Personal Powers of Ten

Unpacking the relative size of my thoughts in words

Image from the film, Powers of Ten, zooming out of Chicago.

My favourite short film is Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. I like it because it is about seeing life in scale. While simple, it captures how we are the sum of many small parts, while at the same time small parts in a much larger universe. It always inspires me to see things differently.

The following reflection is a creative thought experiment that mimics the general concept of Powers of Ten by exploring the relative size of my own thoughts in increasingly larger scales (zoom out levels) and then decreasingly smaller scales (zoom in levels).

Here we go!

Zoom Out Level: 0

Me just sitting here

I‘m sitting here in front of my Mac laptop unsure of where my thoughts will lead me. This is a weird idea but I will just keep going with it because I’m curious to see where my free flowing thoughts will take me.


Zoom Out Level: 1

The context I’m in

I look around at the space I’m in right now, which is at my parent’s apartment. Every time I visit I play a song on their electric piano in the corner of the living room. It’s always Yellow by Coldplay because I have it partially memorized. I like to sing out loud (especially when no one is around) and wonder why I retreat to the same routines depending on the context I find myself in.


Zoom Out Level: 2

How I arrived here

Thinking outward another layer, my mind shifts to how I physically arrived here today through a mix of walking, subway, and bus ride. The total commute time was about an hour long. I’m a pretty good navigator and I like maps so my interest in the city and its road network is strong. I try to memorize the smaller side streets and challenge myself to find routes without using a GPS. I remember the days of my masters studying the way people move from an origin to destination. My colleagues created computer models to simulate these movements as “trips” in order to understand the collective patterns of people as they move across cities. The application? By understanding how people move, we can be more strategic about the way we plan and build supporting infrastructure.


Zoom Out Level: 3

My interactions with others

The next scale up looks at my daily interactions with others. Each day is somewhat routine but added together I start to build a picture of my weeks over time. For instance, at home I often talk to my housemate about daily goals and challenges I’m facing. I also reflect a lot by jotting down thoughts as much as possible. At work I am part of a few different team dynamics, one being a design team of creatives with a mission to solve user challenges through design. I’m also part of a “pod” comprised of a product manager, developers, and quality engineers who work towards the advancement of a machine learning product. As a runner, I regularly interact with other runners in a group. We meet every Wednesday for a workout run and then on Sundays for a long run ranging from 21–30k. What I enjoy most is being able to socialize while doing something that can be mentally long and repetitive. Finally, I’m part of a small community church in a mixed socio-economic pocket of East York Toronto that focuses on the physical, social, and spiritual needs of others. My interactions there have challenged me to open my heart to people who face trials of being stuck in vicious systemic cycles. There is always more that can be done but systems are hard to change. One thing I’m learning is that it starts by being open, willing to listen, and physically present. It is okay to be constantly broken by the brokenness of others and then lifted at the same time by the love and ‘wins’ as they come. It is a journey I am learning more about each day, each week, each year.


Zoom Out Level: 4

Sharing knowledge

From interactions I move to the idea of sharing back. This for me comes in the form of sharing more original thought and teaching. Recently I have been immersed in planning a course on ‘systems thinking’ at the local design school. Many evenings have been spent conceptually forming ideas to wrap my head around what systems thinking means and how it can be applied in practical ways by designers. What educational value can I offer that prepares students for the real world? Designers are practitioners who think by making and, in the process of making, they add value to the world. Yet systems thinking is quite conceptual and difficult to make tangible. I could discuss this for hours as I’ve become quite passionate about the topic but what comes to mind are a few reasons why designers in particular might care about systems thinking. One compelling reason is because there is no worse feeling than spending your time figuring out the best solution to the wrong problem. Systems thinking provides some tools to help discover appropriate problems for designers to tackle. Another reason is that the role of design has been increasingly shifting scales from artifacts to whole systems. In a way we cannot afford to NOT think in systems. But I’ll pause here and return to the original point on teaching. Sharing knowledge is important because, as my professor used to always say, “knowledge is power” (quite literally as he wrote a book called Knowledge Power).


Zoom Out Level: 5

Interconnections that matter

Thoughts on relationships are bundled together next in my mind. This represents the idea of networks to me because of all the visible and invisible connections that bring people together. Call it Facebook if you will but to me it’s more about focusing on real human interactions as opposed to news feeds. This year I challenged myself to be more real with people in my life. I started this personal magazine called the “Mighty Hok Chronicles” where I share random bite-sized updates about my own experiences as mundane as they may be. My goal is not to be reporting only good things but a realistic picture of life that people can relate to. If it inspires just one friend to share their own genuine story with others then that is the kind of personal, relational impact I would like to foster over time. We all have up and down moments. I really care about genuine friendships and seek deeper conversations with anyone interested in sharing back.


Zoom Out Level: 6

Discovering clear lines of sight

The final layer going outward is on gaining a line of sight that tells the story of who I am. One question in particular I have been exploring recently is beliefs (or lack thereof) and how it plays a role in ones’ heritage. Where my mind is going with this is how I adopt a set of histories based on my views even if I don’t know or understand all the details. For example, as a Christian, there is a lot of pre-tense about me based on what I supposedly believe, including every good and bad thing that has ever happened ‘in the name of God’. You can pick any event in history (take the crusades, a dark time of war in the name of religion) and in some distant way I inherit that story even though I have no personal connection to it. The older I grow the more I see that my heritage runs deep beyond the colour of my skin or the nationality stamped on my passport. Perhaps my citizenship of life is more like a complex network of points made more clear over the course of my lifetime (with many points remaining invisible). In this network analogy, the past and future all appear as dots blinking on and off like switches as I begin to make connections. Bringing this all back to ground level zero, I see my life like this: I’m sitting on my favourite spot in the car (the middle back seat!) with a line of sight ahead as well as both ways beside me. I’m not in control of where I’m going and I can’t see too far ahead, but I’m along for the ride and constantly trying to gain a wider perspective so that I can make sense of what’s really going on.


I pause now and go back to where I started, just sitting here. I shift my thoughts in the other direction and let my mind wander inwards to express more personal ideas related to me and what gives me meaning.


Zoom In Level: -1

Curiosity

Now I’m watching Le Petit Prince with my parents on Netflix, though they have slowly wandered off to do other things. I picked this movie because I remember watching it with them and extended family members last time I visited Hong Kong. My grandfather (on my dads side) likes movies and we all went to watch this one together at the theatre. It’s a thing he enjoys and something my dad likes to do too. I also like this movie because it is about rediscovering your childhood, one of my favourite themes. Maybe that’s why I see my job as a designer as getting to help unlock the childhood imagination of others who have seemingly lost it. I smile to myself hearing this: “Grow-ups are certainly very very odd” and I think about a colleague at work who often walks by my desk and says, “you designers, you’re always having so much fun”. Well, that’s because we give ourselves permission to be kids again.


Zoom In Level: -2

Loss and hope

“To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…” In the movie the little prince makes friends with a rose but then stumbles upon a bed of roses and realizes that there are so many other roses in the world. He can’t comprehend how they can all be special. His little fox friend tells him that it is the time spent with his rose that makes it unique even though there are plenty of others like it. Only one is so special. But the little prince eventually losses his rose. I had forgotten about this movie until now but as I’m watching it the timing is just right as I have experienced some loss lately. There is this a parallel story in the movie about a girl living in the ‘real world’ who enters the little prince story to help him find his special rose. She crosses invisible barriers and imagines the world as it could be in order to solve the mystery. They go on an adventure to find the rose and discover that it was lost but never gone. A hopeful resolve and reminder, whew!, “She was not a common rose, she was the only one of her kind in whole world”.


Zoom In Level: -3

Memory lane and thoughts of legacy

I paused the movie for a bit to go for a run before the sun set. I ran through the neighbourhood where I grew up and noticed how things have and have not changed. I noticed a few new housing developments but all in all the old plazas, skateboard parks, and side streets were familiar. I thought about how I too have changed and also remained the same. I’m still the same oddball, dreamer, sportster, excitable, cautious, thoughtful, creative, diplomatic, and quietly confident old soul. Will my legacy be the things I accomplish in my life, my so called ‘plans’, or simply this collection of characteristics? The answer is unclear but as I think about a talk by Dr. Randy Pausch — his last lecture on ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’, he touches on so many important notes of life to end on a final sound. He introduces a head fake because none of it was for the audience or about his life goals. It was a very personal final message for his kids.


Zoom In Level: -4

Showing love

Peeling off another layer, I’m reminded that my grandmother is my secret hero and one of the first people who showed love to me. Growing up I’d cuddle up with her on the couch after dinner as she watched TV. I sat there even though I didn’t care much for the TV because I enjoyed her warm presence. Sometimes I would pinch her nose and she would respond with a “meow”. My grandmother didn’t have an education but my dad used to say that she would have made a great businesswoman because she had the creativity and mindset. The family business was in watches and she played a role in shaping that. Nowadays my grandmother lives in Hong Kong and it’s harder to communicate with her because of language barriers. However, thoughts of her remind me of the different ways we can show love to others. I realize that my best way of showing love is through making. It’s the designer in me who appreciates the tactility of objects. I take time to make things for people and create activities and stories around objects in order to give meaning. It’s not always conventional but I really enjoy the process. This March I’ll go to Hong Kong and finally visit my grandmother after many years. She is older now and I know that she will look a little more frail and weak with every visit. Still, we can sit side by side not worrying about finding the right words to say and it’ll be like time has not passed.


Zoom In Level: -5

DNA

Now I come to the question of what makes me materialize as, well, me. The DNA that codes who I am. How much do I really know about my own details? What do I wish I could change? Fleeting are my memories of science class studying cells, the formation of DNA and recombinant DNA…but there is this one characteristic about myself that I like to joke around about—my hair. I am asian with thick, nappy, wavy/curly hair. I don’t think it runs in my family...? I go to the obvious source (Reddit, ha!) and on the topic of asian straight hair traits I learn that it is in order to match our straight A math grades ;) Growing up I admit that I tried to change my code by getting my hair permanently straightened. I couldn’t change the code sequence but I could try to hack it on the outside using toxic chemicals. I chuckle now because now I like my natural hair a lot. Indeed, I am curious about how future generations will be questioning their own DNA codes in completely new ways. For example, I have worked on a couple of projects in the space of immunotherapy that investigate more personalized paradigms of cancer treatment. The implication is quite ground breaking because it means that the standard of treatment in health care may shift to being dependant on each individual’s unique DNA. In other words, the best treatment for me might be different than for you even if we have the same disease.


Zoom In Level: -6

Consciousness

I end the most inner layer of this thought process on the topic of consciousness because it seems like the limit of my own understanding of myself. I am also currently listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast on The Nature of Consciousness with Thomas Metzinger (#96). It is quite interesting and also mind-boggling at the same time. They discuss our awareness of our surroundings…If we can’t understand our own consciousness then how much does it matter to us what is the sequencing of our own DNA? How do we define what is meaningful? How much of our human existence hinges on being able to actually grasp the paradoxes of who we are? I only have an abundance of open questions on this topic though and here lies the limit of my current understanding of consciousness.


After scaling out and then scaling in to various aspects of my life, I don’t know if there is a point to any of this. What I have learned is that I am a non-linear thinker who keeps trying to apply linear frameworks of thinking in order help me organize my thoughts. I have a preference for frameworks that are open-ended and give me room to think in a free form way. I enjoyed this little exercise and I like that a simple film created 50 years ago can still have as much relevance today as it did back then.

Meow!