debbie millman

Friday, January 19, 2007

Six Degrees of Navigation

I often say that there are only three things that I know. I know what I know: I know that I am a woman; that I am left handed, and that I am clumsy. I also know what I don’t know: I know I can’t speak a foreign language, I will never be a brain surgeon and I know I will never play piano like Glenn Gould. But what keeps me up at night and gives me reason to fret is this: I don’t know what I don’t know. This makes me very uncomfortable.

I find that the only way to find out what I don’t know is for someone to tell me or teach me or show me and then open my eyes to this bit of information that I (sadly) never before considered. Afterward, I find something odd happens. I find that what I have learned is suddenly everywhere: on billboards or in the newspaper or smack! right in front of me. I can’t help but shake my head and speculate as to how and why I never saw this particular thing before. And I begin to wonder if I would be any different or any smarter or any more interesting if I discovered it when everyone else in the world first found out about this particularly obvious thing.

Paris Hilton is a good example of this. One day, some years ago, someone asked me what I thought of the Paris Hilton situation. I assumed they meant THE Paris Hilton, aka the Hilton Hotel in Paris. At the time, I was embarrassed that I had no idea what was going on, as it seemed so urgent. So I pretended that I did. “Oh yes, the Paris Hilton situation,” I lied. “Wow! Can you believe it?” I thought maybe the Paris Hilton hotel was on fire. I went to CNN.com to inquire and found nothing. Then I did a Google on “Paris Hilton” and discovered a strange blonde woman with a weirdly droopy eyes featured in a bizarre sex video and from that day on, she has tormented me. She is everywhere. Serves me right for lying.

I have been thinking a lot about these first discoveries and also chance encounters: those elusive mysteries that often lead to defining moments in our lives. But what if one of those defining experiences never occurred? What if something wonderful, something that we have come to depend on, that serendipitous bit of luck that provided us with a big break or a big deal or the big time, what if it never happened? One of those, “if I hadn’t been eating a gigantic McDonalds breakfast on the 7am flight to Vancouver in the middle seat, I wouldn’t have apologized to the beautiful, elegant woman sitting next to me on the plane and we wouldn’t have started talking and I wouldn’t have found out she was an important editor of a cool design magazine and we wouldn’t have become friends and so on and so on” type of moment. I call this “six degrees of navigation.” The quintessential experience of “if that didn’t happen, then that wouldn’t have happened, and then that wouldn’t have happened, and we wouldn’t have ended up right here, right now, in this way.

On the other hand, what if we could turn back time and eliminate the bad haircut, the bad interview, the bad fight, the bad boy? Would we simply do what Freud suggested and inevitably recreate the previous traumatic experience in a fruitless effort to symbolically alter the original course? A, “well it didn’t work in Vietnam, but hell, why not try it in Iraq” sort of thing? Would we end up with the same anguished longing as Clementine and Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? I am not sure.

I think the reason we recreate experiences in an attempt to symbolically alter an original course is because we regret what that experience did to us. That particular defining moment was not as fortuitous as, say, sitting next to a cool editor on an airplane. It is more of a, “well if I wasn’t treated badly then, then I wouldn’t feel so worthless now and I wouldn’t be broke and unemployed and hopeless.” It becomes wish to counter history, to counter how we’ve ended up.

Ben Franklin said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I fundamentally disagree with him. I think that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of hope. We might keep making mistakes, but the struggle gives us a sense of empathy and connectivity we would not experience otherwise. I believe this empathy improves the ability to see the unseen, and to better know the unknown.

Lives are made by chance encounters and discovering things we don’t know that we don’t know. The arc of a life is a circuitous one. You never know who you may sit next to on a plane. In the grand scheme of things, everything we do is an experiment, the outcome of which is unknown. You never know when a typical life will be anything but, and you won’t know if you are rewriting history or rewriting the future until the writing is complete. This...just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

12 Comments:

Blogger Ghazaleh said...

I think more people need to admit that they don't know, which should encourage them to want to know. If they don't know it's something they want to know or rather think they don't want to know, then they should force themselves to lick it for the taste before they decide to eat it or not.

1/19/2007 07:58:00 PM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

I'm goiong to steal that lick it line and use it on my students.

1/20/2007 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger minus five said...

i don't have anything to add or take away from what you wrote.

everything is connected to something else. i've been seeing that even more in the past couple of years. horrible experiences that i had to go through to get to the things i couldn't have imagined or planned if i was the smartest kid in the whole world.

and i stopped lying about knowing words or a particular subject matter sometime in college. that's when i stopped caring about what other people thought.

1/20/2007 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

I couldn 't agree more, Miss Minus. One of my favorite lines--which I am stealing from Edwin--

"I gave up caring what people think when I realized most people don't think."

How good is that?

1/20/2007 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger minus five said...

who's edwin?

1/20/2007 06:07:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

my bf, though you are still my bff.

1/20/2007 06:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a bf who doesn't care what others think? what a catch.

1/20/2007 08:36:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

yup. and definitely not anonymous.

1/20/2007 09:52:00 PM  
Blogger minus five said...

ouch.
that was a good one.

1/22/2007 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

thanks minus.

funny when you have the ability to look at your site stats those "anonymous" people aren't so anonymous anymore. it is so easy to criticize and pontificate when you think no one can figure out you who you are.

in fact, i can't wait for "anonymous" to weigh in again.

1/22/2007 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger RDQLUS (Stevie G.) said...

Debbie,

Bryn Mooth from HOW Magazine turned me on to your blog and this particular post because I think I'm the poster child for the human "if/then" statement. I love the art of connection. The skill and maliability it takes to navigate your own 6º.

I agree whole heartedly with what you say about the interplay and the connectivity involved in even the most chance of encounters. In my opinion it says something not so much about the run-ins or the happenings, but the people involved. It takes a very unique and specific type of person to snowball a passing moment into an actual event or connection, even if by no doing or intent of their own. There is a curiousity and a boldness of character (even if coming from the most meek of persons) that allows the chance meeting to transcend the potential for awkwardness and move to that "so... (insert conversation starter here)" moment.

Great post! Thanks for the good read.

2/02/2007 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

Steve! Thanks so much for the nice words and for visiting!

2/02/2007 12:30:00 PM  

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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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