Archive | November, 2011

The Two Sides of Steve Jobs

30 Nov

All four of my readers will remember my post-mortem post on Steve Jobs. This post is further reflection on his life and accomplishments.

I’ve been reading the new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and have some information to report back:

Steve Jobs was a genius and a nut.

He was emotionally immature, interpersonally inept, and an unbelievable hypocrite. When he didn’t get what he wanted in professional settings, he cried to manipulate people.  When he needed to encourage staff to take ideas to the next level, he tended to berate and belittle them instead. And despite the fact that he was himself given up for adoption by his mother and abandoned by his father, he refused to accept his own fatherhood for his oldest child until he was pretty much forced to after positive DNA testing.

This biography is not a tell-all, but Jobs wanted people to know the truth so wanted no censoring of content. I give him points for that. Isaacson conducted interviews with Jobs as well as hundreds of people Jobs knew–people with all kinds of opinions about what made him tick. It’s fascinating to read these insights into his process.

One of the things most intriguing to me is that, like George Harrison, Jobs sought spiritual enlightenment. I was surprised to find that he went to India to study Eastern philosophy and was a student of Buddhism. But unlike Harrison, Jobs did not seem to absorb any of the spiritual tenets around respect for other sentient beings. He used more of an end justifies the means type of approach to management,  putting people who worked for him on temporary pedestals to bolster their confidence one moment, while the very next telling them that what they created was “shit.” Apparently, he said this a lot. Jobs’ main takeaway from Buddhism, in particular Zen, seemed to be not the spirituality but the influence his  product design aesthetic: spartan, clean lines, and no fuss.

Another angle that Isaacson explores is the famous Jobs “reality distortion field.” If Steve Jobs believe that something was possible–even the impossible–he so strongly and passionately integrated this belief with his own worldview that for him and everyone around him it became reality. What that says to me is that he was so able to suspend his own disbelief that he had the power to persuade others to bend reality in very interesting ways…ways that beat deadlines and over-delivered on features.

All of this is interesting because it seems that the combination of these characteristics gave him the ability to manipulate his own and others’ thinking beyond the expected, giving us revolutionary products that are truly a pleasure to use. I’ve been wondering if all of the bad karma that Jobs created along the way of driving this technology to fruition outweighs the benefits of the products, and how they’ve impacted our lives in such positive ways. I think that you could argue it either way, and the answer is very subjective.

I’ve worked for people that I did not like at all interpersonally but whom I respected professionally, and who drove my thinking to the next level even though I despised their methods. I hated them for being so mean, but I still loved them for being geniuses. I’m a better professional for having worked with them, despite the pain. I think Steve Jobs left a slew of people behind with this very impression. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t bad. He was something in between: imperfect and himself.

Listen Here, Whippersnappers!

29 Nov

In the spirit of being Old Enough To Know Better (the long version name of this blog), I have reached the point in my life (officially 44 on Dec. 20) where I freely offer advice, to just about anyone.

Being old comes with privileges like that. Doesn’t matter whether or not people listen. That’s not the point. How handy to have this blog to help in my endeavor!

Along those lines, this post is a random collection of items that make me happy in life. Of course you want to know about them because they are sure you make you happy as well. Consider my tips an improvement over what you might find in high-brow periodicals, such as Martha Stewart Living, Oprah’s O Magazine or Real Simple—only better. The great thing is that I am sharing these happiness-makers with you for FREE, via my low-brow blog!

Here are five FREE! happiness-makers:

1. Make the bed every morning. No matter what.

This is something that I can easily control, even when the rest of my day is insane. Bonus: When I collapse in bed at the end of a long day, the covers are not in a messy heap. This gives me the illusion that I’ve conquered all chaos in my life.

Extra credit for remembering to sprinkle some baby powder between the sheets while making it…keeps things extra fresh.

2. Sit on a ball, not a chair, while at work.

I am not kidding. Unless you work in a profession that gives you frequent freedom to move about, your body is getting weaker every second you spend in that chair. Scientists agree with me, as empirically proven by this one study, as well as plain common sense.

At least sitting on a physio-ball ($20 from your local Target) keeps you working core muscles while you are sitting, because if you don’t work your core you will fall off the ball. The entire process will make you feel better. Especially the part about not falling off the ball.

Anyone who thinks you’re a weirdo has too much free time on their hands to be worrying about you and your ball…suggest that they get back to work and let you continue being on the ball.  Who can argue with good posture?

Extra credit for one or two backbends during the day, supported by your trusty ball. If you are both self-conscious and stealthy this can be accomplished while co-workers are in the kitchen or on bathroom breaks.

3. Even if you don’t like habits, pick a few that give you comfort and practice them every day.

I like change and don’t enjoy a lot of repetition in my days, so this is not an easy discipline for me. What hooked me on habits is that they are both nurturing as well as efficient use of time.

Getting ready for work or school and arriving at the same time every day is a simple habit that most of us have to do anyway, so that’s easy. Fitting in some time for meditation and journal-writing prior to work is something that I have grown to enjoy. Practicing an instrument is another.

If you have too many habits, make it a habit to drop some of them. This would include frequent trips to the office stash of Reese’s Cups (one of my too frequent habits).

4. Walk more than you do now.

This is something that just about anyone can easily do. I have for many years owned dogs that will drive me crazy if I don’t get them out for a walk or hard playtime in a field. This is terrific motivation.

There are so many little things that I notice about the world around me by moving more slowly than I can by car, and my body is thankful for the chance to blow off some steam and soak up the outdoors. Even in bad weather, being both outside and simply walking gives me a mood boost.

5. Pick one day each week when you will not use social media or electronic devices.

This is very difficult for me. I really hate it at first because I am quite obsessive-compulsive with being “in touch,” but it’s very beneficial for my peace of mind to go off the grid and not be always connected to everyone and everything.

All of it is still be there when I plug back in the next day. Most things can wait and don’t need immediate response. The Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait” is a good reminder that not so long ago we communicated with more delay between the send and response.  Immediacy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and being off the grid is a good reminder of how the world keeps spinning without my interventions.

There’s a 30-day money-back guarantee on these tips. I will give you a full refund if you are not happier after putting all of these into practice for a month. Promise!

Never Enough Tufte

29 Nov

Edward Tufte is the guru of info design…I published this three years ago but unearthing from the vault for a redux.

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I highly recommend the works of Edward Tufte to anyone who (1) likes diagrams of any sort, (2) enjoys communications about data, and/or (3) gets personal satisfaction from bridging the gap between a highly technical topic and an extremely non-technical audience.

Tufte is a Yale professor emeritus probably best known among statisticians, engineers and designers. These audiences tend to appreciate diagrams, and developing a meaningful, clean and well organized visual explanation is not easy. Edward Tufte explains how using pictures to convey information is both an art and a science. His works provide case studies of well-done and poorly executed diagrams, both of which are well worth studying. It’s good for anyone to learn how best to handle these matters and how to avoid others’ mistakes. Buying Tufte’s books is recommended for those (like me) who are tactile. The paper quality and fold-out sections deliver the adult version of a pop-up book.

Writers of any sort should better get to know Tufte. Probably the biggest reason is that many writers do not have a natural affinity for data. By nature, most people either “do” words or numbers. Some juggle both well, and those sorts will lap up Tufte like a cat with a bowl of milk. Those writers who do not take well to numbers can learn how to integrate data into copy in an engaging way, by using accurate and interesting narrative descriptions and visuals that help to tell the story.

Edward Tufte is a revolutionary communicator, in a practical way. His Powerpoint essay explains why. This is a must-read for anyone as an introduction to his approach. The Gettysburg address a la Powerpoint will make you laugh. The NASA Columbia engineers’ plight when forced to grapple with the inadequacies of Powerpoint will make you cry. Tufte’s post mortem lays out how a seemingly helpful tool such as Powerpoint contributed to the Columbia disaster. He explains, blow by blow, the right way to share highly important technical information with a business audience. Powerpoint is not the tool to use. At its best, it’s a sales tool. At its worst, it squeezes important information into a hierarchical outline format that requires a very small amount of information per slide, when it’s a proven point that people in general can absorb so much more. The comparisons to Pravda are revealing. Everything that we’ve been taught about what’s “proper” to include on a given slide in terms of information volume is sorely lacking, and Tufte explains why in his Powerpoint essay.

There are larger issues beyond Powerpoint. At the heart of Tufte’s method is a lesson for every writer willing to grow in his or her chosen field. We all know that feeling when we “nail it”–when the audience reads or hears what we are writing or presenting about, and they absorb it and take it to the next level for their own purposes. We also know when we are not able to make a meaningful translation–when the information just doesn’t stick. This is a bad feeling for us and for the reader/audience, because it wastes time. Why burn time when it could be used to communicate more productively?

In our information-rich world, it’s critical for any writer to understand how best to separate the wheat from the chaff, and Edward Tufte pioneers a quality approach. Prioritizing critical information from non-critical “phluff” is what it’s all about. If you are a writer, Tufte is worth your time.

Not Just Rhythm

28 Nov

I just finished reading Rolling Stone’s new 100 Greatest Guitarists issue.

Out of 100, 2 were women: Joni Mitchell (#75) and Bonnie Raitt (#89). Marnie Stern was listed as an up-and-comer (compared with several men her age on the “100” list).

I am not often inclined to cry sexism, but this was a serious miss. I am an amateur guitarist and was inspired by men and women in equal shares: A bit  Randy Rhodes, a little Nancy Wilson. The Rolling Stone judges are professionals and should have known better and/or done their homework.

Who hasn’t heard and appreciated these greats?

These new young guitarists should have been listed on the up-and-comer list:

  • Orianthi Panagaris (w/Steve Vai) – “High Strung
  • Ritzy Bryan (w/The Joy Formidable) – “Whirring

So take that, Rolling Stone.

Women guitarists rock, in rhythm and lead.

Know Your Audience

7 Nov

Knowing your audience is a fine art. This is my favorite quote from Ron Alsop’s book The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation, one that concisely sums up the spirit of being keenly aware of your audience, and their influencers:

“The stakeholder pyramid isn’t a static structure.”

What this means is that we’ve got to be constantly on top of the groups that are interpreting our image in the public space. They may or may not be customers. A good example Alsop provides is the Calvin Klein ads, noteworthy for those of us who first wore designer jeans in the 1980s. Although I looked nothing like Brooke Shields, I did love my Calvins. For the record, I had ONE pair. Lots of others loved their Calvins. They sent a message of youthful je ne sais quoi and corset-like zipped-upness.

imagesThe Calvin Klein ad campaign grew and developed into involvement of younger and younger models, which raised eyebrows for some. In the 90s, Klein’s underwear campaign became infamous for the heroin chic look of models like Kate Moss, known by her gaunt face and bag-of-bones body. At this point, the fashion popularity of Klein was very high, but his reputation began to suffer because of what older people—not his demographic—thought of the ad campaign.

For a long time, it was okay to push the envelope, with ads that were more and more risque, but that only has so much staying power. People pay attention, and they don’t put up having their intelligence be insulted.

The same type of phenomenon happened to Victoria’s Secret. When the company began, their brand promise went something like this: We make lingerie for real women, who are somewhat modest and have zero interest in tacky feather-laden teddies from Frederick’s of Hollywood. We will properly fit you for a brassiere that is uniquely for you, and will last for five years. But a couple of years ago, VS was selling Fredericks-esque teddies and trying to convince me that I needed to throw away perfectly good a year-old class of bras to buy Tyra Banks’ or Heidi Klum’s favorite because it was “just better bra technology.” Yeah, my foot.

What happened? How did they stray so far from their brand promise? VS did have very good success with its Pink line, for younger women, but they may have lost the market that has more money to spend: Women who are “of a certain age.”

Women who have daughters that are old enough to wear nice underwear…and want their daughters to buy nice underwear from a reputable, above-board shop. Yes, To Know Better is in that category, too. VS ended up with a tricky consumer with my demographic. I’m buying bras and panties from them, and my daughter is on the cusp of it. As a result, I am a proponent of VS keeping it clean. It’s only been recently that I have given VS another look, and it’s because they have started to get back to their brand promise. And I’ve wanted my daughter to have a better first bra-buying experience than my own, which involved my grandmother’s sudden bright idea of strapping on a training bra over top of my clothes in the middle of the Hart’s Department Store. For a 12-year-old girl, this was not a welcome experience.

So this is a good case in point for how much public perception matters. Even if Calvin Klein was not a proponent of heroin chic, or underage sex or people having to lay down on their beds to zip up their jeans, SOME people—influential people—in the investment community did believe so. And for Victoria’s Secret, their bread and butter consumer (yes, To Know Better and her friends) was not to be messed with.

Women with buying power are a force not to be manipulated. We stop spending when we get peeved. And even if a stakeholder group is not spending—like the investors that influenced Klein to get back on track with the basics—it is wise to monitor reputation with all key image-perceivers.

The Goldilocks Communications Principle

3 Nov

I’ve never been a big talker. Unlike most communications professionals, I am closer to the middle on the Introvert-Extrovert scale. My preference is to mull over and percolate what I learn before I discuss it. I tend to be a minimalist in terms of what I say and write–at least compared to others in my field.

I was always the girl in high school that you could share your secrets with, because I wouldn’t broadcast them to the world or judge you for them. Professionally, this style of being a confidante and thoughtful communicator has served me well in working with clients in crisis situations, where a lot of information needed to be collected, shared and processed by a small team before it is ready for public consumption, to avoid spreading rumors.

Yet there are situations where it’s actually MORE comforting for people to have information, even if it is incomplete and still messy. I’ve had to fine-tune my communications approach during my career based upon the situations I’ve been in, and shaped by the people involved. In business and in life, how much communication is not enough, too much or just right? Not always an easy question to answer.

It’s all subjective, based upon the needs of the audience and the circumstances prompting the communication in the first place. Even with the same group of people, the communications needs can change based upon the situation. I call this “The Goldilocks Principle” of communications. Here are the stages, described by caricatures from my own career:

  1. Goldilocks tries to eat Papa Bear’s porridge–TOO MUCH! Early in my career, I wrote A LOT of detail in my business communications–emails, reports, talking points for communications. At that time, I thought that you needed–and really wanted–to know everything that I knew, exactly how I knew it. Because I identified as a writer, by God you would see my writing…and have to determine for yourself what was most important, buried somewhere in the long sentences and James Joyce density of it all.
  2. Goldilocks moves on to Mama Bear’s porridge–BETTER BUT STILL NOT RIGHT! As I progressed in my business writing skills, I tapered back and began to position my writing so that the reader would not have to wade through so much and would know more about what was really important to understand. I was also given counsel at this stage of my career that even if I had limited information, sometimes it was best to share it in the moment because I worked for a person who wanted to have all of the buzz. For this audience, I needed to inject more of my gut reactions and not “filter” out what I often perceived as people’s over-reactions to situations. Trying to compensate for being overly analytical and not “human” enough in my communications, I put more of myself, and more emotion, into this stage. The thing is, not every Goldilocks wants Mama Bear’s feelings…
  3. Goldilocks tries Baby Bear’s porridge–JUST RIGHT! On most days I am here, but it’s always good to be reminded of what the audience needs to know and can truly benefit from. It takes more time to communicate just the right amount of information, positioned in just the right way, to meet the needs of all the right people. A heavy dose of emotional AND intellectual intelligence gets poured into this porridge. “Just right” is usually about telling them what they need to know, but in a way that it’s framed as a story–something that they will BOTH “get” AND remember.

I continue to learn lessons about the “Goldilocks communications principle.” What it really comes down to is being aware, pivoting to meet the needs of the audience and acknowledging when you’ve over- or under-communicated. And not forgetting to celebrate when the porridge is “just right.”