Mindfulness, Photography & Creativity

I’m writing this from the balcony of my hotel in Florence. The accompanying picture is my view. I just returned from the Bargello museum and its small but impressive collection of sculpture, carvings, metalwork, and frescoes. I took a few pictures and then forced myself to stop. Part of it was certainly the realization that a photo can’t possibly do justice to the real thing; but the main reason was that the process of taking pictures was separating me from the experience. It removed me from power of the artist’s creation. It removed me from the moment. I was focused on creating a memory rather than living it.

I talk a lot about mindfulness in my classes, and it’s a constant theme throughout 20/20 Mind Sight.  So I shudder to become a person who advises, “Do what I say, not what I do.” After I post this piece, I’m going to head out for lunch and leave my camera behind. Perhaps it’s my pea-size brain that’s to blame. Maybe I truly can’t do two things at once. Or maybe I’d just rather do one thing well – experience Florence, its food, sights, and people in all its glory – than compromise the moment by taking quintessential touristy pictures. Or maybe – and this is probably closer to the truth – I’ve realized that what really inspires me creatively is beauty in the flesh.

In my case picture-taking impedes the inspirational juices. Is there something in your hands or life today that impedes your inspirational juices? If so, lock it in the safe and continue your journey through life.

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Here I Go Again

My literary agent once said I was my own worst enemy – I had too many interests, wrote on too many topics and in too many genres to build a loyal readership.

It’s hard to argue with that. My first book was a young adult novel followed by three humor books. Then I wrote a marketing book and an investing book. Next up were several novels ranging from satire to chick-lit to paranormal. My newest book, co-authored with Jillian Vorce, grew out of a class I teach at BC and focuses on encouraging personal reflection and increasing self-knowledge.

So what literary path have I chosen to pursue next? Obviously something I’ve never done before: a thriller.

It’s been said that most artists – painters, musicians, sculptors, writers, actors, etc. – possess some sort of character flaw bordering on mental illness. That’s probably an overstatement (I hope) but I do believe there’s truth in the fact (not of the “alternative fact” variety) that we tend to see the world from a slightly different (askew?) perspective.

In my case, I think the “disorder” stems from the fact that I’ve never written simply to make money. I write the kind of stuff I enjoy reading. If that means I’ll never reach the stature or earnings of a John Grisham, I’m okay with it.

As I’m writing this, however, I’m reminded that I once did purposely write to make money. And I succeeded. It was back in the early 1980’s and I was spending a week on the Cape. My YA novel had been published and I was selling articles and essays to a bunch of magazines and newspapers – but not making very much money. So I sat back and asked myself a simple question: “What sells?” The answer was equally simple: “Sex!” So, within a week I had written captions for a cartoon book called How To Tell If It Was Good. The book was published by Ivory Tower Press and sold over 200,000 copies.

The moral of the story? Perhaps, unlike white mice, I don’t learn. Perhaps I can’t truly synthesize life lessons – even those that slap me upside the head. Who knows? Maybe the urge to write something strictly for money will strike again. Until then, await my foray into the thriller market – and wish me luck in battling my obvious disorder.

Begin at the End: What You & IBM Have in Common

The best advice I ever got in my career was that I needed to begin at the end. I needed to visualize my legacy. Most people associate a legacy with the transfer of worldly possessions from one generation to the next. So it’s not a great leap to realize that each of us also create personal and professional legacies related to our character, core values, and social impact. The key is to define that legacy – determine exactly who you want to be (not what you want to be), what you want to accomplish, and then focus all your time and energy on making it a reality.

This concept of a visualized legacy is focused on defining and achieving goals. And it gets to the heart of true self-awareness. Visualization is usually associated with athletes – particularly peak performers. Baseball players picture themselves hitting a home run, sprinters see themselves bursting over the finish line ahead of the pack, and gymnasts see themselves performing a perfect routine and sticking the landing to a standing ovation. The process works the same for the rest of us mortals. Architects visualize their design, fully constructed, with people walking through the doors and gliding up the escalators. Attorneys see themselves in the courtroom with the judge and jury hanging on their every word. And marketers of every stripe see their efforts ringing the cash register.

Like all things, visualization does not come easy. It requires practice. Visualization is far different than simply saying “I think I can, I think I can.” It involves images rather than words and narration. And the more vivid the image – the more detailed and nuanced – the more impact it will have on your success.

A Lesson From The Greatest Visualizer Of All-Time

Thomas Watson, Sr. became general manager of the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR) in 1914. At the time, CTR was a manufacturer of automatic meat slicers, weighing scales, and punched card equipment. The company had fewer than 400 employees; but Watson had big plans for the small company and, in 1924, he renamed it International Business Machines.

Watson’s description of his thought processes and game plan for the company is far too powerful to paraphrase. So here, in Watson’s own words, is the secret of his personal and professional success:

IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a very clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done. You might say I had a model in my mind of what it would look like when the dream – my vision – was in place.

The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act. I then created a picture of how IBM would act when it was finally done.

The third reason IBM has been so successful was that once I had a picture of how IBM would look like when the dream was in place and how such a company would have to act, I then realized that, unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there.

In other words, I realized that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one.

From the very outset, IBM was fashioned after the template of my vision. And each and every day we attempted to model the company after that template. At the end of each day, we asked ourselves how well we did, and discovered the disparity between where we were and where we had committed ourselves to be, and, at the start of the following day, set out to make up for the difference.

Every day at IBM was a day devoted to business development, not doing business.

We didn’t do business at IBM, we built one.

What’s Your Vision?

Thomas Watson, Sr. didn’t invent the concept of visualization but he embraced it with a fervor that should be an inspiration to us all. Interestingly, it would be very easy to reword Watson’s quote and replace “IBM” with your own name. To wit:

Thirty years from now, I will have achieved all that I am capable of for three special reasons. The first reason is that, starting today, I have a very clear picture of what a successful career will look and feel like when I retire.

The second reason is that now that I have that picture, I can ask myself how a successful career like that would have to be built. I can then create a picture of how I would have to act and interact to achieve that goal.

The third reason I will have been so successful is that once I had a picture of what my career would look like when the dream was in place and how I would have to act, I realized that, unless I began to act that way from this day forward, I would never get there.

In other words, I realize today that for me to become a great __________ (writer, physician, teacher, etc.) I would have to act like a great _____________ long before I ever became one.

From the very outset, my career was fashioned after the template of my vision. And each and every day I attempted to model myself after that template. At the end of each day, I would ask myself how well I had done, and discovered the disparity between where I was and where I had committed myself to be, and, at the start of the following day, I set out to make up for the difference.

Thomas Watson, like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, realized that life is short. And he realized that the sooner he articulated his vision the more time he would have to achieve it. The same truth applies to every single one of us.

(This article is adapted from the author’s books 20/20 Mind Sight and Marketing for Rainmakers.)

 

Just Admit You Don’t Know

the-thinkerOne could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the workplace) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of stating “I don’t know” is amplified by the worries that we should know it, perhaps we once knew it but have since forgotten, and that everyone else knows it.

There are two alternative approaches to saying “I don’t know.” The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run than admitting one’s ignorance, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations, your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.

The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Admit your ignorance and allow yourself to learn something in the process. Confessing that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.

Perfection Is Neither a Weakness or Strength

perfection canstockphoto3240944Do you know the most commonly asked question at job interviews? It’s this: Name your greatest weakness.

And the most common response to that question? I’m a perfectionist.

The question is bogus and the response is cloyingly absurd. In defense of the interviewee, he or she is simply trying to turn a negative into a positive; but only the truly deluded could view perfectionism as a positive attribute. Perfection is illusory and its pursuit will inevitably lead to grief and disappointment. If you don’t believe it, consider the arc of Tiger Woods’ career. Woods was poised to reign as the greatest golfer of all time. His golf swing was a thing of beauty that combined power and finesse. But Woods was not content with an extraordinary swing. He wanted a perfect swing and he hired a succession of high-priced coaches to tweak and experiment with his mechanics. This ill-conceived pursuit of perfection resulted in a multi-year fall from the leaderboard to the middle of the pack. His extraordinary swing was a distant memory, and his perfect swing was a pipe dream.

I’m quite certain I know what you’re thinking: Even if perfection is unattainable doesn’t it still serve a valid and useful purpose as an aspirational goal? The answer is an unequivocal no. The quest for perfection does not allow for mistakes or failure. Perfection cannot accommodate risk because risk entails too great a possibility of failure. A far better approach to achieving maximum performance in any endeavor is the embrace of three simple tenets:

  • Focus on the journey not the destination. Perfection implies an endpoint; but not only is that endpoint unattainable, it also mitigates the joy and self-satisfaction of achieving new milestones and new personal bests.
  • Strive for continual improvement rather than perfection. All of the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball struck out far more times than they hit homeruns. Michael Jordan missed 50.3% of the shots he attempted (and 67.3% of three-point attempts), yet he is arguably the greatest NBA player of all time. Jordan certainly wanted to make every shot – and probably believed he could – but that was never his goal. He simply wanted to get better with every shot and every game. If perfection were his ultimate goal, he was an abject failure.
  • Learn with every step. The key to embracing weakness is to learn from our mistakes and failures, and we do that by attending to our errors immediately – as they occur. Brain research has identified two types of behaviors when a mistake is made. The first is ignoring the mistake and moving on. The problem with this approach is the likelihood of repeating the mistake. That’s why you’ll see PGA golfers take another swing when an approach shot goes astray. They want to recognize and feel the difference between a good swing and a bad swing. The bad swing is in their immediate consciousness. If they waited until after the round, they wouldn’t be able to compare the good and bad strokes. That approach by pro golfers exemplifies the second behavior type identified by researchers – focusing on the problem and determining how to correct it. Taken to its extreme, this idea of focusing on the problem can lead to “paralysis by analysis;” but as part of a well-rounded mindset it will help you use weaknesses as a foundation for growth and success.

So, what’s a better response to the “name your weakness” question? Be honest, be specific, and speak from the heart. How you answer the question is far more important than what you actually say. Plus, the fact that you can name a specific weakness – complemented with information about how you have or will overcome it – demonstrates comfort with introspection and critical thinking. It demonstrates the ability to see the big picture – the forest and the trees. And it demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt that your goal is to contribute to the greater good by continual assessment of your skills and an ongoing game plan for improvement. That’s as close to perfection as you can ever get.

(Excerpted and adapted from 20/20 Mind Sight.)

Writers Tend To Be Weird About Writing

black-and-white-man-person-cigarette-largeWhen I first started writing (way back before most of you were born), I worked at a manual typewriter. My fingers would tap the keys and every 10-12 words I’d slap the carriage return to slide over, advance the paper, and drop down to the next line. Mistakes required White-Out applied with a tiny brush or retyping the entire page.

When I was in my early twenties, I upgraded to a Smith-Corona electric model. At the time, it was a significant investment of money and affirmed to me that I was serious about writing. Except that I couldn’t write on it. It was a typing machine not a writing machine. There was something about the whirring of the tiny motor that sounded impatient. Like it was disappointed in me, nagging me to write faster. It was probably how a Lamborghini would feel if driven by a little old lady who never exceeded 20 MPH. The upshot was that I had to write by hand on paper and then type. It was decidedly inefficient – but it was how I wrote my first published book.

In 1982, I went to work at Wang Labs and discovered the magic of word processing. No more White-Out, no more having to retype entire manuscripts, and no more annoying whir. There was no looking back. My first computer was an all-in-one Kaypro that used the CP/M operating system, featured a 9-inch green monitor, and used 5-inch floppy disks. I used the WordStar word processing system that required embedding clumsy commands into the text for formatting – but it was a huge step forward.

After flirting with a few Windows machines, I became an Apple fan boy and would never willingly return to the Microsoft evil empire. So I now do all my writing on either my MacBook Air or iMac. My requisites are music and libations. The music varies from classic rock to the mellowness of singer-songwriters to the occasional hip-hop/rap tune. The libations begin with coffee in the morning, diet Coke and iced tea through the day, and a whiskey in the evening.

Few things in life are more satisfying to me than creating a clever/insightful/engaging turn of phrase. That probably sounds weird to some people, but I’m okay with that. I’ve longed come to accept my weirdness. Which, in itself, sounds weird.

This Is Dedicated…

Dedication - Aunt Gloria & Uncle JulieMuch the process of writing and publishing a book is intense and exhausting. But there’s one aspect that brings nothing but joy – crafting the dedication.

My first book was the young adult novel Good News/Bad News published way back in 1980. It was the realization of a lifelong dream and I dedicated it to the person I loved most in the world: Lillie, my maternal grandmother. My father had died when I was eighteen months old, and Lillie came to live with us in the Bronx. My mother was working and so I spent my days with my grandmother, running errands, watching her cook, learning numbers and letters, playing games, and talking. She was always smiling and laughing. She had a uniformly positive view of the world despite becoming a widow in her thirties and having to raise six kids on her own. Grandma Lillie was a treasure over my entire life. She was always someone I could talk to. She was surprisingly open-minded – even about my high-school-dropout girlfriend whose hair was a different color pretty much every other day or that crazy rock-and-roll music I listened to.

My grandmother was in her eighties when the book was published. She smiled and got teary-eyed when she saw the dedication, but she was clearly a little confused. She seemed to think that the dedication was only on her copy. I told her it was printed on every single copy, and that’s when I got teary-eyed. In that moment I think I was more proud about having given my grandmother joy than I was about having written a book.

The dedication to my grandmother was a public affirmation of how much she meant to me, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to share it with her before she passed away. In the books and years since, I’ve written dedications to my wife, my children, and most recently to my dear Aunt Gloria and late Uncle Julie. That’s all good news, but the bad news is I’ll never write enough books to publicly recognize and thank all the people who have impacted my life.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to strive every day to express my love and appreciation for the people in my life. And here’s the rest of the plan: I want you to join me in expressing thanks – at least once every day – to someone who has made your life better in some way. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Odds are they will pay it forward and, over time, the world will become a better place because you took the time to say, “I love you,” “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or simply “Thanks.”

Interview with “Eccentric Bookaholic”

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 9.40.48 AMWhat first inspired you to write or who inspired you?

I can’t point to any specific event or moment in time. I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood. I remember being sick in bed with the flu when I was in grammar school. My father brought me a stack of books – mostly fiction and biographies – from the library and he couldn’t believe how fast I read them all and asked for another batch. I loved the way reading helped me escape the discomfort of being sick, and somewhere deep in my psyche the seed was probably planted that I would like to offer that same kind of respite and joy to future readers.

At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

For as long as I can remember. Like many kids I starting writing goofy stories for my own enjoyment and to share with friends. I sold my first article when I was 16. I’ve since sold three novels, two nonfiction books, three books of humor, and dozens of magazine articles (and self-published several other books). I’ve often said my tragic flaw is having too many interests – which is why I’ve written in such a wide variety of genres. Nonetheless, I do think it is curiosity that has driven my writing life.

Do you take notes when reading or watching a movie?

I trend to take notes everywhere. Ideas for plots, characters, and dialogue pop up while I’m showering, driving, falling asleep, walking the dogs, etc. When I’m reading or watching movies/TV, I’ll sometimes think about different ways a scene could have been handled. Depending on where I am, I often record my ideas as a voice memo on my iPhone or send myself an email reminder. Because I’m always taking notes I have way more storylines, situations, characters, and plot twists than I could ever use. I can’t point to how or why, but I do believe that inspiration derives from being open to new ideas and keeping my eyes and ears wide open.

Do you have a day job? What do you do?

I guess I’m in that stage of life called semi-retirement – meaning that I no longer have a 9-5 job. I do, however, mix and match four different jobs. Writing is certainly my focus and I write every single day. I’m also an adjunct professor at Boston College and I still do the occasional consulting project. And fourth, I’m a part-time chauffeur for a local car service company where I get to meet a wide variety of people and get inspiration for characters and storylines.

How often do you write?

I’m very disciplined about writing, so I write every single day. When I wrote Going Both Ways I had an objective of at least 500 words a day, 7 days a week. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll wait a long time.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently writing two novels. I’m finishing a black comedy about the current state of American politics. While I’m certain I could place it with a publisher, I think time is of the essence so I’m going to self-publish it around May 1. As my longer term project, I’m writing a “road-tripper” novel that explores love, loss, and the full range of interpersonal relationships.