Accepting change: thoughts inspired by turning left

“If the light is green, and there is no one coming in the other direction, you can turn left.”

This is what I learned about turning left at stoplight (aka traffic signal) many years ago when I learned to drive. Over time, though, turning left at a signal has gotten a bit more involved.

In addition to the basic green light, traffic signals gained a left turn arrow, that would let you know when it was OK to turn left without worrying about oncoming (or side) traffic. Sometimes you could turn left with the flow of traffic on your side, sometimes you and traffic opposite would turn left together.  A sign declaring Left Turn Yield On Green appeared on these signals for when the arrow was not lit, just in case the mere presence of the arrow made you forget that simple rule.

[A short detour: When we lived in NJ, there were many intersections that did not have left turn arrows, but had signs declaring Delayed Green. It took me a little while to realize what this meant was, “Your light is green, the other direction’s traffic is not, so go ahead and turn left if you like.” Of course, this was at the seemingly rare intersection where you could actually turn left by turning left.]

Some intersections then earned an actual Left Turn Signal, where a left turn could only be made when the arrow was green, independent of the regular flow of traffic. I assume these are in place to help support efficient traffic flow or safety, but they can be a bit irritating when the main light is green, there is no traffic, and you are stuck with a red arrow and can’t turn until the light cycles through.

There is now a newer variation on the theme, something I first noticed several years ago: a left turn signal, separate from the main flow signal, that included a flashing yellow arrow in addition to the red and green arrows, with an accompanying sign letting you know, Left Turn Yield on Flashing Yellow. At first I thought this a bit silly, not sure what benefit this really gave. But then I had occasion to use one of those flashing yellow arrows to turn left, when the main flow light was red.

I have to admit, it kind of freaked me out a bit the first time I made that turn with the main light red, knowing that the light for the other direction was green. “Freaked out” may be a bit strong, but it was definitely an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling. I’ve been driving for 30+ years, and this was a significant change.

A good lesson for any type of change (maybe in your life or your company): acknowledge the change, understand its history, and give it a chance.

Left or right? (Or, Design considerations for public facing restrooms)

When designing and building restrooms in public facing spaces, for example at a restaurant or a gas station, there are many things to consider. How many stalls and/or urinals, how many sinks, paper or air dryers, etc. Some of this, I’m sure, is dictated by public law, some by architectural standards, and some (I hope, anyway) is determined by the artistic and aesthetic desires of the designers themselves.

Having been at a few places over the weekend, I noticed something else about the design of these spaces that hadn’t occurred to me before: in some places, the Men’s room was on the right, and in some places it was the Women’s room that was on the right. And some doors open in, some open out.

Which got me wondering:

What is the decision-making process that goes into deciding which restroom – Men or Women – goes on the right, and which goes on the left? Which door opens out and which opens in? And what about those occasional “family” restrooms, what goes into the planning for those in terms of their placement?

“OK” and “Correct” are not the same thing

Have you ever noticed, when you pay with a credit/debit card just about anywhere, after the questions to enter your PIN, do you want cash back, etc., the machine asks you a question along the lines of, “$99.99, is this OK?”

Well, chances are it’s not OK. But chances are very good that it is correct

This is one of those things that I’ve noticed, and sometimes commented on (to the obvious pain of the cashier, “No, it’s not OK”), for a while. But it wasn’t until I saw one recently that actually said, “$99.99, is this correct?” that I really noticed it.

And wondered why the rest of them don’t do it that way, too.

The “making of”

I like movies. I watch them a lot. Probably too much. Though I of course prefer good movies, “good” is a randomly moving target sometimes. I have been known to get sucked into what turns out to be just an awful movie, but still get something out of it. This comes in large part from my interest in the overall process of making a film, my appreciation of a movie beyond just the story.

To me, watching a movie and only seeing/hearing the story is like looking at the Mona Lisa and just seeing a portrait of a woman. It’s not just “a” work of art that appeals to me, it is from an appreciation of “the work” of art that I derive pleasure. Everything that went into it.

You probably won’t be surprised that I often enjoy the “making of” documentaries (audio, visual, written) as much, or even more, than the actual thing being made. And this isn’t limited to just movies. I love it when bands include mini-documentaries with CD releases, and interviews or talks by authors about how they developed the ideas and narratives of books simply fascinates me.

It’s hard to overstate how much I’ve learned from them.

i’m not lost, i’m wondering

I first heard the expression “there are no straight lines in nature” sometime in the mid- to late-90s, and it immediately struck a chord. I was, at the time, neck deep in learning about the then new (to me at least) science of complexity. I later discovered a more complete version of this sentiment, attributed to Buckminster Fuller:

Everything you’ve learned in school as ‘obvious’ becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.

Another quote from a very different author has long resonated with me as well:

Not all who wander are lost.

I have, over time, adapted and adopted it as a bit of a personal motto:

i’m not lost, i’m wondering.

And my mind wonders quite a bit. But there are a few attractors that keep pulling me in to explore, including:

  • Variations on a theme: Everything is just a variation of everything else, we just use different words for them. Informed in large part by work of Hofstadter and Sander in their book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.
  • Rules: From the making of rules to the breaking of rules and everything in between. Rules get a bad rap, most often seen as a limit on creativity and action. I see them otherwise, as the basis on which creativity and action are built. At least the good ones.
  • Everything you know is wrong: As the saying goes, “all models (maps?) are wrong, but some are useful”. I’ve most often heard this used in the context of actual models or maps, things explicitly identified as such. But much of what counts for “facts” or “knowledge” these days are really nothing more than models. And they are, in the same way, wrong but useful. Way points on the journey to ever more “right” models. (For those who prefer something less dramatic, you can look at this one as “Everything you know is subject to change.”)
  • Layers of abstraction: The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday. (Related to the idea that everything you know is wrong, but sufficiently different to warrant being examined separately.) This is not in and of itself bad, but the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.
  • Debt and Progress: When people think or talk about debt it is usually in the context of financial debt, the borrowing of money against the future to pay for something today. But there are other forms of debt, the one that most readily comes to mind is the concept of “technical debt” from the world of software development. Others that I am exploring include social and cultural debt.
  • Disruption (Disruptors and the Disrupted): Is disruption a goal, or is it the means to achieve a goal. How many disruptors are actually interested in providing something of value to their “customers”, and how many disruptors are simply pandering to the crowd to enrich themselves. Are the disrupted ever better off?
  • Thinking in bits (not atoms): The early days of “digital” was all about adapting things and services into bits, but still thinking in the physical context in which those things and services originally came about. Who am I kidding, the “early days”? This is still how most people think about and implement “digital”.

Except for the last one, thinking in bits, I think that there are elements of each of these attractors in just about any narrative you look at, be it politics, business, or whatever. The more I wonder through different domains of knowledge, the more I believe that if we can develop a deep understanding of one thing, we are well on our way to being able to understanding everything.

Even if that understanding is ultimately wrong (or, at the very least, subject to change).