The Friday Poem ‘August’ by Helen Hunt Jackson

The Friday Poem this week is ‘August’ by Helen Hunt Jackson. The poem was published in the August 1876 issue of The Atlantic. Ms. Jackson was a poet, historian, author and childhood friend of Emily Dickinson. As an activist, she would go on champion the rights of Native Americans.”

In 1884 she published ‘Ramona’, a fictionalized account of the plight of Southern California’s dispossessed Mission Indians, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.

The Friday Poem – because we all “Hath need of pause and interval of peace.”

 August

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom and lay bare her poverty.
Poor, middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!

H.H. 

Reprinted from The Atlantic, August 1876

 

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Image: William S. Jackson, Special Collections, Tutt Library, Colorado College

‘Not in the job description’

How many times have you heard that those who succeed ascribe their advancement to going beyond the parameters of their job description? What does that mean?

In some cases it might be asking for additional responsibility or supplementary assignments. But if we step back from a particular job, maybe it’s about being prepared for the bigger picture of your career. It’s the curiosity/lifelong learning thing that connects the dots as you progress as a professional. It’s recognizing a painting in a new client’s office and beginning a conversation, not based on a sale, but a shared interest.

It’s about being multidimensional.

To help on this aspect of professional development, we add a new category this week to ‘workthoughts’ – ‘Not in the Job Description’.

To begin, we follow the advice of The New York Times’ chief classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini. ‘Curious About Classical Music? Here’s Where To Start.’

“Over my many years of reviewing, I’ve often been asked for advice from newcomers to classical music, people excited by what they’ve heard, and eager to hear — and to learn — more.

Naturally, I urge those exploring classical music to find out whatever they can. Yet I’ve found that many people assume that knowledge of the art form is a prerequisite to appreciation. Newcomers to other performing arts, like theater or dance, don’t seem to feel this level of intimidation. I’d encourage those who are curious to just go to a performance and see what they think. A symphony orchestra program — or an opera, or a piano recital — is not an exam. It’s an escape, an adventure, an enrichment.”

Just to emphasize his point. When adding a new dimension to your portfolio think of it as “an escape, an adventure, an enrichment”.

Mr. Tommasini goes on to answer questions in his article, including his definition of ‘classical music’.

“Labels can be problematic in any field; “classical music” especially so. One complication is that music history refers to the years from roughly 1750 to 1825 as the “classical” period, when Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven achieved their glory. But in a broader sense the term classical music has been adopted as a way to describe the continuing heritage of music mostly written to be performed in concert halls and opera houses by orchestras, singers, choruses, chamber ensembles and solo instrumentalists. Another characteristic is that composers in this tradition have been drawn to larger, structured forms. Still, the term is far from ideal, but no one has come up with a good alternative — yet.”

The article includes links to sample recordings to get you started, including clips of Maria Callas’ 1953 performance as Tosca at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

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In addition to following the dots presented by Mr. Tommasini, add a visit to an opera house or concert hall the next time you are planning a trip out of town or out of the country. Identify reviewers and critics that seem to match your tastes and follow them on social media. You will be amazed and delighted as you trace the links connecting the variety of performance.

Where will you begin your new adventure – ‘not in the job description’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Friday Poem ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman

It’s been a difficult time for those who go to work as teachers in America. Many are on strike, not just for a living wage, but for supplies and improvements to the physical spaces that foster learning. Many have faced threats and continue to teach in the aftermath of mass shootings.

Pundits are fond of quoting Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The Friday Poem this week is ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman reminds us that we have always struggled with the value of education in our society.

The poem was written three years after the New Jersey State Legislature passed ‘An Act to Make Free the Public Schools of the State’, providing free access to public schools “to all persons over five and under eighteen years of age.”

In 1874 poet  was recovering from a stroke at his brother’s home in Camden, N.J. At a public school dedication in early November he challenged his fellow citizens of the post-Civil War era:

“And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?

To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.”

An Old Man’s Thought of School

An old man’s thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.

Now only do I know you.
O fair auroral skies – O morning dew upon the grass!

And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping, like a fleet of ships, immortal ships!
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the Soul’s voyage.

Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?

Ah! more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais’d his warning cry, “Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these
dead floors, windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all—the church is living, ever living souls.”)

And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
This Union multiform, with all its dazzling hopes and terrible fears?
Look deeper, nearer, earlier far—provide ahead—counsel in time;
Not to your verdicts of election days—not to your voters look,
To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.

Walt Whitman   New York Daily Graphic, November 3, 1874

“Recited personally by the author Saturday afternoon, October 31, at the inauguration of the fine new Cooper Public School, Camden, New Jersey.”

Photo: Cooper Public School, Camden, N.J. circa 1910

 

#TBT – Revisiting Neil Armstrong’s Commencement Address to the USC Class of 2005

Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program on the human character.”

It’s Commencement Season. The famous and wise will helicopter onto college campuses to share soundbites of wisdom and humor with the Class of 2018. Some speeches will be memorable, others immediately forgotten. It’s rare when an address can transcend the emotion of the day; when the speaker has been to the moon and back.

Thirteen years ago, Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut and first person to walk on the moon, addressed the graduating Class of 2005 at the University of Southern California. The man who announced to the world, on a July afternoon in 1969, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” never mentioned his achievement.

The day was about the graduates. Not about the man who walked on the moon.

But even the youngest family member in attendance knew who was speaking. A little boy climbed up a grassy hill behind a giant screen projecting the event. He hadn’t come to watch TV, but to see the astronaut for himself, in person. This was his connection to dreams beyond. “Mommy, that’s the man who walked on the moon.”

Can you imagine your life defined by one historical, ‘out of this world’ event?

There are few things today that take our breath away. We’ve forgotten the mysteries of space travel as we contemplate only the familiar. We go about our work day as a space station circles above, with no thought of the explorers at work outside our atmosphere.

On May 13, 2005, the parents, graduates, faculty and staff shared an historic moment with a legend. And the legend expressed his doubts about his ability to give advice.

“I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions deserve your attention.”

He encouraged the graduates to “appreciate the elegance of simplicity” and continued his address following his own advice.

“The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident, you can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources.

What is not easily stolen from you without your cooperation is your principles and your values. They are your most precious possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man.

Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program on the human character. What will the future bring? I don’t know, but it will be exciting.”

His challenge to us all is to lead a life of continuous learning and continuous improvement, even after you have achieved your ‘signature’ career experience.

 

 

The Friday Poem ‘Theme for English B’ by Langston Hughes

The headlines of the past week included coverage of the school teachers’ strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky, and the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Often these events seem remote, not touching our daily lives. But they do.

The Friday Poem this week is ‘Theme for English B’ by author and poet Langston Hughes.

At the time Dr. King emerged onto the national stage, Langston Hughes was more well known. Until 1960 the poet and civil rights activist maintained a close friendship, ending when rumors of Hughes being a communist sympathizer appeared to threaten the future of the civil rights movement.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

     Go home and write
     a page tonight.
     And let that page come out of you—
     Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Langston Hughes   ‘Collected Poems’   1994

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Image: Pastel Portrait Winold Reiss, National Portrait Gallery

 

#WorldPoetryDay ‘Poetry Is a Sickness’ by Ed Bok Lee

Today is World Poetry Day, a day to honor poets and global oral traditions. It was initially established by UNESCO in 1999.

“Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures. In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.” 

To celebrate #WorldPoetryDay, and recognize the work of the global community of poets spend a few minutes with the words of St. Paul, Minnesota based poet Ed Bok Lee, and his poem ‘Poetry is a Sickness’.

Poetry Is a Sickness

You write not what you want,
but what flaws flower from rust

You want to write about the universe,
how the stars are really tiny palpitating ancestor hearts
watching over us

and instead what you get on the page
is that car crash on Fourth and Broadway—
the wails of the girlfriend or widow,
her long lamentation so sensuous
in terrible harmony with sirens in the distance

Poetry is a sickness

You want to write about Adoration,
the glistening sweat on your honey’s chest
in which you’ve tasted the sun’s caress,
and instead what you get
is a poem about the first of four times
your mother and father split up

Want to write about the perfection of God
and end up with just another story
of a uniquely lonely childhood

If I had a dime for every happy poem I wrote
I’d be dead

Want to write about the war, oppression, injustice,
and look here, see, what got left behind
when all the sand and dust cleared
is the puke-green carpet in the Harbor Lights Salvation Army treatment center
A skinny Native girl no older than seventeen
braids the reddish hair
of her little four- or five-year-old Down’s Syndrome daughter

Outside, no blinking stars
No holy kiss’s approach
Only a vague antiseptic odor and Christian crest on the wall staring back at you

I didn’t say all this to that dude who sent me his poems
from prison

You want everyone to feel empowered
Want them to believe there is beauty locked in amber
inside each of us, and you chip away at that shit
one word at a time
You stampede with verbs, nouns, and scalpel adjectives
Middle-finger your literalist boss
Blow grocery cash on library fines
Sprain your left knee loading pallets all day for Labor Ready
You live in an attic for nine years
You go bankrupt
You smoke too much

Drink too much
Alienate family and friends
Say yes, poetry is a sickness, but fuck it
Do it long enough, and I promise like an anti-superhero
your secret power will become loss

Loss like only old people must know
when the last red maple on the block goes

and the drizzle turns to snow

Maybe the best poem is always the one you shouldn’t have written

The ghazal that bled your index finger
Or caused your sister to reject your calls for a year
The sonnet that made the woman you loved fear
That slam poem you’re still paying for
The triolet that smiled to violate you
through both ears

But Poet, Sucker, Fool
It’s your job
to find meaning in all this because
you are delusional enough to believe
that, yes, poetry is a sickness,
but somehow if you can just scrape together enough beauty and truth

to recall, yes, that Broadway car crash was fucked up,
but the way the rain fell to wash away the blood
not ten minutes after the ambulance left
was gorgeous

Or how maybe your mother and father would sometimes scream,
but also wrapped never-before-seen tropical
fruit for one another every Xmas Eve

How in the morning before opting out I watched
that tiny Native girl fumbling
to braid her own and her now-
snoring mother’s long black hair
together
in a single cornrow—

If I can just always squiggle
down like this:
even half as much
as what I’d otherwise need
to forget

maybe these scales
really will one day tip
to find each flaw that made us

Exquisite

 

Ed Bok Lee     ‘Whorled’   2011
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The Saturday Read ‘Sourdough’ by Robin Sloan

Before the migration of the nerds, San Francisco was famous for its’ bread, sourdough bread, dating back to the time of the gold rush. Food and a magical ‘sourdough starter’ serves as the career catalyst for Lois Clary, software programmer and heroine in The Saturday Read this week: ‘Sourdough’ by Robin Sloan. 

This is a novel about work; how we find it and what we become. It’s the story of ‘career’ in the twenty-first century when success in Silicon Valley is defined by levels of exhaustion and the unexpected ‘side hustle’ offers a promise of something better.

Lois is working at Crowley Control Systems in Michigan when she is recruited from her “stubby LinkedIn profile”.

“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”

And so it begins, as a cautionary tale for those who transfer ownership of career choice to the great algorithm in the sky, relocate to an alternate universe and join the tribe of the “Dextrous’ (employees of robotic firm, General Dexterity).

“We are on a mission to remake the conditions of human labor, so push harder, all of you.”

“In the months that followed, I had the sense of some vital resource dwindling, and I tried to ignore it. My colleagues had been toiling at this pace for three years without a pause, and I was already flagging after a single San Francisco summer? I was supposed to be one of the fresh-faced ones.
My face was not fresh.
My hair had gone flat and thin.
My stomach hurt.
In my apartment on Cabrillo Street. I existed mostly in a state of catatonic recovery, brain flaccid, cells gasping. My parents were far away, locked in the frame of a video chat window. I didn’t have any friends in San Francisco aside from a handful of Dextrous, but they were just as traumatized as I was. My apartment was small and dark, and I paid too much for it, and the internet was slow.”

Sound familiar? Can you imagine a call for take-out might transform your life? Did you know there was a Lois Club? For Lois Clary, these human connections are career turning points.

“I needed a more interesting life.
I could start be learning something.
I could start with the starter.”

We follow Lois on her adventures ‘underground’ at the ‘Marrow Fair’, interacting with a diverse group of artisans, connecting the dots of technology and food, robots and recipes.

“At General Dexterity, I was contributing to an effort to make repetitive labor obsolete. After a trainer in the Task Acquisition Center taught an arm how to do something, the arms did it perfectly, forever. In other words, you solved a problem once, and then you moved on to more interesting things. Baking by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again, I mean, really: chewed and digested. Thus, the problem was perhaps the point.”

The lesson for the rest of us? Get out there, build relationships, get a more interesting life, solve problems, like your work. (You don’t need a career guide, just a great novel – Sourdough)

Innovation and invention are everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Friday Poem ‘For My Daughter in Reply to a Question’ by David Ignatow

I was looking for a poem to capture both the sorrow and optimism in the aftermath of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. There’s not a ‘perfect’ poem, but there are these words from poet David Ignatow, published 50 years ago.  Described as ”a poet of the community, of people who work for a living”, the Friday Poem this week is his, “For My Daughter in Reply to a Question’.

“We will not be forgotten and passed over
and buried under the births and deaths to come.”

For My Daughter in Reply to a Question

We’re not going to die,
we’ll find a way.
We’ll breathe deeply
and eat carefully.
We’ll think always on life.
There’ll be no fading for you or for me.
We’ll be the first
and we’ll not laugh at ourselves ever
and your children will be my grandchildren.
Nothing will have changed
except by addition.
There’ll never be another as you
and never another as I.
No one ever will confuse you
nor confuse me with another.
We will not be forgotten and passed over
and buried under the births and deaths to come.

David Ignatow   ‘Rescue the Dead’ 1968 & ‘Against the Evidence: Selected Poems 1934 – 1994’  1994

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Photo credit: Poetry Foundation

The week@work – @AMarch4OurLives, Evolve Entertainment Fund, ‘Wonder Boys’, Facebook & “always a little further”

It happened again this week@work: violence@work – another school shooting, this time in Florida. In Los Angeles a new entertainment industry diversity initiative was announced by Ava DuVernay and Mayor Eric Garcetti. And three ‘long reads’ on creative partnerships, Facebook’s identity, and a polar journey.

Violence@work
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school are grieving for their colleagues and teachers who were murdered in another incident of workplace violence on Valentines Day. Since Wednesday, a remarkable group of student representatives have  given voice to the anger at adults who have failed to keep students safe in their schools. This time, high school students organized @AMarch4OurLives for policy & change vs. thoughts & prayers.

“Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard.
Stand with us on March 24. Refuse to allow one more needless death.”

It may not be a surprise that this group, from this high school, seized the moment and demanded change. Their school namesake, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was an author, editor, environmentalist and early advocate for women’s right to vote. gettyimages-112963085-e1518738141248.jpgJournalist Mary Schmich interviewed Ms. Douglas. “She was 95 by the time we met, hard of hearing, almost blind and as opinionated as ever.
I’d gone to visit her because finally, after decades of crusading to save the Everglades from being turned into subdivisions and shopping malls, she’d begun to see the fruits of her labors.
She had battled governments, developers, engineers, sugar cane industrialists and the apathy of normal people. She had pushed so hard and for so long that the state had finally committed to preserving one of the world’s great wetlands. We have her to thank for Everglades National Park.
Had she ever been discouraged, I asked?
“What does it matter if I’ve been discouraged or encouraged over the years?” she said, brusquely. “This thing’s got to be done. It’s not a question of how I feel from moment to moment.”

Inclusion@work in Hollywood
Speaking of thing’s got to be done. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, and producer Dan Lin announced the creation of the Evolve Entertainment Fund to promote inclusion @work in Hollywood.

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Journalist Dave McNary reported on the new initiative. “The Evolve fund is an alliance between the City of Los Angeles, industry leaders in entertainment and digital media, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions. The EEF has already secured 150 paid summer internships for students participating in the Hire LA’s Youth program — partnering with leading entertainment and digital media organizations that include DreamWorks Animation, Ryan Murphy Television, Film Independent, WME, CAA, Kobe Bryant’s Granity Studios, and Anonymous Content.

That number is expected to grow to 250 by the end of 2018, with a goal of 500 placements by 2020.

“As we radically reimagine Hollywood, it is critically important that young people are included in our vision,” said DuVernay, founder of Array Entertainment and EEF co-chair. “Real change happens when we take tangible action — and that means giving young women and people of color opportunities in the industry early on, so they have the chance to shape its future.”

‘Wonder Boys’
The next three articles fall into the category of ‘long reads’. The first, from reporter Laura Jacobs recounts the creative partnership of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. In 2018 we celebrate the centennial of both the composer and choreographer.

IMG_0443.jpg“Both these men were about energy—positive, negative, generative—and while they racked up stunning achievements separately, they were elevated when joined. Put them together in collaboration—in masterpieces such as the joyous ballet Fancy Free, the breakaway musical On the Town, and the electrifying experiment West Side Story—and you had an ongoing theatrical Manhattan Project, work kinetically detonated, irreducibly true, and oh so American.

They met in October of 1943, the beginning of what Bernstein would call “the year of miracles.” Bernstein was living in New York City, marking time as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and Robbins was in the classical company Ballet Theatre. Both were hungry for the Big Break, but it was hard to see anything on the horizon. Bernstein’s would come a month later, when on November 14 he took the podium at Carnegie Hall—without rehearsal!—and conducted for the ailing Bruno Walter. This kiss of fate allowed him, in one afternoon, to loosen forever Europe’s grip on the conductor’s baton. His debut made the front page of The New York Times, and the skinny kid, soon dubbed the Sinatra of the concert hall, soared to stardom. Two months later his Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, was premiered.

Robbins had to make his own luck. Though a dazzling mimic and scene-stealer in character roles, he was tired of dancing courtiers and exotics in the corps. He wanted to choreograph ballets that were immediately American. After inundating company management with over-ambitious ideas for ballets, Robbins finally offered up a timely, simple scenario—three wartime sailors on shore leave in Manhattan. Management bit. All he needed was a score, which took him to Bernstein’s studio in Carnegie Hall.”

When Vision and Reality Collide @Facebook
Next, Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein take the reader ‘Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook – And The World’

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“The stories varied, but most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds. And—in the tale’s final chapters—of the company’s earnest attempt to redeem itself.”

“Always a little further…”
On Sunday, January 24, 2016 British polar explorer, Henry Worsley died in hospital in Punta Arenas, Chile. He had been attempting to cross Antarctica on foot, unassisted and unsupported. He had traveled 913 miles since November 13, 2015 and was 30 miles short of his destination.

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On Friday, January 22, Henry Worsley called Antarctic Logistics and Explorations to request a rescue.

“When my hero, Ernest Shackleton, stood 97 miles from the South Pole on the morning of Jan. 9, 1909, he said he’d shot his bolt,” the British adventurer Henry Worsley said in the message. “Well, today, I have to inform you with some sadness that I, too, have shot my bolt.”

“My journey is at an end,” Mr. Worsley said. “I have run out of time, physical endurance and a simple sheer inability to slide one ski in front of the other to travel the distance required to reach my goal.”

Writing for The New Yorker, staff writer David Grann takes us on the journey behind the headlines into ‘The White Darkness’.

“Worsley was a retired British Army officer who had served in the Special Air Service, a renowned commando unit. He was also a sculptor, a fierce boxer, a photographer who meticulously documented his travels, a horticulturalist, a collector of rare books and maps and fossils, and an amateur historian who had become a leading authority on Shackleton. On the ice, though, he resembled a beast, hauling and sleeping, hauling and sleeping, as if he were keeping time to some primal rhythm.

Worsley’s journey captivated people around the world, including legions of schoolchildren who were following his progress. Each day, after trekking for several hours and burrowing into his tent, he relayed a short audio broadcast about his experiences. (He performed this bit of modern magic by calling, on his satellite phone, a friend in England, who recorded the dispatch and then posted it on Worsley’s Web site.) His voice, cool and unwavering, enthralled listeners.

By the middle of January, 2016, he had travelled more than eight hundred miles, and virtually every part of him was in agony…”

“Always a little further”—a line from James Elroy Flecker’s 1913 poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand.” The motto was painted on the front of Worsley’s sled, and he murmured it to himself like a mantra: “Always a little further . . . a little further.”

 

 

The Saturday Read ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ by Walter Isaacson

The Saturday Read returns! The first selection of 2018 is the biography, ‘Leonardo da Vinci‘ by Walter Isaacson. This is a life story disguised as an art book translating the fifteenth century wisdom of a genius into the language of our present day innovation canon.

What is it about Leonardo that resonates with us over five hundred years later?

“The fifteenth century of Leonardo and Columbus and Gutenberg was a time of invention, exploration, and the spread of knowledge by new technologies. In short, it was a time like our own. That is why we have so much to learn from Leonardo. His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity.”

The narrative of the polymath has captivated Isaacson in all his previous work. In ‘da Vinci’ he has found the origin story and he’s the perfect narrator to introduce a twenty-first century audience to the man “who never outgrew his wonder years.”

If you are a person who is intimidated by a 500+ page doorstop of a book, don’t be. Leonardo’s fifteenth century artwork, notebook transcripts, sketches and drawings engage with the text to guide the reader through the history, culture and political upheaval of Milan, Florence, Rome and France.

If you are one of the thousands who have traveled to the Louvre… IMG_5851.jpg

to catch a brief glimpse of the Mona Lisa…mona lisa

this is the backstory. Isaacson devotes a chapter near the end of the book to the portrait, describing Leonardo’s work process. “He began working on it in 1503, when he returned to Florence after serving Cesare Borgia. But he had not finished it when he moved back to Milan in 1506. In fact, he carried it with him, and continued to work on it, throughout his second period in Milan and then during his three years in Rome. He would even take it to France on the final leg of his life journey, adding tiny strokes and light layers through 1517. It would be in his studio there when he died.”

I read the biography over four weeks, one chapter at a time, alternating with other reading. It gave me time to reflect on the multiple aspects of his genius and connect Leonardo’s behavior with what I have read over the years in hundreds of Harvard Business Review articles on the topic of innovation.

My non-fiction book club had selected ‘da Vinci’ as the January choice. The discussion centered on the aspects of math, science and art; each member commenting from their frame of reference. Finally, I added my view through the lens of @workthoughts. This is a book that advocates for the generalist vs. the specialist. In many aspects it’s a career guide. Imagine an extended conversation with a mentor tracing their work/life trajectory.

Isaacson concludes with ‘Learning from Leonardo’, beginning with some familiar basics of twenty-first century theories of creativity. A sampling: “Be curious, relentlessly curious”. “Seek knowledge for its own sake.” “Observe.”Get distracted.” “Avoid silos.” “Take notes, on paper.” “Be open to mystery.” There’s more. Shadowing each of these ‘lessons’ is the story of Leonardo and his exploration of man and nature; his evolution, still tinkering with the Mona Lisa at the time of his death.

‘Leonardo da Vinci’ is your ‘professional development book’ of the year. It will break you out of your ‘career specialization rut’, opening your eyes to the ‘dots’ you didn’t even know you could connect.

If you make one bookstore purchase, continue your life-long learning with this one. “Let your reach exceed your grasp.”

Leonardo’s most important lesson for our times – “Respect facts.” Never stop asking questions.

“Above all, Leonardo’s relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it – to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different.”