Zachary Wood is comfortable being uncomfortable.
He grew up with a mother fighting mental health issues and attended private school while living in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. As a student at Williams College, he was president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that promoted free speech and open dialogues about difficult subjects.
Since graduating, Wood has parlayed his willingness to ask tough questions into a journalism career, and he’s shared his personal story in a TED Talk and book, Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America, in the hopes that it will inspire others to have frank conversations.
Wood has been a champion for human empathy—a superpower quality, to be sure. As he explained to an audience of WeWork employees at the “Superpower You” panel discussion at the company’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles, for him the path to success starts with four simple questions.
What motivates you?
“One thing that motivates me was learning, of gaining a deeper knowledge of humanity and how I can connect with my peers,” he says. Even as a child, Wood was endlessly curious about the world around him—to the point where teachers criticized him for asking too many questions. His two-hour commute from inner-city D.C. to school in an affluent Maryland suburb was arduous, but seeing his father work three jobs to send him there kept Wood motivated to achieve. At Williams College, he used his experience to connect with fellow students about controversial issues and tapped into his passion—seeking uncomfortable conversations and encouraging others to do the same, so that we can all understand one another better.
What brings you joy?
One of the most significant events in Wood’s young life, he says, was when his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Wood quickly learned that “there is power in vulnerability. In acknowledging our weakness, we get a better understanding of ourselves.” While his mother encouraged and shaped his curious mind, their sometimes-volatile relationship forced him to explore new ways of finding hope. When times were difficult, Wood found joy in learning—and he has returned to it repeatedly over his life, as a sort of internal compass.
What can you learn from looking at your life?
It can be easy to lose perspective when life gets hectic, but that’s when Wood most relies on this question—to remind him of how far he’s come, and where he needs to go. Reflection has helped Wood identify the three pillars of his life: gratitude, resilience, and humility. He recalls the advice of a high school English teacher who told him, “Your life has strengthened you in ways you realize, and ways you don’t yet know.” Seeing challenges as opportunities for growth is an important way to move forward in life and in work, Wood says. “I’m not just here because I have strengths and assets, but because I was able to find opportunities to make the best of them,” he explains.
What do you love?
For Wood, “love is the most potent force in the world.” Aligning yourself with your passion is the backbone of success and productivity, he says. As Wood navigates connecting with others in an increasingly fractured world, he explains, the idea of love—for the work he does and for the people around him—keeps him dedicated and open to change. His prediction: Learning to see love “in all its manifestations” can help us forge a greater connection to who we are, what we do, and the people we do it with.
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