Change is the Only Constant

BaseballMarch is one of my favorite times of the year.  The longest month—February—is past. Winter is nearing an end here in DC. Baseball players have reported to spring training camps. Hope springs eternal.

Speaking of baseball, I have my own spring training ritual every year. Up first is a viewing of Bull Durhamthe best baseball movie ever—followed by reading a new baseball book.  Together the two get me in the mood for the season.  I can report checking off both of those training regimens this year well before Opening Day.

I actually read two baseball books recently, although one may not count because it is entitled The Is Not Baseball BookYou have to love a book which begins with a first chapter of “Sports Is Not a Metaphor.  It’s a Symbol.”  Afterwards it jumps into all matter of things, including pataphysical management systems leading to “self-learning” teams.  That’s for another time.

It is the second book, Smart Baseball:  The Story Behind the Old Stats that are Ruining the Game, The New Ones that are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball by Keith Law, that took me into thoughts about change.  Baseball, that most tradition-bound and statistically-drenched of sports, has undergone a fundamental change over the past two decades in how the game is understood, played, and coached. That happened because a few people had the insight to challenge the conventional wisdom about the game.  Baseball has so many statistics going back over a hundred years that it is possible to model what happens in thousands of situations (such as when a runner tries to steal a base) and know the (statistical) outcome. The insights turned basic baseball knowledge on its head.  Part One of the book takes on some of the sacred statistics of baseball and shows why they are firmly rooted in “baseball’s irrational adherence to tradition.”  Law begins with that old standby, the batting average*, and uses a close-to-home example to demonstrate why the holder of the league’s highest batting average in 2015 (the Marlins’ Dee Gordon) was not the “batting champion” as these players are generally identified. Looking at performance through all manner of new metrics, Gordon—even though his average was three points higher—didn’t come close to being as effective with the bat that year as then-Nationals player Bryce Harper.  Baseball got it partially right in that Gordon was dubbed the “batting champion” but Harper was the unanimous choice for Most Valuable Player.

Baseball is only one area where change is afoot. Change in any situation can be difficult to handle, but I believe in the old axiom that “change is the only constant.”  We all have to adapt to change. As I leave my position at the National Trust at the end of this month, change will occur for many of you as well as for me.  Other transitions are underway in the organization and in the preservation field as well.  But as I noted in a recent presentation to our board of trustees,

“For a movement that appears resistance to change, the way we save places keeps changing—and that’s a good thing. The Main Street program began in the 1970s as a push against both modern mall development AND traditional preservation practice.  As an example of the latter, Main Street buildings like the Franklin Theatre in my parents’ hometown weren’t the crown jewels of American architecture—but they were places that mattered to the local community in ways that went well beyond their architectural style.”

To help focus my mind on change, I’ve had the following quote from management guru Peter F. Drucker as my computer screen saver for years:

“People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.”

We need the past to ground us in memory, continuity, and identity.  We need to accept change as a constant in our lives.  And yes, that’s a paradox. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “There is nothing like paradox to take the scum off your mind.”

Have a good week, and more to come…

DJB

*Batting average in baseball is derived by taking a player’s hits, dividing them by that player’s at bats, and rounding it to three digits.  In the modern era, batting averages have typically fallen in the .200 to .400 range

Humility Is the New Smart

Research shows that “more than 85 percent of a message we communicate to others is conveyed not in the words but in the tone and manner in which they are delivered.”  I saw this first hand in a recent meeting when one of the participants made it very clear—in body language, tone, and language—that she was going to be disagreeable.  Arms crossed, with no attempt to bring others into her point of view other than by sheer force and with every sentence beginning with a negative, she ensured that her point of view was going to be heard.  It was tiring and not very satisfying for others trying to participate in the conversation.

This non-approach to communication was highlighted in a book I’ve been reading entitled Humility Is the New Smart:  Rethinking Human Excellence In the Smart Machine AgeIn an era when the best research indicates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by technology within the next ten to twenty years, authors Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig make the case that humans must change how we think, work, and communicate to survive and thrive. McKinsey & Company research suggests that not even the highly skilled/highly paid are immune, as current technology could be adapted to replace at least 20 percent of a CEO’s work activities. Smart machines will have “no biases (except through human design), no egos, no emotional defensiveness, and no fears of making mistakes or looking stupid or not being liked.”  In order to compete effectively and complement these smart machines, humans will need to overcome our “cocoon of self-absorption.”

Humility Is the New Smart

Humility Is the New Smart

Humility is often confused with modesty. Humility is not being meek, subdued, or thinking that you are not a worthy person. In fact, someone who is self-deprecating is often making a show on the surface of modesty while in reality their statements are hyper-focused on themselves. In place of that approach, the authors define humility as “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence.”  Interestingly, the idea of humility as a key to continuous learning is an old one, going back at least to the philosophers of ancient Greece.

To excel in areas such as critical and innovative thinking, creativity, and high emotional engagement with others—skills that are not (yet) among the things technology does well—we need to move beyond a response to the outward world that is inwardly focused and self-protective. The authors note that humans often “operate more like a defensive closed system than a system open to disconfirming information, differing opinions, or new information.” One way to move beyond this defensive posture is by quieting our ego.  Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, explains how that innovative company deals with ego and self-absorption:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. . . (Likewise) our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like the models weather forecasters use to predict the weather.  But, as we know all too well, sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out. The tool is not reality.”

Quieting your ego, managing your thinking and emotions, reflective listening, and emotionally connecting and relating to others are all keys to a humble approach to learning—an approach that in the words of the book’s authors, increases the quality of our thinking and learning, decouples our beliefs (not values) from our ego, opens us up to continually testing our beliefs about how the world works, and learns from our mistakes as we try out new ideas and approaches to problem solving.

As I face milestones in my life, this book has me thinking a great deal about my approach to learning and communication. Continuous learning and insatiable curiosity seem to be critical to ongoing growth and engagement with the world around us.  We can get there by quieting our ego and letting humility take over.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

History is a Teacher

Why do we care about history?

Writer and philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Mark Twain took a more humorous approach with, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  Over the weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”  Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman—co-host of the history podcast BackStory and author of The Field of Blood:  Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil Warsays simply that “History doesn’t repeat, but it teaches.”

My executive assistant (a former Capitol guide) recommended The Field of Blood, and for the past week or more I have been absorbed in the riveting tales of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! During the turbulent and violent three decades leading up to the Civil War, bowie knives and pistols were regularly drawn on members by other members.  Duels happened with alarming frequency, including one that led to the death of one representative at the hand of another. All involved, with the exception of the poor victim, were handily re-elected.  Slavery, and its future in America, was the key issue that led to this bullying, fighting, and total breakdown of civil discourse.

Field of Blood

“The Field of Blood” by Joanne B. Freeman

In a delightful and raucous (for a history book) presentation at Politics and Prose, Freeman points to the modern echoes of our own time.  As she notes, the book tells the story of:

  • Extreme polarization
  • Fundamental disagreements about what kind of nation the United States would be
  • Splintering political parties
  • New technologies skewing and scattering the news, and complicating politics in the process
  • Conspiracy theories being spread, North and South, as the nation’s crisis unfolds
  • Panic about the impact of free speech in that fraught environment
  • Rampant distrust in national political institutions as well as rampant distrust of Americans in each other

If you agree that history is a good teacher, we can look at today’s environment in light of the decades from 1830 to 1860 and worry about our future.  No one is suggesting that we are moving towards a civil war; however, we are playing with figurative fire due to the extreme polarization of the electorate, the spread of conspiracy theories, the loss of trust in our national institutions, and the use of rapidly changing technology to transform the way news is spread. Freeman notes in her book that “Democracy is an ongoing conversation between the governed and their governors; it should come as no surprise that dramatic changes in the modes of conversation cause dramatic changes in democracies themselves.”

Conversations among our fellow citizens are critical to our civic health, which is why I so strongly support the work to tell the full history of the nation.  That work is part of this conversation.  In her epilogue, Freeman writes of the awful consequences of polarization and a lack of conversation,

“When the nation is polarized and civic commonality dwindles, Congress reflects that image back to the American people.  The give-and-take of deliberative politics breaks down, bringing accusations, personal abuse, and even violence in its wake. National political parties fracture.  Trust in the institution of Congress lapses, as does trust in national institutions of all kinds, and indeed, the trust of Americans in one another.  At such times they are forced to reckon with what their nation is, and what it should be.”

I agree with the author Lewis Lapham that “what joins Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.”  We do that work through elections, through kitchen table conversations at the places where history happened, through historical scholarship, through civil discourse even when we strongly disagree with another’s position. Bullying and violence are—unfortunately—part of the American story and, shamefully, part of our character. Freeman shows in The Field of Blood, just as we see it in today’s news feeds, that it is only when we stand up to those who would divide us and push for a true reckoning of what we are as a nation, that we break through the polarization.

What happened more than 150 years ago may not repeat itself, but it can certainly teach us today, if we are willing to listen.  And that is one more reason to care about history.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

The Founding Father We’d Do Well to Find Once Again

Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

“Thomas Paine Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations” by Craig Nelson

Thomas Paine and Roger Williams are the two founding fathers whose work is most often forgotten yet remains among the most consequential today.  My belief was strengthened upon reading Craig Nelson’s excellent 2006 biography, Thomas Paine:  Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations.

Paine, born in England and truly a citizen of the Enlightenment world, wrote three of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, topped only by the Bible.  His Common Sense has long been recognized as a key work in changing the hearts and minds of the people of the United Colonies into citizens of what Paine was the first to characterize as the United States.  Similarly, his Rights of Man helped shape the French Revolution and — although it would take more than a century — inspire constitutional reform in Great Britain and foreshadow Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Age of Reason, a forceful call against organized religion, finds Paine sticking to his Enlightenment and deist values even at the expense of his public reputation. Paine’s mind was clearly a force of nature, and Nelson characterizes him as “the Enlightenment Mercury who sparked political common cause between men who worked for a living and empowered aristocrats across all three nations.”

One of Nelson’s great accomplishments is to explain Enlightenment thinking and values in a way which places Paine and his work in a well-constructed context.  Paine certainly has his flaws as a person, but he is more easily understood when placed within the value system that drove so many of the leading philosophers and political leaders of the late eighteenth century. Nelson’s other important accomplishment is to showcase Paine’s incredible relevance today.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine’s famous opening to The American Crisis, written in the winter of 1776, resonates today as much as it did when Washington’s small army was fighting for its life at Trenton and Princeton. Nelson certainly recognizes the challenge when he notes that the coalition that controls America today repudiates much of Paine in following the John Adams—Alexander Hamilton, ruling class of the rich, style of government.  “While Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson would be crestfallen that the modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy—multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors—Adams and Hamilton would be just as shocked to learn that their admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue.”

In his Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, author Lewis H Lapham includes the essay The World in Time which makes this point even more forcefully.  Lapham turns to Paine and doesn’t find himself

“in the presence of a marble portrait bust,” but meets instead a man “writing in what he knew to be ‘the undisguised language of the historical truth.’ To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in words simple enough to be readily understood.”

Instead of addressing the rich, as do many of the other Founding Fathers, Paine “talks to ship chandlers and master mechanics, and in place of a learned treatise he substitutes the telling phrase and the memorable aphorism—’Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.'”

Thomas Paine, in both Nelson and Lapham’s rendering, has “remained in the attic of oblivion” due to the publication of The Age of Reason and the subsequent attacks—over the next two hundred years—that placed him clearly outside this country’s obsession with religion.  Lapham notes that “Paine’s plain and forthright speaking is out of tune with our own contemporary political discourse, which for the most part is the gift for saying nothing.”

As we struggle through constitutional crises, we would do well to find one of our most important founding fathers.  Paine’s writing might be the tonic to point us back towards democracy.

More to come…

DJB

Cynicism vs. Hope

Call Them by Their True Name

“Call Them by Their True Name” by Rebecca Solnit

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays)Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head.

“Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.”

Change and progress require hard work, and cynics often want to avoid the responsibility of that work. They have a “relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world which generally offers neither.”  Change and progress also require hope, and as I’ve written before, “hope demands things that despair does not.” Hope is risky. But hope is also in love with success.

When you hear news that affects you, what is your first reaction? Does your mind move to cynical inevitabilities, or to hopeful possibilities?  Do you act upon “bad data and worse analysis” to reach your conclusion? As Solnit says in her book The Faraway Nearby, “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”  Life isn’t easy, but as Stephen Covey has written, we have the ability and freedom as humans to respond. “External forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.”

“It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility,” says Covey.  However, “proactive people work on the things they can do something about.” In the same vein Robert Glazer speaks of improving our emotional capacity. “Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.”

Nats Rainbow

Nothing says hope better than a rainbow at a baseball stadium

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, think about your response and consider choosing the proactive option of learning. Of possibilities. Of hope.

Have a good week.

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

Measure What We Value

We measure a great deal in the modern office environment, and the nonprofit world is no different.  Finding the right measurement to capture what is truly important, however, takes time and thought.  Profit for a business is easy to track, but in the mission-driven world of nonprofits the right outcomes can be hard to quantify.

I was thinking of this while wrapping up James Williams’ Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention EconomyIn looking for ways to set boundaries for attention-grabbing technology, Williams turns to measurement as one key.  He begins by noting, that “Our goal in advancing measurement should be to measure what we value, rather than valuing what we already measure.”

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

How do we, both as individuals and as staff members of a large organization, do this work?  How do we measure what we value?  Williams has a suggestion on the organizational or corporate scale:  measure the mission.  If we “operationalize in metrics the company’s mission statement or purpose for existing, which is something nearly every company has but which hardly any company actually measures,” Williams suggests we can begin to measure what we value.

 That strikes me as an important step toward understanding what organizations should measure, and how we are succeeding in reaching “what we want to want.”  As individuals, we can also think about what we measure in terms of our personal missions and callings.  Being a little obsessive, I personally track 11 measurements each day for personal growth. (Yes, you can sigh now.) I know of others who have even longer lists.  As I pondered this while reading Williams’ book, it dawned on me that perhaps I should consider whether I measure what I value (or simply value what I already measure…like weight gain or loss).  You may have similar responses.

Williams ends his book with a call that we—as individuals and as a society—can reclaim our time and our souls if we understand what we value.

“As the mythologian Joseph Campbell said, ‘The modern hero deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul.’ This is true at both individual and collective levels.

In order to rise to this challenge, we have to lean into experiences of awe and wonder. . . .We have to demand that these forces to which our attention is now subject start standing out of our light. This means rejecting the present regime of attentional serfdom.  It means rejecting the idea that we are powerless, that our angry impulses must control us, that our suffering must define us, or that we ought to wallow in guilt for having let things get this bad.  It means rejecting novelty for novelty’s sake and disruption for disruption’s sake.  It means rejecting lethargy, fatalism, and narratives of us versus them.  It means using our transgressions to advance the good.  This is not utopianism.  This is imagination.  And as anyone with the slightest bit of imagination knows, ‘imaginary’ is not the opposite of ‘real.’”

I love the challenge in that last paragraph and the truth of that last sentence.  Let’s use our imaginations and focus on what we value.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB