Friday, August 10, 2007


(News-Herald, August 9) We like to believe that we live in a culture that rewards excellence, that the best way to succeed is to be really good at what you do. Close, but no cigar. Doing an excellent job is not what gets you a reward in our culture. Convincing people that you are doing an excellent job is what gets you a reward.

Now, one way to convince people that you’re doing excellent work is to actually do excellent work. In some fields that’s often good enough. Engineering tends to be that way, though engineers often get in trouble when forced to interface with other fields. Joy’s large success in peak years arguably came because they were an engineer’s company, letting good work speak for itself.

That ethic is even celebrated in our popular culture. House is a current extreme example of a man who cannot play the game, but is so excellent that he’s successful anyway.

This may be a distinctive difference between professional and amateur sports. When high school athletes square off, the team that does the best job usually wins the game. That’s still true in professional sports—except that the team that does the best sales job has more money and that translates into better players and staff.

In most arenas it is necessary to play the game, to sell the product, to convince others that you’re actually done a good job.

There are plenty of people who hate that part of the equation, turn up their noses in disgust at the smell of politics and popularity contests. They will announce that they don’t play the game in a tone that lets you know they consider that a badge of honor. But if they refuse to play the game and wait for their work to speak for itself, they often end up obscure and unknown. Plenty of artists have died hungry through the centuries.

In fact, the role of patrons in the art world is not just to pay bills, but to campaign and play the game for the artist. The artist paints, sculpts, composes or whatever; the patron goes out and shmoozes to convince everyone that the work really is good.

As much as some folks loathe playing the game, in most realms it’s hard to ignore. Remember Eugene Reichenfeld, conductor of the Wilkinsburg Symphony and one of the fathers of the Kennerdell Art and Music Festival? Gene was a fine conductor and musician, and he was a promoter of the first order, nearly shameless in his pursuit of support for the festival. Plenty of people may have ended up feeling as if they’d been hit by a tornado, but in the end, a woodsy gathering to look at pictures and listen to an orchestra became a source of culture and entertainment for folks throughout Western PA.

The Festival could have just set up in the shop in the woods and said, “Well, this is good stuff, so we’ll just wait for people to come be impressed.” And it would have died out decades ago.

There are certainly people who overdo promotion, who always sell hard even if they have nothing to sell but junk. Mass media shoves a variety of wretched garbage at us. Plenty of folks aren’t just willing to be sold to—they depend on others to tell them what’s good, as if they themselves were incapable of telling excellence from junk.

Playing the game doesn’t always work—New Coke was one of the most spectacular and expensive marketing failures ever. But people who refuse to play the game will often be at the mercy of those who do, and will owe their successes to people who were willing to play the game on their behalf.

It is easy to become bitter about playing the game, perhaps because we grow up hearing that excellence is all you need. Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

In the workplace, a good manager makes a sales job unnecessary, because your best widget polisher may be lousy at playing the game. If you hired him to polish widgets, don’t make him spend time playing the game. A good manager frees employees to concentrate on doing their job without wasting time selling it.

People who play the game well are denigrated as suck-ups, political types who are somehow cheating. But, like it or not, if a tree falls really, really well in the forest and no one hears it, it never makes a sound.

If you’re like me, and not a big fan of playing the game, what can you do? Well, some times you suck it up and sell. And when you see something that is excellent and worth celebrating, make a fuss so that the person who did it doesn’t have to throw his own party. If everyone did that every day, our culture would be almost as much of a meritocracy as we like to imagine it is.

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