Zach Galifianakis, bringing the elites back down to Earth


Have you noticed how hard it is to keep up nowadays?

No matter what you do, it seems you're never smart enough, emotionally intelligent enough, informed enough, rich enough, influential enough, have a good enough job, technologically literate enough, a good enough parent, attractive enough, thin enough, feminine or masculine enough, youthful enough, a good enough cook, even religious enough. 

They might as well title every book and magazine article, "How to do everything better." (Actually, they do...more or less.)

To make matters worse, the simplest tasks have become impossible. Because we live in a complicated, litigious society where every single activity is the subject of a possible dispute and/or part of a vast mechanized system that has to keep track of what's going on.

Which leaves the average person feeling sort of scr***d and helpless.

This matters for brands of every kind, including government-as-a-brand. Because it's the job of a brand to help cut through the clutter and get people where they need to go without feeling stupid and without a lot of hassle.

A true story:

Awhile back I made a doctor's appointment. New doctor. Picked name out of the book.

Waited months for appointment.

Show up to office. 

See a square surrounded by what looks like bulletproof glass. Inside the square is where the staff works.

Outside is a TV with some bland ad for the practice.

I walk up to glass, see receptionist, and get handed the clipboard to sign in. Get handed the forms. There are approximately five thousand. I am exaggerating.

Forms appear complicated and are written in legalese. Like all forms nowadays.

I have no idea what I'm looking at here. I fill out the forms, trying not to think about it, till I get to one that looks really bad.

At this point I've wasted time, and I just want to be seen, but also I feel a little bit scared. My husband's not there - I can't get him on the phone - and just don't feel comfortable. I have no advocate. 

I am scared to get them mad at me, or they may refuse me the appointment. But still.

I walk up to the window and say something to receptionist. "Blah blah blah" to the effect that I don't want to sign it. 

She says, "You have to sign it or the doctor won't see you."

I say, "I am going to call my insurance company."

I call them. Operator says, "The doctor can have whatever office policy they want."

Me: "Yeah, but don't you have an agreement with them that gives me any rights?"

She: Equivalent of "no" - hangs up.

I go back to window and say, "I want to speak to the doctor about this before signing it."

Receptionist says, "Oh yeah?"

She goes to the back of the pen and gets the Commandant, or headmistress, leader of the penitentiary, you get the idea.

Commandant walks up to window: "You got a problem?"

Me: "This is unfair."

Big mistake.

Commandant to receptionist: "Get her papers."

Papers in hand, Commandant walks to shredder and they are gone. Before my eyes.

I am gaping in horror. Two hours lost. Visit lost. 

As "Seinfeld's" Soup Nazi would say, "No Soup For You!"

Later, everyone I told about this implored me, "Contact the insurance company. Contact the AMA. Complain!"

I thought about it for a little while. Then I didn't do anything. Because I just had too many other errands to do.

This experience, in a microcosm, is the experience of the average person in today's world. 

  • They watch the news, but don't know what's really going on.
  • They go to school, but we don't know how to get from there to a job.
  • They buy a computer, but as soon as something goes wrong, they are helpless.

It is completely overwhelming.

Now I'm going to talk about how we can fix this. By learning from Zach Galifianakis.

I first saw Galifianakis in the movie Due Date with Robert Downey. They didn't market it well. It's beyond hilarious. Then I saw It's Kind of a Funny Story with no big-name stars. A completely brilliant movie. (Not going to see Hangover 2 - stupid.)

And just the other day there was coverage in of the online show Between Two Ferns (warning: offensive; not suitable for children.)

At first I thought Galifianakis was just acting out scripts that others wrote. But then I realized that it was his own personality that was coming through.

His basic strategy, as an entertainer, is to carefully own his weaknesses - particularly his weight - and use them to make elites let down their guard. With raw emotion, pathos, and biting humor based on honesty, he brings down the elite and puts them back on Planet Earth.

This is hinted at in Due Date, not really addressed in It's Kind of a Funny Story, but completely blatant in Between Two Ferns.

If you're not familiar with the online program, the format is approximately a 4-minute "webisode" funded by product placement, in the vein of a talk show.

Celebrities like Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Sean Penn, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and others show up, sit on a chair next to Galifianakis - surrounded by two ferns and with a black curtain as a backdrop - and proceed to get nailed to the wall. He asks completely obnoxious questions; they squirm. Sometimes they punch him.

It's like The Tonight Show in the Twilight Zone. 

I watched and couldn't believe the popularity of this show. It is so hard to get a video to "go viral" or to get someone to your website. And here is this plain person, getting about a million viewers for a couple-of-minute web episode that looks homemade (see especially the Ben Stiller or Bradley Cooper episodes) has got something.

So, to wrap it up with something practical, here is how I would use the Galifianakis approach if you happen to be a communicator who needs to reach people with information or to sell your brand:

1. Video rules. Avoid words.

2. Content is 90%, production value 10%.

3. Use real people to represent your product, not celebrities.

4. Throw the script out the window. Feature real talk.

5. You can brand yourself with simple, consistent visuals and color (like the green plant and black curtain).

The bottom line: There is too much information out there. But people still need it. I would have liked to know how to complain about that doctor. But I didn't, and I didn't have time, and so an important opportunity to provide feedback was missed. 

You have to recognize the circumstances in which your audience is functioning. Recognize that to them, you are an information elite. Speak to them in a non-elite way, from the place at which you are sitting. Make a genuine human connection, and they will come to you.

Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck!


Photo source here

When Fixing Goes Too Far


I come from a family of fixers of impossible situations.


My grandparents had six kids and no money.


As my aunt S. later put it, “We were so poor we couldn’t afford the ‘o’ and the ‘r.’”


My grandmother (of blessed memory - may she rest in peace), Muriel Garfinkel, made entire meals out of the “can-can” sale at Shop-Rite. Peas and mushrooms with black pepper and brown sugar, in a cast-iron skillet, on an old stove. (Best. Peas and mushrooms. Ever.) From the way she fed the kids and the grandkids, you would never know they were living on any kind of budget.


Grandma and Grandpa were realtors. They started that business after a fire burnt their store to the ground. They picked themselves up and started over.


Fast forward…one of my aunts got married, had a kid, then found out she was pregnant with quadruplets. Doctor said, don’t get up – don’t move – or you’ll jeopardize the pregnancy. She could have stayed in bed the whole time. But the three-year-old needed her. So she emptied the living room and put a big bed there. And didn’t move


We used to visit her on Sundays. I vividly remember the three-year-old crawling onto the bed, scrambling all around her, just to get close.  


Normal went out the window, but my aunt was going to fix it.


Fast way forward many years later. My grandparents on my father’s side got too frail to care for themselves anymore. Yet they refused to go to any kind of nursing home or assisted living.


My dad tried to fix it. Every weekend, he set off - as in drove 11 hours - from New Jersey to Canada to oversee what was going on. The caregiver. The money. The maintenance on the house. Then back to work during the week.


I know a lot of fixers like this. I count myself as one of them. We try to do superhuman things even as the walls are crumbling down all around us.


At a certain point, one has to look around and ask the question: When does fixing go too far? Turning you into a shlepper (someone who works with no thanks). Or worse.


My grandmother raised a family of fixers. And she saw that they tended to get taken advantage of. So she cautioned me frequently:  “Don’t be a shmuck.”


I must admit, I fall into this trap all the time. I see a problem and try to fix it. But it’s the intensity. Sometimes I feel like a warrior with a battering ram, charging at a stone wall, trying to make it crumble. The stone is all the problems and how they’ve gotten knit together.


Sometimes I succeed, but more often it’s an impossible task. And I get frustrated.


I asked my Dad what he does at work lately. His job description: “One-man SWAT team.”


So it’s bred into my blood.


But I am starting to think it’s not healthy to be a fixer all the time.


Watched the Joel Osteen clip yesterday, “You are a child of the most high G-d.” You can find it on YouTube. In the clip he talks about letting go and having faith. He says:


“G-d is not moved by our tears. He is moved by our faith.”


He continues,


“G-d can do what man cannot do.”


I realized again what I have realized before. I need to have more faith. I need to recognize that I am only supposed to try. But that there is a higher power that steps in and actually makes things happen.


This is important advice for functioning well at work and at home.


You’ve got to know when to push and when to fix and when to shlep. That’s all part of the job description.


But you’ve also got to know when to let it go. Be a Buddhist about it. Detach and trust the universe. If things are meant to fall apart, they will fall no matter what you do.


Osteen says, “Look through the eyes of faith.”


I believe in my heart that G-d, a higher power, the universe, or whatever you want to call it, is aware, watching and guiding.


It’s true, we are here for tikkun olam – to correct and perfect the world (and ourselves).


But part of that process is to “let go and let G-d.”


If something is meant to fall apart, it will. Nothing you can do will save it. But that doesn’t mean that all is lost.


Know when to stop – don’t let others take advantage of you – listen to my grandmother and “Don’t be a shmuck.” Smile, take care of yourself, go to the gym.


Have a great day everyone - and enjoy the holiday weekend.



Note: This post is dedicated with prayer to all the people whose lives have been shattered by the recent disastrous weather. 

Photo source here.

The Manager's Role: From "Forcer" to Facilitator

It seems to me that most people have an old-fashioned view of what a manager does: Force lazy people to do their work.

Maybe we needed managers to do that in the past, when the Industrial Revolution left people stuck in factories where the work was miserable. In cubes in large bureaucracies where you largely did what you were told and didn't ask questions.

That doesn't work at all in the modern office.

Now, people are actually self-motivated.

They don't need a manager to tell them what to do.

They need a manager to open the doors that are otherwise closed to them.

Doors of irrationality, of incomprehensible process, of politics, of turf battles, of culture wars, of unreasonable demands made by people at all levels of the organization.

Doors that, left the way they are, make it impossible to do your job.

The role of the manager is light years away from the leader, in this formulation.

The leader says, "I want this to happen. Make it so!" (A la Patrick Stewart in Star Trek)

The manager says, "Yes ma'am (or sir)" - then figures out how the people involved will be enabled to carry out orders in a world of closed and closing doors.

To do this the manager has to leave their office door wide open and let people in and out all day long. There and in the hallway - shmooze, shmooze, shmooze. Insight into problems comes from the people confronted with them. Answers, too.

Managers don't need to have the answers. We live in a world where there are none. No clear paths ahead.

So we need good managers more than ever. But as listeners, as facilitators. Not control freaks.

But we shouldn't be asking how managers will "control their people" and "make them get the work done."

We should ask how managers will empower the worker and set the people free. So that they can be most productive for the employer.

Just a thought.

Have a great day everyone!

Digital ignorance and the society of abundance

"The fit disciple is not led by desire, anger, ignorance, and fear." 

In 2003 I joined the federal government as an internal communications specialist. 

While I was there, the agency was going through a period of transition. (That's always happening, but this was a heightened change phase - a reorg.)

During that time, I had occasion to hear the chief of staff at that agency speak about how to effectively manage human capital during a transition or any time. He said, roughly paraphrasing:

"Most people think that sharing information is like giving away slices of their apple pie. But that's not true. The more you share, the more the pie simply expands."

Truer words were never spoken. Most people are afraid of letting go of "their" information. The logic runs roughly like this:

1. If I share information, I lose information.

2. If I lose information, I lose power, because now nobody needs me.

3. If nobody needs me, I will get fired and somebody else will take my job - my money, my status, and my office.

In the "olden days," maybe this was true. Just like if you had an enormous machine gun and you had to keep your enemies away. You would never share that technology. 

Or if you had a fertile piece of land. You would hold onto it with an iron grasp and guard it with the machine gun. (Wait...we're mixing centuries now. It's whatever weapon you have.)

However, we are entering a completely new phase of history now. The age of abundance. 

That's right. Despite all our worries over the depletion of natural resources. Despite fear of economic ruin. Despite arguments over land. Despite everything. 

Scarcity is not our problem. Rather, we are hampered by the four things mentioned by Buddha:

1. Fear: We aren't used to abundant thinking. We still don't understand: It's the very fight for turf that puts us in jeopardy - not the lack of turf itself. 

2. Anger: Our fear of being left behind leads us to get angry at, hate, and envy those who seem privileged or successful.

3. Greed: Whatever we have, we want more.

4. Ignorance: We don't know how to harness the technology that could set us all free to live the lives we want.

The first three are what I would think of as evolutionary psychology. We have a misguided survival instinct and it's telling us to act badly.

The fourth has to do with a simple lack of knowledge: We are surrounded by rope but we can't seem to pull ourselves to the surface.

A story:

I was in the Apple store the other day, making a purchase. 

An elderly lady interrupted the purchase, saying to the salesman: "I have a question. Can you help me when you're free?"

She seemed really nervous to get the question answered. I was impatient but I also felt the urgency wafting all around her. She was a short lady, but her intensity lit up the room.

The salesman keyed my credit card information into the handheld computer. It was so cool. I signed on the smartphone. Apple is awesome.

Meanwhile the lady was virtually tapping her feet with impatience.

I said to her, "What's your question? Maybe I can help."

She said, "I'm a teacher and they sent me some files. But I can't send them back."

I said, "You mean you need to send an attachment?"

She said, "Yeah, the computer can't read the DPF."

I said, "The PDF?"

She said, "Yeah. I don't understand how to use Gmail."

She had come to the Apple store not to buy anything, but for email assistance.

I offered to help her, but the Apple salesperson stepped in. Which is why Apple is awesome (yet again) and I have converted to their brand.

I looked around and the entire store was filled with elderly people. Learning to use the computer. 

Thinking about this, I realized that these people were incredibly smart. They understood that ignorance was the real threat to their survival. Believe it or not - it's not about age, or infirmity, or economic limitations. 

It's about knowledge versus ignorance. These people wanted to be on equal footing. And they were taking a lot of time to get up to speed.

As a company, Apple wasn't going to make any money off that interaction with the customer. But they understand the principle of sharing information.

When you share information, you create abundance. You get something, the other person gets something, and other people besides the two of you benefit.

When you hoard information, you create snarls of confusion. Slowdowns of process. Projects don't move. Nothing gets done. You perpetuate ignorance. And bad things happen:

* You wonder: "Why are we so inefficient around here?"

* You fear: "Everybody's out to get me." - Just like you hoard information, you think others are hiding it from you. The fear gets all mixed up with anger and hatred of others who seem to be competitors, getting in your way. 

* You rationalize: "I'm not going to look for problems by bringing up problems. I'm here to earn a living...let me just get through the day."

Lots of problems are at the root of these issues. But today, one of the most prominent is digital ignorance.

Just like you have to know how to drive, you have to know how to use a computer.

If you can't learn technology and use it effectively - you are in effect illiterate today. 

We can't afford to be a society of digital illiterates. 

We must train ourselves to use computers and help other people who don't know how to use them. 

Ignorance benefits nobody.

Knowledge benefits everybody.

We hold the keys to a limousine holding endless abundance in our hands right now. We just have to start the engine.

Let's do this together and not fight turf battles that only create more problems in the end.

Let's have faith that there is a higher power whose will overrides all our efforts. Very simply - as Joel Osteen puts it - "G-d can do what man (woman) can't do....G-d doesn't want your tears, He (She) wants your faith."  

Have a great day everyone, and good luck!

Brand Worship as Idol Worship

"We refuse to be bystanders, even if we do not know exactly where our actions will lead." 
- Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks, in his book "Onward"

I was not the most studious kid in yeshiva. But I remember the Biblical story of Abraham and the idols well.

If you're not familiar with it, here's a summary of the story, which comes from the Jewish text Midrash Bereishit 38:13:

In Abraham's day, people worshipped idols - physical representations of G-dly power. His father was in the idol business (let's put aside for now the contradiction of manufacturing the things you worship.)

One day Abraham's father went away and left Abraham in charge of the idol store. Big mistake as Abraham thought the whole idea of idolatry was ridiculous.

A woman comes in one day and asks him to offer a basket of bread "to the gods." Then he really gets fed up.

Abraham handed the bread to the idols all right. But not before he broke them all to pieces, except one, then gave it the hammer. 

When his father came back and asked the equivalent of "What the hell happened here," Abraham calmly replied that the largest idol had smashed all the other idols up in a fight over the bread. 

Father said, basically, "What are you, a wiseguy? Idols don't have minds." 

At which Abraham retorted, "Listen to yourself - they have no power at all! So why should we worship them?"

I always thought the smashing-of-the-idols story was kind of funny. In a ha-ha-look-how-backward-they-were-back-then-kind of way.

But then I read an article by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach about the royal wedding as a form of idol-worship. His thesis is that celebrities have replaced the idols of old, and that we put them on a pedestal for absolutely no reason - elevating them to a status they don't deserve.

I read the article and thought yeah, yeah, I know that already, what's new.

Yet it stuck in my head. Boteach had something there, beyond the obvious, I just wasn't sure what it was.

Then it hit me: Brands are the modern equivalent of idolatry. We are as stupid as the people in Abraham's day. And it is just as heretical to attack brands as it was back then to question the power of idols.

Brand-worship is more dangerous than celebrity-worship. Because most people know that reading the gossip papers is just a pastime. But they are far more sucked in by the allure of the marketing industry.

How can I write this, as a marketer? It's almost shocking to me that I would be this honest.

Let me be clear - I'm not against brands per se. What I am against is tricking people into buying them.

At their very best, brands offer us a real promise that makes our lives simpler. They offer better quality than their competitors. They offer a certain style that we feel comfortable with. They offer a fantasy that helps us get through the day. As long as we're aware of what we're doing and buying, all is good.

But the dark side of branding is to make the kind of promise that can never be kept. A promise that by buying or using a particular product or service, you will somehow be complete, connected, more of a person than you were before.

Have you ever noticed that you feel "naked" without your favorite brands on? Almost like you're wearing a shield that protects you against the bumps and bruises of life? That's what I'm talking about.

It wasn't always this way. I'm pretty sure I know when the trouble started.

No, it's not about the birth of the modern advertising industry. Mass media. Etc.

What it has to do with - don't shoot me - is the exodus of mothers from the home.

Fathers we need, of course, but they have always had to go away to earn the daily bread.

But when mothers left home en masse - and yes we had to do this, and yes it was healthy for us and the children in many ways (I'm not advocating a return to Revolutionary Road) - the children paid the price.

Very specifically, I believe that the Freudians are correct: The presence of the mother (or another extraordinarily close and giving caregiver) in the child's earliest years is critical to its healthy mental development.

The child requires the caregiver to be there, to attend to its needs, every single second. This is how the child knows that it is alive and secure. Attachment theory explains this very well: When the child's needs are responded to, it has existential peace. When the child is ignored or abused, it cannot form that all-important primary attachment. It is floating in space, so to speak. It has no anchor.

I believe that the entire generation known as Generation X, of which I am a part, suffered from a lack of proper attachment to a primary caregiver - due to the fact that both parents began to work full-time during this period. It became the norm. 

Without parents at home, we had substitute caregivers. But it was not the same thing. 

I'm not blaming anyone here, please know that - and I have worked myself, continuously, my whole life, even as I chose to be physically home before my kids went to school. I wouldn't change anything. 

But I feel compelled to talk about what I see as the truth here. In the absence of the kind of "home and hearth" attachments that people seemed to have in earlier generations, I did become very attached to brands. I looked to them to define me. And as I look around at others, and at the proliferation of brands, and the obsession with product brands and personal ones, I see the effects of this early wound.

Close attachments, early and later on as well, prevent us from being sucked in by brands. And they help us to distinguish between real connectedness and the fake kind. 

Brands can be awesomely helpful and powerful. But getting too enmeshed with them is idol worship. 

Which was silly thousands of years ago. And remains silly today.

Think for yourself - you can handle the truth!

Have a great day everyone.


Photo source here.

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