How Never to Begin a Blog Post, or… The Most Important Secret of Storytelling

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- Should I tell him? Will he listen? Will he feel I’m butting in?

I had just read a company blog post from a colleague. It was an important post. And he was making an important point. I wanted every employee to read it.

But the problem… well…

One of the best ways to begin a blog post (or a speech or an essay) is with a story.

A well-told story will instantly grab the reader’s attention and hold him tight while he discovers (indirectly and without resistance) the idea you want to convey.

This is true only of well-told stories. Badly told stories are perhaps the worst way to begin.

So what is the difference between a well-told and a badly told story?

There are about a dozen. But the first and most important – by far – is that a well-told story begins in the middle.

The above-mentioned blog post began like this:

 I first met David and his wife Jenny in Panama in 2007.

David was from upstate New York but moved to Philadelphia shortly after marrying Jenny over 30 years ago. Other than a business trip to Toronto, he had never been out of the country before.

They were both attending International Living’s “Ultimate Event,” which I was helping run. This was our monster event, gathering all our country experts in one place to help the hundreds of attendees figure out the best places to retire or invest overseas.

We got to chatting over a drink at the welcome cocktail reception, and I soon discovered they were nearing retirement and wanted to know the best country to move to…

 I’m reading it and I’m wondering, “Where is this going?”

If it had been written by someone else, someone I didn’t know, I’d have already put it down. But since it was a colleague and since I knew he wanted to improve his writing skills, I continued reading. And reading. And reading. And wondering when he would get to the point!

Six or seven hundred words later, he wrote:

Knowing your customers is extremely important and seems so obvious….It can help you develop your products and services and craft the right messages to appeal to those customers. It provides a sense of empathy…

Wow! What a long and winding way to get to this idea.

I wrote him this note:

“If you are going to tell a story, begin in the middle, which usually means in the middle of the conflict. (Aristotle called it in medias res.) Give the reader a reason to want to keep reading.

“This is a story meant to illustrate a point you are making about the usefulness of attending live events. So you need to create some conflict around that. You want the reader to know what’s at stake. So he’ll care about it.

“Does this make sense?”

And then I thought I should give him an example of what I meant. I came up with this:

She told me he never attends industry events – especially those where you’re expected to “mingle” with potential customers.

 “I’m running a big business,” she said proudly. “I’ve got deadlines to meet. I’ve got a bottom line worry about. I don’t have time to waste on cocktail parties, making small talk with customers.”

 She seemed very sure of herself and I was her guest so I didn’t want to argue with her. Instead, I put on a sympathetic, non-committal face. 

 When, three years later, her business failed, I was not surprised…

I was hoping he would see how much stronger this is. Not because I’m a better writer. I’m not. But stronger because of the way I started my story.

I didn’t start at the dull beginning with preliminary information the reader might eventually want or need to know. I started with the conflict – in this case, with the protagonist being challenged by a woman making a statement he knows is wrong.

When you begin your story at a scene that represents a core conflict, you accomplish two things:

* You allow your reader to get to the point faster. (In this case, in 90 words rather than 600.) And…

* Even more importantly, you let the reader experience the truth of your idea emotionally before you give him the argument for it rationally.

And did my critique work?

He didn’t respond immediately, so I was a little worried. But the next morning, I received a friendly thank-you. “I’m not going to read Aristotle,” he said. “But, yes, I can see how much stronger it is to begin in medias res.”

Tribalism and the Mid-term Elections

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- Milo Yiannopoulos, the social critic and provocateur, gets into trouble with both the far right and the far left for mixing his intelligent insights and critiques of social and political movements with lowbrow humor.

He’s gotten into trouble; for example, by criticizing women celebrities for the way they look.

His vertical range of discourse is one thing I like about him. I like that he’s willing to be vulgar when he believes it can work. But I don’t believe his vulgarity enhances his public image. Nor do I think it’s impressive. When he goes low, I find myself wanting to coach him. Why not take a lesson from Bill Buckley? You can be witty and devastating at the same time if you challenge your higher brain.

I feel the same way about smart people who are rabid sports fans. I can appreciate the range of their experience and can accept their addiction, but I can’t say that I see it as a positive. I see it rather as a forgivable flaw.

Here’s what I want to say. (And this will offend probably 70% of the people that read this.) Being a sports fan is not something to feel proud of. It is an indulgence in one of the lowest aspects of emotional intelligence. It is an indulgence in tribalism and mindless bigotry. It is, like pornography, something best done in the privacy of one’s home.

The tribal mentality is one that rejects reason. It is groupthink that defines goodness by the team. It is the sort of thinking that supports the worst instincts of human social behavior. It is what evolution is meant to deselect. It is the lowest use of one’s brain.

Now I know whereof I speak. For a period of several years, I was a rabid fan of the Miami Heat. During that frenzied time there was nothing the Heat could do that I would think of criticizing. Every bucket they scored was a nod from God himself. Every foul they made was justified.

And every game they won gave me the sort of thrill I had experienced only through drugs. Every game they lost put me in a long state of despair.

I was mindless, fanatical, and irrationally attached to a billion-dollar franchise that cared nothing about me except for my lifetime value to them in dollars.

I have the fortune to be acquainted with many, many highly intelligent people. Among them, I would include most of the members of my family and most of my best friends. A minority of them, like me, is uncomfortable with tribal allegiance. But the rest of them root mindlessly for their teams without giving their behavior a second thought.

If this tribal mentality were confined to sports, it would be one sort of problem. But I find that the same mental illness affects them when it comes to politics. They have a team – Democrats or Republicans or one of the totally ineffectual splinter groups – and they support them unthinkingly to the bitter end.

This was glaringly evident during the mid-term elections. I talked to several of them, all very bright, and they told me that they voted strictly along party lines. They didn’t think they had to bother to actually understand their candidate’s platform. If he was wearing the right colors, that was enough for them.

I wake up every morning to a culture that is more divided than it has ever been in my living memory, with the possible exception of the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War. And what I think about it is this: Tribalism is scary. I had imagined we would be done with this sort of groupthink mentality. But that hasn’t happened. And one day, if things continue as they are, I will have to abandon the better parts of my brain and choose a side.

White Male Privilege: Where Do You Stand on the Social Justice Scale?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

New York City.- “That’s because you are a privileged white male,” she said.

She was explaining why my perspective on… I don’t remember what… was wrong. Not just wrong, but invalid.

White Male Privilege. A catchy phrase, to be sure. But what, exactly, does it mean? The more I thought about it, the less logical it seemed. So I looked it up.

Most of the sources define it as “institutional” or “social” advantages available to white men that are not available to women and people of color. Like Jim Crow laws in the South… apartheid policies in South Africa… and some Muslim and Jewish religious traditions.

But in contemporary Western societies? In the USA today?

I could find no laws, regulations, or policies that favor white men. I could find plenty that gives preference to women and/or minorities. But none for white men.

But this belief in white male privilege isn’t going to go away. There’s a lot of emotional force behind it. I’m guessing it has something to do with two ideas, incubated for decades in academia, that are now spreading like wildfire:

  • Entitlement– As a living being, I am entitled to everything the world has to offer. I don’t have to earn it. If others have it, I should have it too.
  • Dependency– I am not responsible for my own wellbeing. Someone or something has that responsibility.

If you buy into these ideas, it makes perfect sense to say that if there are inequalities in the world they are inherently wrong and necessarily the fault (and the responsibility) of whatever group or person is at the top.

This, of course, is not just idiotic. It’s dangerously destructive. We all know this in our bones, even if some of us don’t know it in our heads.

My friends that believe in white male privilege wouldn’t allow their adult children to act on the basis of such beliefs. They tell them, “Hey, the world isn’t fair. And although I might not have been the perfect parent in your estimation, it’s up to you to solve your own problems.”

This sort of hypocrisy is lost to proponents of white male privilege. And you can forget about pointing out the irony that, by definition, the phrase “white male privilege” is both sexist and racist.

But perhaps this will work. It’s a very simple test. And it is not in itself a refutation of the concept of white male privilege. Quite the contrary, it begins with the assumption that there is such a thing.

And it is very simple. Just two steps. Here they are:

Step One. Put white men at the top of the privilege scale.

Step Two. Fill in the rest.

(Note: For simplicity sake, we are going to take the very white male perspective that there are two genders and four racial groups. Feel free to make your list longer.)

For my first attempt, I’m going to assume that gender trumps race, but that race still counts. With that as a guiding principle, the privilege scale might look like this:

* White Men

* Asian Men

* Hispanic Men

* Black Men

* Asian Women

* White Women

* Hispanic Women

* Black Women

But hold on. That would indicate that all white women are less privileged than all black men. With even a very successful white businesswomen being less privileged than an unemployed black man.

Hmmm. That doesn’t work.

Let’s try giving priority to race, with white at the top and then Asian and Hispanic and black. Like this:

* White Men

* White Women

* Asian Men

* Asian Women

* Hispanic Men

* Hispanic Women

* Black Women

* Black Men

But that puts white women nearly at the top of the scale. We can’t have that! It would mean that they can no longer be considered to be oppressed. They would be the oppressors.

I’m sure there is a way to do this that would work. It wouldn’t be the same for everyone –  but you could do it your way, and I could do it my way, and Uncle Ted could do it his way. But what good would it do the social justice movement if everyone had their own idea of privilege?

It would be tantamount to suggesting that, yes, we live in a world that is unfair and also unequal and that we can’t agree on a scale of gender-race privilege. And if that is true, what then? We’d have to get to work on improving our individual situations. On getting more of everything we want by working against the obstacles, whether they are racism or misogyny or our personal limitations. Limitations like each individual’s health and intelligence and ability to acquire financially valuable skills and willingness to work as hard as it takes to be a success.

But then we would have to give up the happy notion that we can do it by blaming white men.

What Happens When We Die?*

Everything in the universe exists in a continuous state of fluctuation, from extremely contracted to extremely expansive. Planets. Rocks. Galaxies. Humans too – our bodies and our minds.

I once heard a fascinating lecture by a neurobiologist who had suffered a stroke that left her temporarily unable to process visual and aural information rationally. She said it was like being on LSD. She talked about looking at her hand and not being able to distinguish between the fingers and the space between them. She said the experience helped her understand that the material world was an energy field where there are no rigid distinctions between observed phenomenon, between flesh and air, for example. She also said that it was not scary. It was, in fact, the opposite of scary. She said she felt an amazing calmness and openness as if her body were melting into the universe.

I remember thinking that this was an example of consciousness expanding beyond the normal bounds of experience. And that although her sensations could be dismissed as hallucinatory, they could also be seen as truer in some way than the “normal” experience of the world. After all, from an atomic (sub-atomic) perspective, the human body is not separate from its environment but connected to it, both in terms of proximity and composition. In other words, our bodies and the invisible space around us are essentially electronic impulses.

It could be argued that her experience was one in which the essential condition of existence was finally visible because her awareness of existential information was highlighted, while the screening process that rationalizes sensory input was diminished.

Of course, I could not help but relate it to the idea we are discussing here, the fundamental nature of everything as fluctuations between contraction/tightness and expansion/relaxation.

Read MoreWhat Happens When We Die?*

Am I a Hypocrite?, How About You?

During the Kavanaugh spectacle, the line of thinking I was espousing elicited two very different comments. My left-leaning interlocutors called me a privileged and misogynistic white male, while my right-leaning friends called me a “bleeding heart.”

This range of reaction makes me feel good because I take it as evidence that I have an independent mind.

But when I’m being honest with myself, I admit that my motivation is the pleasure of stirring up trouble. My self-appointed job in life is to be an intellectual rabble-rouser,

someone who likes to challenge half-baked ideas and opinions, whatever perspective they come from.

Take identity politics.

I disagree strongly with identity politics. (The argument I usually make is that it is unsupported and nonsensical ideology whose foundation is racist.) I’m opposed to programs that target groups by social identities – programs, for example, that attempt to equalize outcomes by creating quotas and giving preferential treatment to women or minorities or the like. I don’t believe these programs work in theory. And based on everything I’ve seen or heard about them, I don’t believe they work in practice.

Yet in my private life – and by that I include my personal life – I’m always trying to create gender and ethnic diversity by giving my own time and money to women and minorities individually.

So am I a hypocrite?

Read MoreAm I a Hypocrite?, How About You?

Principles of Wealth: #21*

When the odds of a particular speculation are extremely long, we refer to it as gambling. And gambling, most sensible people would acknowledge, is a foolish financial activity. Unless, of course, the odds are in your favor.

It must have been 40 years ago. I was a young man, returning from my first trip to Las Vegas. The man next to me was an architect. His specialty was high-end hotel-casinos. His favorite part of the job, he told me, was designing the VIP suites. They were immense pleasure domes, featuring every imaginable luxury, including gilded furnishings and indoor pools.

“How much would one of those go for?” I naively asked.

“Oh, they never charge for those rooms. They give them away to high rollers for free.”

Read MorePrinciples of Wealth: #21*

Success in Life? It’s All About Micro-Culture

There’s a longstanding nature-versus-nurture debate among social psychologists. Wrestling with it doesn’t get you very far, because it’s not a real question. Nature matters. Nurture matters. But what matters most is micro-culture.

(Micro-culture is a term that doesn’t yet exist. I’m making it up to denote the close circle of people that surround and influence you during your formative years.)

What you accomplish in life – in terms of every aspect of success, from mental health to longevity to self-satisfaction to your career – is due much more to micro-culture than to any other single factor. So why haven’t researchers figured that out?

To wit: A recent University of Minnesota study has academics scratching their heads.

Led by epidemiologist Theresa Osypuk, the study followed the lives of youngsters born into poverty in the 1990s. Some of them were given vouchers that allowed them to move out of public housing and into better neighborhoods. And what happened to the kids who made the move? The researchers found that the girls were far less likely to drink heavily than the girls left in the housing projects. But the boys binged more.

As the WSJ put it, “The findings challenged the assumption that behavioral risks increase with economic hardships and that poverty affects women and men the same way.”

How could that be?

Read MoreSuccess in Life? It’s All About Micro-Culture