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The Profile: America's wind billionaire & the startup that failed at launch
Labels filter what we hear and can even shape the reality we see.
Good morning, friends!
The late New York Times media columnist David Carr led a complicated life.
When I read his articles in my college journalism classes, he was a celebrated writer whose prose we all worshipped. He was also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who had abused women.
In his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, he writes: "If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking."
One identity labels him a destructive drug addict while the other celebrates his achievements in getting clean. Which one stuck? Luckily for Carr, it was the latter, but there are many people who don't get a second chance.
I've been long fascinated by subject of labeling. There are many labels, ranging from political affiliation to occupation to cultural background to socioeconomic level.
Sometimes, we voluntarily label ourselves, and sometimes society labels us. When we do it, labeling can act as a compass to our values. When someone else does it, a label can be a lifelong prison sentence.
In the 1930s, linguist Benjamin Whorf proposed the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. He believed that the words we use to describe what we see are not mere labels, but they actually end up determining our reality and view of the world.
In one experiment, psychologists showed a group of people a video of a girl playing in a low-income neighborhood. Another group of people watched a video of the same girl, playing in the same way, but in a high-middle class neighborhood. In both videos, the girl was asked questions, and some of her answers were accurate while others contained mistakes.
The psychologists found that people used the socioeconomic status label as an indicator of academic ability. When the girl was labeled as “middle-class,” people believed that her cognitive performance was better. The point is that the truth about her cognitive performance doesn't matter — the way society treats her will inadvertently have an effect.
My whole life I've hated labels. I get extremely uncomfortable when I'm put in a group where other people get to decide what my values are. I was born in Bulgaria, grew up in the South, and currently live in New York. I don’t fit neatly in any one box. For as long as I've been alive, my world has been colored with nuance, complexity, and context.
But in 2020, it feels as though we live in a society that doesn't believe people can be two things at the same time. It's not a matter of ideological difference; it's a matter of sloppy, dichotomous thinking. We want simplicity while we resist ambivalence.
Here's the thing: Labels can lead to tribalism, dogma, and mob mentality. When we crave connection, we join groups in order to feel a sense of belonging. But it becomes dangerous when that group limits what you can and cannot say to the point where you forfeit independent and rational thought. It's worth asking yourself, "Is this my own original thought or have I just blindly accepted someone else's beliefs and thought patterns?"
In a time of extreme divisiveness, the problem is that we don't even give each other a fair chance. When we've labeled someone in our heads as a certain type of person, we have a hard time hearing them out.
One columnist described her experience as such: "Recently at a roundtable policy discussion on a timely topic, the speaker finished a presentation and opened it up to comments. One of the participants spoke up, and prefaced his comments with 'I'm a Republican.' Looking back, I don't even remember what he said after that."
Fellow Profile reader Peter Levin pointed me to a bizarre new startup called SecondBody that aims to change the way we label each other based on our human biases. "We’re quite good at telling who fits into our particular 'tribe'—which was probably a great proxy for threat-level a few thousand years ago—but we’re less good at judging objective truth," the company's blog states.
Many times, our labels are simply wrong, and they can lead us astray. Imagine if you could hear a political candidate's ideas coming out of the mouth of someone of another race and gender. If things (or people) are packaged differently, could we hear them differently?
Labels filter what we hear and can even shape the reality we see. My world could look dramatically different from yours because you see the world in black-and-white terms while mine is multi-layered.
Simply notice how you talk about people. Do you label your colleague as "stupid" or can you accept that they made a mistake — just like how you have before? I've previously written about how the language you speak can influence your mental frameworks, noting that if you communicate often with people who don’t look like you, speak the same language, or believe the same things, you might find yourself breaking out of the egotistical thought patterns so prevalent today.
Social media only exacerbates the problem. We label people as fixed characters — ones incapable of change. So we label — sometimes entire swaths of people — as "addicts," "racists," "socialists," and "criminals."
Remember, every time you slap a label on someone and put them in a box, you filter what you see. You make your world smaller, simpler, and less reflective of reality. As novelist Toni Morrison once wrote, "The definitions belong to the definers, not the defined."
THE PROFILE DOSSIER: On Wednesday, premium members received The Profile Dossier, a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. It featured Matthew McConaughey, Hollywood's 'whiskey philosopher.' Become a premium member and read it here.
THE GLOBAL MEETUP: This week, I hosted 14 city-specific virtual meetups with Profile readers all across the globe. You guys gave me feedback, constructive criticism, and an insane amount of new ideas. Needless to say, Profile readers are truly the most amazing humans I know. We have carved out an awesome little corner on the Internet here, and I appreciate everyone who took the time to join!
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— Hollywood's stubborn optimist [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
— The pop star turned business powerhouse
— The newsman of the year
— America's wind billionaire
— The baseball executive who rose to the top
— The company paving the way for independent creators
— COVID-19's worst enemy
— The startup that failed at launch
PEOPLE TO KNOW.
Hollywood's stubborn optimist: In 2018, actor George Clooney hit a car while riding his motorcycle at 75 miles an hour. When he finally landed on the ground, he thought he was taking his last breaths as people gathered around pointing their phone cameras at his bloody, wrecked body. "It's a funny thing," he says. "I'm not a cynical guy, and I really tend to look at life and try to find the good in everything. But I'll never forget the moment that what I thought might be my last few moments was for everyone else a piece of entertainment.” This is a must-read. (GQ)
"I don't feel like I have to prove anything anymore."
The newsman of the year: Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, is relentlessly kind and infuriatingly earnest. This profile describes Noah as the sort of guy who asks questions and then actually listens for the answers. A person who is just as analytical about racism as he is outraged by it. In a world of extreme polarization, here's how he's trying to lead us to common ground. (GQ)
“My instinct as a person has always been to try to translate what people are saying to each other."
The pop star turned business powerhouse: At 51, Jennifer Lopez has built one of the sturdiest careers in show business as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars and one of the most successful pop singers on the planet. She's had a lot going on — a new movie, an upcoming beauty line launch, an IPO for a startup in which she's a key investor, and persistent rumors that she and A-Rod had been in a bidding war to become the next owners of the New York Mets. Here's how Lopez plans to build her brand into a global business. (WSJ; reply to this email if you can't access this article)
“There is something in me that wants to endure. I feel youthful and I feel powerful and I want to show women how to be powerful."
America's wind billionaire: Serial entrepreneur Michael Polsky has spent the last 17 years developing renewable-energy systems. Wind and solar power are now cheaper than fossil fuels, and President-elect Joe Biden wants to renew clean-energy tax credits. But to get his windmills sited and to transport the wind power to the people, Polsky is pissing off farmers left and right. The irony is that hard-nosed, profit-driven developers like Polsky, ready to bulldoze, litigate and lobby are the key to realizing the world’s clean-energy future. (Forbes)
“If you’re just making money, you can only go so far. When you have a mission, a conviction, you perform on a completely different level."
The baseball executive who rose to the top: Kim Ng recently made history as the first female general manager in major-league baseball when she joined the Miami Marlins. After three decades as an executive with the Chicago White Sox, the Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Major League Baseball, Ng had finally broken through. Here's how she became a trailblazer in the very male world of professional sports. (The New York Times)
“There’s an adage, ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it.' Now you can see it.”
COMPANIES TO WATCH.
The company paving the way for independent creators: Email newsletter startup Substack has paved the way for independent writers with little institutional support. The founders don’t claim that Substack will “save” media, but rather, they argue that their model is a core part of a better, more worker-centric and reader-friendly future for journalism. This profile posits the question: Did a newsletter company create a more equitable media system—or replicate the flaws of the old one? (CJR)
“Substack is not the sort of thing that is going to create a sustainable next phase, but it can open the door to things that we don’t have doors for yet.”
COVID-19's worst enemy: Americans have wielded a mighty weapon in the fight against the deadly coronavirus: Lysol. Over the course of this insane year, Lysol has been one of the few products that’s steadily experienced an unprecedented demand. Lysol's parent company has adapted its lean global supply chain to the pandemic, but it still hasn't quite managed to match supply to demand. “We’ve been very transparent about what we have and what we don’t have,” says Reckitt CEO Laxman Narasimhan. “In some cases, we do disappoint.” (Bloomberg)
“It’s a global supply chain, and it’s not integrated."
The startup that failed at launch: Quibi's spectacular implosion shook the world of entertainment and technology. How could a company with such lofty claims, deep-pocketed investors, and a star-studded lineup of content creators close up shop only six months after launch? "Take the worst parts of Hollywood, bake it into a phone, and that’s what you got,” says Evan Shapiro, who’s produced or created more than 150 shows, including one for Quibi. (Bloomberg)
“When your CEO puts their L.A. home up for sale less than two years after buying it, that’s when you know the writing is on the wall."
This installment of The Profile is free for everyone. If you would like to get full access to all of the recommendations, including today’s audio and video sections, sign up below.
AUDIO TO HEAR.
Bethany McLean on uncovering a fraud: Bethany McLean was a reporter at Fortune when she stumbled upon one of the greatest frauds of our time. “Years ago, skepticism traveled in a very small circle,” she says. “With Enron, there were a lot of smart hedge fund managers shorting its stock leading up to its collapse, but that skepticism had never, ever made its way to the mainstream view.” In this podcast, McLean discusses how to differentiate between vision and delusion. (Link available to premium members.)
Jack Butcher on how to monetize your knowledge: Do you write a book? Start a course? Launch a business? Whatever you do, entrepreneur Jack Butcher says, you need to be able to productize the services you offer. A designer by trade, Butcher has transformed into an entrepreneur who built a million-dollar enterprise with his famous mantra "Build Once, Sell Twice." (Link available to premium members.)
Mary Karr on how words changed her life: Memoirist Mary Karr had a painful and difficult childhood, marked by addiction and alcoholism. She felt lonely much of the time, but poetry saved her. In this podcast episode, she weaves in pieces of her own life while explaining what makes for a powerful memoir. (Link available to premium members.)
VIDEOS TO WATCH.
The world's biggest names on what makes a great leader: Jeff Bezos. Warren Buffett. Oprah Winfrey. Bill Gates. They all reached the upper echelon of success, but how? This interview compilation examines the keys to great leadership. It takes charisma, communication skills, a willingness to fail, and so much more. This is a must-watch. (Link available to premium members.)
Anthony Bourdain on creative freedom: The late chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain said he always detested competent, workman-like storytelling. He embraced the creative freedom and relished the unstructured format of his show. "For me, I'd rather not make TV at all than make competent television," he says. "It's very easy to make a conventional travel or food show. I'd rather fail." (Link available to premium members.)
Jennifer Lopez on reinventing herself: Jennifer Lopez may be known for her artistic abilities, but don't get it twisted: She's a savvy professional that works harder than any of her peers in the entertainment world. And she's done it for decades. This documentary tracks J-Lo's life from the beginning of her career all the way to today. "You're a work in progress until the day you die," she says. (Link available to premium members.)
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