Ask for what you want.
Follow up on that ask.
And then follow through.
In the following example, all statistics are made up. But let's play with a couple of assumptions. Let's say only 10% of people actually put themselves out there and ask for what they want. And of the people that ask for something, again only 10% of them follow up on that ask. And of the people who successfully ask for something, and then follow up, many of them in turn don't actually follow through with what they've asked for or said that they are going to do.
10% of 10% of 10% is one in a thousand. (o.oo1).
ASK. Why don't people ask? You know that it happens. You want something, but you don't put it out there. Your psychological blocks and assumptions preclude you from putting your desire out there. “I want you to give me money.” Or in a conversation with a colleague or boss, “I think we need to renegotiate our terms,” or in the universe itself, “I want to learn how to play the Piano–who has a piano I can have?”
FOLLOW UP. And then, after you ask, you forget to follow up. That email that you were going to send, to say “Thank You” that you put off. To write and say, “Hey, we talked about the fundraising that I'm doing and I'd love for you to be a part of it. Can you contribute before the end of the month?”
FOLLOW THROUGH. And then, when the donation comes in, or your partnership is aligned, following through with what you've promised: reaching out and saying Thank You. Showing up when you said you'll show up. Sending them the fiscal reports when you're successful.
It's simple, although in execution requires an incredible amount of discipline on your part to achieve. But the recipe isn't that hard. Want to stand out?
If the greatest compliment in design is to become ubiquitous; the trick is not to become invisible.
If everyone has what you've made and uses what you've made, in many regards, you're doing a great job. It becomes assumed that the product or idea is part of life and it gets adopted in mainstream culture.
But what about all of the pieces that are designed, yet no one knows how they came to be designed, or worse–that they were even designed in the first place?
Alex Marshall, in the just-published book “The Surprising Design of Market Economies,” (September 2012) begins with an essay about our seeming ignorance of the design of the built environment–namely, parks. When you see a new building go up, we recognize that as something that has “been designed.” When we see a new (or old) park or space, I'm not sure what people think. Sometimes I listen to what people say and I wonder. Someone might think,
“Well, isn't it great that they saved all those trees.”
“As you wander around this veritable Eden, with waterfalls and winding lakes and hopping squirrels and twitting birds, you think how wise it was of the city fathers way back when to leave this piece of unspoiled nature as a beating, primal heart in the middle of this dense city of millions of people.”
And yet, what so many people fail to understand, is how much it costs to maintain parks. That a single tree on Stanford's campus can cost the school $20,000 because to put a young Palm tree on Palm drive and wait for it to grow, over many years, to become the same size as the other trees is sacrilegious and would disrupt the beautiful rhythm of the perfectly-lined Palm Drive.
And Marshall continues:
“And then, if you have some knowledge of urban history, you realize that this story you've told yourself is completely false. What's hard to accept about this beautiful landscape, even after one learns its history, is that it is completely human-made and maintained. City fathers didn't just leave nature as is, they constructed it.”
“Crews following Olmsted and Vaux's plans pushed hills into place, cleared trees, and even brought lakes and ponds into being where none existed. For the lakes they scooped out earth and then painted the bottom with blue clay, brought in by barge from upstate New York, so the water would not just drain into the ground.”
He talks about parks as an introduction to a larger idea–that markets, our economic markets, are as equally constructed by institutions and are also completely designed human creations, bolstered by governments and social, cultural and physical structures that provide space and rules within which to operate.
I made a pretty big mistake recently. Instead of sending an email to a large group of people with everyone's email address in the “BCC” line, I accidentally copied the list into the “TO” email entry field. As a result, 400 emails were sent to a group of people who didn't all know each other, all with every single email address on display.
This is a mistake that could get me fired–if it were for a job–and when I realized what I had done, I stared in horror at my monitor screen and frantically tried to think of ways to get the email back. Recall? Come back? PLEASE…
If this were a major bank corporation and I had accidentally sent out an email to all of our customers in the TO field, disclosing private and personal information–I would be fired.
Luckily for me, it was a personal campaign and either none of my friends noticed, or the ones that did forgave my error and collectively and individually had the courtesy to respond just to me and not begin a barrage of reply emails to everyone.
In this case, I hedged a bet–and I could be incorrect, but this was my presumption–that not issuing a recall and staying silent was the best way to handle it: in essence, by not calling attention to the error, it would minimize the mistake and be the quickest route forward.
Personally, I felt horrible all day. (And if you were on that email and got annoyed, please know that I noticed and did not mean to do it). I couldn't stand the mistake, and I regretted putting each of my personal relationships out in the open. Email is a sacred space and a sacred field. The upside is that each of the people to whom this email was addressed are all people I respect and admire. It's a carefully cultivated list, so people replied with respect and courtesy.
However, what's to stop me from making this mistake again–and again? I'm not sure I can count on my emotional memory to trigger accurate future behaviors 100% of the time. The mistake was too easy to make. Rather than harp on the bad behavior, perhaps there's a couple ways to fix it.
So, here's a quick idea: is there a gmail labs feature, or add-on, that sends a warning or pop-up message when you put more than 10 (or 25) people in the “to” field? Perhaps something that says, “Hey, did you mean to send this to 400 people in the "to” field? Or did you want to put them in BCC?“ It would be similar to the attachment message that comes up, (the reminder that says, "you wrote 'attached' in your message, did you want to attach something?)
If I had gotten that message, I could have avoided my mistake.
Someone mentioned to me a couple of years ago that accomplishments should have expiration dates. That way, you have to inevitably stop talking about those things that you've previously done and get started on doing those present and future things that you want to see happen.
He proposed a two-year expiration date for most accomplishments. Win something crazy in college? Move along. Build a company a while back? Ok. Let's go.
Granted, there are probably exceptions: should an Olympian stop talking about his or her medals years after the games are over?
I suppose the question might be, how much should we talk about what we do, and how much should we focus on just doing it?
Right now, where are you? What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you see?
What does it feel like?
What is your body telling you?
The overwhelming sensation right now is data, rushing at us; information at our fingertips. In my urge to check my phone when I leave my car, I arrive at my destination with absolutely no idea where I’d parked; this digital engagement and the constant data-mapping of incoming signals is changing in my brain, because the context of the space I’m inhabiting is increasingly digital spaces, not the actual world around me. I wander down the sidewalks, looking for eye contact, wondering if we’re losing the sensibility of looking another human in the eye. If we get older but lose our eyes sooner, will it be worth it?
There are so many sensations out there—from the sound a leaf makes as it clatters across the hardness of a concrete urban surface and tickles over a dusting of other similar leaves, to the trickle of water into the underground pipes, to the air at the entryway of a subway, to the smell of the wind, to the changing shape of the sun and sky. Are we forgetting to look around, to listen, to smell, to see, to feel?
New exhibitions are popping up in studios across major cities–from the urban listening project in San Francisco to the “smell and the city” walking tour in New York–which seem to be capitalizing on sensations that are, perhaps, becoming “new” to us again.
Nevermind our loss of sensation, I worry that we're losing the ability to move and wander, and this sedentary society is not only becoming alarmingly overweight and unhealthy, but we're losing the vital pieces of our human-ness that helps us think: the ability to move.
It's not just about the epic adventure or the long-winded bike ride: it's the fact that we need a pedometer to count our way to 1000 or 10,000 steps–something that for most of humanity, we used to do without thinking. Instead, we've designed such an efficient means for movement that we've reduced our need to even take a few steps up to a gymnasium treadmill.
There are several reasons why walking is conducive to better thinking, from the positioning of our bodies in space, the the idea of a destination, to the elevation of our heart rates to 100-110 beats per minute. When you design scenarios that enable trust — and walking with friends can be designed to create a space of safety and exploration — the ideas and innovations and possibilities that result can be astounding. And sometimes, you just need to walk it out. Just as the peripatetic philosophers did years ago, let’s engage in a short walk and ask good, hard, interesting questions.
Walking is critical to thinking, yet we are an increasingly sedentary society. Let’s not forget how to move, to think, and to wander. There is language and brilliance in movement, in walking and exploring, in taking in and uncovering the urban (and non-urban) sensations around us.
In our rush into the digital world, perhaps we'll find a new way to rediscover the world we're leaving behind?
I run a walk + talk series in San Francisco designed around movement and thinking. The next walk upcoming is focused on urban sensations: what are the urban sounds, what are the steps, how do we roam across the world, what does hard feel like? When does noise start and stop? Where does light enter, pause, filter? What do we feel like as we walk? If you'd like to join one, let me know.
When was the last time you let go of the idea of time? Forgot not only about time, but about the need to check the time, and know what was when and what was next? Slipped into an unreality of the past, a forgetting of the future, and enjoyed the decadence of the lull of time in the present moment, a beating heart, a rhythm, a sound? A feeling?
I'm reading parts of John Stilgoe's work, Outside Lies Magic, (1998) and his commentary on what it means to be an explorer–to truly wander without purpose or end destination. It's an understanding of true exploration and wandering; on being outside and learning from visual experiences unraveling over time, of taking the time to roll through all of the pieces and parts and discover the puzzles that lie beneath each physical object that rests in space in the world.
He begins his classes at Harvard without a syllabus, without distributing schedules of lectures, describing in his book his practice of refusing to give structure to his lectures, because, as he writes, “students today are the children of structured learning and structured entertainment,” and “if they are afraid of a course on exploring, they may never have the confidence to go exploring on their own.” He continues:
“Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week.”
I'll admit, I flipped to the back of the book to count the pages, skimming through the pages briefly to get an overview, wondering how long it would take me to read. I found it hard to sit still and contemplate the words in front of me, because I wanted to know what would come next, and how to organize myself accordingly.
It led me to a related question–a wondering about time and space. When was the last time you forgot about time? Not only what time it was, but forgot that time existed so completely, that you didn't even stop to think that you should even check the time?
After reading Francis' post on making space for your own thinking (instead of consuming the massive amounts of information flying at you at increasing speeds), I want to pause and ask whether the systems for distributing and receiving information are working for you. Do you like the news you get from your media sources? What places to you go to find information?
Sources of information can come from your social networks, from recently built news sources (in the last decade), and from more long-term established journalists and publishers. How would you curate beyond this list?
When I meet someone I think is intriguing–be it at a conference, on a bus, through friends–and I want to know more, I've started asking them to email me a follow-up with a list of their top five recent or all-time reads. I've done this now with probably 30-40 people, and I have a list of my highest-ranked reading, because it's been selected, curated, and built by the smartest people I know, directly for me. The emails are all filtered into a folder labeled “reading list,” and when I'm looking to read (or consume) new information, I go to my list and pull from the selection.
One email, as an example:
1) Getting More by Stuart Diamond. If everyone on planet earth had read this book and followed its principles, I beleive we'd be much closer to world peace. Diamond has an uncanny ability to help people realize mutually beneficial outcomes, and his book provides the perfect framework to apply to any negotiation you'll have in your life.
2) Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. Solid overview of the power of gamification, and a small deep dive int one of the best famification minds on the planet.
3) ZAG by Marty Neumeier. One of the best books on branding I've ever come across. Clearly depicts what it is you should focus on with your brand, and gets you to ask the right questions so that you can build a powerful, identifiable and relatable brand.
4) Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. If you're about to dive into UX and designing a product and flows for the first time, this book is a must read. Helps you realize how much thought a user has to put into the discovery of a new service, and how it is you can avoid frustration for your users.
5) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. Just my favorite book ever, and I'm not sure why. It inspired me to always think creatively and imagine things in a way that didn't bind my mind to rules, or force me to conform to what is “known” or “generally accepted.”
As an aside–it's a great way to follow up with someone you want to continue to get to know but don't know how to work with them yet, or don't live in the same city/location as them and meeting up for coffee is difficult. (Or, even if you do live in the same city but don't want to drink 18 cups of coffee each week).
What if we developed this in a more systematic way? A curated space for reading lists between small groups of highly selective people? The information sharing space has left a lot to be desired–the social newspapers aren't well-done yet, and as Francis points out in Netflix For Books, we're still waiting for someone to figure out how to do Goodreads a lot better.
Would it be worth curating these 30-40 into a list of sources? Could I develop a platform to invite each person to post up to one link, once daily? Create a space for highly curated news?
Where does your information come from? How do you share it? How do you know how to trust it? Do you like what you're getting?
A quick rant from a friend that's appearing all too common:
“This afternoon, I had a meeting set up with two other well respected entrepreneurs about a passion project that I agreed to help with. The meeting had been rescheduled from earlier in the week due to an unexpected travel conflict on their end. I waited on the phone for ten minutes before giving up and emailing them to find out where they were. I have yet to hear back.”
“What is wrong with the world today? Do you have the same problem with people showing up to meetings late or not at all? Honestly, I feel discourage. All of these people say yes to being in a certain place at a certain time, and I make my plans around that commitment. I try my best to hold up my end of the bargain. Why can't professional people show enough respect toward their peers to do the same? If they are too busy to show up on time (or at all), why do they say yes? Is it just me?”
It's not just her. I, too, am losing time in the inefficiency of scheduling, trading emails with people who don't return calls, don't confirm appointments, and fail to show even after an appointment is made. I've sat in coffee shops for 30 minutes waiting for someone who “couldn't pull away for work,” and showed up to headquarters after Ferry-tripping across the Bay to meet someone who confessed to me he “double booked,” and “meeting with the investor was more important,” so he pushed me back by two hours.
In the time I've spent sitting (and reading, and perusing), I'm left wondering: what's happening? Are we trying to do more, or is it taking us longer to do things because our tools are simpler? Have expectations changed? These are the thoughts I'm working on:
Is our communication scheduling making us more efficient, or just lazier?
When and why do you say Yes to things?
When and how do you say No to things?
And if you do get mixed up in all of the jumbles, do you take the time to give feedback to other people whose behavior negatively affects you? Or do you say nothing
GET ON THE BUS
In collegiate swimming, there was a phrase the head coach would say loud and clear, over and over:
“If you're early, you're on time.”
“And if you're late, you're walking.”
The buses left precisely on the hour, and if you were a minute late, the doors would be closed and the bus would be heading out of the parking lots. With multi-hour trips across the states of Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, we couldn't leave late. As a result, folks would show up 30 minutes early to get a seat on the bus. And when they missed the bus (which happened, occasionally), they could either drive the entire distance by themselves or drop out of the competition for the weekend. Rarely did people miss the bus.
Today, in the hyper-connected world of seemingly endless opportunities–particularly in San Francisco–I watch colleagues and peers say Yes to every opportunity and over-schedule each of their days. Despite the obvious lack of down-time (shown to be critically necessary for creativity, innovation and rejuvenation), I also wonder if we're actually being more efficient–or if we just feel as though we're being more efficient.
And it made me wonder: are we saying yes to too many things?
If you observe your own behavior, consider a couple things: why do you say yes? When do you say no? When is it difficult to know what to do? When do you say Yes when you mean No, and vice versa?
WHY SAY YES?
People say yes because they want to avoid conflict, appear agreeable, not let someone down, not turn away work. We say yes when we don't have clear ideas or priorities about our time. Of course, we also say yes when we genuinely mean yes, and we want to do what we're saying yes to.
However, a default “yes,” that's actually a noncommittal answer (*“sure, I'll probably come”*) is just delaying the decision-making from the present moment until a future moment, stacking up your mental to-do list for later. It also–and arguably more importantly–affects that people you're communicating with by wasting their time. If you've ever tried to throw a party where reservations are essential, you know how irksome it can become if all ten of your guests become wishy-washy in their commitment to come. So, I wondered:
Is a “default yes” a good rule to have?
We often feel like the default is to say “yes” when we don't have a valid reason for saying no. This isn't always a bad habit–sometimes it's good to say yes to things and try it out (see rules/framework for saying yes, above), but we have to remember that we can say no to anything at anytime and we don't need a reason. A good friend of mine (entrepreneur, lawyer) takes time out of her evening to watch Law and Order with some takeout food. What does she tell her clients and colleagues and business self? “I have an appointment.” She doesn't have to explain what it is, or why she's not available. Sometimes “I'm not available” is sufficient enough. (I think there are gender differences and age differences in willingness and ability to say no, but I'm not going to dive into those right now. Suffice it to say, many entrepreneurs and people I meet today have a common over-commitment problem).
When saying yes, tentatively, sometimes it's because we need more information. I'll analyze which situations or circumstances that are making it difficult to say no. Who's asking? What are they asking for? How are they asking (email, in person, etc). Map out the times when you say Yes effectively, when you say No effectively, and when you struggle somewhere in the middle. What's different about the three circumstances? Is it someone you're worried about letting down? An opportunity? Lack of clarity?
Saying yes and backing out, dropping the ball, or being unable to follow-through is a quick way to damage your credibility and reputation, as I've learned both vicariously and through direct experience. (It's much better to under-promise and over-deliver than over-promise and under-deliver.)
If a clearly communicated “No” is the antithesis to a wishy-washy “Yes,” the question is then:
HOW DO YOU SAY NO?
Some people are great at saying No. Personally, I'm not good at saying No. It's hard. It takes practice. It's difficult, It's uncomfortable.
Yet two-year olds master the art of saying No all the time–so why are we socially conditioned to do otherwise in later years?
Saying No makes your yes answers stronger. People know then, when you say yes, that you mean it.
Making decisions is about having a larger priority plan, or framework. We often say yes to things in the moment when we don't know exactly what or where we're trying to go. That's okay. It's an exploration. For me, I have a few good frameworks for projects (particularly low-paying or “free” work), that help me decide whether or not to say yes to the work. In general, the project at hand has to do something for me in return, such as:
Establish really great networks or help advance key relationships I'm pursuing;
Teach me something i wouldn't have otherwise learned on another project;
Give me an opportunity to do really great work on a type of project i haven't yet worked on (expand portfolio and skillsets);
And in the same vein, I have to have a strong rubric for saying No when red flags come up, such as:
Will I have enough time to make this great? If not, and the work will be mediocre, I need to say No, regardless of whether the project is great. Bad work is a bad project.
Will this hurt or affect other projects or relationships that are currently in progress? If so, I need to say No.
Will I have enough time to restore my soul and sanity in between projects?
Will I have to sacrifice other things that are important to me, such as exploration, physical activity, my family? Am I willing to make that sacrifice? If not, I need to say No.
OPPORTUNITY COSTS IN DECISION MAKING
Decisions often involve opportunity cost: figuring out what you're willing to sacrifice or lose in exchange for the thing you're adding. We can't always say Yes to everything and expect things to say the same.
Experience helps. It's a lot easier for me to say No to something after I've been through the horrors of 80-hour workweeks and deadlines for a project I'm not fully invested in. Next time it's easy for me to say “no, thank you!” sometimes you just have to learn your way through it to find out what's important to you.
I often say Yes when I fail to account for “re-energy” time. In mapping my days and time, I need to make sure I take re-charge time to let my brain settle, my body recharge. If I don't, I can't do good work. It's not the reverse. I have to take care of my soul, mind and body before I can actually do the good, creative work. I have a couple of rules that help me. “No Thursdays,” are my little way of reminding myself that Thursday night is my time to curl up on the couch, watch a tv show, NOT WORK, and not hang out with friends. I pretty much say no to almost every Thursday event, and it's a wonderful exercise and practice in saying No for no reason.
REHEARSING THE SOUND OF YES AND NO STATEMENTS
Saying No–or Yes–or any other behavior takes practice. Here are a few statements that you can rehearse saying and have prepared in advance. I love watching others/observing when they say No to me, and how they do it well. Ever had someone say to you, “Wish I could, but we're booked solid for the next three months” – and you think, “Darn, okay.” but it's not a problem? Here are a few that work:
“My calendar is full at the moment and I don't have availability for any more projects.”
“You're right, I've done lots of projects like that in the past, but I'm moving our company/career in a new direction, and we're focusing on a different type of project. I can recommend a few people to you if you'd like.”
“Sounds fun. I'm not available then, unfortunately.”
Folks really appreciate directness and honesty, and it's actually helpful to them the more honest you are. Saying No can be effective—and make you more desirable by nature of demand.
IS TECHNOLOGY ALWAYS CONVENIENT?
Does the convenience of coordination tools (email, calendar, phone, messaging) make us more efficient? It depends entirely on the application of those tools, or more specifically, the human at the end of the tool. The convenience of technology can make spontaneous meetings easy, but conversely can allow us to be lazy about setting times and boundaries. I'm not convinced that all of this scheduling and rescheduling is necessarily helpful for any of us.
Rather, it's a form of procrastination. Not making a decision (saying No or Yes because you haven't decided yet) is something people do when they don't know what they want, or they don't accurately project how much time things / projects / meetings will actually take. It's also a sign of insecurity and lack of priorities (don't want to say No to this because what if I want to do it later?!), and it's a sign of laziness (sure I'll just say Yes to everything because then I'll figure it out later). It's a way for people not to have to do the hard decision making and thinking in advance.
SETTING EXPECTATIONS, GIVING FEEDBACK
There's a phrase I love: “You're either training them, or you're being trained.” In all of our behaviors and interactions, we're either being influenced by someone else or we're shaping expectations of others' behavior (or rather, in a more nuanced way, both are happening).
We can do a lot in terms of influencing other people by setting clear boundaires about our expectations and how important our time is to us. We have a lot of control over how we tell other people what, exactly, we expect of them.
For example, pre-meeting:
“Yes, I can do 9AM, but I'll need you to be absolutely punctual. I have another 10AM meeting and I won't be able to reschedule for another week if we miss this.”
Reinvigorate a sense of urgency. Show them that your time is limited. If you're flexible about continually re-scheduling, then you're sending a signal that your time can be constantly re-configured.
By stating our expectations of other people's behavior, we let them know how they can please us. Most people want to please other people. We need to tell them how. This is true in all relationships, from love to friends to work. Not many people are intentionally trying to displease other people.
This is just like training dogs. (If you haven't had a dog, get one.) They want nothing more than to love you and be loved in return. The best thing you can do for them is train them, well, in your expectations and how you show them your love. Poorly trained dogs are a sign of poor or lazy owners who haven't laid out expectations and built a framework for working with their dogs–not bad dogs.
This means we are responsible for giving feedback. It doesn't have to be irked or pained, nothing emotional, just facts. The next time we interact with someone, for example, can look like this:
“I know both of our schedules are quite busy, so let's find a time that works. The last time we met, we weren't able to coordinate, and that actually messed up several of my plans with other clients later that day. Can we figure out a better way to schedule a time that works for both of us?”
(This is a gentle reminder but clearly states that you had consequences from their behavior).
But better than holding grudges or trying to map a memory maze of past behavior is to tell people directly after the fact, clearly, what you didn't like so that they can improve: This is basic Pavlovian/Skinnerian behavior conditioning, where a behavior is directly linked to feedback.
“Thanks for meeting with me today, it was great to see you. I'm surprised we started so late–if the time isn't convenient for you, would you please let me know a better time? It's really important to me and my business that we sync our schedules well so that I can make all of my appointments.”
The converse is true–reward good behavior:
“I just wanted to drop you a line and let you know how much I appreciated your punctuality. In a world that's constantly in motion, working with people who are so respectful of time and appointments is really a stand-out quality. Thank you.”
The best, of course, is to lay out clear expectations for someone's behavior in advance.
“I run a tight ship and start all of my meetings on time. I'd very much appreciate it if you would be there promptly so I can attend to everything I need to get to today.”
THIS IS A POST IN PROGRESS
This post is a work in progress, looking at several questions:
Is our communication scheduling making us more efficient, or just lazier?
When and why do you say Yes to things?
When and how do you say No to things?
Do you give feedback to other people whose behavior negatively affects you?
I stop at the red light, standing, catching my breath from the morning’s run. My hand braces the cool metal of the stoplight pole, fog and light fighting for space in the sky in the early morning dampness of San Francisco. I breathe in and breathe out, my chest heaving in and out the metronomic melody that is a body in aerobic activity; it will take about four minutes for me to recover, and then I’ll turn back around and sprint home, variable paces aligned to the rhythm of the blocks. My eccentric tendencies towards counting will match the 33 blocks to 11 sets of 3 speeds (walk, sprint, recover) and I'll get my version of the Swedish Fartleks in for the conclusion of the workout. The windy fog’s breath brushes water droplets on my skin, dampening my already sweaty skin with natural perspiration, a blend of water pieces merging in salt and tension. I leave my glasses at home, otherwise they would fog up.
The fog will retreat, slowly, breathing out in a large sigh for the day, peeling back layers of the city to reveal a sunnier disposition, shaking off the Dementor’s shadowy grip on this strange, ever-cold city. The shadow lines will grow crisp as light pours into the small city cracks between crammed buildings, warming patches of concrete. I’ll stand in them, warming my feet and toes, face pointing towards the sun. That will be this afternoon.
But not now. Right now I run in the darkness, as though I’m running from the darkness, through it, weaving my mind through the fog and distance interchangeably. Each block I breathe faster, gasping, trying to outrun the thoughts that haunt and chase me; instead I choose to dance through them. Sometimes the silver shadows retreat in darkness like five-pound weights strapped to each of my ankles, and if I run far enough I can finally let them loose and fly down the cracked sidewalks, free.
Some days the silver shadows build whispery layers of smoke up and down the cavernous cut-outs between the ominous buildings and I run, turning from street to street, caught lost in the frame of the city, unable to escape. It's as though I can’t find a hill tall enough to climb and the tendrils from the silver shadow grab me, winding powerfully around my ankles, eager to hold me back, eager to trip me up. I’ll fall, fall, and fall again, tripping and scraping, hands on my knees.
It’s in these sinewy, shadowing moments that I shake, alone in the cold, not sure when or how or where to turn. My mind reaches out past the grey permanence, climbing through, writing dangerous stories above the layered fog.
Above the grey, my mind dances in patterns and lights, a crazy-anxiety induced splendor. I see the ripples and patterns and currents and I dip, diving into the sad song clouds like a painter with a paint-brush, all too keenly aware of the curse of a magical brain, the curse of an over-active imagination.
In the quiet ruminations, I’ll start into new places and cities, all in my mind, aggregated pictures of things both real and unreal. The city as it unfolds in front of me feels like I'm a player in the dream world of Inception; I can see the layers of the buildings fall back and peel away, fold upwards and in towards each other in my mental space. As I run, I vary my tempo and feel the rhythm of my body darting through it, noting how the collapsing sight spots change as I rush past. In my mind, I’ll paint lines of newly-planted trees across the street; convert traffic lanes to half their size; build cars a quarter of the size of the existing average, and rip up parts of the asphalt to create windy-woven urban green treasure troves of parks and complexity.
In my mind, in my mind – my mind travels backwards in time, untrained in linearity or simplicity, and jumps quickly through pictures and images and ideas. Thoughts fly, darting around inside frenetic space they occupy.
Running and swimming help me relax. It’s as though when I finally move my body quickly enough, I can slow my mind down just enough to start to capture, filter, and sort the thoughts in pieces, weaving my personal dream filter in and out of my lucid subconscious, dipping in with a spoon, carrying out delicious troves, pulling them into space and placing them in pieces on the paper. When I sit, I can’t do it. When I sit still all day, I shudder. When I don’t move, I don’t think the same.
I love San Francisco. It's one of my favorite cities. I pinch myself every day that I'm living here and that so many of my good friends are also in this city. The serendipity of overlapping connections–the new faces I get to meet, the overlaps, the connections–I sometimes joke that San Francisco is the adult version of college: food is close, lots of friends, great ideas, endless things to learn.
But I am sometimes jarred alert from my twenty-something lifestyle when I encounter someone in their late 70's, 80's, or 90's navigating this busy city-world I live in. The other day, I drove down 19th Avenue with a stampede of other cars all zooming down the roadway at 55-60 miles per hour. (The speed limit is 25, which no one follows). The light changed, and we all quickly stomped on our brakes, blurring quickly to a halt and tapping our fingers impatiently on the dash, waiting for the light to turn.
Out of the corner of my eye, a very elderly woman took a step off of the curb with her walker and began to proceed across the intersection. Looking left, I saw the walk sign flashing already: 22, 21, 20. It was a very different perspective: Typically, I find 20 seconds to be interminably long, and I wait impatiently to start up the car again to get roaring off to my destination. For her, however, the woman with her back arched over in the shape of a cane, creeping across the sidewalk, her feet a quarter of the size of the large white painted lines, every four steps were taking her only one line forward. I can only imagine what a difficult, arduous task it is just to walk across a single street.
Crossing a single street.
Then where was she headed?
She didn't make it, either. She made it to the center aisle and stopped, eyes wide open, on the concrete medium made of uneven pavement, standing precariously between two heavily-crowded traffic aisles. The traffic light changed. I had a huge impulse to put my car into park and stop the traffic and get out and help the woman cross the street (and why I didn't do it is another topic for consideration). As I stared, heart breaking, the cars on either side of me started up and roared away, joining thousands of other people in a stop-and-start march down the 'Avenue, from the north side of the city to the south side, connecting to the freeway.
And then out of impulse, I checked the clock, thinking, if I drive fast enough, I can get through 19th Avenue in around 16 minutes.
Wait, what am I rushing for?
I didn't even get to find out where the woman was going.
When she got to the other side, where was she going next?
Watching her, it was as though the scale of the city multiplied ten-fold in my eyes, and a walk across 19th Avenue and into the parking lot and shopping mall became this impossible, arduous task that could only be dared once a week. And perhaps all she needed was fresh vegetables.
The city is a scary, terribly lonely, somewhat frustrating place for people who have old knees, weak feet, degenerating bodies.
I don't think it should be like this. I think that there's a better way to design–and to live–to allow the hustle and bustle and twinkle of the city pulse for energetic 20-somethings and 30-somethings while also allowing for peaceful, easy connectivity between its components and various age brackets.
With regards to landscape and urban design, I think that cars and giant streets are weird. I'm not convinced that the cars we have today are any good at all. I mean, the primary function of my car is to get me from point A to point B in a relatively short amount of time (relative to walking), and for the most part, why should I carry around with me a car that weighs 10,000 pounds and is a pain in the ass to park when all I really need is something smaller, lighter, and more efficient? Why are we still driving giant relics of inventions we made more than 80 years ago, without significant changes?
I'll go off on another tangent. Let's talk about stop signs for a minute. Does anyone see the irony in today's green-speak about fuel-efficient-this and energy-saving-that, and then look at cars and stop signs and realize what a giant waste of energy we're creating? We take giant, massive vehicles and start and stop them repeatedly every few hundred feet. The energy and inertia from stopping and starting a 2-ton vehicle requires an amazing amount of energy. From an energy standpoint, stop signs are actually quite unsustainable. And they are the bane of cars' existence.
But back to old people.
Imagine being born 80 years ago.
What a world today is, filled with fast cars and huge roads and giant stores like WalMart and Best Buy and everything else suburban. Computers, internet, fax, telephones, email, cell phones, iphones, facebook, google, youtube, paypal–this just didn't exist when you were alive.
When you ask someone to describe “technology,” they typically begin by describing something that was born in their lifetime, suggesting that technology is about what was made new and different relative to your existence. We don't consider the shovel, the plow, the wheel, a tractor major inventions; today, my generation considers the internet, computers, facebook, these are the major inventions.
How much more will the world change in the next 80 years? What will my last 20 years on this planet look like? Will I wander lonely across city streets and talk only to my walker? Will we have cities or streets or walkers? Will my brain degenerate? Will I become senile? Will my children and my children's children put me into a home, because I'm too time-consuming and slow to deal with?
When I look at older people, I try to imagine from their wrinkly, outlined faces what they must have been like at my age. Would we have been friends if we were both in our twenties together? Can we be friends now? Were you outgoing? shy? funny? adventurous? Did you like swimming, too?
I share an office with an 80-year old, the ex-CEO of our former company, and I'm working on compiling a history of the firm and his life. Sometimes I pull out pictures of him from when he was 30 and 40 and think, damn, he was a good looking chap. Wonder what life would have been like if we were in the same generation.
And when I think about getting older, I look to him and I wonder, has your body failed you yet? What can't you do anymore that you wish you still could do? What am I wasting my time on? Do you have any great advice to give me?
And where do the old people go after they cross the streets? We all have grandparents and friends and mentors in their golden years, but aside from visiting them once or twice per year, what else do they do?
Where can we find you?
I'm frustrated with the hiding of the old people. How do we take care of the people that served, lived, and made our country in the days before we were even born?
How can we live together, so that I can understand where you came from and hear your stories and perhaps not repeat the same mistakes over and over again? What are we doing for ourselves and our futures? And what is currently happening to the old people today?