People ask me all the time how I did the open-water swims and those famous swims from Alcatraz. One of the most important factors, aside from the cold temperatures (49 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit), is the matter of the tides. The power of the ocean is tremendous. The fastest swimmer in the world, a sprinter, clocks in at about 5.2 miles per hour, and this is only for a short sprint: a 50 meter dash. Not for a mile and a half, or six miles.
In the ocean, however, humans can’t sustain speeds of greater than 3 miles per hour for extended periods of time, and the tides can reach up to 8 knots, which is about 9.2 miles per hour. Why does this matter?
Even if you swim like crazy, if you’re moving against a strong tide, you’re screwed. You must plan accordingly.
In life, the culture around us — that is, the expectations, processes, and systems that surround us — is much like a tide. Without even being aware of it, we’re constantly immersed in tides that take us in a particular direction if we’re not paying attention.
This is why being proactive about your decisions and processes matter. This is why actively investing in diversity initiatives is so important. It’s not enough to believe that diversity is important; if you’re not watching how decisions get made, and the processes you put in place, you’re in danger of ending up far from where you intended to go.
I see this happen all the time with podcasters. “I’ll start a podcast and interview people I know,” someone says. Twenty episodes in, and they realize that they’ve accidentally interviewed people that look identical—all one gender, all one race. How many podcasts do you know that have all dudes, mostly white, as the people being interviewed?
Did they do it on purpose? Probably not. But that’s the important note: Even though most people don’t mean to do it, it still happens all the time. Multiply this into the decisions you make on a daily basis, weekly basis, yearly basis. People don’t set out to say “Hey look, I think I’ll create the most biased podcast out there and only interview people that look like me.” That’s not typically written into the project and business plans.
This is why there is no neutrality when it comes to creating a just and equitable world. You can’t sit back and hope that change just happens automatically. And you can’t keep doing things the way you’ve always been doing them and be surprised when the results come back the way they do. You are either actively working to change the systems and processes that time and time again result in racist and sexist (and so many more -ist) outcomes, or you are perpetuating them.
There is no neutrality. You can’t sit on the sidelines with this. Sitting on the sidelines is like jumping into an ocean and hoping that the tides take you back to shore safely. You need to learn how tides work, and you need to swim.
It’s when you don’t pay attention, and you just pick the next person based on who you know, and the next person based on who they know, that often end up with a population that can be way too homogenous.
The same happens in the culture of an office. In the early days you might have two co-founders. Let’s say they’re both men, for example. Next, they each hire one more person. They hire someone based on their networks, without realizing that the networks they’ve built might be 80% men. Then they hire a few more people.
Whoops, you’re a 20-person team that doesn’t have any women.
The challenge here is that it gets even harder to change the tide once it is implemented and rolling. Once you have 20 out of 20 people on your podcast that look the same, it’s not going to work to add one diverse data point and carry on the same way. You’ll have to work even harder to move the averages back to something you’re comfortable with—you’ll end up in a place where your next 20 hires have to be women, or have to be people of color, just to get back to a place of neutrality.
But it gets harder when you’re in this spot. What person wants to be the first woman on a team of 20 men? Or the firs person of color on a team of all white people? Your bias is showing, and it’s not pretty.
Biases are like tides. They carry us in a certain direction if we’re not paying attention.
There is no vacuum where they don’t exist. Bodies of water, like culture, are influenced by the world around them, whether the pull of the moon’s gravity or the influx at the source.
It matters that we pay attention from the beginning. From there, you need to consistently check-in to see if what we’re building reflects the world that you want to see.
When you find yourself miles down the beach from where you intended to go, it might be time to realize you have a lot more hiking to do than you expected.
Get to work.