Fine Wine and Memoir



With the recent move, I have let my blogging responsibilities slip.  I will be back with regular blogs later this week, but I thought I would point you to my guest blog on Kathy Pooler’s lovely website, Memoir Writer’s Journey.  My subject is memoir writing, and the notion that a good memoir, like fine wine, requires aging.

Failure is Your Friend


ht_charlie_whittmack_ll_110715_wgOne of the key concepts in the MBA short course that I teach on “Managing Career Risk” is that failure plays a critical role in building a career that is ultimately satisfying in both the professional and personal realms.

I have framed this idea a number of ways over the years. Making mistakes is how you learn what not to do again. Failure lies not in making a mistake, but in refusing to try again. Failure is never fatal, just as success is never final. Failure is, in fact, a form of success as long as you are able to learn from it.

But those aphorisms are just words.  As I noted in my last blog on Teaching as a Map, what makes them come alive is a personal story of growing through failure to success.  

And come alive they did when Charlie Wittmack, an athlete who thrives on pushing the boundaries of his physical capacity, came to class and shared his 2010 struggle to complete all three legs of what he calls a “world triathlon”—a 10,000 mile journey that included swimming the Thames and the English Channel, cycling from France to Nepal, and summiting Mt. Everest.   

What made his story so compelling was his recognition, from the start, that he was attempting to do what most people considered to be impossible … his recognition that everyone expected him to fail.  

Ultimately, he completed all three legs of the triathlon.  But several times, along the journey, it seemed that he would fail. Perhaps the worst came when he collapsed from altitude sickness as he cycled up to the highest mountain pass in Tibet. But each “failure” left him closer to his goal than anyone ever imagined he would get. Each failure taught him lessons he could—and did—use in his next attempt.  Each failure left him that much closer to the goal he wanted to reach.

The point, I think, of Charlie’s story is not just that failure is your friend, but that if you think big enough, you can’t fail … you just get closer and closer to success.


World Book Night Revisited


IMG_7920World Book Night was a great treat, but not quite in the way I expected.

As I noted here a few days ago, World Book Night seeks to make print books available to people who aren’t regular readers. This year, Carol Bodensteiner (my long-time writing partner and comrade in other assorted literary crimes), and I chose to give our books to a group of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls in an afterschool group that is part of a pregnancy prevention program.  

The girls listened respectfully, if a bit passively, as we shared our backgrounds as readers and writers, and explained why we were there.

The energy level picked up as we talked about our books to give out. I got a few smiles when I noted that Bossypants speaks to the value of humor in getting through day-to-day life. When I highlighted the everyday value of the lessons Tina Fey learned from improvisational theatre, I was directed to a hand written wall poster with virtually the same recommendations but in the girls’s own words: look for areas of agreement and make a contribution to every discussion. Heads continued to nod as Carol talked about Fahrenheit 451: the importance of respecting other people’s ideas and opinions and the damage done when people try to impose their ideas on others.  

IMG_7916What I hadn’t expected was the dramatic escalation of the energy level when Carol, to emphasize the importance of books, asked the girls if they liked to read, and if so, what. Hands shot up around the room. We asked if they liked to write, and if so, what.  Again, a bevy of arms fluttered in the air.  For the next half hour, the girls tripped over each other to share the stories behind the books they liked best.  Not surprisingly, thrillers (sci fi and mystery) were high on the list, but history and nature each a got a shout-out.

If our goal was to get books in the hands of girls who didn’t read, our venture was not a complete success, as the local school system clearly encourages reading and writing.  But if our goal was to build enthusiasm for the power of storytelling, it couldn’t have been better.

World Book Night – April 21, 2013


IMG_7909What book would you give away if you had the chance?  And why?

For the second year in a row, I’ll join 24,999 other book-loving Americans to give away 20 books, as part of World Book Night (WBN).  It is, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding events of the year.

WBN is a global initiative to make print books available to people who aren’t regular readers. Perhaps they never found the “right” book that made them want to read more. Perhaps they love to read but can’t afford to buy books and don’t have access to a library.    

I’ll be giving away Bossypants, Tina Fey’s self-deprecating and laugh-out-loud memoir, to teenage girls who are struggling to establish their own identity, trying to juggle often conflicting social, financial, educational and sexual demands.  Fey’s opus seems an apt choice for adolescent girls in distress, in part because most of them will know exactly who Fey is and in part because the lighthearted tone and straightforward vocabulary will make it a delightful excursion for the most determined non-reader.

But here’s the real reason.  Fey’s book is chock full of lessons for getting through the hard spots of life, packaged as “aw-shucks” stories.  My favorite is Fey’s advice from her days at Second City, the Chicago improvisational comedy group that has been drawing standing-room-only audiences for more than fifty years.  

  • SAY “YES”: whether or not you agree with what you are being told, you can get a lot farther if you give your partner/opponent a respectful hearing;
  • SAY “YES, AND…”: move the conversation forward by adding your ideas and perspective.  Fey says, “Don’t ever be afraid to contribute;”
  • MAKE STATEMENTS: Questions are good, but statements are better. Be part of the solution, not a part of the problem;
  • THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, ONLY OPPORTUNITIES: In improv, as in real life, the unexpected opens doors to new avenues of thought, to new insights, to new opportunities. This is my particular favorite, as it fits so nicely with my own personal mantra —that stepping outside your comfort zone is the surest way to grow, personally, professionally, emotionally and spiritually. 

So share with us the book you think we all need to read!  And the book you’d like to give away as part of WBN 2014!