Archive | September 2014

Required Reading: Empathy

Required Reading: Empathy

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. Three books that I’ve read recently have touched on the subject but in the separate contexts of: motivation, creativity, and parenting.


While at first glance it may not seem like Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink is about empathy I would argue that in order to understand what motivates others you must always come from a place of empathy.

Pink describes three eras of human motivation – Motivation 1.0 was characterized by the need to survive. Humans were most concerned with food – how to find it and how not to become it. Motivation 2.0, the phase we’ve been stuck in for quite some time, has been characterized by the carrot and the stick. Today, Pink explains, carrot and stick techniques don’t always work. While rewarding or punishing behaviors can help in the short-term, for long-term fulfillment the most important motivators are instrinsic: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, which he explains as,

the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

Each of these needs are fulfilled by looking for internal gratification rather than external rewards. Pink goes on to describe Type I (Intrinsic) and Type X (External) motivators. The key is to figure out when one technique will produce the desired rewards, a decision that requires empathy. For most creative jobs, Pink explains, Type I rules while other, more routine work doesn’t offer much psychic benefit and therefore an external reward could do the trick.

In our work as Peace Corps Volunteers I found Pink’s assessment to be spot on. For example, when working with the students at the youth foundation we used external motivators for short-term results such as offering snacks or privileges to those kids who showed up for a meeting. However, in order to motivate through the entirety of a long-term project, it was necessary to involve the youth in the planning, teach new and desirable skills, and tie the activities to a larger purpose that they cared about (town pride, being a role model, community service etc.).

Learn more by visiting Daniel Pink’s website here.

Creative Confidence

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom and David Kelley was recommended to me by **Frankie**, who knows how excited I am about design thinking.

The authors are brothers and leaders at two of the most creative and innovative organizations today: IDEO and Stanford’s The book includes myriad examples of how a human-centered approach helps in designing products and processes. Empathy plays a large role in this, in particular during the research phase when tackling a new challenge or problem to solve.

You can find an entire Human-Centered Design Toolkit on the IDEO website here, that walks the reader step by step through this process. What strikes me about this approach is how similar it is to parts of the Peace Corps training process. While different language was used, we were encouraged not to provide our ideas or solutions to what we saw as the problems of our home communities but to engage in qualitative research for the first several months to a year before delving into a project.

From the Toolkit:

Building empathy for the people you serve means understanding their behavior and what motivates them. Understanding behavior enables us to identify physical, cognitive, social and/or cultural needs that we can meet through the products, services and experiences we create.

One of the activities from the Toolkit asks the reader to go into a situation with a “beginner’s mind” in order not to carry assumptions or to prejudge a situation. In another activity, the reader is encouraged to observe and not interpret right away. This is very similar to a framework we learned during Training called, “D.I.E.” that encourages volunteers to describe first and then interpret after talking to others from a volunteer’s community who can give a context to the situation in order for you to evaluate it effectively.

Learn more by visiting the Creative Confidence website here.

Brain Rules

Brain Rules for Baby is John Medina’s follow up after his best-selling book Brain Rules. He explains that he was often asked when speaking about Brain Rules how his interpretation of brain research applies to children. Specifically, parents wanted advice on how baby’s brains develop in order to tailor their parenting style. Actually, he says that often a parent would ask him how to use his brain rules to get his child into Harvard. I could write a whole book about what is wrong with that question…

Medina offers various “brain rules for baby” including: the importance of talking to your child and not putting them in front of the TV, a child’s need for demanding yet warm parents, and the importance of relationships to the child’s well-being and long-term sense of happiness. As he summarizes on his website:

You will need to teach your children how to socialize effectively – how to make friends, how to keep friends – if you want them to be happy. As you might suspect, many ingredients go into creating socially smart children, too many to put into some behavioral Tupperware bowl. The two that have the strongest backing in hard neurosciences, and the two most predictive for social competency are emotional regulation and empathy.

Empathy, he explains, is important because, “when the brain perceives empathy, the body beings to relax.” Mastering this “key relationship skill” will improve all of the relationships that a child will develop over time. The quality of one’s relationships is one of the key indicators, research suggests, in determining a person’s long-term happiness. It’s not how much money you make or what your job is. It’s having good friends and partners in life.

When we were living in a low resource community on the coast of Ecuador I would often think about happiness. Many of the folks we lived and worked with seemed to be very happy despite the lack of luxuries that seem to be taken for granted in more resource rich environments. Though there wasn’t hot water, reliable electricity, or access to good transportation in our town and our neighbors couldn’t count on a steady and fair wage, potable water, or preventative medicine, people appeared to be generally just as, if not more, happy than in other places where I have lived.

Learn more at the Brain Rules website here.

Dream, Girl: The Documentary


Thanks to **Nikki** for sharing this awesome Kickstarter Project. I missed the boat on funding them (they already received double the pledges they sought) but I’m looking forward to seeing and supporting the resulting film.

Hopscotch Design Festival Highlights

Elle Luna

Elle headlined the Hopscotch Design Festival, a two-day gathering tacked on to the now five year-old Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, NC. I could not have imagined a better way to kick off the event than to hear Elle delve deeper into “The Crossroads of Should and Must,” which she posted as an article to Medium in April. A must read, “The Crossroads of Should and Must,” reminds us why we can’t let our innermost voice be silenced.

Previously, Elle worked at IDEO, Uber, and Medium and is now a dedicated painter and artist.

See more of her work and musings at


Sha Hwang

Easily the most heartfelt and sincere talks we attended, Sha is part of the “Trauma Team,” tasked with fixing the site after its infamous launch. He spoke about this project while also philosophizing about the roles that technology and systems play in our lives. I appreciated his thoughtful approach. It was apparent that he took the time to craft a talk that explored not just the what but the why behind his work.

I’m currently reading, “Drive,” and since it focuses on motivation, his thoughts on how his team was able to incentivize the dozens of contractors who contributed to was illuminating. His work is a mix of data visualization with interaction design. Above, is an example of a project he did for Flickr, creating a clock based on user images.

See more of his work at


Annie Atkins

I had been looking forward to Annie’s talk since I am a big Wes Anderson fan and she worked on the Grand Budapest Hotel. A graphic designer, Annie works on films creating the graphic pieces that are at once props for actors to use while at the same time becoming part of the set and even characters themselves. She illustrated her job very well through video clips and then a discussion afterwards of each of the designed pieces necessary for that clip.

Imagine creating a postage stamp or addressing a letter using the appropriate pen for a piece of mail that sits on a character’s desk. As she explained, even if it is never shown in the movie, her job is to create the context and atmosphere for the actors to immerse themselves in.

At the end of her talk, she played a trailer for The Boxtrolls, an animated movie coming out this month that she worked on.

See more of her work at


Harper Reed

Harper opened up the second day of the festival. Previously the CTO of Threadless, one of my favorite places to buy gifts for Paul…he was the CTO of Obama for America, responsible for the internal as well as external technology that helped to get President Obama reelected. You can thank him for the fundraising emails if you received them…or continue to receive them!

It was fascinating to hear about what went into the ground-breaking technology strategy of the campaign. One of the takeaways was to always plan for failure…not just plan but actually practice failing in order to test systems and develop troubleshooting strategies. This reminded me of reading about Castro during the Cold War. He would plan power outages in order to prepare the population to carry on business without power.

Learn more about Harper at


Brian Singer

Currently at Pinterest, Brian was also the creator of The 1000 Journals Project, which has since spawned books and a documentary. I was excited to hear about this participatory art project (he is facilitating journals with children in hospitals now) as well as to see more of his personal work.

One personal project that stood out for me was his “You are_____for the economy.” As the example above shows, he researched the actual forces that are good or bad for the economy. The original pieces are made from scraps of posters he reclaimed from telephone polls around San Francisco and then screen printed on and mounted to plywood. The messages include, “Crime is good for the economy,” “Nature is bad for the economy,” and “Obesity is good for the economy.” He also made these statements into posters and stickers (which I gladly took when they were handed to me).

I especially like his Twit Spotting project that calls out people who text and drive. Not only did he post photos of them caught red-handed online, he also paid for billboards to be made of the images to raise awareness of this dangerous epidemic.

See more of his work at


600th Blog Post

For the 600th Post I thought I would look back at 10 of my favorite posts from over 4 years of blogging. Click on the title to see the original post.

Enjoy, Mari


We’re Engaged!

I think this is the first video on the blog – fitting since I signed up for my first WordPress blog to keep in touch with folks about our wedding. Once the wedding was over (which was quickly since we were married within 3 months of our engagement) I realized I liked posting and sharing so I started Partners for Peace and the rest is…



Charlie’s Namesake

This post is dedicated to Charlie, the namesake of our VW Camper. Our world lost one of its most beautiful souls this summer. Although Charlie the man…the myth…my best pen pal is no longer with us, his memory lives on in so many of us that he touched with his writing, photography, and conversation. I learned so much from Charlie and I think it will always hurt to know that he isn’t here to swap stories with anymore. In a way, my correspondence with him that started when I was in high school was the precursor to this blog. Thank you, dear friend. You are missed.

Watch This Now

There are times when someone else says something so much better than I ever could…that’s why I like to share TED Talks. Here are a few worth checking out, especially if you need some inspiration.




Louie Schwartzberg of Moving Art created this little film with a big message.

A Day in the Life

One of my Peace Corps posts that illustrates what life was really like during our service.



Happy Third Anniversary

So many memories. So little time. That’s what videos are for.

David Foster Wallace’s This is Water

Another example of someone explaining a concept far better than I ever could. I think of this message often – especially when someone cuts me off or isn’t at their best. The world needs more compassion. As Wallace says, we have a choice in the way we see the world.

Five Recycled Art Projects

This post brings back memories of the Recycled Art Workshop that the Peace Corps Ecuador office hosted. This was one of the most informative and entertaining workshops we attended.

Sweet Dreams: Photography by Queenie Liao

I’d like to do a project of photos of Brooklyn but who can compete with Queenie Liao? I’ve seen similar projects but this is (in my humble opinion) the most successfully executed one of them.



Two Years Ago Today

Amazingly, this was one of the easiest videos I have ever created and perfectly sums up our Peace Corps Experience.

Five Months Old

Brooklyn 5 Months

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