Last November I attended The Fingerlakes Social Entrepreneurship Institute hosted by The Center for Transformative Action at Cornell University. I had a great time chatting with the social entrepreneurs there and left feeling engaged and inspired. That inspiration manifested in a small change at the time: I changed the name of this blog from Make Better Stuff to Art & Invention. For me, the name-change marked a shift in thinking and writing about stuff to thinking and writing about what it takes to make stuff: the emotional and practical world that artists create, define, and live in.
Then in January of this year, I applied to Seth Godin’s altMBA program with the goal of making more art. But once the course actually started I changed my goal from “making more art” to “helping other people make art.” And that’s a trap we fall into, right? We avoid working on our own sh*t by helping other people do theirs. And that’s not all bad. It’s good and it’s generous, but for me, it’s also a form of hiding from my own work. So I’m just trying to hold a light on that in my life and examine it.
Another push toward making art came in late August when I visited the Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, Maine. The campus is what I hope heaven to be: simple modernist cabins built into a tree-lined mountainside overlooking the sea. In each cabin, a different set of tools and materials: hot studios for glass and metal, a graphics studio with ink and roller, a ceramics studio with slip and wheels, a woodshop with saws and clamps, a textiles studio with sewing machines and dyes, and a fab lab with CNC routers and 3D printers . I left there feeling that I needed to go home and create my own space. You can’t make art just anywhere. You really do need a workshop. A place to have your tools out and keep them out. So I’ve done that this fall. I’ve created that.
This fall I’m falling into art. I’m emotionally ready and I’ve carved out the practical space to work.
Is a wonderful thing. And a generous thing. But it can also be an escape from working on the stuff that you really need to work on. Your own stuff. The stuff that scares you.
It’s hard. It’s hard to even articulate your needs to yourself let alone ask other people to help you fulfill them. Do you need a team? Resources? Thumbs up from the folks who matter?
While it’s hard to ask for these things, you need to ask for these things. Otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for failure.
The worst decision is to not make one at all.
Why do we put off decisions? Fear of being wrong.
Why are we so afraid? Often because we haven’t thought through the consequences.
But if we think through the consequences, we might not be so afraid to make a decision and try it out. The thing you decide on can be an experiment with an evaluation plan. Once you try out your decision and evaluate it, you can then decide to stay on that course or change.
Moving through life is decision making. Not making decisions causes stagnation.
an excerpt from the book Art & Fear about artistic practice:
As a practical matter, ideas and methods that work usually continue to work. If you were working smoothly and now you are stuck, chances are, you unnecessarily altered some approach that was already working perfectly well….When things go haywire, your best opening strategy might be to return very carefully and consciously to the habits and practices that were in play the last time you felt good about the work. Return to the space you drifted away from and, sometimes at least, the work will return as well.
I’m sitting in on a Social Impact Analysis course hosted by Acumen. The course is project based and with my project, I’m exploring the question: How might we inspire more women to become inventors?
Some data on the problem here:
It’s more often than you think.
Now, if you are building a bridge that can hurt people if it fails, take fewer risks. But if you’re given a prompt or an assignment in which you don’t have to actually build the outcome, you should take risks. And if you are tasked to make an art piece that challenges the status quo, you should do it. Taking creative risks helps you build creative muscle.
However, too often our blanket response to a challenge is risk aversion. We don’t stop to evaluate the situation and ask ourselves: “Is this a good time for me to take creative risks?” Too often, we default to conservative without giving it any thought.
Taking creative risks helps you get over the fear of looking stupid in front of other people. A fear that we all need to get over. A fear that is holding us back.
When technology is taught out of context, it can only get us so far. But when we pair it with disciplines that teach effective methods for intentional change, then we can make the world better. Here are a few pairings:
- Technology + Design. Students learn to empathize with users and to employ design processes to develop solutions that give their users super-powers.
- Technology + Sustainability. Students learn models for human, biological, and ecological systems and to identify and leverage points in a system for positive change.
- Technology + Entrepreneurship. Students learn how to create and test business models and use that knowledge to inform their product development process and launch.
- Technology + Leadership. Students learn how to navigate fear, set goals, build highly functional teams, and develop trusting relationships as they work on technology projects.
What other pairings might we explore?
About 500 years ago I gave a TEDx talk called “Make Better Stuff.” It was set in the context of the rise of digital fabrication. My talk was a plea to seize the opportunity, to push beyond making 3D printed key chains and arduino controlled toy cars and really engage in using this technology to make the world better. The focus was on the stuff that people made and the call to action was to make it better.
But over the years I’ve come to realize that if you want people to make better stuff, you need to have more diverse people making stuff. You need to have more diverse people studying STEM disciplines at university and participating and leading in the STEM workforce.
The problem is, most of our tech programs attract white boys and men. It’s hard to know why. Is it because white boys and men have more confidence and thus enroll in these programs? Or is it because these programs are written with language and filled with signals that tell them “You belong here.”
So what do we do about it? How do we encourage more women and people of color to shape the present and future course of technology, to make better stuff?
The answer is complex. We need to teach women and people of color how to navigate the status quo while at the same time, teach them to identify and leverage the qualities that make them unique. We don’t want and need more diversity in STEM programs for the statistics of it alone. We want more diversity in STEM programs because we want more diversity, more creativity, more creative tension, more skill in working through creative tension. Because if we do it right, on the other side of that tension, we’ll have a diverse group of inventors challenging the status quo and making better stuff.
The management book, Radical Candor is often interpreted as, “Be blunt when giving feedback.” But it’s more nuanced than that. One of the most useful tips in the book is, “Praise in Public, Criticize in Private.” For example, if someone on your team sends out a group email and there is a mistake in it, let them know in a private message, not in a “reply all.” But if they share good work in a group email, “respond all” and praise away. Common sense, yes?
But what about a workshop or critique situation? If you read this blog, then you know I went to art school. And art school is tough, especially critique.
Critique is a group meeting in which you hang your work on the wall and your professor and peers rip it to shreds. It makes you tough. If managed correctly, the public criticism is all about the work, not about the artist, and it ultimately makes the work better. An artist that is practiced in crit eventually internalizes this kind of feedback and can call it up while they are working to make good decisions.
On the other end of the spectrum from critique is radical empathy, the practice of helping people feel seen and heard. This is especially important when teaching women and people of color who tend to hang back in group critique settings. First generation college students might have this challenge too. It can take them a while to speak up at all. And when they finally do, is critique the best environment help them build confidence? Do they need to be toughened up or have their lives been tough enough already?
I don’t know the answers here. But it’s good food for thought. Something to hold in my heart and continue to think about.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Radical Candor blog
Is “Grit” Racist?