Our Undefeated Rival
Robby Novak delivered the line as earnestly as he could. He adjusted his jet-black suit and bright red power tie, furrowed his brow towards the camera, and spoke.
“I think we all need a pep talk.”
Millions would eventually watch him deliver this line. Robby's video has now received 44 million views, but who's counting? (YouTube. YouTube is counting.) However, few if any of those millions of people know Robby Novak’s real name. He’s on camera. He’s speaking to the viewer. He’s featured in hundreds of other videos too. But most people know him as something other than Robby Novak:
“I think we all need a pep talk,” said the nine-year-old, back in his 2013 video. The initial, haunting notes from a post-rock song then eases us into the speech. (The song is “Households,” by Sleeping at Last, as the closing credits later reveal). From that first line, delivered in stately fashion in front of a chalkboard, we cut to a sepia-toned wide view of Robby in the middle of a Tennessee high school football field. A few handwritten words slowly appear on screen:
And then, in the most earnest, uplifting, and moving way imaginable, KP delivers his plea to the adult world.
“The world needs you to stop being boring. (Yeah: You!)
"Boring is easy! Everybody can be boring! But you’re gooder than that.
"Life is not a game, people. Life isn’t a cereal, either. (Well, it IS a cereal.) And if life IS a game, aren’t we all on the same team? I mean really, right? I’m on your team. Be on my team!
“This is LIFE, people! You got air coming through your NOSE! Your heart beat…” (drums on his chest) “that means it’s time to do something!”
The video continues for a couple minutes, as the music crescendos to that delicate place between uplifting and cheesy. Later, Kid President concludes his monologue.
“I don’t know everything (I’m just a kid!) but I do know this: It's everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance. So get to it!”
The music reaches its climax, and as it begins to fade out, you hear Robby's voiceover saying, “You’ve just been PEP TALKED! Create something that will make the world AWESOME!”
I have watched this video more times than any other video on the internet. That’s just the truth. I’ve watched this video so much, I can probably recite the whole damn thing, word for word, and re-create it, shot for shot. As a lifelong maker, a self-described emotions junkie, and a card-carrying member of the Sensitive Men’s Club, I. Love. This. Video.
But sometimes, I can’t stand it.
Sometimes, I’ll watch it several times in a row (I’m not proud, but I’m not sorry) before I need to take a break. It actually starts to annoy me — this, the most awesome of videos in this world. And so, I have to set it aside for weeks. Months, even.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Our favorite song, or blog, or favorite follow on social media; our go-to restaurant, or jogging route, or that old reliable dish we like to cook ... they can all stop feeling as awesome as Kid President would like things to be. But for some reason, we seem to forget that reality when it comes to our work. Way too often, we act like the successful thing we've created, the thing that others find awesome about our work, will ALWAYS resonate with our audience. We'd be wise to remember that even the best things we create aren’t sufficient to build exceptional companies or careers over time. Clinging to and routinely repeating “what works” is a sign that we don't understand the power of the opponent we must all face: Time.
Father Time is undefeated.
He is infinity-and-0 in his career. He’s never met a project, a company, nor a person that he hasn’t in some way changed, worsened, or killed. The longer something sits unchanged, or the more the tried-and-true is tried, or the more often “what works" is experienced by our audience, the harder it is for the work to, yanno … work.
Time is the great equalizer. Every team and every individual plays by the same rules. Nothing we do can prevent time from somehow altering our work — not casting an adorable nine-year-old, or using chest-swelling music, or writing a tear-jerking talk track. Not ranking first on Google, or boasting a ton of followers, or hiring the best people, or coming up with a brilliant new idea, or going viral, or winning an award. Nothing is time-proof. As time moves, context changes, and so too must our work.
But does it? And how would that work anyway? Is there a process we can use to be proactive in the changes we make, instead of constantly reacting?
I don't know. Not yet. But I can't wait to find out. Before we get there, however, I need to tell you one final thing about Kid President: He’s fragile.
I don’t mean that figuratively. Robby Novak has osteogenesisimperfecta, which essentially means his bones are unusually brittle. He’s more susceptible to bone damage and breaks than the average person. In fact, in the pep talk video, you can occasionally spot a blue cast on his right arm.
Unfortunately, Robby's condition gave bullies at his school a reason to pick on him quite a bit. Of course, given his message to the world in the Pep Talk video, you might not be surprised to learn that he took a negative and turned it into a positive, through both his inspiring videos and his nonprofit work together with his adult brother-in-law and video producer, Brad Montague.
Just like Kid President, our work is fragile. (This time, I do mean that figuratively. Unless of course you make, like, blown glass penguins for a living, in which case I can haz one? It’s for my 8-week-old daughter, I swear. Also? It is for me.)
Our work is fragile because as soon as we push something out into the world, time begins to change it in ways we don’t control. It’s exposed.
We create our work in the past, launch it for today, and then it's dragged into the future kicking and screaming.
One of the big reasons I’m exploring this idea of consistent creativity throughout 2019 is to challenge the “kicking and screaming” part. What if we better understand what it takes to produce resonant work over time? Rather than getting dragged forward, kicking and screaming, we might take our cues from Kid President and dance our way forward.
Last week, I talked about how we usually approach this problem. (If you missed it, go back and read that blog post version of the newsletter, because it's a vital step forward in our exploration this year.) To summarize what we discussed: Our work often looks like an ongoing attempt to manufacture spike after spike in the numbers. We push all our chips into the middle of the table called NOW, and we hope we win big. Whether or not we do, our next move is still IDENTICAL (crazy, no?), as we splurge on yet another stack of chips and push them all in, once again betting that we can win big NOW. This frenetic, short-term approach has created a culture of shortcuts throughout the business world, and it has bastardized people's understanding of creativity, from an ongoing process to what I call Random Acts of Creativity.
In that article, I concluded that our obsession with shortcuts, hacks, cheats, and one-off creative stunts is actually a symptom. It's not the real illness. The real illness is what happens as a result of our manufacturing spikes: the drop-off.
Following a Random Act of Creativity, we have no system or process to continue arching the slope of the line north ... so instead, it drops off, and we're right back to concocting the next Random Act. I feel like saying to those teams who applaud themselves for creative stunts: Congrats, you manufactured a moment. The moment has passed. Now what?
For all their glorious highs, they've then got to grapple with the subsequent low forced upon them as time passes.
In our journey to push beyond commodity junk and create unassailable work, we agree that consistent creativity is more useful than random acts. But as we push forward in time with the work we create, even with our good intentions, we face the very same issue that random acts create -- because time is the great equalizer. So, the real enemy, and Father Time's weapon of choice?
When we want to build anything great, we do so over time. And few things affect our work over time quite like stagnation, a state or condition marked by lack of flow, movement, or development. Left unchanged, the work we create, the knowledge we possess, and the behaviors we exhibit can all grow stale over time. Without evolving ourselves and what we do, and without re-inspiring or re-engaging the audience, we risk losing any emotional resonance we experienced before.
I call this time-induced decline from resonance to stagnation Emotional Decay.
Next week, we’ll aim to truly understand this issue of stagnation in our work and with our teams by deconstructing the various stages of Emotional Decay. This is my first time discussing the concept publicly, and so I'll lay it all out for you and invite you to give your take. My thesis is that we do indeed possess a way to combat Emotional Decay and to turn the negative affects of time into a positive tool at our disposal. More on that next week.
Until then, remember: Boring is easy. Everybody can be boring. But you’re gooder than that.
It’s our duty to give the world a reason to dance.
So get to it.
You can find Kid President’s pep talk here. While you’re browsing talks, here’s a clip from my speech at last year’s CMWorld that I just released publicly — I’m currently booking events in the spring after grounding myself for daddy duties this winter. Email speaking inquiries to email@example.com.
And as always, you can get a transparent look at my year-long journey to understand creative consistency via the travel log.