Author Archives: John Maeda

The Teacher’s Bento Box

I’ve been lucky to have had great teachers and mentors. Society tends to think of teachers as different from conventional leaders in society — and more like “caregivers.” I’ve seen some who act like the latter — sort of almost as surrogate parents. That’s a valid form of value, certainly, within the educational spectrum. And I’ve also seen others who lead their own lives in ways that have inspired me no differently than a few of the great CEOs. I was wondering what’s similar about them, and realized that it’s about having a clear notion of accountability — accountability to oneself, and accountability to the organization (or discipline) that they represent. Getting to see accountability up close is a great thing to get to learn — I think it’s actually the only way to learn accountability, because it’s a form of practice that you need to watch (and smell) up close. By watching it in action, you question your own actions and need to ask yourself, “Am I living up to as a high a standard as this living, breathing person who is giving his/her life its all?”

Sometimes the only way to learn something great, is to experience what is less great. I had that opportunity to learn when I was a PhD student at MIT in the 80s, and dropped out of the program mid-way. I vowed to never go back because I had lost my faith in the educational system. Looking back, I find it interesting that I spent most of my career in higher education — and I track it back to one professor I had along the way. He was my PhD advisor in Japan, Akira Harada. He’s the one who convinced me, just by watching him in action, that I should go after a PhD again.

Harada reminded me of what a great professor is about: someone who is curious and loves when others are curious, too. But he also knew how to stay on deadline; it was a combination of being able to diverge and converge. He loved being with younger people, as his life was shaped as a young designer working under the famed Kenji Ekuan, who recently passed away. I always enjoyed observing how Harada mentored students — he was never anybody’s father figure. He was just someone who strove to be as energetic, and as enthusiastic as his graduate students. One could see clearly that his happiness came from his students’ successes — and not from his own actions. In essence, he was being a good manager and leader — and not the typical professor who was all about him/herself.

The month I was about to graduate, he hosted a small party. It was super noisy in the room, but he sat next to me and started to tell a story to all of us that I hadn’t heard before.

He talked about growing up as a child during World War II as the son of a wealthy banking family. Nobody had any food; it all went to the soldiers. But his family was wealthy, so he happened to have rice. In Japan, rice is the essential thing in a person’s life; the soul of Japan is rice. There’s this little pickled plum called umeboshi, and, every day, my professor got a bentō box (a Japanese lunchbox) from his mom with a bed of white rice and a red plum in the middle, like the Japanese flag.

One day when he was in 1st grade, he forgot his lunch at home, so he went to his teacher and told her. He said, “Teacher, teacher. I forgot my lunch at home!”

To which his teacher replied, “Well, I made too much lunch this morning. So please come to my desk later and we’ll have lunch together.” At lunchtime, he went to his teacher’s desk. She pulled out her bentō box, opened it, and there were two tiny potatoes inside. She said to him, “Look, I made too much,” to which he happily replied, as a 1st grader would, “No problem! I’ll help you, teacher!”

He remembered relating this story as a 4th grader to his classmates, and cried in front of the class –because he was so thankful for his teacher’s actions, which at the time he never really understood as he was just a hungry 1st grader that day. I thought that was an important story; it made me think and believe in teaching as a form of “intellectual philanthropy.” It’s about doing something good for others, without expecting anything in return.

In my later life as a manager and leader, I recognized it as an important quality when working with/in-service-of other people — as someone who is generous, and who can consciously give more than they take for themselves. I guess Greenleaf’s “servant leadership” is not so different in concept, but the words never quite fit for my taste. My thinking instead always goes back to the bentō box … and questioning whether I might have the moral strength (or just confidence) to give away one of my tiny potatoes knowing that I might be hungry myself. And meanwhile to get out of my comfort zone to hunt for more potatoes (with confidence and tons of self-doubt) …

Okay, I’ve passed my ten-minute blogging time limit. Good luck with your respective potato huntings! -JM

“I believe in you.”

I had just gotten dinner somewhere in downtown Sunnyvale, and it was getting late … and I was about to call my Uber to get to bed (yes, I’m still doing the Airbnb thing). What popped in my mind at the moment was the 2015 Oscar’s acceptance speech by J.K. Simmons to “call your mom” that compelled me to … well, call my mom. Lucky for me, my mom is still alive and I remember to talk to her once in a while. The great thing about the Silicon Valley area is that it doesn’t get that cold at night so I was randomly walking the streets and talked to her for quite a while.

Part of the luck of coming from a working class family is that my parents never really understood what I did every year past leaving high school. They just thought that it would lead to a better life than they had weathered and managed operating a tiny tofu factory in Seattle. I remember after my third year in college, my mother asked me what I was doing that summer at Texas Instruments as a summer intern — and I replied with some technical gibberish. To which her response was unhesitatingly, as it’s always been, “That’s good, John. I know you can do it. I believe in you.” I would never attempt to explain in detail what I was doing — which I know wouldn’t matter, not because she wouldn’t be able to understand it — I just knew that she cared in a way that could be easily mistaken as not caring. Sometimes we think that mutual respect is born in mutual understanding, but when its the relationship between a parent and child, there’s really something else there. You just know that it doesn’t matter that your mom doesn’t understand what you do, but you know that she believes in you. That makes all the difference in the world sometimes — and have experienced it first hand in my darkest moments.

So while I was walking about in the darkness of downtown Sunnyvale, I had that recurring moment on the phone when she asks, “How are you doing, John?” And I’ll say something short or long — the brightness or darkness depending on the goodness of that day or week or month. And in a completely predictable way I know she will eventually say, “Well … I believe in you, John. I always have.” It is a kind of empathy grounded in nothing to do with knowing the complex WHAT or WHY or HOW of what I might be doing. But when it happens, you suddenly know that everything will all be okay. Even though your mind knows that’s completely impossible based upon any form of logic. It feels a bit like what you might imagine as an infant you might have felt when being held or gently patted to sleep by a loving parent, or guardian, or important-someone. Everything will be okay, because someone believes in you and cares for you.

So towards the end of my conversation, and when my mother eventually said, “I believe in you, John!” although it was completely predictable, it made its impact that evening. It lasted a few evenings afterwards, and clearly is still with me now many weeks later.

Whoops, I think I better call her now to wish her a happy mother’s day! If you’re lucky enough to have a mother(s) that is alive and that you’re friendly with (I know that all relationships are not perfect), I hope you enjoy that rare exchange you get to have — it’s powerful. -JM

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,
JM

Classical Leadership

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