My First Documentary

I thought that the best way to learn how to shoot a documentary was to shoot a documentary. So with camera in hand, I tracked my subject, Heather Hendrie, in her attempt to build a electricity generating bike adapter. She thought she could build it in a day, and I naively thought I could finish a documentary short in a week.

A year and a half later, I’m finally releasing my first documentary short. I’m proud to say it will be premiering this Friday evening at an outdoor movie event during Cyclepalooza, a ten day celebration of bikes. Here’s the trailer:

It’s humbling to see the evolution of my camera abilities and how difficult it is get the right shot in changing outdoor lighting conditions. Nevertheless, the project has rewarded me with lessons in patience and persistence.

In life, I am quick to take action and impatient for results. In documentaries as in life, the meaningful things take its own time to grow and flourish. Strangely, through my computer screen I examine life more closely and fully than in real life. I can replay interviews and extract themes and nuance. I can observe the story of a year’s journey in seconds. Here on my editing suite, I am permitted the luxury of reflection.

Perhaps this says something about how I do tend to see things through a fog of ideas. Documentary video helps me crystalize some of those ideas in ways that feels practical. The ideas become real for me.

Editing is a process of reflection and meaning-making. Every cut is a decision that says “this is important” because it’s significant or it entertains or it simply moves the story along. One day, I’d like to reach this level of mastery where every cut is purpose made.

Like any meaning-making process though, I have to see the small moving pictures in the context of the larger stories. How am I able to see clearly in these moments of life if I don’t invest myself in experiencing and understanding life itself?

Sounds abstract I know, but it is eminently practical. On a small scale, Heather’s project is just a bike that generates electricity. But in the context of our collective dependency on energy, particularly fossil fuels, and its threat to the environment, the bike takes on greater significance.

So I remind myself. There are times to act and do your best. But there are more times where taking more time will lead to far better results.

Adaptive do-It-yourself? Or next ‘Canada’s Worst Handyman’?

There comes a time in every young man’s life when he must learn how to light a blow torch, to run stone through a wet saw, and mix cement with water. Or so I tell myself as I stumble my way through learning how to redo a part of my bathroom.

And so it begins... no turning back.

Let’s face it. I grew up with a computerized, virtual view of the world. The merest stroke of a key and all can be altered in the digital world with little consequence to the real world except perhaps a numbered software error. But renovating the bathtub faucet and tub surround requires a crowbar and the possibility of wrecking or blowing up your home.

For those that grew up on a farm, you can stop laughing now. And just for the record, I had an experienced farm hand with an eye for design help me with this project.

For others less inclined to take apart stuff, I’d say try it! If possible and if in the right state of mind, try to (as I tell myself) relish the frustrations of discovering your own ignorance, but also know that you can figure it out.

For instance, we initially took apart the walls and waited for the plumber. Then a stroke of good fortune: the plumber did not show up. Which left us to decide whether we could do it ourselves. And you know what, when we looked at the cuts and crimps and solders needed, we got the plumbing job done with only one too many trips to the Home Depot. 

Nevertheless, turning on the water and finding no leaks was sweet victory. What made it truly sweet though was understanding how the flux works and where to apply the heat and knowing how you’d fix it if something goes wrong. It’s knowing that it wasn’t a fluke. At this point, I have to thank my many supporters: Brian, YouTube, Google, and three different opinions from Home Depot.

It’s too bad Do-It-Yourself isn’t encouraged more. In my parent’s day, DIY used to mean frugality and self-reliance particularly during the big recessions. My dad, during one particularly bad year in the 80’s learned to build the garage, renovate the basement, and make furniture. Nothing unusual.

These days, DIY has become fodder for reality TV shows. Why do it yourself when you can hire someone to do it all better? Why take the risk? Isn’t it a waste of time?

Which is unfortunate, because DIY is not about efficiency. It’s about learning how to figure things out and developing a sense of power over the world around us. It’s also my way of battling against the age of over-specialization. In a world, where we have delegated our powers to grow food, make things, and fix things to other people, what skills are we left with?

Water-resistant Kerdi membrane installed on bathroom wall.

Once we got the rough-in valve installed, it was time to take off the tub surround. We expected the worse… black mold, rotten beams, a dead rat maybe. Instead we discovered old, but dry boards. No problems. Up goes the new water resistant boards and a special pink membrane to block moisture. Measure twice, cut once… unless of course you use the exact same erroneous process both times you measured.

Peer learning was what rescued me from certain disaster. My partner / mentor and I constantly bounced our understanding of the situation off each other. With his experience and my naivete, we were miraculously able to correct each other’s assumptions. I get now why the trades have an apprenticeship / journeyman system. It’s the best way to learn.

So when it came to planning the tile setting, I jumped into action with my computer skills and created for us a model.

Scale drawing of tiles taking into account grout lines. Framing tiles could be adjusted to get less cuts.

Overkill? Well, you must understand that our hubris from our plumbing success led us to set our sights higher. We wanted to install stone tiles in a diagonal pattern. Two choices that made this job three or four times harder than installing waterproof porcelain in a standard grid pattern.

Laying out some of the tiles on the living room floor to get a feel for the look.

But when I saw the natural stone, I was mesmerized by the unique organic patterns in each tile. I felt as if each stone had a story. For a moment, I rediscovered my childhood inclination to pickup colourful stones from the alleyway.

As it turns out, the computer model made it very easy to choose the right sized tiles. We could move tiles around, decide on grout width, number of cuts and tiles needed, and even plan our approach to allow for variation in reality. That is afterall what a good model helps one to do. The resulting layout, however, has to be checked against the actual wall which is neither flat nor square. Nowhere is the refrain “the model is not reality” more apparent.

The anticipation of seeing whether one’s best laid plans were accurate is thrilling. Perhaps it’s the strumming of that thin, invisible link between one’s thought and one’s actions. To know that you can work through a two-week process of planning and learning and doing makes you think that you could do the same over a lifetime.

Not bad for the first time. But it took much longer than expected.

And the result? Well, so far it looks great in the photo. But it belies the little frustrations of imperfections inherent in the stone, the wall, the cut, the human hand multiplied by a need for perfection. My role was modest in this part. Mostly I was the apprentice that cleaned tools, ran errands, and more importantly observed closely. On occasion I got to make cuts and lay tiles that weren’t critical to the overral pattern.

The renovation continues, yet I already feel a sense of pride. As Ken Low would say, achievement is success hard earned.

Distinguishing between truth-tellers and pundits

Last time, I introduced the roles of prophets, critics, and truth-tellers in enriching the ecology of leadership. I failed to mention however that there is an implied assumption that those truth-tellers and prophets are adaptive.

This is, of course, not the case.

Pundits, deniers, and “false” prophets that disguise themselves as truth-tellers are plentiful. There are still so-called scientists who push the notion that AIDS is caused by poverty. And every few years, we discover one group or another who foretell the end of the world.

What about global warming or intelligent design or the oil sands? How is the leader to distinguish between one polished voice from another?

Here are a few immediate, but conventional answers that come to mind:

  • It feels right.
  • It comes from an expert.
  • It serves my purpose.

See the problem? While each of those responses might very well be adaptive (avoiding dark alleyways because it feels dangerous or trusting your accountant to do your taxes), it doesn’t allow us to determine whether those responses are valid in new situations.

For instance, once I was sitting in the back seat of a taxi white-knuckled in Barbados. The driver was driving on the wrong side of the road! Fortunately, it turns out that my gut was wrong because being an ex-British colony, they drive on the left side of the road.

The key to distinguishing one voice from another is in a phrase: understand its provenance.

What does this mean?

It means that we must understand where that voice comes from and how it was constructed and tested.

If you want to know whether tobacco is harmful to your health, you don’t just look at the “two sides” of the research and weigh them. You also look at how the researchers tested their theories, how their research was funded, and what their priorities were. If you also understand history, then you would also understand why you would look at corporate-backed research with suspicion.

If you want to know whether your intuition is right, you act on it, but also check it with reality. You make sure that the intuition you have developed is appropriate for the circumstances.

The challenge for leaders is that they don’t have the time to re-assess everything the organization does. However, the leader does need to investigate more deeply the most critical areas in their organization.

Back to the original question. How is a leader to distinguish between one voice and another? Here would be my tips for the leader:

  • Cultivate a broader range of experiences and knowledge so that your intuition will more likely lead you in the right direction.
  • Conscientiously find authorities or resources whose provenance you do trust and remember that no one source tells the entire story.
  • Make sure that you are developing a broader sense of purpose so that you serve the purpose of people and life.

In an age of much relativism, sometimes it’s easy to say that I have my opinion and you have your opinion and that is that.

Unfortunately, opinions have consequences. In the words of my old English teacher Mr. McCrae, “There may be many right answers, but there are definitely wrong answers.”

So as leaders, let’s continuously strive to hear those right voices.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

Five Foolish Follies

1. Choosing not to think. Have you ever noticed that there are boundaries to what we choose to think about? Religion is certainly one area where we may choose not to apply the usual rigours of thought. Math is another one; childhood school fears are likely the main block. Relationships, too, might not be tested for fear of failure. If you ever find yourself choosing not to think about something, take a step back and ask yourself why.

2. Seeking only evidence that makes you feel good or supports your point of view. Horoscopes, astrologists, and psychics play on this well-known human weakness. We only notice those things that confirm what we want and ignore those things that don’t. I find I have to pay attention when I’m advocating for or defending a position. Am I being reasonable and fair? Am I seeking disconfirming evidence? How are you at searching for contradictions?

3. Being unthinkingly loyal to your friends, your family, your organization, or any of your “in” group. I grew up with this notion that blood is thicker than water. Mafias are loyal to their “family”, but it doesn’t make their actions right. There is, of course, some truth in the saying. I know and trust my family and friends because of my shared experiences with them, but this doesn’t mean that I should excuse anything they say or do. If anything, it is my responsibility to be loyal to their best selves. Do you find yourself unthinkingly supporting your friends or family?

4. Dismissing ideas or people because of their form not their content. If it looks good, it must be good right? Advertisers would want us to believe that of course, but any astute shopper who has been disappointed by a product knows that looks and quality don’t always go hand-in-hand. The corollary then would be that if it looks bad, it isn’t always bad. A documentary film may not have great special effects or the prettiest actors or the right flow… but the truths it speaks may be more fruitful than any Hollywood film. When do you dismiss something, is it because it doesn’t look good?

5. Quitting before you’ve begun. What if you wanted to lead a healthy lifestyle and quit going to the gym after a month? What if you wanted to market your business and quit networking after a month? You’ve stopped before you’ve even begun. Most of the time it’s not for lack of the right direction or technique or skills. It’s a lack of persisting long enough to see the results. Have you quit before you’ve begun?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.

I want to be around people who take care

When I stepped into the Museum of Making, I was overwhelmed by a sense of awe and child-like wonder at all the working artifacts beautifully exhibited in a thoughtful manner. I also felt a deep down stirring and reminder of why I had studied engineering in the first place.

Power was transmitted from steam engine to machinery by a system of belts.

We asked Ian MacGreagor, the proprietor of the museum, how he chose the people who worked with him to build the museum. He said quite simply, “I want to work with people who take care with what they do.” Apparently people he hires all intensely care about what they do whether it is metalworking or financial planning.

This idea of taking care, of making sure that what you build or provide is of the highest quality possible, not based on other people’s standards or even your own standards, but by the standards of what is possible and needed. That’s real craftsmanship… an art perhaps muddied in today’s modern world of faster and cheaper.

“I want to build something that lasts, so that others in the future can see something of quality,” explained Ian.

How are we taking care with what we do so that future generations can have an example to be inspired by? A question worth pondering as I gaze at the massive horizontal steam engine of the industrial revolution.