Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

What do you believe about work?

This is an easy one for me to answer. I wrote a book on it. And I got to do it for a client. It was a strange, frustrating and wonderful project. An outdoor advertising company wanted to do a “Mission Vision Values” project. They said they wanted to be a cool company, like Apple. But c’mon, their a frigging outdoor advertising company! And the language they used to describe a lot what they did was awful. Like using the word cool.

But the thing was, the company, and especially the president had a great deal of vision. This was 10+ years ago and lots of people still thought Radio and TV were hot shit for local market advertising. But not these guys. They knew that a sea change was coming and pretty soon, outdoor — and spectacular outdoor — was going to be the most powerful way to reach a locality. You can cut your cable, you can get satellite radio, but you can’t even run away from outdoor because it’s along any route you might use to flee.

But this “Mission Vision Values” thing was awful. Two other firms — big design firms — had gone down in flames on this. And it was just me. We butted head something fierce, but I wouldn’t give it up.

So I got so sick and tired I said, I’m going to give it one last draft, then I’m done. And I sat down and wrote pretty much what I believed to be true about work. And that wound up being the spine of the thing.

It was simply designed and letterpress printed on thick paper bound together with old billboard vinyl, so you could see who was and wasn’t reading it in the organization. The more you turned the pages, the whiter the cover would turn. What’s below is the interior of the book.

(Oh, and after it went to press, I realized that Plato didn’t say that. It was Confucius. But nobody noticed. Shhhh)

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How Are You Going to Do It With Average Days?

You and I have both done extraordinary things. But the extraordinary is not predictable and not repeatable. By definition, most days everyone’s performance is just, well, average. In a statistical terms, all you can do is raise your average and lower your standard deviation. What’s amazing about great athletes is that all they are trying to do is do what they do in practice. A pro says, “If I can just go out there and play my game, I’m gonna win.” An amateur says, “If I could just play like somebody else.”

So maybe this questions really is, “How do I raise my average performance to a very high level?” or maybe it is, “How do I chunk my tasks so on any one day, I don’t ever need to pull off something miraculous.”

Or another way to look at it. Every day, I drop my kid off at daycare. And every day, who ever is sitting behind the desk says, “Have a great day!” I don’t know if this is a cultural thing there, or it’s part of the franchise playbook or what. But every time I walk out, somebody says, “Have a great day!”

So one day, I turned around and said, “Really? You think I need that kind of pressure. Can’t I just have a day? An ordinary, phone it in kind of day?” It got a good laugh. But let’s think about the franchise admonition — Have a Great Day!.

There are plenty of inducements for us to give it our all. And I think that’s pretty stupid in a professional context. To give it your all means that you are working at the very limits of your comprehension, ability and stamina. It can certainly mean that you have never really done it before (at this level) and you’re not sure how it will turn out.

This is great for art. But would you hire a guy who has only framed houses to build your custom cabinets? Do you want a transplant surgeon who’s not too sure about this whole kidney-juggling thing? Of course not. I think a pro is someone who is constantly committed to learning, but they are already so good, that they only really use 50% of their ability on a regular basis. Sure, they push themselves, but not when the meter is running. When the meter is running, that’s when the practice pays off.

How do you do it with average days? It depends on the particular “it”, sure. But, I guess I’m coming to realize that what I have to figure it out. Because there’s simply no other way to build a life or a business or anything else. The days of exceptional performance and incredible luck are just too few and far between.

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Five Fundamental Forms of Writing

I’ve had this idea rolling around in my head for a while. Everything that has been written, from a ransom note to Shakespeare to a technical manual to the blog post can be broken down into just a few fundamental forms.

  1. Story
  2. Argument
  3. Instructions
  4. Dialog
  5. Summary

So, take Romeo and Juliet, or the latest episode of your favorite T.V. show. They both are stories told primarily with dialog. And they both start out with a summary. “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,” and “Previously on…” are really the same thing.

Plato used the character of Socrates in dialog to make and explore philosophical arguments.

A parable or fable is an argument hidden in a story.

I am making an argument by providing examples, and providing summaries the forms by way of definition. In fact, all of my recent blog post are a special kind of argument with myself — an essay — which takes its name from the French verb essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt”. I’m literally trying these arguments out. (The fact that I am now doing this in public means I’m either brave or foolish. Perhaps both.)


Story form is hard to pin down. We are creatures of story and it’s the form by which we most easily understand things. Even when this understanding is in error. What are those flashes in the sky? Oh, that’s guy named Zeus. He gets angry and throws them.

I think it’s hard for us to understand story form for the same reason that fish have difficulty understanding water — we’re immersed in it. But, for my essay, I will use Pixar’s description.

Once upon a time there was a _______.

Every day she would ______.

Until one day _________ happened.

Because of that she _________.

And then __________.

Because of that _________.

Until finally, she _____________.


Argumentative theory is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, this is writing that makes a case and attempt to persuade or prove.


Writing good instructions is very hard. Right now, I think this is the best way to structure instructions. Often time we skip the first step and it’s always a mistake. To explain a game you should start with the object, then talk about the rules. As explainers or instructors, it’s too easy to get lost in the minutia. But starting with the goal gives the reader or student a conceptual hook on which to hang all of the information that follows.

  1. End Goal
  2. Important Warnings
  3. Required Components
  4. Steps (1..n)


A spoken interchange. But I think this category (maybe it needs a different name) also encompasses monologues. A character is having a chat with themselves or a party or entity that can’t respond.

“Who’s on first?”
“That’s right.”
“What’s the man’s name?”
“The man on first base!”
“The first baseman!”


Biggest thing first. Then supporting points.

Less like this:

For the last 150 years, the Galactic Empire has pushed the frontiers of weapons technology. Malicious will, plus a limitless Research and Development budget, has resulted in the construction a fully-functional weapon of planet destruction. Grimly named ‘The Death Star,’ this is the most significant strategic issue facing the Rebel Alliance. This paper will explore our options for dealing with this horrible new weapon of oppression.

More like this:

The Death Star is very big and very powerful, but it has a fatal flaw. It won’t be easy to destroy, but it is possible. This document will show you how. (many Bothans died to bring you this memo)

Continuing to Think

Try my scheme on for size and see if it fits. Can you think of any other forms I’ve missed.

One of my questions is, what about poetry? It’s gotta be a fool’s game to try to contain and reduce the rare power of great poetry, but I’ll go out an a limb and say that lot of it fits. It’s just that poetic expression, for me, is always pushing the limits of what meaning can be contained in words.

Here’s a bunch of very good, but very different poems to try on for size.

The Second Coming — Yeats
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — Stevens
Hope is the Thing with Feathers — Dickinson
Epitaph on Tyrant — Auden
Jabberwocky — Carroll
Bluebird — Bukowski
Ready to Kill — Sandburg

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What Makes the World a Better Place?

I think this question is important for anyone to answer if they want to perform at their best. I am sure that many people who I would call evil believed that they were making the world a better place. That’s not my point. My point is, if you are going to call upon your utmost efforts, you can’t just be angry. You must believe that you are doing right. The Russians have a saying that captures this, “A true warrior does not hate the enemy. He loves what is behind him more than he fears what is in front of him.”

Small Answer: Making a Payroll

My first answer was ‘Making a Payroll.’ And I still think that’s right. It’ just not big enough. Jobs make everything better. Anywhere things are a mess, young people don’t have a job. And where youth unemployment is rising, trouble is sure to follow. Sure, you can think that religion is the problem. (And in many ways it might be) But for sure people with a job and something to look forward aren’t easy to radicalize.

August Sander was a German photographer who photographed everything. And particularly, he went around taking portraits of everyday Germans at the end of the Weimar Republic. Here’s one of my favorites

M20071-1 001

But in the Getty Museum in LA (I couldn’t find it online) there is a picture that perfectly explains to me how Hitler happened. It’s picture of a young man, maybe 22 in a heavy overcoat smoking a cigarette. You can see the fire in his eyes, the cockiness in the tilt of his head. He’s full of energy. And the title of the photo is “Unemployed 1932”. You come along and offer that kid a uniform, a gun, a car (all German infantry units were mechanized) and some money — shit, that kid will shoot anybody you want.

On a more positive note, most paychecks support a family. Families, even when they are bad, are better than no families. And as true as that is, I think it is contained within a bigger truth.

### Capital Formation

For me, capital is what really makes the world a better place. By capital, I don’t mean money. There are many ways that money, especially the kind of money and financial system we have now, can be destructive of capital. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The three broad categories of economic resources are Land, Labor and Capital. Land being not just the stuff you put a fence around, but all natural resources that were here before we started scratching and squabbling over them. Labor, in this context is not the thing that forms a union, but the productive work of people. And capital is productive resources that we create using Labor and Land.

So, to make that really simple. When Robinson Crusoe spends all day fishing in the surf with his hands and is able to catch one fish. Labor + Land = Supper. When he doesn’t he goes hungry. One day, he gets lucky and catches two fish. Now, he could take the next day off from fishing, but that would leave him in the same predicament that he was in. Instead, he defers his gratification for the next two days and makes a net. Now, he only has to fish for an hour to catch a fish. Capital has made his labor more productive.

There’s all kinds of capital — Physical capital (shovels, buildings, trucks, roads, power plants), Intellectual capital (language, math, laws, the germ theory of disease, programming languages) but any kind of resource that makes our efforts more productive now and in the future. In a real sense, this is what Newton meant when he said, “he stood on the shoulders of giants.” A lot of other people did a lot of work that enabled him (and Leibniz) to make the leaps they did.

The Real Haitian Tragedy

As my then girlfriend, now wife, and I watched scenes of the terrible earthquake in Haiti I had a realization. I asked this question: “What’s the real tragedy here?” My point was, that the earthquake wasn’t the tragedy. The earthquake revealed the tragedy. And in my mind, the real tragedy was that the country was so poor that they didn’t have bulldozers and backhoes and jaws of life. They didn’t have the infrastructure that say, California does. They didn’t have the capital to build more robust buildings or more hospitals

The reason for this is not merely that Haiti is and was poor. The reason that Haiti never formed much capital because a series of corrupt governments stole it all. You can see the same script in Africa. That’s why, after decades of financial aid, 1/4th of the countries in sub-saharan africa are actually poorer then they were in 1960.

Poverty is instead created by economic institutions that systematically block the incentives and opportunities of poor people to make things better for themselves, their neighbors and their country.

There are so many different mechanisms by which this happens that it’s easy to get caught up in individual outrage. Apartheid, for example. But central bank jackassery, confiscatory laws and ill-defined property rights all very, very bad from a standpoint of capital formation.

Where only a few in power are allowed to form or have capital then the result is crushing, hopeless poverty. Where people can reap the rewards of saving and of starting businesses — basically do these things without having their property stolen from them — wealth and rising wage rates follow.

Yes, there are a lot of other things that I believe deeply in make the world a better place. Kindness, music, stories. But without fresh water, plumbing, antibiotics and declining infant mortality rate, those things aren’t worth much.

Okay, Nice Worldly Philosophy Ya Got There. How Does This Translate into Action?

It makes me more entrepreneurial in my thinking. In many ways, I’ve resisted that for much of my life. Sure, you can say that being an independent author is a entrepreneurial activity, but to a limited degree. And, even with this hard-nosed world-view, entertainment is a great thing. Life is hard. To give someone an enjoyment that gives them a respite from whatever troubles them — and that that respite might help them understand themselves or the world a little better — that’s noble work. So, I’m certainly not going to stop writing. But clarity on this point makes me more business-like in my business-thinking.

It also explains why I don’t enjoy working with really, really big companies. In my current stance (and as far as I can see into the future) there’s really not a way for me to make a dent. They usually have insulated themselves from the pain of change through regulatory protection. So any change in these organizations is driven by a brave band of rebels within a larger system. Also, these unwieldy brutes just don’t have the growth potential. GE isn’t going to have a good year and suddenly double in size. Growth in an economy doesn’t come from behemoths becoming behemother. It comes from the creative destruction of small companies finding a better way and doing a better job for clients and consumers than staid, old companies.

So it clarifies the clients that are good for me. Let’s say Charter/Time Warner cable wanted my analysis of their business. I’d be happy to work with them, but I view my primary jobs as a consultant to see clear and speak truth to power. I’d have to tell them that their primary product is the misery of their customers. And that they only way they have gotten away with raising prices (for an increasingly substandard service) faster than the rate of inflation is that they use laws to keep out competition.

Of course, they know all this. And, as distasteful as I find it, I can’t blame them. They are just doing what everybody does. Exploiting the situation they find themselves in as best they can.

There’s certainly things I could suggest or develop that, on the margin, would make parts of the business work better, but man, that whole gig is rotten. The pressure of responding to the consumer’s wants and desires has been removed. The promise of gain and the fear of bankruptcy no longer motivates. So, the gravity of the situation is that a monopolistic company will tend to become worse and worse and worse, even as a number of well-meaning, hard-working and entrepreneurial employees try to make it better.

So, yeah. While I can have understanding for everybody in that scenario (employees, shareholders, highly-compensated lobbyists and customers) I can’t not see the situation for what it is. Probably not a great client for me.

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Interviewing: How to Keep People Talking

So, I am helping a client write an article. She needs to interview some people for this article and it can only really be her who does it. She’s an engineer and she’s a little nervous because she has never done this before. She wanted some tips.

I have interviewed a lot of people. Not in the disingenuous-reporter way, but in the way of having a deep conversation that, hopefully, leads to understanding. I really, really want to know what the people I interview think and feel.

Here’s a generic interview list. To be sure, this doesn’t fit every situation, but you get the idea.

Before I wrote this post I did a quick google search on “Interviewing” and related terms. Most everything that came up was either about job interviews or pretty useless. Except for one written by the director Errol Morris. The gist?

Shut up and listen. But that’s not an easy thing to do.

I have no superlatives to explain how good Errol Morris is. The stuff he gets, the way he puts it together — just amazing. He has to be one of the best living interviewers. The film he won the oscar for, “The Fog of War” is basically just an interview with Vietnam Era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Morris also directs commercials and his work includes the Apple switch campaign.

So, to extend the ‘shut up and listen’ advice, here’s my two cents worth.

Don’t be a jerk, be prepared.

It means that you don’t need basic explanations for what you are talking about. You can get to the interesting stuff, right away.

In the moment, your intelligence is not all that useful.

It’s not your turn to show off with a really bright person. It’s your job to pull the best stuff out of the person you are interviewing. Humility and curiosity are the best tools for this job.

Your job is to keep them talking. Here’s my best two tricks.

Say the last few words they said, but give it a rising inflection. Give it a rising inflection? (yes!)

(pause) Yes. Utter silence. Let the pauses stretch to give them space to talk. But also to give them space to think.

Be patient, the first half is always a waste.

You have to talk to someone for at least thirty minutes before they will even think about telling you the truth. If you talk to someone long enough and you are sincere about listening to them, there will come a moment — more often than not they will literally lean in and say, “Okay, you here’s what I really think.” For me, that’s where the interview really begins.

If the subject is highly charged, you have to go back at least three times to get the truth.

I learned this from a defense attorney Wade Smith. He was defending a woman who killed her husband because he was beating the hell out of her. I happened in a small town in NC so nobody wanted to say anything. Her word against a dead man’s. He went back to the beauty parlor where his client worked three times. The third time they yelled at him, “We ain’t got nothing to say to you, why do you keep coming around?”

Wade said, “I’m sorry. I’m not here to bother you. I’ve walked all over this town and I’m not getting anywhere with anybody. But I’d just like to sit in the air conditioning for a minute.” Then he sat down and waited. Didn’t say a word. That’s when one of the defendant’s co-workers came forward and told him about how she would show up to work with bruises on her neck from where her husband had strangled her.

Yeah, shut up and listen. I guess that’s still the best tip in this post.

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Techniques for Dealing with Fear

I got some very good private and public responses to What is your Strategy for Dealing with Fear? So here are some specific techniques.

ONE — Catch it Early

Most people can only feel fear and anxiety in the body when it overwhelms them. By then it’s too late. But you can learn to be more sensitive. And if you catch it early enough you can do something about it.

Here’s an exercise from Systema that you can do. Pick a nice, reasonably empty room. Face a wall, maybe ten steps away. Close your eyes and walk towards the wall. The minute you a) stop breathing or b) change your stride or c) feel a fearful change in your body open your eyes. Note how far you are from the wall. Repeat and see if you can get very, very close to the wall.

If you want to be really push yourself, do this drill with sprinting instead of walking.
Also, if you think you have good balance, stand on one foot and close your eyes.

TWO — Work the Edge

This is one is from a golf teacher, so I’ll describe it in terms of golf, but you can do it with all kinds of equipment.

Get a bucket of golf balls and a trash can. Stand next to the empty trash can and drop a ball in. When you get five in a row, take a step away. When you get five in a row in, step away. The thing to play with here is that there will be a dividing point where the simple task becomes dramatically harder. One step farther away isn’t physically that much harder, but mentally, something will happen. Work that edge, a step forward, a step backwards. Notice when your breathing stops. Try it while holding your breath.

THREE — Turn it to Energy

What people often mistake for fear turns into fuel if you let it. All great performers know this. They’re all scared, but when they hit the stage, all that juice goes into the performance.

I don’t know a good drill to explain this. This comes from the doing. There’s a thought line in the movie Man on Fire about racing. When you are on the starter’s block, you are prison. The gunshot is what releases you.

And if you think you have it bad remember: At 75, Henry Fonda still threw up before each stage performance. But when his feet hit the stage he was fine. And, he kept performing.

FOUR — Combative Breathing

I keep alluding to breathing in these drills, because it’s the most important thing when you are dealing with fear. When you stop breathing, your autonomic nervous system thinks you are dying. But what’s the first thing we do when something scary happens. Quick, sharp inhale and then hold.

Breathing is the only consciously controllable link between your voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. Once your nervous system starts to freak out (a sympathetic nervous system) breathing is the only way you can influence it.

Most of learning how to deal with difficult situations (Fighting, dealing with a difficult client, parenting, being married 🙂 is learning how not to add fear and tension to yourself. Or rather, learning how to get rid of it under pressure. Because when the situation is serious, freaking out only degrades your performance.

So, breathing isn’t just a nice thing to do on a Yoga mat. It’s a tool. A weapon, even.

Go for a walk. After about 1/4 mile, exhale and hold your breath. Count the number of steps you take before you have to breath. Push yourself a little. Then, walk and breathe until you have completely recovered. If you’ve done it right, you should feel calmer.

The test is to do another cycle. If you are calmer and your nervous system is in a more relaxed state, you will be able to take more steps before you have to breathe again.

This drill is difficult. You won’t be good at it at first. I’ve done it for years and I still don’t feel good at it. But if nothing else, this will show you precisely what changes in your body when you freak out. So when the fear comes when you are not doing the drill, you can spot it sooner.

Hope some or all of that helps. If you try any of it, I’d love to know about your experience.

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