From a danah boyd tweet I ran across the work of Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. It’s smart and visually mesmerizing. The bread crumb trail led me to a talk (“Beyond Flash“, slides) that Harris gave in October where he poses a powerful question:
Once you have learned how to speak, what will you say? This is really the central question. If I can leave you with one idea from my talk, this would be it.
It’s this question I have to believe Mary Oliver had in mind when she was writing a Summer Day. It’s also the central question we’re pursuing with Endeavor Prep. Jonathan’s is a potent question because it has two assumptions embedded in it that are significant for every person alive.
Good to Know
The first is a recognition that we’re all learning how to speak — that is, becoming individuals who can participate in the world, do things, partner, contribute, and, sure also in a literal sense, say things so as to engage and involve others. When people realize this about themselves, if I’m lucky enough to be around, it’s a great moment to be a part of. Their face (or voice) says, “I’ve actually learned all this stuff, and when I go out into the world, you know what, people respond to me.” It’s an a-ha moment that sometimes happens in college, sometimes after. The world at once gets much smaller because now each other person is accessible and just a few hops away, and also much bigger because of the staggering variation of interests and action happening out there.
Don’t be Daunted
Second, once people realize they have a voice and can cut their own path, the real question becomes What do you want to do with it? On one hand, the pure freedom and potential is exhilarating. On the other, it’s also a big hairy weighty question.
For some people it feels monolithic, as if it needs be answered all at once. So choosing, no wait, supposedly optimizing among every option is overwhelming. It’s like there’s one shot to pick from the menu and that’s what I’ll be eating, and known for eating, for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, picking “one time” is a false choice. Discovering what you will say is an iterative process. Even when you make a choice to try something out, you can still make another choice at another time to try something else.
If you want to be an gold medalist in gymnastics and you’re just starting 25, then yes, you may have missed the window. But for 99.9999% of the options out there, you can prototype your way towards it.
Learn by Doing
I’m glad I ran across the Jonathan Harris talk (there’s more here at TED). His projects and tips are really worth looking into. Here are few more:
You will become known for doing what you do. This may sound obvious, but it is a useful thing to realize. Many people seem to think they must endure a “rite of passage” which, once passed, will allow them to do the kind of work they want to do. Then they end up disappointed that this day never comes. Find a way to do the work you want to do, even if it means working nights and weekends. Once you’ve done a handful of excellent things in a given way, you will become known as the person who does excellent things in that given way. And that’s the person you want to be, because then people will hire you to be that person.
The personal is powerful. Trust your own experience. It’s the only thing that’s really yours, and that’s really unique. Putting yourself in your work can be powerful.
Do your own thing. If you imitate, you’ll only ever be a bad example of the thing you’re trying to imitate. An artist I like very much, Donald Judd, said that what you have to do is to find the same level of inventiveness as the person you’re trying to imitate. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t incorporate elements of other people’s work. As Picasso said: “Bad artists copy; great artists steal.” What he meant is that it can be OK to steal an idea from somewhere else, as long as you steal the idea and do something new with it, make it your own, and move on. If you copy it outright you’ll only get stuck in the past.
Experience is the only way to learn. Pain, joy, fear, risk, love, firsthand experience. You can learn so much from these things, and the experience will end up affecting your work in ways you don’t even realize. But it’ll be based on a real thing.