Finding Raymond Carver In All Of Us

I’ve just completed the 43rd book I’ve read this year. It was a small collection of Raymond Carver short stories. I have only recently been introduced to Carver. It occurred while reading Jay Rubin’s excellent book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, part biography, part analysis of Murakami’s writing. As many of you may know, I’m a huge Murakami fan. Unfortunately, I’ve run out of English translations to read, so I have been working through the catalog of influencers he has referenced and the large number of books that he translated to Japanese throughout his career.

Carver’s work shines a spotlight on the banal life of everyman, exploring relationships, boring jobs, and ultimately the restlessness that lives in all of us. Alcohol cost him his first marriage and contributed to his shortened life, many of his characters struggle with alcoholism too, and rocky relationships. The writing is raw, often unfinished, with hanging threads unresolved by a story’s end. And his writing is powerful, even in its sparseness.

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In Why Don’t You Dance, Carver tells a story of a yard sale. The entire contents of a home have been placed in the front lawn, arranged as they were in the house: bed with his and her night stands, the buffed aluminum kitchen set, a big console tv on a coffee table, a potted fern. A young couple eventually stops, tries out the bed, listens to records, and shares a drink with, we presume, the male homeowner. They dance, all three of them, and the couple purchases several items on the cheap, no haggling.

Is this a moving sale? Is it a scorned husband taking revenge on his now divorced wife? Has this man simply gone off the deep-end? We don’t know. Carver weaves this spell in a paltry seven pages, and it is memorable and mysterious.

In another story, The Calm, the protagonist describes his trip to the barber where several other patrons sit waiting for their haircuts. One man begins to tell a story of a hunting trip. He and his son shoot at a deer, the man wounding the deer, the son emptying his gun in a wild, excited volley, missing. The deers runs off. The man becomes irate and cuffs his son, giving him a concussion, while his son recovers, the sun begins to set and they fail to go find the deer. Another patron takes offense that the first didn’t bother to track the deer, leaving it to the coyotes to find. An argument ensues, all the patrons leave in a huff.  Mundane, and yet these are the types of stories we all carry with us, that surround the people we interact with everyday. It is the connected tissue we use to build relationships. A story we can relate to, one we envision telling others, even as it happens to us.

I gathered with a group of friends yesterday, some former co-workers. Past the initial greetings and “How are you”s, the dialog took on the familiar, comfortable tone of people sharing their stories: One had recently installed a wood pellet stove to heat his basement, two updated us on the gigs they have been playing with their band, another is starting a new job on Monday, one has put his house up for sale and moving to Colorado.

It’s these moments that have a currency. There is value in telling and in listening. If we remind ourselves to be aware, the bonds we seek can be strengthened and while we learn more about our friends, we are learning more about ourselves too.

~JLP

If you are interested in exploring Raymond Carver’s writings, a good place to start is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

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My Method for Reading The New Yorker

I read the New Yorker, the print version. Here is my method.

To begin, I study the cover. The iconic art work of the The New Yorker has a historic past.

The cover is a snapshot, and a window, of our current times. I like to parse out the symbolic messages, I’ll go back to this image a few times while reading an issue, often finding a missed detail that an article inside the issue may highlight.

Opening the magazine I will skip to the Night Life section. I love learning and listening to new music, I read every short review in Rock & Pop and create a Spotify playlist from any artist that piques my interests, future fodder for my running or travel time. Occasionally I will find an artist from Jazz & Standards to add as well. New York City attracts lots of great artists, which provides a wide diversity of material to consider.

Next I jump ahead to Food & Drink. While I don’t live in New York, and chances are I will not set foot in nearly all of these reviewed establishments, I love the language used to describe food, drinks, and the atmosphere of these eateries. For a few minutes I’m transported to be a patron of these establishments and can visualize the experience.

Having completed these first two sections, I close the magazine and will now go page by page to read every comic and poem in the issue. I do this for two reasons. First, I find that reading this way reduces the distraction I encounter later, while reading a long article, I don’t want to context switch to comics and prose, I’d rather stay focused on on the subject at hand. Secondly, I rarely read poetry. Giving myself a defined space and establishing a mindset to read poems, slowly and with lots of contemplation, allows me to enjoy them fully. This is a foray for me, a departure from my usual reading, an exploratory journey, approached as a curious adventure.

Sprinkled throughout each issue are a series of small images depicting a singular theme. These tend to appear in the longer articles, of which there are a few in each issue. The graphics appear to be used to add visual appeal to an otherwise black and white, full text page. I like these icons, they are quirky and often very creative. Sometimes I’m inspired to recreate one of these images myself in a little book of drawings I keep. As an example, a recent issue depicted people reading books in various settings: skateboarding, riding the subway, and directing traffic.

Finally, I return to The Talk of the Town under the New Yorker masthead in the early portion of the magazine. I will read nearly every article form here to the end, getting a perspective on politics, current events, and solid investigative journalism.

No other magazine has provided me this amount of great content across such a wide variety of topics. This isn’t meant to be an endorsement, this magazine might not be for you. However, I have never developed a method for reading a magazine before, and as I thought about this it felt interesting enough to share. The approach we use to absorb material and nurture our creative side is important, and should be something we actively cultivate.

~JLP

A $1,000,000 Smile

I had a meeting last week, on Thursday, at a local company. After finishing my 11 o’clock appointment, thinking about the conversation I’d just had, I headed toward the receptionist. I vaguely recognized that there was someone different at the desk than when I had arrived. Still caught up in my own thoughts, I scanned the visitor log book looking for the line with my name, intending to record my departure time. A pleasant voice brought me back to the present.

“How are you today?”

When I looked up my eyes met the friendly face of a woman waiting for my response.

“I’m doing very well, thank you. How are you?”

“Amazing” was her immediate reply. She smiled even more broadly.

Wanting to know what prompted her enthusiastic response I hinted, “It sounds like you have something exciting planned?”

“No, but it’s Thursday and I’m glad to be here.”

Intrigued I probed, “Do you have anything planned for the weekend?”

“Nothing special, and that’s ok,” she stated as if that explained everything. “What are you doing this weekend,” she queried.

I told her I was taking the family to a jazz festival.

“Oh! I love jazz.” There was a twinkle to her eyes as she said this, and I have no doubt she approved of my weekend activities.

We traded a few more pleasantries and I made my departure, wishing her a great weekend. She reciprocated.

There was a lightness in my step as I walked in the bright sunshine to my parked car. This brief encounter with a cheerful woman had suddenly made my day better. Her sunny demeanor infected me, a B-12 shot to the soul. She improved an already pleasant day. I smile as I record our conversation here, nearly a week later. The good vibe persists. We all have this gift to give, a smile or a pleasant word at a chance encounter with a stranger. We often get too caught up in our own drama to recognize these simple moments. Best of all, the gift works for both the receiver and the giver. When someone asks me today how I’m doing, I plan to respond “Amazing” and smile broadly.

What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

Well … Everything!

We like to think it was our skills, talents, and experience that made the difference. It was the years we toiled away, refining our abilities, improving our judgement. We think our intuition is great, and our penchant for hard work is unmatched. Our success was a result of our training and the many trials by fire we’ve had to navigate. We’ve honed our craft and were well prepared to tackle this latest obstacle. We pat ourselves on the back and say “job well done”. We consider many of our unique attributes when we want to explain why it all worked out in the end.

When things don’t go so well we’re also quick to point to several reasons. It might be that the other team missed something, or this was the first time any one in the universe saw this problem, so what could be expected? We warned about just this type of outcome, remember? We thought it was a long shot and it was too difficult. Those guys didn’t work as hard as we did and it took us all down.

Except that’s not really the whole truth, is it?

We rarely say we succeeded because we’re lucky. We don’t like to acknowledge we failed because we underprepared, lacked the skills, or made too many errors. It’s easier to claim you are unlucky when things don’t go so well, and laud our abilities when they do.

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The truth is, much of what we accomplish successfully is also because we got lucky. Phil Knight, the founder and former CEO of Nike, writes in his memoir Shoe Dog: “I’d like to publicly acknowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but luck may decide the outcome.” Throughout his book, you’ll shake your head in amazement at the missteps Phil made building Nike, it was ultimately luck that tipped the scale in his favor.

Phil’s not alone. Daniel Kahneman defines two great formulas for success in his supreme book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by stating:

Success = talent + luck

Great Success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, refers to research conducted by the University of California at Davis that shows “that recognizing our luck increases our good fortune”.  We get luckier when we acknowledge luck’s part in our successes.

So keep up the good work. Train, learn, and engage in deliberate practice – these things help improve your chances that luck falls in your favor. And the next time you get a pat on the back, it’s beneficial for you to nod and say “Thanks, I’m glad we got lucky too.”

-JLP

Postscript: The title of this article is a nod to Tina Turner’s only number 1 hit, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, released in 1984. Turner was 44, which made her, at that time, the oldest female solo artist to have a number 1 hit in the US. Cher currently holds claim to this mark, in 1999 at age 52 her single “Believe” hit number 1. It also ushered in a new technology called Auto-Tune.

Where We Do Our Best Work

A while back I asked several dozen employees a simple question:

Where do you do your most creative work?

They each took a moment and then captured their answer on a sticky note. Looking through the results revealed a common theme:

We do our most creative thinking when we are alone.

Here are some examples:

  • while running
  • in the shower
  • during the morning drive
  • late at night while everyone else is in bed
  • on a plane with noise cancelling headphones
  • meditating

What is surprising about the results is that no one provided an answer related to their work environment. In this sample study not a single person felt they do their best creative work in a meeting, sitting at their desk, or while attending to their email.

And yet, this is the expectation companies have of us as employees, that we step through the office doors and create our best work, that we innovate, that we stay ahead of the market with our brilliant ideas.

If the results of my experiment are typical, and my hunch is that they are, then what can we do to tap into our creative brains? I challenge you to take a walk or hit the gym in the middle of the day. Drink lots of water and keep your brain hydrated and performing at your peak. Schedule blocks in your calendar as thinking time and then step away from your phone and computer to engage your brain and do your best work.

Finally, don’t keep your ideas to yourself. While we generate our most creative thoughts solo, we get valuable feedback and important energy from sharing these ideas with others. Nurture your creativity by scheduling thinking time and iterate on your work by incorporating feedback from others.

I can’t wait to see what you create.

~JLP

[Initial draft written with a Palomino Blackwing 602]

Wired to Answer Easy Questions

Daniel Kahneman describes one study of German students in his excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow when exploring heuristic questions. The study asks a group of students the following two questions:

  1. How happy are you these days?
  2. How many dates did you have last month?

When asked in this order, the results show that there was virtually no correlation between the number of dates and a student’s happiness. As Kahneman summarizes, “Evidently, dating was not what came first to the student’s minds when they were asked to assess their happiness.”

The experimenters posed these same questions to another group of students, this time changing the order:

  1. How many dates did you have last month?
  2. How happy are you these days?

Kahneman again, “The results this time were completely different. In this sequence, the correlation between the number of dates and reported happiness was about as high as correlations between psychological measures can get.”

Why were the results of these two experiments so different?

The brains of the students in the second experiment were primed to respond to the unasked question, ‘How happy are you with your love life?’ This process is called substitution. When faced with a difficult question, like the task of measuring your arbitrary happiness, your brain will look for an easier question to answer. In this case, because the students have just determined the number of dates they had had last month, their brain had a quick way to assess their happiness (higher happiness with more dates, lower happiness with fewer dates). The brain determined these two questions were related and provided a quick answer to the second question. Your brain does this too, and the more emotional a difficult question, the more you are likely to substitute the question asked.

The conclusions of this experiment are fun to think about. We can see that the order of the questions matter. We also know that your brain will look for a substitute question to answer when faced with a difficult query. It may be worth thinking about how you answer a difficult question, and challenge yourself before giving an answer to ensure you are answering the question that was asked.

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A final thought by way of a quick story. I was at the beach this week with some friends. We had just finished eating doughnuts and were walking through town when we crossed paths with a man and his dog. Upon seeing the dog, my friend, Gina, exclaimed, “Look at that dog, it looks just like a s’more!”. Sure enough, it did, chocolate, graham cracker, and marshmallow tones dominated the dog’s fur coat. We all laughed, and I smiled a bit longer, knowing that the reason she made the s’mores comparison was because she had just finished eating a s’mores doughnut. The brain looks for associations naturally, sometimes subconsciously, even when there isn’t an association to be had.

~JLP
[Initial draft written with an Apsara Absolute]

Now Read This: Omaha Edition.

Omaha, NE

Today, I completed this year’s installment of an annual tradition I have of reading Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report. This might seem like an odd tradition to keep, yet I always find great inspiration and worthwhile material in the report. If this sounds like some odd form of torture, I can assure you it isn’t. Unlike most annual reports, the opening 30 or so pages amount to a refreshing and honest letter from the Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, none other than Warren Buffett. He offers his investment philosophy, opines about prudent leadership, and shares some of his evaluation of corporate America.

In 1983 Buffett documented “13 owner-related business principals to help new shareholders understand our managerial approach.” These principals have been included in every annual report since, with all 13 remaining in effect. Over 3 decades later, his philosophy to running and growing a business remains true to these principals. Principals 14 and 15 have recently been added, addressing expectations of gains and losses in Berkshire stock value and the value of the company compared to the S&P 500’s performance. It’s an incredible list, and a gift for all of us to absorb. Since many others have written about them in detail, I won’t rehash them, here’s a link to the “Owner’s Manual” which detail all 15 principals.

Recognizing the tremendous wealth created by American’s since 1776, Buffett writes:

From a standing start 240 years ago … Americans have combined human ingenuity, a market system, a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants, and the rule of law to deliver abundance beyond any dreams of our forefathers.

Starting from scratch, America has massed a wealth totaling $90 trillion.

Buffett moves on to discuss intrinsic value versus carrying value and why he puts so little faith in consolidated earnings reports. The company’s results back up his approach, Berkshire Hathaway has achieved a compounded annual growth rate of 19% over the past 52 years. 52 YEARS!

Sprinkled throughout the report, he shares blunt criticism of corporate America business leaders:

When CEOs or boards are buying a small part of their own company, they all too often seem oblivious to price.

Too many managements are looking for any means necessary to report, and indeed feature, “adjusted earnings” that are higher than their company’s GAAP earnings. Two of their favorites are the omission of “restructuring costs” and “stock-based compensation” as expenses.

… bad behavior is contagious. CEOs who overtly look for ways to report higher numbers tend to foster a culture in which subordinates strive to be “helpful” as well.

and one more:

If CEOs want to leave out stock-based compensation in reporting earnings, they should be required to affirm to their owners one of two propositions: why items of value used to pay employees are not a cost or why a payroll cost should be excluded when calculating earnings.

An enjoyable and truthful quote from Berkshire’s Vice Chairman, Charles Munger, referring to managers and their potentially over inflated self-worth:

It’s great to have a manager with a 160 IQ – unless he thinks it’s 180.

One more nugget from Buffett, related to corporate mergers and acquisitions. ” At Berkshire, we never count on synergies when we acquire companies.” When is the last time you heard a CEO discuss a merger that didn’t center around synergies?

Seriously, read the opening letter of the full report, it is full of wisdom from one of the greatest business minds of American industry. Feel free to share what connected with you in the comments.

-JLP

[The initial draft of this article was written with a Viking Skjoldungen 400 office pencil – HB]