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
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
The executive producer of Masterpiece says Jane Austen works a lot better on screen than Hemingway does.
For 44 years, PBS’s Masterpiece franchise has brought high-end Britain TV programs to American audiences. While the ultra-successful Downton Abbey comes from an original screenplay, many of Masterpiece’s shows over the years have been adapted from great works of literature. And the vast majority of those great works of literature, unsurprisingly, have been British.
But every so often, an American novel—like James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark—has been turned into a Masterpiece. On Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece, said she wished that the program had tackled more U.S. authors over the years. “The reasons that we haven't are twofold,” she said. “One is money, the second is money. And the third is money. Also, the dark nature of American literature, which is something to think about for a moment."
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Brian Grazer has some rules for success. He hasn’t always followed them.
There’s no secret formula to making a hit, according to Brian Grazer, the producer of film and TV successes like 24, Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Empire, and Friday Night Lights. But there are some guidelines. “In television I don't ever want to try and reinvent the wheel,” he said on stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday. “But changing the spokes within the wheel is a good thing.”
Take Jack Bauer, the terrorist-fighting hero of 24. “He does thing that are very wish-fulfillment oriented,” Grazer said. “That makes people very excited, because wish fulfillment almost always works. You have to root for the character, and rooting for the character is rooting for what they want. It's easier to root for what somebody wants if what they want is noble.”