Writing Secrets

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I’m ALWAYS to tap other’s brains to uncover writing tips. As I “shelter in place” I dug up one that spoke to me a while ago and still resonates.

Most everyone at least considers writing at some point in their lives. For those of us not as gifted as the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Faulkners of this world, sometimes some writing techniques can come in handy. Here is a suggestion from Silas House, author of five novels as well as plays and works of nonfiction:

“To Kill a Mockingbird would certainly have had little effect without the presence of memorable folks like Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus and Calpurnia. The Outsiders wouldn’t have meant much to me without Ponyboy, Johnny, Cherry Valance and all the others. The Color Purple only took up housekeeping in my heart because of characters like Celie, Shug and Sofia.

Characters are what make us love fiction, what make the stories stick with us and speak to us. Yes, plot and sense of place and action and the language are hugely important. But a novel would be a boring affair indeed without those who populate it.

The point is that I didn’t come to care about Scout or Ponyboy or Celie because of how they looked. I cared about them because I knew what was going on in their minds and hearts. Readers are better informed if we give them what is in a character’s brain, not what is on her body. ”

Want more? You can read the full article here

Tightrope

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Every so often, a book comes along that makes you think. And when one makes you think about the country you live in, it gets my attention.

That is why I was drawn to a review of a new book, “Tightrope, Americans Reaching for Hope,”
by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

The review alone took me to places In America I have never been and knew nothing about. Here is how it begins:

As the United States awakens from one of its foundational myths — that we are a democracy without castes — the official record of our times is being written largely by people born to socioeconomic advantage. This irony, in which those on the fortunate end of historic wealth inequality attempt to chronicle a populist movement produced by that inequality, often results in dubious journalism.

Even well-intentioned urban, coastal, college-educated scribes commit obliviously condescending word choices (“flyover country”), illogical assumptions (everyone in red states voted for Trump) and variations on poverty porn, in which subjects are conveyed as helpless and joyless (“observe this sorry case in Appalachia”). To those who know something about, say, rural poverty firsthand, earnest nonfiction narratives understandably may read as voyeuristic studies predicated on the dangerous idea that we are a nation of two essentially different kinds of people.

In fact, we are a nation of essentially similar people shaped by vastly different circumstances of place, wealth, education and culture. Those best able to document our socioeconomic divide with humility and accuracy typically have occupied more than one class, remain connected to the one they left and attribute any upward mobility to good fortune rather than to personal exceptionalism.

One such journalist is the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who grew up tending sheep on a small family farm in rural Oregon in the 1960s and ’70s. In “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” he and the journalist Sheryl WuDunn, who is also his wife, offer a litany of stories from across the country, revealing the structural causes of countless so-called personal failures among the working poor. Most of these stories come from Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill, population 1,105.

Intrigued? You can read the full review here

Changing Minds

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Whether you are a leader at work trying to get people to do what they think they can’t (or don’t want to) do, or a worker trying to get a colleague to cooperate, or a gig worker trying to get someone to buy what you are selling, we are all in the business of sometimes trying to change people’s minds.

That is why I was drawn to a Wall Street Journal piece, “How to Change Anyone’s Mind.”

The subtitle, “People instinctively resist being forced to do things differently. Instead of pushing, try removing the barriers that stand in their way.” Here is how it begins:

Everyone has something they want to change. Employees want to change their bosses’ minds, and leaders want to transform organizations. Salespeople want to win new clients, and startups want to revolutionize industries. Parents want to change their children’s behavior, and political canvassers want to sway voters.

But change is hard. We pressure and coax and cajole, and often nothing moves. Could there be a better way?

When trying to change minds, organizations or even the world, we often default to a particular approach: pushing. Boss not listening to that new idea? Send them another PowerPoint deck. Client isn’t buying the pitch? Remind them of all the benefits. When people are asked how they’ve tried to change someone’s mind, my own research finds that the overwhelming majority of the answers focus on some version of pushing.

The intuition behind this approach comes from physics. If you’re trying to move a chair, for example, pushing usually works. Push it in one direction and it tends to go that way. Unfortunately, people and organizations aren’t like chairs; they often push back. Instead, it helps to look to chemistry, where there’s a proven way to make change happen fast: Add a catalyst.

Catalysts convert air into fertilizer and petroleum into bike helmets. But most intriguing is the way they generate change. Instead of adding heat or pressure, they provide an alternate route, reducing the amount of energy required for reactions to occur. Rather than pushing, they remove barriers.

This approach is equally powerful in the social world. I’ve spent over 20 years studying the science of change, interviewing leaders to understand how they change organizations and helping some of them do it. I’ve learned from superstar salespeople how they converted customers, from a hostage negotiator how he got hostage-takers to surrender by understanding what they sought to accomplish, and even from a Jewish clergyman who helped a white supremacist renounce the KKK.

Want more? You can read the article here

We Write

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While we are all hunkered down and riding out the coronavirus, I’ve used the time to review some great articles on writing. Always looking to up my game.

I found one that resonated with me when I first read it, and it does today as well. It involves a question aspiring writers sometimes ask themselves: Who owns the story, the person who lives it or the person who writes it? In her piece, “The Right to Write,” Roxanna Robinson sheds some light on why we write:

Writers are trying to reach some understanding of the world, and we do this by setting down stories. We draw on our own experience, but, since that includes everything we encounter, this means drawing on others’ stories as well. Shakespeare didn’t limit himself to writing about the life of an uneducated actor from Stratford-on-Avon. He felt he had the right to write about anyone – kings, queens, fools, servants, any age and any gender, any background, any race. Many of his stories came from other sources, but he imagined the lives and the minds of these characters so completely that he earned the right to tell their stories.

A writer is like a tuning fork: We respond when we’re struck by something. The thing is to pay attention, to be ready for radical empathy. If we empty ourselves of ourselves we’ll be able to vibrate in synchrony with something deep and powerful. If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us. If we’re lucky, it will be a note that reverberates and expands, one that other people will hear and understand.

Want more? You can read the rest of the piece here

China and the World

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Earlier this month, I posted a blog entitled “China and the World.” It leveraged an article that took a 10,000-foot view of how China has – and will likely continue to – interact with other nations.

An opinion piece in the New York Times, “A Healthy Fear of China,” used the example of how China pressured the NBA to suggest that we should expect more bad behavior. Here is how it begins:

“I have seen the future, and it works,” the left-wing journalist Lincoln Steffens famously declared, after observing Bolshevik Russia in its infancy. What was intended as a utopian boast soon read as a dystopian prediction — but then eventually, as Stalinist ambition gave way to Brezhnevian decay, it curdled into a sour sort of joke. By the time the Soviet Union dissolved, even the people inclined to defend the “ideals” of Marxism tended to acknowledge that as a system for managing an advanced economy and running an effective government, the one thing Soviet Communism definitely didn’t do was work.

Today, though, there is a palpable fear in the liberal West that Beijing is succeeding where Moscow failed, and that the peculiar blend of Maoist dogmatics, nationalist fervor, one-party meritocracy and surveillance-state capitalism practiced in the People’s Republic of China really is a working alternative to liberal democracy — with cruelty sustained by efficiency, and a resilience that might outstrip our own.

This fear is stoked by a growing realization that the “Chimerica” project, our great integration of markets and supply chains, has had roughly the opposite effect to the one its American architects anticipated. Instead of importing liberal ideas into China and undermining the Politburo’s rule, the Chimerican age has strengthened Beijing’s policy of social control and imported totalitarian influences into the officially free world.

 Want more? You can read the full article here

Work Dilemma

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While many of us “shelter in place” or practice social distancing at work, once this health crisis passes, we’ll all likely be back at work trying to catch up – and likely stressing out.

We will need to deal with co-workers again and in an environment where we are stressed and trying to catch up, manners can break down – big time.

I was taken by a recent piece in the New York Times. The title is self-explanatory: “Give Compassionate Feedback While Still Being Constructive.”

And the subtitle says more: “People want feedback that helps them grow and improve. But how you deliver it matters, too.”

Here is how it begins:

Imagine a company where directness is prized above all else. Managers deliver blunt, harsh feedback in the name of efficiency.

Now, imagine another company with a very different culture. Here, directness is nowhere to be found. Managers are accommodating and kind, overlooking mistakes or issues so as not to hurt feelings.

What’s the problem with each? The first creates a toxic culture of brilliant jerks that drives people out and eats itself from within. The second ignores issues until they build up and affect business metrics.

We have all seen these companies in the news, as a trending topic or even firsthand. You may be at one now! But it’s when we combine directness and compassion that we create a culture in which people can truly thrive at work.

At Thrive Global, the behavior-change tech company I founded, we call this compassionate directness. It’s our core value — the one that fuels all the others.

Compassionate directness is about empowering employees to speak up, give feedback, disagree and surface problems in real time. But it has to be done with compassion, empathy and understanding. It’s what allows us to course-correct, improve and meet challenges while also building teams that collaborate and care for one another.

Want more? You can read the rest of the piece here

What If?

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I write about things that make me wonder. “What Ifs” come naturally from both my military experience as well as my current work in the high-tech world. Here is what inspired For Duty and Honor:

What if the Islamic Republic of Iran is killing Americans in terrorist attacks and other actions and the United States is not taking action? And what is a carrier strike group commander decides to create an incident that has Iran’s fingerprints and uses this as an excuse to extract his own vengeance on Iran? Can he be stopped?

And here is the review from Wings of Gold:

The U.S. and China

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Much ink has been spilled regarding the relationship between the U.S. Federal Government and the Technology Industry. Some of it has been shrill.

That is why I gravitated to a recent op-ed written by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The title of the piece, “Silicon Valley Needs the Government” reveals a lot.

Dr. Schmidt has street creds few others possess. He is the chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the Defense Innovation Board.

Here is his preamble to his article: “I Used to Run Google. Silicon Valley Could Lose to China. We can’t win the technology wars without the federal government’s help.” Then he continues:

America’s companies and universities innovate like no other places on earth. We are garage start-ups, risk-taking entrepreneurs and intrepid scholars exploring new advances in science and technology. But that is only part of the story.

Many of Silicon Valley’s leaders got their start with grants from the federal government — including me. My graduate work in computer science in the 1970s and ’80s was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But in recent years, Americans — Silicon Valley leaders included — have put too much faith in the private sector to ensure U.S. global leadership in new technology. Now we are in a technology competition with China that has profound ramifications for our economy and defense — a reality I have come to appreciate as chairman of two government panels on innovation and national security. The government needs to get back in the game in a serious way.

Important trends are not in our favor. America’s lead in artificial intelligence, for example, is precarious. A.I. will open new frontiers in everything from biotechnology to banking, and it is also a Defense Department priority. Leading the world in A.I. is essential to growing our economy and protecting our security. A recent study considering more than 100 metrics finds that the United States is well ahead of China today but will fall behind in five to 10 years. China also has almost twice as many supercomputers and about 15 times as many deployed 5G base stations as the United States. If current trends continue, China’s overall investments in research and development are expected to surpass those of the United States within 10 years, around the same time its economy is projected to become larger than ours.

Unless these trends change, in the 2030s we will be competing with a country that has a bigger economy, more research and development investments, better research, wider deployment of new technologies and stronger computing infrastructure.

You can read the full piece here

Worry?

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Do you worry? Who doesn’t? But how far does worry go…does it lead to stress and even anxiety? Sometimes it’s helpful to try to sort all of this out.

That is why I was drawn to a recent article, “Getting a handle on Worry, Stress and Anxiety.” Here is how it begins:

You probably experience worry, stress or anxiety at least once on any given day. Nearly 40 million people in the U.S. suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Three out of four Americans reported feeling stressed in the last month, a 2017 study found. But in one of these moments, if asked which you were experiencing — worry, stress or anxiety — would you know the difference?

I reached out to two experts to help us identify — and cope with — all three.

What is worry?

Worry is what happens when your mind dwells on negative thoughts, uncertain outcomes or things that could go wrong. “Worry tends to be repetitive, obsessive thoughts,” said Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, Calif., and the author of “The Stress-Proof Brain” (2017). “It’s the cognitive component of anxiety.” Simply put, worry happens only in your mind, not in your body.

What is stress?

Stress is a physiological response connected to an external event. In order for the cycle of stress to begin, there must be a stressor. This is usually some kind of external circumstance, like a work deadline or a scary medical test. “Stress is defined as a reaction to environmental changes or forces that exceed the individual’s resources,”

What is anxiety?

If stress and worry are the symptoms, anxiety is the culmination. Anxiety has a cognitive element (worry) and a physiological response (stress), which means that we experience anxiety in both our mind and our body. “In some ways,” Dr. Marques said, “anxiety is what happens when you’re dealing with a lot of worry and a lot of stress.”

Want more? You can read the article here

What If?

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I write about things that make me wonder. “What Ifs” come naturally from both my military experience as well as my current work in the high-tech world. Here is what inspired The Coronado Conspiracy:

“What if the most senior officers in the United States military are so dissatisfied with the President that they concoct a scheme to have the President direct a major military operation, and then have that operation fail in order to drive the President out of office?”

And here is the review from Wings of Gold: