If I Killed Someone For You
My favorite Alec Benjamin song is the story of how he killed someone. We’ve all committed this kind of murder, to some degree. Throughout the first and second verses, and the choruses in between, Benjamin fesses up. The blood is on his hands, he sings. He doesn’t recognize himself. He doesn’t recognize the person that would do this. He’s trying to outrun the sirens and the flashing lights. And then in the final bridge, the plot twist: “you have to understand,” he sings, “The one I killed is me / Changing what I was for what you wanted me to be / I followed your direction / Did everything you asked / I hope it makes you happy / ‘Cause there’s just no turning back.” To stay with music, the theme of this week’s email revolves around the title of another favorite by Mike Posner, be as you are.
Beware The “Yes, But Philosophy”
In the early 1990s, The Walt Disney Company was on the brink of extinction. Disney had gotten itself into some financial troubles. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the head of of Disney’s motion picture divisions, explained how. “Since 1984, we have slowly drifted away from our original vision of how to run our movie business,” Katzenberg wrote in a memo intended only for Disney employees. The Disney empire, Katzenberg said, was built on a strategy they referred to as the “Singles and Doubles Philosophy”—they relied on small budgets and good stories. “At some point,” Katzenberg continues, “we seemed to have replaced it with a strategy that might best be called the ‘Yes, But Philosophy.’” As in: yes, that’s a big budget, but that’s what other studios are spending. The “Yes, But Philosophy” is how people commit the kind of murder Alec Benjamin was talking about. Yes, but the money is better. Yes, but it’s just temporary. Yes, but my parents would kill me. We’re careful to keep the blood off other people’s hands, but not our own. “Not surprisingly,” Katzenberg writes—thanks to the “Yes, But Philosophy”—“our control of our own destiny has been eroded.”
Own Your Style
A third of the way through writing The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel started over. Prior to beginning to write that book, Morgan had been blogging for over a decade. He’d written thousands of articles. But they were all blog-length (800-1000 words). When he sat down to write a book, he knew, he had to increase that word count to something closer to the typical book chapter length (4000-5000 words)—a length he had no experience with. So, 10 chapters, 4000-5000 words per chapter—that was the plan. To fill that word count, he rambled, he added fluff, he included more examples to make the same point as earlier examples. And a third of the way through, Morgan realized, “I just didn’t like where it was going.” So he threw out that initial draft, and he said, “I just owned the style of writing that I have.” So instead 10 chapters of 4000 words, The Psychology of Money is 20 chapters, some of which are less than 1000 words long. There’s one chapter in the book that is a page long. When Morgan submitted it to his publisher, they emailed him and asked if he had send the wrong file. It’s only a page long. “No,” he said, “that’s all I have to say on the topic.” That became a kind of ethos in writing the book—with each chapter, Morgan said, “I wanted to make a good point, I wanted to use a good story to make that point, and then I wanted to stop, get out of the reader’s way, and move on to the next chapter.” The strategy worked. To date, The Psychology of Money has sold over two million copies worldwide. His publisher initially only printed a couple thousand copies. Morgan thought it would have been an outsized success to sell all of those couple thousand copies.
Maintain Your Distinctiveness
Just before he stepped down as CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos wrote his final shareholder letter. He closed it out with a section he titled, “Differentiation is Survival and the Universe Wants You to be Typical.” He prefaced his own thoughts with a quote from The Blind Watchmaker, “if living things [don’t] work actively to prevent it, they eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings.” Bezos urges his readers to does this work. “The world pull[s] at you in an attempt to make you normal,” he writes. You must work to maintain your distinctiveness, he writes. “We all know that distinctiveness—originality—is valuable. We are all taught to ‘be yourself.’ What I’m really asking you to do is to embrace and be realistic about how much energy it takes to maintain that distinctiveness. The world wants you to be typical—in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen.” The world wants you to, as Alec Benjamin sings, change what you are for what it wants you to be. Bezos: “You have to pay a price for your distinctiveness, and it’s worth it…don’t expect it to be easy or free.”
The Dumber, The Better
Jerry Seinfeld was asked what he thinks separates him from other comedians. “I am completely obsessed,” he said. “The audience wants that, they pay for that. I don’t want to see someone who’s kind of into it.” Have you ever had the experience, Jerry asks, where you look at something and go, ‘wow, whoever made that—they were INTO it!’? “That’s what I care about. That’s all I care about. I don’t care what you do—I just want to see people and talk to people and be around people who are INTO it. And the dumber the thing is, kinda the cooler that obsession is to me.” Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, wrote something similar, “The stranger your tastes seem to other people, the stronger evidence they probably are of what you should do.”
Stay This Way Forever
The great architect and designer Frank Gehry was asked if he had any advice. “Be yourself,” he said. “When I teach a class, the first thing I do with students is ask them to write their signature on a piece of paper. And we spread them out and I say, ‘They all look different and that’s you, and that’s you, and that’s you, so stay with that forever.’”