Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Style and Substance, Substance and Style

"When the age of the Vikings came to a close, they must have sensed it. Probably, they gathered together one evening, slapped each other on the back and said, 'Hey, good job.'" - Jack Handey

Tomorrow marks an important transition. There is a lot I think I could write about, but rather than try to capture it in one shot, I think it will trickle out in other writing down the road.

In the immediate term, it means finally updating my social media accounts (but I draw the line at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and after that I just don't want to hear about it), getting back to e-mails sent to my yahoo account (I barely see that account during the week), finishing up my required prereq Microeconomics class, making sure all my financial aid forms are in order, reviewing my Accounting books, playing with Excel, catching up with friends, going to drill, sleeping in once or twice, tweaking my business plan, well...you get the idea.

It's time to do all the stuff people daydream about doing when they step off a long run on the treadmill and take time to catch their breath. A couple Mondays from now, a whole new run begins on a whole new treadmill.

The primary theme that's been front-and-center in my cerebral cortex for the past couple weeks has been the important distinctions between style and substance. I've been tremendously blessed over this five-month dash to have gotten the chance to get to a know a lot of people. As a social scientist might say, my 'degrees of separation' to any random person in the phone book have shrunk considerably.

The people that impress me the most are the ones in whom I've seen real substance and follow-through. Someone, for instance, like the Deputy Superintendent of Police, who hears about an idea we're brewing up in the office and comes by to offer suggestions, asks how he can contribute, and really means it. Someone who helps teenagers start a catering business that runs on its own steam, rather than a grant or subsidy. Someone like the LHS teacher who has gotten involved in the Sister Cities program, and personally reached out to two consulates to initiate needed discussions. Someone like the Ramen-stockpiling alternative media editor who understands the concept of an 'imperfect launch,' and will roll out a web feature that will enable volunteering, interning, and service learning opportunities all across the city's many neighborhoods and institutions, even if the prototype isn't perfect and will need tweaking on the fly.

Alternatively, I'm put off by people who join Advisory Boards just to be on said Boards, whether for ego, resume, connections, or whatever...and have no interest in participation beyond the required presence. Ditto for people who grumble at meetings about the way things are or aren't working, without a willingness to 'be the change they wish to see,' and for those who reflexively throw leaders under the bus without taking the time to see more than one side of an issue.

I'm also just *seasoned* enough to know when I'm hearing a discussion about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Anemic retail conditions aren't going to be fixed by a couple dozen people who all already know each other gathering and saying things like, "The real key here has to be communication." Instead, they'll change when the city attracts more firms like Nobis and Watermark, along with the types of jobs they bring. Companies based in Lowell, hiring in Lowell, and marketing their goods or services well beyond Lowell, are game-changers. UML expansion closer into the Downtown-Acre 'seam', by the way, is also a game-changer.

To go back to the style and substance split for a second, I'm proud to say that I worked for a boss who falls squarely into the substance camp (though he still came out okay in the Lowell Style Week sweeps, and his new Aide has a coffee mug to prove it!)

Seriously, though, I learned a lot by watching someone who doesn't kowtow to power. You hear about that type of stuff a lot, but the reality doesn't usually match the hype. If you're a constituent coming to meet Patrick, though, it honestly doesn't matter whether you're a 45 year-old investment banker in an expensive Italian suit, if you're an 87 year-old lady who has hardly ever ventured beyond the Connector, or if you arrived here as an immigrant from Cambodia -- yesterday. All will receive a standard honesty and respect. None will ever get a perfunctory wave of the hand or a disingenuous "we'll look into it." If the words are said, the words are meant. Boiled down very simply, that's pretty much what substance is all about.

A lot of pols disappoint you when you learn they don't actually care much about policy, or its details -- they're more focused on vanity and the direction of the current political weathervane. This is where Patrick veers off not just from most traditional politicians, but even from his colleagues locally. The idea itself interests him first, and then the way it would impact ordinary people and the city overall immediately follows. Only long after those considerations does political feasibility even factor in -- and this is where I've seen the Sun, WCAP, and even some of the bloggers go wide of the uprights with assessments about political naivete or clumsiness. It's not that the politics wasn't considered -- it was -- just before the Mayor quaffed a tall, steaming cup of I-don't-care (two sugars, one cream, lightly stirred). Last I checked, that's what everyone always says they want in their leaders.

With tomorrow's transition, I feel like a full circle has been reached with regard to the decision the Mayor made several months ago: the very same conspiracy theorists who ranted, raved, and opined wildly on Facebook about what score was being settled for a favor owed (the truth is, I didn't know the position even existed until it was offered) are congratulating and well-wishing my successor with the same level of energy and excitement today. I don't think they see the irony or the contradiction, and I don't want them to. The reaction from the city's chattering classes shows me all I need to know about what purpose was served.

As a close friend told me back at Ray Robinson's in March, just prior to the breach, "Brace yourself, because when change comes, the first guy through the door will take some concentrated fire."

Der Sturm vorbei ist. Der Wind der Freiheit Schlag. And may they continue to do so...

Now, THAT Was Awful!

I just scanned my Facebook "News Feed" and saw a video that someone posted that bothered me enough to write a blog post about it.  I thought about posting it here as a reference, but my "better angels" got in the way and said not to, because I don't want to promote it.

The video consisted of a cute six year-old listing "Ten Reasons Not to Vote for Obama," which co-starred his even younger siblings, and included such profundities as "he lets bad people into our country" and "he'll make us wait longer to see the doctor."

The content is the same sort of drivel that both sides spew at the not-so-informed level.  What really got me, though, is that six year-olds don't have political opinions.

If you're running, and you want to show them in your ads because your family is part of who you are, I think that's different -- there's nothing inherently manipulative there.  Even if you're Tim Cahill, and you want to gather all your daughters in your Quincy kitchen to say how wonderful Daddy is, I still think that's okay (they're expressing a concept that they at least understand).

However, coaching people who don't understand what they're saying to recite lines advocating for a particular political cause is, frankly, disgusting.  A guy running for Congress in Rhode Island did this in 2010, and it bothered me then, too...the "point" supposedly was that even a five year-old understands economics, but that the President doesn't [the problem is, a five year-old doesn't understand economics].

Just to clarify the point, this is totally distinct from having your five- or six-year old prodigy appear on Letterman.  If that kid is banging out Beethoven's 5th, or she's rattling off all the world capitals, those are talents from within that are being expressed.  

You can form your own opinions about child actors, dancers, performers, even beauty pageant participants...as for me, I try to keep a very wide latitude of tolerance and non-judgement, the same that I would ask for in return.

I just feel that using not-yet-politically sentient kids as mouthpieces to express political opinions crosses a line of acceptability.  Once these children become politically conscious, what if they disagree with those statements?  What if those kids become Democrats who support ObamaCare?

I don't plan to vote for President Obama this fall.  For what it's worth, I won't be voting for Mitt Romney, either.  That's not the point.  The point is just that that particular video made my skin crawl.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

King Star's Royal Pivot

Not all business ideas have to be blow-your-mind exciting, like an iPhone app that syncs your toaster and your coffeemaker, and then alerts your dog to bring you breakfast in bed.

Even some fortunes have been built by decidedly un-sexy stuff, like garbage (literally, in the case of Wayne Huizenga...he consolidated garbage operations and made many millions before ever touching professional sports or home video).  Some of Warren Buffett's biggest wins have come from snoozers like freight transportation.

Potentially worthy ideas need to be vetted, and then given a trial run, before being re-assessed.  If they get ensnared in the defeatist mindset that says, "If there were really a market for that, someone would already be doing it," then that's a shame, because if everyone thought that way we'd never have Ford, IBM, Microsoft, Quicken, Domino's, or pretty much anything else.  We also wouldn't pick up a $20 bill we saw lying on the ground -- if it were real, the thinking goes, someone would have already grabbed it, so just keep walking.

I popped into King Star today, which even on early Sunday afternoon during the Folk Festival was not exactly bustling, to say the least.  I asked how things were going and got a pretty honest answer followed up by a more encouraging statement about their "late-night hours."

This could be old news to those more familiar with the Lowell bar scene, but King Star offers late-night delectables, err...drunken munchies, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings (well, technically the following mornings) for a block of time just prior, and just after, last call.

That's an awesome idea.

There's the Club Diner, which can sometimes be impossibly crowded during that special hour.  There's Broadway Pizza, but that's quite a ways from most of the bars spilling around two.  Beyond that, the classic Denny's/IHOP type options are just going to require a car, period.  Even if you've got a designated driver, you've still greatly improved your effort factor at a time when motivation may be slumping.

Enter King Star.  They've got all their standard menu items (including all-day breakfast now) plus cheap pizza slices, which who wouldn't want when they've just stepped out of a long night next door at Major's and aren't quite ready to call it good?  King Star can satisfy a food craving, help get someone back on the path to sobriety/hangover prevention, and also provide a venue for someone looking for a phone number or whatever else people ask for these days but who just ran out of time before the lights got turned on next door.

They say they're building a groundswell of steady late night customers, which is particularly encouraging, given that school isn't even back in session yet.

I don't start b-school for another couple weeks, but as I stated in a previous post, my first-ever lesson in business is that success or failure hinges way less on the concept than on the person or people behind it.    In that spirit, I give kudos to the management team at King Star who decided to be proactive -- rather than just bemoan the anemic daytime foot traffic along that particular part of Market Street, they identified a real need and pivoted in order to be able to meet it.

Sustenance for the staggering may not win hearts and minds at a pitch competition, or inspire the people who dole out humanitarian awards, but it may be enough to tip one small business's bottom line into the black.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Actual "X" Factor

I have done some armchair, sandlot-league analysis of local businesses here on the site before, and have since learned that I was focusing too much on the wrong stuff when doing so.

Back in the spring, I heard Desh Deshphande speak at Appleton Mills, where he emphasized that he's not overly concerned with business ideas when he's assessing the likely odds of would-be entrepreneurs.  Instead, he's way more focused on assessing the entrepreneurs themselves.  In fact, he went so far as to say that he would rather place his chips on "A-people with a B-idea" than on "B-people with an A-idea."

It was the first time I had ever heard that said, but it really stuck with me, because I've got a strong entrepreneurial bug but no precise vision of what I want it to turn into (although someone gave me an idea today that really got some wheels turning up between my ears).

Anyway, I've been doing some more reading and learning, and I've now heard that theme come from plenty of other places.  I am really enjoying Philip Delves Broughton's "Ahead of the Curve" (I put it in the 'good memoir' category because the descriptive detail is great and the author shows real vulnerability and imperfection as opposed to raw self-promotion).  Anyway, PDB's book is a recounting of his time at business school...in the book he talks about received wisdom regarding start-ups which is right in line with Desh.  To paraphrase: "Most ideas are good.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of new business ideas are good.  The big variable in whether success or failure will result is the  management behind the idea."

To Lowell-ize that, Brew'd doesn't do so well just because people need coffee and sandwiches at 61 Market.  Andy's community ties, business approach, and consistency create strong ties that keep bringing people back.  The ICC coming to downtown is obviously awesome for Andy, but that's not heavenly manna for everyone (witness the revolving door just across the street next to Wings).

How will Lowell handle the Vietnamese Fro Yo cartel?  I'd way rather be at 360 Merrimack than tucked away at Dutton and Fletcher when the after-school flood of humanity rolls up Merrimack Street on afternoons in the fall, but management still matters, so I wouldn't bet on one and discount the other just because of location and foot traffic.

Kad Barma performed an excellent skewering of Jon Stewart's defense of President Obama's recent gaffe about who deserves the credit for starting businesses.  As he rightly pointed out, we shouldn't split hairs about the words [If you said there 57 states during a speech, I wouldn't actually think that you thought that...gaffes are just part of public speaking], but we should debate the idea behind them, which is in fact rather clear when viewed in the context of the President's other words and actions.

Who really deserves the credit for driving the economy?

My money, and my heart, is with the entrepreneurs.

And the concept that the who, as opposed to the what, behind a business idea is what really matters, only serves to reinforce that further in my mind.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Big Green Machine

After a monumental paperwork hurdle and several needless bureaucratic delays, I have finally transferred over to the unit at Devens that I've been trying to get to since I touched ground back in February.  In a way, it doesn't change much -- instead of driving to Reading one weekend a month, I'll drive to Devens.

However, getting over to that unit, which will offer me far better career options in my MOS, required a "component switch."  I am no longer MA ARNG, and I am now USAR.

In plain English, I'm now a Reservist.

Lots of people ask about the difference between the Guard and Reserve...what it basically boils down to is a legal distinction.  Guardsmen on State Duty fall under Title 32 (State), whereas Reservists fall under Title 10 (Federal).  Because of posse comitatus, Title 10 folks can't be used for domestic law enforcement.  They are not a tool of the Governor.

Title 32 guys and girls, however, are one of the Governor's best assets in a time of crisis (or Marathon, party convention, or even a threat of hurricane).  Title 10ers can't be touched for those things, but they are just an extension of the Big Army.  So my chain of command no longer runs through Governor Patrick's office, which means that in theory, if the Big Green Machine needed someone with my particular rank to fill a particular billet, they could grab me without someone reaching in to say, "Uh-uh."  [Guardsmen can only be mobilized by unit, except in very unusual circumstances].  However, I will point out that a) optempo is decreasing, b) most such tours are filled voluntarily (take a look at the economy), and c) I have a two-year dwell guarantee now anyway.

The unit I'm going to sends people on short tours all the time in and out of such exotic locales as Devens itself; Arlington, VA; Tampa, FL; Doha, Qatar; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Kandahar, Afghanistan.  [Among many other possible places].   It's less unit-based and more flexible to the individual...so instead of having an annual 'summer camp' in which everyone convoys down to Bourne, we each just have to find ANY 14-day block in the year when we can do something.  There's even a 'flex-drill' option in which someone so motivated can do the entire year's worth of commitment in one single chunk.

See the appeal for someone trying to get into the consulting fast lane while still staying militant?

First drill is August 4/5 and no, I can't wait...instead of working with for MPs and Artillery guys, I'm going to be with my own tribe.  Seriously.  My unit Commander holds my same MOS.  There's also a clear path to field grade promotion...oak leaf may be coming in 2-3 years.

And I'm extremely lucky that when the unit NCO called me yesterday to say, "Do you know any commissioned officers who can swear you in?" there happened to be a retired O-6 fighter pilot and NDU instructor just a phone call away who was willing and able.

I'm honored that Cliff Krieger will be linking up with the CENTCOM folks and me today to make it official...and Cliff, I will be in my 'Saturday best' (ACUs!) 

Monday, July 23, 2012

...And Now, a Brief Pause for Jenuflection

"I don't know who you are.  I don't know what you want...but I have a very particular set of skills; skills I've honed over a long career."  -- Liam Neeson, Taken 

If you haven't already heard, Ted Panos broke the news this morning on WCAP about the naming of Jen Myers as the new Mayor's Aide.  The succession plan involves me sticking around through this week and into next.  Jen will start next week, and I'll hang around for a proper "turnover."  A concept very familiar to anyone who has served more than a day in the active duty military, 'turnover preparation' means you're constantly getting ready to teach someone else to do your job.

In this case, I've had a strong emotional attachment to the position, and to the question of who the 'someone else' might be, for the past few months.

Here's why: I came to the office amidst a bit of controversy, so I felt very strongly from Day One about professionalism.  Knowing that even a slight screw-up -- heck, even an imaginary screw-up, would land my boss and me some unwanted real estate in The Column, followed by chattering-class Monday morning finger-wagging, led me to take a nearly-obsessive view that 'good enough' would never be, and that any scheduling or protocol breaches were just unacceptable.  [Ask the City employee who incorrectly stated that the Mayor 'no-showed' for an Earth Day event...if you generally think of me as a 'nice guy' you might have been shocked by the way an inner Rahm Emanuel emerged during a subsequent phone exchange].

Anyway, a compulsive desire to 'get it right' for the past few months has left me very emotionally attached to the position itself -- the basic protocols, the responses to phone calls and e-mails, the support letters, the proclamations, citations, the 'easy wins' to notch from putting streetlight outages into E-GOV, etc.  In a city that doesn't have a '311' as a general information catch-all, I have embraced 674.1551 as its nearest equivalent, and I think it ought to remain so.

So as excited as I am to be heading to a new chapter in life that will help start another new chapter, I'm still somewhat very tied to the procedures and the general mentality that I have helped to put in place up in Room 50.  In fact, I've been borrowing my boss's ear since April to talk about the "particular set of skills" I hoped we'd find somewhere:

1. Someone proactive, but not so proactive as to be reckless and not know boundaries.  
2. Someone who is conversational, but not a talker.
3. Someone who can handle aggressive personalities without either curling up in the corner or escalating confrontational situations. 
4. Someone who can handle the crazies, but without letting them impede on real work.  
5. Someone who writes well, but more of a Hemingway than a Faulkner.
6. Someone who can work autonomously, sometimes with minimal guidance or direction.  
7. Someone who can interact with peers in a way that shows cooperative spirit but also backbone.  
8. Someone who respects The Boss and the Institution but can still say "that idea sucks" or "you're ten minutes late, get your act together" when those things need saying.  
9. Someone who can represent Hizzoner when it needs to happen -- and without trying to 'wear his stars' or, alternatively, staring at the floor and reading from the script.  

If you think Jen Myers doesn't meet all nine of the criteria to a T, then you and I don't know the same Jen Myers.

And if you think that people who can hit all nine of those wickets are easy to find, then you need to start a headhunting firm.  Yesterday.  And then I need to find you when I finally decide to start a company.  Because I know a lot of people, but only a slight few 'niners.'

And that's why I'm so excited that Jen is taking the reins.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

They'll Need a Crane*

This could be a really interesting event to attend and photograph if you're able.  Info from the city is italicized below:

Ngrid and Verizon have completed their scope of utility reclocation, and removed all the overhead wires that were preventing the crane assisted removal of the temporary bridge across the Hamilton Canal.
The crane is scheduled to be on site tomorrow morning at 7:30, with the actual pick likely happening around 9:00 to 9:30. The entire bridge will be picked at once and placed on Jackson St, then rolled down Jackson to the dead end area past the intersection with Canal St. Then the bridge will be disassembled and prepared to be transported back to MaDot's temporary bridge facility.
The removal of the bridge will allow for the final phase of the HCD - Canal St Bridge/ Jackson St Project. The anticipated construction schedule is 3-4 weeks until they are ready for final pavement and striping.
Please feel free to pass along to anyone who may be of interest.

* Major bonus points if you recognized that They Might Be Giants reference.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Our National Forer Statement

I recently learned about the terms "Barnum Statement" and "Forer Statement," and referenced a Barnum Statement over on Cliff's blog, Right-Side-of-Lowell.

In a nutshell, these are things people can be told by any hack (whether that's a palm reader, tarot card reader, biorhythm expert, or whatever) but will believe uniquely *captures" them.

Here is the initial Forer paragraph:
"You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic." 
Think that applies to you?  If you do, you're in excellent company.  It's just specific enough without overplaying its hand, it's just flattering enough without overdoing it, and, well, it just works.

People that do "cold reads" aren't always doing it in such a cold way, either.  To someone with a visible left-hand ring, it's hard to fail with, "Although you are committed to your current partner, there is someone from your past who still enters your mind from time to time."  To someone who responds positively to a statement about unused potential, you cast aspersions upon their current boss for not picking up on it and harnessing it the right way.

Forer Statements, btw, are named for a psychologist who tested them out on students, and Barnum Statements are named for the all-American huckster P.T. Barnum, most famous for his observation about the birth rate of suckers.

The best Barnum Statement I've ever heard is this: "In your high school, there were several rigidly-defined cliques, but you didn't fit into any simple, neat, particular box.  You were sort of friends with everyone, which was great because it meant you transcended the cliques, but it also left you feeling at times like you were in search of identity."

Find someone who disagrees with that!  Or with the much more basic standby, "You have very eclectic musical tastes."  Really?  You mean I'm the only person born in 1980 who knows all the words to the first NWA album but also lets loose to Pearl Jam Ten?  I must be, like, special or something!

Anyway, reading a post Cliff wrote about elites had me thinking about what George Carlin used to say about driving (anyone driving faster than you is a maniac, anyone driving slower is an idiot).  The big American Barnum Statement similar to that deals with success, and it goes something like this:
"All the success you've had is from the sweat of your own brow.  Sure, others have advanced beyond you, but that's only because they are part of an elite who had everything spoon-fed to them their entire lives.  Meanwhile, the people who haven't made it as far as you have are just not as motivated or intelligent."  
That simultaneously plays to the American 'self-made man' mythos and the idea of some all-powerful, all-knowing cabal of people who use the seasons of the year as verbs, own houses in Newport, use the word 'sport' as every part of speech, and give their kids last names like Parker or Henderson for first names but actually refer to them by playful monikers like "Skipper," "Scooter," and "Boom-Boom."

I'm starting my MBA at Sloan in precisely one month and still hear some of the 'trust fund' comments from people who are apparently terrified of a simple Google search that would show them a cost comparison of various full-time b-schools, an understanding of what 'zero expected contribution' means on an award letter, or the way the Perkins plus the Stafford plus the VA makes for not only a great opportunity with the power to propel someone into an entirely different job stratosphere (perhaps a chance to finally meet these elites?) but also lets them live pretty darned comfortably in the process.

Which is probably a perfect segue into an announcement that I'm going to take this mostly-unthemed blog into a little bit more of a coherent direction starting now and for the next couple years:  I'm going to focus much more on business in general, on start-ups, on the interview and recruiting process, on business education, and everything in between.

Rather than expecting to stumble upon a group of pampered whiners who are whittling away two years that they have nothing better to do with, I'm anticipating interactions with a lot of highly-accomplished, confident, intelligent late-twentysomethings and early-thirtysomethings who have worked in the high finance and consulting worlds, started businesses all over the world, written programs, fought in wars, and performed every kind of public service imaginable.

If you think I'm an elitist for what will be nearly endless mentions of MIT and Sloan, then the best advice I can give you is to please head towards the door and don't let it hit you where the Good Lord split you!

However, if you are interested in pursuing start-up possibilities in Greater Lowell, the "Waltham tech corridor," Kendall Square, or anywhere in between, let's talk.  Seriously.

Also, if you a) live in Greater Lowell, and/or b) are a veteran applying to business schools and looking for some pro bono consulting love regarding the process, get in touch with me.

Let's start a really long and interesting conversation that never really ends.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Kneecapping Your Television

Today, I read some story in the news about a spat between a wealthy cable company and a wealthy content provider that resulted in people missing out on a bunch of channels for a while.

Yesterday, I read in the Wall Street Journal that Comcast's CFO is the most highly-compensated CFO playing in the Bigs, with an annual take-home pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million.

I've also been hearing about more and more people taking the step of flat-out canceling cable.  Not ready to quite go all the way towards killing my television (hey, there are some things on there I like) I recently called Comcast to talk about my bill.  It turned out to be a great move that's going to save me just under $1k annually. 

I was able to keep the news and family-oriented cable channels, plus all the basic channels, and I had to cough up the DVR that I've never used even a single time and would have about as much luck programming as I would engineering the space shuttle.  It came with some big starter package a few years ago that is designed to balloon your costs up in a stealthy enough way that if you've automated your billing, or just don't pay close enough attention, squeezes bigger money from you down the road as you blithely trudge along, helping someone buy his third island.

I'm proud to be putting the money back in my pocket (especially considering I'm about to go WAY into hock, in the hopes of fortune to come 20 months or so from now).  Meanwhile, I'll continue to enjoy direct Netflix for less than $10/month.  No, I didn't kill my television, but I can confidently say I maimed it for the equivalent of a free month's worth of day care each year in return.  My buddy Ramit Sethi, who I've known since before either of us was legally old enough to drink, would be proud, too.

Ramit is the author of the book "I Will Teach You to Be Rich," which is geared towards 20- and 30-somethings.  He breaks away from the standard financial advice about the future value of a $3-a-day latte habit by talking primarily about two things: (1) Conscious Spending; and (2) Big Wins

By paying an outsized cable bill each month that was far greater than it had to be, I was guilty of not being conscious about my money (I'll take a half-mulligan on this as I was actually away when the bill size changed, but now that I've been home five months, that excuse has lost most of its steam) and by flipping $80 a month back onto the positive side of my balance sheet, I scored a Big Win.  

Yes, yes, yes, you could say that $80 a month would be just about the equivalent of a once-a-weekday latte habit, but one is a waste and the other isn't.  As an economist would say, when you exchange money for a good or service that provides you with utility in return, you haven't wasted it.  However, when you unwittingly pay for things that don't provide utility in return, you have.  

The biggest culprits in people's lives are the subscriptions, memberships, and other recurring costs that sap their money away in small enough chunks not to be noticed in the way a major car repair or tuition bill would be.  It's reduced liquidity by a thousand cuts, or something like that. 

Just as automation is the best friend of anyone trying to seed a 401k, IRA, college savings, or other account, it can be the worst enemy when it's put in reverse.  

Raising your spending consciousness is good advice for anyone, and it has nothing at all do with having less fun, going out less, tithing less, traveling less, or any of the above (at least, not necessarily). Big Wins such as major cost savings, negotiated raises, or significant debt reduction strategies are can pay off in a way that small acts of privation just won't.  

Call it the oddest mix of Buddhist philosophy (heighten your consciousness first) and sybaritic hedonism (don't stop if it feels good) that you've heard of, but if you get the mix down in the right way, you may wind up in far, far better financial shape in the long run.

...And all it may cost you is the space-age looking paperweight flashing 12:00 just south of your television.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The 'Uncle Leo' Thing

I first came across the term "Uncle Leo" while reading a copy of TIME in a waiting room early last month at Mass Eye and Ear.  It was in one of the regular TIME columns by one of the political writers, and it had to do with the endless, often contradictory advice that constantly flows into the ear of a political candidate.  The term, Seinfeld fans will know, comes from the Uncle Leo character on the show who was, well, full of readily-available advice.

The reporter wrote about how candidate Mitt Romney is besieged with advice from well-meaning people everywhere he goes... "Be more moderate," "Be more conservative," "Court more women voters," "Don't look at women voters as a special interest bloc," "Be tough on immigration reform," "Don't alienate Latino voters," and so on and so on.  One of the curious things the author pointed out was that people who would never claim to have expertise in other fields in which they had never worked were so quick to dispense with political advice to someone who has previously run for Senator, Governor, and President.

A few weeks after reading that, I got the chance to sit down and meet with Rita Savard, the editor/publisher/EverythingPerson for Howl in Lowell.  We were meeting to talk about a major service learning project that may tie together several big entities across the city (more details to come, eventually), but I also took advantage of the chance to ask about some of the issues associated with running an independent, on-line, alternative news outlet.

Sho'nuff, there are no shortage of Uncle Leos with great ideas about her field (have they all run independent, on-line, alternative news outlets before?)  Much like any Uncle Leos in any other field, they are almost always well-intentioned.  And again, much like any Uncle Leos anywhere else, they are a free-flowing idea fountain, but not willing to put any 'sweat equity' into the concept.

Therein, by the way, lies the difference between truly effective people in any organization and, well, the 'everyone else' who always complains about how management 'just doesn't get it' and 'won't listen to my ideas.'

As someone who works for an activist Mayor who literally keeps an open door, posts public office hours, and makes time for constituents regardless of whether they are 'strong city voters' I get to see the difference all the time.

It's like, let's say you are trying to garner support for [insert name of your pet program].  If you put your own muscle behind something (i.e. a support letter addressed to the federal official who will determine whether you get funding), and e-mail it over to the person whose John Hancock you seek, he will review it, make sure it all makes sense (i.e. it's not an early release request for Charles Manson), sign it and return it...Mission accomplished.

However, let's say you start off with a more open-ended request (i.e. read this 40-page document and get back to me with your thoughts about whether you'd support), now you've tilted the 'effort scale' in the other direction.  Chances are, you are much less likely to come away satisfied.

It's pretty much the same anywhere.  In pretty much every field I've ever been exposed to, or any organization I've ever been a part of there, there is always a surplus of people who want to be the 'Rainmakers,' the 'wheeler-dealers' or the 'delegator-managers.'  Simultaneously, there are NEVER enough people who want to real *nug* through the hard work, read all the relevant memos, chase down the multi-source reporting, write the grant proposals, update the online content, build the code, etc.

My prior full-time gig was in the very bloated field of intelligence, which I hope any taxpayer knows has ballooned since 9/11 to the tune of several billions in annual new costs [now tell me, are you more worried about someone collecting $900/month to be on SSI, or someone making ten times that to scratch his goatee in a basement outside of DC]?

Anyway, one of the worst cliches I hear in that world is the lame line about how "it's all networking, dude.  I don't actually read any reporting, but I get all the info I need because I'm able to talk to people."

Uhh, not so much.  REALLY good intelligence professionals are fully capable of doing both.  People who don't like to do the grunt work compensate for it by coming up with lame lines like the one above.

To try to tie all this back together in a coherent point, it's fine to be an Uncle Leo.  Your intentions are good, I know.  But before you open your pie-hole to complain about your boss, your manager, your Company Commander, your First Sergeant, Chief, or whoever it is that you think doesn't listen to your ideas about how to make things better, really ask yourself this difficult question:  Did YOU put all the requisite effort into showing how something could work, or to make it work, and then present it for someone to bottom-line with a signature or initials?  Or, did you just say something out loud to no one in particular, and then make some futile, hands-in-the-air complaint about how no one around you has enough 'common sense' to see it the way you do?

My postulate is that no matter what field you're in, what type of firm you work for, or where you are geographically, you'll have an easier time finding the latter types than the former types.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Wherever You Go, There You're Authentic

Our l'il family just got back from a quick 24-hour visit to the nation's financial capital of New York City.  We hit a street fair on 6th Ave, Central Park, the Ground Zero site (not the actual memorial though, as we did the whole thing impromptu), and got a nice little walking tour of Jackson Heights from our Best Man, who grew up next to Boston and now calls New York home, just as I now do the reverse.

I asked him about "hipsters" and he gave me some clues about how to find them, but then let me know we wouldn't have much luck in Queens, as they mainly congregate in Brooklyn.  When I asked about how I could spot them, he offered some vague clues and then added that a friend of his had attended the opening of a hipster-themed hotel in Williamsburg that featured a neon "HOTEL" sign with the "T" missing.  Mind you, this wasn't done in a Colbert sort of funny way (this 'T' wasn't donated to Hurricane Katrina victims, I presume), but was instead done to "give the place a more 'authentic' feel."  So, just like place that sells $7 PBR cans in the meatpacking district, encourages you to throw peanut shells on the floor, and just calls itself "Dive Bar," this hotel was trying so hard to be something it wasn't that it was flashing "HO EL" to the heavens.


To me, that sounds kind of like taking a sledgehammer to the side of my car in order to appear more "edgy" or setting a few cockroaches loose around my home so that I get a better sense of "how it really is."  Admittedly, I've never known anyone to do either, but how about when someone asks an "ethnic" person to rate correspondingly-themed restaurants, as if their palate were somehow a better indicator of what *real* Greek, Chinese, or Cambodian food was?  What about just eating what you like, and calling it good?  If you prefer Athenian to Olympia, how can it be any more authentic to you than what your tastebuds say?  Ditto for Tepthida vs. Red Rose, and so on, ad infinitum.

A wee bit of introspection tells me that the people I'm most drawn to and the people I *stick* with (beyond a particular situation that puts us in the same environment) are those who are genuinely curious about the world -- as I've written here before, they are the type of people who get excited about ideas, who start sentences off with, "Did you ever notice that...?" and who enjoy weighing alternate viewpoints.  Sometimes, they might be the types that get labeled as abrasive or elitist by others, but I'll take someone who deals from the top of the deck (warts and all) over someone who 'plays the game' with hedged opinions and false modesty any day of the week.

A close second, however, goes to people who are comfortable enough in their own skin not to be searching for something more authentic.  A hotel that intentionally designs its neon "T" to intentionally not work is kind of like someone who goes to a well-known tourist destination on vacation -- as a tourist -- and then comes back complaining about it being "too touristy."

One is not worth my business, and the other is not worth my time.