Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bees and Sunny Peaks

My friend  Sister J came over yesterday to elicit my help in a project she was working on. She is the director of The Honeybee Project, a children's educational endeavor devoted to the integral role the honey bee plays in our lives.

Sister J is passionate about the honey bee, and gets how this insect is connected to many aspects of our lives. We rely on it for sustenance, for the propagation of plant life, for its societal intelligence. Knowing the honey bee more intimately may impact our own survival. Sister J sees the lessons of the honeybee as a valuable tool that children can not only learn from, but can contribute to. She truly believes that given the right venue, interaction with the honey bee can help kids find their own connection to this vast world and choose their part in making it a better place. All that from a tiny little honey bee!

Sister J described her dream for this experiential learning model, and it was so vast and expansive that it scared the bejeebers out of me! How could I possibly help her with a goal of this magnitude? I'm a mere mortal graphic designer – the online interactive aspect of her vision alone required information technology, child psychology, Flash and database programming, art direction, creative direction – all of which would require a massive amount of resources.

As Sister J darted around the topic, describing feature after feature, my mind made the assumption that she wanted to heap all the project's responsibilities on my shoulders - somehow, I had mistakenly inferred all this from her simple, open-ended request for help. The mind can be a quirky beast sometimes! The project started to feel weighty and oppressive, and I went into overwhelm mode. I felt incapable of helping with a project of this scale, and I sought an escape hatch.

I immediately began doing what I do best: criticizing. As Sister J drew from inspiration, I fed on desperation. My mind began dissecting the project, happily revealing all the flaws and pitfalls:

An online site for kids? There will be child predators! Video content? Adobe and Apple are at war and there is no one video format that is truly universal. Honey bees? What about Colony Collapse Disorder? Aren't their days numbered? And if that is so, humankind's days are numbered, too! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

As I rattled off my laundry list of perils, Sister J stopped me, saying something like "Let's forget about all that for the time being and let's just move on to the actual project." In essence, she was saying, "That's a lot of negative stuff. Let's look at the positives for awhile. Let's dream instead of panic. Let's explore sunny peaks instead of dark caves!"

We started to explore. We moved to the computer, and Sister J showed me The Honeybee Project website, and talked about how she wanted to take it to the next level. She spoke of the kind of visuals that would attract children to the project. She knew it had to include motion. I Googled up some innovative Flash-based websites to see what we can find.

"That's the kind of thing I want!" she exclaimed. We combed through some of the most innovative Flash websites, and had found the site for the "Got Milk?" campaign, which was full of whimsical displays and interactive games. "That's it! That's what I want!" she reiterated.

My mind returned to the cave. The scope of her vision would require the most inventive ad agency, an entertainment company the likes of Dreamworks - we're talking high-level stuff! Pie in the sky! Not even remotely possible!

I thought that mentioning the potential cost would bring Sister J back down to earth. "You know that something at this level of sophistication and scale will cost in the realm of tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands", I said.

Sister J didn't bat an eye. "Oh, of course - I was expecting hundreds of thousands", she replied. That startled me. What I saw as a roadblock, she saw as an easily surmountable hurdle. Sister J's positive passion was infectious.

Then something shifted for me. Instead of making another bee-line to the cave of "can't-do", I allowed myself to simply be open to the possibilities.

I realized that Sister J wasn't asking me to take on the entire project; she was merely asking me to go exploring with her for awhile. All I had to do is to leave the dark caves behind and spend a little time checking out some sunny peaks with her. We drifted around the internet together, and I remembered an organization I admired whose mission was to bring grand ideas to fruition: TED.

TED's motto is "Ideas Worth Spreading". They host a huge annual conference which attracts the best and brightest speakers from across the globe: thinkers, artists, scientists, athletes, dreamers, you name it. The TED organization also awards grants for people who want to change the world with their ideas.

I showed Sister J the TED website and we watched a few videos of the lectures that TED hosts. As it turns out, her project had already generated some serious interest from an innovative design firm called Ideo. We found a TED lecture given by Ideo's founder. The connections were starting to fuse together.

Suddenly, it was Sister J's turn to visit the realm of doubt. "Does this mean that I have to give a presentation in front of a big audience to get the funding for my project?" she gasped. "Public speaking is the last thing I want to do!"

In an unexpected role reversal, I became the encouraging visionary. I could picture Sister J on that stage, pitching the wonders of the honey bee. I knew if she could demonstrate the same passion she showed me, she would be unstoppable. I gently asked, "You love the honey bee, don'tcha? You would swallow your fear and do it for the bee, wouldn'tcha?" Sister J's eyes welled up with tears. She told me that she would definitely do what it takes to make the honey bee project happen, and thanked me for introducing her to the TED organization.

Turning back toward the realm of possibilities, Sister J said, "I just have to remember that everything is doable." Another huge roadblock had been transformed into a little hurdle.

After Sister J left, I recalled a few other times in my life when I found myself at a critical crossroads, mired in doubt and negativity. On both occasions, Jennifer, (a friend I've known since high school), was with me. Both times, Jennifer saw that I was at a crucial turning point. And both times, Jen pointed me in a different direction, saying, "Look over there! Look at the possibilities over there!" In essence, she was saying the same thing that Sister J told me: "Stop rooting around in that dark cave and check out that sunny peak over there!"

To this day, Jennifer doesn't think she did all that much for me, but I'm convinced she saved my life by coaxing me out of the cave and prodding me to explore some of the passions that have made my life worth living. (Had it not been for Jennifer, I may have never flown a hang glider nor played a fiddle.) I realized that I had helped out Sister J after all. Maybe, I had even pointed her in the direction she needed to go next?

Most of my life, I've been a dark cave explorer. A few years ago when I co-hosted a radio show, my broadcasts often focused on the pitfalls of our society. I was good at revealing connections between problems, crimes, corruption and malfeasance. On my Facebook page, I still post frequent links to news articles that suggest the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Finding problems is easy – but it's getting tedious.

If I'm going to survive the crossroads where I find myself today, I need to make the shift from exploring the dark caves to exploring the sunny peaks. I need to stop dwelling on problems and start searching for solutions. I want to be inspired, fueled and driven by positive ideas, hopes and dreams - and have fun along every step of the way!

Sometimes, it seems like a big shift to make. But if I could shift my thinking so quickly during an afternoon's visit with Sister J, maybe it won't be that difficult to learn how to embrace vision and positive thinking, and explore the sunny peaks on a permanent basis?

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