Looking Ahead – Post-Pandemic

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It is fair to say that no issue has dominated our news – likely for a generation or maybe two – the way the coronavirus has. With over a million infections in the United States and more than 60,000 deaths, this should come as no surprise.

But that said, much of the reporting in online and print media has been anecdotal at best, confusing and ill-informed at worst. That is why I was delighted to read a recent piece entitled, “The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead.” It did just what I hoped it would, it looked ahead to the future. Here is how it begins:

In truth, it is not clear to anyone where this crisis is leading us. More than 20 experts in public health, medicine, epidemiology and history shared their thoughts on the future during in-depth interviews. When can we emerge from our homes? How long, realistically, before we have a treatment or vaccine? How will we keep the virus at bay?

Some felt that American ingenuity, once fully engaged, might well produce advances to ease the burdens. The path forward depends on factors that are certainly difficult but doable, they said: a carefully staggered approach to reopening, widespread testing and surveillance, a treatment that works, adequate resources for health care providers — and eventually an effective vaccine.

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

MBS

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Most people agree that the center of gravity of conflict in the world has been the area we generally refer to as the Middle East.

Those who follow this area closely typically point to the underlying power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the overarching 800-pound gorilla that makes this region so volatile.

A new figure in this equation is the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, otherwise known as MBS.

Until recently, little was known about this once-obscure minor prince. That is why I was drawn to Ben Hubbard’s revealing article: The Ruthless Prince.

It is worth a read if you really want to understand the prospects for this region.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Pixar Magic

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While most of the world is in a virtual lockdown as we muddle through the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are using that time to enjoy new movies or old movies we love.

Full disclosure, like many of you, I am a huge fan of Disney’s Pixar movies (hard to believe that the first one, Toy Story, was released in 1995 – a quarter-century ago!)

Why have they been so successful? We all see and enjoy the animation, but at the heart of each movie is the story.

That is why I was so happy when a screenwriter friend of mine shared the Pixar storytelling secrets with me. As a writer, reading them was an “ah ha” moment.

See for yourself

No Time to Write?

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Most people who write yearn for more of one thing. No, it’s not inspiration, or an uber-quiet office, or a better agent, or a more fabulous publisher. It is one thing alone: time!

That is why I was drawn to a recent article by Ken Wells, “How I Wrote Five Novels While Commuting.” It inspired me to make time. Here is how he begins:

When I took a job in New York City at the age of 44, I had work I loved, a growing family and a secret disappointment. I had always wanted to write a novel.

For eight years I’d dragged a manuscript around and fitfully pecked away at it. But mornings with my wife and young daughters were busy, and my job as an editor and writer at this paper was demanding. By the time I slogged home after eight to 10 hours at the office, I was usually too beat to write another sentence.

How would I ever find the time and energy to write?

My move came with a commute. I was captive to a train that shuttled me back and forth from my home in suburban New Jersey, to Hoboken, N.J., where I hopped a ferry to my job in lower Manhattan. The train ride was about 50 minutes each way.

A week or two into my commute, two things had become clear: I would be spending a lot of time on the train. And the ride was pretty comfortable. One day it hit me: Could I write a novel on the train?

I started doing calculations. If I subtracted, say, 10 weeks a year for vacation, business travel and sick days, that meant I’d have 42 weeks, or 210 weekdays a year, to work on my novel. If I could write two single-spaced pages a day, or about 1,000 words—which didn’t seem that ambitious—surely at the end of 12 months I could end up with close to a 400-page manuscript.

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

Reading Imperative

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Many “smart” people aren’t actually smart. They just know a lot of trivia. Sure, they can tell you all sorts of facts, they have a library of big thick books filled with enormous words, or they can give you the up-to-the-minute news about a political race. But can they tell you what any of this means? Do they do anything important with this information? Of course not.

And these types have always existed. Seneca spoke critically of literary snobs who could speculate for hours about whether The Iliad or The Odyssey was written first, or who the real author was (a debate that rages on today). He disliked hearing people chatter about which Roman general did this or that first, or which received this or that honor. “Far too many good brains,” he said, “have been afflicted by the pointless enthusiasm for useless knowledge.”

Harry Truman famously said that not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers—they have to be. And they certainly aren’t reading to impress people or for the mental gymnastics. It’s to get better! It’s to find things they can use. Not at the dinner table or on Twitter, but in their real lives.

The same must be true to us. We have to learn how to read to be better leaders, better people, better citizens. We must learn how to read for our own benefit—and so that we might have aid to offer to a friend in pain, or a soul in crisis. Seneca’s point was that only knowledge that does us good is worth knowing. Everything else is trivia.

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