After my TEDx Oregon State University talk on February 12th, enough people told me how fervently they were writing down my “Why I Drop the Mic” lessons, that I’ve decided to share my slides and a rough transcript. I’m moved by the amount of response I received in-person and online from those who were there. (And a big thank you to Abi Losli for giving me permission to share her artwork from Instagram.)
The event’s organizers tell me that the video will be available within a month. They believe that my presentation might even be good enough to make it onto the main TED.com site. We’ll see about that…
[Update: the video is now on YouTube, see the top of this post]
No the conch shell is not meant to represent some prehistoric version of a microphone.
I returned from Jamaica 48 hours ago. On a business trip.
And the purpose of that trip partly motivates this talk.
I took this picture myself, and it was the most popular one that I posted to Instagram while away, so I thought I’d start with it.
After all my day job is as the director of a graduate program at the University of Washington in Seattle, where we specialize in storytelling. How do we deliver content that is useful and relevant in this chaotic, noisy digital age?
Well this evening, I hope to deliver something that is both useful and relevant to you as you navigate your own possibly, noisy, chaotic professional lives.
By the way – this was my original cover slide. Which one do you like more?
And yes, “this talk is ultimately about The Beatles.”
I’m going to drop a lot of international references tonight.
That’s because I was born in London while this band were still together in 1969.
To parents who had immigrated from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad & Tobago — much closer to Jamaica than Corvallis.
I bought this partcular record for 50 cents at a garage sale in 1980, just a few weeks before the group’s founder John Lennon was shot in New York City. Close to where I would one day live.
Their music has been my “prime mover” all my life. I wanted to have the same impact they did. To disrupt and define and entire decade.
And to have fun.
This has haunted my professional life very since.
Britain would keep a tight grip on me during my formative years.
So I began to read The Economist magazine – another British product. I’ve been reading it from cover-to-cover since I was 18 so I could get an intelligent synthesis of what was going on in the world.
And this recent issue says something very relevant and useful to all of us: it described an “on demand economy” pressured by technology and globalization, now propelled by entrepreneurs and freelancers. The era that I was born into in 1969 London was going away. A new form of disruption is at hand.
“People will have to master multiple skills if they are to survive in such a world—and keep those skills up to date. Professional sorts in big service firms will have to take more responsibility for educating themselves. People will also have to learn how to sell themselves, through personal networking and social media or, if they are really ambitious, turning themselves into brands. In a more fluid world, everybody will need to learn how to manage You Inc.”
I’ve had a front row seat in professional disruption, and sometimes professional self-destruction.
And that brings us to the title of this talk. A few months ago, a former student of mine who now works at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce told me that she and her colleagues had agreed that I was a master practitioner of “dropping the mic.”
I had no idea what she meant.
At first, I thought it was an insult.
After all, I’m still clearly stuck in the 60’s.
Heck, I named my son after Jimi Hendrix.
But then this millennial explained to me that “drop the mic” meant leaving the room wanting more, after having contributed something deeply meaningful to the moment.
I translated this as “go out on a high note.” It’s something a comedian or a hip hop artist might do if they really nailed their performance.
Even as I prepped for this talk, I caught this relevant Twitter exchange with actress Emma Watson who recently delivered a remarkable address on gender equality to the United Nations.
ANE: “My dad says I can’t be an engineer ‘cause it’s a man’s profession” – what do I do to change that?
EMMA: “Become an engineer”
LACEY: “drops mic”
What more needs to be said?
So I wanted to bring all this together: I realize that I have been “dropping the mic” since I was a teenager.
And it’s an approach that serves as more than ever in these times.
Because it’s really about timely self-disruption.
So in my quest to be a Beatle, or a writer for The Economist, or whatever — and in my desire to deliver RELEVANCE and UTILITY to you, I have extracted FIVE LESSONS I learned from dropping the mic that will also help you reach the kind of success you seek.
Be passionate about something that’s personally meaningful, regardless of what others may think.
This is me in high school, as Vice President of student government.
I had run as an unknown on a whim, but driven because I thought I could be a good leader, while few others thought I could be a contender.
I was. So much so, that many thought I had performed like the president – who never really showed up to do the job.
I thought I was done by the end of the year, but now that I had such a high profile, people asked whether I was going to run for president next year. Others thought it was a GOOD IDEA!
So I ran. And it was clear to me, and everyone else that my heart wasn’t in it. I got embarrassingly DRUBBED in the election.
I learned that it wasn’t enough to want something. It had to MEAN something to me if I were going to pursue it with everything I had. I SHOULD HAVE DROPPED THE MIC instead of running.
Dedication and discipline matter to even earn the right to drop the mic. YOU’VE GOT TO LEARN YOUR CRAFT!
I never finished my undergraduate degree. Two years into it, I was admitted early to law school. On the first day, I was 20 and knew that I was never going to practice.
But I wanted the education and the rigor behind the degree. So I spent 4 years earning 3 law degrees in Montreal and Paris. It was a remarkable trial by fire.
And I dropped the mic right on schedule to go to journalism school in New York City.
All that training and education got me hired before I graduated in a great job at NBC with their flagship Nightly News.
The problem was that I had hit a professional homerun on my first time up at bat. I was quickly promoted, but I wanted more. So I threatened to quit unless they assigned me overseas. I had dropped the mic on New York so that I could pick it up on a larger world stage.
This is a picture of me just before I moved to Tel Aviv so that Hanson HOSEIN could be the Middle East producer based in the Jewish state of Israel.
So here I am with NBC overseas covering some of the planet’s largest stories. I’m living the life of James Bond and reading The Economist magazine.
I win a bunch of awards, and even get stock options from the company.
I’m on top of the world, swept through by circumstances beyond my control – but being in the right place at the right time. NBC wants to promote me and send me to London –where I was born.
But yet, I’m seeing people my age covering the same stories as me with small digital equipment, as opposed to the large entourage I’m responsible for with videographer, sound engineer, reporter and producer.
The Internet is about to hit critical mass – browser wars, video is coming online, more high speed access — and I’m stuck in the past. So instead of taking the promotion I ask NBC to make me their first digital reporter. They refused. So I dropped the mic. And I quit.
I get married. I move to British Columbia. I learn how to be a backpack journalist with a small video camera, laptop and satellite phone.
Hmmm…I had followed my own passion. I had devoted myself to a new craft. And somehow I was now in exile. I even missed 9/11 as a story.
But it was just a matter of time, as I had tapped into the “Zeitgeist” or the “spirit of the age” by believing I needed to learn these new skills.
NBC tracked me down in British Columbia and asked me to join them on a six-month contract to cover the war in Iraq as a…wait for it…digital backpack journalist.
I said yes. And I proceeded to appear on MSNBC and CNBC over 600 times in six months throughout the Middle East. Two years before YouTube was invented.
I had dropped the mic, gone it alone with something that was personally meaningful to me. Now I was telling stories around the world using the next wave of technology.
I would do one more stint with NBC in Iraq, and then decide that I truly had to go out on my own to create the kind of success that was meaningful to me.
I had come up with an idea for a documentary film where my wife and I would travel with our dog to small towns around America to find out why “Mom & Pop” businesses were dying.
And I would film and edit it myself. No NBC machine to support me or to distribute.
I had the idea. But no funding. But then I began to talk about it…a lot.
Through blog posts, nascent social media, and with friends. Suddenly, we began to connect to collaborators, a partner in Toronto and funders and organizations that wanted to help.
That was the only way that we actually brought this homemade film, “Independent America: the Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop” to life.
They myth of the “lone genius” is just that – a myth.
And as an Atlantic Monthly “Creative Entrepreneurship” article observed, the notion of practicing 10,000 hours before you can succeed at anything is now less important than having 10,000 people in your network.
I certainly wasn’t a professional documentary filmmaker. But I had a powerful set of collaborators on my side. And I had the necessary skills
So that’s Lesson #4 in Dropping the Mic: “Connect to like-minded people” – build your network. And don’t be afraid to share your ideas publicly. Your competition could be your next collaboration.
Yes, Independent America showed that I could accomplish something meaningful, and tap a growing interest in social media, personalized stories and non-traditional channels without a large institutional supporter.
But I also knew that as the tools were becoming more accessible to everyone, I would probably earn less in the near future.
So I gently put down the mic and moved to Seattle. I stumbled into a leadership position of small, low-profile program in digital media at the University of Washington.
My eclectic “drop the mic” background in law, big media, backpack journalist, and now digital storytelling made me a timely pick for this position.
Although I was able to remake this graduate program to reflect my own experiences, it was by allying myself with a highly credible, larger institution like the university when I truly experienced success.
Suddenly I was being sought out in ways that hadn’t happened when I was on my own.
My credibility had been boosted by a return to the machine, but hopefully this time, more on my own terms. I even started my own TV show where I get to connect to global influencers such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
So this methodology that I share with you today doesn’t come from deep academic research.
I derived from observing how The Beatles became the Mozart of our times.
Let’s recap my five lessons, as seen through the lens of The Beatles
#1 They had a passion for American rock & roll at a time when Elvis Presley had gone into the army and everyone thought the genre had died by the late 50’s.
#2 They dedicated themselves to learning it by playing countless shows in a very short period of time, especially in Germany. They got really good. (see Mark Lewisohn’s amazing history of The Beatles’ formative days, “Tune In”). Today this would be the equivalent of performing 612 full 90-minute shows – something a regular band might do over 3-4 years. They did it in a matter of months.
#3 They tapped into the “Zeitgeist” of 60’s social revolution, and evolved with the times. They both defined the decade, and adapted along with it. How they looked and what they sang about at the beginning of the 60’s was very different with how they closed it out.
#4 They connected to a manager (Brian Epstein) and producer (George Martin) who would lead them to success they could not possibly have achieved on their own, despite their raw talent.
#5 They leveraged the rise of the long-playing record, live television (see “All You Need Is Love” broadcast around the world) and FM radio – the machine of mass media – to give them a global reach.
Yet when they broke up in 1970, they had only been recording for seven years. They had changed the world with their music. People mourned their demise.
But they were done. They implicitly knew that had to drop the mic. They had learned all they were going to learn, explored all they were going to explore, share all they were going to share as a collective. This is the cover of their last album, taken a few months after I was born, a few miles away from where I lived.
When do you know it’s time to “drop the mic?”
When something new is tugging at your attention and won’t let go
When you’re frustrated by what you once found joyful
When you recognize that you’re no longer hungry and everything feels routine. And that you want to learn again.
And you want to feel again what it means to be in the groove – when it doesn’t feel like work.
So am I going to drop the mic again?
I think I have one more act left in me.
My daughter wants her family to “save the oceans”
Back to that conch shell in Jamaica…
I’ve just co-founded an initiative that may do exactly that with the Prosperity of the Commons International, which seeks to leverage technology and community ownership of renewable resources to reimagine how emerging nations can do business differently. It’s a wonderful way for me to come full circle with everything I’ve learned in communication, law, and global journalism. But I can’t guarantee how it’s going to work out! You never can when you’re getting ready to drop the mic.
Here’s the thing about my so-called career: I’ll never get recruited to be the next VP of marketing of Microsoft. Or anchor the 6 p.m. news.
BUT…I will be asked to start a new company that could change the world. My film will be played in the first class cabin of Qantas Airlines. And I’ll get to speak here at TEDx Oregon State University, which just this week placed #4 in Nerdwallet.com’s “Most Innovative Tech Hubs” in the United States.
So be a CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR; do something that matters to you.
Create an expansive, influential network so that you can collaborate with others.
Nurture your own brand.
While you’re at it…
Listen to The Beatles. Read The Economist.
And if you can – move onto the next thing when you’ve recognized that it’s truly time.
Drop the mic before someone drops the mic on you.