I’m a firm believer that the solution to almost every problem is empathy. It’s the skill I exercise most often in doing my job, the ability to get in someone else’s head and see the world through their eyes. Admittedly, that’s for the possibly-scorned practice of “selling them something”, but I like to think that at it’s best, what I’m really doing is trying to understand what they need or want and how to help them get it, or help corporations tasked with “selling something” at least treat them like human beings, not just faceless “consumers”.
But empathy is also the skill I try to exercise most in all my interactions with the world. I try not to get frustrated with service people when I have to wait in lines or have a bad customer experience. People are trying their best. I try not to react with anger when people on the street are rude or oblivious and do me wrong. Who knows where they are at that moment, mentally and emotionally.
Empathy. Empathy and patience can go a long way.
The recent verdict on Trayvon Martin (and I suppose, technically, on George Zimmerman) has inspired some really thought-provoking responses about race, justice, and equality. The message this case sent to millions of people in America was truly lacking in empathy for those identifying with the boy in front of the gun, and overly sympathetic to the man behind it. But the response from Questlove for NYMag was particularly resonant, because it dared to be particularly personal.
I recently told a friend one of these stories: I live in a “nice” building. I work hard. You know I work hard. My logic is (naïve alert in 5, 4, 3, 2 … ) “Well, there can’t be any fear of any type in this building” — you’ve got to go through hell and high water just to get accepted to live here, like it’s Dartmouth or UPenn. Secondly, there are, like, five to eight guards on duty 24/7, so this spot is beyond safe. Like, Oscar winners and kids of royalty and sports guys and mafia goombahs live here. One night, I get in the elevator, and just as the door closes this beautiful woman gets on. Because of a pain in the arse card device you have to use to get to your floor, it just makes it an easier protocol for whoever is pressing floors to take everyone’s request, like when you are at the window of a drive-thru. So I press my floor number, and I ask her, “What floor, ma’am?” (Yes, I say “ma’am,” because … sigh, anyway.) She says nothing, stands in the corner. Mind you, I just discovered the Candy Crush app, so if anything, I’m the rude one because I’m more obsessed with winning this particular level than anything else. In my head I’m thinking, There’s no way I can be a threat to a woman this fine if I’m buried deep in this game — so surely she feels safe.
The humor comes in that I thought she was on my floor because she never acknowledged my floor request. (She was also bangin’, so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor? *bow chicka wowow*!” Instantly I was on some “What dessert am I welcome-committee-ing her with?”) Anywho, the door opens, and I waited to let her off first because I am a gentleman. (Old me would’ve rushed first, thus not putting me in the position to have to follow her, God forbid if she, too, makes a left and it seems like I’m following her.) So door opens and I flirt, “Ladies first.” She says, “This is not my floor.” Then I assume she is missing her building card, so I pulled my card out to try to press her floor yet again. She says, “That’s okay.”
Then it hit me: “Oh God, she purposely held that information back.” The door closed. It was a “pie in the face” moment.
I laughed at it. Sort of.
Inside I cried.
He goes on to relate how hearing about the verdict made him feel, and remarking to a friend that the message this sends to him is, “You ain’t shit.” Read the rest, it’s a powerful piece.
More empathy means fewer moments like this that callously judge others as wrong or less than ourselves. More empathy means fewer people acting out in anger and violence and fear in situations that don’t need to escalate.
Need a boost of empathy? Read a few posts at the We Are Not Trayvon Martin site.
Resolutions don’t work. We know this. New Years is no better a time than any other to make a change in your life, aside from the fact that it’s satisfying to mark up a fresh calendar page. Still, my birthday is also in January, and these dual reminders of time passing do make a person want to take stock of things, at the very least.
This year, instead of any hard-to-keep promises to do less of this unhealthy thing or more of that healthier-but-less-pleasant thing, I have one goal. In a sense, it’s the boiled down essence of all New Years resolutions ever, all crammed into one — a sort of life resolution — and less an optimistic short-term goal for change. It’s simple, but important.
Really pay attention to how I spend my time.
Spend more time doing things that make me a happier and/or better person.
Spend less time doing things that don’t.
Note the “and/or”, which is key. Watching the NFL playoffs with a couple friends in a crowded pizza place certainly doesn’t make me a better person either intellectually or physically. But delicious food, a few pitchers, and the feeling of excitement in the air made me extremely happy (go Niners). The prospect of sitting down to write this didn’t make me happy (at first), because I was feeling uninspired and I wanted to read some of my favorite blogs instead. But writing is good for the brain, and now that I’m typing away, I happen to be feeling pretty good.
This year’s mantra is part process, part demand. I’ll have some self-evaluation to do along the way over the difference between ‘occupied’ and ‘happy’, as well as what constitutes ‘better person’ vs simply ‘person who feels better about himself’. For example, will reading more books this year make me happier or better, or am I lazily pinning my self-worth on a data point to uphold the image I have of myself? Maybe it’s what and how I read that matters more? So learning to define happier and better will be gradual. Then, having reflected on those things, the trick will be learning to catch myself in the act of totally wasting, or just poorly spending, my time. Having the presence of mind to divert myself from killing time to filling it with more constructive pursuits may take some force of will too, and that will take practice. Still, as a plan for the future, this mantra is hard to argue with.
Not to make this just a diary entry though, let’s get back to this “I’d rather be reading a good blog” thing. Related, but more useful in making a finer point.
I’ve realized that I spend a LOT of time on Twitter. I love it. I check my feed several times a day for a total of, what, half-an-hour? An hour? More if you count actually following links to things worth reading or watching. That’s a lot of time per day, per month, per year.** I supplement it with my favorite blogs, and try my best to keep up with Good Citizen things like The New York Times, a local news site, some professional stuff, some cultural stuff. Let’s just say that between Twitter and my preferred RSS reader, there’s a lot of daily input. But how much of this daily media time in particular is making me happier and/or better as a human being?
(**Couldn’t help doing the math. Conservatively: at an average of 30 min per day x 365 days = a total of 7.6 days per year spent just on Twitter. Probably more. That’s a whole vacation!… Taken in increments, all year long… Maybe not terrible?)
I would argue that Twitter is a net positive for being the most consistently interesting, immediately informative, occasionally hilarious and always diverse source of ideas in my life. I can safely say the time spent in this one channel is making me both happier and better, a large portion of the time. Plus, it’s easy to brush past the waste. Maybe I need to unfollow a few duds.
My policy has always been to quickly abandoned those that over-Tweet and abuse the privilege of my attention. Media outlets especially just tweet everything they post, often without respect to the form (tip me as to why I should click from within the tweet; stop obfuscating or baiting me). The narrow context of a scrolling column can go from easily-skipped to just-plain-cluttered pretty quickly, and that ruins its beauty as a channel.
As for non-Twitter sources like blogs, I’ve grown a new appreciation for outlets like The Morning News, who offer a quirky compendium of important, thought-provoking, or curious items twice daily. And of all things, Dave Pell’s Next Draft has given me a new found appreciation for the lost art of the email list, with a daily top ten list of stories worth knowing about, from world-shaking to merry-making. These sources — like Twitter without the strict character limit — are quickly scannable, well-curated, and link to all the great places like The Atlantic or NYT I’d normally have to spend time digging through to find the best bits.
Which brings me to the weird realization that of all my media inputs, it’s the New York Times I no longer want in my feeds. Any of them. I love a lot of their reporting. Their long features are especially good — usually through Instapaper — and I would gladly pay the appropriate sum for the right to read those things, just as I would with any great outlet. What I don’t want is to spend time flipping through ten pages of New York-centric stories, reviews of high-end fashion shows, sports recaps, or trumped-up trend pieces only to click on the three links to current events or opinion pieces I actually care about. I have a job and a wife and hobbies and books; I want to spend time reading, not looking for what’s worth reading. I have Longreads to find the best features. I have favorite writers who tweet interesting links with much greater personal filters than the outdated ‘front page’. And I have The Awl, where I somehow enjoy reading almost everything they post, long or short, thoughtful or frivolous.
It makes me feel like a traitor to the classy intellectual I want to be, but part of spending more time doing things that make me happier AND better means not trying to keep up with a magazines’ or newspapers’ full fire hose of content. It’s an outdated model that doesn’t fit my life. I’m done feeling like I’m always behind. I’m going to let the curators, who’ve chosen this as a specialty, do that job properly where I am doing it poorly. I’m going to immerse myself more and browse less.
So there we go. Realization number one. And the year’s just beginning.
For years, politics has relied on focus-grouped sound bites made for repetition on the nightly news. Guardians of the national discourse have worried about the dumbing down of complicated policies into catchy slogans. Probably with good reason. Less nuance is rarely for the better.
But in 2012, with the most tweeted and tumblred election in history, the public dialogue has spawned a new genetic variant. The ideas now most fit to survive the daily news beast have simplified even further, only with a populist twist. This is the decade, maybe even the specific contest, where the sound bite has been superseded by the political meme.
Within moments of being broadcast, serious issues are reduced to #legitimaterape hashtags or ladybinder GIF streams. Subtle, difficult, starkly contrasting positions on the kind of future we want for our country are stripped to their core, while the world wide web of wit hustles to write the snarkiest caption or register the latest joke domain name. One could argue that we the people are no longer educating ourselves by following politics. We’re just cheering for winners and laughing at losers, picking sides in a popularity contest — an American Idol that swaps sequins and songs for suits and speeches.
In this case, I have to disagree with the reductive view. Certainly there are some who see a political meme or hashtag and either misinterpret or gloss over it completely. “Ugh, political stuff.” But if there’s one thing people hate, it’s not being in on the joke; nothing feels worse than not “getting it”. In a rapid-fire internet culture, the table stakes for getting it are to be relatively current and well-informed, otherwise the jokes go right over your head. To be a part of the culture, you have to educate yourself.
It’s part of the same phenomenon that causes viewers of The Daily Show to score above average (and even above other news outlets) in terms of being well-informed. It’s more fun if you’re paying attention.
I wouldn’t dare to suggest that political memes are a sufficient replacement for reading solid news journalism, or that googling “47 percent” is the same as having a real understanding of American tax policy and its effects on income inequality. Nuance is still important as ever. If we’re being honest though, it’s probably true that most people don’t have the time to read newspapers cover to cover every day, or at least the desire to do that instead of watch sports or tv shows (two other cultural conversations that take some diligence to stay on top of). And honestly, who’s to say paying attention to one over the other will drastically improve one’s quality of life?
However, under this be-informed-to-be-in-on-the-joke principle that drives political memes, people who aren’t active news readers at least brush up against big ideas they might otherwise miss entirely. The “binders full of women” meme only makes sense once you realize that equal pay for women is an issue, which doesn’t normally get the attention it deserves (beyond the women feeling its effects, unfortunately). Obama’s zinger about horses and bayonets was a pretty snappy line, intentionally designed to be meme-ified, I’m sure. What made it so satisfying and smart, in addition to being witty, was how it put a spotlight on the way we think about today’s military — a budget-draining behemoth comprised of expensive jets and battleships that’s probably just as ill-suited for today’s wars as a charging cavalry.
Equally important, these memes aren’t focus-grouped and party-approved. The reason these moments become memes are because they strike a chord with the public, who seizes on them as an opportunity to elevate an issue that really is worth talking about. Memes aren’t born from lines like “I love teachers,” or “Middle class jobs,” the canned truisms that litter the campaign trail. Political memes come from the off-guard, off-script moments — which are usually the few moments of honest insight into the otherwise hyper-managed candidates. In this model, we the people get to choose what we take away from the campaign, not the election handlers getting paid to keep these very things from happening.
Sure, a month from now there will be a lot of Big Bird twitter accounts left idle and some long-since abandoned tumblr blogs documenting jokes we’ll soon forget. But I’m convinced long-term, today’s political memes will have done their duty and deserve to retire with dignity, while the memes of tomorrow prepare to educate the youth of today to do the jobs of the future — leaving them better off than the generation that came before.
I didn’t see Bill Clinton’s DNC speech this week — I didn’t have a full hour to spare that night — but I did read it. It comes off as an impressive lecture delivered without condescension by someone who obviously knows good policy and the work required to make it happen. Full of concrete points and reasoned arguments, it made sense rationally as well as emotionally.
But then I saw this Atlantic article, comparing his speech as prepared to the speech he delivered. They strike out what he dropped from the text, and highlight what he added in, accounting for whole lines and sometimes paragraphs that weren’t there on the prompter. Now I’m a whole different kind of impressed. To be able to rewrite a speech, of that length, on the fly, and improve it by an order of magnitude? That may be the best demonstration of public speaking skill I’ve ever seen.
Maybe the man just has a rhetorical gift none of us can ever hope to approach personally or professionally, but that can’t account for it entirely. The only way I can even imagine getting to this point is to seriously know my shit. How does one prepare for a moment like this? I envision reading and re-reading briefing documents with all these facts and figures so they become burned into memory, like a student cramming for a test. Practicing in front of a mirror for weeks leading up to the moment. Achieving some zen state, like a stage actor, where the words are second nature and the delivery comes so naturally that the mind is free to focus on performance flourishes.
That zen state of calm, collected confidence is something that sets people apart from corporations. No company is so sure of itself, or so naturally intelligent, that it can act and speak in the moment and have it land with such impact. They may do their homework, but don’t internalize what they learn to the point where they’re comfortable improvising along the way without over-thinking and freezing up. Only individuals with sharp, well-prepared minds can do that. Businesses need those minds, need to help them prepare, but then they need to trust them.
I caught this clip while half-watching an episode of Conan a few weeks back, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Its echoes have bounced around the back of my mind. Its subtext has haunted my subconscious. Its hypnotic hold over me was so powerful, I was compelled to break my summer-long hiatus to write about it.
(Not that said actually-longer-than-summer-long hiatus wasn’t somewhat planned. Intentionally timed, at least. Personal time off, let’s call it. A concerted attempt to avoid late nights glued to a screen and spend more time cuddled up next to the wife mostly, with every intention of returning to writing more come fall. At least that’s what I told myself as the non-writing weeks piled up. But that’s not what this is about. Not entirely anyway.)
Getting back to the clip. It’s actually the perfect subject for a return to writing. If you haven’t already clicked by now, please enjoy:
It’s patently absurd and totally hilarious. One awkward, badly-written local news segue after another, all going for the same tired joke. I laughed loud and hard at this premise (and at the idea of some poor editor going through hundreds of hours of clips to find this much material).
But then it gets uncomfortable. This isn’t only a handful of clips, it’s a deluge. And it just keeps going. To the point where you hope it’s over, but it’s not. Not even close.
By the end it shifts fully into depressing. It keeps going past the point of, “I get it, that’s enough,” and on into, “What’s going on? Is this real? Are we as a species doomed to this level of awful cliche? Do these people not know how unspecial they are? Make it stop! Please! I’ll never eat ice cream again, I’ll change my ways, just please let it end!”
That’s the part that stayed with me for weeks. Not how funny this segment was, but what it says about all of us. Most of us are not original. At all. We make the same cheesy, obvious jokes. We have the same uncomfortable self-awareness while we make those jokes in an attempt to connect with other human beings, and even the same awkward tone while we acknowledge that self-aware cheesiness to show we’re in on the larger joke of how sad the whole charade is. And yet here we all are, going through the motions… again, and again, and again. And again.
With Google search and Twitter tags and all the collective babble recorded for all to cross-reference, it’s easier than ever to realize how original we aren’t. Look at the photos on Yelp reviews. Click on a trending topic. How can it be anything but paralyzing? Why bother saying or writing anything? Someone else has already said it, or is busy saying or tweeting or blogging it better than you ever could. The odds of you being unique and sparkling and clever and making a lasting impression on your dinner guests, your social network, much less the world, is so incredibly small… why even go to the effort?
So sure, in addition to the personal time off, maybe the other reason I haven’t been writing is that fear that there’s nothing new to add. Better to spend my time reading what others — LOTS of others, the really smart, clever, always-leave-an-impression types — are saying. Some of their thoughts are truly original; some of their words are truly profound. Maybe it’s better to benefit from their ideas than struggle to add my own to the noise.
Of course, getting started on that track, it’s easy to find a whole other kind of deluge. Once you’re looking for them, there are actually lots of genius ideas and thoughtful writers and sharp thinkers. So many that you start thinking again, maybe I can do this too. Maybe I won’t go down in history as one of the greats, but even one would do. Just one original thought. Or if I’m lucky, a few per year. One per month. I’m not greedy.
So the cycle completes. I may spend most of the time being not very original, not very genius, but if I never try I’m accepting a world of others’ ideas without ever contributing my own. If that clip proves how dull we mostly are, in a way it also shows that it’s okay to be mostly dull, because that’s how people are. Just keep trying for that one original thought. Maybe it’ll come, maybe only rarely, but at least it’s not giving up and sitting around eating ice cream.
[Addendum: Between writing this yesterday and posting it this morning, a talented, incredibly original film-maker took his own life. I obviously don’t know the circumstances that drove him to such a drastic end, but if anything, the timing serves as a reminder that the search is ongoing, and better for ourselves and the world to keep looking as long as we possibly can.]
Follow any ‘creative industry’ person on social media and you’re sure to get intermittent links to things like, “7 ways to inspire better ideas,” or “How to do your best thinking,” or “How to trick yourself into A-ha moments,” and so on. There are a whole lot of people who now make their living off of [shudder] trying to think outside the box, and so of course they all want tips on how to do so more often or more easily. As a natural consequence, there’s another whole economy of people willing to help them try via their magazines, seminars, make-a-thons or *cough* blogs.
Here are a couple I enjoyed recently. This one is basically telling me to sleep in to be more creative:
In a study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning last year, researchers Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks reported that imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made. Sleepy people’s “more diffuse attentional focus,” they write, leads them to “widen their search through their knowledge network. This widening leads to an increase in creative problem solving.”
This one, from my favorite dreamy science writer Jonah Leher in Wired, takes it even further with a raise of the glass:
According to the data, drunk students solved more [insight-based] word problems in less time. They also were much more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight. And the differences were dramatic: The alcohol made subjects nearly 30 percent more likely to find the unexpected solution.
Once again, the explanation for this effect returns us to the benefits of not being able to pay attention. The stupor of alcohol, like the haze of the early morning, makes it harder for us to ignore those unlikely thoughts and remote associations that are such important elements of the imagination. So the next time you are in need of insight, avoid caffeine and concentration. Don’t chain yourself to your desk. Instead, set the alarm a few minutes early and wallow in your groggy thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, chug a beer.
What a great world it would be if being slower to rise or knocking back a few were the secret to success! We could shorten the work day and provide delicious beverages and spend all our time having epiphanies left and right until every whiteboard in the building is just covered with scrawled-out genius.
Unfortunately, this part of our jobs that we like to think of as central, chasing those magical creative-insight eureka moments, is really only a small fraction of anyone’s duties. An inspired thought is great, but then there’s all that work it takes to do something with it. 99% perspiration, remember? Do we need a whole cottage industry of people figuring out how to help us with that measly 1%? I think we sometimes just enjoy reading about how to do more creative thinking to avoid having to do the work part of the work that comes from creative thinking.
Not that I wouldn’t take the fewer-alarm-clocks, more-happy-hours approach if offered.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending my first Nerd Nite. If you’ve never heard of it, they’re an organization with branches in dozens of cities around the globe with a simple program. They take over a bar one night a month and have smart people give short talks. This month’s topics included an innovative ice-cream maker discussing her methods and launch of a thriving business, some San Francisco historians discussing an early-20th-century suburb made of abandoned trolley cars, and a biological engineer talking about antibody synthesis. They talk for about 20 minutes, leaving time in between to head back for a refill, and that’s about it.
And I think it’s totally genius. Here’s why:
Learning new things is fun. Smart people are interested in all kinds of things, and it’s too easy to get trapped in your same old circles in terms of new information (look up ‘filter bubble’ if you don’t know what I’m talking about. This is one of my favorite topics to think about right now). If you go out once a month with your coworkers or friends, you end up hearing about the same kinds of things. This is guaranteed variety. Plus, it’s low-impact (short talks) and high-enjoyment (you’re in a bar, not a classroom). So it’s not the commitment and stress of continuing education or the doldrums of a company self-improvement workshop. The format makes it easy to pay attention and get something unexpected and fascinating out of any given night.
Conversation topics provided. As may be well known from spending time with me ever (or following my Twitter), I like few things more than a pint with friends, but sometimes conversation runs dry and you end up talking about the same old things as always. How’s work? What TV shows are you watching right now? The weather — my god, the weather. Here, you have something novel introduced as part of the night out that immediately sets you off. In fact, my second-biggest disappointment of the night was the fact that my friends were ready to head out right after the talks ended. A wasted opportunity to soak in and chew on the weird and mind-expanding things we just heard which could have probably kept us going late into the night.
The best ‘scene’ in any bar. My biggest disappointment though was not taking better advantage of the very full audience to meet some new people. Here we have the most finely self-selected crowd at probably any bar in the entire city. How can that room not have been filled with some of the smartest, most interesting people I’m likely to meet? Again, not filtered the way an industry networking event or interest-based meetup would be, but centered around a more diverse but equally sharp point of similarity — the desire to keep learning. And, well, also drinking.
I won’t pretend every second of the night was a wild success. They could stand a slightly bigger venue as it was almost uncomfortably full. The third talk was a bit dry (and admittedly a bit over my head). But in terms of concept and value, I’m extremely impressed and satisfied. See you there next month maybe?
If you are like me (or even if you are not), last week you were able to pay a mere 5 dollars to download and watch the new Louis CK: Live at the Beacon comedy special. If you are even more like me, you probably laughed loudly and frequently at his well-crafted stand-up. If you are also, like me, a nerdy media type that spends your time thinking about the future of entertainment, something else caught your attention. You were probably impressed and excited by how an hour of quality filmed comedy, for such a low price, could be delivered directly to its audience in such a convenient way.
It’s this last point that’s getting the most attention in the press since the release: how CK is cutting out the middle man, shirking the studio system and going independent. What does this mean for the industry? Are big media businesses doomed to be left behind if more stars realize they could work under a similar model?
Naturally the comparisons to other artists who’ve tried self-published, pay-what-you-want experiments come up. One particularly interesting from Anil Dash said, “My Internet media lesson, courtesy of Louis CK, Radiohead & Prince: Start by being one of the greatest talents in the history of your craft.”
I don’t disagree with his cynicism, but as with any idea expressed in a tweet, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Radiohead, Louis CK, and other successful artists have gathered huge, loyal fan bases over the course of prolific careers. They’ve worked hard to get where they are. They earned their stature, and it makes sense that at this point they’d want to experiment with ways to control their output and their subsequent rewards. But as many have noted, they came up through their respective systems and have grown to a point where they can be shaken off. This is progress.
Similarly, many up-and-comers are using these same digital channels to find their big break. Tumblrs become book deals, YouTube sketches become development deals or writing positions. It’s easier than ever to start a career with some scrappy little project that serves as concrete practice in a craft, and if the talent is there, gets noticed and propels that talent on to bigger things. This, too, is progress.
Where does that leave big media and the brands who want to advertise to their viewers? Are they doomed as the two poles of digitally savvy beginners and digitally independent veterans move closer and closer together?
I would argue that at least for now, there is still room in the middle, and that it’s actually a good thing. Let the newcomers experiment in low-stakes forms, and set the unqualified visionaries free to pursue their own creativity. Where studios, distributors, labels or brands can have a place is going back to where they should be: discovering, nurturing, and elevating talent when that talent doesn’t have the resources or regard to reach success on its own.
Theoretically, big media companies should function like the stock market operates (also theoretically, which is to say before things went haywire). Smart people with an eye for what’s good pick out fledgling artists and invest in them. That investment helps the talent itself grow, and helps it find a larger audience. Sony Music can do this, Comedy Central can do this, Mountain Dew can do this; they have money and reach. If they invest wisely, everyone benefits, including us the viewers and listeners, who are introduced to new things we may eventually become truly loyal fans of.
Instead of trying to milk established acts for all they’re worth, wouldn’t we be better off it these companies depended on breaking new ground for maintaining their bottom line? They shouldn’t be scared that Louis CK doesn’t need them any more. They should be out finding the next dozen great acts that really need them right now. I’ll keep paying for anything CK puts out, but I have other dollars to spend. Show me something new to fall in love with.
A few tabs I’ve had open forever, waiting to be shared and remarked on.
I don’t go to a lot of museums, because too often I feel like when I do, I stare at things, attempt to appreciate them, and leave not having gained much. So I was totally on the side Jason Schwartzman in this promo video for the Pacific Standard Time series of museum events happening across Southern California (full disclosure: several former coworkers worked on this as a pro-bono project).
But it also totally won me over with its points. There’s a TON of art in the world. Some of it I won’t like. That’s okay. Some of it I will. And it helps when we take a minute to learn about the who and why behind what it is we’re looking at — something I personally feel all museums, galleries and art institutions need to be better at. Not everyone has the tools to “get it” from just a rectangular canvas on a wall. But we want to! Help us, museum curators! Make art more accessible and we will come see it more! People like stories, not being left out of secret knowledge.
At the very least, I found the video charming. Maybe a little bit more so because it all takes place a couple blocks from my old apartment, along streets where I used to go for walks pretty much every night for the year before moving up here to NorCal.
This article from Grantland is over a month old, but it’s SO fascinating. Essentially, Oregon had a crappy football team, until Nike stepped in. Not by helping them play better, but by redesigning their facilities and uniforms:
The football Ducks of Oregon are something new. They didn’t get people to watch because they got good. They got good because they got people to watch. They are college sports’ undisputed champions of the 21st century’s attention economy.
So after the Cotton Bowl loss, [Nike boss Phil] Knight asked the Ducks’ coach a question, and he asked Nike’s designers a question.
He asked the coach: What do you need from me?
He asked the designers: How can we make teenagers who are good at football want to come to the University of Oregon?
The answer Knight got from the coach was an indoor practice facility. The coach got that and more. Since then, Knight has spent some $300 million on stadium additions, luxury boxes, and palatial locker rooms. All of these things obviously are on the list of reasons Oregon’s football team got good.
But back in Beaverton, the Nike designers did their part, using the Ducks program as part laboratory, part showroom.
It’s a glorious chicken-and-egg problem, totally turned on its head by smart design, and a really non-traditional case study on of the power of sexy packaging. It certainly gave me a new reason to respect how incredibly smart the Nike team is at solving problems creatively.
Talent in sports is the equivalent of ‘influencers’ in any other market, and if you have strong visual style, you just might stand out enough to interest the people who matter most. Attract the right small core group, and the rest follows from there. Pretty brilliant.
Every business based on a physical location selling us media products is having a tougher and tougher time of it. We’ve grown used to saying goodbye to local record stores. Video stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are finished; even LA’s classic Rocket Video is on its last days. Borders is dissolving as we speak, surely Barnes & Noble is facing some tough decisions. We even heard recently that this was the lowest box office summer since 1997, and seen small theaters fold and multiplexes with huge, empty lobbies.
Part of the problem, surely, is that these places either a) feel like sterile dispensaries of product, in the case of the large chains, or b) serve a small niche very well and loyally, but just can’t pull a sufficient profit when faced with the low-priced, conveniently distributed digital version of their products. A chain store may be able to stay afloat on volume, but doesn’t inspire loyalty. A beloved local shop inspires loyalty, but can’t maintain volume serving their small following. No matter how much we enjoy books, or comics, or records, we can’t spend enough to keep their lights on. And so we, as lovers of culture, stand to lose both.
I recently heard about a seemingly wonderful place that may offer an alternate solution, as well as some hope. The Bookshelf, an independent outlet in Guelph, Ontario, pulls a sort of hipster hat-trick (an appropriately Canadian metaphor): it’s a book store, an independent art-house cinema, and a gourmet bistro all in one.
Now I haven’t been to Guelph to check it out — if you can believe it, Ontario college towns aren’t in my regular travel calendar. Nor do I know how well they’re doing business-wise. But there’s a bit of magic about this.
Instead of struggling to serve one slice of the local cultural appetite well while still making a living, they’ve found a few closely tied, overlapping segments to serve in one place. This lets them sell tickets, paperbacks and meals to the same community. By offering more in one place, they’re forced to use the space smarter, which means curating their selection more personally — one of the only remaining reasons to keep going back to a physical store run by real humans anyway. And by offering more of the things that specific community loves, they give that community more little reasons to love them and keep coming back.
Personally, I’ve had similar fantasies of a book club/comedy venue/beer bar. An intimate, not-too-loud place to celebrate the written and spoken word with a pint to ease the ensuing conversations. Of course, those may just be my own eccentric tastes overlapping in a venue that would only do a good job of serving me and a few of my nerdiest, brew-lovingest friends.