Valentine’s Day: What is love? Part I

What is love and what does love have to do with brands, organizations and business?

Good question. I don’t know for sure but that’s never stopped me before.  Plus the Sunday lesson this morning was love and we’re closing in on Valentine’s Day.  I got inspired.

At the risk of violating rules for both civil and faith-based discussion in post-modern society I thought I’d try and answer the question by combining Christian scripture, secular business principles and a bit of humor.  And to make the risk greater, I’ll use one half of perhaps the best known verse of scripture , John 3:16.  For those averse to matters of faith and religion, don’t worry.   No moralizing.  I just hope you’ll still find something here that you agree with and find mildly insightful.

With that, here’s part one of three.

John 3:16 starts: “For God so loved the world …”.

Such a simple statement.  God loved the world.  Actually, John wrote “so” loved the world which I’ll interpret to mean that He loved it a lot.  What does that tell us about nature of love?

For me, it is this:  Love is a decision.

Love is not something that happens to you. Love is something that you make happen to yourself and others. It is not an emotion, feeling or phase in your life for relation.  It is a decision you make. I think what John is saying is that God “decided” to love the world.  Some may challenge that and say, “Hey, Jerry, the world’s a pretty awesome place!  God just fell in love with it!”  Maybe it went something like this:

“Oh!  Look at that pretty little blue place that I made!  It is so cute and adorable.  Everything there is so beautiful and lovely.  It is my favorite vacation spot.  The people are so nice.”

I don’t think so.

Sure, we’ve got the Grand Canyon and all. And there are a lot of very wonderful people in the world. But peel back the layers of our planet earth – the world – and the place is pretty terrifying.

Animal world? Check out a NatGeo video of some tiger methodically stalking, catching and bloodily piece-by-piece tearing apart the flesh of a baby zebra while it writhes in pain. You can have all the Disney talk you want romanticizing the ‘circle of life’ stuff, but in the real world what you’re really talking about are animals savagely stalking and eating each other.   Nature = strong eat the weak.  Fascinating, yes.  Even beautiful?  Perhaps.  Something that you’d decide to love?  Not so much.

Then turn to the world of people.  Sure there are some nice people out there.  You and me, right?  But even we do some horrific things.  Here’s a test. Take two perfectly wonderful, pleasant, well-behaved and lovingly adorable three year olds. Put them together on the floor in a room.  Now set evenly between them a very cool toy to share. Stand back and watch.  Trust me. It is going to get ugly in a hurry.  Within five minutes, screams.  Within ten, grabbing, biting, and gouging.  Anyone who has had children will confirm this.   And as for adults and all our own private neurosis and objectionable behaviors? Let’s not go there. No, people can be pretty hard to love. Even the ones that on the outside seem nice.

And nature? Forget about it! For every beautiful sunset and mild ocean breeze there’s a Jakarta tsunami and Hatian earthquake. Nature may be a lot of things but three things it totally lacks are compassion, forgiveness, mercy. No, nature is about as far away from love as you can get.

No. I’m thinking that what John was writing about was a clear, concious decision by a God to love the world. However it was, love was a decision.  It was a choice.  It is not something that happened   It is something that was made to happen.

So what in the world does any of this have to do with brands and business?

Think of it this way.

Loving your employees or loving your customers does not just happen.  In business, love does not come naturally.  Sometimes employees and customers can be a handful (remember the story of the three-year-olds?).  If you’re going to really care about what you do and who you do it with – I mean REALLY care about them – it is going to be something that you’re going to have to decide to do.  If you wait for it to happen, it won’t.  Trust me.  This stuff isn’t like a scene from The Titanic. Real love, the love that matters and lasts and changes lives and is meaningful – that love is something you choose to create. It is a decision that an organization or brand makes a conscious effort to act upon.

Companies that are consistently voted as the best place to work have DECIDED to be the best place to work.  Companies that have the most ardent and loyal customers have DECIDED to show their customers respect, affection and support.  If an employee or customer says they LOVE this or that brand, organization or company … you can bet that long before they realized or said it, someone made a decision that this is what they wanted to have happen.

They made a decision that the relationship they were building was not just based on making the most money, getting the cheapest price, or being a matter of convenience.  It was going to be more than that.

Love doesn’t just happen.  Love is a choice.

Tomorrow:  love is a verb.

“You have to do this, before you can do that”

My wife and I were reading the paper the other day and noticed a movement afoot in Virginia that would require women to get a sonogram and receive a picture of the fetus before having an abortion.

That got me thinking.

What if we applied the same concept in other areas?  What if we looked at all the decisions that people make that could have a significant impact on them and those around them, and required them to watch, receive or do something before they took action?

Here’s a short list that I came up with.  Feel free to add yours:

  • You must watch a fatal car accident before getting a driver’s licence (when I was young, they used to do this).
  • You must go and watch cows being slaughtered in a slaughterhouse before eating a burger.
  • You must look at pictures of chicken farms before ordering chicken tenders.
  • You must view a vaginal birth before having sex.
  • You must look at pictures of overweight people before eating sweets.
  • You must review your bank account, credit statement and IRA before purchasing anything over $100.
  • You must watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” before getting married.
  • You must go to an AA meeting before purchasing alcohol.
  • You must spend time in a restaurant kitchen before going there to order a meal.
  • You must watch videos of someone unclogging a (a) garbage disposal; (b) toilet; and (c) gutters, before buying a home.
  • You must watch people clean the nightclub on Sunday morning before going there Saturday night.
  • You must visit an inner-city faith-based charity before giving up on God.

So now it is your turn.

What other things should people have to see (or do) before making decisions that could impact them and others?

The ‘self’ virus

I live in Washington DC.  I work in public relations.  I used to work in politics. I am a human being.  Consider me an expert in the self-driven life.

I was thinking about that a lot lately; trying to stitch together and make sense of some crazy things I saw at work, around me outside of work, on television, on the campaign trail.  Have you seen it?  Man, there’s some absolutely crazy stuff going on out there.   How could we get so dysfunctional?  I’m thinking that there’s a new disease, worse than HIV/AIDS, ebola, and avian flu combined.  It is the attack of the self-driven and the self-absorbed.

This is a bad thing, by the way.  A very bad thing.  I’ve a sense that we’re all infected with this virus in some form.  Because it is all about me, right!  But what happens when everyone, all around you, say the same thing:  “It’s all about ME!”  Well, when that happens you have a lot of the madness that is going on right now.

As best I can tell, here are the main symptoms of this virus:

A warped perspective of reality. If it is all about you, the reality of the outside world slowly begins to fade.  Why?  Because you can’t see the important things happen that don’t relate to you.  Just like pre-Copernicus astrologers, you have this mistaken impression that life evolves around you and your well-being.  The ‘other’ is only a consideration in as much as they (a) cross your path; or (b) provide you a stepping stone to the other side.  After awhile, this is not only a sick way of looking at life it is a false way of looking at life.  Living in your own self-absorbed cocoon, everything looks rosey.  You can’t see outside yourself (another word for ‘outside yourself’ … ‘reality’!)  Then, BAM!  That nasty real world slams you up side the head.  And you never saw it coming.

Destruction of meaningful and lasting relationships. This is close to a tautology but worth noting.  You can’t have a meaningful relationship with anyone or any thing if you are the #1, #2, and #3 most important things on your daily todo list.  When you hold the top position of what’s important in your life, relationships become shallow and matters of convenience.  People no longer become people.  We’ll all playing a game of “Survivor” or “Big Brother”.  People are disposable.  Relationships are transitory.  And you wake up one morning and there’s no body around you.  Go figure!

Death of moral values.  Objective moral values – universal truths of right and wrong – suffocate in the oppressive and feckless nature of the self-absorption.  Self sucks up all the oxygen.  The old fashion ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have about as much chance as a polar bear on a melting ice cap.  When it is all about you, concepts like honesty, integrity, service, dependability, and trust eventually lose their original meaning.  Everything becomes a function of what is good for you.

It is a nasty, nasty illness.

So what does any of this have about companies, organizations, and brands?

A lot.  I’ve seen this virus spread to them as well.  In this I’d go so far as to agree with Governor Romney.  Companies are, indeed, people.  And when they turn inward and begin organizing around self, they lose perspective of what is going on in the marketplace, the bonds they’ve built with their customers begin to fray, and they end up making really dumb decisions.

The vaccine?  Try putting something or someone ahead of yourself.  Maybe even more than one!

The people I admire are those who put themselves last, and put others first.  The same is true for companies, organizations and brands.

A resolution to change how I think, not what I do

So you have a New Year’s resolution?  I do.  And it was inspired in no small measure by my daughter who is resolved to focus in 2012 on “quality, not quantity” and my son whose resolution is less tech and more touch.

This year I’m resolved to change how I think about people – people I know, people I see, and the people I never see but reach through a career in communications.

I resolve to not think of people based on what they do.  I don’t agree with the old saying “you are what you eat.”  People are much more than their diet.  And I’ll dare to challenge Aristotole that a person is “what they do every day.”  A person is more than a collection of habits.  I resolve not to think of people based on what they have.  People are more than rich or poor.  They are more than their medical condition or position of authority.  I resolve to not define people by what they can do for me.  People are more than clients or business partners or even friends.

In business and life it is so easy to think of people as a commodity, a label, a category.  The people – and businesses – that I admire and respect most think better than that.  They don’t view their customers, neighbors, and friends that way.

So here’s a resolution for 2012.

A resolution to always remember that every person is sacred.  And regardless of their habits, possessions or what they can do for me or us … each merits respect, patience, understanding, mercy and love.

Happy New Year.

Ode to obedience

Obedience gets a bad rap.  We denigrate the ‘obedient’ one as someone lacking in spunk, spark, creativity and leadership.  Think about it.  If someone said, “oh, so-and-so, he’s sooo obedient!”  What would you think?  Something between ‘eew!’ and ‘yuck’!

We idolize the  rebel.  We create myths about the  independent souls who reject instruction, laugh at admonition, and defy convention.  And we mistakenly think that doing so is the required path to creativity, individual expression and happiness.

Rebel = cool, interesting, daring, creative, great!

Obedient = boring, dull, predictable, sucks!

This is an ode to obedience and a ‘watchout’ to the rebel.

When I look at what’s happening today I’d suggest that our problem isn’t a scarcity of rebels.  Everyone is a rebel.  We all have a social media platform and we’re all ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!’

But if everyone’s a rebel, you can’t have a rebellion.  Just like the world of Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average, creating a culture where everyone is leading (or thinks they are) and no one is following (or is capable of doing so) can’t a movement make.

By venerating the rebel we risk eviscerating the heart and soul of what makes every society, organization, and business strong — the dutiful footsoldier who is dependable, reliable, trustworthy and … yes … predictable.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we promote lemming-like, do-what-you-are-told without question society.  But lowly obedience – simply doing what others ask of you – is a dying art.

Consider the teacher.  When I teach all I really want of the person at the other end is to do what I ask them to.  Read the book.  Complete the drill.  Learn the lesson.  Great that you ask questions and all that.  But at the end of the day if everything is up for grabs, nothing get grasped.

Consider the parent.  OK.  You know that your children at some point will need to rebel.  You know that they need to chart their own way.  And you know that they will be stupid.  Why?  Because you were young and stupid once too.  There was a time that whatever Mom or Dad said, you did the opposite.  And now you’re a parent.  And you  plead with your children “Please!  Just do this … Just this once … Trust me … I know what will happen if you don’t … Just trust me on this one.”  But no … you’re fighting a losing battle

Why do we denigrate the obedient and venerate the rebel?

Here’s a couple of possibilities:

1. The great thing about being a rebel is that you don’t have to be ‘for’ anything.  The rebel knows only one thing – what I am against.  That is why I’m a rebel!  Down with this!  Down with that!  “Tear down this wall!”  What replaces all this?  Beats the hell out of me!  I’m just a rebel.  I tear things down.  I’m not responsible for building things back up.

Which leads me to my second point …

2.  Obedience requires commitment and perseverance – not really popular things these days.  We don’t like difficult.  Difficult is, well, difficult!  The great thing about being a rebel and being against something is that no one holds you much accountable on what you are for.  The problem with obedience is that it, by definition, means you have to be ‘for’ something and willing to both ‘follow’ that something as well as defend that something.  Following is not cool.  Defending is hard work.  Obedience is difficult.  Difficult is not fun.

So what does any of this say anything about business and brands?  I’d suggest that some of the great brands we often consider ‘rebels’ are not rebels at all.  They are brands that are obedient to their values and instill obedience in their supporters.  Virgin, Apple, Zappos, Trader Joe’s, Facebook.  These are not ‘anything goes’ type places.  No, they aren’t rebel at all.  They just have a point of view and are slavishly obedient to it.  They are brands of followers.  They are brands supported by people who do as they are told, in the way they are told to do it.  They are obedient.

So here’s to obedience.  It is neither boring nor dull.  Rather it requires conviction and discipline … Which is why obedience can be very unpopular.

Gratitude and the Spirit of Thanksgiving

When I was a boy growing up there was a hymn that I learned in church.  The song was about counting blessings.  There was a simplicity in both the melody and the words and the refrain went like this:

“Count your many blessings name them one by one.
Count your many blessings see what God has done.
Count your blessings.  Name them one by one.
Count your many blessing see what God has done.”

The beat slowed when you sang the part “name … them … one … by … one” as if to emphasize that the exercise of naming and listing was as important as the list itself.

This to me this – naming blessings one by one – is the lost concept of gratitude.

It goes beyond the art of being thankful in a general way.  Everyone can do that.  Thankfulness has become more of a courtesy than a sincere expression of appreciation.

Thanks!  Thanks alot!  Thank y0u!  Thank you soooo much!

Yeah, whatever.

Today is Thanksgiving Day.  We focus on what we’re thankful for.  So I started counting those things I am thankful for.  I started counting my blessings.  Whoa!  It was a long list.  And as I turned the page on the list I sensed that I hadn’t even scratch the surface.  There was so much to be thankful for … so many blessings.  The list got so long I got tired.  So I watched football (which was also on my list!).

This is a great exercise. I encourage you to try it.  Really.  Get a piece of paper and pencil and start making a list.  If you get stuck, get up and walk around.  Look.   Go online.  Check email.  Check Facebook.  Talk to a friend or neighbor.  Be creative.

Try thinking of blessings that you have (and take for granted) every day.  Go from the most esoteric to the mundane.

Sound boring?  What if I told you that doing this will actually make you healthier and have better sex?  Do I have your attention now?  Well according to a report in the New York Times:


Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.


So count your blessings.  Name them one by one.  There’s so much there.  We just don’t take time to see it.

Be healthy.  Be kind.  Be romantic.

Be grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thinking about Steve Jobs

The remembrances have poured in.  I even wrote one for a client.  So you may wonder (at least I do) why I would spend time writing something about Steve Jobs at the JuiceBar.

Well, for a couple of reasons.

First, Steve Jobs was a genius.  He did change things – in computing, music, entertainment.  God knows I supported him.  I bought the Macintosh soon after it came out.  Then another.  Then another. When he came out with that wedge computer thing, I was there wallet in hand.  Over the years I’ve purchased a truck load – no, shipload – of Steve Jobs’ stuff not only for me but for my family.

I bought iMac laptops for each of my children after they graduated from high school.  In fact, the amount of other Apple ‘i’ variations that I’ve purchased for my wife and family could … well … let’s just say that if I hadn’t I may have been able to retire by now.  (I was rummaging through the desk and basement the other day and came across a stack of a half-dozen of the old, bulky, and expensive! pre-historic iPods … yes, they’ve only been around for ten years but it seems a lifetime).

Second, he was just one really interesting guy.  If you haven’t read his Stanford graduating address, you should.  It is daring, sharp, challenging, and exciting.  A reflection of the person himself.  And if you haven’t read the Apple story, you should.  Go to Amazon and type in “Steve Jobs” and “Apple”.  Here.  I’ll save you the keystrokes.  Click this.  You can spend the next year of your life reading about him, his story, and his “secrets” that people claim Jobs had.

Funny.  Get secrets for a few bucks.  Guess they’re not so secret are they?  And believe me, if it were up to Jobs the secrets wouldn’t be selling for so cheap.

I’ve never met Steve Jobs.  And because I’m in the profession that I’m in I have a healthy suspicion that the person we read about and hear about in the media is likely very different than reality.  But hey, the mythology of Steve Jobs is our reality so let’s go with that.

Here’s what Steve Jobs’ life taught me.

To do great, transformative things in business you need to have a unique combination of vision, daring, and resilience.  It takes all three.  Without the vision you’re boring and are just making money.  Without the daring you’ll be improving on what is, not creating the new.  And without resilience, you’ll never survive the failures that inevitably come.

Few people have all three of those qualities to the extent that Steve Jobs seemed to.  I know I don’t!

Not many of us out there are going to ever create the next Apple.  Few of us will either have the opportunity or ability to change and create new categories like Steve Jobs did.  But we are people and we do live in a community.  What if we took what meager measures of what we do have – our vision, our daring, and our resilience – and applied them not just to a company or a product or a piece of business … but to our faith, our family, our friends and the people around us.

In other words, what if we took these exemplary attributes of Steve Jobs and just applied them to our everyday stuff.  We could all do that, couldn’t we?  And if we did, what would that look like?

Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited.  Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”


Kids games … the social media version

When I was growing up we had games like ‘tag’, ‘hopscotch’, ‘kick the can’, and ‘jump rope.’   Most were a variation on a form of chase.  Some required some hand-eye skill.  Throwing a top.  Spinning a yo-yo.  Picking up jacks.

Those days seem to be on the way out.

Last month I spent a week with the youth from my church at work camp.   They introduced me to a whole new world of kids’ games, none of which involve a whole lot of skill, speed, or coordination.  They do, however, require a bit of daring, a quirky sense of humor, and a Facebook page.

Let me tell you about two.

The first game I was introduced to was ‘coning.’ I don’t know what you immediately think of when you read or hear the word ‘coning’.  I can tell you that when I first heard the term, I said to myself:

“This can’t be good.”

But it turned out to be neither risque nor illegal. Just a bit odd.

Going ‘coning’ involves three things – a drive up window, an ice cream cone, and (optional) a phone that takes pictures or movies. The game is quite simple. You go to the drive up window. Order an ice cream cone. And when the attendant hands you the ice cream cone, instead of grabbing it by the cone you grab it by the top … by the ice cream.

That’s it.

Fun, huh?

If you missed it (the fun, that is) that’s ok. So did I. But that’s because you didn’t know where to look. The fun lies not in wasting a good ice cream cone that you only recently paid for. The fun lies in the experience.

The first experience is deciding to do it.  And believe it or not, acting out on something as disturbingly silly as grabbing an ice cream cone by the ice cream requires some gumption.   If you don’t believe me, try it.   Go ahead.   I dare you! (which is how I think this game began, by the way!)

The second experience is recording and sharing it.   In the van full of teenagers that I was driving there was story after story of “oh, I remember doing it back at the McDonald’s in so and so …”.  But beyond just telling stories there’s the video phone recording and posting on Facebook.  That is the real badge of honor.  And it is really the only way anyone can convey any meaning behind an act that on its surface seems so silly.

Don’t believe me.  Check this out.  (Or search on ‘coning’ on YouTube.)

Which leads me to game number two – planking.

Again, I don’t know what ran through your mind when you read about the act of ‘planking’ but when I heard it I didn’t think this was something that teenagers should be doing.  At least not in public or without protection.

But planking is an international phenomenon.  I understand it has been banned in Australia.

Planking goes something like this. Identify a spot where you think it would be odd to find a person lying face down – preferably some location where it would be physically difficult to do so (think narrow, sharp, and high). Then figure out a way for you to lay on that space in a yoga ‘plank’ position. Have someone take a picture.

That’s it.

Fun, huh?

Apparently so. Planking does require some physical skill. And like coning, there’s quite bit of chutzpah associated with it (more points the stranger and odd the location).  It isn’t about who is faster, quicker, stronger.   It is who is sillier, goofier, and more imaginative.

What both have in common is that their fun derives from SHARING the experience (either video or photo).  It isn’t about being the fastest or most coordinated.  It is about being able to make another person laugh, smile, or say “wow”!

And I think that is pretty cool.

What is your favorite kids game these days?

The myth of independence

Happy Independence Day.

This is the day that we celebrate those who went before us some 200+ years ago who sacrificed everything to gain independence from Britain and King George.  In America, we LOVE independence.  We idolize the rebel.  We venerate the ‘self-made’ individual.  We mythologize the pioneer spirit that accepts no limits, little authority, and absolute self-determination.

But of course the idea of independence – at least as it is known in popular culture – is a myth .   We all exist in a state that is “in” dependence.  Dependence from King George was simply traded for dependence on a band of vagabond (but quite erudite, stubborn and opinionated!) colonists.  It wasn’t that we suddenly became independent.  Rather, we simply shifted our dependence from King George to each other.  Consider the last line of the Declaration of Independence:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Independence from George.  But “reliance” on God.  And a mutual pledge of our money, honor, and life.  Sounds like a lot of dependence to me.

No, dependence is inherent in the human condition. More than that, dependence is something we strive for.  If you’re in business you’re hoping clients depend on you for goods and services.  If you’re part of a family or community you hope you can depend on them for support.  If you’re a spouse you’re hoping that your partner is dependent on you for love and affection.

It works the other way around as well.

I want to depend on the people I work with.  My wife and family.  My faith.  You don’t even have to go high concept.  I want to depend on my car.  The mailman.  My dentist.

Dependencies are what make societies (and economies) function.  So it isn’t a question of being independent or not.

Rather, it is a question of upon what and whom you depend.

A lot of people tell me, “I’m not going to depend on anyone but myself.”

Good luck with that.

Even the Founding Fathers were smart enough not to go there.

Hiding in plain sight

So now we know that all this time the world’s most notorious terrorist was living in a suburb of Islamabad.  And not only that, the town was also the home of the Pakistani military academy.  Not exactly a cave in the hinterlands.   It would be like this guy to have hung out for years in duplex outside of Quantico Marine base.

Hiding in plain sight.  This, my friends, is the story of life.

We miss stuff all the time, and it is hiding in plain sight.  Like the housing crisis.  Or the oil crisis.  Or the next retirement crisis.

This stuff is / was there.  Like, right there!  Right in front of us.  Clear as an unmuddied lake.  But we don’t see it.  Sometimes it is because the object of our affection or interest has craftily gone to the once place we’d NEVER think about looking.

Sometimes we fail to see or acknowledge what is in plain view because we’re either focusing on something else.   A version of the latter is called inattentional blindness.  It was the subject of a recent popular book which I highly recommend titled “The Invisible Gorilla”.  According to Daniel Simons:  “Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a fully-visible but unexpected object when you are focusing attention on something else.”

Finally, there are those times when things can hide in plain sight because we find them too uncomfortable to face.

So which was it for the Pakistani Army?  Was it simply that the terrorist had outsmarted them by going to the ONE PLACE that no one would have ever guessed (including, by the way, the Bush and Obama administrations)?  Or did they not see it because they were too busy with other things?  Or did we not see it because they didn’t want to see it?

Most of the challenges we face are hidden in plain sight.  We know they are a problem.  But we don’t see them because we’re either (a) caught up paying attention to other less pressing but often more pleasurable things; or (b) find them too painful to confront so we pretend they’re not there.

Most of the solutions to our problems are hidden in plain sight.  We just don’t pursue them because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.  This is certainly true for people.  Overweight?  Exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables.  Financial concerns?  Save more than you spend.  Unfulfilled?  Do only those things you are passionate about.

This is true for every organization and every brand.

We know we’re to focus on core competencies, invest in people, constantly improve the customer experience.  The principles that the big consultancies come up with aren’t rocket science.  They are pretty basic stuff.  They are things that most people in the organization ALREADY KNOW!  But they hide in plain sight because we are either distracted or inconvenienced.

Like our now deceased terrorist … most of our problems and their solutions are … right there hiding in plain sight.  And like the folks in the Islamabad suburb, most of the time we find ways to ignore what we know to be true.