Monthly Archives: October 2014

Perfect Circles

In many cultures around the world, circles have been used as images of harmony, completion, perfection.

I have a vague recollection of a teacher once telling my that this is because circles are so sweetly symmetrical, though I honestly don’t have the expertise to tell you why the circle is so revered.

Perhaps, though, what I find most beautiful about circles can be seen in a force-diagram.

That is to say, what I find beautiful is the answer to the question, why does something travel in a circle?

Circular motion, you see, is the result of two perpendicular forces. One force, inertia, pushes an object in motion to continue in a straight line. Another force, say, gravity or the tension on a string, pulls the object inwards.

One force points towards the center of the circle, the other points tangential to the circle. And it is the conflict and synergy between these perpendicular forces which causes the circular motion to form.

It’s important to note these forces aren’t opposing. An object affected by a force pointing in one direction and an equal force pointing in the opposite direction would go nowhere. It would appear static despite the two very real forces pushing on it.

But circles form from perpendicular forces. At each moment, the object moves a little bit this way and a little bit that way, at the whim of two forces which, perhaps, seem to have little in common at all.

But the object in question traces out a beautiful, perfect arc.

Symmetry from different forces.

Implicit Bias

I had the opportunity today to learn from two impressive Tufts faculty members, Keith Maddox and Sam Sommers. Both social psychologists, Maddox and Sommers specialize in issues of implicit bias, stereotyping, and group interactions.

If you’ve never done it before, I highly encourage you to visit Harvard’s Project Implicit to take an implicit bias test. Through a series of categorizing tasks, the test will show you what biases you have on a number of topics such as race, gender, and sexuality.

I say, “what biases you have” rather than “whether you have biases,” because, unless you are dead, you will have biases.

People need to use short cuts, heuristics, in order to make sense of the complex stimuli we are constantly inundated with. This is a helpful, and often good mechanism. If we could only ever work from complete information, we’d find ourselves practically paralyzed by the enormity of information flooding our way. We literally could not function without these heuristics.

But these snap judgements can also be dangerous. Studies have shown, for example, that we typically form opinions within seconds of meeting someone, and those impressions tend to vary little after being formed.

That might not be a problem if our first impressions were always surprisingly accurate, but in a society with deep preferences favoring people who look a certain way or act a certain way, our heuristic judgements devolve into damaging stereotypes.

So, what is a person to do?

We can’t – and shouldn’t want to – cleanse our minds of all heuristic processes. But neither can we rely on our mental shortcuts to always present us with accurate, unbiased information.

Well, first, you should take the tests. Find out what biases you have. It will be hard. You may not like the results. After all, three quarter of white people and half of black people show a bias favoring Whiteness.

And if you are not biased on that, you are likely biased on something else. But have no doubts that you are biased.

Of course, knowing is half the battle, so get to know what biases you have. Face them. Accept them. The reality is your brain does things that you have little control over, and while we might wish it didn’t…ignoring our biases won’t make them go away.

So recognize your biases and commit to questioning your actions accordingly. Notice when your bias jumps in and push yourself to question your judgements, assumptions, opinions and the actions which flow from those views.

Never settle with the answer that it’s okay, “in this case.” Your brain will always come up with extenuation circumstances to explain why your bias is okay.

This is a critical first step, but in my view it is still not enough. Privilege and power are deeply ingrained to the benefit of some and the determinant of others. Overcoming bias is more than learning not to judge someone by the color of their skin – it is learning to accept them for who they are. It is understanding and expressing that the White way is not intrinsically the right way.

There is no gold star for the 25% of white people who don’t favor Whiteness. There is no person who doesn’t need to be concerned about implicit bias or the very real ways it skews and damages our society.

We are all us members of this society and we each have an obligation to work every day at uncovering our own biases undoing the harm that has haunted us for generations.

False Barriers of Practicality

As an individual, it can be hard to say no. Or, at least, taking on too much seems to be a staple of modern life.

But as an institution, even an institution made up of people, it is easy to say no.

There is always too much work to be done. Always too many demands to be met, and too many stakeholders too please. No matter what type of institution operating in what sector, a functional, sustainable institution needs to say no.

And often this is good. A successful institution will only take on those efforts which most closely align with its mission and vision. A successful institution will see more opportunities than it has the capacity to take on. A successful institution will project an air of efficiency and mask the true chaos of the process from the rest of the world.

The problem is the best things, the most important things, aren’t always the easiest.

It is no minor task to build diverse institutions where people of all backgrounds can voice their opinions and engage in rigorous, civil dialogue. The rewards may well be worth it, but the energy and resources needed for this effort often seem monstrous in the face a process that works well enough already.

And well enough is the death knell of these more noble pursuits.

Because in the face of so many opportunities and so little time, well enough is typically the best you can hope for. And adding complications to the process – even in the name of better ends – is generally not taken seriously as a suggestion.

To be fair, I am as guilty of the trap of practicality as anyone. I like things to run simply and smoothly, and my internal voice decries when any complicating factors arise. It’s not that I’m opposed to change, but truth be told…I just want it to work.

It takes a lot just to make things go in the first place, and frankly I often just don’t have the energy to face what it will really take to bring something from well enough to ideal.

But while I can appreciate this reaction in people and institutions, we should none of us settle for that response.

It may be too much to push for ideal all of the time, but neither should we settle for well enough all of the time. As individuals and institutions, we have to push ourselves to take the hard path, the better path. We have to seek to be our best selves and to create the best institutions we can.

It will take a lot of hard, difficult, constant work. But despite the challenges, despite the seeming impracticality, that is the right work to undertake.

Practicality and Government

I had the pleasure today of listening to Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary of Health and Human Services. Former Governor of Kansas, Secretary Sebelius is perhaps best known for overseeing the implementing the Affordable Care Act.

She spoke about many things, including the infamous “eight weeks” of her service while there were problems with the Health Exchange Portal.

But perhaps most interesting was her take on dysfunction in national government.

States, she said, have a more practical approach. There is dissent and disagreement and knock down political fights. But at the end of the day, things get done. Things have to get done.

For one thing, states are mandated to annually pass a budget. So there’s only so far you can kick the can down the road.

That’s not the same at the federal level. In addition to raising issues of gerrymandering and money in politics, Sebelius argued that there’s a growing number of people elected to congress who think that nothing good comes from government.

For four of the five years she was Secretary, the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t have a budget. The government shut down three times.

States, she argued, have to be practical. But for Congress – they can pass the buck indefinitely.

Content Challenges

Content creation and curation are major challenges of communication in a modern world. There are so many stories to tell, and so few resources to capture them.

And there is such a cacophony of content. So many cat videos and random chatter. So much to learn and so much opportunity to learn it. There is high demand for content, but a simultaneous exhaustion from content – there is no time to go to another website, no energy for another news source.

Lackluster content doesn’t go far in a fast paced world.

It takes time and talent, resources and reflection to generate great content. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

But there’s no time for that.

And maybe that’s okay – modern communication is teaching brands to let go of some control. Social media will never work for a company that needs six levels of approval.

Communication needs to be fast and not furious, on message but without oversight. It needs to have a personality and a character that anyone can jump into. A voice that your audience can relate to.

Crowd sourcing is really the only viable content strategy in this communications landscape. Produce some work of your own, sure, but your brand has to be part of the conversation – not the elevator music playing in the background.

But with crowd sourced content how can you curate successfully?

You can’t just take content, shove it in a branded box, and call it a day. Content needs to be reviewed, considered, and shared as part of the conversation.

Importantly, the content needs to be diverse. The voice needs to be diverse.

It’s not about having a team of twenty people who can grab as much content as possible and put it through the machine process of industry, where all messages come out crisp and clean and perfectly on message.

Some content can be corporate like that, but a strong content strategy supports of diversity of voices, promotes a diversity of voices.

A brand, perhaps, shouldn’t just be part of the conversation – it should host the conversation. And a good host stands back and makes sure everyone’s having a good time. You don’t have to announce your arrival at the party.

After all, a brand exists in the mind of a consumer – your content only has meaning insofar as it has value to your audience.

Communication and Understanding

Can one person ever truly understand another?

Certainly communication among people who speak the same language is generally good enough for every day purposes. And, even with language barriers, some non-verbal communication can transcend such trivialities.

But just because two people can communicate relatively effectively, doesn’t necessarily mean that they truly understand each other on a deeper level.

Someone told me recently that speech and writing are the most inefficient means of data transfer.

They’re not wrong – I can’t transfer an idea the way I might give you a physical object. I have to describe it, and you have to recreate it.

I describe it using my language, knowledge, and experience, drawing on my understanding of the world to express myself. Then you take those little pieces and try to use your own knowledge and experience to recreate what I have described.

If we come from similar backgrounds this might be relatively easy – we probably speak the same language, and might share similar knowledge and experience to draw from. If we come from very different background this will be more difficult.

Functional communication can be achieved under either scenario, but the possibilities for deeper communication are unclear. I like to think it is possible in the more difficult situation, but I wonder if it is truly possible even in the easier situation.

The False Utility of Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is often seen as a utility.

There are problems in society, so we need to galvanize “The People” to do something about it. “The People” have power, after all. If only they can be motivated to claim it.

But who are these shadowy Masses who could control our country’s destiny?

Well, they are us.

Walter Lippman was always skeptical of “The Public,” describing them as a “bewildered herd” liable to “arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece.”

In my opinion, Lippman didn’t say this because he was an elitist technocrat, but because he recognized the danger in formulating a “phantom public” which disempowered a key population –

That would be you and me.

There is no real “public,” just lots of individual people with individual lives, beliefs, opinions, concerns, and priorities.

So I get a little skeptical when people refer to “the public” as a tool. Want to change a law? Get a certain number of signatures or a certain number of votes. Want to challenge the status quo? Get a large turnout for a protest or rally. Perhaps a certain number of views on a video where you’ll never believe what happened next.

And perhaps this makes sense. After all, it seems reasonable to have some threshold of demonstrating public support.

But there is no “Public” and civic engagement is not merely a utility.

It is great to engage people in a cause or an issue, to mobilize “people power” in changing the way things are done.

But I believe there is real value, fundamental value, in simply having people live and work and function together.

Communities are better when people – all people – have a voice within that community. People are better when every person around them has a voice.

So go ahead and push for a change. Fight for what you believe in and try to get others to fight along side you. But always remember that true engagement is deeper than that. True engagement is more than a cause or a battle or an issue.

It is listening genuinely to everyone around you. Empowering them to have their voices heard. It is recognizing that we are all better – individually and collectively – when every person is engaged.

Morality for the Broken

I often call myself broken.

I don’t mean that as a bad thing. It’s just a part of who I am. To be honest, I suspect we are all broken. All not quite right. All wounded and scarred from our past, present, or future.

So forgive me if I use that word cavalierly. I use it to refer to any person – or, perhaps, a given moment – where we aren’t quite the person we want to be. Where the traumas of our past impact the realities of the present.

Perhaps you aren’t good at opening up to people. Perhaps you over share. Perhaps you are terrified by loud noises, inexplicably moved to tears, overcome by violent anger, controlled by addictions, paralyzed by fear.

I don’t know how you are broken, but I suspect you probably are.

I know I am.

Mental health issues are serious, and we should take them seriously.

But to remove the stigma of mental health, we also need to normalize mental health issues. We need to give morality back to the broken. Or perhaps we broken need to take morality back.

And make no mistake, there is a moral component to mental health. Michel Foucault traces this well in his work. Sanitoriums were places where the mentally ill were incarcerated with criminals – eventually separated for the protection of criminals, who were seen as morally superior to the mad.

The mentally ill were left exposed in the cold and put out on display for entertainment. The mentally ill were less than human, and the perceived causes of their madness were inextricably linked to the morality of the day.

Perhaps our modern sensibilities have refined since then, but this implication of immorality has not yet faded from view.

There is nothing wrong with you if you are broken. There is nothing wrong about you.

Friedrich Nietzsche argues that aristocrats invented morality. That they created “the good” to be synonymous with their tastes. Eventually, this paradigm shifted, with those who came to power from lower social rungs declaring blessed are the meek.

But if the moral path is consistently reinvented by those in power, who will speak for the broken? Who will define morality for us?

Guilt as a personal check can be good. Guilt as a crippling response seems unhelpful. Grief can be a healthy process, but depression can be devastatingly paralyzing. Anger, too, has value, but undirected rage can be dangerous.

Who is to tell us what feelings are Right?

I am not prepared to be judged immoral for any of my many faults, nor would I presume to judge others for theirs. And yet, giving everyone a pass to determine what is best for them seems dangerous – perhaps there are some deeds we really ought not to condone.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know this – there is a morality for the broken, one that embraces us for who we are and accepts our many flaws. A morality that doesn’t judge how our brokenness manifests, but which understands that it does. A morality that questions what is Right without damning us for our flaws.

A morality for the broken. And we are all of us broken.

Fashion, Freedom and Gender Norms

Having never been much of one for fashion, I was quite intrigued today to hear some of the praise and mourning for legendary designer Oscar de la Renta.

He made powerful women beautiful and beautiful women powerful, they said on the news this morning.

We will always remember him as the man who made women look and feel beautiful,” former first lady Laura Bush said in a statement.

Commentators talked about what a profound respect de la Renta had for women. A respect which he expressed in part through his art of fashion.

In some ways, these comments struck me as odd. To be fair, I know nothing about fashion or about de la Renta, but this connection between women and their looks strikes me as unsettling. Where is the line between supporting women and objectifying them?

It’s commonly argued that one’s fashion is a key way of expressing oneself. About 19 percent of U.S. public schools require a uniform – arguably infringing on those students freedom of expression.

But if indeed clothes make the man (or woman), is there anything wrong with a woman wanting an outfit that will make her feel beautiful? Or, perhaps more cynically, an outfit that will make her feel like she fits society’s expectations of beauty.

And this gap seems the real challenge.

I have heard my friends struggle with how to respond to their daughters’ princess-loving ways – How can we teach our daughters that they can define their own standards of beauty and success, but also support them if they pursue a gender-normative approach?

There’s nothing wrong with being a princess. There’s something wrong with being expected to be a princess.

High fashion for me has always seemed to cross this line – leading the charge in developing standards no healthy person ought to pursue and warping people’s own inner sense of fashion.

But I’m also reminded of that scene in the Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep derides Anne Hathaway for thinking she exists outside of fashion – it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.

So perhaps we are none of us immune from the machine.

But, it seems, there must be room in this world for clothing which can help a person express themselves, which can empower and, perhaps, even make someone feel beautiful. Clothing which doesn’t have to fit gender norms, but which can help a given person in a given context express who they are to the world.

Introvert Exhaustion

While there are different understandings of what it means to be an “introvert,” I have enjoyed the increasing popularity of defining introversion as a tendency to lose energy through social interaction.

Personally, I would consider myself an introvert – a definition which seems to increasingly take people by surprise as I get older.

When I was younger I would go long stretches without speaking to anybody – my sister used to tell people I was mute – so, I suppose, the label of introversion didn’t seem so surprising then.

As a young professional, I had to actively develop small-talk skills. I worked on the 12th floor of a building so I made a rule for myself – anytime there was someone else in the elevator, I had to talk to them.

And somewhere along the line, I suppose, I’ve become downright gregarious.

But I would still consider myself an introvert.

Social interaction has gotten easier, sure, but it’s still just…exhausting.

Age and practice have made it easier for me to quickly articulate an idea, and I no longer worry too much about what others will think about what I have to say. I get a kick out of chatting with strangers on the street.

But I would still consider myself an introvert.

And there’s a special type of exhaustion that comes from that. It’s normal to be exhausted when you’re busy, its normal to be exhausted from the work. But I find I am fundamentally exhausted by social interaction in a special way I can’t quite explain.

I enjoy talking with others. I enjoy learning from others. And I enjoy spending time with others.

But. I can listen better when I have listened to silence. I can learn better when I have learned from nothing.

Solitude serves.