Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom: Getting Down with Bluegrass


Over the years, I've learned that whenever talented and passionate artists gather to share their skills with an appreciative audience, it invariably turns out great. And that's true whether or not I am "into" their particular art form.

I'm not a big fan of bluegrass music. It's not a style of music that immediately hooks me. But when bluegrass is done right, with talent and passion, "you can't help responding to its honesty. It's music that finds its way deep into your soul" (Allison Krauss).

Last Thursday, Marcie and I returned to Marsh Landing Restaurant in the tiny town of Fellsmere, Florida, with our dear friends Robb and Deana from Pittsburgh. A talented assemblage of bluegrass musicians has gathered there every Thursday evening for the past 14 years for an energetic and entertaining "jam session."

Part of the fun is watching the crowd shuffle in. About an hour before the music begins, a clutch of "groupies" well into their 70s and 80s shows up to claim the front rows of tables. I imagine they have been holding down the same seats every Thursday for a long time. They hug and high-five the other regulars and then get ready for the show. By the time the music starts, the whole building is bursting at the seams and rocking with anticipation.

A professional group called the Penny Creek Band forms the nucleus of the jam each week. They have great harmony and are seriously talented with the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and string bass. They are joined by an assortment of locals who bring their instruments and voices to add to the merriment. Here is a snapshot of the whole entourage playing "The Possum Song" while decked out in namesake headgear:


The belle of the ball is unquestionably Mary Pounds, the only female in the line-up. Mary sings lead vocals, plays a string bass much larger than herself, and "keeps [those] rowdy boys in line." There's no doubt who's in charge when Mary's in front of the room.

This Thursday Mary was upstaged (at least according to the women in the audience) by a tall, handsome guitar player in his 30s who showed up mid-set and proceeded to steal the show. When he stepped up to the microphone to sing and let loose on his guitar, the silver-haired ladies in the room were visibly smitten and practically swooning. They clapped, whistled, and cat-called like a flock of fawning pre-teens.

English art critic John Ruskin once wrote, "When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece." For two hours Mary and her "rowdy boys" had us laughing and crying; clapping, stomping, and singing along. They brought an audience - including some rather skeptical audience members - to life. They created a masterpiece in an unlikely venue.

We discovered the joy of watching talented and passionate people share something they love. We found the magic of old-fashioned, down-home music played from the heart with consummate skill.

So whether or not you "get" bluegrass music, if you're ever in the vicinity on a Thursday evening, I recommend driving down to Fellsmere for some good food and soul-satisfying music. It's a treat to listen to artists who have mastered their craft and who enjoy making other people happy. I promise you'll be tapping your toes during the show and smiling as you leave.

On the drive home, you may find yourself comparing the way you work to the way they work. You may find yourself asking questions like: Do I do my work with passion and professionalism? Do I put my whole heart and soul into what I do? Do I have fun at work? Do I continue to polish my skills and talents? Do others enjoy being around me as I serve? Could others say of me, "he does his work with love and skill; from him you can expect a masterpiece"?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom: A Little Old-Fashioned Honesty



I believe fundamental honesty is the keystone of business.  - Harvey S. Firestone
I received a curious voice mail the other day.

Hi, Mr. Farnsworth. My name is Cheryl and I'm calling regarding a card that you left at St. Cloud Lodge Hall in downtown St. Cloud and there was $10 with it. I'm just calling to find out what this is about. Please call me back. I still have the $10 and your card.

Not knowing who Cheryl was and not being familiar with St. Cloud Lodge Hall, I returned the call. Cheryl said she had found an envelope in their mail slot a few months ago. Still puzzled, I asked her for the address. She told me the street number on New York Avenue, and said it was upstairs above New York Artist Shop, a small framing and art supply store.

A-ha! Now it all made sense. I then told Cheryl the rest of the story about the envelope and the $10.

Back in December I went to New York Artist Shop to get a picture frame repaired. The congenial shopkeeper fixed it on the spot for $5. She didn't want to take a credit card for such a small amount, so I offered to pay with a $20 bill, the only cash in my wallet. She didn't have change and all the shops around us were already closed for the day.

She suggested that I could come back when I had change; she would trust me to do that. I agreed.

The next day I returned to settle up. I had decided that since she had trusted me so much and had charged me so little, I would add a $5 tip to the original bill of $5. The shop was closed for lunch but I had an envelope with me. I put my card and a $10 bill in the envelope and put it through a mail slot in what I assumed was the front of her store.

It turns out the mail slot belongs to the office upstairs, St. Cloud Lodge Hall.

"The $10 belongs to your downstairs neighbor, New York Artist Shop," I told Cheryl. "Please drop it off to her with my apology. I thought the mail slot was hers."

Cheryl promised she would.

* * * * *

You may be thinking that ten dollars is no big deal. Monetarily you are probably right. But to me there is more at stake here than a ten-dollar bill. I'd like to think that if the amount were a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars, the narrative would have been the same:

The friendly shopkeeper would have told me to come back and settle up when I could.

I would have returned as promised to pay my bill.

Cheryl would not have slipped the misplaced cash into her purse - which she very easily could have done - but instead would have gone to the trouble of finding the rightful owner, completing the circle of integrity.

It's reassuring to know there are still good people in this world like these two trusting and trustworthy women. And I like to think there are many more. People with integrity in matters large and small. People who can be counted on to keep their word. People who still believe in a little old-fashioned honesty.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom: Picking Up the Pieces


Did she make you cry?
Make you break down?
Shatter your illusions of love?
And is it over now, do you know how [to]
Pick up the pieces and go home?
- "Gold Dust Woman" by Stevie Nicks 

 Picture: In the Aftermath of Hurricane Irma 
In my previous Wednesday Wisdom, I mentioned two essential life skills, the ability to stick to a job and the ability to change directions. This article focuses on a third: the ability, when tragedy strikes, to pick up the pieces and rebuild your life.

Here's a painful story we've all heard way too often, one that really hurts when it happens to someone we dearly love:

Boy and Girl fall in love and get married. Boy goes to medical school; Girl drops out of college to support the family and raise babies. Boy completes medical school, and they move to their dream job, dream home. Life is finally good . . . for a while . . . until . . . until Boy gets a wandering eye. He hooks up with Younger Woman. Boy and Girl divorce. Girl gets the children and is left to pick up the pieces with no college, no job.

I don't need to tell you that this life is not for sissies. Sooner or later, we all face major catastrophes, whether a marriage devastated by infidelity and divorce; the death of a loved one; a major illness; a home destroyed by a fire, tornado, or hurricane; the loss of employment; the failure of your business; the unraveling of a vital relationship; a family member entangled in addiction; or any of a dozen other disasters.

Then what?

I once interviewed a couple whose oldest son had drowned in the prime of his young adulthood. A few years later, their oldest grandson, whom they were raising, was killed in a tragic accident. I asked them how they coped with the excruciating pain of this double blow. I was deeply moved by the wisdom of their answer.

"We looked at our lives and we recognized that we had a choice," they told me. "We could be bitter, or we could be better. We decided to be better." They studied the grieving process, learned how to relate their own pain to the pain of others, and became bereavement counselors. They now use their own experiences to help other families who have lost children and grandchildren.

So, when life sucker-punches us in the nose, we have to ask ourselves: will we be bitter or will we be better?

When we've taken a brutal blow, it's OK to staunch the bleeding and brush ourselves off.  We can give ourselves permission to grieve for a season. We can allow ourselves the time to reorient ourselves to a newly-changed world. Then, we can gather our bearings and decide how we will make ourselves better - how we will learn and grow from this adversity.

In his masterful "Good Timber," Douglas Malloch explains how opposition, strife, hard work, and tough times not only make us better people but bring greater abundance in life and open the way to a richer, fuller future.

The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.

The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease,
The stronger wind, the stronger trees,
The further sky, the greater length,
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.

Where thickest lies the forest growth
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.

Every setback holds within it the seeds of growth and the promise of a better tomorrow - IF we choose to see it that way. There is new strength over the horizon. There is a new dawn just beyond the darkness. The things we endure can make us wiser, stronger, more empathetic, and, ultimately and ironically more joyful. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psalms 30:5).

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom: The Ability to Change Directions


Your power to choose the direction of your life allows you to reinvent yourself, to change your future, and to powerfully influence the rest of creation. - Stephen R. Covey


This week my wife and I are enjoying a spring break visit from our daughter Sara. At the ripe old age of 36, Sara decided to leave a successful and comfortable career in IT/Customer Service and test the unknown waters of law school.
When Sara asked me beforehand what I thought of her going to law school, I discouraged her. I told her that with a glut of lawyers in this country, lots of newly-minted lawyers were miserably unemployed. The only way it would be a good move, I said, would be if she did exceptionally well. Rather than being daunted by my rather grim assessment, she took it as a personal challenge. She prepared intensively for the LSAT and scored in the 98th percentile. Based on those results and her other credentials, she received a total of $1.25 million in scholarship offers from several high-quality law schools, and eventually accepted one at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
She's now finishing her second year with an excellent class ranking, is a member of the law review, and has a prestigious internship this summer with a highly respected federal bankruptcy judge in Greensboro. I have no doubt she will leave a significant mark on the legal profession, like her father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-uncle before her.
* * * * *
My assistant at Walk-in Wills, Meghan Rogers, was a highly-regarded high-school English teacher, chair of the English Department, and an administrator at her school. She has a Master's degree in English and has taught college-level English and literature classes. But after 10 years in the classroom, she felt that teaching was not taking her where she wanted to be. She made the difficult decision to steer her life in a different direction.
A few months later, I picked her resume out of more than 200 applications I received to fill the new position at Walk-in Wills. She passed the online exercises I sent her with flying colors and then stood head and shoulders above all the other candidates (even though she's only 5' 3" tall) when my wife and I interviewed her for the job.
She's taken to this new career like a fish to water and is a warm and welcoming member of the Walk-in Wills team. She greets our clients with a cheerful smile, helps them understand this new model of legal services, and handles their work with intelligence, discretion, and wisdom beyond her years. There's a big future ahead of her.
* * * * *
Of all the talents that lead to success in life, two of the most important are the ability to stick to a job until it's finished and the ability to change directions when the current path isn't leading to the right destination. While on the surface these capabilities may seem contradictory to each other, they are not. The first is a TACTICAL skill: when you are in the right place, you must push forward and complete the task at hand. The second is STRATEGIC: it requires knowing you are not where you need to be (or are not headed there) and having the courage to change course.
Lao Tzu famously said, "If you do not change direction you may end up where you are headed." That's not a problem if you like where you're headed; indeed, in that case it would be foolish to keep flopping around from path to path. Under those circumstances, perseverance is the appropriate virtue. I applaud those who, knowing they've made the right choice, have the tenacity to push forward even when the way is hard.
But if you know in your gut that where you are or where you're headed isn't where you should be, the ability to change directions is essential to your long-term success and happiness. In that situation, resolute persistence is NOT a virtue but a curse. When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. Figure out where you should be and correct your course. The longer you stay on the wrong road, the harder it will be to get on the right one.
I salute the Saras and Meghans of the world who have the sense to realize that their lives are headed in a less-than-ideal direction and the courage to put on the brakes and turn around. I tip my hat to those who have the faith to follow their dreams and make something better of themselves, as scary as that may sometimes be. I commend the brave souls who choose the more difficult path, the "road less traveled," in pursuit of a more excellent future.
Which leads obviously to one of my favorite poems.
"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom - The Key to Successful Introductions? Great Second Questions


The first ingredient in conversation is truth, the next good sense, the third good humor, and the fourth wit. 
William Temple 


Meeting new people for the first time can be a challenge. We want to get to know the other person, put them at ease, and move the new relationship forward on the right foot. What we say first is important.
Lately, articles in the blogosphere have called into question the appropriateness of the standard first question: "Hi, I'm Scott Farnsworth. I'm a wills and trusts attorney and a retirement expert. What do you do?" These bloggers' objections to this traditional introduction include:
  • It's shallow.
  • There's much more to who you are than what you do.
  • It makes it seem that how you earn a paycheck is the most important thing about you.
  • It's awkward for someone who's out of work or who doesn't care much about work.
Some of the articles propose "replacement questions" that frankly are so strange that I cannot imagine using them as a first question in a casual introduction at a business meeting, on an airplane, or at a cocktail party. Questions like:
  • How do you feel your life has worked out so far?
  • What personal habit are you proudest of?
  • What are you most passionate about?
Don't get me wrong. I enjoy having deeper conversations using those kinds of questions with someone I already know. But as a first question with someone I barely met, questions like these would feel downright weird.
There's a reason the "What do you do?" question has been around so long: it's safe, comfortable, and expected. It works!
Is it perfect? Of course not. But discarding it would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead I think the key is to pair it with appropriate follow-up questions. Let's couple "What do you do?" with some Great Second Questions (GSQs).
What makes a Great Second Question? To me, it should be comfortable, not creepy. It needs to feel natural, not contrived. It ought to organically lead to an authentic get-to-know-you conversation. Here's how to develop GSQs.

1.  A GSQ follows sequentially from and builds on the first question, "What do you do?"
To state the obvious, don't yank them in a different direction with your second question. There must be a natural segue from their first answer to your next question. This is not a time to zig when they're zagging.

2.  A GSQ is open ended and invites a narrative answer.
Questions that lead to narrative answers are warm and comfortable. I call them "story-leading questions." Story is our true native language, and it invites human-to-human connection, as I've explained in three of my books (visit

3. A GSQ isn't analytical, i.e. it doesn't require them to rank, sort, or  evaluate.

Questions requiring analytical answers such as "what's your best . . ." or " what's your most important . . ." or "what's your favorite . . .." disrupt the flow of the conversation. They make the other person stop and perform a calculation and can lead to hesitancy in responding.
4.  A GSQ doesn't get too intimate too quickly.
If it feels like prying, the dialogue is dying. Getting too personal too soon is a sure way to kill a conversation, which is the last thing you want when meeting someone new.

Applying these guidelines, I came up with a few possibilities. What do you think? What would you add to this list of GSQs?
  1. How did you get started in that field?
  2. Is being a ____________ something you always wanted to do?
  3. That seems like an interesting profession. What do you enjoy about being a _____________?
  4. How long have you been in the ____________ field, and what has changed during that time?
  5. Do you see yourself doing that for the rest of your career?
  6. Is that a profession you would recommend to someone just starting out in their career today?
  7. Is that your dream job or is there something else you'd rather be doing?