Make Your Own Calling (Transcript of Talk to NSA NYC)

On Thursday, August 22nd, I gave a talk to the National Speakers Association New York City chapter at their annual Summer Social event, to which they invite a lot of prospective members, mainly people who may want to make speaking their business but who aren’t yet there. The theme of the evening was to make it clear that we all have a process by which we get there, and I shared mine. The following is a transcript of that talk.

Photo credit: TE McLaughlin

All my life I’ve envied those people who say in interviews that they always had a singular vision of what they wanted to do with their lives.
I’ve never been one of those people.

I always wanted a calling. I would read interviews with famous people and so many of them said they knew that they had to write or they had to act or they had to play baseball.

I mean, did I have to become a professional keynote speaker, talking to corporate leaders about emerging technologies and digital transformation?
Uh, no. I did not have to.

In fact, throughout my life and especially throughout my career I’ve struggled with pinpointing and defining what I do and what I’m about. Maybe you have, too.

So whether you’re here tonight because you’re building a career as a professional speaker, or you think maybe you’d like to, or whether you just want to be able to do it well enough as a secondary part of your occupation to generate leads for your primary business —
whatever the case, I think now and then it’s helpful to go back and look for clues throughout our lives about what has led us to where we are, and how we can take it further.

Me? I grew up interested in lots of things. Reading was one of my favorite hobbies, as well as writing and making up stories, poems, songs, and plays, and performing them for my family and our friends. And charging maybe a quarter for admission. (Because I was also a budding entrepreneur.)
Also learning to program — which in the ’70s and ’80s meant typing up pages of code I’d torn out of printed magazines.

So somehow I was equal parts book worm, aspiring writer, stage ham, and computer geek. I was very adaptable, multi-skilled, as it turned out. But I would’ve traded it all in to have had a singular calling.

I wanted my calling to be music — I loved music — I sang at my church, played clarinet first chair in my high school band, and taught myself literally a dozen other instruments. My dream career was to be not just a singer or rock star, but specifically to be a singer-songwriter.

I have this one memory of being very young — maybe 6? — and using the family typewriter to type out lyrics so that I could study them as inspiration for learning to write great songs. You know the earliest one I can remember studying? Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.”
Yeah, that’s right: a song about an aging man reflecting on the hard decisions in his life.
I was precocious, yes, but I think it also showed that I was also already fascinated with people and their stories, and the human condition.

Anyway, I really wanted music to be my calling, but I loved too many other things. I was too adaptable.

In first grade, I even won first place in two different statewide competitions:
one for a statewide young author’s contest
for a book called Herman the Horse Gets Lost,
and one for a statewide computer programming contest
with a game I’d written/coded called Doggie.
My love of animals was clearly strong even then (and I’ve now been a vegan for 21 years).

And then there were languages. When my grade school class hosted some foreign exchange students from France and we got handouts with French phrases to learn (“bonjour! je m’appelle Kate”), I discovered that I was good at learning them. (It turned out it ran in the family — my dad had been a linguist in the military, and was fluent in Arabic. Side note: he had also been a singer. Also multi-skilled.) I loved language. I taught myself basic Spanish during family trips to the public library. My older sister studied German in high school, and I helped her with her flash cards — and along the way, I picked up the vocabulary and an affection for the language. I’m not kidding, I loved languages.

So while there was no single calling, there were all these recurring themes: writing, performing, computers, music, fascination with people, and language.

That’s not exactly a college major.

So when it came time for college, I couldn’t decide if I was going to major in music, theater, or language. Ultimately I decided that what I wanted to do in music and theater I could do without a degree in those fields, but what I wanted to do with languages
— which was, get this, to become an interpreter at the United Nations
(remember that, because it comes back up later)
— I could only do with a specialized degree.
So I majored in German, minored in Russian and linguistics, and had a concentration in international studies. I went all in on languages.

And then I built my career in technology. But that actually makes a certain kind of sense.

I’ll explain.

I think the thing I always loved about language is that things could mean different things. That a book is also a Buch and a livre and a libro and a книга(kniga)… that you could have different names for the same thing. Which meant, I realized, that a thing exists separately from whatever you call it. Which meant that meaning itself was adaptable.

It turns out that that idea — that meaning isn’t fixed, that we learn and curate our own sense of meaning, that we can create meaningful connections with each other based on what we have in common — that idea became the undercurrent of the work I’ve done throughout my life.

Part of what drives my work in technology is a curiosity about what makes humans human. My contention after some 25 years of working in this field and researching this topic is that the most notable attribute about humanity — and the one most pertinent to a discussion of technology — is that humans crave meaning.

Meaning, after all, takes many forms in our lives: the considerations of relevance, significance, purpose, even our own existence in the cosmos. Meaning is about what matters.

And one of the ways I describe my work is that I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and what’s so fascinating to me about the idea that meaning is what matters is that you can also say that innovation is about what is going to matter.

And all of this is true on both an organizational level and an individual level.
So conveniently, the same tools that I now talk to corporate leaders about in preparing them for digital transformation are tools we need as speakers:
Purpose, relevance, alignment.

We need to define what is most meaningful to us and to our audience to find the alignment between them. We have to be able to tell our own most meaningful stories and talk about our own experiences in a way that people can see how those insights are relevant to them.

And we have to dig deep for our clarity of purpose and know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and as I tell business leaders, we have to know what we are trying to achieve at scale. In other words, what does this look like when it’s very successful? For us that means, not just how much money do you hope to make as a speaker, but what changes do you want to be part of making in people’s lives and in the world?

For me that can be summarized in the phrase Tech Humanist, which is both the term people sometimes call me and the title of my most recent book.
The idea of the book — the idea of my work — is that technology is changing everything, most notably (and what I care the most about) human experience, and business is most responsible for those changes. So there has to be a way to marry the interests of business and humanity through tech, and my work is dedicated to doing just that.

So in practice, what I speak about is digital transformation. But every speaker’s subtext is transformation, of some kind: we’re all trying to help people see their way from one state of mind or being to another state.
In my audience’s case it’s from a state of fear about the future and technology to a state of preparedness for the future and curiosity about how technology can help amplify their company’s purpose.

And in the biggest picture sense, as I mentioned before, I like to say I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future.
That idea is endlessly inspiring to me, and in my experience, to make a career out of this, you have to draw from what you’re naturally curious and inspired about.

There also has to be alignment with what the market wants. Sometimes that’s not entirely what you want. My moments of strongest market validation this year followed a sarcastic conspiracy tweet about facial recognition, so now I get tagged on a lot of posts people make about technology conspiracy theories and invasive use of facial recognition. Some of that is relevant and interesting to me, but I can’t imagine reshaping my career to become the Tech Conspiracist.

In any case, this is what it all boils down to, all the advice about finding your niche, your positioning, your value proposition… it’s about whatever consumes you in the middle of the night anyway, and what you’ll wake up with fresh ideas about. For me, that is somewhere at the intersection of meaning, technology, and the human condition.

Because eventually I realized that if you aren’t born with a singular calling, you get to spend the rest of your life knitting the threads of your passions together to form one. You get to make your own calling.

In many ways what I do now is the perfect combination of what I dreamed of doing as a kid.

No, I’m not a singer-songwriter, but I do write and I do perform.
I certainly use my skill with language both in a broader sense of understanding the meaning of things
and in a literal sense: I get to try out my foreign languages when I travel internationally.
And these days it takes a pretty good deal of tech savvy to do some of this work, in terms of the digital marketing it takes to build a business. So I’m grateful to have that in my background, too.
So although it sort of bothered me as a kid, I now consider my versatility to be my strongest asset as a writer and speaker:
so many things interest me that I can draw parallels between unexpected ideas for new insights.

Speaking has become my main source of income, and it’s an amazing career because once you decide what your message is,
you can get the message out to people who can take it to heart and make decisions with it
And I’ve been honored to be asked to speak for big companies with huge impact like Google,
forward-thinking cities like Amsterdam,
and even this year, thanks to my friend Jennifer’s invitation, at the United Nations.
Remember I mentioned that?
When I saw the interpreter booths at the back of the room I got chills.

Getting to speak for cool clients is definitely a perk of this business, and there are plenty of other upsides to this job: travel can be fun, the money can be good, and you can feel like you’re making a difference.
The downsides? The road warrior life can also be exhausting, the time away from friends and loved ones is tough, and most people have no idea what it is you actually do.

As a speaker, you have this weird job no one quite understands
— a lot of people think it’s more glamorous or more sleazy than it really is — 
so it’s nice when you can be around people who understand
that what you’re doing is mining the depths of your experience,
sharing truths about yourself and your observations about the world
so you can help your audience understand how to make a difference, how to transform.

The barrier to entry in this field isn’t very high: you can start speaking anywhere and anytime.
There is no one right way.
You can absolutely use your unique combination of skills and life experiences to carve out a path that suits you so perfectly you might swear it’s your calling.

But the barrier to greatness is a lot higher
and you need great people around you to support you,
to challenge you,
and to encourage you to do better and bigger work.

That’s what’s so great about building our network here and in other communities of speakers, amongst all these other adaptable, versatile, multi-skilled people like you with varied and colorful life experiences who are just as much on a quest to make your life into your calling, get your unique message out, and transform the world.

Preparing for the Next 10+ Years: Data After the #10YearChallenge Data Sharing Discussion

I’ve been fortunate enough to make my living writing, speaking, and advising about the impact of technology on humanity for quite a few years now. Most commonly, though, my audiences tend to be business leaders, and what I write and speak and advise about most often is how they can adopt a digital transformation strategy that helps the company succeed while keeping the human in focus and respecting human data.

So the massive mainstream media reaction to my viral #10YearChallenge tweet and subsequent piece in WIRED was in some ways a switch in perspective: from talking to businesses about human data, to talking to humans about business use of their data. And it gave me the chance to address a far more universal audience than usual — on BBC World News, Marketplace, and NPR Weekend Edition, among many other outlets — in a cultural moment so widely discussed, it was referenced in the top article on the Reddit homepage and mentioned on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. My goal through it all was to spark greater awareness about how much data we share without realizing it, and how we can manage our data wisely. Just as the goal of my work is to help amplify the meaning in the experiences businesses create for the humans they do business with, my hope in connecting with a mainstream audience was to encourage people to participate in experiences meaningfully and mindfully. People all over the world gave me an overwhelming amount of feedback: some worried, some praising, some critical. I listened as openly as I could to everything I could.

With all that listening, I know that some common questions remain. I see many of the same recurring themes in comments on Twitter and elsewhere. So I’m using this opportunity here, at home on my own company’s site without the time limits and fleeting news cycles of a major news channel, to address a few of them, and I hope they will, in their own small way, be part of the conversation we carry forward.

Let’s get this one out of the way first, since it’s been the biggest misunderstanding throughout this whole deal:

“Facebook says they didn’t have any part in the meme. Didn’t you say they designed the whole #10YearChallenge meme to gather user data to train their facial recognition algorithm?”

It’s funny: I didn’t say Facebook did it, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t matter. I was musing on the fact that the meme was creating a rich data set, and pondering aloud what that data set could theoretically be used for. In any case, it was a thought experiment, not an accusation. In my WIRED article I expanded on the thought experiment and did not accuse Facebook of having engineered it. In fact, more importantly, as I wrote there:

The broader message, removed from the specifics of any one meme or even any one social platform, is that humans are the richest data sources for most of the technology emerging in the world. We should know this, and proceed with due diligence and sophistication.

— excerpt from my article in WIRED

That said, though, I wouldn’t have made any definitive statements from the beginning claiming that Facebook didn’t or wouldn’t have done something like this. I’m sure there are plenty of well-meaning people in the company’s leadership, but between psychological experiments, Cambridge Analytica, and various leaks and breaches, there have been too many missteps, lapses, and outright errors in judgment on Facebook’s part for them to be above suspicion when it comes to violations of data security and trust.

Nonetheless, although it was a very common misconception, I genuinely don’t suspect that the meme began with Facebook — and I don’t believe that matters. What matters is that we use these discussions to deepen our thinking about personal data, privacy, and trust.

“How can people who’ve taken your message to heart and now recognize the importance of this topic learn to manage their data more wisely?”

If you think of your data as money, you may have a better instinct for why you need to manage it well, and take care not to spend it loosely or foolishly. I’m not a fan of the idea of data as currency (partly because I think the human experience is more dimensional than a monetary metaphor conveys), but just this once I think it may be a helpful comparison. And as long as you know you’re safe, not getting lied to or ripped off, this “data is money” comparison may help illustrate why it can be worth it to spend it on experiences that matter to you.

In terms of actionable steps, here are a few helpful resources:

Personally, one easy step I take is to use the On This Day feature on Facebook to go through my posting archive day by day. I may change the permissions on old content, or delete a post completely if it seems like it no longer serves me or anyone else to have it out there.

I also have recurring reminders on my calendar to do reviews and audits of my online presence. I do what I call a weekly glance, a quarterly review, and an annual audit. For the weekly session, you can assign yourself one platform each week, and review your security settings and old content to make sure there isn’t anything out there that you no longer want to share. The quarterly review and annual audit may entail different activities for you, but for me they also involve updating old bios and links in various places, so it becomes a strategic review as well as a security check.

“What about Apple Pay and unlocking your phone with your face, or accessing your bank account with your face? Or paying for your meal with your face? What about other biometric data like fingerprints?”

All of this is relevant, and I’ll unpack some of these issues more in future articles. The short answer, though, is that with some of these uses, such as Apple Pay, you take an educated guess that the company collecting your data will safeguard it, because the company bears some risk if they screw up. But not all data sharing carries proportional risk on both sides, so think critically before using these services.

At least for now, pay for your fried chicken with cash, not your face.

“What about 23andme and other DNA/genetic data issues?”

That’s a whole other article. (I will say I personally haven’t done a commercial DNA test because bad outcomes always seemed possible.) The topic does relate to the rest of this, and it does matter that we’re 1) cautious of using commercial services like this, and that 2) we hold companies accountable to adhere to the uses we agreed to, and not to overstep what we understood to be our contract.

“What about data tracking in smart home systems?”

The standards and precedents are not yet well defined for the use and protections on data collected by smart home devices like smart speakers listening passively for a command. The safest thing to do is hold off on using them, and the second-safest thing is to turn them off when not in use.

While I did address some of the issues and opportunities with smart home automation and devices in Tech Humanist, this is again a topic I’ll dig into more in future articles.

“What about regulations on data? What about regulations on facial recognition, or on AI in general?”

The vast amount of personal data transmitted and collected by business, government, and institutional entities is what powers algorithmic decision making, from ecommerce recommendations to law enforcement. And this vast data and broad algorithmic decision-making is also where machine learning and artificial intelligence takes root. Artificial intelligence, broadly, has the chance to improve human life in many ways. It could help address problems associated with world poverty and hunger; it could improve global transportation logistics in ways that reduce emissions and improve the environment; it could help detect disease and extend healthy human life.

But machines are only as good as the human values encoded into them. And where values aren’t clear or aren’t in alignment with the best and safest outcomes for humanity, regulations can be helpful.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, that went fully into place in May 2018 is for now the most comprehensive set of regulatory guidelines protecting individuals’ data. And American tech companies have to play by these rules: just this week, Google got hit with a 50 million euro fine for violating the term that requires companies to produce clear disclosure on the data they collect from consumers.

Meanwhile, for many Americans it’s tough to imagine what entity in the United States would be responsible for enforcing any set of regulations pertaining to data and AI.

In the meantime, just as with climate change, we need efforts on the macro and micro scale: the experts tell us that for any kind of real reduction in impact on the environment we need big movement from commercial and industrial entities which produce the lion’s share of emissions, but that doesn’t mean that, say, you shouldn’t put your soda bottle in the recycling bin, not the trash. We’re learning more and more how important it is for us to be mindful of our ecological footprint; we also need to learn how to be mindful of our digital footprint.

“Should I turn off facial recognition image tagging in Facebook?”

I would advise doing so, yes.

the Facebook settings screen where you can disable automatic face recognition

“Are you saying I can’t have any fun online?”

Oh, heck no. By all means, I am very pro-fun. Even when it comes to digital interactions.

It’s easier to have fun when you know you’re reasonably safe, though, right? The biggest takeaway from this discussion about the possible side effects of the #10YearChallenge should be to remember that when any meme or game is encouraging you — and large groups of other people — to share specific information about yourself, it’s worth pausing before you participate. It’s relevant to wonder who might be collecting the data, but it’s far more important to think what the collected data can do.

But share the meaningful parts of your life online with friends and family, and enjoy being able to follow their updates about the meaningful parts of their lives. That has certainly been the most wonderful benefit of social media.

Not only am I pro-fun, I am also very pro-technology. I love tech, and I genuinely think emerging technologies like AI, automation, and the Internet of Things — all largely driven by human data — have the chance to make our lives better. (As I wrote in Tech Humanist, I believe we have the chance to create the best futures for the most people.) But to achieve that, we need to be very mindful about how they can make our lives worse, and put measures in place — in our government, in our businesses, and in our own behavior — to help ensure the best outcomes.

Beyond Customer Experience

Businesses are finally starting to catch on that a disciplined approach to improving the customer experience leads to profit. That’s the starting point, and it’s fantastic.

But what’s the next step? What’s beyond improving the customer experience?

Well, we can think about the customer not merely as a customer, but as a well-rounded human being, who takes on many roles throughout the course of a day: patient, student, user, guest, citizen, not to mention friend, employee, parent, and so on. We can improve the human experience.

How can we improve human experience? How can we think about those many roles we all have in a business context, and why should we?

Those additional roles become dimensions of the person you’re trying to do business with. The more dimensional that person is to you, the more likely you’ll be able to offer them value. When you offer them value, you establish the basis of a meaningful relationship.

We always have to look for the human nuances if we want to build meaning.

The Thing About the Internet of Things is the Humanity in the Data

The thing about the Internet of Things is it isn’t about the things; it’s about the people.

The “things,” for the most part, are designed to create more connected experiences for humans. And the data layer that connects the digital experiences to the physical world through our gestures and actions is our data.

The transactional data that connects the online and offline world happens largely through us, through our transactions and purchases, through our speech, through our attention, through everything we do.

In the course of analyzing, optimizing, and targeting, we can’t let ourselves forget about the humanity in the data.

(This, by the way, is part of what I examine in my forthcoming book Pixels and Place: Designing Human Experience Across Physical and Digital Spaces. Available in print and Kindle versions on September 1st, but you can pre-order a Kindle copy now.)

The Rental Car Traffic Violation Scam Hypothesis and Personal Privacy

vintage photo of driver being ticketed by police officer
vintage photo of driver being ticketed by police officer (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I got a ticket in the mail yesterday for running a red light. Well, it wasn’t a ticket, exactly. It was a “notice of an administrative fee” for a red light violation that allegedly happened while I was driving a rented car in my mom’s town the day before her birthday. The ticket itself apparently hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet, but the rental car company has a whole operation to process the administrative fees from traffic violations incurred by their renters, and they’re not wasting any time collecting theirs.

I bring this up here because it’s actually happened to me quite a lot. Nearly every time I rent a car, I end up getting a traffic ticket in the mail a few months later (and as a consultant and speaker who often travels to clients and events, I rent a lot of cars). You may be tempted to joke that I’m a terrible driver, but these traffic violations by mail never showed up when I was driving my own car and the discrepancy has become enough of a pattern that my mind, not usually given to conspiracy theories, started to formulate a hypothesis about how this could be part of a program to make money off of car renters.

Anatomy of a Scam Hypothesis

How could this be happening? Well, the rental car agencies could be selling their driver rental information to the companies that operate the traffic cameras. The traffic cameras could be scanning license plates and matching them against a list from the rental agencies. They could be issuing tickets on violations or close-enough-to-be-violations only when there’s a match.

I also notice that I never get more than one traffic violation per rental. The system could be set to throttle the tickets to one per rental period. Casual renters wouldn’t think much about it. “Oh well,” they’d think, “I got a ticket. I’ll just pay.”

But frequent renters, like me, start to notice a pattern. Why is it I owned a car all my adult life until late last year, drove all over the country, frequently taking my car on road trips, and have never once been issued a traffic-camera-ticket for any of those trips, yet when I drive in some of these same towns in a rental car, I get tickets mailed to me?

“Maybe It’s Just You”

Perhaps you’re skeptical, as we discuss this over drinks, and you offer that maybe instead of this elaborate scam, there’s instead a behavioral science element to all this: suppose we all drive a little more recklessly when we’re in a rented car. That seems a reasonable counter-hypothesis, I’d concede with a tip of my beer mug, but without supporting data or a compelling argument to convince me that there might be truth to this, I maintain that, whether I own the car or borrow it, I drive as I drive. And pass the peanuts.

Anyway, What About Due Process?

Most of all, whether the intent to conspire is there or not, surely it brings up questions of due process. If a police officer had simply pulled me over in each of these places, there’d be far less question of legitimacy. You say I ran a red light? Pull me over right then. The action on which the claim is based will be fresh in my head and I can either challenge the officer (calmly and politely, of course) about the veracity of the claim or accept the ticket. (Or cry, and maybe get off with a warning. Oh, relax; I’m kidding.) But you say I ran a red light three months after the fact? I barely recall being at the intersection in question, let alone what the conditions of the intersection were, or the timing of the light, or the layout of the traffic around me. Even if you were to furnish me with photographic evidence of my rented car with me in it clearly violating a red light, I still don’t have the consideration of context, and I get no due process at all.

The Bigger Issue: Privacy, Personal Rights, and Public Data

I don’t necessarily believe my conspiracy hypothesis about the rental car traffic violation scam; I just think it’s possible, and at the rate I get these tickets, I admit I’m a tad suspicious. But I’m less concerned with that and more conscious of the the bigger issue: how vulnerable people are and increasingly will be to schemes that take advantage of ever-present tracking data, surveillance, and systems with default authority, such as rental car companies and traffic enforcement bureaus. Even if these entities aren’t trying to be exploitative, the more access they have to integrated data about our movements and behaviors, the greater the potential will be for them to overstep the authority we think we’ve granted them.

So why do I share this half-baked conspiracy idea anyway? Because the premise is not mere science fiction; it’s certainly not impossible, and it’s important that we remind ourselves regularly of the powerful data about people that can be used by companies and government. That power is growing, and to a great degree, it’s already out of our hands as citizens, consumers, patients, and the public. So where and when we can, it’s important that we think critically about what the implications are, and it’s important for those of us who work in and around data systems that track human actions to be mindful of what that means.

Meanwhile, to finish on a lighter note, here’s how comedian Joe Lycett handled a mailed-in notice of a parking ticket. Enjoy.

Finding Patterns in Art: 500 Years of Female Portrait Paintings in 3 minutes

This link is interesting for a few reasons:

One, because, one of the most fundamental aspects of developing insights is the ability to study and recognize patterns.

Two, because art is a wonderful source of creative inspiration.

And three, because the depiction of women in art has something to say about centuries of power imbalance and inequality, and recognizing patterns in macro systems like culture and society is vital in having a true understanding of our context and the world we inhabit and create.

The video itself morphs between close-ups of 90 women’s images in paintings, while the link below indexes the paintings and provides additional information and context about the painter and the year it was painted.

Link: 500 Years of Female Portrait Paintings in 3 minutes

Column: “Hashtag activism offers chance to take a stand” at The Tennessean

An excerpt:

The opportunity we have now as a society and as students and shapers of our own society is twofold: to participate more meaningfully in the causes that move us to share compelling social statuses, and, if we are intending to influence behavior, to work to more effectively mobilize the communities that spring up around these ad hoc micro-causes.

Read the rest at the link:
http://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2014/06/07/hashtag-activism-offers-chance-take-stand/10104895/