Music suggestion: (Out on the road to) Shambala, Three Dog Night
Drink suggestion: Sam Adams Utopias beer

Wealth is what we reserve for ourselves, worth is what we offer to the world.

What are you worth? This question typically evokes a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation involving the sum of our home equity, bank accounts, retirement funds, stock portfolio, a few expensive items that might attract buyers in a pinch, minus our financial obligations. But this is wealth, not worth, which in all other cases is a reflection of value to others.

Why is Apple Inc. worth over $360 billion? Because its unique products (and the hip lifestyle they imply) are desired by millions (billions?) of consumers worldwide. The price of an iPad reflects little on its costs of components and assembly, lots on what the market will bear. Similarly, the price of a renovated apartment in Paris’s 16th arrondissement or a reconditioned 1963 Corvette says little about the materials and hours involved in their construction and restorations, and everything about their perceived value to interested buyers (many) and availability (few).

The San Francisco Chronicle heralded (remember that word) the Bay Area’s 25 richest individuals recently, and the list was heavily populated by founders of technology companies: Larry Ellison, Gordon Moore, and Steve Jobs to highlight a few household names. Most on the list could be labeled fairly as both worthy and wealthy, if just for the numbers their companies’ employ and positive impact to economic growth through the years enabled by their ingenuity and hard work.

But, one doesn’t have to be wealthy to demonstrate incredible worth. First responders on 9/11 come to mind. So does Margaret Finley. She fostered our 3 children and thousands of others as the principal of our neighborhood primary/middle school in San Francisco.

When I first met Margaret on a gottafindmykidsagreatschoolinSF_shitisitpossible expedition in 2005 she of course extoled the virtues of her West Portal Lutheran School – imagine wholesome and freckled, God-fearing University of Wisconsin graduates [just off the boat and wondering what the heck brought them to this Gomorrah-by-they-Bay] teaching over-coddled, wound-up Chinese kids [2nd generation and wondering why the hell mom keeps packing their lunch bags with sautéed bok choy in egg noodles and not PBJ sandwiches]) in San Francisco’s outer fog belt – Margaret spent 30 minutes with me describing other private schools in the area that she admired and went so far as to provide their brochures and school rankings (something she admitted her employer frowned upon) so that I could find truly the best match for my 3. Wow, sold!

Margaret wasn’t just any school administrator. She had an incredible talent for connection – with students and parents alike – and a kind-but-competent leadership style that would have inspired the best business barons of Silicon Valley (including the vaunted names above). Each morning that my kids left for the school campus I felt an invaluable relief that at least this part of my parenting job – getting them a great education – was covered for now. Any parent understands what this is worth. Somewhere in that ethereal space in space where star dust swirls and babies are imagined, Margaret’s god was holding her destiny wand and watching the assembly belt of passing souls-to-be: hmm not sure, nope not clear on that one either, darn it no freaking clue,  …oh my, now for this one I have some very special plans.

Of course for every Margaret Finley there is a Snooky, Kardashian (pick any K) or Hilton: individuals with immense wealth and no discernible worth.  Spend 5 minutes on TMZ to get many more fine examples of this privileged breed. At least Barney Gumble, daily denizen of Moe’s and Homer Simpson’s burping bar buddy, is not confused about his true value to the world.

This topic brings out the old crank in me, I admit it, probably more so since moving to France, where the discussion of one’s wealth or income is considered vulgar to the extreme. Dinner conversations don’t revolve around investments or the price of that BMW in the driveway, but rather the butcher shop that sold you this wonderful lamb, ….and how was it prepared, …and oh that is fascinating, let me tell you MY recipe. You won’t be reading an article in Le Monde heralding (there’s that word again) the 25 richest people in Paris, unless guillotines are being sharpened. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a list of the 25 worthiest people in the Bay Area? What are the chances?

I’ve distanced myself from the school of happiness-through-wealth since turning 50 and because of this I am more comfortable discussing recipes and butcher shops, not home values or anything preceded by a dollar sign. Perhaps I feel inadequate in this topical area now, I am not sure honestly, but there is less pressure to impress with intangibles such as wealth and more interest in exploring authentic worth. I think this is healthy; I know it is more interesting.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s just rewards, but we have become a nation so obsessed with money – amassing it, displaying it, and defining ourselves through it – that the definitions of worth and wealth have become intractably entangled. If there is reason for hope it is with our young, many of whom are showing a greater interest in altruism and less obsession with affluence than did my generation. (I just read a fascinating article to this effect but cannot find the source. If you happen to come across similar articles, please share.) We are a leaving them a world of rising temperatures and falling employment. Perhaps they realize that the toll road to Shambala is paid not with flaunted wealth but with valued worth. What do you think?

A quick word on a different topic. Maurice Sendak – Where the Wild Things Are – was interview this week by Terry Gross on her NPR program, Fresh Air. Sendak is in his 80s now and not in great health, and he provided a fascinating conversation about his work, the value of relationships, and his thoughts on life. To Terry’s question on what really matters, he responded simply, “be in love with the world.” This reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s observation that miracles are not found in magic men walking on water, but in ourselves walking on earth.

Bill Magill

Song Suggestion: Happy, Rolling Stones
Drink Suggestion: Rimauresco Rosé 2010, Cotes de Provence

I am publishing a late, short blog this week. A last-minute request by INSEAD has me scrambling to prepare a course for mid-May. My apologies for this blogus interruptus.

Martin E.P. Seligman is the uncontested high priest of the Happiness movement since publishing his seminal work on the science of well-being – Authentic Happiness – in 2002. For Seligman acolytes, which include most leading psychologists, educators, counselors and coaches of positive psychology worldwide (and an equal number of lagging nobodies, such as your blogger), the anticipation preceding Seligman’s new book – Flourish – compares to the fervor around a new Beatles album or J.K. Rowling’s next Harry Potter installment.

Flourish starts with a startling admission: he hates happiness. Well, that is not true exactly (but it’s a gripping leader to keep you reading). He hates the word “happiness”, and that pleases me immensely. I too have struggled with the happiness concept in the context of my search for greater fulfillment and well-being. I can be perfectly happy relaxing on the terrace at Les Deux Garçons, drinking rosé, chatting with friends and watching tourists snap photos along Cours Mirabeau all afternoon long. Is this improving my well-being, giving life more meaning? Offer my kids an Xbox and a dark television room and you’ll not hear a peep (ah, tranquility at last!). Are they happy? Absolutely. Being well? Our opinions would differ on that answer.

That he would start Flourish by dissing his earlier masterpiece, considered by many a bible of the movement, reflects much about what separates Seligman from self-help gurus. Notice that I didn’t say other self-help gurus, because his not a member of that clutch. Seligman doesn’t tap into mystical forces, promise spiritual enlightenment, or proscribe an expedient list of x steps (where 3 < x < 12, depending on your guru du jour) to radically fix your shortcomings.

Seligman is serious academic who founded and runs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and has been a professor of the discipline for the past 40 plus  years. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association and in Haggblooms’ “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century” from the Review of General Psychology, Seligman is listed at number 31. In Silicon Valley parlance, he is a BSD in his field (Big Swinging Dick, sorry).

His proposals around a life lived more fully are based on years of rigorous, peer reviewed research and statistically-significant findings and analysis. His website (see my blog links) is an extensive resource center for teachers, coaches, students, and the merely curious about positive psychology, containing the latest publications and a battery of self-tests, as well as findings, conferences and links. A word of caution: before entering this site block out the next 4 hours of your day. If you too are fascinated by the science of positive psychology, entering Seligman’s site is a slide down the rabbit hole.

Whereas Seligman’s intention with Authentic Happiness was to increase the reader’s life satisfaction, the goal of Flourish is to provide greater insight into factors affecting positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment, or what he calls PERMA. His recounting of experiences with children and adults, enthusiasts and depressives, as well as soldiers returning from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan reflects the effectiveness of his toolkit (at loss for a better word) in real-world situations. The book’s greatest gift, however, is the set of practical exercises and practices scattered throughout that are intended to bring more PERMA into the reader’s life. A sample few of these include:

  • The uplift from writing gratitude notes
  • Keeping a 3-things-that-went-well-today journal
  • Taking the VIA signature strengths test and understanding the results
  • The art of active and constructive responding
  • The GRIT test and what is reveals

If you feel a resonance with the concepts of PERMA and a student of best practices in the field of positive psychology, Flourish is necessary reading and deserves a spot on your Kindle list. In lieu of a more thorough and deserved review (I simply don’t have the time this week) I provide a list of the book’s chapters for a better sense of its content:

  1. What is Well-Being?
  2. Creating Your Happiness: Positive Psychology Exercises that Work
  3. The Dirty Little Secret of Drugs and Therapy
  4. Teaching Well-Being: The Magic of MAPP
  5. Positive Education: Teaching Well-Being to Young People
  6. GRIT, Character, and Achievement: A New Theory of Intelligence
  7. Army Strong: Comprehensive Soldier Fitness
  8. Turning Trauma into Growth
  9. Positive Physical Health: The Biology of Optimism
  10. The Politics and Economics of Well-Being

I welcome any and all comments on Flourish or any other pieces you are reading in this topical area. More to that point, my initial intention with Postcards was to serve more as a resource center on midlife fulfillment and continued engagement, less as a platform for ramblings by Bill Magill. I simply love writing and so this it has become. If you are interested in posting your own essays and experiences to Postcards, please let me know.

Bill Magill

Postscript: My good friend, confidant and former boss Peter Hankin passed away in late April. We had never discussed Martin Seligman, the concepts underlying PERMA, or my more recent exploration into this area, but over our occasional lunches through the many years Peter and I often shared thoughts on what really matters in life. He was like that, always asking first about the family and inquiring as to my personal journey, before moving on to some business issue of mutual exploitation; the rational for one of us expensing the meal. There are far too few people in the world like Peter, and now there is one less. A damn shame.

Music Suggestion: Tradition, Fiddler on the Roof
Drink Suggestion: 2009 Côte du Py, Morgon

One of the many things I love about France is the cultural significance of a properly hosted dinner party. There is a protocol to the evening, a proper order to the many servings, both food and drink, and it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, wine soaked memory. I have a dinner party to plan for this weekend, and the pressure is on. Our invited friends will expect a certain adherence to the dîner rituel français, and while I have enjoyed many an incredible French meal, hosting one is another story. A collective prayer, please.

I was at the market this morning to generate ideas about the Saturday menu and to pick up a few things for today’s lunch and dinner. Aix-en-Provence has a number of daily open air markets, but the largest is behind my flat at the Place des Prêcheurs plaza. Shopping at the local farmers’ market has nothing in common with the typical American grocery run. A local market visit cannot be rushed, nothing is prepackaged into “convenient serving sizes,” the produce reflects the season, and patience is required. I have my “favorites list” with regards to certain vendors, but still prefer to start with a slow tour of the stalls to see what looks good. Provence is famous for its fruits and berries, and this being April local strawberries have begun to appear. I did some berry sampling this morning on my inspection lap (okay, Costco does sampling too: Chef Boyardee, tiny hotdogs wrapped in pastry, …) to see if they were worth buying at this early point in the season. Frankly, tasting wasn’t required; the perfume of the ripe red berries was intoxicating. Resistance was futile.

Céline has the best salads, the bent old man with the LA Dodgers cap (has no idea who they are, I asked) offers the most savory tomatoes, I prefer my chèvre frais from a local goat farmer with the small card table, bread only from Farinomanfou (a couple from Quebec, completely fou [crazy] about their selections of flour), apples and apple juice from the orchard outside Venelles (son and daughter work the stall), and the best butcher – Pagni, the Italian – operates from a white stepvan at the market’s edge. He calls me l’américaine and dreams of visiting New York and watching a baseball “match” in Yankee Stadium. Ahhh, magnifique!

Today I was in Pagni’s line behind 2 ladies of 74 and 82 (we were exchanging ages for reasons I didn’t understand), and during the course of slicing this and grinding that, Pagni (56) was expounding on his 3 marriages. Why 3? Because he loves younger women and his wives keep growing older! He then looked to me for support on the universal truth that younger is always better when it comes to females. I was at a loss for my French vocabulary. There was an R rated discussion of his sexual prowess, which left the women pink cheeked and clucking with laughter, and a 5 minute ramble about a recent trip to the hospital; I followed perhaps half of that. It took me 20 minutes to buy 4 sausages and a slice of ham. The bill for the meat – 7 euros – the price of the wait – well, priceless.

Rituals and traditions are critical in our lives, particularly at the hectic pace we maintain. The world seems to spin faster now than when I was a kid, spending afternoons at the little league field and sketching race cars for hours. My own children suffer (enjoy) a continuous bombardment of new gadgets, video games, and distractions that are form fitted to their 140 characters-or-less attention spans. Forget writing a letter with pen and paper, kids today cannot sit through an email. That would require the crafting of actual sentences (subject, verb, object, …remember?) and the use of capital letters, punctuation, and possibly even (horror of all horrors) paragraphs. They tweet through short bursts of symbols, smiley faces, abbreviations, and puzzling acronyms like IRL, LMK, LMAO, and my son’s favorite, LMFAO. Explain please.

All of us, children and adults alike, have less time to exhale and reflect these days. Rituals provide a moment for reflection and remembrance, and a link to our family, ancestors and traditions. Changes are unsettling and rituals remind us of the familiar; the things that are comforting. Particularly when in transition – professional, geographic, emotional – we need our rituals and traditions for ballast, to keep us stable and connected. Quoting from a 1992 Family Circle article, “Family rituals are an important means of binding the individual to the group; they give us a ‘we.’ Rituals and traditions speak volumes about a family’s inner life. Taken together, they are a family’s thumbprint, its metaphor of intimacy. Even when a ritual passes out of constant usage, its residue remains.” This is beautifully said.

Rituals around food and the meal played important roles in our childhood home. One of my favorite memories was the Sunday lunch, because my grandmother always joined us after church. She loved to decide who amongst the 5 grandkids would say grace, hearing about our activities for the past week, amusing us with tales of my dad’s childhood, and rousing everyone for a relaxing walk around the farm property after the huge meal. Rituals around food and the meal play important roles in my own home as well. We have replaced grace with statements of gratitude and the walk through the fields with a stroll around town, but meal time remains cherished family time, not to be violated.

I took a course on the power and value of rituals and traditions this past year that was fascinating. Rituals are used universally, across all cultures to honor and celebrate, heal, provide transition, and bring order to chaos. We explored various approaches, including the construction of small altars and memorials, the burning or burying of notes (my kids loved doing this at home), jewelry (we made African “wish necklaces,” I think mine worked!), and rites of passage.

I am curious which rituals others enjoy as well, as it is fun to try the new as well as revive the old. Was there a ritual maker in your family, and what roles do you play today in continuing or creating traditions for your own family, or yourself? If interested in experimenting with traditions and rituals, consider the timing (beginning, middle and end) and placement, participants, and purpose.  And above all, note that rituals should benefit everyone involved and harm none. Feel free to post your own thoughts and experiences with rituals and traditions on the blog.

So, a week has passed since I started this entry, and the dinner party was – for the most part – a success. Local black and green olives provided a simple but traditional starter, along with a lively champagne (Louis de Sasy). The main course of seared Mediterranean tuna was laid on a bed of sliced heirloom tomatoes, chopped fresh onions, and basil (all sautéed briefly), which was light and perfect for a warm spring evening in Provence. My wine guy, Yves, who runs Cave d’Yves at the corner, talked me out of a white wine for the tuna, pointing instead to a Beaujolais (2009 Cote du Py from Morgon) that perfectly complemented the fish/tomato combo.  The thick, deep green asparagus spears that I had selected that morning from Céline were roasting in the oven for about 15 minutes (and a glass of champagne) beyond their cook time; an “oh shit” moment. So, ….we also enjoyed a few over-cooked mushy spears with crunchy tips. I was redeemed, possibly, by the fromage tray – a selection of chèvre (goat), reblochon (cow), and brebis (sheep) cheeses – followed by a sweet pear tart, sprinkled with pecans and offered with coffee.

A true French host would have offered a post dessert digestif – an Armagnac or limoncello, perhaps – and opened a box of chocolates to end the evening. Always room for improvement, as my grandmother would say, always room for improvement.

Bill Magill

Postscript: Catherine Freemire teaches a fascinating course on the topic of rituals at San Francisco State University, as part of its Core Strengths Coaching program ( Much of my discussion on rituals and traditions is thanks to her. A few books worth reading on this topic include (I have a longer list if interested):

Beck & Metrick, The Art of Ritual (1990)

Cohen, The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album (1991)

Driver, The Magic of Ritual (1991)

Hammerschlag and Silverman, Healing Ceremonies: Creating Personal Rituals for Spiritual, Emotional, Physical & Mental Health (1998)

Imber-Black & Roberts, Rituals for Our Times (1992)

Lieberman, New Traditions: Redefining Celebrations for Today’s Family (1991)

Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal & Delight in Our Busy Lives (1999)

Ryan, Attitudes of Gratitude (1999)

Seo, Heaven on Earth; 15 Minute Miracles to Change the World (1999)