a his & hers weblog of worlds apart
Weird associations, recent reading & rambling
Over the summer I posted some loose thoughts that were spinning around my head about an emerging Age of Weird and its implications for business. Shortly thereafter I caught wind of Seth Godin’s newest book release We Are All Weird which gave me a quick jolt of validation. As usual Seth frames up his argument in a fascinatingly simple read and, not surprisingly, his thoughts are much clearer and more comprehensive than anywhere I was going. He points to the forces of democratized media and production, unending choice, hyper-connected tribes, and niche marketing as drivers of this changing world order. Putting his argument in historical perspective he writes:
The thing that made us rich was our ability to process in mass, produce in mass, ship in mass, and market in mass [...]
This wealth, though, is fueling a movement that undermines the foundation that earned us wealth. We needed a mass audience to leverage the assembly line, and the assembly line was supported by TV ads, but as the marketers and factory owners got wealthy, that wealth made the market wealthy enough to no longer sit still and obediently do what we’re told to do, undermining the very system that created the wealth in the first place.
Which is fine, because the next breakthrough in our productivity and growth aren’t going to be fueling mass. They’re going to be relentlessly amplifying the weird.
Seth’s thinking lines up squarely with a lovely Jane Jacobs quote that turned up on my own hunt for Weird support. Jane wrote the following in 1952 as part of a reply to a federal inquiry about her alleged ‘Communist sympathies’:
I was brought up to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and freedom for chewing over odd ideas.
Not only does this excerpt show Jacobs’ beautifully bold use of language, but also how her thinking continues to influence city planning and inspire grassroots municipal movements like the lovable Keep [City] Weird which promotes local small business.
Cities vs. Corporations: Survival of the Weirdest
Small business has definitely been receiving much attention of late. I was surprised to catch an ad with Al Rocker last week encouraging Americans to ‘Shop Small’ on November 26th, for Small Business Saturday. Organized by not-so-small American Express as Main Street’s response to Black Friday, even the Obamas got in on the action. I’m curious to know how many of the events 2.7 million likes translated into Main St. sales.
This year Black Friday was obviously part of the larger story surrounding the Occupy movement and the inequalities between Wall Street and Main Street. To me, one interesting note is that as our economic system struggles, many companies that resemble the big enemies of the Occupy movement (i.e. AmEx) are starting to recognize how many solutions start with thinking Small and working with Main St. This observation brought me back to physicist Geoffrey West’s fascinating work comparing cities and corporations. West’s research asks why – despite all of their similarities – cities almost never die, while large corporations average a life span of 40 to 50 years. After crunching and comparing piles of data, he identifies the primary difference between the two bodies:
Unlike companies, which are managed in a top-down fashion by a team of highly paid executives, cities are unruly places, largely immune to the desires of politicians and planners. “Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive. (NYT: A Physicist Solves The City)
Remember when all the Occupy critics teased the movement for its disorganization and disorder? Seems as if a lack of freedom, odd ideas and experimentation are exactly what is killing big business. Being small, weird and collaborative is evidently more sustainable than big, normal, and competitive. So maybe our big organizational governors should be taking a few notes from the Occupy movement. Maybe corporations should actually be considering ways to live more similarly to cities.
And on the flipside, if Wall Street is sick, why are we still insistent on trying to run our cities and states like corporations? The European merger certainly doesn’t offer much encouragement for this approach.
The Crazy Kids Will Save Us
The good news here is that if growing small business is a critical piece to escaping this economic slowdown, millennials might be the best set generation to lead this push. With values somewhere at the intersection of Jane Jacobs and Steve Jobs, William Deresiewicz’s recent NYT feature labels Gen Y the ‘Entrepreneurial Generation’ and suggests just this notion:
The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur.
Flooding into our cities, today’s emerging creative class is clearly weirder, hungrier and more foolish than any previous group. So yes, the world is definitely feeling a little crazy these days – and often this crazy can be scary – but it’s also what’s so exciting.