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Life Lessons

Brand Fans, Storytelling + Video Tape

disney world mickey Before you dig into this post, take a moment to reflect on the last time you saw a really great, really memorable, really brand-endearing produced television commercial? With the exception of perhaps Dollar Shave Club, I’m hard-pressed to come up with an answer.

I recently read a statistic that noted by age 65 the average American has watched more than 2 million television commercials. At 30 seconds a spot, that boils down to 1,000,000 minutes of life. If my math is correct, that further breaks down to 694 days. This means the average adult has spent nearly two years of their life watching television commercials by the time they blow out their 65th birthday candles.

There is a quote from Mumford & Sons that goes something like, “Where you invest your time, you invest your life.” I don’t know about you, but I can think of plenty of better ways to spend two years of my life than watching lukewarm tv commercials.

Your bran's fans and customers share their passion for your brand through stories about your brand. Whether you’re asking people to give up 30 seconds of their life to watch a tv spot, or hoping they’ll invest 30 years of their life as a loyal fan, your brand’s best stories aren’t those that clever marketers create, they’re the stories you empower your advocates to tell.

The proof is in the VHS.


An Open Letter to the Good People of Earth

mr. rogers On Friday, I, like so many, watched in horror as the events in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded.

Those of you who know or follow me know that I don’t tend to shy away from topical discussions in my social streams, but somehow Friday was different. My heart ached to voice my anger and send thoughts of comfort to those affected, but I just couldn’t seem to find the words to say what I needed and wanted to say.

We had a planned Christmas gathering on Friday evening. After spending the night basking in the spirit of Christmas and the presence of loved ones, I came home, pulled up my personal blog,, and the below post manifested itself on the page. Robbin asked me to share it here, too.

Our thoughts go out to the victims, their families, friends and communities–and every heart impacted by this senseless tragedy. We’re sending love, thoughts and prayers your way from our little corner of Greenville, South Carolina.

—- An Open Letter to the Good People of Earth: Reflections on a Tragedy

I have fond memories of kindergarten. I remember singing along to “The Letter People.” (Mr. H was my favorite.) My kinder memories are swirled with the scent of melting wax on craft days, the ding of the recess bell and the savored flavor of a first gulp of lunchtime chocolate milk.

Kindergarten was a time of innocence. There were thrills to be found in checking out two library books a week courtesy of Mr. Dewey and his decimal system. A blank sheet of manilla paper was both the canvas and catalyst for endless possibilities. This time of year was a flurry of red-and-green paper chains, counting down the days to Christmas as little hands hurriedly engineered reindeer out of pipe cleaners and clothespins.

Today was a tragic day.

Several years ago I lost a dear friend in an unfortunate accident. Until the fateful morning I received that unexpected early-morning phone call, I had been relatively untouched by the impermanence of life and the reality of death. It was more of a hypothetical, as foreign as the concept of infinity or intricacies of quantum physics. Death was something other people dealt with. When my friend died, everything changed. According to my age I was teetering on the fringe of adulthood, but at the core I was still naively invincible. I didn’t see that phone call, that morning or that tragedy coming. It rocketed me into a harsh new reality, one from which nobody walks away unscathed or unchanged. The world I had known and loved felt strange, foreign and no longer my own.

Life doesn’t ask permission to change you. Bad things happen to good people. The rug gets yanked out from underneath us when we’re least expecting it. People are deprived of final farewells and last “I love you’s” every single day. The difference between a Friday you’ll never forget (try as you might) and just another Friday is often as non-consequential as spilling your coffee or deciding to take a different route to work that day. Life does not ask permission to change you.

Nearly a decade after my friend’s passing, there’s rarely a day that goes by that I’m not haunted by unshakable thoughts bubbling to the surface somewhere in the back of my mind. I wonder about him. I wonder what he would be doing now. Would he be happy? Married? Would he have children? Would he be trying to grow a beard, training for a 5k or penciling me in for brunch on Sunday? At 31, I try to think back to the person I was and wonder what it’s like to be frozen in time at age 23. I wonder what it’s like to never know the excitement of walking down the aisle toward your destiny. I wonder what is lost for those who never have an opportunity to throw a graduation cap in the air, hold their firstborn child in their arms or simply run through one more autumn’s worth of golden leaves.

These are the kinds of thoughts that break my heart on a day like today. Empty swingsets. Silent playgrounds. Abandoned pencil boxes, cubbies and backpacks. Finger-painted masterpieces full of happy families and smiling faces tacked to refrigerator doors in homes where life did not ask permission and life will never be the same.

I started as a sort of rebellion against all the bad news in the world. Turn on any news station and you’ll find it, much like the tide, beating against the shore promptly at 6 and 11 day after day after day. And while I have made a commitment not to focus on the negative in my life, on days like this, even I find myself wanting to scream, “What kind of world is this!?”

I saw a lovely post floating around featuring a quote from Fred Rogers. And while words can’t right the wrongs, restore lost moments or make sense of the senselessness, in time I hope we will all be able to refocus our eyes on “the helpers,” as Mister Roger’s mother once called them. The Good People of Earth are out there. Their numbers are great. And I believe they carry a torch of hope for the world I know and love.

Are you in the giraffe business? You should be.

giraffe ritz carlton A couple weeks ago, a pack of BOFers had the opportunity to join our courageous clients at Anytime Fitness for their annual conference in Chicago. I could write ten pages of blog post about how inspiring the event was and still barely scratch the surface, so instead I’m going to share an interesting tidbit that stuck with me.

While in Chicago, we had the opportunity to sit in on a session with Alexandra Valentin, Corporate Director of the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. During her talk, Alexandra recounted a customer service story that made all 1,400 people in attendance gasp and “aww” in amazement. After doing a little digging around online, I found a video post from the gentleman who received said outstanding service…and wanted to pass it on. If you don’t do anything else today, take a few minutes to watch this video. It will change how you think about customer service and the customer experience.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we don’t just work in the (insert your industry here) business. We are all in the people business. I wonder what would happen if we stopped treating customers like customers and started treated them like friends and family?

Anyone can surprise and delight. I challenge you to find your giraffe and create a remarkable experience for someone this week.

CHIME IN: Have you ever been on the receiving end of surprise and delight?

The Things Things Say

macbook pro I drove by an estate sale this weekend on my way to somewhere else. The lawn was littered with jumpy people on a shopping high. In that moment it occurred to me what a strange phenomenon an estate sale really is. Strangers show up to slowly dismantle a life story page by page, bargain by bargain. And just like that, a bowl that was once a trusted partner in birthday cake batter mixing and popcorn movie nights becomes the deal of the century for a stranger at a $1.50 price.

We have all heard the expression “you are what you eat,” but sometimes I wonder if we are what we use, too. I spend as much time with my MacBook each day as I do with any human in my life. My Honda is my favorite rolling escape from reality. I own a set of obscenely expensive measuring spoons, and live in a space riddled with fine point Sharpies. These are just a few of the props on the story of me. To the clueless observer, it doesn’t mean much. To someone who really knows me, it says it all.

What are your daily life staples? And what do you think they say about you?

You're Not Special

Over the weekend, a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts gave a rather controversial commencement speech to the graduating class of 2012. Slammed for repeatedly reminding the students “you are not special,” it’s fair to say McCullough’s speech was a bit of an audience-shocker and media stir stick. At the very least, it certainly was not the warm, fuzzy, possibility-filled, metaphor-laden tune we’ve become accustomed to enduring at such events. And while I’m not sure I would have been prepared to digest his message at the tender, wide-eyed age of 17, at 30, I am able distance myself from the shock factor to find some sage insight within. “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another, we have of late, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards or ignore reality if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it. Now it’s “So what does this get me?

I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about. The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.

The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.”

This is a message for every business and brand. I speak on behalf of every marketer who has ever wanted to tell you this. Your brand isn’t special just because it is exists. You are not remarkable just because you ran an online promotion and garnered 10,000 new Facebook likes or gained a couple thousand twitter fans. You are not exceptional because of your clever advertisements, memorable commercials or the awards lining your lobby shelves and walls. These things are simply the qualifiers of a “what does this get me?” mentality. And “what does this get me?” is the question a client asks right before they doom themselves to fail.

Good, honest, real marketing shouldn’t be centered around what you gain as a brand, it should celebrate how you play the game, and how you learn and grow (or help other people learn and grow). It should be about how much you enjoy doing what you do. These things are real and genuine and true. The alternative is choosing to keep your eyes fixed on the scoreboard while the game is happening on the field.

Herein lies the truth: Your brand is special because of your passion. You are special because of the mission and cause you believe in. You are special because of the conviction that energizes you and gets you out of bed each day. You special because of the mark you want to make. The people you want to help. That thing you want to do. Your best imaginable day. You are special because of the thing (and people) you love, and your belief in their importance.

Success, much like the fulfilling life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap. As McCullough says, the point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. Focus on genuine achievement, realizing that accolades will follow. Trophies tend to get packed away over the years, but a love letter never tarnishes. The scenic route is rarely the quickest route, but is often the road we remember.

Good, honest, real marketing won’t ever tell you what you want to hear. It won’t tell you that you’re special just to make you smile. Good, honest, real marketing helps you recognize and accept that everyone is special…and then gives you the tools, reveals the path and opens the door to becoming something truly exceptional.

You're the Flip to my Flop

I sometimes think colorful rubber flipflops are the sexiest thing a woman can wear. They're unpretentious. They come with their own sound effects. They bask in the sunshine. Simply put, they are the footwear of happy souls (and happy soles) with nothing to hide.

Bringing Back Recess

Yesterday was one of those unusually cool autumnal days we don’t see a lot of this time of year in South Carolina. The kind of weather that compels you to slow down and take note of the world. The choreography of leaves dancing in the wind. A man walking a matching pair of dogs down the sidewalk. The sound of footsteps over a gravel path. It was the kind of day that compels neighbors to stop, wave and say hello instead of just passing by. As I sat in my car, stopped at a red light, I noticed two men sitting on a downtown bench. They were two people who appeared to be from very different walks of life. On the left, an older man in a suit. On the right, a younger man with dreadlocks almost to his waist–and a style most of us here have come to closely associate with Asheville. Despite their differences, they appeared to be engaged in a pleasant exchange. The kind that takes place when two strangers decide to embrace an usually autumnal day and happen to come to a rest on the same bench.

In the sixty seconds I sat at the light watching those two men, a realization came over me. Most everyone has some sort of social media skills these days, but social skills are going extinct. We do a lot of talking, but we don’t make much time for conversation. We interact a lot, but connection is becoming rare.

Go find a park bench at lunch today. Take a walk with a colleague to get a cup of coffee. Talk with someone for five minutes. Your day and your heart will thank you. Take a break and GO TO RECESS! (In case you haven’t heard, recess is back.)

Twitter will still be there when you get back.

I promise.

RECIPE: Grandma Maxine's Chocolate Sheet Cake

This is my grandma Maxine. The one on the right, in the pink. Technically she is my "step-grandmother," but nothing about her has ever felt "step" to me. I can say with great certainty that Maxine is one of the best cooks in our family, possibly the country, maybe even the world and/or entire universe. I am biased, of course...but seriously, it's true. Arriving at my grandparents' doorstep, two things were a certainty:  you'd be greeted with a warm welcome and you'd leave with a happy belly. Hash, Homemade chicken and noodles. And my personal favorite, Chocolate Sheet Cake.

I was lounging around in bed this morning listening to NPR (a favorite weekend past-time) and stumbled across this great story from Mo Rocca. Regretful over the passing of his grandmother, Rocca set out across the globe and into the kitchens of the truest culinary masters: grandparents. Along the way he learned as much about life and love as he did about cooking. Click here to listen to the story.

I promise this blog isn't always going to focus on grandparents, but coming off the heels of "Life, Death and a Dinner Table," it felt too timely not to share. Happy listening - and happy weekend!

ps: A little gift from my recipe stash to yours. This is one of those recipes that is deceptively simple. There are no glamorous ingredients. It reads like something off a pilgrim's grocery list. It doesn't even look that special when it's complete. But I can pretty much guarantee as soon as you life the fork to your mouth it will change your life, leaving you with a whole new appreciation for the wonders of baking. All other cakes will become instantly inferior. You may even be tempted to hide it from house guests so you don't have to share. Yes. It is THAT good.

Grandma Maxine's Chocolate Sheet Cake


  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 Tablespoons cocoa (heaping!)
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 whole eggs (beaten!)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


  • 1-3/4 stick butter
  • 4 Tablespoons cocoa (heaping!)
  • 6 Tablespoons milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 pound powdered sugar (minus 1/2 cup)

DIRECTIONS In your favorite mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar and salt.

In a saucepan, melt butter. Add in cocoa. Stir together. Add boiling water, allowing mixture to boil for 30 seconds, then turn off heat. Pour liquid mixture over flour mixture. Stir lightly to cool.

In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, vanilla, baking soda and beaten eggs. Stir buttermilk mixture into chocolate mixture. Pour into sheet cake pan and bake at 350-degrees for 20 minutes.

While cake is baking, prepare the icing. Melt butter in a saucepan adding cocoa. Stir to combine, then turn off heat. Add milk, vanilla and powdered sugar. Stir. Pour over warm cake. Optional: garnish with pecans.

Slice cake into squares. Pour yourself a glass of milk. Eat and enjoy.

Airport Conversations and the Secret of Success

Every once in awhile someone will ask me what I do for a living. These conversations usually occur in the kinds of places where strangers feel compelled to carry on polite chitchat. In line at the grocery store. Doctor’s office waiting rooms. Airplanes waiting to be cleared for take-off. When I tell people I am a writer, they often respond in the same way I imagine I would respond if someone told me they traveled with the circus or roadied for Def Leppard in the 80s. An incredulous mix of shock and awe, with undertones of questioning my sanity. "That's...brave," they say. What they mean to say is, "How do creative people sleep at night knowing they could be one dry-spell away from the unemployment line?" I don't have an answer for that question. If you asked a thousand different creatives, you'd get a thousand different answers. I just know this is what I was meant to do.

I was born with an innate love for language – and all the power that came with it. My childhood scrapbook, a chronicle of tidbits from my early years stealthily pilfered and loving preserved by my mother’s hand, can attest to this.

As so often tends to be the case with keepsakes, many of these artifacts are truly terrible. In many instances, what once seemed like an staggering work of genius, now seems more like the literary equivalent of those coconut monkeys souvenirs people pick on on vacation in Cabo. Given a few decades to marinate (and fester) my early works now leave me awash in a nostalgic sea of horror and delight, reveling in the absurdity and purity of first love-inspired poems, drama-laden high school notes and even the occasional elementary school valentine.

Among the written wreckage, you will find classic hits such as: a third grade essay I wrote about my teacher’s best quality (her red fingernails), as well as a pillow-side plea asking “Molly” (the tooth fairy) to keep the pocket change and leave me a unicorn. There are cleverly written scripts starring my sister and I. Staged in the living room, those performances were a relentless negotiation (with an occasional musical number thrown in for good measure) as we tried to persuade our parents to get us puppies, ponies and, when we aimed our sights slightly lower, pizza.

Perhaps my favorite relic, however, is the neatly folded copy of a letter I sent to former Ohio governor George V. Voinovich. In the letter, I implore the governor to help me save the environment (and future of the world) by becoming a partner in my third grade fight against the formidable styrofoam lunch trays used in my elementary school cafeteria. Apparently Governor George was busy with other things, because he never did stop by to rally against lunch trays and the certain doom they would bring upon the world. He did, however, send me an autographed headshot and a letter encouraging me to “keep it up”. The day I received that piece of mail was one of the most thrilling afternoons of my young life.

When I was in high school, a college admissions counselor asked me what I wanted to do. “Write,” I said. She looked at me, laughed and said, “Write? You might as well go into philosophy. Writing is a useless degree.” I spent much of my early college experience fighting what I really wanted to do – and what I was good at – as a result of that single conversation.

While on delay in Charlotte over Christmas, I had one of the airport conversations I mentioned in the beginning of this post. I took a seat next to an older gentleman. In a sea of earbuds, laptops and ipads, he was the last of a dying breed, perusing the newspaper with a quiet sort of page-flipping dignity. We exchanged the usual pleasantries of strangers who are temporarily forced, more by inadequate airport seating than by choice, into each other’s lives and personal space. After a a few minutes of smalltalk, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a writer, expecting the usual reaction.

Instead, he looked at me, smiled and said: “A writer is who you are. Writing is what you do. Never confuse the two.”

Brain Pickings recently featured a letter sent to a 16-year old Jackson Pollock by his father in 1928. In the excerpt, Pollock’s father writes, “[The secret to success is] to be fully awake to everything about you.”

It's a tidbit of wisdom that holds true for all of us. Whether a brand or an entrepreneur, a leader or a wandering soul. Whether a marketer trying to create powerful change for a client or a non-profit trying to powerful change in the world, a retiree closing one chapter or a college applicant just about to open a new one…it is by becoming fully awake to who we are that we are able to become courageous in what we do.

Popsicles, Sparklers and Creative Inspiration

Last weekend the weather was delightfully warm here in Greenville. The sun was shining, the birds were singing - it felt like spring. On one of several strolls with my dog, I came across three little boys playing with a box in their front yard. As I watched them play, it was obvious the box was not just a box. It was a fort, a playhouse, a tank, an infinite number of possibilities limited only by their imaginations. My Saturday stroll was a good reminder of how differently we think as children. When kids look at a box, they don't just see a box - they see possibilities. They see a box not as it is - but for everything it could be. Childhood is an infinite summer (even when it's just a winter reprieve in late January.) As time marches on, we begin thinking more concretely. We see a box where we see a box. Our days cease to be defined by quickly melting popsicles and tire swings, bellyflops and neighborhood games of "Kick-the-Can." We begin to mark our days and months with rituals of responsibility - bills paid, inboxes cleaned out, items marked off our TO DO list. Slowly, in a little boat for one, we allow the splishing and splashing of the tide to draw us out into the sea of adulthood, drifting further and further away from fun, imagination and possibility.

For the creative adult, we spend most of our lives trying to find a way to return to the eternal summer of childhood. A place where the mind and imagination work in harmony - one challenging the other to be better, do more and dream bigger. A time when mistakes were nothing to be feared, just a spark for improvisation. A moment when night writing with wildly twinkling sparklers made all of us feel like the poet laureate of our front yard.

Hemingway once said, "The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing." I am inclined to agree.

Today I'm encouraging all of us to think differently. Tap into our imaginations. Change up the drive home. Stand on our heads. Challenge yourself to see something you've seen a thousand times before in a new light. Try to describe the taste of  a strawberry. Pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk and write a love letter to someone in your life. Practice seeing possibility instead of accepting reality. Find your inner child and give him/her a spin on the tire swing.

It's Wednesday, after all.

ps: I stumbled across this video over the weekend. A look at well-known logos through the eyes of a 5-year-old. If you haven't seen it - take a peek. And enjoy.