Some of the Many Things I Learned from Richard Sennett’s THE CRAFTSMAN

October 26, 2009

sennettbookIt’s been awhile since I’ve been able to post. 2 reasons. Reason #1: Life. Reason #2: The Craftsman is a freaking dense 300-page book.

It’s dense, but it’s a rewarding density. Sennett is no marketing guru or new media Johnny-come-lately, but a real deal philosopher. He name drops fellow American pragmatist Richard Rorty and is probably a little too fond of his cello playing. So don’t walk into this thing expecting charts, slick lingo, or brisk case studies.

But walk into this thing you should (and expect to stay awhile). It is very much a work book. And a foundation shaking one, one of those special works which fundamentally changes you (like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, and who also reviewed this book for the NYT). It is a game-changer, workspeak Sennett would never use.

Sennett’s central premise is how “making is thinking.” He uses craftwork, or the work you do with your hands, as a means of thinking about all work. It’s an awesome premise, brilliantly utilized. Sennett will start by talking about very concrete things like chopping vegetables or crafting a violin, and then extrapolate from these common or highly technical activities larger themes of universal applicability that both deepens and informs what it means to do a job.

This book makes you like work. It makes want to work better.

Comprehensive assessment of this book is impossible. There are numerous digressions into areas wide-ranging and esoteric (from Julia Childs’ recipe writing to Wittgenstein’s construction project). But if you’re able to hang onto the central conceit how making is thinking, how doing physical manual labor allows us a very effective means to think and improve on all kinds of work, you’ll acquire new sensitivities to and appreciations of worklife. Here were a few of the many neat ideas…

  • The Anti-Social Expert If you have (or are) one of these types in your work organization, it means something’s very wrong with your organization. Like violin craftsman Stradivardi who kept all the secrets to his craft to himself such that no one can reproduce his instruments, working in a structure that allows this isolation leads to downfall of this organization. The goal is to connect these experts to the non-experts, to make the experts accountable to the non-experts by making their skills understandable to all. By making the skills of your best understandable to the entire organization, it enables an overall understanding of quality and the means to achieve it.
  • The Hand: Unequal Strengths Working Together Look at your hand and how the pinky would have no chance in the ring with the thumb, or even forefinger. But that’s not to say it has nothing to contribute. From thinking about the hand’s coordination, Sennett draws larger insights on how to coordinate work among all such situations of unequal strengths. For example, like learning how shape a chord on a guitar, it happens best when practiced together.
  • Begin with Cleaving a Grain of Boiled Rice How should you approach any new task? What is the true demonstration of skill? You take the cue from master Chinese chefs who espouse the virtue of minimum force. Not by going all out, but by establishing a baseline of the minimum necessary power to get the job done. Less mess, more precision. It is also a means of self-government. Self-control is yet another form of mental understanding that emerges from hand skills.

There’s a lot more here. Maybe I’ll do another post.

Some Things I Learned from Chris Anderson’s FREE: THE FUTURE OF A RADICAL PRICE

August 24, 2009

Picture 119

The latest from Chris Anderson, of The Long Tail fame. And like The Long Tail, it’s pretty upbeat about the trend it takes on: the increasing prevalence of free as a price. But, unlike The Long Tail, I’m left feeling unconvinced.

This could have a lot to do with having read Malcolm Gladwell’s critical assessment before picking up the book.

Anderson spreads himself really thin in a short book (short at least for the topic). And the bare parts show in many cases. For example, musicians facing the loss of CDs as a revenue stream, can only hope to be compensated by incessant touring or becoming Madonna-famous and sign a 360-deal. Journalists, where media institutions are undermined by opinionated crackpots freely blogging in bathrobes, can only hope to excel with their craft so as not to be compensated for practicing it, but by becoming a teacher and teaching it… and be compensated by teaching the crackpots how to write. How you get crackpots out of their bathrobes to register for a journalism class is beyond Anderson’s willy-nilly scope.

But because it is a short read, it’s still worthwhile to pick up. Anderson writes well enough, and he’s in touch with many of the examples of “free” pricing strategies and their effects that this book still still qualifies as a good start. Here are a few things I learned:

  • We are drawn to free because of our fear of loss. Drawing from Dan Ariely’s awesome behavioral economics book, Predictably Irrational, he references Ariely’s study with the chocolates and insights on why people seem to overvalue that which is freely offered. He spends on day selling 2 kinds of chocolates: cheapy Hershey Kisses for 1 cent and fine Lindt chocolate for 15 cents (way below market cost). People are kind of split and go for both. The next day, gives away the Hershey’s and sells the Lindt for 14 cents. Even though there is rationally no difference between the comparable values (14 cents), people pretty go for the free Hershey’s… not considering the value they get for the Lindt at 14 cents. I tend to think it’s just that people don’t want to bother trying to find the 14 pennies. But Ariely feels it’s that people fear loss. In our minds, by not paying, we risk nothing, so nothing will be lost.
  • Each new abundance creates a new scarcity. When you have free video games or music, you end up with scarce free time and attention. The excessive corn production has given us a lot of cheap crappy food, but not a lot of affordable and diverse produce or healthy people.
  • Information wants to be free and expensive. That famous annoyingly ridiculous cliche that information “wants” to be free is only a part taken from a paradox observed by Stewart Brand (counterculture dude behind the Whole Earth Catalog … which established the theory which created the WWW). He was discussing the ways in which information exists in this free-expensive paradox, it wants to spread meme-like, but it also creates/produces value. Anderson interviews him and asks why he gives information agency in the quote. Stew anthropomorphizes information because “it’s more poetic that way.” I can’t for the next programmer dude to tell me what information wants to do.

Anderson also references Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which I’ll say again that this book will blow your mind and should be read immediately.

Some Things I Learned from Martin Lindstrom’s BUYOLOGY

July 20, 2009

BuyologyBookOnBlack

This book is rad. Clearly written with great and compelling counter-intuitive ideas, and neat and new research to support them.

A lot of reviews of this book have challenged the legitimacy of the research presented in Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. However, the key benefit of the book is not exactly about the legitimacy of the research. The data from new fMRI brain scan technology is so cutting-edge no one’s really too sure how to interpret or apply it with great effectiveness. I’m not sure the point of the book is to prove the veracity of the data.

Rather, this great book explains how the insights from this (however dubious) research is actively employed in advertisements and marketing strategies everywhere. Whether it’s about manipulating our mirror neurons, or taking advantage of our secondary brand associations, this book does a great job of calling our attention to the more subtle selling strategies that constitute the majority of the most exciting (and disturbing) marketing these days.

In addition to improving marketing practice, becoming aware of how the less conscious parts of your brain are actively targeted (I think) will be increasingly essential to what it means to be a self-aware person. It won’t just be about scrutinizing your belief system, but how the world is shaping your tastes and instinct.

For example, the sound your straw makes when it punctures the cup lid at McDonald’s is completely engineered for you to associate it with the restaurant. That sound becomes linked to thirst and the fast food meal in the sucker of a brain we all seem to have.

There are some many great ideas in this book. Here’s a few that will stick with me.

  • The Vampire Effect: Sex sells, but it only really sells itself. Or so Martin and crew discovered with a study analyzing people’s retention of sexually explicit ads vs. non-sexual ads. The sexually explicit ads certainly got more attention from our brain, but they didn’t do anything to effectively sell the product they were used in the service of. People had a much harder time recalling what the sexy ad was about than the not-sexy ad. Sex in advertising is said to have a “vampire effect,” effectively sucking our attention away from the content of the advertising message. Hot chix may be great, but don’t expect them to move vacuum cleaners.
  • Mirror Neurons: Martin describes contagious yawning as a function of mirror neurons, the neurons that fire for someone when they observe the actions of someone else. In the brain, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the observed’s action, as though the observer were his/herself acting. Thus, contagious yawning, as well as the thrill from watching action movies, and hunger when we see others eating. It is this neurological phenomena that marketers and advertisers manipulate repeatedly and with increasing sophistication. Beware of your reaction to ads portraying people doing stuff…you’re getting played.
  • Product Placements Don’t Work: Product placements, for the most part, do not work. Whether we see Brad Pitt nonchalantly take a bite of a Pizza Hut pizza, or Zooey Deschanel sneeze outside a FedEx Office, it does nothing to induce us to pursue (or even remember) that product or service. Only in the instance where the product is used as a key part of the plot (Reese’s in E.T.) does the placement have any resonance with the audience. Get ready movies where Joan Allen freaks out when her Cinnabon doesn’t have enough frosting…My screenplay, Joan Allen Spazzes at Cinnabon, has been optioned.

Some Thing I Learned From PUNK MARKETING

July 12, 2009

Picture 30To be sure, punk is marketing. However many cool bands and bad fashions it drove, the idea of punk was meant to sell by appropriating antagonistic feeling toward the suffocating traditional.  

To label marketing as “punk”  is kind of silly, borderline repetitive. Richard Laermer and Mark Simmons are on to this (or they eventually figured it out). They go to great effort and many pages to define what punk marketing is (unhelpful clue: it’s Southwest and it’s not SanDisk).

As a result, Rick and Mark end up kind of chasing their own collective tail. The definition has something to do with not selling the way a traditional marketer would. Ultimately, punk marketing is what they say punk marketing is, and that seems to be whatever successfully sells in a nontradtional way.

It’s a real weak premise. Nonetheless it gives 2 insiders the excuse to write about recent surprising marketing campaigns. Most of these campaigns have already been covered to a great extent already, but they write with a clear and irreverent tone. If you want a refresher on what you’re exposed to everyday, check it out. 

But don’t expect much depth. Although it touches on a lot successful campaigns, it doesn’t to any insightful depth. They seem to eschew marketing research and don’t really do a lot of work connecting the disparate stories they tell, or give reason why these campaigns were successful. It’s only advice is something like, “don’t be afraid be creative.”

Not a lot of insight here (I think I learned that I could probably write a marketing book if this is what passes for one). It does provide a lot of manifesto-ish rah rah, so it’s like a more readable Cluetrain. And there are a lot of pictures. This would be a fine coffee and/or bathroom book.

Some Things I Learned From THE CLUETRAIN MANIFESTO

June 20, 2009

Picture 13

I’m not sure I learned that much from this one. It’s 10 years old and it very much reads like a manifesto, occasioned by the buzz surrounding Thomas Petzinger Jr.’s 95 Theses. (Self-aggrandizing or ironic reference to Martin Luther?…I think it’s a little bit of both, however intended.)

Petzinger’s theses pertain to how business should be done, given the fallen barriers and hyper-networking of the Internet. They include “Markets are conversations”;  “Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.”; ” Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.”  After the theses, the book seems a little padded out by what read like a series of really long blog posts about the direction business, marketing and PR are heading. Ideas here aren’t really supported or described with any depth.

I don’t think that is the point of this book, though. Instead, it simply tells us that how we do business has changed, and we better accept the change. And tells us with breathless fervor. In place of depth, there is a lot of energy. In a way, it’s an inspirational book, one of the more complicated ones to be sure.

Here’s the story: To Petzinger et al, the Web functions like our collective “return of the repressed.” What was repressed: our voice and our sense of work as craft. We’ve been repressed by the industrial age the resulting corporate culture that seeks to remain branding compliant, impersonal, and risk-mitigating.  The language of doing business acquired a very distinctive banal and slippery impersonality. (“It’s not language, it’s camouflage.”) Our work is no longer an expression of ourselves, but simply adhering to guidelines. (There’s no specific reference to that other manifesto writer, Marx. Nonetheless, his spirit pervades. For example, he made the same observations on alienation in the workplace.) 

The Web happened the way it did in part because we’ve been silenced or mediated by that impersonality, and we wanted the means of our self-expression back. It’s the quasi-Marxist online revolution. We wanted to express ourselves in voice and in craft, and we want to experience the authentic voice and craft of others.  This is what people want (supposedly) since this is how markets were first created, with people talking in open air markets about who has the best camel our how awesome their clay pots are. We got away from that because we wanted more control. But that control was stultifying. The Web returns us to the early days of the open-air market. (There is a really nice pithy summation of this historical account, but oddly it doesn’t come until the end of the book.) 

Those companies who refuse to allow its business (its people) to speak authentically and use work as an expression of themselves, they are doomed. Corporations (who are by nature incapable of personality) are already on their way out, according to the Cluetrain folk.

Will the Internet return voice and craft to individuals? It’s nice to think so. So you end the book feeling pretty inspired and hopeful. Which is nice. But like any manifesto, it tends not to hold up to real scrutiny. There’s another book that needs to be written.

The Yoga Challenge: Day 14

June 20, 2009

I did it. I went to a yoga class everyday for 14 days straight. How do I feel?

Completely defeated. 

2 days ago, I was on a high about my good prospects for finishing. I had hoped I would just coast through my last few days in the challenge, thinking I gotten through the worst. But distracted by admiring what was behind me, I little prepared for what was ahead. 

I’m pretty sure today’s yoga instructor hated my abs. 

Not that she had any reason to. They were unacquainted. Nonetheless, she led us through a series of poses of such concentrated strain on my midsection that it felt scornful.

I flopped around on my drenched mat, trying to hold onto everything I learned in the past 2 weeks, trying to breathe, trying not to look like the complete mess I was becoming. 

Maybe it wasn’t personal. Maybe she was (probably) 16 and didn’t realize the abuse she was meting out to the plus 30 crowd. I know it’s antithetical to be competitive in yoga, but she won.

And how do I respond to defeats?

Another challenge. I have vowed to make this my summer of flexibility and core strength.

I will take a few days off while heading back to Chicago. But I purchased another set of classes and will be back on the mat very soon.

The Yoga Challenge: Day 12

June 19, 2009

I am over the hump. I can see the end of the tunnel of my 14-day challenge. What seemed very unlikely around Day 7, is very much mine for the taking.

I went into this Day 12 knowing that it would either break or make me. 

It was the Vinyasa class at the Jewel in the Lotus (in Madison, and I’m a big fan. Net Promoter Score: 10) which is one of their 90-min classes. There would be a lot movement, unlike forrest. There would be a lot of sweating. There would be more possessive-pronoun-less directions. There would be the pigeon pose. 

Picture 12I’m not exactly there yet, but soon. You’ll be like, “What’s a pigeon doing here?…Oh, it’s just Eric.”

I focused on my breathing and made it through. Managed a handstand on my own. Got into a semi-pigeon. No major cramping.

This is in no way old hat for me yet, but if you gave me another 14 days, I’d probably be a master. I was thinking if the writing/marketing thing doesn’t pan out, I could be a Buddhist monk A-player.

This has been a great way to get into yoga. The Lotus’ absurdly cheap introductory offer (as many classes you want for 2 weeks) has been a great way for me (a yoga ignorant) to experience the varieties of yoga, and to build the core strength to actually do them.

The Yoga Challenge: Day 11

June 18, 2009

Today was my first attempt at forest Forrest yoga at the Lotus in my self-imposed challenge to make the most of $20. (Am I putting myself through this just because I’m cheap?)

Forest Forrest yoga has a lot of the same poses I’ve been doing for the past 10 days.

However, one of the main differences with forest Forrest yoga: you hold the positions for much longer. There isn’t a lot of the “flowing” movement as in the Prana and Ashtanga classes I’ve taken. Instead, you spend a lot of time holding still in a warrior stance, or in a crunch with your feet by your ears, breathing to different parts of your body.

I imagine you’re meant to hold these poses as still as a tree (thus the “forest”?).

Picture 8

At best, I managed a very trembling tree.  

Also, the new (and really helpful) forest yoga instructor didn’t use possessive pronouns in his instructions. It was a lot of “put right elbow past left knee” and “place left hand in front of left foot.” Distracted me more than once. Insufficient attribution throws me off every time.

Nonetheless, it was a nice change from the flowing class. Limited flowing meant limited sweating. I wasn’t leaving a pool of my secretion as has been my wont.

I finished feeling pretty good, even feeling as though I wasn’t challenged enough. 

6 hours later, something in my lower back is telling that I was challenged enough. Tomorrow could be a disaster.

The Yoga Challenge: Day 10

June 17, 2009

I was a little pessimistic about my chances of making it through class today, even though I would only have 4 more days to complete my self-impose yoga challenge

Thankfully, it was a basics class and it was crowded. Meaning, I would do only 60 minutes with no handstands and moving at a slower pace. 

Also, as I fumbled to stand on one foot, hook my forefinger around the big toe on the other foot while straightening that lifted leg to the side, the yoga instructor said, “As long as you’re taking a step on the path, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter how big a step it is, because the path is endless.”

Hearing this in any other context would have frustrated or confused me. At this point, it was great comfort and encouragement. It gave me the will to get through another class.

There are many instances when the instructor gives instructions or encouragement that I don’t fully understand, but nonetheless get. There’s the instruction to “open the heart,” which I do somehow (I think). And there’s talk of “breathing to” different places in the body. Don’t know what this means, but it feels like I’m doing it.

It could just be the exhaustion wearing down my rationality and demand for complete comprehension. Yoga is a zen koan for the body?

Tomorrow I try forest yoga for the first time. In a 90 minute class. It will be a rough 4 days. But yoga-rough.

Some Things I Learned From Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational”

June 16, 2009

Picture 25I just finished Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, which is in the recent tradition of popular behavioral economics-type books (which includes Freakonomics, Buyology, Logic of Life, Nudge…all which are pretty worthwhile). Ariely focuses on the predictable ways in which we are ridiculous.

Here are a few insights/ideas that struck me:

  • Decoy Effect: Ariely describes how we don’t choose on the basis of absolutes (“How good is this thing?”) but instead focus on the relative advantages of one thing over another (“Is this thing better than that thing?”). As a result, our preference to make comparisons between things that are similar can influence when we’re confronted between two options that aren’t similar (and furthermore how pricing strategists take advantage of this preference). For example, it’s difficult to compare(and thus choose between) similarly priced vacations to Paris that’ll include free breakfast and one to Rome that will also include free breakfast.  However, if you introduce a third option, a trip to Rome without free breakfast (the decoy), people will tend to choose the trip to Rome with free breakfast over the similarly priced and breakfasted trip to Paris. He uses the alarming example of a kitchen equipment store that couldn’t sell the one bread machine model they had. The solution: add another bread machine, but one that’s 50% more expensive. As a result, the original model start selling. He also notes how you can use this decoy effect for evil in singles situations by hanging out with a friend slightly less attractive or witty. By comparison, you come out far more appealing than you would otherwise. The way to overcome this effect is to think more broadly.  Sure the cheaper bread machine is more appealling, but do you really need a bread machine period.
  • Endowment Effect: This effect describes how we tend to value what we own more than others would. Areily proves this phenomenon with a few of his own experiments (BTW … If I were a student of M.I.T., I’d be really weary about becoming duped by one of this guy’s “experiments,” most which occur on campus and involve some degree of manipulation … but they’re still fun to read about.) Ariely connects this over-valuation to our fear of change and of loss. It’s a psychological myopia that it would be best to be detached from. Perhaps with yoga? 
  • Imprinting/Arbitrary Coherence: Apparently, when it comes to pricing we’re like goslings. Just like when a gosling hatches and unquestioningly assumes the first moving thing it sees is Mom (called imprinting), just so do we uncritically accept the price of a new product we’ve never seen before. After which, they assume an “arbitrary coherence,” meaning however arbitrary the initial price was, once established and “imprinted,” it will shape the present and future price (thus its coherence). Phenomena like this debunk the traditional notion that the market forces of supply and demand determines optimal price. Since free markets won’t maximize our utility, government regulation becomes really attractive.

These was also a chapter on how we split the world into 2 parts, one where market norms rule, and the other where social norms. For a really neat take on the latter, I strongly suggest The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde, which talks about the gift economy and how it functions in creative production.


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