Episodes

Stephen P. Anderson on Cognitive Environments

“I would love to see the entire world up-leveled in terms of our understanding our own cognitive abilities.”

My guest today is Stephen P. Anderson. Stephen is a design leader who is focused on workforce learning and organizational development. He and Karl Fast recently published Figure it Out, a new book about how we can transform information to increase understanding. This is also the subject of our conversation; I hope you find it valuable.

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Show notes

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Read the full transcript

Jorge: So, Stephen, welcome to the show.

Stephen: Great to be here Jorge!

Jorge: Well, it’s fantastic having you. For folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself?

About Stephen

Stephen: Yeah. My name is Stephen P. Anderson. I’m founder of The Mighty Minds Club and my second book, Figure It Out: Getting from Information to Understanding was just published in May. I think a lot of folks are, some folks may know me from kind of the design world, the design circuit, where I’ve been doing design work for the last, oh, 20 years or so.

I started talking publicly and sharing ideas about 10 years ago. But what a lot of people don’t know is that I’ve kind of transitioned in the past couple of years in what I do as a designer. And so, a lot of what I’m doing now is more workshops, facilitation. I’m really interested in workforce learning and organizational development. And I even wrote a post earlier this year on how I, as a designer, feel like this is the natural progression of all that I’m doing as a designer, interested in changing the world and making it a better place.

Jorge: And what is your background? How did you get into design?

Stephen: So, interesting story. I was actually a high school English teacher, a high school English and Gifted and Talented, for the first three years out of college, always had an interest in, I would say graphic design. And in fact, as a teacher, I would make these handouts where I’ve been… this is back in the days of photocopiers and things, and kind of desktop publishing was just emerging, but I would cut out things from clip art or magazines, you know, take them through these handouts. I would line-break back in Word the end of every sentence to wrap around images. And, you know, making album covers for friends and bands and things probably where the interest in graphic design started.

And then there was a series of odd jobs I had after teaching and through that, I started doing logo design, got hooked up with a dot com startup, and they were my first formal job as a designer. And this was in, I want to say ’98? And, so I moved back to Dallas to join the startup. It grew very quickly. I learned a lot. And then over the next 15 years or so, you know, learned that it’s not just how things look it’s about usability and oh, by the way, it’s not just about usability, we’ve got to think about – I didn’t know the phrase at the time – but information architecture, how these objects and relationships map to each other.

I became bored with a lot of the tactical stuff and became interested more in strategy and business topics, became more interested in human behavior and psychology, and why won’t people do the things we want them to do? Why won’t people would click on the things that we want them to click? And so that led to my first book in around 2010 or so, which is called Seductive Interaction Design. And also, around the same time I self-published The Mental Notes Card Deck, which a lot of people know me for as well.

So again, very much a focus on human behavior. So that was about 10 years ago. And over that time, one shift I’ve gone through was marked by probably a seminal talk for me, “From Paths to Sandboxes,” where I started shifting my thinking from shaping the path that I want people to follow to creating the sandbox or the conditions where people play and learn.

And so, my mindset shifted from that of a transaction and getting something I want, to how do I create the conditions for us to learn and work together? And I think that ethos and that idea has affected everything I’ve done since. And in many ways, the new book, even though it’s about working with information as a resource, there’s that ethos or that idea behind it, which is how do we pause, slow down, and figure things out individually, but also collectively.

Cognitive environments

Jorge: An image from the book that comes to mind as you describe the creation of sandboxes is the cockpit of an airliner as – let me see if I understood it correctly – but it’s almost like the cockpit of an airliner as a thinking environment. Is that a fair take on that?

Stephen: Yeah, I think one of the fundamental ideas – and we have a whole chapter, the second chapter that lays the foundation for this – is that cognition or thinking is distributed. And what we mean by that is we have this traditional idea, whether we label it as such or not, is that we have this idea that thinking happens in the brain, right? We do this computation in the brain and then we tell our body what to do. But I think if we pause and slow down, we know that this really isn’t the case.

So, if we think about why we’ve rearranged Scrabble tiles, for example – which I think is an example we mentioned in the book – if we did all our thinking in the brain, we wouldn’t need to do that, right? But by rearranging these tiles, we see more possibilities. We bring thinking into… or thinking is in the environment around us. So, with the cockpit example, what we’re talking about is it’s a distributed system of cognitive resources. So, it’s not only the pilot, it’s also the copilot. It’s also the controls in front of them. It’s the air traffic controller tower. You know, they’re reaching out to… it’s this whole system of cognitive resources they’re required to do the job of taking and landing a plane. And that’s one of the examples we use to say, you know, thinking doesn’t just happen in our brains, or it’s not a solitary activity.

And to bring this home, in a workshop where we do this, I ask everyone a simple math problem. Like, you know, what’s seven plus nine? Right? And everyone just answers. And I would say, okay, in that case, you could say thinking happened “in the brain.” But I would actually argue if you went back to early childhood, it didn’t happen in the brain when you learn seven and nine and these concepts; you probably were interacting with physical, tangible objects. But here in the moment, it’s an association you have, you just activated that association. So, seven plus nine equals the answer, right? And then I say, okay, great. Now I want you to do another problem. 357 times 58. And instinctively either people will reach for a calculator on their phones or they start using the paper in front of them. And I say, okay, pause. Notice how you brought thinking into the world, and you’re using these tools to think. So now these tools are part of your thinking and your cognitive environment. That’s, that’s the point we want to make.

Jorge: The way I’m understanding it is that the traditional way of thinking about it is that thinking happens in the bit of meat between the ears, but the way that you’re talking about it, it really is something that happens in conjunction with the… the entity that is doing the thinking is thinking in conjunction with the environment. It’s almost like the environment is part of the thinking apparatus.

Stephen: Correct. Yeah. It’s becoming aware of the role of the body and the environment and others in that environment and how thinking happens in those cases. Now, if it’s a super simple problem that may be very local and it may just be you in front of your notebook, right? Which is one extension of that. But if it’s a particularly complicated problem… the example I like to bring up is think of workshops, right? Where we have these sticky notes, we have whiteboards, we have all these things that facilitate us working together and becoming more of a – I don’t know, hive-mind is not the right word because we’re not thinking the same – but if facilitates the dialogue that we can all have and ways we can exchange information and exchange ideas.

And I think a lot of people don’t think of the sticky notes as part of the cognitive environment. But when you start looking at it that way, then you become aware: well, what does it mean to have different colored sticky notes? Or how will it the affect our conversation to ask people to use Sharpie markers instead of pens on the sticky notes, and how will that affect visibility when things are on the wall? And you start to think about designing that learning and that learning-construction environment in a way that leads to fruitful outcomes.

Collaborating remotely

Jorge: I’ve previously referred to the space where workshops happen and the pile of sticky notes as a shared cognitive space, where we’re… like you said, it’s not necessarily that we’re creating a hive-mind, but we are creating this receptacle where our minds can function together more effectively in some way because we are creating shared references in the environment. And I’m wondering, given that for the past three months we have not been able to be in these shared cognitive spaces, if you have found major differences and or ways of doing this effectively when working remotely?

Stephen: Oh gosh, absolutely. I’m having to retool a lot of things like workshops I’ve done for years, I’m having to rethink. So I had one scheduled for the IA Conference earlier this year, and there was that moment where I had to decide, am I going to bring this online you know, using tools like Mural or Miro or other things, or am I going to pull the plug and, you know, just for context, that workshop, I do things where I do like live body polling. So I’ll have everyone like line up along the wall on the scale, right? We have had this sort of, almost like a board game I’ve made the people play with at their tables, so it’s very tangible. It’s physical. People are moving things around. So, it’s, it goes well beyond just the moving stickies. Like I use the physical space in these workshops. And so, I had to pause and say, okay, can this translate online? And if so, do I have enough time to do so? I ended up pulling the plug just because with the amount of time allowed, I was like, okay, there is a significant restructure that would be required to explore this material in a comparable way to what we do in the workshop.

That said, I’ve been stepping back and taking time and thinking about how to do that with the same workshop material, and I’m kind of excited. I wouldn’t say it’s… it might be better. Actually, I think it will be better in some ways. I think “different” is probably a better word, but I’m moving towards something where we’ll meet for a couple of times a week for several weeks, 90 minutes each time. And as I’m thinking about this, that shift from, you know, a physical all-day in-person workshop to now something that happens over say a month period and small chunks, allows time between sessions, for reflection and questions, which we know from learning theory is a big part of how we learn when you have a chance to reflect on things and think about it and come back again. There’s a chance to assign questions for reflection or homework or things. So, I’m actually excited about the shift to that.

So, there are certainly a lot of things lost in the shift to online and distributed. But there are some opportunities for new things. I think that’s the catch, where instead of just trying to replicate or bring what you did online, in a physical format, stepping back and saying, okay, what are the advantages or disadvantages of going all digital and distributed and remote? And really catering to this differentiated medium and playing to its strengths and avoiding the weaknesses. And that’s hard. I think a lot of people just want to say, okay, can I replicate what I did in-person online? And I don’t know, I think you’re seeing mixed results there.

Outsourcing understanding

Jorge: Yeah, I can relate to that. I was facilitating a workshop just yesterday and we were using Miro, which tries to replicate a whiteboard with sticky notes. And the workshop participants had put virtual sticky notes on the “wall” – I’m doing air quotes, as I say, sticky notes on wall, right? – in advance. And facilitating a workshop with sticky notes on the wall is something that I’ve done many, many, many times in my life and I’m very comfortable with and I can do very quickly. And it’s not the same to be able to grab a physical sticky note and move it around than it is to point and click at something with a mouse. There was a little bit of friction there in going through that.

And with that in mind, I wanted to ask you about a passage in the book. And this is an aside in one of the chapters… I’m going to quote now, you say I, and you clarify that it… because we haven’t mentioned this, but this book is co-authored with our friend Karl Fast.

Stephen: Correct.

Jorge: But this snippet is something you wrote because it actually calls it out. It says, “I, Stephen, worry that we’ve conflated making things user-centered with always making things easy. And in the process, we risk dumbing down people. There’s a kind of bad friction that should be removed from all interactions, but there’s also the good kind of friction that gets us into a flow state and leads to understanding.” I’m very curious about that. I’m hoping you will expand on that a little bit here.

Stephen: Oh, gosh, I think you had the privilege of being one of the early readers and I think I had a whole lot more on this that we ended up cutting just because of… we wanted to, we made the point, right? And I didn’t need to repeat examples. But yeah, that’s something that concerns me, something I feel strongly about. And again, my bias is towards education and I would love to see the entire world up-leveled in terms of our understanding our own cognitive abilities. So, anything that… or in most cases, things that don’t challenge us or don’t teach us along the way I tend to be critical or at least hesitant about.

I can’t remember which example made it to the book. But I think I use maps and finding a parking space. And I held up two examples, and one was a designer who has done a makeover on those confusing… the confusing parking signs, that’s the one in the book. And so, you know, think of the parking signs and the downtown area that are confusing. And we have to pause and say, okay, what’s this actually saying? Can I park here right now? And that’s, that’s usually the task or the question at hand. And you know, depending on how complex it is, the sign, you know, there’s a bit of a mental wrangling we have to do and we stop and we figure it out because the information is there, it’s just… it’s not presented in a way that’s easily understood. So, a designer is taken to redesign that into something so it looks more like a calendar with green and red boxes and, you know, shading for accessibility reasons. And you can glance, you can say, okay, I know it’s 2:23 right now, I see where I am in this map, and I know right away I can park here, or I can’t park here. It’s very clear. So, the understanding has been made clear. Then there’s another example, which, I admire for the cleverness: it’s where you can just point your mobile app at the original confusing street sign and through the magic of machine learning and AI it’ll translate and say, yes, you can park here or no, you can’t.

And so, they’re both really great solutions to the idea. But I pause and say, okay, one of them, you learn about the pattern. You see, okay, there’s this one time I can’t park here on the weekends, but the rest of the time, I’m good. So, you start to learn in the process. And it’s a super tiny example, but it’s an easy one to hold up this contrast. So, there’s that with the other one where you’re just depending on the machine to tell you yes, you can. And no, you can’t, there’s no understanding. You get the information you need to make the decision in the moment, which may be all you care about, right? But if we pause and reflect on these, one of those you learn from, and the other you don’t.

And so that’s an example, and you can make a value judgment and say, I would never need to learn whether I can park there. But then I translate it to other areas. And I say, okay, well think about maps and driving around. A lot of us just rely on… you know, actually there are two views within something like Google Maps. We can just have the turn-by-turn view, which is always oriented to where I’m at now and just says, “turn left, turn, right.” And we could drive in the same city for a year and never form a mental model of the city and the map. And so, we’re entirely dependent then on the technology because we haven’t figured our own way out. So that’s one solution, or we could switch to the other view in Google maps, and actually it’s the one where we see ourselves in context of the map, the dot moving around. And that gives us a better sense of orientation: North, South, East, West, where we’re at at all times. And so, the contrast I would highlight there is one helps you develop a mental model or our cognitive understanding of the space or the other… the other doesn’t. It just gives you what you need and keeps you going.

And so, then you’ve magnified it out. Then you get much more complex and critical issues. Like, you know, I have a parent who has been diagnosed with cancer, what are my options? Right? Or, I need to buy a new car, what are my options? How do I make sense of it? And suddenly we find ourselves in the same boat where we can ask the machine and the machine says, you should buy this car for, you know, $16K from this place, in fact, I can contact them for you. But there’s a lot of trust now, and we have not done any of the understanding or processing ourselves. And that’s where I get concerned is how much are we okay with outsourcing the process of understanding and figuring things out for ourselves. And again, you don’t need to figure all things out at all times. Sometimes we can just get the easy answer and that’s fine. But I think there are a lot of areas where we are starting to outsource that understanding, and perhaps we shouldn’t.

Jorge: If I’m understanding this correctly, then a distinction in understanding something versus not understanding something is the degree to which you have… after an interaction, you have a model of the thing that you’re interacting with that maybe allows you to extrapolate, make decisions, move forward in ways that maybe weren’t designed into the system or that are explicitly accounted for. It’s the difference between following directions and having a model that lets you generate the directions by yourself.

Stephen: Exactly. And it may be in that moment, just following directions is all you need, but there may be other cases where you need more than that, and you don’t have that foundation to begin with. And to use another, again, analogy, another gaming example… I was thinking about chess and the role that the chess board plays in our understanding of the possibilities and the game. And you know, we all are used to play \[by] moving chess pieces on a chess board, presumably. But if I said, okay, we’re going to play chess, but we’re going to do it via text message. So, now you have to like talk about the pieces and where they’re moving the removal of that physical spatial representation would make it that much more difficult to remember where players are, because you’d be scrolling through prior, text messages and written text summaries of moves and plays, which would just be insane to keep up with. But you could also argue even having the text message representation is a record, right? So, you can at least see it and reflect on it. You could imagine removing that altogether and not having it. So, the point being when we start thinking about chess as a cognitive activity, the role that the map plays is to hold all sorts of meanings and also help us see patterns we wouldn’t otherwise see.

And so, they go back to our traveling around, driving around town example. It may be that I’m fine just following directions from place to place, but there are going to be occasions where if I have that good mental map of my options, I can improvise or take a backroad or do other things that I think are natural. And again, we may decide that’s not an area I need to understand, it’s not the value, and that’s fine, but let’s take the principles then to something like a cognitive map, like you see with the business model canvas or things like polarity mapping, where these are canvases and tools, maps of a different kind game boards of different kind that are meant to facilitate dialogue. In those cases, I’ve found these tools to be invaluable for getting people to talk about really complex topics. Far superior to you said, and I said, and they said, you know, these simplistic, reductionist arguments we often fall into, particularly on things like Twitter, right? Where people are having what should be very nuanced conversations, but we’re having to resort to very binary, simple, distinctions.

Back to user interface design

Jorge: A few weeks ago, my kids and I watched the launch of the rocket.

Stephen: Oh yeah! Exciting!

Jorge: Yeah, which was really exciting, right? And I remember one of the things that stood out to us in watching that live, were the shots from inside the cockpit of the spacecraft, the Dragon spacecraft. And it didn’t look like the cockpits of the 1960s and 1970s and even 1980s, you know, the space shuttle, right? Which are really complex, with these assortments of controls and dials and so on. And I’m returning here to the example of the cockpit as a cognitive environment. The Dragon spacecraft cockpit is a series of touchscreens, so it’s like a glass cockpit, where everything is software and it’s up for display. And I’m wondering… That seems to me like a good stand-in for the path that so many of our interactions have taken in the last couple of decades where everything is becoming dematerialized and we’re experiencing information more and more through screens, basically. And I’m wondering, the degree to which that impairs our ability to form models, when everything is up for grabs and everything is fluid on these screens.

Stephen: Yeah. So that’s a tricky one, because we get into the ergonomics of the database structure, and the physicality of things. So, I’m going to keep my comments very narrow.

I do think with interfaces like the one you’re mentioning, you’re seeing just more of the increasing abstraction from how things actually function behind the scenes. And I think that abstraction, I mean, that’s what we do or have done for years as designers is to make things easier for the user by abstracting how things actually work. The challenge there though then is when things don’t fit the user mental model and the user has no idea of what’s going on. Like, if things break down, you know, will the astronauts be able to do some repair in the moment or is this… is the abstraction so much so that that’s not possible anymore as it was, you know, in decades past, would be a concern.

But bringing it back to everyday user interface design, we know we all encounter error messages and things every day and a good half of them, because of the industry we work in, we know what’s going on or we have a sense of, “Oh, that’s how they architect it.” So, annoying pet peeve of mine, the dropdown menu button that only has one option than it. And I’m like, why, why, why did you have a dropdown with one option? This is silly, right? But if you understand how things were built and more of an engineering mindset, and there could be more, it was the easiest way to build that suite. We kind of understand a bit about the system and how it works and in doing so we can either be more forgiving or we can figure out work arounds because we understand a little bit that of that layer.

So, the philosophical question there then is when is abstraction good and when is it harmful? And then what context might it be helpful to understand how a thing actually works? I would say for those who practice design, particularly UI design, this is why it’s really good to understand a little bit about how things are being built and the language used by a lot of engineers and developers so we can be better at being that interface between, you know what our users, our customers, people need to do and how things actually run and function in the backend.

Jorge: Are there pointers, heuristics, guidelines that help people decide how much abstraction is too much?

Stephen: Oh gosh, I think it’s entirely contextual. And again, are we talking about user interface guidelines? Are we talking about bringing people together to make a business decision? You know, I think it would depend on the context.

Jorge: Well, these days, there’s a lot of overlap between those, right? Like, given that we’re interacting mostly through software, especially during this lockdown. like we were saying earlier, even workshops, which we would have done in physical space before, now having to happen in these abstractions of those environments. And to your point earlier, it doesn’t serve as well to try to mirror what happened in one environment in this other one.

I remember reading this book – and I know that you like games, which is why I’m going to bring up this example – but a book that was very influential to me early on, it’s called The Art of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford. This is about early video game design, like late 1970s, early 1980s. And he talks about the folly of trying to replicate sports in the video game format or board games in a video game screen, because these are different… they’re different media in a way, right? And they don’t have the tacticality that you get in a board game is going to be completely lost on a glass tablet, right?

Stephen: Yeah. Thinking about this in a different area… so just a week or two ago, hey.com, the new mail client or mail service from, from Basecamp launched. And it’s funny because before they launched and had the information, I had arrived – this was just like a couple of weeks ago – I was doing research for something to collect all the newsletters I subscribe to. And I started thinking about the IA of email and it occurred to me, you know, I’m using email for at least three, maybe more things.

So, one is the conversations, like you and I had the dialogue back and forth to set this podcast up, right? So that’s one type of interaction. Then I am using email in a very passive way to read these newsletters that come in and there are different types of newsletters and different types of things, right? So, we could further split that, but it’s very passive, right? I’m not meant to respond to those. And so, in that sense, it’s more like a podcast service or a magazine or something else, not a chat or a conversation mechanism. And then there are things like transactions, like sign me up for new account, paying your bills where you know, you file of your records.

Well, that ended up being the information architecture that hey.com is using. And what follows then is how you design that passive reading experience is very different from how you design the conversation experience. And it was one of those things that I think we’ve just grown so accustomed to email and email has been used as a workhorse for so many things that we haven’t paused to say, wow, should I design the interaction of this type of media or content or this interaction differently from this one? And we know that, but we just haven’t pointed out that at you know, something that’s just been under our noses this entire time. So, I thought that was interesting just in terms of designing for thinking about the context of these interactions and how we design differently.

Jorge: I’ve been following that as well, the release of that new take on email and it strikes me as a kind of stepping back and rethinking what this is about and how we interact with email, what we use it for. And I read your book as an invitation to do that in many realms, not just email, but it does strike me as something that deals with how we interact with and understand the world in general. Is that a fair take?

Stephen: I’m jumping up and down clapping right now. Yes! That, I think that was the biggest thing is, because we’re not writing a “how to” book to fix a known problem. We’re trying to – Karl and I – are trying to raise awareness of these information or understanding, I think we call them “problems of understanding” that we live in every day.

And so, we all get amazed when we see someone you know, design a better prescription pill bottle, right? Or just do a better sign make-over and fix these things. I opened with an example of a redesigned medical chart to help manage my son’s diabetes and people go, “ooh,” and “ahh” over this. But I think the first thing is just becoming aware of these things as problems of understanding in the first place. And so, I think that’s, we try to kind of double down on that in the opening chapter, which is we have all of these problems of understanding. Terms of service, like signing these things. They could be designed in a better way, such that they’re more understandable.

And so that’s… that was really the first step. And then once you become aware that, okay, there are many cases where I’m given the information, but I don’t know how to get understanding, whether it’s for others or for myself, what do I do? And that’s really the rest of the book is how to work with information as a resource. And whether that’s activating these prior associations, like we talked about with the math problem earlier, whether that’s bringing thoughts, ideas into the world and making them tangible, physical, whether it’s interacting with them, a combination or coordination of all of those things. Like that’s where our book wanted to go was raise awareness of this information or are these understanding problem challenges that we have and then what you can do about it. What anyone could do about it. Which was also hard, because it’s not a book specifically for designers or it is for everyone who designs, which of course is anyone who arranges clothes in their closet or sorts their pantry, right? We’re all designing when we do that. And so, it’s, how do you translate those skills that we already do in these other areas of our life to things that are more conceptual and abstract in nature, which is often where the divide or the gap is.

Closing

Jorge: That strikes me as a great summary of what the book is about and a good place for us to wrap up our conversation. So, where can folks follow up with you?

Stephen: I think this point, normally I would direct them to my personal site, but these days I’m pouring all my energy into The Mighty Minds Club. So, I think going to themightymindsclub.com, and you can sign up for only $2, right? Which is… it’s a beta right now, but that’s the best way to stay in touch. Otherwise, you know, I’m on Twitter, @StephenAnderson and other places, but I’m trying to send everyone there. And you know, this time, next year it will be a paid service and things, but right now I’m just trying to get a lot of people in the door and playing with some of these tools and things.

And in many ways, everything I write about in the book, everything Karl and I write about the book, is laying the foundation for what I’m doing next. And so, for example, going back to an earlier question, you asked about heuristics and things. One of the things I’m trying to collect are what are the specific tested, really useful tools that are out there to help with all these different scenarios, and different challenges that we have. And so, I pitch it as – The Mighty Minds Club – as a method, you know, that’s the tool part, a “method of the month” club, to help people and product teams work through difficult situations. And the difficult situation could be that, you know, that conflict and that disagreement, like we want to do more research, they just want to ship stuff out the door, right? It could be that. It could be more of an interpersonal nature, like the real issue isn’t knowing what to do or the right thing. We all know it, we’re just not, for whatever reasons. So, what’s the bias, what’s the fear, what’s going on personally, that’s keeping us from doing that. So, let’s, let’s dig into a tool or two that helps us confront that.

I think right now there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future. And so, I’m launching with a tool from Foresight Strategies around how to create scenarios for possible futures. And even there, there’s not one good tool. There are dozens of tools. And so, the one I’m doubling down on is the tool that helps us explore the most divergent from the most varying options, which I think is a good, good thing to launch with. And then you can actually walk through that door of different scenarios and say, okay, everything gets better. Everything collapses, everything… you know, we go through a major transformation, whatever it may be, we can walk through and explore what that future might look like, whether it’s six months or six years, or, you know, 20 years from now. And so I figured that was a great tool to launch with, but that would be my answer to your heuristics is like, eh, I don’t know the heuristics for so many contexts but a better answer, then “it depends,” is I think there are good tools, canvases, card decks, tool kits, playbooks out there for specific problems. And so, if we can bring all those under one roof and share and talk about those that’s, that’s what I’m trying to do there.

Jorge: Well, I’ve signed up and I am so excited for the club and to keep learning from you. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Stephen: Thank you Jorge!