This blog is all about words because they matter, they influence, they entertain and when you put them down on a page in a meaningful order, they acquire permanence. Contained here is my writing over the past 10+ years, primarily book reviews over the past ~5 years, and I also have a book review podcast, Talking Nonfiction, available on Apple or Spotify.
The Jan 2011 iteration of Esquire is it's annual "Meaning of Life" / "What I've Learned" issue and features a number of solid pieces by notable figures imparting their wisdom to the masses (at least the Esquire-reading masses).
What stood out to me above the rest was Coach John Wooden's missives from the "In Memoriam" section. The interview was done by Cal Fussman in 2000, published in this form July 2010 and then shortened a bit for this issue of Esquire.
Shortening even further, below are my favorite statements from this piece by Wooden...
- "You can do more good by being good than any other way."
- "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation."
- "If I am through learning, I am through."
- "Don't let making a living prevent you from making a life."
True, this blog is more frequently about great writing in longer form, but if these aren't great words written down, I don't know what is.
Excellent Person of the Year piece from Lev Grossman in the latest Time Magazine.
It's a pretty large feature on the Facebook founder and conveys the fascinating confluence of events that brought Zuckerberg and his company to where they're now at. You've got an immensely smart guy with an idea that to him seemed obvious... which he's then pushed forward both personally and through people brought into leadership roles at the company.
Couple of things that struck me about Zuckerberg and the piece on him...
- Grossman's description of the character portrayal in The Social Network movie as being a fiction (which of course, it was). Rather, he describes Zuckerberg as having solid personal relationships and being more like the brilliant and driven characters from The West Wing television series (also written by Aaron Sorkin).
- The concept of Facebook serving as a sort of referendum on two separate, but related areas. The first being the Internet as something controlled by people using it as they will and the second on the idea of living life in the open... as opposed to having a "personal life" and then an "online life."
- The notion of what Facebook could potentially become in the area of recommendation around business. A sort of holy grail of the web is it's power to have consumers sell product and with Facebook becoming a ubiquitous platform, it could become THE place for personal product and service recommendation online (with this concept of online recommendation previously posted on here). All this through the idea of "liking" an ad, product or company just as you can "like" a new friend.
- A comment by a Facebook Product Manager about his job being "a shot to actually truly affect the course of a major piece of evolution." Even if you view the enthusiasm expressed with a grain of salt and consider it being about just building a product for a company, it's still got to be pretty great to have that be your field of work.
Found on twitter something very cool... an in depth piece on one my favorite writers, Chris Jones (with link to said twitter feed).
From the Ryerson Review of Journalism, "Not All Smurfs and Sunshine" has some history on the guy and his writing career, but most interesting to me... gets into the whole approach to the craft of writing (with here and here being recent posts on the topic).
It seems a well written story on Jones and underscores that writing is hard work, but for those who are talented, work really hard at it, work hard at getting found, and are lucky enough to actually succeed at efforts to be found, a living can be scratched out.
Inspiring stuff to be sure, but I guess that's the point... things aren't always easy, but in the words of the immortal Jerry Seinfeld, "you just keep showing up." I've made this point a number of times on this blog, but it's not always going to be easy, and when it's not, you do it anyways... and consider yourself blessed during the times that you're flowing and it is easy.
Wisdom taken (maybe crowbarred by me the reader, but that's ok... taken nonetheless) from the piece and links to a ton of Jones writing... that's some good stuff there, me thinks.
Written by Bill Carter, it's an interesting read from the perspective of both business and people. From a business perspective, there were large dollar decisions being made by NBC execs... and the Carter book quotes people who raise the valid question of whether financially things turned out as best they possibly could have for NBC. From people standpoint, the decisions made greatly impacted a lot of people... but, were also made by very fallable individuals guessing at what they felt was the right course of action.
Where this got really interesting to me is that the business decisions revolved around talent. It's a pretty compelling subject, this idea of managing or placing a value on creative work and how to best do it...
The epilogue delved into this explicitly with thoughts from no less an expert on large dollar generating creativity than Jerry Seinfeld. He had some interesting takes around working, what should be taken personally and the notion of doing a job as opposing to carrying on an institution. In short, he felt the high-minded approach from Conan didn't make sense and quotes the success cliche about how "95% of it just showing up."
Seinfeld isn't explicitly quoted saying this, but the inference from his commentary was that a job is a job, and Conan O'Brien should never have taken as personal something that is about money. Basically, doing great work is important, but that work has an end goal (money) and that end goal has masters (studio execs in this case)... and if those masters want to either have you modify or move 30 minutes later a show they've created, than so be it.
The book is pretty lengthy and someone without interest in this central idea of business decisions around creative people and things might have their attention wane, but it's a good read... and definitely at least worth a read of the aforementioned Vanity Fair excerpt to gauge further interest.
Really solid piece by Austin Murphy in the latest Sports Illustrated (which featured a cover story on "The Fighter" in theaters now).
Murphy writes regularly for SI and I make a point of reading his stuff I come across. Typically, it leans towards nuts and bolts type pieces on college football and while those are good... I'm most fond of his longer form human interest type writing (with the last example I posted on being "Muck Bowl" from Nov 2009.
In this Year in Sports Media issue, Murphy did "The Season After" on one of the people killed in an Alaska small plane crash along with Senator Ted Stevens. Related to sports in that the aforementioned Bill Phillips left behind three Division One football-playing sons (along with a fourth and youngest son that survived the crash), it's an impactful story about Phillips and his family.
Fascinating piece from the Best and Brightest 2010 issue of Esquire Magazine.
Written by Lisa Taddeo, "Janette Sadik-Khan: Urban Reengineer" looks at the NYC Transportation Commissioner and her efforts to reclaim the city for the people (my words, not necessarily hers).
It's terribly interesting reading and reminds me of "Traffic" written by Tom Vanderbilt (and which I reviewed here two years ago). In fact, reference is made in both the Taddeo piece and Vanderbilt book of various cities in Scandinavia as the ideal for traffic planning. Less cars, more bike lanes and pedestrian plazas... all designed to improve the livability of an area while also increasing safety. Very cool stuff.
In this same issue of Esquire was reference to a website I've heard about a few different times, but have never actually been able to fully use. The Wilderness Downtown was designed around the Arcade Fire song "We Used to Wait" and is supposed to have really cool technology around it... you just apparently need the Google Chrome browser to make it work. Oh well...
I found out about the Jones story on Edwards' passing from his twitter feed... which later had the following two posts:
"Elizabeth Edwards in Allendale came from a story I quit halfway through. Worst move of my career. Don't quit until the story quits on you."
"Seriously, I almost left the writing biz that week in South Carolina. In tears with my editor. Fuck me. Game could have changed right there."
Intent isn't to say that Edwards terminal cancer (and other horrific things she faced) is the same as Jones struggling with a story, but I also don't think it trite to say they both feature the concept of not giving up.
In terms the writing thing... I've many a time struggled to get something on page and tried to follow the maxim of... you set a writing goal, slog away, and get something down that reaches your goal. The inspired times are great, but they're not always there and it's just as if not more important to carry on without inspiration around.
I first heard of Meyer from this Dec 2008 Grant Wahl SI piece (which I posted about and linked to here) and was interested in the book when I last week came across mention of it having been penned by the excellent ESPN writer, Buster Olney. From the acknowledgements in the book, it seems that Olney met Meyer as a young writer in Nashville and the two became friends.
Really good and very quick read on someone who has the NCAA record for most men's basketball coaching victories and has gone through a harrowing several years personally... but, has maintained a steadfast focus on what he feels is important.
There's nothing fancy about the book or guy, but it's just remarkable reading about how grounded Meyer appears and what he's accomplished through his passion of coaching basketball.
Reminds me in many ways of what I've read of Coach John Wooden and in fact... Wooden is referenced as a Meyer friend in both Olney's book and by Meyer himself in his acceptance speech below for the 2009 Jimmy V. Award for Perseverance at the ESPYs.
Compelling stuff and I was also struck during the Olney book by how Meyer's accident and cancer diagnosis seemed to actually help him open up to people and express more.
Solid book and worth the short amount of time to read it.
While the recent trove of leaks is described by some (Time Columnist Fareed Zakaria in this essay and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from the Calabresi piece) as not being terribly damning, it's still pretty riveting stuff to read about.
As is oft the case, Time and it's writers did an excellent job giving a thorough look at the story, it's players and ramifications.
The Dec 6 issue of Time featured a Special Report looking back at the past 10 years with a series of different stories examining different aspects.
Most compelling to me of them was the "Looking Back to the Future" introduction by Nancy Gibbs. Very short, but also very well written piece.
I've done quite a few posts on work (recently there was this Oct 2010 post on the subject... which then linked to additional posts) and lately have been thinking about the subject both in terms of the goal for and approach towards it.
From a goal of work perspective, there's multiple answers... with one being first and foremost. Work gets people money, people use money to buy things that help them both enjoy aspects of life (entertainment spend) and stay alive (food and shelter). Particularly when one's got a family does this basic notion of work towards the goal of money take precedence.
Beyond this "goal 1A of work being to make money", there's also the idea of work towards the end of building something. This could be by someone who started their own company or by someone working as part of something they're invested in and trying to help grow. Either way, there's huge value in this idea of ownership in the place and a point to the efforts on behalf of that place.
There's of course nothing at all wrong with work being done for the first goal of making money. Really, this probably describes the majority of the working population and is necessary for society to function. That said, the second idea of work as building towards something more ideal, just not always attainable.
One sector of work that me thinks should fall into this second category of work being done for the purpose of building something, but oft times falls back into just a work for a paycheck category is corporate work. To this end (and going back to the intro of this post), I've been thinking lately about what happens to someone in a corporate environment who doesn't particularly see their efforts building to anything...
Approaches could be to either just do the bare minimum (or less in the case of people hoping to prove themselves just replaceable enough to get offered severance packages to leave) or to take a different tact and follow the principles brought to us (in decidedly different forms) by both Robert Fulghum and Patrick Swayze.
- Share everything. - Play fair. - Don't hit people. - Put things back where you found them. - Clean up your own mess. - Don't take things that aren't yours. - Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. - Wash your hands before you eat. - Flush. - Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. - Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. - Take a nap every afternoon. - When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. - Be aware of wonder. - Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. - Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we. - And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.
Additioally, Patrick Swayze provided us wisdom around work from the movie Road House...
So... Fulghum said some profound things, Swayze said some profound things (well... sure, why not?), but do they tie back to the world of corporate work (or even the non-corporate kind) as discussed in this post?
Heck, yea. I've been thinking lately that even in a setting where someone might not feel their efforts are building anything, there's still a lot to be said for just doing what you feel is the right thing with work.
At different times that may mean doing right by customers, by your own company or by your co-workers. In short... you do what you think should be done and treat people well (to put a fine and oft necessary in the corporate world) point on this, by not throwing them under the bus).
Do that and though a job may be more of a job for money than a building opportunity, it's still something to feel good about.
The annual Sportsman of the Year Dec 6 issue of Sports Illustrated featured multiple interesting pieces... with one great one from Joe Posnanski.
The cover story was a solid read on someone who appears a very stand-up guy in New Orleans Saints quarterback Dree Brees. It's easy to be sceptical of a pro athlete's "goodness", but Brees seems to actually have it.
Also, a worthwhile story that unfortunately doesn't appear to be available online was "The Boy Who Died of Football" by Thomas Lake. About the heatstroke-caused death of 15 year-old Kentuckian Max Gilpin, it's a look at an all too common football-related catastrophic injury. What made the story uncommon was Gilpin's High School coach being prosecuted for reckless homicide in Gilpin's passing.
It's a sad tale about a kid who perhaps didn't really want to play football, but was pushed to do so. Particularly jarring from the story was the quote by Gilpin's (portrayed as aggressive) father after his death... "I underestimated the kid, big time. His heart. Can you imagine the fortitude it took to keep running out there?" So messed up.
Interesting and solidly written stories both of these were, but the one from this issue that really got me was the aforementioned Joe Posnanski piece. "A Dream In The Making" is about Kansas City Chiefs General Manager Scott Pioli and succeeds spectacularly in that it's a riveting look at an inconspicuous guy.
One of those stories that I read and think... man, would be nice to write that well.
Lots of interesting articles and mentions from the Dec/Jan issue of Fast Company Magazine.
Cover story was "I Want My Twitter TV!" written by Ellen McGirt. The piece looks at how the company with an incredibly popular platform may have just found a way to really monetize what they do. Very innovative and cool stuff with a big push in the area of creating community around mass media.
Also from this issue of Fast Company was a host of other things of note...
Profiled was the blog Boing Boing and it's founders/current contributors. Basic premise of the article is these guys started the blog because they wanted to write on things they found interesting... and have continued towards that exact same goal. Something to be said for this idea of doing things that give you enjoyment.
Some interesting stuff from the Nov 22 issue of Time Magazine.
Foremost was "Bringing Dogs to Heal" about the pairing of pets with Veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's a well written piece from Mark Thompson and is accompanied by this video from Time's website...
Finally, neither had actual articles written on the topics, but also of note from this issue was mention of three different new ventures... with the first two included in Time's "50 Top Inventions 0f 2010."
- The new Bookprint website from Scholastic. Idea behind You Are What You Read (as it's also known) is a Social Networking site noting favorite books from both public figures and everyday folk. It's an interesting concept that reminds me of the book community site Shelfari
- The Responsible Homeowner Reward Program from Loan Value Group. Started by the Howard Hubler (of the $9B in bad mortgage bets made at Morgan Stanley), underwater homeowners can sign up and then get a cash sum at the time they lay off their loan in full (after consistently making payments up to that point.
On a lighter, but very similar note was the Joel Stein"Ode to Arnie" column from Time Magazine. His favorable take on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman made me think of two statements from the Saletan piece... "Legislative majorities come and go" and "The big picture isn't about winning or keeping power. It's about using it."
Having really enjoyed several Bill Bryson books, I looked forward to reading At Home: A Short History of Private Life, but haven't been terribly into it thus far. Actually, I've had quite the juxtaposition of experience with titles from Bryson. Some I've loved, some I've found to be simply good and some I've not been compelled enough to make it through yet.
I own At Home so am confident I'll finish reading it someday, just not likely soon. I'm six chapters, or 130-some pages into the 450 page book and it's certainly well written, but the material set largely in European households in centuries past hasn't really been enthralling to me.
Just as I'll eventually finish it, I'm also interested in giving another go to A Short History of Nearly Everything... especially since there's apparently now a Special Illustrated Edition, you know... with pictures!
Two different blog entries I've come across lately that struck me not so much for the topics covered, but the depth of the writing.
To his widely-read Chicago Sun-Times blog, Roger Ebert posted "All the Lonely People" about the masses of people on the Internet (but, really just masses of people everwhere) living through tormented, difficult and just plain lonely existences. While I didn't necessarily identify with what he wrote, I respected both the profound sentiments from Ebert and those left as comments to the blog entry.
Some 10 days after the article was posted, there's been 493 different reader reactions composed, vetted for submission and posted to the blog. I found myself scanning through and reading the ones that Ebert felt compelled to comment on, with none striking me more than that below...
In December, I will have been married for 61 years to the same loving woman. For the last ten years, she's been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, and little by little she has lost her personhood, and I,even at 87 years of age, miss the intelligence and spirited love that for so long I took for granted. She must be even lonelier than I am, except when I hold her in my arms and tell her stories about our past life. She can recall what I've said for less than ten too short seconds, but for that tiny period, we are together again. Thank you for your column, and please accept my best wishes -- both of you.
Ebert: Oh, my God, this took my breath away. What a lovely man you are.
In the same category of profound work from my favorite authors was "The Promise" on the blog of Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski. Similar to Ebert's piece, the content struck other's more personally than I, but it's really good stuff about Posnanski, his Dad, drudgery-based work and a Springsteen song.
The piece was described by Posnanski on his twitter page as "probably the most personal post I've written."
The piece (and book it's taken from) is all about the Shakespearean drama played out in early 2010 between Conan O'Brien, NBC and Jay Leno. Background is that NBC gave The Tonight Show (which always aired at 11:30 after the local news) to Conan, then inserted Jay Leno in the 10:00 hour prior to the news. Totally outside the tradition of putting an hour long drama in that time slot, NBC considered the move one that would cut costs, keep Jay in their stable and basically make themselves look brilliant.
When the newly created Jay Leno Show received horrible ratings (and The Tonight Show lagged from where it was previously), things started to get interesting... this being where the Vanity Fair excerpt picks up. Conan had nothing in his contract preventing the move NBC wanted to make so what ensued was a fascinating conflict between the players involved. Lots of financial ramifications, but what struck me from the piece was the human conflict and people's reactions.
Great piece I came across on CNNSI titled "An unlikely story, San Francisco finally has a World Series champion". From Joe Posnanski, the piece covers an interesting topic (at least for me), but qualifies as really good writing in that the author manages to convey key pieces of hard information (such as around World Series MVP Edgar Renteria) along with a more profound vibe of the team, the city and what it all meant.
Really interesting content from a Sports Illustrated Special Report on concussions in football... which brought to mind for me some other solid writing on the topic.
The lead story was "Concussions: the hits that are changing football" by Peter King and it covered both the impact on life that football-related head trauma can cause as well as the tipping point of sorts brought about by the weekend in football Oct 16-17. Starting with Rutgers player Eric LeGrand getting paralyzed while making a hit and then continuing to a Sunday in the NFL featuring multiple violent head shots and associated injuries... the weekend brought about action from the NFL commissioners office to try to make the game safer. King details this is his story as well as looks at the reaction of players who see the league as going too far in policing physical contact.
It was a solid piece and then followed by several other related stories from the same report. The two that stood out to me related to not the violent concussion-causing hits that the NFL was attempting to curb, but rather less sensational, but perhaps more disturbing idea of kids suffering damage playing youth sports (football in these pieces, but really could be any sport involving contact and potential head trauma).
In "The Damage Done", David Epstein wrote of how simply repeated head contact (such as any high school lineman has) can impact brain functioning and the Farrell Evans piece "Early Warning" has mention of cognitive baseline testing in kids so that any trauma suffered can be diagnosed through comparative post injury testing.
From this SI report, I thought of other writing on the same two content areas noted above... headshots in the NFL and then in youth football.
So... with all this content noted and linked to, it then begs the question of whether the NFL is taking unnecessary steps? Looking at the YouTube video below of one of the Oct 17 hits that caused all the fuss... I'd say they're on the right track.
Going back to the topic of youth football (and all youth sports)... I recall doing this Dec 2009 blog post about San Jose high school football player Matt Blea and his almost dying from a head injury (and not the big hit variety) suffered in a game.
It's a dangerous world, but within that... contact sports and particularly football can be a particularly dangerous activity.
This doesn't mean that kids should live in a bubble, not play sports or not play football, but a combination of eyes open to the danger and consideration of ways to reduce risk... all things highly in order.
Really good story in the November issue of Fast Company Magazine... which reminded of a past feature from FC.
In this issue was "The Siberian Energy Rush" about Russia pushing natural gas exploration further and further into the Arctic Circle. Written by Joshua Hammer it's a pretty amazing look at a country staking a claim to new territory.
Thinking past just Russia and past natural gas, the story reminded me a great deal of the "China Storms Africa" special report from the June 2008 Fast Company (and which I also linked to here).
Taking these two features together with other statistics and content I've seen about jobs, education and innovation moving from the U.S. to other countries... it's disconcerting.
A counterpoint of sorts to this concern was another piece from this Nov 2010 issue of Fast Company. "The New Faces of Social Media" is all about the industry and careers carved out today that one wouldn't have dreamed of 10 years ago.
Considering these two different somewhat opposing ideas, the thing that occurs to me is it's definitely possible to create and innovate as an individual in America today... but, you can't rely upon anyone other than yourself to make that happen.
Two different pieces from the Nov 1 issue of Time Magazine that struck me as interesting...
The first was "Keeping Young Minds Healthy" by Jeffrey Kluger about some of the psychological ailments that can manifest themselves in childhood. A really interesting story with important content. I also found that this piece was part of a larger section on the Time website titled "Health Checkup: Kids and Mental Health"... which featured additional content around kids and health.
The second thing which stood out was the Joe Klein In the Arena column "Ted Kaufman, the Temporary Senator". Interesting reading about a very solid sounding politician.... which reminded me of Nate Silver's excellent political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight (now part of the New York Times).
Interesting topic to write about that came from a piece (well, two pieces actually) on ESPN.com by Jeff MacGregor.
I came across them via a Chris Jones twitter recommendation of MacGregor and I agree with Jones... it's good writing that leads one to thinking on the topic (which of course is in many cases, the definition of good writing).
I was fairly well fascinated reading people's missives on the question and it led me to consider my own answer. What I found myself doing while looking at my belief in sports was actually looking at the importance I attach to them.
First thing in my opinion is a separation of sports as a topic area into (A) sports as a participant and (B) sports as a fan.
Thinking of sports as an actual participant, I think they're a great thing... both for kids and adults. For a child, they can both entertain and teach those life lesson things about trying hard and working with others. For an adult, the entertainment portion of the equation trumps the life lesson part, but the portion of that entertainment that involves trying hard and being part of the team... yea, that's still a good thing for us older type people. So, in summary of sports as a particpant... I do believe in them and think they matter.
The second topic area of sports as a fan and how much they matter and you believe in them (which is more of what I think MacGregor asking about anyways), this is a bit more complicated of an answer.
As a young lad (you know, prior to the ripe old age of 37), following sports mattered more than to me now due to time available and priorities of how to use that time. With having both kids and career aspirations (which may well take even longer than career goals because aspirations oft have to be figured out... taking additional time), sports just aren't as important as they used to be for me.
What following or watching sports in the time I allocate to them has become is entertainment. The import of it all (and whether my particular team wins or loses) isn't there in my mind as much as when I was younger, but the entertainment still certainly is. Seeing someone achieve greatly on a large stage... that's still highly entertaining to me even knowing that in the context of my life and family, it's not that big a deal.
This approaches the question of sports as a fan from the import perspective, but MacGregor's question is around belief... especially in relation to things like steroids and cheating.
On this topic, I'm a bit conflicted. I think my entertainment the most important thing (for me as fan). If I'm not thinking of things like Performance Enhancing Drugs while watching, my entertainment isn't diminished, but if I believe that someone does have an unfair advantage over others, that will diminish my entertainment.
Good example of this is Barry Bonds. When he was at the peak of his accomplishments, it was tremendously exciting for me as fan. When it then become known with pretty much certainty that he was taking steroids during that period, it didn't retroactively change how entertaining the time was for me as a fan, but did certainly impact future entertainment provided me by Bonds... and I cared not a whit about his chasing the home run mark.
So... I think sports important. I think they especially important as something to play, but also think them important as something to be a fan of. Should you believe in them? I don't know, but do think that you should be entertained by them (and with that entertainment not the most important thing in life).
I know as fans we're not cheering for perfect members of society and some people could be cheating. However, unless the evidence is enough to pretty much remove doubt, I'd prefer to think it all fair and enjoy the achievement, spectacle and entertainment provided by it all.
Along these lines, I really liked reading and agree with the MacGregor reader he quotes as having "the second to last word on the matter"...
Before answering your question I would like to propose an alternative definition for "belief," one of which Americans have very little understanding. Our word believe actually derives from the German word beleiben. The root being leib, which means love. Believe, in its root, means to belove, not to think something is right or true, which is what we have come to think in a society that only values the head and not spirit.
Our word believe is now translated into German as glauben, which is more like to know. (This sounds a lot like our English word gullible to me, which may be a good part of this discussion of what do we trust about sports). I can't tell you what I think about what's true and what's not about sports, and I'm not certain my opinion on that point matters. I can tell you what I belove about sports though.
I belove a redemption story, even the case of Michael Vick, because no matter how much we stumble we can get a second chance. I belove the transcendence of athletes pushing each other higher and making each other better, even in the midst of competition. I belove my expectations being shattered, and I belove the camaraderie of a team. I belove what athletes can do with their bodies. I belove the joy and I belove learning about myself and society. I belove the purity of a well struck free kick, of a perfect driver down the fairway, of Ken Griffey Jr.'s swing, and the paradox of outcomes on any given sports day.
I am not always certain what to think about sports, but I belove them.
Three different things I've come across lately that all lead to me ruminating further on the subject of work... and the goal of efforts put into said work.
Starting off on the topic was Inc. Magazine's annual Inc. 500/5,000 List of the fastest growing private companies in America.
The top 500 are in the magazine itself and then top 5,000 featured online. In reading some of the profiles of the companies and their founders, I really got a sense for how hard the whole thing has been for many of the people (yes, also with exceptions)... and also how many of them just were doing something they really liked and kept at it.
Very tied into this idea of just starting something you have a degree of passion for, "The Way I Work: Michael Arrington of TechCrunch" was featured in the October issue of Inc. The piece describes Arrington as a guy who likes to write, likes to break stories and has actually (perhaps by design, perhaps not) built a pretty large business out of it. This is a conjecture-based statement to be certain, but I got the sense that if TechCrunch hadn't hit it big, Arrington would still be plugging away writing missives about breaking news in tech... because that's something he really likes to do.
The quick, easy and obvious point to draw from all this... try to figure out what you like to do and then do it. If it's something that turns into a viable business, that's great. Heck, maybe it's not even something that would ever turn into an ownership-stake business, but even if you just build a viable career working somewhere you like for others, that's not so bad.
Related to this subject of work and where it can go... went and saw The Social Network the other night.
Good movie, perhaps not as fantastic as I expected (based on reviews I've seen and that it was directed by David Fincher), but I definitely enjoyed it as a piece of entertainment (and it's acknowledged to be a fictionalized story for the purpose of greater entertaining).
Here's how the movie relates to the Inc. content and notion of working at something you care about... Zuckerberg did. He was a genius with a passion for the idea that would become Facebook and now a $25B business. Whether he thought it would get that big or not is almost besides the point that he was really really into what he was working on.
Zuckerberg has gotten rich from the idea and others who were there as early employees have also gotten wealthy, but I'm going to guess (or, perhaps just hope) that early on, they were putting in the long hours because they both liked what they were doing and saw the potential of it growing bigger. The fact that it did grow bigger than probably anyone would have imagined... a happy consequence of the idea and work to be sure, but definitely not one that was guaranteed. The actions towards that by people doing work they were into... that's something that's controllable (a different way of saying guaranteed).
So, tying it all together... do work you care about. If you've got the idea and willingness to fail, try to make a company out of it. If you don't have the idea or aren't in a position to take on the risk of starting a company, still do work you care about.
Seems simple, but that goal can be just as vexing a proposition as starting a company if you're not there yet. Well, I guess this is where the old phrase comes in... if it were easy, everyone'd be doing it.
It's not terribly often I come across writing I consider to great because of what I feel is the confluence of events required to reach this level of... great.
Well written, you most definitely have to have that. Beyond that, the subject has got to either hold a certain gravitas of import or at the very least, be interesting (I write in this blog post about an example from Charles Pierce meeting this dual criteria).
Additionally, you might have some context of solid writing thrown in... typically in the form of work by someone you already like, but as this post will detail, there's another type of good writing context that can be in evidence.
Point of all this is to say that it takes a lot to make a piece of writing great and the follow on point is "The storyteller and the stallion" by Roger Ebert is great writing. Written on his Chicago Sun-Time blog, the work is about Ebert's college friend Bill Nack... including his life in writing (25 years of which spent at Sports Illustrated) and his authoring of the book Secretariat, since made into a movie.
From a writing perspective, it's really well done work by someone I'm tremendously impressed with as an author in Ebert. Additionally, I find it incredibly cool that one of my favorite current- day writers, Joe Posnanski, would link to the story on his twitter account and refer to Ebert and Nack as two of his favorite writers (very similar to the way Posnanski mentioned another one of my favs, Chris Jones, in an SI blog piece a few weeks ago).
From a subject perspective, I enjoyed this Ebert piece not because it's got content about horse racing, but because it weaves a tale of both the relationship betwixt Ebert and Nack and writing itself. Now, the phrase writing itself may seem a bit melodramatic to use, but what got me was how the piece is someone with both a proven love for words and the process of writing them detailing a friend and his love for words and the process of writing them.
To boil it down... that's just cool, and results in a piece of great writing.
One thing I like to do with this blog is take a look back every now and then at what I've written and pull some of the disparate posts together.
Topic for today's soliloquy is going to be working and writing, and the content written here about both since Sept 1st. Additionally, a piece from back in January bears linking to because... well, because I liked writing it.
Work, it's an odd thing. People engage in it to get the money for the things they want to do (like eat and put clothes on their kids), but in many cases, work can define someone and give their identity. For many, it becomes a struggle to bridge the gap betwixt the identity created by the work they're doing and the identity sought through the work they'd like to do. Actually, to that end, I've at times been jealous of people who have a job and are fine with it. Yes, I'm super duper jealous of someone with a job they love, but it doesn't seem like that bad of a racket to have a job that you work, leave it at the end of the day and merrily not think about either that work or any different (i.e. better) type of work till the next day.
However, burdens to bear are what they are and for those of us who aspire to something different, it's a good idea to think about it and take steps towards said different.
All this said (and linked to), here's the point... if you want to do something, the best path forward is probably to start doing it. Ergo, if I want to write and want to have a particular type of work (yep, a writing type)... there's not many better ways towards that than writing, including writing about work.
To this end (and yea, I know the phrase was already used above), one piece I particular enjoyed writing about a field of work that's becoming increasingly bigger (with associated import) is Social Media... What a Place to Be!(?) Really had all the elements for me... a topic I find interesting, something I enjoyed writing and something I'm happy with the output.
Not bad... and something to aspire to doing more and more of.
I love reading pieces about people who are really into whatever their chosen endevour is. Definitely got the impression that these individuals wanted to do something a certain way and would be willing to fight for that. So much more to that than simply going along in a work environment and not making waves.
Both from a functionality (hate the way my headphones tangle) and story (Frends being the group of snowboarders whose best known member is Kevin Pearce) perspective, it's a product I want to buy... now, if only there was somewhere I could buy them (doesn't appear to be sold online and the Zumiez I visited didn't have any).
Two things I found of note in the October 2010 issue of Esquire Magazine.
The first was great feature writing about an important topic. Written by Scott Raab,"Good Days at Ground Zero" is about the transformative work being done at the World Trade Center in New York City. Raab that details a level of accomplishment I had no idea of...
Second thing that struck me (and gave me a bunch more stuff to read) was mention of the Esquire blog My Second Empire (with associated twitter page!) written by Chris Jones. It's about his efforts renovating a house, but since the most recent post is an MLB playoff prediction, I'm expecting to see a goodly amount of ground covered by an excellent writer (I mean, how bad could he be if praised by Joe Posnanski?).
To the new book from Casey... really interesting read that's split between (A) giant waves and their impact... and (B) the people who surf them. I often felt like I was reading two different books joined together as the chapters would go from one on Laird Hamilton surfing Jaws off Maui to one on the very busy rescue and salvage operators who work out of Cape Town, South Africa. Pretty different topics, but everything that Casey wrote about was interesting enough to stand on it's own, and still worked together as part of a larger look at the power of the ocean.
The Sports Illustrated excerpt was excellent and almost exclusively focused on the big wave surfing content from the book (understandable since it's Sports Illustrated), but the bigger picture content in other parts of the book are fascinating.
More and more big waves coming due to climate change and oceans rising, large numbers of ships lost at sea every year, giant rogue waves that known models wouldn't have predicted the height of (including an 1,800 foot wave at Lituya Bay in Alaska)... all stuff that Casey details.
This is the non-surfing stuff, but there's also some extremely compelling content in the book on big wave surfing. Casey spent a large amount of time with Laird Hamilton... and retells the story of his surfing partner Brett Lickle almost bleeding out in a December 2007 day with 100+ foot waves on Giants off Maui. Just amazing content written about well...
Good story in the Oct 4 issue of Sports Illustrated... that led to my reading an even better story written 11 years earlier by the same author on the same topic.
From the latest issue, "The Last Stand Of Billy The Kid" is by Michael Bamberger and about Atlanta Braves closer Billy Wagner. It's interesting reading about a guy who after 16 years in the major leagues states that this will be his last. A professional athlete retiring doesn't typically have great profundity associated, but Wagner's story is one to pique interest.
He's having one of his best seasons in baseball and by retiring will leave at least $6M on the table. In the Bamberger story, Wagner's stated reasons for walking away have to do with spending time with his family. As he puts it "Sarah's been raising our kids and running the house alone for a lot of years now, it's time for me to step in."
This piece struck me as interesting writing on an interesting guy, but in doing a search for the story on the CNNSI Vault, I came across a Bamberger piece from September 1999 that reached a different level of the aforementioned profundity. Titled "Astro Physics", it's subtitle gets at the content within...
"To understand how Houston closer Billy Wagner can throw a baseball 100 mph, you've got to examine the dynamics of his rural upbringing."
Really compelling writing about someone who has been through things in life that few have experienced. Him retiring perhaps before he needs to (i.e. is forced out of the game due to production on the field) doesn't seem as important or foolish when you consider Wagner's life story. Perhaps it even leads one to consider the real import of wins or losses on the field.
Very cool story I came across the other day from CNNSI.
Written by Jon Wertheim, "Nebraska's billion-dollar assistant" is all about former Ameritrade (now TD Ameritrade) CEO Joe Moglia and his current volunteer position with the Nebraska Cornhusker football staff.
The story struck me not necessarily for the writing (Wertheim is a solid writer who seems to write on tennis more than any other sport for SI), but the story itself. Moglia is the classic example of a guy who decided to follow his passion... in this case for football and his work seems to have made him an important "consultant to the program" at Nebraska.
Now, you could say that having made himself rich through business has enabled Moglia to pursue his coaching dream, but a counter to that would be that many people who amass piles of wealth simply make it their goal to amass bigger piles.
I'm so interested in this whole concept of people changing careers mid-stream. To look at the idea through the lens of writing as profession... there's certainly people like Stephen King who knew at a young age he wanted to write and always worked towards that end, but there's also alternate stories.
One good one I saw firsthand the other day was that of Skip Horack, author of "The Eden Hunter." In a library talk he made, Horack discussed how he graduated with an English degree, went to law school and then practiced law for three years... all while kind of thinking of himself as a writer, but not really writing.
He then saw lawyer colleagues who loved what they did, realized that he didn't have that for the law and gave writing a shot. Nothing profound at first, just an hour in the morning before starting his day... but, that led to finishing some short stories and then submitting them to writing journals. After a bit of success, he applied for and got a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Stanford's Creative Writing Program. With this new path opened up, Horack left the law firm he was at and headed off to the two-year program.
Very cool story from the perspective that Horack wasn't one of those people who knew what he wanted to do at a young age and single mindedly pursued it. Rather, he realized mid-stream want he wanted and proved that it's never too late to go after a goal. Hey... that's just like the story of Joe Moglia.
1. How can a reader who really likes Posnanski's stuff not be interested in 7,000 words on a topic? Well, I guess he could write without my caring that many words on some subjects, but I love great sports pictures... and Posnanski writing on them makes the piece even better.
2. The stories behind the images. Some profound stuff that shows sports and it's captured drama. Examples of this: Number 26 of KC Royals pitcher Zach Greinke, number 25 of Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias titled "Death of a Dream", Number 2 of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan (not really #2, but included as a great image) and number 1 of... something epic.
3. The fact that the aforementioned Ali cover at number two is noted as being the favorite of Esquire writer Chris Jones. Just feels like the world is spinning correctly when a guy whose writing I really like references in glowing terms another guy whose writing I really like.
4. Mention of my old employer, Athlon Sports. Yea, it's not mention of me, nor of Athlon whilst I was there, but was interesting to see.
What I don't think I've written as much about is the process of getting said words on a page organized well. S'hard stuff... this writing thing. Well, not always hard, but those fits of inspiration are oft mere exceptions to the rule of writing as a slog.
I suppose that's ok, though. There's contemporary writers that do great work (and I've written about them many times including in this post), but I'd be willing to bet dollars for doughnuts that these writer types as well as the "all-time greats" like Fitzgerald, Rand, Twain and Lee (Harper, that is) often weren't writing great prose when they wrote, but just kept at it. Basically following the principle of "if you keep doing something long enough, you're eventually going to get good at it" (labeled the "10,000 hour rule" by Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers").
Therein lies the trick me thinks (and this is about writing, but one could apply the idea below elsewhere)...
When you're inspired, motivated and creative... you write, you do great work. However, when you're not inspired, not motivated and not creative... you still write, you do work. Maybe through the act of the work it'll become great, but even if it doesn't, you're still being a writer, dammit, and by acting as one, you'll eventually become an even better writer.
A topic that I've ruminated on a bit lately is the idea of urgent work vs important work.
Basic distinction between the two is that one category is something requiring (or purported by someone to require) immediate action and one category has no immediacy, but is of import in the big picture. Really what you've got with the first category of "urgent" is two different things... "urgent / important" and "not important, but urgent to the person who says it is."
It having now been said that fighting in a war and working in an office are about as different as two things can be, both activities are subject to this whole urgent / important distinction.
First, the urgent things... and how they can double as important ones. For a solider, there's no more urgent situation than combat, and also nothing more important. In the much more mundane corporate world, a situation both urgent and important could be one with a time-sensitive deliverable that impacts the business and people who work in it.
Not all urgent scenarios in work double as important, though, regardless of the type of work at hand. For a solider, an order from a commanding officer could be urgent from the perspective that you're supposed to execute on it immediately, but that order could accomplish little beyond making the commanding officer feel powerful to have given an order acted upon. In an office environment, there can be lots and lots of non-important urgent work. Much of this coming from people being sent off to do tasks that don't accomplish much in the big picture, but make someone feel good to give directions... or that task assigner incorrectly thinks it matters.
With it established that there's urgent and important work as well as urgent, but not important work, this takes one to the third type of work... that which is non-urgent, but important.
To stay within the same comparison of a military and corporate setting... soldiers aren't going to spend 100% of their time in combat. While not engaged in an urgent activity, something of huge import would be training as well as planning and preparing for future missions. Conversely, for a white collar worker, there's important (again, relative term when compared to things done by Servicemen and Women) activities like documenting processes and tracking of activities to ensure needed activities brought to completion.
There may be nobody asking for this type of non-urgent work to be done (in any work environment), but it's certainly important. Now, in the military you're more obligated to obey orders than other kinds of work, but with this acknowledged, the goal in work should be to focus on the urgent / important as well as important activities, and not get bogged down in the urgent / unimportant.
True, it's easier said that done, but to accomplish pretty much anything you have to start with the intention towards that end.
Very interesting cover topic in the latest issue of Time Magazine.
There's actually two different stories featured... one about teaching in public schools and the upcoming movie Waiting for Superman and one about how to get better teachers in our school.
The lead piece is "What Makes a School Great" by Amanda Ripley, but the link to the story won't provide a lot since Time has made the decision to make much of their magazine content unavailable online. What I will say is it sounds a really compelling movie about an important topic... with the trailer below as evidence of that.
Two other short pieces from this issue of Time about companies doing interesting things... Scribd that works in the mobile publishing space and Layar that provides augmented reality information for mobile phones.
Was excited to see the latest Sports Illustrated cover and one of the pieces within...
Noted at the top is "Surfing's Sacred Monster: The-100 Foot Wave" and the associated author Susan Casey... both things being of note to me.
The idea of someone surfing a 100 foot wave (and the $500,000 prize for the first to do) is intriguing and I've found big wave surfing in general to be interesting since watching the movie Riding Giants.
I likely won't take the time to read the entire Blair biography, but do recommend this portion of it and am thankful that Time decided to go ahead and make available online the entire piece (which they don't always do).
Also from this issue of Time is mention of The Wilderness Downtown website, built for the band Arcade Fire. Concept behind it is that you put in a street address and the site does interactive stuff along with the song playing. Now, if only I had Google's Chrome browser installed so I could actually see it...
Also from this issue of Inc. was "The Way I Work: Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes" about the CEO. It's an interesting piece that charts how the 33 year old founder spends his time. Mycoskie appears quite the fascinating guy who has built a growing company which is also doing good... as evidenced by it's policy of giving away a pair of shoes for each one sold. I found myself interested in his mention of being a reader of business biographies given that Mycoskie's personal story is one I'd want to read.
One other compelling piece from this issue was from Jason Fried, the head of a software firm called 37signals. Titled "Never Read Another Resume", it's about Fried's views on staffing a company and has a couple really solid insights. The first is that someone hiring for a position should spend time actually doing that role. One reason is this helps ensure that the hire is based on actual rather than just perceived need for another resource. Additionally, this idea of a hiring manager doing the job being hired for helps determine exactly what's needed in someone.
Another insight from Fried is the driver behind the piece's title and all about cover letters. Idea is that they should be a bigger determiner in hiring decisions than actual resumes. Reason being that the cover letter reveals more about the applicant. In particular, the cover letter can reveal how well someone can write and how much they really want the job. To that end, Fried links to a website all about wanting to work for 37signals put together by a recent hire.