The Saturday Read – ‘Humans of New York:Stories’ by Brandon Stanton

We learn from the wisdom of others. In Brandon Stanton’s new book we learn from the wisdom of strangers. The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is ‘Humans of New York: Stories’.

“The simplest way to describe the development of HONY over the past five years is this: it’s evolved from a photography blog to a storytelling blog…after cataloging thousands of people, I stumbled upon the idea of including quotes from my subjects alongside their photographs. The quotes grew longer and longer, until eventually I was spending fifteen to twenty minutes interviewing each person I photographed. These interviews, and the stories that resulted from them, became the new purpose of Humans of New York. The blog became dedicated to telling the stories of strangers on the street.”

The first career story is the author’s own. He graduated from college, took a job in Chicago as a bond trader, lost his job, moved to New York and started taking pictures of folks on the street. His work evolved into a blog with 15.6 million followers. His first book of photography, Humans of New York, landed at the top of The New York Times Bestseller List in the fall of 2013 and the new book will debut at the top of the November 1, 2015 list.

Why the response? Because the Mr. Stanton’s stories, told in words and images are about us. The scope of his project embraces NYC folks encountered on the street, reflecting on their past and future. We don’t know names. We don’t know ages. We can only guess in connecting the photo to the quote. At times the words seem at odds with the picture.

Here is one example from a young man, perhaps in his early teens.

“I’ve sort of had an arrogant demeanor my entire life, and I’m learning that I’m going to have to change that if I want to succeed. I realized that it doesn’t matter how clever you are if nobody wants to work with you.”

Another from a young woman seated on a suitcase, in the middle of a train station.

“I wish I’d partied a little less. People always say: ‘Be true to yourself.’. But that’s misleading because there are two selves. There’s your short-term self, and there’s your long-term self. And if you’re only true to your short-term self, your long-term self slowly decays.”

And a man at mid-life in what appears to be a cold corporate lobby, sitting on a stone bench, framed by a stone wall.

“When you’re twenty-five, you feel like you’re riding a wave. You feel like opportunities are just going to keep coming at you, and you think it’s never going to end. But then it ends.”

“When does it end?”

“When you turn forty, and they start looking for someone younger.”

The reader gets a sense they are looking in the mirror, but they’re not. The photo doesn’t match the selfie, but the sentiment fits.

Heather Long, writing for CNN Money, interviewed Stanton and attended his reading at a NY Barnes and Noble. What has he learned in the process of photographing and interviewing 10,000 people? “Americans should reconsider how much they work.”

“He often asks: What is your biggest struggle? And what do you regret most in life?
“Balancing my life is an answer I hear a lot,” he said. “Balancing work and family.”
People go on to tell him how they wish they had skipped that marketing conference and attended their daughter’s 8th grade dance instead.”

One of my favorite ‘inteviews’ appears early in the book (page 5). The narrative comes from a third grader (?).

“I want to build a bridge”

“How do you build a bridge?”

“If you want to build a bridge, it’s going to take a long time and it might be hard because your employees might not be as interested in building a bridge as you are. You have to think about what type of bridge you want to make…” 

He could be talking about life and career.

HONY: Stories invites us on a road trip through the streets of New York, opting for the detours that welcome conversation. This is a book to read slowly, observing the detail in the photos and the humanity in the words. It’s a compendium of other’s lifelong learning, generously shared.

“I want to be an artist.” “What kind of art do you want to make?” “I want to make different versions of myself.”

It’s only a play? Lessons learned on the stage

The lights dim, the music rises from an orchestra pit hidden from view and a tiny light begins to fly across the curtain. It’s that magical moment of anticipation in a darkened theater on a spring night in New York. It could be any play, but for me, on Tuesday it was ‘Finding Neverland’, the new Broadway musical about the life of JM Barrie, the playwright and creator of Peter Pan.

Being cast in the lead of a Broadway play has about the same odds as being signed to an NFL contract. Only the lucky, talented few survive the uncompromising selection process beginning with high school and college productions, local theater companies, summer stages and hours of auditions to reach the pinnacle of success for a stage actor.

A Yahoo finance article in 2013 listed drama and theater arts among ‘The 10 Worst Majors for Finding a Good Job’. And yet, sitting in a theater, removed from electronic contact with the outside world, it’s easy to understand why so many aspire to a career on the stage.

The lead role of JM Barrie in ‘Finding Neverland’ is acted by Matthew Morrison. His journey to the Lunt Fontanne Theater in NY started at the Orange County School of the Arts in California and progressed to NYU, TV roles, supporting roles on Broadway, his first lead in ‘The Light on the Piazza’, and in 2009, ‘Glee’ where his audience came to know him as ‘Will Schuester’. Although not as popular with critics as theater goers, this musical based on a 2004 movie plays to a full house at every performance.

And every night, each member of the audience receives the gift of watching a cast of actors pursuing their dream. And the actors include children, dogs and actors playing dogs.

Lesson #1 – There they are, on stage, demonstrating in an incredibly competitive business, that you can achieve your dream.

Lesson #2  – Act Two – The former actors who have achieved success beyond the footlights.

Clarence Otis, Jr. who stepped down as Chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants late last year, credited his success in team building to his experience in theater.

“The thing that prepared me the most — where the team was front and center — was theater, which I did a lot of growing up, in high school, during college, law school and even for a couple of years after law school. I would say that probably is the starkest lesson in how reliant you are on others, because you’re there in front of an audience. It’s all live, and everybody’s got to know their lines and know their cues and know their movement, and so you’re totally dependent on people doing that.”

Tom Vander Well, business consultant, writes on his Wayfarer blog ’10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success’.

“When I chose my major, I had no pipe dreams about becoming a professional actor. I did it because more than one wise adult had advised me that my actual major in college would have less impact on my eventual job search than having the actual degree. “Study what you love” I was told, “not what you think will get you a job.” I listened for once and chose theatre because I’d done it all through my secondary education, I had relative success doing it, and because I simply loved being a part of it. Fortunately, my parents gave me absolutely no grief about my choice (unlike most of my fellow majors. Thanks mom & dad!)”

The list of skills he acquired includes: “improvisation, project management, working with a limited budget, hard work, presentation skills and making difficult choices.”

I would add that you learn to accept feedback as an actor. And you eventually realize it’s about the performance, not personal. If you listen you will get better. Maybe that’s the most important lesson we can take from those who make a living on the stage – listen and you will get better.

SXSW – Creativity and Convergence

This week Austin, Texas is the vortex of the worlds of interactive, film and music. SXSW organizers have created an event that should encourage those who believe the arts are endangered. And for those whose dream job fits into the artistic, entrepreneurial and creative, the Texas state capital is the place to be.

This year Jimmy Kimmel is broadcasting his late night show from Austin and Rand Paul has been showing up at meet ups and receptions.

SXSW was originally staged as a music festival in 1987 and as the Austin economy grew to embrace film and technology companies, SXSW broadened its’ mission adding the interactive and film conferences in 1994. SXSWedu joined the program in 2011 and this year has grown to a four day conference for educators to connect and drive innovation in how we teach and learn.

In an interview with The New York Times, festival director Hugh Forrest described the essence of the festival:“South by Southwest is always about up-and-coming talent, be it a band or filmmaker or technology developer, and that holds true in 2015.”

‘Convergence Day’ provides an opportunity for all attendees to mix at meet ups and panels and discuss cross disciplinary topics including the topic of “Music As Personalized Medicine”.  Using research findings that 18 hours of music a week can have a significant effect on physiology and well-being, “This session will pilot a new technology and begin the largest living experiment to analyze how the music you’re listening to impacts your health.”

There are also practical conversations. Tom Sachs, the internationally-acclaimed contemporary artist and Carter Cleveland, CEO of Artsy discussed ‘Is Good Business the Best Art?’ on Sunday. Their discussion wrestled with the question many face; Can you be successful and not sell your soul?

Current hot industry topics also find a platform with panels on ‘Content, Copyright and Commerce’ and ‘Compensating College Athletes for Their Likeness’.

SXSW is a visible demonstration of barriers collapsing. We live in a multidisciplinary world where imaginative connections create new business opportunities.

While TED in Vancouver is the tightly scripted corporate event, SXSW is organized ‘happenstance’. By bringing together innovators in a variety of creative enterprises, the event captures boundless energy with a soundtrack for the future. It’s March Madness without the brackets.