Letter from a Recent Grad

“What are you thinking about these days? I hope you’ll forgive me for my silence. I needed time to find myself again before I answered you honestly and with an answer that I could respect myself for giving.”

Someone I deeply respect and enjoy collaborating with wrote to me back in October, while I was in the middle of a massive series of changes. I did something I never thought I would do: I didn’t respond to the email, choosing instead to remain silent rather than lie about being happy & successful or admit that I was uncertain and felt like I was in a dark cave, scraping the palms of my hands along the walls while I tried to find the best way to move forward.

I had just left my first job post college and was handling the commentary that ranged from “after only a year? Oy… that won’t look good” to “Good. I can’t wait to see what you do with all your energy and hope.” It was time. I had struggled through a year of something that wasn’t a good fit for me and made me question a lot of things about myself that weren’t worth questioning. I admitted to myself: I wasn’t growing, and the truth set me free.

Months later, the email sat in my inbox. I try to respond to emails as quickly as possible, sometimes leaving heavier ones in my inbox if they require a length response or an answer I do not have yet. But this one sat there, staring at me. Begging me to answer it. And still, I couldn’t.

I was trying to define what kind of environment I needed and what I wanted to be doing… while I didn’t have enough context to do that. There was a lot of uncertainty. For the first time, I let myself be truly ok with that and be patient. I took stock of my resources, wrote a timeline, and reached out to mentors to talk through my next steps.

It turned out, I needed to define things a little differently for myself. I started taking on projects as a freelancer and meeting people based on what I wanted to learn. I was humble and prepared questions, instead of presentations. I was, for the first time in years, patient with myself.

I found myself again this spring. It was a moment of peace.

I think I needed the detour, the periods of time where I needed the slow to thaw so I could find a trail again, a few forks in the road… and an outcome that I never expected to find. I could embrace it because I was patient and willing to keep trying. I am less certain about where I am going, but more excited to discover the route on my own.

Today, I finally answered that email. I know this friend will read my words knowingly and forgive me for my silence.

I write about this now for my friends graduating or thinking about leaving jobs where they are miserable and feel trapped. I write because I know how much easier it would have been to remain silent and make it sound like I always had a grand plan and everything was 100% figured out. Spoiler: it wasn’t. It isn’t. I’m not ashamed of that.

You learn by exploring. Be patient with yourself, and making sure you keep reading/learning about things outside of your immediate environment. And don’t let anyone tell you that you have to stay somewhere that isn’t working for you.

If Our Worst Fears Really Are Public Speaking, Heights, & Insects*…

…then the least I can do is offer some advice for people who are working on presentations/talks.

I think about this a lot for the work I do every day now at TED, but it was a more direct concern to me while I was preparing for my talks at TEDUniversity at TEDGlobal 2014 and TEDxMunich last fall. The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned through

Ok, so it’s terrifying. Where do we start?

1) Find someone who respects you enough to give you real time feedback. Ideally, they will tell you the points when you are eating your words, stumbling through an explanation, skipping important points in your argument, gesticulating too much, etc. They need to be confident, authoritative, and clear with their feedback. Don’t look for someone who will be too nice and give you unclear comments.

2) Have your selected speaker coach go through multiple trials with you. You should pick something to work on in each round, ideally finding a way to fit all of your performance edits into a routine. Maybe the first time you run through something, you work on being loud. The second time, you work on speaking very clearly and enunciating. The third time, you get comfortable enough with the language to relax your body and develop a stage presence. Each round requires feedback and an eye for detail. Get comfortable with your coach, it’s going to take a while.

3) Don’t memorize to the point that you can’t go off script when something goes wrong. Once you’ve run through the talk enough times, you should have a loose roadmap in your head of where you need to go, where there are some tough, tight turns you need to nail so you don’t free fall, and parts that are more relaxed where you can be more creative. Be gentle with your talk, it will go better that way.

4) You can prepare yourself to weather the tides of failed technology and missing slides. As a speaker, being able to roll with the punches makes you seem more confident and authoritative. Lifehacker published an article recently about mental rehearsals, and there is a particular section about all the various things that could go wrong with technology and audiences etc. when you are giving a talk. It recommends thinking through each of those scenarios and having a back up reaction ready for the impending problem. This is excellent advice. It will not only make you feel more at ease, but when something goes wrong, as it inevitably might, you will shrug if off because you’ll think “I’ve been here before. No sweat!”

5) Remember why you are doing this talk. Remember why you enjoy the work/research you are presenting. Then have fun! At some point in your rehearsals, you will have gone through enough rounds of practice with your talk that you could go through it on autopilot. Now, learn to have fun with it. Your audience will read your expression and body language. If you have fun, they’ll have fun.

*According to the 1977 Book of Lists, the Top 10 things the audience polled feared were (in order of frequency): death, heights, insects, financial problems, deep water, sickness, death, flying, and loneliness.

Students Under Pressure

Excellence.

It’s an abstract concept, right? But what happens when you give kids the tools to start defining the world around them through metrics… and they build their own “concrete” definitions of “excellence.” Answer: they sometimes start to define their lives around their “concrete definitions” of what it means to be excellent.

Why is this a problem?

When you have a concrete goal, something you have decided is fact and determines whether or not you succeed… it’s hard to accept failure without blaming yourself. A number of my brightest classmates at Yale struggled with this.  The reasoning went as follows:

1) I have failed. Why have I failed?

2) I was not working hard enough. It is my fault.

Why do we accept the fault? Because then, it might be something we can fix. If it is something within ourselves, we can fix it and do better next time.

Sometimes, this can be sort of reasonable. Maybe you really didn’t study enough for that exam, because you are overcommitted and need to adjust your time/commitments accordingly. Or, maybe you need to SLEEP to retain information and maintain basic cognitive functions, as Professor Matthew Walker (UC Berkeley) reminded the audience at the Smithsonian Future is Here conference this past weekend.

But it gets scary when we see interviews with high school students in Silicon Valley, where suicide rates are increasing at an alarming rate, come out with quotes like this:

“I feel like I’m never doing enough, not using my time wisely, not working hard enough. It goes deep, this disappointment in ourselves.” At Gunn, she says, “we don’t have any time for fun now, so we’ll get into a good college and make money, so we can be happy in the future.”

What happens when we build a generation so fixated on the future that we lose our sense of presence now?

Confession: I was definitely one of these students in college. Everything was broken into 15 minute chunks and scheduled so far in advance, that if someone asked me to meet for coffee I would usually offer them three time slots a week from that day. Yes, I got everything done. I checked a lot of boxes. I am proud of what I accomplished… but at what cost? Constant anxiety. “Am I doing enough?” Being constantly over-caffeinated. I remembering judging my peers who slept more than 4 hours a night (…which is completely absurd, since they probably performed better and made more rational decisions that I could given how little I slept).

A friend of mine drives me nuts by being hard to reach sometimes, but this is because he is exceptionally good at being present. When he is talking to you, his phone is far away and he is not thinking about emails he forgot to respond to/people he needs to connect with. He is there with you and only you, in that environment, seeing and taking it in with you.

It’s sad to me that this is unique. He is one of a small handful of people I know who do this. But it reminds me the value of living in the present and taking in what is right in front of me.

What if we start defining excellence in the present? What if we define it in abstract terms that aren’t tied to timelines and hard lines and “it’s my fault..”

Most importantly, how do we return a fluid sense of “excellence” to our next generations of students… before it’s too late?

Do you have time?

Generally, no.

But this question is also not worth asking me. If you’re pitching me a project, it means you should have done some background research. You know that I like to work on a lot of things, think through really difficult problems and projects, that I spend as much time as I can with people who inspire and challenge me, that the only times I turn off are when I collapse from exhaustion and give myself a few hours to process (and write about) everything.

You know I am pulled in many directions at the same time and I have to deliver feedback quickly and honestly because sometimes I don’t have as much time as I would like to sugar coat it.

But if it’s worth it, I make time.

If what you are proposing is important and fits into the value system and reasons I do the things I do, I will make time.

So maybe “do you have time” is the wrong question.

A better one would be: is this something you want to be part of? Can we make this happen?

Dear Master Hudak

I learned a few weeks ago that the Master of Saybrook College at Yale (my residential college when I was a student) died on a Wednesday night. The news was passed along through a support group that my class in Saybrook had formed to coordinate sending him a gift from all of us while he was in his final days in the hospital.

The rumors on the internet had declared him “dead” as early as last week. We knew from his family that he was still hanging on until this week, but it was really interesting to see the communities that loved him outside of Yale (the Hacker community, programmers, computer science majors, etc.) talk about him.

He was so amazing that is was celebrated through the words of talented writers and students in the pages of the newspaper from the university that he loved dearly… and was one of the top 5 hits on a major hacker discussion board, because he played a major role in developing Haskell.

To me, Master Hudak was Saybrook’s father figure. For as long as I had known him, he was fighting cancer. When I would see him in the evenings he hosted Master’s teas or events for Seniors, like my Mellon Forum on Colombia Cartels, he always had a tired, but very warm smile.

I remember talking to him years earlier when I felt really lost in the economics department. My view of the world was so far from the discussion topics and theories we discussed in my econ classes… and they showed very very little interest in the markets and worlds I wanted to explore. He told me to follow my dreams and pointed me towards funding that allowed me to do my field work and research for all four years of college.

Later, he sat in the front row during my talk at the senior Mellon Forums and took it all in stride, knowing how much it had taken me to get to this point with my research. And that meant a lot.

He was clearly very proud of the community that he had built and supported within Saybrook — and rightly so, he was very much loved by all of us.

It takes me time to process this type of information. Usually, I hear it and feel nothing. And then, it seeps into me slowly and I feel it. While I was walking home yesterday, I felt it as a series of memories slowly replaying in my head. Snapshots of my freshman year through the senior dinner, when he came to support me when I was nominated for the Nakanishi Prize, and later when he handed me my diploma. By the time the cycle of images was done moving through my imagination… I felt it in a wave of overwhelming sadness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the voice we leave behind when we write or produce art (or in Master Hudak’s case, an original coding language). One of my next longer entries will be about managing memories… and the filters our loved ones use to explain the person they loved and knew us to be (sometimes, these views of a person might be in conflict). I’ve been exploring this theme deeply in my own work and memories. Looking forward to sharing it with you. But for now, Rest in Peace, Master Hudak.

On Raising Strong Daughters. And Feminist Sons.

I was a very lucky little girl who had a very loving, feminist father who supported people he worked with if he believed in their ideas, regardless of their gender or background. If they had something important to say, he created a space for them to say it. He also told me to never settle for anything less than what I wanted and could work towards.

Which leaves me with an important responsibility: to figure out and be able to explain what I want.

This, ladies [EVERYBODY], comes in a variety of different flavors.

When I first decided I needed to have a cellphone, because coordinating all of my activities with my parents’ schedules from other people’s phones when I was in high school was getting to be too complicated, I wrote a “proposal.” I wrote a 10 page proposal explaining the overall impact my own cell phone would have on all of our lives, measuring impact on time spent traveling, overall frustration/communication levels, and several other metrics that I defined for my purposes. He smiled. [And I was successful.]

When I decided what university I wanted to go to and I defended my reasoning, he smiled. “Go for it,” he said.

When I started seriously dating, I defined what I wanted in my relationships. What was hardline “I cannot exist happily without these things,” what was negotiable, and what were my deal breakers. I am still navigating these things and learning as I go, but my father watched me stand up for myself and negotiate my relationships the same way I negotiated my freelance contracts, and he smiled.

I was taught that making decisions and standing up for them was good and expected from women. That being strong is attractive and important to doing good work.

What I “learned” in college, and find myself in the process of “un-learning” to some degree, is that women are expected to be “chill” and “go with the flow.” Full disclosure: I am not “chill,” I am more like very-carefully-planned-with-some-spontaneous-adventure-thrown-in. I think, for me, trying to be more “chill” lead to toxic relationships. In other cases (meaning, with my friends and peers), I saw scenarios where too often women are afraid to ask for what they want, pursue jobs they are capable of doing better than their peers, and they turn against themselves.

Beyond me, my Dad taught his son to respect women who make decisions and stand up for themselves and aren’t afraid of being the smartest person in the room. For that, Nico will always stick up for them. And for me.

On a different note, this is one of my favorite expressions of love on the internet: “To The Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter.” This describes elements of the relationship I have with my father. We both watched it and cackled to ourselves in unison. The humor and imagery comes from a place meant to communicate ease and confidence in his child… but he also worries. A lot. Which is endearing. He’s going to worry a lot, forever, but he also knows, as the poet warns, that ” if you hurt her, she will not keep your secret. You cannot make fire feel afraid.” Damn right.

It’s pretty awesome that he just gets it. I wish for more feminist Dads and brothers and allies, but ladies, it’s also up to you to define what’s worth chasing.

 

Love Your Data. Can I have some context with that?

You know what is sexy? Presentations where the data and algorithms presented by researchers come with a healthy does of real life context. [Also, other researchers who read applied statistics textbooks in coffee shops early in the morning. I have been doing this a lot recently and just made friends with someone who was reading a different book by the same statistician I was reading.]

I constantly complain that we lose a lot of information when we work with big data analytics. Part of it is that many researchers are encouraged to work with data from their desks in offices tucked away inside of universities or office buildings in major cities, far away from the ecosystems they are trying to describe through numbers and algorithms.

Nate Silver spends a lot of time talking about the weakness of prediction models in his book The Signal and the Noise: Why so many predictions fail — but some don’t. He points out that economists have trouble identifying relevant variables to make predictions. This is fair… economies are constantly changing in structure and dynamic. It would be really hard to collect appropriate data on the formal economy as it shifts, and even harder to keep track of informal economic activity in a way that would lend itself well to predicting output for the future.

I’ve found the only way that I truly understand the pulse of an economic ecosystem is by living and breathing the structure and community of it. After all, economies depend on communities and trust for transactions to take place at all. But this is for another post.

But I did find someone trying to add context to big data!

I watched this talk by Anna Rosling Rönnland from TEDxStockholm yesterday, and while the introduction is a little confusing, the center of the talk is important. The best way to watch this talk, in my opinion, is to consider the implications of using photographs to describe the spread of the distribution.

In non-jargon speak, this means, consider how your perspective on wealth disparity changes when you see how people in the richest 25% versus the middle versus the lowest 25% brush their teeth. This hits home a lot harder than quoting per capita numbers at someone would, because it also takes into account differences in pricing/living costs within the country. We can see where wages fall short and what that means in the day to day life of workers around the world. We gain perspective on data. And that’s sexy.