Daniel Pink and the magic chopsticks

Have I mentioned lately that I’m a fan of Daniel Pink, bestselling author (A Whole New Mind and Free Agent Nation), public speaker, and all around smart guy? His latest foray into writing is not a book in the usual sense, rather it’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, which is created in the popular Japanese manga mode—a comic book for adults sort of thing. Pink has attached “the last career guide you’ll ever need” to the title and, in fact, he could be right. You can watch the trailer here.

johnny-bunko-book1I met Dan in December 2007 when he spoke to a large group of company managers. His message, that if we want to attract and retain a new generation of employees we’ll have to think more like they do and less like we do, resonated with me.

But what really intrigued me was on his MacBook: the not-yet-printed version of Johnny Bunko. I think I said something like, “Pink, this is either going to be a major success or a huge flop.” He looked at me and said, “Yes, you’re right.”

Turns out, it’s a success! It’s also pretty cool career guide that challenges conventional wisdom, puts Marcus Buckingham’s “strengths movement” in a useful context, and pokes fun at itself along the way.

Johnny, it seems, is a pretty typical guy who is trapped in a job that requires him to do what he doesn’t like to do or isn’t good at doing—not unlike many of us. Through a strange set of happenings, he’s introduced to Diana who magically shows up to help him anytime he snaps some chopsticks apart. (Yeah, it’s a bit out there, but stick with it.) From Diana, he learns six “lessons” that will help him redirect his career, life and fortune.

The six lessons Johnny learns are not your usual career advice–at least the kind you got from the parents. The first, for example, suggests that it’s not possible to create some sort of “master plan” to get us from here to there–there are just too many variables. This will certainly provoke some lively dinner table discussion. But the broader message in the book is that when we do things that intrinsically motivate us, we’re happier, more successful and make a more meaningful contribution in the world.

Good advice, Daniel Pink!

The gem inside

Diamond with Clipping PathWe were told during a pre-boarding announcement that the flight from Atlanta to Denver would be completely full, a fact born out a few minutes later as fellow passengers crammed the aisles and moved slowly to their seats.

Traveling used to be fun but, today, it’s not. At times I wish for the appearance of Star Trek’s transporter technology or, at least, to borrow Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak–if for no other reason than to get between here and there with as little fanfare as possible. But today I decided to embrace the experience in a different way.

I made a point of looking at each person as he or she boarded the plane, watching their eyes, their smiles and frowns, their clothes, the ways they moved. And, I thought of something positive about each one of them.

The lady with the small child seemed like a caring mother. The businessman in a dark suit carrying a large briefcase was self-assured as he barked on his cell phone. The older man with a calm demeanor and stooped shoulders had, without doubt, traveled many miles in his life. The dangling earring on a young girl bounced as she held her doll close, protecting it from unspecified, but sure to materialize, harm; she’ll make a good mother, I thought. A muscular guy with a tattoo on his leg told his younger sister to keep moving toward the back of the plane, assuring her that she’d be at her seat very soon. The fear in a teenager’s eyes probably told the story of his first plane flight; I imagined him courageous. Another woman smirked at the flight attendant as she was told that her carry-on was too large for the overhead bin; it did fit after all.

Each person had a story to tell or to keep quietly inside. One passenger, a woman in her late 40s or so, asked a tall, gangly 30-something if he was a runner. “No,” he answered, “I’m a dance instructor.”

“Well, I’m running a marathon next year,” she said, “and I was wondering if you had any tips.” He didn’t. “So that’s what a dance instructor looks like,” I thought.

It reminded me that judging books by their covers and people by their appearance is hardly foolproof and mostly inaccurate.

I don’t know that people were better off for my thinking good about them, though I’ve often thought that good thoughts have power. I know, however, that I am better for it, if only to remind myself that there’s a gem inside each person, if we only have the desire to look for it.

Giving an “A”

Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander is, among other things, a noted interpreter of composer Gustav Mahler. But it’s his book, The Art of Possibility, that has had my attention the past few weeks. Zander and his wife Rosamund have collaborated to produce a manuscript that not only encourages the heart but inspires the soul to help others find their place, their gifts, and their talents in a way that the world doesn’t always let us do.

art-of-possibilityThe chapter “Giving an A” makes a convincing case that life is less about getting high marks and comparing ourselves with others, and more about helping others be successful. (The “giving an A” concept is also attributed to Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, by the way.)

Zander explains that his 30 graduate students at the New England Conservatory are charged, over a two semester course in musical performance, to learn the psychological and emotional factors that stand in the way of great music-making. As great musicians know, musical accuracy and precision are one of the hallmarks of great performances. But, more so, is musical interpretation—connecting with music on an almost spiritual level, finding the deep-seated meanings in the notes and phrases and executing them with passion.

Zander believes that the quest for accuracy often trumps the search for passion. So, he takes the accuracy requirement off the table telling students that they already have an “A” in the class. They are free to explore the composer’s works and soulfully decode the music for themselves. In turn, he tells them to place themselves in the future, look back, and report all the insights they gained in a letter to him, written as if the end of the second semester was behind them. “Dear Mr. Zander,” the letter is to begin, “I got my A because…”

The dozen or so letters he shares in the book are jewels of self-discovery. They are testaments to the importance of shedding judgment and grades and taking on the mantle of writing our own future, devoid of the expectation of always playing the right notes and never making mistakes. “All songs are beautiful,” Zander might say, “just let us hear you, let us hear yours!”

Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is the last completed before his death. It’s one of Mahler’s most musically challenging but also one of the most uplifting as it chronicles the composer’s life of triumph and tragedy.

It’s a test of technique, but mostly of interpretation and expression. It’s a little deep, a little dark, but also elevating as it shows how passion makes the best performance—in music, with family, at work, wherever.

If you already had an “A” in any subject in life, how would that change your performance? And, if you were to help people get “A’s,” how could it change their lives?

Wisdom in unlikely places

The Kleenex and toilet paper aisle of the local grocery store is an unlikely place to find inspiration or words of wisdom. Turns out it can provide both.

I wasn’t really paying much attention to choosing paper towels last time I went shopping. To be honest, I’m always bewildered at the choices; finding the best bargain is usually my goal. And I don’t pay much attention to the colored patterns that are intended, no doubt, to make the more expensive packages more attractive.

papertowelSo, last night, when I tore a towel off the roll, I was somewhat surprised to find the words “We Gather with Thankful Hearts” printed across the sheet.

I’ve always believed that appreciating what we have today, however great or small, is the basis of sustained happiness. The opposite—always seeking more, focusing on what we don’t have and that our neighbor does—can lead to discouragement and perhaps depression.

But the idea of “gathering” with others and appreciating what we have together struck me as an interesting concept. What if giving collective thanks is a catalyst for calm, appreciation and care? What if it would create a community that sustains itself by truly valuing what we have now, rather than what we hope to have tomorrow?

One can only imagine, I suppose. But one thing seems true: If we’re present in the moment, we’re enjoying what we have now.

Your song for world peace

Sitting quietly and almost hidden in composer and conductor John Williams’ immense body of orchestral work is a gentle, but insistent, almost five minute composition called “Song for World Peace.” It’s part of his “American Journey” album.

The idea that earth’s seven billion inhabitants could live together without strife is a concept almost too large to comprehend.

But, Williams’ musical development of “Song for World Peace” is a metaphor, of sorts, of how peace might come to our planet. French horns introduce a simple theme that is echoed by flutes, later by clarinets, then strings and the entire orchestra. But, slowly, the theme dies out and falters.

Williams then begins a new, but complementary, theme. Again, it begins somewhat tentatively, but it grows much richer and more confident, bringing an affirmation that peace may, in fact, be possible.

World peace would imply that individuals are at peace, too, meaning that the tiny moments of impatience and the bigger moments of personal anger would not exist either. The sometimes strong desire to honk at the slow driver and harsh words would yield to love and compassion. It is a tall order.

Which raises the question: Would I be ready for world peace if it should break out? And, even more important, how am I waging peace in my life? What are my individual peace efforts?

Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis provides her own practical example. “I want to use my 100th birthday to help young people launch some immediate initiatives,” she said, “—things that they can do during the summer of 2007—that will bring new thinking to the prospects of peace in the world” You can learn about her work here. It was such a successful effort that 100 Projects for Peace continues in 2008.

“My many years have taught me that there will always be conflict. It’s part of human nature,” Davis wrote. “But I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature. My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war.”

How do you prepare for peace?