The long, hard, stupid way

Later this month I’m speaking at the DO Lectures, and as part of my preparation I wanted to see a few of the lectures to get a flavor for the event and the talks. From the DO site I randomly picked the first popular talk, Frank Chimero’s “Do things the long, hard, stupid way.”

Of course, the talk is all about giving gifts. Kismet.

Frank describes himself as a “graphic designer, teacher and writer,” who, of course, does a talk with no slides (because that’s the “long, hard, and stupid way” for a graphic designer to give a talk).

The “long, hard, stupid” quotation comes from David Chang, celebrated restaurateur and proprietor of one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Momofuku on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. According to Frank, David once bit the head off of a line cook at one of his restaurants for taking a shortcut in making a dish, excoriating him because, “Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.”

(I actually made David Chang’s Momofuku ramen from scratch once, in December 2010 right before I stopped eating meat. It took about 40 hours from start to finish and it definitely IS a long, hard, stupid recipe. It is also unbearably, fabulously delicious. Here’s the photo).

“Long, hard and stupid” is about doing things that don’t make sense in the traditional sense. “Long, hard and stupid” is about care and craftsmanship and love.

Frank’s talk is mostly about gift-giving, going deep into what makes a gift a gift. A gift isn’t the brightest, shiniest thing, it something which has value put into it by the giver. The giver of a gift lets go of something she can never fully get back. There’s a reason why parents keep birthday cards from their kids for decades.

Something about Frank’s talk connected a lot of dots for me. My father is a concert pianist and, romantic notions of what that’s like notwithstanding, growing up hearing my father practice meant experiencing, vicariously, the “long, hard, stupid way” every day. The way he practices is far beyond reasonable, far beyond what might make sense or be efficient by any objective standard. It is about perfection. It is based on drive and love and the pursuit of something that only he sees.

So, when I was in 6th grade, he was stuck on a particularly tricky passage of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and he’d call me to his piano every two weeks to say “I’ve got it!” and he’d play the passage for me. It would sound perfect. A few days later he’d be back to the drawing board with a new fingering, and a few weeks later that would also sound perfect. And on and on he’d go, for months. In the midst of this madness, I was walking to school one day and a big truck honked – I actually heard the start of those same 32 measures that I’d heard, at that point, hundreds of times. That might sound amazingly erudite, but really it’s just plain crazy. And a little bit inspiring.

Bringing things back to today, Frank’s talk unlocked a mystery that’s been lurking in the background ever since I came to Acumen Fund more than five years ago. In the early days of my career, the one thing that terrified me was the notion of ever having to sell ANYTHING. Sales people were extroverts who loved cocktail parties where they knew nobody; they went to the bar at the end of 16 hour workdays so they could meet a few more new people. I knew that I could never sell because at the end of that same 16 hour day, all I wanted to do was get back to my hotel room and steal a few precious moments with a good book.

And then I got to Acumen Fund and found myself….selling. Sitting across from people telling our story. Helping conceive and execute a $100 million capital raise. Pounding the table telling people that they have radically misunderstood fundraising and that it’s something they HAVE to do if they’re going to succeed in the nonprofit sector.

How did I make the leap?

The “long, hard, stupid way,” of course. Meaning I cared enough and believed enough in what Acumen is doing, which meant that I could put love and passion into the work. When I sit across from someone who might give to Acumen, I’m not shilling some interchangeable widget, I’m sharing a vision, one of hope and possibility and making a dent in the universe if we all pull together and slog through the hard, messy, often unrewarding work of making real change.

When I share that passion and hope, I’m giving a gift.

And yet the world tells us every day that the “long, hard, stupid way” doesn’t make any sense. It’s impractical. You can and you must cut corners here and there.


If you’ve read the Steve Jobs biography you know how famously passionate Jobs was about every last detail of everything. Apple, the most valuable, most revered company of our time, designs products “the long, hard, stupid” way, and the day they stop doing that is the day they’ll no longer be Apple. And it’s not just them – now that everything is easily available and wildly affordable, we spend our energy seeking out things that haven’t been found, things that exude caring and attention to detail and craftsmanship. Why? Because it’s impossible not to notice when someone cared more than they should have about what they were making. We can feel that essence, and it moves us. We seek out objects, and people, who give gifts in everything they do.

Our opportunity, today, is to recognize that now more than ever, how we do everything is what defines us, what humanizes us, and what differentiates us. To recognize that cutting corners is a race to the bottom. To see that we’re not going to make massive change by cutting one more corner or by squeezing out that last half a percent of efficiency.

We have the opportunity, today, to give our gift to the world.

Giving this gift is what changes everything.

4 thoughts on “The long, hard, stupid way

  1. I loved reading this–so inspiring. I’m an old firend of your father’s (since juniour high school days), and it makes me happy to see his and Cipa’s children making their own sweet music in the world!

  2. “Our opportunity, today, is to recognize that now more than ever, how we do everything is what defines us, what humanizes us, and what differentiates us.”

    I love this. I believe this. It was the drive behind the way I practiced medicine for years, and the hidden motivation behind the many gifted doctors I considered my best teachers and role models. I’d like to have a clearer sense of what that gift is in my present world, but thanks for reminded me (us) of its importance.

  3. Loved this. I think the beauty of “gift,” as you described it, is, yes, that it is a piece of the giver, but also that it comes from a connection between people, where the giver got into the world of the receiver enough to know what piece of themselves would be a meaningful and valuable gift. That’s what world-changers like your group do–finding what part of themselves needs to be given, not just what they want to give.

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