When I was a young boy growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s, I often looked up into the vastness of space and all the stars in the night sky. I reflected on our place in the universe and considered our connections to all the possible planets and life forms that were out there beyond our vision. Possibilities we could only wonder about, not fully understand.
As time has marched on, the practice of seeing connections between things has been a constant throughout my life and work. It is important to develop the ability to see the connections and consider both the good and the challenging relationships between objects, people, and places—as well as the interactions that happen at the intersections in between.
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”—Stephen Hawking
Alternative Spaces for Learning, Teaching, Making, Practicing, Reflecting, and Taking Action
Secondary school introduced drama as a subject. This was the first time I was able to experience an alternative setting for learning—beyond the traditional classroom setup, in which there were rows of side-by-side wooden tables, with two students at each table.
Drama class was different. We met in an open space in a room that was not connected to the other classrooms, allowing us the freedom to move around, be vocal, and try things that the traditional classrooms did not permit.
Our drama teacher intentionally took us through different exercises that would help us practice vocalizing and movement and gave us specific pieces to rehearse for our yearly performances that students, teachers, and parents would attend.
Connecting the Dots
This was the first time I was able to see how people and objects could potentially connect and interact around a shared goal. As individuals, we could discover parts of ourselves that our other classes did not let us explore. We went beyond the books, blackboards, and traditional teaching formats in which a teacher stands at the font of the class and the students, for the most part, just listen and passively take in—or fail to engage with or remember—the content of the class. How much content the students actually absorbed depended very much on the skill of the teacher and whether a particular student was actually interested in the topic.
But what really makes the world interesting is the interactions between objects, not the objects in and of themselves. If learning environments consistently restrict such interactions by creating boundaries, they also reduce our comprehension. If you want to be successful, you need to learn to think like Leonardo da Vinci.
My drama teacher suggested that I could learn more about drama by attending a school on Saturday mornings that would offer consistent rhythms and practices to sharpen the skills I needed to become a top performer. Two years of studying drama at school on a part time basis led to my attending drama school for four years, where received professional theater training.
Key Practice Foundations
After completing four years of professional theater training, I realized that I was now equipped with practices that would help me in many other aspects of my work and life—including communication, confidence, presenting, selling, capturing an audience’s attention, and storytelling, to name a few.
My professional theater training also taught me the importance of working and socializing with others and what it meant to work together as a team to create a great performance or make meaningful work.
Gradually, I began to realize the importance of the kinds of spaces that are necessary to get people to interact with each other in positive ways—to slow down enough to listen intentionally, explore the learnings and outcomes from those moments, and seek improvement over time.
Not Present and Busy
Fast forward to 2018 and, all too often, people are not truly present. We see people on their phones, zoning out in meetings; talking over others because they’re driven by their own individual needs, agendas, or biases. Plus, people simply fail to allocate enough time to create the connections and intersections that foster reflective conversations and practices.
This is very concerning, and I believe that it’s leading to a global form of short-term thinking that is already having disastrous effects. We’re not working on the problems we need to be working on to connect the individual to the community and consider what projects could have benefits for both the me and the we.
I currently live in Hong Kong, which has a train system called the MTR that is really one of the best transport systems in the world. Trains rarely run late, and the network covers most of Hong Kong, including Hong Kong island and the New Territories. Over time, the system will continue to extend and connect to the train systems of mainland China, including a high-speed rail line connecting China to the rest of the world, making it an engineering marvel.
Some stations are intersections that allow people to take trains from one direction, transfer between lines seamlessly, then take trains going in different directions with limited fuss and without requiring too much cognitive load in determining where to go and what to do next.
The train stations offer additional benefits beyond moving people on trains. They also provide ways for people to meet up, eat, shop, and enjoy socializing within very comfortable environments, especially during Hong Kong’s hot season.
The train stations are hubs that connect other hubs, allowing people to move around and transact easily in a city of 7.3 million people.
Watching people in the MTR hubs has prompted me to consider the importance of creating spaces for people to interact in healthy ways and how we can better facilitate and achieve this goal.
How we currently do or do not achieve this in our workplaces could bear some thought. What could we be doing to foster better conversations and practices.
Let’s consider both the MTR station and the space my drama teacher created for us at school and how such spaces could help us make meaningful work.
Often, meeting rooms do not provide optimal settings for people to connect across disciplines or the kinds of spaces that would let us see what we need to see in reflecting on our work, looking beyond our own needs and seeing beyond the limitations of own spaces in our cubicles.
Also consider here the importance of bringing multiple disciplines and backgrounds together in a collaborative setting—just as in the theater—which is necessary to promote better conversations. Ask yourselves:
What challenges could we be solving together?
What supporting materials, tools, people, roles, and questions would need to ask to do that?
What specific spaces would be necessary to enable better, deeper, more reflective conversations and give us all a chance to make something great together that has some sustained value for people and the planet?
How can we foster deeper moments through reflective conversations and practices?
Fostering Deeper Moments
Consider having a meal with people, sharing a good book or a movie, or traveling—anything you can think of that would prompt valuable conversations that could lead to interesting outcomes or prompt additional questions that would promote learning.
What is usually consistent is the need to have another person present who can offer perspectives that you may not have considered. None of us possesses the ultimate, single truth about the world. We have only our own world experience, in reference to particular times, environments, and the other people we have met on our journey.
What if we were more intentional about creating the intersections that would enable deeper moments and used those moments to feed our curiosity to learn more?
Working together with the other students in my drama class, I observed quiet children, tough children, and children from all sorts of backgrounds—with varying attitudes and approaches—come together once or twice a week and create magic together. Seeing this happen at school and, later, in the more formal setting of theater school was a pleasure. But I’ve been disappointed in the lack of such practices in the workplace.
Intentional Practices Within the Intersections
Perhaps we need to be more explicit and intentional about practices that would let us connect the dots and create magic within the intersections. What might be some examples of intentional practices that should occur inside the intersections?
Perhaps we could start with some sage, inspirational advice from the social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. In Art of Listening, he says:
“The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
“Nothing of importance must be on his mind; he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
“He must possess a freely working imagination, which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
“He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
“The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him—not in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
“Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.”
Of course, this is simply one perspective. There are likely many more perspectives and much more to learn regarding the harvesting of practices that would enable all of us to be more conscious when we enter spaces for making meaningful work together:
Perhaps these practices are hidden from view in the project stories we tell each other every day, but they are right in front of us. Are we giving ourselves the necessary spaces and time to discover the most important practices?
As we mature our vision of making meaningful work, my partner Josephine Wong and I have given ourselves the life-long goal of continually harvesting practices from project stories and sharing them as practice cards.
We need to take the time to listen to and study the stories that can help us to connect the dots across the practices coming from domains such as theater, music, cooking, sports, and engineering—all of which have something to teach us about the practices that occur inside the intersections.
These practices shed light and provide clarity that can help us to focus on real global problems that need our attention right now. We also hope they will show us how we can support diverse perspectives, move away from the selfish, and embrace the distributed experiences that would enable us to create a healthier world now and tomorrow.
Thank you to Josephine Wong, Jen Fabrizi, and Aldo Fabrizi for being lovely sounding boards and helping answer the question of how we can make meaningful work.
Originally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia. Read More