The power of combinatory skills

Last Monday night, if you happened to be one of the 2,000+ people at Carnegie Hall, you were lucky enough to hear a powerful, arresting performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played, perhaps for the first and last time in history, with images of victims of Pakistan’s floods illuminating the hall.  The concert was a benefit for Acumen Fund, but more than that, it was a powerful statement of the role we all have in rebuilding in the face of tragedy and destruction, and of how different worlds (classical music and Acumen Fund; an Indian conductor putting on a concert for Pakistan; Carnegie Hall and the Punjab) can come together.

George Mathew conducted that beautiful music and made the concert happen.

It’s the “making the concert happen” part that represents the future.  What makes George unique is the combinatory skills he possesses – he’s not just a trained classical musician capable of leading one of the most outstanding collections of musicians to grace the Carnegie Hall stage (though that’s a great start).  George had the vision, the gumption, the persuasive capacity, and the sheer doggedness to make this vision happen.  No one asked George to do it.  No one gave him permission. No one asked if he was qualified.

In the old days, the way forward for a classical musician (or a writer, or someone playing in a band, or starting a nonprofit or even writing cartoons) was: get as good as you possibly could at your craft and hope to win the ticket to the big time, conferred by some arbiter of taste and access.  If you’re a classical musician, you’d win the Tchaikovsky competition.  If you’re a writer, Random House would pick up your book AND decide to promote it.  In cartooning, you’d make the funny pages and be syndicated nationally.

What’s changed?

Two things:

  1. The industries into which you’re selling have transformed radically, so the power of the gatekeepers has plummeted.  Book publishing is gasping for air, the funny pages are disappearing, classical music (I hate to say) was never all that popular to begin with, and nonprofits still typically underperform, undergrow, underdream.
  2. It’s easier than ever for one committed person to pull people together, build a loyal following, to make their voice heard and sell direct.

But though the old way of doing things is on the way out, we manage to persuade ourselves that the folks who have crossed this chasm are individually exceptional – which is another way of saying “I’m not them, I don’t possess their talents, so their lessons don’t apply to me.”

So we pretend that:

  • Scott Harrison, the founder and CEO of charity:water, has such a unique story (party animal turns do-gooder) that we could never learn the lessons he has to teach.
  • No one could ever be as self-promotional as Tim Ferris, or assemble such an outrageous collection of goodies to make his book sell ($4,000,000 in prize giveaways to sell advance copies of the 4-Hour Body), so there’s little to be learned from the fact that The Four Hour Body rocketed its way to the top of the NY Times best-seller list.
  • Classical musicians are supposed to stick to the music, they don’t create magical experiences like the one George Mathew put together last week.
  • Most cartoonists don’t have MBA’s from Harvard Business School, so they’ll never have the unique collection of talents that Tom Fishburne does over at the Marketoonist.
  • And of course no other authors can really build audience like Seth Godin can…never mind what Chris Guillebeau has done over at the Art of Non-Conformity
  • And, for that matter, fundraisers are just fundraisers – they don’t have anything worth saying about emerging sectors and the role of philanthropy and markets in solving intractable problems….but of course we do.

How many more examples do we need before we understand that this is what the future looks like, and that  it’s here NOW?   How long until we recognize that the heyday of getting picked out of the pile and being catapulted to the cover of Time magazine isn’t coming back – and by the way the chances of that happening were so infinitesimally small that it was a bad deal anyway.  How long until we see that the people defending the old way of doing things are probably those who benefited from it the most, and that while we’re listening to that siren song, someone is out there doing the hard work of building audience, connecting people, sharing their art, and not shying away from the whole craft that the world is demanding of them.

(And, by the way, as Jeff reminded me, you don’t have to DO this all by yourself – teams work too, often better than a solo rockstar.)

Pretending now hasn’t arrived is just burying your head in the sand.  Saying the only thing you know how to do is to work on your craft (narrowly defined), and then bemoaning that you haven’t been discovered…that’s just hiding.

There’s nothing keeping you from embracing today today, from jumping in now, because so many people are still going to want to hide, and if you start building now, I promise you’ll get there.

Fear.less this month

Ishita and Clay’s second edition of Fear.Less came out yesterday.  Inspiration, love, passion, beauty, delivered to you by email for free, once a month, no strings attached.

Read it because you want to be inspired.

Read it because you know, in your heart, that it’s time to lead.

Read it because you know that the voice inside your head, the one that tells you you can’t, is just plain wrong.

Read it because this is what magazines will look like in 10 years (or maybe 5, or maybe 2).

Read it because it helps to be reminded, by conductor Ben Zander, not to look for courage, but to look for love.

Read it because Suzanne Matthiessen is right, we do have a huge amount of control over what we feel.

Read it because it’s motivating to watch Chris Guillebeau live his dream of a different life in which he travels the world and tells stories.

Read it because author Julia Cameron, who has written more than 21 books, speaks from a place of authenticity when she says that she’s come to see fear as a companion.

Read it to because documentary photographer Platon gets right to the heart of the role his own authenticity plays in taking portraits.

Read it because Immaculee Ilibagiza, who hid for 91 days in a bathroom during the Rwandan genocide, has something to teach all of us about fear, faith, and forgiveness.

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Work like a freelancer

Twice in the last 24 hours I’ve come across two glimpses into the life of the freelancer / writer that struck a chord.  Chris Guillebeau, who is the author of an inspiring and useful manifesto called 279 Days to Overnight Success also sends out a weekly newsletter called “The Art of Nonconformity [AONC].”  From his last newsletter, about the life of a freelancer:

It’s always fun to go on vacation as a self-employed person because a) you still have to work, and b) no one thinks you do any work to begin with.  So then when you go on vacation they say, oh, must be nice that you don’t have a job and can do that.  Meanwhile on vacation I work six hours a day instead of ten.

And then I came across this passage in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life”:

Every morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning.  Many years passed before I realized that he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill.  I wanted him to have a regular job where he put on a necktie and went off somewhere with the other fathers and sat in a little office and smoked.  But the idea of spending entire days doing someone else’s work did not suit my father’s soul.  I think it would have killed him.  He did end up dying rather early, in his mid-fifties, but at least he had lived on his own terms.

And my reflection is this: life, especially professional life, is becoming much more like freelancing.  The most important decisions we make every day – even if we have “regular jobs” – are how to spend our time, defining what success looks like for ourselves and for our customers, and figuring out who our customers are and how best to serve them.  This is where we all have the most leverage, and it’s a shift that’s happened in this last decade as markets have fragmented, costs of production have plummeted, and networks have become ubiquitous.  And it means that we all are, to a greater or lesser extent, a lot more like freelancers than ever before – and if we’re not acting and thinking like freelancers we’re missing an opportunity.

It’s easy to romanticize the life of a writer or a freelancer – in reality, as Chris reminds us, it’s hard and uncertain because you have to have the discipline to decide how to spend your time and to create the structure you need to produce your work (your art).

But what’s deceptive about “regular jobs” is that it’s incredibly easy to fool yourself into thinking that these aren’t your choices to make – because you have a full inbox and lots of meetings to go to and a boss telling you what you have to get done and when.

The moment you start looking at the 24 hours in your day and how you’re going to spend them, the moment you open the door to the possibility that you could wake up at 5:30am to do what you do best – whether blogging or writing or learning a new craft (or programming language or computer software or foreign language), or just going above and beyond for the job that you already do and love – is the moment you open the door to real possibility.

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