intuitively suggest there is no overall design, there actually is. Collectively, we’ve mostly built what we need by following an unconscious pattern of (building) evolution based on need, utility, and personal preference. A pattern language, if you will. Peril comes when organic need is superseded by abstraction, when there is too much form and not enough function, or when the well-being of humans is a lower ranked factor in design. The language breaks. It breaks because it no longer serves.

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I was reminded of this book recently when I observed our dog during one of our walks. Watch your own dog and the way they relate to the physical environment that is external to their home. They expect the familiar because they associate people and places with indelible imprints those things have made in their memory stores. The world works for them because our buildings, streets, garbage receptacles, trees, and people have helped our dog build a wealth of pattern-generated memories that enable him to conduct himself in the world without having full accessibility to our human language. He knows where he lives, he knows where he should and shouldn’t toilet, he knows about cars and trucks and skateboards, and based on their demeanor he even knows what type of person would most likely respond well to his greetings. He’s the recipient of a language that humans have physically built with their surroundings and in the way they individually present themselves to him on a daily basis through their unconscious behaviors. You might think your daily walk from the parking lot to the subway goes unnoticed but it isn’t. He’s expecting you. You might think your stumble at the curb went unnoticed. It wasn’t; it made him stop and stare. You broke the pattern. Your zigzag walk out of the pub at midnight may have seemed straight as an arrow to you but it made him stop and tilt his head as he tried to understand why you’re behaving differently than others. Patterns are rules (scientifically referred to as behaviorism) for dogs. They adapt but only when new patterns emerge. So if you continue to teeter towards your Uber ride night after night your doctor will take notice from the results of your next blood test but my dog won’t because that’s what he expects of you now.

Here’s where I bridge this blog to business.

Over centuries commerce developed organically from small transactions between a shopkeeper who had something of value that someone else (the customer) felt they needed to much more complex arrangements in which a company organized itself to sell more of a product to a broader market of customers. Sales became an occupation and these people sold through a small number of direct channels to prospects who were reliant on the salesperson for information and for all other aspects of the transaction, save for the actual decision to buy. Once they made the purchase it was up to the customer to figure out how to derive value from the thing they bought. A pattern had developed over a couple hundred years from the belief (and proof) that that’s how business is done and that’s how money was supposed to be made. It had become what we had all expected it should be. Until the pattern was broken.

Software as a Service (SaaS) turned that paradigm on its head and we see now that customers have taken control. Through the exponential power of the Internet they educate themselves and through the simplicity of the subscription model they can make easier choices to move from one company to another. Customers expect superior service and superior ease of use. Quickness to value is the new rule and software companies are now the dog tilting its head as it tries to understand why the old pattern has been broken. Patterns form a language that allows us to function, until the pattern breaks. Take it from Blackjack.
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Of half-skinned steers and moonshots

In this summer of the soak, this reign of rain, and with the sun’s kiss so rarely offered, my mind wanders to reading. Perhaps it’s also because of the perceptibly slower pace of the city. Business loosens its grip enough to notice a few less cars on the street, a few less frowned and earnest foreheads in suits walking against the traffic lights. Summer is 30 on the speedometer of life. Reading in this time of the year further calms the heart and nudges the mind.

Interested readers of this blog will know I have my favorites.  For fiction these days, I cannot get enough of Cormac McCarthy. Everywhere there is sadness and hope, there you will find his characters, fascinating, awful, and proud. His work is weighty and light, easy to read and difficult to accept. Sometimes I read one of his sentences and I pause to stare at its brilliance. How is it possible for a writer to describe a scene of such vividness in so few words? Annie Proulx is another.  Her depiction of the beauty and danger of place and people rivets me. I have read no other who can give me the perspective of a half-skinned steer  as it exacts its revenge on a mean farmer. Who else? Alice Munro. Around 80, she can still write a short story that runs gently over the surface of normalcy then turns a corner and confronts some sort of dread of physicality or spirit. I am glad I’ve read their body of work before the imaginations of these giants go silent.

But I also read non-fiction and I’m particularly attracted to writing that timelessly speaks of universal truths. Often such pieces are in the political realm and I will end this post with something I came across today. Remember Apollo 11? Its mission was the first manned moon landing. I was 10 when it took place and I distinctly recall thinking, “What happens if something goes wrong and they can’t get back?” What I don’t remember is anyone asking the same question out loud, on TV, on radio, or among the people who populated my little life. Well, apparently, I was not a unique thinker. As it turns out, it was a thoroughly thought out scenario to the extent that William Safire, President Nixon’s speech writer, wrote a speech in the event the President would need to bid farewell to the astronauts. I close with the link to the letter. Enjoy your summer reading.

In the event of a moon disaster

Pursuit

It was the headline that caught my eye in my Twitter stream among all the self-inflating and self-congratulatory proclamations that are increasingly causing me to turn away from the platform. Every so often I trip across a tiny gem buried in all that blandness and hyperbole and it reminds me of Twitter’s real power, which is self-curation. I can control what I want to see.

The headline was simply, The Coffin Maker.  Quality like this will drive my curation from now on.

Watch the video of a man who conducts himself in his work with a poetry of purpose, precision, and thought. These are traits, I can argue, that are transferable to any occupation. And yet these traits seem rarely to be consistently evident in our working world. Is it because he works in solitary? Or is it because of this?… “The first coffin I ever built was for my child.” A more painful sentence has likely never been uttered in the English language. Is that why he is so committed and thoughtful in his pursuit of the craft? I could almost imagine him an invention of Hemingway, but he isn’t. Cormac McCarthy could have cast him in one of his stark and raw perfections, but he didn’t. This guy is real and he may make you pause and begin to look differently at the things you do each day. 

Customer Service coaching moments

Bad days have a ripple effect in our world in uncountable ways. But good days can sometimes provide significant counterweight. The tension between those opposing viewpoints is as old as humanity and maybe that’s why the world is an interesting place. Can you imagine a world where everyone was having a good day? How would you know?

I’ll describe what I would imagine is someone who was having a bad day. Mamie (read my other posts to find out who she is) needed to head to a part of Toronto that required her to take a different transit line than she is familiar with. I have to tell you first of all that Toronto is undergoing a construction frenzy of biblical proportions, and taking as long a time as the pyramids to complete. So, our major hub of transit, Union Station (finished renovation project depicted below) is in the midst of chaos, teeming with commuters from every mode of transportation converging in a single place amid debris, hoarding, and closures.

She saw a sign saying that the streetcar line she expected to use was out of service due to construction and so she approached a uniformed transit employee for guidance.

She asked him how she could get to Spadina Avenue if the underground streetcar line was shut for construction, to which he replied, “Bay Street.” Toronto is the third largest city in all of North America and Mamie was standing in the heart of it. To her, “Bay Street” was like saying “Get Lost”.  She was not impressed.

She stood up to Mr. Grumpy and asked him again for more clarity to which he replied by silently pointing to a stairwell to the street.  Mamie is not one to back down and she cornered Mr Bad Day and said, “What I want to know is this. What’s the location of the stop and the vehicle number? Can you tell me?”  Here’s what he said, “Do you know how many times I get asked that question every single day?”

Here comes the coaching moment that Mamie so thoughtfully provided to this poor soul at that moment. “Then why are you doing this job if you don’t like it?” She turned on her heels and walked away.

My hope is he then took a breath, took a break, and went home at the end of the day in a better mood, maybe he resolved to take control of what he may normally feel are daily situations that are out of his control.

 

Some Brain, Some Ego

World changing brilliance mixed with genuine humility. Can any of us name a single person alive who does that?  To be clear, I’m talking about a combination of gifts and personal behavior that results in an appearance to the public at large as being balanced. Steve Jobs was brilliant, in my view, but everything you read about him drives you far away from concluding he had a discernible measure of humility. Forget sports figures. Forget virtually every movie and television personality you can think of. Politicians? Maybe but I can’t spot one anywhere in my extensive reading of domestic and international affairs.

Is it gone, that ability to balance? Or even the ability to be naturally humble? In awe of life? This struck me last week when I read an article that Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity was recently put to the test. The man died 58 years ago. Scientists are still trying to figure him out. There’s no arguing his impact on life here on Earth and also in the Universe. Read the last line of the article and you’ll know why I asked that question in the first line of this post. An instrument of life, of all that exists and existed. That’s humility. We can always learn something by examining the way people who were here long before us thought and behaved.

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Simple Contrasts

Do you know what good service looks like? Let me tell you of a recent example of an interaction I had with Rogers Communications, my cellphone provider, that I’d like to hold up as a perfect model.

Because I was given a new phone by my new employer, I had no use for my old one. Same manufacturer, different version. My wife, Mamie, wanted the old one. I bought a new SIM card, swapped out the one from the old phone and inserted the new. All I needed to do was go online and make the change, or so I thought. I’m pretty swift at doing things myself but I found the Rogers website slightly confusing regarding the steps I needed to go through in order to do everything online. I decided to call the Help line and spoke to a representative immediately. She completed the transfer and enabled my former phone on Mamie’s account in less than two minutes. What’s remarkable is not the speed, although I was very pleased with that. It was the fact that the representative took the time afterwards to ask me about the website and if I could explain why it seemed non-intuitive (my words when I first called in). It was the interest she took in improving a subscriber’s experience in the future. I thanked her for her terrific support and then hung up and tweeted to her employer about the great interaction.

Do you know what poor service looks like? Here’s a perfect model.

There’s a restaurant on the ground floor of our condo building. It’s called the Tilted Kilt and is sometimes referred to as Hooters with Class but I call it just another place for guys to watch sports. There was a mini-uproar when it was being built because it’s basically a pub staffed by servers who wear short kilts and (too) small bras. That’s poor taste but it’s not poor service.  With a sense of fairness, we’d been talking with some friends about giving the place a try to at least be fully informed about the establishment. You know, maybe the food was actually good.  Mamie (yes, she shows up periodically in these posts) tried to make a reservation by walking in one day and speaking with the hostess. She was told that reservations can only be handled by the manager (odd) and she was given his email address (really odd). She sent the guy a message with the request. The weekend neared and she hadn’t received a reply and so she sent a follow on note. No email back over the next two days. Remember, we live upstairs and there are seven different restaurants all within crawling distance of our front door, and probably twenty more within three blocks, so it was not a big risk to just walk in that evening.

We said we’d had a reservation and were told by a young innocent in a too small bra that the restaurant does not take reservations. Holy Kafka. Mamie asked for the manager and what do you know, the dude was standing 10 feet away and came over. He greeted us and when Mamie informed him that she’d sent him two emails, as instructed, this is what he said with a big dumb grin. “Oh, yeah, I remember those.”  Mamie sliced him down to size in front of his flock of servers dressed, well you know how, by asking a simple question.  “Then why didn’t you reply to them?” Picture a blank expression. Picture Mamie standing there with me and our four male friends, waiting. Picture six young eager women looking, and waiting… with interest… for a man twice their age, their boss, to answer the question. Picture the six-foot man shrink from the most logical, polite, and assertive dressing down from a customer. Priceless. And I fell in love yet again with my wife. He said we could have a table in about an hour. I can’t recall if we even thanked him as we walked out (we probably did because we’re Canadian).

We crossed the street and ate at a another restaurant. The food was great and reasonably priced. The server may have worn a bra. Who knows. It didn’t matter.

Stompin’ to more than a memory

Ever look back at your life and adjust and assign a higher degree of profound importance to certain events or people? Increasing introspection can be a great benefit of aging and it revealed today, for me, that someone who I never met had a distinct impact during those few short, intensely awakening years of college.

The revelation came about as I read an obituary in the Globe and Mail for Stompin’ Tom Connors, Canadian music icon. And then I read this obituary in the New York Times of him about an hour later and I thought, the dude really caused a change in the way I looked at my own country.

Growing up in Windsor, Ontario only one mile from Motown during its heyday meant that the US was the lens through which we viewed almost everything. The media we were subjected to, the sports we played, watched, and attended, the politics and the entertainment we consumed were overwhelmingly American. Despite studying my own country’s history, political structure, and culture through grade school and high school, they were mere shadows under the blanket  thrown over us by American culture. That began to change during my first year in university and I credit my friend, Kevin.

He was lucky enough to have relatives in the Ottawa Valley and he spent a few weeks each summer at a summer cottage in that region, far enough away from the intensity of American media to be able to hear some distinct sounds and voices of Canadians. It was there that he first heard Tom Connors, and then he brought him to us, his circle of friends in Windsor.

He brought recordings for us to hear. The voice was strained and whiny, the melodies rather simple but the lyrics spoke of emotions that could only have been real for Connors. We were heavily into Springsteen for the same reason; Elvis Costello got us pumped up; REM were our poets; David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Steely Dan created, for us, cool girl-friendly sounds. And while The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Ramones infused us with manic energy, somehow it was Tom Connors who we sung in unison to.

About once a week, Kevin would drink enough beer and whiskey and accede to the siren call. First for us in our basements, and then soon afterwards in pubs in the city. On stage he performed Connors songs right down to the stomping left foot. Living in a manufacturing town meant that our young political minds leaned decidedly from middle to left and Connors’ music and lyrics reinforced the quest for fairness and also for celebrating the small things in life. But most importantly, during all our nights of laughter and drinking, of flirtation and electrically charged looks with girls across the room, Kevin’s regular willingness to get on that stage with his guitar and be Tom Connors for 45 minutes altered the way I started to think of Canada. My thoughts and gaze began to subtly shift away from Detroit, Chicago, and New York and towards Toronto and the north.

Big and small choices that we make

I remember reading the book, Boom, Bust, and Echo, by David Foote way back in the mid-1990s and one of the big hairy, scary things he predicted was an eventual collapse in large-form housing. The entire book was based on the premise that the baby boomer generation was so historically large that it was distorting economic and societal behaviors, to the extent that a reckoning would have to eventually occur to absorb the demise of that generation.

Over the last half century, North Americans fell increasingly in love with big houses on big properties further and further away from inner cities. That growth trajectory made sense given family patterns and growth, corporate relocations, job evolution, and changing societal mores.  The expectation and deeply held belief was that one should always aspire to live life larger, and often that meant larger housing. The trick was in making sure you were the not last one holding the bag. Now, along comes this report published in the Atlantic Cities about the next housing crisis. Nobody behind you to buy that big house you’ve owned for 20 or 30 years…yikes.

I’m glad I live small here:

esplanade

…. and not big here:

Detroit mansion

Say what?

“Canadians were found likelier to spend money that looks dirty.”

How do you read that sentence? Do you read it as this? ===> Canadians are more likely than people of other nations to spend money that looks dirty.  Or, do you read it as this? ===> Canadians are more likely to choose to spend money that looks dirty over money that looks clean.

It’s safe to bet that the writer of that sentence in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine meant it as the former, a comparison of Canadians’ habits versus those of people from other nations.  Think about it.  Who would choose dirty over clean money?

I bring this up not to debate the finding.  I so rarely use cash that it hardly matters and anyway, perhaps the real question should be why anyone would even study the matter of dirty versus clean money.   I bring this up to illustrate how the way sentences are written and published these days in popular media, even august journals like Harper’s, could benefit enormously from a return of the editor.  I don’t blame the Internet.  I don’t blame Barack Obama or the Kardashian clan. I don’t blame anything at all other than all of us.  Editors were once linchpins to communication clarity, kings and queens of the written word and cogent thought, precision-obsessed individuals who juggled in their heads the knowledge of all mankind, or so it seems when I speak to a close editor friend of mine.  They were unheralded in their heyday but just as vitally important to the finished product as were the authors themselves. They’ve been replaced (not yet completely) by software and, when not, by lazy and distracted readers.

Here’s another safe bet.  If a sentence makes you pause and wonder as to its meaning, it’s probably poorly written and should have been challenged by a living, breathing editor.  Maybe this book below should be on the desk of anyone who finds they have to write a sentence at some point that another person will need to read.

                                                                                                                             books

Abe’s way of talking

Buried towards the bottom of an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is one of my favorite quotes from the tremendous canon of Abraham Lincoln.  “With malice toward none”  It’s a tall challenge and when you think about it, we should try to apply it everyday in all our interactions with family, pets, co-workers, and people who cut you off in the Starbucks line.

The point of the article was that he intentionally structured his speeches so they would convey a rhetorically negative tone. Utilizing such a tactic well, and who can argue that Lincoln didn’t do it well, appeals directly, the author asserts, to a human’s sense of morality. For example, for that quote instead of saying something like, “Be kind to everyone”, Lincoln used a word, malice, that starkly describes a behavior he wanted people to avoid.  That is, to inflict harm.  By voicing the negative instead of the positive, his message became much more powerful, like the effect a father might have when he intones his son to not smack his sister.

If we were to try this tactic in our everyday communications, we might find over a short period of time few people would want to speak with us. It sounds too solemn and borders on arrogance. Most of us aren’t met with the occasions to speak in such a way.  Lincoln, however, was cursed by being a leader during very grave times, of slavery and civil war.  Maybe the tone was the only tone that could possibly have worked to convince people they needed to behave differently with each other.

Tough goodbyes

I resigned from my employer exactly one week ago and because the event coincided with the holidays, the wind-down period is leaving ample time for self-reflection. We all leave people in life and sometimes we are left behind. For most people, as they age, it probably evens out. Leaving my friends and colleagues is difficult but I trust that we will stay in touch and occasionally get together for pizza and wine-by-the-ounce at Gusto. Luckily, saying goodbye to them is only a temporary sentiment. Harder are the goodbyes one has to say, or would like to say but can’t, to loved ones who are dying. The New York Times published an article today by Bruce Feiler called Exit Lines about the tricky challenge of when and how to say a permanent goodbye. Lots of things to consider in those situations and I’ll share with you a reluctant goodbye moment I had with someone who I thought at the time was teetering on the edge.

About seventeen or eighteen years ago, my father-in-law underwent quadruple bypass cardiac surgery to repair a lifetime of smoking, hard physical work, worry, and inattention to the fat in his diet. He and I had, to that point, a relationship I can best characterize as deepening respect and fondness. It wasn’t always so. It started badly, and only for superficial reasons, and it took many years before it warmed. At the time of his surgery, I had been married to his daughter for about twelve years and I would say that while the first four of those years were tense, the next eight saw gradual and steady improvement. His post-operative recovery did not go smoothly.  In fact, he had to be re-operated on twice to repair persistent leakage in his replaced arteries. And while things may have changed since then, a recovering bypass patient is not a pleasant sight to behold. Unconscious and inflated to Michelin man proportions, to maintain blood pressure, the person is a frightening spectacle. This post is not meant as a critique of the healthcare system. We had no complaints about the care he received and the surgery he’d had was considered, if not routine, commonplace. The complications he’d experienced though had turned the mood ominous.

The family attended to his bedside in the ICU in shifts all week and I took an afternoon off from work and visited him alone. He was unconscious still, three days since his third surgery, and looked very fragile and scared beneath the manufactured bloat of his body. At that moment I thought we were about to lose him so I spoke these words in his ear. “Don’t go yet. I’m not ready to say goodbye. Mamie loves you. I love you.”

I’m not making this up. I’d been holding his hand in mine and after I said what I said, he lightly squeezed mine and then held it ever more firmly. He didn’t die. It took awhile but he recovered and lived another twelve years before cancer took him away.

During that first year after the heart surgery, we talked with him about his awful week unconscious in ICU. He claimed he couldn’t recall a thing. I didn’t feel the need to ask if he knew I spoke with him that afternoon. It didn’t matter. I knew he heard me.

Bouncing emotions in a moment

I had a Toronto moment a couple of weekends ago.  I call it that because it was fleeting, mundane, richly textured, and random, and because while such a scene could have played out in quite a few other large cities, it’s unlikely to have been layered with so many sublime themes.

My wife and I were at the car wash that day after a trip to our cabin in the bush. That little sanctuary of ours can only be reached by traversing a final 20 kilometers of stone, dirt, sand, and muck, in descending order of comfort and quality.  The car begged for a shower and so we obliged.  Our local car wash is only a few short blocks from our downtown condo and I have no idea what we will do when it is razed in another year to make way for yet another 50 storey building.  It’s a typical soft-cloth, old-fashioned operation where you leave the car running with an attendant who takes your order, gives you a slip, and then takes your car.  You enter the building at one end, present your slip to the cashier, make your payment, and then wait for your car on the other end.  It’s normally short and predictable but that day was different.

On that day, and at that time, the waiting room was filled with five employees of the car wash all watching the television that hangs on the wall.  A rainbow hue of people, including us, were collected in that room. We asked what was up and were told that Canada’s Karen Cockburn and Rosie MacLennan were competing on the trampoline in the medal round at the Olympics.  I’m not a trampoline enthusiast and have to admit I don’t recall ever watching the sport at any level before.  But I was aware of Rosie.  Our gym is where she trains and they had a sign up that week wishing her well at the Games.  Although I didn’t realize it until I saw her on the TV, I’ve trained next to her.  Picture me dangling from the overhead bar, raising and lowering my 190 lbs; next to petite little she in the squat cage fine-tuning her perfect quads.

Two more customers entered, paused and scanned the room.  We (all) informed them of what was up.  The cashier offered to process each of the customers.  They, like us, declined and said they would wait and watch.  My wife suggested to the employees that they take their time washing our cars. They smiled. We smiled. We wanted to watch the Canadians.

Bounce. Straight as an arrow, high in the air went Karen. Kiss the sky. A great performance? Looked like. We were very pleased.

Next up, the first Chinese, Shanshan Huang.  Like her diving compatriots, perfect form. Such precision. But was it daring enough?  These sorts of sports are always a little sketchy around the difficulty margins and hard for us laypeople to judge.

Then Rosie. Oh, Rosie. Can you soar any higher? A room of strangers are rooting for you, all tensed muscles and lifting hearts. We bounced as you bounced.  And you clearly were better than Shanshan Huang. Gold medal position…. Such a rush for us in that room!

But then Wenna He of China climbed on to the trampoline.  Being a Canadian is a funny, almost always pleasant, and sometimes fatalistic way of living.  We are easy-going, love to laugh, and don’t have really high expectations for our international athletes (bless their hard-working hearts).  We take what they can give us and we are grateful.  So as we watched Wenna He bounce and kick her slender leg, she soared high to the rafters, and we silently prepared ourselves for Rosie to slip to a silver medal. And it looked like that might come true until the last drop of Wenna. Where she stumbled and landed flat. Oh, what a relief…

Lots of cheers, lots of smiles and clapping.  Then we paid and walked outside to that brilliant sunshine.

I know I would

The weekend essay in the Wall Street Journal called Bionic Brains and Beyond by Daniel H. Wilson is worth the time to read. Science meets human spirit (a theme of mine, I know) and the results are astonishing. I guess I’ve not noticed or been paying attention but the advances in prosthetic engineering is incredible. Dilemmas though abound as now many question the very definition of the word human. If machines are implanted in humans, for whatever reason, does this mean the individual fails to meet the definition? I don’t struggle with this at all. I see this as just another human advancement that will require time for our intellects to process and reconcile. I boil it down to this. If artificial means can be used to allow a disabled person to walk, a blind person to begin seeing, or a deaf person to hear, I say that’s a cause worth supporting. Perhaps I trust science too much or maybe it’s because I don’t care to watch sci-fi movies that unfailingly tell the centuries-old story of humans up against the soulless power of machines, but I just don’t think it’s going to be a bad thing. Don’t those movies always end happily anyway. 🙂

Or maybe it’s because we have a friend who had his leg amputated and now, much to his relief, carries on a reasonably comfortable life with a modern prosthetic that allows him to get back to work and function almost as he always had. Maybe it’s also because at an event recently I met a guy named Greg Westlake. He plays on the Olympic gold medal and world champion Canadian men’s sledge hockey team. For the unaware, specially designed sledges (sleds) allow the disabled to play ice hockey. You’d think with those shiny sports credentials, the guy might have an ego problem. Not him, or at least it wasn’t apparent to me. During my chat with him he seemed genuinely thrilled that I even knew about the sport, let alone who he was. So when we humans struggle with enabling technology, we shouldn’t lose sight of the immediate and smaller individualized good (no disrespect to our friend and to Greg) while wringing our hands in worry about potential catastrophic ramifications on society decades from now. Let’s discuss the issues but let’s not prevent people from realizing their dreams just because of some misfortune that happened to them. If I suffered so, the choice for me would be even clearer.

Content challenges

Is content important?  Of course. But content is only as good as the context within which it sits.  There is a lot of focus these days on the word content, on ways to present information that is compelling, that engages the viewer or listener and (hopefully) influences their purchasing decisions.  But too often the content misses the mark.  It is weak because it doesn’t place the information in a reality that makes personal sense for the participant. Devoid of context (time and place and words and action) the information either sounds bland or condescending.

Recognize this building?

It’s the Freedom Tower rising next to the twin footprints of the decade-long vanished World Trade Center towers.  Yes, it is a crappy picture.  That’s because I took it with an iPhone through the window of an adjacent office building.  I was in NY this week visiting a client and the meeting room looked out over the WTC site.  It made me think about context though because, frankly, aside from its eventual height it doesn’t strike me as a particularly special building.  In fact, the architect who designed the building designed another that is rising in Toronto across the street from where I live and I think that one may end up being a finer  piece of architecture.  At 60 stories, it will be 50 shorter than the Freedom Tower but it will offer a graceful bow of a figure that should truly make it stand out. The Freedom Tower is fine; it will be proudly distinctive on the Manhattan skyline but if you put the building anywhere besides the WTC site, would it be as noteworthy?  I think this is why Dubai doesn’t impress me. The stupendous height and grasping for symbolism seems sad and artificial to me, as if ostentatiousness is the first and only goal.

Then this made me think of other examples where context is important in fully describing what might otherwise be a non-event, an insignificant situation, or a random anyone on the street. In this blog, I return at times to my father and I will again but this time it will be in the company of another father, my wife’s. Two physically short but towering men of character because of their decency, their optimism, the people they loved and who loved them in return. We cannot fully tell the story of an object or a person without knowing where they are from, what inspired them, who and how they touched, why they were who they were.  My two fathers are parts of who I am but it could be argued that if you had not known them you would not know the full me.

Context breathes life into content.

Essays in a social world

I have advice for people who feel overwhelmed by what seems to be an onslaught of information that comes our way from what I’ll call the social media platform.  My word, or words, of advice?  Read longer articles.

Readers of this blog know I’ve been a recent user of Twitter and I can safely conclude after a short 6 months that it is a very useful application.  I’m stunned at how it has replaced for me the daily thorough reading of various newspapers.  In a weird way it has saved me tons of time by allowing me to curate my own content.

However, nothing fires the core of my intellect as does a well-written essay.  I’m an enormous admirer of that writing form in the fashion of icons like Lewis Lapham and Mark Twain and so I look forward to the weekend essay in the Wall Street Journal.  Last Saturday’s was an exceptional capture of most of my life, or at least millions of peoples’ lives across North America.  Crafted exquisitely and building relentlessly towards a conclusion you know in advance but can’t wait to read, pieces like the essay on class divergence in America force your eyes to stay on the page and your brain to stay in the game.

Making the effort can be no effort at all

It doesn’t take much effort at all to show interest and make a friend feel a bit better. All you have to do is drop them an email or make a quick call.  Usually that does the trick unless they are having an especially bad day.  It requires a bit more conscious effort though when the other person is a complete stranger.

I live in downtown Toronto and while it’s fantastic that the city is upgrading its infrastructure (sewers, roads, lighting), the ongoing construction I’m sure is the source of a simmering tension people sense but find difficult to explain. Last weekend I was out walking the dog in the bitter cold in front of our condo building when I noticed a guy adjusting the construction fence that separated the sidewalk from an excavation for a new sewer system.  The fence had been toppled the night before by, presumably, a bunch of guys who’d had their collective spirits and courage raised by alcohol (our street is filled with higher-end bars and restaurants). He was clearly a member of the construction crew there on his day off and he had a big job ahead of him since there must have been about 80 feet of the fence laying on its side. As I walked past him I stopped and remarked that New Year’s Eve isn’t all fun and games. He replied in frustration that he viewed the owners of the establishments as being responsible since they make no effort to stop the vandalism. He wished people would understand that while he understands the frustration that owners have for the mess and noise of the work, ultimately the work is necessary if those owners want their toilets to flush. Good point.

I told him as a resident I appreciated the work and wished him the best for the new year.  He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Hey, thanks man.  That’s good. Same to you.”

Easy.