We Need A New Way to (Really) Teach Systems Thinking

For the last four years I have been facilitating social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and design thinking workshops in many settings, from high school courses to trainings with the World Bank. And along the way, something has started to bug me about how we teach something often called “systems thinking.”

The most common way to teach “system thinking” is to:

  1. Introduce students to frameworks for analyzing and transforming systems in general (like the Natural Step Framework, the Chaordic Stepping Stones process, Theory U, etc.),
  2. Maybe ask those students to spend an hour or two (or, if they’re lucky, a few days or an entire semester), applying that process to a system they care about (whether or not they have any first-hand knowledge of it, to start).
  3. Assume that, from there, they will now be able to apply those frameworks to any other system they encounter, about which they may have little real, first-hand knowledge.

My uneasiness with this approach was fueled in large part to the work of cognitive psychologist and former teacher at the University of Virginia, Dan Willigham who is a proponent of the idea that “21st Century Skills” like critical thinking and creativity, while absolutely being worthy things to teach, are not generalizable skills from one domain to the next; in other words, being able to be creative or critical about anything depends on having “domain knowledge” of that specific thing.

This is obvious, upon reflection. For example, it becomes easier to become a creative piano player the more scales, chords, and styles of music you practice.

Likewise, being a creative piano player isn’t going to necessarily translate to being a really creative defensive coordinator for a professional football team.  I would need more specific knowledge of the game of football in order to do that well.

I believe the same thing should apply to what we call “systems thinking.”

My theory is that the foundation for really being able to think creatively, see patterns and relationships, and affect change in complex global systems- or any system- may require students first develop in-depth knowledge of specific global systems– e.g. our economic, political, technical, industrial, and energy systems- and other specific subsystems they wish to study– e.g.

  • The US health system
  • The Berlin transportation systems
  • The Judicial System
  • etc.

Lately, I have found myself dreaming about a more in-depth, professional-quality education for young social entrepreneurs and other changemakers that would offer them the opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge of the specific systems they want to be working in as well as a range of other complex, global systems that might be linked in important ways with the systems they care about.

I don’t know where this dream is taking me, but one wild idea is that I could imagine one day helping create a graduate school curriculum at the level of depth, time commitment, and prestige as other professional schools (e.g. Law School, Med School, and Business School), specifically for developing this kind of in-depth knowledge of systems.

What it could look like

One (rough) sketch I keep imagining for what something like this could look like would be module-based over about two years and would look like this:

  1. In the first module, students would work learn some of the above systems thinking frameworks, and develop common language and theories for looking at systems (“inflection points” “trim tabs” “positive / negative feedback loops” etc.)
  2. In the second module, students would begin with an in-depth application of these frameworks to an ecological system, the system that grounds everything else.
  3. For the next 18 months, students would move through one module at a time applying this same process to a variety of different specific systems of civilization, including some required ones and some electives– such as Legal and Judicial Systems in the West; Banking, Financial, and Economic Systems; Food Systems; Transportation Systems; Waste Systems, etc. Each time, they would use the same process of first learning about the history of these systems, analyzing them with the frameworks they have been given, and learning about the history of different interventions that significantly changed these systems, perhaps ending with a small design project to design a small intervention of their own.
  4. Finally, their studies would culminate in an in-depth application of this same process they have been practicing in a more self-directed way to one very specific system they care about, such as the public school system in Berkeley.

Who would be interested in such an education? Perhaps people going to work for government design and innovation labs like the Behavourial Insights Team, or perhaps artists wanting to design interventions in their community.

Some resources for further exploration:

Peer interaction found to be a key to success in MITx Course

On my Open Master’s journey this year, I have been exploring the importance of relationships and community to self-directed, adult learners in self-organized communities outside of formal settings: such as P2PUCitizen Circles, Knowledge Commons DCHackCville, Black Mountain SOLE, Experience Institute, Enstitute, and, of course, the Open Master’s.

Understanding how self-directed learners find and form relationships with peers and mentors to support their learning outside of traditional schools, I believe, is one of the biggest nuts to crack in order to fulfill the great potential we all see in the open education movement.  Creating tools and programs that help them do so has become a central focus of my Open Master’s journey.

An obvious first step was to find out what other work has already been done on this question, so I began to explore the research and literature on social learning, in its many names, forms, and iterations.  I left breadcrumbs along my winding walk through a veritable forest of fields going by names like p2p learning, cooperative learningconnected learning, team-based learning, communities of practice, etc. in my open research notes.

Until now, I have found it difficult to find empirical evidence on the role of peer relationships and community to learners outside of traditional settings. Most of what I found was either anecdotal evidence (study circles!), psychological research on the importance of peer learning and modeling in human development (Bandura), or sociological theory (Vygotsky and Social Constructivism).

Meanwhile, while there is some pretty solid data on the importance of peer learning and teaching, I have found that nearly all of it has come from traditional learning settings, such as research on blended learning in K-12 classrooms, or Eric Mazur‘s pioneering research on peer teaching in his Harvard physics lecture course.  Even that field, though, is relatively nascent and sparse.

As a notable exception, one of my favorite surprises along the way was being told by a marine that the U.S. military has actually understood the importance of peer learning for a long time, and that that understanding is deeply integrated into their training model.  I looked into the matter and found that one enterprising Major actually bothered to research and document for us the importance of peer learning in the army training model.  Thanks Major Adkinson!

Until this week, however, I have been frustrated in my search for any real evidence whether relationships and community are important to informal, independent learners outside of institutions.  For example, I have stated in several of my talks this year that I wished we had better data and research on this question coming from massive online courses so that we could understand better whether peer interaction has or could have made a difference in student motivation and outcomes in those courses, whose completion rates tend to be very low.

This week I was very happy to be granted my wish by the first study of a large-scale data set on student outcomes in MOOCs, collected by MITx and dissected by “Lori Breslow, the director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL); physics professor David Pritchard, who heads MIT’s Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively (RELATE) group; and Andrew Ho, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.”  To wit:

“Peer interaction seems to improve a student’s chances of success in 6.002x. While the researchers found no correlation between achievement and age or gender, they say there may be a relationship between achievement and collaboration: In particular, they found that students who reported working with another student on a problem offline tended to score almost three points higher than someone working alone.

“Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, says the new research establishes a noteworthy link between a student’s social interactions and her success in an online course.

“Educational success in a MOOC, but also in a face-to-face class, is not a wholly individual activity,” says Mintz, who was not involved in this study. “It has a social dimension. To put this another way, persistence and success are not simply products of cognitive factors. Noncognitive factors — in this case, social connection — are equally important.”

Further I was happy to see that “the researchers noted that some students who were not native English speakers formed groups on Facebook to help each other through the course.”

If you are interested in testing your own theories and helping dissect the massive datasets now coming from online courses, you may be interested in the Big Data in Education Coursera course this Fall, offered by Ryan S.J.d. Baker and the Teacher’s College of Columbia University.

If you are aware of any other resources, theories, data, examples, etc. to point me towards to help me on my quest to explore the importance of social learning for self-directed learners, I also invite you to comment, email me, or add directly to my notes.  Thanks!

Charlotte, NC / Charlottesville, VA ?

Both Charlotte, North Carolina and Charlottesville, Virginia are important cities to me.

Charlotte, NC is where:

  • I was born!
  • I was raised, through high school.

Charlottesville, VA is where:

  • I went to College (go ‘Hoos!).
  • I live now!

But, even though these two cities seem world’s apart to me- both in character, and literally (they’re about five hours apart by car)- it can be tough to keep them straight, because both are the namesake of the apparently alluring Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III of England, and, for those who know me, because both have been my home for significant stretches of my life!

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 11.28.09 AM

So I threw together this brief overview of these two lovely cities to help keep them straight!

Charlotte, North Carolina

Is a city in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. It is the largest city in North Carolina, with close to 2.5m people in the metro area.

Charlotte_Skyline_2011_-_Ricky_W(Downtown Charlotte Skyline. Credit: Ricky W)

It is known colloquially as “the Queen City.”

Charlotte is known for:

  • Its majestic, magnolia-lined streets.


  • And for being home to a few big banks (e.g. Wells Fargo), as well as some other big players in industries like energy, healthcare, and, yes, NASCAR (Charlotte is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame).

NASCAR Hall of Fame

  • As well as its pro sports teams, like the Panthers and Bobcats… and, once upon a time, the Charlotte Hornets : (


Even if you’ve never been to Charlotte, you’ve probably been stuck for an hour or two at:

The Charlotte International Airport!

Charlottesville, Virginia

Is a college town in Central Virginia on the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains with a little over 100,000+ people in its metro area.

800px-2008-0830-Charlottesville-DowntownMall(Downtown Charlottesville. Credit: Bobak Ha’Eri)

It is known colloquially as “Cville.”

Charlottesville is known for:

  • The University of Virginia.


  • And for being home to Thomas Jefferson (who founded UVA), as well to writers like John Grisham and musicians like Dave Matthews Band.


  • As well as its great breweries, wineries, and an amazing food and arts scene.


Even if you’ve never been to Charlottesville… you’ve probably had a beer from:

Devil’s Backbone Brewery!

Come and visit either of these cities with me, and I’ll show you what else I love about them!

Psst! Hey, DC folk… just FYI… Charlottesville is an easy trip from DC! It takes about 2.5 hours by car, train, or bus from DC. I recommend taking Amtrak to avoid the beltway traffic, which gets you there and back for $22 each way (if you buy ahead of time) and comes with wifi onboard.

Open Master’s Spring Reflection

Last week I gave a presentation to some of my Open Master’s peers over dinner in DC to share what I’ve been up to this semester, what I’ve learned and accomplished, and where I’m heading.

I have summarized some of the bigger updates and reflections below.  You can find a lot more detail, stories, and Q&A with my peers in the recording above (table of contents at 45 seconds).

In February, I went on tour with Educate 2020 across the US.  We were working on changing the narrative about the future of higher ed to a more positive a hopeful one.  Along the way, we interviewed more than forty inspiring innovators in higher ed.  Aside from what I learned from the interviews, I also learned that interviewing is fun, in general, and that I would love to do more of it!  Interviewing might even become a tool I call on more often as a vehicle for my learning goals.

Among the other themes that emerged from the tour, I have become passionate about telling the stories of the many, inspiring self-directed learners we discovered along the way, and of the things in the world supporting them, both inside and outside institutions.

In particular, I’ve been especially inspired by all of the examples we found of students taking their education into their own hands within institutions.  For example:

  • Student-led courses – e.g. programs such as DeCal at UC Berkley– which has been offering support for student-designed, student-led courses for credit since 1967- as well as programs like Student Initiated Courses at Truman State and Flash Seminars at the University of Virginia.
  • Student-designed majors – e.g. Rachel Thor, the tour manager for Educate 2020, actually made Educate 2020 her senior thesis, as part of her own self-designed major on alternative education at Penn State (through the Bachelor of Philosophy Program).  For some universities, students designing their own majors has been part of their institutional DNA since the beginning- such as Brown’s Open Curriculum.  But nearly every university seems to have an option for students to create their own courses of study, if you know where to look for it.  I am inspired to think that this type of thing might become more the norm as structured majors become less meaningful to students- and to the world they are entering- and as students realize the opportunity that creates for them to take more initiative for their own learning path.

I was also really inspired by some of the examples we found on Educate 2020 of university transformation from within, and by the changemakers who led those changes.

For example, I’ve been telling everyone I meet lately about the incredible transition the University of Virginia School of Medicine went through recently, and how they did it.  In 2009 the school made a bold transition from a medical curriculum that has changed very little in more than a hundred years- based on lectures in siloed disciplines- to a very integrative and interactive approach in which students are actively applying knowledge in problem-solving teams in a giant round, facilitated “learning studio” and are forced to deal with real-life scenarios from day one in an advanced patient simulation center.

The amazing thing to me was not just that they did it, but that they did it in just eighteen months– including rewriting the curriculum, supporting professors and teaching support staff through the big switch, and even moving the entire program into a new physical space to support the new curriculum.  In fact, the Dean who led the charge told us that it probably wouldn’t have been possible any other way; it had to happen quickly or it never would, because the change agents within the School would burn out and lose energy before seeing it through, otherwise.

It takes incredible leadership to bring about changes like this, but the examples I’ve seen through Educate 2020 have given me hope that institutions can and will be changed from within in some pretty amazing ways in the coming years.  The only variables are what each of their unique new visions will be, and when and how they will each make the move.

In March and April I carried on my travels to Europe to 1) work with the new Open Master’s group getting started in the Netherlands, 2) to help out with a new startup called The Journey Network that is inviting travelers to use their travels more intentionally as an opportunity for personal discovery, and 3) to speak at a student-led social entrepreneurship conference in Sweden called the Initiative Forum.  Before and after the trip to Europe, I also spoke at TEDxFurmanU, TEDxUVA, and the AshokaU Exchange, and I facilitated two student social entrepreneurship retreats through the Sullivan Foundation.

Despite the fact that my path has felt like such a winding one this year, the amazing thing to note is that I have actually stayed incredibly on-track with the original plan I wrote down for my Open Master’s back in August, 2012.  I have made great strides in all of the four categories I devised- including the Art of Communicating Big Ideas (through speaking, writing, and drawing), the Art of Making Things Happen (through the tools of entrepreneurship and design), the Art of Hosting (including group facilitation, mentoring, and coaching), and the Art of Being.  Maybe not surprisingly, I actually encountered some of my biggest failures and learned some of my most important lessons in the fourth category… like learning how to carry (or not) the many ideas I seem capable of evoking in the world around me, and also how very important relationships and community are to my learning process and to self-directed learners in general (this is something that institutions make much easier).

In addition to hitting some of the smaller milestones I hoped to achieve in my plan (e.g. more paid facilitation work, more opportunities to speak, connecting more with the Art of Hosting community, learning some of the basics of graphic facilitation, etc.), I also totally surprised myself by actually hitting the biggest goal of my original plan, which was to find a way to work for an incubator, as both a vehicle for everything else I wanted to learn and also as validation that I was starting to master what I hoped to master.

And I did it!  In May, I will be starting a new chapter of my life by moving to Charlottesville, VA to become the Entrepreneur in Residence at HackCville– an incredible oasis of creativity supporting student startups and self-directed learners on the doorstep of UVA.  This will be a great learning edge for me and will provide a great platform for much of the learning I still want to do and for many of the projects I want to bring to life in the world.

One last big accomplishment I will note is that I have also found much greater clarity recently about the overarching goals for my Open Master’s plan and have been able to articulate a guiding theme, which is:

Inviting learners to take responsibility for their own learning and creating tools and communities to help support self-directed learners, with a focus on documenting the importance of relationships and community to self-directed learning.

From here, my main goals will be:

  • Incorporating many of the lessons I have learned from my travels, especially from the Open Master’s Program Netherlands, into the Open Master’s Program in the US… most importantly getting a more steady rhythm of meeting times and space going again.
  • Creating a process for me and some of my peers to complete an Open Master’s capstone project and share our results at a public event with friends and family by December, 2013.
  • Focusing on my own capstone project, which will be to create the Open Master’s in a Box, e.g. the second, more interactive iteration of the Open Master’s Handbook that can help new individuals and groups get started with their own Open Master’s Program.  My goal is to take that first version of the handbook and update it to reflect what we’ve learned so far, and also make it a little bit more flexible / less linear and more multi-modal in format (physical, web, video, etc.).
  • Apprenticing more with great facilitators and teachers while designing and running more of my own programs, courses, workshops, etc. for self-directed learners and social entrepreneurs.
  • Investing more and giving back to the many relationships and communities that have made my learning journey and personal growth possible over the years… and having some serious fun this summer!

Alla Bozarth-Campbell ~ poem read aloud at a Seder in Berlin (think about that one for a second…)

Pack nothing.

Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free.

Don’t wait for the bread to rise. Take nourishment for your journey but eat standing, be ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind: fear, silence, submission.

Only surrender to the need of the time: to do justice and walk humbly with your God.

Do not take time to explain to the neighbors. Tell only a few trusted friends & family members.

Then begin quickly, before you have time to sink back into the old slavery.

Set out in the dark. I will send fire to warm and encourage you. I will be with you in the fire and I will be with you in the cloud.

You will learn to eat new food and find refuge in new places. I will give you dreams in the desert to guide you safely to that place you have not seen.

The stories you tell one another around the fires in the dark will make you strong and wise.

Outsiders will attack you, and some who follow you; and at times you will get weary and turn on one another from fear and fatigue and forgetfulness.

You have been preparing for this for hundreds of years. I am sending you into the wilderness to make a new way and to learn my ways more deeply.

Some of you will be so changed by weathers and wanderings that even your closest friends will have to learn your features as though for the first time.

Some of you will not change at all.

Some of you will be abandoned by your dearest loves and misunderstood by those who have known you since birth and feel abandoned by you.

Some will find new friendships in unlikely places, and old friends as faithful and true as the pillar of God’s flame.

Sing songs as you go, and hold close together. You may at times grow confused and lose your way.

Continue to call each other by the names I’ve given you, to help remember who you are. You will get where you’re going by remembering who you are.

Touch each other and keep telling the stories.

Make maps as you go, remembering the way back from before you were born.

So you will be only the first of many waves of deliverance on these desert seas. It is the first of many beginnings.

Remain true to this story. Pass on the whole story.

Do not go back.

I am with you now and I am waiting for you.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés – Women Who Run With the Wolves (from Open Master’s peer Laura Sheinkopf’s plan)

“… and if she cannot find the culture that encourages her, then she usually decides to construct it herself. And that is good, for if she builds it, others who have been looking for a long time will mysteriously arrive one day enthusiastically proclaiming that they have been looking for this all along.”

My Not-To-Do List

In my second semester of the Open Master’s, I have decided to focus my energy on the theme of self-directed, social learning. But focus has casualties. Keeping me focused is difficult, so today I am publishing my Not-To-Do List.  

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 1.53.37 PM

Here are some of awesome ideas I spent a lot of time cultivating last Fall, but simply won’t pursue- at least not in depth- for now:

  • Mapping, studying and supporting “community incubators” / “civic accelerators” like the New Leaf Initiative, co*lab Halifax, and others to understand how they are powerful engines for improving the wellbeing of communities.  
    • Understanding what makes their models work and how others can replicate replicate those models.
    • Work with groups like New Leaf to create a “community incubator in a box”
    • Research what conditions and processes are most effective to bring out the innovative, risk-taking spirit in a person and a local community.
  • Studying “small scale, low-cost social innovation” – mapping, studying and supporting innovation that costs very little or nothing at all, but which can improve the wellbeing of a community a great deal.
    • Develop a toolkit of ways ways cash-strapped communities and governments can improves lives in their community for very little money, backed by scientific research.
    • Develop an evaluation tool for communities to evaluate possible strategies and programs to understand their possible impact on (Max-Neef’s) Human Needs and on (Gallup’s) Wellbeing indexes, and make strategic investments that improve wellbeing, not just “grow jobs and the tax base.”
  • Writing a short book “Social Cartographers” with fellow participant, Laura Sheinkopf, making the case for the important role played by connectors in society.
  • Research the relationship between affordable housing and entrepreneurship.  As the MacArthur Housing Initiative says, “affordable housing may be an essential ‘platform’ that promotes a wide array of positive human outcomes in education, employment, and physical and mental health, among other areas.”  I wondered, and felt personally, that it may also be linked with the ability of a neighborhood to cultivate an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Whew… now that they’re out there, I can officially put these wonderful projects on the back burner and return to them after I have completed some of my other goals for 2013.

Hopefully I’ll master some transferable skills in my other pursuits that will make it easier to return to these projects at a later date and hit them out of the park.

Emerging: the Plan for this Year

There is a lot in this plan. I wanted to put it all out there first to see what would stick and what would become priorities for this year.

After a week of public feedback, it looks like I’m successfully narrowing in on a plan / schedule for this year, which is basically:

This Fall

  • Mainly focus on the coursera and skillshare courses I’m taking on model thinking and business models, respectively.
  • Get myself “set up,” including forming a relationships with some mentors / coaches, refining the priorities of this plan, etc.
  • Helping organize the Open Master’s Studio events for the community in DC.
This Spring
  • Mainly focus on two courses: sketching and writing / rhetoric, and get into writing and sketching more regularly.
  • Perhaps take on a publishing project like the next version of the Open Master’s Handbook or the Project Model Canvas (forthcoming project with New Leaf / Co.Space folks).


  • Find an incubator or education program focused on social innovation to work at so that I can be applying what I’m learning while I’m studying.
  • Check off smaller items in no particular order – e.g. reading certain books or attending one-day trainings / workshops.
  • Get into the habit of writing, sketching, and blogging here more regularly.

Putting yourself out there

It has only been one week since I showed my Open Master’s plan to a few close friends.  I wasn’t sure how it would be received and I was admittedly a little nervous about showing it to the world.  But I have been blown away by the number of great developments and suggestions streaming in since then.

One friend that I have known for a few years now- Allison Basile- even commented that she felt like she knows me better after reading this plan.  How cool?

I can’t wait to open it up even more this week and see what other ideas people have.

Here are a few of the great things that have emerged in the short space of a week:

Art of Making Things Happen

Two friends (John Britton and Jeff Bordogna) sent me suggestions for online courses that perfectly matched some of my goals for this section and I signed up for two them for this Fall:

  • Model Thinking – a coursera course on understanding and applying models when thinking about the world.  This fits very well with my goals for learning more about systems thinking.  As soon as I signed up, I posted it to Facebook and a few friends joined as well.  The debate among my friends seems to be which courses and how many they can take, more so than whether they want to take one!  Aside: My friend Alex Denny is trying an interesting strategy: signing up for three and treating the first few weeks like a add/drop period.  What’s your strategy?  Expected effort: 10 weeks, 4-6 hours per week
  • How to Be in Business Forever – A Lesson in Sustainability – one of Skillshare‘s new hybrid classes – meaning there will be some things we’ll do together online but then we will also form a face-to-face group to complete some “workshop” activities in person.  This is a five week course taught by Fred Wilson, the legendary VC, and is focused on using the business model canvas (a tool already in my plan) to develop a sustainable business model.  I’ve already found that there are a few friends in NYC and DC that enrolled in the course too and we plan to collaborate for the workshop section.  Expected effort: 5 weeks, 1-2 hours per week.

Meanwhile, the hunt continues for an opportunity to work with and learn from an incubator, accelerator, residency, fellowship or any other program supporting social innovators.  This is the best way I can think of to find the praxis of learning and doing for this section of my plan, and will likely be my main focus for this year, if I can make it happen.  But this plan has apparently been helping me get word out about that!  I have been finding some interesting possibilities and my hopes are high.

Art of Communicating Big Ideas

There have been some great developments here for helping out with my writing and sketching skillz this year:

  • A friend- Michael Williams- recommended a class on freehand sketching and drawing at Omega Institute.  It costs some money but is well worth it for getting from zero to sixty with sketching.  I’ll keep it on the docket as a possible reward at the end of the year, and Laura White is interested in doing it with me as a reward for herself, too.
  • I wrote in my plan that I want to create a Citizen Circle this year using the Little Red Schoolhouse materials from a course I took at UVA.  Now it looks like a friend, Mike Durante, would be interested in doing that with me.  Background: the Little Red Schoolhouse is a great collection of resources and exercises that helps understand not just grammar and styles of writing, but also goes into the cognitive science of how people actually perceive, process, and remember words, sentences, paragraphs, etc… helping you write prose that is more easily understood and remembered.  There are some very practical pieces of advice in these materials that are worth repeating to burn them into my memory.  It looks like Mike and I (and anyone else who is interested) will be getting together at some point this year to work through some of these exercises together.
  • Mike also recommended reading some of John Ruskin’s works– which are apparently some of the seminal works on drawing and sketching- and trying out some of his exercises together as a group.  Apparently he and some of his other friends from Compass Partners have already been discussing doing this this year, so it looks like a peer course is coming together… maybe next Spring?
  • I was fretting over my lack of photoshop and its outrageous price, so I put a gchat status up (“looking for photoshop”) and got some great help from friends finding alternatives to buying the Adobe Creative Suite outright.
  • My sister offered to make me a home-made sketchbook!  Who could ask for anything more?

Art of Hosting

I confirmed a contract last week to put on more social entrepreneurship retreats with Sullivan Foundation this year, ensuring that I’ll have some opportunity to practice these skills.  Hurray!

Art of Being

Michael Williams provided some helpful feedback and pointed me to two possible resources- the blog Zenhabits and that author’s book Focus– and started encouraging me to think about focusing my plan more on my “unique ability” (“What is it that you could do all day long and not get paid for it and be energized at the end of the day?”)… in other words, he thought this plan could benefit from some focus.  I rewrote and added a more focused intro my Purpose section of this plan and I’ll also have a post forthcoming about that in response, Michael.  Thanks!

Also, I started using a great new iPhone app called Lift for helping cultivate good habits.  It’s great.

Other Reflections

After my first week starting to work on this plan and signing up for courses, it’s becoming clear that, besides what I’ll be able to learn and practice through work experiences, I’ll probably need to plan on allotting at least one evening per week throughout this year- if not a full day- for planning, correspondence with mentors, writing a reflective blog posts, and course homework, otherwise it won’t happen.  But I think this is time well-spent.  Writing this blog post, for example, is a good exercise and worth doing; It’s a little bit of work but it’s also helping me synthesize what I’m learning and I bet I’ll get some useful feedback from it.

However, I may want to start experimenting with recording reflections on soundcloud or other less time-intensive options as well.  Any ideas?

Thanks again for everyone’s help this week!

Alternatives to Adobe Creative Suite

So far, the single largest possible expense I have identified in my Open Master’s plan will be equipping myself with appropriate graphics-and-photo-editing software.  My main purposes for having this software are to be able to:

  • Edit photos quickly and professionally, mostly for the web.  I have used photoshop and lightroom for years and am comfortable with them, so I was hoping to find something at least as good as them.
  • At some point in the near future, be able to do some of my own professional-quality desktop publishing for things like workshop handouts, publishing the Open Master’s handbook, etc.
  • Quickly draw (digital) diagrams, sketches, process flows, relationship maps, etc. to help explain ideas and systems visually.  For example, this blog post could have been improved by a quick diagram of some of the various graphics-editing tools available, and how they relate to one another, but I wouldn’t know what to use for that currently.

The industry default for each of these would be PhotoshopInDesign, and Illustrator (Also known as the Adobe Creative Suite).  But Adobe products are outrageously priced, and I was having trouble with alternatives.

I have also tried our some open source tools- like gimp and inkscape– and a few online tools like aviary.  These do work and can do everything you could want- if you can invest the time in learning their quirks- but they just aren’t totally there yet in terms of usability for my purposes.  Both have crashed on me very badly- each spectacularly frustrating in their own special way- and the learning curve is steeper than Adobe products.  Sad but true.

Thankfully, my network gave me some great help this week sorting out my options.  A week ago, I put out a cry for help on my gchat status and got some really great suggestions.  There are basically two main options on the table:

Option 1

Go in together with friends on buying the Adobe Creative Suite with a student discount, e.g. through a sibling who is in school or through a company that has spare licenses to donate (thanks Allison Basile and Lucy Burnett for suggesting), or:

Option 2

Cobble together a solution with a collection of alternative programs (thanks Jeff Bordogna, Philipp Schmidt, Dirk Uys, Google, etc.).  Jeff pointed out that maybe several years ago Photoshop and InDesign might have ruled the roost, but today there are many products that do only one or a handful of things that each of those does- but do it very well and are very cheap.

So while I may not be able to replace Adobe Creative Suite with one product, I could do the trick with a variety of more specialized products, such as:

  • In place of PhotoShop / Illustrator – Acorn or PhotoLine – each look like a photoshop lite- with layers, masks, etc. and some vector editing capabilities (though, not really a vector graphics editor).  Maybe not quite as slick, but you can’t beat the price ($50 and €59, respectively).  More than likely, though I would just start off with just Pixelmator– which is primarily focused on image editing and reasonably priced ($15)- and then add something else like Sketch  ($30) to my collection if I ever find that I really need a powerful vector editing tool.
  • In place of InDesign – PagePlus ($100), Scribus (Free, Open Source), or Pages ($20).
  • For sketching systems digrams, etc., there are some tools that were not really made for this purpose but which definitely do the trick in a pinch, such as using Keynote (the mac presentation tool, $20) and Balsamiq (a mockup editor which I am already using for client projects, $158 / year split with my business partner) to quickly sketch up ideas.  There is also MindMeister (Freemium) for relationship mapping.  I could continue to use programs like these for now and hold out on getting a vector editing tool until I really need it (and until I can invest some time in really learning how to use them well).

So for now I think I will:

  1. Hold out on Option 1 a little bit longer.  It’s still the “industry standard” and if I can get it cheaply, that will be less hassle than cobbling together alternatives, but I’ll have to wait to see if others can help me do this affordbly.  Do you want Adobe Creative Suite too?
  2. If not, buy Pixelmator ($15) and Scribus (free) and see how far this gets me for photo editing and desktop publishing projects this Fall.
  3. Later (next Spring at the earliest), look into learning more about vector graphics editors and invest more money and time into learning a program like Sketch (maybe even look into taking a course) and possibly even look into hardware investments that would help with graphics sketching- like an iPad or a digital sketchpad.

Thanks everyone for your help!


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