The Founder Of Google’s Empathy Lab Reveals Why It’s Good To Live A Messy Life

By Morgan Reardon

Danielle Krettek on a colourful collage background

When you think of tech gurus like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, you think straight-talking, no nonsense leaders. Which is why it was a total breath of fresh—and surprising—air when we caught up with Danielle Krettek, the founder of Google’s Empathy Lab.

For LA-based Krettek, who has worked at Nike and Apple during her impressive career, being messy and showing real, raw emotion in the workplace is actually a good thing. Say what? 

Chatting with Krettek we learnt how the film student turned tech wizard “stumbled” her way into her very cool career. Take note, these are some serious words to live by. 

Considering what you do for work now, working in artificial intelligence and tech, I’m curious to know what mini Danielle wanted to be when she grew up?

If I'm totally honest, I still secretly want to be this (laughs) but when I was younger, I was really into art. At the time I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to say and what I was good at and there was this pressure like, are you going to be good enough to really do this? It's funny how that hits you so young. Anyway, what I really wanted to do was to be an artist of some sort or a weirdo art teacher. I vividly remember the art teacher I had when I was around nine and she took us through Picasso’s blue period and I just loved that she did that with us. I would love to fashion myself in her making.

And do you still like to create in your spare time?

I do less than I would like to. Because I work with artists in my job, those partnerships are a way for me to vicariously live through them. But because I work with some really talented people, I hesitate to call what I do art but I would say I do creative things in my personal time because it's a good way to get into my body and out of my brain.

Stereotypically the tech industry seems quite unemotional, but given your current job, you embrace emotion. Have we got the tech world all wrong?

I find that the tech industry is like a pie crust because there is this veneer of analytics, maths, neuron fields and problem solving. I get that, and I'm good friends with “tech people”, l love and work with them too. I purposely say “them”, not me, because I do feel like I'm cut from a slightly different cloth. Perhaps a cloth that doesn't do math as well. But it's underneath that crust or veneer where everybody is still a mother, a sister, a friend, a partner or an activist. So really there is so much emotion, and that's one of the things I try to resolve in my work. For me, to pretend that emotion isn't there (even in tech), is to pretend that we aren't human. Even the people that build robots are deeply-feeling people.

How did you find your way into tech?

I would say if you ask that kid who wanted to be a weirdo art teacher whether she would get into tech, she would have laughed her ass off. She would have been like no way. But what ended up happening was very true to life and if I look backwards at it, it makes sense. When I was living it forward it was just a foggy, stumbling field of does this feel good? Is there something interesting about this place, or the people, or the work that makes me want to stay? It’s like when you feel a juju rise up inside you and you just know that you're going in the right direction. 

But I would say getting into the tech industry wasn’t straight forward. Instead I started in advertising and design in London and then Nike heard about it and hired me to work in their ad agency in New York. During that time I was secretly thinking I was going to work in film so I started taking classes in that. Really I was just banging around the creative world. What I loved about the creative world was so many people were unapologetically themselves and with that comes people that feel their feelings and share them freely.

And yet somehow you ended up working at Apple under the incredible Steve Jobs...

So while I was at Nike, Apple heard about the stuff I was doing over there and they wanted to talk to me so I went over and did their advertising for a bit and then hopped the fence and worked in the design group. After that I decided to take a break from that. I wanted to be in the water for a while because I got a little tapped out and then Google called.

I heard that when you started at Google, they didn’t actually have a job for you exactly, how did that work?

Looking back, this is where the whole stumbling thing happened again where I started out without having a job as such, but they were like, ‘we like the things you do but we don't really have a name for it’. I got a bit overwhelmed at first, they were working on all these radically insane things, so It took me a little while to find my place inside of Google. But they put a huge amount of trust in me and it felt really wonderful. I started working at Google X and then the creative lab and different projects before I created the Empathy Lab. 

I like to say I've been in the human business—like frankly all of us—for a long time but I still don't entirely feel like I work in the tech business because even though I'm working on artificial intelligence I'm still just talking about how kids learn and make imaginary friends and the kind of stuff that feels super normal. That's why I still laugh when people say to me 'you’ve got such a cool tech job, how did you do that?' and I'm like I don't exactly know. I can't do math!

To be emotional can be messy, especially in the workplace—is there a way to harness it for good?

Oh absolutely. I wouldn't know any other way to be and I was that way before COVID. If you are expected to always be ‘crushing it ‘and ‘on it’—things that in our victorious moments we feel easily but the vast majority of the time, we don’t feel that way—it’s just not realistic. 

To be able to be honest about where you really are and meet someone else where they really are—that's when you start to create something pretty special, because then you’re starting from a solid ground that you both share. There’s definitely a place for the whole ‘fake it until you make it’ thing—I’ve done that and it's worked well—but you can't do it for very long. When I was at Apple, a colleague of mine had this amazing advice where he talked about how work or anything else you did for a long period of time, was actually a practice of being who you are - and if you're not being honest, who are you practising to be? 

I think whether you call it emotional or messy or whatever, it's really just resting in the awareness of being yourself. That's kind of a fun thing about working at Google too. When you look at the questions that everyone is searching right now everyone is asking the same thing; ‘Am I normal?’ ‘Is this ok?’ ‘Can you help?’

Last question, you work in a world that's device-driven, how do you disconnect?

People ask me this every now and then because I'm the one that should know how to be great at this (laughs). But what I've found is that it's so individual. I have some friends that are really diligent people with their rituals like waking up at the same time every day and I'm a little more...  not like that. It's always a battle for me, how much structure do I need and how much flow? My general rule is kind of like putting the candy jar up higher. So I do simple stuff like closing my laptop so I have to physically open it up and type a password in to connect again or putting my phone out of reach when I’m in bed. 

Want to hear more wise words from incredible entrepreneurs? Check out the rest of our awesome Getting The Gig interviews

Design Credit: Kate Mason

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