What is the Root of Knowledge?

Jonaton Pie ~ Stakkholtsgja Canyon, Iceland

I've been thinking a lot about what makes people want to create, invent, innovate, learn.  So many of my colleagues and friends are innately curious and I know that, for me, learning is an addiction.  So, appropriately, I was reading one of my favorite philosophers/theologians and found this:

“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge. Doubt comes in the wake of knowledge as a state of vacillation between two contrary or contradictory views; ... the business of doubt is one of auditing the mind’s accounts about reality ... “

— Abraham Heschel, "Man is Not Alone," pg 11

We certainly learn through doubting - we gain knowledge and insight by doubting, questioning, and even doubting our doubts.  But at the root of it all, what gets us to doubt in the first place, is our ability to wonder, to ponder, to think.  

How much more would we learn if we could wonder as we did when we were 4 or 5 or 8 years old? What can we try to truly wonder about this week? I'm curious!

Look for What's Working!

May - when spring really starts for many of us in the 'north'.  So, just a short blog - more of a request.  

This week, instead of looking at what's not working all the time, try 2 times, just 2, to find what's working, why it's working and how you can make that happen more.  Try this at work, at home, wherever you want - but please, try it - just twice, that's not asking a lot....

Find what’s working & why! #BrightSpots

Let me know how it goes! Feel free to share!

How Big is Your Comfort Zone?

Fly NYON #ShoeSelfies - Aerial view over Central Park, NYC

I’ve been thinking about comfort zones.  Most of the discussion makes it seem like comfort zones are static.  They’re not.  We decide if our comfort zones:

  • Grow ~ because we’re curious, eager to learn, expand our worldview and meet new people doing all sorts of different, interesting things;
  • Shrink ~ because we’ve been burned, failed, or circumstances have made us more cautious and fearful;
  • Maintain ~ because we feel we are just fine where we are.

When people say, ‘get out of your comfort zone’, are they telling us to make our comfort zone bigger? Hopefully, we get out of the zone, try something different and get a little, somewhat or very comfortable in that new area so it becomes part of our comfort zone – maybe at the edge of it, but now inside it.  So if we want to keep getting outside our comfort zone, aren’t we growing it? Sure, maybe at times we got out of it and boy, we wanted to run back in, and we did.  That’s ok. It happens.  But overall, our comfort zones should keep expanding. 

That said, one my students * wisely notes that sometimes, we need to be in our comfort zone to rejuvenate, refresh and refill ourselves. Getting outside our comfort zone should be for a reason, have a purpose and not become idolized. It’s not an either/or, but And… as long as we get out. 

So, this week, what one little thing can you try to make your comfort zone bigger?

*Samanee Mahbub, one of my students, has turned her junior year into a Discovery Year - expanding her comfort zone beyond what many of us would dare to do.  Please read her posts - there is such wisdom and insight for any person of any age!

The Paradox of Noisy Silence

New Year’s celebrations are usually full of noise – parties, fireworks, noisemakers, bowl games, you name it.

The new year at work starts off with a bang too – a bang of hectivity – things that didn’t get done last year, catching up from being away (even tho most everyone else was too). 

Yet, silence is necessary and hard and at first, incredibly noisy.  Therein lies the paradox (and you know I LOVE paradoxes).  I used to be great at finding time to be silent (silence, meditation, whatever you call it) and that was when I was traveling weekly and didn't have kids.  Now I’m trying to get back to silence.  And you know what? It’s hard!!! Yet I crave it!

The music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

At first, my head is full of noise – ideas, to-do’s, reminders, errands, etc. go through my head like an Indy 500 race. It’s hard resisting the urge to write them all down – to just Let Them Go.  I’ve finally realized if they are that important, they’ll come up again sometime. Eventually, it gets easier, the race turns into a slow drive and then, sometimes, totally stops – the noise is gone, it’s complete silence. That silence is an incredible gift, a rejuvenating, calming and intellectually stimulating gift.  Yup, a paradox.

There is a lot of literature on the importance and power of silence – intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually.  But knowing and doing are two separate things.

So, join me in an experiment.  I’m going to try to set aside 10 minutes 2 times a week to be silent.  Not every day, not every other day – just 2 times a week for 10 minutes.  I’m going to start small, give it shot and if it works, build up.  Try it with me; tell me how it goes; and remember, this is an experiment so it’s ok to fail and try again…. 

How to spend $200+ Billion for a Train Wreck

Once upon a time, a paragon of American innovation lost its way.  It embodied Einstein’s definition of insanity, spending over $200B for a train wreck… and they’re doing it again. The story starts in the last century and my part about 28 years ago.

In the early 90’s at AT&T, I was on a ‘special project’ with some friends to design the next generation core domestic network.  We were from Bell Labs and had “grown up” with the Internet (Arpanet, initially).  We were young and idealistic so our designed was based on the TCP/IP protocol.  This let us move anything over the network – email, faxes, images, movies, songs, phone calls, photos, anything – in real time.  We knew that with enough bandwidth, routers, redundancy and diversity, someday we’d watch or listen to concerts and movies live.   This way, we only needed 1 network (with tons of security & safeguards obviously) to handle everything.  The days of a voice-only network built on big expensive switches was over.  We presented our design to the powers that were. Answer? Nope! They thought it was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard.  [About 13 years later, a friend asked me if I still had the designs because they were looking to build that network.]

The 90’s were a battle between the network/telecom providers (AT&T, MCI, etc.) and the PC/Software maker end points (Microsoft) deciding where to put the ‘smarts’.  Microsoft et. al., felt they owned the smarts and just needed commodity dumb pipes to connect them together.  The networks knew if they didn’t have any ‘smarts’, they didn’t have any differentiable value from each other.  The smart ends would win the battle, forever commoditizing the networks. I saw this and worked on this firsthand.  It wasn’t pretty.  It led to a lot of spending with little success:

  • 1999: AT&T pays $44B to buy the cable company TCI, creating AT&T Broadband.
  • 2002: AT&T sells AT&T Broadband to Comcast for $47.5B after having invested about $58B more for a total of $102B in AT&T Broadband.
  • 2015: AT&T buys DirecTV for $49B.
  • 2016: AT&T offers to buy Time Warner (not the cable, the content) for $85B (and I don’t think this is a bargain price).

The networks lost the smart-dumb battle.  So, if it hadn’t worked before, why now? Is “Media” that different from smart-ends? Really? Maybe this is what they’re thinking:

  • AT&T is losing wireless customers with decreasing revenue/customer; 
  • DirecTV is losing customers because of cord-cutting;
  • Content drives revenue (yup, heard that 20 years ago); it uses lots of bits and time;
  • “New” Media companies are becoming networks– Facebook, Amazon, and Google (take special notice of Google – if I were AT&T, I’d worry about them non-stop).

Over 17 years, AT&T spent about $236B (BILLION) dollars to get in, out and back in to the cable and content business.   Having lived through some of this and trying to show why it wouldn’t work financially, strategically, innovatively, and a bunch of other ‘ly’s, here are at least 6 lessons I learned:

  1. If you can’t figure out how to add value to your own stuff, buying other stuff to bolt on, without understanding markets and customers, doesn’t work;
  2. Culture matters, first and only; Making acquisitions outside your traditional space is hard, it’s virtually impossible if your cultures are radically different;
  3. If you’re losing customers, DON’T buy a company in the same situation!!!
  4. If you keep repeating solutions that don’t work STOP! Either figure out something different or figure out how to be a profitable commodity… it works for Coke!
  5. Check the C-suite egos at the door; hanging out on the set of Game of Thrones isn’t worth billions to shareholders.
  6. In my next life I want to come back as a company AT&T buys.

 

What's Not There?

What a lovely home, probably somewhere out in the country.  From the crops on left, this must be a farm. From the swing set, they probably have kids (or grandkids).  The house seems to be fairly modern (look at the windows) and well maintained.  The horses look healthy.

What’s the story about this house and family?  Are they ‘weekend’ farmers who commute to jobs during the week?  Does one of them, or both, work from home? Are they full-time farmers, with the land being the main source of income?  Hard to know.

But what’s missing? Look at the photo; what’s missing?

See any cars or trucks?  Maybe the people are not at home – they’re at the store or work or a kid’s soccer game. Look closer.  Do you see any power lines going to the house? Hum… Maybe the power lines are buried.  That could be, but given the size of this house and probable acreage, I kind of doubt it. 

This is an Amish house in Lancaster County, PA.  

What if we look at what’s missing instead of just what’s there?

What if we ask why something we’d normally expect to be there isn’t?

What are we assuming is in the picture because it usually is?

What if folks are just fine with not having what’s missing?

What if they didn’t know they could even have what’s missing?

What will we discover if we start looking at what’s Not There? 

When Disruption Meets Laughter & Fun

I was so honored to be a guest on DisrupTV with my good friend Vala Afshar of Salesforce and Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research.  As to be expected, we had a great time talking blue lobsters, innovation, virtues, strategy and women in tech.  Take a look!

                   

Rush to Discover, Don't Rush to Solve!

http://www.jeshujohn.com/

Oh wow! A problem.... let's go solve it! It's our first reaction, right? It's human.  We see a problem and our instinct is to start fixing it, solving it.

What if, instead of rushing to solve it, we rushed to discover as much as we could about the problem - like, why is it a problem, why is that a problem, why, why, why?  What are people doing when this is a problem? Is it only a problem when they are doing that? Where is it a problem? Only there? When is it a problem? Only then? What is the weather when it's a problem? What mood were they in when it was a problem? See? You learn so much when you Rush to Discover first.  You learn what really matters and why.  And guess what? Then you can work with the people who have this problem together - to create solution(s) that will really make a difference - that will work when, how, where it's a problem.

Rush to Discover. Don’t rush to Solve!

So, next time you see a problem, stop, discover and learn.... 

Can You Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven?

Everyone says we must be data-driven.  I have trouble with that phrase, as discussed before.   Too often, we're making decisions based on the data presented...as is.  We're not asking the hard questions behind the data.

When I was at Bell Labs, we used to ask, "How much did you pay for that data?"  You can get data to say whatever you wanted depending on how it is presented and calculated, on what you show and what you don't.  

Before you start making decisions on the data in front of you, ask why it is the way it is, what's driving those numbers, what was the context, the constraints, the demographics, the sample size, the timeframe and frequency, etc. 

For instance, a company says it promotes more of its people than its competitors,  but perhaps it's 50yrs older? Perhaps its twice as large so the overall numbers are bigger? Perhaps it hasn't  in the past 5 yrs but given the number it had the previous 30, the overall number is still big.  Perhaps, perhaps - if you don't ask, you won't know and you could make decisions that are yes, based on the data in front of you, but not on the story behind that data. 

"Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven"

I propose we start being data-discerning, not data-driven.... you may be surprised at what new insights you discover! 

The Hope & Serendipity of #RCUS

The highlight of the year - BIF.  It's the embodiment of my definition of innovation ~ the Network + Serendipity - through Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS). It's the place to renew your mind and soul - to see what can and is being done to positively change our world by people of all ages, ethnicities, experiences, industries, sectors, geographies.  This will be my 6th BIF and every year I think it can't get any better... and every year it does.  Why? Because the human desire, passion and spirit to do good is everlasting.  Despite the misery and pain we see in the world around us, there is always hope - hope being realized by action.  That's why I can't miss a BIF - it renews your hope in mankind.

The Hedgehogs' Dilemma

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is a metaphor for the problems we have developing relationships. Look around our professional and personal lives; examples are everywhere.  My friend and colleague, Ian Gonsher, uses design thinking to solve the dilemma with applications for humans of all ages.  I bet you can think of ways to make it apply to you – at work and elsewhere.

HedgeHog's Dilemma by Ian Gonsher

from

Mills-Scofield, LLC

Ian Gonsher does research and teaches at Brown University focused on the design process and creative practice, including Design Studio and Entrepreneurship Engineering Design projects in the School of Engineering and Designing Humanity-Centered Robots in Computer Science with Michael Littman where Legos are prototyping tools.  Ian was instrumental in the development and expansion of Brown Design Workshop and several cross-disciplinary projects spanning the humanities, sciences, Medical School and RISD such as The Creative Scholar’s Project and the Creative Mind Initiative.  Some of his very cool projects have been in Make Magazine, he’s been published in Harvard Business Review and is the co-founder of Critical Designs-Critical Futures on how design thinking and activism can spur social innovation.

3 Simple Words to Revolutionize the World

2.5 weeks til the magic of BIF2015.  I am blessed with the gift of my network and can't wait to see my students and clients and friends and friends-to-be. Thank you Nicha Ratana-Apiromyakij & Saul Kaplan for this honor from TIME magazine. 

"How many people end business meetings with an “I love you” and a hug? Venture capitalist and former AT&T Labs scientist Deb Mills-Scofield does.  To Mills-Scofield, to do business is to negotiate diverse personalities to get things done — and she has the gift for it. “The broader, deeper, and more diverse your network, the bigger the impact you can make on the world,” she says." Read on...

The Perks of Being an Amateur


Another fabulous post by Caitie Whelan of Lightening Notes
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I like knowing stuff

I like knowing the ropes, talking shop, having the answers.

I like being right.

I also like Ray Bradbury.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t go to college. He never got an MFA in writing. Never lived in the literary metropolis of New York City

He went to Los Angeles High School. And he went to the library. He loved libraries. Loved reading: L. Frank Baum. Edgar Allen Poe.

“The library,” he told The Paris Review, “has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”

And it was through his interpretations, his discoveries that he brought Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes into the world.

On paper, Mr. Bradbury didn’t do the right things to be a writer: He didn’t have the pedigree, didn’t know the ropes, didn’t talk shop.

But off paper and in person - the dimension that matters most - he had conviction unconstrained by convention.

It’s one of the perks of being an amateur. And it’s easy to forget when we’re thinking about plunging into something new.

We can sit on the diving board, looking at all the swimmers. And we can think, “No way can I stay afloat in this pool. I don’t have their know-how, their credentials.”

That may be true. But it’s not the only truth at the pool yard.

Because what got us to the diving board, what got us peeking out into the unknown are a curiosity and a desire to know more of the world than we know now. It’s the same thing that got Mr. Bradbury to the library.

And that curiosity, that desire is just as true as all the swimmers and all their know-how.

So, when we find ourselves on the diving board, we must choose the truth we answer to: The conventional narrative saying, “No way. No how. You have no clue how to do this.” Or that still, small voice in us saying, “Go. Do it.”

That voice will upend and unsettle our status quo (which Deb encourages us to question anyway). It will hurl us beyond the world that we know. Hurl us out where we don’t know the ropes or the answers. Out where we’ll be wrong more than we’ll be right.

But if we listen to that voice, we will have chosen to take the shape of our lives into our own hands. Rather than let society shape it for us

We will fumble. And we will fail. Such is the amateur’s territory. But we will earn our fumbles and our failures knowing, as Joan Didion knew, that “people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes.” And self-respect is one of the finest perks of  being an amatuer.

I carry Mr. Bradbury’s story close. To remind me of the person I want to be.

I know what it’s like to walk away from the diving board. To walk away from that still, small voice. To disqualify myself because I’m inexperienced and uncredentialed.rush to discover it all.

Which brings me to the last - though by no means final - perk of being an amateur.

It forces us to grow.

When we don’t know the waters, we can get torn open by vulnerability, the rawness of being out of our nest.

And growth, that uncomfortable, incredible force where we rebuild our torn selves anew, is how we move ourselves and how we move our world forward.

Life’s a whole lot bigger than having answers and being right.

Life - real big life - is about living with conviction unconstrained by convention. It’s about self-respect. And kindness. It’s about growing every bit of our brains and our heart that we can grow. And life is about being an amateur again and again and again.

On this subject, Mr. Bradbury gets the final word:

“Jump off the cliff and learn how to make wings on the way down.”

Twitter  ~  Facebook  ~  Get Flashy

 

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking ideas and great stories to remind us that we matter and improving the world is our matter.  Prior to The Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Caitie is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. 

5 Reasons these 3 Steps Will Get You Those Top 4 Results

The Wizard of Oz © Turner Entertainment Co.

We love lists. If we do these 3 things, everything will be alright: our customers will shower us with accolades, our employees will ooze engagement and innovation and we will be profitable beyond belief. 

It doesn't work that way.  The path is not linear. It's not a set of prescribed turns to get to your destination. It's circuitous, it's emergent, and it requires thought.  So stop with the lists and start with the thinking...

If you want to lead, think... if you want to manage, keep reading those lists.

An Animated Look at Scientific Illustration

No matter what your profession or passion, design is a part of it, even the most STEM'y ones. Allison Chen, RISD '15, believes that scientific illustration is a definition of STEAM... and she's right! It's Science, Technology, Engineering (how the body works in the case of biological systems) and Math ... and Art! This great post, from her STEAM Stories project (please follow it!) shows us how art and design are so embedded in our daily lives and our work.  Enjoy! And follow her and read these great stories.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before modern film and computers, scientific phenomena were recorded with meticulous drawings and paintings for centuries. These illustrations illuminated the unobservable or unclear, often answering, “Will that plant kill me?” or “What’s going on inside my body?”

Of course, we still ask these questions, and can now use new media to answer. Based in Seattle, Washington, Eleanor is a designer that puts a modern spin on scientific illustration. Having received her bachelor’s in molecular biology and done visual art since high school, she combines both passions to create stunning animated infographics.

“I think visuals really help explain science to the general public,” Eleanor said. “If you haven’t gotten a degree in it, it’s really hard to understand topics like global warming or GMOs. It’s important for actual experts to explain everything.”

When she isn’t working for clients such as Huffington Post and the Gates Foundation, Eleanor has the freedom to design whatever subjects strike her interest. These interests manifest in both animated and static diagrams that she documents on her blog tabletopwhale.com, where you can also find a tutorial that shows how she works with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

One animation, 3 Different Ways to Breathe, compares human lungs with those of birds and grasshoppers. Watching the animation, you can see how birds can take in oxygen even while exhaling, and how air is transported directly into the grasshopper’s tissue cells.

“I had no idea that things breathed differently,” Eleanor said, “or that the way humans breathe isn’t even the most efficient.”

Another animation, How to Build a Human, depicts the growth of a human fetus from fertilization to birth.

“I really wanted everything to be visible at the same time,” Eleanor said, explaining why she chose the spiral format. “When I was reading about it in college, I had some trouble figuring it out in my head. It was described in the text but I wanted everything on one page.”

And perhaps one of the most visually interesting, Flight Videos Deconstructed compares the flight patterns of five flying species and depicts the curves their wings make in space.

As noted on the infographic, the project was an observational exercise and doesn’t represent any scientifically accepted information.

“You definitely can’t draw conclusions from these videos alone,” Eleanor said, “you have no idea if the animals were injured, how old they are, if they’re even flying normally. In an actual study they would’ve taken 30-40 animals in the same room in the same conditions, done in a lab so that a computer can map it.”

This serves as an important reminder that imagery can always be misinterpreted or contrived, no matter how beautiful. Eleanor has noticed a fair amount of science-related art out there that isn’t accurate, and encourages more communication between artists and scientists.

This Fall, Eleanor is returning to school to get her PhD thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Best of luck Eleanor, let’s hope your research will inspire more infographics in the future!

Eleanor Lutz: Blog, Twitter, Dribbble

Allison is a designer and writer (soon to be) based in Chicago as a DFA (Design for America) Fellow. She seeks to design for learning and play to help us better understand each other and the world around us. While earning her BFA in industrial design at RISD she co-led the DFA RISD|Brown studio 2014-2015, worked on STEAM learning tools, interned at various organizations, and helped build a solar-powered house for Solar Decathlon Europe 2014. Children are her favorite users, and she enjoys designing for the inner child in all of us. Through her STEAM Stories blog series, she hopes to bring together a community of passionate STEAM do-ers to inspire future interdisciplinary work in hobby, education, and industry.

The Upside of Impracticality: Or Why I Left Congress for Brooklyn

Caitie Whelan recently gave up the prestigious job of a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress to move to Brooklyn, NJ and write. Ayup! (Yes, she hails from the great state of Maine).  Why? She wanted to make a dent in the universe (something she's done before). Read on.  Be inspired. Think, ponder... and go make a dent.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is not a practical story.

Three months ago, I had a great job as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress. I had a great boss, a great dental plan, and a great city to call home. But something wasn’t great. And it came down to three words:

Doubt. Fear. Convention.

I saw too many people deflated by doubt, fear, and convention. Qualitative data was everywhere: deferring dreams for safe jobs, working for the weekend, resisting risk and reinvention. In short, too many of us felt too stuck, too small to  - as Steve Jobs said - “put a dent in the universe.” It was as present in DC as it was in Delhi or Detroit.

I know what it’s like to feel trapped and tiny. I also know that with the big challenges our world holds, we can't afford for people to play it small.  

I believe in many things: public libraries, underdogs, finding blue lobsters. Above all, I believe in the power of one person to make a dent. I’d seen that power undercut; I couldn’t respect my beliefs and not do something about it.

Policy’s one way to effect change, but I knew it wasn’t where I could be most effective. I liked writing and storytelling. I hadn’t done much of either. But I figured raw passion was a pretty good foundation to build from

I also figured since I had a lot to learn, I should surround myself with masterclass writers and creators. So, in March, I left my great job, my great dental plan, and my great city and I moved to Brooklyn to write, build a website, and make my dent in the universe.

In April, I launched The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking stories and great ideas from all over to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. All in a two-minute read.

I’m 30. I’ve never written for a living, managed a website, or lived in Brooklyn. Noah Webster would have good reason to put this under the definition of ‘impractical.’

Why ditch practicality? Three reasons.

1.  I believe in it.

Our world is shot through with pain.

Chad is short on food. The Middle East is short on stability. California is short on water. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. But we don’t have all hands

Many of our hands are tied up, doubting that we matter, fearing that we’ll fall short, or convention telling us to stay on script. It’s deflating enough to make us forget what we’re capable of.

The Lightning Notes is my reminder that doubt, fear, and convention may be big, but we are bigger. And we are made of tougher, more impactful stuff.

I believe in that.

2. Respect.

I’m a white belt again.

I could fall on my face, which would hurt. But not as much as never going in the ring. My gut was hollering, “Go for it.” When our gut hollers, that deserves respect.

And so do the people we serve

As Deb says, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. The Lightning Notes has no ads or paywalls. I wouldn’t want that as a reader; it doesn’t feel respectful for me to force it on another reader. Instead, I ask people to donate.

There’s plenty of free content out there. Why should people donate

They don’t have to. Yet, some already have. If 1,000 people give $8 a month, after Paypal fees and taxes, The Lightning Notes is financially viable. I’m giving myself one year to make it happen; I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Is there a faster way to make money? Yup. But I’m not doing this to be fast.

I’m doing this to respect that untamed part of myself that - despite doubt, fear, and convention -  hollered, “Go for it.”

And I’m doing this out of respect for the untamed part in each of us that’s hungry to contribute, to be a part of something bigger than we are, to put a dent in the universe.

3. Risk.

When I watched the Kentucky Derby, there was a moment where American Pharoah and Firing Line were neck and neck. And I thought to myself, “I know that feeling: it’s exactly where my excitement and fear are.” Such is the experience of risk.

But life’s inherently risky. Why not fill it with the risks, as Deb says, we believe in? I don’t want to take a bunch of dreams to my grave. So, I’m taking this one to the streets.

This is not a practical story. But neither is a world where doubt, fear, and convention are writing the narrative.

Let’s rewrite the narrative. Let’s live all the life we have in us to live. Let’s make our dent.

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. Prior to the Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and is co-founder/chair of the Salt Alumni Board. She is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. Follow The Lightening Notes on twitter.

Why Language Matters for Everything

How many languages do you speak? Only 7% of American college kids study a language.  Think this is a problem? It is a huge socio-economic-global-geopolitical-security one!  Amelia Friedman didn't set out to start a business learning languages from her peers - like Bengali, Thai, Tamil... but she has.  We need to communicate like never before - and language is how.  So be a part of the solution - try learning a language and give to Student Language Exchange to make sure our next generation does. 

~~~~~~~~~

em·pa·thy (n): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Building empathy has been a priority among parents and educators for decades. Why? If the next generation of leaders cares for others in their community and across the world, they just might be able to make one another’s lives better.

More recently, empathy has become a priority for business leaders. In fact, entrepreneurs regularly use empathy maps when trying to understand their target customer. Empathy has become part of an entrepreneur’s tool belt, helping them rise above the competition.

There is debate about whether empathy is something that can be taught. I believe we can teach empathy by listening to and learning from people who are different from us. By asking questions. By meeting others on their level. By immersing ourselves in another culture.

In other words: We can build empathy by learning another language.

lan·guage (n): the system of communication used by a particular community or country

Language is so much more than a collection of words and rules for the order in which they should be spoken. It includes all aspects of communication: the way you should greet someone when they’re in mourning, the requirement that a gift need be refused three times before accepted, or the importance of covering one’s hair when in public— that is all a part of language.

A language is a doorway into another culture; it paves the road toward empathy.

ex·change (n): an act of giving one thing and receiving another in return

I didn’t originally found the Student Language Exchange with the intention of changing the world. The first courses we ran were a reflection of my curiosity and the curiosity of students around me. We just wanted to learn from one another’s experiences, so we ran semester-long courses where our peers could share their languages and cultures.

We came to understand dowry practices in Kenya, limitations of French language in Haiti and the aftereffects of English colonialism in Calcutta. We gifted one another the knowledge that we had gleaned in the first 20 years of our lives. And we learned to listen, ask questions, and empathize.

My formal coursework in language didn’t always allow me to really understand the people that spoke it, and the communities I could learn about at my university were limited, mostly to those of Europe.

At last count, there were 197,757 U.S. college students studying French and 64 studying Bengali. Globally, there are 193 million people who speak Bengali and only 75 million who speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan tells us that 95% of all language enrollments are in a Western language.

We tend to learn about cultures that are similar to our own. But this is holding us back. It keeps us from building empathy, from pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, and from building bridges between peoples.

Our world isn’t perfect. Tragedies, whether man-made as in the case of the Rohingya Crisis or natural in the case of the Nepal earthquakes, plague our global society. We can’t be perfect either, but we can strive to empathize with those affected and respectfully communicate with people in these regions. Through open communication—and through connecting our privilege with their opportunity—we can do our part to make the world a little bit better.

In our SLE courses, students learn to think differently; they learn about other languages and cultures so that they can better understand different people.

I may not have originally intended to build a social enterprise, but somewhere along the way we began to see the impact we were having on our students and the communities they touched.

Today, only 7% of American college students are studying a language. Few Americans—our next-generation leaders—take the time to learn about a new culture and to build the skills they need to communicate with its stakeholders. If we can push that needle a little further to the right, we can make an immense impact.

And as these students will tell you, we already well on our way. Will you join us?

 

Amelia Friedman founded the Student Language Exchange while a student at Brown University (’14). An active advocate of global engagement, she has written about language education for the Atlantic, USA Today, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. She is the product of a marriage between a Jew from Maryland and a Catholic from Montevideo, Uruguay that demonstrate the importance of empathy every day. Amelia is a current Halcyon fellow living in Washington, DC.

In full disclosure, I have been Amelia's mentor since her time at Brown and am on the board of SLE, with great pride and admiration for her work.