Saying Yes

September 16th, 2014


They say dogs understand a good deal more of the words we speak than we realize. Our intrepid seven-pound poodle Ben understands a lot.

For example, if we don’t want him to know we’re traveling in a few days, we have to watch our language carefully and not use the words “suitcase,” “pack,” “airport,” or other incendiary terms. Not even in casual conversation. If we do, he knows it, and suddenly we have an anxious dog on our hands.

(He doesn’t love it when we leave and wishes we would just stay home. Preferably forever.)

Of all the hundreds of words of ours that he knows, there is one he not only understands but has learned to speak clearly himself. Here’s how it works:

Ben comes downstairs to my lower-floor office, stops in front of my desk, and gives me the Look. The Look says, “I am communicating something right now, and I need you to get what it is.”

“Hey, Ben,” I say. “What’s up. Do you need to pee?” The Look continues. “Want to go for a walk?” No response. “Mom getting ready to go out to the store?” He is patient. The Look continues. “You hungry?”

At that he immediately drops the Look, takes a careful step backwards, then emphatically nods his head with a big shake, like a horse whinnying, and makes a big “Schnufff!!

He only says this when I get the answer exactly right. Anything else, even something close-but-no-cigar, and I just get the Look. The Schnuff!! only happens when he is saying, “Exactly! Precisely! You got it on the nose!”

So smart, that dog. And he long ago identified what may be our favorite word:


This is no accident. Ana and I have cultivated the art of yes in our relationship and everyday lives. We are constantly on the lookout for ways of saying yes to each other.

John Gottman, the renowned marriage researcher, spent more than four decades observing couples and how they interact. Those couples whose relationships not only survive but also flourish, he found, are those that exhibit a positivity-to-negativity ratio in their everyday interactions of 5:1 or more.

In other words, the successful couples are those who make at least five comments of praise, appreciation, love, or other positive expression to each other for every one critical or complaining statement.

They say “yes” at least five times more often than they say “no.”

I’m not talking about being in denial. It’s not about papering over our feelings when we’re sad, or grumpy, or upset. But we love to find ways to say and show how much we love this world we’re in, this day we’re in, and that we’re doing so with each other. Maybe it’s that we’ve both seen enough heartbreak and difficult times that something as simple as a beautiful sky or delicious meal makes us feel like we live in paradise. Maybe it’s just part of being alive a few more decades.

We’ve found we appreciate little things as much as big things, maybe even more so. And take every opportunity to say so.

Not long ago, I was standing in the kitchen with Ana, just after we’d made a meal. In the moment, I was overwhelmed by just how lovely she truly is, and I had to say something about it.

I stopped her in the middle of the kitchen and looked at her.

“Sweetheart,” I said, “I just have to tell you, you – are – so – beautiful!

And before she could say a word back we suddenly heard a noise, coming from the direction of our feet.

It went, SCHNUFFF!!

Milk, Flour, Eggs

September 9th, 2014


My friend Charles Carroll is a world-class executive chef who has been part of eight Culinary Olympic teams and won more than eighty national and international awards. Nobody knows how recipes work better than Chef Charles.

But it doesn’t stop there: a popular speaker on championship thinking and personal greatness, Chef Charles also happens to have uniquely keen insights into the ingredients of what makes a successful life. Here’s what he says:

“Milk, butter, sugar, flour, eggs. With just these five ingredients, you can make hundreds of different recipes … maybe thousands.

“The exact same five ingredients can give you a dense biscuit or a light, fluffy croissant. Slightly vary the amounts, the order in which you add them, the method by which you handle them, or the baking temperature, and you can produce a myriad of different wonderful delights.

“It’s much the same with life. We all have essentially the same kinds of challenges in our lives; how we handle them will dictate very different end results.”

So what are the milk, butter, sugar, flour, and eggs of a life?

Or, let’s simplify that. Butter is made from milk. Sugar and flour are both starches. So let’s reduce the five to three:

Milk, flour, eggs.

Sigmund Freud was once asked what a normal person should be able to do well in order to lead a full and happy life. If the questioner expected a complex journey into the depths of the human psyche, he was disappointed, because the good doctor came back with a three-word reply: “Lieben und arbeiten.”

Love and work. Milk and flour.

Work isn’t just a way to earn money and thus pay your bills. It is that, but also more. Work is how you make an impact on the world. Your work is how the world becomes different as a result of your being here. Your work is your footprint, the evidence that you were here, the reason you matter.

In a word, your purpose.

And love? Love is what makes mattering matter.

You have oxygen, you have hydrogen, two uninteresting gasses. Add the ingredient of attraction, interaction, and mutual devotion, and suddenly you have H20. Mist, clouds, rain, icicles, oceans, rivers, fog, life, humanity … all manifestations of water.

As Lao Tzu says, the highest good is like water. But really it’s more than that: the highest good is water.

Two boring gasses, suddenly and miraculously animated into something amazing. Love.

Lieben und arbeiten, milk and love.

But there’s still the eggs. Because just milk and flour alone doesn’t do it. You need a third ingredient to turn events and circumstances into a meaningful, satisfying, thrilling life. A third dimension.

I’m thinking, maybe that crucial third ingredient is trouble.

The word trouble has the same roots as the word turbid, and they both derive from the Latin turbidus, meaning “muddy or full of confusion.”

Water in itself doesn’t do much until you stir it up, muddle it, give it trouble.

One of the most destructive effects of troubling times is that, beyond the painful emotions they bring up, they also throw us off course by muddying the waters of our lives.

The central difference between those who are able to thrive through troubles and those who are beaten down and embittered by them is that the first group are able to extract positive meaning from the painful events or circumstances. To see through the muddy waters.

Without the turbulence, would you ever extract the meaning?

Deeper happiness often arises as the direct result of having experienced hard times and found a way through to the other side. As Emma Thompson said, in that lovely quote I mentioned a few weeks ago, “Human beings who have suffered … are kinder.” Perhaps because they’ve been pushed into extracting more meaning.

The word character, from an old Greek word for scrape or scratch, originally meant “an engraved mark” and only centuries later took its current sense of “a defining quality.”

Character (as Bob Burg and I wrote in It’s Not About You), is what happens when life scratches itself onto your soul.

Trouble shapes you; it tends to carve furrows of compassion, understanding, and generosity of spirit. Times of greater pain and difficulty cut deeper grooves, which hurts; the plus side is, those grooves seem to allow more life in.

Work. Love. Trouble.

Here’s to a delicious life.

What Does It All Add Up To?

August 27th, 2014


I am an archeologist. You are, too.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

I’ve been working on a memoir for a man with an absolutely fascinating life. (I can’t say who he is just yet. Actually I could tell you, but then I’d have to … well, you know.) I need to have the manuscript completed by mid-September. Here’s where things are right now:

I have dozens of pages of recollections, stories, and drafts my coauthor dictated into his phone before I was involved in the project; and a stack of detailed transcripts of about a dozen hours of phone conversation he and I have had over the last three weeks. A massive pile of sentences and paragraphs—more than 120,000 words of raw material.

What does it all add up to?

Ah. That’s the tricky part.

Some of this mass is semi-finished, some raw as the grass. Some of it will get tossed out. A lot of it stays, though I’m not entirely sure which parts yet. All of it needs work—in some cases, a lot of work.

Today I spent hours moving big pieces around, working to discover which ones fit where and how, and what the picture is supposed to look like when it’s all assembled. It’s like trying to assemble a 120,000-piece jigsaw puzzle—only none of the pieces are quite finished, and about 20,000 of them don’t fit at all.

The task feels so overwhelming that I could see it tipping me over the edge into despair. Except that I’ve been here before. What keeps me sane and gets me through it is a belief I have. It may sound weird, but it is the singular faith that pulls me through every difficult stretch and dark time in the writing process:

To me, the finished story already exists.

This book isn’t something my coauthor and I are inventing, or creating, or building. It’s something that’s already there, in some unseen dimension. Or more accurately, in some half-seen dimension. My job is to find it, see it, grasp hold, and gently but firmly pull it out into the open without breaking it.

Sort of like what it must be like to unearth the fragile bones of a dinosaur fossil and reassemble the skeleton.

This belief is not entirely original. I didn’t even fully realize I had it until I read Stephen King describing it in his wonderful book, On Writing:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

This doesn’t just happen with 100,000-word books.

The other day I reviewed a sales letter for a friend. His draft was barely 1,200 words, a hundredth the size of my memoir-mass. But revising it was the exact same process. Some words and ideas things fit, some didn’t. I could see a few key pieces that were missing, or in the wrong place. That’s a jawbone, not a pelvis, it goes over here. This is the femur of some entirely different animal, set it aside.

This all takes a lot more whisk broom than pickaxe. Get the pieces uncovered and out onto the table without breaking them—that’s often the hardest part, as King points out. It’s easy to tap into a faintly felt idea, write out a paragraph, and then discover that in the process of hammering your fingers on the keyboard, you’ve obliterated the original thought and can’t find it anymore. You can’t go in there with a pneumatic jack-hammer. Yes, sometimes the pieces are under rock shelf. But more often they’re resting under a few inches of sand. It may take a pickaxe to get the 120,000 words down. But then it takes a whisk broom and tweezers to pull out those delicate pieces intact.

Pablo Casals once described playing the cello as “sawing down a tree with one hand while threading a needle with the other.”

Writing is a lot like that.

I think living a life is exactly like that.

It seems to me that my life has been a process of grabbing hold of chunks of experience and turning them this way and that, seeing where they fit into the whole picture, or if they even fit in at all. I grab hold of this job, that relationship, this situation over here … is that a jawbone, or a pelvis? Or is it the femur of some totally different animal altogether?

And when you put all the pieces together, what does the picture on the cover of the box looks like? What exactly is this dinosaur fossil I’m in the midst of excavating? What is the living creature it describes?

What does it all add up to?

Like writing a story, the task of living a life sometimes feels overwhelming. So much so that, at times, you could almost see it tipping you over the edge into despair. What pulls me through every difficult stretch and dark time in the process of living is this article of faith:

To me, the finished story already exists.

I believe my life, your life, everyone’s life, is a perfect thing that already exists, clear and unto itself, a coherent picture in some unseen or partially-seen dimension.

Our job, yours and mine?

To find it, see it, grasp hold, and gently but firmly pull it out into the open where it can breathe, spread its wings, and fly.

(Photo by Klaus Nigge)

Share a Little Light

August 19th, 2014

two kids

The other day my agent told me she had a check for me, audio royalties for sales of The Red Circle audiobook. Not huge, but perfectly timed: I knew it would come in handy. I asked her if she would overnight it that very day, so it would arrive in my hand before the weekend.

Which she obligingly said she would do.

The next day, wondering if she’d made the FedEx cutoff in time, I texted her, asking if the overnight had gone. She texted back that it had and gave me the tracking number.

I could have simply texted back, “Thanks.” Or, “Thx!” Or “TY.” And that would have been okay. But I wanted to do more than okay. She had gone out of her way for me, beyond the call of duty, and I wanted to make sure she knew I appreciated it. Better yet, I wanted her to feel good about the fact that she’d gone that extra mile. So I texted her:

“Oh bless you, my child. May the poets write of your gloriousness. May the bards laud your exploits for generations. May your Netflix queue be ever o’erflowing with excellence and mirth.”

Hardly high comedy. Not something for the ages. But it injected a little light into her day. She wrote back “Lol! Thank you!”

A few days later I had an email back-and-forth with the bookkeeper at my lawyer’s office about a check I was expecting. (Must be Where’s the Check Week.) I can’t think of a more annoying message than, “Hey, is my check there yet?” So I wrote:

“Not to be nosey …. but has that little check showed his friendly face today?”

and gave the email the subject line, “le cheque arrivè?”

She wrote back to say, no, it hadn’t.

I wrote back,

“Que sera, sera. Or, as my wife and I said to the sommelier the other day, ’Kay, Syrah … Syrah.

Again: not the epitome of sparkling wit. Kind of dumb, honestly. But what the heck. It felt more personal than simply saying, “Okay, thanks for checking.”

She wrote back a few minutes later:

“You made our day here at the office … I did not know the meaning of the word sommelier and I don’t feel so bad b/c neither did my co-worker … however, I looked for the definition online and then one of the partners, who obviously dines in fancier restaurants than I frequent (which is usually the McDonald’s drive-thru w/ the grandkids), gave us the proper pronunciation … so this is our word for the day and one to add to our vocabulary! Thanks!”

“You made my day…”

What a great thing to hear.

In our household Ana and I share most tasks. We cook together. We both shop, we both straighten up. We both earn household income. However, I have a formal job description as husband: it is my professional responsibility to make her laugh.

I learned this from my father, the maestro. When I was a kid we used to dine formally, with linens, cloth napkins in napkin rings, the whole nine yards. At some point in the proceedings my father would belch.

My brother and I would crack up.

My mother would say, in mock horror, “Oh, Alfred!

My father would raise his hands in unruffled dignity and say:

“It is my patriarchal duty to make my family laugh.”

I agree — and I take this duty very seriously. (“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” etcetera. These are my appointed rounds.) There is almost nothing I won’t do, no matter how foolish or ridiculous it makes me look, if it stands the slightest chance of eliciting at least a giggle from my wife. And 9 times out of 10, it does. In fact, the more years we’ve spent together, the more we seem to laugh.

I believe a relationship that is not heavily leavened with laughter is doomed. It’s not for no reason that the Inuit Eskimo word for sex literally translates, “laughing together in bed.”

But it’s not really about humor, per se. It’s not about being a clown. It’s not even about being funny.

It’s about sharing a little light.

Sometimes that means simply being interested.

A few weeks ago I was traveling to New York to meet with an editor, and booked myself a room at a Marriott. A few days later I realized there was a nicer Marriott closer to my editor (cheaper, too), and called Marriott’s 800 number. The woman I got told me her name was Betty.

Betty took such good care of me, was so diligent and genuinely committed to finding me the very best solution, that I was totally charmed.

When we were all finished with the reservation she asked me if there was anything else I needed.

“Yes,” I said. “I have a question. Is the experience of working for Marriott as delightful for you as it sounds? And is it as delightful for you as the experience of being a client is for me?”

“Oh, let me tell you!…” and she launched into a soliloquy.

Betty told me she was 78 years old. (“Who else do you know who would hire a 78-year-old woman?”) Her husband had a heart attack not long ago and needed to be at home. Betty’s work at Marriott kept their household going. In fact, she added, Marriott had just gotten her set up with the equipment she needed to work as an operator out of her house, and she was about to make the transition to being a work-at-home employee.

Betty didn’t like working for Marriott.

She loved it.

“It shows,” I told her. I added that the next time I called to make a reservation, I hoped it would be Betty who answered the 800 line again.

She thanked me and asked if there was anything else I needed.

“Yes,” I said, “just one more thing. Can you connect me to the guys who do the after-call customer service surveys? I want to tell them how lucky they are to have you.”

She did, and I did.

Made my day.

In that conversation, who shared the light? Who went beyond the perfunctory, and injected the oxygen of genuine care and interest into what could easily have been a dull and routine proceeding? Well, Betty did. And I did, too. We both did. And we both came away … what’s the word?


The Art of Upset

August 12th, 2014

RR color

My friend Allen was upset about something a club member had done, and he called a good friend of his to vent.

“You should write this all out in a letter,” the friend said after Allen had spewed his feelings for a few minutes. Allen agreed, and before they hung up his friend added, “Tell you what. Before you send that letter, call me up and read it to me.”

Allen sat down and wrote the letter, then called his friend and said, “Okay, I’ve got the letter written.” He read it over the phone while his friend listened. “It’s not bad,” the friend said. “But there’re a few things in there you might want to change.” He made some suggestions. Over the next few days, Allen rewrote the letter several times. Finally satisfied, he called his friend and read it to him once more over the phone.

“Does it say everything you wanted to say?” his friend asked. Yes, replied Allen, it did. “Good,” said his friend.

“Now I want you to tear it up and throw it away.”

Now that’s a good friend to have.

“Turn the other cheek” isn’t a cover for denying your feelings or wimping out. It’s a smart tactical tool for effective living.

Whether it’s with your spouse, or close family member, or a lifelong friend, or a colleague, there will likely come times when you are truly, deeply upset with another person who is important to you. How you deal with that upset can have an impact on that relationship that echoes for years.

Most of my adult life it’s been a struggle for me to find my way through major upsets. My native tendency is to avoid, stuff, and squelch them, or to blow up with them. Or both. (In that sequence.)

My conclusion after decades of fieldwork:

First: upset feelings are important. They’re part of who you are. Like the railroad sign that says STOP • LOOK • LISTEN, they’re doing all that clanging and flashing for a reason. Trying to ignore them or gloss them over, like a Botox of the emotions, is not only futile, it’s also dangerous. Bottled up feelings don’t go away, they fester, eating away at your inner tranquility and goodwill until it becomes gangrenous. Show me a marriage where the two parties never fight or argue, and I’ll show you a marriage headed for trouble. (No need to research that one further, I’ve done the fieldwork there, too. You’re welcome.)

The key to healthy negative emotions, though, is to have them; feel them; and then let them go.

Notice I said have them and feel them — and did not add “… and express them.”

It seems to me, the value of communicating negative feelings is often overrated. Sometimes expressing negative feelings is appropriate. Sometimes it’s important. Far more often, it’s neither. Or at least, it’s not necessarily important or helpful to express them to the other person involved.

I have more than once had an experience just like Allen’s, when I wrote a long, furiously detailed letter or email that I did not end up sending — and was so glad later on that I had not.

I needed to write the letter. The other person didn’t need to read it.

Just because an emotion is genuine, just because you truly feel it, does not necessarily mean it contains valid insight.

“I’m feeling angry at you” might be perfectly true for me, but that doesn’t mean you did anything wrong or that there’s anything wrong with you. It just means that’s how I’m feeling. Period. Putting it out on the table so you and I can look at it together may well give us ground for some good interaction and shared insight. Maybe. But hurling it at you like a lance or swinging it at you like a bludgeon isn’t the best way to start the process.

“The obsessive need to be right,” writes Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now, “is an expression of the fear of death.”

It can also spell the death of a friendship, whether through one all-out spat or in little slights and barbs over time — a friendship’s version of the death of a thousand cuts.

Letting go of the need to be right, even the right to be right, may at some point be the key act of generosity that gives an important relationship the room, air, and sunlight it needs to flourish.

A love story

August 5th, 2014


Our wedding anniversary (#6) is coming in three days. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might know this date has been, well, sort of a hit-or-miss thing.

Year 1, Ana and I were on opposite sides of the globe. (Oops.) Year 2, we were in the middle of travels but converged at home for that one day. (Whew.) Year 3, missed again. (Dang.) Year 4, together! (Hey, two outta four.) Year 5 … you won’t believe this, but: apart. (Oy!)

Now it’s year 6. And on Friday the 8th we’ll be on a plane (together) flying out west to attend my nephew Jon’s wedding. Auspicious for all Jo(h)ns involved.

So in honor of anniversaries and weddings and love, I thought I’d share a book review I just wrote for HugDug, Seth Godin’s cool new review/charity site.

I plan to write one of these a month. So far I’ve reviewed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Benjamin Black’s Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. And yesterday, I wrote this one.

Wait — Stephen King?! A love story? Yep. As you get to the end of the review, you’ll see why the title fits.


# # #

Time: a love story
A review of 11/22/63, by Stephen King

What if you could go back in time? And what if you could go back to Dealy Plaza in Dallas in the early sixties?

Time travel stories typically have a sort of surgical, sterile feel to them, the characters dropping out of our time and showing up in another, like in Star Trek’s transporter. Sure, they inevitably mess something up (“an encounter that could create a time paradox the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!” as the good Doctor Emmet Brown puts it), causing the hero to jump through hoops to put things right.

But the actual movement in time, from one era to another, happens as cleanly as an expert dive through water: time seems to part for the hero’s passage with barely a ripple. And the fabric of time itself is a pretty bland thing, like a very long roll of blank paper, blindly accepting whatever gets written on it.

Not here. In 11/22/63 time reacts, becoming almost a character itself.

King describes it as “the obdurate past,” a phrase that becomes the narrator’s thoughtful mantra. (Obdurate. What a great word.) The past is changeable, but it doesn’t seem to want to be changed, and it pushes back. The bigger the change and its worldwide implications, the bigger the resistance. At times it even seems to hatch elaborate plots in its efforts to thwart the hero’s actions. In a way, the story’s central antagonist is not JFK’s would-be killer but the fabric of history itself.

Or is it?

Is it an antagonist? Is history fighting back just because it’s obdurate by nature, or does it know something we don’t?

You start getting the sense that the fabric of time, or events, or existence, or whatever the nature of this fabric is, is wiser than we are. That it may be better for all in the long run if things happen the way they do, or did. What emerges almost feels like a theological statement: that there is a force guiding events, even seemingly random events, toward the ideal outcome for the larger good. Even if the only evidence of this is that, as tragic and awful as things sometimes are, if they went any differently it would all end up worse.

(I very much doubt Mr. King would describe his own intentions in such lofty terms as “theological statement.” Then again, this is the guy who wrote, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”)

Which brings me to Philip Roth.

King and Roth are not two four-letter words you often hear in the same sentence, but it’s interesting to compare the what-if-we-mess-with-famous-events scenarios of 11/22/63 and Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America.

In King’s book, someone travels back in time in order to change a key historical event. In Roth’s there is no time travel, he simply writes an alternate history by changing the key event himself.

King’s premise: “What if JFK survived Dallas?”

Roth’s is, “What if Hitler won the war?” (Actually, it’s creepier than that: it’s more, “What if America sided with Hitler?”)

In King’s story, changing that key event causes a gaping wound in the fabric of history that leads to some truly bizarre outcomes—both terrible and terribly believable. (I understand the author sat for a spell with superstar historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin to thrash this part out. It’s spell-binding, worth the price of admission, and guaranteed to stay with you for weeks after the reading, perhaps months.)

In Roth’s, changing that key event also causes a gaping wound with terrible consequences, but in this case things eventually wind back around to “normal.” Within a few decades, yes, even though the Nazis and Americans got chummy and things did get pretty awful there for a while (who knew the United States could turn so fascist?), the alternate history ultimately blends back in seamlessly with the real.

So exactly how does that happen? That’s what intrigues me.

Both stories seem to suggest that the fabric of history (or of reality, depending on your vantage point) has a sort of immune system of its own that actively struggles to heal itself. In Roth’s story the immune system prevails. In King’s it tries like hell—but it can’t quite overcome the grievous wound.

In fact King even suggests, in the slyest and subtlest ways, that some of the great catastrophes of our actual history, such as 9/11 or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, were never “meant” to occur but erupted as toxic symptoms of other rips in the fabric of events-as-intended.

Thought-provoking stuff.

Yet none of that is why I love this book so much.

Because even with all of that, 11/22/63 is not at its heart a time-travel story.

It’s a love story. And I love what it says about love.

It is no spoiler to tell you that the story’s hero, a young Maine schoolteacher named Steve—whoops, I mean, Jake—goes back in time and falls in love. And that his ardent desire to preserve and protect that love ultimately comes into conflict with his historical mission, that is, to save the president from the assassin’s bullet. That much you could guess. What I won’t reveal is where that leads … except to say that the story’s final pages are a poignant tribute to the enduring, almost gravitational pull of love, even beyond the boundaries of time and reality.

Hey. Maybe that’s a clue.

Maybe there is a force holding together the fabric of history, laboring silently and continuously on our behalf to nudge events toward their most benign possible outcomes. Maybe that force behaves in much the same way as love behaves.

Maybe it is love.

Tweet Tweet

July 29th, 2014


Outside my study window, our garden is visited constantly by birds. Cardinals, redpolls, finches, doves, grackles, catbirds, downy woodpeckers, flickers, evening grosbeaks, bluebirds, owls, even two big gorgeous hawks. This week, they have become my muse, because they know how to do something that I needed to learn.

They know how to go “tweet.”

After writing last week about brevity being the soul of wit and Oliver Strunk’s famous Rule 17 (“Omit needless words!”), I found myself wrestling with a new opportunity to put Rule 17 to the test.

It turned out to be a pretty severe test.

A few days ago I realized that today is the day a new book comes out. Or more accurately: a new edition of a book. Today, July 29, is the release date for the mass-market paperback edition of The Red Circle, the memoir I wrote a few years ago with my buddy, SEAL sniper Brandon Webb.

Sis-Boom-Bah! I’ve never had a book go to mass-market paperback before.

(A few definitions: “Trade paper” is the larger-size paperback, the one they print with the exact same page layouts as the hardcover, typically a year after the hardcover’s release. “Mass market” is a whole new layout with smaller pages. You know: back-pocket format. For beach-reading.)

I decided I’d take the opportunity to do something else I’ve never done before: a Twitter campaign. I would condense the entire book into a month’s worth of daily tweets.

Actually, since I added two days’ lead time, into 33 tweets.

So two days ago, Sunday, I tweeted this:

“For the next 33 days: The Red Circle, condensed to 33 tweets. The Red Circle”

(If you want to follow the whole series, I’m @johndavidmann on Twitter. They post every night at 9:00 Eastern.)

The maximum length of a tweet is 140 characters. (“Characters” includes spaces as well as letters and all punctuation.) But I don’t actually get to use all 140 for my content. Because to make sense, each quote needs to be followed by the book’s title and a link where people can go get it and/or read more about it. As above.

So, adding “The Red Circle” to the tweet, that’s 14 characters subtracted from the 120. Plus the shortest URL I could make (using bitly) for the Amazon link is another 22. Plus a space between them: that’s a total of 37 gone.

But then, I’m told that if you want to leave enough room so others can retweet your tweet, adding their own comment, and even allowing the possibility of someone else retweeting their retweet, then you’ve got to leave another 20 characters free.

(Aha. So good Twitter is like good military strategy — it requires an understanding of the right conditions for a sound tactical retweet.)

So: 140 – 37 – 20 = … 83? Wait — eighty-three characters?! That’s it?

That’s it.

Which means the book’s subtitle doesn’t even qualify as a tweet: “My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen” — 84 characters including spaces. (Oops.)

The Red Circle contains 134,382 words. That’s nearly three-quarters of a million characters. (728,391, including spaces.)

When Brandon and I were nearing the end of our manuscript, we sought to capture the essential message of the whole book into the last page or two. It took us 367 words:

“I’ve thought long and hard about why I am writing this book and what I want it to say. I think the message I want my story to get across boils down to two words:

Excellence matters.

“Throughout my time with the navy and within the SEAL community, I’ve seen poor leadership and exceptional leadership. I’ve seen training that was simply good, training that was great, and training so transcendingly amazing it blew my mind. And I’ve seen the difference it makes.

“In political matters I have always been a down-the-middle-line person. When it comes to leaders, I care less about their party affiliation and more about their character and competence. I don’t care how they would vote on school prayer, or abortion, or gay marriage, or gun laws. I want to know that they know what the hell they’re doing, and that they are made of that kind of unswerving steel that will not be rattled in moments that count, no matter what is coming at them. I want to know that they won’t flinch in the face of debate, danger, or death.

“I want to know that they excel at what they do.

“A free society looks like it rests on big principles and lofty ideals, and maybe it does for much of the time. But in the dark times, those times that count most, what it comes down to is not reason or rhetoric but pure commitment, honed over time into the fabric of excellence.

“Why am I telling you this? Because it matters.

“You may never shoot a sniper rifle. You may never serve as part of an assault team, or stand security in combat, or board a hostile ship at midnight on the high seas. You may never wear a uniform; hell, you may never even throw a punch in the name of freedom. I’ll tell you what, though. Whatever it is that you do, you are making a stand, either for excellence, or for mediocrity.

“This is what I learned about being a Navy SEAL: it is all about excellence, and about never giving up on yourself. And that is the red circle I will continue to hold, no matter what.”

That’s the final 367 words of the book; 1948 characters. So I took that conclusion down to three tweets:

“I want to know a leader won’t flinch in the face of debate, danger, or death.”

“Whatever you do, you are making a stand, either for excellence or for mediocrity.”

“What I learned: being a SEAL is all about excellence & never giving up on yourself.”

… and then boiled those three down to one:

Excellence matters.”

Two words. 17 letters.

Rule 17.


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.