On Being a Creative Uncreative

A few years ago, I picked up my brushes again – after a very long sabbatical – and tried to get back into painting. (Little known fact: I started college as an art major but left the program after our instructor brought all the freshman art students to the horse arena; had us walk around in the muck for 20 minutes, got us back on the stands and congratulated us on making the world’s largest abstract painting. I thought there was a deep and profound message in there about horseshit and made my way to the admin building where I became a communications major. And the rest, dear reader, is all history…)

Anyway, what I found when I went back to that former love was that:

  • I still have a good eye (I think)
  • But my ability to translate what I’m seeing and thinking into my hands creating seems to have gone away.

I saw in my mind’s eye the colors, the perspective, the design, but I couldn’t get it onto canvas. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t creative. It was frustrating. I kept at it for almost a year before deciding there are better ways to entertain myself.


At this point, I would have been delighted to produce something as gorgeous as this

At this point, I would have been delighted to produce something as gorgeous as this

Part way through that year of trying, I thought that perhaps if I tried more graphic, abstract painting, I might have a breakthrough. But years of painting realistically totally blocked me from doing something so different. My abstract attempts were even worse than my realism – they were a profound embarrassment.

So. Fast forward seven years. In the past month, I’ve read an outstanding novel, We Were Liars (E. Lockhart), a fun fantasy ride, Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman), and an important, insightful book on life in the Mumbai slums, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo). And I thought about my friends Greg Bardsley and Al Riske, both published writers of wild and crazy (Greg) and beautifully nuanced (Al) fiction, and  Molly Brandenburg, actress, writer and artist, who has combined her doodles and wit into thoroughly fun books.

So hey. Why can’t I do that? After all, writing is my one talent I don’t question, and I can be darn witty when the moment calls for it. (I once explained how a mundane health care spending account worked by starting off this way: “Bambi was a hooker with a heart of gold and a bad case of the clap. Fortunately, her pimp had arranged for his stable to take advantage of health care spending accounts…” Alas, this draft was not shared with my client, although I was sorely tempted.) And if you ever saw my doodle of Señor Sneeze, happily spraying snot all over the once-tempting breakfast buffet in Buenas Aires, you’d be flirting with a little snorting yourself…

But there’s more to being a creative than the occasional clever riff. It takes dedication, hard work, vision, persistence and passion to bring an idea to life. I take my hat off to Greg, Al, Molly, and all the rest of you who create works that entertain and uplift the rest of us.




Georgia on My Mind

I’ve been waiting for this week in Atlanta for months. More than waiting, I’ve been planning, researching, writing, collaborating, begging for input. I’ve been the beneficiary of critiques, material, ideas and design from my partners, Greg and Sloane Mann, at The Fibonacci Design Group.  I’ve picked over my material, fretted over it, rewritten it, and gone back to source material to make sure of my facts.  All this so that, over the past 36 hours, I could lead a three-hour workshop on how to be a fantastic presenter at the Melcrum Employee Engagement Conference, and then move on to present to a packed room at the Ragan Social Media Conference, hosted by Coca Cola, on social media governance.

And so you’ll forgive me if I am now a bit exhausted, the last ounce of adrenalin fleeing my body, as I kick off those pretty but oh-so-uncomfortable suede pumps and try to relax.

I’m a speaking junkie.  I admit it without shame.  I love every part of the process, from being given the ultimate compliment of a speaking invitation to writing a new talk to the thrill of doing the actual presentation.  I’m transported when I’m on stage, my satisfaction directly related to the energy of my audience.  When a talk goes well, I couldn’t be happier.  When a talk fails, I couldn’t be more miserable.

So I work hard to avoid failure.  No, you won’t find me rehearsing in front of a mirror for hours before the event.  I prepare in other ways, from always knowing my first line in front of the group to having a fistful of relevant, snappy anecdotes that I’m ready to work into the talk.

Success means nodding heads, folks taking notes, the occasional belly laugh and more questions than there is time to respond.  Failure shows up as blank stares, discreet texting/emailing on smart phones, and, of course, no questions or comments.  When I’m getting stony stares from my group, I know I’ve failed to engage them (Failure to communicate is always the fault of the communicator, never the receiver.).

I’m so appreciative of Melcrum and Ragan, both terrific organizations that provide a huge service to professional communicators, for inviting me to their parties.  Please, please… ask me again!

Note: I’ll be posting slides – or at the very least, excerpts of my presentations – next week. Stay tuned…

We Are Found Now That We Are “Lost”

A little froth for you on a gorgeous Southern California February day, and for me a nice break from intense navel-gazing, doom and gloom, and yes, whining…

We might be the last people in America to get caught up in Lost.  When the show first came out, I didn’t watch it because I thought it was another stupid reality show.  By the time I figured out it wasn’t (OK, I can be a little slow), it felt as though the train had left the station, and we would never figure out what was going on.

Another reason why streaming, Netflix and Tivo are possibly the greatest entertainment advances ever (except for the iPod and Kindle, that is).  I discovered that via these channels, we could stream all the previous “Lost” seasons.  All it took was the pilot, and we were hopelessly hooked.

We are almost done gasping our way through Season 2, and we find ourselves wanting to ration the shows because they are so darn good.  Weak beings that we are, however, we gobble them up as fast as time allows.

The storytelling in “Lost” reminds me of Stephan King’s Dark Tower series.  The writing of these seven books stretched out over 30 years, and once again, I missed the phenomena until the last book was published.  I listened to them all on audio books and was completely enraptured by this world King invented.  My favorite book was the last, where King goes off on a riff about how he can just hear disappointed writers complaining to him about how the series ends. He makes a plea to his readers, in which he asks if the journey was worth it even though the final episode might not end as you hoped it would.  Great adventures, dark mysteries, interesting characters, wonderful discoveries and scary moments must, King suggests, have some worth onto themselves.

Of course.  And I am the deepest awe of those who can create these worlds outside of our own, and give us a break from the dramas that we make ourselves and live through each day. Keep writing! Please!

Shocking! Controversial! McNealy’s e-Mail!

OK, I was a little irritated that I had to pull down my post that, after all, contained the text that was widely available on CNET and other news outlets.  But good team player that I am – and despite the fact that this blog runs on WordPress, not blogs.sun.com – I did the righteous thing.  I do think some took offense at what I saw as a pretty harmless intro.  But I’ll let you be the judge… Here it is, in unabridged form!

For those of you who didn’t have the privilege of working with Scott, this email will give you a sense of the man. This is a guy who cared more for his company and his employees than he did for himself. Tough as can be, Scott could still surprise you with a little bit of sentimentality. Scott hired me over seven years ago, and when he stepped out of the role of CEO, much of the joy in my job slipped away.

You don’t often get a chance to work for a true leader. I count myself among the lucky few.



When I interviewed many of you for employment at Sun over the years, one commitment often made was that things will change above, below, and around you faster than any place you have ever been. Looks like this was one area we exceeded plan for 28 years. While it was never the primary vision to be acquired by Oracle, it was always an interesting option. And this huge event is upon us now. Let’s all embrace it with all of the enthusiasm and class and talent that we have to offer.

This combination has the potential to put Sun, its people, and its technology at the center of yet another industry and game changing inflection point. The opportunity is well documented and articulated by Larry and the Oracle folks. Not much I can add on this score. This is a very powerful merger. And way better than some of the alternatives we were facing.

So what do I say to all of you now this is happening?

It turns out that one simple message to the large and diverse Sun community is actually quite hard to craft. Even for a big mouth who is always ready with a clever quip. The community includes our resellers and customers, our current and former employees, their friends and families who supported our employees on their mission to change the industry, our investors, our supply and service partners, students and educators, and even our competitors with whom we often collaborated.

But let me try. Though nothing I could write comes close to matching the unbelievably strong and positive emotions I have for you all. See, I never was able to master dispassion. I truly loved starting, running, and living Sun. And the last four years have not been without serious withdrawal. And the EU approval rocked me more than it should have.

So, to be honest, this is not a note this founder wants to write. Sun in my mind should have been the great and surviving consolidator. But I love the market economy and capitalism more than I love my company. And I sure “hope” America regains its love affair with capitalism. And except for the auto industry, financial industry, health care, and some other places (I digress), the invisible hand is doing its thing quite efficiently. So I am more than willing to accept this outcome. And my hat is off to one of the greatest capitalists I have ever met, Larry Ellison. He will do well with the assets that Sun brings to Oracle.

What we did right and wrong at Sun over the years might make for interesting reading. However, I am not a book writer. I am a husband, father of four, and a builder and leader of people who want to make a difference.

But spare me a bit of nostalgia. Not of the mistakes we made, and lord knows I made a ton. But of the things we did right and well.

First and foremost, Sun innovated like crazy. We took it to the limit (see Eagles). And though we did not monetize our inventions as well as we could have, few companies have the track record in R&D that we had over the last 28 years. This made working at Sun really cool. Thanks to all of you inventors and risk takers who changed how we live.

Sun cared about its customers. Even more than we cared about our own company at times. We looked at our customer’s mission as more important than ours. Maybe we should have asked for more revenue in return, but our employees were always ready to help first. I love this about Sun which I guess makes me a good capitalist if not a great capitalist.

Sun did not cheat, lie, or break the rule of law or decency. While we enjoyed breaking the rules of conventional wisdom and archaic business practice and for sure loved to win in the market, we did so with a solid reputation for integrity. Nearly three decades of competing without a notable incident of our folks going off course morally or legally. Not all executives and big companies are bad. Really. There are good companies out there. Special thanks to all of my employees for this. I never had to hide the newspaper in shame from my children.

Sun was a financial success. We paid billions in taxes, salaries, purchases, leases, training, and even lawyers and accountants for devastatingly cumbersome SOX and legal compliance (oops, more classic digression). Long term and smart investors made billions in SUNW. And our customers generated revenue and savings using our equipment in countless ways. Many employees started families, bought homes and put them through school while working at Sun. Our revenues over 28 years exceeded $200B. Few companies make it to the F200. We did. Nice.

Sun employees had way more fun than any other company. By far. From our dress code (“You must!”) to beer busts to our April Fools pranks to SunRise to our quiet enjoyment at night of a long hard well done day of work, no company enjoyed “work” more than Sun. Thanks to all of our employees past and present for making Sun such a blast.

I could go on for a long time reminiscing about the good and great stuff we did at Sun, but just allow me one last one. We shared. Not the greatest attribute for a capitalist. But one I could not change and was not willing to change about Sun while I was in charge. We shared in the success of Sun with our resellers. With our employees through stock options, SunShare, beer busts, and the like (for as long as Congress would allow) and through our efforts to keep as many of them on board for as long as possible during the inevitable down cycles. With our partners through the Java Community Process, through our open source collaborations, and licensing strategies. With our customers through our commitments to low barriers to exit. Sun was never just about us. It was about we. And that may be a bit of the reason we are where we are today.

But I have few regrets (see Sinatra’s “My Way”) and will always look back at Sun and its gang with only pride. Enormous pride. You are the best this industry ever had though few outside of Sun recognized it. And what we are about will live on in Sparc, Solaris, Java, our products, and our spirit. Well past everyone’s recollections of what we did together. I will never forget though.

Oracle is getting a crown jewel of the technology industry. They will do great things with Sun. Do your best to support them and keep the Sun spirit alive and well in the industry. Our children will be better for it.

Thanks for the off the charts support to everyone who ever carried a Sun badge, used our products, or helped our company through the years.

And thanks to my wonderful wife, Susan, who gave this desperado (see Eagles) a chance to choose the Queen of Hearts before it was too late. Someday, hopefully, you will all get to see or meet her and my other life’s works named Maverick, Dakota, Colt and Scout. If you do, perhaps you will understand why I stepped back from the CEO role four years ago. And why I feel like the luckiest guy in the whole world.

My best to all of you, and remember:

Kick butt and have fun!


Going to Cleveland. Send Xanax.

I hate it when I question my own writing.  Specifically when I have completed a post entry that I like and then get cold feet.  And that’s why you won’t see the original entry I wrote last night also titled “Going to Cleveland. Send Xanax.”

I admit it – I fell in love with my own title. It seemed to hold so much promise.  I even had the perfect photo from zazzle.com:

But it was not to be. Frankly, my entry couldn’t live up to the title and the photo. Try though I might, I just couldn’t be as funny as I wanted – my anxiety about leaving for Cleveland to take care of my mom for a couple weeks just came bleeding through.

The post also felt mean-spirited to me. Don’t get me wrong – I love being controversial and I don’t mind testing the limits, but I don’t like to be mean. Not my style – or at least that’s my self-image (if that isn’t so, please hold off on “truthing” me until I get through the next little while).

As I look through my blog history over the past three years, there aren’t many draft posts that I chose not to publish. One of them was named “Toad”, and as you might imagine, it definitely did not pass the “nothing mean-spirited” test. Another was about my long marriage – too drippy and sentimental. There were several that seemed to be ramblings without a point, written apparently to amuse myself and not my readers. There were a couple that suffered from over-writing. My writing tends to be best when it’s fresh off my fingertips – too much rewriting dulls my prose and turns me into a scold, I’ve learned.

Ahh, the little surprises tucked away in a blogger’s virtual suitcase.

But you know?  I just loved the title “Going to Cleveland. Send Xanax” too much not to use it.  Although this post is no “Burn On, Big River“, it still feels appropriate for a pre-Midwest trip.  And by the way?  If you do have any Xanax you’d like to contribute to the cause, feel free to send it my way!


One of my best childhood memories was summer break, when I could stretch out on a hammock with a stack of books next to me and just read. I’ve retained that love of reading over the years, and admit that with my Kindle, I’ve never been more hooked. But print or electronic, when I love a book, I reread it. So I find myself re-reading Elizabeth Stout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, at the same time that I’m reading Al Riske’s new book, Precarious, for the first time. What a lovely combination.

Al’s book is a compilation of short stories, and what he shares with Ms. Stout is his ability to tell a good story beautifully. No gimmicks. No flash. Just wonderful storytelling, in all of its understated glory. These are stories that you find yourself in – the highest compliment I can pay an author. You see your own foibles and, if you’re lucky, an occasional glance at your own grace.

Greedy reader that I am, the day Al’s book finally arrived, I canceled all meetings and put chores on the back burner so I could curl up and read. But I found myself putting the book down after just the first story. Why? Because I didn’t want to finish the book too quickly. These are stories I wanted to relish.

So I’ve rationed the book to myself, allowing only one story a day. It gives me something to look forward to, and a reward for being good – or a small piece of self-forgiveness if I haven’t.

Find yourself a comfortable chair, a good light and a cup of tea. Open Al’s book and be transported in the loveliest way possible.

Marrwiage… Is What Brings Us Together…Today

This was one of the greatest lines ever from The Princess Bride, one of the greatest movies ever –

But while marriage may bring us together, it certainly does not keep us together, if divorce statistics are any indication.

Several months ago, my son asked me to write about how his father and I have had such a long, happy marriage. Andrew is in his first serious long-term relationship, and was looking for the secrets of wedlock bliss. He commented that his dad and I – at least in his memory – rarely fought, and usually managed to put up a pretty united front.

I undertake this task with the concern that I’m woefully unqualified to comment. After all, Scott might (rightfully) say, “Well, Andrew my boy. The reason you didn’t hear us fight is that your mother has a bad habit of putting on the big freeze when she’s pissed, and refuses to talk at all!” Sigh. True. So true.

I grew up in a family of screamers.  Get mad?  Scream at each other.  Stomp out of the room.  Slam the door behind you.  Jump out of the car at the first stoplight.  Pout.  Yell.  Accuse.  Man, I hated that.  Which is why my preferred fighting mode is passive aggressive: read my lips because I’m steaming.   I’ll ice you out before I yell.

Neither method is going to win any awards for maturity or effectiveness.

But in looking back, although my parents were yellers, they drew the line at:

  • Defamation of character
  • Bad language (beyond “damn” or “hell”)
  • Bringing up old baggage
  • Ultimatums

And that kept the fighting, while unpleasant to listen to, at least pretty clean.  Most important, it kept the arguments contained to something you can recover from someday.

I remember as a young bride thinking that if I just said “that” it would be the end of our relationship.  I don’t remember what “that” was – it likely changed from argument to argument.  But you know what I’m talking about – the one nasty comment that is guaranteed to be a deal killer, to be so painful that it cannot be taken back.  I don’t think about that anymore, because I don’t want to hurt the person I love most in this world.   But I would say to my son, if there is something awful that you know is a really hurtful comment – don’t say it.  Just don’t.  Keep it to yourself where it belongs.

Of course, fighting is not a recreational sport – but it is a competitive one.  We do it for a reason – we disagree, we need to work out our differences, we need to stand up for our perspective.  And in any relationship there’s a ton of stuff to work out.  Going from one to two requires compromise and forgiveness.  But in some cases, there’s just no point in having the conversation again.  In my own little dialogue-killing manner, I ended our discussion of one sore point (once again, I don’t remember what it was) by saying,

“Before we waste a lot of energy on this, let me explain how this is going to go.  I’m going to say this, and you’re going to say that.  Then I’ll counter with this, and you’ll counter with that.  Then I’ll say this, and you’ll say ‘Likewise, I’m sure.’ At which point I’ll become infuriated and stop talking.   You’ll be infuriated that I’m freezing you out. So can we just skip the argument?  We’re not going to agree anyway so let’s just leave it alone.” 

And we did.

So if I were to offer advice on growing relationships, it would be to fight fair.  What about you?  What advice would you give? I’d love to hear others chime in on this topic.