This wee promotional film for my freelance business is six years old. The damsel in epistolary distress was six when it was made, and will one of these days begin wonder why she's not seeing residuals.
As The Onion newspaper reports, "Chicago's air now 80 percent bullets." Some people might wonder why anyone would bring a kid up in this environment.
The first answer is, the heavy bullet-to-air molecule ratio is safely limited to desperately poor neighborhoods, and very rarely affects desperately middle-class neighborhoods like ours. I haven't shot anyone all summer.
The second answer is, some of the most beautiful things happen in the city.
Would you believe that my daughter Scout has since kindergarten gone to after-school and also summer camp at a three-acre patch of turf, playground and clubhouse charmlessly called Commercial Park? Sure, you would believe that, because that's just the kind of gritty, shitty city stuff you'd expect.
But what if I told you that this park was spiritually led by a cherubic, enthusiastic and impossibly happy young man named Isaac Barbosa, who attended the park as a little kid from the neighborhood and who says in his official bio, "Isaac never wants to grow up; he just wants to be a Commercial Park kid for life! He enjoys working with kids each day, helping them improve skills, and making them laugh."
Isaac loves all the kids, and all the other counselors, who are also from the neighborhood. Isaac loves Scout, only partly because she's a star on the Commercial Park soccer and floor hockey teams. Last month, she thought her retainer had been thrown in the trash, and Isaac cheerfully dug through it with Scout (tearfully) for 20 minutes before she checked her lunch box one more time and found it tucked in a corner, at which Isaac laughed, as relieved as she was that it hadn't been lost after all. "Scout, your parents would have killed you!"
Scout has attended Commercial Park summer camp for three or four years, and—swimming, roller-skating, playing dodge ball, kickball, four-square—has never once come home with a single complaint about how she was treated by a counselor or even another kid. I don't even know how that's possible. I don't know how Isaac is possible, or how the other counselors, Rochelle and Sydali are possible. I don't know how the Commercial Park community is possible, any more than I know how the City of Chicago is possible.
But it is sweet. And the experience Scout has had there over these years—which she thoroughly takes for granted, as she should, because a child should not have to thank people for loving her—has been every bit as safe as anything she would have gotten in a suburb.
And how much richer?
No (further) blogging about Trump.
No watching Trump on TV, no reading about Trump in the newspaper.
No talking about Trump at the dinner table.
No laughing about Trump at our drinking parties.
No Trump, no way, no how.
Actually, it will be like it was at my striving steel-executive Republican grandfather's house, where "Roosevelt" was a forbidden word throughout the 1930s.
You can say whatever you want in my house, including all words that rhyme with Chicago streets Paulina, Melvina and Lunt.
But I'm a striver too. And I strive to live in a country—or at least pretend I live in a country—where we don't make, nor even discuss making, our tackiest television celebrities into heads of state. So if you wanna talk about Trump around here, you can take it outside.
On that, at the very least, I think my grandfather and I would certainly agree.
Because I serve speechwriters who serve leaders, I read as much about leadership as I can. This usually amounts to scanning the canned "Corner Office" interview in the Sunday business section of The New York Times with a screwdriver at my elbow.
Occasionally CEO subject will say something amusing, as the chief of North American Properties did this week: "There are only two types of people in the world: people who do what they say they're going to do when they say they're going to do it, and people who don't do what they say they're going to do when they say they're going to do it."
Leadership reading is full of comfortingly dumb statements like that.
But last week in my travels—okay, on Facebook—I stumbled over a leadership term that truly disturbed me.
What is it? According to the consultancy Self Leadership International, self-leadership is "the practice of intentionally influencing your thinking, feeling and behaviors to achieve your objective/s."
How does one go about leading oneself? Through "self-awareness, self-goal setting, self-motivation, positive self-talk, assertive communication and the ability to receive and act on feedback."
Now, I won't pretend this concept is totally foreign to me. In fact, I often practice self-leadership. Usually, on the golf course. If I hit one into the lake, I'll advise myself, "You stupid fuck!"
But I do worry that suggesting to people that they must lead themselves encourages a dangerous psychological separation between them, and themselves. Also, a trend toward self-leadership could have even more Americans referring to themselves in the third person, Murray worries.
On the upside: If self-leadership catches on, leaders might need two sets of speechwriters—one for the leader, and one for the self.
Toward the end of a disastrous week on Wall Street, a financial advisor writes a letter to all his clients:
We wanted to reach out and provide some brief commentary on the recent market volatility this summer. Please see attached.
As always, our investment portfolio’s continue to be globally diversified. While short term fluctuations can be unsettling, we believe that a patient, longer term investment approach is the best way to achieve financial success.
Please don’t hesitate contacting [us] with any questions. We value your business and relationship and want to assist in any way we can. Thank you!
The client thinks: Now I'm really worried!
It's not the trespassing apostrophe in "portfolios" that spooks the client; he doesn't even see that, in his panicked greed to get to the reassuring commentary.
No, the client begins to get nervous when he reads about the "recent market volatility this summer," and thinks, That is not what has me on edge. It's losses this week that that I'm worried about! He's a boxer with an eye full of blood, and his financial corner man keeps calling it a bruise.
And then there's the attached—an analysis from the parent investment firm that seems to be designed to merely repeat what the pundits on CNBC say the problem is (China and other developing markets are taking on water and we don't yet know know bad the leak is)—but in language that discourages the client from asking questions.
"Honey, did you see the stock market? It's down like 500 more points today!"
"Oh, don't worry, honey. I got an email from our financial advisor, and he assures me that last week, the Global Investment Committee (GIC) adjusted several of their asset allocation recommendations. Key calls included adding to the tactical allocation in US equities, as well as recommending ultra-short fixed income instead of cash for the liquidity portion of their models. The GIC maintains its 'Rebalance and Reflate' outlook, believing that global growth has bottomed and is poised to reaccelerate into year end, supporting their view that equities are likely to perform well in the coming months. So it's cool."
Strunk & White said, "When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair."
Writing Boots says: When you seek to reassure, make sure you reassure. Because when you don't reassure, you further alarm.
In June 1977, Elvis Presley gathered his failing body up to sing "Unchained Melody" at a concert in Rapid City, South Dakota. He died August 16.
My pals were meeting me at the corner tavern in 15 minutes, when my wife came to me needing help writing remarks for a memorial service two days hence. Being the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine and the executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I was clearly obligated to help. Being just another asshole husband, I said, "REALLY? Now?!"
The tavern is five minutes away. The speech needed to be about three minutes long. We had to write it in 10 minutes. There's a story problem for you, Scout.
Huffily, I pulled the laptop across the kitchen table, opened a new TextEdit doc, had Cristie sit across from me and said as if at the funeral itself, "And now we'd like Cristie Bosch to say a few words about Chloe."
Cristie smiled, but I looked at her exactly as all the faces would be looking at her if she had indeed just been put, spontaneously, on the spot: earnestly and expectantly.
She started talking. I started typing. She opened with a naturally funny line about sharing a birthday with Chloe. A birthday, and cigarettes.
She told about the moment she first realized Chloe's unique gift, she relayed a story that backed that up—a story specific enough to actually mention a book called The Runaway Bunny—also naturally funny. She talked about another happy chapter in her relationship with Chloe and backed that up with another story.
She had her act amazingly together, though I don't think she knew it until that moment. I helped by shaping the phrasing just a bit, inserting a few rhetorical devices, drawing bright lines around themes and repeating some language at the end that she'd used in the beginning.
I also suggested some turns of phrase that Cristie immediately rejected on grounds that they were too purple for her taste or gilded the lily unnecessarily. I acceded to her instincts unquestioningly, of course.
Within 10 minutes, we had a three-minute talk that, after Cristie rehearsed it a few times, deeply touched the family and educated everyone else about the real character and best spirit of a woman who was gone forever.
In this process, there were a lot of factors in our favor, not least of all 21 years of intellectual and emotional chemistry, a common knowledge of the compelling subject in question and of the audience as well—and, always helpful, an urgent deadline.
Still, it occurred to me that at its essence, this is how the best speech collaboration is done: The speaker is pressured to say what he or she really thinks. The speechwriter writes it down verbatim, perhaps suggesting minor improvements in real time, perhaps waiting until afterward to do strategic adding and subtracting, filing and sanding.
It worked insanely well for my wife and me. It also worked for President Lyndon Johnson and his speechwriter Horace Busby, who collaborated this way to create one of Johnson's greatest speeches.
And I arrived at the J&M Tavern just as my pals were pulling up.
Yesterday in a phone conversation with a colleague, I was talking about a phone conversation I need to have with someone else. "It's time for me to express my controlled fury," I said, and then heard myself add, "Honestly, I ought to do that more often, because whenever I do, it's good for me and for you and for everyone involved."
You've read, or read about, The New York Times cover story Sunday, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace."
And yesterday, we saw an employee memo sent by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Since Bezos didn't think to send this to me for edits before blasting it to all Amazonians, I'm forced to critique it in arrears. Bezos is in Roman, I'm in italic.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:
I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:
It's impressive that he encourages employees to read the Times article. But implying that they should give equal weight to a pro-Amazon testimony by one employee? Say the Times had written 4,000 glowing words on the company, quoting people up and down the org chart on what a warm, compassionate, whimsical place it was to work. And then someone had suggested, "Not so fast, New York Times. Check out this blog post by one disgruntled engineer in the Infrastructure Development!" What would Bezos think about that?
Whether or not you trust The New York Times, the whole point of a newspaper article like this is to sort through the random likes and dislikes and rumors and tall tales that lots of people hear from employees from all kinds of companies, and attempt to present a more comprehensive version of reality.
The, "This guy doesn't seem to have a problem with Amazon" defense is weak, and its use is embarrassing.
Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at email@example.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.
The Amazon you know, Mister CEO? Rather than to express shock that The New York Times uncovered a few incidents among your 150,000 employees that escaped your notice—you didn't ever suspect that there might be a few dark corners of your company where some bad shit goes down?—perhaps the healthy response might include a hint at introspection. Maybe a sentence like, "I'm sufficiently disturbed by these reports that I plan to undertake an investigation of the culture of Amazon, and examine the question of whether our longtime 'hard work' ethic has perhaps morphed, in some cases, in some places, from something positive into something negative."
Again, whatever you think of journalists and journalism—and Bezos owns the Washington Post, so he can't be totally dismissive—Times journalists gave months of their professional lives to reporting and writing a comprehensive and difficult story about a powerful company. To dismiss the whole article with a shrug—"gee, doesn't look like the company I see from my corner office"—is arrogant at best.
The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.
I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.
This is a fancy, Silicon Valley version of what a gas station manager would tell a 16-year-old employee: "If you don't like it here, get the fuck out." But these aren't 16-year-olds working for Amazon, and it's really only high-flying CEOs who fail to understand the complicated relationship that people have with their jobs, their company, their industry and their community. Forgive the CEOs. Human beings are hard to spot from 40,000 feet.
But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.
Hopefully, huh? HOPEFULLY! Hopefully, the company you lead, the company that will be your legacy, the company that they will ask you about when your limo pulls up to the Pearly Gates—hopefully, that company isn't relying on a Medieval culture to create creating a bright yellow futuristic model for commerce.
Hopefully, the Times found every last grump and ingrate at Amazon, and they had their say on Sunday.
It's Monday. Back to work.