Archive for September, 2013

George Saunders, NY Times Bestselling author and writer, recently delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. I think it’s a good reminder for us all . . .

George Saunders Photo courtesy of Damon Winter, The New York Times

George Saunders
Photo courtesy of Damon Winter, The New York Times

George Saunders Advice to Graduates

By Joel Lovell

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you). And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much.

Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that. But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.” Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder. Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are:

  1. We’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really)
  2. We’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and
  3. We’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question. Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this.

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art; good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense and help us, and we learn we’re not separate and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we, too, will drop away (someday, a long time from now).

Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said in a poem written near the end of his life that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your “self” will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves?

But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .

And this is actually O.K.

If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now.

There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Thank you to my friend Bojana Fazarinc for sharing this with us.

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Enjoying the Ride

The Flow of the Universe

By Madisyn Taylor

enjoy the ride 03

“Many people live their lives struggling against the current, while others use the flow like a mighty wind.”

The flow of the universe moves through everything. It’s in the rocks that form, get pounded into dust, and are blown away, the sprouting of a summer flower born from a seed planted in the spring, the growth cycle every human being goes through, and the current that takes us down our life’s paths. When we’re moving with the flow, rather than resisting it, we are riding on the universal current that allows us to flow with life.

Many people live their lives struggling against this current. They try to use force or resistance to will their lives into happening the way they think it should. Others move with this flow like a sailor, using the wind, trusting that the universe is taking them exactly where they need to be at all times.

This flow is accessible to everyone because it moves through and around us. WE are always riding this flow. It’s just a matter of whether we are willing to go with it or resist it. Tapping into the flow is often a matter of letting go of the notion that we need to be in control at all times. The flow is always taking you where you need to go. It’s just  a matter of deciding whether you plan on taking the ride or dragging your feet.

Learning to step into the flow can help you feel a connection to a force that is greater than you and is always there to support you. The decision to go with the flow can take courage because you are surrendering the notion that you need to do everything by yourself. Riding the flow of the universe can be effortless, exhilarating, and not like anything you ever expected. When you are open to being in this flow, you open yourself to possibilities that exist beyond the grasp of your control.

As a child, you were naturally swept by the flow. Tears of sadness falling down your face could just as quickly turn to tears of laughter. Our souls feel good when we go with the flow of the universe.

All we have to do is make the choice to ride its currents.

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In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with making lots of money (or inheriting it).  It’s what you did to get it and what you do with it once you have it that reveals a lot about your character.”

Martha Borst

Words of Wisdom from Warren Buffett

Warren Buffet for WoW

On Success and Happiness

They say success is getting what you want, and happiness is wanting what you get. I always worry about people who say, “I’m going to do this for 10 years; I really don’t like it very well. And then I’ll do this …” That’s a little like saving up sex for your old age. Not a very good idea.

On How Much to Leave to the Kids

The perfect amount is enough money so they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing. Dynastic fortune turns me off. The idea that you hand over huge positions in society simply because someone came from the right womb, I just think it’s almost un-American.

 On How Much to Give to Charity

Ninety-nine percent of what I have will go back to society through philanthropy, because I’ve been treated extraordinarily well by society. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves lives on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes, but rewards those who can make money in securities with sums reaching into the billions. I agree with Andrew Carnegie: Huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society.

On Thinking Independently

You’re neither right nor wrong because people agree with you. You’re right because your facts and your reasoning are right.

On Investing

The first rule of investing is not to lose money. The second rule is not to forget the first rule.

On Picking Stocks for the Long Term

You should invest in businesses so good that even a fool can run them, because someday a fool will.

 On Bonds

Bonds should come with a warning label. Most currency-based investments, such as money market funds and mortgages, are among the most dangerous of assets. Their beta [price volatility] may be zero, but their risk is huge. The dollar has fallen 86 percent in value since 1965, when I took over Berkshire Hathaway. It takes $7 today to buy what $1 did at that time. For taxpaying investors like you and me, over the past 47 years, the continuous rolling [over] of U.S. Treasury bills has produced … no real income after taxes and inflation.

On Investing in Gold

Gold is a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money. But what motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow.

The world’s gold stock is 170,000 metric tons. If all of the gold were melded together, it would form a 68-foot cube — and fit in a baseball infield. At $1,750 per ounce — gold’s price as I write this [in 2012] — its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A. Now create pile B. For $9.6 trillion, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres producing $200 billion annually), plus 16 ExxonMobils (the world’s most profitable company, earning more than $40 billion annually). And we’d still have $1 trillion left over. Can you imagine an investor selecting pile A over pile B? [Gold has since plunged more than 20 percent.]

On Investing in America

Investors need to avoid the negatives of buying fads, crummy companies and timing the market. … [For most investors] buying an index fund over a long period of time makes the most sense. Just make sure you own a piece of American business.

Whether the currency a century from now is based on gold, shark teeth or a piece of paper, our country’s businesses will continue to deliver goods and services. These commercial “cows” will live for centuries, and proceeds from the sale of their “milk” will compound for the cows’ owners — just as they did during the 20th century when the Dow increased from 66 to 11,497 (and paid loads of dividends as well).

On Retiring

I will keep working until about five years after I die. I’ve given my board of directors a Ouija board so they can keep in touch. I also have a letter that will go out and tell what the plans of the company are. It starts out, “Yesterday I died.” I just hope the stock doesn’t go up too much that day.

Thank you to my good friend Bob Morley for this quote from Warren Buffett.

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“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

Ken Blanchard


If there is one thing that will help you improve the quality of all of your relationships it is to ask for feedback. Asking for data, advice, suggestions, direction, help and even criticism will help you grow and learn and discover how to constantly improve. Most people have views about you. They have likes, dislikes and preferences, but they won’t likely voluntarily share them.

For most people, confrontation is very uncomfortable and awkward. They don’t want to risk your disapproval and they don’t want to “hurt your feelings.” Therefore, if you want honest feedback from someone, you’re going to have to ask for it.

If you want to really learn something about yourself, ask the question, “How am I limiting myself?” The answer you receive from your spouse, children, co-workers, boss, friends and family members will give you valuable input and allow you to shift limiting behaviors into productive ones.

If you want to improve your personal life and business performance then ask the question: “On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the quality of our relationship (friendship/marriage/service/product/)?” And if you’re really gutsy – (“our sex life?”)

Or here is a variation on that same theme you may find helpful: “On a scale of 1-10, how do you rate our meeting? Me as a manager? Me as a team member? Me as a parent? This meal? How well we are communicating? This sales proposal?” If the answer is anything less than a 10, then ask, “What would it take to make it a 10?” You will then receive the information you need to satisfy the other person and will know how to create a winning product, service or relationship.

However, for feedback to be successful, there are a few critical points to remember:

1)    Never give feedback without asking if the person is willing to hear it. If they say “No” then don’t say anything because they will not be listening. You might as well go talk to the wall. If you share your opinions anyway, then you are not giving feedback, you are merely “dumping” on them and that never produces a positive outcome.

2)    Never say, “You are (this)…” or “You are (that)…” It comes across as accusatory and arrogant. Simply take full ownership of your views (and that’s all they are. They aren’t the TRUTH) and start by saying, “I experience you as…” or “My view is…”

3)    When receiving feedback, KEEP YOUR MOUTH CLOSED. Do not be defensive, (“I did NOT!”) Do not try to explain yourself, (“Ya, but, let me tell you why I did that!”) Do not attack the messenger, (“Who are you to tell me how to run my business?”) If you do any of this, the other person will shut down and you will have lost a great opportunity to learn a lot about yourself and a chance to grow. LISTEN. Let the information in. Look for the value that is there for you. If you feel you would like to respond, then only do so after at least a day of reflection.

4)    Remember, feedback from another person is not the capital “T” truth. It is only their truth. It is only a point of view. It is only information. Don’t take it personally. If it is important to improve your relationship with that person then you may want to make specific changes with that one person. However, watch for patterns. If you are hearing several people giving you the same feedback, then you may want to make a significant change to your overall behavior. There is a cute saying,

“If one person calls you a jackass – well, that’s just their opinion.

If two people call you a jackass – that’s curious.

If three people call you a jackass – hmmmm – very interesting.

If four people call you a jackass – maybe it’s time to buy a saddle!”

5)    Remember that the best response to feedback is, “Thank you for caring enough to be honest about what you think and how you feel.”

6)    Finally, if you make it a habit to ask for feedback and never make any changes, then people will become aggravated and they’ll stop sharing their views. Take what is valuable, incorporate the lessons learned and make a concerted effort to change the behaviors that have produced limited and less than satisfactory results.

To achieve great success in this world – to become a champion – you must be willing and even eager to receive feedback from every credible source possible. You must ask for it!

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