How on earth did Oprah Winfrey--an unlikely media mogul if there ever was one--get so popular, powerful and rich, all at the same time? Ever since she announced at the end of last week that she was walking away from her legendarily popular syndicated talk show in 2011, the airwaves have been abuzz with discussion about what it means, what impact it will have ... and how she managed to get this successful in the first place.
In yesterday's New York Times, columnist David Carr argued that Oprah Winfrey should be studied in every business school in America--not only for the smart moves she made, but also for the mistakes she didn't make. She didn't go public with her company, so she retained control. She didn't lend her name to other people's products. When she decided to add a magazine to her stable, she created her own, with such a clear sense of branding that she put herself on each and every cover. She didn't use her wealth to invest in fields she knew nothing about. Oprah did extend her brand into new shows, from Dr. Phil to Rachel Ray, but her offshoots all had the same feel and market as the mothership. And she didn't try to cash in on every possible profit opportunity, including the success of the books she turned into overnight bestsellers.
Oprah's branding success, according to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, was due to the fact that she steered her business through "personal choices," like a woman who has an enviably clear and innate sense of what looks good on her. Which is undoubtedly true. But that complicates the matter of how one would teach or replicate Oprah's success in b-school.
Oprah Winfrey, after all, gives a whole new meaning to the "Chicago School" of economics. A meaning that would make Milton Friedman, the father of the adage "the purpose of business is to make as much money as possible for shareholders," turn over in his grave. Oprah never allowed shareholders, of course, which simplified the matter. But, still. In an era where the primacy of the bottom line ruled triumphant, Oprah gave away cars, eschewed commissions on products she made popular, and turned down the short-term money that going public or selling the company could have brought. And made $2.3 billion as a result of it.
Scholars could parse all her decisions for wisdom about brand management, risk, leadership, growth strategies, marketing, and internal R&D investment. They might even find places where her success seemed to illustrate well-known models or schools of thought. Someone is probably working on it right now, as a matter of fact. Which is all well and good, because there's certainly a lot of wisdom that can be gleaned from the story of Oprah's successful climb from a local Chicago talk show host to the CEO of her own production company and network, while becoming a seismic cultural force and, arguably, the most powerful and wealthy woman in America.
The trouble is, Oprah's success isn't just the sum of her strategies. The engine that not only drove those particular strategies, but also made them successful, was a deep sense of identity, authenticity, and purpose that can't be imitated or crafted through method. If Oprah has a deep and guiding understanding of her audience, it's not because she's methodically observed them. It's because she's lived their struggles, hopes, joys and sorrows. And those struggles gave her first a connection, and then a purpose, from which all other decisions organically flowed.
In the world of Silicon Valley, it's said there are two types of entrepreneurs: missionaries, and mercenaries. Mercenaries can make a lot of money if they're smart and have good strategies. But missionary entrepreneurs are the ones who change industries and the world--not only because they continue on no matter how hard the going gets, but because they bring to bear an irresistible combination of passion, authenticity and sense of purpose bigger than mere profit or themselves. Success, for them, is as much about impact as it is about profit. Which is, ironically, how many of them become incredibly profitable.
Clearly, Oprah is a missionary entrepreneur. But how do you teach someone to be a successful missionary? Even Polonius' advice to Laertes, "to thine own self be true" is insufficient. If asked, I suspect Oprah would say that first you have to learn who you are, where you came from, how that affects and informs you, and what matters in the world. You also have to care about something bigger than yourself, and imagine a way in which your particular skills could allow you to make a difference in that area. And whether you seek that path out, or stumble upon it along the way, you have to care about making that difference enough that the vision of it keeps you going through the dark, and can act as a compass to steer your decisions along the way.
Add to that some smarts, savvy, and sharp thinking about content, brand management, marketing, and growth, and you have a legend in the making. But those last bits are the only pieces that can be taught. Honest self-knowledge, authenticity, passion and purpose are harder to acquire. Most often, they emerge from battles fought in the midnights of our solitude, if we manage to scrounge up the courage to face what we find there.
But if you can't teach the intuition that emerges from those internal journeys, you can at least teach its importance. Asking "what would Oprah do?" might not be a bad exercise when contemplating tough or tempting business options. It's not a quantifiable model, of course, and the results can't be proven. But it wouldn't be a bad placeholder while encouraging students to explore enough about themselves and the world to develop a true-steering compass and passionate purpose of their own.
Note: I will be offline for the next week, returning Friday, December 4th. Photo Credit: Flickr User whoohoo120
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.
Educators seldom have enough time to do their business. What’s that doing to the state of learning?
It’s common knowledge that teachers today are stressed, that they feel underappreciated and disrespected, and disillusioned. It’s no wonder they’re ditching the classroom at such high rates—to the point where states from Indiana to Arizona to Kansas are dealing with teacher shortages. Meanwhile, the number of American students who go into teaching is steadily dropping.
A recent survey conducted jointly by the American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers Association asked educators about the quality of their worklife, and it got some pretty harrowing feedback. Just 15 percent of the 30,000 respondents, for example, strongly agreed that they’re enthusiastic about the profession. Compare that to the roughly 90 percent percent who strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about it when they started their career, and it’s clear that something has changed about schools that’s pushing them away. Roughly three in four respondents said they “often” feel stressed by their jobs.