Sharing Ideas and Failing Up

If I had to identify one thing I do well in the classroom, it’s this: I create an environment where it’s the norm to take risks, fail, and explore half-baked ideas.

My guess is that I model all three of these things. I fail up pretty much all the time, and I’m in the habit of sharing ideas before they’re well formed. And I think that’s great.

How else does an idea become fully formed or baked unless it’s subjected to questioning and critique from a smart group of students? Yes, it feels awkward, but I think it’s a mistake to wait until you have something to say. How will you know when to stop waiting if not by sharing what you have so far and learning from the reactions? The sooner ideas make it into a conversation the sooner they become stronger.

Lately, I’ve developed a strong interest in children’s books (cf. Martin Salisbury’s research) and the important role they play in shaping crucial perceptions and actions later in life (e.g. seeing artificial constructs as natural or treating certain subjects as taboo). There are two related to the concepts of idea sharing and failing up that are worth a read. I hope you find them as interesting and important as I do:


what do you do with an idea
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… and…

the book of mistakes
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James Baldwin is a wonderful writer. I’m working my way slowly through The Fire Next Time, and the following passage just punched me in the chest:

Here was the South Side – a million in captivity – stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. Ands they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either – they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes. (Baldwin, 1993 p. 61)

Never have I ever felt so nailed by a critique. Have I ever really read to learn? Or has it always been to learn new attitudes? What’s the difference between learning [x] and learning a new attitude? What sorts of books is Baldwin talking about? And how does Baldwin distinguish between learning and learning new attitudes?

This last question seems to me to be a consequential one, and I would love to know how Baldwin makes the distinction (and if he is on record explaining it anywhere, I would love to read/watch.. so please leave a comment if you know).

I quoted from the First Vintage International Edition of the book, published in 1993.

On Critical Thinking Skills

I saw a Tweet the other day that said something along the lines of “If only people had critical thinking skills, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

I disagree.

Critical thinking skills interact with other things like world views, personal philosophies, religious beliefs, etc., and all of these things influence how critical thinking skills are deployed. Thus, I can deploy them to argue for marginalization or oppression. Or I can deploy them to argue that marginalization and oppression are not occurring somewhere where they are (and have been occurring) for many many many years, like American public schools (cf. The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the Mis-Education of the Negro).

This means that focusing on critical thinking skills as a kind of magic bullet to get us out of the current predicament is by itself a dead end.

This does not mean that critical thinking skills have no important role to play. They do.

Here’s an example of how they do: I suspect that critical thinking skills enable me to notice that children’s books generally feature male protagonists. The mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a dude. Corduroy (the bear with green overalls) is a boy.

These are just a couple examples. There are many others. So many in fact that some of my friends’ children have taken to identifying characters as male even if there is no gender assignment made in the book and there is no obvious way (e.g. blue or pink clothes, masculine/feminine features) to make this assignment.

Critical thinking skills can help clarify that we actively design future generations’ world views simply by reading to them at bedtime. And yet at the same time these thinking skills are shaped by world views.

Critical thinking skills can be effective tools for good, but they have to come from a standpoint that values a particular meaning of good (e.g. diversity, equality, care, etc.).

Absent those values, then I’m afraid critical thinking skills will be no more useful than anything else we might have at our disposal..

Extracurricular Reading

I have a great extracurricular reading list for the summer. It’s not one that I established at the end of the semester or anything. It’s something that will evolve as my outside interests shift in response to whatever it is they respond to. Right now I’m reading the following:


I’m just about done with the top two titles and preparing to start the bottom two. There is no logic to these titles or the order in which I’m reading them. They’re just enjoyable and in some cases quite useful (and in some cases peripherally related to current research…). If you’re interested in them, here are some links you can follow to find out more:

Peak by Anders Ericsson

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Leading with Questions by Michael Marquardt

The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Seymour Hersh


Designerly Ways of Listening

I’ve been thinking for the last few months about listening. How can I be a better listener? What does it mean to be a good listener? How would I describe the feeling of being listened to? These are questions whose answers are important for the sake of personal improvement. If I believe that being a better listener will improve my overall quality of life then it behooves me to spend a bit of time thinking about such things and formulating answers.

The questions are applicable to design practice, too. In parallel with these personal questions, we could ask what (if anything) might be the difference between the way designers and scientists listen to clients, colleagues, friends, family, etc. Could we distinguish a designerly way of listening? Maybe the answer is yes. Could we then distinguish expert design listening from novice design listening?

Writing | Quality as a Function of Utility

Everybody writes. Emails, blogs, papers, journal articles, book chapters, theses, dissertations, books… So at the draft stage of writing, how do you know enough is enough? This question popped into my head today as I was sending a draft of a section of a paper to my co-author. I wrote to him via email something along the lines of, “… I’m glad that I wrote something; that I gave us material to work with. but i also don’t know if what i wrote gives us enough.”

I regret having wrote that because all I was doing was qualifying the quality of the writing. In other words, “This draft sucks, so prepare thyself for a slog…” This is a crumby way to frame any writing.

Stuff just “is” for better or worse no matter how you choose to measure it. Would it be better if I got closer to “final draft” quality the first time around? Maybe. But, among other things, that assumes the goodness of badness of writing is a function of quality and speed.

See any standardized test for examples of how this assumption surfaces in reality. “Write 500-700 words in 25 minutes… etc.” Don’t mistake this as a criticism of touting speed as a key factor in the quality of writing. It may very well be important.

I want to put forth a different assumption about writing, which, in and of itself, is not incommensurable with speed as a component of quality, but which emphasizes another aspect of writing. The goodness or badness of writing is a function of its utility and its utility is inextricably linked with its context. 

I’ll try and explain with a design analogy.

We talk about iteration a lot in design. Sketch quickly. Sketch often. And always be in dialogue with and about your sketches. The same principle can be applied to writing. Write quickly. Write often. And always be in dialogue with your writing. A designer doesn’t have to be great at sketching. They don’t even need to be good at it, whatever “good” might mean to you. They need to be an adequate sketch artist, meaning that when someone else looks at their sketch they need to be able to be able to converse with it (even if the designer-creator of the sketch isn’t there). In other words, their sketches need to be useful given their spatio-temporally constrained role. Sketches need to be different things at different times in the design process. And maybe the same is true with writing.

I’ve read some pretty bad writing and been able to converse with it, and at the early stages of writing perhaps we all need to relax the “selection criteria” for what gets out of the brain and onto the page. You’ll write something useful. Guaranteed.

If you sketch a lot, you’re going to get better because you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level (1) what it means for a sketch to be good and (2) how you can improve as a sketch artist. I think the same is probably true of writing.

If you write a lot, you’re going to get better because, through your own dialogue with your writing and through your dialogue with others about your writing, you’ll (hopefully) come to understand at a deeper level what it means, to you and to others, (1) for writing to be good, and (2) how to get from where you are to where you want to be (as a writer).

Quantification and Goal Setting

Preface: I wrote this in an email exchange in early January, and the idea is still bouncing around my noggin. I’d love to get a dialogue going with anyone interested in any aspect of this content…

Before reading further, you can watch this video: TEDx talk on Keeping Your Goals. If you don’t watch it, that’s fine too. Just know this: in the video, Derek Sivers argues that when you’re setting goals for yourself you shouldn’t share those goals with anyone else because, if you do, your brain will trick itself into thinking you’ve already accomplished a lot more towards achieving the goal than you have (and thus you’ll do less work than you would if you’d kept it to yourself…). I frame my response to the video in terms of body data, lifelogging, and/or the quantified self.

I think the pith of his argument is especially relevant when body data works in some social component. And now I’m wondering how many fitness tracking devices don’t have some kind of social component. Are there any?! Anyway, with my now defunct Fitbit, I was “connected” with my father-in-law, sister-in-law, and my wife. So, they all knew I was using the Fitbit, and I can see how (even though it hadn’t occurred to me before) I might have tricked myself into feeling more accomplished simply because I was getting a social pat on the back from the people who knew I was attempting to take more steps, drink more water, etc.

With anything, I’m not sure this works all of the time. I can think of at least one reason why telling someone might be a motivating factor: shame. If I tell someone I’m trying to lose ten pounds and they check-in with me (informally, not because I ask them to) when we’re chatting, I’m going to feel shame if I’ve made no progress. Maybe potentially feeling shame will increase the odds that I’ll actually work at it…

There’s some kind of social contract forged whenever someone acknowledges their goals to others. Actually, there’s probably different kinds of contracts. One that is pure affirmation. One that is accountability. And maybe others. I do think people should receive some kind of affirmation for their goals (even just saying them out loud) but then its incumbent on the listener to hold the speaker accountable. When Sivers introduces the concept of telling someone about your goals, he uses the phrases “congratulatory” and “high-image” in reference to the listener as though this is the social contract. This is the response goal-setters get when they tell others. And perhaps he’s right. I’m usually supportive when people express their goals to me, anyway. But maybe that contract is wrong. Maybe I should be supportive while healthily realistic. Maybe rather than acknowledging the goal, we acknowledge the work that needs to go into the goal with a response like, “I’m going to check in with you every so often to see how you’re doing. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

This reminds me of a conversation my wife and I were having where I expressed frustration over people in general looking for quick-fix shortcuts to problems; not wanting to put in the work to achieve their goals. Sivers’s talk really resonates with me in that regard. So, perhaps even just buying a Fitbit, a Fuelband, or a Jawbone is enough to make someone feel like they’ve accomplished their goals. They get the affirmation from the salesperson (assuming the bought it in a brick & mortar store) and from the company, which presumably lauds the purchase and sends many emails touting the results users have yet to achieve and the community of athletes of which they’re now a part. Just by buying the device, you’re basically telling people your goal. Funny. You buy a device to get healthy and the effect of just buying it is potentially undermining the process…

I would be curious to know more details about the Gollwitzer study [mentioned in the TED talk]. What were the demographics of the people involved? How were they selected and subsequently divided into the groups of “speak-goal-aloud” and “remain silent”? What kinds of goals did they set for themselves that 45 minutes of silent work was somehow directly related to their achievement? There’s lots to explore here..

On Writing Papers

In the interest of writing more posts, I’m going to try constraining myself to just a few hundred words or less for each entry. We’re talking 250-ish words. I need to get better at jamming lots of meaning into a few words instead of saying a lot without actually saying much. This came into sharp focus tonight as I chipped away at the first draft of one of my final papers. It’s a 10-pager exploring a common thread of computational thinking in the works of Kuhn, Popper, and some third guy who isn’t a philosopher of science.

While working, I had the realization that I’m going to be writing papers more or less for the rest of my days (unless my career path veers out of academia and into the private sector). And if that’s going to be the case, I should probably develop some kind of system for writing so that I don’t reinvent my writing process with every paper… which is kind of what I’m doing now. I wrote a lengthy piece last semester critiquing the design of interactive learning applications by doing a close reading of Khan Academy, and that writing process broke down as follows:

  1. Start early… and by start early I mean gather a metric ton of papers (i.e. 30-40 papers)
  2. Create an annotated bibliography that includes: citation, summary, and relevance of each source to my purpose
  3. Engage in a lot of exploratory brainstorming
    1. Stream-of-consciousness writing
    2. Affinity diagramming
    3. Sketching
  4. Skip the outline. Write the first draft.
  5. Revise thrice and send the draft to the Professor for feedback
  6. Write final draft

But different classes necessitate different processes. I haven’t followed the same process for this most current work-in-progress. I suppose, ultimately, the nature of my research will dictate the nature of my writing process. For now, it remains in flux…

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