On Becoming Unstuck
My last post was about three months ago and I’ve been meaning to write. Really. It’s just that I’ve been feeling a little “stuck” lately. Writer’s block, a euphemism for fear and laziness, has certainly played a part. But I’ve come to realize it’s much more than that.
2013 was a whirlwind. I made it to a milestone birthday, one with a zero in the last digit, in very fine form, thank you very much. Personally and professionally, it was one of the best, most rewarding years of my life.
So I celebrated my good fortune and respected my need to rest and rejuvenate by taking off the last two weeks of the year, which included a blissful week in Hawaii and more golf than I’ve played in quite some time.
One would think that I’d come back full of energy and enthusiasm after the New Year, but that was not the case. That’s not to say I shunned responsibility. I worked hard and gave clients my best efforts, as always.
Hard work is often its own reward, but it’s just one component of personal and professional fulfillment. And that’s especially true in these hyper-competitive times when great work is not enough, but just the ante to get into the game. Fine, you’re doing a wonderful job, but what else are you doing for me? How are you adding value and making me feel good about my association with you?
Not to beat myself up too badly, but my self assessments were raising some very uncomfortable questions, all pointing to a feeling that I just wasn’t doing enough in life. Where was the book I promised myself that I’d finish last year? Why did another year go by without breaking 80 on the golf course? Business was good, but why wasn’t it exponentially bigger and better? Will I ever make money while I sleep? Why am I still several pounds over my high school weight?
In reality, this thinking is illogical, unproductive and just not objectively accurate. In addition to finally developing a cohesive narrative and outline for my book and getting a lot of it written, I posted more than 20 essays last year. My golf game continues to improve, business is more than decent, and though I could be a few pounds thinner, I exercise at least an hour a day, six days a week and I’m in great shape. If that’s the case, what’s up with this “being stuck?”
Personal responsibility and internal motivation is one thing, but we don’t live in a vacuum. I’ve always put in the work, but there have been times when external events provided the motivation for truly significant change. The fiction of Kurt Vonnegut inspired a life long love of reading when I was in high school. The dawning of the new entrepreneurial age in the 1980’s and the democratization of technology lured me out of corporate life and into my own business. The raw emotion of Punk Rock revived my passion for music, providing a much needed antidote to the mechanical, manufactured, machine-made sound of disco.
When game-changing people or movements come along, we all seem more inspired. It’s far easier to ride along on a wave of fresh thinking and let it carry you to new heights than when your environment is more or less stagnant.
What’s inspired me lately? Not much. In fact, one could make a strong case that we’re not simply working in a stagnant environment, but a toxic one.
That’s surely true of our dysfunctional government and our economy. Technology continues to move ahead, most likely faster than we think, but what have the big stories been lately? A lot of Jetsons-type advances such as driverless cars and home environments that can be controlled on a smartphone. But in the absence of flying cars, these advances seem incremental, at best. Coming on the heels of NSA spying, they even seem a bit sinister, as Google and other tech companies will now have even more information about our every waking and non-waking moment.
The arts, with the exception of television where Netflix and the cable channels are delivering some exceptional, entirely original programming, there are more followers than leaders. Art for art’s sake seems to be a thing of the past. It’s not about the music, it’s about the “act” and the hit single. Adele is a rare exception. Janis Joplin could never make it today. She wasn’t pretty and didn’t have backup dancers.
Thinking about the many important anniversaries falling in 2014 further fueled my malaise. It was 50 years ago that LBJ declared the War on Poverty, 50 years ago that the Surgeon General released his report that directly linked smoking to cancer, 30 years ago that Apple’s “1984” commercial ran on the Super Bowl. But the milestone that is most personal and heartfelt for me is arrival of The Beatles in American and their live appearance on the Ed Sullivan show 50 years ago this February. The British Invasion was launched and a seismic shift in popular culture resulted.
Talk about inspiration. Or as we say in marketing, “laddering up.” The Beatles stood for freedom, independence, non-conformity, revolution, passion and sheer joy. If the gyrating hips of Elvis Presley was one of the first overtly sexual gestures expressed in pop music, The Beatles took it up several notches.
I might have only been a 5th grader at the time, but The Beatles told me in no uncertain terms that I didn’t have to do what everyone expected me to do and that being different wasn’t a bad thing after all. I could find my passion, embrace it, enjoy it, and still be successful. They made it safe for non-conformists to be accepted and get along in a conventional world.
This isn’t nostalgia talking. I don’t want to go back and relive that time or any other time in the past. Rather, I want to make my way to a brighter, fresher present and future. For me, it’s pathetic to see a septuagenarian Paul McCartney showing up on SNL and seemingly everywhere else these days, still acting the part of the “cute Beatle.” No one really cares (according to record sales), but he still insists on releasing new music that sounds like tired, derivative versions of his old Beatle’s songs. Actually, that goes for most of his solo career, but the new stuff makes “Just A Silly Love Song” sound like Sgt. Pepper. I love you Paulie, you changed my life for the better and brought me musical bliss I may never experience again. I know you’re older now, but that doesn’t mean you have to phone it in. If you still have it in you, take some chances and give us something to think about. If you fail, you fail. Otherwise, you’ve already given us “Abbey Road” and “Hey Jude.” No one is better off for the mediocre, horribly mistitled “New.”
Nor do we need another line extension of some big, boring packaged goods brand or incessant consumer and trade press about Super Bowl ads. It’s all old news, conventional choices masquerading as bold. It’s comforting to see good old Paul just as it’s comforting to see the Clydesdales. But it’s not inspiring.
Inspiration doesn’t come from comfort, it comes from change. When the world is abuzz with fresh thinking and things are changing at a dizzying pace, it seems to sweep us along with it. But when we are frustrated that things out of our control – and some within our control for that matter – aren’t changing for the better, we’ve got to find that inspiration somewhere else.
Now I’m unstuck. I’m writing, thinking, setting goals and taking the action needed to realize them. I’d love to provide the “Six Easy Steps To Inspiration,” but other than the usual – read, look at art, listen to music, talk to interesting people, go to the movies, etc. – I have only this insight. Simply, that the cure was the result of my own curiosity about why I was feeling this way. After working through the process, which didn’t really take that long, I once again realized that inspiration must come from within. Blaming a world gone wrong, rightly or wrongly, is entirely unproductive.
So instead of thinking how there is no contemporary equivalent of The Beatles, I thought, why not strive to be “Beatle-esque” in my own way. If I’m not willing to change the world, at least in a small way, then who will?
Which brings me around to the world of marketing. Say you’re a brand manager in a global toothpaste company. You can go along with the program and do your part in developing the next Colgate with Whitening and Mouthwash and Tartar Control and Caffeine and Sensitivity Protection and Pheromones and it’s also a hair gel and anti-aging moisturizer. Or you can figure out how to make your existing brand actually stand for something, bring out new products that are truly different and better, and reimagine the toothpaste aisle so it makes sense to consumers, rather than confusing them. It’s so easy to get drawn into “the system” and paint-by-numbers. There’s a seductive, numbing, comforting quality to that, and it’s so easy to fall back on “that’s they way our company works.”
But if that’s the way John & Paul thought, we’d never have “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”