Thank you for coming to my TED Talk

Recently, we did an exercise within our team at TED … everyone had to write their own TED Talk. Why? To ensure we understand what we’re putting speakers through, and see if we couldn’t use this as a way to improve our own processes.

It was a pretty humbling experience. Put simply, I learned a *lot*, not least that TED Talks are incredibly hard to write. But I also learned a lot about the amazing group of people I work with.

Anyhow, I worked really hard on my talk, so I’m saving a version of it here.

I love order and structure. I really, really appreciate efficiency and clarity, while I never met a process I didn’t either love or secretly wish to redesign. When I was a kid, I taught myself to sew so I could sew my name into all of my clothes so that everyone would be clear that this was my ratty Donald Duck T-shirt. I find parties difficult because I am apparently congenitally incapable of being late so I end up having to walk around the block a few times before I go in so I’m not that person, who turns up when a host is still getting dressed or trying to find ice. I merrily, happily arrive hours early at the airport, while my secret dream is to find the time to write a book about musical notation systems, because I’m utterly obsessed with their beautiful order.

And then a few years ago, something happened that shattered my well appointed world and made me realize that, while order has its uses, it’s even more powerful when combined with a philosophy of openness. I learned, just as designers often learn, that a grid and a plan and a structure can provide an excellent, critically important, even beautiful foundation, but that creativity, color and richness come when you figure out what and how to layer on top of them.

So what was that thing? Well, his name is Jack. And first, I need to give you a little back story, to explain the grand plan that ended up spectacularly not coming off. Because the plan was that my gay friend Aaron would be my sperm donor and then he’d go his way and I would merrily single Mum my way. Only, that wasn’t how it worked out at all. And I promise you this isn’t that annoying story where I say with wide eyes that meeting my child caused me to instantly experience a love unlike any other blah blah.

When Jack was one day old, he died. His little tiny lungs failed, and after he was resuscitated he ended up hooked up to a machine the size of half this room, which pumped the blood out of his body, oxygenated it and then pumped it right back in again. This went on for nine excruciating days. But while he made a full recovery, I didn’t. This experience broke me open and into tiny pieces as my foundation and the basis for everything just … crumbled. When I went into the hospital, I’d had a plan. When I left it I had no plan at all … but the thing that held me together in some imperfect form was the realization that the only way to survive when everything crashes around you is to stay calm, keep breathing, and remain open to possibility.

And in my case, possibility had two names, that of Aaron and his husband Blake. Because, while their plan had been to be loving uncle type figures to this small baby, that didn’t become their reality either. Instead, the three of us bonded over fear, we broke open over the tiny body of our not-breathing child, and, when we finally left the hospital, we left as something none of us had planned for but were somehow all open to, a family.

Now we share the responsibilities of parenting. They moved a short walk away from us, and now our lives are just as intertwined and complicated as any more traditional family’s might be. We have family dinners, family outings, family vacations, sometimes even heated family discussions as we navigate our way through this unplanned new world. We have a shared calendar and a regular routine that forms the basis for what we’re building on top of it, which is the good bit, the family we never quite intended, but remained open to.

As I watch Jack grow, supported by the love of not one, not two, but three parents, I marvel at what we’re creating together and for him, with no plan, no road map, no real clue. I’m sure all new parents feel like no one else has ever experienced anything similar, but with our family, led by two gay married dads and one straight single mum, I feel like we’re pioneers, and it feels like it’s the combination of the deeply efficient and the searingly open that brings the magic.

Because, as you all know, I haven’t given up on my inner control freak. But this newfound conviction that the blend of the structured and the flexible are the way to go has helped me in other ways too, like learning to roll with the unexpected things that happen at live events — like, say, that time I got ambushed on the TED stage by a hologram. Arguably, swearing onstage wasn’t my finest professional moment, but I’m still somewhat proud that I rolled with this experience without completely freaking out. And actually, the fact that it happened freed me up to just go ahead and ask the tough questions of the hologram in the moment, questions that people afterwards told me they’d been wondering too.

It’s also what’s convinced me to give this talk today, rather than give the other, far less personal and arguably far easier talk about musical notation systems that I will still happily bore you about if you give me half a chance. But In being open with you, in sharing my story and even, yes, my vulnerabilities, I believe that I can be a better leader of this team, while still continuing to grow and learn myself.

Life is weird, and it’s complicated, and it’s messy, and therein lies its beauty. Now, I guess I understand that the combination of order and openness provides me with the best chance to experience it all. The other good news? Now, I am sometimes even genuinely late to parties. You’re welcome.

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NICU nurses are not angels

NICU nurses aren’t angels. I told them that they were, of course. I told them as if my life depended on it, even though it was my boy who really needed them. But even then, even when all I could do was to repeat how grateful I was, how I thought they were incredible, as if somehow if I were the politest person on the planet then that would make everything different and better, I noticed their reaction, the slightly awkward shuffle and deeply sincere “thank you” as they glanced among each other and tried not to roll their eyes. They weren’t being unkind, of course, more just slightly jaded, waiting for this next set of dazed and bemused parents to catch up and settle in.

As I spent more time there, I saw the same scene unfurl over and again. The terrified parents, the shuffling, pain-racked, hormone-crazed mothers and the gray-faced, stooped but still slightly defiant dads, blinking into a new reality that hadn’t been possible only days before. A new, neon-lit terrordome, filled with tiny bodies and enormous equipment, where the line between life and death wasn’t even the breadth of a hair.

We had the sickest baby in the NICU. I’m all for awards, but this was one accolade I could have done without. And it seemed impossible when we saw the other tiny creatures lying, catatonic in their hot boxes. Ours wasn’t so tiny. He was twice the size of most of them. Yet there we were, learning a whole new language and meeting new people for whom this little life was an excellent challenge. And that’s when you realize that NICU nurses and doctors aren’t angels. They’re just people. Highly trained, incredibly skilled, often wonderful, infinitely patient people. Yet science is an art, and only some doctors are da Vinci.

And how funny and curious that this alien environment turns out to be more familiar than we laypeople could ever have imagined. Group dynamics still apply, and some professionals play better than others. The NICU’s a stage like any other, and not everyone remembers that they’re on parent cam at all times. Those who ran, giddy, when a code was sounded, a siren call beckoning them to come revive a poor baby who’d forgotten how to breathe, didn’t know that this terrified parent was watching them laugh as they sprinted down the corridor. But I was. The resident chewing gum during rounds didn’t know that I wanted to cause her bodily harm to make her shut her goddamned mouth. But I did. The nurse who scrounged a rocking chair when I could finally hold my tiny son didn’t do it for gratitude but because she thought it would be more comfortable. And it was. The doctor who spent hours answering the same questions again and again, never faltering as I continued to fail to understand how the answer could be “we just don’t know” herself didn’t know how helpful this repetition treatment was.

And none of them had any idea that the best thing of all was when they stopped showing up. When the crowds who’d throng during rounds to pore over X-rays or argue about medicines slowly thinned out as the boy got better and less interesting, leaving only the residents who had to be there and the nurses who were always there. That was the best of all. I love those nurses for being there then, and while they might not be angels, they’ll always be my heroes.

[[Note: I just found this file on my desktop. It’s dated November 7th, 2014, when we were happily home from the NICU and my son was nearly three months old. I have absolutely no recollection of writing it, but it feels right so I thought I’d put it up here.]]

Find me at TED …

Someone pointed out that it’s super ominous to have the last post on a website be “Design-related musings on a hospital stay” … dated back some years ago. Design-related or not, this apparently leads people to think you might not have made it to the here and now … So I’m happy to report that I am very much live and absolutely fine, thanks for worrying. Find me over at ideas.ted.com, where I’m working with wonderful writers and generally focusing on them — and, tbh, my beautiful baby son. Updates here few and far between but please do reach out to say hi etc. xoxo

A love note to Twitter

I have an essay in Matt May‘s upcoming book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules For Winning In The Age Of Excess Everything, which will be published by McGraw-Hill in October. I’m looking forward to seeing the final book; for now, MM gave me permission to feature my short essay, a love note of sorts to Twitter.

The first time I saw Twitter being used in the wild was a strange experience. It was 2007. I sat next to a guy I knew in the auditorium of a conference and watched, confused, as he tapped into his laptop: “Sitting with Helen Walters from BusinessWeek.” Why is that interesting? I asked him. “It’s not, really,” he answered, shrugging. So I gave him what I hoped was my most withering look and then turned my attention to the stage to focus on writing and reporting in the traditional way I had long understood.

Since then I’ve come to appreciate the 140-character medium. Twitter seems to embody the essence of subtraction. The brevity forces you to focus on what’s truly important and to harness the restrictions as a challenge. The exercise of paring down meaning and insight into its purest form, formerly the purview of headline writers and the copy desk, is an invaluable one for anyone looking to communicate in the modern world. Such focused, clear thinking feeds back into the writing and thinking of a longer article, too.

In the years since I signed up for the service (in 2008, still reluctant, still grumpy, quickly addicted) I have marveled at the way in which this simple service has aided my writing, my thinking, my network, and my life. Many people seem to have constructed complex theories about the best ways to use it. My own philosophy aims to ape the simplicity of the service itself: don’t overthink things. I tune in when I can; I write what I think; I engage with those I feel are real; I don’t sweat the number of people following me; and I don’t talk about what I had for lunch unless it was genuinely remarkable.

As the years have passed, the service has created new relationships, strengthened old ones, given me space to think aloud and to ask for feedback or critique. (And boy, do people deliver.) I have watched breaking news stories unfold; I have cried over updates from people I’ve never met; I’ve been guided to stories I would never have seen; and I’ve been introduced to incredible people I’d never have known were it not for this powerful yet brilliantly simple form of expression. 

I know that many people still don’t get Twitter and there’s certainly still time for the company to take a wrong turn, to pollute its purity with some bad business decisions. But for me, as a writer, I’m hugely grateful for the focus and clarity it has afforded my life. #Thanks.

Thought You Should See This, August 10th, 2012

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The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there hasn’t been a Thought You Should See This update for a while. That’s because I’m working on a book at the moment and wrangling with how to manage a fierce deadline alongside writing the blog. Safe to say, this is an imperfect science, so updates will likely be a little more haphazard over the next month or so. For now, a bumper crop of stories here for your delectation:

Amazon will pay up to 95% of the tuition, textbook and associated fees for its employees’ continuing education, in the e-tail giant’s new push to invest in vocational training.

This is wonderful: an interactive book review written in Javascript. Beautifully done by Robin Sloan. (Screenshot above.)

Chip Kidd’s proposed ad designs for New York’s subway cards. Charming.

My friend, the designer Brian Collins goes postal on a New York restaurant for its terrible service. Social media mayhem ensues.

Hello Health founder Dr Jay Parkinson has a new venture in the works. Watch a CBS News interview with him talking about Sherpaa, a startup looking to disrupt the bloated, creaking, existing healthcare system in the United States. (Well, New York for starters.) 

Irreverent swag commemorating the Olympic Games in London. Example slogan: “They’re all on steroids.” (Also, yes I am available for comment on the Opening Ceremony. TL;DR Yay British weirdness!)

Designer Stephen Doyle conducts a paper chair into existence in this adorable video.

The Joy of Missing Out, a beautiful piece of writing from blogging entrepreneur, Anil Dash. 

Less whimsical but arguably more important (sorry, Anil): Bill McKibben’s fiery polemic about climate change: Three Simple Numbers That Add Up To Global Catastrophe.

More doom and gloom, as scientist David Eagleman describes Four Ways the Internet Might Let Us Down, including space weather and cyberwarfare.

The New Yorker’s Beijing-based staff writer Evan Osnos interviews designer Jonathan Mak Long on the basis of an image Long made in tribute to Steve Jobs. Some fascinating and unexpected insights into how design actually works in China

Zynga employees are unhappy. A terribly sad account of life and culture at the once hot games shop, stock price of which has plummeted since the company’s IPO. 

Track flu via Twitter? Not sure I buy it, but a natty little video makes the case of what *will* at some point be a space that enjoys sophisticated developments.

NYT paywall: The reality

“I’m all for NYT making gobs ‘o moola off its content. I just don’t think pay wall will accomplish this. I think it’ll do more harm than good,” wrote the journalist and author Adam L Penenberg on Twitter yesterday. At which I breathed a sigh of relief and stopped feeling quite so treacherous about my own doubts and concerns.

Once again, critics have been boxed into taking the “either/or”, “you’re either with or against us” position so beloved by cable TV news. The reality is, of course, rather more nuanced. Of course good journalism is expensive. Much reporting is dangerous and expensive. Of course journalists deserve to be paid for their labor. That doesn’t prevent the NYT proposal from being a superficial solution that doesn’t solve the problem, which is a broken business model that doesn’t work in the digital age. When the powers-that-be finally accept that the basis of their business has dissolved, and that poorly thought-through half-measures don’t come close to forging a new path of sustainable profit, well, then things might actually get interesting. Might. Instead it seems we’re in for another round of tail-chasing.

One of the interesting pieces of fallout from AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post was the hoohah from bloggers who’d contributed for free and who now wanted a piece of the $315 million pie. Nice try. For many publications, actual writing is an afterthought. When I was an editor at BusinessWeek, all the online columnists on innovation were unpaid—and none of them were journalists. They were consultants or executives who could write off their efforts as a marketing expense. I tried very hard to ensure that their pieces weren’t obscenely self-promotional, but I can vouch for the fact that the editor/writer relationship is a lot trickier when the editor is essentially beholden to the writer’s largesse.

Now the Times is one paper that can point to its original reporting and make the case that it’s attempting not to indulge in such questionable practices. And heaven only knows we need to support smart, on-the-ground reporting and analysis of events such as, this week, Fukushima in Japan or the bombings in Libya. And sure, readers probably should be prepared to pay for this. But as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen commented on Twitter, “ever worry about that word “should?”.” You can’t make a business on should.

Instead, executives are floundering around with rules for Twitter, rules for links in from Google (now from all search engines) and doing a good impression of people who’ve never been online before. Journalists deserve supportive protectors. Readers deserve quality content. This all seems a little tragic.

For a crazy long but totally hilarious insight into the Times’ decisions over the years, read this wonderful post by former newspaper reporter and Search Engine Land editor-in-chief, Danny Sullivan. As he writes of the leaders of the Times, “Begin weeping for them at any time.” My concern is we’ll be weeping for us all before too long.

Ryan McGinness: Black Holes

Last night, I went to celebrate artist Ryan McGinness’ latest installation, at Philips de Pury in Manhattan. Black Holes is an exhibition of work McGinness created from 2004-2010. The large round canvases are deceptive. On first glance they look like fairly simple spirograph-style images. But stand in front of them for any length of time, and get drawn in inexorably by the delicate, hypnotic shapes. Black holes, indeed.

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For this exhibition, McGinness added a neon flourish, adding delicate wisps of vinyl around some of the canvases and lighting them with fluorescent light. One long stretch of these can be seen from the High Line walkway, sure to confuse and delight late-night tourists. Somehow the effect transcends the usual gaudiness of neon and is bewitching, poignant, and glorious. As are the newest, black-on-black canvases, which are subtle but somehow defiantly perfect. Gorgeous.