The Little Sentence That Changed My Life

Time to read: 3.3 minutes


In 2009, I was in grad school at The University of Pennsylvania, studying non-profit leadership in the School of Social Policy. My academic advisor, Dr. Kenwyn Smith, was a short, fiesty, grey-haired, brilliant, Australian who had a propensity towards sweater vests. He also had a propensity for leading classes that combined (mostly male) Wharton business students with (mostly female) School of Social Policy students. I could come up with no other reason than he was maybe a little deviant at heart; he loved to watch that weird blend of numbers-based thinkers and social-based thinkers crash and swirl together in a room. And crash we did. When you go to school to save the world but end up doing 50% of your coursework with future investment bankers, the results are interesting.

Kenwyn-Smith (1)
Dr. Kenwyn Smith in the flesh

One day, we were all sitting in such a class, and one of my Wharton classmates was really struggling to find an answer to a common business question. Kenwyn was pacing around the room and staring at this poor student with the ferocity of a tiger circling in on a wild goat. The student kept struggling and Kenwyn kept pushing until finally the tension in the room was so high, everyone was uncomfortable.

Finally, Kenwyn burst out, jumping up and down and pointing to his gut saying, “Don’t forget to use your emotions as data!!!”

This little sentence changed my life.

By putting data and emotion into the same sentence, Kenwyn reframed emotion from an art to a science, from a soft skill into a hard skill. Emotion wasn’t just for social work and non-profits. Emotion was for business.

It was particularly empowering that the sentence came from a man because, as we all know, emotion has been feminized. For centuries, men have been categorized as intellectual and therefore logical, while women are seen as emotional and therefore, illogical. And there has been a parallel value assigned to this dynamic — all things logical having higher value. The historic bias of the masculinization of analytical thinking and the feminization intuitive thinking has introduced a false dichotomy of value which distorts our decision-making, strategic planning, and brainstorming in the workplace.


I believe that with the introduction of big data (a broad term for data sets so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate) and the emphasis on analytics in newsrooms that a lot of us have slid backwards, not forwards. Those of us using big data are in danger of rapidly moving towards a monolithic understanding of decision-making in the workplace. We’re setting up processes and systems that look at the numbers only and don’t leave the room needed to use the incredibly rich data set of our emotions.

When your gut is tight or you’re incredibly sad, that’s not just a feeling; it’s information. Each one of us has thousands of years of evolutionary development inside of us that helps us to make accurate and life-saving decisions by synthesizing hundreds of data points in a split second. That’s a pretty advanced computer system if you ask me. And I have been intrigued about what we could gain in society if we were able to use this powerful computer in a more conscious and direct way at the workplace.

Since 2009, I’ve been working with this idea both conceptually and in the workplace. I actually trained my editorial employees at Upworthy to harness, hone, and harvest their own emotional data to complement numbers-based data to make decisions. I often asked them, “What does your gut tell you?” to sort out some of their most complex questions.

While studying and testing viral content on the web over the past 4 years, I have learned over and over again that there’s more going on with the world’s most shareable content than numbers and formulas. In fact, predicting what will go viral is virtually impossible. To date, there’s no algorithm or formula that can do it with accuracy; and it’s even more impossible to identify already-published content that has the potential to go viral, but hasn’t yet. There are legions of latent viral content sitting on YouTube and blogs that would EXPLODE the internet if it were found, packaged and distributed properly — if only there were something that could find it.

While building Upworthy’s (a site for curated viral content that peaked at 87 Million Unique Visitors in one month!) editorial system, I tried every single gimmick, algorithm, formula, rating system, or automatic early detection process you could think of to identify content that would go viral. The most effective trick I found? Building a staff with a particular emotional tenors and personalities who would manually pick content.

People used to ask me what tools we used to choose content because they thought we HAVE TO be using some kind of algorithmic logic if we had been getting content to go so viral so often. The conversation usually went something like this.

Person: “So, I mean, really — what do you guys use to find all the viral content?”

Me: “Well, we mostly use intuition.”

Person: “Right! I think I’ve heard of that..that’s a new startup in San Francisco, right?”

Me: <face palm>

It’s true. The combination of emotionally-driven personalities on my editorial staff combined with the specific analytic feedback loops I choose to show them over time was the key to Upworthy’s success — a site, ironically known in the media world for testing and data-driven decision-making. My next blog will outline a case study of how this combination plays out in real life.

There are 7 billion people in the world, which to me means there are 7 billion emotional data sets. That’s BIG DATA. And you can’t explain that data with numbers. It might be messy and difficult to control at times. But I promise — embracing your unique set of emotional data is SO. WORTH. IT.

‘Til next time.
– S

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