Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

21 OCTOBER, 2014

Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark on Trust, Integrity, Human Nature, and Why a Steady Moral Compass Is the Best Investment

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“What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good.”

In 2007, Y Combinator founding partner Jessica Livingston set out “to establish a fund of experience that everyone can learn from” by interviewing some of the most successful entrepreneurs at the time — the founders and first employees of such celebrated companies as Apple, PayPal, Flickr, Adobe, and Firefox. The resulting conversations were published in the now-classic volume Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days (public library), titled after the Paris Review’s iconic Writers at Work.

Today, in a culture that talks a great deal about “creating value” but seems to care very little about upholding values, and writes history with the same bias, I keep coming back to the most heartening interview in the volume — Livingston’s conversation with craigslist founder Craig Newmark, whose beloved lo-fi website began in 1994 as a hunch, became a humble side-project email list in 1995 highlighting interesting events in the San Francisco area, and turned into Newmark’s full-time labor-of-love business in 1999. In 2004, eBay purchased a 25% stake in the company from a former employee, but craigslist remains independent and privately owned, helping millions of people in several hundred cities around the world find everything from used couches to true love. Underpinning the site’s success is Newmark’s own idealism, his adamant refusal to surrender to cynicism or succumb to commercialism, and his unflinching faith in the human spirit.

Newmark’s most powerful tool as an entrepreneur and a human being is the very thing Kurt Vonnegut believed was the key to happiness — the knowledge that one has enough. Recounting a pivotal point at which advertisers began approaching him about running banner ads on his free site, Newmark gets to the heart of the values question:

I thought about my own values and I was thinking, “Hey, how much money do I need?” … So I figured I would just not do that.

At that point, I got the first inkling of what I now call my “moral compass.” I better understood it later—particularly since the presidential elections, because then I realized that people were claiming a moral high ground who actually didn’t practice what they preached, and it’s about time for people of goodwill to reassert their idea of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Newmark was able to stay true to his own values by making very deliberate choices about not letting outside interests interfere with his vision — specifically investors, who invariably bring their own financial interests and thus begin to warp values in favor of narrowly defined “value.” Newmark tells Livingston:

I’ve stepped away from a huge amount of money, and I’m following through.

[...]

I coasted on savings for several months… I funded it with my own time. In no form did we ever take investment money… For the most part, for the first few years, it was just putting my own time and energy into it. If I was billing for my own hours, it would have been a great deal of money.

And that energy was considerable — when Livingston asks whether craigslist garnered “a positive response pretty quickly,” Newmark speaking to the idea that one should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time” and responds:

Our traffic has always been slow but sure. We’re the tortoise, not the hare. Now and then we’ll get a surge of growth, but it’s been slow but steady.

At this intersection of firm values and steadfast dedication lies Newmark’s most essential insight. While “follow your gut” is a common platitude often dismissed with a scoff, especially in our culture of great impatience for any semblance of earnestness, there is something to be said for the difference between a throwaway aphorism and an ideal enacted in one’s own life as a “quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Newmark’s greatest learning is very much the latter:

The biggest entrepreneurial lesson I’ve learned has been that you really do need to follow your instincts.

[...]

Trust your instincts and your moral compass… The deal is: we’re not pious about this. We try hard not to be sanctimonious. This is the way people really live; we just don’t talk about it. I’d prefer to be cynical and not talk about it, and yet, that’s real life.

Therein lies his most heartening conviction — the same one Isaac Asimov shared in his spectacular short meditation on cynicism and the human spirit. Newmark, like Asimov, speaks from a place of resolute humanism, echoing legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s memorable perspective on the universe. He tells Livingston:

What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good. There are problems, and sometimes people bicker, which is a pain in the ass, but people are good. No matter what your religious background, we share pretty much the same values. There are some minor differences that we disagree on, but the differences are at the 5 percent level. That’s pretty good.

Artwork from Sophie Blackall's illustrated craigslist missed connections. Click image for more.

After noting that the two most important factors in his company culture were an atmosphere of trust and a keen moral compass, Newmark considers how that reverberates throughout the craigslist community itself. When Livingston asks whether he ever worried about spammers and other ill-willed people trying to take advantage of the site, he answers:

We have a really good culture of trust on the site — of goodwill. You know, we’re finding that pretty much everyone out there shares, more or less, the same moral compass as we do and as my personal one. People are good. There are some bad guys out there, but they are a very tiny minority and our community is self-policing. People want other people to play fair, and that works… It works great in all sorts of ways, and it’s also an expression of our values. Mutual trust. This is kind of democracy in real life. Everyone wins, except for the bad guys.

Founders at Work is a trove of wisdom in its entirety, from Paul Graham’s characteristically contrarian and inspiring introduction to the remaining interviews with legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Wozniak, Caterina Fake, and Brewster Kahle.

Complement this particular excerpt with the question posed by Alan Watts — what would you do if money was no object? — which should underpin every entrepreneurial pursuit, then revisit this field guide to finding your purpose.

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09 OCTOBER, 2014

Joni Mitchell on Therapy and the Creative Mind

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“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.”

It’s paradoxical that while “art holds out the promise of inner wholeness” for those who experience it, the relationship between creativity and mental illness is well-documented among those who make it, as is the anguish of artists who experience it. This, perhaps, renders the cultivation and preservation of mental health all the more urgently important for artists and those operating on a high frequency of creativity.

Eight-time Grammy recipient Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943), undoubtedly one of the most original and influential musicians of the past century, as well as an enormously talented painter, speaks to the value of therapy and a commitment to mental health in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library) — that wonderful collection of wide-ranging conversations by musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom, which also gave us Mitchell on freedom, creativity, and the dark side of success.

Joni Mitchell's 1995 self-portrait for the cover of her album 'Turbulent Indigo,' one of twenty album covers she painted herself, referencing Vincent van Gogh's famous self-portrait with the bandaged ear that has become a symbol of his struggle with mental health.

When Marom asks why Mitchell chose to record her unusual cover of Annie Ross’s old jazz song “Twisted” from the 1974 album Court and Spark — a song about psychoanalysis — she answers, half-jokingly, that her own experience of therapy earned her “the right to sing it.” But reflecting on the more serious aspects of therapy as a commitment to one’s wellbeing, Mitchell echoes the famous Tennessee Williams aphorism — “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels” — and tells Marom:

Everyone has confusion… Simply by confronting paradoxes or difficulties within your life, designating a time to confront them several times a week, they seem to be not so important as they do when they’re weighing on your mind in the middle of the night, by yourself, with no one to talk to…

I went through a lot of changes about [therapy]. It’s like driving out your devils — do you drive out your angels as well, you know, that whole thing about the creative process. An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion, and I’ve created out of that. It’s been part of the creative force. I mean, even out of severe depression there comes insight, if you meditate on it. It’s sort of masochistic to dwell on it, but you do gain understanding.

And yet Mitchell sees therapy as a kind a clarifying tool for her inner life, for her priorities and values, at a point in time:

That’s mostly what it was, questions about myself and the way I was conducting my life and what were my values in this time … What aren’t values in this time? Everything is so temporal.

Ultimately, however, she champions the benefits of therapy unequivocally:

I think it did me a lot of good. I think that self-confrontation is a good thing, whether you do it by yourself in solitude, or whether you do it in the presence of another person.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is a wonderful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on what therapy and art have in common in soothing the soul.

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22 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Joni Mitchell on Freedom, the Source of Creativity, and the Dark Side of Success

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“How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open… to encounter and to… be in touch with the miraculous.”

At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”

When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”

Joni Mitchell by Jack Robinson | © The Jack Robinson Archive (robinsonarchive.com)

One of Mitchell’s most defining characteristics and a pillar of her artistic success is her unflinching integrity of vision — a creative compass that seems to always be oriented to her own true north and nobody else’s. Her own standards are the only ones she ever heeded and her own values the only ones she ever sought to measure up to. When Marom asks what gave Mitchell confidence through the ample rejection she faced early in her career, she speaks beautifully to the idea that the best art comes from a place of self-transcendence and is created for an audience of one:

I’ve never thought of that. I guess the only thing was being witness to my own growth. You know, I would suddenly see that, yes, the music was getting better, and the words were getting better. Just my own sense of creative growth kept me going, I guess.

Tuning into that inner voice, Mitchell suggests, was just as vital in her journey as tuning out the external noise that tried to drown it out — a practice arguably even more important, yet more challenging, for artists today, whose work is constantly offered up for external scrutiny online and off, through exponentially multiplying channels of exposure. Mitchell tells Marom:

My growth has been slow, like a crescendo of growth, based on my dissatisfaction with the previous project, where I thought was weak, not what the critics thought. The critics dismissed a lot of what I thought was my growth and praised a lot of what I thought common about my work. I disagreed with most of them. So I had to rely a lot on my own opinions, not to say that I wasn’t constantly asking them for advice and mulling it around, not dismissing it.

She revisits this notion of creating from a place of freedom rather than normative restriction based on the ideals and shoulds of others:

Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.

Mitchell’s creative source springs from precisely this feeling of miraculous, wholehearted aliveness. She tells Marom:

How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open, I think, to encounter and to, in a way, be in touch with the miraculous.

Much of what we call “inspiration,” Mitchell suggests, is really the active practice of finding oneself by getting lost:

I think that as long as you still have questions, the child questions, the muse has got to be there. You throw a question up to the muse and maybe they drop something back on you.

'In the Park of the Golden Buddha,' 1995 | © Joni Mitchell (photograph by Sheila Spencer)

But Mitchell’s most salient reflection is also her most vulnerable. Looking back on her journey from poverty to affluence, from critical derision to acclaim, she speaks to the rather conflicted relationship many of us — especially artists of all stripes — have with success and its outward expressions, a tension predicated on the toxic myth that there is a nobility to poverty and that financial success necessarily detracts from the authenticity of the work.

When Maron notes that “once you’ve known poverty, it digs into you no matter how successful,” Mitchell agrees and admits to being “suspicious of wealth” because she had come from destitution. Looking back on that tipping point when she went from struggling artist to star, with the affluent lifestyle to boot, she contemplates the inner tussle of values:

I had difficulty at one point accepting my affluence, and my success, even the expression of it seemed to me distasteful at one time, like to suddenly be driving a fancy car. I had a lot of soul searching to do. I felt that living in elegance and luxury cancelled creativity, or even some of that sort of Sunday school philosophy that luxury comes as a guest and then becomes the master. That was a philosophy that I held onto. I still had that stereotyped idea that success would deter it, that luxury would make you too comfortable and complacent and that the gift would suffer from it.

But I found that I was able to express it in the work, even at the time when it was distasteful to me… The only way that I could reconcile with myself and my art was to say, “This is what I’m going through now; my life is changing. I show up at the gig in a big limousine and that’s a fact of life.”

I’m an extremist as far as lifestyle goes. I need to live simply and primitively sometimes, at least for short periods of the year, in order to keep in touch with something more basic. But I have come to be able to finally enjoy my success, and to use it as a form of self-expression.

Leonard Cohen has a line that says, “Do not dress in those rags for me, / I know you are not poor.” When I heard that line, I thought to myself that I had been denying, which was hypocritical. I had been denying, just as that line in that song, I had played down my wealth.

Many people in the rock business [have] their patched jeans and their Levi jackets, which is a comfortable way to dress, but also it’s a way of keeping yourself aligned with your audience. For instance, if you were to show up at a rock and roll concert dressed in gold lamé and all of your audience was in Salvation Army discards, you would feel like a person apart.

Leonard Cohen and Joni at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival | © David Gahr/ Getty Images

Despite how gradual her rise had been and how emblematic of the idea that the myth of the overnight success is indeed a myth, Mitchell recalls the hollowing feeling of beginning to feel separate from her audience by a magnitude of wealth. And yet she finds her peace in a rather Zen-inspired perspective, one where everything that is is welcome as it is, allowing experience to unfold without the layering of judgment. Seen that way, poverty and affluence, like meeting and separation and like most seeming polarities in life, are two sides of the same coin, two dimensions of the human experience, riddled with many of the same anguishes and anxieties. (Henry Miller touched on this beautifully in his 1935 meditation on money, through the parable of the factory owner’s predicament.) Mitchell tells Marom:

I’m still searching for meaning and purpose. You know, people have a funny idea that success, [that] luxury is the end of the road. That’s not the end at all. As a matter of fact, many troubles begin there. They’re just of a different nature.

I’ve had the experience of poverty, middle class, now extreme wealth and luxury, and that’s difficult too.

Echoing Georgia O’Keeffe’s ideas on mental toughness, she adds:

I live in a beautiful place, like it would be a dream place. Many a day I walk through it and don’t see anything… If I have to live with less, I can do it easily. I can live with much less. As a matter of fact, for my nature, it’s too complicated to have so much because I can never find anything. [laughs] That’s a silly little problem but you don’t need that much. It’s a big headache… I like the luxury of having a swimming pool. But if I could have a shack or a tent down there next to my swimming pool, I’d be very contented. [laughs]

But her most eloquent and sensitive articulation of these ideas, fittingly, comes from one of her songs — “The Boho Dance” from her 1976 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns:

You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave
Don’t you get sensitive on me
’Cause I know you’re just too proud
You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance now
Even if good fortune allowed
Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure it’s stricken from your uniform
But you can’t get it out of your eyes

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is a magnificent read in its entirety — a rare glimpse into the inner world of a rare kind of genius. Complement it with Leonard Cohen on the key to the creative life, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, Pete Seeger on the myth of originality, and Carole King on overcoming creative block.

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