Music suggestion: Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, Tom Waits
Drink suggestion: Fleur de Geisha, Japanese green tea

Last week marked la rentrée in France, when public schools across the country opened their doors anew to their summer-worn charges for the year. The pack of students and moms crowding the entrance to the neighborhood’s middle school could be heard blocks away, the children abuzz on a blend of anxious exuberance, loud with the mission of finding friends and figuring out class lineups; the parents keen for some serenity once again in their daytime hours. Off you go my little darlings.

Collége Mignet is famed for 2 of its former students: Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola. These icons-to-be ran the hallways together in the 1850s and were reportedly inseparable. Today this public school is celebrated as much for its international section, with some classes in English and a language support program for kids not yet fully fluent in French. You can imagine its popularity with the local expat community.

Hopefully the creative spirits of Mignet continue to haunt its corridors and enthuse its occupants, particularly Zola. Casual writing has become a lost art. It is most noticeably absent from the lives of the young, who have devolved from letters to emails to chats to tweets (Darwin, please explain). But, they are not alone in embracing the informality and ease of electronic messaging. Be it through our Gmail or iPhones or Facebook accounts, the keyboard and screen have permanently displaced the pen and paper for most of us.

The composition anarchy of texting and tweeting (no punctuation, conjugation, or tense agreement required, …Strunk & White begone!) doesn’t disturb me as much as the absence of soul and warmth that comes with a pen-scribed card or letter. The digital domain is perfect for reminding the spouse about that bottle of Bordeaux on the shopping list – Dnt 4gt wine, thx! – but is a coolly detached medium for connecting with loved ones.

It is also selectively deceitful. Facebook allows us to create and present a personal image through an electronic collage of profile pictures and likes and posts that reflect our flawless, funny selves , but not our authentic selves. Life would be beautiful if we could airbrush our looks and our lives like the aging celebrities on a Vanity Fair Magazine cover. Oh wait, now we can!

I am a member of Facebook because there is no better way to track my childrens’ activities (and they could give a damn about the evils of social media), it’s a good place to post Postcards (for me, the optimum airbrush), and I too have enjoyed the unexpected reconnections with old friends from time to time. On the surface, there is little harm in a digital community hall. My worry is the insular and simulated life it engenders. It is fun to exchange a few brief lines with a high-school friend one hasn’t seen in 30 years, but the lift is fleeting. Wouldn’t it be infinitely more rewarding to actually meet over coffee or lunch, or to write a letter? Of course this would require time and effort, so why try when the keyboard and screen are right there? Because the time and effort invested are what that makes the connection so gratifying, both to the writer and reader.

I am writing more letters this year and find the practice uplifting and meditative. Letter writing is a rich with flow; for that hour of indulgence I am absorbed solely on the enjoyable task at hand, time stops and all else is forgotten. Zen.

Writing is an art and like all art improves with practice and process. And for motivation you have my permission – my encouragement, actually – to splurge on some good tools. I did and it helped. So let me present you with Bill’s top 5 tips for enjoyable letter writing:

  • Invest in a good fountain pen. A Waterman, Parker other quality pen may cost $50 or more, but if you enjoy writing you won’t regret it, and the investment will help you feel committed. You can’t create inspired food with cheap knives; you can’t write inspired letters with disposable pens.
  • Buy quality stationary. It is not expensive and you will appreciate the look and feel, and good stationary often comes with matching envelopes. I like the 6×8 sheet, which is bigger than a card but no too daunting to fill. Yellow tablet paper doesn’t quite capture the mood we’re going for here.
  • Find a comfortable writing space. I prefer a table by one of the tall windows in my flat, with natural light and enough movement in the street below to stimulate but not distract. Choose your favorite corner of the home, somewhere quiet where you love to sit and relax.
  • Prepare tea. The warmth is relaxing and de-stressing, particularly green tea. I benefit from a wealth of tea shops in Aix with incredibly large assortments from around the world. If you spend an extra dollar on quality tea then your writing hour becomes a luxury, a private pleasure.
  • Make a date. As with all hobbies it helps to have a fixed day and time, otherwise it gets squeezed out by truly critical chores like Costco runs and laundry.

To whom does one write? Well only you know that. But if you are looking for a few practice sessions then my address (the one without an @ sign) is 7 rue Manuel, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.  I love getting letters and promise to write back.

For more about the concept of flow, read Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2008.

On a completely different note:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. – Steve Jobs, Stanford University Commencement address, 2005

It was widely reported this summer that Steve Jobs was stepping down from his operational role as CEO of Apple. If anyone hoped that his decision was simply a natural step for an aging executive planning to spend the next decades relaxed on a sunny beach, the photos that surfaced on the internet soon after his announcement suggested otherwise. If you knew that there was no afterlife, no reincarnation, no heaven, no continuance of consciousness in any form or manner, would you live differently now?

Bill Magill

Suggested Song: The Long and Winding Road, The Beatles
Suggested Drink: The Good Life cocktail (aquavit, ginger liqueur, lime juice, demerara syrup, orange bitters)

Life seems all so predictable, until it’s not.

Joy Covey was by all indications smart, ambitious and successful. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she had made Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Business Women in America while not yet 40, during her tenure as Amazon’s CFO.  She was also a committed environmentalist, serving as treasurer for the Natural Resources Defense Council post Amazon. Her life ended abruptly in a freak accident in early September, struck by a car that had lost control while riding her bicycle on a country road outside San Francisco. She was just 50 years old.

5 pm and I’m on the Thursday train home from Paris, also in September. It has been a few days on campus tipping back into the rhythm of work, the first key to the office lock since early August. I’m struggling to bid farewell to the summer laze, the bright afternoons floating around some lake with my kids, the warm Mediterranean evenings shared with friends over dinners and drinks. But back to work we go, …or to school in my kids’ case, to our structured days and weekly commitments.

My work situation has tempered notably over the past 5 years, since turning 50. Gone are the endless early hours and late days, the weekend deliverables, the recurring confrontations and restless nights, the parenting through Skype and the missed birthdays. Gone too are the generous paychecks that bought our home and cars, put our children in private city schools, paid for beachfront holidays in Hawaii with nanny in tow. It’s a trade of fleeting indulgence for deeper significance.

I will go out on limb here and presume that Ms. Covey was in a good place financially. CFOs of multi-billion dollar internet empires tend to be very well compensated. As for me, I am neither semiretired nor financially independent. A son has just started college (who would have imagined that?) with twins in junior high school. Financial obligations continue to multiply, yet I’ve chosen this moment to pull back from the big push and my prime income generating potential. Is this decision foolish, selfish, or the move of a sage and aging idealist? Opinions welcome.

winding_roadWe want to believe that our years ahead will be linear and predictable when in fact they are random, fickle. We want to believe that there will always be time for meaningful engagement and memories with those we love when in fact the only certainty is uncertainty. We can commit our best years to the office and then run out of time. We can cut back early and risk our long term security. Which side of that impossible balance point have you selected?

I am driven now more by my eulogy than résumé (to quote Arianna Huffington, click here to read her recent essay). Taking on the work week of my former career(s) would void any chance of playing hands-on superdad at a time when a lot of hands on is required. Each morning starts at 6 a.m.; breakfast together and a walk with my twins through our beautiful Aix-en-Provence to their bus stop. Lunches are shared regularly with my oldest son and a chance to relive my college youth through his experiences as an incoming freshman. When not teaching, myself, there is time for morning strolls to the farmers market, butcher shop and boulangerie, basket in hand (a supreme joy for any foodie like me). Dinners mainly are prepared at home with healthy stuff from the day’s hunt, and not ordered out or rushed through in a fluorescent-lit fast-food booth (not that my kids would complain about a bit of McD on occasion). Homework is done collectively, play dates arranged, weekends planned, an occasional movie shared, then iGadgets collected (grumpily I may add) before bedtime. We’re scattered about the apartment, the 4 of us sharing 2 bedrooms and single bath, comfortably. It’s a rich life without the riches, and I sleep well hoping (praying) that on some unfortunate day many, many years from now, one of these 3 will stand before the friends and family gathered here today and say “he was a great dad.” That works for me.

And then I fell in love

On a completely different note, I’ve written before about the great pleasure of writing letters with a quality fountain pen (for a link to Back to the Plume, click here). There is deep satisfaction as well in preparing meals with great equipment, and worth every penny if most nights are spent behind the counter (and between 8th grade geometry questions). My trusty French Sabatier chef knife had been the kitchen cornerstone for the past 10 plus years, and at a steal of a price. It wasn’t the easiest blade to keep sharp but I’m a loyalist and considered the extra effort a sign of my commitment to our relationship. After using a sturdy Wusthof while helping prep at a friend’s home this summer, I decided that an upgrade was long overdue. My new MAC Santoku 18 cm is an incredible tool: razor sharp, light and maneuverable, comfortable in the grip. It slices, it dices, it’s a Lamborghini after years behind the wheel of a Nova. Each knife is handcrafted in Japan and guaranteed for longer than I’ll be safe with sharp objects. Not cheap, but when amortized over a few hundred uses a year, tens of years, it’s a worthy investment. Bill’s kitchen tip of the day. Allons-y, à table!

Bill Magill

Music Suggestion: Start Me Up, Rolling Stones
Drink Suggestion: Van Gogh Dutch Caramel Vodka

INSEAD is a fun, rewarding place to work. After many exhilarating years hustling alongside hard-charging super achievers in venture capital and investment banking, it is a joy to again work with incredibly smart, accomplished and driven people, minus the god complex (sorry, that is harsh). At the Maag Centre for Entrepreneurship we give courses and workshops, guide and mentor, make introductions and advise on careers; in essence do everything possible to instill the fundamentals of entrepreneurship in our gifted students, then unleash them onto the world.

I have been teaching an 8-week workshop on technology commercialization this Fall, and in the course of developing its modules I had a pair of realizations (considered truly staggering insights in my former professional personas). One, I myself am a startup. As I pass through this mid-life phase of re-invention I weigh certain considerations that any emerging company must resolve: defining purpose and worth and how to make it happen. Two, outlining my personal plan through the lens of a business plan – the likes of which my students are expected to create – is incredibly beneficial. There is a process to developing great ideas that matter, then making the leap from concept to market. Working through that process and setting the emergent strategy is equally beneficial for applied personal development, or what I labeled Spiritual Entrepreneurship in a previous blog (Of Anchovies and Olives and Spiritual Entrepreneurship).

I also realize that the word “entrepreneurship” in the context of Spiritual Entrepreneurship is improper.  Despite our former US president’s jab that the French have no word for entrepreneurship, it is of course a French word, the first syllable “entre” meaning “between,” as in the development of value between a creator and her market. In the realm of applied personal development, conversely, value creation is firstly internal; hence, a more appropriate French syllable would be “intér”. Personally, I like sticking with French syllables because they involve accents, which look so sexy and urbane (and I am so not a sexy urbanite). So henceforth we go with Spiritual Intérpreneurship.

If you also feel the start-up within, or in your author’s case the restart within, then a framework is needed for constructing your applied personal plan. A tour of the self-help aisle at your local bookstore will reveal dozens of options. But, why not exploit a system that is logical, proven, and applied daily by aspiring entrepreneurs in the course of building the next Google or Apple? A robust intérpreneurial effort needs answers to these fundamental entrepreneurial start-up questions:

  • What is my intellectual property (IP)? Start-ups are built on invention and imagination, on a base of core intelligence that defines their promise and bounds the possibilities until additional intelligence is developed or acquired. What is your personal IP? It is your base of core strengths and assimilated talents and knowledge.  On this foundation you imagine what is possible. And, just as shrewd start-ups continue to build on their IP to sustain competitive position, you too should build on your base of intellect and skills to expand the possibilities. What are you good at; what do you want to be good at?
  • What is my product definition? A start-up’s IP foundation enables many possible directions in product form and features, but the finished offering must align tightly with unmet market needs to be successful. Not so for you. Your personal product, that life passion you are committed to realizing, need only satisfy your unmet needs for the principal litmus test of suitability. And this realization is liberating. Write a book on multi-generational farm families of central Pennsylvania; renovate and run a historic B&B in Savannah; study the art of luthierie and open a guitar design and repair shop? What if the market is small? Who cares? When explaining your mission to a friend do you feel an electric surge of purpose? Okay, now you know you’re on to something. The success of intérpreneurial endeavors is measured firstly by the satisfaction they induce inside. How will you define success: personal gratification and respect, absolutely; profit and fame, maybe. The collage of success is unique to each of us. The time to question and explore your personal passions, ambitions, and objectives is now, during this product definition stage. These taken together will help define your mission and formulate an execution plan. Onward.
  • What is my go-to-market strategy? A start-up is wind-down quickly if its product cannot be realized and grab the customer’s attention. The most exciting idea in the world has zero value when it is just that, an idea. How do you become relevant? The same way a start-up becomes relevant; by executing effectively on the dream and exploiting its greatest value for the customer. In the case of intérpreneurship, the passion product may target many, may target a few, or may target one. Regardless, an execution plan is essential. I like the Murphy process, taught by Joe Murphy of San Francisco State University’s Core Strengths Coaching program.  Sketch an arc starting at time zero (today) and ending with your achievement point; 2, 5, perhaps 10 years out. Break the arc into key milestones and those milestones into smaller markers of progress. Getting the arc right takes time, but provides an excellent system for thinking through and setting structure to your strategy. You know your IP and product at this point, the arc will provide the passion plan; your go-to-market strategy.
  • How do I last? Macy’s has been operating for over 150 years and Faber-Castell (which makes exquisite pens, see Back to the Plume) was a start-up 250 years ago.  How do they remain so relevant for so long? Corporate longevity is not by accident, but accomplished through a deliberate sustainability strategy. Intérpreneurship is not about dabbling with hobbies through a tranquil retirement. Intérpreneurs want to achieve something of real passion. This takes real time and real energy. We’re not as robust post-50 as we were pre-30 and attention to diet and fitness is critical. I am neither a dietician nor fitness coach, but can make this testimonial: since crossing the 50 barrier I have pursued the holy health trinity of mind, body, and soul and it helps considerably. Meditation (see Nap King v Meditation Master) and a work-out emphasizing balance and flexibility through yoga (I remain an awkward novice at both) work for me in the mind and body department, and the simple avoidance of processed foods and indulgence in home cheffing is doing wonders for my soul. Flow-inducing rituals (see The Value of our Rituals for a few examples) also help with my mental balance and positive attitude. You can find many YouTube videos and on-line blogs about fitness routines. I cherry pick amongst them to find the optimal regime for my interests and schedule. When one isn’t working, swapping for another has zero marginal cost. The beauty of the internet.
  • How do I give back? Corporate philanthropy / community involvement is not universal and clearly not a requisite for a company’s success and long-term prosperity. Still, the most admired companies develop programs around corporate responsibility, and most of us want to be admired for being a net positive force on the world around us. Whether you choose to include this type of activity in your mission is solely a personal decision, but one worth considering as you piece together the passion plan discussed above.

If you apply the start-up system to your own personal ambitions please let me know. All comments and suggestion are appreciated, as always with my Postcards.

Tip for the day: If called late by good friend seeking bar buddy and enticed to join (let’s imagine that you’re just getting back to Aix from Paris, it’s been a long week, and a couple of drinks sound awfully inviting, …all hypothetical of course), and after bouncing around a couple of pubs find a comfortable spot with good music and great Guinness (still with me?), and the annoying drunk guys next to you who look like frat house rejects (which is unlikely, because France doesn’t do frats) turn out to be newly minted nuclear physicists telling fascinating tales of work and dreams of entrepreneurship, and your remarkable new friends are sharing generous shots of caramel vodka, (now here’s the tip part) channel your inner adult, should it be possible to unearth at this point, and refrain.

Bill Magill