My Turn to Crime

It’s not my fault. I’ve fallen in with some bad dudes. It started a few years ago when The Sopranos drew me in. Then The Wire. Then Breaking Bad. Now The House of Cards. I should be eligible for a mail order degree in Abnormal Psychology.

What is it about Tony Soprano, Avon Barksdale, Walt, and F.U. that makes it so hard to look away as they leave ruined lives and dead bodies in their wake?

My theory rests on the assumption that I’m a part of the 99% that has a social conscience, but sometimes still wrestles with doing the right thing. At 2a.m., with the streets deserted, we still wait for the red light to turn, but not before imagining going. We get frustrated with people all the time, even irate at times, but we successfully suppress our violent tendencies. We get used to the tension between our better and worse-r selves. And fortunately for society, our better selves almost always win out.

Tony, Avon, Walt, and Frank are the 1% that effortlessly give in to their worse-r selves. Their lives are not complicated by other people’s feelings. Once off the rails, they have zero regrets. On second thought, scratch Tony from that foursome, his earnest therapy sessions with Melfi disqualify him from the truly pathological.

In large part, I think I find these dramas so compelling because I can’t fathom what it would be like to live completely unencumbered by doing the right thing. To not give a single thought to authority, social convention, and the social contract we enter into as drivers while running the light. To not care whether someone lives or not.

There’s another important variable in the equation. For me the gruesome violence is usually just palatable enough because I know they’re fictional dramas. After watching The Wire, I can reason, “That teen drug runner didn’t really die at the hands of the other teen drug runner, because they’re acting.” LIke when watching a play or reading a novel, it helps to know it’s imaginary. In Breaking Bad the innocent kid on the bike in the New Mexico dessert didn’t really die. He’s probably a popular eighth grader somewhere in SoCal.

Could the time I’ve spent with the Mount Rushmore of television criminals have a deleterious effect on my normal, law-abiding self? That’s doubtful because the Good Wife makes me take a powerful antidote to these intense crime dramas every Sunday night. Downton Abbey.

Postscript—Watch this 60 Minutes segment (13:40) on Wolfgang Beltracchi (13:40). Beltracchi, as evidenced by the final exchange which begins at 13:28, has Mount Rushmore criminal potential.

 

What Great Communicators Do

Great communicators eschew vague generalities for specific details. It’s easier to find examples of muddled writing and speaking weighted down with vague generalities than the opposite.

Recently, for example, a New York congressman was asked why he is sponsoring a bill to arm Syrian rebels. “Because,” he said, “doing nothing is a worse option and the United States has to stand for something.” When we use “thing” and its variations, “things”, “something”, “everything”, “anything”, our readers and listeners are stuck playing a maddening and distracting guessing game, wondering exactly what we may have been thinking.

• The United States has to stand for the rights of people anywhere in the world to resist authoritarianism?

• The United States has to stand for commerce anywhere in the world, including arms sales?

• The United States has to stand for any and all approaches of ridding the Middle East of Assad?

Another case in point. A school district curriculum director attempts to explain the Common Core (four minutes long, start at 1:49), but succumbs to vague generalities. She uses the term “content” repeatedly, and “topic”, and “rigor”, and “depth”, but never refers to a specific classroom lesson; consequently, her presentation left me more confused than beforehand. I got excited and perked up at the 1:49 point when she said, “For example in math. . .”, but alas, she continued to torture me with vague references to “content”, “topics”, “content”, “rigor”, “content”, “depth”, “content”.

I would buy her a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii if she would just say, “For example, now when fourth grade teachers teach fractions. . .” or  “For example, now when sixth grade math teachers teach ratios. . .” It’s like craving fruits and vegetables and having to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonderbread.

Contrast those negative examples with these positive ones. Last week’s George Packer excerpt, which I used to highlight the way he engages readers through unpredictably short, medium, and long sentences, is equally noteworthy for it’s wonderful specificity. Here again is Packer’s nutritious opening sentence:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S.

Our congressman and curriculum director might have written, “Amazon is selling everything and getting really big.” Packer takes the time, no doubt through multiple revisions, to explain Amazon’s reach through specific references that even someone like me can easily grasp:

. . . like Walmart, like Apple, like Con Edison, like Netfilix, like Random House, like Paramount, like the Paris Review, like Fresh Direct, like U.P.S.

Your reward, George, is in heaven.

Granted, the writer always has the advantage over the speaker because she can “put every word on trial” over and over. But through repeated practice, we can “think forward”, developing a mental teleprompter of sorts, and learn to speak more clearly by illustrating abstract concepts and insights with specific details.

Consider, Kenny “The Jet” Smith on last week’s edition of the NBA’s brilliant “Inside the NBA”. I dig that show so much sometimes I tape it for the next morning’s indoor cycling session, never the game that precedes it though. It’s worth deconstructing for several reasons, but last week The Jet decided to help out the humble blog with this rumination on the San Antonio Spurs continued success:

It’s the ultimate view of trust. They just trust. That I’m gonna sprint back. If the play on defense is to send the guy baseline, I’m just gonna trust that someone is going to be there. If I run the lane, I trust that I’m gonna get it. If I set the pick. . . If I dribble up the court and I’m Tony Parker I trust that the guy is coming open. It’s the ultimate viewing of what trust in basketball is all about.

The concept of “trust” is about as abstract as they come, but he explained it with repeated, specific examples that made it easy to grasp.

Follow in George’s and The Jet’s footsteps. Your audiences will thank you.

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The Sure-fire Way to Increase Conflict in Your Life

Just in case your life isn’t conflict-ridden enough already. Project your definition of success onto others. And then judge them accordingly. They will almost always come up short. This is most unhappy people’s go-to strategy for maximizing their misery.

We forget, over and over again, that other people and cultural groups define success differently than us. Some people’s life goals are material and economic in orientation. They pursue material well-being, even sometimes at the expense of close interpersonal relationships. Other people and cultural groups prioritize family life and friendship more than lucrative work and consumerist lifestyles. 

Amy Chua, of TigerMom fame, and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld have lit a fire with The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. I’ve only read excerpts of The Triple Package, but I’ve listened to a few radio interviews with Chua and Rubenfeld, both Yale Law School faculty. Someone should’ve waved a white towel midway into one I heard on National Public Radio. The criticism of Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s work that interests me the most is that they project a Western, highly educated, well-to-do notion of success onto everyone. Like Chua and Rubenfeld, we tend to define “success” far too narrowly. And then project our thinking onto our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far.

There’s a magical, two-part elixir for this malady. Humility and curiosity. Instead of assuming a common definition of success, we need to learn to ask our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far what their life goals are, what for them constitutes success in life. Once we have a feel for that, we can inquire into how they’re doing in achieving their goals.

That defuses conflict and fosters mutual respect.

What Good Writers Do—Alternate Between Short, Medium-sized, and Long Sentences

Props to Nicholas Kristof for rankling the intelligentsia by saying what’s painfully obvious to anyone that’s skimmed an academic journal lately—professors have little influence on public life in large part because they write “gobbledygook”.

There’s a relatively simple way for my colleagues and me and you to improve our writing. By following the lead of jazz musicians and alternating in unpredictable ways between short, medium-sized, and long sentences.

Consider George Packer’s opening sentences in his current New Yorker piece about Amazon.com*:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S. Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns a major newspaper, the Washington Post.

Short, long, medium. A lot of writers fail to engage readers because they use medium-sized sentences almost exclusively.

Another example from the same piece:

Origins, though, leave lasting marks, and Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along.

Short, medium-long, medium, short, medium, long. No identifiable pattern. Which is what we should replicate.

Shame on me for concluding with three short sentences. Follow Packer’s lead, not mine. Make that five sentences. Now six.

* I highly recommend the Packer piece which I’m only halfway through.

Kikkan Randall Take Away—Find Joy Everyday

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Condensed from Jim Caple of espnW:

Tuesday was supposed to be more than just a great day for Kikkan Randall, it was also to be a great day for American cross-country skiing, its best day in nearly four decades.

America has won only one Olympic medal in the sport, and that was 38 very long years ago when Bill Koch took the silver medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. That’s nearly four decades of endless frustration, disappointment and losses by very large margins. The United States has been such an underdog in the sport that four-time Olympian Kris Freeman compares America beating cross-county powerhouse Norway to a Little League team beating the Yankees.

But Tuesday was going to be oh, so deliciously different.

Randall, the 31-year-old Alaskan skier with pink-streaked hair, won five World Cup races last year and won back-to-back World Cup races last month. She is a two-time world sprint champion. She said the Sochi course was favorable to her style. Everyone . . . picked her to win gold in Tuesday’s sprint free race.

Instead, Randall didn’t even reach the semifinals.

She started off well in the fifth quarterfinal heat, taking the lead by skiing powerfully up the 1.3-kilometer course’s hill. She held the lead as the athletes entered the course stadium and raced toward the finish line.

Then, Germany’s Denise Herrmann passed her. (Because the top two skiers advance from the quarterfinals, Randall still was in good shape, though.)

But then Norway’s Marit Bjoergen passed her.

Because the two skiers with the next two fastest times overall also advance, Randall’s chances still were looking decent.

But then Italy’s Gaia Vuerich passed her just before the finish line.

Randall still had a chance to advance as the second qualifier (aka, a “lucky loser”) if her time had been fast enough, but it wasn’t. After waiting many anxious seconds, she learned she had been too slow.

“That final gear wasn’t quite there and then I fell apart there right before the finish and didn’t get a lunge in,” she said. Official results indicated she was actually five-hundredths behind Vuerich. “I’m sure I’ll be living those moments hundreds of time in my head.”

After a television interview. . . Randall walked down the steps to the mixed zone to speak with reporters. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she leaned against a barrier and buried her head in her arms.

This was only natural, given that she carried the tremendous weight of her country’s hopes for cross-country. Randall didn’t just want a medal for herself, she wanted a medal to boost the sport throughout America. She wants more Americans out on the trail, learning how wonderful and fun her sport is while improving their health and fitness.

“It’s rough, but that’s sport, right?” Randall said of her disappointing day. “You prepare your whole life for something like this and it’s over in 2½ minutes.”

It’s especially rough because of the cross-country system that alternates sprint styles every Olympics. One Olympics, the sprint will be raced classic style; the next it will be free style. The free sprint, Randall’s specialty, will not be held again until the 2022 Olympics, when she is 39.

I admire Randall for going all in on medaling, but wonder if she’ll think it was worth it. “The joy,” some wise person once said, “is in the journey.” I’m sure Randall isn’t feeling too joyful right now, but in time I hope she feels the effort was worthwhile. That she has positive memories from some training sessions; and other victories; and her world travels; and most especially, her friendships with teammates, fellow competitors, trainers and coaches. Despite the bitter disappointment of not achieving her ultimate goal, I hope she feels her life is richer as a result of the attempt.

Sometimes I’m asked if I’m going to do another long distance triathlon. The key question for me is whether I could enjoy the extensive training required. If I do re-up, I will think of the race as just one small part of the larger equation.

Although I get the allure of sporadic, specific instances of accentuated risk/reward like Olympic competition, I prefer stitching together meaningful daily routines that tip the balance towards deeper relationships, better physical health, and greater spiritual enlightenment. Yesterday was a great day not just because it was my birthday, but because of small, simple joys—a longish morning swim workout; a green tea latte; unexpected emails from distant friends; unexpected sunshine; a walk with the wife and labradude; phone conversations with my two fav college students; and dinner out at Gardner’s.

Gardner’s is a bit fancy pants, but Kikkan Randall taught me something today. Don’t live too far in the future. Find joy everyday.

 

The Art of Persuasion

We’re all trying to persuade one another of things. All the time.

Don’t eat meat. Undo Obamacare. Exercise more. Believe that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Remove Assad. Drink Coke. Teacher unions are obstructionist. Preserve public lands. Save. Invest. Block the Keystone XL pipeline. Lower taxes. Eliminate the Education Department. Legalize marijuana. Live more simply. Quit using poverty as an excuse and close the achievement gap. The Seahawks are the best team in football.

We’re so busy trying to persuade one another to adopt our point of view that we rarely take time to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different strategies to persuade others to think, believevote, and live like us.

Hundreds of ways to persuade fall along a continuum. Some write editorials or make documentary films. Others throw rocks through store windows. The strategies that are most near and dear to me rest upon education, which emphasizes the power of ideas. Educators like me use open-ended questions and words, both written and spoken, to inform people about different perspectives. Then, through civil discourse, we try to get students to be more thoughtful about other persons, places, and controversial issues.

Radical activists, rebel fighters, and state sponsored militaries attempt to persuade through physical force. Their tools include kidnappings, suicide bombs, guns, tanks, aircraft, nuclear bombs, and drones.

To be more persuasive the educator works hard to refine her questions, words, and listening skills. To be more persuasive rebel fighters and military soldiers often turn to “overwhelming force”.

Sometimes teachers become ideologues intent on indoctrinating students. And diplomats carefully choose words and policies to prevent wide-scale violence. And many people shout at one another, too impatient to ask questions or listen.

Your most effective form of persuasion is the life you live day-to-day in your home, in your community, in your workplace. A decade or so ago, Betrothed began walking and swimming each week and sometimes cycling around town instead of driving. One sunlit day in the kitchen, she credited me with inspiring her through my example. I hadn’t said a word to her about fitness, hadn’t even thought of it, and was clueless to what was transpiring, until she pointed it out.

Maybe you’re in the impatient majority and therefore believe persuading by personal example is for chumps. Why model values for years and decades when I can just raise my voice and argue my positions more vociferously?

News flash. People’s politics and behaviors are the result of their life experiences. Everyone’s politics almost always make sense in the context of their story; consequently, it’s next to impossible to talk others into thinking, believing, voting, and living like you.

Yet all is not lost.

People tune out your words, your blog (well, except this one), and the bumper stickers on your car, but they pay attention to how you interact with your family and friends, how generous you are with your money, how you deal with defeat, whether you laugh at yourself, and whether you show kindness to strangers.

Think of your personal example as the rock thrown in the middle of Lake Persuasion. The ripple effects are far greater than your more explicit attempts at changing people’s minds.  concentric_circles

Paragraph to Ponder

From David Denby in the New Yorker

I’m . . . angry about the talk of artists inevitably dying of drug overdoses. Some of this talk may be cant. Fifty years ago the same was said about jazz musicians—they lived out at the edge, baring their souls as well as their craft every time they played, and it took the life out of them, so they had to turn to heroin. Really? But Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie had very long runs, and heroic actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both in their seventies, are still alive and working very hard. Beethoven did not become an alcoholic, and neither did Picasso nor Matisse. On the other hand, anonymous men die in the street every week from heroin. There’s no necessary connection between artistic talent and drugs and alcohol. We don’t really know what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s demons were, but he was a man acquainted with despair, and now some of us are feeling a little of that, too.

Hoffman’s genius illustrated.

And why Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is so scary. “Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth.”