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
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
As Coldplay blandly strained for the universal, she and Bruno Mars pulled off something more specific and more daring.
What a perfect Beyoncésong name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
In Homs, Syria, where entire city blocks have been reduced to rubble by years of civil war, a Syrian wedding photographer thought of using the destruction of the city as a backdrop for pictures of newlywed couples “to show that life is stronger than death.”
In Homs, Syria, where entire city blocks have been reduced to rubble by years of civil war, a Syrian wedding photographer thought of using the destruction of the city as a backdrop for pictures of newlywed couples “to show that life is stronger than death,” according to AFP photographer Joseph Eid. Here, Nada Merhi, 18, and her husband, Syrian army soldier Hassan Youssef, 27, pose for a series of wedding pictures amid heavily damaged buildings in Homs on February 5, 2016.
Humbled by his struggling presidential campaign, can the once-mighty New Jersey governor vault back into contention after Saturday’s debate?
SALEM, New Hampshire—Chris Christie was accustomed to being a big man: a man of stature, a man of power, a man who demands and gets his way.
But recently, the big man (this is a description of his personality, not his size) was seeming awfully small.
On Friday evening here, the governor of New Jersey was desperately trying to talk some sense into the people of New Hampshire, a couple hundred of whom had come out to see him on a snowy night. The night before, Christie’s rival Marco Rubio had played the same venue, filling a larger room of the elementary school beyond its capacity. Christie was begging the crowd not to pile on the bandwagon of the apparent winner, but instead, to show some courage.
Will the Democratic Party nominate a candidate who hasn’t been a member of their party, and who has long denounced it?
When a party chooses its presidential candidate, it also chooses its party leader in the election. This year the Democrats face an unusual situation. Bernie Sanders isn’t just an outsider to the party establishment; he’s not even been a member of the party, and has long excoriated it in unsparing language. Although the media haven’t much focused on this history, the early signs suggest it could become a problem for Sanders in getting the nomination—and a problem for the party if he does get it.
According to the entrance polls at the Iowa caucuses, there was a 30-percentage-point split between self-identified Democrats and independents in their support for Sanders. Hillary Clinton won 56 percent of self-identified Democrats but only 26 percent of independents, while Sanders won only 39 percent of Democrats but 69 percent of independents.
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.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.