Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Best Thing I Heard in 2013 About...Public Speaking

During one of our Sandbox Summer Accelerator classes, Todd Frye (Mill Cities Leadership Institute) offered us a class on public speaking.

One thing he said that stood out for me was a break-from-the-crowd opinion about so-called "filler words." His take on them?  They're okay.

Of course, he quickly followed that up with "in moderation."  Still, I like his point -- in so many classes about communication and public speaking, moderators take the approach of, "Get rid of ums, uhs, y'knows, reallys, and likes -- at all costs."

But guess what?  They're natural.

Only when they become a distraction -- like when Caroline Kennedy says 'you know' 163 times in a three-minute TV interview -- are they bad.

Listen to regular speech, though -- the normal, pressure-free, chit-chat type stuff among friends.  The phone, the elevator, the bus stop, the coffee breaks, etc.  You will hear a few of these 'filler words,' but you'll have to pay attention enough to seek them out...they're subtle and sometimes easy to miss.

When people prepare to speak in public, they should be aware of their nervous tics and blind spots, if possible.  They should avoid filler-word repetition that distracts from the ACTUAL purpose of their words. But they should NOT be brought down by a desire to completely eliminate these words...if too much mental energy goes towards THAT purpose, the overall quality of whatever is being said will decrease -- esp. if part of it needs to be extemporaneous, or if it includes Q & A that cannot be scripted.

So, umm...just think about what...uhh...really, like matters...and don't get too bogged down with those, you know, filler words, or uhh...whatever they call them.

Project your voice.  Be confident.  Know your stuff.  Make some eye contact.  Those are the biggies.  

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Three Best Things I Heard This Year...About E-mail

Here are three good things I heard about e-mail this year, in order:

(3) Keep them short.  People are inundated with e-mails of so many stripes, shapes, varieties, flavors, and colors. Really long e-mails that look intimidating may never be read, or responded to.  Sometimes, I have to remind myself of this one when I really get *in the zone* but I know it's good advice.

(2) OHIO Principle.  It was love at first sight for me when I heard about this one.  OHIO here is an acronym for "Only Handle It Once."  It applies phenomenally well to inbox maintenance but is also an awesome principle to remember for cleanliness of your home, car, apartment, etc.  With respect to e-mails, the problem many people have (including me) is that we give our inbox a quick-look and we pick the low-hanging fruit first.  THEN we notice the actually important stuff, and lamely say something like, "I'll get to those later."  And we all know what happens then.  OHIO -- live it, love it.

(1) A primary purpose of e-mail should be to set up real-world interactions.  Of course, it can't be done w/people who are scattered all over the world, but in can go something like this: "Hey, haven't seen you in a while.. how bout we meet up at the Club Diner?"  Maybe there's a quick back-and-forth in which some topics are discussed, but the idea is that you're using e-mail as a medium to push towards an actual encounter -- NOT as an endless, back-and-forth volley about anything and everything you're doing or thinking.  I really like this principle when it comes to reaching out to people that you don't already know, but want to add to your network.  To me, "Hey, I'm interested in what you're doing, can we get together for coffee" is a winner, but "Hey, I'm interested in what you're doing, can you answer these 9 detailed questions I've crafted for you, with subsections a through c for each?" is a loser.

In 2014, I will be better with e-mails.  Too many important ones fermented way too long in my inbox this fall. I have learned that a client might not bat an eye after replying to your missive from three months ago as if you sent it yesterday, but will follow up in an agitated state if 48+ hours passes before he sees a response to his e-mail to you.

Forget the fairness or the unfairness.  When it comes to 'rightness,' the client takes it -- seven days a week, and twice on Sunday.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Tipping Point?

The intersection of service tips and social media has made it into several prominent news stories this year.  

Two particularly noteworthy stories were the Drew Brees story (really a 'no-story' if you ask me) in LA, and the lesbian waitress story in NJ.

For the unfamiliar, a waitress at a Chinese restaurant took to social media to complain about the inadequacy of a tip left by the Saints QB on a takeout order.  The lesbian waitress story centers around a woman named Dayna Morales, who fabricated a $0.00 tip receipt with a lengthy explanation for the lack of tip (..'we cannot support your lifestyle...')  She took to Facebook to complain, and soon she had received thousands of dollars from around the world, which was supposedly bound for the Wounded Warriors Fund, but somehow never made its way there.  Shortly after her story hit the news, the couple that had supposedly written the comment produced proof of the ACTUAL tip, via a credit card statement.  It was generous, and they quite calmly pointed out that they had no way of knowing -- let alone caring -- about their server's lifestyle.

Anyway, both the waitress from LA and the waitress from NJ were fired for their actions, one of which just showed bad judgement, and one of which crossed a completely different line.  

Locally, I can't help but notice that the baristas at my favorite caffeine-before-the-train haunt are making a habit of posting detailed information about the tips that they do (or don't) receive.  Inevitably, those posts are followed by long strings of the 'string 'em up' variety, with each commenter outdoing the last about the cluelessness or evil spirit of the bad tippers. (For those who don't live in Lowell, this is a strictly service-at-the-counter establishment -- not a place where people are paid sub-minimum wage because of an expected pourboire).  Some of the best comments are the ones where people complain about "just getting the change."  I'm not a math guy, but if your throughput is dozens of people per hour, and you're getting "just the change" on top of your base wage, that ain't so bad.  

They may be tipping some customers right off the edge.  

Here's why:  I already have a hard time justifying a $2.87 habit, as much as I love the iced coffee there (whaddothey put in that stuff...seriously?)  Especially when I face down the reality of my own fiscal cliff, coming in about 5+ months, when I lose that 'break-from-reality' status known as 'full-time student,' I'm going to have be more honest about where I can cut some corners. Even if I (correctly) justify my 6:30 a.m. habit by saying I want to get out, stretch my legs, and breathe some outside air, I can do all that with a walk around the block, homemade cup in hand.  

The thirteen cents I get back, I could part with.  Sure.  But if THAT is somehow still not enough, what is?  A buck? Again, not a math guy, but that looks like a 35 percent cost increase to a habit that I already know, deep down, to be a guilty pleasure.  

The easy answer is to just start putting that fancy-pants Cuisinart coffee maker I got as a wedding gift three years ago to better use.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Show Me a Man Who's Angry...

...and I'll show you a man who cares. It works in nearly any context. The only trick is that by 'angry' I don't mean someone who just gets mad when it's his or her issue (i.e. a dispute about pay, sick days, leave, etc.) I mean show me a person who gets fired up about the job itself and I'll say you've got a quality employee on your hands.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Sorta Counterintuitive Thing About "Free"

I got a letter in the mail the other day with a Salem, NH return address.  It looked *real* (in other words, not just another bill or piece of junk mail) so I opened it, thinking it might be a card from a friend whose fiancee lives up that way.

As it happened, there was a $100 gift certificate to a restaurant inside the envelope.

I thought this was pretty interesting -- they're willing to take the risk on printing, stamping, and mailing letters to people nearby, and then include $100 gift certificates as enticements to eat there, as a way to drum up business.

Does that make them desperate?  The reality could be that it's quite the opposite.  Maybe, in fact, they're so confident in their product that they see the gift certificates as a better form of marketing than local TV and radio spots, AdWords placements, YouTube campaigns, or glossy promos in the local papers.  They've run their numbers, and they know that the Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) of someone who enjoys their product is high.  The tricky thing, perhaps, is making the acquisition.

Giveaways, gimmes, and freebies are well-established ways for businesses to generate buzz, build a brand, gain loyal users, etc.  The tricky thing, though, is that they've gotta be done right.

Eventually, a business that just gives things away should stop pretending to be a business, and just call itself a charity.  So that restaurant should send me that first gift certificate, but if they made it annual thing, I'd condition myself to just wait for that early-November letter every year, eat there once, and call it good for the next 12 months.

If anyone says they truly, fully understand *free* they're lying.  Free is great, and free sucks.  I can fill a room full of Ph.Ds who will insist -- loudly -- that no business should EVER give something away free, because that means they're devaluing themselves, creating off-kilter expectations, distorting their market, etc.  Then, I could fill an EQUALLY big room with another group of experts who would say the opposite.

Bottom line?  It depends.

I am building a business with a heavy dose of initial *free* and yes, sometimes I question my sanity. Whether it is/was the right move, I will only know in retrospect.  That's why I sometimes watch the Steve Jobs 2005 commencement speech in which he insists that things DO make sense's a great source of inspiration.

PayPal got going by paying people a significant sum of dough to use its service.  Again, were they desperate? Were they out of their minds?

With the ease of retrospect and 20/20 hindsight, the answer there is a resounding, "No."  What they did know is that they were on to something.  They also knew there could be resistance among early users who did not understand how its service worked.  They put a whole bunch of chips down on the felt based on those assumptions, and things have worked out quite well for them since.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bernie's Words, Their Words

I'm home today.  On the one hand, that's a nice relief.  On the other, it's time dedicated to detailed spreadsheets displaying all the flight information for the Salt Lake City Airport (SLC) from 2007 to 2012. It's valuation exercises with Free Cash Flows and Residual Income to prep for a midterm Monday.  It's a massive project about Health Care process flows, along with preparation for drilling at Devens all day tomorrow and Sunday, prior to MAG engagements every night next week.

Someone please be sure to let me know when mid-December gets here.  Let's celebrate with a Clausthaler.

But, today at least, 'working' means I get to listen to the City Council meeting in the background, not shave, and wear pajamas.

One exchange that I loved came at the very end of the meeting.  CC Mercier had introduced a motion about existing lawsuits involving the city.  On more than one occasion, she asked CM Lynch, "Whose responsibility is it to make these decisions [in reference to the city's response to the suits]?"

His answer: "That'd be the City Manager's decision."

Her response to that: "Well then that's you -- you're the City Manager."

His comeback: "Yes, I am currently the City Manager.  I happen to be the City Manager.  But the statutory responsibility for that falls with the City Manager."

Mercier:  "Yes, with you."

Lynch:  "Well, with the City Manager.  I was not the City Manager when this came up in 2002, or when the appeal decision was made in 2006."

CC Elliott jumped in later on and  played the same 'who is responsible' word game, which was equally worthy of Abbott & Costello.

Words matter.  If you've spent time around large organizations, you should know that responsibility and authority should rest with the holder of a particular position, but not with that specific personality.  It may seem like a picayune, nitpicky point...but it's not.  Well-designed organizations are not built around personalities.  Bernie was completely right to make that word choice distinction, and then to continually emphasize it throughout the exchange.

On a word choice tangent that's not CC-related, listen to the way the people you work with choose their pronouns. Watch how quickly 1st-person pronouns (we, us, our) get thrown around during times of success, and then how quickly they turn to the 2nd-person (you) when things start to go sour.

If I'm driving (figuratively or literally), I want a person in the shotgun seat who says, "We're lost, let's fix this" after a wrong turn.  The person who coughs out a "you're lost" without seeing the irony of the statement is the person who can (figuratively or literally) take a hike.

If you're trying to make character assessments, listening to the way people selectively choose their pronouns during good and bad times ain't a bad place to start.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Take a Bump...The First One's Free

Check it.  This is admittedly a very small sample size, and it's completely lacking any qualitative analysis... (In other words, I'm not factoring in the chance that someone might leave a nasty voicemail on the Superintendent's phone in which she threatens to rip off sensitive body parts of the Superintendent).

But I've got challengers in BOLD CAPS and first-termers in Italics.

And yes, yes, I know that not all challengers are created equal.  Some have already held elected positions, already run for citywide offices, etc.  But I just defined it in the simplest way I could: "Someone not currently serving on the School Committee."

There will be time later on for more analysis, but for now this may suggest there is a "Challenger Bump" enjoyed by School Committee candidates, followed by a time of great vulnerability (first re-election attempt).

Outliers are highlighted..."outlier" defined here as greater than one standard deviation from the mean in either direction.  If you catch any errors here, lemme know and I'll fix 'em!  Thanks...

Oh, and "AVG VOTES" should say "Avg. # of Votes per Voter."  Labels are missing for 2013, 2011, and 2009, respectively, from left to right.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Spin the Black Circle

There were 71,502 total votes cast in yesterday's City Council election.  With 11,581 unique voters doing the casting, that means the average person voted for 6.17 candidates.

Assume a bell-shaped, normal distribution.  Imagine you could insert a candidate into the race with completely random traits, name recognition, likability, etc. (I know that makes no sense, but just bear with me here and suspend disbelief).  Let's call him John Q. Random.

The column on the right shows the percent likelihood that the random candidate could have surpassed that candidate's vote total.  In other words, there's only a 2.3 percent chance that the random candidate surpasses Mercier's total, but it's better than 97 percent that he beats Fred Doyle.  The people closest to the mean are at the top of the curve, which is why Mr. Random would be about 50/50 to be on either side of their vote total.

** EDIT: I've already caught some flak for this, which is good (hey, someone was reading it!)...please let me clarify what I mean by 'random.'  I don't mean 'random' in the sense of a name plucked from thin air and placed on the ballot.  I don't mean 'random' in the colloquial usage of something or someone out of place, unexplained, etc.  What I mean is that it would be a candidate whose strengths and weaknesses -- the things that would make a person vote or not vote for him or her -- were randomized.

For you Gaussian fans, I'm saying that with the area under the entire curve being 1.00, Rita's vote total falls on the right-side tail, with only .023 of the area not covered.  All the candidates except Mercier, Elliott, Pech, and the Doyles fall inside the one-standard deviation portion of the bell.  That's a strong statement about the competitiveness of city elections!  

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Knowing Your Sales Funnel...Maybe

Mischief Night, or Cabbage Night, or Goosy Night, or Beggars' Night, and then Halloween are coming. They'll be the first two weeknights *off* this month, in terms of start-up stuff.  But not other stuff.  Before I put my head on the pillow, here are a couple random thoughts to bounce around:

** What Serge said.  Before I started b-school, I called a friend from undergrad (yes, Serge is his real name) to ping him for his thoughts.  He said not to join too many clubs, and that possibly the most risk-free time you'll ever have to start a business is during business school.  Here's why that was great -- I bit off way more than I could chew this semester.  There are one or two things I would've done differently had I known, but hey, I didn't.  Some assignments have been sub-par.  Some grades will suffer.  It won't matter.  School isn't *really* the real world, in that sense.  If I wasn't schlepping around from Bellingham to Boston to Beverly (that's the last 24 hours, and the alliteration was unplanned, I swear), I might've been able to study for my Airline Industry midterm tomorrow.  It's a shade past midnight, and I won't study, and won't beat the mean.  But I will pass, because I absorbed enough from class and from the problem sets to make that happen.  That's all that matters.  Post-June, it's the real world again...but now, it's really just not.  The difference between a B and a A, or even a C and a B, on a piece of paper that no one may ever see, just isn't all that real.

** Sales latency.  This is something that continues to surprise/amaze me.  If you asked me to explain my sales funnel to you, I wouldn't be able to.  I wouldn't look at you funny, though -- I would just say, "I don't know that because I don't have enough information."  Sometimes an e-mail that got sent in June gets responded to in late-October, because the right person saw the right person who ran into the person who was the decision-maker.  That took time.  It's really hard to know the ROI of something you do on day [X]. As the old marketing joke goes, "I make all my sales from half my ad budget...I just don't know which half." The idealist in me wants to think if you're doing something, and you're doing it well, you start to make your own luck with increasing frequency.  

** It's Not What You Know, It's What You Can Learn.  I loved the section of Chris Matthews' book "Hardball" where he talks about "It's Not Who You Know...It's Who You Get to Know."  He was purposely twisting the old saying about who you know and what you know by saying that YES, it is "who" you know, but that you have the power to change that to work in your favor by meeting more people. Knowledge works the same way -- to put it into a formula, you could say that curious person + time = a knowledgeable person.  Anyway, when I saw Steve Kaufer speak to our Sandbox Accelerator class, he flat-out told us that when he started TripAdvisor, he didn't know the first thing about the travel industry.  But he wasn't too worried about that, because he knew he could learn...and he did.  Today, the guy probably knows more than just about anyone on the planet about that subject.  I didn't start off with any particular background or credential in my field, but when enough minutes turn into enough hours and then enough days, following enough books, enough YouTube videos, and enough journal articles...the types of conversations I can sustain start to change...which is a nice reward to see.

** "Free" is a cruel, cruel mistress.  Anyone who thinks they know precisely whether ANY business should EVER do anything free is about as wrong as anyone who thinks they have a good solution for US policy towards Iran.  There is no easy answer to this.  For every app that failed to monetize its freemium concept, there's a counterexample.  Shoot, PayPal actually PAID its early adopters tidy sums of money just to use the service.  Free is complicated.  Free can serve a purpose.  A business just has to know when to tap the brakes, and then when to slam them.  Too much free is a hobby, and not a business.  Free, if done right, has the power to launch.  

I may be head-bobbing tomorrow morning during the case about the Basel III capital requirements for banks, and then during the Health Care discussion about linear optimization models for patient throughput, and then the midterm, and then BAUFS (Business Analysis Using Financial Statements...great acronym, eh?)...and it may not matter.  I can sleep on the train.  Tomorrow night can be time for some family, some baseball, and some rest (and if you think I sound like a fairweather baseball fan, you're damn right I am! There's no way I could sit through any game not being played in October unless I was physically there at the park watching).  

And on that note, good night, and thanks as always for reading.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Elephant's Tail

The XO of my first command in the Navy (peace be upon him) used to use a bunch of funny colloquialisms, which amused me to the point that I began keeping a running list in my standard-issue green notebook.  At times, this list created needed amusement for the wardroom.

One of the things he used to say was this: "When you eat the elephant in bite-sized pieces, you eventually get to the tail."

It's good advice.  Between now and mid-December, it's serving me well.

I'm not sure if I've ever been this busy for such a sustained period, at least in a civilian context.  As Cliff recently reminded me in a comment, too busy is better than not busy enough, so I realize it's not all bad. And I also realize that it's a situation completely of my own making, so this isn't so much a complaint as it is a statement about reality.

There are stacks of papers to grade (yes, the picture here is an au naturale candid of my kitchen table). There are assignments and cases to complete.  There are inboxes to (try to) clear.  And there are 5 MAG seminars every week.

One of the best time management tactics I've heard of is the pomodoro technique.  It's named for the Italian word for tomato, apparently because an Italian guy came up with this using a timer that looked like a tomato. What it basically boils down to is this:  You set a timer for exactly 25 minutes.  During those 25 minutes, you just focus on one single thing.  When the timer goes off, you take a 5-minute break to clear your mind, walk around the house, or write a blog entry...or whatever else.  Then, back to the timer.

Eventually, what happens is that as a few of these time blocks start to whiz by, your plate looks a little bit less full.  Slowly but surely, you slog through until you realize, "Wow...that case I had to write up is done, and I understand why the MinuteClinic is a disruptive innovation" and "Wow, that thing I'm doing in Beverly next week is almost ready now...and I actually understand what Len Kleinrock was saying about packet switching."

The beauty of the pomodoro system is that it prevents you from falling prey to analysis paralysis.  Basically, the stress of being overwhelmed with a monumental task list leads to a temptation to want to buckle.  It's the absolute worst thing you could do, when you think about it rationally, but it's something everyone who has ever faced sustained periods of stress (and c'mon, that's all of us) understands:  Unless you have a way to really get yourself rolling, you could wind up actually doing nothing.

And on that note, it's time for 25 straight minutes of grading.  And after that, it's off to Lynnfield and then Templeton for work.

December come she will.

In the meantime, it's pomodoro time for this Captain. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

When is a $20 bill worth more than a $50 bill? All Depends How You Stack It...

I wrote a blog entry over the summer about how pricing is one of the most difficult decision that any new enterprise has to make.

Just about EVERY start-up founder is tempted to "grow, grow, grow."  That makes sense -- people that self-select an entrepreneurial route in life tend to be go-getters.  Go-getters tend to want to, well, go and get. People with more wisdom and experience will say, "Why not tap the brakes a bit by playing with your pricing model, even if it means sloughing off a few customers?"

The early-stage founder hearing that is listening to, but still not following, that advice.  There's an important distinction, and the process is necessary (some things need to be personally experienced to be understood, and then they become obvious in retrospect).

Anyway, here's another unsolvable zen koan riddle:  What is an hour of your time worth?  In the context of someone bootstrapping in order to smooth out their personal cash flow, it depends.  Again, it's not simple.

I have a job that pays $50/hr.  Not bad, eh?  Well, it's not so great, actually.  It's a tutoring gig that works on a taxi dispatch model, so there are a few problems.  First, the hours don't stack up, so the transition time/travel time really eats into the dollar total. Second, and equally problematic, it doesn't work like a *money faucet.*  In other words, I can't simply decide I want to work more, and then work more -- someone else controls the throughput.

That considered, a $20/hr job might be worth far, far more.  If it's something where the hours stack up in 4- or 8-hour shifts, and if it's something where the hours are predictable (and therefore the personal cash flows predictable), it's an infinitely better option than the seemingly more lucrative one.

Trying to work multiple "taxi dispatch" type of jobs to make it all somehow add up the right way isn't advisable, either -- way too complicated, and way too much risk.  $20 x 20 hours/wk tells me the pre-tax math works out to $1600/mo.  If THAT is enough to clear the bar (to where start-up income PLUS that exceeds monthly expenses) then that sounds like the no-brainer option for being able to effectively bootstrap.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

Excuse Me, Are You a AAA member?

I was just walking up Market St., back towards home, when a clean-cut, late-teens/early-20s white male said to me, "Excuse me...are you a AAA member?"

Right then and there, I said this: "Let me guess:  You're from Andover.  You're out of gas.  You can't get a hold of anyone right now, and you just need a few bucks to get gas and head back home."

I'll give him credit for the way he responded: "Yes...but hey, I'm just trying to eat."  At least he was honest.  I only knew to expect it because a neighbor had just explained to me two days ago how she had given someone money after hearing that story.

I then told him why I thought the "Stranger in Distress" story was pretty effective, and I actually asked him about his yield.  At that point, he looked at me kinda funny, and just said, "I hate to lie. Sometimes I'll ask for money straight up...but hey, I'm just trying to eat."

We parted ways after I explained that I actually didn't have any cash, and that even the coffee I was holding had been purchased with a credit card.

As CC Lorrey has explained in the Chamber, this is becoming a bigger and bigger issue downtown.  The other day, I was accosted three separate times getting back from 336 Bridge to 200 Market.  This is mainly a hunch, but I don't think Lowell produced these people...I think it drew them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Empowering the Idiots

One of the truest things you can say about the impact of online-all-the-time social media on our culture and society is that "we haven't figured it out yet."

We haven't figured out the legal boundaries of what employees can say about employers without risking termination.

We haven't figured out the legal intersection of social media postings and custody of children.

We haven't figured out where the line is that separates teenagers' 1st Amendment rights from things that might be construed as serious threats.

And we certainly haven't figured out that a couple idiot Tweeters do not speak for the mood of a country.  Certain news organizations, however, can use those idiots to push their narrative, and they do.

Let me get this straight:

1. A beautiful woman of Indian descent was crowned Miss America.
2. 99.99+% of Americans simply went on with their lives, genuinely not caring one way or the other, or maybe giving her passive support (i.e. 'good for back to my errands.')
3. A handful of people used the #MissAmerica hashtag to attract attention to themselves for making vile comments about her heritage.

I could find a handful of people on Twitter who are saying the moon is made of cheese.  Does that mean that such a statement captures the national mood?  No one would take that seriously.

This cycle could literally never end.  ANY TIME that someone wins something, is elected to an office, or is otherwise recognized, there will be SOMEONE ready to write some flip, vile comment on Twitter.  Whether it's a teenage boy out for jollies, whether it's a deranged loner who really means it, or whether it's completely staged in order to set up a 'teachable moment' (remember the staged racial stuff at Oberlin a little while back? Google it) it does not merit the front of page of CNN and the Globe.

Well, at least I say so.  But then again, I'm not the editor of either one.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Words of the Prophets Were Written on the Subway Walls...

I was thinking this morning about something Gerry Nutter said about bicycles for city employees in Lowell, and the way that he then used Cambridge/Somerville/Lexington as pejoratives when implying something about the motives of city decision-makers.

It didn't take long for Corey Erickson and Tobes from Sons of Franky Cabot to jump in...or for me to follow up with another point last night.

Here's what I said:  Some people in Lowell are quick to throw down their "Cambridge" card when they want to criticize any new, interesting outside idea.  The feeling, however, is not mutual.

For the past 40 years or so, Cambridge has been run by a Lowellian (and not just ANY Lowellian, mind you, but a former Aide to Mayor Howe).  The people of Cambridge love much that they've paid him a salary comparable to that of the PRESIDENT for much of this time (yes, I'm being serious...and yes, you can look that up), and put his name on important buildings, like the police station kinda sorta near the Galleria.

Boston isn't afraid of Lowell or Lowellians, either...just look at their nationally-renowned Police Chief.

Anyway, on my way into work today (I TA on Thursdays now...easy work for good pay), the sign you see here in the pic caught my eye.

Here's why:  What it's implying is that when you take/borrow/steal the BEST ideas from the BEST minds, you then become the BEST.  

Lowell is already the best Gateway City in Massachusetts.  If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't live there.  And while I may be plotting my escape from downtown, I plan to stay in Lowell for quite a long time -- that's as strong of a statement as I can make for my personal *investment* in the place.

What's going to keep Lowell great is the presence of civic leaders like Patrick Murphy, Dick Howe, Bernie Lynch, Cliff Krieger, etc....people with a WORLD view who aren't afraid to open their eyes, ears, and minds to the big world outside and see where it can fit inside our little slice of America.

What could truly make Lowell a backwater in a way that would hurt ALL stakeholders (yes, it's a huge middle-class/working-class city with lots of families) is a reactionary, not-invented-here mindset that's terrified of things that are "from away."

...And if the complete, knee-jerk, reactionary rejection of all things "from away" is what you seek, you might be able to find it in some remote parts of Maine.  Shake down enough downtown yuppies, and maybe you'll be able to scratch together the fare for a one-way.  

Friday, August 30, 2013

No Martyrs, Please

We just wrapped up our Accelerator experience at the Sandbox.  Overall, it was awesome.  Overall, I will write more later.

I missed the second night of final pitches b/c of a longstanding engagement in Shrewsbury, but one thing that came up on the first night is critical for any entrepreneur getting ready to pitch anywhere: Stop talking about your martyrdom.

When someone gets up in front of judges or investors and declares, "I'm not paying myself a salary," they may think that sounds impressive.  They may think that translates into an image of self-sacrifice, or self-abnegation.

If  I were on the other side of the table, though, that's not what I would hear.  I would just wonder, "Okay, so how exactly is that sustainable?  Is that your long-term plan?  Are you running a business here, or a personal charity?"

  • Maybe someone has passive investment income.
  • Maybe someone inherited a million bucks.
  • Maybe someone's spouse brings home enough bacon for the whole household.
  • Maybe there's a long-term plan that involves short-term use of bridge loans or credit cards.
  • Maybe the person is living off of some sort of government benefit.
  • Maybe someone is working other jobs on the side to make ends meet.

Until you know that, though, those are all just maybes.  Whether by hook or by crook (maybe, for instance, you're diverting some student loan money into your business...) just have some kind of a plan.

Whether you pay yourself a salary is YOUR choice...but just be ready to explain it, and to stand by it.  If you boldly state that you're martyring yourself for no salary, and then go deer-in-headlights when pressed as to how, exactly, that keeps you from living under a bridge, you've lost the confidence of whoever was asking the question, as well as everyone else around you.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

He's Going the Distance!

"Hey yo, that's amazing..." -- Raekwon, Triumph

Tomorrow, Lowell's own James Ostis will complete a successful streak -- 365 straight days of attendance at Brew'd Awakening at 61 Market St.

Many attend Brew'd frequently, myself included.  Merely going to Brew'd a lot in one year does not an accomplishment make.

However, James has NEVER missed a day in the past year. Through blizzards, holidays, weddings, trips to Maine, job interviews, festivals, and all the many other things that could possibly pull less-dedicated folks away from a streak like this, James has persevered.

This is awesome.  I may be the biggest champion of "The Streak," as it's now being referred to on the streets of downtown Lowell, but a growing band of others is also planning to take a brief pause from their busy lives tomorrow to reflect and pay homage to this man and his accomplishment.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

10,000 Hours? That's a Good Start. Try This, Too

Since Malcolm Gladwell came out with Outliers, the whole "10,000 hours-to-be-successful" meme has been a strong one.  While I don't doubt the concept or the formidable intellect of Mr. Gladwell, I would say that the hours-in/success-out function might not apply very neatly to things that happen on a more day-to-day level.*

One's mentality is pretty important, too.  And I know I already wrote about this concept at length several weeks ago, but I saw a quote today that I fell in love with, and feel compelled to share here:

"The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize." -Robert Hughes

I have no idea who Robert Hughes is, but I'd like to shake his hand if that'd be at all possible.  If you look at people who are truly at the top of their game -- whether in sports, performance art, medicine, business, etc. they are very tough on themselves.

Yes, yes, they're "confident" in the sense that they believe that they can ultimately make it happen.  But that is NOT the same sort of vapid, airy confidence that comes from pithy platitudes and affirmations like, "I can achieve what I can believe," or whatever else gets peddled in airport bookstores.

I worked with a student today who is preparing for an upcoming test.  He will do very well.  How do I know?  Because I can see it.  He's hungry.  When he gets something wrong, he gets mad.  He says bad words.  He throws the dry-erase markers sometimes.  THEN he wants to go back through from scratch to see WHY he got it wrong, so that it won't happen again.

Other students don't do that.  Other students fall into the "but I didn't mean that, so I'm not really wrong" trap.  Guess what?  They tend NOT to do well on GameDay.  Any shocker?

I've spent tons of time over the past year around business start-ups, and around students preparing for the GMAT.  Admittedly, my observations are still really just anecdotes, but hey, they're my anecdotes.  The biggest problem I see around me is NOT lack of confidence.  It's lack of introspection, lack of hunger, and lack of that doubt/fear that says, "I don't want to be a dirtbag."

The greatest performers/NFL Quarterbacks/songwriters, etc. always have that slight bit of fear that's nagging at them, saying something like, "Don't screw this up.  You know what bad looks like...don't be it."  How do I know?  Well, I'm just going off what they say in interviews years down the line.

If I have to pick between Jim Kelly puking his guts out in the locker room before the kickoff, or Ryan Leaf posing for pictures with cheerleaders wearing his cap, I'm taking Jim Kelly every time (please, no Super Bowl jokes).  Jim Kelly HAD what Hughes was talkin' bout.  HE is the Hall of Fame passer.  Ryan Leaf did not.  HE is probably doing hard time somewhere in Montana...or something.

* Admittedly, he never said it was a simple in-and-out type of function.  I kinda stretched w/using him as the lead there.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Hey Entrepreneurs: Don't Forget That The Market Sets Your Price

Every now and again, I get to hear an entrepreneur's "Here's How I Made It" story.  If life had a TiVo button that let you skip through the fine details, each story could be summed up very quickly as such:

(1) We were crazy kids with an idea...and everyone said it would never work!
(2) We were living off Ramen noodles and Timmy's credit of the co-founders bolted for Goldman with 1/3 of our make sure you vest!  
(3) We miraculously got funding in the 11th hour (from an investor or an early client)
(4) Next thing we knew, we were being profiled in BusinessWeek
(5) Now I'm back to tell you that it's all about your values and your corporate culture
(6) Looking back, we charged too little for our service/product at first.  

Item #6 makes me think of an Onion headline I just saw, "Winning Powerball numbers seem so obvious in retrospect."  

Well, duh.

Onion headlines are designed to make us laugh, whereas "Here's How I Made It" stories are meant to inspire.  When I hear the guy who just rang the bell at the NASDAQ throw out item #6, though, I laugh.  

If someone calls me and says, "I would like you to do [this] for our organization," I think I should do it for an agreed-upon price unless there's a clearly more lucrative alternative for that specific point in time.  

The "agreed-upon price" might not be what I fantasize about on spreadsheets, but it's the here-and-now answer.  

If the call ever comes in from State Street, GE, or Gillette, the conversation would probably go in a very different direction.  And as much as I might fantasize about those calls, that's not who I just heard from. 

Who I DID hear from, though, is someone who works for the town where many of the execs of the aforementioned firms live.  

Terms were offered, and the answer was an unequivocal, "Yes."  

Not because I'm undervaluing my time or my skills, but because I'm self-aware enough to know that it was the right answer to the question being answered.  

So if I ever get invited back to the give the MBA glory talk someday, I'm not going anywhere near #6.  I'm going to say, "For some products and services, you need to light the fire and then constrain it geographically. Inside that area, you need to nurture it and let others add new kindling and throw the easy combustibles on top for you.  Sometimes, the way you do that is by scarfing a slice of Humble Pie that's nearly the size of the plate in front of you.  From there, just focus on your month-to-month revenue growth, tiny as it might be at the time."  

And should you ever find yourself in need of further inspiration:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Favorite Cold War Story

If you've ever read the book Blind Man's Bluff, you'll know right off the bat why I love this picture.

If you haven't, there is a riveting chapter about a military espionage operation that took place off the Kamchatka Peninsula.  The operation was highly risky, but the payoff was huge -- it allowed one group of people to listen to another group's communications, which were passed in plain language "in the clear." (Based on the seemingly-obvious assumption that no one could do what had in fact been done).

When I saw this sign while walking across the Longfellow Bridge yesterday, I stopped to take a picture and paused for a quick moment of tribute to the men who left Mare Island (near San Francisco) to undertake these operations.

No one will ever know their names.  But we all ought to be grateful for what they did.

If you're wondering what's special about that sign, just remember this:  Sometimes the thing you're looking for is hiding in plain sight.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

Where Only Astronauts Dare to Tread

Sometimes, little things make me chuckle.

I'm not a huge slapstick fan, so I never get too giddy about those home video shows that show someone getting hit in the groin by a wiffle bat at a picnic, or an old lady slipping and falling on ice in the winter.  I don't like insta-humor, so I don't think it's automatically funny anytime someone says "crack."  I also don't laugh every time someone says, "My wife says I'm not too bright, but she keeps me around because I can lift heavy things."

But I'm very into words, observations, puns, etc.  That's why I love George Carlin and Chris Rock so much. That's also why I laugh really hard at situations where someone thinks they are just oozing cultural sensitivity, but is missing the body language symbols that say, "We're just waiting for you to finish, gringo."

One thing that has amused me almost since the day I started b-school is the way the term *space* has been appropriated by consultants, wantrapreneurs, and other slang-slingers to refer to any sector, industry, or interest area -- sometimes redundantly and sometimes just uselessly.

I wrote about it last fall here on the site, and insisted I would always associate space with astronauts.

I've had a slow start to my week (it's a post-drill Monday, so bear with me) but this helped get me going:

"Seeking advisors to a new STEM-themed media project in the space sector."

It came from a LinkedIn group, and it really concerns a start-up that is dealing with the *space* that exists beyond our big blue planet. 

I'll never know whether the guy who posted it would've otherwise said 'space' rather than 'sector,' but it's little mysteries like that that keep life interesting.  But if he had said the 'space space' I admit I would've come around a bit and thought, "Now that's a pretty nice usage."   

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Casualties of War

The only people who didn't come back home with us in 2012 were the ones who had discipline issues, family issues, "short tour" issues (i.e. special staff), or medical issues.

In other words, no one from our unit died in Afghanistan.

But that's not to say everyone came home the same way.

When something awful happened on October 29, 2011, no one from the Mass Guard was killed.  Some had been on that same bus, on that same morning, but had gotten off at the airport.  But none of us was on when the minivan turned it into a fireball.

However, some of the MPs from our unit were on scene shortly afterwards.  I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I don't know what that does to people.

This week, we lost one of those guys stateside.  He was one of the best people I knew in the Guard.  This guy used to bust my balls a lot, but it came from a place of respect for what I did, and for the way I approached my role.  And after a couple foot patrols and intra-theater movements, he offered me the tactical respect I had to earn, in his own sort of laconic way.  He didn't know where I'd been prior to joining the unit, and I never bothered to tell him.

I think a lot of things I don't say, but I don't say things that I don't think.  (If you'll overlook all the negatives in that sentence, you'll catch my drift).  This guy was the genuine article, or, as I might say, the Real Deal Holyfield.

I will miss him.  I will say what I'm sure everyone says when these things happen:  I wish I had known...if I did, I know I could have done something.  So it goes.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Three Things I've Been Wondering

Before I get going with a morning-long cold call marathon, there are three things I noticed this week that didn't quite look/seem/feel/smell right.  Here goes:

a) Why should a city government have ANY business poking around in the corporate governance affairs/decisions of a private Board of Directors?  

It shouldn't, of course.  This has already been said and explained far more eloquently, by Chris Hazel on a Facebook thread and by Jack Mitchell on a GN comment thread.  As Chris said, the Cupertino City Council doesn't admonish Apple because of its Board's decisions about who should be CEO.  

Whether someone is a "stand-up guy" or an all-around good citizen is completely beside the point.

b) Who on Earth thinks that a music festival during Folk Festival weekend detracts FROM, rather than adds TO, the overall LFF experience?  

Only a petty micro-king of a micro-bureaucracy, that's who.  My first thought was "this makes no sense," and then when I saw a Kad Barma post this week explaining it from the perspective of someone with first-hand knowledge of the Uptown event, my initial instinctual response was confirmed.  Someone should be THANKING Steve Perez.  

c) Who gets defensive about the pay-for-play discussion, and why?  

I'm pretty careful about when and how I use the word 'defensive' because I know it's a favorite tool of the 'Heads-I-Win-Tails-You-Lose' crowd, for whom I have very little intellectual respect.  However, much like other words I dislike (i.e. 'sorry' and 'deserve') I will break it out when needed.  Someone who throws out a 'Who you callin' a crook' when NO ONE has been called a crook is being defensive. 

When the SEC makes rules that demand complete disclosure to investors, it's not because they're calling ME a crook.  It's because they think the system would be better designed with those rules in place.  Seewhuddimsayin?  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Yup, This One Pretty Much Does It

I know op tempo here on this site has fallen off a bit lately.  To all dozen or so of the TNE faithful, thanks for reading, as always.

From here, I'll take another pause to focus on a very intense workweek and then a brief weekend trip to Maine (yes, I said it; yes, it's online; yes, my address is public; and no, I'm not worried but thx for asking).

One thing I've been up to is writing this online identity blog.  Besides that, I've been running a business, drilling once a month, and teaching twentysomethings about those oh-so-special properties of 30-60-90 triangles.  And the number of ways to arrange three-scoop ice cream cones when you're picking from 20 flavors.

If you want to know what I think about pretty much everything, read David Wong's Cracked article, titled, "The 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person."

If you don't click on the link, you're forgiven.  There are lots of links on the Internet, and people are always trying to get you to click on one thing or another.

If you want to skip the entire article, what it's basically telling you to do is to constantly take cues from the world around you.

People who do this will succeed.  It doesn't matter where those people start.  It doesn't matter what their idea is.  Their sensors are constantly operating in "switched on" mode.  They have a high Conversational Quotient, as I might say.  They don't have "Laugh Ears," as the goofiest guy from Andover might say.

When the world criticizes you, you always have options.  You can internalize it and become sullen, you can ratchet up your narcissistic defense mechanisms, and reject it outright, or you can carefully weigh it to consider whether it's worth acting on.

Don't get me wrong -- there is TONS of bad advice and bad feedback out there.  Anyone without "skin in the game" is automatically suspect.  If you're running a business, always listen to Directors, customers, prospects, and investors -- everyone else gets the Big Filter.

If you need a role model, look to a not-so-goofy guy with Andover ties -- Bill Belichick.  That's a guy who gets pissed off a lot.  Show me a guy who's pissed off, and I'll show you a guy who cares.  

If your doctor tells you to shed a few, you can either think, "What an a-hole, that's none of his business!" or you can think, "Maybe it's time to buy that elliptical."  The difference in the reaction says everything I need to know about you.

As the Cracked article says, single guys would be far better off figuring out how to make themselves more appealing/interesting TO girls rather than trying to read up on tricks, stunts, and pick-up lines.

Job seekers would be better off using MOOCs to learn Python, Java, and basic crypto than just complaining that no one is looking for their amazing skill set.

If I've convinced you by now, read the David Wong article.  If I haven't convinced you, just remember that:

(1) Everyone wants to be famous...but no one wants to put in the work;
(2) It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll;
and (3) Coffee is for closers.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Returning to "Cheating at Solitaire"

Could confidence be overrated?

Maybe.  I wrote back in October about the trouble that people face when they teach themselves something, as opposed to taking a formal course.  I used the expression "Cheating at Solitaire" to describe the phenomenon by which people can glaze over difficult information and just sort of tell themselves they know it (rather than face a contrary reality) or to look back at a diagnostic test they took and cleverly "re-interpret" the results.

Now that I've got a few months of experience under my belt as a GMAT tutor, I've had a chance to really see this up close.

I've seen students miss multiple math questions in a row, and either a) want to drill as deeply as they possibly can into the nuts and bolts of WHY they missed a particular problem; or b) just say to themselves "that's not really what I meant to put," or "that's just an easy one, let's not analyze it."  (Never mind the lay-up opportunity for the obvious retort, 'Well, if it was really so easy...')

In my role, I can give a slight nudge, or -- if the case merits it -- a strong push to try to snap someone out of this mentality.  Sometimes, though, the attempt is a bridge too far.

I'm not sure what causes this sort of cognitive dissonance, but it might be rooted in self-perception.  In other words, if you think of yourself as "a really good Math guy" you might not be willing to accept that your probability and combinatorics fundamentals aren't so hot.  If you could just shed that baggage, maybe you'd be willing to open up a bit, and come away with a higher score.

I'll come back to my comfort zone here with an NFL analogy.  Look at what Tom Brady does after he throws a pick.  He doesn't just deny that it happened.  He swears, he throws things, he sometimes even gets into shouting matches with coaches.  He doesn't want to do it again.  He'll watch hours of film to help reduce the likelihood that it will.

You could say he's a confident guy, or even that he's a cocky guy.  But that confidence is built on a very strong base.  Confidence in and of itself doesn't have that base.  Just saying 'I got it' over and over again isn't worth a half a percentage of what actually 'getting it' is worth.

As a teacher, I'd rather have a Tom Brady than a Ryan Leaf.  I'd rather have the guy (or girl) who gets the problem wrong, lets out a four-letter word or two, and says, "How do I fix this?"  

I've learned to worry, though, when I hear that "Cheating at Solitaire" style of cognitive dissonance coming through.  To the degree that I can, I'll fight it.  To the degree that I can nip it in the bud, I'll stomp it out early.  To the degree that it persists, though, I'll watch as someone spins his or her wheels towards a lukewarm result despite all the hours of preparation.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

What is the Yellow Ribbon Program?

I've written a few times here on the blog about the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

In addition to a book stipend, it pays an E-5 w/dependent housing allowance based on the ZIP code of the school.  If you are curious to know what that works out to for your ZIP code, check here. That's pro-rated for the months that you're in school, and then you can also get up to $18,700 for tuition.

Some schools voluntarily enter into a "Yellow Ribbon" program, through which the school and the VA each split the difference between the school's tuition cost and the 18.7k cap.  The number of Yellow Ribbon scholarships available per school depends on how much dough the school ponies up for the program.

When you hear people talk about "making the post-9/11 GI Bill a TRUE GI Bill" they are implying that fully-eligible veterans should not pay tuition.  Regardless of any normative opinions about what "should" or "shouldn't" be, it's an awesome thing for at least this one reason:  Political leaders love to talk these days about veteran entrepreneurship.  It's a great sound bite, and promoting it actually makes sense for a lot of reasons -- among them, people who have experience exercising leadership within organizations are well-poised to lead companies.

The Yellow Ribbon scholarships promote entrepreneurship indirectly, in the sense that they radically alter the debt load that a veteran faces after completing a degree.

So in my anything-but-neutral opinion, they are a great thing.  As former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg used to say, "All I want in life is an unfair advantage."  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Similarity Problem

At our Sandbox Accelerator class about value propositions and market segmentation, led by Sidd Goyal (CTO of Tinyurl), the issue of "knowing your customer" came up.  

A guy who runs at Personal Training start-up in Lawrence piped up when the subject came around to adjusting to customers you didn't expect.

When he started training, he expected to be working with guys.  He imagined himself helping them boost their stats in the compound exercises (i.e. the stuff guys brag about to each other, like bench, squats, deadlift).  

But what did he find?

Most of his actual customers are older than he would've imagined them to be, and his client base is predominantly female.  

What was his takeaway?

Besides the obvious (hey, adapt to who your customer is if you want to stay in business), he dipped into the psychological aspect of it a bit.  The guys he imagined working with didn't necessarily feel like they wanted/needed another guy to help them with that stuff...esp. one who wasn't carrying around the frame and physique of a WWF WWE wrestler.  

For service-based businesses, where the *personality* factor matters way more than it does for people selling, say, iPhone cases, this is an underrated/underappreciated point.  

My business is trying to do for online identity/security what DARE and MADD do for drug abuse and drunk driving.  The analogy is imperfect, but I think that helps to frame the Big Idea.  

Who do you think is the LEAST receptive to it?  Anyone with even a whiff of tech in their background.  It's worse if they're male, and fuhgeddaboudit if they're under 50.  

Who are the biggest champions?  30+ clients into the game, they all trace back to a single individual in Chelmsford.  Who is she?  Just a really nice lady who I got to know, first over the phone, then in person.  And whose patrons, or *customers* appreciated the service, and told her.  She matters to a lot of people in her network, and she's got no reason to be threatened by the earnest veteran entrepreneur from up the road. The other big *Key Influencer* is someone in Danvers, but she traces back to the first one, too.  After that, it's a guy in Salem who couldn't care less about how many APIs he can integrate with, or whether the slow speed of TOR makes it an undesirable choice for surfing w/o a traceable IP.  

So, THOSE are the people who are keeping me busy.  

When a high school principal on the phone tells me, "Greg, this sounds great, but I'm going to have to refer this to our technical guy.  Why don't you e-mail me and I'll kick it over to him?", I know exactly what it means.  That technical guy wants me coming in w/this program about as much as he wants someone to open a jar of Ebola on his desk, right in front of the fan. 

Sometimes similarity breeds affinity.  Other times, it's a recipe for a cold shoulder.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

My $0.02 about "Giving Back" and "It's Not About ME!"

"There is no politician so brave or so the one who isn't running for office, and isn't going to be."  -- Weld

Council election season is getting into full swing.

I didn't mean to leave out the School Committee, btw, but it's hard to say something is in "full swing" when it's shaping up to be a challenger-free race.

As we move across summer and into fall, we can expect candidate profiles in local media, candidate forums involving the entire slate of incumbents and challengers, and plenty of bloggery to go around.  One of the most natural questions we should expect to hear is, "Why are you running?"  Chances are, the most common response that we'll hear -- particularly among the challengers -- is "To give back."

Personally, I find that answer to have a nails-on-chalkboard quality.

If you really want to give back -- and that's all you want to do -- you could do any of a million things that would serve the community in a less-public way.  You could volunteer to teach literacy or ESL @ the Pollard, you could become a Big Brother/Big Sister, you could volunteer at a clinic, etc.  Sure, you'd be doing something good, but to borrow the phraseology of my friend Jack Mitchell, you just might not get "caught doing good."

In response, some might say that holding public office is just a way to give back on a bigger scale.  Fair point, but the very nature of the beast reveals that there are plenty more people running then there are seats, and ALL the folks in the race -- challengers and incumbents -- will expend a great deal of time, money, and toil in the process.  If it really were *just* about giving back in a completely pure way, I would think one could find a truly unfilled need (i.e. a shortage of literacy tutors) and then seek to fill it.  By that same logic, if it were really the case that the city couldn't find nine people to run, and someone's arm were twisted into it, then yes, that person might be "giving back."

I'll concede that some things are tried-and-true because they've been tried, and well, they've worked -- this probably works better as one guy's rant than it does as sound advice.  I'm sure plenty of people will say something about "giving back" on the campaign trail this year, and they'll come out quite fine.  Personally, though, it just doesn't resonate for me the way a more substantive answer like, "I want to see the Council move in [x] direction" does...or even something unspecific but more to the point, i.e. "I don't want to be on the sidelines."

While on the topic, another cringe-inducer is "this isn't about ME."  Unless we used a system in which we voted for slates or parties directly, this just won't pass my smell test.  SOMEONE is running, with his or her name splashed all over campaign paraphernalia.  That person's name will be on a ballot, that person's name will occupy one of the "wedges" placed on the desks if elected, and no matter what the person does for the rest of his/her days, they will have that fancy "The Honorable" title.

The only way that anyone could convince me that it isn't about him/her is by not running.  Instead, find the candidates you like, support them on the blogs or in the paper, donate if you can, hold signs if you can, etc.

My hat goes off to ANY person who runs for ANY public office.  Right off the bat, someone who takes the effort to get onto a ballot and present himself/herself before the masses has my respect.  But someone who tells me the sky isn't blue -- even as I'm staring right at it -- and thinks I'm not keen enough to see the contrast, loses a wee bit of that respect then and there.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mayoral Reform

So the Mayor's Aide position is about to come under budgetary review again.  I won't be at the meeting, and I won't even be watching (I'll be discussing the finer points of prime factorization and the rules of special triangles to would-be b-schoolers, which may actually be more fun).

I'm not sure what to call it  (Survivor's guilt, maybe?), but I feel a slight something-is-wrong pang in my stomach when I think about the upcoming review process.  I took a few blows early on, but that was it.  I handed things off to a successor who has had to put up with far, far worse from the blogs, former colleagues at the paper, and people seeking to create problems out of thin air (i.e. a single reference to Greek food in a proclamation becoming a trivialization of Greek accomplishments).  

The REAL conversation we need to be having concerns the stated and implicit expectations we place on our Plan E Mayor.  For a moment, let's put aside all issues of the Charter, of mayoral "strength," and even of the Aide position.    You can call the Lowell Mayor role "ceremonial" as much as you like, but it comes with requirements involving City Council meetings, committee meetings, pre-meetings, tete-a-tetes with Administration officials, School Committee meetings, School Committee pre-meetings, discussions with the Superintendent's office, and more.  On top of that, there are expectations that the Mayor attend everything from ribbon cuttings to flag raisings to Little League opening days.  It never stops.  

We need to call this position what it is -- a full-time job.  We need to call it that, we need to treat it that way, and we need to compensate it that way.  

Unless we do that, we're either restricting the position to retirees, the independently wealthy, the self-employed who can absorb a temporary salary hit, or people whose "civilian jobs" are compatible with the non-stop demands associated with the position of Lowell Mayor.  

It's hard to get anyone to agree to any argument that's essentially saying, "Something is broken, but we can fix it by giving a person in a public position even more money."  But before you dismiss this out of hand, consider that the Mayor of Lowell makes less per hour than do the people championed by "living wage" protesters on any college campus.  The Mayor makes far less per hour than any other City employee or even any private employee in the city, let alone his/her aide.  

Some might counter and say, "But shouldn't this all come down to service?"  Yes, it should.  I would never advocate that we directly elect someone who receives a salary akin to what the CM makes -- that could certainly skew things in a way we might not like.  However, the Council can continue to elect a Mayor as primus inter pares after the electorate has already sent that person to the Council.  If we called the position what it is (a full-time job) and paid it what it's worth, then the door would be open to any of the nine (assuming they could tell their current employer, 'See you in two.') 

Service is a wonderful thing.  In order for people to be able to do it, it helps if they can take care of things like rent/mortgage, car payments, insurance, child care, 529 contributions, groceries, gas, etc.  

THIS is a conversation we need to be having. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Throwing Your Hands Up

I had an interaction this morning that was sufficiently memorable -- in a strange sort of way -- that I thought it was worth blogging about.

Just after the formal portion of the flag retirement ceremony at Westlawn, I saw someone who is not a close friend, but certainly an acquaintance who I greatly respect(ed).

I said hello, and she wasted no time with this response: "I said 'hi' to you on the train, and you didn't say anything back.  Right then and there, I said, 'Greg's off my list.'"

There was no smile, no slap on the back, and no "just busting balls" moment of levity right afterwards.  She was being completely serious -- not spiteful or angry, but certainly matter-of-fact.  She is from a different generation, so there's a bit of a communication gap there, but it was very clear to me that this was a one strike, and you're out.  And it was clear to me also that this "strike" hadn't come anywhere near the plate.

I have no doubt that the *incident* occurred, as I frequently take the train between Lowell and Boston.  It could have happened at North Station, it could have happened on the platform in Lowell, or -- most likely scenario -- as one of us was passing through an aisle in search of a seat.

I can't say I don't care (after all, I'm writing about it now, which proves that I must care on at least some level).  However, I noticed a big change in the way I reacted.  A few years ago, something that like that would've led to more follow-on questions from me.  I would've taken the time to learn what happened (my best guess is that I was deep in the morning paper and neither heard nor saw her), and I would have made an earnest effort to walk away on a more harmonious note.

I did none of that.

Awkward social interactions are always going to happen; trying to stamp them out altogether is an exercise in futility.  If both people defaulted towards an assumption of good faith on the part of the other, though, no one would have to hold stupid grudges over imaginary slights.

I heard someone explain the other day that as individuals, we are each the collective average of the five people who we spend the most of our time with.  If that's the case, maybe some culling now and then isn't the end of the world.  Even though this particular person isn't anywhere near my Circle of Five, the point is still valid -- if someone draws sharp lines in that arbitrary manner, it would've been a matter of time until something happened that 'de-listed' me -- perhaps it would've been something equally stupid, and arbitrary.   

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The 'Resting Face' Thing

This video is obviously filed under "Humor/Spoof" but if you read the comments below the video in YouTube, you will see a lot of people describing how much it sucks to have an expression that gets misinterpreted.

After being asked for the gazillionth-millionth time "What's wrong?" or "Who just killed your dog?" I learned as a kid to always make sure I had something to read in my hands (If I had come of age in the smartphone era, it may never have been a problem), because then I could simultaneously get lost in my own thoughts without having to get the annoying question-interruptions.

And one more serious point of advice in the realm of social skills -- if ANYONE in your life suffers from the "BRF" referred to in this video, don't ever-ever-ever start a conversation with a "What's wrong?" or even an "Is everything okay?"  That's a very-very-very tone deaf way to come at a person.

Instead, try something completely neutral, i.e. 'Hey, what's up,' or 'I'm putting a pot of coffee on...want any?'  Whether the person was just lost in thought, or whether something really was wrong, can be calibrated based on that answer.

And if you don't understand why 'neutral' always beats 'aggressive' as an opener, then I just can't help you.  If you suffer from BRF (or its male equivalent), I'm with ya.

Hat tip to Paul Hogue for the post to Facebook.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What's Your Time Worth? It's Complicated...

No one can put a precise dollar figure on an hour of his or her time -- it's just way too complicated.

Yes, you may be a lawyer that bills clients at $350/hr, but that doesn't mean that volunteering to coach a Little League team for three hours every Saturday means you're coughing up $1050 each time.   Of course it's more complicated than that, UNLESS you were 100% certain that you could be using that time to bill clients and you somehow COULDN'T bill those hours during any other three-hour time block throughout the week.  If that scenario could somehow play out in just that manner, then yes, you'd have a great case to make.

Other things aren't so clear.  If you make a 120k/yr to commute to Marlborough, you're not really *losing* money when 495 gets backed up and you get stuck for an hour.  With any salaried position, it's just not that cut and dry.  It's way too pat to take your annual salary, divide it by the # of hours you work, and say that a pointless, stupid meeting "cost" your company [insert dollar amount here] of your time -- because part of the benefit of having salaried employees is that they can do various things for you, and help in various ways.  Maybe you've referred some great clients to the firm.  Maybe you helped close some important sales.  That's why they see the value in paying you a set amount of money each builds some predictability into both sides of the equation.

Someone once tried to tell me that because Bill Gates *makes* more than 100k/second (this was during a headier time for MSFT), it would not be worth it for him to pick up a $100 bill during the workday.  Even the teenaged version of me knew that to be drivel at the time -- it's not as if Bill Gates is actively engaged in a process that yields north of $100/second.  But there are enough people who really somehow believe (or believed) that line that perhaps it proves a point about the difficulty of valuing your time.

I made $75 yesterday for 1.5 hours' worth of "billable" work as a tutor.  Sounds awesome, right?  If you quickly saw that number, set up a proportion involving 40 (for hours) in the denominator and solved for the missing variable, you'd think I was pulling in tons of money each week.  And if that really were the case, I would be.

But consider this:  If someone lives in the Back Bay, and I live in Lowell, there's no truly easy way to slice it.  Factor in a walk, a wait, a commuter rail ride, another walk, a short taxi hop (hey, it was pouring!), and then the time spent "on site" plus the reverse of all those things I just laid out, and suddenly the hourly rate has gone way, way down.

Throw some prep time in for good measure, and that hourly wage has now hit single digits.

I must be a huge sucker, right?

Well, again, not so simple -- the value of time has to be based in large part on opportunity cost.  I can't make a reasonable conclusion about that time without considering how else it could have been used.

Plus, there are other intangibles -- the train time can be used for reading, Facebooking, or other personal pursuits.  Can that really be counted?  And I like to walk anyway, so is the trudge across the Common and down Boylston St. really so bad?  The needed prep time will go down over time, so how does that factor in?

With any consideration you add, there's always another "but what about..." to throw into the stew.

One thing is for sure, though -- I can get a heckuva lot more bang for my proverbial buck by "boxing" in my availability to specific time blocks.  If I can schedule the appointments during those blocks, great; if not, too bad.  Multiple students in a row without in-between travel time adds up to some darn good money.  For an individual trip all the way in and back, I'd come out better stocking the shelves in a supermarket.

To summarize:

Lesson #1:  Valuing your time is complicated.  No easy answers.
Lesson #2:  Even taking Lesson 1 into account, schedule "optimization" can greatly tilt the value equation in one's favor.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

The People

One of the most enduring cliches you hear at b-school usually goes something like this: "...and the best part of all is THE PEOPLE!  They are all so wonderful and amazing!  OMG I'm gonna miss these [insert cute nickname of people at a particular school] so much!"

I think some of the people are great.  Some are phenomenally accomplished, some are incredibly smart, some have plans to change the world via [insert cool new sustainable energy concept, AI platform that solves [insert problem], etc.

Others, maybe not.  Some are just ambitious twenty-somethings who spent a couple years in consulting, punched a ticket with Teach For America, or who "walked away from the corporate thing, man" to do one of the most conventional things possible.

As for interesting people, and the interesting stories that narrate their lives, you could do worse than look at the Guard/Reserve.  As I've written here before, my reasons for sticking around are mostly practical ones, but one thing that always reels me back in when my mind starts to drift is the chance to spend the first weekend of my month with some pretty amazing folks.

I'm about to head to Worcester.  It's an Officer Candidate School board for a kid who grew up in Baghdad idolizing Michael Jordan and watching American movies to learn his impeccable, American-accented English.  He became a civilian 'terp' (interpreter) for the U.S. military.  He served honorably in that capacity for several years, frequently exposing himself to as much danger as any front-line U.S. troop (think about it...he has to be front and center in pretty much everything to perform that role).  He came to the U.S., and now lives in this "general area" (and that's as close as I'll get...he likes his relative privacy).  He enlisted in the Army Reserve.  Although he had an advanced technical degree, it was earned in Iraq.  He "sucked it up" and served as an E-4 while waiting to finish a Bachelor's in the U.S.  He is now about to sit in front of a three-officer board who will determine his worthiness to attend OCS.

He's got 10 times the life story and perspective of the typical student at a top-10 b-school, but with only 1/10th of the self-importance.

Having tea with a guy like THAT the first weekend of each month is something I look forward to. That's the type of person I'll miss once he goes for his "butter bar" at OCS.

Someone who thinks the "world sucks" because JetBlue kept her on the tarmac for 30 extra minutes at Logan?  Maybe not so much.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

There's a Lot to Bank With in Lowell (Thankfully)

In case anyone wants to know how to turn a prospect into a non-prospect very quickly, I will relay a quick story that really just happened. 

I am curious to learn more about commercial loans.  I called a well-known bank here in town (and they will remain nameless, out of respect for the innocent).  I left a friendly voicemail with a particular commercial lending officer, who called me back a few minutes ago.  Here is a paraphrased version of how that call transpired, her words in italics.

"Hello, is this Greg Page?"


"You called earlier, so I'm returning your call."

"Well, I'd like to learn more about commercial loan opportunities."

"What do you mean?  I'm not sure what you're looking for.  Are you looking for a term loan or a line of credit?  Without knowing what you need, I can't answer anything specific."  

"Okay, well I'm not entirely sure myself.  I called you because I don't know a lot about commercial lending, but would like to learn more about what's out there, what the options might be, etc."

"Do you need this for commercial real estate?  Is there property involved?" 

"No property involved.  It's a start-up with a very low cash burn.  I would just need something to help me cover basic living expenses so that I could operate the start-up without having to work other jobs."

"Oh, it's a start-up.  Those are very risky.  Well, I still don't understand what you're asking me." [tone becomes increasingly condescending].

"Well, I guess you could say it's a general query.  Okay, why don't I throw some numbers at you just to play around with [numbers get thrown]."

"Well, I have no way to answer that, because I don't know anything about the guarantor [said extra slowly, dripping with this-guy-doesn't-know-what-I-just-said].  Do you have a business plan?

"As a matter of fact, yes.  And there are monthly revenue projections for each of the next three years."

"Oh.  Well, I still don't understand what you're trying to find out." 

"Okay, let's back it up a bit here.  The reason I called you is precisely because I don't know what I don't know.  What would you usually tell someone is the next step to take when they have a very general query about commercial loans?"

"Well, I would usually meet with them in person, and they'd have a business plan with them."  

"Alright, so you're saying the phone isn't the best way to initiate these sorts of conversations.  Would it make more sense to come in?"

"You might want to check out resources like the SBA in town.  Where do you live?  I could look up the phone numbers for you."  

"I live downtown, right here in Lowell.  I'm all set.  I can look up the numbers."

"Okay, well bye then."

At no point during the conversation did she even muster the curiosity to ask a single question about WHAT the business was, WHETHER we had any existing revenue/clients, or WHAT I could do to follow up with her.

Whatever happened to the salesperson who doesn't want to let you off the line?  Why not humor me?  Why not EXPLAIN TO ME the difference between the various options, and schedule a follow-up?

Instead, it was a steaming pile of condescension, peppered with the "I don't know what you mean" stuff that I would expect from a recalcitrant junior soldier ("Sir, when you said sweep the TOC and take the trash out, I didn't know exactly what you meant by I couldn't get it done.")

Thankfully, there a lot of banks in Lowell.  Many seem to do well.  One seems to do so well that it apparently doesn't need my business.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Michael Douglas, Oncologist?

Back in October 2010, after getting the news that "the margins were all good, and all the lymph nodes we scoped were clean" report, I blogged about that news here on the site.

I noted that I would not become "Cancer Guy," and can most definitely say I've lived up to that vow.  There's typically no reason to ever bring it up, and other than a slight bit of facial asymmetry (there's a wee bit *more* of me on the left side b/c of the neck dissection), there's no noticeable difference I would need to explain, like when I couldn't pronounce certain letters for a while.  When people see the massive scar on my arm (yes, an arm can become a tongue, just w/o the tastebuds), they probably assume it's military-related and too awkward to ask about.  No one ever has.  

But that's not about denial -- it's about putting something difficult in the rearview, and it's also about not driving other people nuts (the same reason I don't post FB statuses about what I'm eating or the run I just did...who, exactly, is supposed to care?)

I've never said "No" to Mass Eye and Ear for anything.  To say that's the least I could would be a huge understatement.  Annual brochure, awareness video, news clip for a syndicated medical segment?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Not everyone gets the best medical care in the world.  I do.  If I can help them raise awareness of something very serious that could help save someone's life, that's a no-brainer.  If the story of diagnosis-treatment-successful deployment-successful follow-ups helps paint that narrative, all the better.

And the whole awareness thing is key because cancer survival has everything to do with detection.  Catch it early enough, and it's surgery.  Wait too long, and it's way more complicated.  Radiation around the mouth can make it harder to produce saliva.  Too little saliva could mean tooth decay.  Tooth decay can create new problems.  And so on.

In Michael Douglas' case, he did wait too long.  Because "cancer" might not have been one of the originally-suggested reasons for the oral discomfort, it was somehow missed by his original medical team, despite the walnut-sized tumor developing on his tongue.

Anyway, Michael Douglas made waves this week by saying that his cancer was "caused" by all the oral sex he has performed over the years.  While I won't doubt the lovemaking/lady-pleasing prowess of Michael Douglas, there is an important problem with the word "caused" there.  And not in the stodgy, cranky grammarian way I try to correct misuse of words like "notoriety" or "humbled," but in a far more important sense that actually matters.

HPV-16 and HPV-18 are undeniably, unquestionably linked to certain cancers, including oral ones.  So are smoking and drinking.

The drinking thing is of particular concern from those who are either born with, or develop, alcohol intolerance that prevents functioning of the enzyme needed to process alcohol into acetic acid.  If you want to read all about the linkage between the single nucleotide polymorphism associated w/the onset of alcohol intolerance and the risks of squamous cell carcinoma, please feel free to click here.  If you want to read about the highly carcinogenic properties of acetaldehyde, Google it.

That's all a huge mouthful of five-dollar words, so sometimes it's easier to say, "I'll have a scotch and soda, hold the scotch."

Anyway, back to Michael Douglas for a second.  It's common folk wisdom, but not medically sound, to say a particular thing *caused* someone to get cancer.  No M.D./Ph.D. is going to say you got cancer "because" you grew up near Pilgrim 1, or because you stood near a microwave.  (Michael Douglas, btw, has a long and storied history of alcohol and tobacco use).  The trouble with saying it is that it's a step away from starting to stigmatize those who suffer from poorly-differentiated cell division.  (Note to anyone reading...if someone shares news of a cancer diagnosis w/you, there's one thing you should never say: "What did you do to get that?")

A growing percentage of oral cancer diagnoses involve HPV-positive patients.  Keep mind that 80-90 percent of people eventually have some strand of HPV, which typically comes and goes within a two-year span.    The vast majority of these strands do not have the cancer association.  And just like not every lung cancer diagnosis involves smoking, not every oral cancer diagnosis involves HPV.

Trust me, I know.

In a way, it's a great thing that Michael Douglas is getting this into the news, because it's sparking the conversation that lets people jump in to help separate fact from fiction.  Awareness is key.  If you feel a persistent, extremely sharp pain on or around your tongue that feels like someone is driving a nail through one of the most sensitive parts of your body, have someone check it out.  If the dentist sees a lesion, get a biopsy.  The biopsy process will be physically painful in way that I won't even attempt to talk about in this protracted blog entry, but there's only one worse option.

And that option is simply unpalatable.  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Required Viewing for White People

My wife saw the video below, immediately posted it Facebook, and then told me I would love it.  No surprise, I did.  

As I've said many times and written here many times, modern racism can take some unusual forms, and it doesn't always come from where some people expect it to.  Just because you vote the *correct* way and you know when to use "Asian" vs. "Oriental" -- even though your grandmother blurs the two -- does not earn you immunity here.  

Having mostly lived in the Northeast Megalopolis, I am far more familiar with the type of commodifying/exoticizing brand of racism being parodied here than I am with the more old-school, "traditional" racism that remains a dominant theme in our popular culture, yet is far more rare than what this video spoofs.  

Every white person who watches this probably laughs and says, "That's not ME!" but maybe at some point, during some conversation -- if even for a fleeting moment -- it was.  

For what it's worth, my belief is that the *secret* to cross-cultural communication is to remain true to your original self.  Just be you.  If YOU equals a Waspy, 32 year-old white male, then just BE THAT.  People are way more accepting of that than of someone who meets a person of Cambodian descent who instantly starts apologizing for other Americans' lack of sensitivity or starts to disown Nixon's bombing campaign in nineteen-seventy-what-was-it...which no one ever said they owned in the first place!  

If you're truly interested in another person's heritage or culture, you can show that by asking them about it.  No one cares about your five words of Mandarin.  But ASK someone about their thoughts on Sino-American cultural differences, actually listen to their answer, and you might make a friend for life.  

And one last thought before you watch this:  Do you find yourself constantly describing every person of color that you meet as 'inspiring,' 'amazing,' or 'awesome'?  If you do the same for white folks, you've earned a free pass on this...but you don't, the hard truth is that YOU ARE this guy.