Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I think it is important to reflect on the past (NOTE: did not say whine about the past or sit on a problem on the past). This year was a tough year for my family, as transitions often are, but it is leading to exciting new adventures and new horizons. So this year I am keeping it simple with just two questions but ones that I think can be powerful as I enter the new year:

1) What are the most important lessons I learned this last year?

Maybe these lessons came from books, people around you, and mistakes that you experienced. Make sure the lesson is about something that you can control, not general grouchiness over external issues. For example, "I learned that those people did me wrong" is not a good lesson to learn; "I need to have better discernment by doing this in these kind of situations" is a better lesson. They might have run you over, but just avoiding them isn't going to do you much good - there are plenty more of them out there! (And maybe you had something to do with it anyway.)

2) What can I celebrate from this last year?

The most important question. Begin 2010 on a high note and find ways to recognize the good stuff and incorporate it January 1. That is the best habit you can make.


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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Need to blame someone?

Looking back on 2009, it was a struggle at times; in fact, it may have held some of the largest trials of the 2000's for myself and my family. I need someone to blame. Fortunately, Steven says that I can blame him.

There were certainly circumstances and other people that helped contribute to some of the issues, and I will place some of the blame on them. But why should I take any of the blame when I can lay it off on someone else, especially someone so willing? Now I don't have to learn lessons or change my behavior or face hard truths; they are such downers. If I can only find someone to take the consequences as well...


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Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The family and I recently were leaving a choir concert of my daughter's. It was cold and dark so we were bundled up and walking quickly to the minivan. I pulled out the keys and pressed the unlock button to find the car, and saw a Honda Odyssey blink in return. We opened the doors and all piled in. The first clue that something wasn't quite right was that the key didn't turn. The rest of the family was looking around trying to figure out what wasn't quite right when one of the kids piped up, "When did we get leather seats?" I think it dawned on all of us at the same time that we were in the wrong car. We quickly got out and saw another family watching us as they were approaching. We were wondering what the other family was thinking as they watched us quickly get out of their car...


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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Attention surplus disorder

"Attention surplus disorder" is an amusing phrase I found in the book Anathem (a fiction book which I just didn't get into after the first fifty pages, so I returned it to the library and maybe try again later; but I really like that phrase!).

In my observations, this seems to be an extremely rare disorder - so rare I'm not sure that a case has been found since the turn of the century. We are trying to do the best that we can to eradicate this behavior by celebrating multi-taskers and providing as many distractions as we can to those who have found something worth concentrating on. We are providing water-coolers, email, twitter, blogs, Facebook, and Tetris for our workers as the main distractions with a world of preoccupation at their fingertips through the Internet.

Our efforts to eradicate this from our youth seems to be working through our plethora of extracurricular activities - all of which must be attended during the same season - and stimulation of as many senses as possible at once, such as music in one ear and a phone on the other while watching TV and playing video games. Research is being done currently on adding the sense of smell to the mix.

The central strategy was of course to attack the home - and we managed it with one of our best weapons: Guilt. Few parents can withstand the simple phrase "I'm bored" and have been brainwashed to immediately provide stimulation without much work from us. No longer are children playing outside are being entranced with natural wonders!

Our plan to extirpate this syndrome through constant interruptions must be continued, because let's face it, attention surplus disorder is really annoying. People start to ask questions when they start to think too long or too deeply about something. They start to explore and really get better at stuff rather than just being simply average. They get anxious about the status quo, and that really digs into our comfort zone! Keep up the good work friends, our work is well on its way...


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Monday, December 14, 2009

Imagine your fears as wooden ducks

In the book Escape From Cubicle Nation, author Pamela Slim spends a good portion of the book talking about overcoming fears, a common reason why people stay in jobs that they hate. This quote in particular struck me:

Habits expert Havi Brooks [who, by the way, has a great way of using other words rather than the normal words] imagines her fears as wooden ducks, and observes them as they trail dutifully behind her as she walks through her day.

It is a great technique to help change your perspective on situations and give yourself a chance to see it in another light. I used this technique as a kid when I had nightmares. When I would wake up from a bad dream, I would try to make the situation into a funny one by giving the scary character a tutu or something like that.

Now you have to have a conversation with your boss, or you have to talk to a friend about something they said, and this situation is causing some trepidation. Your mind is running through worst case scenarios and you can't make it stop. I still kind of like putting my fears into a ballet that is dances on the table in front of me.

So what can you fun image can you change your fears into?


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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Now on Twitter

I'm giving it a shot for a while. Think it will be fun since I can update on the go from my iPhone. The tweets will be different than what I usually do here. Check it out @jcvaught.


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What offends you

So I was reading this novel Bad Monkeys and was enjoying it when I had to pause over this one section. Two characters are talking when one says:

"Der schlechte Affe hasst seinen eigenen Geruch."

Tightly translated it is "The bad monkey hates his own smell." Loosely translated it means that people are most deeply offended by moral failings that mirror their own.

I've heard this before. And I've even seen it in action. Knew someone a long time ago that was always angriest at his kids when he thought they were lying - and he had a problem with "the check is in the mail" type statements. You see it with preachers who lament the lack of moral standing in their communities, and are outed sooner or later.

So I started thinking: What bothers me most about other people? Does it have a reflection on my own personal struggles?

I've been tough on my oldest son every once in a while for not living up to what I think his potential is; probably don't have to mention that this doesn't set well with him. Eventually I will catch myself, or more likely Nancy points it out to me, and then I apologize to him and we get back to a place where we both are enjoying our relationship. Not too long ago I took an extensive personality test and one of the results was that I was highly critical of myself. Here is what it said:

You recognize that self-improvement is the most important goal, because it is the means of achieving all goals. However, your strong interest in self-improvement combined with only a moderate level of self-acceptance indicates you may tend to be somewhat self-critical. Although at times you have healthy self-esteem, you may at other times make things a little difficult for yourself by being unnecessarily hard on yourself.

And maybe a little too hard on others close to me. Bad monkey!


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Thursday, December 03, 2009

A leader on leadership

The following is a presentation from General Colin Powell. My claim to fame: my wife was friends with his daughter when they were both very young. I feel like we are pretty close...

Great points that are succinct and to the point. I believe these are important enough to post on each one over the next couple of weeks.


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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You weren't meant to have a boss

Check out what venture capitalist Paul Graham says about working for a "boss" in this thought provoking post:

I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. I suspect that working for oneself feels better to humans in much the same way that living in the wild must feel better to a wide-ranging predator like a lion. Life in a zoo is easier, but it isn't the life they were designed for.

This doesn't mean that working for a large company is bad, or that there are not problems in small companies or working for yourself. This is essentially the problem when working for a "boss" (in quotes because you can have a manager that doesn't share this characteristic): you lose your sense of individuality and creativity. If you are only there to fulfill a predetermined task so that you are an asset or a liability, you are seen more as a robotic machine than a person who can bring much to the table.

I was just having lunch with a friend of mine who is a hard worker and incredibly smart. He left his company recently because his "boss" didn't think he sat at his desk long enough. But I've also had a "leader" when I worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers that it felt great to work for and encouraged us to grow and be creative. Size doesn't necessarily mean living behind bars, but size certainly increases the chances that bureaucracy starts building the paper walls for zoo development.

One attitude that seems to be distinctive between the "boss" and the "leader" is that the "boss" often tries to control while the "leader" challenges. This is not only true for profit-seeking companies, but for groups that require any amount of organization. There are plenty of not-for-profit organizations and churches that forget that they are there precisely to take risks and serve a greater purpose - and need people freed from zoos to be at their best. At the same time, loss of control doesn't necessarily mean lack of accountability.

If you are the person in charge, ask yourself this question: Would these people follow me willingly, or are they doing this because they feel they have to?


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Thursday, November 19, 2009


Still not sure if all these social networks online are worth troubling about? You are already way behind the curve.

Who are you trying to reach? Because that is where they are.


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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages

Do you want to know why that message that you sweated over and poured your soul into fell onto an audience that didn't seem to care nearly as much as you, and really not even as much as you expected?

You thought through it, your ideas and statistics and and bullet points were arranged just so that in the end you could come up with your big idea - but nobody understood why this was the big idea! Or maybe they said, Yeah, we agree, but so what?

Chances are your big idea that you worked over, found studies that agree with you, and you even know, you know, that people aren't really doing is something like "companies need great customer service." You just know that without this idea companies are going to struggle, and you have the proof that they are. But people in the audience, or your boss, or co-workers, or congregants, or your kids' sports team are yawning like it is no big deal!

The Heath brothers want to tell you why no one is listening to your incredibly important message: They are thinking Duh. In Made To Stick (72):

Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages. When messages sound like common sense, they float gently in one ear and out the other. And why shouldn't they? If I already "get" what you're trying to tell me, why should I obsess about remembering it? The danger, of course, is that what sounds like common sense often isn't... It's your job, as a communicator, to expose the parts of your message that are uncommon sense.

As an example, Nordstrom wanted to explain to its employees that they need "great customer service." They could have said that, and employees would have yawned. Instead the chose to provide stories that are shocking if you have ever worked in retail (examples come from Built To Last):

  • The Nordie who ironed a new shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon;
  • The Nordie who cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy's;
  • The Nordie who warmed customers' cars in winter while they finished shopping;
  • The Nordie who made a last-minute delivery of party clothes to a frantic hostess;
  • And even the Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains - although Norsdstrom doesn't sell tire chains

Nordstrom understands that customer service is important, but just saying that doesn't get you anywhere. Now all of a sudden you are comparing what you are supposed to do with the examples. Am I providing that level of customer service?

What if instead your message was something more like "Customer Service Is The Only Thing" or "Customers Are More Important Than The CEO." What is the uncommon message, in story form or in a way that surprises or shocks the audience? What if you could tell your idea in a way that actually goes against the grain, yet solves a problem?

Now you have something worth sitting up and listening to.


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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Haiku challenge

My daughter and I decided to do a Haiku challenge this week to push our creativity, challenge ourselves, and have some fun. Each day of the week Autumn is going to pick a subject and we have till the end of the day to write a poem using that format. Here is our first one on "winter":

Bitter wind rebukes
Then snatches the breathe away;
See it floating by.

Sugary sprinkles,
Beautiful white cupcake earth,
Marshmallow snowmen.


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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Anger and certainty

Often when we try to influence someone, we try to do so in a "rational" manner by using stats and logic, because surely if they could only see the "facts" then there is no other conclusion.

What we fail to see is that "facts" rarely convince or persuade anyone, they really just help reassure ourselves that we are right. The best way to convince someone of something? You have to tap into their emotions.

Don't read that as manipulate. What it basically means is that you have to help them care. Which is why it is so hard to understand why we sometimes use argumentative language that only gets people defensive. If the person on the other side of your cause is guarded because of you, your cause is already lost. Check out this observation from Made To Stick (67):

Emotions are elegantly tuned to help us deal with critical situations. They prepare us for different ways of acting and thinking. We've all heard that anger prepares us to fight and fear prepares us to flee. The linkages between emotion and behavior can be more subtle, though. For instance, a secondary effect of being angry, which was recently discovered by researchers, is that we become more certain of our judgments. When we're angry, we know we're right, as anyone who has been in a relationship can attest.

Humor opens us up to possibilities. Two-way conversation provides an avenue for people to find bridges into other possibilities. Persuasion is not a battle to be won, but a joining of arms in a cause. Be strong in your beliefs and wise with your words.


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Monday, November 02, 2009

Don't assume

People are unhappy in your organization, and you don't know it.

In the book All Customers Are Irrational (73), the author talks about customers leaving and management rarely has a clue: "Several studies over the last few years have shown that, of the customers who recently left a company, only 4 percent ever bothered mentioning to the company that they had some sort of issue."

You've been there. You've switched services - phone, gas station, electric, whatever - and you didn't bother telling the old company why. You just moved on.

The problem is, in the organization you are a part of now, people are unhappy and you don't know it. Unless a crisis occurs, you assume everybody feels the same way you do. But they don't. And they will express that unhappiness to everyone except you.

Don't assume you know what is going on. Don't be the person who locks themselves in their office or stays stuck in their cubicle or refuses to take the temperature of the family dynamics.


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Friday, October 30, 2009

Setting Sail

I love this quote from John Shedd:

A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
It is always a temptation to stay in the safe zone, the place where you are comfortable. But that is not what makes organizations great, or frankly, even of value. A ship that refuses to leave the harbor is a ship that is worthless, except maybe to the crew that is afraid to sail; and that never lasts.

To continue the analogy, we like captains who can describe the adventures found on the sea, discovering new lands, and asking people to climb aboard for a trip that has risks but the journey is worth it. Perhaps you are one of those captains longing to lead people in a direction rather than sitting still collecting barnacles. Let me describe what you will inevitably find once you really begin to lead:

A "middler." What is a "middler"? Someone who stands on the shore doing all he or she can to hold the ropes so that boat doesn't go anywhere, all because they don't want to get wet.

I love how Edwin H. Friedman describes "middlers" in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:
In any type of of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encourage and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consesus, a "middler," someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his "disability" seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas - one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits.
The best part of his description? Often the "middlers" are nice and charming.

If you are going to be a leader, or a captain setting sail out of the harbor of status quo, then expect people to be hanging on to the ropes. Friedman's advice, which we'll explore more later, is to make sure that you are concentrating on your own integrity rather than thinking of the "middlers" as a problem to solve.


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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ultimate Leaf Wrestling

I reserve a part of the yard for my kids to find fun things to do with a large pile of leaves. This year they came up with "Ultimate Leaf Wrestling." These are the rules, unchanged from how they wrote them:

Ultimate Leaf Wrestling

1. No choking
2. No holding someone under
3. No pinching
4. No spitting
5. No throwing leaves

How to win:
You have to push an oponent off the pile. You have 3 chances if you fall out by yourself. Last one standing in the pile of leaves wins. (if you run out chances you're out)


Types of Games:
Royal Rumble = free for all
Single match = 1 v 1
Tag Team = 1 v 2 or 2 v 2

Tag team = if you need a rest you tag your partner, or the person out, and they go in. However, if you step out without touching your partner, there is no extra and the other two keep battling.

Single match = normal 1 v 1

Royal Rumble = normal rules but more than two people can be in.

Let the games begin!


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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Commander's Intent

I recently read a blog that said we should not plan. While I am aware that plans are not fool-proof (see previous blog post), plans do help you think through issues and hopefully help provide great questions (more on this later).

What if, within your organization, people knew basically what to do without needing play-by-play instructions from their leaders? What if people could make decisions on their own and improvise when needed wherever they are and no matter the context? What if people were generating solutions, and this is the amazing part, everyone was on the same page rather than generating solutions that benefit different causes?

In the book Made To Stick (26), the Heath brothers talk to Colonel Kolditz in the U.S. military about how plans can quickly become obsolete on the battlefield, nicely captured in the phrase "no plan survives contact with the enemy." For you that may be "no sales plan survives contact with the customer" or "no lesson plan survives contact with teenagers." The military adapted a new planning process called Commander's Intent (CI).
CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan's goal, the desired end-state of an operation. At high levels of the Army, the CI may be relatively abstract: "Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region." At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete: "My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of enemy, with only ineffective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines."

The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. "You can lose the ability to execute the original plan, but you can never lose the responsibility of executing the intent," says Kolditz. In other words, if there's one soldier left in the Third Battalion on Hill 4305, he'd better be doing something to protect the flank of the Third Brigade.
Colonel Kolditz gives an example: "Suppose I'm commanding an artillery battalion and I say, 'We're going to pass this infantry unit through our lines forward.' That means something different to different groups. The mechanics know that they'll need lots of repair support along the roads, because if a tank breaks down on a bridge the whole operation will come to a screeching halt. The artillery knows they'll need to fire smoke or have engineers generate smoke in the breech area where the infantry unit moves forward, so it won't get shot up as it passes through. As a commander, I could spend a lot of time enumerating every specific task, but as soon as people know what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions."
Here is an example from a for-profit organization: Southwest. Any guesses on their Commander's Intent? "We are the low-fare airline." In the decision making process, you might have several options to choose from, but with the CI the decision making process has a filter question: which decision helps us stay the low-fare airline?

At the Combat Maneuver Training Center, the unit in charge of military simulations, recommends the officers arrive at the Commander's Intent by asking themselves two questions:
If we do nothing else during tomorrow's mission, we must ___________.

The single, most important thing we must do tomorrow is ___________.
Find the core of what this organization is about. Not two pages, not even two paragraphs. What is the core.

This can, and should, be applied to parenting, to religious institutions, to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, to teams, etc. Two examples that I have used personally:

"We are training our kids to be capable and responsible adults by the time they leave our house at 18 years of age." Now there is a end-goal established with a definitive time-line. At each age we know we need to help them progress to being responsible for themselves; what should that look like at 18? How do we backtrack from there to where they should be at 13? This should also help make decisions about involvement in activities, family chores, etc. It is far more than just getting them to be behave like you want them to so they don't embarrass you in that moment.

"This church exists to train people to be every-day followers of Jesus." Training is more than lecturing, it also means helping people enact knowledge and behaviors into their lives. It can be applied to different demographics - how do we train students or parents or couples or seniors to be every-day followers of Jesus? It is far bigger mission than copying what you did last year so everyone is happy.

So what is your Commander's Intent?


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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

El Farol Bar problem

I found this interesting game theory problem in the book Traffic (171):

This is a problem sketched out by the economist W. Brian Arthur, after a bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The hypothetical scenario imagines that one hundred people would like to go to the bar to listen to live music, but it seems too crowded if more than sixty show up. How does any one person decide whether or not to go? If they go one night and it's too crowded, do they return the next night, on the thought that people will have been discouraged - or will others have precisely the same thought? Aurthur found, in a simulation, that the mean attendance did indeed hover around sixty, but that the attendance numbers for each night continued to oscillate up and down, for the full one hundred weeks of the trial. Which means that one's chances of going on the right night are essentially random, as people continue to try to adapt their behavior.
The interesting part of this problem, born out of a real observation of trying to have a fun night at the bar, is that while you are trying to act based on guesses of what others are going to do, they are doing the same thing about you. While you are modifying your behavior based on what they did last night, they are doing the same thing.

The moral of the story? Today is a different day than yesterday.

We like static thinking. In the good times, and even in the times that are a little rough, we hope that everything will mostly be just like it was yesterday so that I can basically predict what today and tomorrow will be like. But you can't, not even for the people and the organizations and the circumstances that you think you know best.

I am all for making plans. But the problem is we like making plans based on static think. I heard this analogy, and unfortunately I cannot remember where the analogy came from; if you know, post it, and I'll give proper citation. The metaphor goes something like this (with a little of my own concoction thrown in):

Many people look at the future like a well-built highway -- straight roads, well-defined boundaries, and with the proper markings that show you where you are and how far you've gone. The beat of time is the stripes along the middle that are always the same length and look just like the last hundred miles that you've traveled. You can plan out your route with expectations that little will change along this road. People with this view of the future try to build their lives into lamborghinis - luxuriant, shiny, and it gets to the goal in a hurry.

But the future doesn't look like that, it's not static, and they run into obstacles that puncture the tires, dent the sides, if not an all out crash. The economy tanks, their 401 crashes, their kids have problems, they hate their new boss, etc. And here's the weird thing - we still hope that the future is static, either because we can navigate ourselves out of that world that we knew, or we happy just whining about what we know.

Here is a better view of the future: it's more like the Baja 1000. You can see what is on the hill in front of you for a short distance, but other than that you have no idea what is on the other side. Be prepared for anything. You need grit and determination more than shiny and fast. You will get dents and scrapes, but that only helps prepare you for the next round.

Keep the expectations of your environment and circumstances down, and expectations of yourself up. Work your tail off for what is in front of you.

Enjoy the ride!


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Friday, October 23, 2009

The question is more important than you think

This quote from the book Buying In (40) fascinates me:
The vast majority of our brain's activities - 98% of it, by one estimation - happens outside of conscious awareness...Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky published work indicating that people make decisions about risk partly in reaction to how a problem is framed - their risk tolerance changes depending on the working of the question they are asked, even if the issue described is, in reality, identical.
What this means is that you can look at the exact same situation and make two very different decisions based on how someone asks you a question. Nothing about the reality of the situation is different, only the words used in the question asking you to make a decision - and that can change everything!

This means that you need to make sure that you are asking the best questions you can about important decisions for yourself, for your family, and for your teams. Brainstorm the best question that really needs to be answered.

Let's think through a scenario: Your son just came home with a D on his report card. Here are two questions you can ask. Think through your initial response to the first question before you move on to the second one.

1) How are you going to punish him?

2) How are you going to help train him?

Was their a difference in the possibilities that came into your head?

It is worth spending time making sure that you have the best goals for your family and your organization so that the right inquiries can be asked - your behavior and your activities are based more on the questions that you ask, and thus try to answer, rather than abstract concepts framed on a wall.

Here is a great example from the book Made To Stick(186, 187):
Army food is just about what you'd expect: bland, overcooked, and prepared in massive quantities. The dishes are not garnished with sprigs of parsley. The mess halls are essentially calorie factories, giving the troops the fuel they need to do their jobs. An old Army proverb says, "An Army travels on its stomach."

The Pegasus chow hall, just outside the Baghdad airport, has developed a different reputation. At Pegasus, the prime rib is perfectly prepared. The fruit platter is a beautiful assortment of watermelon, kiwi fruit, and grapes. There are legends of soldiers driving to Pegasus from the Green Zone (the well-protected Americanized area of Baghdad), along one of the most treacherous roads in Iraq, just to eat a meal.

Floyd Lee, the man in charge of Pegasus, was retired from his twenty-five-year career as a Marine Corps and Army cook when the Iraq war began. He came out of retirement to take the job. "The gook Lord gave me a second chance to feed soldiers," he said. "I've waited for this job all my life, and here I am in Baghdad."

Lee is well aware that being a soldier is relentlessly difficult. The soldiers often work eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. The threat of danger in Iraq is constant. Lee wants Pegasus to provide a respite from the turmoil. He's clear about his leadership mission: "As I see it, I am not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale."
This vision manifests itself in hundreds of small actions taken by Lee's staff on a daily basis. At Pegasus, the white walls of the typical mess hall are covered with sports banners. There are gold treatments on the windows, and green tablecloths with tassels. The harsh fluorescent lights have been replaced by ceiling fans with soft bulbs. The servers wear tall white chef's hats.

The remarkable thing about Pegasus's reputation for great food is that Pegasus works with exactly the same raw materials that everyone else does. Pegasus serves the same twenty-one-day Army menu as other dining halls. Its food comes from the same suppliers. It's the attitude that makes difference. A chef sorts through the daily fruit shipment, culling the bad grapes, selecting the best parts of the watermelon and kiwi, to prepare the perfect fruit tray. At night, the dessert table features five kinds of pie and three kinds of cake. The Sunday prime rib is marinated for two full days. A cook from New orleans orders spices that are mailed to Iraq to enhance the entrees. A dessert chef describes her strawberry cake as "sexual and sensual" - two adjectives never before applied to Army food.

Lee realizes that serving food is a job, but improving morale is a mission. Improving morale involves creativity and experimentation and mastery. Serving food involves a ladle.
What is my job, or What is my mission? How do we feed all these people, or how do we improve morale? How long must we work, or how do we make this incredible?

The power of questions.


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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Curse of Knowledge

One of the best and by far the most useful books I've read in a long time is Made To Stick by the brothers Heath. I can't think of a profession or organization that could not benefit greatly by reading this book.

One of the foundations of the book is wrapped around the idea of the Curse of Knowledge. Try this game with some people:

Pick a song in your head, and then tap the beat on a table and see if anyone can guess what it is (p. 20 in the book).

Go ahead, try it, quit reading ahead. OK, you're reading ahead anyway, so here is the result - they didn't guess it. In fact, they weren't even close. This despite the fact that you could clearly hear the song playing along as you were pounding away on the table thinking about what dopes they are for not easily figuring it out. What sounded like a simple song to you was meaningless taps on a table for them - because they couldn't hear the tune in your head.

The Heath brothers say the same thing is going on when we try to communicate thoughts and ideas. We have thought through the possibilities, the struggle to get to the conclusion, read the books, spoken with experts and it all came to this great conclusion. Yet it doesn't seem to be getting through precisely because the audience didn't go through the same process you did. They hear it and it doesn't stick. Why? And how do we make it stick?

We will take a look at it over the coming weeks I'll keep adding posts from this book and others, as well as random thoughts.


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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This is what you should tell your kid

First, let's start with what you shouldn't tell your kid after he or she does something well: "I'm proud of you."

So, was that surprising? It was the first time I heard it. The problem with it, according to Hal, is that it is really about you. Should they do things just to please you? While it may be nice to think that way, the answer is No. They should do things to please themselves, because it is the right thing to do.

Let's turn the question a different direction - should they do things to please people? No. I don't want my kids trying to do things to please their friends, or just to please a boss. I want them to do it because it is the right thing to do, which may go against the grain and the crowd.

Let's turn it again - what happens when they don't do something that great? What happens when they strike out at the plate (and when they got a hit you said you were proud of them)? Are you now not proud of them? I hope not. I don't think too highly of those kind of parents. But if you only tell them you are proud of them when they do the great stuff, the implicit message is that you are not when they fail. I want my kids to fail, because at least it means they are trying, they are risking.

The last turn - what if, instead, you ask if they are proud of themselves? Help them to think through their accomplishments, especially their role in being responsible and taking steps.

If you want to praise your kids, the book The Narcissism Epidemic (83) says to praise your kids for working hard, because then they will want to work hard. Don't praise your kids for being smart - if it comes to a situation that calls for hard work or one that confuses them, they will shy away from it to protect the "smart" label. In these studies working with kids and how words affect them, those that were told they were "smart" struggled when they got to a problem which was difficult for them; the label "smart" scared them more than helped them. Those that were told they were hard workers buckled down because they believed they could figure it out.

Words matter. Be a hard working parent when it comes to your kids.


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Monday, October 19, 2009

TV and kids

Lawrence J. Peter: " Television has changed the American child from an irresistible force into an immovable object. "

I saw this quote from ScreamFree Parenting Tip of the Day and had to pass it on about the TV epidemic:

My children can be incredibly creative, generous, helpful and kind. They can also be needy, greedy, self-absorbed, and whiny. I didn’t really catch on to an interesting little trend until our TV recently broke and we had to go without it for close to a month. What I noticed was quite phenomenal. My kids grumbled at first, but then they began to read more, play more, help more and laugh more. What I realized was that the mood in our house was directly proportional to the amount of television we watched.

The average American child between the ages of 2-17 watches 25 hours of tv a week. 1 in 5 children watch 44 hours a week. As a busy parent, I get that. Turning on the TV is easier than “entertaining” your kids or listening to them whine about how bored they are. Period. It just is. But I am here to tell you the truth: You’re actually shooting yourself in the foot if you have this mentality. You’re making the chances of them cooperating less and the chances of them being lethargic greater. Just try it out for a week and tell me that I’m wrong: limit tv (both when and how much) and objectively observe your kids’ behavior. I have a strong hunch that you’ll be pleased with the results.
Let's face it - turning off the TV is difficult, and it will be doubly so if you and the people in your household are used to watching it. I think it will take more than a week to really feel the difference because the first week the kids will complain for the first twenty hours the TV isn't on and you'll wonder what to do. By the second week, you'll struggle with each other because you are not used to spending so much time together. By the third week, you'll wonder how you had enough time to watch that much TV.

Don't cut out TV completely, just sit down and plan it out at the beginning of the week (do the planning with the TV off).

Over the weekend I had conversations with friends about our agendas in life. When our agenda is to get through the day, TV is the easy answer. If your agenda is people, then you won't want the easy answer.


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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Five Stages of Grief

I thought this would be helpful for people if they are struggling with an important loss in their life. The following is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief:

1) Denial
2) Anger
3) Bargaining
4) Depression
5) Acceptance

While not everyone probably goes through all the steps, and it is not in any necessary order, I know I have certainly had some feelings of anger and depression after leaving my last position in the middle of a recession! I have to laugh at myself when I find that I'm bargaining somehow with fate to just let me have this or that and I'll somehow make it up.

Acceptance of the situation or circumstances is certainly the best stage to be at, but acceptance of status quo is something I'll never accept.


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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Proteus Effect

Perception really is reality.

Your perception of the world around you, and of yourself, changes how you behave and the choices that you make. But interestingly, it isn't even necessarily how you perceive yourself, but your perception of how others think of you.

The book The Narcissism Epidemic (119) talked about this phenomenon and a study called the Daedalus Project that was done to test it:
One fascinating study randomly assigned people to an avatar in a virtual world. In the first experiment, some individuals were given attractive avatars and some unattractive avatars. The attractive avatars were more socially confident; they walked closer to the other avatar and talked about themselves more. In the second experiment, people were assigned either a short or tall avatar and completed a negotiation task. People with a tall avatar were more competitive in the negotiation. The researchers concluded that the type of avatars people use actually change social behavior in a virtual world, which they called the Proteus Effect.
It certainly helps to explain why people might enjoy these games so much - they can take on a persona that they believe others will like and respect based on skills and looks from the virtual world.

It also shows that you might be holding yourself back based on your perception of how you are viewed in the world. If you think others see you as weak in some area, then you are going to subconsciously make it so. All this leads down a spiral of never achieving as much as you could, and all because of a perception that may or may not be true.

As a way to help you gain confidence and try to extend yourself, try this method: How would [use a name of someone you think would do well at this project] do this? You might be surprised at what you can accomplish, and the gains in self confidence that this can produce. After all, if you can imagine yourself being down, you can also imagine yourself being up.

You might be better than you think - if only you had the confidence to try.


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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Pittsburgh Left

Have you ever been at a traffic light and when the light turns green, the car opposite you quickly turns left across the intersection without an arrow while you are going straight? Apparently it is a common custom here in Pittsburgh. We kept seeing it happen, and every once in a while someone would comment about it. It is quirky enough that it made it into the book Traffic, 226):

The Pittsburgh Left is "that act of of driving practiced primarily in the Steel City (but also in Beijing) in which the change of a traffic light to green is an 'unofficial' signal for a left-turning driver to quickly bolt across the oncoming traffic."
It makes me think of what a hurry many of us tend to be in, rushing to here and there to get this and that done. Have you stopped to think about what it is that you are such a hurry to get to? I know you might have these commitments, but how many of them? And to what effect?

Maybe we have created this sense of urgency and hurry to keep from thinking those thoughts.


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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Have you had corn today?

You did, whether you know it or not.

Check out this quote from the book Free (47):

Historians often look at the great civilizations of the ancient world through the lens of three grains: rice, wheat, and corn. Rice is protein-rich but extremely hard to grow. Wheat is easy to grow but protein-poor. Only corn is both easy to grow and plump with protein.

What historians have observed is that the protein/labor ratio of these grains influenced the course of civilizations based on them. The higher the ratio, the more "social surplus" the people eating that grain had, since they could feed themselves with less work. The effect of this was not always positive. Rice and wheat societies tended to be agrarian, inwardly focused cultures, presumably because the process of raising the crops took so much of their energy. But corn cultures - the Mayans, the Aztecs - had spare time and energy, which they often used to attack their neighbors. By this analysis, corn's abundance made the Aztecs warlike.
It is an interesting theory. Of course, there are way too many variables to say that growing corn is the reason why those people groups were war-like, but it does lead you to think about what people do with their left-over energy. In fact, there are a lot of things you can do with your spare energy such as being altruistic, using your imagination, research and innovate, and artwork. But of course, that free time also means that you don't have to be as team oriented because you aren't as reliant on others. I certainly hope we are not destined, because we eat more corn than you ever realized.

Today, we use corn for more than just food. Between synthetic fertilizer and breeding techniques that make corn the most efficient converter of sunlight and water to starch the world has ever seen, we are now swimming in a golden harvest of plenty - far more than we can eat. So corn has become an industrial feedstock for products of all sorts, from paint to packaging. Cheap corn has driven out many other foods from our diet and converted natural grass-eating animals, such as cows, into corn-processing machines.

As Michael Pollan points out in The Ominivore's Dilemna, a chicken nugget "piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn [its feed], but so do the nugget's other constituents, including the modified corn starch that blues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter and the corn oil in which it is fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and the lecithin, the mono-, di- and triglycerides, the attractive golden color and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget fresh can all be derived from corn."

A quarter of all the products found in an average supermarket today contain corn, Pollan writes. And that goes for the nonfood items, too! From toothpaste and cosmetics to disposable diapers and cleansers, everything contains corn, even the cardboard they're boxed in. Even the supermarket itself, with its wallboard and joint compound, linoleum and adhesives, is built on corn.
It's worth it to know what you are eating - not only for the dietary reasons, but maybe so you don't find yourself thinking war-like thoughts with your neighbors!


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A Knife, Red Dripping

A knife, red dripping.
It reaches.
Grabbing you, then shaking.
Look here, it says,
Guess what I have done.
Touch my edge, my smiling edge.
Feel what I am made for.
The rug clings to your shoes.
It cries, Someone
Has stained my coat!
A piece of shirt lies choking and
The wall turns 'round,
Silently shaking its head.
Where's the body,
You ask knowingly.


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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Monty Python's letter to you masses

How many people have heard the music industry whine and complain about how their industry is changing? OK, you can put your hand down. I'm sure the horse and buggy industry talked about the downfall of everything if cars kept being produced.

But the music industry isn't the only one being "hurt" by people taking intellectual property that isn't theirs and distributing it. Software and video have the same problem. What do you do if you can't beat them? C'mon, you know the answer - join them, but do it better!

In Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson talks about why we should embrace the coming price revolution and how to use it to our advantage. In the first chapter he describes Monty Python's response:

In November 2008, the surviving members of the original Monty Python team, stunned by the extent of digital piracy of their videos, issued a very stern announcement on YouTube:
For 3 years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them on YouTube.

Now the tables are turned. It's time for us to take matters into our own hands.

We know who you are, we know where you live and we could come after you in ways too horrible to tell. But being the extraordinarily nice chaps we are, we've figured a better way to get our own back: We've launched our own Monty Python channel on YouTube.

No more of those crap quality videos you've been posting. We're giving you the real thing - high quality videos delivered straight from our vault. What's more, we're taking our most viewed clips and uploading brand new high quality versions. And what's even more, we're letting you see absolutely everything for free. So there!

But we want something in return. None of your driveling, mindless comments. Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years.
Many people think about releasing their "stuff" for free, or even worse someone else doing it, and panic.

But I like Google's approach: let's do something great, and we'll figure out how to make money off it later.

What were the results of Monty Python's response? Three months later, the results of this rash experiment with Free were in. Monty Python's DVDs had climbed to No. 2 on Amazon's Movies and TV best-sellers list, with increased sales of 23,000 percent. Did everyone buy a DVD? Of course not, probably very few of those who watched. But if you are doing it only for money, you are in the wrong business anyway. Their appeal and influence spread far beyond DVD reach and was available to new generations, some of whom wanted more.

Don't panic. Use your imagination, and do something great.


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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fate, Are We Clouds Shaped

Fate, are we clouds shaped,
bent and rolling by the mere blowing of the wind?
Of hardly any substance, just enough
might we catch a sight,
a lieu till another form assumed anew?
Say, can we not, "No,
I will not go with thee, O Wind, I defy
direction, for a different path I intend to run!"
Can we not hold back when
a temperature high or low must incur
the substance of our lives to spew in a dance?

Let me hold my energy from thee,
O Land, do not call forth your lightning hand
snatching my inner strength till I am nothing.
I search tragically over this terra's girth
for answers that are hidden lore:
to expose the birth and death of this aging cosmos.

Why must I
be an endless pattern in the sea,
hints of myriad movements,
dry wetness in the sky.


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Monday, September 21, 2009

The last career guide post I'll ever write

I just finished The Adventure of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need by Daniel H. Pink. It is not your normal nonfiction/business book, even for the business books that tell a didactic story. It is written/drawn in manga style, which made it actually a fun read and something very different. While I am not much of a fan of manga - those Asian cartoons that are basically single drawings of kids with spiky hair that are always going "pow" or something - it didn't feel like a book you had to wade through. Kudos to Pink for trying something new!

I'll give you the gist of it by providing the 6 rules that the magic business fairy tells Bunko when he breaks open some chopsticks:

1. There is no plan.
2. Think strengths, not weaknesses.
3. It's not about you.
4. Persistence trumps talent.
5. Make excellent mistakes.
6. Leave an imprint.

If you've read much from authors such as Martin Seligman, Marcus Buckingham, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, then it is mostly a rehash. But it is leftovers from a great meal. All of the "rules" are based on living your life from principles rather than trying to manipulate the future - which is basically the point of number one (my favorite). You never know what might happen, and if you aren't open to opportunities, then you'll miss out because you had a "plan."

Not that plans are bad, but they should be drafts based on values and principles rather than set in stone. The problem is that sometimes this comes at odds with the particular context. For example, rule number 5 says that you should shoot for the moon knowing that sometimes you will fail. But what happens if you are in a context that doesn't particularly like taking risks. Been there. Pink says that we shouldn't just be walking around on clouds hoping life works out, but we should be "enlightened pragmatists."

I liked what the book had to say, but it is certainly no short term fix for those struggling in this economy. Where you can take his advice is to volunteer your skills and passions or take a different look at how you fit into your current company. If you are interested in more, check out the website.

Ja, Mata.


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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why not try?

This all started when Autumn told me a few nights ago as she was sitting in her bed before lights out: "I'm writing a letter to Vietnam."

You just can't walk out on a conversation starter like that. Now, my daughter has perfected the art of stalling before bed-time. She comes at it from many different angles - the slow drag towards the room, finding reasons to come back out, needing a drink, having something important to tell us - you name, she's tried it. And generally it works on me, but her mom seems to be immune to most of them.

But she really had just drafted a chain of two letters that she was sending out. She noticed that the journal she was writing in was made in Vietnam so she wanted to write them a letter thanking them for making the journal that she was writing in. To do that, she was also writing a letter to the company that sold the journal asking them to forward the other letter to the people who made it in Vietnam.

This is what I love about my daughter - she has a why-not, go-get'em attitude. You have to explain, many times and many different ways, why you think she shouldn't do something because she has a lot of out-there ideas. But really, why not let her try? Most of the time she's very effective at getting it done.

And really, why haven't you tried some of those ideas that you've been sitting on but seem kind of out there? What do you have to lose? Life can be an adventure - make it something worth writing home about.


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Giant Waterslide

This one is just fun to watch.


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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Where Are The Fields

Where are the fields
that would shift
with color, pieces coming
and going
in an exchange with the sky
and would, of one moment,
call out in echoing cries
as it lifted into the heavens
with a thousand flowing wings.

Who will look upon
that giant wonder
of white animation,
seeming metamorphosis
on that overhead canvas:
in majestic silence they come,
a mighty avalanche
of unfolding creatures and sights
rolling past lingering eyes.

Old memories are the scenes
of innocent beauty.


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Monday, September 14, 2009


The word "pandemic" conjures images of something very bad waiting to spread. In today's world, which is becoming urbanized and travel is easy and world-wide, this is a very real threat. Interestingly, games have popped up around this idea.

There is the flash video game in which you are a virus trying to kill off the world. You are trying to mutate and spread before you can become contained. It's you against the world.

Then there is the board game my wife and I played recently with the Willisses (Shayna - this is for you). In this version, you try and contain the virus. It was interesting because instead of people or teams competing against each other, everybody had to work together to try and stop the virus from spreading. Everybody wins or everybody loses.

Everybody wins or everybody loses. It is a very strange concept when we talk games, and really about our way of life. In other games, you race to get the most points or to get to the finish line. You do what you have to in sports to score more points than the other team. There are winners and there are losers.

And it spills out into other areas of life. We do what we have to to get a better grade than the other people in class. We work harder than co-workers to get the promotion. Bonuses are dealt out by ranking. We compete for attention. Relationships have battlegrounds. If I don't take, someone else will and I will lose out. If I stay with the crowd, I remain average - and who wants average?

What would it be like if you played the game of real life as if everybody wins or everybody loses? You pull hard for that family member; because if they lose, you can't replace family. You go overboard to help the struggling co-worker; because if they get left behind or are fired, the company loses money and you lose learning how to be a great team member.

Standing over others may be the loneliest spot, and ultimately the loser - by making everything a competition we are spreading a pandemic of individuality. Using diverse talents and gifts to help raise the group makes everyone a winner.


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Friday, September 11, 2009

You don't think the way you think you think

I love this Bertrand Russell quote: "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."

All you have to do is take a good look at the G-20 convention and protests going on this week in Pittsburgh to see that often we have no rational idea of why we do the things we do. For example, how do destructive actions promote change to help people? "The atmosphere turned destructive along Forbes Avenue, where storefronts, including Pamela's Diner, were smashed in. Windows at the campus police station also were damaged. Businesses on South Craig Street also were vandalized, including Irish Design Center and Quiznos."

You don't have to go to vandalism to find irrational behavior. You can pretty much look anywhere you want. In the book All Customers Are Irrational (5), the author talks about how, if you really want to predict future behavior, you absolutely do not try to answer with rational explanations. As it turns out, the answer to predicting future behavior is quite rational - you look at past behavior.

Trying to find a rational answer for why you do things is much more difficult than you think. Rather than the subconscious being that part of the brain that kicks in here and there but usually handles the most basic stuff and our conscious part of the brain being, well, the brain of the operations, it is the other way around - only about 5% of the conscious portion of our brains being used to make decisions, and it is usually being notified after the decision has been made.
What that means is that you don't really know why you often do things, instead you are generally justifying why you did that after the fact.

Newsflash: we humans are pretty complex creatures. We are far more emotional and communal, sometimes in strange ways, than we are rational. Understand this, and we may have something that can help our businesses, our jobs, and our relationships.


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Master your art

There is probably no more famous teacher of writing screenplays than Robert McKee. If you are not sure who he is, maybe you saw him portrayed in the brilliant movie Adaptation.

In his book Story, McKee says this near the front: Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts. It is about mastering the art. You can see when people have short-circuited the process, have gone for the easy fix.

Is it possible to do that in real life? Aren't there times when we just need to take the shortcut at work because of deadlines and the every-day minutia that beats you down? Aren't there times when we should just go for the easy fix because the alternative means pain and a long haul?

The hard answer is is no, there is no good time to go for the shortcut. Even in deadlines, there should be a struggle, there should be sweat, blood, and tears to give it the best; and then work hard to understand how it can be better next time. It is what separates great companies from the pack, your favorite products from the has-beens, the best friends from the acquaintances, the growing parents from the oh-well ones. And the great movies from that fourth installment just trying to make money.


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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Listening to unlikely sources

Who do you go to for advice when you really need it?

Interesting quote from Serena Williams about the 2009 U.S. Open in this article from USA Today:

With the way things are going, some of the top women might be open to advice. Even the younger Williams listened to some unsolicited tips at Arthur Ashe Stadium. "I heard a guy in the crowd saying, 'Stop hitting lobs!' So I didn't hit any more lobs after that," she said with a chuckle. "My lob was not working today."
I love that she was actually listening to the crowd! I really thought professionals try to tune out anything but cheers.

I suppose tuning things out is difficult to do.

I wonder how many of us really have anyone to go to when something is pressing and you need to know: do I continue going this way, or take another path? I have asked different people in my life over the last 15 years to do this for me - to listen to my issues and help me think through them, to help me set life goals, etc., with mixed results. But it generally helped having someone to talk to that comes from a different vantage point.

I also think we need to be careful about handing out advice. Is your advice really what is best for them, or is it self-serving in some kind of way? Is it really the type of advice they need, or when they need to hear it?

I usually give the soccer parents for teams that I am coaching an opening lecture on not giving sideline advice during a game. Their direction may be contrary to what the coaches have asked the boys to do, and at best it is distracting them from what is going on. And frankly, the parents don't have the same vantage point that the boys or girls do (an eight-year-old in the middle of a game with a ball flying around and trying to remember everything from practice). But the best reason is that the boys or girls need to learn to make soccer decisions themselves come gametime rather than learning to follow constant directions. There is time for advice and time to just cheer.

Listen to unlikely sources - you may need to hear something that puts it in a different perspective. And provide advice carefully, when it is asked for - you may be more influential than you realize.


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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Shall I Speak

Shall I speak now of a colored rose
or flowers melded in full bloom
in a valley whence the cool breeze flows
in a soft embrace for the languorous releasing
of the untamed essence of Nature's perfume?

Rather, I would of my sweet sorrow sing.

Shall I then reminisce of days now past;
echoes of then, when to be was enough,
as time stood still but the moment would never last;
of a soul warmed in the radiance of bliss,
a grasping of that which dreams are made of?

All memory is in that parting kiss.

Shall I hope for Hyperion to rise again,
will he break the darkness with his chariot alight;
should I attempt to steal, to the God's chagrin,
that spark that sets my world on fire
breaking the fear of my ever-midnight?

What hope is there in mortal desire.


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Friday, September 04, 2009

You did what?

So my seven-year old came home with a paper on what he did the first week of school. It said: "We did adding. We did writing. We did subtracting. We did morning meeting. We did groping." After a little more careful examination we find out that it was "graphing." I know kids are learning lots these days, but I'm thankful he wasn't holding more than his paper and pencil.


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Thursday, September 03, 2009

There's Another Mall I'll Never Visit

There's another mall I'll never visit,
There's another credit card I'll never use.
Technology is outproducing the consumer:
More toys, forthwith artifacts, that bamboozle the eye.

Just another way to arrest my mind and waste my time.
What choice do I have but to refuse to choose.


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Wednesday, September 02, 2009


What do you deserve?

The book The Narcissism Epidemic (232) showed a study in which the results were startling - not because you didn't expect them, but for how prevalent they were:

A survey of college students published in 2008 confirmed these perceptions [students now believe they deserve good grades rather than having to earn them]. Two-thirds of students believed their professor should give them special consideration if they explained they were trying hard. One-third believed they deserved at least a B just for attending class. And one-third thought they should be able to reschedule their final exam if it interfered with their vacation plans.
So what do you deserve? And based on what?

It makes you wonder about the correlation between a sense of entitlement and a sense of responsibility. As a parent, I also wonder how you teach your kids that life doesn't come on a silver platter, yet also provide loving gifts. I'm sure there is a balance, yet I think most people believe they are in that middle ground. Maybe if I just explain to my kids that I tried really hard...


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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Look At The Boy

Look at the boy
choking the air with dust as he runs
in and out
among the briars and branches,
brown and musty green mixing
in a humdrum pattern,
suiting this inverted taco with a tail
perfectly. As the armadillo rests
amazingly hid,
the boy looks
he knows his goal is near.
The mask is removed,
the mad chase continues
as the animal goes
here and there
weaving the untraceable.
Almost, oh so close, comes the boy
to grabbing the tail. But the armadillo,
antagonizing, moves quicker.

Everyone cheers the boy on,
knowing he can't win.


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Monday, August 31, 2009

Say NO to blindspots

Here is a neat trick I learned from the book Traffic to get rid of blindspots:

While sitting in the driver's seat, lean your head against the driver's side window. Now adjust your mirror so that the edge of your sight barely touches your car. Lean right so that your head is between the driver's seat and the passenger seat and do the same thing for the passenger side mirror.

When you sit back upright, the mirrors will probably be facing further out than you are used to, but it should show cars in the side mirrors that you can't see in the rear-view mirror. This is all assuming you actually use the mirrors...


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Friday, August 28, 2009

A solution to congestion (you're not going to like it)

There is a solution to all that congestion. It's going to cost you find out what it is. From Traffic, (148):

Parking may be part of the problem of urban traffic congestion. Cars spend 95 percent of their time parked. One survey found that a third of cards entering lower Manhattan were headed to free or subsidized parking spots. If those spots were not free or subsidized, there would be fewer drivers during the morning rush hour. Ironically, near the Department of Transportation itself, the streets are filled with DOT vehicles bearing special parking permits.
When the city of Copenhagen was looking to reduce the number of cars entering the central city in favor of bicycles and other modes of transportation, it had a very crafty strategy: Get rid of parking, but without anyone noticing. From 1994 to 2005, Copenhagen cut parking spaces in the city center from 14,000 to 11,500, replacing the spaces with things like parks and bicycle lanes. Over that same time, not accidentally, bicycle traffic rose by some 40 percent - a third of people commuting to work now go by bike.

Much of the time when you are driving down congested downtown streets, many of the cars are looking for parking. Garages are around five times more expensive than street parking; therefore, many people cruise around causing congestion looking for cheaper spaces.

When Donald Shoup and his researchers tracked cars looking for parking near UCLA (they rode bikes, so other cars would not think they were looking for parking and throw off the results), they found that on an average day cars in one fifteen-block section drove some 3,600 miles - more than the width of the entire country - searching for a spot. One car stopped on a two-lane street creates a bottleneck that cuts traffic capacity in half.
Shoup's solution - charge more for parking on the street. Then people will use the garages rather than getting in my way. I like the idea most of the time - except when I am going to eat at Lulu's downtown and only want to park for an hour. Then I am one of those annoying people slowing everyone down, waiting for cars to move, and backing into a spot.

Here is a better solution - let everyone work from home at least two days a week. Stop making "time sitting at a desk" a performance review; start making results as what really counts. People can make results happen from all over the place, and often results happen the least in the cube. But more ranting on that later.


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Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I've loved roundabouts from the time I started driving. They seemed to make sense because when you were at an intersection, many cars could be moving to their destinations whereas at a stop sign only one or two generally go at a time. Many people that I have known over the years don't like them, and some even fear them.

I finally feel vindicated (lately I have to derive some kind of pleasure even from the small things). The pictured roundabout from Laweiplein is a cool one that incorporates cyclists and pedestrians in a high volume area - and was incredibly effective.

From Traffic, (124):

"A properly designed roundabout can reduce delays by up to 65 percent over an intersection with traffic signals or stop signs. Sure, an individual driver who has a green light may fly through a signalized intersection much more quickly than through a roundabout. Roughly half the time, however, the light will not be green; and even if it is green there is often a rolling queue of vehicles just starting up from the previous red."


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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Winter Past

Search me now and see me gently
idle into that soft green meadow
where the spring breeze is whispering softly
to the lazy rows of lush grass weaving
of an elusive past; but now the meaning
this wake-up call is singing is of a time to grow.

Look inside at the water barely ripple
moving slowly towards the outlying earth
to encompass the pond while the minute movements trickle
in remembrance; but at the moment
it is enough to have your energy spent
in circling the water and measuring its girth.

Be still, my heart, in peace and tranquil ease;
but stir not that dark memory.


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Monday, August 24, 2009

Parental delegation

At the beginning of the week the kids were arguing and I was on their case about and we were all upset. We have spent a lot of time together this summer, much of it in close quarters and it is bound to happen. Overall, our kids get along very well. But it had been going on consistently lately and we had to do something about it.

I came up with my best parental solution of the summer (which may not be saying much) - the kids were all sent to one room and were not allowed to leave until they figured out a better solution.

It was pretty quiet the first thirty minutes. After that, I could hear some laughing. After about an hour, they came out and showed me their solution. It was very good.

They created a chart with their names on it. For each time that they are rude or are raising their voices, they get an X next to their name. When they get three Xs, they have to work for an hour or they lose screen privileges (computer, TV, video games). They had lines for each of them to sign their signature saying that they agreed to the stipulations.

The best part - it was a deterrent that they bought into. When they are caught using words that are not nice, they know and accept the result. It also doesn't punish every single mistake, but gives them a chance to see what is happening over time. It also keeps me from grumping at them every single time something happens, a standard parental response that really does very little to help train them in new behavior patterns.

I also signed off on the agreement. So far this week I'm doing pretty good - only one X.


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Friday, August 21, 2009

Cellphone driving coverup

Do you talk on your cellphone while driving?

It really is an interesting expectation that we can drive thousands of pounds of metal at speeds humans are not meant to go while distracted - and assume nothing will happen. But accidents do happen. The problem is that we do it once and nothing serious results so we take that to mean that nothing ever will. Near misses for some reason do not compute. But for the sake of myself and to be a model for my children, who are future drivers that are only a few years away from license (gulp!), I'm trying to wean myself from the phone while driving.

But it is so convenient. There are all those ten minutes here and twenty minutes there when I can have a conversation. Or when someone calls and it is easy to justify just chatting briefly. It really is hard to remember when we didn't have phones in our vehicles and somehow we managed to survive (as a teen driver, "survive" is probably the best grade that you could have given me even without the cellphone).

Here is an amazing fact about technology - people can leave messages. Or even if they don't, I still know who called and can call back again soon. If it is an emergency, I can pull over and make the call. So if you see me talking on the phone in the car, you have permission to give me a kick in the rear (after we've gotten out of the car).

What is amazing is that there may be a coverup on the risks. A study on the risks of driving with cellphones is being covered up reports the New York Times. Somehow money must be involved.


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Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Secret Garden

there are those quiet moments
in life, where time passes slowly,
that I can soak
in the beauty of a stroll
through a garden. You know
of my retreats where I take passage
in my secret gardens, those places
not so hidden:
the butterfly
eden, the hinterland
view, the encroaching

capture my thoughts
in those refreshing pauses
where I can gather myself;
a still moment of beauty
that is a joy, a drink
from a private and pure fountain.

“Dear lover and friend, you’re a secret garden, a private and pure fountain.” -- Song of Solomon 4:12


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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The road you are on

"Roads are what we make of them."

Those words struck me and I can't get them out of my head.

They come from the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt (181) from a chapter in which he is describing a trip he took in Spain. One road he mistakenly took was through rural Spain that turned out to be "a climbing, twisting, broken-asphalt nightmare of blind hairpin turns." One of the few signs he saw said PELIGRO. How did he do? Just fine - because he took it incredibly slow and was intently focused on trying not to drive off the edge of a cliff. Later he was on a smooth, flat road with plenty of visibility and plenty of signage. What happened? He was so bored he started to fall asleep and almost ran off the road.

Actions like this are examples of the Peltzman Effect: the idea that when given warning signals or when provided with a safer environment, people tend to then offset the safety efforts by behaving in riskier ways.

We can be on a safe road and make it dangerous by our actions, or lack of them.

We can have a care-free day and fill it with worry. We can drive along with great company and fill it with silence. We can take a challenging road and grow with it, or avoid it all-together.

Our parenting, marriages, relationships, work, recreation, school, abilities, styles ... are what we make of them

Roads are what we make of them.


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Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Sitting high, freedom calling;
gripping tight to earth-
bound chains.
Chest forward, ground rushing;
ripping wind over face
past blur of soft green.
Legs reaching, sky entreating;
falling to the smell
of sweet honeysuckle.


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Monday, August 17, 2009


As part of my desire to be some shape other than round, I'm trying to swim laps once or twice a week. I've been working on a new swimming technique and so far it has been fabulous. I'm getting the book from the library, but so far I can swim at least twice as far as I could previously and with much less effort.


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Friday, August 14, 2009

In some kind of shape

I've recently been working on my physical condition. Not too long ago I was running in place with my oldest son using the Wii Fit when he thought it was funny that he left me behind. I tried to make myself feel better by pointing out some flawed techniques with his running style.

My youngest son was emboldened by the spanking I received from his older sibling so the seven year-old challenged me to a race with the Fit. He totally dominated me. I resolved to get back into shape.

I started off by jogging around the track with my ten year-old daughter. Now, she is in great shape. She scampers up the climbing wall and plays year-round soccer on a cup team, the top level for our area. I like a pretty fast pace but I thought I would take it easy on her and stay with her so it could be a bonding thing. Turns out it was all I could do to keep up with her at her pace. She was always five steps ahead and looking back telling me to hurry up. After about a half a mile at her pace I knew I couldn't last much longer, so I thought I would be funny if I passed her. As soon as she saw me coming she took off and lapped me before I could finish.

My daughter and I went again earlier this week. This time I kept up with her for the first .75 of a mile run, and then she just took off. She kept going around until I finished, and on the last lap I was proud of myself because we sprinted to the finish line. While I was leaning over trying to catch my breath, she was adjusting her flipflops. I may need another month to keep up with her if she wears running shoes.


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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You are not special

I was watching The Incredibles (gotta love Pixar) with my daughter the other day while reading the book The Narcissism Epidemic at the same time.

I love the line from Buddy, the Incredibles' nemesis, when he talks about selling his technology to people so that when everyone is super, no one will be. Poor Buddy, his feelings were hurt when Mr. Incredible told him as a kid to fly home - he works alone. Basically Mr. Incredible didn't need help because he was bigger and stronger than anyone else - he was special.

It's a great movie where the family pulls together, the kids get to use their talents and skills (as long as they aren't sticking it to the other kids), and the good defeats the bad in the end.

So how did you feel when I told you in the title of this post that "you are not special"? I'm not sure that is the prevailing thought for most people, unless they have extremely low self-esteem. Haven't you ever had the thought that you are at least more important than that person? I know you think you are a better than average driver; I know that, because almost everyone thinks they are a better than average driver (more coming on this later). You've sized yourself up at some point, maybe while standing in line somewhere or in the midst of humanity, and thought, "I deserve better."

But isn't that what leads us to think that we deserve more than someone else? Isn't that when we decide that other people shouldn't live in our neighborhoods and shouldn't attend our schools, and ultimately it leads to the decision that some people don't deserve to live?

I know most of us haven't been going around wishing death on people, but it all stems from the same thought - I'm more special, I'm inherently more valuable. Maybe because you think you contribute more, or you value your skills more. This is what keeps me from becoming a materialist, from an all-in evolutionist (although Christians can certainly exhibit a "holier than thou" attitude). I don't believe that any one of us should decide that. It is what is at the bottom of most conflict - we both think we deserve it [whatever it is] more than the other person.

I like this quote from the Flobots' MC Jonny 5 (a.k.a. Jamie Laurie) about the song "Handlebars":

The song "is about the idea that we have so much incredible potential as human beings to be destructive or to be creative. And it's tragic to me that the appetite for military innovation is endless, but when it comes to taking on a project like ending world hunger, it's seen as outlandish. It's not treated with the same seriousness."

The book "Narcissism" (191) talks about this growing trend for people to act as if they are entitled and are special. Special means above average. You don't have to be a math genius to figure out that if everyone is special, no one is.

If you are a parent, you may not like their advice at first: the book talks about the problems of parents telling their children that they are special.

Now I know if you are a parent, and you love your kids, it doesn't quite feel right telling your children that they are just average. "Goodnight, Davey, goodnight, Matilda. Remember - you are just middling, undistinguished, unexceptional children!"

I know that they are special to you. Tell them that. Tell them that you love them. Tell them that they have unique personalities and wonderful gifts. But the authors believe that we may be raising socially destructive people if they grow up really believing that they are inherently better than others.

Every life has potential, and every life has value. It may not be realized at the moment, but maybe with the right community support and training, everyone can contribute, in different ways, and be a part of something bigger than themselves rather than themselves being the biggest concern.

You can be unique, you can have certain gifts that are above average. But even being too unique can cause problems for teens; those that see themselves that way don't have close friends and relationships, and are more apt to be depressed and face suicidal thoughts. We need a healthy dose of understanding our strengths and contributions that make us unique and realize our commonality and web of connections with others. Like a team of diverse people working together to do something special.


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