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.

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Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com

Why I Love LinkedIn

LinkedIn 200 Million MilestoneLinkedIn recently celebrated a milestone, surpassing 200 million member accounts, which they announced earlier this year. Shortly after that announcement, I received an email from LinkedIn congratulating me on having one of the 1% most read profiles on their social network. For a moment I felt like a big part of the celebration, until I remembered that put me among two million others. Curiously, I seem to know most of them, who have not hesitated to share this bragging right. Apologies, I guess I just joined them!

But that’s not why I love LinkedIn. I love LinkedIn because they have created a fantastic online service. I love LinkedIn because they do clever marketing like telling me unprompted where my profile ranks, which makes me feel good about being part of their community. Last year they sent a similar email thanking me for being someone early to their party, signing up in their first year as an early adopter (I tend to do that sort of thing, but very few beta programs ever thank me, especially a decade later). I love LinkedIn because I am convinced that they are eating their own dogfood, which probably means most of their employees love LinkedIn more than I do.

Here are some other reasons, with numbering left open so I can add more things as I think of them, and you remind me of others:

1) They are transparent. They say what they do, and don’t cause you to think otherwise. Your data is being mined by people you want to mine it for the reasons you want it mined. If you don’t want it mined, you don’t post it.

2) They provide a valuable service that brings me business. It’s my network, I built it. They facilitated my actions. I have hired talent off the site, my former head of Human Resources has used it to identify candidates for open positions, and I have been sourced for consulting work as well as investment opportunities, almost always by people I know and with whom I can quickly build trust. It works.

3) They don’t violate my privacy and I understand their privacy controls. They tell me clearly what they are doing with the information I give them and let me easily block what I don’t want to share either through menus or suppression. I know what I get myself into at all times and I am cool with that.

4) Their ads are relevant and not intrusive. They don’t get in my way. They don’t annoy me. I would advertise here if I had a product or service relevant to segments of the network.

5) I don’t currently subscribe to their premium service, but I might. The price is reasonable for what it offers. The rest is free, and I like that a lot, especially because they respect me in spite of my free use. I am part of the ecosystem and their multiple revenue streams. They don’t discriminate and treat me worse than a paid member because they need all of us active and happy.

6) The site helps me teach recent graduates how to think about presenting themselves and creating a resume. Come to think of it, it helps me do that for people with thirtysomething years of experience. Focus is good.

7) The site forces me to think about keywords that matter to me, which forces me to think about the science of keywords, which is the backbone of internet search.

8) It has been an awesome vehicle for growing my blog. I suspect the same will be true when it is time to release my book.

9) The community self polices. Just try posting something polemic on LinkedIn. The community will remind you this is a place for business, not politics. In fact the community is so dynamic on LinkedIn, it makes the whole thing work, a place of relevancy for smart articles, worthwhile referrals, and relevant personal milestones that matter to readers as much as writers.

10) It is more of a cable channel than a broadcast mishmash. I find useful, targeted business information posted by individuals in my network every day. The weekly email summaries use well-designed filters to point me to posts that interest me. The group subscriptions are equally helpful, and can be personalized for volume.

11) The software is robust. It is solid on all my systems and browsers. It is not an open platform which makes their life easier, but because it doesn’t need to support so many third-party APIs it remains remarkably stable. The mobile app is intuitive and efficient, especially handy on iPad.

12) I am not overwhelmed by the time commitment to get value from LinkedIn. I can use it, not use it, come, go, whatever, and it is always there for me. It takes the right amount of time to be useful, and is seldom a frivolous waste of time. It lets people stay active and visible even when they are busy and engaged, so opportunities don’t slip by because of timing or assumptions. Again, I think a lot of this has to do with the community self-policing. It’s a big enough network to have boundless value, but not overcrowded with unnecessary distractions.

Yeah, bravo!

Why did I write this post about LinkedIn? Because since the holiday season, I have been overwhelmed by all the online and mobile brands I don’t love, I’m not even sure I like, and some I have simply abandoned. While that was going on, I longed to present a model of a brand that was getting better in spite of its success. During that same period, my network on LinkedIn led to a whole batch of advantageous stuff, not just for me, but for a lot of people I know. I don’t think it is a coincidence. Good brands are created when good people create and embrace good products.

People, Products, Profits—in that order. The formula still works, at least for me.

I write this entirely unsolicited endorsement for LinkedIn freely and without interest. I don’t currently own the stock, nor do I have an opinion about its valuation. This is about loving the company and its product, not the equity. I don’t know if you can love a stock, because your motives are pretty limited, but I do know you can love a product, a brand, even a company. Hopefully they will love me back and this relationship can continue for a spell.

If you know someone who for some reason has not yet thought it worthwhile to be on LinkedIn, feel free to pass along this post. LinkedIn is a good place to do business, with a solid team running the show.

Best Written TV Series of All Time

This is not a “normal” blog entry for me, but it seemed fun and worth sharing.  Earlier this month, I received the following announcement from the Writers Guild:

In 2006, the Writers Guilds of America, West and East presented the 101 Greatest Screenplays, honoring the best screenwriting of all time as chosen by WGA members. The final list and tribute event garnered major media and industry attention.

Now in 2012, the WGA turns its attention to the small screen with plans to unveil the 101 Best Written TV Series, honoring the most outstanding television writing of the past seven decades and spotlighting the writers who crafted the acclaimed TV shows that helped shape our lives.

If you would like to take a trip with the Ghost of TV’s Past through an extensive but still incomplete list of WGA acclaimed television series, they have provided the link included here.

The request was to vote for my own Top 20 in no particular order, which I found so interesting, enjoyable and difficult, I offer it here.  I share this not because it is definitive or I think my choices are in any way the correct ones, but to offer a perspective of what gets me jazzed about good commercial writing for the media.  This is highly subjective ground and potentially controversial, but what it says to me is that our choices of what we find to be good writing help define our own unique place in the world by nudging us to articulate a personal sense of aesthetic.  Storytelling in any compelling form can offer a window into interpreting our own motivations.  What we like is what we like, and that helps make each of us who we are.  No doubt you will think I am wrong for both what I included and did not, but hey, that’s the fun of it.  Maybe you’ll talk me in or out of a title.  Vive la difference!

Some of these lasted a single season, a few more than a generation.  Clearly the ones that went on longest had the most ups and downs, but even where they may have been inconsistent, the fact that they held my attention to stay connected kept me from penalizing the rough patches.  I tried with each to think about writing specifically as the key element in my selection, although too often it is hard to tease apart the written word from acting, directing, and even show design.  Television is known to be the writer’s medium, but there are times when a featured actor creates a character so defining it can carry the show beyond the craft of the teleplay.  Although outstanding writing is a critical component in what I enjoy, I did not approach this as a “favorites” list per se — otherwise as many as a half-dozen of these picks might have been switched.

The shows noted all had an impact on me for all kinds of reasons, personal, professional, in work and play, writing and non-writing professional work.  In no particular order, with a touch of bias toward recency, here is what I came up with for my best written 20:

1) Hill Street Blues

2) NYPD Blue

3) Friday Night Lights

4) Roots

5) thirtysomething

6) My So-Called Life

7) Man Men

8) Sopranos

9) Lost

10) The West Wing

11) Boardwalk Empire

12) The Dick Van Dyke Show

13) Mary Tyler Moore

14) All in the Family

15) Modern Family

16) M*A*S*H

17) Cheers

18) Married with Children

19) Daily Show with Jon Stewart

20) Saturday Night Live

If you want to know why or why not, please feel free to comment, but make sure you suggest at least a few of your own!  We’ll see how all our tastes aligned with the compiled WGA ballot tabulation when the 101 Best Written are announced later this fall.

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