Udacity seeks to solve our greatest education and employment challenges

It’s no secret that higher education as we know it today is not sustainable.  The cost of going to college is only increasing, and the nation now has nearly a trillion dollars in college debt.  And yet, the unemployment rate in the US is around 8%.  People are paying sky high prices for college, only to not find a job.

At the same time, here in the SF Bay Area / Silicon Valley, the demand for talent has never been higher.  Employers like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and countless startups compete for engineering and design talent.  It seems the country’s system of higher education is failing employers and prospective employees.

It is because Udacity seeks to help address this problem that I am so excited to be working with them.  The CEO, Sebastian Thrun, who is perhaps best known for his involvement in directing the development of Google’s self driving cars and augmented reality glasses, gave up his tenured position at Stanford to found Udacity.  His vision and ideals are directly aligned with mine:  use the internet to democratize education and make it freely accessible to all; offer a teaching environment in which students can explore their passions and learn about the things they love, while taking responsibility for their own learning; and help connect employers with people who have the skills and passion needed for the job.  

There is much work to be done with the site. It wouldn’t be a fun endeavor if things were already figured out and perfect!  We’re looking to hire a designer to join the team.  If you’re passionate about working on these problems, have a great portfolio and would enjoy working in a scrappy startup environment, please contact me.  

The Nectar of Chanting

We just returned from a family trip to the ashram in upstate NY.  Our visit was profound, powerful, and uplifting, in ways that are too deep, personal, and difficult to explain with words.  As is typically the case when taking the kids to a new, unfamiliar place, they were uncomfortable at first, but by the end of the week they loved it.  Much to my surprise and delight, the kids have really taken to chanting.


Chanting at the ashram can be quite challenging.  We sit for almost two hours, chanting in Sansrkit, where the words can be as long as 30+ characters.  Sometimes the chants are repetitive, but the longest, most challenging chant is 183 verses, lasting 45 minutes, and is not repetitive at all, which is more difficult to chant than a repetitive chant because you have to stay focused and present.  The first time the girls went through it they thought it was immensely boring but politely sat through the entire program.  One or two days later, something clicked, and their whole attitude changed.  “Chanting makes me feel good,” said Charlotte.


Chanting can be wonderfully euphoric and grounding.  At the most basic, physiological level, chanting is about breath control.  Chanting requires a relatively short inhale followed by a long, sustained exhale during which the notes are vocalized.  It is yoga for the vocal chords and tongue!  The control of breathing is a useful tool for reducing anxiety and stress and increasing feelings of gratitude.  


Singing offers similar benefits as chanting but there are features unique to chanting that contribute further to one’s well-being.  Chanting features a highly regular cadence and has an even range of tone.  Thus, it is much simpler and more accessible than singing and more energizing than regular speech.  Not everyone can sing, but everyone can chant.  


When chanting is done in Sanskrit, most students only have a loose association with the words.  As a result, the words are said in a more emotional than analytical way.  Making sounds with feeling creates a release which helps people feel better and breathe in a more balanced way.  The repetitive chants at our ashram often progress through a range of cadences and tones, which results in a journey through varied moods and emotions.  


Since most of us don’t know Sanskrit, chanting also becomes an exercise in setting aside one’s ego and approaching an activity with a beginner’s mind.  In addition to the health benefits, chanting cultivates increased concentration and mindfulness.  


Watching a beautiful music or dance performance can be extremely moving.  The performers are  united, mindful, filled with love for what they do, and sharing it with the world.  Chanting provides a similar sense of unity, with the difference being that you are also a participant.  That unity is our yoga. 

Scenes from home… with a squishy pink smiley face toy

After coming home from teaching an early morning yoga class, my daughter told me she had been taking photos around the house while I was gone.  I love looking at the photographs my kids take as it’s a great glimpse into how they see the world.  Now that they’re older, the photographs provide a view into their creative process as well as a way for them to practice an awareness of their surroundings.

The photo series starts out with a lot of photos of every day objects around the house: the piano, a book, a jacket, a toy, a container of loquats:

Then things start to get interesting as she starts to pair objects with each other:

Pretty soon she starts creating scenes with the squishy pink smiley face toy:

And then somehow the toy finds nirvana:

Goodbye Google, Hello World!

I’ve been getting enough inquires about my current employment status that it seems a blog post is in order.  Yes, it’s true:  after 6 years at Google, I have decided to leave and move on.  I turned in my badge yesterday!  Reflecting on my time spent there, it has been an incredible journey. Google’s relationship with design has evolved in ways that seemed unimaginable six years ago. I’m extremely proud of the team I built there, and Google UX is in great hands with the next generation of leaders. I’m excited for its future and look forward to seeing what comes next!

One of my main intentions behind leaving Google was to pursue a different path from what I was doing before. Having run not just one but two of the largest, most prominent UX teams in the Internet industry and in Silicon Valley, the impact I was having was at a large scale, but in a very indirect way. Going through the yoga teacher training last year taught me a lot about myself. First, I loved being in the beginner’s seat again and learning something entirely new and different. Second, in contrast to the work I’ve done for the past sixteen years, the impact I’ve had in teaching yoga is very direct and hands-on, albeit at a small scale relative to what I did before. Reflecting on this, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


What’s next for me remains to be seen. For now, I am potting plants, literally and figuratively. (As it turns out, potting plants is another activity that puts me in the beginner’s seat, as my children have pointed out to me that I know nothing about gardening.) I’ll continue to teach yoga, but not too much, to give myself the time and headspace I need now. An avid advocate of Montessori education, I’ve joined the Board of Trustees for my children’s school. As I’ve already begun to advise and consult with startups, next month I will join Trinity Ventures as an EIR. I’m extremely excited to join a team comprised of genuinely good people in the venture community. I’ll save details on that for another post. In the meantime, Namaste!

"I’m not good at yoga."

Now that I’m teaching yoga, the topic of yoga comes up in conversation from time to time.  A comment I hear often is “I don’t do yoga.  I’m not good at it.”  The irony of this comment fascinates me.  How come one rarely says, “I don’t go to strength training classes, because I’m not strong,” yet people say they don’t do yoga because they’re not flexible?

Perhaps what lies behind that statement is the perception that yoga is pretzel poses that only contortionists can do.  In fact, such poses are not part of the ancient tradition of yoga, and if one wants to better understand the history of yoga and its relationship to Western women’s gymnastics, I highly recommend “Yoga Body” by Mark Singleton.  Ancient yogic texts actually refer to only a few postures, intended for people to build strength and stamina to sit and meditate for long periods of time.

The term “yoga” means different things to different people.  The physical practice (referred to as “asana” which means “seat”) is one of eight limbs of the spiritual practice of yoga.  And yet to many, the term “yoga” is commonly associated with the physical practice.  Now there is a growing community of teachers and practitioners specializing in the discipline of yoga therapy.  While the definition of yoga therapy continues to evolve, to me it represents the integration of traditional yogic concepts and techniques with Western medical, physiological, and psychological knowledge.  In this emerging tradition, there is recognition of the human being as an integrated mind-body system, and yogic techniques are used both as preventative measures to keep the body functioning optimally as well as to treat spiritual, physical, or mental ailments.

With these perspectives, what exactly does it mean to be “good” at yoga?  There is no “good” or “bad”,  no judgment to be made.  In yoga, there are just three rules to guide the practice:

  1. Start where you are.  It doesn’t matter how flexible you are or whether you are or are not flexible.  If you can breathe, you can do yoga.  There is always something for everyone to do, and there is always somewhere to go, more to learn.
  2. Join movement and breath.  There is no posture without breath.
  3. Observe yourself.  Through self-study and observation we gain awareness and presence of mind.  We notice changes over time, understand cause-effect, and use that feedback to inform the future.
Ultimately the comment “I’m not good at yoga” comes down to ego.  Just making it to the mat requires surrender and letting go of the inner critic that judges oneself and worries about being judged by others.  And that is what yoga is about.  (As an aside, this is also a necessary step for any creative endeavor!)

Mindful Design in Japan

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference last February I spoke about Zen and Design and what it means to design mindfully.  While vacationing in Japan last week, I was delighted to see how public spaces there are full of examples of mindful design.  For example, consider something as mundane as manhole covers.  In the US we never give them much of a thought; they usually look like this:

In contrast, manhole covers in Japan are an opportunity to bring unexpected delight to pedestrians that pass:

Manhole covers aside, how often have you seen sidewalk railing that looks like a cage or bars in a jail?
In Tokyo and Kyoto, the railing along sidewalks and bridges are opportunities to bring delight to the public:

In yogic practice we try to cultivate mindfulness by bringing our awareness to the present moment, without judgment.  Mindful design is about bringing attention and awareness to the things we otherwise take for granted, and creating joyful experiences through our interactions with those objects or surroundings.  The manhole covers and railings illustrate how mindful design can be applied to the physical appearance of an ordinary object.  We also found examples of mindful design applied to the experience of public spaces.  For example, this time of year, cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, and pedestrian malls and major roads are lined with sakura:

Compare this scene with California Ave, the local business district for my neighborhood in Palo Alto, which sadly does not even have trees after the city decided to chop them all down:

California Ave, Palo Alto:  Before, with trees
California Ave, Palo Alto:  Without trees

Another example:  many creeks in the US are filled with concrete, motivated by cheaper maintenance costs and more efficient flow of water to its destination:

La Ballona Creek, Culver City, CA

… while all the creeks we encountered in Kyoto were beautiful pedestrian paths:

Mindful design is not just about aesthetics.  User experience practitioners advocate for understanding users’ latent, unmet needs.  Identifying these needs and creating an experience that goes beyond what is expected or required is also mindful design.  Consider the ticket counters at Tokyo subway stations:
That little blue strip of plastic is in front of almost every ticket counter and vending machine. It’s not pretty, but it serves as a resting spot for one’s umbrella or cane as owners purchase their tickets.  It’s unlikely the Japanese public requested this feature; whoever thought to offer this feature had a heightened awareness of users’ latent needs and, just as importantly, had the funding and support to provide this extra detail.  Great design does come with a cost, whether it is added expense or time.  Thus, mindful design has to come from not only the designer, but also those who enable or support the creation of experiences (e.g. sponsors, CEOs, supervisors).

How are you designing mindfully the products and experiences you create? 

"Grown-ups like numbers"

We are rereading “The Little Prince” by Antoine De Saint-Exupery during bedtime stories.  (Even though my kids are old enough to read to themselves, we still enjoy the nighttime ritual of having me read to them.)  As my children grow older, they are able to appreciate the book in new and different ways.  In their younger years they loved the whimsical pop-ups and illustrations.   Now that Charlotte is 10, she enjoys the wisdom the book brings to light.  Whether you have children or not, “The Little Prince”  is a must-read.  As an example, this passage from page 15 poignantly describes adults’ over-focus on data:

Grown-ups like numbers.  When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters.  They never ask: “What does his voice sound like?” “What games does he like best?” “Does he collect butterflies?”  They ask: “How old is he?” “How many brothers does he have?” “How much does he weigh?” “How much money does his father make?” Only then do they think they know him.  If you tell grown-ups, “I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,” they won’t be able to imagine such a house.  You have to tell them, “I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.”  Then they exclaim, “What a pretty house!”

(As I read this to Charlotte, she exclaimed, “This man is a GENIUS!”)

Children are born wise.  As we get older we gain knowledge but somehow lose our wisdom.  

Sophie’s wise thoughts

Wise thoughts from Sophie:

(1) The other day my parents came home bickering about an incident that occurred on their way home with Sophie.  Half an hour after returning home, they were still bickering.  Sophie looked at me and said earnestly, “Why are they still talking about this?  It happened in the past.  They should focus on what’s happening now.”

(2) Earlier this week, Sophie shared with me, “I don’t know why people don’t like the rain. I *love* the rain!”  Reminds me of the Arnold Beisser quote:  “The tragic or the humorous is a matter of one’s perspective.”

Contemplating non-attachment

Book I, Sutra 15, “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
Drstanusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikara samjna vairagyam
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.


This sutra asserts that non-attachment is essential to the practice of yoga.  Attachment is derived from the things the mind is attracted to through the body’s senses (drishta = seen; anursravika = heard), a metaphorical way to describe worldly things that we perceive.  Rather than go for things the mind wants, one should be able to discriminate whether the things we perceive are actually good for the self or not.

When the mind is attached to worldly things, the practice of yoga cannot be fulfilled because the mind is distracted.  When the mind is distracted by desires, the mind cannot rest and be at peace.  Meditation is only possible when the mind is free from attachment.  

The absence of attachment is related to the lack of expectation of outcomes.  When one is free from expectation, one cannot experience disappointment no matter what the result.  When we remove attachment and expectation from any endeavor, the pursuit of that endeavor becomes intrinsically rewarding, as opposed to extrinsically rewarding.  Thus we are more able to enjoy the journey (e.g. the process), rather than be focused on the outcome itself (e.g. the product).  When the mind is free from personal interest, we do our work well and feel joyful, because we are enjoying the work for experience itself, not the outcome.

Attachment and lack thereof has considerable impact on creativity and innovation, beyond meditation and yogic practice.  Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that we are the most creative when we’re focused on the process and being in the present, and least when we’re focused on the product or outcome1.  “When we are concerned about the product, we worry about how it will be judged, evaluated, accepted, and rejected.  Our ego is put on the line.  Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, and new products.”  One who is process-oriented is intrinsically motivated, engaged in the creative endeavor for the joy of doing it, while a product-orientation is by definition extrinsically motivated.

Outside of creative and artistic endeavors, the absence of non-attachment in the business world has perhaps had dire consequences.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted experiments in which he looked at the performance of subjects in situations where their compensation was directly tied to how well they performed on a variety of cognitive skills and mechanical tasks.  By connecting compensation to performance, he created conditions in which subjects became extrinsically motivated instead of intrinsically motivated.  Higher bonuses successfully motivated subjects to perform better on mechanical tasks, but actually led to poorer performance on tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skills. Ariely and his team found similar results from experiments conducted in the U.S., Britain, and India.  “If our tests mimic the real world, then massive bonuses clearly don’t work. They may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their abilities. The financial crisis, perhaps, didn’t happen in spite of the bonuses, but because of them.”2

In the context of education, the emphasis on grades and testing introduces unhealthy attachment and creates an environment that is antithetical to the point of education:  learning for the pursuit of understanding and knowledge and then wisdom.  The consequences of our test-oriented education system is devastating for our children:  less interest in learning for learning’s sake, less interest in taking on challenging tasks (since they are motivated to get good results, not to take intellectual risks), and more superficial thinking.  Research by Eric Anderman and his colleagues have found in a 1998 study of middle school students, those who “perceived that their schools emphasized performance [as opposed to learning] goals were more likely to report engaging in cheating behaviors.”3

Zimbardo, Ariely, and Anderman’s research are evidence that non-attachment is essential for creativity, performance, happiness, and intellectual well being.  Interpreted broadly, Sutra 15 Book I has significant implications for every aspect of our lives.




References

1 Zimbardo, P. and Boyd, J.  The Time Paradox (Free Press, 2008), p. 122.

2 “Dan Ariely:  Bonuses boost activity, not quality”, Wired.co.uk (1 Feb 2010), http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2010/03/start/dan-ariely-bonuses-boost-activity-but-not-quality

3 Eric M. Anderman, Tripp Griesinger, and Gloria Westerfield, “Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1998): 84-93; and Eric M. Anderman and Carol Midgley, “Changes in Self-Reported Academic Cheating Across the Transition from Middle School to High School,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 29 (2004): 499-517.