My 2019 Word of the Year

My word of the year for 2019 is formidable. According to the dictionary, formidable means “inspiring fear or respect through being impressively large, powerful, intense, or capable.” By no means am I seeking to control through fear in the year 2019; rather, I want to feel and be at the top of my game as I complete my PhD and begin my digital fellowships at two UK museums. When I hear the word formidable, I immediately conjure up the image of Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way. Poppins does not control through fear, but through compassionate pragmatism.

In 2017, as I was starting a new role in the financial services industry, I chose the word bridge. This word guided my interactions and objectives as I sought to build an enterprise digital transformation strategy. I spent the majority of the year on a listening road tour – observing and seeking the thoughts of associates of all levels of the organization. The word complemented my urban planning strategic inspiration.

In 2018, I gravitated to the word believe because I needed a higher power to help me navigate organizational politics and the strength to complete the bulk of PhD dissertation writing.

It has been my habit to engrave my word of the year on a charm (like those from My Intent or Giving Keys) and place the charms on my infinity bracelet. I wear this bracelet daily and find myself fiddling with or gazing at the charms while working through a problem or taking a meaningful pause while talking. The charms are a constant reminder of the goals I am aiming to achieve.

This is the year where I have set my sights higher than ever. I needed a word that was strong enough to support the move to a new country and new career. I needed a word that conveyed the type of control that would devour my self-destructive tendencies. I bantered about words like strength or fearless, but such words did not evoke the awesomeness required. Then, in December, while reading an interview with Emily Blunt promoting the release of Mary Poppins 2, I came across the word formidable. Blunt was describing her impression of Julie Andrews’ interpretation of the famous British nanny. Instantly, I knew this was the word I must claim in 2019.

Do you have a word guiding your new year aspirations? Three? A phrase? Share how you came to claim your word(s) or phrase.

Happy New Year!

You are not job-shaped

Yesterday, I had the honor of being the Harvard Extension School degree awarding ceremony speaker for the Information Technology and Museum Studies graduates. I tried to remember my own graduation ceremonies and the words of wisdom shared with me by those speakers…and I could not recall a single thing. I know I am not alone in this lack of remembering your own commencement speeches. As I viewed my favorite commencement speeches to prepare my own, J.K. Rowling shares that she too could not remember her own speaker! There was a lot of pressure to get this speech right. The day was not about me, but for the graduates. And, knowing that I would have limited focus and Mark Zuckerberg would be giving the official commencement speech later in the day, I struggled with what to share and why to share it. After intense preparation [THANK YOU, Tamsen] and an epic graduation ceremony yesterday, I now share the speech with you:

In the latest Avengers movie, Tony Stark, is working with Dr. Bruce Banner to build an artificial intelligence defense system or what Stark refers to as a suit of metal around the world promoting peace in our time. This technology would put the Avengers out of a job and replace their somewhat flawed superhero characters with the one-track protocol of artificial intelligence creation, Ultron.

Okay, here it is, SPOILER ALERT. Ultron performs its duty with a single-minded focus – protecting humankind at any cost. Unfortunately, Ultron computes that to achieve peace, humans need to be saved from themselves and the protection of the Avengers. And ultimately, Ulton decided the best way to do this was to kill the humans. Ultron rigidly followed instructions and things went horribly wrong.

I am sure all of us can think of an example when we have weighed critical thinking over critical feeling and simply got this balance wrong.

Beyond my fan girl love of superhero films, I find real parallels with the world we live today. We cannot sidestep the debate of human versus the machine and we can’t ignore the power of and access to data in any field. And that’s a debate we have to face as we leave here and return to or seek new jobs.

No matter if you are here today because you are graduating with a degree in Information Technology or Museum Studies, each of you face a similar challenge: how do you take everything you have learned in this prestigious academic environment and apply them? How are you able to apply what you have learned in novel ways? And, how can you activate what you have been taught and experienced during a time when you are not just competing against yourselves and each other, but also machines?

I have sat where you are sitting right now. [Right about there, actually]. Most likely, you have already started the long slog of job searching and are endlessly scrolling through job postings or parsing through the LinkedIn contacts of anyone you have ever stood next to in line at a conference. 

Job descriptions are unrealistic. Unwittingly they are being written by super-computers and not humans. Job descriptions are primarily being written for a computer search. These descriptions are a frankensteined list of anything and everything the hiring organization does not have the skills or the time to do today, mixed with an equally long list of super human talents envisioned by wistful hiring managers. Ultron represents the danger when jobs are not well-defined and look how that turned out!

In the hype surrounding Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, an already staid job market is becoming further infected with the fear that machines will replace all jobs currently belonging to humans. What we have are fully dimensional humans who are not cookie cutter. We do not all have the same experiences and outlooks. And we have all of these people – all of us – competing for the same job description that doesn’t consist of more than 150 words. And that job description written by and served up by a computer, determines your future.

What is clear is that the jobs being marketed to us do not reflect the personality and curiosity we bring to these roles. We are not job-shaped. 

But we are tormented into unhealthy relationships with LinkedIn or Indeed job alerts by the fantasies of a wishful thinking executive with the expectation that one extraordinary person can do the role of twenty average employees. Not even one of the Avengers could fulfill these lofty requirements.

I know from experience what it can mean to try to be job-shaped and it didn’t work. When I entered the workforce as a communications professional, there were very few accepted varieties of my job. I was simply relieved to have landed a job in a volatile job market, but relief gave way to restlessness. I craved challenge. I felt I was in constant execution mode and never pausing to reflect why my team or I was taking action.

On my own, I discovered I loved numbers. I enjoyed playing with data, crafting it into usable insights, and then packaging the information into snackacble knowledge. This was a surprise because I had shied away from anything resembling math. I wanted to learn what made people tick, so I could become a better communicator. I started by learning more about people analytics. First, I read anything and everything I could get my hands-on and then I started conducting informational interviews of co-workers. I was so excited about what I was learning and how I was making the connection to my current job that I wanted to share this energy with the world.

So I started a blog. Okay, maybe I didn’t have the eyes and ears of the world, but the three readers who were not related to me, asked questions and pushed me to continue this exploration. I made the leap to researching more about customer relationship management systems, attended conferences, networked, and continued to blog. Eventually, senior executives in my department noticed this activity and I was transferred to a newly formed team to do what I had been operating on the side. Working out loud – meaning, sharing the frameworks I adapted or created and openly sharing my successes along with my own failures – had its ups and downs, but it led me to the connection and mentorship of the gentleman who offered me a job in what became a successfully acquired technology start-up.

If you had told me that I would have ended up here on this stage today or in my current job when I was that young woman in her first job after college, I would have laughed in your face.

There will be a frustration. A chasm exists between what is available in the job market and the ideal we have sought after putting in our time and rigor in our academic life. Do not despair. You have all the tools you need to be successful, but more often than not, success is not effortless, rather it is the outcome of continuous learning – but a kind that (at least so far) only we humans can do well.

My love of data began as a communications professional. Continuous learning and development compounded over the years as I evolved into a technical writer and community manager in the tech sector and regulated industries. Today, I am researching data collections and use within museums. The evolution of computation has been a major influence on my career path.

But it is not just computation. If it were solely about computation, we would fit these jobs. Siri and Alexa are phenomenal computers, but they are not great conversationalists. So there must be something more to this problem and solution. It is Albert Einstein who said, “Small is the number of people who see with their eyes and think with their minds.”

There is no doubt technology has improved the quality of our lives. The quality of our jobs, however, and what we make of ourselves is self-made. I greatly admire the work of leading researcher in the field of motivation, Carol Dweck, and her concept of the growth mindset meaning, “people believe their most basic abilities are derived from dedication and hard work.” This is both what makes us not job-shaped, but also what gives us the path to figuring out the future we want.

Case in point: Elon Musk. I think that name should ring a bell for everyone in the room. Musk has built four multibillion companies in four separate fields of software, energy, transportation, and aerospace. Multiple people have noted his work ethic and scenario planning method, but what fascinates me and has been a factor of my own career success, is that Musk has and is learning across multiple fields and not just those areas where he studied academically or had early accomplishments. According to a family source, Musk has routinely read two books per day since he was a teenager. Inconceivably that numbers somewhere around 23,000 books!

A growth mindset is something to be practiced consistently and frequently. I began daily practice the second I realized I was suffocating in the box of my first job. It has not always been an easy or a desired path.

How many of you would rather stick toothpicks in your eyes than crack open one more textbook right now? I know. I know. I felt that way too. But I have never been able to resist the urge of delving into the unknown – first with magazines in my interest of study and then branching out to seemingly disparate subjects and industries. When I parsed apart the concepts, rearranged, and put the pieces back together, the context changed and the product was fundamentally different.

I have been an adult student for sixteen years. I am also a mother of two daughters – one just became a teenager. I have juggled multiple years of course work and classroom time around my daughters, all the while, having a full-time job. I read three-to-four books a week. You will spot me on the train commute to any destination with my nose in a book. I have missed my stop on more than one occasion because I was so engrossed in the novel or magazine article 

I employ the best of technology and a time-turner to also be a PhD student at the University of Leicester. I share this with you not to earn a gold star, but to let you know that you are not alone in the struggle to become more than what you are now or how a job description may define you.

It is not just critical thinking that defines success. It is what I have learned from computation and through the experiences in using such methods. It’s the comprehension. The critical FEELING that all that additional learning brings to critical thinking.

While we need both computation and comprehension, comprehension trumps computation.

Which means that, to truly succeed not just tomorrow but into a future that is sure to blend the lines between human and machine, we must be humans first and technologists second.

And that means constantly learning beyond our job and industry. If we want to do more than artificial intelligence can do for us, then we need to be able to comprehend at a different level. This type of thinking can only happen if we think deeply about those things we have amassed in our structured and unstructured learning and experiences and look for different ways to apply these lessons.

And this is where the hope lies when it comes to job searches, because anybody can compete. Anyone can do critical thinking. Not everyone can combine critical thinking skills with comprehension. Coming out of Harvard you are more than well-equipped for critical thinking. Not everybody works equally hard on comprehension or critical feeling skills.

Carol Dweck captured the essence of this when she wrote, “We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”

Reading or being exposed to insights and perspectives other than our own helps us cultivate our own humanity and become insider-outsiders. The ability to seek out methods of adoption and adaption is a superpower that will get you far in the corporate, non-profit, and academic worlds. Channel what you are observing works well or not so well today and then reimagine what we need to do to change ourselves and our industries for future success.

You have been training for this each and every day you have come onto this campus or signed into an online course. The human ability to continue to learn from our mistakes and experiences is at the core of who we are. The more you learn, the more you can learn. And it is those of us who learn beyond the confines of the classroom and our job – beyond the confines of what we have been trained and explore beyond the concepts introduced to us – it is those of us who will be successful. Commencement is not the end of the physical or virtual classroom.

Because comprehension trumps computation. We have to seek and create jobs that will mold to and welcome our vulnerabilities and the very essence of our humanity.

This is not an “either-or” or a ‘yes, and’ problem to be solved. Computation cannot exist without comprehension – and we would not want them to. If we had computation only, we will have created Ultron, but we know that critical feelings only is just as unrealistic. Rather it is when humanity works with technology, that we gain the best of both worlds.

That is what I have been able to do by writing my own job title and descriptions over the past decade. Some of you may say that is lucky, but I have seen people combine these skills and have repeated success. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, stated: luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And that is just what I did. I prepared 

I immersed myself in the cultures of these organizations – the majority within regulated industries. I discovered what made these organizations tick buried beneath deafening social silences. I sought underlying patterns and surfaced the missed opportunities and risks. All the while, I attempted to piece together parts of existing jobs with the purpose and tasks of my ideal job. I continue to break apart and piece together these criteria as my talents and skills evolve.

Today, I am ridiculously happy in a job where I did not settle for a position or a company that has me shackled to a fixed set of criteria. I am in a position where I am engaging my critical thinking and my critical feeling skills.

Here are the three things I have learned about how to be a human first and a technologist second. I hope they help you, too:

  1. Combine critical thinking with critical feeling as you find new ways to visualize a sea of data and mold data into information;
  2. Transform information into plain language knowledge to combine computation with comprehension; and
  3. I encourage you, just as I did, to share how you are combining what you learn and experience. Be open with the frameworks you create. Share your failures with each other. Because it is when we speak the truth about the good, the bad, and the ugly of our jobs and what we produce, that we can recognize the real problems, and then get to work on solutions.

It is when we put all of these actions together, that we can only truly feel fulfilled and that we have honored this education. By changing the way the world looks around us, we begin to see that we are bigger than the box the world tries to stuff us into.

So, if being squished into a job-shaped box doesn’t sound like fun to you, I challenge you to be too big for the box. Push from within to shape and expand the confines of the box around you. Or, change the box.

For those of you graduating today in the field of Information Technology, I urge you to not lose your humanity as you program our digital future. Humanize our algorithms!

For those of you graduating today in the field of Museum Studies, you are the culture carriers, keep us human as we absorb more effective and automated intelligence 

Because computation trumps comprehension, when we combine critical thinking with critical feeling we can shape a job to fit us, rather than suffer through trying to shape ourselves to fit that job.

We can all agree that the world is changing and familiar companies and well-established industries are struggling to keep or even recognize disruption is happening all around them. And to them. And within them.

But the real problem is the struggle individuals within these organizations face as they attempt to force-fit themselves into jobs that do not leave room for both critical thinking and comprehension skills.

There’s another Avengers character, known as Vision, that reflects this computation and comprehension fusion. Neither human nor computer, Vision explains to Ultron at the end of the movie that survival is the blended balance of computation and comprehension. He says, “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.”

Today, we are sitting amongst superheroes. You are extraordinary because you have put in the time and the work to evolve yourself. That doesn’t end today. You have to work at being a superhero each and every day. We are all flawed. You will succeed and you will fail on any given day, but you can choose what you take from those experiences. Because you are human. And you comprehend, you don’t just compute.

How do we become the change we seek? By constantly reassessing what is “normal,” you can shift your view of the world and gain greater perspective Critical feeling is when: You must learn to walk in another’s shoes, see through their eyes, hear through their ears, and speak in their language.

Only then, will we be able to develop products and services made by humans and enabled by technology…and not inadvertently create an Ultron to save the world, but save ourselves by ourselves.