how Michael Jackson makes me a better designer

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Our accountant has an Old Testament verse taped to his computer monitor that I notice every time I meet with him. The verse is from Proverbs 27:17 and reads “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” I love that verse and truly believe that if you try your best to surround yourself with people who are more talented and more enthusiastic than you are that you will become better at the task at hand. I also think that I need to be that person in the deal for others so I always need to bring my best work and best attitude also. Conversely, several dysfunctional bosses and lots of unenthusiastic co-workers were enough to make me leave my former career and we’ve found that relationships with people who don’t really care about doing a great job never last. People with positive energy make me better and being surrounded by “downers” can take a really big toll on me. So I always study carefully people who are excellent at their jobs and see what I can learn from them.

Michael Jackson is no exception. I am three years younger than he was and felt as though I grew up with him singing in the background. Although I was saddened to see his life became such a mess, I cannot stand still if his music is playing. I specifically remember a conversation a year ago with a cashier at Whole Foods when Billie Jean came on the sound system as I was paying for my groceries. I hadn’t heard it in ages. I started quietly dancing in the check-out aisle and I might have even let out a “woo-hoo.” The cashier and I agreed that while his life was sad, his music and dancing never fail to put smiles on our faces.

So when I found out that the videos of his last rehearsals had been compiled into the film “This Is It” I knew that I had to see it in a movie theater on a big screen. Frankly I’d rather see the creative process in the rehearsals than the polished version anyway. So despite being crazy busy, Bill and I went to see it before its run ends.

I had expected to see excellence—the best choreographer, the best lighting, the best costumes. But I saw so much more. While I’m sure that there were hours and hours of unflattering and uninspiring footage, Bill and I agreed that what was so impressive was that every dancer, every backup singer, every technician was giving it his or her all. There was an energy that transcended what people were going to be paid or what this experience would bring to their resumes. It was about innovation, excellence and creating an unparalleled experience for the concert-goers. It was also about leadership. Those people weren’t performing for the audience, in interviews they said that they just wanted to dance on the same stage as Michael Jackson because he had inspired them so much.

Seeing Michael Jackson dance on the big screen also reminded me that it’s not always the big gesture. Sometimes it’s the combination of a bunch of small gestures. It’s the flick of the wrist plus the slide of the heel and the tilt of the chin and suddenly it’s breathtaking to watch. The day before I had felt these exact feelings when I went into a quilt shop looking for a yard of soft gray tone-on-tone fabric for a quilt we’ve made for our next book that has, we think, a soft, sophisticated, whispery feel to it. Amid what seemed like 3,000 bolts of beautiful but loud hot pink and lime green florals, there was nothing quiet and nothing subtle that didn’t scream “baby quilt.” In this huge shop there were 8 bolts of gray, several with heavy prints on them. Big gestures can be great but sometimes small gestures add up to something bigger. I left the quilt shop empty handed.

As I was watching the film I thought about wanting to find a way to be better at my job too. In the same way that Thriller changed the course of the music video, what could I do to contribute to the quilt world or the fabric design world that would be inspiring to others? How can I raise the bar higher for myself and for our business? How can I inspire other people to put forth their best work? How can we choose the best manufacturers and publishers that share our vision of doing the best possible work we can? How can I keep my eye on the prize and not get distracted by all of the administrative stuff that sometimes get in the way of doing my best work?

Bill made the point that Michael Jackson also made room for other dancers and musicians and technical staff to contribute what they had as well. As we send our next book off to editing next month, I’m hoping that the editors and designers of our book will bring their best game too and strive for excellence as we have. Bill and I will be working hard to get them as excited as possible to produce a book that conveys the hard work and enthusiasm we put into it.

As Bill and I were walking out of the theater I said, “If I didn’t have to meet [our daughter at] the bus, I could sit here and watch this over and over again.” “Me too,” he replied.

3 Comments

  1. Sharon
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    What a fine post, Weeks. You just answered some nagging questions for me. Thanks.

  2. MiChal
    Posted November 18, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Hi, Weeks! Your posts always make me smile. As I await the arrival of my long-arm quilting machine (TOMORROW!) and ponder how to establish a business to pay for it, I’ll be keeping your points in mind.

  3. Leslie
    Posted November 18, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I echo these same thoughts. My motto is I want to put my team in a position to succeed and I expect the same in return. In concert teams can achieve great things and make the impossible possible. I loved that you used Michael as the example for that principle because no matter what was going on in his life he didn’t settle to just punch in, he showed up!


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