Review – Feeling Good

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

by David Burns, published 1980, 2008

This post is less a review of the book and more an exploration of its major philosophical principles and techniques.

Major Principles

All your moods are created by your cognitions, or thoughts, including:

  • perceptions
  • mental attitudes
  • beliefs
  • interpretations

When you are feeling depressed, your thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity which infect all of your experiences, including:

  • reflections on the past
  • experience of the present
  • projections/expectations of the future

Negative thoughts at the heart of emotional turmoil almost always contain gross distortions, therefore:

  1. gains in objectivity of thoughts translate to elevated mood
  2. the most crucial predictor of recovery is a persistent willingness to exert some effort to help yourself
  3. it is a part of the human experience to be periodically upset, “getting better” means systematically employing CBT methods to master thoughts and moods over the course of a lifetime

Diagnosing Your Moods

You can use the Burns Depression Checklist (the author’s proprietary list of indicators of depressive thinking) weekly to chart the progress of your depression’s severity. This is important because it introduces objective data into your self-experience. By seeing the change in data over time as a result of specific action, you can break the allure common to all depressive episodes that the present experience is likely to continue on indefinitely, or only get worse.

Understanding Your Moods

Depression is not an emotional disorder, it is a disorder of thoughts.

Practice noticing the negative thought you had just prior to your negative feeling. This will help you generate awareness about the specific “triggers” that instigate a depressive mood. You will begin to notice that right before you feel downcast, you have made a critical or despairing assumption about yourself or other people.

One argument depressed people make is that their depressive mood is an accurate reflection of a depressing reality. However, emotions do not happen automatically based upon experiences, but rather experiences are processed in the mind and filtered through pre-existing thoughts before being translated into an emotional state. Therefore, if your understanding of reality is normal, your resulting mood will be normal; if your understanding of reality is distorted, your mood will be distorted as well.

Thinking you are the one “hopeless”, truly flawed person in the world is a sign of distorted thinking. This is a belief based upon fallacious logical thinking rather than an objective, existent fact about reality knowable to all.

In its essence, depression is a highly credible form of faulty faith in a reality that doesn’t exist. Truly, the cure for long-lasting depression is a “scientific mind” determined to observe and examine reality using sound logical principles.

The 10 Major Cognitive Distortions

Depressive episodes are triggered by one of ten common cognitive distortions, or fundamental logical fallacies embedded in the assumptions and thinking of the depressed individual:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking, a form of perfectionism
  2. Overgeneralization, believing a single instance is an inevitable pattern
  3. Mental Filter, focusing on the negatives, ignoring the positives
  4. Disqualifying the Positive, turning positive experiences into negative ones by rationalizing why it was luck, a mistake or otherwise unrepeatable or undeserved
  5. Jumping to Conclusions,
    1. mind reading, convincing yourself others harbor negative thoughts or evaluations without checking it out
    2. fortune-telling, imagining something bad will happen without evidence or probability
  6. Magnification and Minimization, creating a sense of inferiority by catastrophic thinking about flaws and mistakes, while downplaying strengths or achievements
  7. Emotional Reasoning, confusing a negative feeling with a factual truth about reality
  8. Should Statements, frustrating yourself by comparing yourself and others to a perceived ideal rather than accepting reality as it is
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling, confusing your identity with a single action or perpetual state of being
  10. Personalization, taking responsibility for things that have nothing to do with you, or are outside your control

Sometimes people experiencing depression worry that if they do not experience the grief and upset feelings of depression, they will not be living authentically. Getting in touch with and expressing valid emotions based upon valid thinking, is a form of emotional maturity; expressing invalid emotions based on invalid thinking is a personal and sometimes social problem that is not at all desirable. Emotional growth and development involves ridding yourself of invalid thinking and the harmful, deluded and invalid emotions that come with it.

Defeating Do-Nothingism

In a depressive state of mind, it can be difficult to summon the determination, motivation and interest in moving one’s goals and life plans forward. Using the major principle mentioned earlier, it is important to consider what kind of self-critical triggering thoughts precede this unwillingness to act. When you are suffering “do-nothingism”, consider the following as a new mental habit:

When I think about an undone task, what thoughts immediately come to mind?

You are likely to find that these thoughts are filled with the logic of futility, hopelessness and general nihilism and discouragement.

Common Mindsets that Yield Action to Inaction

Here are some common cognitive distortions that precede do-nothingism:

  1. Hopelessness, the present pain is overwhelming and obstructs your ability to imagine an improved future
  2. Helplessness, something other than your own actions stands between you and achievement
  3. Overwhelming Yourself, you must do the whole tasks all at once, making it impossible
  4. Jumping to Conclusions, assuming without testing to find out
  5. Self-labeling, convincing yourself you’re fundamentally incapable by labeling yourself as such
  6. Undervaluing the Rewards, the payoff is so small, why bother?
  7. Perfectionism, preferring no progress to some progress
  8. Fear of Failure, it isn’t worth an attempt if the potential to succeed lies in doubt
  9. Fear of Success, you won’t be able to continue after your initial “luck”, so you don’t bother
  10. Fear of Disapproval or Criticism, you will be judged harshly by others for your attempt
  11. Coercion and Resentment, you are being forced to do something rather than choosing to do it for yourself
  12. Low Frustration Tolerance, or Entitlement Syndrome, it should be easy to succeed, if it’s not easy, you must not be made out for success
  13. Guilt and Self-Blame, punishing yourself over past perceived mistakes

You may notice that many of these cognitive distortions are simply “inaction-specific” versions of the earlier list from above.

Dealing With Anger

Anger is a common aspect of many depressive episodes. As depressed people tend not to carry out the values of their lives into action, they often experience frustration, resentment and anger about the seeming futility and malaise of their life, particularly when they are in touch with or aware of their latent talents and abilities. Anger is often directed outward at others as an expression of the pain within.

When you label someone, you tend to apply a mental filter that results in disqualifying the positive as you emphasize their poor traits and ignore their good ones. Labeling gives way to blame, blame leads to vengeance. Ironically, you can not enhance your self-esteem by attacking someone else’s, so this act of labeling and attacking the character of others in anger proves doubly harmful.

Mind-reading also leads to anger as you will tend to attribute false ideas and motivations to the other person’s behavior.

Magnification of the original negative event will cause greater than necessary pain and cause the pain to linger longer than it must.

Should/should not statements generate entitled beliefs and entitled thinking leads to resentment and frustration with other people as well as the self.

The perception of unfairness or injustice is the ultimate cause of anger. It is the emotion that corresponds 1:1 to your belief that you are being treated unfairly. Significantly, there is no universal standard for fairness or justice, only different ethical systems based upon tradition, circumstances and logical rationalization of self-interest and specific harmony.

Arguments over who is “right” are fruitless and unresolvable.

Some anger is healthy in motivating change. But to determine if your anger is motivational or de-motivational and depressive, consider these two criteria for anger:

  • is it directed at someone who knowingly, intentionally and unnecessarily acted in a hurtful manner?
  • is my anger useful? Does it help me achieve a desired goal or simply defeat me?

Techniques for managing anger:

  • use the double-column technique to explore advantages and disadvantages of feeling angry and engaging in retaliation
  • one you’re ready to calm down, use two column “hot thoughts” versus “cool thoughts” to explore angry versus rational thinking
  • rewrite your “should” rules to break free of entitled thinking
  • change your expectations of others, allow yourself the opportunity to see their behavior as predictable and not surprising
  • try empathy, see the world from your oppressor’s eyes and understand how what they did made sense and wasn’t personal

Examing Depressive Thinking

Some people are so depressed, all they can do is carry their whining and complaining with them everywhere they go. How do you deal with a whiner? Try the Anti-Whiner Technique– when someone complains, agree and compliment, don’t try to help. People who whine never want help solving their problems, they are looking for validation and security from others that their pain is real. By offering solutions, you unwittingly end up sending the message to the whiner that they’re incapable of helping themselves, are being victimized by reality and thus should continue whining!

There is no such thing as a “realistic” depression, although there are realistic reasons for temporarily feeling sad. Consider these two ideas about “realistic” depression:

  • sadness follows real loss or failure, is temporary and never impacts self-esteem negatively; this is a “realistic” depression
  • depression follows flawed or distorted thinking, is recurring and stems from/causes a loss of self-esteem; this is an “unrealistic” depression

Preventing future depressions:

  1. understand why you got depressed (many people never graduate beyond this step because they spend their entire lives in some form of depression!)
  2. know how and why you got better; what techniques were effective?
  3. acquire self-confidence and self-esteem
  4. locate the deeper causes of your depression (many people suffer recurring depression because they never bother to understand what kind of life experiences have made them vulnerable to depression, so they can be on guard against repeating these experiences or the harm of taking the wrong lessons from them)

Downward Arrow Technique, used to mine automatic thoughts for “logical consequences” of silent assumptions, the residue of recurring depressive episodes; then “talk-back” is used the challenge these beliefs.

Taking Action Against Depression

What problems do you face? How are you solving them? This is where the action is, not “worth” or “true self”.

People can spend their whole lives trying to get beneath their depression to an authentic understanding of self when really the difference between a depressed person and a non-depressed person, ultimately, is a willingness to take action to solve one’s own problems.

Why treat yourself in ways it would be rude or uncomfortable to treat others? Encourage yourself to identify your problems and create strategies for resolving them. In taking action, you’ll find your own capability and begin to let the depression go.

Fighting perfectionism:

  • make a list of pros and cons
  • ask yourself if the standard could ever be realized
  • use response-prevention technique and ride the discomfort of not checking
  • become process-oriented, which is in your control, rather than goal-oriented, which is not
  • unwillingness to make mistakes leads to lack of risk-taking; write yourself a note on the value of making mistakes
  • take ownership of your mistakes and assert your right and necessity to make them to keep growing, to yourself and to others

Review – Getting Started in Consulting

Getting Started in Consulting, 4th ed

by Alan Weiss, published 2019

Estimate costs to reasonably support yourself and your family for 1 full year and set this money aside as initial startup costs for consulting

10 Key Traits of Successful Consultants

  1. Humor and perspective
  2. Influence
  3. Confidence and self-esteem
  4. Fearlessness/honesty
  5. Rapid framing (identifying the problem)
  6. Value generation (offering ideas and resources without jealousy)
  7. Intellect
  8. Active listening
  9. Instantiation
  10. Responsiveness

Finding space

  • Needs to be dedicated, private, spacious; need to be able to leave your stuff
  • Don’t want to incur large expense; consider professional service firms with unused space for rent (accountants, lawyers, designers, marketing)
  • Minimize commute
  • Need access at all hours

Startup equipment

  • Laptop, speed and capability for 3 years minimum
  • Copier
  • Postage meter + scale, online Stamps account

Necessary specialist help with professional staff, entrepreneurial bent, accessible, resourceful, same risk-profile:

  • Legal; incorporation
  • Accounting, finance, tax; deductions of reasonable expenses such as medical fees, director’s fees, director’s meetings, salaries to household members for assistance, business credit, withholding and payroll tax strategy, office + equipment, memberships and subscriptions
  • Business banking; a relationship manager to handle questions, expedited banking services, small biz surfaces, SBA-related assistance and opportunities, manage the relationship with the banker and trade business opportunities
  • Designer; letterhead, logo, brochure + publicity materials, media kit, web design
  • Insurance broker; disability, E&O (malpractice), liability, property, major medical and health, term life insurance, umbrella liability, long-term care, etc.
  • Payroll assistance
  • Bookkeeping

Marketing, develop market gravity through:

  • Press kit
    • Client Results/Expected Benefits, what do they get?
    • Testimonials, what have people said about you?
    • Biographical sketch, who are you? accomplishments, credentials and background
    • Position papers/white papers, 2-6 pages outlining ideas or opinions on relevant topics to your consulting work (copyright it)
    • Reference list + contacts, try to fill a page
  • Stationary, letterhead, secondsheets, envelopes, address labels, business cards
  • Networking involves providing value to others to generate reciprocity and becoming interesting to others so they’ll direct others to you; try to do something networking-related at least once per week
    • Buyers
    • Media people
    • Key vendors
    • Mentors
    • Recommenders to buyers
    • Endorsers
    • Bankers
    • Key advisors
    • High profile biz people
    • Trade association execs
    • Community leaders
    • Execs planning conferences and meetings
  • Pro-bono work should be confined to visible, connected non-profits that engage you with potential paying clients who are also donating their time

Advanced marketing

  • Website, as credibility builder, not sales builder or ad
    • clear image about expertise
    • reasons to return (changing content, newsletter)
    • credibility of self and firm
    • personal contact
    • expected results
  • Commercial and self-publishing
    • find publications your target audience reads
  • Media interviews, print, web, radio, TV– PRLeads.com
  • Speaking engagements, National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States
  • Newsletters

Key principles of consulting sales

  • Clients come from relationships, not sales
  • Relationships exist with people, not organizations
  • Think from the buyer’s perspective
  • Focus on outcomes, not methodology
  • Trust comes from convincing people you have their interests at heart
  • Provide value to build trust

Gaining conceptual agreement

  1. What are the objectives to be achieved through this project?
    1. How would conditions improve as a result of this project?
    2. Ideally, what would you like to accomplish?
    3. What would be the difference in the organization if this was successful?
    4. How would your customers be better served?
    5. What is the ROI/ROE/ROA impact you seek?
    6. What is the shareholder impact you seek?
    7. How will you be evaluated in terms of the results of this project?
    8. What keeps you up at night?
    9. What are the top 3 priorities to accomplish?
  2. How will we measure progress and success?
    1. How will you know we’ve accomplished the objective?
    2. Who will be accountable for determining progress and how?
    3. What info would we need from customers, vendors and employees to measure our progress?
    4. How will the environment or culture be improved?
    5. How frequently should we assess progress and how?
    6. What is acceptable improvement? What is ideal improvement?
    7. How will you prove to others the objective has been met?
  3. What is the value or impact to the organization?
    1. What would be the impact if you did nothing at all?
    2. What would happen if this project failed?
    3. What does this mean to you personally?
    4. What is the difference for the organization’s customers/employees?
    5. How will this affect performance or productivity?
    6. How will this affect profitability/market share/competitive advantage?
    7. What is this currently costing you annually and what might you gain or save?

Focus on developing “small yeses”

  • Initial contact, hear background, read some material, agree to second contact
  • Second contact, brief meeting
  • Brief meeting, form relationship, substantiative meeting
  • Second meeting, conceptual agreement
  • Proposal, acceptance and initiation

7 Elements of Great Proposals

  1. Situation appraisal (linkage to previous discussions)
  2. Conceptual agreement components
    1. Objectives
    2. Measures of success
    3. Expression of value
  3. Methodologies and options (provide a menu)
  4. Timing, when does the project begin and end
  5. Joint accountabilities
  6. Terms and conditions
  7. Acceptance

Review – The Medici

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

by Paul Strathern, published 2017

The history of the Medici family might best be summarized with the phrase “from dust to dust.” As if to emphasize how they were destined for greatness and nobility, the family started out as a bunch of Tuscan hillbillies who could trace their lineage to a legendary knight of the Holy Roman Empire who settled near Florence in the 8th or 9th Century. From there and then, no one heard much of these people until some of the clan moved into Florence proper in the early 1300s and formed a small money-changing business.

Using conservative business practices and investing in roles of civic responsibility, eventually a Medici was elected to the position of gonfaloniere, the primus inter pares of the Florentine Republic. From this position the dice were carefully loaded in the favor of subsequent Medici generations by artfully forming governing coalitions that cemented their public position while creating leverage across their business and investment portfolio through the tactical use of subsidy, official privilege, insider information and regulatory capture wielded against competitors and opponents.

The story of the “overnight success” of the Medici begins here. The first great head of the Medici family and Medici bank, Giovanni de Medici, had jockeyed for favor with the newly appointed (anti-)Pope John XXIII in order to secure a role as the personal banker to the Papal Curia upon his ascendancy, which was then granted. For much of the 14th Century and Renaissance period in general, the papal revenues and banking needs were equivalent to managing the treasury function for the modern era’s most wealthy and complex multi-national corporations. To gain this trust was not only a measure of unique esteem valuable in and of itself, but a responsibility that carried with it priceless information and irreplaceable business franchises throughout European Christendom and even the Levant.

However, Pope John XXIII soon became embroiled in the Great Schism in which he and 2 other rival popes were called before the Holy Roman Emperor and summarily dismissed, to be replaced with his appointment, Pope Martin V. At his son Cosimo’s urging (whom he had sent to be his representative at the delegation attending the papal conference) the Medici’s continued to support the defrocked pope, even helping to pay his ransom for his release from imprisonment. Rather than being a financial disaster, this loyal support of the former pope led to a new lucrative banking relationship under Martin V, because in return for bartering his release the former Pope John XXIII agreed to support the nomination of Martin V and participate in the reconciliation of the Schism, leading to greater legitimacy for the new pope.

As a major political player on top of his business responsibilities, Giovanni left three apocryphal warnings for his descendants:

  1. focus on business, not politics
  2. do not be ostentatious
  3. don’t oppose popular will, unless it is aimed at disaster

It seems as if it should be unnecessary to say that in time this advice was forgotten and eventually, so, too, were the Medici.

But the dissolution of the Medici was a ways away yet. After Giovanni came Cosimo as head of the family and the Medici bank. He faced a disastrous and unpopular war between Florence and Lucca (backed by Milan) which threatened to ruin the Florentine treasury and which had pitted the various leading families against one another. Subscribing to Rule #3, Cosimo opposed the conduct of the war and worked to hide the bank’s assets outside of Florence to avoid expropriation in the war’s aftermath.

For these maneuvers and others, Cosimo was recalled to Florence and imprisoned in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio by a faction led by the rival Albizzi who had plans to execute him for treachery. However, Cosimo’s far flung banking business and participation in the geopolitics of Western Europe had led him to a series of alliances and power relationships with foreign entities such as the Venetian Republic and the Papal States which he utilized to create a kind of diplomatic protection for himself, pressuring his enemies to choose exile over execution as his fate.

In the meantime, he used bribes and the threat of invasion of the city by his own mercenary forces outside its walls to add to the diplomatic pressure and engineer a favorable outcome for himself, all while behind bars.

Shaken but not stirred, Cosimo came to rule Florence through the intervention of the Pope and Venice, but vowed that “he would rule, but he would not be seen to rule” going forward. He had learned his lesson about bearing personal responsibility when it came to matters of state. Further, he was coming to understand that it was easier to wield power when others weren’t watching.

According to one supporter, “Whenever he wished to achieve something, he saw to it, in order to escape envy as much as possible, that the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” One policy he pushed for through his crony network was the use of the “catasto”, which had originally been levied to pay for the war, as a punitive tool to crush his political and business opponents through ruinous taxation. While he was forcing his enemies into exile to avoid financial ruin, purchasing and redistributing their former property to his supporters on a bargain basis, he simultaneously used inflated personal balance sheets to hide his income and appear to be bearing the heaviest personal tax burden on a relative basis.

But Cosimo was far from poor:

Between 1434 and 1471, Cosimo spent 663,755 gold florins supporting public works, by comparison, total assets of the Peruzzi bank at its height were 103,000 florins from Western Europe to Cyprus and Beirut.

If he was able to spend 6X the total assets of a well-known competitor at the height of its powers on public works, his total assets and wealth must have been a multiple of that amount. Normal banking and family secrecy aside, the Medici wealth at this time seems to have been nearly incalculable. It is no wonder, then, that one of Cosimo’s key strategies in building and wielding power was to always return favors with favors.

Following Cosimo, who was once to have said that “Trade brings mankind together, and casts glory on those who venture into it” his son Piero and Piero’s son, Lorenzo began to venture the family increasingly beyond the scope of banking and business and into the realm of politics and social standing via nobility. Depending upon how you interpret the events that followed, Piero and Lorenzo were either some of the most “magnificent” leaders of the Medici banking and political enterprises or they were equivalent to the decadent dissipators of the true talent and generational thrift of their greater ancestors.

Either way, the local power of the Medici in and around Florence was successively traded for inter-regional power and influence within the royal families of Europe. As the Medici gained a queen mothership in France, they lost their rule over the Florentine Republic to foreign invasion and intervention and increasingly squandered the capital of their banking and related enterprises. By the early 18th Century the Medici had failed to produce a male heir and had ceded their Grand Duchy of Florence to the Holy Roman Emperor and ceased to be a meaningful business or political entity forever.

Review – Leonardo and The Last Supper

Leonardo and The Last Supper

by Ross King, published 2013

In the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, to complete a large bronze equestrian statue to honor himself and his late father and cement his authority over the people of Milan and northern Italy. It was to be one of the greatest equestrian statues of the era and one of the most technically challenging, single biggest pieces of cast bronze in the history of sculpture which would also fix Da Vinci’s reputation as a craftsman, artist and virtuoso.

But like many of Da Vinci’s projects and ambitions, it was not to be. After a series of unfortunate events that cascaded from Sforza’s unpredictable realpolitik, the duke was forced to melt down the bronze assigned to the project to form cannon to defend Milan from the invading forces of France’s Charles VIII.

Although Leonardo Da Vinci is known to history as an artist and mechanical genius (or at least, a philosopher of theoretical mechanical devices) his great personal ambition was to create outstanding weapons of war. He hoped the equestrian statue would be his entree into a world of defense industries assignments for the notoriously pugnacious Sforza clan. Instead, he spent most of his time in their employ designing parties, feasts and pageants and lamenting himself at age 42 as some one who could not positively reply to his own request, “Tell me if I ever did a thing.” He had struggled unsuccessfully in his 30s to learn Latin, a standard achievement of the scholarly and intellectual in his era, and as a result ended up a uomo senza lettere or “man without letters”, almost like a person today who failed to go to college. However, it was not the external standards of brilliance or achievement he failed against but rather the “extremely high standard he set for himself in his quest for a new visual language” that brought him the most self-doubt and personal pain.

And so it seems fittingly ironic then that his pinnacle achievement and the work of art he would come to be most famous for beyond even the mysterious Mona Lisa was not a weapon of war on a field of conquest or a bold statue in a central plaza but a fresco-style painting of a commonly depicted scene throughout Italy, found in many a dining hall of a local convent– The Last Supper.

There are many details of the painting that ended up making it remarkable and that have to do with the finished output, such as we know of it today in its highly degenerated and damaged form from the original. But it is what went into the painting that are the details most worthy of consideration.

First, this being a common subject matter in a humble, dingy room in a less-than-spectacular Dominican church, Da Vinci considered the work beneath him and like many of his projects he had trouble bringing himself to complete it. One of the art world’s masterpieces almost never happened out of simple spite and disinterest.

Second, Da Vinci combined the urban with the urbane in painting the portraits of the individual saints. To capture interesting “grotesque” expressions, he spent weeks hanging around the lower class parts of town studying the bodies, stances and gestures of various commoners. But for the visages of the saints themselves who are, along with the face of Jesus, lost to history in terms of any factual depictions, he selected from well-known friends and courtiers of the Ducal Palace in Milan. Thus these characters are both realistic, ahistorical and anachronistic simultaneously.

Third, the work of fresco is time and labor intensive and large scale murals are very much a team sport.  Many materials such as certain paint colors and sealants had to be developed in a proprietary fashion by each workshop through a method of experimentation similar to laboratory chemistry. Most great art works were made by the master and his apprentices, but contracts at times specified certain portions which must be completed by the master himself. And the work itself was not necessarily quiet and contemplative but perhaps closer to today’s modern construction sites replete with boombox jamming. Although, Da Vinci is reputed to have worked to the sound of musicians or readers speaking from philosophical books, a Renaissance-era Spotify/podcast listening approach to productivity.

While the Last Supper is an act of inspired genius, it did not simply leap out of the head of Da Vinci through his paintbrush fully-formed. It was a team effort and followed a thorough process in which the final “draft” was first broken into constituent parts, practiced and rehearsed (“studies”, “carbons”) before being recomposed piece-by-piece as a fresco. The process is similar to writing a long history or novel (see Paris Review Interview No. 5 w/ Robert Caro) and has parallels in sports and investment analysis– from the parts to the whole.

While Leonardo Da Vinci found himself disappointed in his inability to produce a volume of highly anticipated works, his ability to nonetheless achieve global notoriety for just two works of art over the course of a longer, fully life perhaps gives double-meaning to his quip that “men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least.”

Review – The Bonfire Of The Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe, published 1987

During a these days rare dinner with friends our conversation turned to the time men spend away from home and their families, working their jobs. In this era it has become fashionable for women to work jobs and make money as men do, but save for a few standouts who are either childless outliers or work from pure necessity due to a failed relationship and mounting obligations, women do not “work as men do.” They don’t spend as much time at it and they certainly are not existentially defined by it. You may fall on either side of this line in your suppositions and beliefs, but where I fall is that this is the nature of man and woman.

In this role of provider, of striver, it becomes difficult if not impossible for a man to dissociate himself from his work such that he can stand independently apart from it without falling down on top of himself. He can always find a way to justify spending just a little bit more time at the office, or networking on the golf course, or catching up on emails after hours and so on, rather than reading to his kids or helping with household chores or kissing his wife on the forehead. Not because he’s trying to shirk his “duties” — far from it, for a man’s duty is to work! — but because in so prioritizing his time he is more fully expressing and embodying himself and defining who he is through his productive ambition.

There are two terrifying prospects then for men– to have no productive work to throw oneself into, or worse, to have work that doesn’t matter, to the man, to his family and to the world.

“Bonfire” is a story of the undoing of many characters. Great and small, main characters and side acts alike, each person is ultimately undone in this story in various dreadful ways, like the cuckolded Arthur Ruskin who succumbs in a plate of his fancy food at a French-dining scene. But the most terrible undoing of all, at least as far as a man is concerned, is the undoing of Sherman McCoy.

The major drama of the story follows McCoy in the criminal aftermath of his hit-and-run in the Bronx. But this drama serves only to distract the unobservant reader from the more existential moment when McCoy tries to explain to his six year-old daughter what he does for a living. In that moment, he learns that his work is inexplicable and meaningless.

Though touted by himself and others as a “Master of the Universe” at a major bond trading firm, Sherman McCoy comes to the understanding that he is at best a lowly salesman and at worst a janitor. He makes his money by trying to convince other people to buy and sell things and the residual value of these transactions, though large in absolute terms to an individual, are nonetheless like so many “golden crumbs” to be swept up from the table or floor of even more gluttonous organizations and actors.

Although seemingly talented, good at what he does and maybe even in a sense born to do it, it is essentially menial work and McCoy is replaceable, not strategic. He experiences this fact tangibly when, as his personal drama percolates, he witnesses the ways in which his former world goes on happily without him. This is the truly crushing blow for him, when he begins to have trouble sleeping and contemplates an existential way out of his misery.

Though cast as a social satire and an attack on financial hotshots and others of privilege, the book is perhaps better understood as a warning to men in general. That warning might be to anchor your work in your self and not to anchor your self in your work; as long as you are alive you will have your self, but you may not always have your work, at least in the way you’ve always understood it.

Review – Brunelleschi’s Dome

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

by Ross King, published 2013

The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known far and wide as Florence’s Duomo, took nearly 150 years to construct, beginning in 1296 and ending in 1436 with the completion of its massive dome under the direction of capomaestro Filippo Brunelleschi. The quinto acuto arch of the dome was an engineering marvel constructed without stabilizing buttresses and without a wooden centering to hold it in place as it was built. It defied the imagination of the civic leaders responsible for building the cathedral at the time and the methods and architectural rationale behind it were made purposefully obscure by the paranoid and secretive master “Pippo”.

Fast forward over 500 years of history and the principles by which the dome was constructed appear to be no less mysterious. From the post-war era onward numerous attempts at magnetic imaging and other sounding methods have been made to try to ascertain the precise materials and methods used with most returning a Magic 8-Ball-esque  answer of “Reply hazy, try again.” Many lesser domes had been constructed in earlier history in the West and the East, but Brunelleschi’s dome was the greatest span and the highest height achieved since the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and before that the Pantheon of Rome. Few have attempted anything nearing its proportions since and it seems apparent from the text that even if some modern had an inkling to they’d be hard pressed to figure out how to accomplish it without “cheating” in some way by use of innovative new materials or other supportive techniques.

But the grandiosity and secrecy of the dome’s construction is just one of the many wonders involved. Another is that Brunelleschi was not a trained architect but a goldsmith. Of course, goldsmiths of his era were considered the master craftsmen and technicians of their time (the book mentions how most significant architectural works in the West predating the Florence cathedral failed to record the name of the architects responsible for designing and raising them, so lowly was their perceived status) and the task before Brunelleschi was not simply to design the dome but to coordinate its construction via teams of specialized handiwork guild members as well as to manage the logistics of supplying the building materials, much as a film producer is responsible for pulling together writers, actors, financiers, set locations, film teams and so on. Still, it seems to demonstrate the virtuosity of the man’s mind that he was responsible for building something which was essentially an amateur attempt given his background.

Another wonder of the raising of the cathedral and the dome is the fact that this was one of many simultaneous grand public works built over the time. The city had organized a well-financed oversight committee, the Opera del Duomo, led by the most esteemed woolen cloth guild (a key pillar of Florence’s economy and regional importance), the Arte della Lana, which hired contractors to complete the cathedral and numerous other churches, sculptures and edifices around the city. Today we might think of an economic boom period lasting a decade but it seems that Florence’s skyline was littered with cranes, booms and scaffolds for the better part of two centuries.

Besides innovating architecturally, Brunelleschi also created numerous ingenious tools and machines to aid the construction process. One was an enormous ox-powered materials hoist which rose to the height of the roof of the cathedral from the floor of the nave and had changeable gearing such that the ox team could raise and lower materials in a controlled fashion without being removed from harness and changing direction, an enormous time savings over the life of the project. He also invented specialized cranes, pulley systems and other machines for traversing materials across the expanse of the open dome while it was under construction. Getting multiple hundred-ton slabs of marble, hardened timber beams and iron chains and clasps up the 20-story height of the cathedral was only half the battle as once there they needed to be moved across numerous axes in a precise, controlled fashion before being lowered into place, all while gusts of wind, rain and sometimes even snow obstructed the workers’ efforts.

As impressive and awe-inspiring as structures like Santa Maria del Fiore are and were, I couldn’t help thinking about the monumental waste of these projects compared to alternative uses for the materials and labor and ingenuity involved. Most of the space created by the cathedral is empty by design– this heightens the sense of majesty of the house of God. And this is partly why the building was so complex and expensive to create. The mere fact that the people of this era could construct something like this is a demonstration of their wealth, organizational capabilities, technical know-how and culture of productivity. I just wonder if they weren’t filling up multiple city blocks with empty temples made of the finest construction materials, what could they have built instead that isn’t there?

Ironically, it was these “wasteful” decisions that are the primary source of Florence’s modern tourist economy, so in that sense it was a far-sighted decision by the early city masters to invest in their descendant’s future well-being. And some have even made the case that the splendors of Florence’s Renaissance urbanity were enough to protect it from destruction during World War II.

Florence in the Renaissance was something like New York City today, a wealthy center of commerce and banking, confident in its own power and influence, a great patron of culture and the arts and continually raising great structures in honor of itself. But whereas you can walk amongst the streets of Florence today and see a Medici palazzo or a fine church built half a millenium ago, it’s hard to imagine walking the streets of New York City five hundred years from today and finding the remains of yesteryear still standing and still full of wonder and delight.

 

Review – American Icon

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company

by Bryce Hoffman, published 2013

As I read this book, three questions ran through my mind. The first question was “Was Ford Motor Company worth saving?”, the second question was “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would have happened to Ford Motor Company if the effort was unsuccessful?” and the final question was “Why was Ford savable but GM and Chrysler were not?” But before I share my thoughts on those three questions I will try to summarize my understanding of how Alan Mulally did it.

Prior to being headhunted for the CEO role at Ford, Alan Mullaly had not spent any time in the international or US auto industries. While he had a nostalgic interest in Ford products rooted in his childhood memories like many Americans of his generation, Mullaly was an aeronautical engineer by education and trade and had made his name climbing the ranks of Boeing’s commercial aviation division. He was known as an able executive manager from that experience but many people inside the company and in the wider business world were skeptical that he’d be able to make an impact without understanding the unique intricacies of Ford’s automotive operations.

Besides questions about the applicability of his experience and skillset, Mulally faced the problem of the “bench”– by recruiting an outsider to run the company, Bill Ford was signaling that there was no one within the company who was up to the task. Further, there was a belief within the company and shared by other business strategists that Ford’s culture was broken and it couldn’t be fixed by continuing to employ the very leaders who were responsible for it being what it was. People expected Mulally to come in and make a number of dramatic public executions but no one could predict how he’d repopulate the executive ranks with fresh faces when the company was going through a crisis and faced a nightmare in attracting talent to a sinking ship.

Mulally’s solution, then, was both simple and unexpected. He treated his lack of industry knowledge as irrelevant in favor of installing proven management practices he developed at Boeing; and he endeavored to let the individual members of the leadership team come to their own conclusions as to whether they had what it took to change the culture and save the company– he created a new standard for performance and accountability and expected everyone to rise to the occasion or else fold under the pressure and leave on their own.

The cornerstone of his management practice was a weekly business plan review held on Thursdays with the global leadership team. Each VP was asked to run through a number of preformatted slides and color-coded KPIs in front of their peers, indicating the state of their operations against plan and projected five years out. The goal of the meetings was to publicly acknowledge challenges and to generate awareness that could lead to group problem-solving in follow-up special review meetings. Bringing visibility to problems created opportunities for the team to consider solutions that might originate outside a specific operating unit and it also allowed them to avoid compounding mistakes by adjusting operating plans in light of new challenges in related divisions.

This practice addressed one part of the corporate governance problem Ford had. The other part was addressed by restructuring roles and divisions themselves. Mulally implemented a matrix approach to management hierarchy and reporting which not only increased the number of VPs reporting directly to him, solving the problem of information silos or lack of accountability through problems hidden by bureaucracy, but it also organized more functions on a per-project basis which increased the likelihood of successful resource coordination within the boundaries of the project.

When most people think about strategy, they think about competitive strategy meaning what kinds of decisions does the company make with regard to its customers or its competition? But there is another layer of strategy which is often more important in a very large, very complex organization such as Ford, which is corporate strategy– how will the internal resources of the company be organized to maximize scale, efficiency and coordination? Mulally definitely made adjustments to Ford’s competitive strategy (such as his insight that their product lineup was too complex and fractured and needed to be radically simplified to fewer competitive models, or his commitment to raise the quality and durability of Ford’s products) but it appears the biggest impact was made through his corporate strategy rooted in new corporate governance initiatives.

Every social organization faces coordination problems. Without successfully solving these coordination problems, which are unique to each entity based upon its history, size and competitive position, there is chaos inside the company which results inwardly in waste and outwardly in a weakened competitive position. It is therefore entirely possible that something as simple as creating more effective meetings (which increase the quantity and quality of information-sharing across the organization, improving coordination) and restructuring roles and responsibilities (which empowers the “right” people to act on certain information, or else creates new responsibility for action that otherwise did not exist) can have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of a multi-billion enterprise.

Of course there were other key initiatives that took place either at Mulally’s behest or on his watch which played critical roles in how the story turned out, including a major renegotiation of the company’s union contracts as well as a massive refinancing of the company’s debt and capital structure. But from my reading of the text, these things would’ve at best given the company a bit more rope with which to hang itself. Fixing corporate governance and leveraging the company’s corporate strategy was the real coup de grace that Mulally delivered. For an amateur executive manager such as myself it is both inspiring and a bit unnerving to think of how poorly managed so many major and minor enterprises alike are given this insight.

Now that I’ve offered my interpretation of how Mulally pulled it off, let’s explore the three higher level questions I wondered about as I was reading. I’ll take them in reverse order.

The book doesn’t make it clear why Ford could be saved while GM and Chrysler could not. (Along the lines of the “rope to hang with” logic, while Ford had an incipient existential crisis aggravated by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, GM and Chrysler remained happily/deludedly oblivious to their own until the GFC arrived.) One answer might be that Ford still had significant private family ownership while GM and Chrysler had already been converted into unfamiliar, faceless corporate automatons by that point and so there was no individual impetus to save them. This reason, if true, represents a different kind of corporate governance problem that extends into the realm of social governance.

Another reason might be that GM’s and Chrysler’s problems were too deep. Even if someone was aware they needed saving, and wanted to save them, they couldn’t be. It would’ve been futile. So no one even tried. A final argument I considered is based upon scarcity. There was only one Alan Mulally in the world, he could only save one legacy American automobile manufacturer and so once he was called upon to save Ford there was no one left for the other two. I consider this to be the least likely circumstance but it could be true.

In any case, it might not be an important question to answer. We might consider why in trying to answer the second question, “What do we mean by ‘save’ and what would’ve happened if the effort was unsuccessful?” Things get sticky here. If Ford Motor Company collapsed, as many American and international nameplates collapsed over the years ahead of it, life would go on just as it did when the others fell. Some of the physical assets, such as plants and parts inventory, would be purchased by surviving manufacturing entities and others would be scrapped or abandoned. Some employees (and managers) would find work in the same field under different ownership and others would find work in new fields unrelated to automotive. Some of the brands, technology and IP of the company might be purchased by third parties and in that way the Ford brand might be “kept alive” indefinitely. Or it may have been the case that a failure of that magnitude killed the value of this historic franchise and the Blue Oval would be buried for good.

If anything Ford did had value and utility in the marketplace, it would likely continue to have such value and utility whether “Ford” was responsible for producing it or not. And to the extent it did not (in whole or in part) there’s really no reason why such activity should continue under Ford’s aegis if it wouldn’t under anyone else’s. Nostalgia by itself is only worth so much and it turns out that is not very much.

So “saving” Ford really means keeping a certain collection of assets under the control of a certain collection of financial and management interests and retaining certain contracts with employees and a certain ecosystem of vendors and distributors. There’s nothing magic or eternal to this and the evidence for this fact is contained by the knowledge that Ford itself had agglomerated into itself other foreign brands such as Volvo, Mazda and Jaguar-Land Rover. If some brands can die and others can live on under Ford’s ownership, certainly something similar could happen to the Ford brand and organization without cosmic repercussions. The dramatic tension of the story loses a bit of gusto when we consider all of this.

The final question is a moral question. It implies a “should”. Should Ford Motor Company have been saved? Asking about its worth begs the question “Worth to whom?” And you could insert many answers there: its employees, its suppliers, its customers, politicians with Ford operations in their districts, “society” at large, and so on. But because Ford Motor Company is and was a public company owned by a collection of shareholders and operated with the intent of earning a profit and thereby generating wealth, I want to focus this question on the members of the Ford family, who were its controlling shareholders and thus primarily responsible for the strategic governance of the company.

The book makes it clear that aside from Bill Ford and one or two other direct descendants of Henry Ford, the Ford family as shareholders were not deeply involved in the management or operations of the company and in fact many of them might be what are politely termed “trust fund layabouts.” That is, many of the existing Ford family members did little through their own efforts to contribute to the enhancement of the value of the Ford Motor Company nor any other personal enterprise they might be associated with and instead enjoyed a comfortable life of easy wealth and leisure thanks to the luck of being born into an inheritance.

Personally, I see no moral evil in that, though many people do. Some people will be rich and some people will be poor and the fact that some people are rich simply because they had a successful relative isn’t their fault. If anything, we should protect these privileges as a social obligation because the wealth they enjoy was rightfully created by one of their heirs and that individual, because they created it, has every right to do whatever it is they want to do with it up to and including giving it away to charity, giving it away to relatives or burying physical manifestations of it in a giant pit.

That being said, because it is not a moral evil for them to have it it’s also not a moral evil for them to lose it. They’re certainly not entitled to it and they don’t seem to have any real capability to make anything out of it beyond a means of personal amusement. Why Ford Motor Company should be “saved” to protect them from the follies of the world is a question with no objective answer. If it wasn’t them who owned this wealth it would be someone else, so why worry so much if their ownership claim dissolves in a pool of historical mismanagement and transfers to some other person or persons with a better idea of what to do with it? That sounds like progress, to me.

In fact, it sounds not just like progress, but like Thomas Jefferson. We might but repurpose a few words from his famous correspondence to have something rather fitting for this occasion, as seen here:

What signify a few fortunes lost in a century or two? The tree of economy must be refreshed from time to time with the wealth of trust fund layabouts & shiftless public shareholders. It is its natural manure.