Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned From My iPod (Part II)

Old joke.  Woman: My husband thinks he’s a chicken.  Doctor: Why don’t you just tell him he’s not?  Woman: Because we need the eggs.

I have about 2300 songs on my iPod and, strange as it seems even to me, I’m down to maybe five that I actually want to listen to.  The rest are boring.  Boring.  I’m bored with all my music.  And I know, if I listen to the five songs I like today, I’ll be tired of them very quickly.  And then there will be no songs left on my iPod I care about hearing.

It strikes me as odd that I always seemed to have enough good music around when I was younger and really listening to music, and now that I listen less and require less, I can’t seem to keep 25 songs that I really like on a playlist.

B.i.: Before iPod.  A.i.: After iPod.

If you are a person of a certain age, it’s likely that you possess a personal musical canon, a mental collection of albums (or CDs, for people of a slightly younger certain age) that you know by heart.  Every song, every lyric, every guitar lick and drum solo.  All 12 or 13 songs in the collection.  You “own” those albums, so to speak.

I’m hardly the first to say this, but we have become a nation of skimmers and samplers.  One of the great economic benefits of iTunes is that it freed us all from having to buy 12 songs--an entire album--when we only wanted to hear two.  Now there was an economic windfall we couldn’t pass up.  And to have instant access to our personal “hits” was a technical miracle and the definition of instant gratification.

In retrospect, though, we also lost something--in this case, the advantage of having, owning and being constrained by an entire album.  First, the good songs were fixed in place and only came around once a side, which meant they lasted much longer.  Second, the songs you didn’t like--well, some of them, even many of them--you got to like.  It’s a funny thing about repetition.  Or, maybe it’s just the need to immerse yourself in something for a while to get to appreciate and like it.

Scotch might be an example you could understand.

I know there’s a debate in play about why people are willing to embrace modern art but not modern classical music.  I also know there are theories of all sorts, including the theory that modern classical music is just awful.  My theory is simple: You can skim modern art, but you can’t skim modern classical music.  A museum, 10 minutes, 5 paintings--hey, I like that artist.  That painting is cool.  You’re walking, you’re talking, you’re checking your texts, you’re thinking about getting a chocolate chip cookie at the museum cafe.

That cannot be done with modern classical music.  It’s not skimmable.  (Though, in its defense, it does lend itself to chocolate chip cookies.)  You have to immerse yourself.  Listen again.  Put down everything else--no multitasking--and really be present.  After all, we know from experience that just because something doesn’t sound good the first time doesn’t mean you won’t like it, or that you even really heard it the first time.  There’s some heavy lifting involved here.

If you belong to a book club you will understand the nature of the problem.  Sometimes the group will pick a book that, left to your own devices, you would avoid like the plague.  Reading it often means working through 50 pages of pain, maybe 100, only to discover the book is really, truly good.  And sometimes, after you’ve read it and you still think it’s awful,  the couple hosting the evening will have done enough background research on the author or the book that it becomes better.  Sometimes even much better.

One Hundred Years of Solitude might be an example you could understand.

OK.  Maybe not.  Anyway.

It’s a funny thing about focus and taking a deep dive on material: you find out maybe you’re not as limited and shallow as you sometimes worry.  The art’s good, the book’s good, and the modern classical music ain’t that bad, either, if you’re just willing to hang in and work at it a little.

It all comes down, I think, to the essential concept of happiness vs. satisfaction.  (See Is Happiness Overrated?)  It makes me happy to only buy the two songs I like from an album.  I pay less and get to listen to exactly what I’ve already determined I love.  But I don’t challenge myself.  I get bored.  I give up longer-term contentment for shorter-term happiness.  

So now, of course, you can ask me the obvious: Why don’t I just buy an entire album on iTunes and listen to it over and over again like I did in the old days?

My most truthful answer is, I guess: Cause I need the eggs.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

This Could Be Heaven or This Could Be Hell

I’m just finishing up Don Felder’s book, “Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001).”  I’ve had a little fling with rock ‘n roll bios lately, so it made sense to get the scoop on one of my long-time favorite bands--even if they did make me shop at Wal-Mart for their most recent album.

First, the truly distressing news.  Only one of the seven Eagles came from California.  

Henley was from Texas, Frey from Detroit and Felder from Gainesville.  Leadon was from Minneapolis and Meisner from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for crying out loud.  Joe Walsh was from Kansas and Ohio by way of Pluto.  

The quintessential laid-back California band wasn’t.  From California.  Or much laid-back, for that matter.

Consider: The Eagles are one of the most successful bands in the history of the planet.  Six number one albums, including the single best-selling album in the U.S. ever.  120 million albums worldwide. The fifth highest selling music act in U.S. history and the highest selling American band in U.S. history.

As a musician (or a human being), wouldn’t that bring some bit of happiness and satisfaction to your life?  

Near as I can tell, though, Don Henley and Glenn Frey are two of the more contentious, humorless, and possibly greedy guys on the planet.  If we are to believe Felder--and there’s an obvious risk of partisan ax-grinding--there wasn’t a practice, a meeting, a road trip or a concert in which someone didn’t threaten to storm out of the room, to blow things to smithereens.
Felder writes, “The tension within the band continued to deepen.  Everything from facial expressions to talking too much became an issue, and nerves were frayed.  Don and Glenn became of the mindset that they were going to take control of every aspect of the Eagles, and a lot of emotion was vented in between drug-taking interludes.” 
Later, as Bernie Leadon was dumping a beer over the head of Glenn Frey—who had just admonished Leadon to “cool down, you fxxxxxx axxxxxx”—he just stared Frey down, spoiling for a fight.  (Nothing like a couple of guitarists who depend on their hands for their livelihood and fame smashing their fists into each other’s noggins.) 
Over time, Glenn and Don, each of whom owned 1/5 of the Eagles (the other 3/5s belonging to the three other band members) somehow scored nicer suites and cars, more hired hands on the road (including Glenn’s tennis coach), and hired hands who continued on the payroll when the band wasn’t on the road.  When Felder complained to the band's manager that his 1/5 share was going to fund expenses for Glenn and Don, he was told to “stop complaining and stop being so cheap.” 
Felder would conclude, “When we first met, anyone could say or do anything, and there was a sense of all being in it together.  As the fame and stakes got bigger, the rest of us were less included in any of the decisions, until it got to the point where we became intimidated and didn’t like to ask.  It was like being at the office party when your boss is there, all the time.  You just couldn’t relax.”
The sad part, of course, is that these guys were living their dream.  Playing music.  International acclaim.  Huge bucks.

Constant misery.

Certainly, the over-abundance of drugs didn’t help.  Or the endless grind of road trips.  And, I’m sure there must have been some civilized times.  But in no way did contented satisfaction match the level of success.

Why is that, I wonder?  Does contentiousness have to be part and parcel of intense creativity?  I mean, how many arguments can five people have over whether they should be a rock band or a country band?  Couldn’t they just agree that everyone gets to sing lead on at least one song per album?

Maybe, and I’m guessing this is closer to the truth, the pressure to constantly do better made success just another obstacle.  Said another way: It’s possible, for a certain kind of person wired a certain kind of way, that success is nothing but a hurdle.

I dug around on YouTube for a while and watched a good interview with Henley in which he seemed like a decent, thoughtful guy.  And he said as much about pressure: The success of their first album (three hits) turned up the heat on everything that happened afterward.  The pressure to perform, album after album, shaped everything.

I’m wondering if Henley isn’t like the guy who you love at work, but when you go to dinner with he and his spouse their relationship is wound so tight it’s like sitting in a war zone.  Henley and Frey apart may be great, but together, seeking that next level of success, they become a horror show.

I remember hearing one of the authors in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” celebration of the best young writers in America being interviewed after learning of the accolade.  The question, “How did it make you feel,” was answered by (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) “I enjoyed it for a minute and then immediately went back to being paranoid that the next thing I write won’t be good enough.”

Success: a hurdle to happiness.

I don’t know Steve Jobs, but I’ve read enough (he’s pretty much pilloried in business school cases and across the back 40 of the Web) and heard enough from people who have worked with him that he is among the most ornery, egotistical and unpleasant people on earth.  (The Fake Steve Jobs, it turns out, wasn’t so far from the truth.)  What fun would it be, I wonder, to be a wildly successful entrepreneur, one of the top CEOs in the history of the world, and leave a legacy of making those around you miserable?

IDisney War, Jeffrey Katzenberg comes across as a mean-spirited sob even as he’s performing miracles with the Disney animation franchise.  The way he treated Roy Disney was unconscionable.  Perhaps Katzenberg has grown up, or perhaps he’ll always be in that weird Jobbian Zone of spinning misery from success.

I’m not suggesting everyone must be or can be happiness and honeysuckle all the time.  I know I cannot.  But to earn a reputation after decades of rampant success for being a first-class shitake makes me think that either something is broken--or something is broken in those of us whose success is somehow being stymied by the fact we generally seek to act as decent human beings.

SCROOGE: What reason do you have to be Merry? You're poor enough.        
FRED: Come, then, what right have you to be dismal? You're rich enough.

Look at Tiger Woods.  When he was a self-absorbed, self-destructive creep he was the best athlete in any sport who ever lived.  Now that he is purportedly an engaged human being, his level of success has fallen dramatically.  (I recognize this is risky stuff to be writing on the eve of the Masters.)

I’ve only had a few bosses in my life, and they’ve all been great.  All very different, all successful in their own ways, but all great.  And, thinking back, one of the things each held in common was a gift for making people around them more energized, confident and better for their having been with them.

There’s something really powerful in that.  Whether I was feeling good or bad about the quarter, confident or worried about the business, unhappy about a problem we were facing--a visit from each of my bosses would leave me in a better place.

I am no stranger to stress, and wanting to do well, and grouchy, cranky days--as those around me can attest.  But this idea that you can be blessed with enormous talent and success, and make everyone around you a little bit worse off for your having touched them--well, as the Eagles sang, I can’t tell you why.

(And that was my opening.)

As I finish the Felder book, I’m hoping that one of these nights, maybe the Eagles will take it easy.  Just get over it.  Make up for wasted time.

OK.  I’ll stop there.  

I’m already gone, as it were. I’d be a certain kind of fool to continue.

Just so long as you know that I could take it to the limit if I wanted, bringing misery where none is needed.  Like some of the most successful people on the planet.

I could.  And if you don’t stop staring at me, I will.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

5 Big Fat Business Lies

There may be 50 big, fat business lies floating around the Web, but something happened the other day that encouraged me to jot down the first five that came to mind. 

Number 1 Big Fat Business Lie: There are no dumb questions.

I’m sorry to say that there very much are dumb questions, and if you ask one in front of people you are trying to impress, they will think you asked a dumb question.  If you keep it up they will think you are dumb.

I have seen a manager, in an attempt to encourage give-and-take at a meeting, announce that there were no dumb questions.  Then I heard someone ask a dumb question.  Then I saw some people wince and a few others smirk.  The manager had lied.

My correction to this nugget of wisdom is simple: Don’t ask dumb questions.

Number 2 Big Fat Business Lie: Only bring me a problem if you also bring me a solution.

I would discourage you ever saying this, especially if you have, say, 10 or 20 years experience and you’re addressing someone with, say, one year experience.  This advice is a recipe for disaster.

My revised advice to give a direct report: Solve all the problems you feel comfortable solving on your own, but bring me the ones you can’t solve and we’ll work on them together.

Number 3 Big Fat Business Lie: Fail often in order to succeed sooner.
Try this on an assembly line.  Maybe cooking fries at McDonald's.  How about preparing monthly financials?  The truth is, if you fail often you will not have a job.  There are such things as smart failures which businesses will tolerate because they move things ahead.  But failing often?

I think not.

The big lie really comes from Silicon Valley, that failure is somehow a badge of honor.  If you haven’t failed you haven’t been on the bleeding edge of anything exciting.  Oy.  What they mean to say is that good entrepreneurs (who are often on the edge of something exciting) are sometimes going to fail, and they cannot let it wipe them out.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and all that.   But truly, spending three or four years of your life to have nothing but scars to show,  and destroying  $10M or $50M or $150M of someone else’s capital, cannot possibly be a badge of honor.

Think of A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of P&G, who told the Harvard Business Review this month that he thinks of his failures as gifts.  

Only people who are wildly successful can talk trash like this.  (As you know, A.G. Lafley has been wildly successful.)

Coming soon in the HBR: Warren Buffet considers all his losing investments to be blessings from heaven.

Take my advice on this piece of misguided wisdom: Fail as little as you must and succeed as often as you can.

Which turns out to be common sense and not something, hopefully, that you’ll have to put on a motivational poster in your office.

Number 4 Big Fat Business Lie: This isn't really a company function.

Right.  Go ahead and put that lampshade on your head.

Some things can’t be erased from your co-worker’s memories, including that time you over-imbibed after work and didn’t make it to the rest room in time.  That wasn’t really a company function, after all.  And that picture your friend posted to Facebook.  There was nobody from the office within 20 miles when that shot was taken.

My advice: If you are employed and have two feet outside your domicile, consider it a company function.  If you’re on Facebook and you don’t have the flaps down and your tray table in the upright and locked position, it doesn’t matter where your feet are.  It’s a company function--and you’re the star attraction.

Number 5 Big Fat Business Lie: Every problem is an opportunity.

Some are, and it’s not a bad idea to approach them all that way.  To start.  But the truth is, some problems are just unwelcome, aggravating, distracting problems.  And the faster you can figure those out, the better chance you have of not wasting your time trying to make lemon meringue pie.

My advice: Fix problems quickly.  Exploit opportunities fully.  The two don’t really look that much alike, so don’t confuse them.

There you are.  Five big fat business lies.  Any questions? 

Remember, there are no dumb ones.