Tricia Wang on how her experiences, higher-purpose and “life thesis” drive her speaking

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Tricia Wang about how she has evolved as a speaker, what drives her to speak and what advice she has to others who are struggling to find their voice.

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing a Women Talk Design speaker every week about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Tricia Wang is a tech ethnographer who is driven by the belief that technology must serve humanity. Her work spans across the private and public sector. She is the co-founder of Sudden Compass, a consulting firm that redesigns the way companies leverage data to serve their customers. Her current research topics are on  personal data, hyperlocal communities, digital identity, digital currency, cryptocurrency adoption, impact of COVID-19 on essential workers and vaccine hesitancy. 

Tricia is a frequent conference keynoter, a pioneer in bringing the human voice to data science with what she calls Thick Data, which she describes in her TED talk. Her most recent work is on the importance of hyperlocal forms of interaction and control of personal data.  Her work has been featured in Quartz, New YorkerBuzzfeed, Techcrunch, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Slate, Wired, The Guardian and Fast Company

Tricia is a fellow at Geo Tech Atlantic Council and affiliate at Data & Society. She is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Futures Data Council. Tricia has held affiliate positions at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Data & Society, and New York University’s ITP Program. She is a Fulbright Fellow and National Science Foundation Fellow.

Her most recent work during the COVID-19 pandemic through Last Mile reflects the insights she gained from her 10+ years of living and researching in China. She is also on the California COVID-19 data taskforce. Her life philosophy is that you have to go to the edge to discover the center. For more information, go to her website www.triciawang.com or follow her on twitter or instagram @triciawang.  

On the importance of purpose

In talking about why she speaks, the topics she’s interested in, and her work in general, Tricia kept coming back to the idea of using purpose – or a “life thesis” – as a driving force.

“It’s really important not to compare yourself to anyone else but to figure out what you want to do. Before even asking ‘Do you want to give a talk or not?’ I would ask, ‘What is your life thesis?’ What kind of impact do you want to make in this world? What are the questions that drive you? These questions can change but what are the questions you’re so excited to explore that you feel compelled to get out of bed and figure out how to prioritize [them]?”

“[And when I say,] ‘What kind of impact do you want to make in the world?’ or ‘How do you want to add joy into the world?’ – the world could be your family, it could be your immediate friends, or it could be your city. I don’t want to make it feel like you have to do things globally – just what do you want to put out there?”

“I don’t have the word speaker in my bio because I don’t think I’m a speaker – I speak to do something else. Figure out what kind of impact you want to make and what brings you joy – I would advise that people do that. [It’s] much easier when you find ways to serve a higher self, to serve something bigger than you…That gives you perspective, that takes you out of your head. It’s not about me, it’s about this work that I’m doing for other people.”

Tricia also emphasized the need to do what is right for your own purpose – don’t just follow what others are doing or what they suggest for you.

“Whenever someone tells you to do something, it’s a reflection of their anxiety as opposed to yours. The worst advice I’ve received is people telling me [I] really need to focus on making money and having a career. And I’m like, ‘Why? I wasn’t enjoying it, I’m not adding value.’ It may serve some people – if you have a life thesis where [you] want to make change in one company, then yes, do that.”

“Everyone has an experience. If you’re angry about something and if you want to share, put it up on Medium. Write an article about it. And if you don’t need to share and you don’t feel compelled, then don’t do it. [Ask yourself] do you feel like you should or do you actually want to? Because that’s a really big difference.”

“Robin Coste Lewis has this amazing quote that I sent around to a few friends the other day. She was talking about [how] there’s only you and you have to believe in yourself. At the end of the day, you only have your voice – that is the one thing that no one can own.”

Tricia also discussed her early days in academia, why she felt it was important to get her PhD, and how she had to find a way to move forward after the difficulties of existing in that world.

“I really didn’t want to be in grad school. But I [thought,] “I gotta go to grad school because I have to get power, because I want to walk [through] these doors as an Asian female.’ Even though it was traumatic, I [knew that] I had a life thesis of changing these very unequal systems. I need[ed] to have the power and the knowledge to know how to talk about this stuff [and] to be able to structure studies so I’m taken seriously.”

On why she speaks and how she began

Tricia explained that she views speaking as a platform for the message she wants to deliver.

“I give talks because I have to get stuff out of my head and I think it’s really important to workshop ideas out loud. Not everyone has to speak – I just want to first say [that] I think it’s about getting your voice out there, whether it’s [with] drawing or whether it’s writing or dancing – whatever way it is to get your voice out there. So I don’t want to make it about just talking.” 

“I do it because I have stuff that I’m really passionate about and things that I’m trying to change in the world. In particular, a lot of the spaces that I’m in, I’m often the only female or the only person of color. And I think it’s important that we have representation in those spaces. I’m in very tech-focused, white, male-dominant places, and oftentimes…I see my role in those spaces as ‘You let me in so now I’m going to rip open the door as much as possible to bring other people in.’ And so I think it’s important to speak for myself but [also] to speak to get other people in the door and other voices.”

Speaking is also a means by which Tricia says she can channel her thoughts in a way that ushers others into the difficult conversations she’d like to have.

“I’m very motivated by anger. I’m very motivated by wanting to shake people, to be like, ‘No, you’re doing this totally wrong!’ [But] no one wants to hear [that]. A lot of my talks are all about how I [can] get people to see a new perspective, but using storytelling and using history to get [them] to a place where [they] can see [themselves] without me having to tell them that they’re doing that.”

“When you want to give a message, it’s important to not deliver the message [too] directly, especially when it’s something difficult to hear. [It’s about] how you really get [people] to see themselves as part of the problem and then see themselves as willing, in an open, non-judgmental way, to want to engage with you to fix that. Talks give me that time to be very patient. It’s just another part of me where I can not be angry on stage and just be like, ‘Here, let’s talk about this stuff openly through storytelling.’ And I think that gives people an opportunity to come and see themselves in the story.”

On how she comes up with topics and builds talks

Tricia talked about pulling her topics from her experiences of the world and expressed some of the ways she likes to engage with others to be inspired.

“I like to absorb stuff that interests me – random things that just bring me joy. That always helps me think about [how] to give a new lens to what is happening currently.

“I find inspiration from reading other people’s books and ideas. I find inspiration from just being in my body and dancing. Taking time away from your brain is really important. And having space for quietness – I struggle with [it] but meditating is where my best ideas come from…A lot of people are very lonely in this world in the sense that they have lots of friends but they are not truly vulnerable. It’s really important to find your people [who let you] be vulnerable and to find inspiration from those friends.”

When talking about how she crafts her talks, Tricia said that planning and iteration are important pieces of her process.

“You need to put work into it to make it sound like you know [what] you’re talking about – it’s not just natural. When I’m talking naturally I have a lot of likes and ums and curse words. But when I need to tell a story or [give] a talk, I put on a different kind of self that’s a bit more structured because you don’t want to waste people’s time.”

“I need to control myself and I need to write out every thought because I have really extreme ADHD. I spend months, sometimes years workshopping the talk in my head. Sometimes I workshop the talk first and then I write an article. Or [I] do it in reverse.”

“I have draft outlines and I go through talk summaries – probably at least 100 drafts. I go through massive outlining [and] it’s all living in notebooks and random notes and voice recordings and sticky notes and drawings. Once I actually start scripting, I go through 30 to 40 drafts. Then I move it to slide format and go through 10 or 20 more versions there. [With] each version, I’m getting feedback from people and workshopping it.”

She also talked about the ways she both prepares for a talk and centers herself to be more commanding on stage.

“[My advice is] tell it to other people who don’t know it and then they’ll give you feedback. Also record yourself telling the story and you’re going to hear some pretty frightening things. Figure out how to breathe…It’s important to know how to come across the stage and command attention. Speak from your stomach, speak from your feet – imagine you’re sucking up energy through the ground and through the earth into all your orifices, into your genitals, and it’s just filling you with liquid light.

“You can tell when someone’s speaking and they’re not fully present – they’re in their head and they’re nervous and they’re kind of floating up here. But really good speakers are grounded. And you can feel that they are harnessing energy and sharing that with the audience.”

“Especially for women and especially for people of color, these things are incredibly important because the world is constantly questioning you. Do not give them any reason to [think] you’re not legitimate. We’re all used to being questioned and being second-guessed automatically.”

In response to a question about how you know when it’s time to put down the research and get your ideas out into the world, Tricia cited deadlines as the antidote to perfectionism.

“I never claim to be a subject matter expert. If you’re not trying to be an expert, there’s no pressure. The way you know it’s done [is] when you feel like you have a solid thesis and you run it by people and you want people to poke holes in it.”

“Something I have to fight is the [urge] for perfection – this desire to be perfect. And whenever you have this desire to be perfect, really ask yourself where that’s coming from – who you are trying to prove yourself to?”

“If you come from academia or if you have extreme insecurity around being an expert, it can go into analysis paralysis, which is why giving talks is so important. When you’re giving a date [for a talk], then you have to stick by that date, and that pressure is the forcing function.”

On the best piece of advice she’s received

Tricia shared the best advice she’s received about sticking to who you are and what your purpose is:

“One of my mentors told me, ‘Do not allow them to control you – be uncontrollable.’ You have to find ways to get into the room, because there are people in power and they don’t look like many of us. So I’ve learned that I need to get to the table but also you have to learn how to be uncontrollable to the end.”

For more on what she’s reading, who inspires her, and her TEDTalk experience, check out the full event video below.

Tricia shared a few articles and resources throughout her talk as well as some of the books she is currently reading:

Tricia’s favorite talk that shés ever given. 

Talks by some of Tricia’s favorite speakers: 

Articles and essays mentioned:

Recommended books to read: