In the past few weeks as I’ve travelled back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, I’ve found myself in several conversations and activities centered around agency. While these different practices all have unique lexicons, whether it be through the wellness community, psychology, art, science, or entrepreneurship (to name a few), I’m noticing some common threads that are beginning to shape my thoughts.
Several months back I got into Carol Dweck and the growth versus fixed mindset. As an experiment I started to mashup this idea along with some design thinking practices in my classes. What I found is that by doing this, I’m able to see changes in the communal body of the classroom where students feel more self-empowered and less reliant on me to give them the “right answers.” There are many aspects to these ideas that I’d like to write about and that’s why I’m going to graduate school this Fall to investigate and interrogate some of the ideology behind the practice.
One such area I’m currently fascinated with is the idea of agency within a network. In terms of human experience, it might be described as the moment at which one sees themselves for who they are truly and their place within a system. “System” here is intentionally vaguely defined but for our purposes it could be a classroom, it could be a social circle, it could be a personal journey or career. The idea being to confront one’s own role without judgement to see the past and the future through the lens of the possible.
The idea being to confront one’s own role without judgement to see the past and the future through the lens of the possible.
I, myself, have come to this path through the technology sphere. Being self-taught as a web developer, committing myself to the open-source platform WordPress, participating in and organizing hackathons, I witness moments of agency and awakeness as others pitch in to create new things. The “pitching in” moment being a point at which one realizes their full capacity for self-empowerment. A good friend and mentor to me, Edward O’Neill has taught me that all learning is self-help and I can see that being true as learning has happened for me and through facilitating it with others.
The trick is that all of these moments of agency happen within a fixed system. There needs to be a trust built first. Trust that the space is safe. The minute the trust and safety is broken, the capacity for change or self-realized agency is lost. We give into the fear of the unknown and the fixed mindset. This makes the practices difficult to scale. Since trust can only be built within closed systems, there’s a tendency to silo. We end up with Yoga, high-scale startups, art retreats, hackathons, improv groups and the like all stuck in silos. Empowerment works within but not between these disciplines. In the right hands, these communities have the power to enable self-empowerment and yet the minute you step out of the circle, the practice is prone to manipulation.
The fear and mistrust that happens in the gaps between these practices mirror to some extent the pillars of economics and society. Mistrust or a lack of faith is the basis for the old economy of scarcity. Scarce economic models prey on fear and lack. There’s not enough to go around, therefore we must protect our belongings. I like to think of this as territorial thinking. The idea of drawing boundaries around property, while helping to ensure the appearance of security, is the very idea that is preventing more radical changes across society.
It’s not the way that I’ve found success and it’s not the way that I see the future going. Scarcity models are giving way to abundance models built upon sharing resources. This shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of the glib “sharing economy,” instead I think it’s more about APIs and open-source practices. While not well understood outside of technology circles, APIs and open-source practices are thriving practices for developing an abundance mindset. While I’m apt to avoid preaching for some techo-libertian-utopia, I think these practices need to start being spread (and to some extent are already) outside of the tech world.
Scarcity models are giving way to abundance models built upon sharing resources. This shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of the glib “sharing economy,” instead I think it’s more about APIs and open-source practices.
While it may be difficult to form any perfect meritocracy as a sustainable model, building an open-source, action-oriented mindset approach to tackling projects does move in that direction. Action and reputation, instead of territory becomes the main indicator of success. When your ideas are trafficked through practice and application, then you can claim success. It’s why I get up every day and write down thoughts like this. The world is changing and we’re struggling to keep up. Change is going to happen to all of these groups simultaneously and we need them to start cross-talking and sharing rather than giving into fear and scarcity.
The siloing and territorial mindset are doing us more harm than good.
Do you want to change the world? It starts with stopping. You have to stop complaining. You have to stop looking for answers outside of yourself. You have to listen and pay attention to what you want and what you’re capable of. Too often we feel simultaneously helpless to enact change and act too hard on ourselves. “Most people are lazy. Most people are duped. Most people don’t understand their actions or don’t consider them. They don’t see what effect their having.”
If you have said words like these before, it’s worth turning them back on yourself. Are you lazy? Are you duped? Do you understand your actions and how they affect others? It’s easy to offhandedly say “yes” to these questions and not really take the time to consider them so let me ask you to do this. Read one sentence at a time. Give yourself a minute. A literal full minute to consider your answer. Turn off your phone. Close that tab in your browser that’s pinging you with notifications. Be in the moment. For one minute at a time.
We take naturally the everyday stresses of modern life because we choose to see bigger systems out of our control as the result of other’s selfishness.
The truth is we’re all lazy at times. Many of us are also very hard on ourselves. We expect a lot by generating a mile long to do list that even Superman with super strength, speed, and agility couldn’t accomplish. A friend asked me recently, “What if I don’t have a calling?” This person explained that if they had the time to themselves, they wouldn’t paint, they wouldn’t write, they would simply play video games. I could feel the weight the person brought down in the room on us. “So what?” I asked. “Maybe you should play video games. You’ve worked hard. You deserve a break.”
The realities of modern life is that we’re all overachievers. Society makes us feel all kinds of personal anxiety like we are letting ourselves down. Sometimes though, it’s just not paying attention to our bodies, our minds, or whatever placeholder term you have for soul/heart etc.
I was walking down a hill recently in California and I saw a sign spraypainted on the ground “Stay on Sidewalk.” It was seemingly innocuous. The street had a problem where pedestrians would step out into the roadway and interfere with car traffic. Obviously this could be dangerous if one or the other isn’t paying attention. Obviously if you’re in a vehicle which could go several hundred miles per hour, it’s frustrating when a pedestrian moving 5 miles an hour is blocking your way to get home and finally rest and see your family after a long day.
This street was highly utilized by pedestrians. Everyone will tell you no one walks in LA and if you do walk in areas, you’ll see this is just a fixed mindset speaking. There were several dozens of people wandering around that area on the Saturday I happened to be there. Though LA is very car-centric. I’ve seen pedestrians bow to the will of the car left and right and so it should be rather elementary that one would obey the command “STAY ON SIDEWALK.” But I was annoyed. Annoyed at the lack of empathy. Annoyed by the fact that pedestrians and motorists don’t understand the real problem which is this: The sidewalk was too damn narrow.
For the amount of foot traffic in that neighborhood, where a bike and walking path wind around a gorgeous panorama view of the surrounding communities, that sidewalk was designed poorly. Pedestrians walking either direction have to stop to let others by. Sometimes runners are going at a fast pace and they get stuck behind slower, middle-aged people going on an evening walk. All of this coexistence happens quite naturally, for sure, but that little bit of anxiety in the sidewalk: “STAY. ON. SIDEWALK!!” It’s just taken in course.
And so we take naturally the everyday stresses of modern life. Not because we always have to, but because we choose to see bigger systems out of our control as results of other’s selfishness. We start with blame and worst of all we blame ourselves. “That was stupid of me stepping out into the road. I should have known better. I’m at fault.”
We tolerate these moments of anxiety which bring pressure to us. Then we hold others accountable for their “selfish” actions. We complain to our friends on Social Media about how stupid people must be for believing one thing or the next without seeing the bigger picture: that the system is poorly designed.
I like to think I resisted this a bit but I think I’m slowly coming to terms with being a digital nomad. I’m typing this while in the back of a Lyft which is taking me from Long Beach California to Santa Monica where I have set up shop for the Summer. When I was younger, growing up in California, I used to fantasize about being bi-coastal.
I thought that might mean having an apartment in San Francisco and one in NYC and travelling back and forth for work. Now I think that’s a bit limiting. This country is mighty big, it’s true, but the world is mighty small. After spending time in Mexico City, Brussels, Berlin, and London last year I figure: why limit myself? I still feel like a New Yorker though. Perhaps that’s why I’ve resisted the moniker Digital Nomad.
True nomads, I believe don’t really have a home base. I like my home base. It feels good to “go home” from time to time (as I am about to do this week to teach some classes in NYC). Perhaps one of the reasons I feel at home there, is that it takes a long time to *feel* like a New Yorker. NYC is a brutal place at times and at other times – the times tourists seem to not understand – it is one of the best places on Earth.
I’ve had friends I care about, and strangers I’ve spoken to slam my city because of the brutish pride with which New Yorker’s speak about their home. “It’s the greatest city in the world” sounds incredibly ignorant especially to those who’ve been there. I think those who speak the most ill of New York are those who have tried living there and find it wasn’t to their taste. “It’s just a city. Why do people wear living there with a badge of pride?” It’s not a terrible question to ask, rhetorical though it might be.
Shall I answer it with an equally rhetorical and cryptic response? Do you think if you have to ask, maybe you don’t get it? I constantly hear from current and former New Yorkers, that we denizens of this city can be narcissistic. Having spent the past month in Los Angeles I can’t say I don’t notice the differences. Though I’d be remiss to say I haven’t witnessed a fair amount of self-absorption here. Indeed, I’ve been very curious about interrogating the differences between narcissism and self-absorption. If you figure that one out, let me know. But is being focused on one’s self entirely bad?
Understanding Adaptive Narcissism
I can’t say I don’t see the criticism that New Yorkers are self-focused as valid at times. I do, however, also sense that there’s something missing in the critique. I went so far as to find this article by psychology today that suggest narcissism isn’t all that bad. How can being aware of one’s self be bad if balanced with understanding one’s limits and an extreme focus on empathy? Is the adaptive narcissism described by Psychology today realistic?
On both coasts and abroad I find that there’s a renewed interest in meditation. Long the realm of crunchy culture, meditation is being considered seriously by science and is making it’s way into corporate culture. Having spent a couple Sundays in Long Beach taking meditation classes, I think I’ve found another word that encapsulates this kind of adaptive narcissism: Mindfulness. Merriam Webster (sorry brits) defines mindfulness as: “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
Mark Twain said: “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
A friend commenting on the differences between Los Angeles and New York said that New Yorkers are hard on the outside but soft on the inside because they know the struggle is real. What registers as smug self-absorption by outsiders, sometimes is, in fact just the opposite. I think New York breeds its own form of mindfulness. Don’t stop walking on the sidewalk. Don’t stand at the top of the stairway leading to the subway. Don’t have a long phone conversation on the train. Look forward and at others and: walk. fast. Does this mean everyone follows these rules? Of course not. As Mark Twain said: “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
People in LA I’ve spoken to found New Yorkers to be rude. “The people at the deli counter seem set on getting you in and out. No chats or pleasantries. Others cut in front of you on line.” I think this is the quintessential New York experience. It’s not that we don’t see that as rude sometimes. It’s that we don’t give a shit. Life is too short. We have our own shit to deal with. If you think we haven’t seen some shit, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. We just refuse to let it get us down. We are hardened on the outside but knowledgable within. That’s why you can take the New Yorker out of New York but you can’t take the New York out of the New Yorker.
I’ve spent the past ten years of my professional career in various aspects of adult, technology education. About midway between the start of my journey to now, came: Build Your Own Website. A comic book I collaborated on with my friend, the talented artist and designer Kim Gee. In retrospect, I wasn’t even sure exactly why I wanted to do a comic. I knew that I liked Kim’s comic work and I knew that I wanted to organize my process for how I taught myself web development and WordPress but it was only after I connected the dots looking back that I realize how important that decision was.
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner
My awesome publisher No Starch press sent me a couple copies of the Portuguese translation of Build Your Own Website last night. So neat to see this.
Photo Credit: Kevin Horan
I am a midwestern son. There’s a sequence in the documentary ‘Life Itself’ that suggests that Roger Ebert styled himself as a Chicago journalist in an archetype of public figures like Studs Turkel. He was, for a time, hard drinking and hard living. Enjoying life in it’s ups and downs in a way that is both uniquely human and uniquely American. Seeing this film as I have now, in a time in life where for unrelated reasons, I’ve recently had to explain and often defend being both a New Yorker and American, it has given me pause to reflect on my midwestern-ness. It’s a claim I don’t often make about aspects of my personality and to say they are at best unsettled would perhaps be an understatement.
I grew up in California and having spent nearly a decade now in New York I’m often accused of being alternatively laid back (the West Coast side) or shall we say ambitious (the East Coast side). Sharing that I was born in Illinois and have fond childhood memories of returning to the Land of Lincoln and the land of my parents isn’t something that I’m oft to do unless you are close to me. I spent the formative years of my life learning how the world works from the perspective of diverse and conflicted California. By the time I had made it to Santa Cruz, a stereotype of California cool and a sign that you had made it by West Coast standards, I was constantly being accused of seeming East Coast. I lived blocks from the beach. I could hear the ocean crashing from my bed and on occasion sea lions barking – surprisingly – from miles away.
Eventually New York’s pull couldn’t evade me and I’ve made a happy home here and been able to watch Brooklyn change from my window and in some ways feel the gilded walls closing in in similar ways to Santa Cruz. Here people are compelled to say “Why would you ever leave?” In reference to California’s famous sun and weather and I say “Why not?” I couldn’t see getting to where I am now without moving. I’m a published author and have a successful independent business that has paid the bills for four years now. When I travel back to California and meet people from the tech industry out there I can’t help but feel that there’s not a snowballs chance in hell that I would have met them if I wasn’t where I am professionally in New York.
I’ve had a series of friends new and old visit from Europe and the continent and now that I’m an erudite New Yorker, I find myself having to explain my fellow countrymen in ways that don’t always feel natural. Perhaps that’s why the Ebert documentary hit me like a ton of bricks. When I think of celebrities, of artists, of people I admire and what I want out of life, there’s a certain midwestern quality that I find I am drawn to in somewhat inexplicable ways. It’s explained in ‘Life Itself’ that after Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer prize while writing for the scrappy Sun-Times – a commuter rag I can recall my Chicago suburban relatives explain to me – Ebert was courted by major publications like the NY Times and Washington Post. Roger was quoted as saying “I don’t want to have to learn new streets.”
When I think of celebrities, of artists, of people I admire and what I want out of life, there’s a certain midwestern quality that I find I am drawn to in somewhat inexplicable ways.
While on the one hand I’ve never lived in Chicago and on the other I feel deeply connected to the Bay Area and have a homey understanding of New York, there’s something about this sentiment that rings true for me. A loyalty to home, a sense of pride in the scrappiness of the paper. There’s something there that is American, heartland and Chicago. While in California, the dream is to be discovered and move up in the world and in New York, you wouldn’t leave because you feel well and true that this place is the best place on earth, the sense in Chicago that you stay despite being able to leave is both heartbreaking and wonderful. Something that I inherently feel and understand and fear perhaps that I’m overstating (as someone who isn’t from there) but I look at people like Studs and Ebert and Jean Sheperd and I feel like “yes” these are people who embody that spirit. They are people I aspire to be.
It’s why I felt so deeply hurt at news of Robin Williams passing. I can remember as a child seeing bits of my grandpa in him and feeling he was part of the family. It’s also why I think of Bill Murray as the archetype of the celebrity. There’s something in the spirit of Northern Illinois that is simultaneously understated and resounding – a midwestern cool. Look at Oprah! In ‘Life Itself’ we’re told time and again stories of unknown directors that Roger Ebert (along with Gene Siskel) pulled up from obscurity because they thought they deserved a voice. There’s a sense of Roger as an American success story both in his talent but also in his desire to give back. His humble beginnings were a tutorial for him on both the promise of the American dream but also the sense of duty to it. That’s perhaps what’s missing sometimes I feel as culture moves to the coasts. I’ve benefited greatly from being pulled up by others here in New York. It wasn’t always out of a sense of duty, but instead a sense kinship or reciprocity. In California I was brought in by the warmth of people’s generosity but it can often feel cold and individual there despite the sun. In neither place do I feel quite the same sense of humble duty. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist in either place, but rather it doesn’t exist in quite the same way.
There’s a wonderful reflection of death as a part of life in the documentary. The film doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of declining health as Roger Ebert went through many medical procedures towards the end of his life. It also confronts what death means in the context of life, cinema and America. I find intellectual communion in statements from Roger like: “Look at a movie a lot of people love and you’ll find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem…” Through passages of the film Ebert is painted as both a sophisticated and stubborn egotist and at the same time a populist. At one point at a conference he’s asked why his opinion on a film matters more than anyone else’s and he says “because I have a Pulitzer.” It’s both harsh and true. Later though he’s lauded for his insistence that anyone can get a movie. Time and again we’re shown filmmakers like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese who basically credit Siskel and Ebert with making their films more palatable to audiences. Morris says “I don’t think I would have had a career if it weren’t for those guys.”
Yet when Siskel and Ebert at the Movies was growing in popularity there was a staunch refusal in the LA and New York markets to pick up the show. There was a sense that New York and Los Angeles film criticism was superior. Look at this article Ebert wrote on unfair criticism of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me where he staunchly rebukes Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, a woman he admired and credits for opening up the path of film criticism for a new generation. From the article:
Does Moore “demean” the subjects in his film, the “little people,” by holding them up to ridicule? I don’t think so. I think he is looking at the infinite goofiness of human nature — at the things people will say — with the same deadpan astonishment that I sometimes have when I watch the TV news.
Though respectful and accomplished, Roger Ebert seemed resolute in his dedication to the everyman ideal found throughout American storytelling. He believed in the American dream in both it’s promise and it’s faults and in doing so he embodied an archetype of the American journalist/writer we see manifest from time to time in literature and popular culture. Throughout the film ‘Life Itself’ A thread of a quote from The Great Gatsby is played and repeated. It is noted as one of Roger Ebert’s favorite quotes and one that embodies the American dream.
“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The Great Gatsby is a testament to American idealism, failure and reinvention. Famously read on stage, presumably ironically by Charlie Kaufman and retyped in its entirety by Hunter S Thompson, another iconic writer on the American dream from a previous generation, in order to gain insight on it’s rhythm. The story of Gatsby itself is an examination of the American dream through the lens of a midwesterner, Nick Halloway who is transported to the opulence of the East Coast to find the self-made Gatsby at once incredibly successful but as is described in the quote above, chasing an unattainable past. America allows for one to build their own path and for even the humble son of a electrician as in Ebert’s case to rise to the pinnacle of American journalism. But only to a point.
For all the optimism of the American dream, we can’t stop the inevitable passage of time. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him…” But what makes us American is our unwillingness to let that stop us from trying to reinvent the past by focusing on the future. What is sometimes seen by non-Americans as American ignorance of the past and the foolish, resolute pursuit of forward movement, is in fact laced with knowing fatalism and sadness, regret but optimism. Optimism in the belief that the failures of the past cannot be reconciled by dwelling on them. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning ——” And this is Fitzgerald writing nearly a century ago. What codifies the American spirit, and perhaps terrifies other non-Americans is the fact that we know the journey is unknown, we know the clock is impossible to turn back, but the only natural course of action we know is forward into the future. Even if it’s to chase an impossible past. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
What is sometimes seen by non-Americans as American ignorance of the past and the foolish, resolute pursuit of forward movement, is in fact laced with knowing fatalism and sadness, regret but optimism. Optimism in the belief that the failures of the past cannot be reconciled by dwelling on them.
What I’m reminded of watching ‘Life Itself’ as a Californian turned New Yorker is that while that indomitable spirit of constant progress may be born on the coasts, it’s the midwesterners who celebrate it, give it life and frame it in such a way as to make it sustainable. Roger Ebert’s gift to us wasn’t only the work he did himself, rewarding and important as that is. Like Gatsby, Ebert is as aware of the past though refuses to acknowledge it. Unlike Gatsby he’s aware of his shortcomings. Ebert’s giving life to the next generation is a way of addressing the inevitability of death while reminding us it isn’t an obstacle to progress but a motivator. For all his success he recognized our world isn’t perfect and sought to make the best world out of what he was given. He “beat on, boat against the current” and was able to give new life to others through the stories he chose to give light to and the stories he created in his own life. Ultimately he was adding to the story of what it means to be American and what make up American ideals by backing up his writing with action and determined spirit. His midwestern values informing his perspective. What could be more American than that?
Last year I attended Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit for the first time. I was ushered to Portland by my colleague and friend, Jim Hopkinson who simply said, “you have to go!” To be honest I didn’t quite know what to expect. Jim and I had co founded a conference Reboot Workshop the year before encouraging others to live outside the 9 to 5 and I suspected that WDS might attract the same kind of aspiring entrepreneur. Employees working full time jobs they hate and can’t wait to leave to start their own companies. That group attended WDS for sure, but was just one small group amongst many successful artists, world-travelers, adventure seekers and a wide spectrum of people doing the most imaginative things. WDS isn’t just for entrepreneurs, current or aspiring, but for any creative thinker looking to squeeze just a bit more out of life.
Surprisingly, being around a lot of non-traditional creative types gave me quite a bit of perspective on my career. It wasn’t just an industry conference like SXSW. It was a life conference. Now in my 3rd year of running my own business, I’m one year ahead of where I was at the last WDS and so I’m curious to see how the people I meet and the experiences I have will shade where I go in the next year.
Like any endeavor without a definite end goal, it’s easy to get mired in the day-to-day. Last year I was still fleshing out my role as a teacher. I had some classes under my belt and some semblance of financial security but now I’m 100% on my month to month finances. Teaching has become my sort of “part-time job” that lays in a solid foundation that keeps my finances from fluctuating the way they did when I relied only on freelance work. Still this has come at the expense of taking on new projects. The time spent for preparing for class and working with students sometimes takes away from hustling for new business or launching new projects. When I conducted the New York City StartupBus in March I woke up to the fact that I really love being an entrepreneur and I want to build my business more. But I want to do it in the right ways.
Often failure to take the next step isn’t for lack of options but for lack of the right option. I hope that with WDS this year I can find new inspirations and ways of looking at projects that excite me and change the way I’ve been thinking about what I’m capable of.
As some of WDS friends know, I’ve been working on a new beta project that I’m excited to debut at the World Domination Summit. It’s called Lemur and it’s the embodiment of a lot of the best things that I’ve done in my business over the last three years. It’s a product and a coaching service and it’s specifically designed for helping creative professionals, my favorite audience. While WDS isn’t specifically about business, I think it’s the perfect place to test out reactions to Lemur. That’s because Lemur, for me, isn’t just about making a high-scale for-profit businesses. It’s about helping others and empowering creativity. I look forward to hearing what others think about the project and ideas they have for getting it out to the right audience.
Last year I met not one, not two, not three but 10 or so colleagues from around the world that I regularly check in with about business, life and everything else. I didn’t go to WDS to increase my global contacts but that ended up happening. I found friends in Europe, England, The Netherlands, Scotland, Portland, Texas, and Canada that I have either done business with or that I regularly bounce ideas off of. It’s been great to share my experiences with them and to see how we help each other with expanding possibilities of our own businesses. I also enjoyed the random encounters with strangers who, though we weren’t going to do business together, inspired me to think differently about how my business could be run. I met artists and life coaches. At one point I met an apothecary. People are really the reason to attend a conference. It’s not just the people on the stage but the audience that can grow your outlook and ideas. WDS presents one of the most mind-expanding audiences that I’ve had the pleasure to know and I’m looking forward to seeing who turns up this year.
Image from Flickr user R0Ng Creative Commons license.
San Francisco is an eclectic city. Proof of this concept is the breadth of differnt songs written about it. How can writing about the same thing spur such diverse output? In no particular order here are four songs about San Francisco.
Lights – Journey
The song is a ballad about Journey’s city of origin, San Francisco, although it was actually written in and originally intended to be about Los Angeles. It was one of Steve Perry’s first Journey songs, and was recorded soon after his joining the band. In an interview, Perry said, “I had the song written in Los Angeles almost completely except for the bridge and it was written about Los Angeles. It was ‘when the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on LA.’ I didn’t like the way it sounded at the time. And so I just had it sitting back in the corner. Then life changed my plans once again, and I was now facing joining Journey. I love San Francisco, the bay and the whole thing. ‘The bay’ fit so nice, ‘When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the bay.’ It was one of those early morning going across the bridge things when the sun was coming up and the lights were going down. It was perfect.”
Sitting on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
In August 1967, while sitting on a rented houseboat in Sausalito, Redding started writing the lyrics to the song. He completed the writing with the help of Stax producer Steve Cropper, who was also guitarist in Booker T and the M.G.’s. The song incorporates mimicked seagull whistles and sounds of the waves crashing on the shore. Tragically, just three days after Redding and band mates finished the final refinements of the song, Redding, five band mates (James Alexander, Carl Cunningham, Jimmy Lee King, Phalon Jones, Ronnie Caldwell, and Matthew Kelly) and pilot Richard “Dick” Fraser died in a plane crash that landed in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” became the first posthumous album to reach number one on the Billboard Music Charts.
We Built This City – Jefferson Starship
The lyrics describe a city built on rock n’ roll music. The lyrics explicitly mention the Golden Gate Bridge and refer to “the City by the Bay”, a common moniker for Starship’s hometown of San Francisco, California. However, the lyrics also refer to “the City That Never Sleeps”, a reference to New York City, and “The City That Rocks”, a reference to Cleveland, Ohio. Capitalizing on the ambiguity, several radio stations added descriptions of their own local areas when they broadcast the song, or even simply added their own ident in its place.
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)
The Bee Gees wrote their song “Massachusetts” as a reaction to this song. The Bee Gees’ song is about someone who has been to San Francisco but is now homesick for Massachusetts.
I can recall in my youth in Northern California a constant frustration called FOMO or fear of missing out. It is the anxiety felt that there’s someplace better you should be. You worry that you’re never where the cool stuff is happening. When I moved to the east coast and New York City seven years ago I felt that the big city had cured me of this ill. I was overwhelmed by all the choices, I simply had to deal with the fact that I would never be able to do everything. I learned that life is about making decisions. By making a choice you are inevitably missing out on the thing that wasn’t chosen. What moving to New York taught me was that wherever I was at the moment, was the right place for me to be. I brought the party.
During WDS we were in a space where what we said and did mattered as individuals
I’ve been back West many times to visit friends and family in the Bay Area and I brought with me my adopted New York attitude of nonchalance in the face of uncertainty or doubt. I brought the confident swagger that I had assumed New York had given me. I recently returned from Portland after attending The World Domination Summit (WDS), a two day conference built on the pillars of community, adventure and service. Attending WDS and finally seeing Portland, I realized something. It’s not about the space where you are but how the you change yourself in reaction to the space you’re in. In other words New York didn’t make me more confident. It was the permission I gave myself to see the confidence in me. At the conference much was made of the reactions of Portlanders to WDS attendees. I met some former Californians working in a food truck who claimed we were the nicest group they’ve ever met. Conference attendees heard this echoed everywhere, we were the kindest, most interesting and fun group they’d ever seen.
How did it happen? What was the magic that made WDS so worthwhile and impossible to describe to others? What caused this collective joy and positive outlook? As a teacher I’m often struck by the way the structure of a classroom affects the ways in which students interact. If I’m sitting at a table with my students, the questions I get and reactions to the material are much different than if students are in rows facing me at the front of a classroom. Reflecting on WDS I see this same sort of shift in how the space works to reflect back the attitudes of organizers, attendees and locals.
Two things, in my opinion, make WDS successful. One is that every attendee has a story. Not only were the speakers obviously very talented and amazing. It was equally engaging to hear the stories from attendees both on and off stage. Even the afterparty was interrupted briefly so an attendee could propose to his girlfriend. Why? Because it makes for a compelling story. The story of that wedding proposal was told in front of us because of the possibility we made for it to happen. During WDS we were in a space where what we said and did mattered as individuals and because of that we as a group made impossible things possible.
WDS is a collective wish to be positive about where we are in the present moment
The second reason for the success of WDS is Chris Guillebeau. He draws a stark contrast from others he’s sometimes compared to like Eric Reis or Tim Ferris. Chris’ character is what sets him apart. It’s defined almost entirely by his humbleness and kindness. At one point in the conference Chris gave what he called a “soft sell” which, for anyone who’s seen him speak before, is just what comes to him naturally. He can’t hard sell you or pressure you. You get the sense that Chris wants more people to be happy and comfortable like him. He invites you to enjoy life the way he does and you want to do it because he gave you a place to do it.
Portland itself is a magical place, filled with nonconforming and thoughtful people. The fact that so many of the attendees aspire to overlapping positive ideals and are brought to a place that encourages it is really what makes WDS great. It’s not about what we are doing for money or the bad patches you may see in front of you. It’s not about what you’re missing out on or the fear of it. WDS is a collective wish to be positive about where we are in the present moment and what we aspire to change in the future.
In the past month I’ve experimented more with different kinds of teaching formats and curriculum. I also attended the 140 conference on Education where K-12 learning styles were discussed in the context of social media. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a disconnect between theories of learning and the realities of modern media consumption beyond a K-12 level.
We in the US are living in a time of unprecedented access to information and at the same time that information is changing rapidly. Skills to prepare one for this new techno-savvy future were not entirely evident in the later part of the 20th century. In the 1990s much was theorized about our new media future and projected upon. So much of what I’ve been taught about how adults learn center around hands on training activities.
I quite enjoy doing classes in this format when I have the opportunity and I’m presented with an engaged audience. Far too often, however, I find that it’s more of a challenge to get adults to follow along with what you’re doing and get them to do the work in a hands on fashion. I can’t say that I blame them. I tuned out from hands on learning activities when I left grade school. What always captivated me in classes in college was a gripping lecture punctuated with solid examples.
I know lectures aren’t for everyone and I’ve slept through my fair share, but how can we look at the success of TED or talks from the Royal Society and honestly say that lectures are outmoded or don’t work? With the explosion of online content providers like Big Think serving up content in short video chunks, in addition to bite-sized articles and essays delivered to our phones and Kindles, it seems to me that far more of us are not learning by hands on but instead by collecting bits and pieces of information and deep-diving on the topics later.
This has always been my approach to the classes I offer. I cringed for months when my web concepts classes Website Bootcamp and Website in a Box were (and often still are) labelled ‘HTML’ classes. Anyone who’s serious about learning HTML knows that you don’t need to pay money for a 3 hour class to learn it. That information is freely available online. What I offer in my classes is a base level of HTML and CSS that are core to what I’ve had to use repeatedly in my past work experience. It’s just as important to me what I’m not teaching as to what I am teaching. I also bring in concepts like SEO that students are inevitably curious about, but that often don’t get touched in HTML basics classes. We’ve segmented the topics to such an extent that to realize their connection takes years of working experience.
Right now there’s an explosion of online training and extracurricular learning especially in the tech world. Yet we’re still using terms like “hands on” and “hard skills” rather than thinking of the student, our audience and customers. A good physical trainer knows that being healthy is a lifestyle. Even though we have specialists in the nutritionist, the family doctor, the personal trainer at the gym, etc each plays an important role for the individual looking to loose weight or adapt to a healthy life. Likewise our mental health relies on understanding that how students learn is different. Not everyone will respond to an online video. Neither will everyone seek out a book on a subject to learn the topic. But many still will in both cases as well. There’s not a right way and a wrong way to learning except in what’s measured by how the student perceives his or her knowledge on the subject. Let them room and they’ll learn in their own way.
Social media is abuzz with how Microsoft is (again) derivative and playing the copy cat and how much “cooler” Apple is. In all of this posturing and finger pointing a few familiar photos kept cropping up and it’s sparked a revelation from my Apple days.
In Steve’s Hands
I remember watching the presentation of the first iPad launch and thinking something was odd about the placement of Steve’s hands. Something seemed so unnatural and odd. It wasn’t until I saw photos from Sunday’s presentation that I realized what Steve was up to. Look at the placement of Steve Balmer’s hands underneath the Microsoft Surface tablet. You see it again in Steven Sinofsky’s hands in the Internet explorer demo.
Everything we need to know about these products are communicated in these pictures. Steve Jobs’ iPad seems to float in the air, suspended lightly from either side. While the Surface is light enough to hold with one hand, the weight of the product is communicated in the posture of those who hold it. Those of us with an original iPad know it’s not light as a feather but Steve Job’s posture and position seem to communicate something futuristic and etherial about the iPad. In fact the iPad 1 is heavier than the Microsoft Surface but one wouldn’t know it from Steve Jobs’ posture. If this were any other technology company I wouldn’t think to analyze such a minute detail but knowing what we know about Steve Jobs I’m sure most of us wouldn’t put it past him. Did he really think about how the photos of the iPad would appear in every article published? If so it’s a marvelous coup where Steve’s able to best his competitors even from the grave.