This morning on the train to Milwaukee, I read an article on Slate about Jeff Jarvis. Like the author of the piece, Ron Rosenbaum, I used to read Jarvis on a frequent basis while I was getting this blog started; I think my dad still reads him frequently, and they exchanged a couple emails once about fatherly pride.
To summarize the article, no matter its truthiness, Jarvis seems to be blaming the death of traditional journalism, and the resulting job cuts, on the short-sightedness of the day-to-day journalists, those folks that are out there reporting on the injustices and the beauty of the world around us as so-called social-media gurus pontificate on “building relationships.” Seems a rather sad proposition to me, especially considering how much true journalism has done for us.
Reading the article (along with a few beers on the train ride home) helped me bring my thoughts together on a couple topics that have been in my head for some time now:
- What the hell am I doing?
- Can strategy be fulfilling?
- If the answer to the last question is no, then, what would be better?
Forgive me for navel-gazing—I figure for quite a few people, there could be no topic less interesting than the curiosities of a young man trying to make his way in a new job—but I feel like I have to get these ideas out on digital paper. This is surely the most insignificant writing I will ever do, but I gotta do it. Otherwise I may explode.
That First Question
The question, “What the hell am I doing?” has a simple answer, an answer that I really don’t want to offer: nothing, really. I mean, sure, there are real manifestations of my work, but most of them are online, and most of them are things that are made to sell other things, made for other people. I’ve come to a position where I come up with ideas, sell the ideas for a price, and then watch those ideas come to life through the work of others.
And it’s almost entirely unsatisfying.
The primary output of my function is the written word, brought to life perhaps by my the speeches I give about those words that I wrote. This in itself is not such a dishonorable enterprise; plenty of elected officials operate in the same format, and lots of things have been accomplished through the use of these tools. I find particular discomfort with the impermanence of what we do, the lack of real cultural influence we have, the lowest rung on the meaning ladder where we tend to operate: at the end of the day, we are fooling people into buying things they don’t need.
Personally, the problem may be dealing with my own Jack-of-All-Tradesness. I can develop websites, and I know what goes into making a great site, but I am not a programmer. I can design things, but I am not a designer. I can come up with ideas, but I am not a creative. I can write things, but I am not a writer, journalist nor even a copywriter. The list goes on. Knowing a little about a lot makes me good at what I do, I think, but perhaps not spectacularly happy about it.
And this morning, it really got to me that we continue to be paid to trick people while people at the Chicago Reader, people who worked hard to shed light on real problems in Chicago—real reporters doing real work—are losing their jobs as the industry continues to deal with the digital sea change and the faltering economy.
Can Strategy be Fulfilling?
A couple weekends ago, I forwarded an article written by Jack Cheng to someone I work with. It was this great article on permanence, on the writing process, and it made me think about the way my dad taught me to write things long-hand before trying to put them to work in a word processor. I still do this frequently (though not right now) when I’m trying to get my thoughts organized.
The response to Jack’s article was interesting, and I’ll paraphrase: “Good read. I looked a little further into Jack’s work, and I’m wondering: what is it that he does? I’m finding a lot of things about how he does what he does, and the tools he uses, but not a lot about the actual output of this process.”
There are a lot of people out there—people who I’ve met through this blog and whom I consider dear friends, people I’d gladly offer my couch and a quilt to in a time of need—that have similarly nebulous jobs. Strategist appears frequently on their business cards. And I recently stopped being a Senior Account Executive to focus exclusively on Digital Strategy, so I’m part of that group, too.
Anyhow, it begs the question: “What in the world are we doing, and how have we convinced people they should pay us for this?” It all seems rather ridiculous once you stand back and look at it all, at all the opinions we have, all the work-related things we’re talking about on our blogs. I mean, all this social media nonsense many of us are spewing forth, talking about maintaining conversations and building relationships and really listening rather than talking all the time. Am I crazy or aren’t these fundamental parts of how people build bonds with other people? Humans are extraordinarily social animals, more so than any other, and that anyone is trying to act like this is something that they’ve just now “figured out” is beyond me. A) Because I don’t think we’ve figured it out and B) Because we’ve always known about it. But because it is done on the internet, companies feel like they need to talk to 27-year-olds to really understand how it operates.
As an aside, here’s a tip on the social media thing: just go try it. You’ll figure it out. Why? It’s not magic, it’s a goddamn network where people talk and share things. You’ve seen this before in the real world. It’s a market. Or a cafe. Or two people talking to each other at home over a cup of coffee and a newspaper. You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you how this works. Just act like a normal human (indoor voices, don’t be an asshole) and you’ll do fine.
So the answer, for me, is that strategy by itself cannot be fulfilling. Unless you like going nuts.
So, What Instead?
In any case, to this point, the strategic enterprise leaves me rather… “eh.” I read a quote about Obama recently saying that he found dishwashing a relaxing activity. This makes perfect sense: some of the simplest things in the world can also be the most fulfilling, because they are “discrete, have a result, and require manual labor.” I’m totally in with that thinking, as I can honestly say that the discrete, results-oriented and manual things that I’ve done in my life have indeed been the most gratifying.
Back to Jack & what he does. As far as I can tell, he makes things. Maybe not all “real” things, but what constitutes “real” today? This question will be more relevant as time goes by, as today’s kids grow up, but the line between digital and physical “things” is already beginning to blur. And Jack’s enterprise of making epic shit seems to be far more fulfilling than simply coming up with ideas. I think we’ll see more of this in the coming years: 20-somethings in advertising abandoning the “creative” industry they learned to love, and moving into things that are significantly more real, even if they exist exclusively in the online space.
It’s a pretty simple distinction. Coming up with ideas is just OK. Coming up with ideas and then actually doing them is a different, more difficult, but ultimately more enjoyable way to earn your keep.
I know of at least 3 cases that back this up. If you know of more, or want to add your own, please do.
First among these is my cousin, Adam Parker Smith. He is an artist and makes his living that way. He travels from residency to residency, making money along the way, and goes to shows around the world. It’s not yet the most lucrative of jobs, but his life seems infinitely more exciting and again, fulfilling, than mine. Why? Because he makes things for himself. It’s his art. If someone doesn’t buy it, fuck them.
Secondly, there’s 37signals, which used to be a web design shop. Most of the readers of this probably know their mythology, but for those who don’t, they started making project management software for internal use a few years ago and realized along the way that the client-driven work was leaving everybody at a loss. Clients weren’t getting exactly what they wanted (because we all push back as we’re taught to do) and they weren’t doing the caliber work they wanted to do (because after all, clients are paying the bills and have the final say). So they started focusing on doing the work they wanted to do, traditional business/user experience/pricing models be damned, and the rest is… well, you know.
Mike Karnjanaprakorn is a digital friend of mine—we’ve not yet met in person—that I admire. He dropped a pretty decent Strategist career track (Naked, Trumpet) to focus on two passions: All Day Buffet and Behance. Both ADB and Behance offer solutions to real problems: helping people do charity better, and helping creative people get more done, respectively. And while there’s a significant amount of thinking that goes into what he does, there’s also a lot of actual doing, too.
So what would I rather do, then? Be a thinker-doer: Come up with things and make them, sometimes with the help of others, sometimes without. I do not think this is a good way to get rich. But I do think it is a good way to get happy.