5 Questions with Jim Mitchem, Author of Minor King

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This is the first time I’ve interviewed a novelist. It’s a special treat for me because I’ve been influenced and encouraged by Jim Mitchem’s writing for some time. Minor King is his first novel and its a fine read. Enjoy!

 

Was there an “a-ha” moment when you decided you had to write Minor King?

Like the main character in the book, I’d been mulling a novel for a while. But over the last decade my life had become pretty busy, and I couldn’t focus long enough for clean, contiguous thought. Over the years I’d started a lot of long-form stories, and had files full of ideas, but nothing grabbed my interest enough to commit to the sacrifice necessary to finish a novel. That is, until the ending of Minor King occurred to me. When that happened, I knew that I had a special story. So essentially, I wrote Minor King in reverse.

The main character, Jim, experienced a lot of pain and tough roads. Why’d you shape him this way?

Minor King is written in the roman à clef style. Which means that it’s loosely based on my own life. Many of the struggles that the protagonist, Jim Christianson, faces are actually part of my own personal story. As a result, and because I’ve written about some of these personal trials on my blog, some of my friends have had a hard time separating reality from fiction.

I felt that it was necessary to include a deep backstory to reinforce a few important ideas. First, America is the land of opportunity. Most of us believe that all you have to do is work hard, pay your dues, and keep your nose clean and you can go as far as you want here. Or so, that’s what they tell us. By establishing the rags-to-riches backstory, or rather in Christianson’s case, rags-to-middle-class, the reader is able to attach empathy to the plight of the protagonist because we’re all in the same boat. I also wanted to give the reader a deep reference point to how far the character came to get to where he is in life so that the ending comes as a surprise. Finally, I used his painful past as a way to reinforce the idea of Christianson’s faith. God pulls him from the clutches of suicide, after all.

The dynamic between Jim and his partner/boss is pretty intense. Was this type of relationship one you could relate to?

Absolutely. A few years ago I decided to throw myself into a startup with the same kinds of goals that Christianson had with his own endeavor. Every character in the book but one is based on real life relationships I’ve had. Including the relationship between Christianson and his boss, Matthew LeCure. Granted, this is where the fiction really takes hold. My business partner in real life was not nearly the selfish person that LeCure is. Creating a hatable antagonist was a fun exercise, and important to keeping the reader interested.

Were there any underlying influences in writing the novel? 

I was a Literature major in college. From Dickinson to Faulkner, and Chopin to Márquez, we spent a lot of time deconstructing the classics. Even the Bible. As a result, I learned how great writers spoke to the reader on different levels. First, there’s the obvious storyline. But just below the surface were clues to other concepts. Secrets, really, that affect your subconscious. In Minor King I employed this technique, albeit on a more rudimentary level, throughout the story. For example, all the times referenced in the book directly correlate to verses from a specific book in the bible. A book which one of the main characters is named.

I also felt like the overall feel of King was something like a tragic, modern American story. Having studied The Great Gatsby in school, because it’s the prototypical tragic American novel, I modeled one of the characters in Minor King after an icon from Gatsby. Think yellow-rimmed glasses. And for the record, I hated The Great Gatsby.

What’s one big take-away you’d like readers to get from reading Minor King?

It’s been really interesting to see how people have interpreted Minor King. Some people have gravitated to the idea of the oppressive machine that we all seem to be a part of in America. For others, the gross inequity of wealth distribution has resonated. Still others have latched onto the concept of our dreams passing us by. And while all of those themes are important, I wrote this story around the idea of faith. Faith to do that which doesn’t seem possible. Faith in a power greater than ourselves. Faith in our dreams. Though with how the story ends, it could be interpreted that faith is the final phase of madness.

 

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Jim Mitchem is a copywriter who found his way into advertising via a dirt path on the outskirts of society. Born with no obvious talent, Jim began writing at a young age as a way to lasso the stories that ran circles in his mind. Dismissed as folly when he shared them, he gave up writing for drinking at the age of 17. After a stint in the USAF, and armed only with a pen and looseleaf paper bound by elastic, Jim meandered through the US until he awoke in a gutter in New York City in 1991. His life and his writing have improved significantly since giving up booze. And while he doesn’t think that’s a coincidence, he does consider it damn ironic.

Minor King is his debut novel.

 

Haunted by Hemingway

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I found myself haunted by the following words of Ernest Hemingway:

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness, but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”

The dynamics of Hemingway’s life are well documented. Nothing further to say there. My haunting is rooted in a creative soul and its desire for something more. Something more that pulls on me everyday. I know who he is.

The truth in Hemingway’s words, found in such an open and vulnerable way, lay out feelings of belonging. For me there is no other choice. I’m living too far into the story.

I lay this out before you because there is something more.

The Shift From Arrogance to Humility

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The shift from arrogance to humility should not be a take it or leave it process. Far too often, the two opposing mindsets have been relegated to personality test outcomes or to individual behaviors. We all know the two have far reaching impact on multiple areas of life. Like the following:

  • Family
  • Customers
  • Co-workers
  • Performance (business and personal
  • Community

Most businesses (large and small) are afraid to tackle arrogance and humility. The pendulum either swings to enablement of the arrogant, or swings to not feeling comfortable with the “touchy, feely” of humility. When an organization refuses to deal, they run to distractions. Typically, meetings and over-thinking financial performance are du jour.

I am a man who has gone (still going) through the shift from arrogance to humility. I’ve grappled with regret, sadness, embarrassment, and more regarding this. It’s very hard work and the sooner you do it the better. I’ve even had the 3 AM visits, from above, reminding me of things I thought were buried and unknown to others. Maybe you have too.

I decided awhile ago to allow God to change me so that I can be like the sun, not gray and overcast. I couldn’t change myself. Arrogance, like humility, begins with a seed, moves to the roots, and then evidence in the form of a plant. Seeing a field of plants was too daunting and intimidating to change. Besides, even with the self-loathing, I also built a place of comfort, It was something I knew how to be. This quote from Jony Ive reveals how subtle this battle can be:

“I remember talking to Steve Jobs and asked why he was perceived as harsh. And I said couldn’t we be more moderate? And he said why? And I said, because I care about the team. And he said: “No Jony, you’re just really vain. You just want people to like you. I’m surprised at you, because I thought you really held the work up as the most important and not how you are perceived by people. People misunderstand Steve because he was so focused.”

Remember, there’s a lot on the line here. I’m choosing to shift. How about you?

For My Father

This post is from February, 2009. It was around the time my father died. Today is his birthday, a fitting tribute.

The above is a concert clip of Eric Clapton performing Broken Hearted.  The song is beautiful and fitting for me as I lost my father a couple of weeks ago.

If you read my blog for insights on leadership and development, I hope you will allow me to take a road not often traveled here.

I’m now faced with understanding a void like I’ve never faced before.  But what is striking me most is all things I’m learning that didn’t occur when my father was living.  When you’re playing your part on the stage of life you just can’t see everything the audience does.  I write this with tears.

I won’t give you any advice in this post on how to handle losing a loved one.  I’m discovering that a broken heart can make way for something God-Touched.

You Are the Disruption

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As I’m sure you’ve heard, disruption is the groovy thing to be in. VCs dream of it (the success part anyway), designers and developers are pushing to make it happen. I have a little different take.

You are the disruption.

I’m really sick of hearing about the latest and greatest gadget that will revolutionize life as we know it. Disruption and advancement are great, but if we don’t see a change in human behavior, it will be a complete and utter waste of time.

Humans are moving backwards, technology is moving forward = not sustainable.

What is being left in the dust are the choices of life. I really wish the schools would require courses in life management. Imagine what an impact that would be! No judgements here, but we suck at making good-to-great choices. I think average would describe our best day.

Ok, I’m ranting! Now, let me give you a concrete example:

Diabetes is near epidemic in the U.S., Type 2 most applicable here. The diagnosis of the disease is typically related to obesity. The main causes are rooted in diet choices and lifestyle (sedentary behavior) choices. These choices are cannot be separated from the outcomes (heart disease, stroke, cancer, and amputations). Ironically, we refuse to turn around.

I sat in a meeting with the head of diabetes research for a large university a few weeks back. In that meeting, the development of a pill to combat the accumulation of visceral fat was described. If you didn’t know it, visceral fat is the killer fat because it accumulates around our organs. In so many ways, the research is focused on developing a pill to fix what we refuse to do for ourselves. We’ve seen the enemy.

So here’s a real disruption; join me in making choices that shake up ourselves. No more blaming the President, the tea party, our parents, our employer, you get what I mean. You might even start a ripple.

This is a big deal, friends.

 

5 Questions with Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, Authors of Rebels at Work

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I’ve been looking forward to this interview for some time. Lois and Carmen are two thought leaders I admire and respect a great deal. Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within is a great read, and their insights here are powerful. Enjoy!

What or who inspired you to take on the challenge of helping rebels in the workplace?

Lois: A giant light bulb popped for me when I was at an innovation conference and heard Carmen talking about being a heretic within the CIA, and how hard it was to create change inside the “belly of the beast.” I realized that day that I had throughout my career I had either been helping clients create change inside their big organizations or had been shaking things up in my own organizations. I also realized that I had been winging it my entire career, and felt kind of sad about that.. What else might I have been able to do if someone had coached me on what it takes to move new ideas through the politics of any organization? Could I have enjoyed work more? Could I have been kinder and more empathetic? This melancholy motivated me to help others.

Carmen: Well, as Lois said when I retired from the CIA the first significant public speech I gave was about being a heretic at the CIA. I not only connected with Lois, but also with many other people trying to make innovation occur inside big organizations. We too often talk about entrepreneurs and startups, but as hard as that is, I think making change inside existing organizations is harder. Like living in your house while you’re doing a big remodel. When I was at CIA, I was always reflecting on what I was doing. A lot of those reflections evolved into better practices for Rebels at Work.

What keeps you up at night regarding this mission? Are there any storm clouds we should be looking out for?

Lois: how do we reach BOTH the rebels and the executives to whom rebels report? We can teach, mentor and inspire rebels. But for organizations to adapt and grow executives have to create an environment where new ideas are welcomed and they have to know how to coach their rebels. Maybe even more fundamentally, they have to want rebels on their teams, not just tolerate them. The storm cloud I see is that as changing market contexts upend business as usual, most people get scared. And when they get scared they double down and try to make what’s worked before keep on working, shunning the people with the new ideas. Related is that people stop raising new ideas because they know business is not good and they are afraid of losing their jobs.

Carmen: What keeps me up a lot is the worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity. For the most part, it’s not an explicit conspiracy, although people who believe things like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” are suggesting that we should just settle. All of us, at one time or another, are unwitting members of this conspiracy. I also worry a lot about how hard it is to get people to accept diversity of thinking. This is something I had to deal with during my career. And sometimes I worry it isn’t really improving.

In Chapter 8, you write about the importance of Rebel Self-Care. From a wellbeing perspective, can you expand on that?

Lois: We rebels tend to be passionate and that passion can morph into obsession. Obsession can eat you alive, causing all kinds of bad behavior and blinding us from being able to rationally see what’s what. Taking care of ourselves is the only way to not fall into an obsessive dark hole. It’s the only way to keep a positive perspective and sense of humor. When we lose those, we’re losing our ability to be effective. Maybe we’re just plain losing ourselves. The more committed we are about excelling at our work, the more we need to look after our mental, spiritual and physical well-being. That’s our fuel and our safety net. It’s also what gives meaning to our life and work. (And meaning is a much more satisfying outcome than money or status.)

Carmen: I flunked Rebel Self-Care in my career, so I’m excited that we discuss this in the book and that so many people respond so positively to the message. I lost some of my best friends at the Agency during my time there because I didn’t pay attention to my emotions, that I was approaching a breaking point. All rebels need to avoid that breaking point. When we become cynical and negative, it takes a lot of effort to recover. And sometimes we never do.

Can the strategies found in the book apply to multiple areas of a rebel’s life?

Lois: Ha! Anyone who has teenagers knows what it’s like to be the “boss” of rebels. You love their fresh thinking, their creativity, their intolerance for school and societal rules that just don’t make sense. And yet they make you crazy when they break the rules, do stupid things without understanding the bigger context, and let their emotions run wild. When we coach our teenagers and help them learn how to navigate, they develop capacities for being effective, meaningful citizens of the world. If we simply insist they follow the rules, they just get angrier and more frustrated. Same with rebels and their bosses. As for rebels, the strategies in the book apply to many areas of our lives where we’re trying to get groups of people or organizations to consider new and better approaches than what exists. Parent-Teacher Organizations, church councils, school committees, condo associations, boards of non-profits. It’s about people influencing people.

Carmen: I use my “lizard brain” mantra to control my emotions ALL THE TIME. It really works. One recommendation we make is for rebels to not dominate conversations. In everything we do, we need to listen more.

When you think back on your career, can you recall a manager who once looked negatively at rebels, and then changed their mind? What brought the change on?

Lois: As a lifelong rebel, I pissed off more than a couple of my bosses and most of them came around because of two reasons, and sometimes a third. They realized how much I cared for the organization and wanted all of us to succeed. Second, they often couldn’t believe how many risks I took to make new ideas work. I didn’t just have skin in the game, I had a whole body commitment. From my observations, no manager needs to give rebels the “you have to be accountable” talk. Because I spent my career working for ad agencies and consulting firms, the third thing that turned my bosses into believers was revenue. When my ideas produced new revenue, there was only happiness and support.

Carmen: It’s always surprised me how well I get along with gruff, no-nonsense people. I think I had a couple of managers in my career who first thought I was nuts and then came to believe in what I was doing. This is going to sound arrogant, perhaps, but I think what changed their mind was that they began to appreciate that I had been right all along. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been wrong many, many times. But in the late 1990s, I appreciated what the internet was going to do to “knowledge work” sooner than many people in my organization. I had so many arguments with people about applications such as Wikipedia and Social Media. Years later, some of them now ask me how I saw it coming. Well, I can’t explain that at all. Really, I don’t understand why they didn’t see it.

 

Carmen

 

 

 

 

 

Carmen Medina 

Carmen spent 32 years as a heretic at the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite this, she held several senior positions at the Agency, including serving on the executive team that led the CIA’s analytic directorate. She thinks most organizations don’t have a good way of determining when it’s time to transform and/or “sell” their current business model. Heretics, mavericks, and rebels at work can provide organizations with the important early warning system they so desperately need.

Since retiring from CIA in 2010, Carmen has continued to write and speak about Rebels at Work, analysis and strategic warning, the emergence of new global norms in the 21st century, the future culture of work, and cognitive diversity. She is Puerto Rican by birth and Texan by nationality.  She tweets under @milouness and @RebelsatWork

 

 Lois

Lois Kelly

Lois Kelly has been a creative rebel throughout her career, helping some of the most respected companies in the world create new ways to launch products, communicate complicated issues, influence public opinion, deal with crises, go public, adopt innovative business practices, and occasionally try to move mountains.

During this journey, Lois has become a student of change, learning what it takes to get people to embrace new ideas. Her obsession is creating clarity from complexity. Her most meaningful work is leading workshops where people create the future they want for their organizations and companies.

Lois lives in Rhode Island, the smallest and most creative state in the United States, and tweets under @LoisKelly and @RebelsatWork.

 

The BS Culture and Me

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I’m thankful for my friends who’ve had the courage to call me on my BS. The was done out of love and a keen sense on their part that something wasn’t right. In the last 10 years I’ve been recovering from the habit. I’m sure my time in corporate America, insecurities and a fear of being the “real” me contributed to all the posing. I see it for what it is now. I hate it!

Two strong conclusions leap out. One, we live in a BS culture. Two, if we don’t do a gut check everyday (yes, everyday), we’ll become that BS culture.

Some people who know me on the surface, might be surprised by the above. They know my acting, not who I really am. Fortunately, BS rears its head less and less these days, so don’t worry, I’m the boy you see now.

So what’s so urgent about the problem? Time, and time is running out for all of us. Some of the most outwardly successful people personify the problem. They act as if tomorrow is an eternity away. Most would never dare call them on it either, let alone walk the other way. A sick form of enablement. Often we close our eyes and pretend to only hear and see certain things. Most are willing to look the other way if it means getting what they came for. In America, that usually means a title, an investment account or who they know. It’s a cold reality we live in.

I only woke up, and learned (still learning) how to live differently, when I lost all my stage props and the interest of the culture. Imagine going to an audition and thinking you had one more good line for the director. Only to find, God was the only in attendance. With me, He only wanted to talk about where the real Eric was. I used to walk out, but then my life unravelled to a point where I had nowhere else I could go.

It was the best place for me, I could breathe.

Why Men Don’t Value Women

Considering where we’re at in America (the world too) today, I felt moved to put this post from 2010 out again. I’m still learning…

Hospital sisters picnic beside the Katherine River, Northern Territory / Arthur Groom

I’ve been thinking lately about what we value and what we don’t.  This is important because our values do define our lives.

For example, if your career is what you value most, then everything (I mean everything) will be second to that.  I’m not writing to judge, just stating a reality.  It’s ironic how little values are considered in our current age.

The above brings me to why men (significant numbers) don’t value their women.  I know this post might generate some scathing comments, but I speak as a recovering jerk in the area of valuing my wife and her motherhood.

I worked, as many readers/subscribers know, in corporate America for many years.  The majority of that was at a senior level.  And yes, I drank the kool-aid, participated in the rah, rah sessions and terminated the employment of people who were deemed disposable.  I was paid well and thought (at times) my path was only going to get better.

During this time my wife gave up her career to raise our two children.  This decision was mutually agreed upon.  The idea of her being the primary care-giver seemed like the right thing to do.  To this day, I would say our children are the better for this decision.

But along the way I began to see our roles as separate and equal.  She took care of things at home and I took care of things career related.  There were times when we’d share the burdens, but I thought little about her struggles and work load.  After all, I saw it as her role/job.  The “taking things for granted” process settled in.

Many times she would call me at the office to vent or seek affirmation.  I gave her words, but not my heart.  Life went on, money was made and security (perceived) became the normal.  We lived this way for almost ten years, and then things changed.  My wife went back to work and corporate America said goodbye to me.   I became a man who did many different things (author, consultant and stay-at-home dad).  All of sudden the world looked strange.  For example, work on the book manuscript and make sure my son got to preschool.  Ironically, after about six months, I found myself longing for affirmation and encouragement from my wife for all of my hard work at home.  I felt like a man exposed by his ghosts.

I don’t claim that my experiences are unique or more important than other men.  But here are the reasons why many men don’t value their wives or motherhood:

  1. As men we are taught early on that money makes the world go round and you’d better work hard to get it.  Therefore, making money becomes part of our root system.  Like a tenacious weed.
  2. We assign roles without understanding or caring.  I made so many assumptions without taking the time to understand my wife’s greatest needs.
  3. We’re too busy (cop-out) to give the attention where it’s needed.  We decide that our wives are fine in our mind, and then we just move on.
  4. We don’t evaluate the magnitude of motherhood.  We don’t consider what our wives went through to carry and birth a child, let alone be the primary caregiver.
  5. Being a wife and mother doesn’t, in form, produce money.  Assigning value becomes tough and we just take it for granted.  If wives and mothers started being paid for what they deal with, we’d probably stand-up and take notice.  But it would be too late to applaud then.

The Eric that walked the halls of corporate America is dead.  The post-corporate America Eric is learning how to live and has been given a chance to be remade.  It’s very difficult to live differently.  But I have found a life worth living-Epic if I may so.