I’ve recently started writing with Svtble — so I won’t be posting here any more. Find me over there: www.sarahnotes.com.
I am running through the urban streets of San Francisco, my home for the moment, a hundred thoughts pillowing in and out of my brain spaces, rolling and tumbling around with each other. I haven’t felt this free in a while, and I know that the benefits of a break are reaching into my overworked engines and adding pockets of energy to the spaces that were starting to feel a little bit used up. I suppose we all need an oil change.
The city is strange, a layering of pipes and concrete and slabs on top of each other into an artificial environs, a place we all agree to inhabit, a space within which we all work, a space that we take for granted and forget to see after a while.
I wonder, always, often, why I got this life, how I got picked, arbitrarily, randomly, to be an assemblage of molecules to inhabit this space, and why I wasn’t born in Rwanda, or Chile, or Saudi Arabia, or as another gender, another set of brains. I’m not sure what makes me, ME, but I am here now, and I’m luckier than anything to be able to live here, now, right here. I want to reach out with wonder, stretch my arms, touch the city, feel the space, feel the people, feel the humans, live this life, do as much as I can with what I have, and build as many things as I can in the few thousand sleeps I get while I’m on this planet.
But, I’m running. I’m running, and I’m moving, and things pass by my face about as quickly as the thoughts come and go. I want to capture them, catalogue them, spin them around, push words in and out of space to tell the stories in my mind, the ideas I have, the feelings that circle and spin in between all of the people I get to see and touch and meet and play with.
I’ve just come back from burning man, from a week in the desert, from an experience I’ll do my best to capture but will never really explain, and the first thing I can do is tell you what it’s like to be here, right now, in this space.
The urban world is a jungle, my jungle, my playground, and the rickety structures that append new buildings in construction environments beg me to leap up, grab, twirl on them and pull. I can hang from the bars of the scaffolding and flip into handstands on a dime; the irony is that only a few hours ago, I emerged from the nail salon with freshly painted fingers and stared at my hands for a good long time, wondering what had become of the Playa dust, and what was to become of my hands.
In a surge of familiarity, I found myself rolling on the ground, stretching, bending, touching the world and the earth, figuring out the lay of the land through inversions and pulls and pushes; I needed to feel the world I was living in again. The city is a hard place; a place full of rebar and concrete and cement and closed containers and bulges that demarcate an infusion or release of power and fluid: water, gas, electricity, sewage, garbage, air. So much of our lives depend upon the invisible infrastructures that lie hidden beneath the perfect square saw joints of the sidewalk slabs, unbeknownst to each footstep on the surface above.
Perhaps our bodies play a dance against the city walls, a series of rhythm steps that feel the land beneath and tred-tred-tred-tred in a predictable rhythm; the only thump change the steps down and up off of the sidewalk and ascending a staircase into a building. A slow electronic hum and groan moves us up an escalator, through an elevator; a soft padding of shoes against a dull carpet brings us into an office full of the same electronic buzzing of screens and sounds and people, murmuring.
What are the sounds and rhythms of your physicality? How do you move through the city? What hurts, what feels, what aches, in your body? What needs to let loose?
And I think of the moving office space, and the sore pads on my inner thighs from excessive bike riding, and I skip and hop a couple of quick steps and I reach for the top of another walk sign, slapping the man’s red hand against mine and landing on both feet two feet into the intersection. A tall, slender, slightly crooked black man with shiny skin lifts his baseball cap up and brings his eyes into mine; his creases crinkle and he breaks into a shiny white-toothed smile. I stop, giggling, crouched in a recovery position and my hand automatically flings upwards into a bright wave and smile back. “Nice hops,” he chuckles, and I lift my right knee, leaning forward, taking off. “Thanks!” I grin, running away, leaping again.
The city is a game, if you play it, if you want it, if you feel like it. I’ll wander off the white lines in the road and skip-wiggle my feet across the curbed edges, playing piano along the sewer lines with the toes of my sneakers. Each intersection, each crosswalk, every piece of scaffolding is a place to wonder, to wander, and to play.
I love playing.
I love moving.
I love this city.
You saw someone die?
You ran out of water?
You gave someone a hug in the middle of the street?
You got a hug?
You had sex?
You built something that you were proud of?
You told someone how you really feel?
You followed the twitch in your soul to do something other than what you were currently doing?
When was the last time…?
Is “What do you do?” a bad question to ask?
I love the topic of this question, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad question. Let’s look at the heart of why we ask it, and also, where it comes from. First, we ask the question because we want some way to find out - to hear - the stories of other people. We want to connect with other people and find common shared experiences that tell us whether or not we can understand them, become friends with them, get along with them, etc.
Second, the reason that we predominantly ask the question “What do you do?” — comes from a century of focusing solely on work and security as our livelihood. For the last several decades (or more specifically, 1930 - 1960) it was very important that you find a stable job, and you keep it. Couple that with a burgeoning corporate structure and a society that was embracing larger and larger businesses (and benefits, and corporate institutions), and the easiest and quickest way to figure out who someone was — was by asking what they did for a living.
We realize — and most people know — that asking “what do you do?” as the only question to probe into someone’s fascinating, interesting, complex set of stories is very superficial. There’s a lot more. And I think each of us can ASK more interesting questions and learn, once again, how to tell our stories to each other in a way that lets us connect. Because we’re human, and we’re curious, and we want to know what the other humans around us are, well, doing.
For the people who think it’s a terrible question to ask:
First: I think we (you) owe it to ourselves to come up with several more interesting responses, too, and not just flippantly reply. When someone asks, what do you do? You can respond with a thoughtful answer that dodges the underlying presumption of the question. For example, I could answer: I’m a sister, I’m an aunt. I’m a swimmer. I’m a writer. I’m a designer. I go running. I’m build projects. The way you tell your story can bring into it a lot of layers without saying; “I work for this and this company or client …”
Sometimes, for clarity, I follow up with — “Oh, so you want to know who PAYS me? Well, that’s a different question.” And if we tease it out a bit more, the question, “what do you do, (for a living)” is really asking you — “what are you valued for in this society?” And because money is one way of measuring things, that’s one way to account for — “who finds you useful, and would I find you useful or helpful to me, too?
Lastly, I’m starting to write a book about different questions we can ask in lieu of “what do you do” and I would love to know what questions you like asking people (or getting asked) instead. What’s the best one you’ve gotten so far?
“What do you do?” or 100 other questions you might think about asking … instead.
What’s your story?
I ‘am’ a philosopher, a thinker, an explorer, an adventurer, a writer. I don’t need any credentials to have a desire to learn, and I don’t need a degree to tell me what I can and can’t do. I have a hard time anointing myself as an “expert” in doing or thinking, because it’s always an in-between state, never an “arrived” state. All I know is that I enjoy doing, sharing, learning, and being around other people as curious as me.
Sometimes I find the biggest limitations are not the structures, but just our own thoughts about what we think is and isn’t possible; and an unwillingness to be wrong, to feel dumb, to be new, to experience strange. Once we pare back the fear of our egos and the desire to present ourselves as Somebody, we can have a chance to maybe just, simply, be some body.
On the streets of San Francisco, cars rushed up and down. The lights changed every 24 seconds, telling people to move back and forth, to gear up to the wind and press the gas pedals to carry their large steel vehicles up and down streets. Bicyclists wove in and out of the stop-and-go cars, dangerously and perilously balancing on their forward trajectories, trusting in the physics of a two-wheeled body and the visibility of their beings to dumb car owners.
The sun warmed up the thick cement slab outside of the liquor store. A homeless man lifted his head up off of his sleeping bag and asked me with his face and body for money. I said no, but I gave him a smile, wondering if that was sufficient to help him in any way. I walked, slowly, invisibly, down the strange street. I stopped at the corner. Between the changing lights, I looked down at my red shoes. My feet painted the slope of the ground and pointed slightly inwards. I ticked my right foot in and out in the rhythm of the music pulsating in my ears, feeling the need for my body to dance, to talk into the sky, to not be completely still. I watched a couple hold hands, talking softly, wandering across the street. A black-clad bouncer stood outside of the music venue across the street from me, waiting for people to aggregate in small crowds, to line up, to go in. I knew from experience that inside, the place was dark, a mix of black and red, a jangle of noises rushing in your face, a place to escape for a while and sink into music. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, part of me wanted to go in. The wind paused for a second, letting the sun bake on my skin, keeping me outside instead. Every few minutes a gust of air, the early onset of fog, rolled down the western hills into the street, grabbing San Francisco’s sunshine and hiding it. The sun dipped a little bit behind the arching Monterey Cypress trees, their slanted, jarring branches breaking and withstanding the wind.
I waited, watching the flows of people behind a set of tinted almost-hipster sunglasses framing my face, hipster more in that I found them broken on the street, picked them up, washed them, and super-glued the frames together than because of their style (or lack thereof). I once bought a pair of sunglasses for a hundred dollars and commenced feeling stupid about it for the next month. I hate buying things. Things. They just keep accumulating, each item stacked in piles around my sense of self, choking, drowning my freedom in an effort to contain me. I want to get rid of things.
My black yoga pants warmed in the sun, like a hug, coating my thighs and legs in invisible support. I dreamed of the future freedom that wine would bring, a lazy love of alcohol, replacing the stress of my body with a magic whisper. I sat still, watching the people, curious. The five-o-clock hour brought out the couples, the movers, the cyclists, the grocers. We all met, in this public realm, the street, to do the things that were on our tasks lists, to live the life being of humanity, to be in public, separately, but together.
Across the street, two old men shuffled very slowly in the shade, clutching each other. The shorter man had a harder time, and grabbed the arm of the taller, thinner gentleman. Together, they made their way down the block deliberately, peacefully, gracefully. I caught their motions and tried not to stare, wondering, thinking.
What were they, when they were my age? Was the shorter one the boy of the party, the jokester, the smart-alec, the funny guy? Was he a man who won the ladies over, was he whip-smart, was he full of ideas and smarts? Was the taller one the one who would offer a bemused smile, a knowing nod, a wink? Perhaps he was a scientist, a meticulous man of many thoughts, a silent one, brooding, who would parse out knowledge when necessary, and abstain from conversation when he thought it was too idiotic for his taste.
Perhaps the two were college buddies, folks who had met a long time ago across kegs and noise and fraternities, bonding through small actions over time, embarking on adventures, sealing the fate, outlasting their peers, becoming a unit, becoming the best of friends not by urgency, not by necessity, not out of a crash of worlds, but simply because they spent enough time together that to not be around each other defied the definition of the world they understood.
Perhaps, alternatively, they didn’t know each other until they met in old age, wisdom interchanging across endless chess matches, park benches warmed by elderly bottoms engaged in an attempt to outwit or outlast each other. Perhaps they had a language, a quirk, a way of talking to each other about the beautiful females, the yoga-clad derrieres of the striking youth, a wink and a nod and a barely discernable agreement of the acknowledgement of the tremendous beauty flowing up and down the streets in a coffee-chase.
The world, it turns; the men, our forefathers, us, we disappear, too. We make friends, we make ideas, some of us make a bit more, but then we, too pass, our ideas, our futures, our beings just an ephemeral touch on the skin of the earth.
To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.
- William Henry Channing” —(via kindaloaded)
People first. The most important thing we have – in the world, in our businesses, in our cities, in our organizations – are the people we’re surrounded with, yet we routinely struggle with unlocking the potential of human capital. If technology can change the way we connect, communicate, build, and understand, then we have the power to change the world. The advent of social enterprises is an exercise in understanding how to unlock human potential.
I want to figure out how people work and how cities work, and how we can make them better, through re-inventing the business models of architecture and design, or changing the stories we tell about how design works. I currently work at the intersections of architecture, design, city-building, technology, psychology and motivation. We’re entering a world that’s becoming predominantly metropolitan, but those metropolitan areas are mostly informal: today, cities are being built at an unprecedented rate. It’s been said that cities are the new start up; but inherent in each turn of the world, we still need to figure out ways to connect people, ideas, and resources in ways that enable projects and ideas to prosper.
“Working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.” – Valve Software employee manual
There is a problem in architecture, and design, and people aren’t talking about it. Employees routinely work overtime, until they cannot anymore, and they do not report, nor charge, for these hours. The culture of architecture is one of all-nighters and work-til-you-drop, and to leave at 5:30 is considered sacrilegious and weak. You are not contributing if you do not stay late.
I wholeheartedly and fundamentally disagree. The question should not be, “how many hours did you work?” but “what did you do?” and “how well did you do it?” We should value the product, not this archaic, strange process. Is the work good? Or rather, is it great? I would much prefer to have an employee who accomplished brilliance in 6 hours - and found time to laugh, swim, play, and jump - than someone who had to spend 16 hours to do the same thing. Are we so wrapped up in this idea of time as the only indicator of performance, that we forget what we’re actually trying to do?
Further, the erosive nature of this culture means that we are consistently undervaluing what we do—by not charging for the time and energy it takes to be creative. If we don’t report, or bill, or account for the hours we work, we are all engaged in a game of driving down the value of ourselves, and our professional peers.
I think we’re afraid of actually being different, and wrap ourselves up in the idea of innovation through built work as achieved only as an incredible effort of exhaustive energy. Let’s question this assumption: can you create brilliance in limited time? Moreover, does the insertion of discipline requirements and tangible restraints actually create better productive work? Or do we view employees strictly as an expendable resource, ready to be used up and churned up, with only the best apprentices making it through the exhaustive, laborious years that suck up the energy of our youthful years.
In doing this process, are we losing the best talent? Are the people who could have been involved in architecture and design work leaving the field for other opportunities? Are we cultivating a sub-par class of professionals, the straggles that managed to stay on, the people who don’t actually think that things can be different? Yes, I’m insulting myself here. And you.
Let’s be truly innovative. Let’s find a way to work BETTER. Not “more.” Let’s do a hand sketch when trying to share an idea, and screw the 80+ hour rendering because both accomplish the same goal: getting the idea into the minds of our clients, and then getting that idea built. Let’s figure out ways to achieve our objective—building better worlds, and designing environments for human habitation—and not forget what our objective is in the first place.
In this rush to stay busy, have we forgetten what we’re trying to do?
This was inspired both by experience, and by the recent essay on the Work-Life balance problem of architects by Andrew Maynard. I encourage everyone in all professions to read it. Here’s some of it:
After all, the entire profession cannot relegate itself to working almost exclusively on renos and extensions as I do. Commercial architectural firms are the biggest employers of architects and their slice of the pie continues to increase as we see mid-size practices morph and compress. The vast majority of architects will continue to be employees rather than employers.
There is a strange unspoken, yet ubiquitous, competitiveness within architecture offices. Who will leave first? Who has put in the most hours? Who looks busiest? Who gets along best with the boss? Whose timesheet is full of ‘office’ and ‘admin’ hours?
When I worked for one of Australia’s largest commercial architectural firms I deliberately ignored this internal scrutiny. I did not want to compete with my fellow employees and I did not want to be exploited by my employer. I dedicated myself to producing the best work I could within the constraints of my employment agreement.
I would arrive no earlier than 8.30am. I would have a morning tea break daily. I would never work through lunch. I would try to leave at 5.30pm, ensuring that I was gone before 6pm. I would never work on weekends or public holidays.
This attitude, as expected, put me on a crash course with management. When it was clear that I was going to be uncompromising my employer became passive aggressive and easily rallied a handful of fellow employees against me. I was accused of not being a team player. I was accused of not being committed to my projects. The quiet hostility got to the point where I found it necessary to have my employment agreement front-and-centre on my desk, conveniently flipped to the page stating that my work day ceased at 5.30pm and my right to paid overtime should I work beyond this.
Eventually I surrendered to the realization that I was very much alone in exercising my rights. At no point during informal reviews of my work and attitude was the quality or quantity of the work I produced in question. I performed my contracted task well and received compliments from fellow employees about the care and rigor of my work. There was no evidence that I did any less work than other employees. However, it became obvious that one idealistic graduate commie upstart like myself was not going to change the exploitative office culture of one of Australia’s biggest firms. So I left.