Life Is Good… How Did I Get So Lucky?

Saturday, November 3, 2018

New York City.- I’m at Club Macanudo on 63rd Street, in between Park and Madison in NYC. It’s a stately, turn-of-last century townhouse, not unlike Agora’s offices in Baltimore.

The doorman greets me as I enter… like I’m a regular customer. I consider sitting at the oak and glass bar, but it looks a bit busy. So I advance to one of the cigar rooms, past a dining room where men and women are enjoying steak dinners.

I sit down in one of the comfortable leather chairs and order a Smoke & Fire cocktail. “I don’t need the cigar menu,” I tell the server. “I’ve brought something special of my own.”

The lighting is soft. The air is surprisingly fresh, despite the fact that there are about 30 men in the room and they are all smoking. They are mostly middle-aged, but there are some youngsters and a smattering of older men like me. Everyone seems unusually relaxed. No one is working. No one is on the phone. They are smoking and drinking and conversing. I feel like I belong. I’m not an intruder. I’m not an imposter. I’ve earned this.

And there’s more…

Tomorrow morning at 8:30 I will have a private Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) lesson from Marcel Garcia, one the world’s most celebrated world champions. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s not easy to get a roll with MG. I’ve known his head instructor, Paul Shreiner, for a couple of years. He hooked me up. I can’t wait to tell one of my BJJ buddies back in Delray Beach about this experience.

I’ll be back at the hotel by 10:30 and I’ll get in an hour or two of writing before K returns from her morning walk. We’ll spend the afternoon at the Met and visiting a midtown art dealer I’ve worked with in the past. He has a 1905 Andre Derain landscape that I’ve been jealously following for nearly 15 years. Maybe tomorrow will be the day I own it. Dinner will be at a favorite restaurant in Brooklyn Heights with Number One Son and Daughter-in-Law and their twin girls.

Wow! How did I get so lucky?

I remember what my partner said to a young man who came up to him at a business event and introduced himself. “I so admire everything you’ve achieved in your life,” the young man said. “Someday, if I’m lucky…”

Smiling, my partner interrupted him. “You get to work at 7 a.m. and go back home at 7 p.m.,” he said. “You do that six or seven days a week for 40 years and the luck takes care of itself.”

Show Me Your Freak Card

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Delray Beach.- I liked him the minute he introduced himself. Poised, intelligent, and energetic, he wanted to interview me for his podcast. We did a short, extemporaneous bit on entrepreneurship. Afterwards, I sat down with him for a chat.

We talked about his career. He started from scratch, prompted, he told me, by reading Ready, Fire, Aim. (He could recite passages from chapters I’d forgotten that I’d written. I was flattered.) Little by little, he built a company that was now making nearly $20 million a year. I was impressed.

Then he told me a story about how, when he was starting out and still living at home and working for his father, he had tried to create a competing business by stealing his dad’s employees.

“But he found out what I was doing and put a stop to it,” he said.

I looked at him skeptically. He wasn’t joking, although he seemed to think I would find the anecdote amusing.

Because he was otherwise likable and even admirable, I decided to hook him up with our global CEO. Before making the introduction, I briefed her on his many positive qualities. But I also told her what he had told me about trying to knock off his dad’s business.

“That freaked me out,” I said.

“Good!” she replied. “That means you know what his ‘freak card’ is. Everyone has one.… well, most people do. It’s a personality quirk that could eventually freak up the relationship. And when someone shows you their freak card early on, you know what you are up against… and you can assess whether or not you can handle them.”

I thought about that. I thought about all the business relationships I’ve had. Most were good to very good. And most of my counterparts in those relationships were people with quirks. Their quirks were more often comical than annoying (as I presume my quirks were to them). But the bad relationships? Those guys? Their quirks were serious. And damaging. I do wish I’d gotten a look at their freak card a lot sooner.

The Perfect Partnership Formula

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Delray Beach, FL– Talk about teamwork… In 1995, a young man named Howard Marks got together with another young man, Bruce Karsh, and the two of them built a $100 billion asset management firm from scratch.

Tim Ferriss asked Marks: “So what was the secret to your partnership?”

Marks had an interesting answer, one that made a lot of sense to me. He said that the best partnerships are those in which “the partners have the same values but complementary skills.”

In their case, they had the same idea of the sort of business culture they wanted to create and they had the same ideas about how to treat clients. But they differed in skill sets. Karsh was a slow thinker, Marks said. And he was a fast thinker.

The combination of intuitive and analytical thinking, Marks said, made their decision making stronger.

But, he added, it “couldn’t have been done without trust and humility.” You need to trust that your partner has the firm’s best interests at heart and you have to trust his judgment. “You also have to understand the limits of your own capabilities. You have to accept the fact that you may be wrong about almost anything.”

I’ve often said that you can’t entirely trust what successful CEOs say about what did. You’ve got to wonder whether they’re telling you the truth or a burnished version of it.

Still, the Marks/Karsh formula rings true for me. I’ve had many successful partnerships in my business career and a few that went bad. Those that failed did so precisely because somewhere along the line we realized we had different values: different ideas about product quality, treating employees, and making deals.

And the successful ones were all unequal partnerships – unequal in terms of our talents and knowledge and skills, so that the sum of our two heads were better than two.

If you are in a partnership now or thinking about getting into one, it might serve you to think about whether you do, indeed, have similar values and different talents and skills.

A Fun and Clever Way to Build an Art Collection

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Delray Beach, FL– If you ever want to develop a really great art collection – on the cheap – here’s a clever strategy you can use. I picked it up from an elder statesman in our industry that lived for years in Mexico and then in Paris. As far as I know, he never spent more than a few thousand dollars on any individual work. He enjoyed his collection during his life, and when he died it was worth millions.

The strategy is this: Find a location where young artists abound. It could be somewhere in the States. Or it could be overseas. Sponsor an exhibition/contest for up-and-comers, not amateurs but artists whose work has gained some recognition among gallery owners and local critics. Award three cash prizes. (Just big enough to attract a good number of entries.) It’s a juried show, and you are the judge. The rules require a contract, and the contract gives you the right to buy any of the entries at a predetermined price – a price you are happy to pay.

If it works the first time, make it an annual show. Rinse and repeat for 20 years. It will provide you with a large and worthy collection. If you have an instinct for judging, it may be a valuable collection, too.

I’m doing this in Central America. The idea is to bolster my current collection of modern masters with “emerging” talent. Suzanne Snider, my partner in Ford Fine Art, has been leading the charge. We began by sponsoring art events in the capitals of each country and got to know the players. Now we are commencing with the contests.

She recently wrote to me from Managua, Nicaragua, where Johann, our local partner, had just put on our first show:

Mark – The exhibition at the Cultural Center looks fantastic. Johann did an exceptional job… The works are significant and arranged perfectly. 

Tonight we met the new Ambassador of Spain. It was packed. At least 150 people. All the artists were there except one who is considered an activist and had to leave the country. Lots of press and lots of compliments and good feedback.

I am cutting the budget by staying in Johann’s family home… I have the upstairs master suite, the roosters crowing and the birds singing this morning. Thinking about a nice bath in the jacuzzi.  

This is fun stuff. I’m jealous of my partner. But I’ll attend our next show. If you fancy yourself a speculator and you are interested in collecting art, this strategy could put the odds in your favor.

Here are some images from the show:


An Unexpected Gift From My Father

Monday, October 22, 2018

Delray Beach, FL– My friend Steve Leveen and I once had an enjoyable exchange on the question of whether you should write in the books you read.

There were good arguments on both sides. If, for example, you are reading the first edition of what might, one day, become an important book, it would be foolish to mark it up. If, on the other hand, you are reading a non-fiction book on a topic that’s important to you, underlining and marginalia could be very helpful when you want to refer back to it.

And here’s another argument in favor of marginalia: My brother Andrew just sent me a coverless and battered early edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. “I ran across Dad’s annotated copy,” he said, “while cleaning out his basement. You were always the modernist. So I thought I’d pass it along.”

I looked through the book and, sure enough, there were notes on almost every page. Notes that he wrote in preparation for teaching. Some were scholarly (i.e., “See E Pound re this”). And some were personal (i.e. “Beautifully put!”).

I’ve sent it out to have it bound in leather. When it comes back I’ll read it. But I ’ll be reading it not for the story or to better understand Joyce but to hear my father speaking.

What Am I Doing Here? What Can I Say?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Bermuda –I’m in Bermuda this weekend, speaking at an investment conference. I’m here to talk about money — making it, growing it, protecting it.

I came in Thursday night at about 10:00 and taxied to the hotel in the dark. I hadn’t been here for 30 years and had only a few very fragmented memories — pretty, pastel-colored buildings and a beautiful sea. In the morning, those images were confirmed by a look out my balcony.

Indeed, Bermuda is an attractive place to spend a few days. As you can see, the scenery is beautiful in the usual tropical island ways. But Bermuda has its unique architecture and it has rolling hills and little cliffs and thousands of tiny islands along its shore, which gives one the feeling that there is more to be discovered here as opposed to, say, Grand Cayman or the Bahamas.

I wasn’t looking forward to the two presentations I was scheduled to make on Friday. I was exhausted after a week of meetings in Berlin, the Liverpool film festival, and three days of crushing attention at AWAI’s “Bootcamp.” (This year, there were more than 500 attendees.) I hadn’t prepared my comments and I didn’t want to. I felt like I didn’t care about investing anymore. The only thing I wanted to tell these investors was to stop worrying so much about money and spend more time with their grandkids.

So I spent the first part of the morning writing an essay on a new idea I’m working on: that the greatest danger we face in the USA today is not an economic one but a cultural epidemic. I am tentatively calling it the “culture of blame.” I haven’t yet looked that up yet to see if it’s an idea that’s already out there. It probably is. But I wrote the essay anyway. (You will see it here soon.)

My first obligation was at 10:00, a panel presentation on “investing outside the stock market.” It was me and two financial specialists and an economist. The emcee started the discussion by asking me for my “general thoughts” on diversifying.

I don’t remember what I said, but the audience was engaged. They sat upright, asked questions, and even laughed at a few of my jokes. It went by, as every presentation I’ve ever done has, in a flash. It was over and I wanted to keep going.

I went upstairs to my room to actually prepare for the 2:30 breakout session. This time, I would be presenting all by myself, and I couldn’t just wing it. I needed to do some thinking. I needed to create note cards or, at the very least, a crib sheet of topics. But I decided to close my eyes for a quick rest before I got to work… and I nodded off.

The phone rang. I was “on” in 10 minutes.

I got to the room exactly one minute early. No one was there. “Cripes,” I complained to someone who looked like he was in charge. “I said I wasn’t going to come unless there were people that wanted to see me. “The general session is running late,” he said. “They’ll be letting out in a few minutes.”

I heard the doors open and a steady stream of people began walking towards us. There were three workshops scheduled for 2:30, mine and two others. I knew and liked the young analysts heading up the other two, but not enough to feel okay about it if they had full rooms and I had only a few people. So I stood in front of the door to my room, urging people to come in like a Greek waiter in front of a cheap Parisian restaurant.

Five minutes later, my room was full.

I began by telling them a story about how my advice cost a colleague of mine $15 million. “I thought you should know that before you take anything I say seriously,” I said. They laughed. I relaxed.

We talked about “investing” in gold. I explained that I don’t see gold as an investment but as an insurance policy – insurance against financial Armageddon. I told them that bought a lot of it from 2001 to 2005, when it was trading between $250 and $500. “Since the price is now $1,200 and has been at this level for some time,” I said, “I feel like I have too much of it. I’d like to get rid of about half of it, but I don’t know where I’d put the money. “I know what you can do with it,” a lady in the back said. Everyone laughed. I did too.

I talked about real estate, and I gave them my magic formula. “If you invest the way I do,” I said, “you don’t need to pay attention to the general economy or the state of politics or price fluctuations. All you need to do is buy in the recommended range, have someone competent manage the property for you, and then keep on buying.”

Then I talked about art and I explained my scheme for cornering a certain market. They seemed to enjoy hearing about it, though I doubt that any of them will ever do it.

They asked a lot of questions and I answered most of them by telling them stories. They liked the stories. Most of them understood the implicit messages.

Then it was over – faster than I wanted it to be. I signed some books, took some photos, and went back to my room.

I had come unprepared – except for 35 years of experience – and I had told them the truth as I know it. Once again, it was “ready-fire-aim.” And once again, it worked out pretty well.

I’m looking forward to the cocktail party tonight so I can keep on talking.

More On Caring Less: Losing the “Love” of Golf

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Delray Beach, FL– Golf is a miserable way to pass time. Of all the sports and games and hobbies I’ve tried in my life, none provided the level of frustration and self-loathing that golf gave me.

But it’s also addictive. So much so that you will hear golf addicts insisting that they “love” the game. They will tell you stories about how great it is to be out in the fresh air. But the truth is, no amount of sunshine will brighten the mood of a golfer as he rounds the turn realizing his yet-again hope of achieving his score has been dashed and he has another two hours of misery ahead of him.

My relationship with golf was relatively good. I avoided it for 50 years and was addicted to it for less than 10. I got up the strength to quit about four years ago. Rather than make the declaration (That’s it! I quit!) that the average golfer makes every dozen rounds, I vowed to play only “happy golf” from then on.

The rules of happy golf are three: You play no more than two hours, which means you cannot ever finish a full round. You cannot keep score, even in your head.  And if you take a shot you don’t like, you must take it over.

I have played several games of happy golf and I can avow that it makes me happy. But none of my golf-addicted friends or colleagues will play it with me. Why is that? Because the very essence of golf is self-flagellation. And when you play happy golf, you can’t do that.

Here’s the thing: I assumed that I would experience some sense of loss after I stopped playing. I was prepared for listless afternoons, wishing I were on the golf course. But it never happened. There hasn’t been a single moment since I quit when I’ve thought, “Gee, it would be nice to be golfing.”

What does that say about the years I spent golfing 8 to 10 hours a week?

They say that buying and selling the boat are the two happiest days of a boater’s life. With golf, you don’t even get the two days.

Living Through the Premiere of Off the Rails

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Delray Beach, FL –On Sunday, I gave you a sneak peek at Off the Rails, an autobiographical “coming of age” movie I made a few years ago that only got finished this year. I was in Liverpool for the European premiere, and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it.

The last I saw, it was at the editing stage – and I saw it then in bits and pieces. This was going to be the final version, the full experience. Movies usually improve as they move through post-production, and I was hoping for a lot because I was not thrilled with what I had seen.

We got to the theater about 12:45. The film was shown in the Odeon Cinema Complex in a large mall in the center of the city. We (Steve, Belle, and I) arrived five minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Thanks to Damian, our director, who grew up in Liverpool and whose relatives were there, the theater was nearly full when we took a seat.

The movie began, and it didn’t take long for me to decide it was bad.

The story was good. The music and cinematography were very good. (Number Two Son did the music.) And Colin, the DP, is an Emmy-award winning cinematographer. So we had those things going for us. But movies are fragile things. They must be good in all of the major areas. One of those is acting. I found it to be over the top – sometimes even cringe-worthy. And the dialogue – some of the lines were too obvious and the physical dialogue (gestures) were also often too much.

The audience watched quietly for the most part. I could take nothing from that except that they didn’t laugh at a half-dozen scenes that were supposed to be funny.

Afterwards, there was a Q&A. It was well attended and lasted for nearly half an hour. All of the comments and questions were positive. Several people said they liked the story. One person liked the “chemistry” of the principal actors. At least three people praised the music. And several more talked about how “big-picture professional” it looked (i.e., the cinematography).

But this was a biased audience.

Walking back to the hotel with Steve and Belle, I grumbled about the film’s shortcomings. If everything about it had been bad, I could have written the whole affair off as an expensive exercise in vanity or a costly riddance of a bucket-list goal. But because some of it was good, I could not stop myself from focusing on the flaws.

Steve and Belle told me I was being too critical. ”The average person doesn’t notice the things you are talking about,” he said. “The average intelligent person certainly would,” I said.

When we got to the hotel, the concierge asked us where we were coming from. I told him that we’d just finished watching a movie at the Liverpool film festival that we wrote and produced. “How was it?” he wanted to know. “The trailer wasn’t bad,” I told him. “But the movie wasn’t as good as the trailer. So logically speaking, I’d have to say that the movie was bad. Some version of bad.” He thought that was funny.

Before saying goodnight, Steve told me again that I was being too critical. “I liked it,” Belle said. I shrugged my shoulders.

So Steve and Belle went to bed and I stayed up drinking a cognac and smoking a cigar on the terrace. When I settled into bed an hour or so later, I noticed that there was a text on my phone from Damian. “We won best actress,” it said. “And best movie.”

In case you didn’t see it Sunday, here’s another look at the trailer.

Fake News and Manipulative Advertising

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Liverpool, England – On the way from the Hotel de Rome to the Berlin Airport, the driver, Franz, asked me about the hurricanes in Florida. He wanted to move there, he said, but his girlfriend was scared.

“On the news,” he said, “They make it look like every six months all the houses in Florida get knocked down.”

I told him that his girlfriend shouldn’t worry about hurricanes. That although the worst of them could be devastating, the danger is routinely exaggerated. I said that I lived on the beach, had done so for 20 years, and we’d had damage to our house only once and it was mild.

“Fake news,” he said. I agreed.

That neologism – fake news – it irks me. Donald Trump has put it securely into not just Merriam-Webster but probably every dictionary in the world. That’s something I always wanted to do!

On the plane to London, I had time to look over the notes I’d taken during the meetings last week in Berlin.

Billion-Dollar Copy Genius Mike Palmer gave several excellent talks, including one about the five stages of learning for a copywriter: uninformed optimism, informed pessimism, a crisis of meaning, a crash-and burn-moment, and finally a mature period of informed optimism.

I talked with Mike about this after his presentation. We agreed that it is true not only of a copywriter’s career but also of the experience of writing a promotion.

Then one of Mike’s protégés, 100-Million-Dollar Copy Chief Patrick Bove gave an inspiring talk about tricks and transparency in advertising. He began by suggesting that there are two ways to write a successful ad: You can use manipulation or you can use persuasion.

Manipulation is about trickery, he said. It’s about bait-and-switch. Suggesting to the prospect that you will be talking about one thing and then talking about something else. Making irresistible promises you can’t keep. Twisting data to support false statements. Creating artificial urgencies, etc.

Persuasion is about understanding the core desires of the prospect and then showing how the product or service you are selling will fulfill them. Persuasive writing is much more difficult than manipulative writing because it requires a great deal more research and a much better understanding of the prospect’s feelings, beliefs, and wants.

Manipulation can work very well in the short term. But it fails in the long run because you can only fool a prospect once or twice. If you want to develop a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship (which is what business should be about), you can’t manipulate. This is especially true in the digital age where everything is transparent. Fakers are quickly found out. So…

Don’t make the promise. Present the facts. Let the reader make the promise.

Don’t cherry-pick. Present all the facts.

Stop making over-the-top promises.

Remember that having a guarantee doesn’t absolve you of writing manipulative copy.

Focus on the long-term, Patrick said. “Provide real value. Care more about the quality of the relationships than short-term sales and you and your client and the customer will all be happier and wealthier in the end.”