In a knowledge-based society, in knowledge-based work, effective communication is paramount to success.
I work within the enterprise software business where concepts, technology, ideas, architecture, and roadmaps are my world 24 / 7, 365 days each year. Not only is it crucial to communicate with clarity, it is important that the communication is remarkable and memorable. If you have what felt like a great meeting, but people don’t remember the key ideas one week later, your efforts have failed and disappeared in the quicksand of the common technology terms everyone uses.
The longer I serve, struggle, experiment, and learn, the more I realize that most of us are ignoring the simplest of rules that is simultaneously obvious yet rarely followed: Be concise.
I see this scenario repeat a dozen times each week. I watch a guru present on her topic. She nails it in the first 15 minutes. If the meeting stopped at that moment, it could have been enough and perfect to earn a first down, it would give people time to ask questions, to think about it, and then regroup for the next set of downs with refreshed minds. But that does not happen. Instead, the presenter goes on for another 45 min, drowning the people with details that dilute the message. The top 3 memorable takeaways turn into the top 20 thoughts and the magic is lost. Techno-term quicksand takes over.
Although this quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Blaise Pascal, or Mark Twain, as each man used and believed in it, it originated from Roman statesman supreme, Marcus Tullius Cicero:
If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.
In a world overwhelmed by data, information, and communication, it holds a lesson for all of us. To be more effective, learn and invest the time to be concise.
Many of us have jobs where we “sell” our ideas to others, even though lots of people are not in professional sales per se. Everyone has to sell, even if you are just selling ideas to your teammates, your boss, your kids, or the really big boss, your spouse. The better you become at being persuasive, the more likely you are to make a positive impact, to be memorable, to help others, and, if the planets align, to advance to positions of greater responsibility.
The problem is that it is quite difficult to rise above the constant noise, to create and deliver an outstanding, memorable presentation in a noisy, crowded, distracted, multi-media world that we live within.
In my career, I have attended thousands — literally thousands — of presentations. Every week, I attend at least ten. Most of the people at the front of the room, or in front of the Zoom webcam, were selected to lead the presentation or discussion as recognized experts or managers in their field. What’s mind-boggling is how few of the sessions are actually compelling, captivating, and memorable.
A lot goes into rising several deviations above the level of the average presentation.
Some crucial aspects take a lot of practice and are quite nuanced — for example, does the presenter achieve a personal connection to the audience even though he is speaking to a room of 300, or she is speaking over Zoom or Teams to a crowd of 1,000. Details include the ability to command attention, to make a positive first impression in seconds, to appeal to the senses despite the distance. Many of these nuances have to do with one’s voice modulation, facial expressions, and body language, things that take time, coaching, experience, and effort to adjust and improve. Julian Treasure offers food for thought during his speech at TED.
Fine-tuning details aside, the vast majority of items for creating a compelling and captivating message can be easily baked into your effort if you follow a specific, proven formula, a checklist recipe for greater effectiveness. You must be willing to put in the work — to take your presentation that you thought was done and re-engineer it for a week or more — and then practice your honed message once it passes the checklist test as no one “kills it” the first few times he or she presents it — but if you do, I believe you will be able to achieve top 10% presentation messaging and become more compelling and memorable. Always remember that the Beatles played ‘Hey, Jude’ hundreds of times for live audiences, gathering feeedback and making adjustments, before it became a global hit.
I have invested years creating a checklist that works, coaching others on how to improve their message, and of course, applying these principles to my own presentations:
Sakalas Wonderlist a.k.a. Sak’s C3 Checklist: A Checklist for Creating a Captivating and Compelling Presentation:
Always start with Why, not What or How
Why appears on more than one level — at the company level, Why do we exist — what do we believe — what makes us want to get up in the morning. The easiest way to do this when in doubt is to simply have one slide that says “We Believe ________” — no reason to be too subtle.
The “Why” at the here and now level — Why we invented or created this product, or why I have this specific idea — why solving this problem is worth the effort — instead of all the other things you could do with your time and money.
The personal “why” — Why this idea / solution / product is near and dear to me — why it drives me personally — why I’m a believer.
I suggest watching Simon Sinek’s uber-famous break-out moment when he gave his “Start with Why” TED talk at a regional event. He later followed it up with a book, and has now created an entire career launch — because his message is dead on right.
Re-configure your story to make the audience the hero / the protagonist of the story — you can never be the center of the story — people care about themselves, not you. The easiest way to implement this is to start with something like “We have noticed a lot of our customers encounter this challenge, or a lot of our customers are working on this problem”. If you do this well, success is noticeable as members of the audience nod in agreement that they too, face the same issue.
Stories follow the same pattern — no matter if you analyze the works of William Shakespeare, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, or Stephen Spielberg. There is always a hero who faces a big problem. The hero finds an experienced advisor who gives him or her the understanding needed and helps him or her create a plan. The plan leads to a climactic moment where the hero either wins or loses. If the hero wins, he or she is transformed into a greater person, ready for greater challenges in the future. If he or she loses, there are always grave consequences.
This story formula can apply to a company, a product, or a person.
Distill the story to its essence. As a good rule of thumb, 50 – 75 words is probably the maximum you should strive for.
I suggest watching this short session with Donald Brown, author of StoryBrand. It is invaluable in getting to the essence of your company’s story, or a product’s story, or a service’s story, or a personal story that will capture people’s attention.
Strive for crystal clear differentiation versus the closest competitors / alternative choices / competing ideas. A big mistake is to list differentiators that are not different. You must be clear as to actual differences that people will remember and agree are actually differences. Often you do not get to pick — for example, if a competitor has a well established differentiation of ‘safety’, you will not succeed by differentiating that you are safer than safe.
Focus on benefits that the audience / customer wants, not the benefits that you want. Its all about your audience. Anticipate what the audience wants, and then show how your idea-product-solution will offer the benefits are a great fit. Your benefits should outweigh your focus on what it is or does by a factor of 2:1. As Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt memorably pointed out decades ago, people want a hole in the wood board, not a shiny drill. Too often, we spend our time talking about our shiny drill.
Change your message to fit your audience, every time. A generic message to a generic, broadly diverse audience will usually fall flat. Bespoke messaging sells 300% better than generic messaging. Neil deGrasse Tyson observes on Masterclass.com that few people realize how much time and effort he invests in every single presentation that he does. He attributes much of his success to this custom, audience-aware message preparation.
Assume you have only 5 – 10 minutes before many people will tune you out. Email, texts, slack messages, dogs barking, kids barging in to the office, ADD — lots of things can and will happen. Everything else is a bonus. Learn from how newspapers write articles — they have a well-honed formula. The first few paragraphs have the whole story. You want the audience to get the key aspects of your message in the early innings of the game, just in case they tune out soon thereafter. After you have your high-level message done in just a few minutes, you can then go into greater detail, re-enforcing the same message, during the middle of the presentation or paper.
Always summarize three key takeaways that you hope that they got from your message. Ask people if that is what they got. If they did not, it’s a good time to engage in a conversation at the end. The takeaways should confirm the ‘newspaper format’ first 5 – 10 minutes (see previous checklist item #6).
Consider starting with your three key takeaways as well ending with them — while this is not super-creative, there is wisdom to making sure people “get” the message that you are hoping they receive from your moment in the limelight. There is no doubt that people pay more attention to the first minutes than the last ones during an hour meeting.
Why three? Three is not magical, but it might be a maximum to hope for. I have seen success with five takeaways, but you are asking a lot of your audience — will they remember anything if you ask them to remember five? To that end, less is usually more.
Create a sense of urgency to take action. If there is no reason to act, people will not remember it nearly as well as you hope. Ideas go stale without next steps faster than lettuce in your refrigerator. Sometimes it seems like the lettuce wilts just going from Whole Foods to the refrigerator at home!
Set the hook right away and grab their attention right away – nothing matters more in the first minute. Don’t spend time introducing yourself — it is much better if you get someone else to introduce you before you start.
Best — Start with a personal story, that connects to the main purpose of the message in no longer than two minutes. People lean in when they know its a story. We like stories. Use the words “before I plunge in, I’d like to share a story (that happened to me / that I found super interesting / that really applies to our topic…). This is the best way to connect to the audience quickly because it reveals your personality and how you think.
Good — If you can’t find a good-fit story to use, start by asking questions that ultimately reveal some startling facts. This also connects you to the audience, but not quite as well as a personal story, because it is less revealing of your personality and like-ability.
Better than nothing — If you can’t figure out a story or startling facts, tell a good joke. Jokes are hard unless you are very adept at telling jokes.
Use visual analogies throughout. There is a mountain of research that proves, beyond the shadow of the doubt, that when a person imagines a visual in their mind, they then remember the concept that you hope to convey. Jesus preached in visual parables and analogies for a reason: they work. If you are selling a software tool chest that helps you build new applications quickly, compare that to Lego City Kits that help you build an entire city, full of skyscrapers and firetrucks, quickly, on a conference table. The visualization matters.
Do you remember my visuals of customers wanting a hole, not a shiny drill — or ideas wilting faster than lettuce in the refrigerator? These illustrate my point: visualizations work where words on a slide fail to stick.
Find your hook and chorus, the spine of your presentation, and repeat it often. Most hit songs have both a hook (short one – three words) and a chorus that are catchy and memorable. The best speeches do as well. Find the theme that ties your message together and insert it at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Barack Obama turned his primary loss to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire into momentum that propelled him into the White House when he found a hook (“Yes, We Can!”) that resonated with the electorate that fateful night.
There are another dozen of so techniques — items such as creating a bit of mystery, suspense, surprise, emotional moments — that can help with the compelling, captivating and memorable aspects of your effort, but they pale in comparison to the importance of the ten checklist items above. These dozen are the frosting on the cake, while the ten on the checklist above make up the cake itself.
Note that everything on the Sakalas Wonderlist applies not only to spoken presentations but to other forms of presentation as well, such as writing a killer white paper brief or creating a one-page website.
Lastly, I do not believe that powerpoint sucks, as many people mindlessly incant for shock value and an easy laugh. Powerpoint and Keynote can be great, if they support and enhance a great message with great delivery. The most common mistake people usually make is trying to make too many points using one slide that has too many words on it. If you decide to make one and only one point per slide, you will be on the path to becoming a Keynote Jedi or Powerpoint Jedi someday. There are incredible presentations without a single slide, and fabulous presentations with only a white board, but the truth is that many, if not most, will include a presentation tool — especially in business — so why not learn to use it well?
If you remember anything at all from my discussion today, it is:
Killer presentations don’t happen by accident
The 11 items on the Sakalas Wonderlist will help you succeed in creating a killer presentation.
It will take sincere work and practice to achieve a great result.
Never forget that people like stories 1,000% more than presentations without a story.
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I’m happy to help.
PS> C3, if you were wondering, stands for compelling, captivating, and concise. Being concise, leaving plenty of room for questions, is much better than boring people with additional details that take away from the core message. I believe that designing your presentation to encourage questions (that you are well-prepared to answer) is actually “great design” that leads to success.
I find it truly amazing that one song can tear me up — every single time I hear it — without fail — for the last twenty years. You would think that I’d be able to ignore it, but I remain powerless during these short four minutes. I’m sure it has to do with having the privilege of being a dad to two great daughters. Texan guys aren’t supposed to cry!
I’m a believer in feeding your mind “good stuff” just as we feed our bodies “good food” to maintain health. Below is perhaps one of the best commencement speeches of all time, given by the late David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005.
Don’t confuse “the best” with the “most entertaining” for there is a difference. This is not the most entertaining commencement speech. Most commencement speeches follow a tried and true motivational formula, oft focused on love of neighbor and staying true to your purpose and passions. This is not that, either. But I believe it is well-worthy of 30 minutes of quiet contemplation.
Please note that David is clearly a brilliant writer — and that is a diversion — too many people admire writing for the clever prose itself. Don’t get distracted by it — its not the quality of writing that makes this commencement speech one of the best. The message is what matters.
One important question: Are you willing to dedicate 30 minutes without your iPhone? Do you have the will to leave it in another room, silenced?
“Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”
It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.
— David Foster Wallace
I hope that you learned something, discovered something, today.
What brands are you happy to wear on your t-shirt?
This is an interesting question. The older I get, the more I realize that the brands we are willing to wear on a t-shirt define how we see ourselves. In the incredibly successful society that we live in in America, most of us effectively have no problem getting yet another t-shirt. So what we choose to is a reflection about who we are, or at least the impression we want to make to others.
I find that very few brands make it to my shirts. Nike is a mainstay, because I love the ‘just do it’ message. NYSE? Sure, I love engaging with anyone interested in investments. Gucci? Not so much… definitely not me. What t-shirts do you wear or would you like to wear if you found them in a store?
Now, what does it take to build such a brand? A brand that customers are happy to display on their chest? What can you do to help your company win chest-billboard-embrace? If your company can make this leap, it really is a difference maker. It is actually an extraordinary goal.
This is an interesting speech by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University who has been studying stress and its effects on people’s health.
In short, studies found that stress can cause harm to your health IF YOU BELIEVE that stress is causing you harm. But in new experiments, for people who believe that stress is a normal part of life, people who believe that the stress symptoms that they feel are simply messages that their body is preparing to help them perform and succeed in a stressful situation, stress doesn’t appear to cause the same harm. Clearly, the mind is more powerful than we realize.
Please watch this video as the theory is well worth considering. Toward the end, Kelly points out that helping others and being socially involved are great antidotes to harm from stress, because it releases hormones that help your body recover from any damage that might have been caused.
I very much believe that your mind is far more powerful than most people realize, and that you can train your mind to react positively in almost any situation.
How often do people say “I’m bad at remembering names…” Oh, if I only had a quarter for everytime I have heard that. On the other hand, I have said it a few too many times myself, although I have made some progress in recent years. This trick is to have a memory strategy, a technique that helps take that short-term thought and anchor it in long-term memory cells.
The human mind is more than capable of incredible feats, whether we are talking about remembering names, doing mental mathematics, or studying 10X better for a language test. It’s a matter of training your mind and improving your technique.
Don’t believe you have the potential. Watch this and be amazed.
You never know unless you try! What if you watched one less TV show per day and developed a mental skill for a year? Although I don’t have scientific proof, I’m quite certain that — based on common sense and emotional understanding — people who remember names have better chances of success than people who do not.
This year, I have posted several articles observing how the vocal few, amplified by online social networks, have an outsized voice in the political discord that swirls all around us. A few thousand like-minded activists are being heard while 350,000,000 others shake our heads in disbelief and sigh, while sipping our beverage of choice, remote control and smartphone in hand.
Simultaneously, I believe the remainder of this decade will be the true dawn of machine learning algorithms. While the concepts are not new, the practical application of machine learning is really hitting its stride, especially at the companies that are cornering many of the brightest minds in computer science, namely Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, and the private unicorns awaiting their IPOs.
Machine learning needs big data sets to “learn” and no companies do a better job at marrying big data with algorithms and computer power than these. Traditional businesses rarely recognize that their most valuable asset to leverage is their data, still mired in thoughts about facilities, machines, and stores. Most of the Fortune 2000 do not run their data as a business, making investments and measuring results of analytical programs.
Here’s the bottom line:
If he decides, Mark Zuckerberg now, in 2017, has the power to decide who will be the next U.S. President.
— Bob Sakalas
I’m not saying that Mark will use his super power, but he has that power. Right now, Facebook’s and Google’s power is clearly driving greater and greater polarization of the public. This power extends to many countries, not just the United States.
Don’t believe me?
Watch this TED presentation by Zeynep Tufekci. It is eye-opening, and common sense tells me she is spot-on. It might just make you rethink your own level of participation on social networks, but that unfortunately will not change destiny for the country.
So what is the bright note for the optimist? Well, I’ve argued that optimists must take prudent risks within the backdrop of capitalism. As an investor, I’m increasing my long exposure to Facebook, Google, and perhaps add a small stake in Tencent. And, on a less serious note, the artificial intelligent Skynet won’t build terminators to exterminate humans, it might only try to control our thinking and ideology in an insidious Matrix-like mirage.
If you are a frequent reader of OptimismMan.com, chances are you already realize that I believe there is a significant dark side to social media, beyond just the time that it appropriates rather insidiously. Every technology comes with positives and negatives, but often, the negatives are ignored until the evidence is overwhelming, common sense be damned.
Simon Sinek is one of my favorite thinkers and speakers. In the interview below, he covers an amazing amount of ground, primarily focused on what plagues Millennials in the workplace and in life. Lots of factors have conspired to make this generation have a sense of entitlement without hard work. Simon makes some great common sense connections to the role social media is playing, which results in far less real lasting connections and relationships, which ultimately matters in one’s happiness and gratitude.
Much of my life, I have seen myself as an enthusiastic ideaman. I have more ideas per day than most people, I take the time to write a fair share of them down, I outline them into more than a fleeting thought, and I test them on friends and family all the time. Unfortunately, I have found that people rarely tell me one of my ideas stinks… even though I’m certain that some of them do. In most situations, true transparency is rare. In companies, where paychecks and promotions are on the line, transparency is exceedingly rare.
But what if your company could be transformed into an idea-meritocracy, instead of the all-too-typical top-down hierarchy? What if a company made decisions by truly collaborating, listening, and debating the ideas and perspectives of all, not just the few with formal power or excellent networking influence? What if people really communicated what they believed, what they thought, and voted on who they felt was more credible and believable?
It turns out that there is such a place — and it happens to be one of the most successful hedge funds over the last four decades. Please consider Ray Dalio’s overview of life at Bridgewater… how would these concepts change the destiny of your company, if they were implemented?
I find it fascinating. Technology is making the impossible, possible, when you have a visionary at the helm.
So then I stumbled into Jane McGonigal, a game designer who argues that gaming can play a role in avoiding the most typical regrets of the dying. I believe in questioning everything, so today, I’m simultaneously questioning her game-centric conclusions as well as my previous thinking, wondering if the time “spent” gaming might actually be more of a time “investment” than I ever appreciated. I don’t have a conclusion just yet — maybe I never will — but I suggest watching her excellent talk and thinking about it for yourself, especially if you have a kid that spends a lot of time gaming right now:
I sometimes hear people say that they are out of fresh ideas to overcome a challenge. When I later ask them about how much they read (books in particular), I invariably find that the answer is that they are heads down busy and haven’t cracked a book in months or years. I have yet to find a person that is both a) out of ideas and b) an active, avid reader.
I also have noticed that whenever I read, a multitude of ideas, often unrelated to the material I’m reading, flood my consciousness. I believe invention is rarely a net new construct on a blank sheet of paper. I believe invention and developing ideas is a matter of connecting the dots of your previous experience and understanding with new input that changes the perspective and creates new connections. The book is a catalyst that changes thinking and structures in your mind.
TV and movies don’t have this same positive effect because you don’t use your imagination, your mind’s eye, to visualize what you read in a book. Visual medium makes it too easy, letting your brain rest and just lay there on the couch. Brain research has shown that neural activity is less while watching TV than while sleeping. Bottom line, don’t be surprised if you have few new ideas while placated by the pacifier of television.
Try reading a quality book for 20 minutes each day for a month, while jotting down any fresh ideas that you have during those 30 days. I suspect you will find a remarkable difference. Build a lifelong habit of reading and learning: it will serve you well.
PS. Keep a log of TV time and reading time. Its a great reality check of time spent vs time invested.
We have often faced what seems like impossible problems. Unfortunately, 99.99% of people throw their hands up into the air and believe that impossible is impossible. But are they really impossible?
Mike Huckabee, in the recent Republican debate, sounded ‘pie in the sky’ to the 99.99% when he talked about curing the 4 diseases that are the primary expense of U.S. Healthcare, and the extraordinary effect it would have on our nation’s, our world’s financial and personal family outlook. I commend Mike because it takes leadership to help people change their question from “If we can cure Alzheimer’s to how can we cure Alzheimer’s…” — or insert another disease that has impacted your loved ones. More of our leaders must genuinely embrace optimistic leadership. JFK mobilized the nation to win the race to the moon. We need the same leadership and mobilization against disease.
Please watch Jennifer Doudna in this TED speech and then think about Huck’s call-to-action again. Perhaps he is just an optimist?
PS. Unfortunately, many diseases are not “just” genetic in nature (as though just genetic is easy, which right now, it is not) — Alzheimer’s included (see this Mayo Clinic synopsis). But, promising science, if used wisely, can make a positive impact. If we don’t set audacious goals, if we don’t believe it can happen, we will not figure it out nearly as quickly. Let’s elect leaders with vision, not politicians with egos.
The following video is worth watching: it is not about optimism per se, but I have found that if you have your black belt in optimism, nearly everything contributes to your self-chosen outlook.
Josh Luber’s talk will expand your thinking and appreciation for limitless possibilities. Human “logic” and cooperation is extraordinary, and the rise of interconnectivity and ‘big data analytics’ networks millions of minds together in surprising ways. If you work in marketing, this presentation is 5-star fascinating.
Yes, if you are wondering, I am a bit of a sneakerhead, although my participation is limited to the search for the perfect pair to wear, and not at full retail, if I can help it.
Are you up for a challenge in longevity? Why not author a few great quotes? One of the puzzles that I find truly interesting is what makes a quotation survive the test of time, thriving long after the person who authored it has passed away. Not many people out of the billions of people before you and I have had a quote survive at all.
It is a challenge in striking a cord with the reader or listener, capturing an essential truth, keeping it short and sweet, and having it go viral. Books and books try to solve “how a business idea goes viral” but no strategy or formula seems to be reliable as yet.
It stands to reason, then, that long-standing quotes must have something special, the right stuff that transcends generations, cultures, and languages. All this tends to fit in less than ten words that resonate. Its quite like the fact that all music stems from only a few available notes.
Who is on the all time all-star list of quotation authors? Top of the list must be Kong Fuzi, or as we know him, Confucius, the “latinized” version of his name that given to his legacy by Jesuit missionaries around 2,000 years after he lived.
Here are twenty-one quotes from Confucius. Twenty-one quotes that thrive today, more than 2,500 years later. Are there lessons to learn in twenty-one quotes that have survived 2,500 years and 125 generations of people? You betcha!
It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.
To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.
If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of a year, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.
Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
Wherever you go, go with all your heart.
When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.
Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Respect yourself and others will respect you.
When anger rises, think of the consequences.
He who speaks without modesty will find it difficult to make his words good.
The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.
What the superior man seeks is in himself. What the mean man seeks is in others.
What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.
Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.
They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.
Have no friends not equal to yourself.
To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle.
When you complain about something unpleasant you double it, when you laugh at it, you destroy it.
Forget injuries, never forget kindness.
Learn! Change yourself. Be wiser and live wiser today than yesterday.
Can you think differently? Really creatively? Can you ask “why am I doing things this way?” or “why am I doing this at all?” at a truly atomic level?
In many things — business, school, life — we seem stuck on rails, unable to stop doing things the way we have done them, the way they have been done for prior decades — even if we have many proof points that question whether we are on the right track.
One of my most obvious examples is managing public companies for results every 90 days. The “quarterly results squeeze” invariably results in a whole host of problems, including net margin compression, motivation destruction, loss of quality employees, loss of quality in general, investing only for the short-term, and all kinds of foolish wasted time and energy. Yet, almost every public company continues the sad practice unabated. It hits the company that is struggling hardest of all, which helps many good firms auger into the dirt, unable to pull up from the dive.
This TED video is a great test to see if you are able to think differentlyon a large scale. I believe Ricardo is a wise luminary who tests most people’s ability to take a leap of faith. I’m sure others will see Ricardo as flat out crazy.
I think his ideas, ideas that have actually been tested in his company and in education, should be considered, given the dismal results many of our current paradigms in business and education are delivering.
Most importantly, all of us have opportunities to do things differently, to question everything in our own personal sphere of influence. What is a topic in your like that you should ask “why” three times in a row on, and what can you try to do better, to do differently?
Please watch the video, and then decide — are you able to truly think differently, or are you cemented in the status quo? You are not on rails — you can, if you believe that you can. Choice is all powerful.
When given a challenge, we usually forget to sharpen the axe.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
– Abe Lincoln
Are you a student? If you answered no, I believe you have the wrong perspective. Our world is changing ever faster, and I believe you must be a student all the days of your life. Jim Rohn agreed:
Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.
Learning is the beginning of wealth. Learning is the beginning of health. Learning is the beginning of spirituality. Searching and learning is where the miracle process all begins.
The axe that I want to help you sharpen is your memory, and not by just a bit. I want to double or triple your ability to remember whatever it is that you want to remember, in a tenth of the time that it might take you now.
How? Learn (and practice (everything takes practice)) a proven technique from the ancient Greeks that has mostly been forgotten in the age of wikipedia. To start, please take less than an hour and watch these three videos, without distractions, without texting your friends, without checking your instagram, facebook, or e-mail. If you are not familiar with the “Do Not Disturb” setting on your iPhone, it is found under Settings / it is the 7th item down from the top on iOS 8.x.
Why invest your time? How much better would your life be if you could look at something just once and then remember it? How much time would you save? How much better would your social fabric be, if you remembered every person’s name when you met them, and the names of their spouse and kids too! What if you unfailing remembered the sports that the kids play and the schools that they go to, where the parents work, what they do, and what they are focused upon the last time few times that you spoke to them?
Why three videos? Because this is a new concept to most of us — and three times from three perspectives helps one learn and understand, when you are a newbee.
The effects of stress take their toll on us. One of the aspects about stress that is very obvious, however, is that some people seem to handle stress much better than average. In typical American fashion, a great number of people turn to outside substances, be it Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, Paxil, alcohol, or others, to reduce the stress that they feel, at least for a bit of time.
I’ve always been a believer that a large percentage of stress can simply go away if you find the right balance of optimism, self-belief, control, and mental perspective. The basic idea that life is 10% of what actually happens to us, and 90% of how we choose to react and what we do next, has always resonated with me.
Steven Covey explained the 90/10 rule this way:
Imagine that your daughter knocks over your coffee onto your business suit at breakfast. You immediately yell at her for her clumsiness, she runs upstairs crying uncontrollably, which results in missing the school bus. Still steaming, you now wind up driving her to school, she fails her math test because she remains upset all day, you get stuck in traffic, you then speed, get pulled over by Officer Smith for a speeding ticket, are late for a meeting with a client, and your boss is less than pleased that your tardiness jeopardized a client relationship.
The alternative choice that could have been made was to smile, then tell your daughter that “it’s ok, mistakes happen, I have another suit upstairs…” and move forward in a positive fashion from the mishap. All the rest of those negative consequences could have been avoided by making a different choice.
The overall equation to preventing stress is bigger than just the 90/10 principle but 90/10 plays an important part. Below is a GREAT video by Dr. Mike Evans in Toronto, who discusses how we can learn to reduce our stress without chemical compounds. I highly recommend watching it today (full-screen is best):
Too often, one faulty thought enters the mainstream, is picked up as a soundbyte and disseminated by the media, and multitudes are affected by it. In this case, the thought was issued in 1966 by 32 year old Carl Sagan, when half the appliances in the USA were avocado and linoleum was in. The rest of the scientific community latched onto his quote and started doing math, coming to conclusions like the universe must be populated by thousands of planets that support intelligent life. Even today, “the math from the 60’s and 70’s” persists in many of our high school teachers.
As knowledge evolved, that math started to change. Here is an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal this month. I don’t know if its 100% right (that’s hard to find) but it seems well worth considering.
I.M. Optimism Man
Preserved from the Wall Street Journal…
Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God The odds of life existing on another planet grow ever longer. Intelligent design, anyone?
In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.
Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 27 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.
With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.
What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.
Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem. Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest . . . . We should quietly admit that the early estimates . . . may no longer be tenable.”
As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.
Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.
Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?
There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.
Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?
Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”
The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.
Mr. Metaxas is the author, most recently, of “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” ( Dutton Adult, 2014).