I came to Stanford to study artificial intelligence and decided to tackle my brain first
The year I set out to interrogate higher forms of computer intelligence to chase bad guys, the first lesson was a deeply personal one.
“Hep!” the instructor yelled.
I jumped from the platform, 22 feet above the ground, and held tight with both hands to the trapeze bar: a true “leap of faith” for someone who had never been jogging, much less tried an extreme sport. At the instructor’s command, I pulled my legs up, hooked them over the bar as the trapeze swung forward, then let my hands go. In that upside-down position, I arched my back and extended my arms forward so, if the plan worked, the professional trapeze partner — swinging on the other end of the arena — could catch me in the air. We locked arms in the middle, and in the biggest act of trust yet, I let go of my trapeze. (I was in a harness but still…)
For years, I had used a trapeze analogy in many training sessions I’d conducted around the world about collaborative investigative reporting — the idea of shared ownership of a story in which we all take the plunge knowing that, ultimately, we have each other’s backs.
So when my Stanford professors at the d.school proposed a series of “self-discovery” missions for our Transformative Design class, I did not hesitate to go for the trapeze option.
I came to Stanford in September on a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship to study how we might democratize artificial intelligence among investigative reporters, so we can unravel corruption more efficiently. I had planned to spend most of my time from day one on this exciting project so the journalists in my network — the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — are better equipped to tackle the next Panama Papers when it arrives.
Then the trapeze assignment disrupted my priorities, at least temporarily.
“Pushing boundaries,” I wrote on Facebook as I shared the video of my Wallenda-like feat. Upon more reflection, I realized that I wasn’t being brave or audacious at all.
Just like computer algorithms learn what we humans teach them and their outputs reflect our biases and those of the data they ingest, my trapeze challenge was a perfect manifestation of my biases — and an escape from what I really needed to be working on.
In short, I told my classmates, I am okay with the big jumps. That’s not my issue. I thrive on big challenges. The same roller-coaster feeling I had when I jumped off that high board, I experienced when I managed the Panama Papers and other complex global investigations. And when I co-led the breakaway of my organization, ICIJ, from its parent company. And, on a more personal level, when at 17, I wrestled anorexia to the ground and sought the help that ultimately saved my life.
I am brave on the big stuff. It’s “little” stuff that I have tended to ignore. It was no wonder, then, that after many years of journalistic thrills at my job — where we truly felt we could change the world — other parts of life had become numb, like when receptors in our brains don’t get the necessary signals to trigger a response.
All things considered, I thought I had maintained a good “balance” as a mother of two, a partner, a friend and a busy journalist. I had seen colleagues burn out right and left — and I still do — but always considered myself safe from those travails. I was even a bit impatient with their struggle to make it all work.
That was until I came to Stanford for my year-long fellowship, leaving behind in Washington D.C. that bubble called work. The absence of work, with all the identity and validation I attach to it, revealed deserts in my life that I had not dared to admit: exercising, reading for pleasure, spending time alone, praying, dancing, volunteering and being a better partner to my husband.
I felt a California-size earthquake under my feet for weeks on end.
So, in the year I set out to interrogate high forms of computer intelligence to better chase bad guys, I decided to start by retraining my own brain to become a healthier, better version of myself.
In the d.school class, I was paired with Dakota, a quiet sophomore from Ohio. The assignment: Design behaviors that addressed issues in each other’s lives. It didn’t take her long to realize that the most game-changing behavior for my life, as she put it, would be to learn to do nothing.
I had mentioned to her that I usually have a cup of tea in the middle of the morning and afternoon while reading news, catching up with social media or working. Productive stuff. So, she instructed me to use the cup of tea as a trigger but to remove all other distractions. Good designers work with what’s already there in our lives and give it a transformative twist, rather than introduce a bright new object with no connection to our experience. She called the exercise Sip & Savor and sent me on my way.
I failed at many of my early attempts. As I sat on my sun-filled Palo Alto doorstep or on campus holding my cup of tea, I would catch myself doing homework or making to-do lists in my head. Or formulating Halloween plans.
Just like with machine learning, repetition helps. As I engaged more and more in this new behavior, my brain started to get it and to go along with it. My senses opened. I discovered the smell of the eucalyptus trees on campus and spotted for the first time the tiny labels our landlords have sprinkled throughout our front yard, identifying each plant by its Latin name. As I paid attention to my breathing, I remembered with gratitude how learning to send air to my stomach, rather than my chest, rescued me from many asthma attacks as a child.
My cousin from Argentina, also named Marina, captured the essence of my first quarter at Stanford better than I can explain:
We must learn to find beauty in the simplicity of making a cup of tea. When in those small acts we find beauty, peace and harmony, life acquires new meaning. … It produces a change, a big leap inside us and toward humanity. Keep making cups of tea.