Connection Is Life

My friend and colleague, Kristin Cobble, made her blogging debut a few weeks ago with a post entitled, “Living in Service of Life.” In it she asks and explores a simple question:

What does it mean to feel alive?

David Brooks, who’s been researching the neuroscience behind our social behavior, recently wrote a piece in the New Yorker where he summarized his research in story form. He tells the story of a (possibly fictional) neuroscientist, who says:

I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends. Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.

Far be it for me to argue with a (possibly fictional) neuroscientist!

I feel alive when I feel connected to life. By life, I include other people, other living systems, and me. I need all of those things in balance with each other.

Yesterday was Saturday, a gorgeous winter day in San Francisco, perfect for disconnecting. Ironically, I spent the morning on my computer, blogging about a very networked day in my life. Susannah Fox, whom I mentioned in my post, tweeted in response:

I’m touched by this, a feeling that may be enhanced by an opposite (but still great) day offline. Thank you.

It was a beautiful epilogue to my post. To truly appreciate the connectedness that is possible in today’s world, we have to re-learn how to stay connected to the other aspects of life and living that are so important. In other words, we have to remember to disconnect in all aspects of our life, including (especially?) our work.

Misconceptions about Collaboration

I was really annoyed when I read Cynthia Gibson’s piece on collaboration (which was also reposted by my friends at the Monitor Institute). I actually agreed with many of the points in the piece — the importance of clarity in roles and decision-making, for example, and the fact that collaboration is in service of a goal.

What bugged me was the erroneous premise. Why associate a “collaborative culture” with lack of clarity or regression to the mean? That’s not a collaborative culture, that’s a crappy culture.

“Collaboration” does not mean “non-hierarchical” or “consensus-driven.” It simply means two or more people working together toward a shared, bounded goal. You can do it well, or you can do it badly, but in both cases, you’re collaborating.

Let’s look at some of the most high-performing organizations in the world. Consider the New England Patriots, for example. Since 2001, they have 107 wins, 37 losses, and three Superbowl championships. Their organizational model? Hierarchical.

Or consider The French Laundry, widely acknowledged as one of the best restaurants in the world, with a large kitchen staff helmed by the superstar chef, Thomas Keller. Their organizational model? Hierarchical.

Or consider the Vienna Philharmonic, which is consistently considered one of the best symphony orchestras in the world. Organizational model? Hierarchical.

These are all hierarchical organizations that far surpass their peers because they are more collaborative.

Hierarchy describes a structure. Consensus describes a decision-making process. Neither is a measure of how effectively collaborative a group is.

I’m not just nit-picking language. These misconceptions are often the very reason why groups are led astray in the ways that Cynthia describes in her otherwise excellent piece.

With groups, it’s rarely a question of whether or not they’re collaborating. It’s almost always a question of whether they’re collaborating well. Having a “collaborative culture” doesn’t mean you’re collaborating with more people. It means you’re collaborating effectively. Every organization should be striving for this.

Sometimes, this means exploring alternative decision-making processes or figuring out ways to work with more people. You determine this through careful thought and experimentation. And that’s really the bottom line. I’ve never seen a group that was ineffective because it was “too collaborative.” Groups are generally ineffective because they don’t think carefully and they don’t work thoughtfully.

Tech Literacy and the Joy of Dancing

My Nephew, Elliott, Dancing

My six-year old nephew, Elliott, is an amazing dancer. I’m sure genetics had something to do with it. After all, both of his parents are musicians. But what really makes him great isn’t his rhythm or his moves. When he dances, there isn’t a trace of self-consciousness or thought. He simply moves and radiates joy. I often watch a video clip of him when he was three, boogeying his little heart out, and it always brings a huge smile to my face. (I have no plans to share that clip here, but if you ever see me face-to-face, ask, and I’ll gladly show it to you.)

It makes me happy to see him enjoy himself this way, because I personally have a huge mental block about dancing. I didn’t always have it, or at least it used to be much, much smaller, but it’s grown into a veritable albatross over the years. When I put my learner hat on, I know all the things I should (or shouldn’t) be doing. Don’t think. Don’t worry about “doing it right.” Just enjoy the music, and let your body move.

It’s silly. I’m fearless about so many things in life, and I generally don’t care about looking stupid. And I’ve been able to let go at times with certain people or in certain situations. But for the most part, my fear of dancing is debilitating.

It’s not about my relationship to my body. I’ve always loved sports, and I’ve always held my own on the court or on the field, even though I’m a mediocre athlete.

A big reason for that is that I’m hyper-competitive. Another reason is that I developed a basic literacy for sports at an early age. I can run, throw, and catch. I can dribble and shoot a ball with both my hands and my feet. More importantly, I have a basic feel for how to play team sports, how to move without the ball, how to use my body to create space. I can play several sports serviceably, and I can pick up new ones easily.

The bottom line is that I’m sports-literate. My body speaks sports fluently, and so I’m able to play without thinking, to express myself joyfully through sports.

I’m lucky to be literate in a lot of things, and I find joy in all of them. But I also feel lucky to be grossly illiterate in other things. Foreign languages, for example. And dancing. I’m lucky because it makes me understand and appreciate the value of literacy and the level of effort required to develop everything from basic proficiency to virtuosity.

That brings me to technology.

I have a gift with tools. It’s a huge advantage in this day and age, especially as a knowledge worker. I know that I can figure out how to use almost any tool quickly and skillfully. When I work with clients, I’m often able to adapt my processes to use the tools they’re already familiar with. I also know how to build my own tools, which means I can build things to do exactly what I want them to do, and I can speak fluently and familiarly with other tool-builders. I can do all of these things without letting my technology lens blind me.

On this basis alone, I can offer way more value to organizations than most consultants in my space. I consider the Blue Oxen philosophy and approach to be a much more significant differentiator, but even without that, I’d still be able to separate myself from the pack on the basis of my tech literacy alone.

I don’t expect my clients to have the same level of literacy. I adjust my expectations, and if tools are to play a heavy role, I focus on being a coach and supporter. I don’t let my clients create an artificial hierarchy based on what they think they don’t know.

My project teams, however, are another matter. High-performance teams always have some Shared Language that they speak fluently. When one of those languages in which your team is fluent is technology, it expands your possibilities. Frankly, it also makes the work a lot more fun. I’ve worked with a lot of teams that have had that baseline level of tech fluency, and it’s always been a magical experience.

However, it’s not always possible to have that team-wide fluency. In those cases, as with my clients, I adjust my expectations. The difference is that I still hold my teams to higher standards of performance, and that makes me less patient.

Right now, I’m working with one of the top three teams I’ve worked with in my eight years at Blue Oxen Associates, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t take the top spot by the end of our project. We also happen to have mixed levels of tech literacy.

I am more than happy to accept this, because everyone brings unique skills in other areas. More importantly, we have a shared fluency around our principles and approaches to collaboration. Frankly, that’s made us vastly more effective at using tools than many of my previous teams where we started with a higher level of tech fluency.

Needless to say, I am having an incredible amount of fun working with these folks. Still, I find myself getting frustrated every once in a while by the different levels of tech literacy. We occasionally have to slow down to get people up to speed on things that seem trivially easy to me. I know it’s an unfair response on my part, but I can’t help feeling impatient.

At times like these, I think about dancing. I think about the fear that even the thought of dancing evokes. I think about how I’ve felt when friends and loved ones, who are great dancers, have patiently danced with me when they almost certainly could have been having more fun dancing with others — a mixture of appreciation, but also guilt, misplaced or not.

I think about all of these things, and I feel my impatience drift away in favor of empathy and appreciation. I think about how everyone on my team is pushing their boundaries, setting aside their discomfort and even fear because of their hunger to learn, to improve, to perform. I think about how they encourage each other patiently and without judgement, creating a space that’s safe to try, to fail, to learn, and I feel deeply humbled.

Then I think about Elliott dancing, how he radiates joy without fear or shame, joy that’s contagious. I think about the innocent wisdom that our children share with us when we are smart enough to pay attention, and I hope beyond hope that Elliott and his little brother, Benjamin, never lose that wisdom and that unbridled joy.

My Quest to Learn Korean

설악산, November 2002. I’m admiring the grilled sardines and steamed mussels and sea snails outside of Sanmaeul Restaurant, a wonderful, family-run hole-in-the-wall. They ended up feeding us for our entire stay in 설악산. Also note my sweet, red hat.

I’m generally good at learning, but I have a few nasty Achilles’ heels. My biggest one is languages. I absolutely suck at learning languages. Or, at least, I’ve sucked at learning languages in the past.

You see, I believe that we’re all much more capable of learning than we give ourselves credit for. There are lots of different ways to learn; we just have to find the way that fits the task and our style.

I believe this, and I’ve preached this, but I’ve never rigorously acted on it. I’ve thought a lot about the things I’ve sucked at learning in the past, and how I’d do them differently now, but I’ve never really carried out those ideas. My excuse has always been that I’m too busy, and that I’d rather spend my time mastering stuff that I’m already good at than struggling over something I’m not. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a bigger truth. I’m scared. Deep down, I’m not confident that I can do it, because I haven’t done it before.

Well, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to stop hiding and start doing.

Why the sudden motivation? First, I spent most of this past year hanging out with Wikimedians. Most of the Wikimedians I know kick ass at languages. I am bitterly resentful of all of them. Yes, that includes you Delphine and SJ and Chuck. That includes all of the ridiculously multilingual Wikimedia Foundation employees — the majority of them, in fact. Every time any of them would fluidly slip into another language to converse with others, I would seethe with rage and jealousy inside. Clearly, I needed to do something about this.

Second, I’ve always felt bad about not being able to speak to my parents or extended family in their native tongue, and I’ve always thought that if I were going to focus my energies on any language, it would be Korean. A few recent events encouraged me to follow through on this. I decided to go to Korea in October — my first extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates eight years ago.

Then last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Jung-Ok Lee at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, who asked me if I had ever thought about helping groups in Korea become more collaborative. I would love to do this, but the reality is that I don’t think I could be effective there without being fluent in Korean.

Which brings me to my third reason: Language is an essential element of my work in collaboration. I’ve always stressed the importance of Shared Language, and much of my philosophy and process revolves around this. I’ve always felt a tad hypocritical about emphasizing the importance of bridging between different languages, when I had limited experience doing this myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to speak more than one language fluently.

My Goals and Game Plan

My goals are modest. By June 2011:

  • I’d like to be able to read Korean children’s books.
  • I’d like to be reasonably competent at understanding spoken Korean.
  • I’d like to be fluent enough to survive in Korea by myself.

I had two approaches in developing my strategy. First, I thought about my previous failures in learning languages. This gave me some ideas of what not to do.

Second, I thought about my one and only success in learning a language: English. Believe it or not, this was remarkably useful.

Here’s my strategy in a nutshell:

  • Learn like a baby. Find opportunities to immerse myself — with family, with friends, at restaurants and supermarkets, and, of course, with my upcoming trip. Vocabulary is more important than grammar. Most importantly, babble like a baby. It worked for me before.
  • Learn visually. It’s easier for me to learn vocabulary when I can visualize what the words look like and what they represent when I hear them. Flash cards are a must.
  • Learn contextually. All of my friends who are language studs learn new languages by struggling through children’s books. This is significantly easier in this day and age, thanks to Google Translate.
  • Learn traditionally. At worst, taking a class forces me to practice regularly.

My First Class

I decided to enroll in an introductory class at the Intercultural Institute of California, and I just came home from my first class. I was very nervous. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a traditional classroom, and my previous experiences in language classes were never that positive.

As it turned out, I had an unexpected advantage over the other students in the class. I already know how to read and write Hangul. Hangul is easy to learn, especially if you’re good with symbols. It’s phonetic, with 14 consonants and 10 vowels — two fewer than the Latin alphabet.

Pronouncing Korean is hard, and I’m nowhere close to good at it, but I have a decent amount of experience hearing the correct pronunciations. My parents insist that I always mispronounce 사과 (apple), even though I’ve practiced it about a million times. I can’t for the life of me hear the difference between ㅈ (sort of a cross between j and ch) and ㅉ (a hard j), and I’m pretty sure my teacher (who seems very nice) stifled a laugh when I tried pronouncing them. (She definitely was laughing when I sang the alphabet, but I’m pretty sure that was because of my enthusiastic warbling. I really, really hope that was the reason.)

Knowing the basics allowed me to focus on other things. For example, I don’t always use the correct strokes when writing the alphabet, so I paid close attention to that.

I also focused on recognizing word patterns rather than sounding out characters. When I see the word, “apple,” I’m not sounding out the characters. I’m recognizing the whole word. This is not currently the case with Hangul. When I see 하나 (the number one), I’m not recognizing the word pattern. I’m sounding out each character, then understanding the word. By focusing on the word pattern, I can visualize the word when I hear it, which I think will help me learn vocabulary much more quickly.

I also know that my advantage will be very short-lived, and my weaknesses are going to surface fairly quickly. I’m going to try to mitigate that through extra preparation, although I’m bracing myself for much more laughter over the coming months.