In which I follow up last month’s post by asking the question: Where’s Yours?
As I introduced in September with Say the Change, I include here four shorter posts recently published on LinkedIn and a sneak preview of a fifth entry that headlines the lot.
Where’s Your Chalk? (23 October 2023)
When the land mass we now think of as the British Isles finally pulled away from the continent, civilization was shown in plain sight how it might expressively tell itself about itself. 8,000 years later, what have we made of that innovation in communication?
There was no such thing as sidewalk chalk when I was a kid, at least not any I could get my hands on. To draw larger-than-life pictures, play 4-square, or outline a hopscotch pitch, we scrounged broken sheetrock from construction scrap heaps or, if we were lucky, dug up pointy rocks containing calcite. It seems the earth is keen on our publishing a record of our comings and goings.
During the Cold War, spies signaled their intentions by leaving a modifiable chalk mark on a designated brick wall. In The Sting, the information chalked up and erased on a public racing grid was the key to the long con. Were there today a Book of Public Chalk, it would display any number of transient figures marking forward progress and rearward backsliding, all the while accommodating erasure and improvement over time.
Following are just a few of the items such a book might contain.
- Top Line – this is the chalk mark we brag about as it tells us about our market share vis-a-vis our competitors. What it doesn’t tell us is how much of that revenue (turnover) we get to keep.
- Bottom Line – In its simplest form, this is the difference between the Top Line and the cost of running the enterprise. Raised by increasing the Top Line, lowered by reducing costs, or both, The Bottom Line can also chalk up a story about the social impact of mission-based concerns.
- Cost Savings – Always relative to some antecedent, this chalk mark can be deceiving or deliberately fudged. While easy enough to save to the point of starvation or conflate them with cost avoidance, savings can be computed in a number of ways. The first night an AI system I once championed found a way to save a large company $50 million. But in an environment that immediately ripped published savings from a department’s future budget, the confessed benefits of the system were devalued to match only the fifty thousand dollars it cost to build the AI.
- Cost Avoidance – We’re into iffy territory when we chalk up what we might have spent before choosing an alternative path. When this happens, I usually tell the one about the boy chasing a bus down a city street, confronted by his father pulling alongside him to find out what’s going on. “I’m running alongside that bus to save $1.60.” To which his father replies, “Son, if cost avoidance is your goal, you might as well run alongside that taxi and save a fortune.”
What do we do with our chalk? And how often do we use it?
I went to business school so long ago that my professors defined organizational roles by the frequency of their chalk marks. Worker bees turned in a weekly status; their managers summarized those reports monthly; directors were measured against quarterly objectives. Further up the chain of command, senior executives were held to account for annual results, while CEOs had the luxury of fretting over an entire decade. (In rare but inspiring cases, boards of directors actually took a quarter-century view of shareholder and community interests.) These days, however, the chalk seems to fly moment by moment, creating at times a kind of powdery air pollution that insinuates its way into all aspects of our lives.
But what if we allowed ourselves occasionally to set aside the accounts we make of our professional actions long enough to consider a more intimate question?
If you were your own person state—and I’m here to say that is exactly how you must view yourself when it comes to the chalk marks that truly matter—where kind of lines would you draw?
Would they form numbers? Make letters? Take on visual shapes? Mix into bouquets of color?
In what ways might they trace progress—or choose not to—against constant or erasable goals? How will time flow between chalk marks? Daily? Weekly? Yearly? Lifely?
Or will a world supply of pen and ink stay buried beneath the white cliffs of Dover?
Where’s Your Chalk? And what are you doing with it?
Where’s Your Clock? (16 October 2023)
Most of us would find it fun but stressful to stroll on a Santa Barbara beach one day and a Lake Lugano shorewalk the next. What we might not realize is that abiding in multiple time zones simultaneously is something we do all the time. Wanna reset your future? Put a clock with an eidetic memory on your past.
Last night, I happened upon a feature-length news story that ended with the following summation. It’s a little long, but you’ll understand the Why when I tell you about the When.
The ties of party actually became closer than kinsmen, because partisans were readier to throw themselves into adventure at a moment’s notice, and the associations in question were formed, not to secure the benefits of established institutions, but to gain illegitimate advantages by violating them. Complicity in crime was a more effective sanction for loyalty to engagements than a solemn oath. A fair offer from opponents was received as a signal for practical precautions by the dominant party of the moment, instead of evoking any generous response. The exaction of reprisals was valued more highly than an immunity from wrongs demanding them. The rare covenants of reconciliation were only entered into on either side as a momentary last resort and only observed so long as no alternative resource presented itself. Anyone who spied a weak spot in his adversary’s armor and had the nerve to seize his opportunity took more satisfaction in obtaining his revenge by treachery than in obtaining it in fair fight, the dominating considerations being the elimination of risk and the added halo of intellectual brilliance investing the triumphs of perfidy.
The story was written not 24 hours but 2400 years ago by a fellow named Thucydides. Compared to Herodutus, his better-known contemporary, Thucydides sought to write about the past in ways he was certain would inform the future. A century and a half later, his fellow Greek Hippocrates practiced medicine in the same vein by encouraging his students to exploit the direction of time’s arrow to the advantage of each patient. His treatment derived from three interlinked temporal perspectives:
- Declare the Past
- Diagnose the Present
- Foretell the Future
Its not just our medical history and current state that shape our future. It’s everything, really. That butterfly wing of a grade we got in high school set us either on a smooth college wind or a tempestuous do-over. The childlike attitude that good enough wasn’t and its teen-age capitulation that it really was shaped our present attitudes about work and leisure. How we feel this very moment persists into this very moment; and this one; and the next.
John LeCarre said it best.
“The future was made yesterday, you see. To ignore history is to ignore the wolf at the door.”
But just how well do we know our past?
Almost a year ago, I committed to emulate Ray Bradbury’s iron-clad habit of cranking out a short story every week by writing 52 personal essays about my past over the next 52 weeks. 49 weeks and 49 essays later, I can say with authority that I have never learned more about myself than when spilling my life across a blank screen or sheet of paper.
Wanna reset your future? Put a clock with an eidetic memory on your past.
While writing about my early twenties, I recalled as if yesterday world champion driver Jackie Stewart puttering around my Swiss village in one of his Grand Prix-winning roadsters. That image called up Stewart’s description of how world-class racing puts a clock on split-second action, slowing it to the point his bone, wit, and gut performed a dozen intricate maneuvers rounding a hair-pin turn at 200 miles per hour. 10,000 hours of practice later, time is honor bound to stand still on demand.
Early in my career, I was fortunate to be mentored by Nicholas Vitalari, who, knowing my propensity to dream more prodigiously than I performed, put a clock on my future. We worked at an international think tank paid to conceive and then bring about the next big thing. One month in, I had come up with so many brilliant ideas that on a mobile planning session along a Santa Monica shoreline, Nick lowered the boom on my prolific imagination as gently as anyone has before or since.
“These ideas of yours … Your mind is like a well, one bucketful after another. I think it’s time we turned up the productivity a few notches, don’t you?”
“You want more ideas?” I did not say.
“Let’s make a performance pact between the two of us. We won’t write it down; no one else has to know about it.”
“Whenever either of us comes up with something we think has legs, we immediately pounce, then and there, and with a single metric: If we don’t in one week’s time put at least the outline of a leg under it, we are not allowed to mention it again. Fair enough?”
How else to put a clock on the future?
After learning that a tachyon particle can, theoretically at least, round a curve in Monte Carlo faster than light, it occurred to me that should a tachyon clock ever be invented—don’t tell Nick I have not even a toe to put under this one—it could foretell the future from the When I’m currently standing on. When I think of such a clock, I remember an unwritten story I will now give legs called The Last D’Agostino.
A traveler staying the night on the shore of Lake Lugano selects a thin book of poetry from a cabinet in her guestroom to work off some jet lag ahead of an international conference she plans to attend the next day. As she closes the little volume, the light from her reading candle is eclipsed by the appearance of a ghostly figure who introduces himself as Antonio D’Agostino, the poet whose final work she has just discovered.
“Where I now abide, artisans are permitted to witness the last enjoyment of their creations,” he tells her with a blanch of timid pride. “The words you are holding in your hands—the last remaining edition of my life’s work—will turn to ash by morning.”
As the light dims and the ghost disappears, the traveler turns back to the poetry with new eyes as the seed of an idea takes root in her heart. Reading long into the night, she falls asleep before dousing her reading candle, awakening in a panic to find its liquid flame spilling over the poetry, turning it, as D’Agostino predicted, to ash. In the morning, undaunted by the mishap, she blows off the conference, visits the local papeterie, purchases an ornately covered blank book, and settles down lakeside to write out the entire contents of the last D’Agostino.Scott Knell, The Last D’Agostino
This unwritten tale did not need to be written, you see. Time’s gravity pulls us not forward but back. D’Agostino’s little book was never lost, his ghost not allowed to visit a jet-lagged traveler on the cusp of burning it to a crisp. In turn, the traveler never hatched the idea to commit D’Agostino’s poetry to memory, snuffed out her candle before retiring, and eagerly attended the next day’s conference as planned.
If I were The Future and you tried to put a tachyon clock on me, I’d tell you to save your breath.
“Mercilessly declare the past,” I would remind. “Brutally diagnose the future. Without these two clocks, I don’t exist.”
Where’s your clock?
Where’s Your Dock? (9 October 2023)
When confronted by The Other, we are cautioned by conventional wisdom to align common ground as a first step to diffusing tension and minimizing differences. But what of the buried treasure yet unearthed in the uncommon ground we also share?
Years ago, at a time when the Internet serviced fewer than a thousand websites, a couple of us at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, think tank were kicking around the implications of that number one day reaching a million or more.
“What if a tea farm in Cambodia could partner with a global distributor out of New Jersey at the click of a mouse?” I mused.
“With the right interfaces in place, the two could actually dock with one another just like the space shuttle,” added my thinking partner Nicholas Vitalari. “They’d never even have to meet face to face.”
From that conversation sprang the notion of The Capable Enterprise, a prescient if blandly titled white paper I penned on the power of complementary partnership. The model went something like the following.
Say my company followed the conventional wisdom of that era, C. K. Prahalad‘s and Gary Hamel‘s seminal work on core competence, and invested heavily in what we did best while ignoring the weaker bits, the peripheral but necessary stuff that allowed our strengths to shine. But what if, instead of blissfully hoping they’ll improve on their own, I could jettison those weaker bits that might be canceling out my company’s strengths and graft instead in their place a set of world-class capabilities supplied by a would-be partner? The boundaries of the resulting ‘capable enterprise’ would be reconstituted as the complete set of optimized, if not wholly controlled, competencies.
Years later, having watched capable enterprises like the Amazon marketplace redefine how small businesses leveraged their core competencies alongside those of complementary but equal partners, I am tempted to coin another unassuming but, I believe, more powerful term of art: The Capable Individual.
I have previously written that the success of organizations crystal clear about their product lines, proprietary ‘sauce,’ and precise branding can suggest to individuals winning strategies for managing their personal lives. Like such companies, each of us is an amalgamation of core competencies and weaker peripheral attributes that, taken together, define the sum of our individual capabilities. As I have done within large organizations, I sometimes perform a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) on the enterprise I call my ‘personstate,’ i.e., Moi. Then, instead of accepting my weaknesses as necessary evils to be tolerated, glossed over, or written off against a forgetful future, I actually write down where I stand. How else will I know where and with whom I might later ‘dock’ to swap weakness for strength?
Uncommon ground is the most underrated attribute of genuine partnership. Stephen Covey used to say that he didn’t care so much about what he already knew but was eternally fascinated by what others knew that he didn’t. F. Scott Fitzgerald considered it the hallmark of a first-rate intelligence to hold simultaneously two opposed ideas. Fitzgerald borrowed this paradox from Keats whose principle of Negative Capability sought uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts because they invariably led him beyond himself to extrapersonal capabilities like empathy, integrity, and objectivity, whose perspectives he could not manufacture from within.
When Nick and I brainstormed how organizations might dock with one another to produce an enterprise greater than the sum of its parts, we did so within a Rubrik we learned from another member of our team. In describing the value of individual perspective, pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay would say that “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” To extend Alan’s metaphor, how many more points of IQ might I bring to a problem were I to draw from the uncommon ground I share with others? How quicker to break the genius barrier than to add the points of view—not to mention net new strengths—of an additional thinking partner or two? What a simple but exponentially rewarding act it might be to dock my many weaknesses alongside your many strengths in such a way that my weak will eventually give way to your strong.
Where’s your dock?
Where’s Your Lair? (2 October 2023)
There’s no place like home. But is there not as well—in sorrow or joy, despair or exultation—a hideaway that is uniquely our own?
At a used bookstore in Seal Beach, California, I was hunting for a first edition David Grayson when I came in order to an author’s name I could not locate.
Independent booksellers love their literary games, and I next found myself following a fingerpost not to a writer of that name but a backroom lair called Chez Grendel. Chez Grendel is French for Grendel’s Lair, which is English for Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here, which is Trickster for Made ya look! I enjoyed a silent chuckle and tried to take a peak but couldn’t see much for the tie-dye and beads hanging over the ‘cave’s’ entrance.
In the oldest English epic poem we can still get our hands on, Grendel is the monster that roams the impenetrable depths of humanity’s final scrap heap, a seething, damp cavern of creatures and their ghosts (and the bones they disgorge) that come into the light of night only when starved, to carry away livestock and the odd shepherd or lodgeman. That is until Beowulf gets word. Here’s a mosters-r-us warrior’s warrior with a name to make so why not target the trophy growl of the last of the great beasts? (History proved his ambitions correct: No Grendel, no Beowulf.)
The writer’s writer John Gardner makes not the man but the beast the protagonist of his breathtaking retelling. In Grendel, we watch and listen from the monster’s eyes and ears as mother and son are hunted down and slaughtered in turn without mercy. The same instinct that drives the man to kill without thinking ultimately fails the beast, who allows himself an enlightening moment to consider the heart of his enemy that, to his peril, lasts a split second too long. And just like that, there are no more monsters in the world.
For Beowulf, Chez Grendel is Dante’s seventh circle of Hell. But for Gardner, it is the last familial sanctuary for a child born and raised with no alternative but to venture without on pain of death or even extinction. It is the home place. It is safety. It is where everything begins.
Is there a lair in your life?
By lair, I don’t, of course, mean a death pit from which you spew leftover meals and taunts at your enemies. (Although, thanks to Gardner, we certainly have a precedent for that.) I’m talking about a refuge, a zone, a quiet place, a sanctuary, a center from which you gather your many bits, regroup, consolidate, restore, and rejuvenate for what comes next.
For Sherlock Holmes, it was his ‘Mind Palace.’ Victor Frankl burrowed into his inner sanctum where his torturers could take no hold. Lord Byron wrote from the prison bowels of the Chateau de Chillon. Line by line, Longfellow translated Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy at his breakfast table in the minutes it took his teapot to boil each morning. Even ‘the Lamb that was slain,’ encumbered about by bees in his final hours, sought momentary refuge.
I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place. –Psalm 118:5
As children, my brother Roger Knell and I built huts. Our father was an architect, which left us with no end of free interior samples—carpet, paneling, wall coverings, and tile that, while wreaking aesthetic havoc when splattered together against nature, usually in trees but sometimes underground, made for some pretty comfortable escape hatches. But once we learned how to climb a tree to the roof of our home where the eclectic materials clashed less with our manmade surroundings, we began sneaking up instead of around the neighboring woods. The best part about our rooftop sanctuaries was that since we weren’t supposed to be up there, we never had to answer when called lest we give away our secret. At least until the grownup shoetops of our dad appeared outside the entrance to one of our upstairs lairs.
Lairs can be anywhere. I’ve carved out my share of closets, patios, basements, even a car: to write, to read, to consolidate myself, remember who I am, reconsider where I’m going. My island-born bride finds a beach wherever she is able. When she can’t hear the waves or feel the sand, she is not whole, not her complete self. Yesterday, sidelined for a few weeks by hand surgery and unaware I was writing this post, she wondered aloud from our bedroom, “I’ll bet if I put a little rug just here and found a small table for my tea, I could make myself a small sanctuary for reading, meditating, praying…”
Seasoned writers will tell you that to be at your most productive, you’ll want to situate yourself in the same place, preferably at the same time every day, to send your mind (and your muse) clues that you are ready to receive whatever help they’ve got for you that day. You can do like a younger me and kick at the same sameness of such ‘unoriginal’ advice and refuse to strap yourself down. Or you can play along with the way the universe plays and gulp from the bounteous wisdom of the spheres.
I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO nametag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in.Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
But living in Switzerland a few years back, on an American writing deadline with a single surface in our tiny apartment and only the middle of the night to write on it, I was amazed at how the start-up time quickly compressed to the seconds it took to aim my own lucky cannon. Thank you, Steven Pressfield.
No matter how small or cramped, out of the way, or imperfectly adorned, find yourself a lair and occupy it. Go there often. Think. Meditate. Create. Rage against the dying of the light; or there embrace it. Whatever your work, whatever your play, find your lair and do it.
Where’s Your Chair? (28 September 2023)
There’s a theory about the theatre—that it’s a theory in and of itself, its supporting evidence only waiting to be observed. Where we sit to prove such a theory can make all the difference.
When years ago my sister Emily and her friend Alice learned Ralph Fiennes’ would be coming to the Belasco Theater in New York City, they immediately sprang ahead for two of the best seats in the house. The night before curtain up, on hearing I was in town, Emily rang to ask if I might join the party.
“Sorry, but we’ve only got our two tickets; you’ll probably be sitting in the nosebleed section if you can even find a seat. But Ralph Fiennes as Hamlet? You don’t want to miss it!”
From where I sat that night, my back pressed literally against a cinderblock wall, my nose not bleeding but its noggin scraping perilously close to the ceiling above the highest balcony; mine was an extraordinary window on a certain show all right, just not the one I paid to see. While from their third-row center orchestra seats, Emily and Alice hung on the Bad Boy’s every word, I was sometimes hard-pressed to pick the future Tony winner from a crowd of ants.
My bird’s eye view did, however, afford me my own theory of the play. As Emily and Alice pondered whether the Prince of Denmark was losing his mind, I was pretty sure his doppelganger had begun to lose his hair.
The words Theory and Theatre derive from the same Greek root, suggesting centuries ahead of the scientific method that where the observer sits or stands in relation to her charge will color and shade, if not altogether, alter her hypotheses. A degree to the right and the wave-particle assay reveals on the back plate photonic pinpricks of light. An over-correction to the left and the intermittent slits of interference coalesce to nothingness.
From early theatergoer Aristotle, we learn about the structure behind the structure of drama. Did he come to understand his broad strokes by observing Oedipus gouging out his eyes from every seat in the amphitheater? Or is there more to a theory than the angle form which the watcher watches it unfold? What about the seat the patron brings to the sitting?
The last time I spoke with Stephen Covey was at an impromptu lunch meeting between workshops we were separately conducting at opposite ends of a hotel in California. After catching up on family members, we were going round the horn on whether True North, one of Stephen’s guiding principles, was universally absolute. (The truth, of course, is that I was the one going round; Stephen, disciplined as ever, had detached his laser focus from whatever had been on his mind and reattached it to my diatribe.)
“So is it safe to say,” I harangued, ‘’ that were it dusk here in Pebble Beach, and Polaris was just appearing over our horizon that a stargazer in, say, Lake Tekapo would see Polaris while facing in the same direction as we?”
It was not a fair question, of course, as to see the North Star from the Southern Hemisphere, the stargazer would need to stare not at the sky above her head but at the ground beneath her feet and, with x-ray vision, penetrate 12,000 miles of earth before merging her gaze with our point of vantage. I was free soloing to make a point, and Stephen, as always, was tracking my every idea.
“What are you doing next hour, Scott?” he asked once I’d pause to inhale. “If you’re not terribly busy, I’d like to show you something.”
When I ditched my workshop to slip into his, Stephen was summarizing to a room of human resources professionals the final details of the kit spread across their tables. The assortment of charts and graphs here, a pile of gadgets and dials there, absent a proper orientation, were all Greek to me. After cueing up a video of life on Mauritius, where people lived simply compared to the clamor and press of Western society, Stephen joined me in the back of the room as we watched together the cohort take in the video.
“You asked me about Polaris,” he began after a moment. “You see all stuff? It’s a lot to take in. We’ve been at it for a couple of days, and the clutter’s only going to mount. But if I could take five just minutes and teach these folks to sing Naomi Randall’s I Am a Child of God, I wouldn’t need any of it.”
He says this list last, standing with me shoulder to shoulder, facing his classroom, who days earlier were complete strangers to each other, now absorbed in solidarity with a village in Africa. Over the entire scene, he imposes his hard-fought worldview, creating a teaching moment for the sake of an old friend. And if all this were not the full measure of the chair he sits in to preside over it, he does so effortlessly and without a care for himself.
As I write this post, I am sitting in a hospital waiting room in Alexandria, Virginia. My wife Kari is in the operating theatre where her surgeon is finishing up a second go at a tiny tendon in her thumb shredded the year before when a bone in her wrist snapped over a year ago. As I feel my chair pressing into my backside–am I facing her operating room? has the cutting begun?–I consider her surgeon’s words on first viewing her x-ray.
“I can never make it as good as God did, but I can come close.”
Not satisfied with his first attempt, she had asked him to go in again, and here I sit, awaiting what we all hope will be his more perfect second effort.
Kari is undoubtedly asleep in her chair. The surgeon is certainly not sitting but leaning in, getting the closest look he can—a naked eye, a magnified eyepiece, a TV monitor—at his target. The anesthesiologist has his own eye on a series of data lighting up a separate screen. In a few minutes, the curtain will drop on Act II, and the tendon will begin to heal, invisible to all but God.
As you look around the theatre that is your life on a planet spinning around an invisible point in a distant sky, no matter into which sky you are gazing, what can you see at this moment from your chair?