Sunday, August 30, 2009

What would you do?

I met Chad Varga a few months ago. A handsome, enthusiastic, 6 foot 7 inch young man, he starred in basketball at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 90's, had a tryout with the Dallas Mavericks, broke his hand, and went to Europe to play professionally.

At 25, at the height of his talent and physical development, Chad walked away from the sport he loved. He walked away from the fame, adulation and money (he had a large six-figure income on the boards, complete with incentives) to pursue another calling - to helps kids in trouble.

Why did Chad Varga walk away from fame and fortune (and a shot at coming back to the NBA) to help kids? He did it because of his own screwed-up childhood. When we say "screwed-up", it's an understatement. Chad's childhood was tragic, affected by drugs and alcohol addiction, not his addiction but his mother's.

What is screwed-up? Try this: Chad moved 17 times in his first 18 years. Chad's mother came in and out of his life every few years without announcement. Once, when she did visit, she stabbed him in the hand with a butcher knife because she thought he had poured her alcohol down the drain. When he was just a toddler, she took him and his sister Wendy to crack houses to get a fix and some sexual pleasure. When his mother was at home and partying, she locked the kids in a closet. At one point in her life, she ran drugs from South America and, as a result, Chad had a chance to visit her in federal prison.

You'd think that a guy who had Chad's childhood would either become a criminal or an addict himself. You'd think that if he ever made anything of his life, which he and everyone else probably doubted, he'd take the money and run. But, he didn't. In fact, he ran from the money, taking his family with him. Imagine being his wife, son and daughter when he said to them, "Let's leave this beautiful home on the Mediterranean Sea, leave the nice clothes and cars, leave the greatest comforts money can buy and go back to America so that I can start a non-profit to help kids who have lives like I had."

Well, it turns out that he had a beautiful and understanding wife and two great kids who stood behind him 100% in his decision as they returned to America to begin a non-profit organization called "Inspire Now", dedicated to taking a message to teenagers that they have greatness within them, that they can succeed, that they can transform their lives, that they are not alone.

Chad has spoken to over 1.5 million kids in the last eight years, more than any other motivational speaker. He goes anywhere he is called to speak with any number in an audience from 4 to 52,000. He seldom touches a basketball. Instead, at 34 he struggles to keep in shape and keep the weight accumulated from the airlines and speaking circuit away from his middle. But, he still has the deep, reverberating passion of a man who knows he made the right decision, especially when he recites the statistics on how many kids write suicide plans every year, how many kids carry guns to school, how many girls are raped or become pregnant. At those time you see in his eyes that he knows he made the right decision to walk away from basketball.

Few of us ever have to make a decision like that. But I wonder? What would you do?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do you have a partner?

I taught Professional Writing to a class of working people Tuesday evening in the Masters of Public Management program at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. The class began at 530pm and lasted with no breaks until 800pm. It made for a long day, especially because I began teaching at 900am that morning.

I gave my introductory lecture and used my best jokes with the audience of 17 students, most of whom, like me, had been working all day at hospitals, insurance companies and other businesses around Pittsburgh. The students in this class, as befitting the CMU profile, consisted of people from Japan, China, Turkey and, of course, America.

Near the middle of the class as part of a lengthy discussion of communication, I asked the students to find a partner, one to be the sender of a message, the other to be the receiver. I was going to ask them to replicate a study done at Stanford University whereas the sender, using a pen or pencil, taps the melody of a song to the receiver who must identify the song solely by the tapping.

The experiment works beautifully to demonstrate several issues about communication. For one thing, when nine or ten people start tapping on their desks, they create a lot of NOISE and distraction, typical of any communication environment. Usually in my classes the students are from varying countries and they don't know the same songs. And, always the students demonstrate the problem known as "The curse of knowledge," that is, the problem that occurs when senders of messages who know their messages too well try to communicate with audiences who may know little to nothing.

In the Stanford study 50% of the senders thought they could successfully tap the song to the receivers, but only 2.5% succeeded, proving that most of us are, indeed, cursed by our own knowledge. We send messages and assume that the audiences have the same knowledge, interest and enthusiasm that we have. The curse is so strong that when the students tap the songs they can hear them in their heads and don't understand why the receivers can't hear them as well. Typically, in my classes the success factor mirrors the Stanford success rate, about 2%.

So, as I was beginning the exercise, one that the students always find enjoyable, I said, "Everyone get a partner." After saying this, I noticed that a few students were not moving. So, I addressed them directly and said, "Please get a partner." A few of them looked at me with blank expressions. Finally, as a result of the late hour, I suppose, I became a little irritated and looked at one man from Turkey and in a little louder voice said, "Get a partner. Now" He didn't move.

Frustrated, I asked, a little too harshly, "Do you have a partner?" He looked at me and said quietly and humbly, "Yes, my wife."

I was shocked and embarrassed and immediately understood that I had suffered the curse of knowledge. I assumed he defined the word "partner" in the same way I did. And, I learned a valuable lesson from the exchange. We can not assume that even the simple word "partner" in the context of a classroom means the same to everyone. When I told him to get a partner, he must have been tremendously confused. "How do I get my wife here from Turkey?" he may have wondered. He was confused, I was irritated, the class was watching - the situation could have escalated...over a single word.

We had trouble communicating and I imagined what must happen on an international stage as countries and their diplomats struggle to understand each other and struggle to maintain peace among each other trying to use language as their medium. I learned a valuable lesson, one that I won't soon forget. Don't assume that any word or symbol has the same meaning to everyone and be patient. If you don't, you won't have a partner!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

You only need two words.

When we were in school, our teachers made us write 100-word essays. Or, we applied for scholarships that asked for 500-word essays. This unfortunate practice has led many of us to search the dictionary for long words so as to create long sentences and even longer paragraphs. Ultimately this gives rise to the kind of business writing we see, filled with jargon, buzz words and incomprehensible gobbledygook. We think that if we use long words in long sentences we'll appear smarter.

Our teachers should have told us that we only need two words to write a great sentence. I use as proof that wondrous sentence from the King James Bible (John 11:35), "Jesus wept." You will recall, if you've ever read about Lazarus, that he and his sisters were greatly loved by Christ. But, Lazarus died. Jesus learned of the death from Mary, Lazarus's sister, who approached him crying. When Jesus saw this, the Bible tell us, "Jesus wept." How profound is that! Two words! "Jesus wept."

A simple two word sentence conjured a full image of the entire scene, and the great compassion of Christ, for each of us. No further description was required. Two words covered it. Great writing does that: it creates full color images for the reader in simple, concise language. The writer engages the reader and the message is clearly heard and received.

I hereby offer some other two word sentences (granted, not as profound as the last example) that prove that you only need two words to make an impact:

1.) I quit.
2.) Mom died.
3.) We won!
4.) That rocks!
5.) Girls rule.
6.) I do.

Now, those were declarative sentences and you may be thinking of some imperative sentences with two words such as:

1.) Get lost.

But, those two word sentences don't count. They don't count because they're really three word sentences. They have an understood subject - you. So, "Get lost" is really "You get lost" - three words.

Three word sentences can be powerful, too, and we will explore that in the next post. But, for now, I ask you to suggest some two words sentences that make a strong statement and require no further elaboration. Remember: you only need two words!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Don't write if you have nothing to say.

A few friends have asked why I haven't posted for a while. Simply, I have had nothing interesting or useful to say.

I have done interesting things: I taught writing to 13 graduate students from Mexico (who challenged my notions of communication); I taught "Writing Better RFPs" to employees from one of the most successful technology solutions companies in the world (they, too, provided interesting communication challenges). I taught some of the most engaging adults in Pittsburgh in a Heinz School program called Master of Public Management for students who work all day and go to class at night(and demand value for their time and money). But, I haven't had anything of instructive value to add in a blog to you.

So, why waste your time and de-value this blog? With the estimated 1000 blog posts per minute, you have much to keep you busy (and much to ignore). Besides, I have spent the last three months reflecting on the heart surgery of a nine-year old boy, a little boy who has amazed me with his courage and fortitude. This boy, my son Nicholas, who had open heart surgery on May 21st, was predicted to be in the hospital in Boston for four or five weeks (and in intensive care for one week) but spent only two days in intensive care and only one week in the hospital. He has now been to the beach boogey-boarding and he has been to the park riding his bike. These actions (and the nine-inch scar down the middle of his chest) have spoken more than any words in a blog could ever say. Indeed, his courage and the magnitude of his experience make the word "blog" pale.

But, that said, I will share this one comment on communication: When asked about his surgery, without any false bravado, Nickie said, "Oh, they put you to sleep, cut you open, do their surgery and then you wake up wanting the tubes out of your mouth." I thank the spirit in him every day for his attitude and resilience.

I guess I'm saying that words can be powerful tools but they can't substitute for the subtlety, nuance, and sublimity of an experience like Nickie's. Words can be powerful or they can be powerfully useless. With that I suggest to anyone blogging that he or she not write unless they have something to say. Write not to write but to serve some purpose (especially as defined by their insights into, or reflections from, their readers). Or, don't write.