Late last night, I returned from the Conscious Life Workshop hosted by Steve Pavlina in Las Vegas.
I have read Steve's blog on and off since I was 16. He began doing workshops several years ago (I can't recall how many), and I always wanted to attend one. But it was never the right time. Ah, as a teenager, had I the money? Had I the circumstances to take advantage of such a workshop?
This time, the universe aligned. I had the money to afford it, and the airline miles for the free plane flight. I had the time, and I had taken the leap, having left my job at OU Economic Development on August 1st. To give you a reference point, one of Steve's most famous articles is 10 reasons you should never get a job. The topic of the workshop was balancing your ideal lifestyle with creating $10,000 in monthly income, a very relevant topic as I find myself CEO of a 4 month old startup with $0 in revenue.
And it was a fantastic experience!
It was very oriented around doing specific exercises and brainstormings to identify your ideal lifestyle, redefine your relationship with money, and hone in on strategies to generate income in a fulfilling way. I already had my "leap of faith" after leaving my job at the beginning of the month, for many of the others at the workshop (there were 125 of us) it was an impetus to take the leap. One attendee from Germany emailed his boss during the lunch break on the second day to let him know that he was quitting.
The big takeaway from the workshop, around which everything else was organized, was that creating your ideal lifestyle should be the top priority. That is the biggest component of personal happiness. Once you have your ideal lifestyle, you can design your income streams and work around that. I think it's a smart idea. If you put off pursuing happiness in favor of accumulating dross or shackling yourself to your career, then chances are you'll never make the time to pursue your ideal lifestyle. There will always be one more promotion, another million to squirrel away, etc. Steve's point was that those that prioritize creating their ideal lifestyle, tend to succeed at balancing their work and income.
I think it's a powerful way to frame your life. Ask any creative type, and they'll tell you that identifying your constraints early on does not hinder but rather aids problem solving. By knowing what you need to work around, it grounds the problem- in this case, how can I make money!- and gives you a starting point. This is the same reason that a good pattern language is such a powerful tool, because you're pre-making a large swath of decisions based on essential top-down principles and allowing your creativity to shine in the implementation of those decisions.
I created the following one-pager to synthesize my biggest takeaways from the workshop. I'm afraid it lacks the illustrative details and anecdotes that bring the points to life, but I hope that you'll find it useful anyway!
In the meantime, I'll be busy honing in on what I think is my ideal lifestyle. I feel like I am at a crossroads, an intersection of oh-so-many enticing paths and trails leading to who-knows-what kind of adventures, treasures, and trouble. What an exciting time of possibility, of exploration and reinvention!
Thanks to all my new friends from the workshop- Dan, Emilio, Ben, Colin, Rohit, Carlos, China, and all the rest!
Oh, and because you asked, here's a video of the giant, flame-spewing praying mantis in Downtown Las Vegas. It's right in front of Container Park- a cool symptom of the area's recent economic revival.
Until next time,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Original Articles on www.levatelift.com
The Levaté team has just grown by two! Our small team now numbers at five. It's an exciting time and we're thrilled to have MaryBeth Davis and Michael Petri join as the Community Engagement Manager and Graduate Research Fellow, respectively.
You can also take a look at what we'll be up to in the coming weeks here.
Yesterday I wrote about Christopher Alexander's two books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. I discussed why I think these two books are important both for the Pattern Language as a framework for organizing and applying the accumulated experience of a certain field of study or craft, and for its contributions to my thinking about the general design process and the design process of human spaces in particular.
Today, I want to talk about one particular pattern that Alexander discusses, the Zen View (pattern 134). I thought about this pattern a lot on my recent trip to Hood River, Oregon, for the wedding of one of my sisters.
Says Christopher Alexander, p.642:
The archetypal zen view occurs in a famous Japanese house, which gives this pattern its name.
Alexander's solution is to mimic the monk's house in the story: put these glimpses to a beautiful view in places of transition, where one gets a hopeful peek at it, or must go out of their way specifically to enjoy it.
It was at the (not quite) Lost Lake in the shadow of Mt. Hood that my thinking about this pattern became increasingly clear. To put it simply, Lost Lake is in a beautiful area! Crystal clear lake water, surrounded by verdant green vegetation and towering redwoods, all within close view of the mountain. You can rent a canoe or kayak to play around on the water, and there's a 4 mile hiking trail that loops around the shore of the lake.
As you follow this trail around the lake, you can't actually see the mountain for the most part. The tall trees block the view.
At certain points along the trail, however, there's a slight clearing in the trees. At perhaps no more than 3 points along the trail, this clearing opens right onto a view of Mt. Hood.
This struck me as a perfect example of the Zen View pattern.
The beauty of this view was precisely proportional to its rarity. When the mountain does emerge, framed by towering redwoods, the effect is breathtaking. A view like this has the power to break our typical self-centeredness, and for a few precious moments we cease to exist purely within ourselves. A Zen View spellbinds us and externalizes our consciousness, and we forget our worries and anxieties. We experience a moment of personal transcendence. These moments of exaltation are, or at least seem, intensely spiritual as a result.
Had we been able to see the mountain all along the hiking trail, the view of the mountain would have been spoiled. The effect is similar to eating, say, way too much chocolate. After the umpteenth or so bar of chocolate, no matter how tasty or high quality, you no longer are really tasting it. You keep eating it out of habit, and you've ceased to enjoy its flavor and richness because you've become accustomed to it. So we know we can't constantly be surrounded by something that we love, or we take it for granted and our love spoils. This is the essence of the Zen View.
Easy to recognize, this pattern also strikes me as one of the hardest to implement in a design. Zen View asks us to to consciously and purposefully limit our engagement with something beautiful, inspiring, or meaningful. For beauty and meaning are fleet of foot, and the more voraciously we pursue them the more they draw us into thickets of dissatisfaction and despair. Unfortunately, as humans we tend to not be very good at delaying gratification!
Good design and good architecture, as mentioned in yesterday's post, empower us to step into our ideal or to reconnect with something fundamental. The pattern Zen View codifies the relationship that we might strive for with the things we love and enjoy, so that engaging with them becomes the creation of a meaningful experience rather than a mundane normalcy.
As an aside, this is also a good example of how designers can balance what are often two competing objectives: giving the user what they think they want (constant exposure to a beautiful view), and giving the user what they should want (limited access to preserve a view's potency). Good design resolves these opposing forces by giving the user access, while ensuring that there is a degree of intentionality and fleetness in that access. Fleetness in that is a brief glimpse in a moment of transition, and intentionality in that to enjoy it beyond that brief moment, the user must intentionally linger in that transition spot to enjoy it further. And by definition, we don't typically linger in points of transition.
That last point is key to experiencing such a view consciously. At the site pictured above, in order to fully see the view, it required one to make a conscious decision to momentarily step off the path and contemplate the view for a moment.
It is also to give the subject of our endearment both space and time to grow fonder. This is not just to avoid spoiling the beauty of the view, or the beauty of a personal relationship or the taste of a chocolate bar.
The point is also to give yourself time and space to imagine.
Robert Greene describes this effect in The Art of Seduction (p.282):
Soon after we fall under a person's spell, we form an image in our minds of who they are... Thinking of them when we are alone, we tend to make this image more and more idealized. The novelist Stendhal, in his book On Love, calls this phenomenon crystallization, telling the story of how, in Salzburg, Austria, they used to throw a leafless branch into the abandoned depths of a salt mine in the middle of winter. When the branch was pulled out months later, it would be covered with spectacular crystals. That is what happens to a loved one in our minds.
There's a reason that "absence makes the heart grow fonder", as the memorable saying goes. By creating psychological distance, we can imagine and thus idealize the object of desire. A zen view gives us the distance we need to idealize a beautiful view, and in it, find a moment of personal transcendence.
At the risk of revealing too much, lets say that there's a girl that I've fallen for. We've set a "date" (don't ask, its complicated) for two weeks from when we texted about it. I know, you shouldn't ask girls out via text, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As I plan what I hope will be a very romantic dinner, I've had plenty of time to imagine: how the dinner will go, her reactions, if it might lead to a real date; on and on. As I think about it, this has only heightened my enjoyment of the proto-relationship. Rather than having an instant answer, I can idealize the eventual encounter and enjoy the buildup.
Rainer Maria Rilke puts it well, in his Letters to a Young Poet. Forgive my impromptu translation of a translation: it's made an arduous journey from German, to Spanish, to repose here in English:
Try to love the questions in and of themselves, like closed rooms or books written in a strange and unknown language. Don't look for the answers now: they can't be given, because you can't yet live them. And the point is to live them all. Live now the questions.
So, my friend: Live, and love, the questions worth asking.
Until next time,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Two of the most important books I've read so far this year has been The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.
The two subjective criteria I use to judge how important a book I've read is to me are content, and connectivity. If a book has quality content, I know I'll want to reread the book in the future. Connectivity is the extent to which I find myself drawing connections and parallels between the book in question and what author Italo Calvino calls the "One Book": the very individual meta-book, accessible only by you, made up of everything you've read, learned, and lived up to that point.
These books have fulfilled both of those. They've enriched my thinking about the principles of good design, and how good design works to empower the users of the design. They've also equipped me with a useful framework for organizing and applying knowledge in a way that enables both creativity and quality outputs.
And to the second criterion, I've found myself thinking about how some of the patterns in the book treat and solve fundamental tensions in our lives. I'll illustrate that in a post tomorrow by examining a very poignant pattern in Alexander's works, the Zen View.
A pattern in the way that Christopher Alexander uses the word is a contextualized, repeatable solution to a problem. They are essentially rules of thumbs and heuristics: memorable and easy to apply. A pattern language is a collection of patterns that, as a whole, guide one's behavior. If the pattern language in question is based on universal, timeless principles, then the construction will have what Alexander calls the quality without a name.
The search which we make for this quality which has no name, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person's story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
Well-built designs following good pattern languages not only possess this quality of aliveness and timelessness, they also empower the users with this nameless quality, allowing them to step into their ideal selves.
In A Pattern Language, the various patterns are organized by type, which in Alexander's pattern language includes urban planning, the design of individual buildings and building complexes, and the actual construction of a building. Within each of these applications, the patterns are arranged hierarchically. That is, you begin with the most important patterns that influence the siting, location, and orientation of the building. As you move through each successive pattern, you build on top of what you've designed so far. You don't worry about the location of the windows in the rooms until you've arranged the rooms in the house in a way that captures the quality without a name. And you don't arrange the rooms until you've decided where, exactly, the building will go in relation to the environment and other buildings around it.
This intuitively makes sense. The power of a rich, expressive pattern language is in the structure it provides for us to work through the problem of, for example, How do I build a house for my family? A good problem-solving structure doesn't constrain creativity, it enables it.
Says Chip and Dan Heath in their book, Made to Stick (p.22):
In 1999, an Israeli research team assembled a group of 200 highly regarded ads- ads that were finalists and award winners in the top advertising competitions. They found that 89% of the award-winning ads could be classified into six basic categories, or templates [read: patterns]... When the researchers tried to classify these 'less successful' ads, they could classify only 2% of them. The surprising lesson of this story: Highly creative ads are more predictable than uncreative ones
In the case of Alexander's pattern language, if we know that any room should have natural light from at least two sides (pattern 159), and we know there's a good reason for this- rooms that follow this pattern are comfortable, rooms that don't follow this pattern tend to be harsh and to oppress us- then the creative challenge becomes, how do we arrange the rooms and windows in such a way that we can fulfill this pattern? We don't have to reinvent the wheel and rediscover with each new building how to make the rooms comfortable and naturally well lit. A pattern language, with its collection of heuristics and rules of thumb, lends itself to transmission and teaching. If we can believe that the pattern is useful and true, then we can focus on applying it, creatively.
As you can tell, this book was inspiring to me on many levels. I've always been fascinated by architecture and construction, even though I have zero experience in the field. My dream one day is to build my own house. This book convinced me that for any space to be alive, the end users must have a role in the design process. Written in the early seventies, this message echoes a lot of modern design movements, such as Human Centered Design (HCD). Simply put, HCD is the idea of designing not just for someone, but with someone. My startup team and I at Levate have been using HCD extensively to develop our wheelchair lift. Essentially, the idea is to work with the end user while iterating quickly on your team's proposed solution. You have the user try out or play with the prototype, and give you feedback. You incorporate this into your next quick prototype and repeat the cycle.
Since reading Alexander's works, I've been thinking about other skills and crafts that lend themselves to expression via a pattern language. For example, from my year working at the University of Oklahoma Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth (CCEW), I realized that we had a vibrant pattern language that we used to quickly bring our student interns and team leaders up to speed at the beginning of each semester to attain peak performance. Having a consistent institutional language is essential for any organization, and all the more so for CCEW since the internship program only lasts four months. We didn't call it a pattern language, but it was exactly that: a hierarchical collection of rules of thumb and principles of behavior and thought that guided the CCEW staff and interns in the daily challenges and tasks that we faced. On a larger level, these patterns also defined the CCEW organizational culture.
Tomorrow, I'll talk about one pattern in particular: the Zen View.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
A few days ago, I read a book called Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys. An accomplished adventurer, Alastair has rowed across the Atlantic, crossed the Empty Quarter desert in Northeast Africa on foot, and bicycled around the world. Microadventures describes his attempts to reconcile the spirit of his wanderings with a season spent working in urban London, without the time to travel across the world in search of adventure.
The idea is simple: invent excuses to get away from your routine for a day, a night, or a weekend. Instead of looking for wilderness adventures far away from home, his book asks the reader to look no further than their own periurban region for a source of inspiration and adventure. The idea is to make the act of getting out of your house to explore and seek adventures as easy as possible, while fitting it in between a typical 40-hour work week.
He illustrates this with examples of his own microadventures around England. These range from 1 day hikes to overnight camping in a bivvy sack to weekend trips tubing or swimming down local rivers. I like how he tries to tear down as many obstacles to just getting out of your house for a night and using what he calls the "5 to 9".
At one point Alastair self-consciously defends himself, noting that "a few people have criticized me for putting a fancy name and a hashtag to activities that people have always done...". I can understand that criticism from one perspective. But I also think that the critique is a bit one-dimensional. Yes, people have always gone hiking, camping, cycling, etc. But what makes Alastair's perspective valuable is that he encourages and equips the reader to do these things regularly and naturally, and in more or less their own backyard. He argues that you don't need to travel hours away to find beautiful wilderness, but that you can step outside your front door and walk to the beautiful wilderness that probably lies within 10-15 miles of your house. They may be tiny slivers of nature in the left-over space between urban or suburban areas, but they're probably enough for a day or night long adventure. In fact, some of the suggested microadventures are designed to take adventure of precisely this kind of local natural space. The microadventures are enticing for their unorthodoxy, such as walking the normal commute instead of driving or catching the train at the end of the work day and bivvy sack camping halfway home.
I also enjoyed being challenged to observe and appreciate what already lies around us. We tune out the potential beauty and the opportunity for exploration and discovery of our immediate surroundings because we've become accustomed to it. It's lost its novelty and become mundane. Alastair invites us to reconnect with our oft-ignored home turf and engage with it in new and adventurous ways.
I read this book concurrently with Access All Areas, written by a deceased urban explorer who went by the moniker Ninjalicious. It's a sort of beginner's guide to the activity of urban exploration, and I drew parallels between both these books. As you might guess, urban exploration involves engaging with the urban environment and infrastructure around you in unconventional ways. Urban explorers make a point to "take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints", and find their way into abandoned buildings, buildings under construction, drainage tunnels or maintenance tunnels. They take satisfaction in learning about the parts of their community that most ignore, and engaging with their environs on their own terms. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I see Alastair Humphrey as advocating more or less the same philosophy, except for natural spaces instead of the urban environment.
My first microadventure
Properly inspired by Alastair Humphrey's book, I promptly picked Saturday, August 2nd as the date for my first official microadventure. My plan was simple: pack water, a little booze, a can of lentils, homemade camp stove, and a book (the aforementioned Access All Areas), then hop on my KLR 650 and ride to the local reservoir, Lake Thunderbird. It's a pretty big lake, and a popular recreation area, so I figured I'd circle it on my bike until I found a fun trail or forestry road to follow on my motorcycle. I'd tool around for a half day while exploring on my bike, test out my homemade camp stove, read for a bit, do some hiking, and head home.
I stopped at a gas station on the way to the lake and asked if they had a map of the lake. The attendant asked me if I was looking for anything in particular at Thunderbird, so I shared my quest for a fun bit of trail to take my bike out on. She replied that all the roads in the area were paved, and that there weren't any trails for off-road vehicles. Alas, her response didn't bode well for my search for a proper riding trail. But I am not so easily defeated!
I figured, I'lI keep riding around the reservoir and I might happen upon a lonely forestry road or some such trail that, waiting to be discovered, might provide my desired recreation. I wish I could say I found one- what a fantastic discovery that would have been! Instead my curiosity nearly got my bike trapped in a treacherously sandy hill.
You see, each road I turned on to was filled with homes and inevitably led to a dead end. Frustrated, at the end of one such teasing street I noticed that a well-worn path through the grass seemed to lead off through the trees and towards the lake. Ah, I thought, my search has born fruit! Off I took, chortling along around the bend.
I chortled my bike right into a sandy hill, where it cut a rut into the earth and got stuck fast.
It took 30 minutes to free my motorcycle from the sand and backtrack to the road. Dual sports are decently weighty bikes, and they're also top heavy. I struggled to try and push and pull the bike out of the sand, but it kept sliding into the ruts. Occasionally I'd lose my balance and the bike would fall over, leaking gas out of the top of the gas tank. It was pretty miserable.
I finally freed the bike by finding sheets of fiberglass someone had thrown away in the woods. By this point, the bike was so firmly held in the sandy ruts that the motorcycle patiently stood up straight on its own. I slid the fiberglass sheets behind the wheels and pulled the bike backwards onto them. That gave the bike the traction it needed to take off, and I chugged back the way I came without stopping to avoid getting stuck in the sand again.
I resigned myself to the fact that I probably wasn't going to find any cool riding trails at this point, and my thirst for dual-sport adventure had been quenched. I continued my circumscription of the lake, stopping a few times to take in the scenery.
I stopped at the southern dam and dock area of Lake Thunderbird. I figured I'd explore a bit on foot and go for a swim. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the network of mountain bike trails in the area. I knew there were bike trails in the area, but I'd never considered exploring them before. I was impressed with how pretty and bucolic this part of the lake is.
I consider the trip a success just for having "discovered" the bike trails. I spent probably about 3 hours exploring the trail system and getting a bit lost. It was a blast! I also had the opportunity to test my homemade camping stove. You can find the instructions here.
You punch holes in the side wall of an old tuna or cat food can, fill it with a bit of denatured alcohol, and light it. It burns invisibly, so you have to be careful, but in my first test it heated up a can of lentils in no time flat. Easy to make, inexpensive, and lightweight- who needs a fancy $50 camp stove?
I am happy and quite satisfied with how my first Microadventures inspired trip went. I got to spend a day fooling around on my motorcycle and discovering a local sliver of beautiful nature (yes, I am aware of the irony of this being a man-made reservoir). Walking along the trails, shrouded by laden boughs of verdant trees, experiencing what the Japanese call komorebi- the dappled effect created when sunlight filters through trees- I felt a world away from all the stresses, worries, and responsibilities that we all face. It was regenerative, despite being only the better part of a day. And I think I captured at least some of the spirit of a bigger adventure.
Here's to my next microadventure!
Until the next time,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much