Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime" by Bill Gates Sr.

"Eighty Percent of Success is Showing up."
Woody Allen, Comedian, Writer, Director, Oscar Winner

This is going to be a quick review, because it really was a quick read, but packed with great insights. I decided to grab this book a while ago after seeing a terrific interview with Bill Gates (Junior) and his dad (Senior) on Charlie Rose last year. Around the time everyone was raving about Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell's latest in a string of Bestsellers) here was the perfect example to prove Gladwell's point. 

Gladwell told the story of Bill Gates' life in great detail, outlining just how very impossibly lucky this kid was. But not only did he go to the right schools and live in the right town, he also had the right parents. And I think it's worth exploring how someone who works incredibly hard, and has made a lots of right moves, got a lot of that from his parents.

"Showing Up for Life" is not a Biography at all. It reads more like a letter from Senior to his family: each of his children, and his two wives (sadly, both were taken by terminal illnesses). Bill's maternal mother Mary, contributed a great deal to Bill's incredibly competitive nature. Early on, the Gates family, along with five other families, would head to wilderness for camping trips. Because they pooled their resources together, they were able to secure a cabin on the lake, where everyone could play games, and hold competitions of all sorts. Competition drove almost every aspect of life, whether they were playing capture the flag at Camp Cheerio, or playing a game of cards to see who got to skip out on washing dishes after supper. Mary had a knack for bringing fun to whatever they were doing.

That's a big deal. We sometimes think of these incredibly successful Entrepreneurs and think only in terms of dollar signs. We forget that this was the funnest thing in the world for them. In the Early Microsoft days, coding MS DOS for 12 hrs straight, then grabbing some pizza with your friends before going right back to the office again was really fun. Hey, they were geeks.

Also, to Gladwell's point, the charitable work that Bill and Melinda Gates are now doing did not start with Bill Jr. Some people, myself included, assumed he was an egomaniac, or was doing it because he felt guilty about his dominance in the PC market. Some even believe he just wants a Nobel Peace prize. But those people can't fully understand Bill Gates Jr, unless they first understand the man he strives to be: Senior had been involved with charities long before Bill Gates ever met MS co-Founder Paul Allen. In fact, Mary often asked her young children how much of their allowance they planned to give to charity.  

I thought it was amazing that Mary actually knew the CEO of IBM in the mid-80's, through their joint work with United Way. When he first heard about a little company in Seattle called Microsoft, he remarked, "Oh, that's Mary Gates' boy." And when Bill married Melinda in 1994 (up to that point, she was a product manager at Microsoft) her 'new job' became working on the charitable foundation full time.

And the idea of giving everything away goes a lot farther back than Bill Gates Sr. This would not be the first time Bill Gates was compared to John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was the greatest Oil tycoon there ever was, getting in at the turn of the 20th century, and ultimately becoming one of the greatest Philanthropists there ever was too. His legacy, passed down from generation to generation, is everywhere, from Malaria research to working on AIDS treatment, and helping famers in third world countries grow more bountiful crops. Everywhere Bill went, he saw the Rockefeller name. 

I don't want this to turn into a story about Bill Gates, because it's not. All the children are incredibly successful, which is kind of staggering. Bill Senior and Mary, and the way they chose to expose their children to new ideas, and new experiences, are the real story. And though Bill Senior, a lawyer by trade, was always finically well-off, they never seemed to let it go to their heads. In fact, there isn't a trace of ego anywhere with any of these guys

I found something striking with Bill Senior: being Christians and very rich, you would think they were fighting new tax bills left and right, as many talking heads on Network TV do. But if anything the Gates family is fighting for more taxes, every chance they get. Bill Senior actually got his start, when he returned from World War 2. The American recovery plan contained something called the GI Bill, which promised to pay for all those who served in WW2 to go to College. It was thought to be costly and extravagant at the time, but it worked: filling the offices and companies with young bright minds which would put America on a path to unprecedented growth. The Marshall plan was also widely criticized; the plan would put money forward to help America's allies recover from the ravages of War, but contributed to a sense of community and stability around the world.

These are two big pieces of legislation Senior picked out to demonstrate his inspiration for 'giving back.' And that's basically what a tax is: giving back to those who paid for the schools, the roads, the police departments that created the society in which you could, say, start a tech company. 

When I said I don't detect a hint of Ego in these guys, its more like, the Ego has grown. Sometimes we say 'WE' to mean our family, or our favorite team, or our city, or even our country (like in the World Cup). But what happens when it grows beyond that to mean the whole world? You feel pain when people on the other side of the world are hurting. Maybe that's why giving away 20 billion dollars, isn't just a 'nice thing to do' for these guys; but rather, it looks like so much fun.

"Dad, the next time someone asks if you're the real Bill Gates, I hope you say 'Yes.' I hope you tell them you're all the things the other one strives to be" 
Bill Gates Jr. Philanthropist, Technokid

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

"If You can Talk, You can Write" by Joel Saltzman

I got this book ages ago. It was only on my last visit back to my parent's place that I dug it up again, and knew I had to revisit its great ideas. 

But I debated putting this one up on the site. Is it about business? Hardly. Does it have anything to do with China, or Asia, at all? Nope. But it dawned on me, that one of my greatest assets, and one of my greatest joys, is writing. And even if you're not interested in Short Stories (something I've loved to do since I was a kid), you can still benefit massively from a book that will turn your annoying frustrating emails into a smooth lyrical flow. I swear this is true:  I actually get compliments from colleagues that my weekly progress reports are actually.... engaging and enjoyable and to read. I've found that a few guidelines can fix almost any piece of writing, and much of it comes right from this book.

One look at the title, and you already know the first message in the book: write the same way you talk. What a lot of people do is talk like normal people, but when they pick up a pen, or fire up the Word Processor, they start to over think everything, even before completing the first sentence.

"No, I've got to start somewhere else. No, I'll talk about this later. Now, how would I ask that?"

Stop trying to 'write', just talk on paper (on the screen). Write and write and write. Again, this isn't just about Short Stories or Novels. Everything you do. 

Writing an email to Mom? Get it all on down on the email. Write and write and write, and don't block anything. Forget about order of paragraphs, formatting and grammar. That's the easy stuff. The hardest part about writing is that the vast majority of people refuse to write the way they talk. They think that writing is somehow 'special' and everything must sound like a Royal Scroll from Her Majesty the Queen. They also think that they're smart enough to edit 'on the fly' and thus refuse to put anything down on the page, unless it's perfect. Stop that. See the delete key? It's your friend.

How much editing and erasing can you expect to do? A ton. 80% of your first draft is probably a confusing redundant mess. As Saltzman brilliantly puts it, the best writers usually end up with this on the first draft:

"Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, GOLD!"

As a boy, I lived in the countryside, with little else to distract myself, other than reading books, and drawing. Like most youngsters, I had a vivid imagination, only I was, perhaps more than most, often in the position to write about it (or doodle about it). Fortunately there was encouragement to try writing stories in school; I wrote things like mysteries and fantasy stories. One in particular, seemed to be blatant copy of J.R.R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings ( of which I'd read about 10 pages before buckling under the weight of the tome) but it didn't matter--my third grade teacher thought it was neat since it was in French.

Around the age of 10 I was lucky enough to join a weekly Writers group, and the instructor would push us to think out of the box: writing an entire story with pure dialogue; writing an entire passage of very short sentences; taking a real life news clipping and then turning it into a full blown story with background, characters, etc. 

In high school, my favorite class was often English, where they encouraged us to get even crazier. Often the final exams included a prompt essay, where they would give you a choice of three words (say Dazed, Rapture, Harmony) which would 'prompt' you to write a 3 page exploration of whatever came to mind. Like Jimi Hendrix whipping and flailing for 10 minutes on a single snippet of a melody, you had to love the language to really nail it. Looking back, the keys were 

a) the ability to let go of your perfectionist mind,
b) the ability to visualize and vividly describe what you see in your mind, and 
c) the ability to edit the hell out of it, once the first draft was done.

As Saltzman reminds us "Writing is Rewriting." Any great piece of art, whether its a musical piece, or a great essay, or a beautiful engraving, has been drafted, and edited like mad. The timeless Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once commented that if he couldn't edit his jokes, he'd be nowhere as a professional comedian. He is a brilliant editor of jokes, more than just a very funny guy. Seinfeld admitted he often wrestles with a single line of a joke for hours on end. In comedy, if you can get a 10 word line down to 7, it's 30% funnier. That's the math of the laugh, I guess. 

When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mr. Digby, used the word terse. I love that word. Getting a 5 line paragraph down to 3, like Seinfeld, gave the words weight, and power. Editing creatively leads to writing that is layered, and a pleasure to read. But be careful: you have to walk the fine line between flowery puff (too many words, unclear, no direction) and boring writing (just the facts, no life, no pizazz). And to be honest, that's Editing. Writing is Rewriting.

So let's take a step back, for those who may not be interested in Creative Writing, but have to write everyday for work, and wonder how to improve it (this is huge for those for whom English is a Second Language). The key to great emails, or great memos, around the office, is to read what you wrote aloud and be diligent in your editing. Note: I said aloud, not loud. Just read it to yourself, and stop whenever something sounds wrong, or not what you meant it to sound like.

 Just as before, if you can say it in 1 line, instead of 2, that's progress. If you can use 10 words instead of 15, that's improvement. Also, consider the tone of the writing. If you're writing a prospective customer, don't kiss his butt too much, but don't be cold, and lifeless either. If you're writing to your boss, you want to sound confident, but not overstep your bounds. Never ever give off the air of arrogance or know-it-all-ness to your bosses and managers. Just read your own work aloud, and ask yourself if that is how you meant it to sound. If you can talk, you can write. If you read it to yourself, the problems and strengths of the emails will be immediately apparent to you. You may need to read through the whole thing 3 or 4 times to get it just right. 

Do you really think I just one-off these blog posts? No way. I don't post these until I've read the whole thing out loud and have smoothed out the rough spots. Things you wouldn't even imagine will come out... like a huge gap in logic between two paragraphs. Or a word that's been used 4 times in the span of 2 lines. That's a no no. It's lazy writing.

OK you read it out loud, but it's still not Shakespeare. Wanna see more of your mistakes? Take a couple hours off, go for a walk, catch a movie, go play sports. Then come back, you won't believe how 'wrong' your first draft was. And your 2nd draft will be great.

Want to do even better than that? Take a day off. Or a week. The goal here is Objectivity. The more of it you have the more you'll know what the reader will think of when they read your work. And that's how you right something that sounds as great and reads as smoothly as 'Catcher in the Rye'. 

That's good public speaking. And that's good writing.

I've tried to summarize some of the great ideas, but there's a ton more in here. Joel Saltzman has written a book that oozes the love for writing from every page. If you're the creative type and have always wanted to turn your unique stories into a career as a writer, definitely pick this up.  Even if all you do is turn out the greatest emails your boss has ever seen, it's worth it.