Where The Work Is

The 21st Mansion: Al-Baldah

Originally uploaded by anselm23

Recently I did Design Thinking exercises with students about their homework time, and with colleagues about a problem at work, and with a specific colleague on the design for a major project at school. There’s also a project in my Game Design studio on Fridays, too, where students are resisting the critical insight of Design Thinking.

In all three cases, I found that it was far too easy for everyone to drift off into the world of imagination and inventiveness, ungrounded from the reality that we have to do the work we find, not the work that we’d like to do. My students, and I say this with tongue firmly-in-cheek, would probably like to socialize instead of learn to work efficiently. They’re great believers in multi-tasking, even though I show them all kinds of evidence that multi-tasking doesn’t work.

My colleagues, after I pointed out a challenge that we’re having around new safety procedures, had to wrangle with blame and frustration first, before they could tackle the real problem — which is apportioning out a minor duty amongst ourselves that was created when my school instituted the new rules. We spent ten minutes discussing whether we really had to do it, before deciding to do it, and then we spent more time actually apportioning out the workload amongst ourselves.

My colleague and I rounded up ten students late last week for a discussion session, too, where we looked at photographs and drawings of the work of others, and discussed ways that we could make what was done elsewhere, work at our school. Yet when it came time to stand up, put away the chairs, and get out (metaphorically speaking) the hammers and nails and start building — we couldn’t do it. We talked and talked, drew pictures and made diagrams until our time was gone. Lots of ideas, lots of imaginative development, but no follow-through.

Finally, in the Game Studio class… we’re building board games. Learning to design and build computer games when you don’t even know how to program computers is hard. And I’ve discovered that there are real challenges involved in teaching programming and teaching game design at the same time — it’s too much to learn, all at once.

And yet… in this class, too… there’s genuine resistance to one of the key insights of Design Thinking, which is “Do the Work.” One of the groups in this studio has written pages and pages of rules. But (even though they’re making a board game), they don’t yet have a board. Or pieces. Or the cards that you draw when you reach certain squares. They don’t know how any of these things are made, or what they’re made of. And consequently they can’t test their rules, or confirm that their game design is moving in the right direction, or whether their rules will stand up to the challenges of other players (not themselves).

It takes tremendous determination and forcefulness to get people to go where the work is — that is to say, to the place where the ideas and the imagination in the mind, meet the actual tools and materials of the Real World. Picking up a compass and ruler to draw the frame of Al-Baldah earlier tonight, and going through the process of lettering and writing the textblock on this page in my notebook, I was illuminated, even as I illuminated…

Look, there’s work — right there at the end of your hands. Maybe you think it’s in your mind, the important work (and maybe it is). But if you don’t create a diagram or a sketch of that idea, you won’t ever refine it. You can’t get a law through Congress if you don’t kiss babies and write letters and stand giving speeches to tiny clusters of people in diner parking lots. You can’t produce an award-winning (and money-making) game if you don’t build the game board. You can’t learn to draw if you never draw stuff. You can’t learn to write if you don’t do the writing. You will never be a puppeteer if you don’t pick up the puppet and make it talk and develop a routine for it. You will never be a sculptor if you don’t sculpt.

Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” And that’s part of the reason why the Mansions of the Moon exist. Look, it’s work to draw these things and write poems about them, and build up a collection of ideas and images around them. It’s work to draw a picture of every president of the United States, or make a paper doll collection of every decade between 1800 and 2000. It’s work to learn to build a kavad. It’s work to learn how to pull a perfect shot of espresso, or write a well-coded computer game, or brew beer, or play guitar, or make perfume, or start a business.

If you wait for inspiration, you will wait a thousand years. But all of the real greatness in you is in the place where your mind and your hands meet the world. Bethnael, the Angel of the City, shows you to the place where the work is.

What are you going to work on today?

Via Flickr:
Al-Baldah was hard to draw in a number of ways. As you can see, the plans for the background emerged last, around the bizarre grotesque that is the Janus-like figure at center foreground. Standing on his platform surrounded by walls, he represents the twin powers of Church and State — one enforcing the open book of the laws with kingly splendor and the threat of violence, te other through the closed book of scripture and apparent piety. The city beyond them is composed of dots, as if to suggest its illusory nature: they are preaching to and commanding a nominally-coherent society, but it appears to be on the verge of dissolution without their speechifying.

A good deal of this image is… How do you say in the magical community? UPG. Unverifiable Personal Gnosis. In history teaching, we sometimes call it "having an axe to grind."

Some may look at this figure and be a little upset. After all, it can’t really be said that kings or bishops have done exclusively nice things over the last thousand years or more. But this/these and the forces they represent manage to make sure the majority of people get what they need: a modicum of safety and spirituality in a complicated world.

As far as the drawing and inking goes — I did very well. This is one of the first drawings in the mansions which I did without much in the way of tutorial. That makes me happy. I’m not sure I’d want to do all the mansions that way, yet, but I see it as a growing connection to the art form, and an increase in my connection to the spirits the pictures represent.

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