Morphing into Eleanor Rigby

In the end, shall we admit that the anthem of the 60’s generation is Eleanor Rigby? That we’ve gone from being the Pepsi Generation and never trusting anyone over thirty to sitting on park benches, hoping someone will stop to say “Hello”?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Happy to Chat Bench

Alexa, turn off ads

Alexa joined our household over the Christmas holidays this year. It seemed the right thing to do—we’re empty-nesters, so we have room for a sociable companion.

The move-in went smoothly. Alexa lives in an Echo speaker. She occupies a small amount of space and eats much less than the kids did. So far, so good. She connected to our wi-fi without help from the kids, another big bonus.

After just a week, we’re starting to get comfortable with Alexa. When I ask her to turn down the volume, she does. When I ask for a weather forecast, she cheerfully tells me that it’s -30 outside with the windchill. And when I ask her to play Oscar Peterson, my frustration with the cold snap melts away.

Who could complain?

Only someone who pays attention to what may be coming to Alexa in the near future. “Amazon is looking into the possibilities of product promotion voiced by Alexa on Echo devices.” Ouch!

What might that look like?

“Alexa, how do I remove a red wine stain?”

“Use Product X from Company Y in liberal amounts. Scrub intensely. Repeat until Product X is gone.”

When that day comes, I’ll be looking for a good response to this command: “Alexa, turn off ads, suggestions and nudges.”

If that doesn’t work, there’ll be one last command: “Alexa, show yourself to the door.”

Pentecost in Ottawa

A moment of recognition came to me during the first reading at Mass yesterday, the Feast of Pentecost. The reading concludes:

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. (Acts, 2:7-11)

Our congregation that day, as on every other Sunday, was as diverse as the crowd in Jerusalem. The lector proclaiming the reading was from Liberia. The celebrant was from the US; he was assisted by a priest visiting from Ethiopia. The choir included musicians from Indonesia, the Philippines, and St. Lucia. The volunteer who trained the altar servers was from Pakistan. Two people in the pew behind me were from Holland. Other families I know hailed from Cameroon, Syria, Iraq, Germany, Scotland, India, and nearly every province and territory in Canada.

On a Sunday morning in suburban Ottawa, united by the Spirit,  attentive to the Word, one in our diversity … home.


Requiem: Consolation and Contemplation

CD Requiem, Priestly Fraternity of St PeterA beautiful and timeless addition to my music library arrived this week. The liner notes for Requiem, a recording of the Gregorian chant repertoire for the Mass and burial of the dead, promises that “the calmness of the chant reveals a spirit of rest or repose.” The recording delivers on its promise.

Dies iræ carried me back to my younger days, when I assisted at funerals in a country church, and forward through the years, bringing to mind so many final partings. Most moving was In Paradisum: “May the Angels lead you into Paradise,” our fondest wish for those we have lost.

Recorded by priests and seminarians of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter at their seminary in Denton, Nebraska, Requiem is available directly from the Order or can be purchased on Amazon. A feature article in the Miami Herald supplies interesting context; the following video describes the recording project and provides samples of the chants.


Donald Trump, the second coming of who?


Long before Trump, there was George Washington Plunkitt. Brash, garrulous, opportunistic, Plunkitt milked New York’s public projects in a time of intense immigration and economic growth. He despised civic reformers. He reveled in the intimate, all-consuming politics of his day. Unlike his cautious peers, Plunkitt held little back when talking about his views and methods.

Plunkitt summed up his approach to public life in the phrase, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft.

Would Trump deny that he is an opportunist? Probably not. Like Plunkitt, he treats opportunism as a political virtue, to be used for the benefit of his country. As for taking personal advantage, my guess is that he would echo Plunkitt: “When a man works in politics, he should get something out of it.

How does a billionaire like Trump connect with a mass audience? Plunkitt would have warned him:

Puttin’ on style don’t pay in politics. The people won’t stand for it. If you’ve got an achin’ for style, sit down on it till you have made your pile….

Trump tackled the problem head on. Remember the smirking reports about him eating fast food on his plane? Or the sneers at his red baseball caps? The message to his audience was “Deep down, I’m one of you.” His opponent’s slick, corporate-style logo looked disciplined, balanced, expensively-designed and, in hindsight, antiseptic. Trump, who clearly understands the value of professional design for his business interests, chose a deliberately “undesigned” look. The result? A potent mix of success-signals (the plane, the hotels, the bling) and plain-folk signals that reinforced his message.

Politicians live and die by their words. Plunkitt advised would-be politicians: “If you’re makin’ speeches in a campaign, talk the language the people talk. Don’t try to show how the situation is by quotin’ Shakespeare.” Can anyone doubt that Trump speaks in the simplest way possible? According to the Boston Globe, Trump delivered his campaign speeches at a Grade 4 level. A ten-year-old child could understand his words.  (Incidentally, Hillary Clinton spoke at a Grade 8 level and Bernie Sanders at a Grade 10 level.)

On surviving in politics, Plunkitt had one piece of advice: “You must study human nature and act accordin’. You can’t study human nature in books.” Trump’s immersion in backroom politics and private deal-making has undoubtedly taught him a lot about the self-serving, treacherous side of human nature. His marketing experience in developing attractive brands and properties appeals to the aspirations of his customers. Developing a successful television program has kept him in touch with mass audience preferences. He could say, with Plunkitt:

I know what they like and what they don’t like, what they are strong at and what they are weak in, and I reach them by approachin’ at the right side.

Plunkitt’s political career began before the Civil War and endured for nearly fifty years. Since his time, the population has exploded and the economy has grown more complex. Mass communication has changed the pace of politics. Yet the words of this machine politician speak across the years and shine a surprisingly bright light on the politics of our day.


The Founder’s Mentality: Find it or Flounder


It’s not often that I meet a legendary business leader. It’s less often that I receive a book in the mail from that person. So when Robert K. Irving sent me a copy of The Founder’s Mentality by Chris Zook and James Allen, I was eager to discover what Mr. Irving found to be so compelling.

What I found was a book that answered the twin questions: why do successful, growing organizations stall, and what can their leaders do to restore sustainable growth? Every business has to find an answer to those questions. So do volunteer organizations.

I work for a family-owned business that lives many of the same values that Mr. Irving described as the bedrock of his companies. I was not surprised, then, that The Founder’s Mentality is applicable to my work. What delighted me was how relevant it is to my volunteer activities.

What does the founder’s mentality look like?

  • It features a bold sense of mission that everyone in the organization understands.
  • It obsesses about the front line, where employees interact with customers and suppliers.
  • It shares an owner’s mindset, which is biased towards action and against bureaucracy.

As I worked through the opening chapters, I kept nodding in recognition. Among others, I recognized:

  • Robert K. Irving, who had paid a visit to our company—a new customer—to personally ask whether we were being well served and to explore whether we could find more opportunities to do business together.
  • Ward Griffin, whose passion for customer service has been the north star during our company’s growth over the past two decades.
  • Fr. Michael White from Timonium, Maryland, and Fr. James Mallon from Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaders in a movement to build vibrant, energetic Catholic parishes.

The authors maintain that success and growth present an organization with potentially lethal challenges. As they grow, businesses become more complex. They offer more products, they cover larger areas, they hire more people. Volunteer organizations introduce more programs and recruit more volunteers. Each addition adds complexity and dilutes the common vision. Growth stalls and, at best, the organization treads water.

Reigniting growth depends on adopting, maintaining, and spreading the founder’s mentality throughout the organization. A sampling of the recommended practical steps include:

  • Embed the front-line obsession throughout the organization.
  • Open up the lines of communication.
  • Share the burden of leadership.

Do I recommend The Founder’s Mentality? Heartily. For anyone who cares about their business or volunteer organization, it offers important insights and practical suggestions. I expect it will be part of my working library for years to come.

Relax, the idea will come to you

A Technique for Producing Ideas nestled on In Search of Times Past

A Technique for Producing Ideas nestled on Remembrance of Times Past

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.
[Srini Pillay, Harvard Business Review]

We’ve all experienced it. We grind away at a problem until we give up. When we leave our grindstone in despair and forget that it exists, inspiration strikes. If you’re like me, at that moment you ask yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

There’s a simple answer. You didn’t lose focus fast enough.

It turns out that neuroscience is giving us permission to drop our focus. If we let our brain’s “Default Mode Network” take over, we can relax while it “activates old
memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas.” It’s like having a mental butler serve up ideas while we engage in positive constructive daydreaming, pretend to be someone else or take a nap. [Pillay]

Science has spoken. Besides, who would want to argue against naps and creative play?

If you don’t live by every word that falls from the lips of neuroscientists, there are other, more entertaining sources to confirm your bias that napping and play are good for you.

James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas made the same point in 1939 without the arcane references to the inner working of the brain. In the space of 5,600 words (only 280 20-word tweets for those who live on Twitter-sized crumbs) he told advertising executives how to generate ideas: do the detailed research about your product and then drop the problem. When the idea interrupts your relaxation, write it down and get back to work, refining and testing the idea.

Maybe Young got his idea from Proust. (Trigger warning: Remembrance of Times Past is the equivalent of nearly 60,000 20-word tweets.)

In trying to force his mind to recall something he wanted to picture, Proust’s Marcel failed ten times in succession.

And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and my hopes for to-morrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.

And suddenly the memory revealed itself.

In the same way, he struggled to recall the appearance of towns he had visited, people he had met, music he had heard. Almost always, the recognition returned when he stopped dredging the river of his memories.

Filing away memories worked in a similar way. Here’s how Marcel came to internalize music he listened to:

…with regard to works we have heard more than once, we are like the schoolboy who has read several times over before going to sleep a lesson which he supposed himself not to know, and finds that he can repeat it by heart next morning.

So take heart. Developing ideas, remembering, and learning all benefit from diversion and loss of focus. Need convincing? Skip the neuroscience and advertising executives. Lose yourself in Proust. Nap with his book in your lap. Your creative genius will thank you.