Presence

“Can you hear the time?”
asked the art teacher.

“What??”
he responded,
bewildered.

“The time.
Can you hear it?”
she asked again.

“What the hell
are you talking about?!”
he asked,
now annoyed.

“…”
she paused.

“Can you tell me what time it is
without looking at your watch.”
she eventually spoke again.

“No.
I can’t.”
he replied,
indignantly.

“Just a few moments ago,
the church bell rang
to indicate noon.
If you want to make art,
I want you to learn
to be present enough
to hear that.”
she replied.

Forty Two

There was a period in my 20s, where it was as if “Human-Centered Design” was my family name.

In other words, “Human-Centered Design” was a significant part of my identity. So much so that I felt an implicit sense of responsibility on my shoulders. To the degree that I took “Human-Centered Design” as if it were as serious as the continuation of my own family’s reputation & lineage.

Although… It wasn’t like “Human-Centered Design” behaved like Darth Vader who went “I am your father~” (You know?) So one could wonder why I had felt the way I had felt.

Well, after realizing empathy with my past self, I realized that one of the most important needs I had was to feel a sense of belonging. Without a sense of belonging, I had found it difficult to withstand the pain of loneliness and confusion.

To be clear, I wasn’t aware of this back then. At the time, my conscious thought kept claiming that I was merely trying to “(positively) change the world.” Given the popularity of the phrase “change the world” in the late 90s and early 2000s, this is as cliché as it can get. But I was sincere.

At the same time, what I also see now is that I valued the experience of contribution. I felt alive when I could see that I was contributing to someone’s life. I also see that I had a need to shed the seemingly less-than-worthy identity of a “student.” I had a need to belong to a seemingly more significant and meaningful tribe. A tribe which could bestow upon me a more worthy identity. A tribe to which a number of older pioneers also belonged. Pioneers who made me feel the love and validation that I needed, but couldn’t feel in relation to my own father. All of these lay underneath my subconscious.

This isn’t to say that I think I was wrong to have felt the way I did or to have pursued “Human-Centered Design.”

No.

In fact, I cherish and take pride in my 20s.

I did the thing that brought life into my existence. That was amazing! I also did what I believed would fulfill my unconscious needs. Did it work? Unfortunately not. But I did do my best. And that’s enough for me to cherish and take pride in my 20s.

At the same time, I do find it important to admit that I had not yet attained the requisite maturity back then to confront the eventuality of our humanity. The vulnerable existence we are, once we get to know ourselves, despite how strong and stoic we may try to come across at first. Especially since today is my 42nd birthday.

Because what we do not admit stays in our subconscious. What we do admit rises up into our conscious. And it is only at that point we can design our relationship to and interaction with them.

The need to belong and to feel like we matter is a critical component of the human condition. It is as normal as gravity. There is no shame in such admission. In fact, the earlier we admit and attempt to understand it, the more we become capable of design. The design of our thoughts and behaviors. In contrast to becoming a slave to our suppressed emotions and unfulfilled needs.

In my research, I had learned that art, despite looking like a journey of creating things, is ultimately a journey of creating relationships. Relationships from which value, meaning, language, and identity emerge. Entrepreneurship is very much the same.

On the surface, entrepreneurship may seem like a journey of mere product and service innovation. But ultimately, entrepreneurship is a journey of innovating our relationships. Relationships to our customers, investors, board members, employees, co-founders, or even our so-called “self” and our family. These are all part of the same trail we are blazing.

I know many of you on this list are on your own journey of relational innovation. For some of you, I am also an explicit participant in your journey. So I want to take this time to tell you how proud I am of you all. Not for having achieved certain things or to have done great deeds. But for your willingness to admit what most would not dare admit. For your willingness to attempt to understand what most would not bother to understand.

Our humanity, that is.

Thank you.

I love you.

I’m proud of you.

Slim
August 19th 2019


Photo credit: Belinda Novika

Broken, I am.

Jim Carey once said,
he acts,
because he’s broken.

For those who judge
“brokenness”
as “bad”
may feel triggered
by that comment.

But what I learned from art,
is that if “broken” implies
1) separated in parts
or 2) producing results
that defy our expectations,
then both
are requirements
for innovation.

Because parts
must be separated
before they can be
recomposed
into a new whole.

And the kind of whole
we seek in innovation
is the kind
that defies our expectations
enough to move us
in often surprising ways.

If being broken
means that I can not only
understand and appreciate,
but also artfully express
the depth and nuance
of the human experience
in ways I could not
otherwise have,
such that I impact the world
in positive ways,
as has Jim Carey,
then broken,
I am.

Rejected Commencement Speech

I’d like to share with you something I wrote back in 2011.

I was in the 3rd year of my research into the creative process I only knew to call “making art.” I had such strong feelings about my research that I felt compelled to share some of those feelings with my fellow graduates.

Unfortunately, my speech didn’t get picked.

What I did not know at the time was that the insights I gathered in art school would end up resonating most deeply with founders and CEOs. That the struggles I experienced in what I thought of as “making art,” would prove valuable those who “build companies.”

Enjoy!

 


 

Dear graduating class of 2011,

Let’s all take a moment to remember a few years back in time, back to your first week of classes at RISD. With that memory in mind, let me share with you a story from that week.

It was 8 o’ clock in the morning.

I was on the 2nd floor of ProvWash Foundation classroom looking around, nervous. I was surrounded by a group of freshmen students 12 years my junior. I knew them by reputation. Rumor had it that they drew amazingly realistic bicycles. I imagined their sketchbooks being filled with beautiful drawings freshly rendered just moments before coming to class. I wondered what my skills were. Just a year ago, I didn’t know how to draw. As a matter of fact, I still didn’t.

I was telling myself that the nine years I spent as a “professional” was going to help me get through this class, when the instructor gathered us at the front of the classroom to show us how to fold a piece of paper.

It looked easy.

I was feeling confident, until she turned to us and asked us to go fold our own.

“Fold our own what?” I wondered.

It was one of those tasks that could either seem completely self-explanatory, or completely… not. Anxiety struck, but I reminded myself that I had anticipated this. This was that art school “creativity” thing of which I had been forewarned.

Back at my desk, I reached for my post-it notes to sketch my ideas out. I sketched, sketched, and sketched some more in search of a design I liked. But, after a couple of hours, I ran out of ideas. Feeling anxious, I decided to skip lunch, to think of what to sketch. I brainstormed with more post-it notes, mind maps, and employed all the “professional methods” I had amassed over the years.

Time kept passing, with nary a hint of what I should fold. It was already 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I was starving. All that professional experience I was counting on seemed almost too cruel for not extending a helping hand.

In a moment of desperation, I decided to look around at what others were doing. I noticed a girl in the corner, who seemed very much focused on folding her paper. Curious to find out her vision, I left my desk for her’s. Even from afar, I could see a mountain of folded objects atop her desk.

As I moved in closer, I got excited to get a better look. But then when I finally got close enough, I noticed that none of the objects seemed particularly interesting.

“This is it?” I thought to myself, disappointed. “Why does she look so confident?” I wondered.

“Hey, what are you making?” I asked.

An answer came back.

“I don’t know.”

The answer echoed in my ears. I… don’t… know. Just three simple words.

“What are these other ones?” I asked again.

“I don’t know… I’m just trying stuff out,” she responded.

She didn’t know? How could she not know? How could her hands be moving when she didn’t know what she’s doing? How could she decide where to fold and in what direction? How could she anticipate what kind of effect a fold could have on her subsequent folds? How could she have folded a mountain of objects without knowing?

Then… it hit me like a ton of bricks. This… was youth. This… was what it meant to have a beginner’s mindset. This was what it meant to follow your heart. To be yourself. It was courage.

Never mind my lack of drawing skills. Courage was what I truly lacked. What I’ve been doing for a good chunk of my adult life was hide behind existing knowledge, formalized methods, and a fancy job title. I was a mere shadow of who I was, a bad imitation, at best, of a closed-minded, arrogant, dogmatic, adult stupefied by his own experience. I had never, in my adult life, felt like such a failure.

Even as I stand here now, after 3 hard years of graduate school, the lesson I learned in that classroom still seems highly relevant.

During the final semester, I was reminded over and over again, that the real challenge of graduate school, and, perhaps more so the world I am about to re-enter, is not to achieve success, gain recognition, or even to blow people’s minds with amazing work… Instead, it is to have the courage to not let anyone convince me that I am crazy. That just because I do not know exactly where I’m going, just because I do not have a clear vision, just because I cannot articulate what it is that I’m interested in, it does not mean that I am lost.

Do I feel confident that I will be able to do this?

No.

As a matter of fact, this is the least confident I have ever been. But no matter the situation, I somehow feel comfortable admitting my own feelings of cowardice, imperfections, and inadequacies. Maybe this is a cheap shot at sympathy or perhaps a way of comforting myself into thinking that things can only get better from here on.

Or perhaps this means that it matters less whether I’m confident or not. Because as I stand here, what I cannot stop thinking about is the fact that I have met fellow students and mentors here at RISD, who have demonstrated immense patience with me, who have encouraged me in ways I had never been, who have willingly spent time out of their own precious lives to engage in dialogue with me. And it is their confidence in me that gives me tremendous hope, that perhaps I am not crazy, and neither are you.

Dear graduating class of 2011, as one of my personal heroes once said.

You know very well who you are. Don’t let’em hold you down. Reach for the Stars.

Thank you.

Change of Sight, Change of Mind

One of the most profound things
I learned in art school,
is that we can learn
to physically see the world
differently.

To draw from observation,
I had to look at objects
and learn to see light
instead of objects.

To make a poster,
I had to look at a piece of paper
and learn to see a deeply 3-dimensional space
through the surface of the paper.

To sculpt figures,
I had to look at a naked person
and learn to see their muscles & skeletons
hidden underneath their skin.

To learn to act,
I had to learn to see myself in the character
in between the words written in the script.

In each of these cases,
I’d say “Oh, I see…,”
and that change of sight
would profoundly shift my mind,
which then naturally shifted my behavior.

It is no coincidence,
that the professors I admired in school
never bothered to change my behavior.

They merely helped me see differently,
after which a change in behavior
was inevitable.

When Do We Mature?

Child psychologist Lewis Lipsitt once said
“We mature, when what we once assumed to know
takes on more subtlety and nuance,
thus changes in meaning.”

The word “making art” used to mean
Being stubborn or egocentric
enough to get away with bullshit.

So I used to despise art.

But after 4 years of realizing empathy with artists,
the word changed in meaning to
Letting go of our ego
to learn from others
on how to uncover & express our sincere honesty.

Words necessarily change in meaning as we mature.

Words like
parenting & leadership
will change in meaning
as we mature
as parents & leaders.

So will words like
children,
engineers,
millennials,
or marketing and sales.

This is no coincidence.

Forty One

On Sunday, I turned 41.

I’ve been told that in “Korean age” I’m 42.

There’s something interesting about reflecting on what happened in the past after I have had a 10+year distance from it.

In my 20s, I listened to a lot of computer scientists’ inspiring lectures. They were world-famous, which gave their words that much more weight. In hindsight, it would have been one thing to learn of their views and to appreciate them for what they were (i.e. views) while quite another to be persuaded by them. For better or for worse, I leaned toward the latter.

In hindsight, there were a few critical reasons why their views had such a big impact on me.

  1. The vision they portrayed were of a revolutionary caliber with a moral framing of “saving the world.”I have a need to rebel against authority and the status quo. Their vision fulfilled that need. I could not refuse being part of the rebellion—especially if it was framed as a way to save the world.
  2. Their views also made me feel understood and accepted.Having lived my whole life as a third culture kid, I’d been looking for this feeling from mother/father figures for a long time. When I didn’t get it from my parents, I was ecstatic to get it elsewhere, even if it were from total strangers.
  3. Finally, I was under the impression that someone had the answer to life.I considered life to be a problem to be solved, and thought that if I can only find that person who has the solution to life, I’d have figured it all out. It just so happened that these computer scientists sounded so confident that I couldn’t help but assume they knew the solution to this problem called life.

All throughout my 20s, my tendency to hyper-empathize with these influential figures grew larger. As a result, I now understand my 20s as a phase of living their lives not mine. It wouldn’t be until I turn 30 that I realize how easy it is to confuse living someone else’s life with living our own.

Then at the age of 29, I received a challenge. A bewildering challenge at that. One that made no sense. An artist I met at a computer science conference challenged me to go to art school. It seemed like a crazy and irrational idea. Especially because I thought so little of art at the time. I was a man of science, engineering, and design science. Art, I thought, was fluffy, useless, bullshit. In fact, you may have noticed that I put the word “science” next to the word “design” a la Buckminster Fuller, as if to imply that the word design alone was somehow not good enough. “Why would a man of science, engineering, and design science stoop so low as to study art?” was the kind of thought I had back then. (Arrogant much?)

It took me over a year since receiving this challenge of conducting my own, *ahem* scientific, experiments and to gradually build the trust & respect necessary to empathize with artists. When I finally did, it also became clear that this was a challenge I could not refuse. I had to answer the challenge. Why? Because I realized that not answering the challenge meant continuing to live someone else’s life.

Living someone else’s life of rebellion didn’t give me a sense of comfort, but it did give me a sense of safety and that ever-so-desirable feeling that what I’m doing was “important work” that “mattered.” Yet, for better or for worse, I was no longer interested in safety or mattering. I was now interested in being honest with myself in ways I had never been. I was willing to break myself wide open to find out what the hell was inside me instead of continuing to chase after something outside of me because an influential figure had persuaded me into thinking that it was the right thing to do.

For better or for worse, that’s precisely what art and my 30s offered me. It forced me to face my deepest & darkest fears. It crushed every little belief and assumption I had developed over the years. It shook me to my core and took me places I’m both horrified and grateful to have been.

To be clear, I do not recommend this to anyone. I’ll spare you the details for now as I’m not quite ready to write about them just yet. Maybe give me another 10 years.

Above all, I say all this to set myself up to say “thank you” to all those who have stuck by my side throughout my 30s. That’s it really. Because it is through your grace that I’m still alive today both psychologically and physically. I will never forget that.

You know who you are.

May you stay beautiful, always.

with warmth and curiosity,

slim
August 19th 2018

photo credit to Sue Langford

Leveraging Resistance

Designers have worked with resistance since the dawn of time.

The first caveman who drew on cave walls
were met with resistance from those walls
and leveraged it as the very means through which they created.

Whenever someone behaves in ways we interpret as “resistance,”
all it means is we’re struggling to create.

What human interaction designers do with resistance
is leverage it as the very means through which we create.

Until we learn this art,
we’ll feel nothing but frustration & resentment
in our attempt to bring about innovation in our interactions & organizations.

Guess what lies at the heart of this art?
Our willingness & ability to realize our empathy.