Strangers in a Strange Land
Written by Tsilli Pines, VP of Creative
That feeling you’ve been having lately – the one where you don’t quite recognize where you are? I’m an immigrant. I know that feeling well. Millions of other immigrants do, too, having gone through the process of acculturating to a new land, hundreds or thousands of miles from their former home.
Today, nearly all of us are experiencing that feeling, even while staying rooted in place. As a society, we suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with many struggling for survival or quickly pivoting just to support basic services. The scale of the shift is so far-reaching and the horizon so long that it’s forcing us to contend with bigger questions. What are we to make of clear skies over once polluted cities? Or the consequences of a social contract that’s clearly eroding? Our newfound willingness to change behaviors that seemed intractable for so long presents profound possibility, as long as we don’t squander this moment.
As this sense of displacement has swept over me anew, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the powers and challenges of the immigrant mind. In our unfamiliar, post-pandemic context, we need the tools and wisdom of those who’ve already been strangers in a strange land. We have more to learn right now from people who know how to adapt searchingly than from those who have always belonged.
Everyone has a role to play in this new reality: consumers, activists, politicians, and, yes, designers and technologists. Some of us started forecasting the long-term impacts early, and others are beginning to paint a concrete picture of the year ahead. Personally, I’ve found myself thinking about the tools we’ll use to navigate our way to the other side, and how to cultivate them.
Everyone’s learning to code switch
When I was six years old, my family moved from Israel to the United States. Ronald Regan was running against Jimmy Carter in the presidential race. Blondie and the Talking Heads were on the radio. The oil crisis was on everyone’s mind. It was my first trip on a plane. The seats didn’t lean back as far as I’d imagined they would. My brother, then two years old, should have drawn all the attention. Instead, everyone doted on me. My parents nursed a fever I had developed along the way. The flight attendants gave me hard candies and my dad taught me words in English to distract me. When we arrived in California, I posed as my cousin so I could use her health insurance card to see a doctor.
Within weeks, I’d started first grade at the local public school, in a language I couldn’t yet speak. For months, little in the outside world made sense. Slowly, I built a new vocabulary that brought my surroundings into focus. I did this through listening, and watching. I learned what would get laughs and what would make me a target. My personality in this adopted language emerged over time, and my sense of self was shaped by the experience of inhabiting two worlds. As the years passed, I became aware of how much my exposure to each language and culture was shaping my perception of the other.
Anyone who navigates a dominant culture that’s not their own will recognize all of this. It’s the web of skills you develop to code switch, and I consider them to be among my most powerful tools in design and business—and in life. These skills have sensitized my nerve endings to register new norms and adapt immediately. They’ve enabled me to quickly synthesize information and recognize patterns: the most essential building blocks for designing systems.
But this fluidity doesn’t come without challenges. Having a beginner’s mind was essential to my acculturation, but adaptation became such a dominant reflex that I often glossed over novel experiences and information, in order to “pass” for knowing more than I did. Even today, I have to consciously work to let in new experiences without immediate judgement.
These impulses are so central to my experience of the world that I recognize them wherever I look. I see them frequently in my colleagues here at Instrument. This isn’t surprising in a creative agency, where every person, no matter their discipline, is expected to reorient constantly, connect disparate dots, and innovate systems. We regularly inhabit the worlds of our clients and become conversant in their languages. And because we all stretch across different projects and clients, we use these regular changes in context to see connections that would be otherwise elusive. The writer and critic Maria Popova calls this practice combinatorial creativity. Her description of this intentional approach to remixing, so useful when working in design and technology, reminds me of my bicultural experience.
Having trained for years to approach problems in this way has paid off in the current landscape. As soon as it sank in that we were facing something new and massive, the leaders at Instrument began to pivot our work. We didn’t yet know the shapes of our clients’ new challenges, but we were confident we had the tools to work toward solutions. We were able to approach our partners immediately, with a commitment to support them no matter what they were facing. In some cases this meant moving quickly in response to loose briefs, or no briefs. As a result, we’re collaborating with long-time partners, like Nike, to reimagine how they can inspire people to stay mentally and physically healthy as they shelter at home. For a global brand that’s always been intentional about every detail, this sea change has required moving more quickly than ever, and we’ve been proud to be a part of it.
A pandemic is also a time when digital communication is critically important, so we’re doing a ton of work with brands that help people access information. Some of this work is with digital platforms like Instagram, that reach millions of people while they’re at home. We’re helping them adapt to what people need right now, and working hand in hand with their team to create new ways to stay connected when we’re so far apart. We also consider pro bono work a necessity, as it’s the most direct way of contributing to the most critical efforts right now. This includes investing in organizations on the front lines of public health, like PATH. We’ve worked with them closely over the years, which let us move quickly to help them amplify their message, and do more of their life-saving work.
But perhaps the thing that most inspires me about Instrument is the way we put our tools of combinatorial creativity to work for big, bold ideas. Beyond the immediate problems to be solved, there lie much greater, longer term challenges. And so, between the client work and the pro bono work, we’ve also initiated our own project, to prototype ways of preserving both privacy and public health as we address the challenges of the coming months and years.
We’re all immigrants now
So, how do we build the muscles of adaptability that help us solve big, hairy problems in new ways?
First, we listen. Now that we’re all strangers in a strange land, we need to learn new vocabulary. The only way to do this is by taking in the sounds around us. Maintaining a beginner’s mind, even as we develop expertise, keeps us open to the unexpected. Whenever we’re curious about something new, we figure out who’s living it, who’s already thinking and talking about it, and we soak in everything we can to achieve a depth of understanding.
Every discipline contributes to this work. Strategists plunge into contextual research, and producers facilitate relationships and resources that unlock insights. Writers, designers, and developers dive deep into their craft to flesh out what is known, and identify creative points of departure. Every new project demands that everyone inquire and listen intently, in order to acculturate to the new terrain.
Depth is important, but so is breadth. Our company is made up of 240 people with a broad range of interests, life experiences, skills, and passions. With everyone primed for collaboration, there’s always someone who can contribute a well of knowledge about some unexpectedly relevant topic. Our culture of networked effort creates a collective intelligence that allows us to quickly make surprising connections between topics with little obvious similarity. This process of exploration, remixing, and prototyping is exactly what we’ll need to employ—at an unimaginable scale—over the coming months and years, as we find our way on new soil.
We’re all immigrants now. How will we adapt? What will we hold onto? What will we let go of? Let us approach this moment with a fluency hard-earned by radical listening. Let us be speedy in our response, when needed.
But let us also be introspective and deliberate, moving beyond the reactive to the visionary. It will take nothing less than our total collective intelligence to emerge stronger on the other side, and turn this moment into an opportunity for making a better world, where we’re all global citizens.