“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” — Greek Proverb
How The West Was Won
Can a single piece of advice influence the course of someone’s career? In the case of Grammy-nominated and multi-platinum selling rapper Jayceon Taylor aka The Game, the answer is yes. A decade-old confrontation between Taylor and hip hop mogul Shawn Carter aka Jay Z inspired a competitive streak in Taylor, who would go on to build an entire career predicated upon the reconfiguration of hip hop’s landscape. It all began in the summer of 2003, when the up-and-coming West Coast rapper was freshly signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment imprint. Ambitious and hungry for guidance and inspiration at the start of his career, Taylor was excited to notice Carter seated comfortably at the 40/40 Club one night. The wide-eyed student approached the elder statesman of the game with an honest question:
“How do you stay relevant?”
Carter, presumably the king of New York (hip hop’s capitol at the time) obnoxiously dismissed the rising artist’s question with a characteristic cockiness:
“Most of you new rappers won’t last long anyway, maybe you should think of another lane.”
A single piece of advice, outright dismissal. A brief moment of Jay Z’s time. No one could’ve imagined that it would influence the course of The Game’s entire career. Over the next six years, The Game made it his single purpose in life to elbow his way into hip hop’s inner-circle. With each diss track, attention slowly shifted away from the tired and fragmented East Coast establishment to the West Coast resurgence. Taylor first kicked Ja Rule while he was down. He then broke 50 Cent, and subsequently dismantled G-Unit. He ultimately began taking shots at Jay Z - the last of the titans, the very man who spurned him. And when Carter finally fired back in 2009, it was already too late. Nothing was the same; the game had changed — New York lost it’s footing, a new king was crowned and the West was won.
The Success Trap
If you’ve achieved any modicum of renown and reputation in your career, then chances are you’ve also received the privilege of having those in periods of professional transition look to you for guidance, insight and mentorship. It’s a deeply humbling and rewarding experience. I remember when people first began looking to me for advice, I had all the time in the world. But success and capacity often share an inversely proportional relationship. With each career milestone, my inbox clogged up, my response times lagged and my calendar grew packed. And the more success I achieved, the more I began to close myself off. In the ironic words of Jay Z:
The circle got smaller
The castle got bigger
The walls got taller
The downside of continued success is how guarded you become with your time, energy and attention. At some point, a survival instinct kicks in - an inevitable reflex that leads you to turn down coffee requests, push off lunch meetings and delete unsolicited emails from people trying to make it in the game. Over time, my capacity for mentorship had deteriorated. But at a recent awards ceremony, I received a rude awakening. A bright young man — let’s call him Brian — called me out for failing to reschedule a coffee date…for an entire calendar year! I was disappointed in myself. Did I really become that person? Somewhere on my journey, I lost sight of the fact that once upon a time, like Brian, I was a beginner. And all I wanted from those who were making it happen, was a bit of advice.
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” — Pablo Picasso
In 2009, I wanted nothing more than to work at a digital agency. On the eve of graduation, I searched high-and-low for a firm that was big enough to compensate me, yet small enough for me to to grow with. After getting rejected by nearly 100 firms, I stumbled across Goodbuzz. A modest firm with smart people, big clients and even bigger ideas. I recently came across an email exchange between myself and their Director of Strategy at the time, Andrew Giles. Not only did the email thread partially inspire this post. It in fact influenced the course of my entire career.
Below is an unedited transcript of our exchange. Warning: This ain’t politically correct…This might offend my political connects…
My name is Hamza and I’m a 22 year old student at the University of Toronto, currently completing the final semester of my undergraduate studies.
And I’m feeling bitter-sweet about the future.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve been very fortunate to have secured stable employment well in advance of entering the volatile post-meltdown job market. Solid mentoring and constant investment in personal & professional development, coupled with a relentless work ethic and an unbridled passion for marketing, has enabled me to lead a team of 10+ student staff (marketers & designers) as the Coordinator of Marketing & Design for the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Student Life. And just a few days ago, I was thrilled to have been recruited by the University’s Department of Marketing & Communications as a Social Media Consultant. My supervisor remarked that I had made myself “invaluable” to the organization.
To be regarded as such in an organization of this stature is extremely humbling. But this isn’t what I truly want. For I find myself more-or-less where I was two years ago as a wet-behind-the-ears Marketing Intern at Sony Music Entertainment Canada; where my creativity and enthusiasm was largely hampered by a limited scope of work and a laggardly approach to change in the face of a rapidly evolving marketing environment.
So you can only imagine how frustrating this must be for someone who idolizes visionaries like Seth Godin, Rohit Bhargava & Chris Anderson, and voraciously consumes publications and lectures by them and others on topics such 360 degree digital experiences, social media metrics, word-of-mouth marketing, etc. I don’t see myself lasting very long in the University environment.
With them, I will likely earn a decent salary, convenient benefits and subsidized education. But my creativity will die a slow death there. I’ve realized that I need to be able to synchronize my passion and enthusiasm with my work; I need there to be no dichotomy between my thoughts and my actions. I need to feed my entrepreneurial spirit. I want the thrill of building something. I want to be at the forefront of innovative marketing. I want to be in a place where people don’t say “no” but instead “how can we…?”. I need to be part of a team of leaders and innovators. And I simply can’t work in the same industry for the rest of my life. I need to work with a wide variety of clients, from a wide range of industries; I want to solve new and complex marketing problems. I need to be challenged.
I can’t resist but sound clichéd here when I say that Goodbuzz is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for all my life. If I hadn’t discovered Goodbuzz, I would’ve likely gone on to create something identical. This is all so surreal. And so, Andrew, I would like to take up your offer — I will gladly exchange my talents with you in return for the chance to let me build Goodbuzz with you, side-by-side. I want an agency that I can call my own.
Kindly review my attached resume and let me know if and how I can be a part of the Goodbuzz team. And if I can’t, please let me know what skills or experiences you’d like me to acquire to be a part of your team in the near future. I will work hard and fast to acquire them in the hope that I can begin my real career with you. I can’t see myself anywhere else but Goodbuzz.
I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
It’s safe to say, I threw myself at the opportunity (kids nowadays might describe my approach as “thirsty”). Despite my eagerness, I was rejected. I was too inexperienced. I lacked trajectory. At the end of my ropes, I still went ahead and asked Andrew about why I wasn’t selected.
I didn’t expect to hear back from Andrew. Like the countless other requests I made for a follow-up, or application debrief, I anticipated that Andrew was too busy for me, that I wasn’t important enough to warrant a reply.
You can imagine my surprise when I received this rather lengthy response in my inbox:
I completely appreciate the note. Funny as I would have likely done similar. ;)
Here’s the challenge. We just started Goodbuzz and everyone’s client billable right now. More to the point, if I had a need for a copywriter on a project right now (just as an example) — -with the clients we’re working with, I could not put someone Jr. on it. I personally negotiate rates and the differentiation we promise is that each and every engagement will be supported by seasoned vets. And, truth be told, you MAY perform as good a job as anyone else (or better) — -but the unfortunate reality is that we are not in the “reality” game. We are in the “perception of reality” game. We are at the whim of the market’s perception of need.
For what it’s worth, just given your energy alone — -if we had the bandwidth at a more junior level, we’d bring you on. We pitched a number of large accounts before the holidays (one of which has a $800k + budget for social media), so if anything opens up where we can offer you something tangible, I will contact you.
The other thing I wanted to pass along (which no one did unfortunately when I started in advertising) is this. There are so many factors involved, and we’re all just human. We try our best. I say this because, you’ll need thick skin to stay in advertising. My New York days as Head of Content Strategy at Razorfish — were closer to the antics in the TV show MAD MEN — -then advertising per se. You just need to learn the craft, and NO matter how great you get at any part of this — -Advertising is ALL about the clients. Meaning, if the client likes you and wants you working on their account — -you could be the biggest ass in the world (I’ve seen it) and you’ll never be out of work. Lose the account and you’ll go with it. ;) There’s not much love lost.
I’m not sure whether I’m making my point, but what I would humbly suggest you focus on right now is the PR 2.0. side of Social Media. Seeding content, identifying influencers, astroturfing, and driving word of mouth online via Influencers. Get your head entirely around SIM Social Influence Marketing. This is a skill that takes time and no one’s great at the beginning (but an area where you can compete for work against anyone else). I would also suggest reading thoroughly http://fluent.razorfish.com/publication/?m=6540&l=1
If you can develop this skill, I’ll find you some client hours. Not full-time, but it’s a start. ;) Hope that helps.
Thank Me Later
A single piece of advice. A brief moment of Andrew’s time. That’s all it took to change the course of my entire career. In hindsight, Andrew’s gesture is what my friend Drew Dudley refers to a Lollipop Moment — when something you’ve done has made someone else’s life fundamentally better.
He may not have considered the extent to which his email would be as impactful as it was. And if he did, his foresight is commendable. Looking back, there were many things about Andrew’s gesture that worked for me. The email probably took him no more than 20 minutes to write, but it effectively steered the course of my professional career for years (and years to come). Andrew’s thoughtful response was crucial for the following reasons:
- I needed acknowledgement. Andrew’s response was one of a handful that I even received to begin with. He validated what I was feeling and recognized my energy and enthusiasm. I felt like I mattered.
- I needed confidence. His suggestion that he would’ve hired me in other circumstances was very validating and offered a much-needed confidence boost. I felt like I had what it took to make it in the world.
- I needed guidance & support. He didn’t give me an outright no. And he didn’t just apologize - he provided me with feedback and next steps to one day work at Goodbuzz. I felt like I belonged.
I hung onto Andrew’s every word. And I did everything he suggested. I studied, I worked, I practiced, I learned. And now here I am, five years later, doing everything I wanted to do at age 22, to the degree I’ve always dreamed of. In fact, I’m the co-founder of a digital agency which specializes in the very things Andrew pulled from his crystal ball. And all it took was a small fraction of someone’s time, energy and attention - someone who had walked the road, and had seen the way. Late last year, I became extremely protective of my time. I even publicly proclaimed that I wouldn’t be taking any more coffee dates. It wasn’t cockiness, it wasn’t arrogance. Far from, it was a desperate plea to regain control of my time. Truth be told, things aren’t any better — I’m busier than ever before, with no sign of things slowing down. But I have to constantly remind myself that I wouldn’t be enjoying any of this success without the advice imparted to me by mentors. And so I have to question why I’m filing requests for coffee dates into my “reply later” folder and conjuring up excuses to not meet for coffee/drinks and stay longer at networking events. Is it because I don’t have the time? Is it because I don’t have the energy? Is it because I’m so far gone?
These days, I think a lot about what could’ve happened if Andrew kept his thoughts to himself. Sure, he’d have more time. Sure, he’d have more energy to resume whatever it was he was working on. Heck, he’d have one less competitor today. But where would I be? Who would I be? What would I be doing?
What’s the point of not being generous with your advice?
“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.” — Italian Proverb
It’s Not About You
Wisdom is the byproduct of time, experience and reflection. If you’re in a privileged position to share your wisdom with someone in a period of professional transition, please give — and give generously. As it is, far too many people pass through this world without finding their gift. All that people sometimes need is a little nudge and a bit of realignment. So to all my peers, please don’t get caught up in the myth that taking time out of your calendar is somehow going to derail your mission. It’s fallacy — no, it’s arrogant — to think that your life’s work ends when you do. Do you want your mission to continue after you’re gone? Then make more time for the people who will carry on your life’s work. Just as your success is built upon foundations laid by those before you, so too is the next generation’s.
I’ve been adamant this year, and moving forward, to never say no to someone wanting personal, professional or academic advice. I might defer the meeting, or I might suggest an alternative method of communication. I’m going to write more, speak more, share more. I’m going to continue to support my friends at Ten Thousand Coffees and the Tri-Mentoring Program. I will make mentorship a non-negotiable priority in my life. I’m going to reframe how I see the time and effort spent towards this priority as less of an expense, and more of an investment.
The Game Has Changed
A driving force in reclaiming the former glory of West Coast hip hop, The Game has consistently taken shots at Jay Z on his ascent to the pantheon of hip hop greats, and continues to do so just for sport. In many ways, The Game can be credited with opening the lane for hip hop’s true heir apparent, the leader of the new school: Kendrick Lamar - a man who will reign over the game for the next generation. I sometimes imagine what hip hop would’ve looked like if on that summer night in 2003, at The 40/40 Club, Jay Z sat The Game down and said, “Here, have a drink. Let me tell you how I did it. This is the blueprint…” Would The Game be as hungry? Would 50 Cent still matter? Would New York still be the epicentre of hip hop? Would the West Coast feel like outsiders? Would Dr. Dre be as inspired? Would we be blessed with Kendrick?
PS. I never got a chance to thank you, Andrew. Look out for a coffee request soon.