Nantucket - The End

Stanley shuffled to the tee. And inwardly, I sighed.

This, I thought, is not how I want to spend my afternoon.

I have had a love-hate relationship with golf. I came to the game late, at 27. Old enough to have learned the consequences of mistakes. And the power of the word, ‘don’t.’

The human mind responds unwillingly and inconsistently to the word, ‘don’t’. Ask a parent. Or a golfer, for whom the silent prayer don’t hit it in the water is the golfing equivalent of a sacrifice to Poseidon.

As a species we are drawn to the affirmative. Of what might be. We search, we discover, we create, we innovate. Our triumphs and our existence depend on possibility.

Avoiding the negative makes us cautious. And tense. Hard places from which to navigate. Life or business.

As the stakes increase, the temptation to succumb to caution is overwhelming. A temptation we fight with intellect and hard work. As though trying harder will change patterns already deeply embedded.

Instead the effort guarantees the outcome we want desperately to avoid. A lesson I learned in two parts.

Part one took place in the Fall of 2000. On the Old Course in St Andrews. On the east coast of Scotland.

St. Andrews is the home of golf. Its heart and its soul. And the ground has been walked upon by every golfer history would name as significant. Tom Morris, Young and Old. Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Faldo, Woods. All have played and triumphed at the Old Course.

And for an hour, on this hallowed ground, I was as great as anyone who had ever played the game.

Standing on the seventh tee two I was two over par. A score that reflected the good and bad in my game. Long, straight drives. The growing tension as I neared the hole. Mis-hit irons, tentative chips and putts hit without hope or expectation.

There are moments in life when you get out of your own way long enough to permit greatness. When the self doubt steps aside, and who you are finds voice.

Sometimes we need help. I had Shivas Irons.

Golf In The Kingdom is the story of Shivas Iron - a mystical golf professional at Burningbush Links on the coast of Scotland - who teaches the book’s writer over one extraordinary twenty four hour period, that the golf swing is an expression of the soul.

For an hour on that late September afternoon, I felt Shivas Irons walk with me. Pointing out the possible. Focusing not on fear, but on expectation. Reminding me what I already knew. That I was responsible. And capable. And that the combination is undeniable.

It was not a conscious thought of mine to let him join me. Just a realization as I finished the sixth hole, that different results would not come from the same actions. Or thoughts.

That getting out of my own way was the first step.

I let go. And Shivas Irons arrived. An hour later I walked off the tenth green, two under par. I had birdied all four holes.

As I stepped onto the eleventh tee it started to rain. Hard. And the calmness that had descended upon me, unhurriedly reached for my rain suit. It was 165 yards, into a stiffening wind. The pin just over the front bunker.

In those few moments I was aware of every sensation. The rain in my face, the sun breaking through the clouds over St Andrews Bay behind the green. Chris beside me, not wanting to break the spell.

It may have been my body that settled over the ball on that rain-swept piece of historic ground. But it was Shivas Irons that swung the club. The sound of a perfectly struck golf shot is distinctive. And as the ball flew towards the flag, its final destination was pre-determined.

There are many who feel that perfection in golf is a hole in one. I do not. For the number of variables in achieving that specific outcome require luck play a crucial part.

The ball landed softly on the green, two yards beyond the gaping mouth of the bunker, took the slope above the cup and rolled gently to a stop, eighteen inches above the flag.

Eighteen inches from three under par at the Old Course.

The walk from the eleventh tee to the eleventh green is a little under two hundred yards.

In that time, Shivas Irons left me. All that was left was a man staring at eighteen inches of sharply sloping ground. And a putt that looked longer than any he had ever seen.

Don’t miss it. Like the shot before, the outcome was pre-determined before my putter made hesitant contact with the ball which rolled past on the low side without grazing the cup.

I snap hooked my drive on twelve into a gorse bush and made a seven. Shivas Irons was nowhere to be found, and I bogeyed my way in for a 77. A score to be proud of in the context of what I was.

But greatness is measured against what we are capable of. What we could be. A bar held too low by too many. In their lives. And in their businesses.

For five more years, I put down my experience that afternoon to the mysticism of the Old Course. I had merely been the vessel. The inspiration had been of something else. Not religious, for I am not. But a confluence of influences available only on that particular piece of ground.

But unable to scale those heights again, even momentarily, I lost interest in the game. And what had been an obsession dissipated to almost nothing. Last year I played 27 holes. And took one lesson.

Last Monday, I went out to Miacomet Golf Course in Nantucket with no expectations. Instead, I found Shivas Irons again.

I didn’t recognize him at first. He introduced himself as Stanley. Then he shuffled to the tee. And waited. “Nilda has to watch for me. I don’t see too good anymore,” he explained.

Nilda, his wife, walked unhurriedly towards him, and then turned and looked in my direction. “Stanley’s ninety three,” she said proudly. “Going on ninety four. I keep an eye on where he hits it. Easy job.” I swear she winked before she settled into what I came to realize was her usual position a few yards behind him.

Stanley hesitated for a few moments and swung. It was more fluid and graceful than a man of ninety three has any right to expect. The ball flew without complaint and rolled to a stop in the dead center of the fairway 160 yards away.

“Nice and easy,” said Nilda. “He knows where he’s going, he’s just enjoying the ride.”

“A lesson for all of us in that,” I said by way of polite small-talk, and as they slowly got back in their cart I lifted my bag across my shoulders and walked down the first fairway.

I had hit a good drive. A natural ability that never seems to stray too far, no matter how little I play. As I looked at the yardage marker and pulled a club I felt the wind freshen.

I waited while Stanley played his second shot. It carried about 140 yards, rolled another forty or so on the hard, dry ground and came to rest just in front of the green.

I settled over the ball, and as I took the club back I thought, enjoy the ride.

The ball compressed against the club face and climbed aboard the breeze headed in from the ocean. As it started to fall, the ball seemed to hesitate as though picking a spot  to land, before coming to rest about twenty feet above the hole. I smiled and picked up my bag, walking quietly and enjoying the moment.

Stanley's chip lacked nothing in skill or commitment, but perhaps a little in good fortune, and jumping forward when he might have expected it to stop, it carried six feet past.

I looked at my putt briefly, a downhill left to right slider that had ‘roller coaster’ written on its obituary. Enjoy the ride. The ball tracked the invisible line I had drawn, and fell into the cup as though it could imagine no other destination. Stanley missed his par putt and made five. “Nice birdie,” he said quietly. “Do it again.”

Only once over the next eight holes did I get in my own way. My second shot on the second hole. After a drive of such effortless power that I was left with only a short little wedge to the green. Then, for a moment, a lifelong weakness of delicate short shots encouraged me. To try. Hard.

I double bogeyed the hole. It was the only time I didn’t believe in myself. Or the swing I have honed through painstaking effort and great teaching over fifteen years. A platform I had invested in but never used. Afraid to see what I could be if I believed.

Stanley played his round without fuss. Hitting the ball relentlessly down the middle, and up on the green. His sense of calm and of purpose never left. And neither did mine.

On the ninth green, I considered my final putt of the afternoon. Ten feet. Left to right. Against the prevailing wind. Enjoy the ride.

The ball travelled unerringly along the path I had predicted and veered right towards the hole. At the last moment, the breeze gathered itself, holding the ball for an instant in its grasp. As the wind dropped, the ball grabbed the lip of the cup and rolled around the edge, dropping beneath the surface for an instance before jumping out and stopping an inch away.

I tapped in and turned to shake Stanley’s hand. “Can’t win ‘em all,” he said. What did you shoot? 35?” I nodded. “Pretty good with a double,” he grinned. “Three birdies, damn near four, in nine holes. You should play more often.”

“I’m not this good normally,” I said softly. Stanley held up his hand.

“We’re as good as we want to be,” he said firmly. “You spent a lot of money on that swing of yours. I’d go use it if I were you. Before you’re too old. Took me a long time to enjoy this game. Wasted a lot of time worrying about making mistakes. Tried too hard. I was over eighty before I figured it out.”

He turned and walked slowly back to his cart. I picked up my bag and followed him. “Figured out what?” I asked.

He turned and looked at me. “You already know,” he said. “Maybe today you realized that.”

He shook my hand again. “You coming back next year?” he asked.

I nodded instinctively.

“Good. See you then.” He climbed into the cart and he and his wife drove off.

A year’s a long time. Who knows where any of us will be.

But there is possibility. And there is purpose.

Enjoy the ride.

Nantucket - Part 1

I am drawn to water.

A realization I have come to later in life than I wished.

Living beside Lake Michigan for quarter of a century, I was lulled into a false sense of security that proximity to the sea was not important. An assumption that the last few days have proven false.

We spent the weekend on Shelter Island. Hurricaine Danny called to say it was coming over and we should cancel our plans. We ignored it, so it didn’t show. Typical male.

His rudeness was our gift. A fantastic evening at the extraordinary home of Mindy Goldberg and Cary Tamarkin overlooking Shelter Island Sound - a testament to their taste, talent and sustained business success.

At several times during the evening I stood alone and wondered if the moonlit path across the water could be reached from the beach below. The inner child in me hoped so. The man in the white Armani suit worried about the salt stains.

Still, it was an encouraging start. Possibility is the fuel to the future. And I spend most of my time seeing the possibilities for others. Restoring fantasy in our own lives is why summer vacations were invented. And Saturday night was the beginning of that.

On Sunday, I passed another birthday. Quietly and without fanfare. Leaving Shelter Island on the ferry we weren’t sure where we were headed next. For two producers this was unprecedentedly spontaneous behavior. The forecast for everywhere, from Hong Kong to home was set fair for the week. We had a convertible, a full tank of gas, and a million miles on American. The world lay before us. A vast array of possibilities.

We chose Nantucket. Chris’s spiritual home. And a place I’ve never liked.

I spent eleven reluctant vacations with Chris’s family, wishing each time I was somewhere else. Of all the places in the world, Nantucket was top of my list of seen it once, don’t need to see it again.

We hadn’t been back for five years. And I hadn’t missed it one iota. Until two weeks ago when I read in someone’s blog a description of a few days spent at the Wauwinet Inn in early August. Stacy Wall, the endlessly talented and humble film director, was at Mindy and Cary’s party on Saturday. We talked about blogging. He said he preferred the term, writing on the internet.

Aesthetically I agree with Stacy. Writing is a craft. Blogging is casual. But in practice, I find blogging less intimidating. And liberated from the expectation that Writing imposes on me, I find myself becoming more open to the world around me. An openness that found me reading, to my surprise, about Nantucket.

Something stirred inside me that I hadn’t expected. Sights and sounds of Nantucket. Blue hydrangeas swaying on ocean breezes. Cobble-stone streets lined with grey shingled houses, their white windows and fences open and protective in equal measure. And country roads across low lying landscapes, lush and sandy in impossible combinations.

But mostly I felt the pull of island life. Islands that sit exposed to the elements. That require commitment and effort to reach. Their very independence from land demanding a sense of the possible from those that live there.

I have been struck by this in our work recently. Business owners unable to embrace the possibility of what they could be.

Over the last few weeks I have found myself talking to companies whose talent and potential far exceeds their current self-imposed limitations. They have well rehearsed reasons why my ambition for them is too far-reaching. Why my belief in what they could be is unrealistic.

The sense of the possible has left them for now. For some it has gone forever. Decisions seen as temporary have a way of becoming permanent while we are waiting for permission to be great.

Leaving the Orient Point ferry at New London, Connecticut - a convergence of transportation possibilities like few others in the world: boats, ferries, submarines, trains, cars, buses and motorcycles all within a few yards of each other - we turned east and headed towards Hyannis. The Wauwinet had cancellations and a bay view room, at a price unthinkable a year ago, was ours for three nights.

Three hours later, our car stowed safely below, we stood at the bow of the massive Nantucket ferry and headed south into the Atlantic. The evening was warm and fog shrouded, and as we passed the harbor’s outer marker a small group of people gathered on the starboard side and watched quietly as Senator Kennedy’s compound came slowly into view, before settling back into its quiet mourning behind the mist. His schooner bobbed a few hundred yards away, responding to our wake as that of a dog hoping anxiously for the return of its master.

Ahead, the moon found a small gap in the heavy skies, and the path that I had gazed at the night before appeared again on the water, guiding us forward.

The man in the white suit was nowhere to be found.

This time there was only a boy. On a path filled with possibilities. 

Planning The Last Day First / STEP 5: EXIT

A business with four offices spread across 5000 miles doesn’t lend itself naturally to a single company Christmas Party.By the summer of 2003, however, it was feeling increasingly important that we have one. The Whitehouse had coordinated over 1000 employee travel nights that year. As a result a lot of people knew a lot of people. But Chris and I had come to realize that we were the only two that knew everyone in the company. It was time for that to change.If you’re going to throw a party for a group of people aged between 18 and 45, there’s really only one city in the world to choose. Las Vegas.

Rebirth is Good. Not Dying in The First Place is Better

If business didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.

Because, social and economic impact aside, it satisfies some very raw human needs to strive and overcome. And the greater the obstacle the more compelling we find the story.

David and Goliath. Jack and the Beanstalk. Rocky. Good versus bad. Black versus white.

But in the real world, defining the challenge in such sharp relief is frustratingly rare. And subject to the vagaries of media coverage. If David versus Goliath was being staged next week, I for one would be paying more attention to the line in Vegas. And regardless of who wins, Goliath +10 takes some of the underdog romance out of it.

Owning a business gives us the chance to be our own hero. To do the right thing. To be brave and noble. To prove nice guys don’t have to finish last. And to find out whether we’ve got what it takes to withstand the tough times.

After all, the stories we admire most are those of the hero who - overwhelmed by adversity - rises again, phoenix-like, from the ashes. To fail, strive and ultimately succeed puts you among the pantheon of the greats.

Apple, Inc. for instance. Changed the world. Died. Reborn. Iconic. All in less than a quarter of a century. But while we celebrate their genius, we angst about what happens when their heroic figure is no longer with us. As a business model it’s worryingly biblical.

It seems to me that companies that are able to reinvent themselves following their apparent demise usually exhibit similar qualities. Innovation. Absolutely. Determination. Unquestionably. Self-preservation. Evidently. But a study of their original DNA finds little evidence of self-awareness.

I like to tell the story of Kodak. Since 1888 they have been a film company. That’s what they sold. That’s what we bought. Everyone knew, so no one asked, but if any one did they said, ‘we’re a film company.’

Except they weren’t.

Kodak was an image capture company. As it turned out, we didn’t care which medium they used to capture the image - we just cared about the image. And once someone showed us we didn’t have to drop it off to get it processed and could have the results immediately, we all decided we preferred that approach. And since Kodak didn’t do that we went and found people that could. Like Canon. And Nikon. And Fuji. And Sony.

Kodak - who had defined ‘pictures’ for all of us - were left wondering what happened.

To give Kodak credit, they’ve worked really, really hard at reinventing themselves. And ultimately perhaps they’ll succeed. Today, they define themselves as an ‘imaging innovator’. They’ve invested heavily in developing and acquiring printing and scanning technology. They manage digital workflows. They sell ink and software, and they’ve developed revolutionary anti-counterfeiting technology which embeds invisible markers into ink and glue which can be used on any packaging, and seen only through Kodak scanners. They also still sell 35mm film to movie and commercial producers. A boutique business in a digital world.

But they’re not a film company. They never were. And it took the death of an industry to make them realize it. And 100 years of industry dominance to pay for it.

As an example of rebirth, Kodak’s story is one to admire.

As a reminder that you need to know why you’re in business to begin with, it’s even better.