“I untangle things; I reframe things, and I connect people with other people.” — Brad Berens
I met Brad Berens when I first moved to Los Angeles out of college and was interested in diving deep into the convergence of technology and content. I wanted to listen and learn from the smartest and most interesting people in the industry and all roads led to Brad. Brad always get the “big idea” and I could think of no one better to offer some advice to Violet and I about how to lead your life with integrity, purpose and intention.
Amy Powell: Is there one piece of advice that you wish your 9 year old self would give you today that would make an impact on your career?
Brad Berens: That’s a really interesting question: it’s a nice flip on the more typical question, “what might you say to yourself if you could talk to your 9 year old self?” If I could ask my 9 year old self a question, I think it would be, “what’s important?” Grownups get caught up in a lot of fake ways of measuring their lives. Kids, particularly before around age 12, can be better at seeing things clearly.
Amy: Was there a time you messed up and felt like you’d failed? how did you bounce back?
Brad: My life has been a long series of failures. It wasn’t just that I “felt like” a failure: I failed for real. The big secret around failure is that it hurts a lot in the moment, but pretty quickly you realize it’s not that bad.
One of my biggest failures as an adult was when I realized that I would not be a Shakespeare professor. There was a 90% unemployment rate in the field, and at that particular moment the last thing that any university needed was to hire a Jewish guy to teach Shakespeare. There were too many of us already. I don’t want to kid you: I went into a profound funk for a few weeks because I’d spent several years getting a Ph.D. in Shakespeare studies. But eventually I snapped out of it and thought, “OK, what the heck else can I do with all this training?”
I wound up thinking about the kinds of actions that I liked as a teacher rather than the things that I was teaching. In other words, I focused on the verbs (figuring things out, helping other people to figure things out) instead of the nouns (having a particular job title, teaching particular books). That helped me to move from teaching to working in Hollywood, and later to the internet.
There are a few other ways to bounce back. 1) Pay attention to the things that you have that are good in your life and realize that a failure in one part of your life doesn’t mean that your whole life is a failure; 2) think of the failure as data: the universe is giving you information, sending you a signal. What’s that signal telling you? 3) Unless somebody died as a result of your mess up (at which point you have bigger problems), say to yourself, “well, at least nobody died.” The stakes for individual failure or success are pretty low in the grand scheme of things.
Amy: How did you learn to embrace risk-taking?
Brad Berens: See my answer to the above question.
Also, sometimes you can ask yourself, “what’s the worst that can happen?” However, if you ask that question then you ALSO need to ask, “what’s the best that can happen?” It’s not fair to yourself to focus only on the possible bad outcomes.
Amy: What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned and how has it proven invaluable?
Brad: I think about leadership a LOT, so it’s hard to narrow it down to one lesson. I don’t know if I’d answer this the same way tomorrow, but the answer that comes to mind right now is this one: Accept all the Blame and Share all the Credit.
What does that mean? It means that when you’re a leader, your most important job is to protect your team. When something bad happens, the buck stops with you (if you don’t know what that means or the history behind it, ask your mom). If somebody working for me makes a mistake, then I deal with that with the person directly. But if the people above me are upset because of something that happened in my team, the person who pays the price is me.
This has been valuable to me because it’s not the kind of thing that you can fake: my teams have been loyal to me because I’m loyal to them.
I once had an employee who accidentally mistyped a phone number on something that went to many thousands of customers. Not only did dialing the number NOT get to our company, but it also went to a company that sold things most people don’t think are very good. It was horrible. My boss asked me who did it. But I didn’t tell him. I said that it came out of my team, so that if he was going to fire somebody it would have to be me. He didn’t fire me.
The person who was my employee hasn’t been my employee for many years, but we are now close friends.
But that’s not where the story ends. My employee was only one stop in a long process that went into creating the communication that contained that phone number. How was it possible, I wondered, that nobody else had checked the number? I found out that the proofreader — the person whose job it was to check the spelling and the grammar on the communication — was not in the habit of checking to make sure the phone numbers worked or that the links that our customers would click on went where we wanted them to go. After this mess up, I changed the process so that part of the proofreader’s job was to check the numbers and the links.
Remember how before I said that mistakes are the universe giving you information? This story is an example of that. Without the mess up, I would never have realized that we had a flawed process. But the trick is not just to fix the problem but to ask yourself why the problem happened in the first place.
Amy: What is the most fun part of your job?
Brad: I have a bunch of different jobs, so that’s a tough one. When people ask me what I do, I tell them, “I untangle things; I reframe things, and I connect people with other people.” That means I try to help people see things as clearly as they can — not how I see things but how they see things — and then I help them meet the people who will help them achieve their goals. That’s fun.
It’s also hard work because to do it I have to listen hard, and sometimes listening hard is hard. Sometimes, after I’ve spent a lot of time listening really hard, I’m exhausted. But it’s a good kind of exhausted.
About Brad Berens (bradberens)
Brad Berens is an editor, futurist and researcher with an enabling perspective on the intersection of digital technology and behavior, with special expertise in Transportation, Health, Entertainment, Media and Marketing. He is a leading digital media executive who has deep connections and a clear understanding of what advertisers, media properties, agencies and startups need from the fast-changing world of interactive technologies. you can also learn more about him at his website: BradBerens.com