Random finds (2018, week 31) — On why everything is timing, the willingness to be disturbed, and the language of art

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Reef Guesthouse in Bahrain, by Jalal AlNajjar, is among 218 architecture projects that made the longlist for the first Dezeen Awards.

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

This week: a few of the things Daniel Pink used to believe; the willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged; Paul Rand and the language of art; free speech, compassion fatigue and denialism (three long reads from The Guardian); some wise words from Charles Handy (as ever) et al; beautiful craftsmanship; and my first ‘Random music’ — a Spotify playlist with some of the music I have been listening to this week.

Everything is timing

In his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink “explores how the time of day affects our productivity and creativity; the psychological effects of beginnings, middles, and ends; and the fascinating consequences of synchronizing our actions with other people’s. Each chapter […] dives into these topics and, in a coda, Pink reflects on what the process of writing the book has taught him in a series of pithy encapsulations of what he used to believe and what he believes now,” writes Dave Nussbaum, the managing editor of Behavioral Scientist.

In Everything Is Timing, Pink expands on each of these encapsulations. Here are four.

I used to believe in ignoring the waves of the day. Now I believe in surfing them.

One of the most surprising insights I uncovered was that our mood and our performance follow a fairly predictable pattern during the day — in general, a peak, a trough, and a recovery. Scholars have detected this pattern using a range of disciplines and methodologies — from Big Data analysis of tweets to the day reconstruction method. Equally important, the evidence shows that we’re better off doing certain kinds of work at certain stages of the day. We do better on heads-down analytic problems during the peak (which for most of us is the morning) and on more iterative, insight problems during the recovery (which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening.) Based on this evidence, I’ve rearranged my own work — and tried to do the right tasks at the right time. I realize it’s an N of one — but it seems to be working.

I used to believe that lunch breaks, naps, and taking walks were niceties. Now I believe they’re necessities.

Yeah, the science of breaks is pretty compelling. In my view, it’s where the science of sleep was 15 years ago — about to break through the surface and reshape our understanding and behavior in a broad way. I was always someone who powered through, believing that amateurs took breaks but professionals didn’t. But that’s entirely wrong. It’s amateurs who don’t take breaks, and professionals who do. We also know a lot more about what types of breaks are most restorative. The best breaks are fully detached, taken with someone we choose, and involve movement and nature. So now I schedule two breaks every afternoon and try to honor them the way I would honor a scheduled meeting.

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“Adding a few sprinkles of sadness to a happy ending can make that ending richer and more meaningful. The sadness enhances the experience rather than diminishes it,” Daniel Pink writes in Everything Is Timing.

I used to believe that synchronizing with others was merely a mechanical process. Now I believe that it requires a sense of belonging, rewards a sense of purpose, and reveals a part of our nature.

To get a first-hand look at how groups synchronize in time, I went to Mumbai, India, to spend time with a group of lunch deliverers called dabbawalas. These men pick up home-cooked lunches at people’s apartments and deliver them to the desks of those people’s loved ones in downtown Mumbai about 15 miles away. With an accuracy that rivals FedEx and UPS, they deliver 200,000 lunches every day in one of the world’s most congested and chaotic cities. I wanted to figure out how they did it. And once I spent some time with them and saw them in action, I collected some clues. Then I looked at research on choirs and rowing teams and began to get a better sense of the principles at work in group synchronization.

I was especially blown away by the research on choral singing. The benefits of singing in a choir (not singing alone, but singing together) are massive: higher pain thresholds and reduced need for pain medication, increased production of infection-fighting immunoglobulin, reduced symptoms of depression, increased sensitivity toward others, improved mood, and much more. There’s something about synchronizing in time with others that is profoundly human.

I used to believe that timing was everything. Now I believe that everything is timing.

We are temporal creatures. Every cell in our body has a biological clock. We live in a temporal environment — we’re always moving through time. Being awake to those forces can help us work smarter and live better.

Willing to be disturbed

In Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future (2002), Margaret J. Wheatley asks educators to reflect on their willingness to have their beliefs and ideas challenged by others. She also espouses the idea that strong leaders cannot create change unless they are willing to be disturbed.

The book is a recommended read for people working with teams which are stuck and need a fresh approach to their work. Here is one of its chapters from ‘Part One: Turning to One Another,’ titled Willing to Be Disturbed (page 38).

As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally — our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.

We weren’t trained to admit we don’t know. Most of us were taught to sound certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true. We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers. We’ve also spent many years listening to others mainly to determine whether we agree with them or not. We don’t have time or interest to sit and listen to those who think differently than we do.

But the world now is quite perplexing. We no longer live in those sweet, slow days when life felt predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. We live in a complex world, we often don’t know what’s going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing.

It is very difficult to give up our certainties — our positions, our beliefs, our explanations. These help define us; they lie at the heart of our personal identity. Yet I believe we will succeed in changing this world only if we can think and work together in new ways. Curiosity is what we need. We don’t have to let go of what we believe, but we do need to be curious about what someone else believes. We do need to acknowledge that their way of interpreting the world might be essential to our survival.

We live in a dense and tangled global system. Because we live in different parts of this complexity, and because no two people are physically identical, we each experience life differently. It’s impossible for any two people to ever see things exactly the same. You can test this out for yourself. Take any event that you’ve shared with others (a speech, a movie, a current event, a major problem) and ask your colleagues and friends to describe their interpretation of that event. I think you’ll be amazed at how many different explanations you’ll hear. Once you get a sense of diversity, try asking even more colleagues. You’ll end up with a rich tapestry of interpretations that are much more interesting than any single one.

To be curious about how someone else interprets things, we have to be willing to admit that we’re not capable of figuring things out alone. If our solutions don’t work as well as we want them to, if our explanations of why something happened don’t feel sufficient, it’s time to begin asking others about what they see and think. When so many interpretations are available, I can’t understand why we would be satisfied with superficial conversations where we pretend to agree with one another.

There are many ways to sit and listen for the differences. Lately, I’ve been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn’t easy — I’m accustomed to sitting there nodding my head to those saying things I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more dearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

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“If you are really studying complexity theory and systems thinking, than you are being introduced into deeply spiritual recognition that the world is interconnected and everything depends on everything else.” — Margaret J. Wheatley in a recent interview, Reclaiming Leadership For The Human Spirit, with The HumanCurrent.

Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs. If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position. When I hear myself saying, “How could anyone believe something like that?” a light comes on for me to see my own beliefs. These moments are great gifts. If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.

I hope you’ll begin a conversation, listening for what’s new. Listen as best you can for what’s different, for what surprises you. See if this practice helps you learn something new. Notice whether you develop a better relationship with the person you’re talking with. If you try this with several people, you might find yourself laughing in delight as you realize how many unique ways there are to be human.

We have the opportunity many times a day, everyday, to be the one who listens to others, curious rather than certain. But the greatest benefit of all is that listening moves us closer. When we listen with less judgment, we always develop better relationships with each other. It’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do. Curiosity and good listening bring us back together.

Sometimes we hesitate to listen for differences because we don’t want to change. We’re comfortable with our lives, and if we listened to anyone who raised questions, we’d have to get engaged in changing things. If we don’t listen, things can stay as they are and we won’t have to expend any energy. But most of us do see things in our life or in the world that we would like to be different. If that’s true, we have to listen more, not less. And we have to be willing to move into the very uncomfortable place of uncertainty.

We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are rewarded greatly. We rediscover we’re creative.

As the world grows more strange and puzzling and difficult, I don’t believe most of us want to keep struggling through it alone, I can’t know what to do from my own narrow perspective. I know I need a better understanding of what’s going on. I want to sit down with you and talk about all the frightening and hopeful things I observe, and listen to what frightens you and gives you hope. I need new ideas and solutions for the problems I care about. I know I need to talk to you to discover those. I need to learn to value your perspective, and I want you to value mine. I expect to be disturbed by what I hear from you. I know we don’t have to agree with each other in order to think well together. There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.

The language of art

‘The Language of Art’ is an essay by the American graphic designer Paul Rand (1914–1996), who set the benchmark for corporate branding.

According to John Maeda, who hosted Rand’s last public lecture, “[Rand] was quite controversial in his take on the relationship between content and form. Like all good artists and designers, he knew how to take a stance and stick to it with all his heart, body, and mind.”

A miscellany of archeology, history, biography, geography, political science, psychology, sociology, technology, entertainment, economics, marketing, and merchandising comprises the subject matter of most art talk. But this does not constitute the language of art.

Art is primarily a question of form, not of content. This explains Clive Bell’s “significant form,” often maligned and misunderstood by practitioners, philosophers, dabblers, and connoisseurs. Content is a passive and subordinate yet important partner in this relationship, which is fundamental to an understanding of the language of plastic art.

To discuss the appearance of things is to deal with matters of aesthetics. Aesthetics is the language of appearances — of art, design, the beautiful, and the ugly. Without aesthetics, talk about art is not about art. To talk about, study, teach, or criticize a work of art focus must always be on problems of form in relation, of course, to a particular content.

An artifact is transformed into a work of art only when the conflict between form and content is resolved. The term art, has been bandied about so carelessly that it has almost lost its meaning. For example, it seems that one of the ways a painting earns its place in the pantheon of art is by being rendered in a particular medium: oil on canvas. The so called lesser arts — prints, etchings, graphic design, photography, etc. — are confined to this status by virtue of the mechanical means of their making. Consequently, the medium in which a work is rendered can become as important as its message or meaning. Symbolism has become the measure of value. The recent auction of Jacqueline Onassis’ possessions is a prime example of the power of false values.

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“Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions; there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” — Paul Rand

Form and content are assymetric. Formal values are very often independent of content. Time can, and does, erase meaning of once familiar artifacts, but time can never erase form. Spontaneity, fantasy, intuition, invention, and revelation also play an important part in the language of art.

Among the many aspects of form, problems pertaining to the principles of proportion, for example, are significant. The rules of proportion apply equally well to the Parthenon or to a can of Campbells soup. The same is true for all formal relationships: contrast, scale, balance, rhythm, rhyme, texture, repetition, etc.

In spite of the fact that aesthetics is the only language of art, the subject has been greeted with indifference and sometimes irreverence. For example, [Joseph] Gwilt’s Encyclopedia of Architecture (1842) describes aesthetics as ‘silly, pedantic term, and one of the useless additions to nomenclature in the arts.’ These and other unflattering references have caused this subject to be brushed aside. On the other hand, such definitions as “aesthetics is the philosophy or theory of taste,” or “of the perception of the beautiful in nature and art” (Oxford English Dictionary) are too passive, to be really useful.

The Greeks considered all subjects a form of discourse, and therefore almost all education is a form of language education. Knowledge of a subject means knowledge of the language of that subject. Biology, after all, is not plants and animals, it is a special language employed to speak about plants and animals. Similarly aesthetics is not painting, design, or architecture; it is a special language designed to speak about these subjects, namely the language of interaction between form and content.

Confusion and misunderstanding is the result of the absence of a common language. In dealing with the subject of design, knowledge of the history of art and design is just as indispensable as the language of art. “Any subject,” said William James, “becomes humanistic when seen from the stand point of history.” Since both the history and language of art are not part of our common understanding, political, social and technological issues that may have only a remote connection to art arc usually substituted for discussions about the real thing — aesthetics — the language of art.

And also this …

This week, The Guardian published three very interesting long reads on free speech, compassion fatigue and denialism.

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Illustration: Nathalie Lees for The Guardian.

“Snowflake students have become the target of a new rightwing crusade. But exaggerated claims of censorship reveal a deeper anxiety at the core of modern conservatism.”

William Davies in The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis.

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Composite: AP/Alamy/Getty/Guardian Design.

“We have never been more aware of the appalling events that occur around the world every day. But in the face of so much horror, is there a danger that we become numb to the headlines — and does it matter if we do?”

Elisa Gabbert in Is compassion fatigue inevitable in an age of 24-hour news?

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Photograph: Getty/Guardian Design.

“From vaccines to climate change to genocide, a new age of denialism is upon us. Why have we failed to understand it?”

Keith Kahn-Harris in Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth

“The main responsibility is to contribute to the society in which they operate. I’m really worried about where the money is going to come from, to support the welfare states we have. More and more people will be independent in this gig economy. They will be busy, but they won’t be rich, so they won’t be paying many taxes. So the money has to come from the corporation. In the past the corporation provided this money, through the salaries of workers, who then pay tax… If they can’t have a lot of people paying taxes, they’ve got to find another way of supporting society. If the society goes down, they go down. They’ve got to see themselves as partners in society, not as some independent activity, that occasionally pays rent in society… They’ve got to be much more involved.

The business of business has got to be society. That might make them much more ‘human’ places. People want a purpose in life. Making shareholders rich is not a really motivating purpose. Making a society rich is better.

[…]

We need to have a much wider focus of what progress is. I don’t think growing bigger is necessary if you want progress around what an organization is. Growing better might be more interesting… Doing work that you’re proud of is terribly important. I think the most motivating thing for someone here, is to be able to point at something and say, ‘I did that. I built that cathedral.’ You can’t always point to a physical object these days, but you can take some pride. And of course if you can put your name on it in some way because your group did it, just as when at the end of a television program you see all the people, you could put their name on it, that’s good. So pride is very important.”

Charles Handy in The future of business will be driven by purpose, a recent interview with Think:Act Magazine on digital technology, innovation and today’s organizations

“As managers and leaders, we need to rekindle our sense of magic, creativity and artfulness, whatever that looks like in our organisations.

As our professional environments become more pressurised and engagement rates continue to fall, artfulness at work is no longer an option, or a distraction.

It’s essential to who we are.”

— Steve Marshall in Creative Recovery

“When human beings are seen not as resources but as human becomings, as an amazing bit of potential talent to nurture, that will change everything. And that’s all down to the job of a leader.”

Renee Moorefield, CEO of Be Well Lead Well, in Observe 2/18, page 56

This raised wooden structure, designed by Cerejeira Fontes Architects, creates a secluded inner chapel inside an a decaying church building built during the second world war in Braga, Portugal.

Instead of focusing on the existing building, the architects inserted a new tree-inspired structure within its walls. Making full use of the building’s height, it creates a sanctuary in the heart of the space. According to the architects, “The vault creates a space of absolute ‘restless silence’ for introspection.”

Via Dezeen

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“The chapel erected in wood creates a balanced structure that manifests as a forest at the entrance of the sacred space,” according to Cerejeira Fontes Architects. (Photography by Nelson Garrido.)
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American record producer, musician, and songwriter Joseph Henry ‘T Bone’ Burnett III (1948).

“Technology does only one thing- it tends toward efficiency. It has no aesthetics. It has no ethics. Its code is binary. But everything interesting in life- everything that makes life worth living- happens between the binary. Mercy is not binary. Love is not binary. Music and art are not binary. You and I are not binary.”

T Bone Burnett in his keynote address at 2016 AmericanaFest

And finally, a Spotify playlist with some of the music I have been listening to this week, including Randy Newman’s Dayton, Ohio — 1903 sung by Mandy Patinkin on his latest album Diary: January 27, 2018, Piano Sonata Hoboken XVI:49 from Paul Lewis Plays Haydn and the ingenious Benjamin Clementine with Quiver A Little.

“Sing a song of long ago
When things could grow
And days flowed quietly
The air was clean and you could see
And folks were nice to you
‘Would you like to come over for tea
With the missus and me?’
It’s a real nice way
To spend the day
In Dayton, Ohio
On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903"

— from: Dayton, Ohio — 1903, by Randy Newman

Random music (week 31, 2018)

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helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

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