Gratitude and Mentorship

Every morning, I read from Deng Ming-Dao's 365 Daily Taoist Meditations. Now that I have moved to the Southern Hemisphere, I am off track to my friends and family in the Northern Hemisphere with whom I share them. Today's meditation for the Northern Hemisphere was Gratitude.

When you drink water,
Remember its source.

Being spiritual means not taking things for granted. Quite the opposite, you remember how everything that comes to you fits into an overall scheme. You acknowledge the precious quality of everyday things. And you maintain a gratitude for both the good and the bad in your life.

--Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Taoist Daily Meditations (Harper San Francisco: 1992, p. 195)

This meditations sends my thoughts in the direction of mentorship based on an op-ed piece about Supreme Count Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s “life” by David Brooks, entitled The Way We Live Now. There are three aspects of his description of her that deeply resonated with me.

The first is the fact that she had, as well, lost a parent at the age of nine years. Brooks goes on to say, “It is amazing how many people who suffer parental loss between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become astounding high achievers.”

The second is the sacrifices in relationships she has had to make including her relationship to her ethnic identity.

The third is the most important and one that colors my sense of gratitude. I will quote Brooks directly to capture it, “Her ascent wasn’t a maverick charge against the establishment. Instead, at each phase her talents were noticed by a well-placed member of that establishment — a famous law professor, a revered D.A., a partner at an elite firm. She was elevated and guided.”

Mary Pratt, the partner of Renato Rosaldo my dissertation advisor, once said to me, “You have a knack to attracting powerful allies.” I have never really had the arrogance to believe that any of my achievements have been mine alone. I have always been aware and had a strong sense of gratitude for the long list of those who have “elevated and guided” me:

  • Mr. Selvy in 7th grade who was the Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle, and thus taught me to be a gifted presenter and nurtured my inner-linguist. Every time I get up to do a presentation, I thank him for those Saturday speech competitions reciting Soujourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” and Rotary Club presentations.
  • Mr. Allen in 8th grade who suggested that I be interviewed on a series desegregation and its after effects, which was my first blush with “fame.” From that experience, I learned that I “represent” many positive things to people (in terms of being black, female, and smart) who also share in my successes.
  • Mr. Foster in high school, who gave me my first set of acrylic paints and taught me the discipline and appreciation of form.
  • Mr. Reed in high school, who opened up the world of great literature for me and pushed me to express myself in words eloquent, beautiful, and most importantly, true.
  • Professor Kilbride, who gave me my first fieldwork experiences in Kenya while a wee undergraduate. 
  • Professor DesChene, my first real female mentor, who would never allow me to rest on my anthropological laurels and supported me in the most untraditional of anthropological topics, phone sex, because she knew that I could not be bound by anthropological conventions. And to this day, I cannot be bound by anthropological conventions.
  • Professor Rosaldo (Renato), who ran some much interference for me at Stanford that while other people think of graduate school as this infantilizing process, I think fondly of it as where I learned to circumvent barriers in order to make manifest the most bizarre and unusual of your ideas. From him professionally, I learned the importance of having a powerful ally who will allow you to...skip the proposal writing course because you had already completed the output of it, take your qualifying exams one year earlier (which saved me from disaster when he had a stroke), win an NSF grant, and write and accept a dissertation whose form and content he did not completely understand, yet supported anyway. From him personally, I learned the importance of being attuned to your own spirituality, which is what allows you to really circumvent all barriers.
  • Dr. Rick Robinson, who gave me my first non-academic job at E-lab/Sapient and opened an entirely new universe of possibilities and understanding for anthropological knowledge.
  • Parrish Hanna, who is more of a big brother than mentor, per se, but I’ve learned how to always seek my next challenge and has become my model for how to handle, in the future for me perhaps, “mind-blowing” success with kindness, humility, and grace, and thus remain a down-to-earth person.
  • Ric Grefe, who is the first person that I’ve ever directly asked to be my mentor because there were aspects of his character that I actively wanted to acquire: compassionate leadership, progressive long-term vision for an organization, supreme skills of persuasion/manipulation if necessary, and boundless curiosity about how the world works and how to make it better. He is given me the most opportunities to cultivate my leadership skills with Design for Democracy, the German Marshall Fellowship, and even the U.S. Design Policy Initiative, in which I have learned to truly trust my own leadership and vision.
  • Dr. Roberta Feldman, who has guided me through two very difficult professional situations with DforD and UIC.  She epitomizes “strength of character” for me, because throughout the bullshit she has been put through in her career, she remains focused on what matters, which is “the work.” She has taught me that if you preserve and focus on doing what is necessary to sustain “the work,” then you will always triumph over the political BS. Institutions come and go. Power individuals with personal vendettas against you come and go. Recognition is fleeting. In the end, what remains is your personal integrity and the work itself. In both of these is the power one never cedes to another individual and institution.
  • Dr. Ken Friedman, who will become my primary mentor in guiding the next few years of my career. It is rare that someone says “Write down your dream job” and hands it to you. I have been given such an amazing platform by which to grow almost exponentially in the next few years. Even yesterday, it was fun to watch him “work it” with the Victoria State Ministry of Innovation and Economic Development. The fact that I was present in the meeting at all demonstrates his desire to elevate my work. And what makes this situation so ideal is that I will help him achieve his goals by just doing what I do (exceptionally well).

One can see from this long list (which is just the career, semi-non-personal list) that the sources of my flow of “success” are very wide and deep. The act of listing it out this way makes me heart overflow with gratitude for each and every one of them.

What would your list look like? Who is part of your flow? For whom do you feel gratitude for guiding and elevating you?

VPs for Obama

So it seems that Barack Obama has wrapped up the Democratic Presidential nomination. Yippeee!!!! So now the question is who will be VP. I still feel a tug in my heart for an Obama/Clinton ticket. Out of other prospects that have been floating about my second favorite will be Bill Richardson on NM. He is probably one of the most seasoned, smart, progressive, and nice politicians around. If Obama cannot stomach Hillary, he would do well to be able to capitalize on Richardson's experience of how Washington works, which is what Obama needs even if he is going to do things differently. You have to know how things have run in the past before you can change them.

Not to sound cynical (I got Wyclef Jean's If I Was President in my head), the VP candidate is going to be super important. Because if Barack does become the first black president, he will be a major target. And if that worst-case-scenario comes to pass, cities will burn.

But for now, I am full of hope and optimism and pride in America that we can see the day when we can have a black presidential candidate. Yippee!!!

Becoming management:Managing risk versus being risk

There was interesting discussion on the Anthrodesign list about positivism control, and the role of ethnographers an designers. This was my response:

What makes it challenging for designers and ethnographers to engage with management is that they have to become comfortable with having direct power and the implications of what that means in terms of its affect on other people. Design and ethnography are often intermediary roles, translating meaning between groups of unequal power relationships.

The transition designers and ethnographers have to make is (1) learning the rituals of management and (2) understanding what it means to not be a source of risk (complicating, unpredictable, independent) to being a manager of risk (what risk do I take on, transfer, eliminate all together, and just mitigate to a socially acceptable level). This transition is required because all of a sudden the impact of your decision has significant ramifications. A poor decision and 10% of the people can lose their job, which then affects their families, the economy, etc. This knowledge in itself makes me more risk averse, which is about caring about people as opposed to seeing them as names in an Excel spreadsheet. But remember, the Excel spreadsheet was designed to make these tough decisions easier on people’s hearts. (Whether it’s made it too easy is a good question.)

The iterativeness of designing and the complexification of ethnography make this transition difficult because its harder to justify rapid iterations of organizational structures when the uncertainty of what is our new business model can devastate morale (as I have seen) or justify a nuanced explanation of the business ecosystem that takes 10 days to process when a delay in decision making can result in people losing jobs.

The Ying Yang of Anthropology and Design make great tools for management. At the heart of all enterprises are people, and ethnography helps you understand people. Design helps rein in the complexification process by identifying what are the key communications/artifacts/experiences that the people need to fulfill the intentions of the organization. Plug: this is part of the focus session that I am giving at AIGA National in Denver on Friday October 12th.

But as a manager, you are not directly involved in any of those processes, but rather figuring out how to manage the risk inherent in those processes. Are you as a designer or an ethnographer comfortable with that new role?

I like management and only seek management roles as a design anthropologist, because it is much more challenging for me than direct research or design. But I’ve had to make my peace with power, and I’m not sure that lots of designers and researchers are ready to do that. Many that I’ve met prefer to defer that responsibility to some MBA, so they are free to “be creative” or “stay grounded with the people.” Now, I find management very creative. You get to “design” with people, money, space, and time as opposed to images, words, and forms. I have to stay grounded with people, but its the top of the pyramid as opposed to the bottom. But you have to begin to see it that way.

becoming who you wish for

As I was cleaning out old boxes today, I came across the original proposal of incorporation for D4D in 2002 and my wish list for the new president of D4D post-Bob Zeni.

  • National reach (being able to put us in contact with people on the national level)
  • Consensus builder (being able to pull diverse directions into a clear vision that can be shared by all)
  • Have experience on a national platform (I am new to this and afraid of which steps to take, thus would value from experience).
  • Passionate
  • Accountable to the interests of the group, especially the board.
  • Synergistic (can bring together diverse domains and see big picture).

It is cool to think that several years later, I’ve become in many ways that person that I described, first with my work with Design for Democracy, but especially now on the international level with my work with In Design We Trust/Design Policy.

So be careful who you wish for, you might just become her.

Intentions and consistency

Every morning I read meditations from the book, 365 Tao Daily Meditation by Deng Ming-Dao.  Its also available at 365 Tao Digital Dharma as a podcast. The meditation for today was consistency which made me reflect on the work of Lauralee Alben. Here is part of my meditative response which I thought was interesting enough for public consumption...

One of the life changing people that I’ve met is Lauralee Alben. She is this amazing designer, who doesn’t design objects but rather organizations and more importantly people’s lives. She is another person with whom I had this instant connection. We ended up spending over 6 hours together talking from 6pm to midnight. We also seem to resonate at the same frequency. When I went to conference in Pasadena a few months back, people who met me and knew her kept saying that we needed to meet, not knowing that we had been introduced by my friend Parrish. 

Lauralee changed my life because she introduced me to the concept of “intentions.” So I never use the word “goal” anymore, which implies a single-mindedness in both approach and outcome that leads to inflexible thinking. I use the word “intention,” which while preserving the sense of the desired outcome leaves open the approach or path that you take to realize it. As she told me, “Your intention is always in the form of a question.” So lately, my intention (my Tao) has been, “How can I create a space for interdisciplinary knowledge that supports positive social change?.”

This shift in thinking changes lives because it eliminates the possibility of failure, which I always thought of as the result of a lack of imagination based on the expectation that there is a single way to get to a single outcome. It opens up the possibility for collaboration because you can align yourself with people who share the same intention, but you can maintain different approaches. But most importantly, it provides you a clear perspective on the current meaning of your life, which allows you to be open to new experiences but find you way back to the main road.

Yet, consistency is key. I had a friend who was extremely inconsistent. She’d say that she would do something or be somewhere and back out last minute. She was constantly distracted by something or someone else, which ended up wearing down my sense of self-worth, because I could not believe that “buying a $1 gold fish” was more important than being somewhere when she said she would be. Given the fact that I am pretty low-maintenance anyway, I ended up terminating the friendship because this person lacked the ability to determine her priorities. Her inconsistency demonstrated to me that she did not value herself or her own perspective and thus would never value me or our friendship. Since then, consistency is something I look for in friends, because it means that while you can have fun and be silly, you both also know what matters. Sharing a sense of intention about what matters is the root of any friendship.

It is also the key to leadership in that I have learned to attract/gather people who share intentions, yet leave them to their own devices on how to get there. It is sometimes a hit or miss, but I am learning to be more discerning.

New Harvard President Bryn Mawr Grad

The new president of Harvard, Drew Faust, is a Bryn Mawr grad (Class of '68). I did my undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr College.  It is exciting that a Mawrter has broken through the biggest Old Boy Network in American educational history. I was writing to someone last week that if I meet a women who is quirky, intelligent, independent, and tends to break new ground, six times out of 1o she is a Mawrter (10 times out of 10 she is from one of the Seven Sisters).

Anassa kata, kalo kale,
  Ia ia ia Nike,
  Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr!

Breakfast with Dorie (w/ an "e")

Yesterday morning, I had brunch with Dorie Blesoff, an organization change management consultant. She is a truly amazing woman and pointed out some organizations and readings that I should follow up on.

The most exciting for me is The World Cafe methodology for deliberative and creative group futuring.   The idea is that you set up this cafe environment, introduce a key topic and question; have groups converse, doodle, and write down ideas for 20-30 minutes; move to another group for 2 more rounds, synthesize and share collectively. I think it is an approach that I want to use for the small conference and big conference, which I'm thinking of calling, "In Designo Nos Fidus" (In Design We Trust: design, policy, and participatory governance).

I am less impressed with Dr. Don Beck's Spiral Dynamics that she mentioned. This is the same ethnocentrism wrapped in the "evolution" of civilizations speak that has plagued the worst of evolutionary social models since the Great Chain of Beings. Of course the 3rd world is in the lower strata and the 1st worlds in the upper strata. It is very disappointing because if he had a more nuanced view of cultures, his model could be more useful to people who are not privileged.

More later...

Taking criticism and equalibrium

Last weekend, I had my 35th birthday. It is a good time for reflection on how I have progressed as a person. One area in which I feel I have really progressed is in the acceptance of criticism from others. This is due to 2 things I think.

The emphasis on the communication of intent in Design

Having to criticize students so much on their failure to communicate their intent has made me more sympathetic to "misreadings" and "misinterpretations" of others.  I feel a greater burden to communicate my intent and am more open to responses as "information" not personal attack, when miscommunication happens.

Growing maturity and confidence

In Tai Chi, I am taught to never doubt my art. This does not mean being arrogant about my skills and assuming that my way is the right way, but rather it means that I should be confident that I am prepared enough to be able to respond to any situation, including the criticism of others.  If I am not prepared, then through the encounter, I will learn what it is that I need to improve upon. This has significantly reduced my anxiety levels as I assume that I can handle whatever comes good and bad, thus I can absorb and redirect any negative energy into a positive outcome.

This is a key aspect of leadership, absorbing and redirecting positive and negative energy, but it requires that the leader remains balanced.

Tyranny and trust

Last night,  Mohammed and I went to see The Last King of Scotland, a biopic about Idi Amin. Forest Whitiker's performance as Idi Amin was extraordinary in making the former dictator seem very human in spite of his inhuman treatment of people. As I look around at contemporary tyranny, two things that are common among all dictators are (1) the inability to trust the people around them and (2) the recourse to murder to establish a base of trust.  According to  Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, "For somehow this is tyranny's disease, to trust no friends."

Googling on the topic, I came across Stephen M.R. Covey's "The Speed of Trust" and the 13 behaviors of high trust leaders. He lists 5 character behaviors, 5 competence behaviors, and 3 both character and competence behaviors:

Character behaviors

  1. talk straight
  2. demonstrate respect
  3. create transparency
  4. right wrongs
  5. show loyalty

Competence behaviors

  1. deliver results
  2. get better
  3. contront reality
  4. clarify expectations
  5. practice accountability

Both character and competence behaviors

  1. listen first
  2. keep commitments
  3. extend trust

If based on the movie we did an analysis of Idi Amin, he was deficient in many areas of trust.  So perhaps instead of looking at people's congressional records or testing them for topical knowledge, we should give perspective leaders the trust test to avoid tyranny.

Obama 2008

Barack Obama has agreed to run for President in 2008. I feel supportive but worried.  It is interesting because even he says that African Americans are the most skeptical because they feel protective of him. I think that is really it. But now that he has made the decision, I will try to support him.