At the time of writing I’m approaching the end of my first year living in New York City, more specifically in the East Village of Manhattan, one of the most boisterous and lively parts of one of the most energetic cities in the world.
NYC isn’t for the faint of heart. My own journey has had its fair share of bumps in the road, and getting settled here definitely takes a while.
I’ve written this brief guide with the intention of helping others who are making or contemplating the move.
Disclaimer: this is just my perspective, and like all opinions it’s subject to change.
One too many times had the power cable been wrenched out unapologetically, dozens of Chrome tabs restored, the screen slapped shut without care. It was time for me to pay for my fast and loose attitude to a partner I probably spend more time with than any human (apologies to my wife).
I got through to Monday without too much trouble. The sun was out and the city was smiling.
On Monday morning I didn’t feel so easy. I took the laptop uptown to the repair store to discover further news of its condition. The initial prognosis was not good – in overnight for further tests, and no health insurance cover.
Setting up in a nearby coffee shop to check email and drink a sorrow-laden flat white (still a rare find in NYC; the sorrow-laden ones even more so I imagine), a number of things dawned on me in quick succession.
Here’s a summarised narrated version of a talk I gave to an entertainment company in NYC on the importance of storytelling in our life, work ,and culture more broadly.
On the day itself we got into a bunch of other topics, from how to communicate stories on someone else’s behalf, which other type of story we can utilise, where we add more conflict or tension, and why this really mattered for their business.
This is (somehow) the first time I’ve done a narrated presentation like this – the lack of body movement and bad jokes definitely feels stifling but hopefully there’s some useful stuff here for you in this abridged version. Enjoy!
This summer I’ve been working with Hyper Island as part of the program team running the AMP NYC accelerator for media & entertainmententrepreneurs in the city.
It’s been a fun ride, designing and delivering a unique curriculum for a diverse group of 22 founders growing businesses ranging from music PR agencies to documentary filmmaking, 3D data visualisation to pop-up improv events.
In our most recent class we got into marketing and sales, with a core focus on influence, trust and (micro) networks.
We framed the first part of the day around Robert Cialdini’s CLASSR model before jumping into an exercise I called ‘Jiu Jitsu’ – thinking about the persuasive jiu jitsu moves the group have already performed to acquire, retain and grow the clients and customers they work with.
The CLASSR model goes back to Cialdini’s classic book ‘Persuasion’, but we added a contemporary spin on each element which I’m sharing here.
In business, particularly in B2B situations (but far from exclusively), we usually want the customer to acknowledge we’re the expert.
We can get to this point purely through a display of expertise alone, but more effectively when that expertise is combined with a feeling of alignment and trust.
How do we get there?
As Dale Carnegie famously suggested;
Or if we’re thinking in terms of funnels, we should build;
Robert Cialdini’s ‘CLASSR’ model covers 6 areas of persuasion that lead to influence and trust. It’s worth noting we approach these areas in a positive and mindful way; there’s certainly opportunity for more Machiavellian tactics but that’s for someone else to think about 🙂
These 6 elements are everywhere – we’re affected and impacted by them almost every single day. It’s worth taking some time to consider where these appear in our daily lives – subway adverts, interactions in a retail store, hiring a new member of our team, going for dinner with friends; they really are everywhere we look.
People feel a strong urge to be consistent with things they’ve done or said in the past. That urge can be triggered by seeking commitments – usually small ones at first.
Cialdini cites the example of a doctor’s surgery reducing their patients’ missed appointments by asking patients to write down the next appointment details on an appointment card rather than the surgery staff doing it.
Writing is often a very powerful way of getting commitment and thus triggering the urge to be consistent, but there are other methods that can be used too.
One of the reasons companies give out stickers is to gain a small commitment. Putting a Supreme sticker on your laptop or bag triggers the urge to be consistent. If Supreme later suggest a larger commitment you’ll be far more likely to comply if you’re already sporting a sticker on one of your possessions.
It’s worth remembering that to get the consistency you desire you need to get the other person to make a commitment in that direction, even if very small to begin with.
In June 2018, 28 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the congressional primary in New York’s 14th district, coming seemingly from nowhere to beat one of Washington’s powerful political figures.
How did she do it?
It would be reductionist to suggest there was only one reason, but a significant contribution was probably that simply she is well-liked.
We prefer saying yes to people we like. That’s pretty obvious. The 3 factors that lead us to liking someone are having an affinity with them, a feeling they are co-operating with us to mutual goals and that they pay us compliments.
While it’s harder to speculate on the third factor in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, the first two look to be strong indicators towards why she was so successful.
And this photo of her worn out (and affordable) campaign shoes probably added to it.
Some folks are saying I won for “demographic” reasons.
1st of all, that’s false. We won w/voters of all kinds.
2nd, here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles.
We may not find it easy to feel similar to everyone we come into contact with, or immediately pay them compliments without feeling insincere, but there are likely common goals we can get behind, as well as just being a decent human being of course.
These gentlemen work at Compass, a rapidly growing real estate company.
When I moved to NYC one of the biggest tasks was to find somewhere to live. I tried a bunch of realtors – some were focused and attuned to my needs, others less so.
On phoning Compass I was starting to feel a little jaded and also mindful of getting done over by net effective rent, brokers’ fees, guarantor fees and the various other hidden costs that are seemingly part and parcel of New York real estate.
The assistant in the Compass team I spoke to made me very aware of the specific experience of her team members – years on the clock, their interest in working with people with circumstances like mine, and examples of some transactions of a similar nature.
I felt more comfortable immediately. Why them? Because they made me feel they were an authority on this specific area of real estate.
Cialdini notes that we react strongly to people in positions of authority or expertise – whether policemen, doctors or established real estate brokers. Again, when combined with other CLASSR elements through jiu jitsu the effect is even more powerful. For example, the lawyer with 15 years experience doesn’t usually have any problem with displaying her certificates proudly in the office for all to see.
Footnote: On meeting one of the team, he showed up in some very natty sneakers, with a big smile and a bunch of Dad jokes. I had an affinity for him – I liked him.
Here are Supreme again. This is their store (or rather than line to get into it) on Lafayette Street in Manhattan.
Supreme excel at managing scarcity, and getting people to want more of what they (nearly) can’t have.
They control supply of product via ‘drops’, with product lines, sizes, colors, times and locations all planned meticulously.
They also control demand – the line outside the store looks like it stretches around 2 blocks even when it doesn’t. The line is split up into pieces so whether you’re coming from Broadway, Prince, Crosby or Lafayette it looks like something’s happening.
One of the challenges with scarcity is making the proposition unique. Some people are put off by scarcity tactics so make sure to extol the unique value proposition and also the downside for them if they pass up on what you’re offering.
Onto number 5, social proof.
Social proof is probably the most omnipresent of all the six areas of influence.
Simply, to decide what we should do we look at what other people do .
Examples are everywhere – from joining the line at Supreme, to avoiding the empty the empty subway car, and ordering the same drink as your new acquaintance when you visit a bar together.
The shaving company Harry’s launched their product with an ingenious scheme closely tied to social proof. Before the actual product was even available, prospects could sign up and share a referral code with their friends. The more friends signed up, the more products the original referrer could access. On top of this, the friends could see the original referrer has suggested they join. If it was good enough for their friend, why wouldn’t they sign up?
Again, the effect is particularly powerful when combined with other elements – scarcity and reciprocity in particular.
Other forms of social proof we see in business include client testimonials, influencer endorsements, accreditations and client logos.
The last of the six is Reciprocity.
My pal Brian is a respected creative director in the media industry in NYC. He also knows a thing or two about hospitality and reciprocity, having run a successful bar.
Brian told me the story of the napkin.
When you visit a drinking establishment, the bartender may put a napkin on the bar by way of greeting. This says ‘I see you’.
The next time you visit, a good bartender will say something along the lines of ‘good to see you again’. This isn’t just moving towards Reciprocity, it’s also building up the Like element of persuasion. This says ‘I know you’.
If you start going to the bar more regularly, the bartender will have your favorite drink ready to go almost as soon as you take a seat. This says ‘You’re home’.
At this point, the power balance tips – this gesture makes us want to reciprocate in some way.
Finally, when the little mint is placed on top of the check, the bartender’s influence over you is complete. The mint says ‘Now you owe me’. And you watch yourself tip generously.
The thing here is not the mint itself, it’s the way it was delivered – with care, over time.
Another type of gift adds the Like element. A consultant I met told me how he discovered a prospective client was a lover of Gil Scott Heron’s music. The consultant, completely unprompted, sought out some rare Gil Scott Heron records and sent them to the prospect’s office.
Feeling a need to reciprocate, a lunch meeting and a project followed soon after.
Lastly, the concept of presuasion.
It’s not just about the message you deliver, it’s about the timing. `As Cialdini says;
This “privileged moment for change” prepares people to be receptive to a message before they experience it. Optimal persuasion is achieved only through optimal pre-suasion. In other words, to change “minds” a pre-suader must also change “states of mind.”
The rather brilliant Rory Sutherland uses the example of the airport bus to explain this concept.
Imagine you’re on a plane that’s just landed. The pilot says there’s no air bridge and everyone will need to take the bus to the terminal. Cue everyone signing in frustration.
However, if the pilot informs the passengers that rather than the air bridge there’s a bus that will take everyone directly to the terminal, right next to the arrivals halls with no walking needed, suddenly everyone feels…well, pretty good.
We’ve been presuaded.
Following this session on CLASSR we jumped into thinking about our own jiu jitsu of influence – where we’d succeeded but also considering occasions where someone else may have leveraged the weight of their CLASSR against us.
And just like real jiu jitsu, combinations can be powerful. We may have used Authority, Like and Scarcity all together, or led with a Commitment before leveraging Scarcity.
Looking backwards and tracking the history of how we got our clients and customers allowed us to see certain tipping points, trends and also a few missed opportunities.
Taking those trends and insights we then looked into the power of networks, how to extend those we had, what marketing to them really meant, and make decisions on who we prospect and when.
This is just a small taste of the AMP NYC class and broader program; we’ve created dozens of ideas, provocations, exercises, reflections and workshop sessions.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in early March and we were on the open road, driving south down California’s 1 highway.
My wife and I were out on the west coast taking our first vacation after spending the previous 6 months getting up and running in our new lives in New York City.
That day we were heading from Santa Barbara to Venice Beach, and to its most famous street, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, upon which resided a restaurant called Gjelina.
I’d heard about it a couple of times; a cosy but stylish place with an eclectic menu, a highly desirable wine list, gently lit patio, and an effortlessly chic vibe in that way only a California eatery can have.
Operated by head chef Travis Lett, Gjelina has become something of a culinary institution, with its cuisine being dubbed “new California”.
Our dinner that night at Gjelina was tremendous, but I’m not here to write about that part – I’ll leave that to the food prose pros.
Instead I’m here to write about the Gjelina cookbook we picked up on a bleak winter’s evening in NYC a couple of weeks later.
The first thing that struck me was the layout.
The entirety of the first section (more than 70 pages) was made up solely of confits, sauces and reductions (I’ll call these ‘foundations’ for the sake of this post), with not an actual ‘meal’ in sight.
Many of these foundations were surprisingly complex and time-consuming to put together. Inevitably it also took a sizeable amount of produce to get down to something pretty small and seemingly unremarkable.
However, after that initial toil and time, the newly created foundations often had the capacity to be topped up easily, and just a small amount could go a very long way.
It didn’t take long for our fridge to look like a science lab, with the shelves being taken up by my various concoctions and their thin skins of plastic food wrap.
Some of these only lasted a few days of course, but others endured for weeks or even months. A couple of those very first experiments are still going in fact.
The second surprise was the cooking of the meals themselves. Despite my initial trepidation they were invariably pretty easy. Gjelina focuses mainly on vegetable-based dishes and although many recipes require a rapid-fire and very specific batch of steps to be followed, most of them are ready to be served in only 10-15 minutes.
But the secret of these delights wasn’t in the cooking of the ingredients. It wasn’t in the individual ingredients either (although good fresh produce definitely helps – somewhat of an expensive luxury here in NYC).
The secret was in those foundations used at the base of the dishes. Shallot confit, tomato reductions, garlic sauces, and plenty more. They featured almost everywhere, and without them nothing really worked properly.
As I was prepping another vat of oil and rosemary-infused garlic goodness it dawned on me that this process of combining, boiling, reducing, expanding, applying and mixing is pretty similar to the way ideas work in our minds, and particularly when it comes to making something new.
Around the same time I started my Gjelina experiments I was developing a talk on biases and mental models.
The various models to analyse situations and make decisions were my range of foundations.
Sometimes they weren’t perfect, but still useful enough to apply in small quantities to get a decent result.
On other occasions they gave me an entirely new way of experiencing and thinking about something.
My repertoire of foundations when it comes to both mental models and my cookbook is still quite small. I could probably spend the rest of my days creating new ones and never perfectly hone them all. The same applies to designing, programming, just about any creative endeavour really.
But I do know two things to help get some successful results: have a decent stash of foundations on hand; and always be ready to test out something new.
Add them to a recipe, situation or an idea and you may create something wonderful.
Just remember to keep your fridge replenished regularly, and if you’re trying Gjelina’s foundations make sure you buy plenty of olive oil.
It’s a freezing cold Saturday morning in New York’s Greenwich Village and there’s tension in the air.
On the snow-speckled artificial turf of James J Walker park, our team are a goal down with less than a minute on the clock.
Our de facto captain and star player turns to me and says ‘go up front’.
My feet root to the ground.
I don’t do ‘up front’. I don’t do wing, number 10, or even midfield.
It’s outside my circle of competence.
I’ve never been very good at football  – I stopped playing at 15 and started again around 27. Somewhere in that intervening period I instinctively found my circle of competence.
How did I know? Unlike most who play 7-a-side games for competitive fun, I began only playing in one position. At the back, the last line between striker and goalkeeper.
My circle of competence isn’t even really a circle; it’s a zone, the deepest third of the pitch.
I’m still far from the best player on the field, in fact I’m in the lower quartile, but I stay in my circle of competence, just focusing on the basics.
Be aware of the other players.
Anticipate where the ball is going to go.
I could try playing elsewhere, but I much prefer to strengthen those basics and just push at the edge of the competence circle. It may not be glamorous but there’s plenty there to build on, and it’s very satisfying when it goes well. Ask any centre-back.
My experiences on the football pitch have started to help me when it comes to thinking about my career and business.
The marvellous Tren Griffen talks about this here:
The idea behind the Circle of Competence filter is so simple it is embarrassing to say it out loud: when you do not know what you are doing, it is riskier than when you do know what you are doing.
Like a lot of people I’ve got much more in podcasts recently, and my go-to is without doubt Shane Parrish’s Knowledge Project.
I think I’m pretty safe in assuming his most popular interview (and also longest – something of an oxymoron today…) is with Naval Ravikant, founder of Angelist.
Just one of the gems of wisdom in this conversation concerns the subject of happiness.
To help understand what makes you happy and what you may want to change, Naval suggests asking yourself two simple questions about each of your past 10 years, or perhaps 5 if you’re under 30.
What was I doing?
How was I feeling?
I gave this a try thinking it would be pretty easy.
It really wasn’t. I had to think hard.
Going back 3-7 years felt particularly difficult – in my case (from a career point of view) to the middle years.
I made a mental note to go back to this another time. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling very lucid that day.
And then this morning I went to my first Creative Mornings event in New York. CM is something of a phenomenon – running in 183 cities globally, always free entry, always sold out in seconds. They’re without doubt one of the leaders in the new school of curators (another post coming shortly on those and why they’re going to matter so much in the future).
This edition’s guest speaker was Scott Belsky, founder of Behance and highly respected investor and author.
His very eloquent and (of course) beautifully designed talk opened with a graph outlining the journey a company or project takes from start to end. I found myself thinking this talk may be another spin on the startup hero’s journey; we’ve probably all had our fill of those.
But Scott wasn’t there to talk about the buzz of the Start or the against-all-odds Finish. He was here to explore The Middle; the times between the Start and the Finish that oscillate from mundane to meltdown, vexed to victorious.
We don’t often talk about The Middle.
In fact we often forget it even happened – either publicly when we’re selling ourselves and our ideas to others, or privately when we’re telling ourselves the story we’d rather hear.
Scott suggested how to endure the lows and optimise the highs that The Middle brings, as well as the benefits of maintaining your curiosity throughout the journey.
In fact there’s easily enough not yet said about The Middle for a book or three – perhaps he’s working on it.
I left feeling a little better about struggling to remember my Middle, but also realising the importance of recognising, remembering and respecting it much more frequently – no matter whether it’s veering from mundane or meltdown, vexed or victorious.
Spartan by name, Spartan by (the call of) nature: Sly Stallone as John Spartan in Demolition Man
For the last few years the electronic music website Resident Advisor (RA) has run a weekly podcast called ‘Exchange’.
Despite RA’s focus sometimes being a little high-brow and esoteric for my tastes, there are some real gems in the Exchange series (not to mention in the 600+ DJ mixes in their main podcast catalogue).
Recently RA snared a highly regarded yet relatively low profile guest (in terms of public persona) – the founder of XL Records, Richard Russell.
I found two of Russell’s anecdotes particularly interesting: first, how he dived into the relatively basic music production software Reason on a recommendation from his friend Liam Howlett of the Prodigy; and secondly how his work with Gil Scott Heron on the ‘I’m Here Now’ was underpinned by one word.
That word was ‘spartan’. Gil Scott Heron loved the sound and meaning of the word and it was used as the stress test for everything the pair created.
Spartan is generally defined as:
‘Showing indifference to comfort or luxury’.
It’s quite easy to confuse being spartan with minimalism.
I believe it runs a little deeper than being minimal.
Although adjacent, to be spartan feels to me more closely aligned to Stoicism.
In my own life I’ve recently implemented a more spartan approach, partly through choice and partly through circumstance. It’s not been easy or always particularly enjoyable, but I’ve learnt some lessons.
Going spartan has forced me to look at what I really need, and what are just frivolities. It’s also opened up new possibilities that probably wouldn’t have appeared if I’d stayed on previously trodden paths.
Here are a few things that have happened:
Hopping between alternative (i.e. free of charge) places to work in New York I’ve learnt which conditions suit me best (and worst) for creativity and productive work, and also discovered pockets of the city I never knew existed
I’ve got better at cooking. You’ll be hard pushed to get a decent lunch in NYC for less than $12. Cooking at home conserves funds, has made me query my diet more closely, get surprisingly creative, and is a good reason for my wife to leave the office at a decent hour and switch off from work for a little while 🙂
Limited resources have made me more resourceful. This is perhaps counter-intuitive at first but I’ve found it to be true. Stripping back the layers meant I’ve had to find ways to do more with less. A little like Richard Russell and Gil Scott Heron.
Whilst he was probably thinking more about minimalism in UX and design than being spartan, Steve Jobs famously once said ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’. I queried this when I first heard it but from recent experience of creating my own projects I now believe it to be true. A spartan approach helps frame things in a different way. Ask yourself how you could solve a problem if you didn’t care about comfort or luxury. A lot of great innovations have come from this start point. And Jobs himself did live a pretty spartan lifestyle, all things considered.
I’ve become more resilient. Small things that may previously have upset or frustrated me just aren’t that important now, and I know I can survive with or without them. Rejection or lack of recognition (i.e. not being able to bathe in the luxury of glory) hurts less.
I’m aware in my case these are very much first world problems. I still have the luxury of being able to afford a nice cup of coffee and have a roof over my head, and I aim to continue being grateful for those things. However, I believe the principles and benefits of being spartan can be useful to apply in almost any circumstance.
They may even make you happier.
Naval Ravikant describes happiness as:
the state of when nothing is missing.
The generally accepted route to happiness is to have everything you want. To acquire.
If Naval is right, and I consider him one of the wisest people I’ve encountered, perhaps it’s easier to get there by being spartan.
Why it’s worth knowing which role you’re best suited for, and how valuable it can be when looking to join a new community.
Last week I received an email from someone in London asking how life in NYC was going for me, and what I thought of The Met museum.
They knew I’d had to wait a while for my work permit and so naturally assumed I’d spent a fair bit of my enforced sabbatical visiting museums. Guiltily I replied I had not. I’d barely gone north of 75th Street, let alone explored Museum Mile.
Amends were made and yesterday I spent a couple of hours exploring the huge Metropolitan Museum of Art space next to Central Park.
I decided to travel roughly in chronological order, starting with Ancient China, via Dutch 16th portraits and 19th Century American furniture, and ending up in 1920s cubism.
In the final room of my visit something caught my eye – a painting by the Japanese artist Bumpei Usui.
The work itself didn’t appeal to me greatly (it didn’t help it was also next to a bunch of work by two of my favourite artists, Gris and Leger), but the placard next to the Usui piece was what grabbed my attention.
Bumpei Usui immigrated to New York from Japan in the late 1930s. Rather than integrating into the city’s art community as a painter, he operated instead as a frame maker, and through this practice became popular with many leading contemporary artists. 
Two things about this very short synopsis jumped out at me.
First, he was a recent arrival in a new country, seeking to integrate into a particular creative community. I could relate to that.
Secondly, he decided to focus on one of his multiple skills, and rather than aiming to directly become a member of that community, he instead built his reputation by providing its members with a valuable service they could trust. A wonderfully simple yet effective strategy.
I instantly saw the persona of the frame maker in other areas of work: operating relatively unnoticed; there to provide structure, protection and context for the artist’s work; yet also with their own value, tools, craft and language.
Of course, some paintings have no frame at all, and some are certainly best without, but for many others the frame is a crucial part of the work as a whole.
And just like in other creative industries, whilst a rare few people can become accomplished as both frame makers and painters, more often one tends to complement the other.
A few hours after my museum visit I went downtown to meet with an advertising creative embarking on a new venture. We got along well.
After he told his story he invited me to tell mine by asking ’so what paintbrush do you use?’.
I smiled. I’d never heard someone use that phrase before.
I told him I didn’t really use a paintbrush.
I preferred to be the frame maker.
 During WWII, Usui was saved from incarceration by his many friends who spoke up for him in New York. For the duration of the war, his large collection of Japanese swords (over 120) was stored at the homes of his many friends and was returned to him when the war was over.