oil painting, Risk, Uncategorized

Oil Painting Canadian Geese in Times of U.S. Turmoil

When one is accustomed to watercolor painting, experimenting with oil paints is initially frustrating.  There are a lot of differences and one is that it’s a whole lot messier. There must be a method to your madness too, or the colors will quickly become muddy from careless mixing and intermingling of brushes.  I set myself up with some Gamblin oil paints, which came with a handy 6″ x 12″ wooden panel.  I used this panel as my first surface (seen below). It’s easy to see how (and why) one could spend a lifetime trying to master this. As with watercolor, however, there is a difference between somewhat heavy-handed applications of paint, and a lighter hand.  It’s all going to require a lot more experimenting…

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Illustration: “Canadian Geese on a Fountain”, Oil on 6″ x12″ panel by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

As to this image, it sprang to mind when I faced off with the blank wooden panel. While out taking a walk recently, I noticed that a nearby fountain is currently undergoing maintenance and our ubiquitous Canadian geese were resting on it in the middle of the lake.  This became my subject.  But remembering what Canadian geese look like proved harder than it should be–given that there are so many in this area that groups of them waddle through parking lots in search of food.  So I went out and looked at them again!

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Illustration:  Trying to make the Canadian geese more realistic!

A “touch up” later and the whole thing got still more complicated; (maybe this is like revising an already unacceptable healthcare bill).  When I start over next time,  I will try to stick with simple shapes, and see what happens.  Anyway, this is welcome distraction from the just-announced “healthcare” bill which, if passed, will cause immense damage to this country, apparently intentionally so!

A brief break from the easel to check the news online… and what do I see?   Video clips of U.S. Capitol Police trying to carry elderly and apparently disabled people out of the halls of the U.S. Capitol…   This is not very positive imagery for the erstwhile “leader of the free world” clearly.   Evidently these people had gathered there at considerable personal effort, in wheelchairs and on canes, to protest the secretly cobbled-together “healthcare” bill that will throw all of them out onto the street.  Here they were being picked up off the floor to be carried out to the street…how symbolic of the new government approach to people in need.  These are exactly the type of people who will be harmed the most if this bill passes, as major insurances companies warned again just today:  The proposed bill will most hurt “74 million low-income, disabled and elderly Americans whose health care coverage through Medicaid” depends on Congress’s next moves.  Right now, their obvious preferred option is to make the rich richer, and let the less fortunate fall through the widening cracks, come what may…  What kind of policy-maker thinks this way?

Ironic that Canadian geese must have determined this is a better place to live when, at least for American people (except for the famous “1 %”), it will become much more difficult in the U.S. in the years ahead. That is, unless we suddenly see an outbreak of forward-thinking readiness to consider the public good  among the people’s elected representatives–thinking that is not much in evidence, tragically.   They cannot connect the dots between the public good and national and global security, obviously.

As I turn back to the easel, I think about what I just saw:  U.S. Senators are embracing a bill that the U.S. President has described as “mean” even as he urges them to pass it without delay. It’s not making America great apparently that is the goal, but making America “mean”?  How could this sort of thinking possibly prepare this great nation for the unprecedented challenges rushing headlong at us, irrespective of our political leanings, in the years just ahead?  Clearly making sense of the news is harder than painting in oils.  I’ll stick with the task at hand…for now.

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living in truth, Risk, Uncategorized, Watercolor Painting

Mother Nature and the “Art of the Deal”

Planet

Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

This week we are supposedly going to learn if the United States will stay in the Paris Climate Agreement alongside nearly 200 other countries which, like the United States, are already parties to the deal.  By the end of this week, we may learn that the United States has decided to join the two countries, Syria and Nicaragua, on the sidelines.

It is unclear why this latter course would make sense. It makes no sense to a whole range of major multinational corporations, however, such as:

Adobe, Allianz, Apple, BP, Chevron, DuPont, eBay, Exxon Mobile, Gap, General Mills, Google, Hilton, Intel, Johnson&Johnson, Kellogg Company, L’Oreal, Microsoft, Monsanto, Nike, Royal Dutch Shell, Salesforce, Staples, Starbucks, Symantec, Tesla, Dow Chemical Company, Tiffany&Co., and Unilever.

It makes good economic sense, it turns out, to embrace reality.  Who knew?  (That reality is something which, to be fair, has been ignored for a long time, in the sense that civilization itself depends on a stable climate and healthy ecosystems.)

Just last month, the planet’s atmosphere breached the 410 ppm (parts per million) threshold for carbon dioxide concentration, a height not reached in millions of years. This means our atmosphere is trapping more heat and accelerating changes in our climate.  Scientists say we’re on track to create a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century.*

So it’s hard to see what kind of “deal” would be worth taking that kind of risk.  In fact, Mother Nature doesn’t care a whit about the “art of the deal” and she has the upper hand for sure.

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Innovation, living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, Watercolor Painting

Scams, Shams, and (Body) Slams

While preparing for a presentation (and a little book stemming from it), and doing some color studies for sketches to accompany them, the news has continued to be very distracting as it is presumably for everyone. In the last 24 hours alone, from a journalist sent crashing to the floor allegedly “body slammed” by a person aspiring to elected office (or is he already in office?)–to confirmation from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that the health of our nation is going to take a huge body blow if the latest health care plan is passed–to disconcerting news about NATO (also “body slammed?”), it is tough to keep one’s eyes on the task at hand.  But perhaps the combination of these colliding impressions is good for something after all…

In sorting through older material, I came across the famous “boiling frog”–a metaphor, of course, for not noticing when there are gradual changes in your surroundings, until it is too late.  According to the metaphor, a frog in a pot of slowly heating water will not react quickly enough to save himself and will eventually die.  (This is literally not true; the frog will jump out if he can, apparently.  I myself have not tested it, but I respect scientists and experts and they have).

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This is a week too in which we have heard the word “suborn” used in open testimony. It’s a useful word.  It seems related to another one rarely heard:  “inure”, which the dictionary defines as “becoming accustomed to something, especially something unpleasant.”  (Perhaps this is a good time to recommend a currently best-selling new little book, available on Amazon for less than $6:  On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale.)

With so much coming at us almost hourly, it sometimes seems like the fate of the world is being decided right now.

WhereDoWeGoFromHere?

Illustration: Color study, Watercolor, acrylic and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

People are tired of being distracted by it but the most conscientious know that too much is at stake to turn away. Much as we might like to, we can’t tune out what is going on because it’s unfortunately true– the fate of the world is being decided right now.  And if we tune out, we will surely not be as fortunate as the sensitive frog who manages to escape the dangers of his warming world.

So, we must not become inured to the bruising pace of the news cycle.  It seems to me essential to find ways collectively to both deal with every incoming distraction and yet look beyond it to make sense in time of where we are going and might wish to go instead.

Momentous times indeed, but I have faith we will prove to be at least as smart as  frogs.  So back to the drawing board…

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Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

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Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

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Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

The Path Ahead

Unseasonably warm weather and bright light this weekend added to the joys of walking through the fall colors wherever we were.  People strolled in the streets everywhere including in this neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where the scene (below) in the private garden attached to a historic mansion demanded to be painted.

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Illustration: Watercolor and gouache, “The Path Ahead,” on Fluid Cold Press 4″ x 6″ watercolor paper by the Black Elephant Blog author

At every turn in this colonial-era town not far from Washington, D.C., it was impossible to ignore the symbols of our rich history as a still great, if troubled, nation. And it was impossible to forget that this very week,  we will be facing a most consequential election .

And yet, when literally everything is on the ballot, the path ahead  couldn’t be more clear.  As one young voter wrote in an opinion piece today, this moment “can be a moment of all those who  hope for a better future, who believe in American leadership and who know that our best days are still ahead.”  Clearly, current and future generations here and abroad depend on us to engage constructively, and not cynically, with this moment, and thereafter to engage similarly with the process of governing.  There is no other path ahead.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

“Creativity, Inc.”, Innovation, and an “Energy Miracle”

At last, we are underway with our classes at the university, with the onset of a “Spring” semester which, delayed by some wintry weather, has so far not felt very spring-like.  With inclement weather, though, it’s been easier to get some work done on projects related to what we are covering in class, and a chance to compose a blog post on some of this. Hence, this post is a bit less about sketching present every-day scenes and more about designing alternative frameworks for the future.  (The eventual goal is to combine both in an accessible format for different audiences.)

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink study for "Waiting for Spring" by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink study for “Waiting for Spring” by Black Elephant Blog author

We have moved rapidly through diverse science and security-related issues and zoomed across the land masses of the planet to understand different climatic zones, the extent of challenges to arable land, and how incidents or policy changes at a local or national level–even on the other side of the world– can have global impacts. Not yet a month into the semester, therefore, we are confronting the realization that past experience will no longer be a reliable guide to managing many looming challenges, including the necessary transition to no-carbon and low-cost sources of energy.  Innovation thus is inescapably urgent.

None other than Bill Gates, who describes himself as an “impatient optimist,” admits that “time is not on our side” when it comes to globally applicable means of reducing carbon emissions to zero.  He puts his hopes on a “miracle” in energy R& D even as it’s plain to see investment in energy research by developed nations remains far below that in other areas.  (Gates says that the scale of innovation needed requires government investment as it involves risks that the private sector is poorly equipped to assume.) Conventional approaches to problem-solving in this area simply will not work.

energy research OECD

Illustration:  OECD chart

Already in our class there is focus on the social,  institutional, and cross-boundary aspects, as well as cognitive and psychological facets, of the problem. (It seems that, even this early in the semester, we are beginning to hear more readily the overly specialized or “silo’ed” limitations in the thinking on offer at some conference panels around town.) What does it take to harness innovative ingenuity on a global scale?  What can we learn from those who have studied processes of innovation and creativity?  Where do these subjects enter most conversations and efforts about transitioning rapidly to a low-carbon, or no-carbon, energy system?  While proposals on the global “table”, as it were, have merit, how to ensure that the collective “we” is not “betting the farm” on a strategy that will not pay-off?  Whose responsibility is it to even consider these things?  (Such are the issues we are dealing with in the classroom.)

Innovative approaches to solving complex problems, including developing the “energy miracle” Bill Gates has called for, require more than technological investment and novel financial arrangements.  They require organizations to invest in developing and sustaining creativity and strategic thinking in the workplace.  But who knows how to do this?  And have we any idea on how to be creatively collaborative across myriad institutions?  It seems that much of the material published on these topics is aimed at managers or, less often, educators.  But that may be too late for most people.  The concepts  involved must be introduced earlier in people’s careers so they have time to evaluate and internalize them with their peers. Thus such material is worked into our course at the graduate school level where students typically already have a few years of professional work experience. Understanding the obstacles to innovation–and its “fuel,” creativity–is fundamental to making progress on the complex problems, (especially “super-wicked” problems s0-called because they require the engagement of society as a whole), of today.

In many workplaces, however, the efforts of talented people are typically stifled in “myriad unseen ways,” according to Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation in his book, Creativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,  (Random House, 2014).  Despite constant emphasis (belatedly in many cases) these days on the need for innovation (and creativity, and disruptive breakthroughs), rarely is any thought given to how such creative work is nurtured, evaluated and sustained…to say the least.  So it seems timely to take a few notes from the book, Creativity, Inc., to see how these issues are dealt with in an industry (producer of the films, “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Ratatouille,” among others) that most everyone assumes exemplifies the best of creative workplaces.

Catmull credits his experience as a graduate student at the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D in 1974,  with introducing him to the importance of leaders who understand how “to create a fertile laboratory.”  Much of the research in the university’s computer science department was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (now known as DARPA).  The university laboratory leaders understood “they had to assemble different kinds of thinkers and then encourage their autonomy.” Catmull writes that the most valuable thing he gained from the university “was the model my teachers provided for how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers.”  One of the lessons from ARPA that stayed with Catmull was:  “When faced with a challenge, get smarter.”  He thus knew that, in order to “attract the sharpest minds,” he needed to put his own insecurities away.  When starting out as the lab director at the New York Institute of Technology while still in his 20s, therefore, one of his first hires was someone who seemed to Catmull more qualified to lead the lab than he was.

Catmull’s book is the story of his journey in learning to sustain a creative work environment.  Nearly every page contains a memorable lesson applicable in other fields, such as:  “Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.”  The challenge for him and his colleagues in the mid-1970s was to solve technical problems involved in applying computer animation to the film industry.  There were a few companies working on these problems and most, Catmull writes, “embraced a culture of strictly enforced, even CIA-like, secrecy.”  By contrast, Catmull and his colleagues decided to share their work with the outside world instead; his view was that “we were all so far from achieving our goal that to hoard ideas only impeded our ability to get to the finish line. [emphasis added]”   (Might this view be relevant as well to the energy challenge mentioned at the start of this post?)  Catmull notes that the “benefit of this transparency was not immediately felt” but that the “relations and connections we formed, over time, proved far more valuable than we could have imagined, fueling our technical innovation and our understanding of creativity in general.”

As his project teams grew, Catmull had to move his organization from a flat team-like structure to more of a hierarchical approach.  He realized that his team at the New York Institute of Technology actually functioned more “like a collection of grad students–independent thinkers with individual projects–rather than a team with a common goal.”  Catmull describes the influence of “Starwars” and George Lucas on the field of computer animation, and traces the trajectory of his own career, and long partnership with Steve Jobs, through the lessons he learned along the way.

To give some sense of these lessons and their broad applicability, here are a few from the book:

  1. “There is nothing quite like ignorance combined with a driving need to succeed to force rapid learning.”
  2. Books with advice like “Dare to fail” divert people from addressing “the far harder problem: deciding what they should be focusing on.”
  3. “Being on the lookout for problems…was not the same as seeing problems.”…”The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.”
  4. “Originality is fragile.”
  5. “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”
  6. “Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture…was a day-in-day-out, full-time job.”
  7. “Ideas come from people.  Therefore, people are more important than ideas.”
  8. “The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.”
  9. “…without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust.  And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”
  10. “The key is to look at the viewpoints being offered, in any successful feedback group, as additive, not competitive.
  11.  “By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new.  The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
  12. “The pressure to create–and quickly!–happens at many companies…and its unintended effect is always the same: It lessens quality across the board.”
  13. “When we put setbacks into two buckets–the “business-as-usual” bucket and the “holy cow” bucket–and use a different mindset for each, we are signing up for trouble.”
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Illustration: Watercolor wash and pen-and-ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dealing with “The Hidden”  Catmull’s book is exceptional for its sophisticated treatment of many tough management issues that arise in virtually any field, including learning to see “hidden” issues in the corporation and, just as important, realizing that just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they do not exist.  He says that one of his core management beliefs is “If you don’t try to cover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill-prepared to lead.” He also emphasizes that our ignorance about randomness affects our ability to face the unknown.  Catmull writes, for instance:

“We are quite adept at working with repeatable events and at understanding bell-shaped variance…[But] how can we think clearly about unexpected events that are lurking out there that don’t fit any of our existing models?  Catmull notes that there is a “human tendency to treat big events fundamentally different from smaller ones.”   This sets us up for failure, he explains, because we fail to realize that some of the small problems have long-term consequences and are, therefore, “big problems in the making.”

In another excellent section, “Learning to See,” Catmull describes how he hired an art teacher to come in to the organization to teach everyone “how to heighten our powers of observation.”   People who draw better than the rest of us, he says, “are setting aside their preconceptions” and everyone can learn to do that.  His point is that there are ways of learning to overcome biases while considering a problem.

In Sum:  It is easy to forget that the lessons in this book are derived from managing computer graphics and animation laboratories and not from the daily occurrences in organizations closer to one’s own experience.  It is thus relevant for people trying to move their organizations into a mode that makes the most of the talent within, and without (!)–or outside–, them. Understanding the forces that block our inspiration and effective creative collaboration both inside and beyond our organizations today  is key to moving forward on the many formidable challenges (some of them metaphorical“black elephants” ) facing the globe. (This is why, earlier on this blog–such as here and here and here— there has been a focus on the work of various experts regarding the barriers we face to even thinking effectively about these problems.)  Facing as many unconventional and complex challenges as we do today, it’s safe to say there are not enough books like this one and, for many people, not enough time to read and absorb them.  Some of the needed changes might not be “news-worthy” but still hugely impactful: Learning to draw, counterintuitively, may be part of the solution at the societal level, to inculcate ways, per Catmull, to overcome our ingrained biases and to sidestep cross-cultural barriers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Innovation, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Driving Innovation on the Fuel of Creativity

When Bill Gates says, as he did recently, that we must “drive innovation at an unnaturally high pace” to transition to a globally-applicable non-carbon source of energy in time (to save the planet), it raises the question (or ought to) of what’s involved in doing that?  If creativity is the “fuel” of innovation, how does one go about gaining and sustaining that fuel source?  Do we wait, in a comfortable sunny spot, for inspiration to hit us?

Zoo sketch 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, graphite and bistre ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Sometimes we think of creativity as something that occurs to us when we are relaxed, doing something routine like driving through a toll booth or even–or most likely–when we are doing nothing at all…  Is that what we must accelerate?  Or are there more reliable means of spurring and sustaining innovation (and creativity) ?  There have been a number of books on this subject, including on the need for “entrepreneurial states,” but in fact there’s been little noticeable tie-in of this material to the renewable energy challenge Gates and others are highlighting.

With the onset of a new university semester (as soon as suitable paths to class are plowed through the snow) looking at some of these issues, and investigating what it means to be innovative, or creative, in the workplace, this blog soon will turn to the experience of Pixar Studios as related by its co-founder, Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc.:  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York, Random House, 2014).  Some of what he has to say may surprise you but all of it is relevant to all of us when tied to prospecting for pathways to a sustainable energy future.  How to sustain a creative work environment is the challenge, and the theme, of this book–to be highlighted here soon.  Given that the author is from Pixar Studios, it comes as no surprise, but still is surprisingly fascinating, to see that he has a lot to say about art, sketching, paying attention, and hand-drawn approaches to animation.  Coming up next…

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