Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anthony Mason, Hip-Hop, and Hunger

I don't write much about basketball anymore. Not sure why. I just kinda stopped. But I need to today. Today, one of my favorite players passed away.

Anthony Mason wasn't a star. He wasn't even a starter until his seventh year in the league. But he had heart, he had toughness, and he had character. He also had skills. He personified an era of Knicks basketball that many, including myself, still remember fondly.

There is a often discussed phenomenon that people love the music they discovered as a teen more than any music before or after. Teenage years are when people develop their own tastes, their own judgements, and their own way of processing meanings. According to a recent article,
Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important—especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments).
I believe the same phenomenon applies to sports teams. Early baby boomers laud the exploits of the 1950s Yankees and late boomers insist the 1969 Mets were nothing short of a miracle, when in fact, both teams were good, but no better than any championship team before or after. But their legend has grown in the hearts of fans who came of age at the same time as these teams.

As a teenager getting into basketball - something no one else in my family was into - the early 90s Knicks teams were my team. I knew little of Willis Reed or Bernard King. As far as I was concerned, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley, and the rest of the squad were the best incarnation of Knickerbockers ever.

The truth is, while they were a great defensive team, the early 90's Knicks played a brutal, bruising form of basketball. There was little art to their game, only muscle. They bruised and brawned their way to several conference finals where the majesty of Michael Jordan was too much for them to handle. And when Jordan stepped away from the game, the dominance of Hakeem Olajuwon prevented the Knicks from winning their first title since 1973.

But I wasn't the only one who holds the early 90s Knicks in high regard. Pretty much every other Knicks fan over the age of 30 does as well. At least that is my unscientific estimate. I'm sure not every Knicks fan was a teenager in the early 90s. But somehow this team of overachievers and defensive-minded warriors captured the heart of a city and a fanbase.

Likewise, outside of Madison Square Garden, another cultural era blossomed into the hearts of the populace. Coinciding with the Knicks was an era of hip-hop that was also workman-like, gritty, grimy, and full of muscle. It was tough, but not in a "Tougher Than Leather" sort of way. It wasn't big chains and big cars. 90's New York hip-hop was from the staircases, the alleys, and the sewers. It was an era when you had to "Protect Ya Neck" and stay in "A New York State of Mind".

Although basketball and hip-hop have had a long relationship, few teams and musical eras mirrored each other like the Knicks and New York hip-hop in the early 1990s.

Like the Knicks, the 90's NY hip-hop scene wasn't known for it's mainstream appeal, and even those who crossed over once felt the sting of rejection. John Starks and Anthony Mason, for example, could almost be compared to the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA. Both pairs were signed and released by other organizations. But after they were released, Starks and Mason, like the founders of the Wu-Tang Clan, found a second home and together created something far beyond their individual parts.

Hard elbows and hard beats. Hand checks and verbal dexterity. Arrogance, but not "swagger". Hunger. Grit. Determination to make it on the biggest stage. It was "all eyes on me" before Tupac put it on the cover.

New York's biggest cultural exports in the early 90s both had similar foundations.

Twenty years later, loyalists to the early 90s era bemoan the current state of both New York hip-hop and New York basketball. They try to tell younger generations of days when you had to be hungry, when you had to "work for yours" and represent your team and city. Before NBA stars were "global icons" and rappers were a "business, man".

Twenty years later, loyalists to this era live and die by their memories. They remember Ewing playing hurt. They remember Starks headbutting Reggie Miller and dunking on Horace Grant (and Michael Jordan). They remember Oakley. And they remember Anthony Mason - his defense on the aforementioned Olajuwon, his passing ability, the messages shaved into the side of his head, and his heart. The same heart that did him in yesterday.

As for me, I know I'm still hungry. I still haven't made it to where I want to be. I'm still clawing and I'm still scraping. And I know I still have my Mason jersey somewhere. It should be with my Starks jersey. Although it has been years since I wore Mason's name on my back, I'll have to represent.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Business Communications Lessons

I am currently taking an MBA class in Business Communications. One of our assignments is to create a blog, a twitter account, and a LinkedIn account. Then we have to write a blog post and share some professional insights and lessons learned in business communications.

Since the first day of class, I've been able to check most of these boxes. A welcome respite from classes where had to put a lot more work in, such as in Finance, where I was in the library three hours a night every other night. Some things come easier to some people than to others.

(To be honest, that's something I have become very conscious about since I started my MBA work. Nothing bothers me more than when a Finance professor or classmates says "this is easy" when discussing a math problem I am struggling with. I have worked hard to get my math skills up to par. Saying something is easy while I struggle with it is insulting. So with that in mind, I definitely watch when talking about writing, communications, and social media with people who don't have those experiences. What is almost second nature to me might not be to others. I guess that's a communication lesson learned, right?)

But on to actual lessons I have learned from years in the workplace. As mentioned in my Professional Highlights tab on my site, most of my experiences have been in a military environment. But as you can see from my blog, I don't exactly fit the military mold. So that leads me to my first lesson learned:

Know your people

I've worked in Bosnia, Qatar, and Afghanistan. I've worked for senior military people and in military command centers. But I've also done stand-up comedy, posed for pictures with pro wrestlers, and done freelance writing on local DJs. Although I am successful in the environment, my mind doesn't fit the military mold. To reference Gordon MacKenzie, I tend to "orbit the hairball". And few hairballs are denser than the military-industrial complex.

I have been a challenge to many managers. I have worked for a few that tried to keep me in a box. I worked for an older manager whose attempt led to my departure. I worked for a younger manager who was in charge only because he worked for the government and I was a contractor. Our differences led to me moving to a night shift where our only interaction was when we passed notes on our respective shifts. It was a happy compromise.

But a few managers recognized my thought process and let me run. One of my managers in Afghanistan compared me to Michael Jordan and said "I'm going to give you the ball. If you miss too often, I am changing the game plan. But as long as you succeed, you can run how you want."

That's knowing your people. It takes effort and it takes talking with your people and understanding their thought process and creating an environment where they can do their best. If I had that support in the high-pressure environment of Afghanistan, it is possible everywhere.

Establish Credibility

Credibility is incredibly important. More time than not, no one listens to the new guy. So the faster you can establish credibility, the easier communicating will be. Credibility can be established by mentioning experiences and relating with people. Be sure to be likeable, and do not come off as a braggart. Don't claim your experiences, education, or skills make you better than anyone else. Just mention how they can help the situation.

Sometimes appearance helps to establish credibility. In Afghanistan, for example, I grew a long beard. Not only did the locals admire the beard, as beards are looked at positively in their culture, but US military members also recognized the beard as a symbol of my tenure in Afghanistan. It established immediate credibility as a veteran of the environment.

Understand Resistance

As important as it to communicate, sometimes even your best efforts fall on deaf ears. Or ears with fingers in them. Even if your credibility is recognized.

One of the most important communications lesson to learn is when people don't want to cooperate, especially if you want them to. Some managers might not feel it is their best interest to work with you. Or they feel you are giving them unnecessary work to do. The difficult solution is to try to see things from their perspective. Are they busy? Are they being stubborn to make a point? Are they just being lazy? Is your request ruining what they think is a good thing?

It is best to try to talk people and gauge their concerns when faced with resistance. People usually push back for a reason. The goal is to prevent them from doubling down. Once they are entrenched in their position, there is little you can do except bring in someone with more credibility or authority.

Know when to call in the Big Guns

One of the underrated skills in Business Communications is when to call in the big guns. No manager likes when subordinates can't solve their own problems. But some problems require more power than a subordinate is able to muster. Especially if there is resistance.

Knowing how to tell your manager you are facing a problem is also a skill. You don't want to sound like you didn't try or give your best effort. You want to tell your manager your attempts and the result. Then you want to ask them for help. Sometimes you receive that help. Sometimes all it requires is for them to send an email or make a phone call to grease the wheels of progress. Sometimes they have to fight the battle at their level. And sometimes they determine the juice isn't worth the squeeze.

Granted, most of my experience has been in a conservative-minded military environment, where information is held close and sharing isn't a priority unless it has to be. I am sure there are environments with less difficulties. On the other hand, I am sure there are companies with more communication complications.

But these are my experiences. With any luck, they will come in handy when I move into a position in the corporate world.