What George Bernard Shaw said about circumstances and how it connects to ‘N’

16 people x 16 cities.
PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS BLAMING their circumstances for what they are, said George Bernard Shaw. “I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the ones who get up and look for the circumstances they want and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Sixteen of us are making ‘N’ Phnom Penh happen. (See 16N). For real. A theater, of sorts, a collage of ideas. The theme is ‘Normality,’ the agenda’s being writ. Intentional. Specific. On its way.

‘N’ Phnom Penh, the kickoff in a series of 16 to come in cities around the world (preferably with one N in them, 2 Ns is better), is a week away now. I’m lucky so many are showing up to vote on days based on having already committed to ticket-getting. Some of them, I haven’t even met.

Just sixteen people, though. Sixteen is the magic number for high quality conversation spacemaking, I learned from Origin, Beauty and BKK SELF. I’ve made a promise to my guests–that there will be 16 of us, that there will be high quality conversation, that there will be designed moments for connections. Now, I have to just get things in a line, and press the button, and you know what? The people… who come, who trust DK to hold the space and to make the thing that is the thing. The people! ‘N’ Phnom Penh guests. We haven’t even gotten started yet, but I already know. They’re really where the magic happens. And now, I’m fully committing. To my guests, for N Phnom Penh and ‘N’ elsewhere. I’m gonna show up, really show up, for ‘N,’ for all of you. Which is exactly why there are so few ways to join (invite only) and why there are only 16 invited. Funneling attention, closing some channels, clearing the riffraff. For only one end goal: designed moments of true connection. In other words, high-quality.

IT ISN’T SO EASY TO LOOK AT A THING AND CRITIQUE IT WHEN, upon deep inspection, you see, *gulp*, your own reflection.

The thing I was critiquing was the Culture of Maybe. Of how, when you really stopped to think about it, people were going all crazy about saying they were gonna do something and then totally not doing it. I would go all high ground and say, “Well, there’s this thing. It’s integrity. In business, in all functional relationships, you have to show up for the thing you say you will! It’s… trust!” Yes, I complained. A lot. I had an autoresponder on my email for a while that an old friend said was “a disconnect” and “obnoxious.” I mean, really, it’s okay to be obnoxious and stuff, but when you’re writing people about how you feel like no one’s really connecting and talking deeply and then the next thing is they get an autorespodner from you saying, “I don’t care about your ‘sorry for the late reply’,” well, it um, grated on some people. I can see why. I wasn’t clear. And I certainly wasn’t doing the work to show up for others, either. Meaning, not just in a passing way, but in a real, focused, and intentional way. But you know what? There was a reason for that. I’d become, in a word, flooded.

The culture of maybe and the reality of overwhelm

BACK IN THE 1990s that I love to go on and on about to with the young people who are on their devices not-making appointments and not-making real life conversations, well, we just didn’t have that many options. We didn’t have things like ways to stay connected with people we’d met on foreign travels or even a state away for summer camp. Besides letters and the old telephone, which meant you had to call someone’s parents and they had this big awareness that you were doing that and it was really hard, a big deal, because it meant something.

Calling. Writing.

That was HUGE. Well, maybe it’s because we were teens ourselves back then, some of us, I mean, those of us I talk to about this the most, I mean. And we just didn’t have other ways to talk, meet, and exchange little bits of “Hey, I think I wanna talk to you some more.” Now it’s like, “What’s your preferred social media?” And people like me, people who used to call and write, well, we kind of think it over and sometimes shift and that’s howcome I’ve been wishy washy about this. Deleting whole accounts and thinking that would help me focus on the quality conversations. But you know what it really did? It made me think, “This is stupid.”

I mean, why do I have so many loose ties, and so very few quality ones, anyway, in the first place? I got all crazy about the importance of relationships, and started reading a ton about these things in various places, and even wrote my whole ramble about it at DK’s profile on LinkedIn. LinkedIn was trying, wasn’t it, back in the day? But what happened? LI claims, claims!, “Relationships matter,” but when you’re on it, you sure don’t feel like LI cares about you.

Waking up and switching stuff off, to focus

SO WHAT TO DO. There’s just too many ways of meeting people now, and even more ways of connecting with them. Staying connected isn’t the problem. The problem is CURATING the connections you REALLY want to have. Where, over time, and with intention and specificity, (see? This is a design problem!), you can engineer high quality exchange.

That, at least, is the theory.

‘N’ is already teaching me things. And more important, the people I am meeting by chance and circumstance here in Phnom Penh, are teaching me things, too. (Thanks for that, PP.) —DK

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What’s normal? by ‘N’ Phnom Penh

NORMALITY. A quality that can only exist in reference to other things – the past, other people, abstracted rules. A quality of the self-conscious ‘I’ rather than the present ‘I.’ As a substitute for balance, it’s a quality forever at war with itself.

Editor’s note: Guests of ‘N’ in Phnom Penh authored this essay, together. Read more about the project 16N here.

IN 2015, GIRLS WEAR PANTS, suits, have pixie hair, tattoos and even chase men. These are now normal.

Other normal situations are validated only when backed up by science, like what is a normal blood pressure? The rest are subjective. As Morticia Adams quoted: “Normal is an illusion.”

But… is it? Normal is something that has already been done, many times. The more something has been done, the more normal it is. Actually, there’s more. Way.

THE NORMAL DISTRIBUTION CURVE IS A GRAPH which shows the spread of random variables, or behaviours, in a population. It centres around the mean, or average, which is the sum of all expected behaviours divided by the population. 99.7% of all values are within 3 standard deviations of the mean. Like this:

Normal Distribution Curve
Normal Distribution Curve

When very recently I met with and tried to explain this concept of “normal” to DK, it was, um, funny. She didn’t quite know what I meant.

She had, I think, her own idea about ‘N.’ She said: “You mean, like the normal vector? Like, 90 perpendicular to the horizontal? And then when 16 voices converge, wham, on a plane, like this, see this animation? Yeah, like that, so when wham, that happens, that MOMENT, that’s when, whoo, you go UP, into SPACE, like 3D, like up the vertical that is the “NORMAL” vector!!! OMG!!!!”

Not quite, DK, but, that’s cool.

Then I thought, Morissey.


MORISSEY SANG ‘there is no such thing as normal’; a statement I believe and find comforting, in that I repeat it frequently whenever the need arises.

However, in recent years I have become more aware that a CONSTRUCT of normality exists, and if you don’t neatly fit into this, then prepare for questions!

‘We don’t have to agree’

NORMALITY IS WHAT YOUR ENVIRONMENT expected you to do or think, the referent environment mostly has referent expectation. With that in mind, here’s a thought.

We don’t have to 100% agree to someone, as long as we can find a common ground that’s acceptable to both sides. You get yourself an agreement. They said it right when they said: “Better communication skills will get a better outcome.”

May I be frank? Okay, these are my random innermost thoughts. Ready? I’ve never met a person who feels normal. Abnormal is normal. Normal for who? Dehumanizing in any culture is not normal. I don’t want a normal job or relationship. Describe life as vibrant, sticky, juicy, challenging, fluffy… my ideas about normality are negative. Is that my “normal” thinking pattern? Hm. Now I’m wondering.

Maybe it’s this, though. Normal is when we can live simply. Read books whenever we want to without being tested on. Paint because we want to, not because we’ve got something to prove. Enjoy the moment with no place to rush off to. We just want to be, boundless and infinite… Or? I’m still thinking…


P.S. Some other things that came up after the event last Sunday, as I’ve been ruminating. Normality. Like the rest. Falling within a deviation determined by cultural narratives, science and, most importantly, perception. Normal shifts based on country, decade, household… Constantly changing, ever imperfect. It is those ideas and people outside the spectrum – that are abnormal – that are often responsible for greatness.

And this one: Normality. A quality that can only exist in reference to other things – the past, other people, abstracted rules. A quality of the self-conscious ‘I’ rather than the present ‘I.’ As a substitute for balance, it’s a quality forever at war with itself.

What do you think? What’s normal? Why do we think so?

Jai Ranganathan: ‘Sharpen and heighten’

OFFLINE CONVERSATIONS lately are turning to the process itself, and, to take it further, discoveries that happen on the way to ‘making.’ Maybe it’s in the air? Looking back on what creative people have told me about this work of making, I recalled something I learned from science podcaster Jai Ranganathan. (Find him on twitter at @jranganathan.) We had met at a science conference in NC’s Research Triangle Park. That was the kind of place where bunches of people convened to share tips on making science interesting to a general audience, more or less, and I discovered Jai was set to instruct scientists at University of California Santa Barbara on how to use social media.

Conversations about sharing discoveries inspired this interview with Jai Ranganathan.

DK: What do you need to think about when opening a wide-open project like a podcast? That’s a pretty big blank canvas.

JR: First, define your purpose. Then, what’s your scope? Do you want to be a local brand? Have a national audience? If you want a large audience, people really go for video.

DK: OK. So if you know your purpose, then what? Any tips?

JR: Sure.

  1. Think about where can you add value. Ask businesses, ‘What’s a problem you have?,’ and then share, ‘Here’s how we might solve it.’
  2. Give your product away so people want to know more.
  3. You can do latest tips. Interviews. You could have seminars.
  4. Just get started. Do it frequently. Keep it short—2 minutes.

DK: Wait, so you just have to be prolific?

JR: You don’t have to be flashy, or always funny, or the best-looking. But you have to be compelling in your voice. Be engaged, animated, and interesting.

DK: But what about talent?

JR: Talent is overrated. You have to be interesting/entertaining first, or else it doesn’t matter what you have to say!

DK: How do you do that?

JR: Boring podcasts are that way because people are checking boxes off a how-to list, as opposed to doing something that’s really them. Anything creative like this—podcasting, video, or writing—is about deciding what you want to say, and what’s your way of saying it. How to make that your own is key.

DK: How did you get into this?

JR: I was doing my postdoc in conservation biology. If you’re not a scientist, your job is to write papers. I was disenchanted after a while. How likely was it that what I wrote would lead to action? So as a hobby, I started interviewing scientists. I’ve always really liked radio. Someone found me and offered to pay me to do this, so now I have $2,000 broadcast-quality equipment and I make a good living. But, I had hoped more people would listen.

DK: What can others learn?

JR: It takes a while to figure out what you’re doing and why the heck you’re doing it. Don’t make it too scripted. You can have a script, but don’t read it. Imagine somebody giving a talk and reading a script–it’s death! And you know, you have to like doing it. And keep doing it, that’s key. Don’t wait to get good. No one sprouts out of the earth fully formed.

First published in S P A C E