truisms

“Her” – What does it say about “Us?”

Having just watched Spike Jonze 2013 Oscar Winner for Best Original Screenplay, “Her” last night, I’ve been flooded with questions the last 24 hours, and not a soul to discuss them with that thought anything other than “that was… weird.”

Some SPOILERS beyond this point:

In fairness, it was weird. That’s what completely new things feel like – weird. Not the familiarity of the tried and true and too often repeated. And being so original it can make one uncomfortable with its intimacy. Not just the kind shared between the lonely poet-of-sorts and a computer program, but the unveiled honesty of the whole experience.

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From the start we see a famous pregnant woman’s photo (Demi Moore’s 1991 Vanity Fair cover, anyone?) come to life in Theodore’s mind as pure fantasy (weird, right?) and further to his brief, anonymous phone call with a woman who encourages him to choke her with a cat in order to bring the interlude to climax. Super weird. These aren’t things we’re used to seeing or thoughts of a nature we’re used to sharing.

Theodore is alone, and as he’s not surrounded by another person, there is no reason for artifice. He communicates like we all do with our most intimate selves – we just happen to be watching – and that’s the problem apparently. It is fully accepted and understood that we all live private lives that we don’t share with anyone – something always is held back for fear of how it will be construed. But Theodore doesn’t have this limitation: telling all to an insanely curious operating system (desperate to know the world and to know this man) he’s not at risk of being judged the same way his blind date will judge him.

In that last part there’s the bit of the ultimate male fantasy, I suppose: The woman who exists (it appears) to do little else but to love and care for us. Lest Ted get bored too quickly, he tells Samantha that he’s not ready for anything too serious. To our surprise she responds not as the demure, emotionally attached woman, but as an honest-to-goodness person of her own. She has dreams and wants, and doesn’t just live to make our guy’s life grand. That’s interesting and refreshing – because this is a love story and not just “guy has interactive phone-coitus with his OS and it’s totally weird but beautiful, kinda, because Spike Jonze put cool music over long shots of Phoenix riding a train.”

These characters are real and more importantly, honest. The normal bet-hedging we all do when we meet someone gets eliminated here. She’s forthright with her fears, though appropriately hesitant (for effect) and does her best to grow as a person. She wants him to be happy and wants the same for herself. Instead of being the trapped housewife we might imagine, she’s actually living an incomparably full life – one Theodore can never match.

Being that close (as viewers) to the unbelievable highs of new love and the (inevitable?) growing apart that these two go through, is an unsettling experience. So yeah, “weird…” is a perfectly appropriate description of “Her” but also woefully incomplete. It’s also about the scars of losing someone and the scariness of loving someone else again. It’s about selflessness and shared existence, about our desire to find happiness almost anywhere.

Could you love a computer program? I think most will be quick to dismiss the notion as too fanciful, but isn’t (sufficiently bright) Artificial Intelligence, still “Intelligence?” And isn’t that half or more of what we come to love about another person – or at least the part that really sticks? Sure, the way they wrinkle their nose when they’re about to sneeze, or the way they hold their coffee with both hands when it’s cold, are super cute, but is it the lion’s-share of why we love them?

In the end, isn’t it the relationship between our intelligence and another’s, that pulls the lever in our brain, the one releasing the dopamine and serotonin that cause us to get so insanely high that we act all kinds of crazy in love?

Amy: “Are you falling in love with her?”

Theodore: “Does that make me a freak?”

Amy: “No, no, I think it’s, I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”

Would it have made a difference had Theodore reached Samantha on the phone randomly at the start of the film, as opposed to uploading her onto his computer? His having never known she was a program – would we view it any differently? There are plenty of people who have relationships that are entirely long-distance, one’s where they’ll never meet the person on the other end of the phone, or computer. Little odd? Maybe, but not dismissively so. 

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I’m haunted by so many aspects of this film: What does it say about the connections we make and the connections we don’t? Towards the end it kind of dawns on Theodore that everyone is having these silo-like-relationships. It’s almost a “Soylent Green is made out of people!” moment. But far less ominous, of course. Would such a relationship, undertaken knowingly, be “healthy” in any way? There clearly aren’t any ethical implications, right? Wouldn’t an unchecked AI with the power and sophistication of Samantha be incredibly dangerous? I mean, Terminator starts with far less in the way of operational processing power, doesn’t it?

More importantly: if Samantha can feel things, emotionally, what kind of responsibility does that place on Theodore (or anyone) to treat her in a respectful manner? Is an AI, regardless of how sophisticated, just a series of switches and impulses sending out hyper-realistic communication, but ultimately nothing more than so many magnetically positioned ones and zeroes?  And if so, should it be excluded from the same respect we pay to animals? Or the mentally deficient? If an AI (like the newly resurrected Alan Watts of the film) is created with a sufficiently complex “personality” does that mean it should be afforded the same rights as a person? Meaning it would be unethical to shut it down without due process?

Much like an iceberg, the total mass of questions this movie represents are largely unseen, I just wish more people saw the exposed parts for how intricate they are.

The 4-types of people you’ll work with

The 4-types of people you'll work with

George Lois sums it up nicely here in his book “Damn Good Advice (For people with talent)” – God knows I’ve come across all four of these and the only one that scares me is the fourth. We’ve all worked with plenty of people who don’t much and don’t want to do much – easy enough, they’ll just sit there. No worries. But the ignorant and industrious? God help us all.
If you can’t educate the #4, then attempt to re-purpose them. If that doesn’t work, get rid of them. If you work for them, and none of those have worked, find a new gig!

What’s Your Joy?

Irreverence, Passion, Art, Poetry, Stories, Movies, Debate, LOVE, smelling my son’s hair when he hugs me goodbye in the morning, seeing my wife smile, closing a deal – a BIG deal. Leading. Seeing my team decimate anything in their way.

Facing Fear. Not conquering it so much – but just facing it. Holding my breath the whole time. Innovation. Making something incrementally better. A good tomato cream sauce. Pop Art. Jeanelle’s photos. Kaleel’s brisket rub. Hiser’s Jedi-mind stuff. Marshall’s heart. Tara’s ever-presence. Tracy’s Stories.

Shifting into fourth and really letting the engine have it. The surge of an RPM gauge as you pass some Tuesday Greg on his way to get his hair cut. Getting my hair cut. Drinking coffee like it comes in a red solo cup at a frat party because you know it’s powering exceptional stuff today.

I think this is mostly right - perhaps learning how to do a thing right is also Joy.

I think this is mostly right – perhaps learning how to do a thing right is also Joy.

Learning something new for the first time. Did you know that WD-40 stands for “Water displacement – 1940” because I do. Metrics. Pouring over towers of data and making it stand up and tell a story. Cutting through BS because “aint nobody got time for that” Memes (Thanks Richard Dawkins)

Having great friends that push you. Pushing yourself to be something better and achieving it. Being the type of person you want to see others be – even if it’s not all the time. Caring. The one pistachio that’s really easy to pop open. The parking space that opens at ikea as you make your first approach.

Good design. Thoughtfulness. Being present. Winning – but not at the expense of others. Knowing nothing else beats human effort. 80’s movies, namely “Red Dawn.” Tumblr. SNL. Making something out of nothing – or even better – something better out of something OK  Quotes. George C. Howell speaking as “Patton”

Making a sale. Looking at things sideways. Changing my mind in the face of superior information – and doing so without apology. Grammar. Teams. Exceptional oratory. A superior cut of meat, grilled to perfection. The feel of a crisp paper in the morning and the occasional cigar.

Belly laughs. The deep look of immediate recognition from an awkward puppy. A handful of darts, a blank slate, and a pitcher of beer with good friends. When my wife makes up words by combining two words and doesn’t even realize it – cutest thing in the world. A freshly starched shirt in the morning. A clean polo on the weekends. The unexpected summer breeze in late July. Making breakfast with my boys while they stand on chairs the moved into place.

I could do this all week…

Care to try your hand? What’s your joy? What do you believe in, virulently. What would you rest back and with a wide expressive spreading of hands say “Ohhhhhhh, this is amazing!”

Name it now, please.

Short Doesn’t Mean ‘Memorable’…

I had a realization today, as I addressed about a dozen members of our “Bistro 106” staff and it was this:

Company culture best gets communicated through the stories we tell.

We have this sign posted in a few places around the community – namely on the inside of doors from the kitchen to the dining room. Each person there probably touches it 20 times per day. Yet, no one could name all six words of the mission statement. Yes, I said ‘six WORDS’.

Short doesn't necessarily mean memorable. At least not by itself.

Short doesn’t necessarily mean memorable. At least not by itself.

Please know, I take full responsibility for this.

A culture that doesn’t get talked about – that doesn’t have stories told about it – won’t spread.

Realizing this, I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity.  So I explained how we’d come up with these six words and in this combination: It was because NOT doing these three things was the source of all of our problems, at every level of our organization.

I offered specifics on all the unprofessional, buck-passing, value-crushing things we’d done in the past. It wasn’t pretty, and many of our newer recruits (say 50%) were surprised to hear that this had been the case. The veterans just nodded their heads and recalled how bad things had been. Not that they’re perfect now – in fact, that was partly the reason for this meeting – to take us from a “rules culture” to a “philosophical” one. A culture where people’s passions were aroused and their minds dwelled on their work.

I told stories about two versions of our business: one in which we hold these key components in our hearts and our brains every moment, and another version where we did whatever we wanted. Not hard to imagine how these two worlds would look after a short while.

Nearly as bad was the version in which everyone was simply a wage-slave and wasn’t permitted to think or act for the greater goals of our company. What a miserable life that would be.

In fact, I told them all that if I couldn’t enjoy what I did for a living, I would:
1. Seek to change it for the better through action and suggestions.    If that didn’t work I’d have to…
2. Find work elsewhere, or if that was somehow impossible I’d…
3. Kill myself.

Actually, that last one is a little drastic, but I use the hyperbole for effect. It’s that important to me – people ought to enjoy what they spend the overwhelming majority of their time doing! Anything else is insanity.

Sure, more rules and “Carrot & Stick” management can get any group to be better, but it has it’s limits. It’s rooted in the industrial revolution’s relationship between labor and management. Toyota has long since shown that even for cranking out widgets, it’s a poor model for running a team. Then why should we use it for running people who are supposed to surprise and delight our clients.

I always hated meetings where a group gets yelled at for what a few have failed to do properly. In fact, I hate groups. I love teams, but I hate groups. I’ll always prefer to have a meeting with a team and get them excited about the things we need to do to succeed. When you do this, the carrots and the sticks take care of themselves.

Don’t Mess With Texas, or The Power of Stories…

I had five meetings today. That’s a lot for me in my current position as I don’t typically have five in a week. I’d heard a maxim “The only people who enjoy meetings are the ones doing the talking” and it’s served me well. These meetings were different though – I had stories to tell.

More on that in a minute…

You’re no doubt familiar with the slogan “Don’t mess with Texas“, especially if you’ve ever been to the state. What you probably don’t know is that it was/is an advertising campaign to curb littering. Yeah, littering.

I wouldn’t mess with it if I were you.

It was a huge deal for the state that cost around $20 million per year in highway clean up. The problem was massive and so were the proposed solutions: stiff fines, stronger enforcement, pleading messages to “keep Texas beautiful” printed on everything in sight – nothing worked.

The solution came from a pair of creatives at an advertising agency which tapped into the power of stories. They looked at their target market (18-35 year old males – the ones most likely to litter) and found a story that spoke to them. Texas, having been its own country for a time, has a strong independence streak, and possibly more pride than any other state. To be a Texan is a badge of honor and a huge part of one’s identity. It even applies to transplants to the state – it doesn’t take long for converts to adopt the “Don’t mess with Texas” attitude. It’s really quite something to see.

The campaign consisted of State heroes in print and video, conveying that Texas wasn’t to be screwed with, and that if it were, well… not good things would happen. Check out this classic commercial for an example.

The beauty of the campaign is how well it stuck with people. Dan and Chip Heath relay the whole process in their book “Made to Stick” which I can’t recommend enough. By telling these guys a story: “Texans are proud of their state. It’s the best state there is! All other states suck by comparison! You’re a Texan and all Texans (REAL TEXANS, anyway) don’t litter! They don’t degrade the proudest state in the Union. They defend it in with their dying breath. People in Arizona or California may litter, but not us by god.”

That’s a powerful story. It’ s simple and yet still manages to have a massive impact on behavior. I relay this story as I’m trying to do the same thing. In fact, I think the test of a leader is how much they can affect the culture of their team for the better. What kinds of stories do they tell? What effect do those stories have? How did we get better? This is the most significant part of  my job.

texting

“Oh, yeah… what? Water is included. I think…”

So today was about telling stories to my team and what separates us from the rest:  “Other Agents text their BFFs on tours and ignore prospects, we stand and greet people with a warm smile and an eager handshake.

We ask lots of questions because we want to get things just right for our clients, even if that means referring them to the place down the street if it’s a better fit. That’s what we do. We’re great at our jobs and we make a difference in people’s lives. We seek to constantly get better. This is who we are. Other people, they’re not as good, and who cares – we’re not them. We’re us, and we’re elite!”

Motivating, right? The truth is, I LOVE these meetings. I get animated and excited and start wildly gesticulating all over the place. I can’t help it. I swear, I get as much out of these meetings as I give, I think. And that’s why five meetings wasn’t so hard. It was important and it was empowering and thoroughly necessary.

At it’s core, telling stories (the right ones) is what leadership is all about. Fortunately, I really like telling stories.

“Riddle of the Gun” or, the Best Article I’ve Ever Read

Author Sam Harris has done what I didn’t think possible – he’s articulated a dispassionate and rational summation of the “gun situation” in the U.S.

Totally.

Image from Sam Harris'

What to do about 300 million of these and a strong 2nd amendment?

Mr. Harris is neither cheer leader or adversary of guns and explores the questions surrounding such a complicated issue with clear eyes and full weight given to all arguments.

Do yourself a favor and read this article entitled “Riddle of the Gun” regardless of how much you think you know about the issue. I can promise you, there is a wealth of information you’ve never heard before, or at least not in this way.

As a disclaimer, I’m not a member of the NRA and I don’t own a gun personally. Additionally, I’m a parent of two small children that mean the world to me and I can’t begin to imagine the anguish of the parents of Newtown, CT and would love more than anything to insure such a thing never happens again.

I don’t think that “this isn’t the time for debate” as every moment is time for debate when it comes to things of great importance in our lives. Especially today, the debate will be raging and I don’t think you’re going to find a better, more even-handed take than the Mr. Harris’ post on the subject.

Please read it and feel free to let me know your thoughts on the subject and I’d love to let you know mine. We all want the same things in the end: for our children to be safe, for less blood to be shed, and for a strong feeling of security. What we disagree with at the moment, is how to get there.

In the meantime, here’s a video of Harris speaking at a TED talk about moral relativism. This guy is brilliant.

Sam Harris – “Science can Show What’s Right”

Two Certainties in Life: Death, and that Burger King will suck.

There used to be two things you could famously be certain of: Death and taxes. I realized today this is wrong – taxes can be avoided.

One could live on an island, fishing & bartering, essentially living like Santiago from “Old Man and the Sea” and in doing so avoid all taxes. Death is still death. Pity.

The new certainty I garnered today is that every encounter one has with Burger King will suck. In some small, minuscule way, no exchange will ever result in even an atom’s worth of joy for the consumer. It is perfectly bad.

No small feat, that.

More certain than taxes.

More certain than taxes.

It never has to be a complete disaster and it usually isn’t. It’s the small things. Somehow, Burger King has found a way to ensure every single interaction is just, well… kind of shitty. I don’t know where they’re recruiting from, or how they manage to get exclusive rights to the worst in the fast food industry, but they are unrivaled in terrible service.

It’s everywhere too, and it has always been thus. In 2002 I sat in a BK drive through for 45 minutes. Why would I do such a thing? Dear reader, I had nothing better to do at 8:30 P.M. on a Wednesday night, and I desperately needed to see how far down the rabbit hole went. BTW, it goes pretty damn far.

I finally turned off my engine at 25 minutes in and walked to the window to see what the problem was. Broken equipment? Out of stock? Nope. Just plain old naked incompetence. Five workers were attempting to run the store and apparently none knew how to do anything. Instead of going to the grill area to help, all sat perfectly still in their respective stations, looking desperately lost.

It’s typically the little things though – the getting some small aspect of your order wrong – fries vs. onion rings, coke vs. diet. Other times  it’s something far more insidious.

A request for ketchup is always met with the derisive sneer of someone you’ve just trapped into helping you move your sleeper sofa up and down three flights of stairs. The (apparently required) once-over will scan your soul in order to analyze exactly how many packets of red-gold you are worthy of. Please know, this is in no way related to the amount of fries you’ve ordered. Your presumed social status, religious preference, job, hair style, politics, favorite movie, etc…- all come into play to complete the formula.

Regardless of how many patrons are seeking to fill their face holes with Whoppers, the service will be agonizingly slow. Almost suspiciously so. Because they make it your way, you may offer in their defense? Hardly. I’m convinced a rousing game of Mahjong is going on back there, with those glorious ketchup packets serving as the prize, fully redeemable for BK Swag at the end of the year.

Dios mio, man.

This might be funny if it weren’t so singularly creepy.

And I won’t even address the end product – you know, the actual burgers. I’m almost in awe really. Having frequented a number of stores in a number of cities, I can’t help but conclude this consistently bad performance is anything other than deliberate. It’s too consistent to be accidental, or chalked up to a few poor performers. No, this goes all the way to the top. To the creepy dude wearing the crown.

If Apple made it their mission to make technology easy and accessible with minimalist design, then BK has surely made it their mission to insure you have a bad time.

Somewhere, on a plaque in the royal palace, is a mission statement reminding the King to crap all over everyone’s day.

Mission accomplished.

Where we keep our dreams…

“There’s no time like the present!” Except there is…<br />  It’s called the future.<br /> We tend to keep our dreams there so they stay safe. If we allowed our dreams to live in the here-and-now they may be crushed. Or at least bruised and bloodied. <br /> So our dreams are (for most) forever a figment. An ethereal imagining that’s just around the bend. One we can talk about kindly and generously like an old friend we haven’t seen in more years than we knew them. They become legend and they comfort, though we know the secret in our heart-of-hearts: we don’t actually intend for them to become real. We are perfectly content to let them stay this way; out of reach, unblemished, and perfect in their vagueness. <br /> Unless of course, someone else wants to come and make them real for us, and set them gently into our shaking hands. But that’s not possible, is it? And that’s the scary, beautiful, completely unspoken truth. <br /> No, I think for most of us, we tend to do about as well as we can without enduring too much pain. Enough, to where we feel slightly uncomfortable, but not enough to watch a dream die under the harsh light of the present. <br /> Not enough to suffer that, and then to keep on dreaming in the present.
“There’s no time like the present!” Except there is…It’s called the future.

We tend to keep our dreams there so they stay safe. If we allowed our dreams to live in the here-and-now they may be crushed. Or at least bruised and bloodied.

So our dreams are (for most) forever a figment. An ethereal imagining that’s just around the bend. One we can talk about kindly and generously like an old friend we haven’t seen in more years than we knew them. They become legend and they comfort, though we know the secret in our heart-of-hearts: we don’t actually intend for them to become real. We are perfectly content to let them stay this way; out of reach, unblemished, and perfect in their vagueness.

Unless of course, someone else wants to come and make them real for us, and set them gently into our shaking hands. But that’s not possible, is it? And that’s the scary, beautiful, completely unspoken truth.

No, I think for most of us, we tend to do about as well as we can without enduring too much pain. Enough, to where we feel slightly uncomfortable, but not enough to watch a dream die under the harsh light of the present.

Not enough to suffer that, and then to keep on dreaming in the present.