Monday, May 27, 2013

Curiousity: How The Heck Does That Work

Yesterday, I was reading one of Chris Brogan's newsletters. He was talking about our flags - basically what defines us, personally and professionally. This is something I've been thinking about, and so on a whim, I wrote to him, and said, "I'm curious, and I want other people to be curious too. No idea how this integrates with my career, actually - encouraging curiosity doesn't seem to be a paying sort of endeavor - but it's what I wind up doing most of the time :-)"

Wouldn't the world be a much better place if it was populated by intensely curious people? Curiosity is an engine of understanding, and understanding is an agent of change.

Much to my delight, Chris wrote back, saying,"Curiosity doesn't pay. Helping people satisfy theirs does. :)"

So now I'm thinking about what tangible, offline tools do people use to satisfy their curiosity? I'm focusing on offline tools because I believe hands on engagement is essential to creating passionate curiosity. It's definitely essential to understanding.

A magnifying glass is a great example, and one I appreciate more and more as I get older. It's a simple, easy way to see the small details of things. Binoculars and spy-glasses let you see what's far away; telescopes are great for what's really, really far away. I don't have a microscope (yet!) but it is definitely the tool to examine what lies way, way, way beneath.

I think if we want to encourage curiosity in children, we need to provide them with the age-appropriate versions of these tools and send them out into the world to see what they can see. More importantly, we need to keep using these tools as we grow. We must not get so busy that we stop looking at the world around us! 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Connecting Our Attention Spans and Success: The Seth Godin Question

Yesterday, I was talking with a colleague about Seth Godin. Seth's blog is pretty much required reading in some circles, and we were talking about why he's so popular. There are times when Seth is brilliant, and there's times when he's not so brilliant - I'm pretty sure that's a function of numbers as much as anything; he's an extremely prolific author and blogger and no one hits it out of the park all of the time.

My colleague suggested one simple reason I hadn't considered. "Seth's stuff is usually really short. I can read it in a minute. Other stuff, I look at it and I know it's got value and I should look at it, but it'll take me a while to read, so I put it in a folder for later."

"Does later ever come?" I asked her.

She laughed. "Sometimes."

Wise Geek reports that an adult should have an attention span of 15-20 minutes - more than long enough for most of us to read a few thousand word article. Yet the internet has reduced our attention span substantially. Typically, we'll spend a minute online paying attention to a single item before we're distracted by something else. Some people don't even spend that much time: they're on to the next thing in less than 10 seconds.

What impact does this have on our success? Well, I think answering that question depends where you're standing. Seth Godin has done well formatting his messaging in a way in such a way to appeal to an abbreviated attention span. When you're populating a website with content, you'll get better results if all of the essential information is instantly identifiable. Non-fiction book design is steadily evolving to incorporate lots of white space, bullet points in quantity, and infographic style design to make them more appealing to the reader.

But does the rapid delivery of information give us everything we need to succeed and thrive? I'm not entirely convinced. If we're only consuming what we can consume quickly, we're limiting ourselves. A diet that consists of only food that's easy to chew and effortless to digest will make us sick in the long run. We need fiber to keep things on track. To extend the metaphor, perhaps we need the intellectual fiber. Perhaps we need to spend time with ideas, taking them in slowly, mulling them over, thinking about them, integrating them into our worldview, and only then taking action.

Doing this can mean taking action that goes against prevailing cultural norms and our own personal daily routines. Suggest to someone that they spend a quarter of an hour with a single article is to provoke an almost guaranteed response of "I don't have time to do that!"

What would happen if we found the time? If we slowed down just enough to be present in our lives, professionally and personally. Would we learn more? Would we understand more? Equipped with more knowledge and understanding, what could we accomplish? It might be worth spending 15 minutes a day finding out.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Music Meets Politics: Ai Weiwei's New Music Video "Dumbass"

I have to begin this post with an admission: I'm not the world's biggest fan of rap music. And my knowledge of Chinese rap music is non-existent. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the artistry and courage that went into putting together Ai Weiwei's new music video, Dumbass .

In 2011, Ai Weiwei, an artist deeply engaged in advocating for personal and artistic freedom in China, was imprisoned by his government for 81 days. In the video for Dumbass, Weiwei tells the story of what that experience was like. In an interview with Reuters, Weiwei said, ""There was one thing I thought was interesting. When I was detained, there was a paramilitary officer standing there very seriously watching me, and he asked me quietly if I could sing a song. At the time I felt extremely frustrated, because I felt terrible, and I realised that in a situation like that, these guards felt just like me, they wanted to hear songs."

Both Weiwei and his captors were powerless in that situation, subject to the dictates of a larger authority. They were trapped in different ways, even though one group - the guards - were in alignment with the system and Weiwei stands in opposition to it.

Connecting Art & Politics

Ai Weiwei is one of my personal heroes because he has the courage to consistently defy the authorities and fight for freedom. He uses his creativity to do this. Much of his work is visually oriented; installation pieces and paintings. Now there is a new music video and an album coming.

It's important to understand that rap music began as the songs of the disempowered and disenfranchised: it was the sound of the young, black, and poor in the 1970's. Over the years, rap music may have become more mainstream, but it's always remained intensely political.

It is interesting to see Weiwei adopt this expressly political form of music to express himself. There's certainly the cinematic/visual story telling aspects of the video to consider, and I think for most Western audiences who do not speak Chinese, it is the experience of watching what this great man experienced while he was imprisoned mixed up with some surreal moments - make sure to look for the goldfish in the toilet! - that will have the most impact.

Art can change the world. This is how that happens.

A song can not be unheard. Anyone can sing a song. I'm not sure how easily the Chinese people will be able to access this video - internet access in China is heavily controlled - but it only needs to get out there to one or two people who will share it with their friends. If the message is embraced, if it resonates, the song will spread. Participation in a communal cultural event creates bonds between people; a song can articulate a shared vision or in this case, a shared imperative. Weiwei explicitly calls out his countrymen - and by extension, all of us who are engaged in the fight for freedom on whatever level - to move past the expected cultural norms and do what must be done.

Fuck forgiveness, tolerance be damned, to hell with manners, the low-life's invincible. If you hear that message long enough, frequently enough, what are you going to internalize? How will your willingness to effect change be impacted? It may be that Weiwei's song is nothing more than a rock thrown in a puddle. But it may be that these are the words the people will be singing as they stand up for themselves. We may be bearing witness to the birth of an anthem that will change the world. I certainly hope so, anyway.