The Boy and The Bag

There was only one noteworthy thing about today.

While I was walking home from the vegetable market, I saw a mother and her four children lollygagging down the street. The oldest child can’t have been more than eight years old, the youngest somewhere around two. They were all slowly meandering along the sidewalk, taking up all of it and some of the grass.

Mom carried a few grocery bags, and each child carried one—well, almost carried. The smallest child, a little boy with big curious eyes, had one fist clenched around his bag handle and was dragging the bag along the ground. In his other hand he tightly clutched a set of keys. He kept pausing and looking back at his bag, then turning ahead purposefully. His mother went slowly along in front of him, coaxing him along and keeping a watchful eye on all her other children.

And then I walked past them, and that’s all that happened today.

To Be a Good Leader

There are a few different types of leaders.

Napoleon Bonaparte: Napoleon Bonaparte had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. France was looking for a strong military leader, and he was a young man with lots of ambition. He didn’t have decades of strategic experience, but he had gusto, verve, and lots of ideas.

David Ogilvy: David Ogilvy didn’t start out as the head of an advertising agency. He began his career as a line chef in a kitchen run by a martinet. This boss mostly worked in the office (planning food and stuff and things), but occasionally came out to exhibit that he could still cook a better dish than any chef in his employment. He’d earned his way to the top through years of practice and experience. Ogilvy held that principle for the rest of his career. To earn a high-ranking position, you must be an expert in your field and work your way up.

Most leaders in corporate America: Lots of people wake up in the morning and show up to work day in and day out. They’re responsible, they work hard, and they get the job done. When employers are looking around to give a promotion, this person is next in line and gets the role.

Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.

But a successful leader needs a trait from each of these types.

Ideas: Napoleon Bonaparte had ideas. Lots of them. He wanted to do lots of things. Just because you’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it that way.

Expertise: If you’re leading people in your area of expertise that you love, you'll fall into approximately 2% of employed people. Maybe less. But to be a really good leader, you have to know the ins and outs of what you’re doing even if you don’t love it.

On any given day, you have to exhibit that you can write (produce, draw, build) something that’s not a spluttering mess.

—one of my favorite leaders

Consistency: When you’re leading people, they look up to you and wait for your input. And when you give an idea, they’ll act. If you give half-cooked ideas and change your mind after they’ve put 120 hours of work into your notion, things will go south faster than geese in October. Be consistent in your behavior, your thoughtfulness, even in your schedule. Not only will it make people trust you and listen when you speak, they’ll appreciate your stability.

If I were leading a discussion on leadership, I would ask the roomful of people what makes a good leader—and odds are they’d come up with more than a dozen valuable attributes.

We all know great leaders. Think of someone you respect and pinpoint what makes them excellent. Then emulate that.

How to Live Your Life

A not-necessarily comprehensive list of large life moments

Moving houses
Changing jobs

These major life events tend to demand lots of attention and years of plans that culminate in one day. Hours of thought, kinetic energy, and coordinating go into making everything perfect. For many of these events, we plan how we look, think about how we ought to act, and practice in the mirror for what we’ll say (besides births, unless you’re just practicing yelling etc.).

A definitely-not comprehensive catalog of the little minutes

Waking up
Seeing your family
Buying groceries
Spending time with friends

You encounter at least one thing on this list every single day—show me a person who doesn’t, and I’ll raise a skeptical eyebrow (that’s why I put sleeping on the list, so I could claim that. Unless it’s a college student . . .).

Most of the items on this list are habits. You and I have woken up every morning for so long (our whole lives, actually), that we don’t think about it when it happens. Just like we don’t realize we’re fuming at traffic, complaining about work, and gossiping about friends. It’s all so second nature we don’t even notice.

But shouldn’t we concentrate on the daily moments of life with as much effort and attention as we plan a wedding or buy a house?

If there are flowers missing from a bouquet at your wedding, it will not likely ruin anyone’s life. But if you’re rude to your cashier at the grocery store every week for an entire year, think of the emotional havoc you’ve wreaked.

Check your daily habits to see if you want to sign your name to them when you die, because you’ll have to explain to Someone why you did everything.

Live the little moments with as much intentionality as you live the big ones.

The Tiny Kind Moments

Monday morning, 8:07 a.m.
My ID holder extender doohickey (officially called a ‘badge holder’ for you types who care about that sort of thing) snapped. The company ID I’m not supposed to lose went flying up and then straight to the ground. Both of my arms were full. I was sweaty, wet-haired, and already uncomfortable (you’re familiar with my relationship with elevators?), and there were four other people on the elevator.

Before I’d formed a plan of action a nice gentleman pitied and saved me. He picked my ID up and handed it back.

I think I thanked him fervently? But I’m not really sure because he was mid-conversation with the lady to my left who had wide-set, sparkly eyes, light brown eyebrows, and a straight, pretty nose. They were discussing her carpal tunnel.

By the time I got to my desk I’d almost already forgotten about the small kindness and gone on to the next thing. But as I think over the past 16 hours that’s the 45-second moment that stands out.

There are lots of “most important” lessons here, things such as:

  • pick things up for people who drop them

  • just because someone might not say thank you doesn’t mean they’re not grateful

  • it’s the different moments in life that we remember

But it’s really a reflection of how life is a compilation of the tiny kind moments: smiling at someone in the hallway (even a weird-looking stranger). Thanking your cashier (genuinely). Asking a person how their day is going (and listening when they tell you).

God’s ultimate kindness toward us (yes, giving His Son to conquer the black-evil-torture of death for us) paves the way for our tiny kindnesses toward others.

That means being unselfish when you don’t feel like it, patient when you’re in a rush, cheerful when you’re tired and your foot hurts and you’re in a black humor because someone cut you off on your way to the dentist.

It means treating people like you’d want to be treated, every time.

It may feel like a series of small and insignificant moments—but your influence is broader than you think.

Creative People Are . . .

Know someone creative who you can't quite understand? David Ogilvy (in Confessions of an Advertising Man) cites research from a study done by Frank Barron about creative people. 

Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do.

They often express part-truths, but this they do vividly; the part they express is the generally unrecognized; by displacement of accent and apparent disproportion in statement they seek to point to the usually unobserved.

They see things as other do, but also as others do not.

They are born with greater brain capacity; they have more ability to hold many ideas at once, and to compare more ideas with one another—hence to make a richer synthesis.

They are by constitution more vigorous, and have available to them an exceptional fund of psychic and physical energy.

Their universe is more complex, and in addition they usually lead more complex lives.

They have more contact than most people do with the life of the unconscious—with fantasy, reverie, the world of imagination.

Biking and Fear

Yesterday it was almost a hundred degrees in Chicago—the kind of heavy, humid heat that hits you like a rolling wave when you step outside. The cicadas were crazy buzzing, the beach was mobbed by high schoolers and mothers and babies escaping stuffy apartments, and Curtis (he's very wonderful) spent the day drinking gallons of water and sweating more while he worked at a picnic in the park.

I set out to ride my bike to the store. Put aside the granular details about context (do you really care how high the curb was or how busy the road was or how it seemed like THERE WAS BROKEN GLASS EVERY 20 FEET?).

About three minutes into the ride I started regretting it—but by then it was too late to turn around. I continued along the narrow street with too much traffic and not enough space for me and my pretty red bike.

A metallic grey Audi whizzed past me, notable only because it was going a little too fast. Moments later, after I'd passed the line of traffic in the constant ebb and flow of biking patterns, the Audi reappeared. The driver, a well dressed, manicured woman, had rolled down her window in preparation for the moment when she would pass me again, so she could give me 


I still don't understand what she thought I was doing wrong—something about me being on the sidewalk or not. It's probably hard to be articulate while yelling expletives and instructions at a biker out of your passenger side window as you're driving 30 miles per hour.

I spent the rest of my afternoon thinking about what would prompt someone to react in that way, and had a few ideas:

  • A past offense. The biking culture in Chicago is startlingly arrogant. Bikes do whatever they want, wherever they want to, with little regard to rules of the road and other cars. An accident or two and about a half dozen close calls later, I try not to ride this way—but when there aren't any cars at a four-way stop, yes. It's very hard to want to obey the law on a bicycle.

Maybe the nice lady hit a biker the day before and was still upset about it. Maybe she was a biker once and got hit and was trying to help me. Maybe her husband works in the emergency room and always tells her about the bike accident patients he has to stitch up, and she's secretly trying to put her husband out of a job by preventing bike accidents. Maybe she just hates Chicago bikers.

Your guess is as good as mine.

  • A bad day. She could have just been fired. Maybe her teenage daughter got a tattoo that says, "My mom's breath smells awful in the morning" and she was upset about it. Her husband could have walked out on her, her neighbor could be stealing her mail, her father could have told her he was disappointed in who she's become.

If these are the case, I'm happy to help her out, though I'd rather do it by expressing sympathy for her than by being a human punching bag.

  • Fear. It's likely that the first time she whizzed around me, she was closer to my shiny red bike than she wanted to be. In some combination of being afraid to wreck her car and not wanting to hurt me, she decided to express how she felt about me (which wasn't great).

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I think her fear motivated her. If you have any experience with fear (if you say you don't, I'm moving into your house and taking your job and stuff and hoping that works for me too), you know it's a strong motivator—unfortunately, often it motivates us to make poor decisions.

David Ogilvy, in Confessions of an Advertising Man, lays out ground rules for clients to keep a good relationship with an advertising agency. One of them is to "emancipate your agency from fear."

Most agencies run scared, most of the time. This is partly because many of the people who gravitate to the agency business are naturally insecure, and partly because many clients make it unmistakably plain that they are always on the lookout for a new agency. Frightened people are powerless to produce good advertising.

After I resigned the Rolls-Royce account, I invited myself to visit the Ford Motor Company, "to get acquainted." To his everlasting credit, the advertising manager of Ford refused to receive me. He said: "Detroit is a small town. If you come to visit me, you would be seen. Our present agencies would hear about it, and they might be alarmed. I don't want to alarm them."

It's not that fear automatically makes people make the worst decision (i.e., agency sees client with other agency and all copywriters automatically commit suicide). It's more of a chain reaction: fear often brings out the worst in people as they scrape around for a shred of protection (e.g., agency sees client with other agency and everybody assumes they'll lose jobs so stop trying to write ads and start looking for other jobs). When I'm operating at my worst and seeking protection, I don't think about the implications of my actions. I become reactionary, lash out, and hurt the people who are closest to me, all for my own safety.

I used to think I was the only one responsible for being afraid—if I'm scared of the dark, of war, of death, of insignificance it's up to me to get over. But I think there are two parts.

One part is the story I'm telling myself. Do I believe there's a monster in my closet that only comes out at night? Is death going to be eternal separation from all that I love? Is war coming over Lake Michigan at every second? Will my grandma and my mom be the only ones in the world who ever read any of my books?

The stories you tell yourself become your reality, so work to keep your reality grounded in the truth.

Look in the closet.
Know the truth about death and eternity—that while we yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Read the news, pray for the authorities, trust God's plan to do good to those who love Him.
Remember that your significance doesn't hinge on the number of people you impact, it hinges on Who you're doing things for.

But the second part is new to me. As far as you are able, surround yourself with people who help bring you freedom from fear. Make friends who tell you the truth—both when it's hard, and when it's easy. Don't jump to conclusions when people say something, ask for clarity. Find colleagues, associates, and relationships that care enough about you to work on protecting you from fear. Know too, that in His very nature Jesus is freedom from fear. Find refuge in that.

I'm still learning to do both, and it's not easy. But it is healthy.

That way I don't go out and scream at an innocent biker on the side of the road.

It's Summer and I Can't Write

It's summer and nothing I write sounds good. Normally I wouldn't give up like this, but . . . Actually, I have no good excuse.

Instead, here are my three favorite things about summer (and if you pushed me, also life in general).


Beet Red in the Elevator

I constantly say things in the elevator that label me as consistently incapable of social interaction.

One time I told a gentleman and a lady that their shirts matched. They both muttered and avoided eye contact. I tried to help the situation by talking about the weather. It didn't work. Another time, I told a stranger I'd seen him arrive in the parking lot earlier that day, and noticed he was from Colorado. I thought I was trying to be friendly. He looked at me like I'd asked for his wallet.

Another time, I had a Wall Street Journal under my arm when I saw my boss's boss's boss. He made a comment about how I was smart to read it, and I said, "Oh, I just pretend." He answered, "It's okay, if there's any good month to invest it's this month."

And I had nothing to say.

So, I got off the elevator and did that thing where you just kinda say words and hope they make sense. "Oh yeah, that's what they're saying." I don't know who's saying it though, because I don't really know anything about investing.

Another time, after a particularly busy week, I got on the elevator and said to the gentleman I stepped on with, "We made it to Friday—with some dignity, some poise, and a whole lot of desperation." I said it as soon as the doors closed, and he was silent ALL THE WAY UP TO MY FLOOR at which point he responded with that noise people make when they're agreeing, and he said, "You said it absolutely right."

My insecurity had a heyday.

Other things I've said about elevators (I'm quoting myself in messages I sent to a friend):

"i had to wait for the elevator for like 8 minutes and when it finally came it was full of people. My worst nightmare."

"The elevator stopped on every floor. I could have walked faster."

"But I have to wait for those people to get on the elevator before I go out there I so don't have to ride with them. I just heard it beep. Any moment now." (I have apparently said this multiple times)

"This is about as awkward as a full elevator."

"I’ll come down on the next elevator. Two people are coming down on this one and leaving with them would mean social interaction."

You get the picture. It's not that I don't like people—I love people. I just can't function in elevators. My parents always tried to teach me to think before I speak. It worked so well that I often can't think of things to say in normal situations because I'm thinking so hard.

But when I get in the elevator all constraints fall aside and I'm just muttering and beet red.

The redeeming part of the story is other people. They are gracious and kind even when they don't know the turmoil in my introverted soul (or maybe it's because they know it). Another redemption is the people I tell the stories to afterward, who listen and laugh and reassure me that my social career is not quite ending yet.

And the best redemption is that it gives me something to write about—which is great for me, and a bummer for everyone else in my life who will probably end up in a story someday.

A Great and Mighty Wonder

A great and mighty wonder,
a full and holy cure!
the Virgin bears the Infant
with virgin-honour pure:

The Word becomes incarnate,
and yet remains on high;
and cherubim sing anthems
to shepherds from the sky.

While thus they sing your Monarch,
those bright angelic bands,
rejoice, ye vales and mountains,
ye oceans, clap your hands.

Since all he comes to ransom,
by all be he adored,
the Infant born in Bethl'em,
the Saviour and the Lord.

Repeat the hymn again:
'To God on high be glory,
and peace on earth to men.'

—St. Germanus (634–734)

Some people understand what life is really about. Others can write well. There are a few gifted souls who know both—one of them was St. Germanus. In his hundred years of life, he wrote only a few hymns and A Great and Mighty Wonder isn't even the most popular.

Maybe he penned it sitting in front of a 700 A.D. Christmas tree—or perhaps he was on silent barren hills at night, contemplating the miracle that God sent his Son as a baby to save His people from their sins.

This we do know: St. Germanus understood both the miracle of the incarnation and exactly what life is about.

Since all he comes to ransom, by all be he adored . . . To God on high be glory, and peace on earth to men.

A Thousand Story Ideas

Part of being a writer is looking at the people around you. Orson Scott Card, author of more than 50 books, said,

Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.

Watching for stories all the time takes practice—but if you do it consistently, soon you won't be able to turn it off. Then, like me, you'll trip over sidewalks and your toes and turn your ankles all the time, as you think about the person you just passed, or the couple arguing in the drink aisle. I make it sound painful and hazardous, but it's worth it.

When you look for the stories in life, you'll suddenly have more than enough stories for your writing.