Kandinsky abstract art

Empathy & Ego: What I Learned During Six-Hour Art School Critique Classes

All sophomore photography majors at the School of Visual Arts are required to take a six-hour critique class. From 9am to 3pm every Thursday, with brief breaks for snacks and smokes, a steady stream of aspiring Avedons tack their work to the wall one by one and defend it against the jaded questioning of the thirty or so others in the class.

The six-hour critique format was brutal and by design.

If you were lucky enough to present during the first hour, before the coffee had kicked in, you could expect to get through the proceedings without too much trouble. Hour two would bring raised voices and lots of, “But whyyy did you choose to do that?”

Yelling was to be expected by the pre-lunch hour, when people were fully caffeinated and starving for calories and cigarettes. By hour four, the gloves were off and tears weren’t uncommon.

Ego is an Impediment and an Imperative

Great artists figure out their best work is an extension, a reflection, of themselves. It is quite a trick to both be and create that mirror (a mirror, not a movie, big difference).

This is why it is so hard to hear thirty caffeine-fueled, nicotine-starved self-proclaimed artists rip apart, sometimes literally, the work you put on the wall. It is not a piece of paper up there, it is literally you on that pockmarked wall, crucified by thumbtacks.

Eventually, we learn we must put all of ourselves into the work and then separate ourselves from it.

We learn our ideas aren’t sacred.

We learn we are a work-in-progress.

We learn others can help us improve.

We learn ego is an imperative and an impediment.

This is as true for the artist as it is for the entrepreneur or the designer, the intern or the CEO, the husband or the wife, the student or the teacher.

Empathy is a Superpower

Empathy, the word, is adapted from “einfühlung,” a German word coined by an art critic, imagine that, looking for a better way to talk about and understand art. In order to do so you must project your yourself into the art. Einfühlung translates as “into feeling.”

Empathy then is not simply sharing or understanding the feelings of another. The Oxford English Dictionary contains this early, fantastic definition:

The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation

You catch that? Empathy is not an emotion, it’s a power. It requires you to not only understand the object, but crucially, empathy requires that you understand yourself.

Two Key Lessons

I didn’t become a professional artist, but the lessons from this marathon class arise almost daily in my professional life as a marketing / product development executive, team leader, and mentor.

  1. Put your best work out there, but understand that no idea is sacred. You must accept the fact that your idea can be, will be, improved by revealing it to others.
  2. When giving feedback, fully understand both what the creator is trying to achieve as well as what you are bringing to the discussion.

None of these things were in the syllabus. Wisdom only comes with time.


Thanks to Fawn Potash, the professor of my sophomore critique class. 

Thanks to Jon Budington, for originally exposing me to the word einfühlung and the true meaning of empathy.

Why I Love The Wirecutter

I am an over-researcher of even the most mundane purchases. Whether it’s a travel coffee mug that costs less than $30 or a pair of audiophile-grade speakers that cost more than most people make in a month, I spend more time pouring over online reviews, product manuals, photos, and price comparisons than most spend picking a name for a child.

I am also the type of person who, once I do all this research and eventually make my purchase, will tell everyone who is (un)fortunate enough to mention that they too are in the market for an [insert product here] everything I learned in my weeks or months of research, god bless them. I will often follow up with an unsolicited email of links and information, because, well, I did all the research not just for me but so I could pass it along to others.

This makes me what author and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell would call a “maven.” Someone who “people … rely upon to connect us with new information,” is “almost pathologically helpful,” and as a helpful Wikipedia author put it, “start ‘word-of-mouth epidemics’ due to their knowledge, social skills, and ability to communicate.”

At one point, years ago, this proclivity manifested itself into a website that I edited and wrote with two friends called, “Degeeked: Simple answers to tech questions.”

Tired of product advice and review sites giving multiple choice answers to simple questions like, “I have $200, what camera should I buy?” or giving explanations of how the entire Internet works in response to “how do I setup my wi-fi router?,” our answers were aimed squarely at, well, the types of people who ask questions like this. These people are looking for answers, not an associates degree.

Degeeked never fulfilled its destiny as the end-all be-all product advice site on the internet. That designation, at this point, has to go to The Wirecutter and its sister site The Sweethome. The only proof you need is that The New York Times bought them for more than $30 Million in 2016.

As a compulsive visitor to the site (if I enter “t” into my browser, guess what website is at the top of the autocomplete list), I wanted to explore what about The Wirecutter makes it so great.

The Wirecutter autocomplete


1. Authority

The cornerstone of The Wirecutter’s success is that you trust its recommendations. Without authority, nothing else matters.

The fact that the site is owned by The New York times and was started by a former editor at Wired and Gizmodo offers credibility, but that’s not quite authority. They know this and put a “Why you should trust us” section at the top of every review.

Let’s check out a couple of these to demonstrate the lengths to which they go in order to provide authoritative information. Here’s the “Why you should trust us” section for “The Best Exercise Ball,” a $40 product:

In addition to surveying the peer-reviewed literature on the effects of exercise ball use on muscle activation, posture, and pain, we consulted several experts with more than 50 years of collective hands-on experience. We spoke with Marilyn Moffat, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at New York University and former president of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy; personal trainer Grace DeSimone, editor of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Resources for the Group Exercise Instructor; kinesiologist Danielle Fournier, co-founder of the Ballon Forme exercise program and author of Ballon Forme Couples Method: Guide to using the birthing ball during labor and delivery; and Brian Lowe, PhD, a research industrial engineer in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Applied Research and Technology division.

This one is by far my favorite, found in a review for banana plugs. Banana plugs.

I’ve reviewed audio gear professionally since 1990, and I’ve been doing laboratory measurements of audio gear since 1996. I have thousands of hours of experience at the test bench, and I keep a full suite of audio-test gear in my home. Just as important, I’ve been building audio gear since about 1975. For decades, I’ve been making my own speaker cables, usually with pro-grade cable and banana plugs I put on myself. I’ve also held two jobs in electronics-assembly factories, where I often spent hours a day terminating cables. As an audio reviewer, I’ve tried innumerable brands and types of banana-plug–tipped speaker cables in innumerable speakers and amplifiers, so I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.

And here’s where it gets weird: I’m a longtime connoisseur of banana plugs, having sought out cool new designs in markets around the world, including Tokyo’s Akihabara district, Seoul’s Yongsan district, and New York City’s Chinatown, as well as on numerous websites. Even before I undertook this project, you could probably have found at least a dozen types of banana plugs if you dug through my lab.

See what I mean? This dude has spent more time learning about banana plugs than you or I have spent eating food, and you didn’t even know what banana plugs were 30 seconds ago!


2. Utility

The Wirecutter is just plain useful. And for everyone.

Unlike most sites of this ilk, they aren’t category-specific or geared toward one type of audience. There aren’t just techie gadgets, or just home theater products, or solely things for red-headed mothers of twins who practice yoga.

A quick sampling of the items highlighted on their home page: wireless earbuds, dishwashers, hiking first-aid kits, cheap laptops, baby bottle warmers, dog nail clippers, cell phone plans, and DNA testing kits.

All that variety—there are over 156 items listed on their home page, not counting stuff in the sidebar—could be overwhelming, but for the site’s excellent categorization scheme. Those 156+ items are neatly organized into 25 well-chosen categories and sub-categories. Here’s a sample:

The Wirecutter categories


Their on-site search functionality is a let down most of the time, but like most people, I use Google to search their site.  Just like I do when I’m trying to find something on Wikipedia, my default search pattern when searching for product recommendations is now, “[product type] wirecutter.”

And because of their authority, Google rewards The Wirecutter by reliably returning their pages in search results:

The Wirecutter google search


As you can see, The Wirecutter’s on-site search doesn’t fare as well:

The Wirecutter search results


We all need something to strive for to make us better.


3. Transparency

How often have you read a product review and wondered if there’s a quid pro quo going on between the site and the product manufacturer? Sure, site’s are required to disclose these payola arrangements, but they often do so in barely visible ways.

At the top of every single page on The Wirecutter, is an explanation of how they make their money:

When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we earn affiliate commissions that support our work. Here is an explanation of exactly what we do, and how to support our work.

Transparency = trust.

The Wirecutter makes money when you click on the links they provide and buy the products they recommend, which seems only fair and completely reasonable. At this point in the commercial internet’s history we know that no one would actually pay for a service like this no matter how useful or valuable, which is shameful and insane but the reality, so this seems as close as we’re going to get to direct payment for services provided.

Yes, The Wirecutter does have ads, but you have to look for them, and they don’t do anything shady to trick you into clicking them or increasing their impression counts.

Then there are the lengths to which these crazy people go during their own first-hand testing.

For the banana plugs (it’s fun to type, what can I say) they started off with 18 different kinds. The aforementioned exercise ball experts started off with a list of 80 products! A separate set of compulsives spent 150 hours testing cutting boards, which… what?!

The Wirecutter cutting boards

Each recommendation is accompanied by a few sections that ratchet up the transparency even more. In addition to the “why you should trust us” section, there are: how we picked, how we tested, the competition.

Just like in math class, sometimes how you got the answer is just as important as the answer itself.


4. Respect

The above are all an extension of The Wirecutter’s respect for its audience. Respect for me, the visitor, is what keeps me coming back almost daily.

This respect is palpable as soon as you land on their home page.

Almost every single product review site makes you click into the article to find out what their recommended product is, and because of The Wirecutters authority and utility, no one would fault them for doing this. But I wouldn’t be talking about them in such glowing terms if they did.

Right on their home page, for the main featured item as well as every one of the other 156+ “best” products listed, they tell you which product they recommend. If that’s all you need to know, no further clicking required.

The Wirecutter home page
Quick, what’s their recommendation for best cell phone plan?


Once you dive into a review detail page, the magical synergy between their business model and their respect for the visitor aligns comes into full view.

Most places bury their recommendation at the bottom of the page, that way they can serve you more ads. But The Wirecutter makes money when you click on links to their recommended products and buy the products they recommend.* So, it behooves them to put those links, and the supporting information, in front of you as quickly as possible.

Burying the lede may work for their parent company, but it’s not The Wirecutter’s style.

The Wirecutter earbuds


Mission accomplished

At the top of every page on The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, is their simple mission:

The Wirecutter and The Sweethome … are lists of the best gadgets and gear for people who quickly want to know what to get.

Through the synergy of authority, utility, transparency and respect, mission accomplished.


Note: While this post was being written, The Wirecutter announced that they would be combining their two sites into one under a single name: Wirecutter. In the announcement, they include their differentiator:

What differentiates Wirecutter from other review sites is the rigor of our review process, the transparency we provide to our readers about that process, and our reader-centric, useful approach to recommendations.

Sharp-eyed readers will see that these values line up nicely with my points above, just in a different order: authority, transparency, respect, and utility.

You’ll have to trust me that I wrote the outline for this post months ago. For my part, it tickles me pink that this post so directly aligns with their editorial team’s thoughts.


* The Wirecutter actually makes money on anything you buy at an affiliate’s site for a certain amount of time. In the case of Amazon, I think it’s the next 24 hours. 

Images are screenshots of TheWirecutter and The Sweethome.

Recommended Reading: Feynman, a Batman Machine, and Bad Food Festivals

The best of what I read* this week, whether useful, funny, topical, or just good writing. Think of it as my personal #longreads recommendations, except sometimes I recommend #shortreads, too.

  1. Learning From the Feynman TechniqueEvernote
    Best part about this is the link to Project Tuva, a collection of videos of Feynman’s lectures Bill Gates bought and released to the public. Thanks, Bill!
  2. The Army, The Inventor And The Surprising Uses Of A Batman MachineNPR
    “That’s one of the most exciting things about putting something new into the world, is you actually don’t know what it might get used for.”
  3. How Podcasting Became Hollywood’s Latest ObsessionVice
    “Rob Walch, a living legend of podcasting and a man of hard data, certainly makes a compelling case that, despite the arrival of venture capital, legacy media, branded content, and big-name talent, podcasting remains—if not a ‘level playing field’ for out-of-left-field creators—then certainly the squarest game in town.”
  4. I downloaded an app. And suddenly, was part of the Cajun Navy.The Houston Chronicle
    “Within minutes, I was on the phone with Karen. Karen was in a house in Port Arthur, sitting on her kitchen cabinet with seven other adults, two teenagers and a newborn. The water was almost to the counter tops. I assured here we would get someone to her as soon as we could and told her to stay safe.”
  5. David Foster Wallace on Writing, Self-Improvement, and How We Become Who We AreBrain Pickings
    “In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind.”
  6. Equifax’s Instructions Are Confusing. Here’s What to Do Now.The New York Times
    “Here’s hoping that this breach is the nudge you need to finally sign up for permanent freezes on your credit files. I’ve used them for years, and here’s how they work. You sign up (and pay some fees, because you knew it wasn’t going to be free to protect data that you didn’t ask these companies to store, right?) at Equifax’s, Experian’s and TransUnion’s websites.”
  7. Maybe Just Don’t Go to Food FestivalsEater
    “But the reality is that these festivals are rarely worth the cost or the time if you’re in it for the food. They’re often crowded. Lines are sometimes long for vendors and often the food most worth trying typically has the longest wait. All this eating in one place is also part of the depressing cultural shift toward acquiring food instead of dining.”


* Just because I read it this week, does not mean it was written this week. I am often hopelessly behind, and just because it’s a few weeks, or months, old doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading, right?


Steve Jobs would be appalled at how Apple announced iPhone X

Apple CEO Tim Cook closed the company’s big iPhone X event yesterday as he started it, by invoking the words of the company’s venerated founder, Steve Jobs:

Steve Jobs quote


Before going on to thank all the Apple employees that made this possible, he added:

“We work really hard at Apple to create wonderful things. And we hope you love what we’ve introduced today. I think Steve would be really proud of them.”

Steve may or may not have been impressed with the iPhone X itself, but I think he would have been appalled at how they announced the product dubbed, “the future of the smartphone.” *

CEO = Chief Excitement Officer

First, let’s watch Steve Jobs introduce the original iPhone in 2007. It’s worth watching for the joke at the beginning alone.


Note: All these videos are long. You only have to watch a minute or so from where I start each of them to follow along with my commentary.

Now, let’s watch Tim Cook introduce iPhone X:


Wait, Tim, come back! Where are you going?

No one else but Steve Jobs got on stage for the better part of an hour during the original iPhone event in 2007.

Ok, so no one could ever replace Steve. And sure, Tim Cook is more of an operations-focused CEO. I’ll give you that. But the CEO of Apple, whoever it is, leads the world’s most innovative company. If they’re calling iPhone X “the future of the smartphone” the CEO should be announcing it in full.

Go back to bed, Phil

I can only assume that the rules of hierarchy at Apple meant that, if it wasn’t going to be Tim Cook, they were stuck with throwing the walking billboard for overcoming stage fright and the only person less comfortable reading off a tele-prompter than George W. Bush, Phil “Sleepy” Schiller, up there.

Man, he was tough to watch. Was Sergio Dipp not available?

If they had known what was good for them, Apple would have had Craig Federighi, their SVP of Software Engineering do the whole shebang. This guy is genuinely excited:


It’s all about context

Let’s rejoin Phil’s presentation barely a minute later:


First of all, “Super Retina,” guys? Really? You think Steve Jobs would be proud of that? I won’t even get into how Phil reminds us twice in the first few minutes how iPhone X, the future of the smartphone, borrows technology from the iPhone 8, “the past of the smartphone.” But I digress.

This is the SVP of Global Marketing of the most valuable, most innovative company in the world, barely a minute into his presentation for “the future of the smartphone,” and he’s listing off technical screen stats like he’s a marketing intern.

Compare this to how Steve Job’s brags about the original iPhone’s screen:

Original iPhone screen features


Once Steve did dive into the nitty gritty of explaining the new Retina display, this is how he did it:

Steve Jobs Retina Display


Steve even mentions pixel density, just like Phil, but he includes a crucial bit of information for context for us humans:

Steve Jobs iPhone 4 pixel density


Evolutionary vs Revolutionary

But the original iPhone was a revolutionary product, you say. The iPhone X is an evolutionary product, so of course they have to talk about it differently. (I’d argue that if you’re calling your product “the future of the smartphone” you might take issue with it being called an “evolutionary” product, but we’ll gloss over that.)

Ok, let’s look at how Steve Jobs (and only Steve Jobs) talked about iPhone 4 at its launch event:



Anything sound familiar? The iPhone 4 was “the biggest leap since the original iPhone,” just like iPhone X. (🤔)

Yes, Steve gets a bit more technical in this pitch, but he’s still gushing about an “all new design” that is “beyond the doubt, the most precise thing, one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever made.”

When he does get into stats, after letting people ogle the device’s inherent beauty, it’s to tell the world that iPhone 4 is “24% thinner” than the previous iPhone, “something you didn’t think couldn’t get any thinner,” and is the “thinnest smartphone on the planet.”

That’s what I’m talking about!

People don’t buy shovels, they buy holes

Maybe the most disheartening part of Sleepy Phil’s presentation was how he summed up Apple’s (r)evolutionary new product:

iPhone X features


Look at all those features! Phil even has to promise the audience he won’t list them all, because we half-expected him to do just that.

This is how Steve summed up the original, feature-packed, iPhone:

Steve Jobs iPhone You life in your pocket


Let’s call this fight

The word hubris comes to mind when someone like me critiques the SVP of Global Marketing at one of the most respected companies in the world, but a bad presentation is like porn, I know it when I see it.

I would suggest Phil go back and watch his old boss’s presentations for inspiration. Or at least try to get some more sleep next time.

No one will ever be as good as Steve Jobs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change for the better. Otherwise, you get a beatdown by a nobody like me. (Video NSFW)


* I think “the future of the smartphone” is one thing Steve Jobs would have approved of about this presentation.