The Impulse to Beauty

Tony Cuneo passed away earlier this week. He was a friend and colleague and one of the top three most masterful teachers I have known / observed / learned from / aspired to be like.

Here’s his Artist’s Statement, updated in July, when he was in the middle of his illness. In addition to my list above, Tony was a great artist (and father and baseball fan and . . .).

I don’t put a lot of faith in artist statements. 

Describing what I do as “work” has a slightly bitter, puritanical aftertaste to me; I like slopping paint around. It’s the reason I wanted to be an artist as a kid, and I think it’s still a fine reason to paint. I’m very comfortable with a perpetually unfinished process. I go (after much reflection) in whatever direction the painting takes me. Having too clearly defined a concept for a body of work (and this is just me) gives me claustrophobia.

I pray I never get to the point where I’m making product and not art.
Beyond that, I’m a fan of uncertainty. Not knowing you’re doing it right is a good thing. It makes you stop and think. When I paint, I’m playing as much as I’m working. I’m asking questions.

However having said that, the complex, charged tension between apparent opposites — chaos and order, emotion and intellect, creation and decay, high and low, representional and non-objective — is the text of my current painting; also, how the impulse to beauty wrestles with the desire for truth.  
Art is one of the most natural things in the world, fundamentally useless, but hugely pleasurable, very important, and deeply satisfying. 

Source & R.I.P.:

Teaching Now

Today, I recorded a podcast for Nabeel Ahmad, Partner at Rose Rock Dynamics, planned a Webinar for alumni at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and booked an in-person workshop for independent school Trustees. Though each lesson will be similar — focused on the teaching mindset documented in Make Yourself Clear — each classroom is very different.

Which means that, in each classroom, if I want to teach well, I have to ask myself some simple questions:

In the time and place that I’m meeting with these particular students, what can only happen then and there and in the way in which we’re assembled? What affordances exist in each context, and how can I make full use of them?

Obviously, the answer is very different if I’m doing a Webinar that will only serve a live audience vs. a Webinar that will serve both a live audience and an audience that listens to the recording at a later time. And the answer will again by different if I’m working with a face-to-face group. Or teaching with Reshan Richards, which happens to be the case for all the scenarios described in the first paragraph of this post.

Teaching now is amazing in that it happens in so many places and ways — it’s been untethered from its brick and mortar origins. But for the teacher who really wants each class to be special, there’s a lot (more) to consider. I like this challenge . . . or I guess I wouldn’t still be teaching as much as I do.

Secret Backroads

Continuing the theme of not knowing / unknowing from yesterday . . .

My favorite part of late July has been a shift that I’ve noticed in my son, who is just starting out his journey as a teenager.

Lately, he’s been asking me lots of questions. An easy 300% more than usual and none of them having to do with screen time or his next meal.

As we weave up the switchbacks on our way from Lloyd Road to the Highlawn Pavillion on our way to West Orange . . .

How do you know your way around all these secret backroads? How did you learn about them?

As we ease onto and off 280 West or East . . .

“How did these roads get these names, and why are so many of the names numbers?

As we pass an ice pack back and forth on the couch, from my foot (running) to his leg (soccer), and he clicks the TV from the Democratic debates to WWE Smackdown . . .

Why are these the people who are running for President? Is this real? Do you think that hurts?

As we wait for yesterday’s pizza to heat up in the oven . . .

Why is milk a sponsor of the Olympics?

Though I can’t answer most of these questions, I love them so much. They wake me up to the life around me, show me a young man starting to crawl out of himself and into the world, and remind me that we often know each other best when we wrap our arms around what we don’t know, solvable or not, sayable or not. We have no clue. And that’s just fine.

Just make a left, there, at that fence near the pine . . .

The Word Cloud of Unknowing

I suppose one way to judge a week, and one’s inquiries during that week, is to make a list of the words or phrases that you had to look up or, as my kids would say, search up. So far this week, here’s my word cloud of unknowing:

Phase transition

Infill site

UTM code

I’m not going to define these terms for you because, depending on the kind of week you’re having, searching them up could be just what you need.

Actor or Agent?

When planning and dealing with all the problems and possibilities inherent in any given week, ask yourself:

Am I the agent or the actor?

Being the agent requires you to ensure the conditions for someone else’s performance. You need to market the show, check the lighting and sound before the show, coach the actors where necessary and in the right ways, manage the audience, and deal with all the unexpected things that happen up to and through showtime.

Being the actor requires you to bring your full self / energy / attention to a situation. You need to ensure that you are well trained, well rested (or as a runner would say, appropriately tapered), fueled, and clear headed.

Look at your big events or meetings for the week and apply the Agent or Actor lens. See if that makes a difference in how you approach your work and the way things unfold.

Make Yourself Clear: The Owen Jennings Edition

Thus far, I’ve expressed Make Yourself Clear gratitude to Jason Wingard, Dean of the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University, and Keri Potts, Senior Director of Communications for ESPN. Today, I’m turning my attention to Owen Jennings, Product Lead at Cash App, a mobile payment service developed by Square.

I met Owen when he was a high school student who would ask me questions that routinely exposed the limits of my knowledge. For example, he once walked into my office and said, “I’ve been comparing a few respective citation system, and I have some questions about inconsistencies I have found.” And then he walked through them, item by item, my curiosity rising along with his as I said, “I don’t know . . . let’s find out . . . you’ve stumped me . . . that’s interesting.”

I followed his career as he moved from studying philosophy and researching health care in college to working for Ray Dalio at Bridgewater to ultimately falling in with the finance arm — Square — of Jack Dorsey’s business interests. When people heard about those transitions, they frequently scratched their heads, but they all made sense to me. Owen Jennings is one of the most indiscriminately intelligent people I have ever met.

What I mean by that is simpler than it sounds. Regardless of the topic or problem, he rises to it with vigor and questions. Could be Sartre; could be scooter-sharing systems in San Francisco. He likes to take things apart so that he can understand them. He likes to know how the world works, and he knows that you can get there, to deeper understanding of the world, through a variety of pathways. Citation systems, philosophy, health care, economics — there’s really no need to compartmentalize. All puzzles strengthen the enigmatologist; and all solved puzzles improve all unsolved puzzles. Or at least that’s what Jennings continues to teach me as he continues to introduce me to things that make me say, “I don’t know . . . let’s find out . . . you’ve stumped me . . . that’s interesting.”

When Reshan and I spoke to him while writing our book, he seized most quickly and directly on the concept of Immediacy, which we define as “what happens when a transaction occurs at a time when it is most meaningful and helpful for all parties.” In fact, Jennings said that Immediacy was “top of mind” when his company was building one of its most innovative products, Boost.

Boost allows customers to receive instant discounts from debit card purchases. In our book, Jennings offers a deep look (or, rather, as deep as our editor would ultimately allow him to go!) at what are called “rewards programs” associated with credit and debit cards. In so doing, he explains the way in which Boost is using Immediacy to improve transactions, by improving rewards, between paying customers and brands. To simplify greatly, when a customer earns a Boost on a product like, say, Chipotle, he or she receives an instant discount, eliminating the usual game of accruing points and ultimately trading them in. The brand, in this case, Chipotle, also benefits in terms of customer acquisition and retention.

Jennings helped us to understand how Immediacy is serving as an operating principle for some of the most innovative products and services currently available. As is his way, though, he also helped us to understand a completely different aspect of our work — Authenticity — when he went off on a tangent about how customer service is changing in many industries due to excessive automation. We included that excerpt in the Authenticity section of the book because it was simply too good to leave out of the final manuscript. Which is a good way to think of Owen Jennings more broadly, and across the variety of fields he inhabits.

Below is some of the art that has appeared on the Cash App Twitter page on Fridays. I’m including it because I’ve mentioned the first two sections of our book and not the third. The third section is about Delight. Here’s some:

Readers, United

As people have read and reacted to Make Yourself Clear, we have been building out a page on the book’s website to show a chapter-by-chapter progression. Here’s a quick invitation if you’re up for it.

  1. Read what readers of MYC have been saying.
  2. Send us your own reaction to a chapter (or to what has already been said about a chapter). We’d love to include more voices on the page, which if you haven’t clicked on it yet, looks like this: