Month: June 2012

Creative common sense: the value of creative work

There have been some really vivid debates happening recently centering around artists and how they are compensated for their work.

Much of the focus was a blog post by David Lowery, the leader of bands Cracker and Camper van Beethoven and an advocate for musicians. His blog The Tricordist published an excellent post yesterday as a response to an NPR intern admitting on air that of the 11,000 songs she’d downloaded, she paid for almost none of them.

I talked about this here back in January and it’s a debate that’s been raging for a decade or so now since the advent of Napster. It also seems to be primarily generational, as younger music fans simply don’t see paying for music as a necessity.

What musicians have to rely on when people don’t honor their work.

I see obvious parallels between musicians and journalists. Ironically, the NPR intern – ostensibly a journalism or broadcasting major – will soon be in a job market where paying jobs have shrunk and the few opportunities open are often internships.

The TV stations and newspapers in Chicago don’t think it’s economically wise to hire a newbie out of college, and much of their remaining budgets go to on-air talent or production needs. So those fact checkers, graphics editors and admins? All interns, all free.

In other words, Emily the NPR intern will soon be experiencing the same thing the musicians she’s downloaded have: working without compensation.

I have 13,000 tracks in my iTunes and have paid for 99% of them. Some may have been “ripped” from physical CDs but at some juncture, I paid for them. I have a small, tiny sliver of unpaid tracks that in most cases, were unavailable in any format or out of print.

Maybe this is the hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn old man coming out in me, but it IS increasingly a moral issue to me. If people don’t understand that they are stealing, then we have a serious issue.

How would most hourly employees feel if, at the end of two weeks of work, your company simply didn’t pay you for your work? We’d have riots in the street.

Why is that unacceptable for “most of us” but OK for artists, musicians and writers?

Another recent content related controversy surrounds the cartoonist Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, and a conflict he’s had with the team that runs the Web site FunnyJunk.

FunnyJunk appears to be a site where users upload content – any humor-based content they want. Inman found several hundred of his works uploaded to FJ without any attribution as to who created them.

I won’t fully recount the blow by blow here – it’s just too odd and bizarre to believe – but instead of honoring Inman’s intellectual property claims, FunnyJunk’s lawyers sued him for compensation, claiming they had been slandered.

Or in simpler terms: An artist was expected to comply with the free, uncompensated use of his work.

Sound familiar?

To me, these issues underscore how we see work in this country, what we see as valid work (often only white collar work is valued), and how we compensate people for their time and efforts.


In defense of Fred Rogers

Honestly, I can’t believe I have to write a post defending someone as genuinely influential and amazing as Fred Rogers.

Our neighbor – then, now and forever.

But his legacy came under attack again last week during a now-widely discussed high school commencement speech.

David McCullough, an English teacher and son of historian David McCullough, gave a pointed and blunt speech to stunned students telling them they aren’t special.

It was meant as a wake-up call to the “everyone gets a trophy” and “helicopter parent” kids. And I agree with many of the points McCullough made.

But his quote early on made me very angry: “Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers, and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”

Mr. Rogers is being blamed for “coddling” kids and making them into belly button gazing narcissists. And McCullough isn’t the first one to do so. The late Jeffrey Zaslow, a former Wall Street Journal, wrote an entire article blaming Fred Rogers for the “me me me” epidemic.

I always try to see multiple viewpoints and multiple “sides” of an issue. I get that education is a complex topic in this country and an increasingly political one.

But come for Fred Rogers, and I will bear down the force of a thousand suns to protect his legacy.

I can’t even put into words how much I disagree with the “blame Mr. Rogers” movement. Yes, he does say to children, “You’re special.” But there are a ton of apples-to-oranges comparisons being made – lots of claims without looking deeper at his work.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood emphasized the unique qualities of each child and each individual. And at the developmental stage that the show was aimed at, that was – and still is – a valuable and necessary message.

There was nothing – absolutely nothing – in his messages that suggested that children didn’t need to strive for goals, or work hard, or any of the disconnections from reality he’s been blamed for. All he recognized is that children may take different pathways to success, and that different people had strengths in different areas.

Fred Rogers was an educator for longer than many of us have even been alive. He was involved in the medium of television as early as 1954 and his shows always had the same goals – to encourage education, inspire learning and cultivate curiosity in children.

This wasn’t a ego trip for him or a chance for him to be a ‘star,’ and as this astonishing video clip shows, he was willing to fight very hard for what he believed in. What you saw on air of Fred Rogers was – surprise – exactly who he was off camera.

His background as a Presbyterian minister was a foundation for what he felt was a mission to guide and inspire children to learn, to grow and to feel safe – a crucial focus at a time where the nightly news showed the horrors of Vietnam night after night (and quite frankly, a need that is timeless).

Conservative news sites have taken McCullough’s speech and made it a call to arms. The narrative being put forth in conservative media is that the “everyone is special” message must clearly equal coddling from liberal leaders and educators.

A few observations on this phenomenon, if I may.

Firstly, we need to step away from politicizing education and work together to improve learning and improve outcomes. Some no-nonsense common sense goals and boundaries would be welcome, but making education one of the us vs. them, liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican battles will favor no one.

Secondly, the conservative and evangelical view is that every life has value and every life is special. And that can’t apply just in utero, can it? I see such a direct and clear connection between Fred Rogers’ faith, and his contention that every child is special. I would think many Christians would see the same connection.

And one final irony: being told that you’re not special, that you’re just one of a group and that you get what the guy next to you gets…..that sounds a bit to me like….oh, what’s the word that’s been tossed around frequently in politics in the last few years? Oh wait, that’s right: COMMUNISM.

Every person adhering to a sameness – that’s pretty much the definition of that word. (It’s been misused and misapplied so often in recent times; I had to look in the dictionary just to be sure!)

Celebrating the uniqueness of the individual, the independent spirit – that, to me, is America and the most patriotic thing we can do. And to me, that’s what the legacy of Fred Rogers represents.

I don’t disagree with McCullough’s basic premise. There is vast room for improvement in our education system. Children (and the adults in their lives) definitely need to understand that achievement is earned, not a given, and that hard work and intense studying is crucial.

I’ve seen what happens when a child is overly protected from criticism and failure. I’ve worked with many people like that in my career, and few things are as aggravating as trying to give feedback to someone who never learned to take constructive criticism. We urge children to succeed, but we don’t always teach them how to fail, and how to recover from that.

Self-reliance is an obvious goal. Living a life where you can care for you and your family takes away a lot of fear and uncertainty and it empowers people. I completely co-sign that idea, too. I have no arguments with those points.

But instead of dismissing Fred Rogers and his magnificent legacy of work, perhaps it’s time to reexamine that legacy and see what else he can teach us about reaching the hearts and minds of children.

His work and his ideas are timeless. In the same week that McCullough dismissed Rogers in his speech, a YouTube video featuring debuted on the PBS YouTube channel. It has garnered over three million page views.

As a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers was always there and always “ours.” I didn’t fully appreciate his work until his death in 2003. He has been gone for almost ten years now. He’s very much missed, and the world could certainly use more leaders and teachers like Fred Rogers.

EDITED TO ADD: A former colleague who read my post on Twitter sent me a link to another great post about Fred Rogers; the post, in turn, reminded me of the acceptance speech that Rogers made at the 1997 Daytime Emmy Awards.

The Emmys, of course, are an awards show. For once, Rogers had an opportunity to make the moment about him, or his team, or deliver some variation on the usual thank you’s that winners make. What he does here (starting around 1:45) is beyond astonishing in its grace and its simplicity. Please watch.

A rich inner world

Are there splinters in the windmills of my mind?

In April, I took an online Myers-Briggs text. Myers-Briggs is a personality test and indicates how you approach decision making – and how you interact with the world.

My result was ISFJ, labeled “The Nurturer.”

OK, whatever. I wasn’t investing a lot of thought in the results. It was, after all, an Internet test.

But something in the written results caught my eye.

As an ISFJ, your primary mode of living is focused internally, where you take things in via your five senses in a literal, concrete fashion…

IFSJ’s constantly take in information about people and situations that is personally important to them, and store it away. This tremendous store of information is usually startlingly accurate, because the ISFJ has an exceptional memory about things that are important to their value systems. 

It would not be uncommon for the ISFJ to remember a particular facial expression or conversation in precise detail years after the event occured, if the situation made an impression on the ISFJ.

ISFJs have a rich inner world that is not usually obvious to observers. 

Wow, that’s me. Very much so.

I’ve always described it as “living inside my head” and it’s probably a great basis for the imagination suited to writers and artists. But it doesn’t always make friendships, relationships and social situations easy.

I developed a healthy imagination as a sick kid, forced by nasty allergies to play indoors. I also sharpened my powers of observation during those years. I am, as the ISFJ analysis suggests, that person with a memory like a steel trap.

I remember events, people, places and dates – and more importantly, the emotional texture that was surrounding that particular event. I remember one neighborhood gossip pumping me for information because, as she said, “nothing gets by you, kid!”

That rich inner garden kicked into high gear in grade school and high school as a coping mechanism. I’d run into challenging situations – being shunned by other kids or being teased, or having someone beat the crap out of me  –  on almost a daily basis.

When the conflict escalated, I started seeing it all through my mind’s eye and imagining it Life Is Beautiful style, as if it was all just a TV show that I was watching – or starring in. It was a creative way to cope, though a therapist would probably have a field day with that and call it ‘disassociative.”

In high school I became deeply involved in fictional worlds, both as a voracious reader and a writer. I created my own stories. But except for a few friends, it all essentially remained in my head.

Going to college at 18 broke through that shell in some necessary ways. I made some close friends and learned to live in a more interactive world.

I don’t think I’m a terribly shy or reserved person. I’m not antisocial or misanthropic. But I still live, in many ways, in my head. Why? Self-protection is the obvious answer.

This approach is sometimes manifested in my language and writing. A friend of mine commented a few years ago after not seeing me for a while that he had to remind himself about “Patrick speak” – a mixture of metaphors and foreshadowing where the real meaning was buried three or four paragraphs in.

I’ve also had to weed this approach out of my writing. Good journalism counts on a solid lede to tell you what the story is about. Burying the lede means people might stop reading before the real news reaches them.

I’ve tried to be more aware of this with friends and co-workers. It’s a necessity, especially at work, for people to understand where you’re coming from and what you’re thinking.

But if I had to be brutally honest, I’d say that even with the very closest people in my life, they’ve only seen a portion of that inner garden. Even after all these years, I still hold those cards close to my vest.

One of my biggest hopes with my remaining time in college is that it continues to be a transformative experience, and leads me to learn new ways to share that rich garden of ideas in my head in a way that makes me feel comfortable, confident and empowered. Like me, it’s a project that is still a work in progress.