“Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded”
oooh. Another one about hacking… Let’s tackle this set of values in reverse order.
In Paul Graham’s essay “What you can’t say“, he asks
Who thinks they’re not open-minded? Our hypothetical prim miss from the suburbs thinks she’s open-minded. Hasn’t she been taught to be? Ask anyone, and they’ll say the same thing: they’re pretty open-minded, though they draw the line at things that are really wrong. (Some tribes may avoid “wrong” as judgemental, and may instead use a more neutral sounding euphemism like “negative” or “destructive”.)
Based on that statement, can one ever plausibly claim to be open minded at all?
Some people certainly seem to seek out challenging experiences and challenging viewpoints to try and gain a better understanding and learn from those experiences. Those experiences may reinforce pre-existing views, but will help them understand their pre-existing views with more clarity.
To me, being open minded means working out where your nerves & boundaries are – exploring them, challenging them and trying to understand your values better.
Most of my life, I’ve lived in very accepting community, but when I was younger, I spent some time with an area of society where racial tensions were high, and racial slurs were social currency. It was too much. The people were good people, who I genuinely believe just want good things for themselves and their families, but I had to remove myself as I felt it rubbing off on me.
However, I came away from it a stronger person, because I understood more about my values of respect and equality – and where my limits were – something I might have otherwise been unclear about.
Recently, I spent 3 weeks living and working remotely from Sofia in Bulgaria. Whenever I visit new places – with their own ways, customs, traditions – I try to approach as non-judgementally as possible, or at least, defer judgement. It’s not “wrong”, it’s not “right” – it’s how they do things, and that’s different.
This is because there’s a good chance you’re wrong about something. You probably don’t know what it is, but whilst doing something one way may seem alien and new to you, it may well be the best thing there in that situation. You don’t know. Until you have all the information, all the background, know all the parties and reasons, it’s best to defer a value judgement and just try to understand as much as possible. One of my favourite stories about someone realising how wrong they are is this story of a train in Japan, told by an American (kindly introduced to me by David Day).
(Interestingly, trying to stay open minded is what I found hardest about in the US - much more difficult than Kyrgyzstan.)
Open-mindedness often becomes noticeable when you travel, because you often put yourself in places where you don’t know any of the details, but there are places much closer to home where you might be quick to write people off because you can’t understand how they can hold views that you disagree with so much. If you took the time to understand why they held those views, you might find you still disagree with them – but can agree to disagree…. or one of you might change your mind!
Being creative is hard… and easy. Sure I can take photographs but I think I prefer to approach the word “creative” as in “creative approach to problem solving”.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
- Steve Jobs
When I flew to Bulgaria a few weeks ago, my luggage was lost. For over 7 days I tried and tried to get someone to help, but with generally unhelpful airline contractors, nothing seemed to be happening until I was told that my bag had been in Sofia for 5 days already.
Still nothing happened so I made a video challenge to the CEO. The next day, my luggage arrived (yay!), and I got a call from one of the senior airline exec board members who wanted to talk about what could be done(wow!). Whether anything ultimately happens or not, that 2 minute video had more of an impact than the hours of calls and emails before.
I’ve blogged previously about other creative things, and I think – following on from the Steve Jobs quote – the trick is just be happy to take inspiration (copy!) an approach that seems to have worked elsewhere and (if appropriate), tweak it slightly and apply it to a different context. It may not work, and if it does, I can certainly sympathise with the quote – you’ll probably feel a bit of a fraud – when really you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
I want to take “Adventurous” away from the outdoor adventure context: I like outdoor adventures, I’ve done them - it’s kind of devalued for me, and if I attempted to say “I value adventure because solo-hiking in Swedish backwoods” you might say “yes”, but I’ve set my personal bar for what seems adventurous quite high in that regard, and I’d prefer to consider the areas of life where I’m just beginning my adventures (and I don’t mean trying new adventure sports).
Living and working in a foreign country is surprisingly easy, and surprisingly hard. The difficult things – (in my case at least) were not the work (chatting with familiar UK clients on the VoIP phone!) but the basics you take for granted.
For example, imagine that going to the supermarket becomes an experience where there is a possibility, it could be an adventure.
Imagine you just want to buy some food – you find what you want and head to the checkout. You mutter a greeting to the cashier who starts to scan your stuff. He asks you (in Bulgarian) if you want a bag (and you understand because of body language). You say “да” (“da”/yes) and instinctively nod. He asks you again. Again you say ”да” and instinctively nod. He asks you again. Again you say ”да” and instinctively nod.
This is the moment that you realise that Bulgaria is one of the few countries in the world which has reverse head nods and shakes. Shaking your head indicates an affirmative, whilst nodding indicates a negative.
So now you’ve thoroughly confused him and realised how, you yet lack the language skills to explain why or how this happened, to effectively apologise for the faff or. Eventually, you’ll get the bag, the food, pay and leave the shop. You’ll let out a big breath, and your heartrate will drop. Drama over.
Encounters with shop assistants were often the most adventurous moments of my day – the very poorly pronounced Russian that I can speak might be understood by the shop assistant, but you can bet that any non-trivial response in Bulgarian, will be completely lost on me.
As I’ve blogged before, communication challenges are the scariest (yet often most rewarding) parts of any story,
I think really most best thing about being abroad is the unexpected adventures in the mundane things. The large adventures you’re (hopefully) prepared for.
It’s the moment when your taxi driver, holding his phone to his right ear, lets go of the wheel with his left hand so he can reach across his unseatbelted body and change up to 4th gear so you can do 130kph in a 80kph limit, that make you think, “this is interesting – what actually is my risk appetite with regards to road safety”? Is he even not legally required to wear a seatbelt? Do I know anything about Bulgarian roads law? So long as nothing goes wrong, should I even care?
In my case, we arrived at the airport before I had a chance to answer those questions, and so I gave him £8 (20BGN), and mulled it over on the flight home. Since I had had a very small number of taxi rides, I decided to defer judgement. The drivers creative approach to driver might make a lot more sense if I’d be able to communicate and understand the reasons, but with only a short time, and limited understanding, I decided to keep an open mind and continue to form my opinions when I return next.
It was a fun trip.