It's lovely to have this as the first thing to share on a new web site!
A couple months ago I was interviewed by Reece Baker as part of a series called The Stories We Tell. Many thanks to Reece for such a beautiful job and thank you to everyone who has seen it and commented.
It's lovely to have this as the first thing to share on a new web site!
People are talking about building tiny houses and cabins out of containers a lot recently. I built a cabin from a shipping container in 2012 to use as my primary (tiny) home. I only got it to fairly basic standards (basically an insulated box with two sets of doors) before the community I was living in collapsed and I moved out and sold it.
I’ve written my thoughts up for a couple of friends but have been meaning to do a better write up for ages. Here are the basic lessons I learned:
Overall I wouldn’t do it again unless for some reason I needed something fastand wanted to be able to sell it off fairly easily later. The research I did on toxicity didn’t leave me feeling comfortable, but I may be precious.
If I was going to build something like this again I would do it differently:
My analysis is that containers fall in the worst gaps of all of those. They aren’t particularly cheap, they aren’t particularly easy or cheap to move and they are potentially toxic.
One awesome thing you can do with containers is cantilever them. I have two designs that I’d love to build that would be super easy with containers … but over all I think it will be better to do it another way.
Two people walked. A couple. The woman went ahead. Down to the water, and back up the beach. Many times she went, back and forth. With her, two dogs. One small, one larger. The dogs constantly running, yet always coming back. Jumping up, then sprinting away. The man walked carefully. Slowing periodically. Scuffing the ground, kicking a rock. The whole way he kept slowing to kick a rock.
Today I kicked a rock about a kilometre down the beach. My rules were simple. It had to be the same rock and I had to always go forward. It's funny what you can learn kicking a rock down the beach. The pattern a tumbling rock makes in the sand. How much to scrunch my toes. What my rock looked like from every angle. To recognise my rock in the middle of hundreds of other similar rocks. Even the time I took my eye off the rock as it tumbled across the scree. How often it ended in seemingly improbable positions. Hanging from an invisible string.
These rules allow only two sensible strategies. Kick carefully or decide you don't care that the games ends. How many times did I kick the rock? Dozens. Hundreds? Each time I was able to make sure that it was carried forward far enough to kick again. It's a simple thing to kick a rock, but isn't everything simple?
I wasn't surprised that the rock changed. I was more surprised that I changed. Kicking a rock, thinking about care. About this world. About me. About the power of decisions. It's not hard to take care. To be careful. To carry something forward. To make sure something isn't left behind.
“All I want in a relationship is for my partner to be able to tell me what she needs, and for it to be okay for me to say no sometimes.”
She looked at me. Like I’d just asked if she’d heard about the guy who was going to swim to the moon. “That’s all?”
“Well,” I said, “I also want to be able to ask for what I need, and know that she is able to say no.”
When did this become such a strange idea? That it is reasonable to expect each of us to ask for what we need. That we are able to respond honestly to any such request.
Asking for what we need might feel scary, embarrassing or selfish. Being asked to do something for someone can make us resentful, worried or anxious. Yet helping others is also a source of joy and can deepen our connection with the people around us.
Saying yes might mean weighing our needs for space or freedom against our desire to show affection or provide safety. Saying no may also involve weighing needs but also requires the courage to risk their frustration or pain. Hearing yes means trusting that the other person is agreeing to help us out of pleasure rather than fear. Hearing no requires the willingness to try and understand their needs and to explore alternatives.
All of which equals my sisters droll “is that all?”
Yet I can’t escape the sense that we’ve taken something simple and made it complicated. We all have the same needs; belonging, safety, joy, growth, beauty. Through our actions, however fumbling, each of us are each trying to find ways to meet those needs.
As we learn to look inward and see clearly what we need. As we gain skill with both speaking and hearing no. As we learn to trust the other people in our lives. As we gain confidence in our sense of self. We begin to come alive in each passing moment.
Laid out in front of me I see a path. A way that I hope will lead to a life of deeper and richer relationships. The beauty of this journey is that I don’t have to be skilled to begin. Each fumbling attempt carries me forward.
The difference between praise and feedback is that feedback is useful
Growing up in the Open Source world where the only currency is acknowledgement, I learned to be generous. It doesn’t cost anything to add an extra line to the credits, to thank the person who helped a little, as well as the person who helped a lot. Transitioning to more corporate environments I tried to keep this ethos alive. There wasn’t a README to credit people but at least I could make sure I cited where ideas came from in meetings and email. As a manager I tried to be consistent and public with my appreciation.
Over time I started to notice a pattern. Whenever I made a special point of praising somebody, they began to falter. They slowly stopped making the extra effort. Initially I wrote this off to the fact that nobody can go the extra mile all the time. But the pattern persisted and I started to wonder if correlation was pointing to causation. So I decided to experiment and starting offering praise as rarely as basic civility would allow. To my horror it appeared to work. As I praised less, people seemed to work more effectively.
I had no idea what to make of this. I worried that my silence was making people insecure. That I was creating a toxic environment. I worried that the reason they were working harder was because they were stressed. I worried that I was being a “bad manager” or worse a “bad person”.
Skip several years, I’d quit my job and gone travelling. One of my goals for my trip was to blog a story each week. I expected my stories to be throughly ignored, my only hope was that the practice would improve my writing skills. To my surprise my friends responded to my writing, and as they expressed their appreciation, I became paralysed. Instead of writing for myself, I felt an obligation to write something “good”. I felt that each piece had to live up to the one before it. Slowly the joy I’d felt in writing my first few stories began to fade away. I didn’t stop writing but I stopped finishing things. I could never get it right, I could never live up to that last piece of writing which everybody had liked so much.
Skip several years, I’m reading “Winning” by Jack Welch. It’s an interesting book though his cultural assumptions are very different than mine. As I’m reading the chapter about performance reviews something clicks. I realise that in my entire career not a single boss has ever given me useful feedback on my work as manager. I realise the hunger in me that something like his review strategy would answer in me. In a flurry of enthusiasm I use his system to review myself and then use it to review all of the managers I’ve ever worked with. It seems to work.
Praise is fundamentally evaluative of the person, “good job!” or “wow, you are amazing.” It doesn’t explain, it judges, and judgement is always threatening. Implied in judgement is that this person has the right to judge you. That their opinion has the power to shape your life. That they might not always judge so kindly.
Feedback is evaluative of the work. “This piece of software will allow us to save $1,000 a month.” “The client thought the email you sent was rude and cancelled his account.” Feedback is vital. It allows us to see our work in a broader context. It allows us to identify our weaknesses and strengths. It allows us to develop our skills and learn how best to participate within a team. Without feedback we are blind and learning is made much more difficult. Worse we run the risk of learning the wrong things.
As managers we often do this exactly wrong. We give lots of praise (and some criticism) but rarely do we provide non-judgemental and objective feedback from which people can learn. Most of us want to do our job well, and to do it well what we need is information. We need other peoples perspectives and other peoples experience. As managers we need to learn to speak this language and then create a culture of feedback teaching the people we work with how to speak this language.
 I’m still exploring these ideas but at this stage I think it’s important to seperate the concept of praise from courtesy. At least in western cultures it is important to say “please” and “thank you”.
On Sunday I went to see “Searching for Sugar Man”. It’s a really lovely documentary about an almost unheard of American folk singer called Sixto Rodriguez. In the early 70’s his producers thought they had discovered the next Dylan. He created two albums but they both tanked and he quickly faded into obscurity. Except, through quirk of fate, in South Africa.
In South Africa he became “bigger than the Rolling Stones and more popular than Elvis”. His songs became a catalyst for the young, white, middle-class anti-apartheid movement. His songs helped these kids realise that they didn’t have to conform to what their society expected of them and opened them to another way of thinking about their participation in their culture.
The effect of his songs on an entire generation made me think about my own personal experience. I can think of several such moments in my life where a song changed the way I thought or felt about the world in some profound way. I can think of many times when reading has provoked this sort of shift in my world view and even more of these moments have occurred during conversations with friends or strangers.
Which brings me to my point. I can’t think of a single instance in my life where a movie has provoked this kind of response. I’ve come out of movies on emotional highs and emotional lows, I’ve left documentaries inspired and horrified. I’ve learned, and vicariously experienced, a huge amount from movies, documentaries and television but I can’t think of a single instance where they have radically shifted my view of the world.
It’s always dangerous to generalise from personal experience, but for the sake of discussion, I’m going to anyway. Here’s a theory:
The combination of deep sensorial engagement and dictated time frame which movies provide is actually antithetical to the meta-processing required for these world shifting moments to occur.
I think of knowledge as a spider web of connections between islands of information. For me these moments come when I suddenly discover a new connection between pieces of information which I thought I already understood. Last night a friend referred to these moments as “ideas having sex”. These new connections provide a fresh perspective and allow us to review and reshape what we already know. In that moment our existing knowledge suddenly has new meaning.
There are two things which are relatively unique about the story telling which happens in movies. The first is that movies engage our senses more then any other medium. Modern movies are designed to provide an incredibly rich experience for our visual and auditory senses. Processing this sensorial data uses quite a lot of our mental capacity. Secondly, movies move at the directors pace, not ours. It is sometimes possible to pause a movie to consider something, but this isn’t how we typically view them. In combination this means that when we are watching movies we have less mental capacity available to make new connections, and if we do make a new connection, it’s difficult to escape the story for long enough to process any new ideas which result.
I believe that the best stories provide more then pure entertainment. The best stories pose scenarios and questions which challenge our assumptions and provoke our sensibilities. Movies offer increasingly immersive experiences and plots and editing styles are increasingly frenetic. Assuming that this dual purpose of entertainment and provocation is desired, are modern movie techniques actually making the job harder? Are we actually limiting our ability to engage with the inner voice of our audience?
Going even farther out on a limb here. I believe that stories are one of the most powerful tools we have to affect culture change. I also believe that the world is in precarious position at the moment and that culture change is going to be required to affect any meaningful and timely change. What do we as story tellers have to do to convey our messages? Do we abandon movies as a medium for political and cultural story telling? Or are there ways to use movies and preserve the meta-processing required for people to assimilate information?
It started with a recommendation from my Dad to read "The Snow Leopard" around mid-2009. From there I found a neglected copy of "The Great Gatsby" loitering on my bookshelves and then discovered "Diary of a Drug Fiend" in a secondhand bookstore. Continuing in this vein, and fuelled by childhood memories of Bill Murray, I tracked down "The Razor's Edge".
Reading these books from nearly a hundred years ago, it startled me how little many things had changed. That despite the sea of change in which we are currently immersed, "people … are still people". This dovetails nicely with one my primary experiences in Asia over the last year, that despite significant language and cultural differences, people are still people. It's a great lesson that neither time or space is powerful enough to change us, in essence we are all the same.
Digressions aside, one of the things I love about these classic novels is the almost breathless way in which characters are often introduced. Here's an example from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby":
His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God... and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
and from W. Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge":
He was a colossal snob. He was a snob without shame. He would put up with any affront, he would ignore any rebuff, he would swallow any rudeness to get asked to a party he wanted to go to or to make a connection with some crusty old dowager of great name. If I have given the reader an impression that Elliot Templeton was a despicable character I have done him injustice. He was for one thing what the French call serviable...helpful, obliging, and kind. He was generous, and though early in his career he had doubtless showered flowers, candy, and presents on his acquaintances from an ulterior motive, he continued to do so when it was no longer necessary.
This gave me an idea for a writing exercise. Using my friends as inspiration I will try and craft my own versions of these introductions. I don't have the courage to name them, hopefully nobody recognises themselves, and if they do, hopefully they won't be offended by my caricature!