Default Thinking.

Lately, to be honest, I've gotten a bit of blog fatigue. So I'm spending much less time reading blogs, and much more time returning to books and the New York Times, both of which have admittedly suffered lately due to the time I've devoted to social media. I spent some time thinking this weekend about why I've been seeing less value in blogs, and--of course--it's on me, not you. It's not "blogs" that I've cooled on, it's the blogs I've been reading. Filter failure, in other words, not a failure of the medium.

Here's where my filters are failing: I've noticed lately that I've been reading too many scolds. It's easy to write a post about what is wrong, and harder to write about what is right. For many of the bloggers I read, scolding is a stylistic choice with two variants. Some disassociate with their readers, and write about what *others* are doing wrong with their strategy, their tactics, or their personal lives. Others drop the veil and simply scold their readers about what they are writing or doing. All of these posts fall under the same broad umbrella: either you, or "others," are doing it wrong.

In the course of my education in business--both formally, through my MBA, and informally, in my 15 years as a consultant--I've been fortunate to learn from some of the best through their writings. When I look back at the great writers who have shaped my business thinking--writers like Tom Peters, Ries and Trout, Treacy and Weirsema, Hammer and Champy, Michael Raynor, Jim Collins, and Michael Porter--I'm struck by the fact that none of them were "scolds." They did the hard work - and it is work - of finding what is right and writing about that, instead of harping on what we are doing wrong. I missed that nuance for a long time, and spent too much time in the land of the scolds.

But I've never read a truly great business book by a scold. 

Before this turns into an entirely meta-hypocritical scold about scolds, let me hasten to add that the "blame" here, such as it is, lies entirely with me. It's filter failure, as I noted in the opening paragraph. Scolding is a style, and I do not sit in judgment of that style. It's just a style that is remarkably ineffective with me, and after a bit of introspection, a style I've been spending too much time with. And I'll continue to read what I see as truly great business blogging, from people like Jay BaerMark Schaefer and Jason Falls. But my time with the scolds is at an end.

It's easy to be a scold. Scolding is "default thinking," as the late David Foster Wallace would have put it. It's neither right, nor wrong. But it is judgmental. And (as DFW so eloquently stated in the remarkable--and short--"This Is Water") the only thing we can control in this life is what we think about. So I'm making a choice both in my personal content consumption and in my own business writing to eschew scolding. It won't be easy. It will be work.

That is what makes it worthwhile.

Beginner's Mind.

I've been reading a lot lately about "Beginner's Mind," one of the core concepts of Zen Buddhism. In essence, it means to enter into a situation without any preconceived notions, perceiving each new situation through fresh eyes.

I rather like this notion. Obliquely, it reminds me of a book on Chess I once read called The Amateur's Mind, by Jeremy Silman. Of course, they are not the same thing at all. While the former is an admirable trait, the latter refers to "average" thinking - default thinking, if you will - which the improving player should seek to expunge.

The Beginner's Mind is advantageous; The Amateur's Mind rarely so. In fact, it can even be dangerous.

I think there is a fine line between the Beginner's Mind and the Amateur's Mind. I reflected on that line tonight, on a quiet night in the skies between North Carolina and Massachussetts. At first, I wondered if there were not some kind of interplay between confidence and competence that suggested this line. Ultimately, while my ride was bumpily descending through 6,000 feet, I rejected that thought as too judgmental.

Instead, I think it's this: The Beginner's Mind knows what it does not know. 

My Three Words For 2012

I love Chris Brogan's "three words" concept - rather than picking "resolutions," he chooses three words as guideposts. I see them as navigation points for your moral compass. If a choice, action or decision veers from the concepts these three words represent, you don't make it. In that sense, knowing your "three words" can help you decide what not to do as much as what to do, which is, frankly, more valuable.

Here are my three words for 2012, with nothing in the way of exposition. They are personal, and all the more powerful for being so:

1. Impatience 

2. Beacon

3. Keen

What are yours? Share them over on And good luck.

My Ten Favorite Albums of 2011

Those who know me (that's you by now, right?) know that I am a huge music fan, with an enormous library of music of all styles. 2011 was a *great* year for music, and though I rarely make lists like this, I thought I'd share the ten albums that I ended up listening to the most from the past year. Omissions may be deliberate, or accidental - there are loads of 2011 released I haven't heard - but I stand by these 10 regardless. The list is in no particular order (though the M83 stands as my best of the year), and I've provided no affiliate links, because I'm not smart enough to make a buck off the Internet. I've also included a link to a Spotify playlist with the whole sheband. Buy, download and enjoy!


Tom's Best of 2011:

Washed Out - "Within and Without"

The Civil Wars - "Barton Hollow"

M83 - "Hurry Up We're Dreaming"

Bon Iver - "Bon Iver"

James Blake - "James Blake"

The Antlers - "Burst Apart"

The Head and the Heart - "The Head and the Heart"

Elbow - "build a rocket, boys!"

Apparat - "The Devil's Walk"

Tycho - "Dive"


Here's the Spotify link: Toms Best of 2011

What were your favorites?

Why I Hate Self-Help Books

I read a self-help book last night. I read it more because I know the author than out of any specific need for help, though Jebus knows I could use a little help. It was a short book, and I am a preternaturally fast reader, so this was only an investment of about 30 minutes. The book was fine - well-written, full of great anecdotes and inspiring examples, as the best of this genre tend to be. It was the brevity of this book, however (and not the content) that crystallized a thought I've had marinating for years but never been able to fully articulate until now: why I hate self-help books.

It isn't because they are a way for you to think about doing things rather than actually doing things, as my friend Matt Ridings suggested to me, though that's as valid a reason as any. And it isn't because I think the authors are in any way disingenuous about their prescriptions; to the contrary, I know the author of this particular book and believe me - he walks the talk he preaches.

No, I dislike them for two reasons. The 30 minutes I devoted to this book drove home the first: it took me a long time to become the person I am - over four decades of continuous service. If each of us is made up of a tally of successes and failures, as the songwriter Frank Turner noted, then my tally sheets are richly packed in either column. It took me 40+ years to get screwed up. You don't unscrew that in 30 minutes, or an hour, or however long it takes you to read one of these things. You don't, despite what these authors preach, flip a switch and Get To Yes or Get Things Done or Unleash The Giant. If you were the sort who could flip that switch, you'd have done it already.

The fact that you haven't doesn't mean you are a failure. It just means you aren't hardwired to flip that switch. There isn't a switch to flip. If you've ever read one of these books and felt like a failure because it didn't "take," don't feel bad. You didn't fail; the book did. The book underestimated you, and the process you require to right your ship. This is why we have therapists. (I'm serious about that.)

The second reason I hate these books is more nuanced. Some people truly *can* flip that switch, and plot a direct path to figuring out what they want and exactly how to get it. I call those people "self-help book authors." Not only do I not doubt the sincerity of these people, I truly believe that their prescriptions work...for them. People who discover the 12 steps or the 8-fold path to success write books. People who plot paths to success that don't work, don't write books (or at least, they don't write books people buy.)

In other words, there's a built-in, and substantial, survivor bias baked into this genre. History is written by the victors, and so too is the story of success written by the successful. Does this mean we have nothing to learn from their examples? Obviously not, and people surely do find inspiration in these templates of success. But these are anecdotal treatment plans without a proper diagnosis. In medicine, the fables (true or false) about people who "cured" their cancer through diet and herbs are amongst the most dangerous anecdotes in the universe, as Steve Jobs himself would later come to realize near the tragic end of his short life. The self-help fable is dangerous not because it is false; but rather, because it is true - for the author. When we search for "symptoms" in common with the author, and use our own confirmation bias to follow their prescriptions, we run the very real risk of screwing ourselves up even worse.

It is this aspect of the self-help genre - the undiagnosed prescription - that puts the lie to the very term "self-help." When you buy one of these books, you aren't getting "self-help." You're getting Robbins help, Tracy help, or Covey help. These people don't know you. They can't diagnose you, nor can they treat you--without meeting you. I do not doubt their sincerity; nor do I doubt that for some, their long-distance prescriptions are accurate. For others, they simply aren't. When we try to follow these generic prescriptions and find that they don't work for us, we tend to beat ourselves up about it - to see this "failure" as evidence that we just can't stick to anything. This is inductive reasoning at its worst. You might have chosen the wrong treatment plan for your condition, but that's a mistake quickly rectified. You didn't "fall off the wagon," you simply picked the wrong wagon.

So, where do we turn for help, then? Again, if it took you as long as it took me to screw yourself up, you probably don't need self-help. You need help. As in, someone else to help you. This is why people go to therapists for years - exorcising your demons is a practice, and it takes time. But even a good friend, or a mentor who cares, is vastly preferable to an impersonal prescription. Your relationship with an author ends when you put down the book. They might truly care about their readers in the aggregate, but they can't be there for you when you eventually discard their process. Having someone in your life at either a personal or professional level ensures that you stay on track. If you have an inflamed appendix, you don't read a book about appendixes (not "appendices," word nerds!) You see a doctor and get the thing taken out. And if you need help, you need help. Put the damn book down and go ask for it.

I hope, ironically, that helped.

What I Learned From "The Captains"

I started watching William Shatner's documentary "The Captains" the other night, and found myself sucked into it until the end. What I thought was going to be about Star Trek was really a series of meditations about life and work from six actors - six people who have mortgages and kids and wants and desires, just like the rest of us.

Two aspects of these interviews affected me deeply. The first was the personal price these actors all paid to crank out episode after episode of the various incarnations of the Star Trek television series. Hearing William Shatner, Scott Bakula and Patrick Stewart all say, one right after the other, that their marriages ended while filming a TV series was sobering, to say the least. Episodic television often requires 12-15 hour days. At that point, there is no "work-life balance." There's work, and little else - and all of these actors paid steep prices to pursue that work. 

There was a time when I'd have paid that price myself, and very nearly did. I don't know that I would, today. 

The second thing that struck me stemmed from a truly remarkable exchange between Shatner and Stewart about the perception of their work. Both Shatner and Stewart had careers on stage and screen prior to Star Trek, including prominent lead roles in a number of Shakespeare plays. Shatner lamented the derisiveness that others displayed towards his choices as an actor - and that he would forever be remembered as something...less than serious. Stewart, too, took his lumps from the British press: why, after all, would so venerable a stage actor as Stewart move to Hollywood for seven years and play the role of a starship captain on TV (and in the shadow of Shatner's iconic portrayal, to boot?) Wasn't he "slumming," as Stewart himself put it?

Stewart's answer affected me, and also clearly affected Shatner - who called it a "great gift." Stewart acknowedged that yes, he had played Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, and was now dressing up in skin-tight polyester to sit in a fake captain's chair on a fake spaceship. But what he told himself - and Shatner - was that all of those Shakespearean leads were not "better" than the role of Jean-Luc Picard; rather, they had prepared him to play the role of the Captain of the Enterprise. He didn't view the move as a step down, but as a natural progression, calling upon what he had learned from the stage to fully inhabit and create the role of Captain Picard as we now know it. His point: the gravitas, charisma and presence of Picard were products of his entire body of work to date - the culmination of his art - and that by treating his Shakespearian years as preparation, not as "the good ole' days," he managed to create one of the truly memorable and iconic characters in television history.

He's right, of course - both Shatner and Stewart will forever be known as Star Trek captains. And while Shatner initially lamented being typecast, he seemed to genuinely come around to Stewart's mindset - after all, how many actors are truly remembered for something so lasting as Kirk or Picard? Or cheered at conventions for over 40 years on the strength of a single role? Not many. 

I think there are two lessons here - a career lesson, and a more personal lesson. The career lesson is this: there is no such thing as "grunt work." The modern trend towards "personal branding" began in my mind with a book by the great Tom Peters called The Brand You 50, written in the late 90's. This little book was given to me as a gift by a wise friend, who recognized that I was struggling in work that I felt was "beneath me." What I learned from this slim, invaluable little book, was that the "unglamorous" work often held the greatest potential for career advancement. Finding the things that others won't do - the grunt work, the behind-the-scenes work - and transforming them into "Wow! projects" is the key to building your personal brand and standing out.

The workplace parallels between Stewart's choice and our choices at work are obvious. We've all been given work that appears to be "beneath us." A step down in responsibility, visibility or importance. Yet, if we take all that we have done previously, all that we have learned from our work to date, and bring it to bear upon these less-than-glamorous roles, we might very well find a better way, and create something far greater than we or others could have imagined. Often, these jobs and roles are discarded not because they are inherently not worth doing, but because others before us have deemed them to be inherently not worth doing, and have thus not brought their full powers to the task. So, if you've been asked to do some filing after already having demonstrated your abilities as a project manager, you can either grudgingly do the work, pining after more "important" tasks, or you can bring all of your experience as a project manager to the seemingly mundane task of filing, and find a better way. You might become a company legend.

Of course, sometimes grunt work is just grunt work, and no amount of reframing will polish a turd, so to speak. Here, though, lies the second and more important lesson I took from Stewart (and have recently been drilling back into my head through repeated readings of "This Is Water," by David Foster Wallace): the only thing we are truly in control of is what we choose to think about. What Stewart is suggesting (and DFW adamantly declares) is that the greatest danger we face is our "default thinking."

Stewart's default thinking could very well have been that the role of Picard is no Lear, and episodic TV isn't exactly the RSC. Instead, he chose what to think. We can all choose what to think. He chose to think that Picard represented the culmination of his career, and thus (to paraphrase his legendary catchphrase) he made it so. This isn't "the power of positive thinking." Nor is it acting the pollyana. It's choosing what to think amongst a range of choices. It's choosing the way of thinking that brings strength, not weakness. And it's choosing to accept things as they are.

Accepting things as they are is not passive. No, I see the opposite choice - pining for things to be other than the way they are - as passive. It's genuinely default thinking. But to accept - no, embrace - things the way they are is an active state. It's choosing what to think. It's rejecting what Stewart could have thought - "What am I doing here?" - and choosing to do more than just "get through it." 

It's really the only sane path. When I am the best me I can be, I choose what to think. It's a practice, not a switch you flip. I don't always succeed. But I'm working on it.

Things I No Longer Need.

This morning, I was flipping through a Keel's Simple Diary in search of a little inspiration, and I came across an excellent question: "Name Five Things You No Longer Need." Having spent the last year shedding many of those things, the question actually stumped me for a few minutes - but I managed to come up with a few choice items. I also thought it was an interesting exercise (not in Keel's) to name five things I don't need, but also can't seem to get rid of, for various reasons. Turns out, the "various reasons" were more interesting than the list itself.

Five Things I No Longer Need:

  1. Vests. What the f@ck was I thinking.
  2. Old "all-access," "VIP" and assorted concert/event passes. Turns out, I'm not so sentimental.
  3. Old laptops/computers/Mylos/Palms and other discarded gadgets. Sunk costs.
  4. A dizzying array of unused domain names I've been mindlessly renewing for a decade.
  5. A giant box of my MBA, grad school and undergrad papers/reports. Yes, I got lots of A's. That and $4.00 will get me a salted caramel mocha.

Five Things I Don't Need But Can't Bring Myself To Discard:

  1. Suits that no longer fit me (they are too large.) My reluctance to part with these reflects my unspoken fear that I will put on weight as I glide into my middle years. Yes, I know the best thing I could do would be to donate them to Goodwill, but the thought of how much I spent on them over the years makes me crave a donut.
  2. A collection of three Sony MiniDisc players and dozens of blank Minidiscs. The exception to rule 3 above. People who accuse Sony of merely copying other products never experienced the joy of the MiniDisc. I have a shrine to these in my closet. No, I haven't turned one on in months.
  3. Cholesterol.
  4. A collection of albums (the vinyl kind) and a vintage Acoustic Research turntable. I know I'm supposed to pine for the old days of vinyl, so I retain these relics. But the TSA gives me funny looks when I try to take them on my travels. So (sigh) the iPod it is. 
  5. Books. Many leather-bound books. When my wife and I separated, I moved thousands of books, by myself, from my house and into storage. There they sit. I have steadfastly kept a vow to only buy digital books from that point on, but I cannot bring myself to let go of the books I've already read. But as I lugged box after box after box of the damn things on a 105 degree day (seriously) in Chapel Hill, I invented many colorful words for them that I cannot pass along in this space.

I'm still working on letting things go - those I listed, and some I haven't. What can you let go? What should you let go? Do share.


At The Tops Of The Clouds

I fly a lot, but truth be told, I don't much care for it. Most of my premature grey hairs can be traced ultimately back to a flight I shouldn't have taken, and I've learned to trust my instincts on that over the years. I am a champion flight-changer and the best amateur meteorologist you've ever met. :)

It's always bumpy flying through clouds. I've gotten used to that, really, and it rarely bothers me unless I'm flying through actual storm clouds. But even then, there is this one moment, when the ride is at its shakiest, that is always worth the show: that one, brief instant when you poke through the clouds on a gloomy, rainy day, and first glimpse blue sky. It can be super bumpy on a day like this, because cloud tops are always the worst, but you get to see a landscape, if only for a minute or two, that you'll literally never see again. 

The contrast can be startling. After flying through 10,000 feet of featureless murk, you suddenly see not only the sun, but a strange, craggy landscape of clouds as dramatic in relief as any mountain range. Though the skies are suddenly much bluer, the air around the plane becomes more unstable; the serenity of the view in sharp contrast to the violence of the ride.

But it's this view, just at the tops of the clouds, where you see their ponderous bulk. Their grace. The shafts of sunlight fighting through their edges. Occasionally, the tiny shadow of your own plane against the massive, ragged side wall of a cumulus cloud. The smaller, proto-storm clouds that aren't trouble yet, but will grow ever larger and denser as the day goes on, forming somebody else's storm. Not mine.

Within a minute or two, as the plane quickly ascends to its cruising altitude, this view is lost. The clouds lose focus, and the landscape is reduced to a homogenous white blanket, devoid of detail. The ride smooths out, of course. I begin to relax, and think about those I've left behind, and those I'm flying to see. I might drift off to sleep, or watch a movie. Calmer, yes - but less present. 

It is that presence that makes the air at 10,000 feet something magical.  You are exactly where you are. You are not thinking about the past, or worrying about future problems that haven't happened yet. You are in the moment, gripping the armrests in a mix of fear and wonder, as you barrel through the roiling cloud tops in what turns out to be a very tiny plane, indeed. Magic.

This morning, I'm flying away from someone I love, and today's 10,000-foot moment was just what I needed to direct my focus, ever so briefly, from not being somewhere I want to be, to being exactly where I *am.* Where I am is pretty good. Where you are is pretty good, too. Though I'm writing this from the plane (JetBlue 1223, from Boston to RDU), you're reading this because I've landed. In the past seven days, I've flown the angry skies five times. I've landed every time.

And oh, the things I've seen.

Enjoy this, shot this morning from my iPhone at the tops of the clouds. 

I'll Be There For You.

I've been thinking - a LOT - about this post from Jay Baer: Social Media, Pretend Friends, and the Lie of False Intimacy. Social Media has literally changed my life. Some of the relationships I have made through social media will be with me for the rest of my days, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful. Finding those true friends - or your other half - is not about quantity. It's about quality. Is social media rife with shallow connections? Surely. But if it helps me find a handful of people who know what I'm like and and don't mind, or the person with whom I'll spend the rest of my life, I'll not fault social media for encouraging weak ties. Life is full of weak ties.

Still, recent events in my life have me challenging the strength of some of those ties online...and offline. It is true that the asymmetrical nature of networks like Twitter means that more people "follow" me online than I could possibly know in real life. Sometimes, people I've never met assume a familiarity with me from my previous tweets or posts that I don't much cotton to. I can't, however, control that. I can only control how I react.

2011 has been an incredibly challenging year for me. Some of the friends I have made through social media will be friends for the rest of my life - I know that. Others, not so much. Here is what this year HAS taught me, however: social media might generate a larger quantity of those weak ties, but I'm not sure that social media ties are by definition any weaker than the ones we assume we have in real life, frankly. How many of your high school or college friends are you still close with? Geography doesn't necessarily make for any stronger bond than being in someone's Google+ circle. 

In my case, I'm going through a separation and an inevitable divorce from someone I've known for over 20 years. When you are with someone for that long, you collect a lot of "joint" friends. Since the separation, I've learned just how "strong" some of those ties are. Some remain friends. Some are "cordial." Others - well, I've seen one formerly "close" friend *physically* keep his back turned to me at an event. It's tempting to treat your online "friendz" as lower quality relationships than the ones you've made in real life. When you poke those models with a sharp stick, however, you might be surprised to learn that many of your "real life" relationships are little better.

I've had any number of people tell me in my life that they'll "be there for me." An interesting thought exercise: imagine you are in a time of crisis - it could be illness, financial ruin, or anything that would cause you to legimately need the help of others. Now imagine the persons in your life that would actually hop on a plane and physically *be there* for you. Those people are gold.

Some might be real life friends; some might be online friends. But that exercise will absolutely be a powerful reminder to you that our circles - our true, actual circles - have always been small. Social Media affords us the opportunity to make more "weak" acquaintances, yes - but a quality relationship is a quality relationship, whether online or off. My online relationships are no better or worse than my offline relationships merely by dint of the fact that they occur mainly on Twitter, as opposed to at my local Applebees. Relationships are work, period. Physical proximity, as it turns out, is just as weak a tie as a "like" on Facebook.

For me, my biggest fear is this - that I'll become cynical of those ties, whether online or off. I've been disappointed, after all. I've not known people as well as I thought. That realization could easily make me more guarded or withdrawn - and potentially closed to a relationship with someone who might, in fact, be the sort of person who actually would physically be there for me. I hope I don't do that. 

I know that a far greater percentage of my online friendships are superficial than are my offline friendships - but that, again, is part of the asymmetrical nature of social media. I also know this - when I imagine the people who really would be there for me -really there - when I needed them, at least half would be people I met online first. What I hope I never do is to judge the quality of a relationship by where it first originated. And I hope I never become cynical about future relationships - online or off. For me, though, 2012 is going to be the year of strong ties. I've learned that saying you will "be there" and actually being there are two different things. I'm getting clarity about who would be there for me, and who I'd go to the mat for myself. I don't know that social media is a correlative variable in that equation. 

Active, Passive

In my 20's, I worked for a man named Frank Cody. Frank has influenced my life in ways I can't even begin to repay, not the least of which was how he chooses to make meaning in his life. We often had a jokey "call and refrain" between the two of us that remains in my active lexicon (my friends will have heard me say this innumerable times): one of us would say "It'll be what it's going to be!" and the other would quickly reply "It's not going to be anything else!"

Life hands you things that you cannot control. "It'll be what it's going to be" is a handy refrain for those times - and the fact that I am writing this from an airplane at JFK on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is a poignant reminder. Recent events in my own personal life, however, prompt me to remember that "it'll be what it's going to be" is not a passive lament. Admitting that certain things are out of your control reflects a certain wisdom in accepting the cards you are dealt - but it doesn't mean you don't try to improve your hand, when you can.

I don't talk much about my personal life, but I'm currently going through a divorce. I have a young boy. Friends tell me over and over that he'll be ok. Millions of kids go through divorce. They are ok. I know this. But yesterday I got a sharp reminder that you don't merely wait for things to be "ok." Things "turn out" the way they turn out, but they turn out a lot better when you have done all you can to increase the odds.

And anyway, I don't want him to be "ok."  I want him to be spectacular. I want that for me, too. For today, I am unutterably sad. Tomorrow, though, I process this. I do a little reading. I talk to some friends. I figure this out. I do the work to give me - and my son - the best possible odds. Only when you know in your heart that you have done this, can you then say with a clear conscience that "it'll be what it's going to be." Acceptance of the present doesn't preclude planning for the future.

I'm going to be more than ok. So will he. It's not going to be anything else.