Gone So Soon

Recently I gave an interview about one of my favorite career projects, Carmen Sandiego. It was being researched by an archivist! I hadn’t been asked in years about the mysterious thief in the red trench coat and fedora. As big as she was in my life and on the national stage, save for a new motion picture in development, few people remember dear Carmen as much more than nostalgia. For that matter, who remembers the massive multimedia magic of CD-ROM computer games with all of 700mb of storage?

There she is. There she isn’t. Nothing lasts forever. Very little lasts long at all. That is the stuff of our culture. That is the stuff of our careers. Hold on too tightly to anything and you find yourself grasping ancient pixel dust.

Creative destruction is increasingly real and accelerating faster than ever. A new company comes, an old company goes. Brands emerge and evaporate before our eyes. In the start-up world, the notion of permanence is almost impossible to envision. Look forward with alacrity or don’t bother looking up from abandonment.

Contemporary taste is fickle. Technology trends are more fickle. Customer loyalty is most fickle.

Earlier this year I watched the National Geographic Channel limited series Valley of the Boom. I couldn’t tell if it was a dark walk down memory lane or an idealist’s time capsule of lost promise. Netscape—the big bang of the internet age—went from conception to extinction in all of about four years. The Globe—the biggest IPO of its time—was practically eviscerated at birth. Pixelon—a scam extraordinaire foiled by its own iBash—today doesn’t even make a decent trivia question on a game show.

Those were just three emblematic stories, real-world cautionary tales of boom and bust. You might remember the history of other exploded rockets, from Pets.com to Webvan. Maybe you don’t want to remember. Of the big consumer-facing internet companies that emerged from dotcom v1.0, it seems Amazon, Priceline, and eBay are the only lauded brands continuing to operate at large scale.

Google emerged in the second wave of the internet, capitalizing on all the failed portals’ inability to understand the essential nature of search, most notably the excruciating death spiral of Yahoo. Can you think of another important round-one bubble survivor? Which will be the next to vaporize? Jeff Bezos has already said Amazon won’t last forever. He knows inescapably it will be replaced by something fast moving and better.

Today there are reportedly 300 or so companies affectionately refered to as “unicorns.” These are start-ups largely in the technology sector with a valuation of more than one billion dollars regardless of revenue or earnings to justify the bragging rights. You are undoubtedly familiar with many of their quirky names: Uber, Lyft, WeWork, Airbnb, DoorDash, Slack, Pinterest, Instacart… these are widely regarded as some of the good ones.

How many of these brands will today’s schoolchildren recognize when they become adult consumers? You know they won’t all still be around. History assures us of that—unless of course this time is different (and when someone tells you this time is different, keep your hands on your wallet).

Early last year I wrote an article titled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At the time I wasn’t sure. Later in the year I wrote about it again. By then Mark Zuckerberg had testified before Congress and I had become sure. Facebook is going to fall hard. The level of cynicism over there is no different from the hubris of America Online. Today cash is pouring in and it has no serious competitors, so hey, it must be invincible, a forever brand!

Facebook only has one major problem corroding its innards: customers don’t trust the people running it. No product or service can last long that way. It’s hard to be a forever brand when your promise is held in contempt. You can pay lip service to addressing the failings in your business model, but if the core concept is fundamentally conflicted, you can’t beat the reaper.

Even General Electric has fallen from grace. GE, the one original Dow Jones industrial average company dating back a century, is no longer in the Dow 30 index. How can that be? Yes, it is still an enormous enterprise, too big to fail, one might say. Does that mean the brand matters a fraction as much as it did a decade or two ago?

Nothing lasts. Creative destruction is consistent that way.

Google will last a long time because it has built a mighty moat, but it won’t last forever.

Apple? Depends on how it deploys its seismic war chest of cash.

Netflix? Hard to imagine, but it seems like a transitional platform. It could be bumped off.

Microsoft is evolving again, truly embracing the cloud, so maybe it will be the new GE. It has lots of runway to continue reinventing itself, but like GE, no runway is infinite.

What’s the point? Think about your own Carmen Sandiego, that gig you love that will be gone someday, and plan your career accordingly. Are you ready to lose the inevitable and discover what comes next? The ship you are on may appear to be built out of steel, but steel eventually rusts. Are you looking beyond the bow?

Creative destruction wins every single time, but don’t despair. Where old jobs become obsolete with antiquated value propositions, new jobs emerge requiring fresh ways of looking at the world. I doubt that will change. While so many companies have come and gone in the last quarter century, the planet has lifted two billion people out of abject poverty. There are new pockets of middle-class workers emerging all over the world in an increasingly shared global economy. That seems like a decent enough tradeoff for a few trampled unicorns.

Maybe someone will even capture Carmen Sandiego. You never know what can happen when you let go of everything you don’t need anymore.

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It’s All Getting Personal

It’s a bit weird, this Author thing. Let me try to explain.

For as long as I can remember, putting words on paper has been an integral part of my life. It started when I was a kid, with little plays and poems. Then in high school it became short stories and full-length plays. Then in college some more plays, some student films, and the occasional joke for a journeyman standup comic. When I was done with school, I wrote about a dozen screenplays, and then when the Writers Guild strike hit, I wrote an epic story for one of the very first movie-like computer games.

Shortly after that I moved to the business side of the computer software publishing model, only occasionally penning a bit of dialogue here and there for a certain Carmen Sandiego. My life became focused on technology, marketing, sales, finance, and team leadership. As I’ve said before, I really didn’t write much for a couple of decades, other than business plans and PowerPoint decks, which I was later told might have had saleable option rights for media exploitation given my need to always tell a story (if only I then had an agent!).

All through these periods of business creativity and innovation, I never had much trouble calling myself a writer, because I felt pretty good about my ability to form pithy sentences and get other people to take an interest in them. Even when I wasn’t writing per se, people would call me a writer, and I would show up at writerly events and schmooze with writers because I could keep up with the banter and liked most of it. I felt fine about this. It never felt stuffy, arrogant, pretentious, or the least bit weird.

Then I hung up the spreadsheet programs for a while and wrote my first novel, This Is Rage. Suddenly I was an Author—at least that’s what my publisher called me. I fell into silence at that descriptor. That was weird. In that same window, one of my most valued mentors introduced me at lunch as a Novelist. I looked at him in fear and more silence. “No, it’s just me, Ken, the writer.” It was and it wasn’t. That’s when things started to change.

You can go online and look up all the different uses of Writer vs Author vs Novelist vs. Schmuck Who Types and Prays for Good Reviews and Modest Royalties (that last one is harder to find in search, so I think I’ll tag it). Here’s the really hard part, especially for me: Once you decide you want to sell books and do public readings and speak at lunches and conventions, you have made the implicit decision to transform yourself from Writer to Author. What’s hard about that? You now find yourself being public about things you never thought were your job to expose. Take, for example, this blog post. It’s a little different from most of my others, huh? It’s getting personal.

PlatformIn the publishing world, they call this “building your platform.” It’s not a platform you stand on in Hyde Park and it’s not a platform you adopt as a political candidate. It’s the sum total of all your networking outreach, private and public. You gotta go light up Twitter (@CorporateIntel) with clever BRIEF memes your soon to be amassed Followers can follow. You gotta have an Author Page on Facebook that gently steers people toward buying your new book without being too crass about it. You gotta pump up your LinkedIn Profile so your business associates know what you’re doing but don’t think you’ve gone completely rogue. You gotta get busy on Google+ which means you have to figure out how Google+ works and learn to repost everything there to get it scraped into the index.

Why in tarnation do you need to do all this? Can’t you just write the dang book (that’s hard enough!) and toss it over the wall to your publishing team? Well, I suppose you can if your name is Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell. The rest of us quickly learn our real name is more like P.T. Barnum. When you are deemed an Author, you are also deemed Promoter-in-Chief, because if you won’t get out there and rally people behind your work, why on earth would anyone else? The introverted tendencies of writing reverse themselves into Living Out Loud! If you don’t think you can do it, you can always go back to being a Writer. In this day and age, writing for an audience is putting yourself out there, and no matter how uncomfortable it is to type the word Author after your name as some bizarre form of professional title from The Bloomsbury Group, you really have no choice other than to accept obscurity without a fight.

Okay, two more points and then I’ll wind down. First, if you know me, you know I’m a lousy introvert, and second, if you know me, you know I ain’t going down without a fight. Publisher says build the platform, I’m building the platform. Please don’t leave me out here on the ledge in the clown suit alone. Like me or something.

Here’s how I am reconciling this weirdness, this discomfort, this near unholy demand to say please pay attention to me. I’m going back to my business roots. It’s all about mission statement. It’s all about brand promise. Writer, Author, or Schmuck, that’s my job.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the easiest to forget, and the ones most worth remembering. Two years ago I wrote a post on the importance of a mission statement in a business. What I emphasized was that it only mattered if it was more than words. At the top of this blog you see the words:

Ideas. Business. Stories.

That has been my brand promise to you, the underlying essence of this whole Author mishigos. You buy that, you buy me. I’m pretty sure the rest is arts and crafts.

Rolling deeper into my non-Author roots, as I was driving to a meeting last week, I heard a snippet of a radio interview with Dane Ban, the CEO of much-beloved Trader Joe’s. He was asked what advice he most often gives emerging entrepreneurs. He replied that a business has to be about a mission. Rather than leave it at that, which already resonated with me, he went on to quote the esteemed Peter Drucker in The Practice of Management:

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

Simple. Relevant. Profound. Try to challenge it.  Very, very hard.

So as weird as it feels to me, as uncomfortable as it is being made for me, I am building that platform in advance of the launch of Endless Encores. Its subtitle is not coincidental: “People, Products, Profits—In That Order.” That also appears near the top of this blog in my mission statement. It all comes around. Like I said, it’s all getting personal.

Come along for the ride, will you, please? Don’t force me to come to my senses and claw my way back in. That might make me a writer again. How scary would that be?

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Edutainment No More

About a year ago I wrote the following article at the request of ACM Computers in Entertainment for the debut of their redesigned site, which launched last week.  It is a bit longer than my usual posts, but for those interested in the topic, hopefully it will inspire good thoughts and discussion.  Here is a link to that article on the ACM site, which can also be found in the CIR Library, with the full text below:

“Why Did Edutainment Become a Bad Word?” by Ken Goldstein (ACM Computers in Entertainment: May 1, 2012)

“What have we here, laddie?  Mysterious scribblings?  A secret code?  No!  Poems, no less!  Poems, everybody!  The laddie reckons himself a poet… Absolute rubbish, laddie.”
— Pink Floyd – The Wall

Last year Amy Chua caused quite a stir with her polemic, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  The excerpt, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” published in the Wall Street Journal is said to have drawn the most individual responses to any article published to date on WSJ.com. The fact that a number of teens and tweens actually read and responded to a genuine WSJ article speaks to the silver lining in all free speech—that an idea expressed however outrageous is better than an idea suppressed for the very argument it inspires. John Stuart Mill was right, the marketplace of ideas only works when it is fully open for business; we rely on these sorts of diatribes as poorly considered advice that can be danced upon.

Here in my mind is the problem—we continue for some reason to want to draw a line between education and entertainment, between learning and playing, between rote study and inspired imagination. I don’t get it. We worry that the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the modern planet in math and science, we have a national epidemic on our hand with high school drop out rates, we live and work in a society where basic labor continues to be automated and the post industrial information economy is increasingly preeminent, and we are coming to accept the notion expressed by Thomas Friedman that The World is Flat. Largely for electorate exploitation, we continue to tout an ordained notion of exceptionalism, yet with refrains of “We’re No. 1” more often appropriate at football halftime shows than college commencement exercises. We have come to understand such grandeur is more a political mantra than shared aspiration. Budgets are under pressure at the state and federal levels, teachers are underpaid and exhausted, the Internet allows more information than ever to be readily available, yet we elect our candidates based on name recognition and image. What does all this mean? We are not as smart as we should be.

If we don’t think we are doing something wrong, perhaps we deserve what we get. That would be fatalistic, so maybe we should try it a different way. We know change occurs when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. If we aren’t in enough pain now, then change is quite unlikely ever to be an option. We need to “Think Different” about education, and we need to do it now.

Professor Chua may have come to the conclusion that the elimination of play dates, disallowing her children to have a role in school theatrical productions, and psychological downgrading when a wrong note escapes the piano are the correct paths to discipline. Were we to take that path to its logical conclusion, what kind of society might we have? Certainly we might experience a landscape of accomplishment, complete with bragging rights, but would it be a place our children would want to live, either as kids or adults? It would likely lack rebellion, imagination, and most of all, fun. As I look around at kids on the playground, kids in the computer lab, kids on their iPhones, kids in garage bands, I don’t think those kids would call it fun. When the fun stops, the learning stops.

Tooling around Facebook recently I bumped into an old friend, Carmen Sandiego. I will tell you upfront, I have a deep and profound connection with the master thief; she and I shared a good many hours for a good many years. She also once pervaded just about every young classroom in this nation, and a fair number of households in the way back days before we all took connectivity for granted. I played a round of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” on Facebook and easily won my first case, the gimme we always intended it to be for encouragement and engagement, and then got blasted on my second case. Seems I could not quite remember my cities and landmarks as encoded memory was supposed to ensure, so I did the only thing any logical Aeron potato would do—I searched the locales on Wikipedia to get back on track. In the old days we used an almanac to do this, now that same almanac is about as relevant as the Yellow Pages we use as a booster seat for visiting nieces. The point is, the game was still fun, and it got me thinking. It did not replace the study of geography, nor was it a waste of time. It was a catalyst to make me want to do something—reinforce my weakened memory, by running some queries in a public database—that I am reasonably sure I would not have done otherwise. The game also made me chuckle, the puns were still clever and the animation cheerful, however dated. Years ago we built a business around this called “edutainment,” and while controversial at times with some leading academics, it was a good business that we enjoyed. When we sat with kids in the classroom and tested new versions, they seemed to enjoy the games as well; the games they didn’t enjoy, we mostly cancelled.

Did their test scores go up? I doubt it. Did a lot of them grow up to be detectives or geographers? Statistically speaking, I am guessing not more than usual. Was the introduction of computers to them at a young age a path to wanting to understand how the program code worked and how they could rip it apart? That I can promise you was my experience. A lot of those young folks grew up to be programmers and worked for me. Did we tell them anywhere, anyway, anyhow that we expected them to take apart the computer code? No, actually we begged them not to do this for copyright reasons. Yet here is a secret: When kids enjoy something, they often take it apart all on their own. I did it as a kid with music, poetry, written fiction, theatrical performance, cardboard models, solid fuel rockets, even my first bank account. Inquiry is natural when it is interesting, that’s how a lot of us are wired. Think about your work—when you are engaged, the time flies by and you complain a lot less about how terribly busy you are. When you are performing rote tasks for financial reward, the clock ticks by slowly…oh, so slowly.

My definition of fun is engagement. My definition of entertainment is engagement. My definition of learning is engagement. You don’t need a Ph.D. in advanced mathematics to see the transitive nature of the implied equation.

There needs to be more fun in learning, not less. There needs to be more entertainment in education, not less. If we want kids to stop dropping out of school, they need to want to be in school. If we want kids to do their homework, we have to make their homework worth doing. Somewhere along the way, a vast conspiracy of otherworldly forces decided that school was about getting a job to make money. Suppose it is. Is that fun, getting a job so you can make money, so kids can look into our eyes and say, yeah, I am gonna play by the rules so I can have what you have? And we wonder why kids are having a hard time with this?

Cut back to when you were toddler, where every day was a miracle, where the distinction between learning and playing did not exist. When you explored the world as your own adventure, every living second was learning, and the last thing you wanted to do was crawl back into the crib. Kids practically beg us to go to preschool, then kindergarten, even first and second and maybe third grade. Why? Because it is fun. It is social. Learning and playing are one and the same. The magic of math is one big puzzle to unravel. The cipher that is language is practically super-power in letting us open new doors, whole universes. The unraveling of science gives the knowledge once restricted to society elders to a five-year-old, as we come to grasp the physical riddles of fire, gravity, why our little teeth drop out of our mouths and are replaced without asking by big teeth. Every day we see our friends and share with them. We sing with them, we learn to play soccer together; we come to embrace simple rules of order and etiquette so that we can get along, even if it just means being polite when cookies and juice are served. We are in a peer group of our own, with an authority figure who temporarily replaces mom or dad called a teacher, and we know intuitively every day we are getting smarter because we are having more fun.

Then they start to measure our performance, and the jig is up. No more fun. Grades. Test scores. College prep. So we can learn something valuable enough to get a job and make money. Oh yeah, that sure is fun.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.” If this is just rhetoric than we are bipartisan doomed. We absolutely must embrace the nerds just as much as we applaud the athletes, not because they will all grow up to be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but because they probably will not. Unless it is cool just to be smart and “be in the band,” then why on earth should anyone stick with education? I buy that with every fiber of my conviction, probably because I was one of the nerds and an embarrassingly awful athlete—but I was never an outcast, because I knew learning qua learning is what mattered most and I was always on the inside with someone who shared that core value and called it fun.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into President Obama’s meaning. My personal sense is that he was saying until education returns to being a core value, we will remain a divided land. That division is what I suggest our well-intentioned but unedited antagonist, Professor Chua, is unintentionally supporting, not the least of which is by drawing ethnic association into a social landscape that continues to evolve appropriately to multiculturalism, tolerance, and shared embrace. If some of us are forced to learn in over structured traditions of education, then whether we like it or not, we probably will get through college and end up with a job that allows sustenance. Whether that is fulfilling and happy for us is not the point, we will participate in the economy and not be a burden to other taxpayers. What then do we do with the rest of us, is it just, oh well, we will get by the best we can? I don’t think so, because the currency of the new economy is not instilled knowledge, it is creativity. In President Obama’s own words: “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.” Innovation is a direct reflection of creativity, not recitation.  Larry Summers said as much in his response to Professor Chua, citing great minds that did not follow traditional paths, but embraced creativity and started companies instead. And here is another secret that almost no one seems to get—they started those companies not to make money, but to have fun. They chose to work hard at building those companies because they found it enjoyable. There was no separation of work and play, education and entertainment in their minds. They did what they wanted to do, they did it well, and they enjoyed more days than they did not. The fuel of innovation is creativity, and the fuel of creativity is fun.

Sound familiar? Like professional sports perhaps? Or young people who want to become musicians, actors, writers, or fashion designers? Well, we all know the bad news on statistics, we aren’t all going to be at the top of our game if our game is economically limited to a celebrity few. A tiny few of us will start companies that become empires, accidental or otherwise. Yet can we borrow from the motivations of the people who do make these inroads? Instead of fantasizing about playing in the Super Bowl or collecting an Academy Award, how about looking into the sheer drive that brought those “players” to the top of the top. Leave the frosting, eat the cake—the lesson is that the journey is the reward, so start learning the way you want to learn such that you learn what matters to you, and put it to work for intrinsic rather than extrinsic reasons. When you do that, education and entertainment are one and the same, it’s your world. Why don’t we get smart and start teaching kids that way?

If the currency of the new economy is creativity, then we need to celebrate creativity. If kids love entertainment, then we need entertainment to be the fabric of learning. Am I suggesting we do away with drills, practice, focused preparation, and the like? Does the football coach do away with drills, practice, focused preparation and the like? And does the football coach tell his players the reason they are running drills, practice, focused preparation, and the like is because he wants them to understand that this is how football will reward them with riches? The football coach is a teacher, and his game is one of learning. If you haven’t had the pleasure, check out the TV series “Friday Night Lights” and see how much heart it takes to escape the ordinary: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Let’s learn from that.

Luckily, my teachers took a different tack, keenly advising that I walk in the shoes of the masters so that when the time came to rebel, I would know precisely what I was rebelling against. I was one of the lucky ones; I had guidance first, instruction only as a conduit. There was plenty of welcomed discipline, unending study, invited volumes of dusty old books; all I wanted was more, because it was clear to me that a war chest of fully digested material was armor for the long and winding road. Most athletes don’t really like push-ups, but they do as many as they can, as often as they can. Most students don’t really like Hegel in the vernacular or translation, but oh, dialectic synthesis can sure come in handy when a modern Sophist plays fast and loose with history. We each only get one vote, the same value, but we both know if we earned it. In developing our own voices, we are able to see clearly that laughing is always part of learning. When we learn and laugh well, how can we not call it fun?