April 20, 2010

Being visible

April 20, 2010 - Categories: reflection

A colleague asked me to write about the benefits of being visible. I want to share the experience of it.

I learned about passion and visibility as a child. My father combined a love of photography with a spirit of adventure. He revitalized a street filled with photography equipment stores. He took care of elephants. He flew cross-country in an ultralight plane. He started a movement around autism and photography. Whatever he touched became newsworthy. I learned that the right idea at the right time with the right passion can become amazing.

All of us were visible in some way or another. My first news appearance was when I was five or six, I think. I’d fallen in love with computers then, and a local tabloid wrote about me as a child genius. In high school and university, newspapers occasionally reported the results of the programming competitions I participated in. (My mom grumbled that the basketball team got way more recognition, but such is life.) For my final-year project, I explored wearable computing—and the Borg-like contraption resulted in television appearances and magazine features, even though I insisted that the speech synthesis I eventually adopted was much better for blending in. At work, I’m surprisingly visible for someone who has only been at IBM (and outside the academe!) for a few years.

What does being visible mean?

It means getting to know and work with amazing people. It means hearing about interesting things I wouldn’t have thought of looking for on my own. It means finding opportunities to play to my strengths and passions, because people know about them. It means not being afraid of change.

But being visible also means being acutely aware of how other people don’t get the same breadth of opportunities that you do. Being visible means pulling back the hype and fighting the constructed persona. Being visible means struggling with the hairsbreadth difference between inspiring people and discouraging them because they can’t identify with you.

Being visible means working on listening to the passion within you instead of letting your ego take over.

I feel uncomfortable with the thought of pursuing visibility. I have to remind myself to stop belittling myself. I work on sharing as much as I can with as many people as possible. I work on being real, on being up-front about what I know and don’t know. I work on building bridges, showing people how they can get from where they are to where they want to be.

My dad uses visibility almost instinctively. He has a sense for story, of how a shared vision can align people. He uses that visibility to make things happen, to help people connect with their passions, and to help people see things in a new light.

This visibility is a gift, and I want to learn how to use it well. It’s a tool I can use to help people grow. I’m passionate about sharing what I’m learning because I want to share the opportunities. I’m passionate about connecting people because I want to broaden the spotlight. I’m passionate about coaching because I want to close that gap.

What will you do with your visibility?