Category: December 2016

Knowledge, Hard Work & Post-Truthism

Warren Buffett once told a class of Columbia University MBA students that if they wanted to become successful investors, they should read and read and read – a lot – each day:

“Read 500 pages like this every day,” said Buffett, or words to that effect. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Dan Kanivas

I love me a table quiz. I haven’t been able to get to one for a long time, but there were a few years years there where some of us used to go quizzing most weeks. It was mostly just an excuse for social activity, but we walked away with prizes more often than not.

I find my own mind to be a bit of a contradiction sometimes – maybe yours is like this too. I struggle to immediately recall what I did a few days ago. I also struggle to tell you what I’m supposed to be doing in a couple of days time. But want me to name all 50 US states in under three minutes*? No problem.

I’m not a psychologist, neurologist or sociologist, so I don’t understand how it works – but I carry a lot of inane knowledge around. Many people are like this. My dad explained it very well a while ago, saying that when I was younger, I had clear phases: I would take a deep, immersive interest in something like dinosaurs or astronomy for a year or two, devour knowledge, and then move on to another interest.

(He might also add that unfortunately, one of these was film making, which just happened to coincide with university applications.)

I wonder if a lot of people’s childhoods look like this?

But then, somewhere, there’s a line. We cross the line, and, to a certain extent, put away our childish things. Perhaps some of us hold on to this immersion in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, whilst the more practical folk are probably more inclined to think of it as diversionary and distracting.

What’s my point?

In the Quora discussion referenced at the top, Warren Buffet is quoted ruminating on what made successful investors – in his opinion, hard hours spent consuming information.

2016 has been a year when ‘post-truthism‘ has come to the fore. As a species, we seem extremely inclined to ‘borrow’ truth – it must be true because that person said this thing via this medium: not because I have seen evidence for myself.

Yet I think people I admire are often connected via a common trait that stands against this – probably what is thought of as being ‘well read’.

I wonder if people who are ‘well read’ are really just people who carry over that childish desire to consume, learn and discover into adulthood. People who don’t put away the need to find out more for themselves – not through a proxy on screen, but through evidence read for themselves.

I’ve been studying a design degree for a few years now, and I think one of the skills central to its teaching is really something that has to be re-learnt: a playful sense of discovery and exploration.

Perhaps if we hadn’t put this away in adulthood, we wouldn’t be so quick to accept.

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

Oscar Wilde

Dropbox: Making a Video

One for the design process nerds: Dropbox’s Jason Mar penned this insightful interactive article on the making of a 1-minute promo.

Mind you – I’m not sure such a deeply-involved client approach would always be appreciated by a contractor!

Social Media Success

I don’t do any form of social media but I recognise some of its positive qualities. In an often solitary occupation it can forge links with other writers and make meaningful connections with readers. If it’s done in a sustained and interesting way I think it clearly has value but having friends and people who want to be friends, telling you that your work is wonderful shouldn’t be mistaken for a meaningful critical sounding board. Done badly the danger of course is that it runs the risk of being not much more than a series of coy selfies…

David Park

Back around the year 2000, my friend Dave and I started up a wrestling e-federation message board. It had its up and downs, but man, we sold the hell out of it. Before Web 2.0 even happened, we managed to spread the word and recruit players from across the globe – true online success. (Eventually, it was taking up too much time – 13 year old me was spending up to ten hours a week “writing” and coding content for the fictional wrassling match-ups involved – and I gave it away. Regrets, I’ve had a few.)

In a lovely Irish Times column, author David Park talks about some advice to younger writers, but in the quote above he plays towards something I’ve been mulling for a long-time: the illusion of certain level of online success.

About six years ago, I produced this video, which gained around 2,500,000 ‘loads’ (as Vimeo referred to them) in the first six months. In theory, that’s 2.5 million pairs of eyeballs passing over the content: a big hit. The speaker, Wilson Miner, delivered probably the greatest presentation I’ve ever witnessed in the flesh (here’s the rave review in Wired as testament to the hype.)

So in my mind, there’s one marker of success. But is that success a result of marketing (or more often, self-marketing)? Or is it because the content is of such outstanding quality?

Perhaps I’m not thinking at the level of big-name YouTubers or Twitter phenoms here. Let’s start again from a different angle.

In my past few jobs, successfully promoting events and content on social media has often been a focus. Hundreds of likes and clicks, thousands of impressions, each milestone celebrated with a certain degree of fervour.

I often feel like I pour cold water on the joy of others when I ask:

‘Ok – but what does this actually mean?’

A clear model of where I’m going here may be the local music industry. Back in the dark ages, success was easily measured in two ways: how many CDs you shifted, and how many people showed up to the gigs. (For the record: quite a few, but not enough.)

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed several musician friends struggling a little as to where social media fits in the business plan. It doesn’t cost much to get a couple of thousand followers, other than time and effort. But whilst, in popular terms, that might feel like success, followers don’t put food on the table.

In their recent, ‘We’re done with this’ announcement, Irish alt-rockers Fight Like Apes summed it up like this:

It’s a deadly time in so many ways to be in a band; you can have so much control over your work if you’re clever; you can release it how and when you like and in our opinion, right now, Ireland is the healthiest it’s ever been in terms of talent and diversity.

But, there are massive challenges for a lot of bands, mostly financial, that make this a tough job and sadly, those obstacles have become too big for us.

I think we all know that we’re going to hear announcements like this more often. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that we can’t keep producing records if you keep not paying for them. Bands are having to sell beautiful albums for €2.99, labels can’t give you as much support since they’re losing income too and our alternative radio stations are practically non existent now, meaning so many wonderful bands will not get a chance to get played on radio as they’ll be competing with huge pop acts.

Please buy your music in independent record stores or directly from the band.

Don’t fool yourself in to thinking that your £10 subscription to Deezer and Spotify helps us at all. It does not. Look how many bands are on there and do the maths.

Please go to gigs. Please buy merch.

FLA were a band I absolutely aspired to as a young musician – festivals, touring with big name acts, a sackful of awards, prominent in the alt rock scene. They accumulated millions of plays on YouTube, and millions of streams across the web.

They’re also a band who had to Kickstarter their last album just to raise the capital, and ultimately gave up because they couldn’t afford not to.

What is social media, really? Because I’ve quite literally had the job title ‘Social Media Assistant’, and I’m damned if I know.

Maybe David Park’s right:

I think under the radar is not always a bad place to be. You get to keep more of yourself.

Practical Idealism

One more semi-West Wing inspired line – and then I’m done, honestly.

Got in to it on Facebook last week with a number of political activists and a local party leader. (By the way: one of the really good things about  politics in Northern Ireland is that I’ve found, generally, that politicians of all stripes and levels are very accessible).

Context of the discussion aside, the point I was trying to get to was this: where is the line between standing immovably for a principle, and reaching out to those on the other side?

I asked how we bring about a change of heart in those who stand against us on an issue.

The party leader said that she felt progress wasn’t progress if the people involved didn’t have a real change of heart: that is, really care for those opposed to them. She also pointed out that my question was predicated on the assumption that everyone is open to a change of heart – and is this really the case?

Wikipedia says ‘Practical idealism‘ is:

a philosophy that holds it to be an ethical imperative to implement ideals of virtue or good. It further holds it to be equally immoral to either refuse to make the compromises necessary to realise high ideals, or to discard ideals in the name of expediency.

The activist who initiated the discussion argued passionately that although we should try and keep debates as positive as possible, he was also tired of constantly giving ground and allowing misinformation to prosper. Unlike me, he wasn’t willing to give any credit to someone who he saw as only changing their views upon realising that an issue might actually affect ‘people like me’.

As I said in reply: I have no idea where the line is between pragmatism and calling people out. But I do believe both voices are needed in the discussion.