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February 14, 2017, 04:10:07 PM

A (Somewhat) Surprising Valentine’s Day Prize

Cupcakes

As surprises go, it wasn’t particularly effective.  It was telegraphed a day in advance via a text message that went in part:

Hey PTF crew--

I am in need of some time-sensitive information.

There is a prize coming your way if we can confirm an office/unit number and possibly a phone number for someone who will be there tomorrow afternoon to receive a delivery.

It was supposed to be a surprise, but this delivery service is thorough!

Okay, so the Pow! of the surprise was somewhat lacking, but the delight and joy it brought far made up for it.

As a company that gives out over 200 prizes a month, getting one was quite the role reversal.  But such is the reward, I suspect, when you treat your public like friends.

One of the credos we’ve always pushed at Play The Future--from Day One, and in every aspect of the business, from in-app questions to social media dealings--is “Talk to the People.

Talk” as in true listen-before-you speak conversation.  

And “People” as in those you are lucky enough to have play your game, buy into what you’re doing and spread the word on your behalf are actually human beings.  Someone’s mom or sister or uncle or brother or son or whatever.

What we’ve discovered by doing this, especially in an age of AI and rampant chatbots, is that a little soul, care and real-speak go a long way.

So cut to 11:45 a.m. at the Play The Future offices--we get the box above with the note that says:

“We predict you will be our valentines.  

Love, your top two Futurists,
Stephanie M and Kara S.”

We were floored for two reasons. Getting a gift from PTF players was one, but the fact that these women never knew each other before--and became friends by playing--Play The Future truly warmed our Valentine’s Day hearts.

It’s cause and effect, really.  We treat our players like friends and family.  We affectionately call them all “Futurists” instead of “customers” or “clients,” and some of our most ardent Futurists have graduated to the next level of closeness and familiarity, a “Team Tomorrow” that gets inside info and helps us make decisions.

So to Stephanie and Kara, thanks for making our day.  Your prediction accuracy score is way beyond 100% on this one.

And for the rest of those reading this, how are YOU treating the ones who decide YOUR future?

If they ain’t sending you a gift now and then...perhaps they’re sending you a message.

February 3, 2017, 10:47:49 AM

Forget You Read This (and Maybe You’ll Learn Something)

Elvis-presley-scotty-and-bill-i-forgot-to-remember-to-forget-sun

It’s fascinating to, well uh, learn that the concept of a “Learning Curve” was born way back in 1885 when it was introduced by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

That crunching noise you hear is the sound of us abruptly reaching the end of it 132 years later.

Ebbinghaus’s Learning Curve compared the increase in learning when measured over a span of time. Differences in said increase and the length of time accounted for variances in the shape of the curve; a somewhat obvious conclusion, if you ask me.

Point here is that no matter what shape the curve takes, “learning” is only half the goal these days, when there is more than ever to learn and more ways than ever to learn it (this is something I am currently experiencing first-hand as Play The Future enters the American market).  Despite the abundance of information, it seems harder than ever to actually learn something. Quel paradoxe!

The brain is a wondrous tool, but it’s capacity is somewhat limited.  

Unlike techno farms at Google and Amazon, we can’t just toss another rack of servers on our backs and plug ‘em into our heads. With learning curves getting steeper, and the noise driving them up getting louder, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to expand our cranial capacity and “learn” the new that’s necessary for us to advance

Which is why I like the concept of a “Forgetting Curve”...

...the “7-Up” to the learning curve’s cola (reference check for millennials: right here).

Frankly, a “Forgetting Curve” already exists (see Wikipedia), but it’s more medical in theory, hypothesizing the decline of memory retention over time. It may be insensitive on my part, but let’s just ignore that one.

The “Forgetting Curve” I am championing though is way more self managing and practical.  It would require--no, force--us to let go of old ways, preconceived notions, out-of-date processes and deeply-ingrained predispositions.

And while it’s almost impossible to un-think an idea (i.e. wipe it out of your organic memory), a more attainable feat is to ignore things, or at least close your eyes and turn your back on them before moving on in a new direction. This process may not eliminate learning curves, but at least it makes their gradients easier to climb.  

So (hahaha) remember this: a little forgetting will go a long way in learning something new, and set you on a new path...of straight and narrow.


January 25, 2017, 05:10:34 PM

Say Anything--My Mary Tyler Moore Lesson

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The recent passing of TV icon Mary Tyler Moore brought back a flood of memories from 1991, when she was the host of a Just For Laughs TV special I Executive Produced for Showtime...most notably a memory of a life lesson she taught simply by sitting, smiling and laughing

To put this into perspective, landing the celebrated Ms. MTM to host your show was quite the coup back then; she just didn’t do this type of stuff.  But the careful and respectful manner in which our show dealt with another TV legend host, Bob Newhart, a year before gave his manager Arthur Price the confidence that we could handle ourselves with his other marquee client, namely Mary.

Minimal demands...at least for her.

Mary’s demands were minimal for a mega-star her stature; I think the only one that bordered on diva-ness was her wardrobe, a shimmering gown that cost $10,000 in 20th century dollars.  But given her near-goddess image, our creative demands were more outrageous.  We wanted her to get out of her comfort zone and embrace the raw edges of comedy that were being shattered and sharpened in the early ‘90s...the polar opposite of her elegant onstage look and persona.

To do that, Producer Bob Kaminsky (who now produces the Kennedy Center Honors) recruited a team of subversive writers who had cut their teeth with the caustic National Lampoon magazine.  On that team were his brother Peter, Canadian Sean Kelly and Tom Leopold, who went on to write some of memorable episodes of Cheers and Seinfeld.

So, on a gorgeous late spring afternoon in New York, I sat with this motley, hardened crew in a posh Fifth Avenue bistro, waiting for our initial encounter with the prospective star of our show.

When she walked in, you could feel the air contract.  

She was akin to royalty, dressed and bejeweled as if she walked off a page of Vogue. Everyone in the room stared, but did ever so discretely.  Given the cultivated assembly, you could read the subtle shock on their faces as she gracefully crossed the room and actually sat down at the only table filled with scruffy, long-haired n’er-do-wells.

We were awestruck and virtually speechless.  I led the chorus of polite introductions, oversaw the distribution of menus and order-taking, but then went mute as the six of us sat for a few minutes (but felt like hours) of awkward silence.  We had never really planned how to break the ice and open the conversation about leading her down a path of sharp, jagged drollery.  

After a few “hmms,” “uhhs,” and throat clearings, Leopold took a sledgehammer to the stillness.

“Mary,” he said, looking at her pendulous diamond earrings.  “You get those from Robert?” (Robert Levine was a cardiologist she had married in 1983.)

“Why yes,” she replied.

“How much are they worth?  A few mil?  Enough for a little palace out in the Hamptons?”

The rest of us froze in shock.  Leopold was about to blow it for all of us, big time.  Bye-bye show.  But Mary, after a moment of incredulousness, just smiled.

“Something like that.  But I’m not telling you…”

Leopold pounced again.

“And those bracelets?  Worth more than the GDP of some African nations?”

Mary giggled this time.

“And that ring?  How can you raise your hand to call for the servants?”

That did it.  Mary burst out laughing.  Tom didn’t just break the ice, he reverse-engineered it into H20.

We were in.  We were one.  And now when everyone stared at our table, it was wondering why we were having so much fun.

The TV show did great, Mary was a dream throughout the production, but the real lesson that has stayed with me forever is that in situations like this, where the divide is so vast, the only way to close it is not just to say what you’re thinking, but to say what most others never would.  

Worst case scenario is that things blow up, but if so, face it, they would’ve never worked out anyway.  

But best case is a super-solid bond based on unexpected surprise, honesty and courage.

Saying a wild anything will always take you to a better place than saying a polite nothing.

January 18, 2017, 03:10:02 PM

Panel Discussions Suck.  Here’s How to Make Them Suck Less

 

C2 Panel

If I hadn’t been locked down in some very important meetings this week, I’d have been in Ottawa as a guest on a panel discussion hosted by the federal government.  Subject matter was entrepreneurship and startups (very apropos for Play The Future), which is the same theme of the ResolveTO conference I’ll be part of in Toronto next week...another event rife with panels.  

No great shock here, as panel discussions are a staple of just about every conference on earth; as common as the branded neck lanyard...but way less colorful, exciting and useful.  

By now, I think you get the point that I’m no big fan of the genre. About 10 years ago, I wrote a blog post called “Give Me Keynotes or Give Me Death,” essentially about me swearing off ever again being a part of a dreaded panel.  In it, I ranted

Most panel discussions are not.  

They are falsely overly-polite bore-fests, where people speak one after the other for 5-10 minutes each, while the remaining panelists sit in stultifying silence waiting their turn.

To make matters worse, most close with the perfunctory Q&A session...where there are few "Q"s and even fewer "A"s.  

Add to this mess a moderator who is either cluelessly unfamiliar with the panelists, or so filled with his own agenda that he (sadly, most are males) ignores those sitting next to him and delivers his own long-winded diatribe instead.

A recipe for irrelevance and disaster.  And one I'm not willing to partake in anymore.

Time has mellowed me, I suppose.  While I still find panels banal, I have acquiesced and participated in ‘em a few times over the past 10 years...but knowing that I would try to be an incendiary device on stage and toss a couple of controversy bombs into the proceedings.  

Sometimes, this has worked well, last October’s Banff Forum, for example, when I suggested that the CBC hold a bake sale as a fundraiser, or last May’s C2MTL (see above), when I snuck in a subversively false panel just before a real one (where my panelists all spoke simultaneously).  But by and large, even with my madness, most panels I’ve endured have maintained their tradition of lameness and sameness.

Again, time has mellowed me.  A decade ago, I merely complained, but now, I actually have come up with a recipe on how to IMPROVE these panels, because Lord knows, they ain’t going away anytime soon.  So, if you want your event to have a half-decent panel, or want to be part of one, include a couple of these elements into the mix:

Conflict

The worst part of panels is that most of them have the converted preaching to the converted and bored.  A good panel needs conflict.  If everyone’s on the same page, nobody will turn it. No Jerry Springer-esque on-stage fisticuffs, but a contrary viewpoint--or many of them--are a necessity.

Surprise

Do something different.  Say something different. Wear something different. Bring out a beer.  Upset the equilibrium somehow, someway and you will be thanked and remembered forever.

Audience Wall Breakdown

It boggles the mind how often I see panelists talk to and look at each other almost exclusively, treating the audience like a bunch of spectators at the world’s most insipid zoo.  Bring the crowd into the conversation long before the perfunctory request for questions.

Movement

Stand up.  Lie down on the stage. Toss something into the crowd.  Throw your water glass in the air, spin and then catch it.  Be kinetic.  Why do so many panelists think they are part of the mannequin challenge on stage?  Since when did air become cement?

Props

It’s a visual world folks; back up your mouth with something three-dimensional and tangible. The audience will remember the object long after your words are forgotten.

Eyes Takeaway

As per the above, the result of a visual world is that what stands out is captured and shared.  Don’t just think visually; think how to create an Instagram/Facebook Live moment.

Brain Takeaway

It could be as trite as a slogan on your t-shirt, or as heady as a poem (don’t laugh; my panelmate at the Banff Forum, Canada’s Poet Laureate George Elliot Clarke, killed with this one), but any successful panel plants an intellectual seed to be pondered long after stage time is over. However, these words of wisdom are rarely improvised; think one up and deliver it...loudly!

January 11, 2017, 05:22:25 PM

I Am Drugs

 

IMG_3375

Even though I don’t wear them too often, I have a collection of over 250 ties. No silly “character” or “theme” ties; cool, classy and striking stuff.  Mostly, they are bought to “go with” a certain jacket or event, but many a time I pick up a tie or two on the spur of the moment because, for some strange reason, they call out to me.

One such tie is a somewhat discreet (well, for me) plaid of red, blue and white made by a company called Blick.  But the aesthetic that drew me to this neck-worn accessory was not its front-facing pattern, rather an embroidered quote from Salvador Dali hidden in the silk lining behind two folded back panels.  It reads:

“I don’t do drugs.  I am drugs.”

Whenever I put it on--usually with a navy suit and powder blue shirt--I kind of chuckle to myself, as my very conservative exterior on that occasions is being turbocharged by a secret subversive interior message.  (See photos above.)

I love this hidden quote, and ever since I read it, I have tried to implement its spirit in my day-to-day... particularly now as Play The Future embarks on a couple of exciting moonshot projects alongside its all-important USA launch on February 1.

Even as a non-drug-user, the words are intoxicating. “I don’t do drugs.  I am drugs.”  Despite its conceit, it’s not as cheeky as it first sounds.  Frankly, it’s quite straightforward and logical, for what do “drugs” do?

  • They make you feel good.
  • They can expand your brain.
  • They can become addictive.

Not terrible as business objectives, don’t you think?

What a treat if everything I did made my customers, my partners, my colleagues feel good.  

What’s more, imagine if every product update, every speech, every meeting was a learning opportunity with concrete takeaway.  

And finally, what better tribute to one’s hard work than if people demanded--better still, clamoured for--more!

If I, and everything I work on in 2017, can achieve just two out of these three, I’d be ecstatic.

So ecstatic, you’d think I was on...well, you know what ;)  

January 5, 2017, 02:52:28 PM

How To Make Great 2017 Predictions

Mobile Data

I love this time of year because everybody seems to be obsessed with telling the future.   

For one’s selves, people make “resolutions”...and we know how most of them end up come February (and we also know why my gym was so crowded last night).

But for the bigger picture, people make “predictions”...and most of them end up being as valid as their resolutions.  

There’s a reason for that.  And a cure.  Keep reading.

The predilection for prognostication (now there’s a term!) is quite endearing; in fact, I’m currently building quite a business based on humans being hardwired to try and see tomorrow today. (It’s called Play The Future; learn more by clicking here.)

Ironically, said business was initially spawned back in the ‘80s at just about this time of year when I was doing a grocery order for my wife and six-week-old son at home.  Waiting in the checkout line, I picked up the annual National Enquirer “Prediction Issue,” and was regaled by the foretelling of events like “Elvis To Reappear for Concert at Carnegie Hall” and  “Alien Will Land on the White House Lawn” (perhaps they were really prescient with that one).  

Who ever checks up on these?” I thought to myself. “Is there a ‘Prediction Result Issue’?

Well, there wasn’t, but perhaps the National Enquirer folks were onto something with their hallucinogenic moonshot thinking.  Think about it--this time last year, if I were to tell you that Britain would leave the European Union, that reality TV “star” Donald Trump would be elected President, and that the stock market would embark on an extended rally upon the news...well, you would’ve have me locked up for treason, if not madness.

Yet here we are, living today what was unthinkable just a few months ago.

So therein lies the secret of better, perhaps I should even say “great,” predictions:  go out on a limb, and then jump even higher to the one slightly out of reach above you.  You may fall on your ass, but when you’re right, the win is, shall we say, Yuge.  

The problem is in taking that leap.  It’s easier to survey people and forecast on an average of their opinions...yet we all saw the results of that last year.  Predicting by polling is now about as relevant as a Fax machine. I carry a reminder of this with me every day; it’s pictured above, a sheet from a survey done by the (now defunct) Yankee Group.  In it, back in 2001, they polled consumers about willingness to pay for mobile data.  

The figure of “$20” got a wafer-thin less-than-1% support.  

The big winner was “nothing,” with a whopping 70%.  

It was this sheet, and these stats, which were used by nay-sayers to tell me why my business at the time--the two-year old Airborne Mobile--would fail.  “Look at the survey; nobody will pay for mobile content,” they sneered.

Cut to today, where people WISH they could pay $20 per month for their mobile data, a commodity now as valuable as oxygen. More importantly, cut to 2005, when we sold Airborne Mobile to a Japanese company for well over $100 million.  Thanks Yankee group!

The lesson here is don’t listen to what is, or what the aggregate think; dream what can’t possibly be...even if that dream has a bit of nightmare in it.

So when you make your 2017 predictions, take the path of the unrealistic, because as strange as it may look today, it’s the best path to tomorrow's reality.

January 5, 2015, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--How and When To Say Goodbye

ByeShip

I’ve never been good at long goodbyes, so let’s try to make this brief, shall we?

After eight years and three months of blogging, a lengthy period of discipline, dedication, research and introspection that spawned 1,077 posts, you are now reading my last one. 

And with it, one final weekly learning, namely:

“Know when to move on…

and be the one

to make the first move.”

There are a number of reasons for my decision, the main culprit being a much-increased personal workload. I am a lucky man who is now committed to five important lines of work…all of which are inspiring and demanding:

           I.     While not overtly concentrating on the “day-to-day,” I still have important, “big picture/tomorrow” responsibilities at Just For Laughs.

         II.     My civic duties as “Chief Attention Getter” for Montreal’s upcoming 375th Anniversary are ramping up, as the celebration is only two years away. 

        III.     I am financially and emotionally invested in a new tech start-up driven by a passionate, young and experienced All-Star team.

      IV.     I am once again teaching the somewhat ground-breaking “Marketing and Society” class at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management (which is about the video revolution and the integration of YouTube as a corporate marketing tool). 

        V.     And, in my spare time, I am directing a play; the annual musical fundraiser at the Segal Centre.

Given the seven-day-a-week duty of the above, it’s increasingly hard to fit in a few hours of thought and execution that this blog requires (although I’m sure the lessons will be plentiful in each of the aforementioned projects). 

But even though the course ends in April and the show is over in mid-June, the time is right to close the door on the past and move on to new things.  When I clicked “Publish” on my first post back on October 14, 2006, the concept of blogging was exciting and relatively new. 

Today, with barriers to entry a thing of the past, everyone is empowered to speak their minds, and seems inclined to do just that.  Maybe I’m just battle weary, but it seems that so many people are saying the same thing—yeah, even me—that perhaps the “art form” is cluttered…and requires an expurgation of sorts.

So, as we start a new year,

consider me expurgated ;)

Sure, doors are still open, and I could come back when I want to (obviously, there is no “Big Blog Boss” who makes the rules), but in the eight long years since Post #1, communication technology and strategy has changed so much, that if I do return, it will probably be in the form of video, or some other soon-to-be-developed field of interactive visual communication.  There’s a reason why computers are getting smaller and phones bigger; why read when you can watch, listen and answer back?

That said, I leave this field as I came to it:

With passion for the new,

and a leap of faith

into the future.

This blog has been an extreme challenge, a whole lot of fun, and very, very good to me.  It has spawned a best-selling marketing book, a short story, a novella, about a half-dozen different speeches, and voyages to places I never thought I’d visit.  It introduced me to new concepts and new people, some who have become close friends.

Most importantly, it connected me to you.  Thanks for reading, responding and especially for sharing from time-to-time. 

To close, I guess I should re-visit my earlier words and say this isn’t really a “goodbye.”

Consider this a ship leaving port.  On one shore, there are people waving, saying “There she goes!

But on another, there are people gathered, waiting for the chance to say: “Here she comes!

So...here I come!

December 29, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Year--Top Five Lessons of 2014 (Plus One)

Five Fingers

Well, it’s that time of the year again, when the media—new, old and everything in between, including this blog—fixates on compiling its Year-End List.  

While the act of “Listification” seems to have suffered a bad rap due to overuse by content farms and click-bait websites, list legitimacy and relevance are re-validated as the annual calendar gets ready to turn its page. 

More than just a cheap, easy way to generate content though, a bona fide Year-Ender forces its lister to look back and reflect over a period that passes by too quickly, and re-discover some of the thoughts, feelings, events, trips, speeches and other memories that are forgotten as time marches on.

With that in mind, I spent much of the weekend scouring the 52 posts of 2014…well, let’s make that 53, as I also snuck a peek at 2013’s Year-End List.  In the end, that was perhaps the most relevant post of all, as I could only muster a Top 3 List that year; I obviously learned (and enjoyed myself) a whole lot more in 2014, where my “Best Of” expanded to five.

So, kill the preamble— in no particular order, and with a little comment on each, here are my Top Five Lessons of 2014: 

1)    You Are What You Share (Feb. 24)

A reflection on a key metric in the new economy

2)    Family Doesn’t Always Come First (Sept. 15)

Yikes!  This one was controversial!

3)    The Two-Step Secret to Going Viral (June 9)

From a very spirited summertime speech I gave

4)    Forget Backlash, You Need Front-lash (Jan. 27)

The remnants of an explosion at a client meeting

5)    Create Demand: Real Artists Sell (May 12)

Crossing the line between Church and State 

But, as they say in those infomercials: "Wait, there’s more!"

Despite the above, my major learning of 2014 was the immense value of learning itself.  It’s one thing to experience things and write them down for others to (ostensibly) consume and share; it’s another when they come to life and work for you.

So, to close this year off with a spark of validation, here’s a little something extra; what bands used to call the “bonus track” on their albums (when people still bought albums…but I digress), my ultimate learning of 2014:

5+) Great Lessons Last Forever (March 10)

All that said and listed, here’s to a 2015 where you won’t merely learn something new...

...but act on it.

December 22, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Longing for When the Trivial Becomes the Important

The-Mortal-Instruments-City-Of-Bones-Mundane-TShirt

I have a friend who is currently going through the type of health-related family anguish you should never know from…but given the way life (and death) works, you probably will at one time or another.  

While I won’t reveal his identity for obvious privacy reasons, my friend is strong, brave, and dealing with his troubling time in a most open and frank manner. 

Over the past year or so, he’s been outlining the status of his situation via a series of poignant and elegant emails…and the last one, which detailed the sad prognosis none of us wanted to hear, left this recipient choked up and at a loss for words to reply.

However, given the guts, courage and presence mustered up by my friend to explain his predicament to us all, how in the world could I not find a mere fraction of the same fortitude within me to reciprocate? 

That was the easy part.  The hard part was saying something with meaning.  It’s one thing about not knowing what to say in a difficult time, quite another to ensure what you eventually blurt out doesn’t sink into clichés or is mired in maudlin.

But I think I found something—and in the process, found this week’s learning—in the most un-profound of places.  

Because the best thing

I could wish for my friend

was a speedy return

to the mundane.

While I thankfully have never faced the same gut-wrenching situation as he is currently, I remembered similar experiences watching both my parents pass away relatively young (quite young in my mom’s case, at 59) to slow, degenerative diseases.  I remember the emotional house visits, the countless medical appointments, the incessant calls to and from numerous doctors, and the recurring hospital trips.

And when the end came in both cases, I recall the strange feeling of being on display at large funerals and having to almost put on a nightly performance over a week for the influx of well-meaning visitors to the shiva (click here if you are unfamiliar with the traditional Jewish mourning ceremony).

But the thing I remember most is that during this time—and others—when my life was in unbalancing disarray, all I wanted was to pay a phone bill, or go to the cleaners or do something equally as everyday and nondescript. 

Put simply, I longed for a return to the mundane.

I told my friend that the time will come—the sooner the better—when he’ll be preoccupied with the fact that his new iPhone still hasn’t arrived, when he’ll swear a blue streak because he spilled a bit of coffee on his tie, when he’ll be wondering why he is wasting time standing in line at an airport or at a bank machine.  

In other words, the time will come

when the trivial will be important. 

And that’ll be a good sign. 

Because it’ll mean that the grip of gloom will have eased. 

And that, without compromising his love for his family, it’ll mean that he has moved on to a brighter place.

December 15, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Heavy Power of Light

Bandeau_lumino5

 

“Let there be light !”

It’s the third line in the Bible…so I guess it must be important.

And perhaps at no time is it more important than right now, particularly in my hometown Montreal, where holiday lighting brightens up not just the skies that darken in mid-afternoon, but the collective mood that seems to deflate an hour or so earlier. 

Every year, I find the effect amazing. 

The wires and bulbs that almost invisibly intertwine with bare tree branches and shrubbery, that sneakily snake up buildings, or that are hidden behind sconces and structures perform a transformational feat of epic proportions, both physically and emotionally, pleasing the eye and the soul simultaneously.  

Just last week, in the midst of a driving snowstorm, I was trudging from my office to a meeting (walking being the most efficient way of getting around), and despite the meteorological gloom, I couldn’t help but be elevated by “Prismatica,” a series of kaleidoscopic prisms spinning colors and ultimate glee in downtown’s otherwise barren Quartier des Spectacles (see above!). 

The “healing” power of light isn’t wacky new age dogma; it’s been proven in numerous scientific studies (on the flip side, lack of exposure to light, especially in winter months, is notorious for its links to depression, and is aptly acronym-ed SAD). 

And in a personal experience I will never forget...

I saw the legendary George Burns, 97 at the time, shed three decades of age in a matter of seconds as he was helped from his wheelchair in the wings of the St. Denis Theatre and guided into a magic, revitalizing bath of spotlights waiting for him a few feet away on stage.

Nice sentiment, but where am I going with all this as per this week’s lesson?

Well, one thing I can’t help but thinking is why we do this type of festival illumination primarily at Christmas time?  True, there are bright decorations for Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving and most notably Halloween, but it’s not the same thing.  Far from it, actually.  With the technology and the artistry available...

It’s somewhat strange

that nobody has come up with

signature lighting looks

for other times of the year

...maybe even a new one every month. 

Indeed, the lights of summer would be more frivolous and have a different feel from those more necessary and therapeutic in winter, but still, given the uplifting spiritual effect of Christmas luminosity, it seems a major missed opportunity not to try and replicate it for other annual events at other times in the calendar. 

Shakespeare said that “All the world’s a stage.” (As an aside, can you believe a blog post quoting both God and Shakespeare?  But I digress…) If that is indeed the case, let’s hear it for the season’s lighting directors. 

And let’s give them a few more seasons to work with. 

Click!

December 8, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Victory Goes to the Unassuming

Victory

On Saturday, Dec. 6 at 3:00 p.m. sharp, I sat down at the Vic Park gym with trainer Haskel Garmaise to re-launch my intense workout regime with a brand new, multi-disciplinary program.

That is not the important part of this post.

To get you to what is though, consider that I reached out to Haskel on Facebook and asked him to work with me on November 16th at 8:50 p.m.  

After much back-and-forth Facebook messaging about scheduling, we locked down the Dec. 6th timeframe on November 19th at 8:07 p.m. 

On Sunday, November 30 at 5:34 p.m., Haskel sent me another Facebook message confirming the appointment now six days away. 

On Friday, Dec. 5 at 7:46 p.m., he sent me one last message, this one to my phone, “making sure we’re still good.” 

So, is Haskel a pain in the ass, or overly anal-rententive?

Neither.  Haskel is smart.  He’s obviously been burned before, which is why, I suspect, Haskel assumes nothing.  And which is why, Haskel is the poster child for this week’s major learning, namely: 

Assuming anything

is the first step

towards disappointment

Haskel is not alone.  I get the same type of quadruple-confirmation every time I visit Dr. Elliot Mechanic, my dentist.

One could simply chalk up this type of “un-assuming” behavior to people who work on an appointment basis; doctors, dentists, lawyers, restaurants, trainers and the like.  Their time is literally money, and any waste of the former is a throwaway of the latter.

But to me, eschewing assumptions has been a way of life.  For example, to this day, while driving, I never, ever cruise breezily through a green light.  Instead, I follow a lesson I have passed onto both of my sons: “Just because the other guy has the red light, don’t assume he’s stopping at it.” 

Paranoid?  Perhaps, but as well as saving my life more than a few times, this post’s overarching lesson has enabled me to control my temper in many off-putting situations, because rare is the occasion when I blindly assume:

  • the flight will leave on schedule
  • the cab will show up in five minutes
  • the show will start on time
  • Bell will send my iPhone6-plus in four-to-six weeks
  • the contract will be signed
  • the passport will arrive in the mail
  • the photo will be emailed
  • the piece will be repaired in two weeks
  • my restaurant table will be ready when I walk in

…I could go on forever. 

On one hand, I don’t assume; I accept.  Now I’m not making excuses for, or enabling, others; I’m just accepting a cold hard truth of the way the world increasingly seems to work.  It’s like the basic premise of M. Scott Peck’s book People Of The Lie, where he outlines that evil is the norm and good is the deviation from it.  In my case, I’m not bowled over when something screws up, but happily surprised when it doesn’t.

On the other hand, I don’t assume, I check.  And if I really need something to be done on time, like Haskel and Elliot Mechanic, I check, double-check, triple-check and maybe even exponentially-check. 

The much quoted Matthew 5:5 passages in the Bible say something to the effect that “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

Twisting and paraphrasing that a little bit, I think I’ve come up with a more contemporary Beatitude for  a more wary generation: 

“ Victory goes to the unassuming.”

December 1, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Difference Between Men and Women, Part 736

Men-woman-brain

Please excuse the sucky title and its allusion to a million or so hack comedy routines on the same subject.  I trust this post will be somewhat less hackneyed and thank you in advance for jumping to the next line.

On Saturday, I oversaw a daylong focus group session for a sharp new start-up endeavor I am investing in. 

Over the years, at Just For Laughs and Airborne Mobile, I’ve never been a major fan of focus groups for multiple reasons; most notably because people gather to tell you exactly what they figure you want to hear, or are so disconnected from your project that their opinions are basically worthless.  I’ve been to focus groups where the main focus was the food served, once even by a gluttonous hired test leader. 

Nonetheless, the project’s other investors are of different mindset, so I went along with them somewhat begrudgingly, huddled inside a downtown office building on a gorgeous fall day. 

All this to say that

I didn’t expect to enjoy myself at all…

never mind enjoy myself as much as I did.

The focus group test was broken down into seven one-hour, one-on-one sessions. Ages ranged from 24-36, and the gender split was 4:3 male/female.

Because of the unique, yet very accessible nature, of the aforementioned project, as well is its current embryonic state (more details on it in this space as it concretizes and is further financed), participants’ perception of it could not be intrinsically or prematurely skewed. 

All seven subjects were asked to click through a PowerPoint replica of the project and speak out loud as they did so.  

And speak they did.  Often, and in great detail.

When it was all over, I learned a lot about the project.  The team discovered a handful of very crucial tweaks and adjustments, and happily, all participants seemed to understand the product easily, and like it a lot.

But on another level, I learned something truly staggering watching all seven testers go through the paces:

The men said things to try

to appear  smart.

The women said smart things

Granted, this isn’t the world’s biggest test group, and it is obviously not statistically significant.  But rules be damned; witnessing the difference was eye-opening, fun and fascinating. 

On one hand, the four guys

were precise and clinical.

One even questioned why one slide showed the time passage interval of five minutes instead of six, seven or 10.  They stared at each slide and replied as if they were playing a “crack the code” spy game, trying to say the secret word or string together the right sentences to “open the door” to the next level. 

They played the role of the smartest guy in the room as if it were a competition, even though they were each flying solo. 

On the other hand, the three girls

were at ease, open and emotive

They “oohed,” said things like “This is cool!” and “I love this!” and were at ease asking questions and requesting clarification. 

While they were from diverse backgrounds—an Education grad, an IT consultant and a marketing manager—they were uniform in their honesty and their insights.  One of them actually saw so deep, she exposed two core principles of the project that the founders had declared in early meetings, but had since hidden on the back burner until phase two due to their complexity.  I was in awe. 

In the end, all participants were extremely useful and helped provide a solid proof of concept. 

But it was the women, in their ease, their authenticity and their unpretentiousness, who made the day, made everyone smile, and made the founding team confident to take the next crucial step.     

So no offense to the four hardworking, obviously bright guys, but hopefully, the next moves will be as smart and natural as the three women who helped the team take them.

November 24, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Will Accidents To Happen

Ego!

Oh I just don’t know where to begin…” sang Elvis Costello in his 1979 (somewhat) hit song Accidents Will Happen.

But I DO know where to begin, and that’s on the wall between the door and the massive window of my new office installation at Just For Laughs.

To put this into context, I recently moved into a bigger workspace meant to accommodate a young team developing a new project I am investing in.  In doing so, I had to shift more than 50 pieces of art from my old quarters to this one 

It’s upon the aforementioned strip of wall space I decided to hang a triptych of unique paintings based on the word Ego.  Working with the building manager, we painstakingly measured the wall, then the paintings, the amount of space we wanted within each one, and positioned them perfectly equidistant from each other; parallel, perfectly level and dead centre between floor to ceiling and doorframe to window frame.

Upon leaving my office that first night, I overestimated the weight of my new office door and kinda slammed it.  Since I heard no sounds of destruction from the other side, I went on my merry way. 

YIKES!

The next morning, I realized that the door slam wasn’t as harmless as I thought it was, as each of the paintings slid off its centre point, and ended up supporting one another as they tilted almost 45 degrees. 

But the end result, shown in the photo above, is WAY more interesting than the original positioning…but one I would’ve NEVER come up with on my own.  It now catches eyes and instigates commentary from whoever walks into my office.

Getting back to the Costello tune from his Armed Forces album, accidents will INDEED happen.  What’s more, accidents are the impetus for so much creativity, for so many discoveries, that they should not merely be welcomed…they should be sought out. 

So the learning of the week twists the title of this post’s soundtrack tune. 

Never mind

"Accidents Will Happen."  

 

To increase your breakthroughs,

Will Accidents TO Happen.

SO many of the world’s great innovations and inventions were the result of accidents.  From the discoveries of America (Columbus was off course, looking for a quick passage to India) and of penicillin, to the less earth-shattering but equally fascinating origins of Teflon, Silly Putty and Post-It Notes, accidents have played a crucial role in driving mankind’s progress.

It’s easy to wait for them to happen, but that’s not the lesson of this post.  

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, you have to generate your own accidents to build a more exciting, innovative and sustainable future. 

How to do it?  There’s no 1000% set answer, but these tactics work for me:

  • Change your route.  Whether you walk, drive or take public transport, change the direction to get to your destination.  If you can’t, then change the time you leave.
  • Talk to strangers.  I wrote a whole post about the benefits of this a while back.
  • Ask a beginner to help you do something you’ve done a thousand times.  Or attempt once to do something you’ve never done, whether it’s zip-lining or putting together IKEA furniture.  Be completely out of your league.
  • Read, watch or listen to something you never have. 
  • Eat at a new restaurant in an obscure neighborhood.
  • Wear something completely out of character.  Or don’t wear something you are renowned for.
  • Wear virgin contact lenses, i.e. see common things as if this is the first time you’ve laid eyes on them. 

I could go on, but it would defeat the purpose, namely giving you a plan to take advantage of the unplanned.

Suffice to say that the best way to find your way here is to get lost.

And if all else fails, you could always retreat to your office, put on Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces album…  

And slam the door!

November 17, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Next To Nothing

Nothing

This is one of the shortest blog posts I’ve ever composed.

Why?

Because I don’t have much to say.

This happens on occasion with yours truly, and as I’ve come to notice these days, much more often with others. 

Yet over the past few weeks, I’ve been privy to press conferences, speeches, blog posts, articles, even books, where not much was said…but it was said with lots and lots of words. 

It’s as if people grabbed the ol’ speech dictum of:

  1. Tell ‘em what you’ll say
  2. Say it
  3. Tell ‘em what you said

…and perversely twisted it into:

  1. Tell ‘em what you kinda WANT to say
  2. Spend a disproportionate amount of time and/or words NOT saying it
  3. Tell ‘em what you kinda WANTED to say

What really makes me laugh is that on a few occasions, people had the nerve to invoke the phrase “to make a long story short…” This is perhaps one of the most useless expressions in the world, because when someone actually says it, it’s usually WAY too late. 

But I digress.

So, to avoid being hoisted by my own petard, this week’s lesson:

Say something.  

That is, IF you have something to say. 

If NOT, please follow this advice:

It’s better to say nothing

with a little

than say nothing

with a lot

Bye! 

November 10, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Why Normal is a Necessity

Why_be_normal_postcards_package_of_8

Just got back from a thoroughly enjoyable long weekend in New York.  Took in two plays (The River, with Hugh Jackman, and the spectacular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and a musical (Beautiful, the Carole King Musical).  Did some shopping and ate very, very well.  Stayed at the historic Algonquin Hotel.  Met up with some new friends and was invited to the opening of YouTube’s east coast Creator’s Space. Even fit in a couple of business meetings. 

The recipe for an ideal weekend, right?

Well, kind of. 

Because as much as I enjoyed my time away, something felt weird.

 

I was away from

my “normal 

 

My “normal” weekend is an almost ritualistic routine. 

On Saturdays, I wake up, walk the dogs and enjoy an extended breakfast with the weekend Gazette.  Then I conduct “my messages,” which usually consists of a visit to the pharmacy, the dry-cleaners and other somewhat mundane destinations.  I spend about 15-20 minutes on a Lumosity brain-training session, and a few hours reading a slew of magazines on my iPad.  I write this blog post.  To close out, I enjoy an evening out with friends and/or family.

Sunday, it’s dog-walking again, followed by a lengthy early-morn visit to the gym.  Family brunch usually comes next, and then whatever I didn’t get done Saturday is then completed by Sunday eve.  These days, the weekend usually closes with a cozy “movie night” at home, but come January, it’ll be filled with rehearsals for a play I’m directing. 

What makes this more obsessive is that the “normal” weekend is not merely a bunch of events experienced at random; the order of said events is equally as important.  For example, because of a friend’s mother’s funeral a few weeks ago, my morning gym visit was pushed to the afternoon, which screwed up my entire Sunday.

 

If people talk about

a “comfort zone,”

this one is mine. 

 

That’s why even when I’m loving what I’m doing elsewhere, I miss it.

One may think that given the whirlwind professional life I’ve led for 37 years (and continue to, by the way) that this type of adhesion to pedestrian routine is strange.

Yet when I discuss this phenomenon with colleagues and friends, I discover that I am not alone in my hold of the humdrum.  Examples are many, but perhaps my favorite is that of my long-time neo-brother and business partner Gilbert Rozon.  His life is so exponentially accelerated it makes mine look like that of a cement-encased monk, but he gets his dose of “normal” by rummaging through the many aisles of Canadian Tire

 

So where’s

the attraction? 

 

I’m no psychologist, but in a society where so much import is put on “authenticity,” taking an anonymous stroll through the everyday makes increases one’s  human feel, and shows that no matter how puffed up one’s day job is, once you’re in Shopper’s Drug Mart or Canadian Tire, you stand in line like everyone else. 

The beauty of a “normal” is that there is no “norm” to it; I have my staid weekend as my personal baseline, but yours may be gardening, or carpentry, or cooking, or ironing, or hiking…or a combo thereof.

Point here is to have some sort of “normal” to call your own, a lesson that should be instinctive, but often has to be forcefully re-learned.  

Trust me, I love the concept of taking risks and breaking out of one’s comfort zone (something I always push, or am pushed, to do). 

But to break out of one means establishing one first.

November 3, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Avoid Arming Assholes

Name-tag_asshole

Last week, I had the pleasure of mentoring two sharp young men.  By day, they have marketing jobs, but by night and over weekends, they are prepping an entrepreneurial endeavor, and asked me to offer up some advice on the concept.

Not that I am the world’s most astute investor or business brain, but the fact that I co-founded and sold a tech business a few years ago (Airborne Mobile), and that I’m currently helping to fund and launch a new one, led them to reach out for a casual evaluation. 

Now for reasons of confidentiality, I can’t divulge their names or the nature of their business, but for purposes of this post, they’re kinda irrelevant anyway.  This week’s learning was inspired by the opening statement of their presentation, where they said:

“Show of hands…how many of you actually click on Internet banner ads?”

I looked around the room.  All hands were on deck.  None were even twitching to be raised. 

Except for mine. 

“Look guys,” I said sincerely, “I can’t say I do it regularly, but frankly, from time-to-time, I actually do click on a banner ad or two.  And I promise you I am not alone”

I continued.

“Look, I know all the stats; how ineffective they are, how everyone hates them, etc.  But I also know if they didn’t work AT ALL, they wouldn’t be there. 

"Click-thru rates may be miniscule, and I don’t want to disparage well-intended marketing folk, but like spammers who send out multiple-millions of bait emails, sometimes all a banner ad needs is a teeny fraction of a percent reaction to make money.”

But that wasn’t the point. 

This was:

By starting a presentation with a question that COULD be contradicted, the young entrepreneurs were jeopardizing the credibility of every further point they wanted to make.  (It reminded me of an occasion years ago when I found an error my accountant made in the first few lines of my tax return; I doubted every other figure from that point on.) 

Worse yet, and pardon the mild profanity,

it provided something that I call

Asshole Ammunition.” 

It’s one thing to be honest and straightforward, which is what was expected from me.

It’s quite another to gleefully torpedo a presentation for sport, which is the dastardly domain of the Asshole.

Unfortunately, I’ve been privy to that situation a number of times; be they when I was standing in front of a boardroom of people as a presenter, or seated amongst them as a presentee. Everyone else may be rolling their eyes, but those of the Asshole are laser-focused on destruction.

For an Asshole, making the point isn’t enough; driving it home uncomfortably and seizing the moment to scuttle subsequent next steps in a presentation is.  And this sadistic behavior (often in the guise of “ah, this’ll toughen them up!”) isn’t limited to presentations; it rears its ugly, festering head in simple, everyday meetings on a frequent basis as well.

Now try as we may, there’s no proper way

to prevent the Asshole from

attending a presentation or meeting. 

But by knowing and understanding his or her modus operandi, we can at least be prepared for it…and minimize it, if we indeed have to deal with it at all. 

To start, know your facts

And to know enough to deflectingly say “I’ll get back to you on that” if for some reason you DON’T know them.  

Next point is to think like an Asshole

Find your weak points, the lob balls that will be jumped on with a truncheon, and eliminate them.   If you can’t get rid of them, pad them…then question whether you’re even on the right path.  If you’re gonna go down, better you control the descent than be kicked down a long mineshaft by someone else. 

The key point is to maintain control of every one of your presentations.

Giving up the reigns puts someone else in the driver’s seat, which is a guaranteed recipe for calamity.  Trust me, EVERY pitch you’ll make will be challenged…but the longer your maintain control, the more powerful a base (and shield) you build.  What’s more, you may inadvertently address, even eliminate, someone’s genuine concern as your presentation rolls on to its finish. 

But it will never even get close to finishing your pitch if you let an Asshole take over.  You’ll have enough problems if he or she arrives unarmed; by providing Asshole Ammunition, you might as well not even start.

The exercise would be as futile as, uh…clicking a banner ad.

October 27, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Budgeting For Stupidity

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 1.25.08 PM

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

S-DinnerChecklist

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!

Cure-for-the-common-cold-2020-2025

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

IMG_1605

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! 

September 22, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Where The Opportunity Lies

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During the last Quebec election campaign, I found myself engaged in a lot of high-profile media drumbeating about how to improve the future of my beloved hometown of Montreal.  Using newspaper editorials, blog posts, TV appearances, radio interviews and personal appearances, I pounded away at the themes of building businesses, looking outward, embracing youth and revitalizing an old city in a new way.

Well, as the old saying goes,

be careful what you wish for,

because it may come true.  

Cut to a little consulting contract I started last week for the city's upcoming 375th birthday in 2017, which happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Canada and the 50th of the magical Expo 67.  Working with the organizing committee, my job is to overlook much of the event's marketing efforts, but the title I've asked for to match the mission is "Chief Attention Getter."

This isn’t new-age silly or trite; we live in a world where attention (particularly of the positive ilk) is a valuable commodity, and attracting the right type of it can ultimately lead to investment and economic growth.

When I first heard about the 375th, I kinda dismissed the celebrations as "bread and circuses for the masses."  But upon reflection and fervent discussion with some of those involved, I realized the utmost importance of the event, which I think—I trust!—will serve as a re-launch of this truly unique place to live and work.

Perhaps my major inspiration for getting involved was the flow of negativity I heard from friends and colleagues who should know better.  Every city has its flaws, but when many of my Montreal peers openly admit that they tell their kids to flee elsewhere because "There's no opportunity here," my blood boils.

What really kills me is that most who say this are successful in their own right; people who stuck through tough times and prospered greatly.  These are people who built and sold businesses, established powerful personal brands and enjoyed the financial rewards and recognition that go with them.

And these are people who should not just relate to this week’s lesson, but can be the poster children for it, namely:

True opportunity lies

where there is

no opportunity.

It’s the macro version of the stock market adage “Buy low, sell high,” or golden age baseball star Willie Keeler’s advice for success: “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.” 

I have OTHER friends (more positive than the ones I reference earlier) who take full advantage of this credo every day.  One is an accountant who invests in war-torn and/or economically-devastated countries, counting on their rebound.  Another is a guy who bought up whole blocks of crumbling industrial-area for pennies on the dollar, and who now spreads cheer at the countless restaurants, bars and coffee shops that line a neighborhood in re-birth.  Happily, there are many more.

Granted, there’s no guarantee and not every “no opportunity” investment is a slam-dunk win. 

But the win, if it comes,

is always exponentially bigger

in an arena that has been

counted out, is down on its luck,

or is so far-fetched, people give it

little credence, if any at all.

(For a perfect example of the latter, you don’t have to look any further than Amazon’s recent billion-dollar purchase of Twitch.tv, or at the magna-success of YouTube star PewDiePie, both exploiting the recent, previously unfathomable, trend of watching and commenting on others playing video games.)

So a little challenge to end this off: print, download or find another way to store this blog post.  And when 2018 rolls around, and the “official” celebrations have died down in Montreal, I hope you’ll join me in some of the more personal “unofficial” ones of people who were smart enough to find a way to invest in and breathe a new life into this city “way back when”…namely, now. 

September 15, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Family Doesn't Always Come First

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The question is a touchy one no matter where it comes from, but the fact that it came from my elder son Aidan made it that much more thorny. 

“Dad,” he asked, “I have a potential business trip that may conflict with one of the family celebrations we have scheduled, and I don’t know what to do.  You faced thing like this countless times over your career.  How did you deal with the work/family balance?”

My answer may give rise to some debate, if not outright criticism, but it was indeed honest.  I told him:

“Family always  wins…” 

And after a pregnant pause, added this qualifier:

“…but it doesn’t always

come first . ”

After a couple of seconds to let this sink in, I explained that whatever decision has to be taken, it should be with the ultimate goal of doing right by your family.  And sometimes that means taking a tougher decision with a long-term view instead of an easier short-term, unequivocal yes.

Guilty as charged on numerous offenses to the above.  While I tried to make it to every one of my both my sons’ plays, hockey games, concerts, debates and holiday pageants, sometimes I just couldn’t.  Or to be bluntly honest, I chose not to. 

  • Sometimes, I just had to work late. 
  • Or was out of town on business. 
  • Or was making a sales pitch, or giving a speech. 
  • Because of my summer-centric career at Just For Laughs, I never, ever, EVER made it to a camp visiting day.*

And it wasn’t just my kids’ stuff I sometimes missed.  There were some anniversary and birthday parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs, baby namings and brisses that were also sacrificed because of corporate commitments I deemed more important in the long run. 

I remember bringing this point up at a “Work-Life Balance” session at a Top 40 Under 40 weekend symposium I attended a few years ago.  The assembled panel on-stage—rabid, Type-A, C-suite stereotypes all—recoiled in unison and looked at me in horror.  Hypocritical horror I might add, as I challenged them by saying: “If you mean to tell me that you all got to where you are today by never choosing work over family, then you’re a bunch of bald-faced liars.” (Okay, perhaps I used a few select, more exprerssive words…) 

So going from the bottom up of my answer to my son, family did not always come first. 

But, in the end,

family always  won. 

Why? Because the reason for passing up events in the first place was to do right by my family’s future.  Again using the superlative, never, ever, EVER did I miss a family event just to do something frivolous, or fun.  And I know that while some could dispute my choices, I made them so that I could keep roofs over heads, keep food on tables, keep kids in top-flight educational programs, and ultimately, keep us together.

And you know what?  The fact that my son can take the time and ask me for advice on the subject shows that I made the right choice(s). 

So my learning of the week is one of investment, not sentiment; one of short-term pain for long term gain.  

Don’t do things now merely

to put your family first ;

do things always 

to keep your family forever 

Eventually, they’ll thank you for it at a big party. 

A big party that inevitably, someone will have to miss ;)

----------------------

*Not that I need to justify, but despite missing all “official” visiting days, I made my own unofficial visits from time to time, stopping in on camp by surprise.  What’s more, I also made sure that every time a new Harry Potter book was released, they got one first day via Amazon special delivery.  The point here is that missing scheduled events doesn’t stop you from creating your own special days and/or occasions at other times. 

September 8, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Success Knows No Substitute For Tenacity

Andy_Nulman-and Photoman
I first met photographer Stephane Najman in 2009 (that's him with me above).  He came highly recommended as someone whose camera truly sees things differently, an outlook I needed given that I was in the need for a back-page author’s portrait for a wild book I was writing about the element of surprise for John Wiley and Sons.

I knew he was the right guy for me the instant I checked out his website, listed under his superhero-esque nom du lensPhotoman.”  Every one of his pictures wasn’t merely worth the proverbial 1,000 words, but brought those words together in a way to tell quite the visual story.  Done deal.

A few weeks after my book photo session with him, Stephane phoned and asked if I would like to be part of his own book project that was to be released in early 2010.  True to his off-beat nature, the concept was a series of outrageous photos that would feature an image of someone today, holding an image of him or herself much younger, the combination of which would speak volumes about change and life transformation (the one of me below is an outtake; for the book, he chose one of me jumping, with jewelry and hair a-flying).

Photo-43

Well, guess what’s happening on October 2, 2014, almost five years to the day of our first meeting?  Stephane’s aforementioned book is finally being released.

In the interim between meeting one and October 2, I had been in touch with Stephane several times, many of which as a friendly consultant to help him find funding for the project, after the initial publisher faded away and left him high and dry. 

Or as a reference for grants he was applying for to keep the project alive. 

Or as a sounding board for his idea to convert the book project into a public photo exhibition. 

Or as a shoulder on which to share tales of woe.

As I’ve said in this space often, my lessons learned can be profound or simple.  They may be revolutionary and new, or old news that needs to be repeated.  The point here then, this week’s lesson learned is a simple, old one of the value of perseverance.  Or put another way…

Success knows

no substitute

for tenacity.

Much has been written about embracing failure.  Seth Godin even wrote a compelling book called “The Dip,” all about knowing when to pack it in and give up.

True, there’s nothing wrong with failure.  But there’s nothing wrong with success either.  In fact, there’s a lot more right than wrong in it.

I spoke at an entrepreneur’s event called Start-Up Grind last week.  It’s a multi-national, worldwide series of conferences that attract some of the world’s top businesspeople…and me ;) 

During the Q & A session, I was asked about dealing with failure, and if I can believe the tweets, I said something to the effect that the best way to deal with failure is to succeed.  No problem failing, but eventually succeeding brings context to failure. 

Continual failure

is no fun,

nor is it sustainable. 

I guess it’s no accident the series is called Start-Up “Grind,” as that is the operative adjective and verb to making things happen.

So yes, falling on your ass is part of life, and you have to deal with it.  Knowing when to fold is imperative.

But so is knowing when to keep going. 

For five years, something inside kept Stephan Najman driving towards October 2, 2014.  Some voice said that his project is worth pursuing.  Some gut feeling that kept him tenacious instead of vanquished. 

The difference between success and failure then, is knowing when to listen to the pesky voices and gut feelings, and to never stop driving forward when they keep saying “Yes”…no matter how much allowance you have for the alternative of shutting down.

Don’t worry.  The voices and gut feelings will eventually quiet down.

Once you reach your own October 2…whenever it may be.

September 1, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I *Wrote* This Week--The World's Greatest Card Trick

Some veg out by a beach.  Others sight-see incessantly.  

But for me, vacation time allows me to catch up on two passions, namely reading and writing.

Over the past two weeks in Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, other than eating a ton of seafood, I ripped through three books, a dozen magazines and put the finishing touches on a short story that I've been working on for a while.

So, with one last day of summer holiday left (that is, if you are amongst the 78% who read my stuff the same day they're posted), something a little different from me--the aforementioned (kinda long) short story in its entirety.

Enjoy it as a whole, in parts, or ignore it until the usual lessons return next week.  But until then, you may want to learn the secret to:

BlackGhost_c_06

THE WORLD’S GREATEST 

CARD TRICK

 

“For my next trick, I need a volunteer.  

“Someone good looking, bright, a worthy addition to the splendor of my show.  Hmmm…let's see, how about you sir?  Yes, you there in the blue checked jacket.  That outfit is just screaming to be on a stage somewhere, so why not right here? 

“Oh, a little shy, are we?  Come on people; give him a nice round of applause to make him feel more at ease… 

“There we go!  Please follow my lovely assistant Jackie up the stairs and into the spotlight.  Thank you so much for helping me out…for helping out the show!  So, let’s get to know you a bit.  We’ll start by your name.”

“Uh…it’s Quentin.”

“Had to think, didn’t you?  Well, 'Quentin' is most definitely a unique name.  And Quentin, it’s a name that fits perfectly with this next feat of wizardry, as it is most definitely a unique magic trick.  More than merely ‘unique’ actually, for I call this...The World’s Greatest Card Trick!  There’s usually a drum roll right about now, at very least a smattering of oohs-and-ahhs from the audience, but worry not, because when this is all over, we will all be enveloped in tidal waves of sheer pandemonium.  You believe me, don’t you, Quentin?”

“I guess so.  No reason to doubt you…” 

“I appreciate the encouragement, Quentin.  I wish my agent had such a degree of blind faith.  Now Quentin, how old are you and what do you do for a living?” 

“I’m 31, and I work in branded promotional products at a large-scale corporate level.” 

“That’s quite a mouthful! Which means what, to a layman like me?” 

“Uh, let’s say for the Super Bowl, Pepsi needs 200,000 collapsible water bottles as a promotional giveaway.  Well, my company will source the product—or we’ll get it created if we have to—and then we'll print it with the client’s logo and message.  Then they give ‘em away.  To their clients.” 

“How intriguing!  I always wondered where all those collapsible water bottles came from!  In your comprehensive explanation, I noticed you said ‘my company’.  Do you own it?”

“No, unfortunately not.  It does real well. I just work there.” 

“Fair enough.  And that ravishing lady you’re sitting next to, is she your wife?”

“Aw no…” 

“Your girlfriend?  Someone serious?”

“No, she’s just a friend.”

“She can still be serious though…” 

“Well…you can say she’s a serious friend.”

“Touché, Quentin, touché.  Well handled!  I just love it when my volunteers get more laughs than I do.  Anyway, enough about you…for now.  As I mentioned before, this special trick is less-than-modestly entitled The World’s Greatest Card Trick.  And what makes it even more special is that, after years of intense practice and preparation, tonight marks the very first time I’ll be performing it live, on stage, before an audience. Quentin, you’re a part of history!  Pretty exciting, don’t you think? “

“That is pretty cool, I suppose.”

“Indeed it is, Quentin.  So, let us begin.  You may have already remarked that my assistant Jackie has emerged from a secret location backstage to bring me a deck of cards.  Thank you, my dear.  You’ll notice that this is a standard blue-backed deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, the most popular brand of playing cards on the planet.  Nothing but the best for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick!

“Now Quentin, if you would kindly stop checking out Jackie for a moment or two, I’d like you to focus your attention on these cards and assure the audience that they are as I so proclaimed—standard issue, just 52 of them, no trickery whatsoever. Take your time; complete audience buy-in is of fundamental importance to the desired effect and ultimate outcome of this magical moment.  The wait will be worth it.”

“They look okay to me.  They seem kind of heavy.”

“Good observation, Quentin.  For this trick to work its many miracles, durability of the cards used is a key factor.  That’s why I have selected Bicycle’s Prestige deck, made with crease-resistant Dura-Flex.  It’s the only 100% plastic card to offer a paper-like feel to the user. As Bicycle's corporate website boasts, it’s ‘Perfect for a neighborhood game or a professional tournament.’  Or for The World’s Greatest Card Trick, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I guess.  I can’t really tell the difference between these cards or any others, really.”

“Not yet, Quentin. But soon…soon.  Anyway, enough babbling over the mere tools of the trade.  Let’s get to the reason why we are all here…and why over 1,200 or so of your peers are staring at us with bated breath—The World's Greatest Card Trick!

“To start, I will utter the words that so many thousands of my brethren have uttered before me, and ask you to ‘pick a card, any card’.  But to assure those gathered here that there’s no forced choice of any kind—the dirty little secret behind most tricks of this ilk—I will not touch the Prestige deck at any point in time.  I will now leave it up to you to rifle through it alone, pick a card of your choice and give it to Jackie.  Easy enough?” 

“Yup!”

“Wait Quentin, wait!  Not just yet!  Let me do something that may be considered rude in some cultures, but so necessary to add credibility to The World’s Greatest Card Trick, and turn my back to both you and the audience to assure the card its undisputed anonymity.  Now go ahead...and tell me when you’ve handed the card to Jackie.” 

“Done deal.”

“Fine, Quentin.  Now I'll stay turned as Jackie shows that card to the audience, strutting deliberately from stage left to stage right, not forgetting a slight arm raise for those of you in the balcony.  As she does this—and isn't she a delight?—I want you to put the rest of the cards back in the box.  Got that?”

“Yup.  All finished.”

“Oh, I think not!  Trust me, you’re just getting started.  Jackie my dear, would you put Quentin’s card back into the box, blending it in with its 51 other Dura-Flex coated brothers, sisters and cousins, secure its closure with an elastic, and hand the box back to Quentin.  Do you have it in hand, my friend?” 

“Yes I do!”

“Okay, on the count of three, when I turn around, I want you to throw that box as far as you can into the audience.  Here I come. One, two…”

“Ooooopmh!”

“Nice toss, Quentin!  Right into what more elitist entertainers would impolitely call ‘The Cheap Seats’.  Hope you didn’t pull a muscle.  You ever play quarterback with that arm?”

“No...but I was the catcher on my college baseball team.”

“Impressive!  Now Quentin, do you know why I asked you to throw the deck into the audience?”

“No idea.”

“No real reason…just wanted to give someone a souvenir!  A little act of generosity and jocularity before we commence the wonderment.   Well Quentin, 1,200 people, Jackie and you all know your card.  The entire theater is co-opted in a secret that has excluded just one poor solitary soul, namely me.  And therein lies the purpose of The World’s Greatest Card Trick—for said soul, namely me, to reveal this card to you.  Are you ready to re-learn its identity?” 

“Yeah, sure!”

“Well then, let us begin.  Jackie, please make sure that Quentin is seated properly in the special chair you are now wheeling onto the stage.  And how about a bottle of water for our guest?  Thanks once again, my dear.  Now Quentin, get comfortable, buckle the safety belt, and listen closely to what I’m about to tell you.  Every detail is important.  You may even want to take notes.  Do you have a pen?”

“No.  I usually type things into my iPhone.”

“So very ‘Wired Magazine’ of you, Quentin.  Take it out if you want.  But follow along… So Quentin, tonight when you return to your seat to the sound of thunderous applause, your ‘serious friend’...uh, what is her name?” 

“It’s Leslie.”

“Okay, when you return to your seat, Leslie will not only have a new-found respect for you, but she will also be a touch worried about you due to the intense nature of this performance.  Instead of a direct drive home to her place in Williamsburg, she’ll suggest a quick walk and a coffee together down the block from this theater.  You will grab a table for two in the window of the Caffé Pleuristo, enjoy de-caf double cappuccinos with chocolate biscotti, and she will surprise you somewhat as your conversation takes on a more romantic direction than ever before. 

“This twist, this shift in emotions will be flattering, and will unlock some of the warm feelings for Leslie that you’ve been repressing for longer than you care to admit.  But it will also be somewhat awkward for you, since you’ve never been great at personal commitment.  Even your girlfriends throughout high school, all eight of them, harbor subtle grudges to this day.  But I digress…

“Over the next few months, you will continue to fight these feelings, but will eventually succumb and come to realize that Leslie is your soul mate…so much so that on your first real vacation together at Atlantis Paradise Island—a company trip you will win for finishing first in a quarterly sales competition—after a memorable day spent swimming with the dolphins, you will propose marriage in the Dune Restaurant during a wine-soaked dinner overlooking a very calm ocean.  By the way, you’ll be on your second bottle of Francis Ford Coppola Director's Cut Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel when you actually pop the question.” 

“Wait, how do you know…”

“By the way you hold your water, my friend.  Look at that grip!  Obvious you’re a California Zinfandel man.”

“But all the other…”

“Please! Did I not say that this is The World’s Greatest Card Trick, Quentin?  Never mind the wine…your groom’s tux will be handmade by Mr. Henry Lee, the Hong Kong tailor who travels to different cities every weekend and takes orders in three-star hotel ballrooms for bargain-priced custom-made suits and shirts.  Leslie’s ring will have an uncharacteristically large 1.25 solitaire diamond surrounded by smaller pave stones, the main gem being smuggled in from Europe by your wealthy great aunt Florence and given to you as a gift for being the only nephew who would call her every year for her birthday.  

“Your wedding will also be uncharacteristically grand, and will include almost everybody from your office since your boss, Peter Vanack, will agree to pay for one third of your nuptials due to his increasing love of and trust in you.  Your first-dance song has not yet been released, a comeback romantic power ballad by legendary Detroit rocker Bob Seger, but will be #4 on the Billboard Singles Chart that week.  Finally, Leslie’s cousin Sally, although married for over 22 years, will somehow catch the ceremonial bouquet, much to the delight of every guest except for Sally’s husband Ben and two embarrassed kids.  Ta-da!”

“Is that it?” 

“It?  Is that ‘it’?  Hold on tight sir, because we’re just getting started!  Jackie, tell Howard to intensify the stage lighting, please.  Give me a blue wash, red spots, with Quentin in a green laser cone.  Perfect!  Now Quentin, together you and Leslie will move into your first home, a two-level Jefferson on a surprisingly affordable double lot out in Putnam Valley, about a 50-minute drive from your office.  On one such drive from work, less than a year after moving into your home, late on a cold, rainy November night—sleety, actually—you will skid off Highway 122, wreck your Volkswagen Passat and fracture your fibula in three places, an accident that will cause you to walk with a slight but perceptible limp for the rest of your days.

“Given that you were coming home from yet another late night at the office, your boss Peter will feel bad for you and will offer to replace your totalled car with a spanking new Mercedes C350 Coupe, one with much needed 4-Matic anti-skid technology.  Peter will also reward your diligence and superior sales results with a generous partnership stake in the company, which will accelerate your family plans with Leslie. 

“You will go on to have two children, both girls.  Your eldest daughter Janine, while not the brightest student, will be blessed with a gallant work ethic, and will surprise everyone by being accepted to Wharton School of Business and end up being employed by the government as an economist.  She will also have a strange fixation with the color forest green and be renowned for her quirk of wearing slippers while in the office.  Your younger daughter Hazel will be more artistic, be obsessed with horses and all things equestrian, and end up working in the graphic design department of the landmark Churchill Downs racetrack.

“You will travel extensively for business, often to Las Vegas, and although you will not be much of a gambler, you will spend an inordinate amount of your late nights killing time in the casinos of your hotels, sipping free Sam Adams beer while playing the $1 slot machines.  On one hand, this gaming choice will be very beneficial, as had you been a poker or blackjack player, your card would’ve been revealed to you at that point in time, making this a very good card trick, but not the World’s Greatest as it has been advertised and promoted. 

“As I said, all this is on one hand.  And then...there is the other hand.” 

“Huh?”

“Jackie, cue music!  One night, while sipping beer at the slots, you will be served by a petite, raven-haired cocktail waitress named Brandi.  Well, 'Brandi' is what it will say on her name-tag, but her real name is Melissa Manchester, like the singer from the ‘70s who enjoyed hit songs like ‘Midnight Blue’ and ‘You Should Hear How She Talks About You.’  Now Quentin, I’m trying to think of a succinct way to put this, but there’s a line in Midnight Blue that goes: ‘I think we can make it/One more time/If we try’ and that evening, smitten by Brandi’s multiple charms—and she yours, no doubt—you will take that lyric quite literally, and despite the fact that at first you did indeed succeed, you will try, try again.  Yes, a simple one-night stand, but ultimately the tipping point for what is still to come…if you'd pardon the suggestive pun.

“A few months following this trip, you will receive a phone call from Brandi breaking the news that she is with child…guess who's?  At first, you will think this brazen extortion, but after receiving an email with a Quicktime video of her ultrasound attached, you will understand that she is most probably telling the truth.  You will be overcome with a sense of dread and fear, and do everything in your power to ensure that Brandi and the future little Quentin will be provided for, all while Leslie and the girls continue to know nothing of your little side venture. By the way, do you like the musical accompaniment I've chosen for you?”

“This is absurd!  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Of course you don’t, Quentin!  If you did, you’d know the secret to the trick, and ruin the magic.  We don’t want that, do we?”

“I really don’t give a rat’s ass…”

“Well, that’s what you say now.  But I think you will change your tune once caught embezzling funds from poor, trusting Peter Vanack, a man who has become a second father to you.  Okay, so it will only be $112,000, but still more than enough reason for Peter—a man so dejected, so disappointed—to fire you and agree not to go to the police if you’d destroy your share certificates by slipping them one-by-one into the Powershred Office Shredder before his very eyes. 

“While a magician should be a master of misdirection Quentin, I think by now you know exactly where this trick is heading.  Leslie will be shocked and saddened by the whole sordid affair, and send you packing.  Without the support of Peter, shunned by your embarrassed parents who take Leslie’s side unequivocally, you will empty your bank account of the $3,129.87 still left in it, borrow an additional $5,000 from your best friend Marcus Hamel, and head off with your Briggs & Riley overnight bag and Samsonite rolling duffel to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Brandi, or Melissa, will have re-located to be with her parents and raise her little boy—well, yours as well, I suppose—that was born six months previous at 3:13 p.m., weighing in at a whopping nine pounds, three ounces. 

“When she opens the door at 6633 Westbury Avenue, she will be shocked, as your visit will not have been preceded by any prior warning.  While befuddled and blank-faced for 45 seconds or so, she will break into a warm smile and invite you into the '80s-styled living room to sit down and talk.  Unfortunately, this will provoke a screaming match with her parents Franklyn—a textile manufacturer—and Sharleen—a school librarian—who consider you Satan-esque for what you have done to their daughter.  Enraged, they will pull Brandi inside, threaten to call the police if you don’t vacate their property immediately and, as you are bum-rushed out of the house, swear that you will never see your illegitimate son as long as you live.

“With all hope of a reunion and a new life with Brandi shattered, you will need somewhere to spend the night, and after a 35-minute search, at 10:30 p.m. you will settle for a two-star hotel called Lodge America of Raleigh at 3215 Capital Boulevard, where you will rent a twin-bed room in the back for a mere 52 bucks.  Instead of watching the free HBO advertised in neon in the window of the hotel’s lobby, you will decide to take stock of your life and go for a long walk to ruminate.  You like ruminating walks, don’t you Quentin?” 

“Wha-what?  Walks?  Ruminate?  What are you trying to say to me?  What is all this?  You’re insane!  I’m outta here!”

“Not so fast, Quentin, we’re just about done! Anyway, your chair's seatbelt won’t open unless you have the key that Jackie is now holding high above her head in her left hand.  Just sit tight a little bit longer.  It’ll be worth it, you have my word. Cross my heart. 

“So…on this walk, you will head northeast for three blocks, turn left due west on Mayflower Drive, where you will cross Huntleigh Drive and head into a wooded area that fronts Beaman Lake.  The moon will be shining off the less-than-pristine water, and will illuminate a green plastic bench made out of recycled pop bottles.  You will sit down on that bench and light a cigarette, rekindling a bad habit for the first time since you gave it up at Middlebury College back in Vermont.  Upon tossing the match down to the pavement, you will notice a newspaper at your feet, a three-day-old sports section of the Durham Herald-Sun.  In quest of a moment or two of much needed head-clearing distraction. you will pick up the newspaper, and under it you will find one blue-backed Bicycle Playing Card, amazingly no worse for the all the wear-and-tear.  Gotta love that Dura-Flex!

“You will turn it over.  

“And that, Quentin—THAT!—will be your card.  The Six of Clubs, correct?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“'Uh yeah’ is right!  Let’s hear it for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick! You can stand up now, my friend. You have the key, Jackie?  There you go!   Take a bow, sir!  And as you leave this stage to the promised explosion of thunderous applause, please grab my assistant’s hand and follow her backstage to sign the legal release forms before you return to your seat!”

“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen!  You are very kind.  And very loud.  Thank you.  Please settle down.  Alright then…

“For my next trick…hmmm…I need a volunteer.”                   

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.

-------------------------

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!).

---------------------------------------------

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.

July 21, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--How YouTube Will Change Comedy Forever

Epic-rap-battles--source

A curse, and a blessing.

A plague, and a lifeblood.

A death knell, and a resurrection.

Given that I’m currently in the throes of all things comedic during the 32nd annual Just For Laughs Festival, I was challenged with the question: “What’s the role of YouTube for the next generation of comedians?

The three lines atop this post comprise the wildly divergent answer I will now try to justify without too much vilification.  So…

At its best, YouTube is

the Garden of Eden;

not only for the next generation

of comedians, but actually

forming the next generation

of comedians.  

 

At its worst, YouTube is

the ruthless Angel of Death,

and perhaps for an entire

comedic genre…

namely, stand-up. Gulp.

We’ll start with the bad news.

A couple of years ago, in an interview for Wired Magazine, I defined comedy as “a function of two parts familiarity and one part surprise; F2S, if you will.”  A great joke takes you on what seems to be an expected journey, then jerks you around just when you think you know where you’re going. Without the unknown, without the surprise, a joke doesn’t exist.

Regrettably, YouTube eliminates a joke’s surprise.  Well, not specifically YouTube itself, but let’s face it, that’s where much of the material surreptitiously captured on smartphone cameras eventually ends up being seen.  And seen.  And seen again. 

Smartphones are recording everyone, in tiny basement clubs to major concert halls, and in the process, puncturing comedy balloons before they’re fully inflated, weakening the punch in every oft-viewed punchline. 

Naturally, this outrages stand-up comedians (see articles here documenting the hardships of Chris Rock and Patton Oswalt, to name just two), and many in the field’s upper echelons have resorted to hiring squadrons of in-room spotters, looking to extinguish a smartphone’s telltale glow…and/or those causing them.

This situation is far from ideal,

and is only going to get worse

The paranoid in me envisions future stand-up shows resembling the fascist rally scene in the Pink Floyd film “The Wall,” but ultimately, any further attempts at stronger policing are merely closing the proverbial barn door after the horses have fled the stable. If it’s not the smartphone, it’ll be  Google Glass, or the something else about-to-be-invented that will be way less conspicuous and exponentially more powerful at capturing, and circulating, the live performance. It may not be seen as “progress,” but you sure can’t stop it.

Which means that stand-up has got to adapt…or face oblivion. (I have many theories on how, but that’s for another post.)  So, envision the worst case scenario: say pirate video kills the stand-up star.  Does that mean comedy dies with it? 

Far from it. 

Despite its seemingly frivolous

forward face, comedy is

one tough cookie

On a showbiz level, it survived the death of vaudeville only to roar back stronger than ever.  More profoundly, it has helped millions get through hardships, be they personal or political. It may struggle and morph, but it will never die.

Which brings me back to YouTube.  Comedy is killing it there big-time.  And what’s working best takes advantage of YouTube’s factors of:

  • Democracy (anyone can do it)
  • Speed (shoot in the morning, upload in the afternoon)
  • Vast Audience Reach (every niche is huge) 
  • Quirkiness (impact over aesthetics)

Pranks and pranksters are huge (including Just For Laughs’ Gags channel, with over 4,000,000 subscribers).  So are eccentric people simply talking to their rabid fan base.  Most promising is that the low barrier to entry allows infinite experimentation…which will lead to new breeds of humour analogous to the medium (and to its increasing mobile use).

I remember a sobering trip to Los Angeles a couple years back where I discovered the parallel universe being driven by unconventional YouTube-friendly digital comedians, NONE of whom I had ever heard of before.  During my meetings in traditional Hollywood—along Santa Monica or Wilshire or Sunset—we talked about “digital comedians,” but they were merely savvy analog acts who had a grasp of digital tools like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like. 

Once I ventured “below Highway 10” so to speak, the homeland of pure video plays like Maker Studios, Fullscreen and their ilk, I was exposed to a whole new breed of off-beat creators who didn’t care about the old rules, and considered the intrusion of cameras a friend rather than a foe.

And today, that dividing line

is blurring rapidly:

This is why, at this year’s Just For Laughs, my number one priority is welcoming the new-breed YouTube comedy stars to the event, and ensuring that they don’t merely meet their more traditional brethren and sistren, but find a way to collaborate with them…and change the humor industry.

For the better. 

And undoubtedly, in a most surprising way.

Weird-al-tacky

July 14, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week—The Danger of Imagination

6a00d83451b64669e200e553a7e1f48833-450wi

Next to “E=MC squared,” perhaps the most famous quote to emerge from Albert Einstein’s mouth is the oft-cited:

“Imagination is

more important

than knowledge.”

While the meaning of these words is primary and easily understood, their use has been a constant source of positive inspiration to dreamers everywhere for years.   What I’m sure Einstein didn’t consider at the time of his uttering was the offshoot of his observation, namely:

“Imagination is

DisTortEr

of knowledge.”

To explain, let me take you on a walk down the main downtown artery on which I live.  Last Wednesday, I was speedily heading to an art vernissage at the Ritz Carlton Hotel a few blocks away, and I crossed paths with an acquaintance of mine, a woman I’ve known for many years.  I smiled and said hello.

“Are you going to walk right by me again?” she asked.

“Huh? When did I walk right by you?” was my stunned reply.

“A few weeks ago, right on this very street!”

Yikes!  I may not be the most social guy on earth, but I’m not usually this insensitive.

“Was I wearing my headphones, because when I’m listening to music, which is what I usually do when I walk downtown, I zone out a little bit.”

She didn’t answer that question, but shifted gears dramatically.

“I know you’re still mad at me for what happened with that app,” she said, referring to a truly minor inconvenience that took place about six or seven years ago, when I was working in the tech space with my Airborne Mobile company.

“No, not at all,” I said.

“And you never used me to sell your properties!” (Said acquaintance is in sales, to put this in perspective.)

Well, that was indeed true, but for a completely different, totally innocuous reason, one which was miles away from what she felt was the cataclysmic event that spawned my perceived ignoring behavior.  And as for the kerfuffle over the app, it was so insignificant I had forgotten it had ever happened…that is, until she brought it up again. 

Nonetheless, the absence of valid, accurate information and the fact that she couldn’t read my thoughts—then or now—allowed her imagination to run wild, and conjured up all sorts of offbeat, obtuse scenarios that were so far away from the truth, they needed a new area code and a passport.

And therein lies my point, and this week’s lesson.

Imagination is a wonderful and most valuable tool when used properly.  When exploiting and exploring it trying to come up with next big start-up idea, a hit song, an out-of-the-box solution to a pesky problem, or a new way to cook chicken, imagination is great.

But like nitroglycerin,

which can both

re-start a stalled heart

or blow a city block

to smithereens,

imagination can also be

a dangerous weapon.

Probing its depths to explain why that guy or girl passed you by, why you didn’t get the job, or why you weren’t invited to some party may be hazardous to your mental health...and to that of those you are imagining about.

So the next time you find your inner thoughts summoning up outlandish, cockamamie reasons about the way things seem, consider the words of another great philosopher, namely The Tempations, and remember that it may be “Just my imagination / Running away with me.”

A simple ask may save you hours, weeks, even years of unnecessary—and erroneous—worrying.

July 7, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: Un-Unforgettable

Who r u

I attended a cultural event over the weekend, and following the evening's performance, I gathered with the rest of the crowd in the lobby of a theatre for a drink and some socializing.

Now I’m not great in these circumstances in general, but considering what happened there in specific, I was terrible.

Never again, though!

Here’s the story:

Trying to make my way through the crush of humanity, I was stopped by a somewhat familiar stranger about my age.  He looked at me and exclaimed:

“Well, well…if it isn’t Andy Nulman of Sir Winston Churchill High School!  You look great!”

Not a bad start, a small compliment.  But it proved to be just a softening set-up for the H-bomb he was about to drop:

“Do you recognize...me?”

While I may have a great sense of recall for events and actions, I am far less gifted in face/name recollection.  It’s something I try hard to improve, but it’s a weak point in my real-life social networking.

So…visibly uncomfortable, shifting side to side and stammering, and because I didn’t want to come across as a pretentious ass, I finally sputtered in as humble tone as I could muster:

“I am so, so, so, sorry but I don’t recall.  I’m really not good at this; I think I may even have a real problem.  Please excuse me.  You are...?”

Proper social grace and decency at this juncture is to extend a hand, smile and reveal one’s secret identity.  But no such luck on this night.   Rather than help a brother off a very big hook, my tormentor responded with a wide grin:

“I can’t believe you don’t know who I am!”

Slight pause, then…

“I think I’ll let you squirm for a while.”

I came to the theatre for a show; I didn’t sign up for a memory test, yet here was one being administered without anesthesia or lube. For some reason, I stood there paralyzed for what seemed to be hours of discomfort before he finally relented and graced my ears and memory banks with the sound of his most precious name (which I will not reveal to graciously protect the guilty).

The result of this unlocking was, shall we say, somewhat less than finding a buried treasure chest filled with gold. 

Yes, we indeed did go to school together at ol’ SWCHS.  But he was a couple of grades younger than me, and never a really close friend.  At most, I remember him as a nice guy in the halls, an acquaintance you would exchange niceties with at the mall or a party. 

And here he was again,

decades later, a grinning

timeline terrorist

holding me hostage by

dangling disconnected

brain synapses

in front of me.

After a minute or so of awkward exchange, I mercifully pulled myself away…and vowed that this was the LAST time I would ever be put in such an uncomfortable situation.

I’m sure that at one point in your life—or many, like me—you’ve shared my pain by being put in situations similar to this one, where the happy innocent becomes the uneasy victim.  And what I learned this week is the Express Pass/Golden Ticket out of them. 

So…the next time someone makes ME feel this ill at ease at the name-me game, my two-pronged sledgehammer attack will start with this body blow:

“I’m sorry…

I don’t know who you are. 

I guess you weren’t really

all that memorable.”

And when that someone breaks—and trust me, they will, almost immediately—and spits out his or her name, I will take a deep breath, twist my face quizzically, and reply with this knockout punch, one word delivered in many syllables:

Who-oo-oo-oo???”

Believe me, after this, I will never ever be uncomfortable again.

Nor, for that matter, forgotten!

June 30, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: Screw the "Other People"

Gallop-in-Germnay

I was having breakfast with a successful TV producer friend of mine, and we were discussing the determining factors of success and failure in business.  Not just “our” business of show, but business in general.

The primary success factor was blatantly obvious: people.  Call them what you will, but without an audience, a crowd, raving fans, customers, clients, subscribers, spectators, viewers, followers…you’re sunk.

The real surprise was the revelation of the primary failure factor…also people, but more specifically, “other people.”

The best way to explain this is via a quote from a woman I admire immensely, Cindy Gallop.  Cindy is not just a gutsy entrepreneur, a genius-level thinker and a magnificent speaker, but also a human magnet.  Her outlandish appearance (that's her, somewhat tame, atop this post) is an immediate visual focal point, and the way in which she speaks makes just about everything she says instantaneously memorable.

I’ve seen her speak a few times, and the last time around, at C2MTL, she so eloquently summed up what my friend and I were talking about.  To wit:

“You will never

own the future

if you care what

other people think.”

This may sound basic, but sometimes, the best lessons are. 

Because of “other people,” so many ideas are never brought to fruition, which prevents them from ever at all being brought to the people that really count.

Other people” are often the airbrakes on the bullet train of progress.  They are the reason why world-changing projects are stillborn, why budding sages stay silent, why potential superstars remain seated on the sidelines, why companies stay the course of the status quo, why so many of us shut up in meetings.

Rather than do what’s right, do what we want, speak our mind or find another way to bask in our freedom, dreading what “other people” may say or do (or even worse, think, because then it remains a mystery) lays down a layer of inertia and drives the ultimate fear of actually carrying out something we might regret later.

I love Cindy’s quote for so many reasons, but mainly because it embodies her spirit of going for broke by over-arching and striving to “own the future.”  She’s not just saying that if you care what other people think you “won’t succeed” or you “won’t be happy”; she’s saying that despite your reticence, you may still enjoy a modicum of achievement…but you’ll never reach the summit.

Put another way...

The only way

to attract people

in the end

is to ignore them

in the beginning.

It takes a certain type of person to disregard the “other people.”  Like Cindy, you have to be a bit outspoken, a bit outrageous, a bit outlandish and a lot “out there.” 

But every major advancement—EVERY one—from life-saving medical breakthroughs to the creation of the device you are reading this on, has been launched by someone who, when push came to shove, didn’t give a rat’s ass about what “other people” had to think. 

Don’t believe me?  Don’t agree?

Well guess what?

I don’t care ;)

June 23, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: Comparing Apples and…Pears

Pears!

One great thing about striving to learn at least one something every week is that one never knows where the next nugget of inspiration will come from. 

For me, this week’s was found at the bottom of a box that contained my weekly P&A grocery order.  Underneath the mounds of fresh vegetables, boxes of Quaker Oat Squares, bag of Spanish peanuts and cartons of Tropicana grapefruit juice was a padded liner (you can see it above) on which the following tidbit was printed:

Apple and Pear Merchandising:
*75% of apple purchases are planned
*54 % of pear purchases are unplanned

For some reason, I found this fascinating, and wondered why the wide difference in predetermination.  Was it because apples have entered our modern-day lexicon in such a dominant fashion (everything from Apple computers to The Beatles’ Apple Records to the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”)?   Are pears considered more exotic, or an acquired taste, like bourbon or oysters?  Did it have to do with the color and/or shape of the respective fruits and their subsequent appeal to the buying public?

Luckily, there was a call to action link:

“learn more at SUPERFRESHGROWERS.COM

So I went there to do just that.

And was sadly disappointed.

The site is indeed colorful, and if you look hard enough, will hint at why apples may give you more energy than a cup of coffee.  But nowhere does it explain why they are more deliberately purchased than those impulsive pears (even in December, which was National Pear Month…and which shows you just how very deep I dug!).

I had to drill down the Internet a bit more, to a January 2009 research paper from the Washington State University School of Economic Sciences to find out that:

“Fresh pears are one of the most popular fruits consumed in the U.S. Yet, annual per capita consumption is by far lower than bananas, melons, and apples, the top three.

"Indeed, pears are ranked ninth in annual per capita consumption out of a list of 23 fruits listed by the Economic Research Service – USDA (2009).”

NinthNinth!  No surprise they’re purchased on a whim!  And I wonder what the percentage of planned banana buys are?

Now the point here isn’t about apples or pears, or even bananas; it’s about information and learning.  While the two can be intertwined, they are not so automatically. In other words… 

Information does not

equal learning;

it is the raw material,

the catalyst to it.

The relationship between information and learning can be likened to the ingredients of a recipe.  While alone they may be very delicious, only when used in the proper combination and via the optimum process do they culminate into a complete dish that can be considered gourmet.  

I noticed this connection—or lack thereof—at last month’s C2MTL creative conference.  There were some amazingly bright people presenting, and nearly every one of them flooded heads with information.  But the truly successful speakers were those who added relevance to their info with stories, passion, visuals or other “mind hooks” that people could personally relate to.  Those who did turned benign listeners into active learners; an important and profound difference when you’re at a conference. 

Information without relevance

is incomplete; it’s merely

words and/or numbers. 

But to many, and unfortunately, that seems to be enough.  I come across this so very often.  People tell me about a book they read, or a course they took, or a TED talk they watched, and exclaim: “I learned so much!” 

My response is usually: “So tell me, what was the most important lesson for you?” 

Their response is usually: “Uh…”

This can lead me down the rabbit hole of many of my favorite diatribes, most notably my rant against “memorize and regurgitate by rote” education.  But the reason why I think it’s so urgent to distinguish between information and learning, and apply the right degree of enthusiasm and context to the former to convert it into a relatable latter, is because of the coming Big Data boom. 

Well, never mind “coming”; with the proliferation of data flying at us so fast and in so many ways, I suppose it’s already here.  Whether or not it all has “meaning” will depend on the way it is processed…which brings us back to the food analogy.  Will data just be tossed haphazardly into a blender, resulting in an informational smoothie?  Or will it be carefully crafted into memorable significance? 

While I don’t have the answer, at least I hope to have provided some—pardon the pun—food for thought.

In the meantime, I think I’ll head back to the supermarket.

And buy a basket of peaches.

June 16, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week:--What I Would Do If I Were 22 (Again!)

Scan

A few weeks back, Dan Roth, the Executive Editor of LinkedIn, tossed me a challenge for the month of June.  In an email, he wrote:  “We are asking you to help guide the graduating class of 2014—and all young professionals—in a series called ‘If I Were 22.’”

As part of email, Dan tossed off a few pointers on what to focus. The one that appealed most to me was:

What do you know now

that you wish

you'd known then?

 

Thinking back, the age of 22 was an amazingly transformational period for me.  I had just been fired from my beloved job as a rock ‘n’ roll journalist (after throwing wine at a colleague who was soon to be my boss; don’t ask!), and was finally about to graduate McGill University. Since me and my long hair didn’t impress any of the on-campus recruiters enough to get even one measly job offer, I was forced to go it alone as a greener-than-green marketing consultant.

In retrospect, this getting fired was the greatest thing that could’ve ever happened to me, but who knew that—and could convince my panicked parents—back then? (BTW, that’s me at 22 in the photo above, interviewing the late Phil Lynott of the band Thin Lizzy.)

As a parent of two sons who are now in their 20s, I figured I’d take on Dan’s challenge just after Father’s day, as a lot of what I have to say to this year’s grads are things I’ve already shared with my children…and things I wish my own father—or anyone, for that matter—would’ve shared with me. 

Given the profundity that emerges from many of these so-called “advice posts” on the Net, my counsel may appear trite in comparison.  But it comes from both the head and the heart, and it’s 100% street-level authentic.  So without any further ado, to those in the Graduating Class of 2014, or those who wish they were, here are three simple points of retro-wisdom that I wish I’d known then, or as we’ll call it, #IfIWere22:

 

1)    Exercise and Eat Right

When I was 22, I was a sloth.  “Exercise” was walking to the car, or to the turntable to flip the album over to side B.  “Eating right” was choosing the Filet of Fish instead of the Big Mac at McDonald’s, and proudly telling my doctor that I had forsaken Coca-Cola for the healthier choice of Nestea Iced Tea (yes, he rolled his eyes to the point of seeing his own cerebrum).

While I am now far from vegan, I am very conscious of what and how I eat.  And I am exercise-obsessive, not just working out like a grunting fiend, but also evangelizing my tools of choice (TRX and Rip-Trainer) to anyone who will listen, and many who won’t.  These two immutable elements of a healthy lifestyle were unfathomably foreign to me back then.  After years of pushing, pulling, lifting and sweating, I am in pretty great shape now, but man, how I wish I had jumped on this train at 22…or even earlier.  And FYI, this point has NOTHING to do with vanity; being in healthy shape helps you perform better in countless aspects of your life…particularly  business.

  

2)    Understand Finance 

This isn’t about becoming an accountant or economist, but understanding numbers and the ramification they have on all aspects of one’s life. 

Knowing numbers minimizes, if not eliminates, all sorts of problems, be they business, personal or even relationship-oriented (the greatest source of tension between couples are always money issues).  Whether it’s choosing to buy or lease a car, ensuring you put a few dollars into proper investments (like life insurance, even at 22!), or just managing personal budgets, mastering math helps you make better decisions that effect both the now and the tomorrow.

And as a sub-point to #2, if at all possible, buy something of major value early…most notably real estate.  Many moons ago, when I could barely afford it, I bought some farmland.  It was re-zoned residential, and paid off handsomely.  Revenue-generating properties, like apartments or offices, can provide amazing growth potential while giving you a place to live and/or work virtually rent-free.  Yes, managing any investment is work, but it pays better than operating a steam press or delivering newspapers (both jobs which I actually had).

 

3)    Be Interesting

Another two-part answer here.  First part deals with how you feed your head.  It’s never been easier to be well-read, or shall we say “well-informed,” because with the proliferation of digital media, the onslaught of video and the tsunami of mobile, you don’t even have to read anything anymore.  That eliminates the curse of ignorance. And don’t worry about being “an expert”; it’s more important to be curious, to learn a little about a lot.  The more you know, the more you’ll have to offer, and the more who will want to know you.

Which brings us to #3a, how you package your knowledge and opinions.  Don’t be afraid to stand out.  Dare to be different.  Whether it’s what you wear (for me, it’s an overabundance of jewelry), how you cut your hair, how you walk, speak, stand or sit, do it in a way that spawns inquisitiveness.  Be a magnet for others.  Complement your inner smarts with an outer shell that invites connection.  Then hope that those you attract are as interesting as you!

P.S.  As a head start, try impressing someone with the fact that you read this blog post ;)

June 9, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Foolproof, Two-Step Secret To Go VIRAL!

Photo-40

It has become the social media question for the ages, one that defines our era:

“How do I make my

YouTube video/Facebook post/

blog post/etc.

go viral?” 

I was asked it twice last week alone; once while speaking at a Content Marketing conference put on by Infopresse (see photo above), the other time in a meeting with the head of one of the savviest electronic toy companies in the world.  At a brainstorm session back in January, a multinational client told me outright that they were looking for “someone to push the viral button.”  It’s the question that won’t die. 

By now, one would think that people would realize that there’s no magic formula.  Virality may be understood as the brass ring of social media success (“misunderstood” actually; keep reading until then end), but a simple cause-and-effect procedure to get one there is as elusive as a cure for the common cold.  

But that brutal reality of no quick fix still doesn’t stop people from searching for it…like they continue to do for Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, winged unicorns and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

So in an effort to satisfy inquiring minds, and to finally bring closure to the topic, I have come up with the foolproof, two-step path to Virality; a guaranteed route to widespread wildfire.  To wit:

To go Viral,

you need to blend

Rebellion and Religion. 

Here’s how it works: 

Rebellion

In a nutshell, this means you have to do and say something different.  VERY different.

To start, let me splash three cold, hard facts on your marketing message: 

  1. Nobody cares.
  2. Nobody give a damn.
  3. You are irrelevant. 

You may harbor the conceit that the world will stop in its tracks, that people will lay down whatever it is they are doing, absolutely ignore the million other marketing messages bombarding them at the exact same time, and do so just to concentrate on what you have to say. 

But you are wrong.  What you say doesn’t matter, and is extraneous info to just about everybody. 

Unless, that is, you do and say something so special, in a way so unique, that it smashes through this Iron Curtain of Complacency and gets people talking. (For example, check out the bomb my cartoonist friend Stephan Pastis dropped on Saturday.) 

And even THEN you’re not in the clear, because mere “talking” is not enough any more.  For something to go viral, it has to be special enough for people to actually interact with, and share with others.  This means that not only must your message be earth-shattering, but be so undeniably special that it makes people feel good about themselves by telling others about it. (I wrote a full, award-winning blog post about that very phenomenon here.) 

That’s the Rebellion part.  Don’t think you can do it?  Then enjoy a Spartan, secluded life in a sterile cocoon.  And consider this—if a brand as established and seemingly mundane as Cheerios can do it—TWICE!—then what’s your excuse?  (Check out what I mean with these two Cheerios masterstrokes: #1 and #2.)

Religion

So, let’s say you’ve cracked the Rebellion code and come up with something so magnificent, angels are chanting your name in choral praise. 

You’re still not there.  Now comes the religion part.  This step is way simpler than the first one:

Just get down on

your knees and pray.

Because no matter how brilliant, how eye-popping, how brain-busting a concept you’ve created, there’s no guarantee it spreads.  That is up to the Gods. 

Who knows why?  You may have released it on the wrong day.  Someone or something else may be dominating the social media attention span at that moment.  There are thousands of other reasons for things NOT to go viral.

So even if you’re the most hardcore atheist, the most shrewd SEO strategist, give yourself up to a higher power, and ask him, her or them for a little help.

Then wait and see…

Finally! 

After all that, here’s the bad news.

Let’s just say you manage to score big and infect the Internet. 

So what?  Getting Viral doesn’t keep you Viral.  You may reach a stratospheric high, but you’re not setting a new baseline with it.  It’s like a trip into space on one of those zero-gravity aircraft; enjoy the brief feeling of floaty euphoria, but you’re coming back down to earth before you know it.  (Best case scenario is picking up, and keeping, a nice amount of new followers/customers while up there.) 

As the social media

brass ring, Virality is rusty. 

It’s the wrong goal.

Rather than shooting for the quick up-and-down of Virality, aim instead for a positively-inclining line of consistent growth and increased interaction with your followers/customers.

That’s where the REAL win, and the true answer to the question, lies.

June 2, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Exponential Negative Power of the Double Positive

Two_times

You’ll never know what lesson you’ll learn just by keeping your ears open.  To wit, last week, I was a guest at a tribute roast event at my synagogue. I specify the "guest" status blatantly, as most times, my attendance at one of these soirees is in the guise of MC, host, auctioneer or other working position that deflects and refocuses my senses of attention.

Happily, said event was a sold-out success, which meant that organizers had to squeeze over 350 people into the downstairs celebration hall; a first.  This first also led to a slightly overwhelmed kitchen staff, who were called to serve more meals faster than any time ever before in building's history.

This obviously led to a few meals being slightly, shall we say, "tardy,” which led to the subsequent frustration of some of the guests, which ultimately led to this following exchange between a frustrated guest and beleaguered waiter: 

Guest with a slightly masked whine:

"We've been waiting 15 minutes for our food. What’s the problem?"

Somewhat shell-shocked waiter:

"It's coming...it's coming."

A seemingly innocent dialogue; no verbal explosions, insults or threats of physical violence. The waiter, while not beaming with a smile, was far from nasty-faced or bitter.  When it was over, the guest, still frustrated, returned to her table.  And the waiter moved on, looking to the kitchen for the next wave of trays.

All relatively innocuous.  But here's what I learned in the 27 or so seconds it took for the above psychodrama to take place:

Doubling up on a word

or phrase kills it. 

Worse, it takes something

meant to be positive and

exponentially reduces it

negatively

Had the waiter simply smiled and said, "It's coming," and stopped there, the guest would've been reassured, and hopefully, satisfied.  It would've been a mere statement of fact, and given hope to the guest. 

But the two-time repetition of the words "It's coming...it's coming" a double-header separated by an ellipses-length beat, instead revealed a sense of frustration, denial and even ignorance on the part of the waiter, leading the guest to feel somewhat shoved aside, her concerns ignored and the problem still festering. 

The more I thought of this, the more I realized I stumbled upon something simple yet profound just by keeping my ears open that night.

Stay with me for a few lines, and don't merely read the following examples; allow yourself the additional educational effectiveness of saying them out loud:

 

Husband: "Honey, come on, supper's ready!"

Wife: "Okay!" 

or 

Wife: "Okay...okay!" 

 --------------

Project Leader:  "I think the headline needs to be a bit bolder."

Graphic Artist: "I hear you." 

or 

Graphic Artist:  I hear you...I hear you!" 

 --------------

Father:  "Did you write the thank you letter to that person who did you a favor?" 

Son:  "I will."  

or  

Son "I will...I will!" 

 --------------

Mother: "You should give Auntie Betty a call.  She's getting old, and could use some attention and conversation." 

Daughter:  "I get it" 

or  

Daughter:  "I get it...I get it!"

 --------------

I could go on with these for hours...for hours!  But I think you get my drift. 

Saying what you mean once is enough

Anything more changes the meaning of what you’re saying.  

In a strange paradox, doubling up on your words actually diminishes their power in these circumstances.  An efficient, straightforward statement of fact repeated twice (or even worse, three times!) becomes a snarky counterproductive act of denial, an ill wind of exasperation.

Less, I guess, has never been more “more.”

May 26, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--"Oh No...What Have I Done?"

Head-in-hands

In last week’s amazingly-bright blog post (hey, selling one’s self is a relentless job these days!), I referenced the “Ah-ha! Moment,” that positive pin-point in time when something just clicks, the answer is clear and blatantly obvious, the future bright and plain to see.

This week, I’d like to look at the scarred other side of the shiny coin; the ghostly kick in the gut that hurts like hell. Let’s call it the “Uh-oh! Moment.”

I’m sure you’ve all felt it at one time or another in your careers. It’s the bleak realization that you’ve made a monumental mistake, the gulp that says you’re in too deep and that there’s no turning back.

On the graph of life,

this is not merely a valley,

but a deep, jagged hole

gouged into your deepest one.

 

One of the many “Uh-oh! Moments” I remember happened back in 1999 when I departed Just For Laughs to start a tech business with Garner Bornstein.  I had left behind a gold-plated “Mr. Big” position where I travelled the world, hob-nobbed with showbiz big-wigs, was treated to VIP service in restaurants and clubs, and had my butt kissed by everyone from performers to the media. 

Cut to my first week at the new gig, sitting alone at a massive table in an abandoned boardroom that housed me as my office was being readied, getting strange stares from the kids who saw me as an outsider and the hardcore techies who considered me a luddite, and being talked to in a strange new, insanely foreign language (to me at that time, a “server” was a concierge or a waiter).

It was after three days of this, on a lonely rainy Wednesday, when I finally succumbed to the three-step process that marks the onset of the “Uh-oh! Moment”: 

  1. Your head tumbles into your outstretched hands
  2. Together, they slowly shake from side to side
  3. And while this is going on, you think—or more likely, groan—the Moment’s battle cry:

“Oh no...what have I done?”

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the “Uh-oh! Moment” is a necessity for growth.  And that usually, things get better from there.

As I said before, the “Uh-oh! Moment” marks a realization, a grasp of a situation marked by despair and anguish.  But it’s within that grasp that most of the time, you start climbing out of the abyss.  Once you’re questioning what you have done, you start answering.  And once you start answering, you start moving in a new, upward direction. 

I don’t know how it works, and if it works the same for everyone, but it sure has worked for me.  I’ve tracked countless of my “Uh-oh! Moments”—from the aforementioned career change panic to the decision to change hockey positions from goalie to forward; from a flippant political quote made on live TV to accepting a challenge to create a speech on creativity at the C2MTL conference—and every time, said moment was a catalyst for positive change. 

It wasn’t always evident at the instance, and it certainly wasn’t always easy, but each time I faced it, the “Uh-oh! Moment” was my nadir.  Or near-nadir.  Or, as per musical philosophers The Mamas and Papas in the song "Dedicated To The One I Love":

 “The darkest hour

is just before dawn."

The benefit of the “Uh-oh! Moment” is only fully appreciated later, and is only fully understood in hindsight.  So next time you find yourself scraping the bottom of life’s barrel, don’t worry about asking yourself what you have done.  That’s natural.

But at the same time, don’t hesitate to look ahead to what you’re about to do.

May 19, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Three-Word Secret to Tourism Success

Untitled
You should know this by now—I try to spend much of my life learning.  It’s my driving force, my passion and the raison d’etre of this blog.

Most of the time, my learning comes unintentionally.  Sparks ignite from things I just so happen to read, watch, live and/or observe.  Those “aha! moments” are inadvertent flashes I live for and cherish.

But there are other moments when the learning is more intentional, albeit in a table-turning way. From my marketing class at McGill to discussions with younger co-workers and heart-to-heart talks with my sons, especially when researching speeches I am asked to give (or better still, be paid for), I sometimes find myself learning by teaching. 

Case in point is a speech I first gave two years ago in Ottawa, and adapted for an encore a couple of weeks ago in the Yukon.  It was about tourism, a subject that was never in my traditional wheelhouse.  I was asked to give this speech as an emergency measure, subbing for my friend, partner and tourism expert Gilbert Rozon who was called out of town on a business emergency.

At first, I told myself—and the crowd assembled for the Tourism Industry Association of Canada speech in Ottawa—that I knew little about the topic.  But then, given that in my careers at Just For Laughs and Airborne Mobile I have both travelled the world AND have welcomed the world to my comedy festivals, I realized that I knew practically EVERYTHING about tourism.

So with that conceit in mind, I put this little ditty together.  It’s a teaching-cum-learning that lets me try something new with you—my first-ever speech-turned-blog post, called: 

 

The Three-Word Secret

to Tourism Success

Amazing but true, but each of the secret’s three words has the same suffix, or almost. (Well, at least they rhyme.)

Word #1 is GREETING

In tourism, the first impression one leaves is invaluable.  Like the old cliché goes, you never get a second crack at one.

Over the years, I’ve been greeted by dancers (getting off the plane in Barbados), by a brass band (off the boat in St. Petersburg, Russia), by warm chocolate chip cookies (Doubletree Hotel, Atlanta) and by an email from a prescient concierge, saying that he knew I’d be checking my iPhone by the time I got to the elevator (Mondrian Hotel, Los Angeles).  

Most greeting moves are micro,

but their effects are MACRO

They set the mood and the tone for one’s stay, no matter how long and no matter where, be it a few nights in property, two weeks at a destination or even an hour or so at a simple restaurant or attraction. 

Start off strong, and your work is half done.  Start off weak and you’ll be playing catch-up until the end.

But once they’re there, what will they say? 

That’s the driver of Word #2:  TWEETING

Okay, a bit of a cheat here.  Word #2 is not merely about the 140 characters of a Tweet; it encompasses social media sharing of all types.  From new age behemoths like Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, YouTube, Vine and Pinterest to the old school action of a simple phone call (remember those?), tourism success requires you give people something to show and tell others.

And these days, nothing is more important in the “sharing economy” than photos; to paraphrase a hockey idiom:

“They shoot, YOU score!”  

Late last winter, Instagram said that people shared 45 million photos a day through its app; 16 billion in total since it began less than three years ago. On Facebook, people share 300 million images each day, or 100 billion photos a year.  And they ain’t just taking photos; this is a new language, today’s way of communicating. 

Look around you. If there’s nothing camera-worthy, get something fast.  Don’t be lazy or common; anything can be a photo op, including the one atop this post.  It’s origin?  On a trip to Vancouver, I saw people crowding around, pointing at and taking pictures of, of all things, a park sign.  Imagine my surprise when I saw what it was for. 

But people shooting photos isn’t enough; you have to be able to react rapidly once they do. A photo is just a catalyst for a conversation, for a relationship.  

Which brings us to Word #3:  REPEATING

This is where the money really is.  Recurring revenue is the Holy Grail to any business, so it’s now up to you and your business to give people a reason to come back…and keep spending.  The trick here is simple:

Get started on the next visit

before the current one ends.

A couple of examples for you.  

  • My family and I spent seven years in a row snowboarding at Vail.  A prime factor is our booking agent, who made sure to call us a few days before we left and enticed us to book the same place next year at a discount.  
  • In its closing hours as everyone is hyped up, C2MTL (the creative conference in Montreal) announces the following year’s mega-headliner and offers a sizable price break if you commit right away.

In tourism, the goodbye is almost as important as the hello...especially if the ultimate goal is to say hello again. And again. And…well, you get it. 

Does all this work?  Well let’s see.  Consider that this blog post itself can be a tourist attraction…if you follow the rationale of the Three Word Secret

1)    GREETING—Snappy headline and opening sentence that set the tone

2)    TWEETING—Hopefully, the big bold words were profound enough for you to share

3)    REPEATING—Let’s see how many of you will be back for next week’s post…or ask me to deliver this live ;) 

So there you have it.  Perhaps not as dynamic as my frantic onstage presence, but the basic concept lives in print. 

And hopefully, in your heads, marketing plans and actions.

May 12, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Most Important Thing for Artists to Create

A decade ago, I composed a foreword to a book called “Business Skills for Creative Souls.”  A corporate primer for artistic types put out by Montreal’s do-gooding Youth Employment Services, the guidebook outlined the fundamental business knowledge every artist needed—and probably overlooked—to ensure that whatever money they made, they kept the lion’s share of.  In one of my more memorable sentences, I urged readers to “Consider this tome a chastity belt for your psyche; use it properly and you won’t get screwed.

Last week, the Y.E.S. folks reached out and asked if I would provide them with an updated foreword for their new edition, and in trying to come up with one, I realized how much things have changed since I wrote the original. 

Back then, there were no iPads, iPhones or eye-wear like Google glass (in fact, 2004 was the year Google went public).  Cutting-edge printers were laser, not 3D.  And while artists today still need a perfunctory understanding of accounting, law and marketing, there are business tools now available that even the most Dali-esque amongst them couldn’t begin to fathom 10 years ago.

So with that in mind, this is what I wrote…the last line of which comprises this week’s major learning.  Enjoy! 

Kaufman

As one who was, and as one who did, Apple’s Steve Jobs once famously said that “Real Artists Ship.

With all due respect, let me point out that he missed a step. 

A valuable one. 

Because before Real Artists Ship…

Real Artists Sell.

Many self-professed “real” artists may have gagged a bit reading the previous sentence, as authenticity in the space once meant a Berlin Wall-like separation of Church and State between art and “the art of the deal.” 

No more. 

Selling is not about the cash; it’s about the distribution. For without being sold, art is merely the silent tree falling in the forest. 

Art is only fully completed when seen outside the solitary confines of an artist’s studio. 

Art becomes art through others’ eyes. 

Art comes alive in homes, galleries, museums or offices; on brick walls, t-shirts, billboards or biceps. 

And to get there, art needs to be sold.

Ultimately, the job falls on the artist.

He may not everyone’s cup of tea, but the late Steve Kaufman—a disciple and former Factory assistant of Andy Warhol—was an artist who understood, and mastered, the job of selling.  At every one of his exhibitions, it was as if Santa Claus had come to town. 

A giant of a man, Steve would parade about in an un-missable, custom-painted jacket, hands adorned by thick, glittering rings (that's him, me and my family above about seven years ago).  He’d insist that parents bring their kids with them to galleries, and made sure that each would go home with an original, signed 8” x 8” Kaufman canvas.  And if their parents actually bought something, there would be surprise gifts ranging from hand-painted Coke bottles to guitars…all built into the purchase price, of course.

Ahh, Steve’s mentor would’ve been proud, as Warhol himself said:

Making money is art,

and working is art and

good business is the best art.”

And that said, welcome to this book.

Yes, consider this guide a tool box, where timeless business basics are supplemented with today’s timely cutting-edge equipment like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Etsy, YouTube et al things digital. 

But tools unto themselves are worthless.  A hammer can bluntly crush a skull, or deftly ping the finish of a brass sculpture.  It’s how you use them that counts. 

So if you want to make this book count, I urge you to use it to create.

But not to create art. 

That you already know how to do.

No, I urge you to create something way more important to an artist.

Use this book to create demand.

May 5, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Location, Location, Location is a State of Mind…Not a Place

House-with-dart

Many moons ago, fresh out of university and in the process of launching my own marketing and promotion agency, I shared an office with a grizzled vet of the retail franchising industry.  He was obsessively methodical about everything, including delivering long-winded sermons for my real-world educational purposes. 

One day, explaining the tenets of his business to me, he used an adage for the first time that I was to hear again and again throughout my career:

“The secret to success is

location, location, location

…namely the ultimate real estate benefit of being situated in a central, densely populated spot.

Cut to the past two weeks, which saw me travel from San Francisco, California to Whitehorse, Yukon to New York, New York.  In each city, I was taken to dinner in some off-beat, off-the-beaten track place (one at the far, far end of a dead-end alley) that was far away from any “location” to speak of.  Now it would’ve been WAY easier to chow down a few steps away from my hotel, or in some instances even downstairs in the lobby, but instead, we chose to seek out the unique, the chance of discovery and/or the opportunity to share a story.

Now I know we’re only talking about a sample of three restaurants here, but the trend of “plop your place in high-traffic areas and reap instant and easy rewards!” seems to be a bit passé these days.  Whether in the spheres of bricks and mortar or digital, if you have something unique to offer, people will not only find you…they will come to you.  And do so happily. 

The concept of location now

is not so much about a

physical presence,

but a state of mind;

a “place” you occupy

in people’s heads.

It may sound archaic now, but in the early days of the Internet, start-ups paid hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for “locations,” namely easy to remember URLs that would guarantee eyeballs, traffic and hopefully, revenue.  Today, the URL has almost become irrelevant, as people find the new, the hip, the interesting and the pertinent predominantly through the shared words and recommendations of others…the same way I found those eateries in San Fran, Whitehorse and NYC.

In fact, instead of being a detriment, perhaps out-of-the-way trumps location-cubed.  To modify a cliché, “Life’s a journey AND a destination.”  

But ONLY if the destination merits the journey…which significantly ups the ante for whatever business you’re in, be it a restaurant, a hotel, a blog, an app or a whatever. 

I’ll give you another example.  I’m a hockey player.  Granted, not a very good one, but passionate enough to play every week for the past 25 years.  High-end equipment stores are usually on the outskirts of town, and I will travel far to them to check out new gear, or to get the proper half-cut edge skate sharpening.  They got me. 

But let’s say a high-end hockey store was located in a bustling mall or smack-dab downtown.  Does anyone think the “improved location” would result in more business? That it would convert common passers-by into hockey players?  That it would be worth the additional rent?  Yeah right…I have a better chance at scoring four goals in a game.

Again going back a bit in the adage-generating time-machine, the film Field of Dreams brought us the classic If you build it, they will come.”  That’s not enough anymore; there are dreams, and there are delusions. 

Build it and if it’s

WORTH IT,

they will come. 

In fact, more than that, if it’s REALLY worth it, they will seek you out and hunt you down.  So this week’s learning is another one of those paradigm-shifters:

WHERE you are

isn’t as important as

WHAT you are. 

Or put another way, “Relevant, unique, exciting is the new location, location, location.

April 28, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Exponential Value of Doing Your Homework

Last week, I spent two days up north--WAY up north, to be specific--in Whitehorse, the capital city of Canada's Yukon.  This was only my second time ever this “high up” the world (I had been in Alaska on a snowboard trip eight weeks earlier) and while I was no expert, I was really looking forward to revisiting what I considered one of the planet's most charming and scenic areas. 

Unlike my previous visit to this part of the world, this one was no vacation.  I was 2,637 miles away from home for a speaking engagement, talking to the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon about what marketing, promotion and social media steps they could take in order to attract more tourists their way.

In putting together said speech over the past few months, I used my spare time to research the Yukon, more specifically the manner in which it shows and touts itself to the rest of the world.

Yukon Theatre

Given the scheduled early-afternoon time of the keynote on Friday, I arrived late day Thursday to minimize stress and risk of flight delays, etc.  I used my extra few hours in town productively, walking the city's streets (see my favourite photo above), eating in its restaurants, browsing its shops and mingling (okay, drinking!) with its offbeat and colorful locals...including a long-bearded bear of a man named "Frank The Tank" who expressed his appreciation for my "personal style" with a powerful hug.

When it finally came time to deliver the speech, it was liberally sprinkled with local references, be they those that I had gathered methodically since January, or the more personal ones I had just picked up in town. 

The end result of all this work was--and I say this as modestly as I can--kinda triumphant, because not only did the audience appreciate the hard learning of the session, they appreciated the effort on my part to learn about them.

After the speech, more than one delegate stopped to tell me that while they enjoyed previous years' keynoters and their messages, they also found them to be somewhat "canned," i.e. the speakers could've delivered the exact same words and PowerPoint slides anywhere.  The "extra mile" I took paid off warmly, immediately and exponentially with invitations to parties, guided visits to local landmarks and promises of an eventual return visit (go ahead, twist my arm!). 

Such is the value of doing one's homework...and my major lesson of the week.  Despite the fact that as a lesson, it's a golden oldie and basic common sense...

The ultimate benefit of

fastidiously doing one's homework

is oft-forgotten in these days

of hyper-speed everything.

So here's a personal anecdote to illustrate what I mean. 

Given my history at Just For Laughs and in the tech business, I am often asked to be by students to be interviewed for their class projects.  And on more than one occasion, I've shocked students--and pissed off their parents, many whom are friends--with a verbal back-and-forth that goes something like:

Q: What year did Just For Laughs start?

A: Google!

or 

Q: How much did you sell Airborne Mobile for?

A: Google!

or

Q: How many people did JFL draw last year?

A: Google!

The point here is that these aren't questions; they are admissions of laziness on the part of the interviewer, and my one-word answer points them where they should've looked in the first place.  There's no excuse. These facts are readily available online, and it's not my responsibility to be someone's search engine. 

And...not all questions

are created equal!

By doing one's homework, questions are transformed from a grating admission of apathy and ignorance (reminding me of those stand-up comics who would always ask --on-stage, yet!--"Do you have this here?" whenever playing a gig in a different country) into tools that uncover insight and explore context.  And thus, into pools of appreciation by the interviewee. 

So cut to this week.  I have a couple of potentially game-changing meetings with some high-powered people I've never before met.

So guess what I'm going to do as soon as I put the finishing touch on this blog post?

I'm going to obsessively research every one of these people, make copious notes, and ensure that when I meet them, I will know as much about them as they do.  

More, maybe. 

Because the last thing I want after my delightful experience up north is for these meetings to, uh...go south.

April 22, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week—How Fans Have Blown Audiences Away

Fans

As you read this, I am off on a flight to San Francisco, where I’ll be one of the speakers at a unique, internal YouTube conference just across the bridge in San Bruno, California.  Called “Immersion,” the event showcases YouTube content to advertisers and brands, somewhat like the TV networks have done for years in New York.  

Given my professional heritage and current deep dive into YouTube (with my McGill class and concentration on our powerful Just For Laughs Gags channel, which was just listed as one of comedy’s top 1% on the platform), I’ve been asked to represent the comedy “vertical” alongside Google’s Dave Brown

I’m excited, as this is kind of a “coming home” for me.  From 2000 until 2009, I used to spend a lot of time in this part of California, attending the CTIA conference (which stood for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association back in the day), a twice-yearly gathering of those in the revolutionary mobile content space. 

These were pre-iPhone days, yet despite the cynicism and sneering from a lot of the business establishment (“Who’s going to type or watch things on their phone?” we heard more than once) we all knew that we were onto more than just something big; we were rushing into a seismic shift in consumer behavior. 

Now you don’t need me to tell you how different things are today in today’s media.  For example, this blog is net-exclusive, and going by statistics, most of you are reading it on a mobile device, be it a smartphone or tablet.  But the fact that you’re still reading it, and I’m still writing it, makes us both somewhat dinosaurish. 

Video is rapidly overshadowing

the written word; the keyboard

is being supplanted by the camera

 

And if you thought the last

behavior shift was seismic,

it was only a little jiggle

compared to the coming shake-up.

The Street” gets it.  “The Kids” get it.  And like I saw while pioneering the mobile wave, established brands and businesses will soon follow.  

For some of them though, not soon enough. 

Perhaps the biggest change in the offing is the definition of those doing the consuming.  For years, networks talked of “audiences” and brands of “consumers.”  To understand where the market is going, heed the words of Alex Carloss, the global Head of Entertainment for YouTube.  In a keynote speech at the MIPTV gathering in France (you can watch the whole thing here), he laid it out like this:

“Our partners have discovered the value of building a fan base to supercharge their businesses.

“Notice I didn’t say ‘audience.’  What’s the difference between an audience and a fan base? 

“An audience tunes in when they’re told to; a fan base chooses when and what to watch. 

“An audience sits back and consumes media; a fan base leans forward and wants to participate

“An audience changes the channel when their show is over; a fan base shares, it comments, it curates, it creates.  

“An audience lives within your borders, and a fan base breaks those borders down.” 

The concept of fans, most notably “raving fans” has been kicking around the marketing world for a while. 

Difference now is that instead of merely “changing the channel” a fan base can easily create its own channel…and in the process, change the course of a business, a TV show, a brand or a reputation.

So this week’s lesson is a cautionary tale of power and change.

I would say that the shift will be so substantial that you won’t be able to recognize it, but given that it will most probably all be captured on video and shared, you may not see it coming…but you will most definitely see it.

April 14, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week—The Precarious Future of Voting

Ctv-analysts-600x332

Well, cross another one off the bucket list, as last Monday I made my debut as a TV political commentator. (See photo above.)

The occasion was a momentous one—the most recent Quebec election, one which saw the governing PQ swept out by a massive Liberal tidal wave following a most unpleasant and dirty campaign.  My co-commentators were polar opposites—Peter Trent, Mayor of the upscale Montreal-area enclave called Westmount, and Gilles Duceppe, sovereignist hardliner and former head of the Bloc Quebecois—and sitting/bickering in between them was an emotion-filled blast. 

Given my career path and my reputation, the aforementioned gig seems strange and incongruous.  But those who know me know my political passion, especially these days as Quebec and Montreal try to redefine their places in a rapidly-changing world.  A frequent dinner guest is friend Mutsumi Takahashi, CTV’s long-time news anchor here, and after countless political chin-wags, she lobbied for me to take them off the dining room table and onto the airwaves.  We started with a weekly news segment that positioned me as a calmly-blustery businessman, and paid it all off with the election night free-for-all five weeks later. 

Now there were many lessons learned that night; mostly poli-sci macro lessons on the ineffectiveness of divisive, negative, campaigning and the collective want of all Quebecois for a stable government, social peace and increased prosperity.

But what was most fascinating for me was working with CTV’s team of “election experts,” a roving bunch of pollsters and mathematical geniuses who travel from province to province to nation’s capital every time the populace is put to a vote.  Even while I was eating dinner in the newsroom while the polls were still open, the team leader came over to me to show me why, statistically, the PQ couldn’t win.

So follow me on this for a bit, because the point still needs a few paragraphs of set-up. 

Just a few seconds before going to air, the team leader came over to our commentator’s desk, leaned in and said:

“It’s a Liberal win.  We’re going to be calling it in about 45 minutes, but we don’t know if it’s a minority or majority.  Just wanted you to know, but don’t give it away or be obvious about it.”

And then we were live. 

And we didn’t need 45 minutes, either.  A mere 18 minutes after going on air, CTV officially announced a Liberal victory; 19 minutes later, at the 36-minute mark, it was all over. 

Whopping majority, with the only question of “How big?” to be decided.

Given the early outcome, to kill time between our segments, we compared actual riding-by-riding results to a chart of predictions I had printed from the website tooclosetocall.ca.  Like a Canadian Nate Silver (he of fivethirtyeight.com fame, successfully forecasting the result of all 50 states in the last American Presidential race), blogger/statistician Bryan Breguet ran 5,000 simulations and came up with percentage-based positioning of all parties in all 125 ridings.  While he was far from Silver perfect, given the massive upset nature of the night’s vote, his calling 109 correctly was still impressive as hell.

So…here’s where I was going. 

Given the CTV team’s precision, given Breguet’s prognostication prowess, and given the fact that we had 3.5 hours of airtime to fill after the main question was answered (don’t worry, characters and conflict made for great TV all night long), I wondered to myself whether or not the entire voting process was outdated. 

Just before the election, I read an article about how governments are wary of the problems associated with the “next step” of elections, namely e-voting.  But my point goes further—given the accuracy of the simulations, polling and other mathematical tools, is a series of statistically-significant surveys enough to elect our next wave of public leaders?  In other words...

Do we need the laborious

process of voting at all?

Granted, things aren’t perfect yet.  Given the recent "surprise" election results in Alberta and BC, there is always the chance for errors and upsets.  But the “Dewey Defeats Truman”-level miscalculations are less and less likely, and given the rapid advance of computing and that each error only serves to make today’s predictive algorithms smarter, will a few thousand randomly-accessed people be all we need to decide our upcoming elections? 

Not right away, but what I gleaned on Monday night is that the day is not far off.  So this week’s learning, in keeping with this post’s theme, is more of a tomorrow prediction than a yesterday lesson, namely:

Brace yourself 

for a seismic shift 

as polls and simulations 

replace the ballot box 

in a decade-and-a-half. 

Hey Peter, Gilles…ready to regroup and have a go at this one?

April 7, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week—Dogs Are Animals, But People Are Pigs

Shaydee & Rawqui

I just returned from a most interesting walk with my two dogs where I was—or more specifically, they were—assailed for ruining the Spring season.

It happened a mere block away from my residence, near a grimy patch of exhaust-fume-encrusted snow upon which my male dog Rawqui (the caramel-colored one at right) decided to lift his hind leg and relieve himself.

A woman who was waiting for a bus at a stop adjacent to this scene looked at Rawqui with disgust and spit out the following:

“You dogs have ruined Spring for me!  When the snow melts, all I see and smell are piles of dogshit!  It’s disgusting!”

Both my dogs tilted their heads and looked at her most puzzlingly, perhaps not fully understanding her words, but able to at least cpomprehend they were coming from a raving kook.  And before I had a chance to collect my thoughts and respond in the witty, genteel manner for which I am renowned, the woman was saved by the bell by the arrival of her bus. 

Look, I’ve been a dog owner for 10 years, and I can empathize with the unsightly dog-generated mess and fumes that the advent of Spring can bring. 

But in the end, whom do you blame…the dogs, or the people that own and are presumably responsible for them? 

As far as I know, there are very few, if any, packs of wild dogs running loose and wreaking havoc anywhere near to where I live.  And if there are messes left by domesticated pet canine, it’s not the fault of the dogs, but the humans at the other end of the leash.  As smart as my dogs are, they have not mastered the art of toilet training or picking up after themselves.  For that, they rely on people like me. 

Over the decade with Rawqui and his “sister” Shaydee (the black-and-white one at left), I have taken thousands of walks, and I can count on one hand the times I did so without the requisite bags to pick up after them.  On those occasions, I improvised by stealing plastic bags that held advertising flyers, or looked around and used stray pieces of newspaper or Baggies that lay scattered about.

Therein lies my point:

Every time I was unprepared

to clean up a canine mess,

I relied on a human mess

to get me out of my jam. 

I live downtown smack-dab in the middle of Montreal, but I went through the exact same thing when I lived in Westmount, a community atop the city’s famed mountain.  There was never a shortage of garbage within eyesight. 

Let’s take this one step further.  Dog owners know that the two worst days for walking are January 1st and March 18th; New Year’s Day and the day after St. Patrick’s.  That’s when the sidewalks are splattered with puke from over-inebriated partygoers.  And if one man’s steak is another man’s poison, the equation works in reverse when it comes to dogs; I have Popeye-sized forearms from guiding my pets through the minefields of protein spills on those days. 

Even worse are the days

with no excuse…like the other

363 days of the year. 

Maybe this is a Montreal phenomenon—I would venture it’s not—but be they along a major downtown street or up in the residential areas, my dog walk routes are strewn with dog-treat debris like half-eaten slices of pizza, apple cores, banana peels, chicken legs and tons and tons of chewed gum…a buffet of disgust.  It’s astonishing.  Given the fact that there’s a garbage can on just about every street corner near me, or that most people have two hands and pockets, there’s no excuse.

Except that perhaps people don’t care.  Perhaps the concept of civic pride has, shall we say, gone to the dogs. 

So if you’re looking for the lesson of the week, it’s that Dogs may be animals…but people are pigs.

Uh...Happy Spring!

March 31, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--De Dirt on Debates

Mud
Given that Quebeckers are facing yet another pivotal election on April 7, over the past couple of weeks, I paid close attention to the two political “debates” held between the leaders of the province’s four main parties.

I bracket the word “debates” by quotation marks, as these two two-hour sessions were debates in name only, and frankly, not much different from most political encounters of the ilk.   There was very little intelligent discourse, no thoughtful exchange of ideas and no rational drive to conclusion or resolution. 

Instead, viewers were subjected to a mish-mash of accusations, threats, lies, and reputation-shielding, all smothered in a tsunami of dizzying, unverified and contradictory statistics. 

So much mud was slung that

I wished I owned the dry cleaners

and industrial disinfectant co.

closest to the TV studio.

If there were truth in labeling, political “debates” would be called “Loud Bloodless Violence,” as that is usually their end result…and perhaps the reason why people choose to watch them instead of another sporting match or a sit-com re-run. 

On one hand, “debates” may not advance the political process, but at their best/worst, can be great television.  After a most genteel start, things always rapidly degenerate into chaos.  Victory usually goes to the one who yells the loudest, interrupts the most, and/or ignores the time limits imposed upon them to continue yelling and interrupting.

And just like people who follow NASCAR waiting for the car crashes, vicious partisans and enemies tune in en masse to see who can land “a knockout punch.”  If the organizers could convince scantily-clad females to periodically parade around the studio holding cards emblazoned with debate topics, I’d bet you could run this on pay-per-view and rival the UFC.

While watching the latest round of “debates,” I couldn’t help bemoaning how perverse our political process had become.  And I wondered why, if the political “debate” has become such a recognized standard, what would happen if its form and spirit carried over to other sectors…like big business.

Imagine then, a televised

debate” between

Ford, Chrysler and GM

Heads of each company would disparage the other’s products, safety record, history and integrity, and follow this up with the usual whitewash of arcane, misleading crunched numbers that would require an army of forensic accountants months to corroborate or deny. 

The chairmen would be grilled for faults of their predecessors or even company founders, forced to defend rumors or totally-invented falsehoods, and if that weren’t enough, have their own personal baggage pried open and ransacked.  To throw off the balance even more, a smaller, niche car company with nothing to lose—say Tesla—would be thrown into the mix and given equal presence and timing.

“Winners” would be decided in both the short and long term; the former by the next morning’s opening stock price, and the latter by upward or downward tick in quarterly sales. 

And why stop

at car companies? 

The political “debate” concept could also work for restaurants (McDonald’s vs. Chipotle vs. Starbucks) consumer electronic manufacturers (Apple vs. Samsung vs. the latest Kickstarter crowdsourced darling), Internet giants (Google vs. Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Yahoo)…even TV networks themselves (HBO vs. FOX vs. CBS vs. A&E).  Remember the “Cola Wars” of the 1980s?  This merely ramps up the concept for the reality TV/last survivor standing/social media age…and dangerously, dramatically ups the stakes between winners and losers.

So is there any great “learning” this week?  Any takeaway lessons like usual? 

Not really…except I learned that I can do anything I want to do here. 

And I’m ready to debate the first dirty scumbag who says otherwise.

March 24, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Here Are The Crayons

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Since January, I’ve been teaching a somewhat different type of course at McGill University.  While saddled with the unfortunate standard curriculum name “Marketing and Society,” the class is anything but. 

Given carte blanche, I put together more of a “marketing TO society” approach, and focused on the YouTube platform for students to learn about group dynamics, react to real-time changes, and integrate it in a corporate context.  There are no “papers” per se, no doorstopper textbook and no multiple-choice or essay tests.  The “final exam” is the actual launch of a seven-video-minimum YouTube channel, worth 40% of the overall grade.  You can read more about this experimental and experiential learning experience here and in this student perspective

Now, with the course entering its final two weeks, some of my students are coming to the realization that what once sounded like a utopian fantasy (“Wow!  No tests!  No papers!  No 200-page readings!”) has now morphed into a Faustian bargain of sorts (“Christ!  We have to write a script!  And shoot!  And edit! And optimize for YouTube’s search algorithm!  And incorporate social media! And…”)

My immediate answer to some of the heavier sighs was: “What did you think?  That this was a fluff course?  That there wasn’t going to be any work?” 

But I don’t actually believe that it’s the amount of work that has some of my students in a tizzy.

It’s the DIFFERENT

nature of the work

that's throwing them.

When I first put this course together, I had a discussion with two academics I respect immensely, Prof. Morty Yalofsky of McGill (who used to be MY stats prof in my undergrad years) and Prof. Pete McGraw of the University of Colorado at Boulder (and co-author of the upcoming book “The Humor Code”).  Both told me the same thing:  as much as students have evolved outside the classroom, inside they seem most comfortable with traditional means of teaching and learning within it.

This reminded me of something I experienced many moons ago at summer camp during arts and crafts period, the traditional land of sewn leather wallets, wood burning tools and gimp bracelet weaving.  

Our A&C teacher was this hippie-type named Earl (oh, how I wish I could remember his family name!).  A soft-spoken guy with long ringlets of hair and round John Lennonesque glasses, Earl tried to break away from the tried-and-true, tired ol’ art projects by introducing a group of somewhat spoiled 11-year olds to a long-term project I remember now only as “sand molding.” 

In essence, Earl wanted us to to carve out a design in a dense sand material, heat and color some plastic goo, pour the goo into the sand, and once everything dried, chip and brush away the sand to reveal our hardened plastic masterpieces.

Now the plastic smelled like death, handling it with the sand was tactilely repulsive, which made the whole process haphazard and messy.  Instead of embracing the madness, I whined and complained:  “Ughh!  It’s gross!  And it stinks!  And it’s getting all over me!  I think I’m going to puke!” (Please, please remember that I was only 11…)

Rather than lash out, and realizing he was dealing with some pint-sized rabble-rouser/shit-disturber, Earl gently pulled me aside, and sat me down at a table at the back of the A&C bunk. 

Handing me a Tupperware box filled with broken nubs of colored wax sticks, he calmly, deliberately said:

“Here are the crayons. 

And here’s a coloring book. 

Please stay within the lines. 

And be sure to have fun.”

I forget my actual reaction then, and that of those around me, but I still gulp and feel the sting of the lesson whenever I recall it.

Which is why I resurrected it as part of the response to some of my students’ apprehension. 

And which is why it is the week’s learning.

New anything is hard.  But “institutional new” is harder still.  Trying to change something that has remained the same for decades, maybe a century or two, is a magna-challenge.  

But you have two choices when faced with the new:

1) Go with it.

2) Or go get the crayons.

March 17, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Why Sending Loyal Customers Away Is Great For Business

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When I was in my final year of high school, some of the more shall we say “sensitive” types accessorized their graduation bios with a floral quote that went:

“If you love something, set it free. 

If it comes back, it’s yours. 

If it doesn’t, it never was.”

(My friends and I, being slightly more cynical, paraphrased this into “If you REALLY love something, kill it.  If it comes back, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, get a good lawyer”…but I digress.) 

Now that I am older, wiser and obviously way more mature, I think back to that sucky quote and am slightly pained to admit that perhaps the girls (because frankly, no guy in my high school would be strong enough to withstand the onslaught that would come with that quote atop their bio) were right.

Not just right, but when it comes to business in the competitive twenty-tens, strategically prescient.

Case in point is Nota Bene, a wonderful restaurant I frequent often when in Toronto.  Never had anything less than an exquisite experience there, not just because of the food, but also because of a waiter (whose face I know but name I forget) who always seems to serve me.

His recommendations of specials, wines and desserts are always spot on, so I was wide-eyed and all ears when he hit me with the following:

“You looking for a place to eat tomorrow night?”

As the case was, I happened to be staying over, so I said yes…but knew where he was going.  Upon entering that eve, I ran into Nota Bene’s owner Yannick Bigourdan, who told me he opening a sister resto called Carbon Bar“Here comes the big sales pitch,” I sighed to myself.

Well, it came…

but not for Carbon Bar.

To my surprise, the waiter picked up on an off-handed comment about Japanese food I had made to the colleague I was having dinner with, and suggested a tiny, out-of-the-way spot about 20 minutes away that serves “the best Japanese food in the city, perhaps in the country.

At that point, the high esteem I held for the restaurant shot up even higher.  You gotta have a lot of confidence in your offering if you can recommend a competitor to a loyal client.

It may appear counter-intuitive at first—just like setting free something you hold dear—but this type of “Customer-first/Business-second” behavior is refreshing and genuine.  It’s also gutsy, and more often than not pays off exponentially for those self-assured enough to use it.  

Short term, yes...

your dollar goes elsewhere. 

But long term, and more importantly, your loyalty stays.  A good deed, and the positive word of mouth that goes with it, is ultimately more valuable than any one sale. This is what happens when one puts the entire focus on the purchaser, and not the purchase itself. 

We all have stories of both sides of the coin, I suspect.  Stories of going into a store and being curtly told “Sorry, we don’t have what you’re looking for,” and on the flip side, stories of people in the same situation who will send you to places that do…perhaps even call for you, or tell you who to ask for, or suggest an alternative that costs less.

Epic tales of such “do whatever it takes to make the customer happy” have made the Nordstrom chain legendary in the insanely competitive retail space.  And by suggesting a new, special place that I would probably love instead of being a robotic shill for his employer, the Nota Bene waiter has solidified my relationship with his restaurant.  I can’t wait to go back. 

So this week’s lesson hearkens back to the days of high school, and those italicized pearls of wisdom below select grad photos:

The best way to

lock down customers...

is to give them the key

March 10, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Great Lessons Last Forever

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There are few activities I love more than snowboarding, but due to a perfect storm of conflicts and unfavorable conditions--weather, vacation availability, work and social commitments--I haven't shredded a mountain in over a year; to be exact, the last time was on Sunday, January 13th, 2013. 

Yet when I finally strapped on my bindings Friday morning at the Alyeska Resort in Alaska, it was as if I never got off the hill. 

It hasn't always been like that.

I've been boarding for 18 years, and despite hundreds of hours on the slopes all over the continent, one could generously label me a "Stalled Advanced Intermediate." For the past decade or so, I have plateaued; in essence, I am getting worse by not getting better.

Well, at least I was until a fateful day last January, when I took a lesson in Vail from the legendary instructor Chris "Sando" Sandoski (read this great story here).  He shifted my stance, straightened my posture, changed my bindings, and taught me some radical downhill steering via hand placement, visualizing, as he put it:

"...a midget on the front of your board,

a dwarf on the back, and your hand

on each of their heads."

I hadn't thought about Sando's lesson when I strapped in and stood up in the Alaska snow on Friday.  I hadn't reviewed the copious notes I scribbled down last year.  Frankly, given the craziness of the year that had passed, I had basically forgotten that I had even taken the lesson at all.

That is, until I took my first turn couple of turns, when my bad habits were immediately overtaken by Sando's adjustments, teachings and advice...and everything good came rushing back to me in droves.

Snow conditions were far from ideal on that, and on subsequent, days, but nonetheless, this year I felt better on the hill than ever before.

Such is the value of a Great Lesson.

And such is the learning of the week:

A Great Lesson

lasts forever.

Even when you forget it for a while.

Frequent readers know that I am in the midst of teaching a marketing course at McGill University.  Early on in the semester, I asked students what they had actually "learned" after three intense years of study. 

The silence was deafening. 

Prodded, a couple of students unveiled a platitude or two (i.e. "You are better than you think"), but the lifelong, life-changing, DNA-engrained lessons were notably absent. 

And for good reason, I suppose.  Lessons like these don't come easy. 

When the question was reversed my way, I told my students that my own five years at McGill can be distilled into a nugget of wisdom that professor Graham Oliver taught me on my first week, but remains pertinent in just about everything I do today, namely:

"Nothing happens until

something gets sold."

Your factories, production processes, marketing plans, supply chains, financial models and human resource policies are of little import if nobody is buying what you are trying to sell.  Simple but immutable.

Two years earlier at Vanier College, the sage Don Tobin, a high-ranking exec who took his retirement by teaching marketing to recent high school grads, left me with this timeless jewel:

"People are never as smart

as you think they are...

or want them to be."

I can't tell you how often that has got me through disappointments, or saved me from overshooting my target.

Seven years of school, two Great Lessons.

This shows the rarity, and the extreme value, of a Great Lesson.

Unaffected by fads, by progress, by technology, by trends, by the march of time or the charge of the light brigade, Great Lessons are eternal.  And as the Sando experience shows, they don't just come from school; they can happen anywhere.

Don't mistake disposable tips or haphazardly tossed off bons mots as Great Lessons.  And don't squander the one, or the few, if you're lucky, that come your way. 

Like an inheritance, Great Lessons are treasures meant to be cherished, and ultimately, passed along.

Treat yours accordingly.