People ask me all the time how I did the swim 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.
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 (or about 9.2 miles per hour).
Even if you swim like crazy, if you’re moving against a strong tide, you’re screwed. You must plan accordingly.
In life, culture — 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 direction if we’re not paying attention.
This is why diversity initiatives are 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.
Did they do it on purpose? Of course not. Most people don’t mean to. We 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 in our project and business plans.
But when we don’t pay attention, and we just pick the next person based on who we know, and the next person based on who they know, we 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, both men (for example), and 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 10-person team that doesn’t have any women or multi-cultural perspectives.
The challenge here is that it gets even harder to change the tide once it’s 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.
Biases are like tides. They carry us in a certain direction if we’re not paying attention.
And 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. We all need to periodically check-in to see if what we’re building reflects the world that we want to see.
And if you find yourself miles down the beach from where you intended to go, it’s okay to realize you have a little more hiking to do than you expected.