Writing tips from the experts

Writing tips from the experts

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Need some inspiration? Here are selected quotes that can help you put pen to paper.

Cut the boring parts

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” — Elmore Leonard

More than ever, you need to fight for the attention of your readers. There’s no point in publishing content that isn’t useful and interesting.

Eliminate unnecessary words

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete itand the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain

Write with passion.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” — William Wordsworth

The pro-tip here is that if you’re not excited about what you are writing no one else will be, either.

Paint a picture

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” — Anton Chekhov

This dude gets it. Simply stating something is fine, but when you need to capture attention, using similes, metaphors and vivid imagery to paint a picture creates a powerful emotional response.

Squash your inner critic

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath

Regardless of your endeavor, you’ll face criticism, so why do it to yourself? Create your best work and put it out there.

Keep it simple

“Vigorous writing is concise.” — William Strunk Jr.

Maybe it was all of those late nights, struggling to fill out mandatory 10 page papers, but many people still seem to think that worthwhile writing is long and drawn out. It’s more difficult (and effective) to express yourself in the simplest possible manner.

Do it for love

“Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.” — Mark Twain

When you’re just starting out it’s hard to decide where to begin. So don’t. Just start writing. A blog is a good place to start. The most valuable benefit is the feedback.

Learn to thrive on criticism

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

Writing means putting yourself at the mercy of hecklers, sycophants and haters. Learn to make the most of the insults and be skeptical of the praise.

Write all the time

“The way you’ll define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.” — John Irving

Write what you know…or what you want to know

“Learn as much by writing as by reading.” — Lord Acton

Successful writing is all about trust and authority. It makes sense to write about your area of expertise. If you don’t have a particular expertise, reading and writing is the best way to develop one and put it on display.

The power of persistence

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” — Octavia E. Butler

Nothing good comes easy, perseverance and consistency makes it look easy. Everyone watches the Olympics, but no one is at the skating rink at 5AM seeing the work that gets put into the performance.

Be unique and unpredictable

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” — Oscar Wilde

Following what works will only get you so far. Experiment with new styles, even if it means taking criticism. Without moving forward, you’ll be left behind.

Practicing positive politics

Practicing positive politics

Here’s how you can keep political discord from sabotaging your mood, ruining relationships and sinking business prospects.

Everyone knows that talking about politics can be instantly polarizing. It’s one of those subjects we’re told to avoid, particularly when it comes to professional situations. But dodging these discussions can be difficult, especially when we’ve got Facebook, Twitter and 24 hour news and “everyone” is talking about it. So when clients, colleagues or friends start talking politics, try these approaches to deftly sidestep the temptation of confrontation.

People live in different worlds. As this WSJ article shows, people actually construct and live within different political realities. Their social media connections, media outlets, networks, family and friends and personal experiences all support these core political beliefs. Such beliefs are extremely difficult to dismantle. You won’t “convince” a person that they didn’t enjoy going to a rally and hearing “their” candidate speak. And why would you want to try? Instead, ask what the experience was like and compliment them on their activism and involvement. You don’t have to believe the rhetoric or switch parties.

Be curious. Instead of feeling angry that someone could support a view you find distasteful, look to understand it by asking open-ended questions.  Maybe it turns out that their family business is taking a hit because of a particular policy. Why would you expect them to vote against their own interests? For example, if you believe a particular environmental policy is good for the world as a whole, try to understand how a particular individual would be affected. Some people don’t want a wind farm in front of their house. Instead of engaging in a debate, try a simple, “I understand why you would think that way,” and move on. 

The Sports Analogy. For many people, their political affiliation is as powerful as their allegiance to a sports team. They may have invested years of time, donations and energy into their beliefs. Some take pride in coming from a long family history and root for their party just like their home team and want their candidate to “win.” Think you can talk someone out of their partisan views during your lunch break? Even with facts? Try talking a die-hard Boston Red Sox or Green Bay Packers fan out of their respective teams. Show them all the stats you like, but they won’t throw away their jersey or favorite hat. Remember the sage words of Dale Carnegie in his 1937 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

Put it in perspective. The parties create a cult of personality around the candidates and pit them against each other in an epic showdown of “good vs evil.” It’s standard operating procedure. But the reality is usually not like the playbook. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were good friends in the Senate.  Abraham Lincoln was longtime buds with Alexander Stephens, vice president of the confederacy. George W. Bush and John Kerry were both members of the same “Skull and Bones” secret club. There are plenty of politicians who do battle in public but on weekends play golf together and have mutual interests. If political figures can get on well behind the scenes, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t, right? 

Avoid the negative noise. There’s a whole industry around political outrage. Writers get late night TV gigs and entrepreneurs hawk T-shirts, mugs and bobble heads. The big networks shovel cash at “experts” to bloviate and donations pour into coffers. Political social media hobbyists sink their time and effort into it. Because politics arouse such passions, people feel compelled to have an opinion and join the fray. People who are outrageous or larger than life tend to get noticed. But it doesn’t mean you have to play into it. The only person you can control is yourself. Turn it off.

None of this is really new. These days you will hear people say that “we’ve hit a new low” whether it’s the way campaigns are waged or the “qualities” of the candidates themselves. But this isn’t the case. Look up the election of 1828 that pitted Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams or the 1884 contest with Grover Cleveland vs. James Blaine. Read about the fiery words between Hamilton and Burr that resulted in their duel to the death. With some historical perspective you might think how folks from that time might consider our current environment to be quite civil by comparison. 

Take action. It’s easy to criticize our leaders from the couch. It’s easier to complain than to do something. It is likely that most of the people who try to engage you in political debate have never run for any office, not even their local school board. Many don’t even bother to vote. So the next time you feel compelled to criticize a candidate, consider Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

You don’t have to share an opinion. Instead of trying to inject your opinion into a discussion you can choose to adopt an air of mystery and focus on the other person. Pose questions like a journalist trying to understand their story. People are attracted to people who are interested in them. Talk to others with an open mind and a measure of respect, and you’ll win regardless of how any election turns out. 

Uncovering “The Art of Worldly Wisdom”

Uncovering “The Art of Worldly Wisdom”


Photo by Gabriel Ghnassia on Unsplash

Long before the self-help genre was a multi-billion-dollar thing, a 17th-century Jesuit named Baltasar Gracián crafted 300 principles of success from his observations of successful merchants, artists, warriors, and nobility of of Europe. These centuries-old maxims remain remarkably relevant today.

Gracián  was a Jesuit scholar, writer, and philosopher in 17th-century  Spain and his work , translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, was later appreciated by folks such as Nietzsche and Churchill. Arthur Schopenhauer called it, “a unique book for constant use for those who wish to prosper in the great world.” In other words, a copy belongs right there next to your Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins tomes.  

Here is my “best-of” selection of Gracián’s collected wisdom. (Today we would call these “tweets.”)

Master the art of being lucky. There are rules to luck, for to the wise not all is accident; therefore try to help luck along. Some are satisfied to politely stand and await the bidding of Fortune; better those who push forward, and who employ their enterprise, who on the wings of their worth and valor seek to embrace luck and effectively gain  her favor. No one has more good luck, or more bad luck, than he has wisdom or unwisdom. — In other words, Gracián says you gotta make your own breaks, folks.

Make courtesy your calling-card. Politeness is the main ingredient of culture. It is  neglected nowadays and seems out of date. Truth-speaking, and keeping your word seem to come from the good old  times. What a misfortune for our age that it regards virtue  as a stranger and vice as a matter of course! Better too much courtesy than too little; it costs little and helps much. Politeness and honor have the advantage that they remain with him who displays them to others.  — As Aretha sang, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, right?

Give to live. The wise man would rather see men needing him than thanking him. More is to be got from dependence than from courtesy. He that has satisfied his thirst turns his back on the well; when dependence disappears, so does good behavior and respect. Let it be one of the chief lessons of experience to keep hope alive without entirely satisfying it, by preserving it to make oneself always needed even by the wealthy and powerful.
— Pro tip: Gracián is saying that while you should be courteous and polite, and doing so can set you apart, don’t count on it from others.

The power of patience. Never be in a hurry, never be in a passion. First be master over yourself if you would be master over others.  You must patiently pass through the circumference of time before arriving at the center of opportunity. A wise reserve seasons the aims and matures the means. Time’s crutch affects more than the iron club of Hercules. Remember the maxim: “Time and I against any two.” Fortune herself rewards waiting with the first prize.  — A tad wordy, but you can feel him here. In a world of instant gratification, patience can be an ally.

Control your image. Do not be a wild card, a jack-of-all-trades. It is great misfortune to be of use to nobody—scarcely less to be of use to everybody. People who reach this stage lose by gaining, and in the end bore those who desired them before. The remedy against this extreme is to moderate your brilliance.  Be extraordinary in your excellence, if you like, but be ordinary in your display of it. The more light a torch gives, the more it burns away and the nearer it is to burning out.  Show yourself less and you will be rewarded by being esteemed more. — Too much of anything is too much, and sometimes this includes ourselves.

Stay relevant. Thought and taste change with the times. Do not be old-fashioned in your ways of thinking, and let your taste be in the modern style. In everything the taste of the many carries the votes; one must follow it in the hope of leading to higher things. In the adornment of the body as of the mind adapt yourself to the present, even though the past may appear better. — Don’t get hung up on the good old days.

Stand for something. The world is in chaos. Honorable dealing is deteriorating, good friends are few, truth is held in disrepute, good service is underpaid, poor service is overpaid. Whole nations are committed to evil dealings:  With one you fear insecurity, with another, inconsistency, with a third, betrayal. This being what it is, let the bad faith of others serve not as an example, but as warning. The real danger of the situation lies in the unhinging of your own integrity: accepting less than your best, being overly tolerant of stupidity, forgiving incompetence, and fraternizing with the non-spiritual. The man of principle never forgets what he is, because he clearly sees what the others are. — Be the hero people are looking for.

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Arouse no exaggerated expectations. It is easy to form ideals but very difficult to realize them. However excellent something is, it never suffices to fulfill expectations. As people find themselves disappointed they are more readily disillusioned than impressed. A few credible attempts at the beginning are sufficient to arouse curiosity without pledging one to the final object. It is better that reality should surpass the design and it turns out better than was thought. — Pro tip:  Promise low, deliver high.

Stay on your game. Vary your mode of action. So as to distract attention, do not always do things the same way, especially if you have a rival. Do not always act on first impulse; people will soon recognize the uniformity and, by anticipating, frustrate your designs. It is easy to kill a bird on the wing that flies straight, not so one that twists and turns. The enemy is on the watch, great skill is required to outwit him. The gamester never plays the card the opponent expects, still less the one he wants. — I just love the word, “gamester.”

On selling. Know how to sell your wares, and to get your price.Their intrinsic worth is not enough as most run where the crowd is, running because the others run. It is a great art to know how to sell, and to intend your goods for the sophisticated only, as it whets the public appetite, for everybody thinks himself sophisticated, and if he is not, then his sense of lack will spur on his desire. Never should your business be accounted easy or ordinary, for to make things easy is to make it common; and all have an itch for the unusual.
— Everybody wants the next big thing.

Weather the storm. Know your unlucky days. For such there are, when nothing goes right, and even though the game may change, the bad luck does not. The man of judgment will not let one throw mark the day unlucky, or lucky, for the former may have been only mischance, and the latter only happy accident. But a shrewd person will not decide on the day’s luck by a single piece of good or bad fortune, for the one may be only a lucky chance and the other only a slight annoyance. — Hey, you win some, you lose some.

Beware idle chit-chat. Conversation is where the real personality shows itself. No act in life requires more attention, though it may be the commonest thing in life. You must either lose or gain by it. The pulse of the soul is in the tongue, wherefore the sage said, “Speak, that I may know thee.” This holds good for talk between friends. To be appropriate, the conversation should adapt itself to the mind and tone of the conversationalist. And do not be a critic of words, or you will be taken for a pedant; nor a always play first fiddle and you second. If you get any consideration, it is only his leavings. The moon shines bright alone among the stars: when the sun rises she becomes either invisible or imperceptible. Never join one that eclipses you, but rather one who sets you in a brighter light. — As the old adage goes, we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak.

The importance of planning. Plan today for tomorrow, and even for many days hence. The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble. We must not put off thought until we are up to the chin in mire. Mature reflection can get over the most formidable difficulty. It is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards. Many act first and then think after—that is, they think less of consequences than of excuses: others think neither before nor after. The whole of life should be one course of thought how not to miss the right path. Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life. — In other words, don’t wing it.

Know how to say, “no.” Since you cannot consent to everything, or to everybody, it becomes important to know how to honorably refuse. The “no” of one man is more esteemed than the “yes” of another; for a “no” that is gilded may be more satisfying than a dry “yes.” Refusal should never be flat, nor should it be absolute, for some remnant of hope must be kept alive to sweeten the bitterness of the refusal. “Yes” and “no” are quickly spoken, but they demand long consideration. — This is key, especially with so many requests for our time.

Know what people want. Discover each man’s thumbscrew. It is the way to move his will, more skill than force being required to know how to get at the heart of anyone: There is no will without its leanings, which differ as desires differ. All men worship idols, some of honor, others of greed, and the most of pleasure. The secret lies in knowing these idols that are so powerful, thus knowing the impulse that moves every man. Know a person’s mainspring of motive and you have the key to his will. — That last sentence is pitch perfect.

Guard your rep. Do nothing to make you lose respect for yourself, or to cheapen yourself in your own eyes. Let your own integrity be the standard of rectitude, and let your own dictates be stricter than the precepts of any law. Forego the unseemly, more because of this fear of yourself, than for fear of the sternness of outer authority. Learn this fear of yourself; and there will be no need for a monitor. — Preach, Baltasar.

There you have it. The Art of Worldly Wisdom is just as relevant to the motivation-minded today as it was for the nobles who first read it back in 1637.

Lessons from an audition for “The Apprentice”

Lessons from an audition for “The Apprentice”

These days we seem to be looking for our leaders on reality TV. Who are these campy characters we root for from our living rooms? I decided to find out firsthand by attending the casting call for the latest season of Donald Trump’s NBC show The Apprentice.

I awoke at 4 am, donned a suit, and took the 5:04 train to Penn Station, New York.  From there I hopped a cab to arrive at Trump Tower before 6:30. There was already a line.  A looong line. Stacks of empty pizza boxes and lawn chairs meant a number of intrepid souls had spent the night on Fifth Avenue and made a party of it.

Banishing a momentary impulse to bail, I took my place at the end of the queue. Trump had thrown down the gauntlet so as far as this motley assemblage was concerned, it was game on. I started out by making some new friends. There was the blonde twenty-something nurse and her downsized sales rep friend who had made the midnight drive from Massachusetts. There was the  determined, square-jawed buttoned-up MBA candidate.  Then the outspoken lady microbiologist from Latvia, and a working suburban mom (shaken from a fender-bender on the way in from Jersey), and a strange, self-professed computer genius who rambled on about how the FBI was after him. Just the folks you’d expect to meet in The Big Apple.

The serpentine line moved glacially slow, reminding me of Star Wars 1977, or Disney World before Fastpass. About an hour into the scene there was a mix-up in the line and 50 people wound up jumping ahead. There were mutters of displeasure as we rued our chances of getting a coveted wristband that would assure a first-round interview.

As we slowly shuffled forward we were approached by camera-toting foreign tourists asking what we were waiting for. Our reality show explanations were met with confusion but they all understood the name “Trump!”

The morning dragged on. One of the greatest tests of endurance is to stand for hours at a time with absolutely no idea of how much longer you’ll have to wait. It should be an Olympic event.

At 11:30 we finally wound our way into the lobby of Trump Tower where our applications and consent forms were double checked. Then seven of us were seated at a table and a Trump aide took our applications and shuffled through them before passing them to Donald himself. He looked through the papers then asked a single question, “Health Care Bill…for it—or against it—and why?” The Latvian microbiologist took the cue, jumped in, and she made an eloquent case in favor of it, citing Eastern European health care successes. Then the MBA candidate fired back with a powerful free market argument against the bill.

Then we all weighed in while Trump and the aid watched and after several minutes the signal indicated our time was up. If we were picked, they’d get back to us. I had a sense they knew just what they were looking for, and I figured the paranoid computer FBI fugitive was a shoo-in.

Behind us, the line of other hopefuls waited their turn. Walking out of Trump Tower we passed all the Trump souvenir baubles and shameless “You’re Fired!” t-shirts for sale. No matter how high class we might think we are, we all have to hawk something.

I came away from the experience with a respect for the perseverance of reality show candidates, even the goofy or “untalented” ones often mocked on these programs. They’re all people willing to dedicate time and effort to chase a dream against the odds. And that’s really the only way it can be done.

Business lessons from “Pawn Stars”

Business lessons from “Pawn Stars”

Negotiation is a cornerstone of business, and like business, it’s an ancient art. There are many books on the subject, from Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion to Trump’s Art of the Deal. But while watching the History Channel I realized that some key business essentials can be gleaned from the show, “Pawn Stars.”

In the program, a Las Vegas pawn shop is run by a cast of colorful characters including a curmudgeonly “Old Man,” his affable son Rick, and his rebellious grandson “Big Hoss.” The show incorporates a blend of historical insight, humor, and good old fashioned business wheeling and dealing.

Here are some takeaways:

Start with a firm number, not a “hope.” If you are interested in selling something, and asked for your price, don’t say, “Well I was hoping to get $5,000.” No one cares what you are hoping for, and right then and there they know to stick a pin in your balloon of hope and hit you with a lower offer.

Know all you can about a situation. These days there’s no excuse not to run a search on the item you want to sell (or buy) and the people or organization you’ll be dealing with. I’m amazed to watch people walk into the pawn shop without knowing anything about what they want to sell or what it might be worth. P.T. Barnum had a word for people like that and how there’s one born every minute.

Don’t be wishy-washy. Often, sellers on the show say they are “looking to get $400 or $500” for their flea market find. If you say that then the $500 is immediately off the table because you’ve already negotiated with the other side by saying you’re open to $400. Don’t let the other guy help you decide where to start a deal.

Remove emotional attachment. Do you want to sell something or not? Once you have decided to sell then you have moved into the realm of a business transaction, and any sentimental value the item has to you will be irrelevant to the buyer. (“Well, you know, my grandmother used to keep this in her kitchen…”)

Always be ready to walk away from a deal. The Pawn Stars guys regularly turn down unique, cool items not because they don’t like them, but because acquiring them makes no business sense.

Know your business. Business owners can only stay in the black if they can readily sell an item for more than they bought it. If they can’t do this they can’t buy your item no matter what you think it’s worth. Whenever they deviate from their core business and think they can invest more money in an item to fix it up, they increase the risk of losing money.

Retain SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). For Rick and his crew, the job is to run a pawn shop, not to be be experts on esoteric obscure objects of historical interest. That’s why they are quick to call in experts on vintage guitars, toys, currency, or antique weapons. Build your own network of subject matter experts you can call on, legal, tax, sales, marketing, real estate.

Finally…Never underestimate the power of a good poker face.

Edward Klink

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