Stories about conversations and the places that they take you.

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Cup 33

Person: Jonathan Zittrain

Location: Austin Convention Center at SXSW in Austin, Texas

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I never expected a project that started in Michigan would lead to a conversation in Texas with a Professor from Massachusetts that happened because of a conversation in California.

But the world works in strange ways.

It all started when Jonathan Zittrain, an accomplished Professor at Harvard Law, came across a link to 52 Cups on a website and then mentioned the project on Twitter. I sent him a quick thank you for helping spread the word and he said if I was ever in the Boston area we should get coffee.

A month later, long after the conversation had faded from memory, I was on spring break visiting friends I’d met during an internship in San Francisco before going to the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. I was with my friend, Kelly, who mentioned her boss was speaking on a panel at SXSW that I should check out, mainly because a guy named Jonathan Zittrain was on the panel and always gave an entertaining presentation.

I knew the name sounded familiar, but couldn’t put my finger on the reason why. After going back through my email archives, I put two and two together. A week later, Jonathan and I were sitting in the crowded Austin convention center, having a great conversation.

What are the odds?

Kelly was right, Jonathan is fascinating.

To kick off our conversation, Jonathan basically gave me a condensed history of the Internet (he wrote the The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It), which  probably sounds boring, but I assure you it wasn’t. Jonathan has this great ability to explain concepts in a really interesting manner. Plus he has great stories. My favorite was how he got involved in the Internet back when only serious techies understood it. Although he was only 12, Jonathan was intrigued with the Internet and found a way to get online and join different communities where other technology geeks met (an activity his parents didn’t know about until they received the hefty phone bill). Not wanting to reveal his age out of fear people wouldn’t take him seriously, Jonathan made sure to be as articulate as possible, so he appeared older. The strategy paid off. He was selected to be a moderator for his forum, where he built a great reputation— and he wasn’t even 15.

The best part was when he explained how Texas Instruments (the forum to which he contributed) was hosting a large convention, and wanted him to be the keynote speaker. They still had no idea how old he was, and he didn’t tell them. Instead, he packed his bags, boarded a plane, and landed at the airport, where a half dozen very surprised men welcomed him. Once they got over the fact he was so young, they let him give the keynote, which was a big hit with conference attendees.

The mix of delight and nostalgia Jonathan showed as he retold the story made his antics even more entertaining. He had a handful of stories that kept the conversation fun. like the time he met Stephen Colbert, or how he went to Yale to study Artificial Intelligence and ended up with a Law degree from Harvard.

He told me that he stayed at his first job after law school for two and a half weeks before quitting. He had accepted a job in Washington, DC, quickly realized he hated the job, and promptly quit. He didn’t see any value in “sticking it out” for a year. In his mind, every day spent at the law firm was a missed opportunity to be working on a career he really wanted.

As he later said, “Why settle for anything less than the life you truly want?”

He decided to head back to Harvard and co-founded the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which would later spin off Creative Commons to encourage the free exchange of knowledge online. He was the first Executive Director of the center, and now teaches first-year law classes at Harvard.

Although highly distinguished, Jonathan was down-to-earth and a great conversationalist. I thoroughly enjoyed his fresh perspective, wit, and insight on life. During the conversation, Jonathan brought up this idea of affordance. It’s a term social scientists use to illustrate that at any one time, there is a set of actions we are able to perform—choices we can make. We all have them, but the number and degree of the choices varies with each person, and faces constant change.

For example, having five dollars in your pocket leads to a set of options. Having 50 dollars leads to a different set. How you choose to utilize affordances creates a new set of options. Accepting a job offer in New York will lead to a much different scenario than accepting a position in Toledo. Deciding to go for a run after work will create a different outcome than meeting a friend for dinner, etc.

Past experiences, DNA, education, financial situation and natural aptitude are just a few factors affecting affordances. However, some affordances are available to everyone. As Jonathan pointed out, Twitter, Facebook, and other online technologies have created new opportunities across the board.

It’s a somewhat simple concept, but one that provoked my thinking. If each opportunity we take branches into a new set of opportunities, there is an exponential number of outcomes for the future. That’s really exciting, but you have to be willing to  act on the opportunity.

Jonathan said that during his years of teaching he has found that many people, especially students, don’t realize the number of affordances—or opportunities—they have.

A better way to phrase that might be that students don’t realize the number of opportunities they can create for themselves.

The opportunity to keynote a major conference didn’t come out of thin air, Jonathan made that happen by making a name for himself doing something he really loved. He turned an affordance into an opportunity that fit his skill set and that opportunity spiraled into many more.

That’s what I’ll take away from our conversation: everyone has the ability to create incredible opportunities for themselves. The lesson is a result of Jonathan’s advice, but also because of how the meeting came about in the first place.

I capitalized on three different affordances: I took an internship in San Francisco two summers ago; I started a blog; and I joined the Michigan State University group going to Austin—three very separate activities I never expected would bump into each other. Yet they did, and the result was a chance to meet Jonathan.

Figure out what sparks your interest and dive into it head-first; you never know where  that path will lead.

Because the world works in strange ways.

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