The High Art of Designing Scaffolding

By Ian Gonsher (republished with permission)

Vasari tells us, that in preparing to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a debate arose between Bramante and Michelangelo about how to design the scaffolding necessary to proceed with the project:

The pope ordered Bramante to build the scaffolding in order to paint it [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel]; Bramante did so by piercing the ceiling and hanging everything from ropes; upon seeing this, Michelangelo asked Bramante how, once the painting had been completed, he would be able to fill the holes; and Bramante replied, ‘We’ll worry about that later’, and added that there was no other way to do it. Michelangelo then realized that either Bramante knew little about it or he was not much of a friend, and he went to the pope and told him that this scaffolding was unsatisfactory and that Bramante had not understood how to build it; in Bramante’s presence, the pope replied that he should build one in his own way. And so Michelangelo ordered scaffolding built on poles which did not touch the wall, the method for fitting out vaults he later taught to Bramante and others, and with which many fine works were executed.[1]

A modern variation of a similar design used in the recent restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.[2]

Often, the most difficult part of any creative process is just getting started; preparing for the tasks at hand by putting the necessary structures in place that will bring the project to fruition. But scaffolding of this kind not only gives structure to the process; it demands a consideration of the tools, knowledge, and resources that are necessary for crafting novel and uncommon things.

Scaffolding can take many different forms, but in the narrowest sense, it is a tool. Woodworkers, for example and by comparison, will often design jigs to position a part in relation to a tool in order to augment the function of that tool. Like the scaffolding that Vasari describes, which was designed to bring the body of the artist into close physical proximity with the work, a jig allows the craftsperson to adapt his/her tools to act on a given material in a precise, repeatable fashion. When designing an effective jig, consideration must be given to the path through which the bit or blade will pass, and how the piece is fixed, but it must also do so in a safe manner. The design of a jig can sometimes be as interesting as the design of the piece itself.

We can further extend our definition of scaffolding to include the skills and knowledge necessary for operating the tools that advance the project, as well as to the critical engagement that is fundamental to the creative process in general. In this way, scaffolding is a form of learning. It gives structure to what we know and how we know it. Every new project comes with a new set of questions, a new set of constraints, that require new skills, and new approaches for creative problem solving.

The words we use inform the ideas in play, and those ideas give form to what is produced. Developing new language is sometimes necessary for scaffolding our understanding and communicating those insights to others. Neologisms and provisional project titles, for example, create space where new ideas can emerge.

We live in an age of abundant knowledge, where so many resources are a mouse click away. This too is a kind of scaffolding; an augmented intelligence. What are the books, tutorials, and courses necessary for mastering the appropriate skills (or at least becoming familiar enough with them to satisfy the task at hand)? Who are the mentors, experts, and partners that can help us navigate challenges as they arise? What do we need to know to make what we want to make? These are all ways we scaffold our understanding of projects.

This kind of scaffolding is nested within another, even more extensive kind of scaffolding; that of the institutions in which we operate and with which we participate. The structures of institutions dictate how we relate to one another, how we collaborate, how resources are allocated, and the kinds of spaces available for projects. Every institution structures these relationships differently, each with its own affordances and constraints, each with its own culture and values. We tend to gravitate towards institutions with which we have an affinity, and whose culture and values we are sympathetic to. But sometimes we should question these assumptions and eschew the formulas they produce. We should attempt to expand the territory of possibility and the creative dialectic in play. Like Michelangelo in Vasari’s telling, sometimes we recognize that it is necessary to dismantle inadequate scaffolding in order to design a better one, one that is more appropriate to the project at hand.

There are many ways to solve a problem or ask a question. There are many ways to structure a project. It is for these reasons, and others, that in addition to thinking of scaffolding as something that occurs prior to the task at hand, we should also consider scaffolding as something that occurs throughout the creative process, and which might require edits and adaptations as that process moves forward. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in the awkward situation of filling holes in the ceiling.

[1] Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.  The unpainted portion where the scaffolding met the wall is still visible just above the lunettes, although it is not easily seen from the floor below. It is also noteworthy that the recent restoration employed a system not dissimilar to the one employed by Michelangelo.

[2] Boswell, Victor. “Sistine Chapel”. Boswell, Victor. National Geographic. December 1989.

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.
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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.

I Don't Know

Mike Cohea / Brown University

The freedom to ask questions and admit when you don't know is one we take for granted and our society tends to shun as a sign of weakness, yet it is how we learn, grow, create and have impact.  Michelle Bailhe's commencement address is one we need to read, re-read and live.  Please read this and be grateful for her generation that will help make this world better.  Thank you, Michelle.
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Our first week at Brown, 500 of us packed Salomon lecture hall for Introduction to Neuroscience. As the professors concluded their opening lecture, a student asked what seemed like a simple question: “Is it true we only use 10 percent of our brains?” Without hesitation, Professor Paradiso answered, “I don’t know.” Our professor, renowned neuroscientist, didn’t know. He said, “New research suggests we don’t really know what Salomon Hallpercent of our brains we use for neural processes like thinking. The field doesn’t know yet so I don’t know.”

The room went quiet. Students sat up straighter. Ears perked up. The only sound was of the mental gears in 500 Brown student minds — churning. I heard whispers of: “How could you measure that on a cellular level? Could you stain brain tissue or create a computer program?” Our collective curiosity galvanized us. Unimpressed by knowledge alone, by facts already discovered, we were ignited by what we didn’t know.

For the next four years, seeking out these “I don’t know” moments became our daily challenge, our intellectual regimen. Brown made our attraction to the unknown, the undiscovered, the unresolved — magnetic. Even before we arrived on campus, Brown dared us in our admissions essays to answer the question: What don’t you know? And our open curriculum is the University trusting in us saying “we don’t know every course you’ll need to make your impact on the world. Only you can discover that.” A Brown education is being challenged to discern exactly what you don’t know. This is Brown’s most distinguishing strength and its greatest adventure.

We probe visiting dignitaries, testing resolutions to global conflicts as if they could be solved Right There in the lecture hall. We cherish controversies yet unsettled, problems yet unresolved, doctrines long unchallenged. We don’t just embrace the unknown, we ask it out to fair-trade coffee with its enthusiastic consent. If author John Fowles is right that an answer is a form of death, saying “I don’t know” breathes life into our restless minds.

When we asked “whose stories are missing from the history of the civil rights movement?” Our “I don’t know” sent members of our class and faculty to Tougaloo Mississippi searching for silenced voices. When we asked “What was Brown’s relationship to slavery?” Our “I don’t know” launched investigations that rewrote our university’s history. “Does the Higgs Boson exist?” The curiosity of Brown physicists hurls them into experiments at CERN’s particle accelerator week after week after week. Apparently, people at CERN say “I don’t know” a lot.

But beyond the Brown bubble, it can be hard to say “I don’t know.” In our Information Age, we’re rewarded for absorbing knowledge, for being excellent sponges. We’re conditioned to fear moments when we don’t know, moments of vulnerability. Last summer, I worked for a non-profit law firm. One client was facing deportation back to Ghana but required thrice weekly dialysis for kidney failure. Dialysis in Ghana is scarce and expensive, but we needed proof that deporting her was tantamount to a death sentence. I suggested a Ghanaian doctor’s testimony to the lack of access. “Great,” said my boss, “how can we get that?” “I don’t know, but I will find out.” I started by contacting Brown professors who had done field work in Ghana. They directed me to the largest hospital. And then a friend in the Class of 2015, Yao Lui, was visiting Ghana with a Brown-founded medical nonprofit. He directed me to another member of our class, Nia Campinha-Bacote, who was conducting research at that main hospital. She then tracked down the chief dialysis physician, got her testimony and sent it back to us — across the Atlantic — for our client’s case. I was in awe of the power of the Brown community operating not just beyond these gates, but half-way around the world. “I don’t know” wasn’t a dead end in the conversation. It was a beginning.

But “I don’t know” is not only the first step on the path to discovery. It’s also a critical step on the path to human connection. Researchers have demonstrated the power of unconscious bias. When we meet someone new, we’re conditioned to think we already know them. To borrow Nietzsche’s term, there is no “immaculate perception.” Socially-constructed stereotypes seep into our subconscious. They sow assumptions about our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. Preconceptions and misconceptions about race, class, gender, language, religion, sexuality, nationality and ability profoundly shape our world. They structure our institutions and delimit our possibilities. Their reverberations are felt from France to Ferguson, from Birmingham to Baghdad, from Baltimore to Brown.

Bias is dangerous precisely because it is false knowledge. Because the truth is we don’tknow. We cannot know how someone thinks from a weak data set of appearances and social constructions. We as Humans are too Complex, too Dynamic, too Surprising, and too Magnificent. To know what someone thinks, we have to ask them what they think. This is the first step toward what President Paxson calls “transformative conversation.” Throughout our time at Brown, we’ve thrown ourselves into transformative conversations that have been both uncomfortable and powerful. We’ve used what we’ve learned from each other to strengthen our academic and personal lives. “I don’t know” is thus not only an intellectual mantra, it’s also a project of humanization.

Anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston wrote “there are years that ask questions, and there are years that answer them.” Even though she went to Columbia, she’s right. This is a year that asks questions. Some of them personal: Where will we take our lives after graduation? How will we stay connected to the life-long friends and mentors that we’ve made here? Some questions are vast: How will we combat climate change and end mass incarceration? How will we alleviate income inequality and improve education? And some of our questions are deeply reflective: Am I enough? Am I brave enough to confront my own biases? Am I driven enough to persevere in solving the issues I care about?

These questions push us into uncomfortable places. To many of them, our answer may be — today and often — “I don’t know.” But Brown has given us every tool and every reason to Venture Boldly into our discomfort. This is how we’ve grown. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to take no observation, no dominant narrative, no established truth at face value. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to hold self-evident only that nothing is self-evident. Brown has shown us that the very engine of discovery and insight, of progress and justice, of our future and the world's is our fearless, relentless questioning. This is our greatest power. Brown has taught us that in this community, within these gates and far beyond, “I don’t know” merely means “I don’t know yet.

Michelle Bailhe recently graduated from Brown University with honors as a Human Biology concentrator focusing on health disparities in the US prison system and criminal justice-involved populations. She is a recipient of the Arthur H. Joslin Award for service to the Brown University community and the Gaspee Prize for top scholarship in American history in her class. Bailhe is an Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellow through the Liman program at Yale Law School and worked with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest on health justice legal issues and community organizing. She is also an avid dancer and activist, having organized a March for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island. A California native, she will move to New York to work for McKinsey & Company and plans to pursue a career in public service.

A Biologist, Computer Scientist & Historian walk into a....

It is through eclectic, diverse, and seemingly random relationships, interactions and friendships that we learn and then change the world.  Andrew Kaplan eloquently sums this up in his post below he wrote right before graduation.  So much of our learning is from each other and I have learned so much from him over the past 3 years. Thank you, Andrew.
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To an old house on Angell Street*

As I sit writing this at my kitchen table, a housemate walks into the room and sits down next to me.

“How do you define religion?” he asks as he combs his unruly left sideburn with bunched fingers.

“What?” I respond.

“Just answer the question.”

I live in an old Rhode Island house on Angell Street with five other seniors. Our floors are sinking and our walls are thin; an open floor plan helps a whisper from the basement be heard in the third-floor attic. The house smelled of fresh paint the day I moved in.

Among my housemates are a neuroscientist, a biologist, a philosopher, a computer scientist and a historian. Or, looking at them another way, they are a dancer, a drummer, a basketball player, a teacher and a founder. And they are the blood pumping through the veins of this house, imbuing it with life.

Because I am about to graduate, people often ask me to describe my time at Brown. They expect tales of hallowed professors pronouncing truths in packed lecture halls. They expect memories of heartfelt conversations about the meaning of life on the quiet greens where foliage helps you spin nascent life philosophies into the early mornings. They expect stories of finding romance in the dining hall and losing it into the wild night. And I’ve had my fair share of those experiences.

But the old house on Angell and the people who live in it symbolize what has made my Brown experience unique. One of the greatest pleasures of the past four years has been discovering things I never thought I would simply by being around people who are so infectiously enthusiastic about topics I never thought I’d learn about.

When I think about my time at Brown, I think about one of my housemates working on a computer science project, describing the mystery of the deep web and the power of torrent — and blowing my mind in the process. Or when another inspired me to take NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” by sketching out an action potential’s effect on the nervous system. Or when yet another sat down next to me and asked me to define religion, prompted by a class project on religious law.

This is for them and for what they represent. And this is to thank the countless Brown students with deep-set passions who have passed in and out of my life, many of whom I consider my friends. Watching a fellow Brunonian’s eyes dance with excitement when discussing a subject they love is a truly special experience, one that makes this place so exceptional.

So here’s to a group of housemates brought together by a university that cultivates passions ranging from the microscopic to the universal to form a microcosm of my Brown experience as a whole. Here’s to falling down an intellectual rabbit hole and emerging hours later with a better understanding of what drives my fellow classmates. And here’s to acknowledging one of the reasons why Brown is so special: Each member of the Brown community has the ability to awaken that same curiosity and passion in you.

Lastly, thank you to the place I associate with that type of enthusiastic learning: an old house on Angell Street with an open floor plan and sinking floors.

Andrew just graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors Degree in Political Science. He was a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action, which he co-founded with Sam Gilman. Andrew is moving back to NYC joining the Urban Fellows Program to pursue his passion for public service, especially for the homeless.

*Originally published in the Brown Daily Herald, May 21, 2015 and republished with permission by the author.

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. 

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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.

Light the Fire and Clear the Path


In Jon Mertz’s new book, Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders, Jon talks about Soul Sparks:

“Soul sparks are those small ignitions of inspiration that fan into big changes, new directions, or fresh works. They come from deep down inside. Make your body and mind shake with excitement. These are soul sparks.” 

I am blessed to have had bosses who saw soul sparks in me and gave me opportunities to develop and spread them. These bosses mentored and supported my soul sparks up to the highest levels of the company and made sure I succeeded.  They viewed their job as lighting the fire and clearing the path for me.  Because that was how I was managed and led from the start of my career, because that was really all I personally and gratefully knew, that was how I managed and led others; how could I know otherwise?

Just as one candle lights another and can light thousands of other candles, so one heart illuminates another heart and can illuminate thousands of other hearts. ~ Leo Tolstoy

In my career, I’ve helped clients ignite soul sparks and surpass goals we thought were long shots.  I’ve had C-suiters give air cover to employees with soul sparks that when implemented changed industries, delivered value propositions for their customers’ customers and created opportunities for new hires and employee growth.   Needless to say, this is fun, rewarding and keeps sparks spreading.

Perhaps most joyful has been fueling soul sparks with Millennials I’m privileged to mentor who also mentor me.  Serendipitously, many of their stories are posted on Swearer Sparks! I love “my” Millennials sense of entitlement.  Yes! Entitlement –of being entitled to pursue their soul sparks to change the world and ignite soul sparks in others.  

Soul Sparks challenge orthodoxy

Sidney Kusher founded CCChampions as a junior in college to match kids going through the horrors of cancer treatment with pro athletes and heroes, to help them feel like champions.   Sidney’s soul spark changes the lives of these kids, their families, their doctors and nurses and their “champions” in ways he never could have anticipated.  And it changes the lives of those of us who have been a part of this journey.   I’ve been privileged to help Sidney keep the spark going when the daily frustrations of managing a staff, fundraising, and emotional drain of cancer’s reality take a toll. But soul sparks cannot be contained.  Soul sparks are contagious.  I don’t know who benefits more – Sidney when I help him be the leader at 24 I wasn’t at 30 or me from his wisdom, honestly and authenticity.  Despite the rapid growth of kids in need without the rapid growth in staff to support it, CCChampions March Madness March to Friendship surpassed all expectations and broke records – raising enough funds to support 40 new kids with cancer! 

Soul Sparks ignite when the focus is on others, not on oneself.

Jayson Marwaha and Han Sheng Chia started MED-International as sophomores in college providing medical equipment and tools for maintenance in emerging markets.  They started in Zanzibar with incubators and X-ray machines that were too ‘old’ for us in America.  Computer science and engineering students caught the spark, developing tools to track and repair equipment so it could be up and running to save and heal lives.  MED tried to grow into other emerging markets, but no viable business model emerged. After a summer of research in Tanzania and Ghana, they realized that to scale and impact patient care, they needed to be on the ground most of the time.  As a board member, I should have pushed shutting the business down earlier, since there was no viable path to profitability.  As a mentor, I knew they needed to come to that conclusion on their own, having tried all possibilities.  In the end, they created an elegant, gracious and compassionate solution – they open-sourced the software so it can be used in any hospital anywhere in the world.  In the four years MED was running, it saved lives.  Not many of us can claim that.

Soul Sparks are real.  They drive us to innovate and to make an impact.  So what will you do to ignite the Soul Spark in others? Find a way, because it will ignite a spark within you!

 

This post is part of a community-wide initiative on Soul Sparks celebrating the launch of Jon Mertz’s book, Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders.  Please read it and visit his site, Thin Difference

What's Missing?


When we are looking for patterns, trying to understand or discover customer needs, trying to learn something in general, we tend to look for what’s there.  We look for what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste – for what we observe.  This can take time and focus.  Sometimes we have to look at the negative space as well, the empty space around the ‘thing’ we are observing.   Negative space is used a lot in art and optical illusions.  For instance, look at this key, the logo for the American Institute for Architects in New York:

It looks like a key, right? But look at the cuts in the key’s blade – it’s the NYC skyline! If you took a quick look, you might not notice that it’s a skyline, let alone NYC’s.  So when we are looking, it’s important to look at the equivalent of the ‘negative space’ around the ‘thing’ we are observing.

But what if we ‘looked’ for what’s NOT there? What if we looked for what was missing?  This sounds strange – how can you look for something that’s not there?  Maybe we’re not actually ‘looking’ in the literal sense, but we are trying to see what is missing – what should/could/ought to be there but isn’t.  In Episode 7 of Serial*, one of the lawyers says, “That’s what we’re not seeing.”  Those few words stopped me in my tracks. 

What we are NOT seeing!  We are so used to looking and making sense of what’s there that we rarely stop and look at what’s NOT there… at what’s missing.   Ok, so you can’t see something that’s not there – but maybe you can!  Maybe you can ‘see’ what is normally, typically, usually there in a certain situation or circumstance.  Its absence should raise a flag.  If you question and examine, you’ll ask why something isn’t there, or isn’t there in a way it should be.  Ask Why.  Why didn’t this happen? Why wasn’t that there? Why wasn’t that used? Why wasn’t that tightened? Why wasn’t that next to this?

So the next time you’re observing to learn – to build a new product or service or feature, to understand a customer segment or need – ask yourself what’s missing.  Ask yourself what should be there that isn’t and ask why.  Who knows what you will discover!

 

*If you haven't listened to Serial yet, you must! Aside from the 'entertainment' value which is very high, the lessons on looking, observing, over-looking, ignoring, missing are applicable to so much of our lives - personally and professionally.

Have you figured out what’s missing in the picture of the robots at the top? Do you want to know? If yes, keep reading.  If no, STOP!

(Look at Robot Robbie's center graphic with the gears; there's only 1 red ‘canister’ on the right).

Coming: Dips, Rocks and Thunderstorm

Joseph Pistrui's post from his blog really resonated with me and I thought it would with you!  Jospeh is a friend, colleague and wise man. He diverse background and expertise gives him the credibilty to speak on our very dynamic world.  So read on and please ponder.  And thank you, Joseph, for letting me repost your words here!
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A recent tweet by 7billCORPORATE (@7billcorp, part of @7billionideas) really nailed the truth about innovation and business. On 30 January 2015 via Twitter, a brilliant graphic was added to a post that contrasted the perception many people have about the path to progress and what it’s really like. Here ’tis:

Path to Progress

So many think that innovation happens quickly, smoothly, without roadblocks or bumps. And that may be true, for a few. If you are operating in a business environment in which there is a reasonably clear — and straight — line to who your future customers will be and what products and services you need to develop for them, first count your blessings and then get on the accelerator. Assuming you have the technology and know-how to make it happen, these are precisely the conditions when speed is critically important. Start. Go fast. Keep going. Don’t stop.

In these rare moments in the world of enterprise, getting to your destination as fast and efficiently as possible must be your paramount goal. The business world has countless tools for planning and eking out process improvements for such journeys, and you probably already know how to use them well.

In such cases, think of the time you may have watched with envy that shiny red Porsche Carrera speeding off down the highway with the driver pushing “pedal to the metal”. Recall the roar of all that horsepower as it reached top speed and peak performance, unchallenged by anything or anyone on the road.

Unfortunately, such an analogy isn’t the reality for most firms. “The future” for most businesses and organisations I encounter will be the kind of path that 7billCORPORATE displays. There will be dips, rocks, wobbly bridges over unknown chasms and deep water where you expected smooth pavement. Oh, and don’t forget the thunderstorms.

For most of those I meet, their future operating environment is uncertain, ambiguous and even (heaven forbid) unknowable. During their journey in time, many of the time-tested tools and techniques at their disposal will prove to be, well, not very helpful.

That does not mean that what’s needed is a new car and a new driver. Think now of that same Porsche, only this time keeping in mind its other performance capacities, such as cornering, shifting, braking and speed. This exceptionally well-engineered automobile is both ready for the high-speed straightaway as well as the curves, redirections and sudden changes of speed required to drive the rocky road to tomorrow.

Yet, if you lack the mindset to power up and power past unpredictable obstacles, you might as well be on skateboard with only one set of wheels. You’re not going to move far, fast or fearlessly. Which is why, as I work with companies large and small, I find that what’s most needed is a new leadership mindset, skillset and toolset. Too many leaders have great cars, but they lack versatility. The 21st century leader must be able to move fast when he or she knows the right direction, be cautious when the terrain is unknown or threatening, be willing to change directions when new and compelling information becomes available, and be able to stop quickly — even altogether — should the conditions for progress prove impossible.Porsche Carerra

Becoming more versatile (or ambidextrous) as a leader is no small task; but, in my experience, it is now an imperative for survival, and even more an imperative for growth. Our Nextsensing Project is about working with the mindset of any leader facing an uncertain future. No matter what kind of car he or she drives, moving into the future requires an understanding of the unique challenge at hand, the identification of the appropriate tools to use for the situation, and the building of confidence that only rough roads truly test the abilities of the vehicle — and the driver.


Porsche image from http://www.porsche-mania.com


Are You On a Salvage or Launch Mission?

 

Sunk Costs: money you spent that can’t be recovered… salvaged.  This month, I’ve been working with a few companies struggling to walking away from sunk costs. Despite how ‘obviously’ inane it may be, many companies keep throwing good money after bad.  They keep spending more money to try to salvage any use or benefit from what is sunk – down at the bottom of the sea.  In the Venture Capital world we call this financing risk – putting good money after bad on the hope that at some point, Einstein’s Law of Insanity* will be wrong and the salvage mission becomes a successful rescue mission.  Problem is this rarely happens.

So, guess what? Sunk costs are sunk. Move on. Get over it. Put your energy, time and resources into opportunities for growth, into potential launch missions.  Put good money after good money. Stop salvaging and start launching.

* Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

 

Savory Tales of Connection

 

 Fried Twitter Tales is a collection of stories on the WHY of twitter by some amazing people and I got to be included! Honored! The story that Vala Afshar and I love about twitter, the network and making amazing things happen (like CCChampions & the Celtics) is the first story.  So please download this free e-book, read it, share it and build relationships with amazing people. 

 

Simple Can Be Great!

Elizabeth Weber's recent visit to Lowe's provided many insights she's recorded in a great blog on Medium. It's enlightening and eye opening for B2C or B2B2C businesses. Innovation doesn't always have to be grand, expensive and complicated...sometimes, simple is really great.  Think of your business - there are applications and lessons here for anyone

"Lowe’s launched the Lowe’s Innovation Labs in June 2014. The Labs uses a method known as sci-fi prototyping to explore new customer experiences, such as customers walking into a Holoroom to visualize flooring in a virtual replica of their home, or customers talking to OSHbot, the Lowe’s robot assistant to learn where lawn mowers are located in the store. Lowe’s is exploring the technological and UX frontier for retail shopping, and it is incredible.  But are there simpler, and less expensive ways to improve customer experience in our digital age?" read the rest....

 

Elizabeth Weber is a User Experience Designer in San Francisco.  She a Brown '14 graduate where she launched it's first accelerator, Brown Venture Labs as president of the Entrepreneur Program.  She was the Branding Strategist for Speak Your Mind Foundation and served as a Design Researcher and Product Manager to the President of Brown University in the creation and launch of BrownConnect.

To Move the World, Show, Don't Tell

Rexy Josh Dorado is changing the world by living stories, and then telling them.  Here's his story - with lessons for the C-Suite to the street.  Please read, listen and do - and tell that story.
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As a child, all I wanted to do was build things: Lego buildings, clay monsters, web forums, video games.  At the core was a hunger for new possibilities that came alive with each new thing I dreamt up.

In middle school, this drive manifested in writing.  Among the first lessons that stuck with me was the classical literary rule: Show, don’t tell.”

It’s a simple maxim, yet powerful in its consequence.  “Show, don’t tell” means focusing on vivid experience over exposition.  It recognizes a deep power in unspoken things.

It thrills me to see the social sector embrace the importance of storytelling.  And yet: as much as the field has learned to tell its story better, we’re still a long way away from harnessing the principles of storytelling not only to talk about change, but enact it.

What can we - in attempting to change society’s lived stories - learn from the art of telling stories?  What can social change learn from “show, don’t tell”?

1. How to connect the dots.

I’m the founder of Kaya Collaborative, a youth initiative to transform the global Filipino community into a support network for social innovation in the Philippines.  We run a summer fellowship that immerses young diaspora leaders in Manila’s social sector - then launches them back into their global communities to engineer this reconnection at scale.

Our program is part of the service learning field, which is in midway through a quiet but significant shift in identity.  Service learning often translated to communities being the backdrop of privileged volunteers’ savior narratives - marginal benefit at the cost of one’s dignity.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  

When done respectfully - when the goal is listening and partnering - service learning has the power to build empathic relationships and empower both sides.  To give light to communities who have been historically effaced.

Nadinne Cruz, a “recovering angry critic”, describes service learning as a path to a world where “the moral brilliance of communities everywhere... becomes central.”

At Kaya Co, we try to tell a new narrative of the Philippines that’s defined by strength and potential.  Great sentiment - but it never sticks until people see it shown, then learn to tell it to themselves.

Our world has never been so equally divided and interconnected.  Courses and texts that promote “global citizenship” only do so much.  Vivid, sensory, shown experience tells what cannot be told: in the moments between facts, in the textures of hands, and the sights that stick better than text.

2. How to unlock potential.

The Future Project is a movement to eliminate apathy in American schools by recruiting and mobilizing Dream Directors: intrapreneurs working full time to turn the dreams of students into reality - and inspire the entire school to do the same.

According to Andrew Mangino, TFP’s founder: “If we start asking young people (about their dreams and passions) and getting them to answer in the form of action, that’s what’s needed most.”

Andrew Mangino is an Ashoka fellow, part of the world’s oldest and largest network of social entrepreneurs. Over time, we at Ashoka have observed a common element in the lives of these pioneers: at some point in their youth, they realized that they had the power to make change.

This is what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire called conscientização, or critical consciousness: an understanding of the forces that shape the world, and the power that one has to play a role in that shaping.

This only happens through practice.  To build changemakers, let them build and make change.

Today, we’re inundated with messaging that tells us, yes, we can follow our dreams.  That only goes so far. One of the gravest injustices of the world is that too few have the opportunity to show themselves - not just be told - their true power.

3. How to lead the way.

At the start, Ashoka’s goal was to accelerate our fellows’ impact to the largest possible scale.  But the biggest mark we’ve left is more collective.  Over time, our fellows have shown the world so vividly the power of social entrepreneurship that the idea took on a life of its own.  A sector has emerged from so many imaginations sparked.

At Kaya Co, we turn our transnational goal into something that feels tangible by accelerating people, communities, and programs that have made it happen.

The Future Project’s Dream Directors act as role models to their students, and take on a project to change school culture as they guide kids through their own projects.  Collectively, they build a new picture of what American education can be.

Call it modeling, prototyping, “breaking ground.”  In the end, it boils down to showing, not telling, what is possible.  The world will follow.

Rexy Josh Dorado is a 2014 graduate of Brown University and a believer in the power of identity to spark change.  He is a Search Associate at Ashoka, the world's largest and oldest network of social entrepreneurs, and moonlights as the founder and leader of Kaya Collaborative: a social venture that aims to inspire, educate, and activate the young Filipino diaspora as a support network for citizen leadership in the Philippines.