Don Norman is a cognitive scientist and designer. He is perhaps best known for his book The Design of Everyday Things. This was a landmark work which detailed the fundamentals of human-centered design. It is a conception of design not just based on how things looks, but how people think. And while this book has been most influential among designers and other practitioners, its origin is in Don's work as a cognitive scientist. Throughout his career he has found himself in many of the most exciting times and places in the field's history, including the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard, led by George Miller and Jerome Bruner, and in the very first years of UC San Diego's department of cognitive science. In this episode we talk about Don's career, his process for finding and learning about big ideas, the difference between academics and practitioners, the cognitive science origins of Don's design work, how Don went about crafting his style of prose, and a host of other topics. It's a fun one.
Life doesn't always call us to action. Sometimes the highest purpose we can achieve in a given moment is to survive. To stay the course that we are on and wait for something better. It is survival mode: anything that isn't a forfeit counts as a win.
This is a mode that I've felt myself operating in all too often recently. Ever since the pandemic hit, I've found myself in transitional state after transitional state. Each time I feel like I'm starting over on some significant issue. And while I'm no stranger to survival mode, it usually isn't required of me this often or with this density. It feels that now, more than six month into this thing, we ought to be on the other side of it. Perhaps in some ways we are. In others, there are still adjustments. Sometimes major. I wouldn't mind a bit more of a return to comfortable stability one of these days.
Meanwhile, in the midst of survival mode, it's difficult to feel that one is doing the right thing. After all, the prime directive of survival mode is to do nothing. Your job is simply not to perish. It's a pretty modest accomplishment. But I recently came across something that gave the power of survival mode a new vividness for me. It's a passage in poem by T.S. Eliot, called "East Coker." The first part of the passage reads:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Sometimes in our most dire circumstances this is what we are called to do. Wait without hope. It isn't something that comes naturally. When we hunker down to make it through a tough moment, we expect to know what exactly we're hunkering down for. Otherwise what's the point? But sometimes when we wait, when we try to make it through until something better comes along, the waiting happens without us knowing what exactly we're waiting for. We wait without hope, because we cannot yet articulate what it is we hope for.
Likewise with love. What is truly worth loving is not yet in front of us. And to reach out for something that exists at arms length would be to reach out for something less than what we ultimately are capable of having. In waiting, we are often without love, because we are not yet confronted with the thing we are to love.
And this is why waiting is what we are called to do. This is why it is about survival. For if the things we hope for and the things we love were already before us, we wouldn't be waiting for them. This is why anything but the forfeit counts as a win. Waiting is the only thing we can do.
The poem continues:
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
In other words, the road you are taking now is by necessity less than desirable. In order to go where you want to go, you must pass through somewhere you do not want to be. In order to learn what you want to learn, you must start with not knowing. And in order to have what you want to have, you must start with not having it. To arrive at somewhere truly worth going, to have what is truly worth having, there is often no other way.
So whether you find yourself in survival mode at the moment or not, keep this tucked away for such a time. Sometimes you are called to wait without hope. That you are without hope is not a sign that you are doing the wrong thing. It is a sign that you are on the right track. It isn't fun. But it is necessary.
And when you find yourself in that place, let go of your usual means of evaluation. It isn't the time for gauging what we normally intend to gauge. Nor is it a time to judge in the way we usually judge. As Eliot writes:
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Soon the wait will be over,