Talking When It’s Time to Talk (and Remaining Silent When It’s Not)

March 24, 2014

Facilitating a series of community meetings for the Mendocino County Library system here in Northern California over the past couple of days has reminded me of the importance of talking when it’s time to talk and remaining silent when others are meant to have their moment to be heard.

Willits_Library[1]--2014-03-23Sharing ideas—whether those ideas are complementary or in direct opposition to one another—requires that we commit to levels of civility and respect often abandoned in public settings these days; it also requires that we be cognizant of the fact that we will never have as much time as we would like to express the ideas that we have—and that we willingly sacrifice some of the speaking time to which we feel entitled so that others have an opportunity to also be heard within the limited time available to all of us.

It’s a real pleasure and a source of inspiration to see those interested in helping guide the future of their library system rise to the challenge in ways that will serve the communities here in Mendocino County for months and years to come. And as I think about what library staff and library users will accomplish together because of their commitment to honestly documenting their likes and dislikes, their dreams and their concerns, and the resources and the challenges that will affect their ability to implement those dreams and address those concerns, I’m struck again by how the all-too-brief exchanges completed in a single encounter are simply part of a much larger, longer conversation rooted in what has come before and dependent on what occurs over a much longer period yet to unfold.

The same pleasure comes from recognizing that there’s a time to talk with friends and a time to accept the silences that occur when the myriad challenges in all our lives prevent us from communicating with each other—something that came to mind this morning as a friend apologized, by phone, for having been silent over extended periods during the past few months. Not that she needed to offer any apologies or explanations: I know, from her various postings in social media platforms and through the exquisitely-written blog postings she produces as time allows, that she is serving as caregiver as her mother struggles with pancreatic cancer. I also know that my friend has faced numerous workplace challenges requiring tremendous amounts of attention. So I haven’t been and am not at all surprised that conversations that at times develop and conclude in relatively short periods of time are currently extending over much greater periods.

But what is lovely about all of this as we communicate by phone and email and tweets and Facebook posts and responses to each other’s blogging on issues of importance to us is that the timing is not what matters. It’s the willingness to let those shards of conversation develop and blend together seamlessly in spite of what we might have previously thought of as interruptions. We’ve come to appreciate the idea that bits and pieces of an extended conversation, separated by much longer silences, provide lovely periods of reflection that simply deepen what we already share: commitment to nurturing friendship as meticulously as we tend a garden; a willingness to let conversations develop in their own time frame; and shared membership in a community of support that deepens with each additional exchange we have with each other and then share through the writing we produce privately and publicly. 

It’s what I love about the sharing that occurs with my friends, and it’s what I love as I watch members of the Mendocino County Library community—those who actively use and support the Library system as well as those who don’t yet feel drawn into what it provides—interact. These are signs of healthy, respectful, vibrant communities—the communities that help give life meaning and that provide assurance that we are far from alone in our commitment to building the world of our dreams regardless of the impediments we encounter.


Nurturing Change: Resistance is Futile/Resistance Is Necessary

March 23, 2014

One of those catch-phrases that sticks with anyone familiar with Star Trek is “resistance is futile,” and I’m among those who jokingly mutter the phrase when facing seemingly insurmountable challenges.

But a conversation this morning with a wonderful colleague who is facing numerous difficult challenges made both of us propose a complementary thesis—“Resistance is necessary.” Because it hints that many of our best and most productive endeavors will be accompanied by tremendous resistance. Because an alternative to resistance is resignation. And because refusing to succumb to despair when we are facing our most daunting professional and personal challenges ultimately carries us through our darkest times.

It’s a fact of life that we all face those dark nights that San Juan de la Cruz captured so beautifully, so poignantly, and so poetically in the sixteenth century—and that if we are willing to work our way completely through that darkness toward whatever light awaits us rather than turning back and remaining without hope, we emerge transformed in ways we could not have previously imagined.

We can’t, however, do that alone—which is why the conversation my friend and I had his morning meant so much to both of us. She’s one of an ever-growing group of people I know who are currently facing extremely challenging and discouraging situations. They are very talented. Very creative. Very well respected by colleagues in their tremendously different industries. They were hired for their commitment to and reputation for inspiring positive changes meant to benefit the people and organizations they serve. They willingly accepted the challenges they face because they believed they would receive the support required to reach the goals they agreed to pursue. And they have found themselves, at various times, pushed to the point of despair—wondering what they “did wrong” rather than asking why some who should be supporting them are, in essence, betraying them and those who might ultimately benefit from the energy, heart, and soul they put into their endeavors.

It’s hard for them to avoid depression and resignation. And it’s hard for those of us who admire them to see what they are experiencing. But just as each of them has reached bleak moments in their darkest nights, they have found or are finding glimmers of light from kind words and expressions of support from family, friends, and colleagues. They hear from the beneficiaries of the efforts they have been making. They are finding hope because members of their communities are reaching out to support them in their individual moments of need, writing to them, and writing about them.

HGS--Gratitude[1]--2013-10-31This provides us with an important reminder after we have passed through our own dark nights: the smallest act of kindness or well-timed expression of understanding verbally or in writing, the willingness to simply listen to a friend or colleague in need, can make a world of difference for that person. And for everyone else that person touches directly or indirectly.

Resistance makes us reexamine what we are attempting to accomplish. It helps us to be sure we are following the best possible path. It helps us eliminate the weakest aspects of our approach. It forces us to ask a very important question: Is what we are doing worth doing? And, ultimately, resistance leads us to better understand, appreciate, and react effectively to the opposition our efforts are creating so all of us can find the common ground that produces positive change.


Power, Connections, Personal Learning Networks, and In-the-Moment Mobile Learning

October 16, 2013

The sight of flashing numbers on digital timepieces throughout our house yesterday afternoon was obvious evidence of a power outage while I had been away earlier in the day. But it wasn’t particularly distressing. I knew that PG&E, our local utility company, had been doing major work a block away from where I live, so I assumed the outage was over, reset the clocks, then went into our backyard to do a little gardening before joining the Week 2 live online session that would connect me to the training-teaching-learning colleagues I’m meeting through the five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoApproximately 15 minutes before the session was scheduled to begin, I was about to step back into the house to log into the Adobe Captivate space where #xplrpln colleagues were to meet, but noticed something strange: the water in our fountain had stopped flowing. Wondering whether it had become clogged, I turned off the pump, turned it back on, then recognized the problem: the power had gone out again.

In an extended in-the-moment response that unexpectedly continues up to the time when I am writing—and you are reading—this piece, I begin considering options to fully participate in that live online session—and think about the importance of back-up plans. My desktop is clearly not an option since it’s reliant on a flow of electricity that is no longer available. My laptop, running on its fully-charged battery? Also not an option: it relies on a wireless router that is no longer functioning because of the power outage.

Then it hits me: my Samsung Galaxy tablet has a fully-charged battery. And 3G connectivity. So I fire it up, follow the link from my email account to the Exploring Personal Learning Networks session, and discover another barrier: I don’t have the free Adobe Connect app on my tablet. Following a link to the Google Play Store—all the time thinking “This isn’t play. This is serious!”—I tap the “install” button in the hope that the download will be quick and that I won’t face a high learning curve to be able to use it.

With moments to spare, the download is completed. I plug in a set of headphones as the PowerPoint slides for the session appear legibly on the seven-inch screen, and am hearing a stream so clear that it feels as if I’m in the same room that session facilitators Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are occupying—which, in an appropriately visceral and virtual way, I am.

Curious as to whether the full range of interactions available via a desktop or laptop computer exist on the tablet, I struggle with the on-screen keyboard to enter a chat comment letting colleagues know that I may not be fully participating in the session because of the tech challenges. And it goes through, making it visible to them and to me.

xplrpln_logoThey respond audibly and via the chat to say how impressed they are. I respond by telling them how relieved I am that it’s actually working. And we all walk away with another example of the power and increasing ubiquity of m-learning (using mobile devices to augment our learning opportunities and experiences), personal learning networks, and the levels of creativity that adversity inspires.

PLNs--Writing-and_Technology--2013-10-16P.S. – Using a fountain pen to write the first draft of this piece the morning after the session ends, I face another tech challenge: the fountain pen runs out of ink. The fact that I have a back-up fountain pen with me moves me past this final tech challenge, and further confirms the importance of having effective back-up plans in place whenever we step into the wonderful intersection of technology, learning, and collaboration in our well-connected communities of learning.

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by Connected Educator Month and participation in #xplrpln (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


Festina Lente and Social Media: Thinking Before We Post

September 6, 2013

Festina lente, the wonderfully evocative Latin expression commonly translated as “make haste slowly,” is a mantra we need to share with our social media learners who express concerns, in the early stages of their efforts to effectively communicate with the myriad resources available to them, about how to control their online content and presence.

Filoli--Festina_Lente--2013-05-04

Festina Lente plaque over gate in Filoli Gardens, south of San Francisco

It’s that bit of guidance that suggests we should think before we act; avoid the “ready, fire, aim” sequence that leads to so many regrets; and temper our obsession to use speed-of-light communication tools in a moment that is almost certain to expand over a much longer period of time than anything we can imagine at the moment we post something online. It’s also a great way to remind them that there really is no absolute control or room for second thoughts once our words are published in the virtual world.

This tantalizingly contradictory guidance to act quickly and with consideration to avoid disasters is certainly not unique to situations in which we post social media comments in haste. We can really only imagine the “what-could-we-have-been-thinking?” recriminations harbored by key players after the existence of the previously-secret White House taping system was revealed and contributed to the end of the Nixon administration. Or after videos of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrikes and photographs of the torture and abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib were released.

But those are world-changing revelations, far from the minds of most of us when we decide to “like” something on Facebook, use the “favorite” tool to call attention to a tweet, or post on our social media platform(s) of choice the latest fleeting thought we have before thinking about what a long life that thought may have online. Those of us who attempt to be thoughtful about what we cast out into the virtual world often mistakenly assume that by being diligent about our Facebook privacy settings and using allegedly secure means of online communication, we are establishing some sort of control over who sees what we choose to share online—an idea repeatedly debunked through numerous articles about Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies, the ways other gain access to information we erroneously assume is ours to control, and the ways prospective and current employers as well as school officials review online content for a variety of reasons.

The latest report documenting how little control we have over our online content appears in an extremely detailed New York Times article published today: “N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web.” This is far more than the significant story it appears to be about how National Security Agency employees were building “entry points”—intentional flaws—into the encryption products that were supposed to assure privacy in online communications; it’s also an enormous reminder that regardless of what we do to try to control our online content, there’s someone out there capable of overcoming those controls if the motivation to do so exists.

New_Digital_Age--CoverBut we really don’t even have to dive into the Spy vs. Spy world of surveillance to respond honestly to our learners’ questions about how to approach our online postings and overall presence. Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, in their book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, provide an extreme example of what happens when we post without thinking about potential repercussions: “In February 2012, a young Saudi newspaper columnist named Hamza Kashgari posted an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad on his personal Twitter account,” leading to “thousands of angry responses, death threats and the creation of a Facebook group called ‘The Saudi People Demand Hamza Kashgari’s Execution.’…Despite his immediate apology after the incident and a subsequent August 2012 apology, the Saudi government refused to release him. In the future, it won’t matter whether messages like these are public for six hours or six seconds; they will be preserved as soon as electronic ink hits digital paper. Kashgari’s experience is just one of many sad and cautionary stories” (p. 56). (We can only assume that Kashgari somehow missed reading about Salman Rushdie’s experiences—and wonder why Schmidt and Cohen see this as something that won’t matter “in the future” after documenting that it already occurs.)

Which brings us back to our roles as trainer-teacher-learners helping others to work as effectively as possible online: invoking festina lente as a guiding principle before we post will not give them—or us—the level of control we crave, but it might lead to better experiences overall online—as long as we don’t let it keep us from saying what we and wonderful colleagues like Sarah Hougton know must be said.



Coming Full Circle with Digital Storytelling in #etmooc

February 11, 2013

After dabbling with digital storytelling last week as part of the work I’m doing as a learner in #etmooc, the Education Technology and Media MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational and media Alec Couros and several “co-conspirators,” I circled back on the theme in a more focused and serious way. And found myself in far deeper emotional waters than expected—as is often the case with any completely engaging learning experience.

etmoocCouros and his colleagues have offered us choices among eight different digital storytelling challenges ranging from simple acts (writing a six-word story and combining it with an emotionally engaging image) to an “ultimate challenge”: “Write a story, and then tell that same story digitally using any number of digital tools and freely available media! For inspiration and story creation guidance, see Alan Levine’s 50+ Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story.”

Starting simply, I tackled the six-word stories; saw the emotional depth others were achieving; and went back to the drawing board until I found one that promised to carry me into the level of exploration others had achieved: “Through stories, our departed remain alive.”

One of the departed who remain alive for me is David Moebs, who died from AIDS-related complications in June 1998, yet remains amazingly present. He was a person whose understated generosity made a substantial difference to his friends during his lifetime: at least three different times, he gave substantial amounts of money to friends in need, knowing that the money, if used wisely, would make life-changing differences for them. He had no expectation of receiving anything in return; he simply wanted to take action at the right moment, with people he perceived to be the right people.

It was not a complete surprise to me, therefore, that when I wrote about his spirit of volunteerism and generosity and posted the article online (more than a decade after he left us, in a rudimentary form of digital storytelling long before I ever heard the term), it touched a few people who still carried strong, positive memories that were rooted in his actions.

David_Moebs

David Moebs

I was, in preparation for the #etmooc digital storytelling assignment, already going back to unpublished writing I had completed about David. I was also trying to find the appropriate way and tools to give new life to an old story. Video still felt a little beyond me; blogging felt as if it wouldn’t force me to stretch in ways the assignment was designed to make all of us as learners stretch. So I started looking for tools I hadn’t yet explored—Prezi and Vuvox among them—to see if I could revisit David’s story in my ongoing role as a learner. My starting point was to storyboard the effort using PowerPoint: I actually completed a draft that placed the script into the notes field of each slide; incorporated images licensed through Creative Commons and posted on flickr; began moving the images into Prezi and Vuvox; and recorded the script using Audacity.

That’s when I hit the sort of glitch we expect to find while learning: Vuvox wasn’t cooperating, and Prezi didn’t want to take the audio files in the format that Audacity produced and stored them. I did find an online service that would, for a fee, have transformed the recordings into a format compatible with what I had developed visually in Prezi, but I held myself back with a challenge to either locate a free online tool or find a new way to use existing tools that I already had acquired.

The solution proved simple once I returned to PowerPoint. Using the “sound” function that is under the “insert” tab within the program, I was able to easily re-record the individual elements of the script and insert them into each slide—and even pull in an audio clip from YouTube to pull the story together at a multi-media level.

And while I don’t expect to win any awards for innovations in digital storytelling, the entire exercise not only offered a wonderful opportunity to revisit an old friend, but to benefit further from the learning opportunities that #etmooc is producing at a time when so many of us are exploring what MOOCs are and will continue to offer as part of our overall learning environment. 

N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc. The digital story described in this posting can be viewed online in “Slide Show” mode; to produce the audio, please click on the audio icons on each slide.


Jonah Lehrer: When Writing, Creativity, and Imagination Go Too Far

August 1, 2012

For those of us who write, the news that a very talented and successful writer has been discredited because of his or her own unethical actions is something that hurts us all—professionally as well as personally. At a painfully obvious level, it fuels the arguments of those who want to see inaccuracies and bias in every piece of nonfiction writing or broadcast reporting they encounter. So the news that Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works has been withdrawn from the market by its publisher and that Lehrer has had to resign from his position as a writer for The New Yorker is very bad news, indeed.

From what has been reported to date, Lehrer’s first completely inexcusable mistake in Imagine was to fabricate quotes and add a made-up sentence to an actual quote from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan—an amazingly bad lapse of judgment given that much of the material with which Lehrer was working in Imagine appears to have already provided ample support to points he was making about how the creative process works. He then reportedly compounded the error by engaging in an extended game of obfuscation over a three-week period with writer Michael C. Moynihan, who documented the initial fabrications and his exchanges with Lehrer on the subject in an article published in Tablet Magazine this week. Lehrer’s work, furthermore, has been questioned and criticized by others, including a reviewer for The New York Times who raised plenty of questions about Lehrer’s conclusions drawn from research he cited after an earlier reviewer for the newspaper had praised the book.

What made Imagine so appealing to so many of us when it was released earlier this year was that Lehrer’s writing was so clear and crisp; his summaries of numerous research studies seemed well supported through citations in the book’s endnotes; and his conclusions seemed to be consistent with what we had seen from other writers and studies. It inspired us to recommend the book in our own reviews and essays and to connect Lehrer’s work to fields in which we work, as I did in a piece written for the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) Learning Technology online community of practice.

So the news that this apparently wonderful, engaging, and thought-provoking book has, overnight, almost completely disappeared from bookstores and websites, and will apparently only remain available through libraries or on the shelves of those of us who obtained copies before the publisher’s understandable recall, is extremely dispiriting.

I’ve never before faced the situation where a book has been recalled after I had so favorably written about it and also used it as a jumping off point for the sort of piece I wrote for ASTD; the news that the book had been pulled, therefore, left me wondering how to handle a revelation like that one in an age where we can actually withdraw our online reviews and even ask that an online article be withdrawn. The dilemma sent me back to re-read the brief online review I posted on a few sites and to also reread that ASTD article. And when I was finished, I walked away with extremely mixed feelings: on the one hand, I felt that what I had been inspired to write for the ASTD posting still had value, so I’m not going to ask that it go the way of the book itself and be withdrawn; on the other hand, I have already deleted the online reviews since it seems silly to offer any type of rating or critique for a book that a publisher has pulled back.

Ultimately, because I do still believe the book as published had—and still has—value in making us think creatively about the science of the creative process—even though, by Lehrer’s own admission, he was irresponsibly creative in imagining quotes for attribution—I’m going to keep an earlier blog posting online, along with an acknowledgment that the book has been withdrawn—as a reminder of how a good book could have been a great book if the writer had been faithful to the basic precepts of accuracy in nonfiction writing. As a reminder that the act of writing in an onsite-online world exposes us to greater scrutiny—and more assurance of comeuppance when deserved—than anything we’ve ever before experienced. And as a reminder that when a member of our extended community of writers takes a terribly wrong turn, the rest of us need to Imagine ourselves in that position—and avoid it at all costs.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Communities of Writing

July 10, 2012

Many of us who write or who spend time with writers are no longer naïve enough to think that it would be wonderful to meet every writer we have ever admired; writers—like anyone else—can be absolutely insufferable when given the opportunity to be full of themselves/ourselves. But when we manage to set our overinflated egos aside for at least a few minutes and listen more than talk, we discover the pleasures of being part of the formal and informal communities we create.

It has been several years since I was briefly and pleasurably part of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a smaller fiction-writing group, but I’ve never been far removed from writers as colleagues, friends, and mentors—and yes, in some cases, tormentors. As is the case with so many other communities of interest, formal and informal communities of writers can often be the only means we have of sustaining our creative processes when long hours, days, weeks, or even months of effort seem to produce little of consequence for us or for our readers.

Meeting a variety of first-rate writers promoting their new releases, further marketing the book Lori Reed and I co-wrote last year (Workplace Learning & Leadership), and attending a reception for writers united under a single publishing house (ALA Editions) at the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference last month provided yet another reminder of how important these communities can be for those whose work is largely completed in long stretches of solitary effort. And how far-reaching our connections are even when we do not clearly see them.

At the heart of the reception was ALA Editions’ right-on-target goal of formally and cordially welcoming authors from Neal-Schuman to the ALA Editions stable of writers after ALA Editions acquired Neal-Schuman. More importantly, however, it provided an opportunity for writers and others associated with both publishing houses to sit together, share ideas, and look for the creative opportunities that our unanticipated connections might provide.

It doesn’t take long, when walking into the sort of small and intimate setting ALA Editions provided that evening, to recognize familiar faces: staff from the publishing house; colleagues associated with ALA Editions; and even a few from the latest addition to the ALA family. But the real fun began as we occasionally lined up to retrieve a beverage or small plate of hors d’oeuvres and play the read-that-nametag game to match familiar names with unfamiliar faces.

The winning moment came for me when I looked up from a name tag and found myself unexpectedly eyeball to eyeball with a writer—Esther Grassian—whose work influenced me tremendously while I was earning a Master’s degree and focusing on online learning a few years ago. Because it was an article she co-wrote (“Stumbling, Bumbling, Teleporting, and Flying…Librarian Avatars in Second Life”) that had attracted my attention as a student, I had no idea she also had co-authored two Neal-Schuman books with Joan Kaplowitz and would, therefore, be at the reception. Having met plenty of colleagues who write, I’m far from star struck when I meet a writer whose work I admire—OK, OK, let’s be honest: I’m always star struck when I meet someone whose work I admire, but I was trying (probably unsuccessfully) to not let it show in a setting where Grassian and I were ostensibly colleagues rather than writer-admirer.

She was gracious enough to sit with me and a few of the other attendees as we discussed our work, what we are doing, and what we hope to be doing over the next couple of years. And the magic continued as various people one or the other of us knew joined us at that table and become part of a brief and pleasurable evening when we could learn from each other. Consider possibilities none of us might have stumbled upon without those exchanges. And celebrate the wonderfully sustaining power of communities of writing.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Writing (and Promoting) the Book You Want to Read

June 24, 2012

Novelist Ann Patchett was the first—but certainly not the only—writer I encountered who suggested that we sometimes have to be the one who writes the book we want to read. And that was one of many things Lori Reed and I thought about before finishing Workplace Learning & Leadership: A Handbook for Library and Nonprofit Trainers for ALA Editions last year.

We were certainly ecstatic when Chris Rhodes, Jill Davis, and everyone else at ALA Editions supported us with a book-signing at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans last year, and I remain grateful for the opportunity I had to meet more readers and potential readers through a follow-up signing here in Anaheim yesterday at the 2012 ALA Annual Conference—for it reminded me of another truism about writing and publishing: the date of publication is really just the beginning of a very long process in the current marketplace; connecting with readers through promotion is the long-term commitment we make to a book when we decide to write it.

The initial effort in New Orleans last year received a much-appreciated and unanticipated boost when we rerouted a wandering group of people dressed in Star Wars costumes into the onsite ALA bookstore and immediately turned a somewhat sedate event into a complete grand slam in terms of drawing attention to what we were doing. Darth Vader and others patiently stood with us, holding and pretending to read—at least I think they were pretending to read—copies of the book. Writing about the evening, I jokingly suggested that we would only be able to top that feat by attracting Harry Potter to our next event.

And while neither Harry nor the owl showed up yesterday, I did have a playfully fun moment the night before the signing yesterday by meeting another onsite representation of one of my childhood heroes: Spiderman. Turns out he’s actually a very nice guy. Pleasant. Patient. And willing to give half a writing team a nice boost by allowing himself to be photographed by reading a copy of the book. Which, of course, I immediately tweeted out to make my fellow ALA Conference attendees aware of the  book-signing.

I can’t really fault Spiderman for not being able to attend the event himself; he was probably across the street, in Disneyland, rescuing Mickey or Minnie from renegade pirates or librarians out on the town. But I’m grateful that he did help connect me with some very supportive readers. And I continue to hope that at some point Harry Potter and the owl will be available to join me for some promotion of the book. And the overall value of workplace learning (staff training) and leadership in our lives.

N.B.: ALA Conference attendees interested in staff and public training programs  are invited to join library training colleagues today (Sunday, June 24, 2012, 1:30 – 3:30 pm) in Anaheim Marriot Grand Salon G-K for the ALA Learning Round Table’s annual Training Showcase. It’s a great opportunity to learn what other workplace learning and performance professionals are doing and how you might apply their best practices in your own workplaces.


Steal These Ideas: Austin Kleon, Creativity, Art, and Learning

May 20, 2012

If we need a reminder of how much all of us are products of our own experiences, we need go no further than Austin Kleon’s playfully engaging new book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. And while Kleon jolts us all a bit with his use of “steal” in that title, his intent clearly is to help us understand that “stealing like an artist” suggests a level of interaction with our sources of inspiration that leaves no room or encouragement for outright acts of plagiarism.

Steal begins with David Bowie’s admission that “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from”; gathers steam with Yohji Yamamoto’s advice to “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self”; and leads us to a list of recommended readings that should, if it is not already, be familiar to any of us interested in taking a creative approach to all we undertake.

Along the way, Kleon leads us through his 10 thoughts on the theme of unlocking our creativity, including “write the book you want to read” (which for trainer-teacher-learners could easily be recast as “design and offer the learning opportunity you wish you could attend”); “do good work and share it with people,” “be nice (the world is a small town),” “be boring (it’s the only way to get work done),” and “creativity is subtraction”—a reminder that it is as important to deliberately choose what we leave out of our work as it is to choose what we include.

And while much of what he has written is far from novel to those of us who have been exploring creativity for many years—more than one of my favorite writers has suggested that if we can’t find the book we want to read, we need to write it ourselves—Steal is cleverly presented and serves as an homage both to sources he acknowledges and others he may not yet personally have encountered. Even the presentation—a smaller than normal format combining hand-written chapter and section titles, informally sketched illustrations, several photographs that complement and supplement the typeset text, and the pull-quotes that are spread throughout the book—is reminiscent of another equally engaging book: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework (a work cited in Kleon’s recommended readings).

But the fact that we might recognize some of these things nobody previously told us doesn’t undercut the value of the book. The point is that creativity exists within a continuum of creative works ranging from Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the Darte Publishing release Letters to a Young Artist to David Bayles and Ted Orland’s  Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking and numerous other scientists, artists and writers who have written about the act of writing.

At least one unexpected level of engagement that Kleon inspired me to pursue was to actually respond, in writing within the white spaces on the pages of his book, to the ideas he proposes. And in this way, he inadvertently led me to produce a unique copy of the book—which includes my own references to writers who have traveled paths that Kleon leads us through. This reinforced, for me, an idea I use with learners I am guiding: providing them with time, during and after attending onsite or online workshops, to add to previously developed materials in ways that further increase the breadth and scope and reach of those materials while giving learner-contributor-creators a sense of ownership. An example: if we’re helping learners improve their skills in using social media tools, we can encourage them to join in Twitter chats designed around a learning theme (e.g., how to market their organizations or how to increase the reach of the services and/or products they provide) and then show them how to edit those chat sessions into documents shared on blogs or other sites as learning objects to be further developed by other learners. Or, if we are trying to foster a community of learning that co-exists onsite and online, we can encourage participants to document their best practices by contributing to a wiki that grows through the ongoing efforts of current and future learners.

Kleon, admittedly “talking to a previous version of myself,” could as easily (in the spirit of what he is doing) have called his book Letters from a Young Artist to an Even Younger Artist if he wanted to engage in the playful stealing-that-is-less-than-outright-stealing he encourages all of us to pursue. If we accept the invitation he proffers, we’re very likely to contribute to the continuum of creativity his book has joined.


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