Archive for the 'business' Category

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Tribute

I once read a critique of Atlas Shrugged that slammed Ayn Rand’s masterpiece for its unpolished prose.  That’s like reading Emily Dickinson and wondering when the explosions will manifest.  If you read Atlas Shrugged in search of flowery phrases, well you’re reading the wrong book there kemosabi.  The book’s appeal is in the heroic treatment it gives the builders and entrepreneurs of an otherwise corroding civilization.  

That’s right.  Atlas Shrugged is a critically acclaimed work of fiction that celebrates business people.  Shocking, right?  I mean, everyone knows that business types are evil, don’t they? It’s so obvious.

Just look at movies like Erin Brokavich, The Verdict, Michael Clayton, The RainmakerWall Street or the vast majority of pop culture that features business people.  Even Lost, one of the most innovative television shows ever made, features an evil industrialist.  Whoa, the industrialist is the bad guy?  No way! Didn’t see that one coming, guys!

Maybe I’m missing an obvious reference, but prior to Atlas Shrugged, I think we’d have to go all the way back to a book like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to see a similarly heroic take on the entrepreneur.

As a quick reminder, Les Mis begins as Jean Valjean, a former convict, steals silverware from a kind bishop.   After the bishop discovers the crime, he graciously allows Jean Valjean to escape another prison term.  In exchange, the bishop asks Jean Valjean to promise that he will live an honest life from this point onward.

The narrative skips ahead a few years, revealing that Jean Valjean has indeed kept his promise.  He has become respectable and made his town wealthy thanks to a new manufacturing process he invented for his factory.

Back in Victor Hugo’s time, folks actually appreciated those who brought jobs and wealth to their towns. That’s probably why Hugo uses Jean Valjean’s business accomplishments to suggest that he’s become a model citizen.  In contrast, today we gather up our collective pitchforks  to hunt business people as if they were freakish monsters worthy of death or at least heavy regulation.  With attitudes like that, is it any wonder that the U.S. has the second-highest tax rate in the world?

That anti-business animosity is present even in Atlas Shrugged, and Hank Rearden, one of the heroic entrepreneurs in the novel, struggles to overcome it.  He’s a businessman who has figured out a way to make a metal that is stronger than steel, and he puts all of his energies into building a great company that manufactures his new material.  His competitors cannot deliver anything of comparable quality, so instead they pay off government bureaucrats and give lots of speeches.

Since we’re on the subject, I do admire great orators as much as the next guy, but I’m more impressed when speakers prove themselves to be people of action.

Speech-minded reader, you could do worse than following Teddy Roosevelt’s example.  He too gave speeches, but his speeches were not the sum total of his efforts. They were merely the structural supports.  It’s why he could boldly admonish his listeners to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Anyway, many people in Rearden’s society have come to feel entitled to the profits of his business, even though they have done nothing to help it grow.  Ayn Rand calls them the looters, a ravenous mob not unlike a zombie horde.   Seeing an opportunity to expand power, the government satiates the looters by raising taxes and placing more onerous restraints on Rearden and industrialists like him.

Rearden’s competitors use their government contacts to negotiate loopholes for themselves.  That’s Ayn Rand’s way of acknowledging that businesses are not immune to corruption, but that big government tends to enable rather than curtail it.

Cruelty in Perfection – William Hogarth, 1751

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As the novel progresses the government bureaucracy becomes more intrusive and many entrepreneurs decide that it is no longer beneficial to stay in business.  Rearden tries to stay afloat, but as the government takes over more industries it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so.

From the beginning, the novel’s speechmongers had clamored for more government control, but contrary to their utopian claims, society does not improve.  Since no one has an incentive to work hard, the workers opt to do the bare minimum or to drop out of the system altogether.   Gone is the potential to profit from manufacturing parts or excellent service, so machinery deteriorates and accidents increase.  

As the general population becomes more apathetic, the government realizes that it must use force upon its own people to compel them to work.  The doom of civilization lingers, but a few resourceful entrepreneurs like Rearden mount the resistance.

Atlas Shrugged was published back in 1957, but it feels so contemporary: In our world, entire nations and politically connected corporations ask others to finance their profligacy insisting that they’re too big to fail.  Our American government comes down hard on businesses, except those who have contributed heavily to certain political campaigns.  For example, one of Obama’s biggest campaign contributors was Goldman Sachs, a company that did quite well in the subprime-mortgage dustup.

Let’s not forget that the S&P recently downgraded the U.S. credit rating.  That didn’t even happen in the Great Depression ladies and gentlemen, and the very politicians who spend our money at unprecedented rates look us in the eyes and tell us that the government is not the problem.

Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat – William Hogarth, 1746

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The problem, as they see it, stems from the people who protest the government’s encroaching appetite.  Indeed Ayn Rand has become a prophet of our times.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  My goal in writing is not to suggest that businesses can do no wrong.  On the contrary, businesses are run by people, and people come in all sorts of varieties, some good some bad.  If we agree that proper governance helps sustain society, then it follows that some limited government oversight in business can also be useful.

Not every Ayn Rand enthusiast would agree with those presuppositions, so allow me to defend them by quoting from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, an influential pamphlet during the American Revolution.

Paine writes,”For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.”  In other words, if we were all perfect we wouldn’t need government; We would naturally live in harmony with each other.

Since that is not the case, we need a system of laws to preserve the social fabric that allows for civilization.  Businesses too need some regulation to ensure fair play, to prevent unethical business types from doing anything to make a quick buck.

Besides, without even the most limited amount of regulation, porn shops and drug dealers would be everywhere.  Do you really want to live in that kind of society? I don’t.

With that said, we need to get rid of this harmful notion that every societal problem is due to the nefarious machinations of conniving, greedy businessmen.  By and large, successful businesses make things better, not just for the stockholders and their employees but also for their customers and their communities at large. 

If they didn’t, why would people continue to work and buy from them?  Remember, businesses don’t have standing armies to coerce participation. Governments do.

Then there’s the whole notion of being able to advance based on merit.  We take that for granted, but it wasn’t always a given.

Imagine what it would be like if your status was almost entirely dependent upon the family to whom you were born or to which you joined in marriage.

Not so keen on the medieval way?  You could always live la vida loca like the Soviets did, by bribing government officials just to increase your odds of survival.     I’d say the oft-maligned businessman is starting to look downright friendly in comparison.

You wouldn’t know it from popular culture, but a lot of folks actually have strong affectionate feelings toward businesses.  I’m one of them.

Working for Canon has expanded my technical abilities, increased my confidence, and brought more stability to my life.  No charitable outreach has done the same for me.

Plus, Canon equipment is among the best in the market.  All my recent freelance projects have been shot with Canon gear, and I wouldn’t go that route if I didn’t have the highest respect for Canon engineering.

Don’t just take my word for it though.  Visit Canon USA’s Facebook page, and you’ll notice that the vast majority of comments are positive, effusive ones.  But why stop at Canon?  You’ll find similar things if you check out the feedback for companies like Apple, amazon.com, IKEA, Chick-fil-A, Volkswagen, Target, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Zappos, Walt Disney, and the list could go on and on.

These are all businesses that have made life better for millions of people,  and you don’t make life better for millions of people by merely focusing on profit.  That is a foolish anti-business fallacy.  You get there, first and foremost, by being useful, even delightful, to others in an excellent way.

In Atlas Shrugged, it is the bureaucrats who compromise and sell out to advance themselves.  Rearden, in contrast,  sacrifices prestige and short-term wealth so that he might produce something truly exceptional.  To aim for anything less even when the entire world encourages you to do so is not to be fully alive, Ayn Rand suggests.

Like Hank Rearden, the entrepreneurs who produce excellent, profitable businesses are heroes of our modern world, but when was the last time a movie, a music album, or a novel conveyed as much?  Atlas Shrugged is one example, but we need more.

In the book Microtrends, author and researcher Mark Penn tells of a recent survey he ran where an alarming number of kids expressed interest in becoming snipers when they grow up.  He speculates that data spike is due to the attention snipers get in news coverage, movies, and video games.

Now you tell me, would you rather have a society full of aspiring snipers or entrepreneurs? Do you want your next creative project to inspire the next Columbine shooter or the next Steve Jobs?

The Delivery of the Keys – Pietro Perugino 1481–1482

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If you chose the latter options, then maybe it is time for you do something about it.  Reading Atlas Shrugged is a good place to start (you can listen to it as an audiobook if you prefer), but if you don’t have time for that, would you at least stop suggesting that every business person is evil?  Can you stop relying on the government to solve all your problems?

While you’re at it, don’t be content just to consume. Produce. Give back.  Building a great and virtuous business is as good of a way as any to do that.

 

If you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep writing and sharing bits of my heart with you.

Please consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  If I did, I wouldn’t have the time to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write.
I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog. 
As always, thanks for reading and God bless.
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The Small Giants We Want to Be

This blog is a little different than most, so I don’t usually find something else that conveys, in a more compelling way, what I’m trying to say. Yet that’s what I found when I read Small Giants.

La Mariee – Marc Chagall, 1950

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A few days after I finished reading it, I wrote about what I found special in the book.   To my surprise, the author, Bo Burlingham,  liked the post enough to comment on it.   That’s how it all started.

Thanks to Bo (@BoBurlingham) and the generosity of the Small Giants Community (@smallgiantsbuzz), I’m happy to announce that we’ll be giving away up to 10 signed copies of the book. All you have to do is be one of the first 10 people to explain the kind of Small Giant you want to be. (Update:  we decided to do away with the word count to encourage a broader level of participation.  Now you can use as many or as few words as you want.)

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If you’re not sure of what to write, this post I wrote is a good place to start: The American Beauty of Small Giants.

Add your Small Giant declaration as a comment to this post or write about it in your own blog and post the link as a comment.  Then email me your mailing address at nsavides@gmail.com.  You’ll get a confirmation email from the folks at the Small Giants Community, and then your signed copy will be on its way.

Since Bo and the Small Giants Community have been gracious enough to give us a few copies, I want to help them out as well.  It would be nice if we could give them a few comments that they could use to further promote their book, but if you object to your words being used in that way, then please state as much in your comments.

We’ll still send you a book.  Our primary goal is to promote a discussion of principles, and we want to hear about your Small Giants vision regardless of how you feel about publicity.

I don’t expect that this will be an issue, but I reserve the right to make ineligible any comment that isn’t relevant.  We want to make sure the books will go to those who will value them.  Just write honestly, and you’ll be fine.

David – Donatello, 1466

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Whoever writes the most compelling declaration will get a book that isn’t just signed; It’ll also have a personalized message from the author. Now you have even more of an incentive to write something great.

I wouldn’t be doing this promotion if I didn’t believe that the Small Giants book can help you do what you do in a more soulful way, whether you’re a small business owner, a creative type, a volunteer, a young employee, or a seasoned big-business executive.

The Cyclops – Odilon Redon, 1914

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As if that weren’t enough, I happen to believe that the book offers the perspectives that can help America grow stronger. Hint: they’ve got nothing to do with too-big-to-fail thinking.

If you like what you read in the book and want to surround yourself with other like-minded individuals, then you might want to take a look at Small Giants Community.  They’re a friendly group of people from what I’ve seen, and they might offer you just the support you need to become the Small Giant you want to be.

Peasant Wedding Feast – Pieter Bruegel, 1569

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The Small Giant I want to be:

In case you need an example to get you started, here’s my take:

No one has ever called me a pillar of the community. It’s not that I blame them. In the past, I’ve been a little abrasive in stating my thoughts or trying to get things done.

A supervisor at work once tried to put a positive spin on that. In my evaluation, he wrote something like, “Nick is quick to point out ways in which we can improve.”  What a diplomat he was!

To my regret, I’ve also been involved in projects where I burned bridges just  by dealing incorrectly with the stresses at hand.  I didn’t want to be that guy.  I just never planned for anything better, and anything goes when you don’t have a plan.

The Red Tower – Giorgio de Chirico, 1913

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That’s a glimpse at who I was, but that’s not how I want to leave this world.  I want to become a person of character who inspires my fellow Americans with my creative endeavors. Ideally that will also involve some aspect of filmmaking, since the movies have been an important, often hopeful, part of my life since I was a kid.

Having an audience appreciate my work would be nice, but it would be a greater honor if other artists and technicians wanted to work with me based on my reputation for treating people right.

Yeah, someday I would like to be pillar of the community, like those old-world men I’ve admired from a distance, the ones whom others trust when a crisis strikes, the ones who instill integrity in others by the strength of their character.

I want the people with whom I work to go forth and do greater things when they leave my company, because I helped them learn, gave them freedom to discover their own sensibilities, and nurtured their capacities for excellence.

I’m not there yet.  There are still parts of me that God and I are trying to polish, but that’s why I’m still a work in progress.  Anyway, that’s the Small Giant I want to be someday.  How about you?

Aurora Borealis – Frederic Church, 1865

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(If you’ve enjoyed reading this post or some of the others I’ve written, consider signing up to get my posts by email.  You can do that by clicking here.  I don’t write every week.  I only write when I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time considering my subject and finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you, whether that’s next week or a month from now.)

The American Beauty of Small Giants

I believe in the American dream, the one that tells us that we can become anything we want to be with enough hard work and character. Dreams don’t always come true, but in America there is no king who orders our lives, no class structure that limits how far we can advance in society. Truly, our place in the world is not confined by our blood-relations but by how useful we become to our fellow citizens.

Entrepreneurs embody that American dream.  They take on enormous risk and devote time and money to offer goods or services that will, it is hoped, be valuable enough to sustain a business.  In the process they provide jobs, revenue, and training to the community where they operate.

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As long as we Americans remain free, we will continue to seek out all kinds of ways to better ourselves by improving the lives of others. Tragically, though, when profit at any cost becomes the only guiding principle of a business, it corrupts the very ideals that made the business possible.

For every irresponsible company like Enron, WorldCom, Massey, or BP  the pressure to regulate business grows, and if there is anything that a bureaucrat enjoys it’s fattening up the law books with more regulations.

Never forget, noble reader, that in some societies, sprawling government bureaucracies entirely dictate the ways their citizens live their lives.  Watch The Lives of Others if you want to see what that looks like.
Fortunately there’s a solution.  It involves just 15 minutes a day doing some simple, relaxing exercises.  Actually, those are the instructions for the AbMaster 3000, if I remember correctly. Sorry about that.

You know, you read one article about how great abs are an essential element of a vigorous foreign policy, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get your solutions mixed up.  I mean that hypothetically, of course.  I’m not the sort person who reads those articles or uses AbMasters, at least not on a daily basis.

Anyway, more regulations won’t prevent corrupt businesses from harming others.  It’s the good guys, not the bad ones, who follow the rules, after all.
What we do need is a reminder that it’s possible to succeed at work and still do right by your community.   That’s why I’m asking you to read Small Giants, written by Inc editor Bo Burlingham.

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As far as I’m concerned, it’s the definitive text on how to be both a good business person and a caring citizen.   You see, the book celebrates businesses who refuse to sacrifice excellence and character in the name of growth and profits.

Whether you are involved in small or big business, whether you work for yourself or do volunteer work, I promise you’ll find something to appreciate in the book.  If you don’t, then please let me know, and I will pay for your copy of the book.  I’m serious about that.

In the book Mr. Burlingham profiles a few companies that have what he calls “mojo,” something special about the way they do things that has to be experienced to be understood.

What is it that gives a company mojo?  As Geoffrey Rush’s characters likes to say in Shakespeare in Love, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”  It’s one of those things that is hard to define in concrete terms, but Mr. B does give us some clues.
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Photo credit: flickr.com/h-k-d
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For one thing, the people at the business really believe in what they’re doing. It’s not just that phony reiterate-the-mission-statement-and-tap-dance-for-the-boss kind of thing.  It’s real.

It costs something to live up to ideals, and if the company ideals are there just to sound impressive then no one will sacrifice for them.  When the business leaders are making the sacrifices for the things they value though, that’s when others start paying attention.  It’s contagious if you do it enough.

One of the companies Mr. Burlingham profiles is Ani DeFranco’s music label: Righteous Babe.  He tells of how they put together a folksy newsletter, meant to read like a personal conversation with Ani DeFranco herself.  It’s free, but the label wants it to be so good that others would willingly pay for it.

That’s a lot of effort to pour into something that could be dismissed as just another platform for selling records, but the Righteous Babe people want to let the fans know that Ani is a different kind of musician.

Apparently word gets around.  Mr. B reports that people travel from across the country to visit the studio and experience the difference.

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Photo from babevillebuffalo.com, home of Righteous Babe Records

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Another profiled company is Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The owners turned down the opportunity to go national; they felt that would adversely affect the dining experience they could offer.  Instead, they expanded into new business ventures that allowed them to offer more to the neighborhoods they serve.
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A different example of that is Hammerhead Productions.  They’re an effects company founded by four guys who were at the peak of their careers.  The guys wanted to be able to work in a friendly environment and pick their own projects, so they formed Hammerhead.

Now they have the leverage to turn away projects that don’t feel right.  Sure, they want to make money, but not at the cost of doing work they don’t respect or under circumstances they won’t enjoy.

On the other hand, you have some celebrities who will endorse anything for the right price, even if they don’t use the product they endorse.  As if those types really need more money. It’s not always about an endorsement. Sometimes it’s about the compromises they’ll make in the hope of winning acclaim.

Being surrounded by flashy beguilers, we’re conditioned to accept selling out as a notable way of life.  (To be fair there are some decent-minded celebrities who bank on excellence.  It’s just that bad apples are good at spoiling the barrel’s reputation, don’t you know.)

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Photo credit: flickr.com/jef_safi
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I get discouraged when companies and people I once admired compromise on quality or virtue in the name of more money, more power, more whatever. Don’t you? It adds some resistance to doing things the right way, and who really needs that?

I understand people make mistakes, and there’s always pressure to get results.  I am far from a perfect person, so I’m not here to point fingers. I’m just asking you to stand for more than just supersizing yourself. (You know, you could do worse than looking to a God for that…)

Zingerman’s Delicatessen takes pride in the quality of their sandwiches. They don’t ration out the meat in hopes of saving money.  They want to make a masterpiece that astonishes you.  As a result people line up outside the store and endure long waits to experience the magic.

One company like that is enough to counterbalance 10 soulless ones.  It stands as a beacon of hope, reminding us of what community-oriented greatness can be.
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By now you may have noticed that I’ve used the word “community” a few times.  That’s not an accident.  It is a concept that keeps resurfacing in the book.

When work is just about the bottom line, the bosses treat their employees like profit-making machines, the employees loath coming to work, and the customers must endure meaningless headquarters-approved soundbites uttered by the unhappy employees.  How awful for everyone involved.  But, when you actually care about why you’re there, then you’ll be more likely to care about who is there.
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Photo credit: flickr.com/seeminglee
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The Righteous Babe folks care about their Buffalo, NY community.  They do everything possible to buy supplies from local vendors and hire people who live nearby.  Sometimes that means having to pay more, but in doing so they can give back to the locals who support them.

Ober Tanner of O. C. Tanner Manufacturing, another profiled company in the book, is quoted as saying “I feel responsible for everyone here.” He is the kind of employer who says he wants his employees to receive happiness from their work and means it.  The enthusiastic employees who treat him like a hero are the proof.

The Clif Bar company shows commitment to their community by paying their employees to do a few hours of volunteer work.  The most intriguing part is that they let their employees pick the charities they’ll each get paid to help. Instead of streamlining the process, the Clif Bar executives want to give employees the freedom to support the causes they value.

As Mr. Burlingham explains, that sort of thing happens because Small Giants are companies whose first priority is serving the people inside of the company. The customers come second.

The idea is that you treat your people so well that they will fight for the things that matter to you.  They’re not just coming in to get a paycheck. They’re doing their best for their family at work.  It makes a difference.
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Since we’re talking about Clif Bar,  now would be a good time to mention their site: clifbar.com.  It’s unique and conveys personality, and it’s another reminder that the company stands for something. That’s what good design can do.

Thanks to the Small Giants book, I’ve come to value the Clif Bar brand so much that I plan to buy their energy bars even if they cost more than the competition.  Price isn’t everything.

There’s no way I could do justice to all the book’s ideas here.  If you want to learn more, give the book a chance.  It’s an easy read, even if you’re not normally into business books.

As a bonus, the witer practices what he preaches:  Although it would probably be cheaper to print in China, the book is still printed in the USA. That’s not a fact Mr. Burlingham mentioned.  I know it only because I checked.

“It’s not what we do. It’s who we are.” That’s the slogan for the Small Giants Community, a forum for entrepreneurs who want to live out the ideas in Mr. Burlingham’s book. Put differently, you don’t have to be part of a small business to be a Small Giant.   You can work for a big business or you can go it alone.

It is mostly a matter of taking pride not in what you get from the world, but in the special things that only you can give. Do that while benefiting everyone involved and sustaining the endeavor, and you’ll really have something!

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If you think that sounds a little idealistic, you’re right.  But then, our country was founded on ideals, and there is something inherently American about being a Small Giant. When you’re blessed to live in a free society, you can take risks, dream, and dare to do things your own way, assuming that you follow the laws of the land. (Let us pray the laws do not devolve further into crippling monstrosities.)

Don’t listen to the politicians.  America does not need more government control.  We need more hardworking, character-driven Small Giants who are excited about sharing something special and profitable with their communities.

Let’s end with a quote from the author,   “Having a great business is one way of making a better world.”  Cheers to that.

Dirty Hands and Cleaner Souls

A few weeks ago I read a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. It has the audacity to suggest that work our society tends to undervalue, the kind that often involves dirt and sweat, is actually good for the soul.  The ideas in the book are compelling, so let’s explore them.

photo from flickr.com/hiddenTreasure

photo from flickr.com/hiddenTreasure

Before going further, let me apologize for the length of time since my last update.  In addition to my day job, I’ve got a role in a play, and I’m working on another creative project that I am racing to finish.  I’m also developing some other stories for this blog that involve more research.  I still care about those of you who trust me with your time by reading my posts, and I want to get better at posting more consistently.  I mention this because I value transparency and because I don’t believe in the idea that a good worker is by definition as consistent as a well-oiled machine.

Pursuing excellence in challenging fields can sometimes involve months and even years of training and experimenting with little apparent progress.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a compelling case for valuing that kind of unpredictable work in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It’s a good book to read if you care more about long-term achievement than about short-term benchmarks.

Speaking of a well-oiled machine, Matthew Crawford celebrates the unpredictable nature of mechanical work. Sometimes a problem can be solved in minutes.  Other times it takes hours or days.  It depends on the complexities of the task at hand.  The quality of his work is not measured by some abstract set of metrics; his mission statement doesn’t compel him to produce industry-leading results while maximizing stock-holder value.  He just has to fix the damn thing in a timely fashion.
photo from flickr.com/a-mon

photo from flickr.com/a-mon


Wrestling with physical things to get them to do what you want involves a bit of humility, Mr. Crawford explains.  It’s one of the most original points in the book.  When you have to deal with particulars that have their own attributes, you cannot just force your ego on them.  The broken crankshaft doesn’t care if you graduated from Harvard or that you once appeared on the cover of You Are Awesome! Monthly.  If you don’t take into account the physical laws that make it work, then the crankshaft will not keep your engine running, no matter how much indie-rock street cred the scene kids give you.
photo from flickr.com/a-mon

photo from flickr.com/a-mon

These scene kids might think you’re cool, but that’s not going to persuade your broken car to start.

Mr. Crawford started his career in a think tank, so he has first-hand experience with the knowledge economy.   He started the work with a sense of idealism, but he soon found himself sacrificing the quality of his research in order to meet weekly performance goals. To his dismay, he realized that he was no longer doing something useful to help his fellow man.  He was manipulated stats to keep his managers happy and was distorted facts to serve the mission statement of his think tank.  Doing this pumped dissonance into his soul, dissonance that kept building pressure until it became the catalyst that led him into automotive repair work.

By the time he opened up his own repair shop, Mr. Crawford had sanded away any desire to ever return to his old information-driven job.   That doesn’t mean he now disdains knowledge.  Quite the contrary.  His book references philosophers, prominent research, and current events.  Besides, the book itself is an engaging, enjoyable read, and you can’t write that kind of book if you don’t take some delight in organizing information.   It was the facade that his job induced, the pursuit of meaningless metrics and half-truths, that  drove Mr. Crawford out of the think tank.

photo from flickr.com/chrysti

photo from flickr.com/chrysti

Mr. Crawford’s ambivalence toward the information economy  makes sense in context of his background.  According to Mr. Crawford, the problem starts with our education system.  Most of what we learn in school prepares us to sort information, Mr. Crawford argues.  Think about it: A typical school test will measure how well someone can find the right answer and not how well someone can build something or apply a practical skill to a real-world situation.

The emphasis is on learning general skills that can someday be applied to specific situations, someday but not any time soon, because, Mr. Crawford explains, our society doesn’t want to limit a child’s possibilities.  After all, suggesting that it takes time, effort and focus to become a master at something might hurt someone’s self esteem.   Is it any surprise that the old, but highly-effective, practice of having a master train a young student as an apprentice has become almost non-existent in our society?

Let’s not forget about  the social stigma of vocational classes offered in school. When I was in school, there was this sense that vocational classes were for those weren’t good students and who weren’t going to college.  Maybe that very mentality explains why so many schools are cutting back on their vocational programs.

Based on my own educational experiences and those of friends and family, I conclude that knowing the stages of photosynthesis is an essential quality of a good citizen, but being able to fix things, either as a job or as a service to the community, doesn’t matter very much.  During my school days, I learned about photosynthesis in one mandatory class after another, but I never learned how to build a shelf.  I can assure you that I’ve never run into a real-world situation that made me think, “ah hah, that’s the effect of the Calvin-Benson Cycle at work!”  In contrast, there have been several times in my life where I wanted to build something, but I didn’t know how.

The  information-oriented people who our schools like to produce tend to be more voracious consumers, Mr. Crawford declares.  Such a person can clearly see that 15 megapixels is more than 12, and that the newer camera has more features, for example.  On top of that, there is an unstated assumption in our information-age that anything new is generally of more value than anything old.  (To test the wisdom of this assumption, talk to all the guys who dove head-first into the unsteady arms of Windows Vista.)  The correct and obvious answer to the consumer is to buy the newer camera.
photo from flickr.com/danstrange

photo from flickr.com/danstrange

On the other hand, the folks who get their hands dirty doing the work that needs to be done are more likely to use, and modify if necessary, the tools at hand.  The specs and the branding of a product aren’t as important as the product’s usefulness to these individuals, and since their self-image isn’t derived from the information that advertisers provide, they don’t feel as compelled to buy the latest and greatest stuff.  They’d rather put their time and money into producing more useful things.

Striking a more optimistic note, Mr. Crawford reminds us that the do-it-yourself sensibility is growing, even though this sensibility doesn’t always make economic sense.  For most people, buying the raw materials and then building a sofa costs more money and takes longer than just buying an affordable sofa from the furniture store.  And yet, a certain number of people still choose to make their own furniture.  These folks aren’t fools.  They just appreciate the inexplicable sense of pride that comes from crafting something useful with their hands.  It may not be good for the bank account, but it might be just what the soul needs, at least that’s what Mr. Crawford wants us to conclude.

When I was growing up, I got caught up in the whole information thing.  I would cram facts into my head not because they were useful but because they might help me get a better grade on a test.  Only after I tried to build meaningful relationships and seek significance beyond the classroom did I realize that there is more to life than just knowing the right answers.

Sometimes the doing is more important than the knowing, and you don’t have to be a mechanic to appreciate that. Does that mean working with your hands will save your soul?  Well not necessarily, but maybe it’ll keep you humble and out of trouble for a while, long enough for you to hear the things that God wants to whisper to you.   I can’t speak for your experience, so I’ll talk about mine.  If I can get myself to just show up ready to do my best, create and listen, then I have a better chance of prevailing against the self-destructive inclinations that encroach upon the day.

Am I extending the metaphor too far?  Perhaps, but consider this: Jesus was a carpenter, and Stalin was a politician.   Curious details, don’t you think?

photo from flickr.com/cobalt

photo from flickr.com/cobalt

Matthew Crawford had to open his repair shop and focus his labor on improving the lives of others before he discovered a heightened sense of community.  That’s a good enough reason for me to take his ideas seriously.  Now enough contemplation: Let’s go make something!

What Canon ITS Teaches Us about Being Less Corporate

Whether you like it or not, your day job, the things you do to pay the bills, is a big part of who we are. This is not to say that our work defines us.  Quite the contrary in most cases.  We aren’t all fortunate enough to get paid doing what best represents our interests and passions.  And yet, work lets us show the world what we’re like when faced with challenges and with things that we wouldn’t normally do.

Retrophone - from flickr.com/l-ines

Retrophone - from flickr.com/l-ines

During the day, I work for Canon ITS providing phone support to our customers who own digital SLR equipment.  Sometimes I also provide email support for customers who have our camcorders and compact digital cameras.

This is not something I was quick to admit when I first started working for Canon.  You see, I studied to become a creative type in college, and tech support is not the kind of work I had in mind.   But my thoughts on the subject have changed over time.  Even though I don’t want to work at Canon for the rest of my life, I now believe that I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have the job I do.

I’ve learned a lot at Canon, not just about technology but about the value of being focused on serving others.  My interest in design and in improving other people’s user experiences have grown from the service mentality that was instilled in me with Canon.

Writing this post has been in the back of my mind for a while now, but I’ve resisted it.  (That’s one reason why it’s been a while since my last post.)   I was worried that I’d write Styrofoam-like cheerleader prose where I celebrate everything my employer does for the sake of preserving and advancing my career.  And yet, I write about how to make the world less corporate, and there many things that Canon ITS does that aren’t corporate and worth celebrating.  The question was whether I could write about those things in a way that would be both helpful and honest.  I guess we’ll find out.

So what’s not corporate about Canon’s tech support?  For one thing, I don’t get pressured to end my calls within a certain number of minutes. I can spend as much time as necessary to resolve an issue without worrying about getting reprimanded by my supervisors.  Of course, I try to get things resolved as fast as possible, but I don’t have an incentive to end the call prematurely.

Solving problems for others or helping them choose a lens that’s appropriate for their needs is generally an enjoyable thing.  There are always going to be a few jerks who aren’t as rewarding to assist, but they are in the minority.  If no one is waiting in the queue, I will take time to explain more details about our equipment that I think the caller might appreciate.  Not only does this allow me to be potentially more helpful, but it also makes my job far more enjoyable.

Here’s another remarkable thing: Canon works very hard to ensure that most calls coming in are answered in less than a minute.  Sometimes the wait time is longer, especially if you call the day after Christmas with a 14-part question, you lovable Canon enthusiasts you! But, the point is that complicated scheduling and staffing matters are handled by Canon behind the scenes, so that you can have a better, less stressful support experience.  Camera support is free for the life of the camera at Canon, so someone in management could have easily decided to provide bare-bones service to our customers, making short-term profit statistics look better.  But we chose to offer not merely functional but excellent service, a desirable quality from a business perspective but harder to measure in terms of profitability.

It’s been over three years, and I’m still with Canon.  Initially, I was only planning to stay for a year.  The people at Canon are a big part of the reason why I haven’t left. Canon has allowed and encouraged the EOS camera department to develop into a cohesive group.  We know each other well enough to joke around when we aren’t too busy.  That helps the job from getting too stressful, but it also helps us learn what areas of expertise each person has.

This is so much less corporate than a hierarchical approach that requires you to go to your superiors for every bit of unknown information.  Just because someone is higher ranked than you doesn’t mean he or she will know more about the particulars of Wi-Fi networking, or video editing, or lighting, or anything really.

My supervisors have also been exceptional.  They’ve been personable and ready to manage me as an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses.  I was never handled like just another faceless number.  When I made my first mistake in the early months when I was hired, I was expecting to get yelled at.  Instead my supervisor calmly told me that I had to call back the customer and explain the situation.  Not only was I allowed to make a mistake, but I was given the chance to learn from it and then correct it. If my supervisor hadn’t allowed me to fail with dignity, I would have been too hesitant to try things that have led to my current level position.

Brian, one of the senior support managers at Canon ITS has taken time out of his busy schedule to hear my concerns on more than one occasion, and he went out of his way to provide invaluable assistance with a side-project I was developing.  That one thoughtful gesture had more of an impact on me than the thousands of dollars that Canon spends on employee benefits.

When my father died, Canon sent flowers for the funeral.  The Contact Center Director at Canon ITS, Doris,  even stopped by my desk to share some sincere, comforting words.  She offered to do anything she could to help.  (Most of my indie-rocker friends who are contemptuous of businesses in general never even called to see how I was doing.  Does this explain my tendency to mock hipsterista indie-rockers whenever possible? Perhaps.) If Canon had a mentality of only doing things that directly impact profitability, then I wouldn’t have these stories to tell.

"Listen up - in red" from flickr.com/davidtrindade

"Listen up - in red" from flickr.com/davidtrindade

Some days, it is true, I find that I am overwhelmed by my job, so much so that it is hard for me to be myself.  This is more of a reflection of who I am than what my job is like.  A whole and harmonious person can find a state of grace no matter what he is doing, while radiating himself in a good and elegant way.  I am not that person, not yet.  Sometimes the banal, bewildering moments of the day trick me into believing  that I don’t matter, that the divine spark God put in all of us isn’t there.

You see, every now and then, my job involves dealing with an angry customer who gets abrasive, and even insulting, because his equipment isn’t working the way he wants.  To some extent, I can understand those strong sentiments; many of the photographers we serve have trusted Canon with their entire livelihoods.  That’s a big responsibility. But if I don’t make an extra effort or if I don’t already have a healthy level of respect for myself that goes beyond my work, then I can let their frustrations get to me.

When I define my job as one that involves listening to others complain about their problems, it becomes very difficult for me to be engaged by my work.  But, at some point, I realized that I didn’t have to think about it that way.  I could instead see my work as a chance to help others appreciate photography in the way that I do, to help them take better pictures, and to make their days a little better with friendly, useful information that solves problems.    Just a simple change in how I thought about something, in this case my job, made the world seem far less corporate.

I’m not saying that everything Canon ITS does is perfect or uncorporate.  By my cubicle, a big poster of a bar graph (we’re talking larger than life) with some meaningless abbreviations reminds me of this.  I have wondered about this poster and its intended function for many, many days.  It hasn’t helped me remember any new information, even though it has been up for several months, and it doesn’t inspire me to work harder.  It certainly does not add aesthetic appeal to my environment.

I suspect that the people who commissioned it are people who look at numbers every day.  When the numbers go up, they get a sense of euphoria at  a job well done.  To them, perhaps, a bar graph that goes up and up has wonderfully positive associations, and they wanted to share that feeling with others.  An admirable sentiment, is it not?  Even so, my supervisors would never convince me to work harder by calling my attention to the remarkably large bar graph on the wall.

Let us suppose, though, that the poster represented something I did care about that was also relevant to my job.  For example, what if it was a poster of some Canon photographers that I admired like Thomas Hawk or Vincent Laforet, and my supervisor asked me to work overtime to help provide better service to guys like them. That could very well convince me to give more effort or time than I originally planned.

If you look at Canon’s advertising, it becomes very clear that our marketing department understands the value of tailoring a message to the interests of a particular audience. In National Geographic we run beautifully photographed ads that feature exotic animals with text about their unique qualities and our efforts to preserve them.  In business magazines like Forbes we run advertisements that discuss Canon’s innovative capacities as a global business leader.  In Entertainment Weekly and on popular television shows we run fun, light-hearted ads with the lovely tennis star, Anna Kournikova.  Wouldn’t it make sense to also tailor internal company marketing efforts based on what would be of interest to the  employees? Our polished, informative, and well-produced internal company magazine, Imagine, is an encouraging step in the right direction, but we could do more.

I spend enough time in this blog talking about my own struggles and about the things I need to do better:  being transparent is a good way to motivate change, and the world has too many people who are ready to tell you how unconditionally awesome they are at any given hour.  So, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for me to comment in a respectful manner about how others, even my employer, can improve what they do.  I would not have written this if I did not have an overall admiration for Canon, but I also would not have written this if I felt compelled to write only positive things.   I know there are risks that come with that kind of mentality, but writing honestly is more important to me than job security.

from flickr.com/tomooka

from flickr.com/tomooka

It is only recently that I’ve gotten to the place where I can acknowledge that working at Canon plays a big part in who I’m becoming, more so than the creative freelance projects I do on the side.  My work at Canon doesn’t define me, but what I learn from the experience and how I react to the work, toward both the friendly and frustrating moments that come, will shape the person I someday become.  A bad employer can leave someone more broken when his employment ends, but when I leave Canon I think there’s at least a good chance that I’ll be a stronger, more vibrant individual than when I started working there.  For that, I am sincerely grateful: Thank you Canon for helping to make the world less corporate.

Six TED-Talk-powered Tips for Making the World Less Corporate

Photo by ramon_perez_terrassa on Flickr

Photo from ramon_perez_terrassa on Flickr

 

“Too many rules prevent accomplished jazz musicians from improvising, and as a result they lose their gifts, or worse, they stop playing altogether.”  That’s a quote from Barry Schwartz’s fantastic speech on our society’s loss of wisdom.   (It was a speech given at this year’s TED conference, and I highly recommend watching it.)

It’s sad isn’t it, when our jazz musicians, athletes, unique thinkers, visionary entrepreneurs, volunteers, and all the others who strive to bring more meaning into the world  experience something that causes them to forever stop doing what they do.   Too often the villain responsible is a corporate one, a thing that could have been avoided with a thinking mind and a working heart.

The death blow doesn’t always come from the heavy artillery.  Sometimes all it takes is a phone call.  Please allow me a personal story: it’s why I had to write this post.  With just one five-minute phone call, a producer that I’ve been in contact with for over seven months almost shattered my inclination to ever create again.   He did this not by denying the merit of my project, something that I’ve been working on for the past few years of my life, but by telling me that after 7 months he hadn’t gotten to read it yet because his time was very valuable.  

 

Old Poorhouse Woman with a Glass Bottle - Paula Modersohn-Becker

Old Poorhouse Woman with a Glass Bottle - Paula Modersohn-Becker

 

I sent him 11 pages to consider, and yes folks, that’s 11 pages and not 110.  Before I did that I saw his shows and read his book to better understand him and to determine whether my project could possibly be relevant to him.  I thought it could be, but I assured him that I would not call or email him again if he gave me a definitive no.   A “no” he would not give me, but a declaration about the value of his time, he freely shared.

I shut down as a person for almost a week because of that.  I got little done, and I wasn’t the easiest to be around.   Because of him, I thought seriously about just settling for a life of doing corporate work and spending money to buy more comforts and pleasures.  Thank God, I no longer feel that way.

I’m not writing this to lash out at him in public.  That’s not my style.  I prefer to settle my disputes with someone person to person, and as God is my witness, he will know what I think of his actions, and I will get a definitive yes or no from him, or I will die trying.

My point is that sometimes even seemingly small, thoughtless moments can perpetuate a more corporate world.  The producer in question is not altogether bad man.  He is in many ways, I’m sure, more decent than I am, but he almost convinced me to give up entirely on pursuing any kind of creative expression, the very stuff that gives my life the strongest sense of purpose, harmony, and hope.  Put differently it’s part of the least corporate elements in my life.  

I recognize the very real possibility that I have done or  could do to someone else what he almost did to me.  This list, inspired by Barry Schwartz’ lecture, is my way of fighting that possibility:

 

1. Take strong positions.

If you’re not interested in a project, why tie up someone’s time by being ambiguous?  By saying an honest no, you make it easier for someone to turn his attention to more rewarding possibilities.  Certainly, it can be uncomfortable to say no and face the disappointment or frustration of another person, and besides, staying undecided for as long as possible is convenient.  Unfortunately, with your ambiguities and your delays on a decision, you add your own home-made resistance to someone else”s dreams, and dreams are hard enough to bring to life without your half-hearted opposition.  

Barry Schwartz isn’t vague about what he accepts and what he doesn’t.  That’s one reason why he’s compelling.  Corporate speakers, though, are too concerned about saying the wrong things, so they hedge.  To prevent you from realizing this, they distract with mesmerizingly awful PowerPoint  animations.  No one enjoys hearing those people speak, but everyone claps out of habit.  

Speaking of PowerPoint presentations, you’ll notice that the slides Mr. Schwartz uses have an elegant,  minimalistic design.  The ideas are strong enough on their own so that cutesy, animated gifs aren’t needed to hold the audience’s interest.   (To read more about the thinking behind the slides for the presentation, check out this helpful lessons-from-TED post from slide:ology.)  If your presentation isn’t compelling enough, maybe you should spend more time tweaking your ideas and not your clip art.  

 

2. Avoid meaningless clutter.

I am amazed by how many companies choose to use hold recordings that go something like this, “Thanks for calling.  Your call is very important to us.  It will be answered in the order in which it was received.”  This is something any company can say.  Is your company just like any other company or does it have something special to share with the world?  Your advertising says that you are special, so why let your phone messages or your internal training videos, or your memos argue otherwise?

As if the above phone message isn’t bland enough, too many companies opt to have the message repeat every 45 seconds or so.  Right when I am getting comfortable enough to start daydreaming about new possibilities, I get interrupted with generic words from a generic voice.  That’s sort of like throwing balls of Styrofoam at patrons right when they’re bringing a spoon of hot, savory soup to their mouth.  That kind of thing robs me of my appreciation for the moment, a moment that could have begotten good and useful things.  

Why waste words to apologize for the inconvenience when it really isn’t an inconvenience?   Asking me to use a different grocery-store isle because the one in front of me is closed is not an inconvenience.  It is a reasonable situation that common sense illuminates.  Using plastic phrases on me rarely makes me feel better, and clunky legalistic prose doesn’t encourage me to spend more money.  When I discover it in stuff I’ve already purchased, I  have fewer reasons to smile about the product in question.  

As Mr. Schwartz suggests, there’s no reason for teachers to read the lesson from a script.  That insults the competent teachers and bores the kids.  If the teachers aren’t able to come up with their own coherent lesson plans that address relevant topics, then they should be doing different work.  Making things easy for incompetent people to be mediocre has the unfortunate consequence of making the world more corporate at an exponential rate.  

 

3.  Incubate possibilities.

Both babies and new ventures cannot survive on their own without support from others.  The call that you don’t return could be the one that seduces someone to give up on something that would have changed the world.    One of my goals is to return a call or email that asks for a response within 2 days.  I’m pretty good at doing that most of the time.  If I can do it, why can’t you?    Why risk the chance of demoralizing someone when returning a personable call usually takes just five minutes or less?

Barry Schartz warns us that if people have to swim against the current for too long, they’ll give up.  Some ideas don’t have enough merit to justify their survival, but others do.  It’s tragic when the good ones get strangled by the organizational resistance that attack with bureaucracy and mindless adherence to policy.  

 

4. Avoid unnecessary rules.  

To quote Mr. Schwartz again, “Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations, and moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.”  The more rules you make the more you encourage the rise of corparate drones who merely follow policy and don’t think or interact with the particulars at hand.  Those kinds of workers can be crafted into docile automatons, but they won’t be very good at generating innovation and adapting to change.

 

5. Don’t be cynical.

Everyone has their shortcomings, but we sell people short when we search for base motives behind every deed.  Treating others with weary suspicion even when they do good makes it harder for that person to continue doing good.  I’m as guilty of this as anyone, maybe even guiltier than most; I face an on-going battle against encroaching cynicism, and I don’t always win.  

When you’ve been hurt, it is a challenge not to project those past experiences of cruelty and selfishness onto other people in the present.  But, if you keep treating an organization or a  contact with enough cynicism, eventually they’ll ignore you or live up to your expectations.  Neither party benefits from that, so that’s reason enough to keep a vigilant guard against corrosive cynicism.  

Follow Mr. Schwartz’s advice: “celebrate moral exemplars.”  Dare to praise others not just for their technical capacities but for the nobility of their actions.  You may risk looking unsophisticated, naive, and unhip, but do it anyway.  Virtue matters enough to justify the risk.

 

6.  Be honest. 

Well-intentioned buisness people are, on ocassion, hesitant to speak the truth out of fear for the market’s reaction or their jobs.  On a personal level, people are hesitant to tell the truth out a fear of rejection or of the consequences that come with the truth.  These are not petty matters to be easily dismissed.  

Sometimes being honest will cost you in the short term, but it comes with long-term freedom, freedom to be yourself and to make decisions based on what can help you or your organization grow.  In the end, honesty always prevails, but you won’t believe that unless you accept a metaphysical reality greater than the perceivable material, and often very corporate, world around you.  

If your worldview does not allow for a God or a universe that ultimately rewards character over profitability, then there is a very real danger that you will end up as another corporate denizen who will do anything to stay on top,  perhaps you’ll even apologize for the inconvenience as you uppercut me with your meaningless clutter.  Anything to stay ahead, right?

Photo from flickr.com/rickz

Photo from flickr.com/rickz

Here’s me being honest: I had decided against writing this post, until I came across Barry Schwartz’s speach.  The beauty of his ideas helped snap me out of my own private hell, long enough to write this.   Whether this post will be helpful to anyone, I don’t know, but writing it was helpful to me.  Before watching Mr. Schwartz’s speach, my plan for the weekend was to spend much of it drinking one beer after another at a local bar.  By being less corporate, Mr. Schwartz helped me to do the same.  

You can do likewise, if you’re so inclined.  Somewhere in the world a jazz musician will thank you.

 

If this article has been valuable to you, consider adding a comment or sharing this with a friend.  

Business and Design Lessons From Malcolm Gladwell

If you wish to carve out a corporate existence for yourself, you will probably avoid showing others a new way of seeing something. Doing that is risky, unproven in profitability, and more conflict-prone than the old tried-and-true methods approved by the  powerful and the influential. Corporate fellows avoid the above-mentioned adjectives in the same way that unrepentant alcoholics avoid AA.  (This applies even to the indie-rock scene kids who slavishly follow the fashion dictates of their hipster overlords in the name of assimilated nonconformity.) Malcolm Gladwell is not one of those fellows.

Les Saltimbanques at the Races - Picasso

Les Saltimbanques at the Races - Picasso

In his book Outliers, he challenges the idea that someone’s success is determined almost exclusively by his or her own efforts.  Mr. Gladwell still argues that individual effort matters: he insists that successful people need about 10,000 hours of practice to become masters  of their craft. Still, the book spends more time discussing the role society plays in encouraging and nurturing the success of outliers, the superstars in their fields who are exponentially mre skilled than their colleagues.  That kind of non-conventional thinking makes the book worth reading, but I want to focus on a specific quote from the book that hasn’t been as widely discussed.

Here’s the quote: “Autonomy, complexity,  and a connection between effort and reward are the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” If there is a better way to describe an uncorporate job, then I haven’t heard it.  As it happens, it’s also a helpful framework for discussing great design.

Few things deaden my enthusiasm for a job more than an employer who tells me exactly how to do my work.  Yes, every business and design assignment has its standards and protocols.  Nothing wrong with that, but why insist on making me or my coworkers read from a script or do things exactly like you do?  Machines need to be micromanaged, competent people don’t.  Instead, why not tell us what results you want, give us some flexibility in pursuing those results, and reward those of us who best achieve those results?

One of my worst experiences on a design job involved a client who wanted to tell me exactly what elements I should use for a poster and where they should go.  I don’t mind that kind of thing if a client has design instincts that are as good, if not better, than my own, but that was not the case with him. He relished the clip-art aesthetic.  I’ve had enough of those experiences that I now reserve the right to refuse to do work that I find ineffective in conception.  The customer is not always right, and life is too short to do ugly design.

Designers, artists, and employees in general have their own unique perspectives and abilities that they desperately want to share with you. Why not seek to discover and use those abilities to your advantage, so that you can accomplish whatever specific tasks need to be done?  You’ll get more interesting and more valuable results while keeping your employees more engaged.  I understand there this a place for procedure.  Deviating from it can involve some experimentation, and not all experiments succeed.  Still, the potential for discovering a friendlier, more appealing, more efficient, more profitable way of doing things, seems to be worth the risk, don’t you think?   Not convinced? Well, which would you rather have in your house: a Picasso painting or a generic photograph with a caption about corporate excellence?

Maxalot - Joshua Davis

Maxalot - Joshua Davis

Take a look at the above design by Joshua Davis.  This kind of visual complexity is something in which he specializes.  Maybe you’ve seen some of the ads he’s done for companies like Motorola? (If you like his style, you can see more of his work at joshuadavis.com.) In any case, is there not something compelling about this kind of complexity?  We are inclined to look for patterns in the complex, to discover a sense of order and harmony that transcends the chaos in our world and gives it meaning.  Too much complexity is an overwhelming, frustrating experience, but without enough of the stuff, we lose interest and don’t stay fully engaged.  No wonder Mr. Gladwell sees it as an essential ingredient in fulfilling work.

You could also say the same thing about a good design, which is after all, a pleasing arrangement of complex elements that serve functional or aesthetic purposes. Too simple a design conveys half-hearted apathy.  On the other hand, if you add too much complexity, then you produce something that interferes with its own functionality.  To pull off this balancing act with elegance and style is the real trick of the thing.

And now we get to the connection between effort and reward.  Notice that Malcolm Gladwell did not say the connection between effort and the amount of money earned.  It’s a pernicious corporate assumption that everyone does things simply for more money. Some people just want to see that their efforts earn them respect or affection from others.  Whatever the payoff may be, people want to see it come eventually, or they’ll stop working as hard or stop working altogether.  From a designer perspective, that means users may give up on a product, protest a policy, or ignore a poster that demands too much effort or attention without giving back enough rewarding functionality.

The volunteer who helps out at her church probably doesn’t want money for her efforts.  And yet, if she continues to give her time to serve others but gets no appreciation or sense of making a difference in return, she will probably stop helping at some point.

The local actors I know don’t care so much about getting paid big bucks or becoming famous (at least not all of them), but they do care very much about giving performances that are well regarded in meaningful productions.  They also care about connecting with other actors and earning their respect.  Taking away those things and you could jeopardize their future dramatic endeavors.  I’ve done a little bit of acting myself (I’m not a great actor, but I enjoy learning and going through the process), so I know how hard it is to face rejection after rejection without hearing, on occasion, about how someone was affected by your performance, big or small.

Conversely, if you want the world to be a less corporate place, be sure to pay people for the efforts that bring you satisfaction. One of the owners of the Boot, an Italian restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia known for a vast beer selection, hearty meals, and great music, told me about his visits to a nearby, upscale comic-book shop called Local Heroes.  He aims to buy something from the store every few weeks, because he believes the area deserves a place like that.  I feel the same way about the Boot.   I want to reward them for their efforts, so that they will continue to find satisfaction from staying in business.

Support the things you cherish with money if you can, but an honest, heartfelt thank-you is cheaper and sometimes more appreciated. Comments on this blog have helped me see that others value my efforts, and so I  continue writing, instead of merely looking for more ways to make money.  On some difficult days a few kind, thoughtful, or grateful words have made all the difference to me.  Knowing this, I look for every opportunity to offer a sincere and unique expression of gratitude to others whose efforts I appreciate.

Find ways to include autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward in the work you do, the work you ask others to do, and in the things you create, and you’ll be doing your part to make the world a less corporate place.  (By the way, thanks for reading this.  I really appreciate it.)