Monday, January 25, 2016

Generalist > Specialist

Been reading (and thinking) about the pros and cons of hiring generalists vs. specialists. Some of what I've read seems aimed at large organizations, much of it arguing for the advantages of generalists over specialists.

They don't have to convince me. When it comes to small staff associations like mine, generalists win hands down.

Here's just three reasons why.

1. Specialists are harder to find, retain and replace. Professionals with specialized skills are less common than those without those skills--by definition. That gives them a better negotiating position, not just for salary, but for work assignments and levels of authority. These expectations are often difficult for small organizations to meet, setting up a dynamic where neither the specialist nor the employer are completely satisfied with the arrangement. When the two part ways, the employer often goes back to square one, because there is no one else in the organization with the requisite skills.

2. Generalists offer more flexibility as the association grows and evolves. Typically, a staff person with a generalist orientation starts at a more entry-level position than a specialist. That, and very nature of being a generalist, leads to a great deal of cross-training and well-roundedness in the employee's development and stretch assignments. When opportunities to promote or reassign staff present themselves, the employer enjoys the ability to pull from a much stronger bench of developing staff. For any association that is experiencing growth and evolving strategic priorities, this flexibility is a decided advantage.

3. Generalists need to interface more frequently with the association's members. Even with a staff full of generalists, areas of specialized knowledge are still needed in the organization. Associations frequently access that knowledge through the volunteer networks they setup for their members. A generalist staff person will need to access that network more often than a specialist, increasing the total amount of contact that the association has with its members. In addition to the specific tasks the generalists seek help with, this added contact spells many additional member engagement benefits for the association.

Those are just off the top of my head. What do you think? How else do generalists add more value than specialists?

Or am I off base? Tell me.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

I was really looking forward to this one. One of my favorite authors (Willa Cather) dealing with one of my favorite themes (the sacrifice of the artist in pursuit of great art). It’s a theme that frankly intoxicates me. And primed for it, as I was when I picked up this novel, I admit that I began to see it almost immediately. This is from page 38 of my paperback copy.

Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with Johnny, and everybody liked him. His popularity would have been unusual for a white man; for a Mexican it was unprecedented. His talents were his undoing. He had a high, uncertain tenor voice, and he played the mandolin with exceptional skill. Periodically he went crazy. There was no other way to explain his behavior. He was a clever workman, and, when he worked, as regular and faithful as a burro. Then some night he would fall in with a crowd at the saloon and begin to sing. He would go on until he had no voice left, until he wheezed and rasped. Then he would play his mandolin furiously, and drink until his eyes sank back into his head. At last, when he was put out of the saloon at closing time, and could get nobody to listen to him, he would run away--along the railroad track, straight across the desert. He always managed to get aboard a freight somewhere. Once beyond Denver, he played his way southward from saloon to saloon until he got across the border. He never wrote to his wife; but she would soon begin to get newspapers from La Junta, Albuquerque, Chihuahua, with marked paragraphs announcing that Juan Tellamantez and his wonderful mandolin could be heard at the Jack Rabbit Grill or the Pearl of Cadiz Saloon. Mrs. Tellamantez waited and wept and combed her hair. When he was completely wrung out and burned up--all but destroyed--her Juan always came back to her to be taken care of--once with an ugly knife wound in the neck, once with a finger missing from his right hand--but he played just as well with three fingers as he had with four.

This is the first portrait of an artist that The Song of the Lark presents to us, one that will be formative and instructive to our heroine, Thea Kronberg, as she moves forward with discovering the kind of artist the world will allow her to be. “Spanish Johnny” is, of course, a tragic figure, an artist prevented from practicing his art for long stretches of time, only to burst forth in self-destructive paroxysms of music and song when his artistic spirit can no longer be contained. It is both the antithesis of the ideal, and typically, the only kind of artist that the world will allow marginalized individuals to become.

But he and Thea do share something in common.

She knew, of course, that there was something about her that was different. But it was more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself. She brought everything to it, and it answered her; happiness consisted of that backward and forward movement of herself. The something came and went, she never knew how. Sometimes she hunted for it and could not find it; again, she lifted her eyes from a book, or stepped out-of-doors, or wakened in the morning, and it was there--under her cheek, it usually seemed to be, or over her breast--a kind of warm sureness. And when it was there, everything was more interesting and beautiful, even people. When this companion was with her, she could get the most wonderful things out of Spanish Johnny, or Wunsch, or Doctor Archie.

Spanish Johnny has this companion, too, this warm sureness, and Cather, I believe, is not just saying that all artists do, but that it is what makes them artists and makes them different from everyone else.

It is something that one of Thea’s early music teachers (Professor Wunsch) recognizes immediately, this hidden talent. And even at an early age he tries to encourage her, to understand that the opportunity to realize her calling lies within her, not within her surroundings.

Wunsch accompanied her, and as they walked between the flower-beds he took Thea’s hand.

“Es flüstern und sprechen die Blumen,” he muttered. “You know that von Heine? Im leuchtenden Sommermorgan?” He looked down at Thea and softly pressed her hand.

“No, I don’t know it. What does flüstern mean?”

“Flüstern?--to whisper. You must begin now to know such things. That is necessary. How many birthdays?”

“Thirteen. I’m in my ‘teens now. But how can I know words like that? I only know what you say at my lessons. They don’t teach German at school. How can I learn?”

“It is always possible to learn when one likes,” said Wunsch. His words were peremptory, as usual, but his tone was mild, even confidential. “There is always a way. And if some day you are going to sing, it is necessary to know well the German language.”

Thea stooped over to pick a leaf of rosemary. How did Wunsch know that, when the very roses on her wallpaper had never heard it? “But am I going to?” she asked, still stopping.

“That is for you to say,” returned Wunsch coldly. “You would better marry some Jacob here and keep the house for him, maybe? That is as one desires.”

Thea flashed up at him a clear, laughing look. “No, I don’t want to do that. You know”--she brushed his coat-sleeve quickly with her yellow head. “Only how can I learn anything here? It’s so far from Denver.”

Denver is the big city. A mythical place of high culture and wonderment for the young Thea growing up in the rural Colorado town of Moonstone.

Wunsch’s loose lower lip curled in amusement.

Then, as if he suddenly remembered something, he spoke seriously. “Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires. The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing--desire. And before it, when it is big, all is little.”

It is a lesson Thea will wrestle with throughout the rest of the novel, with Wunsch’s comment about marrying some local boy and keeping his house proving more prophetic than I would’ve liked. It becomes a dominant theme early on, with Ray Kennedy, and older man apparently destined by proximity and desire to marry Thea when she comes of age, clearly representing the domestic path Thea’s life could take.

Ray realized that Thea’s life was dull and exacting, and that she missed Wunsch. He knew she worked hard, that she put up with a great many little annoyances, and that her duties as a teacher separated her more than ever from the boys and girls of her own age. He did everything he could to provide recreation for her. He brought her candy and magazines and pineapples--of which she was very fond--from Denver, and kept his eyes and ears open for anything that might interest her. He was, of course, living for Thea. He had thought it all out carefully and had made up his mind just when he would speak to her. When she was seventeen, then he would tell her his plan and ask her to marry him. He would be willing to wait two, or even three years, until she was twenty, if she thought best. By that time he would surely have got in on something: Copper, oil, gold, silver, sheep--something.

Ray Kennedy is a freight train conductor, familiar with the wider world, with dreams of lucrative business ventures and definite plans for a life that includes Thea as his bride and companion. And he, like many in Thea’s early life, is a likeable character, whose intentions are both wholesome and noble, given the world that surrounds him and the prizes that it values.

Meanwhile, it was pleasure enough to feel that she depended on him more and more, that she leaned upon his steady kindness. He never broke faith with himself about her; he never hinted to her of his hopes for the future, never suggested that she might be more intimately confidential with him, or talked to her of the things he thought about so constantly. He had the chivalry which is perhaps the proudest possession of his race. He had never embarrassed her by so much as a glance. Sometimes, when they drove out to the sandhills, he let his left arm lie along the back of the buggy seat, but it never came any nearer to Thea than that, never touched her. He often turned to her a face full of pride, and frank admiration, but his glance was never so intimate or so penetrating as Doctor Archie’s. His blue eyes were clear and shallow, friendly, uniquiruing. He rested Thea because he was so different; because, though he often told her interesting things, he never set lively fancies going in her head; because he never misunderstood her, and because he never, by any chance, for a single instant, understood her! Yes, with Ray she was safe; by him she would never be discovered!

I think what I find most interesting about this excerpt is that it, including its conclusion, comes from the narrator’s point of view. We are neither in Ray’s nor Thea’s head here, but rather that of the omniscient storyteller--Cather herself--who, here and elsewhere, clearly expresses a point of view on what is means to be an artist and how the well-intending world, through its focus on commercial success and happiness, frequently works at cross purposes to artistic sensibilities.

At one point, Wunsch’s “big” and “little” metaphor about “desire” and “human life” comes to the very forefront of Ray and Thea’s relationship. Here’s the scene. They’re in one of Ray’s train cars together, and he’s telling her about a time he tried to raise sheep for profit in blizzard-stricken Wyoming.

“And you lost all your sheep, didn’t you, Ray?” Thea spoke sympathetically. “Was the man who owned them nice about it?”

“Yes, he was a good loser. But I didn’t get over it for a long while. Sheep are so damned resigned. Sometimes, to this day, when I’m dog-tired, I try to save them sheep all night long. It comes kind of hard on a boy when he first finds out how little he is, and how big everything else is.”

Thea moved restlessly toward him and dropped her chin on her hand, looking at a low star that seemed to rest just on the rim of the earth. “I don’t see how you stood it. I don’t believe I could. I don’t see how people can stand it to get knocked out, anyhow!”

She spoke with such fierceness that Ray glanced at her in surprise. She was sitting on the floor of the car, crouching like a little animal about to spring.

“No occasion for you to see,” he said warmly. “There’ll always be plenty of other people to take the knocks for you.”

“That’s nonsense, Ray,” Thea spoke impatiently and leaned lower still, frowning at the red star. “Everybody’s up against it for himself, succeeds or fails--himself.”

Ray and Thea are talking about two different worlds. Ray’s world is a place where men and women marry and push the plow together, a plow that the man has purchased on credit to raise crops he is convinced he can sell for a profit after harvest. Thea’s world is a place where women (or men) confront the forces arrayed against them on the strength of their own talent and stubbornness. They don’t yet realize that they have these two distinct understandings of the world in their minds when they speak to each other. And when Ray responds to this direct challenge from Thea, he turns philosophic.

“In one way, yes,” Ray admitted, knocking the sparks from his pipe out into the soft darkness that seemed to flow like a river beside the car. “But when you look at it another way, there are a lot of halfway people in this world who help the winners win, and the failers fail. If a man stumbles, there’s plenty of people to push him down. But if he’s like “the youth who bore,” those same people are foreordained to help him along. They may hate to, worse than blazes, and they may do a lot of cussin’ about it, but they have to help the winners and they can’t dodge it. It’s a natural law, like what keeps the big clock up there going, little wheels and big, and no mix-up.”

And although Ray is speaking about his world--the one in which Thea is to play a very specific role as one of the “halfway people” who can help him win--there is wisdom here for the world Thea will decide to enter after a train accident tragically takes Ray’s life. Some people will build you up and others will tear you down, and the ones you attract are up to you or, more specifically, to the talent you are able to manifest in the world around you.

And it is her talent--that warm sureness that lives under her cheek--that is all that she winds up taking with her when she leaves Moonstone for Chicago shortly after Ray’s death.

Her eyes did fill once, when she saw the last of the sand hills and realized that she was going to leave them behind for a long while. They always made her think of Ray, too. She had had such good times with him out there.

But, of course, it was herself and her own adventure that mattered to her. If youth did not matter so much to itself, it would never have the heart to go on. Thea was surprised that she did not feel a deeper sense of loss at leaving her old life behind her. It seemed, on the contrary, as she looked out at the yellow desert speeding by, that she had left very little. Everything that was essential seemed to be right there is the car with her. She lacked nothing. She even felt more compact and confident than usual. She was all there, and something else was there, too--in her heart, was it, or under her cheek? Anyhow it was about her somewhere, that warm sureness, that sturdy little companion with whom she shared a secret.

This is one of the first mentions of Thea’s “sturdy little companion,” but it is something Cather will return to again and again in the text. It sustains Thea. It gives her the courage she needs to put herself out there, to perform in front of indifferent strangers and, when successful, to receive both their accolades and their envy. And it is this envy, or this enmity, or, worst of all, this indifference that the unimaginative world has for the artist, that will consume a large part of Cather’s thematic prose in The Song of the Lark. Early on, Thea has a kind of transcendent experience while performing, and then painfully realizes that the world around her is at best indifferent and, at worst, hostile to her enjoyment of that experience.

There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the concert hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape. If one had that, the world became one’s enemy: people, buildings, wagons, cars, rushed at one to crush it under, to make one let go of it. Thea glared round her at the crowds, the ugly, sprawling streets, the long lines of lights, and she was not crying now. Her eyes were brighter than even Harsanyi had ever seen them. All these things and people were no longer remote and negligible; they had to be met, they were lined up against her, they were there to take something from her. Very well; they should never have it. They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to her hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, have it--it! Under the old cape she pressed her hands upon her heaving bosom, that was a little girl’s no longer.

Thea declares war. A war on the unimaginative world. The world that would drag her down and away from the ecstasy that comes with pursuing and achieving higher and higher states of transcendence in her art.

The Harsanyi mentioned above is Thea’s piano teacher while she is in Chicago, and he recognizes early on that Thea is not destined to be a piano player.

“When did you first feel that you wanted to be an artist?”

“I don’t know. There was always--something.”

“Did you never think that you were going to sing?”


“How long ago was that?”

“Always, until I came to you. It was you who made me want to play piano.” Her voice trembled. “Before, I tried to think I did, but I was pretending.”

Harsanyi reached out and caught the hand that was hanging at her side. He pressed it as if to give her something. “Can’t you see, my dear girl, that was only because I happened to be the first artist you have ever known? If I had been a trombone player, it would have been the same; you would have wanted to play trombone. But all the while you have been working with such good will, something has been struggling against me. See, here we were, you and I and this instrument”--he tapped the piano--“three good friends, working so hard. But all the while there was something fighting us: your gift, and the woman you were meant to be. When you find your way to that gift and to that woman, you will be peace.”

Her gift, her little companion, her warm sureness; it is there, and Harsanyi the fellow artist recognizes it immediately. With his encouragement, she gives up the piano and pursues her singing, tapping fully into her secret and inner desire...

Of this feeling Thea had never spoken to any human being until that day when she told Harsanyi that “there had always been--something.” Hitherto she had felt but one obligation toward it--secrecy; to protect it even from herself. She had always believed that by doing all that was required of her by her family, her teachers, her pupils, she kept that part of herself from being caught up in the meshes of common things. She took it for granted that some day, when she was older, she would know a great deal more about it. It was as if she had an appointment to meet the rest of herself sometime, somewhere. It was moving to meet her and she was moving to meet it. That meeting awaited her, just as surely as, for the poor girl in the seat behind her, there awaited a hole in the earth, already dug.

This last reference is to a consumptive girl, coughing in train car seat behind Thea as she journeys back from Chicago to Moonstone for a visit.

For Thea, so much had begun with a hole in the earth. Yes, she reflected, this new part of her life had all begun that morning when she sat on the clay bank beside Ray Kennedy, under the flickering shade of the cottonwood tree. She remembered the way Ray had looked at her that morning. Why had he cared so much? And Wunsch, and Doctor Archie, and Spanish Johnny, why had they? It was something that had to do with her that made them care, but it was not she. It was something they believed in, but it was not she. Perhaps each of them concealed another person in himself, just as she did. Why was it that they seemed to feel and to hunt for a second person in her and not in each other? Thea frowned up at the dull lamp in the roof of the car. What if one’s second self could somehow speak to all these second selves? What if one could bring them out, as whiskey did Spanish Johnny’s? How deep they lay, these second persons, and how little one knew about them, except to guard them fiercely.

Here it is again. Her second self, her gift, her little companion, her warm sureness. But now the new idea that everyone might have something similar inside them. And the far-reaching dream that these guarded secrets could somehow be brought forth in unison and joy. But how?

It was to music, more than to anything else, that these hidden things in people responded. Her mother--even her mother had something of that sort which replied to music.

This is the thing--the ecstasy, not just of her own performance, but of the aspirational human reaction and fidelity with it--that will compel Thea into a necessary confrontation with the unimaginative world. And that world, of course, includes not just indifferent strangers, but her dearest friends and family members as well.

Thea had always taken it for granted that her sister and brothers recognized that she had special abilities, and that they were proud of it. She had done them the honour, she told herself bitterly, to believe that though they had no particular endowments, they were of her kind, and not of the Moonstone kind. Now they had all grown up and become persons. They faced each other as individuals, and she saw that Anna and Gus and Charley were among the people whom she had always recognized as her natural enemies. Their ambitions and sacred properties were meaningless to her. She had neglected to congratulate Charley upon having been promoted from the grocery department of Commings’s store to the drygoods department. Her mother had reproved her for this omission. And how was she to know, Thea asked herself, that Anna expected to be teased because Bert Rice now came and sat in the hammock with her every night? No, it was all clear enough. Nothing that she would ever do in the world would seem important to them, and nothing they would ever do would seem important to her.

Because there are two worlds, the world of the artist and the world of the unimaginative, and they are always and forever in conflict with another. Exploration of this theme is, for me, the best part of the novel, reminiscent of triumphant and tragic choice that artists of all stripes must make in order to achieve their highest calling. Doctor Archie, a lifelong influence on Thea, at one point puts the choice to Thea very plainly.

“Thea,” he said slowly, “I won’t say that you can have everything you want--that means having nothing, in reality. But if you decide what it is you want most, you can get it.” His eye caught hers for a moment. “Not everybody can, but you can. Only, if you want a big thing, you’ve got to have nerve enough to cut out all that’s easy, everything that’s to be had cheap.”

But Thea, unfortunately, is no Charles Strickland. She is not the unrealizable ideal that Maugham captured in The Moon and Sixpence. Thea is the portrait of a much more human artist. Given Doctor Archie’s choice, she waffles. She waffles not just between the artistic ideal and the human reality, but with the very domesticity that Strickland wholly rejected. She is in some very real ways afraid of her own metaphor for the artistic abandon she knows is necessary.

Thea sang an aria from “Gioconda,” some songs by Schumann which she had studied with Harsanyi, and the “Tak for dit Räd,” which Ottenburg liked.

“That you must do again,” he declared when they finished this song. “You did it much better the other day. You accented it more, like a dance or a galop. How did you do it?”

Thea laughed, glancing sidewise at Mrs. Nathanmeyer. “You want it rough-house, do you? Bowers likes me to sing it more seriously, but it always makes me think about a story my grandmother used to tell.”

Fred pointed to the chair behind her. “Won’t you rest a moment and tell us about it? I thought you had some notion about it when you first sang it for me.”

Hark now. Here comes the metaphor.

Thea sat down. “In Norway, my grandfather knew a girl who was awfully in love with a young fellow. She went into service on a big dairy farm to make enough money for her outfit. They were married at Christmas time, and everybody was glad, because they’d been sighing around about each other for so long. That very summer, the day before Saint John’s Day, her husband caught her carrying on with another farm-hand. The next night all the farm people had a bonfire and a big dance up on the mountain, and everybody was dancing and singing. I guess they were all a little drunk, for they got to seeing how near they could make the girls dance to the edge of the cliff. Ole--he was the girl’s husband--seemed the jolliest and the drunkest of anybody. He danced his wife nearer and nearer the edge of the rock, and his wife began to scream so that the others stopped dancing and the music stopped; but Ole went right on singing, and he danced her over the edge of the cliff and they fell hundreds of feet and were all smashed to pieces.”

It’s a horrible story, even if it’s not true. But there are so many layers in it that relate to the desire of the artist to create something great and the desire, often frustrated, of the patron to be transported by that greatness.

They’d been sighing around about each other for so long. The artist and the patron love each other, the patron for the ideal he believes the artist represents and the artist for the freedom that the patron can initially offer her.

Her husband caught her carrying on with another farm-hand. Artists do not follow the moral structures of normative human custom and culture. Indeed, if they are to pursue their muse, they must often violate them.

They got to seeing how near they could make the girls dance to the edge of the cliff. Novelty, excitement, and perhaps greatness lies in danger and risk.

He danced his wife nearer and nearer the edge of the rock, and his wife began to scream so that the others stopped dancing and the music stopped. When on this risky fringe, very few will see the benefit in continuing. They will be cowed by the danger. It takes a committed artist, or a demented patron, to find the greatness that lies beyond the edge of civility.

He danced her over the edge of the cliff and they fell hundreds of feet and were all smashed to pieces. The danger is real. Failure has painful consequences. And it is more often than not the demented patron, jealous of the thing the makes the artist the artist, that will push things past the point of no return.

Think I’m nuts? See how Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s potential patron, reacts to this horrific story.

Ottenburg turned back to the piano.

“That’s the idea! Now, come, Miss Thea. Let it go!”

Unfortunately, as the novel progresses into its later parts, Thea begins to dance not closer and closer but farther and farther away from the cliff, perhaps reflecting Cather’s own struggle against her culture’s natural and expected plan for women. It was frustrating. I, like Fred Ottenburg, wanted Thea to dance on the very precipice, to risk it all for her art, and instead had to suffer through page after page of Thea trying to choose, not even between domesticity and art, but between the love of one man over another. At one point, I was even compelled to scribble in the margin.

Willa! Why all this aimless rambling? Archie, Fred? What about art!

But I suppose I should be cautious about being too harsh a critic. What is it like to be a woman? To be a woman in 1890? A woman in 1890 in rural Colorado? This wandering, this drawn-out agonizing about settling down with Man 1 or Man 2, or foregoing both in order to achieve an artistic culmination that would otherwise be impossible, could be the quintessential essence of an uniquely human experience that only Cather was in a position to capture.

But it’s still a bitter pill to swallow, coming, as it does, after Thea’s sojourn and artistic epiphanies in Arizona--a place that would-be patron (and lover?) Fred Ottenburg takes Thea to in order to help her clear her head and decide which desire she wants to commit her life to. Visiting and meditating on an ancient and abandoned community of Cliff-Dwellers, Thea’s understanding of the function and importance of art seems to solidify.

One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself--life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.

As does her determination for living the artistic life.

There was certainly no kindly Providence that directed one’s life; and one’s parents did not in the least care what became of one, so long as one did not misbehave and endanger their comfort. One’s life was at the mercy of blind chance. She had better take it in her own hands and lose everything than meekly draw the plough under the rod of parental guidance. She had seen it when she was at home last summer--the hostility of comfortable, self-satisfied people toward any serious effort. Even to her father it seemed indecorous. Whenever she spoke seriously, he looked apologetic. Yet she had clung fast to whatever was left of Moonstone in her mind. No more of that! The Cliff-Dwellers had lengthened her past. She had older and higher obligations.

Thea’s waffling, her meanderings, her self-inflicted tortures over being what society expects her to be or being the artist her talent will allow her to be, was especially difficult for this devoted Cather fan to bear after such declarations. At one point, Fred speaks to Thea in the way I sometimes wished I could have spoken to Cather, spoken to her across the distance and the years, spoken to her while she was in the creative act itself, pushing the pencil across the paper that would become The Song of the Lark.

“Don’t you know most of the people in the world are not individuals at all? They never have an individual idea or experience. A lot of girls go to boarding-school together, come out the same season, dance at the same parties, are married off in groups, have their babies at about the same time, send their children to school together, and so the human crop renews itself. Such women know as much about the reality of the forms they go through as they know about the wars they learned the dates of. They get their most personal experiences out of novels and plays. Everything is second-hand with them. Why, you couldn’t live like that.”

Precisely, Fred. Thea couldn’t live like that, so why does Cather subject her to such inner turmoil over the need to reject that way of life and claim the greatness that is her birthright? Is it because it is what she, Cather, herself, feels and has felt throughout her artistic life? As much as I have read and enjoyed Cather’s fiction, I know surprisingly little about the artist herself, other than the generalities associated with her career and her sexuality. She rose above the unimaginative in her own life, as Thea eventually does in The Song of the Lark. But in Thea’s struggle are we to see Cather’s? And since it was written early in Cather’s career, are we also then to see in Thea’s eventual triumph Cather’s yet-to-be-fulfilled wish for the same?

No matter. Cather’s prose is still a delight to read, and her insights are still as piercing as ever. Her narrative voice is strong and wise, tempered by the many trials and tribulations she herself had suffered for her art. A memorable example:

Thea was still under the belief that public opinion could be placated; that if you clucked often enough, the hens would mistake you for one of themselves.

And another:

The rich, noisy city, fat with food and drink, is a spent thing; its chief concern is its digestion and its little game of hide-and-seek with the undertaker. Money and office and success are the consolations of impotence. Fortune turns kind to such solid people and lets them suck their bone in peace. She flicks her whip upon flesh that is more alive, upon that stream of hungry boys and girls who tramp the streets of every city, recognizable by their pride and discontent, who are the Future, and who possess the treasure of creative power.

But for me, the most piercing insight of all from The Song of the Lark comes not from Cather, but from the novel’s introduction. In these few pages, written, as usual for novels such as these, by an English professor at some prestigious university, I stumbled across this wonderful tidbit about Cather’s writing.

In later years Cather developed a spare fictional aesthetic, represented by her phrase “the novel demeuble,” the unfurnished novel. Art should simplify, she thought, and aesthetic power derive from the unsaid, from the “inexplicable presence of the thing not named.”

This is what I have sensed, and enjoyed, about Cather’s writing for years. Her uncanny ability, I’ve said, to write about the spaces between people rather than the people themselves. And now to find that this practice had intention behind it--it was like discovering a diamond in the unlikeliest of places. What a testament to her genius.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, January 18, 2016

Make Less Bread

Most association executives I know are working hard to create more butter. Butter in the Bilbo Baggins sense of the word, as this post from Seth Godin's blog recently reminded me.

Bilbo Baggins's great quote about being stretched thin (“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”) reveals a profound truth:

Most individuals and organizations complain of not having enough butter. We need more resources, we say, to cover this much territory. We need more (time/money/staff) to get the job done.

And Seth goes on to argue that there may be more success, not in getting more butter, but in reducing the amount of bread the butter you do have is trying to cover. In other words, do fewer things better.

I agree. But here's another thought, more specific to associations.

Getting more butter typically means asking your members to give more. More money, more time, more loyalty to the mission.

While you're asking them to give more, have you ever considered the impact of also communicating that you plan to do less?

Don't ask for more so that you can add more programs to an already undigestible list of activities. Ask for more so that the association can increase the impact of the programs that are actually working.

Few, I think, are motivated to give more when there is little evidence or understanding that what they are already giving is doing the job. If your members struggle to understand the scope and real impact of your programs, you may want to think about how getting more focused can actually help you get more resources.

Think about it from the volunteer's perspective. If you're going to ask them to do more, it might be helpful to let them know that there is actually less to do.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Going Toe-To-Toe With Your Members

I had another experience this week that I would characterize as going toe-to-toe with one of my members.

And that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's something I wish more association professionals could do.

Maybe I should explain. When I use the phrase "toe-to-toe" I'm not talking about trading punches and breaking wooden chairs over each other's heads. Quite the reverse, here I'm using "toe-to-toe" to mean working together as equals to solve an important problem.

I've written before about how important it is for me and my staff to understand the industry our association represents. Not just who the biggest members are and which association products and services they engage in, but all the different players in the broader marketplace, what products they produce, who they sell them to, and what challenges they have in growing their businesses. As the staff of the association that represents them and their industry, I want them to view their relationship with us as a mutually beneficial partnership. I don't want to be perceived as another vendor just selling them stuff. I want to be viewed as a true business partner, capable of helping them to solve real problems and increase their proftability.

This approach recently paid an extra dividend when I found myself on a conference call with only one member of a conference planning committee. It was Friday afternoon. One member was actually out sick. The work-a-day world of our members runs at an ever-increasing place. There were a lot of legitimate reasons why the situation came about, but there it was. A call where I thought five or six members of our industry were going to discuss and determine a direction for a track of programming at one of our conferences while I took notes and documented action items had suddenly become a conversation between only two people. Me and one of my members.

What did I do? Did I apologize and promise to reschedule? No. I went toe-to-toe with the member, trading ideas for topics and speakers, leveraging the knowledge of the marketplace and my membership that I had built up over my time in the organization.

In 30 minutes we had a good plan in place, and I still had some notes and action items documented. But what was most remarkable to me was that after only 10 minutes or so, two important realizations had come to me:

1. I knew what I was talking about. Really. No fooling.

2. The member accepted and appreciated my knowledge and perspective. He's a whole lot smarter than me and still knows more about his company's technology than I do, but for that 30 minute call he treated me, if not as an equal, then at least like a partner, capable of helping him solve real problems.

And isn't that exactly what I said I wanted?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

The most interesting part of this book is its protagonist--Hugh Conway.

There was also in his nature a trait which some people might have called laziness, though it was not quite that. No one was capable of harder work, when it had to be done, and few could better shoulder responsibility; but the facts remained that he was not passionately fond of activity, and did not enjoy responsibility at all. Both were included in his job, and he made the best of them, but he was always ready to give way to any one else who could function as well or better. It was partly this, no doubt, that had made his success in the Service less striking than it might have been. He was not ambitious enough to shove his way past others, or to make an important parade of doing nothing when there was really nothing doing. His despatches were sometimes laconic to the point of curtness, and his calm in emergencies, though admired, was often suspected of being too sincere. Authority likes to feel that a man is imposing some effort on himself, and that his apparent nonchalance is only a cloak to disguise an outfit of well-bred emotions. With Conway the dark suspicion had sometimes been current that he really was as unruffled as he looked, and that whatever happened, he did not give a damn. But this, too, like the laziness, was an imperfect interpretation. What most observers failed to perceive in him was something quite bafflingly simple--a love of quietness, contemplation, and being alone.

He is, in short, an ideal anti-hero, a personality that any devout bookworm will undoubtedly see him or herself in, and start rooting for from the very beginning. Not rooting to win, to overcome, or to triumph, of course. But rooting instead to remain as he is--quiet, contemplative, and alone--despite the unending conflicts thrust upon him by the novel’s other characters.

Characters like Mallinson, a young man twelve years Conway’s junior, but serving with him in the British Army, and posted together in a British colony in revolt. It’s called Baskul in the book, and is located, evidently, somewhere in the present day Middle East. They, with two others, are abducted and flown under mysterious circumstances deep into the Himalaya mountains and have to make a dangerous trek to a hidden and unknown lamasery for any chance to survive. They are led there by a seemingly random group of Tibetans, carrying one of the monks to the same destination in a kind of emperor’s chair.

“Well, it’s quite certain we could never found our way here by ourselves,” said Conway, intending to be cheerful, but Mallinson did not find the remark very comforting. He was, in fact, acutely terrified, and in more danger of showing it now that the worst was over. “Should we be missing much?” he retorted bitterly. The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? What are we going to do? ...

In this, and in many other regards, Mallinson is set up as the exact opposite of Conway. As loud, rash and destitute in loneliness as Conway is quiet, contemplative and serene. They are, obviously, but not gratuitously, the Western and Eastern philosophies personified.

To Mallinson’s pertinent question, Conway responds quietly:

… “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”

The War Conway refers to is World War I, and his experience in it will figure large in what has shaped the character that he now uses to interact with the world around him. When Mallinson asks how Conway can remain so cool about their present circumstances, Conway replies, referring first to his time in the War, but then, their time together in Baskul:

“It’s because so much else that I can look back on seems nightmarish too. This isn’t the only mad part of the world, Mallinson. After all, if you must think of Baskul, do you remember just before we left how the revolutionaries were torturing their captives to get information? An ordinary washing-mangle, quite effective, of course, but I don’t think I ever saw anything more comically dreadful. And do you recollect the last message that came through before we were cut off? It was a circular from a Manchester textile firm asking if we knew of any trade openings in Baskul for the sale of corsets! Isn’t that mad enough for you? Believe me, in arriving here the worst that can have happened is that we’ve exchanged one form of lunacy for another. And as for the War, if you’d been in it you’d have done the same as I did, learned how to funk with a stiff lip.”

So Conway is a person already conditioned for the contemplative life, who sees madness in the affairs of the world, and holds himself aloof from it. He is exactly, as it turns out, what the aging monks at the lamasery have been looking for.

Here, for example, is a revealing exchange between Conway and the High Lama of the lamasery (called Shangri-La in the novel; the first literary use of that term, as near as I can tell).

“My son, you are young in years, but I perceive that your wisdom has the ripeness of age. Surely some unusual thing has happened to you?”

Conway smiled. “No more unusual than has happened to many others of my generation.”

“I have never met your like before.”

Conway answered after an interval: “There’s not a great deal of mystery about it. That part of me which seems old to you was worn out by intense and premature experience. My years from nineteen to twenty-two were a supreme education, no doubt, but rather exhausting.”

“You were very unhappy at the War?”

“Not particularly so. I was excited and suicidal and scared and reckless and sometimes in a tearing rage--like a few million others, in fact. I got mad-drunk and killed and lechered in great style. It was the self-abuse of all one’s emotions, and one came through it, if one did at all, with a sense of almighty boredom and fretfulness. That’s what made the years afterwards so difficult. Don’t think I’m posing myself too tragically--I’ve had pretty fair luck since, on the whole. But it’s been rather like being in a school where there’s a bad headmaster--plenty of fun to be got if you feel like it, but nerve-racking off and on, and not really very satisfactory. I think I found that out rather more than most people.”

“And your education thus continued?”

Conway gave a shrug. “Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom, if you care to alter the proverb.”

“That also, my son, is the doctrine of Shangri-La.”

“I know. It makes me feel quite at home.”

When I say the monks have been looking for someone like Conway, I mean that literally, because it is eventually revealed to Conway and his comrades that their kidnapping was calculated to bring them--not them specifically, but people like them, from the busy and frenetic world outside--both to help populate and perpetuate the quiet and separate way of life at Shangri-La.

Mallinson, of course, will have nothing to do with this, constantly agitating for a group of lamas to take them back to something closer to civilization as he understands it--or to arrange for one of the porters that bring supplies to the lamasery. In this, Mallinson is repeatedly disappointed.

In contrast, Conway takes to the life of Shangri-La as if bred to it. Here’s a typical passage contrasting their two mindsets.

Even Mallinson had acquired a touch of half sulky complacency. “I suppose we shan’t get away to-day after all,” he muttered, “unless somebody looks pretty sharp about it. These fellows are typically Oriental, you can’t get them to do anything quickly and efficiently.”

Conway accepted the remark. Mallinson had been out of England just under a year; long enough, no doubt, to justify a generalization which he would probably still repeat when he had been out for twenty. And it was true, of course, in some degree. Yet to Conway it did not appear that the Eastern races were abnormally dilatory, but rather that Englishmen and Americans charged about the world in a state of continual and rather preposterous fever-heat.

Eventually, Conway is not just asked to stay at Shangri-La, he is asked to take over for the dying High Lama. He has been observed and studied for months by the ancient masters of the place who, despite themselves, find him unique.

“But there is, I admit, an odd quality in you that I have never met in any of our visitors hitherto. It is not quite cynicism, still less bitterness; perhaps it is partly disillusionment, but it is also a clarity of mind that I should not have expected in any one younger than--say, a century or so. It is, if I had to put a single word to it, passionlessness.”

Conway answered: “As good a word as most, no doubt. I don’t know whether you classify the people who come here, but if so, you can label me ‘1914-1918.’ That makes me, I should think, a unique specimen in your museum of antiquities--the other three who arrived along with me don’t enter the category. I used up most of my passions and energies during the years I’ve mentioned, and though I don’t talk much about it, the chief thing I’ve asked from the world since then is to leave me alone.”

Like Conway, the High Lama is powerfully anti-war. In fact, Shangri-La itself was founded by the High Lama’s predecessor, who wanted it to be the last place on earth that the horrors of war could never reach. Here’s how the High Lama explains that originally purpose to Conway.

“There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed. It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years. …

Quick note on that. The people living at Shangri-La, once having given themselves over to quiet and untroubled contemplation, evidently live for hundreds of years. Go figure.

… We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy. We have a dream and a vision. It is a vision that first appeared to old Perrault when he lay dying in this room in the year 1789. He looked back then on his long life, as I have already told you, and it seemed to him that all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might some day crush them until there were no more left in the world. He remembered sights he had seen with his own eyes, and with his mind he pictured others; he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army of the Grand Monarque. And he perceived that when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air. … Can you say that his vision was untrue?”

This book was written in 1933. The fictional events depicted are taking place in 1931. The novel, like its protagonist, has emerged seared and stoic from the cataclysm of World War I, and now looks askance at a world hurtling itself towards another conflagration. And in the midst of that screaming madness, those who listen will hear a small voice of wisdom whispering from both the past and from the remotest part of the world.

All the loveliest things are transient and perishable...and war, lust and brutality can crush them, perhaps to the point of extinction. It is, to my way of thinking, the best single thought expressed in the novel’s short 277 pages.

But let’s move on. Conway responds.

“True indeed.”

“But that was not all. He foresaw a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger, every book and picture and harmony, every treasure garnered through two millenniums, the small, the delicate, the defenseless--all would be lost like the lost books of Livy, or wrecked as the English wrecked the Summer Palace in Pekin.”

“I share your opinion of that.”

“Of course. But what are the opinions of reasonable men against iron and steel? Believe me, that vision of old Perrault will come true. And that, my son, is why I am here, and why you are here, and why we may pray to outlive the doom that gathers around on every side.”

“To outlive it?”

“There is a chance. It will come to pass before you are as old as I am.”

“And you think that Shangri-La will escape?”

“Perhaps. We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are spent. We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath. Let us take what pleasure we may until that time comes.”

“And then?”

“Then, my son, when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at least be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Shangri-La, then, like the secret libraries in Fahrenheit 451 or the emotional content of Winston Smith’s mind in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is to be humanity’s final place of refuge, where the intellectual and contemplative triumphs of the race can be kept safe and rekindled when it is time for them to flourish again.

Here’s the scene, on the High Lama’s death bed, when this dark, yet hopeful vision of the future is given its full form.

“I place in your hands, my son, the heritage and destiny of Shangri-La.”

At last the tension broke, and Conway felt beyond it the power of a bland and benign persuasion; the echoes swam into silence, till all that was left was his own heartbeat, pounding like a gong. And then, intercepting the rhythm, cam the words:

“I have waited for you, my son, for quite a long time. I have sat in this room and seen the faces of new-comers, I have looked into their eyes and heard their voices, and always in hope that someday I might find you. My colleagues have grown old and wise, but you who are still young in years are as wise already. My friend, it is not an arduous task that I bequeath, for our order knows only silken bonds. To be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, to preside in wisdom and secrecy while the storm rages without--it will all be very pleasantly simple for you, and you will doubtless find great happiness.”

Again Conway sought to reply, but could not, till at length a vivid lightning-flash paled the shadows and stirred him to exclaim: “The storm...this storm you talk of…”

“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos. Such was my vision when Napoleon was still a name unknown; and I see it now, more clearly with each hout. Do you say I am mistaken?”

Conway answered: “No, I think you may be right. A similar crash came one before, and then there were the Dark Ages lasting five hundred years.”

“The parallel is not quite exact. For those Dark Ages were not really so very dark--they were full of flickering lanterns, and even if the light had gone out of Europe altogether, there were other rays, literally from China to Peru, at which it could have been rekindled. But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary, save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these. The airman bearing loads of death to the great cities will not pass our way, and if by chance he should, he may not consider us worth a bomb.”

“And you think all this will come in my time?”

“I believe that you will live through the storm. And after, through the long age of desolation, you may still live, growing older and wiser and more patient. You will conserve the fragrance of our history and add to it the touch of your own mind. …

You will conserve the fragrance of our history and add to it the touch of your own mind. Pardon the interruption, but isn’t that also a pretty good description of what I’m trying to do with this blog, what all artists of all stripes are trying to do with their art?

… You will welcome the stranger, and teach him the rule of age and wisdom; and one of these strangers, it may be, will succeed you when you are yourself very old. Beyond that, my vision weakens, but I see, at a great distance, a new world stirring in the ruins, stirring clumsily but in hopefulness, seeking its lost and legendary treasures. And they will all be here, my son, hidden behind the mountains in the valley of Blue Moon, preserved as by miracle for a new Renaissance…”

The speaking finished, and Conway saw the face before him full of a remote and drenching beauty; then the glow faded and there was nothing left but a mask, dark-shadowed, and crumbling like old wood. It was quite motionless, and the eyes were closed. He watched for a while, and presently, as part of a dream, it came to him that the High Lama was dead.

It seems, both to the High Lama and to this reader, like the perfect match. The dispassionate anti-hero, coupled with the progressive and peace-minded wisdom of the ages.

How bitterly disappointing then, in the end, when Conway chooses to leave Shangri-La with Mallinson, not because Conway wants to leave, per se, but because he believes Mallison is not likely to survive the journey without his help.

Deep below them the valley of Blue Moon was like a cloud, and to Conway the scattered roofs had a look of floating after him through the haze. Now, at that moment, it was farewell. Mallinson, whom the steep ascent had kept silent for a time, gasped out: “Good man, we’re doing fine--carry on!”

Conway smiled, but did not reply; he was already preparing the rope for the knife-edge traverse. It was true, as the youth had said, that he had made up his mind; but it was only what was left of his mind. That small and active fragment now dominated; the rest comprised an absence hardly to be endured. He was a wanderer between two worlds and must ever wander; but for the present, in a deepening inward void, all he felt was that he liked Mallinson and must help him; he was doomed, like millions, to flee from wisdom and be a hero.

How biting that last word--hero. As if Hilton knew I would exult in Conway as the prototypical anti-hero, and he, determined to use his authorial omnipotence against my desires, had decided to rub my nose in it as well.

I’m not sure who Hilton thought he was writing for in 1933, but this reader certainly did not want Conway to be a “hero,” risking his life for the life of a fellow comrade-in-arms. Given the contextual premise of the novel, the only way to interpret that behavior is as something that contributes to the destruction of wisdom and beauty.

Maybe that's why Hilton calls the horizon lost in the book's title?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, January 4, 2016

Take Baby Steps Towards the Right Metrics

A few weeks ago I wrote about how Tracking Metrics Isn't Easy or Free, arguing that the process of measuring, analyzing, and acting on metrics is a set of tasks that deserves to be--and often isn't--recognized with an intentional allocation of a staff person's most limited resource: time.

Here's another fact about metrics that many organizations get wrong. The first metrics you select won't be the right ones, but you need to measure them anyway.

Why won't they be the right ones? Because metrics are inherently tricky things. The things you immediately think of as being important to track almost never are, because the things you immediately think of are almost always about measuring output, when the most important thing to measure is generally outcomes. Let's measure how many e-Alerts we send out to our members, someone might say, and that will initially sound like a really good idea. The more e-Alerts we send, the more informed our members will be about our association's activities, right?

Not necessarily. Using the volume of e-Alerts to measure how informed your members are is a little like using the volume of water coming out of the hose to measure how many fires you've put out. You could be spraying a lot of water in a lot of different places, but if you're not hitting the source of the fires, you're not likely to have the effect you seek.

And why should we measure these wrong metrics anyway? Because of what I said a few weeks ago: tracking metrics isn't easy or free. There is value in developing the discipline and expertise that is needed to track metrics--any metrics--within your organization.

This leads, productively, I think, to an organization taking a "baby step" approach to identifying and tracking the right metrics. Start small. Start with something obvious and easy. But track it like it was the most important thing on the planet. Bring the information into every staff meeting, make decisions based on the information as it changes over time, and change the behavior of the people in your organization as a result.

That's really hard to do, but it is the process that is typically the best way to determine when your metrics are the wrong ones, and when it may be time to switch to something closer to the source of the fire.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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