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August 25, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week (Five Years Ago): Food For Thought--A Business Education in 20 Courses

Alinea-Dessert

Here’s the second of two vacation-inspired re-posts, this one from a trip to Chicago in August of 2009.  If you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed its subject, you will love it.

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Here's a big statement to start your day:

A dinner at Chicago's

Alinea restaurant should be

obligatory for every major

executive in America.

Here's why.

I'm no "foodie," but a 35-year business career has taken me to some of the finest food emporiums all over the globe.

Well, nothing, but nothing, has even come close to the epicurean delight I experienced at chef Grant Achatz's majestic Alinea (that's him below). It didn't merely shatter expectations for a restaurant, it was one of my great life experiences, period. (I am forever in debt to my son Aidan for being the driving force in jumping on a cancellation and getting us in front of the two-to-three month waiting list.)

The 20-some-odd (and I do mean "odd," but in the most complimentary and awe-inducing way) course "Tour" menu was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten (just one bottle of wine, at $80, hardly put a dent in a bill that masqueraded as a mansion's mortgage payment)...but it was a great bargain nonetheless.

Calling Alinea a "restaurant" is a disservice to the establishment and what it does.  It is to other eateries what Cirque du soleil is to Barnum & Bailey (a woman at the table next to me coined the phrase "Cirque du manger," or "Circus of Eating").  It markets itself brilliantly by being itself brilliantly. I could go on for terabytes about the food (which included Dr. Moreau-like hybrid delicacies like onion cotton candy, hot mustard ice cream, olive oil sorbet, powdered A-1 steak sauce, watermelon bombs and bacon-flavored challah bread), but amazingly, Alinea rises far above the palate-acrobatics it induces. (By the way, that image above?  No, not an abstract masterpiece...but table-top dessert.)

GrantThis type of attention to detail permeated the experience, and the magical, enchanting results were beyond staggering.  Tables are bare wood (albeit near-black mahogany) to optimize the visual component of each dish (water is served at a specific temperature to ensure no condensation rings on said tabletops). Walls are covered with art that, while tasteful, do little to draw the eye away from the focal point of one's food.

If the silverware and glassware are not specifically chosen to match the course being eaten (as was the case of the antique crystal and cutlery chosen to highlight an old French recipe for quail), they are created specifically for Alinea by one of its partners, Martin Kastner, and his Crucial Detail design firm.

Alinea is a team effort, but a team like the New York Yankees of the '50s or the Montreal Canadiens of the mid-'70s.  Achatz has assembled an executive partnership that shows the grand vision of his dining experience, working hand-in-hand with a business manager, architect, interior designer and sculptor. 

Even the wait staff, outfitted in Zegna, rise far above industry greatness, never mind the norm.  They complement each course put down with a story, factoid or red herring about it, and are single-minded in their corporate duty.  When I asked one of our servers, a South African young man, why he gave up his studies to work as a waiter, he said: "Because I want to help Alinea be recognized as the top restaurant in the world."  No need to guess what this place's mission statement is.

Alinea and Achatz have been much ballyhooed (Grant's personal story is a movie just waiting to happen...but not until he can direct it himself, I suspect), but after my adding to the ballyhooing, here's the reason why it should be required eating for every American exec:

RESPECT

  • Alinea respects its clientele; treats them like gods.  It listens to them, but it is no slave to public opinion. It takes chances for them. It has the guts to say "We're in the driver's seat.  Trust us...you'll enjoy the ride." 
  • Alinea respects its surroundings.  Nothing is random.  There is a reason for everything.  And there is no compromise. On anything.
  • Alinea respects its raison d'etre.  You'd figure the ingredients must be transported via private jet and pampered in a spa before being prepared in the kitchen. There is indeed a love, a passion for what is being concocted, and it shows.
  • Alinea respects the need to make a profit.  Expensive as hell.  But no cutting corners.  As I said before, despite the Zimbabwe-like state of my overall bill, I didn't just get what I paid for...I got more.  Way more.

So imagine American business being built on this backbone.  I know, I know...this is one restaurant; one tiny microbe in the behemoth that is the economy.

But if more people gave a damn, if more people treated customers as partners in a journey and not just a necessary evil, if more people dared to delight and lead instead of follow the latest onslop (a word I just made up) of surveyed public opinion, and if people did this in such a way that whatever you paid seemed worth it, well...the business world--the world itself!--would be a better place.

August 18, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week (Seven Years Ago)--Why Cycling is Like Business

Cycling
I’m off on vacation for a couple of weeks, but as I like to do at these times, I comb my archives to find a couple of reruns from many moons ago that simultaneously reference the time period (i.e. an August past) and are also relevant to today.  Here’s the first one, from a bike trip through Italy I took back in 2007 (hence the picture above!).

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After a few days pedaling through the Himalayas--oops, sorry, make that the rolling "hills" of Italy's Tuscany district--I have come to a stark corporate realization:

Cycling is just like business.

This metaphor smacked me right between the cheeks while sucking back a Gatorade after yet another three kilometer climb in the smelter-like sun.  As a guy who has helped build two prosperous enterprises from less than zero, and is just being introduced into the wonderous up-and-down world of long-distance cycling,  the similarities between the two are striking.

To explain, consider that Tuscany cycling offers you three choices of direction:

  • The strain of Uphill
  • The ease of Downhill
  • And the relative peace of the Straightaway.

Let's look at all three...plus a couple of added bonus observations.

 

UPHILL

To me, Uphill can be likened to being a start-up or being embroiled in some sort of crisis; your full focus is given to getting to the point where it's not so hard anymore.

Going Uphill, you don't even notice the gorgeous view, your surroundings, or even the passage of time. You just put your head down and concentrate almost exclusively on pumping your legs until you reach the top. Your speed is consistent, your movement a little wobbly, and if you don't keep going, you're gonna fall over.

 

DOWNHILL

Compare that to the ease of flying Downhill, which I liken to a business that's doing so well it almost runs itself.  Effortless, you almost feel like a passenger...but this is where the most dramatic and costly mistakes can be made and your best chance for a sobering crash.  The ride almost becomes too easy.  You think you're invincible, get cocky and take your eyes off the road. 

Watch out. Flying Downhill, the road can change at any second. Cars pull out of hidden driveways. People and animals pop out from nowhere. That Downhill path can be interrupted violently at any time by things you cannot see.  Enjoy the ride, but don't forget to anticipate what may be lying in wait.

 

THE STRAIGHTAWAY

Then there's the all-too-rare Straightaway.  It's not nearly as exhilarating as the Downhill rush of a booming biz, but also not as exhausting as the Uphill pull of a start-up or a crisis.

The Straightaway is where effort and reward are at their most equal. The goal here is one of efficiency. You don't want to exert one more iota of energy than you need to. Operation of the machine--in my case now, my gearing mechanism-- at its optimum level is paramount. The Straightaway gives you the most time to think, plan and prepare for one of the two extremes you just know are coming. 

 

ROAD CONDITIONS

Let’s take the analogy one step further by examining the road conditions themselves.  Doesn't matter what direction you're going--Uphill, Downhill or Straightaway--the make-up of the road is usually the primary deciding factor in the enjoyment of your journey. Out another way, road conditions are like the people you work with, and the way they work together. 

A paved road is like a true, trustworthy team; all working together to make your ride a pleasant one. Everything works better--grip, gear shifting, mood--when the road beneath you is smooth. 

On the other hand, rocky roads are just that. Yeah, they may hide behind the sexy Italian alias "Strada Bianca," but on dysfunctional, uneven, sand-and-stone terrain, you're on your own at all times.  Uphill is suddenly twice the effort, Downhill almost works against you, and even the steady flow of the Straightaway can be upended in a Tuscan second by a mere, nastily-placed pebble.  Treachery abounds in every direction.

Trouble in the office?  Forget the corporate shrink or consultant. Instead, invest in some molten blacktop...and a steamroller.

 

ONE FINAL NOTE

So there you have it. Roadside wisdom from the gates of Volterra. To close, one last comparison between business and cycling:

No matter how good you are at what you do, from time to time, you will still have to deal with a little pain in the ass.

Enjoy the ride!

August 11, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Moment Seizes You

16_MOMENT20110418125007

Throughout the more than 1,000 blog posts I've written about lessons learned, most have been sparked by things I personally observed or experienced.  Despite the fact that I read voraciously and search the ‘Net incessantly to keep ideas flowing, rare is the blog post inspired by something that someone else said or wrote.

So consider this one “rare” then, as it was inspired by the last lines of the marvelous Richard Linklater film “Boyhood.”  In the scene, which caps close to three hours watching lead character Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) grow from the age of six until 18, he sits in a desert, ruminating about life with Nicole, a girl he just met. 

Me paraphrasing, Nicole brings up the fact that it’s kind of naïve to think that one can “seize the moment,” because the reality is that...

Most of the time,

the moment seizes you.”

You have no control over any moment, except in how you react to it.

Now I’m not revealing the film’s ending, nor are any of the scenes I’m about to mention story-ruining “spoilers.”  The beauty of “Boyhood” is that it succeeds despite its deviation from the traditional screenwriting formula, where every action is supposed to have a purpose, lead you to the next step and ultimately, to a neatly-wrapped conclusion.  Linklater’s oeuvre does none of that; it reflects life—well, at least Mason’s—simply as it unrolls. 

Sometimes, a life event may well be an important link to the future, and your choice at a fork in the road decides your ultimate destiny (see the film “Sliding Doors” as the antithesis of “Boyhood”).  But most of the time, it’s nothing.  And that’s the brilliance of this film:

Nothing really happens

as everything happens. 

For example, there’s a scene where Mason and a group of friends are drinking beer and trash-talking at some abandoned home construction site.  One of the kids picks up a circular saw blade and flings it into a sheet of gyprock standing against a wall.  As a dramatic device, this should be a turning point in the film.  After years of movie-going, we are conditioned for the treacherous blade to careen off the gyprock and straight into a character, thus setting off a chain reaction of events that drive the story forward.  But instead, the dangerous disc thunks into the sheet and stays there harmlessly.  Just another nothing moment. 

Same goes for Mason’s encounter with bullies in the boy’s bathroom, and a little love-letter passed in class that brightens his mood after a bad haircut.  Catalysts for nothing; just things that happen, then life moves on.

So in reflecting what I learned this week, the main lesson is that

Most everything leads to nothing. 

And more importantly,

there’s nothing wrong with nothing!

Notwithstanding the beliefs of the more spiritual among us, not everything is connected (sorry, Butterfly Effect).  And even when there is a connection, it does not necessarily imply causation.  Life is WAY MORE random than we think, and WAY LESS predetermined and profound in the way it rolls out. 

Maybe this is reflective of a general August “chill out” mood swing, but thanks to Richard Linklater and “Boyhood,” I’m learning to see and accept things as they are, and not put too much weight or thought into the “why.”

I recognize how little I actually control in life, and how much fun there is in watching it go by, reacting when I need to.  That said, I’m gonna strap myself in tight, and enjoy the ride.

So come on, moments!  I’m waiting. 

Seize me!

August 4, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: What Works (For Me, At Least)

Books

One thing I’ve learned over the course of close to eight years on consistent blogging is that you never, ever, EVER know which post will resonate.

Sometimes, you feel like you are floating on a cloud of greatness as words of sheer genius effortlessly pour out of you, only to find the ensuing “masterpiece” to be unanimously ignored.  Other times, you toss off a few lines of throwaway afterthought just to keep your consecutive post streak alive and they resound with an ever-growing public like a rogue sine wave.

Such was the case a few weeks ago, when I responded to a collective challenge to write about “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 22.”  At the time, I was busy finalizing a few other projects, got to the idea late, and was thoroughly convinced that the other people asked would be way more profound than yours truly.  I was almost embarrassed to click the “publish” button when done, but a promise was a promise, so I did…and ended up with one of my most popular posts in two years.  Go figure…

Prevalent in the gush of reaction to said post was a question about my own guiding principles, most notably:

“If that’s what you wish 

you knew then,

what do you know now?”

Can’t say I actually “know” much, but I most definitely have a series of somewhat interconnected values I try to live by.  They change a bit from year-to-year, but they are consistent in that they are listed at the back of my annual personal journal, to be referenced at a moment’s notice, or showed to others to prove I actually have some values.

So, to that end, and in response to those who responded to my surprise hit blog post, in no particular order except the last one, here are my ways to be/things to remember (and a little explanation/commentary with each one):

Do Rewarding WorkIt doesn’t have to be ground-breaking or exciting, but what you do should reward you with a sense of personal gratification, satisfaction and happiness. Very subjective!

Create DemandPerhaps my favorite, most quoted, and most difficult value to live by.  Do things that make people want you!

Be Spectacular and DifferentWill help with the demand thing, that’s for sure!  Sameness sucks.

Find Your CallingNo matter who you are, there’s something out there that’s not just meant for you, but you.  Be it work, or a hobby, or a raison d’etre, listen for and follow the voice that guides you to it.

Show GutsDare others, dare yourself, challenge the norm…and be sure to follow through on your big boasts.

Find HappinessConsidering the alternative, this is an important, very personal quest.

Laugh MoreA corollary and catalyst to the one above.  Happiness is a persistent internal glow; laughter is a short-term external explosion, but such a necessity.

Be WiseLearn and grow (which is one of the reasons I write this every week).

Cherish TimeLike land, they ain’t making any more of it.  No waste!

Eyes OpenBe curious, wonder about things, take joy in seeing something new…or something old in a new way.

Mind OpenThink about and then explore different opinions, ways and whys.

Find PeaceAt the end of the day…learn to enjoy the end of the day.

Okay, after all that, here’s the last one.  And for it, some pre-, rather than post-, explanation. 

Over the past 30 years or so, in one way or another, for better and for worse, I’ve been involved in the humor business.  During that period, in addition to all the fun, surprise and glory, I’ve been witness to some of the most outrageous behavior (including, sadly, my own at times!) handling the stress of producing shows, of negotiating contracts, of dealing with others and of getting through the day-to-day of trying to deliver something exceptional to a vast, wide-reaching audience.

This is why, for as long as I’ve kept them, every one of my journals puts things in perspective and ends the exact same way, namely with this line at the bottom of the book’s final page (that's what's pictured atop this post) as my carved-in-stone, go-to ultimate guiding principle:

…And Remember, It’s Only Comedy!

July 28, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Two-Word Bomb

Mk_6_nuclear_bomb

They came at me so quickly, they would’ve been overlooked and forgotten if they weren’t so damn powerful.

Two magical words.  

Describing an act often performed, but rarely acknowledged.

Here’s the story behind them.

I was having a discussion with my colleague Evi Regev about a TV show we are in the throes of producing.  It is created by, and stars, one of the biggest comedy stars in Quebec, and the U.S. version we are close to getting off the ground has attracted the serious interest of one of North America’s best-known TV comedic icons (hey, I wasn’t going to use the word “star” for the third time in one sentence!).

Despite what seems to be a slam dunk—great concept, interest from top talent, etc.—there were more than a few hiccups in the process of moving the show forward…which is what Evi and I were discussing.

It was during said discussion that Evi dropped the two-word bomb.  Not once, but three times, woven deftly into sentences.  So powerful were these one-two blasts that I fail to recall any of the words that preceded or followed them, but was blown away by the context.

To end the unnecessary suspense, the words he used were simply:

“I learned.”

Now any relatively frequent reader knows that I am obsessed with learning; it’s the DNA of this blog. 

And I know that people learn things all the time.

It’s just that they don’t

talk about it, or shall I say,

“ admit it ” all that much.

Indeed, people learn, but over the years, I’ve noticed they try to keep the actual act of it to themselves.  Maybe it’s somewhat of a “macho” thing to do; state something new as if you’ve always known it, trying to convince others you’re a repository of the world’s knowledge, any point of which you can summon on a millisecond’s notice.

Yet in our discussion, instead of this “posing,” Evi called out the information, the facts, the new real-life plot twists he had just discovered.  And he didn’t do it in a way akin to some bad spy movie script, hovering over a table and whispering “Quiet now! Here’s what I learned…” 

Without divulging confidential and competitive information, the words flowed naturally, incorporated fluidly into a sentence like diamonds on a wedding ring, something like “I thought having him attached would make this easy, but I learned that it actually complicates matters due to the studio structuring of the project financing.”

Maybe this is not a big deal to you, but it is to me.  Peppering one’s conversation with “I learned” blends the humility of discovering something new with the strength of putting it into action.  It positions the speaker as someone who has done his or her homework, and is ready to act upon this new nugget of knowledge. 

It’s potent and a

confidence builder

for both parties.

I hate ending blog posts like this, but there’s only one way to see how this works—try it yourself. 

But don’t fake it; wait until it’s real, until an authentic opportunity presents itself.

Then you’ll be able to boast “Man, you won’t BELIEVE what I learned!”

To others…and to yourself.