Lessons on Mentors and Mentorship

Rebecca Facilitating

My friend and former colleague, Rebecca Petzel, wrote a sweet and thoughtful blog post about mentorship, social entrepreneurship, and her experiences at Groupaya. Truthfully, I got a bit teary when I read it. I mean, she called me an “elder.” That’s just wrong. I’m still in my 30s, for pete’s sake!

In her piece, she said something that troubled me (besides calling me old). She wrote, “What breaks my heart is that most in my current town seem to look their noses down on the opportunity to learn from those with more experience.”

I often feel the same way, but I hope it isn’t true. Perhaps it simply doesn’t occur to people to seek mentorship. Or maybe they’ve had bad experiences dealing with people “with more experience.”

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Advice for (Female) Changemakers.” My second recommendation there was, “Find your people,” and I alluded to a story about forming the advisory board for Blue Oxen Associates back in 2002.

One of the people I approached was Richard Gabriel. I didn’t know him personally at the time, but I had read many of his writings, including his classic essay, “Worse Is Better,” and his book, Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community. It was the latter that made me reach out to him. I was interested in applying Christopher Alexander’s notion of pattern languages to collaboration, and Richard was one of the pioneers who had introduced these concepts to the software engineering community.

So I invited him to coffee. Richard turned out to be brilliant, thoughtful, eclectic, and very kind, exactly the kind of person I wanted to be around and learn from. Toward the end of our conversation, I started drumming up the courage to ask him if he would serve on our advisory board. Despite his gentle demeanor, I was very nervous. Richard was accomplished; I was not. Worse, I had no idea what I was doing, and I could barely explain what the company was supposed to be about. These did not seem to be ingredients for success.

But I was there, and he was there, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another opportunity to do this face-to-face. So I asked.

Richard said, “Yes, on one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That you actually reach out to me for advice.”

It turned out that others had asked him to serve in similar capacities, but that they never bothered reaching out to him. And he didn’t see the point of being on an advisory board if no one asked him for advice.

How simple and wonderful is that?

To this day, I have no idea why he was willing to say yes, and I’m not sure he knows how much that and his subsequent advice — which I asked for many times — meant to me. But I had concocted many complicated reasons in my head for why I shouldn’t reach out to him and why he wouldn’t say yes. Fortunately, I ignored those voices in my head.

Unfortunately, those voices still talk to me, even today, and it’s a constant practice for me to ignore them. So if you’re seeking opportunities to learn from others and if you’re hearing similar voices in your head, I hope you’ll ignore them too, and ask. And if you’re wanting to mentor others, don’t assume that others will come to you, and don’t get cranky when they don’t. Invite people to learn with you.

(Here’s my invitation.)

I have been extremely fortunate to have had many mentors in my (still very young) life. It’s something that I continue to seek, because it’s such a valuable and meaningful way to learn. A few years ago, my friend, Katherine Fulton, was observing the many mentors in my life, and she said, “You’re starting to reach the age where people are going to be reaching out to you to mentor them.”

That made me start reflecting on the kind of mentor I wanted to be. I’m still figuring it out, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

Be humble. More specifically, don’t assume that your experience makes you better or smarter or wiser than anyone else. Experience is a great teacher, but you have to be a great student. As much experience as I have, there’s even more that I haven’t experienced. That will always be the case. The best mentors never stop learning… from everyone, young and old.

Be open. Mentorship is not about molding an army of young people into clones of yourself. With experience often comes rigidity. I’m determined to fight it, but I know it’s a losing battle. I’ve shared a lot of my thinking and experiences with Rebecca over the years. Some of it, she’s taken to heart, and some of it, she’s rejected. That’s a great thing. Whatever she chooses to do with her life and her career, it’s going to be great, and if I’ve managed to contribute to that in any positive way, I’ll be grateful. Moreover, I’ll have the opportunity to learn from the things that she chooses to break away from.

Be caring. As much as I’ve learned from all of my mentors, the thing they did for me that meant more than any of that was to care about me. I’m overwhelmed with emotions every time I think about this. I would have failed a thousand times over without their moral support, and I’m not sure I deserved any of it. What I can do is pay it forward, to look after those around me without expecting anything in return.

Understanding the importance of caring has been my greatest lesson so far. But, I’m still learning.

Aandehul

About a month ago, I mentioned to my friend, Betty Toole, that I was going to Copenhagen, and she suggested that I touch base with her friend, Soren Riis, a lifetime resident of the area. Soren and I met up on Saturday, August 19, and he gave me an amazing walking tour of Copenhagen. He’s a teacher by trade, he’s very well traveled, and he is completely in love with his native land. The way he talked about Copenhagen reminded me very much of how I feel about California.    (L4G)

We walked for about five hours with Soren feeding me detailed accounts of the history and architecture of the city intermixed with personal anecdotes. For those of you who know nothing of Danish history, let me just say this: Christian IV is very important in Denmark.    (L4H)

The highlight of our tour was the Royal Library Garden, which is nestled between the Royal Library and the Parliament building. Copenhagen is a bustling town, full of pedestrians, bikers, and even the occasional car. It is physically small, easily walkable, and while it’s not hectic, it’s not quiet either. We had already walked for several hours, and as we neared the Parliament building, Soren proposed that we visit his namesake, Mr. Kierkegaard.    (L4I)

Parliament is currently out of session, and there was loud construction going on behind the building. We walked past the noise, slipped into a courtyard, and suddenly, I was transported out of the city and into this beautiful, private garden.    (L4J)

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/68/219478504_bc40f2175f_m.jpg?w=700    (L4K)

Literally five seconds earlier, my ears were hurting from sounds of large trucks hauling asphalt. In the garden, I heard nothing but the water trickling from a large fountain and birds chirping softly and contentedly. The back of the Royal Library stood guard over a large grassy courtyard, with pockets of colorful flowers dotting the garden and the occasional tree providing shade for the weary visitor. Although there were others milling around the garden, they were irrelevant. I stopped, looked around, and breathed in the sweet air.    (L4L)

Aandehul,” said Soren. “It literally means ‘hole to breathe in.’ There are lots of spaces like this in Copenhagen. This is one of the best.”    (L4M)

Christopher Alexander describes the patterns found in these spaces as Courtyards Which Live, Quiet Backs, and Positive Outdoor Space. I had seen similar spaces like this the day before — buildings surrounding serene Courtyards Which Live, parks enclosed from the rest of the city. They are wonderful, rarely found in cities in the States, and the Royal Library Garden is the best of the aandehul.    (L4N)

These kinds of spaces play an important role in Martin Heidegger‘s work, where he describes walks through the forest suddenly leading into these open spaces surrounded by trees. It is in these spaces, according to Heidegger, where we become fully aware of ourselves — Dasein.    (L4O)

Epilogue    (L4P)

The following day, I was describing my experience at the Royal Library Garden to Alexander Kjerulf, who had never been there, and I mentioned “aandehul.” Upon hearing the word, he gave a start, then laughed. While metaphorically accurate, the word is also used to describe a whale’s spout.    (L4Q)

The Story of Glormf: Lessons on Language and Naming

Jack Park recently asked about Link As You Think on the Blue Oxen Collaboration Collaboratory. I’ve written several blog posts on the matter, but there’s not much else out there. This was a great excuse for me to tell a few vignettes about Shared Language and the importance of names.    (KMO)

Glormf    (KMP)

This is Glormf, courtesy of the uber-talented cartoonist, Brian Narelle.    (KMQ)

(KMR)

Fen Labalme coined the term (originally spelled “glormph”) at an Identity Commons retreat in July 2003. We were strategizing about next steps, and we found that we were all struggling to describe what it was that we were all working on. Although we all had different views of the proverbial elephant, we were also convinced that we were talking about the same thing. In an inspired moment of clarity, Fen exclaimed, “It’s Glormf!” Much to our delight, Brian was listening to the conversation and drew Glormf for all of us to see.    (KMS)

Glormf’s birth lifted a huge burden off our shoulders. Even though Glormf was mucky, it was also real. We knew this, because it had a name and even a picture, and we could point to it and talk about it with ease. The name itself had no biases towards any particular view, which enabled all of us to use it comfortably. Each of us still had a hard time describing exactly what Glormf was, but if anyone challenged Glormf’s existence, any one of us could point to Glormf and say, “There it is.”    (KMT)

We had created Shared Language, although we hadn’t rigorously defined or agreed on what the term meant. And that was okay, because the mere existence of Shared Language allowed us to move the conversation forward.    (KMU)

Ingy’s Rule and Community Marks (KMV)

Ingy dot Net‘s first rule of starting a successful Open Source project is to come up with a cool name. I like to say that a startup isn’t real until it has a T-shirt.    (KMW)

Heather Newbold once told a wonderful story about how Matt Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign buttons galvanized the progressive community in San Francisco and almost won him the election. As people started wearing the green campaign buttons, she described the startling revelation that progressives in San Francisco had: There are others out there like me. A lot of them. I was amazed to hear her speak of the impact of this recognition, coming from a city that has traditionally been a hotbed of activism.    (KMX)

There’s a pattern in all of these rules and stories. I struggled to come up with a name for this pattern, and the best I could do for a long time was Stone Soup (courtesy of the participants in my 2004 Chili PLoP workshop). I loved the story associated with this name, the parable of how transformational self-awareness can be. But, it wasn’t quite concrete enough for my taste.    (KMY)

I think Chris Messina‘s term, “Community Mark“, is much better. Chris has actually fleshed out the legal implications of a Community Mark, which I recommend that folks read. Whether or not you agree with him on the details, the essence of Community Marks is indisputable: Effective communities have Community Marks. Community Marks make communities real, just as the term “Glormf” made a concept real. That’s the power of Shared Language.    (KMZ)

Pattern Languages and Wikis    (KN0)

Pattern Languages are all about Shared Language. Much of Christopher Alexander‘s classic, The Timeless Way of Building, is about the importance of names. In his book, Alexander devotes an entire chapter to describing this objective quality that all great buildings have. As you can imagine, his description is not entirely concrete, but he does manage to give it a name: “Quality Without A Name.” Call it a copout if you’d like, but if you use the term (or its acronym, “QWAN”) with anyone in the Pattern Language community, they will know what you’re talking about. Shared Language.    (KN1)

Ward Cunningham was one of the pioneers who brought Alexander’s work to the software engineering community. He created Wikis as a way for people to author and share patterns. Not surprisingly, an important principle underlying Wikis is the importance of names. Regardless of what you think about WikiWords, they have important affordances in this regard. They encourage you to think of word pairs to describe things, which encourages more precise names. They discourage long phrases, which also encourages precision as well as memorability. The more memorable a term, the more likely people will use it.    (KN2)

Ward often tells a story in his Wiki talks about using Class-Responsibility-Collaboration Cards to do software design. One of the things he noticed was that people would put blank cards somewhere on the table and talk about them as if there was something written there. The card and its placement made the concept real, and so the team could effectively discuss it, even though it didn’t have a name or description. (Ward has since formalized leaving CRC cards blank as long as possible as a best practice.) This observation helped him recognize the need and importance of Link As You Think, even if the concept (or Wiki page) did not already exist.    (KNG)

Open Source: Propagating Names    (KN3)

One of Blue Oxen‘s advisors, Christine Peterson, coined the term, “Open Source.” In February 1998, after Netscape had announced its plans to open source its browser, a few folks — Chris, Eric Raymond, Michael Tiemann, Ka-Ping Yee, and others — gathered at the Foresight Institute to strategize. At the meeting, Todd Anderson complained that the term, “Free Software,” was an impediment to wide-scale adoption. After the meeting, Christine called up Todd and suggested the term, “Open Source.” They both loved it. But, they didn’t know how to sell it.    (KN4)

So, they didn’t. At the followup meeting a few days later, Todd casually used the term without explanation. And others in the room naturally picked up on the term, to the point where they were all using it. At that point, they realized they had a good name, and they started evangelizing it to the rest of the community.    (KN5)

Names change the way we think about concepts, and so propagating names widely can shift the way people think about things. This is what happened with “Open Source.” This is what George Lakoff writes about in Moral Politics.    (KN6)

The mark of a good name is that people naturally start using it. A name can come from the top down, but it can’t generally be forced onto people.    (KN7)

J. Fairchild and Community Space

Katrin Verclas, co-director of Aspiration and co-organizer of the FLOSS Usability Sprint, wrote a fantastic piece entitled, “Great Good Spaces for Community, Activism, and Better Software.” It’s no accident that we connected when we first met at the Advocacy Developer’s Convergence last June. Even though our missions are different, there’s great overlap in our thinking and philosophy. That holds true with the other organizations Blue Oxen Associates has partnered with as well.    (ID7)

A critical element in building strong community and in facilitating effective collaboration is having the right space. As Katrin points out, this holds true for both physical and metaphysical (or online) spaces. I had three intellectual inspirations in starting Blue Oxen: Doug Engelbart, Christopher Alexander, and George Lakoff. Christopher Alexander is an architect who wrote about Pattern Languages in the 1970s, which was all about designing great spaces, spaces that were alive, that had this Quality Without A Name. Blue Oxen is trying to understand and discover patterns of effective collaboration, which encompasses issues of space.    (ID8)

When Katrin wrote her piece, we were looking for a space to hold our sprint, and we weren’t finding a place that satisfied us. Luckily, I had a wildcard in my back pocket. Jeff Shults was the manager of the knOwhere Store in the late 1990s, which was MGTaylor‘s showcase for its collaborative environment and process. When the store closed, Jeff purchased all the furniture and bided his time until he could open his own space. That time came late last year, when he struck an agreement with SFIA to manage their new space on 10th and Mission in San Francisco.    (ID9)

I first met Jeff at Planetwork in 2003, but the first time we worked closely together was at the 7-Domains Workshop last July. Jeff is literally an environmental master. He has this sixth sense for configuring spaces to maximize collaboration. He has both thought deeply about the subject and has practiced it for some time. He’s also a fantastic listener, which is an attribute he shares with all the great facilitators I know.    (IDA)

I had seen the space last fall, and to say that it was in rough condition is an understatement. But in early January, when we still hadn’t found a good space, I decided to call Jeff anyway. The transformation the space had made in the course of two months was amazing. Although Jeff hasn’t officially opened his facility, he not only let us use his space, but he agreed to be one of our sponsors.    (IDB)

I can’t tell you how many people walked into our event last week, looked around, and said, “Wow, what a great space!” I’d hear this, laugh, and respond, “You don’t know the half of it.” All of us have an intuition that allows us to recognize a great space when we see one, an intuition that sadly doesn’t wake up often enough. But you have to discover the thinking and hard work that goes into creating such a space before you can truly appreciate it.    (IDC)

Jeff’s company and space is called J. Fairchild. If you need a great meeting space in San Francisco, talk to Jeff and let him know I sent you his way.    (IDD)

Election Redux: A Call for Conversations

Trudging through the surge of commentary in the blogosphere following the elections, Kellan Elliott-McCrea‘s post jumped out at me. He wrote:    (4Q2)

There is a political theory that says that people who disagree with you aren’t fundamentally bad people, but misguided, or perhaps coming from different backgrounds. Having just spent a couple of hours talking to someone who voted for Bush I’d have to say I disagree. He is superficially a good person, but deep down firmly believes that might is right, American lives are more important then any other lives, that policies which discriminate on race make statistical sense, human rights are a privilege but capital rights are inalienable. How do you answer that? We can quite civilly agree to disagree, and go back to our regular neutral pleasant conversations not to mention a few moments of uneasy solidarity making fun of Christian fundamentalists, but the chasm of understanding is so vast I can’t imagine what crossing it would look like.    (4Q3)

I know many people who feel the same way as Kellan, and I find this troubling. Is intelligent discourse truly a lost cause? Are we as polarized as those red and blue maps make it seem? Is conversation pointless?    (4Q4)

No, no, and no!    (4Q5)

Lakoff on Framing    (4Q6)

I’m a huge admirer of George Lakoff‘s work. He’s part of the canon of thinkers who strongly influenced The Blue Oxen Way (along with Doug Engelbart, Christopher Alexander, and Richard Gabriel). So when I saw that Lakoff was speaking the same day I was at last weekend’s Green Festival in San Francisco, I decided to show up five hours earlier than scheduled so I could hear what he had to say.    (4Q7)

In a nutshell, Lakoff’s thesis (detailed in his books, Don’t Think of an Elephant! and Moral Politics) is that conservatives have effectively hijacked the language of public policy. When we use terms like “tax relief” and “pro-life,” we are implicitly framing the debate from a conservative standpoint (e.g. “Taxes are an affliction,” and “Pro-abortion implies anti-life”). Progressives, he argues, must learn to reframe issues if they’re to have a chance at swaying the so-called swing-voters.    (4Q8)

I’ve read Lakoff’s thesis many times, but this was the first time I heard him talk about it in person, and what I heard troubled me. Obviously, he was not speaking to a bunch of cognitive scientists. He was speaking to a bunch of fired-up activists looking for something to cheer about, and he did a good job playing to that crowd. But heard live (and obviously simplified), his thesis seemed to suggest that we were on the road to further polarization, a zero-sum game where a small minority of the country would determine which extreme would win.    (4Q9)

If you read Moral Politics, it’s clear that Lakoff’s thinking is not that simplistic. But I couldn’t help calling him on it anyway. After his talk, I asked him, “What about framing the issues so that the two sides can talk to each other rather to their own constituents?” Lakoff’s response was that a progressive framing would do just that by balancing the language of public policy, which is heavily slanted towards conservatives right now.    (4QA)

A Diverse Community of Deep Thinkers    (4QB)

Okay, I can buy that. Lakoff is positioning framing as a winning strategy for progressive politicians, but it can also be seen as leveling the playing field for intelligent, balanced discourse. The problem is that it’s not enough to facilitate the latter. In the first place, we need to talk to people who think differently from ourselves. In the second place, we need to be deeper thinkers.    (4QC)

The latter is the harder problem. For starters, we have to know the facts, regardless of how they are spun. Whether or not you believe that the Bush administration knew there were no weapons of mass destruction prior to invading Iraq, or whether or not you care, the fact was that they weren’t there. Yet a large percentage of Americans still don’t realize this. If so many people can’t get these facts straight, how can we even talk to them about deeper issues, such as whether or not Bush is a good conservative, or why so many conservative publications (The Economist, The New Republic, The Financial Times, The American Conservative) endorsed Kerry?    (4QD)

Well, my answer isn’t going to satisfy most people, but it’s the best that I can offer: The road to deeper thinking starts by talking to folks who are different from ourselves. Talk is not cheap. We can’t and shouldn’t expect to persuade everyone, at least not easily, but what we can do is encourage people to think differently. If we start there, bigger things will follow.    (4QE)

Start with your immediate friends and families. Diversify your blogrolls and reading lists. Travel. Watch old episodes of Firing Line. (You read that right. I consider William Buckley, Jr.‘s old show television’s highest and brightest beacon of intelligent discourse in my lifetime. As right-wing and as forcefully opinionated as Buckley is, he always made it a point to interview people with very different views, which he did with respect and wit.)    (4QF)

Let’s break the divide and talk to each other more, and then let’s see what happens.    (4QG)