Change

Ideas: Everything Is Possible

Nothing can wait.
Nothing can last.
Nothing can satisfy.

No one can be unhappy.
No one can be judged.
No one can be trusted.

Nothing is hidden.
Nothing is certain.
Nothing is forbidden.

Everything is a need.
Everything is a choice.
Everything is possible.

_______________________

When I would talk about education or the necessity of the connection of generations across time, this poem emerged from my talks. I didn’t know it was a poem, but people kept asking to get a copy of the “poem.”

It’s said that the point of prose is to say what you mean, and the point of poetry is to not say what you mean. The title and the last line is to suggest that this is what we’ve always wanted, for everything to finally be possible. To throw off the shackles of the past and be genuinely free. A second glance at everything is possible, we see contradictions. A third glance and we see a future without limits, without boundaries, and without hope…

Emanuel Philipp Elementary School Milwaukee

A Milwaukee School Designed for Children

Milwaukee is well known for having beautiful, old architecture and when strangers come to town, they often comment on how lucky we are to have preserved so many of our old buildings. Those visitors will also point out things we don’t see and they can remind us to pay more attention to some beautiful things that too many of us have learned to forget.

Ironworks decoration on tower of Emanuel Philipp Elementary School

Emanuel Philipp Elementary School is a fascinating and mostly forgotten school building. The Milwaukee Public School District decided to close this school in 2006. As we say goodbye, let’s take another look and try to remember why it was built it in the first place.

Located at 4310 N. 16th Street, it was designed by the architectural firm of Eschweiler & Eschweiler who also designed the art deco Milwaukee Gas Light tower and the art moderne Hotel Metro, This one is a nice blend of Arts & Crafts and Art Deco design.

Stone penguin balustrade over the entryway of Emanuel Philipp Elementary School

This is a school designed for children. One might believe that all schools are built that way, but at Philipp Elementary there are Mother Goose-themed terra cotta panels wrapping the building. Want to know how the elephant got its trunk? Look on the child-height, carved-relief sides of the steps leading to the front doors, where you’ll also see an alligator and a storytelling brave and lions and tigers and well, bears too. Look up from there to meet the stone-cast stares from the five penguins guarding the entry. All who enter here should know this was not designed to just be a place for education, but it was to be a garden for the seeds of imagination, adventure and a lifelong love affair with learning.

Cast panels showing fairytale images at a Emanuel Philipp Elementary School in Milwaukee

Step within and you’ll find two kindergarten rooms just around the corner. In one, look at the floor to find hidden panels that lift out to reveal a sandbox. Just inside the other is a fireplace with small animals carved into the surround. Look farther into the room and find a fountain. What did these things teach children about learning? What did they reveal about their teachers, parents and community of that era?

This is a school built in the early 1930s for a neighborhood of poor immigrants from Germany, the country where kindergarten was invented. During those comparatively unsophisticated and cash-starved years, even they knew what must always be inside the lives of children. Back then, they knew that whimsy could be part of the bottom line.

Tower at Stone penguin balustrade over the entryway of Emanuel Philipp Elementary School

Today, the panels over the sandbox are sealed, the fountain is dry and the fires have been put out. Why don’t these things have a place in twenty-first century education? Have they been crowded out by the unfunded mandates and unfettered liability? Have the contending and contentious interest groups evolved past even the possibility for little children to sit around a fireplace while stories are told and lessons learned? Are we all just too busy, too distracted and too discouraged to recognize that timeless things are being left in the past? Can the future of education ever again be made safe for sandboxes?

It is a hard earned tradition that our schools are supposed to secure skills, knowledge and citizenship leading to a better future for all. But we keep failing at that, and in the confusion of constant reform, we now find ourselves with an easier tradition of making sure that schools are at least secure employment programs for adults.

In our constant rush to create perfect schools and perfect students, we oddly find ourselves with educational policies which are almost always younger than the children themselves. Why does so much in education constantly change? Are policy makers and educators such good life-long learners that they always need to update their methods? We know change is good, but so is continuity. Sometimes the most progressive thing to do is not to change, but to stand firmly upon hard earned traditions which will always be true.

Why did they really close Emanuel Philipp Elementary? Is the building too old and inefficient? Do we have too few students and too little funding? Or is a beautiful building like this too embarrassing because we don’t want to be reminded that the district, city and citizens who built it in 1931 knew that schools are not always about the bottom line, they are always about the horizon.

Relief carved entryway of alligator pulling the elephant's nose at Emanuel Philipp Elementary in Milwaukee, WI

David Zach is a futurist who speaks on trends, traditions and the choices between them. He’s been on the board of the American Institute of Architects, the board of AIA-WI, the board of The Woodlands School, a member of a Milwaukee Public Schools school-based management council, and was ad-hoc faculty in the School of Education at UW-Milwaukee.

Traditional Change Agents

Change is in the air. And in the streets. It’s on the placards, in the words of people on the march. With a single, united voice: Change!

Upon closer examination, what they really mean is that change is what other people need to do. We’re fine, you’re the problem.

Change isn’t always the real problem, too often it’s the people who propose it without self-reflection and humility. Back in the early 2000s, I was in a leadership forum for the city of Milwaukee. One evening, it was my turn to moderate the guest panel and the topic might have had something to do with leadership. Maybe the family. Maybe communities. The four panelists all were quite descriptive of how change was needed and long overdue. Towards the end, I wondered that all of their advice was directed towards others, so I asked how they themselves might change. What was it that they were doing that might need some improvement to help with change? This was not a welcome question nor obviously one with easy answers.

The great English writer G. K. Chesterton had said that the best criticism was self-criticism. Change starts inside first.

Over one hundred years ago, The Times of London ran an essay contest asking, What’s Wrong with the World? Chesterton, a prolific writer who had written over 100 books and over 5000 essays, responded to the question of what’s wrong with the world with this:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Yours,

G. K. Chesterton

Reading: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1933

Some books become a favorite just for a single line. It’s the essence of this 42 page essay, published as a book. In Praise of Shadows is an poetic defense of the Japanese aesthetic and the act of thinking differently from whatever dominates. He notes that the West has never delighted in shadows and thereby fails to see so much of the beautiful. That’s a bit of overstatement, but for now we’ll go with it.

Tanizaki says that in the West, everything has to be lit up and cleaned up. All details are noted, even when elaborately covered. He praises the honesty of a bare bulb. He praises age and patina. He praises what we try to ignore.

Japanese music is one of reticence, but when recorded and amplified, loses its charm. Even in conversations, voices are meant to be softer, the pauses more important than the content.

Paper, invented by the Chinese, becomes just a tool for most of the West; an efficient thing, neglecting the potential of the texture, color, warmth. Instead of inviting us into the moment, it is reduced to the momentary.

Toilets. The famed novelist begins his essay with the aesthetic of the Japanese toilet. He notes that their ancestors made poetry of everything in their lives, and made that room the most poetic. The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with such sentiment. (If you get the chance, stay at The Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It was my first encounter with localized Japanese architectural style. When I redesigned my own bathroom, it was one of the inspirations.)

One of my conclusion from this isn’t that the West is wrong, it is that it is too often incomplete and, in its accumulative nature, denatures the essence, leaving out what takes time to consider. In that at least we are not alone. Ignorance and arrogance curses us all. Impatience only makes it worse.

Ries and Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, also have a singular memorable line: cherchez le creneau, conveniently translated from the French into “Look for the hole.” Look where others are not looking, see what others are not seeing. I don’t think this is about geography, it’s about self-imposed limitations, which we all have. Sometimes we build them up into an entire corporation, sometimes into an entire culture, but more often than not, those things we are not seeing are just within ourselves.

[Note: the links to buy the books goes to bookshop.org. I do not get any remuneration from sales. I just think that we should support small, local businesses, especially small, local bookshops. We might pay a little more, but consider it a very local taxation to pay for nice, walkable neighborhoods.]

Review of Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch. Please support local bookstores by by buying the book through this link – for which I get no remuneration. I just like local bookstores. (I consider buying local as a sort of taxation for having nice neighborhoods, like Bay View, WI.)

I would put this in my list of top ten books you need to read. And, it’s a short book, only 163 pages.

How do we find truth in an age of information? This is vital because the economy is based on information – and bad information can harm, if not destroy, the economy. Rauch says there are five approaches that people take to find or argue for the truth:

  1. The Fundamentalist Approach: God (or some other unassailable authority figure) has given me the truth and I will give it to you. Arguments ensue but unless you are that god or unassailable authority, your arguments are irrelevant.
  2. The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held ideas are of equal value. If I sincerely believe that aliens are among us in the form of Pugs, who are you to doubt me? If I sincerely believe that you are wrong, again, who are you to doubt me because my ideas are as valid as any – and any evidence to the contrary is just as absurd or relevant. This approach quickly goes nowhere.
  3. The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Because some people have been held out of the discussion, they get first place back in line. This approach is quite often quite popular with those who have either been held out of the line, or didn’t know the line was there.
  4. The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with any of the other approaches, but adds that you must not cause harm with your words. And, the recipient of your words gets to determine how harmful your words are. One sees this used when some protest group says that words are literally violence.
  5. The Liberal Science Approach: In any argument, no one gets final say and no one gets special status. Even if you have special status, say you’re speaking on behalf of a god, a college president, or you’re a charismatic-type leader of a group, you do not get to win the argument based on those roles – you have to win the argument on the merit of your ideas ands the skills of presentation. And, even if you win the argument today, but someone finds contrary argumentation tomorrow, the argument can begin again. For many this approach is exhausting. We want rest and repose, but what we get is life. In the end, Rauch says that this is the only one that can work.

As this was written back in 1995, there have been others who have approached this question of truth-finding in an age of information, but this is a clear book and it is short. It has stood the test of a few decades to still have validity.

Twice I have bought this book for executives who have found themselves confronted by absurd but popular ideas from members/faculty/students. I thought it might give some long-term insights on how to have an argument with radicals. Sadly, I doubt it had any real effect, or that it was even read.

Vintage Illustration of Boy at Losing Game

The Future’s Just Not That Into You: Design Intelligence article

A version of this article was first published in Design Intelligence in 2012, written for young design professionals on meeting the future on their own terms.

The Future’s Just Not That Into You

It’s time to admit that you’ve got a problem. Your obsession with the future is getting out of hand. You keep going on about how you were made for each other. You even change your plans because it’s what you think the future wants. But no matter, you just know you’re going to be perfect together.

Um, no. In case you haven’t noticed, the future pretty much ignores you. And, let’s be honest, you know it’s never going to call. It’ll never stop by unannounced. It’s not even going to meet you halfway.

Really, it’s almost as if the future didn’t even know you exist — and in practical terms, it doesn’t. It’s also practical to realize that it’s got its own issues, its own people, its own problems. By the time just even a little bit of the future happens,  we’ll be dead and long gone. And so it’s not the future you need to worry about, it’s you. Your attention is misplaced. You’re needed in the here and now. You need to show up fully prepared to be no place else. The object of your affection should be today.

And today, with all this fear and doubt about your architectural education, maybe your first assignment hasn’t even happened yet. Maybe it’s happening right now. What if it’s to show the future what you’re really made of? If the future won’t come to you, you will have to go to the future. Here are a few ideas on how to meet the future on your own terms.

1. Entrepreneurial wealth creation. In case no one noticed, tomorrow is expensive. Very expensive. We can’t possible afford even a fraction of what we’re expecting unless we create vast new wealth. Not just redistributed, but baby-fresh wealth that’s far more than just money. Whatever has value, we need more of; from working friendships to logistical networks. From 3-D printers to apps that automate everyday tasks. From green buildings to blue-sky thinking. More needs to be much more.

You need to realize how incredibly easy it is to an entrepreneur today. Business plans are just a few clicks away and can cost nothing. Take a look at websites like kickstarter.com, where the marketplace of ideas now reaches the entire Internet-accessing world. Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From makes clear that we’ve become incredibly good at invention, and that’s being systematized by the big organizations. What’s not yet clear is that individuals can leverage all of that innovative infrastructure to their singular or small network advantage.

Explore and expand the notion of “pop-up businesses” and find that time is on your side, using the new tools to respond to marketplace trends. In the future, businesses lasting a few months may be more successful and productive than ones that last for decades. Use 3-D printers and other new maker tech for a leap-frog revival of localized factories and the reinvention of architecture. Apply your fresh knowledge of logistics and design to bring new life to the great big marketplace of ideas.

The future is going to require a fair amount of blood, tears, toil and duct tape to hold together and work. It’ll have you digging in the dirt and working in the dust and grease, and some of that will get under your nails. Your knuckles will get bruised. That might have once repelled you, but in Future 2.0, these will be a badges of honor. Band-aids are for the brave.

Most think that entrepreneurs are all about success, but they’re a lot about failure, too, and they’re not afraid of it. The freedom to fail is much more important than the freedom to succeed. Where you have the freedom to succeed, the pathways are often already laid out, but the path and rewards are banal. Where we have the freedom to fail, we have the encouraging freedom to try new things, to often fail, and then pick ourselves up and try again. And again. And again. Until it works. That’s how it works.

2. Life-work planning. That was the best course I took in college. It taught me peak-skills identification and how to explain the value of my mix and match skills to the marketplace. In the years to come, even if you call yourself an architect (I mean, it is a cool title and all), you’re going to need to be eloquent about your full spectrum of skills and even your skill gaps. Your collaborative skills will be essential for helping you to fill those gaps with the talent of coworkers.

3. Small is still beautiful. A brilliant retort to the age of just about everything being bigger is to be a bit smaller. Think local. Think sooner rather than later. Think yours, not everyone else’s. There’s an appropriateness of scale that gets lost in the gloss of globalization. Search for resources that will help you secure your own familiar and familial piece of the world. The Lt. Governor of Idaho, Brad Little, said “Small ideas are as important as big ideas.” Yes, please. What’s the big idea for your generation? How about a lot of small, livable ideas? Your generation of small ideas may do more for designing a viable future than so many of the big ideas we’ve been keeping on financial life support. Fight the notion of things being too big to fail, because that arrogance requires too many other things to be too small to succeed. All great things start small.

Some things are great because they stay small — and that’s just one more great thing about who we are and what we can do.

Surveys show that the millennials want meaningful work, which is often translated into the desire to change the world. That’s big and noble, but how do they know that all of their efforts to do good won’t converge into an even bigger world of hurt? What are the foundations of their world-changing ambitions? Are they seeing only obvious implications, but not the implications of the implications that echo from their source and cannot be predicted nor controlled? MIlton Friedman said “The power to do good is also the power to do harm.” Perhaps in the desire to think big, efforts should start small, grounded in time-test principles and with the near and the dear.

How about starting a little closer to little? If you don’t have the patience to change (and keep changing) a baby’s diaper, how can you expect to change the world? Change cannot be isolated. Everything has consequences and when you connect those beyond just their first effects, your choices will be more clear and realistic. David Frost said, “Love is staying up all night with a sick child — or a healthy adult.” The good life includes accepting and loving all of it, because life comes with happiness and tears, and all the choices and changes these must bring. It’s fantastic that you want to save the world. Start with your own smaller world first. Make your inevitable mistakes small and early, not too big and too late.

4. Amateur practice. In the heart of a good architect is the soul of an amateur. The “ama” in that word means “love.” It’s the love of the art and craft. This love will save the future of the occupation and perhaps even the future at large. If that’s not in you, go slowly retire somewhere else.

Despite all the rules and rulers, you should always be a bit of an amateur, in love with design. It’s what gets you up in the morning and it’s what keeps you awake at night. And this is key: you didn’t just choose architecture because you thought it was what the future wanted. It is what you needed, it’s what you can’t live without. I always admire the architects who can hear the vocāre; the calling. You were able to hear it telling you what you must become. Very few can hear such gifts, and you must cherish it.

The day after speaking at AIAS Forum 2010, three student architects and I talked and walked to the Ontario Gallery of Art. Upon looking into the OGA’s Gehry Staircase gallery, they forgot me. In awe, they began to draw. In awe, I watched them. From outside of your world looking in, I see not simply rare talent, but rare passion and the heart of an amateur. This will save the profession no matter where it goes. It must be continually nurtured and regarded. It is too easily overwhelmed in the rush of modern times. What you have and what you are is drawn from the center of life.

5. Think into other boxes. The best thing that ever to happen to architecture and architects is the current dearth of jobs. It didn’t just happen because the economy turned down, it’s because the profession turned down. It got boring. It didn’t know how to defend itself against regulations, automation and cross-boundary poaching. It became more worried about being cool and collected than in creating the beautiful and useful. Every profession is stumbling into the future. The fact it’s happening more in architecture is a great opportunity, terrifying as it may be.

So think into those other bewildered occupations. Start mergers. Start acquisitions. Don’t do it as if you were Wall Street barons. You’re not. Do it as if you’re architects on the adventure of a lifetime, designing new challenges, crafting new stories and wonders. As the barriers blur between graphics and facades, redesign the walls and portals between them. Tear down the delusion of believing the borders of architecture are set and known. It may have foundations set in stone, but the rules for what we will build above them are now being negotiated across all boundaries. GK Chesterton said, “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” Which rules will we design for those we build on the ground?

6. Engage the past. Advanced economies are sadly absurd for actively discarding their elders. The younger those discards are, the more absurd it is. The divorcing of the generations and segregating them into their own self-referential worlds feeds our ignorance and arrogance. Wealth comes from connecting things, and we have impoverished ourselves by breaking and hiding such natural and lively bonds.

But as Sir Boyle Roche asked, “Why should we do anything for posterity; what has posterity ever done for us?” A good answer is that posterity always gives those who are older not only a reason to live, but reasons to invest, to strive, to conquer fears and conquer horizons. Generational bonds give us opportunities to share not just the delightful moments, but also foundations so that posterity does not have to keep repeating what it should not. Posterity doesn’t need our fads, it needs the continuity of our principles. We shouldn’t just connect them towards what is the latest, but towards what is almost too late. Progress from the past does not always mean leaving things behind us, it also means leaving things inside of us.

7. Put work in its place. The most foolish of all baby boomer legacies is the worship of work. They wanted everyone else to believe that work was at the center of life. No, life is at the center of life. Work is good; it’s good for the soul, but it is not the only thing good for the soul. And if it’s even slightly possible that we do in fact have souls, then we should be fighting the good fight to ensure that there are good things that compose it.

You’ll have to work to rethink what we know about work and life from an architect’s perspective. You should work hard to turn the ordinary over to the engineers and the general contractors or whomever else might want it. Don’t work for the stuff that ends up just looking like technical drawings. That’s not what architects are supposed to do.

Design and build beautiful, useful things that connect us into life in this world. If you can’t do that, then why bother? You’re architects and you have something incredible to say about designing good tomorrows. You’ll take some heat for working for all of that, but you’ll finally know what it really is to be cool.

In a word, you must rebel. You must focus your attention on what’s most important, both for now and for the years to come. Your attention is the most valuable resource you own, so learn to protect that first or you will fail in all else. Your rebellion requires not only a working knowledge of tactics and strategies, but also a very grounded sense of mission and vision.

You’re going to have to commit the high crime of closing your mind, but you’ll be closing it around something solid, something good. It will not have to be fresh and original, but it will have to be noble, fierce and timeless. It will not have to be unique and fresh, it have to be connected and rooted. You will need to rebel against the distractions of momentary history and ally yourself with the calm and eternal.

In Latin there is a phrase: amor fati. It means to love your fate; accepting the fact of all of your life. The joys, the losses, the choices. You do not get to choose all of your life, but you can choose your destination. Live your fate to your greatest conclusion. That is all the future really wants from you. You should enjoy the dangers and the rewards, even the failings. It’s going to be crazy scary, and it is yours.

In Star Trek Generations, Picard pulls Kirk out of retirement to join forces as fate offers yet another threat to the survival of just about everything. Kirk to Pickard, “I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim.” Pickard: “You could say that.” Speaking of the future, Kirk replied, “Sounds like fun.”

 

Divide Your Attention Into Fads, Trends, or Principles

When looking around your world with an eye towards the future, try to divide what you see into a fad, a trend, or a principle. A simple way of having that sense of that division between them is to play with fads, work with trends, and live by principles. Of course, that’s easier said than done because too often we’re seduced by fads, ignorant of trends and resistant to principles. Related to a sense of time, fads are momentary, trends are transforming, and principles are eternal.

FADS

Fads are like spice. You just need just enough to add flavor and flair to life. Fads are about being in the moment, particularly to enjoy that moment. In that sense, fads are very nice because they are very human. Fads can ruin things if they take too much of your time and attention, are seen as truth, or if a fad is embraced as a lifestyle. When fads are put in their proper perspective with trends and principles, fads are great.

Because of our economic and social obsession with trends, it’s not really surprising that there’s an almost equal and opposite reaction in our current obsession with fads. Too much of anything will cause a reaction towards the opposite direction. Even worse, we often are fooled into thinking that fads are really trends. Fads are marketed as the next trend of the future, oddly one right after another. Fads like to tell you’re they’re trends, so you’ll pay more attention. But fads don’t last.

You can never get enough of what you really don’t need. Eric Hoffer

Fads are about attention, which is the most valuable resource in the economy today. If your attention can be captured and held, everything else will follow. People who start or lead fads are all about capturing that attention for profit or power. Why would you embrace a fad if no one else notices? In an attention-based economy, fads are lucrative because of the constant turnover of what’s cool. If you’re selling what’s cool, you can’t rely on old inventory, it has to move fast and be replaced just as quickly. Fads often go with adolescence– to do something different, to be bored with the same old thing, especially when the culture and economy join forces to help convince you that new is better, and old is, well, old. Fads help adolescents challenge authority.

There is nothing culturally more subversive than the modern commerce of quick turnover in ideas. Philip Rieff

Fads can give the illusion of progress. They’re anchors that stop movement, except when it’s to move away from whatever is expected of you and rejecting what’s already in place. Fads are less about creativity than they are about reaction. Art and artists are often quick to reject the traditional in favor of their new visions because nowadays that’s what sells as good art. That attitude has spread into business and culture, though they would be the first to deny it. Fads pretend to be trends.

To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

We should play with fads because they can be fun and help us to enjoy life. From styles of clothing to styles of culture, they are about being in the moment of life and reveling in being alive. Just keep them in perspective.

We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of either. G. K. Chesterton

Do you have enough fads in your life so that you’re not boring? Do you have so many fads in your life that you’re irrelevant? Just like with spice, enjoy them but if you use too much, you might spoil things.

TRENDS

Trends are about movement and transformation over time. Fads are like the waves on the water, they rock the boat and thereby capture our immediate attention. Trends are like the currents which move the boat. Currents are more difficult to perceive, but are far more powerful. One is able to navigate by learning more about the depth and direction of currents and stop obsessing about what just on the surface.

Trends are more adult-like because they take longer-term attention to notice. They often involve a sense of investment, whether that is with a long-term stock, the growth or decline of a company or even the way that we invest in the rearing of children. They take time and if we reacted to every little change with our investments, we cause more harm than good. There’s also a sense of delayed gratification with investment in trends. Fads are about today, trends are all about what comes after today.

We work with trends because that’s where our efforts will do the most good – long-term thinking applied to the notion of leveraging our resources and efforts to multiply the outcome. If you can pull some fads in to help achieve this goal, trends can work even better.

I don’t set trends. I just find out what they are and I exploit them. Dick Clark

PRINCIPLES

Principles are about the eternal. Things that don’t change, shouldn’t change, can’t change. These are difficult to defend in an age where too many loud people insist that there are no eternals, there are no truths. I believe it is truth to say that they are wrong.

Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others. Groucho Marx

This is not to say that principles are absolute. The fact is that they ebb and flow and interact with other principles. In some eras, some principles are more regarded than in other eras. For instance, ask yourself which is more important, freedom or equality? You’ll probably have an answer, but you can easily find someone who will disagree with you. This is because freedom and equality are both principles. They are both true at the same time and yet they are opposites. It’s a paradox, and a delightful one at that.

There are times when freedom is more important and other times when equality is favored. Freedom without equality would be a jungle, equality without freedom would be tyranny. Both sides are equally important even if they do ebb and flow over time, mostly because we as flawed, imperfect humans can’t quite grasp how to keep them in balance. The graphic above showing the scales of justice support that notion that an equilibrium must be found in the midst of all the contending forces.

For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails, the other dies. Will & Ariel Durant

Just as fads anchor you to a moment in time and trends cross time, principles free you from time. Principles are not simply about this time, they are about all time, they transcend time. We can have the sense of principles being more elder-oriented because for too many of us, we don’t seem to appreciate them until we’ve grown tired of everything else that competes with them.

We grow conservative as we grow old it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious. We grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine. G. K. Chesterton

FADS, TRENDS AND PRINCIPLES IN THE MODERN WORLD

Fads are about attention.

Given the vague statistic that the average person today encounters several thousand advertising messages a day, your ability to get your message through depends a lot on knowing which fads are capturing attention in this moment. When you’re trying to gain the attention of a younger person, be that your child or your new worker, are you able to use the right words, images and metaphors that work with them, without trying to be just like them? It’s not a fad that younger generations easily see and reject older generations efforts to manipulate.

Trends are about intention.

Which trends do you follow? Which do you ignore? Once you know about a trend, you need to form an opinion about whether it is useful. Which fads can you use to pull others into either supporting or resisting a trend? In navigating current trends, have a sense of direction and endurance so you can anticipate how to use it in your favor.

Have an understanding of both investment and delayed gratification with trends. Because trends take time, one has to have a sense of the endgame — where is this trend likely to lead us five, ten, even fifty years into the future? In the advanced economies, we have been so seduced by the short-term and quarterly results that we are quite fad-like in our planning. Older cultures might teach us about having a much longer sense of time. Our own history, in terms of what we have forgotten or choose to ignore, can also teach about the value of long-term trends.

Principles are about truth.

Imagine that you were asked to begin a document with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…“ how might you finish that sentence? How might you finish the entire document to declare what it is that you believe? Do you believe that anything is true– that truth even exists– or do you believe that everything is relative and one so-called truth is as good as another?

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principles, stand like a rock.  Thomas Jefferson

Unlike fads, which have tremendous marketing budgets behind them, principles are often left on their own and are not as easy to understand such that we easily are distracted from them in the day-to-day, busy world. In this world, the spoils go to the distractors— those best able to grab and hold your attention, and thereby gain access to your money— are the ones who get the gold and get to rule.

Only intuition can protect us from the most dangerous individual of all, the articulate incompetent. Robert Bernstein

Not all principles are to be equally valued, just like not all change is forward. The great struggle of our age is to define what should change and what should stay the same. It’s often said that in the future we’ll need more science and math in order to compete in the global economy. That’s true. What is even more true is that if we are to thrive in the future, we will need to study more philosophy, theology, history and biography. Science cannot tell us why we are here and what is the purpose of life. These four subjects may not be able to answer such questions either, but at least they lead us in that direction and that’s a good foundation from which to start.

Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty. Will Durant

Fads, trends and principles can be used as lenses through which to look at what’s going on around you. They are not always distinct from each other, as there’s often a little bit of principle inside of a fad. Trends are often revealed first through the fads that show up in a culture or an economy. Principles are often obscured by the modern obsession with both fads and trends, and the popular naiveté that say principles either don’t exist or shouldn’t…

Simply put, we should play with fads, work with trends and live by principles.

Photo of David Zach Futurist with wall of books

A Futurist?

tl;dr version:

  1. One of the few professionally-trained Futurists on the planet. I can’t predict the future, but knew you might have wondered.
  2. Degree in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. BA, Political Science from University of Wisconsin.
  3. Given over 1500 keynote presentations throughout North America and Europe.
  4. Talks focus on the cultural and social (often humorous) implications of technological and demographic trends.
  5. Design has become a central theme running through my talks.

About David Zach, Futurist:

  1. I’m one of the few professionally-trained Futurists on this planet, having earned an M.S. in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Then again, I got that degree way back in 1981 so it’s pretty much history at this point. (B.A. was in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, though I had more credits in Philosophy and almost as many in Communications.) My introduction to futurists was from a course called The Future, taught by Alan Stauffacher at Monroe High School. But, even before that I first fell in love with the future by watching Star Trek. I was only allowed one hour of TV a week on school nights, but my smarty-pants brother Jim had all As, so he didn’t have any restrictions. He got to legally watch Star Trek. I had to sneak down to the rec room, hide behind the sofa and lay on the floor. My introduction to the future was sideways, and it pretty much has remained at off angles ever since.
  2. To finish the futures degree, I got an internship at Johnson Controls in downtown Milwaukee, WI. This was rather lucky as not only did I not have to write a thesis, but they paid me too. Because HR didn’t know quite how to classify or rank a “futurist,” they figured my skill set was equivalent to that of an accountant. When I asked my dad what I was going to do with all of that extra money from a real full time job, he just laughed. One of the first adult-level unlocked lessons is that earning money can be quite expensive.
  3. Three days after moving to Milwaukee, I got invited to attend the inaugural meeting of Goals for Milwaukee 2000. Then they invited me on some sub-committees and because I spoke up a few times, I was named chair of the subcommittee on the future of education. This was a mistake. I was 23. Fortunately there was stronger leadership throughout and with lots of guidance, our report turned out just fine. Along the way, I met a lot of other civic-minded people, who upon meeting someone fresh out of college, would typically ask: So what did you major in? The answer of “Futures Research!” either got a blank look or questions like “Could you talk to my Rotary Club about that?” I did probably about ten talks to such clubs when someone unexpectedly gave me a $40 honorarium. My career is the result of a hobby that got out of control.
  4. Since 1981, I’ve given over 1500 talks throughout North America and Europe. My largest audience was over 7000 with the The Critical Care Nurses Association, who gave me a rare standing ovation. You cannot buy drugs that feel that good. At the same event, I also learned about one of the lows of speaking. My talk ended just before lunch. Quite a few people came up to chat and say thanks, but by the time I had put all my slides and materials away – I was standing alone in a empty auditorium. I remembered thinking, “Not one of you wondered if I was free for lunch?” Speaking professionals have sometimes described it as one of the loneliest jobs on the planet, especially when you do a great job. People are often intimidated or assume that of course you already have plans. I soon learned to book a second night and always try to have dinner with the client before or after the event. Before the event you get better insights on the audience and create allies in that audience. The evening after we share stories and great wine. The dinners after were often the most memorable parts of the gigs because I had already had my say and now it was my turn to listen.
  5. The smallest audience was just three people, for Farmer’s Insurance. I was told to expect one hundred, but they might have exaggerated. Still, I got paid a lot more for that talk than for the nursing talk – and I got invited to lunch after the talk.
  6. My talks were often described by my agents as “light, but thought-provoking.”  I had thought that was a cool description but soon realized that a lot of speakers also described their talks as “thought-provoking,” but what they really meant was that they didn’t quite know how to describe their talks. Mine really were thought-provoking because I would hide philosophy inside the trends, often in the form of humor. My reasoning was that the future felt threatening to too many people, but anything they can laugh at isn’t quite as threatening. It’s a bit like the child pointing at the pompous future and saying, “But he doesn’t have any clothes on!” Helping people to see what the future for what it really was, not just fascinating forecasts of change, but also enough timeless traditions and ideas that people still had hope for some continuity and connection. That’s deep, so being able to laugh does indeed make it seem lighter and more approachable.
  7. The talks would always start with technology because that’s the obvious, heavily marketed driver in terms of future change. This would evolve into a fun discussion about the social and cultural implications of the technology. And, as the talk curved around toward the finish line, it got more personal. What would begin with such ideas as nanotechnology or how that tech could lead to factories returning closer to the points of consumption, would connect into the world of children, protecting their sense of wonder and even to the importance of grandparents. I have this photo showing my niece Rachel as an infant being held by her great-grandmother Myrtle, showing not only the vast distance in age, but also that there really was no distance, no separation. Rather than falling into the clutches of technology as the future, we also need to see the future as something we can hold in our arms. When holding an infant, we see that children really are the message we send to the future. What are we trying to say? What will be heard?
  8. In the last ten years of my speaking, the dominant theme became design. Design determines value and the better design, the more value. Learning to think a bit like designers and having some process by which we look at the ways the future is made but also that we consider the longer-term implications of what choices today might be down the line. This focus created a bit of a niche for me, and I’ve probably keynoted over 100 design conferences. For some reason, architecture always fascinated me, though never as a possible occupation as I don’t have those sorts of technical skills. But I do have an aesthetic sensibility to recognize good design and a bit of how it works. This eventually led to my being on the AIA-WI board of directors and from 2010-13 as a public director on the American Institute of Architects national board. While on the board, I had the particular honor to be a keynote speaker for AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) four years in a row, twice almost by accident as I filled in twice for speakers who missed their planes. (The last of those speeches from 2013 can be viewed elsewhere on this website.) My favorite story from those talks was in 2010, freshly on the AIA board and in the midst of a very enthusiastic and slightly rowdy audience, I got towards the end in which I extol the virtues of smoking and drinking– as metaphors for talking with strangers and breaking bread with them– but I set them up in the joke and of course, they’re very young adults and they’re roaring with laughter. And then I see that in an earlier skit that evening, someone had left a Smirnoff Ice on stage. I stopped, looked at the audience, looked over at the bottle, walked across the stage, popped the top and took a drink. This caused a screaming, laughing, cheering standing ovation. This eventually got back to the board of the AIA. In a series of emails between members of the board, I was told by one of the more serious members that despite the fun, I had to understand that I was represented the board and should comport myself thusly. Harumph! Thankfully, the AIAS executive director was in on the email stream and replied that it was perhaps not quite one would expect professionally…, but for the first time, the students of the AIAS actually think that the AIA might be cool. Over the years, I was a keynote speakers five times and was given a rare Presidential Citation by AIAS. That was cool. (You can see one of those talks here.)
  9. My interest in architecture has two origin stories. The first is that the house I grew up in was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright (Edmund Howe) and my dad used to take me to the meetings with the architect. This did not result in my wanting to be an architect, it resulted in me being fascinated with architecture and how ideas can be made into real buildings.
  10. The second origin has to do with the design style of Art Deco and my fascination for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In many ways, the future as we know it started at this fair. It was slowly dawning on the world that the future could be different from the past. From suburbs and freeways to home refrigerators and other time-saving appliances, many of the ideas we now take for granted began there on display. Running through it all was a sense of streamlined design and speed. We were going to make the future better than before. And, along the way, we realized that innovation brings its own problems. We didn’t realize that our philosophy mattered more than our plans, but failing at philosophy we just continue to plan. Sometimes we even come up with college degrees that are all about planning out the future.
  11. Since leaving the AIA board in 2013, I have lost a bit of my optimism about the future. Some of that came from getting older and being less enamored of constant change and part came from observing what got attention and praise from the AIA. While I was on the Golden Awards committee, they settled on an architect who does these concrete office monstrosities. The committee also considered another modernist architect and although I praised this person’s cleverness, I wondered out loud at its lack of beauty and if its facade which was already fading after only a couple of decades, would endure. This cause another rather prestigious committee member to bluntly explain how much I didn’t know about architects, architecture and probably even life itself. If you haven’t been lectured by an actual Lord of the Realm, your bucket list is not as cool as mine. I was struck by the elitism backed up by technology. As Churchill has said, “First we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” Too often, the elites have spoiled the future for the rest of us.
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