Good Things Jar and the Art(ifact) of Remembering

Earlier this week, Mozart Guerrier retweeted this cool New Year’s idea:

What struck me about the idea were the jar and the end-of-the-year instruction. It’s not just about the regular practice of positive reflection. It’s about encouraging reflection in a very simple way. Even if you don’t read the notes at the end of the year, the jar full of colorful notes will serve as a constant reminder of the good that’s happening in your life.

Most of us tend to use artifacts mostly as a real-time tool. When I write something down, it helps me and potentially others get clear in the moment. That’s a good thing. But if you don’t find a way to revisit the artifact later, you’re wasting your artifact. The trick is to find ways to support remembrance. The jar is a simple, wonderful hack.

A few years ago, I picked up a simple hack from Rachel Weidinger that I now use with my teams. When her teams come up with a set of agreements (an excellent practice), she asks each member of her team to print them out, post them at their working space so he or she can always see them, and share a photo so that everyone else on the team knows that it’s up. It acts as a symbolic signature, but it also assures that everyone is constantly reminded of those agreements. Bonus: It works with distributed and face-to-face teams!

Learning via Artifacts: A Conversation with Dave Gray

Next Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 12:30pm PDT, I’ll be participating in a public Google Hangout with my friend, Dave Gray. The conversation will be about learning via artifacts. All are welcome to watch. We’ll also be using a public Boardthing to take notes during the conversation, and we encourage everyone to join in that as well.

Why are we doing this, and what exactly is “learning via artifacts” all about?

The short answer is that this is a response to my recent blog post over on Faster Than 20, “Documenting Is Not Learning.” That post was a mini-rant on how many people seem to equate “learning systems” with trying to get people to write down and file everything that’s in their heads so that others can read and access them. It’s an incredibly naive approach, but people often pour thousands of dollars (and sometimes orders of magnitude more) into trying to build these kinds of systems, most of which inevitably fail.

My overwhelming desire to make this point caused me to wave my hands past a subtle, but equally important point, one that is foundational to all the work that I do: The process of documenting is one of the most powerful ways of catalyzing learning.

Dave (and a few others, actually) called me out on this point on Facebook. I agreed, and I said I needed to write a followup. But since I was already talking with him about this, and since he happens to be one of the foremost practitioners in this space, I figured it would be much more interesting to highlight his voice. Thus, next Wednesday’s Google Hangout was born.

The Boardthing is a huge bonus. Dave and his team recently created a wonderful collaborative tool that is the online equivalent of putting stickies on walls. If that sounds simple, it is, but when done right, it’s also incredibly powerful. Up until now, no one has done it right. We’ll use Boardthing to model what we’ll be talking about, and we hope that many of you will jump in as well.

The long story starts with this gift from Dave on October 18, 2006:

Designing for Emergence

Dave was participating in a collaboration workshop I was facilitating in St. Louis. To him, this isn’t anything special. This is simply the way he takes notes.

To me, this was a gift on many levels. Whenever I think about that workshop, I think of this image first. I actually took copious notes from that workshop, some of which I even blogged. I wrote a piece about the things I said that led to Dave drawing this. I also posted pictures from that workshop, including shots of the flipcharts from the day.

There are lots of great knowledge nuggets, most of which have been sitting around, collecting virtual dust for years. Until I think about this picture, that is. This image, for me, is the start of a trail, and whenever I start poking around it again, I remember old insights, and I look at them in new ways. I’m willing to bet that this holds true for whomever reads this, that you are far more likely to start poking around than you would have had you not seen the picture. There is something about the visual that draws us in, that stirs our emotions, that makes us want to know more.

This is all after-the-fact learning. But what about in-the-moment learning? What was happening in Dave’s head as he drew that picture? How did the act of drawing help him learn? What would happen if you made that synthesis process collaborative? How would that impact learning?

I’ll leave you all with these questions for now. This is the stuff that we’ll be talking about this coming Wednesday. But I do want to say a few more things about Dave.

Dave is and has been my hero in so many ways. I’ve known many brilliant visual thinkers and learners for many years, but there has always been something about Dave’s style and presence that has encouraged me to practice these skills myself more actively in a way that others haven’t.

The first time we met, he explained to me how he draws stick figures. His trick? Draw the body first. Why? Because body language says so much! That’s really the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. How freakin’ simple and brilliant is that?!

My partnership with Amy Wu over the years has been strongly influenced and inspired by Dave and his work, and you can see that in the evolution of my slides over the years and even in the Faster Than 20 website. What you don’t see in those final products are all of the sketches that both Amy and I drew to help us think through these ideas. Dave is one of the people who strongly inspired me to work this way.

To me, Dave personifies the learning mindset. At XPLANE, the wonderful design consultancy he founded years ago, he started something called Visual Thinking School, one of the ideas that inspired me to start Changemaker Bootcamp last year. He is a great speaker and writer, but he is also constantly making things — tools like Boardthing, companies like XPLANE, brilliant books like The Connected Company, beautiful paintings.

When he learns, he learns out loud, so that others can participate in and benefit from all aspects of his process, not just the beautiful, final artifacts. He wanted to learn more about Agile processes, so he decided to write a book about it. He’s interviewing great practitioners in order to learn, and he’s doing them live on Google Hangout, so others can learn with him.

I love every opportunity I have to chat with and learn from him, and I hope many of you will join us this Wednesday!

I’ll write a followup blog post on Faster Than 20 after our conversation about learning via artifacts, but in the meantime, you can read and watch some of the things I’ve said on this topic in the past:

Finally, here’s video from a brown bag I led in 2011 entitled, “Saving the World Through Better Note-Taking.”

Folded Corners

I was recently reminded of a Richard Feynman anecdote I once read in James Gleick’s biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. I had given the book to my Dad as a gift almost 20 years ago, and — as is tradition for me when I give books to family — I borrowed and read the book immediately.

Yesterday, I borrowed the book from my Dad again to see if I could find the passage. I vaguely knew where the anecdote was, but it was going to require some flipping and scanning, as the book is over 500 pages long with dense type.

To my delight, the corner of the page I was seeking was folded over! It was the only corner folded in the whole book. Apparently, I had been so struck by that very anecdote when I first read the book 20 years ago, and I had folded the corner to hold the place.

I stopped folding corners years ago (reverting instead to Post-Its), and I barely even read paper books anymore, thanks to my Kindle. This discovery was a nice, visceral reminder of the joys of paper artifacts that you can touch and feel and fold.

For those of you curious about the anecdote that has stuck with me all these years, it was about an informal lecture Feynman gave to his peers while he was at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project. Here’s the passage, from pages 181-182 of the original hardback edition:

Meanwhile, under the influence of this primal dissection of mathematics, Feynman retreated from pragmatic engineering long enough to put together a public lecture on “Some Interesting Properties of Numbers.” It was a stunning exercise in arithmetic, logic, and — though he would never have used the word — philosophy. He invited his distinguished audience (“all the might minds,” he wrote his mother a few days later) to discard all knowledge of mathematics and begin from first principles — specifically, from a child’s knowledge of counting in units. He defined addition, a + b, as the operation of counting b units from a starting point, a. He defined multiplication (counting b times). He defined exponentiation (multiplying b times). He derived the simple laws of the kind a + b = b + a and (a + b) + c = a + (b + c), laws that were usually assumed unconsciously, though quantum mechanics itself had shown how crucially some mathematical operations did depend on their ordering. Still taking nothing for granted, Feynman showed how pure logic made it necessary to conceive of inverse operations: subtraction, division, and the taking of logarithms. He could always ask a new question that perforce required a new arithmetical invention. Thus he broadened the class of objects represented by his letters a, b, and c and the class of rules by which he was manipulating them. By his original definition, negative numbers meant nothing. Fractions, fractional exponents, imaginary roots of negative numbers — these had no immediate connection to counting, but Feynman continued pulling them from his silvery logical engine. He turned to irrational numbers and complex numbers and complex powers of complex numbers — these came inexorably as soon as one from facing up to the question: What number, i, when multiplied by itself, equals negative one? He reminded his audience how to compute a logarithm from scratch and showed how the numbers converged as he took successive square roots of ten and thus, as an inevitable by-product, derived the “natural base” e, that ubiquitous fundamental constant. He was recapitulating centuries of mathematical history — yet not quite recapitulating, because only a modern shift of perspective made it possible to see the fabric whole. Having conceived of complex powers, he began to compute complex powers. He made a table of his results and showed how they oscillated, swinging from one to zero to negative one and back again in a wave that he drew for his audience, though they knew perfectly well what a sine wave looked like. He had arrived at trigonometric functions. Now he posed one more question, as fundamental as all the others, yet encompassing them all in the round recursive net he had been spinning for a mere hour: To what power must e be raised to reach i? (They already knew the answer, that e and i and π were conjoined as if by an invisible membrane, but as he told his mother, “I went pretty fast & didn’t give them a hell of a lot of time to work out the reason for one fact before I was showing them another still more amazing.”) He now repeated the assertion he had written elatedly in his notebook at the age of fourteen, that the oddly polyglot statement eπi + 1 = 0 was the most remarkable formula in mathematics. Algebra and geometry, their distinct languages notwithstanding, were one and the same, a bit of child’s arithmetic abstracted and generalized by a few minutes of the purest logic. “Well,” he wrote, “all the mighty minds were mightily impressed by my little feats of arithmetic.”