Warrior Monk Conversations 007: Collaborative Virtual Workspaces and Wellbeing with Melissa Painter
Updated: Jun 25
In the time of the coronavirus pandemic where schools are being closed and are transitioned to online classes, Melissa Painter shares her experience on collaborative virtual workspaces and collaborative practices.
Melissa also talks about her journey as a transmedia storyteller—from MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to designing 5D workspaces, transitioning from long-form narrative filmmaking to short-form documentaries and eventually wanting to design real-world solutions.
She further discusses her vision for the world in the advent of AI and spatial computing, making a radical choice which changed her trajectory, founding Breakthru—a platform of immersive wellbeing experiences for the workplace, and how she sees the future of education and healthcare.
Melissa Painter heads MAP Lab. She has deep experience in narrative design, augmented and virtual reality, content strategy, interaction design, storytelling, both cinematic and live, and in leading large and small teams in creative collaboration. As a filmmaker, her films have premiered at Sundance, Cannes, The New York Film Festival, SXSW, and Telluride. She is also co-author of the book Edie Sedgwick, Edie: Girl on Fire.
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Warrior Monk Conversations 007: Collaborative Virtual Workspaces and Wellbeing with Melissa Painter
Welcome to Warrior Monk Conversations, a treasure trove of inspirational discussions in personal and professional development.
I am Poonacha Machaiah. Join me on this journey where I have immersive conversations with the most thought-provoking leaders and everyday heroes from our communities to inspire, educate, and empower you to build resilience and reach your highest potential. Join me on this mission to create a positive societal shift to the compassionate transformation of humankind.
Melissa Painter is the thought leader in Transmedia Storytelling and heads MAP lab.
She has deep experience in narrative design, augmented and virtual reality, content strategy, interaction design storytelling (both cinematic and live), and in leading large and small teams in creative collaboration. Melissa is an award-winning filmmaker and author. Her work has been featured in some of the leading festivals, such as Sundance, and New York Film Festival, and South by Southwest. Melissa has been selected as a fellow of both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Sundance Directors Lab and as a mentor of Sundance's New Frontiers Lab. She has directed three feature films and over 150 short form documentaries focused on innovation, education, and social justice. Melissa holds a BA in Ancient Greek from Columbia University and an MFA in Film from New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
Poonacha: So Melissa, first of all, fantastic! Good to catch up today.
Melissa: Thank you, Poonacha.
Poonacha: So I want to ask you one thing before I get started. I was reading about your background, and I love this concept of collaborative virtual workspaces. You know, I've been looking at what's happening, in the weeks, with the coronavirus, and the world really kind of---children now have been told to work from home, right? And online classes. How do you define collaborative virtual workspace? And what's your vision?
Melissa: What I think is the compelling---well, we're in a compelling, this case, right now, as you pointed out. When I look across our team, because we've been working virtually and collectively and collaboratively for four and a half years, and I look at what we're able to do virtually and what we have to do face to face, I find that component of it absolutely fascinating. I think that the face-to-face piece, for me, is around, that, trust building and learning how to read someone and their reactions and how essential that is. And it's funny for us to find, even in the context of a video call, that once you know someone well, you can read a lot in that component.
What fascinates me about these shared virtual dimensional workspaces is that there is a potential to have a sense of, at least, intellectual presence, if not physical presence, in a shared environment. And I think that that piece is a breakthrough. That's quite fascinating. Also, for us, one of the things that's fundamental there is being able to, in real time, manipulate objects together in a shared environment. So you're able to share, I'm able to make a mark, we can have a play space or a sandbox, where we're able to interact and see the interaction. And that is the point at which it's never going to be the same depth of the face-to-face. But you do have that sensation of genuinely collaborating in real time, in the moment, in a way that feels the same way it feels when you're on a very sort of iterative, conversational line in a brainstorm. If that makes sense.
Poonacha: Absolutely. I think the world, with the gig economy, right?
Poonacha: I feel everybody is going to be working in different parts of the world. And what fascinates me with what you're doing with MAP Design Lab is really fostering this environment of collaboration.
Poonacha: And today, collaboration has been primarily video, but when you really bring in this aspect of interaction with mixed reality, I think you can really build trust. Right? And I think that's something---trust in design is something I'm fascinated with, right? When you're looking at
design worlds and things like that.
Melissa: So my deep background is as a narrative filmmaker, and hearing you talk, I'm thinking about that moment of pre-production on a film where you're coming together around a shared vision, but no line is written yet. Nothing is filmed yet.
Melissa: Right? And the director of photography is going to come with their perspective, and the actors with theirs, and production designer with theirs, and yet, you're still in a shared visioning piece. One of the, not blockers, but compelling things about that shared virtual space is, if you can't all bring your skills and your tools into the space, you can't really collaborate.
So, for example, we're building on a beta right now for Microsoft that will become part of their team's platform that's a dimensional, very simple, like, think of it almost as a dimensionalized PowerPoint. But what's fascinating to us as a team is, I'm bringing motion capture inside there from dancers, I'm bringing drawings in from my concept artists, I'm bringing my scribbled notes, which everyone has to get used to read, and I'm bringing in sound snippets from the sound designer into one shared document. That is a completely game changer because it's not like we go around to field trips to your expertise, and then my expertise, and then, you know, someone else's expertise. They're all in the same place at the same time. And to me, that's when you really are collaborating. Those, I think, collaborative practices, I mean, one of the things I love about the immersive space is that it demands a form of collaboration that I think very few other disciplines do. If you don't have the courage to listen and the leadership to make safe spaces for people up and down the food chain of an organization to speak up when they see an opportunity or a problem, then you're shooting yourself in the foot.
Poonacha: So from MFA at Tisch to now designing 5D or 4D spaces, what's the journey? What took you in this area of being a transmedia storyteller?
Melissa: You know, it's very interesting because when I look back, I realized that the skill sets that I leverage, not just as a filmmaker but very specifically, as an independent, no budget filmmaker, are the things that serve me the best every day. And the only other work experience that I have that I leverage every single day is having been a kick-ass waitress.
And it's that feeling of being able to be genuinely in the moment, shooting in the real world, almost like you would with a documentary, having had to collect everyone around a vision and collect a band of people that were doing it for the love and not for the money, and then, finding a way to make people feel safe, like really safe, like that feeling that when you're on a film, and you have managed to create a bubble around the camera, that includes the actors, where those actors can really be and be fully vulnerable, like that sense of making that bubble and everything around it is watching it and separating it---that, to me, is like the beauty of us larger small team working creatively together.
And that is what, you know, as a team, I would say we do every day. The difference for me and where the transition came, so I did long form narrative filmmaking, but I grew up in the age of Harvey Weinstein, which was not the world's most beautiful time to be a female film director. And I also, you know, I have a family that I take care of, and so there was a certain point at which it was just untenable. I transitioned into short form documentary, and that to me, was a reinitiation into the fact that I cared about real world problems.
And so, on a given day, working on, you know, health stats for the Obama administration, I might be interviewing, literally, the head of Medicare and a mom in the street corner with a five year old. She didn't have health insurance. And that was when I realized I'm tired of telling stories about these problems. I want to do something with my skills and expertise, limited or specific as they may be, that feels like I'm designing for real world solutions.
Poonacha: Wow. So paint me a picture of your moonshot or the world, ideal world, and you said no budget filmmaker, I can---I know you're such a great, when it comes to being an entrepreneur, like really bootstrapping and not having, being frivolous. What is your moonshot? What is the world you look at in the future with everything you have today, with technology? What does it look like? Where is it going?
Melissa: I think we're at a pivotal moment because I do believe that the advent of AI and facial computing is an opportunity to level set and then redirect our global relationship with technology. And I believe it's essential. And to me, what this moment is about is sort of a series of things. The ones that I obsess on the most are: how can this moment return us to the fact that humans are full body thinkers and feelers, and that we have adopted our minds and our bodies to our current forms of technology in a way that does not allow us to reach our full potential.
So in this moment in time, can we do things like help people arrive at a work moment where they're really bringing their physicality to that moment, their movement to that moment, their emotional life to that moment, and their brains to that moment? And also, I think, so that's one sort of tipping point. Then, also, how does this become a space for lifelong learning? So if AI can be in service of you or I, living ourselves better or our ancestral AI better or our communities better, spectacular! If it's designed to make us better consumers in service of Facebook, perhaps, not so great. And yet, it has an ability to give us, I believe, a bird's eye view on our own behavior in our own life, in a way that might actually make behavioral change stickier.
So that's an enormous opportunity. Yeah, so I think those--and then, the last piece for me, the tipping point is, can we return people to a feeling of creativity and autonomy and get out of this weird moment of intense industrialized consumerism that we've been in, you know? We industrialized consumers. We took away people's ability to be self-sufficient.
Poonacha: Absolutely. Educational system still looks like factories, right?
Melissa: That's exactly right.
Poonacha: What we have from the industrial age, I think it's time to change. So when you look at, you know, when you look at your life, I'm always fascinated with the choices we have made, was there a moment in time, was there a milestone you can think of, when you made a radical choice, and the trajectory changed?
Melissa: I feel like I've been on an evolving path, and even though it's led to an outcome that I, in no way, could have predicted, even six years ago, when I thread it backwards, the logic seems that it could have led me nowhere but here, and I'm 150% standing exactly where I would wish to be at this point in my life, at this moment in time. So that was an enormous gift. That said, for me, moments of personal breakthrough have been, when I've stared down ethical quandaries in my work, and made, to me, at least, what felt like the right choice by my team or the right choice by the ethics, even if it was a hard choice or the wrong choice for me personally.
And what that allowed me to do is to really face down fear and realize that, you know, clutching to what felt right just for me, me, me, me or my practice, when it was not right for the group, that was a fear-based decision; and stepping through that, and realizing that you can survive and land and keep going, and in fact, if you do that enough over a lifetime, you accumulate some kind of momentum like that. That, to me, is the surprise case. Does that make sense?
Poonacha: Beautiful. So in that note, you talked about fear, what is your message to women entrepreneurs all over the world, being an entrepreneur yourself? What is that one thing or two things you would like to tell them while they are embarking on the journey, while they graduate from college and want to become an entrepreneur?
Melissa: It's a hard answer coming from me because I feel like I've been an entrepreneur my whole life, but I never would have tried to start the kind of business I'm trying to start today if I weren't at this point in my life. I actually think part of the problem with entrepreneurship is we're expecting that leadership from people who are babies, and we don't have a good system to let people go out into the world and learn from mentors. One of the things I have learned over time is that not only do you want to build diverse teams in all the ways that we traditionally think about it, but we want to build diverse teams in terms of age. I learned so much traditionally from people who are older than me, and I have my entire life. And if I had tried to start a breakthrough at 20, it would have been a fiasco.
Poonacha: I completely agree with that. I think we have a big, I think, value with our baby boomers today.
Poonacha: And really going back and looking at solutions where we can engage this amazingly rich wisdom, and how we are going to bring them back into the workforce of advisors, mentors, to---even, that's a very important thing we can look at. And I believe the biggest cure for loneliness is service.
Melissa: Totally agree.
Poonacha: If we can put them in service, it improves their self-worth, right?
Melissa: I totally agree, and I would say that that applies to the young people, too. I mean, there is a point in life where you timeout if you're just doing it for personal gain.
Melissa: You know. And that's gonna hit you whenever it hits you, but inevitably, it will if that's how you've been living your path.
Poonacha: So I'm fascinated by your latest venture breakthrough.me, and I think this is an area I've, kind of, spent a lot of my personal time and corporate wellbeing. I believe that if leaders all over the world, like tipping point of leadership, and leadership changes, and they can look at their workforce or spend 10-12 hours at work, if they look at their wellbeing, they can transform the workplace society at large.
Poonacha: Right? What is your vision with breakthrough? Can you spend a few minutes talking about your vision, what you want to do? And I guess when I'm sharing this podcast to everybody out there who will be listening, what can they expect to see with breakthrough?
Melissa: So our vision is an ecosystem of immersive, movement-driven wellbeing experiences, and the goal with it is to leverage what I believe to be, you know, an enormous vastness of body knowledge from many cultures around how can we use your body in relation to level set your brain, to tune your brain through a movement practice, to bring those into a bio-responsive and visually-responsive environment, in a way that is transportive enough that it can help take you from whatever mood state you're in at the moment into where you're trying to get. So from frantic to calm, perhaps, or from tired or bored to energized, and do that in the space of a really short micro break. I do believe that we have an enormous ability physically to reset ourselves and recenter ourselves, and we can do it in the space of five breaths. I mean, we know that to be biologically true.
Melissa: And yet, we've designed days with very few opportunities to do that, and we've raised people who have very little education about how.
Poonacha: I mean, there are two---there are adjacent markets I see just listening to you today. Obviously, it's corporate wellness, but an area which I work very closely with, with PTSD, is the first responders, the police, firefighters, the armed forces, and our physicians. Today, we have all-time high physician burnout. Right?
Poonacha: I think these are people who could really leverage. And obviously, I've had an experience of an in-body experience, and I'll obviously share the information in the show notes, but is there a link where you can actually go see this experience? I know you have this at Sundance. Where's the best place to get this? At least a video on what in-body does.
Melissa: Yeah. So we have videos on
Poonacha: On YouTube?
Melissa: Actually, on Vimeo, which I'm happy to share that link with you. And I don't even think there's the link to the video on the website. I mean, it's one of those, the strangest things in the world about making in the space right now is that it's extremely difficult to capture what it feels like to be in this experience.
Poonacha: I have to agree. I think having gone through an immersive experience, it's hard to quantify what I'm feeling.
Poonacha: To externalize an internal experience is very hard in this particular medium, but I definitely will share information.
Poonacha: So in closing, I have a couple of things I want to just pick your amazing mind on, right? So one is the future of education. How do you see it?
Melissa: Okay. Well, I mean, the future of education (laughs), what I wish for and what I believe is, but that does not mean we're going to get there. I believe that children learn best when they are learning in group collaboratively, but also when the explorations are self-guided. And I believe that, you know, we all come into the world as exceptionally curious beings; we come into the world with a desire to love and a desire to learn. And there are many ways in which our educational system designs those things. And I actually add a third to that, which is I believe everyone's born with the desire and the ability to be creative in some way, shape, or form.
Melissa: And so to me, successful educational systems are the ones that gently cultivate all of those capabilities in children instead of erasing them. So an example of the curiosity is: how does it stand out? How does it start out as helping children learn how to look and how to listen? And then, how to formulate their own 'what if' questions against something they're curious about. Ultimately, that turns into an adult practice of 'how do you form a hypothesis' and then 'what are the fancy ways to test it.' I think we know that we're putting our kids on ice for many, many years today.
And yet, the truth is that kids would like to be engaged with real world problems from a young age. So project-based learning, real-world-engaged learning. And then setting up an educational practice that accepts that we're all full mind-body learners. And so, we learn better when we are having embodied experiences. These technologies are going to give us some really strong components to do that. I mean, things stick when you have some angle into first person experience with it, and then also, when you're teaching to others. I think that these tactics are going to provide some opportunities to do that.
Poonacha: Absolutely. The future of healthcare?
Melissa: When I started working in the documentary space around American healthcare, the thing that startled me the most was two pillars that it felt like the relationship between many Americans and their own health and wellbeing was that they took no responsibility for it. There was this incredibly odd, off-putting of wellbeing onto a medical profession. And, the dynamic of that, which is almost like we've all, you know, decided to stay teenagers and do the wrong thing even though we know it's wrong and to not feel---and I don't, you know, people are dealing with enormous chronic conditions, and it's, I think, it sometimes can look insurmountable.
But to me, the answer is not downstream, it's upstream. And it's helping people learn how to have a healthy relationship. And I don't mean like, 'don't eat chips.' I mean like a really deep, fundamental, and healthy enjoyment with their body and relationship to their body, young, and help them find ways to continue that over time. And that doesn't look like the pre-professional 'we are Sparta' way in which we're running youth athletics. It doesn't look like there are no trees to climb. It doesn't look like there are no playgrounds to play.
And I mean, we're doing 99.9% of it wrong, and then, we're surprised it's turning out this way. I also don't, you know, I believe our bodies can heal themselves from many things, certainly not all, but I do believe that a healthy, healthy medical system needs to be reliant on some wellbeing practices.
Poonacha: You said, the body heals itself. So one of my favorite words and what I'm passionate about is resilience.
Poonacha: What does the word resilience mean to you? And what do you think, what do you think, from your perspective, how do you think, what's a place of resilience? And we look at children and we both---you have a son, and I have two boys, and I always want to talk about resilience and dealing with adversity with grit. What's your thought on that?
Melissa: Well, one thought is that if you can't do that, it's going to be really hard to have a full life (both chuckle) because inevitably, that is the lifelong challenge that we're all confronted with. And, you know, you either get better at it over time or I don't know what happens. My belief is that the point of being on the planet is to learn, and we learn, fortunately, are not through friction. That is just the god's honest truth. We learn through friction. We learn from, hopefully, safe risk-taking. We learn from failure. And the way, the most important thing you learn is 'I thought the world was going to end. Wait, wait, wait. It didn't. I'm still standing. I can recenter on what's, you know, what are the core things that are within my control that are important to me, who's my close community, who I love and who I take care of,' and you just get up, and you keep going.
And I think the thing is that when we've designed so many people to feel like they are, have no control or autonomy in the way things are going for them, and the God's honest truth is, in many cases they don't because the system is just rigged right now. But that doesn't change the fact that there's some way to stand inside all of that with a mindset that is based on resilience as its core practice. And that's a healthier way to have a life.
Poonacha: Thank you, Melissa. I think we started off this conversation with collaborative workspaces, and we, I think we ended this conversation with resilience, but I'm really excited to really see your story unfold for wellbeing in the workplace and organizations and really transforming education and healthcare. There are very few people, I've worked with a lot of people over the years and especially in technology, content, media, storytelling, and from the likes of Dalai Lama to Shekhar Kapur with Deepak Chopra, and I believe that you're able to fully have this narrative and built on compassion. And I think that's really important. I think technology with compassion is what the world really needs. And so, I'm a big believer. I really think you are going to have this breakthrough in corporate America, not corporate, just corporations in general, need to adopt it. Because no longer is a person working for you a human resource, it's a human asset.
Poonacha: And we have to look at our workforce very differently.
Melissa: Absolutely right.
Poonacha: And right now, these are testing times with what's happening with coronavirus. You know what, they're going to be under utmost stress, utmost anxiety. How do leaders rise to the occasion and provide them tools to really galvanize their disconnected workforce, and you leveraging this immersive storytelling, I think is the needed hour. And it's just the beginning, so I'm really excited. Thank you.
Melissa: I'm honored to speak. And thank you.
Poonacha: Thank you.
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Warrior Monk Conversations 007: Collaborative Virtual Workspaces and Wellbeing with Melissa Painter