117: Jeffrey Madoff: Creative Careers: Making a Living With Your Ideas (transcript)

January 19, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Jeff Madoff is a friend of mine. He teaches a class in living a creative life at Parsons right around the corner from me in New York City. I’ve sat in on his classes for years. I don’t need more formal education. I have plenty of that. Listen to the guests that he’s interviewed – Ralph Lauren, Halston, Brooke Astor, Liza Minnelli, Donna Karan, Martha Graham, Tom Brokaw, Tony Bennett, Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Chazelle. Here’s some names of models I don’t know – Adriana Lima, Candice Swanepoel, Miranda Kerr, Karlie Kloss, [unintelligible], Alessandra Ambrosio. Justin Bieber, Usher, Black Eyed Peas, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, Holly Barry, Salma Hayek, Rick [unintelligible], Sanford Weill, Tim Ferriss, Peter Diamandis. A lot of really big names. Despite all these stars what I like about his course is that you know how that no matter how productive you feel, when you go on a vacation, things start falling into place and you start realizing your priorities that get lost in the shuffle of regular life? I get that from his class in an hour or two. It always seems to put things in perspective and I start realizing what’s important to work on. And I wanted to bring that way of creating culture and attracting people to this podcast. In his course I learn about meeting people, I learn about business, I learn about leadership. And this episode is about leadership, also the environment, but more on the leadership side especially starting without connections or resources. If you’ve heard that 80 percent of success is showing up, Jeff shows how it happens. He lives it. You’re not going to hear the big names that I just mentioned in the podcast but you’ll hear some big names right from the start. As an aside, remember his name because he’s been recording all of these interviews and eventually it’s going to become a video log or a blog or something like that to be made available for everyone and I recommend watching it when it comes out. In any case, let’s listen to Jeff now.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Jeff Madoff. How are you doing?

Jeff: I’m good, thank you.

Joshua: Actually, I want to start by saying how you and I know each other. Mainly I mean we met through mutual friends but one of the big things is that I sit in on your class that you teach and to me there’s a big difference in… You seem like a very unassuming regular person and you teach this class on creativity with amazing guests which is what brings me in. I’m not a student in your class. I just sit in on it. And you’ve worked with Victoria’s Secret. You work with not just Ralph Lauren, Lauren the institution but with the person. And for me one of the things that if people who listen to my podcast enough or my recordings enough Martha Graham has been a huge influence on me. And you did the Martha Graham video when she died, I believe for the New York Times. How does someone as unassuming as you seem to me get so well-connected that people dream of being like that. Is there a story behind all this?

Jeff: No. I’m so unassuming there’s no story behind it.

Joshua: Were you always this way? I mean we were just talking about how you grew up in Ohio, you went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison and I don’t think of these places as being the center of jet setting society and so forth. But I feel like the people in your life are.

Jeff: You know I actually don’t know how to answer that because so many people in so many pursuits end up meeting people like you and I met and I was fortunate enough to meet people or be able to get my work in front of people. So for instance when I started my own company my first client was Halston who was a legendary American designer and I got that account by calling him and I called him up and through some quirk got him on the phone. And at that time video was very, very new and I proposed to him that we shoot a video of his fashion show. I said, “Because you never stated where were you during your fashion shows, Halston.” He said, “So I am backstage.” I said, “So you never hear it. So you never see it. So you have to rely on people second-hand telling you, people who might be afraid for their job, people who want to please you, people whatever but you don’t get to see the show itself and so that’s right.” And I said, “So I’m going to give you that opportunity you can see your show yourself.”

He was enough of a visionary smart man that he saw the value in that. Well, one of the people that came to his show every time and a person who he supported financially in terms of the efforts that they put into the arts was Martha Graham. So Martha Graham attended Halston’s fashion shows. I met her through Halston. She saw the work that I did for him which led to me working with Martha. So I did a documentary about her. And when Halston died I worked with her as part of a tribute to Halston that was done at Lincoln Center. And I did that with Liza Minnelli who initiated the project. And then when Martha died, I was approached by their company because I had worked with them before, they liked what I did and I ended up doing a documentary about her that was shown at City Center to honor her after she died.

Joshua: Like a eulogy.

Jeff: It was more you know a celebration of her work really and a celebration of who she was. And then ironically a few years later when she would have turned 100, I did another piece on her that was used as a fundraiser for the company.

So you know you meet people just like you and I did through somebody else and I met the person that introduced us Tim Francis through somebody else. And you know I guess when you’re adults and you play telephone, some of the connections that you make along the way end up manifesting into something else or lead you into something else. So I never thought about for instance how can I get to this literally 20th century icon of creativity who created the art form of modern dance which was Martha Graham, literally created the art form. I never calculated how could I get to her, what could I do. It happened. You know and so sometimes it’s having your antenna up so that you recognize opportunity. And I felt incredibly fortunate because how often you get to meet somebody who creates a totally unique art form and then get to work with them on top of that. So that was really cool, really cool.

Joshua: So I heard at the beginning of this was you talking to Halston you had the gumption to just call. And so it sounds like it was kind of gumption on your part to call, it was luck that you happen to get him that he would not just stay behind secretaries or something like that but there was something that was you had a sensitivity to a need of his needs, maybe it was an industry-wide thing that no one, maybe no one saw their shows from the front. Was that something you thought of ahead of time or was it just something like through you talking to him and it came up?

Jeff: Yeah. You know if you’re trying to sell somebody something and I was trying to sell him my video services you know when you’re trying to sell anything, you’re trying to fulfill a need. Otherwise why should they buy it? And I thought about the fact that designers are always backstage during their shows so they never actually see their own shows. So you know they don’t see how the clothing moves on the models, they don’t see how the audience reacts. They don’t see any of that. They’ll hear applause from the back and then they walk out and they get applause but they don’t really know and then it’s their staff that fills them in on what happened.

Joshua: And they are biased, the staff.

Jeff: I think so, yeah. And you know oftentimes for good reason they’re bias. So I thought well, this is a real need and at that time there weren’t companies out there videotaping fashion shows. So I think it was also a tribute to Halston’s innate sense of curiosity and savvy about marketing that he was one of the first people to do that.

Joshua: So something that hopefully regular listeners of the show will pick up on is the more effective leaders are, the more that I find that their focus is on the other person. You talk about the concepts if you want to sell something, you have to fulfill a need. And I think a lot of people they think, they associate leadership with “What I can do?” and I think the effective leaders that I talk to it’s always about “How can I serve others? How can I help others? How can I figure out what other people need and what other people want?” Did I capture that right? Is that what you felt?

Jeff: Well, I can’t say that it was altruistic. You know it’s not like, “Well, how can I solve the problems that he has?” I had a specific solution. That solution was video and whatever my talents are as a director and producing the videos for him I felt it did solve a problem that he had and that there was a valid purpose for it because there was something else that that did too.

I remember at the time nobody’s shows were videotaped, they were photographed but not videotaped. So, all of a sudden, there is a whole new mechanism for marketing. You could use videos in stores, you could use videos in the showroom so that the people coming in and waiting for the buying appointments could review the show in motion a lot more dynamic and interesting. Fashion was meant to be seen moving you know hold still wearing the clothes. So I felt like this is a whole new medium that is well suited to fashion, that solves a problem designers didn’t know they had. You know they didn’t think about, “Geez, I never see the show from out front.” because no designers ever saw the show from out front. So this opened up a door of perception for them that didn’t exist before.

And then there were other things from a business point of view that I suggested can amortize the costs of the video. It’s not just that you get to review it with your sales staff and design staff afterwards, you can use it as a tool selling wise when buyers come into the showroom and you can use it as a marketing tool in stores. So there was a lot of business reason you know to do it. You know I often think you know when people talk in business about you know, “Well, I’m there to help. I’m there to help.” Well, you’re primarily there to help yourself. Otherwise you don’t stay in business. You need to generate the revenue to stay in business. But I think that you have to provide a necessary product or service in order to do that. And in a situation like I was in video was so new. People didn’t even know how to use it. So you also had to educate them as to how and why this had value to them.

Joshua: People don’t know this but before we started recording, I said how I wanted to talk… I wanted to kind of get a hook at the beginning of talking about you and Victoria’s Secret and Ralph Lauren and Martha Graham. And now I’m looking back the reason is that when you talk you connect to all these people but I’ve never heard you talk about these things like I know a lot of people who are connected and they’re constantly dropping names and I think they’re kind of promoting themselves. And I’ve never heard you do anything like that. It’s all about right. Now you’re talking about your big break or how you got started and you talk there’s need to be solved, they are unaware of it. I presume you learn to craft well enough that you could do it effectively and you very matter of fact. I think that I don’t know how you get this balance because you’re saying yeah, of course you have to do it for yourself but you’re also talking very much about others. And I think there’s a balance that a lot of people struggle with that I think you’ve hit it very comfortably for yourself of how much do you focus on just helping yourself in the context of you’re helping others as well. Am I right that there’s a balance that you’ve found? And if so, did it take you time to find it? Or was it always there? Am I looking at a way that you don’t even look at?

Jeff: Yeah. If I’ve achieved the balance, I’m not quite sure what I’m balancing. And Paul McCartney said to me, “Don’t drop names.” And you know it’s one thing you in a very articulate and inquisitive way asking an incisive question really what you said is and which is unfortunately true is, “Jeff, you’re a crappy self-promoter.” And I am. You know I’m not good at…I am very good at pitch meetings, I’m very good at all that stuff but I’m not good at you know touting myself in a certain way. Hopefully my work speaks for itself. Hopefully people who refer me to others speak well of me. But in terms of finding a balance that’s no conscious effort as to how what I place my thumb on the scale and in either direction. My parents were both independent business people. My mom and dad had their own business. My sister has her own business. And I think that it is looking out for your client’s best interest is also looking out for your own best interest. Because why else should they hire you? So I try to do good work and bring value to whatever situation I come into so I’ll get hired again you know and continue to get to do what I love doing. So I guess the balance is being aware that you need to make yourself valuable to the client by doing things for them they can’t do for themselves, by solving problems that they have or providing something that they need and in so doing I’m able to build a business at the same time.

Joshua: So when you role’s to be a producer or director, are you a producer and director for the runway show?

Jeff: Well, I was for Halston’s. Yes.

Joshua: So I feel like that’s in such a leadership role. I guess the client is still the person is Halston so you’re still serving someone else.

Jeff: Well, yeah, I mean when you have a client, you’re always serving your client. You know in some of these companies Ralph Lauren when I started working with him many years ago was a much smaller company. I’ve been fortunate on a couple of levels. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked directly with Ralph and that he is someone who I’ve also learned from because he built a very, very valuable global brand. And so to be in from the early days and to observe how that was done was fascinating.

Halston built a very viable brand. His story took a very different trajectory but still fascinating. And so when I worked with people like that I worked with Estée Lauder. I was four years old. But you know when I worked with these companies that they weren’t aware at that time because it wasn’t part of the vernacular. I’m building a brand. You know they were building a business and you know the brand aspect in a sense was hindsight and kind of an academic lens to view what the business was and how it became what it became. And I was very lucky because I not only was able to bring value to them but I was also able to learn and observe from a very advantageous perch. And that was cool.

Joshua: Branding is like a big thing in American culture today and you were there to see the development of an American wave of, I don’t know, I mean in America certainly way of looking at things of brands coming to be. I mean I guess they’re brands before [unintelligible] and things like that that were probably… But not like today.

Jeff: No, I mean I think that you know when you look at brands, I think one of the most vivid examples was Walt Disney because Walt Disney I mean think of how audacious it is to have first Disneyland and then Disney World. You know I mean that’s kind of an audacious vision. And what he did was literally create a fantasy world that people were immersed in. You know they didn’t talk about immersive entertainment then but that’s kind of what an amusement park is. And Disney added to that television which he used to market his brand which was very smart, movie production which was again very smart and another fantasy that you bring people into. So looking at him and looking at what he did that was probably one of the best examples of building a brand. Although I’m sure that he never talked about it like that. He was building a business and he was putting his vision out there.

Joshua: His vision. It’s remarkable how he taps into something that seems very much… There are princesses and things like that it’s like people want to be, like he’s tapping into something it’s, really, I think deep like the iconography.

Jeff: Well, what he’s tapped into is, first of all, he didn’t write any of the stories. He appropriated children’s stories so…

Joshua: Timeless.

Jeff: Yeah. So whether it was Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty you know those were children’s stories that Disney appropriated, he didn’t write them and oftentimes sanitized quite a bit. But the point is that you know the Disney brand is a wholesome family entertainment and that’s what he did and he created that experience not just on the screen. Remember, he started with animated films with Mickey Mouse. So you know to then extrapolate from just that world to being on the screen to literally it being however many hundreds or thousands of acres Disneyland is you know to create that immersive fantasy world, one of them called Fantasyland. In fact, they’re all fantasy land. You know a lot of them are in fantasy land but it was kind of an audacious and brilliant vision to do so.

Joshua: So I want to switch tack a little bit here because I’m thinking about the course that you teach that I sit on. The name of the course is, I think it’s a creative life. What’s the official name?

Jeff: It’s Creative Careers Making a Living with Your Ideas.

Joshua: Creative Careers Making a Living with Your Ideas. And did you propose the course? Did they come to… This is at the New School at Parsons, The New School for Design.

Jeff: Right.

Joshua: And did they come to you? Did you go to them?

Jeff: What happened was as I had been a guest lecturer there I would lecture once a semester for a professor there who had invited me in [unintelligible]. And so after I had been doing that for probably four years – five years once a semester he said you know, “They’re looking to have another course here which I think your lecture would be great if you could turn it into a course.” And I said to him, “You know my schedule is such that I can get a phone call and be out of town or out of the country or in production.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you try it for a third of a semester? Teach four classes and just you know see how that works for you.” What I didn’t know is that there were three of us doing that and we were the final choices for getting an adjunct faculty position. So the response from the students was very strong. They asked me if I would develop the course. I explained my limitations in terms of I can’t turn down productions, I’ve got to do this and this is what will work with you. And I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to do this. I think this starts my either 10th or 11th year of teaching the class, I think the 11th, and it’s been great and I love it and it’s always new because I’m constantly learning along with the students and because Parsons is a good platform and really also because I’ve been able to attract such good people that it’s now every semester I’ve got a great reason to go to people who I think are doing really interesting things that the students could learn from and invite them into the class and they do it.

Joshua: So you get really great people. I sit in in your class as…I am adult, it’s students there. It’s undergrads but I come in and even when it’s a dud I still… Well, to me I mean they’re never duds but even there’s something that doesn’t really resonate with me I still find the perspective that you bring is I think most college students… I don’t think they recognize what they’re getting. I hope they do. But when I was in college, I would not have registered the value of what they’re getting. I’m sure years from now they’re going to look back and see what it means to see the people who have been so successful.

So first, what are you doing in the course? I mean I know that you’re teaching students but what do you bring to them that no one else could bring? Like what motivates you? What’s your passion in teaching this?

Jeff: Well, I don’t know that I bring… I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say that I’m bringing something that no one else could bring. But it was my idea to bring this so I am in the fortunate position of doing it. I look at who really interested me. And for instance, Bill Moyers, Ted Koppel, people who I think I have tremendous respect for, I admire their intelligence, the amount of research they do on the subjects that they deal with and you know when I watch Bill Moyers and I think, “Wow, this guy is making a living talking to really interesting people about what they do.” So he is learning, he’s sharing that knowledge with his audience and there’s just constant personal growth and knowledge going on in that process. That is cool. So now I hadn’t thought about this until recently, in my class I’m kind of doing what he did and does and I still have tremendous respect for him. And so I get to these people. They agree to do the class. I spend a lot of time researching them. If they’re going to give me their time and the students their time and share their knowledge, I want to show them the respect that I really know about the knowledge they’re sharing and know about them, their lives, their work, what they’re doing. So I spend a lot of time researching my guests so that I can showcase those things that they do and why they’re there but also engage them because I think that the best interviews are not interviews. I think they’re conversations and hopefully the conversations are interesting enough that the audience there likes listening to them and in the class as you know so open it up to questions from the audience so that they can engage too.

Joshua: What I heard is that… So you thought of the people that you really liked, Bill Moyers and so forth, Ted Koppel. I think partly you bring to the students what you got from them but you’re also probably taking on that role yourself. So you’re becoming that and you’re bringing to them what was valuable to you. In the process you were becoming also valuable to them. And I think you’re bringing to them something that in an academic environment that’s not what… Most academic stuff is like write a paper and tell me what you know, here’s what to know, tell me that you got it. And this is more of showing them what life can be or how you can do things that other people wouldn’t by you doing it yourself. Am I getting that right?

Jeff: You know well, I think what it is to me is that an incredibly important aspect of life, not just college but life is critical thinking and part of critical thinking is context. There’s a great book, short book, great book by George W. S. Trow called Within the Context of No Context and it’s absolutely brilliant. I highly recommend that for all of your people listening.

Joshua: So I’ll get the link and put that on.

Jeff: Yeah. It’s great. It’s a brilliant work. And I think that it’s important in terms of the knowledge to think and question, place things in context so that you understand them. So a quick example of what I mean. Value. That’s the thing we talk about a lot. And so I showed them a bottle of water, the students, and said, “So well how much is this worth? Should we get it at the deli for a dollar? OK. So do we agree that it’s worth a dollar? So yeah, it’s worth a dollar.” And I said, “OK, now I’m going to change the context. You’re no longer in the class in New York City with the deli right outside the door. You’re in the middle of the desert and I have that one bottle of water and you don’t get that water, you die. How much is it worth now? Would you pay a thousand dollars for it? Would you pay five thousand dollars? Would you pay everything you had if that was the last bottle of water and that was what was keeping you from dying?” So the value greatly increased due to the context of the situation. So one of the students, and it was great, brought up the idea of well, what if you were in the desert. That’s great. And so that led to a whole other discussion. So then you get into conversations about scarcity, you then get into a conversation about what is value and how does that relate to scarcity, to demand, to all of these things and a conversation ensues where the students were thinking about that simple bottle of water that they never thought about before that they can get for a dollar that all of a sudden it’s got a whole new meaning. Well, if I’m able to ignite that kind of discussion, I feel I’m doing a good job as a teacher because I’m getting them to think about things they hadn’t thought about before in a way they hadn’t thought about them before. And I also invite the students to challenge me in anything I say because that’s not only keep me more nimble, I think that it’s just a value just because I happen to be the oldest one in the room and up there in front of the class doesn’t mean I know everything. So I always value getting that kind of feedback because that again is context, it’s the context of the classroom. And these minds which are in a different place than my mind and they’re in different places from each other so that exchange of ideas and critical thinking I think is really valuable.

Joshua: It’s interesting that what you talk about is a separate aspect from bringing it to them. Or is it separate? Because I think of like who are some of… You’ve had National Geographic photographers, writers, head writers, top writers for The New York Times. Jeff Tweedy who reports to Sean Combs.

 Jeff: Michael Arad who designed the 9/11 Memorial.

Joshua: And these people are not necessarily… You don’t talk to them about value in context, not in those words. Are there two separate parts of the class of getting students to think and talk and consider things in new ways? And separately also bringing these people who are successful and who have creative careers? Or is there something tying them together that I hadn’t said and seen yet?

Jeff: Well, there’s a couple of things. Sometimes the discussion leads to that kind of critical thought going on. When Michael Arad talked about the 9/11 Memorial and winning the competition to design that you know what everybody thinks about rightly so is the tragedy that took so many lives on that day. But there’s another side to that. And the other side to that is now there was an opportunity for the building of many office buildings and apartments and all this stuff to then revitalize Lower Manhattan. So there was not just what the public thought about in terms of the tragedy. Then there became the opportunity as a result of that tragedy and the competition for those millions of square feet of office space and living space, the tax incentives to get people who were afraid to move down there to move down there and all of these things. So it became a really interesting discussion that was incredibly engaging to the people in the room because nobody had thought about that kind of thing before. So it’s just hopefully I’m bringing about the opportunity to view things in a different way. And so that was really interesting and then there’s the recitation part of the class which is after my guest lecture, then there is a person, that’s me, after the lecture that person leaves. Then we have discussion about that, about what was just or another topic in the recitation afterwards. But I try to bring the same qualities to all of it which is that critical thinking and that kind of animated discussion that to all…. Because I think that’s what keeps it interesting. I don’t think there are any boring topics but I think there’s lots of boring teachers.

Joshua: Do I conclude right that I think that the type of critical thinking and to be able to think about values and be able talk about these things is in everything. And so you bring in these people who have led creative careers and you bring in what is critically important that other boring professors might not bring in and you bring into that context but you wouldn’t teach if you didn’t bring those things in.

Jeff: Well, I’ll put it in a business context. I was talking to Ralph Lauren and I said…So you know one of his gifts is his instincts and he’s had his fingers on the pulse of the consumers for decades. And I said to him, “How do you know what people want? How do you know your consumers so well?” And he said, “I know what my consumers want because I am the consumer.” And I thought you know that’s really interesting because he is his own compass for what he does and the many different aspects of his lifestyle. So he has an apartment in the city but he has a ranch in Montana in [unintelligible] or wherever it is. The point is he’s got his cowboy lifestyle, he’s got his slick city lifestyle, he’s got his manor in Bedford and so all these different aspects it has different brands around…

Joshua: They’re all him.

Jeff: That’s right. That’s right. And interestingly his inspiration is the movies.

Joshua: [unintelligible]

Jeff: Yeah. And these are the different characters.

Joshua: Did you know that before? As you’re saying it, it seems… I’m sorry to interrupt but as you’re saying it I’m thinking like every picture that I can think of Ralph Lauren’s stuff like fits into what you just said. Does everyone know that but me? Or does… It suddenly it all becomes clear that he’s got a life and he’s giving us his life and it all ties together.

Jeff: I mean it does all tie together. But I would say instead of him giving us his life he has created a style of life and his success has enabled him to live out those different worlds you know because those worlds don’t come cheap. But he’s been very successful and he’s able to live out those worlds in a very full way which is pretty cool.

Joshua: I mean I live in the village. So there’s a Ralph Lauren near me on Bleecker Street that I’m not sure if it’s moved but it has more of like… That one was more like the movie one and then there’s another one on university place and that’s like the western one. And I never knew why they were the way they were. So it’s his aspirations that his brand and his business success has enabled him to put out there and they resonate with you because he is his own consumer. Sorry, this is really cool to me to find out what’s the human story behind what I see.

Jeff: Yeah. I too find that really interesting as I delve deeper into it. I mean because I’ve been working with him for so long these are things that I’ve seen evolve. But yeah, it’s I mean it’s you know it’s fascinating and I think that’s been one of the reasons why he’s had the longevity that he’s had. It’s very hard for anybody in a creative field to stay relevant. That’s a huge challenge. It’s a huge challenge for actors. It’s a huge challenge for writers, for designers of all kinds because there’s always younger people coming up with different ideas, new ideas, what’s going to capture the imagination of the people, all of that so that becomes another thing in creative field is relevance and how do you stay relevant.


Joshua: So yeah, I paused and I interrupted you to talk about Ralph Lauren but I was fascinated by that. I’m going to change topics a little bit. The podcast is Leadership and the Environment. I think to my mind we’ve been talking a lot about leadership and just touching on authenticity and genuineness I can’t help but comment that I feel like he’s authentically and genuinely expressing himself and I think that resonates with people too. But the other part is environment and we haven’t really talked about that. In fact, you’re in my relationship over the years now, I guess. We haven’t really talked about that that much. It is a big passion of mine. Is nature and the environment, stuff like that, is that something that is a big thing for you? Or do you think much about that? I mean you know about the topic of the podcast.

Jeff: I think a lot about the environment because I have kids. My son Jake is his degree from the Gallatin School. This is a curriculum that he developed. It was comprehensive environmentalism. The environment is something that we all share and I am deeply frustrated by the fact that the environment has become a political issue. When we all drink the water, we all breathe the air, we all produce waste, we all are doing things that we could be doing better that could make the planet better. And that when there are people that deny science, when there are people that have no regard for others and as a result create tremendous amounts of unnecessary waste, all of those things really bother me because it shouldn’t be a political issue. This is something that you know we all breathe that air. And so I think it is something that I believe in and care about one of the great quotes that I would love to take credit for but I didn’t say it, it was Neil deGrasse Tyson. He was in a discussion with someone who was a denier of climate change and he spoke all of the things we’ve all heard if you’ve listened to those discussions, the weather always goes in cycles and all this kind of stuff. And you know we’re doing this conversation. Was it September 14?

Joshua: Right now? Yeah. September 14.

Jeff: September 14, 2017, just recently had a tremendous flooding in Houston, Texas from Hurricane Harvey. My daughter Audrey was in St. Martin’s during the hurricane and actually her and her three friends worked with the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard in helping to coordinate some relief efforts down there. The islands in the Caribbean were decimated. Florida suffered tremendous amounts of damage.

Joshua: So this is Irma also.

Jeff: That’s Irma. Backing up Irma was Jose that caused some damage into the Virgin Islands and so on. So the point is that the ferocity and frequency of these weather systems is something that climate scientists have been talking about for years and it’s undeniable. Neil deGrasse Tyson when he was in this discussion said to somebody, and this is before these hurricanes, he said, “You know the wonderful thing about science is it’s true whether you believe it or not.” And I love that quote because it’s so true. And I think that you know I understand why… Some people deny it just because they’re stupid. Other people deny it because they don’t want government interference and regulations that they think affects business somehow. But if we’re all in a world that is horribly polluted and horribly damaged by our lack of attention to the environment, we all lose. And that’s unfortunate and unfortunately, we have an administration that is fostering that kind of ignorance and that kind of lack of priority that protects all Americans and all people all over the world.

Joshua: So I’m surprised we haven’t talked about this before just because I mean you talked about your son. You talked about your daughter. You talked about Florida in Houston, the nation, the world.

Jeff: And the islands in the Caribbean that were so horribly decimated. And those by the way, and this is one of the things my daughter said to me, you know she went out on a C-130 rescue plane. There were other Americans who were being evacuated at that time. But for instance, the people who were part of the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard who she and her friends worked with, their homes were destroyed. They can’t get on a plane and evacuate. They have no place to go. The tourist industry which supports those islands isn’t going to be there for a while until these islands are rebuilt. What are these people going to do? And so relief efforts, money raising efforts to help these places is incredibly important. That’s so front of mind with my daughter and I’m so proud of her for that that that’s what she thinks of first is that the other people and the suffering that they have.

Joshua: And you could say why would you live there in the first place? But it hits everybody. It’s not like weather is in one place and not others. It’s everywhere. And it’ll be us at some point. We got hit by… What was the one that hit New York? Sandy. And it’s a matter of time until the next one…

Jeff: Katrina, New Orleans. I mean you know this stuff happens, a tsunami that happened. You know these things happen.

Joshua: You know it hit me when I was preparing my talks for my students before. The words they sound corny almost this much later but they really… “We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones to make a brighter day.” When I was a kid and you know that song came out “We Are the World”, I was like I don’t really think much of it. It’s like a cool song. You know raise money for Africa and stuff like that. But like those words are really right on like we are the world, we are helping ourselves. So yeah, you really bring that home for me.

Jeff: You know there are a few things that are… We may all have different kinds of belief systems going on but there are a few things that affect all of us and the environment affects all of us. So how do we make that better for not only ourselves, it’s kind of intangible to think of future generations if you don’t have kids. I have kids. I think of it for them. I think of the grandchildren that I might have. But it’s all families, that family of man that share this planet that I think that that awareness that we need to be working together not across purposes in order to preserve that there is an arrogance that goes against that which hurts everybody.

Joshua: So when you say we have to work together and someone’s politicizing things and polarizing so some people working against each other that to you is like it’s the opposite of what we need to get through this.

Jeff: Well, I think that again it comes back to putting things in context. It is important to think of economic impact, that is important to think about jobs and people’s livelihoods and all of that. So you know it’s kind of interesting because in the same general time period that you hear about the coal industry suffering which was suffering long before this and fossil fuels are not the solution to anything. And so there’s all this talk about how jobs are being eliminated in that area. There’s many, many, many more jobs being eliminated in retail as a result of online purchasing.

Joshua: Robotics and the factories…

Jeff: Automation. That’s correct. All of these things. So I think it’s important to try to think of solutions in context where you have to also take into consideration the impact that it does have on people, that does have on their livelihoods and all of that and then reach reasonable solutions through informed dialogue and informed discussion and debate, not ideology that’s based on nothing other than greed.

Joshua: A few minutes ago you talked about not just knowing about this but what we can do, how we can work together. And one of the big parts of the show is I invite people at their option to take on a personal challenge. And for people who haven’t… You know this but for people who might be listening to their first episode what I ask people… If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. But if you do, it doesn’t have to be something that fixes the world’s problems overnight all by yourself because a lot of people feel like if it doesn’t do everything, they don’t do anything but it has to be something that fits with your values, that makes a difference. And if you choose to do it, then it’s something that you can do it short term but I hope that if you do it, that you think of maybe doing it something permanent, something that would endure. Would you be interested in taking on a personal challenge?

Jeff: Depends on what that personal challenge is.

Joshua: Well, some people have one before they start like they’ve always wanted to do something but a lot of people they haven’t yet figured it out, they come in and we talk about it. And so I mean you talked about working together, you talked about your son, you talked about your daughter. You talked about weather that’s going on right now or not weather… The hurricanes. So it seems to me like since those are the things that came up first I wonder if there’s things around there that have you ever thought about something that you’ve kind of wanted to do but never really got around to or something like that.

Jeff: And by the way, I don’t get corrected later by my son. When I mentioned this tsunami and tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, under the oceans so it’s not the environmental aspect but it’s things that damage land. You know for instance one of my ongoing challenges and this is a challenge that I give myself literally every semester is to find people to impart knowledge to the students so that we can all learn and know more and benefit from that knowledge because I think that the core foundation of everything is education and learning. And so that’s a challenge I took on when I decided to take this job teaching it at Parsons that it wasn’t like, “Oh, now I’ve got this.” I mean you book guests doing your podcasts. It’s not easy booking 15 guests a semester, coordinating very busy people’s schedules to get them to give you that time and that requires a lot of work. Quite aside from all the research that I do to prepare for those guests to come in to deliver that value to the students.

So that’s an ongoing challenge I have which is to constantly try and educate and inform and you know I think that education to me is where it all starts. There’s other things. For instance, you know Jake, my son, said, “Just turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth.” You know people leave the water on and they brush their teeth. Then the water runs much longer than it needs to. You waste much more than you need to and that’s kind of a simple thing. You know just turn it off you know and…

Joshua: Do you?

Jeff: I do. I do and I’m conscientious about that. You know that’s just as of couple of years ago, becoming aware of it a few years ago but it’s a simple thing that if everybody did it would be a tremendous thing. You know a lot of times I think it’s really hard for people to get their head around the fact that small acts like that like you know taking your own shopping bag as opposed to taking a plastic bag that’s lined with a paper bag every time you go to the grocery. My wife carries cloth bags to bring the stuff home. Not totally but she does that a lot and that’s a result of just a higher awareness of all the waste that is created.

Joshua: It’s beyond awareness. It’s activity. You can be aware and not act.

Jeff: That’s right. That’s right. And you know you don’t see styrofoam cups around as much. And that’s because awareness was heightened and people took action. So I think you know it’s hard for people to imagine, “What can I do that’s going to have an impact? What difference does it make if I turn on and off the water while I’m brushing my teeth?” Actually, it would have a big impact because hopefully there’s a multiplier effect, people will become aware of these things and incorporate these into the habits of what they have. You know you don’t need to stand in a shower for 10 minutes. You know just there’s simple things that if there’s that multiplier effect, it becomes better for everybody.

Joshua: Yeah. I’m going to go even farther that it’s not just… This is actually my blog post yesterday. It’s that the value of doing small things… People say little things add up to more. I won’t argue with that but I think there’s a much bigger effect which is that if you don’t care about the little things, you don’t even notice the big things. Once you care about the little things, then you notice the big things and when you notice the big things and you’ve already acted. Now you can act on the big things and it’s more like a stepping stone. Then people after they make the little changes, then they make the big changes and those are the ones that really count. Those add up. And every now and then you’ll have someone who does a little thing and they’re also a big decision maker at some multinational corporation and a little thing that they did about not throwing stuff away or something will lead to the whole company doing that. And I guess that’s maybe the multiplier effect you’re talking about.

Jeff: Yeah. I mean we see that with smoking. You know you can no longer smoke in the office buildings, you can’t smoke in waiting rooms, you can’t do all of that which used to be a pollutant to everybody that was around.

Joshua: You know the big thing for me is when I was a kid growing up you could say, “Give me one for the road” meaning, “I’m about to drive. Would you please give me some alcohol?” And that just doesn’t fly anymore. And I think people today maybe they’ll say like the meat is like a big global warming thing, big pollutant. And so people say go for Meatless Mondays. It’s a small thing and may have a multiplier effect but I think if you could go back to back when drinking and driving was more accepted than today… It does happen I guess still today but not like it was before and certainly that doesn’t have the public acceptance that it would. And no one would say, “You know what let’s not drink and drive on Mondays. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, go ahead.” You wouldn’t do that. My point being that I think when people say to someone, “Just do this little thing.” you don’t say do a little thing when you think it’s awesome, when I think it’s going to make your life much better. Like not drinking and driving. I don’t say, “Do a little bit of not drinking and driving.” I’d say, “Go for the whole thing.” because you’re going to like it. And I think there’s a danger in saying, “Do this little thing.” It implies you don’t want to do it.

Jeff: Well, I think you know the interesting thing about the example the drunk driving is that it was Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, that had tremendous effect on policy in raising public awareness. And this was literally mothers who are, and I don’t know this for sure whether they suffered a particular loss as a result of a drunk driver. A dear friend of mine his mother was killed by a drunk driver. And this was something that started as a grassroots effort that has had a tremendous national impact and changed the public perception that it is not cool. They came up with the designated driver idea and it’s not so cool that “one for the road” which yeah, looking back is like absurd.

Joshua: From today’s standards it’s unbelievable. Is it possible that people say it makes you more relaxed and somehow helps? I don’t know. I wasn’t there but it’s really hard to imagine now. And I hope, part of the reason I’m doing this podcast is I hope that sometime in the future people would look at… I don’t know… One of the things you mentioned going to the store and getting new bags. You just wouldn’t… When I think of going to the store, I think, “Okay, I got to get a bag. Otherwise, how am I going to get this stuff home” And I hope that it becomes so automatic that what people now say is like difficult or hard that at a time it’ll be as hard as not drinking and driving. So would you be interested in taking on something that you… It sounds like you already turn off the faucets, that’s something that you’ve already done. But are you interested in doing another or something like that?

Jeff: Well, and as I said my ongoing challenge every semester is finding people who have knowledge of value to impart to the students which takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. But that’s something I do. So I don’t know what… I kind of feel every day is a challenge. So I’m not exactly sure of a specific activity beyond the stuff that I’m doing that I’d want to take on but I’ll listen.

Joshua: Well, I mean how did you feel? Are you glad that you did the turning off the water, the bringing the bags with you to the store? You said your wife does that, I presume you do it too.

Jeff: She tends to do more of the daily shopping than I do. And so I’m not going to take credit for doing things I don’t do you know because she tends to do that more. Do we separate our garbage and recycling and do I do that? Yeah, I do. And do I feel better? It’s really not about feeling better. I can’t say that it’s increased my emotional sense of well-being to turn the water off. I just think you know this is a smart thing to do that there is benefit that is hopefully if enough people do this, there will be benefit to it. But it’s nothing that I don’t turn off the faucet and then smile. It’s not like, “Wow, this is fun.” But I just think that you know these are behaviors that as a society we ought to adopt because it will help the general well-being if it’s done by enough people long enough.

Joshua: So that’s something that will have that effect of what you just described. And by the way, one thing I made a decision early on strategically for this is if someone’s already doing something, I want them to do something new. So if you’re already doing something, it doesn’t count. So that’s why you keep saying the teaching…

Jeff: We keep cancelling out my…

Joshua: Not cancelling them out. I want people listening to this to hear someone’s making a change that they also could make. I’ll give examples of what other people have done for the show. Like so a bunch of people are doing things where they’re eating less meat. Some are doing things…

Jeff: By the way, I stopped eating meat 40 years ago.

Joshua: It seems to be longer than… I stopped in 1990.

Jeff: Actually, I’m getting old. I stopped eating red meat in 1969 so that’s 48 years ago.

Joshua: Do you remember what was the last meat you ate?

Jeff: You know I don’t remember. It was probably a steak or something. And by the way I don’t miss that at all. And I didn’t stop for environmental reasons. It ends up that I think there’s health benefits to it and certainly with the methane that is produced by cows there’s environmental… If enough people did it, environmental benefits from it and so on. But I can’t say that I started it because of that but I actually just once I stopped eating red meat, I actually felt better. And not that I felt bad before but I felt better not doing it. And then science is beyond to back that up.

Joshua: OK. So you can’t stop eating meat. So some people are turning off the air conditioner more.

Jeff: I do. But that’s something I do. You know I don’t think you need to keep an empty apartment air conditioned. You can deal with the discomfort for a few minutes when you come in if it’s particularly warm as it comes back on again.

Joshua: Oh, well this guy was not turning it on at all for the summer. Then some people are switching from driving… One guy’s is not getting a car. He’s moving to Europe and he and his wife were trying to decide, “Should we get a car or not or should we [unintelligible] car or not?” and they decided because of the podcast they’re going to not get a car like that’s the decision.

Jeff: [unintelligible] ahead of my time. I don’t have a car. And also, either take public transportation or ride sharing.

Joshua: So I walk here.

Jeff: Well, as you know I think I walk three miles to work every day.

Joshua: OK. And then what are some other things that people are doing… Not getting bags, you’re already doing. Picking up trash. That’s one that I do that a couple of people have picked up on which is every day I pick up at least one piece of trash off the street and put in a trash can.

Jeff: I thought you were collecting it.

Joshua: Well, not yet. Yeah. And if there’s a recycling bin around and it’s recyclable I’ll choose that and talk about awareness and changing…

Jeff: Well, it was funny thinking back when I was much younger people just used to drop their papers and trash any place and even when driving in a car…

Joshua: You just throw it out the window.

Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. I was looking back and then it’s like, “What were you thinking that that was acceptable behavior?” It’s crazy.

Joshua: You know I recently re-watched the… It’s called The Crying Indian public service announcement. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. And there’s a couple of versions of it. And you know it’s a heartfelt ad public service announcement, it makes a lot of sense. And the amount of pollution and litter that we have now is so much greater than it was then. I don’t know. Anything resonates so far? I guess a lot of the things you’re already doing.

Jeff: Yeah, I mean I think, first of all, trying to stay informed which I try to do. Then having a son who is studying all of this stuff so that if the water was on, “Dad, why don’t you turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth? You don’t need to keep the water on.” You know what I would leave the light on in a room and you kept coming back in. I said, “Well, you know turning it on and off shortens its life.” He says, “No, that’s a myth. It doesn’t shorten the lifespan of the light bulb.” So all of these kinds of things that’s another thing that keep you in line is when family members are also aware and telling you things to do. That keeps you front of mind.

Joshua: That makes me think of something that might work is what if you just went to your son and asked him… He sees you all the time. Maybe he has a suggestion and you could do it.

Jeff: Yeah. I could ask him. He loves giving me suggestions so as does my daughter. Yeah. I don’t want to give the impression that wow, he’s already doing everything well and perfectly. I’m not but these more basic things we’re talking about frankly I have been aware of them, I have been trying to be mindful and making them habits like turning off the water. Same thing when I shave, I do the same thing. I know you don’t shave as often as I do.

Joshua: I shaved today.

Jeff: So well, your beard looks good on a podcast. But you know things like that have become habit which weren’t before.

Joshua: Yeah. So I mean it can go to the next level. For me, listeners know this but you know I took on one which is to eat no food where I throw away packaging or to avoid as much as possible which led to I now take landfill garbage out once or twice a year and which is probably more than a 90 percent reduction. And then that’s also led to not fly or to avoid flying. So I’m sure that I’ll fly again sometime in my lifetime. But I mean roughly 18 months since the last time that I flew because I chose not to do that and that’s an example for me of where long time ago it was not turning off the water when I was brushing my teeth and then they keep building and building and building and then if once you get a bunch of them at one level, then you go to the next. In my case it’s like you start being able to do things you couldn’t do before.

Jeff: There is another thing that I do which is when I buy my lunch you know and if I get a sandwich that’s you know wrapped or a thing of soup or whatever, I don’t take the bag and put everything in, I just carry that stuff. Yeah you know it’s kind of one less bag or two less bags.

Joshua: Isn’t weird when you see someone walking out of a supermarket and they’re carrying like a bag of potato chips in a bag?

Jeff: Right.

Joshua: Like it doesn’t… But I wanted to see if we can come up with something that you haven’t been doing that would be a challenge. I’m thinking of going to the son and saying you’ll find something with him and…

Jeff: Yeah, I’ll certainly talk to Jake about that. Why not?

Joshua: So could we make that your challenge is to [unintelligible] with him?

Jeff: [unintelligible] to talk to my son.

Joshua: And find something from him that you can act on so that next time when we talk on the podcast assuming we do a second time, then we’ll start by saying, “OK, so Jake gave you an idea…”

Jeff: Well, he’s a good guy to ask, a smart guy to ask so that will be interesting. If nothing else, I can give a list of things that he suggested that could be done that I didn’t do or that I incorporated one of them. So I think that’s a good idea.

Joshua: Okay, yeah. It’s… What’s the word? On your part, you’re agreeing to do something. You don’t know what it is yet, it is gumption or not gumption…

Jeff: That’s life.

Joshua: Yeah. And it’s something that I am finding a bunch is that a lot of people are doing this is it like a family thing. Like first they are thinking about themselves and then it becomes their kids involved or they connect it with their children, they connect it with their parents. So that’s not a rare thing in this podcast. I’m surprised that, in retrospect not that surprised, I shouldn’t be surprised but that’s something people connected with their families. And you have naturally right off the bat said this is something you have children and maybe grandchildren one day and this is something that you identify with them.

So you’ve got to negotiate with him to figure out something. And maybe say we’ll talk again in a month. Would that work for you?

Jeff: Sure.

Joshua: OK. So it’ll be something that could be on a week or two week or three agreement timescale that moves the needle. Something about your behavior that your behavior reduces pollution and or global warming or resource depletion or something like that. This is the first time someone’s like, “I’ll do something I don’t know what it is yet.”

Jeff: Yeah. I sort of feel that every morning when I get up. I’m going to do something I don’t know what it is yet.

Joshua: Right. So well let’s wrap up there. Is there anything I didn’t think to ask that came up that’s worth bringing up before wrapping up?

Jeff: I mean it seems well covered. You’re the best judge of that in terms of getting what you think is good for your listeners.

Joshua: Yeah, I mean I have to say with the leadership part when you were talking about your experience and the people you’ve worked with and the perspective I’ve talked to you a lot about these things before but I’ve picked up new things that I think really valuable. I try to make how to become more of a leader oneself, something, access to leadership is something that I try to bring to the listener. So I think that was there. And the environment part, I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out. Now I’m very curious so worked great for me.

Jeff: Great, it was fun. Thank you very much. Nice job. Thanks.

Joshua: Thank you. We’ll talk again here in about a month.

Jeff: Okey-doke.


If not for Jeff, I’d think of fashion as being a less than genuine field. I guess I’ve seen Zoolander a few too many times but he is the salt of the earth. A main purpose of this podcast I think for cultural change is to reach and influence influential people and Jeff shows how it’s done not making a big deal about it. Just getting things done. He’s in business for people making a difference and I wanted to bring that to this audience. He does the grunt work to make things happen. Through him I also met Sally Singer at Vogue who also became a guest on this podcast. So I recommend listening to that episode. The field of fashion is incredibly influential. I didn’t realize how much until talking to them and I hope you also see why from listening to these episodes and more importantly I hope that you learn to follow suit, use that influence and influence similarly.

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