Joseph Weissgold

The Head of Invention at Future Laboratories on leading with reverence.

On childhood, creativity and imagination

CS: Tell us about the creativity that was present in your childhood and the ways in which your upbringing encouraged you to honor and feed your creative self?

Joseph: I did a lot of extracurriculars as a kid, pretty much every day of the week. As an only child, that was a huge part of my life, but strangely enough, when you ask about my creative self what comes to mind is actually all the time I spent alone. Especially when I was little, I used to spend a lot of time drawing and playing with action figures. I can clearly remember designing these elaborate worlds for them with flying cars and imaginary spaces, and then they’d just hang out in these worlds. I used to do that for hours and hours.

I also had this very deep and intellectually stimulating relationship with my parents – they never treated me as if I was ‘just a kid’. They stoked my curiosity and always encouraged me to pursue it wherever it would lead. For me curiosity and creativity were indistinguishable. That still feels true today.

CS: How did you channel your active imagination into a profession?

Joseph: I just wanted to invent stuff for a living; dream up things I’d never seen and put them into the world. I was really lucky to discover Industrial Design when I was still in high school. It was still pretty off the beaten path at the time. It took me another five years to really appreciate the difference between being an inventor and being a designer. You see, when you design—at least in industrial or product design—you’ve got to design for mass production. You can’t just make stuff for yourself, like an inventor can. You’re constantly responding to the demands of the market and your client rather than thinking more holistically about the kind of life you want to design for. It was then I recognized how little I truly understood other people. So I dropped out and reapplied to school to study the Humanities.

CS: Why the Humanities?

Joseph: It’s relatively easy to be successful as a designer. After all, traditionally designers are brought into the process at the point when the goal has already been set—sell more products, get more website traffic, build brand loyalty etc. Then our job is to figure out how to tap into an existing need with just the right product or service. It’s much harder to be a good designer—or said another way, it’s much harder to be a designer and really know that what you’re doing is actually ‘good’. That question of ‘what is good’ can get buried under all the courses about materials and manufacturing techniques, at least at the undergraduate level.

The Humanities were the arena for me to ask just those questions. I started studying sociology, mysticism, sustainability. I explored new creative outlets like writing plays, graphic novels and poetry. After I graduated, I found the Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts, which viewed design as a way to approach problems, rather than a mode of production. We saw it as a form of applied sociology: designing the way we live our lives.

Visions for creative leadership

CS: How has this humanistic perspective influenced your own approach to creative leadership?

Joseph: Well, it’s core to what we do. As the head of invention, I am tasked with combining scientifically validated research with my team’s best insights in order to translate that into the real world in creative ways. Anything from getting people to drink more water to enabling them to set better life goals – whatever the science says matters most for living a rich life in a healthy society. What we do is applied sociology at its most practical. It’s very pure, but because we don’t have the clear money motive driving our choices, it’s also very complex.

As a leader, this poses an interesting challenge: in these complex environments, where disciplinary lines break down there are no clear roadmaps to follow, we’ve found it best to lead with vision. Tackling the kind of issues we take on requires openness to experimentation. Having a clear and inspiring vision allows us to trust that we’re all working toward the same outcome, even though our individual paths may meander. At its best, vision brings just enough direction to stay confident, while leaving the process open enough that everyone can let it unfold as it may.

CS: Is the purpose of the vision in part to get people comfortable with proposing more daring possibilities?

Joseph: Yes, I think it comes back to curiosity. When you have a clear vision, people naturally ask, “but how?”, which is exactly the right question for them to be considering. I often use the analogy of a city that is perpetually on the horizon. We discuss all the features of what that city’s going to have, dreaming in a tremendous amount of detail, and why? Because it’s that shared vision that keeps us all clear on the ultimate goal. So when we find a mountain stands between us and the city, we can be honest about the fact that the decision to go over, around, or through it has no right answer. The real question is, do we want to become climbers, hikers, or excavators? At the core, it’s about getting comfortable with the ambiguity that exists by definition on this journey, and taking all obstacles as little more than creative constraints.

CS: How do you make a creative vision desirable or even marketable?

Joseph: The power of a compelling vision is that it allows people to imagine themselves in some future of your design. The irony is that even if that vision is emotionally negative—like some dystopian sci-fi movie about a rogue technology that terrorizes people—just having seen it makes it more likely to eventually come to market. That’s because it’s easier to build towards something you’ve seen, even if it’s negative, than something you haven’t seen. In that light, it’s unfortunate that our popular culture is so fixated on dystopias, or what can go wrong in the world. It’s actually something we’re actively combatting at Future Labs, by putting out speculative futures that show how things might be better. That’s maybe my favorite part of the job.

CS: What have you found helps keep people engaged despite the inevitable roadblocks in the visioning process?

Joseph: A powerful vision can provide a real sense of purpose, and perhaps even more importantly, make you curious as to how to achieve it. That is the essential element, because it’s from there that infinite possibilities emerge. The harder part is getting people out of their own way. Everyone has things that they’re passionate about, but all too often people hold themselves back, not wanting to make a mistake or step on anyone’s toes. Being passionate is a practice; the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Our work then is to ensure that people can bring their full selves to their work.

Connecting with presence

CS: What is that place of passion and purpose for you?

Joseph: I’ve found the key is having a dream for the world, not for yourself. I think a lot about the future that I want for the world and for the people who are close to me. I used to focus on what I’d do and have in the future, but these days I almost exclusively think about how I want to be. I find it much more freeing to focus on how I want to be, not what I want to be. It means I can relate to my life as a work in progress, and orient my goals around the state of the world rather than my own achievement. It allows me to be free from needing to have everything figured out, and lets me be more present to the world beyond myself.

CS: What feeds the discipline of presence in your life?

Joseph: For me it relates back to humility. It’s about sitting with the knowledge that I’m just one person and there is so much that is beyond my understanding or control. To some that might be disempowering but I find it awe-inspiring. It’s a practice of reverence – reverence for all those things that are beyond my control. I try to regularly find space to reflect on the mysteries of nature and of other people. I take it as an invitation to shed any desire I may feel to be in control or be right, and just wade into reverence for complexity. It’s my way of transcending the dichotomy of self-importance and utter meaninglessness.

I’m now more aware of when I’m living into reverence and when I’m not. It feels most noticeable when I work collaboratively. When I’m having fun, when I’m calm and light, when my passion is affirmative and motivating—that’s when I’m in it. I can tell that it’s contagious when I’m really in that state. Then there are times when I’m feeling threatened or pressured, and I collapse back into all of this ‘me’-ness. The challenge then is to bring myself back when I notice it; it’s a practice that I imagine I will be doing my whole life.

CS: What would our world look like if we lived with more reverence?

Joseph: I’m picturing walking down the street, and I see someone else walking towards me in the opposite direction. Our eyes meet for a split second, and although we may have nothing in common, we’ve never seen each other before, and we come from completely different backgrounds, we both know that we share one thing – an appreciation that everything’s connected. The fact that we’d have no common words to explain it—or that even if we spoke the same language, we could hardly describe it—only increases the wonder of it and deepens our appreciation for one another, and by extension all people. That’s what I imagine.

CS: How can we bring those threads of enlivened and enriched connection into our designs for the future?

Joseph: I think designers could be more attuned to the wonder in our connectedness, and the harmony it can bring into our designs, and our future. Designing for human systems is complex work that often feels overwhelming. It’s all too natural to either try to take control, or to give up altogether. This is an invitation to transcend that fight-or-flight response and instead find reverence in the complexity of it all. People will never cease to surprise you. They’ll misuse your products and cheat your systems; they’ll prove you wrong time and time again. The choice is yours whether you find that frustrating or thrilling. I choose the latter.

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