Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why education? Because I am selfish... but I'm not an asshole.

Several years ago, I was tentatively toying with the idea of leaving my job on Wall Street and someone forwarded me a job description for something called an ‘Education Program Producer’ at a young, venture-backed, NYC-based tech start up.  Not only did it not make sense (at the time, education + tech start up = oxymoron), I almost immediately deleted it mostly because I never saw myself working in education.  

Sure, I believed in education and I valued education, but I most certainly didn’t want to work in education.  The word conjured up images of slow-moving organisations, underpaid teachers, inefficient practices, endless paperwork, cruel bullies, and overly demanding parents.  Being a teacher requires being patient and kind, two virtues that were not exactly valued in my then current line of work on the trading floor. As someone who had come to love the fast-paced, no bullshit attitude of the finance world, education is the last place I saw myself going. 

I’m glad I didn’t let my obnoxiously judgmental attitude get the best of me and gave that job description a second glance because my experience at that NYC-based education start up changed my life forever.  Now, several years later and halfway across the world, I find myself doing everything I can to be involved in education.  I brought an education company to Asia, I joined a seed fund because they were involved in education, I am making investments in early stage education companies, and now look - I’m even writing about education.  

Since my obsession can, at times, feel out of character for an efficiency focused, mildly foul-mouthed, impatient individual like myself, I recently started asking, why the hell do I care so much about education anyway?  I mean, sure, if you ask someone if they care about education and they say “No,” they’re either ignorant, full of shit, or a psychopath.  But believe me when I say, I really fucking care about it.  True education is all about asking why, so I decided I would dig a little deeper and try to figure out what about it resonates so much for me.  

The word “education” itself comes with a myriad of connotations, but what I seek to do here is to minimise the emotional implications and figure out logically why it is so relevant and powerful.  Here’s what I came up with.  Three reasons: it is personal, it is sustainable, and it is scalable.  Hear me out.

1. Education is personal.

“It is personal.  That’s what an education does.  It makes the world personal.” - Cormac McCarthy
Everyone has either had an education, or not.  Formal or informal, public or private, too much or not enough, your education has had an undeniable impact on where you are today.  For these reasons, everyone cares about education, everyone has an opinion on education, and everyone knows how important it is.  When you ask someone what their education was like, they will tell you with words but more than anything, you will see it in their eyes and feel it in their heart.  Engaging with individuals on this level is powerful and incredibly energising.  The connections I have made with people when discussing this topic have moved me to my core.   
Education is personal for me, too.  I may be selfish in my desire to change the world and not waste any time doing it, but I’m not an asshole.  I am infinitely grateful for all the opportunities I have been given, and I believe everyone deserves not only the opportunity to get what they want out of life, but also the privilege of being able to figure out what that is.   
 2.  Education is sustainable.

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  - Proverb
I care about the world I live in, mostly because I have to live in it for my entire life (unless space travel takes off, but that's a different topic).  I want the world to be a better place, because then I get to live in a better place.       
I also value my own time.  Call me crazy but I’d much rather teach someone to fish and then move on with my life, than have people bugging me every day to give them fish.  
The beauty of education is that it never goes away.  Its presence, or lack thereof, impacts an individual's every thought, word, action not just now but forever.   
 3.  Education is scalable.

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.  Teach him how to learn, and he’ll own a chain of seafood restaurants.”  - Someone on the internet
Creating a sustainable solution is great, but sharing it with as many people as possible is even better.  Education is the most scalable solution to any problem simply because it empowers the individual.  This means its impact is not just lifelong, it can be worldwide.  
It’s very simple math, actually.  If I teach three people to fish, they each teach another three people, who teach another three people, who teach another three people, now 121 people know how to fish.  Definitely a lot more people will be eating fish than if I had just spent all day catching fish myself. And, selfishly, I don’t have to spend all day on a fishing boat.  Win, win.

The word “education” is socially, emotionally, politically loaded.  It means different things to different people and is undoubtedly scary and dangerous to try to tackle.  I don’t intend this post to make light of the weight of education, but instead to look at it from a practical standpoint and understand why it is a good place to focus one’s efforts.  Whether you’re a teacher, a student, an investor, or a business person, it’s hard to deny that education is the most efficient way to change the world.  And for what it’s worth, it sure is a hell of a lot of fun, too.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Pivoting... but still getting started.

Someone said to me once, “Everyone has one good blog post in them.  After that, well… it rarely lasts. One Post Wonders, I call them.”  At the time it made sense superficially, but I was determined that it would not apply to me.  I have always loved writing and this was my chance to challenge myself to be open, connect with people from afar, and feel the rush of being creative on a regular basis.  

Recently, however, I have found myself thinking back to this comment as I must admit that I’ve been finding harder and harder to write.  I spent a few weeks wondering why this is.  Is it because things are stable, so I find myself boring?  Do I not feel like I have anything to say anymore?  Have I simply gotten lazy and stopped questioning myself?  Should I just give it up and try starting something new?

When I began writing this blog, I was facing a tremendous amount of uncertainty.  Given the alternative was crawling up in a hole and not coming out, I decided to approach my complete lack of knowledge and experience as a journey of self discovery.  I was figuring out what I was good at, what I cared about, how I could relate to others and the world around me.  Almost completely overwhelmed by all the things I didn’t know, I felt the only thing I had the authority to write about was myself.  Having an opinion on anything else seemed uncomfortable, almost arrogant.  So I chose to put my questions about myself out there first.  And it has been an amazing process sharing those questions with anyone who cared enough to read what I had to say. 

But simply writing about myself has gotten harder because, well, let’s face it... I’m pretty damn boring these days.  But also because as I am diving deeper and deeper into the angel investing world, my confidence is growing.  The number of informative experiences are piling up, data points are accumulating, and I’m starting to form stronger and stronger opinions on what I am doing.  I want to share thoughts on these topics, but I’ve been holding back because I actually believe sharing what I think about the world is a lot scarier than sharing what I think about myself.

Many have told me it is bold to be as uncomfortably honest and open as I have been on the blog.  Sure, I get a little nervous about it sometimes, but overall I actually think I’ve been taking the easy way out.  Writing about myself is easy because even if I reveal too much, if you don’t get it, or you disagree with my approach…. you can’t really tell me I am wrong.  It’s like when mature people tell you to use “I feel disrespected….” statements instead of “You disrespected me ….” because the other person can’t tell you that you are wrong (tricky, right?)  

Semantics?  Maybe.  But my point is that I feel I’ve come to a point where I’m ready to start thinking and sharing about topics that are much bigger than just me.   I no longer want to be afraid that people might discredit me or disagree with what I am saying.  

So, in the interest of always getting started, this post is marking a pivot away from writing just about myself. From now on, I'll be blogging about bigger topics such as what it's like to be a young angel, why we believe in female founders, why I care about education, and lots of other things which will certainly continue to involve my regular rambling, lack of conclusions, new beginnings, and self questioning/reflection. 

When we invest, we look for entrepreneurs who love what they do and feel they are on a mission.  That means that they’ll keep going even if they see a bump in the road or things get a little harder.  Nobody likes a hypocrite, so here I am, refusing to give up.  Refusing to be a “One Post Wonder”.  I love to write, and I cherish nothing more than the connections I have made and strengthened through this blog thus far.  So, yep.  I’m still getting started.  Just in a bit of a different direction.  Stay tuned!

P.S.  To mark the occasion, I also bought my own domain name.  #booya #bigtime #thelittlethings

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Working hard... whatever that means.

I have been formulating this post for way too long in my head, so let me just shut up and get started right with the point.  How do you know if you are working hard?  

Now, maybe you have a healthier answer to this question than I do, but I know I am working hard if… I feel exhausted.  I don’t have time to get enough sleep.  Even when I do, I probably can’t because I obsessively think about whatever I am working toward.  I don’t have very much time to spend with my friends, let alone by myself.  When I am alone, I crave an escape - a mental vacation.  In short, I’m basically miserable.  

But even with all of that, there’s something about that state of voluntary distress feels so fucking good, right?  The masochist within me smugly smirks at the fact that there’s no denying that I am pushing myself to the edge, being everything I can be. The narcissist within me also feels rewarded for the reinforcement I get for how hard I am working.  Friends and family take one look at me and say, “Oh, wow, you look so tired.  You are such a hard worker!”  I’m offended, but I also feel validated.

Whether or not we like to admit it, we glorify this state of working hard and the misery that ensues.  Whether it is comparing how many hours we spent on our homework in high school, how many all nighters we pulled in college, how little sleep we get as adults, emphasising your self sacrifice tells the world that you are disciplined, diligent, and driven - all positive indicators that you are on your way to being successful, or at least you have what it takes to get there.  This is especially true in the start up world, where all nighters and success seem to go hand in hand.  There’s no surprise there are lots of issues with founder depression and burning out.  

I’ve often heard it asked - If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody hears it …. did it really fall?  In other words, if you’re working hard, but you’re not miserable… are you really working hard?  

I have been asking myself this question for the past several months.  When I was at Goldman, I worked 12+ hours days in an extremely high pressure environment.  I was in the office at 6am every day, reading the overnight news so my superiors wouldn’t have to. Starting General Assembly in Hong Kong, I barely slept.  I only had three months to prove the business would have traction here, and I was doing anything and everything I could to make sure that happened.  There was no one in the world who could claim I wasn't working hard.

Now, since I joined the angel world, there’s not too much that is traditional about my job.  We are a start up, too — a distributed team of two, constantly in and out of meetings, in the process of setting our fund’s goals and metrics, creating our processes and scaling our modes of communication.  I still wake up for 6:30am conference calls with our teams in the States, answer emails on the weekends, spend time thinking about the infinite projects, meetings, teams, and tasks to take on.

But, the typical stressors, motivating “or else” factors inherent in any job are missing.  I am often too self conscious to admit this, but I occasionally go to yoga classes at 10am, I work from home, I run errands in the middle of the day, I meet friends for coffee or lunch or dinner.    I have the opportunity to spend time learning about areas that I am interested in.  For the most part, I get to proactively choose who I work with.  All of this is fucking awesome, and as I’ve said before has created the space for me to be happier than I have ever been before.

But I would be lying if I didn’t share that every day I go to sleep and wonder, am I working hard enough?  Shouldn’t I be trying harder?  Sometimes I imagine other people’s voices saying, “Oh that Allison, I saw her going into the office at 11am the other day.  Does she even work?!  She must be so lazy.”  Even after I force myself to forget what other people think of me, silencing my inner critic is difficult.  I don’t know if I will ever feel I am working hard enough.  I can’t help but think if I were really on my way to taking things to the next level, I should be way more miserable.  

But maybe not.  What if feeling happy and balanced is part of the long game?  As evidenced by the things that we let fall by the wayside when we are busiest, listening to your instincts, trusting your limits, and taking care of yourself is hard work in and of itself.  Maybe dialling things back and taking care to not burn out is what allows us to push ourselves to the limit in a macro sense.  Someone told me the other day that balance is actually about living the opposites.  Perhaps there are just times in life where we push ourselves to our limit and are a little less happy.  And that allows us to get to a place where we can recover and reboot and get ready for the next sprint.  

Or, maybe I’m just making excuses because deep down I’m actually just a lazy motherfucker who doesn’t have what it takes to change the world in the way that I aspire to.  I really, really hope not.  I suppose only time will tell...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Nothing is wrong?

You may read this post, immediately hate me, and never read my blog again.  In the past, that's probably what I would have done.  That's why I don't usually write about these type of things, because I've always thought happy people who talked about being happy were delusional and annoying.  Well, maybe I am.... so, proceed with caution.  I wouldn't blame you for telling me to shut the fuck up.  

For the last two and a half years, my life has ostensibly been incredibly chaotic.  In early 2012, I basically cried every day out of sheer frustration and misery with my job.  A dramatic turn of events on the trading floor led to the firm abruptly firing the people that sat directly to my left and to my right.  I, myself, quit only a few months later to join a start up. My first day on the new job, my boyfriend told me he was transferred to Hong Kong and would be leaving in a matter of weeks.  I moved apartments four times in six months.  My parents sold the house I grew up in, then moved into separate homes and ultimately separate cities. I decided to move to the other side of the world, where I started General Assembly in Hong Kong with exactly zero contacts and zero idea where it would lead.  I moved in with my boyfriend.  I broke up with said boyfriend. I moved out and started living alone for the first time in my life.  My parents got divorced.  I hired a team of six, then left General Assembly HK in their capable hands.  I traveled on my own for the first time, then I started an entirely new job and career in angel investing, an area I have no experience in whatsoever... I think you get the picture.  There's certainly no denying that my recent past has been rather noisy.

Funnily enough, however, things have gone quiet lately.  Sure, things have been busy and lots of change is always happening, but today I stopped for a moment.  I looked around, sipped my coffee, checked my phone, and then realized that nothing is wrong.  I am now two months into what can only be identified as the best job ever.  I'm reeling from how incredibly fortunate I am to be working with early stage startups in the way that I am.  I am constantly learning new things, working with people who are both intellectually and emotionally intelligent, meeting passionate and talented founders, investigating all different kinds of industries, products, and businesses.  I'm clarifying the things about which I am personally passionate (education becoming the more and more obvious choice).  I feel acknowledged, appreciated, and valued by my teammate.  I have a huge amount of flexibility over my lifestyle, my schedule, and my goals.  My typical day is mostly self directed and I have nearly unlimited opportunities to delve into whatever I find interesting.  I get to help identify problems and find creative solutions.  I play a role in empowering others.  All those things I've always said I wanted to do.  For now, it feels like I am doing them.

The rest of my life is pretty good, too.  I have healthy communication channels with my parents, I am eagerly rooting from the sidelines as they move forward in their new and separate lives.  I'm learning how to actually let go of myself in a relationship and support someone else unconditionally instead of constantly trying to have the upper hand (yeah, I tend to do that.)  I have been doing more yoga, sleeping well, maybe still drinking too much caffeine but overall I am feeling healthy, stable, and motivated.  I feel... incredibly grateful.  Might I even feel happy?  What the hell is this?  

I can't believe how unusual and shocking it is to actually feel okay.  In fact, as stated above, I have always found happy people to be incredibly boring.  Since a young age, I have not only prided myself on my cynicism, it has become an integral part of my identity.  Being cynical makes me interesting, real, and I like to think it's even kind of funny sometimes.  Whether I’m aware of it or not, I’m used to leading with the negative as a way of disarming others and relating to them.  Look, I even did it in this post.  

Sharing about things that are wrong with your life is much, much easier than simply talking about how great things are all the time.   First of all, it signals that you're not full of shit and that you're not faking perfection for the sake of your own image.  It makes you much more interesting and approachable.  It proves you're not blinded by optimism and therefore cannot be easily taken advantage of.  I will also admit that presenting the worst also means people sometimes end up feeling sorry for you, which can also occasionally have positive externalities.  Indeed, it's pretty frightening to truly realize how much being moderately dissatisfied has become such a big part of who I think I am and how I relate to the world.  Will people still find me to be authentic, interesting, and funny if things are generally going well and I’m open about it?

Not only that, but I suspect that a nagging disappointment with the way things are and a corresponding fear of contentment have kept me moving forward for most of my life.  Being constantly focused on what’s next because what is now is never good enough is a pretty strong motivational tool.  In my previous post, I admitted that one of my factors of success thus far in my life has been perpetuating an endless cycle of negative self talk.  Similarly, I think that as much as I may say I want to be happy, the promise of "I'll be happy when...." has kept me working hard for a long time.  I tell myself, All I need is to get to that next step and I'll feel better.   I just need a little more money, a new environment, a shorter commute, more support from my team, and then I'll be able to sleep better at night.  

Well, Allison, here you go.  You're lucky as can possibly be, you're in a great spot, you've got what you were looking for (at least recently) and it feels damn good.  Now what?  How do I remain motivated in the face of actual satisfaction, contentment, and genuine optimism?  Will I be able to keep moving forward if I'm not running away from something?  Am I losing my edge?  

I hope not.  This really deep guy named Robert Frost once said, "Nothing gold can stay.”  Things surely won't be this great forever, but for now I'm just going to embrace it and worry about it later.  I'm scared of happiness translating into stagnation, but I know I am still moving forward because I'm still learning.  How else can you define moving forward, anyway?  And as for relating to others...  if you don't like me when I'm happy, then as another prominent wordsmith of our generation, Cee Lo Green, once wisely stated, “Forget you.  Oo ooo ooo."  I guess we'll just have to see how it goes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The secret about being hard on myself

As a sort of Type-A, driven personality, the top 3 pieces of passively judgemental and massively unuseful advice I have received over the course of my life are:
  1. Don't worry so much.
  2. You just need to relax.
  3. Don't be so hard on yourself.
Most often delivered in an unsolicited fashion, these all deserve a sarcastic and repugnant reply on par with, "Ohh.... I hadn't thought of that, but now that you mention it, sure! I’ll just go ahead and do that.”  Okay, sorry, that's just me being an asshole.  But seriously, I wish more than anything I could do all three of these things but thus far in life it has been basically impossible.  Lately, I have struggled with number three the most: "Don't be so hard on yourself."  Ah yes, if I had a Bitcoin for each time I have heard this piece of advice, I would be filthy rich by now.  

Since a very young age, I have had myself convinced that I am a constant disappointment, that I'm not living up to my true potential, that I am pathetic, and that I might not be good enough.  Seeing these statements in writing, they look like something that a mildly psychologically abusive parent might tell their children.  But that is not where I learned to be so mean to myself.  Au contraire, I am so fucking lucky that I grew up with wonderful, loving parents who overlooked my cliche rebellious high school years when I crashed our car, snuck out of the house, snuck boys into the house, drank gin out of water bottles and occasionally cheated on my AP Euro homework. Through all of that, they have always told me I am great just the way I am. Somehow, though, I never believed them.  I still don't.

I may have grown up in a lot of ways over the past ten to fifteen years, but when it comes to my inner dialogue not much has changed.  I still beat myself up, I still drown myself in guilt and shame over the tiniest of things.  I shouldn't have eaten that cookie, or had that last glass of wine, I am absolutely disgusting.  I shouldn’t have skipped the gym today, I am so lazy.  The email I sent to my parents wasn't long or thoughtful enough, I’m such an ungrateful brat.  I can't believe I didn't spend the last hour working, What is wrong with me? Why am I so apathetic?  How could I possibly lose my keys, I'm such an incompetent fucking loser!  

On the bright side... this constant sense of self disdain allows me to brush off criticism from others because nobody can say anything meaner than I have said to myself.  In light of this all, trust me, I want nothing more than to be nicer to myself and I have tried many different tactics to quiet my inner critic.  Inevitably, nothing seems to work and I end up more frustrated and ashamed than ever before.  

Something clicked for me recently, though. The other day, I listened to a pitch from a company who is interested in creating a smart tool to help people quit smoking cigarettes.  As they presented their idea, I could relate because this struggle is all too familiar to me (and much too fresh in my mind than I'd like to admit.)  What I realized throughout the process of quitting, however, was that there's only one reason why people can't stop smoking; They don't actually want to.  Seriously, that’s what nobody is willing to say.  If you absolutely can’t, it’s because deep down you don’t really want to.  

Here's the dirty secret I haven't admitted before:  even though I have been saying otherwise, I haven't actually wanted to "go easier on myself".  Though the entire routine regularly makes me feel like absolute shit, often leads to extreme behavior, undermines my confidence, and is probably giving me premature wrinkles, I still indulge in it.  You might ask, why not, you crazy masochistic person? Well, it’s because this intense self hatred has served me quite well.  The worse I make myself feel, the harder I am willing to work to prevent it.  If I didn't dread that burning shame, that self-imposed guilt, the endless stream of insults that run through my mind when I don't follow through, maybe I wouldn't have worked as hard as I have.  I motivate myself to work hard out of a fear of failure, a need to prove myself, a desperate desire to achieve my way to happiness.  If I really were kinder to myself, I'm terrified I might not be as motivated to succeed.  Of course, this sparks a whole new round of disappointment with myself... shouldn't I be able to work hard for the right reasons?  How pathetic that I need to motivate myself via negativity instead of a pure desire for success.  And the cycle continues.

So here's the key realisation I’m trying to share: I haven't been able to stop being so hard on myself because I haven't really wanted to.  I have been too afraid of what might happen if I let it go and chose to work hard out of a genuine desire to change the world and not as a desperate attempt to escape my inner Mean Girl.  Not to worry, I still have some pretty stinging insults lined up in the back of my head, but a lot of my recent experiences have given me more confidence in myself.  I left Goldman Sachs, I left my friends and family back home, I started a business in an unknown place, I worked alone from my apartment without anyone telling me what to do... and I'm still doing okay.  I think it's time to move on and start working toward my goals from a place of love instead of one of fear.   It's all so much easier said than done, but I just hope that admitting that I haven't truly wanted to do that until now is the first step in the right direction.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Crisis of confidence?

I have been told I seem like a generally composed and put together individual.  However, what you might not know is I have this bad habit of absolutely hopelessly breaking down into a teary eyed, whiny, self loathing, pathetic mess the day before I start anything big and new.  (Attractive, yes, I know.)  Unfortunately, try as I might to resist it, I have always been this way.  It has proven to be a time honoured tradition across time and space.  It happened the night before I left for college, the eve of of my first internship at Goldman Sachs, the day before I started in Equity Derivatives, the night before my first day at General Assembly, the day before I moved to Hong Kong...  I think you get the picture.  Any efforts to prevent it have proven futile and I have found I have no other choice other than to simply brace myself for the breakdown.

With that as my track record, I suppose I can’t be surprised when, most recently, it happened the day before I started my new job in the space of angel investing. Per usual, and especially due to the fact that I have exactly zero experience in this field, I felt hopelessly terrified that I might not be able to contribute in a way that would be useful to my colleague, our investors, or our investments. Ah yes, yet another venture off into the unknown.  It certainly didn’t help that all of my household appliances had broken concurrently, and my inability to overcome the extreme inconvenience of getting them all fixed was making me feel like a totally incompetent adult human being.  My mind and heart were overflowing with fear - both rational and irrational.

Many people have tried to offer me advice on how to avoid these situations, but most conventional wisdom just makes it worse. In fact, I fucking hate it when people just say, “Just be confident.”  “Just be bold and act like you know what you’re doing even if you don't." "Fake it ’til you make it.”   Well, sorry but, I could absolutely never do that because I don’t think I know everything and I am simply not capable of faking it.  I’ve always been one of those people who readily admits when I don’t know, don’t have all the information, or don’t have a strong opinion.  Except for very special circumstances (like I know you’re full of shit, or I’ve had a tad too much to drink), I don’t like to argue just for argument’s sake.  Perhaps part of me assumes that other people are the same way, so if someone is willing to push vehemently for one side of the argument, they must know more than me in order to have so much conviction.

This certainly doesn’t mean I’m a wallflower when it comes to debates or confrontation.  If I do truly know what I am talking about, sense that I know more than the other person, or that they’re running on the fumes of false confidence, there is no stopping me.  I’ll only push hard for things I genuinely believe, and I’m not one who gives up easily on things I really care about.  This means that if I have genuine confidence in myself and what I’m doing, I can go very far.  Unfortunately, this only serves to fuel my crippling self doubt because I am acutely aware of the fact that in many ways, I am the only thing holding me back.  If I could “just be confident”, I would be completely fine.  God dammit, I suck.

Settling for nothing less than authentic confidence may feel respectable, but the reality is that this “all or nothing” view of conviction just doesn’t work.  At the end of the day, I will never have all the information.  In many cases, I will never have enough to feel comfortable having a strong opinion.  Now, it’s actually my job to have an opinion without all the necessary information.  Part of investing in early stage start ups (part of starting anything new, frankly) is to have a strong view, move confidently in that direction, and do whatever you need to do to validate it.  The key is not being blindly bold, but being sure in not knowing enough, not knowing everything — embracing and owning the uncertainty.  It’s not false confidence because I know and readily admit there is plenty I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take action.  If every opinion is simply a hypothesis, and then the only respectable thing to do is test it.

And, as I have discovered, there’s no better way to test things than by just shutting up and getting started.  I may have my semi-regular break downs, but as soon as I make it through to the other side, I feel better about things.  I’m one week in to the new job, I’ve stopped questioning, stopped worrying, started learning new things, started asking questions, started thinking of how things could be different or better…. and in the process, my confidence is growing (I think.)  Actively participating means there’s no more room for the self doubt or fear of embarrassment or disappointment.  The more things I do, the more lists I make, the more emails I write, the more people I meet, the more problems I start to solve, the less I wonder what I can do and the more I show myself what I can do.

So, of course, I have no answers, nor do I have any semblance of a cure for my habitual crises of confidence.  Maybe I don’t want a cure.  However, I feel good about the fact that once I get the ball rolling, I don’t need to fake it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Privacy, Public Perception & The Circle

After confessing in my last post that I had barely cracked open a book, I proceeded to binge read the new David Eggers novel, The Circle.  It had a little bit of a chick-lit feel to it, which may very well be why I couldn't put it down, but it also seemed remarkably relevant for a myriad of reasons.  When you boil it down, the book poses a very important question about the value of complete honesty and accessibility vs. the value of privacy, control, and truly personal interaction. You can probably see how this applies but I'll get to that shortly.  To sum up the plot, "The Circle" is the ultimate tech company - a conglomerate of Facebook, Google, Apple, and everything else remotely relevant these days.  As such, it has a complete monopoly on everyone's personal information from search, e-mail, social networks, online shopping and anything else that composes our online identities.  The company has guaranteed ultimate convenience by centralizing all user information, but that also means that they have nearly unlimited data on every individual that uses the internet.  As the company grows more powerful, it pledges to use its omnipotence for the betterment of the world, but even so there is an undeniable question of what if... where are the boundaries and who draws the line?

I am probably not unique in that I found myself relating to the protagonist, Mae Holland.  She's a classic Millenial seeking success, acceptance, and everything good for the world but simultaneously crippled by her own underlying insecurities and loneliness.  She initially struggles with the Circle's pledge of allegiance to complete and unconditional openness, but after she is caught red handed in the act of theft (and lying about it) and is perplexed and troubled by her own behavior, she decides to go all the way and commit to "total transparency".  This means she wears a camera around her neck all the time so anyone and everyone can access her conversations, activities, and behaviors.  She finds that knowing she is being watched makes her more accountable, a better and more balanced person.  She's relieved of the difficulty of wondering (and knowing) what she would do "if no one were watching", because people always are.  Anything she has felt compelled to keep hidden, she has been forced to share, and the reaction was always overwhelmingly positive.  She felt reinforced, validated, and less alone than if she had kept it to herself.  The more access she granted, the larger following she commanded, the less alone she felt, the more she wanted to share, and the circle perpetuated itself.

What it all boils down to is: How do we deal with the trade off between honesty and privacy?  How much should we, or do we want to be, in control of how we are perceived by the world?  When I was in finance, I had a manager sit me down to tell me that people didn't think I was logging in enough hours.  I didn't look like I was working hard enough, he said.  I insisted I was simply being efficient.  I was getting all my work done and my clients were happy, but he looked me in the eye and very seriously said, "Allison, that's great.  But you have to realize that perception is reality."  I'll never forget that, and I change my mind pretty regularly on how much I agree with that statement.  I don't want to agree with it, but it's kind of true (for better and for worse).  The scary part about that truth is that if you read this blog, you most likely see me differently than you would have otherwise.  Maybe you see yourself in what I am debating, maybe you like to read it and laugh at me with your friends taking shots every time I say "I don't know".  But maybe, just maybe, it coincidentally struck a chord and has helped you feel okay in a strange and unexpected way.  The point is that I don't know.  I put it out there and that's it.  Nothing more I can do about how you are reading it, and I have to be okay with however you decide to perceive it.

When I was in college, social media was still relatively new and I had no idea how (and definitely not enough confidence) to use it any real or substantive way.  When I graduated, I went straight to Goldman Sachs, which is basically a beacon of total privacy.  We weren't even technically allowed to publicly state that we worked there (obviously LinkedIn threw a wrench in that rule) but not on Facebook, nor on Twitter was it okay to comment at all on GS or its inner workings.  (And then there was @GSElevatorGossip, which you should follow if you don't because it's hilarious.)  Anyway, I digress.  Looking back, I can still understand their reasoning which is their #1 concern is that clients come first.  'Clients deserve their privacy and as GS employees, we are not in any position to share information or activities on how we serve them because it isn't completely ours.  Public commentary or opinion on what we do day to day (which is, serve our clients) is not relevant to our success - our success lies in the hands of our clients.  We are much better off putting the energy into serving our clients and being the absolute best at what we do.'  OK fine, it may very well have been bullshit, but I bought it then and I still think it makes sense.  Either way, the point is that during my time at Goldman Sachs I barely posted on Facebook, I forgot my Twitter password, and anything else was simply an afterthought.  

However, once I left GS and entered the start up world (a small subset of what some might call "the real world"), I was quickly exposed to the fun, the danger, and the value of social media. It still didn't have much personal relevance until I left for Hong Kong and felt a strong hankering, very undeniable need for connection to those that understood me.  A great friend looked me in the eye before I left and said, "Start the blog."  As I looked up at the seemingly insurmountable challenges of starting a life in a new place, starting a business in a new culture, starting over and getting started yet again, I needed to share it all to make it real and to make it okay….  but more than anything, I wrote so that I could be honest with myself.  Like Mae, I needed some bullshit barometer that held me accountable and kept me from getting completely lost in my own thoughts.  So I started the blog.

I wrote a post the other day about traveling alone and the challenges of actually being myself vs. trying to be someone I want to be.  Clearly that, as well as most of my posts, are quite personal and I am very open and honest about what I'm thinking about or struggling with.  Why do I write these things?  What's the point of sharing this, of putting myself out there?  Though many may not understand it, there are plenty of reasons.  It's incredibly cathartic - and revealing - to actually put my fears into words and explain why they are there. I learn about myself, I figure things out as I write, and ultimately I find that I don't actually need an answer.  Even if I do, I end up with some decent thoughts that I can share with other people.  Not only does writing scratch my itch for self expression and exploration, but it also facilitates me connecting to random people from my past, from my present, and people I didn't even know yet.  I have found myself having the most real, open, and candid conversations I have ever had with somewhat strangers, and it feels really fucking good.  When I think about what it means to be human, what it means to really live, I think it comes down to connecting with others over the things that make us human.  

To be fair, putting it out there can also be very personally validating.  Constantly thinking and questioning can feel incredibly lonely because it's all too easy to look around (and scroll through Facebook) and see everyone's happy pictures and think that everyone else in the world has some secret that I'm just not in on.  That secret is apparently not worrying about things and just being happy.  Maybe some people really have found this secret -- or worse, they don't even need to look.  If that is the case, I'm still getting over my resentment of them (just kidding, but not really), however, I have almost always found that vocalizing whatever I'm agonizing over results in people saying they feel that way too.  
I find that I'm not so isolated, I'm not so alone.  Knowing that allows my incessant self doubt to take a pause and I'm periodically free to enjoy myself and the world as I perceive it.  So yes, it's also selfish, but I think we all knew that already. 

But going back to the power of perception, there are a million and one reasons why I should not be posting this shit.  I don't know what my previous employers think about my online persona, but luckily it hasn't affected my ability to be successful at my work thus far.  When I began writing like this, I had a steady significant other and I don't think this type of honesty made him see me differently.  But now that I'm on my own and I'm about to embark on a new professional endeavor, I can't help but stop and think…. "Oh God, what have I done??"  There aren't that many people reading this, but anybody can search my name on Google and find this blog.  Even if we've never met, you now know some of my most personal struggles, you know nearly everything I don't like about myself, and certainly now you know that I'm far from put-together person I can seem.  The fact that I have put this all out there has very real implications for meeting new potential employers, employees, investors, friends… it's really fucking scary to think about who might think what about me, and what opportunities it could close off without me even knowing.  And why? Simply because I felt the self indulgent need to express myself in a public forum?  

Obviously (if you're making fun of me, this one's for you… get ready to take a shot), I don't know if the good outweighs the bad.  Every time I hit publish, my heart races.  The night after my last post, I couldn't sleep because I wondered if I had said too much, revealed too much, shown too many of my imperfections.  Would it compromise relationships, jobs, transactions, friendships?  Sharing openly means I can't control what people will think when they objectively observe my online identity. But I guess I'll just keep my fingers crossed that what I do share will help me cut through the bullshit and weed out those that think I'm crazy and don't respect a desire for self discovery, or that the personal validation I feel now is worth any negative consequences I may experience in the future.  Or maybe it doesn't really matter and I'm just worrying about nothing.  I don't think so, but what's the point anyway?  As they say in The Circle, I can't delete it now!

<disclaimer> For the record, there are plenty of things I don't share and never would share, because I respect the privacy of others and particularly those I care about.  In terms of the question posted by The Circle, I believe that total 100% transparency would be nothing short of disrespectful and dangerous… I'm not a complete idiot.</disclaimer>