#21 – Simplify

This is #21 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” You might like #10, also.


Here’s a sentence I read recently: “As brands grow they can sustain a certain growth rate; forcing higher growth unnaturally simply consumes capital unnecessarily.”

It’s a terrible sentence. It’s terrible because it’s complicated and excessive. It’s terrible because it is loaded with adverbs, and the overuse of adverbs is a crutch for bad writing.

I know that I’m on thin ice critiquing someone else’s writing since I make all kinds of mistakes in my own and that I edit only just enough.

I take the risk to make the point that it’s not just about the writing. It’s about the ways we construct facades of competence and self-importance rather than promote connection and learning through simplicity.

Here’s that sentence again, minus the adverbs: “As brands grow they can sustain a certain growth rate; forcing higher growth consumes excessive capital. 

What do you think? Has your opinion of the writer diminished? Are you disappointed by their lack of expertise? Or do you understand the sentence now without having to read it three times?

A good question to increase the impact of our writing and speaking: have I constructed this to prove something or to be of service?

Complexity without cause blocks understanding. Let’s get out of our own way and trust what Dr. Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”


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My Daily Bread, Part 2

“Your output depends on your input.”
{Austin Kleon}


While consuming my “daily bread” yesterday, those daily emails from writer’s whose perspectives I admire, I realized that I had not been as comprehensive as I had intended to be. I rectify that today by adding to the mix a couple of “weekly bread” resources who inspire me as well as some authors and poets whom I could not recommend more highly.

But first, a bit of context:

As I shared on New Year’s Day, I have been experiencing, struggling with and enjoying the fruits of a profound shift in my thinking and feeling about my work and my own very human experience. All of the resources I am sharing with you have been essential to the process of simplifying my understanding of who I am, what I care most about and what I am here to do, while also keeping me engaged in the very real work of living a life in the here and now.  

On a weekly basis there are two deeply meaningful and very different resources that come my way. On Friday’s, the author and creative force Austin Kleon publishes a list of “10 things I thought were worth sharing this week.” There is always something of value, something which opens up my own creativity and pushes my thinking in a new direction.

On Sunday mornings I receive Brain Pickings which the author, Maria Popova calls, “an inventory of the meaningful life.” These are deeply researched pieces, drawn from across the spectrum of human disciplines, on living with more intellectual, spiritual and creative intention and vitality.

I am biased in favor of the physical experience of reading a book. This past couple of years I have been encouraged and enlightened by the work of Terry Tempest Williams, Richard PowersCara Wall, and Frederick Buechner.

I have also been reading a lot more poetry, specifically the work of Seamus Heaney and Kay Ryan, not to mention my ongoing appreciation for the work of David Whyte whose writing first opened my eyes to the expansive frontier of my vocation.

These “inputs” have had everything to do with my “outputs,” whatever shape they have taken. I trust they will be of value to you. Happy reading.


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My Daily Bread

“Your output depends on your input.”
{Austin Kleon}


My morning ritual consists of coffee, reading and exercise, in that order. I have found that each is an ideal partner and precursor to the one that follows. Coffee keeps me alert to my reading, reading exercises my mind, opening it to new ideas and questions, and exercise awakens my body, providing time and space to process those questions and form new insights.

Each day I create space to do two kinds of reading. The first is to focus on the short form writing that arrives in my inbox each day. These pieces come from writers who, like me, publish daily content. I value their consistency and the rhythm that emerges from their commitment to a daily offering. Here are the ones I have come to depend on:

Author and teacher, Molly Davis, is a keen observer of herself in relationship to the world around her. She deftly uses her personal experience to reveal what is fragile and fundamental to our shared human existence.

Bishop Robert Barron provides insight on the gospel reading of the day. These reflections deepen both my understanding and my faith. They keep me grounded in the “here and now” truth that the gospels are a call to action.

Seth Godin is a “leading voice on everything from effective marketing and leadership, to the spread of ideas and changing everything.” I value his diverse perspectives and his care for the realization of human potential.

Richard Rohr is an extraordinary voice of applicable spiritual wisdom. He teaches me each day to live “on the edge of the inside” which means that if you are to bring meaningful change to any institution you must know it deeply before you can shepherd it to a better version of itself.

The second kind of reading I work into my morning is more traditional, those long form pieces we call books! More on that later. For now, I hope that you will choose to discover these daily authors for yourself or perhaps take a moment to share some of your own sources of daily insight and wisdom.


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You Have to Plug It In

Dec 13, 12:47pm – Oakland Airport: A man looks up between bites of his Mesquite Grilled Chicken salad and sees a “Short Story Dispenser.” Intrigued, he sets the salad on the seat next to him and approaches the machine, the sensation of his unwitting participation in a social experiment growing in his mind. He pushes the button for a “1-minute Story” and nothing happens. He pushes the 3 and 5-minute story buttons and nothing happens.

The man notices that the “Short Story Dispenser” is, in fact, unplugged. Increasingly confident of the social experiment, the man bends down and plugs it in. He hears a brief whirring sound and then…nothing. Oh, well, he thinks and returns to his seat for more salad.

Moments later, he glances up and sees that the machine is lit up now, each button outlined by a small circle of light.

Certain that he is being played, and unable to resist, the man returns to the kiosk, pushes the “1-minute Story” button again and to his delight, a story comes tumbling from the mouth of the machine.

As he finishes the story he sees another man at the machine, a braver man who has clearly pushed the “5-minute Story” button given the length of the scroll that emerges.
The first man is envious and also satisfied. And when another man approaches and receives a story, and then a small boy does the same (bravest of all because he prints two stories!!) his satisfaction deepens and becomes happiness.

He knows, and will always know, that he is the man who plugged in the story machine at the Oakland airport on a Friday in December.

(Alternative post title: “Things that happen when I am not holding my phone”)


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The Saltine Cracker Problem

I’m reading a book right now that’s got me thinking a lot about my thinking. It’s called, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He’s a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics and is credited with helping to launch the now very popular field of behavioral economics. (It was his recent interview with Krista Tippett that got me to finally get the book off the shelf!)

The book, at its heart, is about the relationship between what the author calls System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is fast. It’s the part of our thinking that sees “2 + 2” and doesn’t have to think about it. It just knows. System 2 is slow. It’s the part of our thinking that goes to work when System 1 doesn’t know what to do with “24 x 17.”

System 1 is always feeding System 2 impressions and conclusions about the meaning and importance of things, sometimes correctly and often not. System 2 is responsible for determining if System 1 is to be trusted and, if not, to seek more information. The dilemma, Kahneman points out, is that System 2 is lazy. It really doesn’t want to do the slower work but will do it if absolutely necessary. It’s very happy to act on System 1’s impulsive reactions.

A personal example to make the point: yesterday, on the way home from a client meeting I received a common spousal text: “Will you please stop at the store and pick up a gallon of milk?” I replied with a “thumbs up.”

As I entered the store it dawned on me that there’s always something else we need so I send another quick text: “Just milk?” As I arrived at the front of the checkout line I received this reply: “Did you use all the celery yesterday? If so, we need some for soup.” And then this, immediately following: “And saltines!”

I remembered that we still had some celery, so I asked the cashier to set my milk aside while I went to fetch the Saltines.

Later that evening, as soup was being labeled into bowls, I noticed the still unopened box of crackers on the counter so I asked, “Would you like me to open these?” I was told, “No, we’re having bread.”

Incredulous, I said, “Then why did I leave the front of the line at the grocery store to go back for Saltines?!?”

“Because the girls asked if we could get some,” she said, growing impatient with my tone.

And that’s when the relationships between System 1 and System 2 made sense to me. My System 1 took the well-worn shortcut from “soup” to “Saltines” and my System 2 didn’t even think to question it. But, of course, “soup” isn’t the only possible reason to buy Saltines, it’s just the easiest one. My lazy System 2 wasn’t interested in exerting any extra effort to consider a different possibility.

I took a breath and apologized for my over-reaction. And then I got to thinking about the far more serious and consequential implications of Kahneman’s work and my personal experience of it. If it were just soup and crackers, no problem, but it’s so much more than that. Every day, we are receiving impressions of people and issues and conflicts and every day we are shortcutting our potential for deeper examination and more comprehensive understanding in favor of answers that match our existing models of “normal.”

Once you see what’s going on, you can’t un-see it. If we weren’t so darn lazy we could do so much better.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Reading for Emotional Intelligence

There’s a lot written about successful leaders – successful people – being big-time readers. (This article from Inc. magazine provides a solid foundation for the argument.)

But I think it’s important to take the conversation at least one step further in that a very particular kind of reading can lead to a significant increase in our leadership impact.

It’s one thing to be a non-fiction junkie, keeping up with the latest in our particular fields or satisfying our curiosity to learn new things. It’s just as important to make reading  fiction a centerpiece of your reading load, as it as a powerful tool for the development of emotional intelligence, an essential attribute of the most influential and well-regarded people.

Author and Man Booker prize nominee, Esi Edugyan, puts it this way:

I think it is all too easy, especially given our current age, to deny the humanity of those who are unlike us, to willfully see the stranger in others. Fiction puts readers into the psyche of characters who may be wildly different from themselves. This intimacy with another’s lived experience is an exercise in empathy. It is not, of course, the exclusive territory of fiction to do this. But fiction can do it viscerally.

Here’s the current NYT Paperback Trade Fiction list to get you started. And tempting though it might be to buy one through Amazon, why not give your local library a try? I find that the three-week check-out period provides just enough time to both procrastinate reading the book and actually doing so!


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.