Tuesday, April 22, 2008

48. Be Open & Coachable

Some time ago I visited a friend in architecture school at his studio there. While he was showing me around, and I noticed something rather strange. Some of the students' drafting boards were covered up like they had secret plans of Fort Knox under them.
I asked him "what was that about?"
He told me "they covered them up because they did not want anyone to steal their ideas"
I thought "Gollum!"
Do you remember Gollum from the movie The Lord of the Rings?
He was this guy that became possessed with a magical golden ring. He called it "My precious" and did almost anything to protect and keep it. In the end of the movie he became a sorry creature.

When you guard your idea out of competitive aims, your idea develops only with you. And when this happens, you become myopic. If you are like most human beings you will have blind spots [stupid obvious mistakes right in front of you, that you fail to notice because you are so close to your project]. You fall in love with your project, and your judgement becomes impaired. You take criticism of the project very personally and become defensive should anyone try to point out its weakness.

When you guard and protect your idea, you inevitably become a kind of a helicopter parent to it. The more protective and inflexible you are, the weaker the idea; it can't stand on its own, you will have to be there to defend it all the time. It is better to be like a mother bird and throw your idea out of the nest and fly on its own. When you let people in, they can see all the weak spots in your projects immediately and tell you. Of course it will be battered and bruised, but thats part of the testing process. When you are willing to give up darling parts that doesn't serve it and patch the holes, only then does your idea become stronger.

When I was in second year of college, a girl who was in 5th year at the time, who was quite smart and talented came to my desk and asked me if I had a moment to critique her project. I was a little puzzled at first. Why would she need the advice of a second year student? What do I know that she doesn't? But then as she began to explain her project to me, I began to see how useful it was for her just to just talk about it to someone. She spotted quite a few weakness in the project herself (just hearing herself speaking about it) before I even made a comment. In the end I was only able to point out a few other things that was blaintely obvious to me that she could not see. It wasnt becasuse I was smarter than her but it was because she was smart enough to understand the principle of being open and coachable.

JFK knew this. He was young and inexperienced when he came to office, but he was able to lead a country and have one of the most successful presidencies. How? He surrounded himself with smart people and took their advice on different issues. Ideas were thrown on the table and discussed. It was hammered out, criticized, and debated by the brightest minds. In the end he made the decisions, but they were informed decisions. The one man against the world thing is a myth.

Compare with George W. Bush who was not open or coachable. He ignored the advise of everyone around him [except those who agreed with him]. The Iraq War idea was not really questioned, not even by congress, because to do so was unpatriotic. He chanted either you are with me or you are against me. He was one man against the world. The individual against the collective. Sounds familiar? If he was an eloquent speaker he could have made that Howard Roak speech in the clip at the top of this page.

In contrast to good ol' Georgie and popular myths about the Famous Architect, Louis Khan was open and coachable. He actually took advise from a lot of people. The idea that he was this lone genius dreaming up these great projects out of his head is a myth. In her book Louis Kahn's Situated Modernism, Sarah Williams Goldhagen debunks the myths that have cast him as a mystical neo-Platonist, a visionary champion of Beaux-Arts principles, and a rebel against modernism. She demonstrates instead that the essence of Kahn's architecture lies in his deeply held modernist political, social, and artistic ideals. Kahn frequently discussed his ideas with other architects, even other famous ones that were considered his competitors. He was obviously not afraid of them stealing his ideas. Consider this, it was famous architect Louis Barragan who convinced him to drop the idea of landscaping the now famous plaza of Salk Institute with trees and leave it open.

The second benefit of being open and coachable; it is that it creates and/or build relationships. Just talking about your ideas with people can help to create a support base of people who see the idea as partly theirs and want to see it succeed too. By taking the time to discuss your project with you, people tend to feel that they have somehow made an investment [not to mention feeling complimented that you value their opinion enough to ask for their advice]. They develop a sense of loyalty to your project and to you. They will help your project even while you are asleep. They will talk about you and your project with other people. In one case someone who helped me, went to a party and met someone who is working with something related to my project and said "hey Conrad is working with that maybe you should talk to him" The next morning I got an email from someone that was able to push my project 10 times as far as if I tried to do all the research for it by my self.

This brings me to the third good reason to be open and coachable. Despite Howard Roak's claim that there is no such thing as a collective brain, this principle works like a multiple processor chip computer processing your project. Picture this, the more people you discuss your projects and ideas with, the more brains there are in the world churning for solutions to make it better.

If you take nothing else from this blog, take this:

Think less Gollum and more A-Team