A Letter to Hanna Wallach (From Hanna Wallach)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

Dear 14-year-old Hanna,

This is 37-year-old Hanna. I’m writing to tell you a little bit about your future – who you are and how you got there.

Right now, you think you’re not very smart; you think that studying is tedious, and you haven’t had much encouragement from others about your intelligence. You’re mostly focusing on quantitative subjects and think that you’re going to become an engineer – not because you particularly want to, but because others have told you to do so – but you’re really most interested in questions about people and society. Guess what: you’re actually really smart. Twenty-something years later, you have a PhD in machine learning, a subfield of computer science – from Cambridge, no less! – and you’re a Senior Researcher at Microsoft. Your research is in the interdisciplinary area of computational social science – i.e., the study of social processes using fancy math and fast computers.

You think that computers are only used for word processing and creating spreadsheets, and are therefore really boring. But computers are actually awesome. There’s this thing called the Internet that’s only been around for a couple of years. You don’t know this yet, but it will transform day-to-day life. It will enable people all over the world to communicate with each other. It will mean that computers and society are inextricably linked, and you will be able to use computers to study all kinds of social phenomena. This will change your life. You will end up working with computer scientists and social scientists to answer questions about how people interact – how they communicate, how they influence one another, and how this changes over time. In a few years, you’ll read an article by one of your now colleagues about the science of small-world networks. This article will blow your mind. For the first time, you’ll realize that you can combine your (soon-to-come) interest in computers with your interest in people and society.

At the moment, you’re surrounded by people who believe the following: “Either you’re initially good at something, in which case you should pursue it, or you’re not, in which case there’s no point in trying.” As a result, you are rebellious and you feel as if you don’t fit into the neat boxes set out for you by your teachers and parents. But, as a girl, the very act of studying computer science is a rebellion – and a far more exciting and constructive and fulfilling one than listening to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins until 4am. In addition, over the next few decades, there will be a considerable amount of research indicating that adopting a “growth mindset” (believing that ability is something that can be cultivated via effort) rather than a “fixed mindset” (believing that ability is something that one is born with and cannot control) leads to increased perseverance and, eventually, success. Soon, you will learn about this research and you will adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. It will make life much more fun 🙂

Because of your growth mindset, you will fail and fail repeatedly. But failing (and learning from these failures) is the one of the best ways to improve at anything you’re trying to learn; in order to succeed, you first need to learn how to fail. It turns out that “grit” (a combination of passion and perseverance) is the single personality trait that best predicts success. Although you don’t realize this yet, you have this trait. You’ll see this in practice when, at ages 16 and 17, you’ll fail many of your A-level exams. Ultimately, you’ll study to retake these exams, and this will become a pivotal moment for you – you’ll realize that if you’re passionate about something and you persevere, even when it’s really hard, you’ll eventually succeed. You’ll discover how you learn best, and that everyone learns differently.

It will take you a while to find your path, but when you do, you’ll totally crush it. Right now, you have yet to discover and embrace your intelligence and perseverance, but as this happens, everything will start to fall into place. You will end up becoming a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New York City and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the College of Information and Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And in your “spare” time you’ll even play competitive roller derby and do parkour (which, guess what, exists). Finally, one last thing: you don’t know it yet, but you’re a total badass. Seriously. Keep that in mind, and you’ll do just fine.

Love,

Hanna

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1 Response to A Letter to Hanna Wallach (From Hanna Wallach)

  1. Indranil Ghosh says:

    As a father of a 9 year old daughter, this was so inspiring to read.

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