Witty Failure

Wittgenstein

If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittegenstein’s birthday today. Famous for his brilliant logic, some of my favourite wisdom of his is the counterintuitive embrace of stupidity.

  • “Our greatest stupidities may be very wise.”

He also embraced the failure of knowing…

  • “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”
  • “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

Purple Rain Harder

 

Can you make it rain harder?” – Prince

Everyone is sharing their Prince stories this week with his tragic loss. Lori and I once passed Prince in the streets of Boston one evening. Just ambled past by himself. We were a bit shocked that he was strolling the streets of Back Bay, but he had a series of concerts that week and must have been out getting some fresh air. He is obviously someone who remained humble (the essential personal quality of embracing failure) despite his stratospheric fame and achievement.

He also was someone who was happy outside…no matter what the conditions. As his legendary performance at the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show dramatically showed. Super Bowl Production Designed Bruce Rogers recounts about his performance…

  • It felt surprising.  It felt spontaneous.  Whatever script you might have had in your head for ‘ok, here’s what he’s going to do’ [in response to the rain], he didn’t do that.  Musically, it felt very loose.  He played big epic Prince-style guitar solos.  Turning the bad weather to his dramatic advantage.  It was almost like a special effect.  He could totally lean into that and make it seem ‘Sure it’s raining.  I would have wanted it to rain.  I ordered that.”

Comic Heroes

 

The Queen’s Birthday today is the time celebrate Britishness with all manner of street parties, etc. And one of those British qualities to celebrate is its embrace of failure. Specifically in its comic heroes according to the grand doyen of British comedy, Stephen Fry. In the clip above he asserts that all of the British comic heroes are failures. “Our [culture] is bathed in failure, but we make a glory of our failure. We celebrate our failure.”

He contrasts it with “American optimism” where the Yanks maintain a “refusal to see oneself in a bad light”…

  • “If you go to an American bookshop, by far the biggest section is self-help and improvement”

(thanks Isley)

Learning to be Violins

John Ciardi - Wish Tree

  • Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; weather misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.” – Nietzsche

Arbor Day today celebrates trees for all their fruit, lumber, shade, beauty, oxygen and other gifts they give our world. They also provide life lessons for people who examine these enduring creatures. I particular enjoy the reflections Father Brian D’Arcy shared in BBC’s “Pause for Thought”…

  • “I love the story of the old violin maker who always chose the wood for his instruments from the north side of trees. He believed it was that side which was beaten and buffeted by the hardest and fiercest winter winds. When the winds blew, the bending trees groaned under the storm. Yet the violin maker didn’t feel sorry for them. ‘Listen,’ he would say, ‘the trees are learning to be violins’. When life is dark and difficult and when the winds of change break open our hearts, we become stronger through weathering the storms.”

Embracing Boos

Jonathan Papelbon embacing boos

 

He’s no pitcher, he’s a belly itcher!

That’s embracing “boos” (not “booze”) which has become a source of inspiration for Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jonath Papelbon as NBC describes in “Jonathan Papelbon to Phillies fans: Bring on the boos

  • “After blowing a save on Monday and taking a loss on Tuesday, Jonathan Papelbon was greeted with boos from Phillies fans before he took the mound in the ninth inning this afternoon against the Giants. He threw a perfect inning to lock down his 24th save of the season and told reporters after the game that the boos didn’t bother him. In fact, he says bring it on. ‘I enjoy it,’ he said. ‘I just think that it’s fun. It just brings a little bit of energy and life to the park and gives me a little bit of something to look forward to do every day.’ Papelbon regretted that only half the ballpark booed him. ‘I heard some of them,” he said. ‘But that’s it? Maybe we can get the whole park going here soon.’”

Theft of Dreams

  • “If you care enough about your work to be willing to be criticised for it, you have done a good day’s work.” – Seth Godin

Education Day in the USA today celebrates the advocacy of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who, As Clinton’s Education Day proclamation read, “understood the importance of nurturing the heart along with the mind. Throughout his long and rich life, he believed that the education of our young people would only be successful if it sought to build character as well as intellect, if it taught the lessons of honesty, tolerance, and good citizenship, as well as language, math, and science.”

Own of my own respected reformers, Seth Godin, has himself evangelised a cultural change in how education is approached. The Ted talk above, “Stop Stealing Dreams” is inspired and he shared two further videos on the subject of education which make for compelling viewing.

At the heart of his message is the critique of rote, methodical learning of the “right way”. His experience stems mostly from the USA, but I can attest that the same dynamics are alive if not worse in the UK. I’ll never forget when our son Chase was writing an essay about Hamlet in secondary school. He had come up with an interesting perspective articulated with a creative metaphor. As someone who aced his AP Shakespeare course, subscribed to the Boston Shakespeare Company and watch about a dozen renditions of Hamlet, I could stand on some familiarity that his analysis was as insightful as it was apropos. Frustratingly, he was marked DOWN on his essay for including it because it was not one of the approved “standard” points that the standardized exam graders would be looking for. The experience did not promote Chase’s intellectual growth, but instead deflated and demotivated him in this subject where he had strong skills and interest.

Godin’s insights are not just about education in school, but the day-to-day education derived at all points along life from pre-school playing with toys to post-school maintaining our cars. He notes that Lego was originally a much more creative medium than kit model airplanes and electronic sets. But modern Lego is now dominated by elaborate paint-by-numbers Star Wars and, well, more Star Wars kits.

In the grown up world, Seth comments about, in essence, my concept of the “black boxing” of the world. He refers to it as “no user serviceable parts inside”….

  • “What we did is we built culture about doing things right. About getting a car where we don’t need to change the oil, where we don’t want to change the oil, where we are unable to change the oil.”

Embracing Resignation

Ballmer

Happy Birthday Microsoft. Although maybe 23 August is the date to celebrate Microsoft’s Re-Birth Day. That was the day CEO Steve Ballmer announced his resignation. Ballmer had an indelible part in writing Microsoft’s history which I have shared my own perspectives on in this blog.  But it was his decision to step aside which changed the course of the company.  And from most perspectives, for the better.

The Wall Street Journal analysed his decision in their piece “Microsoft’s CEO explained how he came to believe he wasn’t the best person to remake the company” which revealed his generously humble dose of embracing failure…

  • “Mr. Ballmer says he started to realize he had trained managers to see the trees, not the forest, and that many weren’t going to take his new mandates to heart.  In May, he began wondering whether he could meet the pace the board demanded. ‘No matter how fast I want to change, there will be some hesitation from all constituents—employees, directors, investors, partners, vendors, customers, you name it—to believe I’m serious about it, maybe even myself,’ he says.  His personal turning point came on a London street. Winding down from a run one morning during a May trip, he had a few minutes to stroll, some rare spare time for recent months. For the first time, he began thinking Microsoft might change faster without him.  ‘At the end of the day, we need to break a pattern,’ he says. ‘Face it: I’m a pattern.’ Mr. Ballmer says he secretly began drafting retirement letters—ultimately some 40 of them, ranging from maudlin to radical.  On a plane from Europe in late May, he told Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith that it ‘might be the time for me to go.’… ‘While I would like to stay here a few more years, it doesn’t make sense for me to start the transformation and for someone else to come in during the middle.’  The board wasn’t "surprised or shocked," says Mr. Noski, given directors’ conversations with Mr. Ballmer. Mr. Thompson says he and others indicated that ‘fresh eyes and ears might accelerate what we’re trying to do here.’"

Nobody is perfect.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses.  A while back, I stepped down as Chairperson of a charity I had run very successfully for a number of years.  I did so for the same reason why it was time for me to leave Microsoft’s Server Business Division that I had run for 5 years.  Both had become very “Bruceified”.  I had done all the things that I knew how to do to make a team great.  Those were a lot of things and they made the team very strong.  But, for starters, once done, my ability and value to make further progress was limited.  And second, there were plenty of things that were not ideal and were not my forte to fix.

And after more than three decades of Steve Ballmer at the top (or near penultimate top) of the Microsoft organisation, it too had become very “Ballmerfied”. His focus on the enterprise brought Microsoft many revenues from the lucrative business market, but the surging consumer market was less familiar. His focus on high energy determination anchored Microsoft in the heady days of fast paced growth, but was less effective in the era of a mature market and a more complex organisation.

Since Ballmer’s resignation, Microsoft stock has risen appreciably with investors returning the embrace of this embrace of failure.

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