Keeping Quiet

“Keeping Quiet,” a poem by Pablo Neruda, translated by Stephen Mitchell. Via my friend, Rafael Lopez.

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.

What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.

If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,

if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I’ll go.

The Delightful Absurdity of Wikipedia

I was browsing my RSS feed today, and came across this open letter to Wikipedians by author, Philip Roth, published in The New Yorker, about the Wikipedia entry for his book, The Human Stain.

Here was the controversy, in brief:

  1. The Wikipedia page suggested that the book was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”
  2. Roth noted that this was incorrect. He would know…
  3. … except that, according to Wikipedia’s No Original Research policy, it’s not clear that he would. One could argue that the administrators who interacted with Roth interpreted the policy too narrowly, or that the policy itself is too narrow. Regardless, as ridiculous as it may seem, a secondary source that supports Roth’s claim is a more “definitive” source.
  4. And so, Roth created that secondary source by publishing his letter in The New Yorker.

Problem solved. Here’s what the Wikipedia article says now (and this may change by the time you read this):

Roth wrote in 2012 that the book was inspired “by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.”[4]

The footnote cites the letter in The New Yorker. The Wikipedia article also notes:

Roth was motivated to explain the inspiration for the book after noticing an error in the Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain. His efforts to correct the entry were thwarted by Wikipedia editors because he did not have a secondary source for his correction. Roth was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry, by Michiko Kakutani and other critics that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic.[5][6][7] Roth has repeatedly said these speculations are false. In 2008 Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard’s ancestry until “months and months after” starting to write the novel.[8]

Was it absurd that Roth had to go through such lengths to correct this mistake in Wikipedia? Perhaps. I definitely empathize with Roth and many others like him who have to undergo similarly frustrating ordeals, and I truly hope a better approach for handling these things evolves one day.

That said, I think the end result was delightful. Possibly delightfully absurd, but definitely delightful.

On Doing Things Well

My business partner, Kristin Cobble, is a Peter Senge disciple, and we’ve been having good conversations over the past few weeks about learning organizations. In the course of these discussions, I was reminded of a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate it when people say things like:

“We’re not collaborating.”

“That’s not a network.”

“We’re not a learning organization.”

when what they actually mean is:

“We’re not collaborating well.”

“That’s not an effective network.”

“We’re not an effective learning organization.”

I’m not just being pedantic. Not only does the qualifier matters, it’s the question that most of us actually care about.

Let’s take learning organizations as an example. Senge defines learning organizations as organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their desired futures. (This is almost identical to Doug Engelbart’s definition of organizations that are collectively intelligent.)

By this definition, any organization that is profitable is a learning organization, because more money generally increases the capacity of most groups to create their desired futures. Of course, this is not what most people actually mean when they talk about learning organizations. It’s not because it’s wrong. It’s because what we really care about is what makes organizations effective at learning. Profitably can indicate effectiveness, but it is not the defining factor.

Treating things like learning and collaboration as a continuum rather than as a binary acknowledges what you are already doing and supports you in building on that, rather than assuming (usually incorrectly) that you’re not doing it in the first place. It also gets you out of the mindset of trying to follow someone else’s predefined template. In other words, it puts the emphasis on the verb (to learn, to collaborate) rather than the noun.

Senge’s attributes for learning organizations are great, and I refer to them all the time. But when people ask me about what it means to be a learning organization, I turn the questions back to them:

  • What does it mean for you, individually, to learn?
  • What’s an example of something you’ve learned well?  What enabled you to learn that effectively?
  • What’s an example of something your organization has learned? What enabled it to learn? How could you create conditions that would enable your organization to learn more effectively?

Simply taking the time to explore these kinds of questions together is the first step toward making any group effective at learning.

Seriously! A Movie About Play

My friend, Gwen Gordon, is a play consultant. Yes, you read her job title correctly. Even having known her and having worked with her, I’m still not sure what that entails. I’m not even going to bother citing her ridiculously impressive credentials. All I know is that a little dose of Gwen leads to creative breakthroughs and makes everything more delightful.

When Kristin Cobble and I were struggling with what to name our company, we called Gwen. “Groupaya” was born. When we were struggling with our logo and driving our graphic designer, Amy Wu, crazy, we called Gwen. Voila. Breakthrough.

When we were working with the IT division at a multi-billion dollar, global company, and we decided we wanted to introduce a little play and humor into the project, we called Gwen. We consistently got feedback like, “I love your reading your stuff. It’s not your usual business mumbo jumbo.” That may sound like it was a bonus, but it was actually critical. We were trying to elicit participation and engagement among a group that “didn’t have time” to participate and engage, and we wouldn’t have pulled it off without Gwen.

Gwen loves play. She embodies it, she obsesses about it, and she practices it. And for over a year now, she’s been developing a documentary about it. And it’s awesome.

Now she needs some additional funding to finish it. So she started a Kickstarter campaign. Watch her video below, then give a little something to help make it happen.

Need another nudge? Go check out what Kristin had to say about Gwen on her movie on the Groupaya blog.

David Chang on Integrity

I’ve never met David Chang, the hotshot chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, nor have I ever tasted his food. From the various profiles I’ve read of the dude, he seems like the kind of guy I’d either be best friends with or wouldn’t be able to stand.

My all-time favorite story about him comes from this 2008 New Yorker profile:

At Noodle Bar, a junior line cook had been cooking chicken for family meal—lunch for the staff—and although he had to cook something like seventy-five chicken pieces and the stoves were mostly empty, he’d been cooking them in only two pans, which meant that he was wasting time he could have spent helping to prep for dinner. Also, he was cooking with tongs, which was bad technique, it ripped the food apart, it was how you cooked at T.G.I. Friday’s—he should have been using a spoon or a spatula. Cooking with tongs showed disrespect for the chicken, disrespect for family meal, and, by extension, disrespect for the entire restaurant. But the guy cooking family meal was just the beginning of it. Walking down the line, Chang had spotted another cook cutting fish cake into slices that were totally uneven and looked like hell. Someone else was handling ice-cream cones with her bare hands, touching the end that wasn’t covered in paper. None of these mistakes was egregious in itself, but all of them together made Chang feel that Noodle Bar’s kitchen was degenerating into decadence and anarchy. He had screamed and yelled until a friend showed up and dragged him out of the restaurant, and his head still hurt nearly twenty-four hours later.

The following afternoon, Chang called an emergency meeting for the staff. Something was rotten in Noodle Bar, and he meant to cut it out and destroy it before it was too late.

“I haven’t been spending that much time in this restaurant because of all the shit that’s been going on,” he began, “but the past two days I’ve had aneurisms because I’ve been so upset at the kitchen. On the cooks’ end, I question your integrity. Are you willing to fucking sacrifice yourself for the food? Yesterday, we had an incident with fish cakes: they weren’t properly cut. Does it really matter in the bowl of ramen? No. But for personal integrity as a cook, this is what we do, and I don’t think you guys fucking care enough. It takes those little things, the properly cut scallions, to set us apart from Uno’s and McDonald’s. If we don’t step up our game, we’re headed toward the middle, and I don’t want to fucking work there.

“We’re not the best cooks, we’re not the best restaurant—if you were a really good cook you wouldn’t be working here, because really good cooks are assholes. But we’re gonna try our best, and that’s as a team. Recently, over at Ssäm Bar, a sous-chef closed improperly, there were a lot of mistakes, and I was livid and I let this guy have it. About a week later, I found out that it wasn’t him, he wasn’t even at the restaurant that night. But what he said was ‘I’m sorry, it will never happen again.’ And you know what? I felt like an asshole for yelling at him, but, more important, I felt like, Wow, this is what we want to build our company around: guys that have this level of integrity. Just because we’re not Per Se, just because we’re not Daniel, just because we’re not a four-star restaurant, why can’t we have the same fucking standards? If we start being accountable not only for our own actions but for everyone else’s actions, we’re gonna do some awesome shit.”

Fuck yeah. Fires me up every time I read it.