“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.”
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Fresh off a trip for a meeting in Amsterdam followed by a vacation in Norway, below are a few souvenirs from the journey:
I had a few books along on the trip for the time in captivity on the over and back flights. For the trip there, I had tucked The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien into my carry-on. Widely praised as one of the greatest war novels of the 20th century, it moves in and out of Vietnam and does not spare the reader any of the physical or spiritual horror of that conflict. It is also remarkable for its powerful and elegant writing which was my motive for bringing it along.
As much as the war, O’Brien’s masterwork is about stories and truth. O’Brien captures the poignancy and resonance of the moments in stories where a truth beyond the “the things that happened” is revealed. In the first chapter, O’Brien writes that it is true that the things they carried included, “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent” and the like. They also carried things less real but no less true: “the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.” This book stays with you long after you turn the last page.
One of the interesting after-effects of O’Brien’s work was that I found myself looking for similarly evocative writing in the days that followed in Amsterdam. A visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was predictably rewarding for the paintings in the galleries but also offered the unexpected news that Van Gogh was a prolific writer. He wrote scores of letters narrating his inner life and creative process to family and fellow artists. In the following excerpt, contained in a letter to his brother in 1889, Van Gogh captures the daily struggle that ultimately produced masterpieces:
“I end up resigning myself by saying, it’s experience and each day’s little bit of work alone that in the long run matures and enables one to do things that are more complete or more right. So slow long work is the only road and all ambition set on doing well, false. For one must spoil as many canvasses as one succeeds with when one mounts the breech each morning.”
To be reminded that “one must spoil many canvasses” while surrounded by Van Gogh’s work lends perspective on the hard work of genius. Failing first, fast, forward, often, up, heroically, in big moves and small bets is a fashionable topic du jour in a world where embracing risk is considered a 21st century skill. Amazon.com alone contains over 7000 titles on the topic of failing and some industries – notably Silicon Valley – are even thought to have a “failure fetish.” Fetish or not, in 1889 Van Gogh knew that, “slow long work is the only road.” The path to mastery has always run through failure. I suspect that Tim O’Brien spoiled a few canvasses too.
Norway is hard to describe. We saw over 1200 miles of it by car, several more by foot and some by boat. The scenery is as dramatic as anything I have seen and the people radiate gracefulness that reflects their status as the fourth happiest country in the world in 2015. (They commanded first place in 2013 and 2014.) It is a wealthy country that seems to enjoy a uniformly high standard of living. Every business, house, and farm looks freshly painted and the well-marked and maintained roads are lined with stunning multicolored wildflowers. Virtually everyone is fluent in English and the only signs of any kind along the scenic roadways suggest that you slow down. Norwegians live in their landscapes and love hiking and skiing so much they even have a word, “friluftsliv,” that translates as “outdoor life.” And yes, there is always symphonic music playing in the background…
Mark Twain is famous for writing, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” You can hardly be susceptible to prejudice or bigotry in Norway. Envy, yes, and covetousness, absolutely, but developing a charitable perspective on such a place? That happens the minute you cross the border.
So in between slack-jawed voyages through the fjords and rugged hikes through evergreen forests, I tried to get some insight into how this country happened. How has it come to pass that a country of 5 million decided to stash away their North Sea oil profits in a sovereign wealth fund that is now approaching $1 trillion. Or, that in 2014, Norwegian police fired their guns only twice – but did not injure anyone. (By way of comparison, at least 514 people have been shot and killed by police officers in the United States in the first half of 2015 – 31 in the first week of July alone.) Or, that 37% of Norwegians have completed postsecondary education making Norway the best-educated country in Europe? Or, that Norwegians eat more frozen pizza per capita than anyone in the world?
I am sure that interpreting Norway is complicated but at the risk of oversimplification, I uncovered one cultural touchpoint that seems to explain a lot. In 1933, Aksel Sandemose, an author of both Danish and Norwegian background, wrote A Fugitive Covers his Tracks, a novel about a small Danish town named Jante that lived by ten rules. The ten rules were understood to express something quintessential about the Scandinavian psyche and are sometimes described as forming the “Jante’s Shield” of the Scandinavian people. Each law is an elaboration of Sandemose’s singular formulation: “This is Jante: each little soul’s struggle for coequality and recognition, never without consciousness that all the others are greater than he.” Or, said more plainly, “You are not to think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.”
The rules read as follows:
You are not to think you are anything special.
You are not to think you are as good as we are.
You are not to think you are smarter than we are.
You are not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
You are not to think you know more than we do.
You are not to think that you are more important than we are.
You are not to think that you are good at anything.
You are not to laugh at us.
You are not to think anyone cares about you.
You are not to think you can teach us anything.
And an eleventh rule for good measure:
Don’t think there aren’t a few things we know about you.
Sandemose’s satire remains a source of torment in Scandinavia. In modern, urban centers it is dismissed as an expression of a vanishing village culture that developed due to isolation and the demands of survival in a tough environment. Yet when challenged, city dwellers reluctantly concede that maybe it still characterizes social life in some ways even in globalized Scandinavian cities.
I have not seen the rest of Scandinavia, but in Norway, once you are introduced to Jante’s Law, you see it everywhere. Norwegians exhibit a palpable – and appealing – egalitarianism that can veer off into stifling social conformity at the extreme. It is a wealthy welfare state where the standard of living is exceptionally high and income and wealth inequality exceptionally low. It is also a country where houses are painted one of three colors and only two, red and gold, are considered to be appropriately modest. White is showing off.
Norway is nearly perfect in at least one way – as a vantage point to watch the emergence of Donald Trump as a leading presidential candidate, the grace of South Carolina in the face of tragedy, and the phenomenon of Go Set a Watchman. There may be no better place for an American to consider the mysteries of national character.
The flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam included a screaming baby across the aisle so I bought noise-cancelling headphones for the trip home. I am late to the party on the miracle of this technology so I’ll only add my voice to the chorus of, “How did I ever live without them?”
My book for this last leg of the journey was a risky choice as it started out as a TEDx talk. Simon Sinek’s explanation about knowing your WHY has been viewed 23 million times and even gets traction with professional friends in the field of strategy and communication. So I picked up the book fully prepared to be disappointed that Sinek had merely taken an 18 minute talk and packed it into 248 pages.
While it was not quite like that, I should start by saying that this is not a great piece of literature. It is not especially well-written and it appears that the editor gave up at about page 152. When it is not redundant it is repetitive and Sinek’s real life examples of his concepts seem to keep coming back to Southwest Airlines and Apple. Nevertheless, if you can forgive him for these sins and others, it is actually an engaging and challenging read. And while the repetitive redundancy is not intentional, it actually helps nail down a message that can be a bit slippery.
Sinek’s central point is that organizations either get our attention through manipulation or inspiration. Manipulation comes in many forms (discounts, fear, peer pressure, etc) and tends to cultivate a transactional, superficial relationship. Inspiration happens when we feel we are part of a cause (challenging the status quo by purchasing an Apple product for example) and cultivates loyalty. Inspiration clearly is what we all want and Sinek does a good job of describing how this happens and how organizations that were once inspirational (WalMart cited here) can lose their way. No surprise, its all about the power of WHY.
While Sinek’s ability to assemble a book leaves some room for improvement, he can deliver a clever critique that makes a point at the same time:
“If you are curious as to how Colgate finds itself with thirty-two different types of toothpaste today, it is because every day its people come to work to develop a better toothpaste and not, for example, to look for ways to help people to feel more confident about themselves.”
He can also decode our complicated relationships with the things that become part of our identities:
“Products are not just symbols of what the company believes, they also serve as symbols of what the loyal buyers believe.”
Throughout the book, he scatters insights that keep you reading:
“Value, by definition, is the transference of trust.”
“Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of WHY. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, by contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine.”
“A simple claim of better, even with the rational evidence to back it up, can create desire and even motivate a decision to buy, but it does not create loyalty…It is the cause that is represented by the company, brand, product or person that inspires loyalty.”
So read this book. You can get through it in a few hours and if you are good at prospecting, you will find some nuggets in it that will reward the effort.
We landed a few hours late in Atlanta due to some weather. Despite about 11 hours on the plane and body and brain that thought it was 3:00 am, we took both boys out for dinner to a local Mexican dive. We told them about the farms and fjords; they reported in on work and plans for the future. And I was reminded of O’Brien again, “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are…”