The Thesis After Your Thesis

On May 13, I gave the closing keynote at the The Graduate Show: The MFA Interaction Design 2015 Thesis Festival at the School of Visual Arts. The event is a platform for the graduates to present their master’s thesis projects. As one of their first-year instructors, it was a real honor to have an opportunity to spend time with them once again. Below is a transcript.

Good afternoon.

My name is Gary Chou and along with my partners Christina Xu and Leland Rechis, I co-teach a course called Entrepreneurial Design, which the students take in the first year of the program.

The course is like a reality-tv game show, where we present a set of challenges that the students have to complete out in the real world.

For example, they have to post something on Twitter and get at least 20 Retweets — which is intended to help them understand how networks like Twitter behave. They also have to identify someone they would like to meet and get a warm introduction to that person — which is intended to help them learn how to activate their existing networks to get what they want.

The goal of all of this is to help them learn to leverage networks. And it’s because we believe that today, the long term success of a designer is no longer just a function of the quality of their work, but of the size and quality of their network. In a world of networks, learning how to leverage them is just as important as learning how to prototype your ideas.

The main challenge of the course is to launch a project that generates $1,000 using the Internet, with a few rules: it should be legal; you can’t rent your bedroom out, and you can’t perform time-based labor (so, no consulting — because that would be too comfortable for a designer to do). Instead, you have to make something, put your name on it and launch it out in the world, which can be daunting.

Not all of the students make $1,000, but the money is really not the goal of the exercise.

In the context of a design program, the project teaches students that their ideas exist not in a vacuum, but alongside many real-world constraints, many of which are unpredictable and out of their control.

This is important to experience in the safety of a classroom because it is really hard.

Negotiating the ambition of our ideas with the reality of our constraints requires a heightened level of honesty with ourselves, our process, and our work. And the challenge with reality is that we may not like what it has to say, and so learning to respect it takes some time and practice.

As an instructor, it’s an incredibly fun course to teach because none of us know what is going to happen. As instructors, we’re not there to judge the student, we’re there to coach and to cheer them on. We’re riding alongside them wherever they may go.

And so, I can’t say enough what an honor it is to be here today, to see where you all have landed one year later, and to have an opportunity to have an audience with you, as you all move on.

For the record, I will say that this has been a very challenging talk for me to write.

On the one hand, I feel like there’s so much I could say. On the other hand, I feel like you’ve already heard all of my best analogies and words of wisdom.

What could we possibly say to each other that we haven’t already said?

Since we have this time together I thought that maybe I should just catch you up on me.

It’s clear you have all had a busy year, managing your final projects alongside figuring out what you want to do next.

I’ve been busy, too.

I turned 40, so it’s naturally been a reflective one. I celebrated by throwing a Breakfast Taco party. Many of you came. Thank you.

This has also been my first year of operating Orbital, which is a space in the Lower East Side dedicated to helping people launch their own projects. Thanks to many of you and the alumni, it’s stayed afloat and is chugging along.

What I’d like to talk about is why I did it and how that has changed in this past year.

One of the ideas we’ve talked about in class is that there is this a macro-level shift underway, from bureaucratic incumbent hierarchies to a world of networks.

A lot of good things happen from this.

Networks enable information and ideas to flow more freely — around gatekeepers — giving individuals greater access to information as well as each other’s narratives.

They tend towards transparency, challenging businesses that live off of asymmetries of information or command and control models.

We think about this mostly in the context of business.

As an employee, we may discover other companies that are more aligned with our interests and values, so we may be more likely to join them vs. stay at place where we are unhappy.

Or, we may discover people who are living a life pursuing their own interests altogether, and that may inspire us to follow a similar path, one which we had not seen before.

The significance of this shift goes beyond business, too.

We’ve become more acutely aware of the existing injustices going on in the world, in real time, internationally as well as in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore.

Networks allow us to inform people, and to organize, and to support each other in ways that we couldn’t do before.

I think all of these things are fundamentally good.

At the time that I created Orbital, I looked at this shift to a networked world as a shift of power to individuals. And so, I would best describe my goal to be one of cultivating a community of independent creators.

Over time, that has shifted slightly, and it’s because the landscape has evolved.

What we see now is that most successful networks exhibit winner-take-all economics.

One player emerges from the pack and captures a disproportionately large share of the rewards. As the network grows, it serves more individuals, but the network itself becomes more powerful. That would not be such a bad thing by itself.

But when you consider both the architecture and governance model of these networks, you realize that what you are looking at are highly centralized systems, where power sits squarely with the company, which itself has a dual-class share structure which places power solely in the hands of the founder.

Now, I don’t think there is much you can really do about what already exists. These centralized networks are going to be around for a long time — perhaps longer than the incumbents that they replaced.

But, I start to worry a bit about how this shift affects the distribution and balance of power in our society.

And it’s broadened the scope of the problem I’m thinking about — from just cultivating a community of creators to thinking about how to create new power structures that are more aligned with the interests of its constituents, as well as how they could be sustained.

So this is why I am doing what I am doing.

But it is my journey, and not yours.

And this is still a graduation keynote.

So, I’d like to share with you some thoughts that I think may be helpful as you go on your respective journeys — not just thoughts about design, but thoughts that would’ve helped me in my career over the past 20 years — specifically things that I don’t think we have talked about before in class:

  1. Don’t be in such a rush or worry that your short term decisions will mark you forever. Have a long term time frame. Most of my career is best described as opportunistic wandering. And, truthfully, it’s only been in the past 5 years that I’ve been able to make any sense of the decisions I made when I was in my 20s and early 30s.
  2. If you don’t know what it is you want to do, don’t worry about it, and don’t feel like you need to have an answer for everything. People will like you more as a result. Besides, you make your path by walking. Instead, I’d suggest a more pragmatic alternative. Make as much money as you can, as long as what you do sits within your morals — it may someday enable you to bear the risk of leasing an old tenement building, or something else. Money doesn’t buy you time, but it does provide optionality. Then, use your time to do other things that introduce you to people and stories outside of your workplace.
  3. As you navigate your career, be cognizant of the vessel in which you choose to travel. Be mindful that we inherit so much not just from who we spend our time with, but from the structures in which we sit. The design of these structures affects how we behave and how we feel. And so if you find yourself in an overly homogenous environment obsessing about salary, recognition, and the place in which you sit within that hierarchy; or if you find yourself no longer aligned with the values and belief systems that govern your work or the people for whom you create that work, it may be time to find another vessel, or it may be time for you to create your own.
  4. Our emotional energy is finite. If you make decisions or behave in a way that incurs emotional debt, at some point you will have to pay up and that could cost you years of your life.
  5. Community comes from trust; trust comes from dialogue; dialogue is best face-to-face.
  6. Never stop learning. Teaching is the best way to learn.
  7. Sometimes life presents you with a problem that you were not meant to solve. If this happens to you, quit as fast as you can, the moment you realize it.

Finally, I’d like to reclaim this word “Thesis”.

Have a thesis for how you want to spend the heartbeats of your life.

It may take a lifetime to find out what it is we need to say.”

And that’s okay.

The thesis that has been most impactful for me is one that my friend Karin Chien, an independent film producer, has. She refers to it, instead, as having a Philosophy of Producing:

“It’s not just the stories that we choose to tell, but it’s how we work with the people, who we choose to work with, what communities we choose to build.”

That has echoed in my mind constantly over the past few years. I think about it almost every day, when I’m making decisions at Orbital, teaching here at the department, engaging with my colleagues on the faculty, and when I think about the work I want to create.

For me, at this point in my life it is all about the stories we choose to tell, who we choose to work with, how we work with the people who we serve, and what communities we choose to build.

But you can find your own thesis. And that is the challenge that I present to all of you.

I don’t believe you could have made a better decision with respect to how you’ve spent the past two years of your lives.

You came in as individuals and you’ve left with a network. You have spent two years building trust amongst yourselves and the faculty — and now with the alumni — this network is one of the vessels that you can turn to as you pursue your own paths and figure out the thesis of your own lives. I encourage you to use it as much as you can.

I say this from experience.

Being part of this program and this network has been life changing for me. Orbital would not exist if it weren’t for the privilege of teaching here. It is supported and sustained by many alumni of the program. It is inspired not just by all of you but by classes that have come before. It’s hard for me to imagine what I would be doing otherwise.

I have benefited from working with you all, and for that I will always be grateful.

Thanks to Paul Ford, Paul Pangaro, and Frank Chimero for their words of advice in preparing the talk; to Tina Ye for the title; to my collaborators in Entrepreneurial Design — Christina Xu, Leland Rechis, and Christina Cacioppo — for all of the lessons learned over the years of teaching; to the people at Union Square Ventures for inspiring not just the course, but my own thesis; to the communities of SVA IxD and Orbital for being great vessels; and to Liz Danzico for the opportunity to teach and to learn.

photo by SVA IxD ’15 Graduate Sarah Henry