A thought crystalized today in conversation with a dear friend back home. I confessed that I feel restless and out-of-focus in San Francisco, as compared to when I was in graduate school in New York.
"My last five year plan ended in May 2013, and I don’t yet have a new one."
I’ve said this to multiple people. I still remember when I saw a post from Jason Santa Maria talking about the beginning of the SVA IxD program in 2008. I thought, “oh I’d love to go.” And then a wish became an idea, and an idea became a plan, and five years later I’m on the other side of that wish. What’s the new plan?
I had said that my goal this year is to get better at my work, be healthy, and build relationships in San Francisco. My friend had been keeping me accountable, and checked in with me.
"Ok I suppose. I’ve resolved to say yes to social things as much as possible. I’m going to the gym. I’m doing my thing at work."
I suppose? Why suppose? Because I don’t feel accomplished, and I don’t feel done. I don’t feel that I am getting closer. Mostly because I don’t know where I’m supposed to get closer to.
In the middle of that thought I realized, actually, there’s no being done with these goals. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even goals. I can’t be done being healthy like I’m done graduate school. I can’t be finished with building relationships like I’m finished a website.
Ugh, goal orientation overkill.
So basically I’ve been looking at this wrong. I’m out-of-focus because I’m looking for some metric indicating done-ness. To borrow metaphors from physics, I’ve trying to find an ideal position to measure my current position against. Instead I ought to be measuring my vector and velocity. Am I on the right trajectory, and am I moving sufficiently quickly along that trajectory.
This actually made me feel a bit better. We’ll see if this new framing makes me feel less restless.
- And yet, somehow, a great many people who are privileged seem to forget this – indeed, they seem to think exactly the opposite. They convince themselves that they have made successes of their lives from raw talent and intelligence and that everyone else who hasn’t succeeded must have failed either because they’re too stupid - as the recent speech of Boris Johnson seems to suggest – or too lazy (as the whole ‘strivers vs scroungers’ agenda supposes) or because they’ve made terrible decisions, can’t budget and so forth.
I should have taken pictures.
In search of a Hong-Kong-style supermarket today, I went wandering around San Francisco’s chinatown. Now the chinatown gate at Grant and Bush is a spot I walk by almost daily on the way to work, but I rarely venture any further up Grant. The few times I’ve been up Grant I’ve always thought, this street is really weird. All colours and neon lights and erhu music. And today I learned that there are no Chinese supermarkets on Grant. Instead I had to walk much further north, and a couple blocks west to Stockton Street, where suddenly San Francisco turns into a canton bazaar.
So I was like, why is Grant Street so chinatown, yet Stockton is where all the actual Chinese people do their shopping?
In hindsight it should have been no surprise. Grant Streets looks the way it does because it is what Chinese people think what American tourists think Chinatown should look like. Or put more simply, Grant Street is designed for mainstream America. The shops there hawk souvenirs and faux Chinese fridge magnets and exotic food like boba tea and whatever a Chinese Mai-tai is. It’s centered around one-time commercial transactions, where the kitschiest, most stereotypically Chinese products win. Grant Street sells appearances.
Stockton street has butchers with huge cleavers chopping up greasy canton-style BBQ hanging on meat hooks. The sidewalks are blocked by multigenerational Chinese families bargaining with grocery store owners. The shops hawk exotic foods like dried medicinal roots, and cow intestine noodle soup. Stockton had supermarkets that sold the Vita lemon juice boxes in six-packs that I had to buy because it reminded me of growing up in Hong Kong. Stockton Street is messy, complex, and inscrutable to Americans, because it’s designed for repeated transactional relationships with locals who already understand the nature of the products sold.
Put it this way – if you don’t understand why these shriveled up black mushrooms that cannot get your high still sells for $80, I am not going to bother explaining. You’re not the target audience. I probably have your name written in pseudo-calligraphy though!
It comes back to business models and economic relationships. Grant Street sells the idea of being in Chinatown once. Stockton Street caters to actually being Chinese everyday.
Spent the early part of my event at a Service Design Network event tonight, where Dave Gray spoke about how to create cultural change when you want to innovate inside of a company. He defines culture as the habits and behaviors that are shared and implicitly agreed upon by a group.
If there’s a problem, and everyone knows that there’s a problem but no one talks about it – there’s a culture problem.
Gray outlines his culture mapping framework, which is about getting people to talk about culture. It involves asking questions about each of these four ideas:
- Evidence: What can you see visibly and tangibly about this org? What the behaviors? What are the outputs?
- Levers: What are the incentive structures (formal or informal)? Why do these incentive structures manifests as these behaviors?
- Values: There are two kinds of values in organizations – stated values, and acted values. What are they? How do they get expressed in the levers and incentive structures?
- Assumptions: These are based on acted values, and are about how the group understands what leads to success implicitly.
Note how each layer reveals something about the layer below it. According to Gray, to even get the conversation about culture started these hidden values and assumptions have to be surfaced. He gave a fascinating if kind of obvious example about Nokia, where they claim to be passionate about innovation. They point to their R&D museum, full of ahead-of-their-time inventions that never made it to market. By asking these questions in the framework, it became clear Nokia valued invention – but innovation is not just invention. They lacked the values critical to bringing new products to market.
These steps resonated with me as they mirrored how I think about psychology and psychoanalysis, especially in self examination. These phrases are much better expressions of the layers of behaviors and thought patterns I have to dig through in order to correct my own behavior.
An example is Sunday evening. All evidence shows that I spent three hours on Reddit, instead of more productive activities. It’s clear that nothing else motivated me more, moment to moment, than clicking on the next link. Low but immediate gratification won out over anything that required getting up. What does it say about my values? What does it say about my assumptions? Essentially, there’s a part of my brain that’s seeks immediate, low cost gratification. It’s values conflicts with other parts of my brain.
On the whole, I think spending three hours on Reddit is generally a bad idea. So let’s change the levers. I went to my etc/hosts file and redirected reddit.com to 127.0.0.1 – which raises the cost of accessing Reddit just enough to stop the behavior.
Apparently, I can’t get settled in without immediately feeling restless.
This year, I spent January to April putting a thesis together. May celebrating my friends’ wedding in Asia. June and July looking for work. August until now moving and working and getting settled into San Francisco.
And now I feel settled. Tomorrow is the start of my 14th week in California. I spent half of tonight mindlessly surfing reddit, and the rest of it feeling disgusted with my mindlessness.
So, a bit too settled.
Fortunately, I now have an alarm clock that prompts me to write and reflect every night at 10:45 p.m. Tonight I am thinking about that particular Dylan line about, well,
That he not busy being born is busy dying
Born, or reborn, as it were. At 25 I had a clear plan for myself. I wanted to become a triple threat designer. So I applied to graduate design school, and then packed up and went to SVA. One of the real blessing of graduate school was how alive I felt everyday. It was exhausting, but it was acceptable exhaustion because my mind was changing fast enough for me to notice, week by week. That pace though is not sustainable, and it is now obvious to me how the non-design parts of my life fell by the wayside.
Mindless surfing Reddit for three hours though is probably an over correction. After a two year intellectual growth spurt, I may deserve some rest, but probably shouldn’t fall into a coma.
Question is, how do I get busy being born again?
As usual, no answers, but a couple hunches from writing tonight:
- What is capability without application? Not much.
- What is application without love? Vanity, basically.
- via Meghana: Acting my way to new thinking
Not quite sure where this will lead yet. We’ll see.
The concept of a person is arguably the most important interface ever developed.
In computer science, an interface is the exposed ‘surface area’ of a system, presented to the outside world in order to mediate between inside and outside. The point of an (idealized, abstract) interface is to hide the (messy, concrete) implementation — the reality on top of which the interface is constructed.
A person (as such) is a social fiction: an abstraction specifying the contract for an idealized interaction partner. Most of our institutions, even whole civilizations, are built to this interface — but fundamentally we are human beings, i.e., mere creatures. Some of us implement the person interface, but many of us (such as infants or the profoundly psychotic) don’t. Even the most ironclad person among us will find herself the occasional subject of an outburst or breakdown that reveals what a leaky abstraction her personhood really is. The reality, as Mike Travers recently argued, is that each of us is an inconsistent mess — a “disorderly riot” of competing factions, just barely holding it all together.
The rest of the article provides a bunch of interesting metaphors for thinking about UX/UI, the chief of which is thinking about good UX as good etiquette for machines/systems.
I am more fascinated, however, with the metaphor here that goes in the opposite direction. What does it say about our psychology that we are systems that implement (well or poorly) the “person” interface? There are no API documentation standardizing the social contract. Even when the “person” is (superficially) properly implemented, the actual mechanism underneath can vary widely. Groups and social situations bring with them additional API requirements.
Not quite sure what to make of this, but its an interesting way to look at the tension between the person one presents, and the entangled mess of psychological mechanisms underneath.
In conversation with a friend today, I tried to describe how I think about empathy. It started with when my friend asked about my Meyers-Briggs type:
"I’m a ENTJ. Apparently strongest tendency in T(hinking) too."
"You don’t strike me as a T. You seem to deal with and articulate feelings very well."
"Actually, I don’t really believe T(hinking) and F(eeling) as a spectrum. I think a person can be both – and neither."
Thinking One’s Way To Empathy
My friend, like a lot of logical “T-type” people I know, pride themselves in being fact driven and rational. I used to be one of those people too. I believed that people ought to be rational, and that being irrational and feelings driven is somehow wrong, or at least inefficient.
"So how did you learn to become more empathetic?"
"I think it starts with the fundamental acknowledgement that feelings are real, and that we are not by nature rational."
Rational people’s ability to put their feelings aside is a learned ability. People who are great at being rational put their feelings aside as if it is second nature, and their ease with it blinds them to how difficult it is for others.
One way of learning empathy therefore is to start with the acknowledgement that being rational and putting feelings aside is difficult and effortful. Feelings, whether justifiable or not, are real and have real psychological effects in how people operate in the world. The next step is to understand the cause and consequences of feelings. Feeling may not always be founded in facts, but they are not chaotic. There’s a consistent pattern in how feelings develop, and how they lead to action.
To work well with feeling creatures, one must learn the internal logic of feelings (i.e. through psychology, observation and self-reflection.) I suppose this is why reading great fiction helps people to be more empathetic – fiction is often a guided tour of the mental dynamics of others.
Empathy can thus be framed as a highly practiced ability to deduce other people’s mental states. It’s an ability attainable with patience and deliberate practice. To practice empathy is to observe how people feel about things, regardlessly of whether those feelings are rational or justified.
I guess the take-aways for rational people learning to empathize are these:
1. People are not rational, and they are easier to understand when you don’t assume they should behave rationally.
2. Feelings are real, and have a consistent internal logic that can be understood. Psychology is the study of it.
3. Empathy is an ability that must be practiced. The practice of it begins with patiently observing (and not judging) the feelings of others and oneself.
Deserve" is a heavy word, freighted with a shared sense of obligation. It can be understood only in a context of ethics. It denotes merit earned from service—that’s where the "serve" part comes from.
Deserve is a heavy word.
… leads to unscheduled reflections after dark. I’ll spare you the rambling that lead to this thought, but this I did want to share:
Except I know that not much at all separates the beggar on the side of the street from me. It’s really almost just theatrics. I’m capable of manipulating symbols in some specific way that makes some people willing to fork over some other symbols, which can be used to buy food and pay rent. And I came by that ability almost entirely as a result of how I was born, and how I was parented, and how society progressed in the last thousand years. Sure, I have made many things with my hands—but I certainly didn’t make my hands.
The whole thing is a massive stroke of luck. What do I deserve? I don’t know. What I do know is that what I possess has no relationship to what I deserve, and that is a very uncomfortable thought.
Once again, no conclusions. One meta-lesson, however, might be that discomfort is something I should not necessarily flee from.