Wednesday, April 16, 2014

All this useless beauty

I've been forming a realization lately, which either means that I'm gaining some form of enlightenment or I'm getting old (or both...it's probably not an either/or situation). I've been realizing that the Internet has become a source of frustration and disappointment.

Don't get me wrong, there are many reasons I love the Internet, even beyond funny cats. I can connect with people all over the world. I can save time and money doing research, planning, shopping and working. I can find information about just about ANYTHING that I want to know.

It's this last one that is actually pushing me over the edge. While I can find information on anything I want to know, it's often the case that that I get more information than I NEED to know. Finding what I want, when I need it, is priceless. Finding 1000x as much as I need and having to weed through it, or often getting distracted by it, costs me whatever time and money it might be saving me.

Worse, for every Upworthy-esque story I might read, there are just as many troll comments or Kardashian-bashing references. People say all kinds of mean things online, mostly to people they don't actually know, without thought to what the impact of their words are...or worse, with intent to hurt. The Internet is an amazing place and one that can suck the light out of you.

A few weeks ago, I got a song title stuck in my mind: All this useless beauty. It's a song by Elvis Costello. I read somewhere that he wrote it after watching people's reaction to art in a gallery, but it wasn't the song that got me...it is that one lyric, the title: all this useless beauty.

I live in an ridiculously beautiful place now and it often amazes me how many people who have lived here for a long time stop seeing and appreciating how beautiful it is. I can round a corner on the freeway in the morning and see the waves crashing against the sand, palm trees framing the Santa Barbara shoreline and I literally stop breathing for a second and sometimes some interjection escapes my lips, unintended. It is that beautiful.

All this useless beauty.

What good is this amazingly beautiful place if people don't appreciate it and protect it? What use is beauty if it doesn't inspire us to do good?

I'm starting to feel the same way about the Internet. There is beauty in the Internet, in what it can do to make the world better. There is connection and emotion and yes, even love. And yet, there is so much ugliness and hate and pain and despair and injustice that it has begun to eat away at me. It can paralyze me and it can distract me from the things that bring me joy and inspiration.

I can only make the world better if I can focus on the beauty. Because for me, it's not useless. It inspires action. It inspires hope. It spurs me on when I'm feeling discouraged. It reminds me that life is beautiful. The Internet has become a place where it's harder and harder to find the beauty, masked over and over again by the ugly. It's not the Internet's fault; the Internet is not the bully. People are. People who hurt and use this tool, this forum, this technology, to spread negativity and banality. The Internet has become the focus of that song lyric for me: all this useless beauty.

I'm going to do something about it. I'm going to step away from the things that distract me and focus on what inspires me. I'm focusing my energy on appreciating and protecting the beauty of the Internet and I'm letting it inspire me to do good. I have a plan, so stay tuned. The Internet doesn't have to be useless beauty.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

What I want to do when I grow up

Yesterday we packed up the kids and headed down to LA for the LA Times Festival of Books. It was a wonderful day and there were many highlights, but for me, the best part of the festival was the interview of Daniel Handler by Ransom Riggs. Early in the interview, Ransom asked Daniel (who I'm trying hard not to refer to as Lemony Snicket), if he always knew he wanted to be a writer. After a joke or two, Daniel responded yes, he couldn't remember a time when he didn't want to be a writer.

It got me thinking about whether there was anything that I always knew I wanted to be. Ironically, as we herded our 6 kiddos around USC's campus surrounded by books, I had to admit that I didn't always want to be a mom ;) If you would have asked me when I was 6 or 7 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you I wanted to be a marine biologist. Around 9 or 10, I had changed my answer to a teacher or a lawyer. In high school, I was voted Most Musical and was awarded a music scholarship to college. As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I changed my major 4 times, finally settling on Speech Pathology, which required me to immediately go to graduate school. When I started my master's program at Penn State, I realized I really didn't want to be a researcher for the rest of my life, and I didn't want to be a clinician either...so I changed my major in grad school and got my Master's degree in education.

Since then, I've been a teacher, a training manager, an instructional designer, a project manager, a sales professional, an entrepreneur, a game designer and now a product manager. Along the way, I was also a college professor and authored a book. And, a surprise to everyone who knew me when I was young, I also have 6 amazing kiddos who I am helping to raise.

Maybe I'll never be able to answer that question of what I want to do when I grow up. Maybe that's just part of who I am, curious and open to new opportunities. I know that I want to leave the world a better place than I found it and that I want to spend my days passionate about what I do. Maybe that passion in me isn't fueled by one career, but the challenges presented by a varied and unknown path of diverse accomplishments.

If I had to answer that same question from Ransom Riggs, I think I'd answer it this way:

There's never been a time when I didn't love to learn. I love the challenge of trying something new and not giving up until I succeed. I always knew that I'd find a way to fill my days trying to make the world a better place. At different times, that has looked like different things. As the world changes, so must I if I want to keep trying to make it better.

That's what I want to do when I grow up.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Learning through "infuriating feedback"

One of the things that I'm most passionate about doing well when designing learning is providing feedback. In immersive design, practice without feedback is useless, and often can reinforce the wrong behaviors. For example, if you're trying to perfect your golf swing, heading to the driving range and hitting a bucket of balls without the guidance of a golf pro to help critique your form may lead you to practicing a whole bucket full of bad swings. 

Yet very rarely do any of us perform a task in a vacuum; we're constantly bombarded with feedback, both subtle and obvious, that reinforces what we're doing well and discourages us from continuing less than stellar behaviors. We love hearing the good stuff, getting that positive reinforcement. In game design, quick victories are by design to make players feel good, feel confident, hoping to hook them in to continue playing even as game play becomes more difficult and complex, and victories and positive reinforcement are harder to come by. In "real life," the same dynamic exists. I love to hear the feedback of people after I speak, to hear how something I said struck a chord or helped them make a connection or see something in a different light. Even better, I love when people compliment my kiddos, as that provides me with some positive evidence from non-biased sources that I'm doing ok in the toughest job that I have.

Negative feedback, critique and even punishment surround us every day too. I am always amazed as a mom about how often I have to say, "chew with your mouth closed," or "put some clothes on," or "put your dirty laundry in your hamper, not just on the ground next to it." More subtle things, like a look from my boss or my husband, are enough to make me pause and consider what I just did to elicit that reaction. In game design, negative feedback design creates for interesting play dynamics; losing points, finding yourself in a death spiral that you just have to wait out, or an abrupt game over when you make a bad decision are all ways to provide critique to your play performance and prompt you to try again and do better.

This continuous flow of positive and negative feedback help us learn and shape our future behavior. Other factors contribute to our decision-making, but ultimately, it is the balance of potential risk and reward that are in constant competition to determine the decisions that we make, and we depend on this river of feedback to help us determine if we're on the right path.

Which leads me to the best boss I ever had. 

Imagine you're at work, managing a big project and people and faced with situations and decisions that are new to you. You have a one-on-one with your boss and you go in prepared to describe the situation and get insight and feedback on how to proceed. When you enter the office, your boss is nose to the laptop and barely acknowledges you're there. You know that you have limited time, so you ask if you should get started. "Yes, go ahead," your boss says, still not looking up from the laptop. 

You start describing the current status of and issues with the project. You describe what you've done so far to resolve issues as they've come up, and you end with the current dilemma and request advice on how to proceed. 
To which your boss replies, still not looking up, "what do you think you should do?"

Infuriating. If I knew what to do, I'd just do it! I want guidance, I want insight, I want feedback!

I had a couple of meetings that went exactly like this with my boss. Every time I left those meetings, I was pissed. How rude! What am I supposed to do? Why didn't my boss give me any advice?

And yet...

I was getting feedback. My boss was saying: "you don't need me. You actually know how to proceed. I trust you to figure this out. If you make a bad decision, that's ok, you'll come back to me and I'll repeat this again and you'll try something new, until you find the right answer."

It was these "non-feedback" meetings that gave me confidence to make decisions. They helped me learn to reflect, consider options and take my best guess. Sometimes I didn't make the best decision, but often I did. As I worked with my boss longer, our meetings became less about resolving issues and more about personal development and strategy. 

Coaches, mentors and managers can give helpful advice and guidance in some situations, but the best way they can be leveraged is to challenge you to do your own thinking and growing. When you're designing practice in immersive learning, consider designing with infuriating feedback: opportunities for reflection and safe failure. Not only will you build confidence in decision-making, but you'll be teaching leadership and reinforcing risk-taking and experimentation. 




Sunday, March 23, 2014

Life in bloom

Another reflection at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara this morning. Today's post is in honor of Spring.
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My husband John and I have become infamous among our friends and family for taking pictures of ourselves, selfies, on the beach. After one photo posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, my sister commented "How many beach selfies can one couple take?" My husband replied, "I don't know, but I'm willing to try to find out in the name of research." The real reason I take and post these pictures isn't  in the name of research but more to do with gratitude.

Springtime in Santa Barbara is very different than springtime where I grew up in Michigan. While Southern California enjoys flowers blooming and birds chirping year round, the signs of spring are hard won near the great lakes. While here we count the days since the last rain, I remember growing up in Michigan in winter when the news broadcasters had a counter on the screen ticking off the numbers of days since we had seen the sun. Winters were harsh and we anticipated spring much like hungry bears coming out of hibernation, but we weren't looking for food. We were looking for crocuses.

If you don't know what a crocus is, imagine a tiny, delicate flower, usually purple or yellow, popping
up through melting snow. Yes, often these little flowers pushed up through ground still covered with snow white flakes, proudly waving the banner that Spring is Near! on their tiny petals. More reliable than that fickle ground hog and more constant than the first robin picking the ground for worms, crocuses were an undeniable beacon of the imminent spring and a reminder that growth and renewal are always possible, even when the winter has been long and bleak.

I know that every life has ebbs and flows, ups and downs, dark winters and jubilant springs. I know this in my head, the rational part of my brain that manages my expectations and helps me steer a course to my goals. But when you're in the low times, the times when all you see is grey and it stretches ahead of you without an end in sight, it's hard to fathom what it will be like when you aren't in that endless winter. For many years, it was hard for me to imagine being comfortable in my own skin, hard to imagine feeling light again. I made mistakes that spiralled me further down, my inner compass broken, pointing me farther into the snowy woods instead of out into the sunny fields.

Sometimes change happens all at once, dramatic and jarring. Sometimes hope appears like a crocus in the snow and reminds you that spring is just around the corner. My winter ended like that...first some crocuses, then daffodils, then tulips. Except it was me finding Unitarian Universalism, meeting John, and moving to California...and suddenly it was spring and my life was in bloom again.

That's what those pictures on the beach really are: they are my testament to my renewal and my celebration of this springtime in my life. Those beach shots are my appreciation for the love and light in my life, knowing where I was and how hard I've worked to get where I am now. I am joyful and grateful and that has manifested itself into a series of pictures I've taken over the last two years of John and I at the beach.

We all have things that give us hope. Listening to the ocean waves, hearing a child laugh, taking a run...all of these things can make us feel that glimmer of hope and a sense of renewal. Whether you need a break from a bad day or a spark of light in a long dark period, we need to be vigilant to notice the things that bring us joy and raise us from the low times.

And while I know, like any good Game of Thrones fan, that Winter is Coming, as it always is, these pictures that I take will be my reminder of what springtime looks like and my incentive to weather the cold, grey days because sunshine and flowers, probably crocuses, will soon reappear.






Wednesday, March 5, 2014

TMI

I'm on a panel tonight on information overload at an event for the Association for Women Communications in Santa Barbara. A few days ago, we held a quick "panel prep" meeting, and as I listened to the other women on the panel describe their professional focus on helping people manage not just information overload, but finding balance in their busy lives, I couldn't help but feel more like one of their typical customers and less like someone qualified to share the stage with them.  Six kids, full time job, my book just out...I could use some expert advice on information overload!

I've been reflecting on how I manage my life, my engagement with social media and my interest in technology. I don't think I've ever really thought about it, but I have implemented some strategies to keep me sane. I'll be talking about these tonight, but as I'm preparing for the panel, I thought it might be useful to capture some of the ways I find balance and how I've learned to manage too much information.


1. I don't watch TV.
Seriously, we don't even usually have the television on in my house, and if we do, it's usually one of the kids watching something on Netflix. I don't have the news streaming in the background, I don't have a television in my bedroom (an neither do any of our kids), and if there is a tv show that I want to watch, we watch it streaming online. I haven't watched tv for years, and I have to say, I haven't missed it.

2. I have a separate Twitter account for news.
I don't think it's unusual for people to have multiple Twitter accounts, but I have two: one for news monitoring, and one for everything else. If I want to know what's going on in the world, I check my news account and monitor the feed. I could also use Tweetdeck or another filtering tool for this, but I have found that having a separate account is easier for me to manage, and allows me to moderate what information I take in, when.

3. I don't use a computer at night.
I do use my phone and iPad, but I have found that they are much easier for me to put down. I also typically use my mobile devices for playing games at night, if I use them at all, so I don't usually take in new information while I'm using them. I find that when I'm on my computer, I tend to spend more time at night working, when I really need to disconnect and rest. This policy also allows me to honor my next strategy...

4. The evening is for family.
I spend most of my day on my computer. From the time I get home until the kids go to bed, my time is focused on them. There were many years, especially when I first started my company, that I never turned off my computer, never stopped working. It was brutal and impacted everyone in my family. Over time, I've learned to separate my work time from my family time. It has made a huge impact on me, and has made the time I do spend working more productive, because I'm always working against self-imposed deadlines.

5. If I'm feeling overwhelmed, I go to the beach.
I'm lucky; I can walk to the beach from my house, so when I get that overwhelmed feeling, off I go. The beach may be it for me now, but in the past, taking a bath, working on a creative project, or playing a game were all ways I could decompress. Everyone has something that takes them from hectic to calm; find yours and use it liberally.

6. Understanding the value I get from social media.
Facebook and Twitter go on, and are no worse off when I take a break. Stepping away sometimes actually gives me more perspective on what value social media brings to me. It helps me set boundaries and "rules" for what information I subject myself to and when I open those gates. Sometimes when I see the negative stuff, I have to remember that 1. I have a choice of what information I allow in, and 2. People who are negative and hurtful through social media are likely also that way in real life. If I wouldn't have a drink with them in real life, why would I "hang out" with them through social media? Block, unfriend and unfollow are great curation tools for TMI.

7. Quiet and focused energy.
Yoga is my friend. A brisk walk or workout is an active way to clear the clutter in my head, but taking a few minutes to meditate can also help me refocus. They both really do the same thing for me: extract me from the information stream and help me focus on my health, energy and what's really important.

I'm sure I've employed other strategies that aren't coming to mind, and I'm also sure that you all have even better tips and advice to share. Please add your own information overload strategies in the comments, and I'll share them with the panel tonight!


Sunday, March 2, 2014

It's a sin


Today I served as worship associate at USSB and read the following reflection on sin, sloth and service.
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I recently visited Las Vegas for a conference, and it struck me that Vegas is a vacation destination that promotes sin as it's main tourist attraction. It is Sin City after all, with the tag line "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," as if anything that you do in Vegas is understood to be ok even if it's not ok anywhere else.

Vegas really banks on the allure of the "sexy" sins in the Seven Deadly Sins list: Greed. Gluttony. Pride. Envy. Lust. Everywhere you look in Vegas, you see the promise of these sins in excess, from the  photos handed out on the sidewalks that most closely resemble trading cards of scantily clad companionship for an evening, to the adult version of sippy cups filled with frozen mixed drinks, to the urgently blinking, ever present lights of the slot machines promising the possibility of riches. Even wrath is starting to make an appearance on The Strip; there are ads everywhere for gun ranges where you can fire machine guns and high powered assault rifles to work out your aggressions.

What's interesting is the Deadly Sin that doesn't feature in the advertising for Las Vegas: sloth. Sloth is not a sexy sin; sloth represents laziness, inaction, wasting time. It's funny, but Sloth is the sin I'm most offended by, and the sin I fear most for myself.

I walk through most of my days feeling an internal pressure to do more. Get more work done. Do more housework. Spend more time with the kids. Finish that knitting project. Write another blog post. Schedule that appointment. The To Do list never ends, and at the end of each day, I usually make a list of what I didn't get done to set myself up for failure the next day. It becomes a never ending cycle. While my intentions are always pure in seeking a sense of accomplishment, the truth is, I know I'll never do everything I want to do. I'll never solve every problem and I'll never feel good enough. I'm forever seeking that golden ring of achievement beyond reproach, especially from myself.

I once had a conversation with a good friend who asked, "do you think you will ever feel satisfied?" And I wanted to answer yes, but when I thought about it, I couldn't think of a condition or state when I would feel like there was nothing left for me to do. There are small moments when I feel a glimpse: when ALL the laundry is done. When I received an award for my book. When I sold my company. When another parent compliments me on one of my kids. I feel for a moment like I've accomplished something meaningful. And then I start reviewing the list of what else I need to do. I'm constantly trying to outrun the shadow of sloth.

What drives this feeling in me is a desire to change the world, to leave this place better than I found it and to be a good example to the people I'm raising into adults. One of those young people is traveling on the YRUU trip over spring break to the Hopi reservation, and her trip has sparked anew my own To-Do list for service and activism.

The opportunity for activism was one of the things that appealed to me when I attended my first Unitarian Universalist service. Not just the opportunity, but the explicitly stated value of action for UUs. Here at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, our mission is "Living with integrity, Nurturing wonder, Inspiring action." Inspiring action is one of the three components of our mission. How better for me to inspire action than by example? How better for me to change the world than with others who want to do the same?

If one of the core values held by Unitarians is action, then sloth may be our most deadly sin. And more, I wonder, if Unitarians are attracted to action as a spiritual practice, is this feeling of never doing enough common in our membership? From the friendships I've made in this congregation and from my relationships with the ministers and staff here, I would guess that I'm not alone in my feeling that I always have more to do.

As I think about this pressure to do more, and as I look at the teens preparing for their mission trip, I am reminding myself that my action, my contribution, my efforts are measured not by one rally, or signed petition, or service trip, but by the values I hold and the way I engage with the world every day. Today, that might mean having a dance party with my 7 year old or finishing the laundry or giving my husband a break and cooking dinner for once. Tomorrow, that might be me attending a rally or speaking at an event for women in technology or mentoring a young person interested in game design. All of these things will in their small way make the world better. I need to keep reminding myself that showing up with good will and intent and living my values are ultimately what makes the world a better place.

Maybe Vegas has it right. Just like the allure of Vegas in allowing us to dip our toes into sin a little bit without abandoning our values and responsibilities, relaxing every once in a while might just be the break I need to remind myself that even if I don't accomplish everything on the list, allowing myself time to play, rest, reflect and take a deep breath aren't symptoms of sloth but are actually necessary to make me whole, balanced and able to take on tomorrow's to do list and the world.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Product trumps marketing: Stop telling me Goldie Blox is revolutionary

As the only football lover in my house, I used all kinds of tactics to lure everyone in to watching the Super Bowl with me. Snacks work, and so does the promise of a showcase of some of the best commercials of the year. So together we sat yesterday, me watching/tweeting the abysmal game, John looking up how to build our new house (another blog post on this forthcoming) and the kids grazing on a buffet of snack foods and gathering for the commercial breaks to critique the ads.

When the commercial for Goldie Blox came on, I not only paid attention to the commercial, but also to my 7 year old daughter's reaction. She is the target audience for Goldie Blox, my princess who loves to read, create art, hike, cook and build things. She received Goldie Blox as a gift for Christmas, and she knows that it's supposed to inspire her to learn engineering and math and engage in problem solving. Except...it doesn't. And as we watched the ad together, Sallie simply said as the commercial ended, "I have that toy. It's not that fun."

Exactly. And that's the problem with Goldie Blox in general. It's a great story, and it's marketing is targeted at adults who want their daughters to know that they can do or build anything. It sells itself as the solution to parental guilt. It tells parents, "you don't want to discriminate against your daughters in the toys you buy them, do you? Buy this toy to teach your little princess that she can do anything that boys can do."

There are so many problems with this. For one, Goldie Blox are still overwhelmingly pink and feminine. So much for "disrupting the pink aisle." But if you look past the feminization of non-gender specific activities, if you accept that maybe the first step in getting girls interested in STEM education and careers is by making them pink, there is an even bigger issue, as my 7 year old so simply noted: Goldie Blox are "not that fun."

The commercials, both the Super Bowl spot and the Rube Goldberg machine video that went viral where the use of Beastie Boys' "Girls" was used and is now in a legal dispute over copyright infringement, show girls creating all of these elaborate contraptions to complete simple tasks (as a designer, I could also cast a mark against them for promoting "over-design," but there are bigger fish to fry). None of those things are actually possible using the Goldie Blox toy. As an instructional designer and a game designer, one of the things that I talk about a lot is replayability. A game isn't much fun if you play it once and win...what's your motivation to play it again? And that's basically what happens with Goldie Blox. A few simple pieces that can be put together to create a contraption, following the accompanying story about Goldie, and then the toy is done. Boring. Not obviously replayable. Not that fun.

My 7 year old daughter has the luxury of having older brothers, brothers who play Minecraft and have a bazillion LEGOs and who have Snap Circuits. We are also a "maker" family that builds robots and upcycles old cake pans into lights, who sews each other presents and that has a hot glue gun on the ready next to our spare circuit boards and googly eyes. We often discuss as a family what 3D printing projects we want to take on, and whether or not it's worth getting an Arduino kit (it is). She sees me building and making things right alongside "the guys" and coming up with my own solutions to science, math and engineering problems. She does enjoy the pink aisle when we visit a toy store, but she also enjoys figuring out how to solve a problem when we're building something.

I see a lot of people praising Goldie Blox as revolutionary. Ugh. Do these people have a 7 year old daughter? Have they tried to play with Goldie Blox with a little girl? More than once? Yeah...not that fun. Just because the marketing messages tell you that a toy is revolutionary doesn't mean it is. Just because you make engineering tools pink doesn't mean girls will want to use them. If you want to get girls into STEM, then don't make it about them being girls. Give them an interesting problem to solve and the tools and support to solve it. Inspire their creativity and their problem solving skills to address an issue that they are passionate about. Don't tell girls that they need different toys than boys, or reinforce for boys that LEGOs or circuitry is only for them because they aren't pink. Stop reinforcing gender bias through color and marketing. Girls don't need separate toys to learn science and engineering, they want and need role models.

You aren't supporting a revolution in girls' involvement in STEM by heaping praise on Goldie Blox. You are supporting gender differentiation in non-gender specific activities, and supporting a company that's making a pretty crappy toy. Just ask a 7 year old girl.



More articles on Goldie Blox:
Another girl's review
Another take on dumbing down engineering toys for girls