Asking Is The Hardest Job

This past weekend, we spent some time at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (which we refer to as "The MIA" around these parts). We were there for a private art tour for Beatrix’s book club (yes, my almost seven year old belongs to her own book club with several school friends). It was organized by an acquaintance of one of Beatrix’s friend’s parents who also works at the MIA. The tour was based loosely on the book they had just completed reading, Charlotte’s Web. It was a lot of fun for kids and parents alike. Every time we visit the MIA, which ends up being a few times a year, we are reminded just how much we love it and express a desire to make our visits there more frequent.

As our group was gathering, putting away coats, and making general small talk before the tour began, the tour leader mentioned that membership to the MIA was now free. Entry to the museum has always been free (or an optional donation). But the membership, which gave you a fair amount of added benefits, had been a fair price for as long as I remember. He also mentioned that one still gets the same benefits formerly offered at the old entry level membership fee.

I asked him how they were able to do this. As in, how were they able to give something away free that I felt had more than fair value before. He explained that, in part, they had been seeing membership decline steadily for years while at the same time attendance was increasing. That there were several sponsors and foundations that awarded money based on membership levels. Therefore, by increasing membership they would get more money from these large organizations that would hopefully make up the loss. It made sense on one level but on another it really bugged me.

You see, a few years ago we received a family membership to the MIA as a gift. It was a great gift. We would have gone far more often as members that year but, for whatever reason, we had a frustrating and almost comical time actually trying to get the gift membership activated. In fact, it took seven months and multiple calls to several people to finally get our family membership activated. And, when we finally did get it activated, they set the membership expiration date to one year from the date of the gift. In other words, they did not offer at all to grant us the time it took to actually get the membership activated. At that point, we knew it would take even more calls and hassles to get that made right, so we didn’t bother.

But, the thing is, we would make perfect MIA members. Not only do Bethany and I love the MIA, Beatrix loves art museums and loves the MIA especially. We really believe in taking advantage of the wealth of arts experiences the metro area has to offer. We support many other arts organizations with our time, talents, and money. We are active members of other museums in town. In other words, we are exactly the sort of people who would have been paying members and likely for life…

If they had only asked why we weren’t any longer.

I wonder what would have happened, if instead of reducing the price to free, they simply called people who were members at one time and no longer were a simple question — why?. Not some pushy sales call or some temp worker with no power to right any wrongs. Just a simple call from someone who cared to listen and was empowered to "make it right" wherever possible.

We would have told them how much we love the museum, how we really wished we were members still, but that we had such a bad experience with getting the gift membership straightened out and not getting the full year out of it that it left a bad taste in our mouth.

If, then, the MIA representative would have offered something fair — like the ability to purchase a year long membership with the seven months we lost added on for free — we would have jumped at the chance and our faith and generous support of the museum would have been restored.

I wonder how many others like us there are. How many are no longer members because of some bad experience in the past. Perhaps the problem in their declining membership numbers is not because times are tight and people are cutting back. Perhaps it is because the there was a serious problem in the membership process that was never discovered and resolved. Perhaps a phone call and some good will would have turned the tide.

Asking for money is hard work. Asking for money takes courage and a belief that there is real value in what you are selling and the price you put on it is a fair one. It takes believing that there are those to whom this will be obvious and that they are your ideal first customers and that there are many just like them out there just waiting for you to ask. That, people who were once your customers and no longer are likely so for a reason and they are just waiting for you to care enough to ask why. Asking means facing the fear of failure.

Many businesses frame their first dollar bill. It is, in part, pride. A visible symbol that the business is now officially open. That someone cared enough to believe in what they had to sell. But, that framed dollar represents something deeper: That one can frame that one because they believe so strongly in what they are selling. They wont have to break open that frame to get the only dollar they will ever make. They have the courage to believe that another dollar will come along.

Making the price free is easy. It avoids the hard work. You don’t have to face rejection or get past your fear. You don’t have to do the hard work of figuring out and communicating what your value proposition is. And, even still, it assumes that you can’t convince your customers of that value and that your best marketing asset and opportunity for growth is not the people paying for and enjoying your product. Or, in so many cases — even now in the case of the MIA — it proposes that the customers are actually the product you are selling.

Instead, we happily and immediately signed up for the free membership as soon as we got home. We will certainly use it. But we would have anyway and we would have let them know if they had bothered to ask.

I’m a writer. Writing is how I make this world a better, friendlier, stronger place. If these words improved your day, please let me know by contributing here.

Intentions for 2015

I’m decided I’m not going to do some lengthy after action report (AAR for the military nerds) about my successes and failures of last years list of intentions. Let’s just suffice to say that I feel I was about 50/50 on those. I’m trying not to beat myself up about the ones I did not succeed at. I’m going to move forward.

Here are the few things I plan on achieving in the coming year.

  • Compete the first draft of my next book. This book will be different than anything I’ve ever done before, will require a lot of research, and I got a grant to help with funding it. Therefore, only committing to a “shitty first draft” is far more ambitious than it sounds.

  • Monthly date nights with my wife, Bethany. We have been doing this for the past couple of years and it has been very successful and rewarding. It allows us time to connect and remember why it is we got married in the first place. This is also one of the several shared resolutions/intentions — it is on each of our lists. As stated before, resolutions don’t happen in a vacuum.

  • Hike. Hike with Family. Hike with Friends. I enjoy hiking. I always have. I did so very actively when I was a teen but don’t do as much now. I’d like to change that. Every time I do get the opportunity to go hiking I’m reminded of how much love it. And, my daughter Beatrix really enjoys it too and we have a blast hiking together whenever we get the chance. Beatrix is naturally a very good hiker. I have taken her on some fairly technical and rough trails and she blows through them like a breeze. I’d like to foster that talent. I’d like to be more intentional about planning and creating those opportunities. This also aligns nicely with Bethany’s desire to enjoy Minnesota more. It has a lot of great trails and nature to offer.

  • To use more of what we already have on hand. This is another shared resolution that resonated with both Bethany and I. We have so much on hand that is half used or unused. We resolve to change that by using it or…

  • To get rid of the things we don’t use. Not just by throwing away or charity donation. This is also about considering those around us that could benefit from these items more than we can. To see that things we used once but no longer do see a new life being re-used by someone else. We are active on several neighborhood Buy/Sell/Trade boards to help with this. And, our Little Free Library fits into this in the book department.

  • Organizing, framing, and hanging our art. Another shared resolution. We have so much art and so many pictures in so many piles. They deserve better. As my wife said simply, “It’s not doing any good sitting in a pile. Print photos and frame them.”

  • Finish Winter Street House. I don’t discuss it publicly too much but we have a house that we bought for a song that needed a fair bit of rehab and it has taken me far too long to do. We bit off more than we could chew as quickly as we hoped here. But, it is now way too long and it needs to be done. I have a rough vision of all that remains to achieve that goal. I just need to block out the time to do it.

  • Drink more water — especially in winter. It’s just so darn dry here in the wintertime. And I often don’t discover how dehydrated I am until it is too late. I’m going to try to get in the routine of drinking water to help with this. A “glass at wake up, glass before bed” sort of routine.

So, there we have it. Here’s wishing us all success with whatever we endeavor to do in the coming year.

Books I Read In 2014

While I am no Bethany Gladhill (my wife, who read 64 books this year) or Austin Kleon, I’m proud that I read almost the same number as I have in years past. Especially as I expect next year to be quite different as I will be reading a lot more for book research than I ever have before. In fact, I have Eric Forner’s six hundred page tome on Reconstruction on deck next.

Without further ado, here is a list of the books I read this past year with short reviews:

The Authentic Swing: Notes from the Writing of a First Novel by Steven Pressfield — About golf and writing and the parallels between the two. Good, easy, book on writing from one of my faves. Some good behind the scenes on the making of the movie, The Legend Of Baggar Vance.

The Martian by Andy Weir — Fantastic and fun novel about an astronaut that gets stranded on Mars and his fight to stay alive and, hopefully, get home. Especially fun for space and science nerds.

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon — Another wonderful manifesto from one of my favorite creative folks. Solid advice that had me nodding my head in agreement on every page. It was a mistake to go through this the first time without a highlighter and pen in hand. Going to go back through and mark it up. So much good.

Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh — A nice series of essays on finding and living everyday mindfulness by the honored Buddhist Teacher and Peace Activist. Deeply affecting and read at just the right time for me. This is now one of the books I will recommend when people ask me what to read to find out more about Buddhism.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan: — I had put this off for a while but then my wife read it and said, “You would love this”. Anytime my wife says that, a book moves to the top of my list. And I did love it. It’s a fun and engaging read about books, cults (both religious and business), mysteries, encryption, and immortality. Only took me a couple of days. Picked it up and spent every free moment reading it until the end.

Choose Yourself by James Altucher — Fantastic. I reviewed this in longer detail here before. This is a must-read survival book for the new economy. As someone who has “chosen himself” already, I’m often asked by those interested in doing so for books, resources, and my own writings on the subject that I recommend. I can confidently say that this book will now be at the top of that list.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed — Wonderful memoir. Evocative prose. The reasons this book was so popular was not lost on me while reading it. The Minnesota connections resonated with me. Also, gave me a strong sense of wanderlust. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing my ruck and heading out into the woods.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green — Simply beautiful book about a young woman with terminal cancer. A journey of love, loss, anger, pain, and what it means to be human and dare to dream despite it all. It is a really effortless read that still manages to carry a tremendous amount of emotional weight.

Lexicon by Max Barry — A thrilling and action packed novel about the power of words and the power of love. Could not put this down.

The Sketchnote Workbook by Mike Rohde — A wonderful “next step” followup to his first book. This time, he focuses on the actual practice of Skechnoting and the myriad of situations in which it can be employed. If you care about enhancing the quality and versatility of your note taking, you need this in your library.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan — Smart and well researched investigation into the Life of Jesus of Nazareth by one of the foremost religious scholars of our time. By setting up the times, places, and conditions Jesus lived in — long before, during, and long after his death — Aslan creates a narrative that is vivid and persuasive. I wish he would have spent more time laying out exactly how in a crowd of people claiming the title and role of messiah, it was a dirt poor day laborer from a town of less than a hundred families that is now known and worshiped the world over. Perhaps that is worth another book entirely. Worth a read no matter your faith.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith(J.K. Rowling — The second novel about the adventures of Private Detective Cormoran Strike. As good as the first (better, likely) and a whole lot if fun. I can’t say too much dare I give anything away but, in this one, Cormoran is out to solve a bizarre murder in the London literary world. Highly recommended. Especially, though not required, if you have read the first book.

Babel 17 by Samuel Delany — You know a book will be a big win for me when the hero protagonist is a poet and the McGuffin is the power and complexity of language. This is a well written, taught, and compelling sci-fi thriller. Lots of fun to read.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore — Same name, same age, same neighborhood, similar family circumstances, but what makes one Wes Moore a Rohdes Scholar and the other a prison lifer. That is the not so easily answered premise at the heart of this book. A fascinating true tale that will give some food for thought to the problems facing so many Black youths today.

Indian Summer by Aaron Mahnke — A good New England thriller that follows the lives of seven childhood friends after one of them is killed in an accident. Steeped in the feeling of a coming northeastern fall and Native American lore.

Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It by Kamal Ravikant — Powerful insight packed into just a few pages. Read it in about an hour. It was an hour well spent.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — Beautiful and sweet tale of a boy named Bod who, after a tragic event, grows up in a graveyard and his relationships with the various residents who have taken him under their care. The theme of growing up feeling between two worlds resonated deeply with me. As always with Neil, prepare for some of the most magical yet completely down to earth writing you have read in a while.

Drawn Blades (A Fallen Blade Novel) by Kelly McCullough — The fifth book in the series finds Aral tied up with his old girlfriend, his old Master, his new Apprentice, and a few Gods that just refuse to stay good and dead. Yet another fun read. I really enjoy these.

3 a.m. (Henry Bins Book 1) by Nick Pirog — A fun little whodunnit about a guy who, due to a rare narcoleptic condition, is only awake for one hour starting at 3am every day. A quick read that, as of this writing, is free on the Kindle.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway — The brilliance of Hemingway lies in his ability to take a simple premise and, from that, create a narrative that is at once epic and sweeping yet personal and tightly told. In this case, it is one of Robert Jordan, an American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerrilla unit in the mountains of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. His job is to blow up a bridge but, he finds in the three days he spends with this unit, he builds more bridges than he destroys. There is a reason this is widely considered a masterpiece and the best of Hemingway’s work.

Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod — I’ve been a fan of MacLeod’s work for a while but had never read this one. He’s always good for a kick in the pants of life when needed.

The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Novel by Jess Walter — This book was a lot of fun to read. Wonderfully written, witty, and downright LOL funny in parts. It’s the story of Matt Prior, an out-of-work journalist at the dawn of the recession on the verge of losing it all — his wife, his home, his father, his kid’s school. One night, while out to the 7/11 for milk, he runs into a couple of young stoners and begins to hatch a plan to reclaim it all. This was a fun way to end the year.

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