The Making of Donald Trump

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on June 29, 2016. 

David Cay Johnston is the best investigative reporter I know. I first became aware of his work at the LA Times when he did exposés on the LAPD’s covert operations, and I have followed his writing since, at the New York Times, Reuters, and, more recently, Politico. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize plus (disclosure that we’re friends) he’s a really great guy.

For the past 30 years, David has been covering Donald Trump. Now David is racing to complete The Making of Donald Trump, his newest book which will be on sale August 2. It’s sure to contain detailed reporting and a host of revelations.

I’m encouraging all Cultural Weekly readers to pre-order this book right now, so it has strong initial sales at Amazon, which will boost awareness of it even more. In fact, order two copies: one for yourself, and one to give to someone who is undecided about how to vote.

Pre-order here:

Top image from Donald Trump’s campaign website.

In Praise of the Non-Academic Sabbatical

As I frequently cross between business, art and academic worlds, I notice one major advantage for people in academia—the sabbatical. For professors seeking tenure, the promise of a period, from months to a year, of paid time away from routine work appeals to their inner visionary. If you wonder what more you could do beyond the boundaries of the everyday, you might consider creative ways of incorporating the non-academic sabbatical into your own career.

The concept is simple—just as the Sabbath is every seventh day, the scholarly sabbatical is anticipated every seven years. The idea is that one would take months to a year, depending upon the institution, away from teaching, either to travel or complete a major project. The gains brought by sabbatical leave cannot be ignored—the countless books penned, courses developed, service projects completed and research performed by professors who spend time away from their teaching responsibilities while involved in the serious pursuit to further their field of study.

A survey of sabbatical year projects reveals a system with applications and reporting. It’s a far cry from a practice encouraging mere idleness, though perhaps a few programs may offer no-strings sabbatical leave. Far from the boondoggle it appears to be, a sabbatical is an enriching, fruitful period to make achievements that would be difficult to manage otherwise.

So what are those of us outside the academy, green with envy for this career-development time, to do? For those of us who don’t have the benefit of a sanctioned workplace sabbatical leave program, I suggest the DIY sabbatical.

  • Consider the micro-sabbatical. If development is your focus, regularly schedule time to perform “research and development” activities that inform and improve your work, even if they do not contribute directly to a project. Ready for a big goal? Assemble a committee of peers and mentors to keep you on track for accomplishing it. Use small amounts of time to accelerate you toward your goals.
  • Have more latitude in your schedule? Consider developing or contributing to a program with a nonprofit organization that works in a field strategically aligned with your primary area of focus. For example, an artist might partner with a nonprofit to writing a grant for a special, time-bound project educating the nonprofit’s target audience. Much mutual benefit can come from such a curated partnership, and a long term relationship can lead to other opportunities.
  • Would your employer consider a special arrangement for sabbatical leave? Investigate options, appeal to management, and use your review as an opportunity to demonstrate how your targeted extra-vocational work will benefit the organization.
  • Can you delegate? If you’re an entrepreneur, consider committing a portion of your time to a particularly visionary project, while replacing some of your day-to-day efforts with a temporary replacement, such as an operations manager.

I hope these ideas spark an opportunity for your own DIY sabbatical!

The Power of the Personal Committee

Tips for Assembling and Using a Personal Committee to its Full Potential

As your work takes you to new places, there are more reasons than ever to gather early feedback. For this purpose, I propose what I call the personal committee. The committee has gotten a bad reputation recently, so let me explain how this is better than abhorred concepts such as “design by committee”. A personal committee is a group of people who, separately but simultaneously, act as a sounding board for a project. The project can be anything from a new business or new market to a career change.

The concept and its practice are very flexible. Personal committees can function by formal or informal arrangement; communication can be virtual or in person, and members can include mentors and peers. The committee is comprised of individuals you consult at the same time, but they need not know or interact with one another. The magic of the personal committee is twofold–it can serve to keep you on track and provide early and frequent feedback in an otherwise lonely endeavor.

Here are some tips for assembling and using a personal committee to its full potential.

Select. Choose candidates for your personal committee who have some knowledge, experience or connections relevant to your goal. Look for individuals with whom you are already acquainted, and to whom you do not report in your day job, if your endeavor is outside it.

Pitch. Thinking like a recruiter, craft an introduction that crows your past accomplishments, and gives a compelling case for the purpose and benefits of your next project. Think through the committee process, and provide a general scope (such as frequency of contact and the number of project milestones). Your recruit will be in a better position to consider the commitment with knowledge of the undertaking.

Engage. Begin with a live meeting, if possible. Discuss your goals, strengths and weaknesses, as well as what you are looking for from a personal committee. Based on the immediate feedback, move forward with a suggested touchpoint cadence.

Collect feedback. Find ways to report updates, provide project artifacts and collect feedback on a regular basis. Revealing your work will likely push you into uncomfortable territory, since your project is large and challenging. Be realistic about the volume you plan to complete for each milestone, and monitor your own B.S. meter if you find yourself delaying. Be aware of twin schedule tensions. Give yourself too much time, and you may be too paralyzed to complete anything. On the other hand, if you try to compress work that requires a great deal of consideration by promising it too early, you may cause yourself stress. As a rule, rather than trying to “perfect” your work and deliver it all at once, share well thought-out chunks frequently. That way, you’ll get the most benefit from feedback.

Appreciate. Find ways to thank your personal committee members. Write them recommendations, include them in your dedications, thank them in your speeches, and provide professional referrals in your day-to-day. These gestures will go a great distance to demonstrate the value peer committee members contribute to your work.

Ready to give it a try? I’d like to hear about your personal committee experiences!

4 Innovation Strategies Learned from Elon Musk

Few people have made the as much impact in such a short career as Elon Musk, arguably among the greatest business people and inventors of our time. What makes him so successful? Below I share thoughts on four observations of his career over time. Follow his lead, and you too could be innovating like Musk.

  1. Make cool stuff. Without a doubt, one of the most significant things about Musk—he ships. He envisions, executes and delivers one project after another, and often with some more in between. He has established a pattern of joining teams and seeing delivery through to the finish line. From his first product, a video game he coded and sold before entering high school called Blastar, to his most recent concept-driven organization, OpenAI, Musk has delivered product after product, some of which have sold for mind-boggling sums (examples include Zip2 and PayPal).
  2. Help the competition. While it goes against the grain, Musk has pioneered the idea of benefitting the competition in more ways than one. Perhaps most significantly, he has gained long term investment in his supply chain by selling into the other OEMs. Namely, he provides electric powertrain components to other automakers, a relationship that has helped him make Tesla more viable. As another example, he has adopted open source methods for product development, namely with the Hyperloop concept and Tesla patents. Rather than developing and hoarding knowledge, he has provided a framework to the development community so it can realize industry-wide innovation at a faster rate. Sharing hard-won knowledge is an excellent ways to gain support and buy in, and can be used by any innovator seeking to disrupt the status quo.
  3. Develop a vision and share it. Musk has an uncanny ability to forecast what will be important in the future. In 2004, he began working with Tesla, even as the idea of electric vehicles had been sidelined as a niche market by major auto manufacturers. His goals aim high, focusing on sustaining the environment for generations to come through innovations such as those tied to energy sustainability and interplanetary colonization. Another Musk trademark is efficient transportation, such as his Hyperloop and Musk electric jet projects. To innovate like Musk, curate a range of projects that contribute to your vision, and make others take notice.
  4. Find inspiration around you. Reportedly the inspiration for Musk’s SolarCity concept was at Burning Man, the desert arts festival. Musk takes in the environment, sees opportunity, and expresses concepts that fulfill wants and needs. His style is an excellent example of finding and making great use of the inspiration that’s all around.

Consider adapting some of Musk’s signature strategies into your toolkit for bringing dramatic change to your industry. If you can ship, pull in supporters from all corners, crystallize and share a vision, and draw on your environment to continue generating new ideas, you are well on your way to innovating like Elon Musk.

Ask Your Audience: A Winning Product Development Strategy

As individuals with a desire to bring new things into the world, you get a lot of “how to” messages. Creative people tend to struggle with a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. Should you begin with the product (for lack of a better work–though it could be a service, art, etc.), or by building your audience and starting a dialog?

What if you want to offer something, but you’re not even sure what it is?

It’s more common that you might think. In this situation, an entrepreneur or maker might begin not with an idea for a product, but with a desire to connect, knowing that he can offer value in the relationship. The starting point is building a brand–conveying why you’re out there doing what you do–wherever that may lead. You want to build an audience around your innate “why”, find out what that audience wants and what you can do for them.

Here’s a great example. Like you, I read a lot, gathering insight and inspiration from various disciplines and voices. There’s a lot of noise out there, and the voices that cut through the noise, who we return to again and again, are the ones that we can trust, and with whom we have some affinity. Over time, if their message remains relevant, we begin feel as if we have a relationship. One day, we might make a product purchase. In the case of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand goop, she began by building an audience and learning what they want. First selling partner products, Paltrow eventually initiated her own products, which include a skin care product line. Gwyneth built an audience, learned what they wanted, and found ways to fulfill those desires while staying true to her brand.

Think of your own brand. You’re considering an idea and timing your move. What if the most important thing (after why) isn’t the what, but who, as in the audience that can also be your first customers?

According to Dorie Clark, we don’t have to go to market with products and services; starting by building an audience is inverting the typical model to your advantage. According to Scott Belsky (Making Ideas Happen 2010), many thought leaders keep blogs as laboratories where they experiment with ideas, gathering early feedback before deciding whether to execute.

Focusing first on audience is a product development strategy that works for many entrepreneurs and artists, and it might work for you. So next time you’re trying to develop product ideas, consider first “who is my audience” and “how can I find out what they want”. It might just be a winning approach.

TOLDJA! Diversity Pays

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on April 13, 2016 

Last month, I wrote about the make-believe economics of the movie industry that people use to convince themselves to cast actors who are white, and avoid actors who aren’t.

The diversity issue is particularly annoying because as much as the movie industry has reinforced racial and gender stereotypes, and it has, films have also pushed audiences to important social change. But diversity casting is often challenged based on a common misconception among my industry colleagues.

Here’s a true story from earlier in this decade when I was approaching a well-known sales company about representing a film I was putting together. I gave them a list of the actors we could consider for starring roles. They were not all white.

“You can’t cast these people,” the sales agent said, crossing the black actors off the list. “We can’t sell them overseas.”

“What about Will Smith?” I asked.

“Will would be OK. He’s not black,” the agent said.

Yep, that’s verbatim dialogue.

Racism in Hollywood is rarely that overt. But, as I wrote, “The lack of overt racism, like so much in the entertainment business, is an illusion. I have never had financiers or producers tell me they only want to cast white actors. Instead, they couch their racism in economic terms, explaining that the movie business is, first and foremost, a business.”

In my article I used historic box office performance numbers to dispell the myth that only white actors do well at the international box office.

Now there’s data to drive the conclusion further: diversity can be a key component of box office success. This week I attended CinemaCon, the annual convention of theatre owners, where Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, and John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, presented their state of the industry reports.

Movies have had a record-breaking year, grossing $38.3 billion worldwide and $11.1 billion domestic. Globalization has its upside, and the expansion of international markets bodes well for diversity casting. Furious 7, with its diverse cast, grossed $351 million domestic and an astounding $1.16 billion international. As John Fithian said, “When movies look like the world, the world goes to the movies.”

Then there’s U.S. audience. Among the many facts and figures of the MPAA’s 2015 report, this one stands out:

Moviegoers by ethnicity graph

U.S. moviegoers’ ethnic breakdown, 2015. Source: MPAA

“Hispanics are more likely than any other ethnic group to purchase movie tickets (23%) relative to their share of the population (17%).”

Let’s be clear. When it comes to social justice, money cannot and should not be our guide. There are far more important reasons than money to cast movies in a way that represents society. In fact, we should use the beautiful medium of film to represent barrier-free images of people of all ethnicities and genders.

Movies are often about the way we want the world to be, and we should not pander to audiences. But in this instance, the audience — global, rainbow-hued, and hungry for great entertainment — is there and they are right. When the false economics of racism fall, we’ll all make better movies.

Top image from Furious 7, courtesy Universal Pictures.
Headline with apologies to the legacy of Nikki Finke, Deadline.

Connect Like Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a performance artist, dramatist, singer and songwriter who has built a remarkably loyal following. They love her punk-cabaret music as performed solo, with the Dresden Dolls, and in various collaborations. As she describes in her TED Talk, her former label considered her album releases failures because her audience didn’t expand enough. Palmer decided to leave the label, and her fan base has continued to support her via Patreon, a platform that enables her to continue to support herself while making her art. It’s a phenomenon any artist should like to repeat themselves, and a story that translates well to any type of entrepreneurship.

Perhaps the best advocate for how to connect like Amanda Palmer is Palmer herself. Since departing from Roadrunner (a Warner Music subsidiary) in 2009, Palmer serves as her own promoter, organically sharing and cleverly partnering to trumpet her work to the widest audience possible. As she told Pitchfork in 2009, building an audience requires a long view of success. “You tour and you work hard and you take care of your fans and very real things lead to other real things. There’s never been some fantastic fluke or break in my career, it has all been very slow and steady.” Here are a few techniques that have served her growth:

  1. Collaborate–She recorded her album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer?” at Ben Folds’ studio. Ben Folds produced, and he and others played on the album. She has included people such as Margaret Cho in various projects. Each time she collaborates, she inches herself out there a little bit more, connecting with her collaborators’ fans as well.
  2. Borrow—Covering other artists’ songs is yet another way to spark connections with audiences who may not have encountered Palmer otherwise. This could be said for her ukulele covers of Radiohead songs.
  3. Facilitate–Palmer hosts a community, Shadowbox, where fans discuss all things Amanda Palmer. It’s meta, it’s bold, and it keeps her fans engaged when there is downtime between tours and album releases.
  4. Share–Palmer makes masterful use of social media (follow her on Twitter here). There she manages a balance between the public and private that is compelling. Palmer shares personal updates, political views and links to content, as well as frequent updates about her creative life and progress on new work.
  5. Ask–Palmer is a big proponent of the “ask”–of being forthcoming about the economic exchange artists require. Art is work, and artists deserve to be compensated fairly for it. She made headlines in 2012 when she funded a project by launching a Kickstarter that earned $1.2M, setting records for funding on the platform. Rather than empowering gatekeepers to set prices for her work, she prefers instead a true free-market approach. Leveraging her own website, you can download her music for free. The “ask” comes in when you donate what you think it’s worth or can afford. She has also used the Patreon platform, where you can subscribe for early access to releases and extra content.

There are many who claim to know how to build an audience–here Palmer truly shines. She is a tremendously approachable artist, and I challenge you to adopt some of her techniques. Consider your audience early and often in any undertaking, and find ways to connect that create a dialog. That way, your audience knows what’s coming next, its value and place in your body of work.


Originally published in Cultural Weekly on April 6, 2016.

Trump is the symptom. We are the cure.

It doesn’t matter if Donald Trump becomes the Republican presidential nominee, takes a third-party run, or retires from politics and uses his increased brand recognition to inflate his net worth.

His candidacy has unleashed a nativist anger, an anger that has always existed in America but, until Trump, had not found an mass-market spokesman in this generation. It will not go away even if Trump leaves the scene.

Trump is part of a long, tragic lineage of American hatred. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Trump said, “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ We have been disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.”

Is it just me, or do you hear a reference to the America Firsters, the pro-Third Reich group led by Charles Lindbergh before the US entry into WWII? In Trump’s vilification of people who are “smarter, shrewder,” do you detect anti-Semitic jargon? That’s the idiom of dog-whistle politics. You can hear it if your ears select the right frequency.

But Trump is just the vessel; these new America Firsters now have an organization and they will continue to mobilize it. The implicit violence he advocates – against Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, women, the poor, anyone who opposes him or stands in his way – is not new, it is just magnified. We’re witnessing the creation of an American National Front, with Trump as our Jean-Marie Le Pen, and, likely at some point, Invanka as our Marine.

The anger of artists is not the anger of the mob.

It’s a time of cultural transformation, and not the good kind. As always, artists will be on the front lines. Artists will be targets even more than we are now. And artists, as always, will be prophetic in showing a path out of the mire.

Artists are angry too. All good art has anger in it. Art is the reaction to seeing the world as it is and the desire to shape it in a different way.

But, as artists, our anger is different.

Artists’ anger is borne from love. Real love. Not the pretense of love that’s cloaked in violence, which you’ll hear from some fundamentalist groups – the people who say they “love the sinner but hate the sin” as a veiled threat to women’s rights or the LGBTQ community.

Artists’ anger comes from the love that wants to make the world a better place. Our anger is not prone to physical violence because we seek constructive change instead of destruction.
We’re scared of violence and have every reason to be. It takes years to create and seconds to destroy.

That’s why, now, it is imperative to support artists of all kinds, and especially artists at the margins, whose creative spirit moves in the direction of change. Their work, our work, is to move culture away from the destructive anger of nativist politics and toward a better world. Given the rise of the new America Firsters, this work will occupy the rest of our lives.

Image modified from Doanld Trump’s official website, photo by Gage Skidmore.

Breakthrough Failure to Success: Doing the “Thing”

As I meet people from all walks of life, I often encounter those pursuing a profession with plans to change tack someday. Usually the idea is to establish herself well enough to then do something completely different, such as become very serious about a creative hobby or start a business. This type of ambition is so common it’s practically a human leitmotif, so it never surprises me that people of all professions harbor goals to do something else—some “Thing”—in the future.

One of my roles as a speaker and educator is to offer succor and support to people of this ilk. I have learned many lessons through my own work and working alongside many dynamic people in theatre and film. I have witnessed trials undergone at great expense for the chance at terrific rewards, and there has been incredible success and tremendous failure along the way. What have I learned? That there is no chance at success until you do the Thing. Whatever that Thing may be for you, the journey has not started until you have stopped considering, planning and hand-wringing and start doing. There is virtually no way to make progress without taking that risk, and it requires that you put yourself out there. While there is no way to be entirely certain of a win, taking the risk is the only chance at reward, whatever you may seek.

I was reminded of this idea recently as I read a Brainpickings  interview with Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton. Like many people fascinated by culture and seeking to expand their knowledge, I’m a great fan of both Maria Popova’s Brainpickings and Stanton’s Humans of New York. Each offers a unique perspective—Brainpickings is curated and distilled as if from a visit to the rare editions section, while Humans of New York shares visceral stories curated from the streets of New York. Both are beautifully redolent of humanism. In the interview, Stanton shares how he finally began to do the Thing: He had a day job as a bond trader, and the unraveling of that job and his nascent talent for photography is what brought about the phenomenon that is Humans of New York. It’s an inspiring story, one that reminds me of how our failures can lead to success. If you’re someone tempted or pushed to make a go of a long-smoldering avocation, I challenge you to go and do the Thing.


4 Ways to Be Creative, No Matter What Your Mood

Does creativity seem to be a fleeting mood? Is finding ways to be creative proving elusive?Sometimes I wish I could bottle it for the next stretch when I require its powers but they elude me. Well into writing my third book, I’ve experienced days when the words were fluid and easy to catch as if by the bucket, and others when distraction left me high and dry. To combat these lurches, I’ve devised four tactics that have helped me reach a creative mindset. Follow these tips, and you’ll find you can call upon your creativity when you need it.

Beckoning Your Creativity

  • Like children in a fairy tale who stray too far from home, sometimes we just need a trail of breadcrumbs to help us find our way back. Breadcrumbs are reminders that bring us back to the mindset we were in when we halted our work. Try to stop when you’re really into something (a vivid scene in a written work, for example), so you’ll be able to pick up when you return. Write yourself concise notes, focusing on details about where you left off, what problem you’re working to solve, or the next steps. This way, you can dive right back in when you’re fresh, rather than repeating work or trying to remember what to do next. You’ll save time and enjoy better focus when you return.
  • If you haven’t tried this method, I highly recommend it. Start with a timer set for 25 minutes, and work continuously during that period, without interruption or distraction. When the time is up, take a five minute break. Repeat this cycle several times, then take a longer break (15 minutes). This proven method puts our natural rhythms to work for us. What’s the relationship to creativity? With a limited time to work on a task, your mind relaxes about expectations. You’re not taking on creating an entire work; you’re working for 25 minutes. It’s amazing how quickly work can absorb our attention, and how much we can accomplish in these time boxes.
  • It may sound odd, but letting your subconscious mind work on a problem before your give it your full attention can lead to more creative results. It turns out that when given a challenge, our brains begin working on possible solutions, even before we begin our efforts in earnest. So, if you want to optimize creative ideas, let your ideas ferment.
  • Mise en place. If you want to do your best work, put your tools in place first (mise en placeis a French term commonly used in culinary arts to mean “putting in place”). Set a routine for your creative practice, and repeat the routine as fully as possible. Even better, work in a familiar place or with familiar objects nearby. With practice, you’ll begin to associate the routine and setting with the creative state of mind, and the routine itself will provide cues to jumpstart your creativity.