You don't know Alice. No reason you should. She was an American woman who, if my memory serves me right, came to Japan near the end of the Occupation. She became an English-language copywriter and a close friend of several individuals who wound up on the board of directors of Hakuhodo, the Japanese advertising agency where I was employed for thirteen years. She interviewed me for the job and, after I got the job, took me aside and gave me a memorable piece of advice. "John," she said, "to succeed in this business, you will have to develop a thick skin. You have to realize that at least three out of four of your brilliant ideas are going straight into the trashcan." Alice had noticed, I believe, that, ex-academic that I was, I still had too much ego invested in the ideas that I came up with and would stubbornly defend them long after it was clear that neither client nor colleagues were going to accept them.

I think of Alice as I read a collection of essays on team-building and the role of creative directors in advertising and find that a recurring theme is that creative people have to be wagamamma (egotistic and willing to push their own ideas) but cannot be ganko, so stuck on their own ideas that they cannot recognize when it's time to fold and come up with something else. The highest praise goes to those who, while they may have their own ideas, can look at someone else's idea and, if they see it's a great idea, instantly abandon their own proposals and say, "Let's go with that one."

I want to ask why can't anthropologists be more like that? Yes, I know it's hard, especially when you've set yourself on a risky path in what seems to be an increasingly hostile world, and you have so terribly much invested in the ideas by which you seek to differentiate yourself from your rivals. I've been there. I've done that. I've failed and had to find another path.

What Alice taught me didn't stick right away. It wasn't a vision on a road to Damascus. But it started me thinking and gave me a way to calm down when I was furious at having my ideas (still fallaciously equated with me) rejected. It was, we might say, a gift that kept on giving.

It has been, again my memory is fuzzy, around twenty years since Alice died. But I still think about her.

Thanks, Alice. Great advice.

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Comment by John McCreery on October 13, 2014 at 12:05am

Thanks for pulling this out of the bin. Alice is always worth listening to.

I wonder, I simply don't know, how many anthropology programs train their students in teamwork and leadership skills. Comparing daughter Kate's experience at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Kennedy School at Harvard with my own at Michigan State and Cornell, I couldn't help noticing how strongly her training was focused on these topics.
Comment by Keith Hart on October 11, 2014 at 10:36pm

My wife, Sophie Chevalier, had her second thesis viva on Thursday. Her godfather, a leading Swiss international lawyer (juriste), made the trip to Paris. The first thing he noticed was that the academics didn't seem to care whether or not they were understood, as a jurist would. Sophie was concise and to the point, but her six interrogators cared more about making sure that their prepared speech came out as they intended, even if it meant reading a text. He and I discussed how widespread this phenomenon is, especially in the social sciences, and agreed that natural scientists are much more interested in clear and comprehensible communication. Anthropologists, in my view, are among the worst. This is partly a question of fear of having ones ideas rejected, but it mainly pure narcissism. Not much chance of teamwork if the speaker/writer is so self-obsessed.


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