Simple Wisdom on the Back of a Napkin

Recently I had the good fortune to be back in the company of an old mentor and a new one—Jim Hodge and Scott Arthur. Part of their teaching dealt with design thinking and ideation. They went on to describe their success in dealing with benefactors by drawing out ideas on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Hold on a minute. I’m not pointing to the technique here. 

Rather, I’m drawing attention to the power of simplicity. They posit that if you can’t convey it—either in words or pictures—in the space of a cocktail napkin then you’re likely not clear about the outcome you’re trying to convey. 

They went on to tell the story of when they decided to work together at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus. Scott arrived first and invited Jim to join him, offering him the uncommon opportunity to completely rebuild the advancement program around their shared mindsets and values. 

So, they met and…on the back of a cocktail napkin…wrote the values around which they would operate the entire program. Here they are:


No thick operating manual of policies and procedures; no grand statements; just sound values—you know, the kind that are “sticky,” that are both memorable and repeatable. The kind that directly influence intention and behavior. 

I could say lots about each of the five values—individually and collectively. Perhaps another day. You may agree with some, disagree with others. Your list might be different. 

But can you put it on the back of a napkin?

This line of thinking reminded me of the strong influence I’ve long derived from a simple book, The Four Agreements (1997), by Don Miguel Ruiz. His agreements are “napkin worthy” too.


I put myself to this same test of simplicity, attempting to see if I could convey in the simplest form what I do for a living. (Besides, my wife has been asking me for nearly four decades to explain what I do for a living!).

I was initially flummoxed. I stared at the napkin…yet nothing came. And then I decided to push all my many words aside and see if a picture might take shape in my mind. Here’s my “napkin” test to convey what I think I do for a living:

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What this attempts to convey is: “Lifting strengths to produce direction, inflection, and fuel.”

Ta-da! Eight words; one simple picture…maybe even the prototype for a new bobblehead?!

It was a great exercise. Try it for yourself. See if you can convey what you do (or, perhaps, the impact you want your next big initiative to have) on the back of a napkin. When you get stuck, remember Jim and Scott’s 5th value: excellence, not perfection.