Clarity First Newsletter,
December 6, 2019

“Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.” -Anne Lamott

Clarity First

A notebook about how we work, and learn, and love and live.

This week a friend thanked me for the weekly dose of optimism that this letter represents. I had to remind her that some weeks it is very difficult to find that optimism. The relentless attacks on decency, democracy and the truth by our “leaders” day in and day out are wearying at best and as frightening as hell at worst.

And that’s where hope comes in. Because love, and our ability to share and be generous with it, is bigger than anything the bastards can throw at us.

Happy Friday. Take a moment today and just hold someone you love.


Why it feels like everything is going haywire

“The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.

“For example, in ‘Federalist No. 10,’ James Madison wrote about his fear of the power of ‘faction, by which he meant strong partisanship or group interest that ‘inflamed [men] with mutual animosity’ and made them forget about the common good. He thought that the vastness of the United States might offer some protection from the ravages of factionalism, because it would be hard for anyone to spread outrage over such a large distance. Madison presumed that factious or divisive leaders ‘may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.’ The Constitution included mechanisms to slow things down, let passions cool, and encourage reflection and deliberation.”

The design proved to be exceptionally responsive and durable for two centuries. But then came social media. How does a system designing itself to support the common good, one that identifies a free press as a foundational pillar, react to a technology that makes it really easy to find and spread mutual animosity?

Article: The Dark Psychology of Social Networks

Social Innovation, System Leadership

“Ineffective leaders try to make change happen. System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining.”

“At no time in history have we needed such system leaders more. We face a host of systemic challenges beyond the reach of existing institutions and their hierarchical authority structures. Problems like climate change, destruction of ecosystems, growing scarcity of water, youth unemployment, and embedded poverty and inequity require unprecedented collaboration among different organizations, sectors, and even countries. Sensing this need, countless collaborative initiatives have arisen in the past decade—locally, regionally, and even globally. Yet more often than not they have floundered—in part because they failed to foster collective leadership within and across the collaborating organizations.”

Article: The Dawn of System Leadership


Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.

Simon Fraser/Science Source

David Brooks is at it again in the NYT: “It’s interesting how many scientists are now focusing on the thinking that happens not in your brain but in your gut. You have neurons spread through your innards, and there’s increasing attention on the vagus nerve, which emerges from the brain stem and wanders across the heart, lungs, kidney and gut.

“The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.”

“…When you step back and see the brain and body thinking together, the old distinction between reason and emotion doesn’t seem to make sense. Your very perception of the world is shaped by the predictions your brain is making about your physical autonomic states.

“You also see how important it is to teach emotional granularity, something our culture pays almost no attention to.

“You also see that we’re not separate brains, coolly observing each other. We’re physical viscera, deeply interacting with each other. The important communication is happening at a much deeper level.”

Article: The Wisdom Your Body Knows


Nobel Prize-winning scientists are about 25 times more likely to sing, dance or act than the average scientist. 

Albert Einstein used music for scientific inspiration. (Credit: Alamy)

On the BBC Worklife blog David Robson has been doing a deep dive into what makes a polymath, and he’s been wondering if their cross-discipline expertise can help tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges.

He cites evidence that “developing diverse disciplines can fuel creativity and productivity. So while the pursuit of a second or third interest may seem like a distraction, it can actually boost your success in your primary field”.

He discovers that “studies have found that Nobel Prize-winning scientists are about 25 times more likely to sing, dance or act than the average scientist. They are also 17 times more likely to create visual art, 12 times more likely to write poetry and four times more likely to be a musician.”

And he learns that “there is now a growing recognition that, when concentrating on any complex endeavor, the brain often reaches a kind of saturation point, after which your attention may fade and any extra effort may fail to pay off. But if you turn to another, unrelated activity, you may find that you are better able to apply yourself. Shifting between different kinds of tasks can therefore boost your overall productivity.”

Article: Why Some People Are Impossibly Talented


“Solo brainstorming ensures that all people are heard.”

Yes, brainstorming can really suck. But, over a 30 year history the satirical newspaper, The Onion, has honed a very deliberate process for brainstorming headlines and story ideas that just might be the secret of their success. The key is found in a balance between solo and group work sessions.

Article: No joke! Yes, you can learn from the seriously applicable ways that The Onion brainstorms its ideas

Design, User Needs

Why searching for ‘personas’ may be a fool’s game. Why it might make more sense to focus on the behavior of the end user.


Image by Common Good

The term persona stands for a representation of an individual person, which carries a lot of subjectivity.

The goal is to understand what your customer is searching for. As you’ve heard me cite Tom Peters before, “Harley Davidson does not sell motorcycles”.

“The term behavioral archetype is more accurate as it relates to a typical example of customer behaviors which is characteristic for a group subset of the audience.”

“This means that a behavioral archetype should encompass how a type of customer perceives the brand, what motivates them to engage with it, what they expect, and how they reflect on their experience. As behavioral archetypes look particularly at motivations they are useful for determining what drives or harms loyalty in the long run.”

Article: Behavioral Archetypes Instead of Personas

Design, User Experience

2020 is the year of pragmatic optimism. 

Fabricio Teixeira                                     Caio Braga

“It is the year for designers to conscientiously improve not only the digital products people use every day, but also our companies and our industry.”

Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga are two designers who believe deeply in the transformative power of user experience. Sure, a lot of information about UX is available online for free. “But there’s a lot. UX is becoming increasingly popular, and with that comes a lot of clutter, noise and disorientation.

“UX Collective is our attempt at curating some of that content and giving it back to the community in a more structured and digestible way.” They’ve been doing this with a great website since 2016.

“After curating and sharing 2,411 links with 358,917 designers all around the world, we have identified a few of the trends our industry has been writing, talking, and thinking about.”

This is a long but very important and reassuring read. Yes, the system is broken. But no, it’s not too late for careful and conscientious designers to help make it right.

Article: The State of UX in 2020


I like playing the game ‘desert island disc’. If you were stranded on a desert isle, and you had only five recording artists to fill your playlists, who would they be? No matter how many times I play the game, the guitarist Bill Frisell always makes it on to my list, right next to John Coltrane and The Beatles.

This year he signed to Blue Note records, and in August released his latest album, Harmony. This marks the 40th album by the ridiculously proliferate artist, and that doesn’t count the other 100+ he has played on in collaboration with other artists like John Zorn, Vernon Reid, Elvis Costello, and Marianne Faithful. (Come to think of it, this prolificacy alone makes him the ideal Desert Island Disc contender.) Harmony is also the name of the group he assembled for this project with Petra Haden on vocals, Hank Roberts on cello, and Luke Bergman on guitar.

The group’s music is quiet, masterfully played and hauntingly beautiful. Here they are covering the standard On The Street Where You Live.

The label has released a short film that features Frisell talking about the genesis of the group and the album. It provides a delightfully open window into the mind of a brilliant master. I love how he describes Petra’s vocal styling as giving him something “to push against”. To see him describe his and her musicianship as a physical construct using his hands poised akimbo is priceless. We even get to see his phenomenal record collection.

Video: Bill Frisell – HARMONY (Album Trailer)

Image of the Week

The image of the week is titled 6th Avenue Subway Post (1942-44), by Charles L. Turner. It is a digital preservation print of 16mm film. The print is hung now through July 5, 2020 in MoMA’s first exhibition composed entirely of home movies.

“To watch a home movie is often to engage in a staring contest with the person on screen — if you observe them long enough, they’ll smile. It’s the effect of the portable camera, inevitably wielded by someone with a personal relationship to whoever is put in front of it. In “Private Lives Public Spaces,” MoMA’s first exhibition composed entirely of home movies, visitors are placed into the perspective of these amateur filmmakers, lovingly capturing their subjects on these costly new machines. It’s easy to settle into the experience of wandering through the lives of strangers, ever so often stumbling upon a choice moment — a young girl eating a popsicle in slow-motion, the way a mother looks at her newborn — and feeling, perhaps like the cameraperson did at the time, like you’ve just struck gold.”

Article: The Artful Amateurism of Home Movies

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