ALA Midwinter Meeting 2017: The Stuff You Don’t Plan For

January 22, 2017

Anyone familiar with the richly rewarding experience of attending an association’s conference knows that the most precious gems often are those we don’t anticipate.

alamw17_logoWe fall into a business deal we didn’t even know existed. We see someone we didn’t even know was there and, as a result, rekindle a relationship. We learn about an innovation that directly and positively affects the work we do. We discover and quickly act upon opportunities to better serve the onsite and online communities we absolutely adore.

everylibrary_logoAnd that, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, is what has been happening for some of us here in Atlanta since the American Library Association (ALA) 2017 Midwinter Conference formally opened yesterday. I know, from the numerous intensively action-oriented conversations I had throughout the day yesterday and today and well into the evening hours, that there were abundant enticing opportunities—expected and unexpected—to pursue. Several colleagues and I, as a result of chance encounters, continued the conversations (inspired by our EveryLibrary co-conspirators) designed to help us identify and take positive, concrete, results-generating action in response to opportunities to build productive, meaningful collaborations between libraries/library staff members and other stakeholders in our extended, multi-faceted, tapestry-like onsite-online communities. These were and are not pipe-dream “wouldn’t it be nice” discussions; each of them ended with commitments to taking small-scale individual as well as collaborative steps that, when combined with similar steps within our extended communities, will lead to community collaborations with potentially far-reaching impacts. (The 2017 EveryLibrary Agenda, on the organization’s “Leaving Our Silos — Coalition Work in 2017” page, is a seminal online document that offers an opportunity to become engaged and is a wonderful call to action for those within the library world as well as to those who currently are not; friends and colleagues can expect to be hearing plenty from me about what this offers us and those we serve.)

signorelli200x300[1]But it gets even more personal. A wonderfully serendipitous encounter in the ALA Store resulted in another sale of the book Lori Reed and I co-wrote a few years ago (Workplace Learning & Leadership) and an impromptu, tongue-in-cheek book-signing for the buyer of that book. Which then unexpectedly led to a conversation about potential involvement in another results-oriented training-teaching-learning project scheduled to happen during the second half of this year. And, as if this were all being choreographed for the muse of publication, I then found myself involved in a conversation about writing a new book—a conversation that ended with a tentative agreement to pursue the project as soon as we can take care of all the elements that are part of codifying a formal contract leading to publication of a book.

The day continued at this frenetic, almost dream-like level well into the evening. More discussions. More confirmed opportunities for positive engagement with members of my ALA professional family. More reminders that, even in the most troubled of times, we never are really alone. And a reminder that the aforementioned precious gems often arrive when they are most needed.

For, in the midst of all this positive engagement, I was also fully engaged in that most horrible, inevitable rites of passage: the impending loss of a loved one.

The news that my lovely, vibrant, dynamic, inspirational mother—my lifelong parent, mentor, friend, confidante, and fellow chocoholic—is in the final days or even hours of life on the other side of the country was not unexpected. (A sign of how much I rely on her: after initially receiving the news that she might be in her last 72 hours of her life, I quickly ran through the short list of people I could call for comfort, immediately thought of her, and then found myself laughing as the words “Oh, wait, she already knows about this” ran through my mind.) She has been suffering from congestive heart failure for several months now, and the options for providing her with comfort and any acceptable quality of life have been dwindling rapidly during the past two weeks. Receiving “the call” from home shortly after I arrived in Atlanta was a nightmare emerging into a darkening day: she was back in a hospital emergency room, where my father and others were onsite to be with her during what a Franciscan friar I know once referred to as “the most sacred of times.” The subsequent calls involving arrangements for hospice care quickly followed. And then the news this morning, just before all the conversations and activities I’ve described in this post took place, that the hospice plan had been abandoned because treatment that might have offered her another 72 hours of comfort were failing. We were quickly reaching the point where we were counting hours rather than days.

When you have two parents who have led wonderfully blessed lives for 80 or 90 years, you’re always aware that each day could be the last. You go out of your way, as I have for more than a decade, to thank them every time—every damned time—you talk to them and let them know in very specific terms how grateful you are for all that they have given you. And yet “the call” is always as shocking as you know it’s going to be. Always overwhelming. And yet somehow manageable because you viscerally understand that, at that horrible and devastating moment, you are right where you were meant to be. Like here, in Atlanta, among some of the best friends, colleagues, and confidantes I have. Caring. Understanding. Sympathetic. And capable of shining sparkling-gem light where only darkness would otherwise seem to reign.

So I’ve had a day of precious gems that included wonderful stories from friends. Plenty of cross-country conversations that had me right there with my family even though we remain physically nearly 2,500 miles apart. Time spent working with wonderfully sympathetic and responsive United Airlines representatives arranging for an earlier-than-expected return to California. Positive paid and volunteer opportunities that I will be pursuing for months, if not years. Just as my mother and father always encouraged me to do. And as I prepare to try to catch a bit of sleep, I relish the bittersweet words a member of my ALA family shared during a conversation earlier today: It’s always the stuff you don’t plan for that has the greatest impact—for better or for worse.

[Deepest gratitude to my former writing coach/mentor Margo Perin, who always insisted that the best writing was that which was most difficult, honest, and drawn directly from the heart. This piece would not exist if she had not led me, nearly 20 years ago, through the process of working through a dark night.]

Addendum: In loving memory of Josephine V. Signorelli, August 5, 1925 – January 22, 2017. She lived and passed with grace.


The Boring Patient: Continuing to Learn With R. David Lankes

December 12, 2014

R. David Lankes, A.K.A. author of the recently-released The Boring Patient, is a very dangerous man.

Lankes--Boring_PatientIn everything he does, he casts out his line. Hooks us. Slowly reels us in without at all making us aware of what he’s doing while he is doing it. And then he does what he always does so well: he makes us learn in ways that transform the way we see the world we all inhabit. He is, in other words, the consummate scholar, speaker, writer, teacher, storyteller, library advocate, and so much more. But above all, he’s the sort of character Anne Lamott describes in Bird by Bird, her wonderful book about writing and the creative process: the type of character we would follow anywhere—even to the county dump. Or, in The Boring Patient, to doctors’ offices, hospitals, cancer treatment centers, and, at one point, to Disney World.

Written to share the experiences he had after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the book “is not about cancer. It is about my response to being diagnosed, living with, and being treated for cancer,” he tells us in the first few pages. “That is an important distinction because cancer is not funny. Cancer sucks. Cancer does not teach, cancer does not preach, cancer does not comfort, or inspire, or inform. Cancer kills.”

From beginning to end, this brief (138-page) book is a finely-crafted story that displays humor in deep moments of despair without in any way diminishing the seriousness of Lankes’s situation. He never loses sight of his well-honed ability to teach. He occasionally does (very effectively) preach—as is the case in the first sections of the book, when he addresses poignant yet no-holds-barred letters addressed “Dear Doctors,” “Dear Medical Students,” “Dear Heroic Noble Inspiring Cancer Survivor,” and “Dear Everyone Else” in a way that makes us want to buy multiple copies of the book and send them to every doctor and medical student we know. He invokes his wonderfully wicked sense of humor to recall how he and his wife had to comfort others who were finding it very difficult to deal with the life-threatening situations Lankes so often faced in spite of having been assured that those with Hodgkin’s had an extremely high recovery rate. And he continually finds ways to inspire us to find the reserves of emotional strength he found within himself through the support of his family, friends, and colleagues.

Lankes--Virtual_DaveThe cast of characters is far-reaching and well-drawn. We meet “The Bringer of Doom,” an oncology fellow so lacking in social skills that she coldly tells Lankes and his wife that he has Hodgkin’s, then immediately separates the couple so she can whisk him away for a bone marrow biopsy “as the lab was about to close.” The Bringer resurfaces much later in the book with an equally abrupt report on the state of his health that turns out to be emotionally devastating—and completely inaccurate. There are, on the other side of the spectrum of people we meet, the nurses and doctors who seem to understand that “[b]eing a good doctor means being concerned with my life, not what might end it.” Through brief, poignant passages, we meet his wife (Anne Marie) who becomes “Xena the Patient Advocate”—a reminder that the advocates in our lives are among the most valuable assets and resources we have, as anyone familiar with the American medical system knows before reading even a few pages of The Boring Patient. And we even meet Bambi the pole dancer, who accompanies him through some of the most trying phases of his treatment—but let’s not ruin the punchline here: you’ll have to read the book to learn more about Bambi.

Most impressively and importantly for those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Lankes never loses sight of the important role he plays for his readers—the role of someone who makes information (i.e., information about what he has experienced) meaningful to those of us receiving it through the book: “Doctor, professor, teacher, librarian all can no longer believe that simply pushing information at someone and if necessary fixing it later is acceptable,” he says both as someone who received plenty of information about cancer and as someone who consistently encourages and inspires us to think about the role of information providers in society. “When I learn, when I am ‘informed,’ it is more than my memory and reason you affect. It is my emotions, my needs, my image of self” (p. 111).

And if we can carry that learner-centric view of what we do as information providers and facilitators of learning, we will have emerged from our journey with this not-so-boring patient the better for having joined him.


Learning Magic in Moments of Improvisation (Learning With Our Learners)

May 9, 2014

It’s far more than sleight of hand, this act of learning alongside our learners. It’s as delightfully magical for the way it occurs at the most unexpected moments as it is for how it rapidly produces small and large shifts in our own training-teaching-learning approach. And the stimulation that accompanies that level of collaboration in the learning process is one of the most consistently rewarding aspects of formal and informal learning opportunities we are likely to encounter, I was reminded again yesterday morning.

Oldenburg--Great_Good_PlaceI didn’t even, when the moment of magical learning began, know I was walking into a classroom; I thought I was actually walking into a neighborhood café—the sort of Ray Oldenburgian third placeThe Great Good Place—where we meet friends, interact, and walk away the better for having set aside the time for exactly that sort of encounter. But that morning quickly and unexpectedly turned into a far deeper and richer learning experience that a friend and I had expected to produce.

It began when I spotted the friend and sat at the restaurant counter to join her for a cup of coffee while she was eating breakfast. Commenting on how nice it had been to see her engaged in journaling as joined her, I inadvertently opened a door to a wonderful conversation about how she wished she had more time to write and how, more importantly, she wished she could find a way to combine her love of writing with work that produced an income.

“Want to play a game?” I asked. “It takes about two minutes and is a great learning exercise I know that helps people find what’s eluding them.”

Not wanting to skew the results or lead her in any specific direction other than helping her identify the sort of work that might combine her varied interests, I didn’t tell her that this simple exercise I had leaned in a creative writing class many years before had served me well in helping learners achieve a variety of goals including creating branding/marketing slogans for their personal businesses; crafting mission statements for their organizations; and even finding a name for a volunteer-driven community-based project that was so perfect that participants were still discovering lovely nuances in the name a couple of years after they shaped it. I also didn’t tell her that I used a two-minute time limit for the exercise because experience showed that most people and groups were winding down after 90 seconds and that two minutes was generally all it took to complete the most important element of what we were doing together.

Hearing her agree to accept the challenge, I told her to use her journal—I have generally used blank pieces of paper when working with individuals and paper on flipcharts or large whiteboards in classroom settings when working with groups—and take no more than two minutes to write down every word—no editing allowed—that came to mind when asked to think about the question “What makes me happy?” (When working on the mission statements, I’ve asked those learning the technique by using it to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about their organization; when working with those crafting marketing slogans, I’ve asked them to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about what concrete results they wanted to help their clients produce; when I worked with colleagues in the volunteer project, I asked them to think of every word that came to mind when they thought about the site on which the project was to be completed.)

Fountain_pens--2013-02-05I knew magic was about to occur when my friend/learner actually began jotting words down into her notebook even before I had a chance to start the timer on her smartphone. And it continued to take shape when I realized that, after 90 seconds, she not only was still writing as quickly as her hand and pen could place ink onto paper (with no slowdown in sight), but was also writing from left to right and top to bottom on the page rather than doing what every other learner had done before—simply throwing words helter-skelter all over a page or flipchart or whiteboard so the words could be grouped thematically later.

As the two-minute mark approached, I recognized I had my own unanticipated moment of leaning to address: stop the exercise as planned or respond to her obvious engagement and complete immersion in what she was doing by ignoring the timer and seeing where additional time would take us. After she finally raised her head five minutes and fifteen seconds into her wonderful stream-of-consciousness flow and asked if her two minutes were up, we both had a good laugh before beginning the process of reviewing what she wrote to see if she could spot meaningful connections between those apparently disjointed words and phrases. And as she read back what she had produced, I felt another moment of leaning magic unfolding: not only had she written down numerous nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but she had actually jotted down words reflecting what she was thinking as she wrote comments along the lines of “oh, this isn’t working” and “oh wait there it is.” Not only had she produced the most richly complex record of a learner’s thoughts I had ever seen in response to this simple exercise, but she had reminded me of something no trainer-teacher-learner can afford to ever forget: set the rules, then break them as soon as they become a hindrance to the learner’s learning process.

When we were finished with the review, she told me how helpful the exercise had been in identifying things she knew innately but hadn’t consciously acknowledged, and confirmed that she had learned enough to strike out on her own by returning to the results, running the same sort of exercise using individual words that resonated strongly with her from round one, and creating the sort of pithy summary of what would most appeal to her so she could try to match that statement with work that would reward her far more than what she currently does. And I, in turned, told her that the simple act of running that exercise with her and watching all that she produced had revitalized and freshened a tool I had long enjoyed—and now magically, unexpectedly, and inspirationally, would use with even more enthusiasm for learners who would never know how much that she as learner-teacher had contributed to their learning process—and a wonderfully adaptable tool to help them on their journey.


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.


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.


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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