Leverage Point: Root Causes

It’s easy to get distracted by the symptoms of a problem. It’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that if we address those symptoms, the underlying problem will go away. Why is that? Sometimes we just don’t see the underlying problem. And other times we do see it but the thought of addressing it scares or overwhelms us. So we whack-a-mole our way along never really addressing the root cause of a problem (Why are we at this carnival in the first place??). What a waste.

What if we felt empowered to address root causes? And what if our peers were interested in that too? The work would be harder, but more effective and more rewarding. Root causes of problems are powerful leverage points. Identify them, generate multiple ideas for how to address them, use criteria to chose the best idea, implement it and observe and learn from feedback. You’ll be glad you did.



Donelle Meadows, Places to Intervene in a System


From Goals to Options to Decision Making

Articulating goals can be scary and overwhelming. Especially big lofty goals that keep us up at night or goals that we put off for years by telling ourselves, “Maybe someday. Maybe someday.”

Even when you can articulate a goal, figuring out how to move forward on it can seem impossible. It’s so charged with emotion and failure-issues and dark and twisty-ness, that it can be hard to see it for what it is: a beautiful idea that deserves attention and clarity.

There are tools that can help you navigate that dark and scary territory and move toward the sun! These tools take you on a three-part journey: Goal Setting, Generating Options, and Decision Making.

For Goal Setting, Zig Ziglar has a framework that asks us to identify a goal, parse out why pursuing this goal would be beneficial, name the obstacles that we perceive are holding us back, and identify people who we need to work with to move toward our goal. This framework helps you untangle the complexity of naming a goal for yourself so that you can articulate a path forward.

There are valuable sub-lessons in this framework as well. Like how social goal-setting is even if it’s a goal that you are setting for yourself. And that when you are social you have to be a good listener in order to strengthen your relationships. And you have to know how to ask for help and not be defensive when you receive feedback. It’s all of a piece!

Once you identify a goal for yourself, the next step (and one that is often overlooked) is to generate multiple options for moving forward.

For Generating Options, you can use the Business Model Canvas as a tool for Idea Generation. Because now that you have a framework for setting a goal, the next skill to develop is to learn how to create many options for getting there. Why create so many options and not just one or two? Because with each option you create for yourself, you increase your chances of finding the right one. It’s like a photographer taking a picture for the front page of the New York Times. Do they go out and take one or two pictures and call it a day? Hell no. They take dozens or hundreds of pictures and with each picture they increase their chances of finding that killer shot.

Now that you’ve generated so many options on how to move forward, how will you decide which path is best?

For Decision Making, there are a series of questions generated by Seth Godin and his team that are helpful. Because now that you’ve articulated an ambitious goal and have generated a lot of options for moving forward, you have to face the scary part, the part that makes it real like, “Holy Sh*t, I’m actually going to pursue this thing.” That part is deciding how to start.

The first two steps toward figuring out how to start are about giving yourself permission and encouragement to start. To do this, you can identify the change agents, the things that help you see that this the right time to make this decision. And then you can identify distractions, the things that are getting in your way like ruminating over sunk costs and or other things that are out of your control.

From there you get to be more rational, you get to examine and analyze the array of options that you’ve created for yourself. You do this by quantifying the odds and payoffs for each option that you’ve created. This helps you evaluate the risk associated with each option. The level of risk you chose is personal and situational and will be different for different decisions you make throughout your life. For some decisions, it’s best to “go big or go home.” For others, it’s best to “think big and start small.”

Setting goals and figuring out the best path forward can be terrifying and so overwhelming that we decide to do nothing, to put it off. But if there’s a decision or a goal that’s been gnawing at you, that keeps returning, I encourage you to bring it out into the light and run it through this process. Because it’s likely that that good idea or lofty goal that you keep pushing back, that you keep avoiding to pay attention to, is actually your calling.

Think Big. Start Small.

Having a new idea is both thrilling and overwhelming. It’s thrilling because you’ve finally found something that addresses a problem that you care deeply about. But it’s overwhelming because once you start to think about executing the idea, it’s hard to know where to begin. And that feeling of not knowing where to start can stop you from making any progress at all.

While your idea is big and has the potential to change the world, the best way to start is to start small. Find three people who care about the problem you are solving. Take them out for coffee. And rather than try to sell them your idea, ask them to complain. Ask them to complain about how the problem that you are exploring affects their life and the lives of people that they know. And don’t be satisfied with their first answer. Ask them to dig deep. Questions like, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What makes you say that?” will give you answers that are chock full of useful information about your customers.

And when they are finally done complaining, ask them who else they know who you might talk to. And take those people out for coffee. And ask them to complain to you about the problem you are exploring. That’s how you find and build your tribe. One cup of coffee at a time.

Execution Isn’t Glamorous

Yesterday I had to do some troubleshooting with two pieces of art. With my cards, I had to figure out why the service bureau I’m using prints my images off-centered by 1/32 of an inch. Is it because of a mistake in my file or because of a mistake being made by them? The cards come off my printer at home perfectly centered. So I brought those test prints with me when I went to pick up the job. Hammering it out at the print shop isn’t what you think of when you think of an artist doing work. But it is, it’s part of the work.

My second piece of art is a kinetic sculpture. Yesterday I designed and fabricated a few more iterations of the control box to figure out the “best” way for the components to fit together. “Best” means a few things: how the arrangement of components affects the motion of the piece, the look of the piece, and the durability of the piece. The only way for me to figure that out is to make a bunch of different versions and test them.

This work isn’t glamorous. And 95% of people seeing the finished work won’t notice or appreciate that it’s been done, at least not consciously. But hopefully, it will elevate the work. One benefit I know for sure, it’ll help me sleep better!

Artist Spotlight: Julie Taymor

The Magic Flute at The Metropolitan Opera

Julie Taymor is a director of theater, opera, and film and known for her spectacular costume and stage design.  Taymor became interested in theater at an early age. In high school, she traveled to Aisa. After high school, she studied mime and puppetry in Paris. After college, she visited Bali and founded her own theater company there. She came back to the states in 1980 and worked on many productions. Then in the mid-nineties created The Lion King, one of her best-known works. Taymor has directed incredible films like Frida and Across the Universe. Her work spans media and is multi-dimensional. It’s painterly, sculptural, high tech and low tech. What an inspiration.


2013 TED Talk

Interview w Taymor in The Guardian, 2015

Creativity and Execution: Pastry Edition


a dessert by Jordi Roca

My introduction to the execution side of creativity was in my mother’s catering business that she ran out of our home kitchen when I was a kid. She called the business Gorgeous Food and the vision for the business was true to its name. The focus was on presenting fresh, seasonal ingredients in their most beautiful form. “Presentation is everything,” my mother used to say.

When prepping for a party, my mother would describe her vision, then set me up in the kitchen with the ingredients and tools I needed to execute. I kind of loved it. The openness of creativity combined with the orderliness required for assembly was a spot that I felt at home in.

It’s no surprise then, that in my adult life I LOVE watching cooking shows, especially ones that feature masters. This past weekend I watched Chef’s Table: Jordi Roca. Roca has a funny story. Standing in the shadows of his mother and older brothers, he struggled to find his voice for a long time. But he eventually found it in pastry.

My favorite part of the feature is watching the chef experiment with sugar. There are many scenes, played back in slow motion, in which Roca is spinning sugar or blowing it into glass-like forms then filling those forms with emulsions or creams. The creative process is mesmerizing. But what must be just as good, though they don’t show it, is how his team sets up for production. I’d like to see that.


On Frames

I was at the local makerspace this weekend and I saw some work-in-progress hanging in the woodshop–a series of frames that played with the concept of frame. It’s a great theme. One that I explored in a piece in which I put a bunch of found objects into a fancy glass case in the lobby of a public building. The conceptual weight that frames and fancy glass cases give their contents is a fun concept to explore. Oh, how people stopped and stared at those objects!

But most of the time as artists we are more focused on the content of the frame than the frame itself. Yet, making a decision about how to frame a piece can be surprisingly challenging. For example, I have been trying to decide on whether the piece that I’m working on right now should be freestanding or hanging. I finally decided on hanging for several reasons that I won’t get into here. But one reason that was holding me back from making that decision was that I knew that that decision led to the inclusion of an overt rack or frame.

The frame influences the art. If I choose a laundry rack, that frame will give the piece a domestic feel. And within the decision of laundry rack, there are several kinds of laundry racks. If I choose a lightweight rack, I have to think about how that will affect the movement of the piece. And will that movement be welcome or distracting?

If I go with a work light or photo light rack, that kind of a rack will give the piece an industrial feel. And while I like industrial on an aesthetic level, is that really what I’m going for with this piece? Do I want the art, which is already mechanical, to be the same as the rack or do I want contrast? And if I want contrast, should that contrast be obvious or subtle? Is it something that you see right away or something that you only notice in an extended viewing?

For now, I’ve decided on a cheap, simple, lightweight laundry rack. But I won’t really know how it frames the piece until I set it up in my living room and sit with it for a while.  I’m looking forward to that.



from the archive: Nile Rogers and Figure-Ground


You Need a Portfolio

It may be obvious to artists and less so to inventors: you need a portfolio. 90% of the time it doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to say, “I made these projects and cared enough about them to document them.” Why do you need one? Because you make things. Sure, other job applicants can get away with just resumes and cover letters. But if you want to stand out as someone who makes things and who is passionate about making things, then you need a portfolio.

If thoughts like, “I need to design a website from scratch” are keeping you from making progress, I’m here to say, move on. There are plenty of ready-made platforms that make it easy to document and share your work.

  • Google Drive. If you’ve documented your project in a pdf or in a slide deck, you can easily upload these things to google drive and click the option “Share on the Web.” This gives you a URL that you can point people to and say, “Here is some of my work!”
  • Flickr or Google Photos. These platforms allow you to create albums of images. Upload images of your work and use the captions feature to describe what we are looking at!
  • Behance. Behance is a wonderful portfolio platform by Adobe that is used by designers. It has a nice feature that allows you to flow your behance content into a simple one page portfolio template. That’s what I use.
  • WordPress. You can create a simple portfolio on wordpress by choosing a photo-centric template.
  • Media Coverage. If you’ve been lucky enough to have your work written up and photographed by the media, even a college newspaper, download copies of that coverage for safe keeping.

There are more ways to share your work that I haven’t mentioned here. Video on youtube or vimeo is a popular way to go, especially if your work is motion based or site-specific. And if tutorials are your thing, Instructables works well.

Don’t let the options overwhelm you. If you don’t know where to start, start with the simplest option–create a google slide deck and share it to the web. Remember to include your contact information!

Old into New

There are many examples of turning old things into new things. Sometimes this transformation takes a lot of processing (like turning soda bottles into performance gear) and other times just a little (like turning a milk carton into a birdhouse). This process above by designer Kodai Iwamoto is right in between. Old pipe is cut to size, heated, blown into a mold, and released. The results are gorgeous with the shape and function of something new while maintaining visual artifacts that signal the object’s past.



Kodai Iwamoto 

Making a Noguchi Lamp

Workshop as a Verb

In the arts, at least in art school, there are formal mechanisms in place for talking about work in progress. Artists have critique, performing artists have rehearsal, and creative writers have the workshop. I like how writers use the word “workshop” as a verb, for example, “Let’s workshop that poem.”

After graduating, many artists lose that formalized place and community, so they stop making art. Some artists find local groups to work with. Others go back to school–they enter a graduate program just to have that community again. But many more just quit. And this is a tragedy. Because the world needs more artists and it needs more art.

My definition of an artist here is, “a person who consistently makes art.” That is to say, you don’t need to make a living as an artist to be an artist. In fact, most of my friends who are artists, musicians, composers, and actors have full-time jobs that bring in their main source of income.  Yet they make art–mostly every day, at least every week.

As for the artists who quit? I wonder if they would keep at it if they could maintain the practice of workshopping with a small group of people who consistently show up ready to share their work and give them feedback on theirs.