Point of Inspiration: Beware the Brackets

The boxes labeled A and B are the same exact shade of gray...It’s March, and we’re all a little mad, of course, but it’s not the NCAA kind of brackets I mean here (although, that said, Harvard?!). The brackets I want to draw attention to are the ones we use, often without knowing, to confine our perception and judgment. These brackets can spell trouble for the creative and critical processes we rely on both in work and play. (In the instance above, we bracket the boxes labeled A and B within their immediate surroundings, and usually fail to see and believe that they are, in fact, the exact same shade of gray.) If you’re ever tasked with evaluating a number of things (pitches, positionings, creative concepts, and the like) you probably assume that you keep an open mind throughout the process and maintain a pretty even hand. Well, a recent study shows that’s probably not the case (sorry!). When researchers evaluated data on decisions made in over 9,000 business school interviews, they found that judgments were affected not so much by who came directly before, as we might expect, but on the overall strength of the entire day, which is, of course, completely irrelevant.

A lot of factors go into how we evaluate ideas and people, and many of them are external to the ideas and people themselves—that’s just life. But imagine someone is an absolute star in the making, but interviews last on a day full of qualified-to-good candidates. What happens? According to this study, our plucky up and comer will likely get scored low simply because of the mental brackets placed around that group of candidates. Interviewers, for a number of possible reasons, are reluctant to give high marks after giving several others high marks (or conversely, reverse all of the above, and a sub-par candidate could be recommended because of a number of preceding low marks). Now, replace “candidate” with anything you’re in charge of making a call on.

Often at fault in these situations is the gambler’s false belief in the law of small numbers, otherwise known as, “they can’t all be heads.” We tend to be suspicious of streaks in what we suppose to be a random series of events—we notice and question it when a coin lands head side up 15 times in a row. By the same token, if we read three strong proposals in a row, we might “correct” for our judgment and double down on the next one, which, when we see it for what it is, is a mistake in judgment.

Surely this is beginning to ring true, at least to some extent. If you’re not prepared to admit that you’ve probably misjudged some things in your professional life, let’s lower the stakes and say it’s just wine on the docket. Have you ever been to a tasting where you liked every single wine? Probably not. And yet, it’s entirely possible to like five wines in a row, without having low standards or a pathetic palette. We just assume a certain ordering of quality will emerge in any set of people, objects, or ideas.

Why should we care about this? Because many decisions we make are folded into arbitrary subsets created by the confines of a day, a meeting, or an attention span.  If we bring these brackets with us to new ideas or viewpoints, we can easily miss out on something good, or even revolutionary. This is not to say we can’t allow experience to inform decisions, but we should be open to the possibility that a streak of seemingly great ideas might really be great. In the end, some brackets are determined for us, but other times, we can, and should, expand them as broadly as possible.

Also, happy March Madness to you!

Point of Inspiration: Jordan XI

Lately, there's been nothing short of hyperbole surrounding a few notions of Michael Jordan. He's turning 50. OK! He's being compared to Lebron James (and vice-versa). OK! I see this as a result of a slow news cycle -- I mean, football season is over. I get it. But examining the vignettes associated with MJ's birthday this past weekend, I was able to glean a point of inspiration that was perhaps less obvious than a career of clutch performances. Or was it? Once upon a time, Jordan was king of basketball and the world was his oyster. The Chicago Bulls had just completed a three-peat. Nike was cranking out Air Jordans (and had been for some time), selling them all over the world to a culture of hypebeasts. The merchandising of Jordan was unprecedented and would forever reshape the world of sports marketing.

And then Michael retired. We know now that he came back (for another three-peat!), but at the time it was unexpected and almost unbelievable that he would walk away, and he made it sound so convincing. For many, it was time to shelve a multitude of basketball memories alongside ten versions of the Air Jordan and wait for the next big thing. But that was before the team behind Air Jordan had a say in things.

Photo courtesy of Nike

 "I started designing the Air Jordan XI during Michael's first retirement — I kept saying he would un-retire. People at Nike gave me a hard time, so I wanted to show those assholes that we could make the best Jordans ever. The XI was the first basketball shoe to have a carbon-fiber plate in the sole and patent leather. By the time I showed Michael, he'd started playing again."

~ Tinker Hatfield

And so it began. Again and again. Hatfield and his design team worked on engineering a shoe they had every reason to believe might never be produced. And per Tinker's quote, they didn't aim low. They aimed to create the best that had ever been designed. Many still argue that the XI is one of the most pivotal Air Jordan designs in the line's illustrious history.

So instead of hanging it up, the designers stuck to their guns and innovated their way to a new solution worthy of production. And as it turns out, it was also worthy of un-retiring. Years later we see multiple athletes now signed to the Jumpman line with shoes and all sorts of gear being churned out for the inner athlete in all of us. One could argue a lifetime of clutch performances, or designs, has risen from the dust of Jordan's first retirement.

Some compelling stats about the seemingly "doomed" Air Jordan:

+ According to UBS, Jordan Brand sales increased 89% year over year in 2012 + The Jordan brand controlled 58% of all basketball shoes sold in the US in 2012 + LeBron James is the top-seller among current players with shoe deals -- Jordan still outsells him 6 to 1

Looking at this story of design and gumption, one might assume sticking to one's guns can often pay off ridiculously well. That's true. But it's duly noted that it doesn't always work out so well -- see any list of other athletes who received shoe contracts that lost money for the labels. It would also seem that we never know where new opportunities will surface. All of this seems to point to instinct. Trust yourself. Trust your vision. At its origin, the allure of  the Jordan brand was all about the shoes. In the end, it became a full line of unexpected offerings, a full-fledged brand. Take a look at espn.com from earlier this week.

They call it XX8. So instead of poking holes in the process, I'm happy to imagine the scene when the team said to one another, "It's time to fly."


Dave Alsobrooks, Partner

The PARAGRAPH Project is a marketing research and strategy firm based in Durham, NC. We are, at times, a strange brew. But this is what works for us — and inevitably, it works for our clients. The types of people who work at PARAGRAPH are strategists, anthropologists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, negotiators, students and builders. Herein lies our value. We are able to look at problems from many different perspectives and apply this diverse point of view to solutions for our clients. After all, if we conduct the same research in the same ways as our competitors, what advantage do we gain? By using old research methodologies in new ways and inventing new methodologies unique to each client’s research objectives, we quickly explore more territory to find insights often overlooked. We believe creativity is the missing link between useful information and actionable inspiration.

Keeping the human in the machine

Tech innovation is the stuff of magic when it presents us with the devices we never knew we couldn’t live without, or when it fulfills our collective geek dreams to see Star Trek become reality. (Now that we have the iPad mini with FaceTime, here’s hoping teleportation is next.) And then there are times when perfectly useful and good technology morphs into something hideous and terrifying. In the case of The Terminator (or, more accurately, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which gave me many a nightmare), machines were positioned to take over the world because of one scientist’s desire to see his research through to its full potential. (If Joe Morton’s character couldn’t have foreseen the consequences in 1991, fair enough, but this wipe-humans-off-the-earth scenario has apparently become so much of a pressing concern that Stephen Hawking recently joined an “anti-robot apocalypse think tank” called The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk.)

A much more common and seemingly benign version of this shift happens when a popular tech innovation is stretched just a little too far. Take high-definition television (or the floundering 3-D fad, for that matter). In contrast to the charming pixelation that we were willing to tolerate for decades, HD has felt nothing short of amazing as a way to make pictures clearer and experiences closer. But the time has come when companies are attempting to make that experience so close that it’s no longer comfortable. Instead of interacting with a story through a filter that leaves something of its world to the imagination, instead of looking at a news anchor through a lens that kindly leaves his or her pores out of the picture, we’re confronted with an in-your-face, never-before-so-intense degree of the hyperreal.

This morning, I came across news that one of the products being showcased at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show is a horrifying ultrahigh-definition television set. New content will have to be created specifically for this device because   it contains four times more pixels than current-generation HD TVs (a difference that would allow viewers to see the veins on a leaf, for example...or on Lady Grantham’s hands, should she go without gloves). According to NPR, only about 50 films have been shot using an ultra-HD camera since 2004.

I can imagine the reasoning behind the decision to introduce this 110-inch monstrosity relied on the idea that people love HD, so extreme HD must be the ticket to even greater success. More is more! That logic certainly applies to some things in the world, and not everyone despises the ultrareal experience as much as I do, but tech innovators are at risk of missing an important trend: the reintroduction of the human.

As a counterpoint to all things glitz, glam, corporate, and mass-produced, many of us have been gravitating for some time toward objects and experiences that are handmade, flawed, underground, and singular (hello, Etsy! hello, letterpressed and microbrewed everything!). The point isn’t necessarily to displace perfect objects completely, but neither is it to only fill our homes with handcrafted goods from Brooklyn. It’s more so to strike a balance, taking advantage of tech advancements while making sure we don’t lose touch with the human condition in the process.

In a December New Yorkerpiece, Trent Reznor discussed a nascent project--a collaboration with Beats Electronics that will launch a new kind of streaming music service as a follow-up to the likes of Spotify and Pandora. The idea behind the project (known informally as Daisy for now) is to offer suggestions to the listener through a combination of algorithms AND expert curation. According to Reznor, there was a need for this type of service because the first generation’s model “has begun to feel synthetic.” In another article, Reznor was quoted as saying Daisy would be a platform “in which the machine and the human would collide more intimately.”

In this new year, I’m looking forward to seeing more projects pushing in that same direction, more thinking that doesn’t thumb its nose completely at technology but that helps us reclaim some humanity in our digital lives.

Meanwhile, Daisy is set to come out in early 2013, and I will be watching The Graduate in glorious, romantic Technicolor on my regular old high-def TV tonight.


Gwen McCarter, Strategist

The PARAGRAPH Project is a marketing research and strategy firm based in Durham, NC. We are, at times, a strange brew. But this is what works for us — and inevitably, it works for our clients. The types of people who work at PARAGRAPH are strategists, anthropologists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, negotiators, students and builders. Herein lies our value.We are able to look at problems from many different perspectives and apply this diverse point of view to solutions for our clients. After all, if we conduct the same research in the same ways as our competitors, what advantage do we gain? By using old research methodologies in new ways and inventing new methodologies unique to each client’s research objectives, we quickly explore more territory to find insights often overlooked. We believe creativity is the missing link between useful information and actionable inspiration.

The Bustle and the Void

Just the other day, Durham moved up in the ranks of Forbes’ best cities for business. We jumped 17 spots, up to no. 14 this year from no. 31 in 2011 (look here and here). For those of us who have lived and worked here for some time, this news may come as no surprise. And here at PARAGRAPH, we’ve talked previously about why our fair city has become such a draw for creative, smart, forward-thinking minds. But there’s one problem with rankings of this sort: While they give our city well-deserved attention, they paint only part of the picture. Sure, these accolades cite all the on-paper, measurable reasons why you (yes, you!) should bring your life and livelihood to Durham. Lower costs of living and of doing business, higher rates of job growth, more educational resources--the stars are all aligned. But Forbes fails to capture what living and breathing and thinking and producing in a place like Durham actually means on the ground, how those shreds of context end up influencing not only the way we grow our business but also our ability to generate good ideas.

Some may wonder what North Carolina has that can compete with the always-humming atmosphere of big cities like New York. In that sort of setting, direct stimuli seem to be at your fingertips every minute of every hour of every day, and (on the face of it, anyway) there appears to be little need to worry about where your next idea will come from. It’s already out there, waiting to be encountered on an afternoon walk across the Williamsburg Bridge.

But what matters most isn’t the sheer volume of stuff going on around us or the collective effervescence that a cityscape can foster. What seems to really count is what you (yes, you!) are able to extract from a space. The bustle of urban life may promise unrelenting inspiration, but unless you’re already switched on, that raw content can go to waste. At the same time, the relative quiet of small-town life can feel absolutely stifling, but there’s a catalyst around every corner if you’re willing to keep your eyes open.

In short, there’s potential for doing good, creative work wherever you live. More than the latent potential of any one location, I'm convinced it’s a matter of how you choose to interact with your surroundings.

It took me up until three years ago, when I moved to Durham, to start believing that.  Even though muses can come in both beautiful and ugly packages, I always thought the latter worked best, and I figured the disarmingly twisted face of the big city was the only place to find things that would spur me to work. I had no doubt that momentous work and personalities did in fact emerge from perfectly pleasant settings where utter triumph and defeat seem to occur rarely if at all. But, so I thought, why put your neck on the line unless there’s something wrong with the status quo that you just can’t stomach? Said otherwise, I thought there had to be something at stake. There needed to be something in my face that left me with no choice but to do, create, act, change. Without a counterpoint, there could be no point.

That last sentiment is something I still agree with wholeheartedly. It’s just that I no longer think there’s one mecca out there where everyone who’s doing anything of importance should be.

I’d be surprised if I’m towing this line all by myself. In our attempts to live full-time in a place of urgency and creative wildfire, many of us keep so busy that we work ourselves into a state of distracted pseudo-productivity, so overstimulated and mentally fragmented that we aren’t able to cobble together anything worthy of an audience. Or, we try to carve out the down-time and white space that will help us bounce back fresh from the frantic nature of the lives we feel compelled to lead. As with anything else, there needs to be balance, but that’s easier said than done. For me personally, the pendulum will always swing back and forth between city and country. Between my three-year-old self running around shirtless in the expansive backyard of our semi-rural Florida home to the three years I spent tracing the streets of Boston, feeling intoxicated just from the buzz of the city around me. From one extreme to the other, I need to switch gears every now and then to stay sane and feel renewed.

But by some stroke of luck, Durham has also turned out to be a place where I can strike that balance without having to run haphazardly over the world. It’s not very often that I feel so anxious that I have to get away for a change of scenery. Here, I’m not crippled by a constant bombardment of tragedy. At the same time, this is not a picture-perfect place where no battles are won or lost, where nothing is at stake. This is a place where real people grapple with real issues, and those people inspire everyone who comes into contact with them.

Right now, at least, the slower-paced life I have in Durham lets me get into a rhythm of work that I can sustain.

Which locale works best for you?


Gwen McCarter, Strategist

The PARAGRAPH Project is a marketing research and strategy firm based in Durham, NC. We are, at times, a strange brew. But this is what works for us — and inevitably, it works for our clients. The types of people who work at PARAGRAPH are strategists, anthropologists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, negotiators, students and builders. Herein lies our value.We are able to look at problems from many different perspectives and apply this diverse point of view to solutions for our clients. After all, if we conduct the same research in the same ways as our competitors, what advantage do we gain? By using old research methodologies in new ways and inventing new methodologies unique to each client’s research objectives, we quickly explore more territory to find insights often overlooked. We believe creativity is the missing link between useful information and actionable inspiration.