CivicsLab

How I’ve had to relearn how to think. | January 22, 2010

The project we are working on is definitely not alone in the field of hyperlocal, interactive mapping applications for the masses. Mobile applications, game development engines and other related mapping ideas are all being developed right now. However, no one else is making a game just about Southwestern Pennsylvania- although I have spent some nights worrying about whether I will wake up in the morning and someone will have launched the same game three months ahead of us. I usually calm down by reminding myself that Southwestern Pennsylvania is not the most exciting place to build a game around. In fact, if I am not mistaken, the only successful movies made in this region were about zombies and two were about Pittsburgh’s odyssey of renewal from old steel town to home to some of the newest scientific, technological and medical inventions in America.

The point of this post is not really about Pittsburgh’s image although that actually probably does play into this.  It is about the way my generation- and possibly other generations- have been taught to think about success and failure. My mom has heard me ask the question, “What if this project doesn’t work?” more times than any human being should ever hear one sentence in their lifetime.

When Gregg Behr, the executive director of the Grable Foundation, first met with us about this game, he said, “You know you’re crazy, right?“. We nodded, well, at least,  I did. When I attended a meeting of people who work in educational technology and gaming, he announced my MacArthur grant. He said, “Before I hand the microphone over to Laura, I just want to say something and I don’t want to embarrass her. But, when I met with her and Ben, I told them they were crazy.” It was funny. Yet, some days, I really do wonder if I’m insane (which I may well be). However, he also have been incredibly supportive. He has not said he will kill us if it does not work. He has encouraged us, put us in touch with people who could be helpful and has generally had our backs.

But what exactly makes this such a crazy idea? I think it is really the idea of a big project being undertaken and the question of whether it will fail or succeed. People have asked me more than once, “how could that possibly work?”. I, too, ask that question. But the one thing I have learned is that when you ask the question, “how could that possibly work?”, it should not be the explanation of why something cannot happen. It should be the motivating force for making it work.

An overriding fear of failure has set in at times. My name is attached to this project. What happens if it is totally wrong in how it teaches urban planning concepts, is boring and a complete disappointment to people? I once spoke to a reporter who told me that the only reason he heard about this project was because he happened to be talking to one our advisers who mentioned it. I told him that I had not been sure whether I wanted people  to know about the MacArthur grant. He was shocked. His face clearly said, “How could a person your age not want people to know they had been given a grant from the MacArthur Foundation?”. I looked down  and said, “it wasn’t a very good plan, I guess.”

Actually, it was not a fleeting thought I had had one day. It was the fear of people seeing the project and awaiting it with skepticism, cynicism and criticism ready to put into words and then into emails and instant messages. The scenario of opening my email one morning to see my inbox full of  emails from people writing to say, “Yeah it’s okay. I mean, this, this, this and this are totally incorrect. You misspelled this. It took a long time to load. Why did you add this in? It seems irrelevant. But,  it’s okay, I guess.” It’s not exactly an unfounded fear. I have never taken an urban planning class, I am not a political science major nor am I an experienced game developer. I have taken some programming classes, I have spent time on some campaigns and I have only taken a couple of classes dealing with 3-d modeling and animation. (Sidenote: out of fifteen students, only three were girls). Yet, all of those basic efforts have made a huge difference to this project. The time spent door knocking has given me a chance to speak to citizens all over the area, my midterm assignment was the moment when I realized I really enjoyed making 3-d models and my midterm assignment was the 3-d model I sent in with the MacArthur application.

There is also a reason I had the idea for this game. As I already said,  I have door knocked all over this city for various campaigns and thus listened to politicians talk about their policy stances and I am a fairly visual learner. I have often wished I could see the policy decisions they were speaking about in picture form. As it has turned out, I’m not alone in wishing I could see those decisions in a visual form. I have been surprised to hear how many other people wished they could see visuals for the region’s policy decisions.

While I was at the MacArthur conference in Chicago, someone was speaking and said, “We have to stop fearing failure” (that is not verbatim). I looked down and thought, “Great. Just what I need. Another person telling me I might fail.” I looked at Ben and he smiled at me. Apparently, this statement didn’t seem to be having the same impact on his psychological well-being  that it was having on mine. He was excited. I was terrified.

There have been quite a few times when Ben has said, “Hey. Send over what you have, I want to take a look at it.” Fear once again set in. I should say and it is more than 110% true that Ben is incredibly supportive of my ideas. He almost asks me for my input on things (unless it’s about filing financial information) and encourages me to follow through with ideas I have had. There really is no reason to be afraid of sending drafts to him. “Give me a day”, I always say. “Why?”, he asks. Truth is, I don’t want anyone to see it. What if it’s awful? He recently has taken to reminding me that it is not as if I cannot revise drafts and send them to him. As a millenial, mistakes are not encouraged. We are told to be excellent or we will not get into college and then life as we know it will be over. The process of achieving excellence does not include failing.

Recently, I was cleaning up my apartment which also serves as my office. I began to see just how many drafts I have gone through. I really have done a lot of work. A lot of failure and revision and improvement has taken place. These drafts of past work have seemed like a bad thing to me. “What was I thinking? How did I go through all of these drafts? Why did I write this?“, I ask myself unhappily and condescendingly. These drafts have seemed like a trail of failures to me, not work that has developed over time and turned into something I am much more willing to show to Ben, Aaron (our CFO) and our developers.

Recently, I have become much more comfortable with the idea of failure. But it has also required that I revise the way I define failure. Failure is not a life or death situation. Failure is a process by which you see mistakes and gaping holes and then fix them and  fill them in to something better. Failure does not mean I will be living in a cardboard box, next to one of the three rivers, under a bridge, in a month’s time should I turn in a draft that is not one full of genius algorithms and earth shattering ideas. Failure just means a mistake and a situation where I can use my creativity and brain to find a new solution.

I was wandering through Borders the other day and came across a book titled, “Street Sketch Book: Inside the Journals of International Street and Graffiti Artists.” I excitedly bought the book and immediately opened it when I got home. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. Maybe ideas that would solve every puzzle I was trying to find a solution to in my game.

I looked through the pages. “This is it? These are their sketches? ” They were most definitely not some of the impressive works of graffiti I have seen in other countries. There were random patterns, sketches of animals, and random things that seemed totally unlike almost all of the graffiti I have ever seen in my life. “Well, that wasn’t very helpful”, I said as I set the book down near my bed. But actually, it showed me something. Even some of the best graffiti artists in the world, have to start somewhere. That place may just be a doodle of a panda intertwined with a headless person randomly standing or maybe it is floating (?) nearby.

I read an article recently about Teach for America and how they decide which applicants they allow into the program. The characteristic they found to be most successful in teachers was, “Grit”. Yes, grit. They have ten years of data to back this up. Grit? That’s their conclusion? Wow. Okay.

But over the past couple of weeks, I have come to view things differently. I have come to the conclusion that maybe creativity may not just mean coming up with a world-shattering idea. It may mean looking at five “failures” of drafts and saying, “Alright, Laura. *Inhale…Exhale.* Let’s try yet another approach and see what happens. If that doesn’t work, well, then, we’ll try again.” Maybe creativity requires grit, too. It is a determination to find a new way of doing something and accepting that it may or may not work. Maybe creativity is not made up of ideas spewing from my brain like light bulbs marching in a parade. Maybe it is just grit in a different form.

I have been trying to define why hyperlocal reporting is so exciting and enticing to people. I have not gotten very far. So, I put out a call to others on facebook and twitter to ask what other people thought. I did not get many responses but at least I got a couple. It’s something and it’s better than nothing.

Once I come up with something better than a question, I will post it on the MacArthur blog. In fact, maybe I should just post the question and see what people say. Maybe it’s okay to ask a question without posting the answer, as well. Maybe that’s okay, too.

Hm. I better get back to work.

Peace.

-Laura-

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1 Comment »

  1. Great post!

    Comment by pss — January 23, 2010 @ 2:03 pm


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Focusing on the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, CivicsLab puts elementary and middle school students in virtual control of decision-making in their communities to encourage civic participation, critical thinking, and sense of place. In CivicsLab, players will assume positions of power in the community from an urban, suburban or rural perspective and explore how decisions-based on social need and demand, proper planning (as defined by our civic experts), political pressure, and most importantly, their imaginations-might impact the community. Through manipulation of real mapping information and current data sets, students navigate social and political pressures to explore the cause and effect of civic investment and public policy as they attempt to create a sustainable future for their region.

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