A Good Pitch: The Age of Surge

Sometimes people send me books to review; sometimes I review them.

As a writer myself, it’s an interesting approach to marketing. Based upon my previous Amazon reviews, authors have approached me to review their books. It’s almost always business books, and rarely novels or bottles of whisky. Perhaps this is because business authors are more marketing-savvy.

The email pitch was a good one:

I’m a first time author reaching out to those who love learning and reading about innovation, leadership and new ideas on reinventing companies for digital.
Your review of StrengthsFinder 2.0 is what caught my eye.  Our new book (The Age of Surge.) was written to help leaders and everyday employees take the kinds of ideas covered in StrengthsFinder 2.0 and show how to put them to work in even the most dysfunctional, “broken” companies.   I think you’ll find our book provocative and thought provoking…  you might even like it 🙂
Would you be open to reading our book if I send you a free digital copy (no strings attached)?  Obviously I’d welcome and appreciate any time you’re willing to spend leaving an honest review.

This was a good pitch for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was personalized. The email was not just a press release but a personal note that highlighted the fact that I liked a similar book. There was research behind it.
  2.  It was written in a human voice. The pitch came from the author. It was direct, concise and respectful of my time.

That said, just because it’s a good pitch doesn’t mean I’m going to review it.

I look at these books on business reinvention with a jaundiced eye – my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block satirizes the genre, following a clueless consultant who leaves disaster everywhere he goes. It’s based upon my experience seeing organizations conduct ill-conceived change initiatives.

I didn’t want to like The Age of Surge. But it is a very readable, humane look at change in the workplace from someone who operates in the real world, not the theoretical domain of management consultants. The author praises middle management – I’ve never seen that before.

So, it’s not enough to craft a catchy email. First, you have to write a great book. But to get reviewers to read your book you have to approach them with a personalized, human, relevant message. That’s a good pitch.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

Donald Trump may demonize refugees but it’s impossible to look at a suffering person and not feel compassion.

That’s why photography is so important and why the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently hosted a panel of photojournalists and an accompanying photo exhibit.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice examined the impact of photojournalism and creative storytelling on policy.

But when we say policy, what really mean is people. Immigration is a policy; seeing a photo of a child saying goodbye to a deported father is heartbreaking reality.

After the photographers presented the work, a large part of the discussion centered around how to share their photos with the wider world. The set of people willing to go to JHU on a weeknight for a talk on social justice and photography is self-limiting. It was an audience sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed.

But in an era when people can select their own reality, how do you break through the Fox News bubble?  In his work, Salwan Georges depicts a view rarely seen on network news – the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. These are Americans who have given their children in service to this country but their stories are rarely told. Salwan had touching photos of imams at work, not just providing religious instruction, but visiting with their congregants and even arranging marriages, a portrayal of the Muslim faith that never reaches conservative media.

Bridging this gap requires reaching out. It means that photographers and advocates must invite not just the familiar universe of liberals but also other groups, such as churches and veterans. None could look at 15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice and go away unmoved.

The Johns Hopkins photography panel was just the first of several to occur this year, leading up to Focus On the Story, a new photography festival, coming this summer.

 

Find Work That Matters in 2018

Crowd at Finding Work That Matters

According to a recent survey, nearly 10% of respondents made finding a new job their New Year’s resolution – that’s double from last year. 2018 is the year that America moves on to something better, at least when it comes to work.

The passion for a change was evident at How to Find Work That Matters, a free class at General Assembly in Washington, DC.

Led by career coach Joy Haugen, a packed house of participants took part in exercises designed to identify their dream jobs – and how to get them.

Current/Future State

After a brief introduction, Joy put us to work. The first activity was to write down what your life was like right now – your career, finances, personal life, everything.

Next was to picture your life five years in the future. What does it look like? Where are you living? What are you doing?

Joy then made everyone in the room stand, spin three times, and share your dream with someone else. Three other people, to be exact, as the room burst into noisy conversation.

While Joy encouraged people to think big, most people’s dreams (including mine) were more prosaic: a good job doing interesting work with nice people. That is the American Dream, 2018 edition.

The purpose of this activity was to identify what really mattered to you. Is it being able to walk to work? Make lots of money? Travel? Time off? In order to find work that matters, you must know what matters to you.

Throughout the exercises, Joy’s point was to switch the job-searching paradigm around. You are not a powerless candidate trying to fit into a prescribed box of qualifications. Instead, you are talent, bringing your unique strengths (your superpower, in her words) to an employer lucky to have you.

Superpower

What is your superpower? What makes you unique? What do you love more than anything else? The next step was to tell the person next to you what that was. (The evening is an introvert’s nightmare). Mine was writing. “Finding an apartment,” spoke the young woman next to me, a true super power in DC.

Your resume should be all about your superpower. What’s the point of listing a bunch of stuff you don’t want to do? My resume is about writing, specifically writing for web sites and social media.

Even if you think your superpower (like finding an apartment), isn’t relevant it probably can be related to real-world skills. The super girl of apartment searching needed to be organized, quick and decisive to find a home in a city with few rentals.

Tip: Add a section called “Skills” at the top of your resume. Hiring managers spend six seconds on a resume. Make it easy for them by listing what you do best. 

Values

Next, Joy made us create two lists:

  1. What I’ve enjoyed at work.
  2. What I’ve not enjoyed.

After we scribbled down our lists, she asked us to look for patterns. My likes were writing, web sites, social media, creative people, collegial environment, happy hour. My dislikes were bureaucracies, bad bosses and no benefits.

Looking at the lists, what stands out? What are your values? Is it important to work in an innovative company? Work independently? Be part of a team?

My values: Creativity, Learning, Nice.

Applying for jobs is a full-time job. Only apply for opportunities that meet your values.

Resume

What I liked about Joy was that she was not overly prescriptive.  There are many different ways of doing a resume but the format she recommended was:

  • Name
  • Contact Info (just email/phone – no address needed)
  • Skills
  • Objective/Brand Statement (what you want to do/who you are)
  • Experience
  • Education
  • Other (your side hustle, millennials)

One page for every ten years is her rule. Lots of bullets to make the resume easy to scan. And data. Numbers. If you increased sales by 20%, include that.

Cover Letter

Joy is also an advocate of the cover letter. It should contain five paragraphs:

  1. What you’re applying for.
  2. Why you’re great.
  3. Why they’re great.
  4. What great things we can do together.
  5. Call to action – call me!

The purpose of the resume and cover letter is to get you past the screener. A typical HR staffer may be recruiting for twenty jobs. For each job, they get 100+ resumes. Make it easy for the screener to match you with the job by clearly spelling out your skills and interests.

Networking

Of course, the dream is to skip past the screener. You do that through networking. Go to events in your field. Stalk people on LinkedIn. And, when you meet people, stand out by not asking that most DC of questions, “What do you do?” Instead, ask people what they like about their jobs or what they do outside of work or, frankly, anything. The purpose is just to have a human conversation so that they’ll remember you in the future.

Tip: For an easy networking opportunity, go to General Assembly’s First Friday Happy Hour.

Let’s Make a Plan

Most people who resolve to find a new job in January give up by February. Job searching is hard.

Joy advocates blocking out time on your calendar to work on applications. And celebrate your wins, even if it’s just updating your resume or going to a networking event.

Washington is awash in jobs. But it’s also awash in candidates.

The temptation is to apply to everything and anything. After all, you can do so with the click of a button.

What I took from Finding Work That Matters is the importance of finding a job that meets your values. For me, that’s finding a writing job with nice people in downtown DC close to bars and bike lanes 🙂

Mapping BikeDC: Photos from the Nation’s Capital

The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.
The BikeDC Flickr map displaying photos tagged BikeDC from around the city.

What does biking look like in Washington, DC? Find out with the new BikeDC Flickr map created by Michael Schade.

It’s a heat map of Flickr photos of bikes and bicyclists in DC. Areas with the most photos glow red while those with none are gray. See the favorite spots for pictures of bikes, taken by people on bikes, and ponder the empty quarters of the city. Zoom in to find your favorite trail and zoom out to see an overview of  the Washington region.

How it works

When you take a photo on your iPhone, location data is captured. If you upload it to Flickr, that geolocation is included, joining a worldwide map of photos auto-generated by this online service.

Another little-known feature of Flickr is the ability to tag photos with keywords. Doing so helps you and others find your photos.

To build his map of biking in DC, Michael used Flickr’s map and limited it to photos tagged with the BikeDC keyword.

Surprises

The BikeDC Flickr map corresponds neatly with the Strava heat map of biking in DC. Most biking occurs in the Northwest section of the city. People go on bikes go to their jobs downtown and then on the trails during the weekends. Still, there are surprises in the data.

Anacostia Trail – why so few riders? This gorgeous new trail follows the Anacostia upstream by Kenilworth Gardens and the Bladensburg battlefield.

No one bikes to H St? After wrecking on the trolley tracks, I’m not a fan of biking to this neighborhood. But I know people do.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is underrepresented. This urban trail is lined with beautiful murals and is an active commuter route. It needs photos!

BikeDC really loves Dupont Circle. It’s a convenient meeting spot and where the DC Bike Party starts so it’s a flaming red hot spot.

15th and P – en fuego! Okay, this is my fault. I’m a prime contributor to BikeDC photos and this is my neighborhood. I take a lot of photos of the 15th St bike lane, especially when the Awesome Foundation cheered on bike commuters.

Cyclecross in the City – BikeDC doesn’t just happen on the roads. If you pan up to Park View, you’ll see a bunch of pictures from DC Cyclocross, where city cyclists go off-road at the Old Soldiers Home.

BikeDC is just not DC – The BikeDC photo blob extends across the river, following the Arlington loop of bike trails as well as extending south to Alexandria and north to Silver Spring, MD.

How you can help

Got a favorite bike spot that you don’t see on the BikeDC Flickr map? Know a neighborhood or trail that’s underrepresented? Upload your photos to Flickr. Make sure that your pictures include location info (if not you can add it in the Organizer) and tag them with the keyword BikeDC. Help build a pictorial representation of biking in the city.

If you have questions about the map, contact Michael Schade. He generously created this project on his own time. It’s still a work-in-progress but demonstrates the breadth of BikeDC across the city and beyond.

The Swamp: Early Reviews

Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.

One of the most gratifying things about being an author is hearing that people enjoyed your book.

And readers have enjoyed THE SWAMP!

Here are some early reviews of my funny new novel about Washington, DC, and the times we live in now.

Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.

Check out THE SWAMP yourself and enjoy this rollicking read!

Michael Wolff: The Biographer the President Deserves

Sold out of Fire and Fury at Kramerbooks

There’s a tendency to think that people at the top of large organizations are smarter than you. After all, they’ve made it to the top. They must brilliant people guided by devoted staff and working within a well-organized system.

The truth is more like the moment Dorothy peeks behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz – it’s all chaos, a sham of smoke and mirrors aimed at concealing the very human weakness of the person in charge, as Michael Wolff’s reveals in Fire and Fury, his takedown of the Trump administration.

I’ve worked in communications for major organizations in Washington, DC. Everywhere, it’s the same – you may have smart staffers, and a process designed to to prevent embarrassing mistakes, but the work is driven by the whims of The Boss. If he (and it’s almost always a he), wants to put out a press release announcing his birthday, then one is produced.

I read Michael Wolff’s book Burn Rate back in the 90s. This was the era of Silicon Alley, when New York dotcoms aspired to be the next Excite or Yahoo. Wolff, a journalist, founded a company and then proceeded to burn through VC cash before walking away from the wreckage. The book mocks Internet pioneers and the industry.

He’s a loathsome character, with the attitude of a con artist putting one over on the rubes. In this case, the marks are his employees, who he stiffs, and investors, who lose their money. There’s a scene at the end of the book (and it’s very novelistic) where he succeeds at unloading the remains of his business on someone else though his media company is little more than a Filemaker database, a feat that Wolff gleefully recounts.

Whenever I’d see his name in the media, I’d think, “Ugh, that guy.” After burning Internet bridges, he went on to excoriate Rupert Murdoch and other billionaire/tyrants, his villainous headshot atop gossipy columns in Vanity Fair and other publications.

A simple Google search would’ve revealed all this.

Inviting this devious miscreant into the White House is the greatest act of communications malpractice this century. Instead of warning staff not to talk to this unreliable scribe, Sarah Sanders allowed this New York creature to observe the Trumpian chaos from a comfy couch. He’s a journalist who specializes in ripping apart media figures – what did they think he was doing there?

As Drew Margary in GQ writes, it takes a rat to catch a rat. Promising a nice book, and then writing a nasty one, Wolff worked the long con to perfection. For a change, Trump was the one being tricked.

Unethical, self-absorbed and steeped in the values of the billionaire elite, Wolff is the biographer that Trump deserves.

The Worst: 2017 in Review

inauguration protesters set limo on fire

Most Americans voted against Trump. Elected by a disaffected rump of the population, the crass New Yorker governed like a tyrant, his models being Putin, Erdogan and Chavez. The country was saved solely by the incompetence of the man, who turned out to be more Mussolini than Der Fuhrer.

Still, 2017 was a deeply traumatic year, where the infection of politics found everyone, even those who sought to avoid it, like myself, naively thinking that I could ignore the new President as helicopters whirred overhead on Inauguration Day.

That was the moment I was radicalized, hearing Trump speak of American carnage while I watched real carnage on the streets of DC. I spent my life avoiding politics in Washington, feeling it to be a pointless exercise. Yet, by the end of the year, it seemed essential that every American, including me, resist incipient tyranny.

reading at Kramerbooks

Ironically, a few weeks earlier, I was sympathetic to Trump voters, representing my beliefs in the short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. Yet, after my reading at Kramerbooks (the highlight of the year for me), events pushed me left.

My journey, and the journey of millions like me, was summed up in a tweet:

Running was a consolation, even in mid-winter, pounding around the monuments useful stress relief. I aimed for 300 miles this year. Not much for some, but more than I’ve ever run, and nearly got there except for injury.

Women's March crowds on 14th St

In March, cherry blossoms bloomed and then were covered in snow – it was that kind of year. By then, protests had filled the streets for months, from the comedic geekery of March for Science to the staggering crowds of the Women’s March, every one of them exponentially larger than the paucity of people that greeted the Donald to DC.

The year saw me increasingly politicized, especially after witnessing the heartless attitudes of Trump tourists toward refugees and visiting a South clinging to Civil War memories. The eclipse brought the country together, but only briefly.

eclipse in black and white

Meanwhile, I was thinking of The Swamp, doing some freelance work while I hammered my comic novel into place. Originally titled Drone City, and about 90% done at the start of the year, I revised it extensively for an era that was stranger than fiction, my selection of the title a clapback at the Trumpkins who think America can survive without a government. In my book, I gave them their wish.

My books are a cynical look at DC, while my photography is a romantic vision of the city. I like wandering the streets and taking photos, even in the snow, like the shot of the Spanish Steps which won the Mitchell Park Photo Competition and admission to the French Ambassador’s residence, a fancy event I attended in a ripped jacket.

A better fit for me was the wonderful Community Collective show, square views of the city curated by friends of mine. In addition to being the unofficial photographer of #BikeDC, I was also a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare and took trips to Gettysburg and Little Washington.

2017 was the year that money seemed to slosh through the economy, just out of reach for real people, but readily available for questionable notions like coworking and dockless bikesharing.

this could be a millennial-themed ad

Some of that free stuff found its way to me. I got to sample Uncle Nearest, the bourbon with a fascinating backstory. My bike dreams came true with a Brompton for a day. Through my friends at InstagramDC, I got to experience the interactive art of Artechouse.

But this was the year that America, and its Baby Boomer overlords, said, “Fuck it. We’re not even going to try anymore.” Their parents won a war, built infrastructure and sent a man to the Moon. Boomers spent money on themselves as America fell apart around them. I asked, Does Anybody Make Real Shit Anymore?

I won’t blame Boomers for one loathsome plague: brunch. Sloppy, gross and everywhere, it defined the horror show of America, 2017 edition. One of my last memories of the year was waiting for a friend to finish brunch (I refused to go) while Millennials arrived by Uber and were removed by ambulance, unable to handle their mimosas.

Just when you think that things couldn’t get worse, it got worse with Nazis marching and murdering in Charlottesville. The year saw me reading about the collapse of democracies and how ordinary men ended up standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Tyranny is no longer academic in America, for a good chunk of the population longs for dictatorship – that’s the lesson of 2017. And why you should resist in 2018.

Elizabeth Warren

Our institutions are under attack. I worked for a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a wonderful agency designed to protect poor people from financial scams. The Trump administration is now taking it apart from the inside. Elizabeth Warren came to protest, trailed by a media scrum worthy of a presidential candidate.

Thank god for biking, and a record year of it for me, and for books. It was the kind of year where you read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, as well as great novels like The Sympathizer and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Plus, some less great books that I picked up at Carpe Librum (used books for less than $4) like A Good Year, a wine caper that I thoroughly enjoyed, and reads from DC’s rejuvenated public library system (hello, West End!) including Everybody Behaves Badly.

The Swamp - proof

After much editing, rearranging and reorganizing, The Swamp came out toward end of the year. My friend Lynn Romano edited it, while Rachel Torda did the cover. Publishing through Amazon, the book is available in print and Kindle. If you’re in DC, I’ll sell you a signed copy for $10.

The Swamp starts with a meteorologist who thinks that he can predict the weather, if only he had a little more data. Things go badly from there. The theme of  the novel is that it’s foolish to think that you can forecast the weather – or anything else.

I will make no predictions for 2018. But I know what I’ll be doing. I’m going to write and resist.

En La Florida

SunRail in Winter Park

Bathed in light, I watched the cutest little bit of stimulus money creep into the green environs of Winter Park, FL. The station is tiny, and families waited along the palm tree-lined track to catch the three cars of the SunRail train. The destination was Orlando, five miles away. Driving (or even biking) would’ve been faster but this was some cheap fun for bored children a couple days after Christmas.

Kids love trains, as do most adults though they dismiss them as impractical. But if trains ran more often, and to more places, they would be practical.

Instead, we build roads. Near where my parents live, the state built a flyover at a suburban intersection, allowing traffic to soar on a concrete ramp twenty feet in the air, going from Red Bug Road to 436, one of those six-lane highways lined with fast food joints and gas stations that could be anywhere in America. In a car, you wait for the light to change, go under the massive flyover and then run into another traffic light.

After watching the train disappear into the verdant flatness of Florida, I drove to my favorite hipster coffee joint. I love how Orange Avenue meanders between Winter Park and Orlando, winding around lakes and passing lingering bits of Old Florida. Along the way is Foxtail Coffee, which makes a great cappuccino and has an outdoor seating area with fake grass and real palm trees. Next door, there’s a place for tiny, tortured salads and a local brewery. It’s about as Portlandia as Florida gets.

Foxtail is nine miles from parents’ place. Easily bikeable, where it not for the presence of six-lane roads like 436. The Google bike directions send you through the flyover.

In Orlando, people bike in subdivisions or they bike on trails but they don’t bike on roads, especially ones like 436. You don’t even see people walking along these suburban corridors.

There’s a tendency to think that this is the natural state of things, as if God ordained the car and America built a network of highways in response to his word.

I watched Secrets of Spanish Florida with the family. American history doesn’t begin with Jamestown but with St. Augustine in 1565, where Spain established a melting-pot colony of Europeans, Indians and escaped slaves. The first Americans were not Puritans, and the first Thanksgiving was not in Massachusetts. By the time the English got to America, the Spanish had been living here for decades. In La Florida, citizenship was available to all, no matter your race.

Perhaps if the Spanish remained in control, Florida would look like Spain, with high-speed trains and excellent ham.

Florida doesn’t have to be a place where retirees go to escape taxation. It can be different. America can be different, too.

Winter: A Time of Deep Crankiness

Rosslyn at sunset

I unleashed a volley of obscenities at the two (two!) cars parked in the middle of the bike lane. After a minor fender-bender, these two drivers decided the best course of action was to move their cars into the protected bike lane of 15th, thus forcing people on bikes (me!) into traffic.

I cursed; they cursed back. At the next light, a woman on a bike pulled up next to me. “That wasn’t helpful,” she said.

“But,” I started, thinking of all the different ways the bike lane is blocked daily by cars, construction and utility companies determined to dig up every bit of asphalt in this city. However, I’ll admit when I’m wrong and I was. Yelling at them did not help matters nor did it make me feel better. It just left me with a hangover of rage.

It’s a tough time of year. I dread these days when the sun sinks lower in the sky until it just barely seems to get above the horizon. You go to work under gray skies and leave when it’s black.

A time of deep crankiness, when schedules are packed with commitments while you’re pressed with a tyrannical demand to appear jolly. Humans, however, are cyclical animals and this is the low end of the year, a sputtering conclusion to a particularly bad one.

Thank god I can run. On Monday, after wrestling with “Run? Don’t run?” I plodded toward Georgetown as the sun set. Running along the waterfront it occurred to me that perhaps the way to conquer winter was to embrace the darkness. Cold temps bring a stillness to the city, banishing the fair-weather tourists. I ran alone by the dark Potomac. Light lingered in the west, across the river.

I stopped to capture the moment. Pretty photo but I’m never going to love winter. Move faster, earth, and spin these dark days away until we reach spring.

The Swamp – Get This Funny New DC Novel

The Swamp - coverMy new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for Washington, DC. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air.

How much hot air? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.

DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.

A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”

THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.