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For All Your(e) Worth

Seth Godin had a post on entitlement versus worthiness a couple weeks ago. There was a lot in there to unpack and I am not sure I have wrapped my head around it enough to know if what he posits is entirely true or not, but I thought I would toss it out there for general discussion.

There is a lot in the post that is applicable to the arts. Perhaps most obvious is the following:

Both entitlement and unworthiness are the work of the resistance. The twin narratives make us bitter, encourage us to be ungenerous, keep us stuck. Divas are divas because they’ve tricked themselves into believing both narratives–that they’re not getting what they’re entitled to, and, perversely, that they’re not worth what they’re getting.

At first I wondered if it were really true that divas felt like they weren’t worth what they were getting. Then I thought about all the conflicting narratives associated with art.

On the one hand you have the entitlement ideas: the prescriptive view that arts are good for everyone; if people just saw our work once, they would be hooked; arts participation as a sign of maturity and culture; one’s practice being “true” art versus that of others.

Compare that with the sense of worth associated with the arts: low pay; suffer for your art; making money=selling out; arts education isn’t important in schools; arts careers are dead ends.

In that context, it is easier to see why you can feel both entitled to more, but worth less, than you are getting.

Godin continues with some concepts that have likely passed through the minds of many in the arts on more than one occasion. (emphasis mine)

The entitled yet frightened voice says, “What’s the point of contributing if those people aren’t going to appreciate it sufficiently?” And the defensive unworthy voice says, “What’s the point of shipping the work if I don’t think I’m worthy of being paid attention to…”

The universe, it turns out, owes each of us very little indeed. Hard work and the dangerous commitment to doing something that matters doesn’t get us a guaranteed wheelbarrow of prizes… but what it does do is help us understand our worth. That worth, over time, can become an obligation, the chance to do our best work and to contribute to communities we care about.

When the work is worth it, make more of it, because you can, and because you’re generous enough to share it.

Those last couple sentences about contributing to communities and making more because you’re generous to share it are essential cornerstone sentiments of the non-profit arts.

Where I pause is at the question of, “are you generous enough to share it” for free? There is a lot of debate in the arts about working “for the exposure” that Godin’s post brushes up against.

While his stressing the that hard work does help us understand our worth does imply that one should be receiving their worth, the way he ends his post doesn’t definitively settle the question about whether you should hold out for what you are worth.

“I’m not worthy,” isn’t a useful way to respond to success. And neither is, “that’s it?”

It might be better if we were just a bit better at saying, “thank you.”

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Can You Care In An Unreasonable Way?

Seth Godin says he figures Apple computers reached their peak about three years ago.

Since then, we’ve seen:

Operating systems that aren’t faster or more reliable at running key apps, merely more like the iPhone…

Geniuses at the Genius Bar who are trained to use a manual and to triage, not to actually make things work better…

Software like Keynote, iMovie and iTunes that doesn’t get consistently better, but instead, serves other corporate goals. We don’t know the names of the people behind these products, because there isn’t a public, connected leader behind each of them, they’re anonymous bits of a corporate whole.

Compare this approach to the one taken by Nisus, the makers of my favorite word processor. An organization with a single-minded focus on making something that works, keeping a promise to users, not investors.

Mostly, a brand’s products begin to peak when no one seems to care. Sure, the organization ostensibly cares, but great tools and products and work require a person to care in an apparently unreasonable way.

If you are nodding your head in agreement upon recognizing that Apple’s achievements have sort of leveled out, stop a second and think about whether you are running things to make them better or just to triage and serve organizational goals.

When I read the sentence about the software not getting better but serving other corporate goals, Trevor O’Donnell’s posts about marketing reinforcing the arts organization’s image of themselves, rather than reinforcing the customer’s image of themselves having a good time, came to mind.

Obviously there is more involved with offering consistently better experiences to those who participate in the events and services you provide than good marketing. Good service, good marketing, good environment are all interdependent.

It is difficult to recognize issues that exist when you are close and involved with them which is why the Apple example is so useful. When we realize that some elements of a highly successful company have leveled off, it becomes a little easier to perceive parallels in our own operations.

The real challenge comes in the last sentence of Godin’s I quoted. What are the areas in which you and your staff can care in unreasonable ways?

What does that mean? What does it look like for your organization? Your customers can probably give you a hint if you ask (they may be already telling you, emphatically and unsolicited).

There may be people in your organization already invested in something with an unreasonable degree of care who are assets to your organization. It may not be necessary for everyone in your organization to all care about the same thing in order for you to be successful.

Given the number of hats worn by people in non-profit arts organizations, it would be a blessing if you had even a few employees that exhibited unreasonable care in different areas in a manner that was balanced within the organization and within themselves. (Trying to channel unreasonable care into all your areas of responsibility is likely to drive you crazy).

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They Sacrifice Virgins At The Symphony, Don’t They?

Back in April Seth Godin talked about how most purchases are either to replenish something you have or are familiar with; or it is exploring something new.

If you sell an exploration, your customer is taking a chance. Sometimes magnifying that chance fits the worldview of the purchaser, and sometimes minimizing the risk is precisely what the purchaser is seeking.
[…]

This is almost never talked about by marketers, but it’s at the core of the strategy choices that follow.

Most of the time in the arts we talk about the need to minimize the risk of new audiences. We need to make our programming, pricing and other elements in our control more accessible so that people are willing to hire a babysitter and make the drive to our event. We don’t want them going home feeling like it isn’t worth it.

I haven’t really heard a lot of conversation about magnifying the risk. I wouldn’t even have thought in those terms except that Godin links “magnifying” to a TED Talk where JJ Abrams talks about how people felt utterly stupefied trying to figure out what the heck was happening on the show Lost.

That is when I realized—people will accept having their risk magnified when they feel like that risk is shared by others. If no one knows what is happening on Lost, everyone bonds over sharing their theories, etc. People are willing to go in to Haunted Houses and ride roller coasters because everyone will be screaming.

On the other hand, when you perceive you will be participating in an activity with group of people already in the know, you are less willing to accept risk. Arts organizations are familiar with the anxiety people have about not knowing how to dress, when to clap, etc. and frequently move to minimize the perceived risk.

Having friends (or a horde of people on social media) provide assurances that you will enjoy yourself, (including helping you understand the experience), can reduce that risk aversity. Arts orgs don’t have too much direct influence in that sphere other than to really promote what others have said about the experience and provide materials that can assist in understanding it.

Is it possible for an arts group to offer a live experience that magnifies risk? You betcha. The first thing that came to my mind was Sleep No More where attendees wander through a building interacting with actors in an adaptation of MacBeth.

It has been wildly popular, but I think my theory about risk tolerance is apt. When the show first opened, everyone was on a level playing field where no one knew what the heck was going on. As I noted in an earlier post the show has become less enjoyable for new attendees because people in the know have begun to hijack the narrative and intercept experiences. This has started to create a little more wariness among those who consider attending.

All this being said, I think people tend to be more risk averse than they once were. Think about it, could the cult of the Rocky Horror Picture Show started up during the last decade or so?

As a person who has never attended you are faced with going to an event held at midnight in a room full of people in costume who are certainly well versed in rituals and responses of the evening. Attention is drawn to all new attendees who are raucously branded as virgins, some of whom are pulled up to participate in a virgin sacrifice. Given the prospect of all of this being posted on social media, would enough new people have gone to keep it sustained for nearly 40 years?

In that context, attending the symphony for the first time seems like a really comfortable choice. But then again, if a symphony gave the appearance of being as fun as attending Rocky Horror, would you chance being the center of attention for a thousand people for 5 minutes? Does that mean the symphony experience is far too tame for its own good?

I think it would be healthy if everyone started to think about what they could do that would magnify the risk for audiences for audiences that look for those type of experiences. Maybe nothing comes of it for a year or five or so, but I feel like it runs counter to the basic impulse of people in a creative field to be constantly thinking about how they can minimize the risk for audiences.

I am not saying that artists don’t go through this thought process, but managers who deal with financial reports all day may be most apt to fall into the rut of minimization thinking. Maybe thinking in the other direction would be better for their mental health. Maybe what you need to do can’t be done where you are working now and a side collaboration with others is the answer.

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Distract Me From My Distraction

I frequently cite Seth Godin’s blog posts because so much of what he writes is applicable to arts organizations and an observation he made last week was no exception.

He says we spend too much time teaching people technique when it is really commitment to endure failure and frustration that allows people to become skilled at something.

But most people don’t want to commit until after they’ve discovered that they can be good at something. So they say, “teach me, while I stand here on one foot, teach me while I gossip with my friends via text, teach me while I wander off to other things. And, sure, if the teaching sticks, then I’ll commit.”

We’d be a lot more successful if organized schooling was all about creating an atmosphere where we can sell commitment (and where people will buy it). A committed student with access to resources is almost unstoppable.

I think most people in the arts can identify with the feeling that they are being challenged to capture and hold people’s attention while they engage in some other activity. While distracting people from what they are doing has always been something of a function of advertising, these days arts organizations are faced with the unspoken challenge at their own events of “try to distract me back from my distraction and maybe I will pay attention.”

Teaching in the framework of commitment rather than technique would probably have profound implications for the education system because it would diminish the mindset of retaining knowledge long enough to pass the test. It might necessitate the elimination of the vast majority of tests. (I say “might” since Japan has a culture that emphasizes committed pursuit of excellence in an endeavor and they also have a lot of testing in schools.)

The people shaped by an education focused on commitment might not be any better disposed to the arts than people are today, but presumably those who did attend a performance or enter a museum would arrive with the intent of directing their attention to the experience.

Godin doesn’t really say what commitment focused education would look like. I think it would be easy default to repetition of task. But playing the piano for hours or sitting outside the kung fu master’s house in the rain is only proof of commitment, it doesn’t instill or model it as part of the education process.

I would think experiential learning would be a part of it. Witnessing people go through a process and going through a process yourself begins to give you a sense of the level of attention and commitment  involved.

The arts can play a big role in this as preparing a canvas, working with clay and rehearsing for a performance are all labor intensive and time consuming. But the same can be said for preparing for a science experiment and that fact can be underscored by visiting labs or formulating your own experiments.

A slight shift in emphasis in talking about history can add a conversation about the effort someone went through to research, assemble and restore an artifact to a discussion of the history of the artifact. Again, reinforcing the importance of dedication rather than just emphasizing dates and facts.

Of course,  skill of delivery will still determine whether anyone is interested in learning about history.

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