2021s

    The Parr Park Rock Art Trail and 21st century wonder

    If you’ve ever sought advice to combat writer’s block or to rediscover inspiration, you’ve likely stumbled upon the advice to go on a walk. And if you’re in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I would amend that advice by recommending you take a walk on the Rock Art Tail in Grapevine’s Parr Park.

    The Parr Park Rock Art Trail is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a path lined with painted and decorated rocks. The rocks come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors.

    Unsurprisingly, many works professed the creator’s love of the Great State.

    A rock at the Parr Park Rock Art Trail with major Texas cities and regions

    Some rocks celebrated alma maters or cartoon and comic book characters. Some were pieces of larger works.

    Rocks at the Parr Park Rock Art Trail forming a rainbow

    Some rocks were products of their time. A rock at the Parr Park Rock Art Trail dedicated to someone who died of COVID-19

    A rock of a heart wearing a mask for COVID at the Parr Park Rock Art Trail

    Some rocks were intended to be inspirational.

    A rock at the Parr Park Rock Art Trail painted with “Broken is still beautiful”

    Some sought to give practical advice.

    A rock at the Parr Park Art Rock Trail painted with “don’t outsmart your common sense”

    And some were pure silliness.

    Pet rock cemetery at the Parr Park Rock Art Trail

    But collectively, the rocks filled me with wonder. I marveled at the work that went into creating some of the rock art. The effort to paint the scenes. The time spent to find the perfect rock. How many people poked out their chests as they boasted about their participation in a Guinness record?

    The trail served as a reminder of our desire to be a part of something, and a reminder that, regardless of what some people or outlets may make you believe, there are still beautiful somethings to be part of.

    The Cult of We and the dangers of FOMO and hubris

    If you had to sum up in only a few sentences the WeWork debacle to someone unfamiliar with the situation, how would you do so? The following quote from The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell would be my candidate.

    But prior to the prospectus becoming public, bankers and other advisers had continued to shower [Adam] Neumann with praise–giving him criticism too infrequently and too meekly. These advisers either ignored or danced around the company’s obvious warts and red flags.

    Now, at the eleventh hour, they finally spoke up. But the IPO was already on life support.

    If you have any interest in investing time reading about business train wrecks rather than investing your money into them, then pick up a copy of The Cult of We. Throughout the book, I often found myself shaking my head in disbelief, amazed at how many smart and successful people overlooked what should have been obvious red flags, such as CEO Adam Neumann’s selling too many shares too soon, Neumann’s constant power grabs, a private company buying a $63 million private jet even though it was hemorrhaging cash despite having had plenty time to find a path to profitability–the list goes on.

    WeWork’s business model was simple. They leased up office buildings, prettied the spaces up to attract Millennials, and subleased the space at a premium. Their plan was hardly unique, as Regus had done the same a couple decades earlier. No matter how you cut it, WeWork was a real estate company. Yet many viewed it as a tech company, which justified the crazy valuations it had received before its IPO. WeWork would not have been valued so high if it were seen as a real estate company, since real estate companies are unable to scale as well as tech companies. It was the era of the visionary founder, and if the founder said WeWork was a tech company, then it must be a tech company.

    Neumann and Masayoshi Son, the head of SoftBank, had convinced themselves that WeWork was a $10 trillion company, basically because they dared to dream so. The authors point out that, in 2018, the entire value of the U.S. stock market was $30 trillion. (Take a moment to let that sink in.)

    Neumann and Son laid out a plan to reach the ambitious valuation while never acknowledging all the obstacles they would face. Neumann believed he could change the world in myriad ways: from how people work and live to how they educate their children.

    Neumann and his wife Rebeka had convinced themselves they were environmentalists despite riding freely on the aforementioned private jet and even taking an abundance of WeWork’s unused couches to landfills. Rebeka had described the family as minimalists despite having at one time owned at least eight homes.

    In summary, the delusions ran far and wide.

    The story was a reminder of a crucial life lesson: Don’t be afraid to question the herd; just because the herd buys into the same narrative doesn’t mean they’re right. And you’re not wrong to question the herd.

    The story also reminded me of similar moments I’ve experienced in thirteen years as a petroleum landman.

    The first such moment came early in my career, when I was working in Dallas-Fort Worth’s Barnett Shale play. In the shadow of the Great Recession, the natural gas play was a bright spot and a boost to the local economy. Everyone involved in the industry was in high spirits, some even claiming the boom times could last 20 years. I remember raising an eyebrow at that declaration. I couldn’t make a convincing case for why the boom wouldn’t last 20 years, other than a feeling in my gut that such good times are unlikely to last so long. Within 13 months, my employer had closed its Fort Worth office and most of the former occupants were looking for jobs, as natural gas crashed from all-time highs and is only now, over a decade later, showing signs of significant recovery.

    The second such moment came when I moved to West Texas in 2012. The Permian Basin is no stranger to boom-and-bust cycles, so the narrative wasn’t exactly the same as the Barnett Shale in 2008-2009. Instead, the collective wisdom was: This boom is different, whatever that meant. While the Permian Basin does not appear to be at risk of going the way of the Barnett, the area has still seen fluctuations in the near-decade since. The cycle of booms and busts is more frequent than in past decades, but the cycle still exists.

    The Cult of We is not just a business book or a biography of a company that went from rising star to laughing stock in the blink of an eye. The book is also a warning: Never underestimate someone’s ability to be out of touch with reality.

    Writing’s common thread

    I entered college knowing only that I wanted to write for a living.

    I had accepted that I wasn’t going to support myself on the paperback royalties of novels I would never write. Technical writing sounded unimaginative, and I’m not sure my university offered such a program anyway. Therefore, journalism seemed my only option, so I stepped onto campus as a journalism major. By the end of my first quarter, I had switched to Undecided, as I then had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but journalism was not part of those future plans. Fast forward to 2021, and I doubt anyone would say with a straight face that I made the wrong decision. But I can say with the straightest of faces that I made the right decision for the wrong reasons.

    I don’t remember much of my time in Journalism 101 other than I got an A for the course. In terms of writing, the most practical takeaway was to lead with a hard-hitting point and then follow with the details and backstory. I didn’t immediately realize how this method could also apply to fiction, the best example I can think of being the opening of Choke by Chuck Palahniuk:

    If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.

    After a couple of pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece.

    Save yourself.

    There has to be something better on television . . .

    Those opening lines may not have given me many concrete details about the story that followed, but they gave me enough to get the feel. And I was immediately hooked.

    In my journalism course, I quickly discovered I did not want to engage in strictly fact-based writing with no obvious way to inject at least a part of myself into my writing. (I never claimed to be a selfless writer.) I had not yet discovered the likes of Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, though I doubt these discoveries would have made much difference, because I also left journalism for more practical reasons.

    As I’ve already stated, I don’t remember much of the lectures from Journalism 101, but I do remember something I never experienced in any other entry-level course, which highlights one of the failings of higher education.

    Every couple weeks or so, Dr. Blick welcome journalists to share with the class their experiences in the field. The topics ranged from the humorous, as in the case of a now fellow alum whose typo in the school paper made its way to Jay Leno’s Headlines segment (She referred to a play version of Lean On Me as Leon On Me), to groundbreaking, as in the case of Leesha Faulkner, who uncovered the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency dedicated to derailing the Civil Rights movement.

    Despite the diversity in perspective and experience, I heard the same things repeated:

    You work really hard.

    You have no security.

    You never see your family.

    You make no money.

    But it’s great.

    I didn’t need to take on student loans just to be broke. After accepting I had no clues what I wanted to do, I tried my hand in computer science, only to crash and burn and then settle on a marketing degree.

    In the name of being a real adult, I mostly abandoned writing, save for a handful of short-lived blogs here and there over the years. Within the last three years, I’ve started focusing on writing again, starting with dipping my toes back into fiction. I’ve studied the craft as I never had before, with a more open mind.

    I’ve now read books on screenwriting and have marveled at how much a screenwriter must convey with so few words. Previously, I didn’t realize how much the writer directs certain details, holding everyone’s hand in the process.

    Studying copywriting is another study in communicating efficiently. The best slogans are simple. They require no explanation. They’re like jokes: If they require explanation, then they’re not effective. You remember effective slogans because they slide off the tongue and have a certain rhythm. These are some of the reasons the most nonsensical song lyrics can lodge themselves into our brains.

    From studying technical writing, I’ve learned the values of knowing when to holds readers' hands and when to squeeze tightly. I now see that a career of explaining complex issues in oil and gas title has taught much of the same. And I’ve also learned that most people who say they don’t have the time to hold someone else’s hand through an issue most likely lack the knowledge and awareness of how to do so and also have no desire to learn how.

    I’ve been asking myself recently what is the strand that ties all writing together. What is the one similarity? The unifier of this writing puzzle, other than a need to communicate?

    And, as we speak, my answer is: persuasion.

    The angle of persuasion is obvious for some fields, such as legal writing, in which briefs are intended to persuade a judge to rule in a client’s favor. Sales copy aims to persuade you to make a certain purchase. Business emails persuade recipients to act–or maybe they persuade that no action is needed. Even research papers should aim to persuade, as we don’t have to look too hard around us to see that facts alone are not enough. If nothing else, I have to persuade you that my facts are more accurate than your facts.

    But what about fiction? Where’s the persuasion there?

    In fiction, authors are trying to persuade readers that this fake world with these fake people in these fake scenarios contains some sort of truth worth their time. Authors want to convince readers that this person in this situation would act or feel a certain way.

    And sometimes the persuasion takes a different angle, such as in the case of some of the best tellers of tall tales, the ones who stretch the truth–or, in some cases, discard the truth completely–and leave us doubled over, hoarse from laughing through the tears. Sometimes writers persuade us not to care about reality so much.

    In the past, I abandoned writing because I failed to see the similarities among the separate disciplines. I also failed to see that there is no down side to being a better writer. Even if you never make a penny directly from your writing, the thought and effort required to improve as a writer likely benefit you in less obvious ways.

    Now, if I read something as mundane as the back of a shampoo bottle, I no longer brush it off as an irrelevant form of writing. Instead, I wonder why certain things were done certain ways and then ask if or how my own projects could benefit from those methods. This way of thinking makes me a more open-minded writer than I was when I set foot on that university campus all those years ago.