by Gary North
Early this morning, a once-a-century event took place. At two minutes and three seconds after 1 a.m., the time and date was:
I dedicate this vital piece of information to the memory of Lawrence Welk.
Next, here is a report on one of the most remarkable scientific meetings of our era. See what your tax money supports, since most of these people teach in public universities. Note: these are not the usual social science crazies.
Finally, the late Marion Rappe, then a young history professor, once announced at the beginning of a lecture: "If the taxpayers of California ever figured out the racket we've got going here, they would line the faculty up against the wall and shoot us." Wishful thinking, I say. The public knows; no one cares.
CREATIVITY, ARTISTRY, AND SHOWMANSHIP DEFEAT TECHNIQUE
I am going to make a point in this report. It has to do with your career plans and the insecurity of your job. But first, I want you to watch a video.
This video is on Google's new free video-posting service. It costs people nothing to post videos on Google.
This video is being e-mailed all over the Internet. There is a reason for this. It's spectacular. It's from a segment on Jay Leno's show. It's a juggling act.
This is the sort of thing that Ed Sullivan served up every Sunday evening for over two decades. It's an art form for circus acts and vaudeville acts — nothing special. Yet there is something very special about what you are about to see . . . and hear. That's the key: the sound track. They performer matches music to his juggling routine in a way like nothing most of us have ever seen.
Second, the juggler is not a professional juggler. At least not any more. Years ago, he was. Today, he's a stand-up comic.
It is not his juggling skills that have made this performance an Internet phenomenon. Its success has to do with his showmanship, his artistic creativity, and his courage to do this live in front of an audience, where no mistakes are allowed. Turn up your speakers. You are about to see an amazing performance.
Can you see why the audience stood up and cheered?
A professional juggler can't understand this. Why not? Because he possesses the skill required to imitate this act. But there is no market today for professional jugglers. There hasn't been for a generation. Juggling is just another peculiar skill, like riding a monocycle, which some jugglers also develop. It's common enough so as not to elicit a standing ovation, or even get on the Leno show.
What is never common is artistry. Putting together an act that involves a piece of popular music and then matching it with sharp, visible moves is what grabbed his audience. His very lack of smoothness shows the audience what he is doing: matching his moves to a piece of music that is not smooth and flowing. It's pure showmanship. It's a wonder to behold.
Most important, Bliss is not a full-time professional juggler, meaning a guy just doing his job.
Bliss presumably had a marketing strategy: to enhance his name identification, but as a comic, not as a juggler. Some of the versions of this clip include clips from his comedy routines. This is the heart of his marketing strategy. No other comic has ever done anything like this one-show performance. Now the Web is carrying this performance across the world.
Ed Sullivan used to take vaudeville performers and let them reach a national audience. But if all they could do was one remarkable act, this killed the market for their act. Everyone had seen it. "Next!"
In response to this video, another juggler has imitated Bliss's performance. He is a much better juggler. He uses five balls, not three. Yet his performance lacks something fundamental. He is not an artistic creator; he is an imitator. He is not a skilled amateur; he is a professional. He stands in front of a video camera. If he drops a ball, he can re-shoot the video. There is no audience. He risks nothing. He is quite good, yet the performance did not elicit "ah's" from a live audience, or from me. At best, I thought, "This guy is good." Good isn't good enough.
The comments by people who have posted this video indicate that they resent the first performer's success. They judge in terms of technical competence, not audience satisfaction.
This is a common failure of skilled people.
This leads me to my message for today.
BEING TECHNICALLY SKILLED ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH
Most people are not highly creative. They may be creative in a narrow niche of some market, but few other people recognize this creativity or are willing to pay for it.
The best that most people hope for is to become competent in their field. They become technicians. By paying close attention to detail over many years of practice, they lock in their jobs. Then their main threat is the loss of interest in their industry by consumers.
When this happens, they become like buggy whip craftsmen: highly skilled but unemployed.
Because of the speed with which new technologies make obsolescent familiar skills, no one's career is safe. No one can safely afford to rest on his laurels. Laurels are awards that are given for past victories, not future prospects.
Technicians find this difficult to believe. Forty years ago, I was chatting with the son of the woman from whom I rented a room. He was a typesetter at the local newspaper. He operated a Linotype machine. He assured me that his career was secure. "There is only one way that you can get right-hand margins to line up: a Linotype machine." There was no doubt about it: the machine was complex. It took years to master it. Take a look.
Within five years, his career was over. His trade union had collapsed. The cold type technology of computers had replaced the hot type (lead) technology of the Linotype machine. What had been a technological monopoly since 1896 was dead.
He did not see this coming. Neither did I, but it was not my career. I have often wondered what happened to him. He had no college degree. His skills were narrowly focused. He was surely not entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurs see what is coming and take appropriate action.
How about you? Is your career secure? Are you immunized from technological progress? Does your industry have a lock on consumers?
Think of those college-educated young people in France. They are rioting because the government passed a law allowing businesses to fire people during the first two years. These students entered the educational bureaucracy and went through the hoops. Why? Because they believed that, once hired, they could never be fired. Their college degrees would get them hired. Now they are rioting. The thought that employers, acting to satisfy consumers, should have the right to fire them, appalls them. It's just not fair! They have taken to the streets.
These kids have not understood the reality of international competition. A work force of two billion people in India and Asia is ready to nip at the heels of these new graduates, whose only skills are these: taking exams and writing term papers.
Meanwhile, Asian capitalists are hiring workers just off the farm at low pay and training them to perform repeatable skills that the sons of farmers can master in a few weeks. They are paid low wages by Western standards, but high wages by Asian rural standards. Twenty to thirty million people move to cities every year in Asia.
Who is going to win this competition? Consumers don't care about term papers. They care about price and quality and style and frequency of repairs.
The French graduates do not care about consumers. They have never been trained to meet the demands of consumers. They have been insulated throughout their lives from consumers. Now they are being confronted with a terrifying prospect: the ability of consumers, for 24 months, to act through their surrogates, business owners, to turn thumbs down on the students and their finely tuned academic skills.
Those rioting students in France were misled by their teachers, who have been promoting a variation of this same illusion for two centuries. In 1952, F. A. Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist (1974), wrote about the overly bureaucratic institutions of higher learning in France. For over two centuries, they have been the incarnation of the illusion that academic skills are their own justification, and that society must be forced by law to employ the graduates of these institutions. Hayek's book, The Counter-Revolution of Science, traces the results of this philosophy: the loss of freedom.
If your response to those students is the same as mine — "It's about time that the French government called their bluff" — then you understand the free market's supreme principle: consumer's sovereignty. But what is easy for us to honor with respect to the French may be more difficult for us to honor here at home.
The free market is relentless and uncaring about the desires of producers. That is to say, consumers are ruthless and uncaring. They get away with this in a free market because they possess the most marketable commodity: money. Because producers seek money, they must meet the demands of consumers.
Producers more and more resent this position of subservience to consumers when they secure their niche in a market. They begin to imagine that their prior success ought to guarantee their continuing success, despite new competitors and changes in consumer demand.
The American automobile industry is a case in point. American car producers in 1970 had the lion's share of the largest car market on earth. Today, they are heading toward bankruptcy. Their cars are inferior, their profits are long gone even in boom times, and their legal obligations to their retirees are an albatross around their necks. They issue a stream of public relations assurances about bankruptcy not being an option. It's not only an option, it's their only visible way out of their pension and medical obligations to retirees.
Yet their workers persist in staying on board these visibly sinking ships. Their senior executives also stay on board, because they hope that their retirement prospects are not so bad as the prospects of all those retired floor workers. Fantasy is less painful in the short run, and these are short-run people. They work for Enron Motors, but they are determined not to change careers at this late date.
I hope you're not in a similar situation.
WHAT DO CONSUMERS WANT?
The juggler on Leno's show knew exactly what consumers wanted. The juggler in the empty room may think he knows, but the proof will be when he gets on Letterman's show.
I notice that his video includes nothing on where viewers can contact him or who he is. This is indicative of the mind-set of the technician. He believes that merely possessing skills is sufficient: "Art for art's sake." He forgets about Art and Fred and Phil: who pay the bills.
I do not understand this mentality. I never have. Developing your skills is fine, but unless these skills are your hobby, done to satisfy you as the final consumer, they can easily become sources of a grand illusion, namely, that activity is a legitimate substitute for production. Put another way, production apart from a marketing plan is either a hobby or a crap shoot.
Always have your eyes on today's market that pays for the output of your skills. Yet even this is insufficient. You must also be thinking systematically about the future market for your skills. That market is not etched in stone. Neither is the supply of skilled producers who will attempt to cash in on that future market.
Because of the division of labor, we tend to let others do much of our planning. A salaried worker has turned over to his employer the task of forecasting that future market. I call this the "Trust in Kenneth Lay" mentality.
I recommend Ronald Reagan's rule: "Trust, but verify."
Your employer may know the market for the company's products better than you do. But does he know it better than his competitors do? You had better find out.
Your employer probably doesn't pay close attention to you and your skills. He knows the market for his skills far better than he knows the market for yours. Do not defer to him the task of initiating your next raise. Go onto the Web and find out what you are worth. Start here.
If you aren't worth a raise, what do you need to do to become worthy? Find out. Begin to make the necessary changes in your skills.
Don't rest on your laurels.
LESSONS FROM BIG DADDY LIPSCOMB
Satchel Paige was wrong when he said, "Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you." We should at all times assume that something may be gaining on us. An occasional glance over your shoulder is wise. You may need the motivation.
You should not run a sprint this way, but life is not a sprint; it's a marathon. You need to know your market. This has two aspects: present and future. Yet most people operate in terms of what they imagine the past to have been.
Half a century ago, the biggest player in the National Football League was Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. He was 6 feet six (or maybe nine), weighed 290, and was fast. I remember reading an interview with running back Jim Brown. He said that on long, open field runs, he could sometimes hear Big Daddy approaching him from behind. He didn't have to look back. He just tried to take evasive action.
You hear that noise? That thump, thump, thump? It's a producer who is trying to get to the consumer's dollar before you do. You need to take evasive action.
LESSONS FROM CHRIS BLISS
Chris Bliss is a competent comic. He is a competent juggler. But he is a gifted innovator and artist who was willing to take a chance on national TV.
To separate yourself from the pack you have to develop skills that are not directly related to your field. You also have to become creative. You must distinguish yourself from technically capable people in your field. Most important, you have to take chances.
There comes a time where technical virtuosity will not suffice. The audience wants something extra.
People like the juggler in the empty room think that technical virtuosity is sufficient. They think that a videotape of their stellar performance will prove their point. The point it proves is that technical virtuosity is not enough to secure your position in your field.
If you market yourself as poorly as the juggler in the empty room marketed himself, you are eventually going to find yourself in an equally empty room.
If technical virtuosity is not enough, technical competence is surely not enough.
You may not be a technical virtuoso. You may be merely competent. This will put food on your table for a while, but there are so many more just like you. If you are to be a success, you must distinguish yourself.
If it's a choice between technical virtuosity and showmanship, go for showmanship. You must find out what pleases the consumer, and concentrate on this. If this is a boss like Dilbert's, you had better start shopping for a new boss.
If you have not updated your resumé lately, it's time.
April 5, 2006
Copyright © 2006 LewRockwell.com