When my family moved back to the United States from the Army base in Germany, I was shy of five years old. Because I was experiencing America for the first time, I was reserved and spent a lot of time observing others. I was a sponge; every new concept magnified through relentless question asking, learning, and doing.
When I was nine years old, teachers were mystified as to how I could finish my work so quickly. What was happening inside my mind in such a short period? And then the first indication that I was a misfit appeared: I passed a test for gifted students. Thereafter, a few hours weekly, in what now seems like a social experiment from science fiction, I was taught skills of pattern recognition, synthesis, and problem solving. For each session, we selected new puzzle boxes with surprising contents—sometimes cards, other times physical objects to untangle, and what felt like an endless number of tangrams.
I learned to be okay with being an intellectual misfit. Twenty years later, all those skills proved invaluable when I became a researcher and strategist. That experience of feeling like an outsider empowered me to live comfortably anywhere. Over time I learned how to define myself, and my own personal brand, and champion the point of view of the outsider.
One semester while lecturing at Columbia University, I started class by challenging students to think about subway systems. How would you use communication to design ...