To attract, be attractive

I’m visiting Penn State today and will be in State College this weekend to help launch the Penn State Leadership Association, the Penn State Alumni Association’s latest alumni interest group. This got me thinking about a few years ago when I was invited along with Gavin Keirans to speak to some of the student leadership in the University Park Undergraduate Association.

(I’m including a photo of Old Willow that I took recently because it was Penn State’s first student tradition, and should be a symbol of ours again.)

I first distributed copies of “Is Penn State a Real University?,” an evergreen book which I think of as a primer for great conversation about Penn State as either a “corporation to be managed” or an “institution to be governed.” When everyone in the room had a copy I spoke loosely following the notes below about the value of cultivating authority by becoming attractiveness in order to be an effective leader.

I’m posting these notes because I think there’s some continuing value when it comes to thinking about leadership. Everyone wants to be a leader, but almost no one talks about what it takes to be a follower. Yet leadership is the yin to followership’s yang. One cannot exist without the other.

A little about me

  • Helped write the University Park Undergraduate Association’s first constitution and served as an off-campus representative in the first assembly.
  • President & General Manager of The LION 90.7fm (WKPS), the campus radio station, founder of Safeguard Old State, and campaign manager for Gavin Keirans’s three student body president campaigns.
  • Chaired capital campaign to create the Robert K. Zimmerman Endowment for Student Broadcasting and helped create Nittany Valley Press.

The role of a government is governance

  • UPUA says it’s a student government, and yet most people on campus don’t know what it is and never will. And this is perfectly fine. Low voter turnout is a sign of constituency satisfaction. Only dictatorships have super high voter turnout—think Hosni Mubarak getting 100% of the vote, etc.
  • The thing is this: What you call “apathy” (low turnout) isn’t apathy at all. Students are tremendously engaged on this campus. There are 700+ student organizations. Your problem is just that they’re just not engaged with you.
  • So how can a student government govern a campus that regards its approach as irrelevant?
  • If governance is cooperative, how are you learning to cooperative with your peers?

‘Raising awareness’ is not a solution

  • The first approach to student apathy toward toward government is some form of “raising awareness”—but there’s not enough oxygen in the room to do this.
  • This model fails because it says, “Let’s plaster this finite bulletin board with more bulletins.” It’s like flooding a Facebook newsfeed—you might raise awareness, but not in a healthy way.
  • When student leaders declare year in and out that its success is dependent on people’s awareness of its existence, it’s basically acting arrogantly. It’s implying that the problem is, “We just haven’t talked about ourselves enough.”
  • There’s no modesty to this approach. There’s no humility there. No one likes going on a date where the guy spends the whole night talking. It’s unattractive.

Learn to be attractive by empowering peer leaders

  • Attractive people don’t have to work to get dates—unless they have bad personalities. And to carry the analogy out, student government is not only unattractive, it’s also got a bad personality.
  • Thought experiment: If a freshman walked up to a student leader and asked “What concretely do you do to build up Penn State?” what would the answer be?
  • Real leaders are servants. They seek to serve others by creating or building up something attractive for everyone to enjoy. Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” nearly a half century ago. His seminal book, which is available for $10 on Amazon is “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness“.
  • Greenleaf’s suggests that real power is earned by submitting yourself to others. In other words, by making friends. And in so doing, cultivating meaningful leadership authority.
  • In this paradigm, peer-sourced authority rather than self-styled power of an office is the source of the strength of a meaningful leader, because a leader is someone others are willing to follow. Leadership requires followership.
  • What am I saying? Campus policy is the least important thing you could focus on. People are the most important focus, because they’re potential friends and allies and mentors and novelties that define the true Penn State experience.
  • Your challenge: Go out across the campus and become personal and personable (personal—this means intimately, not superficially; it means you might go to their wedding or funeral someday). Become friends with trustees and professors and deans and townspeople. Ask them to have you over for dinner. Institute personal coffees and beer meetings like professors have office hours with existing presidents of fraternities and sororities and interesting campus clubs. Go to Rotary, Kiwanis, and church association meetings. If you want to lead, these are the sorts of people you’ll need to get to follow you. And to attract them, you have to learn to be attractive.
  • Let them know you want to be friends. Let them know, “I’m here for you, whatever you need.” In this paradigm, governance becomes a team affair. You can build your own team by meeting existing leaders rather than vying for some abstract level of importance based upon policies that you end up dissatisfied with because of a lack of awareness or interest in dry policy issues.

Learning from past experience

  • What I’m talking about might seem abstract. “How can we be successful if we just make friends with people?,” you wonder. Or: “If we don’t win on policy, or even try to engage in political battles, what is there? If we’re not in Onward State for our new programs?”
  • Yet: What I’m talking about was once real on this campus, and in fact was the definitive model of student leadership starting in the 1930s in a formal way, and which existed even prior informally among class societies.
  • The institutionalized version of this leadership model was called the “All College Cabinet,” and it was a student governance model that empowered existing leaders of campus groups within a single body, with a cabinet-elected student body president and vice president. It was a combination democracy and aristocracy, and it was a tremendously dynamic model.
  • Today we act as if we’re miniature congressmen, and go on talking about ourselves and engaging in policy concerns. It’s not only self-defeating, it’s unattractive.

This community is attractive

  • The beauty of the Nittany Valley is everywhere around us. Our history lives or dies within each of us, depending on how we treat it. And the affection alumni bring back and students naturally have on entering under the shadow of Mount Nittany needs to be conveyed from generation to generation.
  • As leaders (as the elite, the aristocracy, whether you like it or not) this is your fundamental job. To make friends, to be attractive in order to attract, and as Shakespeare said, to treat the world as a stage where you are the actors—which means you’ve got to put on a show worth watching, and worth hearing about.
  • Learn our history. Visit The University Club and make friends with their general manager. Visit University Archives and ask Jackie Esposito to show you something unexpected. Linger in University House that Evan Pugh built and enjoy the LaVies and Archives in Hintz’s Robb Hall. Know and love our dynamic, shared story—and know it intimately through its personalities rather than superficialities.
  • If you come to know it in a authentic and muscular sense, not only will you not repeat its dark spots and failings, but you’ll become interesting and attractive. Freshman will want to hear from student leadership. And people will want to know you personally, which is one of the most relevant life skills you could hope to perfect.
  • And the real University is a place of people, people who come together and come to know one another for a short time, and go off with a common vision to shape the world, before fading into the pages of history’s latest chapter.

Spirit of Transportation

plaqueThere are two beautiful things in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station that I like to stop to admire whenever I’m there. One is the Angel of the Resurrection war memorial, and the other is Karl Bitter’s 1895 Spirit of Transportation. I took these photos today before leaving for State College.

Spirit of Transportation is arresting in the best way, practically demanding you stop to look on it. It’s monumental public art that comes from a time when we had greater faith in potential for art to redeem a mundane or unremarkable experience by placing it within a more meaningful context.

It’s not simply kitsch or decoration, and that’s probably why it has survived Broad Street Station, its original home.

Defining a startup

A friend of mine said something recently that I didn’t have an answer to at the time, and I’ve been thinking about since. “I have friends,” he said,” whose companies are 5 or 10 years old and they’re still talking about them as startups. When does a startup stop being a startup?”

Now thanks to this great “things I’ve learned” post from Tren Griffin I have an answer that makes sense:

“A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Any analysis of this statement should start with a definition of “business model.” I like the Mike Maples, Jr. definition: “The way that a business converts innovation into economic value.” Steve Blank has his own definition: “A business model describes how your company creates, delivers and captures value.”

Saving for retirement

“Assuming an annual market return of 7 percent, he says, a 30-year-old worker who made $30,000 a year and received a 3 percent annual raise could retire at age 70 with $927,000 in the pot by saving 10 percent of her wages every year in a passive index fund. (Such a nest egg, at the standard withdrawal rate of 4 percent, would generate an inflation-adjusted $37,000 a year more or less indefinitely.) If she put it in a typical actively managed fund, she would end up with only $561,000.”

Great article from Eduardo Porter last month. The things that pay off over the long term are rarely sexy. They’re routine. They’re boring. They work.

Process in service to purpose

Ever since reading Joshua Rothman’s piece on “the meaning of culture,” I’ve been paying special consideration to the way we use that word, especially in the way we use it in the corporate sense.

“Values” is a cousin to “culture” and sometimes they’re used synonymously. Tim Cook recently described Apple post-Steve Jobs in this way: “Everything can change except values.”

A recent newsletter from the National Catholic Community Foundation speaks to the necessary intersection between mission and culture/values. I think it’s especially relevant as Christians celebrate Easter:

…I read a translation of Pope Francis’s (then Cardinal Bergoglio) address in 1999 to an association of businessmen in Buenos Aires… [Bergoglio says:] “This (profane messianism’) appears in various forms of social and political undertakings. Sometimes it shifts the ethos of personal actions to structures, with the result that ethos doesn’t create structures but rather structures create ethos …”

Have you noticed how more and more procedures and policies control our lives? I see it in the large bank where I work which, of course, is part of an increasingly regulated industry. It is almost as though human judgment is discouraged if not prohibited. Where discernment was once respected as a virtue, it is today regarded as a vice. Limited to quantifiable realities, structures and systems control our activities and allow no room for the personal intuitions of faith (trust), hope and even charity.

Breaking down the super cumbersome “profane messianism” phrase: profane meaning not offensive but simply “secular” or “non-sacred” and “messianism” referring to a general faith in a savior.

So future Pope Francis is referring to the idea of an overriding and misplaced faith in structure, process, organization, or bureaucracy as the inherent means of fulfilling an organizational or life mission. Of mistaking a great process for a great purpose.

In a Christian institution, the first principle of any endeavor has to be service to God. Any structure, process, bureaucracy, etc. in a Christian institution that’s not rooted in that first principle isn’t sustainable and likely doesn’t create the room for a humane approach to organizational culture.

And in the secular sense, you see the same idea rooting Apple: its foundational values (e.g., creating the best possible products at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology) are absolute, even as product specifics and “everything else” can change.

I’m trying to bring together a lot here, and probably not successfully. At minimum this is an insight into how I’m trying to approach nonprofit and Catholic institutions that contribute meaningfully to civil society.


This PBS documentary on James Baker caught my attention recently. It’s a workmanlike 90 minute feature on “a remarkable politician and statesman who represents a time when a divided Congress got things done, and when presidents and politicians worked together.”

“Baker, now 84, helped get three presidents elected, served in top posts for two of them and was a central player in some of the most momentous events of the late 20th century.”

Baker is a fascinating figure for all the reasons mentioned above, but also because he seems like one of the last realists in national Republican politics. A realist, to my thinking, is someone who treats a person on the other side of the table as a person, and not as a reflexive ideologue.

I liked the summation from the documentary of Baker’s approach as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State: “In Baker you see somebody exquisitely focused on solving the other side’s problem in order to solve his own. Baker and Bush were really exemplary at this.”

Started from the bottom

“Occhiolism,” a fascinating word from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

n. the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn’t possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room.

I think most of us have felt afflicted by a sense of the awful smallness of our perspective. Occhiolism instantly reminded me of acedia as a cousin:

Acedia (also accidie or accedie, from Latin acedĭa, and this from Greek ἀκηδία, “negligence”) describes a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one’s duties in life.

In Christianity there’s the foundational teaching that all reality was created from nothingness, that the Creator created ex nihilo. I think the same thing holds in our own lives, which is that all that’s good and meaningful has to be created despite the base nothingness that we all feel sometimes.

Cultural nests

Rod Dreher reflected recently on American Indian “cultural nests,” or ways to transmit the cultural knowledge of threatened languages and the attendant meaning of those languages to new generations. Dreher frames this by citing the nest as both an incubator and a refuge from predation, which in this case is the force of wider American/English language culture:

The idea is simple but profound: the natural cultural forces around us are destroying these languages, and with them cultures, even cosmologies. The only way to save them is to pass them on to the next generations, and the only way to do that is to study them intensely a sanctuary/incubator setting, and then to put what you learn there into use in daily life.

Reading this, I thought this is the Benedict Option for languages. These speakers of dying languages and their children are not running for the hills to hide out, but they are creating communal institutions within which precious but severely threatened knowledge can be passed on, even as the younger generations live and work in the world. The elders know their children will be assimilated to a certain degree within the broader world, but they are trying as hard as they can to give them the knowledge and the love to hold on to their traditions and inheritance.

Dreher draws a parallel between the value of cultural nests for cultural knowledge like language and the Benedict Option, a concept within Christianity that he’s written about before. Borrowing from this link to describe it: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success.”

Churches, families, and religious schools that don’t become “nests” will not be recognizably Christian within this century. I’m convinced of that. Hence the Benedict Option.

American culture, and dominant cultures generally, often find themselves influenced and sometimes even transformed in surprising and unexpected ways through the life of a coherent minority. I think cultural nests are a significant thing for Christians to consider, and they’re already in existence in an obvious way through secular things like college towns. There are plenty of models.

Spectrum of choice

I’ve written previously about the Culture of Life. I embrace it because I think it represents a consistent, meaningful, holistic framework for thinking about life and how our social attitudes and public policy shape society.

For many Americans the philosophical questions raised through the Culture of Life framework translate into a nation divided on a series of incredibly contentious issues. Abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, ethics of war, etc. These are some of the oldest and most difficult issues debated dating to earliest antiquity. How any nation or people respond to the questions inherent to these issues often shape how they’re seen over the course of time on the spectrum from humane to barbaristic. This is because responding to these questions is ultimately reflected through policy that impacts the human person. In our time, the specific technology of contemporary science and medicine frame much of the conversation and guide each side’s thinking on the issues.

So the disagreement in its essence is about what is believed to be best for the human person. This is why the state exists, after all—the protection and preservation of a just social order for the good of the people within that order.

(Incidentally, Gallup polling demonstrates America’s consistent division, with pro-life and pro-choice attitudes divided almost evenly with one or the other having a slight edge depending on the year. As of 2014 that translates to the statistical split of 47% pro-choice, 46% pro-life. What’s very interesting is the related Gallup survey on public perception of the split. Americans don’t realize they’re as evenly divided as they are. When asked, most believe the nation is ~51% pro-choice and ~35% pro-life. This suggests that many probably think that Culture of Life issues like abortion or capital punishment or war enjoy greater consensus than they really do, which is problematic when trying to formulate policy based on incorrect data.)

In my previous post on the nuances of the Culture of Life, I wrote that I might get into some of the basis for my own pro-life instincts at some point. The Gallup survey on public perception has made me want to do that to help provide context for at least some of the attitudes that other pro-life Americans might share. As you can probably tell from my tone, I’m not interested in this for the purpose of political point-scoring or back-patting. I’m interested in talking through first principles with reasonable people in good faith, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of opinion.

So with all of that as a prelude, here is some of the basis for my own pro-life instincts, with a focus on abortion since that’s the most contentious issue:

First, as I’ve mentioned, I’m pro-life because the Culture of Life and Saint John Paul the Great’s Theology of Body are to my thinking the best, most consistent philosophical and metaphysical basis for articulating what human life is for and what we are in relation to one another.

Second, because I look at the data behind what drives the majority of decisions to abort. They usually indicate circumstances where we’ve neglected through public policy to provide substantive social alternatives. It’s usually about wealth—access to it, preservation of it, or lack of it. At the same time, we intellectually privatize the subject of social alternatives by saying that a mother’s decisions born out of non-optimal social circumstances are merely personal, and we can’t/shouldn’t get involved. We don’t typically privatize social issues like this in America.

Third, and relating to the above, I myself am the living result of an unplanned pregnancy. I likely wouldn’t be here but for the chance circumstance of a Catholic family whose moral psychology meant that they were inclined to embrace and support their still-in-college daughter during a challenging time. Their combination of personal, emotional, financial, material, and faith-inspired support helped ensure I could have a life. Those circumstances could be replicated as needed for every woman in a similar situation if we decided it was a social priority.

Fourth, I think a basically pro-life attitude is implicit in even ardent pro-choice advocacy. “Safe, legal, and rare” isn’t language that we apply to a happy experience, which is why we’ve seen those who prize abortion access over social alternatives largely move away from that language. We all naturally prefer to avoid abortion, but by framing the issue as a privatized choice we avoid exploring policy that’s likely to expand the spectrum of choice beyond “I need an abortion because the contraception failed.” For emphasis: Just as “pro-life” should mean accountability for that position as part of the consistent Culture of Life framework (e.g., consistency by also opposing capital punishment), “pro-choice” should involve similar accountability beyond the initial position of access to abortion. This would mean an openness to asking “What policies can be put into place to make sure mothers and fathers have the real options they need to bring their child to term if they choose? What social supports need to exist that don’t presently? What would that sort of society look like in practice?”

Fifth, because pro-lifers are the community I see most consistently working to create a set of personal, emotional, financial, material, and faith-inspired options for mothers and fathers looking for a fuller spectrum of choice, whatever that choice is.

There are probably other reasons, but I’m comfortable citing these as the rough foundation for my pro-life instincts. I think, just as pro-life advocates who argue for abstinence sound tired, pro-choice advocates who reflexively promote contraception and abortion sound similarly lame. I would like to see a fuller spectrum of choice that takes into account those of us who don’t already happen to be in a comfortable social, financial, and familial situation.

I’m so weary of the “culture wars.” I expect abortion to continue to exist as a point on the spectrum of choice for my lifetime, but that spectrum needs expansion if any of us are serious about policy that best serves the human person.

A humbling experience

An update on a side project I expect to to wrap up next month: creating the audiobook version of my book Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism.

Last July when I was at Penn State for a meeting I sat down with my friend Ben Novak. We met in the Pattee Library Knowledge Commons, which has a few private recording studios and over the course of a few hours knocked out the raw readings of the book.

But here’s the thing. It’s producing that raw audio that’s an incredibly humbling experience. You’re creating something that you want to be as pure as possible. A narration that contains no audible “artifacts” that distract a listener or pollute the narration.

When you’re recording, you need an absolutely quiet recording environment. A tap on the table, a distant car horn that leaks into the studio, the slightest verbal stutter or tick. You keep hacking away until the narration is perfect, first in the raw read and then in production when all the screw ups and stutters and coughs need to be manually (and painstakingly removed. The result should be as close as possible to a beautiful narration that lets someone experience the story rather than experience someone reading them a story. Does that distinction make sense?

As I was working on producing Chapter 4 on Hort Woods, sitting for hours staring at the screen, listening for the slightest problems in the waveform, I realize why this it felt so humbling.

It wasn’t just because it was laborious. It was because you were confronted with a thousand or more screw ups in trying to read something for just 30-45 minutes. So many little failures of pronunciation, of little stutters, of errors in timing a sentence.

It’s a hellish experience. It’s not something I’m delighted to be doing, but I’ll be happy when it’s complete. It was humbling because I imagined having to experience the same thing, except instead of 45 minutes of narration, I imagined my entire life’s narration.

A thousand or more minor screw ups in 45 minutes. How many minor or major ethical, moral, prudential, whatever screw ups pollute the story of a life?

If this sounds strange, I get it. But it was a visceral moment for me editing a little bit of audio, and seeing through that experience how frail we are. It was a good, humanizing experience.