I’ve titled this talk three truths and a lie, based on a game often used as an icebreaker. You share four things about yourself — three are true, and one, intuitively enough, is a lie. The goal is to guess which is which. If you ever play the game with me, watch for the one where I met my future mother-in-law after playing a darts game called cricket in a Scottish pub. In this game, I lost a round of drinks to a one-armed workman, who doubled out to victory. That was, in fact, true. Correlation is not causation, but the marriage lasted only a few minutes longer than my presentation here this evening.
But I digress. For the purposes of this talk — which I assume is aimed at undergrads trying to make sense of the world — I’m using 3 truths and a lie as a framework. It’s a way to think about living your life once you are not surrounded by red brick Georgians and the ability to linger at brunch with your friends for hours without ever settling a check.
Truth #1: It’s not the red pill or the blue pill.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love false dichotomies, those who hate false dichotomies, and those who recognize they are utter bullshit. Be the last of these. We organize information and categorize choices into black and white, because it’s an easier way to make sense of all the things. The people who go into consulting enter this kind of world, the people who go into tech enter another. Sure there are cultures and bodies of knowledge and locations that these choices imply, but in the end, people are remarkably similar. We saw that with the internet, too, right? We had access to all the world’s knowledge, and immediately a good deal of human endeavor went to cat memes, porn, and Angry Birds, which we’ve collectively spent some 300,000 years playing.
Cultures do differ, but the tyranny of the hoodie uniform is not entirely dissimilar from that of the three-piece suit. The VC’s Arc’tryx jacket, complete with useless apostrophe, is as much about primitive signaling as the beat cop’s uniform. So, choose your tribe wisely, but recognize that tribal behaviors are universal.
Truth #2: Practicing unnecessary compassion will enrich you.
“Character is what you are when no one is looking” is one of the platitudes that may have resided on a poster in your middle school gym, right next to the one with that kitten that said “Hang in there!” But here’s the thing about trite clichés: sometimes they are right.
What they don’t tell you is character is either the millstone around your neck, or the badge you wear proudly as you reach midlife. It’s the blueprint through which you make other decisions. Nick Kristof recently wrote of the compassion gap in US culture. He had written a piece about the working poor, which included a mother of a hearing-impaired boy. In the picture, she reading to him — but appeared fat, with several tattoos. His comments stream flooded — less with concern about the boy’s plight, and more with vitriol for the woman and her choices. I’m as much about personal responsibility as the next guy, but Kristof correctly flagged the compassion gap issue. As Kristof pointed out, a professor at Princeton found that our brains at times process images of people who are poor or homeless more like things rather than people.
What to do with this? Many of you got to Harvard by making concerted and strategic decisions not only about your coursework and athletics and extracurriculars — but also by thinking about who to thank and who to reach out to. I encourage you all to lean in toward compassion a little closer. The research backs me up here — giving to others time, money, or compassion actually leaves you with more, rather than with less. Wherever you come from, whatever challenges you face, all of you will leave here with the imprimatur of privilege. Use this privilege to show compassion.
Truth #3: The technology we create is not a value-free medium.
One of my favorite expressions is, “algorithms are just people’s opinions, mathematically expressed.” Anyone who’s done a Google search from a computer other than one’s own has realized that search is, understandably, not a universal experience. In the name of convenience (think: location, language), Google tries to deliver the content most relevant to you. In the same way, the Facebook News Feed constantly tweaks its algorithm, serving up posts that may be most relevant — but may also favor the most active and engaged Facebook users. Reddit just launched a “trending subreddits” bar — with an algorithm picking what gets displayed — in order to promote growth of smaller communities. These are all examples of ways algorithms reflect their creators’ opinions, like “some people’s posts may be more interesting” or “it’s important to nurture small communities.” Few would argue these are inherently bad choices, but you are naive if you believe that such choices have no consequence.
So as you conceive, design, develop, and launch software and hardware products, consider the impact of your intended results — and watch for the unintended consequences of your choices.
Finally, the lie. The lie, the biggest lie of all, is that it’s too late. Women are particularly adept at telling this lie to themselves, as are those who are perennially precocious — a term that may well apply to many of you in this room. It often sounds like this:
It’s too late for me to …
- learn to code
- play the French horn
- enjoy a team sport
- be an expert in my field
- move to my dream city
- find the right person for me
“Too late” is too often a self-imposed limitation — and a cop out. Pursue a life where you bump up hard against the borders. Do some doors shut with time? Absolutely. As much as I wish Tommy Amaker would start me in a game against Yale, it seems prudent to concede those days are long gone. Or, never actually existed. But watch for “too late” as a trap you set for yourself. Ask yourself: Is it really too late, or are you intimidated/worried/lazy/risk-averse?
All of you in this room have varying degrees of experience with CS and entrepreneurship. Your life in technology may be old hat or a new experience, but your lives as adults are just now taking shape. So, to recap, choose your tribe wisely; practice compassion; and consider the ethical ramifications of the technology you create. Finally — it’s not too late. This is your big chance to swipe right on your future — to make the most of every opportunity given to you, and to commit to life filled with creating opportunities for others. Now, go pursue it.
This talk was given in April 2014 at the HRVD.IO event organized by HITEC – Harvard Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship Collaboration.
Photo credit: Jason Borneman