Things Teachers Taught Me

For a long while, I’ve had this idea of authoring a book (I have many ideas for books…) about inspirational things or solid advice that past teachers or life experiences have taught me.

Throughout my career, I have had some great (and some dreadful) teachers and some equally outstanding life lessons both bitter and sweet. Recently, I was chatting with a friend who asked if I would want to be 20 all over again, and was surprised when I said no, I wouldn’t. Which got me thinking: I really have very few regrets. All of the worst moments of my life, and the most difficult challenges have equipped me to handle just about anything. The confidence I have earned was not born, it was bred… and is a hard-won patina earned through wounds and scars.

Similarly, a few years ago, I had a bit of an epiphany. I have a few friends that are more than a few years younger than me and I often find myself mentoring them on big life decisions. NO!, I would think… DON’T do THAT! Because my age and experience gives me a reasonable gauge of how THAT experience might turn out. My intent had always been to save my friends the hurt and anguish of making a bad decision with an outcome made more clear by age and wisdom. But, I realized, it is exactly the many poor choices followed by hurt or misery that fortified me and made me who I am today. Sparing them hurt would be disabling their ability to build coping mechanisms and confidence. Perhaps that is the teacher in me. Perhaps not. Scandinavian parents have an adage: Telling a baby not to touch a hot stove means nothing. However, when a child touches a hot stove, he will feel the burn. He will learn on his own not to touch the stove again. Certainly no parent of the year award there, but some pretty powerful psychology nonetheless.

So further to my goal of writing a book of good advice, here is my top 15 list of things I’ve learned from great teachers:

1. Always ask nicely and acknowledge that people are busy and don’t owe you an answer. When you get an answer, be grateful and say thank you.

2. It is indeed lonely at the top.

3. You pay a price for being a smart person in a stupid world.

4. Communicate. In a communication vacuum, people will make up their own details… which often will be worse than actuality.

5. Success is more often celebrated with a stab in the back than a pat on the back.

6. There is a big difference between being cordial and being friends.

7. The past is not the future.

8. Leadership is about doing the work for others and letting them get the accolades and credit for it.

9. Read everything you can, but read it carefully. Most people don’t read carefully.

10. People learn differently. People think differently.

11. Uniformity and conformity are so powerful they usually self-extinguish.

12. Organization is the key to simplicity.

13. Wealth is relative and ultimately unimportant.

14. Noble aims are unsupported by broken means.

15. Karma is for real.

People are really rotten.

When the big 4-0 closes in on you (and you make the realization that you’re more than half way to being 80), it’s a good time to pause and reassess. One thing that I’ve learned is that people are really rotten. I’m not exempting myself from this, but it’s an interesting footnote on the human condition that we are, really, still animals. Often, our primal behaviour betrays our rationality and reminds us of this fact.

I was thrilled to find out a few weeks back that my friend, Adam Giambrone was running for mayor of Toronto. Adam is 32 and is one of the most accomplished people I know, and plus, he’s a nice guy. I met Adam a few years ago at an envisioning session for the TTC at the Design Exchange in Toronto (which is lead in a seemingly effortless fashion by another good friend, Samantha Sanella). Adam struck me instantly because of his age, younger than me, he had done a lot of interesting stuff. He speaks more languages than I do, and he managed to get elected in a tough riding (read: district for U.S. readers) running as NDP, the 3rd place (or arguably 4th place, if you’re in Quebec) political party in Canada.

After getting elected, Adam—a public transit aficionado—had the audacity to envision a Southern Ontario with plentiful public transit that stretched out from Toronto to the edges of the peninsula. His more senior colleagues laughed at his plan to develop “Transit City” and very publically denounced his energy and efforts. Adam, however, pushed forward and secured nearly $20 billion (yes billion) in provincial and federal funding for the project. All of a sudden, folks weren’t laughing any more. This guy had the energy and the can-do attitude to get things done.

Adam also took the position as TTC chair, that is, the leader of one of the largest public transit systems in the world. He didn’t take the position, collect a paycheck, and go on vacation. Instead, he became a tireless and vocal advocate for public transit and the expansion of it.

In the US, we don’t have many leaders by that. Many of us “south of the border” have been watching Adam and his accomplishments with amazement. His enthusiasm is contagious, whether through his constant Twitter posts, or his on-the-fly Facebook updates. However, despite his incredibly busy schedule, Adam remained accessible. He’d bounce an e-mail back in a moment or two, and was always cheerful and polite.

He really earned my respect.

I was thrilled earlier this year to learn that he was planning a run for mayor of Toronto. I could only begin to imagine what he had in store for the city.

But, I digress. This week was a rough week for Adam. He made a mistake, and it was called out in the press. What’s shocking, is that the interwebs lit up with nasty comments about his inability to manage his work, fueled by spiteful anger about a TTC fare hike that happened a while back.

These comments struck me. Adam is a good guy, and he’s an authentic, hard working visionary. Good, right? Probably not. He, like many hard working, diligent, young professionals become targets for lazy, disenfranchised, armchair grumps. I’ve been there, and I know how it is. It’s way easier for folks to take aim than it is for them to take action. It’s easier to call Adam a loser than it is to get involved in a neighborhood association. It’s more interesting to read about his relationship that it is to think about your own. The ugly side of the human spirit comes in many flavors, and never more does it shine than when someone is down. It seems kicking a man when he’s down has become a Canadian pastime, and the tweets and posts have been nothing less than shocking. My only explanation for this vitriol can be that people are jealous of him… which given his record, seems to make sense.

I might remind my Canadian readers, that your friends south of the border would be very happy to have a politician like Adam who—might not be perfect—but is committed to doing the hard work of governing and planning for the future. Adam has still accomplished more at 32 than many people accomplish at 52. So those who take aim should be careful what they wish for. Politicians that care come along once in a generation. Adam is one of those, and while it make make interesting water cooler conversation for bored and lonely 30-somethings, or twitter tweeting for lazy 20-somethings, it’s important to remember that Adam isn’t a character, he is human. What I can imagine has been a tough time can only have been made tougher by the consistent onslaught of negative comments and barbs thrown his way over the past few days. It is truly shameful.

Despite the recent media reports, it is still my true pleasure to count Adam as a friend, and I am proud to very publicly say that I respect him tremendously. He made a mistake, and that doesn’t make him a monster, it makes him human, just like me, and just like you. He was honourable enough to publicly confess his misdoings, which is something that many of us would never be able to do. As a fellow human, he deserves our understanding and support, and despite any misdeeds in his personal life, he has done a lot for our bi-national region, and he—at the very least—has earned our respect.

Hang in there, Adam.

Alex’s Predictions for the Next Decade

I’ve always hated the week between Christmas and the start of the New Year, it’s filled with insipid retrospectives “looking back” at the past year. It’s an easy way to fill print space and the airwaves, I say. Why re-live all that again? And this year, it’s WORSE, because it’s the end of a decade! Who cares who Ben Affleck dated or that Madonna left her husband this past decade? Don’t folks deserve a little privacy? I say: why bother them in the first place, but then why dig it up, dust it off, and do it all over again… but I digress.

Instead of re-living the past, I’m going to turn my sights to the future. What things will be be reminiscing about 10 years from now in 2019? So here are my predictions for things that will happen between 2010 and 2019:

1. USPS daily mail delivery will become a quaint memory, like the milkman. UPS and FedEx will merge and will provide a more ingenious array of services.

2. The “grid” will become more contiguous: it won’t matter if it’s Bluetooth, 802.11 or 802.16, it will all work as part of a seamless system. Cellular will begin to look (and act) more like what we now know as in-home wireless. In home-computing will occur on a variety of networked devices and most data will all live in the “cloud”. Google will continue to become the adhesive in a massive database of human achievement and human life.

3. One major broadcast network will bite the dust. (My bet, as much as I hate to write it: NBC.) It might reincarnate as some other kind of service… but I’m not sure (exactly) on what that may be.

4. Cable companies will move away from providing traditional grid-broadcast TV service (because viewership will plummet as “viewers” flock to time-shift device-driven watching, and view on demand), and will instead provide the infrastructure for mini access points that are connected to the larger wireless grid.

5. RFID will (finally) change the way we shop for commodity goods (like groceries). In-store: item-by-item check outs will evaporate, replaced by self-serve kiosks (don’t laugh… who would have thought we’d be checking ourselves in to the airport 10 years ago?) In-home: grocery delivery will catch on among more affluent and urban users, and item inventory will “self replenish”. Shopping will continue to move toward the experiential and theatric end of the spectrum for shoppers of all strata: luxury through laggards.

6. Plastic will become… well different. Plastics as we know them (today) will become obsolete, and politically incorrect. As more comes to light about the dangers of plastic, fewer people will want to use plastic, or even be near plastic. Instead, bio-plastics (made from friendlier source materials) will become edible, and biodegradable. And our plastic money will change too: credit cards will become more integrated, and will be differentiated by “classes” of service akin to a private concierge at the high end, and a financial manager at the low end.

7. Media providers will merge (much like we saw media producers merge in the 2000s). Verizon might “buy out” Time Warner Cable, Boingo might take over Sprint. Who knows, but I’d bet dollars to donuts on this one.

8. Your health data and medical records will be kept online and will update continuously from devices in or near your home (like your scale, your android-powered communication device that tracks how far you’ve walked during the day, the RFID-enabled prescription bottle that notes the last time it was opened.)

9. Air travel will continue to suck. People will get fed up, prices will continue to climb, service will continue to erode and because it will become less politically correct to drive the demand for high-speed train travel will explode. This will happen at the end of the decade, especially after the unbelievable success of the New York-Montreal/Boston-Buffalo network of high-speed rail is launched to public acclaim, and helps to transform the regional Northeast/Southeast economies.

10. Cars will become networked. They will network and communicate with “the grid” and with each other. They’ll keep drivers and passengers safer and more entertained.

What do you think? Post your predictions in the comment section below… and check back in 10 years to see if these were correct.

Sexist: You need to check your bag at the counter.

I am all about supporting the underdog. I like to shop locally, and I like to support my independent retailer. I try to encourage my students to do the same: stay away from the big box corporate retail shops, and patronize the mom and pop on the corner, or the mom and pop on the internet.

I do have one big pet peeve that will send me a-runnin’ from a local shop: The bag check policy.

Right around the corner from my house, is Talking Leaves a great independent bookseller, they have an incredible range of titles, and very knowledgeable sales staff. I never shop there. Ever. Why? Because within 2 seconds of entering the store, some 19 year old is screaming at me with increasing belligerence: Sir? SIR! You NEED to check your bag at the counter.

Let’s dissect that statement:

Sir? Sir!= Increasing shades of panic, and decreasing shades of respect.

You NEED= I need not do anything. You might like for me to, but ultimately it is my decision.

to check your bag= If I were a woman and this were my purse, would we be having this conversation?

at the counter.= OK, Ms./Mr. 19-year-old. Are you ready to take personal responsibility for every item that is in this bag? While it may make you feel more secure that I’m not going to lift a 99¢ trinket from your store, it really doesn’t make me feel secure that anyone could walk by your cashwrap and walk off with $500 worth of electronics, credit cards, and important papers that I carry with me.

The policy is absurd. Yesterday, I was shopping at Hyatt’s, a local art supply store, where the same situation replayed itself. I walked by two female workers, both of which greeted me, and asked if there was anything they could help with. No mention of my bag. Then after about 20 minutes, I was approached by a male worker that indigently indicated that I was in the wrong by carrying my bag with me, further, it would HAVE TO BE checked at the counter. I politely handed the chap the few items I had selected for purchase, and suggested that if I were female, and this were a purse, that he would never dream to have this conversation with me. Moreover, I explained, if that was his policy, I would gladly take my business elsewhere.

I mean, REALLY. While it’s likely that people can and do steal. I don’t… and frankly, if I did, I fancy that I’d go for the big ticket items, a $75,000 Cartier watch, a stack of $1,000 notes off the counter of my local bank, maybe I’d even stoop for a nice Hermes tie. I wouldn’t think it worth my time, energy, or potential damage to my character to pinch a $2.99 paperback or a 49¢ paint brush. Unfortunately, retailers seem to have difficulty putting this in perspective. In offending me and operating by a panicked “what if” policy, they’ve lost a customer for life, and a significant dent of my associated business (students, colleagues, family, all of you reading this, etc.) I hope, to them, it’s worth it. I might suggest to all the small retailers out there: the man purse is growing in popularity. Deal with it, or ignore it at your peril.

Continental

Continental 3407This past February, a Continental Connection commuter airplane (flight 3407) crashed just outside of my hometown, Buffalo, NY in Clarence.

That night I was crawling in to bed, and I thought to check CNN.com, and across the top of the page it said “Breaking News: Plane Crash in Buffalo, NY.” Much of the night was spent watching CNN coverage (which was picked up from our local affiliates, WKBW and WIVB). Much of the following week, in fact, was spent watching the inescapable coverage of the crash, like this article in the New York Times (from which, I borrowed the above image.)

Everyone on board the plane, the moms and dads, sisters and brothers, and the pilots died. One of the three people in the house hit by the plane also died, and their lives were forever changed.

The crash freaked me out a little bit, but not so much that I wouldn’t get on an airplane again… but enough to pay greater attention to what’s going on in the sky. Until that point, I was a reasonably frequent Continental passenger. I had a Continental Airlines Master Card through Chase that accumulated miles in my Continental Airlines One Pass (frequent flyer) account.

Since then, the NTSB has investigated the crash, and held public hearings on the crash. The outcome, which, to my surprise, was released relatively quickly and in reasonably plain language: the pilots were undertrained, under qualified, underpaid (something like $12,000 a year) and severely overworked. So 52 people died a horrible death, not because the plane malfunctioned, not because ice rendered the aircraft inoperable, but because the pilots lacked experience, and the company that hired them (Colgan Air, through a contract with Continental) was willing to take the risk and look the other way?

The preliminary outcome of the hearings upset me. It simply didn’t make sense that the person flying my plane—with whom I entrust my life—is making less than the teenage kid serving me tacos at the local fast food place? How could this be the case? Yet, shockingly, it IS the case.

So earlier this summer, I decided to take some action. I called Chase to cancel my Continental MasterCard. I explained my reasoning, and the call-center in the operator from the Philippines clearly had no idea what I was talking about, but was glad to close down the card. Though I had hoped to make some sort of statement in so doing, my efforts clearly fell on uninformed ears. So, I wrote a letter to the chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines. I explained my reservations, and explained why I felt it wasn’t possible for me to fly Continental in the future.

Much to my surprise, about a week later, I received a letter back. The letter acknowledged my concerns (again, a surprise) and explained Continental’s stellar (according to them) safety record, and noted that they hoped to welcome me back as a customer in the near future.

While this was going on, my sister in law from Alaska mentioned that she had been on a flight from Buffalo to Newark (the same route as the doomed 3407) and that Continental had stationed extra pilots in the cabin “to answer questions” and “address concerns” that the passengers may have had. Interesting PR strategy, especially considering it was nearly 6 months after the crash.

Despite my “stand”, I still continued to receive mailings from Continental regarding my OnePass account. Early this fall, I called Continental One Pass to cancel my account, and to donate my remaining miles to charity. The conversation went something like this (after all the menu options and initial blah blah):

Me: Hello, I’d like to cancel my Continental One Pass account.

CSR: Oh, well I’m sorry to hear that. May I have your name and One Pass account number please?

Me: Albert Bitterman, JEXX06.

CSR: Well thank you, Mr. Bitterman. I’m sorry to hear that you’d like to close your Contential Airlines One Pass account. Would you mind if I ask why you’d like to close it?

Me: Do you really want to know?

CSR: Certainly! You’re a valued customer of Continental Airlines, Mr. Bitterman, and we would love to keep you as a customer.

So I launched in to this diatribe about the crash, and how the pilots were untrained, and how I felt that it was unconscionable that Continental allowed such a terrible accident to occur.

CSR: Well, Mr. Bitterman (i.e., insert customer name here), I certainly hear your concerns. I might remind you, however, that the flight was not operated by Continental, but by Colgan Air. Moreover, (yes, she actually said, moreover) Continental has had a stellar safety record over the past 30 years. I do wish you’d give Continental Airlines another chance.

? Was this woman serious? Did she really believe what she was saying?

Me: Regardless, Jane, the flight flew under the Continental banner. If Continental could spend the money to brand the plane, they could certainly spend the time to ensure that the flight crew was trained properly.

Silence.

Me: Moreover, Jane, this isn’t an “unfortunate incident”, people are dead. 52 people are dead. Those people were my neighbors, and friends of friends, Jane. They were people that died. They’re dead and never coming back. If one of them was your sister, would you be sitting there reading me some corporate script?

More Silence.

After a long awkward pause, finally:

SRC: No, I wouldn’t. I’m sorry. I understand your decision fully, and will process the request. Again, I’m sorry.

She was really upset sounding.

So anyhow, I would like to think that over the last 9 months, Colgan, flying for Continental would have fixed this problem, retrained their pilots, or replaced some of the inexperienced pilots with more experienced ones. Today, I was driving in to work, and I drove under the flight approach for the Buffalo airport. I noticed this plane, incoming, really crooked, it’s wings were not level to the ground, but instead, at about a 30º pitch, left wing really close to the ground, right wing in the air. It didn’t look right. It wasn’t snowing, or even windy. It was a little Continental Connection plane, just like the one that crashed. I saw the plane touch down, less crooked, but still crooked, and it moved quickly out of sight. I didn’t hear any boom, but I bet it was a less than pleasant touchdown for the people on board. The message was clear to me: Continental has the money to pay for PR, and extra pilots, but the bottom line is the bottom line, and it’s likely the pilots were underpaid and overworked… and that little has changed.

I feel like my personal boycott was the right decision, and I’m gladly sticking to it.

L.A. Episcopal Diocese elects openly gay bishop — latimes.com

You go girls. All the more reason, if you grew up Catholic, and you’re gay/lesbian, you should dump the Catholic church for the Episcopalian one.  At least they’re willing to go to bat for you.

L.A. Episcopal Diocese elects openly gay bishop — latimes.com.