The “W” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Woo Wonder.

Sometimes it’s best to turn off the amplifiers and simply listen.

“Unplugging” is a wonderful tool. Not only does it reconnect you with who you are, it enables you to reconnect with that most basic instinct of childhood: wonder.


Remember wonder?

I’m sure you remember numerous occasions from your childhood where you felt awe or wonder –seeing a meteor shower, hearing a symphony of insects, watching a magician, or looking down at the earth from a plane for the first time. Those experiences of getting goose bumps are truly gifts – which seem to get rarer with age.

As adults, although we might work hard to give others a sense of awe or wonder – as a parent and/or working within the mastery of our respective crafts – we often fail to remember to cultivate wonder for ourselves. And it seems to get harder to do, amidst the business of life and sheer weight of accrued experience. But the path to reconnecting with wonder is probably more accessible than you might think.

Making it happen

Based on my experience, there are three “simple” steps to accessing wonder:

  1. Turn OFF your… Put your agenda and to-do lists on “pause”. Allow yourself to take a break.
  2. Turn ON your “beginner’s mind”. This means setting aside your filters of experience and habit; suspending analysis and judgment.
  3. LISTEN actively. Observe. Hear. Smell. Taste. … as if for the first time.

Let’s look at each step a little more closely.

First, turn off your…

As anyone with an active brain knows, it takes effort to turn off all of the voices in your own head; things to accomplish, questions to answer, people to meet, etc. However, even amidst an active schedule you can practice the path to recovering wonder in your own life. Give yourself permission – whether it’s for five minutes, an hour or a weekend – to pause. Do it once and wonder why it took you so long to give yourself a break.

Beginner’s mind

Turning off the calendar and commitments isn’t enough. You also need to turn off the critics, analysts and project managers in your head. Actively keep yourself from analyzing and objecting. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later. After all, you’re not free to readily receive if you’re busy screening and filtering. Beginner’s mind is finding the “blank slate” or “empty vessel” again.

Active listening

Now that you’re in a position to truly hear, observe, taste, smell and feel — you’re the new sponge. Just sit back and simply try to fully absorb what’s being offered in your midst. It’s amazing what you hear when you’re actively just listening.

There are numerous rewards for arriving at the point of listening actively. The two I find most rewarding are: being surprised (pleasantly) and feeling wonder. It’s a true gift to tap into these feelings again.

Cultivating a “beginners mind” while taking a walk, or seeing an exhibition, or attending a conference has the effect of turning most everything into a “sleeper hit”. Doing so enables one to experience each speaker or event as being more informative, fresh and enjoyable – and yes, even the source of wonder.

An example from design practice

Earlier in this year I attended a regional TEDx conference. I didn’t go with any particular expectations. But I did arrive to the conference with intentions, or an intention. I did my best to arrive as an empty vessel.

While I felt most speakers to be inspiring, one was the true stand-out for me. Pam Dorr was billed as a social entrepreneur, introducing sustainable housing development and positive change for over 400 families a year in the severely impoverished county of Hale, Alabama. Barely into her talk, even before describing her work in the rural south, I became transfixed by the explanation of how she got there.

The journey she described, struck me as beginning with self-empowerment in her native community near San Francisco. The seed of her journey was in making a home for herself. I mean, literally.

She showed a “before” picture of a derelict interior space – a ruin, the prototypical definition of a “tear-down”. Next she showed the “after”. I felt like I was seeing the most beautiful space I’d ever seen. Why? It was authentic. She had made it herself, for herself – almost entirely from salvaged scraps. It wasn’t idealized or romanticized or made for how others might react. It was made for her, by her. In fact it was rather elemental — clean, filled with sun, free of clutter and intervening structure, with a sense of an overarching protective roof. It wasn’t about ideal proportions, fetishized details or expensive materials. It was space and light and protection. Above all, it was accomplishment – perhaps her first realization of owning “can do” for herself.

The rest of her talk was how she blossomed… taking what she learned to do for herself, and expanding upon it to help another individual and another… and now helping to lead an entire community towards nourishing and sustaining itself. Ironically, for those coming with expectations of what they were going to hear, that was the delivery. For those of us “unprepared”, Pam Dorr’s delivery was goosebumps — of authenticity, self-discovery and altruism.

Allow yourself permission to take a break from what you “should be doing” and take in a healthy dose of unfiltered raw data from your senses. It just might spark wonder.

Remember, Woo Wonder.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter W, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Wine and Wheat, and a photo of Pan Dorr doing Wonders at PieLab.