My first word for 2021
We moved up from the reception in the basement of the St. James Theater in Montreal to the main room for the evening keynotes.
We sat at big round tables and were supposed to move from table to table for different speakers so we would meet more people at the conference.
At one point I moved to a table and sat down. A few minutes later Ish gestured to a chair next to me and asked if we minded if he joined us.
There are some people in this world that you just like immediately - he was one of those.
The person next to me was still in the middle of a story.
I can’t tell you what that story was about, but I can tell you when it was done I turned and introduced myself to Ish.
I can tell you the story Ish told me that night.
He’d overheard his six year old daughter say the following to his wife.
“Mommy,” she asked, “was daddy’s belly this big when you got him from the daddy store?”
I love a precocious child anecdote as much as the next person. But that wasn’t the punchline.
“No,” his wife had answered.
Ish’s daughter nodded and said, “I didn’t think so.”
Ish and I were on the schedule for this conference in Montreal. He was giving a technical talk and I was giving a more personal talk. I wasn’t a keynote speaker here, but it was kind of a keynote style talk. In fact it was an evolution of a keynote talk I’d given a few years earlier - but that’s a tale for next week’s essay.
We also were both speaking later that summer in Boston.
I was scheduled to give a technical talk in Boston - after so many keynotes, I thought it was important that I remind people that I can still code and explain complicated ideas. I was to talk about Combinators.
In my last real keynote, I had told a story about Monty Hall. Monty was the long time host of the game show “Let’s Make a Deal”.
When he was young, his family was poor enough that he ran out of money and had to drop out of college. He went to work as a laborer in a shop.
One day, a customer spotted him sweeping up in the back. The customer recognized him and knew his parents. The customer went to see Monty’s parents and asked why he wasn’t in college.
I want to pause to say two things. One, this isn’t an argument about whether or not college is the path for everyone. Two, and more importantly, this customer was a single man in his twenties.
The customer met with Monty and said he would pay for his college but there were four conditions. He must maintain a B+ average, he mustn’t reveal who his benefactor was, he must repay the debt, and he must do the same for others.
Here’s a video of Monty telling this story.
At the end of Monty’s life, his secretary estimated that he’d given 800 million dollars to charities.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote that each year during the month of January I choose three words to shape my year.
They’re reminders of things I want to use to shape the way I live the year.
This year, my first word is “can opener”.
“But Daniel,” you object, “can opener is two words.”
As my wife, the speech therapist would say, it really isn’t.
Parents would tell her that their very bright child was using two or three word phrases. She never argued with them but she would tell me that they are essentially a single word that we spell as two or more words.
That’s how I see can opener. It’s one word that happens to be spelled as two words.
“Enjoy life” is two words. Technically “can opener” is two words and it’s my first word for 2021.
You’re getting distracted by stuff that doesn’t matter.
The issue isn’t whether can opener is one word or two - the issue is why is it important enough to be my first word.
Sadly right now, many people depend on food pantries.
There are many articles on what to donate if you can. This article from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank includes suggestions of food and non-food items that they most need.
I recently saw an article that stuck with me. It said that if you are donating canned goods, you may want to consider donating one or more can openers.
I don’t know if that’s truly a need that food banks would echo and would encourage you to ask - but as a metaphor it makes sense.
How often do we give someone who is hungry a can of food and don’t notice that they have no way to open that can to access what is inside?
Monty Hall was very proud of the fact that in his charities, very little of the money went to administrative overhead. Most of the money went to help the people they were set up to benefit.
Kim was very big on giving. She gave, and I continue to give in her name, to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity and others.
When Kim died, Maggie identified SmileTrain as a charity that used most of its resources to benefit those they operated on in a cause that was important to her mother. (I remain grateful to Ellen Shapiro for raising awareness and money to support this effort)
But in my everyday work, what am I doing to support this idea of providing a can opener? How does it apply?
Just something for me to think about throughout the year.
Anyway, back to Boston.
My talk had been written for weeks but, as always, I’m tweaking it the night before adding dozens of slides and removing whole sections.
I’d love to show you that talk but unfortunately, it’s hidden behind a paywall - something that annoys me to no end.
The talk I want to show you even more is the keynote that Ish delivered.
At one point he offered to switch slots with me and have me do a keynote and he would do a technical talk - I’m so glad he decided to deliver his keynote.
There are greater points made in the video but I want to retell one of his stories.
As with his story about his daughter, Ish tells this story way better than I do.
As a very young kid, he wanted to learn computer programming. He came from a poor family and lived in a crowded apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. But somehow he knew and told his teacher that he wanted to learn computers.
His teacher used her own money to purchase an Apple IIe and brought it into the classroom for young Ish to use.
“Oh,” you say, “the can opener.”
She did more than that.
This women with no technical skills and no interest in computers had enrolled in a course at night to learn enough about programming to start Ish on his way.
Now that’s a can opener.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 42. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe