Something

I’ve Been Busy…

I’ve been busy. I know, I know, it’s something we hear from most folks. And busy rarely equates with “productive” or—what I’ve learned to matter more—”purposeful.” But I’ve been busy. A lot of it productive, a good chunk of it purposeful.

Hence not writing in a while. Sure, I’ve THOUGHT a lot about writing, The trouble is, I had a hard time committing to putting something down. Typing or writing out the words made it “real” and if it were real, it was vulnerable to criticsim. And to quote George McFly, “I don’t know if I can take that kind of rejection.”

Which, as I am sure you are well aware dear reader, is absolutely silly. I read a quote from Matt Fraction recently (of the esteemed Hawkeye series—I don’t care if you think comics are for luddites or not, read it) in response to someone asking him about his process of sitting down to write. He said something along the lines of writing as a physical act. We assume it’s some ethereal thing, but in reality, it requires physical effort. He then asks us to pick up a pencil (or open Byword on your Macbook) and then write “Something.” “Something” what?

” i don’t understand the feeling of, the way people speak of writing as though it were, like, some kind of djinn to be summoned or like it’s the loch ness monster or seeing a shooting star. it’s a physical act. it is a thing you do with your muscles and your body and your willpower. watch, i’ll show you: get a piece of paper. get a pencil. put the pencil on the paper and write the word “something” there. you did it. you wrote. you wrote ‘something.’ now put a word after something. Something what? Something… happened? creaked? died? flew? exploded? snapped? Tell me. With your hand, with the hand holding the pencil or pen or marker or crayon, it doesn’t matter, push your fingers and hand up and back and across and back until there is another word after “something”.

There. Now you’re writing a story.”

— Matt Fraction

This is my something. Something I’ve been working hard at, getting a lot of ducks lined up for 2014 and beyond.

2013

2013 was a great year of change. Turning 30. Balancing out work and life. Changing careers to focus more on social services. Applying my interests in creative direction, storytelling and culture into servicing the social sector. Confidence. Exploring my values and behavior. It’s all in-progress. And for once, in-progress feels good. Not procrastination, but knowing these projects, even upon completion, are an in-progress iteration toward learning more, doing better, exploring, staying curious, being open.

It’s all been for the better. And as a part of that, I decided that it was also time for me to fear less, do better, share more. The doing part I’ve done, but I was never comfortable with sharing it. A part of that is the fear I was talking about. The fear of having your work ridiculed or dismissed. Of being called a hack or irrelevant. Of being an amateur.

Pressure Testing

It’s the age of information. And once we put something out there, it’s out there. That’s a lot of damn pressure. But you know what? If it’s not out there, no one gets to know about it either. And if no one knows about it, I won’t get feedback, I won’t get pressure tested. And if there’s anything that I’ve learned about myself it’s that life requires some pressure testing. Here’s to improving.

And so, I’m looking forward to posting up some of the work I’ve wrought into being from the past year, using this blog-space to explore some of my loftier speculations on life and wonder. It’s a place for process. To showcase how I think through my designs, to display some of the polished work I’ve executed. It’s a place for me to be accountable. To share ideas and share how they’re developing. A place to communicate to those interested in knowing how my mind works or what I’ve been up to. A place for my written word to do, you know, what humans do: relate.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from this past year, it’s that you can do anything you want. But you can’t do everything. And with that lesson, I’m going to tell you of some of the things I have done and some of the things I will do. Because life is short, and if we’re unable to do everything, let’s pick and choose what’s worth doing.

So join me. Choose. Commit. And let’s do something.

The Art Requires the Whole Man

My reflections on the factors behind my quest for success and the start towards the reconciliation of such a burden.


As originally published via The Good Men Project


“Ars totum requirit hominem.”

I write those words in every sketchbook I start. The phrase is in reference to the obsolete tradition of alchemy. It speaks of the requirements between Art (work/discipline/endeavor) and man, of their irrevocable tie to one another to create something of value, to be someone of worth and that this creation would require the sum of his being. This resonated with me.

The Magnum Opus, the Great Work it was called.


I remember the moment of my resolution in creating a life’s work, something the family generations preceding me could be proud of. It was a 10pm third-grade evening umpteen years ago, eyes blurry with tears and a yellow No.2 pencil in my hand. I was sitting at the kitchen table, legs dangling over pea-colored tiled flooring, so tired, so tired, with an angry mother over my shoulder.

The moment produced a combination of senses mingled in shame and anger, of guilt and damaged pride. I trembled shaky cursive across a sheet of loose-leaf, my pencil scribing words I no longer recall. Why was I so stupid as to have misspelled these words on last week’s quiz? Why was I so careless?

My mother was still angry, disappointed at how I could let something like this happen. Wasn’t I concerned with my future? Didn’t I want to become something? Didn’t I understand the hard work she was doing in order for me to have a meaningful life? Couldn’t I spend a little effort getting some silly words spelled correctly?


Looking back I can empathize with her situation. She felt alone in a new world that never grew quite familiar. She worked long hours in midst of mental exhaustion induced by her relationship with my father. Her worries about making the next round of bills permeated our home. She was loving, but easy to frustrate, always a step away from irritability. And she was so fearful of my ever living the life she had to endure. And so that was the culture of our home—failure was not an option.

I no longer remember what those misspelled words were, but those errors and that evening still swirl in my head. They conjure intertwined feelings of a son’s duty, a first-born’s responsibility to make something of himself, to honor the sacrifices of a (pretty much) single mother. I can’t remember a time when the stakes weren’t so pertinent. My godparents frequently reminded me that I was destined for great things. That the hardships my mother inherited were never in vain; they were for me, the fruits of labor borne through me. I can’t remember a time when no bar of some expectation was just out of reach, a time when I didn’t feel I had to dig myself out of whatever it was that I was told I needed to get out of in the first place.

The sense of guilt was worse. A year ago, overwhelmed, distraught and floundering between maintaining a day job, creating a startup, teaching, contributing to a collective art project, and stumbling over a relationship, I called my mother. I was always anxious to call her as she never had anyone to exasperate her problems with—for as long as I could remember, I was that person. But this night, I needed to ask for some advice of my own. I shared my feelings of inadequacy, of the relentless sensations of pursuing some grandeur I couldn’t see, and of the crushing fear of failure that seemed to always loom above me.

“I feel tired all the time. I wake up anxious, not looking forward to the day, not driven to really excel. I feel depressed I think,” I said over the phone.

“You think I’m not tired? I am anxious and depressed all the time.”

“I know,” I say. Not really knowing how to respond I continued with, “Mom, you’re getting old, please stop working overtime. Besides, don’t you ever get bored?”

“How can you be bored when you have a purpose?” she responded.

The matter-of-factness took me back. It startled me, even shocked me, because I knew she truly believed it. My mother started working in the States since she landed here from Vietnam. She met her sponsor family at age 18, working, working… she still works every hour she can get her hands on. She’s come a long way since she’s hit these shores, but it was never easy.

“I get tired. But then I remember. The tiredness goes away when you have vision.”

She doesn’t see her working days ending anytime soon and still, she works hard. Because dammit there’s just no other option. This is life.

Right?


I was the son of immigrants. Of foreigners. First male of a generation across two family names. First collegiate graduate. First born into joys of Western comfort. And so, it wasn’t just a blessing: it was duty. The question of success was never a question. It just was. I just had to be.

But duty is never that easy, is it? How does one explain that sense of burden? I was expected to appreciate it as privilege: male privilege, Western privilege bestowed on the son of runaways. But all I felt was a relentless weight that drove itself into knots. The guilt of laxing through a study session or calling sick out of work. The shame of feeling that life was sometimes difficult.

The strength and stoicism this required. All feigned, I knew wasn’t allowed those feelings. I wasn’t supposed to have weakness let alone express it. I was a man, product of trials greater than mine. Where was my Magnum Opus? When would I build my noble house? Where was the meaning in my work? What was I working for? When would I stop feeling so utterly inadequate?

As I threw myself into my work, I ignored my relationships. I ignored former hobbies and passions. My myopic sense of perfection’s pursuit, of finding that ingredient that would turn my perceived leadened-self into gold drove me onward. The equation made sense: anything could be attained through diligence and discipline.

If I just worked hard enough I could be closer to perfection. The closer I was to perfection the closer I would be to love. With success, with security, with accomplishment, if I achieved the unachievable I would earn respect. If I devoted myself to the impossible, I would never feel sorrow again. I was set on making an impact on the world, because that is what it would take for me to accept myself.

Of course, these were all delusions. And it took years of missteps and losses to really take a look at what was important.


“And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy, “Three Methods Of Reform: Pamphlets”

Not too long ago I reached a point of diminishing returns, of exhausting myself and ruining some relationships. The jolt I received from this took on other forms of self-doubt. How could I have been so selfish as to think only about me? How could I be so concerned with making something of myself that I sacrificed all that I already had around me?

It was around this time that I met with a mentor of mine, a former college professor. We occasionally corresponded over the last several years and decided it was due time to meet for lunch. We discussed our endeavors, reacquainting one another with our projects, of life and of what we had accomplished and what we were looking to accomplish. I mentioned to him my shift in careers focusing on the social service sector as a reaction to my self-involved pursuits. I told him of my ambitions with a variety of projects, of wanting to better the world in some way. That, was of course, the meaning I’d been searching. But where was the key? Where was my Philosopher’s Stone to make such a goal happen?

“You know Phil, it also comes with age. You reach a point and you realize that your life is the good work. Living your life is the project. I wake up in the morning wanting to be a good person doing good things. That is my project.”

And it was at this point that I finally took a look at what was important to me, of all the good I already had in life. Perhaps the ingenuity of the Magnum Opus wasn’t in its ability to provide an answer at all. Perhaps its significance was in its impossibility. It made one search and search and in the end notice patterns. In that searching, certain models succeeded while others did not. It was the awareness of these patterns and the fortitude to hone them that provided us with the chemistry and physics of today.

And so, while there was no direct elixir of life and no transmutation, perhaps the process of learning from that journey was the answer itself. The failures and the successes. The joy and the suffering.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Elliot

My circumstances dictated that I wanted to have a “good” life. A life provided for. A life in which I wasn’t only happy, but a life full of meaning and worth. And perhaps with all my angst and all my insecurity I failed to notice the successes that were happening right now. Sure there were varying degrees of struggle, small bouts of suffering, but for all of my fears and pressures of success, I was succeeding.

I am achieving what is needed. I am what I need to be right now. I am all right. I am the art that requires the whole man. The art and the man are one and the same.


  1. Republished from http://goodmenproject.com/business-ethics-2/the-art-requires-the-whole-man/#2YQ32MsIZU3lKesd.99
  2. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/03/Alchemical_Laboratory_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14218.jpg

Formations

On teamwork and individualism


Shield to Shield

While working today’s social hour, I flipped through a few pages of a book entitled “A Study of History” by Arnold J. Toynbee. It was here that I came upon a part in particular speaking of the evolution of the Spartan phalanx. 1

A phalanx is a general term for military infantry formation. The popular construction of the word describes a military arrangement of tightly packed soldiers armed with spears and interlocking shields. The shield of your colleague’s protected your exposed right side and your shield in turn protected your fellow teammate’s right side. The dense nature of the arrangement provided a compact defensive structure within an offensive mobile force. The Spartans in particular were able to maintain flexibility in this arrangement due to their single-handed dory spears (as opposed to the Macedonian double handed spears) and their short iron xiphos swords, thusly able to function as a single unit while maintaining some autotomy of the individual.

“One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all.” 2

While Tonybee chronicles the evolution of the basic phalanx into more sophisticated military formations, the modern analogy here is less to the lasting integrity of these specific strategies in an ever evolving battlefield and more on the fundamental component of their value: that each individual member is an integral component to the overall integrity of the unit.

Collaboration today is similar. A part of the usefulness in collaboration is the trust in your team and the ability to defer to their various disciplines of expertise . Relinquishing control doesn’t mean catering to your team’s whims, but rather placing trust in why you have a team in the first place. Each member has his and her strong attributes, each is capable of catching any holes you or any other member may make, and each reinforces the movement forward through tightly formed strategy. Like the phalanx.

Transcend Yourself.

There is strength in vigorous individuality. The composite of the whole is completely dependent upon the constitution of each individual member. And this is where disruption, the positive kind, can come into play, where diverse individuals challenge one another to provoke invigorating new solutions. This is the crucial spice in the recipe of innovative culture.

It can take a single idea to spark action, but it takes action to keep that spark burning. IDEO’s one tenant for Human Centered Design is to compose a team of varying abilities and disciplines.3 This diversity creates a breadth and depth of experience, but provides lateral thinking that enables the connection of a variety of dots—dots which likely may not exist without a particular member in the fold. Consider a melting pot of the strongest points of culture, perspective and skillset—this is innovative teamwork, when one’s individual value reinforces something greater than himself. When one can, for the moment, put his own individualism aside for the common strength of a greater goal.

“The most effective moral communities – from a well-being perspective – are those that offer occasional experiences in which self-consciousness is greatly reduced and one feels merged with or part of something greater than the self.”4

Our relentless individualism shades the fact that everything we do affects our society, the people around us, the people in our lives. Strengthen oneself to strengthen those around us. That’s why many of us got into the fields we got into in the first place; to make the world a better, more interesting place. And I believe that if we, from time to time, realize that our individualism is stronger when applied to the benefit of the formation, of the goal, of the pursuit, of the good for our constituents, that we can very rarely go wrong.


1. A Study of History, Volume V, The Disentigrations of Civilization; Arnold J. Toynbee
2. Herodotus vii (trans. G. Rawlinson)
3. HCD Tool Kit; IDEO.org
4. “Hive Psychology, Happiness & Public Policy“; J. Haidt, P. Seder & S. Kesebir (as quoted from Why Teams Make Us Happy; Scott Belsky)