Book Summary: Where Men Win Glory

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by Jon Krakauer

This is a book about doing what is right at all costs, and about putting your money where your mouth is. It’s about taking action rather than just talking about it, and about being virtuous in a corrupt world.

It’s about a man with boundless optimism and an unswerving sense of duty who lays it all on the line and gets screwed over by the very society he sought to serve. And as with so many great men and women, the media narrative spun around them is a pale and distorted reflection of the person behind the headlines.

You probably know the story: Pat Tillman, ASU football star and later NFL safety for the Arizona Cardinals, at the dawn of the Global War on Terror, is so moved by the events of 9/11 that he walks away from a $3M contract to enlist in the US Army.

Tillman is killed in action fighting in Afghanistan and his death is shamelessly used as a public relations opportunity by the Bush Administration to cast the failing war in a positive light — one fought by courageous heroes rather than the hopeless quagmire it turned out to be.

Then the kicker — soon after the adulatory media storm orchestrated by the Pentagon passes, details emerge that Tillman was actually killed by friendly fire — a fact that was deliberately covered up all the way up the chain of command, deceiving the American public as well as Tillman’s own family.

I can’t think of a better embodiment of the tragic hero than Pat Tillman. Eschewing the comfortable like of an NFL star– expensive cars and 6 months of off-season every year — Tillman was disturbed by the idea that he was physically capable but he wasn’t on the front lines. He needed to have skin in the game or he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

Tillman knew that principle without sacrifice is meaningless. For him, paying mere lip service to “supporting the troops” rang hollow. So he took action.

Even after enlisting, becoming disillusioned with the Iraq war and refusing to ever give a single media interview despite his fame, he was steadfast in his dedication, as evidenced by his journal.

While tragic, the fact that his death was handled shamefully by the US Army all the way up to the White House provides poetic contrast to his actions. He held himself to a higher standard than the lying officers and the bureaucracy who commanded him.

Tillman’s stubborn idealism, his insistence in throwing himself into the action rather than standing on the sidelines, humility, and his dedication to speaking with his actions rather than words —  these are the things that brought him up and also the things that brought him down.

Quotes:

“I never explicitly asked him,, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Because I understood Pat well enough to already know . . . If it was the right thing for people to go off and fight a war, he believed he should be part of it.” – Marie Tillman, wife

“[If I die], I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.” – Pat Tillman

“What kind of man will I become? Will people see me has an honest man, hard working man, family man, good man? Can I become the man I envision? Is vision and follow-through enough? How important is talent & blind luck? . . . There are no true answers, just shades of grey, coincidence, and circumstance.” – Pat Tillman

 

 

Solving a Spiritual Problem

Eckhart Tolle is the most popular writer on spirituality today. His books like “The Secret” and “The Power of Now” have sold millions. Probably tens of millions.

It’s the kind of writing that’s light and breezy, and designed to be sold in staggering quantities. You’ll see it alongside Grisham and King in Wal-Marts and Hudson News stands at every airport in America.

Detractors say the writing is platitudinous, full of half-baked pseudo-spirituality and watered-down quasi-Buddhist concepts. And it’s a fair assessment. All in all, Tolle’s work is little more than a regurgitated and modernized Tibetan Book of the Dead. My own opinion is that he’s a decidedly less original literary relative of Osho, Krishnamurti, and Alan Watts.

But people who criticize him on grounds of his originality and profiteering miss the point entirely, and there is an important marketing concept to understand here:

Yes, Eckhart Tolle is hawking barely repackaged ideas from the great Eastern spiritual traditions that go back thousands of years, usually with no credit attributed to the original source.

But who cares? This is not his market. Do you think the people reading his book are also reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead? Not a chance.

Think of it this way – Eckhart Tolle is performing a valuable service. He is taking a complex and arcane subject and making it simple.

He is doing what all entrepreneurs do. He is solving a problem and introducing new ideas to millions of people who would otherwise have not been exposed to it. And for this he deserves every penny he makes because of it, detractors be damned.

A Tom Sachs Primer

Every once in a while you find an artist who makes you jump up and down with excitement. If you’re like me, you get obsessive– first you consume their art of course. All of it.

Then you read the Wikipedia page about the artist. Then the pages about all the things you consumed. You read the references. You watch 7 interviews with them. You google “[artist name] + reviews” to understand where they fit into their field. You see the reviewer mention some other artists as a point of comparison, and you do it all over again with that person.

When I go down the rabbit hole like this, I sometimes feel conflicted, like I’m wasting my time. It feels like procrastination, like I should be doing something with a more clearly defined purpose and endpoint. Reading about things that will be of no practical value to me.

But I’ve done this enough now to know that it’s just something to push through. A temporary flash of self-doubt that can be overcome with persistence. In the end, I always emerge at the other side with some new insight, some added depth to my experience and my worldview.

I did this most recently with sculptor, filmmaker, and installation artist Tom Sachs, who. Here are my favorite pieces of his:

Scuplptor Tom Sachs believes in working to code. His studio is run with the meticulous intensity of a NASA training program, which makes sense given his obsession with the space program and his ongoing installations which combine sculpture and theater in a funny and inspirational way.

Here is where to start:

  • His film “Ten Bullets”, directed by Van Neistat (brother of YouTube star Casey Neistat), comes across as an instructive industrial or PSA film. Tom Sachs believes in “working to code”, and this film not only serves as training material for his studio assistants, but also lays out some findamentals about his attitude toward life and art.
  • Color is another employee training film-cum-manifesto which not only identifies the precise paint types and colors which are used in the studio, but really made me appreciate the range of subletly and expression that can be derived from paint color alone.
  • All of Tom Sach’s work is rooted in the concept of bricolage, which refersto the act of constructing something with whatever is at hand. This video shows his fully functional McDonald’s food cart made of plywood, complete with a deep fryer, tongue-in-cheek ripoff logos, and a shotgun defense system.
  • His space program, in which his team staged a manned mission to Mars, complete with full size lander, rover, and space suits, using nothing but household objects. The amazing thing about this project is that Tom and the staff never talk about it with any degree of humor or self-deprecation, and they never imply that they aren’t really going to Mars. They just call it “the space program” and are utterly sincere to the point that they are using NASA’s logo. “Everything is executed to such detail that it becomes real.
  • This interview with Adam Savage, where they talk about early careers, making stuff, bricolage, and why Tom always paints his plywood before he cuts it.

I hope you can take something from this and use it to improve your life, art, and understanding. Now I’m just wondering – which rabbit hole is next?

 

Applied Empathy

In Paul Graham’s essay “Hackers and Painters,” he makes the point that the best creators, whether they’re making visual art or software, make things for a human audience. This is true whether the creators explicitly know it or not.

They create things with the intent that other people will consume and appreciate what they are doing. It’s summarized well in Graham’s axiom, make things people want. But when you look at the work of so many creators approach their art, it seems to fail this basic requirement.

Artists in particular are notorious for this. What it comes down to is a lack of empathy. At every stage in the creative process, ask yourself — am I making this because it’s what I want? Or am I making it because it is what someone else wants? Who specifically, and what desire does my thing fulfill?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making art for an audience of one, for simple self-expression, catharsis, or maybe for practice. The problem is when people create art from a self-centered place and then are shocked and vaguely offended when the world doesn’t match their enthusiasm.

At the other extreme, if you’re making something exclusively because you think it’s what people want, you’re likely to run out of steam and give up before you’re done. The key it to strike a balance.

Business people are usually better at this than artists, but not always. Look at this video of startup founders asking Paul Graham for advice. Graham is amazingly incisive, and I’m sure it’s not easy to open yourself up to cross-examination from such a heavy hitter. But even so I’m amazed at how bad most of these people are at describing their businesses. Many seem to have no strong concept of what problem their product solves and who exactly would use it.

Without a clear concept of what you’re trying to accomplish and for whom, you’re wasting your energy.

So empathy is a key attribute of a successful creator — successful in the sense that the creation is well-received by some intended audience. (An amazing creation that lives in total obscurity is not an amazing creation.)

To put it in plain English, a secret of success is the ability to look at things from the other person’s point of view.

Cynics will say this is weakness.  But there is a flip side: Graham notes that “empathy doesn’t necessarily mean being self-sacrificing.” Just the opposite can be true; seeing something through someone else’s eyes doesn’t mean you’ll act in his interest.

Take war or sports as an example. The objective there is to understand what the opponent wants and then deliver the exact opposite.

 

Anatomy of a Stunt: Creating Controversy for Fun & Profit

At the core, marketing is a challenge of distribution. The name of the game is getting attention — and within reason, the quantity of the attention is less important than the cause of it. Obviously, a brand shouldn’t be overtly horrible, but a well-executed stunt is often the best option. Recall Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power:

“Law #6: Court attention at all costs.”

Not only are stunts cheaper to execute than traditional press releases or advertising, but they’re more fun. They give a brand a chance to make a statement and show a little personality. So in addition to the new eyeballs you draw in, you’re strengthening your position in the existing audience’s mind.

In our case, we wanted to show our fans that we’re real people — silly, sly, and a little irreverent.

The Concept

Analog Watch Co.’s brand identity is “inspired by nature.” We use natural materials like wood and marble in our designs. The joke for this stunt is that we’d be using live animals “to remind the wearer of the beauty of nature” — intending to elevate the natural world while unwittingly killing and commodifying it.

The Fake Product

Inspired by those iconic green ant farms, we need to turn this concept into a mock-up that we could promote. There are a few reasons why this would never work as a real product, but we expected that people wouldn’t think too hard about it.

The “product” was made by spray painting one of our real watches. We bought life ants from AntsAlive.com. For the voiceover narration, we hired a guy with an English accent from Fiverr to give it a sort of poor-man’s David Attenbourough vibe. This was the majestic result:

The page on our website had a major clue that this was all a prank: We were not actively taking payments — the only way visitors could order was by signing up for an email list. We promised to notify them when orders opened on April 1, 2015.

The Hook

Our business has meaningful press connections with relevant local blogs, communities of watch enthusiasts, and design taste-makers, so the obvious move would be to comb through our Rolodex and pitch the hell out of all the relevant contacts.

But we knew while this might get us some traction, we needed something else to truly amplify our message and create a more remarkable spectacle.

People onlineIf people online are good at one thing, it’s getting pissed off about the cause-du-jour.

Emotions run high online. It seems that everything that spreads is

We had to piss some people off.

Internet traffic is driven by emotion. The higher the emotional valence of a piece of content, the faster it spreads. And of all emotions, anger is probably the most provocative. It’s so powerful that among certain group, it can seem like people are just waiting around for an excuse to get outraged. They’re on a hair trigger, and all it takes is a small group of people to have a strong opinion about something, and others will jump on the bandwagon.

Animal rights activists are notorious for this sort of behavior, and therefore the perfect group to target and help us spread the word about our brand.

The opening move:

I posted this on Reddit from my personal account. Despite being a relatively small subreddit (<9k subscribers), this simple comment provoked 37 comments and hundreds of visitors. The Ant Watch never actually appeared on Treehugger. This was a flat-out lie. But of course nobody bothered to check. The need to get angry outweighed the need to find out the truth.

Once it had gained some traction on Reddit, the story was ripe to be pitched to bloggers. It was absolutely crucial to put it on Reddit first rather than pitch it as a press release. A release isn’t a story; it’s a promotion. But even after just a couple hours, we have something better. We have a debate.

Here’s where the second lie occurs. A created a Gmail account under a fake name and pitched to several larger animal rights blogs, breathlessly explaining how I saw this thing on Reddit about how this awful company was making this terrible product, etc. The goal was to create the impression that a conversation was happening on it’s own, bubbling up from the depths of the internet. This is catnip to bloggers. And of course one of them bit.

The pitch:

The response:

The result:

The Dodo is one of the top animal rights blogs on the internet. This article received hundreds of comments and sent thousands unique visitors our way. They even called and interviewed our CEO. The call caught him off guard, but he expertly held his ground and didn’t blow the prank.

From this one post, we knew that other blogs would pick it up and get attention. We’ve seen how media outlets seem to recycle the same content over and over, so we let the controversy run its course and tallied our results later.

Summary

We saw a 15x (1,500%) increase in traffic over the course of this stunt. The video alone got over 110k views on Youtube.

Hilariously, we had two petitions on change.org urging us to halt production.

All in all, it seemed that about half the people got the joke because they recognized that the product was just too preposterous, or because they saw the “launch date” of April 1 on our website. A number of them left comments to make fun of the other oblivious half in the comments, which was funny.

We beefed up our lists significantly: Close to a thousand new signups to our mailing list and tens of thousands of visitors who activated our retargeting pixel, who we market to using the Facebook and Adroll networks.

Press

The press coverage was incredible — here is a partial list:

designtaxi.com, trendhunter.com, coolest-gadgets.com, gadgetsempire.com, Gessato, Complex, mcgeeks.com, gizmodiva.com, Geekadelphia, 9ija News, beautifuldecay.com, HOKINDEE, PHILLY MAG, io9.com, The Dodo, Geekologie, Inventor Spot, Telegraph.co.uk, mikeshouts.com, Deisgn You Trust, Oddity Mall, Techspot, Change.org, Popist, blogpestcontrol.com, basicthinking.de, Technabob,Yahoo.com/tech, incrediblethings.com, Broke-ass Stuart, Technopolis Mag, Swagger New York, Fark Forums, Watchiseek Forums, Adweek, Beautiful Decay, Planet-Gadget.net, Waowtech.com, Swagger New York

In addition to major outlets like Yahoo! and Telegraph.uk, we were thrilled to be included in Adweek’s “Giant Roundup of the Best Brand Hoaxes”, where we were featured alongside major brands like Samsung, Pizza Hut, and Reebok.

Awards

As a company with a solid reputation in our home town, the stunt was heavily covered by local press. We were nominated and won an award for “Story of the Year” at the Philadelphia Geek Awards. Here’s a humblebrag photo of me graciously accepting the award:

In Conclusion

Might all this have happened without our manipulations? Maybe, but I think it’s unlikely. We definitely could have had some local press and some coverage on design/watch blogs, but it would have been strictly niche.

The real key, and the reason that the controversy blew up was because we supplied the spark. We were covered initially because we were able to give the illusion of a spontaneous conversation happening about the Ant Watch. We made the product newsworthy ourselves, rather than cross our fingers and wait for a news story to develop.

That said, we were absolutely stunned by how fast everything happened. From the initial Reddit post to coverage on TheDodo was only a matter of hours. Once we were on there, other sites were very quick to grab onto the story and post their own take on it (often times just a verbatim repost) within about 36 hours. Ultimately this worked in our favor — since we launched a few days prior to April 1, the rapidity of the coverage helped us spread further before the hoax was revealed.

Total Cost

Retail value of two watches which we scarified to make the prototypes: $300

Voiceover: $5

Ants and ant supplies: $15

Some sand from the neighbor’s flowerpot: $0

Total: $320

What I learned on my Kickstarter campaign

Tonic was not the first Kickstarter campaign I worked on, however it was the first I executed A-to-Z entirely by myself. It’s not a point of pride, because I recognize that there are many things which I am far from the best at. I would have loved to hire people to help with the design, video, and some research. I did it myself jsut to keep costs low.

All in all, the campaign cost about $500. This includes samples, some video equipment, props, and hosting. I took $10k in preorders in 30 days. Here are the biggest things I learned and how I would do things differently.

1) Plan the messaging better. Smarter people than me say that you need to build the marketing into your product. You have the Kickstarter headline, the video storyboard, the copy outline, the main benefits and talking points, and the marketing plan all done BEFORE you begin developing the actual product. This is hard and it requires more restraint, strategic thought, and clarity than I sometimes feel capable of. I didn’t do enough of this, so the result was that I spend way too much time and effort writing the copy, trashing it, and then rewriting it 5 times before I settled on a final draft. I did the same thing with the video and it cost valuable time.

2) Invest in a DSLR and learn how to use it. Some people will say that you can use your phone for video and photos no problem. I think these people are wrong. In 2015, as Kickstarter gets more and more professional, it’s getting more common for projects to spent a few thousand dollars to hire a professional videographer. Even if you’re filming it yourself, you need a dedicated camera because everyone is already using one. You do not want to stand out for having low video quality.

3) Build an audience before you need it. This is something I actually did, but I would have spend more time on if I had realized how effective it would be. Before launch I had a small email list which I built by giving away a free PDF version of my product. This list accounted for 80% of my pledges in the first 2 days, pushing me over the minimum requirement quicker than I ever could have. It’s a classic “permission asset” made up of with responsive and interested fans. Whether it’s email or something else, you need to have some of these people before you launch.

4) Relax. Don’t forget one of the biggest benefits of using Kickstarter: It’s a way to test your market. The costs of failing on Kickstarter are severely lower than they would be in any other instance. Be responsibile and put in the work, but be receptive to feedback and the possibility that nobody’s buying what you’re selling.

5) Have a post-Kickstarter plan. It boggles my mind that people run a Kickstarter campaign, and then once it expires their project page links to a website with a big “Coming Soon” banner. Don’t do this. You’re missing out on traffic and sales. You’re throwing money away because you couldn’t set up a basic single-product Shopify site the night before. Come on.

6) Pre-write emails. Do you have certain PR contacts, friends, or influencers who you KNOW you want to pitch or notify? Write these emails in advance. Especially if you have a full-time job and you’re doing this in the evenings. The first few days of a caompaign set the pace, and you need to hit the ground running. Save them as drafts a week before and send them when you’re live.

7) Contact Kickstarter and try to get a staff pick. Contact stories@kickstarter.com and tell them why you’re a great campaign that deserves to be featured. I got featured as a “Staff Pick” and it helped, although the holy grail is to be featured in the email newsletter. It’s easy and worth a shot.

8) Schedule your time. If you don’t, you’ll lost control of your hours and you will burn out. This is true generally, but it’s especially true for a hyper-focused event like a Kickstarter launch. Pace yourself. If it means working your day job, running home, microwaving dinner, petting the dog, and then working from 7 – 12, that’s fine. But make sure you’re in bed when you said you’d be in bed. Don’t confuse activity with results.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things I’ve learned, but these are what come to mind right now.

We’re All Addicted to Something

It’s my theory that we’re all addicts in some way. Maybe to our jobs, to our partners, to perfectionism, to social media. Sometimes to obviously destructive things like heroin, obsessive cleanliness, or procrastination. But they are all alike in the space they occupy in our minds, and there is a common language that links this sort of behavior which we can benefit from.

The Last Psychiatrist was writing about online porn addition when in 2011, but the specifics don’t matter — substitute your addiction of choice:

When you characterize porn as an addiction it tells you that it is hard to break free, that it is a struggle, that relapse is inevitable– all things that have nothing to do with porn.  But when you characterize online porn as junk food, the solution is obvious: don’t eat it.

If porn is in fact damaging (the writer argues that it is), the way out of the woods is to treat porn as a simple bad habit. The goal is to become the kind of person who just doesn’t like porn, in the same way that an active athlete truly doesn’t like junk food. Not because they don’t think jelly donuts aren’t delicious — but because they are closely attuned to negative consequences. They’ve got their eyes set of bigger things and they’re too busy for that shit.

It’s interesting to me because as someone who has known addicts in my life, I think drug and alcohol abuse treatment has a problem. The first step of AA and other 12-step programs is:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

AA says two things. It says “anyone can quit drinking if they want to.” But it also says “you are nothing and you cannot fight this.”

The tragedy is that it’s giving the alcohol too much power. Rather than characterize booze as some force of nature to struggle against every day in church basements sipping watery coffee, these programs should treat it simply as something that is bad for you and that you should stop using. Nothing more. Drinking is an unproductive and harmful pattern of behavior, but that’s all that it is. Just a bad way to spend your time and money.

To call it an addiction almost gives it too much power.

Think of it this way: It’s always easier to start a new habit than it is to break an old one, even if the difference is only how you frame it in your mind.  To put it another way– stop trying to avoid things to declare yourself a non-drinker, non-junkfood eater, non-procrastinator (a negative), and start trying to become someone who only spends time on valuable and rewarding activities (a positive). Become the kind of person who doesn’t do the bad habit.

Empower and elevate yourself, and stop giving power to the external source of negativity in your life.