Inviting yourself to the table
May 7, 2016
This is a very abbreviated version [largely the insights] of the talk I gave at 99U, Thursday May 5th, 2016. Please read the footnotes and follow the links in order to gain context when given.
I want to talk to you today about …this idea of inviting yourself to the table.
By show of hands, who here has either had an idea they wanted to execute or wanted to be a part of someone else’s idea and for whatever reason things just work out for you?
Keep your hands up if you’d feel that this has been defining sentiment in your creative work?
Like some of you, I definitely felt like I was destined to always be on the outside looking in. Never having a seat at the table.
As a Black American female designer working in predominantly white male environments, it started to become quite clear to me early on that in order to get a chance at certain opportunities, more importantly to create the level of impact that I know I could, it meant that I had to start butting into places I might never get invited to.
You may be asking yourself, well, what does it mean to invite yourself to the table?
“Inviting yourself to the table” is a decision…
It’s the moment you decide to create opportunities you desire without asking for permission or waiting on an invitation.
It’s the moment where you decide not to sit by and allow opportunities pass by your or even worse let life happen to you.
Throughout my career I’ve found myself sitting at all kinds of tables that were never designed for me to sit at . Places where it was totally unexpected for a black girl like me to show up, but assuredly places where I had something to say, unique to my perspective, and often unbeknownst to those already at the table–that it was something they needed to hear.
I originally spent a lot of time avoiding this idea.
First, there’s something very seductive and alluring about being invited. It’s a form of validation we seek from others. Who doesn’t want to be sought after? And for all the other reasons you might imagine: fear of rejection: Was I competitive enough?, Was I good enough?, Could I survive much less thrive in these spaces? Would I even be accepted?
My perspective is largely shaped by race gender, but self doubt is a universal phenomenon that most thinking, feeling, creative, people can relate to. And we humans are largely shaped by past experiences, and lifetime of messaging told me that I simply didn’t belong at certain tables.
Now I could have continued to believe that, but I decided I wanted to reframe that problem…And the question for me then became “how might I begin to make my own opportunities?”
So I decided to just start inviting myself.
Here are some insights I’ve gained along the way that I’d like to share with you:
It is about letting go of the idea of this predefined path towards success in which you begin to construct and will your reality in service of.
It would have been impossible 5 years ago for me to have predicted that I would help co-found a utility startup or that I’d build a new creative outlet with thousands of readers.
Saras Sarasrvathy, a professor at University of Virginia’s business school has spent a great deal of time trying to understand what makes the most successful entrepreneurs–entrepreneurial.
Quote from Sarasrvathy:
In fact, to the extent that the future is shaped by human action, it is not much use trying to predict it–it is much more useful to understand and work with the people who are engaged in the decisions and actions that bring it into existence.
Now every invite to the table won’t necessarily be “entrepreneurial”, but the same thought patterns are applicable to creative people who to execute ideas under uncertain conditions.
Good opportunities, or good tables to invite yourself to are not distractions from “your pre-defined successful path”. They are actual opportunities that begin to tell you more about yourself, they help you refine your values as you adapt and identify new places and ways to butt in and to leverage the power of your unique perspective in timely and relevant ways.
Take a Leap of Faith/Suspend Disbelief.
Don’t think about how impossible it is–just do it.
And I know that seems a lot cliche, but really the only control we have is to make A decision to invite ourselves. Doing otherwise, like waiting on permission, means allowing life to just happens to us.
Quote from Sarasrvathy:
But entrepreneurs choose to view the future through effectual logic. Consciously, or unconsciously, they act as if they believe that the future is not “out there” to be discovered, but that it gets created through the very strategies of the players.
Inviting yourself to the table–the big opportunity to execute your idea–is to remove that uncertainty with your work. Uncertainty and ambiguity are the breeding grounds for your work as you strategically change the trajectory of where you are headed.
Prepare for moments of failure.
Every time opportunity you look to seize won’t always work out. I have a graveyard of failed invitations.In the case of the Detroit Water Project, this was the second attempt that Tiffani and I tried to create a project together.
I’ve learned a lot of hard WON lessons like which tables align with my values, who do I want to bring with me, who do I want to sit next to.
And it was only through lessons learned via those failed attempts that enabled success to eventually happen.
It is only via commitment to the process and not the outcome that we find ourselves in more impactful and meaningful places beyond those in which we were prepared to imagine.
My opportunities have ranged in various degrees from flat out making my own table (in the case of the Detroit Water Project or Tomorrow Looks Bright) to actively engaging willing gatekeepers who want to make room for you at theirs (getting invited to speak at 99U).
But they all are a result of perspiration. And a way at which I decided to engage the world with a distinct point of view about where future comes from–with a lense of creativity and an eye on justice.
Creativity in your tactics and execution as you maneuver through uncertainty to realize your ideas. And a sense of justice–a strong internal duty to liberate your ideas even in the face of dissent, misunderstanding and rejection.
You owe the world this.
Inviting yourself to the table means ideas that would have never been realized now get an opportunity to shape culture. When we create, it is a direct dialogue between you (as the maker) and society about we believe should exist.
I spoke earlier about how my race and gender shape my perspective. And in our industry it is no doubt harder to get an invitation to many tables the further away you are from “normal” whether that be gender, race, class, education. Inviting yourself to the table means more voices get heard and more ideas that engage different types of people get made.
Designers, coders, builders, makers…play a large role in determining how other people experience and make meaning of their world. Someone out there is waiting on you to execute your idea.
You owe it to those already at the table.
You owe it to challenge what is possible.
When people like Sean open up seats at their table. It is a prime opportunity to engage those willing to open up their table to you, and they need more new and emerging voices to fill those seats. Making spaces at their tables is an important function in the creative ecosystem, and you are needed at that table to expand the conversation about what is possible.
If you already have a table (or once you land in a seat), whether it’s hiring, running a conference, funding projects or another position of power you owe it to others to make room.
And you owe it to yourself.
There’s no rulebook for defining your path.
Look for problems that can benefit from your expertise. Tina Roth Eisenberg, affectionately known as Swiss-miss, calls this “finding your super power”–put your super powers to work. Inviting yourself to the table puts you in a unique opportunity to leverage not only what you can offer, but it increases your opportunity space exponentially by taking you beyond your ability to immediately imagine.
And waiting for opportunity to fall into your lap, or worse letting them continue to pass you by is almost an a guaranteed way to live an uninspiring creative life.
So in closing…I challenge you to think about what tables you should be inviting yourself too? How do you make room for others at yours? But more importantly which ones need your voice?
The overall context for this talk were these specific “tables”: The Detroit Water Project, speaking at 99U, Society of Grownups, Tomorrow Looks Bright and IDEO. All mentioned throughout the talk to give specific context leading up to or resultants of the insights. ^
I used this quote from Sarasvathy during the talk to underscore the idea to underscore how big ideas executed by successful entrepreneurs were made in conditions of uncertainty through intentional strategies of “inviting one’s self to the table.”
I discovered Sarasvathy’s work after I had already outlined my talk so it was a confidence boost to see my ideas undergirded by some research. ^
Sarasvathy’s work focuses on entrepreneurs but the concept is very applicable and in service of “creative” types who might not consider their big idea to be entrepreneurial. Effectual logic is the type of logic Sarasvathy concludes entrepreneurs use to execute as opposed to causal logic used by those who believe in predetermined paths. Effectual logic and causal logic are divergent perspectives about where one believes the future is derived from.^
The lead into my talk was a story about discovering 99U and how much I wanted to be involved in and putting myself into the purview of the team. ^