I caught up with CU Broadcast’s Mike Lawson at GAC, who was kind enough to include me in his impressive set of work. If you get a chance, please check out the incredible array of interviews Mike has conducted over the years. He’s a gift to credit unions.
Also…I really do believe there’s never been a better time to be a credit union.
“If you want to make an omelette, you’re going to have to break some eggs”… While in a culinary sense this saying holds true (unless you count Egg Beaters, but that’s another story for another day), it is usually used by those who want to excuse off being a jerk. Truth be told, I know many entrepreneurs, community leaders, and businesspeople who have “made it” by stepping on toes, creating silos, and throwing others under the bus. It can work. I’ve seen it.
If that’s the type of success you seek, carry on. The world of broken business models, every-man-for-himself paranoia, zero sum games, and short-sightedness needs this mindset.
Credit unions, and credit union people, cannot think this way.
When “got nowhere but home to go, got Ben Folds on my radio” became a lyric on Counting Crows’ sophomore release “Recovering the Satellites,” I, like many Counting Crows fans, rushed out to figure out who the Ben Folds Five were. Turns out, there were only three of them. It also turns out that I loved them. “Ben Folds Five” and, later, “Whatever and Ever Amen” became staples of my listening rotation. It’s no surprise, then, that when Ben Folds Five announced in 1998 that they would visit Norfolk, Virginia, I was first in line at the Williamsburg Ticketmaster window to buy a ticket (seriously…it was a physical location. At a grocery store.)
Opening for Ben Folds Five was an “alt country” musician named Robbie Fulks. I had never heard of him, or alt country for that matter, but I was intrigued. As a classic country fan who hated the poppy, Playgirl-model-from-the-city-wearing-tight-clothes-and-singing-with-a-fake-country-accent music Nashville had been littering the airwaves with, it was interesting for me to learn that a musician, and a genre, was emerging to take the industry to task. I loved “Country Love Songs” from the minute I listened to it, and quickly became just as excited to watch Fulks as I was to see the featured act.
The 2/23/1998 show at The Abyss was a culture clash. While Ben Folds and Robbie Fulks were both talented musicians and gifted writers with nearly identical senses of humor, they play decidedly different styles of music. By the time of this concert, Ben Folds Five had broken through to the MTV faithful. “Brick” had become a hit. The lyrics to “Song for the Dumped” were imprinted into their brains. The iconoclastic combination of masterful piano, punk sensibilities, intelligent lyrics, and quirky personality had captured their attention. It was quite clear when Fulks took the stage that very few were ready for a lanky lyricist in blue jeans channeling Hank Williams, Steve Earle, and Elvis Costello. “She Took A Lot of Pills and Died” was met with members of the audience turning to each other with “what in the world?” looks. By the time “Every Kind of Music But Country” was unveiled, heckling began. Jeers of “where’s Ben Folds?” and “who’s this redneck?” started to surface. The smile on Fulks’ face got bigger. Instead of the crowd laughing at the musician, the musician seemed to be laughing at the hecklers. It was almost as if he, and all of his supporters, were convinced “dude, if you aren’t enjoying this it’s your problem.”
In 2005 I had another opportunity to attend a Robbie Fulks show in Asheville, NC, at the Grey Eagle. I had never been to Asheville, let alone the Grey Eagle. And I didn’t spend a second researching what I was getting into. In my mind, I was about to see one of the most talented musicians in the world and any venue that could attract him must be worth checking out. The two hour drive to Asheville from Yadkinville was just enough time to listen to the brand new “Georgia Hard” twice, with breaks for “honey, are you sure this is the right exit?” and “didn’t you just go to the bathroom?” When my wife and I finally arrived, me in my Robbie Fulks “Country Is Not Pretty” shirt and she in my “Old Town School of Country Music” shirt, we doubled the head count. I checked the tickets again to make sure I didn’t get the time wrong. I didn’t. Thirty minutes until showtime…four people in the crowd.
The Grey Eagle was definitely a unique venue–equal parts coffee shop, corner bar, and family diner. With no one to fend off for general admission seats, my wife and I set up camp on a couch right in the front row of the small, but well-equipped, stage. A crowd slowly but surely began to assemble, but by the time Fulks walked onto stage there couldn’t have been more than 50 people in attendance. As excited as I was to be sitting three feet away from my favorite artist in what was seemingly a private and intimate performance, I found myself confused. Concerned. Out of body. It was like I had a favorite movie, but no one else wanted to see it. It was like I was watching the next Picasso paint, but realizing that his work would never be seen. This was the best concert I’ve ever attended, with none other being even close, but I was left more disturbed than fulfilled.
After the show, an audience member offered my wife and I a mysterious beverage in a flask (remember, it was North Carolina). After a few drinks and some great conversation, I was surprised to notice that sitting next to me was Robbie Fulks himself. He thanked my wife and I for sporting his shirts and sipped water while we all talked. My mind raced. “Robbie Fulks is sitting next to me.” “He just talked to me.” “What should I say to him?”
The best I could come up with was “I’m a really big fan, Robbie. Thanks for all you do.”
Sunday, Fulks wrote a post at RobbieFulks.com entitled “audience/no audience that has finally, after all of these years helped me reconcile my thoughts.
As true as it is that artists’ work and performances are influenced (necessarily, and often gratefully) by audience response, or that the roar of a crowd or a good sales week make the cock hang weightier, it seems to me that no artist is a creature of his audience. We don’t exist for them. If no one were there to listen and encourage and clap, we’d still be playing and singing, or would be at the slightest goad, such as a brassy niece coming round and getting your old banjo out of the attic. We are doing it for ourselves. Or we’re doing it for an audience that we don’t and could never have, the fanciful group of listeners conjured by the mind game, “What would I make if I could make what I would most like to hear?”
It reminds me of “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” In one scene of the documentary, Lee talks about when he was about to quit the comics business. Consumer advocate and parent groups had decided that comic books were harmful to kids. They had pressured comic book publishers to strip out anything that, in their eyes, could be harmful to young readers. As a result, comic books became boring, watered down, and uninspired. Stan Lee couldn’t take it any more, and talked to his wife about a possible career change. His wife noticed that the discomfort seemed to have little to do with creating comic books, and everything to do with how he was asked to create them. She urged him that if he wanted to quit, at least wait until he creates a comic book the way he wanted to. That way, she figured, he could get it out of his system. If he got fired, it wouldn’t matter because he wanted to quit anyway. That comic book ended up being The Fantastic Four, and started a ten-year run of creation that saw Lee invent Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men, Daredevil, Silver Surfer, and other classics.
I worry about artists. I worry about what consumers, publishers, corporations, communities, bill collectors, spouses and in-laws do to artists. And while I know that all art isn’t good, or even worthwhile, I know without question that a world without art would be unbearable. Feedback, applause, cheers, and jeers don’t create art, but they can encourage it. They can prevent it. They can nurse it and kill it and feed it and starve it.
And as magical as they can be, creators are flawed creatures. They need and don’t need audiences all at once. The really special ones, though, create because they don’t know what else to do. The really special ones don’t quit because they can’t find their audience, or because someone booed, or someone didn’t buy a ticket, or someone didn’t like their ideas. The artists that make it, whatever the hell that means anymore, have spouses, managers, friends, family, and fans that inject a pause into the inevitable decision to quit. The human brain’s biggest flaw is the desire to make everyone admire its master. An artist’s only hope is that she, herself, can admire her own creations.
Create like no one’s watching. Encourage others to do the same.
Pages down, Alley turns,
The yellowed paper black.
Ahead, lines bring old magazines,
A tired, crooked stack.
She’d buy the line,
Ahead of time,
But can’t quite get unpacked.
Her pen took journey heavenward,
Her soul came crashing back.
Right enraged, left unwound,
She torched three store elites.
A published case of happenstance,
One light too bright to see.
A simple case
Of conscious waste
Comes washing over me.
If imagination conquers,
Goodnight, my dear Alley,
Your opinion’s plain as your aim.
I’ve been dreaming of leaving,
We keep doing,
Write us back to yesterday.
Uncovered the story
Under cover of dark.
Created names out of nothing,
Goodnight, my dear Alley,
Your opinion’s plain as your aim.
I’ve been dreaming of leaving,
We keep doing,
Write us back to yesterday.
If imagination conquers,
Write me back to yesterday.
Copyright © 2012 Matt Davis
All Rights Reserved
My good friend, Charlie Trotter, shared the above video today. Henry is “quickened” by music. Please don’t stop creating things: new technologies, new art, new approaches. You never know whose life you’re going to improve because of it.
Loan terms may not seem very hard to understand for people like you. Chances are you work in financial services. Lingo like points, APR, balloon, FHA, piggyback, PMI, and escrow rolls off of your tongue. You can compare mortgage offers quicker than Snooki can spray on a tan.
Want to know a secret? Most people can’t.
Want to know something else? It’s our fault.
Financial institutions in general offer way too many different loan products, confusing terms, and hard-to-understand (and inflexible) closing costs. The result is the opposite of what credit unions should be seeking to provide consumers: an easy and transparent way to compare and understand loan packages. While Truth in Lending guidelines sought to remedy this problem, the reality is that finding the best mortgage deal is an exhausting, if not impossible, process. It’s easy to blame the lawyers, regulators, and GSEs for this, but we are all responsible. We’ve let legalese, industry jargon, and actuarial tables reign supreme over quality design.
Fortunately, some people are taking action. Maybe the most surprising reformer is Bank of America. While it is far from pretty, BofA’s Clarity Commitment Mortgage documents attempt to improve their customers’ understanding of loan options.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is similarly trying to rethink the way mortgage documents are designed. The CFPB’s “Know Before You Owe” initiative has gone a long way toward making it easier to understand mortgage disclosures (see below).
This of course is only a start. I think it’s ridiculous that we are waiting for others to lead with better designed documents and disclosures. I’d expect innovation in consumer-friendly disclosures to come from credit unions….not Bank of America or a government agency.
The good news is that it’s not too late. There’s much work left to do. Start with your rate sheet. Next, look at the complexity of your offerings (do you need 25 different types of mortgage loans?). Last, but not least, watch as many consumers as possible hunt for a mortgage online…it’ll be eye-opening for sure.
Valentine’s Day is silly. Think about it. Americans spend $17.6 billion on Valentine’s Day (roughly the GDP of Paraguay) for things that say nothing more than “I’m shallow enough to believe that this gift is exactly what my shallow loved one needs to evaluate my love.” The number of roses, or chocolates, or cards someone buys on February 14 signals nothing more than someone bought, bartered, or created roses, chocolates, or cards. Signs of love are more meaningful than that. If it were in any other month, Valentine’s Day would easily be the most ridiculous item on the calendar.
Alas, Groundhog Day exists. And for the past 125 years we’ve looked to a varmint to predict (in the most absurd way imaginable) the duration of winter weather. While to Punxsutawney Phil’s credit most meteorologists fair no better, it is fair to say that cloud cover on February 2nd means nothing more than there is cloud cover on February 2nd.
February’s all about fantasy, it seems. We believe that heart-shaped candy boxes and hibernating sciurids can cure our ills. We believe that an 8.3% unemployment rate is worth celebrating, even though the labor force participation rate is at a 26-year low. We watch Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj live out their deranged fantasies at the Grammys.
For credit unions, the February fantasy that should concern you the most is the one perpetuated by each of us. You know, the one that involves the same conversations we’ve been having for a decade. The cast is made up of the usual players: credit unions that always wear the white hats, mean bankers who victimize all that they come in contact with, and an overreaching regulator that inhibits credit unions’ ability to succeed. While not entirely fiction, this scenario has always been overstated…just like the meaning of twelve roses, a groundhog in Pennsylvania, and macroeconomic calculations that measure the wrong things.
My favorite day this month, and every month, is today. Today, you can stop making excuses and start fixing things for consumers. Today, you can make one more phone call, take one more chance, build one more thing, take one more minute to help a member understand. Today, you can stop waiting for external signs to give you permission to make a difference. Today, you can start building a better credit union, a better credit union system, and a better financial life for those you touch.
That is worth celebrating.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.
(“What does ‘under the name’ mean?” asked Christopher Robin.
“It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and lived under it.”
“Winnie-the-Pooh wasn’t quite sure,” said Christopher Robin.
“Now I am,” said a growly voice.
“Then I will go on,” said I.)
One day when he was out walking, he came to an open place in the middle of the forest, and in the middle of this place was a large oak-tree, and, from the top of the tree, there came a loud buzzing-noise.
Winnie-the-Pooh sat down at the foot of the tree, put his head between his paws and began to think.
First of all he said to himself: “That buzzing-noise means something. You don’t get a buzzing-noise like that, just buzzing and buzzing, without its meaning something. If there’s a buzzing-noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee.”
Then he thought another long time, and said: “And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey.”
And then he got up, and said: “And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it.” So he began to climb.
He climbed and he climbed and he climbed, and as he climbed he sang a little song to himself. It went like this:
Isn’t it funny
How a bear likes honey?
Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!
I wonder why he does?
Then he climbed a little further…and a little further…and then just a little further. By that time he had thought of another song.
It’s a very funny thought that, if Bears were Bees,
They’d build their nests at the bottom of trees.
And that being so (if the Bees were Bears),
We shouldn’t have to climb up all these stairs.
He was getting rather tired by this time, so that is why he sang a Complaining Song. He was nearly there now, and if he just stood on that branch…
“Oh, help!” said Pooh, as he dropped ten feet on the branch below him.
“If only I hadn’t–” he said, as he bounced twenty feet on the next branch.
“You see, what I meant to do,” he explained, as he turned head-over-heels, and crashed on to another branch thirty feet below, “what I meant to do–”
“Of course, it was rather–” he admitted, as he slithered very quickly through the next six branches.
“It all comes, I suppose,” he decided, as he said good-by to the last branch, spun round three times, and flew gracefully into a gorse-bush, “it all comes of liking honey so much. Oh, help!”
- A. A. Milne’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh
Creativity leaves audiences wanting more. It makes us smile. It makes us think. It makes us pause. It makes us cry and laugh and wonder.
We all know this because we’ve experienced it. Think about the first time you saw a Van Gogh, listened to Neil Young, read Robert Frost, connected with Randy Pausch, or laughed with Bill Cosby. People like this don’t just have new ideas, they are silly enough to bring those ideas to life. They are silly enough to create.
They are silly old bears.
Silly old bears have intentions no more grand than molding idea fragments into something real. They’re silly, though. They believe their creations have finite impact. It’s a powerful impact, mind you. Imagine writing, acting, speaking, joking, drawing, or molding from unformed media, and inspiring human emotion. Silly old bears are satisfied with this.
A silly old bear’s biggest impact, however, lies in the way its creation inspires others to create. You read A. A. Milne, and you want to become a writer. You listen to Willie Nelson, and you want to become a songwriter. You watch a Ken Burns film, and you want to become a filmmaker.
This is a long way to say “I love you, Brent Dixon…you silly old bear.”