Bold as Brass

For weeks, I’ve been musing about what it means to be bold today.  If you think this task has the potential to snowball into an awkwardly grandiose endeavor...well, you’d be right.  And so, I’ve also been thinking about how to avoid that problem: It’s usually helpful to ask smaller, more pointed questions, seek fewer ostensibly comprehensive answers, and look around to see what’s in the air.  All good tactics for evading pointless speculation, and for achieving something concrete and timely. I suppose I’m a product of my experiences, and after all my years in school studying cultural difference, it’s clear that what I’m really interested in is not the definition of boldness, but rather how boldness gets enacted in the world.  (If you have anecdotes of your own, post ‘em here!)

You see, this whole thing started a little while ago when friends of ours asked us to name a few of the Triangle’s boldest leaders.  And what made that question interesting to me was the difficulty I had answering it.  Of course, some aspects of boldness never seem to change: courage, defiance, and a rare ability to shake things up in a way that inspires others to do great things, too.  But it also feels as if talking about boldness has become a more perplexing task.

Why?  Simply put: because it’s easier to give the impression of being bold today without actually delivering.  And as a result, the purpose of boldness has become murky.  More than anything else, what’s missing is a greater emphasis on action.  If there’s one sure thing about boldness, it’s that no one will know you’re a bold thinker if you aren’t a bold actor, too.

To illustrate the point, we need only think about noise.  Chatter.  A veritable din.  We live in a society where more people are free to voice their opinions than ever, and everyone with Internet access also has a soapbox within reach.  In many ways, this democratization via technology is empowering.  And as Malcolm Gladwell wrote last October, it's not our imagination that social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and various blogging platforms are “making it easier for the powerless to collaborate.”

But Gladwell also warns against mistaking online activity for real-world action.  The digital setting is often confusing because boldness online can feel both satisfying and effortlessly productive.  If we want use the example of activism, social movements that grow online can amass a follower base of millions.  All the same, the palpable impact of those virtual efforts can be an entirely different story.  Gladwell happens to cite the Save Darfur Coalition’s Facebook page as one place where participation is high but commitment and investment are relatively low (he puts group membership at nearly 1.3 million and the average donation at 9 cents).  But the same could be said of a number of other initiatives -- social media-based or otherwise --  that don’t or can’t place enough emphasis on backing their bold online campaigns up with tangible follow-through.

So, for most everyone, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a little more time in action.  At the same time, a single bold act cannot be your end game; it needs to be well conceived as part of a larger strategy, supported by other, more sustained initiatives.

For example, when it comes to bold fashion statements, the trick is to be arresting.  Inciting people to discourse is a good thing.  But that type of boldness still can’t stand on its own.  There has to be more depth.  Think about Lady Gaga’s raw meat dress from last September.  That garment has earned its keep in the popular imagination -- for better or for worse -- but it’s not all the Lady herself has to offer.  It’s just one part of her public persona that is also comprised of hit songs, popular music videos, and sell-out live performances.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that boldness needs a purpose.  Being bold for its own sake might sound like a positive thing, but it should make sense in the grand scheme of your personality -- or your brand’s personality, for that matter.  Today, seizing someone’s attention with a stunt is not enough.  You have to get people talking, get them moving, and keep them that way.  So go ahead and experiment with being bold, but make sure you can keep the revolution going.