Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nice Guys Don't Always Finish Last

You've probably familiar with the idea: when you're under attack, the hardest thing is not defending yourself. But the truth is that you're when you choose not to react, you're not really avoiding a fight, you're just choosing a far more familiar opponent. As Ben Zoma, a Talmudic sage from the second-century, once said: \
Who is strong? He who controls his impulses. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), "Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city."
Last night, I watched the end of "42," a film about baseball pioneer and legend Jackie Robinson. As Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, he endured racist taunts and threats everywhere he played. It was not reacting, keeping his focus on baseball, that allowed him to succeed in the battle for equality.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker follows the same playbook. When he receives angry and profane tweets from constituents, he responds by killing them with kindness. In an article on Quartz, Max Nisen quotes some of Booker's gracious Twitter responses. They're amazing to read. Check out this one featured in the article:

  1. @RWwatchMA @RichNj5 @newsagg @CoryBooker Booker is corporate slime.
And I think you are probably a good person. I wish you the best RT @rtpburns: Booker is corporate slime.
So what happens when you let your anger get the better of you? No need to worry. You can still fight back. In a beautiful essay in the Huffington Post, Josh Misner tells about the time he apologized to a Delta airlines employee after missing his connecting flight. Misner's apology was not only reciprocated, but resulted in better seats on the next flight.

I guess nice guys don't always finish last.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sometimes you're better off keeping quiet and ignoring the clock

What's worse: (A) getting interrupted when you talk or (B) getting no reaction? For Americans, the answer is probably B. While incessant interruptions can be annoying, silence can be destructive. When we speak in the US, we expect eye contact with audience members, and laughs, applause, and questions at the end. When the audience just sits in silence, it vexes us a great deal.

In some cultures, though, staying quiet while another speaks is of the utmost importance. In a recent blog post on the Harvard Business Review website, cross-cultural expert Erin Meyer tells of her frustrating experience presenting to a Chinese colleague who waited until the very end to assist in her presentation. The reason, she learned, wasn't malicious. Rather, Chinese people are taught to  sit quietly and wait until someone finishes speaking before saying anything.

The same can be said for how different cultures appreciate time. In another post, Meyer discusses the relative importance of time around the world, by comparing recent speaking engagements in the US and Brazil. In the US, the conference organizer kept Meyer on time with signs that indicated how many minutes were left in the session. In Brazil, her presentation got off to a late start, and exceeded the time allotted. But there, she was told she could have spoken even longer, given the interest of the crowd. Below is an excerpt from that Meyer's blog post:
In some cultures — such as the German, Dutch, British, Danish, Australian, and my own American cultures — we tend to value structure over flexibility. But in many of the world’s fastest growing countries, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Russia and Nigeria, there is much more emphasis put on being flexible than on being structured.  In these cultures strongly emphasizing punctuality signals an inability to adapt and even a lack of priorities. 
Like most people, I don't like being late. But to me, the question of when to speak and when to shut up isn't just a question of time; it's a matter of respect. Arriving late to a class is unpleasant, even disrespectful; but leaving when an instructor goes a few minutes over time is just rude. So next time you're looking at the clock, think about the speaker who's waiting for a reaction and try to come up with a good question for the end.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Is Live TV the Answer? To Be Continued...

How can traditional TV survive in the era of DVR, On-Demand, and Netflix?

The answer may lie in TV's roots, as a source of convenient and timely home entertainment. In a story today on Quartz, writer Jason Lynch suggested five ways that TV can "save itself in 2014." The ideas ranged from abandoning dying genres like talent competitions, to developing more "limited series" like last year's The Bible and the upcoming 24: Live Another Day. His solutions, however, that I found the most compelling were based on the foundations of television:
  • Live TV: Instead of relying on taped programs that people can easily record and watch later, Lynch suggested that networks need to increase their live programming -- something that was the hallmark of the "Golden Age of Television." He pointed to the recent live production of The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood that attracted 18.6 million viewers to NBC. (In case you were wondering, the movie is still far better). 
  • To Be Continued: Netflix appeals to millions of people, in part, because they are able to view entire seasons in one sitting. Lynch said networks need to adapt this new habit of "binge-viewing" and acquire the rights to air multiple episodes back to back.
For sure, these ideas would help TV appeal to today's viewers. But they are not enough. At the core of TV's decline is the rise of online video. It's not DVR and Netflix that's making TV less appealing; it's the web. It doesn't matter whether you're using a highly publicized platform like or a Bit Torrent site with pirated shows, at the end of the day you're not watching TV.

Unfortunately, the future of TV will be the same as the history of American manufacturing: without government regulation, people will always choose the cheapest way to get what they want. So should the government make the survival of TV a priority? Should TV be saved? I guess you'll have to stay tuned to find out.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Legendary Singer Who Blends "Sound and Sense"

All five of the the Kennedy Center honorees this year made major contributions to the performing arts. But it was the last honoree who received the biggest applause and the most touching tribute: the one and only Billy Joel. The reason can be summed up in three words from Alexander Pope: "Sound and sense."

Bill Joel's tunes are as catchy as they are diverse. He's written ballads and barbershop, jazz and rock, classical and pop -- all with melodies that everyone can follow.

But it was not just the music that captured the attention of so many. It was the stories he told. Joel didn't just write about love. He wrote about the emotions we face trying to perform ("Pressure"); the challenges of growing up ("Movin' Out"); and ordinary people just trying to make a living, from the "Piano Man" in a bar, to the factory workers of "Allentown." It's that combination of the music and the words, the sound and the sense, that allowed Joel and his songs to become so popular.

In September, I'll be seeing Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. You might think it's a long time to wait for a concert. But in the lifespan of a legend, it's only a moment.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Brush with Inequality: Why People Really Hate Working on Thanksgiving

When Costco executive Paul Latham was asked why the company is keeping its stores closed on Thanksgiving, his answer to The Huffington Post was clear and simple: "Our employees work especially hard during the holiday season, and we simply believe that they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with their families."

But while closing stores is the right decision, his reason misses the mark. Let's be honest: is being away from family really why people hate working on Thanksgiving? As much as we all look forward to commenting on the size of the bird and praising how wonderfully moist it is this year (what's your secret?), the truth is that the meal and ensuing ennui are less important than what they symbolize: everyone, young and old, rich and poor, sitting together at the same table.

That meaning is turned upside down when people have to work on the holiday and face today's harsh reality: we don't all get a seat at the table. As much as we tell ourselves that America's the land of opportunity and the place where dreams are made, the truth is that some of us will always have to work on Thanksgiving.

When I began my career as a young journalist, I often had to work nights, weekends, and public holidays, and for good reason: it was a daily newspaper. But working those days always made me reflect on where I was and where I would be in the future. I was thankful that I had a job, a place to live, and food to eat. But I was frustrated that I had to work when so many others got the day off.

On Thursday, Costco and those retailers who remain closed deserve our thanks -- not for honoring tradition or time with extended family, but for something far more basic: giving everyone the day to call their own. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Living a Full Life on Social Media

At a panel discussion I attended earlier this year, a successful entrepreneur was asked what he does and does not want to see in a job applicant's Facebook page. His answer surprised us all: he doesn't care.  "We all live full lives outside of work," he said. "And I expect that my employees do as well. What's important is that they do their jobs."

At first, that statement might seem a little crazy. After all, most experts will tell you that posting photos of drinking with friends will convey to a potential employer that you're more into partying than working. Even if all your photos were taken at one party, employers will worry: if he can't present himself professionally on social media, how will he represent the company in "real life"?

These are legitimate concerns, and most of us manage our social media pages to reflect who we are and how we want to be perceived. But the reality is that as social media continues to grow, these "red flags" will become harder to find. Every second, our uncensored thoughts are shared with people on social media around the world and become trends that attract marketers and advertisers. A controversial performance at the MTV Music Video awards this year not only raised the profile of Miley Cyrus, but also led to one of the nation's most respected actors, Morgan Freeman, reading a definition of "twerking" on TV. Whether it's a Facebook Town Hall led by the President, or a "new language" of Twitter hashtags, the evidence is clear: social media has become a way to promote our original thoughts, publicize our "compelling" lives, and share our "funny" stories with millions of people around the world. And with all of us competing for followers, friends, and retweets, we'll all inevitably say something "cool" that we regret.

So is engaging in social media a risk worth taking? I'd say yes. Just remember what Taylor Swift once said: "All of my favorite people - people I really trust - none of them were cool in their younger years." Which reminds me: hey, @taylorswift13, can I get an RT?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

When Did Being Smart Become So Shameful?

Thomas Edison was probably the smartest guy in this room.
Below are two columns. The left column contains five quotations, and the right column features the famous people who said them. Without using Google, try to match each quotation with the correct speaker.

1) I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not the dumbest.
A. Michael Bloomberg

2) I'm not the smartest guy, but I can outwork you. It’s the one thing that I can control.

B. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
3) I’m a great believer in low self-esteem.  So consequently, if you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room and you think you’re going to have to work a little harder. . . you can actually do quite well.

C. Bill Rancic

4) I'm never the smartest guy in the room. I'm willing to work harder than most people around me, come earlier, stay later.

D. Nick Hornby

 5) I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues.

E. Jay Leno

If you can't figure out who said what, don't worry. The quotations all convey the same basic idea, which may seem quite noble. After all, there's nothing wrong with humility, even if it's used to highlight your strengths. But the issue I find perplexing is: why is being the "smartest" considered shameful while being the "hardest working" considered an honor? 

My guess it has something to do with the American values of hard work and opportunity. Concepts like "if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything" and "no pain, no gain" reflect how we think about success: it only comes as the result of hard work. Being smart means being arrogant and stubborn, and working hard means being passionate and devoted, spending all hours of the day devoted to your business. I'm all for hard work, and whenever I tackle a project I always give it my all. But is it possible that our definitions might be hurting us more than helping us? That we are focusing too much on quantity over quality, and on how much time we spend, rather than how we spend our time?

I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I think I know the answer. And speaking of answers, here are the correct responses to the quiz above: 1)D; 2)A; 3)E; 4)C; 5)B.