Little Miss Raincloud

January 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Optimism, hard work, success. They’re part of the culture, and we drink it into our consciousness just like Coca-Cola. If you have the right, positive attitude, and you work hard at your idea, you’ll be a winner.

Even if you personally don’t live by these basic American values, they are such a dominant part of the culture that you probably think you should live by them. Values are ideas and principles that are intrinsically good. You can’t argue with them. As my friend Linda Tischler found out.

Linda (wife of sociologist Henry Tischler) is a journalist, and she has been writing about business for a long time. As a senior writer at Fast Company magazine, she was invited to be on a panel at a conference of the N.A.F.E., the National Association for Female Executives. They couldn’t pay her, but they’d cover her expenses. The name Laguna Niguel, California had a nice ring to it. So did the name Ritz Carlton, so she took the offer.

The audience was full of hopeful female entrepreneurs —“momtrepreneurs” as they liked to call themselves— women who had started up a business during naptimes. What they wanted to hear from the journalists was how to get their product into an article in Fast Company, Business Week, or similar magazines.

Linda told them frankly that the odds were very much against them. “I get seventy-five e-mails every day pitching story ideas like that, plus the phone calls and snail mail. And a lot of those pitches are from well-paid PR people at GE, Apple, etc.” She was telling them, in effect, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to do a story about you.

This was definitely not what the audience wanted to hear, and from the comments and reactions, she thought the momtrepreneurs at Laguna Niguel might wind up dumping her in the laguna. After all, these were women who had paid $400 for the conference that promised

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They wanted a pep talk, a “motivational speaker,” someone who would tell them how they could get on the cover of Fortune. And she gave them reality.

She also told them how she screens the pitches. “If your e-mail is bigger than two megabytes, it’s going to get deleted unread. If it doesn’t tell me in the first short paragraph or two what the idea is, out it goes,” and so on. I think her mistake was that she put her advice in the negative, what not to do. That along with her basic message made her a raincloud spoiling the sunny clime of Laguna Niguel.

Linda and Henry recounted her sad tale at dinner last night. It’s not all we talked about. Conversation turned, as it often does, to Iraq. And now I wonder if there isn’t a parallel. The Bush administration sold the invasion on fear (remember those WMDs), but they also sold it on American optimism. We would oust Saddam, and all the Iraqis, just like the Munchkins when Dorothy liquidates the witch, would be free and happy and forever grateful to their liberators.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way— the optimism was more based on neo-conservative fantasies in the US rather than realities in Iraq— but Bush still frames the war in terms of winning and losing, as though international politics is some kind of game with only two outcomes— victory and defeat, success and failure. Since, in another phrase much beloved among motivational speakers, failure is not an option, he’s throwing in another 20,000 troops.

As I walked home after dinner, I passed the building of an acquaintance, Allen Seiden. Allen is a good poker player, and he’d been playing long before the current poker boom — a boom that has allowed him to go from smoky house games to lecturing and teaching. “The first thing you have to learn if you want to win money in poker,” he tells his audience, “is a four-letter word that begins with F. The word is fold. Use it early, use it often.”

The audience nods, but the chances are that most of them don’t really learn the lesson. Most poker players, the average pigeons, will call the bet just to see one more card rather than admit that the hand is a loser, optimistically hoping for the card that will fill their straight and bring them success  Which is why Allen has been able to make money playing poker. And which may also be why Bush just sent more troops to Baghdad.

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