News of the nightingale. I've begun with a non-sequitur. And all I can promise you is that I'm going to work my way back to this odd beginning point. What is a source of dissonance here at the outset becomes, in context, a major chord later. News of the nightingale.
Some would-be readers are gone by now. For them—and I have received enough e-mail over the years to know that there are more than a few of these good folks out there—marketing articles are supposed to be utilitarian with all the flourish, warmth, personality or quirkiness of a test of the emergency broadcast system.
My own theory of communication, whether I'm the reader or writer, the listener or speaker, is that both sides need to reach beyond themselves to make any kind of meaningful contact. But, not when I'm speaking to a 911 dispatcher.
With my opening non-sequitur, you may have come to a full stop and felt that I was trying to do too much (this is a marketing article after all, not an art song) and to explain too little.
Or, maybe, you're in splintered-attention mode and barely noticed (if at all) the little pebble I just put in your shoe. (What if attention is all there is of love's presence in the world? And, so when we—in self-defense even—divide it up into ever tinier amounts, we say to the flowers, there is just this tiny bit of sun today.)
My pet ideation is that you trust me enough to keep going. And, from reading me on prior occasions, you don't expect a seamless experience.
The subject of this article is a recurring theme for me: the other. In marketing terms, "the other" is the market, the reader, the prospect, the customer: the other end of your company's messages. For me, the "other" is you.
The Problem of the Other
There's a problem with the other. The problem is, of course, their otherness; and our inability or unwillingness to pay this otherness much heed, much less understand it. And, because the study of marketing is really the study of human nature, this problem is interesting on many levels.
Marketing has, for sure, become much more refined over the years. Numerous technologies and methodologies make it more effective and precise. There is, in some marketing circles, a sweaty scrambling toward science: a phenomenon not unlike what happened to the “social sciences” back in the 1960s and 70s.
There's even some talk of actual brain mapping in the service of better marketing. And in the “arms race” between those who parse their attention into bits (sound like you?) to just keep up with modern life and those whose livelihoods depend on making certain that it's their bits that get acted upon (sound like you, too?), maybe brain mapping is the logical escalation.
Enough with the focus groups and the variable inputs that can be skewed by factors like room temperature, a lone voluble participant who loves the sound of his or her voice, or the perceived mood of the moderator. Let's cut directly to the cerebellum and see what's really registering or not. Ugh.
Field Observations of the Other
- The other is not convenient. The other slows your time to market. The other is not a team player.
- If you can, insist on there being an empty chair at every internal marketing meeting to symbolize the other.
- Surprisingly, the other will, on occasion, behave in stereotypical, almost mechanical ways.
- Companies, like individuals and nations, have a tendency to squelch otherness when under duress.
- The most dangerous and enlightening conversations that you will ever have are those with your customers. During these conversations, there is the potential to meet the other. It is only a potential, though. There are no guarantees.
- In the midst of a long corporate meeting, attempt to trace a line from what's being discussed to the realities, challenges, ambitions and fears of the other.
- There are hugely successful organizations that have had the luxury of “working the familiar” for years, if not decades. Many of these have nearly zero receptivity to other-thinking.
- Imagine there's a “magic recorder” that's capturing your organization's tacit and explicit opinions of those prospects it is trying to reach with a given campaign. Now, imagine that you're playing the tape from this recorder in front of those same prospects. Are you embarrassed for your company? Or are you proud?
- Most marketers work with only a cartoon-like caricature of the other.
- Now, realize that the other I'm referring to isn't just on the other end of your e-mail campaign. The other is in the cube next to you, in that country 10,000 miles away, on the street begging for quarters, in the pages of history, in our prison system, in our day-care facilities, in our hospitals and nursing homes, in the car next to you in traffic, and in your own home.
“On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings”
One of my favorite thinkers and writers is William James. I first got to know him in the summer before college, when I stumbled across his multi-volume “The Principles of Psychology,” published in 1890. This was to be the first truly significant reading that I'd ever done in my life to that point.
Reading William James, the brother of the novelist Henry James, is a joy. His sentences are like late-summer honey in their clarity, flavor and languid flow. His thoughts are those of as keen and loving an observer of human behavior as you will ever find. Sometimes, when reading him back in the summer of 1978, I felt as though I was being initiated into a secret world.
At the time I had no sense of James' place in the broader universe of ideas. Only years later did I learn that he was a leading light in a long-discredited school of thought.
In other words, when I first read him, I could really read him. All the stuff that doesn't matter—whether his ideas were out of date or not—didn't matter to me. I knew just this much. He was a scientist in a way that I had never encountered before. His specialty was the everyday and the ordinary: observable facts of just being alive, feelings, attention, personal observations, guesses, perceptions, and the nature of belief.
After making his acquaintance through “The Principles of Psychology,” some months later I came across a James essay entitled, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”
Here's how James greets you on the essay's threshold:
“OUR judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.
“Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.
“We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons' conditions or ideals.”
James goes on to note how this “blindness” to the other can be suddenly changed:
“… Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world, as Clifford called it, the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.
“The change is well described by my colleague, Josiah Royce:— “What, then, is our neighbor? Thou hast regarded his thought, his feeling, as somehow different from thine. Thou hast said, 'A pain in him is not like a pain in me, but something far easier to bear.' He seems to thee a little less living than thou; his life is dim, it is cold, it is a pale fire beside thy own burning desire...So, dimly and by instinct hast thou lived with thy neighbor, and hast known him not, being blind. Thou hast made [of him] a thing, no Self at all.
"Have done with this illusion, and simply try to learn the truth. Pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere, even as in thee. In all the songs of the forest birds; in all the cries of the wounded and dying, struggling in the captor's power; in the boundless sea where the myriads of water-creatures strive and die; amid all the countless hordes of savage men; in all sickness and sorrow; in all exultation and hope, everywhere, from the lowest to the noblest, the same conscious, burning, wilful life is found, endlessly manifold as the forms of the living creatures, unquenchable as the fires of the sun, real as these impulses that even now throb in thine own little selfish heart.
"Lift up thy eyes, behold that life, and then turn away, and forget it as thou canst; but, if thou hast known that, thou hast begun to know thy duty."
In between the excerpts cited above, James himself cites extensive passages from an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson. These words are something that I hope you will read aloud, no matter where you are: "Toward the end of September," Stevenson writes, "when school-time was drawing near, and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull's-eye lantern.
"The thing was so well known that it had worn a rut in the commerce of Great Britain; and the grocers, about the due time, began to garnish their windows with our particular brand of luminary. We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigor of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin. They never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers. Their use was naught, the pleasure of them merely fanciful, and yet a boy with a bull's-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more. The fishermen used lanterns about their boats, and it was from them, I suppose, that we had got the hint; but theirs were not bull's-eyes, nor did we ever play at being fishermen.
"The police carried them at their belts, and we had plainly copied them in that; yet we did not pretend to be policemen. Burglars, indeed, we may have had some haunting thought of; and we had certainly an eye to past ages when lanterns were more common, and to certain story-books in which we had found them to figure very largely. But take it for all in all, the pleasure of the thing was substantive; and to be a boy with a bull's-eye under his topcoat was good enough for us. When two of these asses met, there would be an anxious 'Have you got your lantern?' and a gratified 'Yes!' That was the shibboleth, and very needful, too; for, as it was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognize a lantern-bearer unless (like the polecat) by the smell.
"Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a ten-man lugger, with nothing but the thwarts above them—for the cabin was usually locked—or choose out some hollow of the links where the wind might whistle overhead. Then the coats would be unbuttoned, and the bull's-eyes discovered; and in the chequering glimmer, under the huge, windy hall of the night, and cheered by a rich steam of toasting tinware, these fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links, or on the scaly bilges of the fishing-boat, and delight them with inappropriate talk. Woe is me that I cannot give some specimens!...But the talk was but a condiment, and these gatherings themselves only accidents in the career of the lantern-bearer.
"The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night, the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned, not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public,—a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge. It is said that a poet has died young in the breast of the most stolid. It may be contended rather that a (somewhat minor) bard in almost every case survives, and is the spice of life to his possessor. Justice is not done to the versatility and the unplumbed childishness of man's imagination.
"His life from without may seem but a rude mound of mud: there will be some golden chamber at the heart of it, in which he dwells delighted; and for as dark as his pathway seems to the observer, he will have some kind of bull's-eye at his belt. ...There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life—the fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself at his return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognize him.
"It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and his days are moments. With no more apparatus than an evil-smelling lantern, I have evoked him on the naked links.
"All life that is not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands—seeking for that bird and bearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each so incommunicable. And it is just a knowledge of this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn to the pages of the realist.
"There, to be sure, we find a picture of life in so far as it consists of mud and of old iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we are ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time-devouring nightingale we hear no news.”..."Say that we came [in such a realistic romance] on some such business as that of my lantern-bearers on the links, and described the boys as very cold, spat upon by flurries of rain, and drearily surrounded, all of which they were; and their talk as silly and indecent, which it certainly was. To the eye of the observer they are wet and cold and drearily surrounded; but ask themselves, and they are in the heaven of a recondite pleasure, the ground of which is an ill-smelling lantern.
"For, to repeat, the ground of a man's joy is often hard to hit. It may hinge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern; it may reside in the mysterious inwards of psychology...It has so little bond with externals...that it may even touch them not, and the man's true life, for which he consents to live, lie together in the field of fancy...In such a case the poetry runs underground.
"The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad. For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven in which he lives. And the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.
"For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse. To one who has not the secret of the lanterns the scene upon the links is meaningless. And hence the haunting and truly spectral unreality of realistic books...In each we miss the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes what is naked and seems to ennoble what is base; in each, life falls dead like dough, instead of soaring away like a balloon into the colors of the sunset; each is true, each inconceivable; for no man lives in the external truth among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied wall."
“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” is to me news of the nightingale. It reminds me, when I need to be reminded most, “to miss joy is to miss all” and that “to look at the man is to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment, but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales.” And so I imagine you at your desk with the day swirling around you.
“And it is just a knowledge of this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn to the pages of the realist. There, to be sure, we find a picture of life in so far as it consists of mud and of old iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we are ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time-devouring nightingale we hear no news.” I bring you news, friend. News of the nightingale.
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