FITC organizers invited me to speak at the 2016 conference in Toronto, the theme for which was "Level Up." What's below comes from a combination of crib notes and memory, so it isn't an exact transcript of what I said on the day I was on stage. Here's the talk for posterity.
A suggested soundtrack for this talk:

Hello! Thanks for being here.

It was a surprise to get an invitation to speak at this conference. There are some really well-known people who've been on this stage at previous FITCs. I mean, look at the speaker roster for this event. I'm really glad the organizers were nice enough not to schedule me against Nick Felton.

So, I hope you get me when I say: I was flattered when Shawn Pucknell invited me to speak.

And then I was freaked out when he told me: "You can talk about anything. The theme is Level Up."

Is that a theme or a directive?

I started to think hard about what I wanted to talk about. In the meantime, the organing team was asking me for speaker info: Image. Bio. Name. Impressive job title. Impressive company name.

And I think: If I've been invited to speak about anything at a conference of creative technologists and the theme is "level up," then I'm going to do this differently.

Because what are "name," "job title" and "company name"?

Three text fields.

Yesterday I go to the conference website to see if there are any updates. The site looks really different from before. I scroll down.

And hey. Look! (The site reads "Chrys Wu Defies Description.")

I then go to the schedule to double-check when I’m speaking.

And what do you know! Remember what I said about three text fields?

(The page reads:
"Chrys Wu, MacDiva, Defies Description")

So, why do this?

I’ve observed that it usually helps to have an impressive job title or an impressive company name. But for a lot of us, we might not have those things. Even without them (the impressive title or company name), each of us can still do something to make change happen.

When we talk about leveling up, there are a lot of ways to think about it. And for me, the long-running theme of my work — both paid and unpaid — is that I make opportunity for change and for growth. But not growth like "growth hacker." Growth as in evolving thought, deciding on actions, expanding possibilities.

“I solve problems for people at scale.” Or, to tweak that for the conference's theme: I look for ways to get as many people as possible to level up en masse.

So, the question then becomes:

How can you move the needle when you’re a short blade of grass?

I believe a few things are true:
• Each of us learns to show different facets of ourselves, particularly when it comes to work • Other people have their own perceptions of us and respond accordingly

It means labels, while useful for quick identification and categorization, are fundamentally flawed.

It also means no matter how we are defined by others, we will always be more than those labels.

So here's everyday transformative power #1: Be mindful of others, by which I mean to be conscious or aware of something

The person you are — and the people you’re around — are more than who they show you to be and therefore, more powerful and interesting and influential than you recognize on first impression.

I've always been interested in how people transfer ideas to one another.

For example, I've written this one talk. Yet there will be as many interpretations and takeaways as there are the numbers of us in this room.

This means word choice matters. Because people react differently based on the words we use and how we put them together.

Think of all the times what you intended to get across is not how people took it.

So let me talk about "You." I recently read about a study that looked at how Americans of different ethnic backgrounds use English. Unfortunately, I was unable to find it to reread — maybe it's lost to the internet…

Among the findings was the very different way Asian Americans used “you.” They used it more often and in a more nuanced way that shifts depending on the situation and intended meaning.

The researchers inferred that an important concept in Asian culture must be showing up in this group's word choice: that "self" is less important than "other," which can be lots different things: another person, the family, the community.

Now, is this true? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But it spoke to me. I’m going with it.

I’ve been working on using a larger vocabulary for “you.” But if I slip into using “you” a lot and you start feeling like it's too much, mentally replace “you” with “we” and “us” and “ourselves.”

I’ve given you a little background as to how I think, and a teeny bit about how I use language, and I hope this makes what I say more relatable to each of you.

One more thing: I'm not sure what your individual situations are in wanting to change things. So instead of giving specific advice, I thought it would be more helpful to offer you some techniques for how to think about making stuff happen.

So the first thing is to notice what’s around you.

Maybe you like what you see, and that’s awesome.

Maybe you look out there and think: Things could be different.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it…

Does it exist?

This came up in the mid- to late ’90s, when the destructive wave known as the global economic crisis met the unstoppable forces known as “changing consumer habits,” “tech” and “internet millionaires.”

Each of us has been affected by the economic crisis in some way. Among the professional realms I walk in are design and technology and journalism. The mid- to late ’90s were the start of a very scary time. There was a lot of change, and change that people weren’t really in control of. But the general observation was that journalists needed to work side by side with developers and designers if they wanted news to continue to be a viable business. Did anything that could make the process happen faster and more naturally exist? At the time? No.

So I along with a handful of others, started a movement called Hacks/Hackers.

Our intent was to bring journalists, designers and developers together to learn from each other and make journalism and civic information more awesome.

It turns out people all over the world were really interested in this idea. It started in 2009, and since then I’ve guided the launches of dozens of local groups worldwide. Each one is different, each expresses itself based on what the local needs and interests are.

I’m also founding organizer of Hacks/Hackers in New York City. Join me and my co-organizers, Lena Groeger and Jeremy Singer-Vine, at one of our events sometime. We do this as volunteers because there’s still interest and a desire to explore.

Which leads me to everyday transformative power #2: Observation becomes inquiry, as in "looking into stuff." Maybe the thing exists. But if it doesn’t and you want it, you know what your next move could be.

Questions! So many questions!

My favorite is “why.” It’s open ended, and sometimes leads you down intriguing rabbit holes.

One tip when using "why": Tone and vibe matter. “Why” can come off as judgement or a proxy for refusal. Think of how little kids say "Why!" when they're really telling you "No!"

Ask any question from a position of sincere interest and often the response gives you much greater understanding.

Why does this thing in the photo exist? What is it? This is awesome. Could there be more things like this in the world?

I wondered about that. And then I heard about…

The Awesome Foundation. It’s a global community "advancing the interest of awesome in the universe, $1,000 at a time."

This is kind of amazing. I joined it for a while because I was totally on board with having more awesome in the world. And look! Since its inception, it has granted more than $2 million and funded 2014 projects (and counting).

Everyday transformative power #3: Curiosity becomes questions

It’s easy to coast. It’s also easy to wonder why and then go look for the answer. Think of all the things we discovered because we wanted to know. And all the things that changed because of those discoveries.

Let’s continue to think more abstractly.

Ever get a hunch? There’s something in the air: a vibe, a convergence, your Spidey-sense is tingling. You heard or saw something and something in you went: “Huhhhhh.”


A few years ago, I was lazily browsing and skipping around through apps and I saw a message that has some words in it:

Robots. Film festival.

Someone was looking for people to join her to start the first-ever short film festival about robots.

I thought: This sounds really fun! And a good idea! Sure! I'll join you!

The man in the orange T-shirt on the left is Marek Michalowski, who also came on board to make this thing happen. He's a roboticist and Ph.D. (He is now a creative technologist at Google.)

The woman on the right is Heather Knight, who's also a Ph.D. roboticist. She came up with the idea for the festival. I didn't know this at the time, but she's super famous.

We held the Robot Film Festival in New York City. We didn't know how it was going to go, but we had a feeling people would like it. The response was good enough that we decided to do it again.

And again. In our third year, we moved the Robot Film Festival to San Francisco. This is a photo of the venue. It belongs to a company named Autofuss. Marek moved his business there, which is how we got access to it. Bot & Dolly is also part of it.

It wasn't until after the film festival in San Francisco was over that I was told the software and camera choreography that made the movie "Gravity" possible was developed there. In that space. (This video is an example of their work. All of these companies are now part of Google.)

We spent two years in New York. Then two years in San Francisco. Last year, we moved the festival to Pittsburgh.

It's been going for five years. It turns out a lot of people like short films. And robots. It was a good hunch.

Everyday transformative power #4: Instinct becomes experimentation

OK. Let's switch to something hard. Since this is a technologist conference, you're probably aware that the technology has been struggling with diversity and inclusion.

the general direction seems to be that people have decided the current situation is wrong. It's unacceptable and it needs to change.

But the problem is so complex and so big, trying to address it head-on is impossible for any one person. You think about how you'd even try and I makes you want to curl up into a little ball and cry. But without people working to change this, things will stay the same. And lots of us have already decided that's not what we want.

A few years ago, a developer I knew named Rebecca Miller-Webster sent an email to me and a few other local women who lead developer meetups and workshops. She'd taken a class offered by The Op-Ed Project, which teaches women how to draft opinion pieces to news media. She was also inspired by Zach Holman's talk about talks.

Rebecca pitched us on an idea for a conference that would give women developers the skills to be more visible, so they could be more confident and therefore public about what they knew.

The systemic stuff holding diversity and inclusion back might be too hard to tackle all at once. But if we give people tools and teach them how to use them, then maybe lots of people can each be levers for change.

So we did it. We piloted Write/Speak/Code and had a group of women developers come to learn how to own their expertise and develop the practical skills of opinion writing, public speaking (including how to write conference proposals and where and how to pitch them), and how to choose and contribute to an open source project.

At the end of each day, every participant had something real they could take forward. They met other women developers. They heard from subject experts and conference organizers.

And we heard back: Write/Speak/Code attendees were publishing and getting published online. They pitching proposals and being invited to conferences. They were making pull requests that were getting accepted.

Everyday transformative power #5: Solutions are springboards.

Most poeple think of solutions as the end. Solution! Boom! Done.

But if we think of creating something that will start other things, we can initiate the change we want.

Change is the only constant. Not only will be always be subject to it, we can manifest it, no matter who we are or what authority others grant us.

Because subtle and small provocations can create major transformations.

<별에서 온 그대>
“My Love from Another Star” (SBS)

These are everyday transformative powers:
Mindfulness becomes context.
Observation becomes inquiry
Curiosity becomes questions
Instinct becomes experimentation
Solutions are springboards

If everything I've told you sounds mundane [boring!] — realize this: How we do things and the context in which we do them are the big effect. We don’t need to have impressive labels to create change.

I’d like you to try this. Fill in the blanks, and say these words with any tone you want:
My name is […].
I am […].
I defy description.

And we have everyday transformative powers.