The world has become incessantly noisy, hasn’t it? Each day my normally sunny disposition seems to be further and further clouded by noise, by chatter in my ears, and by simply too many fleeting images for two eyes to process.
I went to see a doctor recently because lately I have felt that I have been grasping at words like they’re floating away before I can figure out which one comes next. The images in my brain have been jumbled around into a mess of confusion, and I’m losing my memories much faster than should be allowed for a near 30-year-old. My doctor suggested that maybe I’m just, distracted.
It is hard not to be distracted when each waking moment is ripped from my possession and traded as a commodity to various online advertisers, entertainment billboards, petition slingers and tp a pair of headphones plugged into an iPhone on shuffle. I feel like I have an exacting lack of…focus.
So, what does the invention of the iPad and the song Hard Knock Life by Jay-Z have to do with a couple of oddly dressed outcasts perched in a dark corner of the swingingest 1960’s London club? The answer, the one I’m looking for anyway, is focus. More importantly, where focus can take us.
Apple was started out of a garage by two techno-geeks, or rather techno-geniuses, in 1976. One of those geek/geniuses would go on to be the most admired man in the world for his laser like ability to separate things that are “shit” from things that are “good” (one of my favorite passages from Issacson’s biography of Jobs). Chalk that up to Steve Jobs and one word, focus. Without his ability to disengage from distraction, to tune out noise, there would be no iPod, iPhone, or the iPad you may be reading this on.
I never imagined the concept of “end-to-end” integration would have a significant impact on my life and be something I actually considered during purchases until I bought my second Apple product. When the iPhone landed I foolishly held tight to my Blackberry and blinking red light of love. The price tag and the thought of using a touchscreen over a tactile keyboard made the purchase mistakenly laughable. Boy, was I wrong. Soon enough the genius behind being able to control what I watched or listened to on my TV from the same device that made my calls, as it has millions worldwide, a true believer in the clarity of Jobs’ vision.
I recently came to admire Jobs for the man that he was, asshole that he may have been. While reading Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs the passages that leapt from the text and impressed themselves upon my brain talked about uncanny focus. A level of focus that few people can achieve. Jobs said, “deciding what not to do is just as important as deciding what to do.” I’d heard that line somewhere before.
Thanks to Steve Jobs, Apple went from being an incidental flare-up on the historical timeline of modern technology, to the most dominate consumer product (and most valuable) company in the world. Focus allowed Apple to create a few great, I mean really great, simplistically and harmoniously integrated products over several shitty ones. I believe my world to be a better place because of it.
So, what does Apple have to do with Jay-Z? Apple did after all help usher in a earth shattering, industry changing revolution. But take a step back. Do you remember the first song you ever fell in love with? My first memory of falling in love with music was hearing Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” I was going on three when the song first hit US airwaves, but for some reason it has stuck in my mind as my earliest memory of music. I know that when I heard it I identified with something about it, and it always conjures up an image of being in the being on an adventure with my mother.
Why does hit music have that lasting impression on us? For some reason the guitar in Rule the World always brings me back to my toddler days. The intermingling of memories and melody creates a special place-market in my mind, and it must have done the same thing in a similar way to millions of others. So what makes a hit, a hit?
Someone a bit more current I admire for his incredible knack of crafting a hit is Jay-Z. Making chart-topping records comes from Jay-Z’s understanding of what makes something memorable to his greater audience. The right beat, the right energy, the right message conveyed through the exactly right words. It all has to come together in the perfect storm of spasm-inducing musical magic. To make a hit happen it has to be magic, pure and simple. Jay-Z’s story telling ability is what got him from Marcy to Madison Square, and from hustling crack cocaine to waking up next to Beyonce.
“…just as important as knowing when something is hot, and knowing that this is the one, is knowing when it’s not,” Jay-Z in Fade to Black. I swear I’ve heard that before.
Jay-Z has said that hits like his multi-platinum street anthem Hard Knock Life come out in five minutes. That’s it. Five minutes, no more than 20 or the magic is gone. Poof. It takes that focus to keep a song from ending up as just album filler.
This coming from a guy with a net worth of over $460 million. The guy who holds the record for most number one albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200. Oh yeah, and he married Beyonce. So whether you’re Jay-Z creating magical hit music, or Apple creating industry leading products, all it takes is a little focus.
In late 1967, at one of the hippest spots in the London club scene, a young American man was assigned the task of capturing the essence of what was en vogue. He was on a scouting mission with then editor of Women’s Wear Daily, and she wanted to test his talent for illustration and his uncanny eye for detail by depicting for her readership what was new on the scene.
Nothing made him more tired than looking at “the swinging stuff” of the day. Let alone having to waste his pencil lead on it. He was more intrigued by a pair of very out-of-place patrons dressed with medieval flair, tucked away in the darkest corner of the disco. He finished the drawings that his editor was looking for, but couldn’t shake his excitement over the pair in their Camelot-inspired getups. He would sketch them feverishly into the night.
That was over 40 years ago, when David Wolfe was a young man escaping a dullish life in cloudy gray rust-belt of Ohio, to become the leading fashion illustrator in all of colorful hip London. David today is very calculated individual who serves as Creative Director of The Doneger Group, one of the world’s leading resources on trend information. He is quite possibly the most influential man in fashion.
What David didn’t know back then was how his spotting of the Middle Ages odd couple would lead to his invention of what we know as Trend Forecasting. There probably isn’t a stitch of clothing in your closet that wasn’t the result of a predicted trend. I like to think of David as being perched over the crystal ball on what you’re all wearing this very moment. You can thank Mr. Wolfe for the comfort of your favorite brand knowing exactly what you wanted when you walked into their store (or shopped them online).
One afternoon I received a rather excited call from David to tell me that he thought about a question I had asked him of how he does it, predict trends that is, and he realized that,
“I was looking through images of Paris [the runway shows] today and just stopped on the ones that caught my eye. I scan through images until one catches my eye…noticing what doesn’t fit. Trend forecasting is figuring out whether it’s a seed that’s about to explode or just a passing thought.” Sound familiar? You’ve heard this before, right?
David’s genius is not just connecting dots that others cannot see, it is his ability to ignore everything that is not important and focus on his vision of what’s next. All predicting the future takes is a little focus.
David Wolfe found his focus through his drawings. When he travelled to runway shows he would sketch the looks as they came down the runway. He would hone in on where the buttons were, where the seams came together, how the look draped. He was forced to focus only on the necessary details and silence the rest.
Jay-Z grew up in the crime-filled project housing of Brooklyn, New York. Seeing the types of “activities” he saw, he had a story to tell. What started out as drumming beats on his kitchen table took shape as freestyles and flows. That’s where Jay-Z learned to take listeners on trips through the hood using lyrical interpretations of his life and times. He never wrote any of his lyrics down, so his focus was on getting it right the first time.
Steve Jobs once held a job on a hippie cult farm pruning apple trees to keep them strong. Through this exercise and various cultural influencers during his growth years; the Bauhaus Movement in art, I.M. Pei’s sense of structure and Issey Miyake’s sense of form, he simplified his world and narrowed his view into focus of only what was important. Oh yeah, and Steve used to practice starting at people without blinking.
David’s focus on fashion, Jay’s focus on music and Steve’s focus technology as it relates to our everyday lives made each one of these laser-wielding geniuses captains of their respective industries.
Of course other factors like being in the right place at the right time or having the right support team don’t hurt either, but that’s another topic for another long read.
In a world where it’s no longer seconds of our lives being lost to distraction, but milliseconds, how can we regain that attention to what’s most important? Is it still possible to separate the shit from the good? Will I ever truly find myself being able to…
I guess not.