Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A sense of loss

I had a very strange and unsettling experience today, and I'm not quite sure how to think about it.

Early in my career, when I was just a co-op student, I developed a friendship with one of the engineers at the company where I worked. He was about fifteen years older than I was, married with kids. He was really my first mentor. I still vividly remember running with him along the Erie canal, shooting handguns out at his farm and having dinner at his house with his family. He was a great help to me at work, and he had a great sense of humor. We had a lot of fun together.

Time passed and I moved on to a new job at a new company in a new town, and I lost track of my friend. That was back in a time before social media, when you needed to call people or write letters if you wanted to stay in touch. I've gotten better at maintaining connections, but back then, he was kind of out of sight out of mind. I lost track of him.

Years passed, and once in a while I would think about this particular friend -- wondering how he was getting along, what was happening with his career. I knew there had been problems at the location where he worked, and I vaguely worried about him. I knew his children would soon be in high school, then in college. I wondered how they were doing.

More years passed, and Facebook, Linkedin and other social media sources became available. I would periodically check his name, but he was never listed. Well, I figured, he would be getting into his late fifties by now, so maybe he doesn't go in for these website listings. But that didn't really sound like him. He was an engineer who loved the latest and the greatest when I knew him.

Later I tried the web white pages. I'd reconnected with many, many friends from years ago, but this lost connection really bothered me. I found a listing for his wife. Maybe one for his son? So what had happened? Had he divorced? Moved out of state? I didn't know, and didn't have an easy way to find out.

Today I tried a new site that helps people reconnect, and found out my friend died in 1998. I don't know why or how. I don't have any connection to his family. He's been dead now for twelve years, yet I feel a strange sense of loss. I guess in the back of my mind, I always thought we would get together again in our old age and share war stories of our years at work.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The new website is here -- I'm somebody

One of my favorite comedies of all time, The Jerk, has the following lines:

"The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!" says an excited Steve Martin (who's working at a gas station for tips), as he runs to the truck dropping off the new phone books.
Jackie Mason growls something that I don't recall as Martin frantically thumbs through the listings to find his own.
"Now, I'm somebody!" he exclaims.

That's how I feel about my new website, which I spent all weekend playing with. I've left a link to it on the right side of my blog, or you can click on it here:

Let me know what you think.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is there anything good about 'em?

I've spent lots of space detailing the frustrations I've had with upper levels of management in the large corporations where I've worked. One might be tempted to think I don't find any value in them at all -- but that would be wrong. Let me list a few of the pluses of the large corporation.

They provide more career progression opportunities than smaller companies.

They are under more scrutiny, and hence, generally have to be more fair than most other entities (not counting government). Their actions will always be potentially subject to the public eye.

They tend to attract talented people. In many smaller companies I've observed, there are only a trusted few who are really the thinkers and leaders. Larger companies have more smart people sprinkled through the ranks.

Let's face it, they're more efficient. At least up to the point where the synergies of combining operations outweigh the anergies (a term one of my former bosses used to use). Anergies could include -- unnecessary corporate overhead, inefficient communication, being the target of lawsuits simply because of size, etc.

They probably have more staying power, on average, than smaller private firms, although that point might be debatable.

In general, I'm not so much down on the concept of the large public corporation, just the odd way the interaction between shareholders, board, CEO and senior team has evolved. The lack of trust, respect and loyalty. The rampant scapegoating. The quickness with which we fire, rather than work with people. The measurement of expended hours and personal sacrifice, instead of commitment and contribution. The intolerance toward making errors, confessing errors or learning from errors.

Of course, examining the negatives tends to be more entertaining and more controversial, so I probably won't stop doing it, but just this once I felt the tug of my conscience telling me I needed to be more evenhanded.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How Rush led to Rand...

I attended a concert last night by the Canadian rockers Rush. I think this was the third live viewing for me, although the last was undoubtedly a good twenty-some years ago.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the influence this band had on the direction of my life. Sometimes funny or odd things can have a major impact, and Rush is no exception.

I think I was in eighth grade when I first noticed the band. It was during a time where I was having some difficulties in school with, well -- bullies (that's a simplification, but it's too long to go into here). Rush had just released an album called "2112", which contained some angry music, as well as some intellectual stuff. I would listen to it at home at top volume when I was by myself.

The "A" side of the album was a kind of rock-opera that I loved. As I poured over the lyrics and album art, and noticed an acknowledgement -- "to the genius of Ayn Rand". When I finally figured out she was an author, I picked up a copy of a short novella called "Anthem" and read it. After that, I was hooked.

Interesting connection.

Now the band members are in their late 50's, and its a bit harder to pull off the youthful angst thing that they had going in the 1970's. Still, it was a fun trip down memory lane for me, and to their credit, the band members appear to be doing what they love, and appear to not be the pampered ogres many famous people become (although who can be sure??).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why Ethiopia?

My daughter Emily put together a video montage that expresses why we have such a strong affinity for Africa and the problems there. She is in the process of trying to get her sorority at Iowa State University to sponsor a child.

While adoption might not be the right answer for many families, there are five million children in Ethiopia alone who are orphans in need of help. Please watch the video, which is on Paula's web site, and decide if you can help the struggling children of Africa in some way.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Was that the Positive Reinforcement I was Looking for?

Received my first offer of representation from a literary agent today for LEVERAGE. Got to admit, it felt pretty good.

Having read a few things in blogland about agent agreements, there will be some added work in this -- it sounds like most agents will request some revisions to the manuscript. I hope they aren't extensive, however, as I could end up with three projects all progressing simultaneously if they are! I'm bracing myself.

On a separate note, I posted part of the first draft of INCENTIVIZE on my blog this week. I'll get the rest of it out there over the next few days. It takes extra time, as I can't just copy and paste from Word -- needs some formatting. Rules for INCENTIVIZE are the same as for LEVERAGE -- if you want to read it, send me an email requesting access, and I'll give you permission, but be warned: INCENTIVIZE is in first draft only, and there are a number of plot errors that will need to be corrected in the next draft (not to mention loads of spelling, grammatical and other errors).

Now I'm just beginning to design a new novel -- DELIVERABLES (tentative title). More on that later, as it takes shape.

I'm just short of six months into my Sabbatical, and the writing direction is taking off. It will take off even more if I can get LEVERAGE published.

But I'm also going to have an opportunity to try my hand at management consulting. I've got a trip planned for early September. Hopefully I will get a taste of the consulting world as well, and be able to measure the pluses and minuses of each.

Friday, August 20, 2010

That Rand Craze

I'm sure I'm not the only person who's life was substantially impacted by something they read in their youth. For me, two novels by Ayn Rand -- The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged -- did just that.

Prior to reading them, I was sort of floating along in school, not really putting out a lot of effort. Afterwards, I was certain that I wanted to some day be Hank Reardon or Francisco d'Anconia (hope I remembered those names right!). I had a goal and a purpose, and I cleared the decks in preparation to direct most of my energies toward achieving that goal.

Although I was more comfortable with Literature and writing, I set that aside and focused on science and math (truthfully, I always did like science, too). I used the drive created by the goal to shape my efforts and achievements.

Along the way, though, something happened. The drive petered out. Maybe it was a realization that the author of my fantasy, Ayn Rand, wasn't the kind of person she wrote about. Maybe it was the realization that the characters I fell in love with were, at best -- abstractions, or at worst -- fantasies. Maybe it was realizing that the business world did not really work the way it did in her novels. For sure it was realizing that leaders (at least of public corporations) lacked the freedom to act in the way the characters did in her stories.

The funny thing is -- I accomplished a lot along the way, much of it good. I felt I was true to my standards and ideals. But the victories (if you want to call them that) feel hollow.

I wonder how unique my experience is. Certainly others have been strongly motivated by something they read at some stage. Even a few perhaps by Ayn Rand.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Leverage - a novel

I finally figured out how to post my entire first novel, chapter by chapter, on Blogger! I'm quite excited about this feature, as it should allow me to easily share a copy of my work with friends or other interested readers.

Leverage is set up as a new blog. The URL is http://leverage-anovel.blogspot.com/, or you can get there by clicking on Leverage here.

Since I don't want to open the novel up to the entire world yet (Hey, I'm trying to sell the darned thing to a publisher), I've made access pretty restrictive. You will need to get on my "approved reader" list in order to view the blog. To do that, send me an email at tspears62@gmail.com saying that you'd like to see Leverage. I will put you on the approved list, and send back an email to you. From then on you should have free, and unencumbered access.

All I ask is -- if you have any comments or observations (or see any errors), please comment on those after the appropriate chapter. And please don't copy or otherwise remove any of the material without asking.

Happy reading.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Crossing a Finish Line, of sorts

Finished the first draft of my new novel today, and am currently celebrating with a tropical cocktail.

The cocktail, which I learned how to make in a cocktail mixology class on our recent vacation, is called a sunken treasure. It's coconut rum, midori melon liquor, cointreau, orange juice, pineapple juice, a splash of sprite and some blue curaco to make it look nice. Mix with ice in a shaker. Shake and strain, then add the sprite and blue curaco. I highly recommend it!

The name of the novel is Incentivize. Yes it is that "word", which isn't really a word, but is used daily in companies all over the nation. In this case "Incentivize" refers to Incentivize LLC, a company set up by four managers in Matrix Corporation to allow the diversion of profits.

In the story a young geologist attached to the corporate audit department discovers something is amiss at a remote mining site in east Africa. When she pushes too hard, the managers involved in Incentivize decide to make her go away. The novel is about her struggle to escape back to civilization and bring down the corrupt managers involved in Incentivize LLC.

In the novel are: a terrorist bombing, a Navy SEALs raid, a Somali warlord, modern-day nomads, and government officials who collude with the bad guys. All of this is primarily set in Ethiopia and Somalia.

The novel is a bit rough right now (Hey, its a first draft), but I'm pretty excited about it. If I can find a way to do it, I'll post a chapter or two and provide a link.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Does Work Control Your Life?

Being on vacation was a little different this summer. In the past, on the last day of the trip, maybe the last two, I would be getting crabby thinking about all the stuff that would hit me when I got back to the office. Usually some stinking presentation that I didn't want to prepare for, and didn't want to give. This year -- I was only worried about how tall the grass would be, and if the mower would be able to get through it without stalling.

Making this observation caused me to notice some other things that were different. I didn't try to sneak a peek at my email ten times a day. I didn't need to get up early to take care of some problem, or work on a deal. There were no conference calls I needed to participate in.

All this caused me to think further about how intrusive my career was on my life in general. It wasn't just on vacation, in fact, it was ever present. Working late or going in early only to be exhausted later. Evenings spent at dinners and other events that I really had no interest in, but had to attend. And on top of all, there were the ever present demands that work made on my mind -- I think it was always taking 50-70% of my bandwidth, even when I wasn't there.

Don't get me wrong -- much of the fault for this was mine. I allowed myself to be ruled by work. It was giving me status, income, and a sense of importance and accomplishment, but in exchange it was demanding a lot, too. Many of the demands were, however, subtle.

It's one thing to devote time to something you're passionate about, and quite another to devote it as an obligation. Somewhere along the line, passion was mostly replaced by obligation. Obligation inspired resentment, and resentment got me to where I am now.

Can work be a passion that doesn't grow into obligation? Can it be prevented from controlling your life? Probably not in a typical large public corporation, especially if your commitment is being overtly measured by your willingness to sacrifice your life to the company. Yes, they provide a lot, but they may ask for everything but your soul.