The skills of exploration

Bicycling and walking offer unique entry into exploration itself. Landscape, the built environment, ordinary space that surrounds the adult explorer, is something not meant to be interpreted, to be read, to be understood. Unlike almost everything else to which adults turn there attention, the concatenation of natural and built form surrounding the explorer is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex. Exploring it first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense. But exploring not only awakens attitudes and skills made dormant by programmed education, jobs and the hectic daily dash from dry cleaner to grocery store to dentist. It sharpens the skills and makes explorers realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space, everything from noticing nuances in house paint to seeing. Great geographical patterns from a hilltop almost no one bothers to climb, are cross training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Exploring ordinary landscape sharpens all the skills of exploration.

Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe (pp. 10-11)

I read Outside Lies Magic a few months ago, but my mind kept returning to this quote. Stigloe nicely captures what I enjoy about cycling or walking. Spending time to take the what I’m passing, stopping occasionally to get a better look.

I used to spend weekends walking with some friends. I was always the laggard: looking at the way sewage pipes were integrated into a bridge, identifying a new plant of fungus I’d never seen. I must have driven them crazy.

This is what walking was about for me: not the rush to the end (though the inevitable beer at the pub was nice), but the discovery along the way. It was about learning something new, finding something I’d never seen before, solving a mystery.

I recently went on a hike with my young son. We were with a large group, and he was lagging behind. He’d learned to take time looking at what he was walking past. And yet on this hike I became frustrated with him, tried to rush him, tried to get him to keep up. This was a mistake. It’s one of those regrettable mistakes that you almost know you’re making as you’re in the act of doing it. Fortunately, my wife has more sense than I have. After a while, we simply stopped and had lunch on our own. We then resumed our usual pace of wandering and wondering, rather than pushing mindlessly and blindly on to the next point on the map.

I feel the same about cycling. I cycle home from the train station in the evenings. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. The thirty minutes or so that I cycle home are the only point in most of my days when I can take note of the changing position of the stars, the progression of plants that a growing in the verge or the birdsong that accompanies me on these ride. I’ve occasionally stopped (though not often enough) to examine a flower that I noticed as I passed or to get a better look at hard-to-see constellations on a moonless night.

I don’t think I’d make a very good road cyclist. The point seems to be to go as fast as possible. While I can understand the thrill of speed and the wind rushing past, I’m more drawn to exploring roadside mysteries than rushing past them.

I like to think that in doing this I’m honing what Stigloe calls the skills of exploration. I need more practice. I don’t stop often enough. I don’t take enough opportunities to explore. Having a six-year-old son helps, though I have to remember to follow his lead rather than expecting him to follow mine.

Opportunities to practice

Design thinking is absolutely experiential, and I think the first mistake that we made when we started rolling this out eight years ago was, if you’re going to change the way people work day to day, that’s going to take a long time. You can’t just ask people to do it and expect them to change. You have to give them ample opportunities to practice so that they can then understand it and make it their own.

When we started eight years ago, the first mistake that we made was telling people to please do this. Everyone nodded their head and said, “Yep. We got it.” Then they went away, and then a year later no one was doing it.

So we tried again. The second year we said more forcefully, “Please do this.” from the CEO down. No one did anything.

We brought in inspirational speakers. We had really convincing Power Point slides about why they should do it. Everyone nodded their heads and nothing happened for two years.

It wasn’t until we had our first workshop–where we said, “Do it and do it now.”–that things really started to change. Because it went from being in their heads to being in their hearts and in their fingertips. They were starting to practice it themselves. We found that it takes people eight to ten times of practicing it before it finally resonates with them: what it means to them and how to start doing it every day.

Suzanne Pellican talking about introducing the practice of design thinking at Intuit. The whole talk makes a great listen, but there are three things that I want to pull out of from her story.

The first is that telling is not usually the best strategy for getting people to listen to you.

The second is that people change what they do on a day to day basis, not because they’ve been told to, but because opportunities are created for them to change.

The third is the importance of letting people practice, which means allowing people to get it wrong.

Firing failures

Organizations that don’t tolerate failure not only stop their employees from learning from their mistakes but also create a risk-averse culture that fears trying anything new… Obviously, we should reward and retain people who know how to make good decisions, but most of the time, we just reward good outcomes. As long as organizations behave this way, we will be stuck with conservative, risk-avoiding behavior, and we will keep firing some of the wrong people.

Dan Ariely provides a nice potted summary of the consequences of firing people for making mistakes.

There’s no such thing as mistakes when you’re practicing

I think it’s extremely important to build with your hands and really embrace craft. And feel like you can build things and construct what’s in your mind, rather than trying to search for it on the computer.

Eric Bogner, father of a 6-year-old who is attending Construction Kids in Brooklyn. The program sounds pretty amazing to me. It’s very much the type of thing I’d love to see happen near where we live.

And if I didn’t already love the idea enough, I found this quote on the site from Riley (5 years old):

There’s no such thing as mistakes when you’re practicing.

Finally, this video of three-year-old Ryan building a chair is absolutely awe-inspiring.

A step in the right direction

And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction. ― Kurt Vonnegut

From Player Piano, this is quite possibly my favorite quotes of all time. It’s a reminder that progress is rarely relentlessly forward. There are missteps and backtracking. There are promising leads that turn into dead ends. All of this is progress, though, if you have the courage turn back rather than continuing on a route that isn’t going to get you where you want to be.

(Image courtesy of Will Thomas)

Failure is the handmaiden of wisdom

Failure is the handmaiden of wisdom in the scientific world. When we make predictions or build systems based on our theoretical models, we must be prepared for and learn from our failures. Understanding the reason for failure is sometimes even more important than positive results since it may pave the way for far deeper understanding and more precise models of reality. In the scientific enterprise, the freedom to take risk and accept the potential of failure makes the difference between merely incremental refinement and breakthroughs that open new vistas of understanding.

from Vint Cerf’s written testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which was reviewing the federal government’s role in research and development.

Retrospective certainty

I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

Bill Watterson, Some thoughts on the real world by one who glimpsed it and fled

The flickering flame of civilization

The bronze age is a connected world. But it can’t sustain itself; it’s too rigid, elitist and top-heavy – and civilisation is a bit like a flickering flame. It almost goes out, but in certain places it keeps going and it will spread out again.

In the concept of civilisation, there is an inherent notion that things are always going to get better. I quite clearly break with that; I think of it being more like a heart monitor, zig-zagging up and down. The interesting thing about civilisation is our need to try to develop the perfect community for ourselves, and how we fail, but also how we come back to try again.

Richard Miles discusses the ebb and flow of human civilization. He’s presenting a six-part series called Ancient Worlds on BBC Two starting in November. My inner history and archeology geek is definitely excited about this one.

Related posts

Fail better together

FailCon sounds as if it was a lot of fun. How could a bunch of people getting together and talking about their failures. The Wired covereage of the conference has this great bit on iterative sketching and failure:

Consulting firm Adaptive Path’s Brandon Schauer counseled companies to avoid failure by going out and finding their target users, in order to figure out what they need. Then, the key is to build ‘empathy’ for those needs into the product.

But more importantly, companies need to learn how to fail in the right ways.

Schauer points to a sketch online that supposedly is the original sketch of Twitter — which looks much like the current (and wildly popular) service as it is today.

“This is how we tell stories of brilliance and innovation, like Newton having the idea of gravity just coming upon him,” Schauer said. “But that’s not actually how things work.”

By contrast, when his company works with companies, they go through many design sketches, with participants finding their fourth sketch in a row is the best one, far better than the first.

I’d love to see a similar conference organized here in the UK.

Better search through experimentation

In our research, every time we found a site where the search results were doing what they should, we also found a team that had worked really hard to make it that way.

Those teams all have something in common. They’ve experimented thoroughly, trying out dozens of designs and repeatedly watching users. They’ve frequently scoured their search log data, studying the terms users employ and comparing them to the results the site generated.

They’ve ended up with great search result pages, but it has taken months (and in some cases, years) of constant studying to get to this point. There is no way, as far as we know, that you can produce a great search results page without spending the time and effort to build it.

Jared M. Spool, Producing Great Search Results: Harder than It Looks, Part 1