Tapping In

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Today I got to sit with James Bottom, who runs a startup accelerator on USC campus at the Annenberg School. During my tour of the surrounds, I got to see a whole building dedicated to the many football wins by the USC Trojan — it was there that I learned that a younger James was once the team captain of the USC football team, and he showed me his Rose Bowl trophy. I am not a sports fan, but I am a fan of leadership paradigms embodied by a friend of mine (“Coach Ralph”).

James shared with me a couple of things from his experience playing under Coach Pete Carroll — I had to look him up on the Web, and when I realized that he was the coach of the Seahawks, well … I got the picture that he was a big deal.

The first thing I learned was how James and his teammates were taught to celebrate when they won a game — but only for that evening. Because by the next day, the win needed to be completely forgotten. I thought this to be a winning formula — to let oneself feel the win temporarily, but to not let the win settle into a sense of comfort and complacency. It made me think differently about how being hard on oneself doesn’t mean you can’t let yourself be a little happy with yourself if just for an evening.

The second thing I learned was the concept of “tapping in” to the game. James gestured with his two fingers tapping on the top of a doorsill. It was to signal when entering a game that no thoughts from outside the playing field were allowed into the game — that each player’s undivided attention was demanded to be 100% present on the task at hand. I often experience how easy it is to let my mind wander and let myself (and others) down by preventing myself from being being fully present with the task placed before me.

With respect to the second point, a lot of what James described to me sounded similar to what Andy Grove wrote in High Performance Management with respect to how when you lead, you always need to lead at the top of your game.

So I feel the importance of “tapping in” to the work I have at hand. Good luck with tapping in to the work that you have at hand, too! -JM

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (post from January 18, 2010)

Back when I was at RISD and to get the blog off the ground, I’d post all kinds of things there.  Now it’s a great resource for all things RISD thanks to the great comms teams there. All of my old writings are now gone there, but I wanted to find a particular post given the special day it is today here in the US. Thanks to the Wayback Machine I found it. It’s here, and pasted down below.

I was in the first year of my presidency during that time — it’s a day I remember well as embarrassingly it was the first time I had left the more upscale and predominantly white part of Providence for the first time, and it brought me back to where I originally grew up. It was an important day for me.

Post from January 18, 2010/

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. It is a day where we remember a great leader of our country who fought for civil rights, equality, and possibility. Last year while I was still very new to this area, I had the privilege of addressing the Ebenezer Baptist Church here in Providence, RI. The time was just before the inauguration of our new President, and the mood in the church was calm and proud. I thought it befitting that I post the text of my address a year later, as it helps me remember how I felt a year ago. It helps me remember the important work we do here at RISD in our world. And especially with the dire situation ongoing in Haiti, Dr. King, Jr.’s inspiration reminds me, and I know you as well, of the massive work that still remains. -JM

January 19, 2009 on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Providence RI

Mr. Rosenbaum, thank you so much for your generous welcome and for inviting me here today to celebrate this momentous occasion. The work that you, Representative Almeida, Mr. Walker, Ms. Cook, Reverend Dr. Balark, and the other members of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. State Holiday Commission have done to convene us here today is important and impressive. I’m honored to be here today with all of you on this day of celebration with festivity in the air. Esteemed guests and fellow citizens, please join with me here today in honoring the legacy of one of this country’s boldest leaders.

I was two-and-a-half years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Ten years later I would be the beneficiary of much of the civil rights movement of the 60s and find myself and my neighbors bussed 40-minutes across Seattle from the predominantly black part where I lived, to the predominantly white part of town as the implementation of desegregated schools. The fact that there was a junior high school in walking distance from my home didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but it was clear that the schools in the north were cleaner, newer, and simply better compared to the more rundown schools in my neighborhood. It seemed only natural that the longest stretch of road we would take on the bus ride up north was later renamed as “Martin Luther King Jr. Way.” I imagine that everyone gathered here today has been either indirectly or directly affected by Dr. King work as we celebrate his life here today in this auspicious ceremony.

I am the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design — a community of 2,300 students, and with more than 1,500 faculty and staff supporting them — and like all new leaders, my skills are being tested with the recent global financial situation. Fortunately, before I got started in office I went to a special presidential training course held every year at Harvard where I was able to interact with sixty other new presidents of universities, colleges, and community colleges from around the world. It was there where I learned how to walk into a crowded room and do the “4-step” by crossing diagonally across the room, traversing along one edge, crossing the other diagonal, back across the room and out the door. 4 steps, and I was done. If only all things in life as a president were so simple.

When I think back to what I remember with most significance during my experience at the president’s camp, it was a special presentation on leadership by a respected expert in the field. He told us that everything we needed to know about leadership was in the video he was about to present. I expected some kind of fancy PowerPoint presentation with whizbang graphics and the “ten points of leadership” outlined in careful, bulleted form. So when the lights went out and the images began to form I was surprised, and humbled. Because there, in black and white was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on the mall giving his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech. Of the many inspired lines that Dr. King speaks in his presentation, he says:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

As the lights in the room came back on, all sixty of us presidents sat stunned and speechless in that moment of watching Dr. King. Because leadership is not about the leader, but about the scale of challenges that the leader will face. And although each of us felt the pressing weight of the trials ahead of us, none of us could imagine what Dr. King confronted head-on. The incredible courage for him to step forward with such vision and bravery, as an African-American, says everything about what it means to lead at the highest level of service to humankind.

If you haven’t watched Dr. King’s speech all the way through, I suggest you view it on YouTube**. Yesterday I noted that it was viewed 5,525,247 times. A few hours ago I checked again, and it has now been viewed 75,000 more times, and that’s just on YouTube. Dr. King’s dream is carried forward to the next generation, and his dream will certainly be everlasting.

On the topic of having a dream, becoming the president of RISD is something like a dream to me, but to be frank it’s not a dream I ever strived for. For most of my life I was a passive member of our world. An art-technology geek, that kept to himself. Waiting for the computer code to compile. Or waiting for the wet paint to dry. I was the shyest kid in class through most of my school years, and was dreadfully afraid to stand in front of even an audience of one. I thought it better to stay within my bubble — it felt safe and warm in there. And then my mentors, who kept my bubble intact, all reached the age of their late 70s and 80s … and died. Vanished. For a few years, I grieved. And then realized that I owed them. I needed to live life on my own and find a new path forward as an educator, designer, artist, and a leader so that my mentors might have felt that their efforts were not in vain. We lead, I think, because we owe a lifetime debt to someone else. The lifetime debt is repaid, with another lifetime — yours. Dr. King literally gave his life to all of us, and it is our job to repay that debt.

It is in the shadow of these great leaders that we step forward to lead in our own ways. Dr. King’s legacy – that all people have a right to greatness on their own terms – comes to life for me every day as an educator. I feel the responsibility of opening the doors for students to achieve these dreams every day. In my many years interacting with college students, I have observed over and over that they are not willing to work within a single, practical norm. They have dreams. Big dreams. Inspired dreams. Dreams of their own. It was true at MIT, and I see students’ spirits almost bursting on the RISD campus. In the past few weeks, over twenty RISD students have contacted me — individual students who are reaching for the sky and beyond their traditional disciplines to see new ways to the future of our world. In the past, you may have known RISD as the place to call when you wanted something brilliant to display in your home, or else to get a consult on a creative approach to your businesses. And we still are, 365 days a year making and showing beautiful things as you and your children and grandchildren have certainly enjoyed in our RISD Museum of Art. In addition, today we are also the international magnet for creative agents of change — a place where students are sketching and building cars by hand, designing affordable housing for the third world, greening the campus with appropriate water usage processes, and defining the role of the artist and designer in the 21st century. In our increasingly flattened world, artists and designers will be glocally connected — globally and locally connected. And, as RISD Provost Jessie Shefrin elegantly posits, “in the world.” It is my sincere hope that the numerous “artrepreneurs” that RISD produces annually can help to reverse the pattern of economic decline we have felt in our city of Providence and our state of Rhode Island. Job creation in our country has always been led by innovation and empowering the creative mind. RISD is prepared to engage that challenge.

When I began this adventure at RISD, my last living mentor shared with me something he hadn’t thought of for many years. As a child, he grew up as a young American in one of the ill-conceived Japanese-American internment camps during WW2 that forcibly held over one hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry here in the United States. He recalled how shortly after the war, he was admitted to both RISD and UCLA. Back then, there were none of the on-campus residence halls we have today at RISD, and instead he was given a list of ten places where he could stay here in Providence. Every boarding house took one look at him, and politely said, “Sorry. We’re full.” So, he simply couldn’t go to RISD. A choice was made for him over 50 years ago based upon prejudices. Many of his generation have stories like these to tell; they underline the way the world once was. And it is clear that RISD, Providence, and the world have come a long way … but we still have much work to do. I am passionate about our becoming a society that can accept, and moreover celebrate, differences in who we are. Because we are all one people in the 21st century.

I feel the sense of “one people” in my inbox nowadays. It seems normal and natural to open my email and see a letter from Barack Obama. Granted, it’s the same emailed letter you all get in his mass mailing efforts. But I get the feeling that it really is from him. And I feel connected, and committed to helping to achieve his mission on our nation’s behalf. I feel America reaching out to me, and I’m reaching back. Do you feel it? I felt connected to our country when last week, First Lady-Elect Michelle Obama sent out a message that we should all play an active part in today’s National Day of Service, and when I visited usaservice.org, I read how an overwhelming number of Americans are answering her call. In moments like these, I cannot help but feel excited that many of the major things that were left undone in the last century might finally get done in this one. Because we are working together. Not against each other. But as one team. One people.

Major changes in the world have to occur, and bold leadership like that of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give indication that society DOES move forward thanks to the sacrifice of a select and gifted few. Whether Dr. King would be astonished or merely thankful for the events we will witness tomorrow we will never know. We do know, though, that we are living through proud, proud history tomorrow with President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration and we should savor it. We feel America living up to its greatest ideals and we hope that we will be taken forward in ways that our world has yet to experience. Yet to all that wait to be led by our next commander-in-chief, I say to not waste even a second of time to awaken the leader inside all of you. Dr. King, President Obama, and the world, will need our combined strength and leadership to achieve new, magnificently creative heights for our future together. Thank you, and good luck to all of us.

** A year later, Dr. King, Jr.’s speech has now been viewed 8,340,948 times.
*** 2014 note: the speech has been taken down from that link unfortunately, but it can be viewed here.

Accidental Letter

Maria Popova (aka “Brain Pickings”) gave me a writing assignment for which I did not read the instructions. Whoops! I thought Maria asked me to write an open letter to children of the world, and I wrote it. But when I looked more closely at the instructions, I realized I had botched it. So here’s what I wrote accidentally …

Dear future stewards of the world,

I never really understood the word “steward” when I was a child. It isn’t a big word really — but it is a special word because its meaning is really big, at least for me. 

The dictionary will tell you — or maybe more relevant to your era, a search query will tell you — that the meaning of “steward” includes: “1. a person who looks after the passengers on a ship, aircraft, or train and brings them meals.” And even thought I might be a little hungry while I write this message to you, you can rest assured that I am not asking you to bring me my meal. 

A further search will reveal additional definitions of “steward” that include: “2. an official appointed to supervise arrangements or keep order at a large public event, for example a sporting event.” And that’s a little closer to what I think the word “steward” becomes as you get a little older — pertaining to a kind of power and responsibility “to supervise” which sounds like getting to be the boss. Some people love to get to be the boss — but if you knew me you would know that isn’t me.

I think the first definition is a better fit for how I think it feels to be a steward in the way that I address all of you. The “ship, aircraft, train” needs to be understood less literally as those specific vehicles made of metal, plastic, gears, and computer chips — and to think instead of the earth, your family, your culture, your city as if they were different vehicles that you ride. And the “meals” you serve in those different modes of transportation through life might not necessarily be actual food, but it might be a hand to hold, or a bouquet of flowers, or a timely appearance or a song.

You see, once you realize that you are a steward of your worlds — both big like the earth or small like your family — life gets harder and easier at the same time. 

It gets harder because you feel you have to do the right thing, which is often difficult because it requires extra effort. As you get older you will see there will be fewer people out there who will encourage you to do the right thing. So learning to become resistant to what everyone else thinks around you will help you become a better steward for the primary vehicle that you are a steward to — which is yourself.

It gets easier when you start to understand yourself in relationship to all the various life vehicles that you ride and serve “food.” You’ll be more generous in dishing out servings in some vehicles than others — it will all be a matter of timing. It will all be a matter of experimentation — failing, recovering, failing, recovering. Constantly. And getting comfortable with knowing that understanding yourself in relation to the world is a process of constant, wonderful change — if you are lucky.

So in closing, to the future steward of your worlds, and to the future stewards of *our* world, I wish you many meals served — and sometimes spilled mistakenly, but quickly tidied up and re-served — as you ride the many vehicles of your lifetimes. You’ll find me out here doing exactly the same kind of learning and serving and mis-serving and re-serving as I steward what I came to know over time starting when I was your age. Good luck!

Best wishes,

Classical Leadership


I’m a fan of creative leadership; and I’m also a fan of classical leadership. These two little photocopied snippets were given to me by a mentor roughly four years ago. He’s the quiet, bighearted leader of a small national company — with the kind of humble charm that always reminded me of what David Brooks described to me once. I recall the CEO reaching into his desk and pulling out one of these snippets during one of my visits; and then he pulled the other one (laminated in plastic by himself) off his wall and gave it to me. There’s nothing like the little treasures in life that might come your way … -JM

A Story that Moved Me

Given the speed of life and how everything happens around you from all directions, I find it hard to concentrate. But once in a while something falls from the sky, and you are able to stare at it a bit. And appreciate it. You then can remember why everything matters.

Last week while I was in NY, I had dinner with someone who I could never really forget. It was maybe over five years ago, and at more than a few events. She stood out in the crowd — not a tall person or anything like that. But just her attitude and fearlessness stuck with me. So when I got to have dinner with her husband, I felt lucky to learn more about the experiences in her life that made her who she was. To make a long story shorter, because I know we’re all quite busy, even though I want to stay in this moment, we were talking about how she was about to have her first child. My first reaction was a, “Well, having one child is often advantageous because its a lot less stressful than having many.”

To which her immediate reaction was, “No. I want another. Because my father recently passed. And I couldn’t imagine how life would be if I didn’t have my siblings there so that I could make it through that experience emotionally. I wouldn’t want my child to be left alone after my husband and I passed. I couldn’t stand to do that to him/her.” To think that long and far out. That was a special thought. One of love not just for being in the moment with your child, but the love for one’s child’s entire lifetime until even after you are gone. It was so well articulated, that I felt grateful to see things a bit differently.

I hope this little smidgen of thought is useful to you too — whether you have children or not. It speaks to what I think leadership is all about — keeping things going well after you are gone. Caring well after you are no longer there. Knowing the responsibility of what you’ve started so that it really isn’t about you — but about what they might achieve. -JM

Student, I have a Question …


This is from a June 05, 2005 post on my original Simplicity blog that a reader found still exists on the Wayback Machine here.

In grade school, we normally assume that if we’ve got a question that our parents can’t answer, we ask our teachers. “Teacher, I have a question …” At some point in life (usually before junior high school), you realize that the teacher doesn’t have all the answers. Often times you also find that the answer that the teacher gives … is wrong.

Having answers to everything is an incredible gift. Yet I’m not sure if I know such a person. The smartest people that I’ve ever known seemed to not have any particular abundance of answers, but instead an abundance of questions. Think of the greatest teacher of all — Yoda. Yoda doesn’t have a single answer in any of the Star Wars movies. He’s always asking questions in response to questions. Which begs me to wonder in the spirit of the chicken and the egg discussion … who came first: Socrates or Yoda? Google appears to have no answers in this area.

Perhaps because as your age increases, the number of people that can answer your questions decreases in an inverse proportional sense (i.e. your teachers die and you eventually become the teacher) my theory now is that maybe it is a better idea to look for as many answers as possible when you are young. Heck, if there are answers out there, go and get them! There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t waste time with people that give you questions back from questions you’ve raised, as when you age you’ll have plenty of time (in reality a decreasing amount of it as life is usually finite) to ask yourself questions. Like, what was I doing a second ago that sidetracked me to this place?

  • M. Rodriguez writes, “Many a times, I think the responses fall into one of these attitudes: 1) There are no answers, I’m winging it myself and I don’t really know. 2) You’ll figure it out eventually. 3) I’ll lead you to where you could possibly find the answer. But I really fall into the attitude of like Frank Herbert wrote ‘The mystery of life is not a problem to solve but a reality to experience.'” All the more reason to logout and go outside.
  • Greg Fraser in Switzerland adds, “Actually Google does give an answer. 1. go to http://googlefight.com/ 2. enter keywords 3. fight! 4. Socrates wins! Ok, so it doesn’t prove he was first… but… it could.. hmm, now where was i… ?” You are here! And there!

Looking Back to 2000 on Father’s Day

In 2000 I was interviewed by Eye Magazine in conversation with Elizabeth Resnick when I first talked about my childhood and my father’s influence on my career:

My father always encouraged me to take the biggest challenges. When I arrived at MIT, electrical engineering and computer science were known as the hardest majors. I wanted to study architecture, but my father said I would make no money. He said: “You won’t be able to feed yourself or your future family. Don’t waste your time.” He was a pragmatic man. He grew up poor.
     He ran a tofu factory, so my childhood was about working in the tofu factory. My family would work there every weekend and all vacations. It is a very laborious work. You wake up at 1am and work to 6pm continuously. After school we would work in the store that sold the tofu. My father believed it was unprofitable to have workers, so we were the workers. School became a wonderful place to escape.
     I became interested in computers because we were always working, and I didn’t have any time to play. I asked my father for a computer so I could do things at night. I had a dot-matrix printer but didn’t like the way the default text looked, so I wrote a program to make it print better-looking text. This was in 1979.
     Before my father was a tofu-maker, my father was a cook. In Japanese food, it’s not about the flavors, it’s about the presentation, the illusion of being natural. I learned my basic layout sensibilities by helping him lay out food. Those sensibilities disappeared when I came to MIT because I was embarrassed about being from a blue-collar family. But when I told my Japanese typography teacher about my background, his response was: “You are the son of a craftsman, my father was the same way.” I realized then that the cultural aesthetics could be a source of strength.

In 2011 I returned to thinking about my Dad in relation to a question that a RISD student came to ask me about how being a father influenced how I led RISD:

My response began from where I often stand — that children will inherit a world that you will either make better or worse for their adult lives. We all want better lives for all the future adults so we work in the present to improve the coming world to our best abilities. And we often fall short of success because, well, we are human. But we remind ourselves again to care, and to try again. And that’s whether you are a parent or not — a better world is universally desirable.
     I knew that wasn’t really a response to his question, so I tried again. I spoke instead about my own father and how he influenced me as a leader. My father was a cook for many years. He left home (a small fishing village in Japan) at 15 and shined shoes on a boat for passengers as his first job in addition to cleaning the bathrooms and floors. On that boat he did every manner of job, and worked his way up to peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and then finally to becoming the cook of the ship. In the 60s he left the ship, and worked as a cook in a Japanese restaurant in Seattle; a decade later he took over a mom-and-pop tofu-making business and ended his career as a cook.
     However Dad stayed active in his cooking craft; he loved to cook for guests at our house. It wasn’t often, but when we would have guests come over he would get a whole fish and cut it as sashimi (raw fish) and arrange all the foods in beautiful ways. In many ways he was my first design teacher with his mastery in meticulously arranging the shapes, proportions, mixtures, selection of plates, and overall visual / textural / temperature balance of a multi-course traditional Japanese-style meal.
One day when I was about 11 or 12, I noted to my father his consistent pattern in how he would give the best parts of the fish to the guests, and for himself eat the scrappiest, undesirable parts. I thought this strange because as a cook he knew what tasted good and bad, so with his more developed taste acuities he should be eating the good parts himself. He plainly explained that a cook doesn’t make food for himself to enjoy — he makes food for others to enjoy. His happiness came from making others happy around him. I noticed this about my father — how giving he was to others around him, and expecting absolutely nothing in return.

In 2013 I wrote a piece for LinkedIn, which touched upon the relationship between a father-and-son and also teacher-to-student:

Ten or so years ago, I was on a plane to the west coast from Boston, sitting in one of the back rows so I could see the entire length of the plane. There were suits and dress shirts all the way up the aisle — it was all guys in the plane that day it seemed. The mid-flight movie was “October Sky” with Jake Gyllenhaal, way before his superstar actor days.
     It tells the classic story of a father-son relationship where the book-smart son (played by Gyllenhaal) is never given the full respect of his coal-miner father (played by Chris Cooper). Various physical tragedies are overcome, and in the culminating scene the son’s project is being regaled by the public. But the father is nowhere to be seen to bestow his blessing. Jake’s character looks down to the ground in quiet acceptance. And then, there is dad … straight from the mine, walking towards the son carrying his coal mining helmet. Proud, finally. As tears began to well up in my eyes, I noticed all the men shrugging uncomfortably all the way up the plane — subtly wiping away their tears. The universal nature of the story was on full display up and down the aisle. I’ve spent a great deal of my blogging thinking about the impact my father has had on my life and could speak to how he’s been the central inspiration to my life. The story, perhaps, isn’t much different from other sons out there.

It always feels a little weird for me to look backwards at what I might have said or wrote. What doesn’t feel weird is knowing that my Dad’s influence on me is real. I’ve always felt a bit like the coal-miner’s son in October Sky, or the 11-year old who noticed his Dad’s selfless-ness and wondered if he could ever live with such integrity, or the junior professor back in 2000 trying to make sense of his evolving professional life and hanging on to the knowings that were put in place by his childhood training. So in 2014, and on Father’s Day, it was nice to get to say “thank you” today to the man that made my life something just through the fact of his working as hard as he could for all of us. He never really knew what I was doing, or have been doing, all these years, but he knew that I should try to do it. Whatever it is. And to try as hard as I can. So I’ll keep trying. And get back to work. -JM