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A String of Pearls
Finding your path with perpetual forward movement
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #51.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
This week on the podcast: The disappointment of the open web
Its failings and virtues, Apple’s suffocating pressure, micropayment deja vu, the promise of Post, why Yahoo did the Taboola deal and more. Out Friday morning. Listen here.
I really enjoyed the new Jonah Hill documentary, "Stutz.” Recently released on Netflix, the show is an intimate portrayal of the relationship between patient and therapist. Hill turns the camera on his long time psychiatrist, Phil Stutz, in a chummy back and forth that is a rumination on their therapeutic history and Stutz's unconventional approach to getting patient’s heads straight. The strength of their relationship, supported by shared loss and sense of humor, and set against Stutz’s drive to fulfill his life's mission amid a long battle with Parkinson's, makes this more poignant and watchable than any TikTok variety self-help fare.
There's something about a straight-talking New York therapist that works for me. Early in the film when asked about his approach, Stutz confesses he became impatient with traditional models of therapy which he described as agonizingly slow and requiring a lot of patient suffering. "If I am dealing with someone with depression like that, who is afraid they won't recover I say, 'Do what the fuck I tell you. Do exactly what I tell you. I guarantee you will feel better.'" Stutz is a compelling and loveable character. You want him to be your confidant and friend.
His approach is anchored in a behavioral toolkit and driven by a commitment to forward motion. He calls the idea "String of Pearls." It resonated with me as a pragmatic guiding principle, in life and business. Midway through the film, he explains the idea:
We have to keep going....keep going.
It seems stupid. Isn't that, like, simplistic.
It is, but we want to say,
"I'm the one who puts the next pearl on the string."
That's all, I know nothing else.
That's called the String of Pearls.
That's probably the most important thing, motivationally, you could teach yourself.
You just draw a string of pearls.
There's a line then a circle, line then circle.
Each circle equals one action.
But here's the thing.
Every action has the same value.
This is a matter of identity. "Who am I?"
"I'm not great. I'm not shit. I don't want to look at myself and think..."
I look at myself just in terms of the habits with which I take action.
If there's a failure or a big success, by the way, either way,
You're gonna keep going.
I am the person that puts the next pearl on the string.
Producing this newsletter was a String of Pearls strategy for me. A year or so ago I was looking for a way to combat personal and professional inertia. I felt stuck and thought writing might help. What if I shared one thought a week? I quickly created a Substack and drafted my first note. I did not agonize over the name or content strategy. The idea of "people versus algorithms" came up in a telephone conversation with a friend. It seemed central to the change we were navigating in media and culture. I committed to doing it 52 times, once a week, which I have achieved, mostly. Choking out something coherent between other projects has been challenging, but deeply gratifying. I've certainly developed more respect for the people whose daily job it is to process our world and make sense of it with words.
There have been plenty of moments when I felt like packing it in, struggling to find an idea on a Wednesday evening before an imposed Thursday deadline, navigating uncomfortable memories of chronic academic procrastination.
A few weeks ago a friend asked, provocatively, if I had run out of ideas. I wondered the same. I've certainly published through plenty of self doubt, questioning if my musings were smart or clear enough, too conceptual or of real value to the reader. Brian Morrissey, a thoughtful editor, offered sage council in these moments. Just sit down and write. Something good will come out. There’s always something new to talk about. Don't overthink it. The audience doesn’t.
The process forced me to open my eyes and absorb more of what was going on around me. I am beginning to embrace the lonely agony of writing (on running at pain, see Stutz‘s Reversal of Desire). A growing distribution list and reader feedback provided energy to carry on. The feeling of hitting send each week became a gratifying reward.
If I've learned anything over the years in business, it is the importance of momentum over strategy. Obviously, you need to be thoughtful about where you point energy, but it’s the self perpetuating wheel of momentum that’s the hard part, irrespective of org size. It’s String of Pearls in a business context.
I have long thought of it as the "fastest path to data", which is just about stripping any initiative down to the bear essentials, removing all obstacles—operational, technical, managerial, political—to get a thing in a place where there's feedback from a user. This loop propels the project forward. Not to be confused with Minimal Viable Product, a related but narrower idea focused on stripping a product to it’s essentials. It's this but broader because it's about creating the right conditions and accountability structure to get something done. Embracing imperfection. Sprinting to a point of measurable feedback.
Companies quickly build up layers of management that antagonize momentum. It’s been my experience that old fashioned management hierarchies serve to jam the system with unnecessary positioning, politicking, empty exchange of points-of-view, burying real productivity in a time-sucking volly of meetings. Your VP needs to meet with my VP. The best leaders find ways to streamline process, remove obstacles and enable talent.
There are lots of ways to do this. Elon likes the “ultra hardcore, lead by example, sleep at the office till shit gets done” approach. It’s anti-hierarchical, action oriented and spasmodic. I am sure Stutz would have plenty of observations of the psychological roots of his mercenary String of Pearls approach. Regardless where you put him on the continuum of god vs evil, he has turned organizational change into a spectator’s sport, with business leaders inside and outside of tech quietly cheering as he dismantles Twitter’s ponderous and entitled working culture.
I find his transparency around product and policy decisions refreshing. It was cool to see the deck from the Twitter all hands laying out product ambitions in black and white, liberating to see what seemed to be a vastly complex system and organization stripped down to simple feature aspirations and a new, public commitment to forward motion. But for god sakes Elon, don’t become the “My Pillow guy” of tech. You’re better than that.
The Elon / Twitter vibe is surely influencing the organizational mindset inside of tech, media organizations and beyond as management grapples with a more hostile economic reality. The platforms and Silicon Valley broadly have long had a profound effect on the way we construct modern work environments. A side effect of wildly lucrative platform economics has been a talent war, over hiring, bloat, salary and benefit appreciation that have rippled across industries, particularly those competing for product and technical talent.
I wanted to learn more about Stutz so I downloaded his book "The Tools," and over the past few days, I've tried putting some of his practices to the test. Like the idea of "The Grateful Flow" wherein you confront negative thinking by imagining a list of things you are thankful for, then slowly letting the positive energy surround you. I found the exercises useful. I suggest you watch the doc first. If it moves you, go deeper on the site. It gets a little west coast flakey, but ignore that. It's a sensible approach to managing the negativity of a chattering mind. Practical spirituality.
Something strange happened that connected Stutz and this newsletter on the day that we all are asked to reflect on the things for which we are grateful.
We were determined to play a little tennis in Brooklyn on Thanksgiving morning.
My brother-in-law, daughter's boyfriend and I jumped in the car to find a court, only to realize we didn't have decent tennis balls. We drove past Target but it was closed. I texted a couple of friends. Nothing. In a last ditch effort, I opened Google Maps and typed in "tennis balls near me."
Google listed a few stores, all closed, and a number for some Brooklyn tennis service that appeared to be open. I called. Google Voice answered and forwarded my number. The proprietor called me back in two minutes. He was a couple miles away and near the courts, had balls and took Venmo. We rushed over, met him outside of his apartment building, grabbed his last three sleeves and wired him eighteen bucks.
As I was walking back to the car, the friendly tennis ball seller called out, "are you Troy, media Troy?" I paused at the open car door, "I dunno, I guess so." He replied. "I read your newsletter and listen to your podcast. They are really great." Or something like that.
What a wonderful thing to hear in the most unlikely places on the way to play tennis on a perfect sunny Thanksgiving day in Brooklyn. Surely a moment to be grateful for.
Have a great weekend.../ Troy
Signing off with the original funk queen…
Betty Davis, All Music:
Funk vocalist, songwriter, and producer Betty Davis was artistic and sexual liberation personified. Uncompromising, unfiltered, and ahead of its time, her small body of work consequently made little commercial impact but gradually found a wider audience. She released her first recordings as Betty Mabry in 1964, had a profound effect on Miles Davis -- to whom she was briefly married -- and is known most for her progressive left-field funk albums issued the following decade, namely her self-titled debut and the charting (and fittingly titled) They Say I'm Different and Nasty Gal. So unbothered by mainstream acceptance was Davis that much of her studio work remained unreleased until decades after the fact. Well before her death in 2022, Davis became an enduring influence heard in the output of artists ranging from Millie Jackson to Prince, from Macy Gray to Beyoncé, and from R&B balladeers to hardcore rappers.
Betty: They Say I'm Different. Watch the doc on Amazon Prime.