Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wisdom of Mark Twain

Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). He was an author, lecturer, humorist, philosopher, social commentator, and cat lover.

Here are some pearls of his wisdom that strike me as having lasting relevance.

On being our best selves:
  • In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.
  • A statesman gains little by the arbitrary exercise of ironclad authority upon all occasions that offer, for this wounds the just pride of his subordinates, and thus tends to undermine his strength. A little concession, now and then, where it can do no harm is the wiser policy.
  • The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.
  • The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few is to be found in their perseverance under the promptings of a brave, determined spirit.
On Success:
  • Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.
  • Success is a journey, not a destination. It requires constant effort, vigilance and re-evaluation.
  • The secret of success is making your vocation your vacation.
  • Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.
On Courage:
  • Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave.
  • It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.

On Vision:
  • You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
  • Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.
 On Risking:
  • The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
  • Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
 On Ethics:
  • Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
  • I am different from [George] Washington; I have a higher, grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won't.
 On Communication:
  • The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
  • It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
  • If you have nothing to say, say nothing.
On Cats:

  • A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime.
  • If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.
  • If animals could speak the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow, but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.
  • One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.
    (Picture by S.B. Durkee:

    Monday, April 19, 2010

    Advice for riding a dead horse

    These are unprecedented times. It has simply never been this way before. Our world had never been more interconnected and interdependent.

    To be successful, leaders need to deal with high levels of complexity and situations loaded with abstraction, diversity, ambiguity and paradox. Our familiar mental models do not equip us for this. Our mental models are based on short-term, straight-line ideas of cause and effect.

    As we focus on lasting change in groups, organizations and the community, success only comes through using processes that:
    • focus on working with all the parts as a single system,
    • accept that solutions emerge as situations unfold, and
    • involve the people concerned in developing the solutions.
    But we know that getting to the place where we can abandon our familiar mental models can be a long and difficult struggle.

    And some folks will never get there.

    So for the folks who would prefer to stick with the familiar straight-line models to deal with increasingly complex situations, here’s some time-tested advice on how to ride a dead horse.

    Dakota tribal wisdom says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. Some of us, however, try other strategies with dead horses, including:
    • Buying a bigger, stronger whip.
    • Appointing a committee to study the horse.
    • Arranging to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.
    • Comparing the state of dead horses in today's environment.
    • Change the requirements declaring that “This horse is not dead.”
    • Hire contractors to ride the dead horse.
    • Harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed. 
    If you have other strategies for riding dead horses, please post as comments. Or if you are convinced that you can still get some mileage from a dead horse, tell us how that is working for you.

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    For every complex problem there is always an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

    There’s my favorite H. L. Mencken quote again. The truth of those few words keeps coming up over and over again in my life.

    David Brooks’ column in the New York Times on Friday, April 9, 2010, talks about two kinds of organizational leaders:
    • Those who believe that there is a clear, simple solution for every complex problem and confidently drive their organizations based on belief in themselves and those solutions.
    • Those that understand that complex problems do not have clear, simple solutions and are much more humble in the way they lead.
    Brooks references Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great” and “How the Mighty Have Fallen.” Collins celebrates reliably successful leaders who combine “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”

    Brooks provides a wonderful description of an organizational leader who can be successful in today highly complex environments:

    She believes we only progress through a series of regulated errors. Every move is a partial failure, to be corrected by the next one. Even walking involves shifting your weight off-balance and then compensating with the next step.
    She knows the world is too complex and irregular to be known, so life is about navigating uncertainty. She understands she is too quick to grasp at pseudo-objective models and confident projections that give the illusion of control. She has to remember George Eliot’s image — that life is like playing chess with chessmen who each have thoughts and feelings and motives of their own. It is complex beyond reckoning.
    She spends more time seeing than analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously.
    Anybody can analyze, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but crucial elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information field around them. This sort of understanding also takes patience. As the Japanese say, don’t just study a topic. Get used to it. Live in it for a while.
    Because of her limitations, she tries to construct thinking teams. In one study, groups and individuals were given a complicated card game called the Wason selection task. Seventy-five percent of the groups solved it, but only 14 percent of individuals did.
    She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings.
    How many organizational leaders do you know who match this description? I want to see many more of them and that is what my work with New Possibilities Associates is about.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    The Starfish Story Revised

    How do we change our neighborhoods, communities, nations and world? This  story has been told countless times by speakers trying to inspire individual action in the face of monumental tasks.

    The Starfish Story 
    While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.  
    As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.  
    He came closer still and called out, "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

    The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."
    The old man smiled, and said, "I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"

    To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

    Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

    The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, "It made a difference for that one." 
    This has been circulated in many versions, usually with no mention of author. It is said to be paraphrased from "The Star Thrower" by Loren Eiseley, 1907 - 1977.
    I have always found this story slightly disturbing. I am uncomfortable with the conclusion some people draw for the story that saving one is enough.

    It reminds me of a remark that I have heard many times through the course of my career made by someone justifying an expensive, but not very effective social program: “If we only helped one [baby, child, mother, family, community, patient, client, etc.], it will have been worth it.”

    I always wanted to ask the name of the one that had been helped and go talk to them, but I never did.

    My mind goes to the question, “How can we clear the starfish off beach and back into the water twice a day, every day?”

    Here is another version of the Starfish Story where that happens.

    The Starfish Story Revised
    One summer's day a little girl was walking on a long, winding beach. She came across a starfish that had been washed ashore and was now wriggling and drying up quickly in the hot sun. She reached down, gently picked up the starfish by one of its five points, and tossed it back to the sea. The little girl smiled and continued walking along the beach. But after a few steps, she found another starfish. It too was dying in the sun. No sooner had she tossed this one back when she came across another starfish. And then another one. She tossed each one back.

    She reached the top of a dune and came to a sudden stop. What she saw below startled and amazed her. Stretching out in front of her were hundreds upon hundreds- possibly thousands upon thousands -of dying starfish washed up on the beach. Suddenly, she exploded into action and to toss as many starfish as possible, one by one, back to the sea.

    She was so busy tossing back the starfish, that she never noticed that a person had stopped to watch her. Soon a whole crowd had gathered. They were all pointing at the little girl and laughing. "That little girl's crazy," said one. "I know," said another, "doesn't she know that every summer thousands of starfish get washed up on the beach and die? It's just the way things are." "There are so many starfish. She couldn't possibly make a difference."

    The little girl was still too busy tossing back starfish to notice them. Finally, one man decided he had seen enough. He walked over to the little girl. "Little girl," he said, "there are thousands of starfish washed up on the beach, you can't possibly hope to make a difference. Why don't you give up and go play on the beach with the other children?" The little girl's smile suddenly vanished. She saw the crowd of people for the first time, and realized they had all been laughing at her. Now they had fallen silent, awaiting her answer to the man's question.

    She was hot. She was tired and close to tears. She began to think that maybe he was right- maybe they were all right. She had been tossing back starfish for what seemed like hours, and a carpet of starfish still covered the beach. How could she have possibly thought she could make a difference? Her arms fell limp at her sides, and the starfish she was holding fell back to the hot sand. She started to walk away.

    Suddenly she stopped, turned around, reached back down and picked up the starfish she had dropped. She swung back her arm and tossed the starfish as far as she possibly could. When it landed with a plop, she turned to her questioner, and with a huge smile on her face she said: "I made a difference to that one!"
    Inspired, a little boy emerged from the crowd, picked up a starfish and sent it soaring back to the sea. "And I made a difference to that one!" he said. One by one every member of the crowd joined in sending drying starfish back to the sea, calling "I made a difference to that one" with each toss. 
    Soon the voices began to quiet down, and the little girl wondered if people were getting tired or discouraged. And then she looked across the beach and what she saw startled and amazed her: All the starfish were gone.
    There—that feels a lot better.

    We are called to realize that if anything is going to be saved, it will take many of us working together. We can’t save one, we can only save all.

    And that all of our intentions and actions send out ripples that affect the world in ways we cannot know in advance and may never know.