Monday, June 27, 2016

Busy Is Not Always Better

I recently read a blog post written by a staffer at an association management company (AMC), detailing, with time codes, all the activities she engaged in during a typical day in her office.

2:15 p.m. — Reach out to account manager for VoIP service to follow up on a new phone order and inquire about headsets for some staff that share offices.

2:21 p.m. — Update membership and staff reports for upcoming client Board meeting. I’ve already had various staff members update their areas, so I just need to finalize my sections.

2:30 p.m. — Does it bother you when you ask someone two questions in an email and they only respond to one?

2:46 p.m. — Provide updated membership numbers to finance manager so she can update budget forecast for client.

It's an entertaining read, written with humor and with true enthusiasm for the tasks being performed and the clients being served. OMG! it seems to say. I'm so busy! Isn't it great! It reminds me very much of the young AMC staffer that I used to be at the beginning of my career.

It made me think, however, about how important it is to avoid the cult of being busy.

Not all AMCs are the same, but their business model can sometimes create a lot of activity for a small number of people. For an AMC, financial success logically comes when they maximize the number of association clients and they minimize the number of paid staff. In that environment, doing more with less is not just a strategy, it's a management science.

But busy is not always better. Certainly not for association staffers, who often find themselves burning the candle at both ends; and frequently not for association clients either.

It's fair to say that many associations dramatically benefit from the services of an AMC. Often it's the first time they've had any professional staff at all, and suddenly they have a working membership database with dues being collected on time, newsletters going out, and meetings getting planned. For any association that has overworked volunteers trying to perform these tasks, a management contract with an AMC can be a wonderful bargain.

But once that honeymoon period is over, some associations managed by AMCs struggle to take the next evolutionary step. Association management is one thing, but association strategy and execution is another. Managing the transactional aspects of an association's operation requires real energy and attention to detail, something young workers in AMCs typically have in spades. But helping an association determine and drive its unique place in the universe requires deep thought and engagement, something those same staffers often struggle to find time for.

Be careful when you celebrate the cult of being busy. It sends one kind of message to one group of people, and an entirely different kind of message to others.

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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, June 25, 2016

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

I usually do about five or so minutes of Internet research on the books I read before I sit down to write these posts. I never do it before I read the book, because I want to experience the book as unfiltered as possible. But after I’ve read the book, it’s sometimes helpful or interesting to take a peek at what the rest of the world thinks about the book I just read and if it jibes at all with my take.

When I did this for A Night to Remember, I got sucked into the bottomless pit of information on the Internet about the sinking of the Titanic, which, of course, is the subject of Walter Lord’s 1955 book. Did she break in half? Was there another ship on the horizon? Did someone plant a bomb on board? There’s no end to the questions--serious and ridiculous--that remain and occupy the attention of professionals and amateurs alike.

Why? Why was the sinking of this ship such a significant event in our history, and why are the details about it still debated to this day? My fondest hope in reading this book was that I would gain a deeper understanding--not of the minute-by-minute details of the incident and its aftermath (the part that’s endlessly debated), but of the event’s historical significance (the part that isn’t debated.)

Lord, I think, deals best with this question in Chapter 7, just after the ship has gone down. He pauses in what has been more of a narrative and enters into reflection. It begins...

As the sea closed over the Titanic, Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon in Boat 1 remarked to her secretary Miss Francatelli, “There is your beautiful nightdress gone.”

A lot more than Miss Francatelli’s nightgown vanished that April night. Even more than the largest liner in the world, her cargo, and the lives of 1,502 people.

Never again would men fling a ship into an ice field, heedless of warnings, putting their whole trust in a few thousand tons of steel and rivets. From then on Atlantic liners took ice messages seriously, steered clear, or slowed down. Nobody believed in the “unsinkable ship.”

Before proceeding any farther, let’s deal with that “unsinkable ship” idea. Here’s an excerpt from much earlier in the narrative.

Far above on A Deck, Second Class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed a curious thing. As he started below to check his cabin, he felt certain the stairs “weren’t quite right.” They seemed level, and yet his feet didn’t fall where they should. Somehow they strayed forward off balance … as though the steps were tilted down toward the bow.

Major Peuchen noticed it too. As he stood with Mr. Hayes at the forward end of A Deck, looking down at the steerage passengers playing soccer with the loose ice, he senses a very slight tilt in the deck. “Why, she is listing!” he cried to Hayes. “She should not do that! The water is perfectly calm and the boat has stopped.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mr. Hayes replied placidly, “you cannot sink this boat.”

Some of those Internet sources I found seemed to contest the idea that people thought the Titanic was unsinkable, but Lord seems to cite a lot of eyewitness testimony (on which his narrative is largely based) to the contrary. Lots of people on the Titanic seemed to think it was unsinkable.

Once the list is noticed by the crew, some quick calculations were done.

Put together, the facts showed a 300-foot gash, with the first five compartments hopelessly flooded.

What did this mean? [Titanic builder Thomas] Andrews quietly explained. The Titanic could float with any two of her 16 water-tight compartments flooded. She could float with any three of her first five compartments flooded. She could even float with all of her first four compartments gone. But no matter how they sliced it, she could not float with all of her first five compartments full.

The bulkhead between the fifth and sixth compartments went only as high as E Deck. If the first five compartments were flooded, the bow would sink so low that water in the fifth compartment must overflow into the sixth. When this was full, it would overflow into the seventh, and so on. It was a mathematical certainty, pure and simple. There was no way out.

And the reaction to this mathematical certainty by these experienced sailors?

But it was still a shock. After all, the Titanic was considered unsinkable. And not just in the travel brochures. The highly technical magazine Shipbuilder described her compartment system in a special edition in 1911, pointing out, “The Captain may, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.”

Now all the switches were pulled, and Andrews said it made no difference.

It was hard to face, and especially hard for Captain Smith. Over 59 years old, he was retiring after this trip. Might even have done it sooner, but he traditionally took the White Star ships on their maiden voyages. Only six years before, when he brought over the brand-new Adriatic, he remarked:

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Now he stood on the bridge of a liner twice as big--twice as safe--and the builder told him it couldn’t float.

I’m quoting this at length to stress how much of a shock this was. This idea that the Titanic could really be sunk. And it wasn’t just the experienced sailors that had trouble coming to grips with it.

All the [life] boats together could carry 1,178 people. On this Sunday night there were 2,207 people on board the Titanic.

This mathematical discrepancy was known by none of the passengers and few of the crew, but most of them wouldn’t have cared anyhow. The Titanic was unsinkable. Everybody said so. When Mrs. Albert Caldwell was watching the deck hands carry up luggage at Southampton, she asked one of the them, “Is this ship really unsinkable?”

“Yes, lady,” he answered, “God himself could not sink this ship.”

And, of course, God didn’t. As Lord’s short novel perfectly describes, overwhelmingly, it was the sense that the ship and the people on it were in no danger that was responsible for sending it to the bottom of the ocean that cold April night.

Let’s set the pivotal scene.

Now the watch was almost over, and still there was nothing unusual. Just the night, the stars, the biting cold, the wind that whistled through the rigging as the Titanic raced across the calm, black sea at 22½ knots. It was almost 11:40 P.M. on Sunday, the 14th of April, 1912.

Mark that. Racing across the calm, black sea at 22½ knots. As if nothing could possibly go wrong.

Suddenly [Lookout Frederick] Fleet saw something directly ahead, even darker than the darkness. At first it was small (about the size, he thought, of two tables put together), but every second it grew larger and closer. Quickly Fleet banged the crow’s-nest bell three times, the warning of danger ahead. At the same time he lifted the phone and rang the bridge.

“What did you see?” Asked a calm voice at the other end.

“Iceberg right ahead,” replied Fleet.

“Thank you,” acknowledged the voice with curiously detached courtesy. Nothing more was said.

They had received warnings about icebergs. They had been told to be on the lookout for them.

For the next 37 seconds, Fleet and [Lookout Reginald] Lee stood quietly side by side, watching the ice draw nearer. Now they were almost on top of it, and still the ship didn’t turn. The berg towered wet and glistening far above the forecastle deck, and both men braced themselves for a crash. Then, miraculously, the bow began to swing to port. At the last second the stem shot into the clear, and the ice glided swiftly by along the starboard side. It looked to Fleet like a very close shave.

But, of course, it wasn’t a close shave at all. The iceberg had ripped a hole in the side of the ship below the waterline, and less than three hours later it would be lying, perhaps in pieces, on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.

Why did it take 37 seconds to make the turn? If it had happened more quickly, they might’ve missed that berg. But why were they racing through the iceberg-riddled North Atlantic in the first place? That’s what really caused the disaster, and that was, more than anything else, an effect of the complacency that comes when everyone believes there is simply no danger.

But that is frankly just a symptom of the disease. They thought they were in no danger. The larger and more important question is why? Why did they think that? And what about the sinking of the Titanic made people stop thinking that way? To begin to understand that question, we’ll need to return to Lord’s Chapter 7. Part of me would like to include it in its entirety, but it is 15 pages long, and I’m not sure I’m up to all that transcribing. But the points it makes, the points about the Titanic’s historical significance, and the changes that came as a result, are excellent.

First, there are the practical changes that were made in the restrictions and regulations that men could control.

Nor would icebergs any longer prowl the seas untended. After the Titanic sank, the American and British governments established the International Ice Patrol, and today Coast Guard cutters shepherd errant icebergs that drift toward the steamer lanes. The winter lane itself was shifted further south, as an extra precaution.

And there were no more liners with only part-time wireless. Henceforth every passenger ship had a 24-hour radio watch. Never again could the world fall apart while a Cyril Evans lay sleeping off-duty only ten miles away.

It was also the last time a liner put to sea without enough lifeboats. The 46,328-ton Titanic sailed under hopelessly outdated safety regulations. An absurd formula determined lifeboat requirements: all British vessels over 10,000 tons must carry 16 lifeboats with a capacity of 5,500 cubic feet, plus enough rafts and floats for 75 per cent of the capacity of the lifeboats.

For the Titanic this worked out at 9,625 cubic feet. This meant she had to carry boats for only 962 people. Actually, there were boats for 1,178--the White Star Line complained that nobody appreciated their thoughtfulness. Even so, this took care of only 52 per cent of the 2,207 people on board, and only 30 per cent of her total capacity. From then on the rules and formulas were simple indeed--lifeboats for everybody.

Next, there were the old cultural norms that had already been losing traction, but which lost all their footing in the wake of the disaster. In discussing this, Lord begins at the very practical level of how people of different classes fared on the Titanic.

And it was the end of class distinction in filling the boats. The White Star Line always denied anything of the kind--and the investigators backed them up--yet there’s overwhelming evidence that the steerage took a beating: Daniel Buckley kept from going into First Class … Olaus Abelseth released from the poop deck as the last boat pulled away … Steward Hart convoying two little groups of women topside, while hundred were kept below … steerage passengers crawling along the crane from the well deck aft … others climbing vertical ladders to escape the well deck forward.

Then there were the people Colonel Gracie, Lightoller and others saw surging up from below, just before the end. Until this moment Gracie was sure the women were all off--they were so hard to find when the last boats were loading. Now, he was appalled to see dozens of them suddenly appear. The statistics suggest who they were--the Titanic’s casualty list included four of the 143 First Class women (three by choice) … 15 of 93 Second Class women … and 81 of 179 Third Class women.

Not to mentioned the children. Except for Lorraine Allison, all 29 First and Second Class children were saved, but only 23 out of 76 steerage children.

Lord points out that none of this loss of life was a result of White Star Line policy, but rather from no set policy at all. People acting in what they believed to be the best interests of all, given the cultural milieu in which they had all been raised and lived. And it wasn’t just the people on the boat.

In covering the Titanic, few reporters bothered to ask Third Class passengers anything. The New York Times was justly proud of the way it handled the disaster. Yet the famous issue covering the Carpathia’s arrival in New York contained only two interviews with Third Class passengers. This apparently was par for the course--of 43 survivor accounts in the New York Herald, two again were steerage experiences.

Certainly their experiences weren’t as good copy as Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon (one New York newspaper had her saying, “The last voice I heard was a man shouting, ‘My God, my God!’”). But there was indeed a story. The night was a magnificent confirmation of “women and children first,” yet somehow the loss rate was higher for Third Class children than First Class men. It was a contrast which would never get by the social consciousness (or news sense) of today’s press.


Nor did Congress care what happened to Third Class. Senator Smith’s Titanic investigation covered everything under the sun, including what an iceberg was made of (“Ice,” explained Fifth Officer Lowe), but the steerage received little attention. Only three of the witnesses were Third Class passengers. Two of these said they were kept from going to the Boat Deck, but the legislators didn’t follow up. Again, the testimony doesn’t suggest any deliberate hush-up--it was just that no one was interested.

But these were exactly the kinds of things that were changing. Despite the seeming ambivalence about the fate of Third Class, Lord beautifully describes how a cultural preoccupation with wealth quickly became a casualty of the Titanic disaster. To fully understand this, to understand the world as it now exists, it is often helpful to first understand the world as it used to be.

It was easier in the old days … for the Titanic was also the last stand of wealth and society in the center of public affection. In 1912 there were no movie, radio or television stars; sports figures were still beyond the pale; and cafe society was completely unknown. The public depended on socially prominent people for all the vicarious glamour that enriches drab lives.

This preoccupation was fully appreciated by the press. When the Titanic sailed, the New York Times listed the prominent passengers on the front page. After she sank, the New York American broke the news on April 16 with a lead devoted almost entirely to John Jacob Astor; at the end it mentioned that 1,800 others were also lost.

In the same mood, the April 18 New York Sun covered the insurance angle of the disaster. Most of the story concerned Mrs. Widener’s pearls.

Never again did established wealth occupy people’s minds so thoroughly. On the other hand, never again was wealth so spectacular. John Jacob Astor thought nothing of shelling out 800 dollars for a lace jacket some dealer displayed on deck when the Titanic stopped briefly at Queenstown. To the Ryersons there was nothing unusual about traveling with 16 trunks. The 190 families in First Class were attended by 23 handmaids, eight valets, and assorted nurses and governesses--entirely apart from hundreds of stewards and stewardesses. These personal servants had their own lounge on C Deck, so that no one need suffer the embarrassment of striking up a conversation with some handsome stranger, only to find he was Henry Sleeper Harper’s dragoman.

This was truly not just another time, but another world.

There was a wonderful intimacy about this little world of the Edwardian rich. There was no flicker of surprise when they bumped into each other, whether at the Pyramids (a great favorite), the Cowes Regatta, or the springs at Baden-Baden. They seemed to get the same ideas at the same time, and one of these ideas was to make the maiden voyage of the largest ship in the world.

It was a ship that uniquely belonged to them.

This group knew the crew almost as well as each other. It was the custom to cross with certain captains rather than on particular ships, and Captain Smith had a personal following which made him invaluable to the White Star Line. The Captain repaid the patronage with little favors and privileges which kept them coming. On the last night John Jacob Astor got the bad news direct from Captain Smith before the general alarm, and others learned too.

Both the ear of the captain and the hearts of the hired help.

The stewards and waiters were on equally close terms with the group. They had often looked after the same passengers. They knew just what they wanted and how they liked things done. Every evening Steward Cunningham would enter A-36 and lay out Thomas Andrews’ dress clothes just the way Mr. Andrews liked. Then at 6:45 Cunningham would enter and help Andrews dress. It happened all over the ship.

And when the Titanic was going down, it was with genuine affection that Steward Etches made Mr. Guggenheim wear his sweater … that Steward Crawford laced Mr. Stewart’s shoes … that Second Steward Dodd tipped off John B. Thayer that his wife was still on board, long after Thayer thought she had left. In the same spirit of devotion, Dining Room Steward Ray pushed Washington Dodge into Boat 13--he had persuaded the Dodges to take the Titanic and now he felt he had to see them through.

The group repaid this loyalty with an intimacy and affection they gave few of their less-known fellow passengers. In the Titanic’s last hours men like Ben Guggenheim and Martin Rothschild seemed to see more of their stewards than the other passengers.

The Titanic somehow lowered the curtain on this way of living. It never was the same again. First the war, then the income tax, made sure of that.

And with this lost world, Lord argues, went some of its prejudices. Anglo-Saxons, it turned out, were not universally brave, and the “swarthier” races, equally, were not universally cowards.The Titanic demonstrated examples and counter-examples on both sides of that outdated ledger. And as for the nobler instincts of this lost world…

Men would go on being brave, but never again would they be brave in quite the same way. These men on the Titanic had a touch--there was something about Ben Guggenheim changing to evening dress … about Howard Case flicking his cigarette as he waved to Mrs. Graham … or even about Colonel Gracie panting along the decks, gallantly if ineffectually searching for Mrs. Candee. Today nobody could carry off these little gestures of chivalry, but they did that night.

The true impact of the Titanic’s sinking, of course, extended far beyond this lost world of wealth and privilege. The world of the Astors and the Guggenheims would never the same again, but so would the lives of the people who would have found themselves in steerage had they sailed on that colossal ship.

Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence. Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace. For 100 years technology had steadily improved. For 100 years the benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society. In retrospect, there may seem less grounds for confidence, but at the time most articulate people felt life was all right.

The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves. In technology especially, the disaster was a terrible blow. Here was the “unsinkable ship”--perhaps man’s greatest engineering achievement--going down the first time it sailed.

But it went beyond that. If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else? If wealth meant so little on this cold April night, did it mean so much the rest of the year? Scores of ministers preached that the Titanic was a heaven-sent lesson to awaken people from their complacency, to punish them for top-heavy faith in material progress. If it was a lesson, it worked--people have never been sure of anything since.

The unending sequence of disillusionment that has followed can’t be blamed on the Titanic, but she was the first jar. Before the Titanic, all was quiet. Afterward all was tumult. That is why, to anybody who lived at the time, the Titanic more than any other single event marks the end of the old days, and the beginning of a new, uneasy era.

Perhaps the comparison is too obvious, but the sinking of the Titanic was clearly the September 11th of its time. It was an event that marked the change between one way of living on this planet and another.

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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

Monday, June 20, 2016

No Money, No Mission

No money, no mission. It's a common phrase in the world of associations. And it's worth remembering, even though, in my experience, it often isn't.

Truth is, the culture of many associations continually drives them to try and do more with less. They get trapped into thinking things can get done on a shoestring. But they can't, at least not the big picture goals most associations set for themselves.

Think about it. I wonder how many associations out there are similar to the one I work for. We're a trade association, with companies as members. Our reality is that, even with the committed financial and volunteer support of our members, we are a far smaller organization that even the smallest of our members. We have less money and less staff people than they do, despite the fact that we're trying to accomplish things that the members themselves admit they can't accomplish on their own.

And frequently, it's the members themselves that help create the culture that we should be doing more with less. They're running lean organizations. They wouldn't be successful and have the resources available for association membership and initiatives if they weren't. And they often (appropriately) bring that lean mentality into the association Board room or around the association committee table. Above most other things, they expect efficiency and effectiveness.

But occasionally I ask them: How do things actually get done in your organization? When there's a problem that needs to be solved, or a challenge overcome, don't you typically follow a regular process? (1) Identify the problem; (2) Craft a solution; (3) Supply the needed resources; (4) Attack and resolve the issue.

Too many associations, I think, skip step 3, either because their volunteer boards won't allow it or because their association executives won't demand it. Whichever, it results in an association without the resources it needs to implement the solutions it has identified.

No money, no mission. The next time you're struggling to accomplish something big, remind yourself of this simple message.

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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, June 13, 2016

No Longer Unsolvable Association Problems

Life is full of coincidences.

I was facing a particular challenge at work, something I finally figured out I was too close to and was not seeing clearly. Reaching out to a colleague in another industry, I described the situation to him, and he gave me his perspective on it. The way he would handle the challenge were he faced with it was not necessarily the way I wanted to deal with my challenge, but hearing his perspective gave me the measure of objectivity I was looking for and helped me determined the course I needed to take.

The very next day, with my course of action solidified in my mind but not yet acted upon, I was browsing through the blogs I follow, and came across the following passage in an Unsolvable Association Problems post on Amanda Kaiser's Smooth the Path blog.

When we are too close to the problem we tend to narrow our thinking. The trick is to broaden our thinking and develop many more reasonable solutions to add to the discussion. Here are some ideas: (1) Have dialogue/brainstorm with a trusted person from the outside: outside your staff or outside your industry.

There were more suggestions after that first one, but I was struck by how much the advice paralleled the experience I had just had the evening before. And because of the practical experience I had just had, I suddenly not only saw the value in Kaiser's advice, but it made me think twice about all the other passages in all the other blogs I follow but typically skim through.

How much wisdom, I wondered, am I glossing over, simply because I'm in a rush to start my busy day in the office and because I don't similarly have daily experiences that match what I'm reading. It was a sobering thought, because I know now that I'm way more likely to seek the advice of this colleague in the future, not just because he's already helped me once, but because that success was reinforced the very next day by something I happened to read online.

Those are the kind of coincidences I can live with. I just wish there was a way to engineer them.

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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, June 11, 2016

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Here’s a quote from an Esquire review that appears on the front cover of my paperback copy of The Sirens of Titan.

“His best book … he dares not only to ask the ultimate question about the meaning of life, but to answer it.”

Which, of course, primed me for what I hoped would be a thought-provoking novel of sublime depth, capturing essential truth about our existence in its delightful prose.

I was disappointed.

I kept looking for it, scribbling “Is this it?” in the margin next to each philosophical epigram I encountered. For example:

The only thing I ever learned was that some people are lucky and other people aren’t and not even a graduate of the Harvard Business School can say why.

Is that the meaning of life? Some people are lucky and some people aren’t, so lump it? Is that what Vonnegut is trying to tell me?


“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.

“And when I die down here some day,” said Boaz, “I’m going to be able to say to myself, ‘Boaz--you made millions of lives worth living. Ain’t nobody ever spread more joy. You ain’t got an enemy in the Universe.’”

Is that the meaning of life? Do as much good as you can for others and die happy and without enemies? Is that what Vonnegut is trying to tell me?


“You finally fell in love, I see,” said Salo.

“Only an Earthling year ago,” said Constant. “It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

Is that the meaning of life? Love the people around you? Is that what Vonnegut is trying to tell me?

Well, no. As it turns out, none of these sentiments express the real meaning of life revealed in The Sirens of Titan. That meaning, revealed in the novel’s climactic scene, goes like this:

“Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tralfamadore.

“How the Tralfamadorians controlled us, I don’t know. But I know to what end they controlled us. They controlled us in such a way as to make us deliver a replacement part to a Tralfamadorian messenger who was grounded right here on Titan.”

Rumfoord pointed a finger at young Chrono. “You, young man--” he said. “You have it in your pocket. In your pocket is the culmination of all Earthling history. In your pocket is the mysterious something that every Earthling was trying so desperately, so earnestly, so gropingly, so exhaustingly to produce and deliver.”

A fizzing twig of electricity grew from the tip of Rumfoord’s accusing finger.

“The thing you call your good-luck piece,” said Rumfoord, “is the replacement part for which the Tralfamadorian messenger has been waiting so long!”

I’m not going into any details. Who’s Rumfoord? Who’s Chrono? What’s a Tralfamadorian and how did they all get on a moon of Saturn? Those are questions I’ll leave to someone who thinks Vonnegut is being clever by connecting all those intricacies together. I’m not one of them. Suffice it to say, within the context of the story, the meaning of human life, of two hundred thousand years of human evolution and technology, is for an alien who has crash landed on Titan to receive a replacement part for his broken spaceship so he can leave again.

That’s it. The human species started on its evolutionary path from hominid to space traveler, with all joys and sorrows of human history and culture in between, so that Salo the Tralfamadorian can get the part he needs to fix his ship.

Now, I will at least give Vonnegut the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s trying to make a larger philosophical point. Something along the lines of...

The lieutenant-colonel realized for the first time what most people never realize about themselves--that he was not only a victim of outrageous fortune, but one of outrageous fortune’s cruelest agents as well.

Because his story is full of Douglas Adams-style time and character paradoxes. Characters who hate each other wind up in love with each other. Those committed to foiling the Tralfamadorian plan wind up fulfilling it. Self-styled heroes become goats and self-styled anarchists become leaders. If you’re flowcharting stories in your Fiction workshop, I’d advise you to skip The Sirens of Titan.

Now, the concept that our meaning lives outside the boundaries of our awareness, and that, perversely, the more we try to take control our own destiny, the more we become pawns in the universe’s inscrutable design, is a perfectly fine theme to choose for a philosophical novel with science fiction flourishes like The Sirens of Titan. But the problem I can’t get past is how ham-handed Vonnegut decides to be about delivering it.

Humanity’s purpose is to deliver a missing piece for Salo’s broken ship. That missing piece is Chrono’s good-luck charm. This is the thing “that every Earthling was trying so desperately, so earnestly, so gropingly, so exhaustingly to produce and deliver.” Here’s its origin story:

One day the school children were taken by Miss Fenstermaker on an educational tour of a flame-thrower factory. The factory manager explained to the children all the steps in the manufacture of flame-throwers, and hoped that some of the children, when they grew up, would want to come to work for him. At the end of the tour, in the packaging department, the manager’s ankle became snarled in a spiral of steel strapping, a type of strapping that was used for binding shut the packaged flame-throwers.

The spiral was a piece of jagged-ended scrap that had been cast into the factory aisle by a careless workman. The manager scratched his ankle and tore his pants before he got free of the spiral. He thereupon put on the first really comprehensible demonstration that the children had seen that day. Comprehensibly, he blew up at the spiral.

He stamped on it.

Then, when it nipped him again, he snatched it up and chopped it into four-inch lengths with great shears.

The children were edified, thrilled, and satisfied. And, as they were leaving the packaging department, young Chrono picked up one of the four-inch pieces and slipped it into his pocket. The piece he picked up differed from all the rest in having two holes drilled in it.

This was Chrono’s good-luck piece. It became as much a part of him as his right hand. His nervous system, so to speak, extended itself into a metal strap. Touch it and you touched Chrono.

This story means absolutely nothing. It has no connection to any other part of the plot. It’s random. Intentionally so, I think. Here’s what undoubtedly happened. Somewhere in the process of writing his novel, Vonnegut decided that Chrono’s good-luck piece was going to be the missing piece of Salo’s ship, so he had to make sure that Chrono had a good-luck piece. So he made up this cute little story about Chrono going on a school field trip to a flame-thrower factory. It means nothing, but because the author decides he needs it, it suddenly means everything.

Am I supposed to think that’s clever? I don’t. I think it’s silly.

And that’s the problem. In a book such as this, where anything can happen (space aliens, time travel, mind control, etc.) being silly can naturally become a safe refuge for the author. When you’re silly you don’t have to connect all the dots, you don’t have to explain anything you don’t want to, you don’t have to commit to any kind of internal consistency. And there are certainly times when that can be both liberating for the author and enjoyable for the reader.

But not if you’re going to try and make a serious point. Serious like “asking and answering the ultimate question about the meaning of life.” Because being silly gets in the way of any serious message you’re trying to deliver.

It's like Vonnegut is saying, Here. Think deeply about the meaning of life. But while you’re doing that, I’m going to distract you with a bunch of characters who do impossible things and act in unbelievable ways. Don’t like that? Well, serves you right for thinking so seriously in the first place. You didn’t think I was actually going to tell you something useful, did you?

Sadly, I did.

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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

Monday, June 6, 2016

Does Your Association Put Up Signs?

I attended a workshop a week or so ago, and during the networking dinner I got into a conversation with some fellow participants about what I always thought was an apocryphal story.

Maybe you've heard it, too? The college, or the hospital, or the public plaza that intentionally puts no paved sidewalks in until after the people utilizing the facility indicate with their actual foot traffic where the sidewalks are supposed to go. It avoids situations like the one in the photo that accompanies this blog post, where the sidewalks don't match the foot traffic, resulting in unused sidewalks and dirt paths through what are supposed to be grassy areas.

Apocryphal or not, it's a great story, illustrating the importance of designing for how users intend to use your product (whatever it is), and not for a set of aesthetics separate from the user experience. Knowing I wanted to write a blog post about it, I went to the friendly Internet and found, much to my delight, the photo accompanying this post. It's one of dozens like it that I found, but this one has something special. It has a sign. The sidewalk owner, evidently frustrated that people obviously prefer the shorter distance through the grassy area, has put up a sign.


And that got me thinking. What kind of association do you work for? The kind that puts up signs? The kind that gets frustrated when its members don't use the perfectly good sidewalks that have been created for them. Hey! Where are you going? The sidewalk is over here! Or the kind that sees the opportunities present in the behavior of its members. That puts sidewalks where the members want them, not where the association staff people think they need to go.

All of us, I know, would probably say the latter. We like to think that we're all responsive to the needs of our members. But, are you sure? Who designed your website? Who picks speakers for your Annual Conference? Who are the articles in your newsletter written for?

In all of these areas, please, stop putting up signs. Like the people creating the foot traffic in the photo, your members don't read them anyway.

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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

Image Source