Festina lente

Inspired by the Dorothea Lange exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California last week (which everyone should go see — it’s been extended to August 27), I was poking around the Internet reading more about her and came across Anchor Editions, which is selling high-quality prints of her Japanese internment photos.

The Anchor Editions’ logo symbolizes “festina lente,” a phrase I had never heard before. It translates to, “Make haste slowly,” which resonated deeply with me. It’s a sentiment that embodies all forms of craft.

Why Are We Afraid of Data?

My friend, Gbenga Ajilore, is an economics professor. Last month, he gave a great talk at AlterConf in Chicago entitled, “How can open data help facilitate police reform?” It concisely explains how data helps us overcome anecdotal bias.

I was particularly struck by his point about how we need police buy-in for this data to be truly useful, and I was left with a bit of despair. Why is buy-in about the importance of data so hard? This should be common sense, right?

Clearly, it’s not. Earlier this year, I expressed some disbelief about how, in professional sports, where there are hundreds of millions of dollars riding on outcomes, there is still strong resistance to data and analytics.

On the one hand, it’s incredible that this is still an issue in professional sports, 14 years after Moneyball was first published and several championships were won by analytics-driven franchises (including two “cursed” franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both led by data nerd Theo Epstein).

On the other hand, it’s a vivid reminder of how hard habits and groupthink are to break, even in a field where the incentives to be smarter than everyone else come in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s this hard to shift mindsets in professional sports, I don’t even want to imagine how long it might take in journalism. It’s definitely helping me recalibrate my perspective about the mindsets I’m trying to shift in my own field.

The first time I started to understand the many social forces that cause us to resist data was right after college, when I worked as an editor at a technology magazine. One of my most memorable meetings was with a vendor that made a tool that analyzed source code to surface bugs. All software developers know that debugging is incredibly hard and time-consuming. Their tool easily and automatically identified tons and tons of bugs, just by feeding it your source code.

“This is one of the best demos I’ve ever seen!” I exclaimed to the vendor reps. “Why isn’t everyone knocking on your door to buy this?”

The two glanced at each other, then shrugged their shoulders. “Actually,” one explained, “we are having a lot of trouble selling this. When people see this demo, they are horrified, because they realize how buggy their code is, and they don’t have the time or resources to fix it. They would rather that nobody know.”

Shooting Film and Letting Go

A few months ago, I went on a long walk in the rain taking pictures. My camera is weather-sealed, but I apparently pushed it to the limit, and it’s been wonky ever since. I’ve been reluctant to send it in for repairs, because it still kind of works, and it would mean being without it for at least a few weeks.

My friend, Eugene, knew that I had an old film camera just lying around and suggested that I use this as an excuse to dust it off and start using it again.

The first real camera my parents bought for themselves was a Canon EXEE 35mm SLR. When I was in junior high school, I started getting interested in photography. My parents had upgraded to a fancier autofocus camera, so they let me use the Canon.

I was more interested in the chemistry of photography — the magic of pressing a button and somehow transferring what you had seen onto paper — than in the pictures themselves. I spent lots of time in our school’s darkroom developing and printing black and white photos. I’m not sure what made me lose interest over time, but I suspect it was the time investment and expense.

Four years ago, when I decided to get serious about photography, I found and rescued this old camera. I couldn’t get the light meter working, but fortunately, I could still meter manually. I also found an old roll of unused color film that was at least 15 years old, so I popped that into the camera. Then I let it sit in my desk drawer, unused.

This past month, inspired by Eugene’s suggestion, I took the camera for a spin. And I just loved it. I love the heft and feel of the camera. I love how it feels to advance the film for each frame and the loud, visceral click the camera makes when I press the shutter button.

I thought I would be frustrated by the manual metering and focus, but I’m finding it to be a revelation. Going slow allows me to think more about what I’m photographing. I think it’s even helping me take people photos. Folks know I can’t just point and shoot, so I feel like they’re more patient with me, which makes me feel more free to compose the shot.

Finally, there’s no chimping. You take a photo, you hope it turns out, then you move on, knowing that it’s entirely out of your control regardless.

I finished the roll after a few weeks, and I was excited to get it developed. Unfortunately, I had forgotten how to properly rewind the film, and I ended up ruining the roll!

I was surprisingly zen upon discovering this. I had been using an ancient roll of film that might have already been bad anyway. I was also just playing, and didn’t feel like there were critical moments on that roll. Even without those factors, I think simply shooting film shifted my expectations.

With film, you just never know… and you won’t until you try developing it, which might be days, weeks, months, even years later. There is something incredibly liberating, almost spiritual about making pictures under those circumstances.

Last week, I loaded the camera with a roll of Kodak T-MAX 400 black-and-white film. I’m halfway through the roll already, and I’m enjoying the heck out of it. I’ll see if this roll turns out, then I’ll see what happens.

I’ve been enjoying the process so much, I could see myself trying my hand at developing my own photos again. My friend, Justin, has been pushing me to shoot Fuji Velvia, a thought that intimidates me, because slide film is notoriously unforgiving. You have to get your exposure settings perfect in camera, and my Canon doesn’t have precise exposure controls. Justin’s also been taunting me for my use of a light meter app in my phone, challenging me to rely on my eyes and my brain for metering. That might be more realistic as I get more practice.

We Are Not Freaking Butterflies: An Update on Self-Care and Balance

It’s been two years since I’ve blogged about how my self-care practices have been going, a marked contrast from 2013, which is when I finally double-downed on my commitment to take better care of myself and to live a more balanced life. That was the year I left the company that I co-founded and the team that I loved to start my life and my livelihood over again. It was a hard process, and I blogged about it many times that year, but I was committed and determined, and I was fortunate to have lots of loving support.

Things finally turned a corner in 2015. I am exceptionally proud of this shift, and I love the life I’ve been living, but I remain cautious.

My friend, Jodie, recently told me that she hated when people used the word, “transformation,” to describe changes in their lives. I wholeheartedly agree. We are not caterpillars dissolving into some shapeless goo and emerging, irreversibly, from mummy-like nests in new winged forms. We are human beings. Maybe some wires in our brains get crossed or reinforced in different ways, but our old habits are still deeply embedded, constantly threatening to rear their ugly heads.

People don’t transform. We practice with intention and vigilance, and if we’re really smart, we hack the structures around us to support the lives we want to live.

I started recognizing the shift I wanted and needed to make almost a decade ago, thanks partially to burnout as well as to a relationship that is now ancient history. It took me another two years to take concrete action — hiring a coach and taking my first vacation in eight years. It took me another five years after that to get to where I am now.

Seven years total. Change is hard. It’s also not permanent.

I’ve been obsessing about work the past few weeks. I’m not dealing with any toxicity-induced stress. Quite the opposite. I’m grappling with issues that are complex and stimulating, and I’m not wanting to let go of any of them. I find myself compelled to push through weariness, to keep attacking each problem from different angles. Warning bells have been going off reminding me to disconnect, to slow down, to let go, to exercise, to breathe… and I’ve been cautiously, but consciously ignoring most of them.

I’m concerned enough to write about it, but I’m also heartened, because I’m aware of my self-awareness. I know what’s happening, and I’m letting it happen for now, knowing that I’ll have to make up for it very soon. Hearing the symphony of warning bells is both cause for concern and music to my ears, because there wouldn’t be any sound if not for all the cool little safety mechanisms I’ve put into place over the years.

When I get into one of these work modes, I often start getting curmudgeonly. I’m not mad at anybody, it just helps me think. But it’s also not a good thing if left unchecked. Negativity breeds negativity.

One of my practices is a weekly checkin with my friend and colleague, Kate Wing, which we’ve been doing for three years now. It’s mostly about work stuff, but we naturally weave stuff about our lives into our conversations as well.

At the end of each checkin, we both share a beautiful thing from that week. It’s a simple ritual, but it’s had a profound impact on me. I know I have to share something, and so I pay more attention on a regular basis to things that strike me as beautiful. What I’ve learned from the practice is that I actually experience beautiful things all the time, but instead of lingering on them and letting them soak in, I often just let them slip away. Our weekly ritual has strengthened my muscles around noticing and remembering.

Still, sometimes I need a little stimulation to remember, which is why it’s so helpful to do this with a partner. At the end of this week’s checkin, I couldn’t think of a beautiful thing immediately, so I asked Kate to go first. She shared a story about a moment of repose in the middle of a big meeting, where she stepped into a courtyard to take a breather, and had a brief, lovely encounter with an unusual bird. It was a classic Kate story — simple, sometimes whimsical, often profound.

Not only did her story delight me, it helped me remember all sorts of wonderful things that had happened this week. For whatever reason, I received a number of brief, unexpected notes from friends, family, and colleagues that brought me lots of joy. I was aware and appreciative of all of them in the moment, but they all quickly slipped away in favor of my knotty little work obsession. Thanks to this little practice of ours, I managed to scoop them away from the vortex of oblivion, and they have lingered in my consciousness ever since, bringing a smile to my face each time I think about them.

In the midst of these moments of joy, I can still hear the warning bells ring in the distance. These pleasant little victories, like my memories, can easily slip away without constant practice and vigilance. We are not freaking butterflies.

Nevertheless, I’m happy that I can hear the bells at all. I’m going to listen to them a little while longer, before gently resetting them. I’ll do a little work this long weekend, not because I have to, but because I want to. But I’ll also spend lots of it outside, with good friends and good food in this beautiful Bay Area weather, and maybe a little stillness thrown in for good measure.

Time Travel: My 20-Year Old Aspirations for Teaching Thinking and Learning

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I was in college. I had lots of interests and weighed lots of options. But when pushed, I was most interested in starting a school. In particular, I wanted to focus on teaching thinking and learning.

The other day, I was digging through my archives, and I found some goals I had written for such a “course” in 1998 (when I was 23) and updated in 2002, which is when I was knee deep in starting Blue Oxen Associates. My four goals were:

  1. Recognize the importance of asking (and answering) questions
  2. Demolish the fear factor
  3. Think out of the box
  4. Tell stories

I was pleased to see these. They remain so core to what I do and believe today, even though I wrote them almost 20 years ago. These goals are also deeply embedded in my Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets program.