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How We (Re)Define “Having It All”

What it means to "have it all" has changed. Etienne Fang, Principal Researcher at Amazon, wants to explore how people around the world redefine it.

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

It began innocently enough: as a self-help book published in 1982. In Having It All, writer Helen Gurley Brown wanted to help guide women to success in their career, relationships, sex, and finances.

But nearly four decades after its publication, the phrase she coined has become loaded with baggage—transforming from a feminist call-to-action to an outdated, finger-waggy phrase. It makes sense. Where “having it all” once meant a balance of your life, career, and family, it now might mean billions of different things to billions of different people. So what does it really mean to women now?

Etienne Fang, now a Principal Researcher at Amazon, believes “having it all” needs to be redefined.

Drawing on her experience as a human-centered researcher, she founded Redefining Having It All, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the lives and ambitions of women all over the world. Through the project she’s traveled to 12 countries in 12 months in order to meet and interview with women of all social strata to see what “having it all” means to them.

“Having been a researcher for nearly two decades at large corporations, it made sense that I wanted to learn about a subject that is deeply personal to me—the choices and trade-offs that I, and all women, make regarding our work, life, and love,” Etienne writes. Her love for uncovering unique insights to inform inclusive experiences with tech, brands, products, and retail has guided her career in that started in education, and moved into design strategy and research.

People Nerds caught up with Etienne to discuss her experience with deep people-centric, ethnographic research, as well as what “having it all” means to her. To start, we asked her about another people-focused, insights driven project she worked on at Uber.

What would life be without curiosity? Boring.

Etienne Fang

dscout: What was the impetus behind Uber’s Kaleidoscope project?

Etienne: I really see insights as being holistic—even at huge, global companies. Uber is in more than 900 cities. A company like that has tons and tons of insights. And not all of them come from research.

The idea behind Kaleidoscope was about democratizing insights. It was about this idea that an insight can come from anywhere.

We wanted to make insights from any part of the company accessible, available, and in conversation with one another. Being able to see all those things come together through tags and through metadata was hugely eye-opening for people. They were able to see, “Hey, this insight from a junior operations person in Mexico City is really similar to this thing from a senior research scientist in Amsterdam.”

It was really informative to be able to see all of this laddering up to knowledge, because I think what's interesting about insights and the insights database is that we have no shortage of information at Uber or, in the world. But what we don't have sometimes is knowledge.

What’s the difference between the two?

So this is a little bit of what we call the “insights taxonomy,” because insights can come in so many forms. We've seen it written in so many different ways: bullet points, prose, anecdotes, numbers, et cetera. We had to decide what is a fact, which is information, versus what's an insight, which is what you take away from that. It's a learning. It's why this is important and why you should pay attention to it.

Because you can have a great data point that's really important, but what you don't have is the takeaway and the opportunities that come from that. What can we learn from this? What can we do with this? What particular actions can we take?

And those pieces come together in order to form knowledge that we can create as a collective brain. What's important is that we put all these insights out on the table, synthesize, and look across laterally.

I’ve heard this great quote from somewhere, “A fool with a tool is still a fool.” So it really doesn't matter how great the tools are (even though Kaleidoscope is an awesome tool). It's what you do with those tools. That's where this idea of Insights Sprints came in. I was seeing how siloed we can get with all the massive amounts of insights that I mentioned. These things sort of bubbled up.

I think there is power when you get together with people who might be working on the same topic, but from a different discipline, angle, or region. How can we kind of come together and really put things out on the table and synthesize that?

I wanted to really talk to real people, and be able to kind of find the inner golden nuggets of truth in whatever it was that they would say.

Etienne Fang

I’m sensing a theme with your work: it’s very people-focused and there’s an emphasis on democratizing insights. Redefining Having It All is another great example of that. Where did that project come from?

I think Redefining Having it All came from a very deeply personal inquiry, and my own conundrum of being a working mom. It also came at a time when things like Lean In were hitting the media. This dialogue was being opened up in the pocket of my generation, rather than my my mom's generation.

What I said to myself was that I've been doing research for years for companies. But now, I want to do research for something that I'm deeply passionate about for myself and my community. Initially, this was me and 40 women in my life. And then it broadened to the world, as far out as I could get and as diverse as I could get.

What research always attempts to do is create a cross-section that's as diverse as possible. So with Redefining Having It All, there isn't a hierarchy. Yes, Sheryl Sandberg might be the COO of Facebook, and might be incredibly powerful in the space. But her point of view might be just as valuable as a point of view from a woman who's a domestic in Southeast Asia.

Their view is just as valid.

Yes. It's another person's perspective. As a researcher, you're always taught to keep an open mind. You have to keep a beginner's mind pretty much all the time, even as you're driving towards conclusions, directional learnings, and insights to guide your team. 

But you always have to keep your ears open, and your eyes always open. And that's really what Redefining Having it All is about.

For my second installment, I went around the world for 12 months, took photos, and interviewed people wherever I went. It was almost like a meditation. That was my ritual. I challenged myself to do that wherever I went for a year, until the pandemic hit.

What was your biggest insight from the project?

I realized the importance of really talking to people wherever you go. We might think that we do that as world travelers or researchers. But it's different when you talk to a hotel clerk at a Four Seasons, versus finding the nearest person on the street and striking up a conversation with them—whether it's about getting directions, or asking what “having it all” means to them.

We're always looking for a persona, or a perfect embodiment of something. With my experience in going around the world and interviewing people on street corners, I tried to look for the “non-persona.” I tried to look as much as I could for what I call the “hyper real.”

I wasn't trying to stop the most fashionable person, or the most beautiful person. I wanted to really talk to real people, and be able to kind of find the inner golden nuggets of truth in whatever it was that they would say. And similarly, with the portrait, I looked for that image that would best embody the essence of what I took away from my conversation with them.

It’s a real privilege to have curiosity and a passion for answering questions. This is something innate that we, humans are all born with.

Etienne Fang

Were you able to bring this ethnographic, people-focused approach to your UXR work?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It's funny, because as researchers, you try to maintain purity of the methodology as much as possible. I would say this was pretty good in the sense of I would ask people their name, their age, and what they do. Where this does get a little bit interesting is layering my own experience.

This is really meant to kind of cut across all of the demographics that we see and read, and really just kind of be pure as much as possible.

When I launched Redefining Having it All with my 40 female friends, I had their age, their profession, their marital status listed. And then, I started getting pings from friends, like, "Oh, hey. My husband and I are actually back together again. Can you change my status?" So then I thought, "Why the hell am I even adding these stupid things that box us in?" That just kind of limits us.

Where I did see putting age next to something having a positive effect was a friend of mine saw some of the portraits on my site, and was like, "Wow. I had no idea that 50 could look so good." It's these little things that you're not aware of—your own personal biases.

It was a personal meditation for me, and personal learning in understanding me as a researcher and what I bring to everything I do.

Is there anything you wish people asked you?

No one has ever asked me what having it all means to me.

Wait, really?

Yeah. It's almost like as researchers, we don’t want to bias learnings with our points of view. You are supposed to remain objective.

And so, for me, striking a balance between remaining objective and opinionated is different depending on what it is that I'm researching.

Well, I got to ask, what does having it all mean to you?

I think having it all for me personally is always being curious and having a passion for learning. And sharing what I and others have learned to stay curious. Having an innate curiosity is something I hope to keep as I progress in my lifelong journey as a learner and teacher. Because what would life be without curiosity? Boring.

It's a real privilege to have curiosity and a passion for answering questions. This is something innate that we humans are all born with. But somehow, just as creativity can be beaten out of us at a young age, curiosity can be too, over practical things like earning a living or studying for tests. I feel lucky that my chosen profession is about curiosity. To be endlessly curious part of our job descriptions as researchers.

So where are you going next with Redefining Having It All?

Since the pandemic has put a halt to travel, Redefining Having It All is becoming both virtual and hyper-local.

On dscout, I’ll be inviting everyone —not just womxn—to post a photo of yourself and what having it all means to you right here, right now during these crazy, unprecedented times.

And I’m hosting a series of pop-up photo and interview sessions for people interested in the San Francisco Bay Area to support organizations working toward gender equality and democracy in the upcoming election.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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