Hila Mehr

Please Stop trying to change the world

I just finished Vivian Gornick’s wonderful book on how to write personal narrative, called The Situation and the Story. In it, Gornick explains how crafting personal stories with broad appeal—rather than boring personal anecdotes (the “I guess you had to be there” stories)—requires detachment. Only by putting some distance between ourselves and our own personal drama can we gain the perspective we need to tell our stories clearly.

It’s an interesting concept that applies far beyond the intimacy of the personal essay. For example, detachment (perspective) is what Israel and Hamas do not have right now. Or any country (including ours) that is busy bombing another. It’s what the sobbing Argentinians didn’t have at the World Cup final. It’s what we lack when we get an annoying email and succumb to the short-term satisfaction of a snotty answer rather than long-term understanding of the damage we might cause. In fact, detachment is what almost no one in power is able to sustain for fear of facing a reality too different from the one they portray.

We social innovators worship the power of stories. We tell stories of our origins, of our missions, of the people we want to help and the dynamics we want to change. And we have a tendency to sound as if we’re the first ones ever to try to make the world a better place.

We need some detachment.

I was talking to a young interaction designer recently who bemoaned the fact that every startup she encounters has the obligatory “we’re going to change the world” portion of its mission statement, whether the mission is to make potholders or a new app for parking or an innovation that ends poverty.

Saying that doesn’t help. It’s too generic a problem to solve, too lofty a goal to ever know is reached. It’s added fluff in a space already filled with hot air, where anybody can say anything and, by virtue of having said it, believe it to be true. It’s the polar opposite of the scientific process, in only things that can be tested are accepted as true.

But the scientific process is not solely responsible for human progress. Our advancement has been due in equal measure to dreamers who have the courage to say that something is coming when it has not yet, and the agency to make the things they say will happen come true. That requires detachment.

We are told to find our passion and follow our bliss. We’re told that commitment and intention are as important as experience. We’d be wise to remember as well that whatever we can think of, someone has likely thought of before. I am humbled by that, and by the difficulty of changing even one person’s life, let alone everyone’s.

It’s easy to see when others need detachment from the things that possess them, but a revelation when we see it in ourselves. I have spent my life struggling to accomplish things – only to misplace myself among the things I accomplished. I’m not trying to change the world, only to find a place to contribute in it.

Empathy begins with language

Lucy Kellaway writes funny commentaries on business in her podcasts for the Financial Times. On the 16th of June, in one called “Descent Into Drivel is a Sign of Apple’s Fall” she takes on the language of Apple’s recruiting ads as a sign of its impending demise.

Her point is well taken. Apple says they’re looking for a “thought leader” – an expression so overused we hardly notice it but as she says, “What IS that? I have trouble leading my own thoughts”. And, they have posted an ad that lists “22 bullet points for someone to design batteries”. Now, Lucy claims, Apple “has become at least as Kafkaesque as everyone else”.

For Steve Jobs, language was part and parcel impeccable design. He kept (or so we think) the corporate BS at bay. For large corporations, language is a big part of what customers or potential employees buy into. It’s character, trustworthiness, experience, values, consistency and likability all rolled into one.

On the other side of language as “let me tell you about myself while I pretend to be talking about you”, is language as a form of empathy. Oftentimes, as the place where empathy begins. Speaking in a way that includes “others” is the way to prove we want them to understand, to come along, to be a part of our world. It’s the way we demonstrate sensitivity to a different reality. It shows we’re capable of listening, that we care enough to learn to speak a language other than our own and really don’t want to be surrounded only by people like us, who think we’re smart and don’t mention when we have no clothes.

But what about in our world of social innovation? Shouldn’t our pure souls and lofty ideals be obvious to the like-minded people we want to understand us? And, certainly to those that we want to help?

The answer is no, of course. In truth, we’re as guilty as any group of lawyers or engineers (maybe more so) in our use of jargon and short hand codes that help us identify and evaluate each other’s place in the tribe. What is social innovation anyway? What’s impact investing? Human centered design? Changing the world? BOP? Mission-driven? Take any of those expressions out of context and it’s clear how unclear they are. 

Language can keep people out, creating barriers to understanding, support and collaboration. It can have exactly the opposite effect from the one that’s desired. Without knowing it, language can say, “We’re a special group, we use complex argot and if you don’t get it, you’re not one of us. Without meaning it, your way of speaking and writing can say, “You’re too poor”, “too uncool”, “too young”, “too old”, “you didn’t go to the right school”, or even, “you’re just too dumb to get what we’re talking about”.

Entrepreneurs with a mission tend to think of language principally as a way to explain themselves – to attract supporters, to stand out in a crowded funding frenzy. Or to get the attention of whatever key partners or team members they need to succeed. They’re right about that, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Expressing ideas in a way that people hear and understand them is a skill that takes time and effort to master. Just ask a few dozen social entrepreneurs what they do and why it matters and listen to them fumble for words. 

It may be entertaining to poke fun at something as seemingly unimportant as a recruiting ad from Apple, but Lucy is right, it can signal the beginning of downfall. Obtuse, bureaucratic language may result in Apple’s no longer hiring brilliant iconoclasts – the mavericks who don’t fit the mold. Without people who “think different”, Apple will be just like any other company. It will lose what made it great.

The lesson here is for all of us. As Social Innovation and Social Design mature, as we develop more short-hand language to communicate with each other, we risk making outcasts of those who are not like us; the diverse people we need to recruit if we are to be successful, and of those we hope to help.

Design for Social Innovation, Moving Past the Assembly Line

The most pressing challenge businesses face isn’t finding new opportunities for growth and market share; it’s changing the way they approach their challenges in the first place. And there’s no better way to change that approach than through design for social innovation.

The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces both people and processes into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change. 

 I’ve seen this same pattern at every type of company I’ve worked with. Want to reboot your culture and re-engage your employees? Hire an outside consultant. Need to innovate? Create an innovation lab. These efforts won’t produce long-term results any more than ordering salad for one lunch will improve your overall health. Without deep, systemic change, things revert to the way they were. One way to identify the symptoms of this is to count the number of committees and task forces a company has – or the commensurate number of outside consultants. A task force for employee engagement means the employees aren’t engaged. A task force on innovation is proof that there is none. Ditto the committees devoted to better communication, sustainability, or inter-departmental collaboration.

 That’s the goal of design for social innovation—a human-first approach centered on large-scale systemic change and complex levels of engagement that help companies keep pace with the social and environmental forces surrounding them. One of the most exciting examples of this is Medtronic, the world’s largest manufacturer of medical devices, and a darling of Wallstreet for decades. They saw millions of people in India who could not affort to be tested for heart conditions let alone afford a pacemaker, and made it central to their growth strategy to develop an affordable test, and an affordable product. This is design for social innovation – in the process of helping millions of underserved people lead healthier lives, they open up huge new markets and develop a breakthrough product at a pricepoint that will enable them to expand to other underserved markets around the world. This kind of transformation is not done by setting up a committee with no authority to create change, it is done by making it key to what the entire company stands for.

Design for social innovation works from the inside out, which is the only way that real change ever happens. And the result is people who see uncertainty as a stream of opportunities rather than a barrage of disruptions.

Of course, design for social innovation is messy, imperfect, and difficult to measure, since it’s concerned more with mindset and approach than quantifiable output. That makes it scary for established businesses. (The closed-mindedness can work both ways. Too many social-innovation experts, including many of the exciting young people entering the field, are so set in their biases against traditional business that they risk creating their own social-innovation silo and, thus, changing nothing.) Still, I think the onus is on business executives to accept that change is inevitable and that they can either be agents of it or victims of it.

 You may have seen the following quote passed around on social media: “CFO asks his CEO, ‘What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?’ CEO answers, ‘What happens if we don’t, and they stay?’” Design for social innovation is the answer to that dilemma. 

truck with grass

You Gotta Get Out More

Why being humbled by nature will make you a better social innovator (and a better human).

I was knocked out by the responses to my recent post on “Creating our Way to Well-Being”, particularly by the number of people who shared their relationships with nature. And, I was saddened by the stories of glorious times in nature relegated to childhood, of the common realization that being in nature does calm and heal – yet the assumption that being in nature is rare, not real life, but a diversion from real life.

One question, from Connor Driscoll, made me wonder with him again:

“Thanks for posting! I think this applies to everyone who desires to truly live and not just go through the motions each day…Cheryl, why is it that appreciation of nature is so overlooked?”

The short answer to that all-important question is, I don’t know. It makes no sense and is likely to be our fatal flaw as a species. The longer answer is, maybe because people haven’t experienced it, because modern life leaves no time for it, or maybe that something inside us knows but has forgotten, in the way that we’ve forgotten how to be empathetic and need to be taught again. Humans seem to think we’ve conquered nature (been there, done that), used it for our own needs and that it’s not as relevant today as keeping up with friends on facebook or twitter.

Thanks to Connor, and a trip I just took to the Andes mountains and the Amazon Jungle in Peru, I’m back with a request for you all to get involved.

Nature is amazing wherever you see it, from the dandelions that find purchase in the cracks of a city sidewalk, demonstrating a will to live and adaptability that inspires awe, to the trees on our streets that suffer the indignation of a thousand dogs lifting their legs on them, or the exotic flowering bushes from foreign lands that neighbors plant in their yards to make them special, without understanding that it’s native vegetation that supports our local ecosystems, not the stuff that comes from WalMart.

Nature found in national parks is breathtaking – so exciting, in fact, that we are usually forced to see it in the company of hoards of other tourists. It makes nature like a freak show – something so out of the ordinary that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime check off (Yes! I visited Yellowstone!! I have the tee shirt!!!). Stare at the buffalo from your car, don’t feed the bears, look at the strangeness and rarity of it all.

Then there is nature “in a box”, like at the California Academy of Sciences, where natural environments and their citizens are carefully recreated for millions of visitors to see. Wonderful as a learning opportunity and as an introduction, but heartbreaking if it substitutes for the real deal and is the only exposure to nature that visitors get. It’s nature controlled, tamed, put on exhibit as an amusement and diversion for city folks. It is my darkest fear that that will be the only wild nature left to us one day.

Most of what I suspect young Americans have seen is the nature that humans have manicured, restructured, contained. It’s nature at a scale that will make everything else you worry about small.

Nature in Peru is life changing. The Andes mountains take your breath away (literally) with their beauty and altitude. The Amazon is the largest contiguous rain forest left on earth, called the lungs of the planet because it’s so important to our survival. Until you have stood in the jungle looking up at trees as tall as many urban buildings, filled with the sounds and sights of birds so colorful and rare they could be cartoon characters, with snakes and wild animals all around you watching with eyes you cannot see. Lagoons populated by electric eels, caimens (alligatorid crocodylians of course) and prehistoric stinky birds with claws on their wings. No app, no virtual reality, no game, no sci fi movie, nothing viewed on any screen that humans have or could ever invent comes close to the thrill of being among these creatures. 

You should go and see them because they are disappearing, killed by human ignorance and greed. This is my request. Do not miss the trees on your walk to school. But do not mistake them for the majesty of which nature is capable. Get out. See it. (Be a responsible guest of nature when you’re there.) Fight with all your might to protect it. Answer Collin’s question for yourself. Start there. 

We can’t change the world (except to harm it) when we don’t know it. And we can’t serve a purpose greater than ourselves if we are not humble in the face of greatness.

Unreasonable Challenges that are actually quite reasonable:

Some things to think about, to do and to read.

Our guide for the Peru trip was an extraordinary woman of Incan descent named Doris Valencia, founder of Habitats Peru. Get a group of friends together and call her to organize a tour.

On Peru, a fact or two to put this amazing place in context. There have been remarkable civilizations in Peru from at least 3,000 BC – before the Egyptians were building pyramids. There were cities that flourished peacefully for more than 1,200 years (compare this to modern life where we can’t stop having wars for even a few years). The Incas peaked around 1,400 AD, a few hundred years before Shakespeare wrote his plays. These civilizations built cities, made art and left us extraordinary monuments to their accomplishments. Sure, we have cool stuff that they didn’t have but what did they know that we need to learn again?

Be good to Mama.

Pachamama is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. She is also known as the earth/time mother. She is also seen as nature itself. Thus, problems arise when people take too much from nature because they are taking too much from Pachamama.

And next time you need a reminder of how little we know about the world around us, read this.

Sappi Design Partners Awarded Top Honors in Design Industry

This year AIGA, the professional association for design, is recognizing 24 design leaders, among them Cheryl Heller and Dana Arnett, who have been vital to shaping the Sappi brand over the past two decades. Patti Groh, who has been with Sappi for 21 years—first at SD Warren, then Potlatch—has worked closely with both of them, and she reflects on how they have each contributed to Sappi’s success and growth through innovation and design.  

The Start of Sappi’s Ideas that Matter: Cheryl Heller


In 1999, Sappi received a suggestion that we start a cause-related program for designers and end-users. The goal of the program was to recognize design on paper that benefited worthy causes.

Not only would this new program help bring attention to the power of design and communication on paper, but it would also reinforce Sappi’s commitment to designers by supporting their choice of causes in their own communities. And, ultimately, the program would help raise top-of-mind awareness and funds for important social issues.

We still have that original proposal. And, while some of the ideas in it have now grown much larger, looking back to 1999—before anyone else was involved in cause-related marketing—it remains a forward-thinking and ground-breaking idea.

Cheryl Heller was the visionary who led the charge and presented this idea to Sappi. Her concept became the Sappi Ideas that Matter grant for designers who create and implement communication projects for nonprofit organizations in North America. The program has now been running for 15 years and we’ve provided grants to important causes totaling to more than $12 million dollars. Wow.

Cheryl has gone on to create and chair the MFA Design for Social Innovation Program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and is a partner at CommonWise, among other design initiatives. This month she receives the highest honor in the graphic design field, the 2014 AIGA Medal, in recognition of her exceptional achievements, service and contribution to the field of communication design. Here at Sappi, it is our highest honor to say that Cheryl was truly the “first inspiration behind Ideas that Matter.”

Cheryl really did have an idea that mattered and continues to matter to the design community, to nonprofits across the country and to all of us here at Sappi. We’re proud to still be running the program, we’re proud of what the grant winners have done, and we’re proud of Cheryl Heller and her accomplishments. We’ve just opened the call for entries for the 15th year of this program.

Do you have an Idea that Matters?

2014 Sappi Ideas that Matter Call for Entries are open until July 11. For more information on the grant program, please visit our website: http://www.sappi.com/ideasthatmatter

Grants range from $5000-$50,000. You can also download a PDF application form directly from our website to submit your entry.

Mission? Vision? Values? Forget It.

Originally posted on Unreasonable.is

“Rinse and re-use” should not apply to something as important as the expression of your enterprise and its future.

One common misconception among entrepreneurs is the belief (because they’re told repeatedly) that they need to capture their business idea – however radical – in the structured and declarative statements called mission, vision and values. I know this, because I used to tell clients the same thing.

Some years ago, I went to Cairo to lead a three-day workshop for Egyptian entrepreneurs, and included the glossary below as a way to shed light on the confusion around the many forms these elements can take. I share these definitions in the same spirit with which people admit to a time in their lives when they didn’t recycle.

Mission: Why you exist, your organization’s purpose in life.

Vision: Where you want to take the company, what you want to accomplish, how you want to impact the marketplace.

Goals/Objectives: The specific, detailed accomplishments that are necessary in order to make your vision a reality.

Value Proposition: The core benefit that you offer clients, partners, etc. Can change with each customer segment.

Positioning: The underlying platform for marketing and communications. It distinguishes a company from the competition by articulating unique strengths and values.

Strategy: The creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.

Character: The personality of your company. Defines the experience that a customer or employee will have with it.

Elevator Pitch: Fast answer to the question: “Who are you?”

Tagline: Evocative, creative, emotional shorthand for your mission or elevator pitch…depends on communications need and context. Frequently change every few years.

Make sense? I hope not.

First of all, there are just too many pieces – crowded footprints from thousands of marketing consultants making themselves important by inventing new paths to follow.

Second, these are the prescriptions that served the old industrial age model and made it the mechanical monster it is today. Strict rules about what and how to speak shave off all the rough edges that make ideas interesting and audible to us. It’s as if all the worn structures and tired jargon can’t get traction in our brains, and move through them without penetrating. The words for genuinely new ideas don’t exist anymore in corporate speak, if they ever did. It’s like trying to express yourself deeply in a language you don’t know.

By following a formula, we become formulaic, and that simply won’t work for an entrepreneur. New ideas need new words to express them – and if fresh, powerful words are not found they will not be heard, they will not become infectious, and they will never become reality.

What you need and should not leave home without is a promise – a clear, simple statement that explains what you will do, how it’s different, why it matters and to whom.

My definition of a promise is: The commitment that a business makes to each of the people who interact with it. It’s a promise that defines what is unique about the company, and what people will get for their money and their time, whether they are a customer, partner, investor or employee.

A promise is active. It’s what you commit to do and be. Once you make the promise, the behavior needed to make it true becomes obvious and actionable. It may be hard to trust this notion before you do it, but when you have it, all the decisions you need to make flow from it, in the most organic way.

One of the most famous examples is from the Ritz Carlton hotels: “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”

This is a lesson in brevity. In seven words, it sets a standard that is known and can be measured. It says what they do, for whom, and how it’s different. It tells employees how they need to treat guests and it tells guests what they can expect in quality and service. And it doesn’t bother to say they’re in the hospitality business because that’s not what makes them unique.

Doing this well is neither easy nor simple. Most of the time it requires the help of someone who can see you and what you want to do objectively. It’s easy for people to know what they’re good at, and what they are burning to accomplish, but extremely difficult for them to tell how they’re different from everybody else. And even harder to self-edit all the details that feel so important to include but in reality are just the stakes of whatever game you’re in.

However you get to it, if you find your own voice, and language that is meaningful to you, you will have a set of words that, like a poem, makes your heart beat faster, and gives your idea life for all to see. C.S. Lewis said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” In my experience, entrepreneurs intuitively know this. They’re excited by the challenge of finding the words that will not only capture their passion, but also set it free.

It will. It’s true. I promise.

Creating Our Way To Wellbeing

Originally posted on Unreasonable.is

I have felt for a long time that there are giant, simple truths about the way we need to live in modern life that we miss because we’re so busy complicating things.

If this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes gives you a sense of satisfaction, then you’re at least somewhat the same. He said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I’m looking for a unified theory – not of the cosmos, but of a way for life on earth to survive modern times. I’ve tried out a number of theories over time…

Theory 1.

If everyone spent time in nature, we would not have the scope of problems we have.

Think about the impact of that, of what we would come to feel, what we would notice. We would find out we’re a part of this extraordinary ecosystem, we would honor and connect to life on earth. We could not help but put our issues, and our lives in perspective. There is growing evidence for the truth of this. From The Power of Nature: Ecotherapy and Awakening: “A few years ago researchers at the University of Essex found that, of a group of people suffering from depression, 90 percent felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed. Another survey by the same research team found that 94 percent of people with mental illnesses believed that contact with nature put them in a more positive mood. Since then, in the UK contact with nature has been increasingly used as a therapy by mental health professionals.” DUH!

But this is what nature looks like now in some parts of the world. Not everyone has access, or even a tree. This is a photo I shot at the dock en route to the airport in Sierra Leone.

Perhaps this is where it all started – the kind of thinking that has formed our mental models: Evidently one day a man took Socrates out for a walk beyond the walls of the city, tried to get him to sit down under a tree to talk. Socrates said, “You must forgive me, my dear friend. I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.”

Just imagine if he had said, “Holy cow, look at that tree. How amazing, how does it do what it does, think of all the things we can learn from it.” Maybe if it was this tree in Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico, it would have been different. But no. Many people still don’t think they have much to learn from nature. It seems we have to give ideas a “tech” sounding name and bring them up in a windowless conference room in order to appreciate them.

Oh well. But I have not given up.


Theory 2.

If everyone read the New Yorker, the world would have fewer problems. Farfetched you say? Listen to this.

It would mean that everyone could afford it. Everyone could read. Everyone would get their news not 24/7 focused on disaster and conflict and sensationalism, but once a week, filtered by reason and erudition. With time to digest, and time to reflect before making judgements and drawing conclusions.

And here’s a few facts about the average reader of the New Yorker:

-Average Household Income – $116,807
-Education – Graduated College+ 68%
-Employment Status – Full-Time 50%
-Employment Status – Professional/Managerial 45%
-Marital Status – Married 54%

Chicken? Or egg?

But, there’s the cost, at almost $60.00 a year, and the environmental cost of production, not to mention the lack of iPads for 90% of the people in the world…

Oh well. But I’m here to argue for another.

Theory 3.

If every person and organization practiced the creative process, the world would be a far healthier place.

There is a stereotype of the creative personality, and perhaps genius is close to madness, but is it more mad than the civilization we’ve built? David Orr said that, “As homo sapiens’ entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round.”

He’s talking about our entire civilization – the thing we’re most proud of as humans is fatally flawed from the standpoint of sustainability. So who’s crazier, Van Gogh or the rest of us? Aren’t we crazy to have designed this so called civilization? And isn’t it even more crazy that we don’t know how to stop?

Before we go any further, it’s important to define just what creating is. For that, I’m using Robert Fritz’s model, who has written several wonderful books on creativity and how to master it.

The first three steps in the process determine the quality of everything after. What I love about this model is that it is not elitist; it’s not a version only for experts. Having spent my life as a professional creator, though, I can say that it applies there too. This is creativity at a deep, universal, accessible level, applicable to everyone, necessary for survival.

-Begin by figuring out what you want to create. Start with the purpose. It’s amazing to me how frequently people forget these essential steps.
-Next, define the end state with as much detail as possible. What will it look like, feel like, smell like. How big is it? Bring it to life as fully as you can.
-Then, with as much objectivity – and whatever metrics are available, map the current reality. Where are you RIGHT NOW? What is the truth, however ugly. Where do you stand in relation to where you want to be? What resources do you have or not have that you need? The vision maintains optimism – it makes the place you’re going to real. The current state keeps you honest about what you need to do to get there.

And according to Robert Fritz, structural tension is what drives it. The point is to keep this tension – to come to recognize the feeling and love it. Let it drive the forward momentum. Fritz says that artists are continually evaluating and recalculating the distance between where they are and where they want to be.

The really big difference between a technocratic approach and the creative process is that when we create we don’t pretend to have the answer before we get to it. In fact, we relish not knowing – we learn to navigate uncertainty. Which is one of the most important skills anyone can have.

Why is that so important? Because if you look at the interconnected, complex problems we face now, it’s clear, whether we want to admit it or not, that we are completely uncertain of how to change the way we live on this planet. We have lots of ideas for how to eliminate symptoms… but we simply cannot know from where we stand what the impact of removing symptoms will be on the whole system.

Sometimes it helps to understand what creating is by looking at what it’s not.

It’s not design thinking, which tries to provide a formula for something that is inherently not formulaic. Besides, in over thinking, we have lost the connection between design and creativity. There are dozens of books, programs, cases, conversations on design thinking as the “solution” and as the way to innovate. In fact, creating and design have been hijacked by design thinking. It’s been co-opted by business and for the most part, business does not reward or appreciate navigation of the unknown. Business likes to think it knows where it’s going.

Creating is causing something to come into being that didn’t exist before.
Having an idea, realizing it.

It’s not problem solving, which is making something we don’t want go away. Polluted water, poverty, disease. We need to make them go away once we have them. But we find that we make one disease go away only to fight another. Pass legislation that stops one toxin from being sold only to find another, and we are losing the fight. Bucky Fuller says it beautifully here:

But problem solving is the way our society and our institutions approach the future. We are addicted to the notion of solutions. Problem solving feels logical, known, certain and predictable. Just look around at the number of companies that advertise what they are selling as solutions to something.

Because we are more comfortable with problem solving, we take on complex challenges with a technocratic approach. Technocratic approaches seek to optimize incremental improvements through efficiency gains.

Tightly controlled five year plans provide comfort. They look real, and secure. Within foundations, business and government, money is provided for solutions only because someone can create a sense of confidence in what will happen several years out. But of course they can’t.

One extreme example is New Jersey’s Relief Fund, which has gotten a lot of press for missing the mark so radically in terms of getting the money to those who needed it:

-“…federal auditors will examine New Jersey’s use of $25 million in Sandy relief funds for a marketing campaign to promote tourism at the Jersey Shore”
“Sandy Funds Went to NJ Town With Little Storm Damage”

The nature of plans is that they try to predict the future instead of creating it. The Soviet Union is a good case in point. And a great example of the difference between planning and creating.

The truth is, hard as it is for some to accept, there are some things you simply can’t do in Excel.

How creating makes us healthy:

So given all that, how and why is it that creating makes us healthier as individuals, and organizations? What does it teach us? What are the benefits?

1. We learn to clarify and align on vision and purpose. To talk about it. Out loud.
We learn to communicate. We develop relationships. And relationships are the beginning and end of life.

2. We observe the state of reality objectively and without agenda.
We develop a shared sense of reality, we see what’s there, not what we want to see. We see the same things and can hopefully agree about what they are.

3. We learn to experiment and play.
We learn to be less stressed, to feel secure. Good things happen when we play – and when we are relaxed. Experiments are where new ideas come from.

Lean Startup is an example of experimentation at work. Last May the Harvard Business Review ran an article called: “Why the lean start-up changes everything.” According to the article the Lean Startup, “… favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional ‘big design up front’ development.” See?

4. We do and learn from doing.
It gets us out of our heads and into our bodies. When we create, we’re doing, not just thinking, we move rather than sit in chairs all day. Living only in our brains is not natural. And not healthy. And we miss so much of life.

5. It teaches us to make decisions based on what is happening, not a prior plan.
We learn to navigate uncertainty. It gives us sea legs and better balance in uncertain times.

6. It makes us observant, fluid, agile.
Being aware is necessary for survival. We notice. We respond. Jared Diamond, in the introduction of one of his books said that the average New Guinean is smarter than the average Londoner – that the skills and intelligence needed to survive in the jungle are far greater than the skills required to get on the tube and go to the same job every day.

7. It shifts our focus from financial resources to all the other types of critical resources needed for survival.
It gives us more to be grateful for: human capital, social capital, natural capital, physical capital. We know, from so much research and evidence, that money alone is not a motivator. According to Gallup’s calculations, “Actively disengaged employees – the least productive – cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.” And, there is proof all around us that when individual’s wills and interests are involved, when they have an opportunity to co-create, anything can be done. There is no limit.

8. Creating can only take place in the present.
Living in the present has proven benefits; we are aware of sensations, and awareness of sensations can rewire the brain. This kind of rewiring the brain through awareness of sensations is some of the most exciting work being done now with survivors of severe trauma.

9. It gives us an inner joy, a sense of fulfillment, of self-reliance.
It has the potential to fill the void we’ve been filling with junk food and consumptive habits.

Picasso said, “The artist goes through states of fullness and emptiness and that is all there is to the mystery of art.”

Then John Baldessari said, “You have to be possessed, which you cannot will.”

We are all possessed with and by something. And we can all create. So I am sticking to my third unified theory of what we need to survive modern human life.

Being A “Ms./Mr. Fix-It” Is An Approach to Life

Originally posted on Unreasonable.is

In social innovation (and in everything else for that matter), there’s a very important distinction between creating and problem solving. Problem solving is working to make an unwanted condition go away. Creating is bringing something into being that wasn’t there before.

Problem solving can often focus on symptoms rather than root causes, and can be short lived, with unintended consequences. An often-used example in systems thinking is building a new highway to end congestion, only to entice thousands more people to take that highway making it more congested than ever. Or convincing your dog to stop barking only to find out that he really did have to go out. More on dogs later.

Bucky Fuller believed that the best way to approach a broken system is to create a better one to displace it – that working to change the entrenched and accepted status quo is a frustrating and ineffective way to go. And, creating is more personally rewarding any day.

I don’t remember when I became aware of my fondness for fixing things because it crept up on me. Fixing things falls somewhere in-between solving problems and creating new realities. So it occurs to me that maybe it’s a third option, and at least deserves to be a considered one.

Fixing things is creating a new life – or a renewed life – for something that has value, but most of the time, as well-indoctrinated consumers, it’s not our first instinct. We dutifully rush out to buy the next new, sexy technological toy because it’s new and sexy.

Some people only want shiny new things in their lives. I had a friend who refused to eat leftovers because all her food had to be “new”.

Some people only want brand new puppies with eyes like blank slates and no prior history. Others love rescue dogs with soulful eyes and a history that gives them character. (Like the Badass Dogs Brooklyn Animal Rescue who are “Saving Badass Dogs from Idiot Humans”).

We equate prosperity with having new things. We equate youth with it too, which is true, because only when you’ve lived for a while do you start to like your old things better than anything that could replace them.

As a species, we need to shift from masters of consuming things to lovers of fixing things. Take the big one, climate change. Scientists no longer talk about the possibility of avoiding massive changes, we’re in for IT, whatever the IT will be. We can’t make that problem go away, and we can’t, (no matter how much faith we put in technology) create a new reality at the moment. The conversation has shifted to environmental remediation and rejuvenation. That means fixing earth, water and air that have been contaminated, and restoring ecosystems to a healthy state. That would be, as opposed to continuing to find unspoiled places on earth and spoiling them. It’s like getting a stain out of your favorite shirt and choosing not to simply toss it and get a new one. And though it’s about a billion times more complicated, it’s a different and much needed way of seeing things.

Wabi-sabi is a japanese aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It comes in handy when you are fixing things, and is a good way to think when setting expectations for the new version of whatever you’re fixing.

Fixthings_Inside Image

An 1,800 year old Tang Dynasty horse that was broken (don’t ask) and is now back together. Just in time for the Year of the Horse.

Try fixing things: Worn relationships, people, tools, houses, whatever. It takes patience, vision and a love for seeing new life inside something old and bringing it back again. The rewards are deep. After my horse was broken, swept up and put in small pieces into a construction dumpster by a workman, it took me over a year to figure out how to put him back together. But to have him back, continuing his long life, even with his battle scars, has made me happier than I can say.