Relationship Management in “The Death of Stalin”

Screenshot from “The Death of Stalin” (2017)
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev (left) and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Nina Khrushchev (right)

I was watching the dark comedy “The Death of Stalin” the other day and noticed an interesting scene that imparted some wisdom about relationship management. Early in the movie, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, has returned home at the end of a long day with Joseph Stalin and other politicians. As he undresses for the evening, he is listing off a series of topics to his wife, who is in bed and taking notes in a book. As he lists off the topics, he comments on which topics landed well with Stalin, and which he should avoid in the future.

Setting aside the bleakness of needing to make notes on things that will keep you alive around a dictator, it was an unexpected example of good relationship management in action.

I’ve done stuff similar to this. At first, I thought it was a sleazy practice, but after overcoming those initial thoughts, I realized it’s an entirely effective way of keeping track of important details either early in a relationship (here, I mean relationship in an extended sense, not in a romantic sense), or for relationships with infrequent contact points.

If it’s worth maintaining a good relationship, then it’s beneficial to reflect on your interactions and take notes on things worth remembering. Whether you use a book as in the film, or making notes in your phone’s contact cards, it can be helpful for refreshing yourself when you interact with a person again. I’ve made notes on business hours, names of employees at a shop, the names of a person’s significant others, and even early in my relationship with my wife I would note ideas for the future.

Far from sleazy, it’s a useful way of paying attention and making others feel special because you’ve taken the time to learn and remember details about them. And, instead of relying on your memory, you can have the confidence that you’ll get the particulars right and avoid looking like a fool.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Masterclass in Storytelling – Hamilton

This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton the musical on stage. As I noted in my Instagram post, I was blown away by the experience, and was moved to tears by the performance. My emotional reaction was due, in part, to my having completed the audiobook a few weeks back. Had I not already been familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton, I think I would have struggled a bit with the fast paced delivery of the lyrics.

In my mind, the musical is perfect – it is a shining example of why art exists and what it is capable of. Hamilton the musical takes a 35-hour book, of which spans the nearly 50-year life of Hamilton, and distills it down into a powerful 2-hour performance.

There are so many fantastic elements of the play. I don’t want to spoil the experience, but I can’t not list some of my favourite parts.

For instance, in the second song, a throughline is set-up that spans Hamilton’s life where he ambitiously declares that he won’t throw his shot (waste an opportunity to advance himself). But, at the end of his life, when he is dueling Aaron Burr over a matter of honour, he chooses to “throw his shot” (raise one’s weapon in the air to waste your shot, signalling that you are not participating in the duel) as he becomes morally opposed to dueling. It was haunting to hear this theme get set up so early.

I loved the use of space on stage. The floor was set up with two circular discs that could rotate in different directions, which meant that the actors could allow the stage to carry them around the space to give the illusion of traversing great distances.

Speaking of those discs, there were a few moments in the play where things could freeze in time or rewind. The actors could halt in tableau, but the discs would rotate them around, giving the appearance that they were reversing in time. This was so cool to see – we were able to watch a scene play out twice: once from Hamilton’s perspective, and one from the narration of a side character who was singing her motivations while guiding the scene along.

I’m not normally a great fan of dancing, but even the bodily movements of the performers had me transfixed. The ways they moved around to evoke things like battlefield war, or Hamilton feeling at the centre of a hurricane made me forget I was watching a play on stage.

So many other elements came together in amazing ways – how they used space on the stage to signal travelling over vast distances, how costumes took on symbolic meanings, the politics of ceding from England through the Kings’ songs, and the incredible attention to detail of every word spoken, rapped, and sung by the cast. The last straw was Eliza getting the final word. So. Good!

The experience was so wonderful and memorable, I can’t put into words what it meant for me to see it. I simply don’t have the vocabulary developed to articulate how smart and charming the musical was. It was a pure masterclass of how to put together a modern piece of art to tell the story of one of the United State’s founding fathers – a man whose impact lasts through to today, but whose legacy is unknown to most everyday persons.

I’ll end with one final note. In the premiere week of the show in Toronto, the CBC news company ran a short piece about the show. Within the segment, they showed a clip of an interview with the musical’s writer and original-run star, Lin Manuel Miranda, where he gives advice to up and coming playwrites. Now, granted, his words are meant to speak to marginalized voices who fall outside of what is deemed normal or popular art. However, his words, more generally applied, can speak to the creative urge in all of us.

“Well, I’ll tell you the only advice I can give is: write what’s missing. Write what you don’t see on stage. I started writing in the Heights because I really wanted a life in musical theatre and so I wanted to write the kind of show I wasn’t seeing. So, don’t write the next Hamilton. Write what isn’t Hamilton. Write the story that only you can write.”

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Kindness and Picking Fights Online

kindness-1197351_1920
Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

Recently, a lot of things circulating through social media and my podcast feeds have been enraging me.  I try to mitigate these things through a number of strategies – limiting my time on social media, intentionally targeting positive messages, not reading comments, not engaging, reminding myself that it is ok to disagree about things, etc.  The hardest things for me to let go are cases where my thought-processes seem to wildly diverge from others about the framing of the same set of facts.

Initially, I wanted this blog post to be my master rebuttal.  I wanted to lay out my case for why the conclusions others are drawing from this or that event are wrong and why.  I wanted to emphasize what the important, salient points are that we should keep in mind.

But I know in my heart that would be an exercise in futility.  A blog post is easy to skip; easy to ignore.  I won’t change hearts and minds by arguing against a strawman average of the viewpoints expressed in my network of known-people.  It would be antagonistic, hostile, and unproductive towards my goals.  In all likelihood, it would backfire and entrench or alienate friends.

Instead, I will offer a different approach that I want to continuously remind myself of.  When I feel compelled to dig in my heels for an argument, I should remind myself of the following.

First, remember what Aristotle (via Will Durant) tells us about virtue and excellence.  It doesn’t matter what others say or share/post online; we are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Second, turning to fiction, remember why The Doctor helps people.

“Winning; is that what you think it’s about?  I’m not trying to win.  I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone or ‘cause I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone.  It’s not because it’s fun.  God knows it’s not because it’s easy.  It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does.  I do what I do because it’s right!  Because it’s decent.  And above all, it’s kind.  It’s just that.  Just kind.”

Series 10, Episode 12: “The Doctor Falls”

Ultimately, it’s not about what I will say, or argue.  Arguing with other people doesn’t make me a decent person; picking fights online doesn’t put me on the high road.  If I want to bring about change in people I care about, it’s important to remember to be kind.  Always be kind and help people, because it’s the right thing to do.

I recognize that being kind doesn’t give a lot of direction and can seem cowardly when meeting the systems that do real harm to the vulnerable and oppressed.  In fact, espousing kindness can easily slip into inaction or forced neutrality.  It’s hard to be prescriptive in this case at a granular level.

However, if I start with the core values of kindness and action, that what is important is doing things that are kind to others, then you can use your values as a filter for determining what you will choose to do.

Instead of arguing online, I choose to try and lead by being kind.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Lessons from JMS

At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood.  His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5.  It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance.  The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down.  I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours.  Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories.  It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.

In no particular order:

On antecedents

JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm.  He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied.  In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent.  JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.

On writing

Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft.  He found every excuse and opportunity to write.  He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by.  No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt.  He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft.  The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit.  If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.”  JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.

On principles

JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles.  When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away.  When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity.  When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from.  He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.

On children’s taste

While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show.  A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with.  JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman.  The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction.  To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be.  In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers.  He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior.  To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.

On backdoors

There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal.  When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them.  When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses.  When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating.  (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings).  Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors.  This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value.  While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.

Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good.  He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics.  He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him.  In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times.  Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work.  Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Thinking and Research Habits

You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit.  It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist.  I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.

This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast.  After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book.  It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class.  You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it.  If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.

However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back.  On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process.  They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.

You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.

David Epstein
(promoting his book Range)
The Longform Podcast, episode 348 (starts at 21:08)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62028020

How do you set up the bounds of research?  How do you delineate what you put in the book?  What should I include in the book?

  • There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
  • Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes.  He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage.  Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
  • He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
  • As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together.  When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it.  Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
  • The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
  • It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
  • Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text.  Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on.  It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.

 

Cal Newport
(promoting his book Digital Minimalism)
Love Your Work, episode 183 (starts at 49:30)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62048017

How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?

  • He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles).  He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas.  He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges.  It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
  • He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested.  It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
  • To validate ideas:  1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.”  He asks “Is this working for me?  Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
  • Over time, something will emerge and persist.  It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
  • The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Role of Good Media (On Liberty)

While I didn’t dive too deeply into political philosophy while in school, I do muse on it from time to time.  I grant that my knowledge about political philosophy can be charitably labelled as “naive,” so please forgive some of the silliness I’m about to wade around in.

On the whole, I tend towards the idea that the protection of liberty is good, even at the cost of bad actors.  I think the State should limit as few liberties as they can to ensure social cohesion and social protection.  This will come with a few hard to manage examples where people’s liberties can come into conflict (e.g. the right to free speech and the right for people to not give platforms to people they disagree with).

I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive exploration here.  I just want to comment on why good media is important for moral education.

Last week, I was rolling around with an idea I was tentatively calling “dynamic homeostatic liberty.”  I don’t know if this concept has been expressed by anyone else, but the term refers to the idea that the rights respected by the State are dynamically recognized and abide by the principle of homeostasis according to the social and economic conditions at play at any given time.  During times of war or disaster, rights are constricted to maximize good while also achieving some sort of political aim (think curfews and forced redistribution of material goods, for example).  There would have to be some mechanism that says the State owes more responsibility of care to the people in proportion to the amount the State restricts the freedoms of its people.  And this would also recognize that when the strife is over, liberties are relaxed and the State removes itself from meddling in people’s lives.

This is a fantasy, of course, because it assumes the government would always keep the best interests of the people in mind and not lead to tyranny.  It also assumes people would freely give up their rights for better protection and better outcomes.

I was wondering how well a system like this would work, then I watched the season 4 episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Drumhead.”  The episode covers a situation aboard the Enterprise which leads to a series of conspiratorial speculations about members of the crew.  A set of minor accusations ends up leading to wild allegations and a full-blown future version of a witch hunt.

The voice of reason on the ship is Captain Picard, who pauses throughout the ordeal to question whether things are spinning out of control, and people are letting their passions and righteousness get the best of them.

Watching the two speeches above made me realize how silly my idea of “dynamic homeostatic liberty” is.  The truth is, there is no way to ensure that the restriction of liberties would be in the best interests of the people who need their liberties protected the most.  The powerful have a tendency to allow themselves to be corrupted by their righteous fury and perceived moral authority.  It was a fantastic example of why we need good media that makes us think and reflect.

Good media helps to elevate us and educate us morally.  It helps us to empathize, and see ourselves from outside our perspectives and lived experiences.

I often think about what kind of media I will want to promote to my children.  I think about what stories I want to tell them to give them a good, moral education.  I think Star Trek will definitely be on that list.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

 

KSE And A Visual Metaphor

And now for something lighter.  The last few weeks, I’ve been discussing some pretty heavy topics, so I thought for Family Day, I’d share something a little on the lighter side that makes me happy.

Killswitch Engage (KSE) is a band that I really like.  I think since 2012 I’ve seen them play every time they’ve swung through Ontario on tour with the exception of once, tallying around 7 or 8 shows.  A friend who accompanies me to the shows joked that it’s getting to the point where we buy tickets to KSE shows for an excuse to see the other bands they are touring with.

Six years ago this month, they released their lead track and video from 2013’s Disarm the Descent, In Due Time.

The video kicks off with some behind the scenes footage of the band and crew, interspersed with footage of the band playing their instruments.  While this is going on, the camera follows behind the band’s vocalist, Jesse, as he enters the space, walks up to grab the microphone, and launches into the song’s vocals.

If you know nothing about the band, you might not connect the visuals with the band’s history, but let me show you why this is such a cool visual metaphor.  I’m not entirely sure that it was intentional (I haven’t read anything to support my idea), but even if it was deliberate it’s a really cool way of visualizing the band’s history up until that moment.

The band, while going through a few member changes in its early days since forming in 1999, was made up of guitarists Adam and Joel, bassist Mike, drummer Justin (who joined in 2003), and vocalist Jesse.  In 2002, just as they released their sophmore album Alive or Just Breathing, Jesse announced abruptly that he had to quit the band for personal reasons.  It was a sudden departure that left the band hanging.  The band added Howard Jones to the lineup, and they broke it big with 2004’s The End of Heartache, which launched them into the charts and cemented them as one of the biggest bands in the genre.

Fastforward to 2012, and Howard announces his departure for the band.  There was some uncertainty at the time as to whether the band would continue and under what conditions, but it was quickly announced that Jesse would return to the mic.  Jesse was not a stranger to making music at the time, having worked on a side project with some of the members of KSE called Times of Grace in 2011.  KSE toured and completed their album through the end of the year and released Disarm the Descent in early 2013.

Now, if you take the history of the band into account, go back and watch the video from the start through around the 34 second mark, and what you see is a visual representation of the band up until that point.  You see the band playing, making music but without a vocalist to sing their lyrics.  Then, from outside, you watch Jesse walk up to the group, rejoining them in time to begin the first verse.  The band was an entity that was already out there, working hard, and Jesse gets welcomed back, fitting in naturally with the group.  The group had continued on without him, and Jesse returned to help give voice to their music.

It’s a beautiful representation, and something of an easter egg for the fans.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan