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>

Monday, January 20, 2014

Traveling solo: The good, the bad, and the ugly

As I find myself saying over and over again, it's been a crazy few weeks.  I last blogged from San Francisco and now I am writing from the north of Thailand where the traveler's scene is ripe with stereotypes of its own kind.  You might ask, why am I here?  Well, after a lot of contemplation, a prolonged period of indecision, and a hell of a lot of emotions, I made a really difficult (but exciting) choice to officially separate myself from being "Allison from GA" and accept a new job opportunity in Hong Kong.  It was, as expected, extremely difficult to step away from a team and a community that I spent the last year and a half of my life pouring my heart and soul into, but in a way that's why I felt I had to do it.  After surviving several separations of a more personal flavor last year, I felt like it was time to actually make my own life in Hong Kong, and not just one that was inextricably tied to my job.  Ultimately, I'm not sure how intertwined I want those those two things to be - of course I see my job as integral part of my identity, and I want to always (or as often as possible) be in love with whatever I end up doing… but there's got to be some sort of healthy balance out there, right?  Maybe not.  Anyway, I'll still be working with startups of all kinds, and as the second member of an angel investing team I will very much continue to be an entrepreneur myself.  

I knew this change was going to be a doozy so I decided to get away from Hong Kong for a bit to clear my head and physically force myself to disassociate from work.  As much as I'd love to be able to finish up my duties and then hit the mental and emotional reset button myself, I'm just not that strong and I'm okay with that. I chose eight days in Thailand because the weather is ideal, it's cheap, and it is generally safe to travel alone.  The last one is big and is both figuratively and literally my biggest challenge for this little adventure.  

I've done a fair bit of traveling in my adult life thus far, but it's always been with a partner or friends.  This is a completely different story.  Of course there is the element of physical safety to consider; where and when can I wander around alone, when to talk to strangers and when not to.  But what's more is that especially at a time where I'm finding myself unnervingly scared of being on my own - without a relationship or a job to define me - traveling solo is simultaneously intimidating and liberating.  There is absolutely no one to answer to, nobody to compromise with, nothing keeping me from doing exactly what I want to do and when I want to do it...  Or so you would think.  It's only been a few days so far but I still have some thoughts to share on a few interesting positives and negatives about my experience traveling alone so far.

First, the good:  You get to pick where, when, and how much to eat or drink at all times.  If I want dessert for lunch or beer with breakfast, I can.  I can plan as little or as much as I want to.  I can plan, then decide I'm feeling lazy, and not follow through.  I never have to wait for anyone.  I can sleep as much or as little as I would like.  I can walk as fast or as slow as I want to.  Nobody is nagging me to wear sunscreen (I know, I know, I should).  If I mess up the directions and end up hopelessly lost because I thought I recognized some sort of landmark but turned out to be wrong… it doesn't matter!  Love it.  

But then there's also the bad:  Things are more expensive because you're not splitting things with anyone.  If you forgot something, you're shit out of luck because there's nobody to borrow from.  If you order dessert, there's nobody to share with to prevent you from eating the entire thing. If some weirdo asks for your phone number, there's nobody to step in and deflect.  You sort of always have to be looking over your shoulder to make sure you're safe, and when night falls, there are real limitations on where you can go alone.  In fact, I find the evenings the most difficult anyway.  Especially when you see couples and friends joking around everywhere around you, it can feel a little sad, even a pinch pathetic to be sitting at the dinner table alone.  Though, I have to say, as a loner you find yourself doing a lot of high quality people watching and a good 80% of people eating together are just on their smartphones not talking to each other anyway.  

This leads me to the ugly part, and it's not just that I'm not wearing any makeup at all.  No, the ugly part of traveling by yourself is the fact that you also actually have to be with yourself.  If you are still reading, then you probably have read my blog before, or you know me and you are aware of the fact that I can be a rather intense person.  I think a lot, feel a lot, question a lot and it can frankly be quite exhausting.  I have a newfound respect for anyone that has spent a good deal of time with me because I can be really fucking annoying, so thank you to anyone that has stuck around for awhile.  Sure, Thailand feels exotic and far way, but there's absolutely nowhere in the world I can go to escape my hyper aware and overly analytical self.  

To first paint that in a constructive light, I can't help but view this all as a mini experiment.  In my little quest of "getting started" and seeing what I'm really all about, I am eager to place myself in completely new situations and see what happens.  What choices will I make, how will I react to things when I have no other limitations to consider?  It's a laboratory for self that I hope will help me understand myself better and allow me to make better and more deliberate choices about how I want my life to be.  As I observe what I really want to see and do, what kind of traveling I enjoy the most, it's sometimes fun to listen to where my cautious, type A, planning and list obsessed self ends and where my adventurous, spontaneous, romantic self begins.  They're always battling and sometimes I really don't know which side will end up winning.  

However, I am also finding myself stuck in an endless spiral of comparisons.  Having primarily traveled with others previously, I am constantly comparing my preferences with and without other people around.  Am I choosing to do something because I really want to or is it in reaction to what I did in the past?  This also applies in a larger sense as I am finding I have a lot of subconscious guidelines for myself for "how I want to be" as a traveler and as a person.  Though I purport to be out here "figuring myself out", "on my own", and "listening to what I really want", that's also a bunch of bull shit.  In all honesty, I know very well how I would like to be, and I can paint a pretty good picture for you about what I would like to discover.  I'd love to have this amazing vacation on my own where I come back newly confident in the fact that my self awareness is a good thing, that I am a fearless, independent, friendly, mindful, thoughtful, appropriately adventurous, and open person.  I'd like to find myself writing, engaging with the world in new ways, truly relaxing, and relishing in every moment.  If that's who I figure out "I am", I'd think that person is fucking awesome.  I'd want to be friends with her.  She sounds cool, right?  

Unfortunately, that's not exactly what I'm finding.  Nope, I'm still pretty damn scared of actually listening to my seemingly endless stream of anxious, stupid, fearful, sometimes judgmental thoughts.  Even in Thailand, I am finding it kind of difficult to meet other travelers (except for one overly persistent and creepy Russian gentleman) so I guess I don't give off such friendly vibes after all.  Plan-less evenings make me nervous, sometimes I feel like staying at home instead of venturing out, I have barely cracked open a book, I keep checking my email, and I still don't feel totally relaxed (obviously).  Indeed, there's a lot about me and my experience that I'm not so proud to admit and feel like insurmountable impediments to me being "the real me" - or at least the version I'd want to hang out with.  Even on my own, it feels like I'm still traveling with someone else - the actual real me, and the me that wants to be a certain way.  So it turns out that even when I'm alone, I'm still negotiating with someone else.  Whoever at some point in time threw their hands up in the air and excitedly exclaimed, "I have nobody to answer to but myself!" forgot to mention that "myself" actually counts as someone to answer to.  Go figure.

So anyway, in conclusion, as usual there is no conclusion except that traveling solo is every bit as hard as I thought it would be.  I guess the point of all this "getting away" and "relaxing" business may seem like it is to "figure out what kind of person you are", but maybe that's not the point at all.  Maybe the point is to embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly so you can be with your actual self, and see what happens.