Tag Archives: inspiration comes from strange places

Finding The Energy To Do The Work On Days When It Just Isn’t There.

Navin R. Johnson: The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!

Harry Hartounian: Boy, I wish I could get that excited about nothing.

Navin R. Johnson: Nothing? Are you kidding? Page 73 — Johnson, Navin R.! I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book everyday! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity – your name in print – that makes people. I’m in print! Things are going to start happening to me now.

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I’m seeing that Navin R. Johnson kind of excitement from my team at Stry.us lately, and it’s a wonderful thing. I can’t remember where I read it first, but it’s true: You can teach skills, but you cannot teach attitude. Right now, we’re at the start of this project, and everyone is excited about everything.

The challenge is in keeping that excitement going. I have to know how my reporters are running — right now, I can see that two of them are slightly overworked, and one of them is a little bored, and the fourth is right about at her maximum output — and when I need to step in and intervene. Because it’s really easy to lose a good employee to burnout, and it’s equally easy to lose a reporter to boredom.

Like Navin, I know how excited my reporters are to see their names appear on the site. But that excitement is fleeting.

So much of building your own thing is about bringing that energy. Many days, you just wake up with it.

Other days, you have to fake it. You have to smile big and try to find energy in those moments when it just doesn’t want to come.

You cannot just show up on the days when you feel like showing up. The work has to be done every single day.

On those slow days, I like to think about the moments when the energy’s there, when the excitement is high, when I’m absolutely giddy about the work I’m doing. On a day when I’m down, I can always remember: Tomorrow could bring that excitement again. Today’s just a bad day.

Until then, I have to find a way to do the work I need to do with the passion I need to have. And I need to teach my team how to do the same.

Otherwise, we’ll wake up one day as that gas station owner, trying to figure when the days of getting excited about the phone book passed us by.

There are so many wonderful things about being young and stupid and excited. I will not let that go to waste.

There Is No Such Thing As Bad Work. George Carlin Taught Me That.

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When I was in 9th grade, my family roadtripped down to Florida over winter break. My parents had always found interesting things to play in the car on long drives. My parents were big fans of D.C. parody group The Capital Steps,(1) and we listened to their cassettes in the car. We listened to the hysterical stories of Bill Harley, and the random baseball rantings of Danny Kaye.(2)

But on that trip to Florida, my mother decided — and I do not know why — to bring along some George Carlin for the drive.

That was the first time I’d ever heard Carlin’s famed “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine.(3) I’d never heard anything quite like it before. I’d never heard anyone use words — simple, clear, decisive words — to prove such a powerful point.

Things would never be the same after that.

One line in the routine hit me especially hard. There was this idea that certain words were inherently “bad.” Carlin said that was total crap.

“There are no bad words,” he said. “Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And words.”

I’d like to say the same is true with your work. Again, it doesn’t matter what your work is — playing basketball, writing the Great American Novel, building a better mousetrap. All that matters is that there is no such thing as bad work.

The results aren’t what you want sometimes. But the work itself is always good. Always.

There are bad results, sure. But work? Passionate, driven, goal-oriented work never fails. It’s never bad. Through it, regardless of results, you’ll learn how to do better work.

There will always be people who tell you that your work isn’t any good, just like there will always people who tell you that you can’t say certain words, or that you can’t try certain things.

But I know what Carlin would say about those people:

Fuck ’em.

Go do the work instead.

  1. I still can’t hear Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” without singing, “Boris Yeltsin is the hardest rhyme.”
  2. “Oh, I say D! I say D-O! D-O-D! D-O-D-G! D-O-D-G-E-R-S! Team, team, team, team ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
  3. No need to Google it — the seven are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.

A Word About The Black Keys As They Prepare to Potentially Win a Grammy.

I remember that I didn’t like music all that much. I’d spent my childhood listening to sports talk radio — to 570, and then to 980 when it moved up the radio dial. I’d come home from school, and I’d catch the last hour of Tony Kornheiser’s show. I’d start my homework, and Andy Pollin and a team of local reporters would be talking about Redskins season. I’d go to bed listening to Ken Beatrice, a host with a Boston accent that would’ve shamed the “Car Talk” guys.

There wasn’t a backing track to my childhood as much as there was a whine — a low drone of Washingtonians, watching their sports franchises sink further into the muck, their only outlet a radio call-in show that catered to the most neurotic, most obsessed among us.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I started listening to music. It started during a summer up on the Cape, when I’d discovered a classic rock station with good taste. I learned that I liked U2 and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I discovered the Guess Who, and I remember listening to a lot of J. Geils Band. I made my first — and only — radio call-in request that summer: Van Halen, “Hot for Teacher.”

That fall, with some coupons I’d been birthday gifted, I went out and bought my first two CDs: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Greatest Hits,” and Jet’s “Get Born.” My first car, my grandpa’s Olds Eighty-Eight, had been passed on to a cousin. I’d come into possession of another Olds, this one white, and with a CD player. For all of three or four minutes in the morning, on the drive from Wood Acres to Walt Whitman, I rocked.

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Of course, this isn’t a story about an 18-year-old who gets an Oldsmobile and falls in love with a quartet of Australian rockers who ripped off Iggy Pop. That wouldn’t be much of a story, really.

No, this is about this one moment I remember.

I remember that I’d made a left turn that day onto Whittier. I remember that it one of those in-between days in late winter — maybe February, maybe March — where the words “unseasonably warm” come to mind. I remember that my friend, Alyssa, had burned me a CD of a band she liked.

I remember turning left in my white Olds, and the school day ending, and the windows down, and the volume a little too loud, and the sound I didn’t know I wanted to hear.

The band was the Black Keys, and the first song on that CD was “10 A.M. Automatic.” It’s the kind of song that jolts you if you’re not ready for it.

Three notes in, I wanted to know where this band had been hiding from me. They had this massive sound. The recording sounded like it had been aging for decades.

Why hadn’t the classic rock stations been playing these guys?

I went home and Googled them, and I learned two things:

1.) They weren’t an old band. These guys were in their mid-twenties.

2.) There were only two of them.

Two guys could make a sound this big?

I bought their second CD, “Thickfreakness.” Then their first. I got to college, and I started buying more blues albums: Sonny Landreth, Hubert Sumlin. I read that Sumlin had played with a Howlin’ Wolf, so I had to look him up. I read that Howlin’ Wolf had been a contemporary of a Muddy Waters, so I Googled him.

Then I started working as a DJ at the college radio station, and that opened up an entire library of blues artists I’d never known. They’re old friends now: Lightning Hopkins, Cephas & Wiggins, Townes Van Zandt.

The Black Keys came to Columbia, Mo., in the winter of my sophomore year. I remember them being loud, and at points, louder-than-loud. I remember smiling as big as I’ve ever smiled.

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There was the other thing I remember, too: I remember wondering why more people didn’t listen to this band I loved.

How could you listen to a song like “10 A.M. Automatic” and not love these guys?

I remember staying up late one night, before we had DVR. It was back in my senior year, a few months after I’d heard the band for the first time. They were playing Letterman. YouTube wasn’t out yet. I’d never seen them perform before. I remember looking around the TV, trying to see if there was someone else back there playing guitar or bass. I just couldn’t see how two guys could make that much sound.

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I remember the first time I heard one of their songs as a backing track on a TV show, but I don’t remember the show. It was either “Entourage” or “Friday Night Lights.” But I remember smiling, because I knew someone else out there was going to hear that sound and fall for it just like I had.

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This year, the Black Keys released an album called “Brothers.” It was their third full album since “Rubber Factory” — the LP with “10 A.M. Automatic” on it — had been released. Their most recent album, “Attack & Release,” had been produced by DJ Danger Mouse, he of Gnarls Barkley fame. The two band members, Dan and Patrick, had each released a side project. They’d also backed a hugely ambitious rap project, called BlakRoc, that somehow worked.

I’d been listening to the band for five years, and I’d pretty much accepted the fact that the Keys weren’t going to ever go mainstream. And I was okay with that.

And then they went big.

They won a VMA. Ended up on “Colbert.” Played “SNL.” Had a few music videos top a million hits on YouTube. Stopped playing dingy venues and started playing amphitheaters and concert halls.

This Sunday, they might win a Grammy.

I hope they win.

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The hipster’s dilemma, of course, is that I’m not supposed to feel that way. The Keys were the first band I ever loved, I ever felt was mine. And now they’re everyone’s. I’ll never get to see them play a venue as crappy as Columbia’s Blue Note again, and that’s where they’re meant to be heard. In a dungeon, preferably, or at least some place with exposed pipes and $2 PBR drafts. Last time they were in D.C., they played 5,000-seat DAR Constitution Hall. Next time, they’ll probably play Verizon Center, and 18,000 people will show up to watch.

They’re still one of my favorite bands, but they’re not just my band anymore.

But if they win this Sunday? Some kid’s going to go out, and… well, actually, no, that’s not entirely right. Some kid’s going to open up iTunes. He’s going to download “Rubber Factory.” He’s going to load it onto his iPod. He’ll go out for a drive. Maybe it’ll be a sunny day. Maybe the windows will be down.

Maybe he’ll hear those first three notes of “10 A.M. Automatic” like I heard them.

I hope he does.

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I actually remember this one other thing. I was watching an episode of “Friday Night Lights.” This was about a year ago. It was one of those classic “FNL” montages — no words, just some light music and darkness falling and Dillon, TX, slowly melting away. I remember the music well: some fingerpicking on guitar, and a voice that absolutely ached.

I remember Googling the lyrics. The song was, “When The Night Comes,” by Dan Auerbach.

Dan Auerbach, the lead singer of the Black Keys.

And I remember feeling like I’d rediscovered that sound all over again.

You don’t forget something like that.