Farewell 2018, Hello 2019

It is that time of year, dear readers, when I look back over the past twelve months, assess progress (or lack thereof) against my goals, and think ahead for 2019.  Careful readers know that for several years I have worked with a set of life rules (rather than annual resolutions) for living the next third of my life.  This review is just one small part of an exercise to have an honest conversation with myself, so I’ll be able to have real conversations with the larger world.  We don’t do enough looking at our uncertainties and vulnerabilities, sometimes choosing as an alternative getting angry at others—which hinders real understanding.  Steve Almond, in the book Bad Stories, asserts that’s true because we take our grievances seriously but not our vulnerabilities.  In the 2017 essay “Facing the Furies” (found in the collection Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises and Essays), Rebecca Solnit frames it this way:

“. . . more often, lashing out is a way to avoid looking inward. A 2001 study by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner found that feeling angry made people as optimistic about the outcome of a situation as feeling happy.  In other words, anger may make people miserable, but is also makes them more confident and crowds out other, more introspective miseries: pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, vulnerability.  We’d rather be mad than sad.”

2018 was another strange year in America, where anger and grievances (real and perceived) took center-stage in too many instances.  You know it is a strange year when Dave Barry can’t make-up fake year-in-review anecdotes that are any funnier, scarier, and/or weirder than real life.  But worse than strange, the year brought actions that lead many to question whether we’ve completely lost our way as a country.  I have to go with Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., who recently wrote “This was a godawful year . . . and that leaves me full of hope.”

“. . .hope, one hopes, will breed new activism and involvement, will help people who may not have considered politics before to realize that they have the ability and the responsibility to create government that looks like all of us and reflects the majority’s values. Maybe this, in turn, will breed more waves of youth, femininity and color, as more of us decide to take America at its word about forming that more perfect union.”

While 2018 at home and work was a time of tremendous transition, I also head into 2019 with hope.  Hope for the people I love and for the causes and country that are important to me.  Hope that I will continue to understand more about what brought me to where I am today and where I want to go in the future.  Because, of course, hope demands things that despair does not.

Brown family (credit: John Thorne)

The Browns – looking forward to 2019! (photo credit: John Thorne)

So, how did I fare on my eight life rules I stare at every morning on my computer wallpaper?  Here is a short summation.

1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate.  Every Day.  Several years ago I made it a habit to say thank you to one person each day, and that simple habit has made me richer in spirit.  In 2018 I kept up that habit and made progress in being more intentional about gratefulness, thankfulness, and compassion. Being grateful, thankful, and compassionate is, to me, about equality. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are all in this life together.

2.  Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. Last year I wrote that I was going to keep the cartoon in mind where the doctor asks his middle-aged male patient, “Which is more inconvenient for you: 1 hour a day of exercise or 24 hours a day of dead?”  In 2018 I built a daily ritual of long-distance walking into my mornings which has been very satisfying.  But I have to focus on Rule #5 for this to really have an effect.  My health has to become more of a priority in 2019.  Period.

3.  Listen more than you talk.  This is a tough one to measure, as few people will give you honest feedback (and few people have the same standard of what is too much talking).  So I’ll just repeat what I wrote last year:  “It is always a challenge when I find myself in a place of some authority (either at work or home) not to grab the bully pulpit.  While David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, says listening is hard, he also notes that listening is an act of love…an act that one never regrets.”  I do know of a number of instances this past year when I really listened, and for that I am grateful.

4.  Spend less than you make.  2018 was (yet) another year when I didn’t buy any new guitars! Seriously, I think I did well in this area, although when I do spend (e.g., good restaurants, good wine) I tend to treat myself and others well. I continue to adjust some of my expectations in order to live with much less regular income in the not-too-distant future.  I’m also thinking more about what to give away.

5.  Quit eating crap!  Eat less of everything else.  Well, I failed here. Bigly. When I go to “My Fitness Pal” and look at my weight trend line for the year, I had a very good first quarter, and then saw it slowly but relentlessly rise over the last three quarters.  Several years ago I successfully gave up drinking sodas (I had a several-Diet Cokes-a-day-habit), and now I have to get serious about some other things to give up completely.  See Rule #2 above.

Play more music

Play more music

6.  Play music.  I continue to believe that the world is a better place when I play music.  My music is better when I play with others.  However, when I look at my tracking charts for 2018, I only pulled out my guitars 2-3 days/week.  While I may not make it to every day in 2019, I’d like to open those cases and hear those strings sing at least five days a week.

7.  Connect and commit.  Over the years since I set these rules, we made progress as a family in gathering people together on a regular basis.  While that slipped some in 2017, I was able to get together more with colleagues from work in 2018.  Next year, I want to add more friends outside work to this equation. I’m going to push myself not just to think of getting together for dinners, but focus on talks over coffee and other less demanding yet ultimately satisfying connections.  I’m going to take some of my own recent advice when I find myself not knowing how to break the ice.  I’ll “simply walk up and say, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ (a.k.a. the only icebreaker you’ll ever need.)”

8.  Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man.  Enjoy life! This is not a concern on a daily basis, but more of a reminder that it can be easier to lose the joy of life as one moves through the years.  I’ve certainly seen my elders who have handled this coming period of life with grace and happiness, and others who feel entitled, bitter, and—yes—grumpy. During the winter months, I work very hard not to let my SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) symptoms show through to others. I also spent time this past year thinking about how much I still had to contribute in a range of life’s activities.  Others helped me remember—as Madeleine L’Engle has written—that “you are every age you’ve ever been.”  Living through what you know and who you have been from the years of life is a way to understand current circumstances and embrace new possibilities. That’s my goal in 2019 and beyond.

So there you have it.  2019?  Bring it on!

More to come…

DJB

My 2018 Year-End Reading List

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m sharing this list of the books I read over the past twelve months.  Since returning from sabbatical early in 2016, I committed to reading more, and to seek out a wider range of works beyond my normal histories and biographies. Here are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I began the year with a work of fiction. In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever. It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.  A powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  Early in the year I returned to reread this wonderful memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia. Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds a richer love for music.

Grant by Ron Chernow.  One of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact, Chernow has  worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this impressive biography of U.S. Grant.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  The release of a new movie of this timeless classic led me to pick up my cherished, signed-by-the-author copy, and reread once again the story that has captivated children and adults alike since its release.

Wanderlust:  A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.  I reread this book in the late winter after a friend mentioned that she wanted to read something by Solnit, the wonderful historian and essayist.  As often happens, I discovered so much more upon a second reading.

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  An important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.

How Democracies Die

“How Democracies Die”

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  The research over twenty years by these two Harvard professors shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments. This accessible book is highly recommended, and should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.  Given what we are facing as a country, this is my choice for book of the year.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by this best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobal.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world. Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed.

The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  Two classics that I read (or reread in the case of TGOW) while taking a summer vacation in Pacific Grove and Monterey, California.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth.  Imagine hearing the phrase “You know, you’re no genius” your entire life and then, years later, being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—in recognition for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology. That happened to Angela Duckworth, and this book summarizes her years of study.

In the Shadow of Statues:  A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu.  This memoir by the former mayor of New Orleans hit home for me on both a personal and professional level.  As Mayor Landrieu notes early in this book on his personal journey to confront the true story behind Confederate monuments, “The statues were not honoring history or heroes.  They were created as political weapons, part of an effort to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

What Truth Sounds Like:  RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson.  This powerful book takes us back to a meeting between Robert Kennedy, James Baldwin, and others in the 1960s, and brings the conversation forward to our bitter racial struggles of the 21st century.

Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams.  A short but enlightening read about how technology is designed to capture our attention, and what you can do about it—by a former Google strategist turned Oxford philosopher.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.  I ended the year by returning to one of my favorite authors.  The first of the two works of Solnit’s I read in December “explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination.”

Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit. I ended the year with yet another powerful collection of essays from one of America’s most insightful writers.  “Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, ‘with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.’”

I hope you’ll find one or two things to pique your interest among these wonderful books.  My 2019 list will begin with Craig Nelson’s 2006 biography of Thomas Paine, who I rank along with Roger Williams as one of the two most intriguing, yet often forgotten and totally misunderstood, founding fathers.

Happy reading!

More to come…

DJB

Connections

When I was a freshman in college, I waited tables at a local restaurant and bar in Nashville. Waiting tables is hard and humbling work, which I highly recommend.  Once you’ve experienced it you’ll forever be mindful of 1) how you treat wait staff, and 2) how to tip properly.  When I was leaving at the end of the school year, the manager, Bill, and his sister Ruth invited me over for a drink.  At the end of the night, Ruth gave me a hug and said, “Have a good life!”  This was the pre-Facebook/email/Instagram days, and she meant it as a heartfelt farewell to someone she’d probably never see again.  I stuck that sentiment in the back of my mind.

But to paraphrase folksinger Arlo Guthrie halfway through the 17-minute-long Alice’s Restaurant, this isn’t a post about waiting tables.

This is a blog post about the emotional and intellectual value of personal connections.

One of our staff members had her final day at the National Trust coincide with the last day of our 2018 PastForward conference in San Francisco.  Alison, who was heading off for a great new opportunity, always had a smile on her face that matched her outgoing personality, she was an extremely efficient and effective worker, and she would always have something pleasant to say as we passed in the hallway. So when heading out for dinner that Friday evening with my wife and daughter Claire, I stopped to thank a group of staff members who were preparing to catch the red-eye home. In the midst of our conversation I pulled the “Have a good life!” phrase from the back of my brain in saying goodbye to Alison.  Several colleagues groaned to let me know that they would be staying connected to Alison, and I realized my sentiment wasn’t taken as intended.  I tried to make amends, yet Claire gave me a bit of a hard time when we left the hotel, in that exasperated “Oh, Dad. . .” kind of way. I’ve thought about the sentiment and reaction several times since.

Connections are clearly easier to keep today with our on-line options.  The internet is full of articles about why high school reunions are (or quickly will be) extinct, thanks to social media.  It is easy to connect with people all around the world if you are online.  I have maintained contact with a former colleague who is probably the only individual to have worked in offices with both my son and me. I recently discovered that she was just named an Associate with a New York law firm.  I say I have maintained contact…but in truth I just saw it on LinkedIn and hit the “Congratulations” button.

Which brings me back to Claire.  Remember Claire?

With Claire at the Big A

Connecting with Claire…over a baseball game

My daughter has taught me several life lessons, but among the most meaningful is the importance of maintaining personal connections. Real connections, not just electronic touches. Claire certainly uses social media as much as most other millennials, but she is a master at the face-to-face, let’s have a cup of coffee, “I care about you” emotional connection.  She instinctively looks for opportunities to get together and will travel some distance and carve out meaningful time to keep those connections current.  Her contributions to dinner table discussions are legendary, leading family and friends into topics that are consequential and boundary expanding. She is good at telling stories and she cares about yours.  She “gets” that—as the writer Rebecca Solnit has said—“To love someone is to put yourself in their place . . . which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”

In a wonderful 2017 essay entitled Preaching to the Choir, Solnit speaks to why we need to connect, find places of agreement, and then go deeper.

“I wonder if I hear the phrase ‘preaching to the choir’ often now because we have, in our everyday practices, pared our communications down to the bone and beyond.  Almost no one I know calls friends merely to have the kind of long, reflective, intimate conversations that were common in earlier decades; phones are for practical exchanges—renegotiating plans, checking in on arrangements.  Emails, which in the 1990s seemed to resemble letters, now resemble texting, brief bursts of words in a small space, not to be composed as art, archived, or mused over much.  A lot of people are too busy to hang out without a clear purpose, or don’t know that you can, and the often combative arenas and abstracted contact of social media replace physical places (including churches) to hang out in person.”

Sometimes I will catch myself among a group of people with my head buried in my phone screen, oblivious to the life around me. Other times I pass on chances to connect through a meal or conversation for no reason other than I have my head somewhere else.  I walk past people in the hall or on the street and act as if I am under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.  Yet, inevitably, the times I pull myself out of my self-absorption to connect at that emotional “I care about you” level, I am the one who benefits. I have conversations and connections that let me know whether friends and family are having a good day, much less a good life.

The next time you find yourself in a similar situation and you don’t know what to do, simply walk up and say, “Tell me about yourself,” (a.k.a. the only icebreaker you’ll ever need.)

I hope you can use the upcoming holiday season to connect with real people, share stories, and have a good life.

More to come…

DJB

P.S. – As I originally wrote this piece, I pointed out all the references to the song Alice’s Restaurant (with four part harmony, naturally).  But then I thought better of it.  So I took them all out and only mention it here, buried in the footnotes, for those who thought “that sounds familiar” and will chuckle. If you have never heard of the song or Arlo (son of famous folksinger Woody Guthrie) and are curious, then click on the video above.

P.P.S – You’ll no doubt be hearing more from me on thoughts coming from Rebecca Solnit’s new collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names, which is where I read Preaching to the Choir.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Delegation

Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in three separate conversations around micromanagement.  All have been in the business and nonprofit context, but the idea of closely observing or controlling the work of subordinates or employees can just as easily apply in the non-work environment.  Think, for instance, of the “helicopter parent” syndrome.

The Harvard Business Review has an article by Rebecca Knight on micromanaging that suggests, “It is a hard habit to break. You may downplay your propensities by labeling yourself a ‘control freak’ or by claiming that you just like to keep close tabs on your team, but those are poor excuses for excessive meddling.”  I’ll admit to having some of the micromanager bug myself, and I’m convinced that one is never completely cured.  But as with the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous’ famous 12-step process, public recognition of the problem of micromanagement can be effective in beginning to consider different ways of working with colleagues, family members, children, and friends.  A number of years ago I went through an executive coaching process where I asked several peers to provide unvarnished feedback on my management style. They spoke to my strengths, but it also became clear that I held too tightly to my work.  That feedback set me on the path of—to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove—learning how to stop worrying and love delegation.

What are the signs you might be a micromanager?

  • You worry that it will reflect badly on you if your team doesn’t do something exactly the way you would do it.
  • You have trouble prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t matter for you to do your job
  • You step into a project by thinking, “I can do this faster simply by doing it myself.”
  • You worry about what is happening in your office/department/division and ask your staff to cc you on all their emails.
  • You ask your employees to seek your permission before doing basic tasks.
  • You want to see a daily schedule to ensure that your staff is doing the job the way you want it done.
  • You step into a project at the first sign of (what you perceived to be) trouble.
  • You don’t trust others to do the job as good as you would do it yourself.
  • You find yourself working at 5 o’clock in the morning, or 11 o’clock at night, or all weekend.
  • You schedule your children’s days and weekends so heavily that they don’t have time to just be kids.

Any of that sound familiar?  Well, once you’ve recognized the illness, Knight suggest some cures.

“Fighting your micromanaging impulses might be hard at first so pull back slowly. You need to get comfortable, too. Do a test run on a project that is a bit less urgent and give your team full accountability and see how it goes . . . Recognize that your way is not the only, or even necessarily, the best way. The acid test of leadership is how well the team does when you’re gone.” (Side note:  I’m reminded of how my team tackled my absence during a sabbatical—and made me laugh at myself in the process—with their What Would DJB Do? (WWDJBD?) mugs.)

. . . if things don’t go exactly as you’d like, try your hardest not to overact. Take a breath; go for a walk; do whatever you need to do to come ‘back from that agitated micro-managerial moment’ . . .  After all, does it really matter if the memo isn’t formatted exactly to your liking? For most things, nothing is so bad it can’t be corrected.”

WWDJBD?

The “What Would DJB Do?” mug my staff prepared for sabbatical. You can consider this my personalized “World’s Best Dad” or “World’s Best Boss” mug

So what’s wrong with micromanaging?  After all, if the job is done well, isn’t that the point.  Not exactly.  Knight suggests, “Micromanaging dents your team’s morale by establishing a tone of mistrust—and it limits your team’s capacity to grow. It also hampers your ability to focus on what’s really important . . .If your mind is filled with the micro-level details of a number of jobs, there’s no room for big picture thoughts” (emphasis added).  You can set the broad vision and goals for your project and then hold your team accountable for reaching those goals without deciding in excruciating detail how they have to travel to that destination. For anyone with any type of oversight responsibility—be it a division chief, a project manager, or a parent—understanding and then focusing on your job while letting others grow into and focus on their job is the only way toward long-term success.

Finally, I think Paul Graham has one of the best reason to stop micromanaging:  life is too short.  Life is too short to do stuff that doesn’t matter. And doing someone else’s job because you are micromanaging is doing stuff that doesn’t matter.

“One heuristic for distinguishing stuff that matters is to ask yourself whether you’ll care about it in the future. Fake stuff that matters usually has a sharp peak of seeming to matter. That’s how it tricks you. The area under the curve is small, but its shape jabs into your consciousness like a pin. . . . The things that matter aren’t necessarily the ones people would call ‘important.’ Having coffee with a friend matters. You won’t feel later like that was a waste of time.”

Just about everything in that bulleted list above will fall, over time, into the category of stuff that doesn’t matter.  So take a deep breath, step back, and learn to stop worrying and love delegation.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

I Could Be Wrong, But…

Last month the Harvard Business Review had a fascinating article about how we can become more open-minded.*  In this time of major disruption we need more leaders and citizens who are willing to consider other viewpoints and be intellectually flexible.  The article’s author, Shane Snow, noted that Benjamin Franklin had a way of both preparing himself and his listener to being open-minded.  Whenever Franklin was about to make an argument, he would open with something along the lines of, “I could be wrong, but…” Snow notes that “saying this put people at ease and helped them to take disagreements less personally. But it also helped (Franklin) to psychologically prime himself to be open to new ideas.”

In today’s hyper-partisan environment, I find the need to push myself to consider other options, to consider that “I could be wrong, but…” as I make statements of (what seem to me to be) fact.

Shane Snow

Shane Snow CEO and founder of Contently photographed for Shane Snow by Christopher Lane

Snow notes that in 2016, researchers—building off the concept of “intellectual humility” from religion—outlined four ways to assess open-mindedness:

  1. Having respect for other viewpoints
  2. Not being intellectually overconfident
  3. Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect
  4. Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint

Other researchers added a fifth trait, “’openness to experience,’ or a willingness to try new things or take in new information,” as also being important to building open-mindedness in your life.  When the author gave as an example “willingness to try new food” I thought, uh-oh.  (I’m the guy who finds what he likes for lunch at a restaurant and then orders the same thing on return visits.)  However, when I took the Intellectual Humility Assessment, I found that my openness to new experience scores were fine; however, my lowest score came in “separating your ego from your intellect.”  Well, that will certainly leave a mark…

Being open-minded does, of course, come with important boundaries.  There are times where open-mindedness can lead you astray. But in general, if you have to think about the last time you admitted you were wrong, perhaps you could use a bit more intellectual humility and openness to new experiences to exercise that open-minded muscle.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*A similar article by the same author, Shane Snow, can be found here.