5 Productivity Tips From Mark Twain

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mark twain

Popular pictures of Mark Twain show the American man of letters in a relaxed slump, enjoying a cigar, and sheepishly scanning a warm summer afternoon in a comfortable, white linen suit. A calm, restful smile resides on Twain’s lips and his wild, white hair appears to have recently departed from a goose feather pillow.

On first glance, Twain doesn’t seem like a very productive soul, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The fact is Twain was a steady, consistent, and productive writer who tirelessly worked on his craft. There’s a reason why Hemingway called Twain’s most popular book, Huckleberry Finn, the root of all modern American literature.

Twain’s impressive work rate is the result of his happy outlook on life and his unique principles. Even if you aren’t a writer, the following list of Twain’s productivity tips will help you work harder and smarter:

1. Don’t be a perfectionist:

Twain observed, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” Twain didn’t let misspellings and rules of grammar get in the way of his storytelling. He believed in telling simple, humorous tales. Twain left the editing to the editors. This carefree attitude spurred his creativity and let him develop his own style that wasn’t beholden to established rules of fiction

Don’t waste all of your time editing and making things perfect. Give yourself time to be sloppy, creative, and messy. It gives you the opportunity to express yourself without barriers. You can edit, retool, and tweak later.

2. Mind your company:

Productivity isn’t always about waking up early, setting a schedule and trying your best to ignore your email and phone. Sometimes it boils down to confidence and Twain believed only certain people inspire self-assurance.  Twain writes, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Ignore the naysayers, the cynics, and the folks who are always sucking their teeth whenever a new idea is brought up. They are the “small people” and all they want from you is to join them in their misery. You must associate with people who allow, encourage, and demand big dreams.

3. Laugh at work:

Everyone has their favorite Twain joke. Mine is, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.”

Twain knew that humor, jokes, and laughter soothed many headaches and ills. “Humor is the great thing,” Twain writes, “the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

If you have a mountain of work and stress dogs your daily life than take time to seek out humor. Laughter will help you relax. Once you’re relaxed you can get back to work with more clarity and focus.

4. Develop good habits with incremental steps:

Twain knew that good habits are hard to acquire. While it’s easy to say you’ll get up early and visit the gym, it’s another thing completely to obey your screeching alarm clock before the sun begins its day.

Twain had a hack to instill good habits and it goes as follows, “Do something every day that you don’t want to do; this is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.”

He went on to observe, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by man, but coaxed downstairs, a step at a time.”

Twain knew that one can’t simply pull a positive habit out of the blue. Good habits have to be worked at incrementally.

Twain also writes, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex and overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Don’t jolt your system into new, better habits. Gradually work your way into them so they stick.

5. Don’t follow conventional wisdom:

Twain didn’t believe in dieting or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He smoked cigars, he drank, and he didn’t believe in abstaining from fattening foods.

When it came to cigars he had an especially large appetite. He writes, “I ordinarily smoke fifteen cigars during my five hours’ labors.” It is not exactly a habit one should replicate, but it illustrates that Twain allowed himself small pleasures while he went about his work.

There’s no rule forbidding yourself from small pleasures while you toil over your projects. Faced with a monumental task one should bear down and get to work while allowing for the odd indulgence.

After all, Twain writes, “There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.”

Leaders, Russian Literature & Ping-Pong: The Value of Daydreaming

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Leadership On the Edge, Managerial Competence, Political Competence, Proactive Stories | No Comments

In a soon to be published paper in Psychological Science written by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara state, “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.”

In other words, daydreaming may help you solve complicated problems.

In a series of tests Baird and Schooler gave students tasks that required inventive problem solving skills. When the students were given a break half of them were told to sit and do nothing while the other half were given a tedious task–like reading  a dry passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

When the break was over the group that had free time performed worse then the group who were told to complete monotonous chores. Why?

Those that were given a boring job were driven to daydreaming. They let their minds idle, wander, and explore whereas the group that had all the free time in the world busied themselves with more proactive thoughts.

To the researchers surprise the mind lost in daydreams isn’t lazy. In fact, it’s busy subconsciously untangling large, looming problems. As Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker points out, this is the very reason why Silicon Alley businesses have so many ping-pong tables. Ping-pong, played leisurely, helps the mind wander while it addresses larger, more complex problems. It encourages productive daydreaming.

With this in mind, leaders need not feel guilty if they want to tuck into a bit of Tolstoy instead of checking their emails before bed. Taking time to yourself and allowing your mind to wander can help you figure out looming problems.

As an aside, if you’d like a ping-pong table at work, show this article to your boss.

Upcoming Inc. Magazine Talk

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Managerial Competence, Political Competence, Proactive Stories | No Comments

Sam Bacharach will be talking at Inc. magazine’s Leadership Forum on June 8th. He’ll be giving two talks on the following subjects:

1. When Charisma and Vision Are Not Enough: Moving From Potential to Execution

Charisma may get you in the front door, but unless you have the ability to actually deliver on your promise, you will be remembered more for your personality than your leadership. Do you know how to rally people to your side and build focus and consensus? How to keep them there and nurture their entrepreneurial instincts? How to build a strong, dynamic, loyal team of dedicated, innovative managers and implementers? How to create a “pool” of talented people who will be your company’s leaders of tomorrow? In this groundbreaking session, you’ll learn how to master the skills of political and managerial competence. Recognize the benefits of developing these capabilities in yourself. Foster the leadership potential of others. And create a more dynamic, proactive and energetic organization.

2. Leading Your Team: The Skills of Engagement and Enhancement

In a world of Generation Y, in a world where companies are moving from products to solutions, and in a world where agility is critical, you need to engage your team members and enhance their capacity. Your team will deliver and commit only if you know how to lead it. What are the key things you need to keep in mind in leading a creative, dynamic, aspiring group of people? How do you coach and develop others to meet their potential while executing the business strategy? How do you challenge them so that they are fully engaged and committed? Dynamic organizations and creative agendas succeed because leaders know how to invest in others. In this session, you will learn the critical leadership skills to make sure your team will stay with you and go the distance.

The Inc. Leadership Forum will feature:

The Inc. Leadership Forum brings together the knowledge and experience of industry experts, academics, seasoned entrepreneurs and fellow company leaders to share their methods on how to implement leadership strategies that help businesses flourish.

What’s Included:

– A cocktail reception

– 2 power-networking breakfasts and lunches

– High-profile speakers

– More than 15 hours of education

– Informative break-outs and panel discussions

– Book signings

– A working night out! Join us for a baseball game at the brand-new, state-of-the-art Marlins Park (ticket, transportation and $20 refreshment voucher included with registration

Lessons From a Dumpling Stand

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Tricia Wang, an ethnographer and writer, recently followed a Chinese migrant family around and helped as they set up a dumpling stand outside of a sprawling factory.

Her observations are stunning and remarkable.

The family wakes up at 4:30AM and starts making dumplings with limited tools, little water, and equipment that doesn’t work. On top of that the family’s dumpling business is hounded by local police who want to shut them down.

Making matters worse the family is only netting 100 RMB a day (around 12 bucks). They want to make five times that much, but large social obstacles get in there way and small, unexpected, costs start to add up.

While a road side dumpling stand doesn’t supply a lot of business lessons–it is an example of the hard work demanded of the 200 to 300 rural migrants in China. It’s a must read.


A Promising 12 Point Program to Success, Happiness, & Riches

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Jesse Thorn is a self-made man who considers himself successful. He’s got a family, money in the bank, and a growing radio business he loves.

Thankfully, Jesse isn’t a secretive man. He’s written down his road-map to success and given it the modest title: Make Your Thing: 12 Point Program for Absolutely, Positively 1000% No-Fail Guaranteed Success

Every one of Jesse’s points is illustrated by a quirky, real-world, example. He suggests you build a community much like Insane Clown Posses. He recommends you “Keep Your Legs Moving” just like the rapper Killer Mike. He also doesn’t think it’ll be a bad idea if you keep it ‘real’ in the same vein as rock musician Andrew W.K.

Jesse isn’t saying that you must paint your face like a juggalo, start a record label like a fringe rapper, or thumb your nose at the establishment like a punk rocker in order to become successful. He’s arguing that you can learn from the accomplishments of people who have been briefly acquainted with success.

However, his 12 point program comes with a caveat. Point 12 demands that you actually get to work and start exercising your talent. I was hoping he’d have horse racing tips.


Leadership in Higher Education: The Skills of Political Competence

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Ideas, Managerial Competence, Political Competence, Proactive Leaders, Proactive Stories | No Comments

innovation safety leaders

In my neighborhood job security meant working for AT&T, teaching K-12, or joining the ranks or higher education. The latter career track came with the additional advantage of containing a bit of prestige. But there was also a sense of calling, a sense that you’d be serving some collective good by adding to the knowledge of society, and moving truly important agendas ahead.

You also entered higher ed because you felt it wouldn’t be a pressure cooker and the ruthlessness of the private sector wouldn’t rear its head every time you made a mistake.

Well, things have changed.

In a world where AT&T can’t provide job security and the U.S. auto industry almost disappeared, we can’t assume that you favorite college or university will be there tomorrow.

For years higher ed has been dominated by two mantras. One for administrators: “Leave well enough alone and things will get done in their due time.” The other for academics: “Let’s have a faculty meeting.”

But now the clock is ticking.

Higher ed is no longer the proverbial, angelic, oasis amidst a sea of private-sector sharks (if it ever was). Today, higher-ed organizations must keep moving in order to stay afloat. The Ivy League right down to the smallest of community colleges can no longer be guided by the stars—they need leadership that is proactive, pragmatic, and aware that change is crucial. They need the type of leadership that gets things done.

First and foremost leaders in higher ed must understand the three reasons universities and colleges often resist change.

  1. Intransigent culture: Leaders in higher ed must appreciate how to subtly move around the deep culture which has been celebrated and worked for so long. The very culture that has given higher ed its identity must now be adjusted.
  2. Turf protection: Higher ed is an arena of turf and silos. In a world of minimum resources, zero-sum games, and department elimination, this is becoming more evident. We need leaders who have political competence and can mobilize around these issues.
  3. Tension between administration & faculty: Traditionally, there has always been tension between administrators and faculty and each group quickly dismisses the other. Each has their own stereotypes of the other. It’s the false distinction between a stereotypical bureaucrat and a stereotypical academic. In a world where we want to increase shared services and shared missions, leaders must help administrators and faculty come together.

In the context of all this leaders within both the faculty and the administration must develop a degree of political competence. They must understand how to bring people together, mobilize around agendas, and sustain change.

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine told me, when assuming the chair of a large science department, “I don’t do politics.”

My answer was, “Don’t be a chairperson.”

The university is a maze of mixed interests, mixed agendas, and inconsistent visions. Political competence is the minimum we should ask of leaders in higher ed.

Occupy Wall Street & Vision

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Managerial Competence, Political Competence, Proactive Stories | One Comment

Occupy Wall Street is a “leaderless” movement that has spread across America. It’s a mixed group with legitimate grievances (why so many bail outs?) and nonsensical ones (“why aren’t we protecting Gia as a metaphor?”).

Yesterday, I wandered down to Liberty Park in New York City to talk to some of the protesters and see the movement first hand.

The first thing I noticed was the smell. The sectioned off protest area ringed with barricades and cops is home to a mass of people, their sleeping gear, and a make-shift kitchen. It wasn’t the Mandarin Oriental.

Protesters who weren’t resting on their sleeping bags were proudly standing around the park with signs decrying corporate greed. They posed for cameras that belonged to journalists and interested tourists.

But some of the signs didn’t fit in with the rest. One man held up a sign that congratulated President Obama and his accomplishments.

A younger protester approached him and asked: “Why did you come here with that sign?”

They started arguing, but it was a public, political, and civil debate between two generations, two races, and two different sexes.

This was an episode I witnessed repeatedly in Liberty Square Park. Protesters were spending most of their time talking amongst themselves trying to decide what they could agree on and what made them all mad.

I listened in on a few TV interviews. Reporters were asking the protesters questions about what they were fighting for. Some of the protesters were well spoken, asked for moderate reforms, and wanted to find ways to promote dialogue.

Other protesters, when asked the same set of questions, chose to rant and arm wave. One young man asked, “Can I give a shout out to my band?”

The reporter said no.

The movement is held together by General Assemblies or, in layman’s terms, meetings. Everyday two meetings are held on the east end of the park. They are informal affairs and anyone can speak. However, the problem is amplification since the protesters aren’t allowed microphones. A speaker is forced to say a sentence and the audience has to scream it back in unison. It’s a call and response system that helps everyone in the crowd here what’s being said.

It’s sloppy, but it works.

I was there for the first meeting of the day. Different people took center stage and aired their political beliefs and everyone echoed them. It was a good way of digesting different opinions, but when someone said something that wasn’t appreciated it wasn’t echoed.

No unified message emerged from the meeting I attended. No direction was proposed. There was no real vision. Just a bunch of fragmented ideas and a lot of complaints.

Currently, Occupy Wall Street has over 500,000 online supporters. They’ve raised over 40,000 dollars and the movement has even spread across the Atlantic into Ireland.

It’s amazing that it has done so well without a consistent narrative, without a leader, and without a clear set of demands.

Movements, leaders, and companies don’t have to rely on clear visions. They don’t always need goals. They don’t even need targets. But after a while they become crucial. How can Occupy Wall Street begin to get things done when they don’t know what it is they want done?

The lack of a vision hasn’t hurt Occupy Wall Street yet, but eventually it will create problems. It’s hard to imagine the group of protesters that I saw the other day unified under one message.

Pic credit: BlaiseOne

Recycling Plant & Recycling a Plant (Part 2)

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Part 2: Recycling a Plant

Ok here we go. A “Part 2”. This is a very adventurous and presumptuous endeavor on my part to attempt a Part 2 of anything. Part 2 suggests that I have some loyal audience that meticulously follows my work and was left trembling in anticipation at the end of my Part 1. I think George Lucas had it right in his Star Wars chronology. Next time I’ll start a blog post at Part 4 and leave readers scrambling to find the previous contributions. When they discover these do not exist, perhaps they will appreciate the creativity and eagerly await the missing posts. Ok, enough of this meta blog analysis. On to Part 2:

In Part 1 of this series, I praised the efforts of a for-profit recycling plant in Chicago, IL. Now with the insertion of “an” indefinite article, I have the opportunity to share a story of Chicago creativity and innovation that elevates modern recycling into the stratosphere (or onto the 5th floor of a Chinatown loft to be more precise). Consider this story of “Recycling a Plant”.

In an earlier post on this blog, I introduced the site CouchSurfing.com, “a social networking site designed to connect travelers around the universe,” to generous hosts. The site also offers a local events page that sustains and enhances community involvement. On that page, I discovered this event for “Funky Chinatown – A Funk, Soul, and Disco Loft Party.” The page included this notice about the event:

For exact directions, please RSVP to CHINATOWNFUNK@GMAIL.COM
– include Name + # of Guests so I can get a good headcount.”

My mom once mentioned something in passing about avoiding secret, funky, CouchSurfing, Chinatown parties staged in abandoned lofts with “a ton of beer and cocktails for free.” On the other hand, my mom often offers advice so sometimes I have to pick and choose when to comply…

I’m glad I followed my gut (even if my liver is slightly peeved) because the evening illustrated how a group of creative individuals can convert an abandoned loft into a productive community music and art space. In between funky dancing that put my Bar Mitzvah to shame, I connected with travelers from around the world and exchanged gripping stories of Couch Surfing exploits. Instead of wasting my evening consuming money, time, and space at a neighborhood haunt, I recycled stories and a stunning loft space and converted them into an unforgettable evening.

I started this series with the question: what is the difference between a recycling plant and recycling a plant? The answer is that they offer distinct and innovative ways to enhance sustainability and create community. The recycling plant promoted environmentalism through pragmatic corporate action while the loft party enhanced community while using an abandoned industrial space.

I guess the essential difference is then that the recycling plant did not play funky tunes. Maybe that would increase efficiency?

To read (or re-read) Part 1: Recycling Plant, click here.

Trucking Along

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Sometimes leadership lessons sneak up in unexpected locations. On Tuesday at 1am, that location was Highway 55 between Chicago and St Louis. In preparation for my future career as a nomadic carnival worker, I have decided to take the requisite post-undergraduate road trip out West. My buggy, a 2005 Chevy Cobalt, hobbles down expressways with the weight of four passengers, a spunky cat, two clown dolls, and fountains of energy drinks. On Tuesday, as my friends slumbered and the cat serenaded the car with rhythmic purrs from her nook or cranny, I began studying the lumbering giants sharing the road with me. As I coaxed my Chevy between trucks like a caffeinated ant dodging elephants, I contemplated the life of a truck driver.

Truck drivers, whether transporting water beds or Mexican jumping beans, must mobilize a hefty load toward a defined goal. By virtue of their independence and responsibility, they become highway leaders—executives in the mysterious asphalt jungle that links distance locations. Each driver is an Odysseus who struggles through a hero’s journey while conquering various obstacles along the way. While amateurs like me muddle past in clown cars, truckers maintain a consistent pace that allows them to complete their voyage. They recruit sympathetic coalition partners like dispatchers, service center clerks, meteorologists, and fellow drivers, to assist them as they drive their agenda forward. Through shrewd political capability, they establish their credibility and ensure that these partners will come to the rescue when something blocks their course. Finally, they check their egos at the toll booth; there’s no room in their cab for hefty hubris and vanity doesn’t increase gas mileage.

Truckers also share something intimate and often taboo to discuss with fellow leaders: loneliness. Talk radio and garage funk music offer poor company on a graveyard shift through rural Missouri. Like an executive left alone with a massive merger agenda, truck drivers must carry abundant loads of poise and patience. Leaders struggle with the solitude of decision-making and the pressures of authority while avoiding narcissistic obsession. Ultimately, when your agenda succeeds or fails, coalition partners disappear and you alone receive the accolades or blame. The leader’s journey is inevitably an isolating pursuit and aspiring executives must grapple with this reality. At least, when the going gets tough, you can commiserate with the Highway 55 truckers and wish you were travelling with a cat and clown dolls.

Sofa Snorkeling

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Picture Credit: wnstn

Two weeks ago I met a stranger on the internet and last weekend I slept over at his place. My parents are aware of the situation and seem comfortable. I’ve done it several times before in countries ranging from Canada to Andorra and it’s always been a rewarding experience.

Ok before sullying the good names of Sam Bacharach and Cornell University let me explain how this was in fact a benign and platonic experience that informs leadership theory. Of course, if I do get in trouble I’ll just blame it on my ghostwriter.

CouchSurfing.com is a social networking site designed to connect travelers around the universe (although surfers in outer space are encouraged to pack Velcro in order to stay fixed to their futons). The site is funded through karma and donations and fueled by the surprising willingness of people to host and introduce nomads to their cities. The self-policing service maintains safety and integrity through a rigorous system of user-provided references. If someone even suggests your couch was uncomfortable or your personality was unappealing, you’ll likely receive few requests. If someone calls you a smelly mooch, you’ll have a difficult task securing a host. It’s an impressively successful network.

While I’m still waiting for my first hosting attempt, my CouchSurfing hosts have included a Brazilian IT professional, a Disney Channel actor, and an NPR producer. Each has introduced me to a new city and a network of their friends. Even with limited time to form a couch groove in these host’s living rooms, I now find myself in coalition with diverse and talented partners around the globe. We’re each independently engaged in mobilizing a collective agenda, albeit a slightly romantic one.

Just like any organization, we actively support and host each other when necessary and passively support with positive references when that suffices. We expand our networks by identifying engaging and enthusiastic coalition partners. We sustain momentum by organizing community CouchSurfing meet-ups that preserve community and participation. We shove our egos into the dark crevices of our couches and reject hubris and narcissism. It’s an organization that embraces uncertainty and functions with perpetual fluidity.

I’m not suggesting that you infuse a little pragmatic fun into your organization and start surfing on your colleagues’ couches. That probably crosses the line. Just remember, if a generation of couch potatoes can mobilize a proactive global coalition, imagine what you can do in your organization.