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October 27, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Budgeting For Stupidity

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I am writing this post mid-Saturday afternoon...and I am wasting a substantial sum of money while doing so.

To explain (without getting into too much detail to exacerbate the situation and inflate the already-ridiculous financial tally), I am currently embroiled in a nuisance legal matter dealing with an asset I owned many moons ago.  

While I suspect this whole thing will blow over soon and be sensibly settled, the nuisance has already sucked away precious hours I’ll never get back, as well as wasted many dollars that even if I tossed them into the wind off an office tower roof, they would be put to better use than they are dealing with this ridiculous situation right now.

The only “plus” in this unfortunate affair is that it has served as the obvious prompt for this week’s lesson...

...a financial one I will call

Budget for Stupidity.

I’m sure that you, like me, have been the author of many a budget, be it for professional, corporate, project or personal household use.  And you don’t need to be a brain surgeon or forensic accountant to plan for the unexpected with a budget line usually under the title “Miscellaneous.”

But what I’m talking about here is a little different.

To me, the “Miscellaneous” line item stands for the “well, that’s life” part of life. It’s how we deal with an unforeseen rise in prices or exchange rate, an unfortunate accident, a sudden opportunity (they’re not all bad!) or unusual Act of God.  Planning for the unpredictable is prudent, and an immutable part of the budgeting process.

But the Stupidity  line item

goes one step further.  

It prepares you for the antithesis of an Act of God, as it’s usually an act of a mere mortal that spawns it. If “Miscellaneous” sets you up to “deal with it,Stupidity allows you to at least “tolerate it,”...whatever that “it” may be.  

Examples of things that would fill the Stupidity line item include expensive auction items purchased after having too much to drink, dry cleaning or clothes replacement bills after somebody spills something on you and doesn’t offer to pick up the tab, parking tickets, and especially nuisance legal matters dealing with assets owned and sold a long time ago.

The best part of the Stupidity line item on budget is that it protects you two ways:

  1. If you regrettably have to spend it, at least the money is put aside, and you can simply shrug your shoulders and throw up your hands as a symbol of your frustration
  2. If you don’t have to spend it, you can either transfer the sum into the next budget period, or use it on a great meal or even a party (depending on the provisional amount) to celebrate that a certain elevated degree of stupidity did not enter your life this year

Perhaps my definitions of Stupidity are different than yours, but I KNOW you have your own (maybe you’ll even share them in the comments section of this blog). Define ‘em, collect them and group them under one boldly-bannered line item next time you budget.

You’ll face the world happier knowing that even if you can’t beat Stupidity, you can be smart in your defense against it.

October 20, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--A Checklist To Guarantee Passion Projects

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As mentioned in a post a couple months back, I carry a journal with me just about all the time, which I fill with copious thoughts, notes, ideas and random observations. 

Most of these scribblings make no sense to anyone but me, but every once in a while, I jot down something that ultimately takes on a life of its own, either as a project, a speech, a reminder or, in the case of this blog post, an action plan. 

What's special about the aforementioned action plan is how strongly it resonated with when I casually mentioned it to others. 

It started out on September 7th as a mere scribble on the corner of a journal page; a quick list of criteria to help guide decisions I need to make in my role as "Chief Attention Getter" for the city of Montreal's upcoming 375th Anniversary.   It was indeed a simple "note to self."

But every time I shared it, the reaction was always the same, namely:

"Wait...can I copy that down?" 

Whether it was a meeting with government officials or with the head of a major international conference, eyebrows and fingers were raised...the latter to either write or type the list for future reference.

So this week's lesson is a shorty-but-goodie.  I say that not just because of the way those with whom I've already shared this have responded, but because I really believe in the outcome following the listed steps can bring.

So without any further ado, here is my list of guiding principles, a "Check and Un-balance list" designed to separate the boring and standard from the exciting and inspiring.  No matter what project or process you may be considering, it works.  So, before committing to anything, ask yourself the following:

  • Does it draw attention?
  • Is it photo-worthy?
  • Is it talk-worthy?
  • Will people take the next step and actually share it?
  • Is it The Most/The Best/The Biggest/The Fastest/The First/The Something?
  • If not...why the hell would we do it?

Now let's face it; the criteria cannot apply to EVERY project or decision; sometimes we need to do something as a favor, or as payback or because of personal or corporate politics.  But if that is indeed the case, at least the final question allows you to admit it and move on.

But by following said criteria, you will at least be ensured to do two things:

  1. eliminate tedious projects that are most likely doomed to failure
  2. increase the amount of passion projects you'll be excited to work on...and deliver.

October 14, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Frills Bring The Thrills

Cool Coat
During the Jewish Holidays last week, the two words I heard most often (other than “Shana Tovah,” which means “Happy New Year”) were “Nice suit!”

I heard it on three separate days, and heard it often for each different suit.  Whether I was wearing the back-on-black stripe, the basic blue or the grey pinstripe, the reaction was always the same: “Nice suit!” 

What makes this feedback more gratifying and relevant to this blog’s mandate of lessons learned was that each of these three suits was nine years old, and I had worn all of them during the Jewish Holidays many times over the past near-decade. 

Yes, the suits were good ones, but they were old.  

The difference, and the reason for the attention and chatter, is that each one was rejuvenated by a new, bold, shirt-and-tie combination.

Truth be told, it would be an equally gratifying compliment to hear “Nice shirt and tie!” but nobody seemed to delve into my attire that deeply.  Instead, the newness and brightness of the upper-body combo was deflected onto, and usurped by, the suit itself.

And that sums up this week’s learning, namely:

Accessories are not merely

as important” as the “whole”

they complement;

often they actually manage

to overshadow and even define

what the whole is.

Think this is trite? 

Think again, my friends.  This is an important lesson, one that at applies to homes, offices, businesses, books, magazines, restaurants (and their menu items), plays, concerts, even blogs.

  • Art on the walls and unique furniture can characterize a home or office. 
  • In the literary world, the right cover, illustrations and typography can be the difference between a best-seller and a remainder bin castoff. 
  • In shows, stage design and body-warping choreography dazzle and spawn word-of-mouth. 
  • And at eateries, exceptional accompaniment—be it hand-cut French fries, fine wine or mouth-watering desserts—make a meal something to write home, or write on Yelp!, about.

On a break from writing this post, I discovered a company that exemplifies this lesson.  It’s a window-washing group from Vancouver called “Men In Kilts.”  At its base is the fact that it cleans windows really well.  But so do so many others in the space; mixing squeegee, water and soap is not rocket science. 

What makes this company unique is its name (accessory #1), and more importantly, the way the washers are dressed—in green tartan kilts (accessory #2).  The firm’s obvious yet industry-obtuse slogan, “No Peeking!” (accessory #3) is its ultimate defining statement.

Back to my apparel for a second.  Getting ready for winter, over the weekend I pulled a coat of mine out of my storage locker (that's it atop this post).  It’s a somewhat traditional, formal black coat; pretty standard cut, (fake) fur collar, slash pockets.  To counter the expanse of black wool, I bought a mirrored pin that features a singing Elvis in full-body silhouette, and stuck it just under the right-side collar. 

The reactions I get

are always the same: 

What a cool coat!” 

But the coat itself isn’t truly cool; the pin is.  Yet the ensemble takes on the characteristics of the accessory once again.

Granted, this doesn’t always work.  There’s an old political expression that goes “You can’t polish a turd.”  In other words, if the base, the foundation, is crummy, all the accessories in the world can’t make it better.  If the main course sucks, the sides won’t make it tastier.  If my Holiday suits were poorly tailored, threadbare, pants too long and sleeves too short, a showcase filled with silken shirts and ties couldn’t bring them to life.

So build your foundation to be as strong as it can be.  But don’t stop there.  Add a layer or two of accessories. 

Your base can keep you in the race, but it’s the frills that bring the thrills.

October 6, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Good News! A Cure For The Common Cold!

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Yech.

I spent much of last week saddled with a nagging cold; one that wouldn’t fully break though into need for bed rest, but left me sniffly, blocked up, achy, feverish and functionally miserable for six straight days. (That's a close up of the virus that caused it above.) 

Being the quasi-hypochondriac that I am, I attack every cold the same way—with tons of expensive pills, lozenges and sprays, each focused on a different symptom, but collectively rather ineffective at making me feel better. 

So grin and bear it I did (more like “frown and bear it,” but I digress…), slogging through the workweek in misery until Thursday afternoon, when something kind of miraculous happened.

As miracles go, it was a simple one, and arrived on my iPad.  In the space of 45 minutes I got two emails filled with good news. One was about some very positive move-ahead on a new business venture I am investing in; the other was the unveiling of the inaugural visual treatment for a theatrical show I am working on.

So guess what happened?

For the next six hours or so, my nose cleared up.  My headache faded.  No sneezes or coughs.  My joints moved smoothly.  The off-and-on feverish sweats I was dealing with stabilized into a comfortable average. And I smiled.

Now I’m no doctor, but perhaps with those splendid emails, I stumbled upon not just this week’s very concise lesson, but perhaps onto the solution to a problem that’s been puzzling and plaguing mankind for centuries.  To put it simply:

Good news is the cure

for the common cold 

Granted, the “cure” was short-lived; just after dinner I started feeling crumby again.  But for six glorious hours, I was symptom-free.

Don’t exactly know why; perhaps it’s the flow of endorphins, and their transformation into ache-erasing euphoria. But it sho’nuff did work!

As silly as this might sound, there is some scientific backup for my finding.   Way back in 1983, writer and professor Norman Cousins wrote the best-selling “Anatomy of An Illness,” which described how he used humor and positivity to battle what was supposed to be a terminal ailment.  His finding has since spawned a whole industry of “laughter is the best medicine” books, seminars and consultants, and the basic concept is now endorsed by organizations as credible as the Mayo Clinic.

But my diagnosis was only a cold, and I didn’t laugh. 

I just smiled…a whole lot.

So again, my medical credentials are miniscule, but I think there’s something going on here.  So much so that the next time I feel that chill coming on, I’m gonna be looking for good news.  Lots of it.  Any kind, and anywhere I can find it.

It may not be proven as a cure, but it sure can’t hurt…and it’s certainly a whole lot cheaper than Extra-Strength Tylenol Flu, Otrivin and Chloraseptic Sore-Throat Spray.

September 29, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Sign Your Work

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A friend and former business partner reached out to me last week with a very specific request:

“Do you know of a good marketing copywriter?”

I kicked it around my head for a while, but unfortunately, nobody came to mind.  Then I thought of a site I had recently visited (an event planning group called The Girls) that was written sharply and concisely, making it bubble with personality.

I checked it, and frankly, to my surprise, at the site’s very bottom, was the credit “Copywriter/Cara Vogl.”

So to make a short story even shorter, I told my friend, who was as enamored as I was with Cara’s wordsmithery, and he ended up hiring her. 

That was easy. 

But most time, it’s not.

Why?

Because “inside” work like copywriting is usually hidden, or anonymous.  It doesn’t come up on search engines, and worse yet, often those who commission work of this sort do their best to “bury” the writer/designer/artist/whatever…as if the project they were hired for came together magically by itself.

So the lesson of the week is a simple, three-worded one:

 

Sign your work. 

 

No matter what it is.  

I’ve repeated these words ad nauseam to my son Hayes since he started to create functional art/furniture a year ago:  “No matter what the piece, from a massive bar installation to a dining room table to a laser-cut coaster, make sure that your name and logo are on it.” 

Not only does this allow those curious to learn—and perhaps find—who made it, it also adds value to the piece. It’s a marketing tool, a reputation builder and a value-add mechanism rolled into one.

Mac-128k-signaturesMy favorite story on this goes back to 1982, when the team who designed the original Apple Macintosh actually signed the mold that was used to make the computer’s casing.  “Since the Macintosh team were artists, it was only appropriate that we sign our work,” explained Apple’s Andy Hertzfeld. (That's it at right.)

More than yet another a faceless machine, the signed original Mac established itself as an historic icon, a valuable work of art…which is why mine is safely stored in my building’s basement.

But this advice doesn't only apply to hard goods. I’ve made the same counsel to my other son Aidan, who runs a software business in Toronto. Why can’t his company’s “code” be signed as well? 

I remember my own father driving home this consequence way back when I was a teenage journalist.  He told me to fight for a byline on every article I wrote.   “How else will they know who to compliment…or who to criticize?” he would say.

We live in an age where brands have taken on the utmost of importance.  Whether online, brick-and-mortar, product or service, the intrinsic value of the brand is often way more valuable than the entity to which it is attached. 

But there is only one way that any one of you, any one of your companies, or any piece of your work can be considered a “brand.” And that’s if people recognize it’s you…and how you differ from others. 

So whether it’s a multi-million dollar logo or a barely legible cursive scrawl, the power is in your hands. 

Sign your work!