Saturday, August 20, 2011

1.7: A Single Adversary

Paul: Public education in America has devolved so much since I was a boy and I didn't even grow up in anything remotely resembling a golden age.  I start here to state that I have no idea if what I'm about to describe is a shared experience by the younger crowd.  One of the most detestable phrases I would hear from the mouth of a teacher in school was "Let's split up into groups."  This was the portion of the class when the worst students would be given the power to drag everyone else down to their level.  It was a valuable life lesson and in my adult life I can see that many have taken it to heart.

The teacher would split us up into groups and assign a group project.  I, actually being engaged with the world around me and enjoying learning, would be excited by the project concept.  The other three students would instantly smell this on me and decide that I would do all of the work.  At this point I had one of two options to choose from.  Either I could climb a mountain with a dead human centipede shackled to my ankle or I could move the game-play to a stalemate, refuse to do all of the work, and thereby scuttle the whole thing dooming us all to failure.  I'm afraid the frequency and predictability of these projects eventually lead me to more often choose the latter.  Again, the early fire of passion for learning duly quenched by the public education system.

In the public education system, attendance was pretty much the only necessity and often the only contribution by many of my peers.  This is a side effect of a society so focused on the accumulation of goods or money that anything that doesn't immediately scratch that itch is viewed as worthless.  In the context of the contest that Laurie and I watching here, of course, the incentive is the promise of gaining the work-life of your dreams.  This week, we are given a study (in the manner of the Stanford Prison Experiment) in teamwork and leadership.

Of course, leadership is necessary.  We can't all be lone wolves.  Sometimes we have to be pack wolves to be able to take down mastodons, distracting the swinging tusks by biting the hind legs while the more intrepid wolves go for the jugular, feeding the pack off the blood of the innocents for many days.  There is a behavioral chart that's been floating around in psychological circles for many decades now which looks similar to this (actually it is usually more of a graph on which one can plot points, but our Open Office software can't make one of those.  This will serve for the purpose of illustration):

Yes, I made a pie chart for our Project Runway blog.  In the top left is the Dominant Aggressive type (Klingons, Caligula, drill sergeants.)  Upper right is Dominant Passive (type "Earth Mother" into Google image search.)  Lower right is Submissive Passive (Eeyore.)  Lower left is Submissive Aggressive (Jerry in accounting who corners you for like half an hour every day to complain about other people that you have work with.  Or, ad rem our project, the character of Wendy Pepper as portrayed by this highly edited television show. [Laurie:  Thankfully for all involved, Wendy was never placed in a position of leadership. I think, however, had she would have taken the blue pie.])  Paul:  Most of us do a little of all of these in the course of our daily lives, but most of us also have a default in which we usually live.  A "game" you can play is to observe yourself in your daily interactions (with your boss, your mother, clerks and waiters, clergy, etc.) and see with which of these behaviors you are reacting to the external stimuli.  You may even get to the point where you can change it at will and improve your life.

I haven't.  But you may.

As for leadership styles, probably not surprisingly, I tend toward the emerging communal types that indicate that your boss goes to Burning Man.  I like the Ben and Jerry's corporate structure.  Jim Henson and Julian Beck are my leadership role models.  I am a firm believer in democracy and a firm distruster of hierarchies.  I try not to visit the left side of the chart very often.

Laurie:   Hmmm, not sure how I would categorize my own self.  I have no desire to be "dominant." (I hate that word. It makes me think of the very same pack animals that you just mentioned).  I'm happy to let someone else take the lead in many if not most situations, but when I sense a need for leadership that is not being filled, I find myself instinctively filling it.  I must admit that the orderliness and efficiency of hierarchies naturally appeal to me. I am by nature a very pragmatic person inclined to be willing to throw  a lot of higher values to that wolf named Expediency.  (There is no more efficient form of government, after all, than a dictatorship, and none less efficient than a democracy.) My Christian beliefs, however, will not permit me to feed that brute.  And so, even when leading others, I seek to defer to them as well, so that every move forward is a move taken together.

Paul:  I, being a Quaker down in my bones, have a strong "all are created equal" streak and a strong "doff thy hat to no one" streak.  I've found myself in leadership roles often in life and I find that my style is collaborative.  Back when I worked as a stage manager and occasionally as an assistant director I had a policy of not making my actors or my crew do anything I wasn't willing to do myself.  This involved overcoming my fear of heights by swinging off the catwalk to change lights, shaving my head in one production, growing a full beard in another, those sort of things.

I think everyone on our television program knew when it was revealed that a leader would be picked this week that the best two options would have been Jay or Kara.  They function well, have a clear vision, and people respect them.  The two worst would have been Kevin or Wendy.  Kevin was chosen.  The reason Kevin would be bad is because he seems to live in the lower right.  According to the highly edited images presented to us on the television (a long preface that I increasingly feel compelled to add at the beginning of any statement I make about these people), he's nice, but he's like a nice employee.  He could stand to take a few organizational leadership courses at the community college before he does a contest like this again.  Wendy would have been bad because everyone hates and distrusts her.  That is the worst type of boss (and also a common type.)  When Kevin is chosen as the leader, they cut quickly to reaction shots. A lesser show may have employed the sound effect of a needle being ripped off a record.

This acts to return the tension that was released by Morgan being voted off at the beginning of this episode.

The project is to design a collection on the theme of fashion of the year 2055 (is this a motif in the show or is Jay just so much ahead of the curve that the show is stealing his ideas?  Readers will remember in episode 1.4 Jay said that his design was French Prostitute from the year 2050.)

Laurie:  Together they must come up with a unifying concept. The whole team is given time to brainstorm and pencil it out, color scheme, etc. They are then given a lump sum and sent to a huge vintage clothing store where they are to purchase everything they might need. (This really seemed to force them to assume a post-apocalyptic picture for the future.)  Each designer must contribute one outfit to the collection.

Paul:  I liked the pod idea.  They had this concept of a protective, sheer fabric womb which would cover the outfits they make because the future will be a harsh and unforgiving one (thanks, us!)

Big Fig Newton
Laurie:  I was not a fan. Wendy came up with this idea that in the future the environment would be really messed up, due to the kind of vague factors you might expect a group of clothing designers to imagine, and full of vague things that clothing would be needed to protect folks from.  So, as a unifying theme, beyond the color scheme, she suggested that each outfit be covered by a "pod" - a sort of fig-shaped protective outer garment which would be split open to reveal the creation beneath.  I thought the whole thing was ugly, and didn't look like something that would actually be very protective. First of all, a pear/fig silhouette is flattering to no one, and the with legs hanging out the bottom and all, there would be contaminated legs, and, well all I could think of was this.

Paul: Robert does not understand the concept.  His main feature is to create a coat with small black patches on the shoulders which he claims are solar panels to give the wearer energy.  Yep.  It's like that.  I'm convinced that Robert's portion of this episode exists to show why Lady Gaga had to happen.

Laurie:   I was not a fan of Robert's design either, but the judges seemed to really like it. Go figure.

Paul:  Which reminds me of the subtle change in the world I'm noticing between this show and today.  First, it is clearly a pre-Gaga era and, in spite of my love for Lady Gaga (I don't think a day goes by without her music being played in our house), even I'm surprised by the difference.  Probably more to the point, this is before Alexander McQueen really hit.  It is my firm belief that Alexander McQueen changed the world.  As the chemist James Lovelock said, any geophysical event is started by a single organism and, in the case of McQueen, Lady Gaga is simply the index case in a shift in global consciousness.  Once the influence of McQueen hit Kate Middleton, the pandemic had latched its talons into all of our double helixes.  Fashion changes consciousness.  People believe what they see.  I'm not sure people realize how much they are influenced by these (oftentimes unseen) tides, but the influence is in the very air that they breathe.  But I think that somewhere all of the designers realize the possible extent of their influence.  Truly, ideas are like viruses and they change the world. 

The major problem with the runway show is that the outfits are of a similar color scheme, but the unity kind of ends there.  That is because Kevin's leadership seems to be to make an outfit and leave all of the others to make their own.  They have similar ideas but the end result reminds me of a music project I did once where I made cover songs of songs I'd never heard before but had only had described to me.  Instead of a collection, it is a show of several different designer's concepts on a theme.

He also does nothing toward time management and so the pods never end up happening.

Laurie:  That, I believe was the main contribution to the loss of a sense of cohesiveness to the collection. They'd hung all their "unifying" eggs in the pod basket.  Without the pods it was just a lot of vintage fabrics in a matching color scheme patched together eclectically into a variety of outfits.

Paul:  Kara Saun ends up stepping into the place as the leader in the absence of one. [Laurie: which is exactly what I would have done.] Paul: Late in the night when the doom starts to settle on the group like a fog, Kara calls a meeting on how they are going to sell what they've done.  In doing so, she tries to tack on to the end what should have happened in the conception process, which is to make a narrative.  In the beginning it would have been a through-line.  Placed here after the clothes are fashioned and time has run out, it is more akin to card table skills of misleading with confidence.

It doesn't work.  Kevin seemed like he was probably nice.  It is probably necessary to note for future posts that Wendy is once again called upon to drag the knife across the throat of the hanging pig and she does so without a moment's hesitation.  The difference in this case is that she presents a fairly accurate description of Kevin's leadership abilities.

Laurie:  And thus we bid Kevin adieu.  I suppose a person in the running to win a prize of $100,000 to start a design company would best have some leadership skills, and so this challenge was probably appropriate. Still, though, Kevin was a pleasant fellow, kind of gentle. I was sad to see him go. (By the way, I liked his design for this challenge.)


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