Friday, January 9, 2009

The reality of renewal

After more than a decade of beating up flailing companies as a member of the media, and then working as a strategist for flailing companies being beat up by the media, I’m convinced that the clique about perception breeding reality is true.

No matter how much we try to fight popular perception, it has a way of transforming speculation into a nearly truthy state.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea in the context of our financial crisis. Last weekend as I was driving across the Bay Bridge with my fiancĂ©e, a piece by NPR’s Guy Raz hit a nerve. He was talking about some indicator revealing crappy data about the economy (big surprise). Guy asked his interviewee whether it was time for us to really panic about our sorry state of affairs, and continued to wonder whether there was any chance for recovery.

I tapped off the power button and mumbled a bunch of expletives. I was upset this doomsayer was ruining my admiration of the brilliant sunset over the San Francisco skyline. Telling people to panic, to roll over and give up, to shame them for poor spending decisions in the past, will do nothing for our country’s recovery.

Back to this perception versus reality truth-ism. There’s a halo effect to doomsday soothsaying that I’d love for someone to quantify. At Yahoo! I watched it happen before my eyes beginning in July 2006 when management announced they’d miss their deadline to launch the Panama search monetization upgrade. The story in the press and blogosphere evolved from “management messed up,” to “Terry Semel doesn’t know what he’s doing” to “Yahoo! is dead in the water versus Google” to “Terry is dumb and Yahoo! needs a new leader who’s as tech savvy as Eric Schmidt.” Down went the stock, out went Terry, in came Jerry. We know how that ended.

You can argue that public perception is a leading indicator of future issues. But maybe it just exacerbates the problem or adds a new negative narrative to the storyline.

Here we are in 2009 and I wonder where we are in the arc of perception. Are we still driving ourselves down with more negative interpretation of data? Sure, the facts are still gloomy. The Labor Department reported unemployment rose to 7.2 percent in December, up from 6.8 percent the previous month. Meanwhile President-elect Obama keeps reminding us that things will get worse before they get better, almost to make people as miserable as possible before he’s sworn into office.

I get it. I get it!

But damn it, I’ll be one of the few optimists in the blogosphere and I'll insist there’s a silver lining to this. Let’s look to the phoenix, that mythological bird that emerges from the ashes of ruin. America was built on people looking for a second chance. We love the comeback story, the beauty of renewal from defeat. Immigrants left their Old World to make a new life in the Zion that’s America to find greater prosperity through the lessons learned from their homelands.

Let’s hope the phoenix that rises is the Harry Potter breed, not the one from X-Men.


  1. Hey man,

    Just wanted to add a few comments. That linkage between perception and truth has been a major topic in philosophical systems around the world for thousands of years at this point. So sometimes I find it remarkable how capable we as a species are of neglecting to deal with that linkage responsibly.

    In the current day and age, the media cycle you describe (fact-based reporting devolving into spin devolving into sensationalism devolving into senseless attack) is driven by the need to make profit in an oversaturated market. In the pre-Internet world, the expenses of effectively conveying information limited the number of outlets and served in some ways as a check on quality--if you had to spend time and money and thought on every detail of a printed page, you were going to do it right. But now, as literally thousands of media outlets, professional and amateur, clamor for attention, the lowest common denominator of reporting is coming back into effect. At least we knew that supermarket tabloids were entertainment and not real news. Now it's hard to tell who's doing what, and rumors and speculation spread faster than ever, and often get reinterpreted into fact.

    It's fascinating that as the self-help movement has brought the daily affirmation and other perceptual motivational techniques into the lives of individuals, as a society, pretty much globally, our daily messages are mostly negative, often in the extreme. This kind of psychic violence is why people like Obama are important--he's the daily affirmation for the US psyche and, as it turns out, for quite a bit of the international community as well. He can't blow sunshine up our collective ass and expect that to work, but being a strong voice for optimism and the positive is a vital part of his task, as if administrating and policy wasn't hard enough. On top of that, he has to do it in a fairly poisonous media atmosphere that is waiting for any slip-up so that they can put it in the news cycle--lather, rinse, repeat.

    Being a daily affirmation is hard work. At the same time, America wants inspiration, needs it, after nearly 40 years of presidents who, fairly or not, we judge as criminal, incompetent, figureheads, out of touch, deeply flawed and dunderheads (in no particular order). So go ahead and be optimistic and a voice of encouraging reason. There isn't enough of it.

    Lest we forget, the 2004 Red Sox were down 0-3 in the ALCS and came back to win it all! As Kevin Garnett screamed, "Anything is possible!"


  2. Thanks for your insights, Mo. You had to bring up the 2004 ALCS didn't you. Just couldn't resist.