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  • The Mind Moves the World

    Sometimes I think about my life as a series of narrative arcs. The small daily goals or chores are nested into the weekly arcs, the weekly into the monthly, the yearly and then the big one, the story of my life. I have these milestones, the big decisions: love, marriage, work, kids, home. And once my kids move out, which isn't that many years away, there's going to be a big empty whooshing sound beyond the edge of that cliff.

    But anyway, every day, I have to decide what I'm going to work on—or rather how I'm going to fit into my normal crazy day, already so filled with little arcs, some sort of work on my bigger arcs, like, for example, writing a book. How can I work on my important stuff today? Little arcs are sprints. Big arcs, big goals—they're marathons.

    So, I imagine the world in my mind. I locate myself in it. I think about what my work is, what my life is about, what my days and years are going to be like. And I do this so that I can try to give proportion to those things that do and don't affect my life and my goals. I am still struggling as a creative worker today, but I am no longer struggling to be one. I just struggle to keep at it.

    Today it can be especially hard to prove to yourself that what you want to do is valuable. It's easier to get depressed hearing the news of the recession. Just give in. Absorb it all. Give up. Professor Emmanuel Saez won some economic awards for his studies of American income. He found that in 2007, the top 10 percent of American income earners earned 50 percent of all wages, a disparity higher than any year since 1917. From 1993 to 2007, a period of overall economic growth, the top one percent of American earners captured half of all that growth. This study alone makes me doubt that an overall economic recovery in the next five years will have anything to do with me. Today there are more than 308 million Americans, 40 million of whom live in poverty. Critics say the recovery will be jobless; that is, it won't replace the 8 million jobs lost for a very long time. What are the majority of us Americans going to be doing with our time?

    As for my time, I still have to get my kids to school and sit down and get my work done. The recession hasn't made me stop loving my family or my work. I'm not going to give up. What's dangerous are those little arcs, those daily chores. A year can go by and, oh, man, what have I been doing? I've just been making decisions little arc by little arc.

    If I make these little-arc decisions long enough, year after year, I might reach a point where my life has described a larger arc, and it's one I never realized I was choosing, over and over again, as I chose to complete those smaller arcs. I did all the right things, listened to everyone, was good and nice and responsible, and now I'm lost. And I can't do a back flip through time and start the big arc all over again.

    This is where imagining a world in your mind can give you a perspective above the smaller arcs to form a lifelong arc. A life story. What's your story?

    The small arc

    Short-term thinking and planning is represented by the little arc, covering what you may be doing today and tomorrow. (illustration: David Barringer)

    Whose plan is this?

    If I happen to be thinking about my life this way, I find that I have a filter for the world, a means for being selective in how I spend my time while I am on guard against threats to my time. These threats can be benign and even beneficial: books, movies, posters, a new ergonomic office chair, a video game, a cooking magazine.

    Designed objects and experiences can interrupt your life (with books, music, software) and enhance some activity (by giving you a new chair, tool, idea). Design can entertain, educate, economize and enable. Designers can provide the props and build the sets for our human activities: homes and subdivisions, highways, states, municipal buildings, hospitals, parks, malls, vehicles and clothes, tables and chairs and toys and appliances. To design is to plan. Look around you. Where are you? What are you wearing? How do you feel? What are you looking at? What are you listening to? What are you doing? Whose plan is this?

    Designers, from their point of view, might imagine someone going through their life one day. Little arc, big arc. At what point is the designer trying to intersect with this person's life? And what is that person telling themselves about their own lives at that moment? Seeing a play? Little arc. Buying a home? Big arc.

    There was a study in which Princeton University theological seminary students were asked to fill out a questionnaire and then cross the quad to give a sermon. Some were told to cross the quad and meet in a room in another building. There was no hurry. Others were told their audience was there and waiting, and so they were already late. In the quad, a participant in the experiment posed as a man lying in a doorway and flagged down the seminary students for assistance.

    Who stopped to help? Of those students who were not in a hurry, 63 percent stopped to help. Of those who were in a hurry, 10 percent stopped to help. Those who were told they were late did not stop, not because they were bad people, but because they had a story in their head about their goal at that moment. They had a little arc to complete.

    It's something to keep in mind as we go through our day and our lives. How are we making decisions? Is some story that we've told ourselves making decisions for us? A designer might make something to interrupt your story, whatever's going on in your head as you're rushing by, late for a meeting or a date or a cup of coffee. A designer might use that opportunity to remind you of the bigger arc of your life.

    Artists do this; so do writers and poets. Like other creative people, a designer might remind you that the little-arc decisions add up, like sleepwalking at night: Suddenly you wake up, and you're in a strange neighborhood.

    As that designer dares to entertain, educate or help someone, that person is going to ask, “Is this worth my time? Is this interruption something that can help? Is this thing—this design, this art, this product, this message, this experience—going to steal me away from following my big arc? I don't get the time back. So what am I after?”

    The big arc

    Long-range planning and goal setting are represented by the big arc—who you are as a designer and as a person—which stretches over the many smaller arcs of life. (illustration: David Barringer)

    The choices you make mean everything

    Figuring this out requires imagination. Imagination is work. It is easier to be a spectator than a participant. It is easier to focus on the little arcs of your day and allow all the world's interruptions to wash over you. It is easier to identify with a celebrity and copy and paste their hopes and fears into your mind's software than to kick-start the creaky two-stroke engine of your imagination. It is easier to repeat the prejudices of a radio host and disfigure your own personality than it is to think for yourself and become somebody real. We make judgments every day, in many ways, and over time these judgments add up to our lives.

    Judgment depends on imagination, and imagination is work. But the work of the imagination is solitary. You have to be alone. You have to hide from all those interruptions. Carve time away from the chores and habits of your daily grind, sit there, stare into space, allow yourself to be quiet and alone, almost bored. Concentrate. Let the world into your mind.

    Prepare to move a world with your mind, and to find your place in it. We often don't have time for this, or at least we say we don't. We set aside hours for TV shows and movies and the computer, and while we're sitting there flipping channels and clicking through YouTube, we're also on the cell phone telling our novelist friend, “I'm not a big book reader. I mean, I just don't have the time to read, you know?” This always sounds to me like the person is saying, “I'm not a big thinking person. I mean, I just don't have the time to think, you know?”

    For designers and for everyone else, thinking critically about the complexities of what you notice in the world is a way to fit what you see into your own imagined framework and to engage the sensory world rather than be dominated by it. We are human beings, after all, not eyeballs wired to an online credit account. There is neurosecurity. And there is neuro-insecurity. Some minds are more easily hacked than others. Design is everywhere because the world is everywhere, and in our lives as in our nightmares, we are pursued, relentlessly. Yes, something is coming for me. Something wants my time. I raise my hand and push a palmful of air in the direction of my desire. I concentrate. I try to move my world with my mind. I try to design my life, while allowing for accidents and boredom and surprise. Yes, sometimes I stop to help. And sometimes design stops me. But sometimes I remember that I have a big arc to complete, and only so much time in which to complete it.

    Footnote:

    Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27 (1973): 100-108.

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