One man's beautiful struggle and search through the rubble for a suitable hustle

So the question the inspired this 2-part post was “What do I want my children 5 and 7 to know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?”  For those that didn’t read part1 here’s where I left off:

It was in understanding the scripture (Matthew 5:38 turn the other cheek) that the true genius of the strategy of nonviolence employed by Ghandi and then Dr. King is revealed. We think of his accomplishments as ideological or legal battles fought and won but that wasn’t it at all. His true accomplishment was to force an oppressor to change their posture and engage blacks as an equal.

What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?   

"Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended the terrorization of black Americans, particularly those living in the south."

No. I did not stutter, or mistype.  I mean that Dr. King taught systematic anti-terrorism. I can’t take credit for the breakthrough.  I found much of this perspective here.  

Yes, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP won several legislative victories that enacted or stuck down official laws.  These laws prevented blacks from fully participating in American life, but they only represented a small part a system designed keep blacks in perpetual subjugation.  The power that undergirded this unjust system and kept it aloft was terror. Terror reinforced the written and unwritten norms of unequal protection under the law and callous disrespect for the rights and humanity of blacks.  HampdenRice writes:

[Terror] was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them

White people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.”  

White people occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of “assault,” which could be anything from rape to not taking off one’s hat, to “reckless eyeballing.”

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.  

This system of terror was far worse than a law because it existed as a complex set of cultural norms.  The norms were accepted by many whites and internalized by many blacks in the forms of dozens of compensating behaviors aimed at doing everything possibly to not invite the often random violence inflicted on blacks by whites.  The author writes well about how these behaviors are part of a very complex racial identity that it has taken the collective black consciousness generations to come to terms with and still works to undo.  

The real threat to any black that “forgot their place” as being underneath the boot of any white person was not prosecution under the law.  The real threat was being spirited away from their homes, ritually mutilated and left as an example to others as to what happens when they disrupt the “order”. Today we would (hopefully) charge someone with home invasion, kidnapping, sexual assault, torture, premeditated murder and yes, domestic terrorism.  

Dr. King’s non-violent protests at their core were organized systems of collective bravery. Bravery that forced large portions of the American public to change its posture towards black Americans.  That if, in mass, blacks stood together and challenged small elements of the order like riding a bus, or eating at a lunch counter or using a bathroom - in outward defiance of the written and unwritten rules then the informal punishment system would become overwhelmed.  There were too many to terrorize.  Black people began to see that they could organize, that violence would happen but they didn’t have to respond with fear and that they could shame America into seeing what it was doing or allowing to be done.

Here’s what I taught my children.

Martin Luther King Jr. showed black people how to stand up and demand to be treated just like white people. He showed them how to do it without anyone getting hurt or anyone breaking the law (except the bad laws). He taught them to do it all together so that they didn’t have to be afraid of anyone trying to hurt them or even be afraid if they got thrown in jail. America was created so that everyone could have a place where they could be free. For a long time that wasn’t true and everybody knew it, but no one knew how to change it. Martin Luther King Jr. showed the whole country and the whole world that America said one thing and did something different and that when black people stood up and demanded that America treat them better, America got better for everyone.  

Yesterday, Nicole and I were in a cafe making a sales pitch when a woman came up behind me, grabbed my hair and kissed me full on the mouth! She looked about 50, maybe 110 pounds with a short, flirty, colored haircut and I had no idea who she was. She bounced up and down said how amazing it was to see me and said “I hope that isn’t your wife? It IS?! Hi!!! and then hugged her. It wasn’t until she pulled up a chair and began to tell us (and our equally stunned potential customer) about HER startup!” that I wiped the stupefied look off of my face and figured out who this woman was.  

Admittedly she’s on a lot of drugs. “Morphine!” she says quite jubilantly. Judy is an amazing woman and a great friend. This past September I returned to the gym where we were part of an experimental co-ed fitness program “Beauties and the Beasts”.  My life has since gotten too hectic and me too poor to continue going so I workout at home now.  Judy was the only female that consistently did the “Beast” routine and I loved working out with her. Our trainer told me she was sick and I called her. She never called me back. She laughs. “Its hard to call someone back and say.. yeah I’m dying”. Her short pixie haircut was the sign of her reclaiming her life.  It was as much as she’d grown back after the decision to stop the chemo that had added a decade to her face and stripped her shapely physique down 35 pounds.  But in her eyes and her voice it was all Judy - plus a little morphine. She’d beaten breast cancer 13 years ago, amazing her oncologist by having two kids after 8 rounds of chemo and radiation. But it came back for her liver. Her doctors gave her 18 months to live, 2 years ago.

So what did she do? She started a startup, applied to an incubator and launched a nonprofit. There is nothing more inspiring than an entrepreneur with stage IV cancer.  She pitched 4 people on her upcoming fundraiser while we finished lunch. Then she hugged my wife and told her how lucky she was, how lucky we both were and she kissed me once more and said “I love this man”.

I love you too Judy

Ok here’s the setup:

Occasionally my kids come home discussing topics they discussed in school that I’d really prefer they learned from my wife and I.  I want my kids grow up to be strong morally centered individuals. I cringe when I remember the pain that can be inflicted by well-meaning but misguided teachers leading discussions of sensitive topics when there is only one brown face in the classroom. (Think “Let’s re-enact a scene from our social studies book on slavery, Khalid you be the slave” Yes, I’m looking at you Dick Sesso!) Anyway, when my kids come home saying “Daddy, we’re brown-skinned and brown-skinned people celebrate Kwanza, why aren’t we celebrating?” we have to talk. This Saturday it was “Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream and that’s why I can go to school with Hannah.” We’d touched on racism before. My son loves football movies and he struggled through the racially charged plots of “Remember the Titans” and “The Express”. I wanted to know, to hear from me what it meant to be black, what it had meant to be black, but as I learned many times before - you learn very quickly whether or not you truly understand something once you try to explain it to a 7 year old. I realized that I wasn’t sure what I really wanted them to know. I did my research.  Here’s where my search led me. 

A now what I really want to say:

In Matthew 5:38 Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” 

Several sources I read note that the “turn the other cheek” is one of the most cited and misunderstood of Jesus’s teachings. This is where I found my answer to what I wanted them to know about Martin Luther King Jr. This is where I learned what Martin Luther King Jr. really did. 

First, some physics. The text is very specific.  It says “if I slap you on the right cheek.”  For me to hit you on the right side of your face I would have to use my left fist or the back of my right hand.  (Try it you’ll see). In that culture, the left hand was reserved for unseemly purposes like wiping ones self - so if you were struck on the right side of your face you were most likely backhanded which, in addition to assault, was a sign of disrespect and inferiority. It was literally adding insult to injury.  

So here Jesus describes the third way of approaching the dilemma. He doesn’t advocate fighting back, he also doesn’t advocate silently acquiescing to either insult or injury. Offering the aggressor your left cheek eliminates the possibility of being backhanded with the right hand.  (Again try it out with a partner).  The aggressor is faced with a dilemma. He can conceded the battle, without you lifting a finger or he must effectively change his posture toward you. For the antagonization to continue he must strike you with his right fist. A sign that he is no longer dealing with a subordinate but an equal.  

This was the wisdom of Jesus’s comment.  Not to subject yourself to senseless beating like some rope-a-dope boxer trying to get his opponent to waste all his energy beating you into oblivion.  Jesus was saying that the physical fight becomes a meaningless squabble. Victory occurs in the middle of the struggle when your adversary, in order to continue persecuting you, decides to engage you as an equal.  The outcome of the resulting fight (which notice Jesus does NOT expressly forbid) is immaterial. Of course this plays out as Jesus willingly accepts punishment for crimes he did not commit and where he clearly had the power to repel any one or thing that would seek to harm him, because, in persecuting him they changed their posture towards a mankind that rejected, denied and persecuted him even as he forgave them.

So back to Dr. King. What did I want my children to learn?

It was in understanding this scripture that the true genius of Ghandi and Dr. King’s non-violent strategy is revealed. We think of their accomplishments as battles fought and won but that wasn’t it at all.  Their true accomplishment was to force an oppressor to change their posture and engage them as an equal.  What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?   

"Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended the terrorization of black Americans, particularly those living in the south."

What?  No. I did not stutter, or mistype.  I mean that Dr. King taught systematic anti-terrorism.  Here’s what I taught my children in part II. 

My BigIdeasFest talk from half-moon bay outside San Francisco on December the 3rd.  I’d just finished my last StartupWeekend Education event after midnight, hopped on 5AM west coast flight got off and gave this talk at noon pacific.  I was so proud of how far StartupWeekend Education had come and where I thought it could go.  I should have practiced the talk more, I ran out of time and didn’t really get to nail my points at the end, but the talk was extremely well received.  (Big shout out to Nancy at empoweredpresentations for being an awesome designer that really had a vision and ran with the concept!)  Ya’ll know the rest of the story, flew home, got off plane, got fired, the crying is done but I’m so happy that the BigIdeasFest team finally published this.  This was an amazing conference and I look forward to attending next year, talking about (and doing) more big things!

  • This is a radio show piece that was produced by Michael Klein.  Winner of SWEDu Seattle and Humanities teacher at High Tech Middle School in San Diego California.  He shadowed me as a put on what would be my last Startup Weekend Education in Baltimore in December of 2012.  As I write about what made Startup Weekend Education special and where hacking education needs to go to continue to be effective - his documentary work is a great foundation to draw from and I’m incredibly grateful that he did this, that he’s shared it with me, and to know him as a friend and fellow laborer trying to bring innovation to education.  

  • Song: StartupWeekend Education - the immersion experience
  • Artist: Michael Klein
  • Album:
  • Plays: 19

Yes, this is how [prominent airline of the southwestern united states] returned my father-in-laws luggage from Orlando.  But again, your user experience sucked!  We waited for nearly two hours in the baggage claim searching again and again for the last piece of luggage.  We finally went to the claim area where we looked through the other pieces of unclaimed luggage to no avail.  Only after trying all those avenues did the attendant mention that we might look at the damaged area where she brought us to the remnants of my father-in-law’s luggage in a plastic bag.  Gee - his name was still on the #$#% bag.  You think maybe you could page him or come look for him since he might want to find his bag!  Then you offer him $100, like that’s going to begin to cover the samsonite luggage itself let alone the entire contents from a week long trip that were mangled by some grain combine or whatever you use to move luggage back there!  Then you get the, “well if you don’t accept the offer then I’ll have to refer you to corporate and you may not get a better one from them”.  Dad spent another 2 hours in the airport - but we had to leave to take the kids home as they were spent and had school the next day.  Thanks for a “magical” user experience Southwest!

The preacher said life is like monopoly.  It’s a roll of the dice.  You might end up with all the houses and the hotels, you might not.  But what’s certain is that, when the game is over – all the money, the houses, the hotels, the property goes back in the box.  The only thing that lasts is how you made people feel while you were playing the game.

Did you cheat?  Did you gloat?  Were you ruthless in negotiation?  Did you make alliances against others?  How did you feel when you got shut out and couldn’t get ahead?  Did you deal fairly with others and not use your power to obtain more power.  In the end were you happy for those that had much or bitter and disappointed about what you’d obtained?  I want to talk about User Experience - but not in the front end/back end way but in the monopoly sense that it’s not about “winning” - life IS the user experience. 

Fail #1:  Being let down by a friend: 

You’re a prominent airline in the southwest-ern united states.  You’re famous for your liberal policy of allowing anyone to take any seat but admittedly do manipulate the process of assigning the order in which seats are chosen - letting those that pay more and those that fly more choose their seats first and keeping the rest of the process nebulous.

 A person who flies frequently chooses your airline because they have a large number of frequent flier miles.  But this flight is different.  He’s flying with his family, whom he purchases tickets for using his frequent flier miles.   Per your policy he is entitled to be one of the first to choose his seat.

 Failure is allowing this person to board early but assigning his family of 4 to the very bottom priority so that they board last.  It’s important to families that they fly together. It’s critically important to those with small children that they be together to assist small children with the challenges of staying quiet, occupied, not being scared and adjusting to dreaded air-pressure changes.  Failure is forcibly disallowing the adult to board with his children, or even one child, because your airline has arbitrarily assigned that child to be a “c” and your boarding personnel are there to enforce that there are no cuts, no buts, and certainly no coconuts - but in a much more dickish manner.

Failure is forcing the adult to wait until “family boarding” so that they may board as a family – one adult with one child.  Making it more difficult to hold a seat for grandma who came for the express purpose of helping out with difficult transitions with multiple children like - oh say - boarding the plane!

 Good UX is:

- Hello Mr Smith – we see that you are traveling with your family to Orlando!  We know that is a special time for young children and we at [insert prominent airline of the southwest-ern United States] are proud to be the first and last legs of what we hope will be a magical journey!  We see that you’ve purchased four-tickets using your rapid-ly raising rewards points and that you’ve two children age 4 and 6.  We know how challenging it is for mommies and daddies sometimes and we’re committed to making even our littlest guest lifelong lovers of flying and flying with [prominent southwestern airline]. 

While all families are permitted to board following our A section – as a valued customer we’ve assigned each of your children an A-status for purposes of boarding.  So that you may all board together.  Our flight attendants will also assist you in reserving space so that your entire party can sit together for the flight.

We’ve gone ahead and assigned you a priority boarding pass for you and the two minors that are accompanying you.  Please have a magical journey!

That would have been much better than the crabby flight attendant and the - oh yeah - my bags flew free when they come back like this!



Testing out some new imagery for some ideas the wife and I are working on.  You can make your own tombstone here.

From September of 2011 to December of 2012 I ran a startup called StartupWeekend Education.  I didn’t found it, but I was hired to give it life and figure our what it could be.  Over that time, I pushed my self, this new brand and a parent organization to embrace a purpose of creating a process and place for educators to be introduced and invited into the world of entrepreneurship and innovation.  To learn to contribute, to lead and to succeed in bringing their ideas and vision to life with their principles still in tact so that they can move education forward.  This film captures the journey of two such educators that started their journey in one of my 54-hour events.  I poured my soul into starting that organization but nothing more so than this film.  I’m sad for where the organization is headed (I was fired without cause in Dec 2012) but I’m incredibly proud of this film and the change I catalyzed in people’s lives.

For a year a poured all of me into making a film.  Only a few will ever know the real story of running a global experiential education startup, running my own education startup and making a film all at the same time.  The pressure that it puts on your life, your wife, your children and extend family and your support network is indescribable.  I am so incredibly grateful to my wife, my pastor, our parents, Ms Marjorie Greene, my neighbor Joe Demattos and others who gave me so much support without which none of this would be possible!  

Standing on the other side, I am incredibly proud of what my efforts created.  The sacrifice was significant which is what makes moments like this so painful.  I had an incredibly committed startup team in the production crew 1880 and we came together to make magic happen.  I will forever be bonded with Vinny and Darius - these two are my friends and brothers.  Howie also deserves special mention.  As principal photographer, director of photography and chief editor it is through his eyes and ears that we see what the rest of us talk about.  He says very little in real life, but the film is him talking.  

I had such high hopes for this time.  I dreamed of debuting the film at SXSW, talking about it as a proof of concept and sharing with the world the problem that StartupWeekend Education is/was attempting to solve and what we’ve done thus far.  My vision was that the film would be not an end in itself but a declaration of a start.  It feels strange to create something and then be unceremoniously placed on the outside looking in at your creation.  I stare at my dream, even as its prepared to be unveiled to the world and I don’t recognize it. 

The StartupWeekendEducation film was in many ways a promise.  To stand by the educator and create a space for them to learn to lead in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship, to help them bring their ideas to fruition without them losing their souls or founder’s intent.  Isn’t it ironic that here I sit watching that dream about to be launched, devoid of soul or founders intent.  

Last night my Netflix recommended to me a Japanese doc called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi" - about an 85 year-old master Sushi chef named Sukiyabashi Jiro and his restaurant. (Shout out to KAM from the windows Windows8 team for my free surface! Review coming soon). What caught my eye in the film description was that Jiro operates a restaurant with only 10-seats but where prices begin at $300 per person.  Really its more like a bar with 10 stools the entire footprint not much larger than mid-sized US families kitchen.  His is the smallest restaurant to be awarded the coveted 3-star Michellin rating, a truly elite honor.  The film is simple and riveting.  Thinking about my own education by osmosis here’s what I learned.

1) Bigger is not better, better is better - Jiro’s changed nothing after being awarded a 3-star rating. The film never discusses this choice directly (another testament to the cultural differences between American capitalism and Japanese perfection-ism) but the themes of the film provide Jiro’s answers to the audiences unvoiced questions.  He is not fixed on expansion.  There are no Jiro franchises, no line of frozen sushi products or chef knives, no instructional videos or even a chef school. He does not advertise.  While he could do several of these things amazingly well, he revels in the simple incremental improvement of his calling - to make the perfect sushi experience.  More money does not bring more happiness - he works at 85 not just because he knows nothing else (although this is a bit of a sad strain that runs through the film as well) but because the rosier side of perfectionism is that he is happiest when simply making sushi.  Over the years improving his restaurant has entailed such innovations as getting rid of drinks and appetizers, they serve only sushi.  The essence of focus. 

2) Personally tend your garden - No Jiro does not grow his own vegtables.  But he is a master teacher.  Jiro’s restaurant has a staff of five - his eldest son, three apprentices, one experienced and two greener, and himself.  Jiro said that it took 10 years for someone to properly learn the trade and be called a master chef (it has a cool Japanese name I can’t recall).  The elder apprentice recalled how he almost cried when Jiro casually used the word referring to him on day.  The organization is remarkably flat.  While it is true that the chefs spend 10 years in training, I think its important to note that their training is personally overseen by a master and they are constantly learning.  Many apprentices don’t make it through the grueling, repetitive environment where criticism is constant and praise few and far between but oh-so-meaningful.  In this environment doing a task such as cooking eggs is an honor that takes years to be allowed to try and years more to entrusted with the honor of serving your food to a customer.  Inherent in this is an organization where everyone can and often do perform all of the roles.  Each role is painstakingly transitioned only after demonstrating mastery in private many many times. 

 3) Quality is by definition scarce - Another theme of the film, beyond the obvious rejection of expansionism is scarcity.  One of Jiro’s struggles is the daily competition to find fish worthy of becoming his sushi.  His 85-years give him a unique perch from which to comment on the effects of overfishing and commercialization.  As fish readily available in his younger years have disappeared he’s taken it as a challenge to find new substitutes but he laments that there is no substitute for the tuna that is the staple of sushi and that dwindles every year under the pressure of overfishing.  It seems that one reason Jiro is not bent on growth is that he is limited by his own standards.    An uncompromising commitment to quality and customer service is what builds brands and businesses into legends.  Growth and commercialism are not just undesirable but antithetical to his beliefs. Only one tuna can be the best and if he is to serve only the best, how can he serve lots of it?

4) In order to cook great food you have to eat great food - One thing you immediately notice is that the chefs in the film are constantly eating.  Jiro and his eldest son are constantly carefully tasting the products of the other chefs and returning the smallest criticisms - to slice the fish more thinly or handle it a bit more gently. But much of the dialogue in the film takes place in the small back kitchen where the staff of 5 communally eats the same elaborate sushi preparations they serve customers.  Here is where Jiro delivered the most crucial line of the film in my opinion.  He said “In order to cook great food you have to eat great food”.  His staff regularly and judiciously ate the same $300/plate preparations that his customers did.  The same food that Jiro painstakingly struggles to find enough of every morning.  The same food that could be used to add another dinner shift, or expand to another restaurant.  The same food the staff has been admonished over as they elaborately prepare by massaging an octupus for 45 minutes or marinating fish for 5-6 days. The five of them at two meals per day consume at least one entire dinner shift or $3,000 US retail value, per day!   He allows his staff open access to eat this food.  Allows is probably the wrong word as Jiro does nothing by happenstance.  Eating is actually part of their training.  Jiro explains that in order for you to delight your customers you must have a more refined palette than they do.  How will you learn what great food is, what it should taste like, or smell like but by eating great food regularly - by literally, eating your own cooking; but not just your own, but your best - so that you know what your best tastes like and then that becomes your new standard for yourself and for your customers.  How many organizations make this kind of investment in their people or share this philosophy of quality over quantity, or can relentlessly pursue perfection for a lifetime but still find joy in the process, to the point where the saddest thing is that there will never be a fourth star for him to attain but for the one he gives himself and his apprentices with a offhand word, after 20 years of intense study.    

So What?

Jiro has created a place where learning is the work for everyone, everyday.  He models the behaviors he expects with his own tremendous work ethic and self discipline.  He invests his time in personally training in a flat organization and reserves his best for his staff that they will be intimately familiar with excellence and be able to produce it for their customers with regularity.  There are stars and standards and critics who consider it their jobs to measure their success but Jiro’s internal standards far exceed anything that can be applied on them from the outside.  Money too is not a metric of success.  They have as much as they need and striving for more will actually detract from quality.  I’m sure many investors have come with ideas, or lamented on his foolishness for not cashing in on the commercial popularity of sushi over his 85 years. Equally, I’m sure there is a story however of how they priced their way to $300/plate - I’m sure this was a conscious choice vs. expansion and still came only after years of focusing on perfection.

I hope one day to create a place where learning is the work for everyone, everyday.  Where the commitment to development is seen in how the organization is shaped, how it spends its time and how it spends its resources.  I want an organization where everyone has enough money such that money is not the concern or chief driver of individual or organizational decision.  I look forward to being in an organization that embraces a qualitative goal and strives for perfection and the highest honor is not a grade or a star but a nod and a wink and acknowledgment of a job well done.