"Crafting a Life Well-Lived"
What does it mean to risk your future to help someone else achieve theirs?
That's what Jim Jacoby, founder of The American Design and Master-Craft Initiative (ADMCi) did after he met world-renowned motorcycle designer, JT Nesbitt in May 2012.
Before the two met, Nesbitt and Jacoby were battling personal demons on parallel paths. Nesbitt’s were the result of Hurricane Katrina, the loss of his life’s work, and a new search for meaning. Jacoby’s was, on the surface, much more subtle. It was born from what should have been an exciting trip to Austin conference South by Southwest (SxSW) in May 2009.
Jacoby’s company of expert digital designers and developers had won the right to compete in an elite competition. They were challenged to build a complete social, digital, and marketing platform in just days. Manifest Digital, his agency, was one of the top agencies in the country, having grown from humble beginnings in 2001 to a force to be reckoned with by 2009. His people were up against some of the country’s best competitors and they had their work cut out for them.
While they toiled away, Jacoby attended the conference. At one panel—creatively staged ‘in the round’—two Chicagoans well known for their social media prominence were taking questions from a packed audience. From Jacoby’s row, a colleague asked, “As we’re talking about Facebook friends and Twitter followers, I’m wondering if you could define the word ‘friend’?”
The panelists froze. In retrospect, it was clear they struggled to find a way to answer this question honestly while still validating the early legions of followers they’d managed to amass and leverage for notoriety in the community. The answer came down like a wrecking ball: “I don’t think you can, really.” A debate erupted. Jacoby walked out devastated. The company he’d built for the previous 8 years was competing at the top of its game just blocks away. Meanwhile, legions of supposed design professionals were unraveling the very fabric of society. If they couldn’t honestly answer basic human questions like these, Jacoby realized he was complicit in a race to the bottom, one that could wreck the very things that make us ‘good.’ The agencies who worked under the guise of connecting people in new ways were in fact driving us apart. There was no way around it. His team won the competition that week and Jacoby returned to Chicago leading his company in a new direction, vowing to put humanity at the center of his company’s design solutions.
In the ensuing years Manifest grew and under this philosophy also spawned two non-profits that actually outpaced the agency. One was a philanthropic think-tank. The other pitted the skills of digital designers against intractable social challenges. They were well ahead of their time and Jacoby funded them personally until they had the momentum to stand on their own.
But his for-profit agency remained at odds with itself and with him personally. It remained difficult to suss out the real issue. Running a business to perform to profit-driven motives wouldn’t easily square with the humanist goals that haunted him since the conference in Austin. In the Spring of 2012 he vowed to spend a year seeking a clearer answer. His mantra: “Working like hell to put humanity back in business.”
By this time, Jacoby’s non-profits held conferences of their own. The next would be in New Orleans in May. He organized a personal pilgrimage to raise awareness for the event and dove into deep introspection along the way. On a hunch, he asked a friend to reach out to JT Nesbitt, the famed motorcycle designer who lived there, because he thought he might find in Nesbitt a clue to what he was just beginning to realize as Master-Craftsmanship.
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Nesbitt, a Louisiana native, earned legendary status for his design of the Wraith motorcycle back in 2005. With its minimalist lines and revolutionary simplicity, the Wraith was like no other, shifting the very concept of what motorcycle design could be. But just as the Wraith was poised for success, Hurricane Katrina gutted the city, indiscriminately wiping out businesses like Nesbitt’s.
In a difficult breakup, the company he had worked so hard to help build moved out of state, taking his designs with it. Nesbitt’s deepest loyalties were to his city, so he stayed… and designed cars instead. It was too painful and financially risky to start a new motorcycle design. A master-craftsman through and through, he was compelled to continue creating, but it was impossible to make a living, so he worked in a bar cleaning toilets to support his work in the studio.
Eight years after Katrina, along came Jacoby. He’d read reports of Nesbitt's story of brilliance and heartbreak and was intrigued. It stirred an excitement that he had not experienced in years. Although initially guarded, Nesbitt soon warmed to his visitor’s genuine interest.
Then Jacoby asked the question that started the designer believing again. "What would you design if you could design anything at all?"
Nesbitt didn’t miss a beat. "I would design a bike that answered all of the questions the Wraith asked."
It’s a loaded answer that could easily have been missed in the blur of the smoke-filled bar in the French Quarter, but it stopped Jacoby in his tracks. Nesbitt's vision was not to just improve his groundbreaking Wraith. It was to reimagine and surpass it. In a non-descript corner of a still ravaged city, it was akin to Michelangelo demanding to re-do the Sistine Chapel.
What kind of man challenges himself to one-up his life’s work? Jacoby heard an unmistakable voice inside, compelling the soft-spoken business leader into action: I've got to do this. There is no way not to do this.
He didn't know how to make it happen, he didn’t understand Nesbitt’s full vision, and they’d only met 12 hours prior. Yet he deeply believed in Nesbitt and instinctively knew that this project could be life changing for both of them.
Jacoby jokes that he is so in awe of designers because he can’t do what they do. Instead, he has an understanding of the business of design, with a unique ability to rebalance the tension that pulls from either end. In the middle, he infuses gifted people with an unquestioning belief in their talents. That is after all what made his agency so successful.
Over the next few months, as the two continued to talk, Jacoby architected a plan not just for a new motorcycle but for an ecosystem of business, design, and learning that would self-sustain. As Jacoby pondered the details, he began to consider a bigger question. Could this project reveal deeper meaning? After all, Nesbitt would be building this motorcycle from scratch, all the way down to the bolts that held it together. The design efforts of a master craftsman could yield lessons that might be replicated, even across industries.
A new question arose for Jacoby. Was the dwindling natural resource of Master-Craftsmanship a place to rediscover meaning not just in ourselves, but in our work, and even the social constructs seemingly hungry for guiding principles?
Taking an enormous risk, Jacoby went deep into his own pockets to back the project with his life savings. It was too early and too big to get support from outsiders. He commissioned Nesbitt to design the Bienville Legacy, a motorcycle to emerge from eight years of patience and imagination, realized in titanium and carbon fiber.
Over the course of the first year, this process brought Jacoby to a personal realization as well. In the same way the previous non-profits he’d funded outgrew his 12-year-old agency, he too was finally ready to move on. He wanted to focus on elevating the design profession as a whole, rather than focusing on a single company. He began to realize that a new definition of craftspeople across media, working in new forms, and serving all verticals was set to emerge.
Compounding his risk, he left the company that had promised personal wealth and formed his professional identity for more than a decade. He exited to found ADMCi and its three business units: The School for Digital Craftsmanship, The ADMCi Foundation, and ADMCi Commissions.
Having finally aligned their paths, Jacoby and Nesbitt are now working on many levels together. The ADMCi Foundation is funding Nesbitt’s craft as an Artisan in Residence, to be studied and codified for shared learning, especially in the digital space. The motorcycle itself is generating high-value patents and related stories for ADMCi Commissions, which will provide ongoing financial strength. And the school is teaching its first round of classes to participants who want not only to design, but to do so in the context of a broader purpose.
“We’re not just making apps and websites anymore,” Jacoby will say. “We’re building the infrastructure our children and grandchildren will live on for years to come. A sense of Craftsmanship will guide better decisions, focus us on the journey rather than the destination, and celebrate hard work rather than misleading paydays.”
Nesbitt's first prototype design is nearly finished. In September 2014, they will take it to the Bonneville Salt Flats to set a land-speed record. Jacoby will be the one riding it.
It's that all-out belief that makes this process work, according to Jacoby. You can’t just invest money and expect something great to happen. But if you truly invest yourself, you can guarantee it.
"I'm willing to put my heart and money where my mouth is," Jacoby says, adding that real rewards yield a richness of experience much more valuable than money. In his world, you don’t measure a life’s worth in years or dollars, but in shared accomplishments.
In his eyes, that’s a world worth living in. And, perhaps a bit ominously, the only viable option for all of us.
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