How to Measure Wonder

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 24, No 2 (Summer 2013)

Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer

Wonder

To my eye, nothing is quite as uplifting as the startling sculptures that erupt before you as you stroll through Socrates Sculpture Park, home to these stems of welded steel and stone, nestled among gritty iron foundries, masonry suppliers, and auto repair shops in Long Island City, Queens.

I marvel at the power of this place to cast such a spell on me, and I find myself grasping for the right words to describe this sense of wonder to someone else without sounding like some kind of wanna-be Buddhist blathering about a glimpse of nirvana. How do you measure this? What has to be replicated or transplanted to create the same experience? And what exactly is it about that experience that is so important?

If these questions sound familiar to you, perhaps you are a grantmaker like me, searching for words and numbers to convey the force of a revelatory phenomenon and to capture a quantifiable change brought about by this new keenness. How do you measure the value of transformation? What is the color of insight? What kind of yardstick could measure the intensity of my exhausted astonishment standing in the wake of wonder?

Transcendence

“So tell me, what does transcendence look like to you?” I leaned in and wondered if there was an example of something that my friend, a grantmaker in Washington, D.C., could share with me that would give me a better idea of how his agency viewed this very broadly interpreted term.

He sighed and put his hands up apologetically. “Let’s just say, we’ll know it when we see it.”

Well, that was helpful.

How do you measure something that is created externally that has as the root of its being a magical power? The power to toss time casually to the side and transform you in a moment. To affect, provoke, disturb, and elate you forever in that moment of complete focus shared by artists, musicians, mystics, gamblers, and the devout.

The Apple of Knowledge

Beware the apple of knowledge. Knowledge, as in data. This apple, once bitten, unleashes its forbidden gift, a sorry exchange for expulsion from the garden of wonder to which we will forever be seeking to return. What was eternally ours in abundance we will spend lifetimes of evolutionary trial and error asking ourselves: Is this plant good for me? Will this harm me? Will this make me eat unhealthy amounts of ice cream?

All in our endless journey to feed our desire to return to that place of wonder.

Over lifetimes and eons, animals and humans figure out which plants are good to eat and which are not. Heightened powers of observation and memory allow animals, especially humans, to learn and benefit from the experiences of others. Errors, unexpected benefits, and sometimes just dumb luck can be extremely instructive, provided they don’t kill you first. Sometimes smaller doses of fatal toxins can do interesting things if we are careful observers and note takers. Jaguars, not your garden-variety herbivore living among the Tukano Indians in the Amazon, are known to eat the bark of the local vine and hallucinate. The Indians, deducing correctly that this eating habit was not due to a feline desire for increased dietary fiber, promptly did the same thing and were described as having “jaguar eyes.”

OK, I give up. How do you know if a jaguar is hallucinating?

The answer to that and to other puzzling questions of the universe, including what do transformation, innovation, vibrancy, and vitality look like, has more to do with evolutionary practices born in the Garden of Genesis than you may think.

Finding, Observing, and Remembering

Living things have always had to make their way in a wild garden of flowers and vines, of leaves and trees and fungi that hold out not only nourishing things to eat but deadly poisons, too. Nothing is more important to a creature’s survival than knowing which is which, yet drawing a bright line through the middle of the garden, as the God of Genesis found, doesn’t always work. The difficulty is that there are plants that do other, more curious things than simply sustain or extinguish life. Some heal; others rouse or calm or quiet the body’s pain. But most remarkable of all, there are plants in the garden that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.
  —  Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

“Just tilt your head back a little bit so I can get these eye drops in,” said my eye doctor, hovering over my eye- with an eyedropper. “I need to dilate your eyes so I can see what’s going on inside your eyeball.” A heavy drop plinked into my right eye.

“What is that stuff?” I blinked and tried to open my other eye.

The doctor smiled and, with her thumb and forefinger, firmly pried my stubborn lids apart and plonked another drop into my left eye.

“Tropicamide. We use it to restrict the movement of your pupil muscles.” She peered into my quivering eyes through a machine, clicking buttons and pinpointing blue lights into the centers of my eyes. “It comes from the belladonna plant, part of the nightshade family.”

Belladonna?

Belladonna is what a beautiful woman is to an Italian. It is also part of the same family as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants, but be warned: it is one of the deadliest plants in the Western Hemisphere. Eating a single leaf of this plant that bears attractive and sweet-tasting berries (which are lethal if you eat more than five of them) can kill an adult. Yet someone figured out that if belladonna was used to prepare eyedrops, women could dilate their pupils and achieve a wide-eyed look considered to be attractive.

Did someone think, I really need to look good tonight, let me try to widen my eyes with this potato?

From wide-eyed women and jaguar eyes, we can clearly see the benefits of focused observation and quick behavior modification in the natural world. In the nonprofit world, while the outcomes thankfully do not result in death, the knowledge gained from the same relentless and constant cycle of evolutionary “watch and learn from” provides valuable lessons for us.

Data Informed

In his post titled “The Myth of the Data-Driven Business,” Eric Peterson introduces the term “data informed”:

My concern arises from the idea that any business of even moderate size and complexity can be truly “driven” by data. I think the right word is “informed” and what we are collectively trying to create is “increasingly data-informed and data-aware businesses and business people” who integrate the wide array of knowledge we can generate about digital consumers into the traditional decisioning process…

Perhaps this is mere semantics — you say “potato” I say “tuberous rhizome” — but given the sheer number of consultants, vendors, and practitioners talking about creating, powering, and working in the mythical “data-driven business” I have started to worry that we’re about to shoot ourselves in the collective foot. (blog.webanalyticsdemystified.com/weblog/2011/09/the-myth-of-the-data-driven-business.html)

What is it with potatoes?

Data Composted

My go-to data diva Beth Kanter shares these thoughts about being data informed:

Measurement is a tool that data-informed cultures use to improve their programs; they observe the results of their programs, and then learn from those results to improve and refine their next programs. Data-informed cultures design measurement into their projects — not just so they have measurable outcomes, but so they provide the data necessary to guide how to improve them. (www.bethkanter.org/data-informed)

I like the image of data as a partner tapping you on the shoulder every so often to check in from the field. In fact, I would like to add the term “data composted” to the list. Data as organic, natural enrichment of the creative process. Composed of what has been discarded as well as what should be included, this metaphoric meme contains the vestiges of failure and the seeds of best practice invigorating the growth of a new season’s future harvest. A drug that allows more light into your eyes distilled from deadly nightshade and her mild-mannered sibling, the potato, is clearly the product of a data-informed, data-composted inquiry process.

Projects that are data composted, or “information-based introspective,” can yield great results both in performance as well as process because they are, at the same time, nourished by this steady trickle of self-evaluation and destined to recycle their experience into rich and fertile grounds for the next rotation, the next reiteration.

Animals and humans have developed an encyclopedic knowledge base of the natural world using this simple strategy of honed observation and memory. This is not a static act, and our primal, as well as cultural, survival depends on constant examination of our environments and our sense of the fullness of life.

Your Garden

What does your Garden of Genesis, your creative placemaking, your transformation look like? How will you measure the wonder of it? What will it look like?

Like my funder friend, you will know it when you see it.

Start by taking that potato out of your eye.

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