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Are you the hero of your story?

A keynote I gave to the Golden Key National Honor Society UF Chapter in 2007.

I was asked here this evening to offer some advice about success. The thing of it is, planning for the success itself is easy. It’s pleasant to look forward to prosperity, respect, advancement. What’s hard is accepting, and even planning for, the setbacks and failures that are inevitably part of any well-lived life. If success is the opposite of failure, then is the key to success avoiding failure? How do you avoid failure? The answer: set very low expectations for yourself. Then you’ll find it easy to succeed and never fail. For example, I’ve set myself the goal of going home this evening and watching a rerun of The Simpsons. But, you may well point out, the Simpsons is on at 7:30 and this banquet may not end in time. But my friends, I TIVO’ed it. I’m going to watch it. Then I’m going to check it off my to-do list and sleep the sleep of the easily satisfied.

If I fill my weekly schedule with similar items, by Friday I’ll have checked off a long list of mundane and pointless tasks and feel ever-so accomplished and successful. I might similarly design a whole life in which my ladder to success is more of a gentle slope dotted with modest, easily reached milestones: have job most of the time, live in enclosed structure with indoor plumbing, enjoy relationship with not entirely repulsive significant other who is firmly resigned to the fact that I’m the best she can get.

Not the stuff of great novels, but entirely within my grasp. Not so bad, could certainly be worse. If this vision of a modest, easily-achieved, not entirely objectionable life doesn’t fire your imagination, ask yourself why. Why do we seek a life of challenge? Why flirt with risk? Why do we get inspired by quotes like the one from Helen Keller, who said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”? Is it ego? Do we all have an inner Napoleon or perhaps an inner Madonna who craves conquest and fame? Or is it something we needn’t judge so harshly? Is our ambition to succeed something that is good, not only for ourselves but for the world?

I think of the stories we tell ourselves and each other for inspiration. Rarely are they stories of prudence, modesty, and settling for what is practical. The great stories are always of heroes daring the impossible, or possibly impossible, enduring hardship and humiliation, growing and adapting with creativity and humor, but never, never giving up. Those are the stories we cherish. My friends, each of us is living a story, and I urge you to think about what sort of story you are living. Above all, ask yourself, am I the hero of my own life story?

I believe we all have a right to see ourselves as the heroes of our own life stories. Not the victim of circumstance, not a comic side character, not a villain waiting to be exposed, but the hero. When you think that way, you can remember that in every hero story, there are parts where the hero struggles: Cinderella sitting among the ashes, humiliated, alone, her true worth unrecognized. And you need that part of the story to be there. If the story went: Cinderella was popular, rich, and never had any problems, and then she met a prince and lived happily ever after—well, nobody wants to watch that movie! You might want to live it. But then again, deep down, no you wouldn’t. It’s the struggle that makes the success mean something. It’s the essential part of the story.

When a friend of mine was going through a severe illness, I shared this idea with her, and asked her to write the story of her life, but with her as the hero, not the victim. I wanted her to see that if you only look at the chapter in which the awful stuff is happening, you might see it as just an ugly, sad story of a victim suffering. She was living that chapter then, and you can imagine she felt like a victim. She felt like a failure. She asked “Why me?” as anyone would. But writing is wonderful therapy, and this time she rewrote her story, so that the horrible chapter she was going through—her body failing her, her husband leaving her, etc.—was part of a larger whole—a story of which she was the hero and, indeed, the author, or perhaps co-author.

I knew something interesting was happening when she asked if she could make the story an allegory, like a fable. I said sure. Then she said, and I quote, “Can I be a fairy princess?” Now, this is a high-powered executive, who lives in suits and leads a large organization. I knew something interesting was happening. When I read her story, it was funny and touching, but nearly half of it was very detailed descriptions of what she, as a fairy princess, would be wearing. I said, “This is mostly costume changes! What about the important stuff?”

To which she replied, “What I’m wearing is the important stuff!”

But there was also a plot, and though the events were the same, it had gone from the story of a victim suffering, to that of a hero struggling. That is the key difference. As I said, every great story has setbacks, heartaches, periods of great suffering. We put up with them because we know that at the end of the tale, those dark chapters lead to the eventual successes and without them, the hero’s successes wouldn’t mean anything.

When you are facing one of the dark chapters of your own life–and unless you set consistently low expectations for yourself, you will have dark chapters–remember that you have the choice, to see that episode as one of a victim suffering meaninglessly, or a hero struggling meaningfully and creatively in the midst of a noble quest. Have the courage to look at your so-called failures and setbacks and decide for yourself what they mean in the context of the larger story, a story of which you are the hero and the co-author. Then you can deal with those dark chapters in a way that respects your deepest values and your inner nobility.

I realize that what I’ve given you is advice on how to look at failure, when I was asked here to give you advice on success. So let me conclude with some advice on how to handle success, which I learned from my friend who said, “What I’m wearing is the important stuff.” My advice to you is, when success comes, as it will for all of you, people will want to take your picture, so make sure you look good. Iron your clothes, get your hair done, maybe get some of those tooth-whitening strips. Because people will look at the person in that picture, and they’ll think about your story, and then they’ll think about their own stories. Your story can inspire others to make their own stories great, even people you never meet. So that’s my advice on success: don’t just achieve it; achieve it with style. The hero of your story deserves nothing less.

A Quick Guide to Becoming a Better and Happier Writer

29 April 2005, Rue LeCourbe, Paris

[Advice to students in my study abroad course in Paris.]

As I write this, I am sitting in the Café LeCourbe, at my favorite table by the window. One block west on the Rue LeCourbe is a Monoprix store that once was the apartment of a leader of the French Resistance. Nazi troops came past this window to capture him. When she got word, his fiancée Hélène got on her bicycle and rode 200 miles, somehow caught up with the train carrying him to a prison camp and managed, during a transfer stop, to hold hands and walk with him one last time before the SS guard pulled them apart. I mention this because it reminds me that if you’re ever struggling to write, a great story may be just a few steps away.

It is 1915h and I’m having une bierre pression, a draft called Stella Artois. A little girl came in with her father and shouted to the back, “Maman, voila une bouquet!” and ran with a red rose in her hand to the back end of the bar, where her mother sat with two friends. Now the little girl, in a pink dress with a red heart on the front and matching pink sneakers—she’s even a redhead, honest—is going around offering men at the bar “un peu du chocolat?” She then holds out her lollipop to them and when they say non, merci, tucks it back in her mouth, the stick held in one corner like a cigarette, and smiles. The first person I’ve seen in almost two days wearing a beret just walked by. A black beret, a blonde in a black coat; she looks nothing like Monica Lewinsky. They all seem friends: when they leave, they kiss four times, twice on each cheek.

First things first

1. Definite, specific, concrete language is the essential element of good writing.

Nothing is more important. Replace the general, vague, abstract, or clichéd terms you may use at first drafting with more specific language. And cultivate the habit of dropping to deeper and deeper levels of specificity as you note the details. When you write that you saw a car, next to “car” write “silver, two-seater Smart car, as long as most cars are wide,” then note any other details worth noting. A poodle sticking its head out the right-side window, maybe. And you have just come from London so for a second you thought the poodle was driving.
Let me give you a reverse-engineered example. Imagine (try your best) that you are a writer in Paris writing in a café when you see an attractive person come in. You are prone to nostalgia, to self-doubt, to depression, and both these feelings and your suppression of them come to the surface when you write and in what you write. You might, if you were a talented student in a college writing course, make this first draft:

I was writing a story where the characters were drinking, and this inspired me to order a drink, which warmed me up and made me feel relaxed. A girl came in the café and sat down. She was very pretty and I got distracted looking closely at her face and hair. I felt a jumble of emotions as I looked at her, but it was easy to tell that she was waiting for somebody, so I went on writing. I really got into it, and I ordered another drink, but I still looked at her from time to time. Somehow the writing and the girl and being in Paris all blended together and made a strong impression on me. I’ll never forget it. Then I went back to writing and I got so involved in it that I forgot everything else in the room and didn’t even order another drink. When I finally looked up, the girl wasn’t there and I felt sad. I put away my notebook and gave the waiter my order. After writing a story I always had mixed emotions, but I felt pretty confident about this one. Eating dinner certainly improved my mood.

Notice that you get some idea of what’s going on, but the story is still not unique. Lots of people could have written it. Look now at the original and see how the writer replaces general words like “characters, drink, dinner,” and even “emotions” and “pretty” with specific words from a specific life. Well, with “pretty,” he leads us deliberately through an awkward cliché: new coins are round and shiny—hardly a complimentary way to describe a girl’s face—only to give us a memorable image and phrase, “rain-freshened skin,” and a hairstyle you can see. Yes, he breaks the rule by using “happy” and “sad,” but he knows what he’s doing. Rules are made to be practiced, mastered, and then masterfully broken.

Here’s the original, from A Moveable Feast:

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day. I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.

I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.

The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James. I was tired of rum St. James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she’s gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.

I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

2. Cultivate awakeness to what your senses bring to you, without judging.

I realize “cultivate awakeness” is pretty un-specific; practicing rule #1 will help you cultivate it. An eye for colors, shapes, juxtapositions—writers become more sensitive to these things, as well as to the sounds their words make. Good writers will have a preference between the word “began” and the word “started.” They are not interchangeable.
To see one circle and relate it to another circle requires first that you see the circles. An improv comic picks up a dinner plate and it’s a steering wheel. He drives too fast, crashes, dies. His partner picks up the plate; it is the halo of St. Peter, deciding whether the dead man gets into heaven.
A first step in writing is simply to begin—as Adam did—to name the things in your world with their unique names. Turn that purple flower into a wisteria, the French girl who will give me a coupe de cheveux tomorrow into Natalie, that “Oriental-sounding instrument” you heard in the metro station into a shakuhachi, that nice-smelling shampoo into cucumber-melon. When this becomes a priority for you and a habit, you begin to inhabit a world more rich and alive than what most people live in.
If tomorrow Natalie shampoos me with cucumber-melon shampooing before my haircut with shakuhachi music in the background, and if her perfume smells of wisteria, I’ll be really freaked out.
You’ll find that you never master this skill, but rather keep finding new ways to improve. Choosing and expressing the significant details may be the biggest writing challenge, bigger than the word-play. For a start, practice relaxing, giving up the need to control things, and staying with the discipline of just making lines of words and letting things be as they are.
I swear that the Beatles’ “Let It Be” started playing just after I wrote that last bit.

Look again

The next two rules apply after the first draft is written, during revision. The word “re-vise” means to look at something again. So you have to first bring it into being before you can revise it.

3. Abhor the cliché.

Learn to spot and change or cut as many instances as you can of clichéd ideas, expressions, and words. Expressions are easiest to spot, and there are websites and books that collect all those well-worn, tried-and-true chestnuts. Words sometimes get so overused and misused, like “individual” for “person” or even “individuals” for “people,” that we forget they’re wrong.
Clichéd ideas are the most insidious, because they imply that we have already figured out what to think about a given situation. We like to think we know the truth, even when it’s not true. Incoming freshmen tell me they’re not “math and science people” as though it’s genetic. Once when an engineering major told me he “wasn’t an English person,” I told him I could tell from his accent. He just looked at me blankly.
Students begin essays with “I was a typical freshman with the typical experiences when one day I met…” and already they’ve lost me. I understand the impulse, but you can never be original this way. When someone tells me her mother’s “rags-to-riches story,” I ask her to tell me her mother’s story, not prove how her mother’s story fits a certain type.
I think we do it because we have a need to belong. We want to know what type or crowd we fit in with. We want identity and uniqueness and yet we don’t want to be alone.
Assume nothing. Let familiar things fascinate you again as they did when you were one and spent hours putting things in your mouth and taking them back out, feeling their corners and tastes without yet knowing the labels people put on them.
Take in mouthfuls of Paris the same way. The fact that you’re here means you’re already past the Fox News clichés of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” or lazy, socialist sex-maniacs, that you don’t expect a land of greasy-haired accordion players kissing their fingertips and saying, “Formidable!” at the drop of a hat, or beret. There’s an art to being both completely at home and completely in wonderment at the same time.
So what do we cliché-abhorrers have left to write if, as Mr. Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”? (He wrote a lot of clichés, Mr. Shakespeare did.) Arrive at those old truths by your own path. While it’s good to learn from and even imitate other people, let that imitation lead you to the place where you can add your unique view. Be humble enough to realize that you are unique and that God, being infinitely creative, makes no backup copies. If I’m sure of anything it’s that the Good Lord abhors the cliché.

4. And finally, omit needless words.

This advice from William Strunk, the original author of the classic Elements of Style, is about more than changing “due to the fact that” to “because,” though that’s a good start.
The rule also means that sometimes you will clear away a lot of vague clutter and make room for specific, concrete details. This can result in something like this:

“We proceeded along Rue LeCourbe, the street from which we had started out from the hotel, until we reached the metro station, Sevres-LeCourbe, after crossing the Rue Garibaldi. Then we entered the metro station, paying our 1,40 € and proceeded to the platform. Our professor, Vikram, began lecturing us on writing but it was difficult to concentrate on his commentary due to the plethora of Parisian sights, sounds, and smells with which our sense were being tantalized. I only remember a few fragments of his discourse,”

turning into something like this:

“Out the hotel, up its namesake the Rue LeCourbe, wait for the light, cross Garibaldi and after a short detour to see the top of the Eiffel Tower behind a building, descend into the metro station and pay 1, 40 euros to a man who is the spitting image of Victor Hugo. Vikram lectures all the while—you recognize the drone—but there is a bucherie with bright red meats you’ve never seen before, a charcuterie with terrines of salmon and little quiches and rows of cheeses wrapped in ham, and a salon called ModsHair with a large mirror outside, at which you all stopped.  The French girls all have scarves and you start mentally scarf shopping. You remember nothing of Vikram’s lecture but “Behold the Eiffel Tower. It is Gallic, phallic, and metallic.” You all groaned at once and wondered how much of that there would be all week.”

Yes, I know the latter is not actually shorter. But it does more per inch. If I kept just the parts that do what the first passage does, it would be half the length. But omitting needless words suddenly shows me how empty the original really was. It just seemed full because of all the words in it. The latter says more, implies more, and shows more of the writer’s personality.

But that advice is for later, as I said. The writing process is like pottery. First, you dig the clay. Master potters for millennia were known for their gift of looking at a hillside and knowing where the good clay was within, just as physicians traditionally were not just healers but farmers and botanists. The artist loves his materials and processes. Most great musicians love to play scales. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of a painter who chose his job because, “I loved the smell of the paint.” So make this your practice while we are in Paris:

  1. Keep your hand moving. Don’t stop to think or judge or wonder what to say next. Thinking is of little use to writers. Let the writing come out of your hands, even if it means writing the same sentence a few times or writing “I don’t know what to write next.”
  2. Do not hurry. In fact, treat it at times like penmanship practice. You are not trying to write anything great. You are just putting pen to paper, making nice, pretty letters, and whatever words and sentences happen to come out, come out. You needn’t go too slowly, but when you find yourself racing to catch up to your mind, accept that you cannot, slow down, and go back to just writing nice, pretty letters.* Your hand will be too slow to write all the thoughts you can speak or think. This provides an elegant and natural filter once you’ve learned to use it.
    This way, even if I give you a difficult topic or writing task, or a difficult subject comes up as you’re writing, you have a strong, basic center to anchor you and give you control. If I ask you, for example, to write sentences beginning “I remember…” and painful memories come up and you want to cry…cry. Don’t stop writing. Someone will hand you a tissue. Try not to let the tears smear the ink. You’ll want to re-read it…it was probably worth writing.

Oh, and rule #3: remember to breathe. You’d be surprised how often you hold your breath. Once you get flowing, you’ll enter a relaxed, meditative state that is pleasurable and creative.

* Thank you to my teacher, Joyce Carol Oates, for the nice, pretty letters practice. She’s written over 80 books, all in longhand on yellow legal pads, all in nice, pretty letters.

The 4 things all good teachers do

One of my teaching mentors, Dr. Dennis Huston of Rice, taught me Shakespeare and encouraged me to become an actor. Above all, he inspired me to want to teach and to enjoy it as much as he did. He was named Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation, but more than his excellence, it was his enthusiasm I admired. He described the classroom as a “magical space,” where people could better understand each other and themselves and gain insights which you cannot gain elsewhere. After 17 years of teaching, I have learned how right he was.

Dr. Huston once mentioned, casually, that there were “only four things a teacher really needs to do” and the rest came from practice and experience. I asked him to teach me the four things. It took an hour, after dinner on a Tuesday, and a few of my friends joined us.

The four things:

  1. Have a working knowledge of your subject. Not necessarily world-ranking expertise, just enough to be useful. It makes me think of the Japanese word for teacher, sensei, which just means “one who came before.” You just need to be a few steps ahead on the path, calling out directions over your shoulder as you and your students move forward.
  2. Show that you care about your subject. It’s not enough to show that you know the stuff. You have to inspire passion. You get to inspire passion. It’s a duty and privilege.
    If, as Einstein said, example is not just the best means of teaching, but the only means, then teachers have to set an example of how to have fun. I’ve had dozens of students tell me they weren’t interested in writing at the start of the semester, but when they saw how enthusiastic I was about it, they became curious.
  3. Show that you care whether the students learn the subject or not. I may be an idealist, but I think it’s a missed opportunity when you teach only to the best students and mentally resign the rest to Cs or below. Sadly, our system encourages and even requires creating artificial divides, from Kindergarten through grad school. I believe my job is to get every student doing A work, or at least try my best to do so. (As you can guess, all those As led to rumors I was an easy grader. I’m not.)
    As for professors who say, “I’m a teacher, not an entertainer,” I sympathize but disagree. People learn best when it’s fun. And when you can make it funny, it shows mastery of the subject and the learning process. Humor is just the truth sneaking up on you.I’ve always believed that a classroom that isn’t laughing (and crying and rapt in silence) isn’t learning. My best teachers taught me this by example and I’ve done my best to pass the lesson on.
  4. Care about the students themselves as people. It’s not easy being a student, especially now when many are targets of predatory lending. Some of their challenges are even worse. An estimated 1 in 5 college women will face a sexual assault before graduation. Some will not be believed; some will be talked out of filing charges. I know this because several wrote about it in my classes.
    Your students may suffer from depression, addiction, eating disorders, and the post-traumatic stress of a difficult childhood. They may have stalkers. Even if you can’t help, at least understand why some are asleep or distracted or late. I walked a couple dozen students to the University of Florida counseling center and referred hundreds. I still have the number memorized (352-392-1521).

The trust they place in you often translates into dedication to your class. I had several—too many—students say their only reason for not trying suicide on a Tuesday was because they had my class on Wednesday. And they knew I would miss them. No training can prepare you to be the only reason a student gets out of bed all semester. You just thank God and keep teaching.

Dr. Huston was right about the rest being practice and experience. You find beauty in the basics which you didn’t see at the start of your career.

80% of my writing classes is still rules 16 and 17 of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style: “Use definite, specific, concrete language” and “Omit needless words.” Not only do these basic truths of good writing cultivate and strengthen style, they reflect larger truths of character.

To be specific is to give, as Marge Piercy puts it in “The Art of Blessing the Day”:

attention to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

How lovely a way to treat the world! Adam’s first job, after all, was to give names to each creation in the Garden.

To omit needless words we must make hard and clear decisions about what words we need. I called my first and best-loved course “Writing & Love” because, I said in the description, “Writing and loving are similar disciplines requiring similar decisions.”

To decide what needs to be said can only be done through compassion. To see each other well, to decide what is important to notice and what just gets in the way, requires a sure and well-guided eye and hand.

In the end, good writing is a promise to tell the truth as well as you can and with compassion, and the keeping of that promise. The promise leads to the beauty and power inherent in the language, which only attention can reveal.

Good English prose consists of sentences of varying length, with pleasing rhythm and melody, using short words drawn mostly from the Anglo-Saxon, with Latinate and French words for seasoning. The Gettysburg Address is a model, beautiful and powerful. It shows Lincoln’s compassion for his people, and love for the act of writing to them. It shows his attention to detail in choosing those 272 words and omitting any others.

Other subjects have their power and beauty. Chemistry is a dance between positive and negative charges. Even the language of chemistry is love poetry. Molecules are water-loving (hydrophilic) or water-avoiding (hydrophobic). A galvanic cell is a tale of unrequited love. (Really, it is.)

Architects don’t design structures, they design spaces of potential, waiting to be filled with life. So do all teachers who believe in Dr. Huston’s “magical space” of the classroom.

In all of these is the magic of attention, from the French attendre, to wait. To wait for something is an act of faith: you believe something is going to come. What that is depends on what you ask for. Bad teachers, teachers who have given up, expect only disappointment and drudgery. And so they find it.

A good teacher expects, even demands, something else. She attends, waiting for the burnt-out and unconfident student to show the merest kindling of genius. She feeds that ember into flame enough to shed light. She holds it up before the student’s glowing, half-believing eyes and says, “See? That’s you.” As Marge Piercy wrote and my mentors taught me, “Attention is love.”

US business: young, entrepreneurial, equal opportunity? No.

Despite all the talk of Lean Startups, millionaire app developers, and Shark Tank, we are less of an entrepreneurship economy than we were in the 70s. So says a new Brookings study(PDF).

Really? Before we had the iPhone, the Prius, Google, and Justin Bieber? Before MTV, Atkins, Pokemon, and Clear Pepsi?

When there were half as many obese adults and twice as many Germanies? That was our entrepreneurial heyday?

Apparently so. We talk about startups as job creators. But we don’t give them priority. Our question is, why?

The evidence, co-author Ian Hathaway says, “is pretty overwhelming.” Big, old firms are driving job creation and economic activity. Young firms like Twitter (though they may get the headlines) are employing less than a quarter of us.

By our estimate, about three-quarters of private-sector employees and nearly 80 percent of total employees (private + public) work for organizations born prior to 1995. This is especially remarkable considering the volume of product innovations and household-name businesses that have emerged in the last two decades.

How is it that so few jobs are coming from new businesses?

One reason is familiar to anyone who has held onto a job they hate just to keep the health insurance. Fear of going bankrupt because of an injury or illness isn’t good for risk-taking.

Now that even Republicans are saying, “keep your government hands off our Obamacare,” maybe the House GOP will decide that 50 tries to repeal it are enough.

But let’s not get distracted arguing about so-called “entitlements”; they aren’t the big problem. It’s our whole attitude toward risk-takers.

We pay lip service, but we don’t work to find the best risk-takers, extend them low-interest, long-term credit, and then share their risk and minimize it. We cling to myths about who is credit-worthy. Hint: the next Steve Jobs won’t look like Steve Jobs.

We also have a failed vision of how to take on risk. Young, new firms based on new ideas are more likely to fail, more likely to need long incubation time, and less likely to quickly become profitable.

The rate of new firm formation has fallen by half during the last three decades, and has contributed to the decline of American “business dynamism…”

In short, fewer firms are being born, and those that are born are increasingly likely to fail very early on, as are firms that survive into young- and medium-aged years. Those that are old, on the other hand, tend to persist, allowing them to constitute a larger share of economic activity in the United States over time.

The American Dream lives in the idea that you can start with nothing and create something that makes the world a better place and maybe makes you rich as well.

We talk about it, but we don’t put our money where our national mouth is. We don’t take on the reasonable and necessary risk of investing in the boldest and brightest among us. Here are some of the reasons:

The short-term, “build a company and sell it” focus of many entrepreneurs.

Few entrepreneurs are trying to build something that will grow and last. Look at a Google search for “build company to sell”: not one top 10 result talks about it being a bad thing.

In short, not many companies are trying to be the next Facebook. They’re trying to get bought by Facebook, the way Instagram and Whatsapp did.

Serial entrepreneurship is fine. But you can’t build an economy on disposable companies.

The refusal of banks to lend generously to small firms and startups.

Instead, big banks are taking the 2 trillion-plus the Fed has paid them and putting much of it into reserves. Quantitative easing was based in part on the hopeless notion that massive amounts of free cash, no conditions attached, always brings out the best in people.

Instead, banks have disproportionately used it to benefit themselves, investing in large-cap stocks and big funds, not lending to the new small-caps the economy needs.

A friend of mine, former editor of a leading financial site, told me the investor buzz lately is about emerging market small-caps. The American Dream is alive, it seems, and getting funded in Bangalore and Buenos Aires.

The education debt weighing down many of the same young graduates who typically start businesses.

It’s hard to get a business loan when you already have 30 or 40K in student loans to pay off. Some just give up when the banks say no, without realizing they’re more likely to get startup funding from family and friends than a bank or angel investor. Such investments are a challenge for all but the richest families.

So why not help parents who co-sign loans for their children starting small businesses? A tax credit or insurance against loss would allow parents to invest in their children’s talent and ambition without risking their retirement savings.

Surely if we can let banks use taxpayer welfare to pay tens of millions to CEOs who caused the financial crisis, we can help parents invest in their kids.

The new Obama model, where repayments are a low, fixed percentage of monthly income, is like that of the most successful lender in the world, microcredit pioneer Grameen Bank, which has a 97% repayment rate.

It works so well that Grameen stopped accepting donations in 1995. They are one of the most consistently profitable banks in the world. Another big reason for their success? They lend mainly to women.

The biggest reason for the world’s (and America’s) economic difficulties is our failure to invest in women.

We underestimate the value of women as an economic power in ways that, well, hardly qualify us to lecture others. Few of those big, older firms employing 75% of us are run by women.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo (L) and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

Discrimination is particularly awful in the tech sector of all places. Tech firms run by women “show significantly better returns,” yet they get less funding.

You’d expect all those bearded hipsters and the moneyed old guys who want to hang with them to find such blatant sexism as outdated and noxious as Clear Pepsi.

But Issie Lapowsky of Wired found one “angel investor” saying “I don’t like the way women think,” and another proclaiming he doesn’t invest in women he doesn’t find attractive.

The solutions are obvious.

As I revised the above I had to ask myself, is this what I’m accusing us of: being short-sighted, greedy for quick and easy profits, more eager to make a quick buck off our students and graduates than invest in them, and unfair to women who want to create new jobs, new products, new services, and new ways of doing business?

Yes, but saying it will just make some people defensive, so let me ask it this way: is there any good reason not to do the following and do as much of it as possible?

  1. Invest for long-term, sustainable growth and stop looking at quarterly returns like they mean anything. (They don’t.)
  2. Use taxpayer funds to promote lending to entrepreneurs (who are also taxpayers) who want to create opportunities for themselves and others. Taxpayers need not fund the stock market speculation of big banks or subsidize an ever-smaller group of corporations, some with earnings larger than the GDP of most countries. Most of them don’t even pay their fair share of US tax. (Legal does not equal fair.)
  3. Invest in our students so their most productive, risk-taking years are not clouded by massive debt.
  4. Unleash the full power of half our citizens and immigrants.

I haven’t discussed the value of raising the minimum wage. To those OldCaps who insist that it kills jobs, the New Capitalist reply (which is also Reality’s reply) is simply: you’re wrong.

1400 different studies show no effect on employment. Every time Congress has raised the national minimum wage, two things have happened: Republicans screamed and unemployment stayed the same.

Plus, consumer spending usually rose, since poor people spend more of their income. What’s more, most small business owners favor an increase in the minimum wage.

This issue boils down to a question about democracy in a capitalist society. Do America and the world continue to move to a system where a few giant entities create most of the jobs and products and set most of the rules? That’s China.

Or will the land of opportunity set an example of doing what is both right and profitable? Our failure to invest in women is the clearest sign of our failure to treasure the best of ourselves.

It’s great that women are speaking up and “leaning in” and all. (Facebook and its COO are model New Capitalists.) But in a larger sense, women shouldn’t have to lean in, should they?

How much better than a man do you have to be before male investors consider you good enough?


How can we make goodness profitable?

1505042_10104496819180131_403384543_nWhen I wrote last week’s “Marx, Keynes, Friedman, Rand, and now Francis?” I hadn’t yet learned that Pope Francis had been named Time‘s Person of the Year. I had just seen this picture on Facebook with a quote from his first Evangelii Gaudium.

I thought, “What a concise and correct argument. This man has not only a true moral compass, but impeccable logic.” It’s one of the best critiques of supply-side theory I’ve read.

When Francis calls the trickle-down theory an “opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts,” he’s not relying on scripture or morals. He’s arguing facts. Nothing pope-y about it.

Specifically, he is saying that it is a proven fact that the pursuit of goodness, kindness, and happiness for the many is more profitable than the pursuit of mere money.

Is that true? Well, here’s one fact about money. When personal income is below about $60-70,000 US per year, people’s happiness goes down the less they make and goes up with increased income. But around $65K (depending on the study), the curve flattens and rises very little as you go into the millions.

Sure, going from 100K a year to 400K is a big change in material circumstances, but it brings headaches with it, too. And going from $5 million a year to $10 million a year doesn’t make you twice as happy. In fact, it doesn’t make you happier at all.

So if we accept it as fact that money, by itself, is no guarantee of happiness and that those who have a lot of it do not automatically become more generous or altruistic (another fact: the middle class gives a greater percentage of income to charity), then should we really base our whole economic system on that assumption?

Inalienable rights and wrongs

The writers of the Declaration of Independence changed the words “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for a reason.

What if, instead of making money our main economic goal, in the hope that it will bring happiness, we just pursue happiness directly? Pursue happiness, and money will come as an inevitable side effect? Is that possible?

If that still seems impractical to you, consider that our moral values didn’t start out as a way to help us get into heaven or judge others or have philosophical debates. They were the rules for survival. They stood between us and death.

Don’t lie and people will trust you and protect you when you’re in danger.
Share what you have and next time you have nothing someone will share with you and in this way we can survive the hungry times.
Be kind and life is more worth living. You’ll need that will to live when things get hard.

We passed on such truths because we had seen others die from forgetting them.

At some point in our evolution, we had the luxury of straying from those rules of survival. We began to think that lying and cruelty were more profitable and a better investment, because sometimes they were.

Now, many people say sharing is socialism and kindness is weakness.

We still value these things, but we don’t automatically see them as profitable. Lay off workers or outsource operations and your stock will soar. Your only duty is to your shareholders.

Before we go off on the evils of capitalism or corporations, let’s remember that we are part of the problem, every one of us. No one has the right to blame or judge. Not when protesters buy their poster board at WalMart, drive gas-powered vehicles to the march, and wear T-shirts made in what some call sweatshops and workers call “better than my other option, slavery.” We’re all evil capitalists, like it or not. And thank God we are.

A while back I wrote about how the markets seemed divorced from reality. The steady stock market rally since March 2009 (despite Obama’s repeated attempts to destroy America) has not mirrored an equal increase in quality of life for the middle class and poor.

Stephen Colbert had a great insight into the disconnect. Bloomberg recently reported that companies rated the worst in customer service also had the biggest growth in their stock price.

There is a growing global movement of what some call New Capitalists. We believe that the world prospers when we count profits in terms of happiness, not only money, which has a mixed record as a source of happiness.

We believe the main function of an economy is to help people create opportunities to live dignified lives, doing meaningful work.

We also believe in real results. That’s why one of our self-evident truths is that morality is nice, but people generally do the right thing only when it seems less expensive than doing the dishonest, unkind thing.

If we are to believe that Pope Francis meant what he said, and did just throw down a great economic challenge to a billion Catholics and perhaps a few billion others, then those of us who agree with him must find a way to make markets better reflect reality.

That reality is that we prosper when we are kind, generous, honest, and living out of an abundance mentality. Not when we engage in cruelty (intentional or not), selfishness, and exploitation. When we fall into a scarcity mentality and play life as a zero-sum game.

In other words, when we are creative, rather than just competitive.

We must find a way to make goodness profitable. Like the moral truths of our ancestors, it is not just a nice idea, but a matter of survival.