Author Archives: John Maeda

Survive, Compete, Aspire


Leadership doesn’t have to always be creative. There’s lots to shamelessly copy and emulate out there. I try to collect all kinds of smidgens of knowledge from other leaders that I encounter, and scribble my notes in some illegible scrawl. This is one of them, which I can’t remember who I heard it from.

The notion is that you need to first be able to survive — which is based on having core skills and knowledge. Then you get to compete — which requires specific strengths and competencies. And if you’re lucky enough, you get to aspire to lift the entire field that you represent upwards. Aspiration is less of a check-off-the-box assault at making it to the top, and instead is the magical, emotional part of something — grounded in a set of values — that embodies a sense of possibility. It gives you the *feeling* that you can make a difference. Because you can feel it in your gut. -JM

Generosity as Doing, Not Thinking

My father never said much to me as I was growing up. He was a doer, more than a thinker. Because my father could only speak Japanese, many people thought I could speak Japanese too. Nope. I could understand a lot though, as he was often giving instructions on what I should do. So if I knew a few spoken words in Japanese as a youth in my “conversations” with my dad it was an obedient, “Yes. I’ll do it.”

There’s one thing I learned from my father, by watching how he’d interact with everyone around him, that had nothing to do with language. Or about thinking. Just doing. And it was doing nice things for other people. He was always someone to go the extra mile for a friend. And he never asked for anything in return. This always struck me as odd — having observed the world outside of his sphere (ie “the real world”) in comparison year over year growing up — wondering to myself, “What was dad’s doing … giving everything he had … away?”

When we think of strategy, we usually think of managing scarcity. Or, choosing the best outcome among other alternatives. Dad never seemed to act from a position of “strategy” in his business, and in his dealings with non-business friends and people. He seemed fully comfortable giving away whatever he had, and just assuming he would always make more. Of what?

I now realize that he created massive amounts of generosity. If I may be more specific, he inspired me to believe that generosity was something that you *do*, and not something that you think about doing. Otherwise it isn’t being generous at all.

Dad loved the confidence he embodied in himself — to be generous, for generosity’s sake — with no particular reason why he *could* be generous at all. He was enigmatic in his ways. Instructive as a doer. Doing is a way of thinking out loud too. That sounds right. Now I get it … it’s always helpful to think out loud.

Okay, my ten minute doing-as-blogging break is over … thanks for visiting. -JM

On Humility

A friend wrote to me today, asking me how my being Asian affects how I work or think — for a presentation he was giving.

Granted, I was born and raised in the US — so I like to think of myself as no different than any other American. But I know that every group has its own identification of themselves in relation to other groups — diversity is a wonderful thing when called out and celebrated. At RISD we started something called RISDiversity because I believe that communicating the richness of a community’s diversity leads to a stronger community. So I briefly reflected a bit about this notion of being Asian and how that impacts how I might behave, and shared the following:

My one thought would be that we all love the story of the underdog. But specifically the underdog that is humble, and still remains humble even when the unlikely thing happens that s/he succeeds. Because more often than nought, the underdog’s role is to fail. Asian values are about humility — humility is a calming and welcome force in our chaotic world today, I believe.

Humility is always re-ingrained in me when I remember how I am the son of a mom-and-pop tofu maker from Seattle, and I worked along side them as a child. I learned what hard work is about — and it made me realize that no matter how high I might rise professionally, I will never be someone that could have worked as hard as my parents did at the tofu store. They taught me humility, just by being who they were and are.

I feel lucky to know many people of many backgrounds that resonate with my thoughts above … of their parents or relatives or friends. With respect, wonder, and love. And humility. Whether you’re Asian or non-Asian, of course. Human. Being. I figure that covers all of us. :-) -JM

No, you go on. I’ll be fine here

This morning I’m doing a bit of research on the work of a person I once used to study a great deal: the late Dr. Herbert Simon. In particular I’m looking for references on his work as defining design as “satisfice-ing.” As is often with a Web search, I found something completely different, as in this 2001 obituary where his former graduate student recounts two beautiful moments he had with his mentor:

Kotovsky, another former graduate student, said Dr. Simon loved to argue. When he would preface a statement with the words, “Look, friend …,” that was a signal that he was about to put the kibosh on his opponent’s argument.

“You had to be sure your head was attached when he used the word ‘friend,’ ” said Kotovsky. He recalled the first time Dr. Simon directed “Look, friend” his way: “That was the moment I passed into adulthood.”

Dr. Simon enjoyed playing the piano and, particularly in recent years, used to gather with friends who played violin, viola and other instruments.

In addition to the Nobel, Dr. Simon was the recipient of virtually every top award in every scientific field he pursued: the A.M. Turing Award in computer science, the American Psychological Association Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology, induction into the Automation Hall of Fame, the American Society of Public Administration’s Dwight Waldo Award and the National Medal of Science, among them. He was always appreciative of such honors, but maintained they were no big deal.

“The thing that he really cherished was doing his job as a professor,” Kotovsky said.

One night, for instance, Kotovsky had invited the Nobel laureate to speak to a group of freshmen at one of the residence halls.

After Dr. Simon spoke, everyone sat on the floor eating submarine sandwiches, while the students huddled around him. The conversation continued for hours until Kotovsky, worried that Dr. Simon might be getting impatient and tired, sidled up and asked, “Will you be ready to leave soon?”

“No, you go on,” Dr. Simon replied. “I’ll be fine here.”

“That,” Kotovsky added, “was who he was.”

It reminded me of a frame I reference in Redesigning Leadership on “Professor as Leader” — I feel lucky to have had many teachers and mentors that quietly led with a similar eloquence like Dr. Simon. I am certainly, thankfully satisficed :-). -JM

But am I dreaming big enough?


Last week I was in Asia where I sat with a gifted creative leader. As we talked, I scribbled notes on the back of a menu that I can barely read now, as evidenced above.

One thought I liked was her response to my question on the meaning of integrity. As we both have an arts background, the word “integrity” has special meaning. She said resolutely, “Integrity equals consistency.” I have to totally agree with that. Her definition captures the ambiguity of how integrity doesn’t necessarily mean one is doing “good” versus “bad” — it means that they are being absolutely consistent sometimes to a fault but always towards an ideal.

The other takeaway I had from our meeting was something she said about people who “work hard” — as in the common form of phrase of, “S/he really works hard!” Her point being that we tend to value the idea of someone who works hard, but how working hard often isn’t good enough because, as she said, someone who simply works hard may be doing that hard work with what she called “small dreams.”

Instead, the paradigm she seeks in the people that work with her isn’t one of “hard workers” but those with truly big dreams. She quickly added, “Big dreamers … that execute well.

I found this conversation extremely useful for when and if I am told, in a complimentary fashion and with only good intention, that I am a hard worker — which happens from time to time, but it’s always made me feel uncomfortable … but I didn’t know why. For I now know, if I want to be truly effective in life, that I might say … and ask back, “Thank you! But am I dreaming big enough?” -JM


What is Design

I’ve started a new blog on — and yes, indeed, you are correct that I absolutely can’t maintain all of these sites. And yes, indeed, I have no idea why the link text in the previous sentence is so GIGANTIC. -JM

is working

I was reading about how Twitter has enabled the ability to download one’s entire archive of tweets, and so I went ahead to take advantage of this new feature. I’m currently at my 3933th post on Twitter, which I made on July 13, 2008 at 1:51PM. It was a two-word post on the fact that I was working … which we all seem to be doing nowadays, so that was really nothing novel to post. At the time, I resisted posting about my lunch … which wasn’t easy as the peer pressure was enormous.

I vaguely recall that the user interface of Twitter was designed as something more to the effect:

@johnmaeda is [ blank box for text input]

so I was inclined to say “is (( doing whatever ))” … and then I soon realized that the “is ” was eating up three characters out of my 140 character allocation, and the free “is ” went away. So I switched styles, like everyone else was doing.

Before starting to post on Twitter, I blogged a lot on my “simplicity” blog at the MIT Media Lab … which unfortunately no longer exists for security reasons. It was sitting atop some really, really old build of WordPress so it had to get taken down — blogs were scarce at the Media Lab back then. Mine was one of three or so blogs in the early 2000s … along with my buddy and colleague Chris Csikszenmihalyi. Losing all that text made me unhappy, but luckily I had written a little book on simplicity based on that work entitled, The Laws of Simplicity, so I don’t feel completely sad. Thank goodness for printed books! And for MIT Press!

I got busy pretty quickly around the time I started using Twitter — as it was around when I had just been announced as the 16th President of Rhode Island School of Design — so the medium has suited my lifestyle much better. As a professor I had a lot more time to blog; as a president I simply don’t. There are random swatches of 15 minute blocks that fall from the sky that I use to post here … and it’s always a treat to get to do so.

Reading over the few thousand tweets thus far, I find it important to note that some things never change. @johnmaeda is (still) working. :-). And happy to be doing so here in 2013. Wishing all of you a great day, and life, of working …! And also taking a quick peek at my Spring Counter as we begin to approach a new spring in this hemisphere of the world. -JM

I try to stay technologically “fit” by writing software code. I know. A round on the elliptical machine, or even picking up Tae-bo (do people still do that?) or the likes might be a better use of time. But I guess I’m stuck in some of my old ways as I have been coding for over 30 years now. Woah. Where’d that number come from?

Writing code. Laying out a page. Cutting paper. Taking a photograph. Thinking out loud in text (as I am doing now). All of these tasks lie in the creative domain. You can do them, and do them, and do them. And you inch forward. You progress. And it feels quite nice because the immediate result is right in front of your eyes. Your hands did it. The materials obeyed your wishes. You have expressed yourself as you need to, in your own voice and without any intermediary. It’s an important kind of frame to keep in oneself, I believe, and that’s the reason why I try to stay fit in doing what can be done quickly — like coding — as a way to stay in touch with the agility of a directly expressed medium where high-speed iteration is the norm.

Leading people is quite different. Everything takes at least twice as long as you expect, if you are lucky. Iteration equals disruption. Creativity is construed as flakiness. So it’s no surprise to me that many people often ask me, “Do you still make your … art?” They often say this with a pained look on their face. As if somehow what I do today … isn’t what I really want to do. What underlies that question, of course, is the thought that, “Artists make art. Artists don’t lead organizations.” And it is that stereotyped thought, that resounds in literal stereo inside my head … that makes my work as a leader for me, as an artist, extremely exciting and provocative as a direction in life. A direction that I feel fortunate to get to take.

Art is about finding meaningful patterns. Traditionally artists found these patterns in how we see and touch and feel. And then, artists found a role in how society feels and works, and found a means to broaden their scope of what their “canvas” might be. In 2013, the canonical example that everyone knows, of course, is Ai Weiwei. It’s not hard to think of the many others that creatively lead from within the domain of the arts and resonate outwards. However, it is much less common for artists and designers to lead institutions or organizations — but there are excellent examples out there like Mark Parker of Nike.

In the leadership domain, I’ve found some patterns that I have been finding meaningful to my developing journey as a creative leader. There’s the work of John Gardner. There’s the work of Gianpiero Petriglieri. And there’s the work of many leaders that I get the opportunity to watch and learn from up close. Actually, I started this post for a specific reason — I wanted to quickly document something I learned from Regina Dugan. Regina said something I hadn’t heard before … to the effect:

“Most people think that when you take on a big, impossible goal with a team, that you immediately set yourself up for failure. That history will show that every time such a goal is marked in the sky, and a team is assembled, that failure is the common outcome. I, for one, have seen the contrary. That the more aspirational goal you set as a leader, the more likely that it gets done. Because the quality of the goal, determines who will join your team. And it is often the best people in the world that want to take on the most difficult challenges of our times.”

In other words, the quality of the challenge you choose as the leader, determines the quality of team that you get to create. Or, the quality of the challenge that you choose as a leader, largely determines the outcome. This is such an inspiring thought for me, and I’m so happy to get to share it with you. If you haven’t seen Regina’s talk on TED, I recommend that you do. And now back to the skies for you, and back to my treadmill routine of figuring out UTC time in Python for me. -JM