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.

16 May 2014

Amateurs Teach Amateurs to Be Amateurs

In early 1980, while vacationing in Palm Beach, FL, I stopped in at PGA National Golf Club one day in search of someone who could help me with my golf game. At the time, I was a decent golfer, but I had plateaued; I had been shooting in the mid to low 80's and high 70's since my early 20's and no matter how much I worked to get better, it just wasn't happening.

The first place I stopped was the driving range. I figured I'd hit a bucket of balls to warm up before I headed to the clubhouse to schedule a lesson with someone ... anyone. When I went inside the shack to purchase the bucket, I was greeted by a friendly gent who was manning the cash register. I figured he was an early retiree who had moved to Florida to get out of the cold, and was working to make a extra few bucks a week so he and his wife could take advantage of the early dinner specials for seniors put on by every other restaurant in town.

After smiles, a handshake, and the exchange of first names - his was Mike - he started asking questions. He wanted to know where I was from and what had brought me out to PGA National that morning. He asked me about my golf game. He was curious as to why I had come to the range to practice that day, instead of teeing it up and playing 18 holes.

I had answers. I told him I was from Minneapolis, MN. He said he loved Minneapolis. He played in the 1959 PGA Championship at Minneapolis Golf Club. He shot 67 in the first round and was tied for the lead at that point. He didn't do so well in the second round and failed to make the cut. I was just a pup in 1959, but attended that tournament. I didn't remember seeing him there, but I started to wonder just who this Mike guy was.

Next topic. I said I'd come to PGA National to take a lesson from a pro. He asked me why I thought I needed one. I explained my predicament. I hadn't improved in 15 years. I'd read all the instruction books. I'd tried all their suggestions. I'd asked my friends for advice. I'd hit hit thousands of range balls. I'd prayed. Nothing.

At this point, a young lady came in to take over behind the cash register and Mike suggested we head up to the main golf shop to continue our conversation.

When we walked in, he pointed the way to his office. Office? Yup. And, his name was on the door: Mike Krak. PGA Professional. Director of Golf. Hmmmm.
I sat and we talked. Or, rather, I talked and Mike listened. He was trying to understand my golf swing problem from my point of view. He later explained that knowing how my mind worked would help him communicate with me in a way I could understand. Toward the end of our conversation, I glanced up at the wall behind his desk and saw a quote etched on a plaque. The words struck me:
"Amateurs Teach Amateurs to Be Amateurs."
I asked him about it. He told me a story. He had been giving golf lessons for over 30 years. He had given 10-15-20 thousand lessons. He had worked with pros - including some who were on the PGA and LPGA tours - and amateurs ranging in handicap from scratch or better to the sky's the limit. He saw a huge difference in how the pros sought to improve their game and how the amateurs did it: the pros sought advice and took lessons from highly qualified golf professionals - folks who make a career teaching the whys and wherefores of the game; almost all the amateurs got their advice from well-meaning friends and family members - folks who claimed to know the game, but didn't. And, when they finally decided to get some real help, they had developed so many bad habits that it was too late to hope for much of anything in the way of real improvement.

This was the first lesson I learned from Mike. If you're a golfer looking to improve your game, take lessons from a pro. I am always reminded of this when I see a man - it's almost always a man - out on the practice tee trying to give lessons to his wife, or kids, or girlfriend, or whatever. I watch and listen. He hits a shot to demonstrate the proper technique. Wrong. He hits another. Wrong again. It's obvious now that this guy has never broken 120, and he's acting like he's Tiger Woods - or maybe Tiger's teacher. He drones on. He gives one piece of bad advice after another. The person he's trying to teach is hitting one bad shot after another ... things are quickly getting worse instead of better. There are many times I have been tempted to walk over to one of these wannabe golf gurus and say, "You idiot. You hack. You have no idea what you're talking about. You are going to ruin this person for life. Just stop, already." I never have, though. I figure it's better to keep my mouth shut than to have a golf club wrapped around my neck.

This advice is good in other areas of life, too. If you have personal or family problems that need solving, don't go running to your mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, or your good friend who took Psychology 101 a hundred years ago and rushes home to watch Dr. Phil every day, find a good therapist. If you are in business and are looking for your very own executive coach to help you develop your strength in a certain area, don't just hire the first person who comes along with a piece of paper that says Certified Coach; find someone who's an expert in the area you want to develop and let that person help you chart your course.

Following our conversation in Mike's office, we headed back down to the range. The first thing he had me do was hit a few balls to warm up. I remember being nervous the whole time. Why? Because as I was whacking away at the first few balls, I remembered a story I heard about Joe Sodd, a teaching professional I knew from Minneapolis. I was hoping that what happened to one of Joe's students at his first lesson with Joe wouldn't happen to me during my first lesson with Mike. Here's the story.

The scene is the driving range at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, MN. A high-handicap - and rather wealthy - amateur is waiting for Joe, Interlachen's teaching pro at the time, to arrive to give him a lesson. Joe arrives at the appointed time. He asks the amateur to hit a few balls so he can figure out what he needs to work on. The amateur obliges. He puts his head down. He keeps his eye on the ball. He keeps his left arm straight. He whiffs the first ball. He tops the second. He slices the third. He does more of the same. In time, he looks up to ask Joe a question. Joe is not there. He looks around and spots Joe heading up the hill toward the clubhouse. He yells at Joe and asks him where he is going. Joe looks back at him and says, "Give it up. You should have come to me 30 years ago." He keeps on walking. Joe Sodd does not suffer fools gladly.

When I finished warming up, Mike was still there. Whew! He wanted me to hit some balls for real. Here's our conversation:

Me: "I'll start with my 8 iron."
Mike: "What are you aiming at?"
Me: "The big tree at the end of the range."
Mike: "No you're not."
Me: "Huh?"
Mike: "You're aiming 40 yards to the right of it."
Me: "Huh?"
Mike: "Let me show you."

At that point, he moved me aside and placed his feet exactly where mine had been.

Mike: "Stand behind me."
Me: "Okay."
Mike: "Where am I aiming?"
Me: "You're aiming 40 yards to the right of the big tree."
Mike: "And ...."
Me: "Hmmm."
He went on to explain that proper alignment is the key to good golf; that if you can consistently line your body up with your intended target, you can create a foundation from which you can craft a sound, consistent golf swing. He finished with these words:
"If you can't, you'll never be a player."
Ouch! I built my game around alignment after that, and became a pretty good player. Instead of shooting in the high 70s or low 80's, I got to the point where my average score was in the low to mid 70's.

There's an old saying:
"If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."
It means that unless you have a clearly defined target - like the tree at the end of the range - you're journey will take you somewhere, but exactly where is up for grabs.

But, while knowing where you want to end up is necessary, it is also insufficient. You must know how to square yourself with your target before you take the first step of any journey you plan to take. Why? Because in business or golf or life for that matter, a small misalignment at the beginning ends up as a huge miss at the end. There is a quote I like that summarizes this idea quite well. It's from chess grandmaster Alexander Kotov:
"It often happens that a player carries out a deep and complicated calculation, but fails to spot something elementary right at the first move."
I took a few lessons from Mike every year after that for at least a dozen years. And, every year we started the same way; he'd ask me where I was aimed. There's more to golf than aiming, of course, and he taught me all the ins and outs in due time.

One final point. Teachers are in great supply, but great teachers are rare. Advice is in great supply, but great advice is not. It's important to understand the difference.

  • Who are the gurus - the teachers or advisers - in your life? How did you come to pick them? Are they great? Are you sure?
  • Have you ever taken advice from someone you thought was able and honest only to be disappointed or defrauded? How did it happen? What faulty assumptions did you make? What steps have you taken to make sure it doesn't happen again?
"Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both yes and no." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly." - Buckminster Fuller
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - Hunter S. Thompson, A Generation of Swine
"Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion." - Jack Kerouac
"The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second is listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others." - Solomon Ibn Gabirol

09 May 2014

Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine

Tom T. Hall has spent the better part of his life writing and singing country music. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on February 12, 2008.

One of his most popular songs, Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine, is the story of an old janitor sweeping a barroom floor, and stopping to share his life philosophy with a patron who was still around at closing time. The lyrics:

"How old do you think I am?" he said.
I said, well, I didn't know.
He said, "I turned 65 about 11 months ago."

I was sittin' in Miami pourin' blended whiskey down
When this old gray Black gentleman was cleanin' up the lounge

There wasn't anyone around 'cept this old man and me
The guy who ran the bar was watchin' "Ironsides" on TV
Uninvited, he sat down and opened up his mind
On old dogs and children and watermelon wine

"Ever had a drink of watermelon wine?" he asked
He told me all about it, though I didn't answer back
"Ain't but three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime,
But old dogs and children and watermelon wine."

He said, "Women think about they-selves, when menfolk ain't around.
And friends are hard to find when they discover that you're down."
He said, "I tried it all when I was young and in my natural prime;
Now it's old dogs and children and watermelon wine."

"Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes;
God bless little children while they're still too young to hate."
When he moved away I found my pen and copied down that line
'Bout old dogs and children and watermelon wine.

I had to catch a plane up to Atlanta that next day
As I left for my room I saw him pickin' up my change
That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime
Of old dogs and children and watermelon wine.

We all have different ideas about what's important and what's not in our lives. This song suggests another way of thinking about and articulating them.

  • What are the three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime as far as you are concerned?
  • How are you making sure these things are getting the time and attention they deserve?
  • What are the three things in this world that ain't worth a solitary dime?
  • How are you making sure these things aren't getting more of your time and attention than they deserve?
"If I should die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: the only proof he needed for the existence of God is music." - Kurt Vonnegut

"There is a general place in your brain, I think, reserved for 'melancholy of relationships past.' It grows and prospers as life progresses, forcing you finally, against your better judgment, to listen to country music." - Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize lecture, Dec. 8, 1993
"Country songs have always told the best stories and no one -- really, no one -- has ever done it better than Nashville. All my life I've admired guitarists like Chet Atkins and Roy Clark who touched me through their sound, but it was those Nashville songwriters who got to me through their words." - B.B. King, blues guitarist and singer-songwriter

02 May 2014

East of Eden

John Steinbeck's East of Eden was published in October, 1952. It became an instant best-seller. It was adapted for film in 1955 by director Elia Kazan. A TV miniseries was aired in 1981, and rumors have it that Universal Pictures will produce another adaption of the novel with a release date of 2009.

Steinbeck's inspiration for the novel came from the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, it came from Genesis 4: 1-16, which recounts the story of Cain and Abel. The title, East of Eden, was chosen by Steinbeck from verse 16:
"And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden."
The book explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, and the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction. Steinbeck said of it:
"It has everything in it I've been able to learn about my craft in all these years. I think everything else I've written has been, in a sense, practice for this."
In Chapter 13, Steinbeck described the condition of the world. He said:
"There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused."
He went on to say these conditions prompted him to ask himself three important questions. These same questions are worth asking ourselves today.

  • What do I believe in?
  • What must I fight for?
  • What must I fight against?
"The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross, which bridge to burn." - David Russell

"I think when people have illustrated the Bible, most of them have been devout Christians. Because they're devout Christians they can't separate themselves from the work. They get mired in piety, so they can't see the darkness. They only see the light of salvation. But if you don't have the darkness to contrast with the light, then what are you offering but cotton candy for Sunday school children? I think that some of the images in this Bible will be disturbing to a lot of people. The Bible is a very disturbing book." – Barry Moser, illustrator
"Lord, give to us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for - because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything." - Reverend Peter Marshall, a prayer offered at the opening session of the U.S. Senate on April 18, 1947

"Stop leaving and you will arrive. Stop searching and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found." - Lao Tzu
"Belief? What do I believe in? I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. I believe in blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos, and broom-tailed horses…" - Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
"It is immensely moving when a mature man – no matter whether old or young in years – is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.'" - Max Weber