Sunday, February 21, 2010

A little out of step

Pop quiz, what do the following have in common:

(Picture from Omar Gallaga's blog, All Tech Considered.)

I'll start with Farm Town. As I became more involved in my little plot, building a pleasing design, I found that regular patterns and shapes are calming. One plot abuts directly on to the other in a reliable, predictable pattern. The eye and the mind is reassured and knows what to expect. There are a few exceptions. Too much regularity is boring, like entire farm made up of a single crop. If a regular pattern is broken up to a few focal points, using compostional rules about big, medium, and small and following diagonal paths that lead the eye, the entire design provides movement.

But no irregularities. Irregularities disturb.

People like their farms to be regular, predictable. They like their food to stay that way, too. I am reminded of an old pastor coming back from one of his trips - he did not travel well - who missed the McDonald's burgers back home. The Japanese Big Mac, he claimed, tasted "fishy". I'd heard a similar anecdote from the first Vietnamese boat people, who were first fed American chinese food. The refugees couldn't eat it. The food was alien to their experience, but just close enough to be disturbing. The American workers found it was better to serve regular dinners to the new refugees than to try and imitate what they did not fully understand. I read similar accounts of the fascinating African Jewish refugess of Ethiopia, Beta Isreal. The first meal they were served in their host country they found hopelessly bland. Used to the spicy food back home, they covered their meals with a thick coating of black pepper - to the astonishment of their hosts.

Which got me to thinking about my life, and how I've often felt a little out of step with my world. I am not so very different, but perhaps out of sync in small, indefinable ways that makes the observer work a little harder. The differences are small, indefinable. They are just possibly different enought to disturb. I vividly remember a moment in Junior High, in the busy hallway between classes, where I stepped left to pass instead of right. The school jock grumpily did the "pass dance" with me. How could I explain in that short exchange that I was only doing what was natural for me, and not for him? I vowed ever afterward to be patient with the awkward. I also take a second to think before I pass.

The other sense where I feel out of step is where I fit between the generations. I am technically a boomer, born in '60. But I was too young for Woodstock, so my early teen angst was definitely polyester "hippie wannabe". The next big generation were the Gen X'ers, which on many levels I relate to, but I am less cynical than marks their age. I am generation Jones. Haven't heard of generation Jones? That's not surprising. We struggle to be heard over the roar of the big generations, who dominate by population. I am an unfailing optimist, winding my way through an uncertainty, bobbing and weaving and surviving. Me and Michael J. Fox. But as Michael has demonstrated so well, spunk can be very appealing. Don't stop paddling or you might drown.

So how do I get heard when my attitude, reference, history is different than those around me? I provide reference points, illustrations that will be understood by my audience. I adjust. I weave right instead of left. I do what does not come naturally, in order that others can relate. As a result I have become comfortable with uncertaintanty, more than most.

Which brings me finally to "Outliers". This "is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience" (Gladwell). When it snows in Paris in August, the event is worth studying. In Gladwell's book, he studies outstandingly successful people. It turns out the common factors that bind are not what our society has subscribed to them (such as "rugged individualism", "grit", "determination"). What these successful people had in common was an oustandingly supportive community, great timing, and ten thousand hours of practice. That's what I remember. There may be more.

Which brings me back to those people who may be just a little out of step from their generation. Where they succeed, ask yourself how they did it. Learn a little from their perspective, their observations, and you may learn a little more about yourself.