Foundational Values Nonviolent Communication Willingness

Do You Gotta Be a Macho?

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This is where you and I will take a left turn on our journey together.

You might recognize many — if not all — of the first seven foundational values that I’ve discussed to date. Many of them have been written about by other people individually or in combination with other values over the years (but not, to my knowledge, in this particular package).

There is one foundational value, however, that you have not seen before, and that is this, our eighth and final value, which is willingness.

Many businesspeople I’ve met over the years are fond of scouring the New York Times and Amazon nonfiction bestseller lists to find the next great management and leadership book. It’s always illuminating to walk into an office and see these perfectly-squared tomes lined up on an executive’s bookcase, perched alongside their children’s photos, both seemingly there to evoke a powerful reminiscence of a moment of self-realization.

I do not cherish many of these books (“Winning” by Jack Welch, anyone?), and I don’t have a long list to recommend. There are just a small handful that I believe are worthwhile. If I had to choose one — and only one — to offer any leader, it would have to be Marshall Rosenberg’s groundbreaking book on Nonviolent Communication.

(For more information on Nonviolent Communication, aka NVC, see

This is not a book that I have ever seen on any other executive’s bookshelf (well, at least without a friendly nudge from yours truly). I sometimes wonder: why is that the case? Well, here’s where our left turn comes in.

The world of business is all-too-often a macho culture, filled with macho terms. Every time I go to a conference, there is always at least one keynote speaker — sometimes a famous sports figure — using words like:

  • Courage
  • Fearless
  • Brave
  • Daring
  • Tough
  • Emboldened
  • Power

These terms make me a little sick inside. Why is that? Why should a term like “courage” — lovingly embraced by none other than Brené Brown, one of a handful of people who really appreciate the importance of vulnerability — make me feel like I am coming down with the flu?

They are macho terms, and they are positioned in our brains to displace the notion of weakness to one degree or another, as if weakness were something to be avoided. If you grew up as I did — a nerd, an outcast, a “wuss” — these terms might have been thrown at you as values you should nurture and embrace. And in that sense, these terms would have been a violent affront to your inner world, as they were to mine.

“You’ve got it wrong! You have to be strong! Just have courage! Be fearless! Win it!”

—Some person who didn’t care about my feelings

In my mind, when I would hear things like this, all I could think was, “Ah, sure, I should just go beat them up. Right. That will solve everything… Sure.”

I believe that most people who use macho language do so innocently, but I do not believe that people typically take the time to ponder how dismissive this language can be. When was the last time you heard someone say, “she had balls!”? What did you think when you heard that? Is having “balls” supposed to be a compliment to a woman? Why is that?

I believe that there is a feeling or value that many of these people want to communicate, but I do not think that they have found a non-violent word.

So, I offer willingness.

What is willingness, and how is it different from, say, courage?

With the word willingness, we can have a discussion about doing something to move forward that honors, rather than diminishes, the value of your fear or your lack of courage. Willingness is a quiet value. It is understated. It is not showy, and it does not pretend to diminish the marianismo that is in us.

It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to lack courage. It’s OK not to have balls, or to not desire power. There is actually potential value in each of those positions. For example, if you lack courage, it might be because there is a real risk to you in doing something, and by honoring that risk, you stand to broaden your palette of choices in approaching your problem.

Instead of macho language, we can ask ourselves:

Are we willing to change ourselves?
Are we willing to throw out what we have done in favor of a new approach?
Are we willing to have a difficult conversation?
Are we willing to slow down?
Are we willing to stop?
Are we willing to wait?
Are we willing to go?
Are we willing to care about others?
Are we willing to be vulnerable?
Are we willing to admit what we don’t know?
Are we willing to commit?

All of this feels decisively less macho — ultimately, less violent — than we are used to feeling in business culture. I suggest that this approach has great utility, because if we can talk in a way that does not put people on edge about their valid feelings of weakness, we create a vastly larger opportunity to bring about the progress we so often seek.

In the end, it is important to me that the values we discuss in The Progressive CIO are nonviolent.

What macho — what violent — words do you find yourself using from day to day?

Most importantly, are you willing to review how you speak, and to identify friendlier alternatives?

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Commitment Compassion Curiosity Current Events: 2021 Empathy Humility Patience Vulnerability Willingness

Fixing Today’s Workplace Requires Packing Up Our Politics

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Taking a look today (December 6th, 2021) at the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list, I see:

  1. History (THE 1619 PROJECT)
  2. Biography/Entertainment (WILL)
  3. Biography/Entertainment (THE LYRICS: 1956 TO THE PRESENT)
  4. Biography/Entertainment (THE STORYTELLER)
  6. Entertainment / Food (TASTE)
  7. Personal stories (THESE PRECIOUS DAYS)
  8. Biography/Medicine (THE REAL ANTHONY FAUCI)
  10. Biography/Entertainment (THE BEATLES: GET BACK)

Compare that to two years ago at this time:

  1. Politics (A WARNING)
  2. Politics (TRIGGERED)
  3. Entertainment (ME)
  4. Politics (BECOMING)
  6. Communication (TALKING TO STRANGERS)
  7. Personal stories (FINDING CHIKA)
  8. Personal stories (EDUCATED)
  9. Biology (THE BODY)
  10. Politics (WITH ALL DUE RESPECT)

Those differences are telling. Two years ago, post-election, with our cold civil war a-brewing, politics was our fascination. Today, we are weary for just about anything other than entertainment. Our brains and our souls need a rest and a reset.

Interest in work-related topics is also in an ebb cycle. People are not in the mood to read books, columns, or blogs that consist of generalized advice aimed at improving their work lives. I suspect people realize that questions about what’s truly going on right now in the workforce have no easy answers. What’s truly going on is that our cold civil war has bled into our work life.

The Progressive CIO was borne out of my epiphanies in the wake of COVID-19 — a long and turbulent wake that we are still navigating. My writings have reflected my work and encounters along the way. In recent months, however, I’ve slowed. I have nothing to offer that I think can address our cold civil war, and writing more about the eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO seems tone-deaf at the moment. While those values are — and always will be — important, getting back to considering them will require navigating out of our current wake, which requires addressing politics.

We’re not supposed to have politics in our workplaces, though, right? As it turns out, it’s too late for that. As we attempt to return to offices, COVID has brought politics into the workplace as never before, for a simple reason: the semiotics of the face covering.

I cannot think of any symbol in the workplace — or in everyday life — that has communicated a political stance so overtly in my lifetime as the manner in which face coverings are (or are not) worn. This is not to say that wearing a face covering or not is, unto itself, a form of political expression. As with a tree falling in the forest, it’s the junction of the act and the audience where meaning takes shape.

Take a look at these four different face-covering scenarios, and reflect on what they say to you:

At least one of those will strike a nerve within you, wherever you sit on the political spectrum.

Semiotics are a part of everyday communication and everyday life. Face coverings fall into the non-language communication subset of semiotics, which are distinct from the more-commonly-encountered non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication involves a language; that is to say, a system of communication with a learned form and structure. Music is a language, for instance. Non-language communication, on the other hand, lacks any system or learned form and structure. Lines on our roads are non-verbal communication; a driver swerving around those lines is non-language communication.

Non-language communication isn’t discussed much outside of academic circles. If it were, I suppose we might have a better public dialog about face covering techniques. I suspect, however, that it wouldn’t have an impact on our current cold civil war at work. Whether we like it or not, masks have become a form of wearing one’s politics on one’s face. The bigger issue is that non-language communication, through its very nature, makes verbal analysis more challenging.

At the present, only fully-distributed workforces are in a position to avoid face covering controversies in daily work life. We know, however, that not all workforces can be fully-distributed.

Proposed vaccination and testing rules are about to increase the magnitude of the COVID-19 wake, before the current tide has finished going out. How a company reacts to and addresses these rules puts politics on a company’s face as well.

When we are in a place where we know the solution is: “Take politics out of the workplace” and those politics are now a way of life as a matter of public health, then where does that leave us?

It leaves us doing our jobs and trying not to think about them when we don’t have to. It leaves us tired of politics, even if we are energized by them. (Which leaves me to ponder: If one is energized by politics, then what does that say about that person and their priorities?) It leaves us retreating to our homes, our families, entertainment, and the things that truly matter in life. That’s not all a bad thing. But if our lives require us to work, we’re all in a pickle for the time being.

Back to those eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO: I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to reflect on them, and how they play a role in getting ourselves out of our current situation:

Vulnerability: Are we willing to be honest and open with one another about how our current world is affecting us? This will include senior leaders acknowledging that these vulnerable voices need to be heard.

Humility: Are we willing to recognize that this situation is bigger than all of us, and that it is a comedy of errors, of sorts, if not a true human tragedy? It’s difficult to laugh at, but I believe we have to if we are to collectively solve it.

Empathy: No matter your politics or attitude, will you try as hard as you can to see the validity in the other side’s point of view? This doesn’t mean that you agree that the other side is right; it merely means that you work hard enough to try to understand and not summarily dismiss.

Patience: This might be the hardest thing of all. People were tired of not getting their hair colored one month into the pandemic. Do we have the collective patience to deal with one another to move past where we are today? We don’t have a choice, because it will be a long haul. If we can acknowledge this, we stand a chance to get a clearer understanding of what the path to progress looks like.

Compassion: Do we genuinely care about each other, to the extent we are willing to go out of our way to bring comfort to others?

Curiosity: Are we willing to explore the new and unseen options that we have not yet explored to get us past where we are today?

Commitment: Are we willing to make true commitments to one another, and follow through on those commitments?

Willingness: Do we have genuine willingness to do all of the hard work above?

Given how tired we all remain, who can we expect to initiate this sort of effort on a meaningful scale?

Only those who govern us.

I’m not talking about legislation; I’m talking about leading by example, living those eight values. If that sounds like a tall order, it most certainly is. That’s because there is a chasm between politics and governance. The government I am alluding to does not exist today, and has probably not existed in our lifetimes. Until we can pack up our politics, no governing will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, no leadership will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, our workplaces will not flourish. Until we can pack up our politics, the world will not be the place we want it to be. The good news? Packing up our politics starts, apparently, with the books we buy.


A friend shared the following response:

I loved your start – the comparison of the top books is quite telling, and I would not have thought to make that comparison. I am right there with you throughout your article until the end. Who should or will initiate these changes? For me it’s all of us, it’s the workers, it’s the everyday people in the workplace, it’s you and it’s me. I think we can be sure right now our leaders are quite absent, especially those who govern.

One of my favorite quotes I encountered along the way of my doctoral studies comes from Ralph Stacey, “Change can only happen in many, many local interactions.” For me, this means it is in the small conversations that spark other conversations and so on that we begin to change culture, that we begin to change each other. I is in those times of making space and being vulnerable that we listen to others and that we speak our truth. In those moments one or the other or both are truly changed, and that sparks a change in the next conversation that we have. For me, it is in this process that true change happens. Not in the top down, governed-inspired or directed change.

But that’s me, and perhaps I am missing some of what you are concluding or alluding to.

I agree with this in spirit—and I had wanted to end with this sentiment. But after reviewing the how the foundational values might address this, and pondering how realistic this would be, I felt this conclusion would sound trite. There is a realist at work in my brain right now. This sort of change benefits from top-down work of unimaginable magnitude. Imagine the impact our governing bodies could have if they demonstrated these values in their everyday actions!

In the “DVD bonus feature” spirit of allowing you to choose your own ending, I encourage you to do just that with this post. I would love nothing more than for everyday people—rather than government—to achieve this change.

In the end, if this post merely encourages discussion, then it will have served a purpose.

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Commitment Compassion Empathy Humility Invisibleism Patience Vulnerability Willingness

Look Up

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When you get to know someone, do you focus more on what’s wrong with them, or what’s right with them?

Is there a benefit to focusing on one or the other?

How do you feel about your own flaws? Do you admit them, or do you try to hide them or compensate for them?

Why do you think that’s the case?

When I was a young executive, my boss once shared the following pearl of wisdom with me…it’s explicit, but this is the way I learned it:

If you look up someone’s ass, you’re always going to find shit.

—H. Eliot Subin

Every one of us has something that, once discovered, will be off-putting to others. If we look hard for these things, we are certain to eventually find them.

When we find someone else’s poop — knowing that we each have our own — why does that so often surprise us, and make us think differently about them? Perhaps because most people like to like people. When we get to know a person and we like that person, it brings us joy; it makes us feel like the world is a better place. We like the honeymoon period, before we find the poop. We like the Hallmark Channel.

When we discover flaws in people, it’s all too easy to feel let down. But it’s a terrible mistake to dismiss someone else when we discover their poop. How would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot?

If you’ve been in business long enough, you’ve undoubtedly been asked about the leaders who have inspired you on your journey. For me, the most immediate answer has long been George Martin. He’s an admittedly unusual choice. I’m a lifelong Beatles fan, and while I love the Beatles’ music, I find their group dynamic even more intriguing.

The Beatles were four young men who loved music, and who had a deep appreciation for one another. But despite a few friendly and intense years in the early half of their career, they were decidedly not in love with one another. In fact, their creative peak paralleled their social nadir. They had different values in life and in their music. They worked hard to keep themselves together in the way the world expected, and George Martin’s greatest contributions were in providing musical balance to complement their competing ideas. Watching his deft, delicate, minimalist hand at work in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary series is a powerful illustration of this. As their closest colleague in the studio, he routinely mediated compromise, helping four very different people become something much greater than they were individually.

At this point, it feels appropriate to revisit the quote from Victor Hugo on The Progressive CIO’s home page, which presaged this very post two years ago:

“But who among us is perfect? Even the greatest strategists have their eclipses, and the greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often compounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, separate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can break them one by one. You think, ‘That is all there was!’ But twist them all together and you have something tremendous.”

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

If you lead teams of talented and smart people, they will have differences with one another — sometimes significant ones. They will find things to dislike in each other’s philosophies, politics, lifestyles, or approaches. It is your ability to embrace, cultivate, coach through, and complement these differences that paves the road from disaster to brilliance. What does it take for you to develop a deft and delicate hand to manage this?

First: Never forget your own flaws. This requires humility.

Second: Get comfortable talking about those flaws, which will be reassuring to those who you serve and who you lead. This requires vulnerability.

Third: Develop an ability to not be surprised or disappointed when you find flaws in others. In conjunction, develop the ability to lock, arm-in-arm, in your shared humanity, This requires compassion.

Fourth: Understand that what you perceive as a flaw might not be perceived that way by others. Try to look at this perceived flaw from different perspectives, and consider invisibleism along the way. This requires empathy.

Fifth: Learn to take a breath and stay calm when others find flaws and react in unbecoming ways. This requires patience.

Sixth: When walking through these concepts with someone who is struggling with what they have found: stop, smile, and share Eliot’s quote.

Then, explore the dialogue that opens this post. This requires willingness.

Finally: Teach these lessons forward.

Of course, there are limits that, from time to time, you will confront in managing this dynamic. The Tyranny of Competence comes to mind. The best way to address this, should you need to, is through compassion, and not through anger, remembering that we all have our flaws. This will give you the best shot at addressing difficult interpersonal situations before someone simply has to go.

I think many workplaces understand the need to manage differences; what differentiates the best ones is the way they manage the flaws we discover in one another. There will be failures. There will be break-ups. Even George Martin’s work couldn’t keep the Beatles together. But a great team’s finest work comes only with significant attention to managing their reactions to one another’s flaws, however ugly they may be.

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Commitment Willingness

Do Hard Things

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I once led a small, incredibly talented innovation team at a healthcare informatics business. We were a company of many firsts. Notably, we were arguably the first company in the United States to use the pubic cloud to host healthcare data, using many thoughtful and proprietary security techniques.

Our software stack was innovative, featuring many capabilities focused on ease of use and speed of operation. We had a relentless focus on security and user experience, which are not easy things to balance.

Like many agile organizations, our team sat together in a collaborative environment, and I enjoyed my first-row seat watching their daily interactions. One day, during negotiations in a sprint planning session, a thoughtful systems engineer described an upcoming feature to our software engineers that would bring significant value to our software’s audience.

“That’s hard,” said one of the software engineers.

What happened next was one of the most memorable and perfect utterances of a single word that I have ever witnessed in my entire life.

“So?” said the systems engineer.

Can you think of a better response than that?

(For those who are curious…of course they did it.)

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Leadership Priorities Vulnerability Willingness

Your Personal Values Underpin Everything You Do. Have You Taken the Time to Write Them Down?

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There’s nothing quite like a car accident to help you identify your values.

Thirty years ago, Hyrum Smith became well-known for his “Productivity Pyramid” and popularized the practice of value-setting in his Franklin Planner system:

  • How can you identify things to do if you haven’t identified your goals?
  • How can you identify goals if you haven’t taken the time to identify your values?

While I was trained in the Franklin Planner, and appreciated the fact that what I do each day should have its roots in goals and values, Hyrum Smith’s approach always felt a little bit soulless. Why should values focus on productivity? Life is not all about productivity. It’s about floating through space on an earth-sized boat with trillions of other creatures, supporting one another while we try to make sense of what we are doing here together. While I had developed some values that underpinned what I did back then, all I can recall about them is that they were unremarkable and unmemorable.

I don’t think I’m alone. Most people I know — leaders included — have not taken the time to write out and articulate their personal values in a way that brings them personal clarity and vision. It’s a worthwhile exercise, as I hope you come to see.

In my first winter in Rochester, NY, my daily commute to Webster, NY involved driving over the infamous Irondequoit Bay Bridge. Traveling eastbound in the highly-cambered left lane one chilly January morning at 55 miles per hour, my car slid on black ice into the central barrier, ricocheting across all three lanes of traffic, straight toward the water side of the bridge.

In that moment, I closed my eyes.

I was sure that I was going to fly right off the bridge and into the cold bay below. It’s hard to describe what the human brain can conjure in the course of one or two seconds, but I can tell you that this is what came into mine:

“I am going to die. But at least I’ve settled every issue and shared my key life lessons with others, with no lasting regrets.”


Then, I bounced from barrier on the water side of the bridge, ricocheting back into the middle lane of the highway, where my car came to rest. No other cars hit me. I opened my eyes, yet I was fairly confident that I was dead. Airbag smoke filled the cabin, my glasses were blown off my face, and I could not see very well. I took a minute to think about whether or not I was dead, and thought, “Well, if I am alive, I should at least be able to get out of this car.”

Getting out of a car on a busy highway is a bad idea, but adrenaline and cortisol have a way of making you do dumb things. I wound up being perfectly OK, with only a seat-belt bruise across my chest (which I didn’t discover until taking my shirt off later that evening.) My car was totaled, but I walked away with the greatest epiphany of my life:

“Whenever I confront my mortality the next time, I want to have the very same feeling that I did this morning.”

My values didn’t change in that moment; they merely became clear. Over the following years, as I went back to articulate my values, they developed into this:

  1. To love my partner Charles all day, every day. To be with him as often as I can, and to help him with whatever he needs. To learn from him, to listen to him, to make my life better. To do the same for him as he does for me.
  2. To be ready to pass away at any time, and to get others to understand why this is a valuable way of going about life. This involves sharing — never hoarding — my experiences and everything I know, ensuring that others are able to use what I share. This requires persistent teaching skills, and a dedication to knowing that this is an utmost priority.
  3. To do something rather than nothing. To take small steps toward an uncertain future. A partially complete plan with a spirit of commitment toward that uncertain future is more likely to survive the loss of a key person than a plan that never took root at all.

I would never wish you a car accident, but moments like this have a way of bringing all sorts of clarity.

Can I help you articulate your own core values without such a scare? Allow me to try.

Start by trying to identify your top three values:

  1. The first should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It should involve your devotion to a person, or being, or people who are closest to you. It might help you to amplify the earthly actions that drive your relationship with this person, or being, or people.
  2. The second should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It might involve things that inform your daily behaviors and that ensure a sense of assuredness when you pass away.
  3. The third should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It might involve the approach you take to do the things associated with your second value.

The values I value — and that are of value to us all — are the values that involve our soul, and not our work. I hope you can sense, as I do, that well-articulated values can have a huge impact on how you carry about your work. If your find that your work is at odds with your values, however…what you have, dear reader, is a bad job.

If the culture of your workplace allows it — and I hope that it does — I recommend that you and your leadership peers work on your individual values, and share them with one another. It can be especially valuable to do if your team is working on defining your company’s values; it’s almost impossible to do this well if the group of people doing it don’t have an appreciation for each other’s personal values. Although it requires a great deal of vulnerability, when done thoughtfully, thoroughly, and openly, this sort of exercise will enhance team understanding better than any Meyers Briggs test series can.

Are you willing to give this a start, today?

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Current Events: 2023 Willingness

ChatGPT Challenges Us to Focus on Better Things. Are We Up for It?

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Is a written piece inherently valuable?

Does the world need more writing?

Does it need more writers?

Or would it benefit from more original thought?

While I am not exactly mesmerized by ChatGPT, I do enjoy it as much as any new toy I’ve had in my hands throughout my life. There is no doubt that it can — and, likely, will — have a significant and positive role in the development of our civilization. I am aware that this is at odds with much of what is being written of late, so if you choose to proceed reading, I appreciate your willingness.

I am thankful for the public discourse that all manner of generative AI has spurred in the last five months, but as with all major shifts, it is amusing to watch people struggling to keep things in historic perspective. As with Clever Hans or many other magic tricks, it’s wise for onlookers to get a grip on the reality behind the illusion. Generative AI is merely the world’s most advanced parrot, underpinned by an ingenious application of statistics. If you haven’t read that last link (courtesy of Stephen Wolfram), you owe it to yourself, because it is simply the most lucid explanation of ChatGPT that has ever been written for people unschooled in the art.

TL;DR? Generative AI uses a corpus of previously-written material to generate new-ish content that is statistically derived from that corpus. In other words, the likes of ChatGPT are superb at repeating phrases that have already been uttered across all of written history, at lightning speed. And that is about it.

People are worried, as they always seem to be when it appears that the need for certain skills might disappear. Once you’ve taken it all in, however, you might feel relieved about the potential for large language models and generative AI to refine the menial work that we do so that we can focus on better things.

In the world of software engineering education, where I spend some of my most interesting off-hours, some are concerned about the ability for generative AI to interfere with learning the art of programming. Nonetheless, the best educators already have experience with the manual means to the same end: things like Stack Overflow, SourceForge, GitHub, and other similar repositories that amplify the adage that discourages us all from reinventing the wheel: “The best programmers are lazy programmers.” Because of this, these leading instructors are in the process of inverting their curricula with an emphasis on expository exercises that have students explain what their generated and third-party code is doing.

Education asks us to learn, and learning involves a balance of creation and understanding. Is one more essential than the other? Does one have to be able to create in order to understand? Or is one better off developing understanding to foster creation?

You may recall grade school science projects that involve electricity…wiring up a battery with a light bulb to make a quiz circuit; generating electricity from a potato; electromagnets; crystal radios; and so forth. My father and two of my older brothers were in the electronics industry. When I came home one afternoon in the late 1970s with my sixth grade project assignment, my family’s expectations took me by surprise. They felt I needed to present a project that plugged into a wall outlet, involving electronic components. They proceeded to conceive of a flashing neon tube project that involved a diode, a resistor, and a capacitor, similar to what you see in this video, but finished cleanly with professional soldering and clear heat-shrink tubing, installed on an attractive piece of 70s-era plywood paneling with labels on the back.

I was puzzled. Was my family encouraging me to cheat? They assured me that I wouldn’t be getting away with anything. They demanded that I learn the principles of the diode, the resistor, the capacitor, the physics behind the neon tube, and had me explain those back to them, countless times, in my own words, before I set foot in school with my assembled project.

I sat alongside them as parts were selected and as the project was assembled.

The day I walked into class with my paneling-mounted electronics, I watched a few presentations that employed D-cells and lantern batteries. When I was called, I nervously walked to the front of the room and plugged my little project into the outlet in the black-top lab desk. While I got a small thrill from being different from everyone else, I was still nervous, and I am sure I remember the teacher looking a little worried himself.

It went well. My fellow students were as astonished as I was about the bright, blinking light. We all learned something in the process. My classmates learned about things that weren’t in the curriculum, and I learned this: It’s one thing to make something; it’s a whole other thing to be able to explain how and why it works.

My teacher surprised me with an “A” grade, and I learned not only something about electronics…I learned a lesson in education that I still can’t forget.

At some point in the next 10 years, our workforce will see the demotion of scores of software engineers who eschew generative AI programming. If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself: would you, today, tolerate a software engineer or IT professional who refused to use a search engine to find solutions to a technical problem? Of course not; you’d fire them as soon as you could.

I’ve heard some software engineering instructors wonder how bad generative AI will make things for liberal arts educators. But the answers are strikingly similar on that side of campus.

In this blog, where we discuss matters relating to the nexus of liberal arts and technology, it’s worth referencing a simple but commonly-overlooked fact: writing itself is a technology. Predating the written word was the oral tradition, where people composed stories of easy-to-remember “epithets” to create stories like Homer’s Odyssey. The invention of writing liberated people from epithets, allowing people to string together create fanciful combinations of words that — to people’s horror! — could not be remembered without referring to the medium to which they were committed. If you are curious about the details of this consequential and antique technological transformation, I could not recommend a work more highly than Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

Since writing is a technology — and not at all natural – we would do well to remember that enhancements to any technology are normal, and not to be considered at odds with what is natural. Much writing that we do today is what one might call “perfunctory.” Think of the vast number of forgettable emails and text messages that we hurtle back and forth each day, whose purpose is merely to drive a larger conversation about a single concept. It’s perfectly fine to have help typing those thoughts out in a way that relieves our fingers and saves us time.

We have names for certain classes of communication. Linguists have a term for the most routine communication that we employ every day: phatic. The world of generative AI presents us with an opportunity to expand our palette. Consider the following:

  • Phatic communication (greetings and other similar pleasantries)
  • Perfunctory communication (emails; simple essays about basic concepts; text messages; common persuasive communication; and other forgettable acts of discourse)
  • High-value communication (first-person journalism; original documentary writing; poetry; creative writing; lyricism; cognitive dissonance; and other forms of inventive discourse that are designed to be memorable and durable)

Generative AI is likely to find its greatest application helping us deliver perfunctory communication with breathtaking ease and speed, in the very same way that calculators help us all with a wide variety of perfunctory mathematical tasks, allowing educators to focus on teaching skills that support high-value communication, where we ask the human mind to be entirely engaged.

Consider works such as:

Want to be the first person to put “Expert texpert” in front of “choking smokers?” Generative AI isn’t going to get you there. Inventive combinations of words like these are at complete odds with the statistical models behind generative AI. They are high-value in that they are landmark works that have inspired millions if not billions of people through their originality of construction. Imagine a world of liberal arts education that focuses on the ability to craft these sorts of works? The degree in “letters” might be transformed, for the better.

What does all of this portend for education in any discipline that is affected by generative AI? We would do best to ensure that we engage students to explain the reasoning behind their work in real time. This is not a new concept, but it’s an unfortunately rarified one, reserved for pivotal moments like the defense of a thesis. Education would be transformed, but teachers would have to work much harder. Of course, things that are hard are things worth doing.

Consider what it might be like to re-focus on the talents that have been neglected since the days of the oral tradition: speaking that inspires and creates movement.

Imagine a day when we frown upon PowerPoint presentations, and look forward to our fellow humans speaking extemporaneously and creatively, from their hearts, providing insight and inspiration at the times we need it most.

Imagine a day when our programmers are freed from writing login screens, and where they can focus on creating user experiences that not only save us time, but touch our hearts and souls with software that provides insight and inspiration.

Many are concerned about how “correct” generative AI is; they are alarmed by the potential effect of “hallucinations.” But these notions are not new; every book on every shelf of every library is written and edited by fallible human beings, a great deal of whom acted out of not only ignorance, but out of self-interest or with ill intent. Consumers of information have always had a duty to think critically before acting on that information. They still do.

Technology changes how we live. Writing’s initial gift was a reduction in our need to remember details. Writing’s second gift was its ability to be mass-produced, bringing us more-or-less perfect one-to-many communication. Writing’s third gift was its ability to show us how repetitive and perfunctory so much of our communication is. Generative AI gives us a chance to make perfunctory communication — and programming — even more perfunctory, liberating us for better things…if only we allow ourselves the opportunity.

Once more:

Is a written piece inherently valuable?

Does the world need more writing?

Does it need more writers?

Or would it benefit from more original thought?

Since writing is a technology — and not at all natural – we would do well to remember that enhancements to any technology are normal, and not to be considered at odds with what is natural.

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Love Willingness


🎹 Music for this post:

As an introvert — and a CIO — interacting with thousands of holiday shoppers over the course of a couple of days is not within my normal activity range.

But at this time of year, when I do my part as a greeter in Palmer’s Direct To You Market, my extroversion skills get a Schwarzenegger-style workout. Our market is a 174-year old tradition in Rochester, and I am thankful for every person who visits. Our clients deserve — and expect — a great experience when they walk through the door.

I am reminded of the following six things when I take this exercise on. What occurs to me today is that these behaviors support us in all aspects of life:

  • Through your voice and face, project a greeting with authority — mean it.
  • Give a genuine and lasting smile when you are doing it.
  • Do everything within your power to bring out the smile in others.
  • Do everything within your power to make them laugh, too.
  • Unless cultural norms declare otherwise, make eye contact, and keep it every chance you get.
  • Always care about other people’s children.

It was wonderful seeing so many familiar faces walk through our doors, from neighbors to long-time business associates.

A goal of mine for 2024 is to remember the six lessons of this week. A very happy holiday to you and yours! Cheers!

Yours truly on the left, with my colleague, Dan Walsh.

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