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