Make Me Uncomfortable: The Discomfort Zone at Epicurrence

Nominally, this post is about diversity in tech; really, it’s about how discomfort can be our most profound source of inspiration. It’s also the story of my loud, public rant on feminism and diversity at a conference, why I do not regret it, and how we fail to extend our optimistic assumptions about tech culture when it matters.

Photo: Rico Castillero

I recently spent a week at Epicurrence with 70+ talented people who build brands and products as designers, writers, and researchers. It would have been easy to stay in a collegial comfort zone, chatting about how wonderful everyone’s work is, and can you talk about your process? Instead, we asked some complex questions: What are best practices for maintaining work/life balance? How do you create a positive and productive culture? Are we building things that the world needs? And, perhaps most importantly:

How do you address a systemic issue that no one can ever really figure out how to talk about, let alone solve: diversity?

The last one was as much a challenge at Epicurrence as it is in the tech industry at large. I came away with a better sense of how we can jumpstart discussion around it. That process—an anatomy of group inspiration—looks something like this:

  1. Get comfortable and build trust.
  2. Get honest and be vulnerable.
  3. Confront what we think we know and get uncomfortable.

Result: Walk away with new thoughts and ideas.

My guess is that many of us think (hope?) we can dispense with step 3 and reach the same result. I’m going to argue otherwise, using Epicurrence and our conversations around diversity there as a case study. Epicurrence has discomfort baked into its DNA. It was designed — by the inimitable Dann Petty — around surfing for a reason:

Photo: Rico Castillero
Surfing is satisfying and inspirational and addictive because it’s hard. The thrill of catching a wave for the first time is tempered only by disbelief at having caught a wave at all.

I’ve been clobbered by waves before, going over the falls and getting pushed under for so long that my only thought was, “I need to breathe soon.” I continue to do it because the challenge is just as important as getting the ride, but I’d prefer not to limp out of the water gasping and bleeding. I’d prefer to surf the breaks where I can’t catch everything, but where the waves I ride feel like hard-earned wins.

And I think most things worth doing — most inspiring things — work something like surfing. Inspiration happens when you’re pushed, productively, into your discomfort zone.

1. Get Comfortable

Getting comfortable was not a problem.

Photo: Rico Castillero

The Epicurrence crew convened on the North Shore of Oahu.We got to know one another through shared housing and meals and (mis)adventures. We chatted over coffee in the mornings and toasted the events of the day in the evenings. We gathered in a backyard tent, waves crashing just beyond, for panels and discussion. We confronted the ocean together, surfing and jumping off cliffs.

And, eventually, we started having conversations. Some of those conversations, at an event with proportionately few women or people of color, were about diversity.

2. Get Honest

Getting honest presents a particular challenge when there’s not easy agreement on what we need to get honest about. It’s not, for example, evident to everyone that we need to talk frankly about diversity. Dismal diversity reports notwithstanding, diversity can feel passé. But the reason it can feel passé is not because sexism and racism are a thing of the past, or because gender and race just don’t matter anymore.

Fatigue with the diversity problem is grounded in a truth that is quite the opposite of irrelevance: Sexism and racism have been issues on the professional agenda for decades, we still haven’t solved the disparities, and we’re largely tired of having to think about it.

Photo: Rico Castillero

On the second night of Epicurrence, we had a “women’s panel.” The need for such a panel, with its qualifying adjective, only pointed up the relative lack of diversity at the event itself.

Discussion and Q&A were awkward, for several reasons. Several of the women on the panel were ambivalent about being asked to represent women in design. The subtle, nuanced ways in which discrimination by race or sex often manifest (see also: death by a thousand cuts) are hard to communicate to people who haven’t experienced them regularly. Unless you tell a dramatic and gory story — and sometimes even if you do — you’re unlikely to be taken seriously. It becomes much easier to write off experiences as not a big deal, or to frame those experiences as small, personal, character-building obstacles.

After the panel, a group of us stayed up late, crowding cross-legged onto beds to discuss the issues that had surfaced. Over the next few days, we talked, privately, in more revealing ways on the subject with other attendees. It felt like the beginning of a real conversation.

3. Get Uncomfortable

I should admit, before going any further, that my threshold for discomfort is high. I spent a long time being very uncomfortable before anyone would give me a PhD. Leaving academia to feel out a new industry was a seemingly endless source of discomfort. Now, as an academic-turned-design-writer who works on a developer-focused product involving distributed systems, I live perpetually outside my comfort zone.

Photo: Dianne Villarreal

At this point, my tendency to leap into foreign territory is practically a reflex. On the final evening of the conference, when Mike Davidson asked me to come to the mic and share some thoughts on diversity, I didn’t hesitate. I made a few points that I feel like I’ve made a thousand times — points that seem so intuitive and uncontroversial to me that I’m exhausted by having to articulate them again here. Yet, as I spoke, I watched audience members cross their arms, look increasingly sober, get preternaturally quiet. The discomfort was palpable.

And that’s when I realized that talking wasn’t enough. I needed to write some of them down. (If you’ve made it this far and are about to dismiss this piece as an insufferable life hack, now is when your persistence, I hope, pays off: rant below.)

Points About Diversity That No One Wants to Hear

Always the exception, never the trend (aka, Can’t everyone, if they really want to and work really hard, become a Marissa Mayer?)

As we’re fond of pointing out to each other in discussions of diversity, Barack Obama is president! Hillary Clinton is a front-runner! A version of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, this argument understands the diversity problem through the lens of exceptionalism, with a hearty dose of meritocratic assumption thrown in.

But our favorite exceptions to the rule do not mean that we live in a post-race and post-sex world.

Why not? Because, to be perfectly frank, we live in a world informed by centuries of deeply entrenched discrimination. That’s not up to us: We exist in a culture that has finely tuned, barely perceptible ways of imagining proper behavior — or anticipating expected behavior — based on sex and skin color. And unless we’re willing to have uncomfortable yet civilized conversations about those underlying expectations and their ramifications, we will always approach one another with the baggage of our cultural legacy.

Rather than swapping anecdotes, we need to look at data and trends. Rather than crowing about the exceptional cases of women and people of color who wield power in the tech industry, we need to think about the systemic issues that prevent us from building an industry in which those cases are the norm.

The I’m-cool-it’s-cool-everything-is-really-basically-OK trap

Diversity isn’t yet the norm, of course, but a big part of the I’m-cool-it’s-cool-everything-is-really-basically-OK trap (see also: the Cool Girl Trap) is acting like it is.

Being cool involves making everyone around you as comfortable as possible. It’s a way of being simultaneously exceptional and non-threatening. It can mean offering yourself as proof that ladies are totally happy fitting in with the guys, or disavowing feminism because, Who needs equal rights for men and women? No need for labels, we’re all cool here.

There are compelling reasons for women and people of color to shy away from talking about sexism and racism. We want to be appreciated for our craft. We want to be taken seriously on the terms that the industry sets for people who build things, to have careers unfettered by the side-eye that you often get for speaking up or even imagining that there’s something to speak up about.

So, you know, it’s cool.

Men are like this and women are like that. What are you gonna do?

Ah, the “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” line of thinking. Before that book likened the differences between the sexes to living on completely separate planets, we called this argument gender essentialism — the belief that the sexes are naturally, biologically, essentially tuned for different purposes. Historically, the world has used it and its compatriot, racial essentialism, to justify lots of restrictions on pastimes and occupations and socially sanctioned behavior for women and people of color.

Untangle this assumption. Ask yourself why we still generalize that, for example, women are good listeners or better multitaskers or care more about communication. What kind of behavior is subtly rewarded or implicitly discouraged in young women? What seemingly innocuous words do we use to describe them, and in what tones of voice? And if we value assertiveness in leaders but sweetness and cuteness and kindness in girls, is it surprising that we end up with fewer women in positions of leadership?

Let’s not forget that if tech industry culture is a paean to anything, it is environmentalism — the belief that our environments, the objects and circumstances that surround us, contribute to who we are and what we do. Diversity initiatives are based in the idea that diverse teams develop more inclusive, creative strategies and, in the end, build better products that work for more people.

But if we feel the need to espouse core, irreconcilable differences between the sexes or races, claiming that these differences predetermine our behavior and strengths, then we don’t actually believe we can cultivate an environment that empowers all contributors. In that case, we should give up on our fancy offices and transparency policies and coffee walks and mentoring programs, and all just go home.

Ending On an Up Note

And then the conference ended. I felt exhilarated, like I was coming off a wave, but I was also deeply aware that I had just brought up a bunch of things that people often don’t want to talk about. The reactions fell along a spectrum:

Bummed out: I kind of feel like we ended on a down note.
Neutral, attempting disinterest: You could tell that a lot of people in the audience disagreed with you.
Surprised: I actually basically agreed with everything you said.
Supportive: Amen.
Photo: Rico Castillero

For my part, I fretted that my tendency to leap into an uncomfortable subject meant that I was closing (slamming?) doors. Simultaneously, I worried that taking a measured, diplomatic tone—as I continue to do in this post—conveyed its own form of conservatism.

After all, discomfort tends to come along with things that aren’t familiar. Embracing discomfort without reserve means opening up to things that we don’t understand, things that aren’t just like us. And that effort translates into a more diverse environment. When we’re talking diversity, getting out of our comfort zone is not just a source of inspiration but a catalyst for change. In other words, maybe it wasn’t that I was too loud—maybe I wasn’t loud enough.