Mario Sundar's Speakeasy

Twitter's 1st evangelism comms guy, Linkedin's 2nd PR guy. These are my thoughts on tech, public relations, and life.

2020: Reflections on a Year Gone Wrong!

How I escaped my worst year and what it taught me about 2020

It was the best of times.

It was the worst of times.

2020 was the worst of times!


Table of Contents

2020 is unlike any other year in modern history. It is up there with 1918, 1919 and 1920; the three years suffused by World War I, that got decimated by the Spanish Flu. A pandemic of epic proportions that laid waste to 100 million lives, and came back wave after wave decimating hundreds of thousands more with each subsequent wave two and three times as awful as the first in the spring of 1918 1.

That’s where we find ourselves this beautiful summer morning in 2020. On top of the pandemic rearing its head, we find ourselves in a couple more pandemics; racial and informational, both of which have been exacerbated since the 2016 election leading to the most divisive climate in this nation’s great history.

But you wonder, what was my worst year and what does it have to do with 2020.


2016: The Worst Year of my Life, Until 2020

I lost my Mom.

I lost my Dream Job.

I lost my Girlfriend.

Snapchat from WayBack: Pics From my last trip that reunited me with my parents, sister, and nephew Gabe.

I didn’t see this coming — at all! To lose one of the above, and I’ve seen people lose their minds. To lose all three, albeit slowly, then suddenly and some in parallel; was an earthquake, on top of a tsunami in the middle of a hurricane. And to sit there in the middle of that storm unraveling, was an uncanny experience and one that has steeled me for the rest of my life. In particular, one that has steeled me for 2020.2

“There is no love of life, without despair of life.” – Albert Camus

Here’s my story of 2016, what I learned from it, and how I’m applying it to this Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” ― Viktor E. Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning

What I’d have given to not go through those months of distress, losing the most important people in the world to me, seemed cruel and incomprehensible 3, but as cliche as it sounds, those tears were meant to teach.

Turbulence clouds the mind, mists the future, and all I could do was silently spiral into a mental paralysis. As I now connect those dots; when all three had fallen through, it truly felt like falling off of a cliff and I was free-falling. And there was nothing to stop the fall.

And it was at that moment, that I found meditation.


Step 1: Find your High-Order Bit!

Steve Jobs calls it the High-Order Bit. The one that has the power to unlock other powers, exponential across other options. Jeff Weiner, in his very first week at LinkedIn, told all of us to come up with each team’s mission / vision statement, and then figure out our stack-ranked priorities as we re-aligned every part of the organization. And the high-order bit is the one that sits atop that pyramid of priorities.

If you could do just one thing right now, and one thing only with the most impact on every other priority, what’d it be?

For me, that was meditation.4

Fight, Flight or Meditate?

To be honest, at that point in 2016 when the bottom fell out, I wasn’t thinking straight. I was free falling, and my-then-girlfriend-soon-to-be-ex recommended guided meditation with former teacher of hers. And all it took was one session, and the free-falling turned to free-floating. A free association of ideas, possibilities and peace. And since then, I’ve tried my darndest to describe what meditation is, to the uninitiated.

3 Keys to Meditation: The why, the when (it works) and the how of meditation?!

The Why: Bend or Be Broken!

“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” – Confucius

The parables are as old as Time itself, but the lessons are simple, and frankly until you experience that moment of no return, when you lose someone you dearly love and can’t ever see them again; when you walk through and out that door.

That’s when shit feels real.

As Harvard University psychiatrist George Vaillant, describes in the most recent edition of Scientific American, describing the mental health crisis humanity faces, thanks to the pandemic.

A resilient individual resembles a twig with a fresh, green living core. “When twisted out of shape, such a twig bends, but it does not break; instead it springs back and continues growing.” 5

Apparently 2/3rds of individuals recover from traumatic episodes and may even learn from it, but a third of us are lost for months, maybe years.

My own experience from a couple of years ago, could have turned out vastly different, were it not for some opportune decisions I made; regardless, I did lose time to the vicissitudes of trauma. Decisions, like meditation, that came through a lot of soul-searching, a supportive family, and a few good friends that cared about me.

Without them, I’d have been lost, and my writing is an humble effort at educating even one lost soul how I came through that door, and lived to tell the tale.

When you lose a parent (especially, a parent); that’s when all bets are off. The foundation shows its true shaky premise and you have to hold on for dear life, spiritually. But what presents itself as an impossibility — “how could this happen to me,” and “how will I ever get out of this situation,” gives you the ultimate lesson in living — “Let Be.”

The Bard Said it Best: “Let Be”

Hamlet (Act 5, scene 2, 217–224):
Not a whit, we defy augury.6 There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to

come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all.
Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t

to leave betimes, let be.

Accepting I don’t have all the answers, that where I am isn’t the endgame, that I don’t even have a clue what the endgame is (!), and looking forward into the “abyss” with peace, not fear at the uncertainty — is what meditation teaches us. Much like Yoga isn’t just about the physical solace it provides, nor is Meditation just about calming the mind. It’s about using the storm, to find the calm — the eye of the storm.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape. – Pema Chodron

The When: Meditation is the Cure, The Key is in the Abyss!

“The Arrival of Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.” – Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche 7

With apologies to Winston Churchill, “We can all be trusted to do the right thing (in this case, Meditation), once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

I had tried meditation in the past, but never felt the need for it, nor did I miss it. But, when things got ugly, I frankly had no other alternative, and the more I held on tightly to everything that was slipping, like sand, through my fingers; the more I needed an out, and that’s where meditation came in.

It’s as if someone found the secret to life, locked it in a treasure chest, threw the chest and the key down the abyss. And each time one of us stares into the abyss, we fear it swallows us whole. But, the journey to find the key must be made.

The journey to find the key is the right thing. The only option.

And so does fear. In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness. – Pema Chodron

And the right thing… is meditation.

There is nowhere to hide.

Sometimes, however, we are cornered; everything falls apart, and we run out of options for escape. At times like that, the most profound spiritual truths seem pretty straightforward and ordinary. There’s nowhere to hide. – Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

There is nowhere to run.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. – Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech

Now, meditate.

The How-To Meditate: Zoom out, Zoom in!

Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear. – Pema Chodron

The secret to meditation is letting go with focus, and to “not get carried away by hope and fear.” You’re watching your life unfold, without the affectation of your ego. It’s the real world mental equivalent of the Dolly Zoom, best encapsulated by the famous scene in Jaws:

“You can observe more of the background, while keeping the foreground in the same place.”

The Dolly Zoom as you can see describes meditation perfectly. In much the same way as the Dolly Zoom, employs both the telephoto and the wide-angle lenses at the same time, meditation is the deliberate practice to lose yourself-and-your-ego by focusing on two things at once — the foreground of your life, and the background of your life — until they both disappear and you experience this weightless, groundless feeling as described by Pema when you’re fully in the Now-minus-Ego.

The challenge with meditation is that it’s underrated and vastly misunderstood, so many folks let go of the practice before they master it. Let me walk you through my three simple hacks to get started. Stick with this for at least 30 days, and let me know whether it worked or not @mariosundar.

I study Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind

I wanna do things for the benefit of all mankind

I say to the willow tree, “Don’t wait for me”

I’m saying to hell with all things that used to be

— “My Own Version of You,” by Bob Dylan

Step 1: Third Eye First, Tune your Spine!

The three steps I outline need to happen at once, and there will be a moment when you subconsciously do all three, but I’m still at the stage where I’m tryna ride this bicycle of my mind, and those moments of blissful riding the mind are few and far in-between.

While there might be a lot of exaggerated stories about the “Third Eye,” the fact of the matter is that it’s a simple hack to focus on a specific point, it could be a mantra (as is common in Transcendental Meditation – that everyone from Howard Stern to Jerry Seinfeld swear by), but the answer is simple — find a word or visual spot to focus.

Personally, I shut my eyes, sit erect on my yoga pillow and focus on a spot between my eyebrows and trust me be — it is not easy to focus for a concentrated period of time on any spot (visual or mantric), and the trick is to pursue that for as long as you can. And if you can do that for more than a few minutes, you’ll see yourself floating away, while focusing on that spot.

Dolly Zoom your mind. Tuning Fork Your Spine!

In yoga meditation, the meditator withdraws the life force (prana) from the sensory and motor nerves — by a process known as pranayama (life-force control) — and directs it to the higher centers of awareness within the spine and brain. – Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship

That’s where you start. Keep your spine straight and your focus on either a mantra or a visual point between your eyebrows.

Step 2: Empty Your Breath

Equally important, I realize how crucial proper breathing is to achieve the meditative flow, after you hit the first two notes from Step 1. It’s amazing how bad we are at breathing right; anxiety and stress and alcohol and lack of sleep doesn’t help. But meditation can be a bridge to getting better at something so foundational to better living.

Controlled breathing, like what you just practiced, has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment. – New York Times, The Benefits of Controlled Breathing 8

My first experience with this was during a particularly high-stakes conversation I had with Jeff Weiner 9 way back in 2010, who I had the pleasure of working with during my nearly 6 years at LinkedIn, and I recall him asking me to breathe in and out, in a measured way when I was about to have a panic attack (more on my anxiety in a later post). But that worked, and it’s clear why that is the case.

Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol. – New York Times, The Benefits of Controlled Breathing 10

Next week, I’ll outline the modern tools I use to track the effectiveness of my meditation, if you’d like to track that either subscribe to this blog here, or follow me @mariosundar.

Sneak peak (Week of June 29, 2020: Meditation Hardware)

  • The Apple Watch (Tracking Runs, Meditation and Workouts)
  • Core vs. Muse (Tracks Meditation)
  • Komuso Design (Tracks Breathing)

Sneak peak (Week of July 6, 2020: Meditation Software)

  • Headspace vs. Calm
  • Core vs. Muse
  • Transcendental Meditation (TM) vs. Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF)
Step 3: Empty Your Mind

So, the worst year of my life and what it taught me about 2020.

I didn’t think I’d make it out of 2016 in one piece. But, here I am. Thanks to family; thanks to a few close friends. And thanks to my biggest epiphany.

All happiness rests in one place. Between our ears! There’s the rub…

Happiness isn’t a given. Kurosawa, inarguably the greatest writer / filmmaker ever, once said:

“With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. … The script must be something that has the power to do this.”

With bad software between your ears, even the best circumstances life gifts you might be wasted materially, and most definitely spiritually. But with good software buoyed by daily meditation, calm and equanimity, you will take anything life throws at you, and you will create a masterpiece.

Yes, it sure has been a long, hard drive

But someday every thing’s gonna be different

When I paint that masterpiece – Bob Dylan

Since 2016, right through to the Pandemic of 2020…

I ran most days (88% – 92%).

I quit alcohol.

I lost 50 pounds.


Finally, I’m back to writing.

SnapBack to Now: That’s me, 50 pounds lighter, before the Pandemic of 2020, in front of my favorite restaurant

Now, let’s do this all over again! Here we go…

The best way to follow my writing is Twitter. I’m also in the process of redesigning so you can find my writing in your Inbox!Please subscribe to @mariosundar, with 7500 other friends who follow me, or if you’re in Public Relations or Marketing, connect with me on LinkedIn, with 3500 other professionals in our space. I also have a secret project I’ll be launching shortly. Stay tuned.

It’s good to be back.


  1. Source: John Barry’s “The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” that outlines the excruciating spread of a pandemic that took 100 million lives and 5% of the world’s population, with two thirds of lives taken between 18 – 45 years, across three waves in the middle of a World War, via Peter Attia’s excellent podcast — The Drive ↩︎
  2. My experiences resemble this retelling in the New York Times by Eva Holland, Author of “Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear.” I call it “Deliberate Resilience.” ↩︎
  3. Everything at that moment, will feel random, meaningless, surreal, but make no mistake, it is suffused with meaning and it will take years to unwrap. The only gift I wish for you is to be open and curious over the next few years. ↩︎
  4. This is particularly true for those of us, stuck at home, with our inner demons. Sam Lansky, Author of Broken People, nails this dangerous time to slip-and-slide into binge-eating-or-drinking in his terrific TIME piece Stuck With Yourself: The Hidden Price of a Pandemic ↩︎
  5. An introspective Scientific American feature delves into similar themes I discuss in this post on the macro-psychological view of the pandemic and how 2.6 Billion people are coping with anxiety ↩︎
  6. The exact moment where Hamlet recognizes everything is out of his control, and learns in the following lines to accept with grace, and the moment shall arrive. More here ↩︎
  7. A beautiful primer on why “Chaos is Good News” from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche ↩︎
  8. Lesley Alderman, Psychotherapist and New York Times’ contributor, outlines the Breathe-Exhale-Repeat Formula that is a necessary Step 2 in my outline for meditation efficiency ↩︎
  9. Jeff Weiner is currently Executive Chairman at LinkedIn, and I had the pleasure of learning and working with him during the first four years after he began LinkedIn’s comeback from layoffs back in 2008 ↩︎
  10. “Breathing is meditation for people who can’t meditate,” says Dr. Belisa Vranich, author of the book “Breathe”) ↩︎

Filed under: About Mario Sundar, Best-of, Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn Colleagues, Thoughts, Writing

Five Reasons I ditched Writing App “iA Writer” for “Ulysses!”

Writing and blogging tools have come a long way since I first started using iA Writer, one of the simplest writing tools I could find to publish on WordPress or Medium. Today, there seem to be three writing apps of varying degrees of complexity from left to right that has risen to the top — iA Writer, Ulysses, and Scrivener.

Kafka on Writing or How to Beat Writer's Block
Kafka on Writing or How to Beat Writer’s Block

After some debate, and a few years of using iA Writer, I switched to Ulysses recently since it feels like a grown-up version of iA Writer. It takes the craft of writing seriously, provides an accountability better than any other writing platform and seems to make the inscrutable keyboard-friendly plain text formatting syntax — Markdown just as simple as needed. So, without further ado, here are the five reasons I decided to “upgrade” to Ulysses from iA Writer.

Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.

Franz Kafka, born on July 3rd and my greatest inspiration to overcoming writer’s block

Five Reasons to Switch to Ulysses!

  • Better Organization: There’s a story to be told about story-writing platforms like iA Writer and Scrivener but Ulysses organizes itself best from the eyes of a writer
    • The Writer’s Journey: The way the app is organized — from personal notes to blogging to writing a book; all the while allowing for random thoughts to permeate an “Inbox” is a terrific way to organize the writing process, regardless of your stage of writing interest.
    • Markdown Onboarding: The challenge at times (for me) with iA Writer was that the organization was rather nebulous around Markdown; 1 that seemingly is a feature, not a bug. Ulysses on the other hand does a pretty good job of educating you on Markdown and distills it down to core features that every writer needs – whether it is adding images, videos, or footnotes (all three of which I had desperately sought to add on iA Writer but constantly lost and finding myself scouring the web for Markdown syntax). Not only does Ulysses guide you while you type in markdown commands but it eases the confusion should you forget the syntax; like when you try to add a URL with the basic syntax, it automatically pops up the URL title bar and you take it from there vs. not knowing if what you did was right.
Markdown to add images on Ulysses
Markdown to add images on Ulysses

I get a distinct feeling, there’s a lot more onboarding magic waiting to happen within Ulysses as I continue to use it, and with the determination to get back into the daily writing game, it was crucial that I had a product that allowed me to see progress being made and that held me accountable.

Onboarding their Subscription and building a community made it worth the price of admission
Onboarding their Subscription and building a community made it worth the price of admission
  • Progress Bar: I love the goal-setting feature which pops up when you hit attachments in the main-screen that allows you to not only tag (which makes for the easiest organization; something that iA Writer was strangely lacking) but also lets you add images (yet another feature that I found missing in iA Writer because previews were almost impossible to do); but most importantly, it allows for goal setting (both in number of characters, but more importantly with a due date for your writing). Believe it or not, the past week has seen me draft over three posts, and being intentional about setting a date/time to start blogging and completing the process truly helps beat back writer’s block.
  • Backup & Version Control: Oddly enough, losing a well-written draft on iA Writer was the trigger that led to my switching apps and one that early users of Microsoft Word might recall. I still can’t find that iA doc which was lost while transferring it across folders on iCloud. And just the fact that Ulysses backs up all its documents with version control was enough for me to switch. Just syncing across devices within iOS isn’t enough (maybe if you’re a real amateur) but it’s the ability to hold the documents in place, for perpetuity that gives a writing app the distinction it deserves.

    It’s like one of my favorite moments from Seinfeld, where Jerry and Elaine mock the reservationist for taking their reservations but not holding it.

    See, you know how to take the reservation; you just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation – the holding!

    Anybody can just take em.

     

     

  • Multimedia: Speaking of embedding YouTube videos, the only reason I briefly switched to Medium (more on this later) was their exceptional web editor that allows you to preview any multimedia link (from images to YouTube videos to tweets) right there on the page as will be seen on your published page. That’s a terrific feature and one that iA Writer could care less about (remember, they are the markdown writer — plain text writer) but frankly, most of my posts are social in that they connect to a bunch of images, videos, and tweets as jumping off points for conversations. Ulysses is helpful in embedding / previewing pics, embedding videos (not previewing) and are yet to allow for either on tweets. Regardless, this is a considerable upgrade from the iA Writer interface whose primary goal was not moving from your keyboard but made previewing quite the pain.
  • Quality Pays: Finally, the pricing. The fact is there’s a reason one pays for a Mac vs. a lesser priced PC and that argument has been made before. While iA Writer charges $29.99 for the Mac version, and $4.99 for the iOS Version and I haven’t paid a penny more since I purchased it years ago.

    Ulysses goes a different model — subscriptions! And while I’m not a fan (I frankly don’t have a clue how many apps I have subscribed for that I don’t use!) this is an app I plan to use on a regular basis. And on a feature-by-feature comparison, it wins. Frankly, it wins on their document organization, keywords, and backups, because — words matter. When you pay for quality, it shows. And $39.99 a year, ain’t too bad a price to pay for that.

What’d make it even better

Medium’s web-based editor is most definitely the best WYSIWYG editor on a blogging platform out there. It’s miles ahead of WordPress and that’s their secret sauce. I just wish something as simple as Ulysses or iA Writer will allow Twitter, YouTube and Image embeds (Ulysses allows image and video embeds — but (vid) embeds doesn’t translate to WordPress and it’s not as good as it can get, auto-play can be)

 

Regardless, I have to stress that writing on iA Writer is a terrific way to get into the habit of writing or getting back in the game. And you can always upgrade to Ulysses later. Love both these writing apps!

Tweet-Roll: Further Reading // Writers to Follow

Thanks to the following writers for their work that I reference and include above. But more importantly, this is a mini-version of blog-roll that used to be a great way to find a community of similar writers. When I started my blogging experience, I found a community of early bloggers who were included in my first blog-roll including @jowyang, @annhandley, @chrisbrogan, and of course, the incomparable @guykawasaki. Further reading and cast for this post, below: 

About Me: Thanks for reading. I’m Mario Sundar, Twitter’s 1st Evangelism lead in 2016, also LinkedIn’s 2nd PR guy between 2007 and 2012. I’ve been blogging for over 10 years and these are my thoughts on technology and communications.

If you like my writing, please subscribe, comment or respond here below. Or you can find me @mariosundar on Twitter.

  1. iA Writer aggressively markets itself as a Writer for Markdown and purposefully stays on point, making simple additions like images and videos painful.

Filed under: Business Blogging, New Products, What's New in Social Media, Writing, , ,

Give me that reason. A reason to write.

I am 35 years old. Today.

Feels odd, since I haven’t shared that on Facebook and here I am for the first time sharing this with all you guys – my readers.

But this post is about you and me.

And, Justin Timberlake. Ha.

About Me

Sometimes the past 5 years seem like an achievement.

Other times, I look forward to the next 5 years and given my unique predicament (I’ll tell you about it someday), I’m filled with trepidation.

But 6 years ago, right around the time I should have packed my bags and gone back to India, I chose to stay. And it worked out great.

So there you have it.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And that truly made all the difference.

Bonus: There’s nothing like hearing Robert Frost read the poem himself.

About You 

Right around the time I should have packed my bags and begone, the world saw the democratization of writing with blogs.

We finally had an opportunity where writer met reader and talked. The key was talking. Like Humans Do.

With that I started my blogging. I know I may have neglected you at times, but now that I’ve picked up the pen again; it feels natural. Like riding a bicycle after a hiatus.

This time the words flowed more freely.

The motivation followed:

I had one of my most successful posts – on writing – that has already seen tens of thousands of views, and hundreds of shares on Twitter, Facebook, and over a hundred upvotes on Quora.

People who care about good writing and whose writing I love, shared it – Daniel Pink, Chris Brogan and Marc Bodnick (on Quora) – and it found an even bigger audience.

It’s moments like these that give you the motivation to write more.

For your applause. Your retweets. Your likes.

Keep me writing… creating. 

So thanks for your feedback! For reading, for sharing, for commenting on my writing. Writing which at times may seem to make sense only to me.

But if you don’t do the above, I won’t have a reason to write.

So thanks for giving me that reason.

And for the birthday wishes, guys!

Filed under: About Mario Sundar, Writing, , , , , , ,

Writing slow-motion

Check out this instructive video on how you can slow down time in your stories?

Some of you may have done it without realizing it was possible; at least the good writers among you.

But it’s as simple as providing more details and amplifying the excitement of a decisive moment in your story, or blog post or movie.

This Ted-Ed video does a better job of explaining that.

You’re welcome.

Filed under: Writing,

Write like the President’s Speechwriter

Remember, President Obama’s triumphantYes, We Can” speech, or the hopeful New Hampshire concession speech or most recently the comforting Newton tragedy speech

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Words matter and a President’s words carry meaning to hundreds of millions of people; it helps sooth, comfort, and uplift a nation.

So there’s a lot we can learn about writing from the President’s young speechwriter Jon Favreau (not the guy who brought you Iron Man). This past week Favreau crafted one of his penultimate speeches for the President and shared some of his secrets gleaned while writing for the President.

First, nail the theme

One of the biggest mistakes you can make while writing an essay or a blog post is to blah, blah, ramble on relentlessly towards an unspecified goal in the far distance. Smart writers always get the theme right first, which helps with Act 1 and 3 of the piece, and then work around it to get Act 2 right – usually the toughest part.

The President’s working style with Favreau is no different.

“We wanted to make sure that we were going to pick one theme and not go all over the place. And the president said, “Look there’s the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and for 200 years the American story has been about making those promises real,'” recalled Favreau. For an underlying theme, they settled on the notion that “alongside our rugged individualism, there’s another strand of American belief which is that we’re all in this together e pluribus unum, out of many, one.”

Keep it short, keep it real

For cryin out loud, please keep it short. Everybody’s got ADD (thank you, Twitter!) these days, so holding their attention is gonna be your biggest challenge.

As Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter, said about JFK’s speeches:

No speech was more than 20 to 30 minutes in duration. They were all too short and too crowded with facts to permit any excess of generalities and sentimentalities. His texts wasted no words and his delivery wasted no time.

And, boy did Kennedy’s speeches work because of that very fact:

For he disliked verbosity and pomposity in his own remarks as much as he disliked them in others. He wanted both his message and his language to be plain and unpretentious, but never patronizing. He wanted his major policy statements to be positive, specific and definite, avoiding the use of “suggest,” “perhaps” and “possible alternatives for consideration.”

Yes. Always be specific.

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

Nah, I wouldn’t recommend that rule because not all things that work for Hemingway work for mere mortals. But, Hemingway was right about one thing – relentlessly edit your work till its worthy of public consumption.

Editing is an art form with the structure depending on how you choose to approach it. In some cases, logic will be the guide:

“He’s known for his rhetoric, right?” said Favreau. “But he’s also got a very lawyerly, logical mind. And so the thing he always does best is putting every argument in order.”

The night before the inauguration, Obama was done editing. All that was left were words to underline so that they’d get proper emphasis in the delivery. The president did a read through in the map room of the White House that night.

And, in other cases, reason will dictate the contents of a speech as Ted Sorenson describes JFK’s goal with his speeches:

At the same time, his emphasis on a course of reason –rejecting the extremes of either side –helped produce the parallel construction and use of contrasts with which he later became identified. He had a weakness for one unnecessary phrase: “The harsh facts of the matter are . . .”–but with few other exceptions his sentences were lean and crisp. . . .

But regardless, if there’s one thing I’d like you to takeaway from this post, it’d be edit, edit, and edit until your post is worthy of being seen by people. Or as Hemingway said to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934:

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Put it in the wastebasket, not on your blog.

Filed under: Best-of, Leadership Communication, Public Speaking, Writing, , , , , ,

Why I blog and why you should too

The toughest part of blogging is keeping up the urge to blog seven days a week. This post, inspired by Orwell, started out  as my quest to find out why I  blog, but it kinda evolved into an outline on why you should too.

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Trust me on this one: blogging’s tough to keep up with, there’s no clear end game but it’s totally worth it!

So blogging newbies, if you’re expecting a quick return on investment with your new hobby I’d say, don’t even start. You are likely to shed your blogging interest much like a New Year’s resolution:

“Avocational” bloggers are likely to drop off simply because it’s hard work to keep up the pace. Writing an insightful 700 word article several times a week, for no or little money, is far more taxing than snapping a photo or sending a 140 character tweet. That’s part of the reason a 2010 Pew study showed that the rate of blogging was declining among teens and young adults, who were instead spending their time on social networks.

But if you’re willing to stick with it, read on. Here’s why blogging matters to every single one of us (yes, every one reading this post):

1. Blogging gives you a voice

Blogs traffic in ideas and as a professional if you’ve ideas other than what your boss demands of you in a daily job, than a blog is the best way to share it widely. Quora or LinkedIn or Twitter sure help, but you’re playing in somebody else’s playground. I say build a blog yourself and it’s all you. You own your words, your ideas.

Get creative. You’re gonna feel the urge to do that someday soon. @dorieclark summed it best:

Writing is still the clearest and most definitive medium for demonstrating expertise on the web. But as thought leaders like Gary Vaynerchuk have shown with video blogging and fellow HBR blogger Mitch Joel with podcasting (i.e., audio blogging), as long as your content is rich and thoughtful, you can still build up a massive following and reputation regardless of your channel. In an information-hungry world, there will always be a need for expert content. And there will always be more readers and “retweeters” than there will be creators.

2. Use that voice with purpose

If you want to have an impact, you might as well be the one setting the agenda by leading with your ideas to influence the world. Reminded me (yes, I think of most things in life as a Steve Jobs quote) of something Steve Jobs said:

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is to live your life inside this world; try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life.

Life can be much broader. Once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.

You can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

This thinking echoes one of Orwell’s motives for writing:

Political purpose: Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

And, I think any good blog or book has a serious purpose. The rest of them blogs are boring as hell; kinda like some of the older posts I wrote in Act II of writing this blog. A mistake I don’t plan on making again.

3. Blogging sharpens your mind 

Nothing clarifies the mind better than the concerted effort to write a blog post. I learned this from @adamnash who, besides being a prolific blogger himself, also used to be a strong advocate of product managers on his team writing posts for the company blog as an exercise in thinking through product features from a user’s perspective.

What’s true for product managers is true for any professional across the board. Much like the iPhone’s limited mobile real estate forces designers to surface the most important features efficiently, a blank page on a blog forces you to channel your ideas on topics that mean something to your career.

Open an empty word document and try writing down the first thing that comes to mind about your “job” today.

Try it, it’s a liberating act.

4. Blogging helps you connect the dots

Facebook may connect you with people you already know, but knowledge networks like Twitter or Quora connect you with people you gotta know. A blog is the epitome of this dynamic.

I’m still good friends with the first group of bloggers I stumbled upon when I started this blog. Folks like Ann Handley, Jeremiah Owyang or Mack Collier among others. As time progresses, your thinking evolves, you focus on areas your mind leads you to (in my case – social networking) and you find other equally insightful bloggers to friend.

Fact is: blogging expands your circle of professional connections but more importantly guides you towards people who are more in line with your professional thinking.

So have I made a persuasive case for blogging? Frankly, this post is more a personal rallying cry to help me sustain my blogging, but rest assured blogging changed my life once and I’m betting on it doing the same again.

As Steve Jobs said:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.

So blog. Do it if you really love what you do. Heck, do it if you don’t love what you currently do.

And the dots will eventually connect.

Filed under: Best-of, Thoughts, Writing,

All the iPhone apps a Writer needs

Since my return to blogging, I’ve been trying to develop a regimen to get my writing in shape. A process during which I’ve put together an ideal stable of iPhone apps that enable me to save your fleeting thoughts – write and publish – whenever, wherever.

Every writer has their writing setup.

This is mine.

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I think to be a good writer, you’ve got to read, read, and read more. And then when you’ve an idea – write, write and write – wherever you are. Over time you learn how to discern good from bad writing, understand sentence structures, how to play with them, and finally through that knowledge how to break rules. Robert Louis Stevenson says it best.

All through my boyhood and youth, I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny version-book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words.

If you choose to do the same – “live with words” – in today’s smartphone world, there’s a slew of apps to check out, but the sad fact is most of it is crap. After wasting hours investigating these apps, I’ve curated the best; 4 reading and 4 writing apps, that’ll help every writer keep their New Year resolutions this year.

Reading iOS Apps

My two biggest sources of daily reading are: Twitter, and Google Reader. Anything I see there that I don’t have time to read I schedule for end-of-day on Instapaper; also sent daily to my Amazon Kindle, which is my fourth reading app.

One of the main reasons I picked the apps below is their multi-platform capability. You start reading a book on your Kindle, pick it up on your iPhone’s Kindle app later or maybe read it when you get home at the end of the day: all synced up. Same for the other three apps below.

By syncing a book across platforms, including a Kindle smart phone app, a dedicated Kindle reader, and the audio version, we can read more by reading in smaller chunks. We can get a bit of reading done whenever we have a few minutes. And then we can transition to longer stretches of pleasure reading with our dedicated Kindle reader.

In general I prefer web based apps for twitter and like @Tweetdeck a bunch, but the main reason I switched to Tweetbot was the ability to sync up tweets based on were you read it (Mac, iPad or iPhone).

I was stuck on @reeder, a very pretty Google reader app on Apple’s iOS universe, but given the number of feeds I subscribe to the entire process of reading became a chore.

What I needed was an app that made it easy for me to skim through hundreds of feeds and Newsify is the solution. Works great on the iPad and the iPhone.

This one’s a doozy. I’ve oscillated between Pocket and Instapaper, back and forth, for a while now. But, this past week as I figured out my writing style, I settled on Instapaper. I bet Marco’s smiling. Here’s why.

Search archives: I knew this feature existed, but as a writer, I didn’t realize how critical it was. As I mentioned above, reading is critical, and with a lil digital savvy you shouldn’t have to struggle finding great pieces to link to or re-read just because Chrome does an awful job with their not-so-Awesomebar.

Now if you route all the articles you find, whether it’s on Twitter, Google Reader (Amazon Kindle: can we send highlights and notes to Instapaper?) to Instapaper, now you can search through all of them later so you can link to exactly the right article you’re looking for.

Amazon Kindle integration: There’s magic in the power of habit, powered by the habit of one.

The goal is to channel as many of these curated, high-quality articles, you stumble upon during the day, into one distraction-free reading app just for your eyes, for the end of the day.

Instapaper has this amazing feature to route the day’s read-laters to Amazon Kindle at a specific time of day. I usually set it up for end of day and read these before I get ready to blog for the next day. That routine works great for me. Here’s how to create that setup for yourself. Hat tip @_davidsmith.

Before diving into the details I want to try and explain why this feature is so incredibly useful and has changed so fundamentally how I read content from the web. The Kindle is a device with a singular focus, reading. While it isn’t without flaws, the experience of reading long-form content on the Kindle is the best of any device I’ve tried. The e-ink screen is gentle on your eyes. The insane battery life and tiny size means that you can always have it with you. But most importantly it can only be used for reading which enforces a mental focus that I find very relaxing.

Within that context reading my Instapaper queue on my Kindle is the most comfortable experience I’ve found. I even find it better than the iPad app, which will good in its own right but provides far too much opportunity for distraction.

Agreed, agreed, and agreed.

Writing iOS Apps

Inspiration strikes anywhere. Just ask Galileo.

Today’s digital world allows you to do things that a moleskine just couldn’t. The most important moleskine notebook you can ever have is the one you carry with you everywhere and that’s your phone.

While picking these apps my goal was yet again multi-platform compatibility and inter-operability. The four apps covers the journey your words make from your mind to being written and published.

This goes without saying: it’s always good to carry a dictionary with you and the iPhone app’s dictionary is stellar, not only allowing you to find meanings and synonyms but also helping with pronunciation. I wish there were a similar app for grammar but too bad there isn’t a Kindle version for “Strunk and White’s Elements of Style” – 85 pages of Grammar Gold. That’s Gold, Jerry. Gold!

All you need is a blank page. Now imagine a blank page with a blinking cursor.

As intimidating as it has been for writers world-wide, for centuries; a blank page is the perfect way to get your ideas down as they flow freely onto paper.

And, I can’t think of a better app that allows you to just [focus on the writing, one sentence at a time], while the rest of your words on that page wait for your edits. I can’t recommend iA Writer enough. The best part is that it syncs up your words on iCloud (preferred method) or Dropbox (which would be my second option since it may lose stuff when offline).

Give it a try.

Of course, in some cases when I’m working on projects I have it saved on Google Drive or Google Docs. It’s definitely no iA Writer but if you have your stuff there, then it makes sense to have their iPhone and iPad apps cos it allows you to edit content (spreadsheets or docs) on your iPhone.

The last piece to this puzzle is publishing your thoughts; a blog being the easiest way to accomplish that. My blog’s been on WordPress for two reasons: it was the easiest to setup when I started nearly 8 years ago and it is great at helping your words reach the right audience when they search for your on search engines like Google (it’s called search engine optimization).

But the downside to WordPress is that they suck at designing beautiful apps and frankly their iPhone, iPad app sucks.

So imagine my surprise when I found Poster, the most beautiful, minimalist WordPress app you’re ever gonna find. And, it works with Markdown which I use on iA Writer to write my posts. Secondly, if I want to publish in HTML, iA Writer makes it super-easy to export-copy in HTML which I can then publish in WordPress. Plus, Poster has Dropbox integration so you can carry your posts on the cloud.

** Markdown is the simplest way to format your posts within the realm of your keyboard.

Now that you have all the tools you’ll ever need to write – at any point of time in your daily life – all that remains is to write like you give a fuck.

A better metaphor I couldn’t have thought of, so here goes. Robert Louis Stevenson, take it away

To know the secret of skating is, indeed, I have always thought, the beginning of winter-long pleasance. It comes as sweet deliverance from the tedium of indoor isolation and brings exhilaration, now with a swift glide to the right, now with a deft swerve to the left, now with a deep breath of healthy air, now with a long exhalation of ozone, which the lungs, like greedy misers, have cast aside after draining it of its treasure. But it is not health that we love nor exhilaration that we seek, though we may think so; our design and our sufficient reward is to verify our own existence, say what you will.

And so, my dear young friend, I would say to you: Open up your heart; sing as you skate; sing inharmoniously if you will, but sing! A man may skate with all the skill in the world; he may glide forward with incredible deftness and curve backward with divine grace, and yet if he be not master of his emotions as well as of his feet, I would say—and here Fate steps in—that he has failed.

Filed under: Social Media Tools, Writing