What does a seamless life look like?

This week, I’m hosting a bold, hands-on, exploratory experience for young people seeking meaningful work.

It’s been in planning for a few months now, but one question from the early days has stuck with me. As members of the target audience ourselves, my team’s first step was to identify the questions that’ve arisen around our own career searches. The popcorn-style brainstorm started off with suggestions like “What do I want to put on my resume?” but soon progressed to higher-order musings: How can I maintain a standard of living while holding onto my freedom? Someone pointed out that talking about “work-life balance” supposes that the two shouldn’t intersect. What if the boundary weren’t so distinct? In other words, what does a “seamless” life look like?

The last question hung around. What would it look like? I had no idea, but the thought was tantalizing. It colored our successive sessions, and I became increasingly excited that our production would be a catalyst for others to wonder about the same.

By and by, the event took shape. But what started out as a reasonably low level of stress came to a boil when, after several conflicts—budget mishaps, diffused responsibilities, and the like—I couldn’t sleep for two days, worrying that I was the only person I could trust to pick up the pieces. Haggard, I confessed as much to a friend. Her reaction: “Have you ever considered you might be taking up too much… space?”

Oh, dear. I was monopolizing the effort, wasn’t I? I disengaged for a few days to contemplate the lesson I’d learned: how hard it is not to micro-manage on a passion project. This week, no matter how the event turns out, I’ll be grateful to have experienced the ups and the downs of the process.

Some time ago, my sister invited me to join her in a cycling event through the Santa Rosa mountains. I enjoy a bike ride here and there, but I’ve never been motivated to participate in long-distance cycling, nor running—preferring rock climbing as my main form of exercise. Finally I became irritated with her attempts to convince me.

“I don’t have a desire to do the Granfondo,” I said flatly.
“I mean, the climb is spread out over a full day,” she continued. “Plus, you get to feast after and take a hot shower. And it’s just fun to bike with a big group in wine country.”
How do I put this more clearly? “My self-worth is not tied to my ability to bike far, unfortunately.”
She didn’t like that. “Jeez, neither is mine. No need to be a dick.” A pause. “My self-worth isn’t tied to my ability to climb walls or boulders, but I would never say that.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. I meant my statement self-deprecatingly: I’d love it if I could get motivated by endurance activities—biking in wine country does sound fun—but my reward centers don’t seem to work that way. Still, she’d felt boxed in by what I said, and retaliated in kind.

And I was shocked! This was a case of mistaken identity. Climbing holds no special place in my heart, not as anything more than a sometime hobby. In many ways, I’m only in it to gain my climber boyfriend’s respect. I don’t even think of myself as a “climber.” I’m just a person who climbs, and mostly pretty badly at that.

It was perfect that my local climbing gym was hosting a Falling and Commitment clinic. You’d see me get to the top of a route or bouldering problem, but then struggle with letting go of the wall to sit back on the rope, or to drop 10 feet onto a padded mat—my literal words a week prior had been “I wish there were a class that would teach me how to fall properly.” The timing was serendipitous, and the fact that a few friends were deep into reading The Rock Warrior’s Way, written by the director of the institute leading the clinic (Arno Ilgner), sunk the deal.

The clinic did wonders for my confidence. We pushed outside of our comfort zones incrementally, with the result that I flew up routes that were several levels above my previous limit. Most exercises focused on breathing, relaxation, and posture, and the clinic took care to ensure we were initiating our own learning. I benefited especially from the treatment of “falling” as a body language—one just like any foreign language. I was afraid to fall in the same way that I was afraid to use Japanese when I first started studying it; I didn’t know what patterns to use, but neither did I want to charge ahead, for fear of ingraining bad habits. By reviewing specific frameworks for falling and then drilling them again and again, I was able to approach situations requiring “falling-language” with a new level of comfort.

[Image via Flickr].

[Image via Flickr].

Riding the high, I devoured Espresso Lessons, the companion text we were provided with after the clinic. Though it’s more or less a practical distillation of The Rock Warrior’s Way, Ilgner still manages to incorporate his philosophy of mental fitness, and I found myself returning to the following passage on end goals vs. process goals and their effect on motivation:

End goals are such external things as climbing harder grades or redpointing routes. Process goals are the skills you learn in the process of your external achievements, internal things such as the ability to commit more completely or fall more safely. If you’re motivated solely by end goals, then as stress and difficulty increase during a crux, you see less chance of attaining your goal. […] You say, “Why bother? I know I’m too pumped to get to the top.”

If, however, you are motivated by process goals, then as stress increases you see a greater chance of attaining your goal—improved skills. Your motivation increases. As your strength fades, you say, “One more move is valuable, so do it.”

Viewing each move as a learning experience meant I’d get something out of it whether or not I fell. I found it a surprisingly mindful way to approach climbing: “life is a journey,” but applied to sport.

As living beings, we feel truly alive when we grow. Grounding our motivation in growth, in the challenge and stress that will actually cause us to grow, fuels the whole process. The source of our power and the application of it are connected, allowing our power to flow from our ground, through our being, and into our effort, as we apply it on a route. Valuing growth keeps our motivation consistent and connected to its source.

I never expected to be nodding along to a climbing book. I remembered ending my first long-term relationship on the basis that my partner hadn’t grown with me. To think that the same values I championed in my career, relationships, and love also applied to climbing? Utterly mind-blowing.

This was my first taste of the seamless life. It’s not a dualistic system of work/play, but a tapestry of values and forays and commitments. Threads cross and intertwine. I don’t know what it looks like further down, but for the first time I see the pattern, and it is glorious.

Liminal space

[Image via Flickr].

[Image via Flickr].

For five days I existed in another world, an artificial construct populated by Platonic forms of people. Across the board, these individuals were passionate, driven, high-functioning—of humans, they were a disproportionately empathetic sample. We were made to be vulnerable, made to speak our minds, made to engage at all times in the creation of meaning.

The construct was dissolved, but I didn’t immediately re-reify here. For the few weeks following, I walked the seam that divided the worlds, holding fast in the liminal space between them.

It was a frighteningly erratic journey. One day I’d feel energized by the wealth of possibility in front of me. It’s apt that the caretakers thought to convene us, after breaks, with “Circle of Life”—nants ingonyama bagithi baba—because in my estimation, everything the light touched was my kingdom. People were seeds, dormant now, but just waiting to be nurtured, and they deserved the distillation of my experience.

The next day, I’d be distraught. Morose. Overwhelmed by what I saw as insurmountable obstacles on my quest. Increasingly disillusioned with every small failure. How could I have ever dreamed myself audacious enough to help? “Artificial” was right. The others made wayward attempts to recreate the extinct. Scoffing, then pining, I was paralyzed. Like some demented Kwisatz Haderach, I imagined all of the ways these events could unwind; each thread ended repulsively and irresistibly.

My mind was so sharp it was autoimmune. With my sudden knowledge of self, I discovered amazing opportunities, and I reached into a limitless pool of energy and excitement to invest but a few glorious drops. Yet an anxiety like cancer ate my insides as time passed without return. I threw my whole spirit into the world, dashing into wild decisions, like telling my boyfriend of less than a year I was ready to marry him. Cowed by the caliber of his response, I retreated into myself with all the purpose of an ascetic. After ten minutes with a new acquaintance, I turned my clairvoyance on his relationship with ease—”you should be a life coach,” he said in awe—but the same day I’d think nothing of lashing out at loved ones and scorching the earth in my irritation.

It’s the closest I’ve ever been to bipolar. I’m not sure I would have normalized if I hadn’t been privileged with the boon of someone else’s question:

What have you been working on about yourself lately?

Seizing at spiritual nourishment—meaning—I sputtered to answer, mentioning my burgeoning interest in meditation. He nodded. “It’s hard,” he said, “but one thing that helped me was thinking about who I am afterward, and how I am then that I would want to be in everyday life.”

Later that evening, I wrote. And wrote. Who is the “me” that I like? What are her qualities, and why do I value them? It took me more than a page to realize I was penning the very things I wasn’t being. I was my own worst hypocritic.

And just like that, I was out. The liminal was behind. It’s elementary, in the end: after my swim in the construct, I’d been wading in cool, clear shallows, not feeling that I was cutting my feet on the rocks. Now I tread on hot sand, the water beads on my skin, and I wonder how long it’ll be before I re-enter.

The space in our heads is a fragile thing. Body, mind, and spirit are simultaneously in dynamic equilibrium and decay; a carefully curated stream of positive inputs is required to maintain system health. Imagine now that unexpected behavior causes a negative feedback loop. Is it surprising that left unchecked, the whole thing goes on the fritz? The correct combination of interactions may trigger a reboot, and restoring meta-meta-cognition can rebalance other processes. If that doesn’t do the trick, however, it could be time to change the OS entirely.

Libraries taking after co-working spaces, or vice versa?

Over at Triple Pundit, Lonnie Shekhtman makes a case for co-working—the sharing of office space and the resultant intermingling of ideas—as a prime example of the sharing economy (or “resource efficiency“) in action. Specifically profiling The HUB, the article is just one issue in a larger series, The Rise of the Sharing Economy.

In another issue, Heidi Sistare points to a few rumblings in Minneapolis and New York as evidence that following the co-working model could be the way to reinvigorate an old sharing standby: libraries.

The timing seems perfect: libraries are struggling to maintain relevance as more material is available for free online, and workers are looking for space to plug in their laptop, meet with collaborators, and even host events. A Sustainable Economies Law Center article on Shareable notes that libraries have long been centers for the sharing economy and with digitization, libraries can be more creative with physical space.

On a Metafilter thread that surfaced when California slashed all state funding for libraries last year, users seem to fall into two camps; those who aren’t clamoring to “replace all dead trees with e-books, because everyone has access to computers” explain that libraries are still relevant as community centers, safe spaces, and bastions of education. The transformation of “library” into “co-working space”—replete with workshops, classes, and meeting rooms—seems to be a natural extension of these functions. But the hypothetical scenario in this comment describes a certain type of person who won’t likely be helped by the influx of workers to the new library model. (Read the whole thing. It’s terrifying, to say the least.)

So that little melodrama right there is every minute of every day at the public library. Replace essential forms with applying for a job, or filling out hours on a time sheet, or trying to find legal assistance, or any number of the other high skill, high resource activities that you, as a privileged first world person who is constantly surrounded by computers and has used them for a majority of their life, find trivial. The digital divide isn’t just access, but also ability, and quality of information, and the common dignity of having equity of participation in our increasingly digital culture.

So perhaps the question is not “could [co-working] be the future of libraries,” as Sistare puts it, but “how can libraries reconcile their new appeal to office-less workers with their standing and inadequate performance as tech access for underprivileged people?” Better yet, “how can co-working spaces, taking after libraries, be stewards for the provision of high-quality information to members of the local community who do not benefit from digital resources?”

Uncharted Territory: Urban Innovation and the Role of Government

Last Monday’s sold-out event at the Hatchery‘s Harrison location, hosted by Tumml, suffered a fair share of problems, logistical and otherwise. Hatchery staff greeting visitors at the second-story entrance to the space signaled that we should head to the center of the expansive floor, where “a lot of chairs” would be set up; once we’d wormed our way around tables to get to our seats, we were distracted by members’ comings and goings just a few feet behind the panel. During the panel itself, a constant high-pitched whine from the speakers preceded the feedback blowouts and sustained silences that indicated several of the microphones had ceased to function.

The conversation was directionless at best. Moderating, Peter Hirshberg alternated between asking somewhat probing questions and responding to panelists with long-winded digressions. For each of Logan Green’s fresh-faced, optimistic exclamations in favor of technology, regulatory standards, and the sharing economy in general, Molly Turner was there to scoff, rebut, and comment that Logan’s stance was a personal peeve. All told, the only panelist who even resembled a seasoned expert was David Chiu—and he spoke with such ardor and panache that he, of the ex-tech, seemed like he could run Lyft and Airbnb for the other guys, maybe in his sleep. He gets extra points for quirking an eyebrow at someone else’s use of “bull in a china shop.”

Logan Green (Co-Founder and CEO of Lyft/Zimride), Molly Turner (Director of Public Policy at Airbnb), and David Chiu (President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors), courtesy of @tumml.

[Image: Logan Green (Co-Founder and CEO of Lyft/Zimride), Molly Turner (Director of Public Policy at Airbnb), and David Chiu (President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors), courtesy of @tumml].

Still, here’s what I got out of it (and props need to go to the audience members for driving a solid Q&A session):

  • The pivotal point in Lyft’s discussions with the CPUC was the realization that Lyft’s goal is to provide the safest possible experience for their users—and CPUC’s goal is to make sure they’re sticking to doing just that. Lyft’s blogpost has more information on the interim agreement they’ve made, as well as the safety standards to which their drivers are held.
  • Uh, said standards are pretty amazing, and taxi companies would do well to pick up their feet. Lyft ended the night looking good and picking up at least one new user; I took my first ride back from the Hatchery minutes after installing the app.
  • International or even national standards of regulation are a long way off. Compare Detroit to San Francisco: you can’t. Regulations can’t simply be transposed between municipalities.
  • San Francisco has a Sharing Economy Working Group. That in itself is remarkable and should be commended.

This spring, Tumml will be organizing a new three-part event series on urban innovation in partnership with SPUR—and despite the pitfalls last Monday, I’m looking forward to it. Follow them @tumml for dates and details to come.

Events of note

(1) This Saturday, the second annual The Intersection Event will take place at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View.

The IntersectionThe Intersection is a one-day gathering of innovative thinkers, designed to stir your creative imagination, vision and action-planning strategies. We bring leading innovators from a number of fields to share their thoughts about up-and-coming trends in personal, team and organizational creativity, as well as social impact. Uncover new ideas, tools and “intersections” that can be applied to your personal or professional life and help inspire social change.

(2) Urban Prototyping has announced the Urban Data Challenge between Zürich, San Francisco, and Geneva.

Urban PrototypingThe Urban Data Challenge seeks to harvest the innovative and creative power of communities around the world to explore urban data sets through visualization. Designers, programmers, data scientists, and artists alike are invited to take up the challenge: merge and compare mobility data sets from three cities—San Francisco, Geneva, and Zurich—and draw meaningful insights. Winning projects will showcase the power of open governmental data and facilitate the knowledge exchange between cities.

Satellite cities

Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture is looking to create a circular, self-contained “satellite city” roughly 10 miles outside of Chengdu, China.

The master plan calls for 80,000 residents to live and work within a half-square mile circle in which any point will be at most a 15-minute walk away. […] The city will deploy a raft of tactics and technologies to holistically address waste, water, and energy in a manner designed cut landfill by 89%, wastewater by 58%, and energy by 48% compared to a typical Chinese city its size–which is good, because Vantone plans to sell at least one to every mega-city in China.

(via Co.Exist)

Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces

Westfield Sky Terrace at 835 Market.

[Image: Westfield Sky Terrace at 835 Market].

Over the last twenty years, San Francisco has seen a network of lush rooftop gardens, sleek outdoor plazas, and glass-walled atriums spring up in the downtown area. These privately-owned public open spaces, or POPOS, are a result of SF’s 1985 Downtown Plan, which requires developers to provide one square foot of public space for every 50 square feet of occupied office or hotel space. Some of the spaces are lavish; others, demure; but most enjoy relative seclusion, since few know that they’re public—despite June legislation attempting to create consistent, universally-recognizable signage indicating as such. The Chronicle‘s John King made a case study out of just these issues with the vision at One Kearny, a roof terrace, back in December.

My first exposure to a POPOS was a few years back. I was playing in Shinteki Scramble, a puzzlehunt with the specific aim of pushing walking participants into various hidden downtown crannies (puzzlers will know it as a smaller-scale version of Decathlon 6). One of the puzzles concerned the number of figures in the Human Structures sculpture installed in the snug little plaza at 555 Mission. Participants wove between the sculpture’s legs, snacked on nearby benches, or investigated Ugo Rondinone’s whimsical head sculptures as they pondered the solution. I’d largely forgotten about it until recently, when I followed a consultant friend into the building (which now houses Deloitte’s offices) and noticed the flamboyant figures towering over the courtyard outside. Pursuant to my duties as a one-man (Un-)Space Exploration Committee, I marked the address so I could return later. By this time I’d heard of “POPOS,” and I decided to look into additional sites to scout.

Human Structures (2008) by Jonathan Borofsky, via Flickr.

[Image: Human Structures (2008) by Jonathan Borofsky, via Flickr].

Happily, my work here’s already been done: in 2009, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) catalogued the locations of 68 green spaces at 56 downtown locations, and they’ve released a user’s manual and iOS app to help others find their next lunch locale, meeting place, or general “secret spot.” Their accompanying report is worth the read merely for the detailed history of POPOS in San Francisco. SPUR cites Rebar’s Commonspace project as inspiration; that experimental project wondered to what extent “a public space under the unblinking eye of private ownership be called ‘public’ at all,” with raffish invitations like Nappening: Comfortable, free napping facilities in your public space!

Those of us without iOS devices are unfortunately unable to partake of SPUR’s app; regardless, others have done their own charting of these hideaways. I’m indebted to Curbed SF’s map of San Francisco’s best secret gardens for expanding my general interest in POPOS, and John King has some good information in the list accompanying his article, so I’ve collated those sources in the below map. I think it makes a passable partner compendium to the Pavement to Parks program’s San Francisco Parklets and Plazas map. You’ll find rooftop terraces (blue), plazas (pink), and indoor rooms (yellow), though there are technically nine possible designations for POPOS, including atriums, greenhouses, and pedestrian walkways.

View the full map on Google Maps.

Several commenters on King’s article have pointed out that City Guides has a walking tour that visits some of these spaces. I’m skeptical that such a tour is valuable. Cf. what Joseph Gordon-Levitt said about Los Angeles:

Los Angeles is a hard city to show to people because I think what’s charming about it are the people. It’s not like New York or Paris, where I’ll take you to this great neighborhood and we’ll walk around and it’s gorgeous. L.A. doesn’t really have that. When friends are in town, what I’m excited to do is introduce them to other friends of mine, and that usually happens at someone’s house. When you’re in New York City, you’re in New York City, and it defines a lot of your experience. But when you’re in L.A., you can make your own experience. There’s so much more space, you have the room to make your own world.

Similarly, the POPOS will be meaningless unless you make your own experience there. It is a blank canvas for user experience. In fact, that is its defining quality: it provides an area where people can kind of just do whatever. A place could be remembered as where you shared a chocolate bar with an old friend from high school, or where you first met the future co-founder of your startup. More (or less) excitingly, it could be where you solved the puzzle during that scavenger hunt. I say more, because the context of a game or hunt may afford you a novel experience of the space—significantly, though, it does so by scripting the actions you’re to take there. Though that script has its origins in someone else’s experience, there’s margin for personal investigation and discovery. I wonder whether a POPOS is improved by this type of gentle guidance toward play and how such information might be directly embedded in the physical space, bypassing the need for the meta-context.

N-Judah Turnaround Beautification Project

The turnaround, courtesy of the N-Judah Turnaround Beautification Project.

[Image: The turnaround, courtesy of the N-Judah Turnaround Beautification Project].

On the Pacific edge of San Francisco, at La Playa and Judah Streets, is the western N-Judah turnaround. It’s loud. Gray, in more ways than one. Foggy, most days. On December 15th, it was raining. But that didn’t stop determined residents from turning up at Francis Scott Key Elementary School to design the future of their community.

The N-Judah Turnaround Beautification Project, launched in late August of this year, is a neighborhood effort by Outer Sunset (“La Playa”) residents, supported by the Office of Supervisor Carmen Chu, SF MTA, SF DPW, SF Dept. of Planning, SF City Administrator’s Office / NEN, Neighborland, and Crowdbrite. Residents had already converted the neglected median in the center of the street into a recreation and gathering space known as “La Playa Park”—complete with organic edible garden and bocce ball court—in time for a 10/10/10 opening. The N-Judah project, a continuation of that initiative, aims to transform the Muni metro turnaround into a vibrant and distinct community asset.

My friend Rachel, a City Hall Fellow at DPW and one of the administrators of the event, was gracious enough to discuss the origins and implications of the project with me.

First of all, could you introduce yourself? How did you end up at the SF Department of Public Works, and what do you do there?

My name is Rachel Alonso, and I’ve been working at DPW for nearly six months, in the Finance, Budget, and Performance division. This past May, I graduated from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning with a Master’s degree in City Planning, focused on affordable housing and community development. I began working at DPW in August through a program called City Hall Fellows (CHF). CHF is similar to Teach for America, but with local government instead of classrooms. It’s a one-year program, and it places recent college graduates in a variety of city departments; this year, fellows are working everywhere from the Airport and the MTA to Rec and Park and the Public Utilities Commission.

At DPW, my work is primarily related to performance measurement, which is achieved through data visualization. For two years, DPW has held monthly meetings called “DPWStat” to look at the operations bureaus’ performance—the people responsible for street cleaning, tree trimming, graffiti removal, pothole repair, and work in the “right of way” that is crucial for keeping the city clean and in good condition. In October, my team launched “DPWStat DC,” for the design and construction arm of DPW; this work also involves data visualization, as well as determining the best metrics to assess performance and collecting data from new systems.

How did you come to be involved in the N-Judah project?

Every fall, City Hall Fellows participate in what we call STPs, or small team projects. In groups of 3-4, we select topics and complete pro bono consulting-type projects for the city. All projects have a departmental sponsor, and we are careful to choose topics that are important to the City, but which would otherwise be difficult to pursue due to resource constraints. The STPs also expose the fellows to potential future careers outside of their placements.

The N-Judah project was proposed to the City Hall Fellows by Daniel Homsey of the Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN), which is run out of the City Administrator’s Office. Residents of the Outer Sunset neighborhood had been convening to discuss the future of their neighborhood, and one of them got in touch with Daniel in August about holding an event for the community. I knew right away that of all the STPs proposed this year, this was the one I wanted to be involved with. The others concern researching the economic impact of parklets, developing a sustainability plan for SFUSD, and working with the Treasurer/Tax Collector’s Office of Financial Empowerment on what to do about pay day lending institutions. Ours is very different, because it is less research-oriented and more about defining the community’s desires, and executing an event to help best reach these residents. It’s also exciting because we worked with two new technology tools/platforms, Neighborland and Crowdbrite; one of the things I thought about a lot in graduate school was how to use technology to reach a broader community base for planning issues.

What would a neighborhood member have encountered upon coming to the December 15th charrette?

Residents experienced a magical, productive, laid-back, and harmonious atmosphere! I remember being struck several times at how well everything was going. Three residents provided live music, Supervisor Chu provided an introduction, neighborhood history was presented, dogs were petted, people worked through lunch—it was really amazing. It felt very open—people from all backgrounds were represented, and they came and went as they pleased. Someone said, “This really feels like California, doesn’t it?” as a testament to how laid back everything was. After living in Boston for two years, I knew exactly what he meant. It’s not easy to describe something so intangible as the meeting’s atmosphere, energy, and vibe, but it was very positive.

Video portraits of San Francisco

Elliot Bamberger, a video artist and city-walker otherwise known as “SFlaneur,” makes portraits of SF neighborhoods. Below is The Mission, best viewed HD and full-screen, and perhaps with headphones on.

Given my area of residence, I’m partial to his newest creation, The Lower Haight. From the sadly unsuccessful Kickstarter:

Original San Francisco architecture may be altered to conform to the needs of new incoming businesses and residents, or destroyed in natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires.  Despite the constant refashioning of the city, the relationship between the people of San Francisco and its unique geologic foundation is ever changing.

(via haighteration)