A recent video I really enjoyed provides an extremely memorable anecdote, and some thoughts:
Simon Sinek (the speaker, an ethnographer and leadership guru-type) approached a homeless woman with a typical sign asking for handouts, reading something like, “I’m hungry, I’m homeless, I have children, please help.” He volunteered another approach, making the plea less about her and more about her potential donors: “If you only give once a month, please think of me next time.”
He claims she went from her average 20-30 dollars a day to making 40 dollars in two hours. All by addressing her audiences’ needs instead of her own. The new message alleviates potential guilt (“See, I understand you can’t always give, and that’s okay.”), as well as any worries about her motivations (“Yes, I really do need it, I’ve been here before and will be here again.”). I hope that story is true, because it’s totally brilliant.
This is 20 minutes into an interesting talk about how we crave connection with others more than anything, and are constantly on the lookout for symbols that help us establish that connection. The woman’s sign connects because it’s her considering your position, not just broadcasting hers. If you’re traveling overseas, just hearing someone speaking the same language is an excuse to connect. In your home city, maybe it’s a sports cap or an accent.
But it could also be the brand of clothes you wear or electronics you carry. All the most-loved companies got that way not just by making the best stuff (though many also do that), but by having a badge value. A great brand stands for something that its fans want to be seen as standing for too. Which can sometimes be mistaken for “cool”, but is more about conveying meaning — broadcasting something about ourselves in the hope others will pick up on it. It’s the same reason people tweet or update or blog or share anything online. We’re all just hoping someone notices and responds. We want to connect with each other.
It’s a desire a lot of companies seem to get slightly wrong, though. There’s a persistent idea that they should be having a ‘conversation’ with their audience now that these new technologies exist. But do most people want a connection with their TV brand? Their potato chip company? Their car dealership? They may want information or service from those entities, occasionally, but ongoing conversation? Not really. What people really want is better, more interesting conversations with other people. If they’re doing a good job, sometimes those companies will do or create something worth talking about. If they do it often enough, the symbol becomes shorthand for lots of interesting conversations past and present, and people who want to seem interesting display their interest in that symbol by putting it on their car or backpack or even body.
Really interesting people don’t just join conversations, or keep conversations going for the purpose of filling the silence. They start ones that everyone wants to join. Ones that are worth having again with new people they talk to later, because they can’t stop thinking about them, because they matter.
I love when two contrasting opinion pieces get passed around, especially within the same week, and everyone is all, “Oh, you have to read this! Amen to this!”, even though they are essentially saying opposing things.
This week, one article was from Wall Street Journal titled, “Where Have The Good Men Gone?”, lamenteing the prevalence of ‘guys’ over ‘real men’:
Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.
Still, for these women, one key question won’t go away: Where have the good men gone? Their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers…
What explains this puerile shallowness? I see it as an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men. It’s been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.
It’s easy to complain, of course, but would the same argument fly if a man wrote a piece bemoaning the lack of ‘real women’ in a world where the traditional stereotypes no longer apply? Some credit is due for the fact that despite the sensational title and confrontational opening, the article does come around to a concession that there isn’t yet an answer of what a modern “man” is supposed to be in a newly-more-equalized world. Still, the overall article gives the strong impression that men are letting women down somehow, that women are collectively wishing for some good old-fashioned manly maleness in their men, and the current crop just aren’t cutting it.
Then contrast that perspective with an article from This Recording that takes the opposing tack, “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club,” which is mostly about survival strategies for smart women in a (sadly, still) male-dominated world. That is, until it gets to this point rather succinctly:
All I ever witness is straight men showing me how miserable they are with the expectations placed on them as men, how much they hate trying to live up to this impossible standard and how unhappy they still are if they manage to succeed. They have a hard time acknowledging there are other modes of being because they are fucking terrified to deviate from the known, even though the known is horrible and hurts them.
“Masculinity” is as damaging to men as “Femininity” is to women. Neither is something to aspire to. Women who understand this are called feminists. Men who understand this aren’t called anything yet, but maybe they can just be called feminists too.
SO much more constructive! The first article celebrates that women are no longer trapped in a pre-determined identity, then complains that men are no longer adhering to theirs (or at least, not enough men for the number of women who find that identity appealing). The second says that the fight isn’t over for women (probably more true on a cultural level, even if things are improving), but at least concedes that men also derive no benefit from expectations being thrust upon them.
As far as attraction goes, it would seem that both men and women are looking for a strong but sensitive, beautiful but approachable, sexual but modest, talented but humble, funny but non-cynical uber-specimen that is everything possibly desirable all at once. Perhaps the problem is that no individual is all of those things, and all of our solution should be to accept that a) our ideal doesn’t exist, b) the perfect ideal may be an impossible goal, but, c) we’re all just trying our best here.
An intriguing passage from a terrific essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education…
What’s not asked in the review and the interview and the profile is whether a King book is worth writing or worth reading. It seems that no one anymore has the wherewithal to say that reading a King novel is a major waste of time. No chance. If people want to read it, if they get pleasure from it, then it must be good. What other standard is there?
Media no longer seek to shape taste. They do not try to educate the public. And this is so in part because no one seems to know what literary and cultural education would consist of. What does make a book great, anyway? And the media have another reason for not trying to shape taste: It pisses off the readers. They feel insulted, condescended to; they feel dumb. And no one will pay you for making him feel dumb. Public entertainment generally works in just the opposite way—by making the consumer feel like a genius. Even the most august publications and broadcasts no longer attempt to shape taste. They merely seek to reflect it. They hold the cultural mirror up to the reader—what the reader likes, the writer and the editor like. They hold the mirror up and the reader and—what else can he do?—the reader falls in love. The common reader today is someone who has fallen in love, with himself.
Narcissus looks into the book review and finds it good. Narcissus peers into Amazon’s top 100 and, lo, he feels the love. Nothing insults him; nothing pulls him away from that gorgeous smooth watery image below. The editor sells it to him cheap; the professor who might—coming on like the Miltonic voice does to Eve gazing lovingly on herself in the pool: “What thou seest / What there thou seest … is thyself,” it says—the professor has other things to do.
…which brings up a point I sometimes wonder about. Today’s best mathematicians and programmers spend entire careers perfecting algorithms to define our tastes based on past choices. Amazon, Netflix, and increasingly even places like Google and Facebook try their darnedest to figure out what we like, so they can find more of it to feed back to us. The social-sphere makes it so we only ever see and hear things we like from sources an awful lot like us.
Are we maybe losing out on a huge opportunity to grow by shutting ourselves into a predictive model of experience? Who will make the opposing model, that doesn’t load you up with similar stimulus to what you’ve had, but seeks to help fill in the gaps you’ve never explored? Where is the model that challenges us by offering: “You seem to listen exclusively to music influenced by 90’s alt-rock… maybe try a neo-classical cellist for once?” (may I personally recommend Julia Kent, a recent discovery whose album Delay got its hooks in me to a surprising degree).
As everyone races to prove they know what you like based on where you’ve been, there could be a huge opportunity for the person or company who arrives to help you learn based on where you haven’t.
Thought I had seen this William Gibson quote, or at least part of it, somewhere before, and it turned up this week in a post by BBH labs:
“Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the previous two centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large… But they became extinct…. We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters.”~ William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)
I love this for two reasons.
One, it seems to accurately describe the odd problem we’re having more and more, which Patton Oswalt recently described in Wired as “etewaf” — Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever. Nothing has time to gestate and get cool, because too many people are spending their whole lives scouring for the next cool thing.
Two, I feel like that person sometimes. Scouring the web, the world, the recesses of my brain for bits of newness or pithy factoids or fresh perspectives that just aren’t there. Infinite information isn’t always the road to inspiration; it’s often limits that inspire greatness, not limitlessness.
Once, I saw Irvin Kershner, director of Empire Strikes Back, doing a Q&A after a screening at the Arclight in Hollywood. This was post-prequels. He was taking questions about behind-the-scenes stuff like making Yoda work, and someone asked him what he thought of the new movies. He tactfully dodged, and said something to the effect of, “You know, it’s because we were so limited in what we could do with Yoda that we had to work so hard to give him a personality. That was the only way to make him a believable character. When you’re unlimited in what you can do, you spend less time thinking about what you should do. It’s often the limits that push you to make great art.” (I may be paraphrasing or making that pithier than it was when he said it, but it’s a good point all the same.)
It may be worth noting that he passed away a few months ago. The true limit of us all.
Did I mention I’m turning 30 in a few days? A good a time as any to focus less on what I can do, and more on what I should. Like write more. Figure out what I’m doing to celebrate this pivotal moment in my life. And figure out which limits will push me to make something great out of this year to come.
One of the tough parts of a job where your task is to “know people” — meaning have some level of expertise in what they think, feel, care about, are motivated by, etc. — is that actual, real-life people defy generalization. Thinking about groups of people based on interests or demographics almost always misses the nuances of individual taste, circumstance, personality, and so on.
Case in point, the LA Times attributes rising NFL ratings to the popularity of fantasy football, using an atypical example to prove the scope of its effect:
When they first gathered three years ago, the group of women in their 30s and 40s was so green that one member asked if “fantasy” meant picking the hottest NFL players. Now they’re a bunch of obsessives who, in building and competing with their pseudo-teams using real players and figures, pore over yardage stats and go by huddle-tough nicknames like the Grinder. And they watch each game like it’s wanted for murder.
“In fantasy football every game counts,” said Kierstan Cleary, a pharmaceutical sales representative and mother of two young sons who described herself as at most a casual fan before joining the Hail Marys. Her viewing of games on TV during that time, she estimates, has tripled to about 30 per season.
Broadening the audience will be great for the sport, no doubt. And good for these women that they didn’t succumb to the conventional wisdom that says fantasy football is only for aging male jocks.
But what this demonstrates more than anything, I’d say, is that we live in an age where anything can be for everyone. Old lines are constantly being broken down. If we focus on making something great — a product, a story, a service, whatever it is — instead of pleasing a very narrow group of easy targets, there’s a vastly larger opportunity for success. Did ESPN or Yahoo Sports think that by building an easy-to-use fantasy sports application that they’d be pulling in suburban moms? Doubtful. But the casual gaming and participatory viewing aspects are so addictively fun, they did anyway. Quality propagates itself.
Look at a film like Scott Pilgrim. A very fun movie that I personally loved, but marketed a little too heavily to the comic-and-video-game crowd it references so heavily. That movie underwhelmed at the box office. However, I’d venture that because it really is a terrific accomplishment in filmmaking, it will be discovered by a lot of people on home video and end up as a film with staying power. When I went to a Best Buy to pick up a copy as a gift, it was sold out.
Then look at Inception, a cerebral, complicated film that certainly doesn’t scream lowest common denominator. But by crafting those elements into a solid action heist thriller, it pulled in enormous audiences — something no studio would have believed to be true and green lit, were it not for the clout of Christopher Nolan post-Batman.
Think of these movies, or the Old Spice Guy, or Lost, or Harry Potter books, and imagine: would they have existed if the powers that be settled for the assumption that, “this isn’t for everyone” meant it wasn’t worth doing? Or are they cases that suggest if we focus on quality, the people will come?
I’d like to believe that when we think in terms of target audiences and market research, we’re only taking the bland average of a small sample of a whole broad array of really interesting, individual human beings. The safe road is to appeal to the middle, or laser-target the easily identifiable edges. But in reality, all people are basically open to the new, different, challenging, and quirky a lot more than we think. In fact they crave it. We just have to trust them to know good when they see it, and trust ourselves to make good things worth finding, and get out of the way.
I must say, I’m fascinated by hipsters, but almost equally fascinated by the prevalence of people analyzing what hipsters really are. Seems like a day doesn’t go by that some article or another isn’t written about what makes someone a hipster, or how to classify different hipsters, or what hipsters are into lately. Either they’re the most interesting subjects in culture right now, or they’re the only avid readers who can be counted on to click headlines about themselves. Either way, it can feel like a bit of a dead horse source being beaten for stories.
However, last week there was a legitimately excellent sociological take on the phenomenon of hipsters in the New York Times. Finally, a piece examining hipsters not in terms of what, but in terms of why:
Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.
All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.
The whole article’s worth reading, because for once it’s about the disease, as it were, not the symptom. In the great social mess of urban life, clothes and music and preferred cheap party beer are all well and good to be talking about, but at the end of the day hipsters and yuppies and high paid executives are really all playing the same game: trying to impress each other. Displays of wealth and taste or non-wealth and alterna-taste are just a matter of saying that at least you’re better than someone, so you don’t have to be totally insecure about your place in the world.
Or to put it even more simply, there’s this cartoon:
I’d been meaning to share this article by Douglas Coupland, in which he offers “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 years.” It’s 45 quick, pithy ways things are going to be different whether we like it or not. A few favorites:
9) The suburbs are doomed, especially thoseE.T. , California-style suburbs
This is a no-brainer, but the former homes will make amazing hangouts for gangs, weirdoes and people performing illegal activities. The pretend gates at the entranceways to gated communities will become real, and the charred stubs of previous white-collar homes will serve only to make the still-standing structures creepier and more exotic.
17) You may well burn out on the effort of being an individual
You’ve become a notch in the Internet’s belt. Don’t try to delude yourself that you’re a romantic lone individual. To the new order, you’re just a node. There is no escape.
I think the beauty of this list is how widely varied his points are, how short and simple they’re stated, and how true they all feel.
Any one of these points could be an entire treatise, but instead, it’s a list of pithy points that feels disturbingly right on.
This is something a lot of great writers, comedians (see last post), politicians, and even marketing strategists/copywriters have in common: a real talent for telling us things that we already believe, but either didn’t know consciously, or hadn’t quite put into the best words.
Convincing someone of something is hard when you have to present a long, reasoned, evidence-backed case. And with enough time, research, art direction, word-smithing and so on, really anyone could do that. But the most impressive folks, the ones I aspire to be like, are the people who can cut all that part out and just deliver that sense of “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” in one artfully stated sentence.
[Nevermind the clear evidence on this blog that I still have a long way to go, since every post containing one interesting idea is about five paragraphs long. Discipline, my good man!]
Also in the department of things that just feel true in your core: the new album by No Age. Top five of the year, at least. I’ve been ‘Fever Dreaming‘ and ‘Glitter’-ing like crazy for the past month since seeing them open for Pavement. Highly recommended.
I don’t drink coffee. I love the smell, but I just never started drinking it, so I never got the taste for it, and so it’s not a part of my life. The whole Starbucks fever of the last 20 years has been completely wasted on me. There’s even one in the building right next door to my apartment, which lots of people would see as a huge plus, location-wise, but for me it’s just something I walk around to get to Subway or the smoothie place. Too bad, looks like they have some comfy chairs in there.
But then I saw an article this week that got me a bit excited. Well really, it reminded me of this even better article from back in July, but where The Awl makes a better case, USA Today puts it nice and simply:
The Starbucks of the future arrived today.
If Starbucks executives have it figured out right, this could be the prototype for the next generation of stores for one of the world’s most influential brands.
A very different kind of Starbucks is on tap. It will serve regional wine and beer. It offers an expansive plate of locally made cheeses — served on china. The barista bar is rebuilt to seat customers up close to the coffee.
Most conspicuously, the place looks less like a Starbucks and more like a cafe that’s been part of the neighborhood for years — yet that’s “green” in design and decor. This is the calling card of independent java joints that have been eating and sipping away at Starbucks’ evening business for decades. U.S. Starbucks stores get 70% of business before 2 p.m.
As an admirer of what Starbucks has done from a brand standpoint — but only ever from afar as a non-coffee-guy — I love this for a couple of reasons. One, selfishly, I could end up with a potentially decent wine bar practically outside my door in the near future; and I’d finally have an excuse to go sit in one of those comfy chairs.
But professionally, I respect this move for its astuteness. Starbucks’ core competency, to get all B-school for a second, is coffee, no one would deny that. They made coffee in America what it is today. Their brand, however, isn’t just taste in that timeless Maxwell House “good to the last drop” kind of way. It’s taste in a curation sort of way. Starbucks introduces people to the wider world of coffee and educates them in why that matters. The exact service is something a huge swath of America could probably use when it comes to wine.
And they’re just as much about a comfortable place to enjoy the product as they are the product itself, which, hey, why not give coffee fans a reason to come back around at 6 and wind down in those aforementioned chairs? Or Starbucks gawkers like myself a chance at the warm feeling of having your local barista know your favorite drink when you drop by the neighborhood shop, even if that happens to be a dark red instead of a skinny cap?
That’s why I’m pulling for this to work, even though, as the earlier Awl article points out, there might even be a bigger benefit:
Here’s where I start to buy the corporate speak. They’re doing it because we need it. Because wine bars outside of wine country in America generally fall into two categories: terrible and privileged.
We’re not in northern Spain, and while a lot of our bars do an impressive job, we’re not the freewheeling, drink-wine-because-it’s-there society we could be. You get hackjobs and you get greatness, but there’s usually no wine “local” we all head to at 5:30 on a Tuesday.
Starbucks stands to change that. As you went from Folgers to fresh-brewed to macchiato to maybe even a working knowledge of “free trade” and “single origin,” we may someday be in position to make everyday wine a larger part of our patois. The sameness Starbucks will bring, much as it did with coffee, can be precisely its source of innovation.
So come on Starbucks. Make with the updates and warm up a lounger ’cause I’m dropping by and I want my wine and cheese. For America.
Two interesting bits I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts on but, well, putting off for one reason or another. One was a splendidly comprehensive piece in The New Yorker about procrastination that’s worth a full read but especially good at this part, describing experiments around a phenomenon called ‘hyperbolic discounting’:
“A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”
The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.”
Not only did this hit home for me particularly (I’ve recently been reprising my personal “Mile and a Movie” challenge in which I walk or run at least a mile, and also watch a movie — preferably off my Netflix queue — every single day for a month), but I’d never seen the temptation to procrastinate so clearly outlined and labeled with a sciencey-sounding term.
We all like to think we’ll do grand things, make big changes, become better people, or even just do the things we should be doing already. But it’s much easier to take the path of least resistance and keep doing what we’re used to doing. It’s probably true of most people in their professional lives as well as the ho-hum day to day stuff.
I, the career-oriented planner, should be undertaking big juicy projects that will make me a lot smarter and better, but it’s easiest to just crank out quick Powerpoint slides as needed. Just as the people we’re trying to reach might really like to get involved in some big, juicy program or event or web experience we’ve put together for them, but it’s a lot easier to just check Facebook and watch football. (Which makes it seem not entirely unrelated — in that it’s a question of motivation, really — to Gladwell’s point about Twitter in the previous post).
But hey, not to say that I’m all lazy. Not only am I exercising AND catching up on serious classic films, I also take the time to tweet, tumbl, and blog; which may be slightly less juicy but does make me smarter and better, honest. It’s just that I can’t share the really juicy stuff on the web.
On the other hand, there are times when putting things off is a good thing, in that saving them for later can make them easier to properly enjoy. Case in point, Instapaper, about which I’ve read a couple great articles recently and am thinking about investigating now that I have a Kindle. The idea of taking some of the best writing from online sources, many of which I skim through over a sandwich during a lunch at my desk, and being able to carry them offline to digest with fewer (digestion-related) distractions? Marvelous. I especially love this quote from its creator, Marco Arment, in Wired:
“People love information,” Arment said. “Right now in our society, we have an obesity epidemic. Because for the first time in history, we have access to food whenever we want, we don’t know how to control ourselves. I think we have the exact same problem with information.”
I’ve heard no better term for what the web can easily do to us — especially people whose job it is to ‘stay on top of what’s happening in culture’ — than information obesity.
It’s easy to load up on RSS feeds, whip through them at the beginning and end of every day, maybe tweet a few out into your social sphere, but there will always be something to be said for sitting down away from the screen to truly engage with ideas with some focus and depth.
who can resist a gladwell new yorker piece? i know i can’t. this latest, “small change: why the revolution will not be tweeted,” is about the vast difference between the twitterfied version of social change today and that of the last massive, watershed moment of real change, the civil rights movement:
““Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.
In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.”
and of course the social media advocates (read: people who make their living convincing others that the future will be fueled entirely by like buttons — and that theirs are the shiniest) are up in arms. i have to say though, i’m with gladwell on this one.
people are powerfully lazy. or at the very least, as jon stewart said himself about his upcoming “rally to restore sanity” (and i’m paraphrasing), “this is for the people who don’t normally go to the rallies full of crazy people, because we have shit to do.” what do people love even more than getting involved? feeling involved with the least possible expenditure of time and effort.
want lots of people to do something on behalf of your organization, cause, or brand? make it simple, fast, fun, and worth talking about. don’t ask me to give up my money, or even worse, my time; both are far too precious.