2012. That was the year I began to explore social media as a professional. I wish I could say it was curiosity. On the contrary. I was one of those people that said things like, “Why would I want to share everything online? What about my privacy? Why do people spend so much time online instead of being present with the people around them?”
So how did I change my mind? It was a series of incidents and a moment of being vulnerable in recognizing that I was becoming illiterate that made me shift my perspective.
Five Reflections From A Decade of Using Social Media as a Professional
Incident 1: Feeling Left Out
In 2012 I attended my first CUE conference. First of all I didn’t even know that conferences, and speaking at conferences was something I could do as a teacher. No one talked about this, or encouraged it in my credential program. I felt like I had walked into a party where everyone knew everyone except me. When I asked people, “How do you know each other?” Everyone said, “We’re Twitter friends, we’re meeting for the first time!” I created an account, and didn’t do much with it.
Incident 2: Feeling Illiterate
I left CUE with a goal to explore conferences to present at. My dream conference goal at that time was the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit. I submitted my first session, “The Digital DBQ: Enhancing Historical Thinking Skills in the Classroom” and it got accepted!
I got an email, and that email was a notification that read:
But I had no idea how to respond. I didn’t know what #FF was. Luckily Google helped out and in case you don’t know #FF is Follow Friday, where you tag people you want to highlight in your network.
This was a defining moment for me. I realized while I could stay isolated in my physical world, I would be missing out on a tremendous number of opportunities that aligned with my strengths and interests.
Blame the Behavior Not The Technology
I share this story because there are still people who don’t recognize the value of social media. We are so quick to blame the technology, without taking accountability for our own actions. And our lack of educating young people about the comparisons between using it personally, academically, and professionally. We blame an addiction to scrolling, and our inability to manage our time and distractions, without recognizing that traditional schooling rarely allows for the time and space to develop these social-emotional skills.
In “Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention and Live Your Life,” Nir Eyal shares:
“Willpower is not a finite resource but instead acts like an emotion. Just as we don’t run out of joy or anger, willpower ebbs and flows in response to what’s happening to us and how we feel.”
Which leads me to the first of five reflections I’ll share as I reflect on a decade of having a professional online presence.
Reflection #1: We Need to Teach the Difference Between Social Media for Personal Use vs Academic and Professional Use
From K12 to Higher Education, everyone assumes that because technology existed when students were born and that they grew up around devices, that they know how to use them. Quite the contrary. In, “Digital Natives: Ten Years After,” Koutropoulos shares, “Digital Natives lack the literacy, information-seeking, and problem-solving skills that they need to take advantage of technological advancements in society.”
Differentiating between how to leverage social media for personal vs academic and professional outcomes needs to be explicitly taught.
In addition, we need to provide young people with the time and space to use these platforms to showcase their skills, strengths, and ideas. Through this, they will build social capital, identify mentors, and sponsors. And gain exposure to all those unknown jobs we keep telling them about.
I often share how when I graduated in 2007 I had no social presence, despite that being the year that Friedman calls an “inflection point” in his book, “Thank You For Being Late.” I share how I struggled for the first five years of my career to find my place in the world of work. I graduated during the recession and faced numerous layoffs. It wasn’t until I read Linchpin by Seth Godin that I began to realize the value of showcasing your work. When I went back to school for my doctorate in 2018, school was the same. However, I had an incredible understanding of existing and emerging technology and how to use them to complement my traditional school experience.
2007 Sabba graduated and was completely lost in the world.
2020 Sabba graduated with a vision, with an understanding of her strengths, her passion, a powerful network of people and relationships, and an understanding of the tools that could support her goals.
In 2007 there were people who had that, I just wasn’t one of them.
It’s a powerful reminder of a quote by William Gibson that I think about every day:
“The future is here. It just isn’t evenly distributed.”
Social media isn’t just about showcasing your work to others.
It’s also about learning more about your own interests, your own creative expression, and exploring your dreams. We can’t imagine what we’ve never known. So being able to see how people are using today’s technology to shape their destiny, and design their lives is inspiring. Perhaps more fascinating, is that many of these individuals also teach how to navigate these new career paths.
For example, this past summer I attended the Creator Retreat hosted by travel content creators, Jeremy Austin and Angie Villa. You can view my experience here. In 5 days they teach you every aspect of the business, with hands on practice. You leave with a media kit to be able to launch your own business. For those who want additional support they have many other options to add on after the experience. It’s these types of opportunities that give people more choice when it comes to designing their academic experience post high school.
Reflection #2: It Can Expand and Deepen Relationships
I could write a book on this one! If there’s one thing I continue to be in awe of is how you can reach out to anyone in the world through the internet. 9/10 times I’ve found people to be incredibly responsive and helpful. In 2020 I launched a podcast as one of the ways to practice applying the ideas that I advocate for in K12. I was curious what it was like to be a learner. The podcast is perhaps the greatest testament to how we can expand and deepen relationships. We no longer live in a world where we just read about people. We can actually connect and talk with them as well.
This is powerful when we think about mentorship and sponsorship for young people. The people below may not even be names you know. Yet each of these individuals helped me grow and advance to a different stage in my career. This happens organically when you are building a learning network and engaged in creating a professional presence online. Here are a few examples:
Warren Wiechmann: Emergency Medicine Physician and Assistant Dean at UC Irvine School of Medicine
This was my first experience with how powerful social media can be. In 2014, I read about a doctor at UC Irvine who was the first to integrate Google Glass into the curriculum. At that time, I was the Director of EdTech at Fairmont Private Schools and we had a medical magnet program. I messaged Warren on Twitter and asked if he would be a guest speaker. He responded almost instantly saying he would love to. I didn’t know it then but I would soon be Director of Innovative Learning at the Keck School of Medicine’s Physician Assistant Master’s program where I would apply to be an Apple Distinguished Educator. Warren was instrumental in helping me with this process as it was something he had already done.
Erik Brynjolfsson: Co-Author of “The Second Machine Age”
I still can’t believe that I am writing this. I first heard Erik speak at the World Economic Forum on a panel I came across while scrolling Twitter called, “Technology Driven: Human-Centered,” where he shared a line that would change the way I thought about the integration of technology in teaching and learning. He said, “Technology is not destiny, we shape our destiny.”
This helped me learn about design thinking and well the rest is history. This line from Erik formed the foundation of my doctoral work. And one day during a Twitter conversation we were able to make plans while in the same city. His mentorship, advice, and interview on the podcast were an incredibly powerful moment that in today’s world you don;t just leave authors on your bookshelf, you can connect with them and extend the conversation.
Jay Malone, CEO of New Haircut
The design thinking community on LinkedIn is incredibly active. Through commenting in a discussion on a post, Jay found my profile. He was struck by my opening line, “Cultures of innovation begin with a culture of empathy.” We had a conversation to exchange ideas and learn about each other’s work. That call led to an invitation to a private event being hosted by Google called, “The Design Sprint Conference.” If you’ve been following my work you know that the event was life-changing for me and my practice.
It was here that I began to learn that facilitation is both a science and an art, and how the design sprint can fill the gaps the design thinking often presents. It was here I learned about Mural and how tools that no one in the education community was using. It’s this interdisciplinary learning network that has been absolutely invaluable. Truthfully, without one, I’m not sure how anyone stays relevant.
This list would be incomplete without mentioning a few others. Vriti Saraf, founder of K20 Educators who I met on Clubhouse and we became co-moderators of a weekly show. Mikhail Alfon, founder of Blue Light Media, who helped me begin thinking about how to turn my personal brand into a business in 2017. Jim Marous, host of Banking Transformed, one of the top 5 Fintech podcasts. And of course Devin Vodicka, CEO of Learner-Centered Collaborative, who has been an incredible through partner and advocate in thinking about cultures of trust in schools.
And no conversation on this topic is complete without mentioning Gail Ross-McBride. Which brings me to my third reflection.
Reflection #3: It Provides You The Freedom to Change Direction
Gail is the Director at EdTechTeacher. One of my favorite organizations, and one of the conferences I attended religiously early on when learning about technology integration in education. While attending a conference Gail offered me a position to lead the workshops in California. For a girl who had struggled to find a job that had meaning and purpose, being able to connect with someone online and then be part of an organization I had admired was powerful.
She said she appreciated my energy, and posts online and once we connected in person we were able to discuss our ideas and values in more depth. One of the most common references made about Gen Z and millennials is that they want to be part of workplaces that speak to their values and allow them to do work that has meaning and purpose.
Make no mistake, it’s not just Gen Z and millennials that want this, all humans want this.
The difference however is that this was a luxury for generations before, today with the internet it’s available to anyone who is willing to go after it. The internet has broken down barriers and removed the limitation of proximity when building a network. I now tell the story of my professional life in alignment with my social media timeline.
After EdTech Teacher I had the privilege of creating my own job, Director of Innovative Learning at the University of Southern California. You can listen to that full story in the video here. This video was a talk I gave during my first Apple Distinguished Educator conference when I was first accepted. If you remember from earlier, this was something I received through the mentorship from Warren. Three years later I’d be hired by Apple as an Education Leadership Executive. I was recommended for the role by Don Orth. I met Don on Twitter as we were both launching 1:1 iPad programs in 2011. Don also worked at EdTech Teacher where we had an opportunity to meet and work further together.
When I decided to resign from Apple, and start Designing Schools, my personal brand afforded me a community, and presence where I could share a new idea, service, and direction with others. The enthusiasm for the documentary, and for my new career direction was overwhelming, and I am so incredibly grateful for each and every person in my online community. However we all know not everyone has a positive attitude which brings me to my next reflection.
Reflection #4: Your Haters Aren’t Jealous. They Feel Left Out.
That’s right, that hater that keeps telling you social media is ruining human relationships, or even worse the coworker who causes problems in your workplace by questioning your use of social media with your colleagues, the one that we write off as being jealous. I’ve encountered my fair share of these individuals and most of the time, if you do a little empathy interviewing, you’ll come to learn they aren’t jealous. They feel left out.
While many of us will be curious, and ask for help, and experiment, and learn. Fear will hold most others back from even trying. Comfort with ambiguity, learning from failure, creative confidence – these are the mindsets of a design thinker. Someone who navigates change through making and iterating. And it’s one to be incredibly grateful for. While not everyone will be worth the conversation, if you value the relationship, take a moment to learn more about their fears, their dreams, and identify one way you can help them take that first step. That curiosity brings me to my final reflection.
Reflection #5: A Professional Learning Network is the Best Way to Stay Informed, Relevant, and Curious
Being able to learn from people across disciplines helps you contextualize trends and stay informed of how existing and emerging technologies are being applied. I’m often asked how I learned to use social media in the way I do, and my answer is social media 🙂
A disadvantage to school is that subjects are taught in silos. We all know that in the “real world” everything is integrated. It would be impossible to learn everything, however, having a trusted network who synthesize information, ask questions, and share current trends is invaluable in helping you make connections to your own industry.
This brings us full circle and so I ask you, “What you want to share? What do you want to create?”
We all have a unique story, and unique experiences that provide value to others. In sharing this value we create an incredible community that move between online and offline. What pathways have you been curious about exploring?
If you’re curious to learn how you can use social media to design your life, and learn about how to use it in academic and professional settings I’m inviting you to my free masterclass on “Leadership and Social Influence.” Click here and fill in the form to be notified when reservations go live.
I believe that the future should be designed. Not left to chance.
Over the past decade, using design thinking practices I've helped schools and businesses create a culture of innovation where everyone is empowered to move from idea to impact, to address complex challenges and discover opportunities.