Choosing your altitude

Last week I took off from Newark amidst grey skies and driving rain.  Twenty minutes into the flight I looked out the window: the tops of the clouds below us indicated that the weather was still dreary on the ground, but from our vantage point it was a beautiful day.

If you go up high enough, it’s always a beautiful day.

This is true of life and work as much as of the weather: even when it’s raining cats and dogs, the sun is still shining above the clouds (but this is hard to remember when it’s raining on your parade).  We can’t change the weather, but we can choose whether we take the street-level view or the 60,000-foot view.  This is what “keeping things in perspective” is all about.

There’s a flip-side, of course: just because it looks like a beautiful day around you doesn’t mean it isn’t hailing on the ground: having your head in the clouds all the time is as limiting as being perpetually stuck in the weeds.

The key is realizing that perspective matters, that we can choose our altitude.  The challenge is knowing which altitude to choose.

The purpose of screens

There’s a screen at the entrance to the subway station near my apartment: I hadn’t noticed it until a few days ago, but there it is, displaying ads for X Factor and Pixar’s latest movie.  There’s also a screen on the building across from my office, more screens on top of the taxis on Broadway, and another screen that travels everywhere in my right pants pocket.  It seems like screens are everywhere these days.

Screens are everywhere

What do screens offer us?  What is their purpose?  At least some of the time, screens bring something into our immediate environment in order to transport us out of it (we can all remember being thoroughly engrossed in a movie, only to realize when it ends that the dishes are still in the sink…).

Screens are a portal to somewhere else.

Sometimes a portal is exactly what we need in order to be informed, inspired or relaxed; but a portal can also be a distraction from the most important time and place of all: right here, right now.

You’re reading this on a screen.  For ten seconds, stop reading and look around you: if you didn’t have a screen in front of you so much of the time, what would you pay more attention to?  What would you appreciate more, and what would you do differently?

Broken, or redesigned?

At MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibit, many of the displays have an audio component which is heard through a pair of headphones attached to the display.  At one display, the left earpiece of the attached headphones was snapped off from the headband:

Broken headset, or user-modified design?

This headset might look broken, but it’s actually a poignant example of users correcting a latent design flaw: when considered in the context of its purpose, the “unbroken” headset was limiting since it allowed only one person at a time to listen.  Breaking the headset into two parts improved its function by allowing two people to listen simultaneously.

Much of the time, we have such rigid conceptions of what objects or systems “should” be like that we accept their limitations instead of noticing them as opportunities for improvement.  To look beyond intended form or purpose and see objects for what they could be (instead of just what we’re told they are): this takes imagination.

Kids are imagination experts, highly skilled at seeing what could be instead of what should be, seeing opportunity instead of obstruction.  What would happen if you could think more like a kid again?  What would you see differently?  What would you create?