Let It Be

I write this evening from London on the last day of a short business trip. I am pounding this out on an iPad so it may be a bit less polished then some of my posts, but I want to share the passion with you somewhat unedited, while it is still fresh and resonating.

While here I enjoyed the tremendous experience of seeing the new Beatles revue, Let It Be, at the Savoy Theatre. The experience was full of wonder and magic, precisely the way music and theatre can touch your heart when you least expect it. The Savoy Theatre is an especially magical venue, one of the oldest working stages in London and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity in the late 19th century.

imageYes, it’s another Beatles cover show, like Beatlemania, like Rain, like so many appearances of The Fab Four. The lads appear in multiple costumes from the Beatles era, but are not allowed to call themselves The Beatles, nor use the names John, Paul, George, or Ringo. They refer to each other as The Bass Player or The Singer or The Drummer, and of course Billy Shears gets an appropriate shout out since he is a character of fiction. They start in black suits and thin ties, then put on Nehru jackets, then some colorful hippy fabrics, then the Sgt. Pepper Uniforms, then wilder hippy fabrics, then the John character in the white suit and long hair followed by the John character in the shoulder length hair, military shirt and sunglasses. You know the drill.

We open with I Saw Her Standing There, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, then we’re off to Shea Stadium, then the Rubber Soul period, then Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, and we round it out with Get Back, the title number, and Jude. They don’t exactly go in order, more a thematic pastiche. There are television bits in the background showing black and white commercials of the nice lady in awe dropping the pearl in the Prell shampoo bottle, occasional blasts of Jimi Hendrix over Vietnam bombings, the marches, the flower posters, the peace signs, the weeping teens falling over each other in the stadium crowds—all of the familiar nostalgia that we have seen so often but still celebrate as boomers. No creative breakthroughs, no big picture inventions, no stagecraft of staggering originality. It was a concert of Beatles songs, two and a half hours with a break, four guys who didn’t look like The Beatles absent the various wigs, and the Paul character even played a right-handed (gasp!) Hofner bass.

So why was this show so different, so memorable, so moving, so unforgettable, so touching?

Two reasons.

For one, at half a century I might have been the youngest person in the audience.

The other, the audience was almost entirely British.

You might expect at a West End Beatles revue in London-town the show goers at a Saturday matinee might be mostly tourists. They were not. They were locals. They came to relive their youth, if only for an afternoon, and they loved every second of it. They were on their feet, they were twisting and shouting, they were dancing in the aisles, they clapped and sang along word for word, they echoed the chant: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

No one in that room felt they were 60, or 70, or 80. You could not tell anyone in that room that this was a 50th celebration of anything. This was real, this was vital, this was now.

And this was British. Very, very British. Lovely, as they say. Brilliant.

Yes, the image of John in Central Park is literally chiseled in Strawberry Fields. Memories of George in Los Angeles recording studios are etched in our minds. Ringo and Paul sightings in the Hollywood Hills have become as natural as any other celebrity on the west coast. We share the music with the world, but somehow we came to sense that The Beatles adopted America, and Americans unofficially adopted The Beatles.

Yet they are British, beloved here in a way I never before fully understood or felt until I spent this joyous time with their countrymen. Their fans here are perpetual, like those who have shared Shakespeare and Dickens and even Lloyd Webber with the entire world. The creativity and inspiration that has flowed generation after generation from this island in the North Atlantic never ceases to blow my mind. The impact is astonishing, the consistency in trendsetting almost baffling.

The people here are exceptionally proud that so much of what has touched them has touched so many others all over the world. The Beatles are a part of them and carry their love to us in ways that words cannot convey. You simply have to be on your feet in the crowded room feeling the music penetrate your bone mass to get it.

You say you want a revolution? That’s a revolution.

Now back to a few words on age, which I think is what really brought that tear to the corner of my eye. When that Yellow Submarine on the scrim behind the band sails through the Sea of Holes and past the Sea of Time to the Sea of Green, something enduring becomes clear, almost too real. John was taken from us, and hasn’t been here since I was a freshman in college. I still feel that loss. George has left us, and my guitar still gently weeps. We graciously do have Paul and Ringo—Ringo is even opening an exhibit this summer at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Two Beatles no longer living, but all four Beatles somehow alive.

And the fans, The Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1964, each day a few more slip away. At the end of that tail, I have the least gray hair, some have all gray hair, some have no hair at all. When the Paul character sings, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” it’s the midrange of the audience. He was in his 20s when he wrote it. They were all in their 20s when they created that vast catalog of songs—not a bad one to boot—all in less than a working decade. Those songs remain as vibrant and relevant today as they were when we bought the singles on vinyl 45s.

How does that work?

The music keeps us young. The music compels us to stay young. When we hear and feel the music we have no ailments, no doctors to see, no life letdowns or shortcomings or missed opportunities. We are optimists with our lives entirely ahead of us, just as we were when we first heard the needle hit the record, pops and hisses, mono and stereo.

We remember all the lyrics, every guitar riff, where the drumsticks hit the cymbals, and when it’s time to harmonize on the refrains. We hold onto this because it keeps our youth, our joy, our hope. When you see an aging couple set aside their walking canes, swaying their hands in the air left to right and right to left on the final chords of Hey Jude, you know magic is happening.

Time travel is indeed possible. You are transported in mind and in toe-tapping body. The music is that perfect, that potent, that mystical, that important. It just feels that good.

We boomers didn’t get everything right. We know that. We know that peace and love and world harmony are still elusive dreams. The Beatles make it possible for us to feel those dreams anew, to be young in a way that is transformational, a dream as only it can be, a perpetual time to Imagine.

You can always see the clock ticking. You can always know what time it is. You can’t take away youth.

Beware the Idle Question

In his absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, playwright Tom Stoppard invents any number of ways for the courtiers to pass the time while Hamlet comes and goes:

Rosencrantz: Do you want to play questions?
Guildenstern: How do you play that?
Rosencrantz: You have to ask a question.
Guildenstern: Statement. One – Love.
Rosencrantz: Cheating.
Guildenstern: How?
Rosencrantz: I haven’t started yet.
Guildenstern: Statement. Two – Love.
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: Foul. No repetition. Three – Love and game.
Rosencrantz: I’m not going to play if you’re going to be like that.

Our modest heroes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not involved in serious inquiry.  They are burning minutes off the clock.  Their fate has already been cast, and although they don’t know that, they are reasonably certain there is not much else they can contribute because they are but secondary players in Hamlet’s drama, even in a new play named after them.  Good questions, bad questions, neither really matter, and statements result in a lost point.

Is there a business corollary here?  I think so.

When anyone is asked what appears to be a Big Question, it is often a good idea to decipher if the question is real, or if the person asking it is just passing time.  When top management in a company asks for “real change,” is the voice authentic, or simply read from a prepared script for the sake of appearances?  It is never easy to tell, tone only gets you so far.  Knowing the difference may determine whether your full commitment is warranted and can actually make a difference when applied.

Questioning the status quo is the stuff of innovation, the catalyst to progress.  A good question can be provocative, inspirational, challenging, a thought starter — but for a question to have the potential to cause impact, it has to be sincere, honest, clearly well-intentioned.  Not enough questions are like that.  Many only serve to feign engagement.  You’ve been in that meeting, right?  Me, too.

Some questions become legend.  A colleague of mine who worked for a Fortune 100 corporation recalled how shortly after the first dot bomb bubble the CEO turned to him in a strategic planning meeting and said: “eBay, why didn’t you think of that?”  He wasn’t sure if it was a joke.   It wasn’t.  A few months later he was gone.  It was his fault the company had missed the shift to digital.  It had to be someone’s fault, right?

I still gasp when I think about that.

If the top people in your company are asking how they can have all the benefits of the New World without upsetting too much structured order from the Old World, start provisioning the bomb shelters.  If your company is asking what are its core values and how its value propositions can become relevant to new generations of customers, transformation has begun.

Recently in response to my post Creativity and Courage, a friend called me to brainstorm how to more aggressively nudge his company into the 21st Century.  He had been hired by that company’s CEO as a change agent, with plenty of vim and vigor to come in and make change happen.  He had been asked the multi-billion dollar question: What do we have to do right now to reinvent our business before we are toast?

It had been almost a year since that curious question was posed.  Lots of ideas had been floated.  Many follow-up questions had been asked, most of them repeatedly.  To date, no substantive change had occurred.  Blame was starting to appear on the whiteboard where new ideas had been wiped clean to keep the peace — potentially good but uncomfortable answers to the hardest questions were emerging, yet the status quo had largely triumphed without consensus to advance.  It was an anxious peace, which led my friend to believe the question he had been asked was more a checklist item than a true strategic mandate.  Indeed, a perfunctory question is unlikely to elicit an eye-opening answer.  Those charged with asking questions usually get what they want, one way or another.

The second example of questioning is the opposite of the eBay punchline.  The first CEO was angry that no change had happened and needed someone to skewer.  The second CEO said he wanted change, but not too much, there was no reason to upset people unnecessarily and disrupt workflow with festering speculation.  Rumor mills can be ghastly impediments to productivity, particularly when they transmit substance.

Because questions are constructed of words, they can only get us so far.  Your real gauge has to be the reaction to your proposed answers, actions of consequence and commitment of resources.   If a request to bring change is heartfelt, a door has opened and you have the incredible opportunity to close it behind you.  On the other side of that door is risk, and you have no choice but to take it.  You can win or lose the whole ballpark, but at least you are in the game.  If the request to bring change is just passing time, you really don’t need to answer it, better to avoid it entirely to buy yourself as much time as you can — Powerpoint can be helpful to tread water while your wheels spin.  What you really need to do is find someone who asks more honest questions.

Playing at questions can be a pastime or serious business.  When asking, do your best to understand the difference.  When asked, be ready to know the difference.

Shall we play?

Do Books Matter Less?

Book TreasureThe pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was an early observer of the ever occurring change in our universe.  About the same time in the 5th Century BC, Parmenides pondered the notion of permanence, what we could presume in nature to be essential.  Between the two of them, we have a thesis and antithesis that have yet to reveal a synthesis beyond argument some 2500 years later.  We see change all around us in almost unfathomable complexity, while we wonder what we can hold onto as firm.  For me, it’s a good problem to have, as contemplation of the unsettled forces us to chew harder and argue better.

Then there are books.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece with the header “Books That Are Never Done Being Written,” Nicholas Carr contemplates the far-ranging impact of digital distribution on long-established but fluid notions of traditional publishing:

An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

The realization that books are no more permanent than this year’s understanding of medical treatment is hardly shocking.  The very paradigm of printing on paper and binding a work has throughout its history adopted the notion of editions and revisions.  Where would the school textbook industry be without an excuse to update a classroom volume rather than allow you to feel comfortable buying a dog-eared half price two-year old version?  If we only needed one unabridged edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, think of how many academic preface summaries we would have been denied annotating discovered corrections in the core text.

Yet in the worlds of literature and even political theory, we do seem to maintain an expectation that the version we read of Charles Dickens or John Stuart Mill is largely the same as the draft the author called final.  “A Tale of Two Cities” even when presented in its initial serialization was eventually finished, as was the essay “On Liberty,” and when we buy a copy of one of these today either in paperback or download, we do believe in the authenticity of replication representing if not a fully steady state, a pretty firm slice of life.  That is helpful not only in getting us all on the same page for discussion and critique, it offers us grounding in history and social evolution, the ceaseless churn emerging from deliberately placed bricks in the wall.

I have a hard time thinking today is much different, and no matter the short attention span theater that victimizes so much of our patience, my sense is our books have never been more important — no matter the brevity of their life-cycle, no matter their imposed truncation or expansion, no matter their delivery format or storage means on wood shelf or cloud server.  Our books will change as they must, but their timeliness and meditation as collective might be the primary permanence we retain, even if it is more spiritual and metaphorical than natural or physical.  The means of delivering the book does not define the book, it is largely irrelevant, itself a timely convenience worthy of disruption.  The material of delivery is subordinated to the material of substance, it is the content that matters, not the media.  The Platonic form is the ideal, and that cannot be taken from us by technology.

However we acknowledge its consumption mechanism, the book as ideal is a bridge among scattered coordinates.  We learn to read an organized set of drawn thoughts to see what is meant by change, and those who have the gift and discipline to construct a book add to the global library of permanence by carrying the torch that challenges all that came before.  Historic observation is clear and consistent: the buildings decay, the land can be conquered and utilized anew after wars and governments are gone, but the ideas underlying arts remain for examination.  The composed book is the codification of the idea however it is presented, that does not change.

My amazing wife, who is also an amazing teacher, enters her classroom on the first day with a simple statement:

“Our books are our treasures.”

Her specialty is English as a Second Language, and whether she is teaching adults or children, this mantra is always the same.  Books are precious.  If you look around our house, you might see why this is our chorus.  Books are everywhere.  That is what we want to be surrounded by.  We also have a Kindle and an iPad.  They are filled with books as well.

Another recent story in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the price of e-books was sometimes dropping below the price of “real” books which I guess means paper books, but to me, one is no less real than the other.  The broader question remaining is whether the great majority of people should still find the time for long-form written expression in a world cluttered with half-baked tidbit social media posts like this one.  The answer has to be yes, because if we are going to allow character count to trump in-depth inquiry, we condemn our more severe concerns to being adequately addressed by less than substantial narrative.  Our pace of change is only becoming more frantic, and the hope for some form of understandable permanence all the more desirable in addressing unending anxieties.  Committed writing and reading gets us a good deal of the way there, because the acts of reading and writing might be one of the few forms of permanence we can share.

I say this as someone who just spent the better part of a year writing my first book, which is now in first draft and undergoing edit.  I haven’t talked much about the book, and won’t until we get closer to publication, but let me just say that whether anyone reads it or it sells a single copy, it will remain one of my proudest achievements.  Right now it is a long book.  It will get shorter to accommodate marketing concerns, but hopefully it will still be a substantial book.  I couldn’t have said all I needed to say in a blog post or I would have.  Believe me, I would have!

In our world of constant and increasing hyper flux, books can be thought of as a noble but flawed exercise in establishing some sense of the enduring.  Now that digital publishing allows current authors easy access to further disturbing permanence, any foothold in establishing the concrete may remain even more illusive, but the stepping-stones of thought that bridge us from there to here can certainly maintain significance if we view thought as continuum, a timeline.  In that regard, as a roadmap or even a set of breadcrumbs, books for me have never been more relevant, nor the mission of authors any less permanent.  Some books are good and some are bad, some certainly more ephemeral than others, but the connectivity of books is ongoing.  Apps or facings, that is as it should be, as long as I can read.

CliffsNotes as Long Form

Neal Gabler always makes me think; last week he made me think a little harder.  His op-ed piece in the New York Times on August 13, 2011 “The Elusive Big Idea” (which I added to the Corporate Intelligence Radio Library) caused me once again to reflect on our spiritual respect for the technological achievements that too commonly enter our lives without enough awe.  Thousands of years of civilization and learning have taken us through The Renaissance, The Industrial Revolution, and now Digital Transformation, putting on our desks and in our hands more MIPS (millions of instructions per second) than humanity ever could have envisioned just a half century ago, with Moore’s Law in little jeopardy of compromise anytime soon.  And the question remains: what are we doing with it?

Gabler is a prolific author and senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at USC who suggests in his recent essay that in this post-Enlightenment Age, we may for the first time be going backward intellectually, and that as “information narcissists,” we are allowing our brain cycles to be consumed by endless temporal factoids at the cost of more thoughtful inquiry.  I can’t do a better job of making the point than Gabler, so I invite you to read the full piece which is linked above, but his concern stems from the impact of the parade of dribbling tidbits from the internet that distract us from the harder work of digesting and discussing what were previously known to us as Big Ideas, the most recent of which were summarized in The Atlantic and didn’t seem so big to Gabler (me either!).  We store and remember these media snacks for their brief life cycles, failing to reserve more extensive internal processing power for the ambiguous and abstract.

Since I have spent almost my entire career as part of the problem and never the solution it would be hard for me to get on this bandwagon without impeaching a life’s work, but I have to say, I am sympathetic to Gabler’s critique.  I remember well our teachers’ fears when we were growing up, watching and memorizing ceaseless half hour episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, that our fragile attention spans were being decimated by the power of television.  Every sitcom with its full 22 minutes of content has a beginning, middle and end, it tells a story with resolution that is mostly satisfying and even has three laughs per script page.  Prior to that you’d need an hour of dramatic TV for story, prior to that a 2 hour movie, prior to that a 3 to 4 hour stage play, and prior to that a novel that might be as brief as Huck Finn but could be as long as Moby Dick.  Indeed, our generation was the beneficiary of staggering efficiency.  We welcomed those little yellow books then called Cliff’s Notes covering a novel with about 90% compacting — but then again, that still left a thirty or so page pamphlet that had to be read.  The second year I was in college something crawled out of cable called MTV, and that took storytelling down to just about three minutes, even more efficiency, and many of these micro video operas were created by TV commercial directors, who could tell a story in 30 seconds.  When YouTube gets the job done in under 8 seconds, I say that’s nice, but that was the easy part of the optimization, that just knocked out the last 22 seconds, the hard work of leaving Herman Melville in the dust was already diced and strained long ago.

How about that, an entire moral tale bypassing hundreds of reading pages, fully consumable in 22 minutes with two breaks for bathroom and pantry runs — O Brave New World (that’s a line from The Tempest, which is a play that was written by Shakespeare, who was a kinda like Steven Spielberg, back when Queen Elizabeth I would have had her mobile tapped if phones had been invented)!  So if our attention spans are now down to 140 characters because that’s the Twitter standard adopted from mobile texting, how do we keep “longer forms” viable and where do we get into trouble when we don’t?  I don’t have a solution anymore than Gabler does, because efficiency really is attractive for anyone who does not know what they are missing in the nuances of polysyllabic adjectives and adverbs, but I do worry about the ramifications.  Because so many stories are now reported in sound bites, those featured in stories have learned to communicate with directed outcomes in sound bites.  I am not too worried about this for entertainment purposes, if someone enjoys an 8 second tree squirrel ballet on YouTube and doesn’t wish to sit through The Mahabharata, I see it as their loss, but the sun will come out tomorrow.  Eventually all culture could be destroyed, but after a few generations no one will remember.

What I do worry about is news and government leadership.  Currently we seem satisfied to be internalizing critical issues in sound bites, and that is why we are being treated like idiots by our incumbent and aspiring leaders.  They are taking for granted that we don’t have the patience to get in the weeds, so they are feeding us unsprouted seed fragments.  They are failing at devising levels of substance because it is not required of them, we are accepting their failure, and the cycle repeats.  We must make this stop.

The first decisive media sound bite I can remember was the Ronald Reagan game winning “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate, halting then President Carter from launching back into a long form malaise of more pedantic matters.  I sense that much of Reagan’s future success was defined real-time in that smack down, and we learned to like him for style whether or not he followed through with substance.  It seemed quite unscripted and endearing, and it worked.  Today we listen to endlessly planned runs at sound bites, poor imitators of extemporaneous reduction, not even extracting them from context because they are context.  We must make this stop.

How can we obstruct the content obstructionists?  Again, Gabler is much more eloquent on the problem than I am, but I fear neither of us has a good solution.  Here is what I can tell you — gadgets and efficiencies are going to continue to accelerate, and even if we could break free of needing to interpret consequential texts and tweets and posts, our kids are in it for the short haul.  All I can suggest is that we do everything we can to teach them an appreciation for reading, help them to understand that multitasking while useful is the antithesis of focus, and lead by example by not letting any leader off the hook with a chorus of sound bites and no carefully composed libretto.  The information is there if we want to read it or hear it or debate it, more than has ever been available is now being ignored, but we have to be willing to invest the time.  Just like you won’t accept second-rate technology, stop accepting second-rate garbage in the form of info morsels where substance is required.

Feel free to still enjoy YouTube and reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  Society will survive the culture shock, but where brevity is meant to mask laziness among issues that are critical to our sustenance, that has to be called out.