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Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you

ClearmindwildheartDavid Whyte's poetry and narratives in the 6-CD collection, Clear Mind, Wild Heart: Finding Courage and Clarity through Poetry, continue to inspire me. The title of this post is taken from his poem, Sweet Darkness, in which he writes about darkness, tiredness, belonging, freedom and coming alive.  This past week, I recognized that I have come alive [again] in my work -- a resurgence, of sorts -- and I was reminded of an earlier period in my research career where I felt very much alive ... closely followed by a period of darkness, tiredness and confinement. Before reflecting a bit more on personal (and professional) history, I wanted to include the poem, Sweet Darkness, (found here) for reference.

Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
~ David Whyte ~

In the accompanying narrative that Whyte offers to provide some context for the poem, he invokes the spirit of Dante ("in the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood where the way was wholly lost"), and encourages us middle-of-the-roaders to relinquish our clinging to a "climate-controlled existence" and embrace an investigative vulnerability as we cultivate a relationship with the unknown,  with whatever lies over the horizon.

Earlier (in Disc 1, "Our home is so close to us"), Whyte observes that

We're meant to hazard ourselves, to hurt ourselves, to be disappointed, to be on an edge in which you will discover what is you and what is not you.

and later

We naturally gravitate to the corners of creation in which we belong and in which we're supported in doing our work.

Whyte describes poetry as "the art of living at a frontier in life", offering a place of renewal, rediscovery and reimagination. Poetry is as much listening as it is speaking, creating a context in which "you can hear yourself say things you didn't know that you knew." He shares a profound example of this in Sweet Darkness, when he wrote "You must learn one thing..." and wondered, with keen anticipation, just what that one thing would turn out to be.

Further on, Whyte talks about the true nature of humliliation ("to be returned to the ground of your being") and the tendency for many of us to enage in work that we have no affection for, doing it out of our desire for belonging, i.e., doing what we think we should be doing in order to be liked, and often becoming exhausted in the process (reminding me of a recent NPR Talk of the Nation segment on Understanding Burnout, and the high cost of employee disengagement I've written about earlier). A wise Benedictine monk, Brother David, a friend of Whyte's, then shares his insight that

the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness

Whyte concludes the session with the observation that we're all creatures of belonging, and that by articulating all the ways we feel lonely, we're already on the way home ... reflecting insights shared by others regarding the most personal is the most general, and my own sense that by openly sharing our inner secrets, we are better able to connect with others.

And so, inspired by all of this, I decided to start writing, albeit more prosaically than poetically, wondering what, exactly I would say ... how I would say it ... and how deep I would be willing to delve into some of the shadows of my past. I'll start with some recent events, and revisit a few related events in the more distant past -- and the feelings and judgments they evoke[d] in me.

This past week was a particularly wholehearted nd exhilarating week for me, with a number of engaging meetings with interesting people, and culminating in a personal peak around an internal presentation (at Nokia Research Center, Palo Alto) I gave on the past, present and future of proactive displays. In preparing and presenting the slides, I felt more alive than I have in quite some time ... and was offered an opportunity to reflect back upon a period where I experienced a spiritually deadening blockage in my work.

At the outset of the last episode of my assumption of the role of a researcher, I felt very much alive. I had joined a new research lab, I was co-chairing CSCW 2002 (with my dear friend, Elizabeth Churchill), and I would soon be chairing UbiComp 2003 (with lots of help from another good friend, Dave McDonald). In between, I was co-creating a research agenda that would align my passion for using technology to help people relate to one another with my role as conference chair. With the help of Dave, three fabulous interns (David Nguyen, Al "Mamun" Rashid and Suzi Soroczak), and a host of other supporting actors, we designed, developed, deployed and evaluated a suite of three proactive display applications at UbiComp 2003. Our primary goal was to foster a greater sense of community among attendees by sensing people near large displays and showing content relating to those people on the displays. While we encountered challenges of various kinds before, during and after the event, and everything did not go as planned (as anyone who has deployed large-scale sociotechnical interventions "in the wild" can probably relate to), I felt that the project was largely successful, and on the Wednesday night at the end of the conference, I felt like I was at the pinnacle of my career ... and I suppose the next few days, weeks and months only reinforced the perception that that night did, in fact, represent a peak.

I took a much-needed vacation the following Thursday, and when I came in on Friday, I had a meeting with the [now former] lab director and [now former] co-director in which I was told, in effect, that I -- or at least, my work -- wasn't good enough. My approach to research was judged unacceptable, and the work was not well-enough aligned with one of two recently annointed projects, and the goal of the director was to subsume all the research in the lab under these two projects. The proactive display project was cancelled, effectively immediately (to this day, there is no reference to the work on the web site of the lab), and I was told to work on another application, involving the creation and use of place tokens in blogs, that had been largely defined by a [then former] colleague who had left the lab, and that would align with one of the two approved projects. Unfortunately, I didn't believe in the value of the application --  or the project -- and the more I researched it, the less compelling I found the value proposition(s).

The six months following my "success" at UbiComp 2003 was the most soul squelching period of my professional life, as I continued to work on my assigned project, and I finally decided that what I really wanted to do was realign with my heartfelt mission and renew my pursuit of the proactive display agenda, of which I felt we'd only scratched the surface. Although the director would not agree to support the work, I was allocated a grace period in which to explore whether / where / how that work might be supported elsewhere in the firm, or outside of the firm. Unfortunately, while many people were supportive of the idea, no one was willing to allocate "head count" to support me in pursuing the idea. I decided the only way to realize my dream was to create a firm, Interrelativity, Inc., to support its development (with key development support provided by Khai Truong at the outset).

As I've written before, I felt very much alive in my entrepreneurial period, which was filled with fabulous rewards in nearly every dimension ... except the financial one. So, when I joined Nokia last fall, I hoped to achieve a more comprehensive spectrum of fulfillment (pursuing work aligned with my mission ... while getting paid). After six months of devoting much of my time and effort to playing a supporting role with respect to what I would characterize as cultural and organizational development, the presentation last week marked the first time I'd publicly articulated the research (and/or development) agenda to which I aspire, with the help -- and within the framework -- of the Context, Content and Community team.

Listening to Whyte's second CD ("In the middle of the road of our lives") on Friday evening -- for at least the fifth time (I've listened to all the CDs many times) -- it dawned on me that the work I am doing and the people I am working with are helping to bring me alive [again], and that my idealistic initial intuition about belonging -- in a firm whose mantra is "connecting people", a lab dedicated to inventing the future mobile Internet experience, and a team whose mission is to create large scale experimental systems for large scale social change -- increasingly appears to be grounded in reality. In writing this, I am aware that I had similar perceptions and judgments at this stage in my last research position, but I will continue to hope there are some key differences in me (now) and / or the new[er] lab that will enable me to enjoy some time in the light ... and to help me / us bring light to others.

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