Sunday, March 05, 2006
by Jonathan Field
My office is a room in the back of a boxing gym. I rent there because it’s affordable. It's also never boring. While the gym is noisy at times, I can always tune out any bedlam by closing my door. And if I’m momentarily frustrated or need a break, there’s always a lot of life to follow amid the doings of the gym.
This past week I let myself get distracted watching two guys spar. One of them was Amadou, a young guy originally from Senegal whose most noticeable feature is a bright smile. The sport frequently attracts a person of mixed disposition, on the one hand usually friendly, even gentle, on the other touched by an aggression which finds its fulfillment physically, within the confines of a boxing ring. That’s certainly true with Amadou.
Once he climbs through the rope on to the canvas, his sunniness disappears. Indeed, his entire presence changes. Not that Amadou is a great fighter. He’s a bit too eager. At times he trips over his own feet. He takes five shots to land one. And yet to anyone who steps in the ring with him, he’s dangerous. On the canvas, as Mike Tyson would put it, Amadou becomes a man “with bad intentions.”
The other day he sparred with a guy at least a foot taller, 30 pounds heavier, and with at least six more years experience. It didn't’t matter. The novice young Senegalese fighter intimidated his bigger opponent from the first bell to the last.
The key thing to watch was Amadou’s jab. In a sense, it was the punch of an amateur. He’d telegraph it slightly and then, his legs and arms somewhat disconnected in their search for ground from which to get momentum, he’d throw. As the boxing expression goes, you could see his punches coming a mile off. Regardless, his bigger and more experienced opponent kept finding Amadou’s jab knocking him back.
Looking at it happen, his trainer said something to the effect that "the kid's power is in his eyes as much as in his hands." When Amadou goes out to whack you, he has the face of a man totally committed to your undoing. You may see Amadou coming at you, but in those moments, speed is irrelevant. Chances are that even if you get out of his way, the sum total of his presence is somehow going to impact you.
Perhaps it’s an overstatement, but in a sense, Amadou moves with an intention that ends up defying metrics. It’s as if the power of his commitment allows him to stop time. What interests me is less the expression of that commitment (boxing), than its power. His presence outside of the ring (a sunny smile and easy charm) is proof that joy is as powerful as rage in radiating its lights on the world. But watching Amadou box reminded me of something more important.
Human beings who can commit to something are clearly more effective than those who don’t. Okay,
that assertion is a no-brainer. But it’s also too easy to forget. Especially when a “good idea” inspires people to start something like an organization or a business. Watching intention in the confines of a boxing ring reminds you that smarts, imagination, and even bursts of passion are not enough to translate into something that endures.
The truth is that Amadou may or may not evolve into a great fighter. But for now, the gym's more experienced trainers are impressed. As long as he maintains that level of intention, the kid’s physical limitations won’t stop him from transforming into someone who warrants athletic respect.
All to say that generating traction takes commitment. It’s a core ingredient around which structure and process are formed. Without the commitment underlying structure and process, initial enthusiasm dissipates like the sweaty regret of a beaten fighter wishing he’d never put on his gloves. At that point, the business or organization either falls into malaise, or simply dies.
Boxing may not offer a perfect corollary for parable. Fighter and audiences are not the same as brands, institutions, and markets. Unlike the three-minute rounds of a sport, businesses and organizations have cycles that are less predictable. But watching Amadou led me to think about benchmarks for success or failure in various projects in which I’ve participated through the years.
In my last post, I wrote about a group that Titus and myself once formed to produce a new mythology of peace for Israeli-Palestinian existence. I also mentioned that we did not succeed. For all our well-meant intentions, we could not manifest corresponding commitment from other people.
It wasn't that we lacked desire for things to work out. It was we didn't have enough. Putting it all together required gathering a nuanced weave of components: from participants to processes that could leverage their efforts in satisfying ways. Had we a greater reservoirs of time, partners and money, perhaps our positive intentions would have proved resonant. But the inability to summon the requisite time, partners or money may have reflected the inadequate depth of our desire.
Which is to point out the following - however great the excitement that good ideas generate, there is probably a mathematical formula that proves how much greater the need for commitment. Have an ambitious idea? You better have even more ambition to execute. Without it, even brilliant ideas are doomed.
Whatever “thing” a person seeks to develop, public or private, challenges always emerge. The greater the number of components (as in the parts and participants), the greater the chance of things falling apart.
To paraphrase playwright Arthur Miller talking about life in the theater, a world composed of many parts and many egos, success requires having “a mouth and stomach capable of chewing bicycles, alligators, and whatever comes at you.” That description is actually apt for more than theater, apropos to anything from raising a healthy child to creating a business.
In economic and cultural terms, global and digital tool-sets liberate the creative abilities among many sectors of human beings: artists, business people, activists or entrepreneurs. Sites like That’s Capital emerge on the backs of software code that is out there for the public, nearly free. That code exists as a component of a larger infrastructure suddenly made accessible for the mass. But such liberation has a cost.
The digital process, itself, has its own rules for framing creativity. For instance, within the physics of molecules and gravity, digging holes takes sweat. Tools like Typepad, Photoshop, and Final Cut require their own expenditures of energy and focus, but compared to working with earth, it is easier to tweak the latter’s byte-based products.
An open-source world leads to an always-on attitude. A sense of living in environments that are always capable of being morphed. Creativity is unbound. Don't like something? Edit a new iteration, or even delete it. Just walk away.
That translates to a paradox. In that environment, it’s easier to start something. It is also easier to never finish. Among people who work with digital technology, everything is malleable. And that probably effects our perceptions in the offline as well as the online world.
As a friend told me recently, after spending many hours playing Nintendo’s Tetris he’d find himself driving in Los Angeles wondering if he could push a button and fly. Obviously he knew better, but periodic lapses into an pixilated-consciousness can impact how we operate.
Take this post. I have edited it at least 11 times, first publishing it on the net last Sunday. I took it off the site the next day, realizing that the post was pretentious and, worse, impossible to read.
Was it smart to publish before it was perfect? In deleting it, have I lost face? Did I create any confusion by pinging it out to the world wide web, tapping into an internet distribution system by alerting RSS feeds or tagging sites upon my multiple postings, nevermind the post's deletion? Or is this process just part of my own internal wiki?
I don't know. I do know that reading it gave me a headache. I had started off wanting to explore ways that the public vests authority within institutions and brands. How the seamless presence of those brands and institutions (their symbols and process in life) inspire a collective sense that trust is warranted.
In an attempt to be thorough, I found myself moving the post into knotty territory. At some point I chopped the post in half, and starting writing about the way money acts as a sign of institutional authority. Then I took a casual swing to explore barter among friends of mine who avoid using traditional currencies (dollars) precisely so that they don't need to answer to traditional sources of authority - like "the law." I ultimately made my way back via a bumpy path toward the connections between infrastructure and interface and trust.
The core of the post looked at how globalization and digital technology opens our eyes to the complexity of various infrastructures, in the process creating broad levels of anxiety. My argument was that in an open source universe, the guts of the machine make all seamlessness less easy to maintain. Given that a seamless interface serves as a fundamental organizational symbol to earn collective trust, that dynamic leaves people unsettled.
Simultaneously, it leads brand and organizational management to over-rely on less-useful aspects of packaging, which turns out to be as ineffective as employing chewing gum to patch a leak. The effort to appear seamless or authoritative becomes transparently empty. Ahhh....let me explain all that next post.
Here's the important thing for now: my attempt to explore all these issues led to a composition whose substance and shape mirrored what I was writing about: the difficulty of producing something seamless, nevermind logical. Framing all those pieces in an essay, well, let's just say I lacked the ability to create my own infrastructure from all the components.
I ended up spending the next few days on other projects, periodically attempting new drafts, or just watching guys pug it out in the ring. This post is, admittedly, just a new iteration.
Soon I will be taking another stab at my original focus: exploring the connection between the difficulty of generating trust, authority, and consistency amid complex environments. And linking it to the fragmentation seen everywhere from brands like G.M. to something that is both a brand and an institution: a nation state like Iraq, or as my smart friend Martin Anderson pointed out, the actual Iraq War.
In the journey to finish that piece, I ended up thinking about commitment. And now I end up calling attention to how this post is composed. I do that in the belief that identifying the elements and act of composition can tease out a glimpse of my larger interest: the symbiotic relationships between infrastructure, interface, and areas of trust and authority. And how difficult those relationships have become to sustain.
Just as a boxer feints at times not to confuse opponents but to find the best angle from which to maximize impact, this post serves as my ground for starting a larger proposition. Namely that because we produce and create from a digital mindset but live within a molecular bound world, commitment and intention become more scarce and valued, as they provide the first step to earning the authority that inspire commitment from a collective.
The digital tools that give us power to act on a particular vision simultaneously obscure how difficult a vision is to actually fulfill. In allowing us to consider morphing directions and desire (change directions, careers, partners, etc.), digital technology tempts us with possibilities. Ultimately, that abundance of choice can tempt us to avoid taking action.
Within the complexity of modern culture and markets, then, individual commitment and intention become correspondingly more complex and valuable. Especially in creating an infrastructure for a brand or an organization. And critical to galvanize participants with the trust that joining a process is worth it.
Note: all that may explain the success today of fundamentalists of every stripe (right to left). Their commitments are either to returning to some idealized glorious past or building a utopian future. Because their visions are idealized, they are easy to express. The force of their commitment can be enormously impressive and win converts. Give them leadership positions, though, they're faced with the same infrastructure problems as any of us. In general, they're better at destroying or impeding than advancing anything that a mass public views as useful.
Thinking about all these issues is close to home for That’s Capital. Building an audience means facing our own infrastructure and interface issues. We need to generate compelling content (audio and text-based conversations) and design a structure that enrolls access, interest and participation among a larger public via search engines, other blogs or podcasts, and conversation as much offline as on it.
Hopefully, we’ll maintain the gutsy spirit of guys like Amadou, not in our aggression as much as our commitment to knocking ‘em out. Here rather than jabs, we'll be looking to generate posts, ideas of consequence, and thoughts about the good things and bad things who deserve our lefts as well as rights.