What are our wounds
To be tilled with our fingers
Ground in our palms
For an aunt. A father.
Cracks in souls
Just like ours.
I recently completed Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, a book that tells the story of modern humans, from our inception in nature among other species, to present day. Three “revolutions” in human history (the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific revolutions) provide the organizing framework for this book, through which Harari weaves in topics ranging from biology, to faith, to psychology, economics, technology, and more in between.
With so much information packed into this tome of a book — recounted through great storytelling no less — to try and capture the main points of Sapiens would entail writing a short book of my own. Instead, here’s how reading this book has contributed to my understanding of the world around me.
Reading Sapiens has helped me to…
…develop an appreciation for our animal nature. From 2.5 million years ago — when modern humans appeared — to 70,000 years ago — when our species began to stand out through the development of “cultures” — there was very little to distinguish us from other animals on the planet. While with the advent of the Cognitive Revolution (more on that in a sec) we began to develop some tricks that eventually brought us to where we are today, in many ways and for many years our species existed as a profoundly unimportant mammal, competing for food somewhere in the middle of the food chain. There’s a certain humility to appreciating how “un-special” we were relative to the rest of nature, and also a wonderment to looking around and noting just how much this species we’re a part of has shaped the world in its image (a real-life “Planet of the Apes”).
…understand the power of myth. According to Harari, research has shown that human groups naturally top off in size at about 150 people. Beyond that, groups tend to fall apart as that many folks cannot intimately know one-another. Our ability to adopt “myths” — or imagined realities that exist only in our collective imagination — hacked this upper limit and allowed us to achieve the (previously) unimaginable: be it stand up corporations that build products with parts sourced from all over the world (e.g. a commercial airliner), or organize millions of people to live in and contribute to a single nation-state. That said these myths, powerful as they are, also drive us to create systems that are much larger than us, with consequences that seem proportionately overwhelming. What powerful myths are emerging today? And how has our myth-making raised the stakes on our ability to thrive and survive?
…appreciate the origins of modern religions. According to Harari, as we went from living among animals and plants, to breeding them for our benefit, our relationship to them went from one of equals (who communicated with one-another), to one of master and property (who did not). As such, a new form of religion emerged, in which a third party (God) mediated between us and our possessions, helping to ensure (or so we hoped) healthy livestock and a bountiful harvest. We see echoes of this in modern day, in offerings of money, gifts, and devotion to a higher being in exchange for personal blessings. We also see the way in which popular practices in older religions continue to play a role in modern ones. When Catholicism came to Ireland, for example, rather than dispensing of the existing pagan Godess “Brigit,” the Church instead Christianized her as “St. Brigit,” the form through which she continues to be revered to this day.
…grasp the cosmic significance of our genetic engineering. For four billion years, or as long as life existed on our planet, evolution has been driven by nature. 10,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution, we began stepping into nature’s shoes through selectively breeding better livestock for the cull. That said, it’s only in the last few years that we have witnessed something entirely different: humans delving into the “source code” of another, and creating something that nature likely wouldn’t have produced on its own (i.e. a bio-fluorescent rabbit, or a mouse that grows a human ear on its back). For the first time, a creature has stepped into the seat of “creator,” and is beginning to design how life unfolds as we know it. A milestone on a truly cosmic scale.
…and to have some humility for how we will be perceived by future humans. It’s so easy for me to label as ignorant the millennia of human beings that have come before us; to cast aspersions on their unsophisticated ways — be it believing that the Sun revolves around the Earth, or trying a neighbor for witchcraft. And yet as Harari describes how we might evolve in the future — increasingly augmented by technology, designed for feeling a specific range of emotions, able to instantly access a collective consciousness — it’s hard not to ask: what will future Homo Sapiens, if we can still call them that — think of us? It’s easy to imagine them poo-pooing our limitations in the same way we might someone living in the 16th century (Worried about mortality? Dealing with depression? Need to physically move between places to experience them? Ha!). If, that is, they stop to think about us at all.
* * *
I think it’s noteworthy that Harari ends his vast recounting of the story of our species with ominous words. He writes (spoiler alert): “We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
For me, this book was a reckoning with the improbability of our story, and the degree to which, with all of our accomplishments, we seem to be hurtling towards an unknown that is bigger than any one of us. What does this mean for how I live the present day? I’m thankful to this book for leaving me with this question. If you have a chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
// As published on Medium.
I was 23 years old when I found myself stuck in the men’s room of a bar in Charlottesville Virginia, trying to get the timing of the door just right. Door closed, door opened. Door closed, last guy left and, finally with the bathroom to myself, I whipped out a pocket mirror, flipped it to the crown of my head and — there! With a quick swipe, I redistributed a few wispy strands of hair and my bald spot was once again… hidden. Relief. Slowly I made my way out of the bathroom, and rejoined the party.
So how exactly did I go from being a fun-seeking college kid, to sneaking into bathrooms with a mirror?
In my early 20’s I realized I was losing my hair. While visiting my parents on college break, on a hunch I checked out the back of my head and saw the unthinkable: my bare scalp. Clear deforestation. WTF! My life has just begun. Just gaining the confidence to talk to women, just growing into my own. And before I had even gotten the ball rolling, my scalp was telling me (or so I thought) game over. In a flash, from young stud to old man, the halcyon years of my youth unceremoniously skipped over.
In the years that followed, I went from panic about my balding head, to a low-level anxiety. I tried all sorts of tricks to make my balding less obvious. I grew it out, thinking more hair might conceal it. I used “volumizing” shampoo and after-shower mousse to make it look thicker. I got special haircuts. I avoided the rain (wet hair was the enemy to my mop). I looked into meds and surgery (ultimately holding off because I didn’t like the side-effects). And so here I was, relegated to shuffling around follicles on my increasingly barren crown. Partying with a pocket mirror.
Today, about a decade later, I’ve given up the game of “hide the bald spot.” I choose to wear my hair as it is, balding crown and all. I buzz it down because I think it looks more kempt, but I’ve grown to accept the underlying condition. A couple things happened along the way to help me get here.
The first was the realization that I had a say in the matter. After years of trying to hide that I was going bald, I noticed that it took a lot of my energy. Energy I knew I could use for things that gave me (or others!) more pleasure than concealing a patch of skin on my head. The game I was playing was exhausting, and nobody was asking me to play it but me. I also like the idea of making the most of the cards you’re dealt (rather than wishing you had a different hand), and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to put that philosophy into practice.
The second is that, along the way, I was lucky to run across some men who inspired me to think differently about balding. There was the guy at my company gym — a charismatic fellow who took good care of his body — who joked, unprompted, about his hairline “running away from his face.” Or the bald co-founder of a startup I spent some time at who had an infectious sense of humor. And a beautiful wife — inside and out — to boot. In the larger picture of who these men were: gregarious, energetic, charming, I realized that their hairline was so… inconsequential. What if the same was true for me? As my fellow (bald) friend put it: “Ultimately, I just decided that my worth was measured more by my character than anything else and once I accepted that it was most empowering.”
This shift — from being fearful of balding to accepting it — has for me made all the difference in the world. It’s helped me worry about it a lot less. No doubt, I’m still conscious of my bald spot. What’s changed, though, is that I own it. I do have a cue-ball (on its way to a power donut!). To help me continue to own it, putting into practice a few new habits has also been helpful. For example:
- I poke fun at my own balding head: at work, with friends, on dates. Being first to point it out — I realized — helps take the sting out of it.
- I’ve gotten to know my bald spot: literally placing my hand on it, feeling it. Affirming that it’s part of my body, and accepting it the way it is.
- I remind myself to practice gratitude: I may not have a full head of hair, but I do have a lot of other things to be grateful for, such as my health, and good friends and family.
* * *
So why was this journey so hard for me? Maybe it’s because I’m caught up in how I look. Or too hard on myself. That said, it’s also true that we live in a society that — when it comes to hair — delivers a loud and consistent message: keep it. Or else. From Rogaine commercials, to highway billboards for hair transplants, to an endless stream of panic-inducing web ads (google “men’s hair loss” if you dare) our media keeps hammering into us that if we men are losing our hair, we are somehow flawed. Not terribly surprising given our age-conscious culture, but not terribly helpful for those of us trying to grow into a balanced self.
To my fellow balding brothers — especially young men — who feel as frustrated as I did that afternoon in my parent’s house: know that you’ve got a full life ahead of you: of being smart, sexy, confident, whatever it is that you aspire to be. Your hair (or lack thereof) is as big a deal as you make it, no more. I started balding in my early 20’s and I’ve done just fine. And I’m no exception. And if you happen to be reading this in the bathroom stall of a bar, pocket mirror in hand, I encourage you to toss the mirror in the waste bin. Give yourself a pat on the back. And proudly reenter the world armed with a pickup line that only you can truly deliver:
// As published on Medium.
“You can hide ‘neath your covers / And study your pain”
— Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road
Having driven my car from Pennsylvania to California, here I was sitting in the bleachers of a small theater in Los Angeles, taking my first improv class with the storied Upright Citizens Brigade. I had made it! The dream I had — of spending the summer exploring my interests — was finally coming to fruition. And yet, as I sat with my classmates while our instructor shared yet another nugget of his (boundless) improv wisdom, rather than focusing on him, my attention was 100% trained on — my little pinky.
You see, at some point in the previous weeks, I noticed that when I angled my wrist in a certain way, and tried to bring my pinky closer to my other fingers, it trembled. Fear surging through my body, struck with panic, my mind raced around until it latched on to a startling conclusion: my trembling pinky is a sign of a neurological disorder. I must have MS! Or Parkinson’s.
This routine, of feeling that something in my body was amiss and pegging it on one ailment or another, had repeated itself many times prior, and continued to in the years that followed. Be it gum disease, a heart condition, diabetes, an STD, restless leg syndrome, you name it — if I could find a pretext for it, I found a way to worry about it. Gorgeous sunny days spent in a state of panic. Conversations with friends or family where my body was physically present but my mind locked in an intense medical self-investigation. And when I got the all-clear from a medical professional (as I did from a neurologist for my pinky): an intense sense of calm. Hallelujah! I’m okay! And, inevitably, in the days that followed: the surfacing of a new fear.
With the patient ear of a mentor, and a therapist skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, over the years I found a way to make sense of this two-step I danced. I came to understand how investigating these illnesses (damn you Google & WebMD!) fed my fears, rather than diminished them. How, often, my compulsive thoughts were themselves symptoms of other— completely unrelated — unresolved issues in my life. Such as a work assignment that intimidated me. Or how I was going to stay afloat financially while working as a freelancer. In addition to helping me make sense of my habits, my mentors also gave me some tools to help me to avoid falling into the trap I was so good at laying for myself. One such tool was meditation.
Now I knew that meditation generally helped manage stress. And I had felt some of its benefits in the (sporadic) practice I had developed. But it was in developing a daily practice over a couple of years that I’ve come to know how to relates to getting a handle on my compulsive thoughts.
First, meditation gave me a better shock-absorber. Ever driven down a bumpy road in an SUV? Pretty smooth right? Coffee in one hand, drumming the steering wheel to a good beat with the other, life is good. Now have you ever driven down a similar road in a sports car? The coffee quickly turns into a Frappuccino. Hands are white-knuckled just to keep your car moving in a straight line. Just like a sports car has more tightly wound shocks (for better handling at high speeds), my mind and body too were tightly wound (for better freak-outs). Any external stimulus (such as an errant thought about a disease I might have) and I had little capacity to deal with it. It instantly jumped into crisis mode.
Meditation afforded me the ability to recognize the feelings that such thoughts elicit and, rather than react to them when they came up (by say, freaking out, Googling symptoms, booking a doctor’s appointment, or (often) all three!), I learned to stay with them. Funnily enough, as I did, the feeling had a way of dissipating. Like putting a sugar cube in water.
Second, by helping me get better in dealing with scary thoughts and emotions, meditation gave me a greater capacity to look squarely at uncomfortable questions in my life — questions I artfully swept under the rug, but that in practice lurked under the surface and “acted out” by triggering my compulsive thoughts. Dreading an upcoming work assignment? What part of it was dreadful to me? Fearful of how I am going to work for myself and pay my rent? Well, what is my financial strategy? Maybe some financial planning is in order after all. And wouldn’t you know it — the more I’ve looked into such questions — the fewer freak-outs I’ve had.
I sometimes see meditation portrayed — in Instagram snapshots and glossy check-out-line magazines — as this wonderful luxury to indulge in, preferably while outfitted in Lululemon™ and surrounded by floating votive candles. As if it were some sort of chocolate truffle, to be savored when convenient. Perhaps that’s true for some, and for me there is little glamour in the practice of meditation. I’ve recognized that this “pattern” of compulsive thoughts is deeply ingrained in me and — without proper care and feeding — will resurface. Much like an alcoholic is one for life — no matter how many years they’ve been sober — I am forever really good at having compulsive thoughts. And much like a drug for depression can help restore a chemical imbalance in the brain, for me meditation helps break the connection between my thoughts — the emotions they elicit — and the pre-programmed actions that ultimately get me stuck. It’s a prescription. Knowing full well that if I stop my practice I’ll be “off my meds” and, while I’ll have added a few free minutes to my day, sooner or later I’ll be right back where I started.
Though I do sometimes light a candle.
* * *
Oh and how did the improv course go? I learned that improv is really, really hard. But Jason Alexander (George Costanza from Seinfeld) happened to be in the audience for our class show! A character who I suspect knows a thing or two about compulsive thinking.
// As published on Medium.
what would my great-grandpa say?
as he found his seat in a slick fusion restaurant
robe pulled to his knees
to reveal his slip-on shoes making contact with the ground
what would he do, as he sat across from me
would he study my hands, scouring for traces of how i earned my keep?
or would he sit back and bask in watching me place our order
seemingly commanding a small army of busboys and waiters
our tribe produced a chief!
what would it be like for me to look into my great-grandfather’s eyes
would they be welcoming portals into births he celebrated and deaths he mourned?
memories of his friends sharing a story by candlelight?
or would it be like staring into a wall
the concrete slab of hardened operator unimpressed with our circumstance
“you’ve lost your hair – why aren’t you married yet”?
or: “tell your father he owes me some money”
i’d like to think we’d get along fine
we’d finish our last bites of food and make our way outside
where he’d take me by the wrist and lead me to a nearby collecting pool
where he’d teach me how to make a flute from a piece of reed
and twine with its roots
where he’d tell me a salty story about when my grandfather was a teenager
and give me advice on what to look for in the mother of my children
so that one day they may have children
so that one day those children may have children
so that one day of them may sit alone at a restaurant
on a warm Sunday evening
what would my great-grandpa say?
As originally shared at Words Tell Stories:
A couple of years ago, if you had told me I would be down on all fours in front of a room, letting one of my workshop participants lead us through a series of cat-cow stretches, I would have laughed in disbelief. And yet here I was last December in Singapore, joining my participants in doing just that.
In 2015 I set an intention to travel more, and to move from consulting in design thinking to enabling others to use the tools of design thinking for themselves (“teaching how to fish”). Some 65+ flights later, with opportunities to coach workshops across the US, Kuwait, India and Singapore, the universe said yes.
One byproduct of this experience is that – with that much floor time – I had the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes as a facilitator. And learn from a number of talented colleagues and participants along the way. Thinking back on what I’ve learned in this last year about teaching (or coaching) design thinking in a workshop format, here are four of my most favorite take-aways:
Lesson 1: It’s all about managing energy
No matter how brilliant the material is – or how mellifluous I think the sound of my voice may be – keep it a one way conversation (i.e. me standing and talking) and before long I lose the room. Eyes glaze over. Cell phones magically make their way into hands. Content starts to get lost in the ether. Solution? Get the participants more involved. For example, rather than asking a question to the room, have participants ask it of each other. In pairs. Or in groups. If it’s a deeper dive into a topic, have participants do some research and present their findings to the room. At times, a front-of-the-room style presentation makes sense. And most times there are other – more engaging – options to draw upon. Other tactics to keep participants engaged (without wearing them out): think of the days’ activities as sprints; keep work focused and tight, then work in ample breaks. Play music during breaks (and some longer activities) to lighten the mood. Beverages are great! And yes, when necessary, do a round of stretches (or other warm-up or improv exercises) to shake things up. My goal for the day: a room of participants who feel like they’ve just played a great game of (insert your favorite sport here): energized, spent, and feeling that the day has flown by.
Lesson 2: Want participants to take risks? Go first.
When leading workshops I often ask participants to present out a concept poster. And I used to push them to go big. Sell it with conviction! Pretend your life depends on it! Every once in a while I’d get a brave volunteer or two who’d be willing to go big – and get a little silly – in front of their colleagues. Inevitably, though, we’d fall into the (understandable) pattern of a typical boardroom presentation — polite, buttoned up, “acceptable” for the workplace. No matter how hard I pushed participants up front, the end result was often the same. One day I coached with an instructor who did something different. He had made his own (fake) concept poster – and he went first. Eyes blazing, mouth foaming, he gesticulated and stomped while selling the heck out of a totally nonsensical product. I was entranced. Stunned. Laughing out loud. With that much energy injected into the room, the next team couldn’t help but hit it out of the park. And the next teams followed suit. My take-away? If I’m asking participants to do something out of their comfort zone, start by modeling it myself. Hear me roar!
Lesson 3: Being lazy can be good
When setting up for a session, I like to hang up the set of templates we’ll be using and pre-label them, as a way of creating a visual reference of our work that day. I once supported a coach who had a different idea: have the participants do it. The scandal! Here I was, being paid to co-run a design session, and I’m having participants do the dirty-work? Here’s why he was right. First: if my intention is to teach participants how to facilitate others, what better time for them to take their first steps in that role than when I’m there to provide feedback? Second: giving these tasks to participants frees me up to do other – more valuable – things, such as connecting individually with folks in the room. Or noticing the patterns that are emerging (Are people engaged or distracted? Are teams collaborating or is one person running the show?). Being “lazy” can extend to bigger tasks as well, such as asking participants to present out a design method they’ve researched — as they say, “the best way to learn something is to teach it.”
Lesson 4: Less tree, more forest
Dawn was just beginning to break and I was (literally) screaming into a pillow. Here I was, a couple hours away from leading a two day workshop for a client, and I had two competing agendas – neither of which I had led before, and neither of which I totally understood. Panic had struck. Not sure what to do next, I stepped away from my laptop and made a couple choices. First: I decided I needed a pep talk. Second: I admitted to myself that there was no way I was able to follow either agenda, as they each had a lot of intricacies that I didn’t have time to understand. My final option? I’d have to throw away the script, and use my gut. To prepare, I laid out a high-level structure for two days that I could make sense of and that I thought would offer value to the participants. I dressed down (long t-shirt and sneaks) so that I would be comfortable, and I kicked off our session with our chairs in a circle. Conversational. Making eye contact. Feeling out where the interest was in the room. The session ended up going great. In fact, one participant even requested I come back to help run another session at their company. Would I use this preparation style for every session? Not unless I want an aneurysm! When running workshops I’m often stressed because we’re a few minutes behind schedule: I’m caught up in making the day go as originally planned, rather than focusing on the needs of the room. This episode was an unexpected gift – a stark reminder of the value of being present, having fun, and not letting the details get in the way of delivering the big picture.
If I’ve learned one additional lesson from this last year it’s that failure is my own best coach. I’ve bored, confused and frustrated more than my fair share of participants and co-instructors. It’s wanting to avoid these moments – and experimenting with new solutions – that has kept me engaged in this practice, and allowed me to be less fearful and more present in the workshops that followed. When things do come together – a workshop can be as energizing to me as (I hope) it is to the participants. And, after all, isn’t that the goal?
If you’re about to set off on coaching your first design thinking workshop — (try and) have fun! If you’re an old hand at this, I hope some of these tips are a helpful reminder of the options at your disposal.
// As published on LinkedIn.
beneath my room
flows a river
every now and then
cracks the floor
and the river
swallows me whole
* * *
– when it comes –
grabs me with its skinny arm
pulls me below the surface
the next morning
my clothes are crisp and clean
and underneath my feet
one mile of bedrock
* * *
in the shower
contorted with pain
are these tears i’m tasting?
or just water
isn’t this funny?