The Outdoor Pool

On sunny summer days, the water calls
Transparent between blue walls, reflecting the sky
We gather in the change room, often silent
Stripping down with no pretence
There are ladders in the pool
No hierarchy though
Just grace and speed and will
The coolness of the water
Distant splashes around you
Brief bursts of music through your cap
Rhythmic breathing bringing calm and peace
Perpetual movement going nowhere but far
Repetition becoming contemplation
It’s a quiet place
Where you’re together but apart
And it’s ok


A key to productivity without anxiety: get one thing done

I am generally very productive. I get things done, I forge forward, and I pursue goals until they are achieved. I recently found a link between my “productivity” and a constant, low-level hum of worry, disquiet or even some anxiety.

Taking a mindful approach to life has made me discover that my approach to productivity has these negative side effects. It is often productivity driven by worry and anxiety. So I have been thinking about how to reverse this, and trying some experiments.

Try to make peace with the goals and tasks in front of me, plan reasonably and then enjoy the process appears to work. I am finding that this allows productivity driven by desire and enjoyment, rather than by panic or guilt!

So, what are some observations from my mindful productivity experience thus far:

  • Be more aware of the impact of my pattern of goal setting and tasks on my life and the life of those around me.
  • Set timelines that don’t include “working on a total project”, but rather a realistic timeline for achieving small parts of a big task.
  • Try to get a few small things done every day, working toward your larger goals.

This way you are aware of the small tasks can micro-plan your day better. You are also aware of the impact on others (deadlines’ impact on other’s work or lives, your availability or lack thereof impact on others, etc.), so you feel better about what you’re doing – less guilt, more getting things done.

It sounds simple, but I am finding a mindful approach to life is really a series of simple changes that lead to more overall well-being.

Sunlight in the morning

I am normally an early riser, but focusing on trying to calm to myself and sleep more has led to a couple of later days. Today I woke up at 6:30, much later than normal for me.

I did have a chance to make myself a sprouted grain toast (Ezekiel 4:9 Raisin), one with organic coconut oil (nutiva) and the other with organic peanut butter (President’s Choice). I also made myself an americano, which I drink black.

Then I did my favourite thing in the warm (and warmish) early mornings. I took the steaming coffee and toasts onto the deck and read a little (from a book today, but sometimes my kindle). It is such a lovely feeling to see the light change from the rich oranges, pinks and golds of early sunrise to the pastels of early morning.

Feeling the morning light on my skin just makes me feel alive.

Ok. Now time to get to work. Have a great day. 🙂

Computers I have used and video games I have played

I have been a computer enthusiast since I was a young boy. My first computer was a Texas Instruments Ti99/4A on which I first learned the joys of video games and computer programming.

After that we had a Macintosh SE, with a whopping 10MB hard drive. It felt like a supercomputer! My first laptop was a Macintosh Powerbook 145, with a trackball. After that I switched to a Dell Latitude wintel laptop and then came back to Macintosh with a Macbook 13″ (black), a Mac Book Air and a desktop iMac with windows double boot. My current computers are a MacBook Pro 15″, a retina iMac and an older iPad (first retina edition from 2012). I have never had an iPhone, staying loyal to BlackBerries.

The video games side of computing never really stuck, except for strategy/puzzle games like Myst, Riven, King’s Quest, Fool’s Errand, Starcraft or my favourite… the Civilization franchise (I have actually purchased Civilization: Beyond Earth from the Apple App Store but have not yet had a chance to play).

What computers have always been for me is a window to the world of information and communication technology. The internet is an infrastructure that was build on the technology that little kids like me played and learned with 30 years ago. Having an understanding of computers opens new vistas of understanding and experience for you, particularly as a professional communicator.

Knowledge of computers and the cyber culture they have enabled is key to facilitating relationships for clients. As a communicator, you should try and become as tech savvy as you can!


“Smart houses” as an opportunity for PR

The Internet of Things (IoT) is there: machines are starting to speak intelligently to other machines and automate small parts of our lives. Soon a greater portion of our lives will affected by the machines we use everyday, as they track our actions and adapt their functions to our habits and preferences.

We are only beginning to see the massive transformative effect that digital tech will have on our society, economy and selves. We’ve seen email make distance and time irrelevant for the transfer of large documents that used to have to be couriered. Then social media made connecting and keeping up with a disparate collection of acquaintances possible. The next wave will be the advent of machines speaking to machines and automating different parts of our lives.

Marshall McLuhan said that, from a communications perspective, technology extends the body and retrieves something from the past. The IoT extends our ability to be in sync with nature, I think and it retrieves the concept of the staffed household. In the past, only aristocrats or the very wealthy could afford to have staff who would help run a house, intelligently adapting to the owners’ lifestyles and habits. The IoT will network our appliances and link them together intelligently, creating a “smart house steward” concept, I think.

The opportunity for communicators here in U/X, I think. The house will need to have an avatar or at least a voice and personality. The “house entity” will have to be capable of building a relationship with the owner – very rudimentary at first, of course, but increasingly layered and textured as times goes on. It will start with a crude Siri-like interface and grow to the moment where “House” is an actor in your life – a family member, a partner, etc.

This new “House” personality will be an agent in the lives of the house’s occupants, and it will steward the flow of information to occupants as well as regulating temperature, etc. Much as Google can guess your proclivities and make suggestions to you, “House” will do the same. It really will be a butler and a friend.

It is up to professional communicators to understand how to build relationships with occupants through the “House” and use it as a tool rather than perceive it as a barrier.

We should teach the principles of commerce to young kids

One of the greatest brakes on people’s success is their lack of social capital. I have seen this in action at the university where I teach. The students who come in knowing how to start businesses, seek internships and network have a huge advantage over those who haven’t been given those skills or exposed to those ideas earlier.

It’s a question of familiarity. Even if the university were to start teaching students about entrepreneurship and financial management, it is too late for most. By university, those young people are way ahead, who were, as children consistently exposed to those foundational principles of business and money as part of the fascinating puzzles of everyday life. For the students who have know them since childhood, those principles will have critically shaped and coloured the way they view the world. Rather than seeing commerce as forbidding, they see it as an opportunity.

We live in a commercial world. The market and business make most of the things that we do, the services we use and the jobs we get happen in Canada. Whether it is directly, through commerce, or indirectly through the tax revenues generated through commerce.

To understand commerce and business and entrepreneurship at an early age allows kids to have a critical look at the business and services they encounter at an early age. When they go to a restaurant, rather than just buying a sandwich, sitting down an eating it, they could look at the product, the location, the furnishings in the store, the quality of the materials and the service and start deducing what the restaurant’s business model might be.

This is an entirely different way of viewing the world. All of a sudden, even the mundane experience of buying a hot dog from a street stand becomes a puzzle: is this a good location? How many hotdogs does this stand move? How could performance be improved?

I was extremely fortunate to have been born into a family where business, entrepreneurship and finances were discussed openly and cheerfully, even if the news was sometimes bad. We discussed how to turn a chance to spend money at a store into a way that one could make money, if one could buy the product more cheaply elsewhere and resell it for a profit. We talked about how restaurant eating was vastly more expensive and often lower quality than a much cheaper home-cooked meal.

Not only is this knowledge practical, it turns what would otherwise seem like a world of closed doors into a world of challenges, puzzles and opportunities.

The problem is that many families do not have the knowledge and experience of business, entrepreneurship and finance to pass on to their kids. If we really want to make a serious dent in Canada’s alleged productivity gap, I think the real answer is simple: make commercial awareness a part of the curriculum from junior kindergarten until the end of university. This should not replace reading the classics, learning mathematics and music, or science or practicing drama and public speaking. Rather, business should be a literacy taught alongside these other literacies. Even if they chose not to become business people, they will understand the workings of the world in which they live and work.

In our capitalist society, teaching little kids about business, entrepreneurship and financial literacy is the greatest and most empowering gift of social capital we could give to the next generation, bar none.


Breaking out of the internet echo chamber

We live in a culture that favours the similar. As the internet permeates all the corners of the many rooms of the palaces of our lives, a perverse thing appears to be happening: our worlds are becoming smaller and more homogenous. Facebook sends catered advertising and posts to our feeds, reinforcing what we already like. We post discussions on social media and use them to triage our friends: people who present us with uncomfortable opinions are quickly defriended, as we shake our heads and wonder what we were ever thinking when we connected with that person.

In short, the internet is turning our online communications into an echo chamber, where the views that we understand and are comfortable with morally, ideologically, culturally and socially. The odd thing is that we can be cultural tourists on the net, visiting sites that express alternative views and reading or viewing content that challenges us. However, the culture of surveillance that has been revealed through Snowden’s communications and others, have made us doubt even this anonymous grazing: Are am I being watched as I read the alternative press? Who watched me watch a radical documentary on YouTube?

All of this is very unfortunate. The initial promise of the internet was that it would open the world to us. However, we are letting social pressure and the threat of being outed as not quite fitting into “our profile” or “character” to drive our behaviours. In the past, we struggled to be free thinkers because that was the highest status behaviour in a robustly individualistic West: we didn’t talk politics, religion or sexuality because those things were personal. Now, we have shifted from a culture of individualism-within-community to a culture of identity and belonging. The problem with identity is that it means you are always defining yourself against a stereotypical ideal, not by your wits, reason and personal ingenuity.

We are so far along this path of “belonging to an identity” that we find it strange when someone doesn’t fit any particular identity or choses not to. It feels heretical to hear a person say that they don’t define themselves according to the stereotypes that we are used to.

I think the challenge that this poses to us is simple: put ideology and identity behind us to return to a culture of reason and self-examination. Reason doesn’t preclude belonging to a religion, cultural group, gender or political party. Rather, reason forces us to justify our choices for belonging to these groups or supporting them – rather than blindly identifying with and swearing allegiance to them.

Life is concrete – it made up of the daily decisions we make: Will I be kind to each person I meet today? Will I be helpful to others and unselfish with my time? Will I empathize and attempt to help others grow so that we might both grow together? Will I analyze each appeal for my allegiance individually to see if I really buy the premise?

The internet has, sadly, turned into an echo chamber that reflects our expressed ideas back to us and then bombards us with reinforcement of them through catered advertising and a personalized feed.

Try breaking out of the echo chamber by applying reason to each of your digital choices. You may just find it liberating.

Charles Eames, “good design”, and communications strategy

I have been paying a lot of attention to the work of Ray and Charles Eames, the famous designers who built so many beautiful pieces of furniture, accessories and toys, mostly for Herman Miller. They had a remarkable career of innovation, designing such classics as the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the Hang-it-All, the Eames Chair, etc. Not only that, they designed extraordinary toys such as the House of Cards. “Take your pleasure seriously,” said Charles Eames.

Eames also had a healthy attitude toward design. He told the chairman of Herman Miller, Hugh Dupree, talking about “good design”. Charles Eames said, “Don’t give us that good design crap. You never hear us talk about that. The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How it is going to look in ten years?” Here is a snippet of video related to this:

He makes an excellent point here that is relevant to communications management. As communications managers, we talk a lot about good strategy and design, but the problem is that those terms, while they are well defined in terms of management theory by people like Peter Drucker and Roger Martin, are pre-conceptual in communications management. 

What do I mean?

It’s simple, really – to be able to say that something is good, it means that you are judging it against a model or against a set of well-defined parameters. Eames rejects the idea of a holistic “good” evaluation of design, preferring to ask pragmatic questions about specific qualities of the design. He says this because his target audience is people… the range of interpretations of good design in the subjective realms of the minds of his audience is as varied as there are members of the audience, for sac person’s mind is the product of their individual genetics and personal experiences. So rather than aim at “good design”, he aims to solve specific problems for people, create a serviceable product that will stand the test of time. Very human solutions.

Communications managers face the same challenges that Eames faces when designing furniture or works of art for the home and office: we are dealing with the fundamentally subjective perceptions of a massively varied set of publics, regardless of what client we represent or which organization we communicate for. Thus, strategy for communicators must incorporate design, for design makes ideas, things, living spaces and communities pleasing to people, but I suggest that when we design a communications strategy we ask ourselves the same three questions:

  • Are we solving a well-defined problem in a measurable way (qualitative or quantitative)?
  • Will people find our communications serviceable (useful, enriching, engaging, pleasing, convincing, etc.)?
  • Will our strategy help to build the brand in a way that will still resonate in the future (is the strategy sustainable or cumulative, rather than contextually-limited fix)?

Managing your manager

I have been reading Drucker quite a bit as part of a research project the last few days. In Managing Oneself [pdf]I found the following gem:

“Bosses are neither a title on the organization chart nor a “function.” They are individuals and are entitled to do their work in the way they do it best. It is incumbent on the people who work with them to observe them, to find out how they work, and to adapt themselves to what makes their bosses most effective. This, in fact, is the secret of “managing” the boss.”

There is a lot of truth in this quote. It is easy to cop out and say that it is impossible to work for or with a new boss. For example, if you previous boss was very polite and constructive in their comments to you and your new boss is more abrupt, it is easy to simply write the person off as demeaning or aggressive. This may not be so – it may simply  be that the new boss is more direct and aggressive, which could actually have significant benefits, if you take the time to discover them and think about them. The same advice goes for troubling colleagues – everyone has a something to add to the conversation, a talent, a skill, a unique point-of-view.

Through your career, particularly as a PR or communications manager, you will have to deal with a great diversity of people. Get used to probing them to understand what the key to making them more effective is. That way you will be a net contributor and not perceived as a bad fit with the new team.

Please Note: This assumes that the new manager or the troubling colleagues are dealing with you in goodwill and in good faith. You have to ascertain whether this is the case as early on as possible. If they are operating in bad faith or lack goodwill, then you are playing in a whole new ballgame – it might be time to put your head down and stay out of the way, or to start looking for a new position in a more positive environment.

Fred Granek, 64, RIP.

There are moments when you hear news that affects you deeply, when hearing the news actually has a profound impact on your life. I recently was sad to hear of the death of Fred Granek, one of the most decent, honest and honourable men I have known.

I came to know Fred when he joined the York Fencing Club as a member and coach in 1998. He was a constant presence at the Club, investing enormous efforts into training and mentoring the students. He was a great example to them – promoting the powerful  values of honesty, decency, respect for others and hard work, the values that make us civilized and allow society to progress.

He believed deeply in equality, fairness and opportunity – ideals which he promoted in all of his conversations and embodied in all of his actions. Fred talked the talk, but he lived up to his ideals in all of his actions. He led a considered life, aware that his choices had meaning and that his actions had an impact on others. He tried hard to make that impact positive and indeed, it always way. Everyone who came into contact with Fred came away a better, more thoughtful and considerate person. He never badgered or attacked, he just made his point in a rational and human way that was impossible to ignore – sometimes exasperatingly so. After quietly making his point, Fred would leave to you think about his lesson – you may have fumed, but you knew that he was  right, that what he said was bred of a ferocious commitment to ancient and time-honoured human values.

When I finished my time as president of  the York Fencing Club in 2003, Fred took over as Head Coach. His knees hurt so much that he could hardly lunge some nights, but he showed up every night to the club to give lessons, tell jokes and share war stories from a life spent fencing, teaching, promoting environmental businesses and being a good father and husband.

Fred regaled us with his stories. He told us of how he was a part of the initial York Fencing Club and the motley crew of personalities that formed the membership. He told us of the time that he helped build the Cock and Bull coffee shop at York University and how he placed a sword there, above the bar, which remained in place until the shop closed in 2007 (it has since re-opened as a pub). He told us of how he was coached and trained by sorely missed Fencing Master Ken Wood, who ran both the University of Toronto and York University fencing clubs. He told us of his regret that he missed the opportunity fence for Canada at the Maccabi Games in the 1970s because of other commitments. He told us of his love for nature and the many trips he took to see beautiful, rare and unspoiled parts of the world.

Nature was a inspiration and a consolation for Fred – a life-long environmental activist, he was convinced that going green was good for business and spent his professional life demonstrating how companies can better profit and succeed by improving their environmental footprint. He didn’t believe that the environment and business were mutually incompatible, rather he saw protecting the planet as a business opportunity.

Fred loved young people and believed in them. He came to McMaster to deliver a guest lecture on environmental activism to my students. He spoke to them about how noble it is to lead a considered, responsible life in which you considered your impact on the Earth and other people. They were enthralled. He showed them case study after case study demonstrating that you can change the world by changing your actions, attitudes and approach, in your personal life and in business. The students had many questions and didn’t want the session to end. He stayed for another hour after, chatting with them, giving them career tips and telling them stories and teaching lessons.

Fred was a also a great family man and friend. He was so proud of his beloved wife, Debbie and her accomplishments as an author. He couldn’t contain his pride at his children’s accomplishments and beamed when he announced his son’s upcoming marriage to us. Fred couldn’t contain his love and enthusiasm for the people close to him. This extended to the Fencing Club members as well. He believe in us. He supported us and he kept in touch, celebrating our successes and commiserating optimistically when we stumbled.

Stanley Yee founded the Dragon Fencing Academy in 2006 and gave Fred and I  the honour of fencing the new club’s first match. Fred was so incredibly proud to be involved in yet another milestone of fencing history in Canada.

When I got the job as a tenure-track assistant professor of communications at McMaster in 2001, Fred was overflowing with pride and happiness. He couldn’t stop congratulating me on the appointment, accompanied always by the admonishment that being a professor was a great responsibility and that I should always be a force for good, a champion of just causes and proponent of humanitarian values and of reason.

Fred kept it up, sending me emails about media commentaries I was doing on politics or social media. Fred was a great believer in the power of public relations and communications management, particularly for the environment, but was persistent in repeating his deeply-held belief that ethics should be a consideration in each and every campaign, action or plan. He was a great role model, that way.

I mourn the passing of Fred Granek.  He was a champion of the ancient time honoured values that make us more human. Fred respected people and showed everyone he met how to respect others.

He wouldn’t have wanted anyone to refer to him this way, but I will say it: Fred Granek was a great man, a teacher to those who knew him and an example to us all. He will be remembered in our noble actions, in our fairness and when we lovingly create opportunity for others.

May he rest in peace.

Me, Fred, Stanley Yee and Valerie Ossipova at the grand opening of the Dragon Fencing Academy.
Me, Fred, Stanley Yee and Valerie Ossipova at the grand opening of the Dragon Fencing Academy (2006).
Fred (left) and me, Fencing the honorary first bout at the grand opening of the Dragon Fencing Academy.
Fred (left) and me, Fencing the honorary first bout at the grand opening of the Dragon Fencing Academy (2006).