Thursday, April 22, 2010

The guy you met last week

I managed to make an instant enemy a couple of weeks ago. I happened to be looking at a beautiful leather Fossil laptop bag; a bag I could never afford but couldn't help trying on. My friend walked past with a friend of his. I gushed about how much I loved the bag. His friend decided I was a pretentious knob who spends his life buying R2000 bags and condescending to everyone who doesn't own one.

Admittedly, I wouldn't normally bother myself with someone who makes judgements so quickly, but because that particular summary of my personality jars so startlingly with the kind of person I think I am, it got me thinking about the randomness of first impressions. The timing of when you meet someone really does determine what they think of you. If I were weeping that day, or eating at Spur, I would have seemed like an entirely different person.

But it's much more than impressions. All of the perceptions we have about ourselves and each other and things are time-specific. I feel a particular way about lawyers now, for example, that I did not a few years ago. I have opinions and preferences that are new. I relate to my friends as the people they are in this particular lifestage, in their particular circumstances. I identify myself as 26, and a brand strategist, and a Capetonian. But not one of those identities is permanent, and not one of them was true two years ago. We have good days, and funny days and days when we're too tired to make conversation. We are generous and stingy, young and old, idealistic and jaded. We miss great loves because we were perfect for each other at the wrong time, or in sequence.

The more I think about it, the more I think we are are just balls of constant change blaring through life. So the trick is to never take anything personally, because the conditions that form people's perceptions of you right now are transient, and relatively random. Timing isn't just the key to great jokes, great loves and great brands.

All there is, really, is timing.

Friday, April 9, 2010

At what point does one panic?

Signs of the times
I have a propensity to panic. I have been known to force doctors to run expensive blood tests on me for my self-diagnosed mortal tragedies that turned out to be nothing more than pulled muscles. I have to drug myself so heavily when I fly than I cannot speak. And I’ve gotten off the tube many times long before my station because I thought it was about to be bombed by those who were selfish enough to wear puffy jackets in summer.

But one thing I have never panicked about is “where the country is going”, to use the term of so many opinionated expats (and would-be expats). It’s always seemed like a bizarre and tedious thing to discuss when the evidence has always pointed to us growing wealthier, more stable, more democratic and safer. It’s the kind of thing you listen to your friends’ parents go on about and politely wait for them to finish before changing the subject: it’s lazy, slightly bigoted and irrelevant. If you want to talk politics, talk about real issues, like health reform or why the World Bank approved Eskom’s filthy coal-loan. Don’t come out with archaic knee-jerk statements like “we’re going the way of Zimbabwe” because we quite obviously are not.

But this Malema thing has made me uneasy. For the first time in my life, I’m a bit anxious about the state of the nation. Is there in fact an underground movement swelling, to kill the boers? My Afrikaans colleagues were certainly not too happy about their relatives who live on farms when we chatted about this today. I remember reading about the Rwandan genocide at university and thinking, how the hell could these people not see it coming? The incitements to violence are so obvious in the media. But they just thought it wasn’t real.
And how do we know whether what we see in the media is worthy of panic or not? Is this a tide sweeping the country, or a lunatic fringe? And does all the publicity Malema receives in the media, though it’s negative, not just give him more power?

It makes me sad that organisations like the AWB even exist. And it makes me sad to hear the angry tirades of the ANCYL. I think of all the great leaders who built this country, from Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu and all the artists and fashion designers and musicians who brought us integrated normality. But am I living in a bubble, in the dream they created? Whose reality has critical mass, I guess, is the real question? And is it time to panic?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Happiness requires no adsl line

Seth recently wrote a piece pointing out that most digital natives are not particularly valuable to advertisers because they don’t pay any real attention. Everyone loves measuring trackbacks and impressions, but just because you can measure these things doesn’t mean you should, because the world today has spawned what he calls a glance-and-click culture. This culture probably began with TV channel-surfing and extends all the way to hopping between six parties in a night out and chatroulette’s amusingly callous ‘nexting’ of people. We think we are cramming more valuable, interesting and entertaining content into our lives but all we are doing is devoting less time to any one thing. The speed of internet connectivity cannot change the amount of hours in a day and so something has to give. So far it’s been our attention spans, patience, focus and concentration.

And I don’t decry this from a marketing point of view. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the pressure is on for marketers to be quick and add value. It’s actually exciting that it’s harder to get – and hold – people’s attention, because it ups the game and means we have to work harder to deliver only what is relevant, only when it is relevant – and to invest in people as the real communication channel.

But I really don’t think this constant distraction is going to do us any favours as a species, or as individuals. Glance-and-click may be the only way to feel you’re getting a taste of the flood of content available, but nothing of true value is experienced in ten seconds. I've noticed I now skip tracks on my ipod before they’re even finished because I’m bored and want to move on, and I constantly get impatient the moment someone answers my call because the conversation is taking up too much of my time. I used to meditate enough to remember that true peace and contentment come from sustained and intense concentration on one thing. Your breath. Or a sound. Focusing all of your attention on what you are doing right now enables you to live in the present, and that has profoundly transformative abilities. It’s no coincidence that artists lock themselves away, or that Jesus disappeared into the desert for so many years; everything, from works of artistic genius to spiritual contentment, comes from focus and attention.

So I was very amused to read of a new app that enables people to disconnect by disabling internet connectivity for a predefined amount of time (and its password protected for the junkies who crack). Avoiding distraction requires serious discipline because distraction is easier than just being. And now that even our most remote corners have been connected up (you get 3G in the Transkei!), there’s nowhere to hide. You’ve gotta make the decision yourself and can’t rely on geography to liberate you.

So I'm going to bite the bullet and close TweetDeck, shut down my mail, turn off my blackberry and try to smell, feel, hear and see where I really am right now. Hell, for this long weekend, I even plan on forcing myself to listen to some classical music; music that takes ten minutes, not ten seconds, to get to the point. I hope I can find the patience to be content.