Say What You Mean

July 22nd, 2014


This week a sad thing happened: it was announced that some 12,500 employees are being laid off at Microsoft’s devices unit. What elevated this event from merely a shame to an outrage, and at the same time a sort of uneasily, weirdly hilarious outrage, was the way they found out.

As reported in New York magazine, the man responsible for sharing this news did so through a truly awful memo that starts out, “Hello there…” and goes on to dribble out more than 800 words before getting to the point.

The point being, “So sorry—you’re fired.”

Long before it gets there, though, it has fully numbed the brain with passages like this one:

“Whereas the hardware business of phones within Nokia was an end unto itself, within Microsoft all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft’s overall strategy. Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope…”

… which is followed immediately by this:

“Therefore, we plan to make some changes.”

Aha. Changes. So, what changes, exactly?

The memo blatts out 583 more words of nerve-deadening explanation (“To win in the higher price segments, we will focus on delivering great breakthrough products in alignment with major milestones… we will ensure that the very best experiences and scenarios from across the company will be showcased on our products … we plan to select the appropriate business model approach for our sales markets while continuing to offer our products in all markets with a strong focus on maintaining business continuity … we will determine each market approach based on local market dynamics…”) before it finally winds into the specifics—namely, that they’re cutting 12,500 jobs.

It reminded me of a memo my friend Scott Ohlgren sent me years ago:

“Team members:

“While in the run-up to transitioning in this phase of right-sizing and redeployment, we still need to—at the end of the day—drill down and make sure that our mission-critical, goal-oriented core competencies are in alignment and on the same page as the most current best-practices paradigm.

“While we as a customer-centric longtail company are still on the runway, we need to each firewall enough time to allow out-of-the-box thinking and strategize the low-hanging fruit in the marketplace. Envisioning the metrics here will require accountability management on each team member to come up with a value-added solution that doesn’t require putting out fires or a lot of bandwidth.

“Bottom line? The truth is we have to step up, work smarter, not harder, and create a Web 2.0 solution.

“I’ve got an open door policy, so touch base and keep me in the loop. If we can move forward and proactively get on the same page about this, it’ll be a win-win-win.

“Remember: our people make the difference.”

For me this gibblespeech all started in the summer of 1973, when my dad and I sat in rapt attention every day in front of the television watching the Watergate hearings.

My dad, a German immigrant who never lost his outsider’s fascination with all things American, was completely engrossed. So was I. We spent many hours in stitches together at the elaborate circumlocutions of some of the testimony. “I believe I relayed that information telephonically” was a snippet I recall echoing giddily around our house for days. It was my first real exposure to the squeamishly evasive language of bureaucracy.

Another one of our favorites:

“I cannot recall with specificity.”

Years ago I heard this piece of advice: “Never use a twenty-five-dollar word when a twenty-five-cent word will do.”

I don’t entirely agree. There’s a reason those $25 words exist, and the simplest or shortest solution is not always the best solution. Full disclosure: I love the poetry and music of big words and long phrases. Writing about the novelist John Updike, a reviewer once wrote, “Updike strings out sentences as gorgeously as veteran flyfishers string out a line.” (Not a bad sentence itself!)

I love the lilt and magic of “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” and sentences that sound like that but actually mean something to boot.

Last night I read this passage, from Raymond Chandler’s “Trouble Is My Business”:

“Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. … I watched her shake her ash from the cigarette to the shiny top of the desk where flakes of it curled and crawled in the draft from the open window.”

Now, did Chandler need all those words to get to the conversation his hero had with this woman? Maybe not, but I’m sure glad he used them.

Still, as an editor, and then as a writer, I’ve gained a keen appreciation of the virtues of cutting the %&*@ to the chase.

Over the twenty-five years I spent editing other people’s articles, much of the work I did consisted of taking things out. Yanking out the deadwood. Deleting the unnecessary, the redundant, the imprecise, the obfuscatory. (Now there’s a word that does what it says!)

If I had a dollar for every time I edited out the phrases, “In my opinion,” “It seems to me,” “At the end of the day,” and “If you want to know the truth,” I would be able to finance my own trip to the moon.

(We already know it’s your opinion, because you’re the one writing this piece; we already know that this is how it seems to you, you don’t need to clarify that for us; the time of day has nothing to do with what you’re talking about; and what else would I want to know but the truth—a lie?)

My favorite, by which I mean my least favorite, is this statement placed immediately after a particularly meaningful point has been made: “Think about it!” (Like I was too lazy, or else too stupid, to figure out for myself that I should employ my brain to perform an act of thinking about what I just read in the previous sentence?)

The most famous passage in Strunk and White’s uberclassic The Elements of Style is Rule 17: “Omit needless words.” E.B. White recalls his teacher, Will Strunk, being so vigorous about this rule when teaching it in the classroom that he punctuated it (ironically) with generous repetition:

“Rule Seventeen: Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

Of the 1,111 words in the Microsoft memo, my guess is that Will Strunk would have omitted about 1,011.

Shorter is not always better. Repetition sings, and multisyllabics dance. As I said, sometimes I like the sound and sense of those $25 words. And man, are those flyfishing sentences of Updike’s poetry or what?

But if in all these years I’ve come up with a single solitary of rule of good writing, it would be this:

Say what you mean.

May I Help You?

July 15th, 2014

Apparently I’ve been ambling in and out of Amazon’s “Top 100 Most Popular Self-Help Authors” list for the past nine months. I had not really thought of the stuff I write as “self-help,” exactly. Whenever the term comes up, it invariably calls to mind the wisdom of Steven Wright:

“I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswomen, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”

Still, this list represents a thumb on the pulse of the masses and is updated hourly, so I figure, hey, it must be an accurate metric of how helpful I am to the planet at any given moment. Maybe I should pay attention to it.

I hit #29 on the list on Thanksgiving Day of last year.

I was not aware of this at the time and have to admit, as far as I can recall I did not feel a thing. I don’t remember hitting anything at all that day, other than the post-turkey couch coma.

I did not, in fact, become aware of my standing among Self-Helpful Human Beings till this summer, when I noticed this listing on Amazon.

As I write this, I am currently at #86 (think of it as an homage to Maxwell Smart), where I am sandwiched between Arianna Huffington and M. Scott Peck.

And trailing behind the three of us, in 88th place, is my good friend Cameron Diaz.

#86 Self-help

Cameron and I first became acquainted a few weeks ago, when she was perched fetchingly in her present position (#88) and I had come up from behind to breathe down her neck, metaphorically speaking, from a threatening #89. (With Bob Knight and The Power of Negative Thinking looming menacingly behind me.)

#89 Self help

Since that time Ms. Diaz and I have been jockeying back and forth, sparring and parrying. While the competition is at its heart a good-natured one, it is nonetheless a serious competition which we both are fighting desperately to win.

You see, I am driven by the need to prove I am more helpful than Cameron.

After all, she stole my marketing idea.

Look there — how she’s showing off her legs on the cover of The Body Book. See that? That was my idea. That’s the exact pose I was planning to take on my next book! (And look at her subtitle: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Body. C’mon! “The Law of Hunger”? Obviously she got that from The Go-Giver.)

Soon after that 89-to-88 face-off, I hauled out into the passing lane and zoomed ahead onto the 61–70 page, where I found myself stuck for a while at slot #65 in an awkward position between Ann Patchett and Esther Hicks.

#65 Self-help

You cannot imagine what the conversation was like during that hour. Ann was reminiscing about what it was like to accept the PEN/Faulkner award for Bel Canto, and Esther kept breaking in and going, “Abraham wants me to tell you life should not be a struggle — Ann, have you read The Law of Attraction?”

I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Then, I backslid. I must not have been paying attention, or not self-helping enough people. I fell all the way back down the ladder to #88, Cameron’s old spot. And why wasn’t Cameron in that very spot? Because she had gotten ahead of me, that little vixen!

There’s something about Mary, all right. Something scary.

#88 Self-Help

What was worse, not only had my old nemesis Scott Peck also pulled out in front while I wasn’t looking (he must have taken some road a heckuva lot less traveled than I thought, to slip past me like that without my noticing), but now Gretchen “The Happiness Project” Rubin was ahead of me, too!

Let me tell you, this did not make me Happy.

Folks, I’m struggling here. The only way I can claw my way to the top of this Dale Carnegian slugfest, this American Gladiauthor battle for ultimate self-helpfulness, is to find a few more willing souls to self-help.

As Jerry says to Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire, “Help me help you.”

Or I may be forced to shoot my next book jacket in a leotard.

Making Things Happen

July 8th, 2014

Tom's Fire

When my older son Nick was a toddler, he used to sit in the kitchen and smash trucks. It went like this:

We had a long, picnic-table-style oak dining table that we kept along a wall across from the refrigerator. Nick would sit at one end, slung snugly into his hook-on infant seat, grab his big toy truck, and push it as hard as he could. It would careen clear down the length of the table, go flying off the other end, and go Crash! onto the floor.

He would laugh with unbridled glee.

We would then fetch the truck, walk it back over to him, and he would start the process over again. And again.

He got the biggest thrill out of this, and we did, too, watching him. I didn’t think it was simply the guilty-pleasure shock value of the loud crash itself that he loved. It seemed to me, it was what psychologists sometimes call sense of agency: the awareness that you are initiating, executing, and controlling your own volitional actions in the world. It’s why toddlers love to break things, drop things, toss things, as soon as they’re able. It’s not a destructive impulse; quite the opposite. It’s the exhilaration that comes with the realization, I made that happen.

I thought about Nick and his truck a few weeks ago.

I’d been a little frustrated with the process of publishing. Brandon Webb (my Navy SEAL sniper buddy and Red Circle coauthor) and I have written a second book together, but it’s taking a tortuous route to get it into the marketplace where people can actually read it.

We sold it to a publisher back in mid-2012, but since then it’s been through a complicated sequence of changing editors, different publishers, and the shifting tectonic plates of the post-2008 New York publishing world. Although we finished writing it in 2013, at this point it won’t see the light of day until some time in 2015.

In other words: we pushed our toy truck with all our might and shot it clear across the table … but we aren’t hearing that satisfying crash! on the other end yet — and won’t hear it for another year.

So a few weeks ago, mainly as therapy, I decided it was time to learn how to put out a book myself in the brave new world of instant digital self-publishing, through Kindle, iBooks, and CreateSpace (Amazon’s paperback print-on-demand arm).

I had a book I’d published back in 2007, a collection of essays and editorials on network marketing, titled The Zen of MLM: Legacy, Leadership, and the Network Marketing Experience. I’d self-published this the old-fashioned way, hiring an actual production house to print up thousands of copies and ship the whole pallet to a warehouse in Texas, where I would pay another company a commission to take and fulfill orders.

2007. That’s seven years ago—in technological time, another era. It was high time I updated the book. So I added some 64 pages of new material and got it ready to publish as a new, revised and expanded edition.

There are excellent services that will do this for you. BookBaby, which came highly recommended by my highly successful self-publishing author friend Dan Clements, will take your Word file, reformat it, and put it up as an ebook on every major platform out there. Another friend recommended a person he knows who, for a fee, would do all this complicated work herself.

But I didn’t want to pay a fee, send off my file, and let someone else do all the rummaging around, slicing and dicing and formatting.

I wanted to go into the kitchen, sort out the raw ingredients, and figure out how to cook this dinner myself.

So I did. It took a solid week to figure out how to recast the book into the different file formats that each service required. (They’re all different.) And then, as the week wrapped, I published it. Just like that. A few clicks of the mouse, and there it was, open to the public worldwide, in three flavors: Amazon paperback vanilla, Kindle ebook chocolate, and iBooks strawberry.

In that great Robert Zemeckis film Cast Away, there is a moment where Tom Hanks has finally succeeded in striking a spark and using it to ignite a fire on his desert island. It’s just past dusk. He has built his little flame into a bonfire. Sparks fly everywhere. He stands back, throws out his arms, and shouts:

“Look what I have created! I have made fire!

That’s exactly how I felt, on my little publishing desert island, viewing the successfully formatted Kindle version of my book for the first time.

“I have made book!”

Pushing the thing clear across the table … and getting that satisfying crash! as it goes flying off the other end.



July 1st, 2014


It still surprises me sometimes. Awakening in the morning, stretching out my toes under the sheets as the vestiges of dreams resolve themselves into the sounds and smells of my life here and now, then gradually opening my eyes, turning silently until they rest on my wife’s sleeping face — and realizing just how happy I’ve somehow become.

Life could easily have done the mathematics of mood and biography and come up with a different result. But day after day, there it is again.

My father used to call me the stehaufmänn (shtay-owf-mahn). That’s German for guy who keeps standing up, and it refers to one of those balloon/punching-bag toys that bounces back up every time you knock it down.

Lord knows I’ve been knocked down a few times. Made a fortune in my forties, then lost it all. (Oops.) Lost my first business, then lost my next one, too, pushed me into bankruptcy. Lost my first child to meningitis. Lost my first marriage, then lost another.

Throughout the confusing, messy, haphazard process of picking my way from sixteen to sixty, I’ve seen wrenching defeats and slogged through patches of anguish that sometimes felt interminable.

But here’s the odd thing: I seem to have ended up a good deal happier after all these tribulations than I was before.

How did that happen?

I think it’s a question of focus.

When you go through something difficult or painful (or both), what’s the story you tell yourself about it? While it’s happening, does the little voice in your head (the inner Cronkite) say, “This is awful, this is terrible, I don’t know how I’ll ever get through this…”?

Or is it whispering, “I’ve got this. I may not see it, but there are a dozen good reasons this is happening — and once I’m out on the other side, I’ll look back and see that it all worked out for the best.”

We all have little catch phrases and habitual responses to stressful times. I’ve noticed that when I’m confronted with something unexpected and genuinely difficult, often the first I hear myself mutter is, “All right, John …”

Whatever might come next (“… what are we going to do now?” or “… there’s got to be a solution here” or “… where the hell did that come from?” or even “… I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat!”), I’ve come to see that those first few words have tremendous effect.

All right, John. It’s going to be alright. It’s all going to be alright.

Sometimes, though, I hear myself saying something a little different. Usually two words. The first one is “Oh – !” and the second one is something they won’t let you say during prime time on network television, and it only has one syllable.

The more I say the “All right, John…” and the less I say the “Oh, crap!” (or whatever) the more I’m activating my capacity to respond — creatively, productively, effectively.

To bounce back.

Everyone knows the term post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. There is another term, way less well-known: post-traumatic growth. That one describes what happens when people get knocked down by severe hard times, but then come back from it and arrive at an even higher level of psychological functioning than before.

Emma Thompson, the actress and screenwriter, put it this way:

“It’s unfortunate and I really wish I wouldn’t have to say this, but I really like human beings who have suffered. They’re kinder.”

Not only kinder, but happier, too.

And, sometimes, also more successful in life.

My father once told me about something that happened when he was a teenager, growing up in Germany during the years leading up to World War II.

One day a Nazi military parade went through his town. Needing to get across the street, he thought he saw a quick opening and tried to dart through the column of soldiers. They trampled over him, destroying his bike, and kept right on marching. I remember the hair on my neck standing up when he described the scene. (It’s standing up now, as I write this.)

The Nazis didn’t just trample my father’s bicycle. They trampled his life. When his first book was published, his name had been removed. When he showed up on Day 1 of a new post teaching at an academy in Berlin, he wasn’t allowed to enter. At the age of 19, he was forced to give up a promising career and flee his beloved homeland, not knowing if he would ever return.

The incident with the bike and the parade wasn’t just an isolated traumatic event. It was the harbinger of a life-altering personal cataclysm. Yet he described the whole scene without a trace of bitterness, with only a simple sense of marvel at how awful human beings could become. And having thus marveled, he then set the entire issue aside to focus on what mattered to him, which was how magnificent human beings can become and what beauty they can create.

There’s a word for that: resilience.


I knew colleagues of his who suffered through the war and seemed like they never quite made it back — who clung to where they’d come from and what they’d gone through, as if that necessarily defined them forever. My father refused to do that. He set his focus forward. And what a magnificent life he lived.

“The world,” as I wrote in my weddings vows, “is sometimes a large and daunting place, at turns lonely and intimidating, brutal and perplexing.”

Painful things happen. And let’s be honest. Taking a positive view of them, believing in the eventuality of a positive outcome, doesn’t make them any less painful, does it.

But it does go a long way to determining how deep the damage goes, how quickly you heal — and what direction you find yourself heading.

That Excruciating Joy

June 24th, 2014


I’ve been chopping down trees again. I should be using an ax — but instead, I’m using my head. Ouch.

There’s this popular myth about the creative process that goes something like this: In the throes of creation, the artist becomes a blissful, empty vessel through which flows the sweet nectar of inspiration from on high, words spilling out onto the page in a heady stream of exhilarating prose…

Yeah, well.

Maybe that’s how it is for someone else. It sure isn’t how it is for me. For me, writing is tough work, often uncomfortable, at times downright excruciating.

Times like this.

I’m working on that book, the one I started in the middle of April. I’ve assembled two months’ worth of raw material, much of it vague and either redundant or incomplete, and a rough outline that keeps shifting under my feet.

Okay. That’s as much prep as we’re gonna get. Now I have to actually write the thing.

There are parts of the process that are easier than others. For example, editing and polishing something I’ve already rough-drafted. Piece of cake! Earlier this year I spent a month revising the manuscript for the next Navy SEAL memoir Brandon and I just wrote together. Rewriting is a blast.

But the original writing part? The part where you start with a blank sheet of paper (or blank computer screen) and try, by dint of sheer mental focus, to make something magically appear there that feels seriously worthwhile?

Sheer murder.

And I’m not the only one who feels it. Writers are famous for their angst over facing a blank page. “Writing is easy,” said the late great Jeff Mac Nelly, Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist and creator of Shoe. “All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until beads of blood start to form on your forehead.” When Ernest Hemingway, a war correspondent who had covered numerous bloody conflicts, hunted grizzly bears, and was nearly killed twice in two separate plane crashes, was asked what was the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, he replied, “A blank piece of paper.”

There are times, trying to wrap my brain around an idea and wrestle it from the ether onto the page without ruining it or turning it into mush in the process, when I almost can’t stand to sit in the chair. I look for any excuse to quit. I check my email, clean my glasses, think about much fun it would be to pay my bills (Aha, now you know where last week’s post came from), or possibly see if there was a bit more laundry that needed folding, or convince myself that playing solitaire on my phone is “good for sharpening my mind.”

After twenty or thirty minutes of this I leap out of my chair, head upstairs, and tell my wife, “It feels like I’m chopping down oak trees — with my head.”

She nods sympathetically. She’s heard this before. She knows what it means. She pops me and the dog into the car to run out for a quick latte, knowing we both need (or at least want) a car ride. Then leaves me and my latte to head back to the desk.

She knows I’m only squirming from this familiar discomfort and trying to avoid the process, when I know very well I’ve got to go back downstairs to my office and face the dragon. She knows I’m only being like the little kid who protests, “But I’m not [big yawn here] tired!” when it’s well past bedtime.

She knows how it will end up, too: I’ll write the book — and feel ecstatically happy about it.

And that’s the weird thing about it. This painful part, the part where I fidget and evade and do everything I can to escape?

This is the best part.

When I feel like a toothpaste tube that’s being crunched and squeezed empty, is exactly when the really good stuff happens. Because that’s when I’m stretching myself.

And it’s the part, even when I think I can’t stand a single minute more of it, that makes me happiest.

You may not relate to the act of writing. But you may have had moments like this, when you’re doing something you know is worthwhile, that you know you’re going to feel tremendously good about, yet it feels like it’s stretching you almost to the point of impossibility. (“This is your brain. This is your brain, on the rack.”)

Writing a book is very much like living a life, and every day you face is a blank page. You’re making it up as you go along, creating the story you see. There are the easier parts, the times when you’re just going through the motions, or (to switch back to that carpentry metaphor for a sec) sanding the edges of joints you’ve already assembled — and then there are the tougher parts, when you’re hewing whole new 2×10’s out of raw tree trunks and trying to figure out exactly what the heck it is you’re building.

I was talking with my friend Scott once about life, and we ambled over into the topic of death and dying. We both agreed we did not especially want to die of long lingering illnesses. I asked him what, if he could choose, he would want to die of.

“Use,” he replied.

I love that answer. I believe that is exactly what my father died of, when he went in his sleep at the age of nearly-ninety: he had been used up, and used up in ways that he loved and that fully expressed his gifts, abilities, and passions.

That’s the thing about the hard part. If you love it and it uses the best parts of you, then it’s worth it, because it satisfies you in a way that nothing else quite can. It’s what genuinely makes you happy — even when it’s excruciating.

To Bills, With Love

June 17th, 2014


My bank account offers a feature, common these days, that lets me set up automatic payments for all my bills. They started offering it ages ago. But month after month, year after year, I somehow never got around to signing up for it.

Friends who used “billpay” told me it was great, a major convenience, a huge timesaver, an ingenious alleviator of sundry headaches. Still I avoided it. Finally I asked myself why. And immediately realized the answer:

It wasn’t a Luddite thing, and it wasn’t that I was paranoid it would go Hal 5000 on me and spend all my money when I wasn’t looking. The truth was simpler and, you might say, weirder.

I liked writing out those checks.

When I was young, paying every month’s bills was a source of great stress. Typically I had more bills than cash (typically well more), so paying those bills was a constant and sometimes terrifying juggling act: weighing how to prioritize the available dollars and parse out the minimums, calculating which payables I could safely hold off, and for how long, and which I could pay part now and part later, and which I just had to pay in full right now.

(As you already know from my repossessed Lexus story, I didn’t always get that right.)

I often went whole months with those nagging questions tugging at my psyche thirty days out of thirty.

Then one day, as I sat at my desk feeling the acid clench in my solar plexus, it suddenly occurred to me: I was angry. Angry that I didn’t have enough, angry that I had to let go of the precious little I had, angry that even once the checkbook was drained empty I would still owe more. Every one of those checks I wrote, no matter how large or how small, was dripping with resentment.

I was spending money negatively.

No wonder I was living in negative cash flow!

So I made a decision: I would start paying my bills positively.

I started by asking myself, what did I enjoy spending money on? I had to stand up and pace my little room to think about that. “I love spending money on books,” I thought, “because I love to read.” I also loved to spend money on music, because I love listening to it. I loved spending money on good food, because I love to eat. You see the pattern.

It was a start, but Mann does not live on bread and books alone. What about my rent?

Well, what about it? Did I love living under a roof? Of course I did. What about having electricity in my apartment? Wearing clothes? Having a car to drive? Yup, loved all those things.

I sat back down at my desk and started writing a check to my landlord. Feeling my chest tighten as I filled in the AMOUNT box, I made myself take a deep, slow breath, and say, “Thank you for giving me this place to stay this month.”

It took a while to get the hang of this, because I still had plenty of nagging worries. Money was, after all, still tight.

But that didn’t mean I had to be tight with money.

And that’s why I’ve been resisting using that online billpay service. I’d years ago come to the place where I loved sitting down and going through the process of pulling out those bills and paying them each, one by one, writing out and enveloping and addressing and lick-stamping all those checks by hand.

They had become love notes to the universe.

Last month I finally began using that online billpay service. And I’m happy to admit, it really does save a bunch of time—time I can fill instead with reading, or taking walks, or, hey, sitting under a tree thinking about what I want to say in my next blog post. When it’s time to pay the bills, I just go online and click a button.

And I make sure to remember to click it with love.

Love and Work

June 11th, 2014


One fine day as I idled at a red light in Allston, Massachusetts, two hopped up guys stepped into my cab, trained a gun on me, told me to turn off my dispatch radio and drive up Summit Avenue to the top of Corey Hill, where they were going to shoot me dead.

(Note to self: lock door at red lights.)

Something in me said it would be a good idea to keep the vehicle moving and not stop. So instead, I drove my passengers up to and over Corey Hill and right into Brookline, where I pulled into the curb outside the Brookline police station. They disembarked and slithered away without a word.

They did not tip me. They did not even pay their fare. I did not complain.

I was in my early twenties, learning something about the world by driving taxicab, which I did for about six months. At the time I thought I was doing it purely for the much-needed income, but four decades of hindsight tells me I also needed to do something that would stretch me and force me to grow up a little.

Driving taxicab outside Boston certainly did that.

I stretched and grew in that job — but I also hated it.

I hated it not so much for the danger, but because it felt like taking a long walk in a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. The job didn’t really use any of my strengths. Some people have a naturally outgoing, chatty nature and love spending time striking up conversation after conversation. I am not that person.

I had a friend at the time, exactly my age, who also drove cab for that same company. In a short time he graduated from cabbie to dispatcher, and was one of the best dispatchers Red Cab of Brookline ever had. He eventually had his own transportation company. He had a natural feel for that line of work. I did not.

Driving cab was good for me at the time, perhaps, but if I’d had to keep doing it for years? Misery.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do that thing.

My mom once observed: “If you’re in a shipwreck and you see the top of a grand piano floating by, by all means grab it and hold on. But just because that works doesn’t mean we should start making life preservers the size and shape and weight of grand piano tops.”

Driving cab worked—but it wasn’t what I loved doing. It was a life preserver fashioned out of a piano top.

Here’s how Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, describes the difference between a job, a career, and a calling:

a JOB is something you do for the paycheck;

a CAREER is work you’re deeply invested in, because in addition to paying you, it also advances your path by developing your abilities, your experience, and your ability to earn higher pay and more prestigious positions;

a CALLING is work you do for its own sake, work that is fulfilling in its own right. It is work you because you love it.

I learned about love of work from my father.

In our home dinner was a nightly family ritual, complete with candles, cloth napkins, and roundtable conversation about whatever had gone on that day. After dinner we cleaned up—and my father went back upstairs to his home office to work, and he worked at his desk until 10:30 or 11:00.

He not only brought his work home with him, he also brought it on vacation. I have vivid memories of weeks spent on Cape Cod, my father in his bathing suit poring over a manuscript in a corner of our little rented beach cottage, putting in corrections with red pencil for a few hours before setting it all aside and going for a swim.

It never occurred to me that any of this was the behavior of a workaholic, for the simple reason that it wasn’t. He simply loved his work, and he pursued it with a kind of relaxed intensity that never allowed it to hold the rest of his life hostage.

When my father reached retirement age he earned the title “professor emeritus” — which didn’t mean he stopped being a professor, it just meant he now had far more freedom of choice as to which seminars he would teach, which conferences he would attend, and which writing projects he would undertake.

I remember his exact words: “Thank God I’m retiring — now I can start getting something done!” And he went right on doing the things he loved to do.

For the last few days I’ve been completely immersed in a project to revise and enlarge an early book of mine and prepare it for self-publication on Amazon Kindle, Amazon CreateSpace, and Apple iBooks. I’ve never done this before and there’s a ton to learn, as I’m doing it all myself. I could pay someone else to do it. (It doesn’t cost much.) But I’d rather get my fingers into the dirt and soak up every detail about exactly how the process works.

In that wonderful film Patton, George C. Scott as General George “Old Blood ‘n’ Guts” Patton stands at the edge of a battlefield surveying the chaos and smoke and carnage, and murmurs, “I love it. God help me, but I do love it so.”

That’s how I feel about building a book.

What is it that you feel that way about?

My friend Dan Burrus says everyone has many skills and talents, but one true gift. You could spend your entire life using your skills and talents, says Dan, but the secret to happiness is finding your gift, and then wrapping your career around that.

How do you know what your gift is? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect love will be involved.

You Are Not What You Do

June 3rd, 2014

butterfly girl

You’ve probably read this quote before: “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Wise words from the sage Aristotle. Except for two problems.

One, Aristotle never said them.

And two, they’re not true. Thank heavens! Because if they were, you and I might be in big trouble.

What Aristotle actually said was this:

“These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions … As it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

The entire “You are what you do” quote that everyone knows comes not from Aristotle but from the great historian Will Durant, in his summarizing of the Aristotle passage.

I get what both quotes (the original and the add-on) are driving at:

1) Actions you take over and over tend to become things you do automatically, without thinking … and

2) Like rivulets of water from steady rains wearing grooves in rock, your habitual actions over time will carve riverbeds of behavior into the landscape of your days.

So true, and there is something powerfully positive about that. For example:

If you start going out of your way to thank people, even for little things, and notice things you are grateful for, and you do this every day, you’ll start carving streambeds of gratitude in your psyche, and in time become a habitually grateful person. (The same goes, like a photonegative, for the habit of complaining and criticizing: you get malign riverbeds of unhappy silt and sand.)

Or more simply: what you do every day rubs off.

So, thank you, Will Durant, and thank you Aristotle, and thank you to all the well-intentioned writers who quote you, even if mistakenly.

The problem is with the innocent phrase: “You are what you repeatedly do.” It reminds me a lot of that famous statement of modern Western philosophy, “Cogito ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am.

Yes, Rene Descartes really did say that. And, according to Eckart Tolle, he got it exactly wrong.

It is when we’re thinking that we get lost in corridors of abstraction and disconnect with our present reality. That we stop being.

I think, therefore I am not — but when I stop thinking, I am.

We too often turn that Cartesian logic into our modern achievement-obsessed signature theme song: “I do, therefore I am.” It’s so easy to confuse our accomplishments with our selves, as if productivity were the sole measure and evidence of our worth.

The truth is, you are not what you do. And that’s a good thing, too, because if you were, then your identity, your essential being, would be inescapably defined by your past actions. (Yikes. Imagine a legal system based on that proposition.)

If you were what you do, then your youness would be imprisoned, like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber, in a huge agglomeration of everything you’ve done.

But it just ain’t so. You have a past, but you are not your past. You are not what you’ve done, and you are not what you’re doing right now, or going to do tomorrow. And you are not what you think. You are who you are. That’s it. All the rest is what that you happens to be dressing up in at the moment. As children, we played dress-up in our parents’ clothes, or ballerina outfits, or pirate duds, or Batman costumes to explore different ways of being in the world. As grown-ups we put on tasks and occupations. But they’re not us.

For years I was locked into that amber bug-slammer. I so strongly identified with my productivity, it was like the only way to justify my existence was to do something. If I wanted my life to be one of genuine significance, then it naturally followed that I needed to do something really significant.

My theme song became “What have you done for me lately?” only in my version it was, “What have I done to prove myself lately?”

Each day I didn’t “get something done” became a trial of anxious frustration.

Somewhere along the way, I seem to have learned, or remembered, how to let it be okay at times when I am not really doing anything, simply existing, me-ing. (I have a feeling my wife had something to do with this.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love being productive. I love doing — writing a book, composing a blog post, paying off a debt, fixing a toilet seat, it’s all doing, and it all gives me an endorphin-laden thrill.

But let’s not get caught up in the buzz of accomplishment and lose the quiet truth behind all the doing, which is that it is simply what you are doing, not who you are.

What you do is important. It can reveal you, refine you, deepen you, and help to perfect you. But it doesn’t define you.

You are not what you do. You are who you are.

You always have been.

You always will be.

Dancing with Destiny

May 27th, 2014


There was once a young man named Jack who had a dream of being a great pilot, maybe even an astronaut. He joined the navy and went into their aviation wing, intent on laying the foundation for a soaring career in the skies. It never happened. A freak car crash nearly ended his life, and definitely ended his chances of being a pilot.

Jack was a wreck as he began the slow process of recuperation. In order to strengthen his arms he took up swimming, and got pretty good at it. Eventually he went into the water as a line of work and started getting serious about ocean exploration. In time he co-invented the Aqua-Lung, developed a one-person jet-propelled submarine, and introduced millions to the wonders of the undersea world. You’ve heard of him, only you don’t know him by the name Jack.

You know him as Jacques Cousteau.

The failed pilot.

There are two principles to life. The first is one my mother imprinted in me from an early age: you can do whatever you set out to do. I believe this wholeheartedly, except that I also know that sometimes, you can’t. (Just ask Jack.)

And that’s because of principle #2, which is that sometimes what you set out to do may involve a wholly unexpected and often unwelcome left-hand turn.

Flying high above the earth; diving deep below the ocean. Same dream … only with a left-hand twist.

Life (or you could say fate, or destiny, or God) sometimes throws things at you out of left field. It’s easy to get knocked off kilter, to resist, to fight back, to get bitter. The trick is to stay open to the wisdom of it, even if that wisdom is unseen for now. I call it the law of left field.

When a crash takes you out of the sky, it might be the perfect time to look in the water.

Living is like dancing, and you’re not alone on the dance floor. You make a move, then the universe, your dance partner, makes a move. What do you do? You go with it.

If you’re going to live this life successfully, you have to trust your dance partner.

That means taking your own wants and insistences with a grain of salt. Not taking yourself too seriously. Yielding to the fact that the universe may know you better than you know yourself.

Trusting that sometimes — often — the greatest results come from directions you did not expect and could not possibly have predicted no matter how hard you tried.

As that wonderful Yiddish expression goes, Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.

Man plans — and God laughs.

Years ago I published a magazine about health and the environment. My ambition was to be a big magazine publisher, a publishing mogul. Toward that end, I bought a competitor’s magazine, figuring that swallowing up the competition would make me big and strong, like eating a can of Popeye’s spinach or a bowl of Bob Richards’s Wheaties.

But growth is not always good. The move ended up killing my company.

On my day in bankruptcy court, my biggest single creditor was also the only creditor who showed up for the hearing. When his turn came, he addressed the court, testified earnestly on my behalf, and astonished the judge by asking if the amount I owed him could please be reduced. In fact, could it be cut in half? (It took years, but rarely have I so relished paying off a debt.)

Today I am so grateful my publishing business was left-turned out from under me. Had it succeeded, it would have been an enormous burden. And its failure, like Jacques Cousteau’s car crash, opened the door to the career I have today.

Don’t be too quick to judge what is a disaster and what a saving grace.

And remember this: your dance partner has your back.

(Image copyright: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo)

The Way It Is

May 20th, 2014


I was out driving one day, years ago, with my son Nick. He was young, maybe seven, and he’d been thinking about the state of the world.

“Hey, Dad?” he said. “Seems to me like everything is … getting worse. You know?” He looked over at me from the passenger’s seat, and I nodded. Go on, I’m listening.

He thought hard for a moment, gazing out the windshield at his sifting thoughts, then added, “But … it also seems like everything is getting better.”

I loved it. He was examining his view of the world, articulating it, testing it, sorting it out.

We each have our own worldview, consciously aware of it or not.

Your worldview is not what you think you believe or want to believe. It’s what you do believe. It drives your attitudes, decisions, and actions, moment to moment, day to day, year after year. It is the lens through which you see everything.

When I was a kid, Walter Cronkite ruled the world with an authority greater than that of presidents or kings. Every weeknight, after finishing his report on the CBS Evening News, he would leave us with his famous signoff line, “And that’s the way it is on …” whatever the date was that day.

And for millions and millions of Americans, that’s the way it was.

You have a Walter Cronkite in your head telling you how it is, not just once an evening but constantly, in a 24/7 real-time newsfeed. Your inner Cronkite scans everything happening in your world, searching out those events that confirm your personal view of the way it is, and ignoring or downplaying all other information. It filters your reality and colors every thought and perception you have.

A car cuts you off in traffic. Depending on your worldview, either you say “Oh well” and shrug it off — or your inner Cronkite supplies its confirming punch line: “… and that’s the way it is.”

If I’m going through a tough time, you can tell me “Things will work out” or “Look on the bright side,” and I may try to listen. But if I’ve got a worldview whispering inside me that says, Nothing ever works out in the long run, or Life’s a bitch and then you die — then I might hear your words but I can’t grasp the music. My inner Cronkite is drowning it out with its in my ear: “Nope, that’s not the way it is. Here’s how it is…”

“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

When God closes a door, He opens a window.

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

Everything will be okay in the end.

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

What goes around comes around.

Money doesn’t grow on trees…”

So many different versions of worldview!

For far too many, that inner Cronkite is unconsciously and unquestioningly inherited in childhood, from parents, teachers, church, television. By cultural osmosis. The unexamined lifelens.

That was what I so loved about Nick’s rumination: he was examining it all, carefully and consciously. He was asking, “What do I think?”

When I was a teenager, a friend’s father told us one evening, “Remember these high school days, guys — they’ll be the best days of your lives.” He was jovial and friendly as he said it, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable. It was only later that night, as I was going to sleep, that the penny dropped and I realized what he was really saying:

“It’s all downhill from here, boys … And that’s the way it is.”

That’s why it made me feel uncomfortable. I just didn’t believe that. I still don’t.

In the four decades since that encounter, despite losses and setbacks and tragedies, my life has overall gone uphill, not down. My friend’s life, alas, has not followed the same course, but has been a drama of drugs, alcohol, and crippling disease. He has an amazingly positive attitude in the face of all his difficulties, but I can’t help wondering if he was not infected terminally with his father’s fatalistic worldview.

Driving to town one day in the fall of 1982—this is three years before Nick was born — I happened to tune the car radio to an interview with the futurist John Naisbitt, who had just published his breakout book, Megatrends. Captivated, I pulled over to listen to him read an excerpt from the last chapter. The book’s closing line hit me like a thunderclap:

What a fantastic time to be alive!

This was not an easy time in my life. I’d lost a child, was struggling financially, and my first marriage was headed for the rocks. Yet the moment I heard Naisbitt declaim those seven words I knew that deep down inside, that was fundamentally what I believed to be true.

It still is.

How do you see it? What, for you, is the way it is?