November & December theme:
“Choose One Thing”
Posted in :  Brain Waves

When Ross Martin, Executive VP at Viacom and leader of their “creative SWAT team” Scratch, first polled millennials about what character traits they valued most, they ranked them in this order of importance: being smart, being funny and being kind. Recently, when polled again, this group changed its priorities. Being smart was still first, but kindness had jumped to the number two spot, trumping funny.

This info was just one of many notables that Martin shared when he presented at the Hartford Public Library last night as a part of their lecture series, “I Like Big Books.” His talk centered on how historical institutions like the library can course correct a path to extinction by becoming relevant to Millennials who have little connection to the value of a library. He raised a lot of interesting questions about seeing people as indispensable resources (i.e., librarians) and what’s possible when you see a library as a place to “check in” with your existential and curious self, beyond checking in on Facebook when you visit.

Martin’s talk was interesting content-wise, but my experience at the event took an unexpected turn. Sitting in the crowd and listening to his talk about the importance of libraries, I was a bit confused. I was drawn to the event to learn more about Scratch and how Viacom has infused its behemoth corporation with an edgy, nimble culture of innovation. Martin didn’t talk about Scratch. But, at some point that became okay. I let go of what I expected to hear and I started paying attention to something else, namely, how Martin himself was showing up in the room, beyond the topic at hand. I ended up learning more from his “way” than the slides on the big screen.

Like me, Martin is a Gen Xer. But, if kindness is something that the Millennial generation values highly, he was clearly born in the wrong generation. In speaking of how companies and institutions such as the HPL can learn from the innate generosity of Millennials, he shared a few things about his day that showed up as his own generosity.

From Brooklyn, NY, Martin agreed to come to Hartford at the bequest of HPL Board President Thea Montañez, who had watched his TEDTalk on “The Poetry of Misunderstanding.” For a busy TV exec, that alone is generous. Even more amazing, at least to me, was the time he invested in getting to know Hartford and the HPL.

His talk was infused with personal stories, and his own direct experience at the Hartford Public Library. Martin left Brooklyn early so he could spend 2-3 hours in the HPL, before his presentation. When he got here, he did some reconnaissance, first finding out that the library didn’t carry his book of poetry, The Cop Who Rides Alone (doh!), and then taking it upon himself to add it to the stacks and, cheekily, showing a picture of its new home to the crowd.

During his meanderings at the library, he did something really interesting. He chose ten books, randomly from the shelves, and then sat down and selected words and phrases to create a mashup poem. Here it is:

Improv poetry from Ross Martin, courtesy of books found at the Hartford Public Library

Poetry is something that Martin is truly passionate about. This came through in, not just his poem, but in his presentation which was delivered in a poetic fashion and completely tailored to people in the room. The time he took to understand Hartford, the culture at HPL and the library champions in the audience like Montañez and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra was impressive. There were about 40 people in attendance but Martin could have been in a room of 500 or 5. He listened intently and responded thoughtfully to each question. He was just happy, and even privileged, to be with us. His earthiness and humility was something to see.

Mayor Segarra and Ross Martin at the HPL

I attend a lot of events and I’ve seen a lot of speakers over the years. Many are smart, interesting people. But, few have inspired me to think differently about what is possible when you are your unabashed, unapologetic self. We can all share our content and expertise in a slide show. Few of us are bold enough to BE there — to be so present and open in a room full of strangers that you invite others (well, I’ll just speak for myself) . . . that you invite someone like me to think more deeply about how anyone from any generation can wield active generosity and kindness as a tool to reinvent, redefine and create the “room” and, ultimately, the world around us. If this is how Millennials take on the world, we are in for a complete transfiguration (as Mayor Segarra puts it), and I want to be a part of it.

The unexpected, as I am learning over and over again this week, is always more energizing. It didn’t matter that my expectations of the event and what transpired were out of whack. What Martin brought to an unknown environment with people he may never see again, for me, will affect how I am with others for a long time to come.

Side note . . . in the Q&A, Martin responded to my question about Viacom’s development of Scratch. He said that they invited Bono in to ask him how it’s possible that U2 can become the world’s greatest band every 7 years. Bono responded that the only way is to get reborn. Eradicate whatever success from the past that’s gotten you to today, and start anew. As a result, Viacom’s commitment to Scratch is based on the idea that being innovative is something you live and breathe, not a company edict that makes everyone feel good. I’ll have more to share on this soon as I learn more about Scratch.

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Posted by: Suzi Craig
Email the author: suzi@fathom.net