Tuesday, September 30, 2014

10 Great Tips From Government Executives

Over the years I've been fortunate to receive some really good advice from senior government leaders. I carry these "golden nuggets" around in my brain and refer to them often. Hope they are useful to you.

1. "If you want to be successful, be polite, be professional, and have a good work ethic."

2. "The pie gets bigger the more you share it."

3. "Our people don't get enough credit. We need to make sure the public knows the good work they are doing."

4. "How is your husband doing? I remember him from ___" (This is the head of an Agency, who took the time to remember and thank each and every person he interacted with.)

5. "Think it through before you bring it to me."

6. "Dashboards, metrics, high-level bullet points...please."

7. "There is nothing new under the sun."

8. "One thing I like about you, is that you always support the executive" (and don't put yourself in the limelight.)

9. "That issue is very divisive here - I bring it up judiciously."

10. "Go out there, be creative...I trust you."


Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Photo credit: Jesus Solana/Flickr

Leveraging The Power of Online Communities

Today marks the re-launch of my open, free-to-join GovLoop group, Community Cultivators, formerly E2E (Employee-to-Employee Communication), as well as Online Communities Best Practices at LinkedIn.

I hope you'll join the conversation at either place, because online communities today represent the #1 opportunity to reach and influence a target audience, yet few understand the science of influencing their beliefs and behaviors.

Jump in and join the conversations.

Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Image source: Open Clip Art

Monday, September 29, 2014

How To Succeed Without Even Trying (Well, Almost)

My mother always said I was a schmuck. 
"All of the women in our family are," she says. "We work like goddamn animals, and what does it get us? Nothing."
We call this the "Coopersmith gene," for my grandmother Muriel, may she rest in peace.
Grandma had a heart attack in her early 40's, shoveling snow off her stoop. She didn't wait for Grandpa.
I don't believe that people die, rather they go to another more spiritual dimension. So I will speak of her in present tense: I love my grandmother fiercely.
She raised six kids. She made a Jewish home and cooked from scratch. The family was poor, "so poor we couldn't afford the 'o' and the 'r,' my aunt Sari says.
But Grandma made sure they never knew it.
She ran a real estate business with my Grandpa, after the mattress factory burnt down. A beautiful woman, it was dangerous for her to show properties to strange men, but she handled it.
I can't remember the whole story she told me once. But it ended with the words, "and when that guy got fresh I told him, 'my husband knows where you live.'"
Grandma was in love with my Grandpa. She had no intention of getting any divorce. But she worked her ass off anyway.
She said, "Dossy baby," (my nickname), "you've got to put up a shingle. Don't depend on a man."
By that she meant "have your own business." And as soon as I was old enough, I did exactly what she said.
But there were some things Grandma didn't know. Things that men do.
One of them, an important one, is that success at work is not necessarily correlated with how hard you work there.
Rather it has to do with something else entirely: how calm you make people feel.
If you think about the case of Friends, this point becomes pretty simple.
You wouldn't want Monica or Ross in charge.
Even though he's dumb as a doornail, you'd rather take Joey. Or probably Chandler, who knows when to quit.
The reason for this is intuitive, but I'm not sure I ever put it into words: The workplace is normally fraught with tension.
People want leaders who know how to take things in stride. Who are composed, and smooth, and look happy.
It is impossible to work yourself into a frazzled pulp and portray this kind of image. You have to actually be relaxed. 
If you want to get ahead at work, try doing a little less.
Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Photo by me.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Case For Taking A Job Against Type

In my teens I dreamt of being a fashion designer. The walls of my room were literally covered with ripped-out pages from Vogue
They had to be clean pages, only photos, no words. I would be Kamali, Karan, Lauren, Klein.
For a time it seemed I was actually on that path. They took me into Parsons, and I spent the summer before college taking a prep class. Drawing bowls of fruit and nudes.
By the middle of August I quit. It was the nudes part that threw me. After spending all my life in the equivalent of a nunnery I just. could. not.
In college I took a lot of writing classes. I finished and still didn't know what to do.
Maybe I wanted to be a lawyer. After all I had watched The Paper Chase many times. I am Jewish - we argue a lot. How about that?
I applied to law school and got in. But the commute from my apartment to the school was ridiculous. We're talking Bronx to Long Island, at night. And lawyers worked all the time. Not a lifestyle for me, a young bride.
Plus my mind was not that detail-oriented, I thought. Or maybe someone convinced me of that?
The opportunity came up to work at a fashion magazine. I got all dressed up, wore my special interview suit, brought a portfolio of ideas, and got the job.
But when I came home a terrible migraine struck me. Blind and nauseous I stumbled to bed where it wouldn't go away till I slept it off.
And then I realized that subconsciously, my brain was telling me something: Any kind of no-boundaries lifestyle, whether it be creative or simply too much work, was just wrong for me.
My old roommate called.
"I shouldn't be telling you this, because we left on such bad terms," she said.
"We did?" I thought the problem was her crush on my husband.
"They called from CUNY Graduate Center. You won a scholarship to study sociology."
"Oh. OK."
So I went. And it was pretty cool. More than cool - I absolutely loved it.
Maybe I will be a professor? I thought. But they were wrapped up in such...esoteric things. Postmodern, poststructural, who gives a s**t, really?
And somehow one thing leads to another...I wind up as an adjunct professor, then an entrepreneur with a writing business, then working for a Madison Avenue ad agency, and ultimately for the government.
Now I have to tell you, of all the career paths I might have envisioned for myself back in 1987 on the day I graduated high school - the government was most definitely not one of them.
Where I come from, we think of "the government" roughly like "the Cossacks." (You never know when the next pogrom will hit.)
But more than eleven years later, I have to say it's the best thing I ever did.
To look at me you'd never think it was a natural choice. Left to myself I'm an ideas girl, sitting in the corner writing all day, building sandcastles of ideas that I turn into thought products and then move on.
And my husband had to twist my arm to get me here. Because I was happy knocking myself out as a consultant and director of a think-tank.
I still remember that conversation.
"They are FIRING everyone in your company," he said. "The life of a consultant IS NOT FOR YOU. The traveling is not a stable lifestyle and we have two little kids."
"But I like it."
"Everyone in D.C. works for the government. GET OUT OF THERE NOW."
So I did apply, and I did get in, and I actually started out in creative. 
I loved it - I won awards - though I kept butting heads with the bureaucracy.
And then something happened to me. I realized that the very thing that was irksome, was the thing that was drawing me in.
I started to look at the bureaucracy and wonder if I could do something to make it better, at all.
The winds of change pushed me further and further from pretty pictures and elegant words.
And closer and closer to "boring" stuff like budgeting, contracting, technology, and operations.
I realized that I was actually good at details. That I liked managing people.
And that finding, attacking, and solving problems was very much a rewarding experience.
It hit me like lightning that what people say isn't always true.
If you really want to learn, do the things that make you uncomfortable.
Photo credit: Brian Wolfe via Flickr
Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

When Innovation Holds You Hostage

Everyone's got ideas. My father-in-law has a million. They just pop out of his head the same way you and I breathe.
  • Before any of us could spell "metrosexual," Dad made his own "Magic Cream." No chapped hands in the winter and nobody called him a girl.
  • When we weren't sure if the kids needed changing, Dad invented diapers with a smiley face, which told you when they were wet.
  • Way before I was even born, Dad had created the Bug Zapper. It vacuumed up apartment pests just like THAT.
Dad is not a formal inventor. But he loves to tinker with his creations. And all of them, perhaps accidentally, have since been productized. For example:
The best thing about Dad, as an inventor, is his complete lack of ego. It is always about the product, and how it could theoretically be improved.
Which leads me to think about Alibaba. Wall Street is going crazy for this company:
  • A middleman - doesn't buy or sell anything.
  • Biggest U.S. IPO ever - market cap of $236 billion.
  • $8.5bn revenue on $300bn sold on its sites in 2013 alone.
I'm not that innovative myself, unfortunately.
But I admire people who are.
And it's insanely great that someone figured out how to match and surpass the power of Amazon, eBay, and Paypal combined.
And there's one thing I do know as sure as I'm standing here today.
No matter how inventive you are, or think you are, there's always somebody better at it than you.
So it pays to keep a very open mind. To destroy your own inventions, regularly. And then to incorporate the technology of those who are superior.
Quickly and effectively replacing yours, with whatever powers theirs. 
Rebranding, repackaging, redefining and starting over again.
And then going about your day, more profitably.
Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Photo credit: Fengschwing / Flickr

Saturday, September 20, 2014

How About UX For The Employees?

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch, 1895 via Wikipedia

A thing isn't a thing until it's got a fancy technology acronym. Preferably one with an X.
And so the simple idea that users should own the experience has one: UX.
Briefly, it's the art and science (mostly science, they like to say) of optimizing the customer's interaction with your digital properties.
But I have to wonder:
  1. Why must we limit UX to a website? Or a mobile app?
  2. Why is it only bounded by your brand, as it inhabits the virtual?
  3. Why can't we expand the UX concept so that employees become a primary target audience?
Any leader will tell you that the most important stakeholder of any organization is the employee, not the customer. Because if employees are happy, understand their jobs, and are resourced and empowered to deliver, they will do that with joy. 
That means 87% of the salary you're paying is garbage. 
That means for all of the emotional customer service you claim to provide and all the intellectual knowledge production and collaboration you say you offer...you don't.
Want to maximize ROI? 
Set up a workplace that makes logical sense to the staff, and consider only secondarily the biased views of executives - who mostly interact with each other.
  • Organize departments to facilitate collaboration and not stovepipes
  • Display KPIs prominently on a TV screen in a public place, one that includes both mission performance indicators and leadership feedback scores
  • Make projects responsive to a dedicated PMO (project management office), and not to a functional lead
  • Establish an employee communications council staffed from every department in the company
  • Make the physical layout easily navigable
  • Establish places and spaces to socialize, and to retreat
  • Have walk-in counseling, mentoring and training
  • Establish on-site daycare
  • Yes, offer free food and drinks
Again, it's just so basic: Workplaces cannot be robotized, virtualized, or dehumanized. They are enterprises of people. And people work well when their experience of the workplace is positive.
The premise of UX is that control is removed from the mind of the designer, the architect, the party formally "in charge." This person or group may be well-trained, an expert and have the best intentions. But that does not mean they know what the people want or need.
The job of a designer is only to follow the lead of the user. No matter what kind of user they are.
If you want the organization to be well-run, let the employees themselves run it.
Painting: "The Scream" by Edvard Munch, 1895 via WikipediaDisclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why The Heart Of Your Brand Is Not A Pretty Face

Photo of Dani Zimmerman by: Daniel M. Viero / Flickr Creative Commons

Runway models sell products. 

But don't confuse them with the brand.

The heart of who you are - your image, to other people - is more boring.

It's real, but it's invisible, and extremely difficult to describe. 

Your brand is a series of decisions.
  • Who is picked to run a company, an agency, a school.
  • How ordinary people treat one another within the organization.
  • What kind of website you design. Which mobile apps you fund. Whether you personally go out on social media or not, to represent your brand.
  • How budgetary funds are allocated. Which projects get the go-ahead, or not.
  • How people get recruited, promoted, demoted, and fired.
  • What stories are chosen to run on the news.
  • What people do with your material in their spare time. If they share it on Pinterest. 
  • The values you portray everywhere. How employees act, who use your name on their business cards and LinkedIn profiles.
That's why having a focus is so important to having a brand.

Because it isn't any one thing. It's a combination of multitudes. And if nobody knows what you stand for, you will end up standing for nothing.

Branding is a business call. It's for leaders to lead. It's that serious.

Marketing folks can tell you a lot about your brand - afterwards.

But if you want to actually build a brand, you must be more than a well-designed ad.


Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Management Lessons from Challah & Wine

Photo credit: Tim Sackton/Flickr

The traditional Shabbos meal begins with wine and challah. Although they taste good, I never really understood why we bothered. 

* On the traditional deep purple wine, or grape juice often used in its stead. When you combine them with the also-traditional white tablecloth, get ready for someone to spill - and stains that never come out.

* Re: challah, it literally takes forever to make. Mix, knead, rise, punch down; rise, bake; wash everything. 

You could use white wine, or clear sparkling peach grape juice. You could buy the challah. A lot of people do that. But why do so many bother to do things the old fashioned way?

So what about this.

* What if the point of the grape juice is the stain?

* What if the challah exists for the slow nature of making it?

Here's what I mean. 

When you have an organization full of people, those people are going to be "imperfect." The systems will frequently be "broken." The surrounding environment will never be "optimal."

And in that broken-ness is an opportunity. 

Instead of striving for an impossible robotic perfection that we know can never exist and that we wouldn't want to live in, maybe we can just celebrate being human.

Instead of worrying about when the grape juice will spill, maybe we should spill it first. And then we can relax, remove all the false expectations, and go about achieving things that can really be achieved.

About the challah.

Some people take an entire week to prepare the Shabbos meal, not just the opening bread. I know of one person specifically. Literally, on Sunday, she wakes up and starts shopping and cooking for Friday night.

One time we went to her home to share in a Jewish holiday celebration, for Purim. It was warm, and lovely, and fun. Because she really had taken the time to focus on what is important to her, in her life - bringing people together to celebrate G-d.

That's the management lesson of challah: to focus on people, the most important part of the organization, some would say the entire organization - by taking the necessary time.

Managers don't have to believe in G-d. 

But it is good to put one's work in context.

Technology, budget, process reengineering are great. But they're also gravy.

At the end of the day, every workplace is about human beings.

The job of a manager is to harness their strengths, by optimizing the culture.


Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A feminist at the Shabbos meal.

When I was a little girl we used to travel to Toronto, Canada to visit my Bubbie and Zayde. And to Monticello, New York to visit Grandma and Grandpa. (May they rest in peace.)

To the outsider, Shabbos meals were anti-feminist. Bubbie and/or Grandma both cooked and served the food, and sat at the table and listened as Zayde and/or Grandpa led the goings-on.

The men made kiddush, doled out the wine, gave us bread after the traditional washing of hands.

But you wouldn't want to "liberate" them, Norma Rae. Had you dared the women would have tossed you out on the doorstep by your ears. The kitchen was actually "her-space," and the women knew that we could gather there "getting food ready" and just let the men do the men thing.

We could participate in the table conversation or not, but it wasn't in the end "our" conversation.

"The neck turns the head," Bubbie used to say. Traditional Orthodox feminism is that the woman tells the man what to do, but subtly. Is it simplistic? Yes. Does it work most of the time? I doubt it. From what I saw from my grandparents, they did things together. Good marries are about half and half. 

But you can preserve the image of who's running things. 

Here is the positive about having a parallel gendered culture, for Jewish women. It insulates us from unwanted sexual attention. (Although apparently not Jewish boys, judging from the amount of literature now coming out about sexual molestation of them by male teachers...very disturbing.) 

It's liberating to create safe spaces for expression. It values the role of mothers and enables questioning of relationship status quos.

But of course it's hurt as well. It does create the image that women are separate and inferior - even if it's a token image - because women don't "learn" or "lead" like the men do. It creates a disjuncture between home and work, because at work women absolutely can and do take charge. And it's not fair to men or women to shovel them into roles that don't necessarily fit.

It's important to emphasize that you can be spiritual and completely outside of religion, but if you choose a religion then your spirituality is intimately tied to actual knowledge of the religious texts. In my experience Jewish schools vary as far as education goes, a lot, but when you get a good teacher who really sits there and talks to you it can change your life. 

And vice versa, a bad teacher is like eating pizza with a bug in it, you never want to eat it again and then it takes a really long time, if ever to dip your toe into those waters.

As far as me, I have an unbelievable aversion to any expression of sexist shit, but I also crave a warm and family-oriented meal, generally. 

I also get a little bit panicky sitting with people for too long of a time, being much more comfortable thinking about the thoughts running through my own head. 

So if I had to drive that train and run the kind of kitchen that my grandmothers did, it would sink me. But the notion of a place and a time and a structure, just stopping to hang out with family and friends to celebrate and be warm about our faith, is beautiful. 

I wouldn't want to be "on display" in that kind of setting - I actually prefer the traditional ways of my youth, hanging back with the women in the kitchen. It feels more proper. 

But the next generation is very different about it. I don't think that setup totally works for them.

But that's what feminism is, right? We get to choose what we want to do.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter how we structure it, as long as nobody is trying to dominate anybody else.

Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Girls" Season 3: Hannah, Feminism, and the Addict(ive) Jessa

Now it's onto HBO's "Girls" Season 3.

I have a lot of trouble watching this show, and yet. Here I am binge-watching.

It is not at all self-serving, poorly acted, or lacking in any mechanical kind of way. Just the opposite, the show is brilliant. It's Lena Dunham's mind encased in glass. And she is "crazy," but not truly; it's what happens when you're super-sensitive to the stuff everybody else doesn't get or successfully ignores.

She is "out there" in a way that's watchable. I have to.

I don't like the sex scenes. It's like "Sex and the City," I think they could have gotten the point across without being NC-17.

It's exploitive of the actors personally when shows force them to appear nude and to engage in sex with others in public.

I don't like the anti-feminism. Lena/Hannah can't rent a car by herself, she needs her boyfriend Adam to do it. Hannah supports him, while he whines and loses his keys and is "delicate" and has sex with someone else and then just...skates away from it.

I don't like it that one of the moms says that "men hurt women, that's what they do, get over it."

They actually debate whether a woman can be President.

But I know Lena's making us actually question all of these things, because she doesn't like them.

You say that you believe a woman can be President, but do you really?

Are you really onboard with all the difficult steps and choices along the way? What a woman has to do, and discard in order to get there?

I am not sure that you are.

Do you say one thing, as a woman who supports women's empowerment, but then actually do and think another?

About the sex...there is a very big difference between sex and sexuality. I know, really that Lena is trying to get to something past the human body, same as "Sex and the City" before that.

In fact sexuality is the universe of human emotion around the concept of sex. It is the girl in one of the episodes who "huffs lighter fluid" and blames her early molestation but can't admit that she is a lesbian, and that is why.

In the graphic-ness of the show, Dunham forces us to see what the characters are doing to themselves, and each other, through their use and abuse of the body and the body in intimacy with other people.

Jessa, an addict who has lost all semblance of innocence, is the only one of the characters with  no sympathy left for herself or anyone else.

You know that she is in serious need of some help. But you respect her refusal to ask for it. She knows better.

She is honest, too. Sitting there in rehab she tells each person, right to their face, what their problem is. "It's the vest," she tells the lesbian. And then has sex with her, which she later calls an act of kindness.

It was.

I watch the show and feel the pain that Jessa feels. She's so scarred and so scared. There is something so repetitive about what she's going through. There's nothing left for her to do.

She reminds me of Robert Downey Jr.'s character in "Less Than Zero," the one who died.

Lena Dunham understands women. That's why "Girls" is a great show.


Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Comment on Penelope Trunk's Blog, "Could 9/11 Ever Become A Time Of Celebration?"

Here's Penelope's blog

And my response, below.



You drop a mention of harboring a Palestinian who supported the overthrow of Israel.

Then you say you’re sort of sympathetic, but don’t ask me any questions, because this is a blog about something else.

As a Jew, where do you stand?

How about as a human being? What do you believe?

If you don’t know what to believe, couldn’t you at least study a little bit before making any kind of statement at all?

You would find that Israel (although imperfect in many serious ways) was settled by Jews who bought the land and who were happy to have a fairly tiny bit of it.

The Arabs in Israel could not tolerate the concept of a Jewish state and so attacked them from the very start.

Note, it was not the concept of coexistence that was a problem. It was the idea of a State itself.

Where before there was…nothing.

What gave birth to Zionism (the belief in a Jewish national state) was NOT racism or even religious conviction. Rather it was the fact that we were routinely RAPED, ROBBED, MURDERED, and EXPELLED from our homes and our countries.

Zionism is about Jewish empowerment. It is about the will to live as a free people in our own land. Israel is a FREE country where there are 1.7 million Arab citizens and just about every political stripe you can imagine, including Arabs in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament).

Israel promotes free speech and freedom of assembly and freedom of life choices, including for people who are gay, who don’t believe in G-d, and who would like to see the Jews wiped off the face of the planet, not to mention off of the land.

The Jews in Israel support the Palestinians, only to have that support turned into supplies for terrorists who literally sit up day and night thinking up ways to murder Jews.

The terrorists say, “We love death like you love life.”

Before you were ever born, millions, millions, millions of people died so that you could live freely as a Jew in the United States.

Not to mention as a Jew in Israel, if that is what you want.

The Palestinian for whom you are sympathetic – well so am I.

But unfortunately he is part of a totalitarian system of hatred.

Anyone, anyone who tries to make peace with Israel is branded a “collaborator.” You can go onto LiveLeak or YouTube and find videos of what happens to them…they get brutalized and dragged through the streets.

Please, think about what you write, before you write it. Think about the impact. Don’t think that you, or your sons, are exempt from the hatred that swirls all around us.

Plenty of people want to see Jews dead, just because we’re Jews, and it’s not about holding an “anti-Israel policy point of view.”

Including Tariq and his father, probably, if they’re leading an anti-Israel movement.

That’s who you had sleeping in your home, and taking your $40.



Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

It's 9/11 & I'm Angry

I wanted to write about other things today.

  • Why pop culture is essential to digital engagement. (Because you have to speak to things that are relatable to the masses, not interesting specifically to you in your context.)
  • Why having a positive attitude is so important at work. (Because it is the nature of people at work to bond over negativity, and negativity is toxic and feeds on itself.)
  • Some of the most important lessons I've ever learned from executives. (To be positive/professional/have a great work ethic. That being loud is not the same as being effective. To put the bottom line of what you're saying up front.)
  • Who I aspire to be as an executive. (Sol Berenson, from the show "Homeland," who acted as the head of the CIA for a time. Because he has phenomenal judgment, uncrackable loyalty to his people, delegates leadership to them, sees the vision of peace in his head at all times. Doesn't give a flying fig about his ego. Has colleagues, friends, and loved ones for life.)
  • Why government has such a hard time speaking in the people's terms. (Because we are so full of ourselves, think that government has to be stuffy, find it nearly impossible to put ourselves in the people's shoes, want to preserve the idea that our subject matter is so incredibly esoteric that no Earthly being can ever figure it out.

But I can't, because it's the anniversary of 9/11, and I'm so angry. I remember being at home and watching the planes fly into the World Trade Center and thinking it was some kind of joke or mistake or technical glitch...

but it was a nightmare and I had to run to the elementary school and pick up my kids and I was afraid they wouldn't make it home, that they would bomb more of the D.C. area...

and my husband was stuck in the city and I thought that I would never see him again.

So I am so, so angry that anybody dared to carry out such an attack on our Nation, that so many people died and for absolutely nothing.

I visualize them screaming, and choking and running. The smoke. The jumping. The endless, endless death.


Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Power of "Good Shabbos" & Saying Hello To People Generally

So we've started to keep Shabbos more. I don't drive, which is driving me a little bit crazy actually, don't go to Starbucks or Barnes & Noble or shopping. I don't do laundry.

I feel unproductive on Shabbos, but paradoxically more at peace. The family is together. Although I still use the computer, too much and they complain that I'm not paying enough attention. Plus there is no fancy Shabbos meal waiting when we get home from our morning walk.

But one really nice thing is how people say "Good Shabbos" to us. I can't tell exactly how we landed on that side of the dividing line that says, you're one of us even though you don't go to synagogue enough and even though you aren't as religious. But it feels really good to be part of things.

We have these narrow sidewalks near the synagogue, and each and every person, or almost each, says "Good Shabbos."

I thought to myself yesterday that this very small gesture means so much. 

  • You can know the entire Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). 
  • You can stand in synagogue all day. 
  • You can check wads of romaine lettuce for bugs to make sure you're within spec as to what an observant person is supposed to do. 

But if you can't say hello to a person, if you can't make them feel warm and welcome and part of the same Jewish community as you on a Sabbath, then you're a colossal asshole and don't understand the first thing about Judaism.

The same principle holds true at work. 

You can have all the management platitudes about core values, all the corporate newsletters, all the intranets and nice speeches. 

But if people can't say a simple hello in the hallway then something is seriously wrong, and the office is a miserable place to be.

One of the things I learned in school was the evil nature of "sinas chinam," literally hating on each other for no reason at all. 

We still haven't learned. But there is evidence in my little world that things are getting better. 

I like it.

Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. 

The Cassette Tape Playing In Your Head

There's this movie out on Netflix called "How I Live Now," about a girl who finds redemption through love and hard work. The movie shows her looking in the mirror and thinking about how awful she is.

We've all had those thoughts, and they can seem very natural. But when you see the scenes in front of your eyes, it's striking.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who was prone to depression, used to say that thoughts are like a horse, and you need to lead the horse in the direction you want it to go.

What you tell yourself can change your reality. It works like this: You acknowledge what's happening, but you look at it from a different perspective. For example, tough times are an opportunity to gain insight into what really matters to you in your life. Difficult relationships are an encounter with a person who teaches you something about how to correct your own bad habits. And so on.

Changing your thoughts is like changing a cassette tape. It can be done, but requires some effort. You can't just flick the radio buttons or the iPod to make the song change...you have to actually put forth some work. But it isn't impossible.

All you have to do is realize those negative thoughts when they're happening, focus on the fact that they exist, and decide that you don't want to have them in your life.

Think about the reason that you're having them.

Connect the dots...what needs attention in you, your job, your relationships, your life?

And put the hard work into making things better.

Even if you don't succeed totally, the fact of taking action, plus the vision of a better future that you are working toward - will.

Disclaimer: This blog is written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Making A Difference Through Questioning Authority

Screenshot source: Quotessays.com
Emma Goldman was a Jew born and raised in late 1800s Russia. There was no such thing as dissent in her world, which was "ruled by fear and the ubiquitous secret police, a world in which even the mildest expression of dissent would be summarily crushed."

She joined the Russian revolutionary movement with the intent of overthrowing Russia's leader, the Czar. Once she emigrated to the U.S., she also plotted the assassination of the capitalist Henry Frick as a political statement.

But people admired, and continue to admire Goldman for her belief in freedom. As a young revolutionary she and her peers imagined, as PBS puts it,
"...a society of free equals, a tantalizing Utopia in which all problems could be solved on earth, by ordinary people."
Questioning is the key to freedom. In an 1843 letter to his friend Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx said that change can only happen when we begin to question our thinking - a lot:
"The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions."
Unfortunately, said Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), we can't question ourselves most of the time. This is because our behavior is determined by the unconscious mind, which can only be reached indirectly. For example:
"Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious."
Modern-day business theorist Chris Argyris is known for trying to help organizations change their cultures. But this can only be done, by helping them to look at their misguided assumptions. He states:
"Effective double-loop learning is not simply a function of how people feel. It is a
reflection of how they think—that is, the cognitive rules or reasoning they use to design and implement their actions. Think of these rules as a kind of ‘‘master program’’ stored in the brain, governing all behavior." 
In the toxic organization, people say they want to learn new and better ways of being, but they're blocked because of flawed assumptions. Argyris goes on:
Defensive reasoning can block learning even when the individual commitment to it is high, just as a computer program with hidden bugs can produce results exactly the opposite of what its designers had planned.
In practice, dysfunctional organizations are all alike in one respect. They tend to have people in power who demand allegiance without question. And when people do stand up and say something, they are rapidly shoved aside - either because they are somehow stupid, or crazy, or even disloyal.

This happens everywhere, for example:
  • Governments
  • Businesses
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Charities
It may sound paradoxical, but even in an organization dedicated to free speech, a toxic culture can mean that dissenting voices are silenced. Or voices who sense a disconnect between what they are seeing on the ground, in their lives, and the theories espoused on TV.

So the greatest thing a person can do, who otherwise has no institutional power, is to practice the art and science of questioning. It opens the door to rational thinking and sweeps away the cobwebs of dictatorial assumption, including the assumption that only one approach is right and true and all others are obviously to be discarded.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Freedom and the Problem of Informed Consent

"I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it."
– Col. Nathan R. Jessup (actor, Jack Nicholson; writer, Aaron Sorkin), A Few Good Men

I see a lot of stuff out there criticizing the U.S. on its handling of foreign policy, criticizing the President personally, suggesting that internecine conflict hampers us from making a move, or suggesting that an intelligence agency or secret world conspiracy is behind the many seemingly inexplicable things we see.

You could argue any of these points of view, but in the end your arguments will be flawed. Because you do not know what you do not know. You're not in the room when the foreign policy discussions are held. You aren't the President. You would only have a second- or third- hand account of a story leaked by someone who has a bias or vested interest in portraying things a certain way. And you definitely aren't still on the inside an intelligence agency or the pit of a secret world conspiracy and simultaneously standing on the outside talking about it.

Does that mean the information bubble is hermetic? No, obviously. But it can't be trusted because the nature of secret information is to remain as such.

The real issue is informed consent. We need it, but what if we can't afford it?

What if "the people" need to be protected from themselves in order for the world to survive?

You will respond, and I won't blame you: "That's unacceptable to me," because "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

You will say: "The very same people who claim to 'protect' us will, in a world without informed consent, also be our physical and virtual jailers, and will be impossible to resist or overcome.

You don't want to live in a police state.

I don't have the answer for you.

I can only say that the basic human need for free choice compromises the two opposing models of governance we're seeing in the world today.

* The first is the open dictator model, which essentially says: Our ruling group is in charge, we only care about ourselves, stay out of our way, and if you don't we will kill you.

* The second is the model which says: Our inter-denominational ruling group is in charge, we have to manage this world together, and whoever doesn't want to play nice gets isolated from the rest of us.

The people in charge of these modes of governance don't seem to get it.

They say, in effect, you don't get to know what we know, because your open debate of secret information compromises the integrity of our rule (Model 1) or our ability to keep you safe (Model 2).

They don't understand that freedom is so basic a need that people will die for it. They will exhaust their entire lives seeking it, like a suffocating person chokes for air. They will stand on their sword, ruin their careers, walk away from lives that were formerly bought and paid for with silence.

Open communication is fundamental to freedom. People will not rest. They will force the issue.

People will make up stories or piece them together in order to force communication happen.

And so - since you cannot silence the people even though you may think this is a necessary thing - what has to happen is as much credible communication as possible.

The government, any government, must say: I can tell you this much, this is real information, chew on that. I can't tell you any more.

And the real information has to be as extensive. The data has to be raw and cooked, that is people need data sets as well as an explanation of what those data sets mean. Not an ideological explanation but a narrative.

There arises the question, what happens when the enemy uses this data against us? That is not a light question. Someone has to sit down and think about it, logically, rationally. It's an issue that must be debated, in the open, in public.

I believe that government can do better. Official communication does not have to be clumsy and flat-footed and leave us lurching toward chaos. It can be measured, and reasoned, and believable and calm. It can be the kind of talk that speaks to intelligent adults, as opposed to the substitution of Tweets for speeches. (I cannot tell you how much that irks me.)

It wasn't always this way. Something has gone off the rails. Either the threats are worse and we can't talk about them at all, or the solution is so radical that we can't talk about the vision that is unfolding, and so we try to pass the time in the meantime, hoping that people won't notice.

They notice.

Sometimes I want to crawl into my old TV set, I want to live in The West Wing. I want to be the C.J. who represents Martin Sheen. I want to be Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, a hopeful young Republican admiring the image portrayed by Ronald Reagan.

I know we can get back to where we need to be. We don't have to accept murky silence as the price we pay to avoid Model 1 dictatorship. But we will need an honest debate about freedom and the boundaries of official communication to get there.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Transparency Is Impossible. Now What?

Currently I'm in the middle of Homeland (Season 3), having just finished the latest season of Tyrant on VOD. Before that it was 24: Live Another Day.

I watch the shows and the messages about national security come through loud and clear. This is art, not life but art frequently gives people permission to air things that cannot be said in ordinary discourse:

* From a security perspective, transparency is a ridiculous concept. Information is power and when you give it away, you're giving it to your enemies and not just your friends. Why would you give the enemy your secrets?

 * The facts are much more interesting and complicated than anything the media will portray. Whatever we are getting downstream is not the reality closest to the action. In a democracy, it is that reality that the public wants, needs and has a right to know, in order to make good decisions rather than be inflamed by hype and huff. The question, though, as indicated in #1, is how far can and should you go? If you tell everything, the public is at risk. If you tell nothing, you've surrendered to totalitarianism.

* Public opinion is regularly manipulated. The purpose of doing so is regularly offered as a noble cause, although some are honest enough to simply admit they want power. It is done through the omission of information or the provision of information that is incomplete, misleading or false. 

* The line between bitter enemy and close colleague is not only blurry but ever-changing. We tend to think of enemies as people difficult to understand and remote from ourselves, but actually if you want to gain power over someone you need to bring them close and leverage their interests so as to advance yours. (Only when you have no other choice do you push on their weak spots.)

* Within any social system, there are different factions vying for power.  Some factions attain and maintain power over other factions by holding onto information, or by conducting operations without the other factions knowing (and having the opportunity to "ruin" them).

* The term "crazy" is used as a tool. It may indeed be that the person's mind has snapped. Or it may be a convenient excuse to nail them to the wall so that they don't interfere with someone in power.

* The best national security assets are 1) technical experts with 2) superior judgment about when to break the rules, who are 3) also willing to die for the cause. To be great at this kind of job, you must have absolute mastery of each of these three areas - having one or two but not all three puts everyone else in danger.

What do we do about this as citizens? Perhaps take the time to evaluate multiple perspectives with a critical eye. Refuse to jump to quick conclusions. Consider facts but also the unsaid nature of much that surrounds them. Connect things that don't seem to go together. Be willing to change one's opinion.

Above all, participate.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.

Monday, September 1, 2014

How Coca-Cola's "Sharing" Campaign Messed Up Its Brand

This is a can of Coca-Cola.

This can holds memories, sweetness, refreshment, joy.

I don't care how many calories are in this can.

This can is a selfish pleasure, all for me, now.

This is a can of a Coca-Cola with someone's name on it.

It is a sacrilege to all the brand stands for.

By creating this can Coca-Cola has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of its own core product.

And this is the Coca-Cola sharing campaign.

It magnifies the original error.

All I want is a classic Coke. Not New Coke, not a soda with someone else's name.

I don't want to share it.

And I don't understand who messed up what was the #1 brand in American history, or why.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government. Screenshots via various Google searches for Coca-Cola cans and the "sharing" campaign online.