I’m off to Tokyo on bidness tomorrow. Woo! Thanks to fellows like Marxy, I’ll feel like I’ve been there, even if I never get to leave the Roppongi Hills Mori Sky Studio conference rooms.
I’m a consultant. That means, in theory, that I’m paid to give advice, but our clients are bright as dolphins, knowledgeable, and often creative, too. The art lies in engineering epiphanies—designing experiences that let them play with possibilities, then come to their own conclusions. From time to time we remind them that in these sessions they’re allowed to be people as well as professionals—parents, cranks, fans, shoppers, readers, patients, advocates, and voters. Then we stand back, holding out snacks, sticky notes, and Sharpies. It’s harder than telling people what to do.
It’s got me thinking about the nature of good advice, and how much of it lies in timing and delivery. When I was younger, I wanted to be a teen-magazine agony aunt. Interfering in other people’s problems, at the safe remove of a tear-stained letter, would play to my wisdom and worldliness, I felt. I hadn’t counted then on knowing less each year. At least my expanding ignorance has made it easier to hold off on giving advice, even when I fixate on the women who wear leggings and shouldn’t, or the futility of fake butter. Sometimes I want to force my friends to read some article in Oprah magazine or Valleywag, or try my new favorite something, or start meditating, but mostly I leave them alone.
Fifty-odd years ago, an English clergyman who was also a trained psychologist found his congregation shocked by the suicide of a young mother. He announced from the altar that he intended to open the vicarage for people to come and discuss their problems in complete confidence, so that such an act might be prevented in future. So many people came forward that his drawing room filled up each night. The “church ladies”—the local volunteers who kept the parish running—began to organize shifts to offer tea and sympathy to the people waiting.
An strange thing happened. The clergyman/psychologist discovered that people felt better even before they spoke to him. Some didn’t even keep their appointment—they thanked him and went home. The simple act of unburdening to a sympathetic church lady, who offered no profound analysis or advice, was enough. It wasn’t flattering to a professional counsellor, but he was wise enough to shush his ego. His discovery led him to found the Samaritans, which trained volunteers all over the world to listen quietly, supportively, and anonymously to people who needed to talk themselves through a crisis. “You never know,” is their training mantra—that, and “Just shut up and listen.” It’s among the best advice ever given, and the hardest to follow.
And yet. Good advice is like beef jerky, or poems off by heart: you may not want it right away, but miles down the road you’re glad of it. Good advice makes sense of your past mistakes, and if you’re lucky, saves you a few steps forward. I spend hours looking for the stuff, but rarely think just to ask for it.
So here’s an experiment. There are so many people who read this blog whom I look up to. There are more still whom I don’t yet know. Some of you have already given me free advice, like “It might be time to start teaching,” or “Think about ordering your list of heroes,” or “Check out the San Francisco Streetcar Festival.” So here are a few questions for you.
What was the best advice you ever got?
Did you take it?
What advice—on anything—would you give me?
You can answer here in the comments, by email, on your own blog, or the next time I see you for spaghetti and meatballs at Emmy’s.
(Asking for advice is intimidating. I just discovered that.)
My good friend Andrew has written and directed a show called Perfect Harmony, which is back at the Fringe NYC Encore Series. Here’s why they revived it: BackStage called it:“Sharp as a blade.. clever… magnificently hilarious! Lovely to ridiculous to riotous. Perfect Harmony as close to perfect as any Fringe show can be.” TheaterMania just said “Well-nigh perfection!”
It’s at the The 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, from the 21st to the 24th. I wish I could see it. Go in my place, if you can.
Perfect Harmony website.
Photo by Tim, 2001
Photo by Tim, 2001
My caption from 2004: “These are accidental portraits of the buildings that were the city compass (and camera hogs, too). We looked for them whenever we surfaced from the subway or climbed onto a roof deck. We triangulated from them on bridges and in strange conference rooms, and steered by them in tug boats and canoes. The towers were Downtown. More useful than True North, in the self-appointed center of the world.”
Tyerra Green, BAYCAT filmmaker, taken by michaele, Yahoo! Teacher of Merit, July 2006.
The first thing you see when you walk into BAYCAT‘s loft—once Villy lets you out of a hug—are the photos. There’s a wall of signed Polaroids of everyone who has ever visited: students, instructors, preachers, clients, donors, Bill Strickland, Jeff Skoll, and our fine-looking mayor, Gavin Newsom. Names and smiles; bigwigs and smallwigs.
BAYCAT trains young people from Bayview-Hunters Point in art, design, digital media, filmmaking, and human decency. These neighborhoods have by far the highest concentration of children in San Francisco, but the rest of the city doesn’t notice that that’s where we warehouse the future. “Historically-underserved comunities” seems to be the vogue term, but however you put it, these kids have had a raw deal so far. They are poor. Their schools are chaotic and badly equipped. The houses were built next to a power plant, on landfill where decades of toxic waste have built up, and so the children get sick more often than they should—but there’s just one pediatrician in the area. Until a Farmers’ Market opened last year, fresh food was a bus ride away, though liquor stores are plentiful. The gangs are armed.
Photo by Tim, 2005
Those are the problems, but there are 33,000 solutions. Bayview-Hunters Point also has artists, musicians, leaders, dreamers, preachers, businesspeople, and teachers who have it going on, and there’s no shortage of kids who want more. That’s where BAYCAT comes in. BAYCAT shows kids that they have a voice, and gives them the skills to give voice to their community. These are also, the theory goes, the skills that San Francisco and Silicon Valley employers want: design, video production, editing, and motion graphics.
Villy is the founder and CEO. She went from the New York projects to become an equity derivatives trader, then a corporate lawyer at a fancy firm. What she wanted to do was take these skills to make kids’ lives better, so she trained as a fifth-grade teacher. She was the kind of educator who teaches the Constitution by letting her kids draw up a class constitution: pushing them to move beyond because-I-said-so rules to identify the lasting principles behind them; encouraging them to test rewards and penalties and consequences; stretching ten-year-old minds around the notion of collective responsibility.
But she couldn’t reach all of them. Ten years old is too late. Five may be too late. No matter how much work you put in, how much you dig into your paltry salary for extra supplies, food, and field trips, no matter how many nights you lie awake with racing thoughts, you can’t save every kid. No Child Left Behind is the name of the federal act that has set public education up for guaranteed failure by mandating that every single child must pass standardized reading and math tests by 2012. Its goals are admirable, but no system improves by measurement alone—especially in California, where public education is still crippled by the staggering selfishness of Proposition 13. Where the principles of No Child Left Behind really live is in the hearts of dedicated teachers, who live in a war zone between hope and discouragement.
Villy left the public schools to start BAYCAT. She found an early supporter in Bill Strickland, the Pittsburgh social entrepreneur. I met Strickland (and Villy) when my company hosted a conference that brought together innovators from Japan and the US, and he held us rapt, as he does every audience, with his slides and his story. His power comes from his insistence on the elemental. The worst thing about poverty is what it does to your spirit, he says, and the cure for this spiritual cancer is to expose people to the best of the natural world. Beauty. Light. Water. Music. Art. Good food. Flowers. In the No Child Left Behind era, where principals are forced to force their teachers to drop everything but math and “language arts” drills, this sounds like granola-dreaming. But over the course of thirty-odd years, he has succeeded.
Strickland was a 16-year-old from the Pittsburgh projects, on path to nowhere good, when an art teacher introduced him to ceramics and took him to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house. When he found his calling as a grown man, he persuaded a student of Lloyd Wright’s to build a cathedral-like training center in the middle of the projects in Pittsburgh. That’s where he trained students in the ceramics he had come to love. He loved jazz, so he built a concert hall as part of the center—and Dizzy Gillespie came to play. They started a jazz record label that has won four Grammy awards. He wanted the kids to see beauty, so he built a greenhouse to grow Japanese orchids—and now they supply the Whole Foods grocery chain with flowers and hydroponic tomatoes, grown in the projects in Steeltown. He worked with local Pittsburgh businesses, Heinz and Bayer among them, to set up facilities to train a new generation of workers in food service and lab technician skills, so they could find jobs—and eat good food every day. Sunshine, he insists, is for everybody on the planet, not just for rich people. Good food is for everybody on the planet. His Manchester Craftsman’s Guild trains students in art, not academics, but his students’ graduation rates are so high that the city of Pittsburgh recently asked him to take over a failing high school. His first action will be bring in fresh flowers. People understand those kinds of messages. We are creatures of expectations, he says, and once you put people in the light, they shine.
Villy is an artist and musician too, and the BAYCAT loft reflects their shared belief in the power of beauty and high expectations. It’s spacious, light-filled, and stylish, and designed for people to work together. Buildings have emotions, I think, and BAYCAT’s place is warm and playful. It’s in the Dogpatch neighborhood, between Bayview-Hunters Point and downtown San Francisco.
Across the street, my friend Celine has opened a wine bar, one of several new small businesses drawn to Dogpatch by the mirage of the Third Street Light Rail, which will connect Bayview-Hunters Point to the city that has ignored it. That’s where Villy and I drink Rioja and Viognier from time to time. Dogpatch reminds me of Brooklyn’s DUMBO eight years ago, with its waterfront light, beautiful old warehouses slowly converting to design studios and apartments, and mostly peaceful agreements between the artists and the crack dealers. “I talked to the crackheads and the drunks from the beginning,” said Celine, who is as matter-of-fact as you might expect of a woman who can both pass two kidney stones and open a wine bar in the last two months of her pregnancy. “I told them, I have no problem with you being here, but you just can’t piss in the doorway any more. I can’t do business if you piss in my doorway.” They are obliging. Now they piss in the bus shelter at the end of the block, and greet her warmly as she opens up.
Last July, a team from Yahoo!—my favorite clients—hired the BAYCAT students to make a documentary about a project we were working on, a weeklong summer camp to celebrate 60 local teachers and introduce them to blogging, Flickr, and other web goodies. Every day, Villy drove Tyerra and Jason from Hunters Point to Sunnyvale in her green VW Bug. They interviewed dozens of teachers and Yahoo! staff, including Terry Semel, the CEO. They filmed it, shaped the story, and edited it in two weeks, with the help of BAYCAT instructors. Tyerra’s 14. Jason is 16. That’s Tyerra speaking on the BAYCAT homepage. Yahoo! liked the results so much that they sponsored a BAYCAT “Oscars” to show off the students’ work at the end of the summer. There was plenty to celebrate: graphic design for local businesses, a new design identity for the Visitacion Valley neighborhood, documentaries made for Yahoo!, for the Mayor’s Office, and for NetDay; a film about the Alice Griffith Housing Projects; an interview series on obesity they filmed at local McDonalds. They’re learning to bear witness: by shaping stories, you can shape a future.
Villy has huge plans for BAYCAT. Every time she tells me about them over Italian wine, my brain starts fizzing with her spirit—that’s the Villy effect. She believes that change starts with personal connections, with asking open-ended questions and being willing to listen to the answers. This autumn, she’s going to let me learn how to teach writing at BAYCAT. It’s a tiny commitment—once a week, a couple of students a time—but I want to be there to watch her dreams bloom.
Richard Sennett has a newish book out called The Culture of the New Capitalism. I heard him interviewed about it on a BBC podcast, and there’s only one copy left at Amazon’s UK store, but he’s less admired here in his own country, as far as I can tell. Sennett is concerned about the people who don’t fit the needs of this economy. They’re not the stars the talent spotters want, or they are too old, or too needed by dependents to hold a Blackberry tether with grace. Or maybe they’re the kind of people who find that shifting loyalties make them anxious and sad.
I had just enough of a taste of the old work culture of pantyhose, punchclocks, and marble lobbies to be grateful to be born into this new work style exported from the Bay Area. By Sennett’s standards, I was designed for this economy. I have more curiosity than ties. I’m childless. I’ve moved like a stone skipping across a pond: 120 miles, 500 miles, 3,000 miles, 6,000 miles from my hometown, touching down only lightly in each place. In Hernstein and Murray’s creepy Bell Curve analysis of intelligence structures, I’m a “symbol analyst.” A “master of change.” That makes me a good catch.
“When we hired you, we weren’t interested in your experience. We were only interested in how fast you could learn,” I was once told. At 24, that’s flattering. It’s also a relief—thank God, it doesn’t matter that I know feck-all. I’m a little bundle of potential. But at 34, it’s disconcerting to have a dozen years of your life dismissed. I could have stayed in bed rather than bothering to get trained on Wall Street? I didn’t need to sweat through those startups to learn why entrepreneurs have more in common with artists than with MBAs, and what it really takes to turn an idea into a change? I needn’t have bothered with volunteering, with learning to write, with riding the public buses around Bolivia?
For all that this amoral economy suits me well, I’m making a promise to my future self that if I hear at 54 that my experience is uninteresting to capitalism—and I expect to—I’ll stand up, excuse myself with a big smile, and go back to the woods for good. We’re human beings. Our stories matter. Grown-ups have more to contribute than babies. And where we have been and who we take care of matters more to me than symbols, models, and theories.