Over the summer I spent some time reflecting on what I’m doing in the emerging immersive media industry and why I’m doing it. I began to address these questions by producing a document that details ten principles that guide my work. I modeled this on Amazon’s Leadership Principles, and in fact straight-up stole one of those principles, Bias for Action, for myself. The purpose here is to establish an ideological framework for my collaborations as well as my own projects. Here, then, are ten principles to guide the creation of art within the context of an immersive media startup.
First Principle: Knowing Who You Are is More Important Than Knowing What You’re Doing
We enjoy being considered experts in the things we’re passionate about. Authorities have things under control. They know what they’re doing. That is, until everything goes to shit. That’s when authorities get tested and they either rise to the occasion or prove undeserving of their authority in the first place.
We—especially men—have been conditioned to believe it’s more important to appear in control than to reveal uncertainty or vulnerability. But these ambiguous, uncomfortable conditions are the places from which we grow. Great artists and leaders purposely put themselves in positions of uncertainty and fear. When I taught creative writing, I often told my students that feeling stupid and scared was a sign of growth; such a state just means you’re working at the limit of your intelligence and ambition.
The trade-off to operating in a state of vulnerability and uncertainty is that you learn more about yourself than when you play it safe. The more you understand who you are, the easier it will be to make decisions when you’re faced with no obvious solution. You use the results of those decisions to better understand yourself.
The immersive media industry is at such an early point in its history that the unknowns far outnumber tried-and-true methodologies. This means it’s incumbent upon you as a creator to look inward, investigate your talents and biases, and mindfully curate your own taste and sense of self. Expertise doesn’t mean showing off what you know. It means finding intelligence in neuroplasticity and courage in interrogating and understanding your own nature with ever greater clarity.
Second Principle: Be Obsessed with Potential, Not Status
The first thing Genghis Khan did whenever he sacked a city was round up the aristocrats and lop off their heads. Everybody else got a job interview. One might argue that the Mongol empire grew as rapidly and vast as it did in part because they observed this extreme form of meritocracy. You were judged by how useful you could be rather than by how other people regarded you.
Status can blind us to the potential and value of other people. In “Positively 4th Street,” Bob Dylan sang:
You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend
When I was down you just stood there grinnin’
You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on the side that’s winnin’
Most of us have had fair-weather friends like that. Strivers and climbers who drop us the moment they perceive that our social standing has slipped. In this way, life can feel like a giant game of chutes and ladders, of jockeying for position on the heap. Being a dismissive snob to those perceived as beneath you is almost always paired with an attitude of reverence for those perceived as above you. These feelings are like a muscle group of status, and they can be severely limiting when operating within the context of an emerging medium. To eliminate status and open yourself up to potential, resist indulging in worshipping big things just because they’re big, and dismissing small things just because they’re small. What’s small today could be huge tomorrow, and everything that is huge today was once small and could easily, and quickly, become yesterday’s news.
If you refuse to play the status game, you begin to better perceive the potential of other people. What’s magical is that the very act of recognizing potential is often the necessary trigger to bring that potential to fruition.
Third Principle: Maintain Equilibrium Between Creative Freedom and Artistic Excellence
We trust artists. Trusting artists means staying out of their way and respecting the creative process, which can become messy and rife with blind alleys, failed experiments, and uncertainty. Trust means not forcing artists to repeat themselves or imitate another artist just because something succeeded in the past.
And it means cultivating an environment where artists are not afraid to provoke or offend. Social media gave us an era of public shaming, trolling, and “stay in your lane” rules devised by self-appointed social norm police. Not only do we reject these limitations on expression, we aim to destroy them with the empathetic generosity of the new media. We proceed with vigilant understanding, assume good intent, and default to giving those with whom we disagree the benefit of the doubt.
We’re pro-masterpiece. We endeavor to transcend the social conditions of the moment by creating medium-defining art that will resonate for centuries and ensure humanity’s evolution on earth and beyond.
We believe that accepting mediocrity in an attempt to spare someone’s feelings equals artistic death. Our considerate and unvarnished honesty is an aspect our kindness.
Over-indulgence of creative freedom can lead to diminishing artistic standards and a hobbyist-level commitment to artistic production. Over-emphasis on status-based signifiers of artistic excellence can quickly squelch creativity and trick us into equating market success or ephemeral critical approval with artistic value.
We balance creative freedom and artistic excellence to elevate art that will long resonate with the people of the future.
Fourth Principle: Compete Like Artists, Not Athletes
Reflect on how John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Having established themselves as the world’s greatest pop song writing duo, Lennon and McCartney kept pushing each other to go further. Paul delivered “Penny Lane,” which vividly imagines a neighborhood from his childhood, teeming with absurd characters and inside jokes. The song is both epic and buoyant, expansive in scope and quotidian in detail, a true masterpiece. John must have felt both inspired and challenged, as he responded by writing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a song equally rooted in the past, but committed to the discombobulating interior experience of childhood, rich with quantum states of confident doubt and sublime transcendence.
It’s been said that Lennon and McCartney competed with one another like someone climbing the rungs of a ladder. First one would advance, then the other. They spent their careers inspiring each other then besting each other. This seems like an instructive metaphor for how we might grow the immersive media industry.
I often wonder if capitalism operates the way it does because most of the people in charge are white men raised on team sports and fraternities. While many of my peers spent high school playing sports, I was practicing with my band and figuring out how to get booked at parties and clubs. There was definitely a competitive aspect to playing in a band, with all sorts of attitude thrown at bands whose popularity surpassed ours. But in general, the local bands that displayed true talent inspired me and pushed me to get better.
The world is full of people who perceive the economy as a relentless scramble for market dominance and endless conflict. But when an industry is in its infancy, individual competitors work against their own self interest if they crush all the competition. When you’re growing a whole new sector of the economy, it’s more important to cultivate a customer base as a whole than to carve whatever base there is into portions. One of the reasons Amazon succeeded beyond even Jeff Bezos’s wildest dreams is that it encouraged the growth of e-commerce as a whole, while simultaneously dominating various individual markets like books, electronics, DVDs, then the cloud. When I worked there the first time, in the late nineties, I was part of a team that launched Amazon’s third-party seller platform, creating the opportunity for many, many people to make money selling things on the site. Nurturing an ecosystem of customers who sold goods to other customers was one of Jeff Bezos’s most masterful strategies.
If the various startups and individuals that comprise the emerging immersive media industry are in competition with one another, I would hope it is in the spirit of a bunch of bands that share the same handful of venues and record labels, not corporations ramming their office towers into each other as in that classic Monty Python sketch. We understand that no single company or idea will succeed unless success is broadly distributed. We’re looking to each other for inspiration to bring new masterpieces to fruition so that we can rise together.
Fifth Principle: We’re a Feminist, Queer, and Multicultural Organization
In a better world, we wouldn’t have to spell out this principle because it would be self-evident. But here we are in 2017, and work remains to include and respect women, people of color, people of various faiths, and LGBT people at every level of human affairs. We recognize that systemic problems require systemic solutions, and are committed to working for positive change.
We favor concrete, constructive action designed to empower the less privileged over symbolic, negative action designed to shame and humiliate those with whom we disagree. We constantly investigate whether our efforts for inclusion result in tangible results, or if they’re just moralistic window dressing designed to flatter our self-righteousness.
Immersive media belongs to all humanity. We believe that the talents and leadership of women, people of color, and LGBT people are necessary for our success, full stop.
Sixth Principle: Refer to Principles Before Relying on Plans
The delight of discovery outweighs the reassurance of sticking with a pre-ordained plan. Artistry requires confidence in the midst of ambiguity.
We craft plans in order to point ourselves in the right direction, establish our acountability, and make sure we have all the resources we need, but not to anticipate all problems before we’ve encountered them. Pioneering a medium that’s in its infancy means that there’s simply no way to prepare for every contingency.
Don’t brace against uncertainty, embrace it.
Plans are counter-productive when they protect us from having to do the necessary work and make decisions. Principles help us discover, within ourselves and collectively, the path forward.
Seventh Principle: Bias for Action
This principle was straight-up ripped off from Amazon. (Thanks, Jeff!) As stated in Amazon’s “Leadership Principles” document:
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
When most people hesitate to take decisive action, it’s out of fear that they’ll get in trouble. And true, sometimes decisive action can screw things up for everybody. But that’s the necessary cost of innovation.
The opposite of a bias for action is stagnation, and stagnation is untenable and unacceptable. It’s incumbent upon us to be forgiving of mistakes that were motivated by calculated risk taking, and to encourage the occasional leap into the unknown.
Never wait for the ideal conditions to start something. Ideal conditions are a myth and constant motion is crucial. If you’re stuck waiting for a green light from somebody, make something else that amuses or delights you in the meantime. Don’t be the writer in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer who so idolizes Dostoevsky that he’s too paralyzed to start a novel of his own.
Make what’s just beyond possible using the resources you have. If all you have are two popsicle sticks, make the coolest thing it’s humanly possible to make with two popsicle sticks.
Eighth Principle: Deadlines are Sacred
They just are.
Ninth Principle: A Useful Toy is the Same as a Fun Tool
Elevate the idea of fun so that it is equal to the idea of usefulness. Resist the conditioning that tells you that things that are fun are frivolous. Art depends on the cultivation of bliss. To work in a state of joy is itself the highest achievement. Making someone else laugh, cry, or reflect with art is an act of moral generosity.
The emotional richness of your life and your refined taste is useful. The fact that you have people who you love and choose to spend time with is not an inconvenience to us, it’s part of what makes you an appealing human being. Our worth is derived from the quality of what we produce, not the hours we’re seen by a boss sitting at our desks.
Demolish the distinction between work and play. Toys have a purpose. The best tools are fun to use.
Tenth Principle: Exaptation
When Tom Waits was asked what he did with his song ideas that didn’t become songs, he replied, “I cut ‘em up and use ‘em for bait.”
Use the leftover pieces of failed experiments and build something else.
Be cognizant of byproducts and be receptive to turning them into products.
Try using something designed for a specific purpose for a whole different purpose.
Discover the secret potential of something by placing it in an entirely new context.
Take two ideas that seem to have nothing to do with each other and see what happens when you force them to play together.
A discarded rough draft is never a waste if it leads you toward that which you were supposed to create in the first place.
Invent, recycle, repeat.