Posts in Thought Tools

Tent on the Beach

February 26th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 10 comments

Lately I’ve been listening to the rhetoric of ambitious politicians both in the United States and Europe.  They tend to speak of business in very negative terms usually with adjectives like greedy, selfish, and unfair.  They blame corporations for everything from inequality to poverty and from depression to crime.  They preach that the institution of business is inherently flawed.

Business, like politics, education and the press is run by people who sometimes do illegal and immoral things. But an additional complaint against businesses is the notion of competitiveness. Implementing new ideas in itself is evil, they claim, as it results in the closing of less creative enterprises.

It is true that business does depend upon constant innovation as things change.  The man making, selling or repairing fax machines in the 1980s had to adapt to email and cell technology at the turn of the century.

Former finance minister of Austria and mid-20th century Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter said that business depends upon creative destruction.  Humans’ constant march forward to ever-newer ways of doing things is not a lamentable side effect of commerce but is an essential element of wealth creation. 

Prior to his death, Moses addressed each of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. 

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Friends Forever?

February 18th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 13 comments

Go ahead; list the ten most important relationships in your life.  Some will be family and others will be business and work relationships.  There will probably be a few friends on the list too.  Family relationships are fairly well defined.  The obligations and expectations of those relationships are, for the most part, known quantities. Business relationships are also clear, governed as most are by contracts.  But what about friends?  What are the obligations of friendship? What are reasonable expectations of friendship?

While the Five Books of Moses are packed with rules and rituals that shape both family and business relationships, it is notably light on mention of friendships.  We know just what employees owe their employers and vice versa, and we know what parents owe children and what children owe their parents, but if we ask people what they owe their friends, the answer could be, “It depends on the friend.”

Everyone knows the answer to the question, “For how long will your parent be your parent?”  If asked for how long a marriage is intended to last, the correct answer is, ‘This is forever.’  But if one is asked for how long one’s friend will be one’s friend, the prudent answer is, “I don’t know.”  The true answer might be, “For as long as we both want to be friends.”

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More? Sure! Everything? Never!

February 12th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 26 comments

A business professional in Michigan named Ken Lingenfelter owns about 230 cars.  Entertainer Jay Leno has about 170 and Jerry Seinfeld owns about 150.  Each of those avid car collectors has a list of a few more cars that he’d really love to acquire but knows he probably won’t.  Healthy people eventually recognize that nobody gets everything they want. 

Even when we acquire what we want, we usually find ourselves wanting more, putting us back to square one.  God created us with infinite desires. Happiness depends upon knowing that not all ambitions and longings can or should be realized.

This message is so important for humans to absorb that it is presented as a set of bookends to the Torah, appearing both at the beginning and at the end.  It is as if the good Lord is saying, “Look, life has a huge paradox.  I have created you with limitless ambition, countless hopes, and inexhaustible dreams.  I want you to pursue those boundless visions but I don’t want your happiness to depend upon attaining them.” 

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Through the Fog

February 4th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 18 comments

While serving the synagogue it was my privilege to establish in Southern California, my wife and I frequently sailed our forty-four foot cutter to Catalina Island.  On that 26 mile jaunt, we often saw dolphins, whales, and other beguiling sea life.

When fog set in, I’d think of Florence Chadwick, who in 1952 set out to swim from Catalina to the mainland.  When fog obscured her goal, she lost her drive and abandoned her attempt. Despair defeated Florence.

After the fog lifted she was horrified to see that she had quit only half a mile from the beach.  Two months later, with the coastline visible, she tried again and succeeded.

Let’s understand this principle from Moses, who in one Scriptural account responds to Israel’s provocation with steadfast leadership while elsewhere in the Bible he responds to similar provocation with exasperation, hopelessness, and even despair.

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Slaying the Giants

January 28th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 11 comments

“Leave the light on, please” says the child, “I’m scared of the dark.”  One of the most common emotions expressed by little children is fear.  Long before they become comfortable articulating happiness, excitement and sadness, small children speak of feeling frightened.

Though we speak of it less as we grow up, we still feel it.  Just ask the adult who has been invited to give a speech before a large gathering.  People fear approaching strangers, they fear harmless insects and they fear looking over the edge of tall buildings; there are all kinds of phobias.

To be sure, there is a healthy fear that keeps us from doing dumb and dangerous things, but what about the fears we all have for utterly harmless activities?  I don’t know what your particular fears and phobias are but I’m sure you have them.  I know I do.

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Fake News? I’m Shocked

January 22nd, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 10 comments

Hypocritically assuming a false mantle of virtue by pretending horror at discovering someone else’s transgression is so unattractive.  We all recognized the dishonesty when Captain Louis Renault in the movie Casablanca (1942) said, “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

The hysterical shrieks we’ve been hearing these past couple of years about “Fake News” are equally disingenuous.  Until 2016, did we simply accept as reliably true everything we read or saw?  Of course not.  The rule of Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware-has been part of the prudent person’s arsenal forever. 

Sadly out of print is Robert Spero’s wonderful book, The Duping of the American Voter: Dishonesty and Deception in Presidential Television Advertising in which Spero showed how the television ads as far back as the 1960s and used by presidential candidates Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter were “the most deceptive, misleading, unfair, and untruthful of all advertising…” 

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Don’t Build a House; Build a Boat

January 15th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 31 comments

I’ve noticed that when someone in a group casually says, “Oh, I live on my boat down in the harbor” everyone hearing him perks up with interest.  Eager questions quickly follow.  But when someone says, “I live in my car behind the supermarket,” people go quiet and someone changes the subject.

There are, of course, many differences between living in a car and on a boat, but I enjoy this observation by an author, Arthur Ransome, who plays a big role in my family’s reading.  “The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage.  The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.” 

Someone living in his car is, well, living in his car.  (Living in a fully-equipped RV is quite different.) But someone living on a boat is on a journey. At any point he could cast off the mooring lines and head to Haifa, Honolulu, or Hong Kong.

Feeling settled is very seductive but feeling unsettled is more productive.  To their parents’ dismay, God arranged things so that when approaching those teenage years, children start feeling unsettled.  Other than when with their friends undergoing the same stage, young people approaching adulthood often feel they don’t really belong anywhere.  The last time they felt comfortably ‘at-home’ was as children cocooned in the security of parents and family.  The next time they are going to feel ‘at-home’ will be once they’re in their own homes. 

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Get Ready for Mother’s Day

January 8th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 5 comments

Mother’s Day is sacrosanct. It is almost a law of nature. Nobody dare disparage the purchase of those boxes of chocolate and the saccharine-flavored greeting cards that accompany them. Few would discourage dragging mom out to a crowded restaurant for that obligatory Mother’s Day meal. Were I to  question its value as a revered date on our calendar closer to its date in May, I would be excoriated for blasphemy. This week however, my Thought Tool can be welcomed as, oh say, research.

You see, here is what bothers me about it: Most would agree that the Ten Commandments lie at the core of Western civilization. Well, the Fifth Commandment doesn’t instruct us only to honor our fathers and mothers on two special days each year, does it? No, the Commandment is valid for 365 days each year and 366 in leap years.

My wife and I have always suspected that observance of an annual Mother’s Day or Father’s Day actually diminishes observance of the Fifth Commandment. Not wanting to run the risk of that happening, we just declared from our children’s infancy that in our home, every day would be Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

To my relief, our children accepted this, but on growing a little older, they inquired about another verse found early in the 19th chapter of Leviticus.

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Out with the Old?

December 31st, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 19 comments

It is quite exciting to tell ourselves, “This year is a new chance.”

“This year will reveal an improved version of ourselves. Just wait and see how our marriages, families and businesses thrive. It’s an opportunity for a new beginning.”

I’m all for looking ahead and upgrading our game. But let’s not be too quick to bury the past.

Imagine telling our kids, “Guess what!  We’re going to Disneyland in three years’ time!”  Or, “Guess what, Honey!  We’re being transferred to Paris for two years; our flight’s this afternoon.”  Both scenarios are equally ludicrous.  It is also as absurd to fire an under-performing employee and give him twenty-four months’ notice as it is to tell him that he must be out and off the premises within an hour. What time is right?

How long should you spend psyching yourself up to propose marriage to your girlfriend? A week? A month? An hour?

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Natural Limitations

December 25th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment

Here is a Thought Tool quiz:

Early in 1845, Henry David Thoreau, along with about twenty of his friends, began a two-and-a-half-year long party in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts.  True or False?

In 1971 Ted Kaczynski, his wife, six children, a nanny, a tutor, and three puppies moved to an isolated mountain cabin in Montana from where he later sent bombs through the mail injuring dozens of people and killing three. True or False?

Brilliant twentieth century photographer Ansel Adams, who specialized in capturing the glory of America’s national parks and other natural wonders, left a legacy of thousands of pictures depicting happy crowds enjoying their natural outdoor heritage. True or False?

With thirty members of his Rotary Club, Chris McCandless hiked into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. After being awed by nature’s grandeur, he returned home to Virginia.  True or False?

Ready for the answers?  All four statements are false. (I am sure you hardly needed me to tell you that.)  Thoreau was alone at Walden Pond.  The Unabomber lived in lonely isolation for nearly thirty years.  It is difficult to find any Ansel Adams photographs containing even one human image.  In his book, “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer relates how McCandless hiked alone and died alone, tragically and unnecessarily. 

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