You’re an Industry Expert? Uh Oh..

Whether you’re pro mask or anti mask, pro vaccine or anti vaccine, can we agree government guidance throughout the pandemic has been a disaster?  Questions such as, How many days to quarantine?  Who gets vaccinated when?  Do employers need to mandate vaccination or not? seem as accurately answered by a Magic Eight Ball as a government spokesperson.  Even the medical community appears to be confused.  For example, I recently asked my doctor if he thought masks on airplanes were a good or bad idea and he responded by throwing up his hands, shrugging his shoulders, and saying, “Who’s to say?  It’s a personal choice, I guess.”  Not exactly the clear, confidence-instilling response I was seeking. 

How did our nation’s leadership botch this crisis?  Now before we start pointing our blue or red fingers at who’s to blame, let’s consider a refreshingly honest, non partisan mea culpa from Rochelle Walensky, the director of The Center for Disease Control (CDC), during a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.  Her comments on why our nation screwed up its Covid strategy were so insightful, in fact, I find it terrific insight for any organization (perhaps yours?) trying to guide, sell, persuade, or bulldoze an audience into making good decisions. 

Paraphrasing Rochelle’s comments, her takeaways sounded like this: 
“The CDC’s staff is comprised of smart researchers and scientists who spend most of their time communicating with other smart researchers and scientists who are working together to solve complicated problems.  As a result, our communication style is steeped in vocabulary, acronyms, and phrasing that makes sense to industry professionals but looks like Greek to the public.
“Suddenly, the pandemic hit and our staff, accustomed to that technical style, had to begin communicating directly with the public and, even worse, politicians*.”
(*OK, she didn’t say that last part about politicians but wouldn’t that have been great?  Ha ha 😊)

Rochelle went on to describe how CDC advisories, press releases, website postings, etc. continued to follow the same complicated format they’d been using for years, which meant the information made perfect sense to the .001% of us who are infectious disease insiders but left the rest of us in the dark.  She even confessed that the CDC’s Communications Director role, the one role that might have been able to streamline and simplify all the technical jargon, had been vacant for the last four years!  Shocking.

What happens when our organizations, like the CDC, don’t have a talented Communications Director to align our message with our audience?  Unfortunately, the outcome is not what our high ego minds like to believe.  Our egos tell us, “I have an important message to share.  My audience, dazzled with my expertise, will appreciate what I have to say and pay close attention.  If they don’t understand what I’m talking about they will double down listening to me, consider carefully my words, and reach the same logical conclusion that I have.”

Ah, if only!  Reality is quite different.  When we do not communicate with extreme clarity, here’s what our audience actually thinks:  “You have nine seconds to capture my attention.  Since you failed, I’m tuning you out, reaching for my phone, and tuning into a different channel to get someone else’s [often biased, ill informed] simple, one hundred forty characters or less social media conclusion on your topic.”

As the pandemic proved, this, “You have nine seconds to nail it or I’m tuning you out” approach is true even when the information is of life or death importance.  Imagine, then, how less focused your audience is likely to be when you’re delivering information that, while important, is not life or death.  Whether you’re an auto mechanic describing what’s wrong with your customer’s car or a salesperson pitching your latest offering or an employee speaking up at a staff meeting, you have mere seconds to earn attention and you’re constantly at risk of drifting out of focus.

“But Ben,” you may argue, “I can’t deliver my message that quickly or that simply.  The subject is too complex and the details too critical to understand.”

I appreciate your concern.  You’re not alone.  In fact, I’ve heard this objection countless times over my career, usually from longtime, respected subject matter experts who’ve A) spent years mastering their craft, and B) despite having the biggest brains in their space have the tiniest revenue in their industry.

Friends, I assure you there’s a path to clarifying your message and one’s inability to do so sacrifices followers, revenue, and in pandemic scenarios, lives.

The formula I’ve found works best is to share information with your audience the same way a newspaper designs its front page:  We begin with a big, bold headline.  Then we offer a slightly longer subtitle.  And finally we share the information with a brief narrative (in story form whenever possible, not textbook form!).  And we repeat that formula again and again throughout your entire presentation.

Think of it this way: You’re breaking up your information into several USA Today stories, not one longform New York Times article.  You gotta bread crumb it, one easily digestible morsel at a time.

1) Attention grabbing headlines.  2)  Slightly longer yet equally compelling subtitles.  3) Brief, story-packed narratives that bring the headlines to life.


If you’ve ever worked with me on a presentation or communications plan, you’ve probably heard me ask, “Explain it to me again as if I’m ten years old.”  Now the first reason I ask my colleagues to do that is because I’m privileged to work with people far smarter than I!  But the other reason is I know your audience is more distracted than we appreciate, and if we don’t keep thing simple we’ll lose them.  A helpful formula to consider when crafting your message:  If you suspect your message requires your audience to apply more than 25% of their focus, your audience will remember 0% of your message. 

I’m also shocked at how convoluted a message becomes when we fear we’re going to exclude or offend a tiny portion of the audience.  For example, an engineer I know was writing a new SOP on optimal pressure settings for a pump system and the right answer 99% of the time was, “Never run your pump below 80 PSI.”  We knew this updated SOP would save their company over $5 Million/year, so it was critical to get the message out quickly and clearly.  But when authoring this SOP, our friendly, uber-smart engineer (we’ll call him Josh) wrote a multi-page, tiny font manual on all the reasons it might be OK to set the pressure differently during the other 1% of the time. 

“Josh, Why did you write all this other crap to cover 1% of the scenarios?” I asked.

Josh responded, “Well, we have some people on staff who will be upset if I don’t reference the other 1%.” 

“Josh, if you send out this wordy, complicated SOP no one’s gonna read it, which means your $5 Million problem doesn’t go away.  Forget the 1%.”

Bottom line:  Upsetting a few people is OK.  Spurring debate among the always-present “yeah but..” crowd is OK.  But confusion?  Confusion = chaos, and chaos reigns when confusion wins. 

Listen, I know this is hard.  Boiling all that knowledge of yours into simpleton soundbites can feel trite, and I know it’s hard to speak in black and white terms in a grey world.  But it’s only through direct, clear, attention-grabbing soundbites that we earn the right to share deeper messages with your deserving audience. 

If you’re convinced this is only a modern day problem, consider what Cicero wrote over two thousand years ago: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”  The challenge of condensing and simplifying complex messages is as old as the hills, and those who master the art will always rise to the top.

Oh, and as for those questions about Covid protocols, I still have no idea what’s best so please, if you know any powerful headline writers or storytellers please refer them to the CDC for immediate hire!

Your Next Climb: Make It Unforgettable

You know who climbs mountains for a living?  Oxygen deprived, pain seeking, always-learning, gritty, vagabond nutjobs who’ve lived the most interesting lives.  And it’s a good thing, too, because when you’ve hired one of them to guide your summit quest there are many, many hours available to hear their stories.

Mike, The American born, France raised, EMT and medical student with three Bachelor’s Degrees and one Master’s Degree, son of traveling magicians, certified heli-ski instructor, Army veteran with multiple combat tours – who happened to be our lead mountain climbing guide – turned to me through howling wind and shouted, “We’re at the limit.  Haven’t seen it like this up here in two years.  Your call.”  Though he may have been thinking it, he didn’t shout, “You’re an idiot” or, “I don’t think you should do this”, just the facts and a serene poker face revealing nothing about his own opinion.  In the moment, though, I very much wanted his opinion.  I wanted him to grab me by the shoulders and shake me and demand that we turn around and forever let a decision to forgo the summit be his, not mine.

Following weeks of training and planning and a cross continental journey, three friends and I were nearly atop Mount Shasta, a volcanic monstrosity that reaches over 14,000 snow-covered feet into the sky and is as alien to an East Coaster like me as the bottom of the ocean.  Mike, along with our other badass guide Chris (another former military, son-of-professional-kayakers, uber-fit billy goat), are professional alpinists who climb peaks like this all the time and after fighting our way over 99% of the way to the summit, the decision as to whether we take these final steps was up to us, not them.

How did my friends and I end up there, steps away from one of the nation’s highest mountain peaks?  In reality, the journey began thirty years ago when we were all college kids from various regions who stumbled upon a summer internship selling Yellow Pages (remember those?) door to door on 100% commission.

Since those pavement pounding days we’ve all gotten married, formed families, started and stopped and started again multiple careers, and scattered to far reaches of the country but we’ve always found unique ways to reconnect.  This most recent adventure, a triple dog dare to climb Mount Shasta, was the latest reunion and, much like selling Yellow Pages door to door, had me seriously questioning my life choices.  Our packs were heavy.  The air was thin.  The sun, reflecting so intensely off the pure white snow we had to cake even the insides of our nostrils with sunblock, seemed twice its normal size.  And the wind – oh, that incessant, angry, holy-crap-I-can’t-stand-up wind – kept throwing us to the ground like The Rock tossing a rag doll.  I’d never experienced anything like it; it felt like another planet and from the trek’s first step I’d been humbly learning I knew nothing about this wild, unpredictable mind warp called mountaineering.

When you envision a high intensity mountain climb what comes to mind?  If, like me, your exposure to the activity includes only a sprinkling of Hollywood films and Netflix documentaries, you might think of swinging ice picks, ropes, extreme cold, and mad scrambles over impossible peaks.  And while some of those ingredients are prevalent, I learned real-life mountaineering follows the same principles that drive success in most things.  For example:

Unless things go incredibly wrong, there are no sprints.
You wanna scale the highest mountains?  Follow this rhythm:  One-one thousand, STEP.  Two-one thousand, STEP…  From the time we left basecamp at 3am until the time we completed that day’s hike some fourteen hours later, it was like living a slow motion movie.  No sudden movements, no high heart rate surges, just a steady, methodical slog through mud, over rocks, up steep slopes, through knee deep snow, across glacier ice, and through that freakin’ wind until you reach your destination.
Funny, Mike and Chris had stories about younger, studlier hares speeding by on lower sections and invariably burning out (and sometimes lifeflighted) while the slow, steady tortoises keep on trudging. 
Takeaway:  Slow and steady may not make for the best movies or highlight reels but it’s the ultimate formula to reach the top.  Next time we’re tempted to procrastinate or jam twice the effort into half the time, remember to one-one thousand, STEP, two-one thousand STEP all your way to the finish line.

Single file, slow and steady. Funny how we’re surrounded by incredible scenery but we spent most of our time staring straight down at the ground in front of us.

We modern humans give ourselves too much credit.
Sure, we drive powerful SUV’s and design supercomputers and build fancy dwellings and sweat it out in fitness studios but stepping beyond the oxygen-rich, climate-controlled bubble of our normal lives (which, by the way, is only a few miles walk uphill!), is the ultimate reminder that Mother Nature sits atop the food chain, not we fragile humans.  The world is big, dangerous, and breathtakingly beautiful in ways we so easily forget enveloped in our manmade boxes.
Takeaway: Explore nature’s limits but recognize our limits.  If Mother Nature is telling you no, listen to her.

Buying stuff is such a waste vs. buying experiences.
A guided tour on Mount Shasta is not cheap but we’ve all blown money on “things” that cost way more and deliver almost nothing in return.  I can now say firsthand that marveling at the night sky at ten thousand feet and sipping melted snow from a basecamp teapot was more gratifying than any material possession I could have bought for even triple the price.
Takeaway:  Next time we’re tempted to buy a bigger TV or an overpriced pair of shoes or a new phone, take that money and invest it in a life adventure. 

The view from basecamp. Our guides taught us how to dig tent platforms into the snow that protected us from the wind. Not a difficult task but with the air so thin even a few minutes of digging left us out of breath.


America’s National Parks: Worth fighting for.
If you’ve not visited a National Park I hope you stop reading this blog right now and immediately book the trip.  (See?  We’re already spending that money earmarked for a new TV or new shoes in a better way!) 
First, their beauty is unparalleled.  Please do not misinterpret this as a political statement but any policymaker who proposes to shrink the budget or strip the natural resources of these wondrous regions is my sworn enemy and I hope yours, too.
Second, it’s the land of no liability waivers.  Why is it we need to sign a thousand word legal document to run a local 5K yet anyone can try to climb in a National Park to death defying heights with nary a “be careful” sign to warn us?  I have no idea why that is but I love how these sacred grounds leave it to you, the visitor, the decide for yourself instead of leaving it in the hands of a desk-anchored, risk averse lawyer.
Takeaways: First, visit and support your National Parks. 
Second, while you’re there, test your comfort zone without a helicopter parent – er, lawyer – telling you what you can and cannot do.  If you screw up it’s on you and you alone.  Refreshing, isn’t it?

Novel + Difficult = Memorable
Think back to a time you struggled mightily in a new environment to reach a goal that was important to you, a time you had to focus one hundred percent on the novel task at hand and it made you really, really uncomfortable.  Perhaps it was completing your first marathon?  Making it though boot camp?  Birthing a baby? (props to my wife, Jessica, for somehow pulling that off three drug-free times!)  This trip reminded me that in those moments, time slows.  Memories are branded into our minds with extreme color and become more unbelievable every time we revisit them.  Even though those experiences sometimes last only days or hours, the brain’s commitment to remembering and retelling those stories would take at least a year of Groundhog Day life to accumulate.
On this climb, for example, tiny moments I’ll remember forever include:
*The sound of the wind whipping around our tents at basecamp as we lay there wondering how our bodies would respond to the next day’s ascent,
*The look on our faces when we learned our friend’s oxygen levels dropped to the low eighties (he ended up being fine, thank God!),
*The smell of sulphur as we neared the summit of this volcanic mountain,
*The deep blue glacier ice sparkling under that brilliant sun,
*The Black Bear Diner pancakes we feasted on upon our return,
*The extra strength white sunblock smeared all over our faces, giving us the appearance of a clown-meets-snowman lovechild.
Takeaway: None of us will lay on our deathbeds reflecting back on the time we commuted to work, watched TV, or clicked through email.  Find challenging, uncomfortable goals to pursue and DO them.

Novel + Difficult = Brotherhood
I can only imagine the bonds military units form on the battlefield or that west-bound settlers formed over 150 years ago but as I learned on this sufferfest with Tom, Crawford, and Andy, we learn more about each other in those wild hours than we’d learn in years sitting around a bar or a conference table. 
Facing massive rejection together in our street-selling days, boating excursions gone wrong, saying goodbye together to a loved one who passed too soon, missing quotas, crushing quotas, overseas debacles, getting fired, getting promoted..  Together we’ve slogged through countless ups and downs that brought us closer.  There are people in my life with whom I’ve spent more time but few with whom I’ve done more living.
Takeaway:  Wanna build ironclad bonds with people you love and respect?  Go do something novel and difficult together.

Longtime friends Andy, Tom, and Crawford along with new friends (and world class mountaineers) Chris and Mike.

In the end, did we reach the summit?  Well…
The summit of our physical limits?  Yes. 
The summit of safety?  Yes, and then some. 
The summit of memories?  Absolutely.
The summit of friendship?  Definitely.

…And after all that, did we reach the summit of Mount Shasta?  It hardly matters 😊

See you at the top, kind reader!

See that rock behind us? That’s the very top. You might also notice there aren’t many places on that rock face to hold on if the wind blows you over. Should we climb it? Hmmm….
A few hours following our visit the winds reached 175 MPH.

Are We Promoting the Wrong Person?

What’s the job you’ve wished for the most?  In our younger days we might have said, “professional athlete” or “movie star” but now, as a parent with kids approaching their young adult years, the job I wish for more than any other is the one my kids want for themselves.  And I’ll bet if you’re a parent you share those same desires.

This past year our oldest daughter, Madeline, was vying for a competitive internship that many students hope to land when she reached out to me as said, “So many students in the running for this internship are more experienced and more connected than I.  My one shot is to interview better than the rest.  How can I do that?”

Responding like any doting parent I replied, “Oh, Madeline, you underestimate yourself.  Of course they’ll hire you!”

Sighing and rolling her eyes as only teenagers can she said, “C’mon, Dad, that’s what every parent says and you’re not the one making the hiring decision.  Do you have any solid guidance?  What should I talk about in the interview?”

What advice would you offer?  Reflecting back to my college years I recall career counselors coaching us on how to dress appropriately, how to jazz up our resumes, how to respond to questions such as, “What’s your greatest weakness?”, even how to speak about how much we’d grown after all that academic rigor (ha!).  In short, these counselors groomed us to look and sound impressive.  Did it work?

Three decades later I now do a lot more job hiring than job seeking and I struggle to pinpoint one hire I’ve made because the candidate wore the nicest tie or dazzled me with their straight A’s.  Trying to boil all that interview experience into one morsel of guidance for the job that I wanted the most, Madeline’s internship, I blurted out, “Don’t talk about you, talk about them.”

“What do you mean, Dad?” asked Madeline.  “They’re not the one being interviewed, I am.”

“I know,” I replied, “but try that approach.  See if you can get the interviewer to do most of the talking, especially stories about their own journey and their advice for someone like you who wants to follow in their footsteps.”

The next day, Madeline marched into the hiring manager’s office (dressed nicely, of course.  You still gotta cover the basics) armed with two questions.  After greeting the hiring manager and exchanging a few pleasantries Madeline asked question #1: “So, Mrs. X, how did you end up in this role?”

To hear Madeline describe it, the interviewer jolted up in her chair and replied, “Wow!  No one’s asked me that before but that’s a funny story…”  And Mrs. X went on to share a story that Madeline described as “so cool” and had both of them laughing.  Madeline then asked question #2: “Mrs. X, I really want this job and I know it’s a competitive field.  What advice can you offer on how I can earn the position?”  Again, Mrs. X brightened and offered Madeline helpful tips on how to follow up and who else to contact.

After the interview Madeline called me.  “Well, Dad, I have no idea if I got the job.  In fact, we hardly spoke about my experience or my application.  But Mrs. X is such an interesting and helpful person!  Even if I don’t get the job I feel like we’re friends and I hope to stay in touch with her.”

I share this story with you because Madeline discovered a secret that, in my (ahem – 50 year old luddite) opinion has been more forgotten in today’s social media era than in any period prior:  To earn success, focus on being interested, not interesting.  Not only when I interview job candidates but when I scroll through company websites, solicitation emails, LinkedIn posts, pitch decks, marketing proposals, trade show booths, etc. (Don’t even get me started on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok) I see desperation.  I can almost hear so many of us screaming, “Look at me!  Aren’t I so cool?  So beautiful?  So happy?  So smart?  So successful?  Please like me.  Follow me.  Want to be me.”

Friends, I write this with respect: When you and I fall prey to that approach we shoot ourselves in the foot.  Perhaps even more off-putting than the “check out my awesomeness” tactic is the time we narcissistically invest planning and staging it.  Tracking every minute, selfie camera and keyboard in hand, constantly asking ourselves, “Where’s the next opportunity to showcase my amazing success?” is time we lose thinking about how we can appreciate and serve others.  If there’s one truth about human nature it’s that we already spend the majority of our time thinking about ourselves, and modern day self-promotion tools only exacerbate that me-first thinking.

Believe me, neither the recruiter, your employer, your customers, your true friends, nor your top prospects are lying awake at night wishing you spent more time promoting yourself.  If anything, they might be asking, “Am I heard?  Do you know what’s important to me?  Can you help me solve my problems?” 

I once heard that the late, great Dale Carnegie was asked during a radio interview, “Mr. Carnegie, You came up with twenty one guiding principals on how to live a successful, fulfilling life.  If you were to instill only one of those principals in your fellow man, which would you choose?”

Without hesitation Carnegie responded, “Principal number four: Become genuinely interested in other people.  If we can live by that principal alone, all the others take care of themselves.”

Notice Carnegie did not write, “Become genuinely interesting to other people.”  In none of Carnegie’s writings will you find instructions on how to sound like the smartest person or tell the funniest jokes or flaunt the greatest riches.  Instead, he guides his readers through the same formula that Madeline used in her interview:  Ask good questions, listen with genuine interest, and build a personal bond with your fellow human being.

Imagine if instead of expending all that energy promoting ourselves, i.e. trying to make ourselves interesting, we invested that effort into becoming genuinely interested in others?  For example…

Trying to be interesting…Being genuinely interested…
Announcing that we just won an awardSubmitting an award nomination on behalf of our top customer or most impactful mentor
Posting Thank You’s on social media to an event we attended, a ceremony where we were recognized, etc.Calling those event planners or sponsors and asking them, “What are your goals?  How can I help you reach them?”
TalkingListening
Peddling our latest offeringPolling customers on how we can better serve them
Telling an employer why they should hire usAsking an employer what kind of person they want to hire and why

Granted, I understand there are times we need to advocate for ourselves or challenge someone’s worldviews and times we need to update an audience on our latest news but can we agree both we as individuals and we as organizations are guilty of skewing heavily to the “let’s talk about me” side at the cost of the “let’s learn about you” side? 

How well do you really know your customers?  Your vendors?  Heck, if like me you have ever-morphing teenagers how well do you even know your own family?  At the end of the day it boils down to this: We don’t want to read about you celebrating you, we want to read about others celebrating you.  And when we give selflessly to our communities, families, friends, and customers, even a fraction of the publicity they generate on your behalf goes longer than all the self serving materials you could post in a lifetime.

I’m not suggesting we dial back our self interest to the level of Mother Teresa but what if during your next family dinner, customer meeting, or networking event you asked a few more questions and listened more carefully for areas where you can help the other person reach their goals?  Or if before your next presentation you asked the audience for a bit more feedback on what they wanted to learn?  Just as Madeline discovered in her job interview, shifting our pregame prep from, “How can I get them interested in me?” to, “How can I express my genuine interest in them?” will elevate your partnerships, friendships, and your success to levels modern day self-promotion tools are ill equipped to do.

Oh, and as for that job that I wanted most, Madeline’s internship, did she land it?  Let’s put it this way..  Both her doting dad (by luck) and Dale Carnegie (by objective expertise) were right again 😊

Another Failed New Year’s Resolution? Not This Time.

When’s the last time you voluntarily put yourself in an awkward, rookie position that made you feel incapable?  If you’re over the age of twenty, I’ll bet that you, like most of us grown-ups, rarely find yourself in such a position.  When we’re young, it’s inescapable and we do it all the time.  From learning to walk to learning to ride a bike to the first time you asked someone on a date, these first time moments are such a routine part of a young person’s life that we bound from one comfort zone-expanding activity to the next with little trepidation.  By the time we’ve reached adulthood, however, life settles into a much more predictable pattern.  What a shame.

Granted, as adults the stakes are higher.  We cannot afford daredevil stunts that put our careers or families at risk.  But oh my, how risk averse we become!  Outside of required changes related to starting a new job or adjusting lifestyle to accommodate family, we rarely seek new experiences just for the hell of it.  When we’re young, on the other hand, no one demands us learn to ride a bike before we can pass the fifth grade or get a promotion.  Rather, we figured it out simply because it looked fun. 

As adults, we still learn new things – how to hook up a printer or write a computer code or calculate retirement savings – but they’re necessary (and boring) skills that life requires.  Even our hobbies, it seems, are usually rooted in fundamentals we picked up as youngsters.  In my case, I enjoy running and cycling but they’re continuations of my childhood skillset.  Ask me to walk a tightrope or do a back handspring and I’ll run for the hills.  Not only do I have zero ability but I also lack any desire to figure it out.  Yet challenged with those acrobatics as a kid I’d likely have given them a shot.

As we head into a New Year and set another round of resolutions, can I challenge you to set a resolution that’s childlike?  What would your ten year old self want to accomplish with a fresh start and, I hope, a few more dollars in the piggy bank than you had back then?  I guarantee your resolutions would not have been obligatory or based on your doctor’s recommendations.  What do I mean by that?  I mean grown-up resolutions are a bore; they read like something a nagging parent or supervisor would jam down one’s throat:

  • Eat more vegetables
  • Go to the gym
  • Read the newspaper
  • Count calories
  • Read more self improvement books
  • Watch less TV
  • Earn a professional certification

Sure, these are worthy resolutions that earn you brownie points with your doctor or boss or financial planner but they’re no fun.  None of them will awaken your enthusiasm or make you whoop with joy upon the first taste of success. 

This year, set your sights on something that..  A) seems to you like a fun adventure, B) scares you, and C) is unrelated to anything you’ve done before. 

Why am I recommending such imprudent guidance?  Because over the years I’ve occasionally ventured to those eyebrow-raising edges and in every instance it’s rewarded me in more ways than my responsible, adult brain predicted.

In my 20’s I learned to fly airplanes.
In my 30’s I learned to swim competitively.
In my 40’s I learned to sail.
And now, on the cusp of decade #5, I’m learning to telemark ski. 

Last weekend I once again felt those nervous butterflies as for the first time I strapped on a pair of “free heel” skis, clambered over to a very patient instructor, and sprawled onto the bunny slope like Bambi on a frozen pond.  As the lesson began I kept asking myself, “What the heck are you doing?  This is hard.  You look like a fool.  You’re gonna break your leg.”  A few hours later I still looked like a middle-aged Bambi but I was laughing out loud as every jaunt down the bunny slope became a little more manageable.

That was yesterday.  Today, my body is sore in ways it hasn’t been for years but I’m as giddy about the next telemark outing as you and I were following the first time we rode a bicycle.

These seemingly self-serving, unprofessional pursuits have benefited me in ways that doctor and financial planner recommendations never could.  Through flying and sailing lessons I learned to stay calm under pressure and trust instrumentation over my gut.  With swimming I discovered a form of meditation and exercise that snaps me into focus in totally different ways.  And telemark skiing?  The verdict is still out but I already have smiles, laughs, and a new group of friends that never would have crossed my radar.

Let’s face it, the last couple years have been rough.  This pandemic has snuffed sparks within us all, and the last thing we need this New Year is another set of stodgy, uninspiring obligations, er, resolutions that are no fun to pursue and likely to fail, anyway.  In its place, join me on a frivolous, semi-risky journey into learning a new skill that excites you to consider, challenges your comfort zone, flexes your mental and physical muscles, and brings a smile to your face.

See you on the bunny hill.

Holiday Valley, NY’s All-Star Telemark Ski Instructor Mary Gibbs. Thank you, Mary!

MAGA Hat vs. Biden Bumper Sticker vs. American Flag – What’s the Difference?

4th Fireworks!  How were yours?

This year our family enjoyed them from Raystown Lake, a hidden gem in Central PA where we keep a small boat.  Leading up to the spectacle I mentioned to my three teenage daughters and their friends that I’d like to mount an American flag to the boat’s rail.  Let’s fly those stars and stripes as we glide across the water, right?  The reaction to my flag comments, though, shocked me…

“Dad, Are you sure you want to send that kind of message?”
“Wow, Mr. Lawrence, didn’t realize you were that extreme in your politics.”

Excuse me?

Prodding further I learned from The Demographic That Continues to Baffle Me (i.e. teenagers) that in their minds, brandishing an American flag, unless one’s an Olympic athlete or active duty military, means:

  • You’re conservative,
  • You love guns,
  • You listen to Country Music,
  • You’re a Trumpster.

Now, I may or may not be any of those things and I’m not writing this blog to advocate one way or the other but hearing a reasonably educated group of our country’s future leaders describe the flag in such polarizing terms shocked me.  What do you think of our nation’s symbol serving as a political statement? 

I’m beginning to wonder if We the People have taken the flag too far.  Have we reached a point where in order to prove our patriotism we need to adorn ourselves with red, white, and blue pins, hats, stickers, t-shirts, and patches that were probably made in China?  Even worse, have today’s teenagers and tomorrow’s leaders pigeon-holed this universal symbol to be affiliated with only a fraction of the American fabric? 

Call me crazy but if the American flag becomes to one political party what an individual team jersey is to one NFL fan, we’re screwed.  It’s fine to root against the other team on the football field; it’s a disaster if we Americans root against one another on the geopolitical one.

Wanna wear your Biden pin?  Your MAGA hat?  Outstanding!  But please understand that your fan club paraphernalia says, “I support X person/opinion/party.”  Add an American flag to your ensemble, however, and – at least in my opinion – you’re adding something else to your story.  The flag declares, “Not only do I stand for my views but I also respect yours.  No matter your political affiliation I will defend your right to express it.”


I wonder to what extent our fellow citizens see that distinction?  Increasingly, it seems the lines are blurring between party paraphernalia and national symbolism.  How did we get here?

Time Magazine published an interesting article about the rise of U.S. flag trinkets and outlines this trajectory:

  • Until the Civil War, one would find the U.S. flag almost exclusively at government buildings and military stations,
  • Stars and Stripes “wearables” weren’t a thing until the 1950’s,
  • The first president to sport a flag lapel pin was Richard Nixon.

In other words, George Washington, arguably the most badass American hero of them all, never placed a red, white, and blue lawn ornament at Mount Vernon, The Greatest Generation, while whipping the Nazis and saving the free world, did not vinyl wrap their cars in screaming eagle emblems, and the first politician to rock the lapel pin got kicked out of The White House.

My point is some of our nation’s greatest heroes never flaunted the flag and some of its most disgraced figures did.

As for me, I’m moving forward with my boat flag – who doesn’t feel especially free and grateful when enjoying a beautiful day on the water? – and crossing my fingers that my daughters, their friends, today’s and tomorrow’s leaders, and you, kind reader, remember that America’s #1 symbol represents us all.  Fly, wear, and decorate your flag as a token to the diversity and ingenuity one finds only in this messy, beautiful, fumbling, young, ingenious republic. 

Horses, Food, and Fire: A Cure to COVID Blues?

My dad likes to remind my brother and me, “This isn’t the first holiday season your mom and I have been away from family, it’s our third!”  And while that may be true, the first two times were a half century ago when my parents joined the Peace Corps, shipped off to Venezuela, and if the old photos are any indication, spent two years building latrines.  My point is that while a family separation may have felt like an adventure back then, I doubt they’re as enthused today about living as quarantined shut-ins in snow-buried Western NY State.

We wanted to celebrate the holidays with our parents/grandparents but did not want to put them or others at risk.  Sitting around our dining room table, my wife, Jessica, our daughters, and I kicked around a few ideas that you might have also considered:

  1. Drive by their house while honking the horn and waving through the window? 
    Nah, my dad probably wouldn’t hear the horn and my mom would chase us down the road with a tray of cookies.

  2. Christmas morning Zoom session?
    Ugh.  One more webcast and we’ll lose our minds.

  3. Last-minute COVID tests for everyone in the family?
    Not only uncomfortable but complicated and self serving.  It doesn’t seem right to elbow our way into a testing center at a time others genuinely need rapid results.

But wait…  What if we ditched the traditional gift exchange, redirected that money into some kind of outdoor experience, and pulled off a celebration that conformed with every safety protocol?

With that question in mind we made a couple phone calls, the first to a small restaurant near my parents’ house that’s connected to a public golf course.
“Hello,” we began, “Could we host a small outdoor event on your snow-covered golf course, complete with online food orders and – ahem – a big bonfire?”
“Absolutely!” came the enthusiastic reply.

The next call was to Crackerjack Farms, another local business that specializes in horse-drawn carriage rides, and their response was equally accommodating.  “In a non-COVID year, you’d be out of luck this close to the holidays,” said the owner.  “But this year?  We’re wide open.  In fact, while we typically log over forty events a year, this year we’ve logged only four.  And these horses still need to eat!”

And there we had it.  Two phone calls and we’d landed:

  • A catered event,
  • A raging bonfire,
  • A horse-drawn carriage, and my favorite of all,
  • A holiday season free of gift wrapping.

My brother and his family agreed to set up the site, staking out the bonfire area with roped off, socially distanced sections for each family unit.  And he threw in eight feet long marshmallow roasting sticks with which, miraculously, none of the kids poked an eye out.

The kids went to work adorning the horse carriage with all sorts of holiday paraphernalia.

Jim, the horse carriage driver, cued up Christmas music on his massive Bluetooth speaker. 

And my unsuspecting parents, expecting to pass the season in quiet quarantine, were surprised with a knock on the door, the sight of two massive draft horses in their driveway, and a ride straight to a golf course bonfire where their cheering family welcomed them – behind masks and from a distance, of course.

Since this was Western NY State where the wind whips and the mercury drops, our gala lasted only an hour or two but the stories and memories live on.

Takeaways:

  1. What service businesses in your town, whether restaurants or horse carriages or singing telegrams or jugglers, could use a little holiday cheer? (meaning cash) 
    Whether it’s a circus act at the bottom of a lonely neighbor’s driveway or a takeout meal for a busy postal worker, find ways to engage your town’s small businesses at a time they need the help.

  2. Which will you reflect upon more fondly, a material object or an experience?
    If you have kids, for example, will they enjoy more a plastic Made in China horse from Wal-Mart or a real-life horse ride?  Will your teenagers appreciate more new iPhones or a catered outdoor event for their extended family?  (Don’t answer that, just go with the catered outdoor event.)

  3. COVID is a flu that attacks the human body but it does not attack the human spirit.
    What can you do, at a time you may feel stuck in Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, to brighten someone’s day in a safe, creative way?

As for my parents, I think they enjoyed this Christmas party at least as much as they enjoyed building latrines in Venezuela, and the rest of our family enjoyed the rush of pulling off a celebration during which neither the bonfire nor the virus had any chance to spread.

Happy New Year to you as well, kind reader.  Here’s to a ’21 filled with health and good cheer!

Sharper Than Google, Wiser Than I

It started with a YouTube video.  This one, in fact, which for whatever reason drew me in like a moth to a flame.  It looked so fun, so satisfying to take a small block of wood, pare it down on a lathe, and presto! – out pops a beautiful wooden ring as unique as a snowflake.  I eagerly bought the necessary tools and followed the video’s instructions to a T, so why was I failing?

In my basement with lathe whirling and sawdust flying I’d carefully do exactly as instructed and bam!  At some point the ring block would shatter.  Bits of wood flying everywhere and my colorful expletives right on their heels.  I tried different tools, different lathe speeds, and different angles but suffered the same frustrating result.

“Damn it!” I said to myself.  “I really want to learn how to do this but I’m stuck.” 
And given my impatient nature I knew I had to figure this out soon or this endeavor was going nowhere.

When you’re stuck on a problem, where do you turn?  I tried the same avenues you might: Google, YouTube, even called a couple vendors who make woodturning tools but as you may find when turning to the internet or customer service lines, the responses were confusing and of little help.  So I went to the one resource often overlooked but usually full of answers: old guys.

In this case, Fred Hill, a retired (yet vibrant!) professor who’s been perfecting his woodworking skills longer than I’ve been tying my own shoes.  Fred has three valuable traits that you and I may not have yet earned: wisdom, experience, and patience.

Fred and I met last weekend in his woodshop, where we embarked on a quest to make the wooden rings that had alluded me.  And while we blocked several hours for this lesson, within five minutes Fred discovered the root cause of my angst.

“Needs sharpening.”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Your tool.  It’s dull.  Needs sharpening,” he repeated.
“C’mon, Fred, these are brand new tools.  The tools are fine.”

Fred, without saying another word, approached me, gently pulled the tool from my hand, and spent sixty seconds honing its edge on his grinding wheel.  And from that moment forward, Fred and I cranked out the most beautiful rings you’ve ever seen.

You see, it wasn’t about the best tools or the strongest grip or the highest quality materials; the secret lay in how sharp the tool was.  Even the slightest flaw on that cutting edge and the rings were sure to shatter.  And for some strange reason neither the internet nor the tool vendor nor I, the impatient rookie, had called out this most obvious flaw.

How often do we set our tools to our work – our nose to the grindstone, if you will – without first ensuring our blades are as sharp as they need to be?  Like me, how often do you give a presentation or hammer out emails or make a sales call without the slightest consideration for the style you’re using or the grammar you’re employing?  Or muddle through the same old workout with sloppy form?

Next time you’re falling short of the result you desire, think of my new friend Fred.  Would he, or his senior counterpart who’s spent a lifetime mastering the discipline you’re pursuing, take one look at your flailing attempt and declare, “Needs sharpening”?  Just a little extra time sharpening our tools might be all it takes to transform failure into fulfillment.

Abe Lincoln said it best:  “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Final note:
My time with Fred reminded me that in this COVID era we’re losing our most seasoned mentors at an alarming rate, including my stepfather-in-law, a military pilot and prolific storyteller who survived getting shot down in Vietnam and a fight with cancer but couldn’t overcome this blasted virus.  Every time we lose a senior who’s still got lots to give, which is just about every one of ‘em, we lose a pool of wisdom and insight that’s yet to be fully tapped by those of us who need them. 

Where in your life are you not getting the results you want?  Beyond the fitful, muddled world of Google, how much effort have you made to meet the real-world senior expert in your community who could guide you to success?  Seek them out.  Befriend them.  Thank them for sharing their guidance.  And for God’s sake wear a mask.

Fred Hill working his magic with a sharp tool.
Thank you, Fred!
Fruits of labor

College Gap Year or Something Better?

Where did you learn the most in college – in the classroom or outside of it?  Which parts of the college experience stuck with you the most? 

For me and most others I ask, most of college’s education and memories happened outside the classroom.  Sure, there were flashes of enlightenment in some classrooms (Ithaca College’s finest, Marty Brownstein, You’re still the best!) but the vast majority of the life skills I gleaned sprang from late night parties, unusual roommates, and the countless mistakes I made trying to figure out life beyond my parents’ house.  And though I left college twenty five years ago, living in a college town has afforded me the insight to see the same basic college experience exists today.  Or at least it did until COVID showed up.

Now we’re seeing the college experience turned on its head, which is unfortunate timing for my daughter, Madeline, and the other high school class of ’20 grads embarking on the college journey amidst a fog of uncertainty.

For the last few months, Madeline, her mom/my wife, Jessica, and I have been jumping on periodic Zoom calls with her chosen college’s admissions office to stay abreast of their fall semester plans.  Funny, I haven’t been sold so hard since Jessica and I attended a vacation property timeshare pitch.  “We’ll keep your child safe!”  “Our professors are ready for anything!”

The implied message: “Please don’t bail on us.  We need your money.”  And with the price of college having skyrocketed at double the inflation rate since I was a student, the money colleges seek from my pocket and my daughter’s loans is significant.

Boil all those Zoom calls down and here’s what Madeline and other incoming students face:

  • Limited social activities,
  • Abbreviated orientation,
  • No roommates,
  • Limited dining hall access,
  • Shortened semester,
  • Minimum 50% classes online,
    …and the kicker…
  • No discount.

Add it all up and we envision Madeline and her classmates sitting in lonely dorm rooms eating prepackaged dining halls food and watching grainy videos of classroom professors trying to navigate a digital interface.

Which begs the question, is this a good investment?  Will Madeline and her peers gain as much value from this pared down offering?  For Madeline, the answer is no.  She’s opted for a gap year but even that is challenging given the typical 18 year old’s urgency to live independently in the thick of travel restrictions.

Yet opportunity lies within every challenge, so Madeline is planning an unusual path that (perhaps?) sets a new precedent for recent high school grads.  How does this sound to you?

  • Our family has saved some money for Madeline to earn a four year college degree but not enough to support four years of college and a gap year.
  • For the Fall ’20-Spring ’21 school year, Madeline will take online college courses with an accredited school that specializes in online delivery (Southern New Hampshire?  Strayer?  Many from which to choose)
  • During this period, the money that would’ve covered college room and board she’ll instead use to rent a small apartment in whichever geographic area she chooses.
  • After a two week quarantine, she’ll explore that area while working a part-time job.
  • She and at least one of her high school class of ’20 friends on a similar track will room together.
  • Provided the “normal” college experience returns next year she’ll transfer her credits over and enter a sophomore OR if she likes the online/travel approach, she can continue for all four years, bouncing semester to semester or year to year to anywhere on Planet Earth she’d like (and her mom approves, of course😊)

The most surprising part of the plan:  Even if Madeline earns her bachelor’s degree via an online platform while traveling the world for four straight years, the experience will cost less than the ‘traditional” college experience she’d been planning.

So, kind reader, which path would you choose for yourself or for your Class of ’20 high school grad?  Which experience offers the best education and life skills – four years planted at one school or four years roaming from place to place?

If there’s a silver lining to this COVID crisis, perhaps it’s the chance we all have to press the reset button.  A moment to step back and ask, “Am I on the right path?  Is there a better way to do this?”

No question our family would be more settled seeing Madeline glide into the college experience we envisioned but perhaps her journey, like yours and mine, will prove most exciting when we step off the beaten path and take the path less traveled.



Congrats, Madeline and the high school Class of 2020! You are blazing new trails.

Coronavirus: A Note to America’s Industrial Workers

If you’re an American Industrial worker, you’re likely facing more pressure this week than ever. You’re hearing, “Speed up production.  Deliver on time.  Avoid downtime.  Step up your pace, do it quickly, and don’t make any mistakes.” 
Whether you manufacture tissue products, cleaning agents, food, pharmaceuticals, or one of several other products, you’ve gotta crank up the pace amidst extreme expectations to reach record production levels.  Same goes for utilities, power generation, and other key industrial functions that cannot afford to shut down for a two week quarantine hiatus.
This is no time for the meek, and you are not the meek.

I’m writing you with three requests:

  1.  Be safe.
    In the heat of the moment we all tend to move faster and more recklessly.  Please fight that urge!  You are at your best when you’re careful, thoughtful, and deliberate.  Everyone is cheering for you to pull through this production frenzy in one piece.

  2. Ask for help.
    You may not realize it but your friends, family, neighbors, and community appreciate the extra hours and burden you’re taking on.  Can we cut your grass?  Walk your dogs?  Pick up groceries?  FaceTime a few jokes?
    You’re doing more than your share.  Let others pitch in, too.  Heck, your community is full right now of derelict kids on extended school breaks and parents desperate to put them to work.  Don’t be shy, ask your neighbors to pitch in.

  3. Contact my company or me.
    Like you, your plant’s machinery is stressed, working overtime, and more prone to breakdowns.  You don’t have the time right now to monitor the health of your critical machines, but KCF does.
    To be clear, this is not a solicitation to buy anything.  Rather, this is our company’s genuine offer to ship key American Industrial sites, at no cost, the sensors and remote monitoring services that’ll keep your critical assets running and put our American communities in the best position to beat back Coronavirus
    KCF Tech’s website will post more details shortly but bottom line:  KCF has the capacity to help and this is how we’re choosing to do so.  Whether you need our help for 6 days 6 weeks, contact me and we’ll immediately get to work.

Your work has always been important and it’s even more so now.  American Industry has stepped up in the past and we’re honored to support your efforts to transform this crisis into a shining example of American might.

A nice reminder that your production superpowers run deeper than you might imagine:
 “In 1944, each American airplane factory worker more than doubled the output of his/her German counterpart and quadrupled the output of his/her Japanese counterpart, and American industry was moving a war plane on the runway every five minutes.”  (https://www.commonlit.org/en/texts/how-american-industry-won-world-war-ii )

Our parents, grandparents, and community elders set the precedent.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and prove that American Industry is alive and well!

Your Teenage Daughter’s Birthday? Thank You, SMS!

10,000 repetitions.  That’s the number of times I’ve read is necessary to reach mastery.  Based on that calculation I should be a master twice over.  Yet this past Friday, Black Friday for you crazed shoppers, I was as nervous as if this were my first rep.  Was I practicing karate kicks?  Handstands?  Nope, I was on the precipice of making my 20,001st sales call (not scary) to an otherworldly being alien to me (scary).

25 years in sales has given me the opportunity to call on every audience imaginable: small business owners, Fortune 500 executives, Realtors, factory workers, engineers, government officials, auto dealers, homeowners…  But never the mysterious demographic on my target list last Friday – a Social Media Sensation (SMS).  Truth be told, the only reason I even know the term SMS is because I’ve heard my teenage daughters reference them.  Limited research tells me that in order to be an SMS one must: A) post unusual, emotional, or animated clips to the internet, B) possess no inhibitions, and C) have thousands of online followers, none of whom are old enough to drive.

What prompts a middle aged guy with no Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Tik Tok, or Instagram to call on an SMS?  Simple, his daughter’s birthday wish.

Jacqueline’s always been drawn to celebrity performers, be it Justin Bieber in her early years (she’ll kill me for this but check out her JB performance from 10 years ago) or Harry Styles in her adolescent years but heading into her 16th birthday she’s gone all in on Jack Novotny, a teenager building a strong online presence.  His thousands of followers span the globe but coincidentally, Jack lives in the same village in Western NY State as my parents.  How do we know?  Because while walking through town on Thanksgiving, Jacqueline exclaimed, “Eeeeek!  That’s Jack Novotny’s house!  I recognize it from his videos!”

Jacqueline is too thoughtful to storm Jack’s house, invade his privacy, and beg for a selfie but her dad?  Hmmmmm……

I wanted to approach Jack on the down-low but how does one with no social media accounts contact a social media star?  Email?  Please, we’re talking about someone under the age of 20.  Phone book?  Even more preposterous.

And so it was on Black Friday morning that I, a social media luddite, found himself standing alone on Jack’s porch, knocking on his door, and hoping the family isn’t a posse of Second Amendment fanatics.

Fortunately, Jack’s lovely mother approached the door unarmed and seemed as astonished as I that A) a social media sensation lived in her village, and B) that individual is her son.  Funny how this new wave of celebrity originates; without talent agents or PR firms or billboards, the last to appreciate a rising star are those closest to him.

On the same day as my house call and during Jacqueline’s 16th birthday party, Jack Novotny – and his curious mom, of course – made a house call of their own.  To Jacqueline’s shock, humiliation, and extreme delight, Jack marched into my parents’ house, presented Jacqueline with her birthday cake, and posed for pictures with our family.

Jack could not have been more gracious and his surprise visit lit up Jacqueline’s face more than an entire Walmart’s worth of birthday candles.  And of all the sales calls I’ve ever made, this one brought more satisfaction than any other.

*To Jack Novotny and his mother, thank you for generously sharing your time and attention.

*To my mom, Thank you for planting this idea in my head when you whispered the day before, “If I had Jack’s number I’d call him right now.”

*To every sales manager who’s coached me on how to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for something, thank you for teaching me the skills required to do it right.

*And to you, kind reader, a few takeaways that might earn you a big contract or a surprise celebrity encounter:

  • Even in today’s world, human, in-person calls trump digital communication. 
    Connect with the human, not the human’s digital interface.

  • When knocking on someone’s door, do not stare directly into the house.  That’s creepy. 
    Instead, keep your gaze to the side and keep your hands out of your pockets where the other person can see them.

  • Goes without saying but dress appropriately! 
    My gosh I still see salespeople and solicitors dressed like they just rolled outta bed, which is not inspiring anyone to answer your call.

  • In all things at all times: smile.
    Your expression drowns out your words.

  • When all else fails, ask their mother.
    Your prospect may have no interest in what you’re seeking but if Mom says it’s OK, the rest falls into place.

Sure, 20,000 sales calls boosted my confidence to make the 20,001st but please understand – You don’t need 20,000 sales calls under your belt to make the exciting happen, you just need to make the one that’s next in front of you.

Happy 16th, Jacqueline!  So proud of the young woman you’ve become and the challenges you throw my way.