Third Space Confession: Oprah Made Me Do It!

I begin with a confession. Oprah made me do it.

For years audiences, close advisors and friends have urged me to tell the story behind the story — the story about the origins and evolution of Third Space Thinking. Third Space Thinking is a novel, communication-driven approach that empowers individuals to use ‘soft’ skills to make better choices in their lives, and ultimately to make the world a better place. So far, this idea has been a hit from Shanghai, China to Sand Hill Road in Stanford, California.

Since it is ambitious, wide-angled and definitely a little weird, I designed Third Space Thinking to stand on its own – rigorous and disciplined as well as relevant to today’s topsy-turvy digital world. In other words, it’s designed to be scientific, based on lots of research and written in the third person.

So when well-wishers urged me to make it more personal and ‘first person’ I shook my head no. I didn’t want to reveal my private side.

Until I talked to Oprah.

She had just finished an amazing speech to more than 1,000 graduates of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and their families. She was mesmerizing. Oprah called on the graduates to become their best selves by speaking the truth at a time when truth is under attack, and to do so relentlessly, aware of the risks, but compelled by being true to yourself. To help others, to develop empathy, active and eternal curiosity, and especially, as journalists and communicators, to tell the hard truths.

Right after her remarks, we chatted about the great global event in Rome in 2008 called “We Are the Future”, organized by our mutual friend, Quincy Jones. We talked about amazing experiences in South Africa and its transformation under Mandela. And we pondered the world’s desperate need for empathy, adaptability and other soft skill qualities which she had mentioned in her remarks; new ways of motivating young people to think positively and helping them find new ways to combat the wrenching consequences to their young lives of bitter politics and fraying society.

As is so often the case with Ms. Winfrey, she enriched her rousing speech with compelling stories of moments in her life that shaped her unique vision of the world as it is, and how it could be in the future. Oprah has a gift of recounting the inside of her life’s private journey, and thereby illuminating, for the rest of us, many possible paths to the future we had not yet considered, nor thought even possible.

The Origins of Third Space

Her willingness to be so open and honest struck a powerful cord. I’ve spent the last year at Stanford University writing a book on the growing demand for soft skills, especially in Silicon Valley, and I’m sometimes asked how I came up with these new Third Space ideas. Where did they come from? But I always duck the personal question and stick with the scientific…and dry. I knew my story should be more open to the reader, as well as rigorous, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without…going over the top and being…gooey.

Then, listening closely to Oprah as she wove her web of compelling stories that captured the audience and advanced her work as guide and inspiration, and as a successful business woman, publisher and public figure, I was reminded how personal stories are at the heart of the most important things we do as communicators.

And in a book about people skills, the human heart and its narratives should be at the center. At that moment I felt motivated to do what many others do and take my cue from her. That meant talking about my own twisting path to the Third Space. I’ve written about the Third Space in the Harvard Business Review, Fortune, INC and other major business journals, but never explained what personal experiences led me to that space and not to others.

As fate would have it, I had been invited to give a talk on Third Space just a week later in a remarkable rustic encampment deep in the northern California sequoia forest. Inspired by Oprah, I decided to open up about my own odd path from the past to the present and into the multi-sided land of what I call the Third Space. It’s not the professional space of business on the one hand, nor engineering on the other, but a third domain of empathy and imagination.

A Third Space Life

Put simply, I have lived a third space life, a life of crossing borders and winding through one culture after another…or more precisely, wandering back and forth through multiple cultures at the same time.

As a young boy I lived in a segregated ghetto, and attended segregated schools in a segregated southern town – Washington, D.C. – yet somehow I became a young teen of 16 working for Chief Justice Earl Warren, including regular lunches with him in his wood paneled Supreme Court chambers.

A few years later, I found myself back in Washington inside a burning building with Stokley Carmichael and other Black Panthers when it was tear gassed by the National Guard the terrible night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and Washington burned.

Along my journey, I made time for the Harvard Lampoon, for exclusive ‘final clubs’ in Cambridge, and travelled to hot and frantic neighborhood bars in Lagos, Nigeria, where Afro-Pop star Fela Ransome Kuti was the rage in West Africa.

Later in my life, I spent quality time with President Mandela, worked for President Clinton, hung out with Lionel Ritchie, advised the government of China and hitch-hiked through the Congo’s Ituri Forest, home to the Pygmies and well-armed rebels.

Through the back roads and forests there was little thought that I was acquiring a quiver of talents and attitudes that were not only personally, but socially, transformative. Eventually, I would cobble together these disparate unconnected experiences into a single narrative and a vision for greater human empathy, to help the under-privileged speak more clearly and the over-privileged to listen more carefully.

In hindsight, the reality is that I grew up in a Third Space household and community, always crossing multiple boundaries, and over the course of a lifetime I became a Third Space kind of guy. Those unlikely personal experiences became the foundations for a novel Third Space way of seeing the world built around adaptability, cultural competence, empathy, intellectual curiosity and 360-degree thinking.

As I look backwards through those five lenses I see more clearly where they came from.

Critical Soft Skills

I had to learn to be adaptable because I was always crossing so many lines in segregated D.C., tribal Nigeria, the tribal conditions of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and the chess boards of government and the private sector.

Sometimes I didn’t adapt fast enough and I paid the price. I’ve been fired from jobs where I couldn’t, or refused to, adapt to doing what my bosses told me I had to do. My Millennial friends call Third Space Thinking “survival skills”. These same experiences also taught me the pull and tug, the joys and pain of multiple cultural spaces, and how they shape who we become.

Empathy is essential. I learned empathy through parents who exhorted their children to make every effort to see the world through the eyes of others, whether friend or foe, whether those living at the bottom and the outside, or at the inside and the top. Dad’s favorite tag line was – “Everybody has a story to tell”, and my sister and I could figure out who Mommy was speaking to as we listened to her own accent and tone change on the telephone according to who she was talking to!

Intellectual Curiosity was easy to because I come from a long line of inquisitive academics, who over three or four generations regularly went to Howard University and Harvard University. My family thought it was fun to sit together and randomly read through the World Book Encyclopedia, and quiz relentlessly the Nigerians, Indians, Jamaicans and Persians who came to dinner at our home on Howard’s campus. I never stopped being ravenously curious. I always wondered what it’s like on the other side, the other side of everything and the other side of everyone.

Three-hundred degree thinking has proved the toughest for me to acquire and taken the longest to hone and focus. We know what we see, and we see what we learn to look for. In a world marked by turbulence, intolerance, globalization and new technologies we need constantly to re-learn what we look for, in order to see all around us with empathy and understanding.

The Center for Third Space Thinking

I’ve been exceedingly lucky, privileged from early days to indulge my curiosities, to wonder and wander across different worlds, and I’ve never stopped. My experiences propelled me to open up new opportunities by carving out a critically important Third Space and a road map and a how-to manual to navigate that space.
Even now, or especially now, this collection of multiple, contradictory experiences provided the curiosity, the ambition and the material and psychic resources to try something new after a decade of being dean of a top communication school.

So, in 2017, I quit my day job, stepped away from the deanship, launched a ‘start-up’ and promptly moved to Silicon Valley. The Center for Third Space Thinking now provides ‘hard edged soft skills’ for companies and non-profits. In just a year I’ve already learned more than I ever thought possible, and I feel like a teenager again. It’s been hugely exciting to live the dynamic future here in the heart of Silicon Valley, even as I prepare to move back to LA to run the Center, to do research and to teach.

I confess that a Third Space past doesn’t guarantee a Third Space future, but it sure helps. So I urge you to hurry up and create your own Third Space. Go ahead and use the present to create your personal Third Space now, knowing that it will soon become your future present’s past.