The Messages We Send Each Other

As most of you would be aware, on the announcement of the Storyworld Conference & Expo Advisory Board, Andrea Phillips published a post highlighting “sexism”.

It’s a list I wouldn’t disagree with on other grounds — in fact, it’s a pretty great list. There’s certainly a lot of star power represented there. On the other hand… the teams I’ve been on have been pretty evenly split between men and women. There’s no good reason there should be only two women and eleven men on that board. (And indeed, one of the two women, Alison Norrington, is on there by virtue of being the one organizing the conference.)

I agree with her. In fact, EVERYONE AGREES. No-one is dissenting the fact there is gender blindness. So, what is the problem then? At first for me, I noticed the conversation was devolving into remarks about the list being the same old people. More often than not, such remarks are a veiled attempt to put down the people on the list. This is a subtext of what is happening, but to a lesser degree.

The second thing that concerns me is the focus on Alison. Alison fucked up, and she knows it! She has learned her lesson in a very public trial by fire. As we all know from lessons learned, this is one she will never forget. And it is important to highlight that Alison is not alone (that is the point). Andrea observed her own thought process, and noticed that she too firstly thinks of men in transmedia. I have done it too, and was thankfully gently awoken to my gender blindness by a male colleague. Alison is now aware of it, and many of the people who have read Andrea’s post are now aware of it. This is all good.

But it is important to move away from hanging Alison out to dry here. Indeed, although Andrea says repeatedly the post is not about Alison, a fairer approach would of been to include many other lists that have gender blindness. It perhaps also needs to be said that although the Advisory Board is mostly male, all is not lost! LOL. They, we, are capable of recommending some great people. Further to this, the list of women speakers for this event is already outstanding. Seriously. They.know.their.shit.

In fact, it is great that Andrea has included a list of awesome women working in the area. There are more too. This helps work against the problem. Being conscious of gender blindness is step one, step two is knowing who the women are. I remember when Tara Hunt, CEO & Co-Founder of a Shwowp, put out a similar call to action and list regarding women in technology in 2007: Women Who Risk: Making Women in Technology Visible. She cites the invisibility of women in media, and conferences, recalling the important BlogHer list that was subsequently put together:

The situation of the lack of women as conference speakers has become so dire that BlogHer put together a Women in Technology list that, among other things, watches for new conferences being announced, then swoops in with a long list of very qualified speakers to offer the conference organizers. Lucky for us, our efforts are being recognized by many conference organizers and they are beginning to come to this list for suggestions before the conference has even been announced.

So what else do we need besides lists? Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a great speech at TED recently: Why we have too few women leaders (embedded at the bottom of this post). She focuses on what we can do as individuals, asking:

What are the messages we need to tell ourselves? What are the messages we tell the women that work with and for us? What are the messages we tell our daughters?

Sheryl offers three pieces of advice for those that want to stay in the workforce. Her talk is wonderful, but I’ll concentrate on the first: 1) Sit at the Table. The data shows, Sheryl continues, women systematically underestimate their own abilities, and men overvalue their own. Men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute to it to other external factors. (See the video for a true and astounding thing about women and “likability” too). Men are better at reaching for opportunities than women. We’ve got to get women to sit at the table.

This is why I found it interesting that the majority of women who agreed with Andrea messaged her privately. I can understand the reluctance to be embroiled with anything “political”, but engagement with the topic doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, everyone agrees…! Further to this, I and many others will attest that women are more likely than men to decline, or not even bother responding to invites to public speaking events. And I’ve seen posts about this in other industries, but can’t find them right now. We’ve got to get women to sit at the table.

For me, I reflected on how women usually undervalue themselves and fall into gender blindness themselves and made a (perhaps tenuous) connection between the two. It makes sense that a woman who undervalues herself would view a man as a success. Anything outside of the self is a success if you don’t feel it inside.

I personally want to see more women running transmedia companies, and more importantly, creating original transmedia IP. There are more women working on other people’s stories than their own. Of course, all writing draws from the personal, but conceiving of an entire world imbues with it the ability to share a unique way of seeing. Sit at the friggin’ table.

Some women are public. I hardly blog anymore, but I Twitter and occasionally give talks, and am currently developing my own IP and web service. Andrea decided to be public and do frequent blog posts and talks. Jan Libby does indie ARGs between her branded entertainment jobs. The list goes on. But the point I really want to make with these examples is that no-one came to them and said, can you do this? They did it for themselves. Sure, I get on lists. But while they may occasionally help put food on the table and shelter over my head, they don’t fund my own creative projects or web business. A career doesn’t happen when you’ve been chosen. It isn’t outside of you.

So what I’m saying is, yes, be conscious. Make lists with your eyes open to those around you. We all know how important this is. But this isn’t all that is needed. Indeed, don’t think for a second that you need a list to exist. Open your eyes to yourself too.

Now go and check out Sheryl’s video at TED! (For some reason my embedding isn’t working at the moment.)

The End of a Chapter, My Sahara

Seven years ago I started the thesis which I am today releasing to the world. The past seven years have been hard. I have worked day and night, seven days a week for years. Spent hundreds of hours watching, clicking and reading creative projects; read tons and tons of books and research papers for lots of crazy fields throughout history; given so many presentations I’ve lost count; worked on lots of different creative (and research) projects with practitioners from new media, TV, film, gaming, print and so on. I could go on, and I know this probably sounds boring to you, but this has been my life for so long.

Some people haven’t understood me. In the beginning many in my university department didn’t understand what the heck I was talking about. You want to do a thesis of what-media? I applied to the creative writing department, and they sent me to the media department. It’s about media, right, not writing. Hmmm. Others didn’t understand why I would do a PhD when I’m keen on pursuing my creative passions? Why on Earth would anyone do a PhD if they don’t plan to work in academia? It’s like walking the Sahara before you write a book. Well, funny you should say that. I watched an interview with writer Paula Constant a few weeks ago (transcript, video). She wanted to be a writer. But before she wrote her first book she decided to walk across the Sahara. She needed to take that journey before she wrote. It was a perfect expression of who she is. A long road to a destination, but a path that is truly her own. This is where I think people who knock others, who claim that they can’t be X because they also do Y have never taken a risk themselves, have ever been courageous enough to be truly different…indeed, to be themselves.

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

One of the things Paula Constant said was that she had never completed something. I have completed things in the past, but nothing substantial. I wanted to do the PhD because I wanted to explore every aspect of a phenomenon I was passionate about. I wanted to research the past and present, I wanted to understand. I also wanted to train my mind to stay on one thing. Ha! At least I’ve learned to complete multiple things. But the training of the mind was important. I wanted to learn how to form an argument, to have knowledge that can be communicated in a sophisticated manner. I was very surprised by what I discovered.

I entered academia being bewildered by big words. It frustrated me and so I understand when others are frustrated too. Why can’t they just say the same thing in accessible language? I’ll tell you why. Experts delve deep. Discussions in academia last for decades, centuries. It is amazing, you don’t just turn up and say this is what I think! You enter a rushing river in which people throughout time have been pondering the same thing. Over that time the discussions get more and more specific. Generalisations don’t work, and terms have years of significance behind them. This isn’t just in academia. Any area of specialisation leads to jargon. So, big words aren’t about being a wanker (though a small population are like that), they are about communicating a specific point.

I also learned a lot about seeing something you create through to the end. I mean, this thesis has been in my life for years. I had to learn to keep going no matter what, to force myself to work. I’ve learned the easiest and most fun stage is definitely the wide exploration stage at the beginning. I’ve learned writing is research too. You discover things while you write. I learned that the hardest and darkest part of a major project is the final leg. This was for me in part due a significant death.

In the last four years, all of my significant female elders have died: my maternal and paternal grandmothers, and most recently mother. I know most people don’t have good relationships with their parents, and I know many are not brought up in loving environments, but I did and I was. My mother was an extraordinary woman and my only parent growing up. My life is less without her.

In fact, while writing the thesis was the hardest thing I have done, the worst part was finishing it. It broke my heart to finish it because it meant the end of a chapter of my life that included my mum. Just putting it online makes the end of this chapter undeniable. She isn’t here to be a part of it. It is the last leaf on the autumn tree. I remember when I was cleaning her blood out of the carpet (she hit the floor when she collapsed). I relished it because I could smell her, she still had a life-force of some kind, she was present. The heart-wrenching part was not cleaning her blood, but removing the last bit. Until there was no stain, nothing. Gone. Releasing the PhD is that last moment for me all over again. As long as my PhD is not released, I’m still in that world where I was struggling to finish it and she was there with me.

But she was there at my undergraduate ceremony, with my Granny too (see pic). And a couple of months before she died, she sent me a graduation gown for PhD ceremony. She was magically clever like that. Yes, now I have to leave that chapter of my life behind. She’ll be with me in other ways.

I am actually lucky to have a gift to give to the world as part of this crossing-over. It isn’t the thesis I thought I would write, it isn’t the thesis I wanted to write, but it is what I decided to give at this point in time. It lovingly embraces the complex breadth of the area, and so most of you with it. It is in many ways a mirror of you all, the beauty I see in you.

In the name of all who have created their own path, walked their own Sahara, and had the courage to follow their own star, I give you what is hopefully my first substantial gift to the world: my PhD.

Training wheels off!

Ever since I submitted my PhD in December, I’ve allowed myself to go through a necessary and needed transformation. The PhD mind-set was intense for me, not just because of the amount of mental work involved with a PhD and birthing a major creation, but also because of all the career-building work I did at the same time.

In 2004 (six years ago!), I started a blog on cross-media entertainment. It was a time when cross-media was well known in the marketing industries (integrated marketing practices being the ancestor of such endeavours). I worked hard to share what I was discovering about the area, as it emerged with force in franchises, independent arts, publishing, and around the world. I did hundreds of talks and articles and blog posts, worked 7 days a week, 10 hours a day. Hard yards.

But I had a personal mission. I took on the PhD because I wanted to know everything I could about the area (not just what I was limited to with my own creative explorations), I also wanted to discipline my mind to focus on one project long-term, and thought academia may be a good back-up career. Ha!

I saw a PhD as different to all other types of schooling. In my research-based approach, this meant I didn’t go to classes or had to recapitulate what I was taught. A PhD is meant to be about contributing original thought. But then something happened in my final few months of writing my PhD. I realised that I couldn’t write whatever I wanted. I was being assessed. I had to write a thesis that showed I can research, engage in critical thought, and execute a rigorous argument. These skills are not the faint-hearted (many think being an academic means just referring to theories — which is incorrect).

So, I took out much of what I wanted to talk about, things which I was passionate about but which I couldn’t execute as yet in the manner needed for a thesis to be assessed on. I consoled myself by promising that after I submitted it, I could write about whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted.

But the state of postponing myself has lingered. It has lingered because although I’ve now finished it (I’m just waiting on the examiner reports and then I will put it online), I’m not in a position to do what I want to. That is, I’m not rolling in the cash I need to create the big projects I want too. I have the time now, but not the resources.

I panicked. Although I believe great things can happen, I realised that I couldn’t bank on what might happen, I had to act. What to do therefore? I’ve been offered some amazing jobs in industry and academia. Jobs that would give me lots of money, have me working with amazing people on large-scale projects worldwide. But I don’t want to go straight into being an employee. That is part of the reason for the PhD, it was part of a long-term plan to be my own boss. And the most important thing…I would be postponing doing my own creative projects for another couple of years.

So, I then thought about the business ideas I have. Beyond the transmedia consulting and public speaking that I continue to do, I have ideas for producing online services that can help the transmedia ecology and hopefully bring me a consistent income beyond my consulting. This income I use to produce my own creative projects. I just need to create these services and then I’ll be able to do the projects I want to do.

I crashed. I cannot keep putting myself off. Time is ticking and I haven’t done any of things I wanted to do in my life yet. I have things I want to say. Personal visions, ways of seeing the world I want to bring into reality. When will it be okay to do so? How many consulting jobs must I do before I have enough of a reputation and money to do what I want to do? How long do I have to “position” myself to appeal to people who will pay for my services, before I can just be me?

Then I saw this quote. It is by artist Jonathan Harris who has some insights online from a talk he gave:

You will become known for doing what you do. This may sound obvious, but it is a useful thing to realize. Many people seem to think they must endure a “rite of passage” which, once passed, will allow them to do the kind of work they want to do. Then they end up disappointed that this day never comes. Find a way to do the work you want to do, even if it means working nights and weekends. Once you’ve done a handful of excellent things in a given way, you will become known as the person who does excellent things in that given way. And that’s the person you want to be, because then people will hire you to be that person.

Of course. 🙂 It helps to be reminded of such things. And so now my heart is at rest. I will continue to explore my services and do my consulting (which I love) because they are expressions of me. But I’m not going to wait any longer to get the money I need to create the projects I want to do. I’ll use whatever media I have available to me and write anyway. If it means I have many unproduced scripts sitting on my desk when I die, so be it. At least I would of brought them into the world, one blueprint at a time. From training wheels to blueprints, sounds like a plan of action.

Thank you training wheels, for taking me this far. It is now time for me to live on my own.

Photo of my late mum and I