Monthly Archives: October 2010

Nike’s New Ad: The Hymn of Individualism

Nike has come out with a brilliant new video featuring LeBron James, an athlete whose personal brand and popularity plunged after the media spectacle he created when he announced his decision to join the Miami Heat. He confronts his critics by looking into the camera and asking a simple question: "What should I do?" As Grant McCracken says his in excellent analysis, Nike turns to the bedrock American value of individualism to make the point that LeBron has the right to forge his own path no matter what other people say:

What's clever about the spot is that it drives us towards an answer for this question. We end up thinking, "Well, James should do has the right to do whatever he wants to do. Fans have the right to be unhappy.  But finally, we don't have the right to say where he plays or finally who he is."

And this means the ad turns, almost inaudibly, on the cry of individualism.  This is one of the bedrock convictions of our culture: that the individual has the right of self-determination, of self definition.  It's not for elites to tell us who we are.  It's not for ethnic groups, local communities or corporations.  It's not for parents.  Nor for teachers.  And it's not, James is pointing out, for fans.

The marketing lesson here is that you must understand the culture you're operating in. Nike very much understands American culture, ever since they made "Just do it" the company's slogan. I don't think Nike would run this sort of ad in Asia or Latin America.

Grant McCracken covers these themes in more depth in his excellent book Chief Culture Officer.

Airport Departure Boards and Imagination

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Last year I began writing a novel as part of NanoWrimo. The opening scene: a washed up management consultant walks into LAX and sits crosslegged in front of the international departure board, letting his eyes rest on each exotic destination.

Alain de Botton, in an interview on LATimes.com, talks about how airport departure boards light up our imagnations:

Airport departure boards help to put us in touch with the idea of alternatives. They make us think that right now, somewhere on the other side of the globe, very different things are happening. They do that very basic task of the places of travel: jolt us into remembering that the world is stranger, more exciting, more various than we imagine it when we are in familiar surroundings, and in danger of boredom and routine.

Next time you're in an airport, stop at the departure board and take a minute to contemplate the possibilities. It's my favorite thing to do in airports.

What 17 Million Americans Got from a College Degree

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

That's from this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, via Jon Bischke on Twitter. More:

Putting issues of student abilities aside, the growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.

For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one's economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.

Here's the complete chart: 

Underemployment-chart

China Fact of the Day

Foxconn Technology Group, for example, the giant electronics manufacturer that builds components for Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple in gigantic plants in Shenzen and elsewhere in urban China, will soon employ enough people to fill 60 percent of the jobs in Manhattan. Foxconn has close to 920,000 workers, nearly all of whom are under 25; in August, the company announced plans to add 400,000 more workers in the next year.

That's from Ted Fishman's interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine about how demographic trends shape globalization. Aging employees in developed countries require increasingly expensive health care plans. Fishman says health care costs for American workers between 50 and 65 are, on average, almost two times what they are for 30 and 40 somethings. The youthfulness of China's workforce is one reason why it's so cheap and attractive to first-world companies. But China won't be young forever. Will it become old before it becomes rich? There are other interesting observations about urbanization and immigration.

Opportunities in Old, Stodgy Industries

My friend Josh Newman is shifting his film production company to be a venture capital firm that will focus on growth opportunities in unsexy industries:

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I think he's right about the gap in attention and money to that quadrant.

There are many opportunities in stodgy industries that go unexploited because it's not mobile / real time / social / insert-buzzword-of-the-day-here. I always enjoy Marty Nemko's blog, and he often champions unsexy business ideas. In his entrepreneurial ideas tag, you can read about his business ideas for organic perfume, food carts, velcro shirts, and more. His entrepreneurship tag has even more.

One more random thought on generating business ideas: look at segments where most of the businesses feel scammy — and then do the exact same business but in a buttoned-up way. Google "mystery shopping" to see what I mean by "feels scammy." Anytime dozens of weird AdWords pop up, you know there's real money being made, but often by scammy entrepreneurs.

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Alex Mann awhile back had good tips for how to get into the entrepreneurial swing of things even if you're in college.

I’m Hiring — Internship Opportunity

I'm hiring a paid intern to help on a few high-impact entrepreneurial and journalistic projects.

Projects will include research on topics similar to those I blog about, some IT / blog infrastructure stuff, help launching a new bricks and motar business, and some online marketing work. This is not an executive assistant job; however, there will be some duller personal tasks that accompany the more stimulating ones.

The ideal candidate probably is under 30 years old; possesses top-notch written communication skills; self-directed and proactive; broadly interested in business and technology; still has a lot to prove. You do not need to be an engineer or programmer but you should be above-average proficient with web technology.

Compensation will include a small cash stipend, a couple round-trip flights to San Francisco from anywhere in America for us to have dinner, and whatever value you place on learning and personal growth. In the past, people I've worked with in this capacity have been exposed to some really interesting people and ideas, and I think the experience accelerated their career. (That's also been the case for me when I've interned for other folks.)

This internship may expand or be terminated at any time, depending on how it's going. At the moment, you should be available for at least five months (starting now) to work at least 5-10 hours a week. Preference given to those who live in California, but you can live and work anywhere in the world, on your own hours. Email [email protected] if you are interested. Thanks!

Hiring and Business

This week Steve Newcomb and Ben Horowitz both wrote dynamite posts on hiring and business.

In Steve's post, he sets up the topic this way:

What happens when founders try to sleep at night is this: their mind spins uncontrollably between scenarios that result in a glorious success and scenarios that result in a burning death crash.  Most founders I know ride a fine line between seeming to be in total control and going nut balls.  

All I can say is welcome to the club – you're normal!  

Whenever people ask me how I make it through, I always say the same thing.  Sit down and write down the shit storms that you are worrying about and divide them into two list.  Those that are under your control and those that aren’t.  Then focus on the list that you can control.  If you stare at that list long enough you’ll realize a commonality.  That the solution to every single one of them begins with having a team that is rock solid, one that isn't afraid of challenges and one that believes in you as a founder.  If you do this one thing right, it will steady you and calm your mind enough to face and conquer any challenge.

Focus on things you can control is a lesson one can never hear too many times. Steve says the answer to all of a founder's worries is to have a rock solid team behind you. Very generalizable. In the post he goes on to offer a rich list of tips for how to recruit and retain a killer team. Read the whole thing.

Ben Horowitz's post is intriguingly titled: If You've Never Done the Job, How Do You Hire Somebody Good? CEOs often hire people to do jobs they've never done and never could do. You're hiring domain experts. But if you're not a domain expert yourself, how to evaluate the candidate? That's the set-up for an excellent analysis on hiring.

One of his early points is that you should figure out what strengths you need from a candidate and focus on that:

The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you). Literally, nobody is perfect. As a result, it is imperative that you hire for strength rather than lack of weakness. Everybody has weaknesses; they are just easier to find in some people. Hiring for lack of weakness just means that you’ll optimize for pleasantness. Rather, you must figure out the strengths you require and find someone who is world class in those areas despite their weaknesses in other, less important domains.

Then he suggests coming up with a list of questions for different types of candidates that cut at the heart of that specific domain (sales force, operational management, etc).

He notes the usefulness of front door references:

For the final candidates, it’s critically important that the CEO conduct the reference checks herself. The references need to be checked against the same hiring criteria that you tested for during the interview process. Backdoor reference checks (checks from people who know the candidate, but were not referred by the candidate) can be an extremely useful way to get an unbiased view. However, do not discount the front door references. While they clearly have committed to giving a positive reference (or they wouldn’t be on the list), you are not looking for positive or negative with them. You are looking for fit with your criteria. Often, the front door references will know the candidate best and will be quite helpful in this respect.

Steven Johnson’s Invention of Air

Steven Johnson writes about topics I care about in a way that engages me. Of his seven books, I’ve read four. He is one of the most perceptive writers on the intersection of technology and innovation, and dabbles successfully in other areas like history, neuroscience, and pop culture. The most common critique of Johnson is that his theories are too sweeping. Maybe so, but we need at least a few polymaths who dare to make big, bold connections to provoke thought.

6a00d8345166f269e200e54fff28b28833-150wi I attended a short lecture by Johnson a few days ago in San Francisco about his new book Where Good Ideas Come From. He came off as affable, witty, and curious. When the podium microphone went dead he was given a handheld mic as a replacement. Without missing a beat he grabbed the handheld mic and pretended to do a stand-up routine: “What’s the deal with those airplane peanut bags? You can never get the bags open!” Charming and funny. His writing doesn’t have quite the same levity. Still, both oral and written he tackles serious topics, generates original ideas, and communicates them with a confident narrative style.

I recently finished The Invention of Air, his wonderful account of Joseph Priestley (and Priestley’s friends like Benjamin Franklin) and all that we can learn from them about innovation. If you’re interested in the Founding Fathers and entrepreneurship, this is a great book. It’s more focused than some of his other books in that there’s one central character — Priestley. You’ll still get a flavor of Johnson’s multidisciplinary interests.

Below are my highlights from Kindle (formatting my own). Here are Justin Wehr’s notes from the book.


He launched himself into a rapid and turbulent river of experiments, developing a style of investigation that would shape the rest of his career—more exploratory than systematic, shuffling through countless variations of materials and equipment and test subjects. Priestley was never one for the grand hypothesis; he rarely designed experiments specifically to test a general theory. The closest thing to a general theory in his work would ultimately lead to his greatest intellectual mistake.

Looking backward over the history of electricity enabled him both to appreciate how science had become an engine of progress and improvement and to project forward into the future, to imagine that ascending line, its trajectory continuing through the coming centuries. This is one of the origin points for a distinctly modern view of the world—call it progressive futurism.

Intellectual historians have long wrestled with the strangeness of this kind of streak. The thinker plods along, publishing erratically, making incremental progress, and then, suddenly—the flood-gates open and a thousand interesting ideas seem to pour out.

…unlike free throws, ideas are clearly cumulative in nature; solving one problem often gives you a new set of conceptual tools that help you solve the next problem that presents itself.

Human cultures have a long track record of collective hot streaks, where clusters of innovations seem to burst into flame after centuries of darkness. (We have names like “Renaissance” precisely to mark exactly how extreme the transformation is.) Priestley was a key participant in one of these cultural-phase transitions, what was described self-consciously at the time, by Kant and others, as the Enlightenment, a term that embraces both the widening of political and religious possibility in eighteenth-century Europe and the extensive application of the scientific method to problems that had previously been shrouded in darkness.

What Marx did grasp, more clearly than any thinker before him, was that the proper interpretative scale for understanding change and progress is larger and deeper than that of the individual human life, yet at the same time is grounded in the material world. You couldn’t attribute change exclusively to exceptional people, and you couldn’t attribute it to some external and nebulous spirit, the way Hegel had done.

Marx identified three new primary macro processes that deserved to be included in the narrative: the class struggle, the evolution of capital itself, and technological innovations. They were all, for different reasons, enormously valuable contributions to the project of making sense of historical change. And they were all fundamentally correct, at least in their contention that class identity, capital, and technological acceleration would be prime movers in the coming centuries, and that each one had an independent life, outside the direct control of human decision-makers.

While Kuhn’s system placed the scientist squarely at the center of intellectual change, it made an essential break from the folklore of individual genius that Priestley had himself questioned two centuries before. Kuhn demonstrated convincingly that science was not a straightforward pursuit of universal truth, the genius suddenly discovering new facts about the world by sheer force of intellect. Instead, innovations in science came out of a complicated play among insight, empirical study, and the conventions of a given paradigm.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but most of the great inventors were blessed with something else: leisure time.

Different societies at different moments in history have varying patterns of circulation: compare the cloistered, stagnant information pools of the European Dark Ages to the hyper-linked, open-sourced connectivity of the Internet. You can see in Priestley’s letters to the electricians where he and his friends fell on the circulation spectrum: every detail of every experiment relayed in the most generous, exhaustive form imaginable. The idea of proprietary secrets, of withholding information for personal gain, was unimaginable in that group.

You can’t underestimate the impact that the Club of Honest Whigs had on Priestley’s subsequent streak, precisely because he was able to plug in to an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated.

But there was a higher purpose that drove Priestley to document his techniques in such meticulous detail: the information network. Priestley’s whole model of progress was built on the premise that ideas had to move, to circulate, for them to turn into better ideas.

That is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be an organism: a system of cells and organs that are explicitly devoted to ensuring the survival of the larger group to which they belong.

Priestley had begun supplementing Shelburne’s annuity by building a collection of “subscribers” who supported his work with annual contributions. The eighteenth-century concept of subscribing is one without an exact modern equivalent, falling somewhere between a magazine subscription and a charitable donation to a museum or park or university. The donation came with perks—Priestley’s subscribers were sent first editions of all his writing—but the money contributed generally exceeded by a wide margin the market value of the publications. It was nice to be first in line to read Priestley’s latest, of course, but one subscribed because Priestley himself was a cause worth supporting. For Priestley, subscription was a way of diversifying the patronage system; rather than tying his fortune to the whims of a single aristocrat, Priestley was assembling a broader support network to keep his ideas alive.

The sense of gravitas that attended Priestley’s emigration seems somehow fitting to us now, not just because of his individual accomplishments, but also because Priestley was inaugurating what would become one of the most honorable traditions of the American experience. He was the first great scientist-exile to seek safe harbor in America after being persecuted for his religious and political beliefs at home. Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, Xiao Qiang—they would all follow in Priestley’s footsteps.

To choose between Jefferson and Adams in 1798 was, in effect, to choose between the two emerging political parties to which each man had become attached: the largely agrarian Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, opponents of centralized political and economic power; or the urban, centralized Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and, somewhat fitfully, by Adams. Given the geopolitics of the day, it was also a choice between France and England, with Jefferson and his group still enthralled by the French Revolution and Hamilton aligned with London’s economic power.

More important, though, the values that Priestley brought to his intellectual explorations have never been more essential than they are today. The necessity of open information networks—like ones he cultivated with the Honest Whigs and the Lunar Society, and with the popular tone of his scientific publications—has become a defining creed of the Internet age. That is in part because the flow of information differs from the flow of energy in one crucial respect: there is a finite supply of energy, which means that tapping it is invariably a zero-sum game.

the spread of information does not come with the same cost, particularly in the age of global networks. An idea that flows through a society does not grow less useful as it circulates; most of the time, the opposite occurs: the idea improves, as its circulation attracts the “attention of the Ingenious,” as Franklin put it. Jefferson saw the same phenomenon, and interpreted it as yet another part of nature’s rational system: “That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe,” he wrote in an 1813 letter discussing a patent dispute, “for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”

Some great minds become great by turning the rubble of an exploded paradigm into something consistent and meaningful. Others become great by laying the gunpowder, grain by grain. Every important revolution needs both kinds of minds to complete itself.

We have been debating what the founders stood for practically since the ink dried on Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration.

Clearly one lesson is that Priestley—and his kindred spirits in London, Birmingham, Quincy, and Monticello—refused to compartmentalize science, faith, and politics.

The faith in science and progress necessitated one other core value that Priestley shared with Jefferson and Franklin, and that is the radical’s belief that progress inevitably undermines the institutions and belief systems of the past.

The Wisdom of Your Former Self

Andy McKenzie quotes the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa:

I often find texts of mine that I wrote when I was very young–when I was seventeen or twenty. And some have a power of expression that I do not remember having then. Certain sentences and passages I wrote when I had just taken a few steps away from adolescence seem produced by the self I am today, educated by years and things. I recognize I am the same as I was.

Usually people shudder with embarrassment at the prospect of coming upon writings of their youth. It's the same logic techno-skeptics use when advising youth not to blog: Your adolescent riffs will come off as naive and immature to your wise, adult self.

Pessoa in adulthood found the opposite. His texts of 17 or 20 years old display insight of a caliber close to what he could have produced as an older man.

Isn't this prospect — that there's little significant difference between your youthful thoughts and adult ones — even more terrifying?

Since few adults today have records of their youth, it's easier for them to maintain self-serving narratives about how far they've come in adulthood. This will change, as more young people publish on Twitter and blogs. 20-somethings today will one day look back at those permanent and forever Google-able writings and either shudder in embarrasement as commonly presumed, or, like Pessoa, they will find them remarkably similar to their adult expressions. In the cases where there's no significant difference, the fact that one must work to become wiser will be unavoidable.

Why Did Malia Obama Take Photos of Inaugration?

At the presidential inauguration in 2008, Barack Obama's daughters took out their digital cameras and snapped photos of the historic scene.

At the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, the American basketball players whipped out their video camcorders while walking and waving to fans.

At the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis Dreyfus snapped photos of each other on the set of Jerry's apartment.

In each case, there were hundreds (if not thousands) of high-end cameras capturing every moment. Yet, Malia Obama, LeBron James, and Jason Alexander all wanted their own photos from their exact point-of-view.

This happens to us lay folk when we travel. Everyone takes pictures of the Eiffel Tower in Paris even though thousands of professional photos are one click away on the web. I wasn't aware this tendency held strong at the highest levels of celebrity, folks whose entire lives are photographed and documented by the media.

The power of ownership over something; the power of personal perspective.

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Some links:

  • Penelope Trunk on how to take intelligent risks.
  • Will Wilkinson's awesome self-defense, for political philosophy geeks only.
  • Ross Rosenbaum on the banality of narcissism.
  • Amazing time-lapse photography of fog over the San Francisco bay."The Unseen Sea."
  • Steven Moody commented on an older post of mine about asking yourself what's remained constant (as opposed to obsessing about what's changed): "I consider my need for change to include work, location, and intimate relations; it's crucial for me to have 1-2 of these remain constant, while I'll get bored if all three are constant."