Advice for (Female) Changemakers

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years reflecting on where I am in my career, how I got here, and where I want to go. I find myself in a funny place. I still feel like I’m just getting started. I’m still hungry to learn and to play, to find fulfilling ways to make a bigger impact on the world.

But I’ve also been around the block a few times. Nine years ago, I had a vision for the world and my role in it, and I scratched and clawed to where I am today. I messed up a lot along the way, but I was very, very stubborn. I created a job description for myself that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I do the kind of work I want to do, the way I want to do it, with the people I want to do it with. Some critical mass of people know who I am and respect what I do, and that keeps me in business. Among that critical mass are changemakers themselves, people and organizations doing amazing things. I love what I do, I feel blessed to be doing it, and I’m hungry for more.

So now I’m in second grade. And naturally, there are folks in the first grade who are curious about how I got here. And since I’m tall for my age, there are folks in the third grade who think I know more than I do, and they’re curious too.

So I want to take a moment and offer some of that hard-earned wisdom. I want to offer this to anyone who wants to be a changemaker, but I especially want to offer it to women.

I have two reasons for this. First, for whatever reason, several women have recently reached out to me for advice, so this is in large part for them. Second, based on my experiences with an admittedly unrepresentative sample, I think that women could use this advice more than men. I’m not going to articulate my reasons for this better than Clay Shirky did last year, so I’m not going to try.

Find Your Voice

First and foremost, find your voice and own it. I can’t tell you how often I meet brilliant, passionate people who have important points of view and who aren’t willing to share them. It’s not because they feel proprietary about their thoughts. It’s because they feel unworthy of them.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It suggests that people who are incompetent tend to overrate their abilities, whereas people who are highly competent tend to underrate their abilities. I find the good kind of Dunning-Kruger rampant among the people I meet and know. It’s not bad on average, because it results in a learning mentality. But it becomes bad when it prevents you from owning your voice. If you’re not voicing your ideas, if you’re not interacting with others, you’re impeding your learning.

If you are humble and authentic, then most people will reward you, not punish you for owning your voice. I know people who are shy about talking about love or compassion or courage in public or even to their peers, because they fear they won’t be taken seriously by others. There may be people who won’t take you seriously, but there are many who will. If you own your voice, you will find those people.

My company has an overtly social mission, but I needed to see others do this successfully before I had the courage to do it myself. And I’ve taken my share of lumps for it. I went to Harvard, and despite the many, many mavericks who graduated (or not) from there, there is still a significant subculture among its alumni that defines success in a stupid way.

A few years after starting Blue Oxen Associates, a college friend said to me, “I’m surprised you’re doing this, Eugene.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I always thought you were more ambitious,” he responded.

I was confused. I had made it my goal to do my part to make the world a better place, and I was not being ambitious? It turned out that my friend had a very specific definition of “ambition,” one that had to do with the single-minded pursuit of money and status. Now that I’ve helped some of the most prestigious organizations in the world, he’s started taking my company seriously. Frankly, he’s still missing the point.

Anyone who claims they don’t care what other people think is a liar. Everyone cares. The question is how much you’ll let other people’s perceptions shape what you do and say. If your answer is “a lot,” the real question is, do you even know what other people think?

Most people don’t. We massively project, and then we listen selectively to feedback, disproportionately latching onto what we expect to hear. (This goes a long way toward explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

I find that women have a bigger problem with this than men do, and I’m not alone in this observation. I have seen many brilliant, accomplished women not speak up in a room or not pursue opportunities that they should be pursuing, because of some self-doubt that no one else has about them. It bothers me every time I see it, because it’s not just a disservice to them, it’s a disservice to the world.

Own your voice. People may or may not take you seriously, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is being authentic, stepping into your power. When you own your voice, you will feel better about yourself, regardless of what others have to say, because you are being true to yourself.

Find Your People

Second, find your people. Owning your voice is the best first step toward doing this, because it helps your people find you. Frankly, if it’s the only step you ever take, you’ll do fine. But there are other great steps you can take as well toward doing this.

Finding your people is not about exchanging your business card with every person who passes your way — the dreaded Drive-By Networking.

It’s not about “friending” a thousand people on Facebook or LinkedIn. Social media can be a powerful tool for finding your people, but it’s not a prerequisite. Some of the best connected people I know have almost no presence on any online social networks.

It’s about being intentional and authentic about whom you reach out to and how. It always start with listening.

When I started Blue Oxen Associates, I had zero experience or reputation in this space, but I had a list of people whom I respected and admired. I had met some of these people personally, but I hadn’t worked with many of them. So I took a risk. I contacted every person on the list, and invited them to coffee.

Every person I invited said yes. I made it a point to listen and learn from them, and if I liked them, I also asked them to join my advisory board. To my surprise, everyone I asked said yes. Moreover, every one of them went out of their way to help me get started, never turning down a request to meet, giving me much needed advice and encouragement. I would not have made it here today had it not been for their support.

At first, I couldn’t understand why they were not only willing to take a chance on me, but were so generous with their time. All of these people were extremely busy, and some of them were big names in their industry. Over time, it dawned on me. They were seeking their people too. It’s not about finding people with big reputations. It’s about finding people who listen, who are constantly learning, and who care passionately about the world, even if they happen to be naive kids in their 20s with no experience.

Putting together this advisory board was the single best decision I made in starting my company. But a few years later, something felt off. My advisors had recently become too supportive. They rarely criticized me, and that didn’t make any sense to me, because I knew that I was making mistakes. I wanted my circle to kick my butt if it needed kicking. I started recruiting more advisors, folks whom I knew weren’t afraid to give me some tough love.

At our next meeting, I presented a new strategy, a shift I had been wanting to make for some time. And my newly expanded advisory board did what I had hoped: They were critical. Very critical. The response was universal: Too soon. I didn’t like what they said, and I ended up sticking with my plan. But the truth was, I listened. They forced me to reexamine my thinking critically, and I developed contingency plans that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

As it turned out, they were right. Knowing that now, I still wouldn’t have done anything any other way. I needed to try it to know for sure. I had hoped I was right, but I was prepared when it turned out I wasn’t, thanks to my advisors.

Sometimes, people are reluctant to ask for advice or help, because they want to be a little more prepared, have a bit more to show. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You want to surround yourself with people who will help you as you’re developing your ideas, as you’re trying new things. Don’t wait.

At the same time, make sure you find the right balance between folks who will encourage you and folks who will be honest with you. It’s a very tricky balance. The first few years of my company were very difficult. I didn’t really need anyone else to criticize me; I was doing a great job of that myself. The support I got from my advisors, my colleagues, and my friends meant everything to me and kept me going. Later, when things started going better, and I started gaining more confidence, I needed my people to be more critical of me to keep me honest.

Many of my most successful women friends have women’s circles, which I think are fantastic. Some of them have asked me whether I would ever consider putting together a men’s circle. I usually jokingly respond, “I already have one. It’s called poker night.” The truth is, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I prefer having diversity across multiple axes in my circles, including gender. I think all women would benefit from having a strong women’s circle, but I think that many women would benefit from having strong male mentors as well.

Just Do It

Probably the biggest obstacle I see that prevents people from pursuing their passions is fear, fear of what others will think, and fear of not being ready. Don’t wait until you’re ready. You’ll never be ready. Changing the world is a moving target.

The path to changing the world is to start. Don’t worry about finding the perfect medium or the perfect job. Don’t worry about whether or not people are paying attention. Find every opportunity to try something, to practice, because that’s the only way you’ll ever get good at making change.

The Technology Understanding Gap

Technology is insidious. It has a way of dominating a problem the way nothing else can. If you understand technology, it’s hard not to see everything in that light. If you don’t understand technology, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by what you don’t know.    (MUK)

I’ve known these things for a long time, and I often talk about these things, but I saw the latter phenomenon in a way that really affected me last month at the Packard Foundation gathering on the future of network impact in philanthropy. On the first evening, Clay Shirky gave a preview of his book (available now), Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (which sounds like it’s a real winner; can’t wait to read it).    (MUL)

One of Clay’s contentions was that projects that worked in large-scale networks shared a happy medium between a Promise, a Tool, and a Bargain. In the case of Linux, Linus Torvalds‘s Promise was to build “a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.” (Note how small and concrete the original Promise was, compared to what Linux has become.) The Tool was source code control (specifically diff and patch in the early days). The Bargain was the GPL, which stated that if you contributed your work, others would as well.    (MUM)

A lot of my work centers around facilitating collaboration in large-scale networks, so I found this contention particularly interesting. The following day, I co-led a session on this topic with Angus Parker. Two of the participants were dealing with the specific challenge of connecting members of a national network of leaders in reproductive health, so we used that as a case study. We decided to use Clay’s contention to frame the problem, resulting in this whiteboard:    (MUN)    (MUO)

What do you notice about this picture?    (MUP)

Obviously, the Tools column is completely empty. That’s a dead giveaway that I’m facilitating this discussion. (That and the horrific handwriting.) Figure out the basics first. Don’t let the question about technology drive the discussion.    (MUQ)

During the discussion, one of the participants asked, “What tools can we use?”    (MUR)

I responded, “Let’s not worry about that now.” So we kept talking and talking, and I noticed the two non-technical participants in the group squirming like crazy.    (MUS)

So I stopped, noticed how gaping the Tools column looked, and said, “You’re uncomfortable about not having discussed the tools, aren’t you.”    (MUT)

She nodded.    (MUU)

“Don’t worry about it,” I responded. “The tools part will be easy, once we figure everything else out.”    (MUV)

“Easy for you, maybe,” she said. “You already know what goes there.”    (MUW)

That was not quite true, but I got her point, and the force of it struck me so hard, I had to stop for a moment. I looked at the gap, and I saw possibilities. She looked at the gap, and she saw a void. That was upsetting for her. It made it hard for her to think about the other aspects of the problem.    (MUX)

It made me realize how much I take my technology literacy for granted. But it also created an opportunity to discuss how easily we are sidetracked by technology. “Tool” does not have to mean software, and making that assumption prevents us from exploring other viable, possibly better solutions.    (MUY)

I had two takeaways. First, I had previous explored doing a basic technology literacy workshop as part of Blue Oxen AssociatesTools for Catalyzing Collaboration series, but I was not particularly motivated to do it. I’m now rethinking this. Second, if I ever do this exercise again, I’m not going to include the Tools column initially. We can throw that in later.    (MUZ)

Commenting on Blogs

Mark Bernstein recently complained that the right place to comment on a blog post was by private email or by linking from your own blog, not via the blog’s comment mechanism. I still agree with this view, although my belief has been greatly tempered by own experiences.    (LOS)

Several months ago, I turned off comments on my blogs because of spam. I miss them dearly. I’ve got enough of an active readership that folks blog about my blog entries, but I miss the quick-hit comments, which either contained nuggets of useful information or expressed humor, and which often came from non-bloggers. I still get these kinds of comments over email, but the numbers have decreased dramatically, and I keep having to ask permission to publish them. Blog comments have this just-right affordance that isn’t adequately met any other way.    (LOT)

All of this is consistent with Clay Shirky‘s theory on how blogs avoid the tragedy of the commons. (Since I’ve been giving Clay so much link love these past few days, it’s worth noting that, “Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software” is my favorite of his essays.) Clay writes:    (LOU)

Weblogs are relatively flame-free because they provide little communal space. In economic parlance, weblogs solve the tragedy of the commons through enclosure, the subdividing and privatizing of common space.    (LOV)

Every bit of the weblog world is operated by a particular blogger or group of bloggers, who can set their own policy for accepting comments, including having no comments at all, deleting comments from anonymous or unfriendly visitors, and so on. Furthermore, comments are almost universally displayed away from the main page, greatly limiting their readership. Weblog readers are also spared the need for a bozo filter. Because the mailing list pattern of ‘everyone sees everything’ has never been in effect in the weblog world, there is no way for anyone to hijack existing audiences to gain attention.    (LOW) recently asked whether comments should be a requirement for blogs. My answer is definitively no. The distinguishing feature that makes blogs unique are the use of links for commenting. In this sense, Permalinks are more of a defining characteristic than comment sections are, because they are what enable this blogs-as-conversation capability.    (LOX)

That said, I’m anxious to turn my blog comments back on, which will happen once I upgrade my blog software. (Soon, I swear.)    (LOY)

Folksonomy Taxonomy Philosophy

I love playing The Book of Questions types of games with friends and colleagues, but when it comes to answering those types of questions myself, I’m a terrible waffler. When I play these games with my friend, Steph, she often complains scornfully, “You’re such a ‘P’.” “P” refers to the “Perceiving” Myers-Briggs personality type, which refers to folks who are highly context-sensitive (also known as “wafflers”).    (LNM)

Suffice it to say, I hate truisms (except for that one). You could even call me a “philosophical relativist,” which according to Elaine Peterson, would make me a fan of folksonomies. Also true. And in a metaphysical twist that will drive the less philosophically-inclined (and Steph) crazy, if you were to ask me if folksonomies were better than taxonomies, I would respond, “That’s not a valid question.” Folksonomies and taxonomies are not quite apples and oranges, but they’re not apples and apples either. Debating the two is intellectually interesting, but it obscures the real opportunity, which is understanding how the two could potentially augment each other.    (LNN)

The impetus for this little outburst is Gavin Clabaugh‘s recent piece on folksonomies. Gavin (who cites Peterson’s essay) argues that taxonomies are better for finding information than folksonomies. Do I agree with that? It depends. Clay Shirky outlined some situations when taxonomies are better for search and vice-versa in his excellent essay, “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags”.    (LNO)

What troubles me about the claim at all is that it highlights a distinction that I find to be misleading. In Elaine Peterson‘s essay, “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy,” the main problem she cites has to do with philosophical relativism. Folksonomies allow it; traditional classification does not.    (LNP)

What is philosophical relativism? If I show you a picture of a mono-colored object, is it possible for that object to be both black and white? If you answered yes, you’re a philosophical relativist.    (LNQ)

On the surface, “philosophical relativist” might sound like another term for “dumb as hell.” But, what if the picture was of a person? And what if that person had an African-American father and a Caucasian mother? Now is it possible to classify this photo as both “black” and “white”?    (LNR)

Language is highly context-sensitive. Philosophical relativists acknowledge this. Believe it or not, so do librarians and traditional taxonomists. A taxonomy attempts to make classification more useful by restricting the scope to a single context. If you happen to be operating within that context, then this works great. There are plenty of situations when this is the case (Gavin cites the medical community, which is a great example), but there are also plenty of situations when it’s not.    (LNS)

Folksonomies allow for multiple contexts, but that does not make them inherently less useful than taxonomies. As Clay points out in his essay, in practice, there’s a long tail of tags applied to different concepts. If something is tagged “black” by 98 people and “white” by two, you can be pretty sure that the object in question is “black.” Scale essentially transforms a folksonomy into a taxonomy with a little bit of noise that can easily be filtered out (if desired).    (LNT)

Frankly, I think the concern is less about whether taxonomies are inherently better than folksonomies and more about whether so-called experts should have a role in constructing taxonomies. Gavin also alludes to this, when he describes a conversation with two friends in a San Francisco coffee shop. (I don’t want to out those friends, but I will say that one of them runs a company named after the faithful companion of a certain oversized lumberjack from American folklore. I will also say that Gavin is an outstanding tea companion, and that we’re working on a project that has very little to do with folksonomies, but that will make the world a much better place regardless.)    (LNU)

Gavin’s friends suggested that folksonomies were a great way of collaboratively developing a taxonomy. Gavin partially agreed, but expressed some doubt, stating:    (LNV)

Rather than the wisdom of a crowd, I’d recommend the wisdom of a few experts within that crowd. In the end you’d end up with a more accurate and useful taxonomy, with half of the wasted bandwidth, and in probably a tenth of the time.    (LNW)

I can actually think of many situations where I would agree with this. One is Pandora, the music recommendation service built on top of the Music Genome Project. The Music Genome Project is a formal ontology for classifying music developed by 50 musician-analysts over seven years. By all accounts, the service is extraordinarily good. Chris Allen sang its praises to me at the last WikiWednesday, and it was all the rage at the original Bar Camp.    (LNX)

But having experts involved doesn’t preclude using a folksonomy to develop a taxonomy. Is a folksonomy developed by a small group of experts any less of a folksonomy?    (LNY)

In 2002, Kay-Yut Chen, Leslie Fine, and Bernardo Huberman developed a prediction market using Wisdom of Crowds techniques for financial forecasting of a division of HP. The market was 40 percent more accurate than the company’s official forecast. The catch? The people playing the market were the same people doing the official forecast. The difference was not in who was doing the predicting; the difference was in the process.    (LNZ)

I’m a historian by background. I have a great appreciation for the lessons of the past, which is reflected in my patterns-based approach towards improving collaboration. Five years ago, I reviewed Elaine Svenonius‘s wonderful book, The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization, where I wrote:    (LO0)

Fortunately, a small segment of our population, librarians, has been dealing with the problem of information organization since 2000 B.C. Who better to turn to in our time of need than people with thousands of years of accumulated expertise and experience?    (LO1)

There is a tremendous amount of past knowledge that I’m afraid is being passed off as trite and irrelevant, when in fact it is even more relevant today. How many people building tagging systems know about Faceted Classification? How many of these developers know of Doug Lenat‘s brilliant research on Cyc, or that a huge subset of the Cyc ontology is open source? On the flip side, how many librarians and ontologists are needlessly dismissing folksonomies as not as good, and hence irrelevant?    (LO2)

Philosophical debates over taxonomy and folksonomy are exactly that: philosophy. I love philosophy. I enjoyed Peterson’s essay, and I’d recommend it to others. Curiously enough, David Weinberger, one of folksonomy’s foremost evangelists, is also a philosopher by background. (Read his response to Peterson’s essay.)    (LO3)

However, philosophy sometimes obscures reality, or worse yet, opportunity. We should be focusing our efforts on understanding how taxonomies and folksonomies can augment each other, not on picking sides.    (LO4)

The Varieties of Second Life Experience

I liked Clay Shirky‘s commentary last month on Second Life, along with Howard Rheingold‘s qualifications in the comments. More than anything, Clay seemed to be lashing out against thoughtless discourse, which is a big pet peeve of mine as well. Of course, posts like these generally generate more thoughtless discourse. It’s the cost of having open conversations on the Internet. The benefit is that the few gems that emerge generally outweigh the noise.    (LND)

I particularly enjoyed Mark Oehlert‘s response to Clay and others. I had the pleasure of listening to Mark evangelize Second Life over lunch a few months ago, and it was almost enough for me to dip my toes there for the first time, something I’ve resisted for almost two years now. I’ve continued to refrain for reasons I’ll explain some other time, but when I do finally decide to check things out, you can bet I’ll be asking Mark for a tour.    (LNE)

Despite my own skepticism, Clay’s commentary, and the fact that I haven’t played with it myself yet, I think Second Life and 3D MMOGs in general are important, and I will continue to pay attention to them. I’m reminded of William James, who in The Varieties of Religious Experience, writes of the relationship between intense, religious experiences and our minds, how we live our lives, and truth itself.    (LNF)

Regardless of what the actual numbers of users are, regardless of the sum impact these environments have actually had on the world today, one thing that we can’t dispute is that some nontrivial number of people have had intense, important experiences within these environments. This fact alone suggests that there is something transformational there, something that is worth further exploration.    (LNG)