Author Archives: John Maeda

Simply Imperfect

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A friend gave me this book by Robin Griggs Lawrence entitled “Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.” The book speaks to the Japanese concept of beauty as elegant instances of imperfection. Nature is “perfectly imperfect” — and thus to emulate that condition of beauty is what brings us in harmony with the way the earth presents itself to us. It’s ironically what lies at the essence of the pursuit of perfection in Modernism, and yet is so easy to forget. -JM

Commencement Memories

I’ve noted a habit within me around commencement time every year — which is, naturally, for my mind to drift back to my own commencement experience. There’s one thing I remember quite clearly that truly shaped my life that I heard from my commencement speaker at MIT in 1989. His name is Paul Tsongas. I had no idea who he was, at the time. You can find the entire transcript of his speech right here. He describes himself well by sharing the thought after a few minutes into his commencement speech:

“When I graduated from college, if the speaker had announced that one of us sitting there would be elected to the United States Senate at the age of 37, and come down with cancer at the age of 42, I would have been absolutely and totally certain that neither event would happen to me. And yet, both did.”

That line caught all our attention, especially me. What isn’t remaining in the transcript online is something he adlibbed that stuck to me. It was to the effect.

“Look to your left. Look to your right. In twenty years from now, or maybe even sooner, one of your fellow graduates will have passed away for some unexpected reason. All you get to control right now, is what you do with your life right now.”

It was the kind of point made, that someone who had experienced life as he had done so … that made it much more than a generic comment to generate inspiration in a younger generation. It was the first moment that I felt that all of my youthful invincibility and training acquired through achieving the “college dream” instilled by my working class parents, might be somewhat of a mirage. And true to Senator Tsongas’ point, as I got older I understood his simply stated prophecy — which is a simple fact of life — that some of us get to keep on going, and some of us don’t. His message spanned many themes of national security revolving around his thoughts around Soviet Union and China, and also touched heavily on the rapid evolution of the financial markets at the time. Yet what I remember most, is that one point he gave to all of us about our inherent mortality. Which was especially brought home when I returned to MIT as a professor around the same time that Senator Tsongas passed away at the young age of 55. So when one of my mentor Mits Kataoka shared his thoughts about life as being lived in four quarters, and how I shouldn’t waste my second quarter, you could say that thanks to Senator Tsongas, I was more than ready to hear, understand, and try to act upon that knowledge. Thank you, Mr. Tsongas! -JM

Always Being Told That You Have Potential

Yesterday I had lunch with an old friend — Bob Sabiston — the computer graphics animator that helped Richard Linklater make his groundbreaking film Waking Life. We talked about how blown away we were at all the computer-based work that the new generation keeps cranking out. And we were both shocked by all the artist-coders and designer-programmers that are out there now — having come from a time when a “unicorn” was just a myth, and when Bob and I were emergent anomalies along with other folks we knew at MIT like Michael Johnson at Pixar, John Underkoffler at Oblong, and a few other *very*-confused folks around the world. I should note that watching Bob do what he did as a student at MIT in the 80s — combining traditional two-dimensional hand-drawn animation with 3d graphics programming — was what motivated and inspired me to crossover from technology into the creative world.

So while talking tech, creativity, and so forth, it was a completely unexpected turn when we started talking about the question of, “How did we become the old guys?” The background music from a few movies I had seen before … started to play in my mind as we talked. In the end we concluded that we have to keep on learning new things, and learn what we can from the next generation.

This morning I woke up and remembered a story that helped me get out of my “old man” thing from yesterday. It was told by a wise young man that another friend had met at a conference a few years back. It went like this,

When you’re young and up-and-coming, everyone tells you … “You  … have such potential. Such great potential!”

When you’re older, everyone tells you … “You did such great things. You … really made an impact!”

The trick I’ve figured out, having had the chance to meet and talk with incredible people from all generations, is … to always be told … no matter how old you are … that, “you have potential.” The key to life is always being told that you have potential.

So to the reader of this little post, I want you to know that … you have potential. Have a maximizing-your-potential day! -JM

Confidence without Ego

I was talking with a friend yesterday about ego, and I was re-reminded of the late Robert (Bob) Silbey — an extraordinary leader I had the privilege of knowing when I was a professor at MIT. My favorite comment on the uniqueness of Bob was captured beautifully by one of his close friends:

Bob was a truly singular person who had such deep abiding confidence without ego, if one can imagine such a combination that he was always there for others in personal transactions. He didn’t need the response to fill his soul, it was so secure and thus could be so generous.

Confidence is a funny thing. It’s necessary for you to do absolutely anything in life. Too little confidence, and you’re unable to act; too much confidence, and you’re unable to hear.

The point made about Bob as being “confident without ego,” and the reference to “ego” makes me think of the blob-like character in “Spirited Away” named “No-Face,” or “kaonashi” (kaw-oh-naw-shee)Kaonashi is an elegant, albeit disturbing, visual representation (s/he or “it” is the black, cloud-like character wearing a mask that you can see in this trailer) of greed and hunger — what one’s ego will modally flip to when it runs unchecked. Bob’s friend’s point about “[Bob] didn’t need the response to fill his soul” — is a beautiful one, because the point of true generosity is the sublimation of one’s desire for reciprocity. A simple idea, yet certainly difficult to put into practice.  -JM

The Gift (from ca 2000)

This is an old, old post that I thought to transfer to this blog from my now aging MIT site that I can no longer edit, but grateful that it’s still around. -JM

At the recent Aspen Design Conference I met a talented young student from the University of Michigan. He exhibited a great deal of energy, as young people thankfully do. In essence, he asked me how could he combine his interests in technology with his love for design? He proceeded to show me a sketchbook of ideas for new kinds of computer interfaces. I immediately recognized these sketches! They were the sketches in my own sketchbook from many years ago. Some of them things I made, some I didn’t. It’s funny how everyone can have a similar sketchbook of the same ideas when it comes to their frustration with the computer. The student then asked, “Which one(s) should I build?” I told him he should build all of them. He said that he couldn’t. But that he could come up with more ideas much easier than trying to build them.

 

The power of creativity amazes me. My once mentor Tadashi Sasaki told me while I was just starting out, “You have the gift.” I was surprised, “The gift?” Sasaki said, “Yes, the gift of creativity. Did you know it is also a curse?” I wasn’t sure what he meant until many years later. What Sasaki meant, I think, is that it is a real gift to think of all kinds of things you can possibly do. Unfortunately, it can be a curse because it prevents you from ever doing anything at all. You can get started on something, and then immediately derailed because you start to see something completely new elsewhere. And then when you branch off to that, you get off on another tangent. If you are not careful, all you leave is a massive trail of unfinished work with nothing to show for. So the gift of ideas, is the curse of doing nothing.

 

Whenever students start to think too much, I try to warn them not to think so much, and just do. I wish that was my own idea, but Horace came a long time before me. It is not easy to warn students that they are thinking too much. After all, we are taught in school that it is hard to think. The profession of professors exist because we are thought to be able to think a great deal. So why should the student not think? Maybe what I mean is that over-creative students should not think, because they already think too much. They can waste too much time in the fascinating world of thought. “Doing” is outright dirty in the land of pure academia. There is a saying that supports this mindset with negative connotations, “Those who do, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I would change this to, “Those who are young, should do. Those who teach, should do too.” Do not waste your precious gift while young and able. Do. And do not fear the curse of “the gift.”