Archive for July, 2009

On Sunday the Tour de France finished for another year. I love the Tour so its ending is a bit like Christmas for me: filled with excitement but also with the knowledge that it’s a long year until it comes again. Given the time zone I’m currently in I couldn’t watch it as avidly as I have done on previous occasions but I managed to catch most of the major mountain stages, including the epic battles on Mont Vontoux (with it’s 23 kms of continuous uphill) and Le Grand-Bornand. It was amazing to watch the young and brilliant Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck fight it out over the mountains, a sight I’m sure we’ll see for many Tour’s to come, and it was inspirational to see Lance Armstrong return to the hardest race in the world after a four year break and finish third overall. It was fantastic to see the greatest riders of their respective generations ride together and I can’t wait for them to go head-to-head on opposing teams in 2010.

I like the Tour de France because it is so absurdly brutal that it becomes a race of the heart as well as the head; because it demands such manic strength of will and determination to keep going when the body is screaming for you to stop, to keep accelerating even as the gradient increases and mere mortals must bend to the will of the mountain. I love it because it also takes smarts; because it is much more than simply riding from A to B as quickly as possible but is rather a complex strategic and tactical game of knowing when to preserve and when to spend your energy; because while the honors are mostly individual it is still clearly a team sport and many riders sacrifice individual glory for the good of their teammates.

Since the race finished I’ve been thinking about how many of the themes of the Tour de France, and the reasons I so love to watch it unfold, are true in other parts of life also, and how we can take lessons from this the Tour as we can from almost any arena of human accomplishment.

Here, then, is my list of what we learn from the Tour de France:

It takes a team

While the sports reports only talk of individual placings and accomplishments (and, if you’re in America, mostly of Lance’s relative placing) the Tour de France is unquestionably a team sport, governed by team tactics and reliant on diverse contributions for success. The Team Manager is the primary strategist, deciding who the team will ride for and who will sacrifice themselves along the way. But to work everyone must play their part, from the ‘domestique’s’ who destroy themselves leading their star rider as far as they can to the lead-out guy who aims to set up their sprinter in a bunch finish. And the guys behind-the-scenes are crucial too, from the masseurs to team drivers to chefs.

The dynamic of individual glory built on team competencies is one we see regularly in the business and non-profit words. We glorify CEO’s and founders but the good ones always foster and build a team of individual and complementary talents around them. It is only through diverse contributions well-coordinated that change happens at scale. The last Presidential election is a great example of this. Undoubtedly Barack Obama is a once-a-generation candidate but he also built the best campaign organization, a team of rockstars who managed to work together without drama, out-strategizing, out-hustling and out-smarting his opponents. Obama was the leader but without David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, Joe Rospars, Chris Hughes and so many others Team Obama would not have had the success that it did.

It’s all about heart

Of course a unique physique and relentless training are necessary preconditions for success in the Tour but over the course of a three-week stage race heart becomes just as important as muscle. Those who succeed are those who refuse to give up, who have the mental fortitude to ignore their screaming body and push themselves past the brink of exhaustion. Sometimes this can go too far. British cyclist Tom Simpson literally died on his bike pushing himself too hard up a mountain, his final words were ‘Put  me back on my bike.’ That’s an extreme case, but all successful road cyclists, or any endurance athlete, must will themselves forward past the point when most of us would simply give up, our legs and our hearts drained of strength, our spirit broken. In other words it’s not enough to be a brilliant rider, you need to have a spirit which transcends physicality.

Issues come and go in prominence and as an issue becomes trendy thousands of new activists will jump in and get involved. This is wonderful and necessary but the true hero’s of any cause are those who stick with it, through thick and thin, shrugging off disappointment to continue forward, never waving in their determination to get to their goals.

I also see this as a reminder that spirit and intention matter in all that we do. In our dealings with others it is never simply about how well you write, how clever you are or how brilliant your idea is (okay, sometimes it is just about how brilliant our idea is, but it has to be pretty brilliant) it is about the heart and intention you put into your relationships. Social media embodies this. Those who are best at it are not simply clever, productive and forward-thinking, although all those things help enormously, they are usually also warm, open and generous. For social entrepreneurs and changemakers of all types empathy might be the single most important quality you can possess, as it allows you to understand the experience of others, which forms a platform for the collaboration, collective understanding and community so necessary to bring about social change.

When the going gets toughest real champions emerge

The leading contenders of the Tour almost never attack each other on flat or less intensively steep stages. It is on the mountains, and especially on stages which end with a mountain-top finish, where the real sorting out happens. In this year’s Tour it was the mountain top finish at Verbier which Contador won to leap into Yellow and then the incredible battle on the slopes of Le Grand-Bornand which solidified Contador in first and catapulted Andy Schleck to second which determined the results.  Similarly last year’s Tour came down to the legendary mountaintop Alp d’Huez where Sastre took enough time off Australia’s Cadel Evans to claim overall victory.

In life it is when things are hard that you often find the true quality of a person, and the true quality of your relationships. It’s easy to maintain friendships during good times, but in times of need you can often be surprised by who steps up, by who really cares.

In social change just as in the Tour de France it is great challenges that bring the greatest opportunities. The economist Paul Romer once said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It is when are society is under stress that there is an opportunity to create fundamental change. Otherwise inertia and apathy tend to prevent us from grasping the opportunity to build a better world; the current state of affairs being ‘good enough’. It’s when they are no longer ‘good enough’ that the clamour and the opportunity for change grows, when people’s appetite for risk and effort increases.

Success is created one day at a time

You don’t become a world class cyclist overnight and you don’t win the Tour de France in a day; it is through sustained effort that you reach your goals. This is true for all big goals: you need to be dedicated and you need to incrementally approach them, remaining motivated even if it’s hard to see the progress you’re making.

Chad Fowler, CTO of InfoEther, Inc. wrote about this in a fantastic guest post on Tim Ferriss’ blog recently:

You might not be able to see a noticeable difference in the whole with each incremental change, though. When you’re trying to become more respected in your workplace or be healthier, the individual improvements you make each day often won’t lead directly to tangible results. This is, as we saw before, the reason big goals like these become so demotivating. So, for most of the big, difficult goals you’re striving for, it’s important to think not about getting closer each day to the goal, but rather, to think about doing better in your efforts toward that goal than yesterday.

In other words, what did you do today to progress towards your goal(s)? Did you do more today than you did yesterday? Focusing on your effort each day, ensuring that you do something daily to advance your goals, is the key to completely large and complex tasks.

Got any other Tour de France lessons? Let me know in the comments!

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more about “Tour de France 2009 Showdown“, posted with vodpod

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So I was thinking last night about how much I wanted to go up to Desiderata Festival in NY State and see Infected Mushroom but also how I probably can’t really afford it and how we’d be pushing it to get there in time to catch their Friday night set. And I thought to myself, “I wonder if they’re playing any other shows nearby around that time.” So I looked up their tour dates for August and, alas, nothing any closer or any more convenient. Then, while I was there, I figured I’d click on “show all tour dates” just for the hell of it. And then I saw it:

“Sept 3, Gerlach NV”.

Holy hell, Infected Mushroom are playing at Burning Man this year!

For the uninitiated Gerlach is the tiny town that is the closest civilization to the Black Rock Desert, the site of Burning Man. There’s no way IM are playing there, they could only be performing at Burning Man itself. I am, shall we say, quite excited.

IM are one of the most innovative and exciting acts on the planet, emerging from the Israeli psytrance scene and now forging new ground as some sort of hybrid psy/rock electronic band.Their new music is an obliterating blend of psytrance, rock, hip hop and, occasionally, classical. IM were the first psytrance act I really got into – their album Classical Mushroom, released in 2000, defined the genre when I first started listening to it. Their subsequent album, BP Empire, contained the first hints of how unique they would become as they started really busting out of psytrance orthodoxy, and being criticized for it by the purists, as such artists always are. The track “Dancing with Kadafi”, in particular, brought in ambient and world influences, and remains one of my favourite tracks of all time. Have a listen. If you haven’t heard it before you’ll be glad you did.

Their subsequent albums “Converting Vegetarians“, “IM The Supervisor” and “Vicious Delicious” (follow links to listen to tracks) continued a trend towards more rock (and sometimes hip hop) elements and use of percussion, instrumentation and vocals, with their current style and live show being an exhilarating blend of psytrance and metal,always maintaining an extraordinary inventiveness and disregard for music boundaries.

I’ve seen them three times but never outdoors. Never at bloody burning man, with ten thousand of my closest friends, flame throwers accentuating the breakdowns with massive bursts of fire over our heads, the desert stretching away into the darkness behind us, giant ducks with spotlights for eyes and fire for hair watching over us.

NB: My mental image is basically the Carl Cox gig at Opulent Temple at Burning Man last year but with better music:

This is what Infected Mushroom do live:

and, for a rawer vibe:

For those coming to Burning Man: prepare to be infected.

This year’s event just get’s more and more exciting as we approach the home stretch for preparations. I’ll have to run down our full plans in a future post, we’re all over it this year, I can’t wait.

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Sigur Ros

I was having a rough day and then I remembered that Sigur Ros exist and that the world is therefore an amazing, beautiful place. Their music is epic enough to put the small things that ail you into context.

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One year later

Two days ago it was my first wedding anniversary. I still get amazed at this fact, that I’m married, just as after almost a year I still get amazed that I’m here, in Washington. Amazement is the right emotion I think, an accurate assessment of the import of these things, a refusal to allow them to come to feel commonplace or ordinary

I’m sure a lot of people say this but, truly, I never thought I’d get married. It wasn’t part of my plans or my world-view, my self-image or my values; I’ve never understood why anyone felt the need for a certificate from the government to validate the relationship they have. And then we needed to secure a visa for my partner once I had been offered a job in America and all of a sudden it mattered to us very much that we had that government certificate. Without it we were just good friends as far as visa’s and such things were concerned.

Let me be clear: this isn’t just a marriage of convenience. Kate and I had lived together for almost four years in Australia and traveled together for six months before settling in America. We were already planning to spend our lives together. But marriage? Not part of the plan.

However a year later I’m swept away all over again remembering how breathtaking the moment was, saying our vows in front of Yolanda, the country clerk in Upper Marlboro Maryland, only my parents and sister in the audience, how I looked into Kate’s eyes and felt something deeper and more powerful than anything I had experienced. One year later I’m still wondering what this whole marriage thing is all about, but I couldn’t be happier to have made this commitment to Kate (and, honestly, I couldn’t be happier with how it all happened, with so little stress or fuss). A year later I’m still overwhelmed at how much we’ve grown, and how much we are still growing.

We know ourselves through our interactions with others. This is the essence of our humanity. Many years ago I saw the then former and now again Costa Rican President Oscar Arias speak to a youth leadership conference in Mexico. He said to us: “a human alone is a contradiction.” In other words it is only through others that we become fully human, that we express and realize our potential.

I have always felt this and drawn my strength and confidence from those around me. But the strength and confidence I draw from Kate, the support and companionship she gives me, goes beyond what I can express. From my family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues I learn of humanity; from how others see me I learn of myself; from Kate’s love I learn how to be my best self, so that I might be worthy of it.

It is a precious gift and often seems wondrous to me that in this huge world here we are, keeping each other company, challenging and cherishing each other on this epic adventure. It’s not always easy, and it wouldn’t be worth as much if it was, but our partnership continues to evolve as we evolve, allowing us to change, experiment and grow rather than to cling in place, stagnate or drift away.

I think this would all be happening anyway, regardless of the surprise marriage, that this is all fundamental to our relationship and who we are. Marriage cannot overcome the absence of qualities that sustain and support a true partnership (and I think many marriages are in fact an attempt to overcome these gaps, when they’re not simply a blind allegiance to tradition) but with these qualities in place and values that support our individual growth and our partnership, marriage seems to have clicked something into place even more firmly for us. We knew we were in this for life before, but now we really know it.

This sense of scale helps us keep things in perspective and worry less about the small stuff. We know we’ll be here for a long time and we’ll continue to work at getting it right. Getting it wrong is just another chance to figure it out, to do it better next time. And better we continue to get.

The past 15 months have been the most exciting, adventurous, empowering and fulfilling of my life. As we’ve moved through ten countries, rebuilt our lives in a new city, met hundreds of new people and made some incredible new friends, deal with challenges and opportunities at work and questions about our career paths, our relationship has grown into a rock upon which we can build, which provides us with the foundation from which to launch new adventures. As we left everything else behind it become more and more apparent what we had taken with us, that wherever the other person is is home.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Kate has turned my story into a love story. And just between you and me I’ve actually always been a little bit of a sucker for a good love story, provided it also has enough adventure and comedy mixed in. So far so good.

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I spent last weekend at Orb Festival in upstate New York. It’s the largest pystrance festival on the East Coast, headlined this year by Hallucinogen, Shpongle, Rinkadink, Logic Bomb and many more top international artists. It was a lot of fun, camping festivals really are one of my favorite things to do.

But it wasn’t the music or the people, great as it and they were, that made me most happy about being there; it was the forest.

Orb was my fifth multi-day camping festival since arriving in the States late last August, but my first set in a truly wooded setting. It was glorious: haphazard trees interspersed with ferns spread thickly across a hillside leading down to a lake, in which sat a flower- and moss-covered island, a single sapling rising from the middle. In a word: pretty.

There’s nothing like being out in the bush to relax your mind and recharge your emotional and physical batteries. Back in Sydney we used to aim to get out of the city at least once a month. If I go too long without escaping the concrete jungle for trees and scrub I get worn down and frustrated. I had forgotten this and have, somehow, gone ten months since really getting away from civilization. I suspect that this lack of contact with nature is not uncommon for city dwellers, which is to say most of us. And I don’t think it’s good for us. I know it’s not good for me.

Human civilization creates the illusion of order, filled with straight lines and moving machines. But underneath all that is chaos, fueled by the bewildering and often-bizarre actions and desires of humankind. The forest, meanwhile, is chaotic on the surface, the unique contortions of trees and folds in the landscape. But underneath the chaos is order, a world produced by laws which are complex and yet somehow simple, embedded deep in our unconscious. When you allow yourself to feel it the forest can feel, on a very primal level, like home.

I think much of our societies unsustainable lifestyle can be connected to a lack of contact with nature. People grow up completely disconnected from where their food, clothes and goods come from and where their waste goes to. They feel the effect of climate change as unseasonal weather, but usually do not see the real impact on watersheds and landscapes, like the cracked and blasted creek beds we so often see in Australia. It is spending solid time in nature, going to sleep in your little tent and waking up to the sounds of birds and rain on the fly, that reminds you that we are a part of this life force, that we come from the forest and rely on it still for so much.

Part of the relaxation of being out of the city is unhooking from screens. I’m away from my computer, I switch off my phone, I settle into a very different pace; slower, more measured, more aware of my surroundings. As someone who lives online I luxuriate in the peace and quiet of days away from email, text messages and phone calls, spent in good conversations, exploring, being in my body. If you’re doing hard, emotionally-draining work, like organizing, advocacy and social entrepreneurship, finding time to get away can feel impossible, but it’s critical to your sustainability and effectiveness. It allows you to step back and reflect on what’s working and what needs to be changed. It allows your mind to meander down new mental paths, unlocking creativity and insight. It reconnects you to your humanity, and the slow pace of the sun moving across the sky. Unhooking from the constant pulse of digitized information and conversation helps you to understand it while the resulting time to think and consider helps you to understand yourself.

We are hoping to get back to the same location for Desiderata Festival in August, but I don’t want to wait that long to get back out into nature again, it’s too important to me, too affirming and re-energizing. And, frankly, too much fun.

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I spent Monday and Tuesday last week at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, an annual conference which explores how technology is affecting politics. It was my second PDF after I took myself off to it last year soon after landing in America while I was waiting (hoping) for a job offer.

I much preferred this year’s event. The upcoming elections loomed over PDF 08 and people could talk about little else: what would work, what wouldn’t, what would happen next. Now we have answers for some of these questions and a lesser sense of urgency for others and therefore many the ideas and conversations at PDF 09 seemed focused on a higher order of questioning: not who would win an impending election but how were these technologies effecting our society, our communities and ultimately, us.

The past week has given me the chance to consider the ideas and information presented, re-read the tweets I favorited and see what has stuck.

The presentations which stands out in my mind most prominently was that by danah boyd, now a researcher at Microsoft. danah (who writes her name in lowercase) reminded us that the communities we are building online are not perfect and that they are in many ways reflecting the social fissures of the offline world. She described the shift of the educated, wealthy and white from MySpace to Facebook as a digital form of white flight, which instead of creating better understanding across class and racial boundaries is reinforcing those boundaries. When asked who was on MySpace almost no hands went up. It’s easy to believe that Facebook is destroying MySpace in the social networks war but that’s not the case, their traffic remains relatively even. But what is true is that the people I know are on Facebook and not Myspace, just like the people I know are mostly middle-class, educated, and urban.

This lack of connection and interaction with people unlike us, despite the possibilities of the internet to facilitate such connections, diminishes social cohesion, understand and empathy. This is powerfully demonstrated by recent polling which shows that the number one determinate of whether someone supports same-sex marriage is knowing someone who is gay. Contact leads to understand which leads to empathy. Gay people don’t seem so threatening when they are your colleagues, teammates, friends, family. They cease to be the “other”. But according to danah social networks are failing to connect us across class and racial lines, which allows the sense of other to remain. In other words, if we’re not careful social networks will simply mirror the fissures and divides in our offline communities.

I had not thought about this dynamic much, although I have thought a great deal of another pervasive divide across social media: political orientation. It is easier than ever before to curate a media diet which conforms entirely to your pre-existing opinions and biases. You can read dailykos.com, listen to Air America satellite radio and watch MSNBC for liberal commentary or redstate.com, most talk radio and Fox News for conservative commentary. This gap has become so wide that the two sides can literally barely talk to each other. They no longer agree on the same basic sets of facts, and each side’s set of facts get supported by their team of talking heads and commentators with few questions and less nuance. Very little listening seems to happen. This reduces a societies ability to work together to solve tough problems and together to address shared challenges. There seems no hope currently that a consensus on what constitutes the key challenges could emerge, and America is the poorer for it.

Social media undoubtedly builds social capital, but danah reminds us that not all social capital is the same. Social media could prove to be the greatest tool invented to create bonding social capital, connecting you to people much like you in class and orientation while failing to meaningfully increase our bridging social capital, the connections between people who are unalike. It is bridging social capital that is most vital to the health of democracy, for it allows us to talk together in civil and constructive ways.

The internet almost automatically creates horizontal communities of interest. These contain both a bonding and bridging dimension, focusing around a particular theme and often encompassing people of significant geographical diversity. But other types of bridging capital are harder to create, and will take conscious effort to effect. I hope danah’s presentation was a reminder for everyone that if we are serious about creating a fairer and more just world we must consciously reach out to those who’s stories and perspectives are different from our own, and ensure that we include them in the conversation.

You can read danah’s presentation here and I really recommend that you do.

Another highlight was Michael Wesch, of “The Machine is Us/ing Us” fame. Michael is a media anthropologist and has been focusing his inquiries on YouTube and the community and culture it creates, the humanity it allows people to express, the identify formation playing out in real time. His was a hopeful talk, with the central idea being that social media channels like YouTube are creating a shared culture which is very human and which has the possibility to inspire in us a sense of commonality, a chance to express ourselves and do “whatever it takes”. “We know ourselves through our relationships with others. New media is creating new ways to relate.” Anything which alters the way humans express themselves and relate to one-another changes the way we view ourselves, how we define our contributions to society. Looking at the comments section on YouTube, easily the most useless comments anywhere on the internet, he observed that anonymity + physical distance + rare & ephemeral dialog = hated as performance but, importantly, also a freedom to experience humanity without fear or anxiety.

Michael’s overall optimism was a nice balance with danah’s concerns, and both pointed at the deeper changes social media is bringing.

His talk also featured the stunning statistic that 20 hours worth of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. And the somewhat less stunning but more important stat that after 1 minute, 54% of viewers have stopped watching a YouTube video, while after 2 minutes 76% have quit. Keep your videos short! But be sure to stick through the whole 20 minutes of this video of his talk, you’ll be glad you did.

My friend from Australia Mark Pesce also did his usual mentally invigorating thing, drawing connections from across the media and cultural landscape to try and identify where we are going. He sees an immediate future filled with clashes between hierarchies and ad-hocracies, systems so different that they struggle to engage with each other effectively, leading to conflict and consternation. Meanwhile David Weinberger, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto ten years ago (!), the reading of which got me really focused on the web for the first time, outlined the changing role of facts in our society – where once they were used to settle arguments now they are used to start them. He described it as the “great unnailing”, a process as chaotic and messy as democracy itself. It is only through debate and argument that we arive at wisdom. “Knowledge is a property of the network, not the individual.” (Update: You can see a video of David’s presentation here).

PDF09 was a fascinating conference where we seemed to pause for a moment and reflect deeply on how, as Michael would say, the Machine is using us, and how the machine is us. Internet technologies are affecting our work, politics, social lives and cultural formation. At their most basic they can impact how we perceive ourselves and how we mentally construct society around us. In other words, we don’t simply use these tools to win elections, raise money and advocate for our concerns, which was all so much the focus of PDF08, we use these tools as part of a process of identity and cultural formation, to figure out who we are and where we belong. PDF09 was a reminder that we are not simply sitting in the pilot’s seat but that all of us who live online are changed by the experience and that these aggregate personal changes are adding up to something much more profound than the victories we seek.

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Here (we go)

Wordle: Life

At a bloggers panel at a conference recently one of the guests, when asked for his number 1 piece of advice for new bloggers said: stay focused. Pick a topic you know about and stick to it. This is good advice. This won’t, however, be that kind of blog.

This blog will, I suspect, meander as my attention does, covering both my interests but also my life, to the extent that I consider it worth sharing. It won’t be a personal diary or anything like that, but I’ll undoubtedly talk about travel, Burning Man and psytrance along with politics, (sub)cultures and social media for social change.

I’ve had several blogs before and none did I do a good job committing to. But as I preach the importance of blogs and blogging in my day job as Digital Marketing Strategist at international citizen-sector organization Ashoka I began to feel increasingly that I really should do a bit more of it myself. Having recently instigated a monthly conversation on twitter amongst social media for good proponents and practitioners in at least five countries the #4change organizing collective has also kicked off a new group blog which I’ll be contributing to at least a couple of time a month. My goal here is to post a couple of times a week, at least initially, and see how it goes.

Context: I’m an Australian living in Washington DC. I’m progressive, and deeply committed to the democratizing potential of the internet. I am a burner and a doofer. I was married last year to the love of my life, but inspired largely by the need to secure her a visa. I love traveling, music and people. I’m happy to mix work and play here as I believe we’re all best served by being our whole selves the whole time rather than segmenting our lives into arms-length parts.

Image created at Wordle.net.

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