Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Purpose Perplex

I was talking on the phone yesterday with my old friend and Fast Company co-conspirator Bill Taylor and the conversation got around to the quality of the public conversation, as conversations these days often do.
We both had the same reaction to much of what we see and hear: It's either way too serious for its own good or way too frivolous for our own good. The stuff that used to be in the middle--serious enough to be taken seriously, not so serious as to put you to sleep--somehow that comfortable middle ground that I always thought of as informed, friendly, lively, intelligent, humorous around-the-coffee-pot conversation has largely disappeared from the American discourse.
Magazines and commentators that try to raise the bar on the public conversation are painfully hard to read or watch. They sound like they are mired in an old-school British debating club. You know you should watch and listen. You know it's a mark of yourself as a serious person that you subscribe, read, watch, pay attention. But somehow, the whole "should" thing is a turn off.
It reminds me of the critique of the Harvard Business Review when I worked there. Ted Levitt famously remarked that HBR was "written by people who can't write for people who don't read." It wanted so desperately to be a "journal"--meaning carrying academic credentials--that it turned into a publication that decorated credenzas: people subscribed to show other people that they subscribed.
Try as you might, it's just too hard to plow through tedious arguments intoned with a solemnity more befitting a religious ceremony. You know you "should," but you just can't.
So you flip the channel and there's a stupid sit-com or a faux political debate with partisans yelling insults at the other side. You can watch a hopelessly inept reality TV show, or read a less-demanding news magazine that gives you little capsule summaries of the events of the week in review.
What we need is that missing middle. Purpose without pedantry. Fun without fatuousness. That missing something in the middle.
What Bill and I both want is something that sounds like your smart best friend sharing ideas with you. A conversation about things that matter. Not an essay. Not a blog. A useful, purposeful conversation that touches on people, ideas, developments, trends that are important to our times. A discussion that is fun and lively.
You know: something like Fast Company in the old days!

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb