Tag Archives: conversation

Letters to Ellie: Being Real

The outpouring of support I got from my last post on my daughter going away to an RTC floored me. Friends from every phase of life offering love, reflection and empathy. A reminder that the connected era isn’t all bad.

What it also did was open up even more stories – heartbreaking but all-too-real situations that my friends are dealing with every day: death, divorce, mental illness, learning disabilities. And a common theme of feeling alone.

opendoor

It’s not easy being a remote parent, but one of the channels for me is that I get to send letters to Ellie every day during the week. While a lot of the content is light or focused on specific areas of her interest, I also try to infuse them with what I’ve learned in my first half of life. And on the heels of that experience of reconnecting with people, I covered the topic of real conversations in one of my recent notes to her, part of which is snipped out below. 

Enjoy. And thanks for the inspiration.

One of the things that’s top of mind for me right now is real conversations. It’s one of the reasons your Mom and I are together. We both want authenticity in our life and relationships. We crave it. 

And the shorter life gets, the less patience I have for “empty calorie” conversations. 

Just to be clear, I’m not saying “I don’t do small talk.” That would be even more insufferable than publishing my blog. Light conversation serves a valuable purpose: it’s conversational warm-up and an easy way to hang with people you’re just meeting. And it’s great while doing other activities. I’m not going to wax philosophical with other parents while waiting for the bus.  

I’m talking about when long conversations and social events never get past (in my case) microbrews, vacations, workouts, humble-work-brags, remodels, and kids sports; and (in your case) Kardashians, Taylor Swift, apps and whatever else is being meme-d about these days. 

I’ve always sought out real interaction, but often forget in the course of daily life as ego and busyness get in the way. However, when I published the blog post, the response I got was amazing. It drove home how little we share what’s really going on, and how much time is spent on the useless wallpaper of life. 

If those interactions aren’t paying the bills, helping others or making me happy, what’s the point? And why is it so hard to maintain the authenticity in our lives? Do we need difficult times to make authenticity happen or can we keep it up in good and bad times? 

I was going to events because I was supposed to, because they would stroke my ego, or because I just needed to be social. It may have felt good in the moment, but only made me more disappointed in myself as I sold myself out. And I was other people’s empty calories because I was doing the same thing. 

So like other times in my life, I have become a calendar sculptor: chopping off people and items that don’t pass the filter, and seeking out the environments where I feel I can be myself and others respond accordingly. 

I known you’ve felt similarly about some of your friends – that they can be stuck in superficial territory. I think it’s okay to have friends like that, but you need to be careful. In some cases, it may just take awhile for them to open up. Or they may have different expectations of how much to share. Life teaches a lot of people not to share. It’s scary and you can get hurt easily. But we need to keep trying. 

So keep looking for your deep-peeps. And be bold in opening up with who you are inside. Not being yourself around your friends and family takes it toll as we have nowhere else to turn but inward with the built up emotions. That leads to a fun mix of aggression, repression, addiction, depression and more. And the more you open up, the more you’ll realize they’re probably struggling with a lot of the same things. 

I know you know a lot of this already. You’ve got a very good intuition in this area. But wanted to share my thoughts as it’s something I would love to have told my neurotic 12-year old self. 

Taverns over Yapshops: How Good Conversation = Business Lubrication

When I first entered the workforce as a young management consultant in 1994, I was a terrible listener. The whole point of being a consultant is to be a good listener. Ergo, I was not good. I gave it a valiant effort, but spent so much energy trying to find ways to appear smart with what I said (and the fancy glasses I wore), that many times I would miss the point of what people were telling me.

Years later, after I became CEO, my listening skills improved dramatically. (Although I would focus so intently while listening that I freaked people out with my stare. “It feels like he’s trying to stare into my soul” read one 360-degree review.) But much of my energy went into “must have all the answers” with a heaping side of “must accomplish my goals.” I was open and honest, and would listen politely, but eventually I would steamroll my own agenda after the requisite polite waiting period.

The way I see it, good conversation is the WD-40 of successful businesses – the lubrication that leads to growth, culture and success. (I figure using “lubrication” a few times will help my site traffic.) Nothing happens without good conversation. And by conversation, I don’t mean light-hearted chat; I mean, the important debate, dialogue and exchanges that drive things forward.

Being so agenda-driven, I missed a lot of good ideas because I either didn’t respect people, didn’t take time to truly listen, or because my conversational counterparts were less forceful with their messages. People might have appreciated the quick decisions I was making, but those should come after vigorous debate, not squashing ideas along the way.

Whatever I do next, I’m looking forward to learning from past mistakes and don’t want the same habits to follow me. As part of this growth, I’ve been drawn again to an essay I last read in my 20s. Michel de Montaigne was a thinker and statesman during the French Renaissance who is credited with inventing the modern essay. (You can thank him for those late nights in college.) He came from an era when people had time to consider these things without having their attention machine-gunned by status updates. When he turned 38, he locked himself away in a library and wrote about life lessons and insights using a short-form, personal, subjective style that no one had used before. It was eventually called the essay. He was basically the original blogger. That’s him on the cover below looking like a driftwood sculptor from Santa Cruz.

Montaigne’s essay is translated to English as the “art of conversation,” but it’s much more than that. What this guy from the Renaissance knew that most modern leaders are clueless about is how to handle the exchange of ideas effectively and gracefully. Read the whole thing to bulk up on your conversational abilities, not to mention reacquainting yourself with terms like “seedbed” and “fishwife.” Or, if you’re short on time, below are a list of nuggets I found worth posting on the wall:

1. No proposition astounds me, no belief offends me, however much opposed it may be to my own.

Montaigne instructs us to move toward those who contradict us, as that is what leads to learning and truth. We don’t want to surround ourselves with a bunch of sycophants (“a bland and harmful pleasure to have people who admire and defer to us,” he says), but people who will constantly challenge our opinions. This sounds like obvious advice, but founders often suffer from the need to be the smartest in the room and, at least subconsciously, get misguided pleasure from having people kowtow to their ideas. As Montaigne points out, the enlightened leader finds more pleasure in having his or her mind changed by a strong conversational opponent rather than by winning a battle over a doormat.

2. I can go on peacefully arguing all day if the debate is conducted with due order.

Having a good process for debate makes it a thoroughly satisfying and productive activity, and allows the best outcome to emerge. When done well, it does not matter where ideas come from, but that the right outcome is achieved. If done poorly, defensiveness spins out of control, and people will cling to their ideas like a life raft.

Most entrepreneurs are skeptical of authority and ruggedly pursue our own path in the world. As a kid, I was kicked out of classrooms, baseball games and camps. I even got kicked out of tennis matches when I was a ballboy. I couldn’t accept that there were people who could control my fate. This gave me drive, but also gave me a ton of baggage in the boardroom when it came to pushing my ideas through.

To combat these issues, I had to set up core values for the company like “seek first to understand, then be understood,” and repeat mantras in my head to control my defensiveness and avoid imagining people disintegrating a la Star Trek. Mantras like: “Don’t take it personally,” “Repeat back what they said so they know you understand,” and “Don’t imagine people disintegrating.”

3. Better to learn to talk in a tavern than our university yapshops.

In this passage, Montaigne takes on academics who wax on at length using flowery language, but have no life experience to back it up. They can repeat Aristotle verbatim, but don’t have true understanding and hide behind their big, flowery words. The takeaway here is to shed buzzwords, speak truthfully and admit when you don’t know something.

I was not immune to the allure of jargon. It sneaks up on you, and before you know it you’re a “disruptive, gamified cloud-marketiled (made up) destination for mobile users.” Keep language simple, but real. Truth wins out, and builds more respect from your colleagues.

And how awesome is “yapshop”?

4. The gravity, academic robes and rank of the one who is speaking often lend credence to arguments which are vain and silly.

 I recently advised a CEO who had spent nine months working with a Sales VP recommended by the company’s lead investor. The CEO—awed by the lead investor’s status—failed to act on initial concerns that the VP was a bad fit. The result was disastrous for the company. The VP ran with a playbook that wasn’t right for the category and caused the startup to lose early customers and not gain new ones. Just because someone was successful in their prior career doesn’t mean they necessarily know what’s best for your business. Listen, consider and take the best path forward.

Side note from my consulting days: also beware of English accents. My smooth-talking English colleagues could persuade a pharma company to enter the sock-darning business before they realized what was going on.

5. Most people are rich with other’s abilities.

Or, as Stewie on Family Guy once said: “(My Myspace page has) my favorite songs and movies and things that other people have created but that I use to express my individualism.”

The business world is full of people who regurgitate what they’ve read online or hear at conferences, but don’t have the experience to back up. You may have heard these gems: “You must give away something for free to get customers.” “Retail is completely dead.” “No one would rent out their own house for a night to someone they didn’t know.”  Following these platitudes can lead to a lemming-like approach to business-building and often incorrect assumptions about markets and business models.

Challenge those who speak blindly in universals and avoid the tendency when you see it in yourself. Question why, and dig deeper.

To recap, Montaigne reminds me of a few things I need to be reminded of constantly:

Work with smart, engaging people.

Make it easy for them to question you.

Manage your ego.

Don’t get offended.

Seek truth, not status.

Question everything.

Also, he pushes us to have a good time – laugh when others make fun of your shortcomings, and encourage your team to poke fun at each other during the process. We don’t give enough thanks to the Renaissance for birthing smack-talking. Almost makes up for the invention of the essay.