Dazzling yourself: The 20/20 challenge

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Years ago, I read a book by Alan de Botton in which he made up a fictional white woman of average height, average looks, average class, average job, average education, average etc., and wrote a whole biography about her.

I don’t actually remember much about her life, or the book, as I can’t find a link anywhere, and am not going to get into all the ways this book is problematic, to put it politely. Instead I will just say that the philosophical point I believe he was trying to make was that, everyone is exceptional and extraordinary, it just needs a spotlight on them for us all to appreciate that. So much so that, even though I knew her story was fiction, the fictional woman felt exceptional and extraordinary. She was special because I had spent time learning about her life.

This is the power of storytelling.

Recently, I was asked to give a 20-minute presentation about my experiences in human-computer interaction (HCI), not HCI itself, but me in the field of HCI. This was such an unusual request that I had no idea where to begin.

After a while of staring at a blank powerpoint .ppt file and a copy of my CV, I realised that I needed to feel my way in to get to the heart of it. I love thinking about the heart of stuff and hadn’t realised how much so until I looked up my blogs about the heart of stuff so there’s the heart of: computer programming, human-computer interaction, the cave of my heart, steeped in my heart, felt along the heart.

I started from present day and worked my way backwards. I dug out old newspaper clippings – I say that as if I have loads but I have two about the time I represented Switzerland at CeBit for technological innovation where lots of nice German men congratulated me on my excellent English. Where did you learn it? They asked. Middlesbrough, I answered. Then I remembered all those odd jobs I’ve had including the ones I had forgotten from the brief time I was bartender to that even briefer span when I was an editor on Hedge Fund Managers Weekly. I know!

Then I started to put together a collage, googling for pictures. I never owned a camera I just wandered through the world willy-nilly, to track the places I’d been: Liverpool John Moore’s University, best undergraduate experience ever; ICI, Runcorn, Castner Kellner site, armed only with a screwdriver, rubber boots and a gas mask; ETH, Zurich carrying Neufert the classic Swiss architects textbook, the Palais de Beaulieu where I learnt AutoCad; EPF, Lausanne with Timoshenko’s Strength of Materials under one arm; Lancaster University and Dix et al.’s Human-Computer Interaction (and great joy, Alan Dix set Als, was in the office opposite, yay); Corus Steel Rolling Mills on Teesside; the Department of Mathematics, Oxford University with Glasserman and Yu’s Monte Carlo for Financial Mathematics to yawn over (sorry Mathmos [V]), usability laboratories and offices all over London. It was quite the trip.

Over and over, I asked: How did I become a computer scientist? And, then I remembered how I wanted to storyboard my cv but never did. And, how as a teenager, I watched Educating Rita one night. After that I just wanted to go to university to study English Literature but ended up in computing when I had never so much as plugged one in before. And how, as an accidental techie, university was to me such a magical place, that I never wanted to leave.

Then, I remembered all the other times, jobs, and teams and groups where with others, I loved and laughed, made music, danced, earnt money, studied, learnt, taught and, lived. Along with all the things I continue to do to this day and nearly everyday, because like all the other people I’ve ever interviewed, I started telling stories all about my whole life, not just my job and my computer.

I also, briefly, remembered two respected older male professors at Lancaster and Oxford University saying when they asked me what I did: HCI is the null set and HCI is not a proper subject, just hand-waving. Boo-hiss!! Shame on them for saying it, and shame on me, for even thinking for one minute that their opinion in this matter was worth anything. As my daughters would say that was an iss-ue, not an iss-me.

I am not, nor will I ever be, a reflection of people who do not understand me, or what I do, and what I love.

And, I LOVE HCI. I always have and I always will which is why I write about here and teach it whenever I get the opportunity. I blog about it and wonder about it and then I blog about my wondering why I blog about it and about my why. HCI is an endlessly fascinating, ever changing field and oh great joy – up the Boro – I am a part of that.

It took me a very, very, very long time to put together 20 minutes of my experiences of HCI, but it was worth every moment, as by the end, I was dazzled by myself, by the places I have been, and the people’s lives and projects of which I have been a part. Then, I gave the presentation and I was a lot more in love with my life than I had been before I had started. I had, as we say in meditation, got a real taste of myself, and I wanted to savour that flavour.

So, with a little help, and a lot of creative differences (or was it a lot of help, and few creative differences?) from my Gacha expert daughter, I now finally have the CV storyboard of my dreams. And, like all good comics I want it to be continued… so I put it up here so that I never forget how I remembered myself.

Then I went about telling everyone, who I came into contact with, how magical it was to create a 20-minute presentation about my experiences.

When I lecture, I start with the guide of one slide a minute, so 20 minutes = 20 slides. So, I am inviting you to experience your experiences in your own 20/20 challenge, 20/20 because it’s good now and again to look at yourself and see you clearly:

Describe yourself in 20 slides, or 20 pictures that describe 20 moments when you worked at something: big or small, important or mundane, and watch how you dazzle yourself.

I promise you, you won’t be sorry because you are exceptional and extraordinary, and sometimes you just need to shine a light the very essence of you.

Go on, dazzle yourself!

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