TEDx talk is up on YouTube

My #TEDxMileHigh talk, “Colorado Mavericks,” is up on YouTube at http://bit.ly/SvJvqT; a bit of background here: http://bit.ly/JM8xly.

Final draft of the talk:

Making the leap 

I’m Todd Neff. So many stories of epic success (personal and professional, in business, politics, sports, sciences, the arts) involve some huge risk – some leap into the void – that paid off and led to fortune. Some people find this inspirational. I find it daunting, unsettling. Because I look at my own life and wonder when these kinds of pivotal moments might happen, if I’d recognize them, and whether I’d have the guts to make the leap.

I got to thinking about these leaps into the void. Because if super-successful people’s success was in fact not really a function of living on the edge, then there may just be hope for me. In particular, I took a look at the stories of three of the world’s most successful businessmen:

Charlie Ergen, chairman of DISH Network;

John Malone, former CEO of cable company TCI and Liberty Networks founder;

and the investor Philip Anschutz.

These are the three richest people in Colorado, according to Forbes magazine, worth more than $20 billion combined. Each is self-made. Each a brilliant businessman, strategist and tactician. And each with his own story of having taken a pivotal risk early in a career that led to the business pantheon. Let’s take a look at their legends.

It’s 1980, and 27-year-old Charlie Ergen is bouncing around the West.  He happens into the satellite-dish salesman – remember those 10-foot monsters? He, future wife Cantey and a friend cobble together $60,000 in savings – including pretty everything Ergen has – to buy franchise rights to sell them in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The company grows to the point they change its name from “Echosphere” to “Echostar” because it’s easier for overseas partners to pronounce. But Ergen’s thinking bigger: he wants to broadcast from his own satellites. In 1992, Ergen wins the license to do that.

He doesn’t actually have satellites, so he loads up on $335 million in junk bonds. He brings in Lockheed Martin to build him two satellites. To save money, he decides to launch them on Long March rockets by China Great Wall Industry Corp. As of late 1992, two of the last five Long March launches have failed. For comparison, one of the past 90 Boeing Delta rockets have failed. On December 28, 1995, a Long March 2E carries Ergen’s satellite to orbit. The very next Long March rocket takes out a Chinese village. With his new bird parked high above the Pacific Ocean, Ergen launches DISH network in March of 1996. “I bet this company on the nose of a Chinese rocket,” Ergen would say more than once. “A Chinese rocket!”

Then there’s John Malone. Malone graduates Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1963, hires into the famed Bell Labs and earns two technical masters degrees and a PhD on their dime. He was in such physical shape as a young man that he could do a one-armed chin-up, so in the unlikely event he didn’t outwit you, he could always just go ahead and kick your ass.

Malone leaves Bell Labs and spends two years at McKinsey & Company, then hires into a client that makes equipment for and loans money to growing but cash-strapped cable companies. By age 29, he’s leading the 3,000-person division. A couple years later, in 1972, Steve Ross, the Warner Communications chairman, offers Malone a salary of $150,000 ($775,000 in today’s dollars), a limo and driver, and to relocate Warner’s new cable headquarters to Connecticut, where Malone lives. Instead, for less than half the money, Malone chooses to come out to Denver’s TeleCommunications, Inc., or TCI, “an obscure cable company that had lurched from crisis to crisis for the preceding 20 years. In a western cow town,” as one writer put it. It’s run by Bob Magness, a hard-drinking former rancher cottonseed buyer. “I can’t pay you very much,” Magness tells Malone, “but you’ve got a great future here if you can create it.”

Malone grew TCI into the world’s largest cable company and sold it to AT&T for $44 billion in 1999.[1]

Finally, Philip Anschutz. In 1967, Philip Anschutz is a 27-year-old Denver oilman with not much in the bank. The phone rings at 2 a.m. It’s a rig supervisor. There’s been a blowout at an exploratory well he was drilling near Gillette, Wyoming. When Anschutz gets there, he finds the site ankle-deep in crude oil. He gets the well capped. Then he buys up as many oil leases as he can before the word gets out – on 30 days’ credit.

Back in Denver that night, he flips on the TV. There’s been a colossal oil field fire. In Gillette, Wyoming. When Anschutz gets back to the site, it’s flames everywhere. He calls famed oil-field fighter Red Adair, who tells him, “”Kid, I checked you out, and you don’t check out.” Anschutz begs; Adair relents, but with the warning: “If you don’t pay me, don’t ever have another oil field fire.”

Anschutz learns that Universal Studios is making a movie based on Adair’s exploits. He make a deal with Universal to film Adair’s crews fighting the fire – for a fee of $100,000 — enough to keep him afloat until the banks lend him money to pay for the leases he’s bought on credit. The rest is history.

So these are the legends. Now for the backstory.

Charlie Ergen had a Wake Forest MBA and a CPA, most recently having worked as a financial controller for Frito Lay (so he had skills to fall back on). Before his bet on the satellite, Ergen had paid himself $15 million from the sizable satellite-dish company he, his wife and friend had grown from scratch. And that satellite on the Chinese rocket? It was insured, and he launched that second satellite on a French rocket. (Ariane-42P H10-3)

John Malone had recognized during his time with Bell Labs that he wasn’t meant to work his way up an organizational ladder. At Bell Labs, “He knew exactly what he was going to make the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. It wasn’t the fortune that Malone had begun to envision – not just the financial fortune, but his personal fortune.”[2] He understood the cable business intimately before joining TCI and recognized its potential for growth. And Malone was also an exceptionally talented executive and dealmaker who would not, should TCI fail, fall very far.

Philip Anschutz’s father was a wildcatter, and Anschutz had learned the ropes of an inherently risky business from him. The biggest risk Anschutz took in Gillette was doing exploratory drilling in the first place. Anschutz understood the game and how crucial it was to act fast in the face of good fortune – or bad. With the Universal Studios story, well, some legends are myth. I watched “Hellfighters” – The Duke, the lovely Katharine Ross, drinking, smoking, cavorting, a Malayan bar fight, walls of flame – what else could you ask from a movie? – and called the director, Andrew McClaglen. He’s 91 now, still directing plays up in Friday Harbor, Washington. Turns out they’d sent the special effects coordinator (Fred Knoth, who had a University of Colorado engineering degree/Loveland) out with Adair to watch an oil field fire in Gillette, Wyoming, presumably Anschutz’s. Then Knoth recreated what he’d seen using copious amounts of diesel and propane in Casper and Houston, where they actually filmed. McLaglen said all the oil-field fires in the film were simulated, including this one.

As long as we’re shattering myths, Charlie Ergen was never much of a professional gambler,and John Malone… well, he could probably still kick your ass, actually. I mean, look at the guy. He could definitely kick my ass. Maybe Ergen and Anschutz could join him for a sort of bad-boy billionaire smackdown broadcast LIVE from the Staples Center via Chinese satellite.

So what can we take away from all this?

Looking at these 3 legends, at least,

  • What look like awesome stories of terrific risk-taking are often much less dramatic when considered in context.
  • You don’t need to take radical risks to meet with enormous success.
  • These guys all took risks. But they didn’t take crazy risks. They took calculated risks. Their stories teach us that we should leap – and by the way, it doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily leaping towards financial riches – you may want to leap into teaching, or leap into downshifting to spend more time with your kids.
  • Yes, we should leap. But not into the void.  We should leap onto what we, after careful consideration, see as an escalator – or better yet, an elevator toward our goals and dreams.

[2] Mark Robichaux, “Cable Cowboy” (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002), 28.

‘Jars’ wins Colorado Book Award

My book, From Jars to the Stars, won the 2011 Colorado Book Award for History at the annual Colorado Humanities and Center for the Book ceremony in Aspen last Friday. This is particularly gratifying to me because, being the history category, it’s an indication that the book is readable.

I’ve found myself trying to explain this — no, really, it’s not that technical… you can  handle it… it’s narrative nonfiction, a yarn, not a science textbook or engineering manual…  Now I can just say, well, it won the Colorado Book Award for History.

From Jars to the Stars

"From Jars to the Stars" now comes with a shiny gold sticker.

My nine-year-old daughter Lily having had a skating competition in Colorado Springs and thereby tying up her mother, I brought Maya, my six-year-old, along. I bought her off with a lot of swimming in the immense Glenwood Springs pool (we stayed in Glenwood, Aspen being booked up) and, on the way home, a wild couple of rides at the Breckenridge Peak 8 fun park.

I had to buy Maya off twice because she suffered two formal, adult-filled events. First the ceremony itself at Aspen Meadows on Friday; then a talk I gave to the Colorado Humanities board at the Glenwood Springs Residence Inn on Saturday. I provided a bit of backstory on the book. I’ve pasted it below — it’s not really a transcript as I largely winged it, but it is what I wrote up in advance.

Afterward, I asked Maya what she thought about the talk, which ran about 17 minutes.

“No offense, dad, but it was a little long,” she said. “And boring.”

But witnessing it all must have planted some deeper curiosity regarding the odd creature who sired her. In the car on the way home, not long after a parade of about 30 Lamborghinis ripped by us as our minivan lumbered up Vail pass, Maya asked: “What’s your favorite thing to do? Talk to people? Or drink beer with people?”

The latter, Maya. Definitely the latter.


Colorado Humanities Board talk
6/23/12, Saturday, Glenwood Springs

To Jars to the Stars
What I learned from writing a space book

I’d like to talk a bit about how From Jars to the Stars came to be and then share a couple of nonscientific insights into the creative process.

You learn a good deal when you write a book – about yourself as much as the topics. Many of you aren’t writers per se, but I think some of the lessons apply to ordinary civilians, too.

First, a bit of history.

–         Covered the Deep Impact mission as science and environment writer for the Boulder Daily Camera. Saw the spacecraft 1x.

  • Chasing press releases/press conferences.
  • Seeing bags under the engineers’ eyes, was struck by how hard this all must be.
  • Was thinking the book would be a deep dive into a single space mission, a “Soul of the New Machine” for a space mission. So not a history book, really.
  • Then fell into the history bit and realized it was legend and decided it needed to be put to rest.

–         Landed an agent through Mike Cote, then the city editor at the Boulder Daily Camera. A lovely woman named Barbara Bova, who helped me amass probably 20 rejection letters. She came very close with the U.S. Naval Institute Press – editor liked it, marketing worried about sales prospects. I did not realize at this point that roughly one space book has ever sold well – Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”

–          Got a Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at CU, in which I studied renewable energy, but kept forging ahead on this thing as Barbara continued to pitch editors. I had by this time taken so many people’s time and became so engrossed in the story and the quality of these people that I decided to just do it. Because I realized that:

  • History was repeating itself in a sort of 3 act play
  • I realized that if you understood Ball Aerospace, you understood the history of space exploration.
  • I realized that aerospace engineers behind these spacecraft are quiet heroes, and that if you understood space engineers, you understood engineers in general, and that it’s a noble profession full of people who like to solve tough problems and just build things
  • I realized that hat you could get engineers to talk quite candidly at Conor O’Neill’s Pub in boulder, aided by a large nachos and a few Guinnesses.
  • I realized that writing for a small paper like the Camera, you always have excuses. I covered science and the environment. The Denver Post or the Rocky Mountain News routinely ran enterprise stories – fat features with gorgeous art and graphics – of my competitors. At the Camera, you filed daily stories and picked away at enterprise stuff on the margins. I always had an excuse. With a book, there’s no excuse. You’ve got time to give it your best shot. It was a chance to see if I had the goods. The Ball history was, I felt, a great story, and if it didn’t turn into a good book, it would be on me.

Then Barbara died of cancer. An old friend, a brilliant designer and writer David Barringer, convinced me to just do it myself with his help. I figured if no one was going to publish it, I’d create a publisher to do it.

  • This was an enormous amount of effort. Coaxing Dave to do the work (I paid him, but not much), incorporating Earthview Media, setting up bank accounts, applying for sales tax and retail/use/lodgers tax  licenses (hanging on the office wall of my office, which is a converted dining room); working with Edwards Brothers of Ann Arbor, Michigan to get them printed (offset, not print-on-demand). All the marketing, the press releases and otherwise jonesing for media mentions, the business cards, letterhead… the creation of E-books in Kindle and EPUB versions, which I did myself…  just insane, really.
  • Then Saia, the trucking company, dropped off roughly 2,250 of these things on 2 shipping pallets. Maya, here, and her sister Lily, thought it was pretty great, climbing all over this corrugated plateau. I found it rather terrifying. There were 32 books that may or may not ever sell in each of those boxes.

So that’s how this all came about. Now for a bit about what I learned that might be relevant to your lives. The first thing has to do with the “morning person” vs. “night owl” myth.

The work process

I would submit that before there were electric lights we were all morning people anyway – forged into our DNA while were still furry.

I’m not saying night owls don’t exist, it’s just that our brains work differently early and late, and most likely, you’re going to get more done early.

I got up at 4:30 a.m. while I was writing this thing. Actually getting out of the bed was beastly; once you’re up, though, you’re up. I’d fire up a mint tea and sit down at the keyboard. I found that in the morning, my brain can handle much more complexity – you can juggle several cognitive balls, which you need to do when trying to thread together a coherent story line from events that, in the case of From Jars to the Stars, were happening at the same time. You can prioritize better, too – you can see what’s relevant enough to stay on the periphery of the story and what needs to be cut. A good 300-page book, after all, is as tightly edited as a newspaper story – nothing extraneous, everything bunched around the narrative thread.

You can turn great writing into tripe by not killing your babies. I’m not talking about infanticide, but rather about whacking everything that’s there because you particularly fancy it despite it not quite fitting.

My early drafts From Jars to the Stars were full of babies – little things I thought were interesting. I had the benefit of this friend David Barringer, who beat the hell out of me and focused the thing. It’s a good 10,000 words shorter than the first draft.

So we’re all morning people. Morning could be 5 a.m. or noon, depending on when you get to bed, by the way. So the bottom line is: Do the hard stuff first.

But we’re all night owls, too.

At night, you’re fried from running around all day, commuting, working, ferrying around kids, , just living life. High-level conceptual and organizational work is possible, but it’s way less efficient, and you’re more likely than not going to find yourself in the middle of an ESPN.com story about Euro 2012 without being able to remember how you got there.

But at night I find myself to be more creative in the micro-sense.  I tend to come up with “big ideas” or funny turns or synthesis of diverse notions that have been swimming around my subconscious. When I give talks about From Jars to the Stars, I wrap it up with what I call my “Carl Sagan moment.”

Deep Impact’s image of the impactor atomizing against the belly of comet Tempel 1 belongs with a handful of photos depicting just how far earthly evolution has come in the 4.6 billion years since the ices and organic chemicals of comets began agglomerating into our rocky planet. In such an exclusive album belong the Apollo 8 “Earthrise”; the Voyager “pale blue dot” image of Earth from beyond the orbit of Pluto; Cassini’s shot of Saturn aglow, backlit by the sun; and any one of a slew of images the Mars Exploration Rovers have snapped of their own caterpillar tracks on Martian soil. To capture such beauty took some of our most advanced technologies, some of our brightest people, exquisite coordination, enormous riches, and, perhaps most importantly, a collective desire to explore. These photos are our pyramids.

The original version of that I’d scribbled in the dark on a notepad next to my bed at like 2 a.m. So I guess you could say the memorable stuff emerges from a tired mind. To take it back to the caveman analogy, I think the mind somehow has been trained to the point of genetic predisposition to open up at night, maybe to allow it to envision better stories around the flickering campfire.

The Spreadsheet

But make no mistake: Literary creativity – at least nonfiction literary creativity – demands organization.  I started my career at the global IT consulting firm known as Accenture, and developed a soft spot for spreadsheets. I used them in writing the book .

My master spreadsheet for “from Jars to the Stars” had 337 kilobytes of text, which is a lot of text. I had 10 tabs. One was for numbers – every calculation I made is in there – that a ton of TNT imparts 3.9583 gigajoules of energy, that an adult male standing on comet Tempel  1 would weigh about as much as a penny does on Earth. Others tabs are full of Web links, cross-references, things I had to verify, even “deep thoughts.” Most of those didn’t make the book, though I parked the “Carl Sagan Moment” there and it did survive, though heavily edited.

Smoking-Gauloises-while-wearing-a-beret sort of creativity is useless without a foundation of organization. To succeed in writing you have to balance literary creativity and mundane time and task management. One of the biggest benefits of doing this is to create a parking place for relevant distractions while you’re trying to write. By relevant distraction I mean, when you’re writing about something that happened in the 1950s, you think – ah, that’s relevant to something that happened in the 1990s! It’s important, but if you stop what you’re doing in the 1950s, you’ll lose the thread and slow the whole process down When I show this speradsheet to other writers, they shake their heads, because many writers have a visceral fear of spreadsheets and numbers, which is a shame.

“The Bad Idea”

Dan Baum, the former New Yorker writer and author, came to CU to talk to us Scripps fellows right around the time I’d decided to forge ahead with the book. Baum is a freelance writer and author (most notably, of “Nine Lives,” about New Orleans), and is relentlessly focused on financial return for his efforts. This is doubly important in that his wife is his editor. Dan Baum is a person, and also a mini-brand for him and Margaret. My wife’s in IT; if I have a rough month, we still eat. I mentioned what I was up to in writing From Jars to the Stars essentially on spec and he shook his head said, “Bad idea.”

Baum was right – From Jars to the Stars didn’t sell wildly, cost me thousands of hours at what worked out to sub-minimum-wage pay, and lord knows what opportunity cost. I could’ve written two or three different books by now had I started with a moderate commercial success.

But I also could have written zero books, and given that I’ve got two young girls for whom I’m the primary caregiver, plus paying freelance work that beckons, that’s the more likely scenario.

So even if it was a bad idea, I’m glad I did it. My wife and I get by just fine. I learned a lot. I answered the question that stalks all decent writers – am I capable of writing a book? It’s an energizing experience, somehow, despite it being so exhausting.  Honors like being nominated for a Colorado Book Award, not to mention winning one, have opened up opportunities like getting up here and talking to folks like you – opportunities that don’t come often in this life. And I thank you for it.

Cramming for TEDxMileHigh this Saturday

I’ve been distracted — maybe to the point of being primarily focused — on a 10-minute talk I’m giving sometime between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. this Saturday at TEDxMileHigh. It’s at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, with maybe 1,500-2,000 folks expected to attend. It should be a helluva show, my performance notwithstanding, if you’re in the neighborhood.

For the uninitiated, TEDx conferences are big-thinking offshoots of the big-big thinking California TED conferences. Its short videos have become a lunch-hour/need-a-break-but-sick-of-ESPN.com staple across the land.

I’m one of 12 speakers and, it’s safe to say, among the lesser decorated among them. To put it mildly. I’m stoked, I’m a bit awed by the whole thing. I’ve been working on the talk like a fiend. The talk’s not about me — we’ll leave that to Jeremy Bloom and the other higher-profile folks — but rather the three richest people in Colorado, on the event theme of risk and reward.

I don’t know that the talk is good or milquetoast (I can’t divulge detail; it’ll be filmed and posted online afterward, though). I do know that some of my best writing work has emerged from a similar process of discovery, though.

In essence, Jeremy Duhon, who somehow finds the time to curate TEDxMileHigh in addition to being a portfolio manager and partner at Denver Investments (I don’t know much about Jeremy’s home life, but I seriously doubt he has kids yet), sent a note over, and then called. Someone had nominated me as a potential speaker, he said, not divulging who. Do you have any ideas?

Jeremy is a bright, broadminded dude; within about 45 minutes on the phone, we’d worked through some notions, the leading contender being the need for a major risk taker to plant the seeds for what become major clusters of innovation. I was thinking Ed Ball in Boulder, who did this sort of thing in founding Ball Aerospace in 1956. Then I got to thinking telecom (a Denver staple) and the focus of the story changed entirely. Before I knew it Ed Ball was way, way out of the picture and I was researching the histories of three exceedingly wealthy dudes about whom I knew precious little, each with a risk-taking legend attached to the story of his success. And then I was talking with the director of the 1968 John Wayne movie “Hellfighters” to confirm that one of the legends — or part of it — was mere myth, despite its having been retold in Fortune magazine, in books, on websites, etc. But I’ve said too much already.

You basically have to memorize a TED talk, which the curators describe as giving “The Talk of Your Life.” Then the curators send you links to the poet Rives unbelievable riff “4 a.m.” of TED 2007 or Al Gore’s terrifically polished 2006 distillation of his Oscar-winning “Inconvenient Truth” talk (complete with Hollywood-class Keynote-slide production value), and you just sort of overload and figure you’ll do the best you can.

Which means, in my case, memorizing 1,500-odd words of talk as if it were my phone number, which I’d quite possibly forget anyway under the Ellie‘s spotlights. The .ppt slides I put a bit of effort into also, albeit conscious that they weren’t going to carry me far either way (many TED speakers forego them entirely; I’m using photos/icons only).

Right now the challenge is I’m 30 seconds over my 10-minute allotment, and am not sure where to cut. Wish me luck, and hope to see you there.



Imaging Earth, 2012 vs. 1972

NASA has released a phenomenal image:

Big Blue Marble 2012

Big Blue Marble, 2012 Edition. Click through and download the hi-res image to zoom in. It's worth your time.

Taken by the the Suomi NPP spacecraft on January 4. Ball Aerospace built the NPP spacecraft; the instrument, the snappily named Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), is Goddard’s work. Unbelievable.

If it looks vaguely familiar, that’s Earth. It’s kind of camera-shy, and when we’re focused on vital issues like the latest Romney-Gingrich throwdown in Florida, it doesn’t much have to worry about the paparazzi. But Apollo 17 astronauts famously caught it off guard nearly 40 years ago, on December 17, 1972.

Big Blue Marble, 1972

Big Blue Marble, 1972 edition

The above shot is credited with changing the way we look at Earth. The astronauts talked about how vulnerable our home appeared. They had a wide-angle view, and it was one blue marble and a helluva lot of killer black space.

One thing the newer image brings that the first didn’t is the wisp of atmosphere. It’s a halo, really.

Neither image deigns to recognize our physical presence. We seem invisible, all seven billion of us, our roads, bridges, buildings, bases, factories, mines, airports, warehouses, malls, everything. Many among us still can’t fathom that we can have a global impact. Looking at these shots, it’s not hard to understand why.

It’s befitting that our biggest global impact is invisible to us, too — gases, CO2 primarily, colorless, odorless, necessary for life on Earth, but also a risk to sea life (acidification) and sea-shore life (beachfront condos). That impact is very real, very measurable. If you don’t trust science, go see a faith healer next time you have strep throat.

But check out how thin that atmosphere is. A NOAA scientist — actually this guy (congratulations, Russ) — once described it to me as a sheet of paper on a standard basketball-size globe. Look how beautiful that planet is. Think about how we’re a part of it. How, far from being lords of it, our presence, from a few thousand miles away, can’t even be seen — only felt.

On the Radio

I headed down to Colorado Public Radio about a week ago to record a Colorado Matters piece about the book. Available here: http://bit.ly/v4rn2E. It was a cool experience. The soundproofed studio not much bigger than a walk-in closet, the questions about Kepler, Hubble and (biaxial) pointing controls. On-air man Pat Mack and producer Michelle Fulcher did a great job. I was particularly impressed with the editing work, which trimmed fat while retaining meat. It aired Dec. 28, maybe 7-8 minutes.