Trying it on for size

One of our family's favorite games to play is Hanabi. It's a cooperative card game with the objective of creating the perfect fireworks show (hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks). The game is similar to many others, but it has a unique twist. When you're dealt your cards, you don't look at them. Instead, you hold them in your hand facing the other players. You can see everyone else's hand, but not your own.

On your turn, you either play a card or tell another player one thing about their cards (for instance, you can point to a card and say "You have one 5"). With such limited information, the game requires intense focus; you have to keep track of your own cards, as well as what each person knows about their hands. It's great fun.

There are thousands of card games and yet with this simple twist, you have something unique and interesting. When creating something new, anything from a book of poems to a meal to an app, we often think that originality is the most important part. We want to do something that hasn't been done before in every way possible. When we see other projects with similarities to what we're doing, we wonder if ours is worth the effort.

But most groundbreaking work is intimately tied to what came before. Hanabi is still a card game with rules, points, and pieces. The album that sounds so unusual is still made up of songs, familiar instruments, and lyrics about love. The mind-bending novel still has chapters, a conflict, and a Library of Congress number. The core elements are the same; the innovation happens at the edges.

We talk about "pushing the boundaries" because those boundaries and edges are useful. They give us something to build on.


The latest dispatch asked, What is the strangest job you've had?

Brian wrote:

I worked an entire summer at a coffin manufacturing plant. I enjoyed 10-hour days of backbreaking physical labor, the easier bits being the occasional days I carted not yet painted metal caskets into a warehouse to stack them on one end until recently deceased people had need of them.<br><br>They only built the coffins there; no non-living bodies were ever on the premises. However, a cohort and I discovered a cache of barrels containing embalming fluid hidden in a dark corner of one of the plant's buildings, and no one could explain why they were there. We also found wine bottles hidden in a box in the Drying Room (where wood for wooden caskets was, obviously, dried), but we knew those belonged to Tyrone.

Sara wrote:

The strangest job I've had is probably the one I have now. Which is to say that it's been particularly hard lately for me to answer the questions "where do I work?" and "what do I do?" One thing I have figured out about myself is that I'm the type of person who is defined by her work. There is a greater imperative for that work to align with my principles, motivations, and goals because it's too closely tied to my sense of self. But so far I feel like I've taken a bunch of steps to only say, yes this is part of it, or no this is not. As a fellow at an interdisciplinary center, I'm constantly reminded of the things I am not: an academic, a journalist, an activist, an entrepreneur. The closest I've come to a positive definition of my job is a technology critic. I'm trying it on for size now and seeing if it sticks.

Adam wrote:

I've had a lot of off-the-beaten path jobs. Roving county fair juggler. Cornfield work crew manager. National amusement park midway barker. Yet, most would say my career in the museum field was the strangest. Not that museums are strange in particular - it's just that for four years I worked at an outdoor living history museum. That's right, for four years, I lived in the 19th century (during business hours) - plowing fields with a team of draft horses named Belle and Rose, milking the cows Goldie and Sara twice a day, pressing just-picked apples and sharing fresh cider with our guests, and butchering hogs that within 24 hours turned into a delicious meal for the entire farm family, the Zimmermans. All in the name of educating Indiana's next generation in a live, hand-on through experiential learning. (I most often portrayed a character named Edward, a runaway socialist factory worker from Chicago). It was incredible fun, hard, and rewarding work, which taught me probably just as much as it taught those visiting us. I broadened my pallet by eating fresh from a garden I tended for three years - pickled beets and eggs, gooseberries, squash pie. I even learned to fly a lighter-than-air balloon, taking passengers hundreds of feet into the air to reenact the first airmail delivery in US history, which happened in Indiana in 1859. Perhaps it's even more curious that I left my job in the 19th century, skipping the 20th altogether, to work in the 21st century mobile app world, now being a part of the YouVersion team in Oklahoma. It's a fun story that I love to tell.

Andy wrote:

I spent a summer cutting the bindings off text books and scanning them into a computer chapter by chapter so they could eventually be read to blind students. It was mind-numbing work but oddly satisfying.

Jenny wrote:

I was an active high school student and took up a casual weekend job with a basketball team mate. Basically, we had to wear these gigantic costume props like those Mickey Mouse and Donald Ducks alike you see at Disney parade, in the shape of penguins, at a conference for the grown ups. I don't even remember what brand we actually worked for, all I can remember was being really hot and sweaty for hours - there was no changing room for us penguins so we could only take breaks in the ladies' washroom!

Ryan wrote:

During the summer after my freshman year of college, I had an all-too-short-lived temp job writing down the license plate numbers of people who came to visit the model home in a new sub-division. The developer claimed to the temp agency (whether truthfully or not) that these numbers were never traced or used to identify the individuals but only tracked to see whether the same people visited more than one of the developer’s models.<br><br>My entire job was to spend five hours sitting in my own car a couple houses away from the model home and writing down the license plate number of every car that arrived. Since this only happened a few times a day, I spent most of these hours reading, listening to music or audiobooks, or doing nothing at all. On the second day of this gig, one of the actual residents of the neighborhood noticed me, grew suspicious, and called the police. I had already been told that if this happened I should answer any questions truthfully and leave for the day as soon as the officer departed. I did this, placing a phone call to the temp agency rep as soon as I got home (this episode pre-dated my access to a cell phone). The rep said, "Oh, you shouldn’t actually sit there the whole time—only about ten or fifteen minutes out of every hour. The rest of the hour, just go somewhere else and hang out. We’ll pay you for the whole hour, but we don’t want you there the whole time." So, for the remaining five weeks of that job, I spent most of my “working” hours napping in the parking lot of a nearby state park, driving over to the neighborhood, sitting idly for a few minutes, then driving away again. They were paying me $10 an hour, so in terms of the time I spent doing actual work, I was making about $40 an hour—by far my best paying job ever.

Mikael wrote:

In Zen temples, everyone is assigned some work every day. Mostly stuff like gardening, cooking, and cleaning. One time when I stayed at a Swedish Zen temple, word had gotten out that I was good with computers. So in between rounds of zazen, my work assignment was to scrape their members directory — an HTML page — for email addresses, to produce a spreadsheet. I sat in the little office at their old Windows PC, birds chirping in the summer air outside, full of meditative calm and alertness, using an SSH client to write Ruby scripts and Emacs macros on my VPS, until the zazen bell sounded. I wouldn’t mind a more temple-like environment for my day job...

Paul wrote:

I spent part of my summer holiday before going to University on a pig farm. For me, a desk/office/computer worker, it was quite strange. People ask about the smell, but I got used to it. It was hard physical work, starting with an hour's work before breakfast and continuing long after I would normally finish school. I slept very soundly at night. The farmer also did other work and during that time I helped him clean the Portacabins at a nearby quarry. The worst part was the ceilings which had yellow nicotine stains mixed with chalk dust. It wasn't possible to get them fully clean, but I eventually got them cleaner than they originally were. In those three weeks a saw half of a piglet's lifetime, for six weeks after they were born they went off to market. I have no problem eating bacon.

Lara wrote:

I think to most people, many of my jobs have been strange, as in hard to define with a one word title. I like the one I've settled with now: professional over-thinker. I'm made a point of finding roles that value thinking about things that matter, and my writing (sporadic though it is) reinforces this too. I relish the time to reflect deeply about things that are important to me, and I love hearing about the unexpected areas of interest that resonate with others. A few of my recent favorites from new acquaintances are: local history, prospecting and digging for buried treasure in and around the gold-fields, the loss of cultural heritage that comes with family life that is less interconnected across generations, irish language and music... <br><br>I find when I'm honest with people about what I do and what I care about it facilitates the same from them and helps us get to a more vulnerable and interesting place faster than the usual small talk might. And that's where the good stuff happens.

Uncommon reads

Stoop Stories by Gabrielle Sierra:

Ice cream on the stoop was a ritual that meant summer had really arrived.

The soul-grasping magic of life by Sarah Bray:

Experiences lose their magic when they become ubiquitous. When we have too much of something, it doesn't feel special anymore. Too much screen time, too much hunching over computer keys, too much trying to be aware of what's going on around me so I can tweet about it.<br><br>But before the internet, I wonder if real life had lost its magic, just a little bit. If we were so used to the physical objects in our lives that we just didn't notice how perfectly delightful it all is.

Designer Duds: Losing Our Seat at the Table by Mills Baker:

Design is about solving problems that humans have, not problems that products have. We start with problems people have —how do I get clean water to drink, how do I fill my bathtub, how do I water my plants— and find the best practicable solution.

Mandy Brown on the seductive little phrase do what you love:

Your love is bigger than what you do.

Your turn

When was the last time you were truly surprised?