Thursday, March 12, 2009

Getting Shticky With It!

A friend of mine is a non-Jewish lawyer in New York City. Recognizing the career limitations of being a cucumber in a world of kosher pickles I've spent a good couple of months trying to teach him conversational Yiddish. "Suppose you're in a meeting," I told him over the phone, "and the room is really really hot, just shout: "is anyone else schtvitzing in here? It's so hot I could just about shluf." [Translation: Its so hot in here I could just about fall asleep."] My thinking was that even if he was about as unkosher as unkosher can be - dropping the Y Bomb now and again wouldn't hurt his cause and may in fact get him noticed by a senior partner. It's the same reason I am trying to convince my JD/MBA friend Julie that she say the following at her law interviews: "my grandfather actually tried to kill Hitler. Ya know that guy Stauffenberg? They were really tight." Know your audience people…

Yiddish, although an almost dead language, is still a tongue that everyone should know a shitckle of. And by shtickle I mean a little of. Why? Well Yiddish actually adds emotions to words without using adjectives (this is why Jewish people are so efficient. We don’t even need adjectives). In Yiddish a penis is a shmuck, how angry is that word though. "Have you met Shelley’s new boyfriend? – He’s total shmuck..." This sounds a lot more emphatic then: "Have you met Shelley’s new boyfriend? Total penis." Anyway my new favourite Yiddish word of the week is shtick. Shtick? Shtick is Yiddish for gimmick, or a piece of a showbiz routine; defined in one dictionary as a "person's idiosyncratic performance". In a sentence: "Did you see his skit on Saturday Night Live? People just love his shtick."

But shtick – shtick is more then just an idiosyncratic performance. Shtick is actually a business term.

A couple of months ago, while organizing a conference and searching for a keynote speaker, someone suggested a man by the name of Keith Ferazzi. Several years back Ferazzi published a piece of non-fiction: Never Eat Lunch Alone, and Other Secrets to Success One Relationship at a Time. The book was a fairly big hit and Ferazzi became known as the guy who never eats lunch alone. Subsequently Ferazzi parlayed his MIND BLOWING REVELATION [sic] into a profitable career as a networking and relationship guru. For example, Keith was very happy to speak my conference, for the low low price of $25,000 (plus flight, hotel and other incidentals). Because I was affiliated with a non-profit Keith's people were willing to negotiate, however. Thanks Keith. You may never eat lunch alone, but you're certainly never going to eat lunch with this hombre; I’ve never paid to play and am certainly not starting to pay at 26...

Never eating lunch alone is what I would call Keith's shtick. He has a blog: And from this one book about how to secure lunch dates Keith is still peddling the same line about how to build relationships over lunch years after the fact. Shtick in fact refers to popularization of business-lite books that provide "business-speak" to the masses. The shticky author turns a simple, usually just one sentence, statement on how to improve your life, business or career, into a witty catchphrase and suddenly finds himself on the New York Times bestseller list proselytizing business readers to "think outside the box", or to "value outliers". Before you know it - you and your shtick have been turned into a syndicated column and you're charging $25,000 for a speaking fee. Shtick is good.

Shtick is overgrown pop culture self-help lite. Prolific thinkers come up with a relatively simple idea and suddenly, with proper marketing, its been turned into the second coming. This isn't to say that shtick is always stupid, but - is there anything groundbreaking in a shticky novels or are they simply packaged and decently written? I’d argue for the latter, and that well that is the power of shtick. It packages things you probably already know into succinct and catchy easy to read morsels of goodness; it’s brilliant by association. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – shtick for increasing your brainpower without actually increasing your brainpower! French Women Don't Get Fat - shtick for people trying to lose weight! How to Win Friends and Influence People - shtick for people who can't seem to manage personal relationships!

So what makes good shtick? (IE how can you, dear reader, get on the speaking engagement circuit?):

1) Keep It Simply Shtick (KISS):
Never Eat Lunch Alone. - Yes that's right - Keith Ferazzi - is teaching you how to never eat lunch alone and that in order to be successful you need to build relationships. That's it - Ferazzi is not discussing the atom bomb or dissecting the rise of Hitler. Scratch below the surface of most shticky books and you're not going to find much, because there often isn't much there. He's Just Not That Into you for example teaches readers that the really cute guy they've been chasing (and who doesn't return their call), actually doesn't like you! How is this groundbreaking? Please, I realized he wasn't that into me when he broke up with me on a subway platform - but MILLIONS of people have read that book; I even own the hardcopy and have highlighted mundane passages for future reading. I bought it into it.

2) When your shtick isn't so simple, just dumb it down:
There is higher quality shtick, which is actually relatively interesting and thought provoking. Take Richard Florida's ideology behind the Creative Class. I'll admit I find it fascinating, it’s a fairly interesting concept and there are so many graphs and charts in his books – I’m not arguing with his research. And yet, the Creative Class is still shtick. Heck it landed Florida in Esquire Magazine. The problem of course with shtick is that shtick can outgrow the academic. By becoming shtick - the Creative Class - knows no bounds. It becomes known for its shtick, i.e. drinking latte’s in gentrified factories and not for much else. Even academic shtick is in danger of becoming a buzzwords. Practically everything in Toronto is now either a part of or aspiring to be the Creative Class.

3) When in Doubt Get Shticky With It
If you don't think of yourself of an academic and are worried you can't develop your own shtick, think again! Good shtick can come from an analogy, or a personal experience. One great albeit shticky presenter I saw compared the business world to climbing a mountain. She was great, she made jokes along the lines of: “I’m used to harsh environments. I’m a forty something single woman in San Francisco.” Don’t think she didn’t use that joke at every speaking engagement across the country (a key factor of shtick – its adaptable to every major city in North America) and don’t think the audience didn’t yuk it up. Shtick isn't about the research remember - it’s about what you've done and accomplished, but more importantly about how you've packaged it with wit and sass.

So go dear friends – develop your shtick, get on that public speaking bandwagon. Charge Jono $25,000 for a keynote speaking gig.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Think Unsexy Thoughts... Think Unsexy Thoughts...

Things I hate at the moment:
1) People who change their Facebook status to describe how close they are to completing a assignment (Your life called, it wants you back)
2) The current recession

I know its not a very long list and I'm sure if I sat down for more then a moment, stopped taking extra strength Advil (I have the flu) I'm sure I could come up with a whole whack of other things I hate (like men in flares, there! there's a third!)... But for now I'm keeping my hate list at a manageable two; I even refuse to hate the Jonas brothers (I have a minor crush on the youngest Jonas, who is, yes - 16; desperate times my friends, desperate times indeed) and if you can't find it in your heart to hate the Jonas brothers I mean, what else is there left to hate?

My commitment to be less of a hater is in part due a march break resolution of trying to think more positively about life. I had a boyfriend once (yes I know... its true) who was deep into positive thinking and tried to convince me about its attributes. This gentleman caller argued that by thinking positively about a situation I could actually effect the outcome. Sort of like a self fulfilling prophecy, where the prophecy is like a room full of bunnies and chocolates. Its a nice thought, isn't it? But... I mean - its not like I walked into my finance exam last week thinking, "Glad I didn't study, if I just think positively I'll pass." Now of course I did think positive net present value, but that's a whole other WACCy story (finance joke!). Anyway I feel like there are limitations to positive thinking's efficacy but still I'm willing to be a believer at least for the next little bit.

Within this positive thinking headspace I've decided to ignore the current recession. If you're response is: "What recession? There's a recession?" You may be an idiot or you may be an heiress, but regardless you're also the type of person I'd like to befriend. We can be clueless together. Because what's positive about a recession? Nothing I tells ya, nothing. The recession is so fucking depressing and on top of being a big debbie downer I think the recession is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy, but not one of positive thinking but of negative thinking.

Hear me out: is it possible that this godforesaken Great Recession, as some chaps are calling it, is simply expedited by the crisis of the consumer? As credit markets have tightened the American consumer has stopped the majority of its spending. No more mocha frapuchino's while buying the latest Coach bag... Keynsian economists, quoting his oft used General Theory, would argue that pumping up consumer spending is integral to the restarting the circular flow of the economy. However, as consumer confidence continues to fall (February 2009 marked the lowest level of American consumer confidence in decades) the economy contracts further. The harsh reality is that consumer spending accounts for something like 60% of the Canadian economy. Its a vicious cycle. So WHY aren't we spending? Negative thinking!

Think of it this way - you're a partner at a large management consulting company in downtown toronto - let's call you Mavid Lecaut and you're a partner at the Toronto Consulting Group [TCG] (everything at this point is purely hypothetical). Anyway - at TCG your clients are major fortune 500 companies, every day when you wake up and read the Globe and Mail and Financial Post you're inundated with hyperbolically bad news about the economy. By the time you get into work and start thinking about monthly billings at TCG (how many hours clients are using your high priced conslutants) you forecast that future billings are going down the crapper. You sit and think to yourself, why the fuck am I paying people silly salaries and why am I hiring new staff and interviewing for summer positions - when there is NO work. NONE. COMPANIES ARE GOING BANKRUPT. So Mavid Lecaut, smart man that he is, tightens his belt (from last seasons Harry Rosen FYI) and lays off some staff, stops hiring summer students... the whole deal. Anyway long story short, suddenly you have an angry ex TCG staff member not buying cashmere blend sweaters at Banana Republic, then it looks like Banana Republic is going to have to lay off some of their part time staffers too. Suddenly that part time Banana Republic employee who spends something like $150 a week at Fly on Friday night on shooters is no longer going to Fly, and they're contemplating laying off a bartender as well... Before you know it half the city is on the dole, the other half is employed by the provincial government, but don't worry because they're working on a creative economic strategy. Do we see how this vicious cycle effects everyone from your corporate CEO to your shirts off bartender at Fly? Its like the ebola virus. No one is spared.

On another level - you think I bought that cashmere sweater I was fondling earlier today at Club Monaco. HELL to the N-O. Have you read a newspaper lately? There's a credit crisis. I'm lucky I have a roof over my head, CIBC could revoke my credit at any moment. That weird Caisse de Depot thing they have in Quebec lost almost $40 billion dollars over asset-backed commercial paper. I don't even know what asset backed paper is. Why would I buy a cashmere sweater? Can you eat cashmere? I'm looking at cold hard assets: land, diamonds, gold. Fiat money? That's so yesterday.

Anyway - my point is that this recession business can quickly spiral way out of control the more the media portrays it as the Great Recession. You're all frantic now aren't you? I'm freaking my shit out while writing this wondering if the end to world economic order is upon us, contemplating purchasing a couple of acres of farm-land so at least I could feed myself. You're probably cashing out stocks and RRSP's wondering if you should start storing money under your mattress like your grandmother did during the Great Depression. Lot of good those Laboutins are going to do us now, unless of course people start forming gangs when world economic order collapses and one of the gangs is called Lord of the Rings and their territory is Holt Renfrew and they've made weaponry out of last seasons Laboutin heels... IT COULD HAPPEN.

So what should we do about it? How can lowly old you and lowly little Jono make a better world? Well... let's all think positively! Come, join me. Join me in the world of conspicuous consumption. Everyone - grab your credit card, hit the mall and spend, spend, spend. Worst comes to worst, you'll be bailed out by the federal government, right? And at least you'll lack fabulous at the hearings!

To quote Marie Antoinette [herself well known for thinking with her head in a time of political and economic instability]: Let them wear Club Monaco.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Keeping Up With the Dean's List...

Friday nights at the Two-Fer (the Naymark family compound – and by compound I’m actually talking about a house, not a Kennedy esque playground) invariably feature my two and a half year-old nephew, Ethan, who is, at this point, the family’s star attraction. As the evening draws to a close we good few Naymarks gather in the den to sing Puff the Magic Dragon, en famille (yes, that’s right, how much more Norman Rockwall can you get?). In more recent months, as Ethan has matured into a toddler, Bold Sharon will turn to him and ask: “Ethan do you want to make a pee pee on the potty?” At two and a half years we’re hitting potty training mode and familial encouragement, “Why don’t you show Uncle Jono how you make a pee pee on the potty?” is the name of current game. I’m not sure why showing me how he can make a pee pee on the potty would be enticing for Baby E, but I’m sure Bold knows best, she is a doctah.

Milestones such as potty training are great equalizers of our youth; give or take a couple of months and Ethan will become potty trained at around the same time that the majority of his peer group will also learn how to make a pee pee on the potty. And Bold, being bold and Toronto’s star pediatrician is happy to tell you, “Ethan is right on target for potty training.” As with anything else these days it seems there are matrixes with which we can examine in order to compare results.

Potty training is a right of passage, like losing your first tooth, your first day of grade school, or the day you finally get your driver’s license. Such societal and natural milestones are expected and accomplished at a certain stage of life and in a way such barometers of our youth are extremely comforting. To some degree they’re normalizes. They allow us all to realize that our development is proceeding apace. Remember when you were 18 and your entire year in high school was carted down to the auditorium and shown how to fill out the OUAC application form? It was like you were being handheld and encouraged throughout the process, “Do you want to see Jono apply to university?” If memory serves me right that was about the last time anyone held my hand. The decision to attend university is perhaps the last of life’s unchoices; for most it is the potty training of your teenage years.

By the time you graduate from an undergraduate program, communal milestones don’t really exist. Some people take longer to finish their degrees, others go directly into grad school (never to be seen form again), those with an entrepreneurial flair will start up companies, others will hurdle themselves into the corporate ladder. Suddenly everyone isn’t sitting in the same auditorium filling out the same application form; rather everyone is in different auditoriums filling out different application forms. But if that’s the case how can you compare yourself to everyone in order to make sure you’re doing ok?

In short you can’t; and the much longer answer is you probably shouldn’t. Unfortunately as human beings, shallow creatures that we are, comparisons to our peer group are what we thrive on. After all our economic system, albeit tarnished, is bred on such competition. At RotFunMan, for example, every professor provides a grade distribution and analysis for every test, homework assignment and exam handed in. As future business leaders we are bred to think competitively. Even in high school competition exists; remember those seemingly benign English essays: “at our ten year high school reunion I will be…” [And not to freak anyone out, but I’m about two years away from that ten years].

So who is my peer group now? Ethan’s peer group is the 18 other kids in the Dinosaur Playroom 1 at his daycare. At North Toronto Collegiate Institute my peer group consisted of approximately 150 other kids in the NTCI Class of 2001. In real life of course, almost, everyone becomes a competitor. An old McGill friend called me about a month after my picture appeared in the Toronto Star (insert shameless self-promotion here), “Looks like I’ve bested you,” he said. Colour me confused. “A press release I wrote was quoted in the Wall Street Journal.” “Oh,” I paused, “congrats!” In fact I hadn’t quite realized that we were in competition, but of course, we had gone to McGill together, had taken similar history majors, and just as we had sparred over grade point averages in the Redpath Oasis, it made sense that we’d be comparing bylines in our twenties.

Similar rumbles occasionally make waves through my circle of friends. Whenever someone gets married, or someone buys a house, there’s the collective gasp of shock. While everyone is super psyched, there’s always that conversation you wind up having with the person who isn’t getting married or who hasn’t bought the house: “Why don’t I have a house? Why aren’t I married? We did go to high school together. How did I go so wrong, but so and so did everything so right?”

In my own existential crisis just the other day, I called KB.
“I think I’m falling behind.”
“Falling behind what?”
“Which people?”
“Everyone. I’m not successful. People have jobs, they’re climbing the corporate latter. This girl I fooled around with (yes, screw you all for judging) has a book deal.”
“You’re doing your MBA.” She said calmingly.
“But that’s all I’m doing…”

Worse – I came across a New York Times article about a gay couple that had bought and restored a house in the Hudson Valley. Between commuting from powerful jobs in Manhattan, they were making organic goats milk on the weekend. I was despondent; after looking through the slide show of their life on the New York Times website, I realized they were living my dream (if you replaced organic goats milk with organic beer: Faux Hill Bitter). In comparison I have no job, no farm, no partner; fuck I don’t even have a goat. If this were a shtetl in the pale of Russia, I’d be first to be offed when the Russian army came riding through town.

KB tried to talk me back to earth, “Nay. They’re a decade older then we are. You can’t compare yourself to them.”

Suddenly I understood why my mother cries against how she’s kept up with the neighbours her entire life. It’s exhausting. How do you keep up with the Jones’s when you’re not even sure whom exactly you’re keeping up with?

The cheesy euphemism of course is that “Success is yours to define”. A friend and I came up with this line for a speech she was giving at high school a couple of years ago. But still its cold comfort isn’t it? I mean, success is yours to define, but isn’t there a matrix I can apply my successes to just to make sure I’m still on track?

At least I’m one up on Ethan; I can make a pee pee on the potty.