Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

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Photo credit: Wayne Hile

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable” is one of those pearls of wisdom that career coaches are fond of sharing to inspire others to succeed. The notion makes sense: only by stretching your comfort zone can you learn and grow, whether you are a student, a software designer, or a Navy Seal. But for people to get comfortable being uncomfortable, the right elements need to be present, including a supportive environment, a purpose, and preparation, as a recent experience of mine illustrates.

As I have mentioned on my blog, during summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, a festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. I portray a friendly but comically pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright. Playing Nicolas Wright means constantly learning new skills, including improvisational comedy, face-to-face patron interaction (he greets patrons on the street all day long), and even stage combat. Auditioning for the cast was an enormous leap of faith for me, and once I came onboard in 2014, I discovered that being part of the cast is a constant process of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. One recent Saturday, I pushed myself beyond the boundaries of comfort: I told a story.

Storytelling — the way it’s done at the Bristol Renaissance Faire — is new territory for me. I am at ease speaking in front of an audience, but storytelling is an art that requires the right pacing, body language, and voice control to create theater. The storyteller also needs to know how much detail to include to enrich the drama and how to involve an audience. For me, learning how to tell a story qualifies as becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, an experience heightened by my fear of forgetting a key plot point or character name. But with the encouragement of my daughter Marion Deal — who is also on the Faire cast — I faced my fears, took a deep breath, and took my first step toward storytelling by telling a brief parable onstage.

After stumbling through several awkward practices, I unfurled the tale of the of Taoist farmer one sunny Saturday afternoon on the Queen’s glade, a section of Bristol where patrons and cast mates alike entertain the Queen Elizabeth each day with songs, stories, and poems. I remember the moment vividly: Sir Edmund Tilney, master of the revels to the queen (portrayed by Dennis Carl), took me aside and indicated that there was room on the schedule if I cared to perform that day. I swallowed hard and said, “I would be delighted to tell a story.” Part of me hoped he would forget our conversation, but after a few minutes, Tilney nodded to me and presented Nicolas Wright to the queen. I approached the queen, portrayed by Jennifer Higgins. She nodded gently. In one of those moments where life and art intertwine, her reassuring nod filled me with a confidence that I channeled into Nicolas Wright as he told the parable of a farmer in China who accepts good and bad fortune with equal measures of calm acceptance.

Turning to the audience gathered on both sides of the court, I worked through the parable with a deliberate pace, making eye contact with patrons, pausing when I felt like I needed to accentuate a word, and remembering to smile. The stage at the queen’s glade consists of a simple but elegant set of overlapping rugs set before the court on the ground. You don’t have the benefit of an elevated platform when you entertain on the glade. So I made sure I walked about the rugs a bit (without looking like I was pacing) and projected as loudly as I could to reach as many people sitting on the benches to my left and right. The more I projected, the stronger I felt. The warmth of the sun was like a golden balm. The audience fed me energy with their smiles. I did not stumble although I can point to many ways I could have done better. Afterward, a woman who had been in the audience approached me. “Thank you for that moment,” she said. “I don’t often hear parables such as the one you told. Your story really made me think about accepting life with grace.” I smiled at the patron, thanked her, and did a little dance inside my head. I certainly had not raised the bar for storytelling, but I had made a mark.

My personal breakthrough was no lark. And the moment was not a result of my effort alone. Some elements needed to be in place for me to have the courage to embrace the uncomfortable:

A Supportive Environment

If you manage others, they won’t learn how to take personal risks unless they know you have their backs. The Bristol directors and cast always have my back.

All Bristol cast train under the direction of an open-hearted and encouraging team of directors, starting with head of entertainment Kristen Mansour, who is fond of reminding everyone during cast meetings, “Leap, and the net will appear.” We do not learn under the withering criticism of a genius tyrant such as Steve Jobs or in the punishing environment that apparently pervades Amazon. We learn through positive reinforcement.

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Will the Truth Set Dr. Dre Free?

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Did Dr. Dre’s apology go far enough?

On August 21, hip-hop legend and now Apple consultant Dr. Dre issued a statement to The New York Times addressing longstanding reports about his history of violence against women, including a 1991 incident in which he attacked journalist Denise “Dee” Barnes in a nightclub (for which he later pleaded no contest on a misdemeanor battery charge). In the statement, Dre wrote, “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.” The apology came days after Barnes, along with R&B singer (and Dre’s former girlfriend) Michel’le and former label mate Tairrie B, spoke publicly of being assaulted by Dre when he was a rising hip-hop star as part of the hip-hop group NWA. Barnes openly criticized the recently released movie Straight Outta Compton for ignoring Dre’s violence against women. On August 21, Dre responded — as did Apple, which issued a statement saying that Apple believes Dre has cleaned up his act. But although Dre’s apology was a start, he still has work to do.

Reports about Dre’s violent behavior during his NWA days have circulated for years, only to be dismissed by the successful rapper, producer, and business impresario, who became an Apple consultant in 2014 when Apple bought Beats Music and Beats Electronics, which he cofounded. Those stories never seemed to create any serious PR problems for Dre until Straight Outta Compton was released on August 14, along with Compton, the soundtrack Dre recorded and distributed through Apple Music and iTunes. This time, reports about his past would not go away, prompting Dre to issue the following statement to The New York Times:

Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did. I’ve been married for 19 years and every day I’m working to be a better man for my family, seeking guidance along the way. I’m doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again. I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.

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How Movie Theaters Are Competing Harder for Your Time and Money

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Movie theaters face the same challenge as sports stadiums: they need to fill seats even when they cannot control the quality of the product they offer. Wrigley Field must sell tickets and concessions whether the Chicago Cubs are contending for the pennant or dwelling in the cellar. iPic Theaters and Regal Cinemas must convince you to spend a few hours of your day at their locations whether they’re featuring the critically acclaimed Inside Out or the dud Pixels. Increasingly, movie theaters are hedging their bets by making the theaters themselves destinations and by combining online marketing offers with customer loyalty programs. For example, iPic Theaters provide lounges with billiard tables, bars, and dinner menus along with a tiered membership package that provides benefits for returning customers. In a new blog post for my client SIM Partners, I discuss some of the principal ways movie theaters are offering a more compelling experience beyond the movies advertised on their marquees. I enjoyed exploring different theaters for my research as well as tapping into my iPhone to see how theaters are attracting mobile consumers. What are some of your favorite theaters, and why?

How Musician Alison Goldfrapp Creates Social Media Mystique

BannerRecently, I was talking with a director about how artists use social media. He vowed never to use it. “Lifting the veil to your private life ruins the artist’s mystique,” he said. And he has a point. Sharing on social can connect artists with their fans, but social media can be problematic for musicians such as Beck, Jimmy Page, and Prince whose personal brands are built on the power of mystique. Their appeal comes from the walls that surround them, which makes them unattainable. But as musician Alison Goldfrapp demonstrates, artists can actually use social media to create mystique.

Alison Goldfrapp is one half of the duo Goldfrapp, which melds pop, dance, and electronica to create a sound that shimmers. The group is all about atmosphere. Its songs can sound lush and dreamy on an album such as Seventh Tree, and provocative on Black Cherry. The duo has carefully constructed a chic, ethereal vibe, grounded in Alison Goldfrapp’s mystique. Whereas Nicki Minaj is loud and sexual, Alison Goldfrapp is cool, sensual, and beyond our reach. She is like Ingrid Bergman reincarnated as a singer.

And Alison Goldfrapp treats Facebook and Instagram as an extension of her mystique. Many artists, such as Tame Impala, use Facebook to share tour dates, new singles, and contests. Other artists, such as Miley Cyrus, seemingly report every detail about their backstage lives, including posting photos of their friends and their fans. Goldfrapp takes neither approach. Instead, she shares photos that are every bit as evocative and mysterious as Goldfrapp’s image, often accompanied by cryptic captions that explain nothing. One day, Goldfrapp might share a ghostly image of a woman walking in the dark, like so:

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Another day brings a striking close-up of a bee:

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Seldom does Alison Goldfrapp provide context for the photos aside from cryptic captions. She leaves it up to her fans to fill in the blanks. In the fan comments section, she responds to no one, thus keeping everyone guessing as to how closely she pays attention to the content people post on her page.

For Alison Goldfrapp, Facebook and Instagram are canvasses, not social media tools. She lets her fans socialize with each other through their speculation and critiques. She is faithful to her fans, providing a steady stream of visual content. But always, she is behind a veil. Rather than make you feel like you know Alison Goldfrapp better, Facebook and Instagram add color and texture to the veil of her creation. (And, of course, the idea that you can actually get to know artists through their gushy social posts is, in itself, an illusion, but a more conventionally acceptable one.)

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Alison Goldfrapp offers three lessons through her use of social:

  • Powerful visuals can say more than words if your goal is to make an impression instead of explaining yourself to your audience.

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  • You create a mystique by sparking a conversation. When no one pays attention, there is no mystique. Judging by the comments on Alison Goldfrapp’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, she creates a conversation.
  • But sharing does not have to mean joining the conversation. Allowing others to form their impressions of your art builds mystique.

Being social does not have to mean being chatty. You can create a conversation and build a community though actions, not words. Who creates mystique on social media in your opinion?

 

Would Led Zeppelin Succeed Today?

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Led Zeppelin. The name evokes the hammer of the gods, hypnotic music forged in the mists of Mordor and the mountains of Kashmir, and the heavy gravitas of legend. Here is a band whose place in rock history is secure. Five of its albums are listed in Rolling Stone‘s ranking of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and Led Zeppelin’s music is so influential and powerful that it resonates with generation after generation of fans. But Led Zeppelin achieved renown at a different time, when the music industry played by different rules, and artists made their mark through an art form — the record album — that has become anachronistic. If Led Zeppelin were just starting out today as an unknown group, would the band break through and succeed? I believe Led Zeppelin would indeed become a household name — but only by adapting its game plan to play by today’s rules:

Rule 1: Make Great Music

Let’s first look at an obvious ingredient for success: artists must produce consistently great music. It sounds obvious, but musicians possess zero margin for error in the here-today, gone-tomorrow environment that characterizes the music industry. Groups are competing against distractions that did not exist in the 1970s: the Internet, mobile apps, video games, and a proliferation of television channels, to name a few. A sensation such as Psy can create a massive breakthrough with “Gangnam Style” only to be tossed on the dust heap of one-hit wonders if he lacks a compelling follow-through. But bands anxious about generating the next hit also have to exercise caution: the proliferation of digital channels such as SoundCloud makes it too easy for artists to release music that is not ready for prime time. Good bands must resist the temptation to release music too early; they also must transcend the blizzard of white noise emanating from multiple channels.

Assessing the quality of an artist’s music is entirely subjective, but I believe Zeppelin’s style would resonate even in today’s climate, where an explosion of music formats such as electronic dance music and hip-hop have diluted rock music’s influence. The band’s music defied categorization. Certainly songs such as “Kashmir” and “Dancing Days” were exotic and versatile enough to appeal to listeners beyond rock. In fact, Led Zeppelin’s music has been sampled heavily by hip-hop artists such as Dr. Dre and Eminem, with “When the Levee Breaks” alone sampled numerous times. All Led Zeppelin’s music was carefully developed under the exacting standards of Jimmy Page, who had the unusual role of lead guitarist, co-writer, and producer. That the group has won so many accolades such as the Kennedy Center Honors is a testament to its attention to detail. Even Led Zeppelin’s rough works in progress from the slew of deluxe editions issued in recent months are better than much of what passes for polished material that you find on SoundCloud.

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