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Am I a Liar? Should I Be? Struggles with the Creative Conscience.

Am I a Cog, or Cogh?

Am I a cog, or Cogh?

I was watching a piece a couple of weeks ago on Elaine Stritch on CBS Sunday Morning – she passed away recently at a respectable age, and having lived what by all accounts was a full and successful life. She had a great, interesting, and varied career, but what I always appreciated about her was that she always seemed to be fearless – especially as she got older, she’d put herself out there, warts and all. The funny thing is, as she admitted quite openly as she got older, she actually wasn’t.  In fact, she said that she was always scared, especially before a performance, and that in her case it led to some self-destructive habits for awhile.  Which, in my mind, made her all the more fearless.
I admire that. It’s courageous, and human and, maybe, living that way helps us all by reminding us that, in this age of perfect positioning and photoshopped perfection, just underneath the silly veneer are flawed, struggling, striving, unsure and inevitably imperfect human beings.
I think we need more of that sort of thing. A Lot More.
So here’s the thing – seeing the piece on Ms. Stritch poked at me a little bit. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been struggling with a difficult decision for far too long now. And, now that I have a book coming out, it’s something that needs to be addressed.

Professionally, I’m a senior copywriter/creative director and brand strategist, and it’s been a pretty good gig.  I run my own little ‘agency’ (a word which, even now, sounds a little inflated, even though we certainly do agency-level work).  Like most creative shops, we’re a small group of full and part-timers and by-project specialists. We create ads and messaging and figure out brands and find new opportunities for small and medium sized businesses.  In other words, full-service, just not full of ourselves.

Then a few years ago, to be completely honest, I started pulling away a little bit.  We’d gotten a bit bigger – simply in response to client needs, not because we had some well-considered growth strategy – and we were making a bit more money which, in an up and down business like advertising, is always welcome.

But I also noticed clients starting referring to us as marketers.

The first time it happened, I shrugged it off. Clients don’t always get the nuances of our industry, I told myself.  There are differences between creatives and marketers – copywriters, designers and creatives are idea people – we figure things out and create the new, the interesting.  Marketers, to my mind, anyway, are the spreadsheet people.  The numbers people; shiny, near-corporate types who serve as a conduit for our ideas, and are experts at bringing them to the marketplace.

Not that they’re bad people, mind you – far from it, actually. Most are quite nice. They’re just not the way I’d defined myself and my profession.

The problem is, it happened more and more. “This is Larry.  He’s our marketing guy.” Sure I’d smile when they introduced me this way; it was a good way to mask the cringe.

You see, the real reason it bothered me was that it was becoming True on some level: the more we allowed ourselves to be defined by our clients because it was a profit opportunity, rather than a creative opportunity based on what we love and do best, the more we became became marketers.

In my own mind, we – let’s be honest,  I – was selling out.

Tough stuff, especially when it’s true.

But I didn’t make a change, I just shouldered the burden.  The economy stinks – it did then, and it still does, regardless of what they’re selling you on CNBC.

And I have two daughters and a wife that I would die for in an instant, and that I need to support.  So I sucked it up and stayed with the bucks.

But here’s the thing: from when I was a kid I always hated this sort of thing.  I’ve always felt that materialism and corporate greed and self-justification are the things that wreck us, and are wrecking this world of inequality and simmering anger.

Creatively, That’s the theme that underlies much of my fiction – it drives me.

And yet, Professionally, I’d come to accept this.

Which, as you can imagine, created quite a bit of tension inside.  It’s a tension that I explore, I’ve come to realize, in Cogh and The Machine: a children’s book for adults – my book that’s coming out in the next week or so – at least on Amazon while I decide whether not not I should look for an agent.

And its also where I run into some trouble.  I guess that things are reaching a bit of a head.

You see, I’ve long wrestled with how to put myself out there: How does a copywriter and brand strategist who secretly hates the worst of the corporate mindset, the banality of marketing and the soullessness of a materialistic, consumerist culture present himself?

When I look back now, I realize that this inner rift wasn’t just a minor thing to brush aside.  In fact, I think it pretty much explains why I keep pulling down our business web site, and haven’t had a personal portfolio up in years.  And trust me, we’ve done some really great work.

I just didn’t feel like I was ‘all in’ on some level I guess, so maybe having them down or in development or whatever also meant, for me anyway, that I hadn’t committed myself to being some kind of a marketer.  That I wasn’t on some level agreeing with rampant consumerism.  That I was holding out – or at least not wholly in agreement.  That part of my soul was still intact maybe.

And I’ve found that it’s not just me; this little rift is actually pretty pervasive in the advertising community.  Maybe it’s because most of us are at heart creatives who somehow managed to find a good paying gig and work with like-minded people, and not Wall Street wannabees – I don’t know.  But what I do know is that, having spoken with enough of them, and read their posts and comments, they’re not all in with the push push push sell sell sell mentality that’s coming from clients who are celebrating Christmas in July because there might be a way to make a buck there.

But most of us keep it quiet.  At least on the outside, though if you want to see what a lot of us are really thinking, I’d recommend checking out The Creative Confessional.  I’ve been in the top ten more than once….

But here’s the thing – I still LOVE copywriting, brainstorming and figuring out how to help businesses get their message out there.  The creative process, while often painful, is awesome. And as I’ve said many times, I fully support Capitalist Economies, but absolutely abhor Capitalist Societies.

It’s a tricky business.

So I’ve been struggling a bit, now that I’ve got a book coming out and another in the Fall, with which persona to present to the world, and how. Cogh explores the corporate mindset, the roots of inequality and the problem with a profit over people approach – it’s angry Dr. Seuss in a way – especially as it’s written in verse. Checkin’ for Deads (coming out in the Fall) is a first-in-a-series urban fantasy mystery.  Sure, it’s got demons and ghosts and missing children, but on another level it’s all about the unfortunate effects of a hollow consumerist culture that’s embraced materialism for a little too long.

So what do I do?

Do I have one blog for thoughts like these – where I’m coming from as an artist and socially aware and opinionated writer – and ANOTHER for the other side – the business savvy award winning copywriter and brand strategist guy, with the portfolio and the insightful articles about advertising and branding and such?

Is that the safe way financially and careerwise?  Is that the smart way?

Or do I go All In?  Warts and All, as Ms. Stritch would have done?  As James Altucher did – and still does – so truthfully and successfully.

A while back, some of you may remember my quest for The Should.  I haven’t abandoned it by any means (despite my lack of updates), but I think instead of the smaller day-to-days, which I’ve been marginally successful at being aware of, trying to keep that in mind has opened up some larger issues – like this one.

What do I do?

Here’s the thing: I’ve learned the hard way that the only unassailable position in life to to Tell The Truth.   No, it’s not the easiest, but it is the strongest. And you get to sleep better at night.  As Cogh tells the Great Hardstrom, King of the Corporation, and his lackeys at their first chance encounter:

“The truth I do tell, every time,

I am True,

Mostly because lies

Are a burden on you.

But don’t think me a saint,

It’s because I am lazy!

To remember all lies,

Well, such effort is crazy.

The Truth is much easier

For it’s always at hand

A comforting constancy

That You may think bland.”

At this all did shrink back,

These brash words, they unnerved

For they echoed far back,

And ‘gainst what each now served.

All but One, that is, and

He leaned forward for more

Thinking, ‘Something ’bout this one,

Confident, strong and sure.’

I sense value inside him

A great raw vein of gold

Which I’ll mine and I’ll use

Well before he gets old…

“What is your name, son?

You seem ‘bove all of this.”

“Well Sir, it’s Cogh…”

A great gasp! And a hiss!

“A Cog!” he exclaimed,

“We need one like you badly!

C-O-G Cog!”

He Bit sounds off quite Madly!

“Yes you’re just what we need,

You’ll be our perfect fit.”

But Cogh, he did notice

Asked ’bout him, not a bit.

“C-O-G Cog!

You have made my day!”

That he spelled his name wrong,

Cogh did not want to say –

And Swept up in that moment

He allowed himself to

Do a tiny wrong thing

He knew he shouldn’t do

“Yes, that is my Name,

I hope I can help you!”

Like I said, it’s a struggle, but not just for me, I think. The beta read touched a lot of people deeply; their responses were passionate.  Maybe reading Cogh will help some more people – I hope so, anyway.

And for me?  I’m  good at giving advice.  Maybe – no definitely – it’s time to take my own.

 

Are YOU missing The Point on Inequality?

Food For Thought. And Action.

Food For Thought. And Action.

I read this article by Nicholas Kristof this morning and thought it was, as he often is, spot on. So I shared it on Twitter and, later, on Facebook. In short, the article’s about an American Dream now on life-support at best, and touches upon the issue of ever-increasing Inequality and its impact on a struggling, and sinking, middle-class.

Concern with where we’re going, both as a nation and as a civilization, is at the forefront of my thinking most days; the increasing influence of money, and our subtle transition from a Capitalist Economy to a Capitalist Society in seemingly so few years is both frightening and sad. It does not bode well for our future and, on a personal level, I cannot bear the thought of my children becoming a part of a present and future where the worth of absolutely everything – art, music, relationships etc. – is solely assessed in terms of monetary value. This idea of defining all things primarily in terms of equivalent material or monetary valuation to determine their worth is the hallmark of what I define as a Capitalist Society.

While I remain a fan of true Capitalism from a solely economic perspective – that is defined, simply, as a fair and level playing field where hard work is rewarded, often in the form of monetary or material gain – I am mortified by the application of that principle to every facet of life. You like playing guitar? Can you make money with that? What’s the most successful career? The one that makes the most money of course! You like to express yourself through drawing? Worthless, unless you become a famous artist. It is a society that rewards Fame for fame’s sake, rather than appreciating fame as being a natural by-product of having worked hard, created something worthwhile or contributed to the world simply because you were driven and passionate about something real for the sake of doing it in and of itself, and not just for the bucks and leverageable exposure.

Sadly, that thinking has become pervasive and, by many, accepted. And, in my opinion, it is becoming taught and encouraged as the acceptable norm by corporate lobbyists and corrupt politicians who no longer consider themselves to be public servants (as they are intended to be), but instead as an elite ruling class that defines their constituents as “The American People” as if they are a herd to be manipulated, a species apart from the shepherds of Washington. You even see in in the Common Core controversy, where private, for-profit companies create agendas and materials not to truly educate, but instead to make people ‘job ready’.

The purpose of education is NOT to get you a job: the point of education IS to provide one with a broad and well rounded foundation – a toolset – that enables and empowers us to think for ourselves, to explore, to be curious, and to live a rich and varied life.  It is not to train us with a punchlist of company-mandated skills to make us just viable enough to gain access to our cubicle. To be so narrowly hyper-trained in such a way as to be only useful in context of a company’s need only enables us to be used until it becomes financially advantageous to discard us, but until then to keep us going so that we can make just enough to survive and maintain our existence as ‘consumers’, with the job of greasing the wheels of an economy predicated on consumption rather than creation while contributing to the tax base and gifting politicians and pundits a talking point because the unemployment rate has dropped by an (artificially manipulated) tenth of a percent in an election year.

(And – a shameless plug for me – these are all issues that drive my upcoming book Cogh and The Machine; A Children’s Book for Adults – which will be available via Amazon etc in a couple of weeks.)

But here’s the thing: when I shared the Kristof article, and when I talk about these things, some people seem to think that I am frustrated or interested because I’m having trouble. And I think that that response too is a symptom of a Capitalist Society.

You see, I heard from a friend earlier when I shared the NYT piece and he asked, quite sincerely and in confidence, “Are you doing okay? Having trouble meeting the bills?”

The answer to that is I’m actually doing fine – my business is good, the bills are met, the power’s on and the kids are fed. I don’t have a Lear jet, nor do I want one.

But the thing that strikes me most about that question, while well-intentioned, is that it throws light on a not too often admitted reality behind this issue of inequality: the assumption that you’re angry because you’re not getting your share.

And the implication of this is, of course, that if you were doing fine, you wouldn’t care.

In my case I care because it’s wrong. Morally, ethically – even spiritually. I care because it’s not fair or right. I care because businesses need to do the right thing by their people first, rather than seeing them as a necessary expense on the balance sheet. My friend Dan says I have nobility issues and, yes, some days I’d like to get my hopefully hypoallergenic horse, grab my sword and slay the Dragon.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing when I write – there’s no promise of reward for all of the hours of work, but as I’m a lousy rider and the Dragons keep hiding, it’s my way of doing right by this world using the tools I’ve been given.

But either way, I think, as a people – from a humanistic standpoint – beyond the new ‘values’ of our Capitalist Society, I think we have a moral obligation to fight this sort of injustice, and live our lives so that we make those around us better somehow. That’s what counts. That’s the salve.  That’s what fills the hole that something bought won’t. It’s true.

I’m not suggesting that we redistribute wealth, or tax the rich.  But I am suggesting that corporations, by and large, have become behemoths with undue influence and not a stitch of moral thread.  Look around: of course productivity’s up!  In an economy that will never truly recover, despite what the pundits on CNBC spout when they point to strangely massaged financial indicators, people know that if they lose their job there’s not another one around the corner.  That’s why the real rate of unemployment is far higher than whatever they’re putting out there in the media – because people have given up and left the game, and those folks no longer get counted in the figures. And if you don’t get counted there, in the Capitalist Society, you don’t count at all, do you?  So yes, there are job cuts, but the same amount of work still needs to be done – it’s just that last man employed gets to do it all – great for productivity, bad for humanity.  He or she is scared, so they suck it up and keep working harder for fear that they too will join the great sea of those who are no longer employable.  And so, yes, productivity goes up. The folks up top get richer while the folks at the bottom get a little more stressed.

So no, I’m not speaking up for personal reasons.  I’m speaking up for moral ones.  For the Should.  For what we Should be doing.  For what businesses Should be doing.

For what we all – every single one of us – Should be doing.  But we’re afraid to stand out. To rock the boat. Not now, not in these tenuous, quietly fearful times, right?

You see, it’s not ok to ignore the bigger picture, just because you yourself are doing ok for the time being. People need to speak out, but as I’ve often said, if you’re treading water to survive, if your raise your hand – or fist – in protest, you go under. The people who make policy and profit know this.  In a lonely connected world where we willingly, maybe desperately, reach out and make public our opinion or try to find friendship via the perceived sociality of blogs and social media knowing full well we’re being dumped and sorted into a hundred databases, it is becoming increasingly easy for giant corporations and collusive  governments to manipulate the masses and keep them at bay.

But at the same time, even knowing that that is the reality we still must speak out.  And we can’t just gripe on the internet – we must Do. We can’t go silent, and accept and bleat and eat until we are sheared.  I get frustrated because not only in myself, but in every single person I meet I can see such great and unrealized potential.  And as a writer I can easily imagine what a true and gentle Utopia we could achieve if we listened within and did as we Should.

So yes, we all should be concerned with inequality, even if we ourselves have yet to be stung by it.  It is a moral and human obligation that is not, as it’s so often wrongly portrayed, some liberal mission to hand out a ‘free lunch’ to some mythical wards of the state – you know, that bunch of deadbeats living large on food stamps (rubbish), or socialism (get a dictionary). Instead simply the right thing to do. Something that transcends politics and profit.  And, yes, corporations also share this responsibility – even above their responsibility to their shareholders.  Within our Capitalist Society we have forgotten what is really important, and become, perhaps, too frightened or complacent to take a stand.

But I think that we must, and I’m not alone in my thinking.  And I know that I, at least, Should.

I’m concerned with where we’re going, and trying to figure out a way to fix it before we get there.

If you have children, or a soul, you understand.

 

 

 

P.S. For those of you wondering, the irony of the Ayn Rand quote is not lost on me – but I’d suggest considering this perspective from the Washington Post ;)

100 days of Should: Building Toward a Leap?

Is it time for a leap?

Is it time for a leap?

Here’s a confession: the Should has been muffled lately. I’ve been crazy busy – new clients, old clients, trying to get Cogh and The Machine (my current book) prepped for Amazon, along with new cover art, keeping up with kids, Jen – even the dog. Life becomes a fast blur, and I can’t believe it’s already Saturday. Again.

But I’m trying to stay true to my promise during all of this – and I’ve been taking little daily notes on what’s going on. To be honest, the Should is working, but it’s hard. Still, too often, I know what I Should do but am not doing it. Little things are easy, but I sense some awfully big decisions lurking in the depths – radical changes. I Should listen to them, but the reality is I have a family to take care of and these changes might affect us economically for awhile in a tough economy. So, to be honest, I am muting some of those Shoulds right now. But that’s a rationalization, right? I know I shouldn’t…

Anyway, below are some small thoughts from the week – daily mental Tapas, but recipes all using Should as a main ingredient. Enjoy!

– – – – – – –

One of the things that’s begun to open up for me as I start to adopt my Should lifestyle, is not putting things off – especially what I’d like to say – my opinions and such that, normally, I keep to myself, or in close-quarters conversation. Quite frankly, I think that I keep some of them to myself out of what I used to think was a rational, practicality – a ‘don’t say that or it’ll come back to bite you’ mentality.

I guess that’s maybe a rationalized mentality. Perhaps living the Should life requires courage…

– – – – – – –

I ran into a client and friend today, and he mentioned that “I must’ve been bored on Friday’, because he saw that I was active on Facebook. Actually, I wasn’t – I’d just hit the ‘post to FB’ setting on my twitter account – but it also shook me a little. I have friends, clients on FB – and I’m not actually all too hard to find on the ‘net anyway. So It also now occurs to me, for the first time, that there might be a danger in putting it all out there. True authenticity is dangerous, but also so much more powerful than a carefully curated veneer. And, maybe, it’s also self-filtering; maybe by being as straightforward as possible it’ll bring me closer to where I sense I need to be, and how I need to live. Yes, I know I Should do this – there it is again. You see, I know that if I don’t – if I don’t leave it all on the field for this little experiment – then it will, inevitably, be a failure.

And trust me when I say that I’m good enough to fool you all. And even myself – for a time.

But that’s not why we’re all here, is it?

– – – – – – –

Today, again, the concept of this being a ‘practice’ – like meditation: mindfulness is key. It’s easy to forget to ‘listen’ for the voice, much less to actively ask yourself ‘what Should I do?‘ in the hectic swirl of the day But I’m happy to say that when I did manage to remember, even the simplest decisions became clearer, and the results better. For example, it’s 6 pm, and I thought I might have a cup of coffee. Normally, a no brainer, but now – with some effort – ‘Should I?’. And my immediate answer was, of course, no. As it is, I don’t get to bed early enough, and I knew – now that I’d self-prompted – that I simply shouldn’t because maybe in not having the coffee, maybe I’d get to bed that much earlier (a nagging issue with me). And, Maybe, doing so would impact to other things. Plus, even in simply stopping to ask myself, I also asked, well, why? Sure I liked coffee, but why was I going to have a cup this late in the day? Not because I was tired, but because – I decided – I was bored. I wanted the quick buzz. Like I said, I do have an addict’s predisposition to things – never been a gray-area guy.

So I didn’t have it, and it was good. And maybe the real lesson there was to address why I’m bored – and do something about it….

– – – – – –

I had Olivia home this morning, as we’re opting out of the ill-conceived, poorly executed and for-private-corporate-profit agenda known as the Common Core. Jen was at work and I figured that, after my morning routine of book edits and a workout, Olivia could come in to the office with me for awhile before I took her into school. She’s becoming a good artist, and my office is a pretty creative environment. Plus, she was excited about coming in to work with Daddy. Me too. But somehow, my edits ran long and I still wanted to get in a workout, so I ran upstairs to change. She was on the couch using her iPad.

“Hey”, I said. She looked up, eyes bright.

“Hi Daddy. Are we going to go to work now?”

“Um, yeah” I said. “I’m just going to work out quick, shower and then we’ll go.”

She deflated a little. “Oh, ok Daddy.”

“You ok?” I said.

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

I changed into my gym shorts and started the dvd downstairs.

Then I heard it.

‘I Should skip today and take Olivia to work.’

My rational mind said exercise was good. I’d still take her to work, right?
I listened to the Should. Off went the dvd.

“Hey, I’m gonna skip today,” I said as I came back upstairs.

“Yay!” came the cheer. Big smile. Both of us. And it was great.

Listen to the Should.

Cogh and The Machine: a children’s book for adults tells the story of Cogh, an idealistic recent college grad who, by chance, takes a job in the corporate machine - and nearly loses his soul in the process. If you’re thinking about giving Dr. Seuss’ timeless “Oh The Places You’ll Go” to someone who’s graduating, think of Cogh and the Machine as a timely companion piece that may save them a few steps along the way. And, quite possibly, their soul...<br />
A dark satire and novel-in-verse, Cogh and The Machine takes an unblinking look at the the malignant effects of today’s profit-above-all corporate culture on 21st Century America.

Now Available on Amazon.com Cogh and The Machine: a children’s book for adults is a dark satire that takes an unblinking look at the the malignant effects of today’s profit-above-all corporate culture on 21st Century America.

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