They say, “Don’t meet your heroes.”
They say this because they think they’re saving you from distress.
They know--and you know it too, you’re not a rube--that you have an idealized version in your mind of who your hero is, based on scraps of publicly available information and the bounds of your optimistic imagination.
They think that a personal connection with these “heroes” would sully that mental picture, and leave you the worse for the encounter. Maintain the fantasy, then, they’d have you do. Keep your distance. Observe from afar. Preserve a barrier. Only admire; never engage.
Obviously, I strenuously object to this “don’t meet your heroes” idea.
Now, we use the word “hero” quite a bit in the modern vernacular; but since the traditional definitions of hero imply divinity, or skill in battle, or nobility, I’m pretty sure that we have broadened the usage to be basically synonymous with “person I quite admire for some reason(s) or other.” So while I’m uncomfortable with using “hero” in this blanket way, I’ll roll with it here, just to demonstrate that I don’t always have to be annoyingly pedantic.
Also, I think that “hero” isn’t an objective thing, especially in modern usage. It’s really more about how much a person’s work, achievements, or character means to you personally.
There are people in the dataviz world who I truly admire--sure, let’s call them my dataviz heroes--and it’s not always just about the pieces they make.
For example, take Alberto Cairo: he is a dataviz hero to many people; he’s a teacher, a practitioner, an author; he’s an active participant on social media, a connector of people and ideas; and he’s a wonderful speaker. He has an artist’s eye, a journalist’s tenacity, a teacher’s generosity, an analyst’s skepticism, a student’s curiosity, and a citizen of the world’s empathy.
So many reasons right there to admire him...but what makes him admirable to me is not what he is doing, but why he is doing it: he is passionate about the world, and the well-being of the people in it.
Along the same lines, Ben Jones--formerly of Tableau, now of Data Literacy--is one of the people I find truly admirable in our dataviz world. Under his guidance, the broad accessibility of Tableau Public held the potential to empower people all across the world, from all walks of life. It provided--and still provides--a platform for anybody to tell their own data stories, on equal footing and in a controlled environment; these stories can be shared, amplified, retold; voices we’ve never been able to hear could use this platform to speak the truth they know to the world. Ben understood this and spent so much time and effort making sure that the environment was safe, inclusive, respectful, and accessible; he reached out to organizations, businesses, individuals, whoever possible, to promote the idea of such a platform.
Eventually he broadened his vision and took on a greater challenge; not just to provide the tools, but to provide instruction on how those tools could be used, or how to understand data in general. This drive Ben has, to give as many people as possible equal footing in a future where data literacy is an integral part of economic success, is the “why” of his endeavors, and is the reason why I find him such an admirable figure in our data world.
Another person whose efforts in the data visualization world I have admired is Cole Knaflic, for many of the same reasons as I admire Ben and Alberto: a focus on the broad audience for dataviz instruction. I don’t know how many people are dataviz practitioners, but almost everybody has a use for data, and everybody can benefit from knowing how best to communicate a story that their data supports. I get caught up in trying to make new, and more creative, and more sophisticated data visualizations; as the voice of Storytelling With Data, Cole goes the other way, giving clear, simple, practical instruction that presupposes no particular tool aptitude, no particular background in data, and no particular use case. It’s a democratization of dataviz instruction that I admire, in that it can reach a huge audience, and have a direct, positive impact on everyone in it.
This is a non-exclusive list, of course. There are a host of people both inside and outside of the data visualization community for whom I have deep admiration. But one thing all three of these specific people have in common is that they focus their efforts broadly.
All of the work and the lessons and the connections and the endeavors are broad-based, inclusive, translatable; they help the beginners as well as the experts; the dedicated analysts and the people just going about their daily lives.
They all believe passionately in data, and data visualization, not for their own sakes; but for the value data and data viz IN CONTEXT can bring to every story, in any situation, for anyone.
Don’t meet your heroes? Do meet your heroes. Great things can happen.
I met Alberto in person, finally, in late 2017; both before and after, I’ve been able to have some online conversations with him as well. It has done nothing but reinforce my believe in his generosity and depth of caring about the world; and, personally, I was grateful for the chance to let him know how much I appreciated his willingness to speak his mind publicly--to demonstrate that objectivity doesn’t mean “taking no position,” but rather, “considering the facts on their merits and acting accordingly.”
I met Ben in person very early in my public dataviz life; his genuine consideration at that time for my thoughts and opinions, as someone who was a stranger to him, spoke directly to his openness and his commitment to learning, improving, and building something inclusive. It may not have been Ben alone who motivated me to accelerate my public work, but he was certainly a key figure; and without that public work I would not be where I am today.
I met Cole in person only very recently, although I had seen her deliver a presentation before. In the course of our conversation, it became clear that her passion for data viz was, like Alberto’s, Ben’s, and dare I say my own, rooted in a belief that everyone can benefit from learning how to better use their own data to tell their own stories; and if we teach people how to do so, then we’re having a positive impact on the world in which we live.
In fact, this discussion made me truly face a question I’ve been considering for a long time now, which is: how can I best use the tools that I have, as a data visualization professional, to make the greatest net positive effect on the world, as Alberto, Ben, and Cole are doing?
Well, it’s a good thing that I did choose to meet my heroes, because doing so allowed me to act on the answer I came up with, which is this:
If someone you admire is doing something you think is valuable, and you think you can multiply that value, join them.
So this is a long way of saying: today is my last day of nearly two full decades in the federal contracting world. Starting in June, I will be joining Cole at Storytelling With Data, to help spread her message of effective communication to as wide an audience as possible.
In fact, to say that I am anticipating the start of this journey eagerly is a massive understatement. I simply can’t wait to be a part of this organization. If I had sat down with a blank piece of paper and designed what my ideal working situation would be, I would discover, when I had finished writing, that I would have described exactly the opportunity that Storytelling With Data is providing.
The opportunity to connect with people across industries, across cultures, across all levels of experience, and help them use data visualization to more effectively communicate their message...that seems, to me, to be my path towards having the greatest net positive impact.
So in case the message is still unclear, let me reiterate: DO meet your heroes.
Sometimes they revitalize your faith in the good nature of the world.
Sometimes they set you on a course that leads to personal satisfaction and success.
And sometimes, your heroes end up offering you a dream job.
Let's get started.