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September 15, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Family Doesn't Always Come First


The question is a touchy one no matter where it comes from, but the fact that it came from my elder son Aidan made it that much more thorny. 

“Dad,” he asked, “I have a potential business trip that may conflict with one of the family celebrations we have scheduled, and I don’t know what to do.  You faced thing like this countless times over your career.  How did you deal with the work/family balance?”

My answer may give rise to some debate, if not outright criticism, but it was indeed honest.  I told him:

“Family always  wins…” 

And after a pregnant pause, added this qualifier:

“…but it doesn’t always

come first . ”

After a couple of seconds to let this sink in, I explained that whatever decision has to be taken, it should be with the ultimate goal of doing right by your family.  And sometimes that means taking a tougher decision with a long-term view instead of an easier short-term, unequivocal yes.

Guilty as charged on numerous offenses to the above.  While I tried to make it to every one of my both my sons’ plays, hockey games, concerts, debates and holiday pageants, sometimes I just couldn’t.  Or to be bluntly honest, I chose not to. 

  • Sometimes, I just had to work late. 
  • Or was out of town on business. 
  • Or was making a sales pitch, or giving a speech. 
  • Because of my summer-centric career at Just For Laughs, I never, ever, EVER made it to a camp visiting day.*

And it wasn’t just my kids’ stuff I sometimes missed.  There were some anniversary and birthday parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs, baby namings and brisses that were also sacrificed because of corporate commitments I deemed more important in the long run. 

I remember bringing this point up at a “Work-Life Balance” session at a Top 40 Under 40 weekend symposium I attended a few years ago.  The assembled panel on-stage—rabid, Type-A, C-suite stereotypes all—recoiled in unison and looked at me in horror.  Hypocritical horror I might add, as I challenged them by saying: “If you mean to tell me that you all got to where you are today by never choosing work over family, then you’re a bunch of bald-faced liars.” (Okay, perhaps I used a few select, more exprerssive words…) 

So going from the bottom up of my answer to my son, family did not always come first. 

But, in the end,

family always  won. 

Why? Because the reason for passing up events in the first place was to do right by my family’s future.  Again using the superlative, never, ever, EVER did I miss a family event just to do something frivolous, or fun.  And I know that while some could dispute my choices, I made them so that I could keep roofs over heads, keep food on tables, keep kids in top-flight educational programs, and ultimately, keep us together.

And you know what?  The fact that my son can take the time and ask me for advice on the subject shows that I made the right choice(s). 

So my learning of the week is one of investment, not sentiment; one of short-term pain for long term gain.  

Don’t do things now merely

to put your family first ;

do things always 

to keep your family forever 

Eventually, they’ll thank you for it at a big party. 

A big party that inevitably, someone will have to miss ;)


*Not that I need to justify, but despite missing all “official” visiting days, I made my own unofficial visits from time to time, stopping in on camp by surprise.  What’s more, I also made sure that every time a new Harry Potter book was released, they got one first day via Amazon special delivery.  The point here is that missing scheduled events doesn’t stop you from creating your own special days and/or occasions at other times. 

September 8, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--Success Knows No Substitute For Tenacity

Andy_Nulman-and Photoman
I first met photographer Stephane Najman in 2009 (that's him with me above).  He came highly recommended as someone whose camera truly sees things differently, an outlook I needed given that I was in the need for a back-page author’s portrait for a wild book I was writing about the element of surprise for John Wiley and Sons.

I knew he was the right guy for me the instant I checked out his website, listed under his superhero-esque nom du lensPhotoman.”  Every one of his pictures wasn’t merely worth the proverbial 1,000 words, but brought those words together in a way to tell quite the visual story.  Done deal.

A few weeks after my book photo session with him, Stephane phoned and asked if I would like to be part of his own book project that was to be released in early 2010.  True to his off-beat nature, the concept was a series of outrageous photos that would feature an image of someone today, holding an image of him or herself much younger, the combination of which would speak volumes about change and life transformation (the one of me below is an outtake; for the book, he chose one of me jumping, with jewelry and hair a-flying).


Well, guess what’s happening on October 2, 2014, almost five years to the day of our first meeting?  Stephane’s aforementioned book is finally being released.

In the interim between meeting one and October 2, I had been in touch with Stephane several times, many of which as a friendly consultant to help him find funding for the project, after the initial publisher faded away and left him high and dry. 

Or as a reference for grants he was applying for to keep the project alive. 

Or as a sounding board for his idea to convert the book project into a public photo exhibition. 

Or as a shoulder on which to share tales of woe.

As I’ve said in this space often, my lessons learned can be profound or simple.  They may be revolutionary and new, or old news that needs to be repeated.  The point here then, this week’s lesson learned is a simple, old one of the value of perseverance.  Or put another way…

Success knows

no substitute

for tenacity.

Much has been written about embracing failure.  Seth Godin even wrote a compelling book called “The Dip,” all about knowing when to pack it in and give up.

True, there’s nothing wrong with failure.  But there’s nothing wrong with success either.  In fact, there’s a lot more right than wrong in it.

I spoke at an entrepreneur’s event called Start-Up Grind last week.  It’s a multi-national, worldwide series of conferences that attract some of the world’s top businesspeople…and me ;) 

During the Q & A session, I was asked about dealing with failure, and if I can believe the tweets, I said something to the effect that the best way to deal with failure is to succeed.  No problem failing, but eventually succeeding brings context to failure. 

Continual failure

is no fun,

nor is it sustainable. 

I guess it’s no accident the series is called Start-Up “Grind,” as that is the operative adjective and verb to making things happen.

So yes, falling on your ass is part of life, and you have to deal with it.  Knowing when to fold is imperative.

But so is knowing when to keep going. 

For five years, something inside kept Stephan Najman driving towards October 2, 2014.  Some voice said that his project is worth pursuing.  Some gut feeling that kept him tenacious instead of vanquished. 

The difference between success and failure then, is knowing when to listen to the pesky voices and gut feelings, and to never stop driving forward when they keep saying “Yes”…no matter how much allowance you have for the alternative of shutting down.

Don’t worry.  The voices and gut feelings will eventually quiet down.

Once you reach your own October 2…whenever it may be.

September 1, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I *Wrote* This Week--The World's Greatest Card Trick

Some veg out by a beach.  Others sight-see incessantly.  

But for me, vacation time allows me to catch up on two passions, namely reading and writing.

Over the past two weeks in Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, other than eating a ton of seafood, I ripped through three books, a dozen magazines and put the finishing touches on a short story that I've been working on for a while.

So, with one last day of summer holiday left (that is, if you are amongst the 78% who read my stuff the same day they're posted), something a little different from me--the aforementioned (kinda long) short story in its entirety.

Enjoy it as a whole, in parts, or ignore it until the usual lessons return next week.  But until then, you may want to learn the secret to:





“For my next trick, I need a volunteer.  

“Someone good looking, bright, a worthy addition to the splendor of my show.  Hmmm…let's see, how about you sir?  Yes, you there in the blue checked jacket.  That outfit is just screaming to be on a stage somewhere, so why not right here? 

“Oh, a little shy, are we?  Come on people; give him a nice round of applause to make him feel more at ease… 

“There we go!  Please follow my lovely assistant Jackie up the stairs and into the spotlight.  Thank you so much for helping me out…for helping out the show!  So, let’s get to know you a bit.  We’ll start by your name.”

“Uh…it’s Quentin.”

“Had to think, didn’t you?  Well, 'Quentin' is most definitely a unique name.  And Quentin, it’s a name that fits perfectly with this next feat of wizardry, as it is most definitely a unique magic trick.  More than merely ‘unique’ actually, for I call this...The World’s Greatest Card Trick!  There’s usually a drum roll right about now, at very least a smattering of oohs-and-ahhs from the audience, but worry not, because when this is all over, we will all be enveloped in tidal waves of sheer pandemonium.  You believe me, don’t you, Quentin?”

“I guess so.  No reason to doubt you…” 

“I appreciate the encouragement, Quentin.  I wish my agent had such a degree of blind faith.  Now Quentin, how old are you and what do you do for a living?” 

“I’m 31, and I work in branded promotional products at a large-scale corporate level.” 

“That’s quite a mouthful! Which means what, to a layman like me?” 

“Uh, let’s say for the Super Bowl, Pepsi needs 200,000 collapsible water bottles as a promotional giveaway.  Well, my company will source the product—or we’ll get it created if we have to—and then we'll print it with the client’s logo and message.  Then they give ‘em away.  To their clients.” 

“How intriguing!  I always wondered where all those collapsible water bottles came from!  In your comprehensive explanation, I noticed you said ‘my company’.  Do you own it?”

“No, unfortunately not.  It does real well. I just work there.” 

“Fair enough.  And that ravishing lady you’re sitting next to, is she your wife?”

“Aw no…” 

“Your girlfriend?  Someone serious?”

“No, she’s just a friend.”

“She can still be serious though…” 

“Well…you can say she’s a serious friend.”

“Touché, Quentin, touché.  Well handled!  I just love it when my volunteers get more laughs than I do.  Anyway, enough about you…for now.  As I mentioned before, this special trick is less-than-modestly entitled The World’s Greatest Card Trick.  And what makes it even more special is that, after years of intense practice and preparation, tonight marks the very first time I’ll be performing it live, on stage, before an audience. Quentin, you’re a part of history!  Pretty exciting, don’t you think? “

“That is pretty cool, I suppose.”

“Indeed it is, Quentin.  So, let us begin.  You may have already remarked that my assistant Jackie has emerged from a secret location backstage to bring me a deck of cards.  Thank you, my dear.  You’ll notice that this is a standard blue-backed deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, the most popular brand of playing cards on the planet.  Nothing but the best for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick!

“Now Quentin, if you would kindly stop checking out Jackie for a moment or two, I’d like you to focus your attention on these cards and assure the audience that they are as I so proclaimed—standard issue, just 52 of them, no trickery whatsoever. Take your time; complete audience buy-in is of fundamental importance to the desired effect and ultimate outcome of this magical moment.  The wait will be worth it.”

“They look okay to me.  They seem kind of heavy.”

“Good observation, Quentin.  For this trick to work its many miracles, durability of the cards used is a key factor.  That’s why I have selected Bicycle’s Prestige deck, made with crease-resistant Dura-Flex.  It’s the only 100% plastic card to offer a paper-like feel to the user. As Bicycle's corporate website boasts, it’s ‘Perfect for a neighborhood game or a professional tournament.’  Or for The World’s Greatest Card Trick, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I guess.  I can’t really tell the difference between these cards or any others, really.”

“Not yet, Quentin. But soon…soon.  Anyway, enough babbling over the mere tools of the trade.  Let’s get to the reason why we are all here…and why over 1,200 or so of your peers are staring at us with bated breath—The World's Greatest Card Trick!

“To start, I will utter the words that so many thousands of my brethren have uttered before me, and ask you to ‘pick a card, any card’.  But to assure those gathered here that there’s no forced choice of any kind—the dirty little secret behind most tricks of this ilk—I will not touch the Prestige deck at any point in time.  I will now leave it up to you to rifle through it alone, pick a card of your choice and give it to Jackie.  Easy enough?” 


“Wait Quentin, wait!  Not just yet!  Let me do something that may be considered rude in some cultures, but so necessary to add credibility to The World’s Greatest Card Trick, and turn my back to both you and the audience to assure the card its undisputed anonymity.  Now go ahead...and tell me when you’ve handed the card to Jackie.” 

“Done deal.”

“Fine, Quentin.  Now I'll stay turned as Jackie shows that card to the audience, strutting deliberately from stage left to stage right, not forgetting a slight arm raise for those of you in the balcony.  As she does this—and isn't she a delight?—I want you to put the rest of the cards back in the box.  Got that?”

“Yup.  All finished.”

“Oh, I think not!  Trust me, you’re just getting started.  Jackie my dear, would you put Quentin’s card back into the box, blending it in with its 51 other Dura-Flex coated brothers, sisters and cousins, secure its closure with an elastic, and hand the box back to Quentin.  Do you have it in hand, my friend?” 

“Yes I do!”

“Okay, on the count of three, when I turn around, I want you to throw that box as far as you can into the audience.  Here I come. One, two…”


“Nice toss, Quentin!  Right into what more elitist entertainers would impolitely call ‘The Cheap Seats’.  Hope you didn’t pull a muscle.  You ever play quarterback with that arm?”

“No...but I was the catcher on my college baseball team.”

“Impressive!  Now Quentin, do you know why I asked you to throw the deck into the audience?”

“No idea.”

“No real reason…just wanted to give someone a souvenir!  A little act of generosity and jocularity before we commence the wonderment.   Well Quentin, 1,200 people, Jackie and you all know your card.  The entire theater is co-opted in a secret that has excluded just one poor solitary soul, namely me.  And therein lies the purpose of The World’s Greatest Card Trick—for said soul, namely me, to reveal this card to you.  Are you ready to re-learn its identity?” 

“Yeah, sure!”

“Well then, let us begin.  Jackie, please make sure that Quentin is seated properly in the special chair you are now wheeling onto the stage.  And how about a bottle of water for our guest?  Thanks once again, my dear.  Now Quentin, get comfortable, buckle the safety belt, and listen closely to what I’m about to tell you.  Every detail is important.  You may even want to take notes.  Do you have a pen?”

“No.  I usually type things into my iPhone.”

“So very ‘Wired Magazine’ of you, Quentin.  Take it out if you want.  But follow along… So Quentin, tonight when you return to your seat to the sound of thunderous applause, your ‘serious friend’...uh, what is her name?” 

“It’s Leslie.”

“Okay, when you return to your seat, Leslie will not only have a new-found respect for you, but she will also be a touch worried about you due to the intense nature of this performance.  Instead of a direct drive home to her place in Williamsburg, she’ll suggest a quick walk and a coffee together down the block from this theater.  You will grab a table for two in the window of the Caffé Pleuristo, enjoy de-caf double cappuccinos with chocolate biscotti, and she will surprise you somewhat as your conversation takes on a more romantic direction than ever before. 

“This twist, this shift in emotions will be flattering, and will unlock some of the warm feelings for Leslie that you’ve been repressing for longer than you care to admit.  But it will also be somewhat awkward for you, since you’ve never been great at personal commitment.  Even your girlfriends throughout high school, all eight of them, harbor subtle grudges to this day.  But I digress…

“Over the next few months, you will continue to fight these feelings, but will eventually succumb and come to realize that Leslie is your soul mate…so much so that on your first real vacation together at Atlantis Paradise Island—a company trip you will win for finishing first in a quarterly sales competition—after a memorable day spent swimming with the dolphins, you will propose marriage in the Dune Restaurant during a wine-soaked dinner overlooking a very calm ocean.  By the way, you’ll be on your second bottle of Francis Ford Coppola Director's Cut Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel when you actually pop the question.” 

“Wait, how do you know…”

“By the way you hold your water, my friend.  Look at that grip!  Obvious you’re a California Zinfandel man.”

“But all the other…”

“Please! Did I not say that this is The World’s Greatest Card Trick, Quentin?  Never mind the wine…your groom’s tux will be handmade by Mr. Henry Lee, the Hong Kong tailor who travels to different cities every weekend and takes orders in three-star hotel ballrooms for bargain-priced custom-made suits and shirts.  Leslie’s ring will have an uncharacteristically large 1.25 solitaire diamond surrounded by smaller pave stones, the main gem being smuggled in from Europe by your wealthy great aunt Florence and given to you as a gift for being the only nephew who would call her every year for her birthday.  

“Your wedding will also be uncharacteristically grand, and will include almost everybody from your office since your boss, Peter Vanack, will agree to pay for one third of your nuptials due to his increasing love of and trust in you.  Your first-dance song has not yet been released, a comeback romantic power ballad by legendary Detroit rocker Bob Seger, but will be #4 on the Billboard Singles Chart that week.  Finally, Leslie’s cousin Sally, although married for over 22 years, will somehow catch the ceremonial bouquet, much to the delight of every guest except for Sally’s husband Ben and two embarrassed kids.  Ta-da!”

“Is that it?” 

“It?  Is that ‘it’?  Hold on tight sir, because we’re just getting started!  Jackie, tell Howard to intensify the stage lighting, please.  Give me a blue wash, red spots, with Quentin in a green laser cone.  Perfect!  Now Quentin, together you and Leslie will move into your first home, a two-level Jefferson on a surprisingly affordable double lot out in Putnam Valley, about a 50-minute drive from your office.  On one such drive from work, less than a year after moving into your home, late on a cold, rainy November night—sleety, actually—you will skid off Highway 122, wreck your Volkswagen Passat and fracture your fibula in three places, an accident that will cause you to walk with a slight but perceptible limp for the rest of your days.

“Given that you were coming home from yet another late night at the office, your boss Peter will feel bad for you and will offer to replace your totalled car with a spanking new Mercedes C350 Coupe, one with much needed 4-Matic anti-skid technology.  Peter will also reward your diligence and superior sales results with a generous partnership stake in the company, which will accelerate your family plans with Leslie. 

“You will go on to have two children, both girls.  Your eldest daughter Janine, while not the brightest student, will be blessed with a gallant work ethic, and will surprise everyone by being accepted to Wharton School of Business and end up being employed by the government as an economist.  She will also have a strange fixation with the color forest green and be renowned for her quirk of wearing slippers while in the office.  Your younger daughter Hazel will be more artistic, be obsessed with horses and all things equestrian, and end up working in the graphic design department of the landmark Churchill Downs racetrack.

“You will travel extensively for business, often to Las Vegas, and although you will not be much of a gambler, you will spend an inordinate amount of your late nights killing time in the casinos of your hotels, sipping free Sam Adams beer while playing the $1 slot machines.  On one hand, this gaming choice will be very beneficial, as had you been a poker or blackjack player, your card would’ve been revealed to you at that point in time, making this a very good card trick, but not the World’s Greatest as it has been advertised and promoted. 

“As I said, all this is on one hand.  And then...there is the other hand.” 


“Jackie, cue music!  One night, while sipping beer at the slots, you will be served by a petite, raven-haired cocktail waitress named Brandi.  Well, 'Brandi' is what it will say on her name-tag, but her real name is Melissa Manchester, like the singer from the ‘70s who enjoyed hit songs like ‘Midnight Blue’ and ‘You Should Hear How She Talks About You.’  Now Quentin, I’m trying to think of a succinct way to put this, but there’s a line in Midnight Blue that goes: ‘I think we can make it/One more time/If we try’ and that evening, smitten by Brandi’s multiple charms—and she yours, no doubt—you will take that lyric quite literally, and despite the fact that at first you did indeed succeed, you will try, try again.  Yes, a simple one-night stand, but ultimately the tipping point for what is still to come…if you'd pardon the suggestive pun.

“A few months following this trip, you will receive a phone call from Brandi breaking the news that she is with child…guess who's?  At first, you will think this brazen extortion, but after receiving an email with a Quicktime video of her ultrasound attached, you will understand that she is most probably telling the truth.  You will be overcome with a sense of dread and fear, and do everything in your power to ensure that Brandi and the future little Quentin will be provided for, all while Leslie and the girls continue to know nothing of your little side venture. By the way, do you like the musical accompaniment I've chosen for you?”

“This is absurd!  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Of course you don’t, Quentin!  If you did, you’d know the secret to the trick, and ruin the magic.  We don’t want that, do we?”

“I really don’t give a rat’s ass…”

“Well, that’s what you say now.  But I think you will change your tune once caught embezzling funds from poor, trusting Peter Vanack, a man who has become a second father to you.  Okay, so it will only be $112,000, but still more than enough reason for Peter—a man so dejected, so disappointed—to fire you and agree not to go to the police if you’d destroy your share certificates by slipping them one-by-one into the Powershred Office Shredder before his very eyes. 

“While a magician should be a master of misdirection Quentin, I think by now you know exactly where this trick is heading.  Leslie will be shocked and saddened by the whole sordid affair, and send you packing.  Without the support of Peter, shunned by your embarrassed parents who take Leslie’s side unequivocally, you will empty your bank account of the $3,129.87 still left in it, borrow an additional $5,000 from your best friend Marcus Hamel, and head off with your Briggs & Riley overnight bag and Samsonite rolling duffel to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Brandi, or Melissa, will have re-located to be with her parents and raise her little boy—well, yours as well, I suppose—that was born six months previous at 3:13 p.m., weighing in at a whopping nine pounds, three ounces. 

“When she opens the door at 6633 Westbury Avenue, she will be shocked, as your visit will not have been preceded by any prior warning.  While befuddled and blank-faced for 45 seconds or so, she will break into a warm smile and invite you into the '80s-styled living room to sit down and talk.  Unfortunately, this will provoke a screaming match with her parents Franklyn—a textile manufacturer—and Sharleen—a school librarian—who consider you Satan-esque for what you have done to their daughter.  Enraged, they will pull Brandi inside, threaten to call the police if you don’t vacate their property immediately and, as you are bum-rushed out of the house, swear that you will never see your illegitimate son as long as you live.

“With all hope of a reunion and a new life with Brandi shattered, you will need somewhere to spend the night, and after a 35-minute search, at 10:30 p.m. you will settle for a two-star hotel called Lodge America of Raleigh at 3215 Capital Boulevard, where you will rent a twin-bed room in the back for a mere 52 bucks.  Instead of watching the free HBO advertised in neon in the window of the hotel’s lobby, you will decide to take stock of your life and go for a long walk to ruminate.  You like ruminating walks, don’t you Quentin?” 

“Wha-what?  Walks?  Ruminate?  What are you trying to say to me?  What is all this?  You’re insane!  I’m outta here!”

“Not so fast, Quentin, we’re just about done! Anyway, your chair's seatbelt won’t open unless you have the key that Jackie is now holding high above her head in her left hand.  Just sit tight a little bit longer.  It’ll be worth it, you have my word. Cross my heart. 

“So…on this walk, you will head northeast for three blocks, turn left due west on Mayflower Drive, where you will cross Huntleigh Drive and head into a wooded area that fronts Beaman Lake.  The moon will be shining off the less-than-pristine water, and will illuminate a green plastic bench made out of recycled pop bottles.  You will sit down on that bench and light a cigarette, rekindling a bad habit for the first time since you gave it up at Middlebury College back in Vermont.  Upon tossing the match down to the pavement, you will notice a newspaper at your feet, a three-day-old sports section of the Durham Herald-Sun.  In quest of a moment or two of much needed head-clearing distraction. you will pick up the newspaper, and under it you will find one blue-backed Bicycle Playing Card, amazingly no worse for the all the wear-and-tear.  Gotta love that Dura-Flex!

“You will turn it over.  

“And that, Quentin—THAT!—will be your card.  The Six of Clubs, correct?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“'Uh yeah’ is right!  Let’s hear it for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick! You can stand up now, my friend. You have the key, Jackie?  There you go!   Take a bow, sir!  And as you leave this stage to the promised explosion of thunderous applause, please grab my assistant’s hand and follow her backstage to sign the legal release forms before you return to your seat!”

“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen!  You are very kind.  And very loud.  Thank you.  Please settle down.  Alright then…

“For my next trick…hmmm…I need a volunteer.”                   

August 25, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week (Five Years Ago): Food For Thought--A Business Education in 20 Courses


Here’s the second of two vacation-inspired re-posts, this one from a trip to Chicago in August of 2009.  If you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed its subject, you will love it.


Here's a big statement to start your day:

A dinner at Chicago's

Alinea restaurant should be

obligatory for every major

executive in America.

Here's why.

I'm no "foodie," but a 35-year business career has taken me to some of the finest food emporiums all over the globe.

Well, nothing, but nothing, has even come close to the epicurean delight I experienced at chef Grant Achatz's majestic Alinea (that's him below). It didn't merely shatter expectations for a restaurant, it was one of my great life experiences, period. (I am forever in debt to my son Aidan for being the driving force in jumping on a cancellation and getting us in front of the two-to-three month waiting list.)

The 20-some-odd (and I do mean "odd," but in the most complimentary and awe-inducing way) course "Tour" menu was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten (just one bottle of wine, at $80, hardly put a dent in a bill that masqueraded as a mansion's mortgage payment)...but it was a great bargain nonetheless.

Calling Alinea a "restaurant" is a disservice to the establishment and what it does.  It is to other eateries what Cirque du soleil is to Barnum & Bailey (a woman at the table next to me coined the phrase "Cirque du manger," or "Circus of Eating").  It markets itself brilliantly by being itself brilliantly. I could go on for terabytes about the food (which included Dr. Moreau-like hybrid delicacies like onion cotton candy, hot mustard ice cream, olive oil sorbet, powdered A-1 steak sauce, watermelon bombs and bacon-flavored challah bread), but amazingly, Alinea rises far above the palate-acrobatics it induces. (By the way, that image above?  No, not an abstract masterpiece...but table-top dessert.)

GrantThis type of attention to detail permeated the experience, and the magical, enchanting results were beyond staggering.  Tables are bare wood (albeit near-black mahogany) to optimize the visual component of each dish (water is served at a specific temperature to ensure no condensation rings on said tabletops). Walls are covered with art that, while tasteful, do little to draw the eye away from the focal point of one's food.

If the silverware and glassware are not specifically chosen to match the course being eaten (as was the case of the antique crystal and cutlery chosen to highlight an old French recipe for quail), they are created specifically for Alinea by one of its partners, Martin Kastner, and his Crucial Detail design firm.

Alinea is a team effort, but a team like the New York Yankees of the '50s or the Montreal Canadiens of the mid-'70s.  Achatz has assembled an executive partnership that shows the grand vision of his dining experience, working hand-in-hand with a business manager, architect, interior designer and sculptor. 

Even the wait staff, outfitted in Zegna, rise far above industry greatness, never mind the norm.  They complement each course put down with a story, factoid or red herring about it, and are single-minded in their corporate duty.  When I asked one of our servers, a South African young man, why he gave up his studies to work as a waiter, he said: "Because I want to help Alinea be recognized as the top restaurant in the world."  No need to guess what this place's mission statement is.

Alinea and Achatz have been much ballyhooed (Grant's personal story is a movie just waiting to happen...but not until he can direct it himself, I suspect), but after my adding to the ballyhooing, here's the reason why it should be required eating for every American exec:


  • Alinea respects its clientele; treats them like gods.  It listens to them, but it is no slave to public opinion. It takes chances for them. It has the guts to say "We're in the driver's seat.  Trust'll enjoy the ride." 
  • Alinea respects its surroundings.  Nothing is random.  There is a reason for everything.  And there is no compromise. On anything.
  • Alinea respects its raison d'etre.  You'd figure the ingredients must be transported via private jet and pampered in a spa before being prepared in the kitchen. There is indeed a love, a passion for what is being concocted, and it shows.
  • Alinea respects the need to make a profit.  Expensive as hell.  But no cutting corners.  As I said before, despite the Zimbabwe-like state of my overall bill, I didn't just get what I paid for...I got more.  Way more.

So imagine American business being built on this backbone.  I know, I know...this is one restaurant; one tiny microbe in the behemoth that is the economy.

But if more people gave a damn, if more people treated customers as partners in a journey and not just a necessary evil, if more people dared to delight and lead instead of follow the latest onslop (a word I just made up) of surveyed public opinion, and if people did this in such a way that whatever you paid seemed worth it, well...the business world--the world itself!--would be a better place.

August 18, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week (Seven Years Ago)--Why Cycling is Like Business

I’m off on vacation for a couple of weeks, but as I like to do at these times, I comb my archives to find a couple of reruns from many moons ago that simultaneously reference the time period (i.e. an August past) and are also relevant to today.  Here’s the first one, from a bike trip through Italy I took back in 2007 (hence the picture above!).


After a few days pedaling through the Himalayas--oops, sorry, make that the rolling "hills" of Italy's Tuscany district--I have come to a stark corporate realization:

Cycling is just like business.

This metaphor smacked me right between the cheeks while sucking back a Gatorade after yet another three kilometer climb in the smelter-like sun.  As a guy who has helped build two prosperous enterprises from less than zero, and is just being introduced into the wonderous up-and-down world of long-distance cycling,  the similarities between the two are striking.

To explain, consider that Tuscany cycling offers you three choices of direction:

  • The strain of Uphill
  • The ease of Downhill
  • And the relative peace of the Straightaway.

Let's look at all a couple of added bonus observations.



To me, Uphill can be likened to being a start-up or being embroiled in some sort of crisis; your full focus is given to getting to the point where it's not so hard anymore.

Going Uphill, you don't even notice the gorgeous view, your surroundings, or even the passage of time. You just put your head down and concentrate almost exclusively on pumping your legs until you reach the top. Your speed is consistent, your movement a little wobbly, and if you don't keep going, you're gonna fall over.



Compare that to the ease of flying Downhill, which I liken to a business that's doing so well it almost runs itself.  Effortless, you almost feel like a passenger...but this is where the most dramatic and costly mistakes can be made and your best chance for a sobering crash.  The ride almost becomes too easy.  You think you're invincible, get cocky and take your eyes off the road. 

Watch out. Flying Downhill, the road can change at any second. Cars pull out of hidden driveways. People and animals pop out from nowhere. That Downhill path can be interrupted violently at any time by things you cannot see.  Enjoy the ride, but don't forget to anticipate what may be lying in wait.



Then there's the all-too-rare Straightaway.  It's not nearly as exhilarating as the Downhill rush of a booming biz, but also not as exhausting as the Uphill pull of a start-up or a crisis.

The Straightaway is where effort and reward are at their most equal. The goal here is one of efficiency. You don't want to exert one more iota of energy than you need to. Operation of the machine--in my case now, my gearing mechanism-- at its optimum level is paramount. The Straightaway gives you the most time to think, plan and prepare for one of the two extremes you just know are coming. 



Let’s take the analogy one step further by examining the road conditions themselves.  Doesn't matter what direction you're going--Uphill, Downhill or Straightaway--the make-up of the road is usually the primary deciding factor in the enjoyment of your journey. Out another way, road conditions are like the people you work with, and the way they work together. 

A paved road is like a true, trustworthy team; all working together to make your ride a pleasant one. Everything works better--grip, gear shifting, mood--when the road beneath you is smooth. 

On the other hand, rocky roads are just that. Yeah, they may hide behind the sexy Italian alias "Strada Bianca," but on dysfunctional, uneven, sand-and-stone terrain, you're on your own at all times.  Uphill is suddenly twice the effort, Downhill almost works against you, and even the steady flow of the Straightaway can be upended in a Tuscan second by a mere, nastily-placed pebble.  Treachery abounds in every direction.

Trouble in the office?  Forget the corporate shrink or consultant. Instead, invest in some molten blacktop...and a steamroller.



So there you have it. Roadside wisdom from the gates of Volterra. To close, one last comparison between business and cycling:

No matter how good you are at what you do, from time to time, you will still have to deal with a little pain in the ass.

Enjoy the ride!