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.

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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]

My Problem with “r”

Somewhere along the way I lost all confidence in writing the lower case “r”. My “r” might look more like an “n” or a “v”. Sometimes an “r” might lack the left top, consisting of a simple curve to the right, like a tilted parenthesis, nearly a “c”. Or worse, just a bottom-left to upper-right slash.

To mask the trepidation I would feel as I approached a word with an “r”, I began to replace a lower case “r” with a smaller version of an upper case “R”. I made this switch so often that it became habit, allowing me to write at speed, easily substituting all “r”s with “R”, giving it little conscious thought.

Of course I realized this was all foolishness, for when I put my mind to it I could write the most beautiful “r”. One with a clearly defined stem and a gentle, consistent curve to the right … and yet this lack of confidence persisted.

I’m spending more time writing with pencil and paper these days, and with this process I’ve vowed to tackle my “r” fears. I’ve found that it helps to keep the lead sharp, providing more opportunities for a clearer definition to the shape of the letters.

Some "r"s
The author’s examples of  the lower case “r”

There are 73 “r”s or “R”s in this article.
I mistakenly wrote 6 upper case “R”s where I should have written “r”.
0 of them look like “n”.
12 of them look like “v”.
16 of them lack the proper stem.
4 of them look like a slash.

It is clearly a work in progress.

Now I’ve noticed that sometimes I write the letter “t” with a curl to the right, like a backwards “j” and sometimes I don’t … hmmm …

-JLP

[The initial draft of this article was written with a well sharpened Switzerland made Caran D’Ache Yellow School Pencil – HB]

Squandering Good Intentions – A Tale

Yesterday I played 14 1/2 holes of golf. That’s an unusual number of holes by anyone’s count. What started out as an enjoyable round of golf on a temperate summer day, ended in frustration, out of golf balls, and with the loss of a 4-iron.

I parred the first two holes, thinking to myself, “this is turning out better than expected”. I haven’t played much golf in recent years, usually only getting a round or two in for an entire year. Having, surprisingly, found myself with the summer off, I planned to work on my game. I had played a fair amount of golf as a youth and enjoyed both the sport and the manicured walks. Plus, this counts as exercise, right?

As I approached the third hole tee box, two golfers ahead of me waved me on. Solo play is sometimes frowned on by groups because the pace of play can create the feeling of pressure to a group in front of a lone golfer. It is a courtesy to wave a single player on, many courses give no status to a solitary player.

Golf, in many ways, is a game of rhythm. Break the established cadence and the results can change widely. Subtle variations in swing tempo or stance are amplified in erratic ball flight.

I had planned to take a drink of water, already unscrewing the cap from my bottle. Before I could take a sip, I saw the arm raise and signal for me to come hit. Moving too quickly, I felt the pressure of these two fellows waiting for me to play through. I capped my water, grabbed a 3-wood, and half-jogged to the tee box.

Golfers can already guess what happened next. I thumbtacked my tee into the lush grass, placed my ball on top, quickly lined up my shot, and set my stance. I don’t take a lot of practice swings. My philosophy, right or wrong, is that as long as my muscles are warmed up and I take a moment to visualize what I am attempting to do, I will conserve my swings for actually hitting the ball. I’ve watched a tremendous amount of golfers swing half-a-dozen times before nearly every shot, they take 6 or 7 times the number of swings I do in a round, and generally they appear out of gas on the back nine.

Before I hit the ball, I try to take a nice deep breath, it slows the heart rate and allows me to relax my shoulders. Whenever I’m dealing with tension or stress, it seems to accumulate in my shoulder muscles. Some people get pressure headaches, I get a stiff neck.

Forgetting to breath, with an accelerated heart rate from rushing to tee off, I swung the club. While I did manage to hit the ball, it was a glancing blow, topping the dimpled sphere, driving it down into the grass inches from my hastily placed tee. The ball traveled maybe 60 yards. The two idle golfers eyed me suspiciously. In my imagination I could hear them say, “Oh man, why did we let this guy in front of us”.

Since my ball hadn’t travelled enough distance to pass where they stood, I got to repeat my performance for this small audience. I drove the golf cart forward, and to my embarrassment, well past where my ball came to rest.  A sharp whistle from my fellow golfers and a stern pointing behind me caused me to U-turn.

My second shot was not redeeming, coming off the club head left and landing in the tall grass amid some trees, a meek 100 feet away. Avoiding looking towards the golfers, all I could do was drive the cart forward, not bothering to put the club back in my bag. I punched the ball back to the fairway, now lying 3 at a distance less than I am normally capable of driving from the tee box. I half-heartedly raised my arm to acknowledge the gesture of letting me play through. I’m certain if I had looked back I would have seen the smirks and the proverbially shaking of heads.

A trusty 6-iron put me just to the right of the green. A chip and then two putts gave me a 7 for the par 4 hole. I’ve had plenty of 7 scores, and higher, but this one felt especially bad. I couldn’t get to the golf cart fast enough so I could get away from the scrutinizing eyes of the, now behind me, golfers. For the next six holes, even though I was playing solo, and therefore theoretically faster, and I was driving a golf cart while they were walking, I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see them waiting on me.

My scores didn’t really improve and I lost several balls on bad shots. (I did have a picture perfect 6-iron from 165 yards to the green on the 9th hole – I feel you only need a shot or two like this that gives you hope and keeps you coming back to work on your game). On hole 14, my second shot, I lined up a 4-iron, took a breath, and promptly broke the club head from the shaft on contact with the ball. The ball, mercifully, went straight, the club head went way left, tumbling down the fairway. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. So I did, sticking the broken parts in my bag.

My drive on hole 15 went out of bounds, and I determined I had had enough. I put the driver in my bag, pointed the cart toward the clubhouse and left. Game over, 14 1/2 holes.


Why had a courteous gesture to let a quicker playing golfer by so altered my play that I eventually quit the round? Of course, they had done nothing wrong. It was all how I had reacted to the events.

E + R = O
Event + Reaction = Outcome

I got in my own way, breaking my own rhythm, suffering because of the perceived pressure I created. While my story was about golf, the reality is we all create this fictional stress in our own lives, at home and at work.

Maybe the intentions you associate to your boss or co-workers aren’t based on fact, maybe you’ve created them to justify your reactions. I ran into two friendly golfers who allowed me to pass them so they weren’t holding me up. Too bad I squandered their good intentions.

-JLP

[Draft initially written with a Viking SKJOLDUNGEN 400 OFFICE PENCIL – HB on June 17, 2017]