A self-assessment at nineteen. I hope to write this every year.
Some of these are merely blatant truisms, but I’m nineteen and have so much more to learn about and uncover and are a start to where I must ground myself.
1. A willingness to look foolish. I care less about what others think.
When I search this up, it looks like a quote tied to faith and religion––but I believe is as applicable to any other form of practice. (I used to rant a lot about how this was my biggest inhibitor in high school.) When I fear failure, I try less and thus do not move forward.
Tom Kelley, an IDEO partner detailed this pretty well in response to the question of why we lose so much creativity after childhood when all we used to want to do is create: “We start caring too much about what other people think… It tends to happen around the fourth grade.”
When I can just move forward and ask people and regret later, when I can live with full authenticity and be genuine about intentions and needs––it is easier for me to move closer to what I want. There is so little time on this earth to wait or be afraid of how others perceive us. Radical openness and what is, in essence, courage, should propel me no matter what.
2. Knowing that I am not a savior.
There’s a new movement of students that are pushing to explore technology for social good. Conversations around peer circles are now shifting to how we can use traditionally elitist and exclusive circles to do the most good, shifting to mission-centric opportunities.
However, this kind of thinking also risks breeding a savior complex. But technology won’t save us. When I talk about likely one of my most impactful endeavors, Developh, I speak to people about this grand story about how I witnessed a tech boom in a country largely dominated by duopoly–seeing endless potential in localized founders and change beyond the frigate of Zuckerberg, Jobs, etc. Where others were mesmerized by founding the next Facebook from their dorm rooms, I argued that I was fascinated by the potential of millions of students building things beyond superficial-raters–actually solving problems that they face in the world’s mosts fruitful time for creation.
The thing is that this line of thinking is just as misguided as the people a decade ago who were enthralled by The Social Network. A lot of my technical explorations yes, did solve problems that were beyond food delivery and another social app with a mildly twisted concept, but they had no interest in actually embedding with existing problem-solvers or revolutionizing a field for the long-term. I’ve admittedly embarked on a lot of “for good” endeavors that were just excuses to flex technically, and were virtue signaling at worse. (Student developers right now, how many more COVID-19 dashboards do we need?) The long-held idea that technologists tend to have of their uttermost power to change the world via terminals and code is a dangerous romanticization. Sometimes you just have to shut up and open your wallet, really.
More specifically, as a designer it’s easy to fall in love with frameworks and methods to try and serve communities that we know nothing about and fall into the same traps. It comes to a point where technology can impede with localized community progress. I hold fears of being a part of initiating “solutions” that serve a form of good that my team defines––whether from observation or even questioning that we warp what success looks like on––and leaving a problem to fester after our bubble of toying by ‘ideating, iterating, and failing fast’ breaks apart.
I was probably twelve or so when I first heard of Nestlé’s own form of saviorism on Reddit: around the late 1970s–1980s, Nestlé sought to help the developing world and to improve its infant formula. They gave limited amounts of formula to new mothers in impoverished areas of Africa, advertised its nutritional benefits–touting it as superior to mother’s breast milk. They would provide formula just long enough so that these mother would stop lactating, leaving them without any option but to continue buying Nestlé’s formula. These mothers, often left without full understanding of the product (Nestlé intentionally did not translate their packaging) and without sufficient access to clean water-–were left with undernourished babies.
The story of Nestlé is a corporate evil extreme, but the same happens everyday: Facebook aims to connect 5 billion previously internetless people––and Facebook Light fuels a bloody election and drug war. The dream of using technology to intervene, solve the world’s problems, and deliver change for millions from a laptop has to wait.
Technology is merely a medium. My technical prowess nor my sometimes idyllic fascination with creation (that at times dangerously gets to productivity porn levels) cannot stand alone. It is only as good as the people who build it. How far can empathy take us if the voices we try to advocate for aren’t truly part? When I design, I am not a savior. I play a part until I am someone who truly lives with the issue.
3. Presenting my authentic self.
When everything was weird and fuzzy four years ago, I set up my first LinkedIn account and became those kinds of high schoolers who add every single work experience and award they’ve ever received onto their profile, called myself CEO of my then club of 40, and sent people like you a friend request. That was painful and I did not learn to take the CEO title off until the end of my freshman year of college when I realized getting speaking opportunities at events and having a cool, influencer-esque following was not productive.
I used to live up to this perception that I had to present myself differently, professionally. I would type perfectly on a public Twitter account, come into conversations with safe, template, framework questions (the safest ones that would still get you a “oh, that’s a good question”) and act like I was in awe with an industry that every day I had pounds of doubt on.
Learning to shed this in my career has been liberating. I am skeptical of the cultures behind the cities that all my dream companies are in. I’m wary of the design decisions that go into my favorite products and every dark pattern that you might see, and won’t hesitate. I share products and work aligned with political organizations and stances that I hold (and I am so lucky and privileged to be able to share them where field activists in the Philippines are killed on the regular). In my interviews, I don’t hesitate to jump into conversations about ethics, whys, and accept that this is an industry of compromises––and as a designer, I’m in the best space to gather influence, data, and be the advocate that the masses don’t have.
In the Philippine design community, there’s this expectation to brand yourself––everywhere. The blur of a personal Facebook feed doesn’t exist: if you meet someone, they will add you, and entangled in their feed is a mix of shares on design, memes, and even politics. Some people are a lot more out there than others, but at the end of the day they all excel at their jobs––and are known for more than their work, but for their humanity and character.
Professionally, I’m interested in dismissing the idea that for a woman in technology to be successful they must fulfill this anti-CEO. Simultaneously a girlboss and a humble mentor, balancing a tragic backstory and carrying the weight of others. In honesty, the authentic me knows that corporations are motivated by self-interest and the weight of one team might not be able to change that in an instant, but invoke more awareness and mitigate evils. I’m not a designer who curates everything and focuses all my education on Medium articles and the words of other designers; I’m happy to take in books on theory to emerging practices, but would rather supplement my education in experiences––which is reflected in what I share out to the world (meaning: if I talk about only design I can’t stay sane and that’s likely a bad thing, too). I voice out injustice in the world and know that for larger struggles, what makes me decent (and perhaps one day, excellent) at my craft is not my technical prowess or my ability to manage people or even communicate, but it is perhaps the methodologies and viewpoints and perspectives from larger worlds that design enables me to constantly focus on and educate myself in outside of all these tooling fantasies. I’m not just talking about smug reflections at the Silicon Valley machine like on Uncanny Valley; that’s not going to change the way people think about tech––that gets people to pat themselves on the back for being above the bare minimum. I know that I bare my own perspective and change, a city behind me that has existed long before talk, and a life that yearns for something not so carried by it. That is, I put down the medium and know how to be the larger advocate.
Speaking with honesty and exploring with skepticism has let me build deeper relationships and learn deeper much more quickly. Reaching out to peers and destroying the designer’s facade (especially as women of color) means we can navigate difficulties together with ease. With seniors and mentors, it’s refreshing, no bullshit, and lets me get roasted more (in the best way that helps me learn). With companies, I know that if this doesn’t work out––we’re likely not a fit.
Basically, I was annoying on Twitter then and am another type of annoying on Twitter now.
4. Creation for myself, and others.
I’m not without my own innate desire that can’t seem to be killed.
In the past years, I had the fortune of working closely and learning from founders in different industries: translating a love of prose to learning about venture deals, bettering my understanding of politics and civic engagement in a newsroom, to continuing to learn everyday from the people at Developh.
Now, I think I’m pretty settled on a dream career (economy allowing and all): building tools, spaces, and platforms for others to create. I’m thinking of developer and design tools with such dedicated communities that also carry education and community programming and how to make this more equitable to the masses. Spaces for independent creators to find community or learn be it in art, games, or code. Startups like itch.io, Glitch. or repl.it are doing amazing work in this space and are names I can’t wait to be household––and have products that I’ve been implementing into teaching at Developh and elsewhere myself. Bigger names like Github (Microsoft, I guess) or DigitalOcean also fall here.
There’s magic to bringing more things out in the world. In times like these, we rely on not any sole individual creator, but the combined community efforts of millions of creators around the world. We’re battling things together like personal hurdles, legislation, education and accessibility gaps. The way we communicate these tools is still in its infancy: I remember exploring RPGMaker forums and finding my closest friends, developing intimate circles around fansites. The way people create culturally and technically in the Philippines isn’t at all like in America’s, and localizing our products to better serve these communities is something we also need to work on.
5. I know everyone around me is ordinary, and ordinary is great.
When my narcissistic self (I’m a teenage girl raised in the age of the internet, what can I say?) entered college believing that the best value would be its people, I was proven not exactly wrong, but confused.
For the last year of high school I sat right in the hallway outside my classroom for every break, laptop burning plaid skirt uniform and thighs, focused on what to me was self-improvement and greatness to escape a so-called predestined path that everyone else would take. I thought I wanted to be surrounded by people with more ambition.
In my first semester of university, I did meet incredible people, but they were incredulously no different from the people I had back home. I think i became much more aware of things. I sat down in dozens of meetings watching some of the supposed world’s greatest students be absolutely awful and inconsistent at their jobs, taking no initiative beyond what was required of them or staying around in office hours until answers were handed over to them. Suddenly they were so ordinary.
The difference is that in my college, it seems like it’s instilled in everyone that they’re destined for some form of greatness. Their ambitions line up with their egos (not necessarily a bad thing); they speak with no hesitation and will quip until they have what they want. Yet in the everyday, they are are no more talented than people in my secluded Catholic school and the people we end up becoming when let free from 8 to 5 religious restraint for thirteen years of our lives. We just don’t walk these paths because we don’t see that they too, are just like ours.
This extraordinary understanding and at times, fear, has helped me realize that I should have been less of an asshole in high school. The issue is that until I risked everything with the gracious financial aid bestowed upon me by luck of an admission officer’s pity and rich alumni’s donation to cherrypick some poor 18-year-olds with a drastically shifted social trajectory––I would have no idea that I too, was already as great as the people here. I just lacked the confidence, or a school looking to save me beyond religious damnation. This network of inflated, narcissistic, and fearful future world leaders is dependent on the elites serving other elites: beyond that, there is almost no distinction. There are so many geniuses out there that won’t ever be able to break out of their spaces because of the barriers society has imposed on them.
When I come home, I am not a savior. My friends know more than me how undeserving my being here can be.
This realization moves me to speak to every single person with the knowing that they hold some extraordinary part of themselves that if the system can’t fully flourish––I must try to reach. Every single person is worth learning from; perhaps more so those who don’t put their own selves up on a pedestal or have the ‘prestige’ of institutions that say that. The only times I have ever been uplifted by someone who was not the traditional ‘ordinary’ was in fear and cognizance of the bullshit in our interactions. All the most important learnings that have placed me where I am are the same people who might be awed/disgusted/mocking of the university I’m in.
This is not to say that the people around me aren’t fantastic––but the people of New Haven tend to be far more interesting than the people in my classrooms who say that New Haven sucks. The learnings I receive from students spoonfed success mean little to nothing next to people who have built themselves up. Between the both of them, there is so much to dissect and carry––too.
Less fear and awe.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and what drives you, yourself.