About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

26 February 2010

A Sacred Mission

On September 7, 2002, Navy Secretary Gordon England announced the decision to name the fifth amphibious transport dock ship of the San Antonio class U.S.S. New York (LPD 21). He said:
"This new class of ships will project American power to the far corners of the Earth and support the cause of freedom well into the 21st century. From the war for independence through the war on terrorism, which we wage today, the courage and heroism of the people of New York has been an inspiration. U.S.S. New York will play an important rule in our Navy's future and will be a fitting tribute to the people of the Empire State."
In response, New York Governor George Pataki, who had requested the the Navy revive the name U.S.S. New York in honor of the 9/11 victims, said:
"The U.S.S. New York will ensure that all New Yorkers and the world will never forget the evil attacks of September 11, 2001, and the courage and compassion New Yorkers showed in response to terror."
The ship's motto is Strength forged through sacrifice. Never Forget.

The ship is not only special because of its name; it is also special because 24 tons of scrap steel from the World Trade Center was melted down in a foundry in Amite, La., to cast the ship's bow-stem section, which is the foremost section of the hull on the water line that slices through the water. When the steel was poured into the molds on September 9, 2003, Navy Captain Kevin Wensing who was there said:
"Those big, rough steelworkers treated it with total reverence. It was a spiritual moment for everyone there."
It wasn't too many months later that Hurricane Katrina disrupted construction on the ship when it pounded the Gulf Coast, but the 684-foot vessel escaped serious damage and within two weeks thousands of workers - including hundreds who lost their homes in the storm - were back at work. Some who lost their homes lived at the shipyard. Others lived on a Navy barge. Still others in bunk-style housing. Why this great devotion to duty? Philip Teel, a vice president for Northrup Grumman and head of its ship systems division, shared his opinion at a Navy League dinner in New York City on March 22, 2006:
"It sounds trite, but I saw it in their eyes. These are very patriotic people, and the fact the ship has steel from the World Trade Center is a source of great pride. They view it as something incredibly special. They're building it for their country."
Our highest calling is to make a contribution to something outside ourselves and our own. As a result, we are most committed to our work when we feel that we are dutifully and loyally serving a group of others too large for us to know everyone in it. Examples abound: soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, firefighters, police officers, EMTs, members of the FBI, CIA, DEA, INS, and others risking their lives for their country; research scientists dedicating their lives to eradicate deadly and debilitating diseases; teachers working long hours for minimal pay to prepare our kids to go out and make the world a better place; employees who work for companies or organizations that not only provide important products or services, but are also serving and supporting the communities that surround them; etc.

Author Robert Heinlein viewed moral behavior as that which contributes to survival: first for ourselves; second for our families; third for our group; fourth for all of mankind. His notion of moral behavior at the third level - which he called patriotism - was women and children first. He told a story to illustrate this in an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in April, 1973:
I said that 'Patriotism' is a way of saying 'Women and children first.' And that no one can force a man to feel this way. Instead he must embrace it freely. I want to tell about one such man. He wore no uniform and no one knows his name, or where he came from; all we know is what he did.

In my home town sixty years ago when I was a child, my mother and father used to take me and my brothers and sisters out to Swope Park on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful place for kids, with picnic grounds and lakes and a zoo. But a railroad line cut right through it.

One Sunday afternoon a young married couple were crossing these tracks. She apparently did not watch her step, for she managed to catch her foot in the frog of a switch to a siding and could not pull it free. Her husband stopped to help her.

But try as they might they could not get her foot loose. While they were working at it, a tramp showed up, walking the ties. He joined the husband in trying to pull the young woman's foot loose. No luck —

Out of sight around the curve a train whistled. Perhaps there would have been time to run and flag it down, perhaps not. In any case both men went right ahead trying to pull her free... and the train hit them.

The wife was killed, the husband was mortally injured and died later, the tramp was killed — and testimony showed that neither man made the slightest effort to save himself.

The husband's behavior was heroic... but what we expect of a husband toward his wife: his right, and his proud privilege, to die for his woman. But what of this nameless stranger? Up to the very last second he could have jumped clear. He did not. He was still trying to save this woman he had never seen before in his life, right up to the very instant the train killed him. And that's all we'll ever know about him.

This is how a man dies. This is how a man ... lives!
  • How do you go about learning from your successes, your failures, or significant events that impact your life?
  • How do you make sure any lessons you learn are integrated into your current approach to work and life?
  • How have you dealt with any sacred wounds you've received? Is there a better way?
  • What is your reaction to Robert Heinlein's notion of moral behavior and his story of the tragedy in his hometown?
  • What is your life's mission? How does it bring out the best in you?
  • How does your company's mission and/or that of your job bring out the best in you?
"You live and learn. Or you don't live long." - Robert Heinlein
"You cannot put a cheap band-aid on a sacred wound; there is no way through pain but to walk through it." - Dr. Robin Smith
"Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all his life in the grey, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then - the glory - so that cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man's importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories" - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

12 February 2010

Is Brilliance Overrated?

Four-time Masters Forum presenter Dennis Prager wrote an interesting column for the Jewish World Review recently. It's titled Brilliance Is Overrated. He begins by saying that the emphasis on the importance of intellect - and the corresponding adulation of intellectuals - in America is greater than it's ever been. The rest of the article questions whether or not that's the right thing for us to be doing. Here are some of his points:
"People assume that a Nobel laureate in physics has something particularly intelligent to say about social policy. In fact, there is no reason at all to assume that a Nobel physicist has more insight into health care issues or capital punishment than a high school physics teacher, let alone more insight than a moral theologian. But people, especially the highly educated, do think so."

"Intellectuals have among the worst, if not the worst, records on the great moral issues of the past century. Intellectuals such as the widely adulated French intellectual Jean Paul Sartre were far more likely than hardhats to admire butchers of humanity like Stalin and Mao. But this has had no impact on most people's adulation of the intellect and intellectuals."

"So, too, the current economic decline was brought about in large measure by people in the financial sector widely regarded as 'brilliant.' Of course, it turns out that many of them were either dummies, amoral, incompetent, or all three."

"The reason we have too few solutions to the problems that confront people - in their personal lives as well as in the political realm - is almost entirely due to a lack of common sense, psychological impediments to clear thinking, a perverse value system, a lack of self-control, or all four. It is almost never due to a lack of brainpower."
I think Dennis argues his case brilliantly - as usual - and I would like to stand on his shoulders to add a couple of thoughts of my own.

First, it's becoming more and more difficult to get smart and stay smart; the world is simply changing too fast around us. Former Army General Eric Shinseki:
"If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."
Second, the more brilliant and/or successful a person has been in a particular field or endeavor, the more likely he or she is to arrogantly hold on to old truths and fail to see the new. According to William Blake:
"The things in which we passionately believe: those things are precisely those of which we should be most wary."
A recent example of how this epistemic hubris - a belief in the primacy of one's own educational background, thinking, and brilliance - can spell big trouble, comes from the folks at Stratfor, a company specializing in gathering geopolitical intelligence for business.
"A group of men in Saltillo, Coahuila state, abducted anti-kidnapping consultant Felix Batista the evening of Dec. 10 while he dined at a restaurant. According to reports, Batista received a call on his cell phone, prompting him to leave the restaurant. At that point, a group of men waiting for him ushered him into a truck and drove off. The incident was first reported in the local press Dec. 14; federal authorities confirmed the report Dec. 15."

"Batista first arrived in Coahuila on Dec. 6 at the invitation of state law enforcement authorities. He delivered a series of presentations on anti-kidnapping strategies to business and police officials in Saltillo and Torreon. On the morning before his abduction, Batista met with several officials from the state’s office of public security. He was dining with a businessman when the abduction occurred."

"This is not the first time that an anti-kidnapping coordinator has been abducted in Mexico. Presumably, someone with his knowledge and credentials would have been keenly aware of the need for vigilance against pre-operational surveillance. In reality, such persons frequently maintain a false sense of personal security that keeps them from practicing what they preach."
Batista has not been seen or heard from since.


  • How have you been brilliant?
  • How do you practice what you preach?
  • How might you be vulnerable to epistemic arrogance?
  • How can you insure that what you know is the actual truth and not simply your version of the truth?
"People are idiots. Including me. Everyone is an idiot, not just the people with the low SAT scores. The only difference is that we're idiots about different things at different times. No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot." - Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle
"Even the monkey can fall from the tree." - Chinese Proverb
"Incompetents invariably make trouble for people other than themselves." - Larry McMurtry
"It is in the darkness of their eyes that men lose their way." - Black Elk
"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge." - Daniel Boorstin
"Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty." - Stephen Jay Gould
"Mental models are powerful filters. They help us make sense and meaning but filter out anything that does not belong. If our mental map is wrong – our judgment or assessment will be wrong." - Eamonn Kelly, Powerful Times
"An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions and be skeptical." - Bill Moyers

05 February 2010

The Magician of Lublin

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) was a Polish-born American writer of short stories, novels, and essays. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

Singer was born the son of a Hasidic rabbi. When he was four, his family moved to an apartment on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, a neighborhood full of thieves, prostitutes, street vendors, rag pickers, and observant Jews. Singer later called the street his "literary gold mine." He emigrated to the United States in 1935, and - for a time - eked out a living in New York City as a journalist on the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward. Singer's career as an author effectively began in 1953 when his story "Gimpel the Fool" was discovered by Irving Howe, translated by Saul Bellow, and published in the Partisan Review.

Singer's work draws heavily on Jewish folklore, religion, and mysticism, and frequently deals with shtetl life in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. Many of his later works treat the loneliness of old age and the sense of alienation produced in Jews by the dissolution of values through assimilation with the Gentile world.

The Magician of Lublin - a book published in 1960, and subsequently made into a movie - is the story of Yasha Mazur, an escape artist on par with Houdini, who gets so caught up in the dream of conquering the big capitols of Western Europe that he is willing to accept baptism as his ticket to get in. By a series of misadventures, however, which includes an abortive attempt at crime and the suicide of the girl he has been working with in his act, he is brought back to the faith of his fathers.

Somewhere near the middle of the story, Yasha is tugged back toward his roots:
"Yasha paused at one of the prayer-houses and glanced in. . . For a moment, Yasha lingered at the open door inhaling the mixture of wax, tallow, and something musty; something which he remembered from childhood. Jews - an entire community of them - spoke to a God no one saw. Although plagues, famines, poverty, and pogroms were His gifts to them, they deemed Him merciful and compassionate, and proclaimed themselves His chosen people. Yasha often envied their unswerving faith."
  • What is the one thing you believe is true even though you can't prove it?
  • What are things you believe to be true that others you know don't believe to be true?
  • What is something you believed for a long time, but don't believe anymore?
"Crooked is the path of eternity." - Nietzsche
"While the poet entertains, he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion, he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound, I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet - whom Plato banned from his Republic - may rise up to save us all." - Isaac Bashevis Singer
"If we think about it, we find that our life consists in achieving a pure relationship between ourselves and the living universe about us. This is how I save my soul - by accomplishing a pure relationship between me and another person, me and a nation, me and a race of people, me and animals, me and the trees or flowers, me and the earth, me and the skies and sun and stars, me and the moon; an infinity of pure relationships, big and little." - D. H. Lawrence
"What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from…we shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding