Welcome to Wonderland

The language is different here. It's still English, but it's different. There are phrases like "unpack that" and "focus or flare," and words like "ideate" and "empathy" used in casual conversation. The weather is different. It's hot at 77 degrees and ominous when there's a cloud or two in the sky. Torn jeans and a t-shirt are the office uniform. The weekday really kicks into gear at 10 AM. There's no actual office, but if you're still sitting at your laptop in the communal space at 6 PM, you must be jamming on something and can't break your flow. Jamming. Wow. This is a different world.

The first day of the d.school's bootcamp class. (Emi Kolawole)

Am I the first East Coast transplant to make such observations? Definitely not. But I'm leaving a Mainstream Media newsroom for, of all places, the d.school. I am Alice in the rabbit hole, falling towards Wonderland.

Let there be little doubt, this is Wonderland. There are whiteboards everywhere and colonies of Post-It notes, Sharpies and Expos. Nearly all of the furniture is on wheels or light enough to be carried by two people, maximum. The  colors are vibrant -- orange, green, purple, blue. Ideas bounce off the walls with the energy of extraordinarily intelligent people.

Speaking of extraordinary intelligence, it seems to be an informal tradition for those new to Stanford to ask themselves intensely, quietly as well as publicly, "How the heck did I get here?" Often implied is, "Who dropped the ball?"

I've reached a point where I am tired of those questions. I've moved on to, "What can't I do here?" The answer, at the d.school, is simple: don't do anything comfortable. Doing what's comfortable gets you nowhere here. There's no currency in it. You break no molds when you're comfortable. You learn nothing of import about yourself or others when you're comfortable. Innovation -- no, innovators -- are not born of comfort.

So, here we go ...

I am not comfortable with the use of italics. I am not comfortable being an editor-in-residence who has no formal background in the methodology of the d.school. I am not comfortable interviewing people without the pure authority of a journalist working at a news outlet. I am not comfortable asking people questions without a clear end-game. I am not comfortable looking senior executives, Naval Academy graduates, elected officials and federal government managers in the eye and saying, "Hey, can you pass me the rainbow-colored duct tape?" I am definitely not comfortable asking them that after I've edited a piece they wrote describing their deeply personal experience wading into a complex and vibrant organization. I'm not comfortable with my cynicism and skepticism being met with sad, quizzical looks. Oh, and I'm not comfortable using duct-tape to affix pipe-cleaners to yarn and aluminum foil for the purposes of creating a "low-res prototype."

I am not comfortable writing this piece.

I am not comfortable with any of this even as I experience these types of situations daily. And I don't know how to be comfortable -- yet. Moreover, what happens when I am? What other uncomfortable experiences await me then?

It's hard not to feel like a child in this situation -- to feel lost at every turn because everything is new. All of this brings me back to young Alice.


I've landed. The locked doors are in front of me and I have downed the drink. I will, in the coming days, weeks and months, shrink. I will also grow to an uncomfortably large size and press against the ceiling. I will swim down a river of my own tears, attend a wild tea party and defeat the Red Queen as she screams shrilly, "Off with her head!"

This Red Queen is inside my head, just as she was in Alice's imagination. She is my own fear of breaking, making, and doing -- of being other than I have always been.

Oh, look, a white rabbit.