living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

September 11 Anniversary & Challenges Facing the First “Post-9/11” Generation

Artists are known to like blank canvases. They don’t fear a blank sheet of paper. They summon creativity, courage, and insights in ways that they themselves often don’t understand. The best of them tend to be open to new ideas and influences from anywhere. Their most successful outputs tend to be surprising, breaking the mold. In my thoughts about 9/11 this morning, I realized that these challenging times call for the natural strengths, if not the natural predispositions (since many eschew “politics”), of artists. I indulged myself in thinking this through while enjoying my morning coffee today, on the 18th anniversary of 9/ll. I have a niece who turns 18 in a few weeks, and I’m thinking about what her generation faces. In many ways, though, the issues raised here are similar to those we considered in depth in an interdisciplinary seminar I co-taught in recent years on Climate Change and National and Global Security. The similarity is due to the fact that the issues are the same, only getting bigger and more challenging especially in the absence, or near-absence, of suitable public policy (the area of my professional education).

(08:05 am First cup of coffee musings…)  It’s the morning of September 11th, the 18th anniversary of “9/11,” and everything is far from normal in America and our world.  (True enough, it’s never been “normal’ but I refer to a pervasive unease about the dis-ordering of basic assumptions that have informed most of international relations since the end of World War II.) An entire global generation is reaching adulthood this year without ever having lived in a non- “post-9/11” world. Other countries around the world had their own “9-11” tragedies subsequent to ours–Madrid, Bali, Mumbai, etc.–but the point is that the world itself was transfigured by the aftershocks of 9-11. Perhaps 9/11 has become normalized to the point of not needing acknowledgement. But it’s not normal for me, so maybe readers not expecting this fare here will tolerate a diversion today.

Based on a quick review, there is no mention of 9/11 in The Washington Post today, a major national newspaper, only the usual unusual sub-header, to which we’ve become accustomed in these times: “Democracy Dies In Darkness.”  The front page focus is on the firing/resignation of John Bolton, the U.S. National Security Advisor, who is known as a war hawk and who “helped” the US get into war with Iraq–which had nothing to do with 9/11–as America’s military response to the terrorist attack. (Let’s not forget:  He still supports that action, which was based on false premises, also known as lies.)  Bolton is out reportedly due to many “policy” differences with the administration, only a few days–surely not coincidentally–after the President tweeted out that a secret meeting at Camp David between the administration and Taliban leaders from Afghanistan was cancelled.  The policy contradictions of this administration are a towering mountain range by now, with regular avalanches of all kinds of cognitive dissonance-causing boulders. But it’s year three, and the daily contradictions barely deserve a footnote. Indeed, it appears that they are a feature, not a bug, as the saying goes: mind-crushing absurdities can also be spirit-crushing.  An aside, however, is warranted and that is:   absurdities that are simultaneously ridiculous, deadly and deeply disturbing  are part of the genre of this type of rule (which is not really governance, at least not the type called for in the U.S. Constitution).

Today, the paper reports, the President’s focus is on raiding another population of helpless people, a tactic favored by shady landlords.  This time it’s homeless people. This doesn’t mean that the administration is done with terrorizing terminally ill children who are here in the U.S. on special visas so that they can receive the life-saving medical treatment they need.If you haven’t been paying attention to this story, it basically involves sick or dying children from other countries who are receiving critically necessary medical care in the U.S., some of them invited here by medical researchers due to their rare illnesses that need further study. The U.S. administration wants to send them home where they will die.  The latest twist is that the administration backed off when the story became public but is now requiring the children to apply for new visas entering the same prolonged process now well known to readers paying attention to what is happening along the southern U.S. border.

Eighteen years have passed since the horrific attacks of 9-11, the first time America was attacked by foreign adversaries, even if nonstate ones, on the soil of the continental United States.  Americans rallied together against a common if ill-defined and elusive enemy, and NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time ever, which directs NATO member countries to aid an allied NATO member under attack.  The point of the attacks seems to have been to target symbols of American power–Wall Street, the Pentagon and possibly the U.S. Capitol.   Most of us know what happened thereafter:  a massive counter-terrorism movement, and new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have changed the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia and neighboring regions but not to anything noticeably better.  An entire national security industry was immediately directed to combat terrorism, and ballooned in size as if on steroids, which it was in the form of defense contracts.

In 18 years, a little-remarked upon impact has been the privatization of so much that was once considered the realm of government, or public sector, work.  This includes the job of making sense of what has happened, is happening, and may happen in the future. At least the terrorist attack on what were seen as the pillars of American society–the economy, the financial sector, and the defense sector–seemed to have failed, if judged by their size and wealth today.  But what other factors underlie American strength and prosperity?  This is the key unexamined question on this 18th anniversary of 9/11, and it must be asked in the context of a starkly altered environment both on a national level and a planetary level. And yet, these questions are barely asked today. Why aren’t they? Is it because there is no money in it?

In 2019, America is facing unprecedented challenges on all fronts which already are converging into that dreaded “perfect storm.” These are inexorable developments that will happen no matter what, so they can be said to be “beyond politics.” Into this wide category of “beyond politics” happening-no-matter-what are greater migrations of people, harsher climate crisis realities, and accelerating technological advances, to name a few. But, given today’s realities, is this what success looks like after so many people have died in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are we more “secure?”

Almost two decades focused on counter-terrorism have left this country so weakened that most Americans are not even sure that a long-time foreign adversary – Russia (and perhaps others, even) – is not calling the shots in the White House.  Could it be that the singleminded resolve of our nation’s top security institutions to defend this country against a repeat of a 9/11–successful so far–left the United States dangerously exposed to and unprepared for equally deadly challenges?  What are those deadly challenges?  Who is even mapping them? The problems are bigger than anyone’s in-box, bigger than an institution’s capability to handle, even bigger than the United Nations…

In a way, the US Administration’s response this week to desperate Bahamians fleeing their island homes now laid waste by Hurricane Dorian encapsulates in a microcosm the United States’ complete lack of readiness for the world in which we already live.  People are migrating in larger numbers all over the world not because they really want to abandon their homes but because for many of them it’s not optional. It’s life or death.  The perils come in different guises, often overlapping and aggravated by wars and ethnic conflict.  These include ‘unnaturally’ enhanced ‘natural disasters,’ drought, terrorism, government brutality, malnutrition, gang violence, drug cartels, and extortion–but the result is the same:  when people’s lives are in danger, their children cannot be children and their very survival is at stake. Can a nation founded on the principles that “all men are created equal” with “men” now signifying humanity (men, women, and children) remain secure and turn its back on most of humanity? And what is a human without humanity?

A common refrain is that America is not responsible for the world; i.e., we are not the “world’s policeman” and should mind our own business, and thus (it’s implied) be more successful, without draining our resources and putting our soldiers’ lives at risk in others’ wars and calamities.  We are not responsible for failed or failing states, goes the argument. This is a long-standing American debate that needs to go on, with new public policy formulation democratically achieved as the goal.  Every day, and especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, we see the need for this.

(Second cup of coffee musings…)  With no warning earlier this week, the U.S. turned back a ferry carrying desperate people from the Bahamas, their children in their arms, who were seeking refuge from their destroyed island nation, where there is no shelter, food, water, or medical assistance.  The reason: they lacked a visa–a visa that had not before been required, until this very minute, for Bahamians with a passport and no criminal record.  Suddenly, people with only the shirts on their backs had to go to the Embassy to apply for a visa.  A father is shown on video, with a toddler in his arms, explaining that he must now go back to his devastated land where he cannot, obviously and through no fault of his own, take care of his children. (This current story has some obvious echoes with the more famous and tragic one of a German ship, the St. Louis, filled with German Jewish refugees refused asylum in 1939 at the port of Miami and forced to return to Europe where reportedly a quarter of them died in the Holocaust.)

There are threads running through the vignettes of post-9/11 America today that make a sufficiently awake (caffeinated, if necessary!) person wonder where we went wrong, and whether we can recover lost time, credibility, and foresight rapidly enough to regain our national footing in this radically altered world.  Young people turning 18 in 2019 represent the first fully post-9/11 generation who have known nothing else but a national security ‘industry’ focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan somehow tied to the counterterrorism battle.  What do they conclude when they consider their own opportunities in a county that is so divided at home that their compatriots cannot even agree on what is worth fighting for?

What values will America need to embody in a world transformed by tens of millions of people on the move, not out of choice but out of desperation?  How can we think bigger, better, and with more nations’ people–together–to come up with some appropriate policy responses to these new challenges?  If our undeniably bloated defense industries and overly bureaucratized academic systems do not help us to rapidly make these needed changes, what can we, Americans, do about this?  Why are defense industries making $750+ per day, per person held, incarcerating refugees and asylum seekers?  Is this the needed policy response and agreed upon by U.S. taxpayers who are footing the bill? Why are children in these detention centers? Why is the U.S. detaining people coming here for help and, according to numerous credible reports, treating them in a way no one would treat their dogs? Why can we not provide them with even a flu shot, sufficient diapers, or feminine hygiene products at a rate $750/day per detained person? Why are we incarcerating human beings who have asked for asylum?  Who gains and who loses? What is the point? This is what I am asking in the post-9/11 era but I am not an American post-9/11 teenager, and I wonder what they think.

(Sip of now tepidly warm coffee…)  Winston Churchill is thought to have said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  He allegedly was referring to the conditions after World War II that were ripe for the formation of the United Nations.  What type of response(s) are necessary in the world today?  Is the first post 9/11 generation equipped to craft them?  Where is the epicenter of needed new thinking about how to deal with the “perfect storm” already here?  Won’t the future of our youth be affected very consequentially by our choices and even by the things we’re not paying attention to today? After all, the people now trying to flee the Bahamas were not refugees as recently as a week or so ago? Who among us can be sure today that he or she will not be a refugee in the future?

 Is it not actually a form of “security”–even if not debated and vetted by public opinion–to choose and prioritize what matters in these turbulent times? Whose needs would such a prioritization focus upon: the needs of the post-9/11 generation, for instance, or their children not yet born? Should not the public be very much more involved in choosing public policy responses to these issues? Do you as a citizen want to be left out of these consequential policy decisions even if they will put your children on a course that may be soul- and opportunity-shrinking? Who is questioning how our priorities are set, and will we do it in time, time that is so clearly running out?  How will we deal with inter-generational and international inequities that are becoming starker by the day, aggravated by the inevitable weather disasters made more dangerously intense by climate change?  What is “security” in a climate change-disrupted world and who should define it; those who are already incarcerating vulnerable people or people who are questioning that approach and its hidden threats to our nation’s viability and stature in the world?

These are the very questions we considered in an international graduate-level seminar I co-taught from 2014-2018, and all of us in class learned a lot. We were all students because, aside from basic facts such as we gain from science, there are no facts to teach about how we will surmount these challenges. It was an entrepreneurial approach to learning in a world that is no longer familiar. Education itself must change under these circumstances. It’s an exciting time for the intellectually curious and anyone who wants the best for his or her country and future generations including the first post-9/11 generation coming into adulthood this year.

In conclusion, it seems to me that we need to reach out not only for the best ways to ask new questions and think new thoughts, but also identify those who are doing needed work in this area. I’ll mention that yesterday I heard an inspiring talk given by Dr. Michael Crowe, President of Arizona State University, at a thought-provoking conference I attended on 21st century challenges involving “deep space” and “deep fakes.” Crowe’s focus on was rethinking education in our altered world and it was and is very much on point with the types of questions and concerns I am raising in this post. (If he shares his slides, I will attach them through a link to this post.) We need to emphasize what is going right and where this is being done and how, in order to get to new ways of thinking and dealing with the challenges of our world in time. For those who like challenges, and even big blank canvases without so much as an outline as a guide–like most artists around the world!–one message of this long post is the world needs you more than ever. Unfortunately the processes of the artistic mind (literally, beyond analysis) are not well woven into most academic training or, certainly, analytic (or sense-making) processes, so this is yet another frontier to explore in this exciting and consequential new era.

(09:30 a.m., Author’s note:  I am working on a book about the above issues but I’ll be back to sketches and watercolors very soon, including of some incredibly beautiful places–(hint: famous ports and beaches)  not covered previously on this blog! )

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oil painting, Uncategorized, urban sketching, Watercolor Painting

Journey through Childhood Memories

I’ve just returned from a two-week trip to Germany and Austria, mostly to visit with family but also traveling with close family.

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Illustration: “Sunset in Heidelberg,” oil on canvas by Black Elephant Blog author (2019)

This turned out to be the long-awaited time when I would return to Vienna, Austria and the international high school from which I graduated many years ago.  It was so special to discover that I still recall the streetcar and bus numbers to get from the inner city to the outer district where my former school is.  The weather cooperated throughout this trip, with snow flurries and cold suitable for January (but no worse).  Lunch over in the neighboring wine district of Grinzing, with light snow falling outside and settling on ledges around the onion domes of a church across the street, finished off the visit to the outer district. Later it was back by the efficient streetcar system to the inner city and, from there again by streetcar, to the Belvedere Schloss to see Klimt art and other paintings.  We had a hot drink in its warm gold and ochre royal cafe with the Belvedere gardens outside covered in snow and a blue-purplish early evening light seen through the windows.

In such weather, however, and in a group of travelers there is less incentive to stop and try to paint or, more likely in such weather, draw.  Outside of Stephansdom, the main cathedral in central Vienna, one hardy soul was painting in oils in close-to-freezing weather.  He was set up to sell them so perhaps had an incentive to paint in his fingerless gloves out in the cold, but the prospect did not hold any appeal to me.

My trip also took me to the Pfalz area for a memorable wine-tasting, to Stuttgart, Karlsruhe,  Heidelberg, and much smaller towns along the Rhine; my early school years were in Bonn, Germany north of where we were on this trip.  One can get most anywhere at almost anytime on the dense network of streetcars, inter-city railroads, and the faster ICE, and in Austria, the OBB trains.  There was almost no need for a car (except for hauling all the wine home after the wine-tasting!)

Back home now, there is some time for reflection and recreation of scenes, including the memory of a sunset over Heidelberg in Germany, as this painted scene from the castle above the town recalls.  A special book in German about Heidelberg fell into my hands during the visit there, recommending itself to me through the wonderful watercolor on its cover and on plates throughout its pages.  It turns out to be a book by a former director of the city’s archives, chock full of history and insights.  Also in Heidelberg, we visited an amazing museum which can be found by going down a quiet drive into a palace area off of the main pedestrian street:  called the Museum of the Palatinate, it has excellent displays covering the history of the many peoples (Celts, Romans, various tribes) who settled in this area.  If you need to get off your feet for a while, you can take a snooze here on a cushioned Roman bench in a recreated Roman dining area; signs in German encourage you to do just that, so long as you take off your shoes!  (For artists and urban sketchers, it may be of interest that the LAMY headquarters is in Heidelberg and a new flagship store full of temptations is on the main drag in the old city.) There is something about travel, and seeking to restore a rusty foreign language ability, that awakens the need to create, to remember, to connect, and to imagine…so perhaps there will be more scenes from my youth coming to this blog.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized

Urban Sketching in Pastel

University classes are just about done but, just across the river, students in my pastel class are still in high-gear, clearly in no hurry to have this series of classes end.   Here is a practice pastel worked up in the studio class after some sketches made not long ago.  In the ever-expanding armory of art supplies, NuPastels have been joined now by Sennelier half-stick pastels in 120 colors.  This is a messier medium than watercolor, for sure, and a whole lot more “forgiving.”  It is just about as different as it could be, in fact.  But, how do people go “urban sketching” –especially if traveling abroad–with such an array of tools–hard and soft pastels, paper of all kinds, etc?  More “problems” to solve! 🙂

Illustration:  Pastel sketch, "Japanese Garden at the Hillwood Estates, Washington, D.C."  by Black Elephant author

Illustration: Pastel sketch, “Japanese Garden at the Hillwood Estates, Washington, D.C.” by Black Elephant author

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketching is Seeing

Illustration:  Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

Illustration: Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying  strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,”  increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected.   We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here.  (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train:  How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action”  at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)

But, our  classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch.  This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or  even the exact facts on the ground  (simulating reality).  The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes.  Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially.  Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester.  We all learn something in the process.

Boy sketching

Sketching something imaginary?

We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.

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Photo: U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. taken by Black Elephant Blog author

Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.

Bridge photo

Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author

Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!

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Illustration: Work -in-progress pastel sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished.  Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented.  (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)

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Illustration: Work-in-progress watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes.  Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.

How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions.  Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles.  But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As  more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt.  It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary.  Would we better off  if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school?  One wonders.  Meanwhile, it’s  no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire:  sketch away!

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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

View from a Schoolhouse Window

Things have been quiet(er) on this blog as the new school semester gets underway, and snow and icy conditions have made our class schedule slip and slide a bit. But in that class, despite a delayed start, we are putting our best foot forward on some challenging subjects.

Illustration:  Watercolor and bistre ink wash, "View from a Schoolhouse Window" by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and bistre ink wash, “View from a Schoolhouse Window” by Black Elephant Blog author

In addition, “feeding the beast” (more on that soon) tends to get in the way of efforts to sustain a creative environment (the promised look at obstacles to creativity is therefore still pending). On top of this, learning how to do portraits in watercolor (a very high bar to cross) is taking up considerable time and effort these days; getting those skin tones just right, and learning what to leave in and what to leave out is super difficult.  But our teacher is inspiring, to say the least, and some colleagues in class are taking this course for the third time!  I myself am in it for the second time. It makes sense, though, that capturing the reality of the human spirit with a few dabs of cadmium red and yellow (with some yellow ochre for good measure) and raw sienna, and perhaps some cerulean blue for the shadows,  would not (and should not) be easy.

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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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