OTR, Take 45: Of Monsters and Men - Beneath the Skin

You can listen to this week's album on Tidal or Spotify.

There's something to be said for an endeavor that begins as creating something somewhat artificial to fill a preconceived purpose, only for that artifice to become an authentic thing in itself.

We have developed a cult of authenticity in things that, I would offer, fundamentally misses the point. I think what we generally mean when we praise something as authentic is that the thing (or the person, group, project) has something genuine about it and isn't simply superficial. And, sure: I don't care for most superficial things any more than the next pompous white guy. But are we missing out on a huge amount of amazing things and experiences simply because they don't fall into the narrow definition of authenticity that we've developed?

When so much of our culture has become out-of-the-box, pre-configured, and easy-to-swallow swill, is that not a kind of authenticity in itself? When the internet has permitted curated silos of accepted truth, "alternative facts," and comfy little bubbles for all of us to park our fragile egos in, what bases do we have left to just what authenticity is, in the first place?

It's been a long week – a good week, but one filled with extended work and not enough exercise. That lack of walking never ends well for me and got Clare so riled up we ended up taking her to daycare yesterday so she could run around and let out some of that pent-up energy.

This is the last time Clare and I went for a walk. To give you an idea, there's now about 5 or 6 inches of snow on the ground and it's 20 degrees colder. On the docket for today is a good 8-mile romp in the snow with the animal and Clare.

"The animal and Clare?" I hear you saying.

One of the things I've been focusing on more and more is acknowledging my own animal nature. I don't mean this in some woo-woo way (although, sure, that way too); rather, we are socialized to think of ourselves as somehow separate and distinct from our animal brethren. But really, we're not: we have the same animal instincts, needs, and desires that all other animals have. We spend so much time convincing ourselves of all the things that make us different from animals: our reasoning capabilities, language, civilization!

All of that is a veneer covering the truth of ourselves and, perhaps, it is healthier to acknowledge the reality rather than paper over it with the illusion of civilized behavior. (An aside: it is no accident that the most horrifying and uncivilized behavior in Conrad's Heart of Darkness occurs in Europe, not in the Congo. Civilization almost always serves as a post hoc justification for following our animal instincts.)

So, yes: I'm going to feed the animal when I complete this missive and go trekking around the knife-edge of suburbia and country with my fellow beast in the 15-degree weather.

Every once in a while, Audra will mention that I never talk about any of her records. That's not entirely true, but it's mostly true. She was unimpressed by my suggestion that she's free to start a newsletter to write about her music.

"What, so people you meet on LinkedIn can send you records and you'll write about them, but your wife asks you to write about a record and it's 'Start your own damned newsletter'?"

So friends! Let's talk about Of Monsters and Men's sophomore album, Beneath the Skin.

I bought her the fancy version, with cutaway packaging and all.

When Audra moved in, forever ago in the pre-illness days, one of the ways I tried to make her feel welcome was by purchasing a number of her favorite records to have around the house. I meant well: it was something that would have meant a lot to me, given how important music is to me. Audra loves music, but has a different relationship with it than I do – and her response was mostly, "Okay...that's sweet...can we get some new towels?"

Bringing new people (or animals) into your established spaces is always an act of amalgamation, yet for some reason, we think it's going to be a simple matter of plopping a new person into an existing space and we're good to go. After one or two attempts at it, either personally or professionally, we come to realize that things will necessarily change and the question becomes whether that change is something we like and can live with.

2023 was a year of slow, methodical building – of fits and starts, of projects falling apart and being rebuilt. At the time it felt a little chaotic, but then entrepreneurship always feels a little chaotic. Looking back on the last year, I see less chaos and something more akin to slow, boneheaded learning, the laying of foundations, boring to set but critical for building growth.

Toward the end of the year, things started to take off in a way that I wasn't entirely prepared for. I'd been working in a business that had been comfortable, a business I was working diligently to become less comfortable. Sometimes that discomfort has a way of sneaking up on you.

By December, I hit the button to hire an Executive Assistant. I needed help and I probably waited a bit too long to bite the bullet and take on the expense. Scott Snellings had a wonderful post about this earlier this week; I only wish he'd posted it six months ago! (If you don't know Scott, please do yourself the favor of finding him on LinkedIn, especially if you own a law firm or are thinking of opening one. And I promise I'm not just saying this because he's also received an organ transplant!)

I started with just one paralegal. How we grew: | Scott Snellings posted on the topic | LinkedIn
I started with just me and one paralegal. Here is how we grew: New Hire - Another paralegal/receptionist/intake specialist New Hire - Another lawyer (now my… | 51 comments on LinkedIn

This week, my new EA started and it's been a lot of work and very promising. I've had a VA before and it didn't work out. It was my fault, and I know that now. I hope I've learned enough from that experience to make it work this time – because I think this is going to be the first of a bunch of hires this year.

Unlike last time, I've thought about this somewhat programmatically, something I instinctively resist doing. I've gotten pretty far by winging things. I've learned over the past year that winging it won't work for building a business that doesn't rely on me to work. So the foundations I laid last year (building systems that scale and documenting basic processes) have led to this the first outwardly visible step forward in the uncomfortable growth from founder to CEO.

Of Monsters and Men are an Icelandic band that was put together, as I understand it, for the purpose of competing in a national battle of the bands. While not exactly Lou Pearlman holding tryouts to create the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, the creation and composition of Of Monsters and Men wasn't exactly organic.

Does that matter at all?

One of the common critiques of bands put together by managers is that they lack authenticity. You can't possibly take the Monkee's seriously! But why not? Who gets to decide what is viable? Who makes the call on whether something is worthwhile?

To get a sense of how deep-seated this very stupid debate goes, Sartre and Adorno had a very spirited and ongoing argument about whether jazz is an authentic artistic medium.

The simple fact is that every grouping of people (with the possible exception of immediate family, and I'm not sure if I'm willing to accept even that) is artificial in some respect. As soon as some sort of affiliation is drawn, it necessarily spawns some sort of game of authenticity. Are the Sex Pistols really punk? Are Green Day? Who gets to make that call?

Seth Godin says that all human behavior can be explained through an impulse toward status and affiliation. This goes back to the most basic of human behavior, to our animal instinct, no? Just watch wolf packs, lion prides, murders of crows.

But everyone keeps telling me that we were more than animals?

A short riff on this record, which is really pretty interesting. I always find myself somewhat fascinated by Of Monsters and Men's sound. It's expansive, anthemic, full of detail, yet sparse like an echoing empty music hall. Their songs are delicate with Nana Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson's voices insistent and pleading, retreating and hushed. There's a lot of doubling: not only Nana and Ragnar's vocal tracks, which are pulled together by an invisible undertow, but guitar lines are echoed by glockenspiel, soft acoustic guitar strums are mirrored by seething distorted electric guitars hiding in the mix.

And behind it all is an at times militaristic drum beat, heavy on the snare and kick drum. This gives everything a sense of slight incoherence, elements thrown together like sine waves on different amplitudes, at times amplifying each other and sometimes canceling to near silence.

I couldn't recite a single lyric from this album for you, and I doubt I'm the only one. Does it matter if it's this pretty?

Work smart, not hard. Wait for the snow to stop, my dude.

When we decide to build businesses, we are choosing to create something that is made. Somehow we lose track of the artificiality of this. We imagine we are pulling out of the marble a sculpture that's already there, but of course that's nonsense. As pithy as Michelangelo's explanation of sculpting is, it's an elision of what he was actually doing. The Pieta or the David were not itching to escape from the block of marble; he redefined what the marble was through his vision and created something that is recognizable to other humans.

Our businesses are likely not at the level of craftsmanship of the most ridiculous turtle, but they are every bit as intentionally created. Just as when I'm looking to build a band, I'm not going to look for a bunch of people who play the same instruments, or limit myself to searching within my immediate family – when building out my businesses, I seek people who can add a different texture, fill a different kind of silence. Is it authentic? Eh...

Humans are clannish animals, and my clan got one larger this week.

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