Happy Friday! March has just begun, which means spring in the States is right around the corner, and NYC is celebrating with a day of… snow and 25-mph winds. In like a lion, as they say.
Today’s newsletter is inspired by an incredible book I’m reading called Principles: Life and Work
by Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates. Even though the book is focused on a regimented approach to personal and business affairs—and is based on the company philosophy that Dalio laid out for his own employees—Dalio’s writing style is surprisingly human, emotional and relatable. I’ve already learned so much not just about my own strengths and weaknesses, but also about rational, concrete and customizable actions I can take to improve them. Couldn’t recommend the book highly enough!
In one of his chapters about goal-setting, Dalio encourages readers not to mix up goals with tasks and narratives when outlining a plan of action. “The tasks are what connect the narrative to your goals,” he writes. Your narrative is where you’ve been, your goal is where you want to go, and your tasks are the difficult things you need to do to get there. More often than not, the task is both more necessary and much less glamorous than the goal; the crux of personal growth and evolution, says Dalio, lies in confronting and embracing the pain and struggle embedded in these tasks.
Upon reading this, I realized that I encounter people mixing up or blurring tasks, narratives and goals every single day, particularly from the lens of my job as a journalist covering the music industry. I’ll give three recent examples below, and would love to hear any examples you see in your own professional and/or personal life.
1. SXSW and other music conferences. Most music conferences and panels are about broad brushstrokes of goals and narratives (strategy), but the most effective panels I’ve seen are honest discussions about tasks (execution). Tasks are actionable; goals and narratives are not.
Since strategy and execution depend on each other, it’s valuable for a conference not only to have a mix of both sides of business in their programming, but also to be brutally honest about which part of the task/narrative/goal equation audiences should expect to hear at a given panel. Otherwise, people just end up wasting each other’s time.
If you ask anyone who hated a conference or panel why their feelings were so negative, it’s likely because they went in expecting tasks but only heard narratives, were force-fed a bunch of goals without any info on the underlying tasks required to achieve them, or walked away with a dense, dry list of tasks that lacked an overarching vision or story to motivate those action items. Disillusionment usually stems from misaligned expectations.
I will be moderating two data-related panels at SXSW later this month, and have been trying to find a way to differentiate the panels to prospective attendees in a way that is both clear and concise. Turns out, the task/narrative dichotomy works perfectly. “Mo’ Data Mo’ Problems: Music in the Age of Data
” will focus on narrative
: how journalism, marketing, A&R and overall storytelling for artists and their teams have changed over the past few years with the rise of streaming and data science. In contrast, “Measuring What Matters in a Playlists-First World
” will be all about tasks
: what metrics and signals you should actually be monitoring on streaming services as an artist, and the types of insights you can expect to glean from them.
2. Spotify’s SEC filing. I have a much longer analysis of this topic in the pipeline for Billboard, but I’ll share some scrappy thoughts here first.
Data makes the historical growth narrative clear. Spotify is the market leader in premium music streaming, with twice as many paying subscribers as Apple Music, 29% growth year-over-year in monthly active users, 40.3 billion hours of content streamed on the service in 2017… I don’t need to list any more numbers here.
Data makes the goals pretty clear in some areas, less clear in others. The clear ones: get more subscribers (expanding more into international markets beyond Europe, North America and Latin America in addition to further penetrating these existing ones), continue being the algorithm-oriented leader in the streaming space, grow into a destination for all audio content beyond music, build better tools for artists (through Artist Insights, the Creator Technology Research Lab, etc.) and hopefully make a profit in the process. An example of a less clear goal is whether Spotify actually wants to be a cultural/content brand or a technology brand first (my first article in the “Writing” section below dives deeper into this issue, using RapCaviar as the starting point).
Finally, the tasks still seem ambiguous. How is Spotify actually going to turn a profit? Will increasing subscriber growth really compensate for steadily-rising content costs? If not, will Spotify resort to lowering its cash burn on marketing (probably not)? Considering that content from major labels and Merlin account for 87 percent of Spotify streams, does Spotify want that share to decrease? The company also wrote in its filing that “some of our competitors, including Apple, Amazon, and Google, have developed, and are continuing to develop, devices for which their music streaming service is preloaded, creating a visibility advantage.” How will Spotify meaningfully increase that visibility beyond simply getting more subscribers? By making its own devices (maybe
)? But can it really afford to do that?
3. Journalism at large. The media tends to prioritize narratives and goals over tasks, which makes sense because writers are always searching for the most compelling “story.” What irks me about this approach is that a focus on narratives and goals usually sacrifices either a detailed look at the mechanics under the hood that’s driving the narrative, or a thorough followup on the execution of said goals that keeps subjects accountable.
To my delight, I recently discovered an entire task-oriented media movement called the Solutions Journalism Network
, which encourages writers to chase more stories about how people are responding to and dealing with a given problem, rather than just stating the circumstances of the problem itself.
While the Solutions Journalism Network focuses primarily on sociopolitical issues, I think their premise aligns strongly with my approach to writing (which I’ve called “journalism as a service
”), as well as with my intended audience in the music industry—whom I think is equally as interested in tasks/execution as they are in narrative/strategy, and who demands not just market intelligence but also how to act on this intelligence in the most effective way.
Again, I’m curious to hear whether you’ve experienced any similar gap or misunderstanding among tasks, narratives and goals in your lives, and how if at all you dealt with it. Let’s talk!