Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lunch Tables, Dogooders, and Metaphorical Music

Day before yesterday, Stacey Monk, founder of Epic Change, a nonprofit that "helps hopeful people in need share their stories," wrote about dogooder communities. While she enjoys the company and appreciates the support, she thinks it's time to branch out...

There’s these kids sitting at the other lunch tables in our global cafeteria. They’re jocks, geeks, artists, musicians and cheerleaders…and we need their help. Doing good isn’t our job, it’s everyone’s. And as long as changing the world is relegated to a sector, it will never happen.

I agree. And, to Stacey's metaphorical problem, I offer a partial (but metaphorical) solution.

Bridge songs.

The songs you use to convince rookies and skeptics that the musicians you love are worthy. Maybe not the best songs. Probably not even your favorites. But the ones that can make disproportionately good first impressions. The ones that are least intimidating. The ones that get people humming along immediately. The ones that broaden the fanbase.

So, maybe, before Stacey takes her tray over to the punk rockers' table, she should have a quick listen through the tape in her boombox and make sure it's rewinded strategically.

Just exactly which songs bridge best when played for punk rockers, I don't know. As I said, this is a partial solution (and solution probably isn't the right word). But maybe ask the punk rocker that sits behind you in Algebra II. Or, maybe better, ask the dogooder that used to eat lunch with the punk rockers...

Well, Stacey, that's what I got for you right now, at 4pm on a rainy Tuesday. You recognize something important, and you're calling for a good thing. I'll do my best to do my part.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Leading By Letting Go

While Danny was visiting, he got an email.

He works with artists. He gives them assignments. They draw. He gives feedback. They draw some more. And then he prints tee shirts.

The email made him smile big.

He called me over to have a look.

It was a gorgeously colorful drawing of Andy Warhol as an auto mechanic.

He said it was by far the best thing he'd ever seen that artist do.

And he thought he knew why it was so good:

The thing she did was do something I didn't ask her to do.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Expediency Vs. Efficiency

A few days ago, Lauren ordered three books on Amazon.

None were immediately available, so Amazon gave her the group my items into as few shipments as possible option. She chose it, figuring it'd save fuel and packaging. And she felt both good and grateful to Amazon for letting her choose patience and efficiency.

Then, today, she got an email:

We thought you'd like to know that we shipped this portion of your order separately to give you quicker
service. You won't be charged any extra shipping fees, and the remainder of your order will follow as soon as those items become available.


I guess the next step is to tell Amazon's magician logicians that their automated customer service system needs to get a little more discerning when evaluating opportunities to impress...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Two Peas in the Soup

Danny's here.

He's a rookie entrepreneur too. And a writer. And a teacher. And an aspiring but unimpressive competitive eater.

I love getting advice from people that know what they're talking about, but there's something extra special amazing about talking business with someone that knows as little as I do, admits and understands that, and thinks the thing to do is to go for it anyway.

Monday, June 22, 2009

More Than Abundant

I wrote the word corn yesterday. It made me think of syrup and advertising. Which sent me on a search for an ad. Which reminded me of an interview with Earl Butz.

In King Corn, a documentary about a couple of kids that want to see what it's like to farm with the big boys, filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney ask Butz, Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration, why he created corn subsidies.

Butz, a quiet old man in the interview, said his goal was abundant, inexpensive food. He didn't want Americans to worry about going hungry. He wanted food to be a given, something everyone could always afford, something that didn't get in the way of the rest of people's lives.

I don't doubt his sincerity. I don't disagree with his goals. And I think he was on to something. But he created a monster.

And one reason that happened, it seems to me, is that he didn't dream big enough. Abundant and inexpensive was enough for him. He lacked the imagination - or the courage - or the energy - to strive for inexpensive, abundant, and healthy - for people and for the planet.

The good news is that imagination and courage and energy do exist, and there's at least one city of 2.5 million, in one big developing country, that's learning to feed itself well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Smells Like Money to Me

I'm a little worried that the first half of this preview is going to chase people away. But wait for the music to change; it gets good...

People have gotta start demanding good, wholesome food of us, and we'll deliver, I promise you.

Crazy that something that simple - that fundamental - that obvious - is so hard to do.

Big world, I guess. Lotta corn. Lotta junk food. Lotta money invested in both.

But you never know. The right story told the right way could change everything. Good luck, Food, Inc.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Tail And The Chute

I've been living with my now 88 year-old grandfather for about 18 months, and hardly a day's gone by without him hassling me about one aspect of The Carrot Project or another.

He knows just about everything about everything at this point: plans, dreams, challenges, lessons learned, sleep lost. And there's no subject on which he doesn't have advice.

Less than three months from now, however, I'll be living in LA, and not having him around will be a bit of an adjustment.

Or, if you ask him, a bit of a worry.

This, from tonight, at my mother's house, where Hal and I were having dinner...

I'm gonna miss this one.

He's deserting me, you know?

Which means I won't be around to grab his tail as he goes up the chute and pull him back to reality.

No question it's the unrelentingly improbable bigness of the vision that sparks the highest intensity commentary.

But, grumbly as that commentary often sounds, I know it's improbable bigness that he loves most.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is Partially Ever Enough?

About a month ago, Coke announced that they were going to start integrating plant materials into their plastic bottles.

They got some cautiously optimistic love on the internets for it. And, when they actually launch the PlantBottle, they'll get some more.

But my humble prediction is that 30% plant materials, regardless of the positive impact that'll have environmentally, won't earn them significant trust or loyalty or increased market share.

30% isn't big enough. It's not a good enough story. It's not a revolution.

It betrays, to use a word I learned from Gary Vaynerchuk, half-pregnancy.

And that's a bummer, because Coke's doing a good thing.

But the feeling that 30% isn't enough is a good thing too, because while Coke recognizes and admits that it's a bad idea to use petroleum-based plastics to package their liquids, they still feel ok about using bottles that are made of 70% petroleum-based plastics, and that is a bummer.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Weird The Things That Frustrate Me

A year ago, 16 year-old Daniel Burd won a big Canadian science fair by befriending plastic-eating bacteria and making a grocery bag disappear in three months.

And that's it. No news since.

Shouldn't someone have taken Daniel's research and run with it? Shouldn't biodegradation of plastic be a massively sexy opportunity and attract armies of the world's most brilliant and innovative minds? Shouldn't everything be different by now?

I guess I might be unreasonably impatient with science and engineering. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for bacteria...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Measuring Global Innovation

From Stephen Johnson's Time Magazine cover story about Twitter, The Open Conversation, The Super-Fresh Web, and End-User Innovation:

When we talk about innovation and global competitiveness, we tend to fall back on the easy metric of patents and Ph.D.s. It turns out the U.S. share of both has been in steady decline since peaking in the early '70s. (In 1970, more than 50% of the world's graduate degrees in science and engineering were issued by U.S. universities.) Since the mid-'80s, a long progression of doomsayers have warned that our declining market share in the patents-and-Ph.D.s business augurs dark times for American innovation. The specific threats have changed. It was the Japanese who would destroy us in the '80s; now it's China and India.

But what actually happened to American innovation during that period? We came up with America Online, Netscape, Amazon, Google, Blogger, Wikipedia, Craigslist, TiVo, Netflix, eBay, the iPod and iPhone, Xbox, Facebook and Twitter itself. Sure, we didn't build the Prius or the Wii, but if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the U.S. has been lapping the field for the past 20 years.

I realize that it might be a bit problematic that I've let my thoughts drift so far from the hit consumer technology products context here, but I have, and I think it's worth noting (and a bummer) that there are no innovations on that list that relate directly to food, water, health, materials, or (except for the Prius) energy.

Information exchange is valuable, long-term, for everyone and everything. So no question about the fact that Wikipedia and Google (and probably Facebook and Twitter) are important. But I don't think it's a good idea to "measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products" if you consider video game systems and software that lets you rewind your TV to be fundamentally lifestyle-changing.

Innovations, if we're going to celebrate them - if we're going to define our country's economic and education systems by them - should change a whole lot more than the ways in which we in the developed world entertain ourselves.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Work

The first time I read Bird By Bird, it strengthened my love for baseball. It reminded me that I'm not a total lunatic for (or at least not alone in) loving the Phillies so much that I want to jump and scream and hug every other Phils' fan every time Jimmy Rollins gets a hit.

I'm reading it again.

And this time it's strengthening my love for the imperfectly organized pursuit of big, improbable dreams...

The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You'll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won't do any of those things; you'll never get in that way.

Now replace writing with working on a project the goal of which is to make meaningful change. And replace being published with making money or getting recognized or exploding into household name hugeness.

Making that meaningful change might require money or hugeness or recognition, of course, and that's an important crack in the analogy.

And an important reality for us dreamers to keep in mind.

But not as important to keep in mind, I don't think, as the fact that good things don't happen because of commitment to The Result (the high five, the payoff, the name in lights); they happen because of commitment to The Work.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Spontaneous Wisdom of the Day

Running a business is one of the hardest things you can do. And if you're gonna do it, you'd better be ready to use your fucking imagination.

That's Hal, my grandfather, frustrated at General Motors for investing in luxury and power instead of fundamental, truly transportation-related, potentially game-changing technology (aerodynamics, advanced materials, hybrid engines, etc.).

I think it's a fun quote with or without the context.