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What work is being done here?
How much have I done?
Is that enough?
Is the work good enough?
Does it have any value?
I’ve been working in a variety of ways at the Centre for Creative Collaboration for more than a year now. My trip to America gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned with others in the course of that year. Whenever I told people about the Centre, they were very interested in what we had found about the process of collaborating in a creative context.
On the whole I think people recognise that it’s a valuable but difficult thing to do. But why is it difficult? I think it comes down to some of the conventional wisdom about identity and branding. My repeated experience of working with others in the context of the Centre and before that with Tuttle in general is that most of us find it hard to give up a strong sense of personal identity for something that isn’t well-formed yet.
Now, I have to admit that even when I worked in big organisations I had trouble leaving my ego at the door and making my work about something bigger than just me. However, it’s a lot easier to do that when you have a formal contract with a corporation (at the end of the day, you’ve made an agreement to do what you’re told) than when you and a bunch of folks are sitting round a table trying to come up with something new.
Practice makes perfect, but I always feel like my own progress with this is painfully slow.
There’s so much to let go of – first of all at a personal creative level there’s the fear of making the first mark, of being wrong and of being seen to be wrong. Anyone involved in creating something new is familiar with the difficulty of the blank sheet of paper. However, having others watch me struggle with a blank sheet of paper doesn’t necessarily make it feel any easier. Making this discomfort explicit can help. Just acknowledging out loud and in the group that this is a difficult bit of the process takes away some of the power of the block.
In a Creative Collaboration people might not just be representing their own interests but those of an organisation too. Ideally we want to manage this – to have points in our process where we all let go of the organisational ego and others when it’s acceptable to bring it back in.
The greater struggle for me though is to let go of personal attachment to who I am and what my part is in the group. I have to keep reminding myself that we’re here for some higher purpose, even if that purpose isn’t well-defined – indeed we might just be here to define a purpose… We’re certainly not here to admire Lloyd and wonder at his wisdom (there’ll be plenty of time for that later…)
So part of working together is acknowledging that working together can be difficult and pulling ourselves back again and again to remembering that (at least for this meeting or piece of work) the group is the most important unit and that personal and organisational attachments may need to be temporarily jettisoned.
Because the truth is that we are simultaneously individuals and part of a group but for some reason our brains struggle with holding that idea for very long – we yearn to be one or the other.
I asked on twitter “What is the purpose of knowing what the purpose is?”
and then I went and got some lunch…
Martyn Clark said: “Creating cool stuff. Oh. That’s mine. Hmm. The purpose of the purpose IS the purpose. By definition. Fractal.”
Nick Holder said: “In order to feel purposeful?”
Michael Lewkowitz said: “to simplify”
Hmmm, all fair enough, but I wasn’t thinking of it that way, I hadn’t made it clear that I was after understanding why other people are so interested in understanding why I do what I do (a recurring theme and irritation for me…)
so I replied: “I was wondering more about what other people’s purpose is in knowing my purpose (or vice versa)”
and Martyn came back: “In that case, the purpose of ME knowing YOUR purpose, is so I can see how MY purpose relates to YOURS. Is there an OUR purpose?”
Aha! Bombshell. Paradigm shift. I once was blind but now I see.
When someone asks “Why are you doing this? What’s the point? What’s the purpose of this, I don’t understand” I habitually become defensive. Especially so if I don’t know or understand either.
I’ve never seen that question as a possible opener to collaboration, a means of finding some common ground that might take both of us forward. I only ever see it as a way of closing me down, of pointing out that I’ve got it wrong – because under it all I believe that if I can’t articulate the purpose then I shouldn’t be doing it and that this question is a test to see whether I can articulate the purpose.
I feel a big weight being taken off me! That might be useful then…
I was asked, before, during and after, “why not just do this using couchsurfing.org? It’s set up for what you’re doing and you’d meet new and interesting people.”
Well, for one, I *did* meet new and interesting people anyway but this wasn’t so much what I was after. i really wanted to experience travelling through my social graph. When I was at university one of the courses I loved was Operations Research, including problems like the Travelling Salesman Problem. I think it was the simplicity of iterating over a set of rules that I find beautiful, but I was also aware that we were dealing with extreme abstractions. An actual travelling salesman would have all sorts of distractions and deviations – he didn’t just get up in the morning and set off like an automaton. So in a way, I was playing with this idea of traversing a network algorithmically as an intelligent agent, while acknowledging the complexity of real life travel.
[And when I write that, I become aware that for part of the audience the story just got way more interesting and for a bunch of others it became duller than ditchwater. Or maybe not. ]
So couchsurfing, yeah. I wanted to see what it was like if I did this with friends, people I already knew, rather than relying on a ready–made and well-prepared network of people who do this all the time. How does it feel for me to be a perpetual houseguest with people with whom I already have some connection, however tenuous, that was formed for some other purpose than this trip. What are the feelings, problems, delights that emerge for me? And then how does it feel for a host to have someone you know from the internet just popping up in your town, on your doorstep, in your kitchen, sleeping in your spare room? And then, when they’re gone, going back to normal and watching them do the same thing over with someone else, maybe sharing stories about you or even physical objects that you had in your hand yesterday.
I think there are a few reasons why it’s important I wrote about my situation this morning and that I keep doing so as things shift and change, not just leap to “and suddenly it all turned round and I stand before you, a glowing success”. If I’d jumped from landing in California to pootling around the East Coast, you’d have felt cheated wouldn’t you?
1. We can make things better if we talk about what’s really going on. I was musing with a good pal yesterday that we’re living through a white-collar 1979. I keep thinking of Boys from the Blackstuff. We’re slowly waking up to the fact that our economy isn’t going to be based on the same things we’ve come to take for granted and we’re going through the same stages of shock, denial, anger and frustration. At the moment, people who are struggling think it’s just their own story of finding things difficult, because of their industry, their poor education and career choices, their personal ambition to do something more fulfilling than maintaining a brain-dead bureacracy. But haven’t you heard? We’re all in it together! Look back at The Blackstuff. See men isolated from their families and from each other – we have a chance to do something different, we can talk to each other across the world, but it will only help us if we’re willing to talk honestly about how we’re feeling, what’s actually going on, where our mistakes have been, when we think we’ve failed.
2. If people don’t know they can’t help. People want to help. All that stuff about social capital while I was travelling – that’s what I’ve built up and doubtless you have too. Bonds with people that mean when they hear things aren’t so good, they rally round.
3. It really helps to know that others have been there too. But I didn’t find out nearly so much about other people’s low points and failures until I started talking about my own. It’s not done, especially in this country. I am having a bit of culture shock coming back after a month in the USA. But it’s culture shock that I’m used to, it’s a bit like when I walk down North End Road after a day of being socially active on the web for an extended period. The culture I enjoy being part of isn’t just American, it’s one of the cultures of the web. I want to hear more from the people who say “I’ve been exactly there too, I’ve felt a failure and not known what was going to happen next” and then I want to hear what did happen. That’s why I’m still writing.
4. Allied to that I don’t want to lose too many bits of the story to rationalisation and the benefits of hindsight. I think we could learn more about enterprise, organisation and ourselves if we got rid of the case-study approach to education. Pick a success, ask people involved to reflect on why things worked, construct a theory that makes it seem inevitable that it all worked out beautifully. Blogging lets you see the story unfold as it happens and go back and see the source material and the vital bits of context that were important at the time – it’s much more difficult to fool ourselves into thinking that there are simple, replicable formulae for successes.
5. The journey’s more interesting than the destination. And a zig-zag windy road is more interesting than a straight one. I do choose to live like this. I choose the ups and downs and learning and expanding and pushing the boundaries over a supposedly safe and secure straight line to retirement. To me, believing that I’ll be doing roughly the same thing for the next 20 years would be like spending a day in San Francisco and just getting a plane to New York. it’s the search, the not knowing that makes it worth doing.
I lost my ability to restrain pen and tongue on twitter this morning. I apologize to anyone upset by it.
I hate being in this position. I’m embarrassed, ashamed, tired, disappointed, bored, desperately bored with being the nice guy who everyone respects and admires but who is puzzlingly incapable of generating regular revenue and looking after himself.
In a nutshell, I’m down to my last few quid again. My rent is 3 weeks overdue and I have no income at the moment. I had to call my kids yesterday and tell them I couldn’t visit them last night as arranged. I know these are distasteful things we’re not supposed to talk about in public, but I am convinced that *not* talking about it does me more harm.
I have had a wave of loveliness from people on twitter. I know I’m loved, admired, respected and that people are inspired by some of the things that I do. That means a lot to me.
I’ve been exhorted to hang in there, stay positive, stand proud and keep my chin up and I will. I’ve been told I’m not a quitter and that I’m hugely capable, that things always turn round and nothing stays the same. I know, I’ve been here before. I really had hoped not to be here again.
I have to ask again what I can do today to generate more cash, preferably on a regular basis.
PS for anyone coming to this fresh, please take a look at the archives, some “obvious” ground has already been covered.
Here’s a few things I’ve learned from my Amtrak travels…
There are 3 USA Rail Passes. The adult prices are $389 for 8 segments in 15 days, $579 for 12 segments in 30 days or $749 for 18 segments in 45 days. I’ve now done two coast-to-coast trips this way. On the first trip I had the cheapest one and I had to pay a little extra because i went over the 15-day limit. On the second, I went for the next one up and I found I needed more than 12 segments. That’s how I roll, always just going over the limit… However, I found them to be excellent value for money.
The important thing to remember when planning is that a journey might take up more than one segment. ”Amtrak considers a travel segment any time you get on and then get off a vehicle (train, bus, ferry or other allowable leg) regardless of length.” So my trip from Washington DC to Belfast, Maine consisted of 3 segments: DC to Boston, Boston to Portland, Portland to Belfast.
Also remember that this just gets you a seat. If your journey is overnight and you want to sleep in something more comfortable than a coach seat, you’ll have to pay extra.
The Terms and Conditions Page is worth a look.
It’s best to make a reservation as soon as you know which train you want to get. Amtrak does not oversell as far as I can tell. You won’t see people standing or sitting in vestibules in the way you might on a UK train. There were a couple of occasions when the train I wanted to get was sold out – this can be awkward in those areas where there’s only one train a day, which is to say pretty much everywhere outside of the North East routes. When I faced this going from Milwaukee to Austin, I was advised to call again after midnight on the day of travel when reservations that haven’t been paid for get reset – it worked for me, though of course it’s not guaranteed.
It’s worth asking for a system-wide timetable when you pick up your pass. All stations also have paper copies of the timetables for the services that run there. Trains are referred to by their brand name (The Texas Eagle) as well as their number (21 or 22 depending on direction) It’s useful to be able to see just how far behind schedule you are on longer trips Freight traffic gets priority on the network, so some delay is pretty much guaranteed. Be prepared for a 1 or even 2 hour delay on any journey that’s more than 12 hours. I didn’t miss any connections, but was told that Amtrak will pay for buses, accomodation and food if things go really wrong. The Amtrak phoneline gives fairly accurate real-time information on how each train is running – as I remember it’s good to know the train number.
1-800-USA-RAIL or 1-800-872-7245 store it in your phone now! The automated agent “Julie” is rarely of use if you’re planning anything more complicated than getting train information. Say “Agent” as soon as you’re given the choice and you’ll get put in the queue for a real person. I found Amtrak phoneline (and station) staff to be extremely friendly and helpful, mostly enjoying the challenge of dealing with my out of the ordinary requests.
At the station
Even if you already have your tickets, it’s worth asking how the train’s running to schedule and checking out which gate or track you’re going to be leaving from. Get a seat as close to the gate as you can as British queuing rules do not apply. People get up before they’re called and before you know it there’s a crowd of people hovering around. This does not automatically form into an orderly line as you might expect… so get there first! Also, chill out. You will get on the train and you will get a seat, you might have to sit next to someone and not get a choice about sitting by the window or the aisle, but that won’t kill you.
Getting on the train and finding a seat
Conductors will often call seniors (over 62 yrs, I heard a couple of times) and families with babies and small children first. On North Eastern trains you can get on at any door. On other routes you’re likely to be directed to a particular car based on your destination. You will likely have some discretion choosing your seat if you get on at a terminus, though cars are sometimes divided into areas for single travellers and those in parties of two or more.
A conductor will come round soon after departure to check tickets. They will then put a seat check (a small piece of paper or card) in the rack above your seat denoting where you’re getting off. Most conductors will prefer if you don’t move around to different seats but if you do, make sure you move your seat check with you.
Finding your way around
There are two types of train, the single-decker ones mainly found on the North Eastern commuter routes and the double-deckers elsewhere. On single-deckers the restrooms are at one end of each car and you’ll get to the cafe and/or dining car if there is one by walking in one direction or another On the double-deckers, restrooms are on the lower deck of each car accessible via the stairs in the centre. Then the layout is usually that sleeping cars are at the front, followed by the dining car, then an observation car with big windows and sideways seats and a cafe downstairs and then then coach cars. So if you’re sitting in coach, walking in the direction that the train is travelling is a good idea if you want to find anything else.
I can’t tell you anything about the sleeping accomodation as I was always too tight-fisted to try it out. I had three nights sleeping in a single seat and four when I had a double seat to myself. Raising the leg rests on two seats together gives you quite a bit of lying down space, though at 5′ 11” I’m probably at the top end of being able to do that comfortably and I can’t say that I got more than 5 or 6 hours sleep on the nights I did it.
Doing it again, I would make sure I had some sort of blanket (the air-conditioning is unpredictable) and some sort of pillow or cushion of my own in addition to those given out. I doubt that it’s the healthiest thing to do to rest your head on a seat and breathe in where someone else has been sitting for 24 hours but when you’ve been on there for 12 hours yourself you’re not thinking so much about that. An eyemask and earplugs might be handy too if you can handle that level of sensory deprivation in a space full of strangers.
Eating and Drinking
I always took food and drink with me for these journeys. Stocking up at a supermarket or grocery store beforehand means you get to eat well, eat what you want and save money. If I’d been even better prepared I’d have taken a coffee flask to fill up before boarding too. The coffee that’s served onboard (currently $1.75 + tip) is not really what you want to wake up to after a night sprawled across coach seats.
I ate once in the dining car this year. I had a microwaved cheeseburger with small limp salad and some crisps that cost me about $12. I was really hungry and it was better than nothing. That’s all I’m going to say.
For those alcoholically inclined I think that state alcohol laws apply wherever you are but I saw people buying beers at 10am. I also observed several people being warned that being drunk would get them ejected from the train. I’m aware that one guy had a very cold early morning in Spokane because he’d had a few too many.
Always best to board with all of your electronics fully charged. Generally there’s a pair of outlets for each pair of seats, but there was one train that had no power outlets at all in the car I was in, and on another they were only working intermittently. When you have the aisle seat it can be awkward leaning over someone you’ve not met, who happens to be asleep, to plug your stuff in. Having a power block is a good idea, though I suppose overloading could have been one reason for the intermittent failure that time. Also the power outlets are quite close together so if you have big chunky adapters for big chunky 13-amp UK plugs you might not be able to use them both at the same time.
Phone Coverage & Wifi
This depends a bit on what network you choose to use but through rural areas of many states I had little or no coverage usually from a carrier that would give me voice/text but no data. Do some research beforehand on what you can get that will give you what you need – I ended up making a decision based on last year’s information and although it worked out OK, I might have been able to do better.
I only got wifi to work on the Downeaster from Portland to Boston. It’s available on the Acela Express too I believe but I never got to try that. Wifi in stations is advertised but rarely worked.
The conception, development and execution of the journey were all carried out in the same way. I thought about things, i wrote about them, I wove the responses to my writing together with person-to-person conversations I had into decisions about which way to go next. That. Repeated over and over.
Before the trip, I spoke to people around me at the Centre, at Tuttle, friends, random acquaintances. On the trip, I spoke to the people I was staying with or with others I encountered as well as occasionally checking back in with my London friends.
Now I’m back, I feel like I’m not doing that so much. I think it’s because I don’t know how to shift gear and ask for a different kind of help. I am fine with getting help opening up options and making short-term decisions. Closing things down, getting them down on paper and turning them into something interesting, noteworthy, remarkable, valuable, not so much. Somehow I want to do that all by myself, I think I have to draw a line on collaboration, retreat to my cave and produce *my* thing, *my* product, *my* story.
I’m looking for people to work on this together. I feel like an actor who needs a director, a journalist who needs an editor, or something. I could be wrong about what or who I need, I just know I need help, challenge, support, something other than me to go any further.
Having written that, i recognise that it’s not as entirely open as that. I think I need people who already have some understanding of what I’m doing and some affinity with it. Help conditional on me being able to explain to you from first principles exaclty what we’re doing and why is no help at all at the moment. If your response is “I’d love to help you, but I don’t really understand what you’re doing” then thank you for the offer, your time will come, but right now I need something else.