Gestalt: The Truth Springs Eternal

The philosophers have said for millennia that there is "nothing new under the sun," but we who think of ourselves as revolutionaries of any sort delude ourselves into believing we are all about the "new." Like most absolute statements, neither is entirely correct. The Internet, and its ability to empower individuals with total control of their media and communications experiences, is profoundly new. At the same time, it never ceases to amaze me that some of the coolest innovations are, at their essence, simply taking existing needs and behaviors and rendering them faster, cheaper, more efficient, more beautiful, or more convenient than before.

People, after all, are people. Read Charles Pellegrino's book on Pompeii, Ghosts of Vesuvius, and you'll see how much more in common we have with the folks from 2,000 years ago than we might think.

There is a wonderful wisdom in understanding that there are fundamentals in human nature in terms of how to motivate people and how to get things done. The arrogant and the foolish take no heed of these fundamentals. But the great online innovators would do well to take heed of predecessors who might teach them.

We lost one such teacher in Phil Merrill this summer  one of the great local newspaper and magazine publishers of Washington, D.C. Merrill left behind a great legacy. Brash, intelligent, provocative, completely honest, and self-deprecatingly funny, Merrill never lost his childlike enthusiasm and curiosity. He made a fortune in the media world and gave most of it to charity.

"I have a 41-foot boat, I don't need an 81-foot boat. It's payback time," he was famously quoted. He gave millions to conservation; he helped build the best new-media-focused journalism school (The Philip Merrill College of Journalism at University of Maryland); he built education centers for public service. He even served six presidents during his career.

Merrill was not a "new media" guy himself, but he followed the threats and opportunities in the evolving mediascape with great interest. And he could always cut through the hype to get to the essence of what was really happening.

He was, among many things, a teacher. His "Merrillisms" are both legion and legend, and they're as relevant to us in new media as they were when they served his efforts with print publications. Here's a sampling:

  • Two key actions: 1) Set an objective and take steps toward reaching it; 2) Extract promises and hold people to them.
  • Don't announce a change, just roll it out; any decision is better than no decision.
  • You don't do anyone any favors by keeping people with outdated skills around.
  • Pay close attention to every person coming on the payroll. The good ones are keepers. The bad ones can be dismissed. The mediocre ones will stay forever and kill you. Mediocrity is the great enemy.
  • It's better to have someone with too much fizz than not enough; you can restrain the former, but you can't add fizz to the latter.
  • It's always the manager's fault when an employee has to be fired; it means you hired the wrong person.
  • Power and responsibility flow to those who assume it.
  • The size of the person determines the size of the job.
  • Running a place isn't technical; it's about simplifying.
  • Half of life is analytical; half is judgmental. But you have to do the analytical before you have the right to do the judgmental.
  • You aren't thinking clearly if the issue can't be summarized in a paragraph, chart, graph, or column of numbers.
  • When someone seeks your advice, try to give them advice in their best interests, not yours.
  • Call the losers. No one else may be calling them when they're down, and they'll remember the courtesy when they're back on top.
  • There are only so many sunny skiing and sailing days in a year; every one counts.
  • Kids should be encouraged to break a rule every day.
  • You'll do better in the short run if you do what's best in the long run.
Next story loading loading..