loren Eric Swanson: December 2007

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Externally Focused 2.0

This past week Sam Williams and I were in Atlanta meeting with some of the leadership folks from Perimeter Church. One of the things we've talked about is the evolution of externally focused ministry is the change from the pastor trying to mobilize the church to engage the community to the church leading the community in helping to change the world. The two enduring institutions of any community are churches and schools (businesses last on average a mere 30 years) so the leadership for enduring change lies in one of those two institutions. Schools, by nature, most often, do not have the political will nor consistent leadership to change communitites. The church, however, often can be that instrument.

Last month, Sam's church, Flatirons Church in Lafayette Colorado, pooled its resources, and brought a team to Afghanistan to dig a freshwater well ($60K) and brought 600 winter coats and blankets for displaced peoples of Afghanistan. As a church they are making a long term commitment to these people. A special offering brought in nearly $275k. But community transformation is more expensive than that. Having a kingdom mindset, however allows churches to lead the community in engaging the world. What if the church became the leaders for social change, not just here in the states but overseas? What if the church was the catalyst for leading its communities in partnering with an underresourced community in a developing country? The church could partner with churches but could help find schools to partner with schools, providing shoes and school supplies. Businesses could help businesses, etc. Most folks want to make a sustainable difference in the world and they often need just to be part of bigger plan and to be asked.

I write this today because I read today that a teenage girl single-handedly raised the money for a school in Cambodia (see story below). There is a lot of untapped energy to do good but most are waiting simply to be asked or led.
Associated Press: updated 5:37 a.m. MT, Wed., Dec. 26, 2007

U.S. teen brings new school to rural Cambodia
Student raised $52,000 after reading about hardships of country's youth
BANTEAY SREY, Cambodia - Hundreds of Cambodian villagers welcomed the arrival of a new school Wednesday, a gift from an American teenager who raised $52,000 after reading about the hardships of growing up in Cambodia.
Rachel Rosenfeld, 17, made her first visit to the Southeast Asian country for the opening of the R.S. Rosenfeld School, which brings five computers and Internet access to 300 primary school students in a small village of Siem Reap province, a poverty stricken area that is home to the country's famed Angkor Wat temple complex.
Rosenfeld, of Harrison, New York, said she learned about the village of Srah Khvav after reading a newspaper article last year that discussed the plight of poor Cambodian children who often have no access to education. The American said she was horrified to learn that some young Cambodian girls end up being sold into prostitution by their parents.
The teen said she set out to help after spending most of last year battling a stomach disorder that caused her constant pain. She required months of medical treatment that forced her to miss a year of school.
To raise money, Rosenfeld sent out hundreds of fundraising letters, sold T-shirts and offered naming rights for several structures in the school, a statement said. The $52,000 she raised was supplemented by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which contributed $10,000 and $13,000, respectively, said her mother, Lisa Rosenfeld.
"It makes me feel great to know that I was able to help so many people," the teen said when contacted by telephone. "Just seeing everyone so happy (today). It meant a lot to me."
She was accompanied by her parents, grandparents and her brother and sister.
Children in white shirts and navy pants, the Cambodian school uniform, stood in two neat lines and clapped as Rosenfeld and her family arrived. The students pressed their palms together in a sign of respect and thanks.
"Going to school is very important to everyone's future," Rosenfeld said at the opening ceremony, according to a statement. "If I can build this school, then each of you can set goals for yourselves that you can reach."
"Aim very high, and you'll be surprised what you can achieve," she said.
Ung Serei Dy, an education official from Siem Reap province, said the school was only one of two in the village.
"The school donated by Rachel Rosenfeld is very important to us," he said, adding that she had "set a standard that all of us should learn from."

Colorado Christmas

We had a wonderful Christmas. Ashlie, Jeff’s wife, graduated from University of Colorado on Thursday. We’re all so proud of her. Jeff will do the same in May. Jeff and I inaugurated the season by making swedish potato sausage on the 23rd. On Christmas eve, after church we had our Open House. We fixed a 20 lb, honey-glazed ham, sausage and meatballs. Our guests filled the rest of the table with cookies, chips and desserts. This is one of our favorite things that we do all year.

On Christmas morning we woke to snow falling...actually quite a rarity in Colorado--to have new snow on Christmas day. Liz and I drove up to Longmont to watch our grandson Gentry open his presentsThis is the first Christmas where he understands the concept of opening presents and he loves to open his own and everyone else’s presents. I think his favorite present was his "helmet" a Winnie the Pooh came in.We went over to the Lambs for Don Wilcox's Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, something we have done for many years, and then back to our house for presents with the family and George and Harold. Of course Harold really liked the Christmas dinner scene in "Christmas Story." It was really fun day.

Kacey made short ribs and I threw a prime rib on the grill and made some bean soup with the left over ham bones, Liz made the side dishes and we had a very nice Christmas dinner. Afterwards we played Texas Holdem for a couple of hours (all winnings going to Save Darfur)using a really nice chip set Jeff gave me for Christmas. We called Andy and Natalie in Asia, and using Web cams were able to see each other while we were talking on Skype—so the call was free. This is great technology.
We come to the end of 2007 feeling very grateful for where we are in our lives, aware of God's blessings on each of us. We are in his hand.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Creativity and Constraint

Have you ever tried to be creative? Have you ever taken out a sheet of white paper and said to yourself things like, "OK now think! Blank slate...Blue Sky...Blue Ocean (if you 've read the book) out of the box.....hmmmmm. Well, first I should have a good cup of Starbucks to help me think. Afterall, there has never been any Great Awakening without a good strong cup of coffee. Now where did I put my car keys?"

Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Made to Stick, recently published an interesting article entitled, "Get Back in the Box: How constraints can free your teams' thinking" in Fast Company (December 2007 / January 2008) p. 74. (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/121/get-back-in-the-box.html). The thesis of the article is we actually become more creative when we create constraints in which to be creative. So, trying to create a bank's lobby that is "hipper and more inviting to young professional customers" far less effective than starting with some constraints--"We want the space to be more lie a Starbucks and less like a post office."

It is the same with comedy and improvisation. ""Improv actors are taught to be specific," Sawyer says. "Rather than say, 'Look out, it's a gun!' you should say, 'Look out, it's the new ZX-23 laser kill device!' Instead of asking, 'What's your problem?' say, 'Don't tell me you're still pissed off about that time I dropped your necklace in the toilet.'" The paradox is that while specificity narrows the number of paths that the improv could take, it makes it easier for the other actors to come up with the next riff."

The authors go on to write about Starbuck's founder, Howard Schultz: "Founder Howard Schultz famously fell in love with the concept of the "third place," a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe meeting places other than home or the office. The third place, the focus of Oldenburg's book The Great Good Place, is an outside-the-box kind of term. It says, "think about something other than home or work." But it lacks specificity, which dulls its usefulness as a creative stimulus. Fortunately, the subtitle of Oldenburg's book fills the gap: "Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day." Pick any one of those and combine them with our starting point--the redesign of the bank. Could you envision a bank that feels more like a coffee shop? More like a beauty parlor? A bar? Some of these are terrible business ideas, but the stimulus is effective. Your mind is off to the races."

Creativity can only come with constraints: How does Moses get more rest and more time off yet pray for Israel to multiply a thousand times (Deuteronomy 1)? How do you feed 5000 people with only 2 fish and five loaves of bread?

Understanding constraints in this fashion fits in to what Sam and I picked up at McKee's Story Seminar. Good stories are built on the question, "What would happen if.....?" What would happen if a shark ate a swimmer at the beginning of tourist season in a beach resort town?

Thinking in this manner allows us to think differently. "What would happen if everyone in our church began loving and serving someone (outside of current friends and family) who could do nothing for them in return.?" "What would happen if everyone in our church had an across the street, across the tracks or accross the seas missional esperience this year?" You can see where this is leading. We need to think of specific constraints to clearly think about possible real outcomes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"The Secret of Raising Smart Kids"

Read an interesting article on the plane coming back from Atlanta last night on raising kids that was counterintuitive but I think it was very insightful. The article is the culmination of a 30-year study by Carol S. Dweck, published in Scientific American Mind, December 2007. The article begins this way:
"A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost thier son's confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan. Schoolwork, thier son maintained, was boring and pointless.
"Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability--along with confidence in that ability--is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings."

How many times have we seen this scenario played out? People with great abilities and talent that don't ever come close to living up to their potential. The key learnings from the study include the following:
1. Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent--and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed--leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
2. Teaching people to have a "growth mind-set," which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.
3. Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.

The study goes on to say, "As we had predicted, the students with the growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to wrok hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.
"The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well."

So how should we encourage kids? Dweck suggests we should tell stories of achievements that result from hard work. "Although many, if not most, parents believe they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and tallented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided." In a 1998 study she writes, "After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: 'Wow...that's a really good score. You must be smart at this.' We commended others for their effort: 'Wow...that's a really good score. You must have worked really hard.'
"We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment--they wanted an easy one instead--far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn. When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability and their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and thier performance imprved markedly on the easier problems that followed."

That's pretty amazing, but something we've all seen. We think positive praise for innate ability or talent ("You're so smart...such a great natural athelete, so pretty / handsome) will breed confidence but instead it is the breeding ground for self-doubt.

If you want to read more, the full article is posted on http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-secret-to-raising-smart-kids

Monday, December 10, 2007

Story Seminar--Days 2 & 3

Sam and I finished McKee's 30 hour seminar two hours before quitting time (8:30 pm last night) in order to catch a plane to LAX. The last three days were incredible! McKee taught non-stop from 9am in the morning until 8:30 each evening for the past three days. There were three 15 minute breaks and one 60 minute break for lunch. Without PowerPoint he taught a semester class, which he developed over 20 years ago, while teaching at the film school at USC, over a 3 day period. We from 3pm yesterday we did a scene by scene analysis of what McKee thinks is the finest film of all time....Casa Blanca. 80 students barely moved the entire time.

Sam had an epiphenal moment where he realized that all the things McKee was teaching were really insightful in developing his "sermon as story." The goal is not to weave creative stories into the sermon but from beginning to end, develop the sermon as one would tell a story. McKee drops little insightful gems along the way--like the connection between "author," "authority," and "authenticity."
Author--is to originate. After the author, all else is interpretive art work.
Authority--comes from research on your subject / topic. Audience will feel they are in the hands of an authority.
Authenticity--Developing an interally consistent world one can believe in. The audience must empathize with the protagonist and authenticity is the key. Authenticity has nothing to do with reality.

McKee says that people who say, "I don't want to see a down-ending film because I have enough of that in my own life" are liars. The people that enjoy down-ending films are people who have suffered because such movies reassure them they are not alone in their suffering...they are not being singled out. Haloucaust survivors go to such movies.

McKee talkes about the "inciting incident" that upsets the balance of the progagonist's life that best the question, "How will this turn out?" This causes every person in the audience to create the coming "obligatory scene" that must happen in order to bring resolution to the inciting incident.

Progression in a movie is satisfying when the protagonist makes choices that reveal character. This is called a turning point that leads to a "rush of insight" by the audiience. In movies the choice is never between good and evil but the better good or the lesser of two evils. A love story, for instance, always must include a third person that will come in the way of love, or there is no love story.

Drama is written to the emotion. Comedy appeals to the intellect. Drama admires the human species. Comedy understands that under the best of circumstances, people will find a way to screw up. "You know a society is in trouble when it cannot laugh." (e.g. Iran) The one test of comedy...do people laugh?

An artist can repeat what he /she does with success...they ave access to thier talent whether they feel like it or not. An artist is not someone who got it right once. They have control over the art form.

One huge insight...and something McKee insists on, is that every text has a subtext. The subtext is what is going on behind the words.

A "classic" in any art is something you can return to and receive pleasure. I have attached a clip I took of McKee teaching.

If you want to see a short interview with McKee, click on this link.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Story Seminar Day 1

Great day 1 at Robert McKee's Story seminar. McKee's class is no-nonsense. In the first few minutes he lays the groundrules for the weekend--We will meet 9am until 8:30 Friday through Sunday. There are 3 fifteen minute breaks and 60 minutes for lunch. McKee starts promptly and does not accept people being tardy. Anyone with a pager or cell phone that goes off is immediately fined $10. A second offense means expulsion from the class. These are the kind of rules one can make if one is so successful and prominent that people bend personal freedoms to get what they really want...to be master of the good story--well told. Amazingly no one checks Blackberrys or phones. Twice, McKee stopped the class to ask people to stop talking. I took too many notes to record them all here but McKee surprises all of us with his passion for excellence in story telling. I'll put a few pertinent quotes here to think about.

Writing a great story is why God put you on this earth.

There is a dearth of good story telling today. Theatre is a museum...a tribute to great writing of the past. Hollywood produces 500 movies a year and I have a hard time figuring out how they will come up with 5 nominees for best picture. When I was growing up I'd see a couple dozen films where i'd walk out of the theatre saying, "Wow, what a story!" How many times do you do that. There are just not that many of them. The art form has eroded but the world is still hungry for a great story. If you come up with a great story it is a writers market.

The goal is a good story...well told. A good story is a story worth telling. It begins with insight that you understand that others don't. You can see through the surface--a fresh vision of life...a hidden truth. Now bring knowledge to this vision--god-like knowledge of the character, history, and world. To bring knowledge you must do research. The difference between a writer and an author is research.To this add passion for perfection, a hatred of mediocrity that drives your work. You must have taste--hating the bad and loving the good and having the ability to recognize quality--loving beauty and hating ugliness.

Amateurs love everything they write. Professionals hate everything they write . They have high standards that they never meausure up to so they eventually settle for the best they can do. Nobody loves to write. If you are not scared to write, you don't know what you are doing. No one loves to write. You write because you have to.

Besides vision, knowledge and passion for perfection you must have talent. Talent is the ability to connect two things that exist that no one has previously connected. This is the new! Creativity is creating from what you already know. "The fog rolled in on little cat feet." Fog and cat feet existed but no one put them together before. Knowledge is essential to sustain talent.

"The unlived life is not worth examining." McKee

Verisimilitude (life-like life) = truth. Writing with verisimilitude is a mistake writers make. Story is a metaphor for life. Facts are not the truth of life. Facts are neutral. Fact: Homelessness. Truth: 1) people are homeless because of bad choices. 2) people are homeless because society is heartless. e.g. Some people will always be on the margins because they can't cope with life. 1% of world's population is schizophrenic. Facts have no meaning until someone finds truth in the hows and whys.

What is the profound value of my story? The story climax tells you the meaning. When it comes from the best of you the ending will shock even you.

Once the story has an ending...everything is written then send it out into the world. You have the responsibility to tell the truth. Ask yourself, Do I believe that? If you do, do everything you can to get it to the world. If you do not....delete it.

McKee laments that romance is dead. "The only people you see walking around holding hands are the elderly and gays." Couples don't fall in love any more. They simply become "friends who ______" "______ing buddies!" But the desire for romance is fully alive. Romance novels would top the NY Times best seller list so they are not listed there. Titanic took off (it was a dreadful movie) because it apealed to 14 year old girls!

How characters act under pressure reveals character. the mask of characterization is stripped away and character is revealed. the tougher the choice, the more clearly defined the character.

Well, I see now that every note I took is good but I am just getting started.

Act design: the great sweep and body of story
The first major story event (the inciting incident)
Scene design in Story: turning points, emotional dynamics, setup/payoff, the nature of choice
Ordering and linking scenes
Exposition: dramatizing your characters, the story setting, creating back story
The principles of antagonism
Crisis, climax and resolution

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Robert McKee's Story Seminar

A few months ago I read a very influential book called Story, by screenwriter Robert McKee. I entered my notes on my August 28th. Really good stuff. This weekend, Friday through Sunday, Sam Williams and I will be attending McKee's Seminar. On the plane flying out here I watched Spike Jonze's "Adaptation"--a movie about screen writing that actually features a scene depicting McKee's seminar. Here's what we have to look forward to tomorrow.

The writer and the art of story
The decline of story in contemporary film, television, theatre and literature
Story design: the meaning of story, the substance of story, the limitations and inspirations of story structure & genre, the debate between character vs story design.
Premise Idea, Counter Idea, Controlling Idea
Story Structure: beat, scene, sequence, act, story
Mapping the Story universe: Archplot, Miniplot, Antiplot
Shaping the source of story energy and creation

Monday, December 03, 2007

Cal Snatches Defeat from Jaws of Mediocrity

This past weekend Liz and I joined Don and Muriel Wilcox for our annual Cal-Stanford Football game--known in California as "the Big Game." It's a great weekend. Donny and I have started to attend the (past) players lunch at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club on Friday where we connect with old pals while Liz and Muriel shop in the city. Yeah, we tell the same stories every year but no one really seems to care. On Friday night we make our way over to Fenton's Ice Cream in Oakland. For nearly 40 years I have ordered the same thing--a Black and Tan, substituting, swiss milk chocolate ice cream for vanilla. On Saturday morning we had breakfast at the Durant hotel and then grabbed a Top Dog before heading over to Palo Alto for some tailgate parties, with old college friends before walking into the game. I mention this only to say, that we conclude long before the game starts that the outcome of the game is really incidental since we've already had such a good time.
Cal ended up losing--but that's OK. We had our moment in the sun when we were officially #2 (and unofficially #1) six weeks into the season. Sure they dropped the past 5 / 6 games but somehow still squeeked into a bowl game (the Armed Forces Bowl).

An added bonus was seeing Mom and Dad on Thursday. Mom made a Christmas "kringla" for our arrival.