Just having a little bit of fun... 😜
I had this discussion over dinner with a friend, Ashley, a few weeks ago. She is going through a divorce that was initiated by her husband, Sam, who I also know. Sam wasn't leaving to be with another woman. Or man. They had simply grown apart and Sam had initiated what Ashley could not. Ashley is heartbroken. Also furious. There are a lot of emotions. And at one point during dinner she paused, laid her fork to rest on the side of her plate, looked down at the semi-eaten pan-seared sea scallops sitting there sort of deflated by now—she had mostly been jabbing at them and pushing them around the plate, not really eating them—and then looked up at me. The semi-pathetic pleading look in her dark brown eyes tipped me off. What she was about to say would not be anything I am remotely equipped to discuss.
“How are you supposed know what love is?”
I stared back for, like, 15 seconds silently. Because, no, I’m not equipped to answer that. And I think she got it because then she brushed a loose piece of her long, black hair from her cheek, giggled just a tiny, tiny giggle and rephrased the question into one that would start a long, superb discussion lasting well into the night:
“If he wasn’t the one. And I know he isn’t. And I have to let him go. But I’m having a hard time doing that… Then how do I know what I really felt for him was love? If I loved him wouldn’t it be easier to move on? If I loved him wouldn’t I be less angry? Wouldn’t I want him to find happiness even if it’s not with me?”
Again. Not equipped to answer that. But it started one of the best, most deeply philosophical conversations Ashley and I have ever shared. I thought on her question for a few minutes and asked if I could eat one of her deflated scallops while I was thinking. She said yes. So I sat there on one side of a patio bistro table in the garden of this cute little spot in the West Village eating a really delicious scallop that definitely shouldn’t have gone to waste, thinking about what the fuck love really is.
My first inclination after thinking was to ask a question. “When you married Sam, how did you know you loved him?”
“I don’t know. The kid in him and the kid in me matched, I guess.”
I thought about Ashley’s answer. And it made a lot of sense. But I don’t know if that’s what love really and truly in all it’s overwhelming, infuriating and wonderful glory is. Or is it?
We ordered more wine—already there were two empty bottles, this was our third—and continued discussing.
“Well,” I said. “Kids have fun. They get dirty and play together. And that’s all built around the concept of fun. Sometimes they fight and do silly things like bite each other and then they make up, but always the whole thing with kids is they don’t really live for much else besides fun and play.”
Ashley hadn’t thought of it that way. “So then maybe our entire relationship was just built on having fun together? Ok, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
I never said it was. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how not fun life can be sometimes. And how ill-equipped two kids would be at navigating it together. What about the adult Ashley and the adult Sam? Did they match as well as their kid versions?
When she thought about that, Ashley’s answer was a resounding “No.”
So we decided the two of them hardly had anything in common but fun and a few matching viewpoints, like politically speaking and that sort of thing.
The thing is, I’ve fallen into the same trap before. How many other people do, too? And then for all of us who find it to be a trap, how many other people have nothing in common but fun and somehow manage to grow old together having fun? Because I think there are plenty who do.
And what about all that advice about how if you love someone you’ll let them go and all of that? Like it will be entirely easy to wish them a lifetime of fun completely apart from you. Like any person finding it hard to feel it easy to let go after their spouse initiated a divorce would be an enormous selfish monster.
I sometimes read these little bits about what love is from literary masters and that sort of person on Maria Popova’s blog all the time. “Love is the realization that someone other than yourself is real,” and all of that. And whenever I read those bits I think to myself, Yes, yes. Oh, so that’s what love is. Really it just means we find it when we stop being selfish.
“But isn’t not wanting someone to leave you selfish? Is it OK to feel a little selfish then and still have loved a person?” Ashley asked.
Totally? Maybe? It depends? The real answer is, I don’t know. We didn’t know. I don’t think anybody really knows. We downed that third bottle of wine and decided that sometimes life just happens, and there is no real reason or instruction for it. That reading bits about what love is can never really tell anyone exactly what love is. It’s personal. It’s subjective. Sometimes it’s cruel and dirty and ugly as well as beautiful and wonderful. Sometimes we dislike people we love and wouldn’t ever leave them. Sometimes deep down we love people deeply but never tell them and push them away on purpose. Other times we love people and leave them or they leave us, and that doesn’t mean both parties didn’t love one another, even if one isn’t ready to let the other go yet.
And sometimes after a long philosophical discussion, the only thing to do is move to the best dive bar you can find, invite some more friends, and play Skee Ball. This is exactly what we did.
So after hours of talking about what love is and three bottles of expensive wine, the verdict (or maybe, the letdown):
I think that what we decide to call things creates meaning, and sometimes the meaning created may not be the meaning that was intended. I also think that the trendy vocabulary we employ culturally should be replaced with rhetoric-free communication. I can’t say I’m deeply sympathetic to the word “impact,” a word that could mean many things or nothing at all. It is, in some cases, an empty word intended to impress.
But impact design—a growing trend among socially-conscious designers with an appetite for using their talents to help create a better world—is something I am deeply sympathetic to. The fields of public interest, social impact, community, humanitarian and sustainable design make up impact design, and all of them are on a critical growth path as more people use the power of design for positive social and environmental change.
And social impact doesn’t necessarily need to begin and end with our home communities—it can be used to shape, manage and reshape corporate cultures, too. Businesses are, after all, communities. Every company is made up of employees, each with their own traditions, prejudices, habits, attitudes and circumstances that make up their jobs and lives. These employees are where a cultural shift starts. For this reason, impact designers can play important roles in developing and nurturing their company’s corporate culture.
Next week, I’m finishing setting up an impact design pilot in two of my company’s US office locations that attempts to do two things: develop office culture that ties into our corporate strategy, and spread personal success stories between coworkers on the ground day-to-day.
What became clear for me while planning the project and setting up the first location was that a designer’s ability to effect social change and help foster strong social bonds around a single business strategy is not mysterious, that it is explicable, and that when put into practice it can even be scalable and measurable. And even more encouraging—it can be done on a shoestring and with limited resources. You can, in fact, create a simple, collaborative shared space that impacts an office and the way coworkers interact with it and each other without being overly concerned about “perfect” design and the ideal budget. The space you’re transforming, the tools you put in it and the quality of the stories that are shared are what count.
Stories alone have the power to change an entire culture. In fact, if you want to change a culture, you need to change the stories that are being told.
That simply means, if the stories people in your office are telling revolve around pulling all-nighters, rushed last-minute assignments and being asked to work on weekends, do one thing at a time to change those stories and you’ll be amazed at the cultural impact. And a healthy culture leads to increased efficiency, talent retention and quality of work. So maybe changing the stressful stories looks like letting your team go home early one day, or taking them to a Yankees game, or to the bar for happy hour, or on a “field trip” to a museum. Maybe it looks like reorganizing your team so they can collaborate and work more efficiently with each other and with other departments. But however you do it, once the stories begin to change, the culture will change along with them.
Storytelling is an expected part of many social impact projects. Narratives are the living memory of a moment in time, of human interaction or experience. Beyond the fad of this often-empty word intended to impress, storytelling aspires to be a model for winning hearts and minds and inspiring others.
So then, storytelling became an integral part of my impact design initiative right from the start. Uncovering “hidden gems” and sharing them was almost more important than the space itself—the “hidden gems” being overlooked employees. Everyone has an inspiring story to share, and when offered the opportunity, many will gladly put theirs forward. As a small team spearheading the initiative, myself, a designer on my team, and organizers on the ground at each location curated a group of handwritten success stories from coworkers on printed and branded postcards, to be displayed in the collaborative spaces we created. When we launched the first space, we read one out loud to the local group to get the ball rolling. And what we saw slowly beginning to happen was that others were becoming interested in reading and being inspired by them. We even had a request for more blank cards so others could fill in their stories, too.
I am a passionate advocate of the transformative power of design and storytelling and the engagement of designers in the public realm—whether it be as initiative-leaders within their organization, or in their neighborhoods. I call that making an impact, by design.
This story is just the beginning of one proof of it.
Last Sunday morning I was sipping coffee, scrolling through Twitter and found myself suddenly overcome by the urge to innocently tweet this—one of my favorite strong, never-give-up mottoes:
Said it before, I’ll say it again: Go ahead & put an obstacle in my path. I’ll devour it & the outcome’ll be even greater than what u feared
Right away, a personalized T-shirt company saw an opportunity in that and retweeted it, appealing to me to put my motto on a shirt. I tweeted back an extra snarky, Thanks but no thanks, which I made sure would be publicly viewable. I didn’t stop there. Next, I retweeted a quote and dedicated it to the T-shirt company:
Success is normally found in a pile of mistakes. —Tim Fargo
I laughed to myself as I retweeted that. Then sat back, grabbed my coffee mug and slunk down in what I can only describe as a moment of self-reflection that didn’t feel particularly good.
That was the moment I began to realize this Twitter thing was going too far.
I started tweeting in 2009, dropping off in early 2011 and then left my Twitter account idle for three years, having amassed a paltry 300-some followers. I’d been building a solid following of real connections so most of them were still on board when I returned to Twitter earlier this year. Since then I’ve steadily doubled my following and counting. And as my audience has grown, so has my urge to tweet.
In August Kelly Keegs mercilessly live-tweeted an already-unfortunate public breakup (with pictures) that was occurring on her flight… To much acclaim. That was the point at which I realized social media—not just Twitter, all of it—has the very real potential to create monsters. Monsters who can’t get enough. Monsters who care very little for anything other than selfies and self-serving snark. Monsters who can be lead to rapidly spread inappropriate videos of the live murder of two journalists. Monsters like a murderer who would commit such an act on live TV and then post video of it. Monsters like The Fat Jew who pulled off a scam to become “internet famous” to the point of being signed by one of Hollywood’s largest agencies. And monsters like the one I recognized developing in myself when I publicly tweeted for laughs at the expense of another.
As a result of this, I began researching the effects of fame and power. Effects we’re all susceptible to with even just a small, growing social media audience, it would seem. Even without the use of hashtags and other tactical means, I've been surprised at how I've been able to attract followers. Followers that are beginning to interact with my content. And just like my urge to tweet, the more followers I attract, the more I want and aim to attract.
There is a paradox for nearly everything and as it turns out, there is a power paradox, too:
The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.
In other words, emotional intelligence, empathy, and cooperation—the very attributes we seek in leaders—are easily corrupted once people attain positions of leadership. So, in many cases Machiavellian tendencies don’t actually get people to the top, they show up after they’ve gotten there.
And when it comes to Emotional Intelligence (EI), last year The Atlantic reported that:
Researchers examined what they call “the dark side” of EI, and their findings suggest an unnerving link between understanding people and using them. [In 2013], a group of Austrian psychologists reported a correlation between EI and narcissism, raising the possibility that narcissists with high EI might use their “charming, interesting, and even seductive” qualities for “malicious purposes,” such as deceiving others. Similarly, a 2014 study linked “narcissistic exploitativeness” with “emotion recognition”—those who were prone to manipulating others were better at reading them.
To make matters worse (and then also a bit better):
Another study found that “Machiavellians” (those who rated high on a scale of “Machiavellianism”—essentially, manipulativeness) with high EI were more likely to have publicly embarrassed someone else for self-promotional reasons. Happily for the rest of us, there don’t seem to be many emotionally intelligent Machiavellians on the loose—Scottish researchers found Machiavellianism to be inversely correlated with EI.
So might these findings link to a power paradox? Maybe so. In that case, it would seem that the behavior researchers observed in Machiavellians who were willing to publicly embarrass others could have been a symptom of EI-meets-feelings-of-power. And certainly this could explain some celebrity behavior.
All of this goes to show that creating a cult of personality is probably a lot easier than anyone imagines, especially when one has high EI in the digital age.
As for me? For now, I’m cutting back on the social media use for a while and making an effort to not get too caught up in the idea of being in the limelight. I believe that with any kind of leadership and influence come a responsibility to be kind and fair—and to not publicly seek even just one meager Twitter accolade at the expense of another.
I went to the studio one day and I saw on her keyboard, I said, “What is this?”
There were all these little notes on there.
She said, “Oh those are my notes for when I play with you.”
And it had all the music written out in musical notation and it said, this part play with more feeling. ‘Cause I had given her that note and I’d said, "You gotta play with more feeling," and she had written that down.
And I said, “Oh my god she has to go. Play with more feeling. If you need to write that down, you have to go.”
Do you know Nardwuar? Wikipedia bills him as a Canadian celebrity interviewer and musician from Vancouver, British Columbia. His real name is John Ruskin and he has a bachelor’s degree in History. But he’s best known for his quirky celebrity interviews, mainly with musicians. Nardwuar has notably interviewed, among many others, Tom Morello, Glenn Danzig, Iggy Pop, Nirvana, Courtney Love, Jello Biafra, The Melvins, Jack White, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, and my favorite band, The Mars Volta.
I pulled the above quote from Nardwuar vs. The Mars Volta—the part where bandleader Omar Rodriguez-Lopez reminisces about a mediocre keyboard player who had to be let go. I wanted to share it because it illustrates an important point that needs to be illustrated in today’s “everyone’s creative” data-driven culture. A controversial point in the eyes of some, to be sure. But nevertheless an important one: creativity is more about vision and feeling than anything else. Either you have it—that kind of innate talent—or you don't.
On my team (my "band") we say that creativity is managed, simple, clear, conceptual and good design. That is our direction. Maybe creativity is those things for you, too. Or maybe it's something entirely different. Either way, without the vision and the feeling, no matter how you define creativity on your team, it will be like pushing buttons. That's no way to innovate.
When it comes to managing innovation, the late jazz legend Miles Davis was one of the best. Musicians notoriously did not know what to expect when they joined the Davis band. Davis, himself, could be billed as a dictator of sorts, but kept his band free-flowing and open to change. Every player was encouraged to contribute material to the group, and was allowed plenty of freedom and responsibility. They were encouraged to take risks. In fact, those who did not take them ran the risk of being fired.
But here’s the thing. Davis himself was a talented and skilled musician, and every player in Davis’ band was a talented and skilled musician—most, like John Coltrane, went on to become leaders themselves. With great (innovative) freedom comes great responsibility, and you can't orchestrate a successful band of merry innovators unless you’ve got talented and skilled professionals to make it up—and you, yourself need to be a talented and skilled professional who can guide them.
That means, from the creative perspective, if you want to be innovative you need a group of people who have been professionally trained in their craft and who intuitively “play” with feeling. Both are requirements, whether trained by other talented artists or trained formally in school—Davis was accepted to Julliard but never went, opting instead to play with and learn from Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. The talent, above all, must be there. Talent can be developed if it's untrained, but if it's absent you end up with artists who need reminders to "play with more feeling."
Miles Davis was his band’s pilot, with a clear vision and leadership direction. All of the other players served important, but different roles: In his classic 1960s quintet, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock provided the solid foundation, acting like specialists. Young drummer, Tony Williams, was the explorer—he added fire, brilliance, and unpredictability. Thoughtful sax player and composer, Wayne Shorter, was the “idea man,” or general coordinator. This goes to show that teamwork and collaboration do not mean a total free-for-all, stepping on each others’ toes and playing each others’ roles. They mean each member plays his or her own important role, and the whole team fits together like perfect pieces of a puzzle. It also goes to show that a visionary approach goes hand-in-hand with a data-driven approach when it comes to creativity and innovation.
But above all, finding the right players is the most important part of putting that puzzle together. The ones who know their shit and intuitively play with feeling. Once you've got them, keep them focused and managed while allowing them the freedom to improvise. Improvisation is the link between creativity and innovation.
This is my lesson to anyone looking to create a design-driven culture of creativity and innovation within any organization that doesn’t currently enjoy such a culture. Get the players and the teams right. Give them specific roles. And only then can you pilot them—and you will need talented, trained-in-their-craft pilots because someone has to direct—on a course to free-form, value-add innovation.
If you're interested in learning more about just who the hell Nardwuar and The Mars Volta are, you can check out Part 1 of Nardwuar's interview with The Mars Volta here.
I’m never having a baby.
—Me, when I was five
I have a long history of making my intentions clear on this topic, and true to form, so far I’ve stuck with them. I’m insufferably awkward with babies and never considered that there might someday be something I could do to fix that. Then my sister, the baby of the family herself, got married and had a baby.
Charlotte is four months old and I like to say, she’s a real person now—no longer just a very literal waving bundle of nerves. She found her feet and pulls them to her mouth every chance she gets. She likes to pull herself to a sitting position when you hold her arms up. She loves her doggies and gets visibly excited when one of them is near. She puts—or at least tries to put—everything in her mouth. Facial recognition has set in, too. She becomes giddy with excitement over a certain Disney character—an accident and a surprise—and recognizes the character every time, whether she’s on TV, a plush toy or a book.
As I watched my mother give Charlotte a bath in the sink the other night, watched her notice and fixate on the stream of water coming from the faucet with wonder, watched her wide, deep blue eyes survey the situation with some mixture of surprise, awe and delight, it dawned on me that through my own observation I’ve learned a lot from this little person who has only been alive for four months. Here is what I’ve learned.
The world is a wonderful place
There is no better way to learn this lesson than through the jolly, wondering eyes of an infant. Hardships come and go, but life is a blessing not to be taken for granted.
Vulnerability isn’t always a bad thing
When we are surrounded by people who love us, we should trust them to take care of us. As an adult, being “taken care of” by someone who loves us may show up as something as small as a hug exactly when we need it, a helping hand when we’re struggling, being taught something we didn’t know before, or simply having another near us when we feel alone. Allowing those who love us to be there for us and teach us is never a bad thing.
I could be a good mother
Yes, I said it. I looked into Charlotte’s deep blue eyes—tiny little pools of joy—and realized, I could do this. I held her for the first time, which was literally the first time I’ve ever held a baby, kissed her cheek, touched her little nose, held her little hands, looked into her smiling eyes and watched her gleeful reaction to my own smile, and I appreciated her untainted joy.
So then, maybe the biggest lesson I learned from my four-month-old niece is this:
I have a lot to give. I have a lot to teach. And I still have a lot to learn, even from a tiny new human. Motherhood is a blessing, not something to fear or feel awkward about. Maybe I should never say "never."
I need to ask you because I’m not certain that enough people can give a correct answer anymore. I want you to prove me wrong.
As a reference point, here’s my definition of substance. There are dozens of ways to measure it and hundreds of ways to talk about it:
Substance is quality. High quality. It is meaningfulness, significance and integrity.
That is what substance is. It never goes out of style, and it’s very valuable.
Take a minute to compare your own definition of substance against the one above. And then I’d like to ask you another question: How much of what you create, share, and spread online has substance behind it?
Of course, not everything we create, share, and spread online has substance behind it. But I think we should be aiming for a ratio of about 80/20—80% substance, 20% other stuff.
One thing substance can never be? Measured by metrics. Metrics are important but they can be deceiving. Because if we’re going by metrics alone, Kim Kardashian is substance, The Fat Jew is substance, and Donald Trump is substance (they’re not).
Substance is not arrogant, and it’s not glamour, glitz and polish. It can incorporate glamour, glitz and polish, but that’s not what it is. Substance is not selfish. Substance doesn’t cheat or steal.
Those are just some of the things substance is not.
Substance is a long-term investment. It may not bring short-term ROI. But let me ask you another question: Would you rather your business or endeavor reap quick benefits and then die out, or do you want it to make a meaningful, lasting imprint on and contribution to society?
The answer, of course, is yours to decide on.
But think about this the next time you find yourself focused on metrics and short-term success. Maybe a long-term investment in substance would be more appropriate.
In 2010, Brooklyn’s Ashleigh Nankivell found a public service announcement from 1956 called Helping Johnny Remember. The video was meant to warn children about the dangers of being selfish and domineering in their relationships. But Ashleigh turned it into something more.
Go ahead and watch Johnny remember in Ashleigh’s version. It’ll creep you out, and if you’re like me, you won’t be able to stop watching, over and over again. Nankivell herself explains, “I remember thinking, Johnny is so kickass. These kids are wet farts slogging down cool Johnny who is the proverbial awesome majority of one. Dear Johnny, you rock. It's time you fought back.”
But I think there’s more to Ashleigh’s creepshow. It actually does a good job of speaking to how mobbing forces antisocial behavior.
Johnny wanted to be in control. Johnny thought his ideas were the best. And Johnny didn’t hesitate to direct the situation. So the rest of the kids kicked him out of their playtime.
Sure, sometimes a lack of control can lead to personal growth—in Johnny’s situation that would look like learning how to compromise and collaborate. Sometimes, there’s no sense in pushing against situations one can’t control. Maybe it’s better to instead ride them and trust that they will propel us to something better. I believe this myself. But that doesn’t mean I never push back. Intuition lets me know when it’s time to push back.
It would be wrong-headed to say that a lack of control always leads to growth. Sometimes you just get a laser-eyed Johnny.
This all means that understanding the social context you’re working within before you try to push people or take control from them in some way, shape or form is paramount. People are driven by fear and pain. Uncertainty causes fear and pain. In the end, fear and pain mostly just drive people away. But other times, fear and pain drive people to fight back.
It's the rare person whose own belief system allows for I’m going to mature because of this who will actually do that. No one person can or should force a belief system onto another, if for no other reason because most people will freak out and push against whatever it is that’s being forced on them.
Positive and lasting change comes from first putting yourself into the shoes of those you want to change. That’s a simple way of saying, understand their experience. When you understand another person’s experience, without judgment, you’re much better positioned to work alongside them and, ultimately, influence them because you can speak their “language.”
My favorite example of this comes from famed community organizer, Saul Alinsky, who spent some time walking around the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, attempting to give passersby $10 bills. Alinsky was able to give away exactly nothing. Why? Because being offered money by an approaching stranger was outside the experience of everyone he approached—they all told him to get lost before he could even open his mouth. Most of us expect to be asked for money when we're approached on the street, not given it.
This type of thinking—understanding another’s experience and communicating to them within it—is most intuitively applied to career networking. But it can also be applied within organizations to team building, employee engagement, and advertising and marketing efforts. The more we know about each other and our clients, what each believes, where each comes from, where each wants to go, and how each sees themselves getting there, the better able we all are to collaborate.
So what about Johnny? Was he an overbearing jerk who needed to be taught a lesson, or a budding Director who wasn’t given a chance? We can’t know. No one ever asked for his point of view.
By the way? Here’s the original PSA. I agree with Ashleigh—those kids are a gang of wet farts. Johnny’s a born leader. Tomorrow’s Scorsese. Lead on, Johnny. Lead on.
I’ve been increasingly interested in employee engagement—from an art director’s perspective. I’m interested in finding ways for design to work alongside other people-focused departments to create modern, engaging brand cultures in the traditional workplace. This desire, itself, comes from being in a position of value that is largely misunderstood and marginalized in the corporate world.
In the corporate world, design is often a commodity. Some companies do design really well. Others have attempted to integrate good design into their business with some degree of success. Many others fall short. Inevitably, design talent is deemed too costly and corners are cut, devaluing the discipline, or design is cut altogether.
I spent a little bit of time thinking about what it feels like to perceive that one is being marginalized. Women feel this a lot in the workplace. It can seem that if we’re not peppy, happy, smiling-all-the-time brand-advocating go-getters—basically high school cheerleaders—we risk being seen in a negative light. The minute we’re very outspoken and assertive we risk being labeled “bossy” and “aggressive”. Yet, when a man behaves assertively he tends to be rewarded with achievement and opportunity with less of the risk.
What about designers who in certain situations find themselves feeling marginalized? And this is not in-house specific—I’ve known of studios where strategists continually made comments that devalued their creative colleagues. “We’re the brains,” they said. “A monkey could do what the designers do.”
I am not officially a creative director in title (yet), but I don’t hesitate to act like one every day. A good creative director would go to bat for any one of their designers, any time. I would do the same. Even if it meant making myself vulnerable to being perceived negatively. Because design matters. The designers I work with matter. Their work matters. I care that much. That means speaking up and being assertive, with confidence. But those inflated strategists? I’d have assertively eaten them for lunch if I'd so much as heard them say anything similar about my designers.
And therein lies the problem.
Those who feel marginalized may come across as combative. Perceiving that someone is acting and speaking as if an entire group of people is beneath them grates, and that yields combative behavior in return. I don’t think it’s a chicken-egg scenario. I think it’s very clear which behavior begets the other.
So what do those potentially feeling marginalized need to hear in order to rise back to positivity? It’s simple:
You’re not wrong. What you’re experiencing is real and it matters, and you have every right to feel that way. Thanks for bringing it to light. Now let’s work on a solution…
What a disarming statement.
In the meantime I have some ideas on what designers can do to avoid this kind of conflict.
The fact is, design can work alongside any department on initiatives that make a difference . But unless other departments are fully aware of the way they may be accidentally marginalizing design—those sensitive, touchy-feely weirdos who play with logos all day long—combative behavior may continue. Designers and other creative professionals should always work to educate and inspire those whom we work with. Most of the time, behavior that devalues us comes from a simple misunderstanding of just how important our work is, how we, too, are strategic thinkers, and how much value good design brings to businesses.
And if education doesn't work? Then I say then go ahead and eat the jerks for lunch!
Let me introduce you to Phil:
Phil is double-anxious (and also hungry).
Imagine spending an entire day wondering whether or not you’ve left your air conditioner running. These things cost money! You’re just not sure, and to top it off, your roommate isn’t home and now you’re here in this writing class until 10—the air conditioner could have been running all day and you have absolutely no way of knowing.
This is the mental space Phil is in right now.
And there’s more to worry about, too. Because Phil is also hungry. Now imagine that you’re training to run a marathon. This is a really cool and maybe even unexpected circumstance because running a marathon isn’t something you’d think of as being cool when you’re younger, but now that you’re in your late twenties and a bit more mature it seems like the perfect thing to do. And preparing to run all those miles means you’re grazing throughout the day. So food is pretty important. So are calories. And it’s not only when and how much, it's also what you’re eating that matters. But if you’re in a writing class for three hours, how will you graze? Will there be an opportunity to eat? Will there be food? What will you eat? What if you can’t eat?
Phil pulls out a protein bar seemingly from nowhere, begins eating, and wonders… What if I’m hungry again later?
There is always something to worry about…
Last Wednesday night, class ended with introductions like the one I wrote about my partner, Phil, but it began with a question: How many of you are writers? A loaded question because here were 12 of us, sitting in a writing class. And yet, only a few hands went up. I began taking classes at Gotham Writers Workshop in March, focusing on Creative Nonfiction, and so far the scene on the night of a first class is always the same: few want to admit to being a writer with any conviction, but when the time comes to begin writing and reading out loud, talent comes pouring out. It is true that still waters run deep, and that we need not look far to find talent—it’s all around us every day.
Creative Nonfiction is very important to me right now. Telling stories from one’s own point of view or telling the story of another pushes others to better know and understand them—to understand what makes one tick, what thoughts and feelings form the positions they take and decisions they make in their lives. I tell stories from my own point of view for precisely this reason, and I want to inspire others to share their views, too. Compelling and insightful stories are an extremely powerful tool for encouraging serious, patient consideration of the perspectives and concerns of others. And I imagine that if we’re all better at considering each other’s perspectives and concerns, tolerance and understanding will become the norm.
I chose Gotham Writers cautiously, as a Plan B. And what I mean by that is I’d been looking into j-school for the past year and becoming discouraged because earning a masters degree in Journalism would require a full-time commitment, both time-wise and financially. CUNY has a new Social Journalism MA program that directly mirrors my heartfelt interest in journalism, data and community organizing—a step beyond even just how telling people’s stories can impact and aid communities. Here is in part how CUNY describes the course:
Social journalism is about more than producing “content” and filling space. It is also not just about social media, although we think it is vital for today’s journalists to understand and master these tools. Social journalism is first and foremost about listening.
Whether communities are brought together by geography or shared interest, social journalists serve them best by building relationships and helping them produce tangible impact that goes beyond page views or clicks or “likes.”
Often, doing so will involve writing stories, but it will also include sophisticated use of data, connecting people with each other, and helping a community to organize and take action.
The future of journalism? As of now, I think, yes. But in order to allow our future journalists to become journalists, we also need part-time study options.
Gotham Writers Workshop is a part-time option. The teachers are all professional novelists, screenwriters and journalists. But what about the students? When the need to apply and be accepted is removed, what kind of students can be found in classes? I’ve been pleased to find that at Gotham, I’ve only encountered truly talented, interested and passionate writers looking to develop themselves.
I’ve been writing for many years, never professionally. It took a long time to feel comfortable with sharing the things I’ve written, and even when I do I’m fairly noncommittal about it. It’s easy to post some stories on a blog and then not publicize them at all. Those stories are “out there” for people to find, though no one is actively trying to connect an audience to them. This is the approach of someone who is, in fact, a good writer but who is also afraid of actually being a writer. Someone who kind of wants to be noticed but who is not entirely comfortable with being noticed. If I had to describe myself in two sentences those two would sum me up perfectly.
So I thought, before considering j-school further, Gotham would be a wonderful place to cut my teeth on sharing my writing with groups, and giving and receiving constructive criticism specific to writing.
So far, so good.
I mentioned that class on Tuesday night ended with introductions. It was the first of a six-week course, and introductions during a first class are important, even if they don’t come until the end. But the manner in which we made our introductions during this class grabbed me in a way I hadn’t expected. It brought us closer together as a writing group, encouraged listening, and required storytelling:
We began by choosing two adjectives to describe how each of us was feeling at the moment and then taking some time to write a story connecting ourselves to those adjectives. Interviewing the person sitting next to us—a total stranger at the time—came next. We described our stories to each other and explained why we picked the adjectives we picked. We probed for further insight, and generally got to know one another. Then we wrote an introduction of the other person based on what we’d learned.
I introduced Phil to the class, and Phil introduced me. That’s how it went until all 12 of us had been introduced.
Before we left class for the night, Phil turned to me and smiled. He had the deepest blue eyes I've ever encountered—like literal tiny oceans—that twinkled when he said, “That was really good!”
It’s scary introducing someone you’ve only known for a few hours to a group of people while they’re sitting right next to you. It was good to know from the source that I’d really captured the essence of Phil on that day.
But more than that feeling of accomplishment, I left class feeling inspired and happier than I’ve been in a long time. Every introduction I heard that night proved to me that there is more to anyone, on any day, than ever meets the eye. Everyone has a story, often very deep and moving. And talent isn’t just sitting within the upper echelons of society—talented people are all around us. Like shooting stars, they can take off at any time. Discovering that undiscovered talent and surrounding ourselves with it as we all help each other to develop is one of the most rewarding experiences to be had.
On the night of June 17, Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston church, sat for and hour, and then killed nine people. The flag that he embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace [the Confederate flag] endorses the violence he committed.
There is nothing anyone can write about this concept better than what Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic has already written, and I won’t even bother to try. Those truly interested in understanding this perspective would do well reading his pieces here and here.
The idea of white supremacy, though tightly intertwined with our founding, is one that surely America should have moved on from by now. It is true that when we speak of the Confederate flag’s tradition, the tradition we speak of is white supremacy. Arguing for states' rights is a smart cover for this, but the underlying issue was and always has been slavery and the belief that one race is inferior to another. This is why so many cried out for the flag’s removal from it’s post on the South Carolina capitol grounds.
That cry was misunderstood just as strongly as the true meaning of the flag’s tradition.
As if aiming to complicate things more than necessary, a week after Warner Bros. announced it would no longer sanction the manufacturing of The Dukes of Hazzard merchandise featuring the flag, TV Land announced it's pulling reruns of the 1980s’ TV series featuring John Schneider and Tom Wopat as Bo and Luke Duke in fictional Hazzard County, Georgia. And a new outcry began.
The show's stars itself took to Twitter and the media to share their displeasure. And who can blame them when, for them, this move has only accomplished taking away their royalty checks.
Then there was Joe Rogan, who accused “toxic lefties” of being the force behind The Dukes' removal. How will we go on without the show that spawned our beloved Confederate flag-emblazoned '69 Dodge Charger aptly named the General Lee, and Daisy Duke shorts? A penalty stemming from said lefties' “tireless effort to turn our country into a nation of weepy, sandy vaginas," Rogan spouted.
To add to the complication, the current owner of the original General Lee car, pro golfer Bubba Watson, vowed to paint a US flag over the Confederate flag on the roof.
It’s worth noting that the cry to take the Confederate flag down has nothing to do with airing or not airing reruns of a classic TV show. The aim is to stop it’s usage in modern times and relegate it to being viewed in museum displays.
Gettysburg National Military Park, a place I have visited many times over the years to learn more about the Civil War's role in shaping American History, yanked stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags from it’s gift shop. And yet one can still view the flag in the park's visitor center displays. After all, that is what museums are for—to preserve relics of our history. I’m happier with the flag becoming part of that tradition. And I don’t think that makes me a weepy, sandy vagina.
By the way? I loved The Dukes of Hazzard. My biggest crush throughout most of the late 80s was Luke Duke. And never did I once associate the show with white supremacy. The General Lee itself is a sort of relic—stop driving it, leave it on display, but there's no reason not to leave the car intact.
“You carry forever the imprint that comes from being under someone’s thumb.”
—Nancy Banks Smith
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about ambitious women. We are not abrasive. We are not… What else do people say? Aggressive. Or monsters. No, we are talented, passionate, and strong. And I’ll also throw in wonderful. Just like our male counterparts. We are all of the latter things and yet too often we are labeled the former; even by our fellow sisters and otherwise well-meaning men—our husbands, fathers, brothers, and bosses.
I have never officially labeled myself a feminist though I suspect I rightly am. And being a feminist has not one thing to do with hating men or a desire to snatch away men’s rights. What it comes down to for me is a desire for collaboration and equal partnership. A desire to take a giant sledgehammer to the cement walls of privilege that stand in our way and create an equal-opportunity, equal-access and fully integrated community.
In the workplace, and the upper echelons of power, we hear a lot about glass ceilings. For many talented women and other minorities this is an accurate analogy—a seat at the table is visible yet unreachable. Still, for many more there isn’t so much a glass ceiling as a cement wall. No trespassing, the wall is labeled. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all doing a pretty good job of making cracks in glass ceilings, so I’m not really interested in them anymore. I want to effectively demolish those fucking walls.
Women come up against all kinds of subtle barriers in the workplace that men don't necessarily run into. The success of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In is a testament to the fact that these subtle barriers are finally being given the time of day. And when we’re competing with men, or most of the time just being perceived as competing with men, unnecessary power struggles ensue. A power struggle makes great work not, as Yoda might say. Instead, it makes a competitive every-person-for-themselves atmosphere where the individual’s best interest is considered first, above community and company goals. Some businesses thrive on this kind of old-guard boys club competitive culture. But the future looks a lot more collaborative. And the best companies to work for, the most successful companies, understand the importance of valuing their people first.
Power is a scary thing. Most of us will either crumble or become ruthless when we’re allowed too much of it. Power isn’t always held by the fair and just. And in order to climb, one needs to impress those with power. Power and the fear of loss of power is what keeps a cement wall in place. It’s what pushes someone to want to keep another under their thumb. But I really feel that one can only keep someone who is genuinely talented under their thumb for so long before they get fed up and break it.
So then, when ready to break a powerful thumb pressing from above, how does one fight back?
Let's first delve into psychology and look at the profile of someone who wields power ruthlessly and often insidiously—someone with a personality disorder.
The calling card of a personality-disordered leader—and by personality-disordered I’m referring to a Narcissistic Sociopath, or any of the Cluster B personality disorders that are quite often found sitting on the power side of cement walls—is an insidiously controlling relationship that goes through this cycle: idealize, devalue, discard. In a nutshell, that means a disordered leader—always very charming, outgoing and persuasive—will begin to idealize a new interest in their life as they focus all of their attention on acquiring this new desire.
After they’ve achieved their goal, or once their interest realizes what’s happening and begins to fight back, the disordered leader blames the object of their desire and devalues them. Then they abandon them, discarded as worthless. The whole cycle, for the victim, can best be described as being under someone’s thumb without ever realizing it until damages such as loss of job and reputation, and emotional damage—sometimes permanent—have been done.
Most often, anyone in the business world wielding lavish power who is actively and intentionally standing in another’s way—and probably using them to their own ends until it’s time to discard them—will fall into this personality-disordered category. When someone has another under their thumb, this is usually the kind of person they are.
The devaluation part of the cycle is where I want to focus. Because this is where the emotional and psychological damage begins. Disordered leaders only feel alive when they are in pursuit. Of wealth, status, power… But the most fun someone who is disordered in this way can have is in the pursuit of another person’s being. Their desire is driven by envy. They want to become their object of desire and force them to feel what they feel. We can think of them as vampires.
Once the hopeful glass-ceiling-breaker has given the green light to being idealized by this type of leader, the process of devaluation begins. They’ll be bombarded with various tactics aimed at getting them to allow this disordered individual to cross their boundaries. The first and most common tactic is for the disordered individual to mirror the victim and then convince them to mirror back. If successful, the identities of victim and leader are blurred.
Abuse comes in many forms. Emotional, physical and sexual abuses are equally degrading and harmful. One is not worse than the other. They are all abuse. And the manipulative tactics the disordered leader I’m describing above uses amount to abuse, plain and simple. Recognizing the tactics and playing against them intelligently will be the only way around them.
The simplest rules of the game are:
There is strength in numbers
Before effectively embracing victimhood and running to complain, remember: One complaint from one person makes that person look like a whiner. Many complaints from a group of people will raise eyebrows. Talk to trusted colleagues. Chances are, almost everyone has had an experience with the disordered individual but no one has mentioned their experience out of fear. Band together and take action.
Remain emotionless. Unless…
Never show emotion or any kind of weakness to a disordered leader unless the intent is to game them (Note: Gaming anyone is unethical and never suggested, unless wanting to fight back in this type of incredibly difficult situation). People with Cluster B personality disorders thrive on others’ weaknesses. If the emotion being shown is in fact genuine weakness, head to the bathroom and privately let it out there. On the other hand, if the intent of showing the emotion is to feign weakness, let it out but be cautious. The bottom line is to never let this type of individual know they're successful at their button-pushing unless the intent is to let them think they're successful.
Stay strong and trust instincts
The thing about manipulation is that no one is entirely immune. And those skilled at it, who actually use it, are pretty ruthless. The going will get tough, the tactics tougher. There will be false promises, silent treatment, gaslighting, seduction, intimidation, and more. Recognizing tactics and trusting instincts will be paramount. It's important to remember that when dealing with a disordered individual, their own interests, survival and well-being is their only priority—not the interests, health and well-being of those around them.
Have a backup plan
Great leaders hate bullshit. They value strong-minded, honest achievers who know their shit, and promote them. But disordered leaders hate strong-minded, honest, knowledgeable achievers and aim to squash them. The only way to be promoted when a disordered individual is leading is to become their lackey. So whenever making the choice to expose this kind of leader rather than become their lackey, it’s important to anticipate their wrath and have a backup plan—whether it be another job waiting in the wings or the support of someone (or a few someones) higher up within the organization.
To be certain, not all glass ceilings are put in place by power-hungry, personality-disordered leaders. But cement walls are, and even some female leaders who may have been ruthless in breaking their glass ceilings will turn to putting up cement walls to protect their hard-won positions. So when I talk about demolishing cement walls, this is the type of leader I talk about going up against. Sometimes the battle might not be worth it. Other times, it might be much more worthwhile to be part of meaningful and lasting change, breaking thumbs and taking a sledgehammer to walls, than it would be to sit on the sidelines.
For those who may find themselves in a situation where boundaries are continually being crossed and attempts to resist or push back are twisted to make it seem that they are the problem individual, it may be well worth it to become more informed about Cluster B personality disorders. Counseling Resource is a wonderful... Well... Resource.
Last year I overheard someone talking about their clients’ need to “action” on their advice. “Action?” I asked. “That’s not a verb. You can’t action on anything. You can act on something, though.” The sound of buzzword hung in the air, and sure enough, “action” is part of business vernacular these days—as a verb.
What “action” as a verb means is this:
To undertake a given task; to put into practice. As in, ”Don't bother me while I'm actioning my deliverables.”
If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is.
It's not just action-as-a-verb that gets me. Last month I asked a group of recruits—none of whom are tech glitterati, mind you—to define creativity. "Disruption!" one group member immediately chirped. I was looking for something a bit deeper, but, hey.
I left an industry suffering from a generation gap that needed to adapt in 2009 to join two rapidly-growing, profitable small retail businesses that were forging their own paths, only to land right back in another industry suffering from a generation gap and desperately needing to adapt a few years later. I've encountered bandwagon-jumpers on both sides, but more so on the side of the industries needing to adapt. The difference between path-forgers and buzzword-y bandwagon-jumpers is palpable. Over the past two years I’ve been trying to make sense of the marketing and business worlds’ use of buzzwords as rhetoric. Add to that the notorious, continuing obsession with co-opting design. Design thinking is all the rage. So is disruption. Both buzzwords. But what do they mean?
What they mean doesn’t matter. Because they are terms made popular by others who started companies based on innovative processes or put innovative processes into effect within their respective companies and were successful. Anyone using these terms outside of those companies is just hot on the trails of a bandwagon—the exact opposite of true creative and innovative thinkers.
Let me put it this way:
L. Ron Hubbard is notoriously quoted as having said, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”
Or maybe a bandwagon.
Plenty of people have joined the Church of Scientology, but very few are lining their pockets like Hubbard's estate or, say, David Miscavige. On the contrary. Being a Scientologist is costly!
So then we ought to be wary of laying the buzzwords on thick in marketing and business, especially when we're using them because they're the new "it" thing. They signal groupthink instead of innovative thinking. They prove propensity for following the crowd, not leading it.
From a political viewpoint the current disruption climate looks increasingly like a green light to lift any and all business regulations—some having been put in place to protect consumers—and open the free market entirely. An interesting but ultimately flawed concept. I would gladly pay taxes towards free education and other benefits aimed at improving society as a whole and increasing each and every individual's ability to compete. Americans still notoriously balk at the idea of welfare programs and yet the same outrage over corporate welfare is nonexistent. And though we disagree on the solution, that is where Libertarian and Progressive mindsets overlap. Look at our shrinking middle class today, and where the wealth has gone and stayed. Need I mention the famed 1%?
Let's face some facts: only one in ten startups succeed—that means that 90%, or nine out of ten startups fail. And the majority of workers on a startup’s payroll are grossly overworked and underpaid, or underemployed. This shouldn't discourage those wanting to found a startup, it should prompt entrepreneurs to work smarter and harder. And we should all understand that disruptive startups alone are not a way to solve our nation's wealth gap and create permanent, gainful employment.
An ecosystem inclusive of disruptive startups is vital. Pushing on and testing boundaries is important. But at what cost? And is that cost worth it? My point is, those questions are always important to consider. We should always aim to solve real societal problems, not create them.
Beyond that, the fact is, we invent our own limitations based on fear and perceptions. We put up our own walls, and we can take them down. That means there’s no need to live in fear of being “disrupted.” The old adage, “What you focus on grows” is true. What you focus on will command your energy—your emotional energy, your mental energy and your physical energy. Your fear of being “disrupted” will only serve to invite that very truth. Which is why “adapt or die” is bullshit. It implies some sense of lack of control and creates fear. Fear-based decisions are some of the worst decisions we can make, and this is proven.
When we’re fearful our fight or flight response is activated and our cortisol levels are high, causing us to panic and react without thinking clearly. But by taking a step back and taking one step at a time, we can achieve a sense of control in crisis. This will boost serotonin rather than cortisol, keeping confidence levels high so we can handle the situation without succumbing to emotional reactions. This is not new knowledge. So why are we ignoring it in favor of promoting an "adapt or die" atmosphere? We are not actually the dinosaurs, or at least one would hope. "Adapt or die" is another bandwagon to jump on, for sure. And if your industry is stale, stuffy and stuck in the 80s rather than having been continually evolving as time goes by? I would be willing to bet on it unfortunately already being too late to adapt.
The bottom line is this:
Innovation and creativity are hardly the result of following the crowd or making fear-based decisions. We are shaping the future and we can create it in hope or fear, but not both. I choose hope. Which do you choose?
(And stop "disrupting" things. Face it, you're just referencing a fad because it sounds cool. It's the most pernicious cliché of our time.)
Years ago when I was in high school my mother wanted to have the windows in our family home replaced. So my father called a guy—a sales rep for a big window company—who showed up to our house with all the bells and whistles. Ready to make a sale, he convened with my parents around the dining room table to talk business. Predictably, not long into this salesman’s spiel, my mother began to feel uncomfortable and she said so. She challenged a few of his statements and asked for further information, and that’s when things took an ugly turn.
Mr. Sales Rep turned to my father, and with a wink said, “You need to get the little woman in line.”
Now, my father is a stand up guy. And I mean that in every sense of the phrase. So where Mr. Sales Rep expected a hearty laugh and a dialogue that would carry on over my mother—between the two men in the room—my father had other ideas. Instead, he promptly kicked that sales rep out of our home. I watched silently on the stairs in the foyer, peering from between the banisters. I never forgot that moment and the immense sense of pride I got from witnessing it.
Being a stand up guy means that a man is the exact opposite of gutless. He is not selfish. Because this man—this stand up guy—will honor, respect and protect the ones who matter to him most, even if he needs to lose face, or alpha points, in the process. My mother, brother, sister and I have always come first for my father—above his own mother, father and brothers, above the people he's worked with, and without a doubt above some jerky salesman. He’s never been afraid to show that.
As most self-respecting women grow older and begin the search for our own partners in life to be husbands, fathers, protectors and providers, we look for a stand up guy. We look for a partner, not an owner. We look for someone who will balance protection with respect—and what I mean by that is someone who will protect us in a way that upholds the equal partnership, just the way my father did with the window sales rep. And this is not something we should compromise on. A man who won’t stand up for his woman when she’s right, and who won’t put her at the top of his list is not a man who is deserving of her respect, time, effort and the big one: love.
So to all men who have been taught that game-playing and inflating your own ego in order to appear to be something you're not will get you the key to a woman’s heart? You’ve been taught wrong. This kind of behavior may get you the key to the hearts of some women, but never the heart of a quality woman. Because what a quality woman wants is a stand up guy.
And to all women who have been taught to be afraid of rocking the boat—that setting any kind of requirements for the sort of behavior you will and will not accept from a man will lose you the key to his heart? You’ve been taught wrong, too. Because if a man is worth his salt, he’ll rise to meet your requirements. And when he does? As long as you're being a stand up gal, that’s a relationship worth hanging onto for a lifetime.
Years ago, a friend explained to me this about advertising: “You sell your soul in the hope you’ll get it back one day.” And there’s truth in that. Because if you’re good—genuinely talented—you will, indeed, climb very far, very fast. And after you do, it’s entirely possible to reclaim that once-sold soul.
Yesterday I heard that the same friend’s longtime creative partner quit advertising. “He got tired of the bullshitting.” So I spent most of the day fantasizing about what it would be like to be a seasoned, highly-awarded Creative Director who just threw in the towel because you suddenly became tired of being entrenched in your own bullshit. Maybe my friend’s partner would go the route of Alex Bogusky—get crunchy, and leave all the bullshitting and hot-shitting behind for some do-gooding. Or maybe he would move off the beaten path, hole himself up in a cabin and write his own Ted Kaczynski-esque Manifesto—maybe the new lack of bullshit would short-circuit his brain.
Advertising is rife with bullshit but the fact of the matter is, the whole world revolves around bullshit. From the subway quartet who tried to charm me into forking over some cash this morning, to the guy who tried to take me home last night, bullshit hangs heavy in the air every day, especially in New York City. And no matter how genuine we aim to be, we all bullshit one another from time-to-time. That’s why keeping one’s BS detector fine-tuned is important. Unless, of course, one wants to just fuck it all and full-on go the route of wholesome naiveté.
Want to test your BS detector? Consider, for example, these two quick workplace scenarios. The workplace is also rife with bullshit, and if your detector is on the fritz, you're likely to get taken time and again.
A coworker with whom you’ve divulged your love of narwhals out of the blue shows up to the office with a seemingly thoughtful gift for you: an awesome book all about narwhals. Fuck, yeah! A narwhal book! The unicorns of the sea!
So is that bullshit, or sincerity (as in, you and your sweet, sweet office pal are now totally BFFs for life)?
Zero points for you if you picked sincerity. In fact, negative five points for you. Your gift-giver is most likely full to the gills with bullshit. Because an amazing way to bullshit someone into being wrapped around your finger is to give them a random, targeted gift. They will be so pleased and flattered. And they will subconsciously feel indebted. And then you can get them to do your bidding, or if they’re your boss, have them convinced that you’re a keeper. This is called reciprocity: We feel more compelled to reciprocate when someone offers us something first.
You get back from a job interview at a high-profile creative company that's in the midst of an internal revolution feeling particularly pumped. You just interviewed with the Director of Dreams and Realities for a new sort-of change management position in a new department that will change the entire industry! And you nailed it. You can’t wait to inevitably learn that you got the Junior Dreams and Realities Director position and will be reporting to that special man you interviewed with. This is going to be awesome.
Bullshit? Or sincerity?
Okay, negative 25 points for you if you picked sincerity. I don’t know what “dreams and realities” is intended to mean. I’m not denying it—that’s a classy job title. But I’m challenged to ask, what dreams? And what realities? Maybe it simply refers to the dreams and realities of this creative agency, whose main reality is that they're floundering and in desperate need of change to survive—change that's not happening very well—in which case, we should probably translate the title to read, “Junior Aims and Failures Director.” Not classy, but more to the point. The title Junior Dreams and Realities Director is a good example of the triumph of style over substance. A hallmark of majestic bullshit.
There are plenty of other flowers in the lush garden of bullshit, but to keep it short and sweet I'll stop here at just these two.
So how did you do? Are you two for two, or zero for two? If you’re zero for two (or negative 30 for two), your bullshit detector needs some fine-tuning.
Still, it’s never good to over-tune your bullshit detector. A cynical person is not a very likable person. As with anything in life, it’s important to strike the right balance.
If you want to test, for example, a coworker’s sincerity, I bet one of the best ways is to tell them you love—not like, love—narwhals and see what they do with that information. Put a bunch of narwhal figurines and pictures up in your cubicle. Wear a narwhal t-shirt to work. Suggest they watch this great documentary on narwhals you’ve seen, like, a million times. And if the person you’re testing acts like that’s the coolest shit ever? Bullshit. Because a sincere person would say, "Dude, I know you like narwhals, but I feel like you should probably tone it down..."
I'll leave you with these observations made by a man named Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton, who has studied the art of bullshit academically. Frankfurt is the author of the New York Times Bestseller, On Bullshit:
People who produce, package, or sell bullshit are in some way comparable to slovenly craftsmen. They are not really paying attention to the quality of their product. There is some kind of laxity in their work, though this laxity cannot be equated with inattention to detail or carelessness in general. What is lacking in the prime examples of bullshit, to be found in the realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, is not concern for detail—political spin doctors, for instance, often dedicate themselves tirelessly to keeping every tiny thing under control—but concern for the truth. The essence of bullshit lies in a lack of connection to a concern with truth— [an] indifference to how things really are.’
To be sure, advertisements and political speeches may contain true statements but they will nevertheless strike us as bullshit as soon as we realize that the person who produces these statements could not care less whether his statements are true or not, as long as they have the desired effect. As such, it is a feature of the bullshitter’s state of mind, namely his indifference to truth, that is crucial to the production of bullshit.
In a nutshell that means bullshitters don’t care about the truth, they care about winning. But once a bullshitter develops a mindfulness for the truth—like my friend's creative partner—it becomes impossible to seek anything less. While the fine art of bullshit certainly has it's advantages, I look forward to a time when most of humanity, in the end, turns to the truth. Not only will the truth set us free, it is the starting point for real and lasting change.
For five long years I quit the news. When relationships don’t serve you, you quit them. So the news and I, we were through. But late last year I realized why this was a mistake—why being informed about what matters in the world is important. Today, the news and I are back “on”, but only in certain arenas. I follow a handful of trusted sources on Twitter where I can keep up to date on world news and politics. Knowledge is power, and once I’ve got it, I’m not afraid to use my own voice to help spread it. But amid the flurry of articles and voices reporting and giving opinions on the Islamic State over the past year, I’ve remained silent. Today I’ve found my voice on that, too.
The Islamic State, it was reported on Friday, took control of ancient Syrian city, Palmyra. Pictures of the brutality the terrorist group inflicts on humanity are unbearable to see; the experience of being the target of genocide (yes, genocide—if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...) and in the midst of civil war unimaginable. There are no words that can do this unbearableness justice. And so when the media reported on fears that Palmyra’s ancient Roman ruins and artifacts would be destroyed, many Twitter voices wondered why it is that we’re so concerned with the ruins, when actual humanity is being destroyed. A valid point, to be sure. But I think the destruction of artifacts and ruins runs a lot deeper than those trivializing our concern over them allow for. Here’s why:
A people’s history, a people’s artifacts, are very much a part of who they are. Destroying a people and what remains of their ancestors and heritage is the deepest most thorough and terrifying way to destroy a people. Any artist or craftsman/woman knows the importance of creating things that will be left behind—to live on long after they are gone. One creates so that one day someone may find what they've created and know in whatever small way that they were here, what they were like, and that they mattered. So yes, destroying relics is just as much a terrifying part of destroying a people as the actual killing of the people. It completes the totality of thorough destruction. There will be nothing left of them. It is in this way that the Islamic State is removing an entire portion of humanity—both present and past—from the world, and I cannot think of anything more terrifying.
In the wake of news like this is the very time when we should stop and think about every right, every privilege and every bit of happiness we take for granted every day, be thankful, and be careful not to squander them. We should look at every ounce of hate that still lives within our borders and feel shame. And we should examine closely the role we, America, played in the creation of the Islamic State. For that, we should also feel remorse. And yet, most people aren’t capable of feeling so deeply.
Our American world will spin on. We’ll talk about Hillary and her emails, or Josh Duggar and why molesting five young girls—some of whom were reportedly his sisters—was a “mistake”. We’ll have an unfortunate and inappropriate continuing debate over police overreach and whether black lives matter as much as blue lives. We’ll point fingers and cast blame. Our fame monster will churn as we criticize Hollywood for how terribly they treat 30-something female actresses like Maggie Gyllenhaal while at the same time gluing ourselves to Perez or TMZ to gawk at the latest female actress to have had “work” done, never really acknowledging the connection. Things seem to change, but nothing really changes.
Meanwhile, in Palmyria, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East and Africa, terror knows no boundaries. Genocide and war is real there. People, their cultures and their histories are being wiped out. And so when we talk about the importance of Palmyra’s ruins and the artifacts in it’s museum, we’re not choosing to value things over people. We’re terrified of what losing an entire people along with their history might look like. The repercussions run wide and deep.
There’s something to be said for staying put sometimes. There’s something magical about exploring things exactly where you are. The weird and wonderful is all around us—most of the time all it takes is a walk to discover it.
I walk nearly everywhere, and I’ve written before that New York City is enormous and reliable in its ability to rapidly change, so sometimes an old route inadvertently becomes a new one. Other times, I venture into territory that is entirely new to me, because the city’s enormity also guarantees that no one person can ever truly discover it all—there will always be uncharted territory. And then sometimes you’ll walk the same old route and experience that in the midst of change, some things stay almost exactly the same. Yesterday I walked around my own neighborhood, where I’ve lived for nearly 10 years, and experienced a bit of all three.
Walking all the way to the end of Greenpoint’s Manhattan Avenue, I discovered a new independently-owned record store, three new cafés, and at least four new restaurants. But above all, I discovered that there’s still more to see than just pollution when you reach the waterfront. The sculptures above have been there for years, perched atop a cement wall with the sky as their backdrop. Some have disappeared, but those three are still right where they were when I first noticed them five years ago, while hidden behind a gate stand two more. Many people have photographed and blogged about the sculptures over the years, but no one has been able to successfully attribute them to any one, known, artist.
Art is all around us, and those of us lucky enough to be living in north Brooklyn have become used to spotting it every day. As new buildings pop up and the waterfront changes, we’ve also become used to noticing it disappear more and more every day. It’s comforting to see a slice of the neighborhood containing unattributed art that hasn’t yet been bulldozed and built up.
Two interests have been weighing heavily on my mind lately: politics and journalism. I started taking creative nonfiction writing workshops a few months ago to officially master the craft and sharpen my skills, and I’ve been toying with getting involved in politics in some way, shape or form. My latest writing obsession is immersion journalism. So I thought, What better way to explore immersion writing than through political involvement? This summer I plan to join the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign and write about my experience.
Can grassroots campaigns succeed? Everybody—and by “everybody” I mean news sources and pundits—pegs 73-year-old Democratic Socialist Sanders, who is running as a Democrat in the primaries, for a sure-lose. Because, Hillary. But what if...
I want to become involved in Sanders’ campaign for the people that relies on the people, not the power elite, for propulsion. I want to document strategies. And I want to experience what this sort of political victory feels like from on the ground—even if it’s only the small victories I get to experience. Every victory counts, and so does every defeat. These are the things we learn from that better enable us to win the biggest victories next time.
Sanders will officially launch his campaign on May 26. If you are interested in joining me as I get involved, sign up here to receive notifications and make a contribution.
I loved Kurt Cobain—never had a crush on him, but I loved him. I gravitated toward him, and I think it was because I identified with him in many ways. I also loved the idea of accidentally achieving success in a very non-traditional way, like Cobain and Nirvana did. Is it okay for a girl to feel that way? I’ve always wondered, because being in your head, and being an accidentally successful outcast is much more of a dude thing. It doesn’t feel safe to admit to it when you’re a girl. But as a child I was always in my head creating fantasy worlds, drawing, writing… I finally saw Brett Morgen’s documentary, Montage of Heck, this weekend—one of the best documentaries I've ever seen—and I’ve come to realize just how much I still identify with Cobain.
In first grade I wrote a journal entry titled, “Why Me.” It was all about exactly what you might expect: stupid things that happened to me and wondering why they were happening to me instead of someone else. At this time, Ronald Reagan was president and I heard some of the older kids I knew talk about him in a very different way than my parents did. To the older, rebellious kids, he was akin to the Antichrist. This stuck with me and shaped my politics as I got older.
By the time high school rolled around I’d flunked Math and was used to hearing about how “lazy” I was at home. I wanted to rebel but I didn’t know how and was too afraid. Instead, I would disappear into my room and fall asleep on the floor reading Rolling Stone magazine until my mother burst in and scolded me for not having done my homework.
“Do your homework!” she would yell.
“I can’t! I would yell back. And I really meant that, too. I couldn’t—not because I was physically or mentally unable, but because my mind was being pulled in too many other, more interesting directions. I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t able to do my homework. All I could say was, “I can’t.”
Like so many kids, I was diagnosed with an illness and put on Ritalin, which went terribly. Eventually I was able to stop taking it, switching to Adderall before finally tapering off and learning how to channel my wandering, unceasing thoughts into productivity. I wasn't ever really ill, just different. I wonder how many kids would be spared an ADD diagnosis if we'd learn to celebrate creative thinkers instead of medicating them.
I've read that people assume Cobain was bipolar in addition to having been diagnosed with ADD. Maybe so. But maybe? Chronic depression followed being treated like an outcast by the kids at school and shamed by his father, by life circumstances like his parents' divorce, by being able to sense Courtney pulling away towards the end—in the documentary she admits to having thought about cheating on him, though never having actually done it—and not the other way around. Sensitive, feeling people are much more prone to depression if not looked after properly. We, as a society are so quick to label someone who is or feels different as abnormal, blame them for their problems, and medicate them in an effort to make them more normal. Yes, sometimes people are bipolar. Other times it has much more to do with spiraling feelings brought on by devastating life events than a full-blown mental illness. Growing up constantly hearing how weird you are and how wrong you are for being that way can color your view of yourself for the rest of your life.
In Montage of Heck, Cobain admits, “I … never had any friends. I hated everyone—they were so phony.” This, I can relate to, too. A phony person has, to me, always been the absolute worst representative of humanity. What’s the point of having a friend if he’s phony? And what’s the point of living if you’re not living authentically? To me, the artists on the pages of Rolling Stone were living authentically. That’s why I wanted to work with people like them. But how?
I was about 13 when I came up with the plan. I would live in New York City and work for Rolling Stone. I didn’t know what an Art Director was at the time, so I assumed I would write for the magazine. Fueled by Cobain’s “Corporate magazines still suck” cover, I was determined to thumb my nose at society while still working just a bit inside of it. That way I could make my parents proud and still get to live the way I really wanted. Yes, I would work for Rolling Stone when I grew up, tour with bands and write about them. And it really seemed that simple.
Then I got into art class in a major way. The teacher picked me out as one of the more talented kids in her classes at the time. My parents were proud because I was talented at something. And, really, I think they always knew. This was just confirmation. When I was 15 the art teacher, Ms. Jewett, entered one of my paintings into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, where it won a National Silver Medal. Everyone was pleased, except for me.
Some people are born for recognition and maybe even fame. Others, no matter how talented, just don’t have the right personality for it. As much as I longed for recognition, I hated it when it arrived. Being in the spotlight made me feel terrible, and that wasn’t a feeling I wanted to last. So I accepted the recognition quietly, and let it pass, keeping my head down while I plugged away at my plan, never fully expecting it to actually become a reality.
When high school graduation rolled around I was being courted by a few high-profile art schools. Temple University, an in-state school for me, had an art school that offered me a scholarship. Ms. Jewett helped me to navigate the high school’s academically-focused guidance department and get into that art school. Without her, I don’t know where I would be today—probably unhappy and working in some Starbucks somewhere. She recommended I pursue a Graphic Design major, so I did. It had never occurred to me that one might draw and earn a living at the same time. It was liberating.
I’ve been a Graphic Designer ever since, but I still write, draw and take photographs all the time. That’s one thing that will never stop. Unlike Cobain, I never made it to the pages or the cover of Rolling Stone—though I did make it to New York City—and I never got accidentally famous, and that’s entirely fine by me. When you don’t have the right personality for it, fame can easily be your downfall.
I struggled with whether or not to publish this. Why should anyone care? I never knew Kurt Cobain, though I wept openly when I heard he committed suicide. I lack fame. I am not what anyone with any power would consider to be an “influencer”. So what place do I have in, and what value could I possibly bring to a discussion about Cobain, especially when it revolves almost entirely around my own life?
As an introverted artist always trying to fit into an extroverted world, I understand very well what it feels like to be different, and I think that’s worth sharing. I've been through depression brought on by the pain of feeling too different. I understand what that feels like, too, and I constantly watch myself for it. I know that a person who appears perfectly fine on the outside may very well still be dealing with or covering up depression. After watching Montage, it's clear that with Kurt, all the signs were there—the signs of depression and pain far worse than anything I know I've experienced—and let's say just for right now that none of the accusations surrounding Courtney Love in the aftermath of Cobain's death are true. If only someone had reached out, if only someone had been keeping closer watch over him. So to anyone else who feels this way, or ever has, know this:
You are not weird or wrong. And as long as you follow your heart, it may take a long time, but you’ll see that you’re right and that you don’t need to change. Grow, develop and become a stronger artist than you were to start with, but never change. You are amazing.
And to the parents and friends of a kid who is different in this way:
Treat them with love and compassion. Let them explore their creativity and guide them to growing into the best, most wonderful creative person they can be. Their life may not turn out to be the way you would live or the way you wish for them to live, but I guarantee you, they will never cease to amaze you and those they come into contact with as they grow. Don't yell at them, belittle them or shame them, and try hard not to betray them. Instead, treat them like the special person they are. You deserve it and so do they.
I took an hour-long train ride from Philadelphia straight up the Main Line on Wednesday and spent a good portion of that time texting with my brother. I’d been at Temple University visiting the art school—our alma mater—and word on the street was that he’s difficult to work with. Interns, it would seem, talk.
The funny thing was that I’ve heard the same mentioned about myself. My brother, however, was taken by surprise, and he was not as thick-skinned as I when he heard it.
My brother is one of the most celebrated art directors at his agency. He won top portfolio within his graduating class at the art school. If his work isn’t perfect every time, it’s damn near close. I both admire his perfectionism and loathe it. But I wouldn’t have him change for the world. I didn’t mean to upset him with the news but I didn’t want to hide it from him or sugar-coat it either. So instead of backpedaling I told him:
It’s because you’re too good and expect the same from others. Own it. Nobody says mediocre people are “difficult to work with.”
That’s true, he responded. And that was the end of it.
A former boss of mine who’d seen us both in action once told me that were my brother and I to team up we’d be unstoppable. And yet, we’ve never been the best at working together. I suspect that is because we’re both “difficult to work with.”
But if “difficult to work with” means being one of the best, and challenging others to do better work than they were doing previously, I see it as a compliment. I’m not afraid of hearing it. I wasn’t always this way, though—it took me a long time to develop a thicker skin. You see, because, labeling someone as “difficult” also implies some bias on the labeler's end. After all if we, the “difficult” people, would only curb the push-back and do exactly what our detractors say, revere them exactly as much as they expect to be revered, the “difficult” label would be lifted and we would be better liked. Calling someone “difficult” doesn’t paint a likable picture, and no matter what anyone says, we all hurt a bit when we feel we’re not liked.
I began to care less about being traditionally liked exactly seven years ago. I decided to live authentically and haven’t looked back. It’s natural to get caught up in the negative feelings that come at any given moment when we think we’re not liked, but it’s also easy to choose to rise above them. And in the end, it’s far more powerful to have people like and respect you for who you really are, rather than a made-up version of yourself crafted just to be accepted.
Take a look back at who you were in high school. If you were ever that person who had blue hair or a piercing before that stuff was cool, and you got made fun of, then I think it’s about time you prove to everybody that you were, if not their equal, even better than they were by having gone through your teens choosing to let your freak flag fly. Letting your freak flag fly just means standing up and saying, “This is who I am, and this is what I think,” even if you're ahead of the curve when it comes to being cool. As your adult self that doesn’t have to mean showing up to the office with a purple mohawk and a sleeve of tattoos—although, hey, if that’s who you really are… No, it means staying true to what you know in your heart is right. If someone’s work isn’t good enough, don’t be afraid to tell them. And then work with them to make it better. If your boss has a stupid idea, don’t just go along with it when it’s tearing you up inside because you know it’s the wrong approach.
Being your authentic self is never about trying to take over. It’s more about letting everyone know that there’s a different way of doing things. If people can open their minds and pay more attention, they’ll never want to work with anyone who isn’t at least a bit “difficult,” who’s way is less meaningful or has less substance.
I, for one, will always choose substance over surface.