Feedback is the breakfast of champions. The good, the bad, and the ugly — all of it.
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the great pleasure of interviewing BJ Gallagher.
BJ Gallagher is a workplace expert, prolific author, and popular speaker. Her international business fable, A Peacock in the Land of Penguins (Berrett-Koehler)is THE best-selling diversity book in the world — selling over 400,000 copies in 23 languages. Her other business books include: Being Buddha at Work: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money, and Success(with a Foreword by the Dalai Lama), and YES Lives in the Land of NO: A Tale of Triumph Over Negativity (both published by Berrett-Koehler), and a career book, It’s Never Too Late To Be What You Might Have Been (Viva Editions).
BJ’s recent books are: The Power of Positive Doing and The Leadership Secrets of Oz (both published by Simple Truths). Her new book, Your Life Is Your Prayer (Mango Publishing) will be out in April 2019.
BJ is a columnist for Beliefnet.com and was a Huffington Post blogger on for many years. She has been featured on CBS Evening News, the Today Show, Fox News, PBS, CNN, and other television and radio programs. She is quoted frequently in various newspapers, women’s magazines, and websites, including: O the Oprah magazine, Redbook, Woman’s World, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Orlando Sentinel, Financial Times (U.K.), Guardian (U.K.), MSNBC.com, CareerBuilder.com, CNN.com, Forbes.com, among others.
In addition to writing books, BJ also conducts seminars and delivers keynotes at conferences and professional meetings across the country. Her corporate clients include: IBM, Chevron, US Veteran’s Administration, John Deere Credit Canada, Volkswagen, Farm Credit Services of America, Raytheon, US Department of Interior, Phoenix Newspapers Inc., the American Press Institute, Infiniti, Nissan, Atlanta Journal Constitution, among others.
BJ’s academic credentials are as impressive as her professional background: She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of USC, earning a BA in Sociology, summa cum laude. She has finished the coursework for a PhD in Social Ethics, also at USC.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
I’m an Air Force kid, born in Orange, California. We moved to the Philippines when I was 9 months old, then Japan, then came back to Los Angeles when I was 2½ — fluent in both Japanese and English. My childhood was spent moving from place to place across three continents, as my dad was an AF pilot who served his country through three wars and many years of peace.
Spent my junior high years living in Germany — was there the same time Elvis was in the Army. High school was spent in Illinois, where I lived the classic “American Graffiti” experience — working as a car hop, as the local boys cruised by in their cool cars. It was the ’60s and my theme song was “California Dreamin’” … I longed to return to the Golden State state.
The Summer of Love (1967) brought me back to California, where I explored Haight Ashbury, went to free concerts in Golden Gate Park with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company performing.
As the Summer of Love drew to a close, it was time to start college, so I went back to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. Didn’t last long. Fell in love with a handsome frat boy, dropped out of college, got married, and started a family. So my education was sidetracked for a few years. But when the marriage broke up — as so many teen marriages do — I took my toddler back East to live with my parents in Dover, Delaware, where Dad was stationed at the time. Decided to go back to school, so I enrolled in the University of Delaware, where I completed my first two years of college.
Spent the summer of ’74 as an intern in the office of Pete DuPont in Washington DC. It was a fantastic time to be there, as the Watergate hearings were underway and I had a front-row seat to history — working for a Republican congressman who was on the Impeachment committee. Couldn’t have been a more exciting — and educational — experience for a political science major.
After six months on Capitol Hill, I decided it was time to return to California and finish my education there, so I transferred to the University of Southern California, which I finished my BA degree in Sociology, summa cum laude (highest honors). Graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a straight A average. Felt good about that, as I had finished my degree in four years, while raising a toddler, too. That experience taught me that if you want something badly enough, you can work around all sorts of difficulties and barriers to achieve your goals. In fact, I think that being a single mother and a full-time college student actually made me manage my time better than other young people, and it gave me extra motivation that others didn’t have.
After graduating from USC I jumped right into a PhD program in Social Ethics. Spent three years completing the coursework for a PhD, then took a job at the University, hoping to write my dissertation while working full-time and continuing to raise my son. I never did finish that dissertation, but discovered that indeed, learning really is its own reward, and I’m grateful to the rigorous training I received in grad school — especially in thinking and writing. That training helped make me the skillful writer that I am today. ß
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life?
I haven’t really thought about it until now, but I think all those Nancy Drew mystery books I read as a kid taught me to be curious, adventurous, resourceful, and persistent. Nancy Drew was smart — and as a kid, I was smart, too. Nancy was a girl detective in a world dominated by males. She didn’t let the fact that she was a girl deter her from taking initiative, challenging herself with tough problems to solve, taking risks, and persevering no matter what.
She knew what she wanted to do — solve mysteries, help people, pursue justice — and she went out and did it. It didn’t occur to me until you asked the question, but I guess that’s what I like to do, too — solve problems, help people, and pursue fairness and justice. That’s what I do with my books and consulting.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world?
“How did you come up with the metaphor for your story?” people often ask, “The Peacock in the Land of Penguins is so perfect — how did you think of it?”
The answer is simple: I lived it. I was working at a large metropolitan newspaper in the late 1980’s and early 90’s; we held regular meetings of the executive and middle management groups to review circulation figures, assess advertising revenues, and plan new goals. These meetings were always the same: The president with all his vice presidents and directors would sit in the front row in the elegant auditorium, and the publisher began the meeting by introducing each of them. One-by-one they would pop up out of their chairs and turn to face the 200 middle managers in the rows behind them. They all wore dark suits, white shirts, and business ties; they were all about the same height, save one or two tall ones; and all but one were white males (the lone female penguin wore a dark suit and pearls). By all appearances, you would think they all went to the same barber and the same tailor!
One morning I was sitting in one of these meetings, watching these fellows, like so many jack-in-the-boxes popping up, one right after another. “Huh!”I thought to myself, “They all look like penguins.”Then I looked down at myself. I was wearing my favorite Carole Little dress, a bright and bold floral, mid-calf, a bit flouncy (but very slimming). “What’s wrong with this picture?”I asked myself. “I’m like a peacock in the midst of all these penguins!”I shook my head, wondering how this could have happened. How did I end up here?
Thus the metaphor was born. Over time, I discovered others in the company who were in a similar predicament; the bird metaphor fit them, too. Helen the Hawk was a friend who was always criticized by her bosses for being too aggressive. Mike the Mockingbird was incredibly talented, and was attracted by bright, sparkling new ideas. He frequently got himself into trouble by crossing functional boundaries in hopes of implementing his creative ideas. Edward the Eagle was an impressive guy from a rural state who was extremely smart, but did not have the fine polish of the penguins. They let him know in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that he was not classy enough to make it to the top. Sara the Swan was sort of a dreamer, soft-spoken, with many good ideas, but viewed as flaky and unrealistic by the penguins. These were not fictional characters. They were all real people, struggling with the same problem I was — trying to be successful in a corporate culture that did not value creativity, innovation, and risk-taking.
This company was an extremely conservative place, with definite norms about “the way we do things here.” None of us odd birds had a snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted by the penguins. Over time, we each came to the same conclusion … and one by one we left in search of our Land of Opportunity elsewhere.
I left the paper with a generous buy-out package but despite the money, I wasn’t able to shake off the hurt, resentment, and anger I felt. It was like that old lament: “I gave them the best years of my life” … and this is how they reward me for my dedication, hard work, and contributions of the company. Try as I might, I couldn’t shake off my anger. The situation felt so unfair, so wrong.
After six months of stewing in resentment, I decided to write a story. It was to be a mental health exercise. I thought that perhaps I could process my negative feelings through writing and finally be rid of that anger once and for all. So I sat down and in one weekend wrote eleven pages single spaced. It just poured out on paper, my fingers flying in fury on the keyboard.
I sent it to a friend of mine, USC professor Warren H. Schmidt, who had written many parables over the years, and gotten one published in the LA Times, “Is It Always Right to Be Right?” It was a huge success and got adapted into an animated short film that won an Academy Award in 1971. I asked Warren to help me fine-tune my peacock story, thinking that perhaps we’d get it published in the “Harvard Business Review” or some other business journal.
But Warren’s parables were all just a couple pages long — this peacock story just couldn’t be condensed into just two pages. We realized it needed to be a book. So we spent the next year editing, polishing, and honing the story.
We got a literary agent — the agent who had sold Ken Blanchard’s “The One Minute Manager” and we were in good hands with her. She coached us and edited our manuscript, since she really loved the story and thought it could be as successful as “The One Minute Manager.”
So you see, I didn’t really start out with a lofty vision for my book. I just wanted a cathartic experience — a mental health exercise to exorcise those annoying penguins from my head. But once I started writing, the story took on a life of its own. It went from a story to a book … then it turned into a hugely successful book. Then we adapted the story into an animated corporate training film that was even more successful than the book. We developed training materials to go with the video and began publishing workbooks, leaders guides, etc. In short, a cottage industry sprang up around what started out as a simple story about a misfit peacock in a land of penguins.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
A Peacock in the Land of Penguinshas two messages, for two very different audiences. The first message is for those who feel like an odd duck or a fish out of water — at work, at worship, where they go to school, or simply in their communities — where they’re criticized and judged for not fitting in and “not being like the rest of us.” The message for these folks is: “Take heart, there’s nothing wrong with you. Just because you march to your own drummer, just because you seem out of step with those around you, doesn’t mean you’re defective. You’re just different — you’re unique — you’re one in a million — and that’s OK.”
The second message is for all the penguins in the world — who are leading corporations and businesses, running the government, in charge of colleges, universities, and schools, as well as those in charge of hospitals and other non-profit organizations. The message for them is: “Wake up! By pressuring everyone to conform to certain rather narrow norms of acceptable behavior, you’re losing out on a lot of creativity and talent that the ‘odd ducks’ in your organization have to contribute.”
In short, my goal is comfort the afflicted … and afflict the comfortable. I want to reassure those who feel overlooked and unappreciated — and I want to shake the complacency out of those in charge.
Did the actual results align with your expectations?
The results far exceeded my expectations. Never in a million years did I think I was writing an international best-seller that would be translated into 23 languages. Never did I dream that my Peacock book would become THE best-selling diversity book in the world!
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement?
When my publisher, Berrett-Koehler, took the book to the Frankfurt Book Fair and a German publishing house bought the rights for $10,000 — that’s when I began to suspect that we were onto something big. Foreign rights don’t usually fetch big advances, especially for business books. So the $10,000 offer from the Germans was a surprise.
Then, when several Japanese publishers got into a bidding war, then we knew something big was happening on the international front. When the rights to our book in Japan sold for $65,000, that’s when we really knew that an international diversity conversation had begun.
We realized that creating a culture of pluralism — a culture in which birds of differentfeathers can flock together, each singing in their own voice — wasn’t just an American problem, it’s a human problem. The Land of Opportunity is what we were creating — a new land with a new motto: “E Pluribus Maximus” (Greatness from Many).
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
Probably the most gratifying aspect of the success we’ve had with the book is the response we’ve gotten from readers — not just in the US, but around the world. I get fan mail and email from people in many types of organizations, large and small, businesses and non-profits, police and fire departments, schools, hospitals, universities, Fortune 500 companies, and many more. They all say basically the same thing: “Thank you for telling my story. This is how I feel working in my organization. Your book reassured me that I am not alone. I have hope that I will find my own Land of Opportunity.”
On the international level, the biggest response we get is from Latin America. I get letters from Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil, Panama, and other Latin countries on a regular basis.
• “God bless you for writing this book,” some say.
• “Thank you,” one woman wrote, “You have helped me get through these days in a very difficult organization. The penguins here crush my spirit.”
• “Your book helps me understand people better and to become a better manager of all different ‘birds’ who work for me,” another writes.
Letters like these are the realreward for writing books. Royalties are nice, but touching people’s lives is priceless.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book?
Yes. I can actually share two stories — somewhat surprising stories, since they’re about children:
About ten years ago, I received an email from Bill Bradley, an business consultant:
Hi BJ. I know you will love this story. My grandson Kyle was given a reading assignment in his 6thgrade class. The assignment was to pick a book that could have a positive influence on your life. He picked ‘A Peacock in the Land of Penguins.’ In his report he wrote (I am slightly paraphrasing) that he feel insecure about a lot of things and that he particularly fears life after school. After reading the book he said that he realizes that a lot of his fears about things he doesn’t yet know and that by staying focused and working hard anyone can become a success at whatever they decide to do. He said he no longer fears life after school and welcomes the challenge.
He doesn’t talk much, and especially about school. For him to talk to me for several minutes about your book is amazing. In fact, it is the longest single conversation I have ever had with him. I honestly believe he will never have the same depth of self-doubts and that he will carry “his” lessons from your book for a long, long time. On behalf of both of us, I thank you. Bill
Bill’s email brought tears to my eyes. How wonderful it felt to have touched the life of a youngster in this way. I thought my heart would burst.
Then a few years ago, a woman named Carol contacted me on Facebook to tell me how much she liked the Peacock book. She said she had a son who was somewhat different from other boys — though she didn’t explain how he was different, she just said “different.” She explained how every September, when her son starts a new grade in school, she buys a copy of the peacock book and gives it to his teacher. She wants the teacher to understand that her boy is not a penguin — he is a unique bird who has his own talents, skills, and abilities. She wants to make sure her son’s teachers understand him and don’t try to force him to be like all the other boys — but rather allow him to be himself and be accepted just the way he is.
I have no way of knowing how many other readers are sharing the book with their kids, grandkids, or other youngsters, but I am overjoyed when I get this kind of unexpected feedback. I want young birds everywhere to know that they can be whatever kind of bird they want … as they stretch their wings and learn to fly.
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
I can’t think of anything negative that’s resulted from the book’s success, either here in the US or in the two dozen countries where it’s published. The only negative comment anyone ever made came from my ex-husband, who was a corporate VP at Northrup for many years. He thought the book was fine for employees but “too simplistic for executives.” I had to laugh. He’s not the only person who confuses “simple” with “simplistic.”
The number one quality of good writing is accessibility. You want people of all backgrounds, of all ages, of all educational levels to be able to read your book and benefit from it. What most people don’t realize is that it’s actually harder to write asimplebook than it is to write a 300-page tome. Believe me, I’ve done both. I’ve written a 300-page book and I’ve written several short business parables. The parables are harder. They’re easy to read, but hard to write.
My ex didn’t appreciate the book — partly because he’s a corporate penguin who was a bit defensive about penguins being the bad guys — and partly just because he’s my ex. It’s in the nature of the relationship of exes to be a bit more critical than the average reader. I totally get that. So it didn’t hurt my feelings or make me worry about the book’s success. I had plenty of feedback from other sources to let me know we were on the right track with this book.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
There is something powerful about ink on paper. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I saw it when I worked at the LA Times — the power of the press. And I’ve seen it with the books I’ve published. It’s almost mystical, the power of the printed work.
Years ago, I had a dinner meeting with several managers from a large oil company with offices in Northern California. We were meeting to discuss their diversity concerns and I was hoping to land a consulting gig with them. As we sat down at the table and started to get to know each other, I handed each one of them a copy of my book. They saw my name on the cover; they saw the Foreword by Ken Blanchard; they saw the endorsements on the back cover; and they saw how attractive the book was. Bingo! Instant credibility. I could see it on their faces and their body language. The deal was sealed before we’d even begun talking — all that remained to be decided was the scope and terms of the contract. Thatis the power of the printed word.
Multiply this by thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions, and you have a movement. A book carries the message to far more people than the author ever can. Books are portable — they can be passed from friend to friend. Books are durable — they can travel great distances and touched by many hands without losing their effectiveness. Books are reliable — unlike the spoken word which gets changed, modified, and tweaked a bit every time it’s repeated (ever play the “telephone game”?). A call to action in a book is consistent from reader to reader — the message doesn’t get garbled as it’s passed from hand to hand. All these characteristics of books factor into their power to start movements and maintain them over time.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?
I use three criteria for deciding whether to write a book: (1) Will it make a positive difference in the world? (2) Will it be fun? (3) Will it make money? If the answer is “yes” to two of the three questions, then I write the book.
Asking these three questions helped me decide to write my Peacock book. — I thought it would make a difference and I figured it would be fun. I had no idea if it would make money, but since I’d already answered “yes” two of the three questions, making money didn’t matter.
Over the years, I’ve written for money and fun; sometimes for money and making a difference; and other times for making a difference and having fun. Of course, the ideal is “yes” on all three questions. A project like that is always fantastic. In hindsight, my Peacock book did turn out to be three “yeses” — I just didn’t know that when I began writing it.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?
I learned that you can do everything right in terms of writing and publishing your book — and it still might not sell well. There are all sorts of factors outside your control that affect the success of the message you’re trying to send.
I’ll give you an example. In Fall of 2001, I coauthored “What Would Buddha Do at Work?” with Buddhist scholar Franz Metcalf. We worked hard to write the best book, the most practical helpful workplace resource we could possibly create. It was published by the best business book publishing house in the world — Berrett-Koehler Publishers. We spent money to hire a fantastic publicist, Leslie Rossman of Open Book Publicity. We made a beautiful Buddhist book trailer, wrote OpEd pieces, lined up radio interviews and book signings, and made cool WWDB@W bracelets to give away.
On the day of our very first author event in the Mountain View, California, I was driving north to meet Franz who was already in San Francisco, when I turned on the car radio and heard about the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York. It was 9/11.
Suddenly, all our best-laid marketing and promotional plans went out the window. Who wants to talk about Buddha’s teachings for today’s workers when the whole world has been traumatized by a terrorist attack? We found that radio hosts fell into two groups: either they wanted to talk about nothing but terrorism, or they wanted to talk about anythingbutterrorism.
Franz and I had a great opportunity to practice what Buddha preached: impermanence, the core tenet of Buddhism. 9/11 gave us a powerful opportunity to be unattached to a specific outcome. Franz and I got to walk our Buddhist talk.
That old adage is true: “Life is what happens when you’re busing making plans.” This is as true for book publishing to spark movements as it is for every other endeavor.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?
1. Remember Custer’s Last Stand … know your audience. George Armstrong Custer was a US Army officer and cavalry commander who fought in the Civil War. At the end of that war, he was sent west to fight in the American Indian Wars. On June 25, 1876, he led the 7thCavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes. Custer had seriously underestimated the enemy he was going up against — he and his entire detachment were killed — because he failed to know his audience. If you don’t want your book to get slaughtered in the marketplace, you need to know your audience too.
2.Become a great storyteller. People forget facts and figures, but they remember powerful stories. The Bible is written in parables for good reason — parables and stories are a powerful, effective way to teach important lessons. That’s the same reason we teach our kids values by reading fairytales to them. As leadership guru Warren Bennis says, “Stories convey not only information — but meaning.” If you want to be a successful author — if you want to start a movement — become a great storyteller.
3. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. The good, the bad, and the ugly — all of it. Being an author — putting your book out there in the world — means that people are going to tell you what they think about it. Their feedback is what will make you a successful author. Other people will tell you what they love about your book .. and what they hate about it. It’s all grist for the mill. If you will listen with an open mind and not get defensive, people’s feedback will teach you a lot about your audience — information you need to build your movement — and it will teach you a lot about yourself and your writing. You’ll learn about what works and you’ll learn about what doesn’t work with your readers. They will make you a better author if you let them. Their compliments are gifts — and so are their complaints. It’s all grist for the mill. Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
4. Invest in the interpersonal bank. Publishing a successful book — and sparking a movement — is about relationships. It’s about creating community. It takes a village to publish a book. It takes a much bigger village to make the book successful. And it takes a ginormous village to create a movement. And a village is made up of people. And relationships with people are like bank accounts: you have to make deposits before you can make withdrawals. Making deposits means helping other people, being of service to them, doing things for them, doing favors, going the extra mile, listening to others, being supportive of them, acknowledging them, appreciating them, thanking them. When you have built up accounts of good will with lots of other people, those people will be there when you need them — they will help you be successful with your book. Just remember: “Give before you get.” Invest before you make a withdrawal.
5. Ask for what you want — but don’t be attached to it. Several years ago, Franz Metcalf and I wrote a book entitled “Being Buddha at Work: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money, and Success.” I wanted the Dalai Lama to do the Foreword. Our editor said, “You’ll never get him.” Even my coauthor was skeptical. I laughingly said, “Oh ye of little faith. Watch me.” First I sent an email request to the offices of HHDL in Dharamshala, India. No response. So then I emailed a Tibetan Lama with whom my son had studied for several years, asking if he could help me. He wrote back immediately saying, “Sure. My cousin runs a Buddhist foundation in Dharamshala. He’s knows many of the monks who work in the Dalai Lama’s office. Contact him and he’ll tell you what to do.” So I did as he told me. Several months went by and as we got closer to our publication date for the book, I just kept holding a space for the Foreword all the while holding any expectations at bay. I had to be unattached to the outcome. I had to be OK with the possibility that the Dalai Lama might say “sorry, no” to my request; and I had to be OK that he might say “yes.” In other words, I had to hold my wish lightly — I could be desperate; I couldn’t be caught up in craving and desire. It was the perfect opportunity to practice Buddha’s teachings about un-attachment. In my mind and in my heart, I held a positive intention, but with no attachment. Finally, four months later, a certified letter arrived, signed by HHDL, with the Foreword. Today, when people ask, “How did you get a Foreword from the Dalai Lama?” I say, “I just asked.” But the truth is, I asked without being attached to the outcome. It was great spiritual practice.
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next?
Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Thatis the movement I’d like someone to start! Changing the world is an inside job.
We all spend so much time judging and criticizing one another … the juggernaut of self-righteous anger is literally tearing this world apart.
What would happen if we each looked in the mirror — instead of glaring at each other? What if, instead of pointing accusing fingers at everyone else, we turned our attention inward? What would the world be like if each of us asked, “How am I contributing to this problem? And what can I do to solve it?”
It’s so easy to see what everyone else is doing wrong — and hammer them for it. Imagine how the world would be changed if we all realized that transformation is an inside job. Tolstoy’s words echo those of Rumi: “Everyone thinks about changing the world, but no one thinks about changing himself.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on twitter (@BJ_Gallagher) on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/bj-gallagher-bb18336/) and on my Facebook personal page (www.facebook.com/bj.gallagher.9) and professional page (BJ Gallagher, inspirational author and speaker).
And they can read my blog, “The Power of Positive Doing” at www.beliefnet.com/columnists/thepowerofpositivedoing/
Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you.