/whacks eee uhs/ adjective: highly adaptable | pliant | well suited for multiple uses


Barbara CaleaseRight before you got very ill, Mom, you had already made up your mind. You wanted no funeral. No wake. No trace left behind but the memories you built yourself with each of us. You wrote letters to us to be read after you were gone. You made every consideration to make sure we knew how much you loved us, right up until the very end. It was April 25th, 2013 when you left us but not before you gave us your last wish – to be sure and donate your body to those who would learn most from the offering. You chose the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine.

You were committed to learning throughout your whole life. When I was little in the late seventies, you insisted on enrolling me in a Montessori program, compelled by the merits of Dr. Maria Montessori’s approach to learning as discovery, empowering each child to find their own way. You surrounded me with computers of all makes and models in the eighties, even as they were cost-prohibitive, having the foresight to prepare your son for the coming age of electronic education and commerce. You included me in anything and everything I showed inclination and interest in. Rather than being a nuisance to you, you encouraged my voracious curiosity and modeled an interest in learning about things as a strong character trait. Even in your last years you took computer classes, taught yourself to use the machine to send me letters, pictures and share your life with me even as I was very far away. Your influence on me to build my own fluencies allowed me to write blog posts, letters and send pictures back, and more, all in order to most effectively share my life with you across vast distances. You made up your mind, even at the very beginning of my life, to make learning how to learn a valuable thing, the centerpiece of the example you chose to set for your young son. I owe all I have learned and accomplished to your love, your example and the decisions you made on my behalf.

I am so proud to be your son, Mom. Thank you for being who you were. It is no small thing to have left such resonance behind for me to bask in, to carry on in the spirit you gave me, to keep learning and keep sharing. What tremendous gifts you have given me to share with my own little boy. It is because of the choices you made, such as always ensuring I had access to tools and experiences to optimize my opportunities to learn, that I have all the tools I need to accomplish whatever it is I set my mind to. You have done that so very well. Because of you I possess a great many fluencies. There is no way I could have known or recognized such insight until after you already willed them to me. My heart is filled with so much love and gratitude, Mom. Thank you.

Mom and meYou built our culture on your own without any suggestion. It took a great deal of courage, especially back in your day when women had even less equality. Likewise, making the decision to donate your body, when the time came, to the Carver School of Medicine at the University of Iowa, was a mighty, selfless and generous choice. It is a testament to your will and to your love of learning and sharing that you are honored by them today. Each year, the school holds a memorial to honor and commemorate those who have been so generous and courageous to donate their most precious resource to furthering the learning of others.

I am grateful to you, Mom. Thank you for loving me so much as to embed your passion for learning deep into my culture, so deep, in fact, that it may be that singular greatest characteristic in me, one that has allowed me my own humble success in this life. Thanks to your influence in this way, I have always been able to find meaningful work with other gifted people, equally interested to further our cause. Your passion has empowered me to learn a great many things, not the least of which is adapting to and learning that which is best to accomplish any task with grace, style and craft. Exactly the way you would do it, Mom.

I love you. I miss you.

Perception, Context, Empathy, and the Art of Communication

perceptionPerceptions sure are funny things. Everything depends on them. Especially outcomes. This is one for the memory banks.

Here is some context: last weekend, my little boy and I had just gotten home. We were unloading our bikes from the day’s festivities (it was Memorial Day Weekend), carrying stuff back into the house: he his stuffed animals, water bottle, toys, and treats, while I carried in the picnic lunchins, blanket, camera, etc. That’s when a woman came to the back fence and asked, “Does this little girl belong to you?

Dash and I went to the gate. We found ourselves looking at an adorable little girl, probably 2, along with a woman and her daughter, maybe 7 years old, holding their dog on a leash.

I asked, “This little one, here? She’s not with anyone?”
“I found her at the end of the alley,” the woman replied. Our alley is a quaint dirt road that runs behind a row of houses on a residential street here in a quiet part of Evanston. Generally safe but not for a 2-year-old all alone. There is a minimal amount of residential traffic but it is traffic, nonetheless. How did this little girl get here and where were her people?

“I’m calling 9-1-1,” the woman said, and took her phone out of her pocket.
“Wait,” I said. I looked at the little girl and said, “let’s see if we aren’t able to find your people first, huh?”
The woman held her phone handy but seemed almost miffed.
My mind was full of thoughts at this point but I will get back to that.
First thing was first, I took Dash by the hand and we went out of the gate to the little girl.

Dash walked right up to her and took her hand. I just love how kids often act way more calm, cool, and collected than adults when the pressure is on.

At this point, I had Dash’s hand and he had the little girl’s hand as we stood behind the house with the woman, her daughter, and their dog looking on. I asked the little girl, “Where is everybody?”
She was cool as a cucumber. Not visibly worried at all. She pointed.
I said, “Let’s go find ‘em, shall we?”
Surest thing you know, the little one looked at Dash and started walking. The three of us sauntered along. As we were walking, Dash began to sing and hum. If anyone was worried, it wasn’t us. The little girl smiled big at Dash as he hummed and chortled down the way until, three houses down, the girl led us up to another gate, this one slightly ajar. Wouldn’t you know it, just wide enough for a little girl to get through.

The woman, her daughter, and their dog were right behind us and she shouted, “EXCUSE ME!!! EXCUSE ME!!!”

A woman came to the screen door, then out onto the deck and said, “Yes?”
The woman on the deck looked REALLY confused. She had been given no context, whatsoever. That’s when I spoke up.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt you. Do you have a moment?”
“Sure,” she said, and came down the steps, across the yard to the gate.
By the time anyone started saying anything at all in this, the little girl had already wiggled back inside the gate, still holding Dash’s hand. I said, “Stick around, please,” and he let go, though, not without some reticence. He wanted to follow her but was a good sport about it.

little_girlThe woman came to the gate and the woman behind me said, “WE FOUND THIS LITTLE GIRL AT THE END OF THE ALLEY WITHOUT ANY SUPERVISION,” in a most confrontational tone. The woman behind the gate looked stunned. All she knew was that, last she probably knew, the little girl was inside the fence and now, as if she had never left, appeared to STILL be inside the fence.

I said, “See here?” I drew her attention to the gateway, that it opened against a railroad tie along a small garden bed outside the gate but just enough that her little girl could get out.

“Oh my!” said the woman. She looked down sweetly at her little girl, now standing just on the other side of the fence from Dash. “23 months old? So that’s when you made your first successful jailbreak?” The little girl flashed a big, toothy smile and ran back into the yard giggling. “I am so grateful! Thank you for finding her and getting her home safely! Thank you!” she said, looking down at Dash.

“Your welcome!” said Dash, two-year-old style. This kid!

The woman went back inside, calling after who I presume was her husband to secure the gateway and chuckling about the little girl’s resourcefulness and good fortune to be found and back home safely.

I was grateful Dash and I were there. I was so surprised, though. I would expect another mother, especially, to be empathetic to another parent’s wonky situation. Calling 9-1-1 as a first effort could have gone a number of different ways, mostly wrong. I could not conjure her logic, myself. The woman could not communicate with a two-year-old enough to figure out where she belonged? It seemed natural to me to make every effort to locate the little girl’s home before creating such a drastic intervention. Why is my definition of best intentions so different? Calling the police on such a simple matter could have led to further misunderstanding, even so far as to get DFYS involved, creating unwarranted problems for that family. Who knows?

Communication is such an art form. Why is it so easy to misunderstand an audience? Does it take something special to apply empathy in a situation like that? I certainly felt, right away, “What would I feel like as the parent of this little one?” and “What is a logical explanation for this?” because no one would intentionally leave a two-year-old alone on their own like that. As a parent, I immediately felt there was something I could do to help. Calling the police was the last thing on my mind. How was it the first thing on hers? The snide way in which the woman spoke was also disappointing. I have on occasion witnessed the motherly competitiveness among females but this seemed waaay overblown. In addition, she also did not consider the woman she was shouting at had no context to answer her question of whether or not the little girl was “IN THE RIGHT PLACE.”

hightowersDash and I turned to walk home. The woman, her daughter, and their dog were already walking.

Dash and I were certainly in the right place that day. I was proud as can be. I loved the way he responded to that little girl in such a comforting and empathetic manner. I loved the way he pretty much shouted with glee, “You’re welcome!” to her mother who genuinely thanked us, clearly surprised at what had happened. It could have happened to anyone.

As we walked, we caught up with the woman, her daughter, and their cute dog. Dash wanted to pet the dog but neither the woman nor the daughter made any gesture to facilitate it so we kept walking. “All’s well that ends well,” I said. Nothing. No one said anything, except Dash, who said, “High tower, papa?” which meant he wanted me to lift him up so he could ride on my shoulders. “Okay!” I said and lifted that sweet little boy up there.

Dash started to hum, again. We had helped our neighbors. We had shown compassion but even better – empathy. We were problem solvers. I was grateful we were there, grateful we could communicate well with both the little girl and her mother. We walked home but then kept on walking, onward around the neighborhood, into the evening, humming and chortling together, feeling good. Tall as towers.

Race, Socio-Economics, and being cool with each other

diversityWhat do I know about diversity? I thought I knew something about race, gender, socio-economics, and my own identity in relationship to something larger than myself. Turns out I knew very little. I learned more from this past year than I ever imagined I did not know and am keeping my eyes and ears open to the lessons still resonating after a year of talking and thinking about such big, complicated concepts that touch each and every one of us.

Throughout this past year I was fortunate enough to participate in SEED. The National SEED Project  is the largest peer-led leadership development project in the US, engaging community members and leaders from all subject areas and geographic locations to create gender fair, multicultural, equitable, socioeconomically aware, and globally informed education.

SEED invites the engagement of ideas, experiences, and identity. As participants, we developed ways of understanding complex relations between ourselves and systems with regard to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability/disability, and other lived cultural experiences. Everyone who took part in SEED throughout the year engaged in diversity work in both familiar and unfamiliar ways. Some days were certainly more interesting than others, especially as the year wore on and we became more comfortable with each other, opening ourselves up to being more vulnerable and sharing huge things that have and are continuing to go on in our lives. In a word, the experience was transformational.

Diversity Director, Brian Corley, and Academic Director, Chris Ambroso, guided us through conversations and exercises as we described our own experiences and those of our community to widen and deepen our collective understanding of a more inclusive culture for everyone. Their approach validated our voices so we can, in turn, better value and validate the voices of others.

SEED differs from other diversity programs in that SEED leaders guide colleagues in experiential, interactive exercises and conversations inspired by films, literature, and our own experience in the real world. Each 3 hour session deepened our understanding of ourselves, expanded our knowledge of our roles in the world, perceptions, misconceptions, and pointed each of us towards a greater perspective of equity and inclusion.

seed_calease_gratitudeAs the final session began to wind down, it was apparent each of the thirty or so of us who had spent the year together were slightly disappointed the year was over but happy for the insights we gained in the time we spent together. At the end, Brian asked each of us to write a modest and random thank you to someone for their contributions that may have made an impact on us throughout the year. Chris handed us each a small thank you card and envelope to take with us on our way out. It was a sobering moment.

We are all now hyper-aware of the obstacles to openness and inclusion that come up in simple communication between people, in the media, among our families, friends, and colleagues. Within the group, it was easy to make progress. Now, we head back into the ordinary world where such considerations are often completely lacking. As we discussed, it is a great challenge and one we each now feel more prepared to accept. Thank you Brian, Chris, NNMS, and SEED.

Success, Failure, and the Power of the Rebound

reboundI was married to my first wife for 10 years. We were together for 3 before we married. It was a fabulous adventure, a tale to tell, full of ups, downs, and everything in between. We lived all over the place, followed our hearts, made sacrifices to spend time with friends in far-flung parts of the world, lived and worked overseas, found pleasure in the things that matter most. I thought we would be together forever.

R. Buckminster Fuller knew a thing or two about failure as a part of success. I am fond of his idea that “If the solution is not simple and elegant, it is not the right one.”

As my then wife and I approached our 10th anniversary of being together, I asked her, “How are we doing? Are you still getting what you need from this?” I asked because I, myself, was trying to figure out how I was feeling. We told each other at our wedding that we would check in every ten years or so. It was a joke. Kind of.

At the time, my experience was that we were going pro at misunderstanding each other. We were both moody, prone to swings of withdrawing, frustration, being dishonest about our feelings, things that were seemingly spawned out of thin air. In a word: unhappy.

I cannot speak for her, but here is where I know I went wrong in it: I let that energy affect me. I channeled it back at her. Instead of distinguishing it and extinguishing it, which is what we both wanted, after all, I only coasted on it. I am a most effective antenna, capable of not only picking up on the true feelings of others, but also have to be mindful so as to not let someone else’s energy affect me.

It took a total overhaul, a complete reboot of my life to learn to start to get it right.

Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” His dedication to science is creedo to a whole creative class of knowledge professionals. No doubt, Mr. Edison would be surprised at how it now resonates within historically conservative spheres of business in the US. Companies like Pixar, for example, are radically contributing to the shift. They do not simply encourage their small army of creatives to “fail early and often” but mandate them to. How many years will we have to wait for a complete overhaul, a total reboot whereby successful companies all over the globe begin to find that the best way to succeed is to fail, again and again, until we get it right? Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, recently published a book, Creativity, Inc., that speaks to this so well it’s worthy of its own post.

People who rise to true greatness are intimately familiar with this, even should they keep it on the down low. Seems it is all about being willing to admit failure, own the mistake, and get back up and try again. Most of us will do anything to appear “normal”, though, whatever the heck that means.

As for me, I was not a fit in school. I knew nothing about “normal” because I was most always the new kid. In addition to that, I was too excitable for the classroom, unable to contain my enthusiasm for topics of interest. I wanted to be immersed in conversation, intellectual conversations about things. I wanted to find the smartest people in the room and get my butt kicked about until I was as smart. Smarter. Dad always said, “Want to get good at something? Find someone who is and let them kick your butt at it, over and over, until you are, too.” Great advice. Thanks, Dad.

Even at a young age, it was clear I was not a good fit for the pace of learning in traditional settings. That we moved around a lot probably did much to protect me from otherwise being pigeon-holed as a problem child. I was constantly trying things, failing, trying more things, until making breakthroughs, big and small, in my own learning. I loved project-based learning, labs, and other such opportunities for this reason. I had to make my own mistakes on the slow rise to comprehension and ascension to learning.

If failing is conducive to success, why are so many so resistant to the idea? Are we really that generally self-conscious as an entire race? Guess so.

resilienceIf this is too much, let’s give it some context any sized brain can get interested in: Money.

Where does this idea leave companies? As more and more get hip and secure in this concept of encouraging experimentation, they will need more and more employees like me who aren’t afraid to fail on the way to success. Like my little boy, 2-and-a-half, who I can already tell can barely contain his enthusiasm for what is happening all around him. His passion is so self-evident, his likeness staggering as I watch him learn to learn, see him right in front of me develop his own, unique tools for interpreting and navigating the world around him. There may not be a thing more captivating to me. 2-year-olds are relentless problem solvers. He is, however, learning to ask for help, but that is another post, too ; )

“If we could think of failing as a path towards success, then I think we would all be better off,” said John Krumboltz, an author of Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, and a Professor of Education and Psychology at Stanford University.

The longevity of a trend like this will depend, in part, on positive reinforcement from more than just hiring managers. Parents will need to motivate their young children by protecting them from too much “no” or “never” or “can’t” and “no” and “don’t” and “won’t” and any and all negative notion early on. Parents, don’t laugh at your kids when they fail. Even if it’s cute, be mindful of what message you may be sending. To boot, companies, too, will need to convince prospective hires that they are serious and committed to supporting failure and not just paying trendy lip service to it as a concept or “initiative.”

When my first wife and I divorced, I went on a walkabout. I had the world to carve out, able to craft and build it the way I wanted. You know what? It was too easy. Any of my own, modest successes were too small-minded. I wanted to build something selfless, something larger than myself. I still wanted a family. As the gods would have it, a wonky series of events led to this special little guy showing up in my life. Unplanned? Perhaps. Unexpected? No. I have always known I would be a papa, even as my first wife was staunch about not wanting kids and even as I tried zealously to get on board with that. It was not a question of if, merely when.

Companies on the brink of success need to convince their investors they can rebound after each failure. VCs often learn way more about a company from its failures. It’s the same as play. We can tell way more about someone in 10 minutes of playing with them than in 20 years of working together. Still, finding success through failure is not limited only to companies with billions at their disposal. Any sized business can learn from what Krumboltz calls the “small failures that we should be encouraging.”

It is some years later now and my first wife and I are better friends than ever, having moved beyond our values changing, changes of all sorts and degrees. We talk like two people who might have saved each others’ lives in a war. We are. We set each other free rather than staying together out of fear of the unknown. We are better for it. Want to know what? Relationships between people? They don’t ever really end. They only begin. What we do with them, what we get out of them, as they succeed, as they fail, like business, like learning, like simply living well, is all in how we handle the rebound.

On being a fan

laughterIt is an understatement to say YouTube has changed things. It has replaced Encyclopedia Britannica (merely an artifact from another age of learning) as the de-facto go-to resource for everything everyone may want to know, including how to fix an engine, cook dinner using a recipe, even how to tie our shoes. It is a utility, now. Like turning on a faucet, we expect water to come out.

For better or worse, YouTube may be best described as a showcase of fandom, attempts at something indescribable but driven largely by simply being a fan. A kind of fandom that morphs meaning, bends perception, voices expression, and yes, sometimes dilutes meaning. Still, each misguided attempt, flat-out mistake, or gleaming triumph of these efforts teaches, distracts, entertains, annoys, and surprises us. When was the last time a young human shared their favorite YouTube video with you? Next time it happens, instead of watching the video, watch them watch it. Watch them revel in it. Watch them be a fan.

The definition of fan is tricky. Most think of it in the context of sports or entertainment. In that context, it can be both good and bad to be a fan. It can be psychologically unhealthy. It can also be positive. All things in moderation. This is not the kind of fandom I am talking about.

For me, being a fan is something very diferent. It involves unbridled curiosity and the confidence to express it whenever and wherever we experience it. I think of it as a miniature and earnest expression that says, “I bow down to you and your awesomeness.”

Finding awesomeness in such moments leads us to joy, to humour, to the fine appreciation for all that is right and good in the world – to fandom. It is this spirit that is our best defense against the tough parts of living, the grumpy moods, dealing with bullies, and even our own self-doubt. It is contagious. No one would be inspired to do or make anything if they had no sense of it and were not a fan of other people and their actions or ideas. Can following that spirit lead to other ideas, invention, and potentially innovation?

Fandom and humour are cousins, whimsical and mischievous. Even at their worst, they create bonds between us. At their best, laughter, and where there is laughter, is there not promise?

Perfect cubes, balance, and the number 27

cubeIt’s the 27th day of the month today. Turns out, the number 27 is singular. The Internet can tell us why, mathematically, the number 27 is so unique. For example, 27 is a perfect cube (3 cubed), a completely balanced equation. In math, that is truly saying something.

The number 27 pops up a lot, which is what led me to learn more about it. While I was at it, just for kicks, I made a list of 27 things my ideal 27-sided-self values. Please note, I do not take myself too seriously here, rather this is simply an exercise, a playlist, of thoughts and notions on moving the ball closer to the goal of growth, being a better communicator: a better pal, partner, father, son, and generally well-balanced cube, er, dude:

1 – Arguably, one of the greatest strengths may be helping others feel more comfortable being themselves. This does not imply enabling others to cultivate their hurtful traits, rather their best, most productive and positive ones.

2 – “Please” and “thank you” are two of the best parts of any language.

3 – Good moods are contagious. Spread them like colds.

4 – Be mindful of others’ aural, physical, and visual space. We all have different boundaries.

5 – Respect and trust require respect and trust.

6 – Words and tone of voice deliver packages to others. Stop sometimes and wonder what it may be like to receive them.

7 – Short fuses burn ourselves and others. Take a moment, get all the facts, or step away until it passes.

8 – Being open to constructive criticism is worth risking the initial discomfort of trying it on. Nothing to lose.

9 – Read, preserve, and share books and stories. Like music, they are the crux of so many good things.

10 – Good aesthetics are like good manners. Create atmospheres that foster acceptance. See #1.

11 – Any voices inside that say “You are not good enough” are illusions, shadows of fear. Break through them.

12 – Skills are not demonstrated better than by putting them to good use for a good cause.

13 – Laugh. Play. Pause objectives. Let fun in. It is not irresponsible or a waste of time.

14 – When I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, pause and read #24.

15 – Keep moving forward. Giving up is easy. Building anything good takes compromise, resources, and work.

16 – Things work out whether I like it or not. Do not underestimate the “unswerving punctuality of chance.

17 – Do not be afraid to accept or admit we each need someone who does not give up easily.

18 – Forgive ourselves. Moments of weakness do not make us fundamentally weak, only fundamentally human.

19 – Make and share good, healthy, and tasty food with friends whenever possible.

20 – Risk being affectionate and vulnerable.

21 – Keep money and ‘need vs. want’ in perspective. Measuring against others is an empty pursuit. See #11.

22 – A brief stop to smell the roses is worth being ever-so-slightly late for on occasion.

23 – Values only mean something if stood by when inconvenient.

24 – Stress kills slowly and silently. Reduce it by taking a break, a walk, reading, writing, or something else. Don’t do too much of any one thing all the time. Try to find balance in work and play.

25 – Music in any shape or form helps everything.

26 – Stop and listen. A clear mind is open to ideas.

27 – Keep it simple. Show up and do your best.

ghost-driven, meat-coated skeletons made from stardust?

earthI’m not much for motivational schwack. Every now and then, however, something grabs me. Like this (originally posted here) and Erika Leibrandt’s thoughts, too):

You’re a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made from stardust. What do you have to be scared of?

Buddhists sometimes meditate on the vision of their own corpse. Imagine that for a moment. That this whole thing is temporary, accepting the inevitability of death is an act of courage that opens life up to even more capacity for joy by basking in the fleeting nature of it. No one makes it out of here alive, as Dad says.

How counter-intuitive. Perhaps that’s why I find this particular assembly of words so motivating and beautiful.

Buddhists also believe the soul never dies. Giving in to the impermanence of the idea of life, at least in the sense most of us think of it, is incredibly liberating.

With so many of our loved ones passing on in front our eyes, it helps to bend the days thinking in a more conducive way, thereby approaching, processing, and getting on with what we have left of it.

Keeping fear at bay is a life pursuit for most of us. Fear is the mind-killer. This phrase that so conveniently spread around the internets over the past year has brought me much comfort, not to mention, something to meditate on. What is left to fear when the odds of such an odd combination of forces have converged to give me even just a quick passage of life here on this strange, blue planet.

We have no idea what we are doing here, really, so there is no manual, no proper-way, no right or wrong way to do anything we do. We are pioneers falling, spinning, floating, on a sphere within a sphere, within a sphere, stuck to this particular sphere by gravity? All the while, inside, a ghost of some kind drives our meat-coated skeleton made from dust fallen from the stars? Really? What do we have to be afraid of?

Collaboration, the art of alliance, and recognizing strengths in others

teamworkRecently, some educators I work with asked me what I thought the most important skill children can learn is. The question came to me in the context of technology, as I am responsible for technology operations and integration at a private school in the city of Chicago. I try to answer these questions as best I can and in the context they are asked. This is a huge question, one that transcends technology, and my off-the-cuff inclination, which was to say simply, “collaboration,” was not nearly going to cover it. My answer involves much more than that.

Perhaps it would be useful to provide some back story regarding why I do not default to a pro-technology answer in these situations, as is often the expected result from the folks who ask them:

From my perspective, technology just as easily gets in the way as often as it provides solutions. I realize this is not the type of outlook most “tech people” have but I can safely say I am not a bona fide “tech guy” for a couple of reasons. First, I was not formally trained in technical sciences in the traditional sense. I was instead self-taught through experience in various fields and my own tinkering. I learned most about systems and theory by trial and error in tandem with the good fortune to be mentored by some very smart and talented people who were not all technically fluent (though some very much so). Second, I am fortunate to have worked in multiple disciplines and sectors in unique technical capacities, in heavy adaptive, integrative, and creative contexts.

Being steeped in interdisciplinary use of these tools shaped and now informs my perspective in a refreshing way, specifically where and when tools are assets and/or obstacles to a culture, both in the short and long view. In other words, I have seen, and continue to see, the same patterns over and over again. These patterns do not always move as solutions where and when technology is involved, but you don’t have to take my word for it. We get in the way with our cultural choices more than we think.

Therefore, my default starting point is typically from a place of questioning revolving around existing tools. Are they working? Where? Are they failing? Where? Are they capable of more? Could they be modified in a way that would empower the culture to solve their challenges out-of-the-chute? If not, what additional level of complexity (the addition of tools, perhaps technology) can be leveraged to provide a solution that produces enough improvement to warrant a shift (displacement, really) of the working culture?

In other words, technology is the easy part. Designing, architecting, and implementing these tools is rather trivial when compared to integrating them into a culture. That is the real challenge and knowing when and where disruption of a culture is necessary in order to move it forward and where to allow it to grow without such invasive intervention is a tough call, requiring multiple perspectives in order to formulate the clearest picture of what the advantages and disadvantages will be, across contexts and disciplines.

What we are talking about is problem-solving here, in its simplest and also most complex forms. It is a process, but one that is less about technology and more about people. The most critical skill in designing and creating these solutions, and enabling the people we designed them for to be able to use them most effectively, is recognizing strengths in others. Bending the tools to the culture, rather than the other way around. Design is being present and mindful of the user.

For example, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant a change we make to a workflow is, we can always expect a certain level of push back from the culture within which it resides. Leveraging the strengths of the team is the key ingredient to success in any case. Empowering others to do their very best work, making them feel more comfortable being themselves, is non-negotiable in regards to radical changes (and, let’s face it, any change will be perceived to be radical) to any culture.

Through illustrating this, demonstrating this for our children, we can rest assured that we have done and are doing everything we can to instill in them this idea. By helping others succeed, we, too will succeed. In the end, perhaps, is this more a conversation about building community than integrating technology or teaching a specific skill set? Seems like the best teams do this without thinking about it – the goal is clear and when we are playing at it in earnest, the machine fires on all 16-cylinders and next thing we know we have accomplished more together as a whole than the sum of each our individual parts.

So, this has been a long way of answering the question. To put it simply, I suppose I could have just said:

some of the most important skills we may be able to teach our children are related to the art of alliance and how to recognize strengths in others. From a leadership standpoint, this is about finding a solutions-oriented approach to challenges that include everyone in the group. Such an approach gives the group, and each of its members, a sense of purpose. Purpose builds a sense of belonging and ownership in the work and thereby empowers everyone to do their very best work, regardless of the context.

Perhaps it is no wonder, then, why there are so many TED Talks across contexts regarding collaboration. Some great inspiration there.

Baby, life is what you make it

Daschel at 2 weeks oldI have heard everyone say it. If I had to, I could not count how many times my pals with kids have asked, “So when are you going to be a dad?” or “How come you don’t have any kids yet?” For years I fielded kind words from my friends who considered me well suited for it, who wondered aloud why I was taking so long.

For years I thought they were mad for giving up so much of their free time.

Meanwhile, I was spending mine on every indulgence. Travel, people, ideas, experiences. I do not know what boredom is. Put me in a room and I can occupy myself indefinitely.

I was missing something. It was great sometimes. It was also unfulfilling. Eventually I grew stymied by my own modest successes. Eventually, without any sacrifice, without a reason, one day I woke up and began to allow the idea in – that it all meant very little.

Matt Johnson wrote it best as a sarcastic anthem to the selfish side of being human, True Happiness This Way Lies:

Have you ever wanted something so badly that it possessed your body and your soul? Through the night and through the day until you finally get it – and then you realize that it wasn’t what you wanted after all? And then those self-same, sickly little thoughts now go and attach themselves to something or somebody new and the whole goddam thing starts all over again…

I am grateful for many things and thank the gods moment to moment for each of them, not least of which is this mother of all adventures. I thought I knew what true collaboration was. I thought I had an idea of how much I had to learn about patience and taking care of myself. There was a time I presumed to be standing on the edge of understanding what was important to me. It may have been practice or it may have just been wasting time. Now, I am learning a kind of generosity I did not know I was capable of. Somehow, there are more authentic versions of such heavy things following me around like sauntering breezes tumbling leaves around my ankles. I have at last been introduced to myself. Looking into the eyes of your own child does that. My pals were hardly kidding.

Daschel and ITonight my little boy lies here over my shoulder. Inspired by this picture of Daschel and I, taken by his mother, I write this as I snuggle him and rub his face gently with the back of my hand. I am at this and each passing moment fully aware of him, our life, and my impact on it. This is now the definition of success. Whatever I used to care about, whatever I once thought important is dust. You better believe this is everything it is cracked up to be. If there is a bigger, more ultimate, adventure I would love to know what it is. I am grateful I did not miss out.

We wished for him, you see, his mother and I. We both wanted nothing more than to be parents. Each of us, alone, from the midst of our previous and interesting (albeit unsatisfying) lives daydreamed a child of our own. A miraculous occurrence. Here he is looking at me (with just one eye now, he’s getting snoozy). In that previous life I would have quietly asked myself, “What are the chances of that?”

Now, I know better. Things just got more interesting than I could have imagined.

One day I will fruitlessly try explaining this to him, knowing full well he will merely have to stumble around until he discovers it on his own as I did. I will likely blather on saying something like, “Baby, life is what you make it. Thoughts become things. Choose only the best ones.”

Dr. Walter Soboleff

This piece speaks for itself:

Tabula Rasa

From Wikipedia:

Tabula rasa is the epistemological thesis that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception. Generally proponents of the tabula rasa thesis favour the “nurture” side of the nature versus nurture debate, when it comes to aspects of one’s personality, social and emotional behaviour, and intelligence. The term in Latin equates to the English “blank slate” (which refers to writing on a slate sheet in chalk) but comes from the Roman tabula or wax tablet, used for notes, which was blanked by heating the wax and then smoothing it to give a tabula rasa.

Of course, this debate has since taken a different route as put forth here by the inimitable Evelyn Fox Keller. All quite interesting enough.

Digging in the Dirt

Tinkering School: Day 8

Go cart design, assembly and testing by the inimitable Team Tinker with snippets of boat model design and other moments of singular, whimsical tinkering mastery. Thanks to Moby for his song, Porcelain.

Tinkering School: Day 6

Think, Make, Tinker: Theo, Isaac, Leo, Max, Hannah, Nik, Sam, Jacob, Julie and Gever set off to test their inventions on Day 6 of Tinkering School. Nods to King of Hawaii for the groovy surf vibe.

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Plastic Bag

Ramin Bahrani-written-directed-and-edited, Werner Herzog-narrated and original soundtrack by Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Rós?

Neil Postman: Education as a Cure for Stupidity (Part I)

Who is Neil Postman?

Wanna watch more? I sure did. Click here.

Gever Tulley

thinfilms is pleased to have the honor of working with Gever Tulley this summer in San Francisco.

Gever is a gifted, self-taught computer scientist and developer, having started his professional career at age 16. He is an inspiration to me and to many, many others. His work with the Tinkering School enables children as both learners and teachers, working towards the goal of bringing the next generations back into touch with play, discovery and the other whimsical tools that put our minds in closer natural proximity to innovation.

Here’s Gever’s most recent talk at TED, worth watching because he explains this like no one else can:

Here, Now

here, nowEasy to take this all for granted. Breathing. Walking. Seeing. Feeling. Any sense. Pick one. And it’s even easier to stroll through this whole thing blind to the possibility that this may just very well all be some dream. We know nothing about what any of us are doing here.

In the meantime, we find things to make it about: for some, it’s about love and a sense of belonging. For many it appears to be money and fame. That’s surprising, isn’t it? Celebrity only seems to present new problems. It doesn’t change anything. It steals privacy, creates further issues with identity, but doesn’t provide any solutions for this singular dilemma. Nothing does.

So I am writing this to myself.

When people die, people close to us, it kindles something. What is that feeling? It makes me calm, reminds me of our connectivity to everything. It may be morbid, but I am oddly comforted by that loneliness, walking around in that stupor. Pleased to be again so intimately conscious that we have no control over any of this schwack. I am at peace within the moments of tragedy in a way I cannot be to quite the same degree otherwise. i don’t need anything in those times. I’m not hungry or thirsty. I’m not tired. I just seem to be picking up some signal that can’t be known coming from somewhere, everywhere. Call it shock if you want. There’s something more going on there, something unseen that has properties. As if ocean waves generate this frequency that we haven’t even considered the possibility of, or clouds being ghosts that have trapped themselves here, not having let go of their lives here on Earth yet. I laugh at what we think we know. Even if it is correct, it is always, ALWAYS, only the tip of the iceberg.

We can buy this, travel there, pretend to be this or that but it doesn’t help.

As Vonnegut used to say:

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

Are we evolving closer or further away from this awareness? What are the advantages of each? Disadvantages?

What could this awareness do for us? Is it important?

Does it change how we treat each other? Ourselves?

Do we care?

Plastering Walls in Senegal

Team action in Senegal:

Art of the CSA

CSAs require 90 seconds or less of our time and, when done well, can be artful while they make great impact. This is a particularly good example, thankfully tipped off by Julian Gough, who we tip our hat to for it:


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As I write this, I am taking meds to fight off malaria. I am leaving for Dakar this morning for a week and the meds are a final, though ongoing, step in a series of vaccines administered to me en masse (The first of two rounds knocked me for a loop for a week. I had not ever felt that kind of energy depletion as my body immediately began building up antigens, fighting off the militia of micro-infections introduced into it) in preparation for the trip. The bottle told me to start taking them two days before entering the malaria risk zone. It says to take with food. It says to take them with plenty of water. It says to take one every day I am in the malaria risk zone. It says to continue taking them for 4 weeks after I return.

I should be surprised at the types of reactions I get upon telling others where I am headed and what steps I have have been required to take in order to be eligible to go, but I cannot say that I am, given the current mode of the media, especially in the West, full of anger and fear, some justified, though mostly misguided. The information given out at the infectious disease center is intimidating enough to make many change their travel plans. I have heard stories from others about these malaria meds who have experienced nightmares throughout the prescribed duration. This is all to say that the general culture in the developed world effectively conditions us to be afraid of anything that poses even the slightest amount of risk – and there are plenty of excuses around for us to use and give in to it.

Before today, I have not stepped foot upon the continent of Africa. I honestly do not know what I am expecting. When I think of Africa, the only images and ideas that come to mind are not my own. They are the images and sounds of films, emblazoned with romance and exotic, timeless beauty or violence and timeless unrest. Then there are the various agendas of the associated news agencies and television ad campaigns to raise money for the developing world, full of images chosen exclusively for their compelling attributes. All told, a polarized mix of love and hate, reverence and fear.

There are many ways of interpreting those messages. Realities are ethereal things, existential and elusive. They are relative, just like the physical. Like biology. What constitutes a cold to one person, requiring a trip to the doctor, may be just a sniffle to another. So they wait it out and in a couple of days they are just fine.

I do not know what we will eat there or if the water will agree with us. I do not know how I will fare in the heat of the day while filming the team. I do not even know if there will be enough electricity to power the equipment I will be using to shoot. I have learned what little I can about the region from what is posted on the CIA’s World Fact Book and related sites about the history, populations, languages, political and economic stability of the region. The work of Ben Herson, Democracy in Dakar, is some of the more current, compelling and poignant information out there and I am thankful for it – the struggle of the Senegalese people, politically similar to that in other regions of the world, is set apart by the conditions under which they muster the spirit to persevere in order to bring change and any improvement in their quality of life. How they manage to create such beautifully compelling art amidst such adversity and poor living conditions is a triumph in and of itself.

I do know that I feel a sense of mystique about it, having been so glorified by my own culture as a key piece of the anthropological record and also demonized for the strange differences of culture hidden within it. Is it natural for us to fear or discount what we do not understand? My culture has made the same mistakes as those that have gone before it – including insulating its people with convenience and luxury, softening minds and hardening hearts.

Naturally, I am invigorated by the idea of leaving these burdens behind if only for a few days. The mere thought of what it will be like to see, taste, smell, hear and feel Dakar for myself stirs butterflies of the best kind within. However, I am clumsy the way others are graceful. My only concern about the journey is making some bumbling move or inadvertently inconsiderate statement relating to something I take for granted in front of our less fortunate hosts. A good solution for this: I am focused on doing more listening and less talking, which should serve us all well. Being behind a camera lends itself to this.

The trip will mean something different to each of us on the team, though our primary goals are the same. One of the goals is clear: to move us out of the comfortable security of an illusion of our own design about the world. As I have said, the team is coming from a place of extraordinary comfort when compared to that of our hosts and our own struggles will be put promptly into new perspective. The other goal is to contribute to the construction of a house on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, which will power our third goal to create in the process a documentary of the journey, both for posterity and for the benefit of Habitat to use to promote their own future efforts. Our work shall leave an indelible impact on all of us.

In the case of the few who believe such a humble contribution is equivalent to a screw falling out of a deck chair off the back of the Queen Mary, they may have have a point of merit, given the obstacles between what is right and fair in the world and the sad fact that justice does not always prevail. Nonetheless, there are those who give up and those who, in the presence of great adversity, continue to do what they can to push the world to a better place. This is in line with something I read in my only surface-scratching study of the region’s primary religion – Islam:

None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself – Number 13 of Imam – Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths

Such thoughts are small changes in thought which act as catalysts for larger ones. Through subtle shifts in our perceptions we are able then to move forward in bigger ways that would not have been possible without them. Whether we like it or not, as tough as they often are to initiate, these small changes are the stuff. Moving ourselves out of our comfort zones is arguably the only way to growth, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically and metaphysically. The metaphor of dropping of a pebble into the glass stillness of a lake is spot on here: the ripples fan out towards shore, bringing with it perhaps a nourishing drink that makes it just far enough up onto the shore to provide a drink for a flower that may have otherwise perished were it not for a timely, though seemingly insignificant, toss. These are the risks that have value, that have the potential to produce beauty. Without taking risks, we risk living life without beauty. Beauty in our ability to be generous. Patient. Tolerant. Alive, curious and excited to learn about the myriad of things we do not know or have only heard of.

I raise my glass to anyone reading this with my most sincere wishes that all our travels, wherever they take us, may nurture and raise our understanding to new pinnacles and give us fresh vantage points from which we are naturally inclined to take less and less of our life and times together for granted.

Latcho drom.

At play with Stuart Brown

Kicking the Habits of Double-Glazing

double-glazingThe first week of living in a new place is somewhere up pretty high on the list of things that don’t get any easier with practice. Like a new anything, after the initial infatuation wears off, what’s left is this: the realization that what worked before is no longer valid here. Here, in a new place, we are confronted with what we seem to be most naturally resistant to: change.

So it is with a tinge of reticence we set off to see about developing new methods for accomplishing the tasks of living under a new definition of ourselves within the unknown environment surrounding us. This means getting lost, losing precious time and generally being hard on ourselves to find a pace equivalent to what we once knew. Previously simple tasks that were quickly accomplished now require inordinately huge investments of time by comparison. Add to this a language component and we’re talking about a serious commitment to even the most basic objectives, such as acquiring groceries. Everything must be undertaken with a strong focus on patience and not getting down in the face of the adversities that present themselves on a seemingly constant basis.

This is the real stuff. The moments that move us outside of our comfort levels and force us to face our weaknesses in spite of our better judgment.

At least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves as we step lively into the streets of the unknown ; )

Such is the case for yours truly, who admittedly hasn’t had much of any other experience in this life other than nearly constant change. Let me share this earnestly with you: for someone who’s had as much practice as anyone, change simply does not get any easier with practice. It continues to challenge, it continues to humble and it continues to push me to being open to the process of learning in all of its tough, wonderful and hidden manifestations.

This, of course, does not mean to imply that it’s always a barrel of laughs.

Take, for example, the luxury in which people live in the US. Particularly: hot water. Most of the people living in the States take this single resource for granted far more than they realize. Hot water is in abundance there, even in the less-refined regions of apartment living. Folks rise in the morning, evacuate their bladders and promptly prepare for the day ahead with a shower of the stuff. Each time they approach the shower, turn it on, they are accustomed to waiting no more than a few moments before the warmth of it is doing what it does to invigorate, cleanse and get them ready for the day. It runs freely over heads, arms and legs while washing away the sleepy night and down the drain it goes for as long as deemed necessary. It’s given nary a thought.

Such extravagance is what is known as “double-glazing” (taken from the wise comments in this clip from Creature Comforts (@ 1:40 in)

Take, for example, my shower this morning: the size of the shower is taken into consideration here because in my experience in Barcelona, apartments all have showers half the size of what used to exist as phone booths. Half. The. Size. The hot water supply follows in kind. There is so little of it, that a person must ration if off during the course of a shower like oxygen would be should one ever find themselves trapped in a disabled submarine at the bottom of the ocean for an indefinite period of time.

Prior to entering the shower, one must first ensure that there even IS any hot water available. If there is, I don’t let it run too long during testing. I’m hip to the possibility that a short blast of what is left can be an illusion, which means upon entering the shower and reactivating, one must prepare to potentially be blasted with an equally-awakening, though, heart-stopping-ice-cold pulse and the risk of cardiac arrest before the day even begins. Should there actually be any remaining hot water, a quick blast to wet the head is priority one. My father always taught me to wash a car from the top down in order to ensure that we work with gravity to maximize the cleaning process. The same rules apply here to maximize effectiveness of our hot water rations. After a quick douse, proceed with suds-ing of the hair.

Now, mind you, the water is OFF at this point, right? If you’re not used to the sound of washing your hair WITHOUT the accompaniment of running water, this can be a rather, let’s say “odd” sound. I say it’s a bit on the sad side. I dunno why it’s a sad sound but it is to me. Perhaps because it is being faced with a RADICALLY different experience than the years of conditioning I’ve had doing this while listening to water running and warming my entire body while doing so. In this case, not only is the water not running, but my body, freshly warmed by the quick douse to wet the head, is beginning to cool rapidly: yet another strange sequence out-of-tune with what has been expected since birth.

For those of you who know me, you are aware that I am of of above average height and size. This makes the process one of even greater comedy. Anyone watching or listening to this would wonder what is the matter. Standing flush up against the inside of this glass box, a fella my size is at risk for breaking the thing, inflicting deep flesh woulds from the broken glass (here I should mention I can only just barely get the doors closed and am required to finagle myself extensively in order to succeed in doing so). The same is true for most restrooms found in restaurants in this part of the world. I can barely enter them, let alone contort myself enough to do what it is I usually desperately need to do at once, as I typically avoid these spaces vigorously until the last possible moment, which has often enough led to even more profound instances of bumbling foolery.

This is how the process continues: a quick rinse, followed by proceeding to wash whatever body part is next-highest in relation to gravity that has not yet been washed, a rinse, and so on, until the job is complete. All the while, the rest of the body shivers in the cold morning, wondering where the feeling of circulation-stimulating hot water is that it’s so used to after all these years.

One can imagine, though, how much water this actually saves compared to letting so much of it run down the drain while we’re washing or, even more gluttonously, just standing in it while dreading the idea of yet another day filled with unproductive meetings.

On the upside, successfully completing a shower while maintaining a successful balance of safety and hot-water-usage prepares one for the day better than transcendental meditation.

This is all to say that space, hot water and the double-glazing is all very easily taken for granted. In a week I will be in Dakar, Senegal, where this, too, will be deep-dish luxury by comparison.

I welcome the contrast. Returning to Barcelona will then be its own, new flavour of double-glazing that I can then in turn continue to take for granted as I have been so well conditioned to do.

Yorke in Copenhagen