The Joys of Making

I started playing with sketching and watercolors back in July 2018. I had been curious about watercolors for several years, and I happened to be having a terrible month, so I decided it was finally time to play. I signed up for a Bluprint online class, and I bought a sketchbook, a portable water brush, and a tiny set of watercolors.

A year and change later, I’m finally on the last page of my sketchbook. I decided to celebrate with a little value study:

My book is filled with terrible drawings. I’m not being falsely humble either. Earlier this year, I went to an urban sketching meetup and noticed someone painting a beautiful landscape. I struck up a conversation with him and asked him lots of questions, which he pleasantly answered. He then asked if he could see my sketches, so I opened up my book and showed them to him without comment. The expression on his face was hilarious. There was a flash of disappointment on his face, a long pause, then he offered me some tips, which I happily accepted. I truly enjoyed that moment. He didn’t try to pretend that I was anything more than the beginner that I was, and he helped me by giving me frank feedback. It was honest and kind, and it helped me get better.

The first time I sat down to draw something in my book, I was paralyzed with fear. I had to psyched myself up to apply that first pen stroke. I finally got over myself and started to draw, and the fear became concentration and curiosity almost immediately. It was wonderfully meditative, and I was happy with what I created. That was followed by several clunkers, which demotivated me for a few months, but I picked it up again, and I haven’t stopped since.

Filling my book has brought me peace and joy every time, and it’s also brought me closer to friends and family. Most of my friends ignore me when I draw with them, but some get curious, and I’ve even been able to persuade a few to join me. My favorite has been painting with kids, including my nephews. They are fearlessly creative, and I always have tons of fun and walk away inspired. I haven’t bought a single card or postcard this year, choosing instead to paint them when the opportunity arises. I always enjoy the process, but I still get pangs of fear of being judged. Unlike the urban sketcher, I think my friends often give me plaudits for my skill that are slightly exaggerated, but I can tell that their appreciation is real, and it really touches me to see them moved. It reminds me of how simple and wonderful it is to gift someone something you’ve made with your hands, regardless of how good it is.

My sketchbook also serves as a record of my learning journey. Signs of my stubbornness abound, which amuses me. It’s clear from many of my drawings that I have no idea what I’m doing, but those are often followed by several (mostly failed) attempts at figuring it out. I’m only marginally better than when I started, but the paralysis and fear and self-consciousness have disappeared. I just try things when I’m struck, and I don’t worry too much about how it turns out.

A few months ago, I went to a Leadership Learning Community gathering to meet their new Co-Executive Director, and I ended up spending most of the evening talking to an artist who was friends with her. He told me that the best way to learn watercolors was to do a value study with a single color. He also told me to look up Anders Zorn, who famously created stunning paintings with only four colors (Lead White, Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, and Ivory Black). I never knew any of this before, and it’s opened up entirely new worlds for me.

There are so many fantastic resources for learning how to draw and paint. I discovered the aforementioned urban sketching meetup in my neighborhood, and they have been friendly and supportive. I follow a number of artists on Instagram and on their blogs, and I’ve especially enjoyed Suhita Shirodkar’s work. And then there’s YouTube! So many instructional videos! It’s not only been a great resource for me, but it’s also inspired me to explore different ways for sharing knowledge about collaboration, which is my day obsession. In general, I find myself playing with ways to incorporate this little practice into my everyday work. I can’t help myself.

I see everything differently now — from everyday objects to art. It slows me down, and I’ve gotten better at noticing things — light, color, contrast, little details here and there. I’m still pretty bad at painting, and I think it will be a while before I improve significantly, but it’s already made me a better photographer, a better learner, and a better person. Most importantly, it’s been relaxing and fun. Making stuff rules!

Party Waves Are Critical for Learning and Growth

The other day, my friend and colleague, Catherine Madden, was telling me about her and her husband’s forays into surfing. Apparently, some surfing communities are more territorial about their waves — especially toward beginners — than others.

It’s understandable. Surfing is already challenging without worrying about a newbie blindsiding you while you’re catching a wave. But if everyone were like this, how would anyone new get to learn?

Apparently, surfers in Bolinas tend to be more inclusive. Catherine told me a story about how she was on a wave there, and someone else yelled at her to get out of the way. Another surfer went up to her and said, “Don’t worry. You’re welcome on this wave. It’s a party wave!”

Here’s what Surfer Today says about party waves:

A party wave starts with two surfers and could end with half a dozen enthusiastic party animals. And that’s when surfing becomes a team sport.

How do you run a party a wave? It couldn’t be simpler. Just be kind, shake hands with strangers and have fun at the same time.

There’s room for everybody – on top of the wave, riding near the whitewater section, carving on the face of the wave, stalling on the shoulder, or performing a relaxed bottom turn in the flats.

As a collaboration practitioner, I’d like to see more party waves in my field. I’ve heard from many of my more experienced peers that they only want to work with experienced practitioners and that they don’t have time to “train more junior people.”

I understand this. When you’re doing high stakes work and when your reputation is on the line, you want to be surrounded by other folks who are skilled.

At the same time, I think there are several mindsets that are challenging here. First, I question what most people define as “experienced.” Collaboration is something that everyone experiences in many aspects of their lives, not just professionally. I find that those experiences are equally important as professional experiences, if not more so. Just because someone has less experience working formally as a facilitator, for example, does not mean that they’re not incredibly experienced.

Second, when you’re doing high stakes work, everyone makes mistakes, not just “junior” people. I’ve often found that working with emerging practitioners provides a fresh, broader perspective that often helps prevent mistakes that I, with my narrower perspective, might make. Furthermore, part of being a skilled practitioner means that I’m creating a safer, more resilient space for mistakes in general. If no one is making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

Finally, it’s become trendy for collaboration practitioners to explicitly mention “equity” as one of their skills. This makes sense. Both collaboration and equity, fundamentally, are about power, and if you haven’t been thinking explicitly about equity, you‘re not going to be able to do your work effectively.

However, if you truly care about equity, you should be thinking about equity in your own field as well. So much of equity is about lifting up others who are less privileged than you, often for systemic reasons. How can we, as collaboration practitioners, do more of this for other practitioners?

One way to do this is to adopt more of a “party wave” mindset about our own work, finding ways to bring in and support more emerging practitioners. Not only would this be better for the field, I think it leads to better quality work. And, like party waves, it’s more fun for everyone!

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.

Crib Notes on Golden State Warrior’s Collaborative Culture

Even if the Golden State Warriors lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, they have clearly established an extraordinary culture of performance and collaboration. Kevin Arnovitz outlined some elements of this culture in his excellent piece, “Fun and games: Warriors winning culture faces biggest test.” In particular:

An inclusive culture that values original (sometimes contrarian) thinking:

People up and down the Warriors’ org chart tout collaboration as the defining quality of the team’s culture. As with the Spurs, one is judged not on agreeability but on the ability to present original thinking — even contrarianism — agreeably.

Deliberative decisions and lots of communication. I particularly liked this story about doing their due diligence on Shaun Livingston:

“Decisions are made collaboratively,” Kerr said. “There’s a ton of discussion that goes into what we’re going to do. Any decision is discussed at length. It’s healthy, and we get a lot of different points of view.”

“Our communication happens on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis,” Myers said. “It’s rare that anyone ever goes off in a silo, even me, and comes into the office one day and says, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We’re having conversations organically, and they have a rhythm to them. We’re all formulating thoughts in a daily flow. We call each other to chat the way you’d call a buddy to check in.”

Joy and work-life balance as values:

Joy is constantly cited as a guiding principle within the organization…. The coaching staff under Kerr has adopted a mantra: “Either get s— done or go have fun.” Work is honored, and it’s vital to the development of both the team and the individual players…. But work-life balance is sacrosanct. Preserving that joy is not just a byproduct; it is an objective unto itself. Nobody in Oakland is setting up a cot in the video room, and nobody would think better of you if you did.

Diverse, sometimes unconventional thinkers and interests with a learning mindset. The Warriors have a 10% rule to encourage personal pursuits.

Working Smarter and Focusing on Fundamentals: Lessons from Tom Brady

From yesterday’s profile of Tom Brady on ESPN.com:

“There’s nobody like this guy in the league,” [Rex] Ryan once said of [Peyton] Manning. “Nobody studies like him. I know Brady thinks he does. I think there’s probably a little more help with [Bill] Belichick with Brady than there is with Peyton Manning.”

Told another time by reporters that Brady attended a Broadway show instead of watching the Jets-Colts playoff game that would determine New England’s next opponent, Ryan quipped, “Peyton Manning would have been watching our game.”

What Ryan and others have never seemed to grasp, one of Brady’s former teammates explains, is that Brady has always been smart enough to accept that it’s impossible to know everything. That’s why he’s the best postseason quarterback of all time. (Brady holds the record for most playoff wins, yards and touchdowns.) That’s why he obsesses over the simple fundamentals of playing catch, drilling for hours and hours in the offseason with guys like Edelman and former teammate Wes Welker on stuff as basic as ball position and splits. A player can study film and look at 10,000 formations on an iPad for as many hours as the eyes and the brain will allow. But ultimately, the human mind is not a computer. Overthinking in tense moments, trying to decode a defense like it’s a sudoku puzzle, is the perfect recipe for hesitation and panic.

“You know, Brady probably doesn’t watch as much film as Manning, and that’s OK,” said Brady’s former teammate. “You know why? Because he’s got coaches that are watching just as much film as [Manning] is. What Brady gets is that he’s the only guy who understands exactly what’s going on down on the field. So when Josh McDaniels calls a certain play, Brady is thinking: ‘I know exactly why he called that play. I know exactly what my read is on this.’ Brady’s genius is that he understands delegation. He trusts the people around him.”