Look ahead — “old sayings” vs. clichés

“Don’t look back. (You’re not going that way.)” Or, to translate into the preferred language of the SEO gods: “look ahead.”

look ahead

Do you read that as wise counsel? As a New Age-y cliché? Or as the worst driving advice ever?

It’s undoubtedly the last. My father the insurance man always instructed us to check the rear view mirrors before turning on the ignition. To be fair, he’d be perfectly fine with “Look ahead” too. He spent his days looking at wrecked cars and deciding how little—er, how much his company ought to pay for them. He knew everything that could happen to you in a car. So look back, look forward, look to your left, to your right—he insisted on all of it.

But in a metaphorical sense, “Don’t look back”—is it wise or trite?

I think the answer is

Yes.

If all you do is toss it into your writing, then it has all the weight of a fortune cookie saying.

But if you use it to make a larger point, if you can connect it to emotion and story—then you’ve got the making of something powerful.

It’s like anything, right? You don’t just drop a quotation into the middle of your work and then never mention it again.

“No man is an island entire of itself.”—John Donne

Well, yes. And…? As your reader, why should I care about that? How does it relate to me?

Look ahead

“Don’t look back” resonates for me now because I’m packing. (Argh.) And looking back is pretty much 90% of the packing game, right?

Do I really need to keep my 1980s edition of Trivial Pursuit? What was trivial then is now, like, super-obscure and useless information now. But I remember buying it, carrying it home, being one of my first friends to own it. Nope, Goodwill that sucker.

The handmade ceramic tile with my two-week-old footprints on it—even more trivial than the Trivial Pursuit. Completely useless to every conceivable Goodwill shopper. But my baby footprints! Jury’s still out on that. Oh, I would drive Marie Kondo crazy.

“Don’t Look Back” could make a fine Story Safari for a company in the throes of change. (And when is a company not in the throes of change?) When do you honor the legacy processes? How do you implement new ones without alienating half your workforce? Well, don’t look back; you’re not going that way. So what’s next.

In that context, “Don’t look back”—or, pace, gods of SEO—”look ahead” isn’t a cliché at all. It’s a great hook for a story.

Now, excuse me. I’ve got more packing to do.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Samantha Bennett: Upside-down duck

Samantha Bennett
Samantha Bennett, photo by Erica Clendenin

As far as we know, Samantha Bennett and I are not related, but we’re both smart, funny, (and humble—can’t forget humble), and Steve Goodman fans, so I’m not ruling anything out. Originally from Chicago, Sam is a writer, speaker, actor, teacher and creativity/productivity specialist. She created The Organized Artist Company to help creative people get unstuck so they can focus and move forward on their goals. And she is the beloved author of two lavishly subtitled books: Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day and Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers and Recovering Perfectionists (New World Library). —Elaine

You are an Upside-Down Duck

by Samantha Bennett

You know how ducks look so calm gliding along the surface, but underneath they are paddling like mad?

Sometimes I think you are the upside-down of that.

On the surface, you appear to be in chaos.

Too much clutter.

Too busy.

Can’t focus and don’t want to be hemmed in.

Dashing from one idea to the next.

Barely scraping by.

The people around you must feel like they are watching a high-wire act.

“Why doesn’t she just get a real job?” they wonder.

“Does everything have to be so emotional?” they sigh.

And you feel criticized and misunderstood and lonely and like you were born into a world that doesn’t have a place for you.

But I know the truth about you:

You are powerful beyond measure.

You have deep reserves of strength.

(After all, look at all you’ve survived…)

You have a light that is so bright—beyond the sun bright—you probably even got told to turn it down a bit.

(“You’re too dramatic, too loud, too big, too needy, too serious, too dreamy….”)

But just because you put your light under that bushel doesn’t mean it went away.

And as soon as you decide that it’s OK with you if your light shines into the world, you have some terrific opportunities. (Don’t skip over the significance of that decision: is it really OK with you if you get famous? Are you willing to lose a bit of privacy? Is it OK with you if you become more visible in the world?)

I’m here to tell you—there has never been a better time to be a teller of stories and a maker of things.

If you can wrap your head around the idea that the way you create is the way you succeed, you will become unstoppable. That is to say, you can create success in the exact same way that you create any other project. It can come from the same place inside of you. And it can feel as delicious as anything else you’ve ever made.

So what does that mean, exactly?

It means you can build a fan base by sending them love letters. Or by talking to them about Moroccan cooking. You can collect emails in exchange for a daily musing on reality television, or the work of Edward Albee. You can combine your talents and skills and put them on display to the world in a way that feels fun for you.

Here are a few examples:

A client of mine with a full-time corporate job was dreaming of starring in her own Oprah-style talk show. I told her to go outside right this moment and make a one-minute video about something inspiring and post it, and then do that every day. She took me at my word, and a year later she had several hundred short inspirational videos and a growing tribe of loyal followers.

Another client was a photographer who loved working in film (old-school film) and further, she realized that everything having to do with computers both annoyed her and aggravated her auto-immune disorder. So she began communicating with her clients and galleries strictly by mail, sending hand-written notes on lovely, creamy stationery. She became known as an exclusive, high-end, “artisanal” photographer, and now she keeps having to raise her rates because her schedule is always full.

I also had a client who simply could not get her marketing act together. She couldn’t finish her website, she didn’t like Facebook, she halfway started a podcast but then gave up….I was becoming concerned that her dream of empowering women and girls was going to end up in a dust heap of almosts-but-not-quites.

Finally I asked her, “What do you LIKE to do?” She said, “I like talking to people.” And it was true—she could strike up a conversation with a brick wall. So I said, “Fine. Do that. Spend at least one hour each day walking around places where people are gathered and have at least two conversations with strangers. Just see where it takes you.” Three days later she had talked herself into a meeting with the head of the local girls’ school to discuss adding her entire curriculum to their after-school program.

You are allowed to market your work your way. It almost doesn’t matter what you do—as long as you are doing something that lights you up and getting it out there.

Underneath your surface feelings of confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt and “sparkly thing” distractability, there is a calm, powerful knowing. Once you allow yourself to lean in to your strengths, your idiosyncrasies, and your desire to serve the world, you will get the opportunity to share your gifts in a bigger way.

You know that you have some very special skills that can really help people.

But you need to start making choices from your center of power and your inner wisdom. You need to lean in to your weirdness, your excitement and your nerdy-ness. Then you can stop relying on crappy part-time jobs and erratic windfalls. You can take control.

You can choose to live from your power, not from your chaos.

So quit thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row, and instead embrace the odd duck that is so delightfully and unmistakably YOU.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join Elaine for her popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about growth.

Keep going — Confucius meets SEO

"It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop." Or, Confucius meets SEOI wanted to open with this indisputably wise quotation from the Chinese philosopher Confucius. But what happens when Confucius meets SEO?

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop”—SEO hates negative keywords. And you can’t get much more of a “stop word” than stop. But translated into a positive frame, the wisdom turns bland and boring, essentially:

“Keep going.”

It’s a good thing for all of us that Confucius never had to deal with SEO. And yet, somehow, his work has gone viral enough that’s still being quoted more than 2500 years after his death. Now that’s genius.

Of course, his name wasn’t really Confucius. Wikipedia notes that as a Latinization of Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子, if you want it in the original). Over the centuries the philosopher has picked up a number of posthumous nicknames,. My favorite is the first, coined in the first century AD: “Laudably Declarable Lord Ni.” May we all be “laudably declarable,” lord or not.

But I digress

Whew! Almost went down a rabbit hole there. I’m sure there’s many a good story safari to be had in the life and wisdom of Kǒng Fūzǐ. But I’m more interested in this particular piece of wisdom:

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

I always feel like I’m going too slowly. I’m rarely satisfied with my own progress. My patron saint is St. Hurry-Up. Well, St. Expeditus—Santo Expedito in Portuguese. I first discovered him in Brazil, though why he’s not widely worshiped in New York remains a complete mystery to me.

So I feel like I’m never going fast enough. And yet to my clients and friends, I seem to be in constant motion—thinking, creating, shipping (to use Seth Godin’s term). No matter how gummed up I feel inside, I make sure Ship Happens. I’ve even set goals for my vacation. Not work goals, but still—goals.

Hey, at least I’m taking a vacation (next month!). That hasn’t happened in—wow!—probably a decade, since I went to Brazil and discovered St. Hurry-Up. So I’m, um, slowly making progress on slowing down. I guess I should count that as a win.


If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision. Starts June 22nd!

90 days, nearly $900: A tale of five writers

90 days!

Eight writers, 90 days: the first Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge wrapped up yesterday with five writers finishing their commitment. That’s a completion rate of 62.5% if you keep track of those things. Now, it’s not the 80%+ completion rate of my June 5×15 Writing Challenge. But then 90 days is 18 times longer than 5 days. That’s a lot longer, as my writers will no doubt tell you.

Four of challengers wrote every day for the entire 90 days, earning $150 apiece for their designated charities. One of the nonprofits matched contributions made yesterday, so that writer doubled her impact.

Another writer, who joined the challenge a week late, decided to write only on weekdays. She earned $10 for every completed week, a total of $120. That’s $870, if you’re keeping score.

Of course, none of them was in it for the money. But it did provide a nice incentive to keep their streaks going all the way to the finish line. The support they received from fellow writers also helped. Our Facebook Group became like a pit crew, or one of the rest stops on my friend Marcia’s 500-mile bike ride. Pop in feeling burned out—or at least lightly fried—and leave with a handful of “been there/done that” stories and “you can do it!” posts to boost your confidence.

90 Days of Surprises

They say it takes three weeks to build a habit. What can you build in 13 weeks? My writers were amazed at the answers they uncovered.

More than one writer discovered a poet lurking inside of her, just waiting for the opportunity to speak. Writers unearthed true stories from their long-ago past, and created fantasies about what their future might hold.

In our celebration wrap-up yesterday one said:

“The richness of the experience surprised me. Everyone was willing to move out of her comfort zone.”

Another said:

“Something happened for each of us.”

Something—I’m paraphrasing here—that only happened because they wrote.

What can happen for you? Wanna find out? The next 90-Day Challenge starts today…but we’ll accept anyone who enrolls before July 4th.

Sharpen your pencils; blow the cat hair out of your keyboards. The 90-Day Challenge: It’s time for you to write.

The “radical overconfidence” challenge

“Radical overconfidence” is like stage makeup. If you’ve got enough makeup on to look good in the daylight, you’ll wash out completely onstage. To command the audience’s attention from the stage, you’ve got to exaggerate your features. Make your eyes pop with some false eyelashes. Redden up those lips.

Sara Benincasa practices radical overconfidence
Sara Benincasa, photo by Iconic Pinups

And so it is with radical overconfidence. Especially for women, what we identify as regular-strength confidence remains all but undetectable to other people (especially the male people). So slap on the metaphorical false eyelashes and learn how to be radically overconfident.

I first encountered the concept in Sara Benincasa‘s funny, practical, and poignant book Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You in School).

Now, we’ve all seen people whose confidence far outpaces their abilities. (In fact, you may feel that such a person resides in a certain edifice—let’s describe it as a white house—in Washington.) No one wants to be that person. Well, no one with a modicum of self-awareness. As a result, many of us over-correct. Instead of radical overconfidence, we practice radical underconfidence.

The problem is, that doesn’t get us anywhere. Underconfidence keeps the brilliant woman manager from speaking up in a meeting; overconfidence keeps the arrogant men in the room from listening when she finally does. In the world of creativity, underconfidence keeps perfectly good writers from sharing their work even with a writing group—while overconfident writers pound out the book proposals and ink publishing deals. Or self-publish their poorly written drivel.

Radical overconfidence and you (…okay, and me too)

Benincasa writes about “radical overconfidence” in the context of walking into a meeting, perhaps a pitch meeting:

“What would happen if I engaged in radical overconfidence?….if I displayed chutzpah aplenty—the sass and strength that I imagine are the rightful possession of a richer, bolder, better-looking person? What would go down if I waltzed into that joint with my head high, my smile bright, my shoulders squared, and my heart brimming with the belief that I kick fucking ass?”

What indeed?

For Benincasa, radical overconfidence means advocating for herself:

“Rather than being sweet and unassuming, I had to be bold and brave. I could still be nice. I could still be kind. I could still celebrate other people’s achievements and glean wisdom and understanding from studying their feats….But enough of the meek shit….If I was to get what I wanted from life—or at least from the entertainment and publishing industries—I had to act like I owned it. I had to act like I was owed it by virtue of my sheer awesomeness. I had to display radical overconfidence.”

So here’s my challenge—to you and to myself. Let’s practice radical overconfidence. Start with one act of radical overconfidence a day, every day for a week. Just once a day, walk into a room like you own it. Hand something you’ve written to a trusted advisor and ask them to read it. Publish something you’ve written on Medium.

Don’t think you’re good enough? Have you read some of the stuff on Medium? Yes, there’s a lot of good writing on Medium and elsewhere. But I bet you could find five pieces that aren’t nearly as good as the piece you’re afraid of releasing in the world. Without even breaking a sweat.

Get in touch with your “sheer awesomeness” and “be bold and brave.” Put your work out into the world. Listen to Sara Benincasa:

“Life is too short to waste time pretending to be small and inconsequential when you are actually as vast and powerful as a distant star.”


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Courage and failure: “…you have to be willing to lose”

What does courage have to do with failure? Quite a lot, to judge by recent interviews with two successful women. Today’s example comes from journalist Katie Couric.

On her own podcast—which I heard when she “crossed over” to Pod Save America—Katie Couric talked about her late sister, who ran for state office in Virginia. Couric’s sister told her,

“When you run for office, you have to be willing to lose.”

Couric translated that as “You have to be true to yourself and to your core values and principles and let the chips fall where they may.”

Courage isn’t about the middle ground

We don’t often see that kind of courage in the political world.

Instead of standing up for their own beliefs, candidates instead trumpet the “least objectionable” beliefs, as determined by an endless succession of focus groups. A politician running to win would naturally attract a tribe of dedicated supporters, emotionally invested in the outcome.

But more often, politicians run to “not lose.” With no firm positions to rally around, their electoral strategy depends on maintaining a fragile coalition of people they can keep happy with vague promises. The promises have to be vague, right? Because the minute they become concrete, someone—on the right or the left—will get offended. And someone else wins the election.

But don’t we all lose when that happens? Once you run on vague promises, you’re stuck with vague solutions. If you intend to run again, you can’t ever leave the safety of ambiguity.

Katie Couric’s sister may have said it in the context of electoral politics—”When you run for office, you have to be willing to lose”—but I think this works as a mantra for any of us. Especially when we’re sticking a toe—or more—out of our comfort zone.

You can’t take a risk if you’re not willing to fail.

Tomorrow: Another podcast, another badass risk-taking woman.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

“I did some really good writing yesterday. What do I do today?” — Frequent Questions

Q: I did some really good writing yesterday. But what do I do today? It’s hard to get started.
A: Grab a crayon.

I know the feeling. It’s far easier for writers to think our work is crap—because so much of our work is crap. It’s even, I just found out, a law of nature: Sturgeon’s Law. As with so much else in this world, if you go to the primary source you find that the Law is actually a Revelation. In 1958, Sturgeon wrote:

“I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.”

Here we have yet another clear case of eroding quality in the modern world. When Rudyard Kipling voiced a similar opinion back in the 19th century, he only damned 80% of creative output:

“Four–fifths of everybody’s work must be bad. But the remnant is worth the trouble for its own sake.”

But I digress. Whether your work is 80% or 90% crap, the non-crap portion remains firmly in the minority. So when you manage to turn out something you like—and that other people will (or already do!) like—you not only have a visceral appreciation of Kipling’s assessment that it’s “worth the trouble for its own sake.” You also have genuine cause for celebration, my friend.

Don’t let good writing yesterday overshadow any writing today

So you did some good writing yesterday. Congratulations.

But you do realize you still have to write today. And, yes, it may turn out to be not nearly as good as the writing you did yesterday. In fact, the laws of probability—not to mention Sturgeon—tell us it won’t be. Them’s the breaks.

But there’s good news, too. Every word you write today gets you closer to the golden 20% of non-crap that you turned out in your good writing yesterday.

Oh, I know, I know—all you want to do is open up that doc from yesterday and revisit your glory. You could spend all day doing that. I’ve been there. In fact, I am there at this very moment.

I wrote something really great yesterday. I’m justifiably proud of myself. But re-reading yesterday’s writing doesn’t get today’s writing done.

But I don’t have any ideas, the voice in my head whined. So I embraced process instead: I usually do a Q&A on Wednesdays, but I didn’t post a blog yesterday because of the Day Without Women. So, calendar be damned, I declared today as “WTF? Wednesday” (that’s how I settled on the day for this regular feature: I gave it a private nickname). Then all that remained was to pick the question. And yes, okay, if you insist on full disclosure, the person who submitted this particular question is me.

There was never any question of my not writing today. Not with 316 days of a writing streak behind me and the prospect of seeing the magic 317 appear on my phone app once I’m done. Someone recently asked me when I’ll get to the one-year mark. I suppose I could do the math, but really I’m not as focused on 365 as I am on 318.

I cannot recommend the daily writing thing highly enough. This commitment I’ve made has gotten me through a lot of upheaval over the past nine-ish months, and the sense of accomplishment I feel…well, it’s hard to describe.

But I don’t have any ideas as brilliant as yesterday’s

you did good writing yesterday; try writing with a crayon todayI’m sure that’s as true for you as it is sometimes for me. So stop aiming for one. Instead, shake things up a bit.

If you always write at your desk, find another place to sit. Go outside, weather permitting. Go to the library (I’ll have more on that this weekend).

If you always write on your computer, grab a pen and a notebook. Better yet, grab a colored pencil or crayon. It’s impossible to take yourself or your problems too seriously when you’ve got a crayon in your hand.

Spend 15 minutes writing as your 10-year-old self. Don’t worry about replicating your good writing yesterday. Have some fun with your writing today.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Meet Jon Favreau — newest guest at my imaginary dinner party

Jon Favreau, my latest imaginary dinner party guest
Jon Favreau, photo by The White House from Washington, DC – P021213PS-0265, Public Domain

Who would you invite to an imaginary dinner party? My guest list changed after reading the article I’m writing about today. Welcome Jon Favreau, former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama; I hope you’re not an imaginary vegetarian.

I’ve been a Favreau fan (a “Favan”?) for a while now. The podcast he and some cronies from the Obama Administration cooked up—Pod Save America—restores my sanity twice a week. I thought for sure I’d already blogged about their interview with President Obama, the last media interview he did as president. I will correct that oversight ASAP.

But another oversight I will correct immediately: Jon Favreau’s co-conspirators on Pod Save America are speechwriters Dan Pfeiffer, Tommy Vietor, and the (I’m sure he would describe himself as) indispensable Jon Lovett.

Jon Favreau also has a name doppelgänger, an actor
Actual Google search results for “Elaine Bennett”

I feel some affinity for Lovett, who will surely go through life being mistaken for Jon Lovitz. (Has the letter H somehow become a pariah? Um, pariah. Whatever happened to “John”?) But at least Lovitz is a real person; I’m fated to remain second in the Google search to a sitcom character.

Jon Favreau—not just a pretty face

Favreau’s invitation to my imaginary dinner has nothing to do with his boyish good looks. Or the fact that, come to think of it, he too has a name doppelgänger, a movie producer.

Nope, I’m passing the dinner rolls to Favs because we think about writing in the same way. Clearly he’s a smart dude.

This LinkedIn post by Trevor Ambrose—“Obama’s Speechwriter Shares 5 Storytelling Tips”—summarizes some of what makes Favreau’s speeches so effective. But they’re not just valuable tips for speechwriters: any writer can and should embrace these best practices.

1 – Story is key

Ambrose quotes Favreau:

“In my experience communications too often focuses on finding the right words. Of course words are important at some point in the process. But the first question you have to ask yourself is: what is the story I’m trying to sell? That is essential, and should be the starting point.”

“What is the story I’m trying to sell?” Focus on telling a story and the facts and data will slot themselves in, reinforcing the narrative. Focus on reporting facts and data and you’ll never get to the story—and the idea you’re trying to convey will never take root in the listeners’ or readers’ minds.

Too many people believe that facts are the story. Too many people end up creating boring, eminently forgettable work.

2 – Short & simple

“…a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Narrow your story down to the essential point.”

Easier said than done, especially when you’re trying to incorporate language and feedback from many stakeholders. Even when you have only one client to please, it’s a tough sell. People seem to feel that the more they talk, the smarter they’ll sound. I’m still working on the right way to convince them otherwise. Jon Favreau and I will surely trade war stories about this over imaginary dinner.

3 – Inoculate yourself against criticism

“You should find [objections] and address them during your speech.”

I believe I let out an audible whoop when President Obama inoculated himself against critics of his efforts to halt climate change. This passage comes from his 2015 State of the Union Address. And I guess the fact that I remember it two years later negates my argument that speeches stuffed full of ideas can’t be memorable. No speech gets stuffed fuller than a State of the Union; perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Anyway, in 2015 President Obama told Congress:

“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.

Unfortunately for our planet, the current Republican administration is defunding those “really good scientists.” Unfortunately for our language—and our liberties—the current president inoculates himself by spouting blatant lies. Convince enough of your base that the mainstream media lies and can anything they say or write damage you? I look forward to the imaginary discussion Favs and I will have on how (whether?) we can counter this strategy.

4 – Understand and speak to your audience

“You have to know what the world looks like when you are in [the audience’s] shoes. One of the reasons why Obama’s speeches are so successful is because they are written in the language that his audience understands, addressing the issues they are facing.”

I often run into clients who are eager to show off the bright, shiny idea their company came up with. But “Isn’t this cool?” doesn’t work as a speech premise. You have to show the audience—and note that I said show, not tell—how the cool new thing will solve their problems. And you have to do it in language they understand.There’s no point in extolling the virtues of your new creation if no one knows what it is or what it does.

Political writers have an even harder job—they have to bring abstract, often complex concepts to life in ways that resonate with audiences who have a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Oh, and if you don’t do your job well, the polar ice caps could melt and drown Miami. But, hey—no pressure.

5 – Jon Favreau wants to connect

Of course I mean he wants his speaker to connect, and inspire. And what’s the best way to do that? See #1: Tell stories. But not just any stories:

“The best way to connect with people is through stories that are important to people’s lives.”


What’s with the dinner party, anyway?

Sometimes I ask my webinar participants to imagine their own dinner parties. I love the exercise because the first time I did it (hat-tip to Samantha Bennett, my imaginary cousin and an inspirational teacher), the reveal at the end just gobsmacked me. If you’d like to try it for yourself, I’ve uploaded a clip of it to Vimeo. Enjoy.

A moldy wine cellar and thou: a story safari

A moldy wine cellar — and thou. It’s not exactly Omar Khayyam:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

a moldy wine cellar can produce great winesBut I have a story for you today, of mold and wine and how the two can come together to create something even more intoxicating than fermented grapes: a metaphor.

I dialed in late to a conference call a month ago, just as my friend Melissa Smith was finishing a story about her recent visit to a winery. Sometimes a moldy wine cellar, she said, produces the best wine. A socked that tidbit away in my idea file; it seemed like the perfect metaphor for a larger story.

Revelations from a moldy wine cellar

Apparently Melissa thought so too, because she wrote it up in her blog, under the provocative title “The Day I Wanted to Become Like Mold.” I’ll share some excerpts with you here, because it’s a great example of a story safari.

“…a cellar without mold is incomplete. (Floored when I heard this).

The mold that grows in a cellar of aging wine is what sets the climate. It changes from white to black and lets you know that it’s doing its job. A winemaker enjoys seeing it. They understand both the science and art of winemaking. Which means they appreciate and respect what could be seen to others as hazardous or simply ugly is, in fact, beautiful.”

What others see as hazardous or ugly, a winemaker sees as beautiful. Great metaphor, right? We could apply it to so many things.

Melissa sees a metaphor here that applies to her work, matching clients with the right virtual assistants. The mold, she says,

…works with the wine. One does not exist without the other. At least, not a great wine. Mold does not take the spotlight. It can only be appreciated by an artist. The wine gives back to the mold by releasing its vapors. They feed off one another. As the wine continues to age and the secondary flavors arise it’s the mold that helped make it happen.”

She makes the analogy more concrete:

“Mold is nature’s assistant to the wine. I am an actual assistant to my clients.”

and

“Whether like a muse to the artist, ingredients to the chef, or mold to cellar wine I am the often unseen laborer. My titles and duties change. My mission remains the same — to get my clients from where they are to where they want to be.”

She wraps up the story safari by circling back to the image she began with:

“Not everyone can appreciate service or an assistant. Not everyone appreciates art, food, and wine either. Fortunately, I have realized who I am called to serve. I’m in search of the artist looking for his muse, the chef looking for ingredients to speak to him, and the winemaker looking for the mold to change color.”

The story serves facts

I’m guessing by now you know much more about a moldy wine cellar than you did when you started reading this piece. You also know more about my friend Melissa—not just what she does for a living but why she does it, how her work connects to her value system. Sure, you could get much the same information from a menu of services and an “About Me” page on her website. But you’re much more likely to remember the information now that you’ve read it in the context of a story. And I bet you’re feeling more warmly toward Melissa than you did before. (You should; she’s a lovely person.)

The clients I wrote about earlier this week might have cut the mold story as extraneous. But it carries the essence of the idea much more effectively than mere facts ever could.


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Mangled translation – one of my pet peeves

When words threaten to lose their meaning, those of us who care about such things have to be scrupulous about our use of language. Mangled translation has always been one of my pet peeves.

So when I got an email from the smart folks at TED Talks with this in it, I socked it into my idea file for a future blog posts. The future has arrived.

mangled translation leaves people with the wrong idea about Descartes' most famous saying

There’s a reason cogito, ergo sum is “routinely translated as ‘I think, therefore I am.'” It’s because that’s what René Descartes meant when he wrote those words.

Funny how that works.

Go back to the source and you’ll find Descartes actually wrote, Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

Geary’s mangled translation relies on an alternative meaning of agitare—one that makes absolutely no sense if you return to the source.

But let’s go back to the original original source—because Descartes wrote and published his Le Discours de la Méthode in French before he translated it into Latin; he wanted his work to reach the widest audience possible, and no one much spoke Latin outside of academia or the church. The French is not as compact, not as bumper sticker-ready as the Latin. But bumper stickers were not in wide use in 1637:

…si je doute, je pense, et si je pense, je suis.”

If I doubt, I think, and if I think, I am.

Shake things up with mangled translation

James Geary may be peddling mangled translation but I like the point he’s trying to make. Why were we put on this earth if not to shake things up? Here’s how I would rewrite to preserve both Descartes’ intent and Geary’s point:

The three most famous words in all of Western philosophy—Cogito, ergo sum—are routinely translated as “I think, therefore I am.” But it’s possible to read that another way, too. Because the root of the Latin word cogito is the verb agitare—which does indeed mean “to put something in motion” or even to shake. So you might think of cogito, ergo sum as meaning, “I shake things up, therefore I am.” In fact, that’s the meaning I’m going to adopt today. I don’t expect much pushback from Descartes about this; he’s been dead for 367 years.

You get to the same point. But you bring truth along with you. And especially these days, truth should travel with us wherever we go.


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