What I’m Reading

December 28, 2008 — 5 Comments

The Hustons by Lawrence Grobel (long but very good. about the director John Huston)

The Age of the Moguls by Stewart H. Holbrook

The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte (tip from Tyler Cowen. it’s on the 3 years that Hearst took over the New York newspaper market. one of the better biographies of those breed of capitalists)

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman (these kinds of books could use some fresh examples – worth having still)

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (better than Blink. he could have called more people out but the whole ‘straw man’ criticism is obnoxious)

Someone made me a Crunchbase profile. It’s blank if anyone wants to edit it. Crunchbase is actually a really good idea, there should be an intermediate service for people not notable enough for Wikipedia but still have verifiable biographies that should be aggregated. I’m not saying I’m one of those people but it’s helped me out before when trying to research something.

TheBoxOfficeJunkie is updating again and worth reading. Can you believe Home Alone made $300 million at the box office in 1990?

Pictures of Children Crying is yet unannounced but will be incredibly funny if done right.

Means to an End

December 23, 2008 — 16 Comments

People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash and eat. When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. – Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

I just read this book called The Age of the Moguls, which is very good. The author doesn’t make this point explicitly but in the course of telling the stories of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Carnegie, Hearst, Standford, Du Pont and Field, he makes it quite clear: That behind every great fortune is not just a crime but a single man who for whatever reason outworked everyone around them.

A man that at 2 in the morning asleep in bed heard a slight irregularity in the manufacturing process and tracked it down with a lantern in pajamas. Or worked his own mines. Or wrote 6,000 letters a year. Or spent every second trying to figure out what made a newspaper perfect.

Outliers, Gladwell’s new book – which the reviews completely misunderstood and didn’t appreciate in the way it deserves – brings up his 10,000 hours concept again. Since that’s such a nice, big round number I think it’s really easy to accept without really absorbing. It’s almost too sticky. You sort of forget that every one of those hours was an individual choice and propelled into being by some personal force.

Gladwell believed he got his hours as a science writer at the Washington Post meeting late night deadlines and educating himself to write on complex subjects. Vanderbilt got his ferrying people into Manhattan as a teenager. Andrew Carnegie was the personal secretary to a railroad genius that soon put him in charge of his own division.

People don’t understand my criticsm of the Brazen Careerist kids but I think it boils down to me inferring that they’ve somehow come to believe that it’s all very easy. That to become a great marketer you just have to talk about marketing a lot. Or that career advice comes from people who look at careers. They’ve just assumed that it the authority they’re after is fundamentally a product of projecting it long enough to feel natural. It’s the same entitlement in the little quips and anecdotes that let people reduce it down to some sort of math problem. Like the real secret to Seinfeld was the clever way that he marked his calendar every morning.

I’m trying to think about it this way: if you envision the end result – a mastery of some sort – 10 or 15 years down the road, what are you doing right now to contribute to that? Cutting your teeth, when you examine the expression requires both a time when and an subject to cut them on. At some point, that has to stop being a metaphor.

There is a lazy hubris in just throwing around that number or thinking you know what you want to be. What about – and I think this is what the people we’re talking about have actually done – figuring out what you need to subject yourself to become approximately that person? Deciding the conditions under which you can crystallize and making them a reality instead of pompously assuming they’ll come about naturally. Lots of people can talk about what they’d like to be, very few can confidentially tell you what they’re doing about it now.

When I look back on the period a long time from now, I should be able to see two or three fortunate convergences that shaped what I became. A clear indication that the work I’m doing now was instrumental in cumulating advantage. Because when I got out of bed I had the same conversation that Marcus had, decided that ‘faking it until you make it’ is bullshit and got to work. And finally, that it was all the same that nobody gave me any credit until I cashed the hours in.

Collapsing Fear

December 15, 2008 — 10 Comments

Once as Pericles shoved off 150 ships in the Peloponnesian War, the sun was eclipsed and his men were thrown into fear. To prevent their paralyzation, he walked up to a lead steersman, removed his cloak and held it up around the man’s face. He asked if he felt particularly afraid of this and of course the response was no. So what does he matter, he said, when the cause of the darkness differs?

You read this and you smile. The Greeks were so clever. Or, like Von Clausewitz, you dismiss it as self-serving translation – a way to use history to say something obvious. But that very much belies the incredible implications of the idea. Beneath the quaint leadership-in-action anecdote is the fundamental notion that girds not just Stoic philosophy but cognitive psychology. It’s the idea that if you can break apart something, it loses its power over you. In cog psych, only when you’re aware of a bias or conditioned response can you circumvent it.

Fear is debilitating, distracting, tiring and often irrational. Pericles, understood this completely, and he was able to use the power of analogy to defeat it.

I was talking to a friend who wanted to try making it as a musician after graduating from college. He was afraid, he said. Having been there and wrecked with that same consuming anxiety, we looked at it. Have you ever, ever heard of someone starving to death in California? Or dying of exposure? Or some college graduate remarking 60 years later that their entire life was ruined by the year they took off, intending to get serious after? When he moved out of his college apartment and headed home to drop some of his stuff off, how long was he planning to hang out and relax before he got serious about a job? A month? Two, or three? So what’s 10 more? People get sick or distracted or go on benders for that long.

The point is that with blurred vision and a black light, the straw man looks imposing and overwhelming. At a closer glance and a few questions it collapses and falls upon itself. As a man – as someone different – that is your job. You’re to break down, piece by piece, the things that have control of you.

Ultimately, the difference between recklessness and controlling your disposition comes down to whether the person has systematically dismantled the cognitive processes or just ignored them. In my opinion, there’s not admirable about a fearlessness or calm that comes from being oblivious or negligent. It’s simply a more productive mental illness than anxiety and overthinking. The repercussions surface inevitably. It’s dangerous and stupid.

The real Freedom from Perturbation comes from collapsing fear upon itself. From examining its causes and looking at them individually rather than collectively. What the Greek understood was that we often choose the ominous explanation over the simple one, to our detriment. The task, as Pericles showed, is not to ignore fear but to explain it away. Take what you’re afraid of – when fear strikes you – and break it apart.

What I’m Reading

December 12, 2008 — 11 Comments

Joan of Arc: Her Story by Régine Pernoud

Can We Do That?! Outrageous PR Stunts That Work–And Why Your Company Needs Them by Peter Shankman (good premise, the guy comes off as a bit of a tool)

The Beauty of the Beasts: Tales of Hollywood’s Wild Animal Stars by Ralph Helfer (continuing my disturbing obsession)

The Voyage Memoirs of Sir Francis Drake by Sir Francis Drake (not as cool as I hoped)

Grand Strategies in War and Peace by Paul Kennedy

The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch (I liked Demosthenes a lot)

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan (this book is a really good memoir of how culture and DNA ultimately dictate the choices of an organization. always have respect for someone who is able to disavow the past and say ‘i don’t want to be a part of this anymore’)

Also, I don’t care how much money these kids are making, all but like two of their sites suck. There’s nothing admirable about running scammy search arbitrage sites that we’d be skeeved out if an adult was doing and then bragging about how young you are.

The Canvas Strategy

December 10, 2008 — 21 Comments

When I first got a job as an assistant in Hollywood, someone told me that the best thing I could do as an assistant was to make other people look good. It ended up being pretty decent advice but it was nowhere near the right wording. I certainly wouldn’t have moved upwards as quickly as I have if I’d just sat there and worked on the way people thought about my boss.

What he should have said was this:

Find canvases for other people to paint on.

If you’re around my age, chances are you don’t know what you’re talking about. Most of the people the email me end up being creepy or wildly uninformed, or both. There’s one fabulous way to work that out of your system: giving an extra push to people who are already good and then learning from them as they get to work.

Or maybe you’re not that and you’re a bit of a prodigy. Unfortunately there is a small psychological bias known as value attribution and what is basically means is that we let context command our subjective judgments about people’s value. So you’re still fucked. You’re either appreciated as a token ‘young person’ (see: Brazen Careerist writers) or you’re ignored entirely because you don’t have ‘perspective’. The solution for that is the the same as above – pretend that you’re humble while you amass an arsenal.

That brings us back to the strategy: Find and make canvases for other people to paint on.

The Roman’s had a loose word for the concept: anteambulo and it meant a person who cleared the path in front of their patron. If you can do that successfully, you secure a quick and educational power position.

It’s a different mindset than making other people look good, an approach that tends to imply a lot of ass kissing and ceding credit. Instead it’s finding the direction someone already intended to head and help them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. The canvas strategy involves actively finding outlets for other people – in fact, actually making them better rather than simply looking so.

3 Keys:

1) Find new trains of thought to hand over for them to explore. Track down angles and contradictions and analogies that they can use. Ex: I was reading the biography of ______, I think you should look at it because there may be something you can do with the imagery.

2) Find outlets, people, associations, and connections. Cross wires to create new sparks. Ex: I know _________, and I think you two should talk. Have you thought about meeting ____?

3) Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Ex: You don’t need to do ___________ anymore, I have an idea for improving the process, let me try it so you can worry about something else.

In other words, discover opportunities to promote their creativity, find outlets and people for collaboration, and eliminate distractions that hinder their progress and focus. It is a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy. From what I can tell, it’s one of the few that age does not limit. It’s one you can do now – before you have a job, before you’re hired and while you’re doing something else. Maybe, like I have, you’ll find that there’s no reason to ever stop doing it, even once you’ve graduated to heading your own projects.

You don’t need email me, or Tucker or Ben or anyone else you want to work for anymore to ask how you can help. The Canvas Strategy is there. If you take it, you’ll realize what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas dictates the painting.