Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Times Everything Worked Out

I'd fallen rapturously in love with Portugal on my first trip to Lisbon. My nights were spent playing jazz in a local club, but afternoons were free, so one day I took a trip to Sintra, a mystical mountain renowned for its lush beauty. I brought along a camera, though my photography skills were minimal (I'd point the thing toward whatever I wanted to document and push the button. There: my cousin. There: the boat. There: the building. After all, isn't this what you're supposed to do? I was following the instruction manual to the letter!).

But this day on gorgeous Sintra, I was moved. I saw beautiful scenes, but, raising my camera, felt the daunting near-futility of trying to do justice to them on film. So I applied unfamiliar levels of time and care, refusing to snap the picture until what I was seeing through the camera expressed precisely what I was feeling. Until then, I waited, patiently peering through the lens, micro-adjusting the composition by a millimeter in one direction or another. There were still subtler nano-adjustments, where the shot didn't change but my intention somehow did. Only when I felt an inner swelling of exultation, moved by what I saw, did I push the button.

To my flabbergasted astonishment, the photographs were gallery quality. Everyone who saw them fell in love with Sintra just as I had.

Tasting Notes
A friend and I were invited to a high-end port wine tasting. My friend loved port, but fell ill and couldn't attend. I felt badly, and vowed to capture the experience so evocatively that he'd feel as if he'd tried everything.

The tasting evoked treasured memories of drinking low-end port in Portugal, and I drew on that as I sat alone, blissfully sipping and furiously scribbling, intent on doing justice to these rare and fantastic wines.

Not being a trained wine taster, I lacked vocabulary. But I funneled my writing skill, my vast admiration for the wines, and my fervid desire to create an evocative account into the task. And the results so impressed the tasting's host (a major wine collector) that he spent the next several years opening the best wines of the century for my enjoyment and education.

The Audition
There was a call for restaurant critics at a small Manhattan newspaper. Never having written professionally, I prepared three sample reviews of favorite restaurants, and I did not look up from my computer until these articles were honed to perfection. Each word - every phoneme - contributed to the picture I was painting, and it was all painstakingly arranged to create a seamless rhythm. I applied the minute care usually reserved for poetry or haiku so the reader would immerse in a vicarious experience of eating in these restaurants I loved so much.

I got the job.

Here's a secret about Chowhound. We were not the first restaurant forum. When I built it in 1997, there were a couple of other sites devoted to user-contributed restaurant reviews. They consisted of bland (or cutesy) listings of restaurants, each of which contained a space where you could write your review. Ok: Go! Review!!

Of course, no one did, and these flat, corporate, soulless sites remained empty edifices. I opened Chowhound, and filled it with personality. Every element was chosen with loving care. People arrived and instantly felt at home. We eventually pulled in nearly a million of them with no budget or advertising.

Romantically, I discovered early on that if you commit to never touching your partner with less than 100% of your full love and affection, and to focusing 100% of your attention on their every touch - and extend this commitment to the subtlest possible level - nothing else matters.

The Upshot
I wasn't trying to take great pictures, much less have people think I'm a good photographer. I wasn't trying to write great wine notes, much less impress wine honchos. I wasn't trying to become a well-known food writer, or start a massively popular web site, or impress women. I was simply caring...a lot. Possibly too much. Likely to a degree the mainstream would consider odd.

Don't get the wrong idea. My victories have been few; I've failed much more than I've succeeded. I've recounted a few singular high points amid a life mostly spent in a state of rushed, anguished obliviousness, so I can't be smug about any of this! I am, however, confident that I've dumbly stumbled upon the key, even though I only rarely remember to apply it: Love. Care. Fervor. Attention. Intention. Subtlety. Detail. Commitment. "Doing justice to..." Or, as I more succinctly explained in my article explaining the magic of Steve Jobs, it's about "lavishing heart-breaking love and caring generosity and ingenuity into something - so much so that you almost can't stand it."

This is all that's necessary to transcend humanity's needlessly grey, grim, grinding experience. It's the open doorway of the divine. Shakti makes the choice and shakti empowers the result. You only have to give a damn (about what you're doing, rather than about reaching a specific result).

Pot Roast Postscript
My mom, a poor cook, always burnt the pot roast. Literally always. I kept trying to problem-solve the situation, which had evolved into an exasperated family joke. But as we discussed it, over many years, I gradually recognized the truth, which shocked me: it didn't really matter to her. Feeding the family, period, felt sufficient. Food was on the table. She'd pointed the camera and snapped the button.

An eternal problem makes all of this extraordinarily slippery for most people. Here's the thing: anyone who does anything (most people do nothing) labors to do that thing, even if their work is pedestrian and uninspired. It takes exertion and discipline to write a crappy novel or cook insipid chowder! Sloppy, ordinary hackwork requires serious effort (though a mere fraction of the effort required to produce greatness), so even complete hacks figure they've dug deep, paid dues, and know all about commitment. Hordes of shiftless shitheads would read this posting while nodding their heads in sage affirmation. "So true!"

500 miles is a long journey, and so is 20,000 light years, but the fact that both could be described as "long" doesn't make them similar.


---Guy said...

The interesting thing about your personal examples is that they were achieved alone. One person, motivating himself to follow his heart and instincts.

As you and I have recently discussed via email, when you introduce other people to the equation the good things tend to run right off the rails.

Which begs the question, how are the Steve Jobs(') of the world able to achieve their Shakti in a corporate environment? The inevitable jealousies, personal vanities, dysfunctions and conflicts that arise when 2 or more people are involved, why didn't they ruin his efforts?

That to me is the greatest mystery. Achieving something through love and effort is admirable but fragile. Add one or 100 or 100,000 people to the mix and it becomes miraculous.

You've probably seen this before:

Jim Leff said...

Other people complicate things, yes. Generally for the worse, but sometimes for the better. Great collaboration is rare but unbeatable when it happens.

E.g. my biz partner in Chowhound, Bob Okumura, created a fantastic design; it magically conveyed to serious chowhounds that the site was heartfelt (and it was!) and real (it was!) and built for them (which it was!). I couldn't have accomplished that alone. It's because he "got" it, and he didn't stop honing until he'd built it.

As for Steve Jobs, I studied political philosophy in school. And if you ask non-doctrinaire, non-true-believing pragmatic political philosophers which system works best, a great many of them will answer the same way: benevolent dictator. But the dictator's gotta be truly benevolent, and super smart. And you can't count on that (power corrupts), so it's better not to set up such a system, or else horrendous things will eventually happen.

So you can:

1. Work alone, which gives you a certain purity.
But good luck; aside from pure art, everything requires at least some level of collaboration. And you'd better be a hell of a polymath if you think you can singlehandedly handle ALL aspects.

2. work with a small, select group of kindred spirits.

But don't think you can just hire or recruit them; you need to spend considerable time finding, vetting, and synchronizing with them, paying particular attention to how they perform under stress and how they handle disagreement), or

3. Miraculously jockey to a position of benevolent dictator without rising through the ranks of workers blindly obeying previous top dogs
Really creative types will be maddened and exasperated long before they make it through that morass. So to reach this position, you'd probably be best off building this operation from scratch, using approach #1 or approach #2, as Jobs did.

Entrepreneurship means fantastic freedom but horrendous risk poorly distributed. I wouldn't have it any other way, myself.

Jim Leff said...

To more fully answer you:

The pragmatic aspect is: momentum. Look how much trouble Jobs himself had in running things in the early days. He was even thrown out by the guy he'd hired! But once he'd matured, and Apple compiled tons of momentum under his leadership, it got way easier.

Here's the problem with new things: people have poor vision. They don't understand them. They don't know how to feel, how to behave, how to think. But an organization with momentum (and, moreover, with shakti involved in that momentum) can unite people.

The trick is getting it to that point. But if it's built with shakti, it will always build momentum quickly, and inherently unite lots (not all) of the players. Shakti is, as I said in that other article, highly contagious. It's the source of all momentum.

That creates potential for horrendous manipulation (look at Hitler, who understood all this intimately), but also for good. That's the nature of power.

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