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.