My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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5 secrets to success

I still hate memes, but i love Nancy. And i wasn’t going to do this because there’s nothing i hate more than talking about what has made me successful (mostly because i hate admitting that i’m successful). But i’ve also been spending a lot of time lately mulling over questions from undergraduates asking how they can be me and worrying about elder academics who tell me that i don’t deserve the attention that i get.

In some senses they’re right. There are people doing *amazing* work who get so little credit for it because it’s not chic. At the same time, i work my ass off and do so because i believe that i can make a difference in this world. I’ve always struggled with Audre Lorde’s statement that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” because i’m not so sure that dismissing the master’s tools dismantles the house either. In doing activist work, i started to believe that you need people at different levels – some inside the system and some out. At V-Day, we realized that celebrities could do wonders in making change happen. I decided long ago that the way that i could change the world was to be as public as possible and to make connections to people doing work at all levels (grassroots, policy, research, money). I believe that knowledge is power and i believe that teaching is the path to change. Regardless of my title, i see myself as a teacher. I’m trying to teach people about people who aren’t like them. I’m trying to teach people tolerance and information that they can use to make right by people with less privilege. In doing so, i inevitably piss off a lot of people who believe that i don’t deserve the access/privileges/connections/power that i have. What is most disheartening is how many of those pissed off people are fellow academics who feel the need to maintain some invisible hierarchy that i don’t understand. No matter how many times i’ve been proven wrong, in my heart, i want to believe that academia is fundamentally about knowledge production and dissemination. And i’d rather run around the world trying to help people than play the games that would make me a good academic.

Of course, i should note that this doesn’t always mean that i’m successful or that i don’t make mistakes. I still cringe when press attribute ideas to me that are most definitely not mine. (Impression management is Goffman, not me. I didn’t invent internet anthropology. Hell, i’m not even an anthropologist. Etc.) A lot of what i bring to the table involves learning from others and apophenia – making connections where none previously existed.

Given this, i’ll offer 5 “secrets” to my success (and try to stop ::cringing::)…

1. “Demo or die.” This was the mantra at the Media Lab and i absolutely detested the process of having to demo Lab work to every visitor who entered the building. It was exhausting and repetitive. Looking back, i can’t tell you how much this changed my world. Through the Lab, i learned to be able to present anything on the fly to any audience. I learned how to squeeze a 30 minute talk into 5 minutes and build on a 5 minute talk to fill an hour with useful information. I learned how to read what people knew and adjust what i was showing them to their interests and level of knowledge. Speaking and expressing ideas to a wide variety of audiences is so important. And it takes practice. A lot of practice. You can’t just hide in a library cubicle for years and then expect to give a stellar job talk. The reason that i speak so often is that i think that i need the practice. I want to learn to get my point across. Sometimes, i fail, but i keep trying.

(This also applies to writing. Be able to write to any audience. Learn to write an op-ed, a persuasive blog post, an academic article, anything and everything! I detest writing; that’s why i started blogging my ideas. Practice practice practice.)

2. “Learn the rules. And then learn how to break them.” I was a punk kid who refused to follow by anyone’s rules. I got kicked out of everywhere. I thought that this was radical. When i was in high school, my mother explained that one of her best skills was telling people to fuck off and go to hell in a ladylike way so that they didn’t even know how to respond. Over the years, i realized that there is immense power in understanding the rules and norms and tweaking them to meet your goals. Rejecting society is fun as a kid; figuring out how to circumnavigate barriers to entry is more fun as an adult. Do it with grace, kindness, and sincerity. (I fear that explicitly stating examples of this here might get me into trouble.)

3. “Diversify your life.” The term diversity is so loaded it’s painful, but i can’t think of a better word to explain what i want to explain. Get to know people from every walk of life. Read books from every discipline. Read different blogs. Attend conferences that address the same issue from a ton of different perspectives. And when you attend those conferences, spend 50% of the time with people you know well and 50% of the time with people that you barely know. One of the best decisions i made at SXSW this year was to not flit around but to hang out with one small group per night and really bond. I hate the concept of “social networking” because it seems so skeevy. The idea isn’t to build a big rolodex, but to build meaningful relationships that exist on multiple levels – professional, personal, etc. The more people and ideas you encounter, the more creative you’ll be able to be and the more that you’ll be able to contribute to a conversation on top of the things that you know deeply through your own work.

4. “Make mistakes. Publicly. With lots of witnesses. Apologize. And learn.” It’s easy to hide from mistakes and it’s natural to try to keep them under wraps. I think that there’s a lot of value to making mistakes publicly. First, that means that you’re willing to try new things out. Second, it means that you’re going to be forced to learn from those mistakes fast. My blog is filled with hypotheses that are wrong, ideas that are half-baked. I say stupid things. People call me on it and i’m learn from that. I get super frustrated when people are not willing to put things out there until they are just perfect. The fact is that once something is in public, it will be critiqued and challenged no matter how fully baked you think it is. This is true for software and it’s true for ideas. The bugs are found through interaction. I understand why academics love to control and perfect things before they go out there, but often, it’s too late. Don’t avoid the press – the stupid questions that they will ask will make you think more than any challenging question your advisor can punt your way. And yes, they will misquote you no matter how much you try. But then you get to read the blogs and see others critique your misquoted half-baked explanation and you can learn from it. It’s better to fumble in public than to stay in your house any day. The trick is to pick yourself up, try to correct any misunderstandings, and use it to learn.

5. “I’m insane. It’s not all fun and games. Success != happiness.” Folks assume that being successful is all wonderful, just like they imagine that being a celebrity would be ideal. It’s a Friday night. I’m writing this blog entry to take a break from an essay that’s overdue. I don’t take weekends. I barely date. I don’t have children. My business class seats are because i spend more time in airports than sleeping in my own bed. Getting out of bed is as hard as getting my cat into her car carrier. It looks good on Flickr because no matter how crap the day’s been, i know that i’m supposed to put on a smiley face when i write on this blog, send a Twitter, or get on stage. Every day, i wake to emails that are meant to make me feel guilty about not helping this that or the other person. For all that i do, i’m always told that it’s not enough. And the more public i become, the more people tear me to pieces. I become the target of people’s anger, like the poor father whose son committed suicide and blamed me. That shit hurts like hell.

I don’t regret what i do but it’s not all fun and games. But i glow for weeks when a mother comes up to me to thank me and tell me that she’ll stop being so hard on her daughter. If you want to change the world, if you want to be in the public eye, you have to be prepared for the costs that it will have on your personal life and sanity. I have to admit that every 6 months, i want to quit it all and go have a normal life with a 9-5 job and a significant other and a social life and a baby. But there’s something in me that won’t let me do that… Maybe i’m running from my self, but hopefully it’s just that i would prefer to live my life trying to make grandiose change than live a simple life. Of course, i strongly believe that the latter would make more “happy” but, somehow, happiness is not enough for me. I’m far too invested in succeeding to make the world right to find serenity. For better or worse.

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19 comments to 5 secrets to success

  • Hi danah. Great post, ye blade. Did ya ever see that episode of ‘theshow’ by zefrank where he riffs on ‘braincrack’? You guys are on a level.

    Braincrack video here. Watch it!

  • Thank you, both for the declaration of affection (right back at you) and for your thoughts on this which I really did want to hear.

    [And for the record, I know you wouldn’t claim to have invented internet anthropology! My dad often marvels that whenever the press writes about an area you know nothing about, they get it exactly right, yet somehow when they write about your area of expertise, they get it exactly wrong.]

    This fellow academician appreciates you because you speak out and manage the public intellectual process so successfully AND because you’re doing solid scholarship that contributes to knowledge and its dissemination. I think it’s easy for some to let the glitz of the former overshadow the the latter, but there are parts of my syllabi that would be (even more) starved for content than they are without your work.

    (also, working on an email to you)

  • Thank you, both for the declaration of affection (right back at you) and for your thoughts on this which I really did want to hear.

    [And for the record, I know you wouldn’t claim to have invented internet anthropology! My dad often marvels that whenever the press writes about an area you know nothing about, they get it exactly right, yet somehow when they write about your area of expertise, they get it exactly wrong.]

    This fellow academician appreciates you because you speak out and manage the public intellectual process so successfully AND because you’re doing solid scholarship that contributes to knowledge and its dissemination. I think it’s easy for some to let the glitz of the former overshadow the the latter, but there are parts of my syllabi that would be (even more) starved for content than they are without your work.

    (also, working on an email to you)

  • Nice post… I think the work you are doing with the access and exchange of information is important. You are a connector, you connect the young, and in most cases naive, with the older adults who are clueless about information. I have been a teacher for 20 years now and see the role of information in society, clearer now than I did several years ago. I have been telling high school students for close to ten years that “information is the most valuable commodity in our society.” The idea is not to ‘possess’ information, but to have the skill to use it, employ it in a way as to create value and use for yourself and others. I think you get to this point in this post!

    Good Job!

    ** have seen your stuff for a little over a year now, but I’m now a regular reader.

  • Thanks for this, danah. Your “secrets” resonate with advice that I offer to many students in my department who often ask me similar questions. But for heaven’s sake, stop cringing. What you are doing is working to create the type of world in which you – and many, many others – would want to live. That is important (and dare I say, noble?) work! These may well be secrets to your success so far, but they also comprise a recipe that all of us can use to be able to contribute to an ever-improving compendium of wisdom throughout the society and culture.

  • I came upon this page by chance.
    Why were you blamed for the son’s suicide?
    “Accurate spelling is necessary ” British or American?
    You mention you are in the public eye – I apologize for my ignorance, but…

  • Danah, thanks for sharing this very honest and personal account of what you feel has made you successful. I especially liked your thoughts on learning how to break the rules and publicly making mistakes. i’m workin’ on all of the above though. thanks again for sharing.

  • Lovely post. Good rules for success.

    I’m going to throw in one you probably already know, “Be lazy like a good programmer”. Not sure where I heard this one originally, but I’ve heard it from enough smart people to believe it.

    Actually, I’ve heard it to mean two things, both worth while. From the programmer perspective I think it means to look for ways to reduce future work, even if it means investing a bit of time. So, reusable code, creating a tool you can use twice, well thought out projects, measuring twice and cutting once, etc.

    From an activist perspective it means letting people help you. It’s too big a world for any of us to change on our own, but with lots of people in it willing to help.

  • Steve

    A comment on “the master’s tools” and “the masters house”.

    This will be a bit tricky to express, as I’m not sure I have the language I need to make my point clearly, but I’ll try.

    The question of making the world better involves not only obvious power relationships of political and economic domination/submission, but also assumptions about the nature of reality that are implied by our choice of intellectual method. This is a large issue, but I’ll try to just chip at a small corner of it.

    I have an undergraduate degree in the social sciences, so I have at least a passing acquaintance with the methods and worldview of social research. My first impulse is to complain that such research “reduces everything to statistics”. But that, although useful as a first approximation, doesn’t quite express the problem. (Indeed, sometimes more statistics and differently targeted statistics might be part of what would be desirable.)

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that social research objectifies the objects of study, which in this instance are human. And, aside from questions of any actual or implied harm done to the objects of that objectification, there is the (to me) obvious reality that any alleged “knowledge” which has embedded in it the assumption that humans can be studied by the methods appropriate to the inanimate world is defective *as knowledge*.

    In my comments here I have from time to time found occasion to mention my young friend Casey as a counterpoint to some of what is presented as research findings. And I think part of why I do that is from a sense that knowledge about teen behavior gained from being in a personal relationship to living teens is of a different character than knowledge gained via the methods of social research.

    One asks differnet questions about people that one is in relationship with than one does about people one studies objectively. And one uses different methods to look for answers. And one presents one’s findings in a different manner.

    And I cannot avoid a pervasive sense that the knowledge obtained via personal relationaships is of a more “three dimensional” quality than knowledge obtained objectively.

    So, to the extent that part of the foundation of the “master’s house” is the objectification of other people, then the knowledge obtained in an objective context will indeed never accomplish more than a remodeling job.

    And, danah, I suspect that you are far from the worst offender in this regard. One reason I continue to return to your blog is that you are conspicuously human. But, to the extent that you have adopted the social research field as your community of reference, I think it is inevitable that your own sense of what constitutes useful knowledge will tend to be pulled toward that center of gravity. The extent to which this might cause you mental or spiritual damage, I think, will depend on your own strength of character, of which you obviously have a great deal. But please be careful.

    Fraternally yours,
    -Steve

  • your a badass, i love what you wrote

    “If you want to change the world, if you want to be in the public eye, you have to be prepared for the costs that it will have on your personal life and sanity. I have to admit that every 6 months, i want to quit it all and go have a normal life with a 9-5 job and a significant other and a social life and a baby. But there’s something in me that won’t let me do that… Maybe i’m running from my self, but hopefully it’s just that i would prefer to live my life trying to make grandiose change than live a simple life. Of course, i strongly believe that the latter would make more “happy” but, somehow, happiness is not enough for me. I’m far too invested in succeeding to make the world right to find serenity. For better or worse.”

  • I found your post intriguing. It really touched a cord with me when you reflected upon the success of your career and the choices it left you with were only your successes instead of having a 9-5 job, significant other, and a baby. Having been a SAHM (stay-at-home mom) now struggling to provide for my family as a single parent it prompted the following thought: Why is it that women can’t have it all? I don’t feel that it is equally as satisfying to be a stay-at-home mom dependant on her husband that doesn’t give her the respect she deserves becoming more unemployable and a low wage earner with each passing year unable to break free. Nor do I think the working mother who feels guilty for never being home enough is fully a satisfying choice either. This is probably the million dollar question of women’s history. Is it therefor easier to be a man?

  • >”I’m insane. It’s not all fun and games. Success != happiness.
    It’s true, but mediocrity != happiness ether. Having a “normal”, “simple” life does not mean happiness. The grass is always greener on the other side, if you were doing 9-5, having a “simple” life, perhaps you would be bored with life, you would feel like your life is unrealized, like you can do so much more, and you would be totally/partially miserable. It’s hard for me to be totally objective though, I’m certainly not famous or in public eye, or successful… But my guess is that the solution is not the extreme, its not “give up, quit it all and go have a normal life,” but rather work your hardest and your best at what your believe in, put everything into it, but not to forget to slow down from time to time and take it easy, to notice little things, people, nature, the universe and so on.

    When it comes to success, or working hard I always try to remember this quote:
    “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
    –Theodore Roosevelt

  • Just a heartfelt thank you for a beautiful post. I heard your voice in it. I saw your eyes. What a gift.

  • hey, your “It looks good on Flickr because no matter how crap the day’s been, i know that i’m supposed to put on a smiley face when i write on this blog, send a Twitter, or get on stage” really hit the target for me and reminded me of a point I think I left out of my response to your Twitter post questions: I have tweeted about feeling down or low, but I think twice about it because I do have a sense of performance or of trying to put a happy face on things, especially in the permanent record. Unfortunately that distorts things.

    For example, when I went from writing full time back to a day job in 2005, one of my blog readers told me she was sad because my writer’s life sounded so great, going to cafes, having interesting lunches with people in sunny Oakland, interviewing fascinating subjects for my book, living the free, flexible life of a freelance writer. But I was also going broke! and it’s too easy to share a romantic picture of the best moments of your life and leave a lot of the reality on the cutting room floor.

  • I think meeting new people is the fruit.

  • thank you danah. it’s a lovely post that will carry me through my next round of turmoil.

  • karanbir

    Hi Excellency,

    This is the first time I’ve learnt the truth and I have started beleivn that there are winners in life.

    You tell the truth!!!

    Love to know more about being successful.

    Regards,
    Karanbir

  • Telling the truth is very important! Communicating at all is very important! All these points are fantastic, and hold the honey of life. I am curious though as to you oppinions of the message brought forth in “The Secret” DVD, have any of you seen it? If so what did you think?

    Ken