Archive for September, 2013

One Trick Pony… or Goat

I heard a Ted Radio Hour talk this past weekend the subject of “Framing your Story” and it had me thinking about Resumes.

One if the segments included an interview with Chimamanda Adichie on the dangers of a single story. The danger of a single story is the tendency to reduce the person to a single dimension based on the limited information we have.  In its worst form it is prejudice.  The author gave a different example; one of being a Nigerian college student in the United States. Her roommate assumed that English was not her first language (despite it being the national language of Nigeria) and that she had no knowledge of American Pop music or how to use a stove.  It was not so much prejudice but a “patronizing, well meaning pity”.

Her story reminded me of the time I worked in Denmark.  I was very concerned when I saw the Simpson’s on TV there.  I thought everyone would think all Americans were like them.  I was assured by my Danish friends that Homer is not unique to the United States he is in their words, “a universal”.  It dawned on me that it was presumptuous of me (and insulting to them) to assume they would think that there was just one story to describe Americans.  

Yet, I can’t help but think that all of us fall prey to this danger all of the time.

Although not the point of his own talk in this Ted Radio Hour episode, Andrew Stanton tells a joke that illustrates the “single story danger” in a very picturesque way.

I worry about resumes and interviews.  In our fast paced work world they seem (of necessity) to be designed to tell a single story.  

Truth. Power. Speaking.

I have been thinking a lot about my last work experience, mostly I am thinking about how I explain it to others when they ask me why I left.  One of the most unfortunate consequences of the way we live is the pace.  We have come to expect everything in sound bites; easy short ways to answer how are you doing? Or what are you doing?  If we are honest we ask these as social lubricants and are not necessarily interested in the answer.  We know this because sometimes people unfamiliar  with these social conventions will actually tell us the answer.  It is hard to know who is at fault here: us, for asking a very personal question we have no interest in hearing the answer to, or to the person who misreads our feigned interest; but this is a subject for another blog. 

The reality is that as flat as the world has allegedly become our individual worlds have become very small, our attention spans and distance vision a lot shorter.  So, although you did not ask, here is the reason I decided to leave. Consider it an exercise that will spare you the awkwardness of asking the next time we meet.  Feel free to draw short pithy conclusions from it. 

 My departure started for me in July.  I was beginning to suffer anxiety that interrupted my sleep, gave me headaches and such severe reflux I was unable to eat. I was so exhausted mentally I was unable to keep track of the most basic of work tasks.   This had nothing to do with the people I work with.    To the best of my recollection it boiled down to the following things; technical knowledge of the system; my inability to get up to speed quickly on it and my obsession with not making a mistake.  Whether the result of facing the fact that I was quickly sinking or something much deeper I don’t know, but it rendered me functionally useless. I thought it might be a good time to do something…

When the pressure reached beyond my control limits I “blurted” a note to the president telling him of the situation I was in and that it was up to me to solve it.  As an indication of my disorientation I failed to copy my own boss.  Once the note circulated, I had lunch with my boss who asked me to come back with a plan.  After I presented a plan and we discussed it, I knew I needed to leave.  Although there was a chance I could boot strap my way to technical competence, I knew viscerally, there was very little chance of this being successful. 

Let me be clear, there are no hard feelings from my perspective.  I knew going in that I would need to be playing a variety of roles, something I expected in a company this size. I knew it was not right to draw this out on the hope that it might work out.  There was already some doubt about my suitability and I know enough about myself to know better than to expect anyone to change their mind about the likelihood of my success once in doubt.  If I get a choice, I would prefer the bone saw to be sharp, for all concerned.

It was an unusual situation and I am not sure everyone knew what to think of the whole affair.  Yet, I am grateful for the opportunity.   Everyone there was a pleasure to work with.  They were intelligent, easy-going and seemed to have the right priorities.  No narcissists or pointy haired bosses.  In fact, this would have been easier (and no doubt shorter) to explain if the people in the company were hard to work with.  That is simply not the case and it is what forced me to confront the reality of my situation. 

On the communal bookshelf of their office is a book entitled “Failing Forward”.  Despite its simplistic formula (yep I read it) it is nevertheless correct in asserting that failure is a necessary part of work and life.  I found it kind of funny how easy this is to understand as an abstraction.  Not so easy when it seems to be sitting across from you and looking you right in the eye.  I have heard a lot of people talk of the need to speak truth to power.  I came to understand this phrase in a fundamentally different way when I knew I had to do go.  The temptation to avoid the reality, to try to limp along, draw a paycheck in the vain hope that it would somehow work out were all very powerful forces indeed.  I don’t know how to measure the courage (if that is what it was)it takes to speak truth to that power; I just know it was absolutely necessary.

Take a hike!

Or at Least watch the Movie ‘The Way’.

I took a suggestion to watch this movie and I was quite happy I did.  I love a good long walk in the wilderness but it also had me thinking about entrepreneurs. This is the story of people who meet on the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile journey that has been the route of religious pilgrims since the middle ages starting in France and winding through the Pyrenees Mountains ending in Northwest Spain.  Before you get concerned, consider the words of the gypsy Ishmael who in the movie declares emphatically “the Camino has nothing to do with religion, nothing at all”.

The story begins with Martin Sheen, a successful Ophthalmologist who gets a call while on the golf course from a police captain in France, informing him that his son, Daniel (and son in real life Emilio Estevez) has died in an accident on his first day on the Camino.  After making the journey to identify his son’s body, he has it cremated and impulsively decides to make the 500 mile journey.  Anyone who knows anything about backpacking knows this is a very, very bad idea.  Although he can use the equipment his son died with, the likelihood of a man of his age and physical condition being able to complete such a journey is remote.  Sound familiar?  Anyone ever questioned the wisdom of your start up?

Along the way he meets up with several people, all on the walks, and all for reasons different than they initially proclaim.  What starts us down a path is rarely what sustains us for the remainder of the journey.  So too entrepreneurs, they have both private and public reasons for doing it.  As backpackers know, a great deal of self revelation occurs on the trail and wise hikers choose their companions carefully.   If you want to be an entrepreneur you will do the same.   You had better be comfortable showing your ass because you will be doing it a lot.   Brené Brown argues that the soul of innovation, creativity and change lies in vulnerability.  It would be wise to embrace it.

Entrepreneurs, like the characters in ‘The Way’, ended up on the journey for a lot of different reasons but all were looking for a different way to… well everything.  Like the Camino, starting and running your business is harder than it looks.  Our ignorance and arrogance (um… pull up your pants) got us on the trail but it will not get us to the end of the trail.  What the characters in this film are forced to learn quickly, successful entrepreneurs know cold.  Success is not possible alone.  You are going to get in some spectacular jams that will kill you if you don’t have a support system.   As Martin Sheen’s character found out swimming fully clothed in a very cold river to rescue his escaping backpack, materials are crucial, but it takes more than equipment to get you through this.  Resources are limited (you cannot take everything you might possibly need on the trail).   It requires clear, careful but creative use of these resources (you had better know how to use the equipment you chose to take on the trail and you will likely have to adapt the use of some of it or even sacrifice it to survive.

ImageIf the end of the journey is your focus you might want to re-think taking the journey. I can point you to plenty of miserable one time backpackers who made the end of the trip their focus. Such a ‘future state’ focus will keep you from paying attention to the important things right in front of you right now.  A lot of people end up stranded, lost or in the company of angry mother bears on hikes because they are not paying attention to their immediate surroundings.  Both will kill you with breathtaking speed.  I will admit that a hot shower after 10+ days on the trail has me singing like Madelyn Kahn in ‘Young Frankenstein’, but it is not the reason I backpack.  The payoff at the end ought not to be the reason you start or operate a business.

Perhaps the most important thing it invites us to learn is that work is not linear.  I suspect that many of us got off the corporate train because it became clear that we were being expected to work in a ‘linear progress’ fantasy.  Tempting as it might be to believe that such a world can be “created” we all know it is not possible.  Work will not move in one endless, seamless, and errorless upward arc.   A backpacking trip reminds us quickly of something fundamental and important. We are not (and will never be) masters of the universe.  Stuff is going to happen that we cannot control.  Stressing (and stressing about) perfection is a waste of time energy and focus.  Being in the wilderness makes this clear because you are sleeping outside on the cold hard ground and you smell pretty bad. There are no delusions about perfection on the trail.   Uncomfortable as it might sound, it has a way of making you focus on what is important.

So take a real backpacking trip.   A trip where you have to carry on your back everything you are going to need for a 7+ day trip into a place out of your comfort zone.   Although the movie skims over what would have been real difficulties for a guy impulsively deciding to take a 500 mile hike, the message is still an accurate one.  It changes you. It makes you see reality more clearly.  Maybe your own trip will change the way you live and approach your work.

Not sure how to do it? Let me know.  I will totally help you.

P.S.  if you are hoping to hear me sing “Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I Found You!”  it’ll  cost ya. and… it don’t mean we’re datin’

tiny gods -2

In ‘The Lord of the Rings’,  Gandalf tells Frodo that he would seize the ring to use it for good, but it would end up wielding power through him too great and terrible to imagine.   We could all learn something from this statement with regard to technology. If Gandalf humbly acknowledges his own weakness in the face of power, might we heed this lesson before we go linearly down the path of temptation to master the universe?

To the degree technology is about power there is a great lesson in the eye of Sauron as well.  It is a splendid image of the desire to monitor and control others.  Speaking of that, my son made a very astute observation about the Novel ‘1984’.  On top of the eerie similarity the opinions of the characters in the book to the opinions we heard spoken about the candidates during the last election (we don’t so much choose affirmatively as deselect negatively until there is only one remaining) he also noticed that we are in a ‘1984 state’ more disturbing than the one in the book because “the monitored state we live in” was not imposed, but is being given away freely (bit by bit) as we download applications to our smart phones.  While in this discussion we even heard someone unconsciously quote the Stasi by saying “we ought to have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide.”  (No Joke!)

Technology is the not the issue, it remains fixed within its nature.   Our willful ignorance of the implications of the uses of technology (ignorance created in part by the distractions we have created using technology) may land us in a world very much like the hell some have imagined:  an existence of misery that we chose freely.

Is technology our tiny god?

I just finished reading an interview with Richard White on Marketplace: and it had me thinking again about the issue of our love of technology for the sake of technology.  As he waxes on about the future and automation I found myself asking the same questions as the author but also this:  Is it necessary to automate everything we can? Can some CEO who knows less than he is willing to admit about a process he casually observes really make an accurate assessment of jobs that need to be automated? What is the proper use of technology?

Technology our “tiny god”

 In “Shows About Nothing” Thomas Hibbs makes an interesting observation about the Harry Potter Stories that is worth considering in this context.  He invites us to look at the subtext of magic in the movies as a metaphor for technology.  I know there was some blabbering that the books were dangerous for our kids because they glamorize magic… Whatever.  I am not sure that these stories are any different from the message of many televangelists who preach a “Gospel of Success” that in some cases seeks to turn God into the wand (or an ATM) that we can use for our own designs.  I think Alan Jacobs has it right when he says that the use of magic in the Harry Potter stories is an invitation to reflect on the technology and our obsession with mastering and possessing nature.  As Peter Kreeft asserts, reductionism and materialistic philosophies are the villains here not science and (in this case) technology.   The debate is not whether or not to use technology it is about its proper use. 

Twice as much is not twice as good:

In the Song “Gravity” John Mayer makes this surprisingly obvious statement but it bares repeating. 

I had a childhood friend who learned this in a very concrete way.  His first experience involved Cheese Nips.  As we sat watching TV he ate an entire box of cheese nips and promptly threw up.  He was subsequently never able to eat them again.  Not long after that he repeated the exercise, this time with marshmallows.  (Needless to say, I knew exactly what to get him for his next birthday!)  

Is automation a good thing? It absolutely is! However, just because we can automate something does not mean we should.  In business it is tempting to assume that the more we automate the more controlled it is from a process and cost perspective.  Yet as the article cleverly intimates, the question we ought to be asking first is, what is the purpose of the process we are seeking to automate?  As our worship of VRUs in the 90s made painfully clear, if the process touches the customer directly and is centered on service you better have a person  (not a machine) handling that process.  


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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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