Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why MostTraining Doesn't Work

We spend a lot of money on training and the money is wasted most of the time.
Sunshine & Organic Granola
Let's start with the conferences, retreats, and weekends out of town. This include "Ted Talks," "SXSW," and all that other good stuff.
We should be honest: Mostly it's a lot of crap from an actual learning perspective. Because officially approved case studies, no matter how compelling the subject matter, are normally sanitized to death. Because of course, we don't embarrass ourselves, we're here to tell a positive story, we don't want to burn our bridges, the organization would have a massive fit if they found out you were telling us about that disaster, and so on.
Mostly these things are about big companies selling stuff, by getting smart and moneyed and influential people together. It's about saying "I was there and I met XYZ and heard that." Of course it's about trying to network as well, and get a better job.
I remember one training conference in particular, one session in particular, where the speaker had so much to say, clearly. But it was equally clear that we would never get anything substantial out of him, because confidentiality. Frustrated, I listened to the other audience members ask difficult questions, only to see the speaker do a kind of thrust-and-parry.
After the session I sat outside in the luxuriously decorated convention area and watched people form a line for little pastries, ask where the restroom was, flip up their laptops and mill about the vendor tables looking for free trinkets to take home.
Life-Changing Exceptions
Of course, some speakers will turn your entire career around. They are so dynamic, and frankly they just don't give a damn about sanitizing the story, and wonderfully they have the ability to actually tell you the truth. When you get to witness a talk like that, your life will never be the same.
For me one such experience was a 2003 "boot camp" sponsored by Ragan Communications. I had just started working for the government as an internal communicator, and my main job was to help write the monthly newsletter.
The main speaker at that event was employee communications expert Steve Crescenzo. Like many brilliant people he came off as absolutely crazy, this bald guy waving around really bad newsletters from various Fortune 500 companies and saying they were winning his "C.R.A.P. Awards." 
The one thing that stuck with me from that training event was Crescenzo's passion for the subject matter. I think it is fair to say he was on a kind of moral crusade against bad writing, fluff writing, writing that wasted people's time.
A dozen years later, it is Crescenzo's ethic that informs my work as I write for the U.S. government. The writing here has gotten better, but the tendency toward C.R.A.P. remains always the same. What Crescenzo helped me to see is that fighting useless garbage words is a kind of war, and that even a single compromise of the keyboard has a domino effect.
We can't afford to let up, not even for a minute. Because then we've drunk the Kool-Aid, and even a little bit spreads through your body and to others, poisoning everyone in the system.
Similarly I had the good fortune to attend a solo seminar by Shel Holtz, Crescenzo's one-time training partner at Ragan, on social media communication. When they use the word "guru" they are talking about him: No fluff, he told us what mattered and why we should care about it, and then he told us what to do based on time-tested best practice. Many years later, his words are as accurate as they were when he uttered them.
The most important lesson I learned from Holtz was that in social media, you do not control the conversation but can only hope to be a valued part of it. The second most important thing is that you aren't required to tell everything, but you must say as much as you can. And then tell your audience explicitly, "we simply cannot share any further information at this time."
Every single minute of that seminar was vital to my professional life, and I burned those words into my brain like they had been applied by a branding iron.
Cheap, Easy, Online?
But life-changing teachers are few and far between. And the training business - like the higher education business - is potentially very lucrative. So just as in higher education, online training has become a popular alternative to in-person events.
Theoretically, you can see where this makes economic sense. The problem however is that few people are actually going to learn anything by listening to the equivalent of Siri for an hour. So you've taken work time and exposed people to words uttered by a computer screen. It feels like progress, but is it?
Most of the time, again, I don't think so. That is, unless:
  • You genuinely want to learn the subject matter, and can't get to a live training class.
  • Your job requires you to learn the information or get penalized in some way.
  • Your professional advancement requires that you master new and unfamiliar subject matter, and you need to use online resources to teach yourself.
Take Six Sigma, for example. In my environment they use Six Sigma terms a lot, and so I found a free training class online that offered an introductory "white belt" in exchange for viewing the modules for a few minutes. I was motivated.
Unfortunately however, I did not have any specific tasks at work that I could tie the unusual jargon to. And the history of the discipline had no meaning to me. But I was invested intellectually in this journey, and so I read the information - again and again. 
Will I get an advanced degree as a result of taking that class? Nope. No way. But do I have a somewhat better understanding of the subject, why it matters and how to apply it than before? Absolutely.
And when it comes to technical subjects like computer programming, online training is in my view an absolute must. I can't begin to count the number of people I know who are self-taught on coding, web development, and graphic design - normally through a combination of work assignments and supplemental self-guided courses.
Real-World Disaster: Where The Rubber Hits The Road
Even with all of this said, we haven't touched upon the most important way that people learn stuff applicable to jobs, to relationships, to anything important in life. 
Frankly, we learn as a result of crisis. Failure, screwups, just plain getting it wrong and embarrassing ourselves in the process.
I'll never forget my first fashion faux pas in summer camp, when I approached the rich girls from Long Island and complimented their designer clothing.
"You can't even pronounce Benetton," said one of them. "Ewwww you."
The pain of transitioning from a private-sector, self-promotional environment to the low-key, conservative world that is a government agency. 
"Where did you come from? Are you aware that this is the government?"
The realization that my assumptions about being a parent have very little to do with what is actually necessary for parenting, and everything to do with making up for the mistakes I perceived my parents to have made.
"Mom, do me a favor, would you let me cross the street by myself just once in a while?"
Learning Techniques of the Resilient
Each of us, of course, has a large collection of failures and it's up to us to decide what we do with the impact they have on our lives.
Here are the tactics that don't work:
  • Some people put their heads down. They get depressed. They hate themselves. They remind themselves every day what a loser they are, how they never have been any better and how they probably never will be.
  • Others just don't really think about it. They simply continue in their routines, trying to avoid making another similar mistake in the future - effectively crossing the street because they tripped in a particular spot.
  • Still others assign blame to the people around them, to their bosses, to their parents, to their significant others, to their life situations, to the placement of the moon, or to the weather - anything as long as they don't have to be responsible, figure it out or fix it.

But the people who really survive, thrive and move on do something else.
They are those who fail regularly, but have the capacity to stop and break the problem down.
Because it is through crisis that they see where the problem manifests.
It is through a rupture in the system that they can retrace their steps, and ultimately find remedies.
What were the steps that got me into this mess? They say.
Never mind who's at fault, how can I fix it?
They make a bulleted list - Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 and this is how I got here.
And then they take a look at all the resources available to them to fix it.
  • They read.
  • They talk to friends.
  • They make a game plan for change.
  • They establish small milestones for progress as part of the game plan.
  • And they ask other people for support.
Every single day, every person faces crises big and small.
Every single day we fail and fall and are embarrassed at the smallness of our minds, at our limited capacity.
And every single day we have the choice.
We can learn our way through the problem.
We can get up.
All opinions are my own and not those of my employer, any Federal agency or the U.S. government as a whole. Photo by SuxsieQ via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The 3 Immutable Laws of Writing

Remember that classic book by Al and Laura Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding? It's an excellent read, not only because the advice is so good but because it is offered with such certainty.

If you do any kind of writing in a professional capacity, I'm here to tell you that there are also immutable laws for that, and that they can be learned. Just remember three words: strategy, readability, and usability.
#1. Strategy
This means that you've thought ahead of time about what it is you're doing. Tips:
  • Find out what information your audience wants and/or needs and give it to them. Avoid generating words that have no purpose to your audience.
  • What will they do once you’ve told them? Don’t put it out there if you don’t know the answer.
  • Never be boring. If it’s boring to you, it’s boring to them.
#2. Readability
This means that your user can easily understand what it is you have to say. Remember:
  • When you use jargon, the reader feels like you are acting superior and gets turned off. Therefore, don't use jargon! Think about how regular people talk, the people you're trying to reach. Mimic them.
  • Your reader has a very short attention span and likely is not a Ph.D. So use short, simple, clear, easy to understand words to get the message across.
  • Talk to your user like a friend – don’t lecture. “You’ll need to visit the office by 5 p.m. in order to get the form.”
  • Don’t make the reader wait for the key information. It’s not a hidden treasure. Put it up front.
  • STOP THE PARAGRAPHS. Paragraphs are for novels. Much better: bullets and lists.
  • If you need to take a breath to finish the sentence, it’s too long.
  • Go headline-crazy. Then add subheads.  Break up the text as much as possible.
 #3. Usability
This term has a very specific meaning in the web world, but in general it means that you have presented the material in a friendly, accessible way. Think about  things like this:
  • Please add a diagram, chart or photo to break up the text and help the reader get the meaning quickly. (Tables are tricky because they can be too dense to follow.)
  • White space is your friend. Use it.
  • Check the spelling and grammar by reading it out loud to your ears, not following silently with your eyes.
  • On the web, check the technical usefulness of your webpage – meaning that the content should be shareable on social media, optimized for search engines, etc.
All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"The Girlfriend Experience" - A Skillful But Terrible Personal Brand Playbook

I've been watching Steven Soderberg's The Girlfriend ExperienceIt is a show soaked in sex. But really it's about branding's stock-in-trade - how well some people trade money for fantasy, how they anticipate and fulfill those deep dark desires inside our heads.
Christine, the main character in GFE, is more than a commodity, she is a brand. They don't want to pay just any female partner - they want to pay her. A thousand dollars an hour, to be exact.
As a person-brand, Christine's value lies in her consistent ability to accomplish at least five critical things at once:
  • She zones in on a target market, men who want companionship as well as sex.
  • She takes the time to know her audience well, and to fulfill their most common fantasies - the physically attractive, upscale girlfriend who is smart but also deferential.
  • She is deeply customer-centric - available instantly, will say and do anything to please.
  • She creates additional desire with every interaction.
  • At the same time, she creates boundaries around the transaction, and when it's over, it's over.
Christine knows that others look down on what she does, but like a true brand she has adapted her value system to accommodate her profession. As she says to another character in the show, who condescendingly calls her a whore, "I fuck them but at least I don't fuck them over like you do. They know exactly what they're paying for - and i give it to them."
Also like a true person-brand gone to the extreme, Christine only sees herself as real when she is looking in the mirror. So much so in fact, that she videotapes herself performing sexual acts, and we see her watching herself on the screen, over and over again. In the moment the experience does not feel real. But as a third party watching herself perform, she is mesmerized by the viewing.
We know that great company brands do all of the things Christine does. They consistently give us a personified fantasy in consistent, specific, valuable ways. They offer a moral view of the world, one that implicitly justifies every interaction with the customer. And most importantly, they recreate the semblance of an authentic self, reassembled, packaged and "productized" in a way that only makes sense hwen you buy it.
It is obvious on watching the show that Christine is deeply troubled. But it is just as obvious that her psychological complex parallels the way that branding has developed over the past thirty years or so. Far beyond Arlie Hochschild's concept of "emotional labor," Christine personifies the idea of a human being paid exorbitant sums for the most invasive of duties - to actually be a complete human substitute, wholly available, on every level, for cash, on demand.
We can look at the way Christine carries herself and learn how to refine our brand model. But even as we do this, it is impossible to ignore the fundamental questions that lie beneath:
How far are we willing to go to have a successful brand?
What is the impact on all of us, if some of us refuse to draw a boundary between what we do at work and how we live our lives as people?
If we are all just for sale now, all of us, on every level - what is it about us that is real anymore?
And finally, if we have all been reduced to "something consumable," ought we consider some sort of personal commitment and social action, to keep certain parts of ourselves off-limits?
All opinions my own. The Girlfriend Experience photo via

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

We Will Be Great Anyway

We may argue over who is most qualified to lead.

We may engage one another warily on Facebook.

We may be horrified by the nature of the cruelty and the suffering we often face.

But we will be great anyway.

We are a nation built on impossible dreams.

We stand on the shoulders of those who laid down their bodies and died for us.

For us.

As we seek to be great we will stumble, and fall upon the way.

We will be fooled by charlatans.

We may even give up hope.

But we will be great anyway.

Because we are a blessed nation. (Not perfect by any means.) But seeded with seeds of greatness

It may seem that corruption is strong.

But we, together, are stronger.

May the One Above guide us to be wise, and courageous.

More important, may He help us never to give up.

All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Love Is The Strongest Weapon

"The only sustainable way to fight back against those who seek to divide us is to create a world where understanding and empathy can spread faster than hate." - Facebook founder & CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Recently Mark Zuckerberg took a lot of heat for seeming to suggest that we could somehow simply "love-bomb" terrorism out of existence.
Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld lectured him: "Naive pacifism is the barnacle on the boat of vigilance." At the Mixed Martial Arts forum, a commenter said sarcastically: "Wow, why doesn't he try walking up to an ISIS checkpoint with a box of cupcakes and see how that turns out."
But a closer examination of Zuckerberg's comment reveals a more nuanced stance - one that actually makes sense. As we know from our experiences at home, at school and at work, hammering at people endlessly is not equivalent to managing them. Even if their conduct is completely inappropriate, endless war is not the answer. For one thing, it makes reconciliation impossible as both sides are traumatized and hate pours oil on the fire of hate. For another, it's damn expensive. And for a third thing, memories of the killing and other war atrocities destroy the possibility of post-conflict peace.
The destruction caused by endless war and its associated horrors, as well as the hatred caused by criminal capitalism, is amplified by pervasive communication technologies. Yesterday, for example, the New York Times reported the story of a Guatemalan woman gang-raped at the hands of local soldiers and police and Canadian mining officials. They were there to evict her from land that was technically not hers, but they took the opportunity to torture her as well. With that story online, all of us can read and react with outrage.
In 2016, in fact, we look at business, politics and military conflict as being all of a piece. The turning point began for me about 15 years ago, with the August Sbarro pizzeria massacre in Jerusalem and then the 9/11 attacks a month later. I realized on a very gut level that terrorists may appear to be striking out against a problem ("oppressor,") but that their real objective is to promote fear, hatred and destruction.  
People acting out violently on the one side. People responding violently on the other. Hate, hate, and more hate.
What does all that hatred generate? A lot of waste, along with continued hate. The U.S. alone has committed in excess of $5 billion to support Palestinian self-rule - and despite efforts to ensure that money actually goes to the people, it is constantly diverted by terrorists, including use as reimbursement for continued acts of terror.
The shocking revelation that thousands of Palestinian terrorists, including men who have masterminded suicide bombings and murdered children, are given cash handouts from aid money will cause anger and disbelief, particularly in the wake of the Brussels massacres. - "Revealed, How UK Aid Funds TERRORISTS," The Daily Mail (UK), March 27, 2016
As we know, most people are not haters- just the opposite. But it is the nature of terrorism that innocent, peace-loving people living in terrorist regimes operate under the threat of arrest or death if they appear to be "collaborators." For example, just a month ago, Tawfik Okasha was expelled from Egypt's Parliament after having dinner with the Israeli ambassador. The media have covered in gruesome detail public executions by Hamas killers wielding AK-47s. 
It is critical to a terrorist to keep the hate going. And hatred is enabled by creating a cause, a shared enemy, particularly an enemy who appears to be a Goliath keeping innocent people down. Only a hatred that appears completely rational can justify a chant that calls for the elimination of an entire state, e.g. "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."
Channeling hatred as a tool of war requires sophisticated propaganda. Per Hitler's Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels: "Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred."
That such tactics work is confirmed by the success of the long-running Arab terrorist campaign to label Israel a "Nazi state," an "apartheid state," and a "colonizer" despite its being ranked as the state with the highest democracy level in the Middle East. 
That such tactics work extraordinarily well is confirmed by the accusation by none other than a Jewish activist, the head of "Peace Now," that pulling a terrorist's knife out of your throat and defending your life is actually immoral and illegal - a form of "extrajudicial killing."
Back to Mark Zuckerberg.
As the terrorist attacks spreadfar and wide, is it really so crazy to suggest we try something else, besides simply reacting to other people's hate?
Clearly, in the short-term, there is a need to destroy terrorists who dominate the world from behind the muzzle of an AK-47. Most Americans agree it's time to deploy ground troops against ISIS and most Americans do support torture if it means taking a terrorist out of play. And in Israel, although people disagreed with the way Prime Minister Netanyahu handled the mechanics of his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, they supported his hardline approach toward defending Israel's security.
Yet leadership requires that we look ahead, past our immediate instincts toward survival and self-interest.
If we are to do that, then it pays to consider what Mark Zuckerberg is saying. 
For the root of the terrorist problem is not the fact that bad people have a lot of guns. Nor is it that we somehow lack the will to fight. 
Just the opposite - a U.S. drone operator recently said, about his current occupation, that "it's like playing a video game for four years." We dehumanize our enemy in order to kill him, or her. 
The root of the problem is our mutual acceptance of inhumanity. This is what former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (may she rest in peace) was referring to when she famously said: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children."
Centuries ago, the great Jewish sage Maimonides talked about Messianic times, what to expect from the Messiah, and what life would be like in this golden future age. He described a world where the pervasive normal order of things included world peace, abundance, and a shared focus on worshiping the One True G-d.
Before this beautiful age could be ushered in, however, there would be a great and terrible war. The belief in this war, which has different names, is shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. But the Jewish approach to this belief differs somewhat from the other two religions - according to mystical tradition (kabbalah), a spiritual war may substitute for the physical one.
In this war, the enemy is not ISIS, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban. Rather, it is inside ourselves, and if we don't conquer our own ego on the spiritual level we will be forced to engage in physical combat.
The most appropriate term for this war, in my view, is actually jihad - a holy war - in its purest sense - the struggle to contain one's animalistic nature. As the Jewish sage Ben Zoma said: "Who is strong? He who conquers his own evil impulses."
The final war is indeed love versus selfishness:
"(The last war is) between the good forces in us that want to achieve bestowal, love of others, brotherly love, “love thy friend as thyself,” and those forces that still keep us in exile. Let’s hope that we will succeed in it, without an eruption of physical war, but we will complete it and finish it and succeed at the spiritual level."
This is why Mark Zuckerberg was right. It is why the mission of his company, Facebook - "to make the world more open and connected" - is ultimately a spiritual one and an early expression of the Messianic age. (It is not a coincidence to me that the Hebrew numeric equivalent of the first three letters of Facebook is 6, 1, 3 - or 613 - the number of commandments in the Torah.)
Zuckerberg's comment also hints at the misguided way we are thinking about what "terrorism" really is.
It is not about fighting Muslims, even if the enemy appears to us in religious garb. The Dalai Lama once said "there are troublemakers in every religion" and Jews, Christians and Muslims are very capable of twisting ideology this way and that. As a Muslim colleague once said to me: "Truly religious people never have a problem with one another." 
It is about calling out and taking down people who are thoroughly and totally motivated by greed, lust and the need for power. 
The good people in this war are the ones who are motivated by conscience. They don't need the allegiance of legions of people. They don't waste their time on big houses, fancy cars and golden toothpicks. They don't steal, they don't kill unless it's in self-defense, and they definitely don't use and abuse other people. 
When Zuckerberg says we must win this war with love, what he means is that we must refuse the conscience-less behavior of evil people. Whether they are capitalist exploiters or out-of-control pseudo-religious zealots.
And we do what we have to do to take military, economic or political terrorists out of circulation - using all the legal tools available to us. But we do not hate them in return.
In the meantime, while we fight "out there," we also create a "moral economy" based on "goodness, fairness and justice." Because SAYING that you love people and ACTING ON THAT LOVE are two completely different things.
The day we take care of the people on this planet the way they deserve to be cared for -
The day we stop mouthing platitudes of social progressiveness while lauding people with more money than they can ever count -
The day we stop enabling and protecting ruthless evil killers who mouth religious platitudes while delivering innocent people to death's door -
The day we actually decide to get in there and give a damn and make a difference in the war against the evil caused by huge, aggressive, destructive egos -
The day we personally keep our mouths shut when we could have taken a cheap shot at somebody else - 
That moment we decide to start being for other people, instead of serving the greedy master I, I, I - 
That will be the day that terrorism, in all its forms, can and will finally cease.
Until that day we are, sadly, forced to waste a lot of time and money on a physical war with no end in sight. Using drones, tanks, and machine guns. Catching more and more innocent victims in the crossfire - creating more, more, more and yet more ridiculous hate.
A single candle overpowers lots of darkness.
No matter what the critics say, Mark Zuckerberg is right.
All opinions my own. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Super Rich: Smart or Stupid?

 "Secret Lives of the Super Rich" is my new TV addiction because I get to, number one, vicariously live a filthy rich life and, number two, imagine that I could duplicate how they actually did it.

This week I watched an episode with luxury yachts, luxury cars, luxury homes and an entire home that is a luxury closet. Plus there were the world's most lavish safes and a man who makes everything from fishing lures to toothpicks out of 100% gold.
I realized that these people were living by a different set of rules - some smart from a branding point of view, others not so much. 

1. Smart - The Yacht People: One guy on the show is a well known party organizer. He's the one who stocks the bar with gold-flecked champagne. He told the interviewer that the value of his parties lies not in the food and drink, but in the company and the atmosphere. Clients are paying for someone who can get the right high-class people in a rolm, make them feel good, and bring them back over and over again.

2. Stupid - The Empty Houses: A few people on the show had lavish homes that were sitting empty. It was hard to believe that anyone would spend, spend, and spend some more on a stunning place they did not even inhabit. You could make the home a museum and charge admission. You could turn it into an orphanage. You could use it as a school, company headquarters, or even a design lab. But to plant olive trees and spray them so they don't yield fruit and mess up the look of the grounds? Crazy! And when they interviewed one of the owners of such a home, it was clear the whole place meant absolutely nothing to him. Somebody sold somebody the Brooklyn Bridge on that one. A case of having more money than you know what to do with.

3. Smart - The Bulletproof Mercedes: One company tricks out the already-luxury car and adds glass that can withstand an AK-47. The customers are celebrities who want a subtle status symbol and also walk around in fear for their lives. Makes sense to me.

4. Stupid - The House-Sized Closet: On the show, this one lady was shown joyfully running around her insanely huge clothing space. She was about fifty years old, but looked like a child. Whatever she was buying when she bought that space, it seemed totally useless to me. Regressive and no status benefit. 

5. Smart - The Titanium Safe: They hd a company that makes super-strong safes that are also pieces of art. One customer didn't even know what he would use it for. But I could see why having this functional, stylish, hard-to-get status item around made a lot of sense to the buyer. 

At the end of the day the reasons why people buy super-premium things vary. Although we can isolate some general patterns, often it is simply remain a mystery, locked in the buyer's head.


Copyright 2015 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions my own. Photo by me.