What will we leave behind?

If you’ve been following me lately, you know I’ve been on this renaissance of playing skeeball, a bowling-inspired game that’s been around since the early 20th century.

Reading publications from 1909, you get a sense of the way the world thought of itself. We’re not great at seeing far in front of ourselves as humans, we only see what’s in our view. Maybe this is the reason we’re so bad at long-term planning and why future generations are consigned to look back on the past and ask, “what were they thinking when they did this?”

At design & content conference two weeks ago in Vancouver, I challenged the audience to ask themselves what the future would look like for each of us. Not just in our everyday lives, but through the work that we do each day to encourage, enliven and empower others through mission-driven work that doesn’t just pay lip service to the ideals and tenets of positivity, but through demonstrating real, actionable change.

After my talk, someone asked me “what am I supposed to do? I think about this stuff sometimes and I get overwhelmed.” I replied, “when you go home, find some organization that might be able to use your help, tell them what you can do and ask if there’s something they need.” 

By bringing these ideas to light, I’m not implying that I’m somehow above the problem. I’m right here in the muck with everyone else. I’m only trying to highlight what I’m seeing as I move about the world, because it’s clear that not enough people are saying the things that many of us are thinking.

What to do next

I’ve been contemplating my own direction lately. I am very interested in the work at the intersection of where design, policy & code meet. It’s clear in a variety of ways that not enough people understand the underpinnings of what goes into designing the tools of the future. Not enough people are thinking about broader communities and how all people are impacted when we design for the ideal few.

I’ve been thinking about the design of things for a while. But not just the form factor, the actual ways that we build systems. Reading the history and how dark patterns are part of our everyday structures means that we’re all complicit. How do we solve for this? We have to arm ourselves with the knowledge that things are wrong, they’re screwed up and that by not embedding that into the ways that we make things better means we fail.
Working on products is interesting, but focusing on the facets that go overlooked sounds more compelling. What would it look like for designers to work in underserved communities tackling large-scale challenges? Right now, we apply a lens that’s largely focused on business, economics, and growth-oriented thinking. These assumptions apply faulty logic, often ignore history and don’t consider the structural challenges that impede progress at all levels.
Stop burying the lede
For all of the mentoring I do, I’m not so great at communicating my experience. I can do it one-on-one, but because so many people have different things they find “impressive”, I find myself often having to recalibrate my message in dramatic ways to fit whatever needle I’m threading through.
Often, I’ve thought this issue is a consequence of living in a small Midwestern city rather than somewhere much larger where my relationships I’ve cultivated through speaking and the internet writ large would perhaps come into play. I realize you can’t do it all by yourself and I’m at the point where I’m kind of doing everything the hard way.
I’m retrofitting my bios and other websites over the coming weeks to do a better job of communicating my value, what my interests are, and what type of work I’d like to be doing. For instance, I know I don’t want to be a professional speaker. It’s cool if that’s your thing, but for me, I just find speaking incredibly draining. I speak at 5-7 events a year and that’s more than enough.
I enjoy hands on work. I care about the process and distilling big ideas to people whether they have a broad technical knowledge or (more likely) not. Government moves a bit too slowly for me long-term, so it’s clear I need to be in a space where innovation, creativity, and imagination are valued rather than stifled or buried.
This is really the start of a semi-public conversation about my own direction. I feel like a lot of people do a good job of telling you where they are, but not how they got there.
Maybe this will prove useful to someone.

Root, Root For The Home Team

J

Anyone who knows me well, is aware I’ve lived a lot of places. Almost all of these moves have been some combination of work-based or relationship-based relocations.

One of the challenges of pulling up stakes and relocating is cultivating networks. Since my formative years, I’ve always been involved in civic projects. Not every community is tailor-made for an outsider to show up and participate in substantive ways on issues that might be related to policy and/or innovation.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I fit. Without the connective tissue to keep you rooted in a place, all you have is work and whatever relationships you cultivate on your own. These foundations are not always built strong enough to maintain life in a small place, especially if you’re upwardly mobile and have broader networks in bigger places.

So what’s a peripatetic person to do? This post isn’t prescriptive, it’s reflective of my own path. At the moment, I’m doing what I always do. I try to figure out ways to meld my entrepreneurial goals with whatever established activities are already going on wherever I am. My goal is to get in where I can, but resources matter, as do having the infrastructure and a team to execute big ideas and goals.

I feel like there is a lot we can do, when we’re focusing on our own contributions and let people know we exist. It’s easy to sit at home and expect that opportunities are just supposed to come to you. But most people don’t know the talent embedded in their own communities. While it’s great to create activities to engage and ignite interest, the reality is, we sometimes have to raise our voices and let people know we’re here and what we’d like to do.

Critical mass is important, but so is working within the confines of what your circumstances are as a person or a community.

When the spotlight is on, be ready to shine

If you’re not a sports fan, you might not be aware of the hottest sensation in the business right now. Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks point guard who graduated from Harvard, is Asian and was unheralded, undrafted and pretty much a cinch not to be an NBA starter is in fact, doing everything people bet against him to do.

One of the few people to identify this talent’s prospects was a FedEx guy by the name of Ed Weiland. The Wall Street Journal today featured him briefly — at work, no less — after he wrote an article in advance of the 2010 draft preview for a basketball advanced statistics site that indicated Lin might be the 2nd best prospect at his position in that draft.

“Jeremy Lin is a good enough player to start in the NBA,” Weiland wrote, “and possibly star.”

Let’s distill that a bit more. There are actual people paid who identify talent in all corners of the earth. Especially throughout the United States. Jeremy Lin received exactly 0 scholarships for college after a career where he was named Northern California player of the year and led his team to a state title. He then goes to Harvard and helps lead the team to  a share of the Ivy title in his senior year. Yet, the universal message is “we didn’t see him coming. We had no idea he was this good.”

Except a guy who is amateur stat-head writing for an obscure blog on the internet and who delivers packages. Now with the kid’s ascent, the blog post in question gets crashed and surely some NBA has to wonder how they can employ Mr. Weiland’s services for their own purposes.

But this whole feel-good story made me think about how we hire people. They write cover letters and resumes which you might read/scan or otherwise parse through some source and then you pick the best ones to interview hoping your intuition will make them the best fit. Occasionally, they get auditions through spec work or samples beforehand. Especially in the web space, this is how the game gets played.

What if the whole process was wrong? Going back to the example of Lin, he’d been cut by two other teams before landing with the Knicks in late December. If it weren’t for a spate of injuries to their roster, there’s absolutely no way he’d gotten his opportunity to play. 25-minutes against a sub-par team where his team needed a boost was ultimately the difference between being out of a job for the 3rd time in a year and where he is now. The next night, he earned his first NBA start and the rest is history.

Lin’s success is borne no doubt out of the fact that he’s playing for a coach who runs a system relying on a player with his unique attributes. Yet, these attributes were never revealed to the coach during their practices or any other scenario that would have led him to believe what we’re seeing now is possible. Perhaps it’s just a confluence of unique circumstances which have brought this to light, but the takeaways for identifying talent and for people looking for jobs seems clear in this example to me:

If you’re hiring talent, it’s easy to fill positions based on what you’ve always had rather than what you actually need. This kind of self-assessment doesn’t come easy and it’s not something lots of organizations are equipped to do. If you’re looking for a job, it’s easy to look for things like salary, benefits and other things without wondering you’ll be a good fit. Questions like:

  1. Does this role fit my strengths? Can I succeed here?
  2. How do I define success in this role? What are my long-term goals?
  3. What benchmarks can I establish beyond the ones set for me internally to measure my own success?

This might seem like a lot of headwork for a job you might just have. But I’ve seen so many scenarios where people could save themselves the trouble of being in a bad-fit environment by just being more deliberate about what they’re needing at a particular point in your career. None of this matters if you fail to get an opportunity and so, there’s a difference between being discerning and holding yourself back.

Once you get a chance to shine, you need to put your best foot forward and always be preparing for the chance for when the spotlight is on you. Those opportunities don’t always manifest themselves and so, you owe it to yourself to relish them when they do. It might not yield an arena of 20,000 screaming your name or adulation a world away, but it’s still pretty nice to know what you’re made of when you have a chance to prove it.

“Those connections on your computer aren’t real…” and other falsehoods

I may or may not have heard a speaker recently cite the rampant use of digital devices by millennials. In this discussion, said speaker might have referenced Facebook and other tools by saying, “I have a hard time convincing kids that those people on those sites aren’t real. Even if they’re your friends or whoever else. Those connections aren’t real. You can’t make real connections that way.” This marred an otherwise spirited discussion (that again, may or may not have happened) that was not about social media at all.

I suppose this is a common mistake people make. It doesn’t take a Luddite to believe that social media is all about little e-people who don’t have real narratives, tell real stories and communicate real thoughts. Does it mean people don’t get confused in texts sometime? Sure. But how many times have you misunderstood something a person told you in real time? For me, that happens pretty often even if it’s someone I speak with and see very often or consider very close to me.

If you subscribe to this blog, you’re already a kind of true believer and I don’t need to convince you. I write this instead to illustrate the kind of thinking g that’s still pervasive amongst Boomers and other anecdotal culture experts who see first-hand what happens in the social media purview of their own world and want to extrapolate messages from that. Make no mistake, I recognize there are inherent problems with digital addiction and our first-world societal over-reliance on technology to do things we used to do manually.

But let’s trivialize real, meaningful connections that happen online as silly simply because we don’t understand it. And if you hear someone else being dismissive, speak up. We might know better, but I learn everyday that lots of other people are far behind the awareness of the things happening each and every day.

We used to write

There was a time when weeks didn’t go by before I’d write a post here. These days that happens a lot less frequently. For lots of reasons, most notably because I don’t feel like I have a lot to say. If you deal with me on a regular basis, you might find that pretty hard to believe. So I’ve decided to make a more concerted effort to blog here. Not really for your benefit internet crickets, but rather because this space provides me a semblance of creative catharsis and over the years has been a source of very valuable feedback. I owe a lot to this space and I figure that rather than worry too much that there’s a “right” way to blog, that I ought to just whatever comes to mind as I did when I started.

It worked once, I don’t see why it can’t work again.

“Facebook and Google do it wrong, Twitter does it better”

A very eloquent and passionate treatise from 4chan’s Chris Poole on social networks, identity and how we represent ourselves online.

This is a topic I think about a lot, because I never know to explain myself to people on the web. I don’t think many of us are one-dimensional and we all have lots of interests. But mine are pretty woven into the fabric of how I live and so, when I move seamlessly from doing very technical things on the web to working with kids on the finer points of their tennis games — I see no disconnect. Other people have communicated to me at other times that this is strange to them; wondering “well what don’t you do?”

Talking specifically about the web, I have lots of places that I’ve been a member for well over a decade. Communities that I’m an active part of where there are — for better or worse — strangers whom I’ve interacted with for the better part of my adult life who know a lot about each other and are brought together for interest and love of a common (often obscure) hobby, passion or game.  While these interactions are meaningful in context, they don’t necessarily translate to the day-to-day dealings of what I do. Nor should they, really.

Facebook is especially harrowing for me whenever I think about it. Here there is a pool of nearly 800 people with whom come from different aspects of my life at different times. There’s my favorite uncle and that kid from summer camp from a few months ago. My closest college friends and that girl from grade school that I haven’t seen in ten years but with whom it’s cool to “know how she’s doing.”

I digress, but that’s the challenge of trying to communicate your interests with disparate communities takes time, effort and becomes onerous. I’m not sure it’s the job of social networks to be tailored to the diverse ways in which we communicate or the ability to use say, a handle on a network is even the best way. But I do agree wholly that I have far richer interactions — and always have — on social mediums where I feel more anonymous, less exposed and more apt to communicate with the wider world without regard for pagerank, bios or who is going to take what I say out of context. It’s almost why I blog so little and why my real life friends are often bored by my internet persona via blogs.

It’s a contrast that I’m aware of and that Chris Poole articulates concisely in this speech.

Going for broke: The ethics of major college athletic spending

Football_Referee
Image by avinashkunnath via Flickr

Here’s a story in the NY Times today about major college athletics in the New York State system. The article does raise a broader question about spending on athletic budgets when colleges and universities are tightening their belts across the board.

With student debt continually rising and declining state subsidies resulting in higher tuition costs, the amounts of money spent on sports might be a veritable drop in the bucket relative to the belt tightening being done across most college campuses that participate in big time college athletics. But is it really prudent to increase spending on things like stadiums for supposed “revenue generating” sports teams during a time of financial crisis?

This issue is on the brain of a lot of folks lately:

Here’s how William E. Kirwan, chancellor of Maryland’s university system and co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics put it:

“We see a situation where athletic expenditures are rising three or four times faster than expenditures in academic programs. That’s obviously not something that can continue. We are in an environment that certainly calls for — and I would say almost demands — change.”

He’s not the only one saying it, either. When 25 percent of college presidents say they don’t believe their funding methods for college athletics are sustainable and close to half (48 percent) say they anticipate having to cut sports, there’s a real problem. And you can be assured that more people realize there’s a problem and that the teams being cut won’t be ones you see regularly on television.

That’s where I balk at the argument that college sports = opportunities for students. With the exception very few institutions, admissions standards are lowered for athletes. So that’s not a boon to the institution. Graduation rates for student-athletes are generally abysmal in major college athletics programs. If the only thing that matters to institutions is using college sports as a marketing tool; to boost enrollment and alumni donations, that’s dandy. But the ruse that it’s the pinnacle of amateurism is folly in a world with multimillion dollar television contracts is all but over.

From the first article:

Jonathan Orszag, an economist who has evaluated for the N.C.A.A. the financial impact of moving to Division I, said that if the intangible benefits were significant enough, “you should expect some of that to be reflected in the financial data.” An increase in school spirit or heightened visibility should translate to higher application rates, for example. “And during the period that we’re studying, we didn’t observe it,” he said.

When you consider most institutions charge a fee to students for the “privilege” of these athletic teams, one has to ask where the priorities are. The arms race doesn’t end at the big schools, with their TV contracts and bowl games. The arms race trickles down to even the smallest, non-scholarship institutions where the difference between a glistening field and a dingy one can attract a student or not. Most of this building, as with the larger schools is funded by donations. But other times, it’s backed by a sort of debt that’s largely unsustainable.

Bottom line is where are we headed? Will the college athletics landscape look the same a decade from now? Everyone seems to recognize the current state of things is unsustainable, but few workable solutions seem to exist and so, the status quo reigns supreme. The only solution that most administrators seem to be considering is cutting games and sports in so-called non-revenue sports, so they can continue the pursuit of reckless abandon in the major college world.

While the tennis player in me hates that idea, perhaps that’s just what the doctor ordered. Students can make more informed choices about where to go, can transfer and continue with their studies. It’s not the end of the world for institutions to set their priorities, even if the results seem to be an indictment on the sports that don’t attract the bright lights of media.

In an ideal world, students growing up dreaming of scholarships would hone their brains the same way they practice their sports, realizing that’s their ticket to an elusive degree. If college sports is about marketing, schools need to start to employ better business savvy to their dogged pursuit of elusive athletic prominence. There’s an undeniable cache to being a Division I institution, there’s little question about this. For some, just being mentioned on Sportscenter is enough to send students and alumni into a tizzy.

Mortgaging the very academic futures of thousands of students, not to mention millions upon millions of dollars and the potential for a black eye to your institution; all for the opportunity to be pummeled routinely on the national stage, in the hopes of a singular Cinderella moment for most institutions is just folly. For every “elite” kid who seeks a chance to play at a high level, there are dozens of kids from his or her same high school who’ll never see those opportunities.

That’s maybe the world we live in, but it doesn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t make it right.