When I’m working from home and jonesing for a change of scenery, I like to go to Andytown Coffee Roasters off of Great Highway. It’s right next to Ocean Beach along the northwestern side of San Francisco, about a six minute drive from where I live. If I go the route recommended by Google Maps, I save about a minute of driving. If I go the “longer” route, I drive a quarter of a mile further, and I have to make a U-turn at a traffic light, but that extra distance is along the coast.
Keep in mind, I’m about to spend an hour or so at a coffee shop with an ocean view, so adding a minute of driving by the water seems like a marginal benefit compared to avoiding the aggravation — small though it may be — of having to make a U-turn into traffic. Not surprisingly, I would choose the faster route with the lesser view.
Sometimes, my partner would tag along, and when we would hop into my car, knowing my usual preference, she would specifically request that we take the route with the view. I would always chuckle at the trouble she would go through to make sure we’d get that additional minute of beauty. I loved this about her, but it all seemed silly to me.
Then, a few months ago, while making my usual drive, I decided that my route was the silly one. I am lucky enough to live in this gorgeous place with easy access to the ocean. Why wouldn’t I enjoy it as much as possible, even if it only amounted to an extra minute? Now I always take the more beautiful route, and I’m always conscious of the choice I’m making.
Years ago, I read an interview of a photographer who admonished people who chose aisle over window seats on planes. “Why would you pass up the opportunity to get a million dollar view?” he exclaimed. I, of course, am a hard core aisle seat person, and while I found his argument compelling, I haven’t changed my preference. I guess not having to navigate past two (often slumbering) people to go to the bathroom mid-flight is worth more than a million dollars to me.
Still, this past week, I was purchasing a plane ticket for my nephew to come out and visit me, and I had to choose his seats. I thought about texting him and asking whether he preferred window or aisle, but I decided to use my uncle prerogative instead.
I bought him — drumroll, please — a window seat! He’s only flown a few times in his life, and this will be his first flight on his own. I want him to be able to marvel at his city and mine and the beautiful land in between from thousands of feet up in the sky, even if he’s done it before. Maybe one day he’ll fly as often as I do and will opt for convenience over beauty and wonder, but I don’t want to nudge him in that direction. It’s a silly habit, and it’s hard to undo, as I’m realizing in small and in large ways.
Later, we came across a field biologist who was checking up on the Snowy Plovers. These adorable little birds inhabit many Bay Area beaches, where there are often fences attempting to protect their habitat. Unfortunately, there are only about 2,500 Snowy Plovers left on the West Coast, down from tens of thousands. Despite almost 40 years of protection, population recovery has been slow. Humans are the main reason why, but another nontrivial factor has been natural predation. And as we learned from the biologist, one of the most voracious predators of Snowy Plover eggs on that beach were those same ravens we were enjoying earlier.
I’m one of the thousands of folks who seem to have discovered birds for the first time during the pandemic. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours watching them in our garden and on the balcony outside of my office, and I’ve become familiar with many of them. I won’t lie, I usually greet them out loud when I see them, most often by their common name, but sometimes by names my partner and I have given them: Hoppy, Twisted Lip, Helen Hunt, etc.
The line between valuing and anthropomorphizing wildlife is a fine one. If you pay enough attention, you start to notice behavior that may feel unsavory to our human selves — bickering, bullying, and sometimes a lot worse. One time, I was at a red light on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Oakland, watching in horror as a murder of crows ganged up on an injured pigeon in the intersection. I wanted to get out of my car and chase the crows away, but the light turned green, and I ended up driving past, watching helplessly as the crows shifted their business to the sidewalk.
Corvids — including the ravens who snack on Snowy Plover eggs and the crows who bullied the poor pigeon — are large, social, and notoriously intelligent. They are marvelous birds, and, not surprisingly, many of their kind have adapted well to human development. Corvids are also known for theft and pedicide, often stealing hard-earned food from smaller birds or feasting on their hatchlings. It feels all too easy to pass judgement, but it doesn’t make any sense. Corvids are not people. This is what they do to survive. Moreover, many of the changes that we’ve made to the environment have served to amplify these “distasteful” behaviors.
On our river otter walk, Terrence Carroll (the Director of Research at River Otter Ecology Project and Isadore’s husband) explained that, over the past few years, river otters have been seen hunting and eating Brown Pelicans, one of the Endangered Species Act’s great success stories. According to Isadore, witnessing this is not for the weak of heart or stomach. The otters sneak up on the pelicans while they’re resting in the water, grab them by the leg and pull them under until they drown. They then drag them to shore, where they either consume them or stash them away in makeshift larders.
Angry birders who have found beaches strewn with pelican bodies have begun demanding that something be done about the otters. Carroll explained that we don’t know whether or not otter predation is having a significant impact on pelican populations. Their organization has applied for grants to try and study this. Regardless of what they find, the anger seems misguided. Ravens eat Snowy Plover eggs. River otters (which themselves have only recently returned to the Bay Area after disappearing for decades due to pollution) eat shorebirds, including Brown Pelicans. That is in their nature, and this is how nature works. The main reason the Brown Pelicans were and the Snowy Plovers are endangered is us — we human beings and our ongoing attempts to co-opt rather than co-exist with nature.
I’m still learning this lesson. I try not to project my human code of ethics onto wildlife, but I also have the opportunity to create my own space that encourages co-existence in a way that seems palatable to everyone. Early in my birder evolution, I started experimenting with bird feeders. Inspired by my friends, Jon and Linzy, I started by tying an old frying pan to a tree and filling it with sunflower seeds. That enabled me to see what felt like a wondrous number of birds in our backyards, and it also acquainted me with a familiar bird feeder foe: Sammy the Squirrel. (I name all squirrels I see, “Sammy.”)
Many of my early design experiments were spent trying to fend off Sammy. (Yes, I’ve seen the Marc Robervideo on deterring squirrels, and yes, it’s amazing.) However, over time, I shifted my attention to creating harmony among the many different bird species who visit my feeders and baths. I noticed that bigger birds sometimes dominate the feeders, chasing away (or worse) the smaller birds, so I created a tube feeder that only smaller songbirds could access. I noticed that a small single point of access would cause the smaller songbirds to fight with each other, so I strategically placed branches nearby where the birds could queue up.
Hummingbirds are viciously territorial, and I often saw them fighting over our two feeders. Earlier this year, I visited bird illustrator Keith Hansen’s studio in Bolinas and noticed to my surprise that the hummingbirds fed side-by-side in harmony at his feeders. He has found that if you have at least six feeders up, the hummingbirds decide that there’s enough for everybody, and they cooperate rather than fight.
Structures impact behavior. I have always applied this principle in my work of getting people to collaborate more effectively with each other, but watching birds over the past few years have caused me to appreciate this even more. On my small balcony, I have managed to create my own little ecosystem of birds and nature. I have two feeders and two small bowls, which I regularly fill with clean water for drinking and bathing. I designed and placed them strategically among my pots of native plants to favor different kinds of birds so that there’s enough food and water for everybody.
When the crows started coming, I had mixed feelings, as I was afraid they would scare away all the other birds. But I observed them for a while, and I came to love them. There are a few who now recognize me, and when I see them, I often take a short break to step out onto my balcony and feed them peanuts. A few of their cousins, the raven, even come by every so often, including an affectionate couple, and I’ve been able to marvel at their size and beauty up close.
Last year, I was on a client call, when I heard a loud thunk outside. I looked outside, and to my surprise, a Cooper’s Hawk was sitting about ten feet away from me. It took all of my willpower not to jump off the call and grab my camera. Fortunately, the hawk and its mate became regular visitors, and I was able to watch them with interest. I didn’t want my balcony to become a restaurant for these raptors, which love to feast on Mourning Doves, although I was open to it happening. However, while the ongoing activity continued to attract the hawks’ interest, it turned out that some combination of my balcony’s proximity (which made it hard for the predators to sneak up on other birds) and my crow friends (who were used to warding off fiercer, larger birds) kept them at bay.
It’s not my place to dictate whether or not a bird eats or bullies another bird. However, I think it’s fair for me to be thoughtful about how I can positively impact an ecosystem by learning as much as possible about these wonderful feathered creatures and by loving them without anthropomorphizing them.
I’m not going to stop naming them, however, or saying hello when I see them. I have to draw the line somewhere!
This post is for anyone who has ever asked me for book recommendations on collaboration.
Yesterday, Carmen Medina‘s wrote a wonderful blog post on the television documentary series, Air Disasters. (It’s known as Mayday in Canada.) She shares a number of insights she gathered from the show on human performance, systems design, and leadership in general. For example:
The Importance of Sleep and Good Rest:
Commercial airlines have strict rules about how many hours flight crews can work before they must rest…. These rules reflect hard lessons learned about how poor rest and lack of sleep can degrade the cognitive performance and judgment of pilots…. The aviation industry learned long ago that “people just have to tough it out” is not a useful strategy.
Hierarchy Can Kill You:
Traditionally the captain and the first officer in commercial aviation were in a command and obey-orders relationship. But captains are not infallible and there are several fatal accidents that could have been avoided if the first officer had been listened to. Oftentimes the captain would have had a hard time “hearing” the other view because the first officer actually never verbalized his concern. The respect for hierarchy was so paralyzing that first officers have deferred to wrongheaded captains even when it led to certain death. These types of accidents became so concerning for the aviation industry that airlines instituted mandatory crew resource management procedures that emphasize the importance of collaboration and teamwork in the cockpit.
As airline crash investigators know, many airplane accidents involve a chain of unlikely events, any one of which would rarely occur. A supervisor decides to pitch in and help his overworked maintenance team by removing a set of screws. The maintenance team isn’t able to finish the job but don’t know to replace the screws. Nevertheless, the plane makes many safe landings and takeoffs until a pilot decides to make an unusually fast descent. The pilot and all the passengers die.
Who exactly is accountable here? Is it the supervisor who tried to be helpful? Or the airline management that under-resourced its maintenance operations? Or the pilot? In many organizations, holding someone “accountable” is the signature move of “strong leaders”. But what often happens is that some unfortunate individual is held to blame for what was a systemic failure of an organization — often driven by complacency, expediency, and/or greed.
These are all really good lessons, all from watching a television show! Of course, it’s a little disingenuous to say that. Carmen was a long-time leader at the CIA with a lifetime of hard-earned experiences. Most of us would not be able to recognize the deeper lessons that Carmen did, much less articulate them so clearly. This is what the best authors do — pull good insights from all kinds of places, some of them unexpected — and package them in a clear and compelling way. Not surprisingly, Carmen is one of those authors.
Still, when it comes to collaboration at least, I find that many people seem to eschew sources like television documentaries or — more dishearteningly — their own experiences for books written by “experts.” You don’t have to have been a CEO at a Fortune 500 company or a business school professor to have had amazing insights and experiences on collaboration. (Honestly, I don’t think many CEOs or business school professors would even make my list of top collaboration practitioners.)
Do you have a family? Friends? Classmates? A partner of any sort, business or life? Are you in a band? Do you play pickup sports or volunteer in your community? If so, I promise you, you already have a lifetime of experiences on which to draw. It’s only a matter of being intentional about sifting through your experiences for insights and trying to practice what you learn. Once you start doing this, you’ll start to recognize deeper lessons from all sorts of places, some of them unexpected. I use television and movie clips all the time to help groups learn how to recognize and navigate power dynamics. For those of you follow this blog, I obviously write a lot about basketball, and athlete podcasts have been a particularly rich source of insights for me for a while now. (My favorites are All the Smoke and The Old Man and the Three.) Over the past few years, I’ve been learning a ton about systems design and collaboration from watching birds and experimenting with bird feeders.
Deeply examining your own experiences and drawing from unexpected sources are much more effective for learning about collaboration than reading a book, and they’re far more fun.
I keep a list in my notes of fundamental tensions I often experience either professionally, personally, or both. At the top of my list (with a long list of links of examples and other thoughts, including these previousposts.) is the tension between appreciating what you have and aspiring for more.
He’s played in 30 cities and three countries over the past two years. He’s been called up to the big leagues twice before, both times with the Chicago Bulls, and he’s scored eight total points as an NBA player, including his very first shot attempt. I liked what he said about that experience:
“When it happens, it’s business-like, ‘This is something I expect blah blah blah,’ ” McClung said. “But then you call your mom and she starts crying and you’re like, ‘Oh man, like, this is something I dreamed of my whole life.’ You don’t take it for granted but you got to soak it in. You’re like, ‘Man, I just scored an NBA bucket,’ that’s something the younger me would have been so excited about.”
In my first 15 years in the collaboration field, I spent more time fixating on what I hadn’t achieved than appreciating what I had. I’ve gotten much better about appreciating what I’ve been able to and continue to get to do. I am surrounded by amazing people, whom I love and respect, and who love and respect me back. People continue to pay me to develop and apply my craft, even when I’m not sure I can be helpful. And the experiences! So many great, special experiences. I even appreciate the not-so-great experiences, which feel more like hard-earned wisdom than PTSD.
Getting to this point is partially a result of being intentional and a whole lot of practice. Most of it is probably because I’m middle aged now, and I feel grateful for many things, including just being alive and in relatively good health to boot. I don’t know if I’ve achieved the “perfect” balance between appreciating what I have (professionally) and wanting more, but it feels pretty good overall.
If you are working on something you can finish in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.
The whole interview is a good read. I started gardening during the pandemic (mostly native plants and some edible annuals), so the concepts Jackson describes (trying to shift our agricultural practices from annuals to perennials) feel more tangible to me than they would have otherwise. I added Jackson’s 1994 book, Becoming Native to This Place, to my reading list.
Sarris: And you know, I don’t want to be on my deathbed and have the next generation say to me, “Well, there’s all these problems. What did you do about it?” And be there, and say, “Nothing.” I want to say, “At least I tried.”
Kaufmann: Oh, that’s so inspiring to me, my friend. You know, what was that, what was that thing that, I just read this wonderful thing. Oh! Wes Jackson of The Land Institute says, “If you’re working on something that you plan on finishing in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”
Sarris: And what an ego to think that you’re going to fix something! You know, it’s very freeing, by the way, to realize, “I don’t have to finish this,” or, “I can’t.” It’s very freeing. You’re just kind of like, “Wow, I can give this up!” You know? “Listen Greg, you’re not going to get an A+ on this one, alright? You’re not going to have a million seller. You’re going to have something that will be connected to something else that, if it’s successful and good, it will continue and grow.”