Ira Glass on Having taste, Talent and Being Successful

Yesterday Madame Receptionist and I took a stroll around the company parking lot. Sometimes, when my boss takes a long lunch or when things are not so busy I have the time to do so. Sometimes I come back a little late and he is already back from a not-so-long lunch, and instead of asking me, “Where the hell were you,” as I feared he would the first time I came back late, he merely nods as our eyes meet and turns back to his computer screen.

“I’m no slave driver,” he once said, when I asked him for two days off to visit Chicago, “Go, take a break. Have fun.”

When I returned a lady from accounting asked me if I had gone to visit a boyfriend.

“No,” I said, “Just a friend.”

She giggled and nodded towards my boss’s silent figure behind the glass.

“You know,” she said, “He told me you went to Chicago and I suggested that maybe you went to visit your boyfriend, and he said, ‘I hope so.’ Isn’t that funny?”

Anyway, that is beside the point.

On our stroll, we discussed various social media tools we used for our blogs. Mine is mostly writing – hers, a fashion blog, is mostly pictures. We both use twitter, Facebook and recently, Pinterest, an online pinboard that allows you to ‘pin’ images you like to customized boards. People can follow a select few or all of your boards: a more organized version of Tumblr, if you will. Yet I’m wary about using Pinterest in the same way I was wary about Tumblr – mainly, that it didn’t promote original content but the constant reblogging or “repinning” of others’ content.

I think before, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much. The internet is for sharing. Who cares if I’m unoriginal and I have nothing to post? I’ll just repost articles written by other people who made time in their days to generate original content. I’ll share pretty pictures I didn’t take, songs I didn’t write, clothes I didn’t make or outfits I didn’t put together. There’s nothing wrong with being an editor. 

Well. There is nothing wrong with being an editor – in fact, I suspect sometimes I edit better than I write (you’re welcome, dozens of people whom I’ve helped with college essays and letters of rec – except for the ones who didn’t get into the schools of your choice, in which case, you have only yourself to blame) just as there is nothing wrong with being a curator. And indeed there is “art” in curating and editing and tweaking something original so that it is enhanced, but nowadays with the proliferation of social media sights that promote sharing, those that merely share will take a back seat to those that create in addition to sharing.

Madame Receptionist and I discussed what it meant to have taste – or how having taste doesn’t necessarily translate to success. Recently, a member of the marketing team announced her departure for the apparel industry. She had started her career in tech and was indeed poached from a CE company to join ours, and while she never verbally expressed her interest in fashion, there were little clues to be found here and there. The steady stream of fashion magazines, for instance, that came in the mail for her, and the random compliments she paid both of us, “Cute shoes!” or “I love that skirt. Oh my God where did you get it?”

Perhaps the biggest clue she could have given however, was in her own dress, which unfortunately fit in a little too well with the other wardrobes of the tech industry, which is to say, she dressed rather drably. Her ensembles consisted of black or grey slacks, shiny polyester tank tops from Banana Republic or the Limited, and boring, pointy-toed pumps that could either be very expensive or very cheap – a choice you never want pose to people who care to guess. Her hair was a limp, depressing mess, and though her eyes seemed energetic enough, I wanted very badly to hand her a hairbrush and to convince her to eat some protein to promote healthier hair shafts. Critical, no? Yes. Very.

That’s my point – it’s easy to be a critic. When she announced her departure I asked her why and more importantly, wondered what the apparel company saw in or on her person that could possible convince them to lead marketing at their company. Surely it wasn’t the pointy-toed pumps? Perhaps they had thought them more expensive than they were?

“I’ve always loved fashion,” she said, “and they really liked what I did here and at my previous job for digital marketing, so they want me to help them do the same there, except it’s for clothes, which is much more geared towards my interests.”

I’m not say the woman did an amazing job at my present company (that remains to be seen), but whatever she created was eye-catching and most importantly, tangible to land her a “dream” position she really wanted. When it comes to design of website, clothing, interiors – it’s easy, if you read a lot of magazines, weblogs and come into contact with the actual things, to formulate opinions of what you like and dislike. What’s harder, and what few people actually push themselves to do, is go one step further and ask themselves why. At least I am very bad at this.

I used to think it was perfectly acceptable to say, “I like what I like, I don’t have to explain why,” and in certain contexts, it is. But not when you want to drive change, or innovate, or make something better. You have to be able to say why.

During my first week I got a head of myself. My boss asked me for more business cards and I found a box of them in my desk and, upon handing it over, remarked that they weren’t very pretty business cards.

He looked at me curiously and said, “Well, we are in the process of changing our marketing image, but why? What don’t you like about the card?”

I could answer that easily enough. I didn’t like the card stock (it felt flimsy), and the logo on the back seemed dated despite its being only a year old. The card was neither “timeless” nor clean, attributes I felt excellent designs had. The colors were also to dark for my taste. The card looked like a promotional item for a cheap nightclub or a bad movie poster.

“Okay,” my boss said, “Interesting opinions. But how would you change it?”

I wasn’t prepared to answer that – at least not in as much detail as my diatribe against the card warranted.

“Simplify it,” I said, after a while, “We can make it cleaner looking. Use thicker paper. Different fonts and perhaps a different logo. Less color.”

“Be more specific,” he said.

I had a vague idea of what I thought was an attractive business card in mind, but could I actually sit down and design one? I don’t know – probably, after a few days of researching and studying other business cards, but at the moment, I was ill-prepared to back up my assertions. Why should my ideas (criticisms) reasonably trump the existing design? I was merely being a critic and not ready to deliver any solution to the problems I had called out.  

My boss shook his head. “It’s great to have an opinion. It’s great to have taste, but you have to be able to support it. It’s easy for anyone with taste to say ‘Oh I don’t like this, I don’t like that,’ but are you actually creating anything to remedy what you think is bad taste?”

Okay, maybe he didn’t use the word “remedy,” but that is what he meant and it stuck with me. Probably one of the more important things I learned at work (in addition to never parking my boss’s car too close to the curb because it scratched the bottom of the car). Was that all I was? A spout of opinions? I have always been one to sprint to conclusions and shuffle towards reasoning, but at work (and slowly elsewhere, including on this blog), it’s becoming dangerous to do so, especially where other people have stronger opinions, stronger criticisms and the work ethic, stamina and reasoning skills to drive those opinions home.

Basically, it won’t do to just have taste. You (or I, really) have to do the work. Otherwise you’re just adding to the noise. 

That was much longer than I intended – really, I just wanted to share this wonderful video with you all. I didn’t create it, sadly, nor did I say the words, but in this case I’m acting as curator 🙂

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

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