What I’ve learned about life from six months learning piano

playingpianoSix months ago at age 46, I started piano lessons. My son had started lessons about a year ago at six years old and I was inspired by watching him learn. Since then, I have stuck with it through 22 one-hour in-person lessons on Saturday afternoons (skipping just a few when out of town). I’ve been doing this consistently amidst a full life otherwise: trying to be a good husband/father, coaching a full roster of CEOs and CTOs, taking a 12-week Korean class this fall (안녕하세요!), active service on three non-profit boards, and preparing for the next iteration of the class I’m teaching at Cornell Tech this spring.

So I don’t really “have time” for piano, but I’m glad I’m making the time and I’m excited about the progress I’ve been making. Six months in, I’m comfortable at the piano and what was a mysterious object with random black and white keys in the beginning is now very familiar. I can read basic music intuitively, keep rhythm most of the time (and when not, I know how to use a metronome to get me on track), and I play harmony and melody using both hands. I’m still by no means a great piano player. I’m very much just getting started. (In fact, here’s some audio of me playing this week where I deliberately did one take with no editing so you could hear what someone who has only had six months of lessons sounds like.)

But I am better than I was six months ago when I couldn’t play at all and I feel confident that I’ll keep improving. I’ve learned some good life lessons in the process. Here they are:

Lesson #1: You have to be very vulnerable to learn when you are a true beginner at something.

In business contexts, when a person has experience, they tend to spend a lot of time saying things like, “yes, I get what you’re saying, but let’s get to the point.” An experienced person can certainly be an accelerator in many situations: been there, done that, don’t waste your time on that, here’s how it works. As much as the word “vulnerability” gets thrown around in business circles these days, though, experienced people are generally expected to be decisive and focused. “I don’t know” is frowned-upon.

Knowing is simply not possible when you are a true beginner as I am with piano. I actually don’t know. I take piano lessons on Saturdays in a shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I get there a few minutes early and wait outside the small studio for the prior lesson to end. The student before me is about seven years old and I can faintly hear her playing as I wait. She is better than me and progressing faster than me. My teacher is considerably younger than me. In my work, I’ve been so accustomed to being the one with experience. In that piano studio, I am the equivalent of a toddler. Things that seem simple when I see others do them can be excruciating for me. I stumble. I get frustrated. I didn’t really look forward to the early lessons that much. A lot of the instruction was “try that again. <pause while I play> Try that again. <pause while I play> Do that again.” And that’s what I did (and what I needed). I had to embrace the not-knowing in order to begin to know.

Lesson #2: Progress is all about sustained effort over long periods supported by consistent practice.

There was some divine intervention involved in the form of a book that helped me get my mental game right to take piano lessons. My son’s progress in his own lessons had inspired me and one day I decided to take him to the Juilliard Store on W 66th Street to look for new sheet music (one of those amazing “I ❤️ NYC” experiences all by itself – what a store!) While he looked around, I happened upon a slim book called The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life (here’s a summary). It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Learning piano is really just a framing device used by the author to lay out bigger life lessons. Here’s the basic summary using three sentences from the book (all emphasis is mine):

  • “Real peace and contentment in our lives come from realizing that life is a process to engage in, a journey down a path that we can choose to experience as magical.”
  • “When we subtly shift toward both focusing on and finding joy in the process of achieving instead of having the goal, we have gained a new skill. And once mastered, it is magical and incredibly empowering.”
  • “With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable.”

In this spirit, I made a deal with myself when I started lessons that I was going to do the lessons for a year and practice diligently regardless of how I thought I was doing. I told myself that learning piano was a lifelong process and I hoped to stick with it and slowly improve for the rest of my life. I didn’t set any artificial goals for myself other than sticking with it for a year and practicing consistently. I did better some weeks than others but I kept to my commitment to just keep doing it. I don’t know how quickly I’ll get better and I don’t pay attention to it on a week-to-week basis. I just keep going, knowing that doing the work will make me better (“With deliberate and repeated effort, progress is inevitable.”)

The sometimes repetitive work of learning also has a meditative aspect to it. I’ve probably played a C Major scale a couple thousand times by now. Sitting down, gathering myself, and warming up by playing that simple scale a few times has the same effect on me that taking deep breaths does. When my teacher tells me to “try it again” in our lessons, I do just that without self-judgment. I just do it again and again until I get it right. When I remove the self-judgment, these repetitions become almost soothing and relaxing.

(Note: Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within by Kenny Werner is very much in the same spirit as The Practicing Mind and is also supported by the Effortless Mastery Institute. Definitely check it out.)

Lesson #3: Learning something difficult feels like (and is) real work.

The default response from adults I tell about this is, “Oh, that sounds fun!” Ahem. I would say it’s rewarding but I wouldn’t always call it “fun” at this stage. I’ve observed that learning an instrument can be a fantasy for many people, in the same vein as “one day I’ll write a book.” It certainly was for me. When you hear “piano lessons,” it is tempting to fast-forward to some glamorous point in your future where you’re at a holiday party and people gather around to sing songs at the piano as you take requests, all of which you know how to play, of course. The problem with this fantasy is that getting to such a point takes years and hundreds of hours of practice (if not thousands). The only thing that will get you there is doing the real work day after day.

Lesson #4: Focus on fundamentals and really learn them.

I’ve been hacking around on guitar for almost thirty years and I have never progressed beyond playing chords. I would describe my skill level as “campfire guitarist” —  there have been times where people were drunk around a campfire and I could play a song just well enough to be recognizable and the chorus of voices was just loud enough to cover my mistakes. But I’ve never been a good guitarist.

Looking back, I have been stuck at this level because I never really focused on playing guitar as a practice. You know, I just wanted to rock. I was impatient, unfocused, and undisciplined. I would listen to a Led Zeppelin song, download the tablature from the Internet, then try to contort my fingers into holding the right notes. I always failed and put the guitar away for a while after that. (Aside: part of the magic of Led Zeppelin is the crazy rhythms they used — check out “What Makes John Bonham Such a Good Drummer.” No wonder I struggled!)

What I didn’t understand when I was downloading Led Zeppelin tabs and failing to play them is that music isn’t just a paint-by-number put-your-fingers-on-the-right-strings exercise. You have to understand core concepts like rhythm, harmony, and melody. Putting all of those things together at the same time makes great music, not just hitting the right notes in order. Some people pick these concepts up more easily than others or through trial and error. I accidentally learned some of this along the way with guitar but it wasn’t purposeful. But whether or not you play “by ear” or you know how to read music, you have to learn all of this somehow, and that requires discipline and lots of hours. There is no shortcut.

With piano, this means getting your basic fingering right and that means doing “boring” things like practicing scales. It’s not just hitting the right notes, it’s about hitting the right notes with the right fingers. It’s about how your hand moves up and down the keyboard so you can hit the next right note as the scale progresses. It’s about doing rhythm drills to make sure you can play at accelerating tempos and keep consistent rhythm. In the past six months, I’ve spent 20x the time on this type of work on piano that I spent on guitar in the past 30 years. By the end of my first year really focusing on piano, I’m pretty sure I will be objectively better on piano than I ever was at guitar (and when I go back to guitar, I already feel like I’m better from the work with piano).

All systems revolve around interrelated concepts and the more you study and integrate all of those concepts into your practice, the higher quality the output will be. In my time as an operating executive, I often heard people starting their careers tell me they wanted to go straight to doing “strategic” work with the implication that they wanted to skip over the boring “tactical” stuff. In music as in business (and life), knowing how the tactical stuff works (rhythm, harmony, melody) is the base that gets you to strategic work (playing great songs). Otherwise, you’re just me skipping straight to trying (and failing) to play “Kashmir” without knowing that the drums are in 4/4 time and the guitar is 3/4 and they only meet up every 12th beat (see this video explanation). Take the time to learn the fundamentals. Skipping ahead leads to falling behind.

Lesson #5: Pure intrinsic motivation and the absence of external validation are liberating.

To keep going you need a ton of intrinsic motivation to make it through learning the very basics in the beginning. When you’ve done a few lessons and all you can do is tap out a simple version of “Yankee Doodle,” you’re nowhere close to wowing the mythical people gathered around the piano at the mythical holiday party you were dreaming of when you started. No one really cares that you’re learning piano as an adult. Kids learning piano are cute but an adult man just isn’t. In fact, a 47-year-old man asking you to listen to him play a rough version of “Yankee Doodle” can only be described in one word: annoying. You are going to suck for a while and the songs you learn to play will be so simple that they may seem boring.

Just keep going. When I made that commitment to try lessons for a year, it took me about three months of learning basic stuff to come anywhere close to what I would call “fun.” I have no idea how long it will take for other people to actually want to hear me play, if ever, and that’s ok because I enjoy it in the absence of that. In life, seeking external validation leads to all kinds of inner and outer dysfunction. Learning piano at my age has gotten me to focus on something in a pure way that is independent of external affirmation.

Lesson #6: You have time.

I’ve heard many people say: “I want to learn piano but I don’t have time!” If your experience is anything like mine, you could make consistent progress with piano by taking a one-hour lesson each week and practicing 30 minutes 5x/week**. This probably sounds like a major commitment but take a look at how much time you spend on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Think about all the time you spend watching TV shows. I’ve noticed that I spend significantly less time on social media and watching TV since I started learning piano. There’s something about practicing that gives me a sense of focus that makes those activities less appealing. Social media platforms thrive on conflict, envy, making you want things you don’t need, and constant “breaking news” that is often a re-hash of what you heard an hour ago. Focusing on piano is about focusing on the mastery of an exercise or a piece of music. It feels liberating to focus intently on one thing you’ve chosen (like a piece of music) instead of a barrage of algorithmic garbage intended to manipulate you in some way. I know this not because I’m too pure to participate in social media — I certainly do — but I’ve become increasingly mindful of how cluttered my mind feels when I’m reading Twitter versus practicing piano. The more I shift my attention from the addled social media mind to the practicing mind, the happier I am.

(**Of course, if you practice more you’ll move faster. Practice less than that and you’ll probably stay in place. You can skip a lesson now and then and be fine. Just keep going, don’t quit, and you’ll make progress.)

Lesson #7: Learning something with someone creates the ultimate sense of presence.  

I mentioned that my son has been learning, too. He has been playing for a year and I have been playing for six months. He is at least 10x better than me, and I’m not exaggerating at all. I had already embraced the vulnerability of learning so instead of feeling inferior, I ask him if he’ll help me practice by playing the accompanying teacher parts in my book while I play the student parts. On any given night, I’ll say, “hey, want to play some duets?” and a few minutes later we’re both on the piano bench — he on the bass end of the keyboard and me on the higher end.

This first happened in my early weeks of lessons way back in April when I was trying to play “Yankee Doodle” and asked him to accompany me. I recorded us that night. You can hear him count me in (“1-2-3-4”) and hear me mess up repeatedly while he gives me encouragement. It takes a few tries but eventually I get it right.

In that moment, there’s the joy of personal accomplishment but there’s the sense that we are fusing our individual practices together, that the sense of focus we have both been developing as we’ve learned music at our vastly different paces has given us a powerful new way to focus our attention intently on each other. It’s a joyous and magical thing. I’m not practicing so that I can play for the mythical people at the mythical holiday party in the uncertain future. I’m practicing to enjoy the right now with my son — and that’s the most important lesson of all.

Passive house: the future (and present!) of green building

Climate change seems like such a huge challenge that addressing it can feel overwhelming. How do you make a dent in such a huge, intractable problem? If you look at energy consumption and carbon emissions around the world, buildings are a great place to start. According to the International Energy Agency, the buildings and buildings construction sectors combined are responsible for 36% of global final energy consumption and nearly 40% of total direct and indirect carbon emissions. In a city like NYC, buildings account for 67% of carbon emissions (NYT story and source of data). If we can reduce the carbon footprint of buildings, we can make a big dent. Most of these emissions come from activities related to heating and cooling.

What if I told you that there is a simple way of designing and constructing buildings that would reduce energy consumption of buildings by ~80%? It sounds too good to be true. That’s what I thought until I first learned about passive house building. My curiosity in passive house construction was first piqued when I noticed that the House at Cornell Tech was a certified passive house. I read more about the concept and, long story short, I am now involved in a passive house project myself and have learned even more seeing the process up close. There are very few things in life that appear too good to be true but actually real and practical. Passive house building is one of those things. I’ve learned that there is no “catch.” During this year’s polar vortex when temps dipped to -24F in Chicago, a passive house there maintained a comfortable 71F interior temperature and used 90% less energy in doing that than conventional homes. It just plain works.

My friend Michael Ingui of Baxt Ingui Architects recently launched a one-stop-shop site for all things passive house called Passive House Accelerator (disclosure: I am an advisor). It is the place to go to find out anything you want to know about the concept, from the basics to details on specific implementation issues. To learn more, start with the “what is a passive house?” post or watch a 3-minute video that recently aired on CNN. On a simple level, it’s building a house that is much like a thermos that keeps your coffee hot or your beverage cold for many days, but with a built-in fresh air system so that occupants of a passive house breath clean, fresh, filtered air at all times. Passive houses are healthier for both people and the planet. A thermal image of a row of brownstones in the CNN video shows how passive houses don’t leak (and conventional houses leak like crazy). The passive house is the dark blue one that is fourth from the left:

thermal_image

Building costs are 2-4% more on a typical passive house than conventional building and decrease as a building scales because the mechanicals and heating/cooling systems go farther in such an environment. Of course, when you are reducing energy usage ~80%, the slight premium on building gets paid back pretty quickly with substantially reduced operating costs. With modest solar installations, many passive houses can achieve net zero energy usage, or close to it.

Passive houses aren’t just for people and organizations with lots of money and resources. The positive long-term economics mean that passive house building is increasingly being used for affordable housing projects. In May, an affordable housing development for seniors in Corona, Queens was unveiled that was built to passive house standards. The Rural Studio at Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction has an exciting 20K Initiative where they are experimenting with passive house design to provide affordable homes in rural Alabama, recognizing that the initial cost of a home is only the beginning of the equation when it comes to affordability. Operating the home is key, and lowering energy usage is the clearest path to ongoing affordability. Sustainability and affordability go hand-in-hand (read this in-depth Dwell piece for more info on this program).

I have never been more excited about anything as I am about passive house building. It’s rare that you see something that successfully combines human comfort and massive gains in energy efficiency. If you’re building a home or involved in a building project anywhere in the world, make sure you ask your architect and general contractor about passive house (and point them to Passive House Accelerator to learn more). This is not science fiction or a “wave of the future.” We don’t need new investments in research for this to work. It’s possible right now and happening all around us. Spread the word.

Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up

Jerry Colonna is a Trojan horse of the best kind. Back when I became CEO of Etsy in 2011, I was introduced to Jerry as the best CEO coach around. He had been Fred Wilson’s venture partner. He knew business. I thought of him as an advisor who was going to help me build my management team, raise money, crush it as a CEO. And that’s the Trojan horse aspect — who knew that inside this container of business excellence that some kind of spiritual transformation was in the offing? I certainly didn’t. But in the six years I worked with Jerry as a CEO, I learned how to live a better life, love more fully, and be the man I had been trying to be — so much more than being a chief executive.

Jerry’s book, Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, comes out today and I couldn’t be more thrilled for my friend. The book is also very personal to me. Chapter 2, “The Crucible and the Warrior,” leads off with the story of Jerry and me sitting on the rooftop at Etsy after I knew I had been fired** but hadn’t yet told the company. Lots of things got written about me and Etsy through that period — some true, some shaped to better fit the corporate narrative that was needed at the moment — but what Jerry writes in Chapter 2 of his book is the most real and true thing ever written about me. It’s because Jerry was there for me and he listened and he witnessed. He previewed the chapter with me and I didn’t ask him to change anything. Jerry is a truth-teller.

A story of a private moment between Jerry and me that isn’t in the book tells you a bit more about how Jerry thinks and what working with him meant to me. In one of our sessions, I was a little worked up because I had taken a personality test and the results had shown that my personality type was a strong fit for the occupations of “poet” or “priest.” I couldn’t reconcile this with being a CEO. Jerry smiled and said, “Why can’t you be a poet and a CEO?” Good question. I was reminded of my studies and how Wallace Stevens, one of our greatest American poets, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955 while serving as a vice president at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he spent this days evaluating surety insurance claims. Jerry has a way of reminding you of these things.

And that is really the point. The proportions are different for everyone, but we all have a little poet and priest in us because we are human. To live a full life, you have to embrace all parts of yourself. Selectively suppressing parts can have a high cost. (Jerry also told me I should read Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, which I did read and highly recommend).

Leaving Etsy started a very difficult time for me but also a new beginning, and the beginnings of that beginning are captured beautifully in Chapter 2 of the book. Today I’m working on a project that very few people know about that has absolutely nothing to do with tech. I text Jerry about it regularly and he sends back words of encouragement. I think it’s fair to say that this project calls equally on the poet, priest, and CEO within me. I’m not sure exactly where it will go, but it’s important to me regardless of the outcome.

The book is important because it captures Jerry as truth-teller so perfectly. When I read the book, I hear Jerry’s voice in my head and it sounds exactly like the hundreds of hours of conversations we had. It is a gift to the world and I believe will touch many lives in the way I’ve been touched. I’m glad to see it out in the world.

Thank you for helping keep the poet and priest alive in me, Jerry.

**the fact that I publicly said I had gotten fired versus some “decided to pursue other opportunities” corporate bullshit is largely due to the sense of truth I gained from working with Jerry. Life is full of pain — lean into it. If you got fired, speak the truth. It always catches up to you anyway.

 

Hyperlocal living and doing the HeyBK podcast

For six years, I ran Etsy, a global company that did business in nearly every country in the world. I spent a lot of times on planes, meeting with people in countries all over the world, and doing calls in all time zones at all times of the day. This sounds glamorous to some people but focusing on a global business that needed constant attention meant that I didn’t connect with folks in my immediate neighborhood as much as I would have liked. I was always on the way to somewhere else.

Since then, I’ve been happily spending most of my time within a small chunk of Brooklyn. Everything is there: home, the two non-profits where I serve on the board (St. Ann’s Warehouse and Jalopy), a little office space I rent to do work related to my coaching business and the class I’ve been teaching at Cornell Tech, and the music shop where both my son and I take piano lessons.

It’s in that hyperlocal spirit of living that I did the HeyBK podcast with my friend Ofer Cohen. I talk a little bit about my background, building Etsy, what makes NYC tech special, and finding real community in Brooklyn. Check out the episode here.

(The episode just before mine was with my friend Susan Feldman, the amazing Artistic Director at St. Ann’s Warehouse for nearly 40 years and one of the people I admire most in Brooklyn! Check that out, too.)

Tennessee Williams’ profound meditation on “success”

On November 30, 1947 playwright Tennessee Williams published an essay in the NY Times called “On A Streetcar Named Success” (available in full on Scribd or in the NYT archives for subscribers). Three years earlier, he had achieved great fame for his play The Glass Menagerie and when the essay was published he was four days away from the New York opening of A Streetcar Named Desire. In the essay, he reflects on the fleeting satisfactions of wealth, fame, and “success” and what it really means to be a human being. I think he nails it absolutely perfectly and this essay has become one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. This is an excerpt (but please do read the whole thing):  

It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial. The right condition for him is that in which his work is not only convenient but unavoidable.

This is an over-simplification. One does not escape that easily from the seductions of an effete way of life. You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will now continue my life as it was before this thing. Success happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to — why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.

You know, then, that the public Somebody you are when you “have a name” is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own volition — and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!

It is never altogether too late, unless you embrace the Bitch Goddess, as William James called her, with both arms and find in her smothering caresses exactly what the homesick little boy in you always wanted, absolute protection and utter effortlessness. Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that’s what you are or were intended to be. Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about — What good is it? Perhaps to get an honest answer you will have to give him a shot of truth-serum but the word he will finally groan is unprintable in genteel publications.

Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive — that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life — live!” That time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

 

 

 

Was LBJ a racist?

I recently bought tickets to see Robert Caro as part of BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series in Brooklyn (if you live in Brooklyn or are visiting, it’s an awesome series). In one of those “what five living people would you have to dinner?” exercises, Caro would be on my list. His bios of Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and LBJ (The Years of Lyndon Johnson – four volumes with a final volume on the way) are absolutely incredible and worth the years it might take you to read them. I’ve read both and they are on my all-time top 10 list. Read them if you can.IMG_1790

In the Q&A section of his talk, I asked Caro a question about LBJ’s “true” self as it relates to his
views on race since he may know more about LBJ than any person alive. You can get some sense of it by reading the books but to be able to ask Caro directly was an incredible honor (and an even greater honor to have him sign my copy of The Power Broker and thank me for the question!) He gave such a rich answer that I’m posting it here with no commentary, only a few hyperlinks.

——

Me: Lyndon Johnson was a complex man. On the one hand, some would call him a racist, yet no President had more of an impact on civil rights and voting rights. I’m curious, how do you think about that juxtaposition?

Robert Caro: What you said is one of the most interesting things. For the first 20 years he was in Congress and the Senate, he was 100 percent against civil rights. He voted against every single civil rights bill, even against bills that would have made lynching a crime. He voted against everything.

It wasn’t just his votes. He was a Southern strategist. He was actually the protégé of the Senator Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia, who was the leader of the Southern bloc for 20 years. It was Russell who raised him to power in the Senate. Because Russell believed — Lyndon Johnson made him believe — that he, Lyndon Johnson, hated black people as much as Richard Russell did. It’s then, he said, “This is the same man,” who in 1957 passes the first Civil Rights Act.

Well, the Southerners are still such in power in Congress. Then when he becomes president there for Kennedy’s assassination, there’s this wonderful scene. He has to make a speech to Congress three days after the assassination to a joint session of Congress. He comes down, and he’s still not in the Oval Office of the White House. He’s living in his home in Spring Valley in Washington. His speechwriters — four speechwriters — are downstairs writing his speech. Around midnight, Lyndon Johnson comes down in his bathrobe. and he says, “How are you doing?” They said, “The only thing we’re agreeing on is you must make a priority of civil rights. Try not to mention civil rights, because if you do that, the Southerners are going to do the same thing to you that they did to Kennedy.” “They’re going to stop everything if you try to pass civil rights.” They said, “It’s a noble cause, but it’s a lost cause. Don’t bring it up.” Johnson says, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for, then?” [I wrote about this on my blog a while back]

In his speech, he says, “The first priority is to pass John Kennedy’s civil rights bill.” [YouTube video – see segment starting at 15:20] To watch him do that, as I said before, I’m not sure we would have it today if he hadn’t been the president then. You say, “Did this man really believe this, or was it politically just expedient?” The reason I feel like no — that he always believed it — is when he was in college, he was very poor. Including his sophomore and junior years, he had to drop out of college and teach elementary school for a year to get enough money to go on. He teaches in this largely Mexican town near the border called Cotulla in Texas. The kids are, after listening and reading the oral histories more than the time he grew up — there are not too many alive. After reading what these children had said later, I wrote, “No teacher had ever cared if these kids learned or not. This teacher cared.”

I feel Lyndon Johnson always wanted to do this. He was writing this great speech, which we all know, the “we shall overcome” speech [YouTube video]. It’s not “them” who must overcome, it’s “we” who must overcome prejudice, and “we” shall overcome. That’s the speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who I asked something like, “How do you know he meant it?” Goodwin said that he wasn’t sure that Johnson did, until Johnson called him and said, “You know, I told you about teaching those kids in Cotulla.” He said, “Well, I’ll tell you something. I swore to myself then that if I ever got power to help them, I would help them. Now, I have the power, and I mean to use it.” I feel like Lyndon Johnson intended to do this all his life when he got power.

Can charisma be learned? (Yes.)

One of the recent lectures I put together for the BigCo Studio class at Cornell Tech was about pitching an idea and winning support for it inside the specific context of big companies. Anyone who wants to see Airbnb’s original pitch deck can find it easily on the Internet but the heroics of Sally — the Director of Division X inside of Acme Corporation — pitching and winning organizational support for a new initiative are lost to the annals of that company’s water-cooler history, never to be heard from outside the walls of the BigCo. In our class, we are trying to surface what we’ve learned about success in BigCos since those BigCo experiences are not shared in the same way as the legends of the startup world.

One of the hardest parts about teaching if you’ve been doing the actual work for a while is clearly articulating concepts and approaches that may have become intuitive for you from experience but are entirely new to those whom you are teaching. In this spirit, one of my early drafts of my lecture about pitching an idea and winning support for it had a slide with this simple phrase: Being charming helps. I believe this to be true but I was having a hard time articulating it in an actionable way, which is the essence of teaching. Without being actionable, that phrase is just a useless aphorism. I didn’t want to take it out, though, since I think it’s so important. This quandary forced me to think harder and dig deeper on the topic: can you learn to be charming? I found some research in an HBR piece, “Learning Charisma.”

In this piece, the authors identify a dozen “CLTs” (charismatic leadership tactics), nine of which are verbal and three of which are non-verbal. The verbal CLTs are:  1) metaphors, similes, and analogies, 2) stories and anecdotes, 3) contrasts, 4) rhetorical questions, 5) 3-part lists, 6) expressions of moral conviction, 7) reflections of the group’s sentiments, 8) setting of high goals, and 9) conveying confidence that high goals can be achieved. The  non-verbal ones are 1) animated voice, 2) facial expressions, and 3) gestures. You should read the article to see more context on the list.

What does using these CLTs do? In short, their research shows that training people to be charismatic via use of them delivers results. Here’s the data:

  • When a group of midlevel European executives doubled their use of CLTs in presentations, observers’ numerical ratings of their competence as leaders jump by about 60% on average.
  • About 65% of people who have been trained in the CLTs receive above-average ratings as leaders, in contrast with only 35% of those who have not been trained

This was a little surprising to me and I’ll admit that I had a visceral negative reaction to the list as I thought about leaders being trained to do things like display “expressions of moral conviction.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the list is pretty useful and rings true. The researchers don’t say that one should be delivering fake “expressions of moral conviction.” Viewed in a positive light, the list of CLTs is simply a structured way to encourage leaders to connect with and articulate their true sense of purpose, tell stories that people can understand, relate to how people are feeling, articulate high goals, and inspire teams to meet those goals.

So, if you thought charisma couldn’t be taught (as I did), think again. Sometimes when you have the opportunity to teach, you end up learning something yourself.


p.s. John Kotter at HBS has done a lot of interesting work on gaining buy-in for ideas inside BigCos, so I talked a lot about his work in my lecture, including his awesome book Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down which he talks about in this interview. Key quote:

Whether it’s a little deal with half a dozen players or a big decision at a company with hundreds or thousands of people, you’re in the murky land of human nature and group dynamics. And look at the curriculum in business schools — compare the amount of time that’s spent coming up with the idea that solves the problem with the amount of time spent thinking about how we can take this idea and communicate it, get enough people to understand it, support it, and then go on and make it happen. . . I think the ratio in most MBA programs is easily 80/20.

He’s right based on my experience inside companies. Our class is multidisciplinary and includes MBAs. In my lecture, I followed Kotter’s lead and flipped the ratio to 80/20 in favor of talking about human nature and human dynamics. Kotter’s book includes a list of four specific strategies people use to shoot ideas down in complex organizations along with twenty-four specific and commonly-used questions / comments / arguments used in those situations. It’s an excellent list and worthy of carrying on a laminated card in one’s wallet or purse. Two examples from the twenty-four are “Tried that before — didn’t work” and “You have a chicken and egg problem” but my absolute favorite (and one I’ve heard many times) is “What about THIS?” — “THIS” being a worrisome thing that the proposers know nothing about and the attackers keep secret until just the right moment].”