The forgotten corners of our landscapes: Exploration, discovery, and a journey to Prague Lake by creek bed
I often think about how little of our landscape we really know, even around our own homes.
The fact that we're spending ever-increasing amounts of our time in front of digital screens- televisions, computers, and phones- is well documented and doesn't need to be discussed in detail here. Yet these screens follow and haunt us. A moment isn't complete until it's been thoroughly captured via photograph and video and shared on social media.
Many of us spend a good portion of our day staring out of the car's windshield, itself a screen that insulates and separates the viewer inside the vehicle from film roll outside. Only instead of the projector turning the film, the car turns us. We move freely where we wish, but usually on the fastest or most convenient roads- and in the process watch the same movie frames roll by the windows as everyone else, everyday. Box store, liquor store, shopping mall, gas station.
We eventually tune out our commute. We know the movie inside and out, so it becomes background noise. After all, we care more about doing, not seeing or travelling. Why else would budding international travellers say, "I've done Rome and Paris, but not London." Replace the city names with people's names and this same statement sounds vulgar. Instead of an act of discovery and exploration, travel becomes an act of achievement, a monument to our deified Lists: The Bucket List, The Wish List, The To Do List... ah, but we must cross off the next task on our tyrannic To Do List: a sort of holy scripture in whose name we mentally flagellate ourselves for our inevitable failures.
And so our travels become distractions that stand in the way of doing something more useful or shareable on Instagram. To pass the time and avoid boredom, we zoom around in our vehicles as fast as we can, seeing as little as possible in between, listening to music or audiobooks or talking on the phone.
To be clear, despite the slanted language, I think the great mass of human civilization functions just fine for the most part. Highways, for example, are wonderful: road trips that took a week now take a day. We can maximize our precious time in this expanding universe. All I've mentioned isn't necessarily bad in and of itself, it just is, a byproduct of how we live. For the most part, I happen to like how I live. In fact, notice the use of the pronoun "our" in most of the above statements I wrote.
But I do wonder what we lose in the bargain. As Emerson said in Self Reliance:
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. Its progress is only apparent like the workers of a treadmill. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts.
In this case, we maximize our productivity while losing our spontaneity. We seek control and achievement and lose curiosity, wonder, and discovery.
Even were we to be mindful in these circumstances, we're unlikely to discover much that is new or spellbinding. Instead, we see the trivial, the obvious: exactly what the city planners, highway designers, and marketing experts have designed the road to show us.
"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything."
Know where the word obvious comes from? Latin obvium, or a crossroads where two major highways intersected. Trivial? Latin as well- a trivium was a crossroads where three major highways intersected. Because they were natural points of convergence and encounter, everyone knew what happened there. There was no discovery- everything at an obvium and a trivium was obvious and trivial. Incidentally, a trivium was also what Romans called the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Since the educated class all learned this canon of common knowledge, you could also say that for them, it was trivial.
I mentioned these etymologies previously in my article on journeys of self-discovery. A quote I used in that article bears repeating here:
To travel the paths that everyone travels gives existence to obviousness and trivialities, to abandon the well worn paths and explore paths lesser known to most is usually considered to give valuable knowledge and experience... It was a means of acquiring experience, knowledge, and prestige, and while it was dangerous it was also an adventure, and a daring challenge for the audacious.
Discovery and learning occurs off the main roads, where few, if any, have trod before. Or, if not arriving at new destinations, then learning follows from attempting on our own and in our own way to arrive at the known destination. The best teachers are those that show you where to leave the trodden path of past thinkers and doers and give you a compass to navigate your own way to the end. Discovery presupposes the act of exploration.
When we delegate 100% of our discovery potential to the engineers, designers, and marketers that have designed our roads, products, and media then we relegate ourselves to triviality.
I like how Joseph Campbell expresses this idea:
The Grail Knights thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group. Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path. If there is a path it is someone else's path and you are not on the adventure.
How can we make the time to discover and explore without churlishly turning our backs on the tools and trappings of the 21st century? How can avoid becoming "men [who] have become the tools of their tools", as Thoreau put it?
I don't know yet. I'm still trying to figure it out, as I'm sure most of us are. But I think it's a problem worth solving.
I note with alarm my inability to sit and observe when I have nothing else to do: instead I sit anxiously fidgeting with my phone. It distresses me to try and remember when the last time was that I let myself consciously enter a daydream, instead of always having something productive to do.
I would like to share a particular circumstance in which I did abandon myself to whim and exploration during the winter holidays with my family.
I was exploring the rocky woods behind our pond- a couple acres of oak, pine, and scrub that I've slowly been developing with a very rough system of foot trails.
As I followed the mostly dry creek bed that led from the pond, I thought (rather obviously) that the creek must come from somewhere (the neighbor's pond) and it must go somewhere. I had a suspicion that it might lead to Prague Lake, the local reservoir. A quick look at a map confirmed my suspicion.
The idea came over me: what if I followed the creek to the lake?
So a couple days later I went. In doing so, I certainly explored parts of my home and landscape I never thought I would see. I can't say I accomplished anything terrific or great by tracing the creek bed to the pond (about 5 miles, if I had to guess), but I certainly feel the richer for having done so.
Enjoy the pictures below- and I hope they inspire acts of exploration in your own life!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
"I just don't think you all are going to make it. You're not in wheelchairs yourselves, so how can you know what a wheelchair user wants?"
That was the gist of what a visiting oil and gas entrepreneur told my business partner about our social business startup, which as you can probably guess, aims to create innovative products for wheelchair users.
The problem with his statement is that if true, it completely invalidates the field of social entrepreneurship.
I don't think he was right. As I'll explain, social businesses work because they have the same engine under the hood as a traditional business: a way of bringing in revenue in a repeatable and scalable fashion from customers, or a business model. I'll also explain how, with the right mindset and methodology, social businesses can thrive even without being their own customers.
You can scratch other people's itches too
But first, let's talk a bit about why we hear this oft repeated advice so much. The writers of Rework, Jason Fried and David Hansson call it "scratching your own itch". Generally, this is great advice. If you're your own customer, figuring out how to make your customer happy starts with making yourself happy! As Fried and Hansson point out, for example, Nike was started by a track coach who wanted better running shoes for his team.
Heavenly Bread: A Social Business Case Study
Social ventures can also be a great example of this. Heavenly Bread, a social impact bakery in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had a dual-fold social mission. The first was to provide fresh, nutritional, and preservative-free whole-grain bread to the community. The founder loved her bread and wanted to share it with the community- she is a perfect example of her own customer in this sense.
But let's look at the other side to her social mission. Appalled by Oklahoma's exceedingly high rate of female incarceration (the highest in the nation, in fact) and the difficulty of reintegrating into society after incarceration, she decided to have an open employment policy. And in fact, her first employee was a formerly-incarcerated woman. Let's call her Jane.
While technically the founder's employee, from the perspective of a social business, Jane was receiving a service from Heavenly Bread. Heavenly Bread gave her a job when nearly no-one else would have. The company was attempting to provide a certain segment of the population (formerly incarcerated women) with a socially-impactful service (a steady job they likely couldn't get anywhere else, and without which would likely return to jail). Having never been jailed, the founder was not a member of this population segment.
Despite not having lived the same experiences as her formerly-incarcerated employee, the founder was successful in providing the service to her. After perhaps a half year of working with Heavenly Bread, Jane successfully transitioned out of her job there and into a new company. She likely wouldn't have been able to gain the job without her experience at Heavenly Bread, which helped Jane psychologically transition back to society but also gain the post-prison work experience a potential employer would want to see before hiring her.
So here we have one company that has elements of both kinds of organizations. They are their own customers from the bakery side, but like many social businesses, they also tried to help improve the condition of a distinct segment of the population of which they were not a part.
Build products your customers want to buy
The goal of any new business, social businesses included, should be to find paying customers as soon as possible. This is the feedback mechanism that makes businesses so agile. If you think about it, when a customer gives you money it means that they think the product is valuable enough that they would spend their hard-earned money on it. Suddenly, you don't need to be your own customer- you have successfully scratched the itch of someone else. There are follow-up questions to ask (how many customers are there out there? Do you make enough of a margin off sales to cover costs and expand?) but you've done what is without a doubt the hardest part of starting a new organization: creating a solution people are willing to pay for.
Social impact non-profits may be able to stay afloat from donations, but the point of a social business is that the organization can, at the least, become financially self-sustaining through customer-generated income. If you don't have an effective solution to your customer's problems, you're going to find it out very quickly when no one buys the product. And those who do buy the product will gladly tell you what they really think about it because they've got skin in the game- their money. When I work with startups, I always tell them that feedback from paying customers is the best, hands-down. Otherwise, people will lie through their teeth to you about your product to not hurt your feelings.
Getting to the point of paying customers
Getting to a sale (or even a paid beta) is a huge milestone for a new business. But how do you get to that point? And as social innovators scratching someone else's itch, how can we collect quality feedback when we're too early stage for revenue and thus lack that as a feedback mechanism?
The answer: rapid, experiential prototypes tested with a scientific method.
This will be familiar to Agile or Lean Startup practitioners. This section is designed to explain why these principles are important and show some examples of them in action.
Rapid. No one builds the perfect product right from the beginning. The product always changes as it goes from idea to reality- so we want the cost to change to be as low as possible. There needs to be a focus on quick and rapid prototypes so that as we learn new information, it's as easy as possible to build the next version of the prototype.
The faster we build and test simple versions of the product, the faster we learn. The faster we learn, the faster we can adapt to what works, and the sooner we can get to a working solution. The quicker and dirtier the prototypes, the faster you move and the less time and money you waste. Want to know what some of the first prototypes were for the wheelchair lift my startup is developing? Stacked pallets in one case and stacked reams of copy paper in another. You can't get quicker and dirtier than that.
Scientific. We want to build our social ventures on a solid platform of objective data. This means being able to isolate variables and collect data so that as we build our prototypes, we know what is and isn't working and what needs to be changed.
Business plans, a necessary evil, are usually just a collection of guesses about how we think our business, industry and market will perform. Once you start building rapid prototypes, you can take some of these hypotheses and test them to see if they are actually true or not. Really what we're trying to get at with our rapid prototypes is, before we even launch our product or service, how can we prove objectively that we're building the right product?
In the case of the pallet and paper prototypes of the wheelchair lift, we needed to know very early on if wheelchair users wanted to be lifted from the seat while the chair remained on the ground, or if they preferred to have their whole wheelchair lifted with them. So we stacked copy paper under their seats to test the former, and lifted them onto pallets to test the latter. In a day's work, we learned an important insight about how the product functioned that might have wasted months of time had we tried to mimic the actual lifting technology. In this case, all the wheelchair users we worked with preferred to have their whole chair lifted. They felt more stable having the entire wheelchair lifted with them.
This is the core of the Lean Startup cycle I teach in classes and workshops: A hypothesis you need to validate, the experiment you'll validate it with (a quick prototype and metrics to judge them by) and actionable insights. I say actionable because if the results don't change your behavior in some way, it's a bad experiment! Also, many people start with the prototype they want to build and come up with a generic, unspecific or unusable hypothesis as an afterthought. This is backwards, and results in experiments that don't actually put the hypothesis to the test! It's imperative to decide what you want to validate first, and why that's important to know (in other words, how it changes your behavior). Having decided that, you can design your experiment and prototype.
Experiential. I take experiential to mean two things: Experiential prototyping as a process that incubates empathy, and experiential prototypes as a type of rapid prototype.
Let's talk about the process first. By making the prototyping and product development process as experiential as possible, you're empathizing with your customers. In a social business in which you're not your own customer, the more you can empathize with your customer and understand their fears, motivations and desires, the better a solution you can design for them. This is really the core of the Human-Centered Design movement: you're tearing down the veil of "otherness" that separates the product designers from the product users.
In one great example of how to do this, Nordstream tasked their innovation team with developing an app that added value to the sunglass shopping experience. The entire team set up shop inside a Nordstrom store, in the sunglass department. The whole team interviewed until they had a decent idea of what the app needed to be. Then the coders, working at desks they set up around the sunglass displays, coded it in front of their potential users. They could build a working version and immediately turn it over to have it tested. While they were working on the first running version, the rest of the team used sharpies and copy paper to build mockups they could test with customers. That way, the programmers knew exactly what they would build in the first version. I highly recommend watching the video as it's a great illustration of all three of these principles at work.
Other ways to empathize more with customers:
These are just a few ideas, but hopefully they spark some of your own!
You can also make an experiential prototype as a type of rapid prototype. Let me give you an example.
A startup I worked with called Park Ave wanted to build a marketplace for buyers and sellers of parking spaces during special events like sports games and concerts. They had already started building the app, but before they sunk 6 more months into developing it they wanted to know if there was actually a market for it. So they went out that weekend and spent two days at a baseball game series, talking to potential customers trying to sell them a parking spot for the next game in the series.
Notice that while they're not testing the technology (the app that would take months to develop), they are still in fact testing the value proposition of the app (that parking at special events is enough of a hassle that users will pay to reserve a spot in advance). They're testing the experience of using the product. Almost no one cares how whiz-bang the technology is, they care about if the technology makes them cooler in some way. So the most effective rapid prototypes are also experiential in that they get at the root of how the users would feel using a product if it actually existed.
After all, people use products because of how it changes their experience of the world. Entrepreneurs, even social entrepreneurs, tend to equate the value proposition of their product with the product itself, or with its features. That's only half the story. The value proposition is what the product does and why that's important to the user. Does it save them time or money? Does it make them feel cooler or more heroic? It's the experience of using the product that counts- not just usability, but also how the user's experience of the world changes through using the product.
In Park Ave's case, they learned through 3 to 4 cycles of week-long tests that there was not in fact a market for this product. They then pivoted to a new product. Their new idea resulted in a $10,000 paid beta with a major state university, which they are currently in the process of conducting. The point here is that they avoided 6 months of useless programming and product development and learned through a few weeks worth of rapid, experiential prototyping that their product wouldn't succeed. Instead, they're spending their time building something they know their customer wants because they've already been paid for it.
Generally, it's a good thing to be your own customer. Assuming you're a decently self-aware person, there's no customer discovery to be done.
However, this advice shouldn't be taken to the extreme. Social businesses can, and do, succeed and thrive even in situations where the founders aren't their own ideal customer and are scratching someone else's itch.
Because social entrepreneurs use business as a vehicle to deliver social impact, finding paying customers is the ultimate validation that you're scratching the right place and the itch is going away. The key becomes getting to that point, perhaps even in the form of a paid beta or preorders, as soon as possible.
Agile and Lean Startup methodologies are crucial to getting your social business to that point and beyond. Namely, social entrepreneurs should aim to validate their critical assumptions about their business and customers by using rapid, experiential prototyping to test what works and what doesn't work quickly and cheaply, all while building an empathic understanding of the customer's fundamental experience of life and resulting trials and vicissitudes.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
This is the second part of the series, where I talk about how to implement the principles I wrote about in part 1.
5. Use the technology you always have on hand to create an immersion bubble.
Three devices form the cornerstones of my language learning. You may use other tools, and I encourage you to think about how you can use these to design for your desired outcome (L2 immersion) by making slight changes to your existing technology habits
a) My smartphone. I was planning on writing a more in-depth article on using a phone as tool for language learning, which I haven't gotten around to yet. My big takeaway though was this: Find 2-3 L2 immersion apps that form the backbone of your immersion, and put them on your homescreen. The hard part is forming the habit of using them regularly. I'd recommend experimenting to find the apps, and media, you most enjoy. In my case, I've used two apps far more than any others: a French radio app with several talk show channels, and Duolingo (more on that in rule 6).
b) My Kindle. This has been one of my best investments, period, particularly for language learning. I've filled my kindle with dozens of books in five different languages. L2 ebooks can be easily found online. I won't condone wantonly downloading illegal copies from the internet, but that is an option. For the honest folks out there, an easy way to get foreign language ebooks from a foreign Amazon marketplace (like amazon.br, amazon.it, etc) is to switch your account briefly to that country. You keep all your digital content and account information, but you can shop from that website instead. This is important because, for example, you can't get Brazilian ebooks on the US Amazon market. So if you're learning Portuguese, you can switch your marketplace to Amazon.br, download all the ebooks you want, and switch back to the US marketplace. All your content transfers. On that note, I think that because of the way the EU works, if your marketplace is set to, say, amazon.es (Spain) you can still download Italian, Portuguese, etc. ebooks.
Foreign language dictionaries built in to the Kindle allow you to tap an unknown L2 word and have it defined for you, right there. Even cooler, the Kindle tracks the words you've looked up and creates a flashcard deck built into the device. On the front of the digital flashcard, it shows the sentence the word came in with the unknown word underlined. You're getting the word in it's context, which is huge. On the back, it defines the word. You can also highlight entire passages you like and transfer them easily to your computer. For readers, a Kindle really does change the way you approach learning to read in your L2.
c) My netbook. I've loaded my netbook (as well as an external hard drive) with hundreds of gigabytes of TV shows, music, and movies in the languages I'm learning. There are plenty of sites where you can stream media from the internet, which I occasionally do. I still prefer to have the hard copies, however, because it makes it much easier to open them up at my leisure and watch or listen to them.
I usually leave a TV show or movie playing in the background as much as possible. In fact, as I write this I'm listening to a French dubbed episode of How I Met Your Mother (Season 8, Episode 2 in case you're wondering). It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that I learned Italian by watching How I Met Your Mother dubbed in Italian hundreds of times over the past couple of years. And yes, I really like the show.
6. Do small bits of active output in your L2 each day.
I say active to distinguish it from passive input. I think of watching a movie or listening to music as passive. I don't use the word negatively, but you're not really interacting with the media in those cases. Good examples of active learning for beginners are the language app Duolingo, and a Spaced Repetition System (a fancy name for flashcard program), or SRS. I've always used an SRS program called Anki. If you have a Kindle, you could even try using the flashcard program built into the device (described in rule 5), though you do lose your control over the content in that case.
On the topic of how to build an SRS deck, I'll yield the floor to those who know much more about it than I do:
I have mixed feelings on Duolingo but I do use it. Why? It's easy to digest because of its small, short exercises; I can do it on my phone in between bigger tasks, it supplements my passive input and finally, it gives me a sense of progress and completion, especially important in the beginning phases of learning a language. I plan on starting an SRS deck after I finish the French Duolingo exercises. No sense doing both at the same time because they fulfill the same purpose for me: easy to do exercises that gives my logical, conscious brain a sense of progress while my subconscious is busy soaking everything in. If buying a Rosetta Stone type program if your equivalent of this, great. In that case the price tag might serve as extra motivation to keep you accountable and you may enjoy that type of software more than the two examples I've given.
The exception to this rule is if you just started, in which case rule 2 is more important.
7. Challenge yourself to use the language in contextually meaningful or real world situations.
This is taking the "active output" idea I mentioned in rule 6 to the next level.
Reading is a great activity that I'd recommend trying before you feel comfortable doing so. I know it's not technically output, but reading comprehension is certainly an end goal that many language learners put off. If you're want to read a book for pleasure, try and find it translated. Find books you can read: start with kid books or books you've already read in English. Pair it with a Kindle to get built in dictionaries and easy flashcard content, or use the highlight feature to pull your own SRS content and build MCD style cards as described in the two links in rule 6.
Reading is the number one way to improve your vocabulary, but it also won't help with speaking or speaking comprehension. For that, I love video games. Playing a video game you enjoy dubbed in your L2 is fun, low stress, and best of all, it 1) requires you to understand what's going on, and 2) pairs the language with context (so you can understand what's going on more easily) and feedback (ie your actions in the video game have results, which confirms or corrects your understanding of the language). I use Steam to download L2 videogames. The trick is to change the settings of your Steam to your L2. The program will then download language packs for your games, automatically switching to dubs, if they're available.
If you're in a position where you can actually start talking with native speakers of your L2, then you can really accelerate your progress. One common suggestion is to find a language parent. This is somehow who doesn't mind talking to you like you're a toddler, gently correcting your mistakes, making an effort to understand you, and showing you around. I can say the language parent idea is excellent- I've used it myself in varying ways. Best in my opinion is dating someone who speaks the L2 but doesn't speak your L1. How exactly you go about finding a language parent is probably a topic for another article. Mainly it's a question of being personable and taking every opportunity to chat people up in your L2.
Tim Ferriss recommends you immediately learn the following phrases before any others:
The apple is red.
It is John's apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.
Is the apple red?
The apples are red.
I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.
I'm going to know tomorrow.
I have eaten the apple.
I can't eat the apple.
The idea is that by learning these you're getting all the basics of sentence structure and conjugation. For example, you can think of them as formulas you can plug new nouns into. If you can say "I want an apple", you can learn any new noun and already know how to express your desire for it. He also stresses using helping verbs to simplify your task. Learning to conjugate to have + a past participle (I have eaten, for example) is way easier for beginners than learning myriad conjugations for all the different kinds of past tenses. And more importantly, as Ferriss notes, with this structure and the extra vocabulary you pick up (focusing on the hundred or so most common words) you can start saying most anything you'd want to say.
I also hit up friends I have in Italy, for example, to skype with me on a semiregular basis. You can offer to help them with their English or in some other way. If you lack an existing L2 friend group, you can use language exchange websites like livemocha or ask your friends who have traveled, worked, or studied abroad to introduce you to a friend. I've skyped with an Italian guy that a mutual friend introduced me to in this way.
The End Game
How do you know when you've reached your goal? How do you know when to stop learning and challenging yourself to improve your L2? These are fair, reasonable questions.
But a better question to ask is: if you're having fun, doing things that are personally meaningful and important, and connecting with amazing people, all in your L2... why would you ever stop?
Learning a language well means inventing, creating, or redefining yourself in some way. The language becomes a part of your identity, and a cherished part of it at that, filling your life with fun, adventure, and meaning. Learning a new language and putting it in practice is the ultimate opportunity to write your own narrative and reinvent yourself accordingly.
Those are the 7 rules I use on a daily basis. They are not inclusive of all possible learning strategies, and in describing them I've undoubtedly left out many interesting nuances and useful tactical considerations. But they have served me well, and if you accept the basic principles then I believe they can work for anyone. Language learning isn't hard, and it's not rocket science. It does, however, require lots of sustained input (so why not make it fun input), healthy motivations (like an interest or passion for some part of the culture), and a bit of courage in its application. I trust that these ideas have mapped out a path, albeit a rough one, through the craggy mountains to the sunlit uplands of multi-lingualism.
This is the first of a two part series. In this post, I'll cover the first four rules, which are more strategic directives. The second post, with the last three rules, covers the tactical concerns of how to implement the principles I talk about in this article.
Language learning is a passion of mine. It started when I was a Freshman at OU and decided to study abroad for a month during the summer of 2010. That got me hooked on both travel and Spanish. In the years since then, I've honed, distilled, and refined my language learning philosophy and methodology, which I'm going to share through 7 rules. I call them rules, but they're really more rules of thumb. To quote George Orwell, "Break any of these rules sooner than say [or do] anything outright barbarous."
Since studying abroad in Chile, I've had the wonderful opportunity to travel to nearly a dozen countries, and I've used these ideas to learn Spanish and Italian. Currently I'm applying them to learn Portuguese and especially French.
The rules are as follows, with explanations further below:
First off, I will say that very few, if any of these ideas are original. While I have made them my own, so to speak, I had several very formative teachers (who probably don't even know I exist). Of particular importance to my development was the website All Japanese All The Time (Thank you Madi-san for introducing me to the website!). The tagline on ajatt.com is very informative: "You don't know a language, you live it. You don't learn a language, you get used to it."
Stay tuned for the second part, where I dive into how to implement these rules.
...sees much and knows much