The Little We See

I discovered the NBC television series This Is Us in summer reruns this year and I have become obsessed with it. If you enjoyed shows like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, you’ll not only recognize the tone and structure in This Is Us, you’ll see familiar names pop up in the directing credits. It probably won’t surprise you that what has most attracted me to this show is the writing, both the quality of dialogue within episodes and the structural connections between episodes. Series creator Dan Fogelman has framed a milestone achievement in word-to-screen translation.

If you are a student of fiction you know that narrative has the highest emotional impact when story and character are revealed on equal footing, one reinforcing the other. Whether you attempt the craft professionally or as an avocation, you know how immensely difficult this is to do, particularly consistently. Characters matter more when the story advances as a result of their arcs. The depth of characters is more fully rendered when plot points drive their change. It’s enormously challenging. Try it sometime. Or you can just watch This Is Us.

I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers surrounding this show in case you decide to binge on it after reading this post. At its core it is the story of three people born on the same day circa 1980 (the year I graduated from high school, go figure). The storyline follows them from infancy to adulthood with all of the many tangents in their lives around family, friends, loved ones lost and found, career highs and lows, and personal discoveries. The emotional complexity of the characters is what makes it powerful, yet surprise twists in their interwoven journeys jump out all the time, making it the kind of serial that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.

What consistently blows my mind in this show is how character development is revealed in snippets that link forward and back in time, particularly replaying events with increased detail layered into the unveiling of previously hidden moments. It is these hidden moments that led me to write about the show. What continually strikes me as gripping drama is how little we know about any one character or event at any moment in time, and how adding onto the storyline sheds light on the “why” of every moment. I think about this in life every day as I encounter people, not so much in what I do see but in the stark reality of how little I see.

“The little we see” is the mystery of real-life human drama. Someone could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks with a thin smile, but she may have just come from the hospital visiting someone in critical condition. Someone could run into you on the freeway wildly distracted, when an hour ago he was turned down in his marriage proposal. The person next to you in a bar watching a baseball game might be ordering the beer that sends him tumbling off the wagon. We barely know what we see. We usually have little idea why it is happening, what meaning or consequence it may have, or what life fork in the road it may represent. Good storytelling fills in the blanks. Compounding life events don’t snap together as Lego blocks nearly that solidly.

Returning to my obsessions, in my early writing career when I was learning the craft and reading much more than I was writing, I found myself consumed with the question of what happens to characters when we don’t see them. I spent a lot of time immersed in stage-play texts and repeatedly asked myself purposefully unanswerable questions. What are these characters thinking and doing when they are offstage? What were they doing before the play began? What will they be doing after the final curtain? Certainly writers have to think about these things, but the time-limiting constraint that they never can fill in all the blanks is what can elevate a story from entertainment to a more lasting form of art. The elements of a character’s life that are left open-ended are the entry point where the reader’s imagination can come alive. It is in that synthesis that a work becomes both personalized and shared.

Why might this matter to you even if you aren’t particularly enamored with fiction? Perhaps you are like me and find yourself wondering throughout the day about the backstories and masked details in the lives of the people who walk into and out of your contact each day. When you are in a meeting and the presenter is struggling, what was he doing an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, a year ago? When you hear a co-worker arguing on the phone in the hallway about something that sounds personal and know that you are about to review a business plan together, will that person be paying enough attention to make good decisions and what will happen to resolve the argument by the time you meet again tomorrow? When a co-worker’s child visits your office, what does she see and how will it possibly affect her future decisions about her career?

All of this fascinates me both as a writer and a businessperson, because the long and winding roads of our lives are filled with invisible forks where we choose a path and don’t necessarily know at the time that the decision was of immense consequence. I will be writing more about these invisible forks soon because I think the resonance of our decision-making becomes more consequential when we pay attention to the impact it has on those around us. We can never chart our own fate entirely, but we can think now and again about what might be going on offstage as well as onstage before we act.

One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me in business was that unless you are in the room where a decision is made, you will never know why that decision was made. My trepidation has gone further, because too often I have been in that room and I still don’t know why many decisions are made. To me that signals what happened in the other room where I wasn’t present and didn’t even know there was a meeting, or what happened in someone’s living room that morning, or what might be happening in some hotel conference room that night. We see what we see and it’s never enough. We see too little, yet we still have to make decisions.

The little we see is a subset of any story. Think about it that way and you might make different choices when you are in the scene. Onstage or off, the story is part public, part private, part secret, part personal, and always conflicted. That is what makes a great television series like This Is Us. What it says about our lives and our business dealings is something else entirely.

____________

Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com

Advertisements

Do I Have To Eat It?

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Jesse Kornbluth, a onetime devoted and inspired employee of America Online, pondered the question of “How AOL—aka Facebook 1.0—Blew Its Lead.” Kornbluth does a good job acknowledging the irony of overlap between the fallen angel and the rising star—the staggering power of community, the seduction of the walled garden, the financial reward of vast momentum—but more importantly, he gets his head around what he believes to be the downward turning point for his former employer. It was not so much the bursting of the bubble, nor even the distractions of failed promise in the historic merger with Time Warner. As a product person, Kornbluth saw the blood start to flow when those who loved product began to be overruled by those who lived by argument. Those arguments were not the healthy tension of developers debating the relative merits of features and benefits. The conflict shifted to initiatives in product strategy that were driven by individuals who had assured themselves their creative ideas would lead to success, even though they did not much have time to embrace and use AOL they way its creators had previously.

When the consultants arrived, strategy was not driven by those who embraced the product and its audience; strategy became a set of theoretical suppositions evidenced by the competitive landscape. There were only two problems: 1) the consultants were no more obsessively using competitive products than those of AOL; and 2) the competitive landscape was crumbling because it was just as inorganic in construct, itself no more than the conclusions of observation. Using a product is not trying it once, it is using it every day and using competitive products to fully internalize how bad becomes good and good becomes great. Data, analysis, reconnaissance, and interpretation are all essential in responding to hyper growth, but if you aren’t eating your own dog food, all bets are off.

Yes, you must Eat Your Own Dog Food.

Alpo Lorne GreeneSome people trace this edict to the television commercials for Alpo in the 1970s and 1980s where Lorne Greene made a point of showing us that he fed the very product he endorsed to his own dogs. No, he didn’t actually eat it himself, but the way he looked at it, you could tell he might be considering it. His dogs were an extension of himself. That love made it clear he would only feed them a product he trusted, and he would only endorse it publicly because he trusted it. I am not saying he was right. I am just noting than his conviction was visceral.

In the software spectrum, the phrase “Eating Our Own Dog Food” is more commonly traced to a 1988 memo from then Microsoft Manager Paul Maritz, encouraging his team to obsess over use of Microsoft’s products. His basic tenet was that to win a category and perfect your work, you had to be the consumer. The memo spread widely throughout Microsoft, over the gate and through the industry. It resonated with many of us, and began being accompanied by such observations as, “If you won’t use the software when it’s free, why should anyone pay you for it?”

Soon after came the dawn of the Dot-com age in the mid 1990s, quickly followed by the implosion of Web 1.0 known as the Dot-bomb era circa 2000. Interesting to note, a few of the companies that survived the turmoil and went onto become the great first generation brands of the Internet like Amazon and eBay made it a point to eat their own dogfood. While third-party consultants poured into corporations to sort out their tanking business models and rationalize their value propositions, far too many of those consultants were busy writing decks and compiling spread sheets. When you asked them what online products and services they loved, they often couldn’t respond, because they were too overwhelmed by time commitments to use the products they would evaluate, let alone love them. For those who had already been through a product development cycle or two, the writing was on the whiteboard.

The absolute necessity of eating your own dog food is anything but limited to software. If you design cars for a living and are not planning to drive your own creation when it comes off the line, how can you attend to every nuance and detail that sets apart your vehicle from the vast number of choices already available for sale? If your team designs a new line of workplace apparel intended to be marketed as more comfortable, durable, and stylish than everything else already hanging on the rack, will you not be planning to wear what you have produced proudly at least a few days each week out of pure joy? When you have the privilege to be creative and innovative in your occupation, you are quickly humbled by the fact that an idea for a new product or service however inspired and brilliant is in fact almost worthless. Customers seldom buy or become loyal to the ideas you pitch. Until a concept is executed expertly and embraced by those who will champion it, it really is just a first draft—perhaps filled with promise, but nonetheless in need of refinement, iteration, and polish. There is a long and winding road from pitch to product, and all along the way details have to be vetted first by those who most love the work, the creators.

Apple long ago coined this notion as Evangelism, and no Apple Evangelist in his or her right mind would try to get you excited about a product they weren’t already using themselves. To be fair, Evangelism is a beginning, not an end, after which customer feedback must become part of the process, but if our goal in social marketing is to engage our community in a supportive and seamless dialogue, then we owe it to them to initiate the dialogue with honesty, commitment, and passion. There will always be pain to share in early releases, but the more defects we extract ahead of release because we already know they are there, the more our customers can trust us to take them seriously in allowing our own needs to be met before we presume to address theirs.

Design is not cynical; its true elegance is purely self-reflective because form and function are easily evaluated in day-to-day use. If something is good enough for your dog, it might be good enough for someone else’s dog. Now imagine if you ensured it was good enough for you before you topped off the can. That would be some seriously tasty dog food. Go on, take a byte.