I see dead people…on Facebook 

Facebook is very good about reminding me of my friends’ birthdays. Its notification feature automatically prompts me to post a birthday greeting, and I can do it without even visiting the friend’s page. All I have to do is type a message in Notification and press “post.” It’s easy. Too easy, as I recently discovered.

Facebook login

Who controls your Facebook account after you die?

I was about to wish happy birthday to someone I hadn’t heard from in a long time. Something made me think to visit her page first, just to see what she was up to. I’m glad I did because she hasn’t been doing much lately. That’s because she’s been dead for over a year. To think that I was about to make some blithe comment about having “a great day” or “hope it’s a good one” left me feeling sheepish but also very relieved that I had caught myself in the nick of time.

It got me to thinking about “seeing dead people” on Facebook. How many are there? Do their pages stay up forever? It’s a creepy thought, I know, but I found out it’s pretty common. In fact, I have at least three Facebook friends who are dead, and I don’t have that many FB friends to begin with!

They may be dead, but their profiles live on—remembrances frozen in time. Visiting their pages is like entering a vault. Everything is the way they left it—before they slipped from the real world into the ether world. You wouldn’t even know they had passed on unless you took the time to study the comments.

Here are a few interesting “facts” about dead people on Facebook, courtesy of a post by Michael Hiscock on The Loop website:

Believe it or not, 30 million Facebook users died in the first eight years of its existence. In fact, 428 of them die every hour, so they’re practically dropping like flies. And every day, these dormant accounts receive friend requests, get tagged in photos, and sometimes, they’re even wished a happy birthday.

Randall Monroe, in his “What If?” blog, takes this to its logical extreme. Monroe speculates that by the year 2065, the dead on Facebook could outnumber the living—assuming FB begins to decline in popularity and loses its market share (like Friendster, for example).

If FB can hold its ground well into the future, the crossover date might not come until 2130 or later, he writes. “Nothing lasts forever,” he observes, “and rapid change has been the norm for anything built on computer technology. The ground is littered with the bones of websites and technologies that seemed like permanent institutions 10 years ago.”

For those worried about what will happen to their Facebook page after they die, there is a way to memorialize your page. You can also request ahead of time that it be taken down. Here is the pertinent section from Facebook’s Help Center:

What will happen to my account if I pass away?

You can tell us in advance whether you’d like to have your account memorialized or permanently deleted from Facebook.

Memorialized Accounts

Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Memorialized accounts have the following key features:

  • The word Remembering will be shown next to the person’s name on their profile
  • Depending on the privacy settings of the account, friends can share memories on the memorialized Timeline
  • Content the person shared (ex: photos, posts) stays on Facebook and is visible to the audience it was shared with
  • Memorialized profiles don’t appear in public spaces such as in suggestions for People You May Know, ads or birthday reminders
  • No one can log into a memorialized account
  • Memorialized accounts that don’t have a legacy contact can’t be changed
  • Groups with an admin whose account was memorialized will be able to select new admins
  • Pages with a sole admin whose account was memorialized will be removed from Facebook if we receive a valid request

But what if notifying Facebook prior to your death isn’t (or wasn’t) at the top of your estate-planning to-do list? Family members and friends can contact Facebook and request that your page be memorialized or removed. However, they must be able to demonstrate that you really are dead (submit a death certificate, etc.) and provide some proof of their authority. Also, Facebook will not provide login information for your account.

It’s not just Facebook. You could also live in perpetuity on LinkedIn, Twitter or any number of other social media sites. All of this has spawned discussions about developing policies for handling deaths on social media.

This infographic from WebpageFX gives you some things to ponder. Unless you want to be like Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense,” haunting Haley Joel Osment who can “see dead people,” think about your social media legacy. Don’t make us wish you a happy birthday long after you’re gone!

Posted in Communications, Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to make book reading a daily habit

Girl reading bookI recently wrote about the importance of reading books (‘I cannot live without books’). In this follow-up post, I discuss how to make book reading a daily habit and how to get the most out of what you read.

Most of us spend a lot of time reading (especially for work or on social media), but few of us read critically. Our comprehension isn’t particularly deep. We don’t question or examine very carefully what we’ve read. We absorb bits and pieces of text as quickly as possible and then move on.

There’s so much information to process that we’ve gotten into the habit of skimming everything. Posts, tweets, emails, web content—it all runs together, and soon we’re overwhelmed.

That’s the beauty of reading a book. You put your smartphone away. You turn off the TV. You remove all distractions. You pick up a book and focus on just the book. So that is step one: Learn to focus.

Start by setting aside a time each day to read without interruption. I like to read with my first cup of coffee in the morning. Other people read during lunch or during their daily commute. Bill Gates reportedly reads for an hour each night before going to bed.

Sam Thomas Davies, the author of Unhooked: How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones That Stick, describes how he reads a book a week by turning reading into a habit. “Instead of only reading when you’re ‘in the mood’ (which is unpredictable), habitualise when you do it. Identify a constant trigger for when to read (like an existing habit) and commit to it.”

Davies schedules 30 minutes of reading each morning after his wife leaves for work. Joan Fallon, CEO of Curemark, says in a Fast Company article by Stephanie Vozza that she reads during her downtime while traveling. “If those gaps are long, I can read a book,” she says. “If they are shorter, I read an article.”

Davies suggests reading about 10 percent of a book each day, and he notes that you don’t have to read the entire book. (More on that in a moment.) Unless it’s a thick tome, your goal should be to finish a book in seven to 10 days.

It also helps to pick books that you’re interested in reading. While books on your profession or industry are always good to have on your reading list, you should also read books that feed your imagination and broaden your perspective. Learning new things and expanding your horizon will cement your habit of reading and spur you to read more.

Keep a running list of books you’d like to read. You can get recommendations from friends or from the articles and blogs you read. One of my favorite activities is browsing the shelves at the library or a bookstore. I always see something interesting. Have a couple of new books on your nightstand so that when you finish one, you’ve got a new one ready to go.

How to read

How you read is important, too. Many of us were told growing up that we should never write in a book. As consequence, we’re fairly passive readers. We’re not used to underlining or taking notes. We need to teach ourselves to be active and critical readers.

So before you plunge into your next book, ask yourself a few questions: Why am I reading this book? What do I hope to gain from it? How will it help my career, business or personal life? When you start a book, have a goal in mind. Then, as you read, make sure you are getting what you intended out of the book.

Man reading bookSkim through a book’s table of contents and chapter headings when you first pick it up. Read the preface or introduction before you decide to buy it. It’s there that you learn the author’s intentions, discover any biases and get a sense of the writing style. You can often tell based on those first pages if the book is a good choice or not.

Before you begin a nonfiction work, spend some time considering the way the author organizes his material, read the chapter summaries (if provided), study the table of contents to get a sense of structure. Then jot down the sections you care about the most. These are the chapters where you will want to spend the most time and take notes.

There are a number of guides to reading, and many universities offer primers for students new to the rigors of academic life. Often they suggest that you divide your reading into three parts: skimming, scanning and detailed reading.

  • Skimming is a quick read of the text once you’ve done your initial survey. Read as quickly and efficiently as possible. Don’t worry about details or taking notes. Your goal is get a general sense of the text.
  • Scanning is a closer reading of a few pages or sections. These might be chapters you’ve selected because they address specific concerns or questions you have. Try not to scan more than 20 percent of the book.
  • Reading for detail is the last step. This is where you read the text in a methodical and close manner. Taking notes is important at this stage, although I admit I don’t always do it. If you use some type of e-reader, take advantage of the tools provided—highlighting and annotating the text as you go. If you’ve purchased a book, don’t be afraid to underline or write notes in the margin. Or use a notebook or computer to take notes. (To learn more, download this pdf on “Effective Reading” from the University of Kent.)

Historian Joseph Ellis writes in American Sphinx that Thomas Jefferson was an inveterate note-taker. Jefferson would copy passages that he felt were important, but not word for word. Instead, he blended his own thoughts and observations into the selections he copied. You can easily do the same. Only when you write the key concepts in your own words will you begin to understand and absorb what you’ve read.

As you take notes, consider the author’s arguments and interpretations. Are they well-developed? Does he present evidence to support his points? Do you agree with what he says? What’s missing? What other sources are needed to better understand the subject?

Whenever I’m reading, I keep a dictionary handy to look up words, and I use the Internet to check sources or look up references I’m not familiar with.

One of the myths about book reading is that you have to read every word, from beginning to end. Actually, it’s okay to jump around or skip chapters that aren’t relevant to your purpose. Remember, it’s your reading program. You get to decide what you read and what you don’t.

Sir Francis Bacon wisely said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

Happy reading!

Posted in Goal setting, Management | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘Shoveling Snow with Buddha’

Shoveling snowSnowzilla may be one of the DC area’s biggest snowstorms ever before it’s all over. This poem by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins just about nails it on the head for my day with the shovel.

Shoveling Snow with Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid? 
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe? 

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us; 
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards? 

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Billy Collins

Posted in Happiness | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

‘I cannot live without books’

BooksOne of my earliest memories of my Grandfather Pollard is a figure sitting in an armchair in the living room of my grandparents’ house in Columbia, MO, reading. My grandfather was a prodigious reader, and his bookshelves held a veritable pantheon of great authors: Cooper, Dickens, Dumas, Eliot, Emerson, Hawthorne, Hugo, Irving, Scott and Stevenson, to name a few.

When he died, I inherited most of his books. I felt honored, and I felt a connection that I think influences me to this day. In the front of many of the books, along with his signature, are a series of dates. I once asked my grandmother what they meant. She said that each time he read a book he would record the date. So if there were four dates, it meant he read the book four times.

I wish he had written notes in the margins so that I could benefit from his many dips in the well of the likes of Emerson, but he didn’t. I think I can understand why. It’s the same reason why I’ve always been reluctant to write in a hardcover book. It seems almost sacrilegious. I wish, too, that he would have talked to me about what he read, but he wasn’t much of a talker. I think for him, as it is often for me, reading was a private avocation.

We develop a love for reading at an early age, or at least we do if we are lucky. And we’re lucky, too, if that love lasts a lifetime—in quiet moments, stealing away to discover new worlds through books or reconnecting with the literary companions of our youth.

Nothing can compare to a good book. For the better part of a year, I read daily from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit,” a large and well-written history of the Progressive Era and the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. When I finally finished the book, I felt a loss that was almost palpable. I really didn’t want it to end.

New York Times writer Frank Bruni, in a column last fall about “The Gift of Reading,” said “reading fuels the fires of intelligence and imagination,” and he described how reading is transformative for children, especially those who come from disadvantaged homes.

We know that successful people read a lot. Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and George W. Bush are some who come to mind. Bush wrote in his memoirs that he and Karl Rove competed to see who could read the most history books in one year. He read 95, and Rove read 110.

A few years ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asked his top executives to read three books and join him in a day-long “book club” discussion of each one. He used the books as frameworks for charting the future of Amazon. The books he chose were:

  • “The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker
  • “The Innovator’s Solution” by Clayton Christensen
  • “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt

You often see the Thomas Jefferson quotation, “I cannot live without books,” inscribed on bookmarks. The quote comes from a letter to his friend John Adams. During the 1780s, Jefferson began building the largest collection of books in America at Monticello. When the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, Jefferson offered to sell his collection to Congress to replace what had been destroyed. Congress purchased 6,487 books from Jefferson in 1815 for $23,950. Jefferson then went on to acquire several thousand more books, since, as he told Adams, “I cannot live without [them].” *

In the digital age, we don’t need to acquire books like Jefferson did, but we do need to take the time to read. Studies have shown that reading increases intelligence and brain power, it helps you relax and sleep better, and it even can help fight Alzheimer’s disease.

So why don’t we read more, at least for pleasure and not work? Often it’s because we don’t make the time. In my next post, I’ll talk about reading techniques and give suggestions on how to make reading a part of your daily routine.

Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of the volumes Congress purchased from Jefferson were destroyed in a second fire on Christmas Eve in 1851.

Posted in Happiness | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

‘I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in’

Time to improveBefore he became a country music star, Kenny Rogers recorded a song with the First Edition called “Just Dropped In.” It’s a relic from the counterculture ‘60s with lyrics that don’t make a lot of sense, but I’ve always liked the refrain: “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.” Seeing what condition your condition is in is a good way to begin a new year. Assessing where you are and where you’re headed, in fact, is essential to growth and self-improvement.

There are lots of resources out there to help you conduct a self-inventory, from assessment tools and checklists to formal instruments that require administration and interpretation by a licensed or trained professional. Riley Guide’s Self-Assessment Resources lists quite a few tools, depending on whether you are interested in learning more about your personality type (as in the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator), measuring your interests, surveying your career skills or better understanding what motivates you and is important to you (values inventories).

The goal of self-assessment is to learn more about yourself or your business so you can improve your “condition,” whether that’s learning new skills, becoming a better manager, expanding into new markets, or deciding that you want to devote more time to family, hobbies or volunteer service.

Those familiar with the classic self-help guide Think and Grow Rich, written by Napoleon Hill in 1937, know that self-analysis is an important aspect of growth and change—whether it’s in business or your personal life.

“Your annual self-analysis should be made at the end of each year, so you can include in your New Year’s Resolutions any improvements which the analysis indicates should be made,” Hill writes. “Take this inventory by asking yourself the following questions, and by checking your answers with the aid of someone who will not permit you to deceive yourself as to their accuracy.”

Hill’s “self-analysis questionnaire for personal inventory” is just as relevant today as it was nearly 80 years ago. There are 28 questions altogether, but I’m listing 10 here for your consideration:

  1. Have I attained the goal which I established as my objective for this year? (You should work with a definite yearly objective to be attained as a part of your major life objective).

  2. Have I permitted the habit of PROCRASTINATION to decrease my efficiency, and if so, to what extent?

  3. Have I been PERSISTENT in following my plans through to completion?

  4. Have I dissipated any of my energy through lack of CONCENTRATION of effort?

  5. In what way have I improved my ability to render service?

  6. Have my opinions and DECISIONS been based upon guesswork, or accuracy of analysis and THOUGHT?

  7. How much time have I devoted to UNPROFITABLE effort which I might have used to better advantage?

  8. In what ways have I rendered MORE SERVICE AND BETTER SERVICE than I was paid to render?

  9. If I had been the purchaser of my own services for the year, would I be satisfied with my purchase?

  10. Am I in the right vocation, and if not, why not?

How much progress would you say that you made on your goals this past year? What fears or habits are holding you back? What do you need to do to make 2016 a banner year so that the next time you “drop in to see what condition your condition is in,” you can report that everything is A-OK?

Posted in Careers, Getting started, Goal setting, Staying motivated | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

This New Year’s, resolve to be less busy and more productive

BusynessIt’s the end of another year, a time for reflection, planning and goal setting. We get out our calendars, dust off our business plans and review our accomplishments over the past 12 months. We congratulate ourselves on achievements, note where we’ve fallen short and adjust our planning accordingly. Then we boldly go forth to conquer the new year—marching forward with renewed purpose and a long list of goals and resolutions.

But before we launch a thousand ships, let’s resolve to make 2016 the year we focus less on busyness and more on business. It’s not about getting a lot of things done. It’s about getting quality things done and getting them done right.

Busyness is a hard habit to break. It bothers us not to be busy. Over the Christmas holidays, I found myself not having much to do. No work projects, no emails, nothing. How could it be so quiet? I fidgeted and thought about things I should be doing. I had a hard time focusing on the present and being still.

Busyness has been aptly described as a “dis-ease,” a disease that can be harmful to our health, our relationships, and our ability to enjoy life and be productive. It seems to have four main causes: First, it’s embedded in our culture. We’re taught at an early age to be busy and to equate busyness with diligence, ambition and success. Lack of busyness, on the other hand, is viewed as a sign of laziness or slacking off. Second, it’s reinforced by our own insecurities. If we’re not busy all the time, something must be wrong with us. We must not have an important enough job or enough get-up-and-go. Third, it’s exacerbated by a lack of planning. If we made a plan and stuck to it, we’d be focusing on the more important things in our life or business. Fourth, we don’t know how to handle downtime. It makes us uncomfortable. We feel we must constantly be doing something.

So each year, we make longer to-do lists and vow to cram more into our schedules. Then we say that we’re too busy to go to lunch, take a walk or visit with our neighbors. We develop metrics that measure things that don’t really matter; we receive emails and attend meetings that waste our time; we labor under processes and procedures that stymie innovation; we continue programs that have outlived their usefulness. We’ve doomed ourselves to perpetual busyness.

We know intuitively that this is the wrong path, that it leads to frustration, burnout and less time with family and friends. But we feel powerless to do anything about it, or we try valiantly for a few months to change, only to fall back to our old ways.

It’s particularly difficult when we work in an environment that rewards busyness—where staying late at the office is a badge of honor and praise is reserved for those who have mastered the art of always “working,” regardless of any real contribution to the organization’s bottom line or mission.

How do we change? Where do we draw the line that says, “No more busyness for the sake of busyness?”

It starts with acknowledging that busyness does not increase productivity. Writing in the Harvard Business Review (“The Remedy for Unproductive Busyness”), Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats note that we have a “bias toward action. When faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous one, we prefer to do something, even if it’s counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.”

“Choosing to be busy over real progress can be an easy choice; being productive, by contrast, is much more challenging,” the two business professors write. “What helps? Reminding ourselves that taking the time to reflect can help make us more productive.”

They cite a study of 354 Indian manufacturing firms where researchers with the London School of Economics identified two types of CEOs: one group engaged in advance planning while the other was less likely to plan. Surprise: the most successful CEOs were the planners, whose firms had higher productivity and profitability.

Gino and Staats also make an interesting point about soccer goalies, who tend to jump around a lot when defending penalty shots. Statistics show that if they just stood still and planted themselves at the center of the net, they’d block the shot 33.3 percent of the time. When they dive to the left, they only block the shot 14.2 percent of the time. When they dive to the right, they stop the shot just 12.6 percent of the time.

Yet, goalies stay in the center only 6.3 percent of the time. “Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving (an action) in the wrong direction than to have the ignominy of watching the ball go sailing by and never to have moved,” note Gino and Staats. “By contrast, hanging back, observing and exploring a situation is often the better choice.”

The idea of doing nothing is an anathema to most of us. We truly are ill at ease when we’re idle. Just try putting away your smartphone, disconnecting from social media or skipping an appointment. And yet…

“We need to rediscover what it’s like to do nothing, to sit still, to enjoy silence,” says Leo Babauta in “how to be less busy in a busy busy world.” “We need to put more space in between things, instead of cramming them together all the time. Let’s stop being busy, and start being happy.”

So how, exactly, do we do that?

Below are some ideas Babauta gives, which I think are a pretty good start.

For those who have at least some control over their day:

Make two lists: your ideal day, and all the things that fill up your day (all your commitments). Start by eliminating commitments that are not essential, that don’t make up your ideal day…

Then start following your ideal schedule. Be sure there are spaces between things, so you’re not rushed. Leave large blocks of time wide open, so you can focus on creating or doing what makes you happy. Leave at least one big block for doing non-work stuff, whether that’s spending time with family, or exercising, or doing a hobby, or just relaxing.

Look at your to-do list and see what you can eliminate or delegate or postpone until later. Each day, just choose one or three things to focus on. Have a block of time designated for doing emails and phone calls and smaller tasks, so they don’t interrupt you throughout the day.

Disconnect from the Internet for large chunks of time…Clear away distractions and interruptions so you’re not always switching your attention between things.

Avoid meetings. Seriously. They fill up our days without being productive.

Single-task instead of multi-task. Focus on important things rather than a bunch of little things…

For those who have little control over their day:

See how much of the above you can already implement—you might get further than you think. Mapping out an ideal day, eliminating commitments, simplifying your to-do list, single-tasking, clearing away distractions and interruptions…most people can do most of these things, or if not most things then at least a few.

Tell your boss that you’d like to be more “productive” and that the interruptions and meetings are getting in the way of accomplishing more important things. Tell your boss what you’d like to accomplish, and what you’d like to change about your schedule. Work out a compromise.

Also, think about changing jobs, if you really have no control. This is a longer-term change, obviously, but it’s possible, and maybe even desirable.

In the end, whatever changes you make, you can be less busy simply by changing your mindset, to one where you live in the present rather than always thinking about other things. Slow down, breathe, enjoy every moment. Learn to focus on what’s in front of you, and find peace in whatever you do.

This is the time of year when we make New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps one cure for busyness is to simplify our plans for the new year. Better to set a few achievable goals than to commit to a multitude of unrealistic resolutions that will be abandoned by springtime.

Another antidote is to be intentional about taking time off. Sit down now with your family and plan your vacation for 2016, and then put in for that time in January. That way you really will take a vacation!

As Babauta notes, we can take back our days in small ways. Eliminating distractions, bowing out of meetings, turning off email for parts of the day and building quiet time into our schedule.

Baby steps for some of us who are addicted to busyness, but nonetheless steps in the right direction.

P.S. I’ve written previously about the importance of writing down your plans and reviewing them periodically, setting SMART goals and putting balance in your life. Perhaps some of these will also be helpful to you.

Posted in Goal setting, Happiness, Management | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas in the here and now

Bokeh - Candles on dark backgroundChristmas is a magical time of year. Gifts under the tree, choirs singing alleluia, friends and family stopping by, lots of cookies (yum!) and kids giddy with excitement. Even the adjectives are super-sized: merrily on high, most wonderful, joyful and triumphant, royal beauty bright, glory in the highest!

I love the Christmas story. Even if you are not a Christian, you can appreciate the magnitude, the wonder, of a tiny babe born in a manger who is the son of God. Over the years, the story has become both mythic and homogenized, the stuff of children’s pageants, Charlie Brown specials and animated movies. Sure, Mary and Joseph have no money, so they have to camp out in a barn; but the shepherds and wise men still find them, and the angels still proclaim glad tidings.

One of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs is “All is Well” by Michael W. Smith. “All is well, all is well,” he proclaims. “Angels and men rejoice/For tonight darkness fell/Into the dawn of love’s light/Sing A-le/Sing Alleluia.”

Like the little boy in the Christmas classic The Polar Express, you have to believe—believe in something that you can neither prove nor disprove. It’s the beauty, the mystery, the spirit that lifts and transforms us in this season of wonder and awe. So much so, that we can say, “All is well, all is well/Let there be peace on Earth.”

And yet, there is one part of the Christmas story that I don’t like. It’s a part that has always bothered me. It’s like a jagged piece of broken glass that cuts deep into your finger, or a pipe bomb that explodes in a crowded marketplace. You won’t hear it in a Christmas song or see it depicted in a Christmas play, and yet it’s there at the end—a shocking coda that is terrible to comprehend.

It’s in Matthew 2:16, where the writer says, “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.”

We don’t know how many baby boys Herod murdered; in fact, we don’t know for sure if it happened since Matthew is the only writer who reports it. We do know from history that Herod was a mad man who killed his own sons and wife. And we know that Matthew’s telling fulfills the prophecy in Jeremiah of wailing and loud lamentation in Ramah—Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled “because they were no more” (Matt. 2:18).

Contrast Rachel’s uncontrollable weeping and wailing with the peacefulness of the manger where “all is calm, all is bright,” and you have to wonder: what’s going on here? It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t conform to our Disneyesque view of Christmas!

That’s because Christ’s birth is not a fairy tale. We tend to forget that he was born into a particular time and place, that he was dropkicked into a mess of hurt and suffering. There was evil and fear then, just as there is now.

When we get to the beginning of John, the fourth Gospel, we learn the significance of Jesus’ birth on a cosmic scale: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

Our world is nasty, brutish and imperfect, yet the Christ child came into our midst. Was it disruptive? You bet. Did everyone receive the news with joy? No. Perhaps Matthew’s description of the Massacre of the Innocents, as it is sometimes called, is a sign of things to come, a foreshadowing of the other great Christian story of death and resurrection.

By describing the here and now of Bethlehem, and the consequences of Jesus’ coming, Matthew makes Christmas more than just a happy-ending story. The light of God needs substance, a presence to make it flesh and blood and relevant. Matthew gives us that presence, a reality check that forces us to sit up and say, “This is serious. I need to pay attention.”

Christmastime this year is just as real, just as relevant and just as jagged as it was in Jesus’ time. We have our own Herods, our own forms of madness and unspeakable cruelty that must be overcome. Christmas 2015 has as its backdrop mass shootings, terrorism, oppression, racism and poverty. The good news is that the seeds of love that one man planted over 2,000 years ago are still being planted today. His light still shines, and it cannot be extinguished.

So do I believe that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year”? Of course I do, but I also think that we must work hard to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts and in our actions all year long. It’s a story we must be willing to write anew each day if we truly want its ending to be a happily-ever-after one.

Posted in Purpose | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What does a Millennial want?

Millennials Coming of Age

Goldman Sachs published research earlier this year on Millennial consumers’ buying habits.

What do Millennials want for Christmas? Or, put more broadly, what do they want, period? It’s a good question, given that my son is an older Millennial, and I’m still deciding what to buy him.

Sigmund Freud famously admitted that after 30 years of research into the feminine psyche, he still couldn’t answer the basic question, “What does a woman want?”

The Millennials have become the most studied and talked about generation since my generation, the Baby Boomers, came along. But are we any closer to knowing what they want?

Well, yes and no.

Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs put together a nifty series of charts, “Millennials: Coming of Age,” that ran as sponsored content on The Washington Post website. The interactive charts were fun to go through and gave lots of information about what we might expect from one of the largest generations in history as it moves into its peak spending years.

Zachary A. Goldfarb of the Post summarized the Goldman Sachs charts in a Wonkblog post, highlighting what Millennials want—and don’t want. Among the things they want:

  • Cheap stuff. Millennials are more price-conscious than previous generations.
  • To be healthy. Millennials put a premium on eating right and overall health.
  • Athletic gear. Millennials tend to spend more on athletic apparel and footwear.
  • Social media. Millennials aren’t just the Facebook generation. They also use social media to make decisions about brands, where to spend time and who to hang out with.

What they don’t want:

  • A house. Fully 30 percent say they never plan to buy a house, another 30 percent don’t feel strongly about it.
  • A television. Only three in 20 Millennials think it’s really important to own a television. They’ve grown accustomed to watching TV on their laptops, tablets or smartphones.
  • A car. Nearly a third of Millennials do not plan to buy a car.
  • A luxury bag. Only 20 percent said it was important or extremely important to have an expensive handbag.

But wait, the Goldman Sachs charts also show that the Millennials’ aspirations aren’t that much different than those of older generations in some key areas. For example, 93 percent of 18-34-year-old renters said they do want to own a home someday. And even though Millennials have been putting off marriage and starting families, 70 percent said they’d like to get married someday and 74 percent want to have children.

Research from Accenture, the multinational management consulting company, challenges some of the enduring myths about Millennials. Accenture looked at the shopping behaviors of 6,000 consumers in eight countries, including 1,707 Millennials. Here are three myths that its research busted:

Myth #1: It’s all about online shopping. “In fact, interviews conducted recently at one of America’s largest shopping malls confirmed our survey findings that many members of the digital generation actually prefer visiting stores to shopping online…When it comes to shopping, we found that 68 percent of all Millennials demand an integrated, seamless experience regardless of the channel.”

Myth #2: Loyalty is lost. “In a recent survey of retail leaders, nearly 40 percent said the No. 1 concern they have about Millennials is their lack of loyalty. But we found that Millennials can be exceptionally loyal customers—provided they feel they’ve been treated right.”

Myth #3: Millennials treat retailers and brands the same as people on social networks. “While clicking an icon on a social network page might indicate that they consider a retailer or brand cool or hip, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are loyal customers…Instead, they view social media relationships with brands and retailers as transactional.”

Another study, “American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation,” commissioned by Barkley and conducted by Service Management Group and The Boston Consulting Group is also worth a peak.

New paradigms for Millennial engagement in the experience economy from Barkley's research.

New paradigms for Millennial engagement in the experience economy from Barkley’s research.

Among the usual findings (Millennials are “digital natives,” strive for a healthy lifestyle, believe in cause marketing, etc.), Barkley also found that Millennials are in many ways similar to older generations, and they are not a homogeneous cohort. Well, gee, that really helps!

Along that same vein, Adam Smiley Poswolsky, writing in Fast Company (“What Millennial Employees Really Want”), noted that “IBM’s February 2015 millennial study found that millennial career goals don’t differ that much from older generations. Baby boomers, gen-Xers and millennials all want to make a positive impact on their organization and help solve social and environmental challenges.”

Poswolsky, a Millennial himself, says, “My parents’ generation grew up without computers, while my generation can’t remember a life without Facebook. We’re both looking for meaning in the workplace, so how can companies deliver on meaningful employee engagement?”

Among his suggestions: don’t just talk about impact, make an impact; create opportunities for mentorship, skills acquisition and co-leadership; give young talent a voice in your organization; and embrace a workforce that is in flux (“the average millennial is staying at their job less than three years”).

Finally, for a good list of research on Millennials, you might check out Bill Chamberlin’s blog post, “A Primer on Millennials: List of 25 Research Reports.”

Okay, so what to get for my son? I would say that he and I are a lot alike. Neither one of us likes to be pinned down (no long laundry list of gift ideas from us). And both of us will tell you, “I can’t think of anything.” So why not go with a gift card? With a twist: Millennials, it turns out, prefer electronic gift cards. Of course, why didn’t I think of that?

Posted in Communications, Marketing, Technology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Interest rates, the Fed and taking risks

Asset liability managementThe financial press and the stock markets have been teeing up a Federal Reserve rate hike for weeks. Headline writers and analysts have been in overdrive with a chorus of “Rate increase all but certain,” “Fed poised to raise rates for the first time in nearly a decade” and “Get ready for higher interest rates.”

Will it happen this time? We’ll know tomorrow afternoon when the Federal Open Market Committee makes its announcement. It’s a dicey business trying to predict what the Fed will do. Recall that in the weeks leading up to the FOMC’s September meeting there was a similar hue and cry about a rate increase, and the markets went crazy. It did not happen.

My hat is off to those in financial services who worry about interest rate risk and what it might do to their balance sheets. This summer, I wrote a piece for the September-October issue of The Federal Credit Union magazine on “Asset/Liability Management.” The subhead was “Making sound decisions in uncertain times.” Very appropriate, considering the challenge credit unions face in trying to navigate an uncertain rate environment.

When I wrote the piece, there was talk that rates would go up in the fall. Given the magazine’s lead time, I had to submit my article in July. So I steered away from making any hard-and-fast statements about rate increases. That turned out to be prescient because the FOMC decided to leave rates alone and kick the can down the road.

A quote from economist Edward de Bono for the article neatly summarized the task at hand: “If you cannot accurately predict the future, then you must flexibly be prepared to deal with various possible futures.” That, in a nutshell, is the job of asset/liability committees and credit union risk managers.

The chief financial officers I interviewed were unanimous in stating that it would be foolish to try to predict what the Fed will do. Besides, interest rate risk is only one of many risks that can erode your capital. Just as serious, perhaps even more so, is liquidity risk, not to mention credit risk.

As any successful business leader will tell you, there will always be risk. If you’re too afraid of it, you’ll end up making shortsighted decisions that limit your opportunities. Healthy organizations recognize that some level of risk is acceptable in order to accomplish goals and grow.

Entrepreneur and amateur race-car driver Tom Panaggio makes these two points about risk and leadership on Skip Prichard’s Leadership Insights blog that are worth remembering:

There are two big advantages to risk.

First and foremost, risk is directly connected to opportunity. Every opportunity must have an element of risk or there will be no benefit. Risk is the cost of opportunity. All businesses and organizations must be in a constant state of forward progress because of competition and the ever-changing demands of customers… A leader who recognizes the vast importance of forward motion for their organization accepts risk as merely a cost of opportunity and then actively endorses this philosophy throughout his business in setting the stage for long-term success.

Secondly, because most people have a tendency to avoid or minimize risk, those who have the courage to embrace it already have a competitive advantage. For example, my company was a nonstop marketer. We knew that our competition was not willing to risk the investment in marketing to the degree that we were. So we took advantage of their unwillingness to risk the marketing dollars and dominated our market space by out-marketing them. We put ourselves in a position to win by embracing the risk of marketing.

I personally am ready for the Fed to bite the bullet and get this interest rate hike over. Never has there been so much angst over 25 or 30 basis points, or whatever it will be in the end. Let’s just do it and get going with that Santa Claus rally!

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Management | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment