My Mother, The Explorer.

My mother is an explorer.

Not of the hiking boots and rain-soaked maps–sort. Her adventures sought truth beyond what was directly stated.

A few years ago, I was writing my thesis, and she was completing her dissertation in parallel. We both wrote about Colombia, though I wrote about drug cartels and how they invested in political campaigns, whereas she focused on twentieth-century and contemporary Colombian artists and how they documented the violence of the drug wars.

We found that writing about Mexico, where I was born and she had lived for a quarter of her life, was too raw, too close to memories we weren’t ready to talk about, so we shifted our focus to Colombia.

She asked, “How do you sit down and focus? Help me remember what it’s like to be a student.”

I offered some notes on my study habits.

I asked, “Can I borrow your books from the artists?” Sometimes, they offered a perspective closer to the truth. She’d challenge me to go beyond the text.

We explored truth together.

I finished my thesis and graduated from Yale. A year later, she submitted her PhD dissertation to Harvard. Mine was to satisfy my burning questions about black markets in Latin America, an important step towards embracing myself wholeheartedly as an explorer of truth (a researcher). Hers was a project of love and defiance that shows it is never too late to chase your dreams.

Now, a few years after college, my mentors remind me that I should start my PhD now, if I want to sample all that life has to offer. They tell me the investment of my time and energy into a PhD has to happen now, if I want to have a family and a career. I left academia to try my hand at research inside industry, first for a think tank and then TED, and to try pursuing other people’s questions.

Sometimes, I am consumed by anxiety. And just when I wonder if my window of opportunity to return to my questions is closing, I remember my mother’s journey, and how she fearlessly pursued her degree while working and caring for her children. It would take fourteen years from start to finish for her to complete her PhD. It was interrupted with adventure: she left her program when she moved to Mexico City, had children, worked as an art critic, and taught art history, before she eventually returned to her PhD.

Timelines for the questions we pursue, she taught me, can be adapted, and sometimes a researcher requires different types of personal growth to reach her fullest potential.

My Mom is an explorer. My path (and my timeline) is my own to determine. With her as an example, I embrace my adventures.

Diana Enriquez is by day TED’s Content Researcher, and by night an informal economist. She loves experiment design, trying to answer difficult questions, unusual businesses, and the informal economy. She grew up in Mexico City and Boston and now lives in Brooklyn. 

This was originally published as an essay in a collection of essays here.

Books & Talks That Made Me Think: 2015

I’ve always loved books, but this year I’ve had the added pleasure of working on some of the talks coming through TED. Here are a few of the moments that I’ve been pushed the most in the last year:

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family: I just finished reading this profile of Marie Curie and her incredibly family. I had not fully appreciated the context of the scientific discoveries that Marie, Pierre, Irene and Frederic made during their research lives… especially with a backdrop like the Great Depression and two World Wars. It is incredible how much of their research is still relevant today and how much bullshit Marie Curie and Irene had to endure due to gender rules in France, barring women from important roles in the science community during this time period. I was inspired by the entire Curie family’s defense of pure research and commitment to continuing with their work, through sickness and war and financial trouble.

Monica Lewinsky talked about the Price of Shame at TED2015: This was one of the first talks I supported with research when I first joined TED. While most of my notes did not end up in the final copy, it kicked off a journey into research on clickbait economies (I jokingly refer to this research as studying “how internet trolls make money”) that I still think about now. She is phenomenally brave and reminds our larger communities that this is the time for kindness. I remember this responsibility when I decide what to consume on the internet.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century: I am still in process of reading this book, but it is so thoughtful and thought-provoking that when I finish each chapter, I have to take a pause to write pages of notes for continued research to dig into later. I’ve long wondered how Capitalism needs to change to adapt to new historical periods and contexts… how it would need to adapt to work outside the “West” (Hernando de Soto has some interesting thoughts about this). Piketty raises some very important questions about the nature of wealth and income, and how those who start with an advantage end with a serious advantage. This all feels particularly important after Larry Lessig’s campaign on Campaign Finance Reform…

Which also leads to Larry Lessig’s talk about Campaign Finance and American Democracy at TEDxMidAtlantic. Nothing is more chilling than sitting in a room and having someone brilliant on the stage present a case of corruption happening right around you… that you’ve grown so accustomed to accepting that you cannot see another way around it. It’s a moment of feeling helpless and restless and broken… but Lessig also makes you ready to rally for change. It was the first time since writing my thesis about corruption in Colombia’s government (and how cartels invest in political campaigns) that I felt ready to jump back into the mix. Let’s see some campaign finance reform, because the Citizens United case CANNOT be the end of American Democracy as we know it.

I saw Spotlight this week with my family, and after the initial deep despair it causes, knowing how long these child abuse cases were buried by the church in the city that I grew up in (among so many other cities) and how deeply this has damaged the lives of so many people (the movie cities 249 abusive priests and 1000+ victims that came forward after the article in the Boston Globe exposing the cover up of abusive priests in Boston in 2002 was published), I went home and subscribed to the Boston Globe, NPR, New York Times, and other papers tackling investigative reporting. It turns out, this phenomenon is not unique to the Catholic Church, but it happens in a handful of other communities, where “speaking against other members” is met with violence and silence. Without a steady support based, they cannot continue this type of research. I am proud to support investigative reporting, we need much more of it and the journalism industry as we know it is in real trouble financially. We cannot lose this quest for the truth as we are pushed further and further towards consumable media in the form of clickbait.

Palak Shah’s talk at the Personal Democracy Forum was about protecting contract laborers and adapting labor structures to meet new demands on the work force this year. It was stirring and offers us a clear opportunities to protect workers in this new age of the Sharing Economy. I know I thought a lot about conditions she described while deciding how and when to use apps like Handy and AirBnb, among others. My roommate and I went so far as to only use Handy to meet workers that we could hire later (except we paid the worker directly instead of waiting for the worker to take only the small percentage offered to them by Handy). I send this to everyone I know who wants to talk about the Labor Question.

The Art of Communication was a book I stumbled across while taking a weekend to wander alone through Soho and collect myself. I had a really tough summer trying to navigate a break up and make sense of my grandfather’s fight with cancer/how my family was reacting to it. I needed to be alone and re-center myself… and when I found this book, I learned to find more space in my heart for compassion towards myself and the people around me. The writing is gentle and kind… perfect when you need the verbal equivalent of a hug.

Esther Perel’s Rethinking Infidelity… a talk for anyone who has ever loved at TED2015 was another moment that helped me find more compassion in my heart… towards myself. She talks about the issues we run into in modern marriage and pressure on relationships, but when I listen to it I also heard about the permission many of us refuse to grant ourselves to accept that we will change and want different things and should explore who we are. It was a moment where I fully committed to writing “my own rules.” It has also made me a better, more communicative and direct partner because I know what I need to protect in myself and where I want to, and need to grow. This was a real gift.

Patti’s Smith’s The M Train is a journey through time and travel with one of my favorite writers. She inspired some of the structure in the guidebook I built for my boyfriend this christmas. I loved exploring her experiences through her writing, and see what it meant to her to spend time alone. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be truly comfortable and alone. This, for me, linked back to the conversations I was having about defining my own rule book. I have always admired how unapologetically herself she is.

Finally, I learned a lot from the 27 writers who wrote for the Eccentric Guide to New York that I built this fall. It was fun to see how friends had carved out their own spaces in the city and catch glimpses of them finding themselves. I loved seeing the city through other people’s eyes. Sometimes I forget how magical it is to live here, and I had the opportunity to put this together for someone who was just exploring the city for his first year here offered me a new way to explore my environment.

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.

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?

Senior Reflections: The Reckoning.

[[I wrote this as a closing column my senior year at Yale. Really interesting to see where I have changed… and where I am still working through the same questions.]]

The Reckoning

Some people go out to East Rock to think about their place in the world. Some wander through cities, enjoying the feeling of being anonymous in a crowd where no one knows your name. Wherever you found that space of solace, there was probably a moment or two, at least, when you experienced a moment of reckoning.

Some of us came to Yale with neatly constructed narratives about our lives and our goals. We handed out neat, packaged descriptions of our “purpose,” much like the mission statements we used when fundraising for our conferences and events. Maybe it felt like we could package our lives into these descriptions, just like we packaged these one-time events into neat paragraphs on a single typed page. I found myself doing this.

But Yale taught me something important. My moment of reckoning came my sophomore year, at the end of what I would call my slump. I was desperate to get away: This campus felt too small. I felt trapped by my “purpose” — the type- cast I had written for myself on that single typed page. I needed some clarity and space; I even considered studying abroad.

As it turns out, I did not need to go far to find my solace. I left my room in Saybrook and went to meet Miles Grimshaw ’13 to talk about launching TEDxYale. As we worked to bring TEDx to campus, I found a new space to grow in and to ask questions, instead of just jumping directly to answers.

I spent so much time my first two years here conforming to the definition of “Diana” I had built for myself. I had stopped looking for new ways to learn and be pushed. I had found a comfortable place, but it was smothering me. My mission statement was written by a younger me who didn’t understand what I would come to see after more exposure to the world.

So I tossed it out. I gave up my 10-year plan, and opened my eyes to the other opportunities around me.

The rest of college was defined by new projects and people who pushed me to redefine my conditions for “success.” I found friends who were patient enough to tell me and correct me when I was making mistakes. I went to events and sought out students whose passions for different subjects made me excited to learn more about their talents and research. I spent more time writing and trying to understand what Yale, as a community, was teaching me about my values, my prejudices and my goals for the world. I found happiness in seeing how many different ways people were thinking and doing things all around me.

It was easy to fall into a routine, to settle with a group and stick it out, even when some of these relationships and projects weren’t working. I made the active decision to leave my corner and look for other places I wanted to be on campus. It was the best decision that I ever made.

I still think I have a sense of purpose, though its direction is far less concrete than it was four years ago. I am excited to see what I find along the way, and I know I can trust myself to take on new challenges that fit within that sense of purpose.

I have not given up. I have come to understand that sometimes the best route is not always preplanned. The people that I found at Yale helped me understand that would never be happy on a straightforward path, even if the path was my own design.

Sometimes I still struggle with questions. What will success feel like for me? Do I need to meet a more widely accepted definition of success to be happy?

I realized that I, at least personally, do not. I want my projects to be challenging and give me interesting problems to solve more than anytime else.

Yale was a safe space for me to test my ideas, plan new projects and reach out to professors who became my mentors and confidants throughout the challenges. My reckoning came from the access to different worlds and opinions that I found all around me. I am grateful for the rigor and thoughtfulness of my classmates, the friends who pushed me and the ideas that I could turn into realities while I was here. I leave now with a sense of purpose, however abstract, and know that I am better for my time here.

DIANA ENRIQUEZ is a senior in Saybrook College.

Happy Holidays!

I am home for the holidays, like many of my friends and co-workers. It’s interesting to be here and compare where I am now to where I was a year ago. I have a new set of personal goals to attend to for the year, new friends and muses and people pushing me to keep doing interesting things (and be unafraid to do so).

This year I developed a series of very honest relationships where we regularly offer each other feedback on ways that we can improve ourselves and our professional work environments that we share. This comes after a long period of silence and second guessing myself, as a coworker and friend. It is so much easier to improve and feel confident in your relationships and work space if there is information regularly letting you know what you are doing right and where you could spend more time/energy to improve the overall quality of your work.

Perhaps this most clearly comes through in my weekly “growth breakfast” sessions with my colleague at Odisi. For both of us, this is a very new adventure. Every day is full of new twists and turns, and it is wonderful fascinating work. I feel more fulfilled and challenged here than I have in a while. But most importantly, she is very honest with me on what is or is not working.

As I build my own list of things to work on this year, I push each of you to consider your areas of growth. What dark winding alleyways in your head do you need to explore to have a better sense of what you are capable of?

No better time for a long journal entry full of difficult questions and answers (or guesses!) than the longest night of the year. Happy Winter Solstice!