Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Myth of Change

For the myth is the foundation of life. Thomas Mann

Today, as anyone from Pittsburgh can (and will) tell you, marks the 40 year anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

You don't have to be from Pittsburgh or even like American football to appreciate the event that marked the transformation of a losing organization into a winner. Prior to the event, the Pittsburgh Steelers had made the playoffs one time in forty years. After the event, they made the playoffs 26 times and won a remarkable 6 league championships.

The Immaculate Reception was just a football play, except that it occurred in the last seconds of a game, in the Steelers first playoff in 35 years, in a game dominated by defense, in a score or lose situation...and, most importantly, to this date, no one knows for certain if the play was successful.

If you're a football aficionado, then you already know the details. If you're not, then all you need to know is that the play involved a bizarre ball bounce, an incredibly difficult catch and an equally improbable run that all may or may not have actually occurred.

But the details of the play are unimportant to this article. What is important is that this play was so highly controversial that it was (and still is) constantly being discussed, that patrons of a Pittsburgh bar coined the term Immaculate Reception in direct and obvious reference to the birth of Jesus and that the play became a great myth.

That myth became the basis of a cultural change of the organization and defined it for decades to come.

Yes, there were many things that went into transforming the organization from perennial losers into dominant winners. But the power of the myth to motivate, define and set expectations should not be dismissed.

Create a myth and it could BE different.

PS - if you're a fan of that team that lost forty years ago, yes, the myth defined your team too. But that's about all the acknowledgment you're going to get from this Pittsburgh kid.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Time is Now

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. Georg Lichtenberg

For our children and theirs, it could BE different.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I'd love to change the world; But I don't know what to do; So I'll leave it up to you. Alvin Lee

At 18 I wanted to change the world. Heck, at 48 I still do. Only today, my idea of change is having you think and act differently after reading this article. As a kid, it was world peace, ending poverty, eliminating disease and the like.

It's been too long now to remember if I didn't take action at 18 because I didn't know what to do, or if doing it was just too much effort. It was probably both.

Yet, at almost the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean from me, another 18 year old decided he knew what to do. And then did it. 

Mathias Rust decided that the US-Soviet Union peace talks were not progressing and a sign of support and trust was needed. He would create that sign by flying his rented Cessna aircraft from Helsinki to Moscow. The fact that he was an inexperienced pilot and that the Soviets had impregnable air defenses was to be ignored. It was a mission that had to be flown.

As it turns out, Mathias was pretty lucky. A series of embarrassing miscues by the Soviet Military resulted in his plane being tagged as friendly. These miscues ranged from breakdowns in command and control structure to confusion caused by a concurrent search and rescue mission from a crashed plane earlier in the day.

While the long story is worth the read, the short story is that Mathias landed his plane in Red Square (for my younger readers - think the equivalent of landing the plane on the White House lawn) and was greeted by many astonished people. The Moscow populace soon referred to Red Square as Sheremetyevo-3 - the third runway of the two runway Moscow International Airport.

The Soviet embarrassment continued as it took a rather long time before someone realized what had happened and the state police arrested Mathias. He would eventually be sentenced to four years of prison.

Mathias was successful at creating change but probably not the change he had envisioned. The reform minded Soviet leader, Gorbachev, at the time was embroiled in a life and death battle with a recalcitrant Soviet military establishment. The global embarrassment of letting a kid fly through their air defenses made it easier for Gorbachev to dispose of hundreds of his military rivals.

After serving his jail time, Mathias returned to to his German homeland and soon found himself in jail again. This time for attempted murder. Later in life he was convicted of theft and then later of fraud.

So, while not exactly a role model, there is something a bit heroic about Mathias Rust. He didn't just want change, he knew that with the right actions, it could BE different.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Take Five

I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to. Elvis

Dave Brubeck. I love his music, but don't have the intellectual training to define or describe it. What I do have is knowledge that he changed the world's perception of jazz from a fringe art form into a commercial product.

Brubeck isn't recognized as an inventor in jazz. He didn't commit his life to experimenting and looking for the new forms. He borrowed from the artists who did. Their work was not gaining popular appeal (and for many of them, it was exactly the avoidance of popular appeal they sought).

But Brubeck knew how to transform it.

"He had a sense of being able to take a very almost popular listenable melody and bring it into jazz. And that was maybe the most remarkable of all and the ones people haven't really given him much credit for. But in fact you could sort of hum or sing a Dave Brubeck melody in the way that you wouldn't have been able to hum something from Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. And I think this contributed to his great success - the fact that he could bring all this modernism into the music but never lose the thread of the melody." Ted Gioia

Perhaps Brubeck contributed to the experiment of jazz, but without a doubt, he knew that it could BE different if he brought jazz to the people rather than people to jazz.