Being Brave

This post is from a talk given as part of the JS for WP conference and is the transcript presented. You can find the full slides here.

The word ‘brave’, means different things to different people. What comes into your mind when you think of being brave? Is it of someone saving someone? Is it of someone pushing the boundaries of what they can do? Is it perhaps of someone just doing something they thought unable to do?

This is the definition of bravery. Bravery is different for each person. We measure bravery by our own gauge. There are also levels of bravery. Courage is linked to the term bravery. It’s seen as a positive. People are congratulated when they show it. Bravery is something to be praised. Words like valour and fearlessness champion those that show it.

Is being brave out of fashion?

In this day and age, you could think so. Whilst not a robust data point to use to only base a theory on, this graph of the use of the word bravery in books, from Google I found really interesting.

As mentioned, there are different levels of brave. It’s maybe easy to jump to the biggest ones when thinking of this. Bravery could be asking for a raise, it could be creating. It could be a small act or a large one. This all depends on our perspective. Without bravery though there is no progress. It takes someone to make the first step.

When you are new to the business, you think if you give a really bad performance, that’s one they will print. You will be judged. You just have to be brave.

Robbie Coltrane

Limits to bravery

The fear of being judged often gets in the way of bravery. This limit restricts and confines not just people but projects, entire generations. We learn the foundations of bravery through play. If you are fearful of play then you limit bravery. Without play, without just exploring there is no good performance.

Play in children is a rehearsal, a space they experiment, test boundaries, learn and discover the world. Curious minds explore the possibilities and find the consequences of those in a safe environment of play.
As adults, that fades, distilled by rigid minds, stuck notions of reality and the idea that fools play. Judgement weighs on people, crushing their imagination and limiting what could be.

As a child, you are taught to colour inside the lines. It’s those that colour outside the lines that get to really push the boundaries of the world. The projects we work on limits us with their lines to confine, the tools, the regulations, the processes, each a hurdle to experimentation, to growth and a threat to the project’s future.

Exclusion isn’t bravery. Thinking just in your headspace and colouring in the lines isn’t brave. Thinking for the 1% isn’t brave. Creating just for today isn’t brave. All of these things will limit, confine and again ultimately result in lack of growth.

Are humans brave?

Well. If it wasn’t for brave humans we’d never have got here. That’s sort of how natural selection, evolution works. Yes, our amygdala fuelled brain leans towards change aversion. But, really at the core of it, all bravery is what got us here as a species and it’s what is going to keep us going.

Bravery isn’t a clear cut binary thing, there can be blocks to even the bravest of souls. There is a privilege of being brave. You need support, ground that is fertile, an opportunity. Access to even the tools or position needed to take that brave leap may need time and may need far more than someone has. The situation is often an agent of bravery.

There also needs to be a dose of reality when talking about bravery. To be brave without thinking of consequence is rash and selfish. The bravery that moves forward is bravery of consideration regarding impacts. Ethics and inclusion don’t have to take a back seat to be brave. Bravery is a drink to sip and not drown in. Pushing forward then needs a time of stability, growth and assurance.

Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

Artistotle

I want to talk about bravery in terms of creating. I am going to look specifically at how you can and should be braver in the work you do. How WordPress itself as a project needs to brave. How if we don’t, the future is uncertain and a lot less bountiful.

Bravery isn’t something you can do once and be done. It’s about a mindset. The type of bravery I am talking about here isn’t about running into a burning building, it’s about daring, having the courage to colour outside the lines. It’s about practising bravery in our craft and from creating a culture that is pushing the boundaries of what if.

How to be brave

If you were to think of a guide to being brave in their work, it could probably be distilled to a few points.

Know the foundations

First, it’s about knowing the boundaries, after all, if you are going to colour outside the lines, you need to know where the lines are. This could involve thinking outside the process, outside what is possible today. Outside is a mindset. Knowing your own boundaries is also part of this. Level up what you don’t know, pair and don’t be afraid to learn. Once you know, you can push.

Have an experimental mindset

It’s crucial to have an experimental mindset. To be ok with things going wrong, things not working. Experimentation leads to discovery. Have a think, when was the last time you created something just because? Think again of all the progress in technology, most got there through experimentation. Practising this type of experimentation leads to discovery. It is how you move forward.

Time is critical

Time is critical to bravery. This could be time to experiment or time to just educate. Making time each week, be it a few hours or even a day, for that time to live the laboratory mindset, that’s really how you get to free yourself and explore.

This could be seen a little as finding your bat cave. Your space to create. To think what if, to dream beyond. If you think of a camp or pillow fort as a kid, it was a space of possibilities. Maker spaces are adult versions of these. Think about how you create your own physical or virtual ones of those. It’s worth noting it doesn’t have to be a shed at the bottom of your garden, it could be a shed in your mind. This mind shed is where you can go, create.

Play is important

Play is also important. Having space to create with the purity of play.
Having your own sandbox. These points all tie, because being brave is about setting the right conditions. When was the last time you sat down and just played, freely, without setting a goal or focusing on a deliverable?

Start small

Bravery doesn’t have to start big. Start small. If you are limited on time, start small there too. Little steps in bravery can become larger ones as your confidence grows. Maybe it is about learning something new. Do that thing 15 minutes a day, build up. Maybe it starts with setting aside one afternoon a month to play, see how far you can take something.

You can’t expect to have the freedom of experimental play if you set a rigid, high goal to stick to. That’s why starting small eases you in. It’s practice, being brave is a mindset you want to become a habit.

You need feedback

To be brave in your work you need feedback. The phrase release early, release often not only sets the stage for this but it creates a space of fluidity within production. Having a culture of feedback also allows growth, but it takes cultivating, nurturing and growth. Without feedback though you will never grow as a creator. It has to also be feedback, not judgement. The feedback you can build on, the judgement you can only have feelings about.

You can’t be brave without being inspired

You can’t be brave without being inspired. I wanted to take a little time today to share some work that inspired me lately. Inspiration is the fuel of experimentation. For me, this often comes in the form of experiences or art.
I wanted to share 2 sources of inspiration for me right now and after this talk, I would love to know what inspires you.

It’s important to note that not everything has to be tangible, inspiration comes in all shapes and forms. You can be inspired on a walk, seeing a flower, a story or a work of art.

Mirages and miracles combine ar with drawings and sculptures. There is an incredible video I would encourage you to check out. Drawings come alive through screens. Flowing and moving. Little figures dance over rocks and balance over stones. There’s a sense of delight in this work. The static images come alive through technology.

Teamlab is an art collective that creates experiences that are totally immersive. They explore a new relationship between humans and nature, between oneself and the world, through art. I was lucky enough to experience Planets in Tokyo and recently their video piece in the Barbican.

This is an experience that completely moves. To be able to create experiences that touch this deep, this whole, whilst yes this is an art piece, you can take this into the work you create. How can that emotion, the immerse experience, be translated for example into an application, the act of writing or of editing a photo.

Past

If that’s how to be brave yourself. Let’s look at the wider work of a project.
How did we get to where we are today in technology, in WordPress as a project? Well, we didn’t get there by not being brave.

WordPress as a project had a lot of ground untrodden to grow from what it was, to what it is today. This gave the opportunity for bravery, for exploration. There were even in some cases no lines to colour within, it’s easy to be brave when nothing matters as much. When it’s all an experiment. A lot of WP has been shaped by experimentation. By brave thoughts of what if. Plugins that tried something different, that explored. Patches that were just to see. Many features grew from a passion, an idea that someone had and took to the project, grew into a reality.

Open source itself moves forward through these experiments, it doesn’t move ahead through cautious lack of bravery. Even the idea of open source is pretty brave itself when faced with the majority of the world. The idea of our community even functioning is a brave one.

Gutenberg is the past now as far as phase one being grown. It was a brave idea seed. Created through experimentation. This was done in the open. To experiment in the open really takes bravery. Feedback comes in all shapes when you do this type of work. During Gutenberg phase one there were many ‘what if’ moments. Play leads to trying things that hadn’t been done before. Creation was done with a curious mind, an open to pushing beyond what was before. This is how we got to where we are today.

Present

That’s the past, what about the present? Today our situation is a space we’ve got to through bravery, experimentation and a passion for the project. How though can we get to the future?

At times it can feel like we’re stuck, static. Our brain freezes because of too much, we are in overload. There has been an arms racing of tooling, a snowstorm of change and the space we’re in seems confusing, antagonistic and complicated. In times like this, we drown in nostalgia, it’s not a time to be brave, it’s a time to batten down our mental hatches and soothe our amygdala. Everything is big, everything is too important, deadlines mount and paralysis of options is the mode of work for many in this space.

What if though, rather than being at a peak, rather than being stuck we were at a cliff edge… we could jump and soar but are we brave enough to make that leap?

Last month, I had to install a package manager to install a package manager. That’s when I closed my laptop and slowly backed away from it.

frankchimero.com/writing/everything-easy-is-hard-again

Our tools bind us in the work we do. They are line enforcers. They have created this paralysing space where it’s easier to process out the same work than dream beyond.

Creating today can make you feel like you are cast adrift on a sea of processes. A prime example of this feeling is even setting up a local development environment, something like Vagrant. Whilst the setup screen is fun if you want to pretend you are a hacker, one slight issue and it all falls down again. The technology we depend on seems shockingly fragile and so cryptic to fix when it inevitably does break.

Even the process of committing has become so high it often leads to confusion. An example of this is Travis on a GitHub project, whilst this is amazing when it works as checks commit, when it doesn’t debug the cryptic messages is similar to reading ancient texts. If you are able to commit then you should be able to understand how to fix what you break, all too often that’s not the case. We shouldn’t be forcing people out of being able to commit because of overly complicated processes, they should make it easier for more to be included.

So many of us have stopped blogging. The once space of our dreams and theories now lies vacant with the last post a year ago of ‘must blog more’. Maybe we make an excuse that we will update the theme and then suddenly be able to blog, or we are ignoring it hoping it will go away. Through posts, we used to share ideas, dare to dream. It all got a little too serious, too fearful that every word matters, will be analysed and you’ll be held up to it.

The same goes for Codepens and design experiments. These are confined to our best work, nobody shows their sketchbooks anymore because all too many assumptions get made and blog posts hook into it being the ‘only way’, ignoring it’s just an idea, a flotsam of the mind. We are scared to share because everything is a big deal.

In a climate like this what is created becomes predictable, stifled and limited. Safe becomes the style and suffocation of creativity in the process. There is a fear of deviation, a fear of standing out. Ideas are analysed with magnifying glasses and pitchforks, why would you create if space feels like that? It’s easier, safer and a lot less traumatic to just toe the line. To colour in the lines.

Oh you’ve never used Contract, XXLJS with pikachu.js or the LSD-Module Cross-bow launcher that is backwards compatible with MollyJS, you’re like so last season!

medium.com/@julienetienne/unnecessarily-complicating-front-end-development-to-feel-like-a-smarter-person-5e555fe650ed

It seems like not a day, even hour, goes past without some new amazing framework or outstanding technique that you “just have to try”. Posts stream past social media on this breakthrough, that amazing new hotness and ‘oh my wow this just changes everything’! It feels like we are all stuck in some next framework idol popularity contest. In all this excitement, all this wonder, haven’t we forgotten something? What about the users? What about the users experiencing the product? What about those learning to create? There are many users and we’re failing them all in ways we can prevent.

We in all the process.. forgot about what matters.. the users. Whilst we are caught up in this, those users cope. They learn the ‘way’ of processes and are forced into accepting experiences. They shout their frustrations in one room while most of us are in the other room having our minds blown by a process. This has to change, when that happens we can start to truly create experiences that are what users want, deserve and need. That isn’t created just for our headspace, our friends, our colleagues and bubble. That is inclusive and actually, enable those that use them. 

WP of today is weighed down by history, by Trac legacy and a mindset of the ‘WP way’. This blinkers even the most enthusiastic, passionate contributor. You colour in the lines because there is just so much to do that it’s easier. The new ground seems non-existent. Everything feels like there’s already a solution, so why boundary push when there is no space to push into? There is too much to do, which clouds innovation and creative thought. Yet, there are glimmers…there are people coming fresh to this project and questioning the ‘WP way’. This is a seed of bravery.

The Gutenberg of today is a huge, daunting repo. Finding new ground seems impossible. Where do you start? Maintenance mounts up in vast towering stacks, overshadowing any space to create or experiment. But, like the seeds in WP, there is a light. There are people are showing the way. Gutenberg has created a foundation that is enabling people to explore in brave, exciting ways. There are plugins sprouting up with leaves of potential. Nimble, free to think ‘what if’ and play with the new toys available. This is the present but a path to the future.

Future

I may have painted quite a bleak present but it isn’t untruly the space we’re in. There is hope. Nimble minds and free expressions are that hope. There are tools, often too many and not the right ones.. but there is a foundation, an environment that could if we are aware lead to incredible, exciting, brave growth.

The mindset really does have to be one of going back to the lab, to discover the paths and explore them. We need to myth bust the ‘WP way’ and look to what the future ways could be. We don’t grow as a project accepting what we know now as the only route forward. Creating a lab means creating a space for experimenting. A nurturing, supporting community that accepts not everything is fully baked. One that is ok seeing cookie dough and first pancakes. One that gives feedback not judgement. That has enough structure enough to encourage growth, but not so much it’s paralysed by hierarchy and process. A collective focused on what could be.

Our tools need to be rooted in play. Contributions should be grown through play not through wading through the process. It all just needs to be fun again. Applications like Glitch show a glimmer of what this could be. Space where experimentation, remixing is the mindset. As a project, we could learn so much from this. How do we make contribution fun again? How do we grow through play?

One little brave step was recently taken by the design team with the design experiments plugin. This, as shown here, doesn’t have to be just the individual, sometimes it’s scary to be brave alone. By being collectively brave you can start to really see what if. This plugin has a series of things either talked about in Slack conversations or in dusty Trac tickets, now made real. It’s designed to not be used in production, to always be experimental. No weight, no expectations but all the freedom to just see. Going back and forth in theory only gets you so far. There is something powerful in just trying. In doing. This type of plugin shows what can happen when some just try. When the conversation turns to action.

To get to the future one point needs to be underlined. We don’t get there by clinging to job titles or judging those that step between. Developers should be allowed to experiment in design, designers if they want to code. No matter what you want to do, an experiment should be given feedback (never judged) on its own merit, not on the background of the person. This is easier said than done but we’ve not got this far by drawing lines around roles and territorial mindset, intact whenever that happens we regress, where we limit.

The future can be incredibly bright but we get there by less closed groups, more open sharing. Fewer conversations and more ‘do’. We get there by letting anyone play in the sandbox and create castles.

Like many, I learnt to code by following the example of others, viewing the source and making connections. I remember starting to discover writing themes for WordPress and learning by the example of Kubrick. It was simple, open code that I could easily access and understand. I learnt by connecting the dots, finding the paths. When I learnt to design, the tools were simple. You just opened and used, there was no design system, framework or complex syncing. Countless people have learnt to work this way, you’re likely amongst them too. I wonder though if I was starting today would I have been able to learn so easily?

The flip side of this is that a system that enables this type of fast, rapid onboard benefits. A good, design system does that. A good process does that. We need that going forward.

How can you progress and learn when you do so from a bubble? It’s cosy certainly but this bubble thinking only stalls causes growth problems. It’s a basic lesson learnt but one we all too easily forget when we get caught up in the new. Within the bubble grows a state of acceptance.

The steep learning curve is seen as a rite of passage over a problem that needs to be fixed. The complicated language hurdle becomes the norm and blinked thinking is standard. It seems almost like the web is being split into lands with really high, difficult borders to scale, rather than the fluid universe of discovery it was meant to be. It’s bad enough for those of us that live in this state, meanwhile, users live in another universe completely, outside any bubble, out of mind.

Brave thoughts

I want to finish up today by sharing some of my own brave thoughts. I share these not as unique things only I think, human nature means others will also be thinking the same. I share them because after talking about being brave, it’s a good time to share.

The devices of tomorrow aren’t those of today. What we create for today isn’t going to be what we will create for tomorrow.
We can guess, but we can’t really know. If you are limiting your experience to just one device, you also limit your mind to what you can create. Play comes in using different platforms, different devices. Explore, change up your phone. Start exploring what is coming up, make yourself aware of the changing space.

Similarly, the situations and use cases we create for today, aren’t those of tomorrow either. Looking to explorations in wearables and future thinking is where maybe we can start to see what could be. As creators, playing and exploring these is crucial to really grow into that future. Don’t focus on the new shiny of this year or the next. Look beyond what is coming up.

Figlab: future interfaces group, is an interdisciplinary research lab within the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. This is just one of the many places exploring what the future of interaction could be. They have some pretty interesting explorations worth exploring. There is also a GitHub account for fig lab that has some OS goodies.

What if everything we thought we knew about interfaces today was wrong Experiments like this one show what could be.

The users of today aren’t those of tomorrow.

We can and should run usability tests but we have to also consider who is coming. Who are the upcoming markets, what are their needs? Who aren’t we serving today as an experience? This is where looking into how accessible or diverse our experience can be, matters. To grow as a platform, you need to look beyond those you serve today.

The creators of today aren’t those of tomorrow.

In this all, in all this overcomplexity and confusion, where are the future creators? How can someone learn to code? To design on the web? Where in the sea of this is a way for them to learn? Our processes aren’t inclusive, they have not only a barrier to learn but also a hurdle to access. You have to know where is the right information. They are processes of privilege. How can a web truly for everyone be created when the system to create isn’t inclusive?

When you have this disconnect and lack of diversity in those creating, you ensure a fast track to products that also aren’t inclusive. The bubble has created a system of privilege that applies not just to those making the product but actually making it.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what level you are, the next solution may be something you hold. Hierarchy, when focused on instead of creativity, limits our growth to discovery. As a project within WordPress we have to leave room for happy accidents and welcome everyone. Elitism is the death of projects. If we judge we will limit that growth and become the 1%.

The experience of today isn’t natural.

Users accept way too much than they should. We have formed mental models around how we interact with products, also as to how we create. Understanding how really humans work gets you to the point of being able to understand what is natural. Just like looking outside of the bubble, looking into psychology and neurology to really understand how humans’ work is essential to creating the future.

We only get to where we are going by putting users at the heart of everything. Perfect polished robots failed to take off as they were too perfect. Humans are imperfect. We have to understand that. We have to put users and their experience at the heart of everything. If we remove the human element, we remove the growth, we remove connection and we won’t grow.

The technology of today harms

To build a future it needs to enable, empower and break down barriers not create them. This ties in with the two previous points. Too much today is gamified to the point it harms. Sticky to the point it sucks humanity from those interacting.

There is so much good can come from technology, it just takes being brave to not follow the fastest path to clickbait. Experiences for good are the way forward as people aren’t stupid and cynicism is growing in those that interact.

The solution isn’t within WP.

The future lies outside. What is WordPress today won’t be WordPress tomorrow. The product you work on today, won’t be the one you work on tomorrow. Look to art, look to science.. look to science fiction. Look outside the daily work you do. Be open to all that the future could be.

Dream and think beyond the confines of what your experience is today.
Bravery doesn’t come with limiting yourself to this reality. You get to the future by visualising it. By learning, by being open, what is WP can evolve. If it’s closed then it will wither and not be around for long. Evolution of technology is natural, we sometimes forget to look outside our bubble. Outside is where the good stuff is going on and how we truly create a platform for the future.

The legacy of our technology matters.

The future lies in less, not more. Recently the race for technology has seen an ignoring of the world around, this can’t continue and to truly create experiences that connect, empower and enable, they have to respect and not damage the space people inhabit.

What we create today is the rubbish of tomorrow, the toxic digital waste that will have to be cleared or lived around. We can do better, we can create with a mind that doesn’t focus within the microchip, but on the space the person interacting inhabits.

We can look outside the processor and ensure the footprint, the digital legacy isn’t one that forces people to retreat into screens to escape the broken world. That is just as good for people as it is for the environment they exist in.

These are brave thoughts about the future, about how we maybe can start to get there as a project within WordPress, as creators and as those that want to create a better future. Let’s think more about what if because that’s how we move forward.

You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough 
to try. 

Dolly Parton

When I was thinking about this, I wanted to create one just for this conference. It’s a luxury I was grateful for. I had no limits on what to speak about and that really was exciting. As I began writing this, I didn’t realise I’d be not only writing a talk but a promise to myself. You see, somewhere along the line I also forgot to be as brave as I was before. I stopped sharing my sketchbook. That was a lesson I learnt studying art and somewhere along the line, I unlearnt it. It all got a little too serious. It all became about work, about the release.. it all became too big. I stopped playing as much and I stopped if I am honest having as much fun as I was. In writing this talk I got to reflect, to remember and I was given a space to have some brave thoughts.

If I can leave you with one point, I would encourage you to take that first step. Write that blog post on an idea, sketch that thought, create that experiment… build up your time in your lab. I promise I am going to and I can’t wait to see what everyone does when we all are a little braver.

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