A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Toastmasters Speeches’ Category

Slaves To The Machine

When I was a kid, I liked leafing through my dad’s old magazines from the 1950s and 60s. I especially liked reading articles that speculated about what life might be like in the year 2000. Back in the post-war period, people liked to fantasize about about new developments in technology and how they would benefit humankind. When the turn of the century was finally on the horizon and everyone was partying like it was 1999, I was also looking forward to it, but for a different reason. I fully expected newspaper reporters to start digging up those old science magazines, and then write comprehensive articles that would compare our early 20th-century dreams to our present-day reality.

To my disappointment, I didn’t see any of these comparisons on televison, magazines or in the local papers. So I decided to start searching for these “futurist” articles myself. Here are some examples from the February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Year 2000 Predictions

Year 2000 Prediction - Waterproof Furniture

Year 2000 Prediction - Melting Dishes

As you can see from the illustrations, one of the expected benefits of future technology was an substantial increase in our leisure time. I remember seeing other magazine illustrations of a Utopian society in which robots do all the work while the people essentially have the days all to themselves. Back in the 1960s, a musical duo called Zager & Evans bolstered this view by writing a song called In The Year 2525. One verse reads as follows “In the year 5555, your arms are hanging limp at your sides, your legs got nothing to do, some machine is doing that for you”.

That was the plan, but as we all know, that’s not how things turned out. In fact, technology has created what I believe are two supreme ironies of our times.

When I was in high school, every household had a (black rotary) telephone, but no one I knew had cell phones. The only mobile phone I saw was on Hawaii-Five-O, when Steve McGarrett pulled out a black rotary handset from the armrest in his squad car. Today, everyone has a cell phone or even a smartphone. Thanks to the proliferation of personal computers and social media, there are now a multitude of new ways to communicate: E-mail, texting, instant messaging, voice mail, Facebook, Twitter, FaceTime, Skype… Smartphones make these types of communication possible even if we aren’t near a computer. Wherever we are (or more specifically, wherever there is WIFi or cell phone coverage) we can be be contacted and we can communicate with others.

This new variety may sound like a wonderful thing – especially for safety reasons – and it is to some extent. We are now always reachable, and always connected. We are, despite any geographic differences, plugged-in to a social network (or a corporate network) and exist as part of a greater whole.

Irony #1: This exponential increase in connectedness makes one believe that we are rapidly evolving into more social creatures, but we are not. These new communications technologies are actually making us more insular in our activities, and more isolated from each other. A group of teenagers may spend a Friday evening texting or messaging each other, but in reality each individual is spending Friday night alone, in their room. Yo be fair, in my day I could do the same thing by talking on the phone. However, the difference is that I was actually speaking to another person, and hearing their voice. These days, communication is largely Facebook status updates, Twitter posts or text messages – just words on a screen; the human component is almost gone. Emotions and voice inflections are now represented by emoticons.

Irony #2: New technologies were supposed to serve us, free up our days, and provide us with an abundance of leisure time. Now take a look around you. I see people on the streets and on the Go-Train gazing unflinchingly at their Blackberries and smartphones. Only a generation ago, when you left the office, your work day was over and the rest of the day was your own to spend as you wished. Our smartphones have now become our electronic tethers – keeping us always within reach of our boss and co-workers, but really on a short leash. I’ve heard of some people who even take their Blackberry with them on vacation so that they can check in at the office from time to time. We were promised freedom, but today so many of us are metaphorically – but willingly – shackling ourselves to our desks.

In addition to the ironies of connectedness and the promise more leisure time and a reduced work week, I would like to suggest to you that we are actually becoming slaves to our technological gadgets. In my opinion, we are spending our time playing with our high tech toys instead of enjoying our lives to the fullest.

A few weeks ago, I received some mail from my local cable provider. They are now offering streaming video to tablets, but take a look at their advertising campaign – I am just shaking my head in utter disbelief!

Tablet - Mountain

Here is a breathtaking shot taken from the top of a small mountain, overlooking a tranquil lake. There’s not a soul around for miles, and the scenery is similar to what one might find near Lake Louise in Alberta – natural, peaceful and unspoiled. The person in the photo may have climbed this mountain himself. If I had scaled that mountain, I would be filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment as I looked out over the magnificent landscape. In fact, I would probably stretch out my arms, fill my lungs with the fresh, cool air, and exclaim “I am Bob – master of all I behold!”. I would seize the day and soak in every last drop of this moment, as I experienced Nature in all of its majesty and pristine beauty, and then contemplated my place in the world. What I wouldn’t do is watch a baseball game on my tablet…

Tablet - Park 640

The second image shows a group of friends sitting on the grass in a park or on a university campus. Most of them have books or notebooks on their laps, so I assume that this is a study group. The subject in this photo, rather than spending his time reading, learning and enjoying the company of his friends, is watching a baseball game on his tablet. My question to him is “Why are you even there, if you obviously have no intention of studying? Stop being so antisocial – put the tablet away, show a little ambition and join your friends!”.

This is what advertising sales pitch has become: ignore your friends; ignore the natural beauty that surrounds you; stop being a participant in life; demote yourself to a mere consumer while you stare hypnotically and mindlessly at your gadgets.

Let me show you an example of how our gadgets have become even more insidious. The other day I was flipping through a magazine and noticed an ad for a digital camera [see below]. One or two of you may be affected by this ad in the very way the advertisers are intending: you think that the photo is adorable, and now you want to buy this particular brand of digital camera. However, most of you – already desensitized to advertising – will be unaffected. You’ll think that it’s a cute yet contrived photo, and then continue flipping the pages of the magazine.

Digital Camera Ad

I of course, look at this advertisement and I shudder at the thought of how things have actually turned out for us, after high tech held so much promise.

There are a number of defining moments in our lives: a first job, a first car, a first romance, a proposal of marriage, a wedding, a birth of a child etc. As parents, there are additional defining moments in your life as you watch your children grow up. One of those moments, is your baby’s first steps, as illustrated here.

In this picture, a mother is taking photographs of her infant’s tentative first steps. On the surface, nothing could be lovelier or more heart-warming. If this were a painting, it might be described as Norman Rockwell-esque. The message is straightforward: the mother can now watch this precious moment over and over again, thanks to her new DSLR camera. She can also show the video to other family members who weren’t there to see it, and share the joy with them.

But what is she giving up in return? Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Life, stresses repeatedly the importance of experiencing life to the fullest and of immersing yourself fully and completely in each moment. This is a life-defining moment for this mother – a moment that she will remember and look back on, for the rest of her life. But how is she experiencing it? Is she living in the moment and soaking in every molecule of this experience? No – of course not; she is a slave to her machine. This piece of high technology has reduced the mother from being an active and essential participant, to being merely an observer. In more theatrical terms, she should be an actress but instead is now functioning as a camera operator. Her arms should be stretched out, encouraging her child, beckoning, and giving constant visual feedback. Instead, her arms are clutching this camera.

Now, let’s look at this scene from the child’s point of view. As you know, humans (and especially babies) are hard-wired to recognize faces – that’s why people keep seeing them in pieces of French toast and other odd items. This mother’s face should be completely visible to her child. They should ne making eye contact. Instead, it is partially obscured by the camera, making her look like some sort of cyborg. She is letting this pivotal moment slip away from her, as she allows herself to become enslaved to the machine – a machine that is literally placed between her and her child during this life-defining moment.

To be fair, I must stress that teachnology is not inherently bad; it just needs to be used appropriately. Cameras are used extensively at other pivotal moments in our lives – weddings – but during these occasions the bride and groom hire a photographer and videographer, and do not take the pictures themselves. They are living in the moment, and are relegating the technology to the sidelines, where it belongs.

Fifty years ago, technology held so much promise for us. It would make our lives easier, give us more leisure time, and enable us to live life on our own terms. Instead, we have allowed ourselves to serve what we have created. Our creation has become our master. It keeps us tethered to our desks, isolates us socially, and even inteferes with life’s most precious and important moments.

Back in 1844 the first Morse Code message was transmitted from Washington to Baltimore. That prescient message was “What hath God wrought?”. I can only imagine what Samuel Morse might have to say about today’s technology. We should heed his words.

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The Idea Generation Process

This speech is the sequel to The Unexpected Benefits Of Toastmasters. In it, my father recommended that I join Toastmasters, but didn’t tell me why. It was up to me to discover the benefits.

In that speech, I mentioned that new members regularly approach me to say that they have trouble coming up with speech ideas, and ask me for advice. I’d like to add to the advice in that speech and explain in detail, my idea cultivation and generation process for my Toastmasters speeches and my blog articles.

The Phases of Speech Writing

During the five years that I’ve been with my club, I’ve identified three distinct phases to speech writing as one progresses through the projects and manuals.

Years ago, I used to take karate classes. Like most people, I thought that as the students progressed through the various belt colours, their ultimate goal was reaching the black belt level. I assumed that after attaining one’s black belt, a student had completed the training. However, Sensei (our instructor) had a much broader view. He explained that the belt colours were just the beginning of our training, and meant that we were merely learning the basics. Achieving a black belt level meant that we had learned the rudimentary skills and were now ready to explore the “art” aspect of the martial arts. That was the point at which where the real learning, development and even enlightenment began.

Toastmasters works in a similar way, and I’ve noticed the following pattern among almost all club members: you begin with yourself, and then your gaze slowly extends outward. New Toastmasters begin talking about themselves in their Icebreaker speech, and then progress to speaking about their family, kids, pets and hobbies; then they might also talk about their vacations and the other places they’ve traveled. Others may put an educational spin on their topic and teach us a little about different countries, their cultures and their traditions. This is the first phase of speech writing, and this is what I call the “getting to know each other” phase.

After about 12-18 months, once the members have learned a lot about each other through their speeches, a shift seems to take place in the style of speech writing. Club members (at their own pace) progress to Phase Two: the art of the speech. They start writing speeches about the unique way in which they see the world. The speeches now become outward-looking instead of inward-looking, provide unique observations and insights, and are frequently allegorical. Often, once one begins writing the outward-looking speeches, then one will start synthesizing other people’s ideas and generating something unique from them. Like the karate classes, this is the transition from the mechanics of the speech to the art of the speech. In a sense, the club members are achieving their black belts in public speaking (which is not to be confused with mastery).

Phase Three starts at an undetermined point in time after Phase Two. Members will begin to see and appreciate the awesome power of the spoken word, and its ability to make people think and act. They will listen to and analyze the historical speeches of the past, and they will begin to see how powerful speeches are constructed and delivered. At this point, some members may use their continually-developing speech writing and presentation skills to try to change the world. Not all at once of course, and not in a grandiose Steve Jobs-ian “I want to make a dent in the universe” way, but perhaps with one person at a time. These speeches may inspire us also and teach us a few things.

You’re probably thinking to yourself “This structural analysis is very nice, but it’s not helping me generate the ideas. Where do they come from? How can I get them into my head?”. While I can’t give you the actual ideas, I can help you “prepare the ground” and show you how to create an environment in which they will germinate and develop. Here are the things that I do to ensure that the ideas keep flowing.

Inspiration Can Strike Anywhere and Anytime

Your brain is probably full of good speech ideas – more than you realize – but the trick is to capture them while they’re fresh in your mind. I never know when I’ll have a speech or blog idea, and I’m usually doing something completely unrelated to Toastmasters at the time. If I think of something that might develop into a speech, I write it down quickly before I forget it. Even if I make a mental note to write down my idea later, when I actually arrive home at my computer, I often forget what the idea was, or I forget some of the pertinent details.

  • (low-tech) Keep a small notebook and a pen with you at all times. If carrying notebook is inconvenient or not practical, then buy a scratch pad at the dollar store, tear off a couple of sheets, and keep them in one of your pockets.
  • (medium-tech) You may also want to invest in a digital voice recorder, in case an idea materializes while you’re driving. In this case, either give the voice recorder to your passenger or wait until the car is safely stopped before recording your thoughts.
  • (high-tech) Both the iPod Touch/iPhone and the iPad ship with a rudimentary note-taking app. There are also many more robust note-taking apps for these devices and Android phones, available for free or at a reasonable cost. Some even sync with Evernote, Dropbox and Google Docs.
  • Create An Idea Repository: I have a directory on my computer called “Toastmasters Speech Ideas”. As of this writing, there are about 173 text files in it. These files contain speech ideas, blog articles and speeches in various stages of development – anything from a one-line description to a complete and polished Toastmasters speech, and everything in between.
  • Create a second, mobile repository: Buy a USB key and copy all of your files to it regularly. Carry your USB key with you as much as possible – many of them are small enough to fit on a set of keys. Text files aren’t very large, and even expansive notes shouldn’t be more than 2-3MB – small enough to fit on even the most inexpensive USB key. Whenever you’re near a computer, you’ll have access to all of your notes and can write down or expand on any of your ideas.
  • You can also make use of online notepads at home and at work – the computer equivalent of a piece of paper. These are web pages (with unique URLS for each user) on which you can write notes to yourself. You can use them on a desktop machine, a laptop or access them via smartphone’s browser. If you think of a speech idea at work (or wherever you are) simply go to the web site, jot down your idea and save it. When you get home and have more time to write, your idea will there waiting for you (assuming that you’ve bookmarked the URL). Most online notepads are free and some will even allow you to password-protect your notes. If you Google “online notepad” you’ll find dozens of examples.
  • If you have a Google Gmail account, then you may find it easier to use Google Documents, since you can work with multiple files. You’ll have access to all of your notes wherever there is an Internet-enabled computer. If you have a smartphone, there are Google Docs apps available for Android phones, the iPhone/iPod Touch and the iPad.
  • Now that you have your ideas saved on your desktop computer, USB drive, smartphone, online notepad and Google Docs, zip up your text files and store the zip file on Dropbox (or some other cloud-based storage service), or your camera’s SD card as an additional backup. E-mailing the zip file to your Gmail account is also an easy way to create an offsite backup. Plain text compresses very well – the average compression ratio is about 3:1 – so even a large idea repository will take up less space on your card than a single photo. Update your zip file regularly and then save the most recent version.

Develop A “Hoarding” Mentality

You may be familiar with a reality television program called Hoarders – the show gives us a glimpse into homes that are practically overflowing with items of questionable value because the owners can’t bear to part with them. Perhaps they might need them for a project one day, or they are reluctant to throw out a magazine or newspaper until they have read the entire thing. While this compulsion with physical objects may eventually make one a social pariah, it is exactly the habit to adopt when dealing with thoughts or ideas. Nestled among my collection of text files is a file called “Random Thoughts”. It’s a repository of anything that occurs to me that isn’t robust enough to stand alone as a speech topic, but that one day may nevertheless be useful.

Become an idea hoarder. Save everything – even what you consider to be inconsequential thoughts – and write them down. They may be eventually become components of future speeches or blog articles, and save you a considerable amount of time as you research your thesis and collect evidence to support it.

Ephemeral Ideas and Wave Theory

Don’t Wait for a convenient time to make notes – write down your ideas immediately. There are several reasons why you should write down any thoughts or ideas as soon as they occur to you:

  • Inspiration comes in waves. There are long dry spells know as Writer’s Block, but these are often punctuated by short, very fertile periods where the ideas just flow, one right after another. They may not be detailed enough to form a complete hypothesis, but are merely germs of an idea. Learn to recognize these waves, and when a creative period begins, write everything down immediately.
  • Our short-term memory is probably more short-term than we realize. When you get even a brief flash of inspiration that might become a speech topic, write it down immediately, or dictate it into a voice recorder. So something – don;t let that thought escape. I’ve often waited until I was finished whatever I was doing, and when I finally put pen to paper, my thoughts weren’t quite as vivid as they were when it idea first entered my mind. Sometimes, the idea just went completely out of my head, and I just couldn’t recall what had intrigued me so much. More often than not, there was nothing in my immediate environment that might jog my memory.
  • If you’re thinking about speech ideas, then most of the time nothing will pop into your head. When you’re not thinking about Toastmasters or your blog, then you’ll get the ideas. Your writing environment will rarely be ideal. Some writers imagine themselves sitting in a coffee shop with their laptop, fueled by caffeine and working furiously on the Great Canadian Novel. In practice, I’ve discovered that there is no ideal environment for the generation and nurturing of ideas. Wherever you happen to be, be prepared and write everything down as soon as you can.
  • Capture the joy of discovery. When you first get an inspiration, or when you are suddenly able to “connect the dots” and recognize a new pattern in your environment, it can seem like the most awesome thing in the world. Stop what you;re doing and write down everything you feel, because after a while, that excitement will begins to fade. Even if I remember my inspirational thought, if I wait too long to write it down, then I’m usually not able to express the observation as vividly, engagingly or as descriptively as I could when I first thought of it. Write down as much as you can while you are still in the throes of your idea’s awesomeness – your excitement will be evident in your words, and ultimately, in the minds of your audience.
  • Get our of your comfort zone. Some authors feel comfortable writing only in a certain room, or using a favourite pen, a particular computer, or even a favourite piece of software. One author I know writes all of his manuscripts with a DOS word processor called XyWrite – he grew up with it, he’s used to it, and he steadfastly refuses to use anything else. In order to increase your productivity, you’ll have to break this habit, and get used to writing on paper, table napkins, laptops, netbooks, iPhones, iPads, in any location, and with any browser, text editor or word processor.

Where To Find Inspiration

  • Turn off your television. The majority of today’s programming is not meant to challenge us or to make us think. It’s there just for mindless entertainment. You’re not going to have any epiphanies while watching Canadian Idol, Dancing With The Stars, Glee, Jersey Shore or Battle Of The Blades. Watch some documentaries instead – your local library is an excellent source of educational programming. Netflix also has a good selection of documentaries.
  • Personally, I find that weekly news magazine such as TIME, Newsweek or Macleans are a good source of ideas. After I read an article, I’ll start thinking about the topic or issue; my mind wanders and often I’ll get an idea for a speech on a related topic. If you don’t already subscribe, then go to your local library (bring a notepad and pen) and look through their news magazines each week.
  • Try to look at familiar things from different angles. If you drive to work, then take a different route one day a week. The next time you’re in a shopping mall, walk into a store that you’ve never been in before, even if their merchandise is of no interest to you. During your weekly Toastmasters meetings, endeavour to sit in a different chair each week – it’s a small change, but you’ll see the room from a different angle and experience the meetings a little differently. Travel to a place you’ve never visited before and write down all of your impressions while you’re there.

Speech Writing Approaches

In my experience, I have the most fun writing the Phase Two and Phase Three speeches. Inward-looking speeches are fine when you are getting started, but it’s difficult to make an audience interested in you and your life month after month. The audience will become engaged when there is something in it for them.

In my previous blog article, I said that it’s not what happened to you, it’s how you perceive it. One approach to speech writing is to make the ordinary extraordinary… or at least interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention for 5-7 minutes. I once wrote a speech about a man sitting on a couch, watching television and eating cookies out a bag. I called it The Last Cookie Enjoyment. The subject matter couldn’t have been more mundane, but I found a hook – I found something in it for the audience; something that they could take away with them.

Another approach is what I call synthesis. Synthesis is combining two or more substances and creating something entirely new from them. For example, I combined Feng Shui with portfolio management, and created a (tongue-in-cheek) article heralding a brand new approach to investing: Portfolio Feng Shui. This approach does take some practice, and it helps if you are both insatiably curious and if you don’t view the world the same way as everyone else.

A third approach is what I call connecting the dots. I find that these are the most satisfying speeches to write because they allow the speaker to show off a little. When presented properly, connect the dots speeches will grab and hold the audience’s attention. For example, you might begin your speech by saying “Here are two dots – two very disparate items. I see some similarities and during the next five minutes, I’m going to connect them. Let’s see if you can figure out how I’m going to do this”. In the CBC program Doc Zone, an episode called Facebook Follies grabs the viewers’ attention by tossing out the following line just before pausing for a commercial break “Is it possible that Facebook could make headstones and cemeteries things of the past?”. Now you’re intrigued; what possible effect could Facebook have on cemeteries? What do the writers of this documentary see that I do not?

Bricklaying

As of this writing there are over 170 text files in my “Toastmasters Speech Ideas” directory, and they are all in various stages of development. Since inspiration is unpredictable, completing a speech can seem like a daunting task. That’s why I look at my text files as walls or structures, and see myself as a bricklayer. While some of my thoughts are brand new speech ideas, the bulk of them are things that can be added to speeches that are in development. These are the thoughts that I call “bricks”. I’ll an attention-getting introduction or a though-provoking closing thought, make an observation, recognize a pattern, or see an event that will strengthen an existing hypothesis, and I’ll think “That would be a good addition to this text file”. I envision each of these thoughts as a brick, to be added to the many structures that I am building concurrently. Each brick makes the structure (and my idea) slightly stronger (and my idea better-developed), and brings the speech or article a little bit closer to completion. It’s just a small addition, but if you get into the habit of writing everything down, then over time, the bricks will accumulate and your walls or structures will practically build themselves.

The Project Objective Shortcut

In July 2011, the Toronto Star published an article about a lady who over $800 per month feeding the three people in her family. The reason her bill is so high is that she first plans the meal, and then goes shopping at high-end grocery stores to buy all of the ingredients. The readers who commented on this story told her that she is spending so much money because she is doing her meal planning backwards – it’s far more cost-effective if she first looks in the fridge, and then determines what kind of family meal she can put together using the ingredients at hand.

This is the approach that you can take when you’re leafing through your Competent Communicator manual. Instead of looking at the project and its objectives and then trying to think of an original speech topic, think of a speech topic first (or look through your archives), write at least an outline of the speech, and then look through your CC manual to see which project is the the best fit. Then you can fine-tune your in-development speech to ensure that it fulfils the project objectives.

Increase Your Level of Awareness

Pay attention to everything, and never allow yourself to go on “auto-pilot”. In my Unexpected Benefits of Toastmasters speech, I mentioned that I am now paying much more attention to things that I have previously ignored. Almost anything can be a speech topic, so I try to take in as much of my environment as I can. Before Toastmasters, I might take a walk in the park to relax and get a little fresh air and exercise. After Toastmasters, a walk in the park is a completely different experience. Here is a sample of some of the things that now cross my mind as I’m taking my leisurely stroll:

  • The role of parks in urban planning. I make a note to remind myself to look at Google Maps when I get home so I can see how much land in a typical community is set aside for parks and green space. How many parks are there, how large is each one, and how far apart are they? Is there more park space in planned communities than in older, established ones? Do affluent neighbourhood have more green space than poor neighbourhoods?
  • While some literature may make use of the classic Man vs. Nature narrative conflict to tell a story, there is a decided absence of conflict in a park. There is an observable symbiotic relationship between the park and the people who use it – which leads to my next question…
  • How do people use the park? Instead of merely walking through it for exercise, I’m going to look around me and see what other people are getting out of it. For example: walking, jogging, rollerblading, having a picnic with a significant other, having a family barbecue at one of the barbecue pits, cycling, sitting on a bench and reading a book, or merely watching the people go by, flying a kite etc.

Listen carefully to others – their views of the world may provide additional material for your speeches. For example, a few years ago, a colleague of mine offered some insight into parks. He and his family had recently arrived in Canada from India, and when I mentioned that I regularly go for walks in the neighbourhood and that I like to include at least one park in my route, he said “Have you noticed that there are hardly any white people in the parks?”. I hadn’t, but I said that I would pay closer attention to the ethnic makeup during my next walk. He said that this was very obvious to him and that he had a theory to explain it.

According to my co-worker, parks are used mostly by recent immigrants because they are a free form of leisure and entertainment for the entire family. Young kids can enjoy themselves in the playground areas while the parents supervise them from the benches along the perimeter. Family members can play Frisbee, walk their dogs or simply enjoy the fresh air. He noted that families who are new to the country and are trying to establish themselves don’t have much disposable income; hence they must find inexpensive forms of entertainment. He added that Caucasians, and families belonging to more established middle classes, don’t use parks nearly as much because their entertainment (from what he can see) comes from electronic devices: the kids have iPods or smartphones, they’ll stay at home and watch cable television or DVDs from their movie collection, or they’ll play video games on their Playstation, X-Box or Wii. For these kids, entertainment is electronic and is generally indoors – there is no reason to go to the park for amusement. I thought that this was a remarkably perspicacious observation; I hadn’t considered it before, and it may develop into a speech one day.

Question Everything

Finally, paying closer attention to your environment, and question everything you see, hear or read. Don’t automatically accept things at face value. For example, a few weeks ago I was leafing though the President’s Choice Insider’s Report – the verbose grocery store flyer that’s published every few months. As I was reading the various product descriptions, I started questioning the wisdom of these “new” grocery items, being foisted on a servile and unsuspecting public. From these observations (and a few related items), a speech was constructed: Be A Critical Consumer. I wasn’t planning to mine the Insider’s Report and use it as speech material, but my probing and questioning of its contents allowed me to uncover something that would have otherwise remained hidden and unchallenged.

While I can’t provide speech ideas for you, these are my tips for creating an environment that’s amenable to the birth and development of new ideas, and practices I follow to ensure that ideas are recognized immediately and are not allowed to escape into the ether.

Be A Critical Consumer

Good evening fellow Toastmasters, welcome guests, and perhaps the odd lemming. Yes lemmings – those small animals that supposedly follow each other off the edges of cliffs, because they don’t think independently and merely follow the crowd – there may be one or two of you among us!

I certainly don’t want us to behave like lemmings, and that’s why tonight I want to stress the importance of being a critical consumer, and avoiding what I call “passive consumerism”. Passive consumerism is something I’ve noticed quite a bit lately; it’s a lazy approach to buying – one in which the average, placid consumers disengage their internal cognitive link and merely accept what is marketed to them.

There are two reasons for this. The primary one is that it’s easier to accept than analyze. It’s much less work to merely assume that the manufacturers or the service providers have completed all of the necessary research and product testing, and are presenting to us, a polished and well-thought-out product or service. The second reason originates with the marketers themselves. Perhaps it’s ivory tower thinking, or the lack of effort on the behalf of the marketers to really understand the consumers, but during the past few years I’ve noticed a slight arrogance and condescension in the tone of advertisements and the attitudes of some salespeople. They seem to expect consumers to simply accept every new (or updated) product or service that is placed in front of them, and not ask any probing questions.

One of the best examples of this “I know what’s best for you” style of marketing occurs three times a year, during the Apple Corporation’s product rollouts, which up until June 2011 have been led by their iconic CEO. Steve Jobs was a master marketer. In fact, his sales pitches were so mesmerizing that many people said that he possessed a “reality distortion field”. When audience members were caught up in this aura, they stopped thinking, and started drooling; they just had to have Apple’s latest iGadget. A good example of this is the recent launch of the iPhone 4S. While Steve Jobs wasn’t a part of the presentation, the reality distortion effect was still present. On the outside, the iPhone 4S looked just like its predecessor, the iPhone 4, although there was some additional functionality added to it. When the iPhone 4S was launched, people all over the country once again lined up outside Apple stores and around the block – some even camping out overnight – to be the first to own one. In fact, Steve Wozniak himself was one of those waiting in line.

The effect of the reality distortion field is only temporary, and seems to last only a couple of weeks. When it finally wears off, balanced coverage and diverging opinions return to the online discussion boards. Less than a month after the iPhone 4S was launched, someone posted the following graphic to one of these boards:

About 4-5 years ago, I was in the market for an MP3 player. Before I buy any electronic items, I always do my research first: I examine the various products online, compare their features, read any user reviews, and then shop around for the best price, and the closest store. I went to a neighbourhood Future Shop, walked over to the portable audio section, and found the item. While I was looking at the other MP3 players that the store carried, a sales person approached me and asked if I needed any help. I replied “No thank you, I found what I want right here, but if you would be kind enough to ring this up for me, that would be great”. So we walked to the cash register and as he was ringing up the item he said “Rogers has a great deal on high speed Internet, and if you sign up today we can offer you a great price”.

I answered “No thank you”, but my thoughts were quite different. What I was thinking at the time was “Oh thank you so much Mr. Future Shop floor-walker! As soon as I walked in the store you must have spotted my vacant “offline” expression, identifying me as the one of the digitally disenfranchised. In fact, for years now, I’ve been wondering why everyone around me seemed so happy and connected. I’ve been wandering around in a fog until today, when I finally realized what was missing in my life: the Internet! Thank you so much for identifying this gaping chasm in my life, and offering to fill it – I never would have figured this out on my own!”

To be fair, I knew that this was obviously a reciprocal promotion between Future Shop and Rogers. In marketing meetings, I’m sure that these reciprocal arrangements are hyped as a win/win strategy for both companies – but only if the consumers are perceived as brainless zombies who are unable to think for themselves. Those consumers who take the time to analyze the promotion will see that choosing an Internet provider is a long-term arrangement and shouldn’t be an impulse decision. [take a step toward the audience] How long have you been with your Internet service provider? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Some marriages haven’t lasted as long…

My third and final example is something a little more recent [pick up Insider’s Report]. This is the current copy of the President’s Choice Insider’s Report [Oct-Dec 2011]. Some of you probably have this flyer in your homes right now. I usually enjoy leafing through it, but some of the marketing in this issue is just driving me up the wall. Take a look at this page:

First of all, let me say (in all fairness) that I have nothing against the product itself. I’ve bought President’s Choice chicken wings before, and I quite enjoyed them. I’d certainly buy them again and would even recommend them to others. My issue here is not with the quality of the product, but with its repackaging and marketing.

As you can see, they’ve separated the wings and the drums, and are selling each type separately – one box contains only winglets and one box contains only drumsticks. Now, before I say anything further, how many of you think that this is a good idea? OK, how many of you would buy this product? Ok, now how many of you think that this is a tremendous innovation in chicken wing marketing?

I have three points to make about the accompanying text. First, let’s examine this sentence “We even asked everyone around our PC kitchen which ones they prefer, and sparked a great debate with votes for both sides coming in strong”. A great debate? Really… I’m surprised, because there is actually nothing to debate. If they had asked “Which is the best – the wings or the drums?”, that would be a good subject for a debate. However, that wasn’t the question. The question was “Which do you prefer?”. You can’t debate someone’s preference. How did this sentence make it into print? Where is their editor?

OK, let’s skip to the last sentence “Now you can pick up the box your family loves best!”. Their assumption here seems to be that when it comes to chicken wings, my entire family thinks as one. Like the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, we all think as a single organism. In the President’s Choice test kitchen, as we just read, everyone has his or her own opinion. In fact, they were so unwavering in their gallinaceous culinary preferences that they even sparked a “great debate”. Why wouldn’t my family members also have individual – and similarly strong – opinions? Personally, I find their statement to be a bit condescending.

My last point comes from an analysis of this sentence “So we decided to make everyone happy by offering [both types of chicken wings]”. In this scenario, assuming that my family members do in fact have individual opinions, I have to buy two boxes of chicken wings in order to make everyone happy. Before this new and innovative product was launched, I could simply buy a single box of chicken wings containing both wings and drums, put everything on a plate, and let my family members take whatever they wanted. I don’t see anything innovative here – all I see is a doubling of my chicken wing budget to achieve the same level of contentment. In my opinion, the President’s Choice people are offering a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

As I mentioned before, I do enjoy the President’s Choice chicken wings, but this new marketing idea of theirs should not have made it this far. In my opinion, it should never have left the drawing board (or the brainstorming session) because a moment’s thought would have made anyone realize that – unless your entire family likes only one type of wing and will categorically refuse to eat the other type – there is no compelling reason to buy it. I believe this product made it into production only because nobody was brave enough to say “I’m sorry, but this is just not a practical idea – no intelligent consumer is going to fall for it.”

Fellow Toastmasters, this is my call to action – I want you to be critical consumers instead of passive ones. Don’t merely accept whatever is marketed to you. Question everything you see and read, and try to find a compelling reason why you should buy a particular product or service. If you can’t think of a good reason then just ignore it.

Tom’s Restaurant

Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests.

There are many metaphors for life – one of the most popular being the journey. The purpose of life is not merely to arrive at the destination, but to enjoy the entire journey. While I certainly subscribe to this view, I’d like to suggest another equally applicable metaphor: life is like a garage sale or a flea market. To the casual or untrained observer, most of the items look the same and are generally unremarkable. However, to an antique dealer or anyone else with specialized knowledge or a keen sense of observation, there are gems in that merchandise, hidden in plain sight.

I’d like to draw your attention to one of these gems – Tom’s Restaurant.

This summer my brother and his wife were planning a day trip to Manhattan. They were going to spend most of the day at the Museum of Natural History, in Central Park. I told my brother that that as long as they were in the general area, they might want to take a side trip up to Broadway and 112th street, to see Tom’s Restaurant. [show photo, paste on front of lectern]

Tom's Restaurant at Broadway and 112th Street

I’m sure that this photo looks familiar to most of you – this was the exterior shot of the restaurant featured in the TV series Seinfeld – although on the program, the characters called it Monk’s, and the “Tom’s” part of the sign was never shown.

This humble diner – in the north end of Manhattan, tucked away at the north-west corner of Central Park – is actually iconic. It has influenced popular culture more than you realize. In fact, it is very likely that your life has been affected by this restaurant and events that took place inside it.

In 1987, Suzanne Vega released a CD called Solitude Standing [show CD]. The first track was an acapella song (written in 1981) called Tom’s Diner. It was never released as a single, and only those who bought the album would be familiar with this original version. However, in 1990, it was remixed by a group called DNA, who added a drum track and other instrumentation. This version became popular in local clubs, and gave Vega’s song a broader audience. Here are a few bars of the original acapella version [play sample from iPod].

The diner that Suzanne Vega sang about in this song is Tom’s Restaurant. As Vega explained in an interview a number of years ago, she grew up in the Broadway & 112th Street area of Manhattan. Before her music career started, she was working as a receptionist, and she used to to eat breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant before taking the subway to work.

Fast forward to 1989 – two years after Solitude Standing was released. AT&T and Bell Laboratories, working alongside Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, were working on a way to encode and compress audio files. The algorithm they were developing was named after an organization that develops standards for audio and video files: the Moving Picture Experts Group, known by the letters MPEG, and pronounced M-peg. The audio algorithm was known as MPEG Audio Layer 3, or simply MP3 for short.

Two engineers, James Johnson and Karlheinz Brandenberg were working on the MP3 format, which compresses audio files down to 10% of their original size while still preserving almost all of the song’s musical information, frequency range and dynamic range. In an interview with a magazine called Business 2.0. Karlheinz Brandenberg said “I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm… somewhere down the corridor, a radio was playing ‘Tom’s Diner’. I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice… and at bit rates where everything [else] sounded quite nice, Suzanne Vega’s voice sounded horrible”.

Brandenberg used Tom’s Diner as one of his reference songs. He listened to the song over and over again, and kept tweaking the algorithm until the encoded MP3 file captured all of the subtleties of Vega’s voice and sounded just like the original CD. In technical circles, Tom’s Diner eventually became known as “The mother of the MP3”. To be fair, other songs were also used, but Tom’s Diner did play a significant part in the fine-tuning of the MP3 encoding algorithm.

All this happened in 1989, just as the first season of Seinfeld hit the airwaves. For the next nine years, and for many additional years in reruns, the public would get to know Tom’s Restaurant as Monk’s – the meeting place for Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer.

This unassuming diner on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street is easy to miss, and blends in with the other shops in the neighbourhood, like a single coin in a jar full of spare change. However, to urban archaeologists and those who can see beyond the ordinary, this restaurant stands out as a place that has influenced North American popular culture significantly during the past two decades.

To see evidence of this, the next time you walk down the street or drive past a high school, look around at the number people wearing earbuds and listening to their MP3 players. When you get home tonight, look through your DVD collection. You might own one or more seasons of Seinfeld. You may even own a copy of Suzanne Vega’s CD, Solitude Standing.

If you’re a fan of Seinfeld or Suzanne Vega, if you or your kids own a portable MP3 player, or even if you have an MP3 collection on your home computer, then your life has been enriched by this simple, unobtrusive little diner, Tom’s Restaurant.

Missing Pieces Of The Jigsaw Puzzle

Sometimes the lessons taught in high school are realized only years after one graduates.

I’d like to tell you about a particular high school English class. I was in grade eleven. I didn’t realize it at the time, and this may not have been the lesson that my teacher had in mind, but this class revealed to me, one of the mysteries of life.

This particular class involved a group exercise. We were supposed to solve some sort of mystery, and the exercise was done to encourage team-building. We arranged our desks into groups of five, and each person in the group received a sheet of paper with a story typed on it. We were supposed to refer to this story while working in our group, look for clues, and answer a number of questions that were on a separate sheet of paper.

What the teacher didn’t tell us was that each person in the group had a slightly different version of the story, and that we each had information that the others didn’t. Only by sharing all of our information could we answer all of the questions. Midway through the exercise, some members of my group started wondering how one team member knew a particular fact, when they couldn’t find it anywhere on their sheet. The epiphany came when we finally compared our sheets, read them out loud to each other and realized that we each had different information. Then the teamwork began in earnest, as we pooled our knowledge.

It was an interesting exercise in teamwork, but what does this have to do with our lives now? Quite a bit actually, although it took me years to make the connection.

In a previous speech, entitled Living Without Boundaries, I referred to our learning about another person as constructing a jigsaw puzzle – each new thing we learned about someone else was a new piece that we could add to our puzzle, and thus give us a better, more complete picture of that person.

We can also turn this metaphor around and use it on ourselves. Every aspect of our existence – a piece of knowledge, an experience, a talent or skill – is a piece of our own jigsaw puzzle. Together, they form a picture of who we are, what we know and how much we can accomplish.

In my high school exercise, we needed to pool our knowledge to solve a problem, since each individual wasn’t given enough. That’s why I now look at the world, and see each one of us as an incomplete jigsaw puzzle; no offense, but you’re all missing a few pieces — as am I! There appears to be some support for our cooperative nature in the following expressions: “Nobody’s perfect”, “No man is an island” and “It takes a village to raise a child”.

While we all understand that nobody’s perfect, most of us nevertheless are our own worst critics. Over the years, after spending countless hours listening to friends, co-workers, acquaintances (and even perfect strangers while I take the train to work) I’ve discovered that the vast majority of us have a distorted view of our internal jigsaw puzzles. Instead of focusing on what we do possess, and on the unique gifts we can offer to others, we are fixated on the missing pieces.

Some of our colloquial expressions seem to reinforce this. Consider the following: “Not playing with a full deck”, “A few bricks short of a load”, “A few sandwiches short of a picnic”, “A few fries short of a Happy Meal”. In these examples, incompleteness is equated with cluelessness.

The self-help industry capitalizes on this skewed perception. Just look at the size of the self-help section in your local bookstore, and at the enduring popularity of motivational speakers. There are countless books offering to divulge life’s secrets – as if they were being kept hidden from you deliberately – while simultaneously suggesting that you are not living your life as intensely as you could. Go to Amazon.com, select “Books” from the drop-down menu, and then search for “self-help secret”; you’ll see what I mean.

I suspect that our collective “missing pieces fixation” may be related to what I perceive as a generalized lack of self-esteem. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people tell their friends that they don’t want to apply for something because they don’t see themselves as “XYZ material”. Groucho Marx summed up this negative self-perception quite nicely when he said “I refuse to join any club that would have someone like me as a member”.

In my opinion, the real secret to living a more satisfying, full and harmonious existence is our willingness to accept our inherent individual incompleteness. The answers are not found in self-help books. As my high school English class exercise demonstrated, your missing pieces can be found in other people. Ralph Waldo Emerson explained this eloquently when he said “Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that I learn of him”.

Everyone I meet knows things that I do not. Everyone has skills or talents that I do not possess. It doesn’t matter what their station in life is, they are better at something, and I can learn from them. Some skills come easily to certain people, and they will naturally excel in those areas. Rather than focusing on what I can’t do, I look at the things that other people are doing, and see two opportunities. If I am capable of doing it as well, then this is a chance to learn; if this is something that is completely beyond me, then this is an opportunity for me to marvel at what others are able to accomplish so effortlessly.

I am always amazed when I watch someone do something that I can’t – to me, whatever s/he is doing may as well be magic. When I was growing up, there was a television program on Cable 10 called Painting With Varga. It was a low budget, one camera locally-produced show, in which an older gentleman painted an entire canvas, from start to finish, in 30 minutes. Not only that, he explained the minutiae of his craft as he went along and gave the audience numerous (and occasionally confounding) pointers such as “without dark, there can be no light”. Personally, anything other than painting by numbers is totally beyond me. Seeing these pastoral scenes taking shape on his canvas was just mesmerizing. To me, Varga was performing magic right in front of my eyes.

Since, according to Emerson, everyone is my superior to me in some way, I am living on a planet filled with wondrous people. That’s how I look at my existence, rather than bemoan the things that are beyond my abilities. In my opinion, our individual incompleteness is the best thing that could happen to us. There is a well-known expression “The two biggest disappointments in life are not getting what you want, and getting it”. We have to strive continually for something in life, or else we’ll plateau and then stagnate.

Therefore, I believe that we are incomplete on purpose, and that each one of us was born with just the right amount of innate learning potential – enough to survive and propagate, but not enough to truly  thrive or to attain a level of self-actualization. In order to reach the summit of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or to experience life more fully and completely, we have to seek out other people and learn from them. Progress depends on pooling resources and sharing knowledge. Together, we can do things and solve problems that we wouldn’t be able to individually; our individual incompleteness is the impetus that brings us together so that we can assist one another. Together, we fill in each other’s “missing pieces”, and become more complete ourselves. In the process, we also see a fascinating side of those we meet, when we discover that they can do almost effortlessly, what we are unable to do by ourselves. 

From this interaction and cooperation, we will begin to develop friendships, and build networks of friends. These networks will then, over time, coalesce into tribes, communities, societies and finally, cultures. At this point we can look at the culture that has emerged and declare that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Because we are imperfect, we experience a richer and more wondrous world.

Some Thoughts On Twitter

I still don’t know what to make of Twitter – the microblogging web site that seems to be all the rage these days. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Twitter web site is little more than a blank text box, with the question “What are you doing right now”? You type in whatever you like, as long as it’s fewer than 140 characters. And that’s it!

It doesn’t sound particularly useful, yet everyone seems to be using it (at least according to the media). After much hesitation, I decided to sign up with my own account and see what all of the hype was about. I’d like to share with you now, some initial observations about Twitter: two positive and two negative.

The negative one concerns the 140-character message limit. Twitter is often described as “microblogging”. As I’m sure you know, a “blog” is the shortened term for a web log, an online journal. You can write as much as you like in a blog, however each message in Twitter (known as a “tweet”) is limited to 140 characters. Why 140? That’s because a cell phone text message is also limited to 140 characters, and the developers wanted people to be able to receive tweets on their mobile devices.

I remember one of my sociology textbooks, called “Jolts”, by Morris Wolfe. In it he states that our collective attention span is growing shorter all the time. Television commercials in the 1950s used to be two minutes long; when he wrote the book, TV commercials were 30 seconds; now, 15-second commercials are common. The average length of newspaper articles has also been decreasing over the decades, although I’m afraid that I have no references for you. Today, television news concentrates more on easily-digestible “sound bites”, rather than lengthier or developing stories.

In my opinion, a short attention span gets in the way of genius, and a good example of this is in the movie Amadeus. After a performance, Mozart meets Emperor Joseph II on stage. Joseph exclaims “Your work is ingenious! It’s quality work! …and there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” To which Mozart replies “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Twitter is the natural extension of this decrease in our collective attention span. Now we have to get our ideas across in 140 characters or fewer. This, in my opinion, means the end of insight or introspection, and the beginning of insipidness. I’ve read hundreds of Twitter messages, and I must say that I am underwhelmed. These authors, on the whole, have absolutely nothing of value to say. But can we blame the format? I don’t think so – brevity does not necessarily have to equal inanity. The Japanese have a similar terse form known as Haiku – a style of poetry made up of three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively – which often convey profound thoughts. Why can’t Twitter be the vessel for our own pithy form of poetry or expression?

The second criticism is the emergence of a shorthand in order to circumvent the character limitation. I like to call this “Prince-ifying” the text, since the pop singer Prince was the first person to use numbers to represent words in his lyrics (e.g. I Would Die 4U). Admittedly, this space-saving measure does allow for longer messages and slightly more complex ideas, but technically speaking, it shouldn’t be necessary. You’ll never see “Thx2AllMyPeepsLuvu4evr” in a Japanese Haiku, because the authors were able to use the language properly and effectively.

Why aren’t we making better use of this new form of communication? I think part of the blame lies in our own collective shortcomings, and our susceptibility to one of the Seven Deadly Sins – specifically, hubris. I believe that the terminology of Twitter is partially to blame for awakening this egocentrism within us. Twitter users don’t have “friends” (Facebook) or connections (LinkedIn), they have followers. This, in my opinion, sets the stage for an increasing sense of hubris and self-importance. In real life, unless we are a cult leader or the titular head of a major religion, we don’t have followers. Renaming our friends and acquaintances as such will make us believe that everything we say or think is worth listening to. This, in my opinion, has made the vast majority of tweets devolve into little more than an endless “stream of consciousness” rather than a collection of useful ideas or thoughts. Shakespeare could very well have been speaking about Twitter when he said (in Macbeth) “It is a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

I was in an elevator the other day, with a mother and her young daughter. As we ascended, her daughter said something that I couldn’t quite make out. However as they were leaving the elevator, the mother admonished her daughter and said “Just because you think something, doesn’t mean that you have to say it”. That was a very wise mother – she should work for Twitter’s marketing department.

Having said that, I do have some positive things to say about Twitter…

There is a reason for Twitter’s seemingly inexplicable popularity, because I believe it taps into our basic primal needs on two levels: one for the author and one for the reader.

We’ll start with the authors. Twitter operates on the same principle as blogs, and even our own club’s speech repository. Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and all of these things are tapping into a basic human need: to have a witness to our existence. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, has it made a sound? Similarly, if a life has been lived on this planet and no one has appreciated (or even witnessed) witnessed the contributions of the individual, has s/he really lived? Only a generation ago, media used to be an exclusive club, but now it is open to almost everyone. Every one of us now has a potential global audience for our thoughts and ideas. Twitter offers us this potential audience, and at no cost – all we have to do is create an account and start typing. Sociologists call this “the democratization of media”, and in principle it’s a good thing, because it allows for a wider range of points of view

The second advantage is offered to the readers. First of all, there is the somewhat voyeuristic thrill in reading the candid (if uninspiring) thoughts of others. We get a brief glimpse into the lives of strangers, or at least the portions of their lives they wish to share.

There is an apartment building less than a block away from my home, and for some reason, no one living in the ground floor apartments seems to draw their curtains. When I walk by, especially during the twilight hours, I can see right into their units. One elderly lady was lying on a couch watching television; a young man was sitting at his computer, his face lit up by the monitor; someone else happened to be peering into his fridge as I passed by on the street.

Twitter is the cyber-equivalent of what I just did – observing the day-to-day activities of others – or at least those who have made their activities visible to outsiders.

Secondly, there is a “self-evaluation by comparison” aspect to social networking. This is meaningful because, as Ambrose Bierce noted, happiness is relative. He said “Calamities are of two types: misfortunes to ourselves, and good fortune to others”. Comedian Paula Poundstone exposed our collective yet deep-rooted adult insecurities in her stand-up routine. She said that adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up because the adults are looking for ideas – we’re unsure of the choices we’ve made, and are now examining the life choices of others. Another comedian takes this “grass is always greener” insecurity further when he reveals to the audience that he is never happy ordering something from a restaurant menu. As soon as his dinner companion orders something, he’ll be filled with regret and wish that he had ordered the same thing as his friend. “I’ll be ready to dig in to some bacon-wrapped filet mignon with truffles and a delicate bearnaise sauce, and then I’ll look over at my friend and say “So what are you having? A peanut butter sandwich? Aaaawwww man! I should have ordered that!”.

Twitter gives us the opportunity to see miniscule pieces of the lives of others, and then compare their life choices to ours. Unlike celebrity worship, these are glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, which means that these could have been our life choices as well. Hence every “tweet” we read is theoretically attainable.

Some people claim that they often read about breaking news stories first via Twitter. Personally, I don’t find this application particularly useful as a news-dissemination medium, because the sources are all unverifiable. Anyone can post a message about anything and watch it spread. Unlike standard media, there is no actual news gathering, researching of facts, or verification of the stories. Anyone can “publish” or forward a news item simply by clicking a mouse, making Twitter more of a giant community bulletin board or graffiti wall. The popularity of Snopes.com and its analysis of e-mail-borne urban legends proves to me that we are not especially good at separating the wheat from the chaff.

Despite the hype, I believe that Twitter is a novelty, and is turning us into a society of voyeurs, rather than a society of movers and shakers. I don’t presume that anything I do is interesting enough to have followers, and personally, I would much rather live my life contributing something useful to the world than merely watching others go about their lives.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer some advice to the developers of Twitter – sell now! Strike while the iron is hot; recognize a mania when you see it, and get as much money as you can for your company before this novelty wears off.

The Final Christmas Gift

This is a true story, and is a story about a former co-worker of mine, Henry. He and I used to work at a company called Wealth Management Solutions, and as luck would have it, our cubicles were next to each other. Given my quirky sense of humour it was probably my good luck and his bad luck.

Henry had an interest in the stock market, as did I, so we often talked about finance and investing. He specialized in resources and had an uncanny ability to peer into the future.

Even though I’m no longer with the company, I still keep in touch with Henry by e-mail. We still trade investment advice, are lamenting these difficult economic times, and both wish that we had more money to invest in the stock market now that the prices are so low.

I sent him an e-mail last month, a couple of days before Christmas, to ask how he was enjoying the holidays. He replied to my e-mail, and what I read was certainly a shock. His mother died on Monday December 22nd, and he had been driving back and forth from Toronto to Montreal (where she lived) to make the funeral arrangements. There were blistering snowstorms along the 401 at the time, and the driving was treacherous.

In addition to the driving and the emotional stress, he was also hosting a Christmas party for sixteen people. It wasn’t a very good Christmas season, but Henry was hoping for a brighter 2009.

I replied to Henry’s e-mail and offered my condolences on the passing of his mother. I also expressed my admiration – if I were in the same position, I don’t think that I would have been able to organize and host a Christmas party so soon afterwards.

I celebrated my Christmas with my family in Orangeville, and when I returned, I checked my e-mail messages. There was a message from Henry. He thanked me for my condolences, and then told the following story:

Actually, when the kids were opening up the presents at midnight I was sad to realize that this was the first year that they would not be receiving their cards from their granny.  Then I thought – why was she so eager to go home from the hospital? She drove the hospital staff crazy to allow her out when she was so sick.  I then put on my coat and went to the mailbox.  There they were.  Barely legibly-addressed cards to each of the kids, and each with their $50.00 gift inside.  She managed to get that done just before she died.  Now that is a Christmas story.

Now that is an extraordinary son who had an extraordinary mother.