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 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

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

Representing the People

In the past couple of months, I’ve had the privilege of hearing directly from more than 200 designers at a large tech company — a pleasant barrage of thoughts and feelings that make up the fabric of a company culture and their experience. What we’ve been asking them about is what it’s like to be a designer these days inside their company, and one of the things we hear is that a mantle they hold on to proudly is that design, when working effectively, is meant to represent the voice and desire of the customer.

The last time I worked inside a large, consumer-oriented tech company, (which was 7 years ago, but now that I’m back, feels like very little time ago at all), I worked within product marketing. And interestingly, it was this very same mantra that brought me to marketing as a discipline — I wanted to apply my background in cognitive psychology to uncover, understand, and represent peoples’ needs and desires, both stated and unstated. Whether in the context of building products or changing cultures, my own core interest is in seeing what drives human behavior and how people react to change. I am drawn back to the technology industry over and over not because I care about bits and bytes, but because it is the most fertile ground for behavior change that exists in our world today.

I’ve been steeped in design cultures for the past seven years, six of them in its most raw, unadulterated form at Rhode Island School of Design. And though not a designer myself, I’ve found a comfortable home among designers, in the way that they look at the world and approach their work. In speaking to all of these designers recently, I’m reminded for not the first time that it’s because we both see the world through a people-centric lens.

Becky Bermont