The End of the Age of Heroes

With the passing of the years we see also the passing of our heroes: the giants among us who stand out against the backdrop of history and who stood for and symbolized ideals which most of us only think or talk about in the abstract. People like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi. People like Nelson Mandela.

It is an interesting trait of the human experience that we idolize and deify by nature, and heroes are the manifestation of that propensity. Those women and men who have dedicated their lives to a higher cause, and who’ve often died in the service of that cause, are the most revered among us. Continue reading “The End of the Age of Heroes”

Shut Up and Talk

 

“So are you guys celebrities or something?”

At the moment I ask this question we’ve been sitting at cruising altitude for about 15 minutes in the crowded American Airlines flight. The 2 seats beside my exit row window seat are occupied by two pretty young women. They have been approached twice by the stewardess who is “a big fan of their show.” They look to be about Miley Cyrus age, so I quickly run through the list of celebrities in that category that I know. The list goes: Miley Cyrus. Begrudgingly.

Well, my curiosity was piqued. I cast sidelong glances at them for a few minutes wondering if they were anyone who I might recognize, but my peripheral glances give me no hint. Now, at this point, my usual MO is to take the urinal approach: eyes forward, attention anywhere but on anyone else. Been doing it on flight for years; hasn’t gotten me killed yet. But by the same token, it’s also never yielded an interesting experience… unless you count awkwardness as interesting, which I do not.

This time, though, I was stuck in a difficult position. See, I had recently made the pledge to myself that anytime I get that awkward antisocial feeling, I have to do the opposite of what my instincts tell me to do. Having been, for many years, the type of person who purposely and systematically avoided connection with other people, this is difficult for me. It requires a reexamination of situations and a reorganization of my priorities about life and what I want out of it.

At the end of the day, to quote the film Ghost Town (one of the better romantic comedies of recent years, btw. Watch it), “This business of… being such a fucking prick, what is it really getting me?”

The answer turns out to be: nothing, as you might expect. Hence the pledge, hence the situation which we now return to.

“So are you guys celebrities or something?” I ask the girl 1 seat away. The girl between us, her sister I would soon find out, had left to go to the bathroom. She turned towards me, a little embarrassed, and self-effacingly explained the situation:

She (Jill) and her sister (Jessa) were traveling back from Washington DC where they had been visiting their brother, Josh. They were 2 of the cast members on the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting.

The Duggar family, which my single serving friends are a part of, is a fundamentalist Christian family who… well, you can read about them here (and may God have mercy on my soul for linking to TLC). Basically, they’re famous for their mom popping out an exorbitant number of kids, all with “J” names over the years. 19 to be exact, hence the name of the show (it started out in 2008 as 17 Kids and Counting).

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After graciously answering my possibly indelicately asked query, the two sisters (Jill more so than Jessa who seemed a little shy, but who came out of her shell as time went by) and I talked for the remainder of the flight. They were both VERY nice, but not fake-nice, like the way you expect “celebrities” to act when confronted by people who recognize them, but genuinely so. They spent more time asking me questions about myself than they did talking about themselves, which is rare in anyone. I gave them ample opportunities to go back to not talking to the weird window seat guy, but they seemed perfectly content to chat, and I really enjoyed it.

They of course asked me if I went to church or was a Christian (no and no), but they weren’t pushy or invasive about it, just curious as anyone whose life revolved in a large part around Christianity might be. I didn’t even know they were fundamentalist until Jill gave me a postcard with their family photo, and it had more bible quotes on it than the actual bible. After that, I took notice of their long hair and skirts and realized that they were dressed about 90% Amish. I am not an observant person.

Anyway, for any fans out there, they didn’t give me any cool behind the scenes gossip or anything (I doubt there is any). The point of this story (Yeah, there is a point, shut up) is more about the interesting experiences I’ve found myself having more and more as I open myself up to actually talking to people. In some ways it’s a lot harder than just judging them, and going about my day, but in many more ways, it’s extremely rewarding and interesting. And, as someone who does like to challenge myself, it is also a challenge to step outside of myself and do things that are hard for me. You type A-ers and extroverts out there might not quite understand, but that’s cool. You’ve got your own issues, I’m sure.

In any case, this challenge has turned out to be one well worth undertaking, which I’m starting to notice is a trend. I’ve still never seen an episode of 19 Kids and Counting, and I probably never will, but now I’ve got a story to tell. And for the first time in a while, my airplane ride wasn’t just a nuisance.

Jeez, looking at the last three FYMPlanet entries this blog sure has gotten preachy, huh?? Don’t worry, I’ll bash some of your favorite movies soon.

The Tao of Ashton

 

Guest post by Matt Huttner

The stage is set. We are at the Teen Choice Awards, which, if I remember my classics, Dante referred to as the 6th Layer of Hell, and Ashton Kutcher steps up to the plate to deliver what will undoubtedly be absolute drivel. This is the star of such cinematic gems as Dude, Where’s My Car? and My Boss’s Daughter, a man whose scene-chewing acting cannot stand up to the likes of Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl. He has just been handed a strangely appropriate giant surf board, and turns to address his adoring fans. The content of this speech should fall safely between ‘Woooo! ” and” Yeaaahhh!” What does he do?

He fucking KILLS it. His speech is insightful, structured, and important. He speaks with a passion and clarity rarely seen anywhere, let alone in D list celebs. He is self-deprecating and honest, and delivers a message that should and will inspire a generation of future leaders.

Now, I had heard that Ashton was branching out as a tech investor, but I assumed that was the typical vanity project of an overly-capitalized star. We no longer just have to contend with celebrities going after the acting-singing-modeling trifecta (see Murphy, Eddie and the seminal “My Girl Wants to Party All the Time”) but nowadays when Snoop Dogg runs a Pop Warner football team or Britney launches a new fragrance, no one bats an eye. These ventures are usually successful, but only in the way that things powered by unlimited money and global fame often are.

Ladies and gentlemen, this changes everything. If Ashton possesses this kind of talent, we need to move quickly. Let’s bring in Seann William Scott to hear his thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Do you think Gucci Mane is available for the next carbon offset summit? Hell, Dennis Rodman is already helping out with the North Korea situation.

What are the takeaways from Chris Ashton Kutcher’s breakout performance? First of all, although he summed it up far more eloquently than I will, the principles of his speech are worth repeating here: opportunity looks like hard work, smart is sexy, and build a life, don’t just live one. Really powerful stuff.

From a higher level, if you’ll indulge me in a conceit, I think this teaches all of us to ask the following question: what if Ashton Kutcher’s career up to this point, or any other inexplicable annoyance in our lives, is nothing more than akin to drinking a warm can of PBR beer? Hear me out.

Many of us, in our vulnerable early teenage years, are introduced to drinking via bargain-basement, terrible beer. And indeed, smuggled cans of Natty Ice furtively chugged in the back of Teddy Lee’s Subaru are just gross. Unless you can appreciate them as the first steps of a life-long journey; as a rite of passage that might lead to a rich, nuanced world of adult pleasure.

Going forward, when I encounter something obviously offensive (much like almost all of Kutcher’s movies), I’m going to pause for just a minute. What if this is heading somewhere? What if this actor, musician, artist, teacher, coworker, or parent has a deeper level, and all it will take is a few face-twisting swigs before I can get to it?

All of us are guilty of pigeonholing people, most of all ourselves. I’m not saying everything has a silver lining, and this is certainly not another tired plea for you to be nicer to that geek in high-school, because one day he will be a wealthy entrepreneur. Or to go ahead and rewatch the Fast and the Furious heptalogy to mine undiscovered genius. Spoiler alert; Paul Walker is a moron.

But it is a call to seek talent in unexpected places and keep an open mind. I for one am now examining my own life, and seeing where and how I can completely step out of the ways I have previously defined my personality, lifestyle, and career and surprise everyone in a positive way.

Your Next 10-K

 

 

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I recently graduated from business school.  Like any good education, it teaches you more about what you DON’T know than what you do. Ultimately it’s merely enabled me to ask more interesting questions.

Now, more “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder, but just like learning a new language, education, especially one specializing in a certain field like business, gives you access to a new vocabulary.  This new vocabulary in turn enables new ways to describe and interpolate the environment.

So in this vein I wanted to talk about my life’s “10K”.

A 10K in the business world is actually the filing that every public company must provide to the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission).  It is, in a nutshell, everything an investor would supposedly need to know before buying or selling stock in the company.

If you’ve never read a 10-K, you should do it at least once. Aside from the detailed financials, they can be pretty fascinating reads.  They will cover the company’s core businesses.  How it performed this past year.  What challenges/successes they had and what the leadership is planning to do about those challenges.

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Pick a public company that you patronize (with money and/or sarcasm) and check it out.   For instance, did you know that iPad and iPhone sales DWARF all Mac sales for Apple?  About 5 times worth – at least in 2012.  It will probably even be more drastic in 2013.  Or that Coca-Cola shipped 27.7 Billion units of what amounts to mostly sugar-water around the world?  Or that they have a coffee brand in Japan named Georgia, which I actually drank religiously, without knowing it was a Coke product, while I lived there.  Also Kyle McLachlan gives it the David Lynch thumbs up, so it must be awesome.

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A lot of the news articles you see posted about different companies’ health and outlook come directly from reading these annual (10-K) and quarterly (10-Q) reports.  Often, so called “analysts” do nothing more than repeat what is said in the report with little to no insight.   By no means am I suggesting that everyone divert time from their Game of Thrones episodes to read a dry, if interesting, 10-K.  But, especially if you have any interest in investing, reading these reports will put you on par with many of the “experts” who try to sway you about a company’s relative health or seemingly imminent demise.   It will also increase your BS-O-Meter when someone tries to impress you with their business or investment acumen.  Don’t let them get away with it!

But I digress.  I bring up the 10-K for 2 reasons.

The first is that after looking at these for awhile, I started to see how useful this process could be for my own life.  Evaluating every year anew, acting like I’m going to have to JUSTIFY the time I spent to my shareholders (i.e. my co-workers, family, and friends) puts a lot more importance to the decisions I make throughout the year.  A 10-K holds COMPANIES accountable for what they do throughout the year.  A personal 10-K holds ME accountable for how I’ve lived my life.  How am I going to feel if that report mostly involves Angry Birds, eating fast food,  and watching worthless TV shows and movies?  I’m not saying that doing any of those things is wrong or bad, but when I look at the things that I’ve actually accomplished that have had a real impact on the people in my life, those things may not be the best ways to spend my time.

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This brings me to my second reason for bringing up the 10-K.  It just so happens that I recently listened to the much lauded/criticized Malcom Gladwell book, Outliers.  He brings up a somewhat controversial topic that after a certain “threshold”, the only difference between the “good” and “great” people in any field is practice.  Specifically, at about 10,000 hours (or 10K) of practice is when he and a few other researchers start to see fantastic accomplishments emerge.  He uses Bill Joy, one of the founders of the internet, Bill Gates, whom you probably know already, and even the Beatles to illustrate this point.   Now, some of his evidence in the book is anecdotal and susceptible to interpretation and legitimate criticism, but I think Gladwell does a great job at taking common “truths” about the world and people and giving us a different perspective on how genius and greatness might actually work.  He acknowledges that all these people are special, but he also wants us to ponder that timing, culture, and practice played an equally important role in their successes.  Because they had developed a certain expertise before others, when opportunities presented themselves they were able to take advantage of them.

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What I took from his book is not that 10,000 hours of focused practice is the Holy Grail number to become wildly successful, but that reaching for that expertise is a clear indication of you separating yourself from your peers.  If his number is to believed, this breaks down to about 20 hours a week for about 10 years.   Looking at life in this way is an interesting exercise and one I encourage you to try on, if just for the novelty of it. 

For me it looked like this.  10K hours is a lot of time.  There are only so many hours in a day and so many years in a lifetime.  There is literally no TIME to learn them all.  So I really have to CHOOSE.  What do I want to be an expert at?  What kind of opportunities do I want to be prepared for when they present themselves?  My answers to these questions are not iron clad and still a little rough, but here they are anyway.

  1. I would like to be considered a “pro” by the USTA (US Tennis Association) – not because I want to compete in the US Open (but wouldn’t that be awesome?!) but because it’s a sport I love and I have some talent that I’ve never fully realized.
  2. I want to eventually become a writer (which outlets like this blog help give me the practice and feedback necessary to realize that goal)
  3. I want to position myself to capitalize on the next great paradigm shifts that will come to society through the dramatic changes wrought by technologies like AI, bio-engineering etc..

These are goals outside of being the best son, brother, husband, father and friend that I can be – all seemingly full-time jobs.  However, it does start to focus the mind on what ultimately I find important and how little time there is to accomplish these things – especially without a plan.  A life spent in pursuit of excellence is one well spent in my opinion.  Now that I have another novel way to look at how to get there, I can schedule and figure out a way to make that happen.  I may even schedule an annual report, of sorts, with all my stakeholders, so that they are as involved in my success as I am in theirs.  I don’t see me succeeding any other way.

Here are some interesting reactions to Malcom Gladwell’s theory, including a bit from Tim Ferris,  another fascinating person who has broken down how to learn just about anything – and may have something to say about that ridiculously high 10K number.  Check him out too.

What are some great insights YOU have in navigating what you want out of life?  What are your secrets?  How are you going to spend your next 10,000 hours?