Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Aztecs, Snooki and You

Artists tend to have a nasty habit.  Actually, many nasty habits, but one in particular that I want to talk about.  They stand out at the edge.  After all, the edge is the Artist’s perch.  Looking back towards the middle, you can observe life and society.  This helps you comment and express yourself.  Looking the other way, out towards the void. You can poke at it and push the edge out, establishing a new edge and evolving  art forms past anywhere they’ve been before.

However, the edge is also a curse.  Yes, as you look into the center it makes you face watered down, path of least resistance excuses for art.  It makes you face the culture of Snooki.   Facing the culture of Snooki can make you lose faith. It can make you feel isolated and unequipped to participate in the center where the business of art is done.

So, where’s the balance?  Unfortunately, there isn’t any real balance, it’s about committing yourself to being heard, and to be heard you have to pay attention to business as well as art. It’s also not about multi-tasking.  As Shawn Achor presents in his book; ‘The Happiness Advantage’ the human brain is not really capable of multi-tasking.  It IS capable of moving from one task to another very quickly, but can only focus on one thing at a time.

What I’m talking about is committing to action in business.  The Aztecs called it “Ollin.” When disaster struck, such as earthquake, flood etc. The word would spread from person to person to “Ollin” which means become active “now”.  Seek higher ground, prepare food stuffs, throw grandma over your shoulder and get moving.  I heard an interview with the author Kevin Hall whose message is the power of the words we use. He points out how close the expression “Ollin” is to the modern expression “All in.”

It seems everything in the Aztec language has an artistic rendering.  To the right is the one for Ollin. Interesting, though don’t give them too much credit, they were also into human sacrifice and bungie jumping without cords attached which of course is not bungie jumping, it’s just jumping.  They had their quirks, but some very useful concepts came from their culture and this is one of them.

This doesn’t mean that you have to interrupt your pursuit of craft go to every industry event, party and screening (though a few wouldn’t kill you)  or go for an MBA in artist management. But, it does mean you have to pay attention to finding new ways to interface with those who’s craft is making money in the arts and media.  They are, for better or worse, the ones building culture. Because, when they make money, you make money.  When you make money, you can pay the mortgage, go to the grocery store and buy finger paints for the kids.

This requires you to leave the edge and venture into the center, and no, it’s not selling out.  It’s curious, I have always found that artists who acuse others of selling out are the ones whose art is completely inaccesible or whose  talent is suspect.  In essence, there is no such thing as selling out.  There are finding ways to make a living while creating art.  In essence, there is only “all out” or “all in.”

So what’s my advice for going all in?  First and foremost, think about how you can take action on both an artistic level and a business level.  WRITE IT DOWN. Hold yourself to it.  Make a plan for artistic development and business development.  Not just a plan, a detailed plan. Once you make the plan, work the plan.  If business development is foreign to you, make a commitment to informing yourself as part of your plan.  You can start by reading some of the books from my resources page.

I know I’m being extreme in bringing up Snooki in a discussion about art and culture, but I’m illustrating a point.  Snooki is indeed an artist of some kind or other  from the center.  If I had to, I would label her a performance artist of happenstance. Right place, right time, right car wreck of a life. But, she will be here, then she will be gone when a better car wreck catches the media’s attention. Hers is not an artist’s career, it is the brief, bright light of celebrity.

The Aztecs on the other hand, stood on the edge and built culture through artistry.  Their edge became their center and culture.  They lived it every day.  My real question here is: in our polarized world can you build culture from the edge?  You can certainly build art at the edge.  But, if you don’t venture to the center to force art into our culture, it’s left to Snooki. Do you really want future generations to be scratching their heads as they watch “Jersey Shore,” wondering where we lost our grasp on beauty?

I suppose I’m not only giving you some tools here, but also a call to action. It is possible to sustain yourself while doing something bigger than yourself.  Are you ready to go Ollin?  The Aztecs did, Snooki does.  Oy, yes that’s the point.  If you don’t, there will be an endless procession of Snookies.  I think I speak for all of us in the center when I yell to the edge: show us what you’ve got!  save us, save us from Snooki!

One Thing

So, yeah, the gnarliest question of all: economic engines. Strap in kids, this is where the rubber meets the road, where the wheat is separated from the chaff, where… well, you get the idea. Mostly it’s where the difference between success and failure lives.

When I was eleven years old I was an avid reader of the magazine Boys Life.  I wasn’t a boy scout and I can’t for the life of me remember a single thing I ever read in it, but I do remember being enthralled with the classifieds, filled with ads for muscle building with Charles Atlas and many ways for young entrepreneurs to get rich quick.  In one issue, I saw an ad for selling Christmas cards door to door. I was convinced that this was my ticket to great wealth, so I mailed away for the samples.

When they arrived, I was impressed. It was a big catalogue with samples of all the cards  pasted into the book, order forms and instructions. Best of all, I had a clear economic engine.  Everybody needed Christmas cards right?  I felt ready to go out and make my first million. Then came my first obstacle.

My parents told me that I couldn’t try to sell to the neighbors on my block or my relatives, as that would be imposing upon them. Fair enough, no problem I thought. This is suburbia, there are houses everywhere. So I gathered my materials, put them in an old briefcase my Dad gave me, put on my ill fitting suit, clip on tie and headed out into the July heat. Oh yes, my second obstacle.  It was July.

Needless to say, after going to about 50 houses, half of which were on vacation, and the other half unable to hide their amusement at the early start I was getting on the holiday season, I walked home tired, dejected and very sweaty.  So ended my one day Christmas card sales career.

In retrospect, the greeting card company and I had the same target customer: my neighbors and relatives. But, neither of us anticipated the strict  government regulations (ie, my parents) or the effects of those regulations on the development of our empire.  For people who will buy from you because they know you and feel beholden, a sweaty kid in July is no problem. However, relying on total strangers to buy from the same sweaty kid greatly diminished our economic engine.

So, how do you pick an economic engine when considering your business?  There actually is an equation for this, that again I credit my favorite business source for, Jim Collins. In his book “Good To Great,” he asks you to consider the following questions when considering new endeavors. He calls it “The Three Circles of The Hedgehog Concept.” It goes like this:

A Hedgehog is a curious creature, much like a Porcupine with spiky quills covering its body, but with a difference: when threatened, it rolls up in a ball and becomes a sphere of thorns. Pretty good defense mechanism.  But, that’s all this animal can do. It has one singular talent that it relies on over and over again.  However the metaphor becomes a bit more difficult  for reasoning beings.  Reasoning beings can CHOOSE from various talents, that which they want to pursue.  So, it comes down to PASSION.  You and I only do things for two reasons, either we have to or we enjoy it.

That said, you need to first and foremost choose an something that you are passionate about. I mean DEEPLY passionate about.  At eleven, I can’t say I was deeply passionate about greeting cards and admittedly still don’t get terribly excited thinking about them. So, really I never got past step one.  Once you have identified your passion, you have to realilistically consider your potential level of skill.  You need to believe that with very hard work, determination and tenacity, you can become the best in the world at your passion.  Then lastly, but certainly not least, answer the question: how do I make money at this?  This is key.  If you can’t rationally answer that question, you don’t have a profession on your hands, you have a hobby.

Now, do you see that little red triangle where the circles overlap?  THAT is your Hedgehog concept.

Simple exercise? Not really. But, very helpful questions to answer in moving forward.  If you don’t, won’t or can’t answer them, yet are wondering why success alludes you….

As I write I keep thinking of the movie ‘City Slickers‘ when Billy Crystal‘s character Mitch is sitting around the campfire with the grizzled old cowboy Curly played by Jack Palance. Here’s the dialogue:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what *you* have to find out.

The rest is about being a Hedgehog.   I said that, not Curly.