True grit: those inspirational Janets!

Janet YellenIt’s hard to know if I’d be as fascinated by Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, if I didn’t work for a bank. Obviously she’s an important leader in my current industry, so I pay attention when she speaks about monetary and economic issues or is in the news.

But I just as well might pay attention otherwise. Maybe it’s her accent, her charming manner, and her owlish, unpretentious wisdom. Or it could be the name – Janet – she shares with another official who fascinated me.

When Janet Reno headed the Justice Department under President Clinton, there was something so refreshingly different about her. A tough woman in a field dominated dominated by men – that’s certainly part of it. I also liked how she didn’t take herself too seriously (Hello, Janet Reno Dance Party on “SNL”!) and didn’t try to fit anybody else’s mold of what a powerful leader should be.

Janet RenoThe Janet thing is coincidence, but the similar appeal is striking.

Ms. Yellen scored more points in my book recently with her commencement speech at NYU. I discovered it reading one of my favorite annual features – the New York Times roundup of graduation speeches – and found it online. It’s short but worth a look.

I especially like the idea of “grit” as an important element of success:

“There is an unfortunate myth that success is mainly determined by something called ‘ability.’ But research indicates that our best measures of these qualities are unreliable predictors of performance in academics or employment. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth says that what really matters is a quality she calls ‘grit’ — an abiding commitment to work hard toward long-range goals and to persevere through the setbacks that come along the way.”

Embrace your grit. Another reason to like Janet Yellen!

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Tuning in for cringe-worthy job moments

Niecy Nash on 'Getting On'I know I’m not alone in this: I love TV shows that deal with workplace and career issues.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The West Wing top my long list, which of course also includes The Office. But recently I’ve become fascinated with two HBO gems, Getting On and Enlightened, partly because they dare to portray stuff most of us would never dare do at work.

Getting On debuted last year, and I’m glad that it’s been renewed for another season. Rather than try to explain why I like it so much, just watch this scene. It’s a perfect example:


In addition to being a surprising mix of inappropriate humor and shocking moments, there’s also genuine feeling and recognizable struggles. I also love it because it gives two wonderful comic actresses – Alex Borstein (brilliant so long ago on Mad TV) and Niecy Nash (great on Reno 911) – some great opportunities to display their talents.

And then there’s Enlightened. I’m REALLY bummed that this series was cancelled after its second season. I love it for many of the same reasons. Here’s the season 1 trailer:

Brilliant writing and so many cringe-worthy moments. What more could you want from a TV show that focuses on a coworker you would never want, yet you can’t help sometimes rooting for her? This show may offer fewer belly laughs, but it does make you think. What does it mean to be an “agent of change” at work? How engaged are you as an employee in the big-picture mission of your employer?

Great work from Laura Dern, Mike White, and Diane Ladd (nothing like her turn as Flo on Alice!). #BringEnlightenedBack

Even though I already watch too much TV, I would welcome more shows with this level of quality.

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New inspiration to study abroad, or at least improve my French

Sacre Coeur at sunset.

Sacre Coeur at sunset.

During my Sunday morning with the New York Times, a headline caught my attention because it included the “Go West” slogan of my employer, Bank of the West.

The piece, “Go West, Young People! And East!” is a fine commentary from Nicholas Kristof suggesting that all young Americans should be required to study abroad for one year. Such a requirement, he believes, would prepare people better to succeed in the global economy and broaden their perspectives, among other benefits.

He also cites a sad-but-true joke that basically goes, “What do you call a person who doesn’t know a foreign language? An American.”

While I didn’t study abroad, I wish I had. I was fortunate to have taken several years of French in high school and college, and I’ve traveled abroad many times as an adult. But I have felt the truthful reality of that joke, as so many Europeans have dazzled me by switching languages to help or, in many cases, serve me when I’m unable to communicate beyond simple phrases in their languages. It’s been very humbling.

But I did make small strides just a few weeks ago on a short trip to Paris with a few friends. I brought my little language book and dictionary, and I brushed up on my skills for a few weeks before in my spare time.

During my visit, I had several opportunities to challenge myself to speak French with vendors, restaurant staff, and ticket takers. Even those small interactions, however clumsy, remain incredibly satisfying to me weeks later. Small accomplishments, but just think how much bigger they could have been if I had studied abroad for a semester or a year!

This has inspired me to try and encourage the same for all my nieces and nephews. I’m calling it Operation Go West.

My second goal is to continue working to improve my French. In the meantime, here is my Flickr album with the photos from France.



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Books I read in 2013

4 books I read this yearI had a pretty good year for reading in 2013, but I didn’t quite achieve my goal of reading 24 books. Two short at 22, and I blame my nearly nonexistent commute.

Since I started my job at Bank of the West in October, I can’t get any reading done during my 10-minute walk to the office. Not a bad problem to have, I know, so I will have to be crafty to reach the goal of 24 in 2014!

My reading list and reviews (and ratings from 1 to 10) from last year…

Books I Read in 2013

Top 5 for the year:

  1. Room, by Emma Donoghue
  2. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
  3. Benediction, by Kent Haruf
  4. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
  5. Jesus Land, by Julie Scheere

The complete list, in chronological order…

1. The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham

This classic novel is a bit hard to characterize. On one level it’s a stylish tale of society folks, particularly the dandy Elliott Templeton who flits between America and Europe. But there’s also a failed, central love story in which the man renounces society’s trappings and the woman settles for a lesser love who is rich. I liked it, but overall it felt a bit disjointed and left me a touch dissatisfied. (8)

2. Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

This was a Book Club pick by Sue Stevens, and she chose well. This novel covers similar post-apocalyptic territory as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but it isn’t as bleak. Nonetheless the barbarism that emerges in the small pockets of humanity who endure after a flu pandemic jolted me at times. But the humanity and thoughts of the lonely pilot who narrates the book really gripped me at times. I’m impressed by the daring, imaginative scope – both intimate and ultimate. (8.5)

3. Snow, by Orhan Pamuk

I thought this novel by a Novel Prize winner from Turkey would be good right before my trip to Istanbul. I was disappointed. While there are some good dramatic moments that have profound personal and political impacts on the main characters, the story gets mired in discussions about religious beliefs and much to-do about women wearing head scarves. (6)

4. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni

Another one of his business-lessons-as-a-fable creations. I read this because all the directors at work have read it, and the insights and principles seem to have real wisdom. But the “story” has some corny, superficial flaws that annoyed me (the guy is NOT a fiction writer). Overall, though, it is a palatable read and a clever way to drive home some good business lessons – let’s hope it does some good in my company! (6)

5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

I avoided this book for years because I was put off by the hubris of the title. But I have to admit this is a daring accomplishment that succeeds most of the time. There are still moments of reaching to be “meta” and dazzling that they took away from genuine writing that induces tears or belly laughs (sometimes both in the same scene). This rare memoir takes place, in part, in the Bay Area, adding to my interest. (8.5)

6. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

This highly praised novel by the author of the awesome short story “The Lottery” has similar insidious dangers under the surface that made it enjoyable to read. But at the end I sort of feel like I missed something and need to read it again to really understand what is going on. I don’t like that feeling. (7.5)

7. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

What a remarkable expose on the secret, repressive society of North Korea and how it has molded lives and families of six defectors. The stories of what these people endured are harrowing, while the facts of life within the regime shocked me. So much of what has happened in the last 3 decades in North Korea and to these regular people seems unbelievable. Astonishing. (9)

8. Lazarus Is Dead, by Richard Beard

This unique meta-novel partly imagines what Lazarus’s resurrection might have been like and partly explores the influence of this biblical miracle in history, religion, and art. This book is hard to categorize or criticize, since there are abundant nuggets of insight, research, and creativity that fascinated me. But sometimes the combination felt a little forced and fell flat. Nonetheless I applaud the uniqueness; it kept me interested. And now I will always look for the clean-shaven witness in historical paintings of Jesus’ crucifixion! (7)

9. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

This classic novel was published 50 years ago, the same year the author killed herself. What surprised me most was how funny parts of the novel are – the narrator is very clever, even as she’s struggling with mental illness. I had read that this novel is sort of like a female companion to J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” and I agree. This is a remarkable, unique (and autobiographical) work of fiction. (8)

10. Little Children, by Tom Perrotta

I read this for the Yale reunion book club (Perrotta is an alum). The novel is well-written, but the experience was a little diminished by having seen the movie version (with different, better ending) a few years earlier. Nonetheless is was still amusing and insightful about relationships and getting older. (8.5)

11. Room, by Emma Donoghue

I was annoyed by the 5-year-old narrator’s voice, especially in the first quarter of this otherwise unique and gripping novel. The story offers a unique angle on a horrific offense that occasionally becomes a news sensation: the monstrous man who kidnaps a young woman and repeatedly abuses her while keeping her locked away for years. Room is quite often chilling, suspenseful, and surprisingly touching. (9)

12. Courtship / Valentine’s Day / 1918, by Horton Foote

I’ve been wanting to read work by this major American playwright, particularly the 9-play Orphans’ Home Cycle. It turns out this volume represents plays 5-7. These were pleasant, with a few moments of tension that could have been heightened more, for my taste. Interesting, but maybe they are still building toward some really dramatic conclusion in play 8 & 9. (7)

13. Benediction, by Kent Haruf

Another fine, quiet novel by the author of Plainsong. The story centers on the last month or so of an old man’s full life, and his wife tends to him through hospice care and appreciating his final days. The plain style of writing (no quotation marks) actually makes the story seem both ordinary and breathtakingly immediate. Many of the supporting characters make vivid contributions, but the “appearance” of his estranged son near the end felt forced and false. A minor blemish, really. (9)

14. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

Hailed as a masterpiece by many critics whose opinions I admire, this novel held no appeal for me. The extreme violence is so matter-of-fact, and I don’t remember any of the men (all the named characters are male) having an emotion. Sure, they winced in pain when struck by an arrow or got mad when a bartender didn’t show respect. But no remorse or revulsion over all the killing and scalping during constant journeys through harsh Western terrain. Top 100 novels of the 20th century?! Not in my book. (3)

15. Cousins / The Death of Papa, by Horton Foote

These two plays make up the final part of The Orphans’ Home Cycle, and the final play is definitely the better of the two. I recently read a remark from Robert Duvall that Horton Foote is the “rural Chekhov” and it does ring true. (7)

16. America America, by Ethan Canin

This may be my favorite novel from this author so far; it’s an epic tale that touches on so many interesting topics, like industrial history, journalism, politics, betrayal and coverups, and lasting family conflicts. The main character, Corey Sifter, starts as an idealistic boy working for the town’s richest family and matures in the midst of political scandal and costly mistakes. I especially liked the scenes between the older, more mature Corey and his father. (8.5)

17. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Enjoyable and engrossing, this impressive debut novel manages to make both baseball and Moby Dick seem more interesting. The characters are fascinating, and several of the plot twists made me want to keep reading. The only false note for me was the literal post-mortem stunt near the end. (8.5)

18. Black Count, by Tom Reiss

This was a selection for our book club. All the marketing for this nonfiction book promises the “real story” behind Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” But it’s really a history and biography of Dumas’ father, a general who served under Napoleon and was imprisoned toward the end of his life. The account of his time in lockup is the only real “Monte Cristo” tie-in, and it happens in the last 40 pages or so. The rest of this long book has much of what I don’t like about history books: Too many dates and names (and wars), and too little story. I was bored. (4)

19. After This, by Alice McDermott

This novel has so many wonderfully realized moments as a working woman and man in the late 1940s meet in New York and start a family. But the focus gets diffused in the second half as the kids get older and their lives take attention away from the older folks. This diffusion was distracting overall – who were the real main characters? — and weakened what could have been a much more affecting novel. (7)

20. Drowning Ruth, by Christina Schwarz

A psychological “thriller” that has some good moments of suspense. The drowning is the central happening, but it doesn’t really happen to Ruth. She and her aunt are two narrators, but there’s also an omniscient narrator, and I don’t think all three were really necessary. (7)

21. Jesus Land, by Julia Scheere

This memoir of growing up in a strict evangelical Christian household in Indiana – and then being shipped to an even stricter Christian school – is more like a gripping, psychological horror story. The writing is decent, but it’s the story itself that sticks with you! (8.5)

22. The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

This was recommended reading for employees at Bank of the West, where I now work. It’s a fascinating revelation of a few oddball guys who happened to foresee the problem with subprime mortgages and their securitization into arcane investment products that started the Great Recession. They bet against this machine driving the housing bubble on Wall Street, and they were the few “winners” in the financial crisis that began in 2007. The book is best when focused on the personalities, not the really abstruse financial dealings. (7)

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Big predictions for jobs and economy in 2014

Today at work I got to be part of a pretty cool event: A forecast presentation on the 2014 economy from Bank of the West’s chief economist, Scott Anderson.

His outlook detailed several bits of good news – especially employment and job creation — that should enhance everyone’s New Year outlook!

Some of the graphics below, taken from our stream of live tweets during the event, give some of the highlights:


Yes, it's missing open quotatiion, but that's live-tweeting for you!

You’ll find more good stuff in the full 2014 U.S. Outlook report or the press release about Scott Anderson’s 2014 economic forecast.


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Yes, that’s a Nobel-winning economist in my living room

A Yale economist who just won a Nobel Prize has been teaching me about capital markets, diversification, and finance innovations every weekend.

Yale professor and economist Robert Schiller

Yale professor and economist Robert Schiller

All I do is sit on my couch and take notes, as the noted professor Robert Schiller lectures from the laptop perched on my coffee table. Actually, he’s speaking in a lovely wood-paneled lecture hall at Yale to a crowd of students two years ago. His lectures were filmed and are available free online at Open Yale Courses.

I first learned about the courses during my class reunion in May and thought, “This is pretty cool. I really should take advantage of it!”

Then I started my job at Bank of the West last month, where I’m working on a new blog and social media content. Banking and finance aren’t topics I know a ton about, so Schiller’s popular class “Financial Markets” is doing the trick. (And I didn’t take his course while I was in college, so I’m making up for a missed opportunity.)

So far I’ve learned some fascinating things about insurance, managing risk, leverage, and limited liability corporations. And now I know what a gimlet is! (Totally random but interesting. Hint: It’s not the cocktail.)

The whole experience has been fun and convenient. I would recommend others try these free online classes, also known as “moocs” (Massive Online Open Courses). This innovation is going to change college as we know it.

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Big treat for my last day on the job

Golden Gate Bridge

Admiring the Golden Gate Bridge as race begins.

Today was my last day at, which is located in San Francisco’s lovely Presidio park, which happened to be a PERFECT spot today to watch the final winner-take-all race of the America’s Cup.

I got to watch Oracle Team USA beat New Zealand while taking a break from packing up my pens and folders. It was pretty exciting!

This lucky treat highlights everything that was great about working in the Presidio that I will miss. But I won’t miss the isolation.

I’ve often said that a litmus test for me of a good work location is whether you can buy a birthday card on your lunch hour. That won’t be a problem in my new job at Bank of the West (Managing Editor/Social Media), located in San Francisco’s Financial District.

My new commute will be a 10-minute walk!

Here’s more action from today’s big race:

Oracle boat out front on the Bay

Oracle Team USA in the lead, approaching the turn.

Two boats passing each other on the Bay

Team USA about to pass Team New Zealand after the turn.

Oracle boat zoom past Alcatraz

Oracle Team USA zooms back, past Alcatraz.

People watch Oracle Team USA cross the finish line on a big screen.

On a big screen in the nearby viewing room, Oracle Team USA crosses the finish line over an image of the American flag on the surface of the water. Cheers erupted.


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Holiday hiring: A little gender equality for Thanksgiving?

I saw this tweet today from my friend Kim Severson at the New York Times and had to post it here:

(Full disclosure: I also wanted to try embedding a tweet.)

Apparently 1 in 4 callers to the Butterball hotline are now men, so the company is seeking men to help fill operator and spokesperson slots this Thanksgiving, according to the Associated Press. An online application is available until Oct. 20.

Sounds like a good gig for anyone who wants to help people make great holiday meals.

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Content marketing: Great career opportunity for journalists

I’ve had a great weekend in Boston attending the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) conference, where I gave a presentation on content marketing.

Actually, I co-presented with Susan Johnston, and we talked about how the relatively recent fields of branded journalism and content marketing are providing very fertile ground for journalists to grow their careers.

The feedback we got from the session was very positive, and I’m hopeful that this presentation will be useful to others. (See below.)

Special thanks to my employer,, for its support in this project!

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The real age of minimum-wage workers

Many people think of teens or student workers when they think about people who work in minimum-wage jobs.

But this chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, used in a very interesting Atlantic article, paints a very different picture. Roughly HALF of the folks in those jobs are 25 or older!

graph of minimum-wage workers by age.

Minimum-wage jobs are for grandparents, too.

This is a data point worth saving.


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