It’s been way too long. Let’s do this again. Hope to see you in San Diego.
Our most popular posts from the past four years.
The power (and limitations) of prevailing culture
Pepsi has a Scorpion and Frog problem. Its intrinsic nature may prevent it from changing, even when failure to change threatens its existence. And the same is true of homebuilding.
Of moose and unicorns: an experiment in sustainable living
Scott and Alex Mueller had high-paying jobs, a nice house and a consumption lifestyle—and found it all dissatisfying. How one couple stepped off the treadmill and got their lives back.
Nostalgia is local
A story of juvenile mischief and escapism—a real-life “Dangerous Book for Boys” experience—and also of memory and identity that’s deeply rooted in a place.
Uniformity rarely yields creativity
A team of the same people thinking the same thoughts shaped by the same shared experiences will doom any efforts to change.
Something to believe in
Square footage, floorplans, elevations, parks, schools, real estate values—those are the rational factors we cite to justify an emotional decision we’ve already made.
Fighting for the things that people value
Modern medicine is really good at prolonging life. It needs to get better at prolonging living. Atul Gawande explores end-of-life questions that we all need to consider.
He was polarizing
An acoustic guitarist captures his audience by having the courage to polarize—preferring a smaller group who are really into his act than a large group of half-interested folks.
The only successful networker was the bartender
Research shows that entrepreneurs with wider, more diverse social networks are three times more innovative than their homogenous peers.
We don’t serve soda here
One of the defining characteristics of a community is that it establishes and enforces a set of social norms…as the author recently experienced.
As only she can, Jessica Hagy captures a deep truth of human behavior in this elegant little diagram, cleverly titled Giving the finger with your thumbs.
It’s a spot-on commentary, and yet I was also reminded of a counter-perspective from Misha Glouberman, a facilitator and designer of participatory events. (He is also—by his own claim, as yet unchallenged—Canada’s foremost charades instructor.)
In an intriguing, sometimes meandering but always insightful book, The Chairs Are Where the People Go, Misha shares this observation about our public/private divide:
“I hear people complain that…people don’t say hi on the street or make eye contact on the subway. And people try to remedy this problem by doing public art projects that are meant to rouse the bourgeoisie from their slumber. But that’s ridiculous! It’s perfectly reasonable for people not to want to see your dance performance when they are coming home from work. People are on the subway because they’re getting from one place to another, and for all you know, they’re coming from a job that involves interacting with lots and lots of people, and going to a home where there’s a family where they’re going to interact with lots more people. And the subway’s the one place where they can have some quiet time, get some reading done, not have to smile, not have to make eye contact.
That’s what a city is: a city is a place where you can be alone in public, and where you have that right. It’s necessary to screen people out. It would be overwhelming if you had to perceive every single person on a crowded subway car in the fullness of their humanity. It would be completely paralyzing. You couldn’t function. So don’t try to fix this. There is no problem.”
We need human connection. Until we need a break from it.
“We’re all a little weird. And life is a little weird.
And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible
with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutually
satisfying weirdness—and call it love—true love.”
[ Robert Fulghum ]
Last week in San Francisco I attended PCBC as just another participant—not as guy-in-a-headset-directing-the-conference, which had been my role for the previous eighteen years.
I’ve long suspected that conferences are largely an excuse to eat and drink with colleagues and friends—that the sessions and learning objectives are simply the rationale we use to justify a social investment—and last week’s experience only solidifies that hunch. While I heard some fantastic speakers there (Sir Ken Robinson and Walker Smith being my favorites), my enduring memories will be the conversations and laughter over dinner.
If people are the heart of community, then place and context are its connective tissue. So when a group of us gathered in the courtyard at Sociale—a gem of a restaurant that bills itself as a “neighborhood gathering spot,” tucked down a brick-lined, ivy-leafed alley in Presidio Heights—how could we feel anything less than convivial in a setting so warm and welcoming?
Sociale’s founder and proprietor, David Nichol, came from a fast-paced career in the tech sector that ended with the dotcom crash. He described that experience to me as “a passage” that brought him to the things he really loves: food, wine and social gatherings, which prompted him to open his restaurant.
The Great Recession has been brutal, wiping out businesses and derailing careers. But if we choose to see it David’s way, it can also be a passage to something better. Ask yourself this question: are you more passionate about, and fulfilled by, the work you’re doing today than you were four years ago? For a lot of us, myself included, the money to be made during the housing boom was an obstacle to something more meaningful.
Susan Drews, who was at that dinner, shared a wonderful quote from Slow Food that has become a touchstone of hers: “Make sure what you do has a story behind it that you are proud of.”
A story contains emotion. A story that you’re proud of contains substance. A life worth living has both in abundance.
May we all, by design or by accident, find the passage to it.
“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money.
But if you hire people who believe what you believe,
they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”
[ Simon Sinek, Start With Why ]
“O, to be sure, we laugh less and play less
and wear uncomfortable disguises like adults,
but beneath the costume is the child we always are,
whose needs are simple, whose daily life is still
best described by fairy tales.”
[ Leo Rosten ]
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for—in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”
[ Ellen Goodman ]
Five years ago, Scott Mueller held an executive level position with a large homebuilding company. He was good at his job, respected by his peers, and well compensated. His wife, Alexandra, is beautiful, bright, artistic and similarly driven. They were the sort of couple that David Brooks likes to lampoon—young, successful, upwardly mobile, effortlessly photogenic, living in a nice house decorated a la Pottery Barn showroom.
But their lifestyle came with a toll: long hours, grueling commutes, mounting stress, and a gnawing sense that this treadmill would never let up, would never take them anywhere satisfying—that they were, in effect, running a race to nowhere.
And so Scott and Alex did something quite odd (by most people’s standards). They got off the treadmill.
“What we wanted was to break our insatiable consumption cycle and begin a new life,” Scott says. “We wanted more freedoms, and we wanted our time back.”
In 2008 they purchased land in a remote, pristine area of Eastern Washington, about an hour’s drive north of Spokane. In 2009 they installed a well and began construction of what would become their multifunction home, barn and workshop. And in 2010 they quit their jobs and moved to the property full-time, camping while they finished the project themselves.
The result is Moosicorn Ranch, what Scott and Alex call their “experiment in sustainable living.” They still work—Scott’s a web design consultant; Alex is pursuing a degree in wildlife biology—but they’re no longer tethered to stressful jobs in order to satisfy a hefty mortgage. They raise chickens, grow their own food, and are trying their hands at beekeeping.
More importantly, Scott and Alex are enjoying a lifestyle that feels purposeful and alive. Pre-Moosicorn, they lived next to a state park but rarely had time to visit it. Now they’re immersed in natural beauty, and the effect is invigorating and—for Scott in particular, who says of his previous work developing tract housing, “it sucked my soul”—cathartic.
It’s a life that seems storybook and yet at the same time ruggedly, determinedly grounded. Even the name derives from this mixture, a playful portmanteau of moose and unicorn. And it strikes me that this is how all creative endeavors are born—when playfulness and industriousness collide.
I asked them what community is like in a place where you can’t see your closest neighbors, and they described it as less densely connected but more deeply engaged. “These are all giving, caring community members,” Alex says. “We just meet our neighbors in a different fashion: they show up slinging guns and kindness instead of pre-packaged cookies and kindness.”
Plus, with its gardens, workshops and ample space for tinkering, Moosicorn itself is becoming a catalyst for community. “We’re slowly making it into our own ‘third place,’” Scott says. “We’re bringing people into our environment and engineering the kinds of stimulating exchanges we want to have.”
As Scott and Alex envision the future of Moosicorn, that’s a trend that will continue. Eventually the couple plans to build additional cottages for hosting eco-retreats, seminars and an artist-in-residence program, providing free room and board to help young creatives pursue their dreams.
I’ve known Scott from when he attended The Vine at our meeting in Napa, and I wanted to write this article for two reasons. To share a story worth celebrating, and to invite the stories of others. So I’ll ask, how have you (or your organization) simplified or reprioritized? What did you let go of? What did you gain? I hope you’ll use the comments below or send me an email.
You don’t have to go as far as homesteading in the wilderness to step off the treadmill.
You just have to question where it’s taking you.
Photos courtesy of Moosicorn’s Flickr photostream
Stephen Marche’s cover story in The Atlantic reports a rising trend of loneliness in America. Facebook and Twitter, it seems, are making us simultaneously more connected and more isolated.
Marche is neither technophile nor technophobe; he regards social media neutrally, a tool in the hands of the user. The problem, he says, is how we’re using the tool. For millions of Americans, our connections are growing broader but shallower.
“What Facebook has revealed about human nature,” he writes, “is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity.”
It’s tempting (and convenient) to conclude that this is a case of technology shaping our behavior—but I don’t think that’s right. I suspect, actually, that it’s the other way around. We’re choosing superficiality. This is our behavior shaping technology.
Do check out the article. Highly recommended reading.
“It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.”
So begins Steal Like An Artist, a rich and engaging book that Austin Kleon has penned—in words and playful illustrations—to his nineteen-year-old self. Stemming from a talk he gave to students at Broome Community College, Kleon shares practical wisdom about creativity and creative processes that he wishes he’d known when first starting out.
Now, if the notion of “stealing” other people’s work makes you feel twitchy, let’s first clarify that everyone does it—even the great masters of art and literature built on the works that preceded them—but not everyone does it well.
T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
You honor others when you steal from them authentically. And, let’s be clear, that does not mean skimming the surface, copying the veneer of someone’s work. (See Kleon’s chart of good vs. bad theft.) It’s immersing yourself in the body of work of a thinker who inspires you, internalizing his or her ideas, and remixing them in a way that’s uniquely your own.
“Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style,” Kleon says. “You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”
Next, he suggests, go find three thinkers who inspired your thinker, and repeat the process. Over time you’ll build a creative lineage to draw from—and add to.
“Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff,” Kleon says. “I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.”
Steal Like An Artist is a small, elegant book that’s packed with practical insights about creativity and creative habits—things like kindness, generosity, productive procrastination, and the importance of hobbies and working with your hands. It is a brilliant manifesto for successfully navigating this age of combinatorial creativity, where ideas are ubiquitous and value is created through synthesis and symphony.
As Kleon puts it, we are a mashup of the things we let into our lives, and “anyone can be creative if they surround themselves with the right influences, play nice, and work hard.”
My advice: Make this book one of the things you let into your life. Your inner artist will thank you.
While we’re talking about books worth reading, here are a few more that have captured my imagination lately. All enthusiastically recommended.
The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive
Book description: Each year, the AI community convenes to administer the famous (and famously controversial) Turing test. Named for computer pioneer Alan Turing, the test convenes a panel of judges who pose questions—ranging anywhere from celebrity gossip to moral conundrums—to hidden contestants in an attempt to discern which is human and which is a computer. The machine that most often fools the panel wins the Most Human Computer Award. But there is also a prize, bizarre and intriguing, for the Most Human Human. Brian Christian, a young poet with degrees in computer science and philosophy, was chosen to participate in a recent competition. This playful, profound book is not only a testament to his efforts to be deemed more human than a computer, but also a rollicking exploration of what it means to be human in the first place.
My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store
Ben Ryder Howe
Book description: It starts with a gift, when Ben Ryder Howe’s wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her parents’ self-sacrifice by buying them a store. Howe, an editor at the rarefied Paris Review, agrees to go along. Things soon become a lot more complicated. After the business struggles, Howe finds himself living in the basement of his in-laws’ Staten Island home, commuting to the Paris Review offices in George Plimpton’s Upper East Side townhouse by day, and heading to Brooklyn at night to slice cold cuts and peddle lottery tickets. My Korean Deli follows the store’s tumultuous life span, and along the way paints the portrait of an extremely unlikely partnership between characters with shoots across society, from the Brooklyn streets to Seoul to Puritan New England. Owning the deli becomes a transformative experience for everyone involved as they struggle to salvage the original gift—and the family—while sorting out issues of values, work, and identity.
Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian
Book description: After defecting from yeshiva to Harvard, Avi Steinberg has only a senior thesis essay on Bugs Bunny to show for his effort. While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Seeking direction—and dental insurance—Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison. The prison library counter, his new post, attracts con men, minor prophets, ghosts, and an assortment of quirky regulars searching for the perfect book and a connection to the outside world. There’s an anxious pimp who solicits Steinberg’s help in writing a memoir. A passionate gangster who dreams of hosting a cooking show titled Thug Sizzle. A disgruntled officer who instigates a major feud over a Post-it note. A doomed ex-stripper who asks Steinberg to orchestrate a reunion with her estranged son, himself an inmate. Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves—a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor.
A Year of Mornings: 3191 Miles Apart
Maria Alexandra Vettese and Stephanie Congdon Barnes
(This is a beautiful book made all the more special because it was a gift from a friend.)
Book description: On the morning of December 7, 2006, Maria and Stephanie each took a digital photo of everyday objects randomly arranged on their kitchen tables and, unbeknownst to one another, uploaded them to the website Flickr. Noticing a remarkable similarity between their images, they agreed to document their mornings by posting one photo to a shared blog every weekday for a year. A Year of Mornings collects 236 images from this uniquely 21st-century artistic collaboration. While clearly kindred spirits, the two women have met in person only once. Their friendship is maintained solely online, sustained by a shared love for moments of serenity, solitude, and peacefulness.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
[ Elie Wiesel ]
Last night, Dave Eggers was presented with the 21st Century Visionary Award by INFORUM, a division of The Commonwealth Club. In the Q&A that followed, he was asked about his creative process when writing.
Truman Capote wrote lying down, coffee and cigarettes always close at hand. Vladimir Nabokov wrote most of his novels on 3 x 5 index cards. Eggers, we learned, retreats to his writing shed, where he works in uninterrupted seclusion for eight hours—yielding, on average, about 45 minutes of productive output per day.
I was reminded that the walls of Eggers’ 826 Valencia tutoring center are papered with book drafts by authors like Amy Tan and Zadie Smith. The pages are filled with scribbled revisions, helping the students understand that writing is a grind, and frequently a painful one, even if you’re famous.
“Writing is not necessarily magic,” Eggers says. “That’s what I learned in journalism school—discipline and humility. You don’t have to be this gifted poet, wordsmith-type person. It’s will and desire and tenacity—and that’s the work ethic which I applied to teach writing.”
We like to think of talent and creativity as flowing (more freely for some than others) from a mystical inner fountain. It’s a romantic notion, and it lets us off the hook on the days when we’re just not feeling it. But it ignores the reality that bursts of insight are the product of a long, arduous slog. What is the What and Zeitoun each took three years to write, and 90% of the research that Eggers conducted never made it into the books.
As Hugh MacLeod has said, shortcuts are the enemy—especially when they don’t exist.
Photo credit: INFORUM
Design psychologist (and Vine speaker and adviser) Toby Israel shares a touching, personal account of how environments influence wellness and healing.
Diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, she began shaping her “treatment journey” by redesigning her surroundings. It started with a bedroom makeover, but also (and perhaps more significantly) included the choice of a luxurious, embroidered robe to wear during radiation treatments—an empowering alternative to the drab, impersonal hospital-issued gowns. (I can attest, vicariously, to the gown phenomenon.)
I won’t give away too much of her story, but those robes are now helping to form a community of support among breast cancer victims.
Congrats, Toby, on your full recovery. And thanks for sharing your inspiration with others.
Joe Nocella is the owner of 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn. In the fantastic video below, “The Inverted Bike Shop,” he talks about co-creating with customers, bringing them into the design process, and even letting them participate in the assembly of their custom bicycles.
“I found that people really wanted to be involved in the process,” he says, “not just buy a bike.” And there it is.
People don’t want to “just buy a _______.”
Eudaimonia is a Greek word commonly translated as “happiness” or “success,” but linguists seem to agree that a more accurate translation would be “human flourishing.” As Aristotle applied the term, it suggested finding one’s true purpose, fulfilling one’s promise and potential.
Great organizations can also be said to experience eudaimonia, both collectively and individually in their people. (Pixar, Patagonia, TOMS, Trader Joe’s and Southwest Airlines come to mind.) They bring their humanity to, and express their humanity through, their work.
That’s my take on it anyway. If this sounds a bit ethereal, management guru Patrick Lencioni offers a far more practical, grounded perspective in his excellent new book, The Advantage. Lencioni eschews the Greek in favor of a more modern concept, “organizational health.” And he argues that it is the single greatest competitive advantage in business today.
Organizational health, he says, trumps strategy, research, technology and brainpower. So what is it?
“At its core, organizational health is about integrity,” Lencioni says, “but not in the ethical or moral way that integrity is incorrectly defined so often today. An organization has integrity—is healthy—when it is whole, consistent and complete, when its management, operations, strategy and culture fit together and make sense.”
Think of it as a multifaceted process of alignment. It begins with a clearly defined organizational purpose, a set of values that you live by even when they’re detrimental to profits. It’s supported (or undermined) by decisions and behaviors that align (or not) with your purpose. IDEO general manager Tom Kelley likens this to verbal language and body language—what you say vs. what you do—and warns that if they’re not consistent, your body language is what people will interpret as the “real” you.
That integrity (or alignment) then promotes a culture of authenticity, vulnerability, trust, and willingness to engage in productive conflict, all of which are essential to unleashing creativity. Pixar president Ed Catmull attests to this in his fascinating article for the Harvard Business Review. When a crisis emerged during the making of “Toy Story,” the studio’s executives began to coalesce, through the crucible of healthy debate, into what is now a legendary creative community. “Since they trusted one another, they could have very intense and heated discussions,” Catmull recalls. “They always knew that the passion was about the story and wasn’t personal.”
Healthy, aligned organizations are characterized by high morale and productivity, minimal politics, ego and confusion, and low turnover among the best employees. What enterprise doesn’t want that? And why are they so rare?
Because the process is really hard. And really messy (humans tend to be that way).
Organizational health is about creating a thriving, supportive community. It’s about people and relationships, and it involves honest, subjective and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. It also requires standing for something—and being willing to polarize people who don’t stand with you.
The Advantage is a pragmatic, engaging and helpful guide for how to navigate this difficult but essential process. Lencioni is well known for his bestselling business fables (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Death by Meeting among them) in which he uses fictional narratives to illustrate powerful teaching points about teamwork, trust, communication, culture and other similarly elusive dynamics. This is his first nonfiction book, and although it covers a lot of the same territory as his previous offerings, it synthesizes the topics nicely while adding new perspectives on strategy and implementation.
If there’s anything Vine readers might find missing, it’s the element of physical spaces and environments, and how they influence interaction, collaboration and productivity. But given Lencioni’s forte as a leadership and management thinker, there’s certainly nothing wrong with focusing on his strengths and ceding design to designers.
I enjoyed The Advantage immensely, and my copy is now thoroughly marked with highlights and margin notes.
In the end, what better compliment could you give a book?