Posts Tagged 'business'

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.

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!

A Celebration and a Warning Regarding Playfulness

If your life doesn’t have enough playtime then there might be something seriously wrong with you, at least that’s what Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, suggests.  I’ve been considering his ideas ever since a friend shared this video with me, and I think he might be on to something.  The video is about thirty minutes long, but it’s worth watching. (You can see a larger version of the video on the TED site here.)

As a writer, I keep my eyes open for new ways to understand others (and myself). That’s not just about getting better at my craft, although that’s a nice bonus, but there is something intrinsically compelling and beautiful about getting closer and closer to the truth of a person.

After reflecting on Stuart Brown’s ideas, I’m now convinced that you can get a  decent sense of a person just by considering his or her play history. At first that might seem silly, but let’s consider the idea a bit.  Aren’t you a little more wary of someone with whom you’ve never shared a laugh?  And if playtime was insignificant, why does our society value sports so highly?

Professional athletes, highly skilled individuals who train extensively to play games in public, are some of the highest compensated members of our society. Successful movies, music and shows often feature visual gags,  amusing variations on a theme, and witty dialogue  (they don’t call them plays for nothing, folks).  Let’s not forget about video games: According to the NPD Group, the United States video game industry generated more than $20 billion worth of revenue  in 2008.

The Lute Player - Frans Hals

The Lute Player - Frans Hals

Playfulness isn’t just a financially valuable attribute to some folks.  Frank Capra, the director of films like It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, uses playfulness or its absence to reveal character.  In Capra’s World War II documentary Why We Fight, the narrator asks us to, “take a good look at these humorless men.”  This happens just as the camera reveals grim footage of men like Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and Adolf Hitler.

The implication is that because these men appear humorless, they are not to be trusted.  In comparison, consider what Capra says about comedy in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title: “Comedy is fulfillment, accomplishment, overcoming.  It is victory over odds, a triumph of good over evil.”  Did you get that? As far as Capra is concerned, comedy is what happens when goodness prevails, and without playfulness there is no comedy. It mixes well with the ideas of Dr. Brown, does it not?

Would you like a more contemporary example?  No problem.  In the world or Harry Potter, we are allowed to enjoy the playful side of magic only when we’re around the good kids. The bad guys are only interested in the magic that allows for cruelty and domination.  Are you starting to see a pattern?

Perhaps this is a redundant point, but the moments that feel most corporate at work and in my personal life are decidedly unplayful ones. Work is going to be hard and frustrating sometimes, I know.  Otherwise employers wouldn’t be so quick to entrust us with their hard-earned cash.  That’s not what I’m getting at.  I’m more interested in the cruel or banal moments in our lives that make it harder for us to keep alive our own inner sense of playfulness.

Being playful doesn’t have to be the polar opposite of doing business.  That’s one of the key ideas from a different TED lecture given by a man who is also named Brown, Tim Brown in this case.   He is also the CEO of the design firm IDEO as it happens.  Here’s the video link, if you’re interested.  (It’s the last video link in this post, I promise. Once again here’s the link to the video on TED.)

Tim Brown suggests that there is a connection between the playful environments of places like Google, Pixar, and IDEO and their ability to solve problems  in creative, but also highly effective ways.  It’s as if a playful environment makes it feel a little safer to bring a sense of a playfulness to the work at hand.

Research he references concludes that the most playful kids are the ones who come from the most stable and loving families. It follows, then, that companies who are smart enough to value playfulness should do whatever they can to make the workplace feel more like a supportive family.

Let’s get back to Stuart Brown, the guy from the first video.  It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Stuart Brown doesn’t just ask us to set aside some time for playing.  Instead, he advocates an ongoing state of playfulness. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s worth addressing.

If play time becomes a mandated thing, then it could quickly turn into something ugly.  By ugly I mean something like a mandatory Nerf-powered shootout in cubicle land where the ambivalent employees have to face off against the obnoxious office go-getters.  Then playtime would get measured, and employees would get evaluated on key play metrics.  At this point, the management folks would quite possibly turn this data  into sheets of uncompelling bar-graphs, and these sheets would be distributed to unsuspecting employees in the name of promoting playfulness.  Honestly though, whose idea of fun is that? (Not mine.)

Stuart Brown is right: The real magic happens when you can bring a sense of playfulness to any situation, but only a true saint can preserve a sense of inner playfulness even in the most trying of circumstances. Whenever I’ve seen the Dali Llama speak (on TV not in person), I’ve noticed an almost jovial lightness to him no matter what he is discussing. The Apostle Paul is another great example to consider.  Even in jail he was  writing about how he had learned, through the grace of God, to be content with all things.

I know being content and being playful don’t mean the same thing, although I do believe they go hand in hand.  When was the last time you remember being simultaneously jealous and playful?  What about being both playful and malicious or conniving?

I don’t about you, but my soul has been muddied from time to time with malicious or conniving inclinations.  In those moments it wasn’t so hard to be persuasive or assertive. I could even muster up a kind of contrived imitation of playfulness, but I couldn’t be truly playful until I put aside, at least temporarily, those ignoble preoccupations.  That’s why I buy into Stuart Brown’s claim that playfulness is an essential part of building trust.

Senecio - Paul Klee

Senecio - Paul Klee

Now comes the warning: not everything done in the name of playfulness is good.  Sometimes things are going to hurt. I think part of becoming an adult involves learning to face the pain in our lives without always looking for a way to anesthetize it, to make it seem more fun.  It is the unfiltered sting of truth that lets us better see the broken parts of our lives, but many of us, myself included, find it easier to pour some sugar on our problems as we keep on dancing to the same old dissonant song.

Do you have friends who are always joking around even in serious moments?  Those kinds of  people might seem amusing enough right now, but what if ten years go by and they still aren’t working to improve the world around them?  What about the hardcore gamer who stops providing for his family just so that he can play more games or the sports fan who does nothing but watch games on TV?  What about the partygoers  who bankrupt their futures just to buy a few more temporary thrills? These are all examples of how an inclination toward playfulness can turn tragic.

Stuart Brown tells his patients to explore the most joyous moments of their lives and to adjust their lives accordingly.  That’s great advice.  Let me also suggest that it might be helpful to consider the moments in your life when being playful seems most difficult or when your inclination to play seems most excessive. Do what you can to figure out what it was that robbed you of your ability to enjoy the moment in those situations, and then try to face similar situations in a better way.

I’m going to explain that in a kind of indirect way but also in a personal way, so bear with me. It’s not easy for me to use myself as an example: writing honestly and in a personal manner doesn’t always make me look good, but I wouldn’t respect myself as a writer if I did any less.  In my more optimistic moments I believe that by being honest about my struggles, I can help both you and me in the process.   The wisdom or foolishness of that concept will, I’m sure, reveal itself over time.

In any case, with my life being what it is, I have to believe that the truth, and not my profit margins or my badass quotient, can eventually set me free, free to be the best version of myself, the man I someday hope to be. Maybe you think that’s a foolish thing to believe.  Maybe you’d rather get tips on expanding market share or becoming more of a badass?  If so, then by all means go and find something else to read.

Intrigue - James Ensor

Intrigue - James Ensor

But then, maybe a few of you can relate? If so, then thanks for sticking around.  I hope I can reward you for your patience and your desire to get beyond the surface of things.

With that said, here are some examples of  when it is hard for me to be playful. In  the past, I had difficulty finding a sense of playfulness about my work.  It was too important to joke about because it was the only way I knew of determining my value as a person.  It was an awful way to live.

Now I’d like to think that I don’t take my work as seriously.  I’m participating in a silly one-act play over at the Smithfield Little Theater later today, for example, but sometimes I still get caught up in the belief that my work is the only thing that matters in my life.  Kind of a corporate way to think, right? I know, but when I think that way, I don’t have to put myself in a vulnerable position when dealing with others.

Speaking of other people, I have a hard time remembering playful moments that I shared with my dad when he was still alive. My mom and my sisters played lots of games with me, but not my dad.  Like many other dads, he was too busy with work and with other pursuits to have much time to play with me.

He was helping his patients fight off cancer, and that is admirable enough, and yet the absence of a dependable and playful father figure in my childhood made it harder for me to bond with other guys, whether in sports or in class.  It is still hard for me to form lasting, sincere and playful friendships with others.  Don’t get me wrong: ultimately, I hold myself responsible for the quality of my relationships, but my dad’s interactions with me didn’t make this kind of thing easier.

Earlier I mentioned an admiration for the Apostle Paul’s ability to be content regardless of his situation.  I am, on certain days, the exact opposite of the Apostle Paul: I sometimes have difficulty finding a sense of harmony, of playfulness, even in the most comfortable of settings, and in those moments my world becomes unbearable.

Self Portrait with Masks - James Ensor

Self Portrait with Masks - James Ensor

Anything that can make the moment feel more enjoyable becomes very appealing, whether or not it is good for my long-term goals or even my soul.  In those God-forsaken, loveless moments, the only thing that matters to me is finding some way back to that illusive state of bliss, no matter what it takes.  I try to avoid taking the easy way out when tempted by such toxic siren songs, but I don’t always succeed.

Yes, sometimes I’m the guy who is pursuing playfulness in the wrong way, the one who laughs too much, the one who has a few too many drinks.  I’ve been the guy at the party who has made others shake their heads with disapproval and ponder the uncivilized creatures that this world can produce.  It does wound me so to get that reaction, and yet that’s probably the look I would give to myself if I was a third-party observer.

I try very hard not to be that guy, but sometimes it is easier to laugh and joke and make an ass of myself than to face the truth of the moment.  The only remedy I know for that kind of thing is to acknowledge the pain, to give the moment back to God, and to open my heart to the love that’s out there. It’s not an easy remedy, and I’m not good at adhering to it, but it’s the only thing that seems to work even in a subtle way.

In the book City of God, Saint Augustine writes about the importance of enjoying the presence of God.  He writes that no one is foolish enough to suggest that a man who drinks from a fountain is doing something good for the fountain.  Nor does a lamp benefit when a traveller uses it to navigate.  Why then, asks Augustine, do people assume that God is meant to be loved and enjoyed for the sake of God and not for the good of the souls who love and enjoy Him?

I believe the only way anyone can maintain the ongoing sense of playfulness that Stuart Brown advocates is to enjoy the presence of God moment by moment. It’s OK if your conception of God is different than mine. You might not even believe in God, and you might be better off in this life than I am.  Obviously, I don’t have it all figured out, so there’s no reason why you should take my advice if it doesn’t somehow ring true.

Even so, I still think you might benefit by trying to reconcile yourself moment by moment with something bigger than you, a higher power if you will, in case you find that phrase less objectionable than the word, “God.”   If you and I diligently seek out the truth,uncomfortable though it may be, and listen carefully to the still small voice that speaks with love inside our hearts, then I believe (when I am not distracted by anger or despair) that someday we’ll wake up and discover that our worlds are once again filled with playful possibility. Why take my word for it, though?  My soul is, after all, still a murky blend of light and darkness.  Seek for yourself.

Several Circles - Wassily Kandinsky

Several Circles - Wassily Kandinsky

(This is one of my favorite abstract paintings. It made an impression from the moment I saw it.  Serene and playful, the circles gracefully overpower the darkness around them.)

Let me end with another reference to Frank Capra.  Towards the end of his life, Capra was involved in a video tribute for the late director George Stevens, the man responsible for Shane and other cinema classics. I was captivated by Capra’s playful demeanor even in old age.  Up to that point, I had assumed that older people were by definition more severe than younger folks.  Frank Capra, though, had more vitality and twinkle than a lot of kids I know.

He was talking about looking up George Stevens when he got to heaven so that they could work on something special together.  That kind of cheerful disregard towards death is what it can look like when the good kind of playfulness prevails.  And so, I’m going to pray for more of that kind of playfulness for me and for you.  Here’s to a more playful, less corporate world!

Walt Disney, the Illusion of Life, & Being Less Corporate

Walt Disney films are largely responsible for my interest in making movies. I’m not afraid to admit that.  I couldn’t say that in college.  I was too preoccupied with what  my classmates and professors thought of me.  Back then I was more likely to talk about Citizen Kane and Stanley Kubrick films.  Those are masterfully crafted movies, sure, but they had practically zero influence on my aspirations. Not so with Walt Disney’s creations, but in my effort to matter to the world I had forgotten that.

It’s taken me a while, but I have slowly returned to the things that I loved for their own sake and not based on what other people said.  Reading The Illusion of Life, a marvellous book about the story of Disney animation lovingly told by two early Disney animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, helped me to restore my unashamed enthusiasm for many of the Disney animated films I grew up with as a kid.

book_the_illusion_of_life

The first film I remember seeing in the theater was Snow White.  Pinocchio was the first film that compelled me to stay up late and ponder its mysteries, in this case I was trying to figure out what it would feel like to get transformed into a jackass.  (A few years later, I would understand the jackass thing all too well, unfortunately. I’m working on getting things right these days, but it’s a process.)

During the holidays, going to a Walt Disney film became a tradition for my family.  It was a time when we’d stop fighting with each other and informally agree to be temporarily harmonious.  It was a nice time.  But moving on, my  interest in computer animation too was colored by my exposure to the Pixar films that Disney distributed.

Not everyone in my world had a similar admiration of Walt Disney. My college professors carefully avoided any reference to Disney’s influence on cinema history, although the man pioneered new techniques for working with sound and color and had won twenty-six Oscars before he died.  (For all you film kids doing the math at home, that’s a few more than the nine Oscars that Stanley Kubrick’s films won.)  It is also worth pointing out that while Hollywood was still years away from conceiving of the effects film, Walt Disney gave the world Snow White, the first movie in which every single frame featured a created effect.

One of the books I had to read in college was Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard.  He wrote several long and loveless paragraphs about how Disneyland was the ultimate example of our false and simulated existence.

Baudrillard’s book was a joyless thing, perfumed with important-sounding philosophical concepts. I don’t remember much from the book beyond an impression that Baudrillard wanted to convince me that he was smart and very well read, and that his work  anticipated the Matrix films (films that I enjoy much more than Baudrillard’s book).

For comparison, let’s look at how  The Illusion of Life discusses Disney’s accomplishments. In the book, Walt is quoted as saying “I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with expressing myself with obscure creative impressions.” Did you notice the emphasis on serving others in that quote?

That’s a lesson that the book’s writers, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, absorbed well.  Consider their advice to aspiring entertainers: “The ancient counsel ‘Know thyself’ is full of wisdom, but, for the entertainer, it is possibly just as wise to suggest, ‘Know your audience.’

snow white

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

What a contrast with Baudrillard’s style that is.   Disney’s work has brought a sense of joy and wonder to millions of people around the world.  Jean Baudrillard has filled the minds of philosophy students with intellectual contempt and a sense of superiority over the uninformed.

I know that the Walt Disney Company is a very powerful multi-national corporation, and I don’t celebrate everything that the company does, but I’m talking about the man who started it all, the man who lived up to his well-known quote: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.”  I tend to root for the philosophers, but in this case Baudrillard comes off as the more banal and  corporate one.

To delight in a thing for the sake of the thing itself and not for the potential profit it brings is an essential aspect of being less corporate. If you can’t tell that the writers of The Illusion of Life created the book out of a deep, delighted love  for animation and for Walt Disney, then you probably can’t recognize love when you see it.  There’s the cover that transitions gracefully from black and white to color, the textured yellow paper that greets you when you open the book, the full-page color stills that appear in the first few pages, and the playful, yet thorough, prose.

All of these things are clues that this is a book that cares very much about getting the details right.  The book has 489 colored prints, thousands of black-and-white drawings, and it was printed in Italy; that’s definitely not the way to produce a book if you care only about maximizing your profits and keeping costs low.

On top of that, there are several flip-book sequences on the top-right corners of the pages that beg for your attention.  I would have still bought the book without that feature, a feature that must have taken a bit of time to sync up, but how magnificent to discover one more extra that Frank and Ollie threw in for us.

teacups

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

The animator-writers of the book speak fondly of Walt most of the time, and they dedicated the book to him, so obviously they liked the guy.  But, they don’t give him the idealized  hero treatment that I’ve seen the Walt Disney Company do on occasion.  Instead, the writers give us examples of when Walt was abrasive, difficult to please, and even wounding.

Look at how they critique a bonus system that Walt tried at one point: “The bonus system did not produce better pictures or even good ones.  Few regulations do.  Efficiency is better built through dedication rather than speed for its sake.”  How refreshing that they were not afraid to discuss the strengths and the weaknesses of their boss and the man they admired.

Since Frank and Ollie are honest about Disney’s flaws, we are more likely to believe them when they sing Disney’s praises, and sing they do.  They talk about Walt’s incessant curiosity and his high standards.

Walt Disney didn’t fall into the corporate trap of  resisting change merely to do things like they’ve always been done, and his drive to innovate wasn’t limited to technology.  For example, he didn’t hesitate to hire women for his ink and paint department, even though it was accepted knowledge  at the time that only men could do the job effectively.

Nor was Disney afraid of failure. Apparently, he wanted to be a live-action director when he first came to California, but that didn’t work out so well.  Instead of giving up, Disney returned to animation and worked hard to produce Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons.

But, thanks to strong-arm negotiation tactics by Charles Mintz, a producer working for Universal, Disney was soon locked out of the very cartoon he helped to create.  On top of that, most of his workforce was signed away from him.  Disney had every reason to get bitter, but instead he stayed focused and created a character known as Mickey Mouse.

2430476513_8485095a3d

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

Frank and Ollie also talk about the spirit of cooperation that Disney encouraged. Everyone was expected to share knowledge and to help those who were struggling on a concept.  They quote Disney as saying, “Everyone has to contribute or they become laborers,” and they give a few examples of Walt’s determination to find the right job that best suited the strengths of his people.  The assumptions that everyone matters and that everyone has distinct skills are seemingly obvious, but they are still ignored in more corporate environments.

Since Disney animators helped to define the craft of animation, Frank and Ollie could have thrown around corporate phrases like “proprietary information” and “intellectual property” when discussing their animation processes.  Instead, out of a desire to see their beloved field of animation advance, they broke down their technique into twelve distinct principles that are thoroughly illustrated with one example after another.  Those twelve principles are now the cornerstones of all the animation training programs that I’ve seen.

By giving information away and trying to be helpful, Frank and Ollie earned for Disney the loyalty of thousands of animation students who succeeded by studying their work.  Too bad more companies aren’t as generous with their resources these days, since their businesses could benefit greatly if they did. It’s the curse of the all too-powerful legal departments and of the frivolous lawsuits that make such departments necessary, I suspect.

While discussing the craft of animation Frank and Ollie write, “The animator should be as surprised as anyone at the way it comes out.”  Exactly right, but that should be true for any work that isn’t corporate in nature.

You can do all the planning in the world, but you’ll never know all the conditions and the particulars that might come up until you dive into the thing.  When you react to changes in the moment, your work has vitality.  Otherwise it is a representation of a preconceived idea that grown distant from reality.

Think of the last corporate event you attended.  Were you surprised at all when the wacky speaker made lame, self-aggrandizing jokes and then talked about how the numbers  for that quarter were great news for the company, regardless of what the numbers actually looked like? That kind of speech is bad because it stays the same regardless of what happens in the world or with the audience.

Anything with vitality, whether a service, product, or person, has to be surprising at least in some sense, by definition. Otherwise, let us call the thing in question dead or corporate.

3042741167_afe6a2cfe3

photo from flickr.com/expressmonorail

I will end with two more  quotes from the book.  “Our true personalities are best revealed by our reactions to change we did not expect.”  Not bad insight from men who make cartoons, don’t you think?

Toward the end of the book, Frank and Ollie throw in a quote from William Faulkner.  Faulker explains that it is a writer’s “privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” At that point, Frank and Ollie add that “even the cartoon can try for such ideals.”

If animators aim for such lofty ideals, maybe it’s not asking too much for you to reconsider the merit of animation in general and Walt Disney in particular.  Or, you could go back to reading Pretentious Quarterly and producing and endorsing things that bring more despair and decadence into the world, but don’t expect me to applaud you for that.  I’ll be too busy celebrating the things that make me smile and keep me hopeful.

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.

 

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