I can do anything with nothing

My friend Rocky always writes the titles of his blog posts last.

First, make the thing. Then decide what to call it. If you start with the title first, how will you avoid making design choices to fulfill the expectations of some random name?…What you call something matters. What that thing actually is, though, matters more.

I’m the opposite. I have an entire list of blog post ideas in my journal. Whenever I think of something I’d like to flesh out, I jot it in my book. As I sit down to write, I pick one and go with it. And every single one of them is basically a blog post title.

Rocky’s caution is well founded. Don’t hem yourself in. Give yourself freedom to move. Avoid confirmation bias. It’s really the reason that I never titled sermons when I was a pastor (The bulletin was submitted on Tuesday. That’s a long way away from Sunday).

But…

Restrictions are good. Parameters are good. In fact, appropriately narrow specificity is the first best thing you can do to spur and ensure the creative process. Knowing what your resource limitations are is vital to even knowing what you can accomplish.

And when someone succeeds under these conditions, the payoff is huge. They start to believe they can do work in a variety of situations. It’s like what what we used to say in the college theatre with little to no budget:

We’ve done so much for so long with so little, that now: We can do anything with nothing.

Full disclosure: I wrote the title of this post last.

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Being a “Single Point of Failure” is a problem, but not for the reason you think

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I had my annual performance review a couple days ago, so let me start by telling you that this is the day of my year I stress over more than any other. I’m not alone in this. You do, too. But this year’s review was – and I say this with no amount of hyperbole – pretty fantastic. Not only did I receive positive marks, but my reviewing committee helped me identify places to grow and conversed with me about possible avenues to attain it.

But what sticks with me from that couple-hour conversation was a phrase used by a committee member: “Single Point of Failure.” As in: “We’re glad to see you’ve delegated well this year, so as to eliminate yourself as a single point of failure.”

I’m shocked I’d never heard this term before. Wikipedia defines it as:

A single point of failure (SPOF) is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. SPOFs are undesirable in any system with a goal of high availability or reliability, be it a business practice, software application, or other industrial system.

I’ve always used the term “bottleneck” to describe the tendency for one person to slow down or stop work from happening effectively. But an SPOF is different. The key word is: failure. If one person goes down, it all goes down. Not cool, bro.

In my office, I manage four staff. Three of them are full time. So one might think that eliminating myself as the SPOF is good because it allows the other staff members to be able to do their jobs without worrying that my failure will derail their work. That is true, but I don’t think it’s the most important reason I, as a boss, should do it. Again, the key word is: failure.

I have a rock solid belief that failure is a positive thing. I quote the Silicon Valley startup mantra ad nauseam: “Fail Fast. Fail Often. Fail Forward.” I have literally told my staff that if they are not failing, it is evidence to me that they are not doing anything. It means they’re not, you know, actually working. And that’s cause for dismissal. Failure is the only way we learn. I want them learning lessons quickly and often, and not making the same mistakes repeatedly.

So here’s the deal: If I am the Single Point of Failure, I am being incredibly selfish because I am not making space for my staff to learn and grow. And, in my opinion, that means I’m not, you know, actually doing my job. And that, too, is cause for dismissal.

Dignity and Washing Machines

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To know me is to know a few things:

  1. I am a recovering BBQ fundamentalist, working on being a BBQ Pluralist.
  2. I like to give Texans a hard time (especially about BBQ).
  3. I think Corndogs, hotdogs, and McRibs are some of God’s most precious gifts to humanity (Before you start: McRibs are not about BBQ. They are about Love and Passion and Jesus). Fish tacos, on the other hand? No.
  4. I  believe design matters, particularly font and typeface choices (Yes, those are different, Silly).
  5. I am convinced socks and sandals are the height of good fashion sense.
  6. I am an introvert advocate.
  7. I have a self-understanding as a unique snowflake who has a special destiny to change the world.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, if I’m honest: It’s really that last one that rules my life. I am special. I am unique. There is no one like me. That said: I think school uniforms are a great idea.

I know it sounds weird, but school uniforms are one of the best things we can do for school age children. They offer a way for (especially) young kids to have a barrier to community removed. At least in this one way, we are all the same. When my oldest went to Kindergarten, he went to a school that required uniforms. It was a school that served a large number of kids from the low end of the socio-economic scale, and I witnessed first hand how everyone wearing the same clothes made a huge difference.

Which is why this article about a washing machine in a St. Louis school caught my eye, and made me very glad. Attendance and academic performance went up when it was discovered that kids weren’t coming to school because they were embarrassed by their dirty clothes. Makes total sense now that you think of it, doesn’t it?

A washing machine is not the end-all-be-all, but I am struck how I consistently hear stories that point out an increase in dignity leads to an increase in contribution and success.

Don’t judge a fish in a tree

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Last night I rewatched Batman v Superman. The night before I took in Suicide Squad. Contrary to the rest of the world, I actually enjoyed both films. I know how unpopular this is. I’m not sure I care.

No critical viewer of films will say the movies don’t have flaws. No lover of any of the characters will be left without something to gripe about (I, for one, am not as upset as others about Batman’s recent moratorium on his moratorium on taking a life). But what I find to be a lazy critique is some form of the following: Marvel’s universe is just so much better.

It is true that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is out of this world. The storylines are expertly constructed. The actors are all at the top of their respective games. The pieces and parts of the MCU are fit together like an intricate television series. This is some great moving picture action going on, and I think it is a legitimate and fair thing to say that Marvel has topped the field of superhero flicks. Hands down. Game over.

But…

Why can’t we just let DC be what it is? It’s not the best, but – often – neither are you and I. And we still have value, right? We’re still worth investing in, and spending time with, aren’t we?

I think part of our problem as humans is that we are way too concerned with comparison. “If A is not B, then A is worthless.” The problem is: our criteria for comparing is often way, way off. As Einstein is reported to have said:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

No one is good enough to be 100% wrong

Human beings often make a pretty simple mistake when it comes to smarts: We assume that intelligence is fungible (“mutually interchangeable”). If someone is smart over here, it stands to reason they would be smart over there. Right?

Wrong. 

We know that the scope of intelligence is exceedingly narrow. It has been shown time and time again that, say, success in business does not translate to success running a government agency. It is now a trope that just because someone exceeds in sales, that doesn’t mean they will succeed in sales management. Yet we continue to ignore this evidence, and barrel ahead as always.

Worse, however, I think we make the mistake on the flip side as well. We assume that because someone struggled at one task, they will struggle with them all. If they can’t understand medical issues, there is no way they will be able to disentangle interpersonal issues. Or, more simply, if they are wrong in one part of their argument, then their entire claim is false. 

I think this last one last one is the most egregious. No one is good enough to be 100% wrong, and shame on me if I take joy in exploiting someone’s logical/rhetorical misstep in order to win an argument, make myself feel better, or use it to hide my own failings.

If I’m not careful, I just might rule out a potential teacher because they make the mistake of ordering their beef well-done. That’s indicative of a corrupt human being, isn’t it? I’m not alone in this, am I?

It’s hard to be wrong on the internet

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Yesterday, I finally started editing a big video project for work. It’s an educational series that’ll end up being about 10-12 hours long for which I filmed some scholars talking to a camera as if they were teaching straight to the viewer. The content itself is fabulous, but the the choice to film straight to the camera was made somewhat on a whim. It’s early going still, but it’s presenting some challenges. I’m trying to work out how I’m going to make it a dynamic viewing experience.

In search of inspiration I went to YouTube to find “lecturey” type videos in order to learn what production decisions others made, and stumbled on a series I’d watched a few years ago featuring Harvard professor Michael Sandel leading students through moral philosophy. It’s great. It’s filmed in a big lecture hall, but Sandel is engaging. It’s spectacular.

About 17 minutes in, Sandel issues a “warning” to his students:

To read these books, in this way, is an exercise in self-knowledge. To read them in this way carries certain risks. Risks that are both personal and political…These risks spring from the fact that philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know. There’s an irony. The difficulty of this course consists in the fact that it teaches you what you already know…It works by taking what you already know, and making it strange.

This is the beauty of all advanced education, if you ask me. You take what you know and learn to apply it in wild and varied ways. You learn to make connections. You learn to synthesize. You get it wrong a lot, but you slog through.

I’m jealous of the students in that lecture hall, of that environment. I miss it terribly. I confess to being a person who would choose the life of a perpetual student if I had any say in the matter.

Yesterday, we learned that the University of Chicago has told its incoming Freshman class that their’s would not be a comfortable learning environment:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

I interpret UofC’s statement positively. They are warning students that learning is hard, and that they will be uncomfortable, and that this is precisely the point of education. UofC actually has a Safe Space they actively promote to the LGBTQ students on their campus, but what they’re doing in this statement is different. They’re saying: “You can’t run away from learning just because it’s hard. But don’t worry. We are committed to helping you work through it. There’s no need to be scared. We got you. We’ve been doing this a while.”

When I was in seminary, I was fortunate to be confronted with the truth of White Supremacy in a formal educational way for the first time in my life. I was taught about patriarchal structures for the first time in my life. I was taught about the intersection of race, gender, and class, and let me tell you: It was difficult.

It was difficult because I was scared. I was a young, straight, Midwestern boy who believed himself to be White. I had (or so I thought) everything to lose. But my professors and classmates were on the journey with me. We were all in this together. It was a safe space for learning, even though I wasn’t able to carve out an “intellectual safe space” in which I did not have to engage something new that would help me grow.

It’s been a LONG TIME since I’ve had that kind of environment to learn in. Nowadays, I learn the way most adults do: I YouTube it or search Wikipedia. I’ll buy a book here and there, but I don’t have the places to work through things that I’m unclear on, or to check theories I’m developing. I lament that I really don’t have a place that will help me grow intellectually anymore. Someplace where I can safely be wrong.

It all kind of crystallized for me a few days ago, listening to Malcolm Gladwell on a podcast. During the episode, Gladwell confessed that he thought the internet as we know it is ridiculous. It is unchecked and undefendable. He thinks the openness of the internet maybe shouldn’t be considered a feature anymore. I’m torn because I’m inclined to agree with him*. The recent horror done to Leslie Jones is Exhibit A for me.

But I want to apply Gladwell’s point to another aspect of internet life: The social web is not built for learning. Everyone has become a “public thinker” with the ability to contribute to the conversation (good), but almost no one has been trained in how to actually have a rhetorical debate (bad). We offer “hot takes” and “quick reads.” We presume a shit ton about what our Facebook “friends” are saying without taking the time to type the words: “I don’t fully understand your point. Could you say more?”

I don’t need to bang this drum. It’s the same thing many folks have lamented. My point is this: I want to learn, and I’d like learning to be easier on the social web. But the ad hoc nature of the platform makes it almost impossible. There are not really any arranged spaces online in which we can explore, suggest, and – most importantly – be wrong. The ability to be wrong is crucial, but the use of the platform doesn’t even think to consider it. In a world full of experts, no one assumes anyone else cares to learn anymore. So all we’re left with is a bunch of people defending positions or responding to attacks.

Or, as Cenk Uyger said on Twitter yesterday:

The whole internet has become Lord of the Flies and everyone is fighting over the conch.

The internet is kind of dumb that way.

 

*And I’m the guy who wrote a book about open source.

Facebook knows me

I did that thing you can do on Facebook and find out what the site believes your political alignment to be. To the surprise of no one, Facebook thinks that I am “Very Liberal.” When I noted that (yes, on Facebook), a friend observed that I’m a pretty open book, while she is seen more as a “Moderate” (She’s not 🙂 ).

Over the years I’ve had more conversations than I can count about how I’m able to have such an honest public persona. The most common question I get asked is: “How do you get away with saying what you really think?”

A lot of people try to convince me that a person who holds a position such as mine* should be neutral about controversial things. Whatever my political leanings (for instance) I should keep them to myself. I disagree. If anything, I want to be as clear as possible about who I am and how I see the world. I want to be able to be who I am. So what bothers me most is that (other than the aforementioned passivity) some folks are more concerned that I not disrupt their preconceived ideas about the world than that I engage as a thoughtful member of the community.

I don’t know if I have a good answer to the question of saying what I really think. I’ve never given a thought to “getting away with” anything. I suppose I’ve always just been who I am in whatever space I’m in. I don’t shy away from offering my opinion, but I also try to treat social media like I used to treat living in a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and you don’t get invited over for ice cream if you’re a jerk.

So here’s my advice: Imagine that truly kind person in your life who happens to see most things differently than you do. When you speak your mind, pretend you’re speaking to them.

 

*I’m professionally religious, directing a regional office of the Presbyterian Church USA.