Walking and Learning in Chicago

The first time I met Howard Rheingold, he suggested we go on a walk. A few weeks later, I met Howard at his house, which lies at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, and we walked and talked. It was wonderful.    (MND)

Ever since I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, I’ve suggested to many a colleague that we go on a walk. I live a few blocks away from Lands End, a beautiful trail along the ocean on the northwest side of San Francisco, with gorgeous views of the coast, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge. I still do the coffee thing, but when opportunity knocks, I tell people to meet me at my apartment, and we walk and talk.    (MNE)

There’s something about the act of walking that stimulates the brain. It brings a natural rhythm to conversation, giving you space both to talk and to listen. The Peripatetics knew this. So did Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled, Sein und Dasein. Dasein loosely translates to “existence,” or “being alive.” Heidegger likened it to walking in the forest and suddenly coming to a clearing, an Open Space, a place to breathe. It’s in these places, at the end of a journey, where we become most aware of ourselves and our surroundings.    (MNF)

I’m in the Midwest this week — South Bend, Indiana visiting my younger sister, then Cincinnati to visit my older sister, my brother-in-law, and my three year old nephew. It’s not vacation. Things are crazy at work (in a good way), and so I’m still chugging along, with breaks here and there to spend time with my family.    (MNG)

My original plan was to work from my sister’s place in South Bend. Then I decided that it would be wrong to be this close to Chicago and not visit some of my colleagues and friends in the area, and that it would be just as easy to work in Chicago as it would be in South Bend. So I made some last minute calls and spent yesterday in Chicago.    (MNH)

After spending the morning working, I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Sinclair in the flesh for the first time. He asked me where I wanted to eat lunch. I responded, “Somewhere distinctly Chicago.” He delivered.    (MNI)

Afterwards, I hopped on the El and headed north to visit Michael Herman. Michael’s still doing lots of Open Space, but he’s also got a new project that’s been keeping him very busy: Restoring an 80 year old home, which he and his wife, Jill, recently purchased. After assessing the state of the house and seeing the most magnificent radiator I’ve ever seen, Michael suggested that we go for a walk.    (MNJ)

And so we walked. We walked through his neighborhood and along the Chicago River. In between catching up on life and work, Michael talked about the city’s architecture and history. We discovered new streets and old bungalows. We saw kids playing in parks with their parents, and houses decorated for Halloween.    (MNK)

We walked, and we talked, and we ended up at the local elementary school, which also serves as the home for a community garden, “community” in every sense of the word. Only the students have plots; the rest of the space is community owned. Anyone in the community is free to garden any spot, weed any plot, pick vegetables and herbs from any plant. In the middle of this beautiful, old, urban neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, was this clearing, this beautiful, Wiki-like, community garden where the city seemed to disappear. Dasein.    (MNL)

I began the day with my nose to the grindstone, working on my various projects. I ended it walking, breathing, talking, learning. As I rode the train back to South Bend, reflecting on the day’s events and conversations, I couldn’t help but feel thankful.    (MNM)

My life and my work is ultimately about people, about maximizing our collective potential. As I’ve pursued this passion, I’ve found myself surrounded by incredible people with similar values and passions. I take great pride in the number of groups I’ve helped, the movements I’ve helped catalyze, and the knowledge I’ve shared, but all of this pales in comparison to what I’ve learned from others. What motivates me is the opportunity to share these same experiences and learnings with as many people as possible.    (MNN)

I’ve got a clear vision for how to do this more effectively, and while the mechanisms that make it work are complex, the actual actions required are relatively straightforward. Walking and talking are excellent ways to start.    (MNO)

A Walk with Howard Rheingold: Collaboration as Craft

I had the great pleasure of walking and talking with Howard Rheingold last Thursday. Howard lives in Mill Valley, a few blocks away from some of the many trailheads leading up to Mount Tamalpais. We had exchanged emails a few times and had met briefly after his talk at Stanford in October. I had invited him to coffee, and he suggested a brief hike instead, which I gladly accepted.    (MG)

Winter is one of the best times to go hiking in the Bay Area. We started walking around 4pm as the sun was beginning to set. The sky was a deep blue with a solitary streak of clouds overhead, and the air was cool and crisp. We walked about a mile to the top of a hill, where a rock formation seemed to form a natural bench around the crest. Looking north, we could see the peak of Mt. Tam. To our west were neighboring hills and the Pacific Ocean. To our east was a beautiful view of Mill Valley, where the city lights were beginning to come on. All of this served as a vivid reminder that I had, as usual, forgotten to bring my camera.    (MH)

Nevertheless, I was there to talk, and talk we did. One topic that came up — and a key reason for wanting to talk to Howard in the first place — was my desire to see the emergence of collaboration and community-building as a discipline, a widely acknowledged craft.    (MI)

People sometimes ask me what I know about collaboration that other people don’t. My response: Nothing. The reality is the reverse. There are many, many people in the world today who know significantly more than I or anyone else associated with Blue Oxen Associates about collaboration.    (MJ)

The problem is that this knowledge is scattered around the globe in isolated pockets. These folks all speak different languages — not just English versus French versus Korean, but also geekspeak versus Wall Street versus academia. Even when they know about each other, they can’t always talk to each other.    (MK)

Even worse, there is no group memory. Narrow the field to online communities. A lot of folks in the field have heard of Howard. How many people know what he’s accomplished beyond his excellent books? How many people have heard of the WELL? How many people know who founded the WELL? Going further back, how many people have heard of PLATO? Most importantly, how many people can cite lessons learned from the WELL or PLATO? Online communities have been around for decades. How many people can trace the lessons learned from these different communities over time?    (ML)

Howard told me that one fellow — perhaps one of the most knowledgable people in the field of online communities, with the credentials to match, and someone whom I’ve admired from afar — is working in retail right now to make ends meet. There’s no shame in working in retail, especially when times are tough like they are right now. Nevertheless, this strikes me as the worst kind of cosmic joke. Venture capitalists are spending millions of dollars on fast-talking entrepreneurs selling Social Software, trying to figure out how to make this stuff work (and profitable). There’s someone out there with decades of experience to share, someone who can undoubtedly help make these efforts successful. And yet, he’s currently working in a strip mall, addressing the needs of last-minute Christmas shoppers.    (MM)

Who’s at fault? You can say that this person — for all his skills — is poor at marketing himself. You can say that companies are short-sighted, and that they don’t understand what they need or how this person can help. There’s probably some truth to both of these statements. But, it’s still a travesty. This guy should be a hero to everyone claiming to be in the business of collaboration.    (MN)

That’s the crux of the matter. This is a field that is in desperate need of self-awareness. If we in the business truly want to improve, we need to be aware of our history and our heroes.    (MO)