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Posts Tagged “Peggy Noonan”

In his prophetic post World War I poem The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats writes:

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

There is a Chinese curse that goes something like, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly seem to be living in one of those times. Peggy Noonan called it “big history” in her Saturday Wall Street Journal column.

My friend Jennifer Brown, author of the recent Amazon business best-seller Inclusion, relates a conversation she overheard last week that got me thinking about the special challenges to entrepreneurial health in a time of severe societal polarization and instability.

Jennifer reports hearing a Starbucks barista sharing about how thoroughly sick she was of the incivility of current political discourse and that she had come to a conscious decision: The minute she logged onto Facebook and saw a single political post, she would immediately log off.

I know how she feels. The political trope of our time has never been so fraught nor the urge to disengage more alluring. Everything is overly charged. It seems folks are bloody exhausted, yet endlessly drawn back into the emotional vortex of the pure drama of a seeming manichaean struggle. (Manichaeism, if unknown to you, is an early Christian heresy that divided the world into absolutes–pure back and white, pure right or wrong–a dualism with little middle way.)

This dominant current meme is reinforced by a report I heard mentioned on NPR recently, which cited a poll from somewhere that over 40% of couples who supported different candidates in the US presidential election ended up breaking up over their differences. Wow! So much for the golden example of James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democratic and Republican strategists respectively, who seem to live a very happy domestic existence despite their political disparity.

There is an almost addictive quality to the dramatic distortion so apparent in our present political moment. It can be all-consuming to the detriment of the focused passion essential to entrepreneurial success. Much like any addiction, our exciting and disturbing political moment allows us to avoid and skirt the very real challenges posed by our essential businesses and personal lives. It is just so much easier to fling ourselves into the exciting societal/political drama than to face the quotidian challenges of everyday life and business. It’s like embracing an escapist sugar high.

This is not to say that political passion and idealism of any stripe are not necessary and wonderful. I respect idealism, of course. Most successful entrepreneurs are idealists. How else do they summon the indispensable courage to attempt to create something out of nothing each day? It is an act of artistic faith, as well as of personal will.

There is an intuitive wisdom in the decision of the young barista mentioned above who chooses to cut off any further political discourse rather than get caught up in ad hominem manichaean disputation. It is sometimes necessary to disengage temporarily. It may well be a healthful disengagement from present polarities to maintain a practical and mindful center. There is no shame in keeping your attention on the main business chance.

Successful entrepreneurs are nothing if not practical people. They are risk-takers but not reckless adventurers. They may live on the cutting edge, but not without shrewd calculation. To maintain that focus this may be a time for the withdrawal from the tropes of the popular meme. It may be a time of making choices as to where to place limited personal energy. Just as it is good to stay clear of individuals who are energy sucks, so is it also sometimes necessary to resist the lemming-like madness of societal drama.

Entrepreneurial practicality militates a functional utile, a nuanced understanding that truth exists in the gray non-absolutes, not in the blacks and whites of political purity. It is important to recognize a bone-deep weariness that can sap creative and functional business energy.

So, this is not a time of tolerance and the truth of “the gray.” But we do not need to surrender to distracting, uncentering angry absolutes.

As Carl Jung warns us, “We all feel the opposite of our own highest principle must be purely destructive, deadly, and evil. We refuse to endow it with any positive life force; hence we avoid and fear it.” Thanks, Carl.

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Dinner for TwoPoliteness, courtesy, niceness, manners. I find these qualities missing in many aspects of contemporary business. People increasingly just don’t see the need to bother with this stuff.

I was reminded of this as I re-read a fine, still-zeitgeist-attuned article by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal from several years ago titled, We Pay Them To Be Rude To Us. Ms. Noonan states, “American culture is, one way or another, business culture and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy.”

Noonan says the social implications of this are making us confused and crazy. “We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn’t pretty.” She describes a revolution in manners. “We tore [manners] down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore.”

We live in a world that is increasingly disrupted, inchoate, and hurried. The idea of manners may seem quaintly arcane and vestigial in our rushed and changing world. But I actually find simple manners more needed than ever in such an atmosphere. We need them just as we need road signs. They are practical guides for daily business, not prissy, artificial affects of a dead past. Formal manners are a business skill and one we de-emphasize to our detriment.

PeggyWhen I was a young actor (mostly unemployed) many years ago, before I became an accidental entrepreneur, I often supported myself as a catering waiter for high-society in New York. I worked mostly for a company called Glorious Food, the most elegant caterer then around.

Glorious Food parties were run by a very traditional and exacting maitre d’ named Serge. Serge was an old-school martinet who was about doing everything with precise properness. Training to become a waiter for Glorious Food involved a long seminar where you were trained how to set a traditional table, fold napkins, correctly serve, etc. Basically, I thought this was a bunch of hooey.

But one day I found myself sitting next to the daunting Serge and got to talking to him about why we did all this minutia so precisely. He quite cogently explained to me that, as silly or unnecessary as it might seem to an American (slight disdain with a French accent), there were very good and practically efficacious reasons for why the dessert spoon is placed over the dessert fork, or why the white and red wine and water glasses were in a specific configuration. Basically it made things easier for the server and the servee. It was not arbitrary or phony. It was well thought out and imminently practical.

RalphThere is a reason for manners and courtesy and it is not just to be nice. The purpose of manners is to give us a practical structure to deal with each other. It is not bullshit. It is the glue of civilization and a utilitarian road map for dealing in everyday business. Manners and polite address are not superficial. They are essential. The importance of plain manners is often not taught or explained with any depth. Too bad. It is an important tool increasingly missing in the modern entrepreneur’s repertoire.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay “Behavior” from The Conduct of Life (1860), “Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke of genius or of love, now repeated and hardened into usage.” Thanks, Ralph.

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mike-nicholsMike Nichols, the great director and eclectic film and theater wise man, died of a heart attack on November 19, 2014. Among other qualities, Nichols was notably a humble man. I always liked him.

I was an actor earlier in my life and, though I never worked with Mike Nichols, I wrote him once about a little off-Broadway piece he was doing in 1978 at the Public Theater called Drinks Before Dinner. He sent me back a very sweet hand-written note thanking me for sharing my thoughts and telling me his reason for doing the play. Despite his accomplishments he was a man of existential humility and sincerity, open to all things and all people, far from the grandiosity others might have succumbed to in his place.

Nichols’ genuine humility was a gift. It was a useful quality that buttressed his theatrical artistry. The same trait should be cultivated as a base skill by all of us entrepreneurs. After all, the entrepreneurial vocation is not so very different from the artist’s.

Jonah Lehrer wrote an essay on the quality of humility in the Wall Street Journal several years ago, titled “The Power Trip,” on what psychologists call “the paradox of power.” (WSJ, 8/14/10) He made the point that often the very traits that helped leaders rise to power or success disappear when they ascend. Lehrer says, “Instead of continuing to be polite, honest, and outgoing, they often become impulsive, reckless and rude.”peggy_noonan_x200

People with power may become subject to hubristic overreach and Icarus-like arrogance. Lehrer quotes extensively from University of California at Berkeley psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner‘s scientific findings from studies of power and success. Dr. Kelter states, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, stating that people with great power tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area essential for empathy and decision-making.

An entrepreneur is a person of power, if only in her very small pond. And, as such, is subject to the unbalancing lures that can come with power.

Peggy Noonan wrote an exceptionally lovely encomium to Mike Nichols last week in the WSJ. (Saturday, Nov. 29. 1014, A-13) Commenting on Nichols humility, Noonan said the following: “[Nichols] once told me he didn’t direct movies, he cast them. In a way it was a line and a typically modest one–it wasn’t him, it was them–but it also wasn’t. He was saying he picks actors who have the quality and depth to do what he wants, and he trusts them to do what he wants, and he trusts them to come through. That is a great thing, when an artist trusts his paint.”

John_Goodman_2011_(cropped)And so should the entrepreneur trust his paint. The growing trend of “empathetic management” is increasingly recognizing this point. By trusting your paint (your associates and employees) you nourish a sense of ownership, a sense of communal responsibility, and, ideally, activate a veritable army of mini-CEOs and innovators to work in harness with you.

Actor John Goodman said this about Mike Nichols as a director: “He made me feel as if I was a full partner or co-conspirator in finding clues to solve the puzzle.” Creating such an attitude, such a trope in a corporate community would surely be a triumph of empathetic leadership for any entrepreneur. So thank you John Goodman. And thank you Mike Nichols.

Comments 16 Comments »

Politeness, courtesy, niceness, manners. These are qualities I find increasingly missing in sales and most other aspects of business. People increasingly just don’t see the need to bother with this stuff.

I was reminded of this as I read Peggy Noonan’s fine, zeitgeist attuned article in the WSJ last Saturday titled, “We Pay Them To Be Rude To Us“. Ms. Noonan states,  “American culture is, one way or another, business culture and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy.” She says the social implications of this are making us confused and crazy. “We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn’t pretty.” She describes a revolution in manners. “We tore [manners] down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore.”

When I was a young actor (mostly unemployed) many years ago, before I became an accidental entrepreneur, I often supported myself as a catering waiter for high-society in New York. I worked mostly for a company called Glorious Food, the most elegant caterer then around.

Glorious Food parties were run by a very traditional and exacting maître d’ named Serge. Serge was an old school martinet who was about doing everything with precise properness. Training to become a waiter for Glorious Food involved a long seminar where you were trained how to set a traditional table, fold napkins, correctly serve, etc. Basically, I thought this was a bunch of hooey.

But one day I found myself sitting next to the daunting Serge and got to talking to him about why we did all this minutia so precisely. He quite cogently explained to me that, as silly or unnecessary as it might seem to an American (slight disdain with a French accent), there were very good and practically efficacious reasons for why the dessert spoon is placed over the desert fork, or why the white and red wine and water glasses were in a specific configuration. Basically it made things easier for the server and the servee. It was not arbitrary or phony. It was well thought out and imminently practical.

There is a reason for manners and courtesy and it is not just to be nice. The purpose of manners is to give us a practical structure to deal with each other. It is not bullshit. It is the glue of civilization and the utilitarian road map for dealing in everyday business. Manners and polite address are not superficial. They are essential. The importance of plain good manners is increasingly not taught or explained with any depth. Too bad. It is an important tool increasingly missing in the modern salesman’s repertoire.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his essay “Behavior” from The Conduct of Life (1860), “Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke of genius or of love, now repeated and hardened into usage.” Thanks, Ralph.

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I watched President Obama’s Oval Office speech on June 15 concerning the eternally gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. And it reminded me of my long-held instinct about the importance of stillness to the salesman.

My feeling about this is a close corollary to my blogs on Silence (March 2, 2010) and Simplicity (November 24, 2009 & December 1, 2009). But the value of stillness is one more of drama than of essence.

President Obama’s speech, in addition to being vague and confusingly convoluted, was uncomfortably twitchy, physically frenetic. It was an uneasy and distracting thing for me to watch. How ’bout you?

In the Wall Street Journal of June 19, 2010 Peggy Noonan describes the speech thusly:

“Throughout the speech the president gestured showily, distractingly, with his hands. Politicians do this now because they’re told by media specialists that it helps them look natural. They don’t look natural, they look like Ann Bancroft gesticulating to Patty Duke in ‘The Miracle Worker.'”

When dealing with a catastrophe, people want assurance about the immediate crisis, not a hypothetically global analysis of the environment.  One way a good salesman–and Obama was a salesman for his administration last Wednesday evening–assures a client is by not over-doing it. A good salesman abjures excess fussiness and flummery. He gets to the point with cleanness and clarity. If you try to sell everything you sell nothing.

One technical example of this is Ms. Noonan’s apt description above of Obama’s excessive use of his hands. It seemed like every other word was emphasized with a hand chop. If every phrase is so emphasized, there is only a distracting mannerism with no meaning. It vitiates everything. More is not better.

Better is to say less and say the important things with a still simplicity, especially when trying to make your client feel secure. For the salesman it’s ideal to say what’s important and then be still.  Stillness does not mean a deenergized inertia. It means a focused, quiet, rooted presence. Effective stillness comes when you are secure. It is the ideal completion of the dramatic arc of the sale.

Mark Twain once said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” Thanks, Mark.

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