Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Room Where It Happens | Lefsetz Letter

Those people you hate, you’d like in real life.

David Brooks is a right-leaning columnist for the “New York Times.” But recently his columns have focused on social more than political science. He digs down deep into the archives of history to make points about today. That’s a result of his education at the University of Chicago, a rigorous institution focused on the classics. Sure, you have to be smart to understand the concepts, but you also have to apply yourself, do the hard work, and although you can spend hours on social media and even coding it might get you ahead temporarily, but it won’t make you a better person, won’t make you more worldly, it won’t expand your horizons like a traditional education will.

That was my shock upon entering Middlebury. The prep school students were so well read! I went to a melting pot public high school in a middle class suburb and I still haven’t recovered. These are the advantages you read about today. The rich send their children to institutions that teach them how to think and the poor don’t even go to college, or when they do they study business, preparing them for a role but not to lead.

Leaders have vision. They’re born to it. It’s a nature and nurture thing, both family and experience, and the gap between those who are advantaged and disadvantaged grows ever wider and those left out have no idea how the game is played, because they’re never in the corridors of power, and if they get close, they become anxious and don’t know how to behave. That’s what I learned most at Middlebury, how to hang with rich people. Non-Jews whose names were world-famous, who had money for generations, who knew not to be ostentatious, not to boast, not to stick out at all unless you truly deserved to, and then you were humble.

I know this is different from the image of entertainment, especially with Jews, who triumphed in vaudeville and then the Catskills before inhabiting TV. And there are even executives behind the camera with out of control, larger than life images, like Ari Emanuel, who they made a whole TV series about, but most of them are not that way at all. Well, maybe in entertainment, but not in the rest of the world. Actually, that’s when you get in trouble in entertainment, when you think you’re bigger than the act. That’s devastated the record business ever since the era of Clive Davis and Tommy Mottola. The exec does not know best, the act does. Most of what “Mr. Davis” put out is forgettable tripe. Whereas his quieter colleague, Mo Ostin, released some of the best music of all time, by letting artists be themselves and not crowing about it.

So I’m reading Brooks’s column the other day, ostensibly about income inequality, and I come to this passage:

“People at the top, he observed, tend to adopt a reserved and understated personal style that shows they are far above the ‘assertive, attention-seeking strategies which expose the pretensions of the young pretenders.’ People at the bottom of any field, on the other hand, don’t have a lot of accomplishment to wave about, but they can use snark and sarcasm to demonstrate the superior sensibilities.”

Brooks is referencing the work of a legendary French sociologist, but I found it hard not to apply this lens to the world I inhabit.

The guys who run the record companies are nice. That’s right, the ones you deplore, hate on principle, get yourself in a room with them and you’ll be charmed, you’ll be caught off guard. I’m not saying they’re princes (or princesses!) I’m just saying you hate them on principle, but they’ve been through the wars and triumphed and now they can afford to be nice and amenable.

Want to connect with a majordomo?

Don’t talk business. It doesn’t impress them. Actually, it turns them off, they get accosted, pitched all day long. And as far as making a deal with you…they’re much more worried about who you are than the music you make. No one wants to work with an asshole. They pass all the time on talented jerks. They want to know that you’re reasonable and have opinions and are somewhat worldly.

But you’re busy attacking them on Twitter.

Now this flips the ruling class out. Because before the internet revolution, no one had access to them, they couldn’t hear the naysayers. Oh, acts got reviews, but execs? They were faceless behind doors counting their money. So now when they go online, they’re busy barking back, blocking people, not knowing it has nothing to do with them at all, it has to do with the position and mind-set of the commentator, they’re down and out and they don’t like it. What they want most is YOUR job! That’s right, research anybody complaining about you online and you’ll find they’re struggling in your field. My greatest haters are writers. Somehow I seem to have their job, they’re better, they know more people, they’re more connected, I’m a doofus, and if the world worked properly they’d have the gig and not me. And it doesn’t matter who I really am and how I got here, I’m a two-dimensional character in their minds, someone to vent their venom at.

So you flip the script and you look at the people in power…

Rob Light is a gentleman.

Michael Rapino is sincere and is just as down to earth as you are.

Irving Azoff is charming.

Lucian Grainge is personable with a sense of humor.

It makes your head spin if you contemplate it.

Then again, when they were up and coming, and scrapping, they were more like you. But not too much like you, because then you can’t get ahead. Because the truth is once you’re in the club, you’ve got to get along, you see the same people constantly. So hate them for their lifestyles, the golfing trips, the cruises, their spending of that money that should go to you, but the truth is they’re exercising business mores that have existed for millennia.

Now I’m not saying more people shouldn’t be in the club.

And I’m not saying that the internet and social media have not placed a spanner in the works.

But some of this is basic humanity, people.

So Brooks’s point, which I agree with, is we should give more people a leg up. Which is certainly better than tearing others down, it doesn’t get you anywhere.

And I agree with this.

But what resonated most was that life is a learning process, and the more you learn the better off you are. It begins early and it’s all about being curious and applying yourself and hanging with the right people and knowing how to behave.

But this has nothing to do with the message sent to you by the media. Talking about instant successes utilizing new tools to ramp up their income and dominate.

No, generally speaking the same people dominate over and over. Most of the “talent” is evanescent.

Meanwhile, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Mark Zuckerberg goes to Sun Valley. As do Sheryl Sandberg and Daniel Ek. And if you think Herb Allen’s conference is summer camp, a pleasure retreat akin to a rave, but for older people, you know nothing. Allen’s an investment banker. Sun Valley is all about deals. And you make deals via relationships. And they’re in the club and you’re not.

How do you get in the club?

Start at the top again.

P.S. You don’t want to be a court jester, the entertainer who’s singing and dancing for rich people, no, you want to be an equal, or to quote Aaron Burr from “Hamilton,” you want to be in the room where it happens!

David Brooks: “Getting Radical About Inequality”


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