Conversations, Re-evaluations and Recombinations: A David Whyte Workshop on Difficult Harvests

David Whyte Workshop: A Difficult HarvestI attended my first David Whyte workshop last month, held at the First Covenant Church in Seattle. The theme was The Harvest of Winter, exploring the challenges posed by difficult harvests and the opportunities they provide for asking beautiful questions: disturbing, provocative questions whose answers can unlock deep, hidden insights. These questions become increasingly important during increasingly difficult times, when many of our traditional sources of power and security are undergoing transition.

Throughout the workshop, Whyte recited - mostly from memory - poems written by him and other poets, told stories about the contexts in which the poems originated, and highlighted the beautiful questions articulated through the poems, implicitly or explicitly. The content seemed loosely organized around a three-step process one might follow when attempting to harvest from a difficult source of nourishment and sustenance, which I will briefly enumerate here and then elaborate further below.

  1. Turn to a different source; i.e., stop having the conversation you're having now, to create an "invitational absence" in which a new conversation can emerge.
  2. Re-evaluate the stories you've been telling about yourself, and discard the stories that are not - or are no longer - true.
  3. In the search for a new source, try combining different parts of your self that have never been in conversation before.

Whyte frames much of our awareness of ourselves and others - and our relationships and interactions with each other and the rest of the world - in terms of conversations, a concept he has articulated in many ways in many media, including the following excerpt from a SoundsTrue interview with Tami Simon on "Being at the Frontier of Your Identity":

The old Latin root of that word is Conversatia and it really means a kind of "living with" or "in companionship with," so you’re having a Conversatia with your spouse or your partner at home every day. There’s a "living with" whether it’s spoken out loud or not. There is an equal kind of conversation with silence, and with a particular way that you as an individual ask the question of life. You’ve got to find that contact point as an individual. Ask the question, "Where am I interested? Where, in a very short time, do I become passionate once I’ve opened up that initial interest? What do I have energy for? And will I have faith enough to actually spend enough time that I can open up that door into what to begin with is a new territory but eventually becomes my new home?"

The_Heart_Aroused_coverOne of the interesting stories he shared in illustrating this conversation about passions was his experience in applying for a job as a naturalist guide aboard a schooner in the Galapagos Islands (a story I first encountered in his book, The Heart Aroused). Among the 500 applicants, 90 were invited for an on-site interview for the position, and what set him apart - and made him an ideal candidate for his ideal job - was not so much his degree in marine biology, but all the extracurricular interests he had pursued during his studies: scuba diving, rock climbing and vagabonding around Europe (and thereby picking up some foreign languages). The experience led him to adopt an abiding faith in his intrinsic interests and passions ... and subsequently to encourage others to similarly have faith in what draws them.

I've long been intrigued by the stories we make up about ourselves. Whyte characterized such stories as hermetic enclosures - bubbles that we create so we don't have to engage in wider conversations. One of the stories he once made up about himself was a need for quiet and solitude in order for him to write. Letting go of that story opened up new frontiers - internally and externally - for his subsequent writing.

The identification and letting go of untrue stories reminds me of The Work of Katie Byron, and the power of articulating and transforming - possibly through recombination - personal narratives articulated by John Hagel. An interesting observation about this topic shared by Whyte was that the nice thing about letting go of a story that you suspect is not true is that if it later turns out to be true, you can rest assured that it will come back to you.

Crossing_The_Unknown_Sea_coverWhite also made a non-specific reference to some story involving his mother that he learned was not true after her death. He did not share any details about this story, but I wonder if it was a story he wrote about in Crossing the Unknown Sea in which his mother told him about a dream in which she interceded to save him during a near death experience during his time in the Galapagos, which included details of the experience that he had never told her about. Regardless of the truth of that particular story, the revelation it evoked for him seems like a timeless truth:

But irrespective of the far-fetched psychic reality of it all, something else had happened inside me. I stopped trying to do it all myself. I was like everything else in this life. I didn't need to have absolute total control over my destiny. I couldn't have it anyway. ... I was given a sense of the intimate way everything is a brother and sister to everything else. Everything we see as private is somehow already out in the world. The singularity of existence is only half the story; all our singularities are in the conscious and unconscious conversation with everything else.

The_Three_Marriages_coverWhyte often uses the word marriage to describe the intimate relationships we have with our selves, other people and even our work, a theme most extensively elaborated in his book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. During the workshop, he observed that there is no worthwhile path that does not risk leaving us heartbroken, and that even the longest, most successful marriages include periods of heartbreak. This notion of periodic heartbreak is a theme he writes about in one of his periodic "Letters from the House", this one on The Poetic Narratives of Our Time:

If we are sincere, every good marriage or relationship will break our hearts in order to enlarge our understanding of our self and that strange other with whom we have promised ourselves to the future. Being a good parent will necessarily break our hearts as we watch a child grow and eventually choose their own way, even through many of the same heartbreaks we have traversed. Following a vocation or an art form through decades of practice and understanding will break the idealistic heart that began the journey and replace it, if we sidestep the temptations of bitterness and self-pity, with something more malleable, compassionate and generous than the metaphysical organ with which we began the journey. We learn, grow and become compassionate and generous as much through exile as homecoming; as much through loss as gain, as much through giving things away as in receiving what we believe to be our due.

I recently encountered a related illustration and excerpt in the BrainPicker review of The ABZ of Love, which nicely captures the periodic heartbreaks involved in loving relationships ... and although that book focuses on human relationships, I believe these highs and lows - or, perhaps, dark nights of the soul - also characterize our relationships with our work.


…after swinging around a certain point for a time, very small swings to and from in either direction, a sudden drop with the resultant feeling of hopelessness [and then] once more pendulation around one point for a time, then a drop, then that hopeless feeling, improvement again, etc., etc., without ever reaching the absolute ideal. Disappointments and depressions are necessary features of any process of learning, every development.

One of the themes that pervades much of Whyte's poetry and prose is the courage to explore the edges of our identities (hence the title of the SoundsTrue interview). During the workshop, he encouraged us to look to our edges as we explore new conversations - or new stories we might make up about our selves - so that "the edge may become the center". One of his poems that he recited, Coleman's Bed, speaks to this process:

Above all, be alone with it all,
a hiving off, a corner of silence
amidst the noise, refuse to talk,
even to yourself, and stay in this place
until the current of the story
is strong enough to float you out.

The story I have been making up about myself for some time now is that I am currently "between stories", a period in which I don't seem to have - or be aware of - a particularly powerful or passionate personal narrative. Considered in the context of the poem, this prompts a beautiful question about why no new story has yet gained sufficient strength to "float me out". While I find myself talking less - online and offline - I may not have been cultivating sufficient silence to allow a new story to emerge ... and upon reflection, that seems an appropriate note upon which to end this post.

A modest proposal: use @replies and hashtags for live-tweeting and tweet chats

Any sufficiently large number of signals is indistinguishable from noise. I suspect this principle does not figure prominently in the consciousness of people who are live-tweeting from conferences or other physical world events, or participating in purely virtual tweet chats. I have filtered and even unfollowed several friends who have gone on live-tweeting or tweet chatting binges, as I do not care to have my main Twitter feed consumed by tweets from events I do not care about.

A tweet today from Alyssa Royse suggests I am not alone in this irritation regarding Twitter etiquette:

Although I do not physically attend many conferences or other tweet-worthy events these days, when I do, I have adopted a practice that others may find useful. I use the @reply mechanism to reference the event Twitter handle at the start of the tweet - which hides the tweet from anyone who does not follow both me and the event - and then use the designated event hashtag so that anyone who is explicitly following the event hashtag can also see it. Others may remain blissfuly unaware of my avid participation in and live transcription of the event highlights.

As an example, the last conference I physically attended was the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2012), last February. I tweeted a number of highlights from the conference, but preceded most of them with the Twitter handle for the conference (@acm_cscw2012) and used the designated Twitter hashtag (#cscw2012), e.g.,

The only people who would see this tweet are those who are following both me (@gumption) and @acm_cscw or those who are following the #cscw2012 hashtag on Twitter.

Now, I do make exceptions for exceptional insights and observations that I believe may be of general interest beyond those who are at or interested in the conference, e.g., 

But generally speaking, I try to maintain a small footprint for my live-tweeting ... and I would like to encourage others to adopt a similar practice.

[Oops - forgot about tweet chats ...probably because I do not participate in them. Briefly, a tweet chat is a period (typically an hour) during which a moderator will post a series of questions or prompts, and then others post responses to that question, all using a designated hashtag. A similar practice can be adopted in such scenarios, in which respondents direct their responses to the moderator (or the person who posted the question) using @replies.]

Valuable Advice on Preparing for Technical Interviews ... and Careers

CrackingTheCodingInterview TheGoogleResume The cover of Gayle Laakmann McDowell's book, Cracking the Coding Interview, and links to her Career Cup web site and Technology Woman blog are included in the slides I use on the first day of every senior (400-level) computer science course I have taught over the last two years. These are some of the most valuable resources I have found for preparing for interviews for software engineering - as well as technical program manager, product manager or project manager - positions. I recently discovered she has another book, The Google Resume, that offers guidance on how to prepare for a career in the technology industry, so I've added that reference to my standard introductory slides.

While my Computing and Software Systems faculty colleagues and I strive to prepare students with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their careers, the technical interview process can prove to be an extremely daunting barrier to entry. The resources Gayle has made available - based on her extensive interviewing experience while a software engineer at Google, Microsoft and Apple - can help students (and others) break through those barriers. The updated edition of her earlier book focuses on how to prepare for interviews for technical positions, and her latest book complements this by offering guidance - to students and others who are looking to change jobs or fields - on how to prepare for careers in the computer technology world.


I have been looking for an opportunity to invite Gayle to the University of Washington Bothell to present her insights and experiences directly to our computer science students since I started teaching there last fall, and was delighted when she was able to visit us last week. Given the standing room only crowd, I was happy to see that others appreciated the opportunity to benefit from some of her wisdom. I will include fragments of this wisdom in my notes below, but for the full story, I recommend perusing her slides (embedded below) or watching a video of a similar talk she gave in May (also embedded further below), and for anyone serious about preparing for tech interviews and careers, I recommend reading her books.

Gayle emphasized the importance of crafting a crisp resume. Hiring managers typically spend no more than 15-30 seconds per resume to make a snap judgment about the qualifications of a candidate. A junior-level software engineer should be able to fit everything on one page, use verbs emphasizing accomplishments (vs. activities or responsibilities), and quantify accomplishments wherever possible. Here are links to some of the relevant resources available at her different web sites:

One important element of Gayle's advice [on Slide 13] that aligns with my past experience - and ongoing bias - in hiring researchers, designers, software engineers and other computing professionals is the importance of working on special projects (or, as Gayle puts it, "Build something!"). While graduates of computer science programs are in high demand, I have always looked for people who have done something noteworthy and relevant, above and beyond the traditional curriculum, and it appears that this is a common theme in filtering prospective candidates in many technology companies. This is consistent with advice given in another invited talk at UWB last year by Jake Homan on the benefits of contributing to open source projects, and is one of the motivations behind the UWB CSS curriculum requiring a capstone project for all our computer science and software engineering majors.

IntroductionToAlgorithmsGayle spoke of "the CLRS book" during her talk at UWB and her earlier talk at TheEasy, a reference to the classic textbook, Introduction to Algorithms, by Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest and Clifford Stein. She said that entry-level software engineer applicants typically won't need to know data structures and algorithms at the depth or breadth presented in that book, and she offers a cheat sheet / overview of the basics on Slides 23-40, and an elaboration in Chapters 8 & 9 of her CtCI book. However, for those who are interested in delving more deeply into the topic, an online course based on the textbook is now part of the MIT Open CourseWare project, and includes video & audio lectures, selected lecture notes, assignments, exams and solutions.

One potential pitfall to candidates who prepare thoroughly for technical interviews is they may get an interview question that they have already seen (and perhaps studied). She recommended that candidates admit to having seen a question before, equating not doing so with cheating on an exam, and to avoid simply reciting solutions from memory, both because simple slip-ups are both common and easy to catch.

Gayle stressed that was there is no correlation between how well a candidate thinks he or she did in an interview and how well their interviewers thought they did. In addition to natural biases, the candidate evaluation process is always relative: candidates' responses to questions are assessed in the context of the responses of other candidates for the same position. So even if a candidate thinks he or she did well on a question, it may not be as well as other candidates, and even if a candidate thinks he or she totally blew a question, it may not have been blown as badly as other candidates blew the question.

Another important factor to bear in mind is that most of the big technology companies tend to be very conservative in making offers; they generally would prefer to err on the side of false negatives than false positives. When they have a candidate who seems pretty good, but they don't feel entirely confident about the candidate's strength, they have so many [other] strong candidates, they would rather reject someone who may have turned out great than risk hiring someone who does not turn out well. Of course, different companies have different evaluation and ranking schemes, and many of these details can be found in her CtCI book.

Gayle visits the Seattle area on a semi-regular basis, so I'm hoping I will be able to entice her to return each fall to give a live presentation to our students. However, for the benefit of those who are not able to see her present live, here is a video of her Cracking the Coding Interview presentation at this year's Canadian University Software Engineering Conference (CUSEC 2012) [which was also the site of another great presentation I blogged about a few months ago, Bret Victor's Inventing on Principle].

Finally, I want to round things out on a lighter note, with a related video that I also include in my standard introductory slides, Vj Vijai's Hacking the Technical Interview talk at Ignite Seattle in 2008:

Net Smart: a call for mindful engagement with technology

NetSmart-coverHoward Rheingold shared some highlights of what he's learned and taught about being "Net Smart" Monday night at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. Acknowledging the growing chorus of criticism of the growing prominence of online media - and it propensity for distraction, diversion and delusion - he noted that critique is necessary, but not sufficient, in the cultivation of practices that enable us to successfully adopt and adapt to new technologies. To help fill this gap, Howard enumerated and explained what he calls the Five Fundamental Literacies that are essential to use technology intelligently, humanely and mindfully: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network know-how. The book represents a carefully curated collection and distillation of wisdom from Howard and a broad array of other net luminaries, with over 500 end notes and an index that is over 30 pages long. I haven't actually read the book yet - it was just published this week, and Monday night was his first book talk - so the notes that follow are based primarily on Howard's presentation ... and biased by my own particular interests and interpretations.

Howard led off with the literacy of attention, a topic about which he and I have both learned a lot from Linda Stone. He described experimenting with attention probes during classes he teaches, ringing a chime at various times and asking students to report what they were thinking or where their mind was at during that moment, a form of what I might call experience sampling mindfulness (riffing on experience sampling method). Howard defined the term infotention, which I initially interpreted as a mashup of information and attention, but also suspect it involves intention, as he went on to say that the application of attention to intention is how the mind changes the brain (e.g., through the use of mandalas & mantras), and shared a pithy neuroscientific mantra to explain this connection: "neurons that fire together, wire together".

Moving on to the literacy of crap detection, or the "critical consumption of information", Howard showed that if you google "martin luther king", one of the top hits is to a site entitled "Martin Luther King, Jr. - A True Historical Examination". I was immediately reminded of Margaret Thatcher's insight:

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.

I don't want to make too much of a connection between being powerful and being truthful - in fact, I suspect they tend to be rather oppositional, e.g., speaking truth to power - but I suspect that many sites claiming to be about the "truth" of a matter are not actually about the truth of that matter. In investigating the truth behind the "true historical examination" of MLK, Howard demonstrated that conducting a simple "whois" search reveals that the registered site owner is Don Black, who is associated with the Stormfront White Nationalist / White Pride resource page.

Howard summarized his recommendations for effective crap detection

  • think like a detective, look for clues
  • search to learn (don't stop with first search, or the first page of results)
  • look for authors, search on their names
  • triangulate (find 3 different sources)

Expanding on the importance of consulting diverse sources, Howard also recommended including people and organizations with different perspective in your regular information network, because "if nobody in your network annoys you, you are in an echo chamber". Having long thought - and recently written - about the idea of the irritation-based innovation, I found myself ruminating about the value of irritation-based learning.

Howard is an inspiring innovator in the realm of learning. I believe he coined the term peeragogy, a mashup of "peer" + "pedagogy", which denotes a highly participatory form of learning (an example of which is The Independent Project I wrote about recently). I have been an intermittent participant in his Peeragogy Handbook Project, and strive to practice & facilitate - not just read (or write) about - more participatory student-centered learning in my own educational endeavors.

Speaking of such endeavors, I want to turn my attention toward my intention to prepare for next week's classes. One of the costs of teaching is that I rarely have time for any "outside" activities, such as attending book talks ... or writing about them afterward. Howard told me he rarely gives book talks any more, so I'm glad that we both took the time to converge on Elliott Bay Books this week. It was well worth the effort, not just to see and hear Howard, but also for the serendipitous opportunity to meet other co-learners and to learn more from their questions and comments. Several of them referenced other interesting books, which I've added to my list of future reads ... but those will have to wait until after "Net Smart".

Scott Berkun's Personal Insights on the Experience of User Experience Professionals


Scott Berkun shared some mistakes and lessons learned from his experience as and with user experience (UX) professionals last night at a meeting of the Puget Sound Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI). In a highly interactive session, he also invited the 40 or so other UX professionals who attended the meeting to share their own mistakes and lessons. The most prominent lesson I took away from the evening was one that applies much more broadly than to the UX (or HCI) profession: being a specialist generally means most people won't know what you do, so you must always be prepared to give a brief "101" explanation - and/or demonstration - to the uninitiated about what you do, how you contribute value and why others should care.

Scott began with a playful scree about the proliferation of titles - user experience researcher, usability engineer, interaction designer, etc. - that has led to a factionalization of UX, and suggested that we do away the variants and focus on the primary verb that unites the different roles: design. He then presented his list of UX mistakes and provoked a lively discussion that revealed that many experiences of many user experience professionals designers involve many of the mistakes (and lessons) he listed. Having recently written about the interrelationships between client-centered therapy, student-centered learning and user-centered design, it struck me that the root of many of the mistakes arise from a deficit in transparency, acceptance and/or deep empathic understanding on the part of one or more parties.


A large portion of the discussion revolved around issues of credibility, and the challenges designers face when working with teams composed primarily of software engineers and/or business folk. Many of these challenges arise from others' lack of transparency, acceptance or understanding of design[ers]. However, some challenges result from an unwillingness on the part of some designers to fully understand the needs of their other team members. Scott described one category of mistakes as "Vulcan pretension", an approach in which a designer focuses [only] on collecting, analyzing and reporting data, and is more concerned with the number of studies produced rather than how the results of those studies will be effectively applied to the problem(s) the team is trying to solve. Organizational and individual incentives that reward designers based on the count vs. impact of studies only serve to reinforce and exacerbate this issue.

Scott highlighted the multidimensional facets of usability involved in the design process: a designer might create an incredibly rich mockup of an interface that represents the epitome of usability for the eventual users of the product, without paying sufficient attention to how developers - another important set of users - will use that mockup to implement that interface. Taking care to specify details such as colors, fonts and sizes of different interface elements greatly eases the usability of the mockup for the developers who have to use it ... which also helps build credibility for the designer. Design is an inherently iterative process, but It is important to iterate with the developers - not just the intended end users - so as to become better acquainted with the developers' challenges as early as possible in the design process.


Another suggestion Scott had for designers to gain credibility was to find allies. Even if no one else on the team "gets" design, a designer can at least identify the one person who is least unappreciative, and invite that person to coffee or create another 1:1 interaction opportunity to help that person better appreciate the process and products of design. And if designers finds themselves in meetings without anything useful to contribute, it is best to be transparent, and talk with the manager about whether or how to set the stage to make contributions, or raise the prospect of not going to future meetings. This last suggestion sparked some interesting discussions about meetings, and about laptops in meetings making people more productive even when they cannot contribute [much] ... but Scott - fortunately - steered the discussion away from a potential rathole on meetings. Throughout this portion of the discussion, I found myself musing about Goethe's provocative insight in The Holy Longing:

Tell a wise person or else keep silent.


Another set of common UX mistakes involves what Scott calls a"Dionysian pretension" - being intoxicated with lofty ideas without sufficient concern for their applicability - and is also related to Scott's mistake category of "never get dirty". A willingness to roll up one's sleeves and do the dirty or disagreeable work the team must slog through - e.g., sticking around to participate in late night bug bashes - both yields a deeper empathic understanding [my words] of challenges faced by other members of the team and builds greater credibility among them. This wisdom aligns well with a post I recently encountered by David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals arguing that There's No Room for the Idea Guy, in which he emphasizes the relative importance of execution vs. [only] ideation.

I would share more details of Scott's presentation, but I know he is planning to write his own blog post on the topic, and didn't want to steal too much of his [mind]fire. I will update this post with a link when his post is available.

[Update: Scott has posted a far more thorough writeup on the top 10 mistakes UX designers make.]

David Whyte on Feminine Wisdom, Courage and Power

Young_Women_Empowered_LogoDavid Whyte shared his inspired and inspiring wisdom about the feminine embodiments of power last night at Town Hall Seattle. At a benefit event for Young Women Empowered (Y-WE) - an organization co-founded by his wife, Leslie - he guided the audience on a journey exploring the "five forms of female courage" and revealed aspects of that courage through stories, poetry and an articulation of what he calls a philosophy of attention. Whyte suggested that these forms of courage are not restricted to women, but that men typically only arrive at these forms of courage - and wisdom - after they have tried all the more masculine forms of courage. I have often wrestled with an interior tension between the masculine and the feminine - most of my closest friends are women, and most of the artists who inspire me are women - and so Whyte's framing of the masculine vs. the feminine forms offers me a new perspective from which to contemplate this tension.

Whyte described the first form as the feminine relationship to the unknown or to mystery, perhaps best exemplified by a woman's central role in the miracle of birth ... and a man's role as an outsider looking in. After distinguishing a father's relationship with a son, whom he is supposed to teach, and his relationship with a daughter, to whom he is supposed to apprentice himself, Whyte recited My Daughter Asleep, which he composed over a course of several years for his daughter, Charlotte, beginning shortly after her birth. When she was five, he recited the poem for her, and asked what her favorite part was. Charlotte's favorite section is also my favorite ... and I wonder if my own daughter (who I suspect is very close to Charlotte's age) would also find a deep resonance with the lines:

May she find
in all this
day or night
the beautiful
of pure opposites

The_Song_of_the_LarkAs a marine biologist who worked as a naturalist in the Galapagos, and who has always felt and expressed a keen appreciation of the natural world, Whyte introduced another poem by explaining that a collection of larks is called an exaltation of larks, and asserting that he considers the lark an emblem of humans' ability to speak out in the world. He then recited Song of the Lark, another poem that reveals - or perhaps more precisely, revels in - the mystery of the feminine, which was inspired by [a postcard of] a painting by Jules Breton from 1884:

What is called in her rises from the ground
and is found in her body,
what she is given is secret even from her.

The second form of feminine courage explored during the evening was a willingness to ground that mystery in the world. Whyte sees vulnerability as a source of strength rather than weakness, reflecting wisdom I have encountered in words written and spoken by empowered and empowering women such as Oriah Mountain Dreamer (through whom I first discovered David Whyte) and Brene Brown, who also advocate - and model - connection and compassion through courage, vulnerability & authenticity.

Whyte recited poetry exemplifying strength through vulnerability, including  a poem by the courageous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, I Know the Truth, remarking how much more authentic such a bold assertion seems when it comes from a woman vs. a man. He also recited his own poems The House of Belonging and Start Close In, the latter of which suggests a step-wise approach to grounding the mystery in the world:

Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don't want to take.

Meerabai_paintingThe third form of feminine courage is a willingness to say "no" to anything and everything that is not a full "yes". This courage is illustrated by Meera (aka Mira / Meerabai / Mirabai), an ecstatic Hindu poet and singer in 16th century India, and her poem, Why Meera Can't Go Back Home, which articulates firm boundaries:

Approve me or disapprove me;
I praise the Mountain Energy night
and day.

Whyte also recited Sweet Darkness, a poem with particularly deep personal resonance that helped me re-frame and re-interpret a misconstrued defeat during a period in which I was moving toward belonging, freedom and coming alive again after a period of soul-squelching darkness:

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.

After an intermission, Jamie Rose-Edwards, the Executive Director of Young Women Empowered, and two of its recent graduates shared their hopes for and experiences with the program. The mission of Y-WE is to "empower young women from diverse communities to step up as leaders in their schools, communities, and the world." There was clear alignment between the kinds of courage and power Whyte was expressing and the characteristics modeled and cultivated by the staff and mentors of the program.

David_Whyte_English_Lake_DistrictWhen Whyte returned to the stage, he articulated the fourth form of feminine courage, a willingness to live in different forms of beauty. The forms of beauty that a woman will exhibit and experience will change throughout her life, and the transitions will often involve disappointment and heartbreak, but the courage to work through the transitions open doors to new forms of beauty (and wisdom). Whyte recited Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, his own poem to (and, in a way, from) his mother, Farewell Letter, and a poem, Weathering, by New Zealand poet (and librarian), Fleur Adcock, composed during her year-long, late mid-life sabbatical in the English Lake District (one of the places through which Whyte leads tours):

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.

At the end of the evening, Whyte shared the fifth form of feminine courage, the courage to accept the invitations of life and step out beyond yourself, noting that the most courageous conversation is the one we don't want to have. Throughout much of his prose and poetry, Whyte advocates adopting an investigative vulnerability in exploring the frontiers of experience, and his poem, The True Love - with which he concluded the event - is one of this most penetrating articulations of this truth, drawing upon the biblical account of Jesus inviting Peter to find the faith and courage get out of a boat amid stormy seas and walk on water toward him. A passage in the poem is especially poignant for me now, as I wrestle with my own vulnerable sense of power, worthiness and faith:

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

David_Whyte_River_Flow David_Whyte_Clear_Mind_Wild_HeartMost of the poems Whyte read - both his own and those by other poets - were from his collection, River Flow, a book I have read cover-to-cover dozens of times, and probably represents the closest approximation I have to a bible, serving as a personal perpetual source of wisdom and inspiration. I've also listened to his entire 6 CD set, Clear Mind, Wild Heart [also available in MP3] dozens of times, a series of recordings with a format similar to the event of last night: an intermingling of poetry, prose and philosophy. Although I was already familiar with most of the poems (and the stories behind them) shared last night, it was still a thrilling experience to see him live. This was my first poetry reading, and throughout the event, I experienced the same kinds of "goose-bump moments" I've often felt (and written about) during music concerts, perhaps most notably during the Indigo Girls Zoo Tunes concert that Amy and I attended a few years ago. What was qualitatively different between the poetry reading last night and music concerts I have attended was the frequent, collective sighs and other spontaneous shared expressions of recognition of deep truths that were articulated during Whyte's recitation of poems. I often experienced a double jolt of goose bumps, first from my own personal resonance, and shortly thereafter from the awareness that I was not alone in feeling that deep resonance.

I'll finish off this post with a passage from a poem that Whyte did not read last night, Revelation Must be Terrible, but which exquisitely captures the notions of shared resonance and aloneness:

Being far from home is hard, but you know,
   at least we are exiled together.


Academia Redux: Joining the Institute of Technology at the University of Washington, Tacoma

My new office This past Monday, I returned to the classroom after a hiatus of over two decades. While I have given occasional guest lectures and other presentations in academic settings in the intervening period, for the next six months, I will be engaging with students in classrooms at least twice a week in my new role as a Lecturer in the Computing and Software Systems program at the Institute of Technology at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

I'm excited about the opportunity to interact more regularly with students again. I don't much care for the title, "Lecturer", as it implies a predominantly one-way style of communication, and I see education as more of a conversation, a cooperative endeavor in which I hope to learn at least as much as the students do. And given that the two courses I'm teaching this quarter are outside of my primary areas of expertise, I fully anticipate that this will be a quarter filled with teachable moments for all participants.

Having recently written about narrative psychology and the stories we make up about ourselves, I've been reflecting on my own life story, and what this latest chapter represents. 21 years ago, I resigned my position as Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Hartford in order to work full time on a Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, with the initial intention of returning to teaching with my union card in hand. However, after completing my thesis in Artificial Intelligence, I was interested in trying something completely different, and followed a path into industry research and development that involved a blend of Ubiquitous Computing, Human-Computer Interaction and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work Whatever. I've always imagined myself returning to academia at some point, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to explore whether this is the appropriate time and place for a renewal of my passion for teaching.

My new colleagues at the Institute of Technology have been enormously supportive as I learn or re-learn both the content of the courses and how best to facilitate the learning of that content by the students. I'm impressed with the techologies that are available for promoting interaction in the classroom and hands-on experience in the labs, and am taking as much advantage of best practices developed by my colleagues as possible. Practicing Brene Brown's prescription for wholeheartedness and connection through courage, vulnerability and authenticity, I have been very open with the students, and they have also been generally patient and supportive as I do my best to get up to speed on multiple dimensions simultaneously. I know that several of these students know more than I know about some of the material we're covering in both courses, and I look forward to their continued contributions in this cooperative learning experience.

As part of my commitment to always do my best, I will postpone the inclination to write more about this transition at the moment, and turn my attention back to preparing for my second week of classes. After just one week, I can better understand the relative infrequency with which my Twitter friends from academia post status updates, and I expect my own social media use to continue at significantly reduced levels for much of the quarter.

FeelTheFearAndDoItAnyway-20thAnniversary In carrying on a tradition in past "transition" blog posts, I want to re-share one of the most valuable resources I've encountered - and regularly revisit - for making decisions about significant life events, the No-Lose Decision Model from Susan Jeffers' book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway:

Before you make a decision:

  1. Focus immediately on the no-lose model (whichever path you choose will provide learning opportunities … even if it’s learning what you don’t like)
  2. Do your homework (talk to as many people as will listen … both to help clarify your own intention and to get alternative perspectives)
  3. Establish your priorities (which pathway is more in line with your overall goals in life – at the present time)
  4. Trust your impulses (your body gives you good clues about which way to go)
  5. Lighten up (it really doesn’t matter – it’s all part of a lifelong learning process)

After making a decision:

  1. Throw away the picture (if you focus on what you expected, you may miss the unexpected opportunities that arise along the new path you’ve chosen)
  2. Accept total responsibility for your decision (don’t give away your power)
  3. Don’t protect, correct (commit yourself to any decision you make and give it all you got … but if it doesn’t work out, change it!)

I more recently re-encountered some corroborating wisdom from Dan Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness - another source of insights I revisit periodically, especially on the cusp of important decisions - as articulated by Ze Frank:

Nothing brings people together like ignoring each other to stare at their phones

SanityFearAppIcon Last night, on the Colbert Report, near the beginning of the segment on Fear for All, Part I, host Stephen Colbert announced the new Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear app for the iPhone (also available in the Android store).

The app was developed by MTV Networks for the upcoming combined Rally to Restore Sanity (instigated by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart) / March to Keep Fear Alive (instigated by Colbert) in Washington, DC, this Saturday, an event that has received considerable attention over the past few weeks on Comedy Central, Fox News and other traditional and new media outlets (though the rally will apparently not be receiving any direct attention from National Public Radio).

PeopleStaringAtPhones Colbert highlighted several benefits to this new mobile social activist application:

If you're going to the rally, well, there's an app for that ... It's really cool! You can use the app to get directions to the rally, check-in on Foursquare, post photos to Facebook and Twitter, and you get a special video message from Jon [Stewart] and me on the morning of the rally. This app will truly enhance your rally experience, because nothing brings people together like ignoring each other to stare at their phones. [emphasis mine]

image from These "features" for enhancing physical world experiences reflect the tensions I recently wrote about regarding the Starbucks Digital Network and its impact on engagement and enlightment on physical world "third places". Although I have not precisely measured it, I have perceived an increasing trend of people standing or sitting together in Starbucks and becoming ever more effective at ignoring each other by staring at / typing on their phones (or laptops), and I predict less physical world engagement will result from the greater online engagement provided by this new location-based network. This may not be universally seen as a "bug" by all, but I have been encouraged to read others urging a shift of attention from the online back into the offline, such as Lewis Howes' recent post predicting the offline shift is coming, and John Hagel and John Seely Brown's recent article in Harvard Business Review proclaiming the increasing importance of physical location.

Malcolm Gladwell has also addressed the relative tradeoffs between online and offline engagement, touching off a firestorm of controversy in a New Yorker article criticizing online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and their impact on social activism in the physical world: Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.

image from The Rally to Restore Sanity, however, is more about resolution than revolution:

We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

image from The March to Keep Fear Alive is, of course, also intended to promote reasonableness, though employing the kind of parody traditionally used by Colbert in drawing attention to the fear that is regularly promulgated through other media channels:

America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty. But now, there are dark, optimistic forces trying to take away our Fear — forces with salt and pepper hair and way more Emmys than they need. They want to replace our Fear with reason. But never forget — “Reason” is just one letter away from “Treason.” Coincidence? Reasonable people would say it is, but America can’t afford to take that chance.

I will not be present at the rally / march in Washington, DC, but I may attend the Rally to Restore Sanity in Seattle. In any case, I will be tuning in to the main rally  /march remotely - perhaps using my iPhone - to see how the resolution or revolution will be tweeted.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fear for All Pt. 1
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

Update, 2010-11-16: Perhaps due to the fact that the only commercial TV I watch with any regularity is the Comedy Central "news" hour - The Daily Show and The Colbert Report - and even those I typically watch via buffering on my DVR to skip commercials, I was not aware of the Microsoft Windows Phone ad campaign launched earlier in October that promotes the theme of phone-based obsessive-compulsive disorder that Colbert is alluding to. While I like the video, I don't see how this would motivate people to buy Windows Phones (say, instead of iPhones or Androids), but perhaps the goal was simply to draw some attention to Windows Phone. In any case, I'm embedding the Windows Phone "Really" advertisement below.

And finally, just for good measure, I'll embed what I see as the classic short video in this genre, Crackberry Blackberry (though I do not believe this was ever used as a marketing tool by Research in Motion). Interestingly, it was prefaced by yet another Windows Phone ad when I watched it just now.

Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College

HowWeDecide Jonah Lehrer, the 27 year old author of How We Decide, gave the Opening Days convocation keynote at Willamete University last Friday. After being introduced by Willamette president M. Lee Pelton as "a humanist disguised as a neuroscientist", Lehrer offered a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college. Having attended several convocations both as a student and a faculty member, I would rank his keynote as one of the best I've ever heard, rivaled only by one I heard in 1986, by Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), when he received an honorary doctorate at the University of Hartford (so he really was a "doctor").

Leading off with a story demonstrating the ephemeral nature of many "great truths" (Oliver Wendel Holmes, Sr., discovering the great "truth" that the world smells like turpentine - specifically, "a strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout" - while on a nitrous oxide-induced hallucinogenic journey), Lehrer assured the new students that they will regularly encounter profound truths and discover new ideas ... few of which will have impact lasting beyond 72 hours, and nearly all of which will be forgotten soon after they finish college. The real value of a college education is learning how to think ... and to promote this process, he offered 5 tips.

Be an outsider is a platform for crowdsourcing research and development that succeeds primarily through the participation of outsiders. Companies post problem descriptions and offer prizes for solutions, and individuals and organizations outside the company submit potential solutions. Lehrer quoted a Harvard Business School study reporting that 60% of the posted problems are solved within 6 months, and that the key to solutions is being on the outside, i.e., being able to look at the problem from an outsider's perspective.

I'm not sure which study he is referencing (I haven't read his book yet), but I did find a related report on an Innovation Network conference:

InnoCentive now boasts 175,000 "solvers" from more than 200 countries around the world. About 90% are individuals, 10% are organizations and 60% have masters degrees or PhDs. Last year, nearly 50% of the "challenges" posted on InnoCentive's web site generated a solution that was put to use.

Academics who polled InnoCentive's winning solvers discovered something "both startling and intuitively obvious," said Spradlin. "What they found was that typically ... the background of the solver who solved the problem" was "no less than six disciplines away" from the subject area in which the problem emerged. "What that means is, if all the Stanford PhDs in your chemistry lab could have solved the problem, they would have solved it already."

Lehrer reported that English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to tell people he attended public lectures on chemistry in London "to improve my stock of metaphors", and encouraged students to take at least one class each semester outside of their field ... and "don't be afraid to be the lonely poet in chem class".

Learn how to relax

image from Lehrer described a study on people solving compound remote associates problems, for which Lehrer suggested the evocative acronym "CRAP". Another acronym, "RAT" (remote associates test), is more commonly associated with these kinds of problems - often posed on the Sunday Puzzle on NPR - in which three words are presented and the problem is to find a fourth word that relates to all of them (e.g., given the problem "broken, clear, eye", the solution is "glass"). The study revealed that the "flash of insight" or "Aha!" moment that occurs immediately before a solution can be reliably detected via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), and the alpha wave pattern closely resembles that of someone who has experience in meditation, i.e., someone who is able to achieve states of deep relaxation.

Contrary to the intuition many of us have when faced with a hard problem, which is to focus on the problem as hard as we can (I imagine this is why they are called "hard problems"), the solution in many cases is to simply relax and temporarily turn our attention to other things, and allow the solution to emerge more organically. I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of poetry, by Wallace Stevens:

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.

Another observation by Lehrer - the brain knows more than you know, you just have to listen - reminded me of the way yet another poet, David Whyte, describes poetry:

Poetry is the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew.

But I digress. Shifting from poetry to technology - and back to Lehrer's speech - Lehrer suggested that one of the most effective ways of listening to what you know is to turn off the gadgets that constantly inundate us with what others are saying ... reminding me of what Sherry Turkle, Kathy Sierra, James Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, James Ogilvy, Dan Oestreich and other great thinkers have said about self-reflection vs. self-expression, and the recent New York Times article on digital devices deprive brain of needed downtime.

Make friends with lots of different people

ConsequentialStrangers Lehrer described the self-similarity principle (or perhaps homophily) as a natural tendency to associate with people who are like us (and avoid people who are not like us), and suggested that students guard against this tendency. A study by sociologist Martin Ruef and his colleagues at Princeton, in which they interviewed 600 entrepreneurs, revealed that the entrepreneurs with the highest informational entropy (i.e., most diverse social networks) were the most successful, and that the propensity to strike up conversation with potentially consequential strangers was a key indicator of this quality. The researchers estimate that entrepreneurs with highly entropic networks were 3 times more innovative than those with low entropy networks (though innovation is a notoriously difficult concept to measure).

College is a great place to forge new connections with a broad range of people, and so Lehrer encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunity to diversify their social networks ... which will seve them well long after they've forgotten all (or most of) the facts they will have learned while in school.

Don't eat the marshmallow

image from Another variation on the theme of intent focus vs. relaxation - or, at least, distraction - was illuminated through the story of the marshmallow task, which Lehrer wrote about in a New Yorker article on the secret of self control last May. Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel conducted experiments with four year olds at the Bing Nursery School, including one named Carolyn, to explore delayed gratification:

Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. ... A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room [for about 15 minutes].

Only 30% of the children were able to delay gratification for the full 15 minutes; the average delay of gratification was about 2 minutes. 13 years later, Mischel conducted extensive followup surveys to discover how the 600+ children had fared. The high delayers - those who were able to distract themselves for the full 15 minutes - averaged 200 points higher on the SAT, on average, than the low delayers - those who were unable to shift their attention to anything but the marshmallow, and succumbed to temptation within 30 seconds.

Lehrer instructed the students that "your task for the next four years is to learn how to control your attention. You control the spotlight" - use it wisely.


BeingWrongBook Elaborating on a theme invoked by Dean Darlene Moore during the opening remarks to the event - in which she emphasized the primacy of the journey over the destination - Lehrer invited students to fully appreciate the experience of a college education. Highlighting the importance of embracing wrongology, Lehrer offered a great anecdote:

You get to share your opinion on Hamlet, and write long essays about how Plato, the guy who blew your mind last week, was actually wrong about everything.

In my own experience as a philosophy major years ago (and continuing ever since), education is about learning things, and then unlearning things; discovering a great truth, and then discovering that its opposite is [also] true. I can understand the appeal of fundamentalism, in clinging tenaciously to beliefs no matter what facts may present themselves, especially as fears, uncertainties and doubts are promulgated by those who would deign to decide for us, but I don't think we can learn much when we are not willing to be in the question(s).

image from upload.wikimedia.orgSpeaking of questions, during the question & answer period following his talk, my favorite question was by a student who asked how Lehrer figures out which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations ... mirroring my own tendency toward what I like to call irritation-based research ... or what Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, describes in the context of open source programming:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have not yet read Lehrer's book, How We Decide, but as I noted in my earlier post on the warm welcome we enjoyed throughout Willamette Opening Days, my daughter, Meg, read the book over the summer, and after his speech she told me that many of the examples are covered more extensively in the book, which is next on my stack of "to-reads".

image from Finally, I want to loop back to some introductory remarks made by President Pelton, in which he quoted E. O. Wilson, the multidisciplinary scientist sociobiologist who contributed much to our understanding of ant colonies (and other societies and systems):

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

Lehrer, like Wilson, is clearly a great synthesizer, and I hope his convocation keynote - and the subsequent scope of a liberal arts education at Willamette - will help inspire a future generation of synthesizers, critical thinkers and wise decision-makers.

A warm welcome at Willamette University Opening Days

image from We brought our daughter down to Willamette University this week and enjoyed a warm welcome during their Opening Days orientation program. I had written about our short tour of small colleges in the Pacific Northwest last March, which included Willamette and several other schools she was considering. Meg eventually applied to and was admitted to several very good schools, some of which included attractive scholarship offers. The overall package of education quality, campus life and scholarship offered by Willamette seemed to offer the best fit for her aspirations, and our experience at opening days only reinforced the sense that she had made the right decision.

Bearcat move-in squad TIUA move-in squad When we arrived at the Salem, OR, campus after our 4-hour drive Thursday morning, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a group of Willamette Bearcats football players and students from Tokyo International University of America - which is affiliated and collocated with Willamette - who offered to carry Meg's stuff up to her dorm room. The football players have traditionally helped new students who are on the team move in; this year, Scott (second from left in photo to the left) said he thought it would be a nice gesture - very much in keeping with the traditions of community service at Willamette - to help all students move in this year. TIUA also has a strong tradition of community service. A collection of students from both groups came right up to the van, each grabbing an armful of stuff, and had all of Meg's things outside her room in under 5 minutes. This was the third time we've been to the campus, and each time we had a positive experience, but I have to say that this initial greeting made a powerfully positive impression on us.

image from After lunch at Goudy Commons, we attended the Welcome Program for New Students and Families, which included presentations by Willamette President M. Lee Pelton, VP of Enrollment & Financial Aid Madeleine Rhyneer and Opening Days Coordinator Emma Larkins. Among the things we learned was that this year was the first time that Willamette admitted fewer than 50% of its applicants; other statistics revealed on the welcome page for the class of 2014 include a median SAT score of 1870 (50 points higher than last year's class), a median high school GPA of 3.79, and over half (51%) ranked in the top 10% of their high school graduating class (a 10% increase from last year). We also learned that many of the Opening Days coordinators are pretty good dancers.

The students and their families were then separated, and Amy and I attended a session on Campus Life at Willamette. I had never heard of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) before - even though it was enacted in 1974, and so was in force when I attended college - but we learned that a student must sign a waiver for the university to release any information about any aspect of the student's life and work at the school. We also learned about a range of counseling and other support services available to students at the college.

Having been deeply disturbed by a recent NPR series on campus rape - an estimated 20% of women are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career, and even at the most progressive institutions (with respect to this issue) only 10-25% of men found guilty of sexual assault are expelled - I asked about the prevalence and policies regarding sexual assault on campus. Margaret Trout, Director of the Bishop Wellness Center on campus, said that the prevalance of non-stranger sexual assault at Willamette is consistent with the national average, and that a survivor can choose whether to press charges with the Salem police or through the Willamette judicial system; if they choose the campus judicial system, and the perpetrator is found guilty, that person will be expelled. She also said that the campus has trained student volunteers who serve as sexual assault response allies, and this has increased both the reporting and effective response to sexual assault on campus. On the one hand, I was reluctant to raise the issue in the session (or in this post), but on the other hand, I think it is very important that parents - and students - be aware of how prevalent this problem is, and how ineffective many schools are in dealing with it.

After the campus life session, parents and students enjoyed a nice picnic dinner while being entertained by the Los Palmeros Mariachi band. We discovered that a friend and former colleague from the Seattle area also has a son who is an entering freshman at Willamette, and that the son's best friend - whose older brother is a junior at Willamette - is also a freshman there. It was nice to reconnect with local friends and to discover that there is a tradition of siblings attending the same school (not that we have any preconceived notions that what is appealing to Meg will be appealing to Evan).

We then attended an evening session on Residence Life at Willamette, where Resident Assistants were on stage to answer any questions parents or students might have about living on campus. Willamette does not have any campus-wide policy with respect to "quiet hours", instead imposing 24-hour "courtesy hours", relying upon the discretion and judgment of the students to respect their peers, but also allowing individual dorms (and residences) to dictate specific rules if individual discretion and judgment do not match residents' expectations of courtesy. Other topics that were emphasized were the importance of locking doors, windows and bikes (the exclusive use of U-shaped Kryptonite locks was encouraged both in this session and the earlier session on Campus Life).

We spent the night at the Grand Hotel in downtown Salem - whose #1 rating on TripAdvisor is well-deserved - and enjoyed such a restful sleep that we missed the early morning sessions on the second day. However, we did attend the Opening Convocation at 10:30, with a keynote by Jonah Lehrer. That was such an inspiring experience in and of itself, I'm going to split that off into a separate blog post [update: I've posted my notes on Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College]. For this post, I'll simply note that I was also inspired by Dean Marlene Moore's opening remarks during the convocation, in which she invoked a metaphor of "curriculum as conversation", encouraged both curiosity and confusion (the latter being one of the best routes to eventual clarity), and emphasized the importance of the journey (the college experience) over the destination (the degree).

I'll finish this post by observing the synchronicity of Meg having bought Lehrer's most recent book, How We Decide, in June, before the convocation speaker was announced, and so the selection of Jonah Lehrer as the convocation speaker just adds more corroboration (for me) that Willamette was, indeed, the right decision.