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Why Do We Race? (TC18 Director's Cut #3)

I’ll be giving a presentation entitled “You Are an Artist: How and Why to Get Started Making Public Visualizations” at Tableau Conference this October. As is always the case, I found myself with lots more to say on the topic than will fit into the time allotted.

So, in a move that’s half “director’s cut” and half “bonus materials,” I’ve decided to blog about a few of the topics that I really wanted to include as part of the presentation—some of my favorite parts, actually—but that just don’t fit with the overall flow and tone.

I hope this will give you an idea of what I will be talking about in October—I would very much like to see everyone who reads this in the audience in New Orleans—and also serves as an object lesson for one of my earlier posts, “Kill Your Darlings.”

Hope to see you at TC18!


Here’s a photo I took from the window of a hotel room in Stockholm last year when my wife and I were visiting. I woke up one Sunday morning, opened the blinds, and saw thousands of runners going by.

No matter where you are in the world, people love a road race. I’m sure many of you participate in races.

Even if you don’t win, or aren’t competitive with the fastest runners, you sign up, you show up, and you keep coming back, even as it takes a toll on your time, on your joints, you stick with it with no regrets.


Why do we race?


Let's start with the most obvious reason: getting in shape. Of course, we could just jog or bike or rollerblade or do whatever cardio exercise we wanted to *without* signing up for a race, but with the race you have the added motivation of a fixed point in time and a fixed distance: I want to be ready by THIS moment to be able to go THIS far. Even if you know there's no podium in your future, there's still the time and date part of it. That race isn't changing, so you had better.

Or, maybe you like to race because it's a thing your family or friends like to do together. You can bond over training, you can set it up as a mini-vacation if it's an out of town thing...but it's something you do for the social connection.

Or you know what? Screw the family and friends. Maybe you just like that personal challenge of setting yourself goals and steadily improving. You want that personal best; you want to crack the top 100 in your age group; but mostly you want to see a real difference compared to the last time you raced. It's running a race, but not so much against other people, more running a race against yourself from the past.

Sometimes the race (or race/walk, or whatever) is a charity event. It could be a cause that you care about; could be a big cause or a small one; it could be to raise money or just to raise awareness. But it's a cause you support, and you get to combine your own love of running with your commitment to a socially valuable endeavor.

And maybe, you just like being a part of something bigger than yourself. There's certainly an energy, an excitement, a feeling of special-ness to a race that simply isn't present when you are just going for a run on your own. There's a dearth of true third spaces in the world today, where people from all backgrounds come together and participate alongside one another, and build a strong sense of community. The electricity of a race can help you feel that community, that connection to the larger human experience.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to lists these, or similar reasons, as their motivations.


As it turns out, these are also reasons for vizzing in public!

Just like in training for, and participating in, road races, the real point isn’t winning, or being the best among everyone participating.

It’s about yourself, and you participating for the reasons that matter to you.

It helps you get in better shape, as a data visualizer.

It’s something you can do with family and friends...even children, as we know of multiple examples where kids 8 and 9 years old are making their own Tableau visualizations.

It can give you the pride of achieving a goal you set for yourself, and allows you, over time, to see how you are truly improving; how you are a better data visualizer today than you were yesterday.

It can raise awareness of something charitable, when you participate in things like Viz for Social Good, or Data For a Cause, or any number of other special socially-focused initiatives.

And by putting your work out in public--by working on data visualizations that address issues critical and picayune, popular and niche, funny and sad and maddening and delightful, it can touch the lives of hundreds or thousands of people; as part of a community of visualizers, you maintain a connection with your fellow creators, supportive and mutually beneficial; and ultimately, your public work can provide you that fulfilling feeling of being a part of the larger human experience.



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