The Secret to Being an Interesting Writer

There is certainly no shortage of outlets if you’re a writer today. Writing is easy. Writing something new, interesting, compelling, time after time, is difficult. But what is it that makes writing interesting?

glowing-tube-1423139Take a look at the New York Times Bestsellers in nonfiction. What do they have in common? Here’s a hint: the information in those books did not just spontaneously appear in the writers’ minds. They had to seek it out.

The secret that nobody ever tells aspiring writers is that to be an interesting writer, you first have to be a prolific researcher.

Maybe it’s investigative journalism, maybe it’s archival research, maybe it’s a lab experiment, or maybe it’s a statistical analysis of some observed phenomenon. If you want to be able to tell a story no one else can tell, you’re going to have to do research.

My guess is that for really great reads, authors spend way more time—sometimes a lifetime—researching, than they do actually writing.

It can be frustrating to do research. As a writer your instinct is to want to write something, not read articles and interview people. If 80% of your piece is research, then 80% of your effort will produce nothing tangible. Frustrating.

I think the real secret to being an interesting writer is to remind yourself that you’re a writer even on days you don’t write anything.


I Wish The Resume Would Die – An Open Letter

Dear Resume,

Do not take this personally, but I wish you would die. Not once in my career have you ever really helped me get a job. I know that because there is not a single position I have ever held that I was fully qualified for on the day I started. I did not have everything they were looking for and you made damn well sure they knew it. Fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to find companies and hiring managers who saw beyond your limited abilities and gave me a chance in spite of you. And I feel confident in saying that all of them were glad they did.

The problem, Resume, is that you can only see in one direction: backwards. In that regard, you are like a history book. You are fine at documenting what I have done, but you stink at estimating what I am capable of.

You are exceptionally good at pointing out some software program I have never used, or some skill I have yet to demonstrate, even though I have quickly learned to use dozens of new programs and rapidly assimilated many new skills over the course of my career, and could certainly do so again if need be.

You are no longer a tool, but a hurdle. A hurdle I have to get over to help a company who can really benefit from my service. Today, the only thing you care about, Resume, is keywords. You can literally prevent me from helping some company by the simple omission of a single phrase. That is some mighty influence you wield.

I bet on the day he started Microsoft, you would have prevented Bill Gates from getting a job at IBM. You would have succinctly let IBM know, in that way that only you can, that young Mr. Gates clearly did not have what it takes to work there. Well, you know what he was good enough to do then? Start a business that would go on to dwarf IBM. See, you are lousy at measuring potential, and that is why you need to go.

I do not know what should replace you Resume, I only know it is time for you to leave. You have been around for over 500 years. You have done your job. Kudos to you. Now just sail off into retirement and let somebody find a replacement for you.

R.I.P. Resume.


21st Century Worker

Negative Consequences – The Source of Our Survival

Did you ever wonder why sticking you hand in a raging fire hurts like hell? Because if it didn’t, we (the human race) would not be here. If humans had ever learned to blunt the pain caused by fire, we would have perished long ago, consumed by fire we did not fear. In that respect, the negative consequence of putting our hand in fire, extreme pain, is actually the source of our survival. The short-term pain actually produces a long-term benefit. Viewed in this way, a certain degree of pain is a good thing. It makes us smarter, stronger and assures our survival. But what does that have to do with our lives today? Everything.

As things turn out, human beings hate pain. We will do almost anything to avoid it—it makes sense. We hate experiencing pain so much, we may even go out of our way to make sure other people avoid it. The problem of course is that when you enable someone to avoid pain you are unwittingly stealing from them the opportunity to get smarter and stronger. When our government enables you to collect 99 weeks of unemployment, their intention is to help you avoid the pain (of being unemployed). What they are unintentionally (or unknowingly) doing is stealing from you the chance to become self reliant.

When you make a mistake, it should hurt. When you are let go from your job because you have not kept your skills up to date, it should hurt. These short-term pains lead to many, invaluable long-term gains. They make you smarter, stronger and assure your survival. When we shy away from the pain, or some other party enables us to shy away from it, we actually endanger ourselves, like blunting the pain from the fire. Yes, you will not feel the pain of the fire if I numb your hand, but because of that, you will ultimately be consumed by it.

It is not just individuals that can blunt the pain—businesses do it too. When a business makes a bad decision that jeopardizes the business, it should hurt. When AIG made those terrible business decisions and it was deemed “too big to fail” by our government, they were blunting the pain of the fire. We avoided short-term pain, but at what price? We did not become stronger or smarter, and because of that we shall almost certainly go thought it again.

Every action has consequences. Do something good and something good usually happens as a result. Eat healthy and exercise, eventually your weight and cholesterol go down. Attend college and get a marketable degree, and you are more likely to find yourself employed. Conversely, do something stupid and sooner or later, some negative consequences are bound to occur. The problem is not the negative consequences themselves, for they can serve to strengthen us. The problem occurs when we, by our own  doing or through some external source, attempt to blunt the pain to avoid the short-term consequences.

The moral of the story is that as unpleasant as short term pain maybe in your life, it is necessary if you ever expect to become self-reliant. Do not shun from it. Embrace it and let it drive you.


Are You Kidding Me! These Guys Should Know Better

If you do any online business at all, you know about the importance of having strong passwords to protect your accounts. Some of the top minds in the security industry now suggest you actually use a pass phrase, implying a really long password comprised of multiple parts. And to make it super strong, the pass phrase should include a combination of numbers, upper and lower case letters AND special characters (e.g., @, $).

It’s simple mathematics really: the longer and more complex the password, the longer it takes to hack, and most hackers want fast results, not slow tedious results.

Trick question: who would you think has the strongest password policies on the Internet? I bet you said banks (or other financial fiduciaries). You would think that firms that have the most to protect–gobs and gobs of money–would have the best, most stringent password policies on the Internet. And you would be dead wrong.

Here is just a sampling of some of the password policy limitations of some well known organizations:

Chase: cannot include special characters.

Chase Password Policy

Union Bank: cannot include special characters.

Union Bank Password Policy

Vanguard Mutual Funds: a maximum of 10 characters–are you kidding me.

Vangaurd Passwrod Policy

 American Funds: passwords are not case sensitive–are you kidding me.

American Funds Password Policy

SIT Mutual Funds: a maximum of 10 characters.

SIT Password Policy

And just so you don’t think this is limited to just the financial industry, I present…

Verizon Wireless: no special characters. Verizon Wireless
I could go on but you get the point. How long has the commercial Internet been around? Thirty years. I just find this all too perplexing for words (and yet I managed to blog about it).

The Four Great Lies of the American Dream

Live like you’ll die tomorrow—learn like you’ll live forever. ~ Gandhi

One of the great things about America is the (apparent) freedom to do what you want. That has been its selling point all along. It is called the American Dream. But just because you can do something, does not mean you should. There is a very short list of things we have been told we should aspire to do or to own. In general, the things on this list are good things and many of us should aspire to them, but not everyone. And therein lies is the rub.

We have been sold this list as if we, the collective who occupies America, is a homogeneous entity. That everyone should aspire to these things. That is not the truth. There are times and circumstances under which the items on this list do more harm than good. Having the personal courage to recognize that in the face of the constant sales pitch can be quite a challenge.

The first lie is that everyone should buy a house. We can argue whether a house is a good long term investment, but I think by now, we can all agree there are good times to buy a house and lousy times. Like when prices are outrageously and historically high due to artificially low interest rates. Consequently, for some people, the numbers just do not make financial sense. And spending a lifetime in extreme debt, constantly teetering on bankruptcy, for the glory of home ownership is foolish. A reasonably priced rental with some savings in the bank is a much better life. After all, aren’t we all just renters anyway? Nobody takes their home with them when they go.

The second lie is that everyone should go to college. Unless you know exactly what you want to do with your life, college is an extremely expensive holding pattern. Expensive in both time and money. Even if you do know what you want to do, college may still not make sense. The numbers bear it out. Being a plumber, a truck driver or dental hygienist is a far better career move than going to college and majoring in all but a few disciplines. You will make far more money and your job will never be shipped overseas. Greater financial and employment security beats a piece of paper on the wall while searching for a job to pay off a mountain of debt.

The third lie is that everyone should get married. Having studied the subject of marriage and written two books on the subject, I feel qualified to say that some people should never get married (Tom Cruise!). You can love somebody without marrying them. You can have a child with somebody without marrying them. I accept that there is a lot of social pressure to marry, but a marriage that is destined to fail serves no purpose. I have met many happily never-married people. Their joy came not from remaining single, but from coming to terms with the idea that they made the correct life choice.

The fourth lie is that everyone should have kids. Just as with marriage, there is great societal expectation to procreate. But social expectation is not a sufficient reason to become a parent. For many people, not having children is their innate preference, but not all have the strength to stand up to that. I have chosen to forego fatherhood and have never questioned that decision. For me, the correct life path was to not have children. Everyone of us is on a different journey, and if yours is calling you to something other than parenthood, then that is the right decision for you, now matter how much you believe in the American Dream.