Conversation: Trust & Not Expecting

On April 8, 2011 at 2:16 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the last story in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making” surrounding my experience in the foundation studio. This is an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance.


anson: For me, painting requires this exact kind of courage you are talking about. I find painting very difficult, because I always need to get things right the first time around. I always need to know what to do precisely to get to the end result I want. I would use very fine brushes to get all the details of the eyes and the hair from the get-go. I would pick the exact color of paint that matches the photo. I need to get everything right with painting just one layer.

But when I saw videos24 of skilled painters painting, they didn’t seem to care if their painting looks awful in the beginning. They begin with a very rough outline and use very broad strokes. They keep painting over it again and again, refining and adjusting constantly, adding more and more details layer by layer. It is by this constant refinement that makes their painting possible, and also realistic.

To be courageous in the midst of uncertainty, trusting the process — or the journey — will work itself out, is something that I don’t think I learned from our computer science education.

slim: Having gone through a portion of the risd foundation program, I’ve come to realize that one of the most important skills of an educator is to know how to challenge the students. It’s like Randy’s story about his first building virtual worlds (BVW) class where he realized that the quality of work his students displayed on their first project was so high that all he could do was tell them to do better. It seems to me that in the right environment, we human beings can to grow in almost magical ways.

anson: I was lucky to be in that very class with Randy. But you know what? At that time, we all thought Randy was a mean and ruthless teacher. We worked so hard to get our first virtual world out in two weeks, and then he said he expected better work. We were like “What?!” After having watched his last lecture, we, of course, now empathize with why he did this, and that he is one of the best educators in the world. He saw the potential in us and he helped us to draw it out.

I think both you and I learned something precious in the past few years by jumping into a field foreign to us. And you’re right, it is education itself. We had our minds and paradigms stretched, challenged, stimulated, and inspired. I am so glad I have gone through this education process while I am still teachable. You know, some people stop being reflective after a certain age and become unwilling to change the paradigms of how they look at things.

an-lon: I’ve been through this — making forwards and backwards progress at different times in my life — learning to be prolific instead of perfectionistic, and learning that it’s the playful, throw-away variations that eventually lead to the finished work.

In one chapter of the book Art and Fear, there’s an apocryphal story about how half the students in a pottery class are told they will be graded on the quantity of work they produce, the other half that they will be graded on the quality of their work. At the end of the assigned period, the students in the quantity group have produced higher quality work than the students in the quality group because they were given the freedom to experiment and iterate, plus the mandate to work quickly.

That’s my art story. My computer science (CS) story is no less profound. Here’s the thing, I doubt that I could have survived majoring in cs back in college. I didn’t have the maturity or the study habits, and I was far too easily intimidated. I was also terrified that I wasn’t smart enough. I don’t want to go into a long song and dance about this, and fortunately, I don’t have to because Po Bronson has already written an article25 about it.

The gist of the article is that parents who overpraise their kids for being smart are setting them up to never leave their comfort zone, because the minute they encounter difficulty, the kids panic and assume “it’s tough, therefore I must not be so smart after all.”

I found CS to be tough. I assumed everyone else was smarter than me. I walked away, for a time. What brought me back? Above all, it was the change in mindset that allowed me to return to computer science. This happened over the course of several years, and I can trace much of it back to a couple of college friends.

Doug was this kid from Alabama who lived two doors down from me in my dorm freshman year; Jeff was his Jewish roommate from New Jersey. One of my very clearest college memories — the one that’s always struck me as the quintessence of dorm hall diversity — was when we somehow got into an argument about when World War II actually began. For Doug, World War II began with Pearl Harbor because that’s what we were taught in American history classrooms. For Jeff, it began with the Holocaust and the pogroms, because that’s what was in his cultural memory. For me? Japan invaded China years before any of that other event ever happened. We came from such different backgrounds, yet ended up as such good friends. Those were good times.

Anyway, Doug and Jeff were different from any of the guys I’d known in high school. Smart, yes, but this was Princeton and everyone was smart — or desperately trying to prove they were. I think, in hindsight, that those guys were among the first I’d met who were playfully smart — who tried new things because it was fun, and who ended up in computers because it was a new, fun thing to be tried.

Back then, I didn’t understand the concept of doing things for fun. My physicist father had none of that playfulness about him when it came to academic studies. For example, he could probably be a chess grandmaster if he wanted, but he never bothered to learn because it was just a game and therefore pointless.

I was never as good at math and physics as my dad. That was a losing battle from the start. And since physicists tend to see computer science as being several rungs below them on the intellectual pecking order — the equivalent of doing manual labor — I was never exactly encouraged to pursue computer science. So I went my own way and studied comparative literature — and my parents, to their everlasting credit, let me.

But I threw the baby out with the bath water. I was never meant to be a physicist — though, ironically, computer graphics has actually brought me back to physics full circle, but computer science wasn’t physics. Honestly, computer science is mostly just dicking around . You futz with it till it works. I’m not saying the theoretical underpinnings are unimportant , but honestly, the guys who are good are the ones who spent a lot of time dicking around because, it was fun. They weren’t intimidated by the difficulty factor because unlike me, they didn’t see the difficulty as an iq test. For them, an obstacle was like a video game obstacle :  a legitimate challenge to be bested, not a measuring instrument assessing whether or not they stacked up.

At first, I really couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that these guys who seemed to spend as much time playing Nethack as they did writing code were also really cool and well-rounded people. Jeff was into theater and Doug knew a ton about contemporary art. It didn’t seem fair, somehow, that the reward for goofing off was to become smarter.

I didn’t have any sort of instant epiphany, but over the course of college and my early twenties, I did rewrite my entire value system. I came to understand from observation that intelligence wasn’t about being born smart — it was about being born smart enough, and from there, being playful and willing to explore. It was about leaping in without a clue and getting your hands dirty, rather than hovering nervously on the sidelines.

After years of being told by my parents how smart I was and living with the secret fear that I really wasn’t, I finally came to value honesty, courage, and playfulness over being smart. I also came to see the excuse “well, I could have done it if I’d tried harder” as the coward’s way out. Because if you get a B on a test without studying, you can comfortably assume you might have gotten an A if you had studied. But if you study your ass off and still get a B, well, there goes all your illusions. So it’s easier never to try.

When I returned to computer science in my early twenties, I was beginning to develop some semblance of maturity. I made a conscious choice about my value system that I would quit worrying about whether I was smart enough, and instead put all my effort into making an effort. What I discovered was that playfulness (i.e.,  willingness to explore seemingly irrelevant side paths ) and work ethic  (i.e.,  setting goals and not making excuses )  led, over time, to all the analytical smarts I ever needed for my career.

This spirals back to Art and Fear because of the simple, sad observation the authors make in their opening pages, which is that many students stop doing creative work after they graduate. Without the community and structure and feedback cycle, they’re lost.

So I think the spirit of play becomes all the more important after graduation — because the girl folding paper and producing a thousand variations just because it’s interesting will keep doing it, whereas the guy who was doing it for a grade won’t. What you’ve produced as a student will most likely be forgotten, but what you’ve become won’t.

david: Slim, there’s a certain raw, honest quality to your writing that I’m just incapable of, but it feels so good reading it, because like the finest song lyric, it expresses what I felt palpably.

The overarching theme here of whimsy is spot-on. I think the greatest indictment of modern u.s. culture is the lack of whimsy and its replacement with what the writer David Foster Wallace referred to as “the entertainment” or “an orgy of spectation.” 26

If there is one thing I seek in my mostly boring middle-aged adult life is that whimsy, and childlike sense of adventure. It strikes me that the same thing that makes children so hilarious as in this conversation between a friend (the mom) and child (the son) which appeared in my e-mail today:

Son: When you’re three, sometimes they will let you out of a cage.

Mom: What? What cage are you in when you’re three?

Son: I don’t know… I think it’s the rule, though. You can get out when you’re three.

Mom: How do you know?

Son: Well, when people are let out of a cage they always say, “I’m three! I’m three!”

This is precisely the same thing that when observed in adults would be labeled as a dissociative disorder and medicated out of existence. Adulthood is so overrated. At least the politically correct version of it that most of us practice.

slim: Both of your stories resonate with me. I feel as though I have spent too much time in my 20s worrying about when I would finally be an “adult,” or at the very least “professional,” much to my own detriment. At first,

I thought there was something wrong with me for being so child-like, but once I got sufficiently close to those who I considered to be the epitome of adulthood or professionalism, I learned that they were simply hiding their child-like tendencies, because they didn’t want other people to see it as a sign of immaturity or weakness.

I also learned that the elders could see right through people who are trying to look like an “adult” or a “professional.” Those who have lived long enough know that none of us actually know anything for certain. So it’s mostly a matter of whether you trust someone or not, instead of whether that person really knows something.

david: There is no more chilling effect, as far as I’m concerned, on American culture than the one you describe here, which is to say that half the country exists in a world where everyone is pretending to be professional, instead of being authentically themselves and leaning toward self-actualization. Some form of this was the original hypothesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto,27 which seems to have had little effect outside very small circles of young people.

Of course, the individual’s self-actualization is rarely in the best interest of the corporation, at least as management sees it. This homogenization is about as disturbing a trend as we can possible endure and in fact, should be seen as an affront to the principles that we stand for, namely freedom.

I’m consistently amazed by the influence of “dress for success” on the American corporate psyche. People actually care how I cut my hair, shave, or whether I’m tattooed or pierced as if my capabilities or brain power or effectiveness change with the scenery. I’m also consistently amazed by how the basic marks of individuation aren’t seen as intrinsic or extrinsic. I started writing an essay on a philosophy of hiring recently and a lot of these kinds of themes come up there. Pittsburgh is certainly a bastion of the old school in this regard. While I understand the point in marketing and sales, the extent to which I’ve seen all manner of bizarre corporate policy developed on the altar of dress codes is mind-boggling.

I’ve seen pictures of James Watson delivering the original papers on dna just days after their publishing standing on-stage in front of his peers in shorts and then there’s Paul Erdos, who pretty much defined the picture of obsession and minimalism. I’m also told that none other than Herb Simon, when asked to choose a place to live on his arrival at cmu drew a half mile radius around the university and said, “Anywhere in that circle” owing to his particular obsession with being able to eat and breathe the work, other concerns be damned.

And of course, I’m not sure we have much in the way of counterculture outside of absurdist examples like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.28 I must go watch that movie again soon.

Welcome to Costco; I love you!

They tell me Costco is now in downtown Chicago. I may have to move to a hill in Montana next.

an-lon: The theme of balancing grown-up responsibilities (e.g., taxes, housing, earning a living) with a childlike sense of adventure is definitely a big one for me, as well. I think the theme of rebirth is a salient one as well. For better or worse, I can’t re-live my twenties .  I need to find what works for me now, in making my second big career change,  or third, I guess, if you count comparative literature to cs to be one arc and then think tank to vfx to be another. I can’t just repeat what I did the first two times — I need to find what works now, at a different life stage with different priorities. I’m not out to reject adulthood here   but I do intend to redefine it.

anson: I think we have to question whether professionalization is doing good or not to the education of our current and next generations. Professionalization makes us feel good about ourselves and also helps us to land a job more easily, but then it doesn’t help produce people who are more well-rounded and more capable of continued learning, especially in contexts that are out of their comfort zones.

I am fortunate to have received both a technical and liberal arts education. When I raise my kids, I won’t let them become lopsided techies. I also want them to be equally exposed to a liberal arts education, including history, arts, literature, and philosophy. I think that will help them to see the world through a different pair of lens and be more embracing of diversity and creative ideas.


24 A good example of such a video is a Belgian documentary film from 1949 directed by Paul Haesaerts called Visit to Picasso that captures Picasso’s creative process as he paints in real time. (“Bezoek aan Picasso”)

25 American journalist Po Bronson once wrote about how a large percentage of all gifted students severely underestimate their own abilities. (“How Not to Talk to your Kids”)

26 The late David Foster Wallace, an award-winning American writer, is quoted as saying, “The great thing about not owning a TV, is that when you do have access to one, you can kind of plunge in. An orgy of spectation. Last night I watched the Golf Channel. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus. Old footage, rigid haircuts.” (Lipsky, 2010, 118)

Lipsky, David. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 118.

27 The Cluetrain Manifesto both signals and argues that, through the Internet, people are discovering new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a result, markets are getting smarter than most companies. Whether management understands it or not, networked employees are an integral part of these borderless conversations. Today, customers and employees are communicating with each other in language that is natural, open, direct and often funny. Companies that aren’t engaging in them are missing an unprecedented opportunity. (“The Cluetrain Manifesto”, 2000)

28 An American film where Private Joe Bauers, the definition of “average American,” is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he’s easily the most intelligent person alive. (IMDB, 2006)