Monday, November 28, 2016

Tell True Stories About Your Members

I've been doing site visits for as long as I've been in association management--23 years at last count. If you're not familiar with the term, a site visit is when you visit a destination and/or conference site to help determine if you would like to book a conference in said destination and/or conference site. I just completed another one, and I was asked a question I'm often asked on these trips.

So, what are your members like?

Generally, the sales manager asking this question wants some insight into the preferred activities and habits of the people attending the conference I'm booking. And lately, when asked this question, I find myself telling the following story.

"Well, I'll tell you, their habits are really changing. When I started with this association, nine years ago, the five people on the Executive Committee who hired me were all men near the end of their careers. Indeed, the first three Board chairs I worked with all retired from the industry within a year of their serving as chair. That was our average member at the time, men in their sixties, with their spouses tagging along, enjoying fine food and fine wine, playing golf and going shopping.

"Today, the situation is very different. The five people on my Executive Committee are all in the middle of their careers, men and women, in their forties and fifties, with kids in high school or college. Our past chairs stay very much engaged in the industry and our association. The average member that they reflect sometimes brings a spouse and sometimes doesn't (depending on the demands of professional careers, youth sports leagues and child care), and with their spouse they sometimes bring the kids for a family vacation and sometimes don't for a romantic getaway. They still enjoy fine food and fine wine, but they are less into golf and shopping and more into mountain biking and spa visits."

I've probably told that story a dozen or more times to a dozen or more sales managers. I told it again on this latest trip. And each time I tell it, I can't help but wonder.

Is it true?

Leadership is passing from one generation to the next. That's an obvious fact. In my industry, that generational shift means Boomers are giving way to Xers. The Millennials are there, but not yet in positions of leadership and influence.

And the story I tell is a nice little package--something I can easily relay while walking around the grounds of the latest luxury resort, checking off the sizes of ballrooms and the number of sinks in the bathrooms of the standard sleeping room.

And there are certainly people in my membership I could point to that typify the generational archetypes on which my story depends. The golfing Boomer with his shopping wife. The mountain-biking Xer with his spa-visiting spouse and three kids.

But, if you look at our members without the frame I've imposed on them, you quickly realize that very few of these archetypes actually exist. Millennials sign up for the golf tournament. Boomers go mountain biking. Men and women of all generations relax by the pool or get up early to go running or do yoga. They all like to go shopping--sometimes for jewelry and shoes, other times for craft beer and artisan cheese.

Chalking up the preferred activities and habits of our attendees to their generational proclivities oversimplifies and obscures what is really going on. Like all of us, they are much more products of their culture and socioeconomics than of their generation.

Telling that story takes longer, but it better helps you understand who I am talking about.

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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, November 26, 2016

Maugham: A Biography by Ted Morgan

It’s always a dangerous thing: reading a biography of an artist whose art you admire. You’re bound to discover things about the person that will color your interpretation of the art forever after.

Later he took a six-month appointment as an inpatient clerk. He spent the morning in the wards with the house physician, writing up cases and making tests. He found that the male patients were easier to get along with than the females, who were often querulous and ill-tempered, and complained to the hard-working nurses. This at least is the way he saw it, for already he was displaying a tendency toward misogyny. Women, going back to his mother, were a disappointment, an unreliable species. They never lived up to one’s expectations. He rarely missed a chance to make unpleasant remarks about them and he admired the remark with which his professor of gynecology began his first lecture: “Gentlemen, woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month, parturates once a year, and copulates whenever she has the opportunity.”

This excerpt, obviously from the time that the young William Somerset Maugham was studying to be a doctor, is one of many in this biography attesting to his misogyny. And indeed, as I found myself reading The Razor’s Edge a few months later, the memory of this passage and the many like it colored my interpretation of his prose. Maugham--at least in the guise of his self-titled narrator in that famous novel--is dismissive and shallow in many of his descriptions of Isabel Bradley. Is it Maugham the narrator showing contempt for Isabel, or is it Maugham the author showing contempt for women? Watch for my upcoming post on that novel. You’ll have to be your own judge.

Another deep impression left upon me is how old and out of time Maugham became as he continued to live and produce while so many of his contemporaries ceased and died. In many ways his true heyday was in the earliest part of the 20th century, writing plays and stories with a sense of propriety appropriate for the previous age.

Maugham was Edwardian in the deepest sense. This was the period of history that put its stamp on him. Throughout his life he maintained an Edwardian set of assumptions. He was a facade person. Propriety was all-important. He went to the right tailor, belonged to a club, and was scrupulously courteous. In his writing he often used such Edwardian expressions as “sexual congress” and “unmitigated scoundrel.” In one of his best known stories, “The Letter,” he used the Edwardian convention of the compromising document.

His belief in a society governed by principles of decorum comes out in stories such as “The Treasure,” where a bachelor, a perfect gentleman who has a perfect servant, sleeps with her in a moment of weakness. They then revert to their previous relationship. “He knew that never by word or gesture would she ever refer to the fact that for a moment their relations had been other than master and servant.” This was the Edwardian sensibility in full flower.

So this is the portrait of Maugham I have been given--a woman-hating phony, for whom appearance is so much more important than substance.

Yet, to judge him by the fiction he wrote, it would seem that such an existence tortured him.

Behind the mask of the Edwardian gentleman there hid the alienated, mother-deprived outsider who lacked a secure grip on his identity. As he said, “The accident of my birth in France … instilled into me two modes of life, two liberties, two points of view [and] prevented me from ever identifying myself completely with the instincts and prejudices of one people or the other.” He pretended to be heterosexual, whereas his deepest sympathies lay elsewhere. He was not what he seemed, and it is no wonder that many of the characters in his short stories are not what they seem.

In “The Lion’s Skin” a perfect English gentleman married to an American heiress and living on the Riviera is found out to be the son of a waiter. When his house catches fire he goes in to save his wife’s Sealyham, as a gentleman would, and is killed: “Bob Forestier had pretended for so many years to be a gentleman that in the end, forgetting that it was all a fake, he had found himself driven to act as in that stupid, conventional brain of his he thought a gentleman must act.” ...

Like … a whole gallery of his characters, Maugham’s life was one of partial concealment.

And his fiction, of course, is an appropriate lens to use to understand the heart of the artist. As Maugham himself said in one of his letters:

My own impression is that most of what one writes is to a greater or lesser degree autobiographical, not the actual incidents always, but always the emotions. Anyhow we are able to fouter ourselves of the world at large--when one has to suffer so much it is only fair that one should have the consolation of writing books about it.

And it is, I think, their emotional truth, not the litany of events, that make much of Maugham’s fiction so compelling. It was interesting on many levels to learn through reading this biography that Maugham found his first success in writing plays, not novels, and that, to him, the form of drama was much more restrictive of the things he wanted to say.

Drama was a damnable business, he said, the plots were arbitrary, the characters were obvious. In writing a novel one did not have to make these wholesale surrenders. One could be a subtle as life itself.

In retrospect it seems obvious. In plays, character dialogue can only advance the plot; while in novels, the inner lives of characters can advance themes. And, in the best of novels, all four devices are combined into a narrative and thematic whole.

As Maugham does brilliantly in his most famous and most personal work.

Maugham’s first choice of title, a quotation from Isaiah, “Beauty from Ashes,” had already been used, and so he changed it to Of Human Bondage, one of the books in Spinoza’s Ethics. This was the novel he had written to free himself of his obsessions, on the “misery loves company” theory that when private feelings were made public, they ceased to be his. Thirty years later, however, when he was asked in New York to read the first chapter for a recording for the blind, he broke down and could not finish. Publication had not provided that thorough a catharsis.

But it was all there: the loss of his mother, the breakup of his home, the years at the vicarage, the wretchedness of his school years, the stammer transposed into a clubfoot, the happy times in Heidelberg, the year in Paris, and medical school. “It is not an autobiography,” he wrote, “but an autobiographical novel; fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own but not all the incidents are related as they happened and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate.”

For the first and last time Maugham dropped the mask. Gone was the pose of Edwardian gentleman, of “The Jester,” of epigrams to amuse society women. Here was the painful reality of the cripple, who carried through life a feeling of apartness, friendless and longing for friends, but perversely compounding his alienation by his own aloofness. Here was the true condition of life, not success or invitations to the right homes or scores of admirers, but bondage. Philip Carey is in bondage to his physical defect, to his upbringing, and to the woman who mistreats him. The novel’s theme is his struggle to free himself.

I read Of Human Bondage in high school, and I remember my English teacher’s love of the novel better than I remember the novel itself. So while reading Maugham, while I was on vacation in Gatlinburg, I ventured out to find a tattered copy of the novel in a used book store in Cosby, Tennessee, and immediately put it back on my to-read list.

The Moon and Sixpence

Of course, pending my re-reading of Of Human Bondage, my favorite Maugham work is The Moon and Sixpence, so I was especially interested to see how that work was handled in this biography. Generally speaking, Maugham is often given the backward compliment of being a “superb craftsman,” implying that he is not truly a “great artist,” and The Moon and Sixpence seems to be one of the primary witnesses for the prosecution in that case. In reporting the critical reaction to the novel, the biographer Morgan slips easily between the voices of the reporter and the narrator, telling us what critics thought, but not always putting it in quotation marks.

In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham’s view of women was given its fullest airing. They were the enemies of creative life, parasitic and manipulative, sapping the strength of men. In Charles Strickland, who says that “women are very unintelligent,” he found an outlet for his gall. When Gauguin’s wife read the book, however, she said that she did not find a single trait of Strickland’s that had anything in common her with husband. Of course, to have found Maugham’s portrait a good likeness would have been to admit that she had married a scoundrel.

Nor did those who knew it recognize Maugham’s Tahiti. One got no impression from the book that it had been colonized by the French, was the chief of the Society Islands, could be reached by steamship, and had a newspaper and a radio station. A novelist of course is not bound to paint an accurate portrait.

Thanks for throwing that last line in, Morgan. Criticizing The Moon and Sixpence for not accurately portraying Gauguin and Tahiti is a little like criticizing Moby-Dick for not accurately portraying the captain of the whaleship Essex and Nantucket. Accurate portrayals aren’t exactly the point.

The book’s real weakness lay elsewhere: in its failure to live up to the principle stated by the critic Richard Blackmur that “the intelligence must always act as if it were adequate to the problems it aroused.” Maugham presents Strickland as a great painter and a genius but is unable to do more than tell us that this is the case. The only clue to Strickland’s genius is that it is a sudden force that overwhelms him. “I tell you I’ve got to paint,” he says. “I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly; he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” The only way Maugham can show genius at work is by making Strickland boorish, as if greatness were somehow synonymous with bad manners. A more convincing book about a painter was Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, which showed the complicated processes of a gifted painter’s mind. With Gully Jimson, the reader knows that he was in the presence of a great painter. Maugham did not even come close.

Katherine Mansfield cited this flaw in the novel when she reviewed it in The Athenaeum on May 9, 1919: “We must be shown something of the workings of his [Strickland’s] mind; we must have some comment of his upon what he feels, fuller and more exhaustive than his perpetual ‘Go to hell.’ It is simply essential that there should be some quality in him revealed to us that we may love, something that will stop us for ever from crying: ‘If you have to be so odious before you can paint bananas--pray leave them unpainted.’”

This criticism is a little more learned and serious, but it actually misses the same kind of point that the first criticism about accurate portrayals did. The power of The Moon and Sixpence is simply not dependent on whether or not Strickland is a great painter. That’s not the point. In fact, the way I read it, novel is MORE powerful if Strickland is assumed NOT to be a great painter.

Because, ultimately, The Moon and Sixpence is not a novel about a brilliant painter who abandons the conventions and commitments of domestic life to pursue his fevered vision with full force. It is a novel about a popular author who wishes he could abandon the conventions and commitments of his professional life and pursue his own fevered vision with full force.

As the narrator muses during a climactic scene with Strickland:

Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.

It’s not about painting. It’s about writing. Not Strickland. Maugham. And, most decidedly, not the Maugham tarred with the brush of Edwardian sensibilities.

And the bitterest tragedy of all is that Maugham, the man or the artist, is no Charles Strickland.

“There is no such thing as inspiration. At least if there is I have not discovered it. There is, instead, dedication and complete absorption in your craft. I am a self-made writer. I started with a poor prose style, and had to fine it down as best I could. You must appreciate right from the start that writing is a profession like Medicine or the Law … I keep the same regular hours today as I did when I was a medical student. I suppose you could say that today, the public are my examiners.”

This taken from a letter Maugham had written: advice to a young and admiring novelist. Charles Strickland does not view his art as a profession; it is a calling. The goal is not competent prose after years of clock-punching practice. The goal is release; release of the amoral spirit of truth and beauty that crouches beneath the surface of every attempt at art.

Maugham's Genius

Maugham’s genius, I think, when he is able to show it, is not in writing prose that allows that amoral spirit to dance, but in writing prose that is able to seamlessly merge theme and plot. It’s a subtle talent, not always recognized, and with plenty of restrictions on form and content. Maugham’s fiction, as he admits in the following passage, does not preach.

Sixty was an age for assessment. As the list of his published works grew longer with each new book, Maugham asked himself where he stood in the English literature of his time. He felt that he was not taken seriously by critics, and it pained him. He saw himself as isolated, excluded from the lists of best novelists and the “Whither literature?” symposiums. In 1925, when Virginia Woolf attacked Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy, and listed the significant writers as E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, she did not even mention Maugham, so easy was he to overlook.

There was a “Maugham problem,” one that he was all too conscious of. He tried to dismiss it with the explanation that he was a teller of tales: “Though I am not less concerned than another with the disorder of the world, the injustice of social conditions, the confusion of politics, I have not thought the novel was the best medium for uttering my views on these subjects; unlike many of my more distinguished contemporaries I have felt no inclinations to preach or prophesy.”

Maugham’s preaching on these subjects, if it happens at all in his fiction, comes through his use of plot, not polemic, and that, I believe, is infinitely harder for an author to achieve. In his own regard, after all, Maugham had many admirers among his fellow authors.

Over the years his books were reviewed by important writers who found much to praise. As early as 1905 Virginia Woolf liked his Land of the Blessed Virgin, and thirty-two years later she praised The Summing Up. The success of Of Human Bondage was made by Theodore Dreiser’s tribute. Maxwell Anderson praised The Moon and Sixpence, and Rebecca West found several of his stories “admirable.” L. P. Hartley and William Plomer called him a great short-story writer. Victor Sawdon Pritchett said he was “the most readable and accomplished English short-story writer of the serious kind alive.” Graham Greene said he was “a writer of great dedication,” and Elizabeth Bowen said he was a “first-rate professional writer.” Stephen Vincent Benet called Of Human Bondage a masterpiece. Evelyn Waugh said he was “the only living studio-master under whom one can study with profit.” His fan club included Alec Waugh, Anthony Burgess, Frank Swinnerton, Glenway Wescott, Jerome Weidman, S. J. Perelman, S. N. Behrman, James Michener, Christopher Isherwood, and Raymond Chandler. The great Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez said Maugham was one of his favorite writers. One unexpected fan--considering the difference in their views on life--was George Orwell, who wrote in an autobiographical note: “The writers I care most about and never grow tired of are Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Samuel Butler, Zola, Flaubert, and among modern writers James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. But I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”

Straightforwardly and without frills. Yes, of course, Maugham’s fiction is that. But look beneath the surface. There is something deeper there, isn’t there? Am I the only one who sees it?

Because I’m sorry. For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone can read a novel like The Moon and Sixpence and not think that the author is preaching. Charles Strickland is an electric current, the elemental force that any artist fears to embrace, but is unable to release once clutched.

Maugham’s least successful works, I think, are the more overtly philosophical ones. As mentioned earlier, I just finished reading The Razor’s Edge not long ago and was less than impressed. The preaching was almost too subtle there, and the numerous characters distracted me on first read from understand which philosophical archetype was really the hero of the tale.

Another curious title in this model, which I have not yet read, seems to be The Narrow Corner.

The Narrow Corner, set in the Dutch East Indies island of Banda Neira (Twin Islands), which Maugham called Kanda Meira, was a philosophical novel disguised as a thriller. The title came from the Roman emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius: “Short therefore is man’s life, and narrow is the corner wherein he dwells.” Maugham’s stoic was Dr. Saunders, struck from the register for unethical practice and settled in the East, where he smokes opium and observes life with detached benevolence, expounding the author’s view that “life is short, nature is hostile, and man is ridiculous; but oddly enough most misfortunes have their compensations, and with certain humour and a good deal of horse-sense one can make a fairly good job of what is after all a matter of very small consequence.”

Again, the preaching there seems much closer to the surface and, at least in the case of my experience with The Razor’s Edge, less connected to the progress and resolution of the plot.

Maugham's Other Problem

But Maugham remained an admired author throughout his long and productive career. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the following anecdote.

To celebrate the occasion [of Maugham’s eightieth birthday], and as a surprise for Maugham, Heinemann commissioned the English writer Jocelyn Brooke to put together a Festschrift. Brooke asked some thirty British and American writers to contribute. Their replies, some evasive, some direct, give an idea of how ungrateful some of Maugham’s writer friends were, and, more generally, how some of his contemporaries felt about him.

Compton Mackenzie, to whose symposium on music Maugham had cheerfully contributed in the thirties, pleaded overcommitment. So did Noel Coward, whose career Maugham had pushed by praising him and writing a preface for the American edition of Bitter Sweet and Other Plays. William Plomer, who had sent Maugham several of his books and received encouraging letters in reply, and who had in a review of the short-story collection Ah King written that Maugham’s stories “are among the best now being written,” said: “I’m not a great fan of his and I don’t know his work well.” Evelyn Waugh, who had been a guest at the Mauresque, replied with a printed card that said: “Mr. Evelyn Waugh greatly regrets that he cannot do what you so kindly suggest.” Rosamond Lehmann, whose novel A Dusty Answer Maugham had admired, and who had been a guest at the Mauresque, where Maugham offered advice about her unhappy love affair with the poet C. Day Lewis, said: “I quite see that you do not want what you call eloges but I should not feel free to write critically about him under these circumstances.” Vita Sackville-West, the wife of Harold Nicolson, a frequent guest at the Mauresque, said: “I don’t think I had better do so, partly because I could not make it sufficiently enthusiastic for a birthday tribute, and partly because I have the reverse of admiration for his personal character. This of course is just between you and me.” Peter Quennell, whom Maugham saw on the Riviera and thought of as a friend, pleaded overcommitment. The oldest friend of all, his Mediterranean neighbor Max Beerbohm, did not reply to Brooke’s request.

And on and on like that for another long paragraph or two. There were so many refusals, Morgan tells us, that eventually the project was scrapped. Even those few who responded positively admitted that they had an extremely difficult time “grinding out” enough words about Maugham the writer to make an adequate essay.

This is not a writer well esteemed by his contemporaries and peers. Morgan calls them ungrateful, but I think it may be more complicated than that. Even if they respected and admired his ability to tell simple and straightforward stories, few, it seemed, wanted to be associated with him. Perhaps this was because, by all published accounts, Somerset Maugham was a miserable human being, with tastes and behaviors that lived on the fringes of polite society.

Maugham did not like or understand Mexico, and he abandoned the idea of a novel set there. He needed the contrast between the transplanted British colonial and an exotic foreign setting. If only Mexico had been a British colony. “Mexico City is not thrilling and I do not think we shall stay here long,” he wrote Knoblock. “My chief object, of course, was to find material for stories, and so far I can see there is not the smallest likelihood of it … it is exasperating to have come so far and feel that one is wasting one’s time.” Mexico City did, however, offer a few pleasures, among them the boys Gerald brought back for his employer. One of them was a thin, large-eyed child who said he was fourteen. He undressed in Maugham’s hotel bedroom, knelt to say his prayers, and crossed himself before getting into bed.

Teenage male prostitutes, it seems, were one of Maugham’s guilty pleasures, and he built up quite a familiarity with some. Once, after introducing one to his twenty-year-old nephew, Robin, Maugham wound up chiding his relative for falling in love with the professional.

“Last night Laurent told me that he loved me,” [said Robin].

“And you believed him,” [said Maugham]. “You poor idiot! Don’t you realize that he says that to every one of his clients? The boy may well be attracted to you, but that’s because you’re lucky enough to have an extremely well-formed body. However, that’s not the reason he lets you fuck him all night. He lets you have him because each time he goes with you, I pay him his standard tariff--which, in fact, is almost the equivalent of three pounds. The boy’s nothing more than an accomplished little prostitute. The fact that he has persuaded you to believe that he’s in love with you has annoyed me quite considerably. I refuse to allow you to make a complete fool of yourself while you’re staying under my roof.” Shaking with anger, Maugham told his nephew that he would never see Laurent again.

I certainly don’t mean to pass any moral judgments on Maugham for his homosexuality, nor even to mock the decisions he made throughout his life to keep the orientation secret from others and from himself. But there is a certain ruthlessness with which Maugham pursued his sexual gratifications, and a certain horror, I think, embedded in his pretext that such ruthlessness was an accurate measure of enlightenment in others.

This conclusion, however, may simply be a symptom of Morgan’s source material, which is frustratingly short on insights into Maugham’s artistic process and long on his social appearances and engagements.

Lord Maughan came to spend a week over his brother’s seventy-sixth birthday. He was eighty-four, and age had not improved his humor. He disapproved of the festivities arranged by his younger brother’s friends and neighbors to celebrate his birthday. Baron von Seidlitz gave the birthday dinner at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. The menu was poached salmon hollandaise, chicken Souvaroff, asparagus, and a pistachio dessert, washed down with Krug 1938 and Hospices de Beaune 1929. Lord Maugham had an attack of gout, which did nothing to make him more agreeable.

This is a frightfully typical paragraph in this book--biography by calculator and scrapbook invitation. Contrast this amount of detail about which food and wine was served at a dinner party to the details we get about some of Maugham’s artistic works.

In April there appeared Up at the Villa, a novel that Maugham had apparently written several years earlier.

Apparently? You’re the biographer, Morgan. What can we hope to learn about this artist if even you didn’t know he was working on a new novel before its publication date?

What Fiction Teaches

And yet, despite the warts this biography revealed about itself and about Maugham the human being, there is still something about his fiction that can’t be denied. On that family vacation in Gatlinburg, my ten-year old niece--as smart and precocious as they come--was talking about her school work at the dinner table one night, and expressed bafflement over the requirements she had already been given to read fiction.

“What am I supposed to learn from a bunch of made-up stories?”

Her bookish uncle couldn’t resist the bait. “There are things you can learn from fiction that you can’t learn from anything else,” I told her.

“Oh, yeah?” she challenged. “Like what?”

“The futility of all human endeavor,” I told her without missing a beat, enjoying the delicious confusion that all children show when jarringly confronted with grown-up nihilism. But the next day, I stumbled across an even better answer to my niece’s question in a Maugham-authored epigram to one of the chapters in Morgan’s biography.

I think there is in the heroic courage with which man confronts the irrationality of the world a beauty greater than the beauty of art.

Well said, Willie. Maybe someday you’ll speak to my niece the same way you speak to 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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Because I Said So

"Because I said so." It's a line that I've used frequently with my children. Usually when their stubbornness butts heads with mine, I'm tired of arguing, and I simply want unquestioned obedience. I know I'm not the only parent who uses it and, truth be told, it can be a fairly effective strategy when dealing with an eight-year-old.

But in the office, when dealing with my team members, I do everything I can to avoid it.

As I've just described, "because I said so," is a line you can get away with using on children, not on professional adults. Some of my earliest professional memories, in fact, are working for a boss that had a "because I said so" style of management, always telling me only what was absolutely necessary to perform the desired task. That was demoralizing, demotivating, and destructive.

And yet, there are times, even now, when the temptation to say "because I said so" in the office is very strong. It usually comes at the end of some long fought battle, when my guard is down and the desire to declare victory on something feels overwhelming.

The temptation, in my mind, is a good thing, because it serves as an important warning sign that I'm about to step over the line.

And that's how I use it. When I'm tempted to say "because I said so" it generally means that I haven't communicated or defined the strategy well enough. If I had, there would be no disagreement and no situation where saying "because I said so" would appear necessary.

It's hard. Remember I said the temptation only comes at the end of long fought battles. But if you want better alignment between strategy and execution, giving in to that temptation is about the worst thing you can 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, November 14, 2016

Research Is Education

My posts from a few weeks back (here and here) on the role of associations in the work of educating next generation professionals for the industries or professions that they represent have been getting some attention. Beyond the usual tweets and retweets, this time someone actually reached out to me, wanting to know more. In the ensuing discussion, as I began thinking more concretely about the work of my association and the challenges it has been designed to address, a couple of additional thoughts occurred to me.

One is the idea summarized in this post's title: Research is Education.

The industry my association represents is engineering and manufacturing-based. One category of high-skilled workers my member companies are looking for is college-degreed engineers with detailed knowledge of my industry's technology and products. The challenge is that only a tiny fraction of our nation's universities teach that technology as part of their engineering curriculum. As a result, most of my member companies are used to providing their own professional education in our technology. Their preference, however, would very much be that university graduates come to them with a pre-existing knowledge (and interest) in our technology, and much of the work my association has been engaged in is in an attempt to make this a reality.

The challenge is not a simple one. Getting universities to add something to their engineering curriculum generally means getting them to remove something else, and everything that's already there typically has well-entrenched advocates in place. We've tried numerous times to develop new courses and curricula in our subject matter, and also watched numerous times as the developed programs were rejected or failed to perpetuate in the larger curriculum the way we intended.

So, on the advice of some of our academic partners, we tried a different approach: supporting research projects related to our technology on the intended campuses.

There was some initial (and still some lingering) pushback from our member companies on the idea. They didn't easily see the connection between sponsoring research and educating undergraduate engineers in our technology. But, as I reported in one of those previous blog posts, we had already demonstrated that the number one factor in encouraging engineers to enter our industry was a positive experience with an academic faculty member already engaged with our technology.

What better way, then, the get faculty engaged with our technology then to sponsor research projects in our area? Research is key to a faculty member's tenure and career advancement. And since most research faculty are also educators, it is almost axiomatic that those faculty would be drawn to develop curriculum and teach courses that closely align with their research work. If you'll forgive the coarse way of phrasing it, we decided to stop paying faculty to develop and use curriculum they weren't interested in, and start paying them to pursue intellectually-stimulating research challenges related to our technology, and allow them to naturally bring that interest to both their graduate and undergraduate classes.

It hasn't been without its challenges, but so far, the process has worked pretty well. New classes related to our technology are generating on the campuses where we have supported research, and graduates from those universities are being hired in higher numbers than before by our member companies. And when we ask our members how satisfied they are with those hires, compared to the candidates coming out of the same schools ten years ago, we're consistently told that there is no comparison. They no longer have to introduce them to our technology.

Truly, we have seen that research is education.

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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, November 12, 2016

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

I knew nothing about Dreiser or Sister Carrie when I picked up this book. My paperback copy, indeed, belongs technically to my wife, but it got mixed in with all the books I plan to read when our marriage and single family home brought us together.

I regret not getting to it sooner, as Sister Carrie is a remarkable novel and, I suspect, Theodore Dreiser may be a remarkable author.

In Sister Carrie Dreiser, the faithful reporter, presented the facts of existence in a segment of a new American city as he had known them. True, he had written a novel about a girl who, with few qualms, lives with one man and then leaves him for a more glittering seducer. Seduction, adultery, bigamy, and theft are presented as natural actions on which it is useless to moralize. Worse still, no one is punished for them. These actions had been events in the life of Dreiser’s sister; if the events were true, why should they not be touched up a bit and made into fiction? Dreiser had no idea that he had written an immoral book and that there might be trouble ahead for it.

This is from Willard Thorp’s afterword which, coming at the end of the novel, helped me appreciate something that I suspected while reading the novel itself.

She conceived a true estimate of Drouet. To her, and indeed to all the world, he was a nice, good-hearted man. There was nothing evil in the fellow. He gave her the money out of a good heart--out of a realization of her want. He would not have given the same amount to a poor young man, but we must not forget that a poor young man could not, in the nature of things, have appealed to him like a poor young girl. Femininity affected his feelings. He was the creature of an inborn desire.

Sister Carrie is not a moralizing novel; a novel that takes pains to ensure that the virtuous end up flourishing while the wicked suffer and atrophy. The characters are not good or evil. They and their actions, instead, are natural. Creatures of inborn desire. Natural processes unfolding as natural processes do.

Yet no beggar could have caught his eye and said, “My God, mister, I’m starving,” but he would gladly have handed out what was considered the proper portion to give beggars and thought no more about it. There would have been no speculation, no philosophizing. He had no mental process in him worthy the dignity of either of those terms. In his good clothes and fine health, he was a merry, unthinking moth of the lamp. Deprived of his position, and struck by a few of the involved and baffling forces which sometimes play upon man, he would have been as helpless as Carrie--as helpless, as nonunderstanding, as pitiable, if you will, as she.

And in this natural world, success and failure are not tied to moral precept, nor even moral action. Involved and baffling forces sometimes play upon man, and they, not man’s philosophical speculations about them, determine who succeeds and who fails. Who lives and who dies.

It is a theme Dreiser returns to again and again as he introduces the characters that populate his narrative; as he does above about Carrie’s first seducer, Drouet, and as he does below, most expansively, about Carrie herself.

Among the forces that sweep and play throughout the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is not yet wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason. On the tiger no responsibility rests. We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life--he is born into their keeping and without thought he is protected. We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to free will, his free will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them. As a beast, the forces of life aligned him with them; as a man, he has not yet wholly learned to align himself with the forces. In this intermediate stage he wavers--neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free will. He is even a wisp in the wind, moved by every breath of passion, acting now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one, only to retrieve by the other, falling by one, only to rise by the other--a creature of incalculable variability. We have the consolation of knowing that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail. He will not forever balance thus between good and evil. When this jangle of free will and instinct shall have been adjusted, when perfect understanding has given the former the power to replace the latter entirely, man will no longer vary. The needle of understanding will yet point steadfast and unwavering to the distant pole of truth.

In Carrie--as in how many of our worldlings do they not?--instinct and reason, desire and understanding, were at war for the mastery. She followed whither her craving led. She was as yet more drawn than she drew.

It’s a novel with a thesis and, despite some fossilized allusions to “free will” and “good and evil,” it’s a radical thesis at that. In this way, Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s first novel, published in 1900, was wildly ahead of its time. As Tharp describes in his afterword...

Why had Mrs. Doubleday and most of the reviewers in the genteel journals been so horrified by Sister Carrie? Why did the word get around that Dreiser had written a “dirty” book? After all, seduction has been an item in the stock-in-trade of novelists since the first novel in English, Pamela, appeared in 1740. But there were regulatory conventions and taboos, all of which Dreiser had ignored. Seducers must be punished or reformed. Yet Carrie’s first lover, Drouet, is more prosperous at the end of the novel than at the beginning. Hurstwood, who steals Carrie from Drouet, does, it is true, go slowly down to poverty and suicide, but Dreiser is careful to explain the reasons for his decline. His seduction of Carrie is only an incidental cause. If he had been a young man, able to start life over in New York, he might, we gather, have become again a manager of a saloon as elegant as Fitzgerald and Moy’s.

Convention permitted a number of solutions for the case of the fallen woman. Carrie might have had to endure a series of terrible misfortunes, in order that she could be redeemed in the end by a good man. Or she might have gone irremediably to the bad. She might have entered the limbo of the demimonde, where she could be sealed off from decent people, prospering, but secretly and constantly grieving. Dreiser used none of these approved recipes in cooking up Carrie’s seduction. Already in love with the gauds of the big city, unable to find work which will provide even her minimum wants, she falls like a ripe plum into Drouet’s kind hands. There is no struggle. There is no passion. A steak dinner and “two soft, green, handsome ten-dollar bills” do the trick.

What most particularly shocked many of the first readers of Sister Carrie was the matter-of-factness of the seduction. Dreiser warned them in Chapter 1 that it was inevitable. “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.” Here is the shocker. Dreiser is implying that in the throbbing big cities of the land there are many--how many?--Sister Carries. This no right-thinking American was prepared to believe. Soon Carrie compounds her felony by deserting Drouet and eloping with Hurstwood, a man with a family. Again there is no extenuating passion. It is simply in Carrie’s nature to move up and Hurstwood is, to her, more refined than Drouet, more a man of the world. “The constant drag to something better was not to be denied.” As Hurstwood slowly sinks downward to destitution and suicide, Carrie again moves up, this time into the world of the stage. Instead of punishment, in the end she is accorded success, of a kind, as the charming little Carrie Madenda, who has smiled her way out of the chorus line.

But Dreiser, in the end, actually does have some moralizing to lay at Carrie’s feet--not with condescension because of her sexual freedoms, but with a kind of sympathy because of where her inborn desires have taken her and for what purpose.

For throughout the novel, throughout the several transitions that Tharp has summarized for us in his afterword, Carrie is chasing something, dazzled by it, pursuing it with longing and naive jealousy, as she does here with her initial glimpse of Broadway and the society that surrounds it.

Carrie stepped along easily enough after they got out of the car at Thirty-fourth Street, but soon fixed her eyes upon the lovely company which swarmed by and with them as they proceeded. She noticed suddenly that Mrs. Vance’s manner had rather stiffened under the gaze of handsome men and elegantly dressed ladies, whose glances were not modified by any rules of propriety.

Wait. Stop right there. Whose glances were not modified by any rules of propriety. Dreiser fills his novel with wonderful turns of phrase like this, capturing base thoughts and actions in the idiom unique to his time and culture. Perhaps my favorite comes when Dreiser describes the thoughts of a young man who is “favorably impressed by Carrie’s looks.”

“Good-looking,” he said to himself, and proceeded to visions of condescensions on her part which were exceedingly flattering to himself.

Glorious. But back to Carrie’s reaction to Broadway society.

To stare seemed the proper and natural thing. Carrie found herself stared at and ogled. Men in flawless topcoats, high hats, and silver-headed walking sticks elbowed near and looked too often into conscious eyes. Ladies rustled by in dresses of stiff cloth, shedding affected smiles and perfume. Carrie noticed among them the sprinkling of goodness and the heavy percentage of vice. The rouged and powdered cheeks and lips, the scented hair, the large, misty, and languorous eye, were common enough. With a start she awoke to find that she was in fashion’s crowd, on parade in a show place--and such a show place! Jewelers’ windows gleamed along the path with remarkable frequency. Florist shops, furriers, haberdashers, confectioners--all followed in rapid succession. The street was full of coaches. Pompous doormen in immense coats, shiny brass belts and buttons, waited in front of expensive salesrooms. Coachmen in tan boots, white tights, and blue jackets waited obsequiously for the mistresses of carriages who were shopping inside. The whole street bore the flavor of riches and show, and Carrie felt that she was not of it. She could not, for the life of her, assume the attitude and smartness of Mrs. Vance, who, in her beauty, was all assurance. She could only imagine that it must be evident to many that she was the less handsomely dressed of the two, It cut her to the quick, and she resolved that she would not come here again until she looked better. At the same time she longed to feel the delight of parading here as an equal. Ah, then she would be happy!

Ah, then she would be happy! Time and again throughout the novel this is Carrie’s lodestone, the weight that pulls her forward and drives all the narrative action. She leaves her hometown in Wisconsin, goes to Chicago, gets connected with Drouet, leaves him for Hurstwood, eventually leaves him for the stage--all because she is chasing a happiness she is unable to find within herself. Happiness, to Carrie, is always something shiny and distant.

How vexing it is for her, then, to meet a young man amidst all her desired glitz and splendor who represents the absolute opposite ideal.

As the waiter bowed and scraped about, felt the dishes to see if they were hot enough, brought spoons and forks, and did all those little attentive things calculated to impress the luxury of the situation upon the diner, Ames also leaned slightly to one side and told her of Indianapolis in an intelligent way. He really had a very bright mind, which was finding its chief development in electrical knowledge. His sympathies for other forms of information, however, and for types of people, were quick and warm. The red glow on his head gave it a sandy tinge and put a bright glint in his eye. Carrie noticed all these things as he leaned toward her and felt exceedingly young. This man was far ahead of her. He seemed wiser than Hurstwood, saner and brighter than Drouet. He seemed innocent and clean, and she thought that he was exceedingly pleasant. She noticed, also, that his interest in her was a far-off one. She was not in his life, nor any of the things that touched his life, and yet now, as he spoke of these things, they appealed to her.

“I shouldn’t care to be rich,” he told her, as the dinner proceeded and the supply of food warmed up his sympathies; “not rich enough to spend my money this way.”

“Oh, wouldn’t you?” said Carrie, the, to her, new attitude forcing itself distinctly upon her for the first time.

“No,” he said. “What good would it do? A man doesn’t need this sort of thing to be happy.”

Carrie thought of this doubtfully; but, coming from him, it had weight with her.

“He probably could be happy,” she thought to herself. “All alone. He’s so strong.”

But Ames does not become a major figure in Carrie’s life. She does not cling to him the way she clings first to Drouet and then to Hurstwood. She sees Ames only once or twice more, and he seems to pass in the night, Dreiser signaling, I think, that the simple satisfaction that comes with happiness in oneself is beyond Carrie’s acquisition and appreciation.

But, as Tharp tells us, Carrie neither suffers the prescribed fate of her moral choices nor succumbs to the destitution and despair of her inborn desires. In the end, rather, she achieves success and, if not happiness, certainly a kind of simple wisdom.

Some of Dreiser’s closing paragraphs are worth revisiting, as they seem to summarize both his overarching theme and how Carrie has represented it throughout his narrative.

And now Carrie had attained that which in the beginning seemed life’s object, or, at least, such fraction of it as human beings ever attain of their original desires. She could look about on her gowns and carriage, her furniture and bank account. Friends there were, as the world takes it--those who would bow and smile in acknowledgement of her success. For these she had once craved. Applause there was, and publicity--once far off, essential things, but now grown trivial and indifferent. Beauty also--her type of loveliness--and yet she was lonely. In her rocking chair she sat, when not otherwise engaged--singing and dreaming.

That’s the story. Now, the theme.

Oh, the tangle of human life! How dimly as yet we see. Here was Carrie, in the beginning poor, unsophisticated, emotional; responding with desire to everything most lovely in life, yet finding herself turned as by a wall. Laws to say: “Be allured, if you will, by everything lovely, but draw not nigh unless by righteousness.” Convention to say: “You shall not better your situation save by honest labor.” If honest labor be unremunerative and difficult to endure; if it be the long, long road which never reaches beauty, but wearies the feet and the heart; if the drag to follow beauty be such that one abandons the admired way, taking rather the despised path leading to her dreams quickly, who shall cast the first stone? Not evil, but longing for that which is better more often directs the steps of the erring. Not evil, but goodness more often allures the feeling mind unused to reason.

Some many turns of phrase; so worth remembering. The long, long road which never reaches beauty. Not evil, but longing...more often directs the steps of the erring. This is Dreiser’s theme and he has created one of those rare masterpieces that fully incorporate a theme into a narrative plot.

Although he waxes a little epic at the very end, poetically but unnecessarily summarizing his intent.

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. Whether it be the tinkle of a lone sheep bell o’er some quiet landscape, or the glimmer of beauty in sylvan places, or the show of soul in some passing eye, the heart knows and makes answer, following. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.

Hmmm. Might be worth rethinking whether Carrie truly prospers as a result of her actions--moral or otherwise.

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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, November 7, 2016

The Limitations of Crowd-Funding for Associations

In many ways, associations are the original crowd-funded organizations. Long before the term became popular and proliferated across digital kingdoms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, associations were gathering money from many to support programs and services that were valued by all. The economies of scale were and still are powerful. If everyone chips in a few bucks, then we can all benefit from a service that none of us are willing or able to fund on our own.

But this model has its limitations. I've written before about two essential relationships that an association typically develops with its members. In the first, the transactional relationship, where the member pays the association a fee for service, the crowd-funding model reigns supreme. The more leverage an association can create through crowd-funding its dues revenue, the more satisfied the members seem to be. Look at how little I pay in membership dues, and how much the association gives me in return! Not just services I can get elsewhere, but, indeed, some I get can't anywhere else.

In the second relationship, however, the aspirational one, the logic and expectations of crowd-funding can often work against the association. In this relationship, the association is not delivering a program or service to its members, it is instead pursuing some aspirational goal on behalf of the industry or profession it represents. Advocating for friendly legislation, perhaps, or developing a training program for future practitioners, or conducting consumer-based marketing for the profession.

There is usually wide support for these activities from the association's membership. There is a recognition that a portion of their dues or donations support these activities, and the members' representatives on the Board of Directors often use their governance role to codify specific strategic objectives related to these activities.

But in the pursuit of these aspirational objectives, the association will sometimes find itself taking actions that inure to the benefit of a small subset of the members, or, worse, are interpreted to go against the short-term interests of most of the membership. I'm not even talking about the willful manipulation of the association's instruments to bring those conditions about (although that sometimes happens, too). I'm talking about people--volunteers and staff alike--acting with the best of intentions. The legislation requires less-friendly compromises to pass, or the training program results only in better hires for those close to the training site, or the consumer-based marketing can be placed in some markets but not others.

When those things happen, members who find themselves on the wrong side may rightfully question what their dues dollars are being spent on, and they might be quite vociferous about it. If they look at the association through the lens of their transactional relationship to it, they won't like what they're seeing. They'll feel like they're getting to short end of the stick.

This is, in part, what makes the aspirational work of an association as difficult as it often is. On the transactional side, the value proposition is always clear. Even tiny or incomplete improvements are viewed positively, as the association slowly rolls out more and better transactional programs to all. On the aspirational side, however, these "baby steps" can be viewed as victories by some and as defeats by others, depending on how universally their benefits can be enjoyed.

It's a balancing act, then; one of many that association leaders have to walk. Make progress on these aspirational goals, but do it in a way that preserves the transactional relationship you have established with your members, and to which much of their loyalty to your organization is tied.

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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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