Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Success Tools: Andrea Nierenberg - Networking Expert

Andrea Nierenberg is a networking expert who counts among her clients such global behemoths as Citibank and Astra Zeneca. She has a superb site, which showcases her wide range of skills and services including her books, training programs and keynotes.

One of my favorite parts of the site is the generous article archive, which covers a wide range of topics such as:

Networking With Your "Tribe" - Working Smarter
Vision for the Year
"Prop Up" Your Speaking
Company Picnic Pointers
Maximizing Incentives
The Mirror of Your Mind
How to Make Trade Shows Terrific
Learning News Tricks
Build Office Morale through Building Relationships
The Art of Appreciation
How to Build Credibility in Your Market
Customer Service - From The Inside Out
Good Ways to Deliver Bad News
Dealing with the Creeps
Helping Introverted Employees to Become Better Networkers
How to Motivate a Staff
The Art of Networking
Electronic Etiquette
Dealing with Bad Boss Behavior
Build Your Business Through Smart Networking
Eight Essential Communications Skills
What's in a Word?

I've already printed out a few, and look forward to digging into more of the articles, as well as checking out her books.

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I recently enjoyed....

Monday, January 28, 2008

Success Book Review: Ben Stein's Latest

I have been reviewing books on personal prosperity here at the Success Books blog for over a year now. I have found something instructive in nearly every book I have read, but Ben Stein’s books have been among the few that I have not only read, but outlined, reread, and actually profited from. His latest, Yes, You Can Supercharge Your Portfolio!: Six Steps for Investing Success in the 21st Century written with financial planning expert Phil DeMuth, is no exception.

Ben Stein’s mission in this book is nothing less than to transform our portfolios from random accumulations of stocks, funds, etfs, whatever, which we have collected over the years because of articles, fads, relatives, brokers (good or bad), etc, into a mathematically sound, high-return, low-risk collection, carefully selected and weighted for maximum reward-to-risk.

Stein is essentially bringing Modern Portfolio Theory down from the Ivory Tower of endowments, hedge funds and similar esoteric entities, to us, the investing public. What Modern Portfolio Theory tells us is that groups of high-return, but weakly correlated assets deliver the financial equivalent of a “free lunch”: the returns add up, but the risks, because of the weak correlations, can, in part, cancel each other out, leaving us with more predictable returns over the years. This reduced volatility will theoretically allow us to spend more of the returns, since they will not vary as dramatically year-over-year, as other, less ingeniously-constructed portfolios might.

Chapter by chapter, Stein and DeMuth teach us how to start with a strong core portfolio of broad stock indexes, and both supercharge returns and reduce risk, through the addition of various other asset classes: bonds, stocks indexes of various capitalizations, international equities, REITs, commodity funds, and even individual stocks, hand-picked to fit like a glove within the design of a model portfolio.

Stein and Demuth also point us to a website where we can “test-drive” our shiny new portfolio, and even (gulp) take a peek at how well (or dismally) our current, non-supercharged portfolio might do over the years.

This book is infused with Stein’s droll wit, and he keeps the tone upbeat and lighthearted…an amazing feat given the weightiness of the subject matter. It’s a relatively short book, at 178 pages. Worth a day’s read, if by chance you want to save your financial future from disaster.

Read this book.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Commentary: Major Definite Aim

I recently posted about Napoleon Hill’s concept of the Major Definite Aim, and how my own recent experiences with it have, for me, confirmed its value as one of the greatest success principles. I came across an interesting anecdote in Harold Evans’ book They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators, an exhaustively researched collection of biographies of the inventors and entrepreneurs that , innovation by innovation, created our modern world over the last two and a half centuries.

Leo Hendrik Baekeland was the brilliant chemist who created Bakelite, the revolutionary plastic that transformed industrial design in the first half of the 20th century. He was blessed with superb scientific gifts, and turned down the prospect of professorships in his native Belgium to try his luck in America.

But brains aren’t enough.

At one point facing isolation and ruin , seriously ill, and with growing debts, he was clearly facing utter failure. Then, in Baekeland’s words:

“..it dawned upon me that instead of keeping too many irons in the fire, I should concentrate my attention on one single thing which would give me the best chance of the quickest possible results”

That “one single thing” of course was the Major Definite Aim. Baekeland went on to make a fortune.

The instructive point here is that brains, hard work, or any other talent, are only a single component of the success puzzle. The Major Definite aim focuses the mind, and even the brightest of the bright can benefit immensely from it. We cannot merely work hard (a prerequisite, of course, for any achievement) , but we have to think about how to best focus that work.

One single thing.

So simple. So profound.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Commentary: Denali , Entropy, and You

I recently watched a PBS special on a group of climbers doing scientific research on Denali (formerly named Mt McKinley) and ,coincidentally, I recalled that someone I knew while in graduate school had also recently climbed Denali. Now, I am no mountaineer, not even close. And I watched the TV show with great anxiety, as I realized that the lack of oxygen, fierce and unpredictable weather, and sheer cold, could (and does) kill many a climber.

Yet, it occurred to me that, in a sense, Denali is an example of the “entropy” we all experience in a quest for personal success. In a sense, climbing such a peak is “safer”, in a convoluted sense, than is our day to day journey toward our personal goals.

Why would this be? Because, on Denlai the forces of entropy, the forces of disorder, the forces that conspire to freeze you, starve you, and suffocate you are brutally obvious. Yet, in our daily lives, those same forces, just as powerful, are subtle, incremental, sometimes existing just below our awareness. Some of them are in the famous “important but not urgent” quadrant of our lives, where the fate of our wealth, longevity, and spiritual happiness reside. This is not a 10 day climb. This is a 90-year trek. It’s called our lives. But if we persist in ou rignorance of these forces, slowly, but just as surely as the gusts of Denali, we will freeze, starve, or suffocate.

Also, gladly, there is a high peak, with a breathtaking vista, which we all can reach on that trek. And we can be just as proud as the most heroic mountaineer, if we make it to the summit, having survived, planned for, adjusted for, improvised, and disciplined ourselves for that arduous ascent.

So, what are the forces of entropy that sneak in, unseen and unheard, to plague our own ascent of life’s Denali? Procrastination, refusal to save and invest, the lure of debt, refusal to study and learn, about our capabilities, our fitness, our nutrition, our abilities to relate to others. The climber, with a good team, knows what to expect. But so do we. Yet the climber is utterly sure of death if she fails, while we, lulled by our “safe” job, “never been sick a day in my life”, “what’s a little drink among friends” “new credit card” etc, face just as sure a demise, just as sure a fall into the crevasse of ill health, death, financial ruin, etc but, because our climb is long and the gradient easy, and we have seen such good weather in our youth, been praised by our parents, teachers, counselors, etc…we are in a much greater danger. The climber is absolutely certain of freezing to death. But we ignore the odds. We skip a day of exercise. We spend a dollar instead of saving it. We “wing it” at the major presentation. We cut class.

And we fail. Because we don’t see ourselves as on Denali. Because the metaphor of the relentless cause-and-effect , law-of-nature status of Entropy, this metaphor, I say, eludes us. At our peril.

You are on Denali, my friend. Not for 10 days, but for your entire life. But you are in luck. Hearty bands of climbers, the great authors mentioned in this blog and elsewhere, the Napoleon Hills, the W. Clement Stones, the Tony Robbins’, and all the rest, have climbed to the peak before you. They are throwing lines down. They have ample nourishment and warmth for you. They stand atop the summit, drinking in their glorious success, surveying the earth below, and they eagerly pitch in to help you, O weary climber, if you will but grasp a line, use their compass, see through their spyglass.

You can cheat the wind. You can prepare for the cold. You can find the key route. You can provision your camp. And you can gain the peak.

You can conquer your Denlai.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Success Book Reviews: Alan Greenspan's "Age of Turbulence"

Alan Greenspan’s book, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World ,is a miracle. This is an epic book. A brilliant economic mind who was an “insider” witness to one of the most extraordinary periods in economic history, as well “present at the creation”. A mind with the concentration to follow the most microscopic business statistics (sheet metal orders, etc) and also be able to take in the sweeping panorama that marked the spectacular success of free-market capitalism from 1945-2006.

He saw the demise of both Communist central planning (the fall of the Soviet Union) and United States central planning (Nixon’s ill-fated wage and price controls); the spectacular recovery of Europe and Japan after World War II and the free-market miracle that transformed China from a backwater of poverty into the number-two economy in the world; the re-emergence of free-market economics in the 70s and 80s, as country after country abandoned their disastrous flirtations with centrally planned economies,
and he courageously communicates the somber truth that great economic success requires risk, and when there is risk, there is loss as well as gain.

More sweeping (because of its truth) than an Ayn Rand Novel, the characters in Greenspan’s magisterial narrative are not fiction: Rand herself, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, and all the rest, are the real embodiments of the forces surging around this magnificent life. And at the dead-center bull’s-eye of the second half of the Twentieth Century, the most ebullient expansion of human prosperity in the history of mankind, sat Alan Greenspan. As first the outstanding student, then outstanding mentee, then, for decades the ultimate insider, as well as laser-sighted observer of towering analytical ability, and as a communicator who could actually talk to politicians and (wonder of wonders) get through to them, Greenspan had no peer.

And the cornerstone for each of these roles was one word: results. Greenspan got results. He did “it” (as Art Williams might say). The “it” was whatever it took to understand the problem whether it was saving an economy or forging the safety of Social Security. What were not innate skills, he learned. He was willing to listen to a Rand, a Burns, a Baker. Part of his genius was knowing what he did not know, and getting that new knowledge into his knowledge base. He talks with deep gratitude of Fed staffers who would tutor him in arcane banking lore, who would collate and feed him the best academic papers, who would do the studies that he needed to do his work. He praises the great political compromisers who helped him save Social Security, and extols the greatness of a truly “normal” guy, the deeply loved President Gerald Ford.

Since this is a blog about success, what can we learn about Greenspan that can help us even a little bit in our success journey? Not surprisingly, there are some clues.

1. One thing that we can admire, though not duplicate, is innate ability. Greenspan had an innate gift for mathematics, statistics, and code (which would translate into music as well as computer programming). These skills are also hallmarks of Jewish children, who for generations memorized and studied the Talmud (although Greenspan does not overly emphasize his Jewish heritage). Interestingly, Greenspan describes an optimistic mother, and a somewhat distant stockbroker father, who was also an author. One is struck by the sense that there was no parental negativity or neurosis to get in the way of Greenspan’s growth. The mother was cheerful, the father was not around to fight Oedipal battles with. Also, the father had written a book dedicated to Greenspan, and it is curious that Greenspan explains his early rise to fame through his ability to write prolifically and thus find an audience for his output. It is also interesting that he would be asked to demonstrate his mental math skills at family gatherings, thus already imprinting the idea that these skills could be the route to success.

2. Location and demographics. New York was becoming the center of the world during and after World War Two. It was the stage on which American success was played out. I have elsewhere reviewed books about Andrew Grove and Sandy Weill, (who also had a distant father, which may have allowed his ego strength to flourish) both of whom (besides being Jewish) were intellectually enraptured by New York. The lesson: go where the epicenter of success lies, or, as Ben Stein says: the prizes are only handed out if you are playing at “the table” (the stage upon which the big stakes games are played). Now, in the 1940s, Alan Greenspan did have some luck: as he was denied the opportunity to go to war, he was able to build his career earlier than those returning from overseas, and thus had a head start on his generation. And his generation was a lot smaller than the baby boomers. And, as a young man, he already knew Paul Volcker, Arthur Burns, and not much later, Cheney and Rumsfeld. As Ben Stein has recounted, people don’t hire the best people, they hire the best people THAT THEY KNOW. So, as his small, tight-knit cohort moved up the ranks, they hired the best person they knew: Greenspan.

3. As I wrote in “Follow your Bliss off a Cliff” , one should seek the interface between your skill set and what the Universe wants you to do. For Greenspan, when the phone rang, it was not for his Julliard clarinet playing, it was for his business analysis skills. He was smart enough not to fight it.

4. Learn from those with complementary skills. He allowed Ayn Rand to awaken a thirst for knowledge outside of the realm of pure numbers, clearly learned more of the art of compromise and group leadership from the heavy hitters in the Reagan administration, and may have learned “power networking” strategies from the glittering, brilliant, and highly-connected women in his life, notably Barbara Walters and Andrea Mitchell (his current wife).

5. Like Charlie Munger, much discussed in this blog, Greenspan recognized, and constantly deepened his “circle of competence” . As the consummate “Mr. Inside” he did not attempt to be “Mr. Outside”. No Greenspan talk shows. No Greenspan self-help books. No Greenspan golf tournaments. And thus, precious little conflict of interest . No “going Hollywood” and betraying the inner circle.

6. Another key cornerstone is epitomized in the decision-tree topic of “MiniMax regret”. What that means is, Greenspan would sometimes search for the alternative that might best minimize the most future regret. As the Hippocratic Oath recommends: “first do no harm”. In other words, consider multiple scenarios and don’t just pay attention to the upside. Many broke traders might do well to listen carefully.

7. Lastly, Greenspan knew how to keep his mouth shut, a technique recommended at least since the time of Benjamin Franklin. Reports from his Ayn Rand days tell of Greenspan’s habitual silence, and he himself mentions that playing cards “close to the vest” is a hallmark of central bankers.

This book is many things. A chronicle of a life. A chronicle of an age. A chronicle of personal, national, and ideological success. It may well end up as one of the most important historical narratives of the second half of the Twentieth Century. We now, all of us, live as kings, taking for granted plentiful food, abundant opportunities for advancement, long life, warmth, technological wizardry and even multiple means of safeguarding our future financial security. We owe all of this abundance to free-market Capitalism, for the Market is indeed a more miraculous than any fabled Genie, Indeed, under Capitalism, our wishes, not limited to the storied three, nay, even three hundred, actually, miraculously, create their own fulfillment.