Author Archives: John Maeda

Walking Backwards, Moving Forward


I heard yesterday from Lakshmi Pratury how tour guides at the Pentagon are trained to walk backwards to face their audiences while traversing the system of hallways. I wondered how they avoid bumping into things — turns out that: 1/ they practice a lot, and 2/ the tour group will often warn the guide if he’s about to bump into something.

I thought it a good metaphor for leadership — facing your team and walking backwards some days to keep their attention fully on you so that you can direct. To eventually getting to turn around and walk fast again and count on them to follow. -JM

Informal Interview with Sarah Lewis

There’s a great interview on Sarah Lewis and her new book The Rise that was recently published in Technology Review. Below is a quick interview that I did with her a few months ago that I haven’t had a chance to post:

JM: Rocco Landesman, former Chairman of the NEA, would often say that it isn’t that artists are good at failing, but instead that they are experts at *productively* failing. His comment would often bring to mind how I loved Nelson Mandela’s saying of, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” What are your thoughts about what “productively failing” means, and what other kinds of failure have you found?

SL: I love the wisdom in both comments. What I’ve learned from writing about the lives of some incredible men and women—inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs mainly—is that part of the mystery of creativity and leadership—forging new paths of all kinds—requires finding advantages in so-called failure. It is something we haven’t talked about openly until recently. Abraham Lincoln said, “men are greedy to publish the success of [their] efforts, but meanly shy as to publishing the failures of men. Men are ruined by this one sided practice of concealment of blunders and failures.” It is as true today as it was then. Yet in inventions from the telegraph to graphene, we’re enjoying the benefits of “productive failure.”

SL: Leonard Bernstein thought that “productively failing” was part of the key to the creative process in a sense. Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Handling limitations can result in breakthroughs because a deadline can create a sense of uncertainty about meeting our goal. It can leads to more creative solutions. Playwright Tennessee Williams also built productively failing into the process. He would start writing a play before his reviews were out because he said that “apparent failure” motivated him. He more compelled to get back to work that way than if he had a success.

SL: The most productive kind of failure I’ve seen is the “near win.” I spoke about this in my TED talk. The most timeless kind of failure I’ve found is what I’d call the imposition of failure—times when the world is not ready for a breakthrough, yet an audience years or even decades later recognize the artist’s contribution to the world (i.e. Herman Melville, Beethoven etc.). In these cases, the failure is ours. But this is also the trickiest kind. Assuming that you are having a failure simply because the world isn’t ready for you can also lead to trouble.

JM: Ten years ago I wrote a book on simplicity, and recounted a story of how black belt Karate masters experience the color in their belt washing and wearing out over time. So that the belt becomes white again, and they become the proverbial beginner even though they have already attained status as masters. And how that is considered a virtue — to reassume beginner’s mind. What other stories did you find on your journey, that aren’t covered in The Rise, are triggered when you hear that?

SL: What does this idea of beginner’s mind mean? Finding a way to staying open to possibilities. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

SL: It makes me of T.S. Eliot’s idea about life and exploration. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” To me, this speaks to the gift of beginner’s mind—that it is possible to retain a capacity for wonder. Some people do this by letting themselves stay fresh by acting as deliberate amateurs. I would have loved to write about this dynamic even more—how having something new to explore keeps you nimble, supple, young.

JM: I’ve noted that since I’ve joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (@KPCB) in Silicon Valley as their new Design Partner, I’ve been exposed to hundreds of technology entrepreneurs who seem to proudly share how they have failed a few times at making a successful company. What insights have you gained by talking with entrepreneurs and how they think about failure — versus how an executive in a large corporation might consider failure. What’s different, and what’s the same?

SL: I should be asking you this question! Well, the risk-taking that is critical for entrepreneurship and innovation is the not necessarily the quality that will help you, say, get a promotion in a corporate environment. There’s evidence that both entrepreneurial and corporate environments can benefit from creating spaces—large or small—for people to have the freedom to take risks (and, inevitably, make mistakes). For example, the Mayo Clinic did this once by creating the “Queasy Eagle” award—honoring some patent ideas that didn’t quite reach full flight. In the eighteen years prior to this initiative, the Clinic had only generated thirty-six new ideas for patents in one particular field. Just over a year after the initiative, meant to honor near win, yet abandoned, efforts, there were 245 new ideas, many of which merited new patents.

SL: It’s also possible to carve out time to work as what I call a deliberate amateur. Two Nobel Prize-winning scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who isolated graphene have an exemplary, playful way of doing this. They have a practice of “Friday Night Experiments (FNEs),” times when the lab works on problems outside of the realm of their expertise. Many of them have failed, but when they have breakthroughs, they are of enormous proportion because they’ve been unlimited in their thinking. Out of all that the work that Geim and Novoselov’s lab has become know for—their Nobel Prize-winning discovery of graphene—the majority have come from this FNE practice.

JM: Given the rise (sic) of your book — what do you hope might result from your own pursuit of literary success through a book that is themed around failure? What kind of failure are you seeing and experiencing with the book that profoundly excites you? What are the few elements of failure that you wouldn’t trade for anything when you take on your next popular book — because I know for sure that you’ve got more than a few coming in your lifetime (smile).

SL: Thank you! Well, perhaps the only failure has been talking about The Rise in such a way that people know that it is not a self-help book! People tend to ask me a lot of questions about how to overcoming failure. I wrote this book not because I have all of the answers, but because I was as curious about them as the next person. The book is literary, not advice driven. Communicating that in a sound-bite media culture has been difficult.

SL: After the book launch for The Rise, I found myself itching to get back to work. I love talking about the book, but I’m eager to stay on a journey. I constantly want to stretch again. I love finding an idea that feels just out of reach and figuring out how, if I can possibly grasp it. Can I find a way to fly, run, thrust myself over the chasm and explore it? Will anyone else benefit from it if I do? My next book—on a very different topic—is making me try all over again.

Fondation Cartier 30


My work from almost ten years ago is on re-display at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. It is seven five-minute-ish films I made in 2005 to depict the world inside the computer. The yellow wall-schedule indicates that you can see my films at 1PM in the gallery for the next few months. A highlight of my trip to the opening was sitting with David Lynch, and learning about gratitude. -JM PS Enjoy Marc Newson’s jet as featured in the video below.

Making as Gratitude




I had the rare fortune of sitting with David Lynch last week. We found ourselves both exhibiting at the Fondation Cartier for their 30th anniversary. The Fondation kindly arranged for me to sit with him for roughly 30 minutes. Note to self: the gift of time is a huge one. I felt totally grateful to the folks there at FC.

What became clear to me after a few minutes of talking with David was how present he was. He was right there. And nowhere else. And he was waiting for me to speak. Not wishing he could say something. Just wishing that he might be able to hear me. And I felt it didn’t have to be me. I felt that it could be anyone. I was just another object floating around him, in his environment, that he was studying, and open, and present to.

David’s attitude towards his creative work struck me as similar to that of Ikko Tanaka — another master of making. David made movies, he made prints, he made paintings, he made sketches. He made them because he loved to make them. No other reason. He made them, and was profoundly grateful to get to make them.

David described the process in his life of practicing transcendental mediation for over forty years — as one of stripping himself of all that didn’t matter. And how in by doing so, he could create space — and feel open to everything around him with a different kind of effortless strength. He resonated with my reflecting back to him with what I was hearing: I compared it to the feeling you get when your closet is full. And you keep shoving a shirt or coat into the closet and it just won’t fit. And then you decide, instead, to remove as much as you can within the closet. Suddenly you can see the actual closet rod, and eventually hang the item on the closet rod. You can then ask yourself if you really needed that item to hang there in the first place. There is abundance again — and openness, versus feeling cramped and closedness.

So with that thought from David, I think I will go into my closet today to go and make room. I’d like to see the closet rod (both the literal and metaphorical ones) again :-). -JM

An organization’s surface area


Organizational “surface area” is a concept I came into contact with recently. It’s based on the ideas of a prominent scientist, Dr. Arno Penzias.

As an organization gets bigger, it gets harder to interface with because for a smaller organization that is working with a larger one, there is a mismatch in scale. For example, a friend with a small agency told me once how it was impossible for him to work with MTV because they had so many people on MTV’s side to interface with — that they didn’t have enough of inside their small firm.

More on this thought later as I am at the end of my 5-minute blogging time … -JM

Putting People At Ease

Last week was my first one in the “Design and Venture” world. I kept mental note of one particular event that stayed with me, and I keep coming back to it in my mind because I know it’s key.

There were three young men doing their pitch for an idea … and then a segue to that all important moment of “the demo.” I know that moment well from my time at the Media Lab when “demo or die” was the raison d’etre of the 80s and 90s in the tech-research world. As someone who oversaw or participated in the many moments where the demo … died, I know all too well the feeling of dismay and heartache when the demo worked “a minute ago” and for some reason it had decided to go fishing … just as you’ve asked everyone to put all their eyeball energy on it.

So, the setup was all fine and we were starting on time. I saw it working on the way into the room. And then, fifteen minutes into the pitch, we all turned to the demo. It wasn’t syncing anymore to the display screens. Then, the moment of despair appeared in the eyes of the three young men. The jiggle of a cable. The seating and re-seating of the connector. Blowing into the connection to imagine that dust might be affecting the problem. Followed by the curious look to the ceiling to imagine there’s some wireless wave that is bouncing around the room aimlessly that you might be able to redirect with your brain and gaze. I think you know what I’m talking about.

But then, while this all-too-well-known scene was occurring, one of the key partners at the venture capital firm that I’m at said softly and concernedly, “Is that *our* fault? Is there something wrong with the setup of our room? I’m so sorry if that’s the case.” And it immediately put the three young men at ease. I immediately wondered how in the many times in the past when I had been on the cable-jiggling end or the “waiting for the demo to be shown to me” end … whether I had exhibited or felt such compassion before? I made a mental note to be sure to do so, when on the being-pitched-to end, in the future. It was a simple, elegant act of leadership.

It reminded me of a similar moment from a few years ago when I saw another leader in the venture world do a similar thing with great creativity and empathy. 

Boy, do I have a lot to learn! I’m excited to get to do so in what remains of my second quarter. -JM