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.

25 June 2010

Helter Skelter

Vincent Bugliosi spent much of his career working as a prosecuting attorney in the L.A. County District Attorney's office. He is best known for the prosecution of Charles Manson and several members of his "family" for the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders. His book Helter Skelter* is based on the Manson case. To watch Bugliosi talk about this case click here.

I had the pleasure of attending one of Vince's lectures a few years ago at the University of Texas at Austin. He spoke there about his book, Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder, which is a highly critical assessment of the work of the district attorney and prosecutors - among others - in the acquittal of O.J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. And, of the many things I remember from that evening, there is one comment he made that stands out. He said the first thing he does when prosecuting a case is to do the best job he possibly can of building the defense's case. Then - and only then - does he start to prepare his case. He went on to say that if he'd have been prosecuting the Simpson case, he'd have put in up to 500 hours just preparing to give his closing argument. Of course, a good deal of that time would have been spent preparing to give the defense's closing argument. The prosecutors in the Simpson case, he said, prepared their closing argument the night before they presented it.

Now, even if prosecuting a capital murder case is not in your future plans, you can still use Bugliosi's idea to great benefit. Give it a twist in one direction, and it's a fail-safe device. Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. explains in a story from his book Questions of Character:
"When former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin heard someone suggest a course of action, he often asked what the strongest alternative was and the strongest reasons to pursue that alternative. Rubin knew the danger of rushing to judgment on complicated issues, and he wanted to see how carefully recommendations had been thought through."
Twist it in a slightly different way, and it's a sales training program. My former boss Larry Wilson said it first:
"Never talk about your product or service until you have demonstrated that you fully understand your prospect's needs."
Twist it again, and it's the secret to becoming a world-class communicator. Stephen R. Covey:
"Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
There are a few more rabbits I can pull out of this hat, but it's probably as good a time as any to let you have a go at it.


  • What are some ways you might apply Bugliosi's idea - or some variation thereof - in your work or life?
"He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion." - John Stuart Mill

"As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life." - Albert Einstein
"When we sleep on someone else's pillow, we sometimes find ourselves having that person's dreams." - Tom Robbins
*The title of Bugliosi's book - Helter Skelter - came from the title of a song in a double album - The Beatles - which was recorded and released in 1968. It is more commonly known as The White Album, because it has no text besides the band's name on its all white jacket. The White Album is, perhaps, best known for attracting the attention of 60's counterculturists looking for hidden meanings in the music of The Beatles. One of those searching for subliminal messages was Charles Manson, who Bugliosi said used words contained in many of the album's songs - and generous helpings of hallucinogens - to persuade members of his "family" that the album was in fact an apocalyptic message predicting a prolonged race war and justifying the murder of wealthy people. Manson named the war he saw coming Helter Skelter.

18 June 2010

Inside the Actors Studio

James Lipton has been the host of Bravo's original series Inside the Actors Studio since its inception in 1994. Lipton has interviewed over 200 guests, including 74 Academy Award winners. The first guest was Paul Newman; the 200th was Dave Chappelle, who turned the tables by interviewing Lipton. The show is seen in 79 million American homes and is broadcast to 125 countries around the world.

The show rolls out in three parts. First, is a one-on-one interview conducted by Lipton. Second, the host submits a questionnaire to the guest. And third, if time permits, the guest fields questions from the audience. All in all, the show provides a wonderful opportunity to get to know the guest as a human being as well as an actor.

The thing that has intrigued me the most in the time I've spent watching the show has been the questionnaire phase. This is because the questionnaire asks the same 10 questions of each guest, and as a result of holding the questions constant you get to see the differences in the guests. The questions Lipton asks are as follows:
  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
  4. What turns you off creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
  5. What sound or noise do you love?
  6. What sound or noise do you hate?
  7. What is your favorite curse word?
  8. What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
  • Ask yourself these questions and record your answers. Do the same a year later to find out how you've changed.
  • Use the questionnaire in one-one-one conversations. You and another person will get to know each other a little better.
  • Use it to help team members get to know each other better.

When Harrison Ford was asked what he would like to hear God say when he arrived at the Pearly Gates, he said:
"You're much better looking in person."

On April 29, 2008, James Lipton was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Here is a video of the tribute paid to him at the 2008 Emmy Awards.

Here's Robin Williams working through The Questionnaire.

11 June 2010

The "Daymaker"

David Wagner is a world-renowned hair stylist, artist, entrepreneur, educator, and "Daymaker." He is the Owner/Daymaker of Juut Salonspas, the original Aveda salons. He defines a daymaker as:
"A person who performs acts of kindness with the intention of making the world a better place."
David has written a book titled Life as a DAYMAKER: How to Change the World Simply by Making Someone's Day. He opens it with a story that set him on his path.
It only takes a moment to make someone's day - to become a daymaker - and sometimes those moments even change lives as I discovered a number of years ago. I was working in my salon one day when a client came in to have her hair styled. I was surprised to see her, since it was right in the middle of her five-week period between hair cuts. I figured that she must have an important social engagement , so I asked her about her evening plans. “I don't have anything special going on,” she told me. “I just want to look and feel good tonight.”

I gave her a great scalp massage, then shampooed and styled her hair. During our 30 minutes together, we joked and laughed. At the end, she smiled radiantly, hugging me goodbye.

A few days later when I received a letter from this client, I began to realize the enormous potential of Daymaking. My client admitted that she had wanted her hair styled so it would look good for her own funeral. She had planned to commit suicide that evening. But the wonderful time she had during our appointment had given her hope that things could get better. She decided to check herself into the hospital and get professional help. She thanked me for caring, even though I hadn't known what she was going through. She wrote “thank you for being there, without knowing that you were.”

I was stunned. I had spent time with this woman about once a month for three years, yet that day I had no inkling she was so distressed. I was glad to have made such a difference, yet the experience left me with an enormous sense of responsibility. What if I had been upset, distracted, or hurried when she came to see me?

That experience made me take stock of myself as a stylist and as a person. How many of the ten clients I saw every day might be in personal crisis that I would never know about? Even if it were only one person a day, I might have no way of knowing who needed some extra attention. I resolved to treat every person I met like that woman. It might sound like a lot of work, but it wasn't hard to have fun with my client that day. It was natural and made my day brighter, too. I vowed to give care and attention to everyone I saw. I figured it would make their day a little better, and who knows, it might save a life.

I still thank my client for the gift of that letter because it changed my life as much as my kindness changed hers. When you realize the difference you can make for others, whether by spending a light-hearted half-hour together, giving them a smile, or simply holding the door open for them, your whole approach to life shifts. Why have random acts of kindness when we can have intentional acts of good will?
I choked up when I first heard that story. Then my thoughts drifted to these words from The Talmud which I believe are absolutely true:
"To save one life is as if you have saved the world."
Finally, I landed on the last sentence of David's story:
"Why have random acts of kindness when we can have intentional acts of good will?"
Intentional. On purpose. Why not give it a try? Pick a day - any day. And for that day, swear an oath to do all you can to make the day of each and every person who crosses your path. Now you'll probably never know the effect you had on the folks you met that day. That's okay. The real question is how did you feel about yourself at day's end? My guess? Good enough to do it again the next day . . . and the next. Keep it up, and it won't be long until daymaking becomes your default option for dealing with people.

There are, of course, folks that seem to be daymakers by nature. One of these was Murray Barr, a homeless man from Reno, Nevada. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker on Murray titled "Million-Dollar Murray." It's a great read. Here's the link.

  • What struck you most about David Wagner's story? Murray Barr's?
  • Is there a way either or both relate to your life or work either now or back when?
  • Would you like to be a daymaker? If so, how will you make it happen? Further, what are some things you might do to undermine your best intentions?
"When you can do a common thing in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world." - George Washington Carver
"When a man begins to have a vision larger than his own truth...he begins to become conscious of his moral nature." - Rabindranath Tagore
"I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning." - J. B. Priestly
"Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence." - Anthony de Mello, Jesuit Priest
"We need one another when we would be comforted. We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid. We need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again. We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone. We need one another in the hour of success, when we look for someone to share our triumphs. We need one another in the hour of defeat, when with encouragement we might endure, and stand again. We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey. All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us." - George Odell, Unitarian Minister
"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

04 June 2010

Dennis Prager on the Goodness of Goodness

Dennis Prager is a radio talk show host, who has been nationally syndicated since 1999. He is also a frequent guest on TV news shows such as Larry King Live, The Early Show on CBS, The Today Show, The O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, and Hannity & Colmes. He has written four books, including the best-selling Happiness Is A Serious Problem.

Dennis has been with us at The Masters Forum on four occasions. During his first appearance, while delivering a presentation titled Ultimate Issues, he asked an interesting question:
"If you could choose just one of the four, would you want your children to grow up to be happy, smart, successful, or good?"
He asked us to make a choice and discuss it with a person sitting nearby. Incidentally, there is a correct answer to the question as far as Dennis is concerned: good. This jibes with his philosophy that the most basic and meaningful way to sort people or behavior is to use two boxes: one marked Good; the other marked Evil.

Then came a second question:
"If I asked your children which of the four they think you want most for them, what would their answer be?"
In other words, he wanted us to consider the possibility that we might be saying one thing is important with our words, while unwittingly reinforcing another with our deeds.

Steve Kerr, former Chief Learning Officer of both GE and Goldman Sachs, says we are prone to making this same mistake in our roles as managers and leaders. His classic article - On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B - sheds light on the subject.

  • How do you typically let others know what you expect of them?
  • How do you check to see that they are absolutely clear about what you want?
  • How do you ensure that what you are asking for and what gets rewarded are one and the same?
  • If you could choose just one of the four, would you want those who work with you - or for you - to be happy/engaged in their work, smart/committed to learning, successful/getting the job done, or good/doing what's right?
  • If you asked them, what would they say you want most?
“Don't you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy, she'll beat you if she's able. You know, the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet.” The Eagles, Desperado
"I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?" - John Steinbeck, East of Eden