Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s the danger of a single story illustrates how we are influenced by the stories we read and the stories we tell.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking

She introduces the talk telling about how reading British and American children’s books influenced her own childish writings that featured foreign landscapes and experiences, rather than drawing from her own life. I remembered how my mom pointed out to me years later the drawings I had made when we lived in Saint Lucia. All my houses had chimneys, even though we lived in this very hot, tropical climate with no fireplaces.

She tells about her experience of negative bias where well-meaning people made assumptions about Africa. She also shares how she inadvertently made assumptions about others based on a single narrative that excluded the possibility of other attributes and experience.

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power… Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

It resonates with me how the negative stories flatten her experience. The creation of stereotypes by such storytelling is problematic not because they are entirely false, but because they are incomplete. “They make one story become the only story.”

“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar… when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

At first I thought I hadn’t learned anything new, just the same lessons I keep learning every year. Then I realized that I’ve learned new techniques that let me apply what I’ve previously understood in ways that work better.

Lessons I need to keep learning:

  1. Everything is about the people. My relationships with other humans are more important to me than anything else. Since much of my life is spent making software, I think a lot about how this applies to my work. Software is really made of people: people’s ideas, conflicts, errors, understanding or misunderstanding the needs of others or the limits of machines. We need to work well with other people in order to do everything, or at least to do the things that really matter. The so-called soft skills are hard.
  2. Why is more important than what. If we agree on doing something, but we’re doing it for different reasons, it typically doesn’t have happy outcomes for anyone. For that same reason, working with people who share your values is incredibly powerful. Our values influence our decision-making, sometimes so fundamentally that we don’t realize that we are making a decision at all.

This year I combined these lessons into a very different approach to finding my way in the world. Part of the reason I can do this is because I know a lot of people and have grown comfortable outside of my comfort zone. Or rather, I have discovered that what I used to think of as boundaries create a false comfort, and have gained experience in creating boundaries in my interactions which create safety in new experiences.

Find your people.

When I started doing business development for my own consulting company, I realized that there are different ways of doing business that co-exist in our capitalist economy. There are business people who are competing with each other to win, where in order to win, someone else has to lose. Success is gained at someone else’s expense. There are a lot of successful people who work that way, but its not how I work.

In my very first startup, I came up with a very simple formula for understanding this business of making software: if you make something that people need, especially if it’s something they need to do their work, they will be happy to give you some of their money.

My idea of a successful business transaction is when I am happy to do the work because I get paid to create something wonderful in collaboration with smart, interesting people. Then what I get paid feels like a lot of money, plus I’m gaining experience that I value. If we negotiate well and set expectations effectively, then the customer feels like it wasn’t that much money relative to the value of this awesome thing we created together. Of course, every business deal didn’t work out that way even with the best of intentions, but I learned to notice which people weren’t even trying to create that situation.

I applied this idea earlier this year when looking for my new job. I talked to people who I had really enjoyed working with, who I felt were doing interesting things. Those people introduced me to other people. I didn’t have time to talk to everyone I wanted to meet or reconnect with, so I followed my heart and met with people who I most wanted to talk with. It felt a little random at times, yet it was quite intentional. I prioritized the companies with the people who told stories about their work that inspired me, or made me laugh, where it seem like some things would be easy and most of the difficult things would be fun.

I spent more time talking with people who were honest, whose truths reflected my own, who caused me think and reflect. I also prioritized people who also wanted to work with me. That sounds kind of obvious in a job search, but I mean something very specific. Of all the people who would like a person with my skills on their team, there is a smaller group who actually want to work with me, with all my quirks and diverse interests, where seemingly unrelated talents and skills are valued as part of the team.

I ended up taking a job at Google, inside this huge company where there are lots of different kinds of people, I found a community of like-minded folk. Most of those people don’t even know each other, but they help me stay connected to my own values and help me navigate a strange new world. I stay connected with other industry colleagues through Bridge Foundry, a wide network of civic hackers, and small gatherings of friends. Every week I try to have lunch or coffee with someone awesome who I don’t work with day-to-day. Allowing myself to care about the kinds of people I work and staying connected with a wider group of wonderful people with has created a profound, enriching effect on my day-to-day life.

Be nice to the other humans.

I used to feel like I had to figure out who the good and the bad people were, or the good people and the other people who needed to be enlightened, but just didn’t know it yet. I had to try really hard not to be judgmental, and it was really hard to be nice to people who didn’t meet my standards, except, more often than not, I didn’t actually meet my own standards. Despite my best efforts, I kept screwing up.

I got excited about agile development and lean startup where you are supposed to fail fast and learn, but we can’t A/B test relationships. I realized that sometimes talking about a thing is a whole message unto itself. You are saying “I think our spending time on this is the most important thing we each could be doing right now.” Of course, sometimes it is, but often not at all.

If something might be a misunderstanding, it might be not that important for either of us. If I’m not going to be working with you or might not even see you again this year or ever, and you aren’t actually hurting anyone, maybe I should just be nice. Maybe I should give you the benefit of the doubt, think of the best possible reason you might have said that or focus on something else you said that was much more interesting. Then when we meet again, if its important and still relevant, we can figure it out. More likely, things will have changed, and we will have changed.

We invent ourselves in each moment. These shared experiences are precious moments of ourlives. It may seem obvious or inconsequential, but being nice, genuinely nice, makes the day just a little bit brighter and leaves the way open for new opportunities.

This morning a few of us gathered for brunch, lured by pancakes and the promise of learning about security, by Aaron VonderHaar (@avh4). People shared experiences, as well as fears of what might happen in the future. EFF’s Danny O’Brien and others shared tips and perspectives on security and online safety.

A important thing to consider is that we need to take different precautions depending on what kinds of threats we expect. Generally Internet security has focused on malicious hackers and thieves. However, the threat model has changed. We also need to fear that our government might demand our information from 3rd parties which is less well protected than information that we hold personally. We need to be thoughtful of what companies we trust.

In addition to hackers and legal action, people who make political statements now have reason to fear false news stories as well as personal attacks that the Internet makes easier with doxxing and swatting.

Solidarity from social and community groups can help serve as protection, as well as developing a relationship (if possible) with local police and your representations. Undocumented residents and targeted groups have increased reason to fear our government, despite that our supreme court has historically upheld that US law extends even to those who are not citizens. Even if someone entered the country illegally, they still have the right to protection from discrimination and abuse. Even before this election, we have not not seen justice and police protection applied fairly and equally in the United States. Those of us with privilege have an opportunity and obligation to support those who ought to be protected by law.

Some useful links for more information:
* Feminist Frequency Online Safety Guide
* EFF Surveillance Self-Defense
* Signal Private Messaging by Whisper Systems, a mobile app with fully encrypted end-to-end communication.
* How to encrypt your entire life in less than an hour