Friday, March 18, 2011

Happiness is not about looking cool

I've been unhappy of late.

The Chicago late winter will do that.

The tease of March's menagerie of lions and lambs makes Mother Nature an alcoholic parent you find pissing in the new baseball glove she just bought for your birthday.

I've also been unhappy because of a 3 month span of trying to sell myself to a profession I thought I left so I could accommodate my wife's hopes.

My wife is from the East Coast and with the birth of our son she has been hoping to be closer to family. Her sister lives in Boston so I looked for jobs there.

I've worked in what is known as "Account Planning" for 10 years and about 3 years ago landed a job in a medical marketing agency. I never thought I'd enjoy the B2B nature of this market but took the job due to the scarcity of our new economy and have loved it.

My love stems from the people I work with and the information we get to work with. We are geeks. A land of misfit toys.
  • A cardiologist with a latex allergy who works deciphering clinical trials.
  • A flinty former punk-queen who left journalism to be a scientific writer and now mines data for new opportunities.
  • A PharmD who has a weather station on his condo roof as a hobby and prides himself on having followers in Japan who tune into his web-site to check the Uptown barometer.
We aren't cool but we annotate our data (we have to due to the multiple rounds of copy clearance we have to face).

The ideas we share seem intrinsic.

It is the secret of pharmaceutical marketing where you have clients who are Ph.Ds in things like bio-chemistry and therefore come to see what is real not by what is asserted with personality but proven with evidence.

It is a different type of selling and, although selling can suck, it doesn't suck as hard as my other 7 years in planning because it doesn't demand I pretend knowledge I don't have.

But my recent striving has been towards consumer agencies again and in my 3 years away much has changed and,in my mind, these changes are as illogical and disappointing as a Chicago March blizzard.

The driver of change is the multiple communication channels we have now. Various agencies sell themselves as prophets of the Interwebs with their trademarked social-media-strategic-models (usually using the term "friend" as a predicate) that are touted as the scriptural cure for a media agnostic environment.

The high priests of this religion are the Account Planners. I've written about the dangers of this clerical affiliation here and here.

And because I've been looking to be ordained again in the church of consumerism I've been unhappy.

I think the reason seems to be that the priest of this religion is so busy trying to convince himself (and his congregation) what it takes to be happy he has to live in the past, touting his agency's capabilities, or predict the future using selective information to confirm the bias towards his agency's capabilities; it just doesn't make the world a happy place.

Not surprisingly, I didn't make the cut at either agency. I think being a "Charlie in the Box" was not "Out of the Box" in the right way to properly anticipate I could offer the right kind of ulterior communion.

This reminded me of a New York Times Blog I read a few years back. It was written by philosophy professor Simon Critchley of The New School of Social Research.

(An aside - one of the ways I've tried to better work with the clinical data I have to communicate is by reading philosophy so I might spot logical fallacies and sharpen my critical thinking. This new interest seems like it may have been the cause to at least one of the reasons my reentry to the church of consumerism failed. It seems the "VP of Human Nature" at a big firm decided after a 30 minute conversation with me I wouldn't be a "doer" because I was too "philosophical" -- I would have loved to ask her what the attributes of "doer" are so I could fathom her antecedent arguments but . . . you get the point -- there is a pretense to the public intellectual about the Account Planning profession witnessed by this woman's job title which in reality doesn't operate as anything more than packaging).

The blog talks about happiness and the author hints that it is found in intrinsic experience when he writes,
"Happiness is not quantitative or measurable and it is not the object of any science, old or new. It cannot be gleaned from empirical surveys or programmed into individuals through a combination of behavioral therapy and anti-depressants. If it consists in anything, then I think that happiness is this feeling of existence, this sentiment of momentary self-sufficiency that is bound up with the experience of time."
Sadly, I think most consumer advertising misses this while asserting to be expert in it and I think it is why I'm glad I didn't make the cut.

I get to stay on the island of misfit toys and find intrinsic joy in the relationships I have rather than pretending I hold the secret to unlocking the happiness of future relationships with a "gameification" strategy (yes that is the latest trend title within the Account Planning world).

Jackie is supportive and understands that happiness wrought is an intimate thing and can't be created with pretense to biased interpretations of past success or self-centered assertions to future gains.

I'm glad we can get back to living in the moment rather than thinking that we need to position ourselves to be ride the next trend towards the future.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Skeptic in the Room

Most people think I am an asshole due to my opinions and therefore this might be my new anthem.

H/T to PZ

Job Vs. Vocation

Is your job your vocation? Mine isn't.

I've worked for the past 10 years in advertising as an Account Planner. That's been my job.

The past year I've gotten back to my vocation, playwriting.

I've come to see the difference between a job and a vocation because even though my job title is a Group Planning Director; I now work in scientific communications and promote regulated science and therefore no longer need to entertain the idea that the pseudo-science driving most consumer advertising "insight" is real. I work more as a scientific communications strategist working within strict guidelines and the limits of science rather than the "science" of account planning. See this for an example of said account planning "science".

I've also gotten back to practicing my first vocation, playwriting, by becoming a network playwright at Chicago Dramatists Theater and understand the vast difference between creativity and advertising.

Creativity tries to solve cultural problems that seem apparent.

Consumer advertising (or branding, or changing the conversation, or motivating talk between brands and people, or disrupting category conventions) invents problems to motivate corporate profits.

The former demands introspection, intellectualism, an appreciation for others while concerning oneself with the history of great ideas.

The latter demands jargon often based on ill-defined portmanteau and a pair of hipster eye-glasses.

I was drawn to the field of planning because the guy I worked for during a survival job stint between theater gigs ten years ago at a big Chicago ad agency was smart and kind.

I thought that he represented a job that invited an opportunity for humanism in business.

What I didn't understand was that this boss is what marketing people would call an "outlier".

He offered support when I tired of auditioning and financed my MBA while talking to me of things like Shakespeare and the history of mathematics.

Subsequent planning jobs have put me into situations where similarly smart and humane people in the practice have often longed to do something else.

One boss who hired me primarily because I was a playwright told me during a particularly frustrating day that he was looking to deter his daughter from pursuing advertising and how he wished he still sold skis in Aspen.

Another boss said to me when she was leaving the ad agency where she hired me, "In theory, planning is interesting . . ." (she expressed to me that in reality she probably would enjoy being a Pilates instructor).

The person I know who projects an air of necessity within account planning (and seems to enjoy it in almost a manic way) has admitted to never reading anything other than Good Magazine and likes to collect non-traditional versions of marketing collateral. He also expresses chagrin with a hint of self-deprecating pride when people comment on his combo outfit made up of ironic t-shirts he buys from Target over button down dress shirts.

He also repositioned an agency around a "social media theory" based on what he admitted was bad math to validate his opinion that brands that make friends are successful. When I pointed out to him that his theory seems to enable the post-hoc fallacy (mistaking correlation for causation) he responded by sending me to his slide share deck (because sharing ideas is cool) but didn't realize that the content in the deck validated the reality he enjoys the post-hoc fallacy.

I'd suggest you check out any major ad agency web-site right now and ask yourself if the personalties projected there don't remind you of the Soma-stuffed idiots from Huxley's dystopian vision in "Brave New World" (for those band planners reading this, "Brave New World" is a novel written by a man named Aldous Huxley who looked to understand applied ethics using the genre of science fiction. A novel is a book which is sort of like a trend-report only longer with no pictures. And genre means a type of story, sort of like the intellect's version of an SKU.)

I'm grateful for my job and I like many of the people I work with now that I get to deal with real rather than invented science but have revisited the world of consumer advertising recently, by joining a couple of account planning groups on social media sites, and realize that the joy planners have with their fuzzy reality is something I think is unreal.

I can only hope that those who celebrate the efficacy of account planning will be made to validate their european eye-glasses and show how their trend mining into the social media eco-system actually leads to real results.

I have a feeling however that it will be exposed for the hucksterism it is and be regulated to the world of dousing and homeopathy.

I expect an ironic t-shirt coming to your nearest Target to announce this.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reinforcing Taboos Worries Me

What makes "New Atheism" novel is not its atheism but its desire to hold religious truth assertions up to the same method of higher criticism we hold other truth assertions.

Sam Harris makes mention of this when he says,
"It is taboo in our society to criticize a persons religious faith... these taboos are offensive, deeply unreasonable, but worse than that, they are getting people killed. This is really my concern. My concern is that our religions, the diversity of our religious doctrines, is going to get us killed. I'm worried that our religious discourse- our religious beliefs are ultimately incompatible with civilization."
It is the willingness to address taboo due to founded worry in the actions of believers that is "new" in "New Atheism". When I investigated Harris's arguments I recognized I agreed with this and wondered why I called myself religious.

He seems to only reinforce the deep entrenchment of the taboo against religious criticism. The article seems to suggest that there is a form of bullying even in the most mild form of suggesting that non-belief in one's childhood religion is in reality non-belief. It isn't. It is an invitation to honesty and fact.

The fact that an atheist journalist would dismiss the distinction seems very much evidence of a need to reinforce taboos and It is worrying.

Not criticizing privileged myth encourages ignorance and pretending that religion and faith are somehow distinct is dishonest.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tweeting, The Loss of Surprise, Modesty and Common Enterprise

My friend Lori shared a column yesterday by David Brooks entitled "The Modesty Manifesto".

Brooks's point is that our current social ills might be an effect caused by our inflated sense of our selves. I balked at this notion at first but changed my mind. I think Brooks is right.

My mind was changed when I considered his premise relative to another day within the advertising community and the adoration for the increase in unoriginal observation facilitated by Twitter and Facebook status updates.

I remember when being "followed" was a sign of paranoia or a federal investigation not a pretense to importance based on 140 characters.

Brooks writes,
"In short, there’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion."
My sensitivities to this may be enhanced by the surfeit of pride exhibited by social media strategists who speak of consumer "eco-systems" in tones that can only honestly be defined as pseudo-intellectual. I mean when did "people-pleasing" become an avenue for insight into human nature? My survival job too often sacrifices intellectual rumination and deep thought to the acronym adorned altar of social media.

The providing philosophy of the industry is predicated on normalizing the self-erosion found in popularity contests.

Which of course is driven by the fallacy that everyone is an individual as long as everyone's individuality mirrors the individuality of everyone else.

It seems that the level of scrutiny that empowered the parachute pants rage in my teens is now the considered form of self and social reflection. Fads will always be a constant in our lives because we are social animals and our evolved survival instinct makes us want to be accepted by the herd but today the time horizon for fad adoption and rejection is measured in hours rather than months.

Does the lack of privacy we invite with every social experience we encounter lead us to a damaged sense of modesty which deprives us of the level of idiosyncratic joy that inspired the first parachute pants wearer to don his pseudo-military garb and "pop and lock" at the back-to-school dance?

I love social media and am addicted to Facebook and have a Twitter account (which I use as a news feed mostly) but think it might be healthy for our culture to investigate the encroachment on modesty and privacy these technologies have and how the instantaneous publishing possibilities they render keep us from paying attention when new ideas demand reflection rather than tweeting.

I was researching depression yesterday which led me to listen to Nirvana and that reminded me of their acoustic gig on MTV where Cobain finished the set with the Leadbelly tune "Where did you Sleep Last Night". I YouTubed the performance and watched it.

Two things struck me.

Everyone in the audience was staring at this grunge god croaking out a folk-song about murder (no one was tweeting) and the performance made me long for the time when an artist might make the "F-it" adjustment and share a real risk based in a long-held private love that informed his entertainment (but might have contradicted his expected brand image).

The former observation is simply a recognition of the innovation adoption curve with MTV as an artifact but the latter seems to me evidence of why I think instantaneous reach for everyone is troubling.

Cobain loved folk music and if you listen beneath the dropped D tunings and distortion peddles of his grunge hits you will hear the same melodious rumble that drives great story songs.

That love demands time, awe, and modesty enjoyed in a very private space where the inspiration for the affection can become personalized with rumination.

I don't think we have the same sense of slowness today but instead are addicted to the speed at which we can emoticon our every nano-second and somehow think this is allowing us an honest understanding of our selves.

My industry of course encourages this behavior because the shape of the flock and its density is all that matters when considering the price of bird-feed.

But the thing we are missing when chasing after all of our tweets is that true evolutionary adaptation happens at the local level.

From the outside it looks like starling group flight is the work of a grand choreographer and the beauty of its design is rooted in the sameness of its constituents.

It isn't.

The flock only occurs because local biological laws within individual birds correspond to the environment in such a way to create the flock.

The real beauty is the individual adaptation made at the organism, even cellular level, not the product of these local laws.

The flock of starlings that offer grand geometric predictability is predicated on an individual bird's response mechanism to her immediate surroundings.

Cobain's passionate performance was predicated on his local response to his immediate surroundings.

Both adaptations take an appreciation of time working on individuals that seems ill-afforded in our current media space.

When I consider the emphasis we place on our personal uniqueness and desire to be followed I worry about our common good and the ideas we miss for the desire to be the first to announce how special we are.

Or as Brooks says,
"Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Religion and Dissonance Theory

My latest interest is dissonance theory.

Phil Zuckerman has a great piece at Huffington Post that does a nice job of illustrating the theory at work.

He focuses on the contradicting practice and theory of modern American Christian theology and its seeming hatred towards the positions taken by the man, Jesus, believers call their "Lord and Savior".

He illuminates how this hatred isn't really a conscience contempt but rather it reveals a confirmation bias that ameliorates the prosperity American Evangelicals enjoy which would be anathema to the eschatology of Jesus's 1st C. Apocalyptic Judaism.

"Evangelicals don't exactly hate Jesus -- as we've provocatively asserted in the title of this piece. They do love him dearly. But not because of what he tried to teach humanity. Rather, Evangelicals love Jesus for what he does for them. Through his magical grace, and by shedding his precious blood, Jesus saves Evangelicals from everlasting torture in hell, and guarantees them a premium, luxury villa in heaven. For this, and this only, they love him. They can't stop thanking him. And yet, as for Jesus himself -- his core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice, his core commandments of goodwill -- most Evangelicals seem to have nothing but disdain."

If Social Media is High School I need a Guidance Counselor

My wife is an introvert and I am a misanthrope so in this age of social media that means she is often AWOL on common forms of communication and I am hostile.

SmartBlog on Social Media has a recent post on 10 tips for social media introverts. This trips off some dissonance for me. I had hopes that social media meant that I didn't need to worry about the pretty people and the nerds might win.

For the love of Kurt Cobain's shot-gun blasted ghost can't we all just enjoy flying our individual freak flags rather than using the creative power of social media to conform?

Here's what they say:
  1. Pick your playground. Decide how you want to position yourself on the social media platforms you wish to participate in. Do you want to keep your professional and personal lives separate? Position yourself for where you want to be.
  2. Wear the uniform. Stake out your name on various social media platforms. If you have a common name, consider how you will distinguish yourself. How will you brand yourself on social media? Think tag lines, background colors, photographs, videos and links.
  3. Realize that you’re not alone. On each platform, find your family and friends for personal interactions and customers and colleagues for business engagement. Reach out to them on these platforms and personalize your communications. This is an easy way to develop a social media tribe and catch up at the same time.
  4. Mind your manners. Social media is small talk on a public online platform that has a very long memory. Remember people’s birthdays to show you care. Comment on people’s walls, the social media equivalent of chit-chat. But don’t overshare — even your mother doesn’t want to know everything you’re doing.
  5. Learn the lingo. Remember how the cool kids had their own verbal shorthand? So do social media networks such as Twitter. It’s just the social media version of pig Latin. Also, note that some social media platforms allow many-to-many communications in addition to one-to-one and one-to-many.
  6. Join extracurricular activities. Like in high school, here’s where the action is. This is the path to joining the in-crowd. Among the places to look are Facebook fan pages, LinkedIn Groups and Twitter Chats. Here, I strongly recommend #UsGuys and #TweetDiner since they’re welcoming to new members.
  7. Share your knowledge. Like helping others during study hall, here’s where you can contribute to the community and show what you know. While no one likes a show-off, social media networks have the goal of sharing useful information and entertaining content. For example, provide insights on LinkedIn Questions and Answers, or add your feedback on ratings and review sites like TripAdvisor.
  8. Pay it forward. Get over yourself! Social media’s about the community, not you. To this end, help others with targeted information, retweet other people’s more interesting tweets, and comment on other people’s blogs. Also, think about recommending former and current colleagues, staff and bosses on LinkedIn.
  9. Be the star of your social media story. Use videos and photographs to build an online version of yourself that’s more engaging and outgoing. Invite others to engage with you and your business.
  10. Make a date to get together. Unlike all of the above-mentioned actions that you can do from the comfort of your desk, this means actually getting out from behind your computer and meeting people in real life. Use MeetUp to find other like-minded people and activities that are fun and helpful to your business. Meeting your social media buddies face to face is a great way to strengthen relationships.
In fairness, these seem like good ideas to play nice on the 'net but what if High School was a time where popularity seemed elusive and bred contempt? I guess if you are like me then you will have to wait for the 10 tips for social media misfits.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why I Love the Theatre - Its Humanism

When I am not expressing political or religious opinions that enflame others and alienate my friends I spend my time writing plays.

I've had a few plays produced and have had some staged readings of other scripts and I study writing at Chicago Dramatists Theater.

I also attend as much theater as I can afford to see (being the Dad of a 9 and 1/2 month old limits my time and discretionary income).

I fell in love with the theater while in college where I experienced an interpretation of Spalding Gray's adaptation of Chekhov's Rivkala's Ring. I was amazed by the willingness of an actor (Jay Magee, who later became my friend and mentor) to stand in an empty space and have a conversation with strangers sitting in the dark.

Theater does what no other medium can do because of its transitory reality. When it is done it is done. No two theater performances are alike and if you have ever worked on a show you will know this (for good and bad). You will also know that despite the attention the actor's receive, the entire company holds a level of mutual respect for one another that I have yet to experience anywhere else. I think this exists because without any one of the many crafts-people that conspire to create theater the transitory moments that make up its magic could not be realized.

"You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others."

I urge you to go to the theater (or better yet work on a show) and feel the full effects of your own humanism.

H/T Pat Foltz

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Was Wrong

I was wrong. How often am I willing to say that? How sincere am I when I say it? Is it an honest expression of new information gained or simply a tactic to diffuse conflict?

When faced with flat criticism of our selves that challenges a core sense of our self-identity we experience cognitive dissonance (that spike of spite that stops agreement with oneself or others) and turns us all into Arthur Fonzerelli in our capacity to say, "I was wrong."

Yesterday I listened to a podcast from the James Randi Educational Foundation and their show "For Good Reason" with DJ Grothe where he intereviewed Carol Tavris. Tavris describes dissonance theory and confirmation bias. The former being the upsetting feeling we experience when faced with criticism that contradicts our self-image and the latter being the stories we tell ourselves to wish away the upsetting feeling.

Tavris also discusses tactics in conversation when faced with cognitive dissonance and how one might be tempted towards confirmation bias. What is the goal when challenging contrary ideas? Is it simply to debunk someone we disagree with or is it to alter that person's perspective so we both can find information that will afford a shared sense of knowledge? Debunking affords emotional release but often reinforces confirmation bias due to the cognitive dissonance it generates. Once again this illustrates the virtue of skepticism and how often "critical thought" can be simply criticism practiced for emotional equilibrium. Cognitive dissonance can be ameliorated by a lot of confirmation bias but the forward thrust of education is stifled because the confirmation bias one practices also creates dissonance in another which in turn leads to further confirmation bias etc ...

It was a good podcast and afforded me a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance where I had to wrestle with confirmation bias last night and consider how my past actions may have contradicted my desire for critical thinking.

When faced with the discomfort of competing ideas it seems wise to understand the discomfort rather than reacting to it.