Back in February 2019, I was about six months into my urban sketching and watercolors journey. I had recently realized that I didn’t know how to watercolor. I had essentially been using my paint brush as an awkward marker. So I started playing more intentionally with watercolor as a medium, and I was enjoying what I was discovering.
I was ready to take another step, and in classic Eugene fashion, I decided to go for a big step rather than a small one. I walked to a nearby bench to paint the Land’s End trailhead overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. My goal was to just use watercolors, but I chickened out, and I ended up inking the scene first, then once again using my watercolors as an awkward marker.
This was good for me (also perhaps in classic Eugene fashion), because I was so annoyed by my failure, I was motivated to try again, this time more incrementally, more systematically, and more patiently.
Earlier this week, almost two years after my previous attempt, I decided to try painting the same scene again. This time, I successfully did the whole thing in watercolor. Didn’t even pencil it in beforehand. Then I compared the two versions.
I had a lot more confidence this go around, and I feel great about how much I learned. And, it’s still not very watercolor-y. I have a lot more to learn, but I’m enjoying the journey. Looking forward to trying this scene again in another two years!
When I first started getting into photography, I learned about the “newbie tax.” Cameras and their many accessories are expensive, and because you’re a beginner, you feel like you can get away with something cheaper. Instead of buying the $300 tripod with the $150 ballhead, you buy the $20 tripod from Amazon.com. After all, it got 4 stars, and it comes with a carrying case!
Your new tripod arrives, and it’s mostly fine, but one of the knobs is a little bit loose. Two months later, the knob breaks. No worries, you think to yourself. You only lost $20. But maybe it’s worth buying the $60 tripod this time. Your new tripod is sturdier, but it’s also heavy and unwieldy, so you rarely take it out. You finally force yourself to bring it with you on a five-mile sunset hike, but afterward, your sore legs and shoulders convince you to spring for the $150 ultra-compact travel tripod.
And on and on, until you finally end up buying the expensive tripod anyway. The cost of all those cheaper tripods you bought and subsequently discarded? That’s the newbie tax.
I think there’s some truth to this in photography as well as many aspects of life. By definition, newbies can’t truly know why good tripods are so valuable (and, hence, so expensive), which makes it hard for them to evaluate tradeoffs. However, money is also an imperfect representation of value. I have certainly paid my share of the newbie tax in my day, but I’ve also bought plenty of cheap equipment that continues to work beautifully. My 16-year old nephew takes better photos with his cheap phone than many gear heads I know who only own top-of-the-line equipment.
Furthermore, I’m not sure the learning you get from paying the newbie tax doesn’t pay for itself in the end.
A few weeks ago, I bought a cheap crab net from my neighborhood bait and tackle shop, and I decided to try my luck with it at Fort Point this past weekend. I know almost nothing about fishing, but the owner of the bait shop insisted that it was easy and that I would have a blast.
And I did! But it wasn’t easy, and it turned out the equipment she had sold me wasn’t quite adequate. My net was good enough to catch crabs off the pier, but it wasn’t sturdy enough to fend off the seal that dived under the pier repeatedly, stealing bait from chumps like me who didn’t know any better. The regulars on the pier shook their heads sympathetically as I stood there, staring at the hole in my net where the bait used to be.
I had paid the newbie tax. I was annoyed by this, and I was even more annoyed by the seal that, only a few moments earlier, I was marveling and cooing at. But afterward, I couldn’t help chuckling at our little run-in and appreciating the gorgeous morning I had spent on the water with my sister, sipping tea, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in the community that met regularly at that pier, and day-dreaming about the tasty dinner that I didn’t end up catching. I’m pretty sure that my experience as a whole was more than worth the newbie tax.
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!
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!”
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!
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:
Recognize the importance of asking (and answering) questions
Demolish the fear factor
Think out of the box
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.