Bogusky on the Advantages of Being Lost

I commend to you this smart article by Alex Bogusky.  It ran in MediaPost’s Media Magazine – if you prefer to read it there, here is the link.

The only thing you know for certain is that you don’t
Let me start out by saying that I know nothing about media. That’s probably not a surprise to people who know me because I am thought of as a “creative” guy. But you might be surprised to learn that I know nothing about creativity. Furthermore, I know nothing about advertising.

Of course, there are little details I know. Like I do know a little about typography but remain ignorant about design. I know a bunch of chords and songs on the guitar but I remain ignorant about music. I know the process to create a 30-second commercial but I’m still ignorant about marketing. The big stuff remains a mystery to me. In fact, one of my very favorite clients recently said to me, “You don’t even know what you don’t know,” in reference to her business. I liked that thought so much I printed it up on a T-shirt so it read, “I don’t even know what I don’t know,” and I wore it to our next meeting. I gave my son one, too, and he wears it proudly to school. We Boguskys are proud of our ignorance. I love that T-shirt and that thought, but I could probably flip it around to make it a bit more accurate and say, “The only thing I know with complete certainty is that I don’t know.”

bogusky w glassesNot knowing has been a powerful ally and I have come to rely heavily on the power of ignorance. As a young ad dude, I wasn’t comfortable with the lack of knowing that made up who I was. So like most young ad dudes I set out to become an expert at my chosen field. I had, like others before me, begun to confuse knowledge and intelligence. This great quest for advertising knowledge led me to climb up various mountains to meet and hear from as many industry gurus as I could. It was time well spent and I learned a great deal. But eventually I was lucky enough to come to the conclusion that nobody really “knew” anything. The best and the brightest were all just finding their way. And the most successful people seemed to be the most prodigious at making it up as they went along. So not knowing has become a formidable ally. An ally that is threatened as you gain years and years of experience. It’s an ally that needs to be protected from dangerous threats like “expertise.”

As part of this edition of Media, a blog was created and I had the chance to post some questions. Oddly enough, the one that created the most interest was around this idea of “an expert” and more specifically where did all these social media experts come from so quickly? What makes somebody a social media expert, anyway? And finally, why on earth would anyone want to be an expert? Expertise seems to require experience and the ability to use that expertise seems to require that the future closely resemble the past. As I stated earlier, I’m no expert and I don’t know anything, but I highly doubt the media future is going to closely resemble media’s past. Not even its most recent past.

Not long ago, I read a book called, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Great book and I suspect it’s as much a business book as a wilderness-survival book; the parallels are astounding. So after a lifetime of interviews with people who lived when those around them died, the author, Laurence Gonzalez, found some fundamental differences in survivors. The first being that survivors more quickly recognized and accepted that they were lost. It seems that people who continued to think they “knew” where they were and stuck with the “plan” died more often than the folks who recognized the rules had changed and that their old beliefs were useless.

Well, let me be the first to tell you that you are lost in the new frontiers of media. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you will get to surviving and even thriving. The sooner you let go of old rules, the sooner you will be able to put all your faculties of perception to work in taking in your new environment. I won’t go into the laundry list of new landmarks in your new environment because that’s like trying to understand the forest by counting the trees. There is a video that has been floating out on the Internet for a while and it’s a test. The test is to watch and count how many times some basketball players pass a ball to each other. As you focus on counting, the video finally ends and you feel like you nailed it. I did. And then a question comes up. “Did you see a gorilla walk through the room?” I was like, “no freaking way.” But as I watched it again a gorilla pretty much dances across the screen. This is an example of a pre-set plan blocking out the environment.

Another quality of survivors is that they don’t look for safety in the emotional security of where they found safety in the past. The example they cite in the book is related to aircraft carrier pilots. With these folks pretty much every landing is an exercise in survival. So if a pilot is coming in at the wrong angle or speed there are a number of warning signs designed to get the pilot to abort the landing. First, his own instruments sound the warning and the lights on the deck of the carrier turn from green to red. And soon the flight controller begins yelling over the radio to abort. Yet with all this information, it isn’t uncommon for a pilot to still attempt to land even though logically they know they can’t survive the impact. The reason is that the deck represents safety and there is a strong emotional response as the deck gets closer that actually blocks out all the screams in the headset and the lights and the alarms. In the stress of the situation they literally don’t hear it all as they reach for the deck that has always meant safety.

What I’m suggesting here is that with all that is happening in media today, this is no time to be in a rush to get down on the deck. I’ve probably “survived” several changes in the media landscape and I plan to float to safety on another raft of ignorance. So this issue on the future of media isn’t about becoming an expert. It’s about eschewing the emotional safety of knowledge and expertise, and instead sitting back in ignorance and wonder. It’s about taking the time to carefully observe the gorilla as it dances through the room.