SAN FRANCISCO — Theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur and technologist Vivienne Ming didn’t graduate from college on her first try. “After years of struggling through school, I finally flunked out,” she shared on the main stage at Inman Connect San Francisco. In 1995, she was homeless, living in her car and the owner of a gun who was contemplating ending it all.
Today, she’s collaborated on artificial intelligence (AI) projects that helped reunite refugee children with their families and that can help people with diabetes manage their conditions more efficiently.
How did she make it from point A to point B? She discovered a secret that gave her back her purpose in life and propelled her to become incredibly successful: finding a way to stop focusing on herself and instead give back to the world.
Are you actively engaged with your work?
“Gallup estimates there are about 130 million people who are actively engaged with their work,” Ming noted. “They’re passionate about it; they’re contributing in a meaningful way to the world.”
However, the global population is approaching 8 billion people. “That is a little scary,” Ming noted. “What does it mean that most people who live in this world don’t feel they contribute meaningfully? What’s different between that 130 million and everyone else?”
What active engagement looks like
Ming shared details about a couple of projects she’s helped build. The first was a “deep neural network,” she explained, “learning about not just faces but how people perceive faces.
“I built it for a UN project to reunite orphan refugees with family members,” Ming said.
The second was the result of an event that some families might consider devastating: Her son was diagnosed with diabetes five years ago, and she was astounded (unpleasantly) by how his caregivers were treating the disease.
“I hacked all of his medical equipment — turned out I broke several federal laws in the process — and I fed the data into my computer and built a model that predicted his blood sugar,” she explained. “I built a superpower to track my son’s diabetes and then shared it with anyone who wanted it.”
And every now and then, she noted, when her son is struggling with his condition and wonders “why me,” he can remember that “in a few years, literally millions of people will be alive because he got diabetes.”
Lost human potential
These are things Ming wouldn’t have achieved if she’d followed her thoughts to their inevitable conclusion back in 1995.
And there are a lot of people in the world who struggle with major depression and other mental issues, such as bipolar disorder.
“This is all lost human potential,” opined Ming. “We have just decided we’re not worth making the extra effort around. But we can do this.”
When she was feeling at her very worst, she said, “I needed a literal reason” not to die.
“And it may sound ridiculous, but for me that reason was: Live a life that makes everyone else’s life better. For the geeks in the room, that was my decision function.
“Needless to say, it did not immediately fix my life,” she added. But she got herself back on her feet, got a job, got promotions and eventually went back to school, where she secured her undergraduate degree in one year with perfect scores.
What’s different about the 130 million?
Ming mentioned Rodney Mullen, a skateboarder who’s won more than 50 world championships. Once, she asked him, “What do you do after you win?”
“Well, Tony Hawk and I go to the after party and drink some champagne,” he responded. “And then we practice new moves.”
Mullen doesn’t respond to praise, criticism, sponsorships or other external barometers of his skills and talents, she added. His motivation comes from within.
“We tend to think that the best performers are the ones that perform under stress and respond to incentives,” Ming noted. “That’s not true; it’s the people who keep performing when nobody cares and all of the incentives disappear.”
In sales, maybe that’s the person who keeps closing deals even when the sales cycle has officially closed.
“That’s only one [example] of what a scientist like me calls a construct — a meta learning construct,” she added. “This is your ability to grow.”
Ming says there are 45 constructs that are predictive of your life outcomes — how happy you’ll be, how wealthy you’ll be and how socially connected you’ll be by the end of the road — and that are changeable. She grouped them into five general categories:
- General cognitive ability — “You can really only change it in kids, but it’s a big predictor,” she said
- Literacy, numeracy and cognition — Your ability to absorb and understand the world around you
- Self-assessment and strategy — Your ability to identify what you need to change about yourself and follow through
- Social skills and emotional intelligence
“Grades aren’t in there,” she said. “Your performance on tests aren’t in there.” Neither is the school you attended.
What AI can’t do
“In a world where people like me are building AIs to do nearly everything your companies are doing right now, there’s only one thing I need you big bags of obsolete organic material for, and that is the unknown,” said Ming.
“That’s what AI cannot do, and there is nothing on the horizon that will change that. There will be one job description going forward: creative, adaptive problem-solver. That’s it.
“The specifics of the job — whether you’re programming, selling houses or in customer relations or strategic market analysis — won’t matter. You’ll be deploying our AI tools, but it’ll be you as the craftsman understanding your domain and directing your change in the world. That’s what really matters,” she argued.
And she added that she was wrong about her future back in 1995.
“It turns out I was wrong. I could be happy; I could have an impact on the world,” she said.
“But it wasn’t until I stopped worrying about me and about all of those incentives that I decided I was going to construct a purpose and serve that purpose no matter what anyone else says or what my boss thinks.
“And if I need to tell them to go fuck themselves, that is what I do. That is my summons to all of you today — go out and find someone who is a catastrophically bad idea to insult but who is wrong. And you need to go tell them the truth before this week is out.”