Unexpected Inspiration…pass it on!

“The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises. It is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises.”
Lewis Mumford – Architect.

“Red” Burns was the co-founder and chair of the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.  I found about her via a Twitter post by renowned designer and computer scientist John Maeda. My understanding is that, the speech below was how Red Burns greeted new students.

Inspiration comes in many forms; moments that are simple or complex, random or possibly even expected. When presented with the opportunity to inspire others, we should consider it a true gift. Inspiration ignites progress, renewal, reorganization, or even rebirth. Whether you’re a teacher, a leader in your company, a colleague to a new recruit, a parent to a child or simply a random person in someone’s life, the ability to create that spark can unleash a wave of momentum that changes lives. Red Burns’ inspiration, and her passion, seemed to be the art of communication.

I never met Red Burns (I wish I had) but, I believe her introduction is worth experiencing. I found deep wisdom embossed on plain white pages with passionate guidance expressed and real leadership ingrained within each sentence – all thoughtful and thought provoking.  I could tell immediately that she affected many and her lessons won’t be easily forgotten by those fortunate enough to have been inspired by her. As you read the words, hope cannot help but rise up, perhaps enticing new visions to be exposed. Therefore, I am compelled to share; I do so respectfully. My hope is that you too are inspired…

You are here, and I welcome you. Look around you. You come from parts of the world that many of you have never visited. As you come together, depend on each other, you will find yourself wearing the ill fitting clothes of someone else’s world and dine on what is the strange food of someone else’s thought.

If you can resist the temptation to run back to the shelter of your own comfort zone – if you permit yourself the intellectual curiosity to explore your differences just as you would explore a new city, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Collaboration will jar you – provoke and confront you with different ways of looking at the world – allow this to happen, embrace it. Welcome students from other parts of the world and understand we don’t live in a monolithic world. Our signature is collaboration – not competition.

You are from: Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, England, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, South Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, and U.S.A.  

Different cultures create a counterpoint to the ordinary. Resist your own comfort zone.

Your backgrounds are: Architecture, Dance, Illustration, Music, New Media, Sculpture, Video, Animation, Math, Fashion, Design, Business, Non-Profit work, Theatre, Industrial Design, Interior Design, Communications, Film, Journalism, Law, Writing, Engineering, Photography, and Creative Writing. We live in a fractured world where you find communities burdened by differences – so what we ask of you is nothing short of miraculous.

DW Griffiths, documentary film maker, changed the face of film by moving the camera. Eisenstein was a film editor. He juxtaposed time and space. Both men were artists not engineers.

In 1895, The Lumiere brothers projected a speeding train on the wall of a café in France. The audience had never seen anything of the kind. They ran screaming from the café. He changed a recorded medium into an expressive one.

Lewis Mumford, an architect at the beginning of the century, saw life as a whole in all its variety and interconnectedness – relationships and links within a cultural context – he understood that art and technology could not be understood in isolation from society.

Cities and architecture must be perceived in relation to civilizations that produced them – he talked about double vision which sees with both eyes – the scientific eye of actuality and the illuminated eye of imagination. He exemplified a philosophy we embrace – the imaginative daring of the artist – the close focused exactitude of the scholar and the scientist’s reliance upon direct observation. [Mumford] said:

“The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises. It is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises.”

Lewis Mumford – Architect.

Think of technology as a verb, not a noun. It provides the tools, creative people provide imagination. Each day is magic for me. I hope it will be for you. This is a rich environment – talk to people – listen – observe – absorb.

Innovation makes enemies of all those who prosper under the old regime and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those that would prosper under the new. Their support is indifferent partly from fear and partly because they are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.

Machiavelli – The Prince

It is by logic we prove, but by intuition we discover.

Leonardo Da Vinci.

40 Years ago there was no internet as we know it.


Not one marketer or business planner had any involvement in its development. Its phenomenal growth clearly indicates a need is being met. It is the opposite of traditional media – diversity not homogeneity.

The computer with innovative software cannot write a book – an author writes a book. Technology doesn’t make a community. It is about enhancing the human spirit, using the power of technology to respond to the human need for communication and expression. The best software or hardware ever designed cannot calculate a tiny fraction of relationships that exist in a simple pond.

What I want you to know:

  •  Understand the question before looking for the answers.
  • That there is a difference between the mundane and the inspired.
  • The biggest danger is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.
  • That the inherent preferences in organizations are efficiency, clarity, certainty, and perfection.
  • Human beings are ambiguous, uncertain, and imperfect. How you balance and integrate these contradictory characteristics is difficult.
  • That imagination, not calculation, is the “difference” that makes the difference.
  • That any human organization must inevitably juggle internal contradictions – the imperatives of efficiency and the countervailing human trade-offs.
  • That you are a new kind of professional, comfortable with analytical and creative modes of learning.
  • That there is a knowledge shift from static knowledge to a dynamic searching paradigm.
  • That creativity is not the game preserve of artists, but an intrinsic feature of all human activity.
  • That in any creative endeavor you will be discomfited and that is part of learning.
  • Provoke the Unexpected – Expect it.
  • That there is a difference between long term success and short term flash.
  • That there is a complex connection between social and technological trends. It is virtually impossible to unravel except by hindsight.
  • You ask yourself what you want and then you work backwards.
  • That organizations are really systems of cooperative activities and their coordination requires something intangible and personal that is largely a matter of relationships.
  • That in order to problem solve and observe, you ought to know how to:
    • Analyze, Probe, Question, Hypothesize, Synthesize, Select, Measure, Communicate, Imagine, Initiate, Reason, Create, Recognize patterns, Connect, [Be] driven by curiosity

 What I hope for you:

  • That you combine that edgy mixture of self-confidence and doubt.
    • Enough self-confidence to try new things.
    • Enough self doubt to question.
  • That you create opportunities to improvise.
  • That you make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.
  • That you communicate emotion.
  • That you create images that might take writer ten pages to write.
  • That you play, observe, imagine and create.
  • That you look for the question, not the solution.
  • That you are not seduced by speed and power.
  • That you don’t see the world as a market, but rather a place that people live in- you are designing for people- not machines.
  • That you have a stake in magic and mystery and art. Sometimes we fall back on Rousseau and separate mind from body.
  • That you understand the value of pictures, words, and critical thinking.
  • That poetry drives you, not hardware.
  • That you are willing to risk, make mistakes, and learn from failure.
  • That you develop a practice founded in critical reflection.
  • That you build a bridge between theory and practice.
  • That you value serendipity.
  • That you reinvent and re-imagine.
  • That you listen.
  • That you ask questions.
  • That you speculate and experiment.
  • That you play.
  • That you are spontaneous.
  • That you remember to collaborate.
  • That each day is magic for you.
  • That you turn your thinking upside down.
  • That you make whole pieces out of disparate parts.
  • That you find what makes the difference.
  • That your curiosity knows no bounds.
  • That you understand what looks easy is hard.
  • That you imagine and re-imagine.
  • That you develop a moral compass.
  • That you welcome loners, cellists, and poets.
  • That you are flexible.
  • That you are open.
  • That you can laugh at yourself.
  • That you are kind.
  • That you consider why natural phenomena seduce us.
  • That you engage and have a wonderful time. This will be 2 years for you to expand- take advantage of it.

“Why does a man need to tell stories to others and himself? It is a way by which the mind uses fantasy to structure the chaos of the original experience. Complex and unpredictable, the vivid experience always lacks what fiction can provide: a closed time, a hierarchy of events, the value of people, effects and causes, the connections under the actions.”

The True Lies – Mario Vargas Llosa

Goldie “Red” Burns  April 9, 1925 – August 23, 2013

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