Remembering the Definition of Success

    I just saw Steve Jobs.

    Not the actual person.

    I saw him in 2007. I was driving down De Anza boulevard on a Sunday morning, past Apple HQ passing Infinite Loop, and I saw his yellow Ferrari. And there he was. Sitting in his car, small like a man is small in the world, but still bigger than life because he made things that were bigger than just one man.

    That’s anther story, which you pretty much just read and like I wrote, that was years ago.

    This Steve Jobs, the latest movie version, directed by Danny Boyle. Danny’s definitely on my Director-Hero list.

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    Each time I see a documentary about a successful tech guy I feel really bad about myself because I’m 38 and I think about how little I’ve achieved. 

    When I was younger, I was in seminary and I looked up to Charles Spurgeon. He was a minister who had one of the first modern non-catholic mega-churches. He was a paster at 19 years old. Even when I looked up to him, I was 22, older than he was. But, Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was 30, so I figured I was still in pretty good company.

    I eventually left seminary because I got shot by an assault riffle and realized I no longer fit into to any conventional notion of what a pastor or minister might look like, or be.

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    Steve Jobs was written by Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin also wrote another movie, which I recently live-tweeted a viewing of, called The Social Network. The Social Network is about the small snippet of Mark Zuckerberg’s life when he came up with the idea of and founded Facebook.

    Zuckerberg was 19 at the time.

    Every time I watched The Social Network I again felt that profound sense of being way behind everyone else. That is, until the live-tweet. For some reason, live-tweeting the movie gave me a level of emotional abstraction I don’t normally have when I’m watching a movie. I always have that analytical part of me that’s studying the movie, seeing how the director chose a shot or camera movement, why a writer chose this phrase or that. The live-tweet was much more distant than that. I was able to see The Social Network and feel nothing, and in that feeling nothing I hoped that I’d be emotionally cured of this deep feeling of being behind or of failing.

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    Yesterday (for me, it was yesterday. For you, it will be at least 2 months ago because this won’t go live for 2 more months) ALGORITHM reached 2 million views.

    I wanted to launch the sales of ALGORITHM with some kind of event. I couldn’t think of anything. Then, I while I was tweeting with someone, I came up with the idea that it should coincide with the Youtube version reaching 2 million views.

    It did that yesterday.

    In order to have that happen, I had to do a lot of preparation. I’d learned that I needed to form a business. I chose an LLC. I needed to register with the state, the federal government, and even with the city. I got the business license 2 days before the launch. There’s a lot more to that story, but I’m not going to post it here.

    I also had to make sure the infrastructure of www.brandxindustries.com would work so that most of the process would be automated. Based on the views ALGORITHM gets on Youtube, about 11k/day, I figured it would also sell a lot and I didn’t want to be burdened with any work on my part. I’m just one guy and I don’t scale.

    The day before, I redirected www.thehackermovie.com so it points to www.brandxindustries.com/algorithm.

    The day came. ALGORITHM hit 2 million views. The store went live. I also re-enabled ads on the Youtube version that day too. 

    The last time I had a store where digital versions of ALGORITHM was for sale, it sold $3k worth of sales in the first month. That was just a test to see if there was demand and to see what people wanted to pay for the various ALGORITHM-related downloads.

    Yesterday? Crickets. 

    Today? Crickets.

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    I got to the theater where Steve Jobs was playing about 30 minutes early. I wanted to leave the theater, go home, and cry. A lot. Instead I read a book and kept my seat and waited for the movie to start.

    I don’t know what the budget of that movie was, but whatever it was, it went to Sorkin, Boyle, and the actors. It didn’t go to location. It didn’t go to FX. There were a few hit songs in the movie and those aren’t cheap, but I know licensing them didn’t cost what the actors/writer/director made.

    Steve Jobs could have been done without the names and the bigger budget and it wouldn’t have looked much different. That’s not to speak dismissively of the cast and crew. They did an amazing job. It’s just, now days, movies are big, huge, epic. Steve Jobs was not that. The big show in Steve Jobs was in the title, it was entirely about big characters… about a big character.

    There wasn’t much about tech, which is fine. All that stuff has been well documented in the other Steve Jobs biopics and documentaries. This incarnation felt like a really well-directed stage play, which, I guess makes sense, since that’s where Sorkin got his start.

    The only real issue I’ve got with the movie is the ending, but it makes sense too. Steve Jobs was not a nice person and the movie ends with him being a nice person. 

    Everyone I talk to who had any interactions with him, and it’s actually more common than you’d think in the Bay Area, said he was not nice.

    I worked in the shipping department of a company. Paige, the head of the graphic design department, and I became friends. She told me she worked at NeXT, which was Steve’s company that got bought by Apple and led to his return as CEO, and probably also Apple’s return to relevance.

    Paige told me that Steve would have meetings with people. If he liked your idea, he would use it. If he didn’t, and this was far more often, he’d tell you the idea sucked, and then he’d shred you, letting you know the reason the idea sucked was because you had a bad idea because you were stupid and weren’t capable of having good ideas.

    People would often leave those meetings in tears.

    Years later, I heard more stories, 3rd person this time, so take this for what it’s worth, that he would take the elevator at Apple HQ, and if you rode it with him, he’d fire you because you should have taken the stairs to save time and spend it working harder on products.

    I don’t know a single person who has a good story about their direct interaction with Steve Jobs that had anything positive to say about the man as a human being.

    What can’t be denied, what is unequivocally true is that Steve Jobs had taste. He knew the difference between good and bad. He didn’t ask “the people” what they thought. He showed them what they should want.

    When one version of the iPhone came out and the antenna had been built into the outer metal shell of the phone, people would hold it in such a way that the phone would lose signal.

    Instead of seeing that as a design flaw and fixing the problem, Jobs said, “You’re holding it wrong,” and then demonstrated the right way to hold it.

    I’ve wondered for years if Apple is going to have people in it who have taste now that Jobs is dead. It’s still producing products that are far more beautiful than any other company in the world, but it’s my feeling that they peaked with the iPhone 5. Ever since then, things have been degrading ever-so-slightly with each iteration.

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    Memi, my wife, in an effort to comfort me last night, said, “Why would people pay for something that’s free?” I spent the next hour alone in my studio, binging The Flash on Netflix because she hit the Achilles heel of my plan.

    I don’t know if people will pay for a slightly different, slightly improved version of something they’ve been getting for free. A bunch of people have left comments on Youtube, on Google+, on Twitter, and sent me emails asking me when and where they can buy a copy of ALGORITHM.

    My expectations of sales has a modicum of justification.

    Maybe people are waiting for the combo-pack. I don’t know. No one does because no one has tried what I’m trying.

*          *          *

    Each iteration I make in my business model, I constantly have to reevaluate what constitutes success. At the moment, right now, I don’t have the next iteration.

    I’m just sad.

    I feel like a failure.

    I’m doubting myself and my ability to make a good movie.

    With each doubt, with each feeling of failure, a single phrase reverberates in my mind, “2 million views.” It’s not strong. It’s like one of those Buddhist pots that when you tap the side with a small mallet, a pure tone comes out.

    The problem is, I’m sitting next to a waterfall that’s screaming “Money. Money is how to define success. Money is what you need to keep going. Money is the only measurement you need to evaluate anything in this world. Money is why people love Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. As long as you don’t have money, you are nothing and can’t change anything.”

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    My friend Matt Wallace and I are working on Intelligent Design. When I asked him to help me brainstorm the general structure of the show, he kept asking me about how I planned to get distribution. He’s a writer. He makes his living as a writer. Money isn’t his primary measurement of success, but he’s also got rent to pay so it’s always a factor in his decisions. He’s right to make it a factor. 

    He said to me, “I know money’s not one of your priorities.”

    He’s right about that too.

    It’s a hard ideal to hold on to.

    It’s hard to be outside a system, surrounded by people inside a system. As a human animals, we’re wired to be at least partially herd animals. There’s safety in numbers that doesn’t exist when we’re alone. We call it something considerably more palatable to the modern psyche. Companionship. Companionship is part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

    My life is not now, nor has it ever been part of the group. I’ve always been an outsider. One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Never Cry Wolf, “I wonder when it was I became a watcher of things… always looking on while others did things I wouldn’t or couldn’t do myself.”

    Before I was married it was a profoundly lonely life. Now, with Memi, it’s much less lonely, but it’s still hard. It’s hard to know what’s right, what’s good, and what I should do because I can’t use society as a reference for right and wrong.

    I can see that the current system is deeply, intrinsically broken, but to find another solution, to find something else that works? That’s not easy. It involves me crying a lot.

    There’s a big part of me that wants to join the group. But, I can’t compromise. I can’t give up on my ideals. I will not choose the lesser of two evils. There’s always a third option. It’s the road less traveled, it’s the road I’ve chosen. I may die on it. I may starve alone, a complete failure, forgotten. But Mephistopheles will not have my signature on his ledger.

    Sometimes success isn’t winning. Sometimes success is losing for what we believe. And that’s a kind of winning too.