By Stan Ridgley
Indulgence is a scarce commodity in our coarse, impatient world.
Yield a bit to me, please.
I touch upon several related points, as is my wont and compulsion in these monthly essays — the conundrum of “vision,” the connection between the worlds of business and art, the difficulty of communicating a truly unique vision, the entrepreneurial writer, the dastardly nature of corporate leavening that leeches away the lifeblood of creativity, and through all of it — the problem of writing what you actually mean to say, so that the message received was the message sent.
These are all topics that weave their way into a semester’s worth of my lectures in my business strategy and global management courses. I knit together much disparate material in this way . . . but, alas, forgive me if the medium of the essay form does not provide the tractability of the classroom with its stage and its various multi-media crutches.
And if I wander, well please just wander with me and let’s see what we find, keeping our fingers crossed that it will be useful.
George H. W. Bush might have called it “the vision thing.” He beat me to it by about 15 years, and while it might have been a phrase suitable for ridiculing an uptight politician, I think it does capture its amorphous quality.
The vision thing.
It seems that the vision thing is amorphous . . . to everyone but the visionary. To the visionary, the vision is clear, rational, bright as white phosphorus burning on a moonless night. And quite as hot.
At best, the visionary is surrounded by lesser minds whose feeble synapses cannot loop themselves about the vision. At worst, they are idiots and obstructionists.
Of course, we all have visions.
To us, our own visions are clear. They are indeed rational, bright as white phosphorus burning on a moonless night. And quite as hot.
Exciting visions, and visions that are bound to disappoint us as we make others aware of them.
For no one else understands. Because . . . communicating that vision may be as difficult as confecting it in the first place.
And for every sympathetic ear lent to you by a fellow visionary who has been put through the meatgrinder of negativity, there are 100 naysayers eager to turn the crank on your vision.
No . . . 1000 naysayers.
Not that naysaying is always bad, mind you. All visions are not created equal, and some can be downright nasty.
The man or woman with a vision could easily be an artist or architect, or could well be a developer scarfing up land to lay down asphalt for a superhighway or to lay foundations for a new Trump Tower.
Or it could be an entrepreneur — wild-eyed, committed, driven by a vision.
Or a woulde-be novelist with one good plot in him . . . or her. Or a dozen plots seething and straining at release from the prison of our poor imagination. A would-be novelist, driven to write. Or driven to distraction.
Is there so much difference between an entrepreneur and a writer? For novelists are entrepreneurs. Each time the bold writer casts a blank page upon the screen to begin a new tale, it is a fresh project, new to the world and unlike anything that has gone before. One hopes.
The endeavor requires a particular set of attributes. Determination, patience, acumen, imagination, education of a sort (not necessarily formal), experience in life, literacy. And the ability to communicate . . .
This last, of course, is the trick.
For words are the medium most of us use to convey our vision, whether a novel or an idea for a product that does not yet exist. A product that meets a need that we do not yet know we have. A story that resonates with feelings we have not yet explored.
Even the painter must use words to “explain” his art to those unable to grasp its subtlety or significance — such explanation, by its very nature, is usually a forlorn exercise.
The vision thing. Our visions can be great or small, creative or mundane.
In my classes on business strategy, I talk about the vision thing in oblique terms. I actually broach the concept of businessperson as artist. The artistically inclined in my courses (and some liberal arts folks do slip in) look askance at the idea, and most of the fact-motivated business-inclined in my courses don’t seem to care. Or, even if they were to care, simply do not understand the point.
The notion is not warmly received.
Perhaps the point is nonexistent. Or strained. Or ludicrous.
Perhaps it is a futile exercise. Perhaps it is something that I see that others do not. And even so, it is possible that this thing that I alone see does not necessarily have value.
But I do believe that there are no disciplinary bounds that contain creativity. Many of the products of advertising agencies abound with creativity – at least in their initial stages before the corporate leavening process strips away edginess and originality and anything which might prove too startling for public sensibilities.
For corporate leavening is designed to package knowledge in comprehensible, digestible segments. It is designed to link information seamlessly into the already-known world of popular culture, more to massage viewers with familiar verities and comfortable genuflections than to stimulate thought. It is the proverbial cooks spoiling broth.
And so it is with business generally. There is an art to business, but it is never described as such lest such creativity be hooted from the room. This is the realm where ideas are “run up flagpoles” and such like, where outside-the-box thinking receives the obligatory tip o’ the hat, but where genuine “outside the box thinking” is neither expected nor appreciated.
The articulation of true thinking outside the corporate box is risible, if anyone unschooled in the unwritten corporate rules dares to give voice to such heresy.
This is the conundrum. The paradox.
Now, we all engage in pop-psychology from time-to-time, and this allows us to speak of the “average person’s” attitudes, beliefs, and reactions as if we, ourselves, are free of this “average person’s” afflictions. But indulge this hubris for a few more moments.
The conundrum is that when the artist, the visionary, thinks outside the box, it leaves others feeling threatened and insulted that they, themselves, are perceived as restricted to thinking inside this box.
Likewise, the average person tends to interpret his own inability to understand a vision as the other person’s quackery . . . whether the artist is a painter, composer, writer . . . or businessman.
There is a balance to be struck here.
Those of us without calluses on our fragile psyches can be wounded by the mass rejection of our vision, such rejection leaving us questioning our sanity and ability. And those of us informed by our own arrogance and too callused may be deaf to legitimate criticism or to gentle suggestion.
Thus, the conundrum of the vision. Visions are difficult.
I said that not all visions are created equal. Not all are salutary or benign. Some are unsavory, insidious, dangerous, cold.
Others are just boring, derivative, smug, pale.
But I desire not to judge a man’s vision. Not hereabouts, anyway.
These problems of distinguishing good vision from bad are worth essays and books in their own right, essays and books that are perhaps beyond this scribe’s abilities to pen.
Rather, at this point, I call attention to the angst and anguish of the man who perceives that his vision cannot be grasped by others. His impatience with naysayers, his irascibility, his inability to compromise, his propensity to scoff rather than to explain.
his resignation that any explanation will not be enough. For if it were explicable to the average mind, then the average mind would have long ago seized upon the vision and made it corporeal.
That is yet another conundrum for the entrepreneur, the artist, the visionary. Perhaps it has always been this way, and it is not necessarily restricted to those of genius stature.
If the vision itself, indeed, is true art — an assemblage of something truly unique, then of course it will not be immediately apprehensible to the hoi-polloi. And so not to sound haughty, perhaps it could be better said: “immediately apprehensible to us of the hoi-polloi.” To those of us not privy to the vision’s intricate fabric, the obscure linkages, the high concept that informs the few.
Let me issue a caveat that complicates the issue. There are those in our lives who exhibit a raft of negative characteristics—irascibility, inability to compromise, the sneer of the wise — without the saving grace of having a vision or anything resembling it. But shrewd and clever folks are afoot, and they know the trappings of the visionary, the finery of the thinker, the vernacular of the annointed.
But he is hollow. And how to spot this poseur?
Again, I digress in the interest of clarity and refinement. Back to the point-of-the-moment, and that point is this:
Communicating the vision is incredibly difficult. It is difficult because of snags all along the communication chain. It is difficult because of flaws inherent in the visionary, in the medium, and in the those receiving the message. And given this, it is a wonder that useful communication occurs at all.
Think of the equation: An irascible, haughty, driven, and quirky entrepreneur attempts hurried and imperfect communication with an unresponsive, suspicious, and fallow audience.
For inevitably, the recipient of a fresh, new, insightful, electrifying, unique confection of art, vision, or theory will respond in predictable manner.
The recipient of this revolutionary information responds to the truly new by filtering the information through sensors that massage and mold it into images and words and reality that are already known. For it all has been heard before, seen before, considered before, and catalogued before.
Nothing is truly new . . . especially to the clever man, who for the most part has no personal stake in recognizing and processing novelty.
If perchance, an idea takes root, a theory is accepted, art recognized for its texture, nuance, and universalism . . . well, the problem of communication is instantly forgotten after the fact.
After the fact, of course, it is all different. We all recognize novelty, genius, the great idea after the fact. Long after the fact. It becomes “obvious.”
The unserious novels of Charles Dickens. The absurd notion that people might appreciate a service that provides overnight delivery, a service with the ridiculously stuffy name “Federal Express.”
In each of these dramatically different cases, an entrepreneur recognized something that others, perhaps much like us, could not or would not.
Entrepreneurs and novelists are usually driven people. I tend to believe that they are one and the same. Would-be authors are entrepreneurs. In fact, they are repeat performers, whether crafting fiction or non-fiction . . . every new book is an entrepreneurial effort.
They visualize what is not there, what others cannot see. Or can see only through a mist of reality that clogs the imagination. Imaginative and single-minded, they embrace their mission with religious zeal (and I do believe that those two words, religious and zeal, are joined at the hips, much as to “redouble one’s efforts”).
A touch of the maniacal, the obsessive, the glassy-eyed dreamer, the take-no-prisoners, uncompromising drive. The determination that compels one to rise each day to face the idea that no one understands, to embrace yet another day alone in one’s belief. An attitude that says “do not tamper with this vision.”
This is, of course, the only way for entrepreneurs to succeed. If they were any other way, they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs.
Which brings me to the final point that is not so disentangled from what has gone before to be a standalone.
I have waxed on about communication and its difficulties. The word has become almost a cliché in that everything these days can be labeled a “communication problem,” even when the problem is not lack of communication, but rather too much accurate communication.
The “communication” conundrum I refer to afflicts anyone who would write to inform others, who would convey thoughts and notions and concepts.
In fiction, and even in non-fiction, I have noted a disinclination on the part of many undergraduates and some graduate students to edit their work. As if such editing is equivalent to the “corporate leavening process” I mentioned earlier. They confuse the goal of clarity with senses-dulling censorship.
Strunk and White touched upon this, and where Strunk and White are sometimes looked upon as too basic, their insights provide a solid technical foundation that many young writers would do well to absorb. Strunk and White observed a tendency among young writers to confuse spontaneity with genius, to affect a breezy, careless, even world-weary style. I believe the modern vernacular for this is the “been there, done that” posture.
But of course, such an attitude leads to ambiguity and sloppiness in writing — whether one is conveying exactly a child’s appropriate emotion in a funereal scene, or whether one is conveying the impact of various liquidity ratios on a novel business model.
Inevitably, what is communicated on the page is not what the writer believes he or she is conveying. First drafts are always afflicted with a primitivity of communication. Yet, ironically, the first draft carries for many writers an aura of spontaneity and genius that resists change.
The solution? Editing.
If there is a single act that can improve this communication issue, it is careful and ruthless editing. Only through editing can clarity, focus, and meaning be teased from the morass of words. This is a lesson taught on Storytellers many times, but it demands repeating.
The daily difficulties of communication abound. When the subject is new or the product unique, the obstacles increase dramatically, for all the reasons I have listed in such disorganized fashion. Through the act of editing, perhaps we can at least overcome one obstacle in the difficult task of communicating our vision.
The problems lie all along the communication chain — in the personality of the visionary, in the unique nature of the vision itself, in the inadequacy of the medium with which we communicate, and in the prejudices of the recipient.
Is there a formula to address all of these issues along the communication chain? Probably not. I certainly do not have the answer. But at risk of sounding like the cookie-cutter b-school professor, let me iterate that the good news is that awareness of a problem and its proper identification is a giant step toward its resolution in our personal strategic planning process.
The more rarefied the vision, the more intractable and personal the issues we must deal with. And as a result, I suspect that each of us must define our own problems and search out our own answers to our communication issues.
For only we can grapple with them and, ultimately, deal with them.