My new motto: Festina lente

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Two weeks ago I stood before this beautiful door in the Uffizi, in Florence. Uffizi means “offices” because what is today the world’s greatest museum started as the offices built by the family that ran Florence, and sometimes Europe: the Medici.

The upper panel on the door above shows the Medici’s crest, six “balls” (including the blue one on top), which shows up on buildings all over Florence. But it’s the lower panel that got me immersed in a long and fascinating conversation.

Here is that lower panel up close. It shows a tortoise with a mast on its back. The mast used to have a sail. It’s a picture of a sailing tortoise, in other words.

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Why did the Medici put a sailing tortoise on their doors? Because it was their visual take on Festina Lente.

Festina Lente is Latin and means “hasten slowly”. It’s whence we get our idiom “make haste slowly”, and the Germans their “Eile mit Weile”. The tortoise, you see, is really busy. It has a purpose and a direction (where it sailing); but it’s still a tortoise, and it has no time to waste by going quickly in the wrong direction. So it’s moving slooowly. But it arrives.

Octavian, later Augustus, was the first to adopt Festina Lente as a motto. He hated speed without precision just as much as he hated lack of urgency or direction. The motto obviously served him rather well. He visualized the idea as a dolphin and an anchor; but I like the sailing tortoise better.

Festina Lente is what I already had in mind five years ago, when I blogged about “slowing down to save time”. But now the sentiment has become even more important to me, because in my new job I have become busier. I simply don’t have time anymore to go fast.

Advice to introverted public speakers (and their hosts)

I’m an introvert and I also enjoy public speaking from time to time.

That is not a contradiction. If you think it is, then you probably haven’t understood the definition of introversion. (In which case, read this excellent and short explanation by Jonathan Rauch, who used to be a colleague at The Economist.)

The problem for me when I speak publicly is usually not the speech itself, no matter how big the audience. Rather it is the people who invited me to speak and feel they must take care of me before and after. Invariably, these organizers/hosts/masters of ceremonies are extroverts. They mean well but do not understand the introvert brain (whereas introverts usually do understand the extrovert brain).

So, as we get close to my speaking time and approach the podium, they make sure to keep up the chit-chat, introduce me to five more people, ask me to meet their old friend Jim and trade cards and so forth. Because it’s all so fun.

Well, no, for an introvert that is the bit that is draining. And the last thing you want to do before public speaking is to drain yourself. You’re about to need your energy to go deep inside yourself and project it outward (which is a strength of many introverts). And after the speech, you’ll need a bit of time to collect your thoughts and energies again for the next part. Once you’ve recovered, that next part can be social.

That’s why I found it so refreshing to give a talk the other day in Amsterdam to the European Speechwriter Network. It was a roomful of, well, speechwriters. And voice coaches, and storytelling strategists, and all those contiguous professions.

Quite a few of them were themselves introverts. And all of them understood. I was standing at lunch with one of them, when she noticed all by herself that my speaking time was coming up.

“Honestly,” she said, “if I were you I would now walk away from me and go outside, to the toilet or wherever, and get focussed.” Those may not have been her exact words. But the sentiment was modest, pertinent and beautiful. So I went to the men’s room, did a few power poses in a stall, and read through my index cards (but then put them away).

And the speech went fine. It was called “Should you hate Angela Merkel’s speechwriter?” The topic was her speaking style, including her body language, which is very surprising to non-Germans. Here is the podcast. (There is no video, which is unfortunate because much of the talk was me imitating the body languages of various German politicians.)

After the talk, I went out again for a while to reconnect with myself. And then I came back into the room to connect with the others. It was educational and fun. Because, even for introverts, it can be fun, if the conversation is good and the others let everybody be.

Let them talk before they’re gone

In the winter of 2013, I attended the funeral of an aunt at an Alpine lake where she had spent much of her life and her final years. As the coffin was lowered into the frozen ground, I stood next to my godfather and whispered an idea to him.

Born in 1924, my godfather had been sent as a German pioneer to Italy to blow up roads and bridges as the Germans retreated and the Allies advanced, spending most of his time behind enemy tank lines, usually alone. He was captured by the British, spent several years in prisoner camps in Egypt and Libya, then returned emaciated to the bombed rubble of occupied Germany in 1948. He met another of my aunts (the sister of the one we buried in 2013), fell in love and wooed her. He married her in 1953, and thus entered my family, which at that time centered around Uncle Lulu (Ludwig Erhard).

My godfather and my aunt tried to have children. They bore six sons in the next decade or so, but each was born somewhat prematurely. Today, these cousins of mine would live. In postwar Germany, they died. After years of this, my aunt committed suicide in 1968. My godfather found her floating in their swimming pool. She had sedated herself and jumped in.

My godfather fell apart, but eventually picked himself up again, perhaps with the psychological skills he had learned as a pioneer. He learned to fly small planes, because somebody had told him it’s a way to keep the mind still (or otherwise crash). In time he remarried, had two more children, eventually met a different woman, and so forth.

So we watched the coffin go down and I said something like: “Your generation should talk to my generation before your stories are lost. Into a microphone. No judgment, no parameters, just your memories, good and bad, before they’re gone.”

After the funeral I soon forgot about the little conversation. But my godfather remembered. Half a year later, he called and said: “Come down” (to Munich) and bring the microphone.

I was less enthusiastic at first. I had said that at the funeral as one says these things, not expecting to be called on them, and now it was extremely inconvenient in my middle-aged life. But at some point, I remembered why I had whispered my “offer” in the first place. So I spent a long afternoon and evening in his small study amid papers and family photos. And he talked.

Such conversations can fail. I don’t think children or grandchildren can interview their parents or grandparents, for example. The bond is too intimate, and the observer becomes part of the observation. The older person might feel at important moments that he or she is being judged, and there must be absolutely none of that for any of it to be interesting. Having a stranger do the interview is also unlikely to work. There must be some intimacy to get the right stuff out of the person, to let them speak in their own idiom and have things be understood.

I now have many hours of rough, rambling conversation on my computer, unstructured as all human communication is. I have discovered Garage Band and am cutting these hours to condense and arrange the segments, bringing them into an order so that the stories become intelligible. To do so is not to waste time but to enter another one. It puts a lot of things in perspective. I recommend it.

Advice to young people trying to get into journalism

I very frequently get emails from young people, usually studying now at one of my alma maters, asking me for advice on how to enter journalism. Obviously, their hope is that I have an internship or something even better to refer, but I just don’t. And really, I don’t. But I do try to respond honestly with my advice.

Since my replies have over time become more and more similar, I thought I might just publish my most recent one, written a few minutes ago, here:

Dear [OMITTED],

I sympathize very much, because around the time you were born I was writing these letters to journalists in the medium of our time, cuneiform clay tablets.

I have to rain on your parade a little bit, hopefully without drenching you. It was hard to enter journalism back then and it is much harder now. Back then it was merely glamorous (=> too many young people going after too few opportunities). Nowadays the industry is still glamorous (not sure why) but also decimated by the interwebs or whatever that thingy is you people use.

In short: all the mainstream media organisations that you can think of have been laying off people for about a decade or at least not hiring new talent en masse. For every good job, there are now many, many very qualified and experienced journalists lining up. Most of the ones my age have taken to drink, although I would not advise that option for you yet.

The energy has for years, especially in the US, been with the “new” media, by which I don’t mean social media but these start-ups, such as, for example, [OMITTED] or [OMITTED] in [OMITTED] journalism. Those kinds of things are where I would start my search, if I were you now. They hire young and exploit you in ways last seen during the years of Manchester Capitalism. You will burn out within a couple or years and leave disillusioned. And then you will discover that you now have “experience” and can get a real career.

Beyond that, and most urgently, I would advise you to start a blog (not just twitter) and actually put good stuff on it frequently. That can

  1. become your portfolio over time and
  2. actually force you to practice writing and thinking (though not necessarily reporting), thus allowing you to get better. (And even if you’re good, you can always get better.)

I would also advise you to get some real expertise in, well, something. I personally got a Masters in international relations and then joined a bank for a year or so, which was both miserable and educational. You’ll find that journalism is much less about writing stunningly beautiful sentences that obviously (!) deserve a Pulitzer and much more about knowing what the heck you’re talking about when you interview somebody in a suit and then go back to the newsroom to convince an editor that this was remotely interesting.

All that said, don’t get dejected. I think I’m saying: don’t think there is a shortcut. It took me, back in the 90s, about [OMITTED] years from my graduation to the career I’m now in.

Chin up and good luck,

A

The Holocaust in the streets, one brass plate at a time

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Above you see several so-called Stolpersteine — “stumbling stones” — in a sidewalk near my place in Berlin. The flowers and candles are from a neighbor, who regularly looks after the many, many stones in our street. Each one commemorates one victim of National Socialism who lived at the address where the stone is placed.

The Stolpersteine were among the first things I noticed when I moved to Berlin last year. There are about 40,000 of them now, all over Germany and in much of Europe. Every week many more are laid. No governments are involved. All this is a private art project, conceived by an intriguing artist, Gunter Demnig.

One of those now sponsoring such a stone is a friend of mine, Menasheh Fogel, a Jewish American living in Berlin. I tell Menasheh’s story, and a few of the many stories of the people he met, of the victims he learned about, of the artist behind the project, in the current issue of Intelligent Life, a sister publication of The Economist. You would make me happy by reading it.

I will let the piece speak for itself. But I just want to add two strands of thought here:

  1. one about the different style and voice of this piece, compared to my usual fare in The Economist, and 
  2. one about Germany’s style of remembrance generally.

My style in this piece

Way back in 2008, I mused here on this blog about the pros and cons of writing in the first person (which is completely banned at The Economist, but encouraged at Intelligent Life). I also told you about my efforts to find my own natural voice, because I was, of course, writing my book at the time, and was using this blog in part to loosen myself up after writing in my Economist voice during the day.

Well, writing this story transported me back to all that. It necessitated a completely different voice, and I discovered that I loved finding it. I wrote a first draft that was quite good and sent it off.

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Then I had a great chat with the editor, Samantha Weinberg, who told me to “feature it up”. For example, she asked, again and again, for more quote. At The Economist we don’t quote much, and when we do, we use just the choicest bits of a quote, perhaps a single word, for maximum efficiency. But Samantha wanted everything. “Even the uhs and ers, the wrong syntax and dead ends?”, I asked. “Especially the uhs and ers and the wrong syntax,” she said. I went back to my notes and put all of it, or most of it, in. And lo, the piece was better.

And I put a bit of myself in, in the first person. Discreetly and sparingly, though. And lo, it was better again. (But more of me, and it would have started getting worse.)

I loved this process. For those among you who are editors, there are also lessons for you in Samantha’s style: she didn’t fiddle with my words; she just helped me to understand what changes were necessary. (Thanks, Samantha.)

The German style of remembrance

Yes, there is such a thing as a “German” style of remembrance, as I have concluded since moving back to this country last year.

It is to remember everywhere and all the time, never taking a break, never looking the other way but always at what happened before, and integrating all of it into a new present.

If you ever get the chance, for example, walk through the Bundestag in Berlin, in the old Reichstag building. A British architect, Sir Norman Foster, rebuilt it. As a signal and symbol of the new German political culture, he made it physically transparent on the inside (and it really is, as much as any large building can be). The entire edifice invites all those in it to remember and reflect, every day and all the time. For example, members of parliament, like journalists such as myself, walk every day past walls such as these:

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You see the bullet hole? You see the graffiti? It’s the scrawlings of the young Russian soldiers after they took the building in 1945. Things like “Vladislav was here” and “Fuck all Germans”. The graffiti and bullet holes were not merely kept; they are emphasized.

(One of the staff at the Bundestag is working on a book about these graffiti. She’s found some of the — now old — Russians who wrote them, and they have amazing stories to tell.)

In the weeks since finishing my piece in Intelligent Life, I’ve got deeper into the subject. (This often happens to writers.) And I’m thinking of getting even deeper into it yet.

For example, I met up with Petra Merkel, a member of parliament, the lady in red in the picture below.

(Yes, Germany’s Bundestag has two Mrs Merkel, one named Angela and one named Petra. Both once married and divorced (different) Mr Merkels, but kept their name. Both are wonderfully down-to-earth. Petra says she occasionally gets mail for Angela by mistake. She enjoys being on the parliamentary committee that oversees the federal budget, proposed by the government the other Merkel heads, since “Merkel is watching Merkel.”)

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Well, Mrs Merkel also sponsored a Stolperstein. And then she brought over the descendants of the victim, Paula Dienstag, from Israel to Berlin. In front of Mrs Merkel on the right is Yuval Doron, Mrs Dienstag’s grandson. Next to him are his two sons.

And that’s the other thing about remembrance done right: It never separates human beings, it always connects.

Lance Armstrong and the Grief Cycle

Click for credits

Lance Armstrong is all over the news, as all of you know by now, and as several of you have pointed out to me already, since Armstrong makes an appearance in Hannibal and Me.

The premise of Hannibal and Me, to recap, is that triumph and disaster are impostors, as Rudyard Kipling said so sublimely.

So those of you who have not yet read my book might assume that Lance Armstrong was included to show how his triumphs — ie, all his victories on the bike — were impostors, meaning fake. Reprehensibly fake.

They may well have been. (My understanding, by the way, is that there is still no proof that he was doping, even though most people may now assume that he did, because he has decided to stop contesting the charges.)

But as those of you who have already read the book know, and the rest of you might now be surprised to find out, Armstrong was chosen for the opposite reason: to show how disasters can be impostors.

The disaster in his case, with which so many people can identify, is called cancer.

Armstrong and Kübler-Ross

I chose Armstrong as one of my examples to illustrate how people move through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grieving”, and in particular the stages of Anger, and also Depression, and then Acceptance.

So he appears in Chapter 7, Dealing with Disaster, in which the main characters are Quintus Fabius Maximus, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernest Shackleton.

Here are excerpts:

… anger usually begins with the question of “Why me?” Lance Armstrong is a good example. When he was twenty-five, his career as a bike racer was “moving along a perfect arc of success,” with sponsorships, a large house on a lake, and his own powerboat and Jet Skis. Then he began to cough up blood. Soon one testicle swelled to the size of an orange. He found out that he had testicular cancer. The doctors gave him at best a 40 percent chance of surviving. He was diagnosed on a Wednesday, had his testicle removed on Thursday, masturbated into a cup on Saturday (because he would soon be sterile), started chemotherapy on Monday, and discovered on the next Thursday that the cancer had already spread to his lungs and brain. Every devastating day was followed by an even more terrible day. And Armstrong became angry. “I was fighting mad, swinging mad, mad in general, mad at being in a bed, mad at having bandages around my head, mad at the tubes that tied me down. So mad I was beside myself, so mad I almost began to cry.” … [pp 154-155]

… Lance Armstrong also suffered a bout of preparatory depression. “It’s all over. I’m sick, I’m never going to race again, and I’m going to lose everything.” His depression felt “as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction.”

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistake for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

Lance Armstrong accepted his cancer relatively quickly. He simply “decided not to be afraid.” Then he confronted his cancer. “Each time I was more fully diagnosed, I asked my doctors hard questions. What are my chances?” He also personalized the disease and made it his “enemy,” as though he were facing Hannibal. [In the surrounding passages, I am comparing Armstrong to Fabius, after the initial losses to Hannibal.] “It was me versus him or her or it — being the disease — so I absolutely hated him or her or it, and when the blood work came back, or the tumor markers cam back [saying] that I was getting better, I felt like I’m winning, the scoreboard says I’m winning.”… [p. 157]

My thoughts TODAY

Do I regret including Lance Armstrong in the book now?

Not really. The mistake was to include any living person. When drawing lessons from the life trajectories of people in the past, it is best to make sure that those lives are entirely, not partially, past. For human lives, while they unfold, have that way of surprising us (which is of course the point of the book).

So I had similar issues with Tiger Woods and Steve Jobs (though not with Amy Tan so far), who also appear in the book, and who also made startling news while the book was being printed.

The idea of including Armstrong predates the current controversy. It goes back to my reading — years and years ago, when I had not even heard rumors of his alleged doping — of his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. I then wrote the passage (which quotes mainly from that book) in 2008 or 2009, when the rumors were just that.

So he fits. Except that he now fits in more ways than one. And if I did my job well in the book, the reader, by the time he or she arrives at the passage, will have got that bigger point, and will still find Armstrong’s victory over cancer uplifting.

And, who knows, Armstrong may turn his life around a few more times yet. The Greeks called that peripateia. Turning things around — upwards and downwards — is what the people in my book do. As do its readers.

A timeless story: Plutarch > Böll > us

Heinrich Böll (click for credits)

Let’s have a few minutes of fun tracing the genealogy of a story to illustrate the concept of archetypes — the Jungian idea that we tell each other the same timeless stories again and again, in infinitely many variations.

(My book is based on that idea: namely, that we see ourselves in the stories of others, whether they lived 2,000 years ago or 2 years ago, or whether they lived at all.)

On pages 140-142 of Hannibal and Me, I tell two versions of a short story. (This is the very end of the chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, which is about the fiendish difficulty of telling ends from means in life and the consequences of getting it wrong, as I hinted in this post for the Harvard Business Review.)

So I end the chapter with this:

A few years ago, one of those chain-letter emails landed in my inbox. It told the story of a fisherman who was lying in the warm afternoon sun on a beautiful beach, with his pole propped up and his line cast out into the water. An energetic businessman walked by.

“You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman. “You should work harder.”

The fisherman looked up and good-naturedly asked, “And what would I get for that?”

The businessman replied that he would catch more fish, sell them for more money, save the surplus, and invest in a boat and nets, which would let him catch even more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Somewhat impatiently, the businessman explained that he could then reinvest the even greater surplus and buy more boats and hire staff, becoming a small business and catching ever more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Now the businessman lost it. “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you never have to work for a living again? You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach, just enjoying this sunset!”

The fisherman’s eyes lit up. “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

In the chapter, I then go on to tell another, and much, much older version of that story, which I’ll repeat in a minute. But here is what my cousin Bettina realized the other day as she was reading the above passage in my book: The story I was retelling from a chain email in fact derives from a short story by Heinrich Böll, the Nobel-Prize winning giant of postwar German literature.

Böll’s story, written in 1963, was titled:

Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral

I love that sardonic mock-bureaucratic tone. It translates into something like:

Anecdote for the Diminishment of the Work Ethic

Here is the German text, very simply and beautifully written. The Wikipedia page tells me that

The story, with its several adaptions, has been circulated widely on the Internet, and has been quoted in many books and scholarly papers. In one of the most popular versions, the tourist is an American (an MBA from Harvard in some versions), and the fisherman is Mexican.

Clearly, Böll’s story has a timeless kernel. So where might Böll himself have gotten the idea? (And by the way, he may not have realized where he got it, for we usually do not recall what influenced our ideas.)

Well, I think he got it from a story written about 2000 years ago about events more than 300 years before that. The author was Plutarch. The story was about Pyrrhus, the one who gave us “Pyrrhic Victories“.

You can compare it to the original here. But on page 141 of my book, I retell it this way (with anything in quotation marks directly sourced from Plutarch):

Pyrrhus was making preparations to invade Italy and attack Rome when Cineas struck up a conversation.

“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors,” said Cineas. “If God permits us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“But that’s obvious,” said Pyrrhus. “We will be ‘masters of all Italy’ with all its wealth.”

“And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?” asked Cineas.

“Sicily,” replied Pyrrhus without missing a beat. “A wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained.”

“But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?” asked Cineas.

“God grant us victory and success in that,” answered Pyrrhus, “and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach?” Once we have those, will anybody anywhere “dare to make further resistance?”

“None,” replied Cineas, which leaves us to “make an absolute conquest of Greece. And when all these are in our power, what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus smiled and said, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

“And what hinders us,” said Cineas, “from doing exactly that right now, without going through all these troubles?”

Pyrrhus suddenly looked “troubled” and had no answer. Then he went ahead and invaded Italy anyway — without success.

Hannibal/Hasdrubal/Mago > Danny/Ben/Sam

It sucks that I can’t watch the Beeb from here in the US. That’s because something fun is on the telly there.

Three brothers — Danny, Ben and Sam Wood — are tracing the route that Hannibal took, from Spain through France and over the Alps into Italy, and thence to Tunisia and perhaps onward. (Here is a map of Hannibal’s lifetime path.)

They’re doing it by bike, instead of elephant.

What does this show? That Hannibal maintains his eerie ability to inspire us modern types today, just as he inspired me to write my book.

“So we also feel a certain sense of ‘Hannibal and Me’,” as Danny, also a journalist, emailed me this week.

If you’re in Britain, follow them on the BBC. And good luck, lads!

Here’s a taste:

Hannibal and Me in Bogota, Colombia

I just received the following email from one Matt Aaron, and it’s the sort of spontaneous, casual and genuine feedback that makes authors happy:

I just finished the audio version of Hannibal and Me this morning, walking through a park in Bogota, Colombia.

I am in a transition period, now in my late 20’s. This book has helped me understand my current path and a general direction for the next 10-15 years.

Thanks for writing this!

-Matt

Thank you, Matt.

PS: I guess I should really get myself that audio version now, to hear what my book sounds like. 😉

Hannibal and Me … and Mr Crotchety

There are reviewers, and then there are reviewers. And then there is … Mr Crotchety.

Who is Mr Crotchety?, you ask.

He (and I am reasonably confident that he is indeed both human and male, as allegedly pictured above) first presented himself to me in 2008, when he wrote a reader letter to The Economist about a piece I had written (about “Slow Food”). Here is that letter:

Date: 16 September 2008

To: letters@economist.com

Subject: slow food

Regarding: (11 Sep 08) Revolutionaries by the Bay

Many years ago I sat down in a Slow Food restaurant in New England. It seems like only yesterday when I walked out. The food was not memorable, but the service was glacially slow and inattentive (this was before global warming). Does the service have to be European also?

Mr. Crotchety

That set the tone for all that was to follow. Mr Crotchety, possibly encouraged by me, poured himself into the blogosphere and, under his increasingly notorious nom de guerre, began spreading his wit more widely.

Here on The Hannibal Blog, for example, we were soon turning the epic tale of Hannibal the Carthaginian into its … limerick version. (Read through the comments in that post, too: We expanded the mission to Zen Senryus.) In retrospect, it is hard to believe that both Polybius and Livy overlooked such an obvious literary device.

But Mr Crotchety never over-indulged himself with his blog commentary. Sometimes he crotched, sometimes he didn’t. Over time, I became aware that an entire subculture of the blogosphere was secretly yearning for one of his ambushes. They bestowed the ultimate kudos.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this same Mr Crotchety has now, via Sprezzatura, written his own and inimitable review of Hannibal and Me. Follow the link, and may the kvetching and crotching continue over there….