Archive for the ‘work’ Category
Finally got around to reading Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, a straightforward, mostly serious consideration of his formative years. What struck me most, aside from the occasional hilarious deadpan observation, was how he described being aware of developing in his craft even when he wasn’t successful or even very good yet. But now that the book is done, I wonder whether Martin is accurately reporting what he felt about his process at the time — or if he’s making sense of his development in retrospect. When you’re in the middle of getting good at something, but not yet good at it, do you know how everything fits? Or can you only look back at that?
I’ve enjoyed my latest two-year stint running The Vineyard Group. Nearly all of my clients, large or small, established or startup, treated me to challenging and rewarding work — and each client’s needs have been sufficiently different so each day has delivered surprises. Earlier this year on this blog, I shared some lessons I learned from my client work (Make it new again, On providing editorial services to noneditorial professionals, Business casual: an editorial manifesto, and Editing as strategy — and why it’s not the same thing as editorial strategy) and I hope to share more here soon, although now I’ll be doing it from a different perch.
One of those clients has been the consultancy Collective Next. I became aware of the company from working alongside its founder and CEO, Matt Saiia, as a fellow curator for TEDxBoston. (This year’s event is next Tuesday. It’s long since sold out, but you can either watch the livestream or listen to it live on WBUR.) I found in Matt someone fun to argue and develop ideas with, and a good guy to stand next to at Gorillaz and Hey Ice Machine shows. Then I found out, one by one, that the company was stuffed with people who consistently (a) made me think harder and (b) cracked me up. Collective Next specializes in helping companies collaborate better, and even the briefest visit to Collective Next HQ would show you how they live what they teach. I’ll be doing a lot of different things for Collective Next: client work, developing new products and bringing them to market, and the usual publishing and editorial work.
One of the biggest things I miss from my last job is getting to work every day in a big, open room stuffed with creative, brilliant, challenging, hilarious, likeminded people. I think I have that again. Joining Collective Next has been like joining a gang — in a good way. The hazing has been limited (so far) to good-natured spreadsheet-hacking. I’m ready for a big long-term challenge and Collective Next seems like the ideal place for me to share what I know, learn from people with different skills and passions, grow, help other people grow, get into creative trouble, and fight our way out of it together. Onward!
I’m tightening the ideas and removing the crap from a presentation workshop I’m running on Monday. It would be bad, after all, to give a bad presentation about giving good presentations. While doing so, I realized I wasn’t emphasizing audience enough: understanding who you’re presenting to and what they need, focusing on their needs and not yours. Whenever I want to show clients the value of obsessing over what the audience wants and needs, I call in a great quote that you can find in Nancy Duarte‘s outstanding and welcoming HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations. In her book, Duarte quotes Ken Haemer, presentation research manager at AT&T:
“Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern.’”
Think about that the next time you’re in front of other people. Or the next time you’re writing or doing anything for other people.
This is the fourth in a series of posts covering some lessons I’ve learned as an editor. You can read the first entry here, the second entry here, the third entry here, and a list of all the posts in the series here.
Question Jimmy gets asked regularly after he explains to people what he does for a living: So that means you do editorial strategy?
Answer: No. I don’t work on editorial strategy so much as I work on editorial as strategy.
Follow-up question: What?
And then a conversation begins. The difference in wording is subtle, but I think the difference in approach is a big deal. Here’s an attempt at a longer (but still brief) answer to the “what do you do for a living” question.
When you’re developing and executing an editorial strategy, your job is to solve problems. Maybe it’s a media or publishing company and the projects you’re working on are core to the business. Maybe it’s not and your focus is on some internal or external communication effort that supports the core business. Either way, your day-to-day work is centered around short-term questions: Are the topics I’m covering relevant? Am I presenting them in a way that my audience can understand and act on? Do the author/presenter and audience have conflicting needs? Is what I’m publishing or presenting helping my audience get great at something they need to be great at? On good days, you come up with good answers to those questions. But they’re short-term answers that change as conditions change.
When you think of editorial as strategy, you’re considering a company’s business through an editorial lens. That means using tools commonly associated with the editorial process to build a more coherent and precise strategy and make better decisions to support it. It means, for example, being brutal to every idea, while being kind to the people expressing those ideas. It means creating a series of rules that an organization will live by no matter what, while marking off the areas in which it’s good to get weird. Style guides don’t say to use a serial comma unless it’s difficult to use one; they say to use a serial comma. Similarly, while there are areas in which businesses can and should improvise, explore, and experiment, there are also areas in which there must be agreement to move forward. It’s much easier to advise people to stick to the plan if there’s a well-vetted plan. I suppose it’s similar what Clay Christensen said in a different context in How to Measure Your Life: it’s easier to stick to well-thought-out rules 100% of the time than it is 98% of the time. And it’s especially easy to do so if you’re clear on where you have to drive straight and where it might be fun to swerve and see what happens. By viewing a business’s strategy through an editorial lens, with all the editorial tools for structure and iteration at your disposal, you can see things that both traditional strategy consultants and meme-of-the-moment consultants miss.
Editorial strategy is, of course, part of editorial as strategy, and I don’t want to suggest that getting a corporation’s editorial strategy together is anything but a good thing. But if all you’re offering is what you’re packaging as “editorial strategy,” chances are that your work is tactical and will have only a limited impact on the organization you’re trying to influence. You can best help a client think big by thinking big yourself.
Every year around this time, the subscription to the online Wall Street Journal comes around and I send money that winds up in one of the infinite number of bank accounts controlled by one of the worst men in media. Each year the decision gets harder — the A-heds get shorter and less surprising, the wall between the news and opinion operations gets knocked down a bit more, and the paper continues to let its focus on financial journalism go fuzzy — but in the end I renew my subscription. Even in its reduced state, the paper offers some strong journalism, particularly in those occasional areas where the Murdochs don’t have glaring interests or conflicts of interest. But each year I have less trouble imagining a world in which I don’t need the WSJ to get my job done. Maybe next year?
I don’t write as frequently as I like/should for HBR — hey, editing takes time — but here are some recent posts I’ve published there:
Consulting for the Evil Empire (blog)
Enticing the Next Generation of African Leaders (blog)
Why Do We Need Leaders? (blog)
Sharing Links and Hors d’Oeuvres (about TED; published in the January-February issue; forgot to note it here)
Good morning. For much of yesterday, the top two stories on business websites were the latest twists in antitrust cases against Microsoft (dropped) and Intel (doubled down). It sent me back to a time when I would wake up around 5 a.m. and one of the first things I had to think about was what was happening with various Microsoft and Intel legal actions. I had to think about that because of what I did for a living. For a few years I was editor of Media Grok, a daily email newsletter published by The Industry Standard; after The Standard went under, we secured independent funding and I was editor and publisher of Media Unspun. (We had to change the name because we were unwilling to pay the extortion fee IDG wanted to use the “Grok” name.)
The mission of Grok and Unspun was pretty specific: identify the two or three most important Internet economy stories of the day, summarize them, summarize the media coverage of them, present it to readers with both humor and context, do it briefly, and get it all to them by 9 a.m. Until the dot-com bubble popped, there were plenty of people who wanted their tech news served with attitude and there was a good business there. After 2001, it was hard to find anything funny in yet another layoff or bankruptcy story. Eventually, we went under as well. If you’d like to see what Media Unspun was about all those years ago, I just found our archive.
I loved the work, both for The Standard and on our own dime. Our year-and-change as a startup was particularly exciting and all-encompassing. Aside from writing and editing, I learned a great deal about selling advertising, getting paid for advertising (and not getting paid for advertising), circulation, spam filters, primitive search engine optimization, and, most of all, customer service. We were a rare early-in-the-decade non-porn-or-WSJ content play that people had to pay for, and when people sent us their credit card number many of them felt they were joining a club. When you join a club, you want to talk to the people in it. Those hundreds of conversations, sometimes about what we were doing wrong, improved the product on a daily basis and kept us connected.
I’m happy right now, but when I saw the headlines about Microsoft and Intel yesterday it hit me how I miss the project, the people I was lucky enough to work with on it, and the people we did it for. Microsoft and Intel are in court; someone has to crack a smart, telling joke about it.
(Your best bet nowadays for well-informed snark: John Paczkowski, ex of Good Morning Silicon Valley, who continues to illuminate and crack up the industry with his Digital Daily at All Things Digital.)
Just a quick public thanks to Scott Kirsner for coming up with the idea for the Coffee for No Reason that we hosted. The attendance was much larger than we expected (thanks to Cosi for being kind about that) and I got the chance to meet a bunch of cool people doing cool things. Some I knew already; plenty I was lucky enough to meet for the first time. I shouldn’t have to be reminded than Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where tech innovation is happening.
However, if you do live near San Francisco and you didn’t fly cross-country for a cup of coffee, you can see Scott at a “Fans, Friends & Followers” workshop at BAVC on December 1. It’ll cost more than a cup of coffee but I’m sure it will be a bargain.
Jane is the primary coffee person in my life, but I’m going to host, along with the great Scott Kirsner, a coffee-for-no-reason gathering in Kendall Square on Friday, October 16. Scott has the details here, but I’ll paste in the highlights of his post below, in case you’re too overextended today to click on a link:
What if a bunch of us descended on the Cosi in Kendall Square to have coffee together for absolutely no reason?
That would sort of be fun, especially if it was a Friday morning.
Here’s how it will work:
Jimmy Guterman and I are hosting. We’ll be there from 9 to 11 AM on Friday, October 16th. We’ll try to grab a table in the dead center of the restaurant’s front room. You’ll find our pictures below so you can recognize us. Come up and say hi, or introduce yourself to someone who looks like they are part of this craziness.
I’m bringing a stack of brand new hardcover business and tech books that have been sent to me as “review copies.” Grab one that looks interesting. Jimmy is bringing a few free copies of an album he produced: The Sandinista Project.
(And if you have something you’d like to give away for free, bring it! There’s also an open WiFi network that usually works, in case you want to bring a laptop and do some demos.)
But mostly this is just a chance to meet some interesting people (most of whom work or hang out in Kendall Square) and introduce them to one another… and goof off on a Friday morning. No content, no sponsors, no agenda, no nothing. Just a social-media-driven coffee klatsch.
PR Folks: You’re welcome to come, but please don’t view this as an opportunity to pitch two of the dimmer members of Boston’s journalistic firmament. ]
The Twitter hash tag, of course, is #CFNR (Coffee for No Reason).
Hope to see you there! No pitching!
Here’s today’s example:
The Management Lessons of Las Vegas (MIT Sloan Management Review)
We’re redoing the blog at MIT Sloan Management Review. One of the changes is that I’ll be contributing to it more. Here’s my first entry.
Have something interesting to say about how being sustainable gives your business an advantage? MIT Sloan Management Review wants to know. Email me at my work address: jimmyg AT mit DOT edu
In work and life, we put off things we have to do forever and ever until they are causing us so much stress that we have to DO THEM RIGHT NOW. After we do, we’re surprised how little time, effort, and imagination we needed to draw on to get everything done. I’m having this experience right now. As I wrote in Remember the Milk fails to serve its Outlook users — or does it understand its audience perfectly? and the followup post Remember the Milk forgets me … but is it my fault?, I wrote about how hard it was getting the online task service Remember the Milk to work with Microsoft Outlook and I realized — after promptings from two of my smarter Friends on the Internets — that the problem was my reliance on Outlook. At MIT, I was finally working in a technology-agnostic environment. I wrote, “I’m going to move my work life to the cloud slowly and carefully.” I’d been working in Outlook for many years, ever since a client forced me to leave my beloved Eudora. The plan was to move slowly and calmly, so I didn’t lose any data or screw up my workflow more than it’s usually screwed up.
It took about a day.
I am a bit embarrassed about how easy it was. I won’t bore you with the particulars (fortunately for you, this is not one of those blogs that talks about the intricacies and idiosyncracies of secure POP-to-IMAP transfers), but I can tell you that (a) I’m not the world’s most tech-savvy blogger and (b) after about an hour I didn’t miss Outlook. Sure, there are compromises in getting the new system to work my way, but there were compromises in getting the old one to work my way, too. (One compromise I didn’t have to make: the most essential of my Outlook add-ons, Anagram, is available in a more lightweight version for Gmail and Google Calendar.)
Until the past few weeks, I understood on an abstract level that the computing world was moving inexorably from desktop-based applications to cloud-based ones. When I was editing Release 2.0 I reported from the front lines of the transition. But I didn’t truly grok it until I uninstalled Microsoft Office and looked for myself. Web apps have nearly all the functionality of desktop apps, they’re infinitely lighter and more portable, and they’re a whole lot cheaper. It’s pretty clear up here in the cloud. And, as Brian pointed out, I never have to wait for Outlook to open ever again. Microsoft is going to have to do a lot more than get funnier jokes out of Jerry Seinfeld to beat this.
I’ve been trolling “about” pages as I’m writing one for the MIT SMR website relaunch, and I just came across this:
“We’re still in beta, which means we still suck.” — from the “about” page on Business Sheet.
“You are not authorized to remove yourself from this mailing list.”
Last week I wrote about Remember the Milk’s refusal or inability to synch its excellent task service with Outlook. I received a couple of interesting comments to the post. Rather than respond to them in the comments, I’m surfacing them here, in part because they’re better than my original post.
So here’s where Twitter comes in: you should Twitter a link to this post, with the title in it, and see if the RTM people are ego-searching Twitter for complaints/compliments. Then see if they respond!
Well, that is exactly what I did. Using the miracle that is Ping.fm, I let those poor souls following my Facebook and Twitter status updates know about the post. Turns out that the RTM people either (a) have better things to do than ego-search or (b) have better things to do that respond to my whining.
Brian Johnson wrote, in part (you can read the comment if you don’t want to miss a word of his thoughtful argument):
Jimmy, I completely agree with your point that the good people at Remember The Milk should be more communicative. Giving you that, I want to address something else in your post: Outlook … [description of his rocky relationship with Outlook] … The good people at RTM ought to answer the phone. And we should be getting on to our next platform already. When I think about the months, maybe years of my life, I’ve spent waiting for Windows and Outlook to load, I want to weep. I’m making a break for it. Are you with me?
So the problem is me, is it?
Well, maybe it is. Since June, I have the good fortune to have a full-time job, for the first time, at a place that’s platform-agnostic. I no longer have the “gotta use Outlook” excuse. I use plenty of the same Outlook add-ins Brian uses to make it work better with the cloud that, except for my writing, has become the center of my computing experience. If I have a large and bulky program that I’m augmenting with a half-dozen large, bulky add-ons that don’t always play well together so they better connect with the lightweight web-based services I’m using more and more, what’s the point?
So … OK, Brian. I’m in. I don’t want to move from a Microsoft-supervised prison to an Apple-supervised one or a Google-supervised one, so I’m going to move my work life to the cloud slowly and carefully. And there are plenty of interesting services so I can mix and match without the system being any more complicated than an Outlook-plus-add-ins scenario. I don’t want to have to do this again in six months if Jobs or Schmidt turn out to be lousy stewards of my stuff. Let the transition begin …
(Unintentional punch line: The transition may have begun already. Earlier today I installed the new IE beta on my laptop. It has an undocumented new feature: It doesn’t connect to any websites. Hello again, Firefox!)
As we’re preparing the fall relaunch of the MIT Sloan Management Review website, we’re thinking hard about how to make things easier for people trying to get around our site. (Indeed, I have a document on that very topic due for my boss tomorrow.) We’ve been looking closely at forms on other websites and I just came across this doozy:
This is as hostile a web form as I’ve seen lately. Checking the box unsubscribes you, except when it doesn’t … because there are two ways to unsubscribe. The sentence right above the “unsubscribe” button was written by someone who either (1) didn’t like English class in high school and still carries a grudge or (2) has been instructed to make the unsubscribe so confusing that plenty of people will stay on the list by accident.
But why should there be a form at all? Even better, as my colleague (and Wordle enthusiast) Sean Brown points out, wouldn’t it be better, when someone clicks on an “unsubscribe” link in an email, for that person to arrive at a page simply confirming that he or she has been unsubscribed? Do what your customer wants and get out of the way.
I warned you. Will the fear of public humiliation motivate me to get everything done?
* get 24 things done at MIT (six down, 18 to go)
* dentist’s appointment (not yet)
* write drafts of two scenes for the novel (nope)
* organize the office (home) (nope)
* organize the office (MIT) (almost)
* exercise five times (one down, four to go)
Where you been?
Canada, mostly. The five of us and a friend of Eli’s packed into the van: half a week in Montreal (good, and I was not responsible for this), half a week in Ottawa (great), and a one-night stopover in Burlington, Vt., on the way back. As of Tuesday, I’m three-quarters of the way to Inbox Zero. I need to learn French for the next trip to the Great White North.
Was everything the same when you returned?
Mostly. Manny is gone, and so is Scrabulous, but it looks as if the latter has returned in not-too-diminished form. I missed a particularly weird Carl Icahn hissy fit, and I’ll have to check in with Paczkowski for guidance on how to interpret that.
What did you learn about your newspaper-reading habits while you were gone?
As I’ve noted previously, I’m done with print newspapers. For the first half of the vacation, I did a reasonably good job of staying off the laptop (and we were in another country, so I didn’t want to turn on the iPhone unless absolutely necessary). If I wanted to know what was going on in the world I had to read the print versions of the Times and Journal, both of which were available in hotel gift shops at imminent-apocalypse prices. I imagined that reading newspapers this way would feel like a luxury. Instead, compared to their younger online siblings, they felt out of date and, well, short. Aside from the immediacy you get from following news via the net, chances are you see that news as part of a larger river of information. It’s always coming at you. In comparison, reading the news in a newspaper feels limited, finite. It ends. News on the net never ends (for better or worse).
Also worth looking at was the National Gallery in Ottawa. We spent two hours there. I bet we could have gone at least two days without running out of surprises. I was particularly taken by William Kurelek’s “Arriving on the Manitoba Farm,” which looks dark and formless in this image, but reveals more and more layers of detail and meaning when you have the pleasure of standing in front of it.
When you stopped in Burlington, Vt., on the way back, did you see any newspaper headlines you’d expect to see only in Burlington, Vt.?
What did you read?
Parts of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (mostly zzz, but it did introduce me to this guy) and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and (several times) my favorite Chekhov story, “The Lady with the Dog.”
And you read them all on your…
Kindle, right. It’s a usability nightmare and the selection of Amazon-blessed-and-DRMed books is insufficient and random, but I found it convenient and comfortable under all but the most low-light situations.
Did you write?
Yes, especially early in the week when I was still keeping that off-the-net promise. It’s amazing how less depressed you can be about the quality of something if you’re actually working on it. And maybe I should consider a new business model.
What was Jane’s most memorable quote during the week?
There were so many candidates, but I’m going with “I’m trying to save the tattoo.”
How’s the new job going?
So far it seems like a very good fit. I’ll have a full report at the end of The First 90 Days.
Weren’t you going to tell us the point of this blog?
Comments from Doug, Owen, and Andrea — and a gift from Brian — showed me the limits of my thinking from a few posts ago. And Jane has suggested that I write about what I think about: namely, media and technology. So, unless you’re reading this via a newsreader, you’ll see that the blog now has a new tagline: “media, technology, and the rest of it.” I’ve got some ideas for making this more than a vanity blog; we’ll see if I can live up to them. Oh, and to warn you, I’m going to pay more attention to Twitter.
Gotta see how the WordPress app for the iPhone works.
I’m a student of magazine covers. I’m a hardcore Loisite, and I’ve spent decades exploring the best way to mix words and images so people cannot ignore the cover and must grab the magazine.
I’ve had the great pleasure of spending much of my career editing and writing for magazines. Those reading this who know me know that I love magazines. As a reader, I spend way too much time at newsstands. I love the immediacy of magazines. As an editor, I love getting words and pictures to tell stories together. I love trying to fill infinite content into a severely finite space. I even love the disposability of magazines: after this issue is done, I get to work on another one!
Some disclosure: I voted for Barack Obama in the Massachusetts primary and intend to vote for him in November, but I am not among his more enthusiastic supporters. I wrote more than 100 reviews and articles for Rolling Stone during the ’80s, but I lost interest with it during the ’90s and receive it now only because it came as a free offer when I bought a DVD earlier this year. The text of the recent issue is full of both cliches and factual errors (sample of the latter: the Kinman Brothers will be surprised to learn that Alejandro Escovedo “fronted” Rank and File), so I’ll stop receiving the magazine as soon as they stop sending me free copies. That noted, I believe the cover of the new issue of the magazine, featuring Obama, is the most arresting magazine cover I’ve seen in years.
Magazines are about words and images working together, although sometimes words can detract from an image. Is there anything that the cover image of Obama doesn’t say to the reader? It tells you who it’s about and what Rolling Stone thinks about him: everything about content and approach is embedded in the bold image. The smile is 1,000-watt, the (digitally enhanced?) wrinkles coming out of his eyes convey that this guy isn’t too young for the job he wants, and the American flag lapel pin wouldn’t pop more unless the cover was 3-D. And how important does Rolling Stone think Obama is? Important enough to cover half the words in the name of the magazine. That’s an old trick, but it’s especially powerful here.
This cover is particularly powerful when you compare it to this recent one that tried to accomplish something similar with its design (although, of course, the politicians and their predicaments are far different):
The Rolling Stone cover makes a starker impact because the designer went 100% of the way: no words. The New York cover cheats. The “<-Brain” thing works because it’s as much a pure graphic element as a word with an arrow, but the words in the top left of the page are a waste. They distract. “The Governor’s Fall” reads the headline. Please. When that cover appeared, mere days after Spitzer and his power evaporated, did anyone in the New York reading public not know who Eliot Spitzer was or what he had done? (The subhead, with its pointless navigation, adds to the offense.) The cover, a step away from brilliant, loses its way because the committee that vetted it didn’t trust the arresting image at its core. Words are important. But sometimes words get in the way, too.
I need one — not for this little blog, but for my job. Help us!
Al Gore’s talk the last day of TED is worth seeing. Unlike his Inconvenient Truth talk, which was quite slick and professional by the time it became a film, his new presentation is still quite raw. But it also moves forward the story he told in the film in a hard-headed, open-hearted way. To think we could be at the end of a second Gore administration right about now…
I love The New York Times. I’ve read it almost every day of my life since I was in high school. For all its recent flaws — the weirdo profiles of the major presidential candidates are the most high-profile — it is still full of the most outstanding reporting. And, on the days that Gail Collins files, it offers up the most penetrating and entertaining opinion.
What’s that? It’s the last print copy of the Times I’ll ever have delivered to my front door. Over the years, I’ve slowly weaned myself off subscriptions to physical newspapers, but it was hard to say no to the Times. The quality was high, the thump of the paper on the sidewalk was a pleasant sound to hear first thing in the morning, I liked the serendipity of walking through a print section, and I felt obligated to pay for the paper at a time when print subscribers were becoming an endangered species. But, after years of wavering, I’m done. The environmental argument alone should have been enough for me, but the simple fact is that I do more and more of my reading on a screen (the only holdouts: fiction and poetry). And plenty of that reading has been from the Times. What finally made me give in to the inevitable was realizing, one barely-dawn morning last week when I was reading the paper at our kitchen table, that I had already read much (most?) of it online. For all the pleasure of holding and print, the Times on paper is just too late. In 2008, today’s paper is yesterday’s news.
So now I’m a freeloader, although you could argue that my personal information, sent to the Times in return for a username and password, may have some value. I rarely, if ever, click on an ad on the Times‘s website. I would gladly pay for the pleasure and convenience of reading the paper online, just as I do for The Wall Street Journal, but I don’t have that option. In this era of advertising-is-the-only-business-model, management at the Times Company has decided that I’ve decided that the value of what it sends to me is zero. I disagree — and I’m not going to pay a premium for the proprietary and little-used Times Reader to make my point.
I’ll miss the paper on paper, and I bet I’ll buy it when I’m on vacation, as a treat, an indulgence. But if even people like me — who adore The New York Times — can no longer justify a print subscription, how can its print version survive, except as a high-priced, scarce product for an increasingly elite audience?
(This originally appeared on the O’Reilly Radar.)
Nick Carr calls out a whopper by Michael Arrington. It can be a pleasure to witness Carr best an inferior mind, but I have a question: If Carr is so smart — and he is — why does he read Arrington?
I gave a talk on “Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do” last month at TED and delivered a (not as good) stripped-down version of it a week later at ETech. I’ve been asked by several Jewels and Binoculars readers to post the presentation as a blog entry. Here it is. I recognize that a flat blog post doesn’t capture the experience of a live presentation, but I want to get the material out here. And, as an added benefit, you don’t have to look at or listen to me present it!
Being here first thing in the morning, I feel like the opening act at the beginning of one of those long package shows of rock bands. I feel like Yngvie Malmsteen, a godawful heavy metal guitarist not often celebrated at TED.
Indeed, “Yngvie,” as we all know, is Swedish for “opening act.”
So here we go…
I edit Release 2.0, an expensive newsletter, so I hear a lot from readers. Sometimes they’re looking for rules, some secrets to guarantee success. I want to justify their investment in the newsletter, of course, so I tell ‘em what I’ve learned.
And what I’ve learned is that they should screw up.
While anyone who’s spent time with any of the members of Guns N Roses might find them to be screwups, the reason you haven’t heard anything new and substantial from them on the radio for 16 years — 16 years! — is that they’ve committed the opposite of screwing up: overplanning. Since the mid-’90s, by which time every original member of the band except singer Axl Rose had left for one reason or another, Guns N Roses has been working on a new album called Chinese Democracy.
Rose and his co-conspirators have been thinking and recording Chinese Democracy for 14 years, gone through at least six producers, 17 band members, and $16 million in recording costs. It’s not out yet. They’ve waited so long, perfecting and planning, planning and perfecting, that the industry Axl Rose once ruled no longer exists. Democracy may arrive in China before Chinese Democracy arrives in record stores.
Oh — wait — there really aren’t record stores any more, either. Too much planning, too much process, means no art, no product, nothing.
For a different approach, let’s consider the TV series Twin Peaks from the early ’90s. To refresh your memory…
This man, Leland Palmer…
…possessed by the spirit of a supernatural character named BOB…
…turned his daughter, Laura Palmer…
But where did BOB, the conceptual lynchpin of the series, come to be? Surely he was there from the beginning.
No. His introduction into the series came as a result of an accident while the cameras were running.
In a scene late in the Twin Peaks pilot, Laura Palmer’s mother experiences a vision while sitting on her living room couch. On the wall behind her, barely in the shot, there is a mirror. In the bottom corner of the mirror, there’s the reflection of Frank Silva, a set dresser on the crew, unaware he’s in the shot. You or I wouldn’t have noticed it unless we were looking for it — but on the set of a television show, there is someone whose job is to look for just such mistakes.
After the take, that person alerted director David Lynch to the accident and began to set up a reshoot. Lynch stopped him. He spoke to Frank Silva, the set dresser in the mirror. “Can you act?” Lynch asked. This was Los Angeles, so you know the answer…
…and the malevolent, mysterious character of BOB, the key to the weird mystery of the series, was born — from an accident.
Many popular products, advances, and countless works of art have emerged from accidents. In the Internet world, we have Blogger and Twitter. And those two are just from one guy: Evan Williams.
Things may go better with Coke, but Coke was originally designed to go better with pain. It was intended to be a pain remedy.
in 1928, Alexander Fleming, researching the flu, noticed that a mold had taken over one of his petri dishes. That mold, he saw, had stopped bacteria in the dish. Voila! Penicillin. Indeed, the very idea of vaccines was discovered by accident, when Edward Jenner noticed that people who worked with cows didn’t get smallpox.
In 1894, John Harvey Kellogg left some cooked wheat to sit while he attended to some pressing matters at his sanitarium. When he returned, the wheat had gone stale. Because he was either cheap or broke — historians disagree — he tried to save the wheat by forcing it through rollers, expecting to get long sheets of dough he could use. Instead, he got … flakes. He toasted them. He served them to his patients. He got very, very rich.
Post-It notes came to be by accident, too, but the story isn’t that interesting, so I’ll just mention it and keep going.
This one’s more interesting. Fred Katz introduced the cello to modern jazz. One night in the late 1950s, during a break between sets while he was playing piano with a jazz band, Katz pulled a chair to the front of the stage and played some solo cello. When the rest of the band returned to the small stage, there was no room for Katz to return to his piano. Not sure what to do — the set was starting, the band was playing — Katz decided to play the piano lines on his cello. Out of his accident, his real, half-century-long, career began.
Next time you enjoy some ferocious rock’n’roll encased in feedback, thank these guys. A spray of amplifier feedback at the beginning of The Beatles’ 1965 recording of “I Feel Fine,” an accident, sounded so unusual — and so great — that they kept it on the record. And, since I’m talking about brands favored by aging boomers…
…Viagra was first thought to be a promising drug for angina. During 1992 clinical trials in a town in Wales, Pfizer researchers discovered that…
…the drug had a different effect altogether.
So mistakes can be great things. What do we do about ‘em? How do we harness ‘em? Well, if you’re the Harvard Business School, the font of management wisdom (and — disclosure — a client), you’re not quite sure. Sometimes they tell us to be afraid of mistakes…
…sometimes they tell us we can manage accidents, thus making them not accidents. We might call this the Pee-Wee Herman “I meant to do that” theory of managing mistakes…
..and, once, squeezed almost as an afterthought — or, maybe, an accident — as the very last entry in an issue of the Harvard Business Review, they celebrate it, thanks to a terrific, brief essay by Danny Hillis. I’m not trying to pick on Harvard. You can find similar advice from the other Ivy schools, even Stanford. But this is the conventional business wisdom. You can’t be built to last or go from good to great or whatever unless you’re careful to avoid mistakes, the thinking goes. Imagine the difference between the reaction if you tell your boss “I’m planning” and the one you get if you say, “I’m making mistakes.”
Established institutions are in the business of supporting the status quo. And mistakes, if nothing else, go against the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the expected. As Esther Dyson used to sign her emails, “Always make new mistakes!” A key part of planning is being open to mistakes.
The unexpected kiss, the unpredictable punch line: they’re so much of what makes life worth living. Shouldn’t we let the unexpected into our business work as well? It’s by screwing up that we learn and discover. We can’t predict accidents. But we can take advantage of them.
You never know where a mistake is going to lead. Maybe nowhere, maybe somewhere. But it’s definitely nowhere if you don’t at least lean forward and peer down the road after you screw up.
You want the secret of success that my newsletter readers want to know? It’s no secret. It’s that, chances are, whatever you’re looking for — that’s not what you’re going to find.
Someone just forwarded me Christopher Herot’s notes on my TED talk. I’ll squeeze the talk into HTML and get it onto this blog by the end of the week.
Over the next week or so, I’ll be writing quite a bit about my two weeks late last month and early this month in California, at TED and ETech. (Took me a bit to recover and the renovation at our house is about to deprive us of our only working shower.)
Monday was cooking day here at Jewels and Binoculars and it’s Tuesday already, so I’d better get back on track. Let’s talk about food hacking, which unites three areas of my interest and incompetence: cooking, technology, and taking things apart. The ETech tutorial on the topic, led by Marc Powell, was a mindblower. Food hacking takes the ideas behind technology hacking — participation, dispersion, experimentation, and a general distrust of authority and centralized systems — and brings them into the kitchen. The three-hour-long tutorial, which included dishes with ingredients like liquid nitrogen, was all about joy and testing. And — lucky for me — it was all about celebrating screwing up and seeing what happens. Powell went on for a while on why cooking with people was superior to cooking for people. As he put it: “Ever eat a Lunchable? Do you think anyone enjoyed making that?” When I lined up to receive something that had been cooked onstage, I felt, for the first time even, like I was on a communion line.
The second half of the session got weird. We saw randomly generated menus and restaurant menus with plenty of insect dishes. We heard exegeses on pickled crab fat and how to cook fake blood for vegan goths. We learned a little about coffee hacks (see many of Powell’s hacks in this wiki). We learned that it’s pronounced “feelo” dough, not “feyelo” dough. We heard about placenta kabobs and other gross food experiences.
Hmm, what’s for dinner?
At least three of this year’s TED talks were flat-out amazing: Tod Machover’s, Benjamin Zander’s, and Jill Bolte Taylor’s. The first of them has just been posted:
Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard neuroanatomist, eavesdropped on her own stroke. As I wrote the day of her talk, she walked us through what she felt and thought while her brain was going wild, from the borderline-metaphysical (“I can’t define where I begin and where I end”) to the borderline-hilarious (“I’m a busy woman. I don’t have time for a stroke”). Her description of her time in that strange state, caught between two worlds, the rare researcher who has been able to chronicle a brain-changing event from the inside, was astonishing.
And now you can see and hear it, too:
The brain she’s holding there is a real one, by the way.
I’ll alert you to the other two classics when they’re published.
When the political news website Politico launched a year ago, I wrote a borderline-bitchy negative note for paidContent. I’d like to apologize. I still don’t know how the site’s business is going, but Politico has been a provocative, speedy, insidery, gotta-read-it news source so far during the election cycle. (Good mobile version, too!)
I won’t be doing much work travel in the spring. I’m still recovering from The Endless California Trip, which is not the name of a second-tier Beach Boys compilation. But I am thrilled to report that I’ll be at the The Nantucket Conference for the first time since 2001. Event programmer and all-around great guy Scott Kirsner has an informative post up about the event, if you’re new to it.
I stopped going to South by Southwest in 1995, because I felt it was getting too big. It’s now 13 times larger than it was then.
…but every now and then I have to step back in awe from another’s contribution.
For many years, I’ve joked to friends and family, usually during public radio pledge drives, that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you’ve paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. You get back to the regular programming you’ve paid for. I thought that was something I could work into an article or a story someday.
One night last week, I was at a dinner party, listening to someone who was building an innovative radio for the BBC. Also listening was a respected colleague. He said that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you’ve paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. Independently, he had come up with the same line (for me it was a joke; for him — a successful entrepreneur — it was a potential invention). I felt uncomfortable saying something like, “Hey, I thought of that, too,” and stepping on his line, so I said nothing.
This reminded me of something that happened when Jane and I bought a hybrid car back in 2002. A neighbor said he’d thought of a hybrid engine years earlier. I laughed about it, but it illuminates a point that’s also relevant to the public radio joke/invention line: It doesn’t matter so much that you have an idea. What matters is whether you do anything with the idea. Otherwise it’s just a line in your notebook doing nothing.
“PRESS RELEASE: MYSPACE GOES TO KUWAIT”
The lede was out there, too: “Today, MySpace officially announced Operation MySpace, a concert for troops stationed in Kuwait. Performances will include the Pussycat Dolls, Jessica Simpson, Disturbed, Filter, DJ Z-Trip and the comedic genius of Carlos Mencia.”
Wait: the Pussycat Dolls and Filter aren’t geniuses?
So I expect blogging will be lighter than usual this week and next while I’m on the road. You’re welcome.
If, dear readers, you’re going to be at either of these events, please let me know.
Over the weekend, Nat posted “Artistic License 2.0 and … REM?!” which noted that the veteran rock’n’roll band was releasing its new video under an open license (if not in an open format). It’s good to see an old band learn a new trick, and it suggests what those in the music industry might do if they want to have a future in it.
In “A rare post about the music industry that isn’t completely depressing,” I looked at Jill Sobule’s attempt to fund her next record via online contributions. It’s a savvy attempt that seems to be succeeding: she’s more than two-thirds on her way to meeting her not-so-modest recording budget. A performer like Sobule (and, as we’ll see shortly, R.E.M.) comes to alternate ways of funding or promoting new music with baggage — unlike younger performers, like Yael Naim, who can get lucky thanks to novelty (see “Steve Jobs rules the recording industry. Now what?”) These performers are experimenting with new ways to get heard because the old ways weren’t working. Prince, to cite one high-profile example, wouldn’t have started distributing his records via concert add-ons or newspaper inserts if the old distribution methods were still working for him.
R.E.M. can still be a thrilling band live, but its commercial heyday was long ago — back when the U.S. president was Ronald Reagan, in fact — and even diehard fans acknowledge that the trio’s recorded work has limped since the band’s original drummer, Bill Berry, left 11 years ago. The band’s decision to distribute the “Supernatural Superserious” video is, at its heart, an attempt to create buzz for the record. That’s something the band has been trying for months, in particular its attempt to hype the relatively rocking nature of the new record, after a number of ballad-heavy snoozefests.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Commercial desperation can lead to innovation, both in terms of the art itself and the art with which you sell it. Everyone is eulogizing the death of the traditional rock’n’roll business, but the successful old rockers are still successful. Bruce Springsteen is selling out arenas and will move up to stadiums in the summer. Tom Petty’s Super Bowl halftime gig — timed right before his summer tour tickets went on sale — rejuvenated his record sales. And the hoary hard-rock band Aerosmith has turned to a new installment in a successful videogame franchise to keep up its profile. Even when radio and even video outlets have turned cool to these performers, there’s still an audience waiting to hear, see, or play with them. The lack of traditional intermediaries does not mean there’s a lack of audience.
Having emerged from the early-’80s Amerindie movement, an assemblage of rock’n’roll bands with a combination of optimism and hardheadedness that mirrored the very best of the open source movement, R.E.M. knows it can’t compete with what’s at the top of the charts. It’s unlikely that fans of the current flavors — Miley Cyrus, Flo Rida, or T-Pain — will be moved by R.E.M.’s music. But the band isn’t ready to rent its songs to Madison Avenue or diverge from the aesthetic that made them stars. If you can’t play on an even field, change the field. Just as open source projects reached critical mass by serving areas the proprietary vendors were ignoring or giving short shrift, the Amerindie bands — in love with punk’s sense of possibility — provided an alternative to the mainstream. Now, the thinking goes, we can’t get people to find out about our new record the usual ways, we have to find new ways. The future, as always, belongs to the clever.
I had to miss this, because I was at an O’Reilly event the same day, but I love the name of this conference and I hope to go next year.
Last night’s Grammy Awards ceremonies were even less relevant than usual, no small achievement. The TV broadcast began with a “performance” by that cutting-edge new artist Frank Sinatra and fell down from there. The only real emotional charge of an evening celebrating the most emotional of media came when we viewers were confronted with the disparity between the preternatural confidence of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and the shaky, shell-shocked manner in which Winehouse accepted her award for it. Alpha geeks had a moment to celebrate, too, when one of the winners behind Historical Album of the Year (Woody Guthrie’s Live Wire) turned out to be a mathematician.
But, those and few other brief moments notwithstanding, the action in the music industry is elsewhere.
One of those places is Apple’s iTunes online music store. For several days last week, the top-selling track on the store was Yael Naim’s “New Soul,” a song available, at least to U.S. audiences, exclusively via iTunes. The exclusivity isn’t a big deal — the store is powerful enough to offer plenty of high-profile exclusives — but the reason “New Soul” became a hit is a big deal. “New Soul” was a hit solely because it appeared in Apple’s commercial for the MacBook Air. Until the 1980s, record companies looked to radio to break new artists. Until five years ago, the place to launch new performers was music video. For most of this decade, the breakdown of traditional music channels has led to new songs being noticed via video games, television shows, and — most of all — commercials. Whoever is programming the music for Apple’s television commercials may be, right now, the most powerful talent scout in the record industry.
How did Apple gain all this power? The record companies, desperate, vain, and stupid, handed it over. As Michael Hirschorn wrote in the March Atlantic (I’d link to his terrific essay, but the venerable Atlantic tends to get around to uploading new articles to its website weeks after they appear in print), “Steve Jobs shanghaied and basically destroyed the CD business. The major record labels, in giving Apple’s iTunes the right to sell individual songs for 99 cents each, undermind their own business model — selling bundles of songs gathered together into something called an album for up to $20 a pop — because they didn’t see that people were about to consumer music in an entirely new way. The labels saw iTunes as free money; ‘ancillary,’ in the legal vernacular. Jobs took their cheap music and used it as a loss leader to sell his expensive iPods, and the traditional music business now lies in tatters.” The punch line, of course, is that the record industry is trying to shut out Apple by selling music online elsewhere such as Amazon — for a mere 89 cents per cut.
I’ve written before here about clever ways to sell music nowadays. Like the performers I celebrated in that post, record companies have to adopt new ways of packaging and selling if they want to stay in business. Just as twin geniuses Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun reinvented the record industry in the 1950s, we need a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs who accept that recorded music consumed in $20 increments — except for that created by a small subset of veteran performers with large and reliable fan bases — is a dead notion for now. Music is everywhere, just as software is everywhere. We’ve seen an explosion of new models in recent years for selling software — web-based, software as a service, various levels of open source, and so on — some of which have been quite successful. Software may be useful, but for the most part it doesn’t satisfy the emotional need that music does. It should be easy to sell music, certainly easier than it is to sell software. The music industry has much to learn from the computer software industry about reinvention and staying in touch with the customer. (In future posts, I’ll probe what the music biz can learn from the software biz.) If what remains of the music industry doesn’t look to successful technology industries for ideas, it’ll be as lifeless as the Frank Sinatra half of last night’s Grammy “duet.”
This post was written for O’Reilly Radar
The Industry Standard ably chronicled — and, eventually, mirrored — the tech boom that began a decade ago and died a few years later. (Disclosure: Despite its occasional excesses, I am honored to have been associated with the magazine.) After years of noticing that thestandard.com was still receiving ample traffic and — with one brief exception a few years back — not doing much about it (I wonder if pointcast.com still gets lots of visitors), IDG, which was the Standard‘s lead investor and picked up the carcass in bankruptcy court, has relaunched the site this week.
The new site is, to these eyes, an unintentional parody of Web 2.0 features. Rather than mere advertising, it has a more high-end sponsorship model (i.e., one pay-for-it-all advertiser), it seeks to create a community (you have to sign in to enjoy the more interesting features), and it combines aggregation and a sliver of original material with a “wisdom of crowds” prediction market. To give you a sense of how well the prediction market is going so far, as I write this every prediction on the site was submitted by thestandard.com’s no-doubt bare-bone staff (that’s how Web 2.0 works, too). And, of course, to keep costs really low, this time the brand is online-only.
I’m not sure what’s being accomplished here, aside from the modest monetization of a dormant but still semipopular URL. It’s an attempt to revive a once-very-popular name, synonymous with original content, with as little original content as IDG can get away with. Maybe that will change.
Recently someone I hadn’t been in touch with for more than 20 years found me on Facebook and suggested we “reconnect.” But if we really wanted to “reconnect,” whatever that means, we might have done so at least once during the previous two decades. That’s how I feel about The Standard coming back: it’s too late, it’s pointless, its time has passed. The new site should rise or fall on the basis of its own achievement, not on those of an entirely different team a boom and a bust ago.
(later posted to Radar)
It’s about music, it’s on my work blog: A rare post about the music industry that isn’t completely depressing
I’ve been an enormous fan of the work of Edward Tufte for decades. His notions about density of content are extremely relevant in this age of information overload, and he has just released a video in which he evaluates what works and what doesn’t on the device of the moment, the Apple iPhone. Before I give you the link, I should emphasize that the Quicktime file is enormous and may take many minutes to download, but its insights and presentation make it worth the wait. It’s here.
Hello to both of you who’ve waited for this humble weblog to return. I’m going to try something different this year. As those closest to me know, structure and I are not close friends. Everything reminds me of something else, which reminds me of something else, which … well, you get the idea. No structure. If I’m going to stick to blogging for more than a little while this time, I suspect it will be only if I create a structure that encourages me to post here almost every day. And a different topic every day keeps this blogger unbored.
So, here’s the structure that I’m going to attempt:
Every Monday, I will post about Cooking. [insert pause for laughter.] Yeah, I know, but hear me out. When I look at the things about myself that I want to improve, cooking keeps coming up at the top of the list. Partly it’s because I’m a lousy cook (married to an adventurous, imaginative one) and I want to become a better one. Partly it’s because my failure in the kitchen often feels like a metaphor for other failures in my life. Just as last year my cryptic decision to post sentences here from my novel-in-progress helped me focus on writing every day, I’m hoping that chronicling my disasters and occasional successes in the kitchen will keep me focused. The possibility of public embarrassment remains a powerful motivator.
Every Tuesday, I will post something Work-Related. The vast majority of my writing these days is for my work at O’Reilly (and, to a much lesser degree, Harvard). On Tuesdays, I’ll post something related to what I actually do for a living.
Every Wednesday, I will post the latest Greatest Song of All Time of the Week. No further explanation necessary.
Every Thursday, I will post something related to the Novel-in-Progress. They may be sentences from the work (currently, but tentatively, titled The Rock Star Next Door), they may be complaints about the process, they may be lessons I’ve learned.
Every Friday, I will post nothing, probably, because Man was not meant to blog with the weekend coming so soon.
Random Crap can appear any day, as it is, er, random.
I will also tag each post, to make searching by topic easier, and to help anyone coming here who wants to peruse, say, the music posts but none of the cooking posts.