An eightfold path of Sylvianess

Nov 16, 2011

With the unexpected news of Sylvia Harris’ passing this summer, David Gibson and Emily Cohen coordinated a memorial service last evening for the many who loved her.

With respect (and without blasphemy to the Buddhists), Chelsea Mauldin presented her “eightfold path of Sylvianess,” what lessons one incomparable woman taught another:

1. Wear bright clothing when you speak to groups.
[She gestured at the red shirt she currently wore, which corresponded to the one Sylvia wore in the image projected on the screen.] As Sylvia would say, “Give the people something to look at!”

2. Always be working.
Just because you have a crazy job, or small kids, or some other big problems, you don’t get to slow down or stop moving forward – all you can do is rearrange. Sylvia was fine with sequencing – as long as you always kept working. Maybe if I were lazy or had a little slack period, she would say, “Why don’t you write a book? I’m thinking about writing a book. Why don’t you write a book?” Unbelievable.

3. Hire a housekeeper.
Please stop cleaning your kitchen,” she would say. “You do not have time to do that.” This goes with “always be working.”

4. Talk to everybody. All the time. About everything.
In the last three years, I have 1,200 emails from Sylvia. And half of those emails are her telling me about some other conversation she’s having – something fascinating she learned, someone she went to lunch with, someone I should look up. She was at the center of this constant circle of communication. And that was not only a very canny business strategy, but it was also a source of personal power: The power to transform people’s lives, and transform not just the lives of people she knew, but the lives of people who experienced the world she made.

I’m really trying hard to figure out: how do you be like Sylvia in that way, really embrace all the people around you?

5. Have lovely food.
Have lovely food any time you can have lovely food. Have lovely food at meetings, at breakfast. Have hard-boiled eggs. Have scones. Have homemade fruitbread. Have whole milk and skim milk. In the conference room. Have M&Ms on the train down to Baltimore. Have M&Ms coming back. She embraced pleasure.

6. Build an idea, and then move into it.
I got an email from Sylvia almost exactly three years ago, on November 16, 2008, and the title of that email was “Citizen Designers!” She didn’t know then that she was going to rename her firm Citizen Research & Design. But she was constructing this idea of what she wanted to be and how she wanted to live. Then she was going to figure out how she was going to go do it. That’s incredibly powerful. Because how can you live the life you want to live, and create the change you want to create, unless you can name it and picture it first? Then you can go have it.

7. Give projects the right amount of effort.
Now, that was a highly subjective measurement. Sometimes that meant I was supposed to stop freaking out, let something go, and move on, because we had to be finished. And sometimes that meant we had to have the 17th conversation about something we’d already decided long ago, but not to her satisfaction.

But the heart of this idea was balance: thinking consciously about effort versus reward. What are you putting in and what are you getting back? What do you want to get back and what do you willing to put in?

Finally, the eighth thing she always told me was:

8. Call a car.
She based this on what she called the “Gary Singer Rule” [Sylvia’s husband]. Apparently having done some pretty intense mathematical calculations, Gary had proven that it was cheaper to call a car whenever you wanted to take you wherever you wanted to go rather than own a private vehicle in New York City. And therefore, one should just call a car.

But I thought this also spoke to something we discovered when we had done the taxi project: that cars for hire were — for New Yorkers, time and space starved as we are — a rare form of freedom. They make us feel free.

And Sylvia was for free.

Chelsea ended by noting all the ways, big and small, Sylvia changed her life, and that she does indeed have Arecibo, now, on her phone’s speed dial.

Thank you, to you both.




Work

  • W.W.Norton & Company
  • Eye Magazine
  • Theme Magazine
  • Maryland Institute of College Art

About Liz

Danzico is part designer, part educator, and full-time dog owner. She traces the roots of her craft back to her parents. According to Liz, "Growing up at least a little information architect gave me an organizational advantage over my friends." More